Given my pleasant memories of Missy and Sixteen String Jack’s, it came as a particularly jarring shock to awake and find myself bloodied, bedraggled, and bare-as-a-bullybug on a rock in the middle of nowhere, knowing nothing of how and why I came to be here. Looking around, it seemed that Ash, Hedge, and Tip were in much the same predicament. Shen was nowhere to be seen. I could only hope that he was alive, and in a rather better position than we.
Examining ourselves and each other, it seemed as if we had been here for weeks, if not months. My companions had grown long, matted beards, while the hair on my toes was in desperate need of a good trim. Each of us bore signs of repeated cutting, surgery, and warped experimentation. Staying around for more of the same seemed a rather unattractive idea.
As I searched our open stone pen (and found little more than a few rocks and a hefty bone that might be used as crude weapons), the others looked around. We were on what appeared to be a stone island, floating–in apparent disregard for the laws of nature–in the centre of a huge cavern. A faint glow lit the area. In one direction, a tunnel could be seen. At the other end, there appeared to be another, much darker exit.
All in all, the surroundings were decidedly less amiable than those of Sixteen String Jack’s. The clientèle was too: all round us, hundreds of tiny, strange eyeless creatures floated, their tentacles and little beaks making them resemble little arcane squid. More ominously, a huge floating eye also hovered in the dim light, apparently guarding us. It seemed very much like one of the Beholders that old man Scrimshaw used to tell of in the Wizard’s Wateringhole–except, perhaps, for the strange tentacles floating beneath it. Perhaps he simply didn’t remember those.
“What are these things, anyway?” Hedge asked, as he swatted at a few of the small floating beasties. He was rewarded with a sharp sting from one, which left his arm feeling numb. “Perhaps you had best leave them alone,” warned Tip. “They don’t seem to bother us if we don’t bother them.”
The large floating eye drifted close, watching us more warily. It then slowly hovered away, and finally disappeared into the darker of the two tunnels.
“Ups and downs all a-tumble in ‘ere,” I noted, lobbing a few stones around the cavern to test the peculiar gravities surrounding us. I pointed to the few other floating islands discernible in the faint glow of the cavern. “Far as I can see, downs wherever there be rock, and ups be wherever there ain’t. Rather like the tale of Henrietta and the Enchanted Fig, except without the custard-beasts. Or the magic spoon.”
Ash looked at me quizzically, although my explanation had been clear enough. Hedge must have known the tale better, for he proceeded to prove my point by stepping out of our pen and onto the island, and then walking around its underside and back again. I was particularly pleased to see that he returned with one of our old potions, which he had found lodged in the rock. Perhaps the rest of our gear could be found somewhere. I for one was not anxious to face our jailers with only a few found rocks and the armour I had been born in.
With the large floating eye having drifted out of sight for now, we were anxious to escape while the opportunity presented itself “We could try jumpin’ or leapin’ or swimmin’ or summit like that..” I said, unenthusiastically. “I’m not sure I fancy floating naked as naked be through them there stingy squidder-things.”
“We may not need to,” Tip replied. “I seem to have my arcane powers intact.. I can magick us to one of the tunnels.”
And so we held hands, Tip uttered a few mystic words, and in a flash we were across the void and at our intended destination. A purple glow, brighter than in the cavern, shone from further down the tunnel. Following it, we soon found a large cavern, lit by a glowing orb and filled with piles of bones, old clothes, and various discarded objects. Strange etchings engraved the walls.
“Anyone missing a belt?” Ash quipped, as he held up my missing Belt of Thinginess. I rushed over, and was relieved to find that its hidden magic compartments had clearly not been discovered, and that as a result, its precious contents–including Uncle Reggie’s old skipstone and war sling–were still inside. I whispered a quiet thank you to the nameless Elven merchant from whom I had originally stolen it.
