On Pyrotechnics

firework.jpg“Arnold, flasks of flammables are like flagons of gnome-brew…you can never have too many!”

I can almost hear my gnomish friend chuckling as I recall the advice that he so often gave me back in Waterdeep. Despite his urgings, I never used to carry much in the way of fiery weapons. They are, I found, rarely useful in a bar-fight or an alley encounter with the thuggish retainers of some aggrieved noble–they draw far too much attention, and have an unfortunately tendency to set buildings (and indeed, entire neighbourhoods) alight. Now, as I sit in the post-apocolyptic wilderness and contemplate the wooden spear and crude sling and found rocks that are my primary weapons–as well as the earlier usefulness of Kordite’s wares against the Grell and Beholder–I rather wish I had listened to his advice more.

I had first met Kordite von Boom shortly after my arrival in Waterdeep as a young halfling. I had been sent there, of course, to study on a scholarship at the prestigious Upper Waterdeep College, while Kordite had traveled from distant Lantan to study at the equally well-known Zingle’s School for Bards. Neither of our educational experiences had worked out quite as our parents had planned. I endured taunting, bullying, and was finally expelled on suspicion of having relocated school funds to a better place. Kordite, on the other hand, had destroyed a fair share of his own College during unauthorized experiments in the chemistry lab.

It wasn’t that my gnomish friend was a poor bard. He certainly could carry a fine tune on his harmonica, and indeed taught me what little I know. His knowledge of the obscure and peculiar was quite impressive. His true love, however, was alchemy–and more precisely the study of pyrotechnics. Indeed, our first professional collaboration came when he convinced me that the Fireworks Guild’s control over the production of smokepower for war and entertainment was yet another example of oppressive monopoly capitalism. We proceeded to liberate a few of the artificers’ most closely-guarded technical texts. A little later, he opened his own small alchemy shop. This was less successful than he hoped. Part of the reason for this was the notorious unreliability of its hours, with Kordite frequently off on some adventure or unmindful of the hour (or even day) while at work in his laboratory. However, I think the bigger problem was the the routine production and sale of acids and salves was really not where his heart lay. Kordite liked things that flamed, or went boom. And the bigger boom the better.

It was this, and the costs of his experiments, that led him into a secondary but more profitable business—and one that enriched both our commercial and personal friendships: facilitating the resale of relocated objects. While certainly not the largest or most successful fence in Waterdeep (an honour that goes either to Pinky Goldfingers or Hilda the Pawn, depending on whom you ask), the combination of a bard’s eye for the arcane and ancient, and a gnome’s eye for gems and precious metals made him a quite reputable reseller nonetheless.

With a more steady income to purchase supplies and rent more suitable quarters for a lab (in a stone cellar near the docks, where there was no risk of a city-wide conflagration from mishaps), Kordite’s experiments and inventions grew more ambitious. His alchemist’s fire (von Boom’s VIP–Very Inflammable Pyrotechnic, as it was marketed) is second to none. His flame-projector–Harriet the Glob-Thrower, he nicknamed it–was rather less useful much of the time, although there were those occasions when the ability of the 50lb contraption to hurl globs of sticky, burning goo proved quite useful, especially against spell-casting opponents easily distracted by their own self-conflagration. His Bigbang Tube O’Fun was another device that I thought as much dangerous as practical. It did, however, provoke an ultimately successful petition from the Wizard’s Guild to have its sale and production banned within the city, despite its non-lethality. Apparently, the arcane elite were less amused than Kordite (or I) at the thoughts of a dozen barbed fireworks snaring a mage’s flowing robes, and distracting him, her or it with their whistling, sparkling, and periodic detonations of colourful embers and smoke. Kordite didn’t mind their ire: while he had briefly toyed with being a sorcerer (and had learned just enough of those skills to acquire Zaphod, his familiar burrowing owl and constant companion), they were, in general, much too serious for his gnomish tastes.

I’m not sure now when I might get back to Waterdeep. I do miss its alleys, its easy marks, and its fine drinking establishments. I especially look forward to the chance for a pint or six at Sixteen String Jacks with my gnomish friend, while we catch up on each other’s tales. I’m carrying more than a few relocated objects that I might resell in his direction. And I’ll certainly place an order of my own for more some of his most excellent (and, at the moment, sorely missed) inflammables.

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the plot thickens

18 Eleasias 1373

Who knew, for all his anxiety over issues of high theology, Ash would face his biggest challenge from Uncle Reggie’s rock?

