The twin horns of the behemoth locomotive split the early afternoon in twain with the might of their sound.
"Gnolls!!" Cried the scouts atop the train, and indeed, it seemed at though multiple war parties, If not a full tribe's worth of the warrior caste were descending upon the stationary line, workers, laborers, and engineers sitting down, enjoying their evening meal, thinking their work was done for the day.
Inside of the officer's mess Elliwick Elane Positrac felt uneasy. She pulled back the curtain of her dining car table, ever so much, just to peek, and thought " This is exactly why we have a garrison of troops with us" and then returned to her meal, allowing the curtain to fall back into place.
Bertrand Battlehammer, not so much enjoying his laborer's ration, sprung to his feet, and with a hearty laugh, rushed headlong towards a pack of Gnolls cresting a nearby hillock, his war boots throwing up dust in the badlands soil as he ran.
The half Orc Lorkas, weary from the day's labors, rose to his feet with a groan, and rushed back along the mighty train, shouting out the threat to the troops and souls inside, before turning and throwing a devastating ball of fire from his outstretched hand, enveloping a squad of gnolls. They did not rise.
Sitting cross legged atop a freight car, nibbling lightly on a piece of way bread his betrothed had mailed him, the Elvish Ranger Skott gracefully unfolded to his feet, and with an imperceptible amount of effort put a broadhead arrow through the eye of a gnollish lieutenant a half mile away. He quickly gathered his things, and begun to run atop the carriages, jumping from track to track, placing arrows where they were most sorely needed.
And so it went. The gnolls, amassed, numbered more than 200, with warlocks and badlands druids present, but they were no match for the combined crew of the Titan, and the might of the Dwarven military. Night fell, and by 9 bells the battle had drawn to a close. Watches were set up, and the crew settled into their cots and bunks, not so eager to meet the following morning.
The next day construction continued, laying twin sets of rail to the east, the mighty Titan locomotive straddling both sets behind the workers, it's frontispiece that of a dwarven Lord, its eyes the mighty lamps that split the night, the horns of its helmet the twinned smokestacks.
The day progresses, and the work reaches the edge of a mesa. Workers fall back for rock drills, and gnomish and dwarven engineers set charges of TNT. Several hours later, workers and engineers alike come streaming from the burgeoning tunnel after an especially loud explosion. "Monsters! Demons!" The workers run for the safety of the iron column of cars and equipment.
Back in the officer's quarters a runner approaches Elliwick, and stops a respectable distance away. " Sir Positrac requests your presence at the work site, Madam Engineer."
Elliwick looks up, " Of course, let him know I shall be there at once."
Approaching the front, nearing the cavernous blast-tunnel the day's labor had wrought, Elliwick hears her uncle, as often, directing efforts from the fore.. "
"Clear out, you lot! You've earned rest. You, run to the quartermaster. Have him send message to the Crew; we are looking for volunteers. Hazard and potential combat pay. Otto, what the fuck?! This can't possibly be Vermilion. But the magical energy is off the charts. You must feel that, yah? Oh, Elli! Come on, lass, we're just assembling a team. What do you feel, girl?"
Admittedly, upon questioning, extending her senses, Elliwick felt a magic aura stronger and more different than most any she had experienced before.
"Otto! Grab us that crate of Elemental Dynamite. Let's blast this murder hole to a size folks can get through alive."
Spake the mechanical man," Yes, father," and then awayed to accomplish its task, a few minutes later returning with a wooden crate filled with parchment wrapped, rune adorned sticks of TNT.
The three of them then set to the task of drilling and carefully placing the enhanced explosives around the jagged hole in the tunnel floor, before retreating to the head of the Titan, unwinding a bundle of wire as they went. Once the were ready, and the work site secured, Stanwick depressed the T bar handle of the firing mechanism.
Billowing dust poured forth from the cave mouth and the ground itself heaved from the might of the blast. By then, several volunteers had shown: a Dwarf, an Elf, and a half Orc.
