the final chapter

The cavern deep with in the earth was silent and dark, other than the occasional murmur of molten stone and the faint red glow the magma emitted. Who would want to come back to this place? It held only memories of endless torment, imprisonment, and death.

In one corner mirror lay cracked on the obsidian floor, its surface covered with a fine layer of volcanic dust.

Into this darkness, a single ray of light shone from its shattered glass—an unnatural light, as if comprised of all the colours of the spectrum yet none, the light of arcane magics refracted through a warped and broken lens.

Then a second, and a third. And finally a series of sounds—a sort of vwoooop! vwoooop!—almost comically out of place in the oppressive silence.

Where the cavern had been empty, there now stood two figures, weapons at the ready: one a huge, muscled half-orc, the other a battle-scarred human. Both were clearly warriors of some sort, clad in identical armour as black and forlorn as an endless nightmare. Around its neck the half-orc carried the mummified paw of a great cat attached to a golden necklace. The human wore a circlet of gems and ancient decaying teeth, torn from the skull of a past but not forgotten foe.

Moments later, there was more light, and more noises. vwoooop! vwoooop! vwoooop! vwoooop!  Four more figures, dressed in black as the first two had been, stood in this place of evil.

“Well, Professor, is this the place?” said the shortest but most commanding of the group, glancing at the mage standing nervously behind him. “And is this the time?”

The mage pulled out a device and consulted it intently as a dark and malformed rat scampered among the folds of his black cloak. “I believe so, Sir. I am almost certain.”

An sultry elf winked as she played with the whip in her hand, its tip a knot of sharpened blades. “Almost? You had best be right, professor. As you know, he doesn’t take failure well.”

The mage swallowed hard under the steely stare of the Mistress of Pain. His last mistake had taught him that lesson well. “I am certain.”

The halfling nodded in acknowledgement. “If that is so, how long will it take to make the journey?”

A drow ranger stepped forward, again in black, consulting a map. “Once we find the passage to the Underdark, two to three months. The horacalcum deposit, if the journal is to be believed, lies near Silverymoon. But I know the way.”

“Well, we all have time, don’t we?” The halfling laughed, as the others smiled at the irony of it all. “Above they’re at war. The efreet has been released. They’ve forgotten what they once knew. We shall journey to this place, and once we are there…”

The mage interrupted, clearly excited about the prospect. “Another month or two, Sir, to fashion the mirror, and test its properties. Then.. then, the time-portal will be ready.”

vwoooop! Beside the party a creature now appeared, lurking and cavorting in the shadows. It was goat of sorts, ebony in colour, fanged and horned, its eyes glowing with unnatural flames.

Their leader smiled. “Let us proceed, then. We have a worlds to conquer and bend to our will. And as for you, Carpini…”

With this Arnold glanced at the horned abomination in the shadows.

“…there will be souls enough for you along the way.”

 

out the looking glass

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This isn’t really my journal, nor my memories. The Arnold that wrote and thought them lies dead at by feet, and by my own blade. So much he writes of seems at once strange—yet, so very, very familiar.

Garrulous little beggar too. I’m more succinct.

It wasn’t the first time I had stepped out of The Mirror. It might have been the hundredth, for all I knew—your mind often plays tricks here. It was rare, however, to see another Arnold. That had happened but a handful of times.

I might have stopped to chat, to even share some Brandythwaite Leaf. You could do that a short while with one of you, before the Madness set in. This time, however, I could something in the corridor beyond.

1367166-bigthumbnail-1It was Her. I was quite certain.

Countless lives ago, I had been separated by that cursed gem-encrusted portal from the one I—a member of the Jīn jièzhǐ—had been sworn, above all, to protect. I had encountered her echoes through time and space. But this, for the first time in all that time seemed to be her: Her Imperial Highness Lady Shinzu, rightful Mistress of the Dragon Throne.

_jenestyles___Tribal_TattooAnd so it was decided. This Arnold must die.

It took but a moment, and a handful of blades, and it was over. He was too slow. Perhaps he did not recognize this moment for what it was. Perhaps he would have offered me some mushroom stew.

I kneeled at My Lady’s feet, head bowed, in silent apology of having failed her once before.

“It is good to see you, Arnold. Your service has been missed,” she said to me in that always-calm voice of hers. “Now collect this one’s belongings, and see what papers he has scattered here.”

The other Arnold had taken copious notes. It told of his party’s descent into the Tomb. Of the increasing paranoia of his companions. Of the death of a warrior. Of portals. Mist. Traps. Paintings. A defiled altar. Rotgrubs. It spoke of this room, with its mirror and statues that—as I already know—could spring to life at any touch of the mithril doors. It mentioned abandonment by his companions, an exile to the Plane of Air. Death. Rebirth. And of failed efforts to destroy this Mirror.

This Arnold had been a clever one too, for written in chalk upon a secret door outside the Mirror room were the words:

Here Lies the Way to Memnon’s Tomb. I Think.

imagesNo sooner had I discerned all this then there was a noise, and someone appeared in the room. A tall human wizard, with a look of haughty superiority. Surely not? Tipwill the False Emperor? The Butcher of Silverymoon? Here? This man with so much blood and pain stained upon his hands and soul?

Only my Empress’ command stayed by hand from striking him down, as he had done my dearest friend and companion General Gurglak.

“This one is not the False Emperor, my faithful Arnold. Not yet. We can not visit upon him the sins of that which he has not yet become.” There was some wisdom in her words.

And so he lived. He told us that he had arrived here with a party much like ours, and like us sought to vanquish the Shadowvar Empire. He seemed nervous and confused, weak—certainly not the False Emperor. But I still did not trust him. I trusted him even less when, upon questioning, it transpired he had let his Arnold and his Shinzu die while he sought to indulge his lust for magic and power. No so different, it seemed, from what he might one day become.

In any case, this matter had been decided by Empress Shinzu. We would ally with this mage, and press of in search of the Dragon Door. If he betrayed us, he would die.

We decided to investigate the secret door which the non-dead Arnold had found. A strange banging came from within it, as if someone were on the other side.

I opened it—and there, before us was Mialashton the sell-sword, the very mercenary who had led us to this place. Except he wasn’t. He was some other Mialashton with some other name. Some other echo of time and space,.

He was standing in a small corridor or chamber. At the far end, there was a simple mirror—perhaps the very mirror we sought. And before us, on the ground, a jewelled skull.

Arnold, investigate that mirror….

demi_lich_final_1280My Empress so commanded, and so I stepped forward to carry out my appointed task. No sooner did I touch the mirror, however, than the skull rose from the ground, and began to wail. Its arcane scream plucked at my very soul.

We are lost! We are doomed! It is a demi-lich!” So cried the mage Tipwill, who had somehow failed to warn us of this before I had begun my investigation. Treachery, perhaps, of the sort so natural to his kind? Perhaps. they knew nothing of honour. Mialashton swung at it with his mighty kukris, but could barely chip the creature. Clearly it was bound together with great magics indeed—so powerful that Tipwill’s weak enchantments had no effect whatsoever.

The thing turned towards Mialashton, and seemed to cackled. In an instant, the fighter was gone—his soul seemingly imprisoned in one of the gems that adorned the floating school.

This was too much, too dangerous for the Empress. I rushed past it and grabbed her hand to pull her away. She hesitated a moment, but put her trust in me and ran. Behind is the feeble Tipwill-copy called us back to fight the demilich, although he seemed to offer no counsel as to how that might be done.

We ran on, along the corridor, and through several doors. I finally turned and spiked the last of these shut. We were safe—for now.

A few minutes later we heard a banging, and a mewling cry for help. The Tipwill-copy  was still alive.

“Let me in,” he begged.

“How is is he still alive, Empress?” I warned. “Perhaps he is in league with the guardian of the mirror?”

“Please please let me in.”

“We do not know this, faithful Arnold. We shall let him join us,” commanded our Empress.

At this point, the erratic mage began to threaten us. “If you don’t open the door, I will.. stand back!”

“Please may I kill him…” I beseeched my Empress.

“No.”

And so he was permitted to join us. I kept my eye on him and a shurikin ready for the slightest sign that he planned us ill…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a tale of three worms

I remember well the stories that Aunt Lily used to tell us around the fire on cold winter evenings. Unlike Aunt Petunia’s tales, these rarely involved the poisoning of a rich noble or revenge dealt with a cold blade of steel through the heart of a sleeping brigand. No, these were the sorts of stories my parents found more suitable, generally involving friendly rabbits and gentle deer, and perhaps the occasional fox with a trick or two up his metaphorical sleeves. One I shall never forget involved a kindly old robin whose fate was bound up with that of three worms.

I’m reminded of that tale now, although not at all in the way that Aunt Lily’s story foretold. In the recent weeks my fate, like that of my friends, has also had much to do with a worm or three. Since Tipwill has taken to locking his diary and trapping it—I got a rather nasty shock the last time I went to look in it–I’ll have to tell it all myself, although in rather abbreviated form.

