Advanced Ultimate Sandbox

The Moonwell
Moondays

Gozran 5th, 4711 A.R. (Toilday)
Hex 17.16 Hills – Hex 17.15 Kharemon Burial Site – Hex 16.14 Moonwell – Travel
Warmer than normal, light wind (Dragon’s Breath)

The day dawned warm, with the sun igniting the golden plains as it crept above the horizon. Rivva noted arcane eddies on the wind… the subtle sign of a magic weather phenomenon known as the Dragon’s Breath. Should they bear torches, candles or other similar flammable objects, they would spontaneously ignite. Duly cautioned, Arkhan began composing an epic poem titled, ‘The Dragon’s Breath Like My Burning Loins.’

From their hilltop vantage point, they looked north at the vista that stretched before them. The plains were bounded immediately on the east by tall mountains, and far to the north by hills. To the south the hills and swamp swallowed the golden fields, and to the far west, a forest. They could see the rising sun reflected in what looked like a round silvery lake about 10 miles to the north and west. Skirting the swamp to the south, running east and west they could see the signs of a river – a line of green deciduous trees.

More curiously though, was the ring of massive standing stones to the west, about 12 miles out. They were tall, and they could just barely make out a radial pattern of smaller stones that encircled the largest central stone. The centaurs they’d seen on the plains had ridden toward the silver lake to the northwest. Rivva voiced her interest in them, and suggested that they make contact to see if they knew about the missing expedition. Arkhan concurred. Having never ridden a centaur before, he assumed this would be his chance.

Rivva began relating what she knew of centaurs from her studies. “We need to be as passive as possible. No threats, no shows of force.”

“What’s threatening about this?” Arkhan said, gesturing to his purple jacket and feathered hat. His disarming smile completed the ensemble.

Rivva continued, ignoring the rogue as the others snickered, “Centaurs are typically territorial, and might worship nature deities. Expect them to be standoffish.”

Ash grabbed a knife and some wood from their campfire, and started carving statuettes to Gozreh and Erastil, just in case.

They packed up the wagon and descended from the hilltop down into the sea of golden grasses, west toward the standing stones. As the hours passed, they loomed taller, until they were close enough to see a trio of centaurs – from a safe distance – walking in a continuous, circular pattern around the inner stone ring.

“Weapons sheathed,” Rivva cautioned as they approached.

“Those stones are burial markers,” Ash noted. Rivva nodded in agreement and added that it must have taken a lot of horsepower to raise the monolithic obelisks. The central pillar was 25 feet tall.

They closed the gap somewhat, ready to treat with the centaurs. The centaurs never deviated from their course, steadily circling in their seemingly endless patrol. Their features became apparent – they were not centaurs; their bodies were goatlike, as were their heads. Shaggy and noble-looking, and as large as centaurs, they could see that these three were not living, but zombified.

They decided to back off. Unable to interpret the situation here, they feared some curse was upon the place, and they had not the means to consecrate it. They decided to instead divert northwest, toward the silver lake to which they’d seen the centaur hunters approach the day before.

Their wagons carved a path in the golden grasses as the sun rose in the sky. They’d left their riding horses in Thornhill, so most were on foot. At midday, they reached the round silver lake, which was ringed by massive hide-bound tents of mammoth fur, built on scaffolds of mammoth tusks. They observed a tribe of the light tan-furred goat-centaurs carrying out the tasks of tanning, training, cooking and crafting. None wore a scrap of clothing, and their weaponry was crude – spears and bows and stone knives.

Four of them approached the inbound wagon train, all large males. They naturally fell into a fighting formation, though they did not seem overly aggressive. The party kept their weapons sheathed, and their bearing peaceable.

Keira bounded cheerfully to the front and said, “hello!” in common tongue.

The largest replied, in an old dialect of Skald. Arik recognized it, and translated, with difficulty.

“Who sent you to us?” the biggest of the four asked, in a deep baritone.

“We’re just passing through,” Ash responded, and Arik translated, trying to use the obscure form of Skald.

Arkhan added, “we’re looking for another party like us that came here three winters ago,” he thought that would translate well enough. “We were sent by a ruler to the south of here to find his lost expedition.” He thought his feathered hat was disarming. The centaurs watched the feather as it bobbed to and from with the rogue’s flourishes.

“That was an ill-fated group,” Arik translated from the big centaur.

“What happened?” Arkhan asked.

“They vanished. We were friends and companions to them while they were here. We warned them not to disturb the evil in the river canyon,” with this the big goat-centaur pointed to the far northeast, to the mountains.

Ash was trying to piece things together. “We came upon a burial site with tall standing stones this morning. It looked as if it had been desecrated.”

“There were undead there, of your kind,” Rivva added. Kiera wondered how this would play out. All four centaurs looked concerned at this. Behind them, many other of the goat-centaurs were gathering, all of them looking on curiously at the newcomers. There were over a hundred.

The largest addressed Arkhan, “first, to answer your question – about your missing friends from the south – we helped them to settle in the river valley,” he pointed to the long line of green to the southwest. “We helped them to establish their village, but…”

“You told them not to go somewhere,” Arkhan finished, seeing that the big guy was hesitating.

“They visited the evil in the river canyon, against our advisement.”

Rivva noted that throughout the dialogue, the centaurs had seemed open and fairly trusting. “Are you interested in making new friends?” she asked.

Kiera thought her timing was off, as they were just getting into the mistakes of their predecessors, and the centaur leader agreed, saying, “why, so you can cause further trouble?” It seemed to regret saying this after the fact.

Kiera was dancing. The centaurs watched her with curiousity, while under her breath, Rivva said to Arkhan, “obviously were going to this place of great evil…”

“Obviously,” the rogue whispered.

“Why is she dancing?” the leader centaur asked curiously.

Rivva turned her attention back to the centaurs, “because she has a dance in her heart,” she tossed in hastily. Arik was trying to cover the awkward, but it was hard in ancient Skald.

Rivva continued. “If we want to settle here, would you be open to a friendship, like you had with our predecessors?”

Arkhan sensed some hesitance, and quickly added, “I’m getting a vibe from you guys that – no judgement here – you’ve been burned before. You have stories to tell. Our scribe here, Rivva, she has so many books, and me – I’m a collector of stories. I’d love to hear the story that has hardened your hearts to newcomers.” His feather imitated his courteous finishing bow.

At length, after quiet consideration, the leader centaur said, “we Kharemon of the Tyndareos tribe,” he motioned behind him, “typically feel indebted to you people of the south – the newcomers to our land. However, you’ve caught us at a dark time.”

Arkhan wanted to riff here, and interjected, “speaking of stirred up evils, we passed by the aforementioned burial site, is that part of your troubles?”

“Indeed,” he replied, gravely. “Our aspirant lunar oracle cannot attain her rightful place in our tribe while the site is inaccessible to us. The Moon Mother will not visit her, and her time wanes. It will be a tremendous blow to us if the Moon Mother doesn’t return here before the full moon rises again.”

“We can fix that,” Ash assured him confidently.

The centaur – Kharemon, he called their race – looked grateful, and bowed his head to them. “I am Arataos. Come, meet Phylonoe – the aspirant lunar oracle, and future guide of our tribe here on the Moonwell Plain.” He beckoned them to join their people around the shore of the Moonwell – the silvery lake they’d seen from the hilltop that morning.

The Kharemon of the Tyndareos tribe lived among a few dozen mammoth-hide huts, as has been said. About the camp, the hundred-plus tribals were busy with their simple lives, only disrupted by the curiosity of newcomers.

On the shore of the lake, one of the Kharemon stood out. All of their fur coloration seemed to be of a similar tan-beige color, but this one young female was wholly white-furred. Most were decorated with red paste, with bright stripes across their faces and chests, but this one was unadorned.

Phylonoe sat amid a circle of Kharemon young, and as the party approached, Arik translated her telling a story that sounded like oral tradition. She smiled at them peacefully as they approached, pausing her oration. Rivva beckoned her to continue, and they listened as Arik translated.

They learned that the Kharemon tribes of the plains once numbered 10, but that the Tyndareos tribe was the only one that remained. Once, the 10 tribes were enslaved by the cyclops empire of Ikarios, who ruled from their white-columned temples amid the mountains to the east. The cyclopes’ ally Caragthax was a great linnorm, a type of dragon, that aided them.

The ancient Tyndareos tribe worshipped the moon. At the center of the Moonwell was a stone from the moon that gave the pool a silvery sheen. When the full moon was reflected on its waters, the Moon Mother – an ancient lunar dragon – heard the plight of the lunar oracle Khrysodora and came to them. She wove great protective magics around the Tyndareos tribe, so that the cyclopes and their linnorm ally would be blinded by the silvery light of the Moonwell and any who were immersed in its waters.

The cyclopes were enraged when they learned this, and they and Caragthax the linnorm made war upon the 10 Kharemon tribes of the plains. Only the Tyndareos tribe remained, protected by the Moonwell’s magic, and a cold war ensued.

Then the Tuathi came to their lands aboard their longboats, great golden-haired warriors, and they befriended the Tyndareos tribe in ancient days. Together, with the great hero Tuath riding Khrysodora the lunar oracle, they charged up the slopes of the Ikarios mountains to overthrow the evil Ikarios cyclops empire.

Tuath and Khrysodora slew the great linnorm Caragthax atop his mountain, where his bones still shine in the moonlight, and the bones of the fallen cyclopes are heaped about his as a testament of the fearsome alliance between Tuath and the Tyndareos tribe. Tuath was crowned linnorm king of his people, thereafter known as the Tuathi, and until their kingdom fell, there was friendship between they and the Tyndareos tribe.

Phylonoe ended her story, though her face betrayed that there was more, perhaps a darker ending for Tuath and his followers. They did not press the issue.

Kiera was staring into her reflection in the Moonwell. She nudged Ash, “do you see that?” she asked, pointing at her reflection.

Ash did see it – on each of their foreheads they could see a glowing Skald rune, but looking to one another, they confirmed that it appeared in reflection only. They didn’t mention it to the Kharemon about them, unsure of its meaning as they were.

Arkhan and RIvva now noticed the glowing runes, having tuned into Ash and Kiera’s conversation. Arkhan recalled their night of drinking and revelry among the Apians after returning their hero, Graythark to his tomb far to the south. Rivva, being somewhat paranoid, had foregone the drink, which was a requirement to receive the blessing of the Tuathi. Her forehead did not reflect the rune.

“See,” Arkhan said, slapping her on the back playfully, “you don’t learn everything in a library… some things must be learned at the bottom of a bottle.” He grinned.

Phylonoe introduced herself properly to them when she had dismissed her young attendants. She was calm and pleasant, and only slightly older than the children she taught. “Welcome,” she said.

They spoke with her about her people, the Kharemon, and their history. Rivva learned that these Kharemon were natives of Kar-Kaurin, with a lengthy oral tradition of the doings of their ancestors. She learned that those people known as the Reavers were once good-natured and peaceable before they turned rapacious and bloodthirsty.

They also learned of the present-day troubles of the Tyndareos tribe. Phylonoe was destined to become the next lunar oracle – the previous oracle having been taken to the ‘other side of the Moonwell’ by the Moon Mother several years ago. They believed that as long as the burial site of the great Khrysodora was desecrated, the Moon Mother would not return to baptize her, naming her the tribe’s lunar oracle.

To further complicate matters, if she was not baptized by her 14th birthday, the Moon Mother would not come, and the tribe would be without guidance or protection for a generation. By their calculations, she had about 11 days until the full moon rose over the plains. After that it would be too late.

“You are all invited to stay with us, if you wish,” Phylonoe said. “We do not fear you – Arataos has deemed you good people.” They wondered about the judgement of these people, but figured that they averaged out to be good enough.

Keira said, “we could undo the curse for you. We’re in the market for new friends, and it seems like this business is right up our alley.” She wondered if the phrase would translate to these more primitive people.

They stayed the night, and Ash helped them with their crafting endeavors. They were impressed by the elf’s skill, and by his sense of community. Rivva studied the Moonwell, attempting to decipher the source of magic that it radiated. It seemed to come from deep within the water, something at the lake’s deepest point. It looked like a meteor crater in shape, she thought, and wondered if its progenitor could in fact be a small rock from the moon.

As she gazed into the Moonwell, she saw the Moon Mother – a great silvery-white dragon – reflected in its surface. When she asked Phylonoe about it, the aspirant explained that it was the reflection of the Moon Mother on the ‘other side,’ but this last was somewhat cryptic.

Gozran 6th, 4711 A.R. (Wealday)
Hex 16.14 Moonwell – Hex 17.15 – Kharemon Burial Site – Travel
Colder than normal, light wind

The next morning, they began packing up, geared for combat against the undead.

They invited Arataos and his fighters to join them, but the big Kharemon explained that they could not see in the vicinity of the site – when they approached too closely, a blindness would afflict them.

“It is the result of a curse placed by one of them who survived, the evil one who dwells in the evil place,” Arataos explained. “Even as our Moonwell’s power blinds our enemies, this twisted power is a cursed mockery of our blessing, bestowed by the Moon Mother on our people.”

“Can we get a blessing to fight this evil?” Arkhan asked Phylonoe.

“I have no blessing to give until the Moon Mother comes and baptizes me as the tribe’s lunar oracle,” she lamented. “But you go with our good will, and we all stand behind you. Return safely,” she waved them off.

They returned to the standing stones, creeping up to the perimeter, and spreading out among the smaller monoliths about the periphery. A raven, or perhaps a crow, alighted upon the tallest central monolith, Khrysodora’s burial stone.

Ash approached, and one of the zombified Kharemon charged him with a braced spear… it was fast, not lumbering and clumsy like a typical zombie. The other two took notice, and lowered their spears in kind. Ash deflected the spear-point with his elven blade, while another circled around behind him.

Rivva stepped out from behind a stone and joined the battle with Ash, slashing her rapier through the dead flesh of his attacker. Arkhan moved behind it to outflank, avoiding a kick but spending too much focus on that to land his own cut.

Keira ran into the fray, and laying her hands on Rivva, the magus began radiating a pure light that the zombie Kharemon recoiled from. Ash took the cue and channeled positive energy, blasting evil flesh from unholy corpses.

Arkhan was the target of the third Kharemon’s charge – the rogue felt the blast of the spear tip pierce his chest that seared with pain. Ash took a spear to the shoulder from another. They were all a mass of blades, spears and hooves now. Ash took another hoof, and it seemed that the party was losing ground.

Rivva launched an electrified barrage of sword cuts against one that flayed flesh from its bones, and drove it back – she pressed the advantage and her sword sang as it whirled. Arkhan ducked around behind it, and dealt it a slash to the gut that spilt entrails on the ground about them. The zombie was falling apart without seeming concerned.

Keira began summoning positive energy to heal her companions, hoping to give them the longevity to finish this fight. Ash pointed at a spot behind and between two of their foes, and a red, glowing bead flew from his fingertip, impacted, and blasted the area with explosive fire, melting away zombie flesh.

One zombie Kharemon cornered Arkhan, and rained hooves and fists down upon him, though he nimbly dodged them all. Rivva rushed at another, dodging a spear point to plunge her electrified blade into its head, twisting as lightning flashed from its eye sockets and mouth. It collapsed in a heap in front of her.

Arkhan dipped his blade, then whirled it upward skewering his foe with his blade point protruding from its skull. It also crumbled. Only one remained, but they knew it would fight on no matter its odds.

Ash and Keira channeled positive energy, blasting the third into a heap of dust, and at last all was quiet, their foes defeated. Rivva eyeballed the raven that sat watching them from atop Khrysodora’s burial stone. She pointed at it and pelted it with a ray of cold that caused it to squawk angrily and fly away to the northeast…

At the base of the great central stone was a statue, carved in a similar fashion to those of the ancient Tuathi sites, of a female Kharemon. Presumably it was of Khrysodora, and its head had been lopped off… it rested on the ground nearby.

Keira and Ash spent their healing magics to restore the wounded. As they searched the area, they noted an evil glyph carved upon the highest point of Khrysodora’s stone – it was the symbol of an eye. Ash opened his palm and a flame appeared upon it. Believing the rune to be the source of evil here, he sent the flame flying toward the eye, creating a black blemish where it struck.

The glyph animated, and the eye turned to focus on Ash. The elf immediately – almost reflexively – began chanting a divine incantation to remove the curse. As the eye widened and Ash finished, he waved a hand in front of him in a motion similar to one clearing a fogged window pane. The eye glyph vanished as he did so.

“I need to pray for a mending spell,” Ash lamented. “We need to restore that statue to finish this business.”

They returned to the Moonwell to update the Tyndareos tribe. There was much rejoicing among the Kharemon, and they were eager to see the site with their own eyes. The party returned to the burial site with some of them, riding on the backs of the Kharemon like the Tuathi of old. Arataos bore Arkhan, as requested. Rivva didn’t judge.

Satisfied, they returned to the Moonwell. They stayed another night with the uplifted Tyndareos tribe, and planned to return the following day to the Burial site to restore Khrysodora’s head.

Gozran 7th, 4711 A.R. (Oathday)
Hex 16.14 Moonwell – Hex 17.15 – Kharemon Burial Site – Travel
Colder than normal, light wind, fog

The statue was mended, and the deed was done. Phylonoe would be visited by the Moon Mother, and would receive her baptism in time. The party felt like they’d made some new friends, and they enjoyed the company of the simple but noble Kharemon.

Eventually, the tribe noticed the Tuathi symbols upon most of their foreheads reflected in the Moonwell, and wondered why they hadn’t pointed it out sooner – if they’d have known they were in the presence of the Tuathi, they would have received them more openly.

“We wanted you to like us for us,” Arkhan said, convincingly. Arataos and the warriors of the tribe bowed before those with the Tuathi markings, naming them brothers and sisters.

When they were alone, Arkhan leaned in and said to Rivva, “ready to hit that mountain now?”

She shook her head and said, “settlement first.” He shrugged and went to see what Rusty was up to. The Halfling chef was busy bottling Moonwell water, hoping that its magical properties would ferment well.

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Mouth of Doom pt. 2
Wealdays

Pharast 4th, 4711 A.R., Fireday
Hex 15.28, Mouth of Doom
Rainy, moderate

Jade, Kryfir, Chem and Argento had reached a dead end – or so they thought. Kryfir ran his hands carefully along the stones of the wall, and found that an entire section swung on a hinge. He pushed the secret door open and they entered the next room. Garion, Andronitus, Bellabee, Rana and Accolon were catching up, busy exploring behind them.

Jade entered the room carefully. It was an empty chamber with passages leading north and south. The north passage was closer, so she peered around the corner, and something moved, lashing out at her. A gelatinous cube lunged toward her, filling the 10-foot wide north corridor. The nimble monk sprang backward, almost knocking over Kryfir who was following close behind her.

The Oread monk launched a barrage of unarmed strikes at the cuboid ooze, causing membranes to rupture inside it. Chem started quickly mixing reagents as she saw what they faced. She thought she could neutralize the acidic attacks of the ooze if given enough time. Argento was just behind her.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Antacid,” she replied flatly; she didn’t want to get distracted. She held it up, and entered the room behind Kryfir, ready to toss her admixture.

