Dal Gurath

Down the Mountain They Came and Found a River
Tensions mount as trust frays

Murmuring a curse he had once heard from a particularly mean-spirited fishmonger, Eammon stepped out of the tree line and hailed the men loading cargo on the dock.

“Hello? I say, hello lads!”

Strange men appearing out of nowhere and hollering salutations while one loads crates onto a river barge will startle even the most even-tempered sailor; when that barge is moored at a solitary quay and warehouse in an otherwise remote piece of wilderness, the potential for misunderstanding is especially high. As the workers stopped abruptly to stare at the old bard, another man appeared at the gunwale of the river vessel, spat over the side, and eloquently voiced the thought written clearly across the faces of his men.

“Who the fuck are you now?”

Eammon bowed lower than necessary, but resisted giving the tattered lace at his sleeves even the barest of flourishes—no sense casting pearls before swine. Still, he set his third-best smile on his face before straightening to take a few steps across the open meadow toward the quay.

“That’s close enough, my friend. Answer the question.”

Eammon opened his arms, palms out and well away from the rapier at his hip, though he took a beat longer than necessary and let the silence hang so he could listen for sounds of warhorns in the distance. Nothing yet.

“Thanks the gods we found you!” Even as he was saying it, he knew he was overselling the line. Easing a bit, he pressed on. “My companions and I have just come down the mountain, lost in that frigid wilderness and beset by…” he left the line hanging and made a gesture to ward off evil, only partially an act—he remembered all too well the frozen river and the corpse soldiers guarding the bridge, the groan and snap of the rotten ice breaking as the dead burst up and clawed for them in a shower of frozen spray.

“Companions? What companions?”

“Of course.” Eammon made a hurried gesture without turning around, trusting that the others would play along. “You have the great fortune, my new friends, of meeting the premier mountebank company of Alans Crossing—though it has been said by noble personages who would prefer to remain unnamed that we are indeed the greatest troupe in all of Dal Gurath. And who am I, but a humble player and more than adequate playwright, to argue with that?”

Still hearing nothing from behind, he spared a glance over his shoulder just in time to catch the sound of leaves crushed underfoot and see Belarus scowling at him. “Our magician,” he exclaimed, sweeping a grand gesture toward the tiefling, “sure to dazzle and delight with the mystical arts.” He leaned in conspiratorially, despite the great expanse separating him and the quay. “Notice as well the many vials hanging from his person. He is also an apothecary of no small talent. Should any of your visits to Alans Crossing have left your crew with…hmm, certain afflictions…this is your man.”

Eammon almost didn’t hear young Benjamyn as he approached, somersaulting end over end to land a few feet before him with a bow of his own. Trust the boy to pick up on a faltering con and play along. “Our master tumbler, a Halfling of dexterous ability not seen in a generation.”

Del spat on the ground and inspected his nails, sauntering as little as possible out of the dappled shadow. Eammon suppressed a sigh. “Our marksman, who will strike a target dead center from one hundred yards away even as a maelstrom swirls around him.” The man on the ship grew more serious when Del was introduced. Eammon made a mental note.

Roland clanked up in his damaged plate armor, his mouth drawn in a tight line. “Our spiritual counsel, and on rare occasion when the city watch fails to keep the peace at our more ribald performances, our stalwart shield.” The man at the gunwale said something over his shoulder to another man, who seemed to be bolting the hold of the barge closed.

The dwarf sauntered up, his helmet resting at a jaunty angle. “Aye, savin’ the best fer last, I see, Eammon. Very wise, very wise.” He elbowed the bard playfully on the hip; the old man winced, and thought he could almost feel the knot forming already. “Make me something grand now, bard. Ringleader, perhaps. Kissin’ booth operator, that’s an easy sell. No, no, surprise me. You’re the poet of the bunch, ye boney gray poofter.”

Eammon rested his hand on the dwarf’s head. “And this is our hostler, dog trainer, and during performances, crack stagehand.” He leaned in for another stage whisper. “Even humble players such as ourselves must do our part for the wretched, the homeless, and the deranged.”

The dwarf squinted up at the bard for a few seconds, seeming to consider him. “Havin’ them underestimating me greatness from the start, is that the plan?” He nodded sagely and turned to glare at the men working the dock. “You’re a clever old bastard when you want to be, aren’t ye, Eammon?”

When the bard looked back to the keelboat, the man—was it a woman? —who had bolted the hold was already halfway down the gangplank and striding toward the warehouse. The other smiled flatly, still standing at the edge of the deck. “How lucky, then, that the premier theatrical troupe of all Dal Gurath, alone and beset on a mountain, should find us.”

Eammon inclined his head slightly. “No more fortuitous than we should find a crew of honest tradesmen loading a barge surreptitiously at an otherwise isolated wilderness warehouse and pier.”

The man’s smile broadened momentarily before he gestured after his crewman toward the warehouse. “Shall we palaver, then? I think we have some tea left to celebrate our mutual good fortune.”

. . .

Eammon settled gingerly onto the rugs strewn across the floor of the warehouse, the knot in his hip already making movement difficult. Benjamyn sat beside him, politely waiting for Cups, the woman Eammon had seen sealing the hold, to pour the tea. The boy’s eyes would occasionally flicker around the space before darting back to the woman and the steaming green liquid in the cracked mugs.

The others remained outside with the rest of the crew. Del and Belarus had each pulled Eammon aside individually to tell him they didn’t like the situation, and each—charmingly, to Eammon’s mind—tried explaining to him in their own way what would be the signs of a poisoned or otherwise drugged tea. Each time, the old man had politely listened before explaining that Captain Brocton wouldn’t dare, and that even if he did, the game was already too far along to stop now. Belarus had nodded grimly. Del opined that at least the bard was wearing his red pants. Eammon hadn’t understood the remark, but knew better than to ask the ranger for an explanation.

So as Benji nervously scanned the room for valuables and for exits, the bard gently eased his cittern off his back and onto his lap as he watched the green trickle of tea splash into his own battered cup, plucking a string to check how badly their flight through the cold and wet of the mountain had hurt it. He hummed softly in a minor key, tried to pick the same from the string, and was rewarded with a single delicious note. He smiled in genuine pleasure and relief, which the woman mistook to be for the sludge in the battered cups. All the better, Eammon thought, as he raised his in silent thanks and gingerly sipped. It tasted of bark and nettles, and finished with the faint bite of alcohol.

“Gentlemen such as ourselves,” Eammon began as he set down his cup, “have little time to bandy words, so forgive me if without further ado or other decorous niceties I cut directly, as they say, to the chase.” Captain Brocton—or ‘Brown,’ as his men seemed to call him—grunted from across the room, leaning on a crate that had yet to be loaded. “My companions and I would like to book passage on your vessel, so that we might put these mountains firmly behind us and return to the warm embrace of more civilized lands, or at least,” he gestured lazily with his hand, “what passes for civilization in these colonies.”

“We’re not in the habit of taking charters, friend, and as you can see, we’ve nearly finished loading our cargo. Still,” he paused overly long for dramatic effect, even scratching his chin as Eammon imagined every dead acting coach and playwright in Dal Gurath rolling over in their graves, “I suppose the color of your coin might go a ways to changing my mind.” He leaned in then, conspiratorially and not unlike how the bard had originally across the field. “And between two such gentlemen as ourselves, a bit of money in the purse will help keep my crew on the straight and narrow until I can divvy up our take from the cargo.”

“If your men are as restless as you say, captain, then what better remedy than the delight of jugglers, acrobats, and true thespians on the ship to help the days pass in the blink of a starry eye?” He paused, less for dramatic effect and more to work some moisture back into his mouth. “A service my troupe will be all too willing to supply in exchange for our passage.”

The captain chuckled ruefully. “You can’t expect me to clutter my deck with strangers out of the goodness of this old heart.” His eyes glanced briefly at the Halfling, who was grimacing openly at the taste of the tea. “And I don’t think you said anything about jugglers when you introduced yourselves earlier.”

Eammon swallowed, forcing an apologetic smile onto his face. “True, though only because none of us specialize in such mundane feats of manual dexterity.” His tongue felt two sizes too large for his mouth. “Any of them, I mean, any of usth can eathily…”

The captain waited politely for the old man to finish, his gaze unflinching. “You were saying, friend?”

“You godthdamned…” the bard broke off as the room swam madly for a moment before righting itself again. “…godthdamned…cliché…hack. Have you no…thense of…dramatic…propriety?”

Benjamyn suddenly bolted to his feat. “The tea is poisoned, Mr. Quinn! I knew I was right to come in here and watch out for you! I never trusted—oh how pretty!” he abruptly exclaimed as he snatched at nothing in front of his face before careening sideways into a pile of wooden palettes.

“Don’t worry, friend,” the captain crooned, smiling maddeningly from beside his crate. “We’ll just toss you and the rest for your valuables and then be on our merry way.” He glanced again at the Halfling. “Though we’ll likely take your boy for insurance. I don’t believe a half of what you were selling earlier, but the hayseed with the bow does at least look like he knows how to use it.” Captain Brown nodded toward the Halfling, who was struggling to rise from splintered boards of the now broken palette. “Wrap that one up, Cups, and smuggle him onboard now. I’ll put a blade to the old timer’s neck and make the rest of his little troupe see reason.”

As if on cue, the lonely blast of a horn drifted down the mountain.

. . .

At about that time, the hayseed in question was squatting on his haunches outside of the warehouse, eyeing the twin half-ogre crewmen who were taking their time loading the final crates onto the keelboat. He dragged a knuckle under his nose for the sixth time in as many minutes, snuffling quietly and chastising himself for the three different remedies he’d passed on the descent but left unpicked. Of course he would be the one to get a cold. The dwarf ate meat from a dead werebeast, Eammon danced with half a foot in the grave on his best days, and the half-man didn’t have the good sense the gods gave a squirrel, but he was the one who still got the cold. Figures.

Roland stood beside him with his arms crossed over his chest, sparing a look of disapproval for pretty much the entire situation as far as Del could see. “Remind me why we let Eammon go in there alone.”

“We sent Benji with ‘im.”

Roland snorted. “Remind me why we sent Eammon in there with just Benji.”

Del raised a brow at the paladin. “Did you want to spend ten more minutes listening to Eammon prattle on about his game being a foot?” He picked at a bit of something under a nail, muttering, “Whatever that means.” He wiped his nose again. “Besides, I told ‘im what to look for in his tea. Even he couldn’t miss the signs.”

“No, but in hindsight, not wanting to hear the old gentleman ‘prattle on’ seems a thin excuse for putting him in danger like that. We should know better.”