Worm the First: Death in the Sands

As last I retold, we had all decided to seek Memnon’s tomb in the deserts of Anauroch, near the Shadow Sea. Our plan was to return to the oasis we had visited before, and seek what information we could. As with many of our plans it didn’t quite work out that way. The oasis was empty—its inhabitants slaughtered or having fled, and much of it ransacked. Someone had been here before us, having apparently landed by airship nearby. Were they here for the same reason we were? And if so, who? I suspect Haleus D’Aemon, or those in his employ. It seemed his style.

Before we could investigate further, however, we all felt trembling in the sand. Phlugyar cast a spell of flying upon me, and faster that you could say “flibbity jibbit” I was up in the air. Not a moment too soon, as a huge worm-like creature burst from the sand to attack us. sandworm_by_lozanox-d6iduwbYou have to understand, moreover, when I say huge, I don’t mean your common-or-garden huge. I had seen  dragons before, and this wasn’t one, but something very much bigger. It was larger too than even the great sand worm that we had encountered when we were last in these parts. No, this was bigger than big, huger than huge. And it wanted to eat us.

I pelted it with rocks and sling bullets, but to no avail. Shinzu’s fists seemed all but useless against its thick hide, and she was grievously wounded trying to combat it. Tipwill too was knocked down and almost killed. Amra risked all to try and save our companions. And then it ate Liam. Brave, brave Liam. In one bite, much as if he had been a minor ginger snap or chocolate truffle. This was too much for Tipwill. In a desperate and forlorn hope, he cast one more spell at the thing. Some spell. Any spell. A ray of prismatic colours spread from his fingertips…

…and the thing turned to stone.

We cheered ourselves hoarse with relief and delight, until Amra pointed out the obvious. A knocking sound of sorts from within the now stoney creature’s massive body reminded us that Liam was still inside. We eventually got him out. However our very near brush with death (the thing, I would later learn, was a Bhole) was a grim reminder of how very dangerous our quest had become.

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 We decided to press on towards the Shadow Sea. According to the research carried out by Tipwill and Plugyar—and before them, Pendaster and my dear Uncle Reggie—the Tomb of Memnon should be somewhere beneath it, perhaps far beneath it.

Worm the Second: The Abomination

Upon our arrival in the area, however, it was clear that it would be difficult to investigate closely without being discovered. The Shadowvar and their servants and allies were everywhere, and I feared that we–even in disguise–would soon be discovered. Like a chicken in a weasel den, peering up the dark and malevolent City of Shade floating above us filled my soul with fear. There was reason to believe, however, that there might be tunnels below this area, and through these we could access the depth of the sea.

Amra scouted the area, and sure enough found what seemed to be traces of them and a route we might take. We set forth into the depths—and once more I was grateful that our mages were able to bless me with darkvision. giant_bug_by_sc0tticus-d5r7nfy

We eventually found ourselves in a  trash heap of sorts, walled on one side with a wooden palisade, and filled with rags and bones  of all description. Almost all of the bones had been picked clean.

We soon discovered what had caused the picking clean, at least. Beetles. Thousands of them! As a swarm of them headed towards us, they were joined by something else: a much larger version of their kind.

The fight didn’t last too long, but we did manage to accidentally blast down the wooden fencing in the course of it, possibly alerting whatever might live down these corridors. We had no desire to get into a fight with them–all we wanted was safe passage. KoboldProceeding as stealthily as we could, I scouted ahead for traps. Sure enough, I soon encountered one—by, once again, setting it off. Fortunately I dodged aside in time and was uninjured, if somewhat embarrassed. By the look of its construction it had been made by kobolds. Tricky little creatures!

A little farther, I missed another trap, which Amra promptly fell in. A couple of kobold sentries were alerted and came to investigate. The druid, fluent in draconic and magically disguised, sought to reassure them. They, however, threw spears at him. And so-once again–our efforts at stealth had seen us stumble into a melee.

I dropped the two in front of us with skip-rock, and the party pressed on through the twisting corridors, becoming increasingly spread out. Tip and Phlugyar were now up ahead, beyond my sight as I killed a third kobold. From the sounds of Tipwill’s high-pitched screams for help it wasn’t going well with them.

I ran ahead, and found that the passage opened into a huge, mushroom-filled cavern. There were many kobolds here, among them a rather dangerous spell-caster. But that wasn’t all. There was also a huge, terrifying mutant flying worm.

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It was, Phlugyar would later tell me, a neolithid, likely formed when a larvae had escaped from an illithid spawning pool and subsequently mutated. This, like how to make toothpaste from slime that grew on sunless cave walls, was one of the things he knew from being a drow of the Underdark.

Amra and Phlugyar and already been wounded by the thinks attacks, and were beating a tactical retreat. I clambered up a low rise to seek a hiding place among the kobold huts there, only narrowly avoiding  a toxic cloud that the kobold caster had conjured in our direction. Another scream and a dull thud attracted my attention, just in time to see Tip torn apart and his bloodied corpse thrown against the wall of the cavern. Judging from the distance between his head and torso he was most likely dead.

Then it hit me–a psychic scream in my mind that drove me to my knees and the very edge of sanity. Blood began to dribble from my nose and ears, which I suspected was not a good sign. I stumbled into a hut, and collapsed.

I woke shortly thereafter to find Liam emptying a healing potion down my throat. “I’ll kill the thing if I can get to it. That’s what I do. If I can reach it.”

Peering out through a crack in the hut wall I could see the problem. Liam stood more than  six feet above the ground, but the worm was flying a good ten paces in the air.

goad_of_mendes2“I might have a solution to that” I replied, drawing one of the figurine goats from my pack. On command it transformed into a flying beast, suitable for mounting a kukri-wielding mercenary killer unhinged in time and space, or whatever other warrior one might have to hand.

As Liam mounted the magical creature and flew up to face the neolithid, I rushed across the cavern to retrieve Tipwill’s fractured body.  This fight was going poorly, and there seemed little option but to flee. When I reached the bloodied carcass, i plucked from my pocket the magic coin the Harpers had given us, and broke it in two, fixing in my mind that its magics should take us back to Pendaster’s sanctum.

Which they did not. By Loth’s black slippers, damn these Harpers and all their false promises! We had no option now but to fight for our lives.

Looking up, I could see the flying goat locked in losing combat with the worm, and Liam picking himself up from the ground after having likely fallen from the fray. Shinzu had pushed her way through the cloudkill to help, and Amra and Phlugyar also returned to do battle.

It seemed best to even the odds first by dealing with the meddlesome kobold mage. A few rocks did the job–like other spell-casters I had known, this one seemed especially vulnerable to a flurry of well-placed halfling battlestones.

Defeating my conjured goat, the neolithid turned its attention once more to us, using its formidable mental powers to enslave us to its will. I narrowly shook off the effects, but Liam succumbed, turning to us with kukris in hand and a menacing sneer upon his face.

girl_monk_by_el_grimlock-d3cb8iu“Don’t worry, I have this!” said Shinzu with a smile and surprising enthusiasm. She tripped lightly over to Liam, and then felled him with a series of rapid blows and a sweep from her legs. He tried to stand up–only to be tripped and felled again. And again. And again. Indeed, the slightly-built elven monk soon beat the fighter into a bruised unconsciousness, all without breaking into a sweat or breaking a nail.

By this point, most of us were pretty mauled. However some well-aimed shots from my sling and spells from Amra and Phlugyar had begun to seriously wound the neolithid too. It retreated across the cavern to a slime-covered altar. The altar was covered with offerings of gems and other valuables, and in our minds we heard its offer:

Leave this placeeeeee… or join meeeeeee.. and you will be rewarded…..

There was no reason to trust it, and we pressed forward our attack. I dodged among a stand of giant mushrooms, seeking cover after each throw. Phlugyar cast his remaining spells at it. The creature, seeing our resolve, sought to fleet through a narrow passage, but Amra acted before it could complete its escape, using his earth-magics to transform the passage into a trap of molten glass and deadly obsidian  spikes. These ripped through its thick rubbery flesh, finishing it off. Our foe had been defeated!

Wyrm the Third: Meeting Mother

We tended to our wounds, the unconscious Liam, and Tip’s lifeless body. By very great luck we had discovered a philosopher’s stone back in the Orc lair, and were able to use its powers to magically heal our mage. This, however, was the last time we would be able to do that. the next time one of us was torn apart it seemed likely to be forever.

All the while the kobolds looked on. They had retreated once the neolithid had been slain, but now warily returned. We had apparently slain their chief, but one of the younger warriors—Gurglag was is name—came forward to parley in broken common tongue.

“You free us from the creature. But what you want? You want to hurt Mother?”

I wasn’t sure who or what mother was, but I assured him we did not.

“You must go. Go away!”

