Having returned from the Moonstone Hills triumphant, Garrett, Drakar and their companions take a well earned rest for a couple of days. For Garrett, this entails relaxing at gala night premiere of the epic poem, Drakar and Darkhorn, he has commissioned from Ellithral the Golden at the Yawning Portal. The poem is well received despite the extensive authorial license taken with the events it portrays; the free bar that Ellithral provides with the money his benefactor paid him goes down even better.
Amongst the revelers, Garrett meets the half-elf Stithiel once again, looking even better equipped than before. Stithiel tells him of how the Witch of the Eastern Woods has visited him at night in dreams, promising him even greater powers and aid from her mysterious stash, and even offering him a further boon in the form of personal aid – but he can only call on her once, and should he do so, he will become her slave for twelve years. Stithiel is keener than ever to find his father, or at least find a more reliable sponsor than some eldritch hussy, and so listens with interest as Garrett explains his current priority – to investigate the increasing threat of hobgoblin raids from the hills, and to finally honour his promise to F’zan and find where his villagers were taken.
They find Steve the scout, who has made his own way home it would seem, and pay him for a thorough dossier on the hobgoblins – their society and the main tribes that make up their population in the Moonstones, as well as any information on the banner the hobgoblins are mustering behind, the Great Maw. Although Steve can tell them little of the Maw, he gives them a wealth of history on the bands of nomadic hobgoblins that infest the hills – the martial Shatterfists and their feud with the Stonebridge Dwarves, the barbaric Twelve Axes with their wild and tribal ways, the wealthy Hill Wolves with their huge cattle herds and love of mercenaries, the magic-hating Maces of Stone who train their warriors to kill wizards from birth, the nefarious and roguish Winter Criminals that worship the crueler aspects of nature, the Murderous Bears and their packs of trained war animals, and the feared hobgoblins of the Shrieking Plains Wind, who lair in a mighty fortress deep in the heart of the hills, learning terrible magics from some forsaken ruins there. Balking at Steve’s expensive offer to go and find more information for them, Dorrin and F’zan agree to go and take some prisoners for questioning at Garrett’s hands while Garrett himself finishes some errands in town, and Stithiel decides to go with them, keen to test his blade against the hobgoblins again and make up for past defeats.
Stithiel borrows Garrett’s horse, and rides out with F’zan and Dorrin (who rides bear-back on Morg). After a few quiet days, gently travelling through the midwinter canyons of the hills, foraging and hunting as they go, the weather turns viciously on them, and they are forced to make camp in a deserted watchtower half way up a hill as a blizzard tears down the valley. Even the protective warmth of F’zan and Dorrin’s spells can’t quite keep them from the deathly chill of the wind outside. Worse, they have been relying on their own hunting skills to provide food, and trapped by the howling gales and deep snow outside, they can’t find food.
Dorrin and Stithiel desperately hunt for anything they could eat, but can barely even find their way back to the tower in the snowstorm, and F’zan has to stay with the horse and the bear to stop any diplomatic incidents that might otherwise arise. After only a day and a half, Stithiel’s temper frays, and he tears out into the storm in a blazing fury, digging holes in a nearby mound until he finds a fox’s den; the hapless fox is quickly seized and eaten over a feeble fire.
The storm dies overnight, leaving several feet of snow on the ground as well as deep drifts. Even as the heroes stretch their legs again, however, F’zan spots a sizable column of hobgoblins moving up the valley. With the marching group are a pair of centaurs he thinks he recognizes, reduced to pulling pack wagons like mules. Although they rush to douse the fire in the hearth, it’s too late – the column turns up out of the valley, heading slowly through the snow towards the tower.
