During the transmission, a dwarven monk is sitting at a nearby table, just down from a newlywed halfling couple. The unfamiliar voice catches all of their ears. They turn and see a projection of space, a black backdrop dotted with twinkling lights and swirling cloud-like formations. As we listen, growing more concerned about the distress call, the male halfling climbs onto the table, batting at the projection itself. His hand passes through empty air, and as soon as it finishes, we pick up our crystal communicators.
Samsara puts a cloth into Star-Blind’s hands for him to wipe the perspiration from his face while shooting looks at the others not to alarm the crowd if we can help it. He, however, puts down the remainder of his wart hog leg and subtly begins to adjust his gear, ready to try to head back to the ship as soon as possible without causing the townspeople to panic or question us.
The leader of Kendai approaches us, looking calmer than what we expected, and bids us farewell, since we are gathering our belongings and preparing to step away from the table. He thanks us for saving their planet and restoring the magic, and in return, he offers several able-bodied individuals from the town to accompany us.
We accept, and along with Benaethor, we meet Java and Kiri Goodbarrel, the newlywed halfling couple, and Bu’Kin Hammerfist, the dwarven monk. We head hastily for the ship, trying to explain to the newcomers what to expect, but there are some things that defied even our explanation.
Star-Blind takes the command chair while Mardigan sits in the gunner’s chair, wryly displacing Java, who is wide-eyed and fascinated with all of the buttons, levers, and blinking lights. He rushes from console to console, followed by his wife Kiri who taps his hand or nudges his shoulder before he can touch anything that may be dangerous. Everyone else takes the sensor chairs, and the Peregrinus prepares for takeoff.
Our stomachs begin to churn as we look at the main view screen as Octantis quickly moves away from us. Java is plastered to the window while Kiri hangs onto the arms of her seat for dear life. Bu’Kin sways with the ship, trying to appear unaffected. As Star-Blind prepares the coordinates for a Jump Drive to the Balha system, the panels on the screens around our seats light up, giving us interface with the sensors.
In front of the ship, a white portal of swirling light opens up, and Star-Blind takes us into it. The jump itself is jarring, and we feel stretched thin, bunched tight, pulled apart, and pushed back together all at once, until we suddenly arrive on the outer edge of the planet Balha IV. Kiri and Java are wide-eyed with wonderment. Bu’Kin shows no emotion, though he has never seen anything quite like it either.
The disembodied voice of the Peregrinus give us a sensor update.
“Conditions of the planet will make landing problematic. The electromagnetic storms on the planet never stop. The planet has a thick fog base, which produces an electromagnetic charge that constantly shoots bolts of lightening up to the atmosphere, acting as a natural artillery battery. The colony below has radiation and magnetic shielding. If that shielding isn’t operational, making it back out of the atmosphere will present a danger that could destroy the ship. The Complex is armed with 3 Laser cannons, range unknown.”
We look at each other in alarm, and then we hear a communication attempt from below.
“This is, (static and cutting out) operations manager of the Agon Minestry Complex! We are under attack! (static and cutting out) people dead, we have dozens injured! Please help us!”
Largram pushes the transmission button on his communication sensor panel, but the connection is distorted.
“I can barely make out your transmission. I’m locking onto your ships with our (static and cutting out), and we will (static and cutting out) the (static and cutting out) if you descend.” (static and transmission lost)
We are concerned and cautious, but we make the decision to land. Some grab for the seat belts right away and click them into place. The ship’s thrusters kick into action, and it begins to descend into the atmosphere. The stillness of space is broken as suddenly the ship makes contact with the atmosphere. We can feel the turbulence of the alien atmosphere testing not only the stabilizers of the Peregrinus, but our ability to keep from throwing up.
The main display shows the deadly atmospheric light display, and the ship is dancing between the glimpses of this planet’s rage. The Peregrinus pitches forward and darts towards the blip on the sensors that represents the Agon Minestry Complex.
We are all frozen in terror as the air turns electric. Our skin crawls, and the hairs on the backs of our necks prickle as the ship is hit by lightning, causing everything to shudder and rumble and creak as if it is coming apart. Star-Blind learns the pattern of the electrical attacks, deftly beginning to dodge. He yells at us to ‘fasten our seatbelts’ and everyone who wasn’t previously wearing one, even Java, clicks theirs into place just as Star-Blind barrel-rolls the ship to evade a particularly deadly lightning strike. The ship is hit three times, and then we are near enough to the surface that the malevolence calms, and we land.
