A beautiful day had dawned, and the party was enjoying a late brunch celebrating the success of their previous mission. A hundred thousand souls raised was worth celebrating, too. Everyone was in attendance, and the music of Lisa’s new Lyre filled the keeps lounge with playful tunes as she contemplated what she would build with it. She had finally begun to test it by building better fortifications via several sets of heavy metal doors in the kobold tunnels which could be triggered to lockdown automatically when she noticed a small sheathe of paper wrapped around the lyre’s crossbar. It had been tied to the lyre, but it was so expertly done that it almost appeared it was part of the instrument at first. Unfolding the paper, she discovered a beautifully hand-illuminated invitation to compete at the Famous Bard’s Festival in the capital city of Oth Narod.
Though the prospect of going into the heart of Maximus’ capital city, at the very center of which stood the massive Granite Citadel and the seat of the lich’s power could have been a harrowing thought, the team enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to compete. Tessa the Tactless, who happened to be staying with them after the ordeal the night before, was also enthusiastic about the opportunity to see the team’s mettle tested, and set to answering the various questions they had about the tournament.
Having heard the competition described as a combination of skill and performance acumen, the team set to planning every aspect of their journey from what they needed to bring to how they were going to enter the grand guildhouse of Prima Bravura even before registering to compete. Mike had the forethought to make sure that he expended every bit of his uncontrollable frenzy on their way to the Bard’s Guild, to make sure he did not accidentally injure others, and Ben also bent his mind towards the future, providing Shannon with a Bow of Disguise to hide her frightening lich-y countenance from the people of Oth Narod. With the competition only a week away, the team had some time to figure out the specifics, and figure they did.
On the way to the tournament, in order to fulfill his plans to protect the others from his furious uncontrollable fits of frenzy, Mike had Ethan set him down in a clearing, and from the safety of the airship Ben set to popping him in the back of the head with magic missiles to trigger his wrath. Unfortunately, the first shot did it’s work, and though Mike was unable to direct his wrath at the ship above, he did notice a deer curiously watching from a distance. Feeling a tad peckish, Mike charged the deer, diving through the air to slam into the beast at full speed, but the deer was very fast, and Mike ended up slamming into the ground where there was deer only milliseconds before. Luckily, he was able to use the opportunity to quiet his rage, and he signaled to the ship to hit him again.
Ben released another magic missile. Mike’s frenzy had begun again, but this time, there was nowhere to go but up. Mike reached back to grab his trusty driver, but realized he had laid it on the deck of the ship for safe keeping. No matter though. If he could not reach his driver, his driver COULD reach him. Mike extended his hand, pulling the driver off the edge of the ship through the bond between himself and the egg, and within moments was holding his powerful weapon once again. The driver exploded into flaming power in his hands. Mike took careful aim at the ship, and proceeded to Tee Up. Moments later, Ethan found himself covered in a spray of sawdust, which settled to show a golf club shaped hole in the bow of his ship, and Mike was getting ready to take another swing. Using the power of his egg, Ethan opened up a portal to the Shadow Realm, ready to leave. Luckily, rather than be abandoned in the field, Mike was able to control his frenzy once more. He signaled to the ship again.
Stephanie, alarmed and angered at Mike’s obvious intention to tear the helpless deer to pieces before her, placed her hand on Ben’s shoulder, asking him to put the magic missile down so she could take the final shot. She lifted her rifle, then put it down, and moved to the cannon. A scream of “You ASS!” could be heard just before the cannon fired. It’s roar was only just loud enough to cover the sound of Mike’s angry protest, as a cannonball burrowed its way into his breastplate. The damage was done, and Mike was left on his back, but he soon rose, frenzy in his eyes and a flaming golf club in his hands. Luckily, the blast must have done something to throw Mike’s aim, because the howling flame that would have otherwise torn another hole in the ship just managed to miss blowing off the prow. Ethan started the ship towards the massive portal before them, tired of having his ship endangered, but just before they passed through, Mike yelled a stop. He had overcome his frenzy for the day. Just to be sure, ben released his third magic missile, pelting Mike in the back of the head once again. The frenzy which had once distorted Mike’s gaze was gone, replaced by mild irritation. Ben nodded to himself, then set to repair the ship before their arrival at the city.
Oth Narod, the capital city of Sanguinous Imperium, was truly massive. Even as high as they were, once the ship had entered the airspace above the city, absolutely nothing else was visible on the horizon. The roving hordes of undead they had seen in the countryside avoided the large city, influenced by the spells of protection Maximus and his cohorts had placed around the capital, and were soon replaced by roving hordes of the living as the buildings grew taller and closer together. The Granite Citadel slowly grew larger and larger in the distance, but before they were half way there, Tessa pointed out a large Half dome ridged like a Clamshell laid out below. They had arrived at the famed Prima Bravura.