Del shrugged. “Cups and Captain Brown don’t strike me as the particularly sinister type.” He nodded almost imperceptibly toward the brothers. “Just like those two don’t strike me as big readers” and turned to stare at the first mate, Fingers, who he had tasked Kok to watch. “That one, though, I’m surprised has made it this long without hanging from a tree.”

“Kokurl?”

“Hmm?” Did he hear the faint moan of a warhorn? He couldn’t be sure. “Oh, no. Fingers.” He thought a moment. “The dwarf too, though.” He felt the wind change direction, and spared a moment to pick a weed and cast it in the air to confirm. Yup. It was blowing down off the mountain now.

Suddenly Benji shouted something from within, but both caught the word “poisoned” and a faint crash. Roland eyed the brothers and rested his hand on his warhammer, but otherwise stayed where he was.

“Did he just say—“

“Uh huh.”

“Should we—“

“Probably.”

“Shall I—“

“And I’ll stay out here. Too tight in there for my liking.”

“On three, then?”

Del shrugged. “Whatever.”

“One…two—“

Del drew and fired without thinking, the movement as intuitive now as placing one foot before another. His aim was true—it always was—but the half-ogre wasn’t quite as dim as he seemed, for he got a forearm up in time to catch the arrow in the meat of his arm and save his eye. The ranger was already on his feet, dashing around the corner of the warehouse toward Belarus and letting out a whoop. “Kok! Smash!”

The dwarf howled wordlessly, sucker punched the first mate, and grabbed his axe. A blast from an orcish warhorn wailed through the air again, closer now and loud enough for anyone to hear.

By then, though, Roland already had his hammer in hand and was striding purposefully into the warehouse, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom.

“Three.”

. . .

An hour later, Eammon stood at the bow of the keelboat, massaging his temples slowly and waiting for the knot in his guts to untie. Captain Brockton stood next to him, smirking still, though the slight wildness around his eyes suggested he wasn’t quite as unfazed as he pretended to be.

He had reason to be skittish. The fight with his crew was still hazy, as Eammon had spent much of the time sifting through a drug-induced fog, but he recalled enough to piece it together. Benji apparently had managed to blink outside with his magic cloak before he finally succumbed to the tea. Roland’s timely arrival thwarted any chance Captain Brown had of holding anyone hostage, and things quickly went downhill for the strangers from there. Cups had turned out to be a mage, but Belarus made short work of her, while the lads downed one of the two half-ogres, and not long after, sent the other to join him. Fingers had held out the longest.

“Don’t trust this smirking fool, Eammon,” Belarus growled, glaring past the bard at the captain. Eammon tried not to flinch; he hadn’t realized the tiefling was standing beside him. “Anyone who would betray his own man—especially in the middle of a fight like that and without provocation—would easily do the same again.”

Captain Brockton raised an eyebrow at Eammon but the tiefling didn’t notice and so the old man kept his peace; he nodded absently to Belarus but otherwise went back to rubbing his temples. He’d find the right time to tell the others that the captain had actually had plenty of provocation: the bard had promised him three hundred gold on the spot to betray Fingers. But now was certainly not the time to share that trifling detail—perhaps once they were underway. Better yet, a few days underway. Better yet still, once they actually had three hundred gold.

A muffled cry turned Eammon around, and he lingered a moment watching young Benjamyn and Kokurl help the last of the emaciated Nolleh Balanis prisoners — slaves? — from out of the keelboat’s hold and into the open air of the stern. It seemed the Captain was no longer in such a strong position to negotiate either.

At the time, though, he was. Fingers refused to go down or surrender, despite the odds against him, and it had seemed that every other breath was punctuated by a blast from that damned horn somewhere in the forest. Even amidst the din of battle, they struck the deal because both knew whatever warband was closing in would be on them soon enough. They weren’t wrong: not long after Brockton ran Fingers through with his saber from behind, the orcs finally found their quarry.

It was a smaller warband than expected, but no less deadly for it. It was lead by an orog, a far more cunning breed of orc, and supported by a shaman of some sort—probably an Eye of Grumish, if its mutilated eye socket was any indication. The real danger, though, had been the ettin they brought with them, a two-headed giant that stood some thirteen feet tall and, if Eammon understood the orcs correctly, was named SkyrtleVyrtle. Thankfully, the two heads were prone to argue with one another, and the poor dim beast was easily swayed by Eammon’s songcraft. Still, the dregs of the tea in his system muddied his concentration and made heavy his tongue, and in the one moment his voice faltered, the ettin managed to smash Belarus with its club, cracking one of his horns and nearly killing the tiefling in the process. Exhausted as they were from their flight down the mountain and the ambush of Brown and his crew, the lads nevertheless held strong and dispatched the warband with a grim efficiency.

Though not without further incident. As the last orc fell to his axe, Kokurl whirled madly and charged the survivors on the quay. Eammon couldn’t tell if he was going for Captain Brown or not, but the dwarf ignored all entreaty and howled in an animalistic frenzy. This was unusual—even for a psychopath like Kok. So much so, in fact, that Eammon had to enchant the berserk warrior, holding him thrashing aloft in the air until he suddenly fell into a deep sleep. He woke mere moments later with no recollection of what he had done, and none in the group were eager to fill in the gaps for him—or linger nearby for long.

The old bard’s eyes lingered on the dwarf a moment longer, wondering what they had brought back with them from the Fey, and how many more of them had been twisted in unknowable ways by its wild magic.

Benjamyn looked up from a weak and shivering Balanis to glare at Eammon for a moment before shifting his attention back to the sick Halfling—but not before letting his gaze slide briefly across the captain.

“The boy will slit this one’s throat the second you close your eyes tonight, Eammon. Your speech only delayed the inevitable.” Belarus continued to watch Benji as Eammon turned back to the water.

“He knows Brocton is the only one who can navigate this river and get us to Alans Crossing. He’ll hold his blade for now.”

The tiefling grunted. “Our young cutpurse isn’t one to think that many steps ahead, Eammon. I’ll do what I can to run interference, and there’s a chance Derek can still be convinced as well. But as for the others…you may have burned a bridge with that stunt you asked of Roland.”

Eammon winced as his headache seemed to suddenly throb more sharply. “I was trying to keep the half-ogre from figuring out his brother was already dead. It was meant to save his life and spare us further conflict.”

“You had Roland pray over the corpse and told the half-idiot that he was healing the body.”

“We need to get back to civilization, Belarus. By any means necessary.” He stared blankly into the grayish water, refusing to meet the tiefling’s gaze. “Gods, man, if Brockton here is to be believed, a year and a half passed while we were in the damned Fey. We lost the reliquary and very nearly our lives, the trail has gone cold, who knows what has transpired while we were away, and this merry band of ours is a frayed lute string away from snapping apart forever” he spat, finally punctuating it was a glare for the tiefling. “I’ll do what I damn well need to.”

“You’re not yourself, Eammon.”

All his sudden energy seemed to drain from the bard. He nodded. “I’ve suspected as much. Our time in the Fey clearly touched your retainer, and there’s no telling whether I or any of the rest of us are hiding a similar affliction.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Eammon sighed again. “I know. Still, will you keep an eye on the others for me? Watch for any signs of glammer or enchantment?”

“Of course.” He turned abruptly and strode away. “I always do.”

The bard watched him go, saw him stop and talk to Del, and saw the ranger shake his head slowly. Roland moved among the Nolleh Balanis, imploring his god to heal them, or to at least allow them to linger on long enough to receive the healing they needed. He studiously avoided looking toward the bow. Benji had no such reluctance, however, and routinely shot glares at the old bard until Kokurl called his attention back to the survivors. Those who hadn’t survived their captivity remained in the hold.

“How fortuitous,” Captain Brockton observed sardonically beside him, “that the premier theatrical troupe of all Dal Gurath should find us.”

Eammon continued to massage his temples as he turned back to the waters, suppressing another sigh. “Fortuitous indeed.”

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The Prodigal Son Returns
How's the weather?

I never thought coming home would feel so….cold. Del expected to be disoriented after returning from the Fey. Going there had felt like waking from a drugged sleep, where your body doesn’t want to respond to your mental commands. But this was different. Even after the grogginess wore off, things still seemed broken. The colors, smells and sounds were askew. These were things Del prided himself on paying attention to – you never knew when having to turn left after the third tree with the pair of upturned roots meant the difference between diving to safety or a ravine. Plus, it was winter.

“Git me out’a dis fookin swamp! SUZIE and I are ripe fer some ass kickin, and I think I’ll start with a soggy PANSIE!” The twinkle in Kok’s eye and spittle in his insults had not changed. Thank the Gods for consistency, Del snickered to himself.

“Oh, so yer ‘tinkin SUZIE is to be laughed at?!” Kok said sharply at the snicker. Del also recognized that tone and knew it was not to be ignored. “Oh no, Lord Kokurl, I would not dare to insult your instrument of killing….ness. I was laughing at the ‘soggy pansy’ part, because the Common Pansy or Pansillius Domensticus is a cousin to the water lily and…”

“Shut yer idiot ARSE you LILLIE PANSIE! Fookin’ hell, yer dumber than you look…” Kok triumphantly interjected. He stomped off and began to consult with his axe in his guttural language, exactly as Del had hoped he would. Thank the Gods for consistency, Del thought, without the snicker this time.

Before Del could let out a relieved sigh, an all too familiar voice rang out from the woods. It was Montalban and he seemed both amused and upset at our return. Del knew that he was a tough cookie, so he quickly got to checking strings and fletchings. He was racking his brain for the lay of the land here as well, so he could consider the best spot for cover. A pond in a meadow was nowhere for an ambush. Sadly, his thoughts were cut short by something quite unexpected; the soggy visage of a woman. She moaned something about joining the murky depths and violently drug Del under the water. In doing so, she also sapped him of his strength. It was the second time this week he thought he was going to die, and he was not very happy about it.

Better than Redcaps, I guess, Del idly thought. His resignation felt more easy now, and he wondered if being a hero meant less a willingness to die and more an acceptance of its omnipresence. Well I hope the group makes it, even if it means I’ll have to deal with a smug Dwarf…

“Ahh, the wee lassie awakes. Did ye enjoy yer beauty rest, you sissy PANSIE?!” Kok lamented the twitching body of Del. After vomiting what seemed like several gallons of pond water, Derek looked Kok in his smug eyes and noded, “Yes, it was nice. You should dive in and see how deep it goes…” Del knew the comment lacked force, but it was the best he could do. He felt like crap and Kok’s subsequent insults fell on deaf ears. The group spent a bit of time drying their clothes and getting their bearings before heading off in what they thought would be the best direction back to civilization. Del did his best to compose himself and regain some strength, even with the help of the Bard, but he was unable to fully recover from the drowning. Bad day. Bad week. Bad everything. No luck for this band of merry heroes…

“Oi! PANSIE! This is definitely the wrong direction” Kok blared into Del’s ear. The Dwarf had taken to thinking he was a scout and stayed abreast of Derek in the marching order. The protests of Del and the rest of the group seemed hollow – everyone was a bit off – and it seemed easier to let the temperamental terror have his way then pick a fight. Del knew having him near point was a bad idea for so many reasons, and his worry was validated when he saw the group had walked right into an ambush.