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“It’s probably not going to work,” he shook his head, and stabbed the ooze with his ghost touch shortsword. Clear jelly leaked out of the wound.

Kryfire nocked and loosed several arrows in rapid succession that pierced through the cube. It sputtered and began losing its shape, disintegrating into a slimy, quickly expanding puddle.

Chem put her concoction away, shaking her head in disappointment.

The remains of the gelatinous cube’s previous meals revealed themselves as its clear viscera oozed into the cracks between the floor’s flagstones. A suit of chainmail armor, some coins, a skeleton, a purple gem, a spearhead and a handful of arrows were among the remains.

Chem handed their bag of holding to Kryfir, who scooped up the armor and arrows, coins and gem, which went inside. Argento pocketed the spear head. Chem frantically scooped gelatinous stuff into test tubes before it all leaked away.

Rana caught up to them. Accolon, Andronitus and Bellabee retired to the entrance to stand watch. Chem sent pinky down the long southern hall to scout. The little rat scampered back shortly after, looking panicked.

“Skeletons! Lots of skeletons!” he squeaked as he scampered back to her, circling her nervously. Chem drank a shield extract. She moved ahead a bit, cautiously. Her helmet candle faintly illumined a wall to her right that was riddled with fossilized skeletons, frozen in time.

Argento shot one with an arrow, just to see what would happen. It plinked off a stone skull and fell to the ground. He ‘hrm’d.’

To the right there was another chamber, past the wall, through an open archway. Every wall inside that room was likewise covered in fossilized skeletons.

Rana brandished her scythe and entered. She felt a rush of energy as the walls suddenly started disgorging skeletons into the room, no longer fossilized. They clattered to the floor as piles of bones, and slowly started re-forming in a horrific scene. At the same time, a stone slab fell from over the entrance archway, and crashed to the floor with a boom. Rana was sealed inside. The skeletons started to surround her, and also began bleeding, covering their bones and the floor in sticky crimson.

Chem quickly fused a bomb, told the others to stand back, and tossed it at the sealed portal. Some debris showered them, but the stone slab remained.

Kryfir found a notch in the floor under the stone that they could lift from. Jade squatted in front of it, and lifted, straining her whole stony body in an attempt to raise the slab.

Inside, Rana growled, eyes blazing and scythe red-hot. She planted her feet and swung her scythe in mighty arcs, splintering one skeleton, sending bones flying toward the far wall. The ones behind her raked at her with sharp, cold bloody claws.

Jade had lifted the door enough for them to squat down and peek underneath. They heard Rana growling and raging, saw her swinging her scythe powerfully.

“We’re coming!” Chem assured her.

Garion huffed as his short legs carried him toward the commotion. He saw Jade straining to open the stone portal. She had her back to it, and her thighs were straining hard. The cleric prayed, and imbued her with the strength of Angraadd. They heard Rana howl in pain from inside the room.

Kryfir nocked an arrow and aimed it at the portal, waiting for a shot. Jade was bolstered with new strength, and began slowly raising it, sweat covering her. Inside, Rana smashed two more, yelling in rage as the smashed, bloody bones hit the walls. Jade had the door up, Kryfir sent two arrows into the mix of bones.

Chem tossed a positive-energy infused bomb into the midst of them, a flash of pure light that was anathema to the undead. Four of them disintegrated at Rana’s feet. Garion channeled his god’s healing energies to turn the last two to dust. Everything was quiet, except for the sound of Rana and Jade breathing hard. The walls of the room looked like there were never any skeletons there at all. Chem tapped her with her healing wand, reducing the claw marks on her back to sealed scars.

Turning left revealed a short passage leading north that terminated at a closed door. In front of it sat a pair of boots and a single glove. Jade cautiously inspected them, and the door. It was covered with some kind of sticky substance, she determined. Chem poked around at it a bit, and confirmed that it was sovereign glue – it formed an almost unbreakable bond with anything that touched it.

Jade kicked the door in, and it flew open. Inside the small room was a chest sitting up against the far wall, and a skeletal hand beside it. It looked as if it had been sawn off at the wrist.

Kryfir pulled out his bedroll and began slicing it up, as they believed the glue also coated the floor. He tossed it out as a welcoming mat so they could reach the chest safely. Kryfir checked it out, it seemed to be bolted to the floor but untrapped. He opened it – it was full of coins. Several hundred were dumped into the bag of holding – 501 precisely; all gold, with one silver piece. Kryfir pocketed the latter, just in case.

They returned to the entrance room via the portcullis alcove. Argento spiked the pit trap so they could pass unhindered. As they walked past the northernmost door – the only alcove undecorated by iconography – a magic mouth appeared in the blank space. It intoned a tired warning about the dangers of entering this place, ‘Rappan Athuk,’ it said – the ‘Dungeon of Graves.’

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They moved along single file to the eastern wall. There were two alcoves on that wall – one they had already probed, and another that Argento learned didn’t lead anywhere. The door handle was the trigger for a pit trap. They prepared to delve into the eastern side of the complex.

Argento heard something coming from behind the north door. A shadowy black demonic figure passed through it. Garion was surprised as it moved straight past him, muttering something in Abyssal. It seemed very much at home, and barely gave them a second glance as it moved to the portcullis archway and began resetting the trap that Argento had disabled.

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Garion had an idea about what this Invidiak demon could do to them, and he politely walked the other direction as it went about its business. They all shot each other confused and concerned (and some amused) glances, but they continued on with an unspoken ‘agree to disagree’ arrangement with the shadow demon.

They traversed the eastern passage, and turned north at a 4-way intersection. It continued north for about 20 feet, then terminated in a dead end, with doors leading east and west. Jade moved up to inspect them, and barely avoided a pit trap that opened under her feet at the threshold. She wasn’t worried though – the shadow demon would put it back. Argento moved up and spiked the pit closed so they could walk on it.

He opened the east-facing door, revealing a smallish square room, lit by a few candles. Four reavers stood around inside, weapons drawn.

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Ghoulish Revelations
Ayuku Solo (featuring Dekhar and D-Dog)

Pharast the 16th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, moderate, light wind

There was a feast in their honor in Wolverton that night. Lord Kendrick was high on another victory engineered by his prime mover, Ayuku. The nobles of Wolverton and some influential merchants were invited, along with other noteworthy citizens favored by the crown. A dire boar was carved and devoured, and mead and ale were spilt as they celebrated in the great hall of Caer Syllan.

The old campaigner, and lord of the Lonely Coast pulled Ayuku up to the head of the table with him, and addressed the courtesans. “Here is a true hero of Wolverton!” He raised his goblet, and with a gusto cheered, “Wolverton honors Ayuku of Taldor, for his courageous deeds in her service, cheers!”

Glasses clinked and cheers erupted from the gathered revelers. When they had drunk and finished congratulating the Tien, he was given pause for comment.

“I would like to recognize Sir Tonlor, for his bravery and loyalty to Wolverton, during the action with the Broken Arrows and in aiding my efforts to clean up the villainy lurking beneath the surface of this town. After all, he led the charge up the hill to root out the remnants of our defeated enemy,” he recounted.

Kendrick nodded, his great beard wagging an assent. “Indeed, I do recognize the bravery of such a man. Sir Faight, stand,” he said in a commanding voice. Tonlor stood. “Sir Tonlor Faight,” he drew his sword (which was never far from him), “I name thee Sir Tonlor Faight, Knight of the Realm.” Tonlor took a knee, and bowed his head. There was an eruption of applause.

After the ceremony, congratulations were extended to Ayuku, Dekhar, Tonlor and Margaret. The latter was formally pardoned. D-Dog was given a medal to decorate his parade armor.

Gordan wasn’t done with them though; he seemed only to be tolerating the party in order to get to his business afterward. He summoned Ayuku to his office when the fire had burned to embers and the guests were taking their leave. D-Dog was content to gnaw at dire bones nearby while Dekhar reclined and Ayuku left he and Sir Tonlor to enjoy their wins.

The steward closed the door behind him, and looking over his glasses, he said, “You’re forming an elite group to root out threats to the crown, I’m told. It seems you’ve made good use of your time of late.” He bowed slightly, which Ayuku returned in kind.

“But now you’re recognized as a ‘hero of Wolverton,’ aren’t you afraid that it paints a target on your back?” the steward asked.

“I welcome the title,” the Tien replied, “It is quite an honor, and I do not fear our enemies.”

The steward nodded, satisfied. “There is also the matter of Beren Skewes. Hols told me about his ravings, which he endured at length. I wonder if Lord Kendrick will buy into it? What do you think?”

“I have seen many things more wretched than what the man has described, I’m afraid,” Ayuku said. “I fear he is telling the truth, that there is some evil power manipulating the fate of the Lonely Coast. We shall see – I will investigate further.”

“We lost men in the sea tunnels under Skewes’s warehouse. I feel a sense of growing dread, like an undercurrent that rots at the core of our society. Even with all the successes we’ve had of late, I fear it only serves to misdirect our attention from the true threat,” Gordan said in a hushed tone, almost as if to himself.

Ayuku paused, watching the man intently. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, and then took his leave.

Back at the Hare & Ass, the familiar haunt that had become their home in Wolverton, they retired at a late hour. Ayuku had fitful dreams at first, then they became a nightmare. He was in a black hole, underground he thought. Shadows moved about him. One emerged, a woman’s shadow.

“You left me to DIE,” she whispered – an accusation, leveled at him. He was transfixed, he couldn’t move as she approached. “You’ll never sleep again,” she said.

Other shadows appeared, whispering together, “Skinsaw Man, only a whisper…” he knew the rest. In his dream he began running from them, released from his paralysis. He awoke in a cold sweat, back in his bed at the H&A.

In his room, it smelled like an open grave. A figure stood over his bed – it was Senaria, alive. The older woman smiled at him, and reached for him. As she did, her visage changed. He skin turned ashen purple, her teeth elongated, and a long purple tongue lashed out of her open mouth. She was wearing a symbol around her neck – the unholy symbol of the Skinsaw Man, father of murder.

Ayuku rolled out of bed to the opposite side, his heart racing, blood pounding in his ears. He went invisible, and pulled twin wakizashis as he stood, facing the abominable thing. He stabbed at it, piercing its midsection.

Dekhar pushed his door open, having smelled the ghoul even before Ayuku awoke. “Why does it smell like…” he saw the ghoul and pulled his sword. D-Dog rushed past him, leaping over the bed, leading with claws and teeth. He decided against biting it, and instead raked two slashes along the ghoul’s chest and kicked off to land skidding to the floor.

The ghoul lashed out with its claws at the raptor, opening ragged slashes on his back. He hissed. The thing reeked, and it stung their noses and eyes.

Dekhar kicked Maverick’s door to wake him – the big man was startled awake, and he crashed heavily to the floor. D-Dog continued the fight, desperately biting and slashing at the undead fiend. He bit a chunk of dead flesh from the thing’s leg, his senses overpowered by its stench. The ghoul laughed, feeling no pain, and bit the raptor in return, slashing with claws and teeth. Dekhar rushed to his side as D-Dog went unconscious.

The Raven and Tonlor appeared in the hallway across from Ayuku’s room. Seeing the commotion they rushed to aid their companions. Ayuku slashed at the ghoul with his wakizashi, cutting through hard sinew and muscle. Dekhar pulled D-Dog out of the fray.

Tonlor rushed at it, but his sword was deflected by a quick thrust of its arm, and it bit into his unprotected neck. The knight got the smell of the thing and nearly wretched while its teeth were still buried in him. A crossbow bolt from the Raven’s hand crossbow struck its shoulder, causing it to lose its hold. Its teeth were bloody and its tongue lashed about like a whip.

Tonlor brought his blade down on its shoulder, and it buckled a bit. Ayuku followed up with two keen-edged slashes that tore into its core. The ghoul disintegrated into a black mist – but it never stopped smiling – or looking – at Ayuku. He knew it would be back.

He turned to the Raven. “Go to the church of Iomedae,” he barked, “bring a cleric with you!” She nodded, then leapt out the second story window, landing silently in the street below, and sped off into the darkness.

Ayuku, Dekhar and Sir Tonlor tended to the wounded as best they could while they waited. Margaret retuned with Melyor Vosper herself, and two of her acolytes. They prayed for the healing of the wounded; Iomedae’s power flowed into them and their wounds disappeared.

“Thank you for coming,” Ayuku said with a bow.

Melyor gave a stiff bow. She leaned on her sheathed longsword like a cane. “Describe what you saw,” she said.

Ayuku gave an account of his dream and the nightmare that awaited him when he awoke. Melyor’s brow furrowed.

“I had a dream also this night,” she said, turning to face to the open window. “It was of the miller in Swallowfeld. A black vapor surrounded him. I’ve lived long enough to know a portent when I see one, and there is evil about the man. It’s no coincidence that your dream and mine occurred on the same night.”

Ayuku nodded, cleaning his wakizashis. “Let us sleep on this, hopefully in peace this time.” Melyor blessed their rooms, then took her leave, her acolytes in tow.

Pharast 17th, 4711 A.R. (Oathday)
Hex 30.15 Wolverton – Hex 30.14 Swallowfeld
Cloudy, moderate, light wind

Their dreams did not trouble them that night, and they met together in a private corner of the tavern for breakfast. They were not refreshed when they awoke – Ayuku slept fitfully, despite the absence of further dreams.

The sword Gorum’s Tooth hung behind the bar, alongside the taxidermied head of a green forest drake that was labeled “Green Dragon,” and in smaller lettering under that: “brought to you by the Arkhan party.” Ayuku smiled to himself, and shook his head.

The Thunderhammer dwarves brought them a mighty breakfast – Ayuku and Dekhar had to explain what had happened to cause the commotion last night. The dwarves were glad they won out over the fiend that attacked them, and the breakfast feast was congratulatory. After eating, they talked.

Ayuku told them the story of the night they lost Senaria in the Skinsaw Man’s hidden shrine.

Tonlor said, “Was this woman your friend?”

“She was an ally, and sister-at-arms,” he replied.

“Do you feel the need to avenge her?” Tonlor continued.

“It has weighed heavily upon me these many weeks. Much has happened since then, I’m afraid I have been too preoccupied with other business to consider it,” Ayuku said.

“There’s also the matter of the tunnels under Skewes’s warehouse, I don’t think we can leave that stone unturned,” Tonlor said.

“We can’t be in two places at once,” Ayuku mused.

Tonlor nodded. The Raven looked disinterested, and Dekhar just listened. D-Dog was lying belly-up by the fire, legs akimbo, and snoring after gorging himself.

“I fear for your safety. We can’t fight this thing every night – if it makes good on its promise. If you can’t sleep, you aren’t any good to Wolverton. I say we go to Swallowfeld and investigate the miller,” Tonlor said resolutely.

They packed up and headed out, but first stopped at the Justice of the Light temple of Iomedae. D-Dog had contracted something from the ghoul attack, he had pox, a fever, chills and rickety joints. The attending priestess cured him, and they waited to speak with Melyor. She adjourned court early to see them before they left for Swallowfeld.

She approached them in the vestibule – they heard her before they saw her, as the rhythmic tapping of her sword on the stone floor gave her away.

“Welcome, I see you’re packed and ready for a journey. Headed for Swallowfeld?” she asked.

“We are. Our other business will have to wait, we’ll investigate your miller first,” Ayuku said. “Can you offer us any aid? We fight an evil that Iomedae opposes, after all. And we aren’t clerics.”

“And yet you’ve been chosen, if I read the signs rightly,” the woman countered, steely-eyed.

“I will not lose any more companions to this Skinsaw Man,” Ayuku challenged. Her eyes darkened at the mention of his name. “Give us aid, cleric!”

Melyor shook her head and looked away. “No, it’s too dangerous. I won’t risk any of my people. You say you have lost an ally to the forces of evil? Well, you look upon one who has lost many. I won’t send anyone, but if you get any volunteers, I won’t stop them.”

Ayuku said nothing to her, but went straightaway to the antechamber where the acolytes were tending to the wounded and sick citizens of Wolverton.

“Servants of Iomedae,” he began, “I am Ayuku. I seek your aid to fight unholy evil. Weeks ago, I and my party found ourselves beleaguered by undead shadows in a desecrated temple of Father Skinsaw. We lost a friend and ally, a champion against evil, a great woman. Last night a fiend visited me in my dreams, then appeared by my bedside in her guise, mocking her and dishonoring her death.”

He paused to let this sink in. The acolytes and the infirmed alike had quieted, and all eyes were on him. “It seems this force of evil grows in our lands. I have left it unchecked, pursuing the safety of Wolverton instead. Now it is time to cleanse the Lonely Coast of the evils of the Skinsaw cult once and for all. I need holy men and women who serve the forces of good to combat this evil. Any who volunteer will be rewarded handsomely for service rendered in the fight against the god of murder.” He bowed and he and his companions left them.

They waited outside the temple, talking about their plans. An oread man in white robes appeared, his skin stony and reflective like granite. He approached Ayuku and bowed.

“I offer my sword to you, lord,” he said, holding his longsword up and kneeling before Ayuku.

“I gratefully accept,” the Tien said, motioning for the man to rise. The oread cleric looked sincere, and a little afraid.

They rode for Swallowfeld, leaving the palisade of Wolverton and taking the Cliffway west, along the muddy, well-traveled road. They were greeted by the common folk – farmers and traders, and saluted by the highway guard as they passed.

Sevanna was quiet for most of the trip, but at one point he rode up beside Ayuku to say, “I have to apologize for Melyor’s seeming indifference. She is a hard woman. She has seen much death in her day.”

“I do not hold it against her,” Ayuku said. He knew too well the effects of bloodshed on a person’s soul. His own inner darkness recognized hers.

As they descended toward the farm-village, they heard a deep rumble, and a noise of stones cascading and earth falling. The village was still distant, and what little they could see was quickly enveloped in what looked like a dense white fog.

They spurred their horses forward, and dismounted before they crossed the bridge that spanned Taran’s Run. The old mill was just on the other side, but they could see through the dense fog – it was flour from the mill – that the mill had collapsed into a sinkhole and the waterwheel hung down into it. The river had swollen from recent rains, and now it was swirling into the sinkhole. Half the mill had collapsed into it.

They heard screams and shapes moving in the cloud of flour. They approached the bridge, and saw three ghouls, which looked similar to the one they’d fought the previous night, dragging villagers toward the sinkhole.

Dekhar approached, reached toward them and closed his fist slowly and deliberately. The plants about the feet of the ghouls began grasping at them, preventing them from approaching the sinkhole. They hissed and cursed at the newcomers, and the three captive villagers began to fight back.

Ayuku, D-Dog, Tonlor, Margaret, Dekhar and Sevanna charged over the bridge, drawing weapons. The Raven loaded her hand crossbow, but found it hard to draw a bead on her targets through the flour cloud. They quickly found that they had to cover their faces to breathe in the slowly settling white plume.

Dekhar sent an arrow their way, but missed due to bad sighting. The ghouls had dropped the villagers, and fled down the sinkhole. The party let them go, and turned their attentions to the villagers. As the cloud settled, a crowd gathered.

They learned that this was the second collapse of the mill; the first occurred minutes before their arrival. The first wave of ghouls fought with watch Sergeant Feng and three men-at-arms. Jory Mayne was with them, but they were all captured and dragged below. As they listened, they could hear faint cries coming from the sinkhole.