Stithiel guards the main door, whilst Dorrin takes aim with a crossbow from the battlements, backed by F’zan with a wand he uses to summon a great lightning storm. As the hobgoblin unit apparently led by a blue-skinned ogre and his honour guard of armoured warriors approach, they are pelted with bolts of lightning, crossbow quarrels and arrows from Stithiel’s bow. But there’s a lot of them, forty or so, and despite cutting down the first couple of lines, their approach is relentless. Wading through the snow past the bodies of the fallen, the hobgoblins prepare to charge as their leader takes to the sky and turns invisible, proving itself a capable magic user.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Moonstone Hills, the call of Halaster is still drawing heroes from far and wide. Once a proud paladin of the Fighting Orders of Heironius and now a cursed Blackguard compelled by a demonic oath to serve the forces of the Abyss, the man who now calls himself only Carbuncle finally draws near the city of Firetop, drawn by terrible dreams of the woman he sacrificed his all for. A haunted man driven mostly by the desire to slay, Carbuncle believes his beloved, the daughter of a Grandmaster of the Order who fell in battle with a demonic hoard, to be trapped in the labyrinths of Undermountain and in desperate need of his help. Striding ominously into the city unchallenged by the spineless guardsmen, he gravitates to the Yawning Portal. As he sits in a corner, smoking and listening, he hears of the spate of disappearances in the dangerous twilit streets and the famous dragon killers who frequent this very bar. And then they turn up in person, and he meets Garrett, Mad Pete and Drakar.
They’re curious of the albino, more amused by his bloodthirsty threats than scared, and decide to try and put his killing skills to good use. Garrett has various leads to follow up on, first of all paying Zorbin the Diviner to try and scry out the location of the Vitreous Drinker, then trying to find the drow witch Zollor in the sewer camp he last saw her in. Both prove dead ends – Zorbin can’t find any hint that a creature such as a Drinker even exists, and assumes Garrett is playing some kind of prank on him, whereas the sewer camp is empty. There, however, they encounter a junior agent of the eye, Talsker, who’s been sent to spy on the drow as well. Threatened with immediate death from the axes of Carbuncle, the junior spy pleads for his life, telling Garrett that everything has changed in Skullport. The Overseer has apparent used some horrific spider-like creature to overthrow Avereene, hurling the Agents in the dark city into turmoil, and it’s common knowledge she’s hunting for Garrett next. They let the youngster go with a message, that Garrett is not to be trifled with, and that the Agents should be ready to muster to him on his return.
Carbuncle has been roaming the Allansian wastes for months alone, killing any creature foolish enough to confront him, and the pace of investigative life in Firetop is a little slow for his taste. He demands a good fight, so Garrett takes him to the Gorgon’s Head, and once he’s established with Clerk that Jaxsen is gone and Garrett is the new frontman for the Eye in Firetop, learns of an illegal troll-fighting pit in the warehouse district. Carbuncle is itching for blood, and happily agrees to be entered under a magical disguise – he will be entered as a skinny teenager rather than the hulking, plate-clad brute he really is so that Drakar can rake in money from the bookies.
Carbuncle slaughters the straggly troll without much effort, but his use of axes breaks the illusion of puny appearance. This is supposed to be a bare knuckle brawl, and the crowd goes wild with fury. Garrett picks the fleeing bookie with their winnings out of the fleeing crowd, leaving them in an abandoned warehouse to pick over the loot.
His appetite for death only sharpened, Carbuncle suggests roaming the darkened streets to find and destroy whatever has been killing the citizens recently. Drakar is also curious to learn more of Orinax, the supposed Twilight Master, and happily agrees. After only a short period of wandering the lanes in the eerily silent town, the team are attacked by a pack of hungry undead, all clearly once citizens and now creatures of darkness driven by insatiable cravings for blood.
Although they defeat the monstrosities, it seems they cannot permanently kill them, for their spirits escape their smashed bodies in gaseous shape. Carbuncle at least has enough command over the dead through the demonic powers he is allied with to question one on its origin, but it gives little away, and Garrett is forced to kill it before it can escape its dread of Carbuncle’s awful presence. Even using his new-found powers of flight, Drakar loses the wispy clouds amongst the misty chimneys of Firetop, and they are left none the wiser as to the location of Orinax’s resting place.
After resting at the Mansion overnight, they consider where to turn next. Drakar is already wondering what arcane study he should turn his mind to, whilst Garrett is still fretting over how to approach his next task – to find the Drinker and either bring it into the fold or deal with it permanently. Anxious to prevent it seeing any plans through his cursed eyes, he leaves to give the others a chance to explain to Carbuncle what this foe is and why they need such secrecy in their planning.