Star-Blind navigates to the landing platform at the bottom of a mountain. The lightening stops flashing; there are no more strikes near us. The complex seems to have a shielding that shelters the Peregrinus from lightning strikes.
We hear the ship give us the planetary analysis:
“Sensor analysis complete. Atomospheric conditions are conducive to normal breathing; no suits will be needed while under this protective dome. Outside atomosphere is 59.75% sulfur dioxide, 22.2% argon, 18.1% oxygen, and with a remainder of unidentified trace elements. Exposure to the outside atmosphere will result in death after one Stellar Day.
Effects of atmosphere will be respiratory issues in the first two hours, and an eventual closure of airways after 24 hours. Gravity is .78 of normal. Planetary rotation is 12.14 hours, with daylight lasting 4 hours. Temperature is currently negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit; at night it will drop to negative 74.”
We are less than thrilled. While we discuss the implications of this new information, Largram, Corliss, Bu’Kin, and Samsara go to search for winter snow suits for the group. Java sees someone walking up to the ship and informs Star-Blind, who uses the ship’s intercom to make contact. He holds his hand up in greeting. As Star-Blind goes to open the hatch, Ragani hides near the door, just in case he is hostile.
The man walks up the ramp and introduces himself as Stinez. He was the first hunter on the monastery complex, and he is here to escort us to the administrator, who sent out the distress call we are answering. We layer on winter clothing and follow him out into the strange new atmosphere.
He points out the Agon Ministry Complex; the monastery is built into the cliff face. There is thick, dense fog above and below, and we quickly realize the trepidation of wandering off the path: the edges of the cliff are unforgiving to missteps. He also warns us that it is easy to become disoriented by the fog for those who are not used to it.
Ragani and Bu’Kin flank Stinez in the lead up the mountain, discussing the monastery. Star-Blind (our blind oracle) is tied to Largram as a precaution with Corliss on the other side; Samsara and Mardigan followed them carefully as Java and Kiri keep close for protection.
After a good couple of hours of hiking, suddenly an evil alien turkey (or four) appears, hovering on the sides of the path over empty space. Mardigan asks Stinez, and he calls them ‘flying devils’, better known on this planet as lightning devil birds. Mardigan and Corliss both shoot their bows, but we are not used to their maneuvering, and both arrows go awry. Ragani taunts the turkeys while Samsara calls upon the powers of Gorum to Bless the group in the face of these devil fowl.
Mardigan and Kiri hear a screech from the lightning birds and are shaken to their core, feeling a sense of impending doom. Though her hands are trembling, Kiri manages to pluck her lyre and inspire courage into the group. Largram shoots the fourth turkey, and it falls into the ravine next to the path, dead. Java and Ragani pick up rocks to throw at the hovering birds while Star-Blind commands one of the devil birds to “fall”. As it lands, the other two still living fly away as Largram attacks the downed bird with his falchion. Bu’Kin strips the body, but the meat smells like death.
Seeing no other threats, we continue on to arrive at the doors of the monastery, large and imposing but open. As we walk through the heavy wooden double doors, we immediately notice the smell of old books. They are musty with a hint of age. There are rows and rows of books, so many we can’t even see them all from the main aisle. The ceiling is intricate, and the carpet is worn from many feet walking these halls of knowledge. There is a podium with a book open, and Ragani pauses to examine it, appreciating the artwork and calligraphy.
Stinez takes off his coat, and throws it over the bust that stands in the hallway. He says, “Alright, follow me and we can get this all sorted out.” He begins to walk down the hallway. Awestruck, Ragani, Java, and Kiri stay behind to marvel at the books in the monastery library and find several encyclopedias of different planets. After remaining behind for several moments, they scramble to catch up to the rest of the group.
Everyone else follows Stinez immediately from the hallway, climbing the stairs and passing many doors until finally he comes to one with a silver plaque that reads, “Enter with an open mind”.
We enter a large barren room. Two small writing tables sit in the corner. Through the windows we can see to the outside, and nighttime has fallen. In opposition to the magnificence of the hallway library, this room has no decorations. In the corner with his back to the door is a human looking man dressed in robes. Stinez clears his throat and says, “Here they are.” He walks to a wall and begins to lean, looking to the ground.
