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….