He waved a spear unconvincingly. They had seen our strength, and were ill-inclined to test it. I explained that we simply wanted to rest a day or two, and then we would move on. By this point Tip and some of the others were acting  covetous eyes upon the treasures on the altar, but I warned them to leave it be. We might have need of this place as a refuge or retreat, and there seemed no sense and even less wisdom in having an angry tribe of draconic imps at our rear.

MM35_PG161bGurglak reluctantly agreed to let us stay. Having patched our own injuries, Phlgyar and Amra also tended to some of the kobold wounded as a sign of our good faith. They shared with us some mushroom stew—quite delicious if I say so myself, and almost as good as Aunt Lily’s back home—and we learned more of their people. The neolithid had, as we had come to guess, dominated this tribe with its mental powers. While this had reduce them to slaves, it had also brought some measure of protection, since none of the other creatures of the Upperdark was willing to challenge the abomination. Ironically, by killing it we had both freed the kobolds and exposed them to even greater dangers.

I tried to learn more of the kobolds’ “Mother,” but they were reluctant to tell us anything. She was clearly vulnerable, and not kobold—but not unrelated either. I had my suspicions of what this might mean.

Upon my urging (and a few trinkets of friendship), Garglak drew for us a map of the area. Immediately to the south of us (kobold maps, apparently, being upside-down) was some sort of kuo-toa religious cult, linked to the larger number of this vicious aquatic race that lived in the underground lake. Nearby was a rival group of drow. Far to the south we surmised there might be one or more illithid. And all around there were many other threats and enemies. Clearly, this was not a particularly hospitable place to live, and our arrival had only disturbed the local balance of power.

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Evidence of this came the next day. We had been preparing to explore a pool in the kobold lair —which we later found to be full of worm-spawn and a few drow, shadowvar, and other bodies bearing valuables, including a spider-cloak I took for myself—when there was a commotion. A delegation of kuo-toa had arrived to speak with the kobolds.

kuotoa10It soon became apparent that, with the neolithid gone, they had scant regard for the security of the kobolds, and instead were interested in some deal with us that would sell out our new draconic allies. When negotiations started to go poorly—apparently Phlugyar’s efforts to bluff his way through them by forgetting his name were not going well—I decided to change tack. With a rock. Aimed directly at one of the important-looking characters in their fishy delegation.

This, not surprisingly, soon sparked a fight. We also discovered what sticky characters these creatures could be—quite literally, for they secreted some foul substance that rendered their bodies adhesive. Liam found out the hard way when his prized magical kukri stuck to the one remaining fish-creature, which then ran for it, diving into an underground river just beyond the kobold caves.

In a flash, Shinzu raced after it, plunging into the water. She was no match for its swimming, however. Moreover, it was apparent that the small delegation that had come to see the kobolds (or us) had brought back-up with it, including kuo-toa warriors, mutated crab creatures, and a fearsome kuo-toa spell-caster.

We rushed into the passage to lend Shinzu our help and push back the enemy. Phlugyar was able to cast air walk and some other helpful spells, otherwise the swift currents of the flooded passages would have caused us much difficulty. The kuo-toa caster threw powerful incantations at us, only to disappear—much to Tip’s annoyance. And Shinzu and Amra discovered a nearby kuo-toa holy place, complete with a huge statue to their god—which came alive and attacked us. It wasn’t going well.

We retreated somewhat back towards the kobold caves, and Tip cast a wall of stone that blocked off part of the passage. The kuo-toa, clearly taken back by our strength, retreated too. Although they had suffered several dead and we but a few serious wounds, it was nonetheless very much a draw.

With this, we urged the kobolds to redouble their guard, traps, and other defences upon the entrance to their caves, and set about deciding on a new plan. We weren’t sure exactly where to go. We knew that Memnon’s Tomb was to be found somewhere in or below the Shadow Sea, which itself was somewhere up above the great underground lake shown on the kobold map—but exactly where, and how to enter it, we had no idea. Should we try to push past the kuo-toa and the drow and take that route? Travel along some of the underground rivers, past where we suspected illithids dwelled? Or push on through less-mapped caverns in the hopes they would lead us towards our destination?

We decided to rest another day, before setting off. The following morning, however, our plans were once more interrupted by unexpected visitors. Upperdark or not, the place seemed as busy as a basket of stoats.

drow_02_by_jianjiagu-d65nzvsThis time our visitor was a single drow, and a supremely confident one at that. He seemed to know everything about us—and we, none about him. He seemed to have both Liam’s kukri, and my enchanted skip-rock, which suggested he had a connection to Haleus D’Aemon. He also had an offer for us: to attack the kuo-toa delegation at a planned meeting with the drow and others. If we did this, we could have our weapons returned, and otherwise be rewarded.

There was a catch though. We had to agree to all this in an enchanted pact, that would bind us to the deed.

We debated whether to do this, but in the end decided not–it seemed far too likely to be a trap, and we were not at all sure how and why we were being used in this way. We let the drow leave unmolested, all fearing I think that he was either more than he seemed or had powerful friends nearby.

We then set off ourselves, heading north along a river passage towards the area known as the “trading place.” As we approached, we could see kuo-toa preparing an ambush for whomever was inside. As soon as they spotted Amra in the front of our party they sprung to attack us instead, at which point shouts and blasts of magical energies could be heard from within the meeting chamber too.

The fight went well for us—or well for me, at least, for I escaped all injury while putting my stones to good use. Some of the others were more seriously hurt, however, by a kuo-toa enchanter (likely the one that has so plagued Tip the day before). Eventually, for the second time in two days, our fishy opponents fled leading several of their dead behind..

Within the trading place we found evidence of a battle. Dead drow, dead kuo-toa, a dead illithid and beholder—except, on closer examination, these last two were not quite what they seemed. They were simulacrums of sort, fakes. But why? Made by whom? We could not stay to investigate further, for fear that drow or kuo-toa reinforcements would arrive at any moment. Instead, we once more retired to the kobold caves to rethink our strategy.

I sought out Gurglak at once. We needed more information, and I had an idea who might have it. I also had a theory, and now seemed a good time to put it to the test.

“Gurglak, we need to see Mother. Can you take us to Mother?” I asked.

“How did you know. Arrrnuld? She want to see you, she does!” the kobold replied. Either we had won their confidence—or something else. We would soon see.

We were all blindfolded, and led through the caverns. When our sight was restored, we were in the presence of a large, corpulent, very old, and very sick, green dragon. It looked at us wearily.

“What is it you want? Why are you here? You will protect my children?”

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Despite misgivings from some of my companions, I decided to trust this creature, and told it some of our tale—including that we sought the Tesseract Mirror and Memnon’s Tomb. Phlugyar and Amra further gained its confidence with interventions of the medical kind, for the dragon was most clearly in ill-health.

After much discussion, Mother made both a stunning revelation, and a surprising offer. She knew of the tomb. She could get us there too, through a portal she could conjure. But if we did this, we must agree to be bound by enchanted contract to return with the Mirror to her first, so that she might use it to take the kobolds—her children—back to the dragon’s own world and hence to safety.

This time, we accepted the geas. There was no reason to disbelieve Mother (an observation that Phlugyar was later able to confirm in communion with his god). We might, for once, be a step ahead of our opponents. And it would take us to our destination faster than any other route we knew. Mother agreed to generously throw in some of the treasures on the kobold altar too.

If I was nervous about this, it was not because of anything Mother had said. I trusted her, and the kobolds—as much as anyone we had met these strange months in this strange time and place. No, instead I continued to  harbour misgivings about the mission itself. It all felt… somehow wrong. Like we were being played, by someone, for some purpose, that we did not understand.

There was only one way to find out, however, and that was to press on. Moreover, I knew that Uncle Reggie had long ago sought this tomb too. Perhaps there I might find some clue to his fate, and where and how he was still alive.

 

 

 

 

 

pride and prejudice

spellbook_2Well, a lot has happened since I last had a chance to put pen to paper. There’s been some good news (Uncle Reggie is alive!), some bad news (I’ve lost Uncle Reggie’s prized skiprock), some revelations (we’ve uncovered a potential portal through time and space), risks (we might disrupt all time and space), and realignments (a rift with the Harpers, a tale which I shall tell in a minute).

As to how we got here, let me borrow a page from Tipwill—quite literally, for I have copied parts of this out of his own diary, which I’ve taken to reading when he’s asleep. After all, the absence of a proper lock on the thing surely means it must be a public document?

Our illustrious mage takes up the tale at our arrival in Silverymoon:

We returned the farmer girls to their families and there was much joy amongst the oppressed, but close-knit farming community. I must confess to the certain feeling of detachment, for this world, this time is not real for me. I cannot grow attached to the here and now if am to later erase it from existence by changing the past.

I used a Veil spell to make us seem a mundane group of hunters as we marched up to the gates to Silverymoon. In the half-light that passed for day in this fallen world, my old home was a forlorn sight. I was tempted to fry the petty toll collector at the gate when he took us for 10 gold just to enter town (my own impatience probably whetted the man’s greed, I must admit), but reason triumphed and we were soon walking the cobblestone road towards the Tall Halfling. Petula went her own way, leaving only Kymm with us.