“Ambush, take cover!” Derek yelled. The words burned his pride as they left his mouth. Always the Dwarf was all he had time to think as a few javelins shot out from some all-to-near trees. The group oriented themselves quickly and began to push the ambush, only to discover too late that there were Ogres backing the Orc ambushers. The men asserted themselves quickly, but it all seemed a little out of practice. Benji darted into the middle to strike, only to end up in a “Maidens spit-roast” of hidden enemies, happy to see such eager prey. Eammon purposefully popped from cover to draw fire, and did just that, getting a javelin deep in his leg. Kok started to melee like usual, but then took cover behind a rock when the combat shifted. Belarus stuck to ranged combat and some other flim-flam jibberish, which in retrospect was pretty typical. It seemed everyone was not quite themselves, and especially Eammon and Benji. They seemed a little more reckless than back in the Fey. Perhaps we took something back with us, Derek mused.

The group managed to cobble together victory, but it was bittersweet. Benji was knocked unconscious and they were in no place for rest. This infuriated Derek even further that they had been ambushed in such an obvious fashion. His grip tightened around his longbow and the desire to put down the rabid Dwarf thumped in his ears.

“Dead weight is contagious” Del thought behind a clenched jaw. His father’s cool logic haunted his mind, and Derek made a mental note to re-evaluate things in earnest next time he was not scrambling for his life. Whenever that will be, he snickered to himself. The day was going from bad to worse, and Derek wished for nothing more than the Dwarf to remain quiet, which he knew was like wishing for the sun in the deep of Winter.

It sure is fucking cold, isn’t it

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Expand and Collapse
Daydreams of the fallen

As Derek watches,

That Belly is smarter than he lets on. Look at him escaping with his life. I should have spent most of the fight playing dead. Of course the one time I act all heroic and shit, Lord Kokurl is not here to see it. Oh well, I guess you learn from your mistakes. Except I don’t think I’ll have a chance to put that learning to any use, seeing as how this cut is bleeding out quick. Doesn’t hurt as much as I thought, although the sound of those Redcaps is giving me a headache…

As Derek drifted into unconsciousness, his limp body slid to an abrupt halt in the thick grass. He distinctly remembered Belarus looking over his shoulder yelling something back before affixing his eyes away from Derek and continuing out the room.

Belarus escapes with his life, just.

Staggering through the dirt-warren, hobbled by bloody gashes dealt by powrie and redcap blades, Belarus struggled to keep hold of the dowsing rod, which was their only means of finding their way in the underground.

Well, it was their only means; now it was his only means. He had seen each of them cut down, all but Derek; he was lost from sight and had stopped responding to Belarus’s calls to retreat down the hallway. Which could only mean that he’d been felled.

He was in only slightly better shape. The dowsing rod was slick with his blood and was difficult to keep hold of; snatches of laughter in the dark of the tunnel let him know that he was not alone. There was no time to rest or to get his bearings. He was just trying to get away from the scene of carnage.

And where was his bodyguard? The dwarf Kokurl often waded into the thick of fights, leaving Belarus to fend for himself. He was nowhere to be seen. He’d probably gotten lost in the tunnels along with Cedric.

He didn’t fault the two of them so much as he did himself. So much time he had spent attempting to hide is arcane nature from the group, throwing useless vials of liquid at those hellish imps in an attempt to distract from the spells he wove. He failed to unleash his full potential when the group needed it most. But his brief encounter with the zealot Jon Reese back in Boldstone reminded him that he must ever play the cowardly bookish scholar, so as not to give credence to Reese’s wild claims of black magic.

He was making his way by feel; though the dowsing rod would direct him, it would only lead him back to the room where his friends lay dead among the sawgrass. He used the thing to keep him oriented away from that awful place, and took pains to listen at each branching point, though the sounds he heard were of the wicked red caps, giggling and chortling just out of view.

The audacity of it galled him. These imps no doubt capered just beyond his sight, still wet with his blood and that of his friends, laughing all the while as he stumbled through the darkness.

“Come for me, then! You foul impish destards! I’ll burn you all to ash, I swear it!”

The circlet hanging by his horns turned black as he began to summon eldritch energies, like the halo of some dark fallen angel. He narrowed his eyes and peered into the black depths of the tunnel ahead.

There was only silence. Belarus thought that they would indeed come and answer his challenge, the time for games had passed.

“Ach, there ye are, yah horned hominid! Ah was afreed we’d lost yeh!”

Kokurl sauntered into view, with Cedric just behind him.

“This stout one got…lost. I had attempted to turn him aright, but as you can see…” Cedric stopped as he saw Belarus was clutching his side and gasping for breath. Looking closely, he saw in the luminescent dark the blood that coated his hands. “What… what happened?”

Belarus looked around the tunnel, there were no redcaps around. “We were attacked. No one survived.”

“Eh? Ow issat possible? What of Roland and Del? What of Eammon? An’ lil’Benji?”

“All gone. I did not see Derek fall, but as we were escaping he was calling out to me and then suddenly he stopped.”

“Well we’ll ’afta git them! We ’afta get ’em back!”

“No, Dwarf! For once, listen to me. They are dead. We need to get out of here.”

“There may be a way.”

Cedric looked pensive for a moment. “Here, let me at least heal you…” At this, he began to examine the wounds and describe them in calm, encouraging detail. He reminded Belarus of wounds much more severe suffered in previous battles, and that these would heal without much help at all. With that, Belarus found a renewed vigor inside and an intense urge coursed through him.

For food.
And revenge.

Escape, however, is not a word known to Dwarfs.

Suzie Too and I are sick and tired of this Shite!!! That stoopid rod has been nuttin but trouble and we are no closer to findin tha’ bastard’s heart. You poofs do wha’ you’d like but I am headin’ this way…” Sayin’ my peace, I turned abruptly and stormed off the opposite direction that wobbly stick indicated. The luminescent glow of the overgrown grass bathed the tunnel in a spoooky green light. The noisy clatter of plate armor interspersed with painful grunts indicated that a member of the group had followed my lead. Smart bastard! A glance over the shoulder showed Cedric carefully inchin’ down the tunnel, arms outstretched, awkwardly wavin’ about as to avoid crashin’ face first into an obstruction concealed in the darkness. Smilin’, I winked at Suzie Too and blurted, “Oy! Over here boy . . .” With his head shiftin’ toward the sound of my voice, the warlord stammered, “Mr. Kokurl, it’s not wise to go off alone in the dark.” “Yes . . . Agreed boy. It is not wise for YOU to go off alone in the dark.” Grabbin’ his tunic by the back, I pulled the warlord forward. “Follow closely and stay alert.” After a minute of walkin’ in silence, the warlord, after seemin’ly tryin’ summon up the nerve, said, “Mr. Kok . . . I mean Kokurl . . . we should probably go back . . . don’t you think?” “Har . . . why is that? Because the rest decided to follow that stoopid rod rather than their own wits? . . . Besides . . . I do not trust those Eladrin people. They’re even more shifty that the peck . . . damn fey people . . . you shake those pricks’ hands and ya got to make sure you has all your fingers afterwards . . . No, no . . . I am gonna keep goin’ tha’ way . . . feel free to . . . wha? You here that?” All of a sudden loud maniacal laughter reverberated throughout the tunnels. A quick glance around the dimly-lit area yielded no evidence of the laughter’s source. “Tha’s not good. Stay on me like my shadow and keep your eyes open.” Cedric nodded in response.

We continued down the tunnel readyin’ our arms for any signs of an ambush. After a brief respite from the laughter, we heard an anguished voice, scream, “Come for me, then! You foul impish destards! I’ll burn you all to ash, I swear it!" After turnin’ the corner, I saw Horney gazin’ into the darkness defiantly. He looked injured and was surrounded by a energy halo, powered by some hocusy pocusy arts. So that is his game . . . well we all have secrets and I had too much shite to deal with at the time anyways. As long as he doesn’t touch me with the hocus pocus and his gold still buys me some ale, he is fine by me. Walkin’ up to him, I uttered, “Ach, there ye are, yah horned hominid! Ah was afreed we’d lost yeh!” Cedric chimed in “this stout one got…lost. I had attempted to turn him al’righ, but as you can see…” Shootin’ a challengin’ glare his way we decided to inspect Horney’s wounds more closely. Curious. Echoin’ the thoughts in my head, the warlord interjected worriedly, “What . . . what happened?” Lookin’ jumpy, Horney glanced around as if lookin’ for somethin’ in the darkness . . . “We were attacked. No one survived.” Enraged, I said “Eh? Ow issat possible? What of Roland and the pansy? What of the old man? An’ the peck?” Avoidin’ eye contact, Horney practically whispered . . .“All gone. I did not see Derek fall, but as we were escapin’ he was callin’ out to me and then suddenly he stopped.” No longer able to contain my anger I bellowed, “Well we’ll ’afta git them! We ’afta get ’em back!” In typical cowardly fashion, that pansy had the audacity to say “No, Dwarf! For once, listen to me. They are dead. We need to get out of here."

Angry I stormed off and began to pace. Suzie Too tried to console me, but I cannot believe this pussy ran while the others died. Feelin’ the rage boil up inside me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cedric use his gifts to heal the coward. Pictures of ASSel’s lifeless body struck me like a gong. Disoriented, I back-pedaled a step and was struck again by painful images . . . this time poor liddle Benji’s pathetic dead frame. Twitchin’, blinded by the images of my slain friends I peddled even further back until I hit the tunnel wall . . . Benji . . . ASSel . . . Benji . . . ASSel . . . Benji . . . ASSel . . . dead!!! The images stopped with a thunderclap . . . My eyes popped open and I saw Cedric pamperin’ Horney like some babe who skinned his knee. My anger boiled over at this moment. With face red, eyes bulgin’, I approached Horney with a tense menacin’ gate and bellowed, “YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE TO HELP . . . BUT YOU THOUGHT TO SAVE YOUR OWN SORRY HIDE RATHER THAN HELP THOSE WHO HAVE SPILT BLOOD FOR YOU!!!” Swingin’ with all my might I slammed Suzie Too into the tunnel wall beside Horney with a massive thud. I tried to make another swing only to find the axe firmly embedded into the wall. Swearin’ and leavin’ my axe hangin’ in place, I glared at Horney, “WHY?” Shieldin’ his face from the spittle accompanyin’ my angry words, Horney replied, “Kokurl, why throw my life away to no benefit? The battle was lost . . . I could do nothing. If we flee we live and we can get help!” Without a beat I rambled, “Oh you have found help! Cedric, Suzie Too, and I will carve up each and every one of those devious liddle red-capped ankle biters. Not to mention I have not enjoyed me a good salad in quite a while. And YOU will be right on are arses throwin’ yer vials. Either that or we will be draggin’ ya!”