"Ah, excellent, excellent. Elli, you take this lot and explore that cavern. Equipment roster is at your disposal."
Elliwick's eyes go wide" But, Head Engineer, I couldn't possibly, I mean, It's Dangerous!"
Stanwick's bushy grey eyebrows lower a fraction" Of course it is, Girl. That's why I'm sending you with these volunteers. You're a highly trained Mage in addition to being a skilled Engineer. You'll do just fine. I have to talk to our… Benefactor. Now Go."
Entering the tunnel, the group approaches the now yawning opening in the floor and wall. From beyond the threshold a faint luminescence breaks the darkness of the hole. The air is hot.
To Elliwick and Lorkas, the space beyond Reeks of old magics. To Bertrand and Skott, it smells of a charnel house, the iron tang of blood still thick in the air. Skott does Not like the things his sensitive elven hearing picks up in the space beyond.
The party gathers equipment, quickly secures pitons and rope, and then lowers a gas-lantern down. It proves to be not that deep a drop, and they follow suit, knotting several ropes for ease of egress.
Down the ropes, the cave is irregularly shaped, vaguely circular. The floor slopes down and away from the entrance pocket. It's decidedly warmer down here. Warmer even than the badlands sun at midday.
Advancing, the party rounds a corner, and ahead, a roughly humanoid bird-thing is crouched over the shredded body of a labourer. It grips the remains of a lower leg in one hand and casually rips strips of flesh and muscle from bone with its powerful beak.
There is a moment when the gaze of the Vrock and party meet. Stomachs drop, Bertrand's grip on his axe gets tighter, and….
Quick as lightning, quicker than thought, Elliwick makes a series of arcane gestures, and in the old tongue, says " Demon, I banish and abjure thee. Be Dismissed" An ethereal rune glows, hanging in the air. The Vrock, pretty bored anyway, decides to depart. The party breathes a communal sigh of relief.
From beyond where the demon had its makeshift hutch, another opening in the floor is seen. Faint wisps of steam can be seen as what little moisture is in the air boils off, and a fiery glow can be seen.
Advancing to opening, below is.. a gargantuan rectangle. Runes and sigils adorn it's every surface. It sits at a 45 degree angle to the rest of a much larger chamber. Deep, fathoms below, the boil and churn of magma can be seen. The shape is partially embedded in one of the walls of the chamber. Sections cracked, exposing an interior. Occasional crackles of magical corposant play across the runes.
Elliwick: " I'm pretty sure that's what we are sensing. "
Lorkas: "Yeah, think you're right. What is it?"
Elliwick: " I really don't know. My uncle might now more…"
Bertrand: " Let's secure a rope and explore. We don't need to wait for him. "
Elliwick: "Ok. Be careful though. Go in through that crack, try not to touch any of external runes and sigilia."
Bertrand:" You got it."
So, again driving pitons into rock, the party lowers a length of rope. One at a time, they lower themselves down it. Elliwick levitates, using the rope as a guide, athletics never having been her strong suit.
Inside, the entered room is a mass of disarray. The rectangle appears to have somehow hit the interior of the cavern moving at great speed. The leading wall is smashed inwards, chunks of ornate masonry and shattered crystal strewn about. Half buried are large stone desks, inset with precious metals and gemstones in oddly familiar yet unknown patterns. Two skeletons shamble towards the party dressed in ragged robes, but they are as a double image; the quite obviously tormented spirits originally possessing the deceased still clinging bodily to the bones, black and white, they are as ghosts, pictures of who these men were in life.
Without a thought Bertrand dispatches them, two quick swings of the axe.
Lorkas: " Did it look like those ghosts were trying to communicate with us before you hacked them down?"
Bertrand:" Hmmf, maybe? Since when do undead communicate?"
Elliwick: "Indeed. Don't attack any more unless you're attacked"
Sure enough, beginning to search this structure, more of these spirit bound skeletons arrive, each clad in ragged robes similar to each other's. Slowly, jerkily, one of the ghosts manages to force it's stubborn cage to motion the party to follow.