But we arrived at the scene of a crime: a cleric of Shar named Twi’Lyykt and the Guard captain Sardek were arguing over the corpse of a dead girl. Arnold was able to gather little more by sidling innocently closer, before we were all warned away, except that the girl was an identical twin to Petula! Yet the dead girl, whom it seemed had fallen from a window above, had been dead too long (judging by the dried blood) to be the same girl we’d dropped off beyond the gate. Strange things were afoot …

We went on to the Tall Halfling, but before we could debate what exactly was happening, who did we see sitting at one of the benches drinking mulled wine but .. Petula! The moment she caught our surprised looks, she jumped up and fled!  It was a short battle, which spilled into the streets, and we received help from a strange new ally: a purple-eyed Drow mage. The City Guard were being drawn to the commotion, and not wanting any Shadovaar attention I conjured an illusion bank of smog to conceal Shinzu and Arnold as they brought down ‘Petula’ – who was a fighter in her own right but could not defend against our numbers and skill.

We returned into the Tall Halfling before the Watch could pinpoint who caused the trouble, and there we were introduced to Grindelman, the proprietor – and Kymm’s adoptive father. The man was, indeed, a tall halfling, and a decent sort who was deeply grateful for Kymm’s return. He introduces us to the Drow – one Phlugyarr, friend of the High Forest elves and good of heart. Also did we meet Captain Oleshan and some of his crew, notably Buckminster the massive Rahsemi Fisrt Mate, of the Skyship Laughing Skua. Grindelmann invited us to a more private chamber at the inn, where ‘Petula’ – who turned out to be a doppelganger – was brought and tied up. Grindelmann  proved more than he seemed, revealing himself as a Harper, along with Phlugyarr … among the last in this world. They were allies of Pendaster and, like him, sought to free the enigmatic ‘Old One’ to battle Shar (who had come to dominate this world by controlling the weakened Amaunator). Before I could delve more deeply into this – a sudden distress signal or vision came to the Harpers via their magical Pins … Erised was in dire need! A prisoner of orcs?

There was little time for thought or plans – my companions jumped to action and I decided to follow. We boarded the Laughing Skua mere minutes later and the Captain made all haste towards Erised’s location, which the Harpers could sense via their Harper Pins. I cast Darkvision and Feather Fall on my companions and we leapt from the ship and drifted down to the forest below, to ambush a column of orcs we’d spotted from the air. The ambush was not particularly well executed, as a team we had much to learn, but it was an advantage and took first blood in the battle against a force of orc warriors and rangers, a great ogre, an orcish shaman, and a pair of orcish  fire-sorcerers. Shinzu and Liam took the brunt of the attack, and were nearly laid low before  the rest of us could deal with the sorcerers with cold magic and help. In the end we had the mastery, bloodied but with no losses, and we freed Erised.

We flew back up to the skyship and returned to Silverymoon immediately. I was particularly interested in interrogating our doppelganger prisoner, for I dislike unsolved mysteries. We used Detect Thoughts and all the tactics we could, and ultimately were satisfied we had the truth from her. She was not evil, it seemed, but rather had taken the real Petula’s place in order to spy on the slavers. The slavers were Shadovarr, using orcs as pawns, and their aim was profit. The doppelganger worked for the Ratcatcher’s Guild, a spy network of beggars opposing the Shadovaar. She did not know who killed the real Petula, the corpse we’d walked by.

We were short on supplies and I needed components for my Art and so we went to the Market, Veiled as commoners. I was able to find some magical inks for scribing, but I could see Arnold, Amra,  and Liam from the corner of my eye and it looked like they were about to get into mischief… groaning inwardly I watched Arnold and Amra  staring with open hatred at ‘Tom the Slaver’ , a disgusting man who was hawking his flesh-trade – slaves of half-orc race it appeared. Even worse, I then witnessed Liam gazing with open interest at a Zhentarim soldier escorting a Sharran priest. The Zhent bore a beautiful kukri on his back and Liam was eyeing it with a savage lust. That fellow was crude, but I was glad to have him on my side. Arnold also spotted Liam’s look, and I could tell the larcenous demi-human was seriously considering stealing from this obviously capable warrior in the open market. Gladly, a look of resignation crossed Arnold’s features and he shrugged and allowed the Sharran priest and his bodyguard to leave unmolested.

At Pendaster’s lair, we conferred as a party as to our next action and it was decided that we should infiltrate the slavers’ building, kill the slavers and free the slaves. I was not particularly interested, but I knew we needed more seasoning as a team before confronting Memnon so I agreed. This was the first in a series of very noble  ‘down with slavery!’ side-quests that nearly spelled disaster for the team’s primary objective, which as I saw it was to reset Time.

Sneaking into the slaver compound after dark, we were ambushed by a huge creature of shadow, which I identified from an old Netherese tome as a Sharran Shadowspawn,  a terrible monster that crushed and grappled with horrid tentacles and nearly killed two if our number before being laid low by sharp blades, skiprocks, and acid spells. We killed the thing, wondering if this could be the transformed Slaver Tom (for the building was empty), but the city was roused and we needed to flee before the Shadovaar captured us! We went down the hole created by the acidic ball that killed the Shadowspawn, and sent Amra’s summoned Bulette out into the city to wreak havoc and perhaps take the blame for the destruction.

That part, of course, you already know—I’m not sure what possessed me to copy it out, other than an exercise in penmanship. Anyways, the adventure continues:

 Down below, we came upon the city’s old sewer tunnels, and I was horribly sickened by the wretched stench – a debilitating state that would persist long minutes until we finally left these warrens. Amra took the form of a Water Elemental to scout ahead and I summoned smaller creatures of that kind to aid him, finally taking that form myself for a time. We were not alone down here, though: the place was infested with undead ghouls, whom we could see or hear in the shadows beyond locked grates. Trying to find a way out, we had to press forth into the ghouls’ demesne. Where possible the party walked on the narrow ledges rather than entering the sickening water, but this was not always possible. We came into conflict with ghouls and managed to  destroy them with the help of Halt Undead, Arnold’s skiprocks, Shizu’s fists, and Liam’s kukri. Proceeding further Amra spotted a Green Slime. Phlugyarr burned the thing with a burst of electrical magic, but this unfortunately damaged several of us who were in the water. From that point forth, Amra never quite trusted the drow! I summoned Lantern Archons to finish it.

Further in we battle a horde of ghouls and their huge leader, a massive ghoul over 12 feet tall. Attempting to hold a Wall of Force spell for the perfect moment to cut-off our enemies, I was clawed and paralyzed by the unearthly speed of charging ghouls and had to sit and watch the awful spectacle helplessly for a few seconds. Thankfully my companions engaged the ghouls so I could recover. But moments later Liam was paralyzed, falling into the putrid water and beginning to drown! Shinzu heroically jumped-in and saved him, dragging his paralyzed form up as myself and Phlugyarr held the ghouls in the tunnel at bay. Up ahead, Amra and Arnold were engaged with the huge ghoul leader. When we had cleared the tunnel, the mages joined the fray and Phlugyarr melted the ghouls with Holy Smite and acid while Amra’s summoned Water Elemental tore undead limb from limb. Amra was then paralyzed but the battle was almost over, and my summoned Earth Elemental helped finish our immediate foes. But to our horror, the ghouls slowly began to spontaneously reanimate! We learned that cutting off their heads was the answer, and set about the task.

Pursued by fresh undead in our quest to find egress, I cast a Wall of Acid to hold back our foes and give Phlugyarr time to cast Knock and open the grate before us. It was about this time that we noticed that something was wrong with Liam. Emerging from paralysis, he began muttering about hunger, hunger for meat. Amra cast Remove Disease but was not sure if that resulted in a cure.  Indeed it had not, for somewhat further down the tunnels, the slavering, ghoul-mad Liam sliced his kukri into the back of my knee! I will feel that stroke on humid days for the rest of my life. Needless to say I was shocked, and Vanished before the killing machine could finish me. The party managed to get Liam under control while also being assaulted by yet more ghouls – ably laid low by Phlugyarr’s Dragon Breath as well as Shinzu, Amra, and Arnold. Liam seemed to reassert control of himself and attacked the ghouls with vigour now. Ultimately, we fought our way, passed a grate which we locked behind us, entering another sewer tunnel, this one with an empty boat moored at the ledge and filled with open manacles. Stairs led up into darkness at the end of the tunnel, and having no choice we ascended cautiously …

… Into a strange basement, with a sleeping Shadovaar guard in a chair in the corner. Arnold’s hatred of slavers showed on his childlike visage as he slit the guard’s throat, making his sleep permanent. We must have taken too long inspecting the doors and debating our next move, for guards in the next room came to the door, knocking roughly when they found the door locked (by us). I tried a charade, telling them the “Ghouls are loose, don not enter!”, but I was never very good at that sort of thing. They pounded through the door and I slew the lot with a great Acid Ball. But that literally brought the house down on us, as we were attached by no less than a Vrock, two ghouls, a Sharran Cleric, and two Nabassu demons! In close quarters, in terrible tactical position, we were in mortal straits. In fact, when the Sharran Cleric cast Hold Person on me (which would have had me skewered by a Demon soon after) … I felt the paralytic effect take hold and whispered a silent inward prayer. I feel like some agency intervened on my behalf that day. An encouraging thought. We had to flee that basement, teleporting away (both I and Phlugyarr grabbing whom we could reach) with the paralyzed Arnold, with no time to pick up his mystical skiprock for we were surrounded by foes.