Turnin’ my attention to the axe hangin’ from the wall, I finally retrieved Suzie Too and began pacin’ and swearin’ to myself. Cedric also chimed in, “Mister Kokurl . . . perhaps you should keep your voice down . . . we have already attracted enough attention to ourselves. Besides we might be able to save those that fell.” Calmin’ down, but still frustrated I uttered, “He said they were all dead Cedric!!!” Respondin’ in an uneven tone tempered by a seemin’ly endless supply of patience, the Warlord, said, “Yes that is true Master Dwarf but he also said that he did not see Del fall . . . Which means that he might still be alive and need our help. And the others can also be saved as well!” That glimmer of hope smothered my rage like water dowsin’ a flame. “Well let’s go get em then! AND THAT MEANS YOU TOO HORNEY . . . no runnin’ away this time!”

Cedric then began to prod Horney with questions tryin’ to get an idea of what evil was in store for us down those tunnels. As if to add emphasis to our forebodin’ situation, our adversaries would sprinkle in occasional bouts of maniacal gigglin’ seemin’ly from everywhere. After recountin’ the events that unfolded Cedric confirmed his understandin’ with Horney, “So if I understand you, there was about one large mound of plantlife, and 4-6 evil gnomes that like to trip people and attack them on the ground? You saw Eammon, Benji, and Roland fall, but Del could be around and need our help? We could fight our way in to save them but those are not great odds. Not to mention it would be difficult to fight our way back out again while carryin’ bodies. I will need to think on this.” Frustrated I mentioned . . . “Well we should go in anyway . . . I say we find the pansy, revive him if we can. Then we can fight our way in . . .” At this Horney with renewed determination interjected, “I have four healing vials we can use to revive Dell and the others if when find them. ” Noddin’ along, I continued, “. . . and I have a few vials myself. When we reach them, I can put the wee peck in my bottomless bag here. Then we can carry the rest of them between us and fight our ways back out again.” We continued the discourse over our different options while Cedric watched on attentively . . . no doubt hatchin’ one of his fancy plans. Lookin’ at both Horney and Cedric in turn, I said, “Al’righ . . . unless anyone else has somethin’ to chime in I say we get goin’ . . . time is awastin’. Let’s move!”

Derek’s thoughts were dark as he slept.

Lost cause. Saw it in his eyes. Seems to be the feeling down here. Fucking fey…

When Derek first opened his eyes he could not immediately process the situation. He was surrounded by several Redcaps feverishly gibbering to each other in Elven. One was quickly removing Derek’s boots, taking several long, deep smells in through his nose and out his mouth as if he were sampling a glass of wine. Another had taken a liking to his bow and was pretending to use it as some kind of saw, dragging the bowstring across one of Derek’s legs, snapping his vision back to Derek’s face each time to check for a reaction. A third had dumped out several quivers and was using the arrows as stakes to pin down clothing, not that Derek felt like moving. He noticed that the other bodies had their boots removed as well, but they were otherwise undisturbed. Perhaps their lifelessness was less than amusing. They had not seemed to notice his eyes open until the one sawing his leg yelled something in Elven and the rest all jumped back. After the initial start their amusement doubled and they all descended upon Derek’s head. Two began to braid his hair while another pair took turns forcing his jaw open with their boney fingers and playing with his teeth. Occasionally a reflex cough or gag from Derek would send the Redcaps scattering, laughing maniacally all the while.

Alive, I guess. I can’t imagine being in a worse situation, though. Surrounded by psychopathic lawn gnomes who might gut me at any moment just for a laugh. No good way out of this. Can’t fight back. Looks like the others, well, considering they ain’t being fucked with like I am, I guess they’re past the point of return. God damn fucking heroes…

The Redcap braiding Derek’s hair noticed a tear slide from a bloodshot eye. He quickly licked it off of his face with a bulbous tongue and then began to cackle and roll around in the grass in apparent disgust with the saltiness. The others took a second to process the reaction and then simultaneously descended on Derek’s face, ravenously licking in the hopes of repeating the experience. Derek shut his eyes tight, assuming the worst and that he was about to be eaten alive. His mind so focused on the horrific death he was about to experience did not immediately register the all too familiar snap of several crossbows.

Right, lemme guess. There’s an army of Goblins, no, Hobgoblins here to save me. See, it’s all been one big misunderstanding and that the Bulls-eye feller is actually really nice once you get to know him. Actually, considering how long it took us to get here and how they were getting organized and whatnot…

Derek’s labored logic was cut short as he was bathed in warm blood. He reactively flinched but the movement was very slight as the Redcap who staked him down did a very thorough job. His senses snapped back into focus as the rancid smell of Redcap blood filled his nostrils and the crashes of battle surrounded him. He slowly cracked open an eyelid to gaze upon a fantastical scene. Several platoons at the least of very well armored and armed Hobgoblins had stormed the room. They were well organized and very aggressively making short work of the Redcaps. In the wings were goblins and bugbears skirmishing around the battle, letting loose crossbow bolts and darting in to catch Redcaps unaware. A mage-like figure was in the back as well, raining down dark fire on the Shambling Mound. The ferocity and efficiency was breathtaking. As his eye rolled through its extremes Derek noticed a Bugbear crouching next to him rifling through a much mangled Redcap at his feet. He was using his battleaxe to expedite the process, sending more blood flying onto Derek. After the Redcap was no more than a mound of flesh and bone, he yelled something in Goblin and turned to Derek. Their vision locked and Derek froze, gazing into those cold, lifeless eyes for what felt like minutes. The Bugbear seemed uninterested or convinced Derek was dead and sprinted away. Derek forcibly let out a slow breath and tried to slow the pounding pulse echoing in his ears. Moments later a loud cheer came forth from the band and Derek surmised they had won. The mage-like one produced a small box from the corpse of Mister MacGuff and held it aloft, producing even more cheers. He then yelled something in Goblin and the band exited in a quick, organized fashion.

Fuck me. I need to warn the others, er, the remainders. If they encounter that group there’s no chance of escape. Must pull it together!

Sometimes, rescue is a four letter word.

Shuffling through the sawgrass, Belarus followed behind the Dwarf Kokurl, whose eyesight was much more accustomed to the dark. The dowsing rod held out before him, Belarus quietly guided Kokurl by taps on the shoulder whenever the tunnel split. Bringing up the rear was Cedric, moving as quietly as he could in his hulking armor; they didn’t want to attract the attention of the redcaps that scampered about in the darkness just beyond their sight.

A howl pierced the stale underground air; it seemed to come from several directions at once. The trio looked at each other and Cedric pointed to the passage behind them. It had come from behind. Then the unmistakable sounds of battle reached their ears, and a low guttural tongue echoed through the hall.

“There’s something else in these tunnels,” Cedric warned.

“Aye,” said the Dwarf. “Let’s keep movin’.”

The followed the rod for what seemed like hours in the underground tunnels, every so often the sounds of weapons rang out in the halls and the same low voices would carry to them. While Belarus used the dowsing rod to guide them back toward their fallen friends, Cedric would often move them down an alternate passage in order to avoid running into the newcomers. Sometimes the sounds would come from behind, sometimes in front; but always they stopped and listened.

“What do you suppose they are?” Cedric ventured.

“Goblins? I dunno. Horney?”

Belarus looked at them in turn.
“I don’t speak Goblin. Do you? Do you?”

Kokurl shook his head emphatically. Cedric wordlessly pointed to his blade, indicating how he communicated with goblins.

“It seems as though we’ve been circling in here. I could have sworn we’ve passed this way before,” Cedric said as he touched one of the cavern’s dirt walls.

“Ah toldja that durn Elf rod could nae be trusted! We bein wandrin’ round ‘ere fer e’er!”

“Silence, Dwarf,” Belarus hissed. “We’re trying not to attract attention, as you may recall. At any rate, I don’t think this device is an exact science; after all, I don’t have the gifts that Eammon has.”

At this, they fell silent. No one corrected Belarus, but the word hung in the air unspoken: &had.

They rounded the next corner and stopped short. Several redcap bodies lay twisted and broken upon the floor. Their blood stained the sawgrass in thick, dark swathes. An horrendous stench hung about the air as well. They were approaching the room where their companions had fallen, Belarus was certain.

“Welp, whoe’er they are, I like ’em!” Korkurl declared.

“The enemy of my enemy may still yet be mine enemy,” Cedric offered.

“Yes. He is right; I don’t think we want to— wait!” The sounds of blade meeting blade and the low tongue met their ears again; this time, it sounded as if it were right on top of them. Belarus ducked into a nearby alcove, sliding on his belly under a fissure as the sawgrass tried to cling to him. Kokurl and Cedric followed quickly behind, the latter getting his pauldrons caught on the edges of the cracked earth, ripping dirt from the wall. Belarus shivered at the thought of getting trapped under the earth with no oxygen, but he held still. The anguished cries of the redcaps were clearly audible. The fight was not going well for them. Soon, the tromp of heavy boots filled the tunnels.

“Outta tha way, thar, I wannae see!” Kokurl protested.

Belarus hushed him and Cedric simply lay still on his back. Kokurl was trying to peer through Cedric to the tunnel beyond.

“Would that you had a beard, so that I might stuff it in your flapping mouth!” Belarus spat.

After a few tense moments, the footfalls passed by. Cedric was able to see very little, his view obscured by the fissure he was in, as well as the curve in the tunnel. All he could make out were shapes moving in the deep black and some slight glints of metal in the soft luminescence of the cave.

Once they were sure the creatures had moved off, Cedric dragged himself out, ripping the sawgrass with his armor in the process. Kokurl rolled out like a barrel, and Belarus scrambled quickly behind him.

“I think we’re close,” Belarus gestured back down the hall from whence the creatures had come.

Belarus stepped past Kokurl into the large room. More redcap bodies were strewn about the floor. A smoldering mound of leaves and grass the size of a bear lay off to one side. The shambling mound had swallowed Benji at one point during their fight. Now it looked as if it had met its end.

Their friends remained where they fell; Roland they saw first. The Paladin was just inside the room, lying on his back. He had valiantly tried to cover their escape route, pulling several of the redcaps to him, and had been felled. Cedric slung his shield over his back, then began hoisting him over his shoulder.

