49 shades of grey

Mindflayer

Rather than risk accosting the slavers in the lair—not that we had any idea where their lair was—we decided to lay in wait at a likely spot, and ambush them as we passed. After some searching, we found one–a narrow area with an overhang some 10-20′ above. We set up a hide, and observation point, and Darion even conjured us up a Rope Trick so those not on look-out could be held from view.

Aunt Petunia would approve. There was nothing she liked more than a good ambush. And she certainly hated slavers–for good reason.

Derro_-_BromWe were there almost a week before anyone of any description traversed the passage, but when someone did appear it looked very much like what we expected: a group of grey-skinned derro, led by a strange grey creature with a squid-like head. Well, to be honest, that was a bit of a surprise.

With the aid of an invisibility potion, I cautiously made my way forward unseen in the darkness, well above the enemy and screened from them by the rocks and ledge.

Apparently not quietly enough. The creature–Darion would later call it an illithid, or  mindflayer–looked in my general direction, and I slumped to the ground unconscious.

When I finally awoke some minutes later, the slavers were all dead–save one, ensnared in Darion’s web. We knocked him out, took a sample of his hair, looted the bodies, and left him with the others as if left for dead. We then retired a day’s travel away so that Antonio might scry our quarry.

For the next two days our cleric got some fragmentary images of what appeared to be the derro lair. Then the images stopped, likely because our foes had grown suspicious. That was dangerous—if they knew our interest in them, they might show greater interest us.

We decided, in future, to cloak any discussions of our plans in confusing banter and nonsensical code words (something that came quite naturally to me). We also decided to spend some time exploring the Upperdark in another direction. Viggo had, for some weeks now, been excited at the news we had heard of a dragon in these parts. We resolved to investigate further…

Mixed grell

With the threat of Pefirra banished from this world, we spent some weeks overseeing the construction of stately Goat Manor. The deep gnomes were, as expected, both skilled and efficient in their stonework. As Viggo’s fame grew, more seemed to rally to his banner (although he doesn’t actually have a banner, which could be a bit of a problem). Several of the refugees also committed to stay with us and build a new settlement in the Upperdark, at least until the war above at past. Many more, however, grumbled at not having been returned to the world above. It is a matter we need to attend to soon, I think.

mad_ex_grellIn the meantime, we decided to scout out more of the passages to the west—both to secure a larger buffer zone of enemy-free territory around the mine, but also to try to learn more of the foes around us. Our next target was a nest of grells, a particularly odd species of squidy-parroty-like-hovery-things.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the fight, perhaps because I spent part paralyzed by their squidy-parroty tentacles, and partly because Viggo and I later celebrated our victory with the first batch of gugundy from our new brewery. The gugundy was, we realized the next morning, a little strong (although quite useful as an industrial solvent).

Among the treasures that we obtained in defeating the grell (and their even more peculiar overlord) was a scrying mirror. That, in turn, gave me an idea….

Scrying

We knew vaguely of a distant city of kuo-toa fish-creatures, which was marked on the maps we had obtained. We knew too that the forces of darkness had used the underdark both to move their troops and to trade in slaves. We certainly believed the kuo-toa to be in league with our other enemies. But beyond this we had little reliable information.

We could seek to infiltrate the City of the Glass Pool, but that seemed risky in the extreme. None of us, after all, looked like fish or could breathe water.

Instead, however, we could capture one of the enemy, let him or her escape, and then scry their movements from afar. With luck they might reveal something of the tunnels ahead, the plans of the enemy, the slaving routes, and even the distant kuo-toa.

Thus we decided to set out to catch us some slavers…

Plots, and more plots

After defeating the trolls, the deep gnomes seemed more amenable to use remaining in the area for some time to come. After some negotiation we agreed to sell our ownership of the adamantium deposits we had discovered to a group of svirfneblin miners in exchange for one large payment and several years of royalties. With this we proposed to build a headquarters for our small company (“Goat Manor”) in a nearby cavern, at a cost of some 20,200 pieces of gold. It would include an array of workshops, laboratories, and even a small gugundy brewery and a temple for use both by Antonio and the local gnomish cleric s of Callarduran Smoothhands.

GoatCave

Room

Number

Effect

Manor House

Alchemy Lab

1

+2 Craft (alchemy)

Bath

1

Bedroom

10

Book Repository

1

+3 Knowledge (dungeoneering)

Brewery

1

Common Room

3

Courtyard

1

Defensive wall

1

Escape Route (to temple)

1

Guard Post (tower)

1

Kitchen

1

Laundry

1

Lavatory

4

Magical Repository (lab)

1

+3 Knowledge (arcana) and Spellcraft, additional +1 for research or crafting

Office

1

Secret Room

1

Sitting Room

1

Storage

3

Vault

1

Temple

Altar

3

Ceremonial Room

1

+1 Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate

Confessional

1

Infirmary

1

+2 Heal (as kit)

Office

1

Sanctum

1

+1 Will save

Secret Room

1

Statue

3

Workshop

Artisan’s Workshop

1

+2 Craft (armour)

Forge

1

+2 Craft (arms)

Storefront

1

Miscellaneous

Everburning torches

25

Farmland (fungus cave)

1

Daylight (Permanent)

2

At first matters proceeded well. However, after a few weeks we became aware of growing tension between the exiles (who chaffed at the restrictions placed on them) and the local gnomes (who still distrusted the exiles and their peculiar religious habits). These finally exploded into crisis when one of the local gnomes was murdered—apparently, if witnesses were to be believed, by some of the exiles.

A meeting between the two sides was called. We hurriedly undertook our own investigation, and discovered that Chief Lodh’s son and two others were missing. The Chief’s son had a reputation as a hard-liner, of course, which made it possible that he might indeed have been involved in an act of violence against our hosts.

The meeting had only just begun, and tempers had begun to fray, when suddenly there was a loud explosion and a bright ball of fire. Moments later, a group of grey, dwarf-like creatures appeared. We were under attack!

DuergarOur attackers were a group of duergar, backed by a deranged, flying derro mage. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carmaneren and the rest of the sverfniblin notables teleport out of the room. Others were less lucky, and many could be seen dead or dying amid the wreckage of the chamber. While I was pleased my friend the deep gnome priestess was safe, I was somewhat annoyed that they hadn’t stayed to help.

We certainly could have done with their assistance. The duergar were a treacherous foe, happy to stab you in the back as the front (a trick that I was much less fond of when used against me). After a difficult battle we finally got the upper hand, capturing one of them in the process. The derro got away, alas.

I turned to the prisoner. “Ye got but two choices ‘ere,” I warned him. “I can hand ye over to the deep gnomes, who will likely kill ye soon as look at ye. Or ye can tell me whose behind this ‘ere attack. In which case, if I believe ye, I’ll ask the gnomes to spare yer miserable life.”

I wasn’t bluffing, which made my simple question all the more effective. And this particular duergar was little more than a hired thug, with little attachment to those who had led him here. He soon started to talk. “Nane ay thes was mah idea, Ah jist dae whit aam tauld. Attack th’ gnomes an’ upworlders,”she said tae th’ bosses. They’ll be easy prey. An’ sae we did.”

She, we soon realized, was the cursed demoness Pefirra. Clearly she hadn’t abandoned her pursuit of us, and indeed harboured something of a grudge.

The prisoner was also able to tell us something of the three missing gnomes. Far from the traitors we had believed them to be, they had been captured, tortured, and killed once they had revealed details of the area. The murders had likely been conducted by the derro or duergar in disguise, or even Pefirra herself.

This information helped seal a cautious reconciliation between the local svirfneblin and the exiles, and both realized they now faced a common foe. We began work on  Goat Manor, and we were there overseeing the construction when news of the next calamity reached us. There was trouble at the adamantine mine!