Nabassu

Yes, that’s correct—I dropped Uncle Reggie’s skiprock in what we later surmised was the Temple of Shar! I remain as vexed about that as a bunny in a box. However, Phlugyar undoubtedly saved my life, and for this I will be eternally grateful.

The party reunited at the Tall Halfling in Grindelmann’s private room, where Remove Curse was cast on Liam and we all hoped this ghoulish hunger was conquered for once and all. I must admit I have not fully trusted the crude, but frighteningly capable killer since. It was soon time to decide our next move, where I hoped to point the group to Anauroch and the Dragon Door. But I was outvoted and the party determined to again pursue the slavers – this time at the keep of a great band of orcs known to be a link in the Shadovaar slave trade. We made for the airship but we were ambushed by Shadovaar as well as the Zhentarim with the kukri and his Sharran Priest, as well as a mage. From that point we went from suspicion that our foes were using divinations to watch us, to virtual certitude that we were being scryed. The battle proved swift, for no sooner had I turned invisible (since our enemies were right next to me), and summoned a Wooly Rhino – that the beast had nothing to attack and I almost directed it to attack the Laughing Skua‘s crew. How can I be expected to know every crewman on that ship, anyway? More Shadovaar were coming, and the airship was lifting off, so we had to scramble to loot our fallen enemies. Liam got the Zhent’s kukri at last, and I used Telekinesis to grab up the mage’s body from the ships’ railing, pulling it up gently to the deck. Macabre, but effective …

airship

We travelled on our way towards the orc encampment. Although my hin hatred for slavers was motive enough for me, it should also be noted that we had been urged to this mission by the Harper Erised, whom we had rescued in the woods (twice, no less) earlier.

Alas, our journey would not be a smooth one, for we had travelled only a few hours when the Laughing Skua was beset by demons! Against all odds we vanquished them, destroying some and causing their Succubus leader to flee, but not before the ship was gravely damaged. It crashed into the forest below, although Phlugyar was able to cast Feather Fall upon us and so save the party from any injury.

We continued on warily, together with Captain Oleshan, the remnants of his crew, and Kymm (Grindelman’s adopted daughter, who we had taken with us because of threats to her life back in town). After a while we came across a clearing, in which was located a ramshackle hut. Outside, three hideous old women appeared to be muttering incantations around a boiling cauldron.

scary witches around cauldronThat didn’t look very promising. I crept closer, hiding behind a mossy boulder. Or it seemed to be a mossy boulder, at least until it started to move. Instead it was some sort of hideous scorpion!

I jumped to the side, and threw my skiprock at the hags before they could respond—dropping one.

The fight was a difficult one, for the scorpions were formidable and the hags were both surprisingly nimble for their old age and frequently invisible. Before we could kill the last of the scorpions, Amra’s tiger companion Shuiba lay mortally wounded. Before we could finish the last of the hags, it had taken Kymm hostage. Fortunately, Amra interceded, whisking her way by druidic cleverness and allowing us to finish off the final witch.

Inside the hags’ hut we found a fortune in gems, as well as some magical items. My companions seemed reluctant to compensate Oleshan and his crew for the inconvenience we had put them through, not to mention the loss of the livelihoods. I took it upon myself to do the right thing, and relocate the gems into their possession. Captain Oleshan seemed especially grateful, although my friends were less enthused when they eventually learned what I had done.

ShuibaWe held a modest funeral service for Shuiba, burying the big cat. By morning a mighty tree had grown where she had been placed—a remarkable thing, that filled all of us with awe at the power of the druid’s bond and the wonders of nature.

We also received an urgent message from Erised:

Large orc party has left.
The time is right to strike their stronghold.
Let us bring the fight to them!
What takes so long?

First, however, we were clearly in need of sleep. In my dreams, there came a message—an actual message, I was certain, from Tipwill’s old nemesis, Haleus D’Aemon, now perhaps the most powerful man in all Silverymoon. Uncle Reggie, so the message said, was still alive. D’Aemon had my skiprock too. He wanted to meet.

In the morning I expressed my frustrations to my companions:

May I just say that everyone and their poodle seems to know what we’re up to.

We’ve been getting more messages than a buxom barmaid with bells on. I’ve had one too, from Tip’s old school friend Haleus D’Aemon, promising me my Skiprock and telling me Uncle Reggie is still alive and in captivity

We’ve been released by demons, barely pursued, scryed, and followed by a shadowdancer. We have a plan to release an Old One which, so we’re told, will set the world right rather than devour it (fingers and toes crossed!). To date, however, nothing we have ever done has turned out right. 

I for one, propose we strike a blow at these orcs, do right by Captain Oleshan and his crew, then spend some time working out what is up and what is sidewards. After all, our prospects for successfully completing the quest that Shinzu and Tip wish us to complete are close to zero if we’re under constant surveillance, and at risk of demons gating in whenever we’re about to achieve something. We have no idea how united or divided are foes are, and what opportunities there might be for alliances of convenience….

We then set off the on foot for the Orc lair, leaving Kymm and the crew of the (former) Laughing Skua at the hut. As we approached the stronghold—fashioned from the crumbling ruins of an ancient castle—we met up with Erised, who had been keeping the enemy under watch. After a reconnaissance by Amra, we agreed on a plan of attack whereby I would invisibly scout the walls, while my friends would move by Dimension Door into the enemy’s keep and begin an immediate assault–hopefully taking them off-guard. The screams of someone being tortured and killed within added urgency to our actions.

640x292_5924_Forgotten_Castle_3d_fantasy_landscape_forest_castle_vue_trees_mountains_serene_picture_image_digital_art

At first our assault went as planned. Then, however, something frightened the usually unflappable Liam, and he fled from the fight in arcane panic. The unexpected departure of our formidable fighter left the rest of us at a disadvantage, and among the enemy was both a huge brute of an orc and several powerful spellcasters. At last, however, we defeated all those who stood above ground, and Liam returned—somewhat sheepishly, it seemed—just in time for us to press down into the network of orc tunnels that lay beneath this old castle.

orc-box-art_by_gamewallpaperz.blogspot.comHere, the fight went rather more smoothly for us, despite the appearance of yet another demon Vrock. Although I was badly wounded, we ended up forcing the few orc survivors to surrender. We also found here some twenty-six human female slaves, and two dozen babies and young half orcs bred for slavery. The brutal treatment they endured made my blood boil, and I was quite eager to slay the two orc spellcaster we had among our prisoners. Liam indicated, however, that he would be just as inclined to do it himself.

“Shit Brandyken… I can kill them.  They are wicked, and they deserve the death they have coming to them.  As for stopping you… I’m not the one that has stopped someone from carrying out what needed to be done.”

We found significant treasure in the lair, especially in a secret vault located by Amra, wherein we discovered a Philosopher’s Stone. We also discovered a Harper pin (among other items), something that would soon prove more contentious among our group than a magpie in a jewellery shop.

Universal_Magic_Circle_by_XyeeMuch more important still, Amra discovered a massive buried circular slab of the rare sky-metal horacalcum. It was not a natural deposit, but something that had been worked by hand and crafted with magic long ago. There was also no evidence the orcs knew it was here, buried beneath their caves.

Phlugyar’s study of Memnon and the Tesseract Mirror suggested, so he said, that that the latter was likely fashioned from highly polished horacalcum—much like this one—and then enchanted with magics developed by the Netherese Archmages Ioulaum and Karsus (neither of whom I had ever heard of, but then mages are hardly my speciality). Tipwill and Phlugyar also believed that the ancient tales of the Iquar’Tel’Quessir, or creator races, in particular the shapeshifting-sauroid Sarrukh, fitted with some fossilized remains of humanoid and dinosaur bones that we found nearby. Phlugyar told us that the Sarrukh Isstosseffifil empire—I think that’s how it’s pronounced—stood in this area some 36-37,000 years ago. The Sarrukh were the creators of the first stable portals on Toril. Horacalcum is apparently known to bend or warp time, and could be used as a portal component.

Phlugyar looked at us all with excitement. “This mass of Horacalcum could be the portal to end all portals, or create myriad other portals. Given what we know about the Tesseract Mirror and its effects, extrapolating for size and mass… if this were a functioning portal, then it could be used to go anywhen in reality. That is, anywhere and anytime in all of reality.”

He paused for emphasis.”If so, this would be the most dangerous weapon, or most powerful tool across all of the planes of existence….”