They saw the river rushing into the hole, and wondered if it would fill, drowning the abducted villagers, or if there was an outlet somewhere. They heard faint cries for help coming from within. There was clearly a chamber below the mill. The waterwheel had dropped into it.. Under it was a pile of stone and wood rubble from the mill structure that had fallen into the sinkhole. The cries for help came from underneath the rubble, they realized – they might be able to get them out alive if they were careful.

They enlisted the help of two nearby strong-backed farmers to help them lift the waterwheel enough to remove some of the trapped victims. Sergeant Feng and two others were rescued.

“Jory is still down there,” the gruff man said, winded and clutching his ribs. “Several others too. Not sure who,” he said between labored breaths.

“We’ll get them back,” Ayuku promised.

They roped down to the exhumed chamber, picking their way down the rubble heap and avoiding the torrent of Taran’s Run River that swirled into its depths. They were in a square room, with two arches leading further in. Three evil-looking statues faced them. As they approached, light filtering down into the room – hazy with flour motes and water spray, the statues animated and attacked with marble swords.

D-Dog slashed at one, which promptly vanished. Tonlor’s blade rang against another, sending a spray of marble and chipping his sword. He frowned as the thing advanced on him. Ayuku fared no better – his blade was notched after his first assault.

They finished the statues off, trading cuts until only two piles of rubble remained and their wounds bled into the slowly rising water at their feet. Sevanna cured them with healing prayers, and they advanced into the left passage, as the water continued to rise around their feet.

View
Fenwater Weddings and a Goblin Funeral
Moondays

Pharast 29th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 22.18, Shadowscale Tribe to Hex 21.18 Thornhill to Hex 20.18 Thornhill Mine
Windy, Warmer than normal.

Arkhan, Arik and Rivva took turns slicing at the huge behemoth that blocked the cave mouth of the Thornhill iron mine. It was messy work, and the massive hippo smelled worse on the inside. Greta Thunderhammer poked around with her travel pickaxe at the back of the cave while they worked, and the others caught a nap.

“This ore vein runs deep,” Greta said at length, not noticing that no one was incredibly interested in her doings at the mineshaft’s terminus. The air was thick with hippo stench.

Arkhan raised an eyebrow. “Hmm?”

“If you are successful in your mission,” Greta said quietly, “we could turn this place into profit for the Lochars and Thunderhammers.”

When the hippo carcass had been moved outside the cave mouth, they hastily removed themselves from the fouled interior, and were glad for the wind and nearby lake shore where they could clean themselves and their gear.

They camped on the lake shore, upending the boat for makeshift shelter. The night passed quietly, their little fire warming them as they slept.

Pharast 30th, 4711 A.R. (Wealday)
Hex 20.18, Thornhill Mine to Hex 21.18 Thornhill
Clear, moderate, light wind

They rowed back to Thornhill, staying near the easterly bank of the Fenwater Lake. There was a slight current flowing southward with them that speeded their passage. Later that morning, the squalid island-village was in sight, and more viscerally, in smell; bluish plumes of smoke rose from behind the rickety palisade carrying the stench of smoking fish.

They landed their small borrowed craft at the dock, where they saw Boatman Nash putting the finishing touches on their two large, barge-like rafts. It was clear that he had disassembled a part of the palisade to form the bases of the two crafts; he had simply reinforced them with what materials he had available. They did not look seaworthy.

As they put in, lashing their small boat to the short, rickety pier, a crowd of the locals was gathering nearby. It parted as the stocky, red-headed and red-bearded, bare-chested reaver known as Khan stormed onto the scene. He was dragging an unconscious Paoula Sweets by the hair. He tossed her unceremoniously in the middle of the gathering and crossed his beefy arms across his chest, beard bristling. The party rushed onto the scene before Bor, Rustie, Josleen and Tarrien – their entourage – could intervene. Among those in the crowd, they spotted a tall, robed elf man, clearly a newcomer.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Arkhan and Keira both shouted, almost simultaneously as they pushed their way through the crowd to confront Khan.

Khan growled, and Boatman Nash quickly stepped in front of him – though carefully, they noticed. “Now, we got a situation here,” he said emphatically. “Yer friend tried to steal Khan’s ring last night – broke into his house and tried pryin’ it offa his finger,” he made a twisting gesture with his hands.

Rivva frowned and said, “So he hit her? Why?”

Kiera knelt beside the unconscious woman, and said a prayer of healing over her as she lay hands on her head. Paoula awoke suddenly, eyes struggling to focus. She groaned and sat up.

“Well, he’s a vet-ree-in, y’know… so he mighta just done it reflexive-like,” Boatman offered with a shrug. Khan nodded.

“Well, what does he expect, then?” Rivva asked, defiant.

“Recompensation,” Boatman replied, somewhat sheepishly, hoping it wouldn’t provoke these visitors.

Paoula stood up on shaky legs and dusted herself off. The crowd quieted. She faced Khan and said, “I admit it. I was trying to steal his ring. I was bored,” she shrugged, then crossed her arms loosely under her full bosom.

Rivva’s eyes adjusted themselves to the arcane spectrum, she scrutinized Khan’s ring – it was enchanted, she learned.

Arkhan smiled, cocked his head and said, “She’s just capricious, and, like she said – she got bored. Case closed.”

“Well, it ain’t quite that simple,” Boatman overemphasized. “For Khan to get his fair recompensation, she’ll have to marry him and have baby Khans,” he explained. Arkhan suppressed a laugh, while Rivva’s eyes got dangerous. Paoula looked like she was considering it, leering at Khan’s many bulges.

“I’ll do it,” Paoula interjected, a slight smile on her face. She locked eyes with Khan, who also smiled slightly. The party was shocked… and at the same time, it was Paoula, so not too shocked.

Some part of Arkhan’s brain registered the words ‘opportunity,’ and ‘swindle’ at roughly the same moment; “Dowry, my friends, is a longstanding tradition with Paoula’s people…” the words were coming as if second nature. “For a wedding to occur, we require recompensation for the bride.”

The Thornhill locals scratched their heads. Arkhan wore a ring of Culture Meld that he’d found in the Place of Meeting, it was helping. The tall elf stranger grinned and clapped his hands a bit.

“I love weddings,” he said, clearly excited that he’d happened to be here looking for spell components on such an occasion.

They summoned Zissren from his personal island within the hour, and the ceremony proceeded with alacrity. Everard the mage, the newcomer elf, provided dancing lights to the enjoyment of the crowd. The whole affair seemed highly informal, yet the townsfolk were purely enthusiastic about it. Zissren seemed annoyed, but was on his best behavior around these visitors, as he didn’t want them exposing his secret.

Zissren concluded the ceremony by blowing four times on both the bride and groom, then sent them on their way. Khan tossed Paoula over his shoulder and carried her off to his hut for nuptials. She seemed happy with the arrangement – though they suspected she wouldn’t be staying here long term.

Everard continued his dancing lights, and Arkhan and Keira provided musical entertainment. Everard blew on various villagers, and inadvertently married about seven young toothless maidens. The young ladies and gents of the village tried hard to get blown by Keira and Arkhan as they performed.

It would be talked about for some time to come in Thornhill. Later that day, Boatman Nash finished their rafts and they began loading up. It was time to negotiate for the price of the boats. Nash and Phuggit wanted half their trade goods in payment for the shoddy watercraft, but Arkhan counterd, invoking the dowry due him, and they settled for one quarter.

Everard got to know them, and being enamored of Keira and Arkhan’s performance, he asked to come along.

“I don’t have a bucket,” the elf said sarcastically, “I hope that’s not a problem.”

Arkhan chuckled. “We could use a light man anyway, for our shows.” Keira approved.

Everard was preoccupied with the sylph. “Why is she always looking at me funny,” he asked Akrhan. The rogue grinned knowingly, but shook his head and kept silent on the issue.

Greta approached Rivva and Arik as they were deciding on how best to load the boats. “I want to stay here until you come back. I want a better look at those mountains, I think we have a future here.”

Arik thought about for a second and replied, “Just don’t get married while you’re here – don’t blow anyone.” They shared a quiet laugh. Bor overheard this, and quickly volunteered to stay as well.

“Someone has to look after her, and you can’t load all the horses on those rafts anyway. I’ll stay with Greta, if she’ll have me.” His sincerity betrayed his true feelings – obviously he had grown fond of her in their travels together.

Keira looked at him with big glassy eyes and said, “Awwwwww….”

“… What?” Bor looked like he was somewhere between embarrassed and angry, and simultaneously trying to conceal any emotion at all. Rivva patted the big half-orc on the head, shaking hers.

It was settled, they loaded one raft with two horses, the mule-cart, their remaining trade goods and food. Arkhan, Josleen, Tarrien and Everard would pilot this one. On the second they loaded their trusty mule (Mule), the wagon (disassembled for transport), Ash, Arik, Rivva, Keira, Rustie and the tools and liquor.

Against advisement, they debarked that evening, not wanting to tarry any longer in this fishmonger’s hell. It was slowgoing, but they put a little distance between themselves and the palisaded island. The Fenwater yawned before them like a black portal under the fingernail moon, Somal.

Pharast 31st, 4711 A.R. (Oathday)
Hex 21.18, Thornhill – 20.17 Upper Fenwater Lake
Cloudy, moderate, light wind

They caught some shut-eye early that morning, then rowed through the calm of the day, putting miles behind them. Tall mountains continued to flank them on the left, and they thought they could see a dark line of hills on the horizon far ahead of them. They camped on shore that night.

Gozran 1st, 4711 A.R. (Fireday)
Hex 20.17 Upper Fenwater Lake – 19.17 Irori Shrine
Overcast, moderate, light wind

The shore loomed ahead as they rowed on. Giant Gatorcrocs attacked the rafts that morning. Arik saved the mule on his raft from going under during the commotion, and Tarrien saved one of the horses on the other. Kiera went overboard; she summoned a celestial shark to save herself – she dismounted it to return to the raft while it feasted on Giant Gatorcrocs before it returned to its home plane. None of their provisions were harmed in the process, as Arik used his polearm to fish out a crate that tried to drift away.

The rest of their day consisted of uneventful rowing, and the hills became visible at evening. They debarked and unloaded on the shore, set up camp in the dark and slept soundly in the nearly moonless night.

Gozran 2nd, 4711 A.R. (Starday)
Hex 19.17 Irori Shrine – Explore
Clear, moderate, Light wind

The land rose quickly from the lake shore and the marshes to the south. The chalky white hills of sediment were tall and rotund, with wide grassy valleys running between them, and streams running from the mountains to the east. Predatory birds winged overhead, and small possum-like creatures scampered amid the grasses.

There was no trail to lead them on. They resorted to investigation and tracking to find the route taken by Maegar Varn’s expedition, which launched three years ago. Everard looked high and low, taking in the flora and fauna, and lay of the land. At length, he pointed to the birds overhead.

“I believe those birds have feathers, beaks, sharp talons, and possibly teeth,” he proclaimed, nodding and folding his hands into his robe sleeves. They couldn’t tell if he was joking.

They spent the morning reconstructing the wagon that they’d disassembled for lake-travel, and harnessing and tending to the animals. They split up to canvass the area. After an hour of searching, Evard signaled to a spot on a low hill. They convened there, and he showed them evidence of a campsite – Kiera thought it would be about 3 years old given its overgrown state. That would mean it could have belonged to the Varn expedition. They searched in the vicinity and turned up other signs – discarded whetstones, broken wagon wheels, etc. They were on the right track.

They wound north through the valleys, following a shallow stream. Rivva spotted a juvenile short-haired mammoth, pulling at plants growing on the far side of a stream. It looked lost.

“We need to save it!” RIvva said excitedly. “I’ve never seen this species before.”

Arkhan cocked his head and said, “The poor thing is alone… who knows how to talk mammoth?” He raised his hand to request a show of hands. Arik raised his hand, then lowered it.

“I want to hug it,” Arik confessed. “Just look at it – it’s adorable. Have you ever hugged a woolly mammoth?”

“Metaphorically?” Keira asked, confused.

“NOT metaphorically,” Arik corrected.

“Let’s go, we can’t really do anything for it,” Rivva said, half hoping someone would convince her otherwise.

Arik got sulky. “Fine,” he said and stormed to the point position.

They tracked bits of cast off detritus left by the original expedition, through grass-grown valleys, always heading northwest.

As if from nowhere, they spotted a lone goblin rushing down a hill slope to their left, barreling toward them. Arkhan moved to the head of the party, and said, in Goblin, “Hello, little one.” The goblin stopped at about a hundred paces, and bowed. Arkhan casually half-bowed in return.

Arik stood beside him and said, “You owe him half a bow.”

Keira waved at it. This was getting awkward, she thought. “Hello!” She called, in Taldane. It bowed to her, and she returned it in kind. The goblin said nothing.

The goblin rushed toward them at unnaturally high speed. They drew weapons and prepared. It wielded no weapons, what could it do to them? It charged at Rivva, launching a flying kick at her midsection. It caught her off guard, and she doubled over from the force of it.

She recovered quickly, and her eyes and rapier charged with crackling energy. Her blade slashed about, slicing the agile goblin and discharging a flash of powerful lightning that made it seize in shock.

Arkhan moved to flank it, and his blade flashed across its forehead, opening a cut that began bleeding into its eyes. Arik brought his Lucerne hammer overhead, but it slammed forcefully into the ground near the goblin as it sidestepped.

Evard began chanting and gesticulating, hands outstretched. Rivva wondered why the elf was waving his hands around instead of fighting. Keira began a spell of inspiration, causing a surge of confidence to bolster Rivva.

The goblin was hurt, but not down. It fought on methodically, wiping blood from its eyes. It swung its leg in a low arc, catching Arkhan off guard and knocking him to the ground. It followed up seamlessly with a stomp to the rogue’s favorite groin, which really, really angered him.

The goblin continued to spin, throwing punches and kicks, elbows and knees in a dizzying display. Rivva took a tiny hammer fist to the temple, causing her to see stars, and Arik got a rear kick to the abdomen that stole his breath and dented his armor.

Arkhan stood up, safely out of range of the little dervish-goblin, grabbed a potion from his bandolier and dumped it on his wounded groin. “Ahhhhhhhh…” he moaned. Instant relief. He had dumped healing potions on his groin in the past… for other reasons.

Arik stepped back and simultaneously brought his pole-hammer down on the goblin’s gourd-like head. The small creature crumpled, falling to a heap at their feet. Keira brought her glaive down on its tiny neck, severing its head and ending it for good. She prayed for healing, and her companions’ wounds closed.

The fighters heard a scuttling behind them… Everard was riding around on a giant spider for a few seconds, then it disappeared and he fell to the ground. They shared a bemused, concerned look.

Everard and Rivva spent some time despoiling their dead foe. It was well equipped… boots of speed, amulet of mighty fists, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, and belt of physical might: all of it too small to be used without looking ridiculous.

Up the hill, they found its residence: a small, well-tended shrine to Irori, the smiling philosopher-god. An unmarked grave was the only other feature, though it was clear that the goblin lived here. Hidden within the shrine they found a book, Unbinding the Fetters, a treatise well known in the church of Irori. The scene was peaceful, and it seemed to extend to the valley below; a good place to rest. They buried the body of their challenger on the hilltop, so as not to anger the god.

Gozran 3rd, 4711 A.R. (Sunday)
Hex 19.17 Vineyard, Explore
Windy, moderatre

They continued following signs of the expedition’s passage to the northwest the next day. Arik spotted a reflective glint as if something metallic stood on a hilltop to the west. Everard sent his owl to investigate, but the light reflected from it was too bright, and he returned quickly, squinting painfully.

They ascended the slope, and as they crested the rise, they witnessed a large metal statue standing at the intersection of four vineyard plots. They were divided from one another by paths, and the rearmost abutted another steep cliff, into which was set a stair that ascended to a cave mouth. All about the worked-stone cave mouth were runic letters, which none could decipher.

As they began to approach, Everard said, “Wait. That’s not a statue, it’s an iron golem, and we don’t want to piss it off.” They hesitated, looking from one to another skeptically. He went on to describe how they were immune to most magic, and resisted most physical attacks with ease.

“There’s something magical about this place. The soil isn’t right for these grapes to grow here… I suspect some font of magic power coming from the earth, or a crossing of ley lines,” Everard explained.

Keira shrugged. “I’ll bet I can get it to talk,” she said, and began to start a conversation with it. It stayed still for a bit, then bent its head to look at her, and finally returned to its resting position.

Rivva sent Ry, her ioun wyrd familiar to fly around behind the hilltop. It quietly floated into the cave without the golem noticing, and returned shortly after to Rivva’s side, the same way that it came. The two communicated briefly in their indecipherable language.

“There are 23 steps leading down from the cave mouth, and then a small circular stone chamber with no exits. There are six bottles of wine or somesuch stored within niches cut into the wall,” Rivva translated.

Rustie’s ears perked up, and he ran up to Rivva, looking up at her with a frenzied expression. “We have to get that wine… that’s magic wine,” he pleaded. His excited expression dropped by degrees as no answer came.

They moved on. There was no sign of the owner of the vineyard, and they could not recall any information overheard or studied that would solve the mystery. The iron golem was too powerful a guardian, they thought, and continued their trek.

Gozran 4th, 4711 A.R. (Moonday)
Hex 17.16 Hills – Explore
Overcast, moderate, light wind

They pressed on to the northwest. The hills gave way to a wide golden plain. From their hilltop vantage point, they watched a while, and took in the scene. On the plains below, they observed a herd of short-haired mastodons. Later, a dire tiger was hunted down by a cohort of centaurs. If the Varn expedition came this way, surely they must have information on their whereabouts…

View
Mouth of Doom
Wealdays

Calistril 28th, 4711 A.R., Moonday
Hex 25.29, Monastery of St. Kyerixus
Clear, cold, light wind

The sun was rising over the bay, the sky was clear and Argento was in the belltower of the monastery when he spotted the warship on the horizon. It was from Wolverton, he’d seen it in the port there. He watched as it approached the monastery, set anchor and launched a shore boat. It rowed toward them. Chem was on the plains nearby with her baby hippogriffs, letting them hunt and hop around, attempting to fly. She spotted the shoreboat, and hustled back into the fortified monastery.

She raced through the monastery halls yelling, “we have visitors! Quick, sweep the floors!” Her message delivered, she began to turn around again – to greet their guests properly. Accolon stopped her.

“Stay inside, we need to man the walls. We should find out who they are before we invite them in,” he said. Ultimately, he had to drag her inside. She waved frantically at the approaching boat, until Accolon closed and barred the front gate, and she eventually capitulated.

The people in the shoreboat beached it, crossed the beach to the low hill upon which the monastery stood, and began to ascend. There were five of them, and a big cat. When they were close enough to make out details, they saw an old undine man, white beard and hair in a ponytail in the lead. He had greenish blue skin, and dressed like a career sailor. With him were two male attendants, a confident-looking oread woman wearing a robe and carrying a staff, and a half-elf with a bow and sword, wearing a cloak. He had a leopard at his side.

The undine man spoke first, spotting them up on the wall. He craned his neck and said, “I’m captain Tulene of the Wolverton navy. That’s the Colossus,” he said, gesturing at the Taldan frigate at anchor in the bay. “We’re looking for fugitives from Lord Lochar’s justice.”