I quickly buckled the belt over a few scraps of clothing salvaged from the cave, and took up a position watching the entrance. My companions searched the room, finding a few of our missing objects, including my magical buckler. Our hunt, however, was disturbed by the eye-guardian, which floated into the room to confront us. I immediately hid and threw rocks–that reflex, at least, was still finely honed despite our apparently lengthy captivity–while shouting a warning to my companions. After a vicious but surprisingly short battle, it was slain.
“That was rather less of a Beholder than I expected,” Tip noted. “And the tentacles are hardly typical…” I nodded at his indirect confirmation of Scrimshaw’s tales.
The crude child-like etchings on the wall seemed to hold a clue as to why this might be so: they depicted a Beholder, a floating tentacle beast, and a smaller tentacled Beholder of the sort we had just defeated. A family of evil aberrations, perhaps? If so, we had just killed junior, an action hardly likely to endear us to his dangerous parents.
We decided to hasten on our way rather than waiting to meet mom and dad.
We magicked once more across the huge cavern, this time into the other, much darker tunnel. Ash, having found his mace earlier, called forth the power of Amaunator to light our way. While he basked proudly in the bright glow bestowed by his beloved patron deity, I mumbled a few words of annoyance. I preferred rather less light when skulking half naked in a dungeon full of evil aberrations.
Our examination of a freshly-dug grave in the cavern was disturbed by a powerful but strangely plaintive roar echoing from one of the passages. Given the strange scars upon our own bodies, I had little doubt what this meant: some other creature was being tortured and experimented upon. It was an outrage that we needed to put an end to.
Pressing onward, we encountered an area of strange mist and a putrid ichor that dripped from the rocky roof to pool on the cavern floor. I threw out a line to plumb the slimy waters for depth, but my efforts were soon cut short by something stirring in the mists. To our horror, a Chaos Beast of the sort we had fought in the Shadow Temple emerged, and set itself upon us with a horrid blur of tentacles, pseudopods, and gnashing teeth.
Bravely, Hedge launched at it with his sword. He had scarcely started his attack, however, when he fell wounded and beset by some foul chaos affliction, his mind pushed beyond the edge of sanity, and his body barely able to keep its form. As he babbled and writhed on the floor, I stepped back slowly, throwing rock after rock. Although wounded several times, I fought off the jabbering darkness eating at my mind with warm thoughts of Missy. Ash wielded his mace, and Tip fired magical missile after magical missile into it. Just as I feared we would all be reduced to Hedge’s pitiful state, the foul creature of evil finally succumbed to our blows.
“Well, I hope there be no more of them little beasties,” I muttered grimly. Hedge, finally nursed back from his terrible affliction by Ashton healing skills, nodded back in bitter agreement.
We pressed on towards the source of the roar of pain that we had heard earlier. Coming toward us from that direction appeared to be a much, much larger version of the squid we had first seen floating in the large cavern. Before we could react, it raised a metal staff in its tentacles, and let lose a blast of lightning down the corridor at us, wounding Tip.
“Oh no you don’t, Grell,” Tip cursed angrily, his loincloth smoking from the attack, “I’ll be having that…”
I wasn’t sure if this this signified that our attacker was a Grell, or whether it was a Mister or Miss Grell of Tipwell’s prior acquaintance. The mage knew a great many very strange beings, I suspected–and by the look of its offspring, this creature was one who clearly didn’t consider species to be a barrier to intimate friendships. My musings were cut short, however, by the sight of the creature’s staff magically torn from its tentacles, whereupon it flew down the corridor and into Tip’s waiting hand. Damn clever trick, that… I wondered whether it worked as well with purses and saddlebags?
Ash and Hedge dashed forward to fight our foe. As they did, another Beholder appeared beside us. Its appearance was so sudden that I immediately suspected it was a figment–an opinion confirmed by the sense of Avoreen’s Aegis still on my arm and in my mind. I therefore ignored this new appearance, and instead threw my last flask of alchemist’s fire at the Grell. To my satisfaction, the sound of shattering glass was soon followed by the sight of the floating aberration in flames. Tip continued to use his magicks to pin the beast against the wall, where it would eventually succumb to our blows.