Its been an odd few days. As he vowed to do, Ashton descended back into the dark caverns to retrieve the regalia of Amaunator–a move that will undoubtedly ruffle the high clerics of Lathander. Hedge and Shen also retrieved the body of Zareth, the Shadowvar agent we found beset by the Shadow Death, hoping that he might provide clues that would help us cure Hedge’s brother Pern of the same evil affliction. Tis a very nasty thing, that–a truly horrible way to go.

Thereafter, we took the fateful decision to divide our party: Tip and I returned to Silverymoon (using Tips impressive magicks to take the journey), while the others were to wait for us at The Fork. Depositing them there, we were all attacked by a pair of nasty earthen sharky beasts–Dirtmaws my Dad used to call them, although around here it seems they’re called Bulettes. Fortunately they were slain easily enough, with me adding a skiprock or five into the fray.

In Silverymoon, our tasks went smoothly enough: I sold the few gems we had acquired to Gorran the gnome, and gathered more supplies, while Tip delivered Zareth to the Temple of Lathandar and purchased some much-needed scrolls. I also had an opportunity to meet Tip’s father, a salt-of-the earth farmer whose fields and milking cows are some of the finest I’ve seen in these parts. When Tip retired early to study his spells, his father and I traded many a tale, including a few of young Tip trying transform toadstools into flying sheep. The well-worn halfling expression “as painful as an furry mushroom in your nethers” certainly has a whole new meaning for me now!

We then magicked back to The Fork, where we expected to find our companions comfortably settled into the Wildlands Rest. Instead we found them camped nearby, Ash and Shen bickering–all of them apparent fugitives from the law.

It seems that they had found a Hin skipper in the inn, going by the name “Stubbin the Great” or something of that sort. Hedge had been rightly suspicious of his skill, and had sought to question him closer. However the Hin had proven very suspicious, and had fled to his second-floor room when Uncle Reggie’s name had been brought up. Hedge followed him, and was promptly attacked as he loitered outside the traveller’s room. When our companion finally got the best of the fight, Stubbin fled… only to encounter Shen and Ash coming up the stairs. As the Hin tumbled past the monk, Ash drew the conclusion of evil intent, and incinerated him with a blast from his new mace.

And herein lies the bickering. Ash claims he was justified by the halfling’s behaviour. Shen claims he couldn’t have been certain of this at the time. Hedge is simply glad to be alive, and doubtless now has more regard for Hin blade. The innkeep ejected them all. And now rumours swirl that Ashton, the Lightbringer, is a murderer. I fear that when news gets out of his embrace of Amaunator, his opponents are sure to use it against him.

I did my best to fix some of this, entering the inn in disguise and pulling the stuffelglug scam on the somewhat baffled staff. With this I succeeded in muddying the waters of Stubbin’s “possible” death, and plan to muddy it still more in the days to come. I also managed to retrieve for inspection most of his kit.

And there it was: the rock. The rock. Uncle Reggie’s prized returning skiprock, not seen since his murder. You could have gagged me with a badger.

Stubbin’s unfortunate complete incineration has made it unlikely that he’ll now answer questions on how he got it, and what his connection might be to the foul deed. From what Hedge tells me, he doesn’t seem the assassin sort–but an accomplice he might well be, sent to spy on Uncle Reggie for the real killer, and to stand on guard while the foul deed was done. When time allows, I’ll ask around and find out what I can of him in Waterdeep and elsewhere–for now, I’ll have to content myself with his fiery demise.

For this I’m truly grateful to Hedge and Ash.
That’s one for you, Uncle Reggie.

Flogging a dead horse…

16 Eleasias 1373

“Arnold,” my mother used to say—when I was young, and complaining yet again that it wasn’t my turn to feed the chickens, “lad, there be no point in arguing yer chores–yer just floggin’ a dead ‘orse.” I never really understood that expression, especially as it pertained to chickens.

Now, as I survey the bloody carnage of several dead horses in a long-abandoned temple in the ruins of a forgotten city half buried beneath the sands of the Great Desert, it makes even less sense to me. I don’t really want to flog a dead horse. I want to flog a kobold.

Why, you might be asking? That’s a rather long story.

That story begins a warm summer night in Waterdeep, more than three years ago, when I returned from a profitable night on the town to find Uncle Reggie lying dead in a pool of blood at his workbench. I was devastated: this man had raised me ever since I had left Brandykenthwaite-on-Trickle, and had taught me so much of the world and the skills needed to survive it. He was a second father to me.

Recovering from my horror, I remember running to the window and calling down to a City Watch patrol passing in the street below. The hastened to my Uncle’s home, confirmed that he was dead. After a quick search fwe ound a window that had been forced, and signs that silverware, gold, and a few other objects of value had been stolen. To the good men of the Watch, it was clear enough: a crude break-and-enter by a few ruffians. They had surprised my uncle at his work, clubbed him to death, and the stolen what valuables they could find.

