They rode on, Baanor’s mount struggling piteously and Keldeth’s skitter-cantering with the disturbing sound of chitin on chitin. Baanor slowed and landed later that day, seeing a large patch of dull gray in the belt of green near a stream. The others followed as he dismounted and his hippogriff let out an audible moan of relief. Baanor reached for the grass, and it reached back for him, slowly twining around his fingers and sticking in the joints of his gauntlets. He scraped it off and it almost instantly broke down into thin gray dust.
No one could immediately identify the sticky weed, but the casters suspected it had something to do with the lower planes. Baanor’s fatigued mount walked, wings hanging limply, over to the stream and began lapping at it. Their borrowed cleric Calred finally identified the gray weed as Nadiran gray grass, a parasitic plant tainted by the Gray Wastes of Hades (the plane, not the god).
That was when Keldeth spotted something swimming quickly toward the drinking hippogriff. Baanor dragged his mount away from the water’s edge in a heartbeat, just as a large swarm of dark gray Loth-Leeches wriggled up onto shore. After exchanging glances, the travelers decided to move on without so much as jarring up any more of the horrible little things. With varying enthusiasm, the hippogriffs took to the air (the spider horse picking along the banks until Keldeth found a ford where it could crawl-hop across).
The following day they saw more and more patches of the colorless grass and ultimately caught sight of a settlement completely surrounded by the stuff, except on the side that was bordered by the endless fall of the Schism. A glance at the map Gerduk had drawn confirmed that this was the place. They quickly tethered their mounts (putting the arachnomare well away from everyone and thing else) and the elves, dark and sylvan slipped inside the gray little village. The scene was eerily quiet, as the pair of them crept from gray hide yert to gray plaster building. They stopped when they saw an orc shuffling down an allyway, his head bowed and shoulders slumped.
“Zombies?” Whispered Keldeth.
Melima started to answer, and then the orc let out a heavy sigh. They waited for the obviously miserable creature to wander past, and moved on.
They saw more orcs, listlessly patrolling, and occasionally just sitting and staring. It didn’t take long for them to find the grim stone temple, although it was guarded by roving groups of dispirited orcs led by priests with puckered skin where their eyes should have been. As they watched, one sniffed the air and called out a single word that sent his minions trudging after a target.
They regrouped with the others and Calred shook his head. “This is definitely some kind of corruption born of Hades.”
“Oooh” Keldeth purred lustily “Any chance he’s looking for a new bride?”
“What? No.” The priest answered “not Hades the god, Hades the plane. The Gray Wastes. I don’t think Hades himself has anything to do with it.”
“Oh” the drow responded, disappointed. “Well can you fix it?”
Calred thought for a moment “There are too many for me to cleanse individually. Perhaps, if I can find the source of-”
Melima and Keldeth interrupted simultaneously: “The temple.” Melima continued, “we found a way in where I doubt anyone will get seen.”
And so they pressed inward, following a stealthy route that zig zagged them past houses tall enough to hide Baanor behind. They were midway through town before another gang lead by an eyeless priest passed near them. Once again, the eyeless sniffed the air; this time he pointed toward them as he called out that one word in giant, his voice filled with hate and digust: “HOPE!”
A pair of orcs trudged toward them, and the adventurers dashed for the cover of a largish house. Melima slid behind a table, Keldeth behind a woven curtain, Baanor crammed himself into a closet, and the cleric hesitated. Melima pointed toward a cupboard and Calred stuffed himself into it as best he could. The orcs passed in and began poking around. One of them looked expressionlessly at the cabinet where Calred hid, and Keldeth mimicked the sound of a whippoorwill just in time to distract her.
The dulled-eyed warrior grunted, walked out, and could be heard climbing for the roof as the other one turned his back to Baanor’s closet. Baanor swung the closet door slowly open, wrapped his arms enthusiastically around the burly gray-skinned man’s head and dragged him, kicking and muffled, back into the closet. A moment later Keldeth rushed in and helped silence him with a swift pulse of psychic force. Baanor looked a little disappointed. “I liked how he squirmed.” The sorceress shot him a look and rushed back into her hiding spot, and they waited until the sounds of the other orc faded.
Calred formed a ritual ten-pointed Peloric star, and the others set about sealing the place off from escape or entry. The cleric asked his companions to wake the orc, and they took turns slapping, shaking, and jostling him awake. His dull eyes popped open, a bland gray covering pupil and iris, and he began moaning into his gag and struggling against his bonds.
Calred began chanting.
The moaning and struggling increased, and a thin gray mist began flowing out of the captured thug’s eyes, nose, and mouth. It rose into a twisting spiral and dissipated as the orcs eyes shifted from dull gray to angry scarlet, and color flowed back into his skin and hair as if someone was moving a slider in Photoshop.
“Do you remember what happened?” Baanor asked, before they even removed the gag. As the only one who spoke Giant, the big fighter was forced to translate. Once they pulled the gag from his mouth the prisoner told them a horrible tale, of a bloodrager named Stennar who had promised a return to the old glory of the horde, but lead them into strange and terrible rites.
“What…what did we do to our children…?” The horrified tribesman asked, and after some hesitation Baanor decided to lie.
“They’re fine. You sent them away. They’re okay.”
After some discussion, they decided to bring the drudge with them. He was not so much eager to go as willing to spend his life to stop…whatever happened to the children. They snuck closer to the temple, but as they crept up toward the final turn, the gleam of Calred’s armor drew the gaze of an eyeless priest.