While our mages were understandably excited, my own heart sank. Could we be trusted with such power? Or even such knowledge of such power? Since our arrival in this time we had been followed, scryed, pursued, spied upon, and twice had our minds read. Demons had sought to take control of souls. What happened if we let loose into the world any knowledge of this place?

20060410192354!Harpers_symbolWhich brings us back the Harper pin. Such a pin could, I knew, shield one’s thoughts from magical prying. Remembering only too well how easily a mindflayer had once rifled through my own thoughts, it seemed imperative that one of us—particularly me—should wear it. I therefore asked if I might have it.

At this point Erised, who had been absent from most of the hard fighting, but who had now joined us below, spoke up. “Only a body fa swears tae uphauld th’ code shoods wear a Harper pin. as thaur ur few ay ye, it woods be up tae existin’ harpers tae determine fa wears a Harper pin. it is less a pin, an’ mair a standard ay brotherhuid, an’ an oath.”

Phlugyar too seemed a bit taken aback by my request.”I swore that very oath under a Moon lit sky in Nordahaeril many, many, years ago. Harpers have to earn that pin, and can be awarded it later on if merited, after years of loyal service or after heroic deeds in the name of the Harp.”

He turned to converse with the dwarf, who said to him “As tae membership, baith arnauld an’ Amra woods be braw beneficiaries ay sic’ an honorific, an’ th’ pin. If they baith want th’ pin, ‘en Ah say we ask them a simple question. Of aw th’ stinkin’ orc prisoners haur, fa shoods we kill first? Lit th’ wee jimmies, answer ‘at, ‘en we’ll see who’s got th’ mettle tae be a Harper.”

I suspected I knew what answer he wanted. But I also believed that the two spellcasters among the orcs were both guilty of heinous crimes, and a continuing threat to our efforts to rescue these slaves. Without hesitation I replied “I would kill them both for their crimes.”

This, as I suspected, was not the right answer—nor was Amra’s reply, which was in a similar vein. After a few minutes of careful deliberation, Erised and Phlugyar stepped forward .

“No one shall earn the pin today. Harpers will fight villainy and wickedness wherever they find it but do not condone murder, especially foes that have surrendered and are subdued with no manner to defend themselves. This would make us no better than the Shadovar themselves.  Of both answers, Amra’s shows the most promise, but we will need more time to be certain of his  measure.”

Dwarf_MageWith that Erised, placed the pin in his pocket.

It was my turn now to be taken aback. I had not applied to join the Harpers, although I had high regard for the organization. I simply wanted to wear a dusty old pin that might, if it could help preserve the momentous information we now knew, save everyone and everything in the known universe. Those were the odds and the stakes. And yet these Harpers, out of some misguided pride, were prepared to risk everything, and instead keep the pin useless and unused amid the lint of an elderly dwarf’s pocket. As Aunt Petunia used to say, in a storm ’tis much better to be wearing some britches than none at all.

Apparently Harpers could lie and cheat, if a mission required it. They could even lead a young halfling to believe his beloved uncle had been murdered. However, they couldn’t let an outsider wear their pin, even if uncountable lives stood in the balance.

I knew what I had to do—to relocate that pin to where it might be of better use. I found Amra talking with the eldest of the ex-slaves as he nestled a half-orc baby in his huge arms. His smile slowly dissipated as I told him of my intention.

“I will not stop you but I want nothing to do with it. This idea is even worse then your ‘gifting’ of items that belonged to others my friend.”

“I scratched that off the treasure ledger in front of everyone!” I replied. “Besides, it was our fault that he lost his ship.”

“Enough!” Arma said loudly. “I do not disagree in the act of charity…just the way you went about it.”

Erisednote“As Aunt Petunia always said, someone’s lost item is always another’s good fortune…” I said to him as I left.

I quietly scrawled out an IOU of sorts, and then sought to furtively swap it for the pin in Erised’s pocket. I was a little out of practice, however, and Erised detected my attempt.

He stared at me with a fierce anger in his eyes. I feared for a moment he would cast at me, and I prepared to jump aside.

Then he vanished in a flash of bright light.

As it turned out, I had underestimated the injured pride of the dwarf, and his attachment to this long-lost piece of metal. Thereafter the Harpers (save Phlugyar, of course) cut off all cooperation with us, angered by what they saw as my betrayal.

It was not me who had betrayed anything, however—at best, I had been guilty of putting the mission first.

As it also turned out, Phlugyar had the pin, not Erised. He would later bestow it upon Amra as the druid was admitted to the ranks of the Harpers himself. He certainly will make a fine addition to their number. As for me, it is clear that I’m far too practically-minded and too little bound by rules to join their organization. Still, I wish them well.

With this, we decided to return by foot to the hag hut, with the freed slaves. Before leaving, we blocked the passages to the lair, trusting that it would take the orc prisoners a few day or two to dig themselves out.

At Shuiba’s grove there had been a transformation. A virtual fortress wall of thorn surrounded the grove now, whose stagnant pools had transformed into bubbling springs of crystal water. A rainbow of flowers bloomed in the light of a thousand torchbugs whose wings hummed in the canopy of fruit laden trees that formed an impenetrable ceiling of lush, green leaves.

Enchanted-forest-hut-wallpaper

Small forest creatures frolicked in the lush grass and wildflowers that blanketed the ground, as butterflies took flight, flitting from one bunch of flowers to the next, drinking their sweet nectar. A grandiose hive dripped sweet honey from above, into a hollow bowl-like stone. The clear, golden liquid was the gathering spot to a trip of young rabbits who licked at the sweet confection that overflowed the natural basin.

The hut, too, was transformed. Ratty and unkempt, before, the hut seemed, now, to be made of living trees. As though in a few scant days trees had grown around the old structure, adding to it. Tree hollows appeared as windows into the warm glow of the hut, beyond. Some of these glowing hollows extended some 20 feet from the ground, as if the hut had grown in height, as well.

Kymm had changed as well–in place of the young red-haired girl we had known, there was now an athletic-looking elf maiden. She said that this was her true form, and the waif had been but an image or vessel. I rather wondered if this was yet another example of time and space overlapping.

The freed slaves decided to stay in this place, along with Kymm and even a few of Oleshan’s crew. As for us, we teleported back to the sanctum to prepare for the next phase of our adventure, whatever that might be.

But what was that to be? Amra was anxious to go to the aid of the elves, who were now coming under assault by the main orc forces. Tip, Phlugyar, and Shinzu were equally anxious to continue our mission.

I listened to Phlugyar once more explain about portals, my head spinning. Arcane magicks—let alone time and space and all reality—are not exactly my area of expertise. Liam looked even more confused than I.

“I still want to know more about this Old One. That Shar imprisoned it, and Memnon, does make them potential allies…. but what then? If they are creatures of fire, what’s to say they don’t cleanse this world of all life with flame once they’ve defeated Shar, much as Shar forced upon us endless shadow? If it takes an Old One to defeat Shar, what does it take to defeat an Old One?”

“We hin have a saying: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend, until such point as my enemy is gone, then the enemy of my enemy is just as likely to be my enemy too’…”

47c94210691221aI looked at Shinzu quizzically. “You’ve said little, my monkish friend. What do you think of all this? I’m thinking you have another plan at work here.” Pendaster had sent us an angry message, furious at my actions, and warned that our party had been compromised. I assume my friends thought it might be me, or Liam. I wondered, however, what our quiet monkling was up to.

She replied in a way that hardly set my concerns at rest, “”I have said little, because I have little to say.  It is an act of baseless pride to presume to understand these affairs more deeply than my master, who sent me.  Unlike you others, I trust the motivations and wisdom of that command, but realize that I alone am unlikely to succeed in the task.”

As for Liam, he was ready to support anything that involved slaying foes.

I briefly proposed to meet Haleus D’Aemon, alone, and see what I could determine of his plans and interest in us. Evidence at the Orc lair had tied him to the kidnapping and slavery, but we all suspected his role and ambitions were much greater than this. My companions, probably wisely, insisted this was far too dangerous. Neither of our mages, moreover, was able to screen within my mind the dangerous knowledge I now possessed.

In the end, I too voted to head east, back to the desert of Anauroch and towards Memnon’s tomb. I was still deeply concerned about Memnon and the Old One, and what releasing them might do. However, it did seem wise to remove ourselves from Silverymoon and the surrounding area, where our knowledge of the buried portal seemed most likely to fall into the wrong hands…Alien-Desert

 

 

 

 

 

into the darkness

Wizards-Library1We all enjoyed a good night’s rest in the sanctum, confident that we were well-protected. In the morning Tipwill and Phulgyar set about copying some of the spells in Pendaster’s library into their spell books. We also debated what to do next.

Tip, Shinzu, and Phulgyar all wanted to press on with our quest, most likely by travelling to Candlekeep to seek both Pendaster himself (now in lich-form, we believed) and to possibly study more about Memnon and the Old One in the library there. Phulgyar warned that it would be dangerous, however: in this world and time the great library was a mage school for the shadowvar and their allies.