We rushed to the mine, only to find a trio of horrific hooked creatures attacking the miners. “Hook Horrors!” shouted Darion as we ran forward to help. It seemed as good a name as any for the creatures.

modsuccubusAlas, we soon heard a familiar laugh. Pefirra! The hook horrors attack upon the miners had been bait to get us to this location. With a smile she waved her hands, and some sort of interdimensional portal briefly opened before us—and another demon stepped out. This one was a babau, and it was much less attractive than she, looking rather like a horned  skeleton smothered within a bone-tight hide of slimy leather.

Fortunately, we had prepared for this confrontation—or more particularly, Antonio had. He quickly called upon Pelor’s divine graces to create a circle of protection from evil around us, limiting the succubus’ ability to attack our minds. He then called upon the powers of the relic we had obtained weeks earlier to anchor the demon’s essence to this plane. If we could vanquish Pefirra here, she would not be bothering us again.

Between Darion’s powerful majicks and Viggo’s formidable blade, we made short work of the hook horrors and babau. The succubus was rather more of a challenge. We wounded her, but her ability to fly made it difficult to keep her in reach. She grappled me, no doubt to inflict her seductive evil enchantments, but was unsuccessful. She then began to take wing, clutching me–perhaps to drop me to the rocky ground below.

I managed to slip out of her grasp, falling 30 feet or so but being only lightly injured. Seeing that her plot had failed, Pefirra started to flee. Darion cast a web spell, which entangled her against the ceiling of the cavern. Antonio followed up by casting air walk—which in turn enabled Viggo to climb and finish things off with one mighty blow.

It was over.

Trolling the Upperdark

And so we set forth on our second effort to assault the troll lair west of the gnomish city. On the way, we had been told, we would meet a small tribe of quaggoths: large, shaggy beast-creatures, fierce and bestial in nature and appearance, but with a rudiment of language and tribal organization. These creatures had long been allies of the svirfneblin, but had been fighting a slowly losing battle against their common trollish foe. To identify us to the tribe Carmeneren had earlier given us each a small silver hammer, symbols of both the city and of its patron diety.

At first our journey was uneventful, with endless cavern giving way to more endless cavern, with the occasional cavern thrown in to counterpart the scenery. Eventually, however, we found a section where the passage passed by a huge underground cave. And, at the other end, there was the flickering glow of a camp fire. Orcs!

orccavernShould we pass by, or engage them? While I was interested in knowing more—after all, Orcs were not regular denizens of the Upperdark, and so their presence here suggested nearby tunnels that led to the surface—on balance I thought it best to avoid any encounter for now. The rest of my companions, however, wished to investigate, and possibly even attack the enemy. Rather than a frontal charge along the exposed edges of the lake, I decided to use guile and the goblin clothing in my pack (taken from the goblins we had defeated when we had first been fleeing the invasion of Iuz) to lure them to a position more convenient to us.

I thus shambled down and pretended to be taking glowing gems from the water. It was nothing more than a light spell cast on a few pebbles, but the Orcs didn’t know that. When they shouted at me to identify myself, I merely cursed at them in the guttural goblin tongue.

Sure enough, one of the half-dozen or so was sent to investigate. I kept up my rudeness, while keeping the cowl well about my rather non-goblin face. He drew still closer, unsuspecting. I gestured to the objects in the water…

…and slit his throat. He fell with a gurgle into the water. I pulled him onto shore, hoping it looked as if he had merely slipped, but the Orcs had seen more than I hoped. Several more hurried by way.

With this I uttered some impressive-sounding words of magical gibberish, and hurled one of the glowing stones their way. As I hoped, their eyes followed it—and I took advantage of the distract to hide, and make off stealthily behind the rocks and boulders.

Apparently, my sudden appearance, murder of one of their number, and disappearance had quite the effect. They retreated back the way, all the time muttering—according to Darion, who knows something of their language–about the “Black Goblin” who haunts these parts. Hopefully that will keep them away,

quaggoths

Not long after this we encountered the Quaggoth. Their initial ferocious demeanour gave every indication that they were about to eat us, but Vigoo was completely unperturbed. Instead he strode up to them confidentially, offering swigs of gnomish spirits and slapping them on the back as if they were members of his own clan. He struck up a particular rapport with their chief,a  huge scarred and shaggy creature called Thonot, to whom we offered gifts.

Thonot welcomed our offer of assistance against the trolls, and soon he and his warriors were leading the way. There was no real chance for strategizing—the quaggoth clearly were eager for a fight, and showed absolutely no interest in anything that might delay that prospect.

trolls

After less than an hour, we encountered the trolls. Thonot and his warriors charged into the fray without hesitation, and we followed. It was a difficult fight, made all the more difficult by the tendency of our enemies to appear from various side-passages, or even from behind us. Viggo did most of the damage, as usual, but I managed to slip a stealthy blade into several of the huge creatures, and Darion also fought hard.

I have to say, however, that all our fates ultimately rested in Antonio’s hands. Not only did he use his divine connections call upon a small group of fire elementals to assist us, but he also kept us all alive with his healing powers.

Eventually, the battle was won, and the trolls were vanquished. Although several of the quaggoth were slain in the fight, Thonot seemed well pleased that his people’s bitter foes had been eliminated.

The trolls’ lair revealed some treasure, and most notably a clearly magical sword imbued with both special powers and considerable intelligence. As we soon learned directly from the rather boastful weapon, it was Finslayer, had been taken from its former ranger owner long ago, and had as its purpose in life the slaying of kuo-toa.

And thus we returned to the gnomish city, having earned through actions a little more credit and trust. Little did we anticipate the treachery that would soon await us…

 

 

Gnomecoming

piercers

And so, after leaving C’Jain, we began what we imagined would be a two-day trek through the Upperdark towards the gnomish city. It was a perilous journey, full (as you might expect) of perils. We faced narrow rock ledges that required a halfling’s sure-footedness to lay a rope handhold for the less dexterous refuges. At one point we came across a cave full of carniverous  stalactites that would fall upon a person like a drunken man’s darts. There I chose to drawn them down by dancing the merry jig of Della The Wayward Sheep in the cavern, then dodging aside at the last moment before I was struck. Once fallen, fortunately they were easy prey to my companions’ weapons.

In one place we found a strange outcropping of rock that glowed with pulsating majicks. As best Darion could determine it might be used to enhance certain spells (notably teleportation), although how this might work he did not know. I regretted at this time we had not thought to see if C’Jain had a scroll of Teleportation Circle amongst his wares.

In still another place we came across an area riddled with holes of the sort made by giant worms (or, I imagined, would be made by giant worms, since I had never yet seen a worm of such size). Part of the ground gave way as we moved through the passage, apparently undermined by such burrowing—and revealed a cavern and fissure below from which a silvery glint of sorts emanated.

Well I couldn’t pass up investigating a silvery glint, could I?

Viggo lowered me down by rope, and I soon discovered that the fissure was rich with some sort of ore. I had no idea what it might be, but chipped off a sample (ruining a perfectly good dagger in the process, for even as ore it was mighty hard).

cavegoatNeither Darion’s deep knowledge nor Antonio’s deep faith nor Viggo’s attempt to deeply chew on the ore revealed to us what it might be. Fortunately Koln, our svirfneblin guide, was a better miner than any of us: it was, he told us, a rich deposit of adamantine! We quickly staked a claim by leaving an arcane mark and some chalk scratchings in the shape of a heraldic goat.

Finally, after the expected two days of travel, we found our onwards progress blocked by a party of deep gnomes. I gestured for Koln to return to his people, for I had to desire to complicate things by immediately introducing the added factor of an excommunicated band of heretic svirfneblin. I then strode forward to parley.