The ship circled around and came down the main road leading to the massive collection of buildings protected by the clamshell shape of the guild hall, keeping just above the highest rooftops. Guards, wary of impending attack began to flood the streets, barreling after them as they soared forward. The ship descended above the large promenade of the Prima Bravura, and the shwo began.
First, dancing lights, fireworks, and fanfare. Then, dancing dangling bungee jumping giants in flashy luchador costumes, followed by tandem paratrooping undead, who began to do the thriller dance as they landed, all in a row. Then, Mike shined up as much as they could get him in his gut-stained armor, lunged off the ship and crashed into the ground below. He held up his palm, and Lisa descended on a stage of expertly crafted wood, light, and magic. The stage set down gently on Mike’s upturned hand, and settled there. Ben cast his unseen servant spell, and the stage underneath Lisa split to pieces, forming into stairs and falling away as she confidently strode down them. The others descended as well, each adding their own flourishes to the already stunning display.
The people before them were taken aback. Everyone who was anyone had already heard of the adventurer’s guild called Team Skullfuck, their massively powerful airship, and their penchant for tearing things down with one hand whilst building them up with the other. Half the crowd gasped in awe and terror, the other half cheered in delight. The guards who had gathered en masse at the gates of Prima Bravura sighed in relief, and began to disperse into the crowds, crisis now averted. What was Team Skullfuck doing here, and how much were the tickets to see it?
Now that their grand entrance had been completed, Tessa the Tactless led them to the entrance to Prima Bravura, where a rather unimpressed older lady sat behind a desk, staring blankly forward over horn rimmed glasses, quill in hand. She cleared her throat, and in the most monotone, rehearsed, tired voice, began to speak to the group.
“Welcome to Bravura’s Famous Bard’s Festival. Please be advised that only experienced bards and their retainers are allowed to participate, as this contest will test your abilities to the utmost. It is not unusual for people to die during the competition, and though we do have clerics on retainer here who can reverse death, it is EXTREMELY expensive, and death does disqualify you if it occurs during the competition. The rules are as follows: Choose a pathway to begin your ascent up one of the towers. Brave the challenges your pathway presents, and arrive at the amphitheater atop the Bravura, having defeated all others along the path. Then, competed for first prize against the four or less remaining opponents. The winner of the performance will be determined by two things: The first, is who actually manages to make it to the amphitheater alive. The second, which troupe was the most entertaining. Your entire performance will be broadcast to these viewing crystals at the top of the Bravura, and the final performances will be in front of a live audience. We will test your intelligence, your stage performance, voice, endurance, tactical skills, and teamwork. It is up to you and your up to 9 retainers to convince the audience you have exactly what it takes. The prize, of course, is the title of Sanguinous Imperiums Grande Maestro, and as a symbol of your office, the Crystal Echoblade, Harmony.”
The party, having nearly fallen asleep due to the droning on of the older woman, barely noticed when she stopped. Shaking themselves out of their stupor, they proceeded down to the main hall of the Prima Bravura, where five tunnels protruded like the spokes of half a wagon wheel before them. They were directed to choose a path, and rather than wait for any other team to begin, Team Skullfuck went FIRST.
The five tunnels each had a large sign hanging above them. They had been warned that these signs were clues to the content of the challenges before them, so the team took note. One tunnel said “a capella,” another, “a piacere,” the third “fuoco,” forth was “volante,” and finally, “volti subito.” Having recognized these terms from their musical studies, Elaina and Lisa were able to guess their meanings: unaccompanied, without rhythm, with fire, fast as if flying, and turn the page. What could they mean? Lisa chose Volti Subito, and, well, I want to say the party bravely started down the tunnel, but they didn’t. They stood back, and sent their one zombie servant to test the waters.
The zombie lurched forward down the hallway, further, further, and further without incident. Almost at the end and nothing. Mike decided to run down to the zombie, but was tripped by a slightly raised brick about twenty feet from the end of the tunnel, but managed to recover himself nicely by examining the floor for traps. The party, now wary of tripwires, edged carefully down towards Mike and the zombie. When they arrived, also without incident, they noticed the room beyond was empty, aside from a book centered on a pedestal. They sent the zombie forward. One second, nothing, two, nothing, four, nothing, and at five seconds, the floor beneath the zombie turned, tossing the zombie down the length of 150 foot hallway and into the crowd that watched from behind. When the floor settled, the team stepped in, and thanks to their clue, turned the page.