Chem started to say something, and Bellabee silently wished she’d memorized the silence spell. Accolon interrupted her quickly. “We’re adventurers, we claimed this monastery after clearing out the evil we found within.”

Bellabee leaned over and said, “if you have a description of them, maybe we could help.” She sounded sincere enough.

“They were pirates,” the robed oread woman replied. “The ones who attacked Wolverton.”

Bellabee smiled and said, “we know Lord Lochar, he’s a decent man. We’d be happy to help, but we aren’t the pirates you’re looking for.”

“Yes, well… he conscripted us to run the route to Maerh Varza and back looking for said pirates,” the oread woman said.

The captain spoke up, “I’ve sailed these waters for many years. This monastery has always attracted unsavory types, current occupants notwithstanding. I stopped by on a hunch.”

“As the lady said, we know Lord Lochar, and are in good standing with him, and the people of Wolveton,” Accolon assured him, hoping they would leave soon.

“Are you, by chance, Accolong Le Croix?” The undine asked. It sounded like he had another hunch.

“I am,” Accolon said proudly.

The man chuckled, “I lost fifty gold on that joust – you were delightful!”

Accolon smiled, “at least you learned something about betting against a LeCroix.”

“May we come in?” the captain asked.

Bellabee leaned over toward the cavalier, as if to remind him that they were in fact fugitives from Hard Bay, and whispered “what do you think?”

Accolon shrugged and returned her whisper, “I think they’re ok.” He motioned to Garion and Andronitus, down below, and they unbarred the gate. At the same time, Argento – who had been watching all this from his hiding spot in the bell tower, spotted four riders in the distance, along with a giant eagle circling overhead. They were coming from Hard Bay, and he suspected he knew why. He signaled to his friends on the wall.

Accolon, Bellabee and Chem halted Garion and Andronitus from opening the gate, seeing that they had new guests on the horizon. One of the riders blew a loud horn blast – it seemed to be magically amplified. It resonated within the walls of the monastery, and they were sure it was a message to Hard Bay. The riders were closing fast. Rana was behind the gate with her scythe out.

“Do you know who those riders are?” Bellabee called down.

“They’re not friends of ours,” the undine captain answered.

“We don’t know who they are – you may enter, and we will close the gates behind you,” Bellabee said.

The captain, oread, half-elf and his leopard, and their two attendants entered, and the gates were shut behind them. They were greeted by Garion the dwarf, Rana the Ifrit, Andronitus the Cheliaxian – and Chem as she hustled down the stairs toward them, handshaking hand outstretched and a big grin on her face.

They could hear the hoofbeats thundering toward them. “They’re here,” Argento called. The half-elven ranger rushed to the top of the wall, bow out, arrow trained on the giant eagle as it swooped toward them. Andronitus mounted his horse Tauros. The monk, Jade stayed just inside the gate, and captain Tulene took to the wall, to parlay if needed, with these newcomers.

Squinting and shielding his eyes from the rising sun, he looked westward. “Those are Hard Bay’s elite guards, unless I’m mistaken.” The riders bore lances and banners depicting the new symbol of a Lochar-ruled Hard Bay – the three towers that represented the three noble houses he’d installed to rule it. It was intended to be a constant reminder to the pirate rulers he’d replaced forty years ago.

“Let’s not let them inside until we know their business here,” Bellabee said. She sounded collected, but was nervous about how this might play out.

Bellabee hailed the strangers as they approached within shouting distance. “Can we help you?”

Their leader spurred her horse forward, while her three companions formed a line behind her. “I am inquisitor Tavin,” she called. “I am here to arrest the murderers of Clarne Blufont. Open your gates, we know your guilt!”

“That’s a wrongful accusation,” Accolon challenged. “Clarne was involved in an evil cult – we have proof.”

Inquisitor Tavin sat straight-backed in her saddle, gleaming in her silver armor. She was silent for a moment before she replied, “I believe that you believe that. However, you must stand before Clarne’s brother Affric – he is a noble of a Lochar holding. You are compelled to obey this summons.”

They knew that Lord Kendrick Lochar was a vehement supporter of the Taldane traditions. He would not brook anything he perceived as treachery against the nobility. If they could not prove with certainty that Clarne, and possibly Affric were involved in evil cult activities, they would be executed despite the services they’d done for Wolverton.

“Clarne was under the influence of evil forces, which may also be corrupting Affric. For all we know, you are also in league with them,” Accolon said, arms crossed over his breastplate.

“You have committed crimes in Hard Bay, and are under arrest. Did you or did you not break in to Affric’s mansion?” Tavin accused. She seemed practiced at accusations.

“We were investigating a conspiracy possibly involving the Blufonts,” Accolon said.

“Can you prove it? You murdered the guards, so who will you call to testify to this?” Tavin said.

Captain Tulene watched quietly with furrowed brow. He had heard enough. “Inquisitor, I am Captain Tulene of the Wolverton Navy.” He gestured to Accolon and said, “I know this man to be honorable, he is not a stranger to Lord Lochar. I am sailing for Maerh Varza in pursuit of the pirates who attacked Wolverton, and I will take sir Accolon and his companions into custody. They will sail with me, and return to Wolverton where they will stand before Lord Kendrick to give account for their actions. I will take responsibility for them – and if they prove false, the blame is on my head.”

Something in the way he said it seemed to satisfy the inquisitor. “Very well. They’re your problem then. Abadar protect you!” She spurred her horse around, and her entourage followed. They sped away toward Hard Bay, and the tension relieved almost immediately.

Bellabee smiled. “We can expose them now, that actually worked out quite well.” Captain Tulene shrugged, and they all left the wall to meet in the courtyard. They agreed to Tulene’s deal – it worked out well for all of them. They could finally see Maerh Varza, and get free passage back to Wolveerton to expose the Blufonts to Kendrick.

They packed up and boarded the ¬_Colossus_ with captain Tulene and company that day, and sailed north along the eastern coast of Kar-Kaurin. The sky on the distant horizon promised a storm in the coming days.

Pharast 1st, 4711 A.R., Toilday
Hex 27.30 – 23.31, At Sea
Clear, windy, cold

Pharast 2nd, 4711 A.R., Wealday
Hex 23.31 – 19.31, At Sea
Rainy, cold, moderate wind

Pharast 3rd, 4711 A.R., Oathday
Hex 19.31 – 15.30, At Sea
Thunderstorms, cold

Pharast 4th, 4711 A.R., Fireday
Hex 15.30 – 15.29, Zelkor’s Ferry
Rainy, cold

The Colossus anchored in a cove, and the party rowed ashore. The weather was foul for sailing, as the deluge continued. Jade and Kryfir were tasked by captain Tulene to pay a visit to the trade town of Zelkor’s Ferry. The river Mauro, which originated deep inland, was rich with trade barges laden with mithril and adamantine mined in the settlement called Chasm, some 100 miles from the coast. If they were lucky, traders in Zelkor’s Ferry would have such metals in stock for trade, and they would carry it back to Wolverton where it would be shipped back to the Lochar lords in Taldor.

They trudged in the dark, rainy shadow of the broken limestone hills on the south bank of the Mauro as the dreary, ominous day wore on. The trail was washed by hundreds of tiny milky rivers running from the hills into the river. Scree chutes and slopes choked the hill passes to the south, while on the north bank a heavy pine forest eventually became a dark, tangled marsh.

Kryfir spotted scouts on the far bank, almost impossible to see with their camouflaged suits. They were hiding in the trees, watching – humanoids, spaced about every two miles along the north bank. They made no move, nor did the party engage them. Jade explained that if they attacked, it would be on their return trip – which they would make in a hired barge to haul their trade goods.

They made the small walled hamlet of Zelkor’s Ferry by evening. The place looked ancient, with worn black stone comprising a surrounding wall. The main gate faced south, and a barge was unloading cargo that passed into the settlement. Archers manned the walls as they approached, silently watching. The place wasn’t built by Reavers, or the Tuathi they thought, though it was too old to have been built by the recent Taldan and Cheliaxian explorers either.

Rana, Argento, Chem, Andronitus, Garion, Bellabee and Accolon headed for the tavern – the Bristleback Inn, where they met a short, squat reaver innkeeper calling himself Odo. Argento made for the fire, silent and watchful. Chem accompanied him, and accused him of steaming up the place with wet dog smell.

Accolon looked over the menu – there was no bacon to be had. In fact, there was no pork at all on the menu. The gruff Odo made no comment on the matter. When his inquiries revealed only obstinate silence, he changed the subject. The cavalier was searching for his father – and from the information he’d gathered thus far, this was where he was headed.

Odo recognized the LeCroix crest, and said that remembered Accolon’s father. He was bound for the labyrinth in search of riches, like all the rest. Accolon hung on the man’s every word. According to the innkeeper, the man had set off into the ‘Mouth of Doom,’ and didn’t return, like so many would-be heroes in these parts. Accolon was outraged, and his instinct was to deny this man’s words. Odo was emotionless. The knight brooded over a stout ale by the fire, and the others gave him room to process his burden.

Jade and Kryfir scored a good deal on their purchase of rare metals at Rasmus Pye’s Trading Post, and met with the others at the Bristleback. Bellabee told them the news, and they kept their distance from the stewing knight.

Chem and Andronitus visited the local apothecary, run by an old man named Ulman. His wares were all suspicious, and Chem deciphered that his craft was part alchemy, part sorcery. His concoctions were unpredictable, but came at a discounted price. Andi asked for advice, and the man simply replied, “don’t go down the well,” but wouldn’t elaborate. Chem fixed one of his experiments, infusing a sulfate with calcination at the proper temperature. In return, Ulman gave her a ‘raise dead’ concoction… she tested it, and found that it might actually work.

Accolon was finished stewing, and had made up his mind. He wanted to follow his father’s steps. He had come so far, and to get this close… he couldn’t walk away. Chem understood, as did most of the others. Odo gladly gave them directions to the ‘Mouth of Doom,’ the entrance to what the locals claimed was a vast labyrinth of unknown origin. Full of wealth and evils to be destroyed, the place was also rife with bandits preying on treasure-laden adventurers. Jade and Kryfir made arrangements to have their trade goods loaded onto a barge, and made ready to transport the following day. Meanwhile, they would see if they could find any sign of Accolon’s missing father.

As they packed up and headed out, the few locals gathered to see them off, chanting ‘Mouth of Doom’ repeatedly, seemingly following some regional tradition. They then began making bets among themselves on the party’s survival. The party bet on their own survival, hoping to earn some extra scratch just for being awesome.

There was an overgrown footpath leading them on to their destination. They trekked southward through forest and broken hills for a few miles before laying eyes on what was clearly the ‘Mouth of Doom.’ The trail led upward, to a tall hill with sheer slopes. On the north-facing side they approached a cave whose opening was the carved face of an open-mouthed demon, identified as the demon lord of the undead, Orcus. His visage was a bestial face with curling ram’s horns and savage teeth, and the tunnel leading down into his gullet descended via black stairs.

Argento approached cautiously, inspected it and declared it safe for passage. Indeed, they thought that this was a relatively well-traveled area after a thorough canvassing. Accolon wedged a tree branch vertically into the craw of Orcus, hoping to prevent the jaws from closing behind them. They carefully descended 40 feet into first chamber.

Six alcoves were set into the four walls of the roughly 30 by 30 foot room. Litter and bones carpeted its floor. Each alcove was decorated with its own unique symbol: a goat’s head, a skull, a pentacle, a hand, a wolf’s head, and the last was undecorated. Argento approached the skull alcove on the eastern wall, into which was set an unremarkable door of rusty iron-reinforced wood. He found no traps on the door.

Chem inspected the alcove decorated with a hand. The wall inside was plain, but she found a pit trap on the floor inside. She spiked it so it would bear her weight, effectively disabling it.

Andronitus approached Argento’s door and opened it. They looked into a long hall, dark and cobweb-filled.

Bellabee became a tiefling – the rest of her companions looked on in horror, wondering what evil spell was upon this place that it could transform her into this. She had, in fact, cast a spell to change into something that could see better in the dark… but still, they wondered: why something devilish? She followed Andronitus and Argento under the sign of the skull. Rana did likewise, and moved into the long hall, stepping carefully.

Jade inspected Chem’s hand alcove. Stepping carefully on the disabled pit trap, the oread monk ran her hands along the back wall searching for secrets. She declared it just a wall. Chem frowned, and after the monk left she looked again. Jade frowned. Chem looked back at the monk arrogantly, maintaining smug eye contact as she pushed a specific stone, revealing a sliding secret door. Jade frowned again. Chem’s helmet candle reduced the sting a bit: it was hard to look too arrogant while it was on her head.

Kryfir, Jade, Chem and Accolon moved into the secret passage, leading west, while Rana, Argento, Andronitus and Bellabee continued along their passage to the east. Nothing had yet reared its head to oppose them, but they knew it couldn’t last.

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Advanced Buckets & Behemoths
Moondays

Pharast the 29th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 22.18, Shadowscale Tribal Home
Windy, Warmer than normal

Dolgrin was a mage, emphasis on was. On their way to Thornhill that morning, Arkhan chose to reveal his ruse – he had used his hat of disguise to dupe them all and assumed the persona of Dolgrin over the last few days. He didn’t further explain himself to his companions, but would never forget the looks on their dumbfounded faces – he derived a great deal of gratification from dumbfounding them. The rogue had indeed seen his friend Kal off, however. That part was true enough.

They deliberated at length, as they walked, about how he had replicated all those spell effects. It defied logic. They accused him of being relatively useless in the battles as Dolgrin. He could have gotten someone killed, some of them said. While his comrades were busy debating the man’s sanity, and to what lengths he would go to alleviate his own boredom, at least a few were relieved to have him back. Rustie, their trusty Halfling chef needed someone to look after his liquor stores. With Arkhan gone, Paoula had claimed that it was up for grabs again. The other, of course, was Paoula herself, for obvious reasons.

Tilendael and Liafina followed the trail of Kal, to be his traveling companion for a time. Whether their roads would diverge later was a tale yet to be written; one could never tell with these wandering types.

By Boss T’chak’s estimation, they had only ten miles of swamp to traverse before reaching the Reaver village of Thornhill. According to Gordan, steward of Wolverton, Thornhill was the terminus of the Lost Road. They would have to rely on intelligence from the villagers to track the lost expedition of Maegar Varn beyond that.

The half-drowned, reed-flanked trail north of the Shadowscale tribe was alive with alligators… or crocodiles, they couldn’t tell which. Hazy, purple mountains rose on their right, while a scintillating blue plane stretched before them to the north, cat-tails and clumps of marsh-trees marring its perfection. The marsh was hedged in by rolling green hills that quickly faded into the distance behind them as they slogged. The day was fair and good for marching, but for the red paste they had applied to their bodies to repel parasites, it would have been a pleasant day.

The trilling swarms of marsh flies, the calls of unusually large cranes – the size of horses – and a cacophony of croaking frogs were their constant companions as they marched. Their supply wagon and mule cart slowed them somewhat, and they had to stretch out their line to provide forward scouts to find the clearest path.

“Well, foraging and hunting shouldn’t be a problem here,” Rustie chirped enthusiastically to Arik, who was keeping rearguard with the wagon. He eyeballed a giant turtle as it disappeared into a thicket of grass with as they passed.

“This food is for the poors,” Arik lamented. He wasn’t interested in everyman food; his palette was refined. Rustie was the palace chef at Caer Syllan – he knew he could satisfy even palatial appetites, even out here.

At the head of the procession, Rivva, and Ash held up the rest for a moment to point out a body floating face down on a gentle current. The magus sent out her new companion Ry, an ioun wyrd, to investigate. The little collection of stones bobbed through the air toward the body.

It hovered over the deceased, dipping down about it, and calling back to Rivva in a wind-chimey voice. Her comrades were surprised when she answered back in the same language, which she sent its way via an eddy current of her own manufacture.

“It’s the body of a lizardfolk, and it looks sick,” she explained to them.

Arkhan called back to the rearguard, “don’t drink the water here.”

“Why, did you piss in it?” Keira joked.

“Nope. Dead body…” he pointed to it as it floated by them.

“Ew,” Arik frowned as it passed.

Rivva and Ash waded out to inspect it. They determined that the cause of death was some disease, which wasn’t uncommon in this sort of waterlogged place. Ash halted their progress to investigate the other wildlife in the area, looking for similar signs of disease. He was glad to find none.

“It should be safe to hunt here, only this lizardfolk appears to be diseased,” Ash said.

Arik looked over the body. “Been dead about a week, I’d say.” He opened its mouth with a dagger. “Something it ate or drank, apparently. They say that poison is the lover’s weapon…” Pa-oula peeked out of the wagon when she heard him say ‘lover,’ but returned immediately upon seeing that no naughtiness ensued.

“This guy is poorly outfitted compared to the Shadowscale tribe,” Rivva observed.

“Well, looks like we have a mystery on our hands here, gang!” Keira was enthused, as always.

Hours of marching later, they arrived at the southern shore of a vast azure lake. They smelled Thornhill shortly before spotting it on a small island. Plumes of blue smoke rose from inside the dilapidated, dysfunctional outer palisade. The sqalid Reaver village smelled of smoking fish – but not in a good way. Little fishing rafts dotted the lake, and a hundred-foot long rickety wooden bridge spanned the distance from shore to island.

Kiera began magically enhancing her diplomacy, but her companions thought it was overkill for these guys. The fishermen in their boats had glassy-eyed, dull expressions, and simply watched passively as they pulled their wagon train up to the bridge and prepared to meet the locals.

Rivva knew from her studies that these Reaver-folk would likely respond well to the presentation of trade goods, so she brought some jars of honey with her to get them started. They crossed the bridge, and passed into the muddy, overgrown streets of Thornhill. Their approach revealed dilapidated, ramshackle wooden buildings, all leaning askance and in dire need of repair – much like the bridge they crossed now. It was muddy and missing about half its planks, and teetering precariously in places.

The locals were red-haired with ruddy complexions, and appeared in poor dress but decent health. Kiera introduced them and asked if they could meet with the leadership. Many scrawny children fawned over them as they entered the defunct palisade. The adults were mostly interested in their wagonload of trade goods, which Arik guarded carefully.

“Look at all them shinies,” one child said, touching Arkhan’s breastplate. The rogue frowned and shooed him away. These people looked very inbred, he thought.

“These people look very inbred,” he said to Kal, but then frowned when he remembered that his longtime traveling companion wasn’t there. He noticed that Pa-oula Sweets had taken interest in a large local man. He was more thick than tall, but he was thick with muscle and bare-chested.

The same man locked eyes with Arik, the two were sizing each other up. Pa-oula was thrilled, and sauntered over to the stocky Reaver and smiled down at him suggestively. He broke gaze with Arik to look her over.

“Lemme git Momma from the Chum Hole,” a mostly toothless boy said, and ran toward the closest building. It appeared to be some kind of dining establishment. Not the good kind. ‘Momma’ sauntered out, a big wild-haired woman holding a ladle.

“Y’all came ta trade? We need trade,” she said, her face seemed locked in a permanent scowl.