My counterpart was Carmeneren, a high priestess of Callarduran Smoothhands, the gnomish earth-god. She was dressed in simple grey robes adorned with small gems, a steel circlet worn on her brow, and steel sandals on her feet. The gnomes with her were well-armed, and wary.

She asked me our business in these parts. I responded with uncharacteristic honesty, recounting our encounter with the orcs, goblins, and demoness, our flight underground with the refugees, and—most sensitive of all—our decision to free the banished deep gnomes from Forbiddance and Guardian that had been set (likely by the priestess’ own forebears) to keep them in exile. I begged her help in finding a  suitable refuge and solution for the refugees. And —knowing how often the svirfneblin are often beset with much larger and powerful enemies—I immediately offered our assistance against any foes that might threaten them by way of our repayment for their help.

Whether it was my straightforwardness or their need of allies I could not tell, but Carmeneren seemed somewhat willing to entertain a limited alliance of sorts. She was deeply suspicious of the excommunicates, although I did my best to convince her that the appeal of  slime-worshipping had diminished among them over the years, that they might be convinced to return to truer gods, and that Chief Lodh was a gnome who could be trusted, and only sought the betterment of his people.

Much to my surprise, these svirfneblin had not previously known of the adamantine deposit we had found, and were willing to recognize our claim to its ownership

We were taken (blindfolded) to the gnomes’ city, while the refugees and exiles were permitted to stop in a secure place a little beyond its confines. After some further negotiation with Carmeneren it was agreed that we would undertake a foray against a group of trolls that had been bothering her people, and their Quaggoth allies,  for some time. To assist us in this effort we were provided with flasks of acid and gnomefyre, as well as several vials of holy water.

After the first good night’s sleep we had enjoyed in two weeks or more, we set off the following morning (or, as we say in the Upperdark, “morning”). The first few hours were uneventful until, as the passage opened up into a larger cavern. I suddenly heard Antonia draw in a sharp breath, and stagger….

As I turned to face him, he seemed almost as pale as a ghost–indeed, only a shade darker than the spectral dwarf that emerged from the rock walls to claw at his heart!

spectre

We immediately moved a little further into the cavern, and formed a tight defensive circle. The undead creature appeared and disappeared at will, and often our weapons did little damage. However, between Viggo’s blade, Antonio’s channelling of Pelor’s grace, Darion’s missiles of magic,  my own well-aimed vials of holy water—and quite a bit of help from the Fates—we eventually drove off or killed it (if an undead thing can indeed be killed).

Antonio, alas, seemed rather drained from the experience and in need of some Restoration. Rather than press on, we returned back to the gnomish city. I was somewhat worried that our quick return might rather our hoped-for status as worthy allies. Fortunately the gnomes seemed pleased enough that we had vanquished one of the undead that had haunted their realm a generation or more.

We  reprovisioned, had another good night’s sleep, and prepared to set off once more…

Into the Upperdark

icerayAfter considerable puzzling and study, Darion and I managed to ascertain a few interesting things about the barrier before us. The gems emanated some sort of very powerful Ray of Frost, and by the look of them cold enough to knacker a prize wooly ram in thick woolen long johns. The pattern shifted from time to time, making the maze of rays difficult to navigate, even for smallfolk. The trap might, we thought, be deactivated if the first and last gem in the sequence were removed at the same time—but only at the same time. If there was much delay in doing this, some sort of reaction (a ” hyper-evocation feedback loop in the arcane flux capacitors,” I believe Darion called it) might cause everything to explode.

Well, we wanted to avoid that, didn’t we?

There seemed little else we could do but send the smallest member of the party (that being me, of course) to work his way between and betwixt the beams to the other end of the corridor, and thereafter pry the first and last gems from their settings. Fortunately I managed to gain access to enough of the mechanism to prevent the pattern from shifting every few moments. Viggo also reminded me of the potion of Draught of Heroic Halfling Shrinkage I had in my pack. The smaller I was, the less likely I was to be frozen.

And so I carefully set off down the passage. I had hardly gone more than a few paces, however, when the first ray grazed me. Oww! The sensation was less one of cold than extreme pain, and I was grateful that Antonio’s encouraging words were coupled with healing energies channelled from his sun-god. A few more times I again brushed across the beams, but in the end I finally made it to the other end with all my body parts intact.  I called forth the signal of a bleating goat back to my friends, and at this Viggo and I both pried gems from their settings at what we hoped was the same time. With this, the beams stopped. The “Forbiddance,” as the  svirfneblin called it, had been deactivated!

Before we went any further we quickly pried the other 998 gems from their settings too. As my old Dad use to say, passing up loose gems is as foolish as juggling porcupines, and even less profitable. We then continued on to find the second and last obstacle before us, a creature the deep gnomes had called the “Guardian.”

Earth_Elemental_by_JulianimatorWe didn’t have far to go. After about three hundred paces of twisting tunnel, we entered into a huge cavern, much like the one in Edgar Stoat and the Elements of Danger. As in the book, part of this cavern moved.

“Careful, little Arnold!” shouted Viggo in warning. “It is, I think,  szörny a kő és föld! I do not think your little petunia can hurt it.” The barbarian spoke of my dagger, and from the look of the huge stoney thing I feared he was right.

The thing disappeared into the very rock of the cavern, only to reappear in front of Darion, knocking him back with a powerful blow. It then vanished again, only to reappear beside Viggo, striking him too.

I did my best to distract the creature, but truth be told I played little part in this battle. Instead, Viggo hacked at it with his blade and Darion cast against it fiery balls of magics, while Antonio kept everyone from dying with his healing skills. Finally, after a very difficult contest, the thing was brought down into a heap of stone rubble.

I did my best to make up for my earlier failure to help by quickly looting the gemstones it had for eyes.

We walked back, rather battered, to tell the svirfneblin we had done as we said we would. A few—chief  among them, the son of chief, Chief Lodh—seemed upset that we had not died in the effort, and demanded proof (which was easy enough to provide). The chief, however, seemed pleased. We rested for a while the deep gnomes held a rather argumentative discussion as to what they would do next.

koln

The chief came to us a few hours later. They had decided that they would leave this place—they were tired of generations of exile, and many seemed to have doubts about the slime-goddess-worship that had led to their subterranean excommunication.

We thus packed up and set off, bringing with us what supplies we could. We would proceed first. A little ways behind us the refugees would follow, led by the Sheriff and the Corporal. Finally, and a little farther behind them, the deep gnomes would take up the rear. Given how little we knew of the knew of the Upperdark, I asked Chief Lodh if one of the svirfneblin might be willing to serve as our guide and look-out of sorts. Eventually he found a volunteer (or “volunteer”), a taciturn fellow named Koln. While he might not say much, I was reassured to know his much better vision was scanning the darkness for signs of trouble.

upperdarkFortunately, much of the Upperdark it was not, in fact, entirely dark. In many areas luminescent fungus provided a dull glow. There were also other fungii that, Koln suggested with a few gestures, were edible. With 27 refugees in our charge, this was welcome news. I took the opportunity from our brief exchanges to learn a little of his language, and to recall the smattering of gnome I had learned while trading on the canals and rivers as a boy.

