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.

 

 

 

 

 

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