“And, onward we go!” Traxigor the otter wizard exclaims as he completes the arcane circle.
Immediately, everyone in the wizard’s tower disappears.
The Herd, Ellison, Lulu, and Traxigor are transported through the planes of existence, down toward the Nine Hells.
When they emerge, hot air assaults their senses. They’re standing on a street lined with crumbled and collapsed buildings. The ground shutters beneath their feet. In the red smokey sky, a massive sphere of darkness discharges strobes of blueish-white lightning, striking the city at irregular intervals. A crumbled fortress is perched atop a distant bluff, overlooking the city.
The otter wizard looks up at the sphere nervously, utters arcane utterances, and disappears.
“What?!” Sfiros demands, having lost his otter.
The Herd’s perspective expands in a flash, revealing an aerial view of their location. They see themselves standing on a floating chunk of a city that is split in half and chained above a massive river. A crackling, black hole in the sky pulls at the city chunk with hellish physics, causing it to hover.
The hellish physics distort their perception further, and the Herd sees a label and cardinal directions.
“Kinchasa?” Tallest reads the label.
“We were specifically told there were no cardinal directions, and there’s a giant compass rose!” Sfiros’s words echo through the hellish landscape.
“Kinchasa has cardinal directions,” the city replies.
“Ok,” Sfiros says, satisfied.
The vision ends, and the Herd’s perspective shifts back to something more familiar. They regain proprioception and find themselves back in their own bodies. The hellscape, broken streets of Kinchasa await before them.
A door flies open from a nearby, crumbling building, and a Kinchasan woman with two toddlers bolts away. The Herd frowns at them suspiciously until three infernal devils with glaives and snakelike beards chase after her, their eyes mad with glee!
“Hey, buddy!” Sleipnir says as he casts friends on the closest bearded devil. “Look at my scythe!”
“What do you mean, buddy?!” the devil gruffs back. All three devils stop chasing the mother and lunge toward the Herd.
Sleipnir dodges behind his big brother, and an infernal glaive slices through Caeus’s power armor.
Caeus braces for another attack, but Lulu zips past Sleipnir and underneath Caeus’s legs, putting herself between the minotaurs and the devils.
“WHEEE!” The flying elephant raises her trunk and casts a trumpet of sparkles spell!. A cone of sparkle magic erupts from her trunk, spraying magic confetti glitter over the bearded devils. Since devils are susceptible to glitter and sparkles, they convulse and cough due to their fragile masculinity.
Tallest unsheathes the Blade of Ahn-Nunurta, the corrupted scimitar prison. Inside the blade, the soul of Gargauth eagerly whispers advice about which devil to strike. Tallest, remembering how tall Gargauth was when they fought, follows his guidance.
The blade finds an opening and decapitates the devil. Its body vanishes before it hits the ground, and Gargauth relishes the carnage.
Sfiros of Gond blesses the frontline: Tallest, Caeus, and Lulu. Each of them takes a brief pause from the fight to thank him.
Harken does not get blessed. Instead, he stabs a bearded devil with his mundane rapier, dealing mundane damage.
Caeus charges back into action, smashing one of the devils with a double thunder punch. Lightning and thunder explode from where his knuckles collide with the devil, and the black sphere above answers the explosion of energy with one of its own: blue and white electricity pulsates across the sphere and launches an arc of blue lightning at Caeus!
The tinkerer smashes his gauntlets together to emit a force field, absorbing elements to dissipate part of the sphere’s lightning. The damage splashes to one of the devils instead as Caeus becomes a lightning rod for the environmental damage.
“We’re making a statement today,” Sleipnir says as he twin casts magic missile at the bearded devils, exploding one of them into nothingness.
Level 5 never looked so level awesome!
Caeus tests a hypothesis. He charges his thunderpunch again, zapping the last devil. The sphere crackles on queue, zapping him like last time with another bolt zig-zagging down from the sky. Again his electric shield absorbs elements, and again lightning damage splashes to the last bearded devil. The beard snakes hiss and spasm, jolting out of existence.
The empty space where the devils once were sizzles and snaps, as if reality were refilling itself in that spot. The devils are gone, but their prey remains.
“Who are you?” The mother asks, her toddlers huddled behind her.
“Rumor has it, we’re the Herd,” Sleipnir says.
“This is Lulu, our patron elephant guide saint friend master,” Caeus says. “Who are you, ma’am?”
“My name is Harkina Hunt,” the woman says.
The Herd moos.
“What happened?” Sleipnir asks.
“Many of Kinchasa’s citizens died when the city was drawn down to this terrible place,” Harkina explains. “More have died since with the attack of these creatures, the lack of food and water, the collapsed buildings…”
“Who’s in charge here?” Caeus asks.
“Our leader is Manzibar Kreeg,” she says.
“This is all Kreeg’s fault,” Ellison declares, stepping forth. “And he’s no longer here. Who else would be here?”