CjaincaravanWe had travelled about half a day beyond the Forbiddance when Koln gestured at us to stop. There was something odd moving in the caverns beyond, marked out in the silent dimness by a flickering of light and the shuffle of what sounded like heavy feet. We waited until it drew nearer, and then finally spied what was a most unexpected sight: a large caravan or cart of sorts, but one borne not on wheels but rather carried by six huge ogres. A few humans—or what looked like humans—attended it too. On the side of the caravan it declared, in large and apparently shifting letters (and in several different languages, if one looked long enough):

C’Jain’s Travelling Emporium
Magic Is Our Speciality

I stepped forward to introduce myself. As the ogres set the caravan-litter down, one of the humans stepped forward to return my greeting, offering us all a chance to peruse their wares. The attendants all had a rather blank, distant look among them—I rather suspected that C’Jain might have them all under some sort of mental control, much like in Edgar Stoat and the Mind Flayers of the Deep.

Eventually, upon Viggo’s prodding, C’Jain himself was convinced to meet with us. He seemed human enough, and told us that he did business across large regions of the Upper and Underdark. Certainly he had things we needed for sale, and was willing to barter for our gems and gold. I picked up a fine dagger (named, at Viggo’s suggestion, “Petunia”), an enchanted shield-cloak, and some fine armour. [Who got what.] We also found a map of these subterranean lands which would likely prove most useful, as well as a few books on the flora, fauna, children’s games, and mixed drinks of these parts.

NB_Pplayer_map

By C’Jain’s reckoning, the shores of Nyr Dyv were a month or more away, along a rather perilous route. We were, however, only a day or two’s journey from a colony of gnomes. That might be a place to find some aid and shelter.

Among the many wares for sale I also found a dog-eared copy of  a novel entitled The Possession of Millie Mevago. Skimming the novel it seemed rather derivative of the genre, what with spinning heads and projectile vomit and all that. However, it did suggest several means that could be used to combat and ultimately defeat a possessing fiend. I made a mental note of these, just in case the succubus Pefirra or her ilk should pursue us down here. She certainly seemed the sort to bear a grudge.

Moles and Monkeys

upsanddowns

Throughout most of the known world—and possibly the unknown world too—almost every child has played, at one time or another, a game of Ups-and-Downs. It goes by many names, of course. In the Free City of Greyhawk it is known as Sewers and Steps. Among the nomads of the Barrens, Viggo has told me , it is called Fára mászni, vagy eszik a medve, and is often played with actual bears for greater realism. Back in Keoland we used to call it Moles and Monkeys.

In any case, the game has been much on my mind the past day, what with recent events. It started, as these things so often do, with a lost little girl in a ruined tower in the goblin-infested countryside of a war-ravaged country. As soon as we had heard that little Oona was missing, we set about scouring the tower for signs of where she might be. It was Darion, I think, who first noticed the drag marks near the cellar trapdoor, as well as the supplies that seemed to be newly missing from below. Had she be taken away by something? And how, given our previous fruitless search for secret passages, had they got in?

wellOne possibility seemed the old well in the cellar. It seemed to be filled with rubble and garbage, and we hadn’t thought to check it more closely. I volunteered to rope down and have a look. No sooner had I done so, however, when I started to feel a bit odd, and called for Viggo to hoist me back up.

“Fear not, little halfling.. I will investigate, protected by Pelor’s bright embrace,” offered Antonio, as he set off where I had just been. I didn’t feel right telling him that we were in a dark cellar, well out of sight of his sun god.

Moment’s later, I heard a chuckle from within the well. “Well, well,” said Antonio, “This isn’t what it seems. It’s an illusion.”  The well was not full of rubbish at all, but had been made to look that way by spell-work.

Antonio went down a little further, and noticed the walls covered with an odd purple moss. He also began to feel light-headed. Darion soon burnt the moss from the sides of the well with his wand, and the air became safer to breathe.

At the bottom of the well there was little water, but rather a winding passage that led off. It had clearly been dug with tools. Something lived down here, and whatever it was it likely had the little halfling girl.

Suddenly there was a commotion above, and a shout for us to return. Back up we went.

goblins“You lads better come see this,” said Sheriff Trundleberry from up on the wall. When we joined him, the reason for the alarm was clear. Several dozen goblins were converging on the tower.

We set about preparing our defences. We also ordered those who could not fight be lowered down the well and into the passages below the cellar, together with the Corporal and a few soldiers to guard them. It would be our escape route if need be, although escape to where we had no idea. While we might be able to fight off an assault by a score of goblins, we knew they had ample reinforcements less than a day away at the manor house.

It was then that she appeared. I heard her first in my mind, then saw her flying above us, then heard her sensuous voice. The succubus Pefirra!

Well, that did it. If our chances of a military victory were uncertain before, they were now slipping away faster than a bat in butter. Few of our weapons could even hurt a demoness. She could well charm one of our group, and turn him against us. She might even call upon a lesser demon to aid her, who then might call another and so forth and so on, like rats tumbling from a cheese-pantry. We would have to take our chances in the tunnels below, wherever they might lead. But could we hold off the demoness long enough to do that?

modsuccubusThere was only one thing I could do. I quiet reached for the Sacred Demon-slaying Arrow of Saint Anne…

Of course, there was no actual Sacred Demon-slaying Arrow of Saint Anne. What I hoped was that Pefirra might probe my thoughts, and think there was.

Judging from her sudden retreat out of bow-range, my bluff worked! However, soon thereafter the goblins launched an attack against the tower. It was more of a probe than a full assault, and was quickly driven back—but it highlighted the precariousness of our situation.

Moments later there was a commotion from the cellar, and a number of panicked refugees came rushing out.

“A terror! A purple terror in the depths!”

It was pandemonium down below, as people tried to clamber up the rope. Viggo would have none of it, and bellowed at them to silence the din.

I turned to Sheriff Trundleberry. “You keep those goblins at bay, we’ll sort this out… and when it is, everyone goes below. Last man sets the place on fire… that should dissuade the goblins from following for a while.”

He nodded grimly.

And so we went back down the well we had come up from after having been down it before to sort out what was up.

Sure enough, a massive purple worm blocked the passage. After the illusionary garbage in the well none of our company believed it, and it soon shimmered into nothingness.

cubeMoments later, an orc appeared. Could it be responsible? In an uncharacteristic display of halfling recklessness, I charged it—only to find it was an illusion too, and positioned less than a pace before a huge gelatinous cube. I stopped myself only just in time.

“I shall carve V for Viggo in jelly creature!” shouted Viggo, who charged—and didn’t stop. Rather, he ran right into the thing, his sword burst into flame, and he cleaved it from within. It soon collapsed into quivering globs of ex-cube. The creature contained a few coins, but nothing else.

We sent word back that the passage was secured, and that the survivors should continue to descend to this place. After a quarter of an hour or so the last of them was down, with the Sheriff and his men last of all. His singed hair and smokey scent suggested that he had, as agreed, set the tower above alight before descending.

fire

We needed to press on. While the old timbers within the tower would burn fiercely, the goblins would be searching the ruins as  soon as the embers cooled. Pefirra might do so even sooner—and it wasn’t clear how long the illusion in the well would fool her. After all, she had read our minds, and certainly knew the direction we had taken.

More of the cube creatures approached, but we forced them back with burning torches and pools of oil. We then called out to the creatures that had hewn this place and set these traps—kobolds, I suspected—that we only wished safe passage, not a fight (but a fight we would give them if they hindered us further). As we were doing so, Antonio triggered a pit trap and was almost killed by the fall.

Finally we came across a barricade of sorts. Behind it crouched some small creatures—not kobolds to be sure, but rather more gnome-like in appearance. They seemed rather grey for gnomes, though…

“Svirfneblin,” said Darion.

“Gods bless you,” I replied. Perhaps the mold and mildew in this dank place was getting to him.

“No, svirfneblin. Svirfneblin!”

I handed him my hanky, but he brushed it aside.