Kiera stepped up and gave a polite bow, “yes, perhaps we would like to trade with you.” She smiled – it was not returned. The big Reaver woman just shifted uncomfortably.

“Well, come inside my Chum Hole then, and bring yer wares too,” she said, and waddled back inside the big building. Arkhan bit his tongue. Arik shook his head, and decided to stay outside with Rustie, Bor, Tarrien and Pa-oula. The man couldn’t stand the smell. He rubbed some salve under his nose to ward it off.

Inside Momma’s Chum Hole, they confirmed that this did indeed resemble a tavern of sorts. It was decorated with the religious iconography of ‘The Four Winds,’ Arkhan explained, pointing to depictions of four faces; an aspect of the god Gozreh. The rest of the world understood the god of waves and winds as dualistic – representing both the sky and the sea. These Reavers seemed to have latched onto one of those aspects and made their own religion of it.

“Y’all want yer medicine?” Momma asked flatly. As she did, she poured some tarry-looking syrupy green liquid from a dirty waterskin into a turtle shell bowl and offered it to whoever would take it.

“Sure,” Arkhan offered with a shrug. “You only live once,” he said as he slammed the concoction. Rivva was frantically searching for her wand of cure poison before the rogue could do this impulsive deed, but didn’t grab it in time. Arkhan wiped the residual syrup from his lips while his companions watched intently, nervously awaiting his reaction.

“Not bad,” he said to Momma, and slid the empty turtle shell back at her across the bar. She grinned: a picket fence missing half its boards.

“They call me Chummer,” Momma said, ladling another dose into the empty turtle shell.

“And what do you call you,” Rivva asked.

“I don’t call me nothin’,” the woman said, leveling a knowing look at the sylph – she thought she had scored a point.

Rivva saw a branch hanging on a wall above Chummer’s cooking station. It wasn’t just a tree branch, she realized, but a treeant’s severed arm.

“What’s that,” Rivva asked nonchalantly, pointing to it. Chummer shrugged, and explained that they had battled a treant in the past, and defeated it as a town. The arm was a trophy.

Outside, the Thornhill Reavers were breaking through Arik’s defenses, trying to sneak peeks of what they had inside their wagon. One of them saw the head of a large black dragon – and gasped, backing away nervously. He ran off to spread the news. Arik looked at the stocky man whom Pa-oula was sweet on, and pulled back the canvas of the wagon cover to show him. The silent Reaver nodded in approval, and walked away.

Arik smirked. He observed the inbred Reavers as they cleared out a bit. They were both emptying buckets into and drawing water out of the surrounding lake. The buckets being emptied seemed to contain their feces, and the buckets being drawn seemed to collect their drinking water. His face adopted a horrified expression as the implication set in. They were using the same buckets for both purposes.

“Don’t drink the water!” he shouted to his comrades inside.

Inside, Chummer saw Arkhan eyeballing a bucket that sat on her counter. “You need the bucket? That’s my only bucket, bring it back if you use it,” she said with a warning look. “Use the bucket, don’t lose the bucket.” Arkhan raised an eyebrow.

Kiera changed the subject quickly, “what else do you have in trade besides ‘medicine?’”

“We have a smithy,” she said with a lisp. “But she don’t have much metal anymore. We also got us a boat-maker, he made a real big boat to cross the lake with for a bunch of for’ners, ‘bout a couple years ago. Boat-Man Nash made ‘em special boats to carry wagons like you got there,” she pointed out the front door with her medicine ladle.

They rejoined Arik outside, who was enjoying the fact that the locals were giving him more breathing room. “I’m half tempted to swim out of here,” he scowled.

“Why? At least there are other people here. You want to swim in the swamp?” Arkhan asked.

“At least people don’t throw their shit in the swamp,” he answered, pointing to a floater in the water by the bridge. Arkhan grimaced. At least they were getting enough fiber, apparently.

Rustie Glassjaw, Halfling chef extraordinaire was sipping Medicine with Keira. “It’s herbaceous,” she said, hair standing on end a bit as she sipped the syrupy brew. “Did I use that word right? Herbaceous?” Rustie shrugged.

They rolled down the muddy road toward the Boat-Man, Nash, as Chummer called him. The building next-door to the Chum Hole was a temple to the Four Winds. Ash was inside checking it out.

“This temple blows,” he said as Rivva entered. He pointed toward two Reavers who were literally blowing on a totem to the Four Winds inside. The tall wooden totem of four blowing faces was decorated with the feathers of ‘pegasusses.’

“We need to find Zissren,” Rivva said to the two supplicants as she leaned into the temple doorway. They stopped blowing the totem momentarily to point her toward the dock.

“I hope this Zissren is smarter than these people,” she said.

They continued down the road and passed by the smithy. She was making fish hooks, and apparently she didn’t have much metal stock to work with, the way she was stretching what she had. She wasn’t bad looking, Arkhan thought – then banished the thought as quickly as he thought it.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I’m Groteas,” she said, barely looking up from her delicate work.

“That’s unfortunate,” Arkhan consoled. Keira punched him.

“I think that’s a lovely name,” Kiera said.

Arkhan shoved her aside and continued, “I’m shocked to see you at work here. I heard you had trouble with your mine.” He was ‘leaning’ in his most mockingly flirtatious way.

“Where did you hear that?” Groteas asked. “Anyway, you’re right. The mine is playing out, and we’ve had to stop mining there… I’m just doing what I can with what I have.”

Greta Thunderhammer stepped up, this being her sort of conversation. “Where is your mine? Perhaps I might do some surveying for you,” she offered politely.

Groteas sized them all up for a moment, which Keira thought was odd. Then she said, “It’s on the eastern bank of the lake. You lot look pretty strong…”

Keira delightedly interjected, “We are quite strong. If I had time I would sing an entire ballad about just how strong we are. It would be wasted here though; it would be quite complex and I would be doing it a disservice without decent backup musicians.”

Groteas nodded unsurely, and quietly continued her smithing while Arkhan and Kiera began arguing articulately about who would be the lead in this ballad.

A man working wood waved them over from an unwalled shore of the island. He had a small construction site there. He was bright-eyed and wearing the poorest excuse for coveralls they’d ever seen. He had some buckets on dispay.

“You sell buckets?” Ash asked, looking at his wares.

“We’re a little short on buckets right now. Name’s Phuggit,” the man answered cheerily. “I noticed you got some honey there, you willin’ ta trade?”

Rivva looked over his work, then said flatly: “no.”

Keira stepped in front of her and said apologetically, “what she meant to say is that this is especially high-quality honey and we don’t see anything here that would make for an equal trade. However, if you could direct us to someone who could make boats for us…”

“You could just live here,” Phuggit said, then winked suggestively at Pa-oula, Rivva and Kiera – each individually, and in that order. They kept walking.

Finally, at the other end of the small island village, they came upon a man patching together a fishing boat at a small dock. Groteas was there, talking to the man quietly.

“Hey – Grotessa!” Arkhan waved. The woman shot a scowl at him. He just smiled and kept waving. Then he turned to the man, who had a bucket beside him and said, “That’s not Chummer’s bucket, is it? Don’t lose it!”

The man laughed, and waved them over. “Naw, that’s my bucket. My only bucket.”

Arkhan was hard up for conversational topics with these backwaters. “Does everyone have a bucket?”

“Only if they earn it,” he said knowingly to Arkhan. “Name’s Nash,” he extended a dirty hand. Arkhan ignored it.

“How do I get a bucket?” Arkhan teased.

“You got to contribute,” Nash answered, folding his arms across his chest.

Just then a massive alligator – or crocodile – leapt from the water near the dock, grabbed the bucket from beside Nash, and plunged back into the water. It was full of fish.

“Aw, Crawgator!” Nash yelled at it. “That’s Crawgator, my gator,” he said to the party.

Ash shook his head. “We need a boat,” he explained.

“I can build you a big boat,” Nash said. “I done it before for some for’ners a couple a years ago to git their wagons across the lake.” They hoped he was talking about Maegar Varn’s expedition.

“We need to see Zissren,” Rivva said. “Can we borrow one of your small boats to get to his island while we wait for our big boat?”

Nash loaned them a little boat and pointed to a small island a few hundred feet away. They ferried over, and found a small hut, around which grew a well-tended garden. A trail of blue smoke drifted lazily from the open door.

They found the lizardfolk shaman Zissren inside, sitting comfortably on a chair reading a book and smoking a pipe. He wore a comfortable robe, and had the appearance of a man of leisure. He looked up as they appeared in his doorway.

“And you are?” He asked.

“Arkhan and Company,” Arkhan offered. “What are we smoking there?”

“Pipeweed,” the lounging lizardfolk answered. “Have you come seeking enlightenment about the Four Winds?”

“Yes, our wizard is interested,” he motioned to Rivva, who scowled at him.

The lizardfolk began to drivel on about the fake religion. Rivva was skeptical. She mostly ignored him while sneaking peeks at his books. He was reading about herbology.

“Why did you come here to live among these people, anyway?” the sylph asked.

“To lead these people in worship,” he replied humbly.

“I’ll ask again – this time, no lies. Why did you come here?” Her eyes flashed dangerously.

Zissren’s eyes darted from Rivva to her companions, realizing that he was hopelessly overmatched. He smiled disarmingly. “Look, these people are easy marks… I enjoy their tribute.”

He went on to explain how he had convinced the villagers of Thornhill that his Four Winds religion (which he manufactured) could keep the dragon Shadowscale at bay, after the first dragon attack on the village. In fact, Shadowscale couldn’t tolerate the smell of Thornhill and stayed away voluntarily. Zissren convinced them that it was his religion that was responsible, and they’d venerated him ever since as their sole shaman.

Arkhan nodded, approvingly. “One problem with your con: Shadowscale’s head is in our wagon. How are you going to keep these people duped now?” He grinned as Zissren’s expression became worried.

“Look, could you do me a favor and maybe tell them that you killed Shadowscale’s smaller cousin? I really need this gig…” the lizardfolk man pleaded.

Kiera stepped in, “we’ll maintain your ruse, but you have to help us get passage across the lake.”

“Sure, all you have to do is trade with them, they can make a boat that can help you to make the trip,” Zissren offered eagerly. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“I want a map,” Rivva demanded. Zissren complied, and helped her to fill in some of the blank spaces on hers.

They concluded their business, and returned to Nash the Boat Man. He told them it would be several days wait while he constructed their boat. Arkhan groaned – he couldn’t take it here that long. Greta convinced him to take her to their mine. After all, that was why she had accompanied them on this expedition. Arkhan gladly agreed, and convinced the others to go along.

They borrowed a boat from Nash. Groteas approached them as they loaded it. “Where y’all going?”

“To the mine,” Arkhan replied. “We’re looking for adventure. Are you worried about us?”

“Wait here,” she said, and ran off. She returned a few minutes later with some large clumps of plant mass. It was pungent-smelling. “Take this with you. It will ward off evil spirits.”

Arkhan accepted it reluctantly – it smelled like bait.

They launched the boat, leaving their animals and wagon behind, with their companions to watch them in their absence. The lake was expansive, and currents flowed ever so slowly southward. They rowed for hours, keeping the mountains of the eastern shore in view. The day passed uneventfully, and they kept pots of red paste to smear their skin, warding away the marsh flies.

At evening, they spotted a Huge hippopotamus wallowing on the shore – near the mine entrance. It was sleeping fitfully. It started sniffing wildly, waking as their boat approached. Arik and Rivva reasoned that the mass of plant matter that Groteas gave them was, in fact, hippo bait. The hippo had laired near the mine entrance – it was no wonder the Reavers didn’t have access to ore any longer.

They discussed attacking the hippo (technically a behemoth, Rivva corrected), and decided it would be easier on land. If it swam out to their boat, it could easily capsize them and place them at its mercy. They decided to row out a bit, and attempt to use the bait Groteas sent with them to lure it away from the mine entrance.

The behemoth didn’t take it – it was guarding its wallow. Arkhan snoozed in the boat while they played cat and mouse with it in the rowboat. They beached their boat south along the shore, and approached the behemoth stealthily, weapons drawn.

BehemothHippopotamus.jpg

Arkhan ran for the mineshaft opening, sprinting past and entering before the behemoth was fully aroused. By the time he made it inside the narrow cave, the beast was fully alert and bellowing at the intruders.

Ash launched a fireball at it, scorching it severely and further enraging it. It charged at Keira full bore, snapping her up in its great jaws. She felt like a child’s doll within the great maw – it seemed to be trying to swallow her. Arik surged forward with his polearm, and wedging it in the beast’s massive jaws, he pried with all his might until Keira rolled out and onto the ground in front of him.

“I thought hippos were slow!” Keira shouted as she backed away frantically. “What just happened?!”

Rivva launched a snowball at it, impacting with force and minor irritation. Arkhan drew and loosed an arrow from inside the safety of the cave, landed it and reached for another as he backed in further. Ash maneuvered toward the cave, and attempted to blind it. He managed to dazzle the raging behemoth.

Arik stood before it, dancing carefully. The behemoth lunged at him, jaws wide, snapping the man up. It was unable to hold onto the nimble fighter, and Arik broke free of the vise-like maw. He juked as the thing lunged again, making for the cave with Arkhan. Rivva was right behind him, firing a ray of frost as she entered. Greta was there, and Ash followed, the hippo hot on his heels.

“So this is where we live now,” Arik said, winded. They fought from inside the narrow tunnel as the behemoth wedged its great bulk into the opening, still snapping at them. Arrows pelted its head, and Ash was severely wounded by its savaging. He and Rivva fought it off, while Arik’s polearm lashed overhead from the second rank.

Rivva’s lightning imbued blade stabbed at it, slicing across its face in a wicked gouge that crackled with white-blue energy. Arkhan stepped up, nimbly avoiding its bites and stabbing at its face. It bellowed, blowing them back a step – but they knew it was desperate and they were winning. As long as they lived, anyway…

Ash launched flame into its open mouth, and Rivva dived to avoid a bite. Keira shouted encouragement from the rear, and Rivva plunged her blade upward into its head, nailing it in the brain stem, discharging a blast of lightning. She recovered her blade swiftly, as the massive jaws slammed shut for the last time. The hulking beast dropped and breathed its last.

They backed away from the dead beast, and Ash began curing their severe wounds with his healing prayers. They were trapped in the cave, with the bulk of the dead behemoth blocking the opening.

View
The Capture of Beren Skewes
Ayuku Solo (featuring Dekhar and D-Dog)

Pharast 6th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.14, Swallowfeld, 2am
Cloudy, temperate, light wind

They didn’t wait for daylight to leave Swallowfeld. The rains had subsdided, but Taran’s Run river was overflowing and the roads were muddy. Dekhar led them north along the road that would lead them into the Tangled Wood, on the trail of the Broken Arrows – and Zar, and Beren Skewes, if they were lucky. Ayuku, Dekhar, D-Dog, Maverick and the Raven made unlikely allies, but they would do, the Tien thought.

As they traveled quietly along the north road, they passed farmsteads with decreasing frequency. Ayuku was lost in thought. He recalled his investigation of Skewes’ estate following the attack on Wolverton. He and Hols had questioned the staff together. Skewes had obsessed about “the serpent,” but they never learned what it was about. The Tien wondered if this was Skewes’s puppeteer, like Margaret suggested.

D-Dog halted abruptly, and he and Dekhar crept silently off the road to the east bank, motioning for the others to do likewise. On the road ahead, they saw a man on horseback holding a longbow. He was cloaked, cowl pulled over his head. He had stopped at a farmhouse, on the other side of the road. Lights were on inside, and they heard voices. They all drew weapons, Maverick far in the rear, so as not to blow their cover.

The rider’s horse snorted and stamped as they approached. Dekhar cursed silently; the horse smelled them. D-Dog salivated in anticipation, and looked back at Dekhar expectantly, waiting for the order to attack.

As they crept toward the rider, the barn doors swung open on the other side of the road, inside the farmstead’s low stone wall. Horses whinnied as three men attempted to wrangle two horses outside. They were clearly horse thieves.

“Hurry it up in there,” the horsemen said in gruff Taldane.

A woman’s voice answered from inside the farmhouse, “He’s not giving up his stash. I might have to do something dramatic…” it was a threat. Whomever was on the other end began pleading, and children began wailing.

“Well, then do it and let’s away!” the horseman said, nocking an arrow, and scanning his surroundings. His horse was getting nervous for some reason.

“Please, please not my family,” a man whimpered inside the farmhouse.

“Then I’ll have to cut something off to hurry this along!” the threatening woman said.

“No, please! It’s there, under the floorboards!” the man whimpered.

The horseman said, “hurry up. I don’t think we’re alone.” As he did, D-Dog bolted out from the cover of the bushes and sprinted full tilt toward the horseman. He launched himself at the horse, raking it with his talons as he slashed them across its haunches. The horse whinnied in surprise, and reared. Its rider tried to process what had just happened, drawing an arrow and spinning around in confusion.

Ayuku emerged from cover and charged stealthily across the road toward the rider. He slashed at him with a wakizashi. It caught the man’s cloak – which Ayuku recognized as belonging to a Broken Arrow merc.

The three horse thieves moved to the gate to assist the Broken Arrow rider. They were poorly outfitted, and as they closed, Dekhar identified them as Blood Weepers by the tattooed blood drop below each eye.

Maverick emerged from the cover of the undergrowth, and began charging heavily toward them. He was slow in his heavy armor, and struggled to make it to the fight on time.

A woman appeared at the barn window and shouted, “what’s going on out there? Do I need to do this guy?!” She was also garbed like a Broken Arrow.

The Raven called out, “kill him if you want, that won’t stop us from coming after you!” She fired a bolt from her hand crossbow into one of the approaching Blood Weepers. He cursed and yanked the small bolt free.

The horseman pulled hard on the reins and withdrew from the attack, riding out of their reach.

“Chase that fool!” Ayuku shouted.

D-Dog smelled raw horsemeat, but he was too preoccupied with the closing Blood Weepers to claim his meal. He nearly eviscerated one with a talon slash that opened a red line on his belly.

Ayuku tracked the horseman, and slashed distractedly at the Blood Weepers. D-Dog was flanked by the trio, but they couldn’t land a blow on the feisty raptor.

Maverick lunged at one of the Blood Weepers from across the low stone fence, lancing him in the neck with his longsword and dropping the ganger, who died gargling his own blood.

Dekhar called for the spirit of battle to aid his companion, and D-Dog’s scales grew thicker and coarser, his talons longer and his teeth sharper. The remaining two Blood Weepers looked at him in fear, trembling as they backed away.

The woman – the Broken Arrow inside the farmhouse – grabbed the farmer and put a blade to his throat. She pushed him out the front door. “Everyone drop your weapons or the farmer gets it,” she threatened. When she got a good look at them, she began to realize who these four were: Lord Kendrick’s shadowy new councilor, the notorious girl-thief from Wolverton, Ebrel Menadue’s ex-knight protector, and one of Kendrick’s so-called ‘heroes of Wovlerton.’ She started to falter, her blade dropping a bit.

Margaret’s smile broadened as the woman’s faded. “I see you know who we are,” she mock-curtsied. “Let the farmer go, and we let you live.”

The woman paused before replying, “I do know who you are and what you’re capable of. That’s why I know this is my only protection. Drop your weapons and we can leave these peasants to live out their long life of servitude.”