“The aristocrat from Baldur’s Gate, the Grand Duke Ravengard, is at the High Hall,” she says. “That’s where we’re trying to go. The city has been split in two, and this side is worse off, but I can’t get across the bridge. Can I go with you?”
The Herd shrugs.
Tallest consults his magic weapon. “The strands of fate lead many ways, but most strands lead to the High Hall,” Gargauth whispers from the blade.
“I want to talk to my weapon!” Sleipnir screams at everyone. “Weapon! Say something!”
“WHAT!?” Rotund’jere screams back.
“My weapon’s angry,” Sleipnir whines and puts his scythe away.
On the way to the gap in the floating city, in an attempt to make the toddlers laugh, Caeus changes Sfiros’s glowing tooth to a tooth that smells like farts.
Sfiros chokes and coughs. He falls to the ground and rolls around, unable to breath thanks to the fart tooth.
A toddler tugs at one of Tallest’s tails. “What’s wrong with your standing cow?” she asks.
Sfiros breathlessly screams, writhing on the ground from the fart smell in his mouth.
“What makes you think something’s wrong with him?” Tallest asks without stopping. “That’s just how he is sometimes.”
They approach the split in the floating city. Following the ledge north, they eventually see a bridge across the ravine. The bridge is being guarded by four spined devils and two bearded devils, each more spined and bearded than the ones before!
Thinking ahead for once, the Herd buffs themselves before they charge into battle. With aid, haste, gift of alacrity, and embiggen, the minotaurs, Harken, Ellison, and Lulu stampede to the bridge.
Harken, not thinking ahead, runs in front and casts thunderwave from his bagpipes in an attempt to throw the spined devils off the bridge. The spell washes over most of the devils harmlessly, but it knocks one back. The devil tumbles off the bridge and spreads its wings, catching itself before it plummets below.
The black sphere responds to the thunder spell with another lightning arc, zapping the mischievous bard and hurting him since he doesn’t absorb elements nearly as well as Caeus. The spined devils respond by piling on Harken, who is in front and alone.
Sleipnir, thinking ahead, does not cast his thunder spell shatter. Instead, he runs and hides in a corner.
Caeus charges in with haste, smashing a devil with his thunder punch. His fists summon the sphere’s lightning, and he absorbs elements again. The arced lightning splashes to the devil, eliminating it. He becomes like a storm unto himself, drawing in electricity and thunder and weaving it like a spinster sews stockings, then throwing the lightning forth like newly knit stockings upon the feet of sockless children!
The conceit got really weird there for a minute!
Tallest, embiggened and hastened, reaches at a flying spined devil. The Blade of Ahn-Nunurta, guided by Gargauth’s soul, slices the devil in half, just like the city.
Caeus and Tallest scatter the devils off Harken and form a minotaur wall on the bridge, punching and slicing any devil that tries to pass.
Ellison runs to the injured Harken and helps him up. They both cast cure wounds and retreat behind the minotaur wall where Sleipnir and Sfiros are sniping at the baddies.
Lulu sparkles and glitters more like a mascot than a combatant. She flies through the battle, zipping into the emptiness left behind when the devils die. With each death she trumpets in triumph.
Gargauth guides Tallest’s hand to strike down another devil. “With your might and my mind, nothing can stop us!” Gargauth whispers from the blade.
“Hey, that’s a pretty good idea,” Tallest agrees. “If there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s be stopped.”
The last spined devil screeches in desperation and dives at Harken, the one who started all this.
Right before the spines stab into the bard, Sleipnir quickens his chilling touch spell. Two beams of necrotic energy blast out from under Sleipnir’s floral hat, dissipating the devil and ending the battle.
With the bridge cleared of infernal guards, the Herd finds Harkina Hunt and her two children where they left them. She’s surrounded by about fifteen other Kinchasan citizens, each more wretched and ragged than the last. They look as if they’ve been living in Hell for an unspecified length of time.
“We’re the Herd,” Caeus introduces.
“Follow us, we’re going to your leader,” Tallest says.
The Kinchasans follow behind the Herd, and Sleipnir and Sfiros try to cheer them up by singing a variation of a classic minotaur showtune.
“We’re off to see the leader, the wonderful leader of Kinchasa,” they sing. “Follow the rivers of fire.”
It helps a little.
On the bridge, they’re able to see through the split of the city and far down below. Behemoth chains anchor the city to the ground. Around the base of the chains, are hundreds of battalions of devils fighting demons. Jagged edges of infernal glaives clash with black iron swords.
This is the Blood War.
It is an ancient conflict that rages between the fiends of the lower planes. The chaotic and animalistic demons against the tactical and conniving devils. For eons, their war has been waged, and for eons more it shall. Yugoloth fiends keep to a neutral position, but are opportunistic when the time arises.
Once again, old squabbles never die.
Everyone runs across the bridge without staring at the Blood War for too long.
On the other side, Tallest finds a busted monument toppled at a crossroads.
“I’m not sure who that is,” Tallest says, looking at the statue.
Ellison, Hellrider of Kinchasa, gingerly approaches the broken monument. She finds a large chunk of rubble and examines it.