“No, damn it. They are svirfneblin—deep gnomes. They dwell in the deep places.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” I replied. He and I stepped forward to offer parley.

deepgnomeWe were taken to meet their chief. It was clear from their expressions that many of his subjects were unsure that he should do so. Rather unsettlingly, the cavern in which we met was dominated by a large statue of some sort of quasi-demonic slime creature. It seemed to have religious significance to these people.

Although neither Darion nor I spoke either gnome or undercommon, the svirfneblin leader had enough words of the common tongue for us to have negotiations of a sort. We explained our situation frankly: we were both looking for a lost halfling child and were fleeing the goblins above. We didn’t mention the demon.

Our reference to Oona stirred some reaction, and an urgently whispered conversation among the deep gnomes. Eventually one was sent into an adjoining passage, and returned a few minutes later with Oona. She was alive! We made sure that the svirfneblin saw the joy in her mother’s face when they were reunited, and understood how very grateful we were. While these seemed rather stoic and unemotional gnomes, I had some hope that the scene would sway them in our favour.

Our next order of business was to block the passage to the well, to slow any pursuit by our enemies. In this we had a common interest—deep gnomes have no love for goblins either. Expert miners that they were, the gnomes soon found a part where the ceiling of the passage could easily be caused to cave in, blocking it with a ton or more of rocky rubble.

The refugees were allowed to sleep in a section of cavern, although under the watchful eyes of suspicious guards. They would tell us nothing. I slept for a short while, but awoke with a start from a half-remembered dream…

YondallaA cool wind fell upon Arnold’s handsomely hairy forearm in the dream. He was utterly content munching upon an apple in a high branch of the very tree that produced said fruit, looking upon Turnberry Hill – pristine and unsullied in the summer sun. He brought up his mug of Turnberry Stout No. 9, took a swig, and burped contendedly. Life was grand – fine weather, fine food, and a fine lass to share it with.

Lass? Where did she come from, sitting on the branch right next to him looking all well-pleased? She was a winsome one, blossom cheeks, eyes deep as pools, red-gold locks, tan fragrant skin. About to protest at this impolite intrusion, Arnold lifted his finger admonishingly …

“Oh don’t be such a stick-in-the-porridge, Wurzel, you know who I be – or you should!”

Well, now, little missie I don’t right know what you’re …”

She interrupted him, all the while rolling her eyes, “Oh sure, I understand. ‘Course. No problem. After all, I only created ya, whyfore should I be expectin’ ya to remember me …”

At Arnold’s blank expression, she went on, exasperated, “Starts with a “Y”? C’mon….Nothin’? Eh, shoulda listened to Corellon and spent a bit more time on the brains. Well, never you mind. I’ve words to share and little time to spare, so pay attention and keep yer hands where I can see ’em. Good. Now, look in your pack, where you find all them useful items. Go ahead.”

Arnold dug through his nifty pack 7 times and out came 7 items, each piece a small figurine: a grey gnome, a manta ray of some sort, a fish-headed man, a bat-winged woman, a horned fiend, a tiger-headed man, and a bizarre slug-like alien thing. 

“She spoke again, now serious as drought, and her words carried a weight Arnold would not forget upon waking. “My friends (who aren’t of halfling kind, mind) tell me you’ve a part to play, you and your fellowship. A dark season is coming, darker than any you’ve seen. Our folk must be seen through this.”

When Arnold nodded slowly, she grabbed his chin and planted a kiss on his blushing cheek. “Oh my precious Arnold Wurzel, you’re one of my best. I believe in you, and I’m always watching.”

“You Arnold, must figure out how the pieces fit.”

“Figure out how the pieces fit.”

“How the pieces fit.”

But how did the pieces fit? The bat-winged woman was the succubus Pefirra, that much I knew. And the grey gnomes were the svirfneblin. The rest we had yet to meet, I suppose. Despite my lack of faith in deities, I mentally thanked the one who had sent this revelation my way.

A further discussion with their chief revealed that this particular group of svirfneblin were outcasts, who had been driven from the underdark long ago because of their unusual religious beliefs. The group seemed divided, between those who felt we should have all been killed and fed to slimes, and those who were willing to provide us a little aid. We did all we could to win the chief’s confidence, and gifted him with a fine gemstone as a token of our gratitude.

Questioning also revealed what we suspected to be the case—there was an exit from this place into the underdark below. It was guarded by a very large grey ooze, however, and warded with some sort of trap. The chief had no objection to us trying to leave that way, and some of his tribe seemed to be amused by  the prospect that we would all die in what they clearly believed was a futile effort.

We eased past the ooze by means of rope and cunning, not wanting to get into a premature fight with it if there was no need to do so. I then carefully checked, then opened, a secret door that was our exit. The door itself was unwarded, but beyond there was a length of passage lit by bright beams that emanated from some sort of crystals set in the walls. I tried to reflect one of the beams with a mirror from my pack, but the mirror simply disintegrated when the ray touched it. There seemed to be no mechanism at our end by which this glittering obstacle could be deactivated. Would I need to traverse this passage of death to find a switch at the other side? It seemed so….

lasermaze

Ominous reverberations

Oppressor Kathun’s rusty-black raiments rustled as he rubbed his temples with one hand, feeling the lancing pain of another headache coming on. Inquisitor Glotta had ruled by fear,  which was nothing new amongst Iuz’s followers, but he also had shared nearly nothing of his plans, going so far as to burn his orders lest the documents be used against him. When command fell to Priest Kathun, he was completely in the dark. What he had greeted as good news when word arrived of the assassination swiftly turned to dread when he’d thought the situation through.

He motioned for the fearful, slinking little goblins to approach with his free hand. The bright sun in the Estate’s solarium made the creatures uncomfortable, and that was some small pleasure to him. “Report”

“Speaker for the Old One, we delivered your orders to  the orcs. We … we regret to tell you that the Headsplitters proceeded to … to piss on them. Sir. Most have broken camp and are marching West to the Front. A few remain loya…”

Kathun made a swift cutting motion with his free hand, and the creatures took his meaning and skittered away.

High Priestess Halga of the Boneheart would not take news of this well – it would be the Wheel of Pain or the Belching Towers for him if this devolved further (without an adequate scapegoat in place). He had to find a means to turn this to his advantage before one of his acolytes betrayed him or the chaotic orcs or fiends decided to turn on him.

Without the bulk of the Headsplitters, has was down to some two or three hundred humanoids and a handful of demons (if that – the damn things rarely settled in one place to be counted)- barely a Command.

Glotta had had a way with the orcs, perhaps he even was one as he’d claimed. And the cloak of fear that walked with the Inquisitor, the tales of his skill with pain, his ruthlessness … Kathun had naught to match these, yet. Which was why his plans to murder the Inquisitor and move-up were to have taken place much later! Those thrice-damned assassins had well and truly defecated on his morning oats.

He’d been in furious thought for so long now, he felt his head must explode. His next move would have to be decisive…

Like a goat in the night

manorOur plan had been simple. We would teleport into Inquisitor Glotta’s room, kill him, and then fly away courtesy of a magical wand.

However, as Aunt Petunia used to say, assassination is a bit like teaching sheep to knit. Quite often it doesn’t go as easy as you think.

My first inkling that this particular sheep wasn’t knitting was when our company (plus Taym the mage) materialized in what seemed to be a darkened storeroom of sort, used—as best we could tell—to store a dead body. We had no idea where we were, and because orcs don’t much like light, any windows were shuttered closed. The various helpful enchantments we had cast upon ourselves would soon fade if we didn’t act quickly.

I turned to Viggo, and said “….”. He replied by moving his mouth but making no sound.