I was less sure. The window had been forced sure enough, but the splinters of wood on the carpet suggested that some of damage had been done when it was already open. The drawers and cupboards had been opened and searched, but from the bottom-up as experienced thieves (but rarely uncouth thugs) have learned to do. My Uncle had been apparently surprised—which was all the more surprising in the case of Uncle Reggie, who was as an alert and dexterous a halfling as I have ever known. Had I had my wits about me that night, I would have sought help to find traces of wizardry or poison in Uncle Reggie’s demise. Sadly, I did not.

In any case, I was sure that this foul crime had not been committed by thieves of the Guild: most of them disdained unnecessary violence as amateurish, my Uncle’s few magical items lay undetected and untaken, and what had been taken never did resurface among the network of merchants and fences that I knew so well in the city. Indeed, no one in the Guild had heard anything about this job at all, and I and my Uncle certainly had enough friends there to have heard whispers had this been a professional robbery.

As far as I could reason, this left two possibilities. The intruders had come to kill Uncle Reggie. Or they had come for something quite specific, something that they believed he possessed. I had no way of knowing who might want him dead and why, or what he might have had that would attract such dark attentions. I vowed, however, to find out.

Over the next three years I travelled the length of the Sword Coast and the North in search of clues. And there were clues, or at least hints of a secret past in my uncle’s life. In addition to his skill at skiprocks (a family trait that I, fortunately, share), he had apparently quite the singing voice in his youth, and for a while toured with the caravans as a minstrel. That gift had been taken from him in an orc attack one night, when a wound to his throat had left him the hoarseness that I even now remember so fondly. Tales that a youthful Reggie he had slain a dozen of the foul brigands in that encounter was another side of him that I had never seen, although I did know how determined he could be when he thought the cause was right. It wasn’t until this spring, however, that I found the post important clue: a page from his diary, torn away and hidden in one of the many secret compartments of his belt. I had found it quite by accident, while singing a nonsense song—somewhat inebriated, I’ll admit—after a night in a rather fine Waterdeep inn. Who but Uncle Reggie would have used “openy-wopeny” as a magical command word?

The belatedly-discovered page led me to Silverymoon, and confirmation from The Lady of that which I had already grown to suspect: Uncle Reggie had been a Harper, one of the shadowy band who look out for the defenceless, keep evil at bay, and maintain the balance and goodness in the world. It was in Silverymoon too that I met my current companions, as fine a band of humans (and not-quite-humans—but more on that later, perhaps) as a halfling could ever hope to find: Tipwill Erevard, a wizard of considerable power who, rather than laugh in the face of danger, casts spells while dangerously exposed (and even right beside) it; Shen, the monk whose vow of poverty so deeply contrasts with my own fondness for retailing found and appropriated objects that one would almost think it a mystic complementarity; Ashton Arn, a cleric of Lathander by whose faith and deeds light was returned to the realm, and who shares my curiousity about local breweries; and Hedge the Younger, a treasure-hunter.

It was Hedge who brought us to where I write these words, a dusty long forgotten temple beset by the sands of time and desert. Here, a few weeks earlier, his brother Pern had been afflicted with a mysterious dark malady. Neither Ashton nor the other wise and holy men of Silverymoon had been able to relieve the blight. And so here we had come, in search of answers.

It had not been an easy journey: giants had harassed us en route (I hid in a tree and threw rocks), and later a monstrous worm had risen from the desert to swallow Hedge and Shen (I hid in some ruins and threw rocks). Fortunately, in large part due to Tipwell’s skill with fireballs and Ashton’s healing arts, our compatriots were rescued from the worm-beast’s foul stomach—the stench of which was more than compensated by the rough gems in its gizzard.

To this building we had then come, to the very location where Pern had been afflicted. There were obviously others here before us, and we were propelled onwards by both the urge to pursue and a raging sandstorm closing from behind us. Whoever had been here had not covered their tracks well, and after a quick search I soon discovered the secret door and stairs that led to a vast, dark, subterranean network of caverns.