Following the corpse, the party is led to a partially collapsed chamber, populated mainly by horizontal tubes made of glass or crystal. Many are broken or crushed beneath sections of ceiling that have fallen into the chamber, but one cylinder still remains undamaged, faintly glowing from within. Luminous runes glow on an embossed panel on the side of the plinth it rests on. Inside, a dwarf, quite obviously dead, but extremely well preserved.
Lorkas approaches the panel and begins fiddling with the runes….
Elliwick:"Uh, maybe we shouldn't…."
The crystal tube unseals, swinging open. For a moment, nothing. Then, the milky white eyes of the Undead dwarf slide open.
Dwarf:" I.. Friend or Foe?"
Dwarf:" Alright then. Well met. Lads, they're ok."
Swivelling about, another 40 or so spirit bound skeletons had somehow silently amassed in the hallway beyond the chamber, many clutching weapons and large wrenches."
Dwarf: "I am Axle Horatio Stonebreaker, captain of the Irritum Vegantem. We, well, I suppose I, now, seek asylum on this prime reality."
Elliwick: "Wait, what? Asylum?"
Axle:" Aye, lass. Our home reality is become madness, madness what seeks to spread to this realm. This is a plane-ship. A spelljammer. It was a planned a longer journey, and so's we had to take turns maintaining ourselves." He turns to the skeletons. " You lot have done you're part. Your contracts are met. May your souls be at peace, if peace they can find here, where Gods still dwell"
As one, the skeletons collapse to heaps of dust and bone fragments, their souls heaving a collective sigh before dissipating.
Skott: "So this is a ship? Let's go somewhere! "
Axle: "Looks pretty badly damaged. That light playing down the hallway doesn't seem terribly inspiring; that's the engine room. Maybe we should take a look-see?"
Elliwick:" Sure. I've never seen a…."
From behind, " I'm afraid that can't happen, Elli. You and your crew have done excellently. You'll all be richly rewarded." Turning, Stanwick, the mechanical man, and a half dozen Dwarves dressed in full, black leather armour coming into the room from the hall and front chambers. " I'm sorry, master dwarf, but we'll be needing to take you into custody"
Elliwick:" NO! He's not violent. He's a friend." Bertrand and Lorkas both raise similar arguments.
Stanwick:" It's beyond my control, Engineer."
Stealthily, Skott makes and exit without anyone even noticing. Once clear of the ship, into the cave, he runs to the next set of ropes. His mind racing. This could be it, the needed push to get the work-gangs to revolt…
At the mouth of the tunnel stand a dozen Dwarves in Full Black Plate mail. At their head, a slender dwarf in ornate leather armour. Greasy black hair frames his face, and his long black beard hangs lank from his lip and chin.
Alexander Forgefire:" Where do you think you are going, Elf?"
Skott: " This is wrong. People need to know what's going on here. I'm going to tell them."
Lips pressing his mouth to a frog like slit, " I'm afraid I can't let you do that". He pulls a long black pistol from a holster at his belt, and without hesitation shoots the elf through the forehead."
The elf drops, a pool of blood beginning to spread.
As the rest of the party approaches he holsters his pistol, Excellent, excellent! Fantastic work. You have each earned a year's wages, and are released of your contracts, provided this is met with the utmost secrecy?
Lorkas, stepping forward, " I want a million gold to keep silent about this, I.."
Alexander: "Done. Anyone else?"
Elliwick and Bertrand both look extremely uneasy, both shake their heads no. As they walk past, Bertrand spits at the ground at Alexander's feet"
Alexander:" And a fine day to you as well, Master Battlehammer. Give your father my regards"..
From there, the remaining party returns to Eastlund. Elliwick disappears, heart broken. Bertrand returns to Tor Raan'vaald, and Lorkas, visiting the Bursar's office in Midway befor taking the long overland route back to Herdton, returns to the north a Hero. He keeps half of his fortune, donating the rest to the Orcs of the plains…..