That, I realized, would be the Silence spell that was supposed to cover our deadly deed.

hobgoblinThere were two doors out of this darkened room. I opened one as quietly as I could, and spied a corridor. Some 30 paces or so along it was a hobgoblin guard, quite unaware of our presence. I contemplated trying to sneak up on him and slip a blade between his ribs, but my chances of felling him quickly seemed slim. Consequently I gestured to the unusually quiet Viggo to rush our foe and take him down before he could sound the alarm.

Unfortunately, the guard seemed to have spotted Viggo almost immediately, and ran off. Viggo—frustrated by this—rushed back to open the other door  we had discovered, only to find it opened into a  room full of very confused looking hobgoblins. All surprise had been lost!

Taym—who was rather the worse for wear by virtue of both his previous injuries and the strain of teleportation—cast some spell or other on the second door, while we all took after the first hobgoblin. As we did so, we could hear movement and shouting behind us as hobgoblins and orcs stumbled out of the various rooms to find out what all the commotion was about.

We caught up with the guard we were chasing, and after a brief fight slew him. As others of his kind ran towards us with weapons drawn, we threw open a double set of doors, stepped through them—and I bolted them closed behind us.

stairsOn the positive side, we were now at the base of a set of spiral stairs, heading up towards what was likely the tower of Inquisitor Glotta. On the bad side, there were more hobgoblins here, and quite the largest orc (or smallest ogre) I had ever seen. A fight followed, in which the large creature proved no match for Viggo’s rage and blade, and the hobgoblins were dispatched with equal alacrity.

BANG! BANG!

The hobgoblins behind us, however, had started to batter at the door. “Up the stairs, Companions of the Ivory Goat,” I shouted with theatric emphasis. “Be fast as a weasel and twice as quick!”

We ran up the stairs, Viggo at the forefront. Behind me I could hear Darion muttering something about “damned goats.”

At the top we found a dim, unlit bedroom, a bloodied  woman—and our quarry.

As my barbarian friend and I rushed to attack, Antonio and Darion addressed the problem of hundreds of orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins close behind us with murderous intent. Darion cast a Grease spell, then a Flaming Sphere or two on the stairs to hold them back. He and Antonio then threw Glotta’s bed down the stairs too, further blocking them and adding to the fire. Our cleric, ever sensitive to the finer moral points of assassination (or perhaps mindful of the scandal the late Bishop Ulric of Ikea had found himself in during a broadly similar incident) careful removed the injured woman from the bed before it was sent on its way.

glotta2

“Taste blade of Viggo-with-a-V,” bellowed Viggo at he cleaved at his foe. “Te vagy a legrondább démon, akit valaha láttam, és ez magában foglalja az anyád!”

Viggo had landed several strong blows against Glotta, and my own dagger had found its mark too. However the creature—and creature it was, not so much an orc as some perverse half-demonic bastard of one— was strong, skilled in the martial arts, and seemed to smite the barbarian with particular force. Both of us were injured, and it seemed that but one more hit could fell either of us.

At that moment, I saw my opportunity. Glotta had backed towards the wall of the tower in an effort to prevent us from flanking him. However, there was a small gap, and in a flash I threw myself into it, pressing my back hard against the stone, and stabbed at our foe.

Glotta fell to his knees, near death. With that same chilling voice I had heard previously in Threetrees, he begged for his life. “I know secrets… many secrets….” he promised us.

Remembering that tree at Threetrees decorated with the corpses he and his men had tortured and killed, I was in little mood to listen. My blade put a swift end to the Inquisitor’s twisted life. The brutal torture of the villagers had been avenged.

While our mission had been accomplished, we did still have the not-entirely-minor problem of hundreds of angry orcs and goblins to contend with, especially those pushing their way up the stairs towards us—not to mention the thick black smoke which had started to fill the chamber. We quickly scooped up what valuables we could spy in the room, then climbed up a ladder and through a trap door clambered to the flat roof of the tower. Viggo carried the wounded  woman with us. Around us was the enemy’s encampment, stirring in commotion much like an angry evil hive of orc-like bees.

Using his wand, Taym cast magicks that permitted us to Fly for a few minutes, and we headed off towards a nearby woods. There we used a Feather Token we had found among Glotta’s things to create a particularly tall strong tree, and hid among the upper branches. I rummaged in my pack and found a jar of sheep manure I had been keeping—after all, you never know when a thing will come in handy—and liberally smeared it on my companions. Although they protested, it seemed much better than wargs finding our scent.

Alas, our efforts at hiding proved in vain as a group of goblins began to converge on our location, clearly believing they were on to something. We used up the last charges in the wand to Fly once more, further concealed by aid of a Mass Invisibility spell cast by Tayn.

This time we sought to conceal ourselves my finding a sheltered area of a hill, and once more growing our magical tree to block both access and sight. That technique, however, proved no better, for scarcely an hour had passed when we spotted something much larger than a bird flying above us.

Taym’s face turned ashen. “Doom! Doom! Evil has come!”

His alarm, while evident, was not too informative. We clutched our weapons and looked skyward.

“No, you cannot fight it–you cannot. Run, you fools, run! Flee for your very lives!”

modVrock_original_by_MichaelJaecksAnd so we fled, while the wounded mage bravely stood to fight it. Glancing behind us as we ran, I saw a man-sized bird-demon descending to do battle. Moments later we heard a horrible jarring screech, and flashes of lightning lit the sky behind us. What it all meant we did not know, but none of us thought the brave wizard had survived the encounter.

Antonio would later deduce that the creature was a vrock, a profane champions of the Abyss born of the rage, hatred, and violence of that despicable realm,  embodying the evil souls of hateful and wrathful mortals. At the time, however, we just knew that it was somewhere behind us, as well as warg-riders, and perhaps a regiment of orcs. We continued fleeing until the sun was falling low in the sky, and the need to find shelter for the night to obvious to ignore. All the time Viggo carried the woman we had rescued from the tower, who drifted in and out of consciousness. Her wounds seemed as much psychic as physical—hardly surprising given that we had found her with the Inquisitor.

We found a place soon after—a halfling village. It was not the usual happy place of hospitality, pleasant welcomes, merriment , beer, and good humour, however. No, this place had been ravaged and defiled. A few rotted corpses of former inhabitants lay strewn about the fields and lanes, although rather fewer than I might have expected, given the number of burrows. Everything had been looted and stripped bare, and the burrows burned out. Nothing was alive here.

halflingvillage

Grim as the place was, the charred remnants of a burrow provided as safe a place to spend the night as anything else were likely to find, so here we stopped. By a well-hidden light I spent a few minutes going through the items I had grabbed from the Inquisitor’s quarters as we fled. There was a powerful scroll of resurrection—something I hoped we would never need, but which I was glad to put into Antonio’s hands lest we one day have need of it. There was a cold iron dagger, which I kept for myself, and some silver blanch that I applied to another. Viggo had taken Glotta’s sword, which he was pleased to have. Antonio and Darion had found a few items too, although not the spell books that our magic-user had hoped to find.

I had also found a letter in Glotta’s possession, one that hinted at the plans of the enemy:

My Dear Inquisitor Glotta,

I hope this missive finds you well. With luck you are resting your weary limbs with a goblet of fine wine, and taking a moment to savor your successes on this long march through the Bandit Kingdoms and Shield Lands, bringing pain and extinction to the unworthy. I assure you, your victories are not going unnoticed, my friend … I hope I do not presume by calling you friend? Indeed I spoke highly of you when our mutual master paid me a memorably unexpected visit upon the back of his black dragon. Archmage Null of the Boneheart is showering himself in glory with these conquests, and he will reward his best and boldest.