While the first Beholder vanished, another soon floated into sight to attack us from the flank. This one, I surmised, was the real thing. From the crude etchings that we had seen earlier, I suspected it was the Grell’s mate. Judging from the fierceness of our assault, it was certainly not at all happy to see us.
For those who have never fought a Beholder, it is a tricky thing to do. It falls into that category of beasties without a back (a class of foes that, in my view, should be most definitely prohibited) . With all them eyes waving about, it is harder to surprise than an assembly of wary dragons. Its eyes are fearsome things, throwing deadly magicks about like ripe apples in a gale. For any skipstone artist of note, its singular lack of trippable legs is a particular source of annoyance.
The fearsome aberration turned its attentions first to Tip, then to me, then to Ashton and Hedge. I shook off the foul spells that it cast my way, but our cleric was less successful. Ash let out a an “eep” (I must ask him one day what he meant to say), and then was as silent as stone. Literally. The servant of Amaunator, the lightbringer, the wanted-for-questioning-in-relation-to-the-tragic-death-of-a-halfling, had been petrified.
This was too much.., I, for one, had plans (given recent daydreams, and increasing number of them involving Sixteen String Jack’s), and no desire become a stony lawn ornament for a recently bereaved Beholder. Hoping to distract its casting of magicks, I threw a fire bullet or three at its orbular form. Set alight, and bombarded with Tip’s powerful enchantments, it finally turned and fled down the corridor.
Tip and Hedge rushed to pursue. I glanced at them, then at the dead Grell, and remembered the hoarse advice of a wise old man: “loot, boy, its all about the loot.” Taking Deputy Guildmaster Whisperdirk’s oft-repeated counsel to heart, and reasoning (by way of justification) that there might be something here to help the immobile Ash, I ran instead to the corpse. There, I quickly cut a golden ring from one of its now limp tentacles.
In the distance I could hear my companions splashing through the pool where we had earlier fought the Chaos Beast. Always chasing off after danger, those two. Since the petrified Ash was clearly not going to get himself into much trouble here, I thought I had best go after them.
I arrived just in time to see Hedge backing out from a darkened cavern, sword in hand. Tip was nowhere to be seen, but I quickly surmised from Hedge’s worried glances that our Beholder nemesis had returned–and that the spell-caster was alone with it, in the cavern, in the dark.
In a flash, I retrieved my flaming tankard from my belt, and threw it into the chamber, hoping the light would aid the mage. My hopes were answered almost immediately by a blinding blue flash and an ear-splitting crack, as Tip released a powerful bolt of lightning at the Beholder. It floated, limp and very much dead.
Not wanting to disappoint Deputy Guildmaster Whisperdirk, I quickly ran forward and looted it too, finding yet another ring. This I gave to Tipwill, who found in it the very great power to identify arcane objects.
The three of us returned to where we had left Ashton. Just beyond his statuesque form we discovered another cavern, this one lit with a radiant glow by several enchanted orbs. It was a wizard’s dream, the walls festooned with shelves, which in turn were filled with potions, scrolls, bizarre ingredients, and ancient tomes. We later searched it carefully, each finding several useful items, including some of our former gear. I was particularly pleased to find my magic ring.
More immediately, however, we were taken aback by a horrific sight: a massive bloodied body chained to a stone table, the obvious victim of hideous aberrant experiments. Surgical instruments lay nearby. A few steps closer and our horror grew with the realization that this was Mayzine, the evil shadow-dragon–her very scales ripped from her tortured body, her skin flayed from her still living form. Despite her own past evils, we were aghast at her fate.
I healed her as best I could with Avoreen’s Aegis, wary of what she might do to us if she fully recovered. It made little difference. Her pain was still too severe to converse, and even Tip’s arcane efforts to reach her mind through magicks brought us no success. Helping her would require Ashton’s healing arts, and those were currently locked in stone. We needed to find some way of undoing the affliction that had befallen him.
