Warning: Some spoilers for the adventure The Banewarrens appear below.

Having walked, unaccosted, out of the Dark Reliquary, Shurrin the fighter/rogue/cleric, Aliya of the Order of the Fist, Sister Mara the cleric of Lothian, Zophas the Knight of the Pale, Canabulum the minotaur wizard, and Urlenius the Star of Navashtrom (a reformed ogre-mage) deserved a nice long rest. Their rest was troubled, however, for they now found themselves in possession of a mysterious floating silver orb given to them by Raguel, leader of the Fallen. Although he seemed more angel than demon, the heroes hardly trusted him. They decided to push on toward the Jewels of Parnaith, as they had planned.

Now, Parnaith was once the wife of Danar, a powerful and altruistic cleric who lived aeons ago. He built the Banewarrens, an underground vault where he stored the worst of all evil artifacts, so that no one could ever get at them. It was the evil of the Banewarrens that created the spire of Ptolus, legend said. Danar became known as the Dread One when he fell to temptation and threatened all of creation with his dark might.

Before all that happened, however, Parnaith, in conjunction with the wizard-priests of Ni- Gorth, created a series of seven ethereal islands, each reachable only through magical colordoors (opened only by a device called the illitor, which the group already had. One had to travel through the islands sequentially. To get to the first, a special Orrery showed where a colordoor accessible from the normal world would open. Thus, the characters had to find this Orrery.

They turned to their friend Lord Kirstol Dallimothan, head of House Dallimothan—also known as House Dragon. In an ancient tome in the family’s library, Kirstol found a reference to the Orrery. It was stolen long ago and ended up in the possession of another noble house: House Vladaam, an evil and corrupt line of diabolic powermongers.

Shurrin, Canabulum, Zophas, and Zophas’ wizard cohort Ephendus decided to sneak into the estate of House Vladaam and take the Orrery. They contacted another old friend, Kaira Swanwing, an elven member of an order called the Knights of the Golden Cross. This ancient order had vied with the Vladaam family since before recorded history, so Kaira was more than happy to help. She gave them an idea of the layout of the estate and had some of her people create a diversion at the estate gates while the four adventurers flew over the wall and onto the estate’s grounds.

They broke into the manor house without much difficulty and wandered through its back rooms. Their burglary was interrupted by some of House Vladaam’s guards, who promptly turned into werewolves. Really large and powerful werewolves.

Things got worse when the family members at home woke up. Most members of the Vladaam family were powerful spellcasters, rogues, or fighters (or all three). Although a few lucky breaks allowed the heroes to hold their own for a time against Gattara and Aliaster Vladaam—both powerful mages—the swarm of werewolves separated the group into different rooms. In fact, at one point, Shurrin found himself trapped in the study where he thought the Orrery was (it wasn’t there) behind an arcane locked door while the others were overwhelmed. Vicious werewolf blows knocked Ephendus unconscious, and Zophas was mortally wounded, soon to die. Shurrin managed to get free of his room just in time to greet the arrival of yet another Vladaam—Godfred—with yet more werewolf guards and a soul-devouring hungersword. Canabulum used magic to clear a path, then grabbed Zophas in one arm, beckoning Shurrin to come with him, to retreat out of the terrible place. Shurrin tried to comply, but he soon found himself on the wrong end of Godfred’s hungersword. Canabulum grabbed Shurrin’s body as he fell and flew out.

After this terrible defeat, the group realized that the direct approach was neither wise nor ethical. They needed a new plan. Kirstol Dallimothan again provided a great deal of help.

But meanwhile, Shurrin was lost in the beyond. By all rights, the hungersword should have consumed his soul forever. Yet his soul was rescued by his goddess, Mirresh, with the help of her much more powerful sister Gaen, goddess of light. The two told Shurrin that in exchange for his life he must swear his allegiance to Gaen, “whose might will be needed in the coming months,” they said cryptically. Of course, Shurrin agreed, and his friends were able to get him resurrected.

Back at House Dragon, Kirstol told the heroes about the ancient Rites of Custom, obeyed by the noble houses since long before the Empire. He explained that a thousand years ago, the area of called Palastan around Ptolus was ruled by a king, and all noble families answered to him. The nobles developed a code called the Rites of Custom that they all obeyed—or the others would gather together and destroy the offending family. These rules governed the nobles for centuries. When Ghul, who called himself the Skull-King, usurped the reigning king, the royal line was thought gone forever. That, however, was not true. The soul of the last king remained preserved within a magical stone. To this day the noble houses look upon him as a judge for their disputes, although rarely does anyone invoke the Rites of Custom anymore.

Kirstol suggested that the adventurers issue a challenge of combat against the Vladaam family for possession of the Orrery. But first, they had to figure out how to suggest that the item didn’t rightfully belong to House Vladaam—if they didn’t, the king could reject the challenge as baseless.

The group had first learned about the Orrery and the Jewels from Shayla the dagger, who was created by the wizard-priests of Ni-Gorth. With the wizard-priests long gone, they reasoned, Shayla was actually the Orrery’s rightful owner. As their last sentient heir, she owned all that once belonged to the wizard-priests. And that was all the justification they needed.

A noble must issue a challenge against another noble, and Kirstol did not hesitate to sponsor his friends’ cause. The formal challenge, then, as presented to the King, was this:

“By the Laws of Custom and the Ancient Rites, I, Kirstol Dallimothan, in league and fellowship with Mara von Witten, Shurrin Delano, Aliya Al-Mari, Zophas Adhar, Serai Lorenci, and Canabulum, on behalf of Shayla, heir to the Wizard-Priests of Ni-Gorth, challenge the family and house of Vladaam to a combat of nine nondivine beings for the right to the Orrery of Ni-Gorth, rightful property of Shayla, on the 11th of Blessing, in the Imperial Year of 721.”

Kirstol volunteered to fight alongside them, as did Andach the druid, a longtime friend of Kirstol’s whom the heroes had recently saved from the Dark Reliquary. They also recruited help from the celestial Malkuth order; during their raid on the Reliquary, the group had rescued Falstef the deva, first of the Malkuth. As Falstef was bereft of his wings and still sorely wounded, another angel, Mooncry, offered to take his place and help them fight the Vladaam family.

The Vladaams, as was their right, made only one counter-challenge: that no one slain in the combat could ever be brought back from the dead.

This was for keeps.

Next: The Challenge! And afterward comes… the Day of Black Rain and the Return of Helmut Itlestein.