“This was carved in the likeness and celebration of Kinchasa’s very own Hero of Chult, Zanzibar the Magnificent.”
The Herd moos in enthusiasm. Sfiros moos extra hard.
They rest at the crossroads while Caeus mends the Zanzibar monument, taking a few artistic liberties. Zanzibar’s image is old, older than he’s ever been. Caeus removes Sfiros’s fart tooth and creates finger-pulling contraption on the statue.
He dubs it “Ecce Zanzibar.”
The Kinchasan citizens politely do not comment on Caeus’s rendition of their local hero.
Pleased with their good deed, the Herd leads the crowd through the western part of the city. The people are desperate and disheveled. Some of them look like they haven’t eaten in days.
Caeus notices one such hungry Halfling lingering in the back of the crowd. Folds of wrinkled, loose skin hang off the Halfling’s face, limbs, and body. He is wearing a tattered baker’s uniform that is way too big for his current size. The pitiful Halfling looks as if he’s eaten nothing but his own reserves of fat for weeks.
All of this is fine to Caeus, but then Caeus notices the Halfling talking to a tiny, batlike imp.
“That’s not good,” Caeus frowns at the imp. “I don’t like that.”
“He must be very low in the social order,” Sleipnir agrees, looking at the Halfling.
“Hey, you’re not dealing are ya!” Caeus shoves the crowd out of the way and towers above the Halfling and the imp.
“This is none of your business!” the imp shrieks, snatching a parchment from the Halfling and hiding it behind his back.
“We’re all friends here,” Sleipnir shoots a ray of friends at the imp.
“What makes you think we’re friends?” the imp asks.
“We’re just trying to fight the war against the demons,” Sleipnir tries, remembering what rumors he heard about the Blood War. “See my horns?”
“And Harken,” Caeus points at the devilish companion.
The imp squints his beady little eyes at the minotaurs. “Why would one of Baphomet’s Chosen turn against him?”
“He’s our prisoner,” Sleipnir lies. “I have him under our spell.” Sleipnir swings a fist at Harken. The tiefling pretends to be hit, tumbles to the ground, and coughs incessantly.
This satisfies the imp. The batlike devil immediately tries to make a deal with the Herd. Sleipnir asks for information.
The imp tells them he obtained a soul coin by pilfering a corpse.
He tells them that the sphere above them is keeping Kinchasa in the Nine Hells.
He tells them they are above the River Styx near Bel’s Forge.
He tells them his name is Perchillux (and writes it in Tallest’s book).
He tells them he was trading a month of food for the Halfling baker’s soul.
“I need some information, too,” the imp finally says. “What is Baphomet up to?”
“That’ll cost one soul coin,” Sleipnir states.
“We’re trading information already,” the imp points to the list above. “I give you some, you give me some.”
“Hmm,” Sleipnir pretends to consider this. “Mine’s not free, though.”
"Well, then,” the imp pouts and tries to go invisible.
“Counterspell that,” Sleipnir haggles.
“Aggression is on the field!” Gargauth whispers to Tallest. With a single motion, Tallest obliterates Perchillux and catches the imp’s soul coin as it falls to the ground.
“We have two now!” Sleipnir cheers.
A parchment made of Halfling skin also falls to the ground. They find Infernal markings on the parchment, indicating the baker and his family would receive a month’s worth of food for the low price of his soul. Tallest susses out that the infernal jargon actually says the baker will be giving over the souls of his entire family.
The Herd dresses down the starving baker.
Eventually they tire of haranguing the Halfling, and they continue on their way. They do not feed him.
On the road, Lulu decides she wants attention. She flutters around and gets up in people’s faces. Her trunk stretches out and casts a beam of light on the Goblin Behnie soul coin.
“I couldn’t do that in the material plane!” Lulu cheers. She casts light on Sleipnir’s floral hat.
“Stop wasting those, let’s go,” Sleipnir says, shying away from the light.
Up ahead in the middle of the street, Tallest finds a silvered sword poking out of a corpse.
“Can anyone identify this sword?” Tallest asks Sfiros. When he grabs the sword, a gout of hellfire erupts from the corpse. The flames engulf the plate armor, searing the tall minotaur. “Ouch. Anyway, can you still identify it? Or is it too hot?”
Sfiros considers this. “I’m wearing gloves. I’ll be ok.”
It’s a silvered sword.
Down the central thoroughfare, the Herd approaches the High Hall. This clifftop castle was once a crowning architectural example of Kinchasa’s recent explosion into a commercial empire. Only three of its five watchtowers still stand, though they appear abandoned.
The gates that once led into the castle grounds are shattered, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. The westside of the castle has been reduced to a pile of brick and broken wood. The surviving buildings are blackened by soot. At the center of the castle grounds, the High Hall cathedral stands triumphant.
The Herd is humbled by both the grandeur of the colossal wreck and the force that destroyed it.
“The strands of fate lead many ways, but most strands lead to the High Hall,” they remember as they approach the entrance.