Benji was cast aside off to the right, broken like a ragdoll; Eammon was lying face down beside him, his clothes shredded and soaked with his own blood. Belarus regarded them silently. Benji was his old “childhood friend,” one he’d forgotten he even had. Oftentimes, the Tashkat infuriated Belarus, though he never let it show. Kokurl punished the lad enough for stealing from the group. Now that he was gone, Belarus found a splinter of himself missing the halfling.

Kokurl ambled over and unslung his backpack. He pulled out a smaller bag, humming to himself as if he were about some menial task like chopping wood. He opened the small bag wide, bent down and scooped Benji into it as if he were scooping a fish from a lake. He cinched the top, and then replaced the bag in his backpack and scampered off.

Eammon. The old man reminded Belarus of his own father. He didn’t remember much, only that his own father was a wealthy human. So was his mother, for that matter. When he was born, it ripped their marriage apart. Demonspawn. That’s what they said he was. It was only a miracle he wasn’t killed immediately. He was hid away in a brothel, until the monk had come and taken him away to the cloister. His own father never came looking for him. Not like Eammon; would he be happy now? Was he with his son? Would he want to be brought back? Could they even afford this? Belarus could only think of getting back to Stardust; he knew they would be able to do something, but at what price? What would have to be sacrificed to bring all these men back?

A groan reached out from the darkness to them.

“Ach! Del!” Kokurl hopped over a few redcap bodies toward the sound. He found Del near the ledge in the middle of the room. His shoes were missing, like all the others, but unlike them, he was breathing.

His arrows were scattered across the ground around him, his quiver upended no doubt by some mad powrie. He was pinned to the ground, the sawgrass gripping his sides and arrows staked through his clothes at random intervals. Some redcap had thought it funny to pierce his pants round the crotch as well.

“Laddie, yeh alive?!” Kokurl shouted as spittle flew into Derek’s face. His eyes were caked shut with blood from a nasty head wound, but he appeared to be alive. “Lemme git yeh outta this ’ere,” Kokurl began plucking the arrows from his clothes, then proceeded to gather up the rest scattered about the ground. Belarus came over and helped Derek to a sitting position against a wall.

“Can you walk?” Belarus did not know what they would do if he couldn’t. He handed Derek a waterskin, from which he drank deeply. He croaked an affirmative “Yeah,” but nodded his head just to send the point home. Belarus offered his arm, and Derek took it and stood. Kokurl handed him his quiver and bow.

“Where are my boots!?” Derek stammered. “The MaGuffaga! Curse their blasted eyes!”

All of their comrades’ boots were missing.

“We’ll just have to do without for the time being,” Cedric said pragmatically. “We can try and get them back later. For now, we have to try and get everyone out of here.”

Derek looked around; Cedric was hefting Roland, Belarus had Eammon slung over his shoulder, his lute case tied to his hip. “Where’s Benji?”

“In ’ere.” Kokurl patted his backpack and then offered an arm to support Derek. “C’mon. Let’s git on outta ’ere; worry aboot yer booties later!”

Belarus quietly took a deep breath. He held the dowsing rod and hoped again by moving away from where it pointed, he could guide them out of the tunnels, and avoid any unwanted attention.

Dwarves know how to make an exit.

“Ach . . . will these blasted tunnels never end! That wobbly stick is as useless as a milk bucket under a bull. We’ve been runnin’ in circles for hours.” Gruntin’, I turned my eyes away from Horney and they lingered upon the Old Man’s body for a moment. He was bein’ carried by Horney and Cedric on a makeshift stretcher we had constructed usin’ two javelins and a bedroll. Poor bastard! As frail as he appeared I never thought he would come to this end. His face had turned the ashen, pallid color of death. Despite this, one could almost think him asleep if it were not for the deep gashes coverin’ his body and the caked dried blood that matted his long brown curls to the side of his head. This was my failin’. I should have been there to protect them. I am built to take the abuse . . . everyone around me keeps dyin’. This is why it is better not to have friends . . . the pain of a dagger in the gut pales by comparison to that of the death of those . . . . Lost in a moment of thought, Horney brought me back to reality shoutin’, “Kokurl! This is no time to lose your wits. We cannot afford another attack by those redcaps!” Respondin’ as the Pansy and I picked up the stretcher carryin’ Roland’s lifeless corpse, “Aye, Horney I hear ya! Let’s get movin’”

He was right after all. Between that stoopid wobbly stick and the constant waves of attacks from those damned ankle biters it had been slow goin’. Each attack seemed more and more fierce. They no longer thought this liddle escapade a joke. Their playful laughter had long since turned to cries of hatred and their pranks had given way to vicious bloodthirsty attacks. Those bastards were determined not to let us escape . . . and truthfully, even I think they might succeed. Each of us had performed well . . . even the Pansy . . . err . . . Del. After downin’ a healin’ potion, he walked with a new sense of vigor . . . and thankfully so. He had even saved my arse a time or two over the last few hours. He loosed arrows with a ruthless efficiency and he seemed to hit everythin’ at which he shot. In fact, most of those little bastards had at least one arrow in them by the time each battle finished. I had long since given him my quiver and we collected those arrows that we could from the countless redcap bodies, but there never seemed to be enough. No less accomplished, Cedric performed his duties like a man possessed with the powers of Kord. He dispatched several of those gnome fuckers himself. Fightin’ next to him feels as natural as a beard on a dwarf. He seemed to expose each attacker’s weakness for me to exploit and fought in a way that complemented my fightin’ style. He positioned our liddle group in a manner to be most effective at killin’. My kinda guy! We formed a two man phalanx which halted the advance of the redcaps givin’ Horney and Del the time they need to release their magics and missiles. Even Horney began to redeem himself for his earlier cowardice. He kept up his pretense of throwin’ his silly vials at random gnomes which “mysteriously” caught on fire, or were struck by balls of energy. I honestly care not what he does; only that he takes out as many of those bastards as he can.

Anyway, we continued on our way down the corridor until we came to a fork in the path. Del nervously uttered, “Which way shall we choose?” Impassively Cedric responded, “Master Belarus, which way does the rod foretell?” Placin’ the stretcher carryin’ the Old Man on the cold stone floor, Horney clutchin’ the rod in front of him watched as it pointed to the right hallway. Statin’ the obvious Horney said, “It is pointing to the right and . . .” Interruptin’ I blurted, “Well obviously tha’ means we go left!” Lookin’ for but findin’ no argument I began to lead the lethargic group down the corridor I had chosen. After walkin’ several hundred meters a glorious beam of bright light wafted down the corridor like a gentle breeze. It was a thing of beauty. Walkin’ with a renewed store of energy we turned the corner to see the gapin’ mouth of the tunnel, which would lead us from this retched place. We took a few confident steps toward the openin’ when eight ankle biters sauntered from a side hallway just before the exit.
Clutchin’ their weapons in a menacin’ manner, the group formed an obstacle that we must pass in order to gain our freedom. Then the lead ankle biter took a few short steps forward and with a screechy voice bellowed, “You will all DIE!!!” Gently placin’ the stretchers carryin’ our friends on the moss-covered ground, our exhausted party made ready for one last fight. Lookin’ back, I saw Cedric drawin’ his sword without a flourish. It shone a dull grey-white with streaks of dark red blood smeared down the blade. He approached me with a look of grim determination. “Well Master Kokurl! We did not get all dressed up for nothin’. Let’s fight our way out of this place!” Movin’ with an efficiency honed by repetition and experience, Del and Horney placed Cedric and I between them and the redcaps with an air of confidence that implied that would be the only defense they needed. Del knocked and arrow and drew the string of his bow while takin’ aim at a very unfortunate redcap. The utter stillness in his hand beguiled the look of exhaustion that covered his face. Havin’ long exhausted his store of liquid vials, Horney began to prepare his spells with no pretense of hidin’ his dark powers. Drawin’ Suzie Too with my left hand and grippin’ her haft with white knuckles and then drawin’ a javelin, I walked out a few paces in front of Cedric. Drained though filled with defiance and inspired by my dwarven roots I began to sing,

Here I am loiterin’, invadin’ yer homes,
I’m just a dwarf lookin’ to kill me some gnomes,
Killin’ you arseholes Suzie and I have quite mastered,
Each and every one of you is such a bastard,

Yer pain and sufferin’ I hope to prolong,
I’m gonna beat yer heads like they’re a gong,
I cannot wait til you I do kill,
There is plenty of redcap blood I hope to yet spill,

I wanna introduce you to my great big axe,
From yer hides I will charge a very steep tax,
Ask around Suzie and I are quite feared,
When we are finished you will all be disappeared,

Fer my friends’ deaths I’m gonna pay ya back,
Deep into all of ya I’m gonna hack,
Ya better run, I hope you’ve gotten the clue
Or I’m gonna slice ya up and make me a stew,

If you hope to survive don’t hold yer breath,
All that awaits ya is a very quick death,
You are all detestable, despicable scum,
Brace yersleves for here we come . . .

With that I began to slam the javelin and the handle of Suzie Too onto the ground as our group shouted, “Ah … Hooo!, Ah . . . Hooo! Ah . . . Hoo!” Lustin’ in the palpable anticipation, I screamed, “Come and get it ya bastards!!!” As if headin’ my call, the redcaps began to charge. The leader quickly went down with two arrows to his face. Hesitatin’ . . . the remainin’ redcaps looked at their fallen leader and then resumed their charge. A second redcap seemed surprised as my javelin punctured his chest and he quickly was set on fire by Horney’s magics. A third redcap went down with arrows masterfully placed in his eye and throat. Cedric was bouncin’ on the balls of his feet anticipatin’ the moment when the gnomes came within the reach of his sword. Takin’ a few steps back, I joined Cedric’s left flank and waited. The redcaps continued to charge. We made quick work of the first two ankle biters that approached as the one in front of Cedric was hobbled by a ball of dark energy and the fucker approachin’ me sprouted an arrow from his chest shortly before Suzie Too deprived him of his head. The remainin’ three crashed into Cedric and I like a batterin’ ram. One struck me in the chest with a dagger drawin’ blood and hobblin’ my knees and a second followed up with a cudgel to my head. The world spun as I heard Cedric’s defiant screams. With pain and leanin’ on Suzie Too for support, the world came into a blurry focus. Seein’ another gnome at my feet felled by Cedric’s sword, I saw two redcaps slashin’ at Cedric in earnest. Instinctively and with little thought, I drove one of the ankle biters off my mate with a thrust to the face that knocked him on his back. I then ended his life with a second resoundin’ swing that cut through his sternum into the ground. Lackin’ any fear, the final redcap attacked as if he had an army at his back. Though recognizin’ his bravery, Cedric and I had liddle patience for this shite. In unison, we felled the last of the gnomes. Pantin’ heavily, and with a pile of redcap bodies surroundin’ us, our group shared a silent moment of victory and resumed the task of takin’ our friends from this place. “It is done,” Del said with finality. Quickly afterward, Horney said, “Let’s get out of this place!” Sheathin’ his sword, Cedric almost whispered, “No argument here. Let’s get going” Pickin’ up the stretchers, we finally made our way out of the tunnels into the wilderness. Despite my better judgment I actually preferred my fey surroundin’s to those of which we just left. We had liddle trouble makin’ it back to the precious Duke’s place. I need to have a word with him for sendin’ us on this stoopid mission to begin with . . .