Amra and I wished to investigate the slavers more, and strike a blow against them. True, it was but a small act set against the larger events of the world. Amra was angered at seeing his kinfolk bred and sold into slavery. Given my own world’s dark past history of selling hin into domestic slavery as cooks and houseboys (a legacy embodied by the very term “halfling,” as if we were half-anything!) I had to agree. I was anxious too that we protect the girls we had saved by eliminating their former captors. Finally, I continued to harbour doubts about our grand strategy of righting the world by loosing an unspeakable horror into it. It seemed very much to be a leap in a dark hole without a rope, something that had never worked out to well for us in the past.

Dragons. The memory of adventure past led me to wonder what had happened to the shadow dragon Mayzine, and whether our kindnesses in the past might have permanently turned her from her evil path. After all, she was one of those few from our past who might still be alive in our present…

The debate continued. With the party split, it was clear that Liam’s word would decide our course of action. He offered a compromise: we would spend a day to slay “Slaver Pete” whom we had seen at the auction in the market square, then return to our original quest. When we left the city on the Skua in two weeks we would also detour to raid the orc encampment.

Aunt Petunia used to tell my siblings and cousins and I stories—all fictional, she would insist—of how an assassin might methodically stalk its target for weeks, discovering its habits and patterns of life, before striking the deadly blow. However, there was little appetite for such prolonged stalking among most of our group. Instead we performed a hasty survey and stake-out of the warehouse where Slaver Pete did his business, planning to improvise an attack when an opportunity presented itself.

Spectre___cloack_FX_concept_by_ikkakeExcept that we were being followed, by a man in dark clothes that I had noticed the day before in the market. When we turned to confront him, he vanished. A shadowdancer, perhaps? A skilled one too, by the looks of it.

I had long been worried about scrying and spying and the such-like, and this latest episide was just more jam on the pigeon as far as I was concerned. I suggested that we abandon our immediate plans, and try to discover who might have us under such surveillance, and to what end. The consensus, however, was that we press on.

The warehouse was, on examination, a somewhat peculiar building with no windows. The doors were locked–and had no keyhole to the exterior. Pete never came out. Instead, Tip detected a flash of arcane energy from within the building.

I offered to check out the interior of the building. Tipwill transformed me into a Gaseous Form, and I then seeped into the building. It was empty!

Or so it seemed. One pile of crates seemed suspicious. On further examination I found that they were not crates at all, but a wooden hide built to conceal a horrible beast of sorts: a mass of darkness and lugubrious black tentacles, fully the size of an ox—by which I mean, of course, some otherworldly ox that looked nothing at all like an ox, but rather like a mass of darkness and lugubrious black tentacles.

I slipped back out of the building, and waited for the spell to expire so that I could inform my colleagues.

What was it? Some guardian, guarding the warehouse, or possibly tunnels beneath it? We already knew that the slavers used the sewers to hide their  human prisoners. In that case, the flash of arcane energy that Tip had detected earlier was possibly Pete teleporting to his home, wherever that might be (although it was also possible that he used any tunnels for this). Alternatively, perhaps the creature was Pete, polymorphed into his real form, possibly some aberration from the Plane of Shadow. We had no way of knowing.

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Naturally, we decided to attack. Phulgyar used a Knock spell to open the rear door of the warehouse, and we all slipped in.

Since the creature appeared to be in some sort of slumber, we had ample time to arrange our assault. Liam and Shinzu, as usual, stood in the forefront. Phulgyar, Tipwill, and Amra stood somewhat farther back, ready to use their spells—although they were constrained by the fact that we were in a wooden building the midst of the city, and anxious to neither attract attention nor start a conflagration. I hid among boxes and crates about 10 paces distant, ready to hurl my skiprock.

At a signal, Liam smashed through the false crates which concealed the abomination, while I threw my rock. It missed! Shinzu attacked, but the rubbery beast seemed to absorb her blows with little or no damage. My own rocks seemed similarly ineffective. Amra summoned a landshark to fight alongside us, while Tip tried to find a spell that would hurt the thing. The beast screamed an otherwordly scream and grabbed Shinzu, Liam, and Tipwill in its many tentacles, although the wily mage escaped with the aid of some hidden magical device.

TentaclesIn despair, I threw my Oil of Daylight at it, hoping that this might somehow weaken a creature of shadow. Perhaps this had some effect, but it also caused Phulgyar, unaccustomed to the bright light, to stumble about temporarily blinded. He recovered from the condition by cleverly casting a Darkness spell around himself, and also had the presence of mind to close the back door, which we had foolishly left open!

To be honest, I feared we would all die (with the possible exception of me). The creature squeezed most of the life out of poor Shinzu, then threw her limp, unconscious body to the floor. Liam’s kukris were a whir of steel and black ichor, but it was clear he was barely clinging to life.

Finally, Tip decided to risk all. “Skreuthys!” he exclaimed, invoking the name of the legendary saint of desperate causes, and cast a giant Acidball against the thing.  This killed it, leaving a steaming pool of acid and melting tentacles in a pit beneath the floor.

UnknownIt also blew out a corner of the warehouse. A crowd had already begun to form in the surrounding streets, and the shouts of the guard could be heard amid the commotion. Fortunately they were briefly scattered by the terrifying sight of Amra’s land shark galloping out of the wreckage of the building and into the market, where it devoured a cart of meat pies.

What to do? To leave the warehouse via the doors (or the hole in the wall we had created) was to risk near-certain arrest by the city guard. There were no windows, nor access to the roof.

“Down!” I urged. “There’s a tunnel or something down there, I’m certain.” I wasn’t entirely certain, but when there’s no rabbit in the stew, parsnips will do.

“Yes, but the fullness of the pit with acid of death requires most careful consideration, most honourable halfling…” replied a still-shaken Shinzu, brought back to consciousness by a healing spell from our versatile drow.

Amra step forward, and muttered a druidic incantation. “Not now. Now acid gone. We go. Kwika-sfuk!” Although only a few of us fully understood his idiomatic use of the imperative form of the third person plural of the Orcish verb kwikasfar (“to move very quickly, as if pursued by dangerous foes”), his meaning was nonetheless still clear to all.

And so, aided by the distraction of the bulette in the market square and our drow’s spell of Darkness, we descended beneath the city, where doubtless other dangers would away…

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of beggars and slaves

Captain Oloshan dropped us off outside Silverymoon, near the location where we had arranged to meet Amra. Not long after, the druid appeared, bearing a freshly-slain deer and several rabbits. Shuiba would eat well tonight!

First, however, we had some shopping to do. Tip and Phlugyar both had particular need of spell components and rare inks. The rest of us needed food supplies, and a few other mundane items. We also had a doppelganger to question.

Thus we reentered the city in disguise,  with Amra assuming the form of a raven. We made our way back to the Tall Halfling with Erided, where Grindelman awaited us.

“Thenk ye,” said the dour dwarf as he sat down to a pint of ale. “Ah hud nae desire tae track th’ orcs as a prisoners. Still, it did gezz some idea whaur their encampment micht be….”

The prisoner was still tied up and unconscious. We woke the faux-Petula up with a bucket of col water, and I began the interrogation. Tip had cast Detect Thoughts to aid us in the collection of information.

I started by telling it the plain facts of the situation. Petula was dead. It was our prime suspect. While we would not torture information from it, its only hope of living through the night was to tell us the truth.

CreatureSpotlight-Doppelganger“You’ll kill me anyway, Arnold.” it replied. It knew my name! Either it had been tasked to spy on us, or it could read my thoughts, or it was the “Petula” we had rescued. I had already noted the fresh chain marks on its wrists, which suggested either it had killed Petula hours ago, or had been among the girls we rescued.

A few additional questions made it clear that the creature had indeed been among the girls we had rescued from the Orcs. It was the only one of its kind in Silverymoon, doppelgangers having apparently been hunted to the edge of extinction by the shadowvar, perhaps because their unfixed forms violated all limits of racial distinctiveness. Living as a beggar, it had stumbled across the girls when they had been held in the sewers, before they had been taken to the exchange with the orcs. It had freed the real Petula, and nobly taken her place.

This was a lesson we would do well to keep in mind. Nobility and kindness can be found in any creature. Our own band included a demon construct, a renegade Harper drow, a halfling rogue, a mercenary of dubious origin, and a “half breed” orc. In the world in which we found ourselves, we might find allies in unusual places, among shape-changers, were-creatures, “mongrels” and slaves— all those that the shadowvar considered beneath them.

Although Tip’s magic and been unable to penetrate its mind, we nonetheless released the doppelganger from its bonds in an act of faith and trust. This world needed more of that, if the various disparate elements of opposition to Shar were to be built into an engine of resistance. We made him an offer too: he would always find a warm meal at the Tall Halfling, if might agree to pass on any information he might discover on the slavers, potential foes, or the machinations of the authorities.