The orcs closed, and the Locators chucked subtlety down the Schism and dashed straight up the road to the temple’s main door. They bounded over a makeshift barricade of scattered furniture, with Baanor and the Orc grabbing the priest and the elf, when they stumbled, and rushed up gray stone steps of the temple as a small horde of dull eyed orcs followed them with a tired but relentless gait.
They skidded into the temple and slammed the heavy double doors. Baanor, Keldeth and the orc drudge grabbed the huge wooden bar, and crammed it into place in the temple door, then turned to find they had interrupted an eyeless priest dropping Loth-leeches into another orc’s mouth.
Baanor and Melima responded, sensibly, with “Eeeeeew! Why!?”
The eyeless responded by bathing the party in a bleak gray fog. The soul-sucking burst was no threat to the Locators, though; Baanor and Calred sprung forward while Melima and Keldeth went to work sealing the other entrances to cut off reinforcements.
The orc they’d exorcised dropped to the ground with his face withered into a gruesome skull-like mask. Turned out the cloud was definitely a threat to him.
Baanor quickly pushed the corrupted orc back to the stairs leading deeper into the temple, with Keldeth balancing on the banister above the stairs and hurling bolts of energy, and lamps full of boiling oil down at the grim reinforcements. They slipped around on the greased, burning stairs, several of them collapsing amidst the flames, but rather than cries of pain or rage, they grunted out only low curses. Melima rose from behind a pew and slipped an arrow deftly into the thigh of an orc, after passing it between Baanor’s legs.
“HEY!” The giant yelled back at the rogue “Watch the pouch!”
To move himself out of the archer’s way Baanor decided to improvise a with a little pew-pew,of his own: He picked up a fifteen foot long kneeler and smashed the eyeless in the ribs, knocking it down the flaming stairs with its minions. The Locators savaged their opponents, as they felled the orcs Loth-leeches burst from their thrashing bodies. Soon the floor was thick with gray blood and grayer leeches, and just one orc was shambling through the back door.
Then that one dropped as the orc behind her stabbed her in the spine. That one that did the stabbing, indistinguishable from the rest, took a single long look around the temple, then fled.
They smashed the gruesome altar. And found a pipe leading down. Hearing more sounds of pursuit, they took the stairs down. In a lower vault, they found a chamber open to the Schism. A glittering golden arch stood in the middle of the room, a dark gray figure sat inside it with a bowed head. He was muttering, darkly, speaking to some unseen presence, and holding a massive, ornate axe.
“That would have to be the one.” Keldeth muttered, Melima nodded. Then a voice like a whispering avalanche chimed in:
“Baanor want axe.”
With a grace apparently born of greed, Baanor crept toward the shiny arch. He lifted his enormous hammer, then swung it down on the sitting orc with enough force to crush a horse.
That made him mad. He rose, and battle was joined.
Keldeth and Melima blasted him from afar, dazzling him, stumbling him, and burning him while Baanor and, to a much, much lesser extent Calred kept him at bay. Soon a wave of horrible, jawless things with bloated bellies and clawlike hands crawled in through holes in the walls. They made awful moaning noises and lashed their impossibly long tongues around like antennae. They were the size of children.
“This is so wrong” Melima murmured and fired a final arrow into Stennar’s throat. He gurgled up a fountain of leeches as he collapsed. Baanor picked up the axe he’d been holding and, at Calred’s insistence, SMASHED the arch. He hewed it mightily, tearing it from its mooring and sending a shower of gems out of it like the world’s sturdiest and most worthwhile pinata.
The child-things dropped like marionettes with their strings cut.
There was a dizzying boom as the entire chamber shifted to a drastic angle. Everyone but Calred dove heroically to save as many of the jewels that tumbled out of the arch as possible. The ruined arch began to heat up and let out an unearthly moan, Keldeth and Calred blasted it with magic to try and buy time (or salvage some of the gold) with some success, but Melima ultimately flung it out into the Schism. An enormous burst of colorless fire flashed ripped up out of the canyon.
Calred quickly, desperately, began exorcising the spot where the accursed arch had stood. While he worked the ritual Baanor start heard a smooth, cultured voice say “Ah, well. I’m sure this’ll work out well enough.” The sound of hasty footsteps from above announced that their slapdash fortifications had fallen. “Might want to get ready for company.”
Calred’s chanting rose to a shout and he finished with a thundering syllable that sounded like “LOOOORE!” and a golden glow flooded the chamber, spilling out into the Schism beyond. The footsteps on the stairs above slowed down, and stopped. The Locators were silent for a few moments as Baanor stared at his new axe, trying to figure out where that voice was coming from.
There were confused sounds from above, and then shuffling, scattering footsteps. The adventurers quickly decided to leave before someone seriously came down to investigate which the voice Baanor was hearing thought was a fine idea. As they slipped out of the ruined town they saw the Arrowknee orcs already recovering their native fury, and taking it out on the remaining priests in memorably brutal fashion.
They found their mounts undisturbed, and headed back to Kerras.
After they got back to Lorrigan’s Roadhouse, the shaman Gerduk sought them out, to see if they had reclaimed the axe that was, allegedly, the reason for this grim journey in the first place. Baanor was reluctant to part with the axe. Calred had to exorcise the clearly evil spirit from it, and they tried to start up a new, higher end store on High Side.
Then they ran into Krusk again, flanked by ogres. He was not happy to see them, and even less happy to hear that they had apparently lost or killed all three of the hippogriffs. And when Keldeth handed him the Quelling chain he nearly exploded. After he threatened to send every thieves guild from the Red Thorns and Black Foxes to the Malachite Families and Golden Scales for them, they agreed to return the hippogriffs and pay the 10,000 gold that the arachnomare was apparently worth.