On the other side of the page, there was a button. With mere seconds left before the floor flung them as well, the team began to argue. Should they press the button? Shannon decided that yes, they should, and immediately pressed it. The party stared at her in surprise, but said very little as the door shut behind them and the floor began to rise like a giant elevator. They had passed the first challenge.
At the door to the second floor was another sign. It read “segue,” which Lisa and Elaina understood without deliberation as they entered another dark hallway. Half way down the hallway, they could see another door with another sign, but they couldn’t read it at this distance. Ben began to check for traps, and found a grand mechanical device. They were standing on the long neck of a five stringed lute. Ethan realized the potential of the moment and began to assign chords: A minor, C, D, F, and E. It wasn’t long before the group was playing the first few notes of The House of the Rising Sun. But then, another group appeared. They had watched Team Skullfuck complete the trial, copied them, and come up to watch them and copy again. Lisa, who’d intended to use her shout ability to replace the missing sixth string, decided to direct it towards the other group, damaging and deafening them. As an unintended bonus, her final shout broke the strings on the massive lute, leaving it unplayable. After some fierce intimidation, the team opened up the ways and left the massive trashed electric lute behind them. Andrew came up to the second sign at the halfway mark, noted that it said “Ossia,” and tore it down to take with them. Lisa and Elaina, having interpreted Ossia to mean a simpler passage, opted to take that route. Bryan, Ethan, and Mike opted to take the other route, as the first sign Segue indicated to go straight on. A few seconds after most of the team proceeded onto the Ossia path, the door closed hard behind them. Mike, Ethan, Bryan, and the team now cowering behind them, would have to take Segue.
When they got into the chambers at the end of the hallway, the team of Ethan, Mike, and Bryan failed to notice the sign that said Sopra above the chambers and simply looked around. The walls were made of metal, and seamless. The door lie a hundred feet above them. The ceiling was covered in sharp spikes. Bryan started to get out his grappling hook, but Mike was prepared. He pulled out his immovable rods, reached up, and began to climb the air before them. Ethan took the rope from Bryan’s grappling hook and secured it to Mike, and the two of them held on as Mike drew them up towards the exit. When they arrived at the top, they noticed that every few minutes, a single nearly invisible blade swiped across the bottom of the doorway, and the three realized how lucky they had been NOT to have used Bryan’s grappling hook.
Given that the other team had not yet entered the tower, the rope-cutting knife gave Bryan an idea. He pulled out a wooden dowsing rod, secured it just beyond the reach of the blade, and then sacrificed his grappling hook and another length of rope to set a trap for the following party. The rope would remain out of cutting distance of the blade until someone put a little weight on it, and thereby broke the dowsing rod. then, it was just a matter of waiting the few minutes for the blade to swipe, and whatever happened to be climbing the rope would fall nearly a hundred feet down. Bryan thought it a fitting end for cheaters. The groups converged, and moved on.
The final floor was not so easy as the others. the sign above the door read Estinto Marziale Crescendo, which Lisa and Elaina correctly established to mean March as soft as possible slowly getting louder. Unfortunately for the group, they forgot that marching softly was out of the range of skill for several members in heavy plate, and soon the floor, a giant stretched drum, began to roll like an angry sea, bouncing all but the most sure footed of the party into the air. The louder the group marched, the bigger the rolling bounces got, and the harder the party members slammed into the walls and ceiling. Finally, a flight spell or two was cast, and the more surefooted members corrected their march, and the door at the end finally opened. They had made it to the Amphitheater.
As they stepped onto the massive stage, the party noticed four other doors leading to it. Three of them were still shut, and before the fourth, another group of 10 adventurers waited patiently. Almost immediately, the trash talk began, two members of the group disappeared. Andrew reciprocated, seemlessly blending with his environment and secretly moving forward, whilst leaving an illusionary clone of himself behind. Lisa activated her glyph of regeneration, and cast an illusion of attacking dragons and a large crevasse opening up at the other team’s feet. One of the other team’s rangers leapt the chasm and cast a spell. Thanks to the defensive aura, Team Skullfuck was unimpeded by the vines that the ranger summoned at their feet. Stephanie then stepped forward, giving the other group the tit for their tat, as vines sprung up around their feet.