Once he’s been told the full story of Garrett’s previous encounters with the horror, the Blackguard immediately has an idea. The Drinker has previously told Garrett that it wants to keep him alive for some reason or other. Perhaps if they capture Garrett and pretend to be ready to end his life, it may turn up to protect its asset? Mad Pete is only too happy to ambush the tiefling when he returns from his coffee, but his first strike isn’t enough to catch the wily rogue off guard. Rather then give up on the ploy, though, Pete manages to convince Garrett to play along without giving the game away, and they stage a kidnapping and assault before bringing Garrett, blindfolded and tied, back to the roof of the Clocktower of St Anselm’s. Here, Carbuncle threatens him with death and destruction in the name of the church of Vecna, whose agent he is pretending to be. Mad Pete helps him, and Drakar hides nearby, ready to ambush from the rooftops.
But they cannot hope to surprise a creature with eyes everywhere. As its spectral ravens ominously flock the skies, it sees Drakar lying in wait, and immediately sees through their deception. Appearing abruptly next to the sorcerer, it applauds their bravado and mocks their conniving. As Drakar tries to bluff it into following him, it merely reveals its vomitous appearance, causing him to fall to his knees, retching in disgust, before stalking off amongst the roofs.
Or attempting to. For Drakar clutches feebly at it as it turns to walk across a plank walkway between houses, and it loses its balance and falls into the streets below. Drakar’s pitiful spewing is enough to catch the attention of the others, and the chase is on. As the Drinker, unhurt by its fall, dusts itself off and prepares to leave, Carbuncle thunders after it while Pete leaps with great agility from roof to roof to cut off its escape and Garrett floats gracefully down from the tower roof, bow in hand, ready to deal with his nemesis one way or another.
Drakar blasts the horror in the back as it walks away, scorching it across its myriad eyes. It immediately turns in fury, pointing a withered finger and unleashing its most deadly power on him. “Die!” it commands, but Drakar’s grip on life is bolstered by his draconic nature, and he barely shrugs off the terrible spell. But even as the others try and surround the servant of Vecna, they realise just how much they are biting off. Their weapons, when they are even able to hit it, barely hurt the creature, which seems protected by some unholy blessing. It shrugs off spells and blows alike, and all the while, the four heroes can barely bring themselves to even look upon the dread being – the merest glimpse of its revolting visage is enough to make them turn away, weak with nausea. And all the while it lashes at them with its blinding tongue, or burns at them with its terrible eyes. Worse, it is even able to heal what little damage they can do it by sucking their life force away with its wretched fingers.
But then Carbuncle, furious at having his bloodlust balked, grabs its winding tongue and slashes it free of the creature’s head. Deprived of any way of attacking them directly, it chooses to walk away, and its all they can do to even keep up – the nausea it causes them is extremely debilitating, and it makes its escape into the sewers. Pausing to patch their wounds and hand out holy water, they follow as closely as they dare. Although they are not confident that they can defeat it, it is at least wounded. If they can’t destroy it now, they may never get another chance.
After initially losing the trail in the sewers, they manage to find a hidden entrance to the creature’s den. It is resting in a room beneath the sewers, centered around a deep shaft leading further into the depths under the mountain. The hall is defended by some kind of dark energy trap that Carcbuncle stumbles through – the Drinker is waiting for them, preparing itself for a final stand on an altar to some foul god.
Garrett tries briefly to reason with it – they will not rest from hounding it unless it lifts the curse on his sight. It laughs repulsively at them, waving a scroll at them with a carefree warning – leave it in peace, or regret the consequences. There is a long game at work here, it says, with huge benefits to be reaped in the end. But it can promise no rewards now, and is clearly confident that it can beat them off. Such over-confidence is enough to convince them to try and end its reign, and Drakar begins a fireball spell.
It immediately begins reading its scroll, summoning something from another realm to aid it. Despite the blasts of fire, dark and divine power and arrows that the heroes unleash to break its concentration, it effortlessly completes the spell, and the air clouds with smoky purple blots that coalesce into childish, bat-winged shapes. The Drinker, having seen everything Garrett has fought since they last met, has summoned a flock of Gaudacro, the horrid blinding demons he fought in the mushroom caverns.