Derek recalls the day with a tired mind.

It’s all a blur. Not half a day ago I was kissing my ass goodbye as the rest of the band fell beside me. Belly proved himself quite resourceful and got us back together, and by together, I mean all alive. Well, it wasn’t him that did the resurrections, or was it? I’m still not thinking too straight, to be honest. Dehydration, blood-loss and listening to the Dwarf prattle on about how we “…shoulda had our pansy arses wait a bit so he could kill thems God-Damn Fucking RedCap pussy gnome fuckers himself” has left me delirious. I swear I saw Lord Kokurl fight back a tear or two as he pulled Benji out of his bag and laid him on the altar – that was definitely my imagination!

I also am pretty sure that our Half-elf beneficiary is a better looking version of Eammon, not that Eammon is handsome or my type, but you know what I mean. He even talks like the old bugger, all indirect and flowery like someone delivering bad news or telling the history of a tragic event. Hell, as far as I know, all Half-Elfs look the same, except Eammon and LMJ don’t, but they could just be exceptions or something. He was blabbering about all his travels around the known and unknown world while he helped us get the materials for the resurrections, not that I was in a listening mood, nor any of us for that matter.

When he took care of the tab the Dwarf thought it was too generous and started to interrogate the bugger about ulterior motives. That Half-elf was a keen fellow and began to spin the Dwarf’s questions back at him in the form of veiled compliments; an amazing exchange to watch. Eventually the Dwarf concluded three concrete facts; one – this Half-elf is secretly skimming from the hands of bastardly, corrupt Eladrin Lords, two – this is a most noble and honorable task since the money goes back into the hands of the needy, three – this Half-elf is a boon to his race and welcome at the dinner table of Lord Kokurl any time. Best part is that he never said anything even remotely close to that! He just asked the Dwarf his own questions with different phrasing! If I didn’t have this splitting headache I’d have been taking notes.

I’m not quite certain why he paid for us either. He mentioned something about “paying towards the debt of suffering inflicted” whatever the hell that means. He was kinda shifty and never looked me in the eyes. He didn’t even stay for the resurrections, giving some fancy goodbye and quickly walking off as we hauled Eammon’s battered corpse onto the altar. Kok yelled after him to share a pint at the least but he did not seem to hear. Strange fella.

Anyhow, I need to get some rest and reflect on my memories. I’m almost certain that the reliquary had a small crack in it and was oozing some liquid. Considering I was oozing several liquids at that point I cannot be sure. I’ll run it past the rest of the band, but I’m fairly certain that it spells trouble.
View
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back.

Derek collapsed against the stone to catch his breath, gesturing weakly for the tiefling to continue on and nearly losing his bow from the dead grip of his right hand in the process. Belarus ran by, doggedly clutching the dousing rod and shouting back over his shoulder: “Discretion is the better part of valor, Derek! Retreat and we shall return with young Cedric and my retainer Kokurel to save our allies, but now is not the time to stand!”

The young man smiled and fumbled at his quiver, spreading arrows unceremoniously at his feet from numb, bloody fingertips. “…clumsy as a milk maid grabbing her first udder,” the ranger muttered to himself, falling suddenly to one knee. “Never knew valor was all cut up in parts,” he continued, unfeelingly dragging his hand across a number of shafts along the ground and leaving a smear of blood in the process. “Always figured it was an all or nothin’ kind of thing.” He checked briefly over his shoulder to ensure the tiefling had escaped, and then turned his attention back to the cave. Not six paces away lay Roland, his fervent prayers silenced and his shield cleft in two, his armored body contorted in its final agony. Crumpled in the tall grass, nearly hidden from view, was Benji, a shuriken just beyond his little hand and the blood pooling slowly beneath it staining the soil a rusty umber. And beyond him was Eammon, finally reunited with his son in death, unseeing eyes open to the gnarled roots that hung suspended from the cave roof above, his back arched awkwardly upon the cracked lute beneath him.

The young ranger glanced down at his now empty quiver and spat a wad of blood and lung onto the soil as the redcaps screamed and closed in around him. “Well,” he muttered in resignation as he slowly reached for the dagger at his belt, “at least we took one of you with—“

*

Eammon saw another pair of arrows strike the redcap mage as it conducted the battle from its fey circle of stone, the second punching clean through the monster’s vicious little form in a spray of blood and viscera. Derek let out a whoop and slid down the rock embankment to escape his pursuers, leaving a small trail of blood as the vines and brambles around his limbs constricted suddenly and stole his life one stubborn drop at a time. Belarus slowly circled his own foe, fingers bent and crabbed as he drew the curse of his dark art, while across the ravine Benjamyn danced between a pair of redcap blades, his young face stoic as the cut on his scalp ran red past his cheek.

The holy name of Erathis spun the bard around, drawing his eye once more to the paladin single handedly holding their escape route. Four redcaps encircled the man, darting in and out with their sickle blades and cackling their mad rhymes at fever pitch. Roland held firm, calling upon his god again as he swung his hammer and delivered a glancing blow to the nearest attacker. Another feinted from the left, but as he pivoted to bring his shield to bear he slipped in his own blood; his boot shifted no more than a foot before he regained his balance, but in that moment another redcap lunged in to bury its cruel sickle in the seam of Roland’s armor. The young man made not a sound, but the redcaps knew he was through, half of them pulling off suddenly to turn their attention to the old bard standing not far away.

Roland looked at Eammon then, his face unreadable despite the pain. Holding his hammer aloft, the paladin compelled the redcaps to turn back through the divine will of his god, but the little creatures seemed almost happy about it. “With the roads in such a state, I got the Knight-Mayor’s leave to wait,” one of the four intoned through crooked, broken teeth as it tromped back to Roland. Another shook the blood off its blade, giggling, "You’ll sometimes find that one or two are all you really need.” The third slowly circled behind the paladin, whispering “But here there’ll be a lot to do,” as the last gasped, “Indeed!” Drawing them once more entirely upon himself as his left flank glistened wetly in the dim cavern light, Roland raised his shield and returned to the business of dying.

Eammon sung then, of life and courage and the glimmers of hope that have no place in our desperate lives. He felt the magic reach out to his comrade, hoping that it might buy him time and earn some small measure of his sacrifice. As he did, Benji leapt across the ravine, landing not far away in a tight ball and rolling to his feet grinning ear to ear. “Bloody ‘ell, did you see that!?” He flourished his short sword and scanned the field, but tentacles from the ravine suddenly shot after him, wrapping themselves around the young boy’s throat and waist and dragging him gasping over the ledge in a shower of skittering stone.

Eammon’s song cut off in a ragged scream as he ran to help the boy. To his side, Belarus hurled a small vial of dark liquid at a redcap only to be rewarded with a blade in his belly and a fierce kick that sent his limp form rolling paces away in the dirt. “On it! Dammit! I’m on it!” Del shouted somewhere in the ravine below, though about what Eammon did not know. Belarus wasn’t moving. Benji was screaming from the ravine for help, and Roland’s voice was getting weaker and weaker behind him.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” the half elf murmured to himself. “I can’t…I can’t save them. I can’t save him. Foolish old man. Must you cloak yourself in failure at every blasted turn?” The last words he spits out angrily, as if in defiance, and turns grimly to rescue his friends, and perhaps, redeem himself.

He finds a single redcap standing before him, head cocked to the side like a dog trying to understand its master. “"It will soon be done: bands cannot always play, nor ladies smile.” Its lips peel back to reveal its jagged grin as its sickle lashes out faster than the old bard’s eye can follow. “Endure with patience the distasteful fun for just a little while!"

*

Benji glanced over his shoulder as the sing-songy voice echoed through the cavern. “Did you hear that?”

“Of course I heard it, peck,” the dwarf snapped angrily. “I’m neither deaf nor stoopid, nor such a coward as fears the rotten breath of whatever demented fuck sings songs underground.”

Derek’s mouth twitch a bit at the corner as he glanced ahead to Eammon, who was slowly leading the group by the dousing rod’s inexorable pull. “Don’t dwarves sing underground, Kok?

The dwarf stopped abruptly and jabbed a stubby digit in Del’s chest. “Aye. Drinking songs. And occasionally when some humie hillbilly wanders too deep, we sing ass-kickin’ songs. Would you like tae’ hear a refrain or two, master Derek?”

“No, sir.”

“Shall we proceed with the stoopid quest, then?”

“Yessir. Proceeding with the quest, sir.”

“What was that?”

“Proceeding with the stupid quest, sir.”

The dwarf spit on the ground and returned to his march. “Aye. As I suspected: yellah.”

Yt lacketh such, I woote:
Yt ys a mutton-saddel, loe!
Parte of ye fleecye brute.

“Oh gods, what’s a mutton saddle?”

Cedric briefly rubbed his temple with one gloved hand. “Maybe you shouldn’t concern yourself overmuch with making sense of these echoes, master Benjamyn.”

The dwarf idly scratched one sideburn as he glared over his shoulder at the halfling. “He means to say to shut up, peck.”

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Roland shifted his hammer’s weight on his shoulder as he smiled reassuringly at Benji. “See? That one didn’t even make sense. No reason to concern yourself, little one.”

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Roland shook his head and sighed, regretting having spoken. Benji looked around nervously again, one finger idly tapping his shuriken bandolier without his knowledge, Eammon muttered darkly beneath his breath, and even Belarus cocked a brow askance. “That last one made too much sense for my liking.”

Derek put his head in his hands. “Oh gods, now they’re rhyming.”

Not long after, the route forked before them, and despite Eammon’s insistence that the rod was pointing to the left, Kok assured the party that any dwarf knew his way underground better than any stick, and that it had been that way for generations. Assuming the rest of the group would make the “right decision,” Kokurel set off on the right fork alone, until Cedric, promising he would return as soon as possible, threw up his hands in resignation and trotted after to keep an eye on the dwarf.

And so it was that the bard, the rogue, the ranger, the warlock, and the paladin found the cavernous expanse in which resided the reliquary of Buliwyf’s heart. Seven redcaps stood scattered within the cave, as if in eager anticipation of their arrival. Bowing as one, they brandished their wicked blades and greeted their guests:

Five rosy girls, in years from Ten to Six:
Sitting down to lessons – no more time for tricks.
How cheerfully we seems to grin,
How neatly spreads our claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

*

Roland mouthed a silent prayer of thanks to Erathis for their victory as Benji went about looting the bodies in a workmanlike manner.