“I’ll tell the Ratcatcher,” said the doppelganger. While the comment passed by my friends, I I looked at him intently. “Ratcatcher” was the traditional term for the head of the Beggar’s Guild. My relations with the beggars of Waterdeep had been a close one in my previous world: in addition to my dues to the Thieves’ Guild I had always made it my practice to tithe to the street-folk a share of whatever I managed to relocate from the wealthy, cruel, and corrupt. I asked him how the beggars were viewed by the city authorities, and the answer was no surprise: they were seen as the dregs of society, outcasts of the shadowvar’s sense of class status and racial purity.

95052It was, in my view, a dangerous mistake by the shadowy powers-that-be. The underclass saw all. They listened, but were not noticed. They understood, but were not asked. They feigned an abject and obsequious deference to power, but dreamed of a better life. True, their lives hung by such a bare thread that they were hardly likely to be foot soldiers of rebellion. But they excelled in everyday forms of resistance, and had a code of honour of sorts.

I needed to meet this Ratcatcher, and see how we might help each other. If he was like the others I had known, he might be more than he seemed. Indeed, for all I knew he could even be the doppelganger before me.

It was late, and we had a hungry tiger awaiting us in Pendaster’s sanctum. However our magic-users were in need of their fancy inks, and I was anxious to find items that might better disguise us. We resolved to take a quick shopping trip to the market.

With the solar cycles of light and dark askew, the hours of commerce were long, and the market fairly bustled with activity. We purchased what we needed, and I nearly relocated a very magical-looking kukri strapped to the back of some important-looking human who strode past us. I failed, but only just, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to exercise old skills. As Deputy Guildmaster Whisperdirk used to say, the art only improves with practice.

We also encountered Kala, one of the girls we had freed, and her very grateful father, Kelvin. He was rather louder with his gratitude than I might have wished. I recounted Petula’s murder (without the part about a doppelganger), and urged him to keep his daughter safe. It was possible someone was trying to kill all who had witnessed the illegal trade.

orcchainAt this point, there was a commotion in the market. It was the most bitter of all economic activities—a slave auction. The slaver merchant–one “Slaver Pete” stood in front of a warehouse or sorts, displaying today’s wares: several chained half-orcs all of them, all of them young adults, and all of whom appeared to have been bred to captivity and servitude…

Bred to captivity. Twist a badger and turn it inside out—that was it! My friends and I exchanged glances as all became clear. That was why the slavers, despite practicing a legal occupation, had sought to hide some of their nefarious activities. Young women were being kidnapped for use as breeding stock, traded to the orc tribe in exchange for their half-breed offspring. Perhaps many of the city authorities knew of this, but they certainly would not want it revealed. News of it would cause outrage, protest, maybe even open revolt.

There was little we could do. We had not the funds to free all those in captivity, nor could we afford to draw attention to ourselves (although Liam, when he finished stuffing himself with meat pies from a  street vendor, tried his best).

With this bitter realization, we left the city. We briefly dropped by the farm of Mysha and her parents to warn them too of the threat to the girls. Then we teleported back to the sanctum. We had to decide on our plans and next steps.

I knew one thing, however. I would be happy to see these slavers dead.

airborne to an ambush

Harper pinI soon surmised how it was that Grindelman and Oloshan knew of the Erised’s current condition–they too, like the dwarven mage, and like my Uncle Reggie, were Harpers. Grindelman’s subtle touch of an object beneath his tunic—a Harper pin, I suspected—seemed to confirm it.

“Where? How? And how can we get there?” I asked. Any friends of Uncle Reggie’s friends were friends of my friends and I, and I had no doubt that we should do everything within our power to—once again—rescue Erised.

“’Eess been trackin’ Orcs, ee ‘as,” said Captain Oloshan in an accent so nautical it brought to mind froth on a storm-tossed sea. “We can take the Skua, and be there afore ye can scrape barnacles from a bilge.”

“This seems wise counsel,” said Shinzu somewhat inscrutably. I was unclear whether this indicated a previously unsuspected degree of familiarity with bilges or barnacles, or if this was simply the way monks always said “yes.”

“We can go on one of those airships?” said Tipwill, his eyes lighting up with almost schoolboyish enthusiasm. “Really? On one of the flying ships? How do they work? Can I take it apart?”

“We can kill Orcs?” grinned Liam as he sharpened a blade.

He was lucky Amra wasn’t here. I suspect that our last fight with Orcs had upset the druid, reminding him he was in a world where neither Orc nor others would accept his mixed parentage. It was no wonder that he found comfort among the animals of the wild places. In this Silverymoon, “half-breeds” were considered an abomination fit only for slavery.

I missed my old world. For all its many vile inequalities, no one in Waterdeep had condemned a person to slavery simply because of his or her parentage, any more than the authorities would limit the language one could use in commercial transactions, or prohibit the wearing of religious symbols by public officials.

Captain Oloshan led us to the Laughing Skua, docked high above the city at the apex of a tall tower. It was a sight to behold: teak timbering, sleek lines, sails, and a huge glowing light than encircled the hull amidships. This, I understood, was Shadowvar magic that drove the vessel, however improbably. Tip could hardly contain his excitement—I’m now half inclined to buy him a captain’s hat for his birthday (or “construction day,” or whatever it is he might celebrate).

Liam continued to sharpen his kukris.

Skua

It took us about half an hour to reach the area where we believed the Orcs to be. I was worried that we would soon be spotted, but Captain Oloshan gave me a knowing wink and activated some device near the wheel. The hull, sails and rigging quickly assumed the appearance of cloud and sky. “We can’t be movin’ fast like this, ye see,” se said, “or the skyglow would give us away. But fer hiding and floating and skulking it works just fine.”

I suspected if I searched the ship well, I would also find several hidden compartments ideal for cargoes of a not-entirely-legal sort.

We decided to ambush the party or Orcs as they crossed a small river over a ramshackle bridge towards where we would be hidden among the trees. We would let most of the pass, until the moment we knew Erised was on our side of the stream. At that point we would launch our attack—Tip casting  Fireball at those nearest the bridge, hopefully destroying it and hence slowing any reinforcements. I was acutely aware that we were now in the territory of the Orcish foe. Tipwill kindly cast Darkvision on Liam and myself, so that we would have no need of lights.

orc1After a quarter or so, the enemy began to approach us, led by perhaps the largest Orc I had ever seen. He crossed the bridge, sniffed the air, and looked directly at the tree where Shinzu was hidden. I held my breath… had she been spotted?

Yes, unfortunately, she had. The enemy charged forth towards us. There was little sign of the dwarf we had come to rescue, who was apparently well to the rear of the Orcish party. Our plan was in tatters.

Shinzu stood her ground, dealing grievous blows against the first of the Orcs to reach her. Tipwill launched a Fireball towards Orcs running towards the bridge—but did rather less damage than expected. The reason for this became clear when the shamans among them launched fireballs back in our direction. Clearly this greenskin clan revelled in the fiery arts. I dodged the fires and threw my skiprock, hitting several. Trees burst into flame all around us.

Just then the huge Orc stepped forward, and swung at our elven monk. His blow connected. She crumpled like a damp paper crane in a threshing mill, barely clinging to life.

“Oh no you don’t,” cried Liam, who charged forward, twin blades in his hand. “Pick on someone your own size!”

The orc was a good two feet taller than our brave fighter, and perhaps two hundred pounds heavier. He laughed, only to find his right knee severed by the sharp edge of a kukri. “That’s more like it,” muttered Liam as the Orc staggered and fell to his knees. “Now you’re just a head taller than her—and we can fix that…”

With a  grin and another flash of his blades, he then severed the creature’s head from its neck. It rolled to Shinzu’s feet.

With this, the tide of battle began to turn. Tip and Phulgyar assaulted the enemy with arcane majicks, felling them like so many Orcs in the woods (which, indeed, they were). I dropped another with my skiprock. The remaining Orcs made as if to withdraw, guarded by a pack of snarling warg-beasts.

monkey-goatMy friends pressed forward. Not so fleet of foot as they, I had another idea. I drew one of the enchanted ivory goats from my pocket, and muttered the command word. Faster than you could say “whodiddleydo” it transformed to a most formidable goaty mount of war. I clambered on its back, and charged forward, across the bridge and deep into the enemy’s ranks!

The warg creatures fell back in fear, as did the one remain orc guarding Erised. My companions quickly slew the orc and unchained the dwarf.

“Weel, its abit time! whaur hae ye bin? ye hink Ah enjoy spendin’ time wi’ these fool-smeel creatures?” he asked in an annoyed tone. I didn’t doubt, however, that he was grateful we had rescued him.

I quickly collected whatever valuables I could from the corpses, and we retired to the Laughing Skua. Although Tipwill had directed a conjured water elemental to extinguish the blaze caused by the fight, the black columns of smoke hanging in the air were sure to attract unwanted attention. We needed to leave the area quickly, and return to Silverymoon….