The robed man turns, and we try not to recoil viscerally at his misshapen face and abnormally large features. He says, “Greetings! I’m Administrator Eusseph Ramas. I’m assuming you came in answer to our distress call?”
We respond in the affirmative.
“We have had… an unfortunate event. One of the visitors to our peaceful monastery had a mental break of some seriousness. He killed three of our brotherhood and one visitor. Of course we are unprepared for this level of violence. Weapons are discouraged. We have nothing of value. The closest thing to security we have is Stinez, who holds the position as first hunter and guide. Our monks and visitors have hidden themselves in their rooms, locked the doors, and barricaded themselves in. I cannot say I blame them.”
We inquire as to who he is and who he killed.
Administrator Ramas tells us, “The brother in charge of welcoming guests was killed in his first assault. Between Stinez and I, we have been able to figure out who he is: ex military, well armed, and we have found out his name, Aryne Homes.”
He goes on to explain the deceased. “We lost three good monks. Ruce Perray was in the brother in charge of welcoming guests. Andold Cleray was the groundskeeper, and Kenne Manes was an elven monk and one of our oldest residents. We also lost a visitor named Hardy Powils, who had just arrived on the last shuttle. We know very little about him. It seems Homes smuggled in a laser pistol and waited until everyone was enjoying lunch to begin his bloody rampage. He came in the monastery dining area and opened fire. Poor Hardy Powils nearly disarmed him but took a knife to the chest for his trouble. By the time the monks gathered themselves, he fled to the roof. He killed Perray and the patriarch Manes. A few hours later he killed Cleray, who was accompanying Stinez in a search. ”
We inquire as to where the madman is, at present. Ramas says, “We do not know where he is. He could be outside, inside, all we know is he is dangerous.” We ask how long this has been going on, and he tells us, “This started hours before we sent out the distress call.”
We ask the administrator what, specifically, he wants us to do about this situation.
He says, “Stinez has been camping out near the landing pad in hopes that a ship would hear our plea. We have a lightening shelter at the base of the mountain. We want you to escort our remaining monks, along with Stinez and myself, down the mountain. Once we are secure, we ask that you come back to the monastery and capture this unfortunate if possible. In two weeks we can hand him over to the next shuttle. It would be a crime against science and knowledge to simply leave this library for him to possible destroy valuable works. We can pay you handsomely for this courtesy. Our donations have given us a sizable trust. We can offer 10,000 credits apiece, and a bonus of another 20,000 if you can bring Homes in alive.”
After more dialogue and discussion, the Administrator explains a shuttle arrives every two weeks, bringing scholars who come to Balha IV to learn more about the universe. Some arrive, some leave, and some stay, requesting and receiving information from the vast library maintained and supported by the monastery. The next shuttle is due in one week and five days.
The shuttle from two days ago brought two visitors: Hardy Powils and Aryne Homes. He describes to us again the horrific events of the murders and tells us the bodies have been taken to the dining area for the time being.
Hoisting his belongings up on his back, Ramas says, “Thank you! Please escort Stinez and me to the monastery main entrance. If some of you will go back in with Stinez, you can escort the monks to the entrance. They are in three separate rooms with a total head count of 45. I will stay at the entrance with some of your people. The monks will feel safer if they see me there.”
Star-Blind, Ragani, and Mardigan wait at the entrance with the Administrator while Largram, Java, Kiri, Bu’Kin, Corliss, and Samsara go with Stinez room by room to evacuate the monks and provide them safe passage to the entrance.
After hours of travel down the mountain path with constant lightning strikes around us, we arrive with the monks at the mouth of the lightening shelter just as the night fades and it begins to get brighter around us. It appears to resemble the mouth of a cave.
Ramas says, “Our order used this cave when we first crash landed on this planet 512 years ago. We transferred our cargo here, and it was two years before we were rescued. We made a connection with the land, and eventually we afforded a magnetic shield, and built the monastery dedicated to contemplation, open to all religions, to gain an understanding of other worlds. It is ironic that what we now must shield ourselves from is the storm of a broken humanity. We suspect he is damaged from whatever military war he was involved in. Do you think there is any chance you can take him…”
Suddenly we hear a “ROOOOOAAARRR!!” and the rest of Ramas’ sentence is lost as a large, furry alien-looking bear creature lumbers out of the cave. There is a tattoo of concentric circles on its muscular shoulder; it has wicked claws and teeth. Ragani hits it with her warhammer while Bu’Kin uses Flurry of Blows to weaken it.