And I do mean dark. Dark magical fluids of shadow-stuff flowed like a river through this now cursed realm, blotting out the light and slowing our movement at times to a crawl. Traps we found, and ambushes too by both dark warriors and evil spell-casters. I, of course, hid and threw rocks, and did my best to relieve Shen’s angst at excessive materialism by removing whatever valuables our dead foes possessed. Finally, our spell-casters almost exhausted, we arrived at a vast underground temple to a long-forgotten sun god. Well, long-forgotten to me, at least: religion class class at school had coincided with the horse races, where many a foppish noble could be found with more wealth than sense, and I don’t remember attending many classes at all. It did all rather seem important to Ashton, however, for whom the very sight of ancient inscriptions and holy symbols is enough to set him debating theology with himself. Dad was much the same about wheat and barley…

Anyway, regarding the temple. It was a magnificent sight, rising up to beyond our view in a huge cavern sparkling with purple crystals. I’m not a religious halfling, as I’ve said before, but the sight of so many gemstones in one place did touch my soul deeply.

We carefully scouted and cleared the area around the temple building first, a task that proved challenging indeed when we were beset by more Shadowvar warriors, a rather fragile spell-caster, and a feline outsider of the most devious sort. Tipwill bravely volunteered to distract the feline demonspawn by standing in close proximity, waving his hands about, and murmuring magical mutterings (sprinkled with much louder expletives), thereby drawing its ire. His unorthodox tactics—coupled with my ever useful ring of invisibility—largely kept it away from me, allowing me to hide and throw rocks once more.

Finally, with great trepidation, we approached the gates of the temple itself. Within it, the dark fluid flowed out from a supernatural portal to the shadow world—the source of the dark river that we had found before. As expected, our entrance awoke the dark guardians left there—as guardians are wont to do— to guard it: a hideous floating metal construct of sorts, and two undead creatures of bone, with a longer reach than a half-elf rogue in a room full of silver merchants. Almost immediately, battle seemed to go ill for us: the construct emitted at times a horrendous wave of penetrating evil darkness that sucked at my very soul, and yet the foul contraption was all but immune to our weapons. Realizing this, we concentrated our attentions on the bone creatures, bringing first one then the other to its well-deserved destruction, thanks in large part to the last few spells that Ashton and Tipwell were able to cast before their reserves of holy and arcane energy were exhausted (and, I should add, a rock or twelve from me as well). Ashton fell, gravely wounded–I ran to him and, by the grace of Arvoreen’s Aegis, brought the cleric back from the brink of death.

As the battle raged on–and I began to fear that the infernal construct would be the death of us all–Hedge dashed deeper into the temple to play a hunch. It was indeed quite the gamble, for only his adamantine sword had any hope of penetrating the golem’s defences, and now we were bereft of even that. Tipwell played for time with his usual strategy of standing very close to danger, and then fleeing–in this case, leading the contraption on a merry chase around the cavern, urging it on with an oddly high-pitched squeal. And it was then that Hedge’s desperate gamble played off: by destroying first a rough-hewn dark statue defiling the temple, and then by smashing a crystal skull that he had drawn from a chest upon the altar, he both closed the portal and deactivated the powerful construct. We were alive! And equally fortunate, there were more gems!

We healed our wounds, and moved on to the last location in the cavern that we had not yet explored: an ancient tomb. Within, some of the arguably most gullible guardians ever crafted allowed me admission alongside Shen and Ash as one of the “worthy”—a thought so ludicrous that it would no doubt set my old guildmates in The Reveling Rogue guffawing and snorting beer through their noses in unrestrained amusement! Inside, we found a crypt, a set of powerful, holy armour, and a holy mace to match. After yet more theological self-mumblings and internal debate, Ashton declined to take the objects. With Shen casting a wary eye on me, I decided not to examine the sarcophagus, despite the treasures it might contain. One day I must get him to explain why material possessions are best left sequestered in deep dungeons, tombs, chests, and vaults, when they could be better used to enrich the ordinary folk (myself included) of this world.

With this, we retired to the surface. Which brings me back to the kobolds.We had freed a group earlier, when exploring the mines–I’m not too fond of the scaly creatures, but these had clearly been enslaved and forced into hard labour by our foes, and I do so detest exploitation of the masses by the self-appointed elites of the world. Indeed, their very situation seemed yet again evidence of the need for a broad-based popular movement of workers, toilers, and serfs which would.. well, I digress. I gave them a more than a week of rations, and we set them on their way. I suspect now they gathered the Shadowvar weapons near the foot of the stairs, ascended, found our provisions and mounts, and proceeded to loot the first and slaughter the second (with the exception of Hedge’s rather odd horse, of which I will say more another day).

And so, you see, the sudden desire to flog a kobold. I’m sure the urge will pass me soon: after all, I’ve heard tell of a Dwarven mine, where more evil plans may be afoot. It may be yet another step in unravelling the mystery of Uncle Reggie’s murder, and it may also help us find a cure for Pern. Stopping evil is always nice. Plus, if this is one thing I know about Dwarven mines, it is that they are full of gold….