The ensuring fight is an epic testament to their burning desire to defeat this shuddering evil. Although barely able to stand in the face of its appalling form, blinded by the plucking claws of the Gaudacro and already sickened and weakened by the Drinker’s magics, the heroes never once lose focus or drive. The Drinker stands, ghastly and naked on the altar and wielding a blackened sickle capable of sucking life even through Carbuncle’s plate armour, blasting all who dare approach with awful spasms. But it has finally met an implacable foe determined to end it for once and for all. Finally, tiring of pointlessly scratching at it with axes, Carbuncle grabs its wizened frame, shuts his eyes tightly and holds on for dear life. Although it struggles, it is powerless to escape the warrior’s clutches, and he manages to keep it immobile as the others attempt to finish it off for once and for all. But Drakar is finally running low on spells, Mad Pete’s rapier can’t even scratch its hide, and even firing arrows into it at point blank range doesn’t seem to hurt it much. It is Garrett who finally brings a weapon to bear that cuts through its unnatural resiliences – pinned to the ground by the mass of Carbuncle, it cannot avoid him as he rams a vial of holy water into its face, and its mortal frame is finally shattered. The flesh withers away, leaving a scattering mass of watery eyeballs rolling away in all directions, and a vast cloud of spectral ravens bursts, flapping, out of the pit in the room, fluttering madly in all directions before pouring in a great stream up and out, never to be seen again.
Weary, stinking of the filth of the sewers, shattered by the feverish spells of the Drinker, the heroes take the only treasure they can find – the sickle it fought with – and stagger back to the mansion. Only Garrett has much spring in his step, for the world is once more clear to him. The cursed cataracts have finally been lifted from his eyes, and his path through the underworld will no longer be spied on by his malevolent watcher.
The following day, [[Drakar]] awakes with the realization he has nothing to do – after months of determined questing to complete the ritual, or help Garrett destroy his enemies, his time is finally his own again. In the heat of that firey rebirth, he has also lost his familiar, Ambrosius, perhaps scared away by the transformation in his master, or perhaps consumed by the energy released, [[Drakar]] is unsure. Either way, there is a twin void in his life he decides he must fill.
Aware that although he is much stronger than he was before, and his skin is a living brazen armour, he knows he is not the martial combatant he could be, and therefore determines to improve his grasp of combat. After picking up a few books on the Sentience of Constructs and the Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus for Amarus’ research from theBlackcloak Library, he approaches the Dean of the Academy, seeking a teacher in martial matters sympathetic to a sorcerous student.
Dean Bodilvar reveals that although the majority of the teaching at the Academy is probably too theoretical for Drakar’s tastes, he has been approached by just such a tutor recently. Mage Sergeant Zulanthor of the Zhengisi has made an offer of teaching some of the unique combat skills of his order, although nobody has taken him up on it.
Until now, of course, for Drakar sets off through the fresh snowfall to the Zengis camp, just outside the main gates. Here, the mages repair the silent ranks of their golems, both the smaller Doomguard and larger golems that seem made of plates of badly-melted metal. Finding the Mage Sergeant, Drakar asks after these creations, and is told they are larger Force Golems, used for bigger lifting tasks and blessed with a higher degree of autonomy than their smaller cousins. Drakar then demands teaching in unarmed combat, so that he can learn to use his claws more effectively. The Sergeant is willing to teach, if the sorcerer can prove his ability, and Drakar agrees to a test of prowess against some of the ominous constructs, even offering not to use his magic as proof of good faith.
His first fight is extremely short, as he uses his new claws and jaws to great effect even on one of the steely guardians. The sergeant seems somewhat impressed, standing the Doomguard down before it gets destroyed, but it’s not enough – Drakar needs to show he can fight with a sword as well. Picking the first blade that he finds in a nearby weapon rack, a longsword, he gamely steps up against a pair of Doomguard. But he feels he needs to even the odds, and quickly bolsters his size and strength with a rush of magic, sprouting wings and taking to the sky, ready to hit and run. Unfazed, Zulanthor commands a third construct into the fight, and all three quickly take up halberds, ready to use the extra length to fend off Drakar’s swoops.
He quickly damages another one severely enough for it to be retired, while the others flank and hack at him, and their sharp blades quickly take their toll even on his scaly hide. But when he tears the head off a second with a combination of tooth and blade, one of the previously silent golems, the scarred and slagged Force Golems, springs to life and attacks, shoving its supposed controllers aside as it tries to get at Drakar. The winged sorcerer takes flight, pausing only to smash the final Doomguard – Zulanthor tells him to get clear as the wizards hurry to try and suppress this minor revolt. Although the Force Golem blasts any who stand in its way aside with bursts of magical energy, Drakar is able to fly to safety, leaving the Zhengisi to eventually quell the amok creature.