Corliss, in her haste, shoots at the creature with her composite longbow but misaims and sticks Ragani instead. Samsara calls down a Blessing upon our allies just as the lightning bear swipes at Bu’Kin with its claws, and he goes down hard, bleeding. Next it turns to Ragani, swiping her as well, just as Mardigan shoots a solid hit.
Java climbs up the side of the mountain next to our path to wait for the opportune moment as Star-Blind Stuns the bear. Kiri inspires courage with her song, safely back out of the way, and Largram swings at the lightning bear also.
Ragani, with no attention to her bleeding claw marks, swings her warhammer and bravely smashes the lightning bear again as Corliss steps over Bu’Kin’s prone form to take a better aim and fire at the creature again. Bu’Kin has a brush with death, and for a moment, he stops breathing. Samsara raises his holy symbol and Channels Energy to blast healing to our group while Mardigan shoots at the lightning bear, missing both the creature and Ragani by inches.
Java takes advantage of the lightning bear’s stunned nature to jump down from the cliff, grab Bu’Kin’s prone form, and drag him back, away from it. Star-Blind holds his hands over the dwarven monk, casting Cure Light Wounds as Largram misses his second slice with the falchion. In the face of blood and terror, Kiri maintains her composure and continues her courageous and inspirational song.
Panting and sweating, Ragani smashes the lightning bear one last time with her warhammer as Corliss takes it down for good with an arrow. Samsara and Star-Blind set about healing everyone who needs it, especially Bu’Kin, while Corliss and Largram go to scout the cave. They find a Masterwork greataxe, Masterwork scale mail armor, agate, hematite, quartz, onyx, rhodonite, and a shell. They also find five credit pens, though we do not have the means to identify how many credits they hold.
Both Stinez and the Administrator thank us as the monks shuffle into the cave and head down to the lightning shelter. We have a quick discussion about whether we should go back to the monastery right away to look for Homes or if we should rest and recharge.
We end up deciding to head back to the ship, since we are already down the mountain and night is falling again (as the daylight here is considerably shorter than we are used to). We are able to rest deeply as well as leave the items on the ship.
As the sun rises, we wake feeling refreshed and determined. We head back up the path to the monastery. As we approach the monastery, we can see the immense double doors are now closed, whereas we had left them open during the evacuation. Star-Blind attempts to open them, and we discover they have been locked from the inside.
Java slips to the front of the group and sets to work picking the lock. He peeks inside and sees the library as before. However, there are a multitude of monks crouched behind the different pews and shelves, including one who matches the physical description of Homes.
He yells, “Take another step and we will fry you!” Java can see the laser pistol he is brandishing. Homes accuses us of the massacres yesterday, and we deny, explaining our movements from the time we landed at the base of the mountain up to now.
Mardigan, Corliss, Star-Blind, and Bu’Kin can hear a murmuring of voices inside, and footsteps come towards us as we stand outside the door, confused. A bald monk with a beard opens the door and introduces himself as Boris.
As we enter cautiously, we see approximately 20 more monks rise from their hiding places. They regard us with the same level of wariness, only these people look like they’ve been through hell. We explain ourselves to Boris and Homes, and they exchange grim looks. Something feels very, very wrong.
Boris slides a bookshelf away from the wall, revealing a concealed door, and we follow him through a passage into the dining area. He shows us the bodies of the monks, as described to us by the Administrator, between 30 and 40 in all. Upon inspection of the bodies, we see signs of prolonged torture, and the story told to us by Stinez and the Administrator is not supported by the evidence in front of our eyes.
Homes and Boris point out to us the bodies of Stinez and the real Administrator Eusseph Ramas, who look nothing like the individuals we met previously. They tell us about how a monk named Binson was the one who attacked the monastery, including torturing the eldest elven monk, Kenne Manes. Upon description, Homes and Boris gravely inform us it sounds as though Binson posed as Administrator Ramas.
When we tell him of the evacuation and the defeat of the bear creature outside the cave, Homes and Boris are deeply disturbed. The creature was Kani the Lightning Bear, they explain, and there is an artifact of great power hidden deep inside the cave. She was the protector of the artifact, keeping it from falling into the wrong hands (like Binson).
And we have just slayed her and ensured safe passage for the bad guys. What have we done?!