The Shield Lands will fall. Critwall is invested in siege and cannot hold more than days. You are to move your regiment South to engage the island capitol of Admundfort.  Force-march your troops with all speed, Inquisitor; pay no regard to casualties. Once we’ve captured this land, perhaps we can set aside the messy unpleasantness of war for a time and taste the delicate, weeping, wailing fruits of our labors? I sigh with anticipated pleasure merely to think of it …

I have Embraced many of the folk your advance has left in its wake, ordaining those I deem useful into the Night. Some will find you and offer service, or act as liaisons. They will be marked by my rune.

I received the reports of your collected questionings; I must compliment you, you’ve a gentleman’s penmanship. I could almost taste the pain and despair your subjects suffered as they slowly divulged their bits of knowledge, drip by drip. How grand! I was greatly intrigued by the confessions you wrung from the Swan Knight. Breaking that arrogant and self-righteous girl must have been particularly exquisite. Her intimate details of the fortress-city of Admundfort will prove invaluable. Keep her living, I desire to claim her for myself.

Finally, I must mention that our allies from the Underplaces are growing intemperate. They will be sending envoys to ensure receipt of the 1000 slaves we promised in exchange for treading their domain. Receive them with all diplomatic grace, Inquisitor, for I do not wish their … alien masters for enemies. Provide them their payment as soon as may be, and let’s be done with them.

Ever yours,

Margrave Belniculo,

Marshall of His Eminence the Old One’s Eastern Army

Should we warn Admundfort of the impending attack—or was it too late? Surely they suspected they were under threat. “Margrave Belniculo” certainly had more hints of a vampire about him than I could count, judging from his reference to “ordaining” Shield Landers into the “night.” I made a mental note to search my pack in the coming days for the garlic and holy symbol I had long ago buried somewhere near the bottom.

The “Swan Knight” spoken of in the letter was, we deduced, the woman we had rescued. In a lucid moment she told us her name was Evaria, but she shared little more than that before lapsing once more into tortured dreams and remembrances.

By morning we ate some of our meager rations, and set forth onto the misty moors that made up the Moonvale. We had heard of this place when we had been in Threetrees, tales of mysterious disappearances and odd hauntings. I kept a particular eye out for bats, were-creatures, badgers, or any of the other things I remembered from Edgar Stoat and the Evil in the Night. Barring the occasional marmot, I saw nothing that seemed unduly threatening.

towerAfter we had walked perhaps a league or two we saw a half-ruined tower rising up from the countryside. It looked centuries old, perhaps a watchpost of Old Aerdy, abandoned when borderland became heartland and the threatening raiders of times-gone-by had been replaced by shepherds and their flocks.

We approached cautiously, since caution had seemed much the wisest thing to do most every moment since we had arrived in the Shield Lands. The area about the tower was wild and unkempt, with a scattering of dry bushes, forlorn trees, and tumbled mossy boulders. The tower’s roof had collapsed, but we could tell little more of the interior from the dark window slits. Creeping vines encircled the structure all the way up to the crenelations. Surprisingly, the front gates still stood, though made of ancient-seeming boards

As I approached the gate, a voice called out. “Who are you? And what do you want?”

The accent seemed oddly familiar, and I replied with uncharacteristic honesty.

“I’m Arnold Wurzel, and these are my companions. We’re fleeing the evil of Iuz. Could you give us shelter?

“Arnold Wurzel, you say?” the voice replied. There was a silence, some whispered conversation I could not make out, then a shouted command. “Open the gate, boys, and let them in…”

We walked in, and soon found ourselves surround by a suspicious group of men—some peasants, some Shield Lands soldiers who had seen better days. On the parapet above several halflings looked down at us, bows drawn. Halflings! I thought I had recognized an undertone to the voice.

halfling

A human soldier strode forth, sword in hand. “What is it you be wanting?” Almost immediately, a much shorter figure with rather greater authority about him pushed forward. “I’ll take care of this, Corporal. Wurzel, you say? From where?””

All over,” I replied, “but most particularly Keoland and Ulek….”

“Aye,  Aunt Daffodil used to talk of the Wurzels.. I think we’re related, thirteen times removed—on my eleventh cousin’s side, of course.” He introduced himself as Barry Trundleberry, the sheriff of the ransacked and abandoned village we had slept in the night before. I had indeed heard of the Trundleberries—their foot salves and woollen hats were legendary in many a southern town.

This tower, we soon learned, had become the refuge and hiding place for more than a score of people: halfling survivors from the attack on Trundleberry Hill, human refugees from Threetrees and other hamlets, and a small group of Shield Land soldiers.

Our first thought was to spend but a few days in this place, and press onwards south. Antonio set about ministering to the wounded. Viggo did what he could to train the villagers in the arts of combat and inspire them with tales of heroic and legendary adventures from the Barrens. I might have brightened their spirits with a performance or too, but Darion and I were anxious to first check that this place was what it seemed. We searched the tower for traces of magic (of which there was little, beyond the sheriff’s bow and a few potions among the others), implored Antonio to stay attuned for emanations of evil (we, he suggested, were likely the worst offenders), and look for secret passages that might lead out of the small cellar beneath the tower (we found nothing).

My first night’s sleep here was the most restful I had enjoyed in a week, since the invasion had begun. In the morning I found the sack of garlic I had left in my pack, and fashioned garlands for my companions. Darion looked at me doubtfully, but Antonio mentioned that it made him long for his mother’s home cooking.

My second night, however, was rather darker, with a dark foreboding—and not only because of the full moon.

succubusIn my dream I saw a woman, limned by the silvery moon at her back, radiating a heat and desire that was not unpleasant at first. A part of me yearned to reach out and touch her…. But the heat continued to rise, and soon became unbearable, as the shadow-woman, Pefirra, grew ever closer. She’d hummed softly as though it were a lullaby  “I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming …” and the finally made as if to take me in a passionate embrace. I realized with horror that this kiss would be a fatal one.

My nightmare ended abruptly and left me soaked and fever-hot in the quiet night. I looked at Viggo, who had awoken too.

“Azt hiszem, a rövid barátom, hogy az átkozott démon-asszony van szüksége a kard a szív!” he muttered, an angry glint in his eye.

I couldn’t agree more.

The following morning, we prepared to leave. However, as had so often happened, fate intervened.

“Where is she”? Where’s my little Oona?!?” a woman cried. Her daughter had gone missing in the night. The humans and halflings looked at each other suspiciously as almost everyone began to search the tower…

The road of ruin

refugees

As dawn broke, we continued south, finally meeting up an hour or so later with the main road. There we beheld a most tragic sight: many hundreds of refugees—young and old, men and women alike—were slowly making their way south, like us, towards Critwall. Fear was etched into their weary faces. Here and there a cart could be seen too, sometimes laden with prized possessions, but more frequently with those to infirm or wounded to walk.

We joined this pathetic river of forlorn hope, seeking what little reliable information there was to be had amid the panic and rumours. The Shield Land’s “Army of the North” had been shattered, and was in desperate retreat. The hordes of Iuz were pressing south, not far behind us. Orcs held both banks of the Ritensa and Crystal Rivers. No one knew if Critwall was safe behind its walls or had fallen.

Although the refugees had no spoils and posed no threat, the advance scouts of the enemy harried them anyway. Small groups of mounted goblins on huge wargs, would swoop in,  kill a few stragglers, then ride off again as they mocked the survivors with a barking laugh.

goblinwarg“I think Viggo today will have a warg-skin coat,” muttered my barbarian companion as he watched the riders prey  on the column. A few minutes later he had his wish as one strayed to close to our location. He killed a goblin with a thrown spear, then cut down the warg with his sword. Antonio, Darion, and I confronted another, also felling the goblin with ranged weapons—but having rather more trouble with its vicious mount. I was badly bitten, until Viggo ran up and put the thing down. Make that two pelts!