This left us a few last passages and chambers to explore. Down one we proceeded, until we came to a strange crystal-lined room. No sooner did we enter, however, when a loud oaning could be heard, and a strange mournful construct materialized before our very eyes. It was, Tip later told us, a Gloom Golem, and certainly the baneful noises it voiced threw me into a deep depression that gripped with dark fingers at my very soul. It also seemed impervious to my sling bullets. Having had far too much combat experience with constructs in recent weeks than is good for any halfling’s health and happiness, and knowing that it was likely well-neigh impervious to our weapons and spells, we beat a hasty retreat. Tip magicked back to the laboratory, while Hedge and I donned our rings and slunk out invisibly and unpursued.
Since fighting the monster was out of the question, the two of us decided to creep through the chamber while thus obscured, in the hopes that the witless construct would not detect us. This we did, with success. Pressing on, we came to a cavern with a small clear pool, wherein Hedge was pleased to find his armour. My mithril, sadly, had yet to be discovered–and I was (and am) feeling rather naked without it, despite the rags I assembled into makeshift clothes.
The cavern beyond this contained boiling mud, and a cliff face beyond. I had concerns about what might lurk in the mud, and threw a torch into the chamber to better light our way. My concerns were soon vindicated with a slithery tentacle reached out to grasp the torch and pull it under. Never, in all my life, had I been in a place with so many evil tentacles! I’m quite convinced I’ll never dine on Chef Fromkin’s Spiced Octopus Soup again, no matter how much I used to love it down at the Salty Sea Dog.
Rather than confront the beast, I instead quaffed one of the potions I had found in the laboratory, and proceeded to fly across the cavern. Beyond, and up the cliff, was an area of foul red smoke and gaping chasms. I returned to Hedge rather than dally longer than my magical flying skills might endure.
We traversed past the golem once more—in doing so Hedge had a dangerous brush with the predictably noxious crystals embedded in the wall, while trying to sneak across the cavern in the dark, but in the end we made it safely. We soon met Tip, who had set out to find us when we hadn’t returned to the lab. The three of us then explored the final cavern in the area. This appeared to contain a nursery for the Grell-Beholder spawn, and a boudoir for the happily-deceased couple. This contained much of value (including a beautiful golden crown), which I quickly thrust in my haversack. There were several intricate statues of small children. Finally, there was a container of magical salve, which Tip soon ascertained to be the antidote to Ashton’s present condition.
Immediately we were presented with an acute moral dilemma: should be save Ashton, or see whether these statues were in fact children entombed in stone by the Beholder? Had Shen been here, he undoubtedly would have guided us all with his wise moral counsel.
Fortunately he was not, and so we saved Ashton. The children, we hoped, we might return to. Without the Lightbringer, however, we had little chance of ever doing so—Hedge was particularly wounded by combats at this point. Moreover, we needed Ashton to see to Mayzine.
Ahh, Mayzine. I must admit that I was inclined not to heal her too much—and indeed, kill her if need be—for fear that she would regain her full powers and gobble us up faster than a snake in a henhouse. Hedge was understandably anxious to receive her assistance in healing Pern, however, while the good-hearted Ashton felt that she might atone for her past evil ways and embrace the light once she saw how Amaunator offered redemption even as Shar abandoned her. As for Tip, he’s always had a bit of suspect relationship with dark sorceries.
And so Ashton took out his prayer beads, and deep in concentration, began his incantations and evocations of the divine. Amaunator’s powers coursed through his fingers, healing the dragon (although not regenerating its scales), and providing her the choice of atonement. This she claims to have taken. We will see whether she has indeed, or whether we’ll all be dragon-snacks at some future point.
And so here we are: underequipped but alive, without Shen but with a Shadow Dragon priestess of unknown powers and loyalties. For all of his annoying lectures on the dangers of material possessions, I must say that I much prefer our erstwhile monk. I hope that soon we may find him, and alive and well.