The cloaked rider fired an arrow at Maverick, and rode north along the road at high speed.

D-Dog juked past the two Blood Weepers to get to the woman. They slashed at him as he passed, but he was too quick for their clumsy blades. The raptor launched himself at the evil woman head first, bowling over both she and the farmer she’d been holding hostage. They flew apart like ninepins, and all landed prone, scattered across the yard.

“Thank Erastil!” the farmer said, rubbing his throat.

The two remaining Blood Weepers attempted to block Maverick and Ayuku at the gate, and the Tien took a light cut across the arm. Tonlor’s swing went wide, as his mark ducked under his horizontal slash. Ayuku launched himself over the fence, to the surprise of both of his enemies, landing gracefully on the other side, flanking them with Tonlor. As he landed, a blade snaked out from under his cloak, its point exploding out from the Blood Weeper’s chest. The man slumped to the ground, dead.

Dekhar had an arrow nocked, drawn and aimed at the rider. His arrow landed, though his target was riding full bore away from them at a respectable distance. It wasn’t enough to drop him though. The half-orc cursed.

It was over quickly after that. The remaining Blood Weeper and Broken Arrow woman fought on, but the former fell to Tonlor and Ayuku’s blades, and the latter to D-Dog’s flurry of talons and teeth, and the Raven’s bolts.

Dekhar dragged the woman into the farmer’s barn and began reviving her. The Blood Weepers were dispatched. The farmer thanked them, and offered them a place to stay for the night – he even offered his own bed to them, saying that he and his family would sleep in the barn. Then he recognized Ayuku.

“You’re him.… the one what saved Wolverton on that night!” he said it with such reverence that Ayuku felt awkward.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said gracefully as the farmer fawned over him. “We need your barn for other purposes,” he explained, casting a dark look at the captive Broken Arrow. The farmer looked frightened, and backed away, thanking them awkwardly as he gathered his family and returned to the house.

When the farmer left, D-Dog eyeballed the man’s rescued horses. He looked expectantly to Dekhar. The half-orc gave him a stern look of warning in reply.

“Is that all you think about,” he asked – knowing the answer already. D-Dog looked hurt by this, which didn’t make it less true.

The Broken Arrow woman woke up, injured and near dead but stable. Her blurred vision cleared to the sight of a salivating velociraptor head looking at her expectantly. Then Ayuku knelt beside her, and smiled with ghastly subtext.

“He has trouble finding enough meat out in the wild, perhaps there’s enough of you to satisfy that without killing you,” Ayuku said menacingly, patting D-Dog on the head.

“Please don’t kill me,” she said, and began to sing for him. She revealed the location of a Broken Arrows camp at a ford on the Killian River, to the north. They had snipers in tree perches overlooking the ford. Their main base was at an old Tuathi ruin on the cliff overlooking the coast, a day’s ride west of the Priory of Cymer.

“Beren Skewes found something in the old smuggling tunnels under his warehouse. They were expanding, making room, when they broke into another tunnel, leading toward the castle. There was something down there that… influenced him. Zar thinks he went mad, so he locked up Skewes and took over the whole operation. They have 40 Broken Arrows inside the tunnels under the fort ruin. Zar just wanted a piece of Wolverton – Skewes was crazy. Some interested factions from Zobeck were funding them, but it’s breaking up now that Zar and Skewes are at odds.”

Ayuku looked to his friends, discussing their next moves. “Maybe Zar can be bargained with,” Ayuku suggested. “Perhaps we have a common enemy.”

The woman spoke, “I don’t know what Skewes was allied with, but it isn’t natural, and it never showed itself.”

Ayuku took Dekhar and Maverick aside. “We should send a rider to Wolverton, to let them know of this development.”

Tonlor shook his head. “You should go. This is big news. It’s the way this kind of thing is done. You’ll need an army to assault their base, you can’t ask for that without being present.”

Ayuku thought about it. He was right – as much as he wanted to get this underway, they needed to go back to Wolverton. It would take time to muster their force anyway. He looked at Tonlor, and nodded in affirmation.

“So we gather our strength and assault them from the front?” Ayuku asked his allies.

“It seems like the better option at this point. If we do, we could use the army as a distraction while we sneak in and assassinate Zar,” Dekhar said.

Ayuku turned back to their captive. “Is there a back door?”

She nodded, eager to appease the Tien. She was getting hopeful that they’d let her go after all. “Yes, there is a cave mouth behind the fort, you could get in there. It’s guarded, but not as closely.”

They had their plan. They slept in the barn, and in the morning the farmer and his family brought them breakfast. Despite what had transpired last night, they were glad to see that there had been no real bloodshed in their barn during the interrogation. The farmer insisted that they take his two horses as a reward for saving his family. D-Dog licked his chops, but when he saw them saddling the horses, his face fell in utter disappointment. He was becoming cynical before his time, for a velociraptor.

They rode through Swallowfeld in a hurry the next day, and arrived in Wolverton that evening. They let the Broken Arrow accompany them to Wolverton, and convinced her that her people were doomed – there was no point in her going to warn them unless she wanted to die with them. She sincerely did not.

They went to the jail to visit Hols. In the stark structure, the stern man was in his office, as usual, sitting behind a desk processing criminal cases.

“Well met,” the man said as they entered. He looked surprised to see Margaret Menadue, but said nothing of it. “What news?” he put down his quill and sprinkled sand over the parchment he’d been penning.

“We have news of the enemy,” Ayuku said. “We happened upon a group of bandits raiding a farmstead. Two of them were Broken Arrows. We captured one and learned that they are holed up in a ruined fort a day’s ride west of the priory. We also learned of another camp, along the Killian River. We know they number about 40, and Zar has taken over from Skewes. I believe if we can muster a force, now is the time to attack.”

“Tell him about Skewes,” Dekhar prompted.

“Yes. In a strange turn of events, Skewes is in the custody of Zar – they had a disagreement about the balance of power and Zar seized control.” He didn’t tell the whole story, he just wasn’t sure about it yet.

“Interesting,” Hols mused. “What do you propose?”

“Muster a force, bring them to justice. How many can we expect, and how long will it take?” Ayuku was determined.

“I’ll have to think about this,” Hols answered. “We need to bring it to Lord Kendrick tomorrow, and see where it goes.”

There was a moment of quiet. They were all thinking about their next moves, playing out scenarios in their minds. At length, Ayuku finally broke the silence.

“Skewes is being manipulated by something supernatural, perhaps otherworldly.” He let the weight of it sink in.

“What makes you think so?” Hols asked.

“Our captive confirmed it. Remember the strange portents found among his belongings, and the witness of his servants?”

“I remember,” the captain said.

Before they took their leave of each other. Ayuku compelled Hols to pay his companions for their service. The steward returned with 2,000 gold pieces. Hols called it a ‘discretionary fund,’ and the steward questioned him several times as to the nature of the payment. Hols finally slammed his fist on his desk and told him to bring it and be off.

Ayuku told Hols of their run in with Tryfena in Swallowfeld, and the captain said he’d look into it after this business was over.

Pharast the 7th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, warmer, light wind

They brought their proposal before Lord Kendrick the next day. The man was high on his recent wins, and it was easy for the Tien and Hols to talk him into supporting their action against the Broken Arrows. It remained covert as long as possible. Five days passed while the Wolverton Guard set up a special cavalry force. Fifty of the best riders and archers would ride out under Ayuku’s command. Lord Kendrick loved a hero… moreso a hero leading a charge against an enemy of the monarchy.

In Kendrick’s audience chamber, Ayuku counseled the stalwart lord that Zar and his mercenaries were the last thing holding back his unquestioned control of the region. Once he was eliminated, they could expand his territory, secure more lands for future growth.

Kendrick said, “we need to do this at a minimum loss of life. We must break their morale. If they’re holed up in caves as you say, we send sappers to demolish them. Wolverton will see it through,” Kendrick smiled, and clapped hands with the Tien, then slapped him heavily on the back. Gordan was making notes, and a list of alchemist sappers. The one he wanted was away at the moment, he’d have to make due with someone else.

“The faster we move, the better the surprise, and the fewer men lost,” Ayuku promised. Kendrick concurred.

“Five days, no more,” he promised. You’ll have your army.

Pharast the 12th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Clear, moderate, light wind

Fifty armed soldiers of the Wolverton Guard rode swiftly through the town, thundering along the Cliffway toward Swallowfeld. Ayuku, Dekhar, Maverick and the Raven rode at their head. Ayuku’s horse flew the wolf’s head banner of Wolverton – silver wolf on midnight blue. The whole village turned out to witness their passing, but Tryfena was conspicuously absent.

They turned north, and passed by the farmstead where they’d interrogated their Broken Arrow captive. They returned the borrowed horses to their farmer host. Ayuku was sure it was his proudest day – the wrongs done against he and his family were apparently being redressed by an army. The farmer cheered as the soldiers passed, his heart full in his chest.

Continuing up the river along the north road, they came to the ford, where the camp was said to be. They crossed the ford in force, and found it cleared out. They continued along a horse trail leading southwest toward the coast, through the Tangled Wood. They stopped at the verge of the wood, which looked out onto a hundred-yard clearing between the woods and the sea cliff. Many horses grazed around in the clearing, and on a rise near the cliff edge, there stood the crumbling ruin of an ancient Tuathi fortress. Not many stones still stood upon one another, but there was enough cover for a few to hold off many with arrows. The forward scouts saw movement among the ruins, men with bows.

Ayuku, Dekhar, Maverick and the Raven were at the front, surveying the enemy’s fortification and discussing plans. Ayuku turned to Maverick.

“Can you make a show of force, to cover our infiltration? Advance the sappers, seal their upper entrance to the cave tunnels. Take no casualties. We’ll find the back door.” He looked hard into the man’s eyes. Not long ago, the man he’d found drinking his old life away in the Hare & Ass was a wreck. The man in front of him now was steely-eyed and ready for action. Maverick nodded, and was glad that he could do this for Wolverton. He was absent for the Night of Sundered Arrows, and this was his chance to make it up to himself.

“I’ll do as you say,” Maverick promised, and turned to his men. Ayuku, Dekhar and Margaret stole away while Sir Tonlor roused them with promises of vengeance for Wolverton. Ayuku had a package from Wolverton, filled with bottles – a gift for their enemy.

As they crept along the treeline, crouched and moving carefully to avoid detection, they saw Tonlor order a line of horsemen out from the cover of the trees. They formed up, but took a pelting from the very accurate Broken Arrows amid the broken stones of the fort. Tonlor ordered them to dismount and form a shield wall, while another line – his archers – formed up behind them to give covering fire as they advanced up the hill. The rest followed Tonlor’s wall, arrows clanging off shields as they made their assault.

Ayuku was sad that he couldn’t watch the battle. They had bigger fish to fry… his mind drifted to Zar the Mangler, and he hoped they were ready for this. They would have to exercise caution, or this would all be for nothing. The three of them and D-Dog reached the cliff face, overlooking the southern sea, 50 feet below. The spotted the cave mouth – it was high up on the cliff, they would have to climb up to it. Dekhar spotted the silhouette of a sentry in the cave mouth, firelight flickering behind him.

They hugged the cliff wall as they approached as closely as they dared. The tide was coming in – soon they would have to be in the cave, as their narrow beach was disappearing fast. Ayuku grabbed a potion from his belt and swigged it, winking at Dekhar beside him. He began quickly climbing the cliff, spiderlike. He went invisible.

He crept nimbly up the cliff to the cave opening. The sentry was a Broken Arrow merc, standing about five feet back from the edge. The potion of spider-climb he’d imbibed allowed him to creep over the head of the sentry, padding along the ceiling of the cave, and circling around behind him. He dropped down behind the man silently, and drank a second potion – cat’s grace. A second later, the sentry had two wakizashis emerging from his chest. Ayuku set the dead man down carefully, and dropped the body down to his surprised comrades. A rope followed shortly after.

They heard explosions rocking the cave system and cheers of victory from the top of the cliff as they climbed up to the cave. Rubble cascaded from the ceiling as they crept into the cave tunnel. The smooth granite passage forked right and left. They heard murmuring from the right hand passage, and men scrambling to the left. They smelled dog.

D-Dog led the way to the right tunnel. They saw a man chained to the wall – it was Skewes in manacles. A guard dog stood up and approached them, but Ayuku silenced it with a quick arrow to the throat before it could alert their enemies to their presence. D-Dog ate it quietly as they approached the captive Beren Skewes.

“Did you come to rescue me? Did they send you?” Skewes sounded crazed. Ayuku shushed him.

“If you can keep quiet, we’ll talk,” Ayuku said.

“I can offer you money, connectins, deals – I’m a powerful man. Take me with you!” Skewes pleaded.

Ayuku saw a further chamber and peeked in. It was filled with fur bedrolls and blankets. There he saw crates of food and barrles of drinking water, stacked neatly against a wall. He smiled coldly as he carefully delivered Wolverton’s surprise – poison. After doing the deed, he freed Skewes.

“How far do we go in here,” Ayuku asked Dekhar.

“Footsteps,” Margaret whispered. She started backing away, toward the escape tunnel. “They’re coming this way…”

Beren Skewes started panicking.

“We need to knock this guy out,” Dekhar said. Skewes began banging his own head against the wall to accommodate his rescuers. “This is interesting, but maybe we need to do it,” the half-orc grinned as he pommel-bashed the man on the crown. He grabbed the limp Skewes and threw him over a shoulder as they made good their escape down the rope and along the cliff to an easier climb up.

They ascended the cliff to see that Tonlor’s men in their gleaming armor occupied the ruins now. Five dead Broken Arrows lay among them, and two of the Wolverton Guard. The latter were being prepared for the return to Wolverton and a proper burial. Tonlor described how they quickly took the ruin, and how their alchemist sappers sealed the entrance. Two of the kills belonged to the knight, his men said.

They spent a few days camping near the ruin, making sure the Broken Arrows lived up to their name. Then they returned to Wolverton, victorious.

Pharast the 15th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, moderate, light wind

“Jackpot,” Hols said with a smile when Ayuku brought a bound and bedraggled Beren Skewes before him. It was the third time he’d seen the man smile.

“I’d say our task force has proven quite effective,” Ayuku said. “Pretty soon Wolverton will have no opposition.” He looked optimistic.

“That’s not true,” Beren Skewes interjected, returning Hols to his usual scowl. “I have a friend who is near, who has shown me deeper oceans. He is still in control of this town.”

“You’re mental,” Ayuku said. “Someone is pulling your strings.”

“Perhaps, but once your eyes are open, there is no closing them.” He sounded mental.

Ayuku took a different tack. “Alright, you’ve piqued my curiosity. I want to know what you’ve been shown. Tell me what I’m missing out on.”

Skewes’s eyes met his, they were wide and profound, “The deepest oceans, infinite. I was wrapped in darkness, turned inside out, then only emptiness. And there I was.” He concluded.

The rest of them looked from one to another uncofortably. Hols started to shoo the man off to his cell, but Ayuku stopped him.

“Where do I get started, Skewes? Where do I meet your new friends?”

“I can show you if you free me…” he looked hopeful.

Ayuku shook his head, “no dice. You’re just mad.”

“Very well. Either way I win. He’s only trying to help us, anyway. There’s a greater threat than he – he’s here to help us defeat it.”

Dekhar shook his head. “This guy may not be as guilty as you thought – he might have been mind controlled. If so, can he really be held accountable for his wrongdoing?”

“That’s for the court to decide,” Ayuku said matter-of-factly. Hols nodded his approval.

“What makes you trust them?” Dekhar said, but then realized that only the Raven would agree with him on that front, and quieted down. He let D-Dog do all the talking for the remainder of the conversation.

Ayuku turned back to Skewes, “how long has it been down there, infinity years?” they laughed.

Skewes was locked away, and they returned to the familiar comforts of Gor’s tavern. The Blood Weepers were now a page in Wolverton’s history, the Broken Arrows finally broken. Ayuku sat down at his small desk that night, and penned a letter by candle light. It was to Conton Willowpole, and it was not in Ayuku’s typical courtly voice. In summary, it said: ’you’re next.’

View
Unlikely Allies
Ayuku Solo (featuring Dekhar and D-Dog)

Pharast the 3rd, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Thunderstorm, Cold, High Winds

Ayuku and Maverick spent the day at the armorer, while the ex-knight was fitted for some new kit. The wind howled outside, and they gladly hung near the blacksmith’s forge-fire as he hammered. Their outfitting done, they returned to the Hare & Ass.

In the common room, farmers grumbled about the storm and what it might do to their fields; Thunderhammer ale was the only remedy to their troubles. Ayuku pondered their simple lives, and wondered if his affairs in Wolverton had improved them. Maverick drank next to him, wearing his new armor to “break it in.” The big man seemed content to pull on his ale by the fireplace, feet resting on a stool.

Several local merchants were hotly debating the effect of the Trade Commission and the new deal proposed by Lord Kendrick, engineered by the Tien. Good, he thought.

They got a good night’s rest – they would head out early the next morning. The rains did not let up overnight, and though the howling of the winds had subsided, the staccato of raindrops pattering on the slate roof above heralded a muddy travel day.

Pharast the 4th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Rainy, cold

Their slog along the Cliffway was muddy, and they shivered in the wind and rain, drawing their cloaks and hoods close. Along the cliff, they spotted a band of goblins playing “stone the seagull,” where a goblin mounted on a goblin dog rode around holding a length of string, attached at the other end to a seagull’s leg. Its comrades attempted to pelt it with stones while it squawked and wheeled about clumsily overhead. The duo passed them by quietly.

Several hours later, they made Swallowfeld. They went immediately into the Wolf’s Head tavern, run by Maban the Cleanly and his wife Bleja.

Ayuku and Maverick huddled around the fire as their cloaks steamed. Thankfully the floor was muddy already from other guests, but Maban scowled at them silently nonetheless. When they had dried and warmed, Ayuku approached the bar. He introduced himself and his traveling companion.

“We are here on official business from Wolverton. I’m looking for Sir Talek. Do you know where we might find him?” Ayuku was polite and courtly.

Maban shrugged, and looked to Bleja – she seemed to always know the doings of the locals. She assumed a pleased look as she said, “Oh, Sir Talek is off to the priory today. He’s been looking in on Father Ruan more often after the incident,” this last she said with great emphasis, as if to prompt further inquiry from her audience.

“He’ll be back tomorrow, if the rain stops,” said Maban. Bleja looked annoyed at the abrupt interruption. “Dry out a bit, get a room and enjoy the warmth for a while.” He pulled two tankards for them, then gave them a room key.

“We thank you,” Ayuku bowed slightly, accepting the key. Maverick accepted both drinks. They cleaned off upstairs, and returned to the common room, dry and warm.

They saw a rotund man with a patchy beard and rosy cheeks sitting comfortably at a corner table. He looked like a regular, and was dressed in a wizardly robe. He was poring over a book, but took notice when they arrived. It seemed like more than coincidence that he was here now, Ayuku thought.

He waved them over, and they obliged. He introduced himself as Jory Mayne, local wizard. He ordered drinks for the lot of them.

“What brings you here this fine day?” Jory asked casually. He seemed a friendly sort. He was an odd combination of scholar and obvious lush.