Bryan jumped out into the center of the room, seemingly grasping shafts of light from the air to wield as blades. He turned, and the sleepy wizard Shannon shot him with a ray of frost, making his knives glow that much brighter. Their ranger stood by, stunned at the fact that Shannon had fired on her own teammate, and watched, confused, as Shannon sleepily knelt down to pet a fat fuzzy little orange ball of fur, and sent it slowly plodding towards the man. Why was the sleepy girl sending a fat lazy eyed cat to him? Why didn’t it run? Why did she shoot her own teammate? Why was the cat trying to boop his… WHY COULDN’T HE MOVE? The ranger toppled into the audience, paralyzed by Shannon’s sleepy cat stealth attack.
Elaina summoned FIRE. A massive beast of flame erupted before the other adventurers and crouched, ready for the attack. A thought began to creep into the other bard’s mind. Could all this be an illusion? The other bard stepped forward and raised his hand. The dragons fizzled to nothing, and the crevasse disappeared. Unfortunately, the giant beast of flame did not. The two fighters cursed, loudly, and dove in to fight the great beast. Mike reciprocated, diving through the flaming creature and thoroughly intimidating one of the men. He crushed downwards with his golf club, but the fighter was strong despite being scared. His armor was broken, and he was pissing himself and blubbering, but he was alive. The other fighter, who had dealt with a different set of fiery blows, was looking less good. Also, he was looking less good whilst laying, twitching, on the floor, fifteen feet away from his first position. Ben had decided to show them the meaning of the word LASER. Also, the word shotgun.
Without saying a word, the other party’s cleric stepped forward. He began to mumble into his hands, then thrust them into the air before his chest. A holy force drove forwards, passing through most of the group as if it were nothing, until it reached Andrew’s Vrok. The Vrok fell to pieces before Andrew’s eyes, and his countenance grew dark.
Then the other party’s only standing wizard took to the fray. He reached down towards the earth, and the ground beneath most of Team Skullfuck began to glow blue. Those protected by Lisa’s aura were fine, but Bryan was unfortunately too far away, and something happened that prevented Elaina from taking advantage as well, sending her up towards the ceiling. Luckily, Bryan had a ring of featherfall, and Elaina was a wizard. What should have been a deadly 70 foot fall became an inconvenience. They were trapped, but fortunately, unharmed. The spell had the added effect of revealing an assassin from the other team that had fallen into the wizards trap. Bryan dealt with him with extreme prejudice.
Lisa, seeing an opportunity, used mass suggestion and told the other bard he had a chance to surrender. Though the other bard just laughed, and his cleric and the standing wizard stood firm, the other visible members of his party capitulated, laying down arms. Ethan stepped out of the shadows just as the standing wizard began to cast. He didn’t try to convince the wizard to lay down his arms. Instead, Ethan simply grappled the wizard and suplexed him into the audience, instantly disqualifying the wizard from competing at the cost of disqualifying himself.
Andrew, incenced at the death of his beloved Vrok, appeared to point at the other cleric from across the stage, and shook his head. Then his imaged shimmered, and Andrew reappeared a moment later, a charging bull, 15 feet tall, directly in front of the oppositions Cleric, shoulder slamming him directly into the ground. The man burst in his armor like a tube of toothpaste. Andrew ground what was left of his head into a stain on the stage. The other bard stopped laughing. He called to Jimmy.
Jimmy, the other rogue, dove out of his hiding place behind the party, knife pointed straight at Lisa’s back. His foot caught on something… VINES!? And then he started to fall straight upwards. Jimmy fell, unceremoniously to the ceiling, where he landed neck first. His last words were a garbled combination of “what in the hells” and “dear gods help me.”
This time Ben stepped forward, asking the bard if he surrendered. The bard, angry at the sight of his dead comrades, refused. Ben blasted him in the chest with his laser pistol, leaving a visible hole through his shoulder. Ben asked again. The bard fell to his knees, but refused to yield. Ben fired his pistol again, blowing a hole through the bard’s other shoulder. Ben asked again. The bard fell to the ground, sobbing. He was finished. The fight was won. Ben discharged his final shot at the ground next to the Bard’s head. It was over.
Music erupted as an older gentleman in a patchwork cloak brilliantly floated down to the stage, a glittering longsword in his grip. He placed the blade into Lisa’s outstretched hand, and over the roar of the crowd, declared Lisa the Grand Maestro of Sanguinous Imperium… until next year, at least. The roar of the crowd became deafening.
Team Skullfuck took a bow, and after taking Jimmy the rogue as a new undead minion, Andrew began discussing with the team whether or not they would be able to salvage the other cleric to use as an undead meat gelatin, or something. The other bard couldn’t afford the resurrection fee, so his remains were technically free for the taking. Where in the hells would you put the rubies though? Just… in the paste?
The world may never know.