“Em, well Derek, these Maguffaguffa are also known as redcaps,” Eammon amended as he tuned his lute and plucked a few notes. “Legend tells that they were once gnomes sworn to guard the reliquary we now seek, but over the centuries the dark heart of Buliwyf twisted their souls. They guard the reliquary still, but distinguish not between friend or foe, murdering instead any who would dare seek the heart of their new master.”

“So why call ‘em ‘redcaps,’ then, huh Eammon? At least ‘maguffaguffa’ makes sense.”

“Because in the course of their duties these poor gnomes have taken to bathing themselves in the blood of their victims.”

Some ten paces away, Belarus abruptly dropped a redcap’s limp arm and wiped his hand on its trouser leg. “Charming,” the tiefling muttered under his breath.

“Indeed,” the bard smiled as he clears his throat. “As soon as Benji is done and we’ve caught our breath, we’re off. It seems to be a bit of a maze down here, so I agree with Del that we should mark the cave walls in such a way that we can find our way back. He’s already made a few cuts over here to start us off.”

It was then Roland noticed just such a mark, though it was on the cave wall nearest to him and seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. Surely Derek knew what he was doing, though; this must be some curious method designed to throw off any pursuit. Best not to say anything, for fear of insulting the young ranger. Shouldering his warhammer, Roland stepped over a redcap body and moved to join his comrades as Eammon began to softly sing.

*

Benji craned his neck to see over Derek’s shoulder as the ranger squatted beside another dead cockatrice and angrily started plucking feathers. Across the hedgemaze stood a statue of Mr. Quinn, a perfect reproduction of the old, sad bard, except it wasn’t a copy it was the real thing, because Mr. Quinn had been scratched by one of those nasty little birds and one moment he was singing a song about heroes and heroic things, or at least that’s what they always sounded like to Benji, and then he’s telling Roland to leave him be and help the others, and then Benji looked away because he was busy gutting another cockatrice himself because Del had already killed two and they had an informal side thing going on about who gets the most kills that Del said better not to tell Mr. Quinn or Bellie about because they’d be angry, and definitely not Kok (this was Benji’s idea) because Kok can’t keep secrets or control the volume of his voice. Then Bellie comes stomping around a corner pulling leaves out of his hair and branches from his robes and he says “Oh, you want to play rough, hm?” which Benji thought was pretty impressive and the kind of great line that Mr. Quinn said all the heroes said before they killed dragons and kissed princesses, and the next thing he knew Mr. Quinn was a statue because he got turned to stone by a cockatrice.

Bellie was beside Mr. Quinn at the moment, flicking some of the mud stuff off his fingertips after having rubbed much more of it on the statue. “This batch isn’t working either, Derek. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I’d rather not Eammon be doomed as lawn art for eternity because you can’t remember how to make a rudimentary poultice.”

At about that time Del said something about his uncle’s prize bull taking Bellie on a trip to pound town, which Benji didn’t entirely understand because he hadn’t been out of Allan’s Crossing much and so he didn’t know all the local villages quite like Del did, nor did he understand why a bull would take Bellie anywhere, nor what a stuck pig had to do with anything. Del didn’t seem to be in the mood to explain, since now he was putting the feathers in that small stone bowl with some mud and a little spit and blood and mashing it all together and just leaving his coin pouch hanging out there for the gods and everyone to look in but Benji wasn’t going to hold it for him because for some reason Kok doesn’t appreciate common kindness like that or friends looking out for friends or anything good and decent like that.

Just then Roland placed a hand gently on Benji’s shoulder and started leading him away. “Maybe it’s best for you to go help Belarus, lad,” and though Bellie was vigorously shaking his head ‘no’ and Benji rather agreed with Bellie that it would be more exciting to keep watching Del, Benji figured he’d do what Roland suggested anyway because the paladin looked kinda worried and Benji wanted him to feel better. Benji wasn’t worried, though. Why should he be? Del and Bellie were going to save Mr. Quinn. That’s why he stuck around with these guys for so long, apart from the fact that they could be pretty fun at times: they never lost and they always saved each other. Just like the heroes in Mr. Quinn’s stories.

*

As the first ray of dawn pierced the dense foliage overhead, Belarus and his companions suddenly found themselves alone. Of the arch-fey, his court, or the hamlet of Stardust, there was no sign, save the lingering injunction to retrieve the reliquary containing Buliwyf’s heart. The tiefling was certain that none but Eammon and himself could feel the mystical energy lacing every fiber of this realm, but even his retainer Kokurel had sensed the power emanating from the being who called itself The Thin White Duke. Such was the power of a god, a power Belarus intended to one day hold for himself. A power that cast in stark relief how weak they really were.

Without a word, Eammon set off to the east, allowing himself to be pulled along slowly by the dousing rod the Duke had given them. Derek sighed and trotted to catch up to the old bard, while Cedric and Roland quickly set the remainder into their marching formation. Soon the seven fell into their customary ways: young Benjamyn conversing with the crass dwarf as Roland and Cedric discussed the shallow “science” of military strategy; Derek slinking ahead for patches of time to scout, then returning to talk with the others; Eammon humming snatches of song under his breath to himself, and Belarus lost in his own thoughts.

He found those thoughts tending again toward the nymph from their crossing and her terrible beauty, the fierce dedication of the courtiers in her thrall, and a small pile of muddy bodies. Toward a pair of perfect porcelain hands crossed in repose and the single green leaf clinging wetly to a wrist.

Killing her was a sin. The tiefling grunted softly and tried shaking the foolishness from his mind, knowing it was but the lingering wisp of her power over him, but the feeling would not subside. Indeed, as he glanced at the life and light of the morning forest, its beauty threatened to overwhelm him. This was not a land of half measures. It was wild and wondrous and infinite. His companions walked on, oblivious to it all, believing it business as usual. But the Feywild was something else entirely. They were intruders, and they had thought to master it with blade and song, axe and bow. And perhaps they had done so for a time—but there would be a reckoning.

View
Through the Maguffaguffa Hole
What about Kok and Cedric?

“Right! If there’s some majik portal leading us back to where we came from, stands to reason it’s still there! And I’m gonna find it! An’ if it isn’t there, Peck, it’ll prove you been makin’ up this whole fancy little story!”

With that, the dwarf plunges headlong back into the still waters of the Court of Flowers’ mirror pool, churning the glasslike surface into a turmoil of blue water, green leaves and petals of every hue. Cedric and Benji share a look, and then the half-man continues his tale.

“Well, I was getting a bit ahead of meself, Mister Cedric. As to how we got here…you remember that direboar meat you and Kok ate? And, if I may say so…maybe not the best idea to put something in your mouth just because Kok does?”

“Aye, a stupid act of bravado on my part, Ben. One that I paid for dearly…” The young man winces in memory and rubs his belly. “How long were we out for? I can’t seem to remember any of it!”

“Yes. Werrlll,” Benji is at a loss for words. Probably best not to mention that, in between bouts of riotous vomit, teeth were beginning to take on a pronounced…tusky aspect, and hands were assuming a more hoofy form. Kok and young Marshall had been knocked out by a poultice that Del managed to scrape together from moss and dirt, or so it looked to Benji’s ignorant eyes, and Roland had spent the better part of an hour with his hands on the afflicted party member’s foreheads. Belaurs and Eammon watched his technique intently, and seemed satisfied at the end of the ritual. “Maybe this’ll give us Dal Gurath’s first dwarf vegetarian,” the tiefling said with a wry grin. Benji and Del, meanwhile, had been lashing branches together to make a set of crude rickshaws. So, with their incapacitated comrades being hauled on makeshift sleds behind Roland and the ranger, the group continued their search for the portal to the Feywild.

“Let’s just chalk it up to a baaaad case of food poisoning, Mister Cedric. Where was I…Oh yes! We were totally lost in these woods as it looked to me, searching in vain for a place of water. Or something. Mister Quinn insisted that we needed to be by a water crossing, maybe a waterfall. You know me, Cedric, I’m just trying to keep up and stay out of trouble-“

Benji is interrupted at this point by the splashing of the dwarf, making his way back to the edge of the pool and cursing angrily. “I knew it! Nothing down there, Peck! Soooo answer me this?! Why did I come ‘round with Roland draggin’ me through the water and tryin’ ta drown me??! Where is that polished-up nit…” Kok’s string of curses become unintelligible as he storms off into the woods looking for the paladin.

“-trouble,” Benji repeats. “I ain’t cut out for forests! So I’m just trying not to get lost, when Del, who was dragging Kok, dropped him and held up a hand. I think I saw this smile of satisfaction flash across his face when Kok’s head hit the ground but he could have just been glad his ranger prowess spotted something in the distance. Anyways, we left the both of you hidden in some undergrowth and continued more cautiously.

“Would you believe we were standing right by this lovely pool and waterfall after not 10 more paces? It’s like it appeared from out of nowhere! And then Del whispers that we are bein’ watched, and points to the ridge just next to the top of the falls. Sure enough, there’s a person standing up there…and it looks like he’s watching us, too. I make myself scarce, hiding in a bush and doing such a keen job of it that not even Del could spot me…(if I do say so myself)…so you can imagine how terrifyin’ it was when I hear a voice next ta me from out of nowhere! ‘Cozy here, isn’t it?’ The voice says, which spooks me so much I hop right out of there…and didn’t shriek at all. Nope.”

Benji stops to scratch his nose. From sounds in the distance, Kok has caught up with Roland and is upbraiding the paladin for trying to drown him. Roland’s measured tones can barely be heard under the dwarf’s tirade.

“Then this little man bursts out of the undergrowth chasing a bear cub,” Benji continues. “He’s my height, but definitely not Nolleh. Mister Quinn thought it was a gnome, but Del said it was a Maguffaguffa, and says that in his village, they would steal your bots if you didn’t put rocks in them at night. Mister Quinn looked at him and asked if he could visit this village someday, which just shows you again what a nice man Mister Quinn is, wanting to meet Del’s family and all. Anyways, there comes a splash from the pool, and this amazing creature climbed out of the water! It was half-man, half goat, the bottom half being the goat part. I mean, it walked on two legs, but they were goat legs, and it had arms and a kinda elven face and a beard. And it welcomed us to the Court of Flowers as if we were honored guests!