“We’re looking for Sir Talek, on business from Wolverton,” Ayuku answered. The Tien assumed a casual tone and posture, while Maverick watched the wizard carefully. “We’re following a band of mercenaries who may have fled this way after the battle at Caer Syllan. If you know anything, it would be helpful to Hols and I if you shared.”

“I know what you’re referring to… you mean the Broken Arrows,” Jory said.

“Yes, and they may have been accompanied by a member of the nobility,” Ayuku added.

“Well, you don’t have an army in tow, so what are your plans when you do find them?” Jory asked. He seemed glad to have company.

“We’re mainly reconnoitering. When we find them we’ll make further plans. Sir Talek should supply us with trackers, when he returns.”

“I hope this doesn’t start another war. Why don’t you just let them go, they were soundly defeated.” Jory teased.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. We’ll strike at their leaders, it will be over quickly,” Ayuku assured.

“If you find them…”

“We will.” The Tien’s eyes became hard as flint, and Jory withdrew slightly, looking down into his cup. There was a darkness inside the stranger, expertly concealed until needed, it seemed.

“I have a favor to ask.” Jory changed the subject. “I’m looking for a woman. She’s a sylph – white eyes, somewhat distant, but a bookworm like myself. Will you tell me of her whereabouts if you run across her in your travels?”

“Certainly, if I see her I’ll let you know,” Ayuku promised. He thought the mage was mostly harmless.

The fire danced as the front door opened, admitting a half-orc and a small dinosuar. Jory waved, and the half-orc waved back awkwardly. The potpourri of guests in the common room gasped at the sight of the hook-clawed raptor as it bounded into the cozy common room. Its expression seemed to be inquisitive, and the way the corners of its mouth turned upward gave it a permanent smile.

Ayuku looked over the newcomers with amusement. Maverick had his hand on his sword-hilt. Ayuku stood and approached the newcomer as he and his raptor as they settled in by the fireplace.

The Tien sat beside the half-orc and said, “I am Ayuku – a traveler like yourself. It seems there are two lonely adventurers out in the woods today.” The raptor curled up by the fire, nostrils still flaring and sampling the smells in the common room. “I am here on business from Wolverton, what brings you to this quaint village?”

“I’m Dekhar. This is D-Dog. I’m following him,” the half-orc jerked a thumb toward his comfortable dinosaur.

“Interesting… so why do you follow him? What is he after?” Ayuku pried.

“He follows his nose. I think he smelled food cooking here,” Dekhar said. The half-orc man was not very talkative.

The farmers in the common room kept nervous eyes on the carnivorous raptor by the fire. Its tail flicked about contentedly. They looked to Maban, who simply shrugged as he polished the already clean bar.

Tonlor sidled up to Ayuku, to have a better look at D-Dog. Ayuku tried to draw the man out further.

“You have the look of a tracker… am I correct?” he asked. “Are you in need of employment? Lord Lochar would pay for your services. We’re tracking the Broken Arrows mercenaries.” Bleja brought a platter of raw meat, and dropped it carefully in front of the raptor.

“On the house,” she said nervously. D-Dog began savaging it as soon as it hit the floor.

“I’ll help, if I get paid. I saw them pass north of here after the attack on the castle. I can take you there,” Dekhar said. “Anyway, those jerks attacked us once, about a month ago I guess. I wouldn’t mind feeding – D-Dog, stop playing with your food!” The raptor looked up at him quizzically, and continued his feast.

Their business done, they ate and retired for the night.

Pharast the 5th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.14, Swallowfeld
Rainy, cold, light wind.

The next morning, the rains continued. Ayuku found a small, carved wooden figurine inside his windowsill. It was a raven, dyed black. He pocketed it quietly – he had an idea about what it meant. They learned over breakfast that the river had overflowed, and that Sir Talek had not returned. The streets of Swallowfeld were a boggy mess.

“What’s with the raven figurine,” Maverick asked at breakfast. “You’re being secretive about it.”

“It’s a message, from an old friend,” he said – but would say no more. He asked Maban for some writing paper, but he had none. Jory waltzed in, book under his arm. The wizard was completely dry when he entered, somehow. Ayuku borrowed paper from the wizard, who cordially invited himself to sit with the three of them. D-Dog was laying on his back, legs askew and sticking up in the air, sleeping contentedly after filling his belly with meat.

Ayuku wrote a note in his spidery, dense script. It said:

“You know why we are here. I hope we do not interfere with one another, and perhaps we can even assist each other. Meet here tonight.” He folded and placed the note inside his windowsill, underneath the raven figurine.

As they passed the morning, Beryan, the bailiff of Swallowfeld stopped in. The businesslike half-elf woman reminded them to pay their taxes, and said that Sir Talek should be returning on the 6th.

“Who is this Talek guy?” Dekhar asked Ayuku.

“He’s the lord warden of the Lonely Coast, and captain of the garrison here,” he said. “I have a letter from Hols Nance in Wolverton requesting the aid of his scouts to help us track the Broken Arrows.” He looked at the tracker and his sleeping reptilian companion. “You know, I think we should set out tomorrow, with or without Sir Talek’s help. With your help, we may be ok after all.” Dekhar nodded. Maverick was chatting up Beryan, but not making much progress. “Let’s gear up at the shop today,” Ayuku said.

Jory cleared his throat and leaned in close to whisper to Ayuku, “go to Tryfena’s shop – it’s the only one in town anyway. I always get a funny read on that one. She’s keeping some secret, I’m sure. Let me know if you get the same impression,” he said quietly. Ayuku’s brow furrowed, and he nodded reluctantly.

Tryfena’s shop was behind a small walled compound. She had hired guards at the gate. Ayuku told Tonlor to wait outside while they shopped. He wanted to do all the talking.

Inside, Ayuku and Dekhar took in the too-eloquent store front – for these parts it was out of place. Tryfena sold a bit of everything. She was beautiful – young but with deep, knowing eyes. Ayuku wasn’t easily intimidated, but the way she looked through him made him shift a bit, and put him on guard immediately. Looking over her wares, he wondered how locals could afford her merchandise.

Ayuku looked around the shop, and left. Tryfena hadn’t said a word, and neither did Ayuku. Dekhar remained.

“So your friend didn’t like my wares?” she asked Dekhar.

“Lady, this stuff is out of our price range,” Dekhar replied uncouthly.

“Well, you’re both alive, so perhaps you should stick with what you’re using,” she chided.

“Wait, are you kicking me out?” Dekhar asked, confused.

“By no means,” she said, still inscrutable.
Ayuku became invisible, out of sight of the guards, while Maverick distracted them. He returned to the inside, purposing to slip past the odd shop owner.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Tryfena said dangerously – as if speaking to the entire room. Ayuku froze. He spotted a waifish young lady with short black hair behind her. He was still invisible, and Dekhar scratched his head, looking around to see who she was talking to.

The young woman communicated via hand signals – the ones that thieves use – to the unseen guest. She was a prisoner here, she indicated.

Tryfena concentrated, her body perfectly still. “So, you know the girl. Jory sent you to spy on me…”

So she was psychic. Ayuku had seen and heard enough. He had to get out of here before she learned any of the many secrets swimming around in his head.

“No,” he thought. He focused his mind, staying rooted in place as she searched it. He conjured a few choice memories of his past. He had done secret things in service of his lord…

Tryfena shuddered, and her hand went to the ornate rapier at her side. She was off-guard now, he thought.

“This conversation is over,” she said dangerously. D-Dog sniffed, and smelled cat. “Leave or I call my guards.” Ayuku and Dekhar obliged, and returned to the Wolf’s Head.

On the way, Ayuku explained to Tonlor and Dekhar that the merchant held a young woman hostage. It was an old… friend of his. Maverick swelled with righteous anger. The knight inside him stirred. They retired to their quarters to plan.

Late that night, Maverick (feeling a bit like the Sir Tonlor Faight that he once was) appeared at the gates of Tryfena’s compound. He banged on the gates, demanding entry. At the rear of the compound, Ayuku, Dekhar and D-Dog dropped silently inside the wall.

A guard at the front porch of the shop called out a warning, and D-Dog got the distinct scent of cat again. They heard a low growl. Sir Tonlor could see a large, shadowy feline figure approaching the gates. He stepped back a pace, hoping they wouldn’t take long inside.

Dekhar checked the back window for traps, and found none. He skillfully unlocked it, and slid it open quietly. More guards were being roused and summoned to the front gate. The gate swung open, and the ex-knight Maverick faced three armed guards and a dire tiger. He prayed and braced for impact.

Inside the shop, the Raven crouched behind some crates. She approached quietly, and whispered, “we need to go now; she’s very dangerous.” Ayuku nodded and they snuck back out the rear window as Tryfena was getting dressed upstairs, preparing to annihilate the burglars.

At the front gate, Maverick was being flanked by guards as a dire tiger advanced gracefully toward him. If it pounced, he knew he’d die this night. The guards backed off and Tonlor gripped his sword tightly as the tiger began charging.

Ayuku, Dekhar, the Raven and D-Dog began scaling the back wall. They made it over easily – though without D-Dog. The small raptor skittered down the wall noisily. Maverick was being savaged by the dire tiger, huge claws and teeth rent his new armor, and blood flowed into the muddy street. D-Dog bolted for the front gate, and the tiger left the downed ex-knight in the mud to chase this new quarry.

The guards reined it in before it could leave the compound, And Ayuku, Dekhar and the Raven grabbed Tonlor on their way out. They made for the Wolf’s Head at top speed. They would have little time to regroup before they left town. They feared the retribution of the dangerous Tryfena.

“What were you doing in there?” Ayuku asked Margaret Menadue, when they had caught their breath. “How did you get out to leave the raven statuette inside my room?”

“I didn’t,” she smiled at him impishly. “I gave it to a patron to leave inside your window when I heard you were staying at the inn. I slipped him a potion to help him pull it off.” The young woman looked at him triumphantly.

Ayuku nodded, impressed. “Where were you going?”

“I was leaving Wolverton, for reasons you might guess,” she teased. Dekhar was binding Tonlor’s wounds with healing magic. As he regained consciousness, he looked skeptically at this “princess” he’d rescued.

Ayuku read his expression. “We need all the help we can get,” he said, “she has some skill. I’ve faced her before.” He looked back at the young lady soberly. “We need your help.”

She searched his face. She looked intrigued and thrilled, and sidled up to him, uncomfortably close. “Ok. I owe you. What can I do for you?” She was leaning in very close as she asked.

Ayuku did not flinch from her attempt to put him off his guard. “We are tracking Zar and Beren Skewes, and the Broken Arrows that fled Wolverton.”

The Raven recoiled a bit. “You want to piss off all the worst people in Wolverton?”

“Yes. Now what do you know?”

The raven searched his face, and said quietly, “Skewes is working for someone now. Someone’s pulling his strings,” she pantomimed a puppeteer. “I heard it’s something evil.” Ayuku nodded, expressionless. Margaret paused, then changed subject entirely. “You know I beat you last time, right?” She teased.

He didn’t answer her directly, but shook his head at her childishness. “What’s your play, Margaret? What do you stand for now?”

She leaned in and said, with a pouty face, “I just want to burn it all down. I want to mess with the aristocracy.” She smiled and leaned in again, meeting his eyes with hers and putting a hand on his leg. He shooed it off.

“You know that’s a bad idea, right? I know from experience.” He gave her a paternal scowl.

“Save it, old man,” she said, and stormed off.

“I’m not old!,” he said… and he wasn’t. He instinctively checked his belt pouch as she walked away. She’d stolen a potion. He shrugged – after all, he’d stolen it from her first.

They left the Wolf’s Head before dawn, before Tryfena could exact her revenge.

View
Escape From Hard Bay
Wealdays

Calistril 25th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 25.29, Under the Blufont Manor, Hard Bay
Rainy, cold, light wind.

Inside the sea cavern under the Blufont Manor, Accolon swung his oversized crab-claw appendages at the incubating aberration pod. It cracked under the tremendous blow, and inky purple blood bubbled out and ran down the side of the chitinous pillar in which it grew. He was done inhabiting this alien bodysnatcher’s repulsive fungus form, and he began steeling his mind against the interloper in an attempt to take back his Taldan body.

“NO!” his body shouted from the cave entrance – though his comrades couldn’t tell if it was the possessor rebuking his attack on the gestating pod-creature, or the cavalier ousting the abomination who had overtaken his body.

Chem looked him over and said, “he’s back.” The cavalier reeled from the abrupt transition – it had taken all the willpower he could muster to oust the yithian from his body.

Argento looked skeptical. He buried an arrow in a mass of tentacles that approached their position in the cave opening. They writhed unwholesomely, sending black seawater spraying their way.

Rana was also skeptical… she kept her eye on the cavalier despite Chem’s declaration that he was the real deal again.

“Tickle him if you’re not sure,” Chem said. “The real Accolon is ticklish.”

“Huh?” Rana shook her head at the alchemist. Accolon frowned. A shambling humanoid amalgam of shark parts lumbered into the bloodrager’s kill zone, and her spinning scythe quickly turned it into chum. The place was smelling fishier with every aberrant piscine creature they felled.

Garion stood back a bit from the arched entrance to the water filled cavern, inspecting it. He tapped Chem on the elbow, and pointed: “there, see it?”

She knew what he was thinking: they shared an affinity for demolition. “Uh-huh,” she affirmed as she snuck a bomb from her coat, fused it and tossed it upward. She barely gave the rest a heads-up before the explosion rocked the chamber.

Rocks and debris cascaded into the tunnel opening just ahead of them, half-filling the portal and creating a choke-point for their enemies. It would cover their escape.

A fishy humanoid leapt into the crack, its slick rubbery claw-tipped arm lashing out at them. Bellabee pounded it with magic missiles, and Garion launched fire at it from the palm of his hand. The smell of burnt fish assaulted them as it slumped into the opening, further congesting the passage.

Accolon covered their retreat with shield raised and sword point ready, Rana stood beside him, and together they cut down another with sword and scythe as it attempted to wriggle through their defenses. They heard the telltale hiss of chemicals reacting as Chem did her thing behind them. She tossed another bomb into the breach, and more rocks blew into the opening, killing a final fish-fiend as the rubble completely blocked the passage.

“Ok, now let’s go loot the magic shop,” she said with a bright, expectant expression.

“Let’s rest first,” Rana said. She wasn’t sure if they would survive the defenses of a magic shop – she’d heard stories of the horrors and traps that guarded them.

“Time to rest when you’re dead,” Argento growled. Rana shrugged.

Clarne was dead by their hands, and while he hadn’t specifically deeded all his worldly possessions to them, they reasoned that since he was in league with an evil cult, they had dibs. They moved quickly through the waterlogged passages, and into the cellar under the Blufont mansion. All the ladders leading out of the cellar were destroyed by Garion’s fireball, so getting out wouldn’t be easy.

Argento crept up and listened, and smelled. He thought he heard several people guarding the hatch leading into the Blufont house, but didn’t hear any outside the hatch leading to the outside, behind the house. He carefully and quietly piled some wreckage, still smoldering, so he could climb out. Lifting the hatch carefully, he peeked around and saw a guard armed with a loaded crossbow, ready to fire. He didn’t notice the okami.

He and the others devised a plan. Bellabee magically altered her form to appear as Clarne – the real Clarne’s body down in the cellar with them was so charred that the guards above might not have recognized his corpse.

“Open the hatch you dolts!” fake Clarne called out. Bellabee’s rendition was believable, although Argento told her not to be so cheerful as she insulted them. “The intruders have escaped through the cave tunnels, and are headed out to sea – get some men ready to follow them!” she called again. They heard shouts and the stamping of boots above them.

One of the guards above threw open the inside hatch and dropped a ladder for “Clarne.” Bellabee took it to the outside hatch, and they started filing out, hoping to have cleared out the complex so they could make their escape.

Bellabee went out first, Andronitus second. The crossbowman in his perch on the second floor of the house’s back side was confused as Andronitus drew his sword, grabbed “Clarne,” and held it to his throat.

“They’ll kill me!” Clarne shouted to the marksman in his crow’s nest. “Drop it, or you’ll answer to my brother Affric!”

The crossbowman hesitated for a moment, bolt aimed at Andronitus, then lowered it. The rest had ascended the ladder from the cellar and quickly made their way to the complex’s surrounding wall while Andronitus kept Clarne in the hostage position. Bellabee stayed in character.

They were almost free, when six crossbowmen rounded the corner with Affric and his magi counselor. Clarne’s noble brother kept his cool as he assessed the situation. Affric had them outgunned, he thought.

“Let my brother go, this doesn’t need to come to bloodshed. I can simply banish you for this treasonous act instead of having you executed. Go now and never return, and leave my brother unharmed.” The man’s voice was reasonable and convincing.

Rana, Chem, Argento Accolon and Garion stood against the tall stone wall, ready to climb over if the opportunity presented itself. The alchemist was readying a surprise, secretly mixing ingredients in her robe pocket. She prepared for situations like this. In a flash, she threw her creation at Rana’s feet and a billowy cloud of smoke, light as air, enveloped and obfuscated them. It happened so fast that the stunned crossbowmen had no time to react before they disappeared into the cloud, Bellabee and Andronitus included.

Rana began boosting her fellows over the wall, hurtling them upward with her powerful arms. Affric shouted commands to his guards, sending them to the docks; that was their only path to escape now, he thought.

They split up and took to the darkened streets of Hard Bay, easily evading the bobbing lanterns of their pursuers. Accolon, Andronitus and Garion hastened to the Evening Mist inn and tavern to retrieve their horses and mule, while Rana, Belabee, Chem and Argento headed for Clarne’s shop. Their onetime companion the kitsune was nowhere to be seen.

Clarne’s Curio shop was on the waterfront, so Argento told his team to stay hidden behind the building while he covertly picked the lock on the second story window. It was undone in a matter of seconds – this was the second time, and the only way – he’d ever entered this building. Once it was unlocked and open, he waved the others up.

He crept silently down the stairs to the first floor, where he suddenly froze. A ten-foot-tall flesh golem stood near the entryway. It stirred a bit as he backpedaled very slowly up the stairs.

Bellabee shrugged, and whispered, “I’m Clarne, so it shouldn’t be a problem.” She winked, and then assumed her best Clarne face before descending the wooden stairs. As she did, the golem spun to face her, its dead-eyed, stitched face scrutinizing her. She was Clarne, so the golem just stood there with its eyes locked onto her. She waved the rest down, and they cautiously descended. Rana had her scythe in hand – she didn’t trust it.

“Go to the window, tell me if anyone approaches,” Clarne instructed the golem. It stood, looking at the doppleganger for an uncomfortable amount of time before obeying.

The sorceress nodded in self-approval and began scrutinizing the arcane properties of various items displayed on the shop shelves. There were many treasures to be had here. She began shoving said treasures into their bag of holding.

Chem tossed Argento the keys to Clarne’s shop, which she’d had the whole time. He caught them, and shrugged.

Rana found a locked chest in a small antechamber. It looked heavy, so it must hold valuable stuff, she reasoned. In handling it, she must have triggered some magical trap – she had just enough time to see Argento giving her that accusatory look before a flash of fire exploded around her, stunning her more than injuring.