The refugees nearest us cheered this minor victory, and seemed buoyed by Viggo’s martial prowess. My friend made himself still more popular by distributing warg teeth to the children. As Antonio tended to wounded survivors with his characteristic religious dedication, I did my best to raise everyone’s spirits with humour and stirring tales. We also sought to provide some organization and leadership to this fearful mass, encouraging the more able-bodied to arm themselves with whatever might be to hand so as to better defend the weak and vulnerable against the depredations of the goblins.

Leadership was sorely needed. Squabbles and jostling would break out at times among the refugees. Whispered fears could give rise to panic. At one point we came across a wagon with a broken wheel which was both blocking the road and causing a growing confrontation. We took charge of the situation, fixing the wheel with an enchantment from Darion while sorting out the passengers and passers-by.

As night eventually fell it became clear that all were exhausted, and in need of rest. Groups of survivors moved off the road, setting up small camps and consuming what little food they might—if fortunate—carry with them. By morning, some were found with throats slit by the goblins, who had crept in the dark and fallen upon the vulnerable and unwary.

boyThe next morning we continued on our way, alert for signs of the enemy. Our reputation had grown with each retelling of Viggo’s heroism, and I noticed a young waif of a boy seemed eager to accompany the barbarian. Viggo lifted him onto a nearby wagon, but I thought I heard an odd clink as he settled. Upon further investigation I noticed emanations of magic from something hidden within his clothing. With some quick sleight of hand I relocated from his person a bag contain gems and coins. Who–or what–was he? A young thief? A spy? Some sort of dark foe in human disguise? Certainly his story of being an escaped altar-boy seemed unlikely! What did he think I was, some naive neophyte?

With Darion and Antonio’s connivance I slipped him our Elixir of Truth—and we discovered, much to my surprise, that he was…

..a young altar boy! You could have struck me down with a thrudcurrent.

The boy had apparently been entrusted with some relic by the clerics of Pelor as the orcs had attacked his temple, and had barely escaped with his life. He seemed to relieved that he could now entrust this sacred object to Antonio, who promised to convey it safely to the senior bishops of his order  The boy was relieved to be free of his burden, although deeply embarrassed that he had appeared to have “lost” the bag of church valuables he had also been entrusted with. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they had been relocated, and felt that Viggo’s pack was a much better place for them in any case than sitting idle and unused in some draughty cathedral.

We continued our plodding journey south towards Critwall. It was—thankfully—largely uneventful, until late in the afternoon a man came running up to us, babbling about his daughter having been “taken”. He seemed unable to explain by who or what, and ran off towards some nearby rocky ground before we could get much sense out of him. We ran after him.

It proved to be, as I think we all half suspected, a trap. The fleeing man led us into a narrow defile, and then turned and spoke to us in the disembodied voice of the demoness we had encountered two nights earlier.

“Revenge is a debt I always repay, pitiful mortals. Prepare to die!”

ogreThe man’s demonic possession then ended in the same puff of animated smoke we had encountered in our earlier meeting. Two hobgoblins with bows stepped into sight on the rocks above us, while a huge ogre charged us from the front.

“I no understand, Arnold…” said Viggo in a quizzical tone as he stepped forward, and planted his spear in the ground.

“What don’t you understand?” I replied, as I cast an incantation on one of the archers that caused him to fall into a deep slumber. Antonio began to trade bow shots with the other.

“I no understand how we die, when is just this stupid piszkos óriás and his two friends.”

The ogre, clumsy in his charge, impaled himself on the spear with a look of surprise on his face. Viggo then drew his sword, and stepped to the left. I drew a dagger, and stepped to the right.

“That part isn’t entirely clear to me either,” I replied as I plunged my dagger deep into the creature’s back. It slumped silently to the ground, quite dead.

The other hobgoblin, having briefly run off from a Fear spell, returned and tried to wake his companion by shooting him with an arrow. His companion awoke, and fled. The remaining hobgoblin then died from Antonio’s well-aimed bolts and Darion’s floating sword. I quickly looted the bodies, and we returned to the refugee column. Viggo’s triumphant display of the ogre’s now severed head caused some momentary panic, but crying children were soon cheered up with the promise of more exotic teeth for their rapidly-growing collections.

blackdrgonWe had not gone much further when a dark shadow appeared over the road, and hundreds scattered in terror. A dragon! Flying high above us to the south, it was the first I had ever seen outside of  illustrations in books: black as blackness itself it was, and twice as black beside. Soon thereafter we heard the din of battle in that same direction, and the saw occasional burst of fearsome magicks in the sky.

Was the enemy ahead of us, now blocking our path? Should we change direction? We certainly knew the enemy was not far behind us to the north, and that the he held the river to the west too. East seemed scarcely safer. We decided to press on.

An hour or so later, we discovered what remained of a group of mounted Shield Land troops, one that had apparently been attacked by the dragon. Hideously disfigured bodies were strewn across the field, in what seemed eerily like a scene from Edgar Stoat and the Draconic Ambush.

We searched for an officer, who might tell us what was happening and provide some assistance to the refugees. We eventually found a rather stern-looking Captain of the Guard, and the news he provided to us was not good. The enemy was advancing. Torkeep had fallen. There had been no contact with Critwall in the last two days, which was either besieged or had fallen. His orders were to fall back to the ferries at Axeport, and from there rally to Admundfort on Walworth Isle.

Damn. Even if Critwall hadn’t fallen, it sounded like it was hardly the place to take hundreds of hungry, exhausted refugees. I did manage to convince the Captain to take the thirty or so children in our group with him and his troops as they rode to the coast.

Arnoldmap

Meanwhile, Antonio—as was his habit—tended to the wounded among the soldiers. As he did so Darion struck up a conversation with a badly injured mage among them, by the name of Taym. Viggo looked for something—armour, weapons, cheese, or anything—that might be usefully scavenged among the detritus of the battlefield. We armed the remaining refugees with bows and swords, and I found a rather well-made dagger for myself.

preshale

By this time our actions came to the attention of a warrior-cleric of Heironeous who was an officer among the fighters. Preshale was her name, and between Antonio’s conversations with her and Darion’s discussion with Taym we discovered that this contingent had been on a secret mission: to assassinate none other that Inquisitor Glotta, the foul field commander of the orcish regiment that had sacked Threetrees and tortured and killed the villagers there.

Viggo, remembering the cruel fate of Nenia the barmaid, quickly volunteered us for the job. My grim-faced companions agreed: we had a score to settle, although it did mean parting company with the refugees. As for me, Aunt Petunia had always warned against a career in assassination. “Once you’ve killed your first, it’s hard to stop,” she would always say with a weary sigh. But it did seem that the fickle finger of fate had pointed to us for this particular task..

We were taken once more to see the Captain, to secure his approval. Realizing it was likely his only hope of completing the mission he had been given, he agreed. Preshale would seek the blessings of her god for our endeavour. She also agreed, if we wished,  to take the relic we had obtained from the boy with her to Admundfort—after all, so much effort had been taken to keep it out of the hands of the enemy that it seemed unwise for us to take it in the opposite direction. Taym, after providing us with various magical protections and several scrolls, would teleport us directly to the former noble house that Glotta had taken over for his headquarters. We would do the deed as quickly and quietly as possible, and then leave by use of further magicks. If we were successful, Glotta’s death might remove the iron hand that kept rivalries and suspicions from splitting apart the squabbling orcs and goblins of his command.

virginviggo

If we were unsuccessful, the consequences were too horrible to contemplate: quite apart from likely being hideously tortured beyond until our very souls begged for death,  Viggo would die a virgin.