The golem spun around at the flash and sound of the fire-trap, its eyes wide with surprise. Something had snapped inside its damaged brain, and it began smashing everything near it with a whirlwind of huge meaty fists. The party backed away from it quickly. It wasn’t targeting them, so it was easy to avoid its rage.

Guards were canvassing the docks, looking for them. Two of them were nearby, and approached the shop to investigate the commotion.

“Don’t open…” they heard one of them shout to the other, but too late. The door handle turned and the door exploded into a fireball that engulfed the two men and shot a gout of flame over the docks outside. The golem pursued the men, catching fire as it smashed them to pulp. It ran aimlessly about the dock as it burned, setting fire to boats, coils of rope, storefronts, crates, and anything that it crossed in its rampage.

It was perfect cover – they left through the back door and met up with Accolon, Andronitus and Garion, quietly stealing out of town while the guards and citizens of Hard Bay mustered to clanging bells to put the fires out.

They hurried to the northeast, the bright fires of Hard Bay slowly fading into the distance, and eventually flickering out entirely. They hiked all through the night across the coastal plain, and arrived exhausted as the sun rose over the eastern ocean shore of their sometimes home: the monastery of St. Kyerixus.

Neither Krogak and her crew nor the serpent man were anywhere to be found, thankfully. Chem checked on her two baby hippogriffs, who seemed glad to see her. They shut and locked the gate, and slept long and hard into the next day.

Calistril 26th, 4711 A.R., Starday
Hex 25.29, Monastery of St. Kyerixus
Overcast, cold, light wind

After a long rest and a hot meal, they pored over their take from Clarne’s shop. Some of it they could use, but most would need to be sold at a larger town than any they’d been to in these parts. The day was already long when they arose, and they decided to take another day to inventory and rest before they struck out again. Some light scouting revealed no sign of Chem and Argento’s monstrous mutant undead baby.

Calistril 27th, 4711 A.R., Sunday
Hex 25.29, Monastery of St. Kyerixus
Windy, cold

They took another day to take inventory, properly feed and groom their beasts of burden, and plan their next move. They decided that they’d likely worn out their welcome in the Lonely Coast, and if Affric Blufont wished, they would be considered criminals for the death of his brotherm– if he was in cahoots with Clarne. They could of course point to the cult activities, but the outcome was uncertain. They knew that Kendrick Lochar was fanatical about preserving the rule of nobility, and they would need to offer concrete evidence of Hard Bay’s dirty secret. Something new was on their horizon.

View
The Puller of Strings
Wealdays

Calistril 25th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 25.29, Under the Blufont Manor, Hard Bay
Rainy, cold, light wind.

Chem casually fused and tossed a bomb into the mix with Argento, Rana and Andronitus. Their enemy, the naga lay dead in the sea cave tunnel, now only a heap of coils and a severed head. The alchemist’s bomb was infused with positive energy – intended to heal rather than harm the trio. They were used to it by now – no more flinching every time she tossed something their way. Andronitus coughed and returned to consciousness, picking himself up from the blood-soaked cave floor.

At the opposite end of the cave complex, Accolon, Garion and Bellabee were investigating the noise of voices they’d heard entering the cellar from inside the Blufont’s manor house. They had crept up to the evil iron door that separated sea cave from wine cellar, and hid in the shadowy niches beside it. They saw five men, all wearing black robes. One of them was Clarne Blufont – the owner of the curio shop. Two of the men wielded knives; they went in front. Two had heavy crossbows loaded and aimed at the door behind which the intruders hid. These two flanked Clarne, who was readying a spell. Tension was thick as the knife-fighters approached the hidden party’s position.

One of the knife-wielders heard Garion as he shifted in the watery tunnel. “Hey, who’s out there?” the cultist called nervously. They continued their slow advance toward the door and the three hidden interlopers. Bellabee pursed her lips and raised her hands, fingers stretching and ready for action.

Rana stood at the opening of a wide cave, from which she heard many voices. Their speech was unintelligible and fishy. The Bloodrager was exhausted. Dealing the death blow to the naga had taken the wind out of her. She followed Chem, Andronitus and Argento as they moved to join their three companions – toward the faint, echoing voice of the cultist.

Chem tapped Andronitus with her curing wand, bought from Barbaeus, the dwarven cleric of Gozreh. The barnacle-encrusted stick left behind a small cluster of barnacles growing from his right pauldron where the wand tapped it. He frowned, brushing at them with his mailed left hand, then shrugged when they didn’t come off. Truly, he felt much better after the heals. Rana sat in the water, shaking her head as she recuperated.

“Now will you not be so gruff with me?” Chem chirped to Andronitus. She could tell he was feeling better now.

Andronitus thought about it for a second. “I’m not especially gruff toward you. Shouldn’t you be talking to your friend the Okami about that? He’s more gruff than I by far.”

“Well, I take it personally from you.” She said. “Anyway, he’s only that gruff with me because he ¬_loves_ me,” she added with a whisper. Rana stood up and followed them once more.

In the cellar, Clarne whispered something to one of his knife-fighters. They both retrieved and opened jangling bags, dumping their contents on the floor in front of the iron door. They were hooked caltrops, and the two maintained their position behind the obstacle they’d created, waiting for the intruders to show themselves.

Bellabee furrowed her brow, and stepped into the doorway. A spray of glitter shot from the sorceress’s outstretched fingers, covering the two knife cultists. They cried out and rubbed their eyes frantically. One crossbow bolt whished through the open doorway, narrowly missing the Gelfling as she ducked aside. The other crossbowman had technical difficulties, as his bowstring had snapped. Clarne cursed at him, and shouted an arcane command at Bellabee, “Approach!”

The sorceress felt the compulsion to obey, and couldn’t resist it. She stepped forward into the barbed caltrops spread out on the floor in front of her. They pierced her boots, and her feet within. Garion and Accolon gasped and shouted, leaving their hiding places to aid their comrade.

Across the complex, the others heard the sounds of a fight beginning. They made their way carefully but quickly among the rocks of the cavern. Chem and the Kitsune gunslinger diverted into the small, southward chamber containing the alien egg sacs. She didn’t want to miss the opportunity to harvest them, in case they couldn’t make it back this way.

Garion incanted something, and two small flame elementals manifested in front of Bellabee, hoping to buy her some time.

“They’re a bit on the small side,” Accolon noted. “You need to work on your elementals, friend.” Garion scowled.

Clarne held a silver bowl, an arcane implement of some sort. It glowed with orange light, and he pointed at Bellabee as he chanted. A sphere of flame appeared before her, rolling along the ground. The cultist leader cursed when, even with her injured feet, the sorceress leapt aside; the sphere rolled past her. She raised a brow at him, infuriating the now glowering man.

Accolon pushed ahead, failing to jump over the caltrops. They pierced his boots and his feet screamed at him. He limped toward the two front line knife fighters – both still blinded by Bellabee’s glittery spell. The knight dropped his longsword and drew his lance, thrusting it into one of them. The injured cultist screamed, and clutched the wound in his belly as Accolon recovered his thrust. The cultist dropped to his knees, then fell dead.

Bellabee backed up, through the door and back into the cave, scattering some of the wicked caltrops and raking a few free from her injured feet. She wriggled her fingers at Clarne. The man’s face cracked a slight smile, but it was quickly dispelled. The sorceress shook her head. His will was strong, but she was determined to break it to avenge her poor feet.

The small fire elementals lashed at the remaining knife-cultist as they moved past him toward Clarne. Garion leapt over the caltrops, right behind them. A crossbow bolt clanged off of Accolon’s breastplate, skipping off his side on a tangent. Accolon retrieved his longsword as he advanced, wielding it in both hands he slashed at the remaining knife-cultist. The lightly armored man’s expensive leather armor parted before the blade, spilling blood on the floor before him as he backpedaled.

Bellabee pointed an index finger at Clarne, and three missiles of force pounded him in the chest. He doubled over, and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Garion took a crossbow bolt to the shoulder. The dwarf growled, and broke it off, tossing its feathered shaft on the cellar floor and growling a challenge at the crossbowman. The man hastily began reloading; his hands quaking as the dwarf charged forward.

A guard descended the ladder into the cellar. They recognized him as the gate guard for the complex, whom they had duped into letting them inside. He wasn’t to blame, really – theirs was a well-executed ploy, with special-effects and good acting.

Clarne directed his flaming sphere toward Garion, who was ducking past the crossbowmen to reach him. The sphere rolled past him as the dwarf sidestepped it. Clarne got nervous. His second crossbowman had restrung his weapon, loaded and landed a bolt on Accolon. The knight winced as it thunked into his right thigh. The other crossbowman missed the advancing dwarf.

The cultist leader backed away and quaffed a healing potion, avoiding entanglement with the small fire-elementals. Accolon pulled a small ceramic pot from a side pocket of his pack, and threw it hard against the ground where Clarne and a crossbowman stood. It shattered, spilling gray shimmering oil about their feet. The crossbowman’s legs wobbled comically before he crashed heavily to the ground. Clarne skated more gracefully away from the greasy puddle.

Rana, Argento and Andronitus splashed through the waterlogged tunnels, advancing toward the sounds of battle, but not quickly. The floors were uneven and treacherous. Chem had busied herself with obtaining a living sample of the gestating pod-things in the meat-filled chamber. She employed all of her skill in alchemical harvesting and carefully placed one of the membranous egg sacs, along with enough of its substrate material to fill the jar. She watched it carefully through the pale blue glass. Something squirmed around inside the sac. It looked like a tiny, fishy-featured humanoid, but she feared it would not survive outside of the cave – if they made it out.

Argento rounded the corner to where he had heard Bellabee cry out. He could have moved faster – but she had made that comment about eating his own poop… he walked rather than jogged to her aid. He saw her fire off three force missiles at some target within the cellar, and heard cursing as they struck. She was limping, he noticed. Andronitus and Rana also rounded the corner, panting in unison.

Garion took another bolt, this one slashed across his cheek, angering the dwarf further. Another guard descended the ladder from the manor house. Rana rounded the corner, pushing past Bellabee and barely noticing the caltrops as she somewhat instinctively hopped over them, bringing her scythe to bear on the still-blind and bleeding knife-fighter.

Beside Clarne, the fallen crossbowman stood awkwardly, moving away from the greasy floor. Then Clarne quaffed another potion – this time he disappeared after taking a singing wound from one of Garion’s summoned fire elementals.

“Ah-ha!” Bellabee thought. Clarne had made a mistake – she advanced up to the line of caltrops and leaned over, fluttering her wings as a glittery cloud flew from her fingertips. Clarne’s outline appeared, covered in the shiny stuff. The crossbowman who had just stood cursed as the glitter flew into his eyes, blinding him. Another guard descended the ladder.

Garion roared, thrusting his holy symbol of Angraad out before him toward the rabble. A red, glowing bead streaked from it, across the room to impact on the far wall. The whole room was engulfed in a conflagration of fiery death. Garion and his comrades braced themselves and shielded their eyes as the intense heatwave washed over them, passing with a whoosh.

When the air settled, they saw that their enemies had all fallen, burned to a crispy char. The hot air smelled of cooking wine, burning wood and burning people. Smoke quickly began to fill the chamber.

“Well, that takes care of the rats,” Accolon said. Andronitus, panting, rounded the corner, blade brandished and ready to fight. He surveyed the scene, and lowered his weapon, somewhat deflated. Garion looked back at him and chuckled.

They took a minute to loot the corpses. Clarne was decked out in a fine array of magical gear, which they eagerly appropriated and distributed. Then they traversed the tunnels back to where the naga was slain, picking up Chem along the way. Rana dispatched the egg sacs with her scythe once Chem had obtained her sample. The shrill squealing sounds that echoed from the room while she did her work were nauseating.

They were together at the large cavern opening, listening and watching, horrified at the squelches and incomprehensible language issuing from its mouth. Garion picked out two fishy hybrid humanoid abominations wading waist deep in the water. They were amalgams of crustacean and piscine parts, with a subtle hint of something more human. The way they shambled around didn’t suggest much intelligence.

Braziers lit the watery sea-cave. By the sound of the echoing rush of seawater, they could tell the cavern was much bigger that what they could see from here. Something large dominated its center. Accolon advanced to the cave mouth to take a looksee. He had a javelin in hand, and not liking the looks of the monstrosities inside, he hurled it at the nearest one. It burbled and splashed as the steel tip pierced its flank, causing a general commotion from within the cavern, and eliciting more burblings and splashing.

As he edged closer to the cavern, the water grew deeper by degrees. The thing that dominated the room’s center was like an immense chitinous pillar that extended from floor to ceiling. It was packed with egg sacs, similar to the ones they’d seen previously. One larger, bulbous sac dominated the center of the disgusting structure. The whole place had a slimy, oceanic stink about it. Argento and Bellabee moved closer to behold the obscenities in the room. Chem shielded herself with an extract, and joined them.

Andronitus called, “Hellooo?”

A large, abberant thing moved into view from around a corner. Its base was conical, and looked to be composed of fungus. From its apex sprouted four tentacle appendages, each terminating in a claw or some sensory organ. Its head was on another tentacle. Waving filaments protruded from where a mouth might be on a natural creature, and its eyes were orbs of black, with oddly ovular white pupils. Accolon gasped as it presented itself, and hurled another javelin at the crustacean-creature in protest to all this riff-raff. Burblings from the others who were shambling about – there might be a dozen.

They also saw four humans, naked and chained to a pillar within the chamber. Their eyes were glazed over, and they barely responded to the ruckus in the cavern.

“You should leave,” said a voice in all their heads. It was soft and reasonable, and in perfect Taldane.

“We will not,” Accolon challenged aloud.

The aberration wiggled some appendages and tentacles in what appeared to be irritation. “Very well. You won’t mind if I borrow your body, will you?” The reasonable voice was telepathic, and only Accolon heard it. It sounded like the creature was smiling.

Accolon’s mouth said, “interesting.” It was a strange thing to suddenly say, spoken as if to himself. Then, “I do think we should leave, after all,” he said to his comrades. His tone had suddenly become calmer.

Argento’s brow furrowed briefly, then he jumped back suddenly as if he’d had a disturbing epiphany. “That’s not Accolon,” he accused, pointing at the knight. “One second he wanted to fight, and now he wants to calmly leave?” It made sense.

“That’s all wrong,” Accolon’s mouth said. “I’m just changing my perspective… maybe we should hear its argument.”

Argento had heard of the creature in the cave, it was coming back to him quickly now. Accolon’s bodysnatcher was called a Yithian, an alien creature from a far galaxy. It could swap bodies with others in an attempt to learn its memories and experience its life firsthand.

Rana gripped her scythe, leveled it at Accolon, then thought better of it and turned her ire to the thing in the cave. It had prisoners in there, and intended gods-knew-what for them.

“Blind the fool,” Andronitus said to Bellabee. She was still unsure about the Accolon situation, and so turned her attention to the shambling fish-things in the cave. Two of them received magic missiles.

Accolon looked pleased that he still had the floor. “The thing we’re growing in this cave is here to help us.” He sounded so reasonable and sure of himself. “If you interrupt us, then we won’t be able to fight the true evil.”

“And what exactly is that,” Rana demanded.

“Cease these hostilities first, and we can talk rationally,” Accolon promised.

Andronitus wasn’t having it. He prepared for the worst, getting ready to rush the dominated knight if things went sour.

“Who is the true evil?” Chem chimed in.

Accolon turned to her. “Human sin is the true problem, but secondary to that – the demon lord Orcus festers in a deep cyst in the heart of this land. The thing we’re breeding in this womb is meant to fight him, and his abyssal servants.”

Chem knew all about the abyss. It was a plane of infinite layers, home of demons, who took pleasure in destroying mankind and stealing souls to create more demons. She also knew there were older things in the abyss – things that were there before the demons claimed it as their breeding grounds. These creatures hated the demons, and hated humanity just as much, for their sins allowed the demons to reproduce. They were called qlippoth.

Andronitus believed he believed what he said, whatever the real truth was. Chem said, “this guy is what the lizard man wanted us to fight against.”

Bellabee turned back to them, “this is typical villain against villain stuff… he’s just trying to lure us into that cave so he can have his way with us.”

yith.jpg

Accolon said, “I can offer you a place in the blisterwombs, there’s still space for more servants of her majesty Oar-Ooung. She has shown me deeper oceans, and she can show them to you. I have traveled far, seen many worlds. Some were so unlike yours that they would drive your lesser minds mad. But the things she has shown me, the deepest places of the abyss – they are teeming with monstrosities with minds so alien you can’t fathom them.”

Garion had heard enough of this dribble. He turned to Chem, “do you have any explosives?” Chem opened her coat and smiled, revealing a bandolier full of bombs.

Rana nodded in agreement. “Let’s blow the place up. Can you?”

“I could probably blow the entrance…”

Accolon was looking nervous now, and he switched his attention to Andronitus. Of all these intruders, he thought he had the best chance to influence this one. He switched to telepathy, directed at the Cheliaxian, “I can offer you power…”

Andy thought, “what’s in it for me?”

“Our plan is far-reaching, with long goals. They will take longer than your meager lifespan to complete. We are willing to offer you the throne of Wolverton, if you do not interfere with our work. You can have all the towns of the coast. My master’s home on this plane is underneath their castle, he has been manipulating their fate for some time now.”

Andronitus imagined. He was distracted by a tentacled nightmare rounding the corner, slopping its formless body disgustingly through the water. The man was sickened by the sight of it. Garion grimaced as it entered his view, and responsively held up his holy symbol, blessing he and his companions. The warm light caused the fishy men and the tentacled thing to writhe uncomfortably. Accolon cowered at its presence.

The real Accolon – his consciousness – had been transplanted into the Yithian’s alien body. From the moment the switch had been made, he was bombarded by sensory inputs mankind was not meant to experience. The appendages attached to his face and tentacles picked up impulses from energies he couldn’t interpret. He could see in every direction, but the colors were off and the textures screamed at him as though he were touching everything in the cave at once.

He reeled. He could see the prisoners chained to a stone. He could sense things growing inside the blisterwombs, including one large, powerful creature that filled him with dread. It was thoroughly evil, its heart was black and pulsing. He lashed out at it with a massive crab-claw. A tear opened in the membrane where he struck, and a crablike, hairy spidery leg coated with slime extended from it, pink like a newborn mouse.

“No! It’s not ready yet!” Accolon screamed. The real Accolon moved awkwardly in his borrowed body away from the gestating evil. He turned his attention to the prisoners. One snap of his claw severed the chain binding one of them. The freed man simply wandered aimlessly away from it, his eyes vacant.

Andronitus tackled Accolon, who was about to attack Garion. Argento loosed an arrow at the tentacled thing in the cave. “Perhaps I can make a deal with your master, and cut out the middle man,” Andronitus goaded. Accolon didn’t reply, as he was too preoccupied with what was happening in the cave.

Rana helped Andronitus with the possessed knight. Chem saw the fishmen and the aberrant tentacle creature advancing, and she tossed a bomb at the ceiling near the cave’s entrance. The sound of the blast echoed loudly through the cave and tunnels. Falling rock cascaded in front of them, spraying them with water, and choking the passage. It hadn’t sealed the cave mouth, but it would be difficult to pass in this state.

All manner of aberrations began advancing toward them.

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