“‘My name is Montealban! We shall feast and drink!’ Which sounds good…normally. But this place felt…wrong, Cedric. Like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you are sure there is someone in the room with you that shouldn’t be there. He introduces us to his other mates, the maguffy, the bear, and the man…actually an ELADRIN who was watching us from the ridge, whise name is Palion. You’ll meet him soon. Also, the satyr (that’s what the goat-man was, according to Belly, and you can usually trust him when it comes to majik creatures and the like) was only speaking elven, so we can’t understand not one word except for Mister Quinn. I introduce myself to Montealban nice as you please, but I don’t think he could understand me neither. So Mister Quinn, who is now speaking for all of us, is telling the satyr the we need to know how to get to the Feywild, and the maguffy asks me if I like mice, and then pulls one out of the ground as if it were a flower, like I said, WEIRD, and all of a sudden Montealban gets angry looking, I guess because he wants us to stay and dance and feast, when Mister Quinn invites him to a game of chance. If we win, we get knowledge of how to cross to the other side, and if we lose, we will stay and feast.

“They decide on dice. It’s a game called Low-Hi by the Tashkat, Del’s got another name for it, but at any rate, they sit down and start rolling. I’m keeping one eye on the dice cup and one on the weird maguffy, and it is clear that Mister Quinn has won about 3 times over, but the satyr ain’t playing fair. Then, when Mister Quinn rolls a two, the goat-man smugly guesses higher…and rolls a one! Have ya ever heard of someone’s face darkening when they get upset? I ain’t never seen it happen literally until just then. My hand went to my hilt, and I thought there would be blood spilled right there, but Palion said something, and the satyr shouted back at him and stalked off.

“’You have won, so I will show you the ceremony to cross to the other side.’ His hands were trembling, and his eyes got all feverish, but he shared some words with Mister Quinn, who invited us all into the water to stand next to him. I went first! I swallowed some water when the whole world went upside-down and inside-out…and I popped up here, in this glade. The others all followed suit and soon we were all out of the water, and staring at…the most beautiful lady…”

Benji trails off, and stares away into the distance. “Come over here with me, Cedric. I’ll show you. We went back for the two of you after…” They walk for a small minute, young man and half-man, away from the pool, and Benji stops in front of a small pile of bodies. A satyr, body riddled with arrows and cuts, and sopping wet. An enormous owlbear, skull crushed by numerous hammer blows, fur scorched by dark eldritch blasts. A small, wild-looking man, crumpled and bloodstained, his head almost completely severed from his body. Last, a pale form of beauty, the most gorgeous female creature Cedric has ever laid eyes on, even in death. A pair of Del’s feathered shafts blossom from her perfect bosom, and someone has folded her hands over her chest in the repose of a fallen queen. Kneeling over her, and staring at her face with a mixture of rage and grief, is an Eladrin. He looks up at the pair who approach, and his eyes soften.

At that moment, the sound of an angry dwarf cuts thought the solemnity, and Kok, being led by Belaurs and followed by the rest of the party, emerges through the soft light of the forest. “Here are the members of Court of Flowers we spoke of, dwarf,” Belarus explains. “That fair thing is a nymph, and held these poor beings in her thrall. She commanded them to attack us when we surfaced from the pool…only Palion here still lived when she was slain and her spell was broken.”

Kok can only stare at the fair vision lying in repose, and as his usual rage and bluster escapes, the power and sensation of his surroundings flood in to take their place. His eyes widen and he stifles a gasp. “Wha…what is this place?!”

The Eladrin’s lips crack into a grim, thin smile. “You’ve come through to the other side, Kokurel, “ he says softly. “Welcome to the Feywild.”

View
Journey in to Farwood

This is the compiled play-by-email thread that took place during December. It starts with the extended rest after meeting the Elves, covers several days of travel, and ends with the party closing in on the Fey passage and Court of Blossoms. DM commentary following each entry is in italics. Enjoy.

Del (Perception)

“Bloody elves…” Derek thought to himself. He’d always been a big fish in a small pond when it came to the tracking game at Bridgewater. That was the only reason he had suffered some notoriety. He was read enough on Elven culture to know an adolescent could do for fun what he did professionally after years of refinement. That left him very uncomfortable. If they took on the Elves as guides, they’d surely show him up as a lesser skilled tracker. Aside from that, he’d have to put his trust in a historically flighty race. Couple this with the destination being the mythical forest wherein resides a fantastical race of “super” Elves, Derek’s mind was straining as he exhausted potential outcomes. The answer was clear but his pride was getting in the way of acceptance. Perhaps he’d been around the Dwarf for too long.

“Bloody Kok…” Derek muttered under his breath a bit too loudly, gathering an inquisitive snort from the Dwarf and a befuddled glance from the female Elf. To diffuse the situation Derek slipped back into his rehearsed, country bumpkin role. “I don’t want to say your “ambush” was not well planned or executed, but the mostly drunk Dwarf who nearly ruined your backline speaks for itself. What say you leave this well-guarded meadow and show us to the Eladrin? It’ll save your brethren the trouble of wasting their arrows on a drunken Dwarf if we stumble into another “ambush” and you might even find some Orcs along the way! I mean, it’s not like you can keep this up indefinitely…”

Del has been the epitome of the backwater know-it-all. He kept pointing out to the Elves and to the party that the Elves seem to be short on things like food, equipment, and provisions. “Oh I notice you only have seven arrows in your quiver. Back in Bridgewater we keep them full at all times!” “I can’t believe you didn’t bring any elderberry bark!” etc. His comments seem to grow louder and more desperate in response to their polite detachment and refusal to respond.

Eammon (Diplomacy)

Our Elven guides have the tact to keep their indignation to themselves, but I can see young Derek’s characteristic sensitivity to the finer undercurrents of interpersonal relationships retains its customary vigor. I suggest as much to them in Elven; the People see no shame in their emotions, nor in their acknowledgment, thus their deliberate restraint suggests both some passing familiarity with human-kind and a conscious effort of good will, however unwittingly abused by our young ranger. There is honor in that, and I do my best to tacitly suggest I recognize that gesture and appreciate it deeply.

His considerable gifts with the bow and his knowledge of the wild places in the world would garner some measure of respect from them, I have no doubt, and observe aloud that Melora seems to smile on the lad. Should they accompany us even part of the way toward Farwood Forest, I suggest, they might see so for themselves, though I hurry to add young Derek would undoubtedly benefit from the experience of sharing the dappled paths between the trees far more. Indeed, as a token of appreciation for said company and example, we would insist on sharing our provisions and the bounty Derek’s skill can draw from the land. But ah, there’s the rub—I will offend them gravely if they think I mean they cannot care for themselves, even if I can plainly see their diminished supplies, and so I must word this delicately. The connotation of thel ’anel varies depending on their upbringing, but it seems the perfect word. It must be… Smiling, I slowly bend to pick up my own belongings, remarking offhandedly that we would be honored to share our footfalls and firelight with them, as I would be honored for them to share in what meager gifts I offer in song and story. Perhaps they have heard of Arafellan and Selann, the Elf and Eladrin scouts who ambushed one another in the black of night, only to learn their lords were allies against the Goblins just as their blades were about to lay low one another. The pair became the heroes of the Bloodnettle Gambit not one year after. Such tales, of unfortunate happenstance and the good will of unlikely allies, are common around our fires. That, I add as I begin humming a common and popular Elven ballad as I shoulder my pack and move toward my companions, and the comforts only music can grant.

Eammon responded by speaking eloquently to the Elves (in Elven) about the party’s thanks for their aid, compatible goals, and the benefits of working together. He has managed to convince the Elves to accompany the party for a short time at least, despite the fact that Del was annoying them.

Roland (Diplomacy)

Speaking to the nearest Elf who will listen:

“I believe you when you say these woods are dangerous. Based on your current level of supply and knowledge of where we are I’d say you are better off sticking with us until we reach safer passages. We benefit mutually with the addition of skilled hands like yourself and also you would benefit from having us alongside as well. Unfortunately we must continue with our task, which may add considerable length to this partnership we are suggesting. I also assure you that our cause is good. I know your type to be spiritual and as a devout follower of Erathis I assure you that no harm will come to you from our hands. I will also assure you that my companions mean well or otherwise I wouldn’t have journeyed this far for this cause. Fate has brought us together and I believe that was no coincidence.”

Upon reaching the edge of the forest Roland further implored the Elves to continue as your guides. They have agreed to continue only until sundown to help show your party how to set a safe and concealed campsite within the forest.

Benji (Bluff)

Benji, in his usual boyish nonchalance, is excited to be traveling with real live Elves…and gets a little long-winded with anyone who will give him the time of day. Towards the end of the day, while camp is getting set up, he begins regaling the Elves with stories of the great Eladrin hero, Asel. “You should have seen him fight! Never was a soul so cunning and fierce! It might do you Elves good to stay with the group, since we’re basically cousins to the Eladrin at this point, after our time with Asel-bashemajiggy-who.” The fact that Benji still has a Genuine Eladrin longsword with him is sure to curry the Elves’ favor, as well.

At camp Benji tried to convince the Elves to stay with the party indefinitely, even going so far as to show them Asel’s longsword and claim that he was “basically cousins with the Eladrin”. The Elves recoiled from his gestures, vocally implored the gods that they hoped you “grave robbing savages” were worth the risks they had taken, and left the party.

Cedric (Athletics)

Day one of our journey through Farwood Forest, unguided. I’m ashamed to say that the horror stories my father told me as a child about this place have left me numb with fear. What perils we may face here I have not the heart to write. It is all I can do to maintain my composure in front of my comrades.

Still, all battlefields are more alike than not. Know your terrain! How many times have I had that drummed into me. The disadvantage of a forest, any forest, is line of sight. With so many obstacles impeding one’s natural sense of direction it is easy to get lost. Entire divisions have been defeated in forests when their commanders were thrown off course. I must get a better feel for the terrain. Perhaps some of the taller trees are climbable. I might be able to find some landmarks that we can aim for from the top; taller, older clumps of trees, clearings, hills or valleys. That’s it! This forest may be populated with all manner of beast, but once I get a feel for the terrain, once I understand the shape of the battle, woe be to those that would oppose us!

Cedric took it upon himself to climb trees high in the forest canopy to try and get a bearing using the topography of the landscape. Upon returning to earth he seems encouraged, talking about ridges and other natural landmarks that tell him the party should be marching “that way!”.

Belarus (Arcana)

Belarus is still hesitant to show any kind of magical aptitude besides a scholarly interest in front of the group. After acquiring those rituals awhile back with Eammon, Belarus has been puzzling over them in his spare time, trying to glean some sort of information about rituals leading to gateways to other planes.

He would spend some time apart from the group, trying to read. While he does not yet have a ritual book, he is yearning for some quill and paper in order to do some scribbling of his own.

Using arcana, he’d try and glean some kind of hint of magical traces through the forest, possibly like a Ley Line; the angle of blades of grass pointing in one direction, or the pattern clouds make in the sky.

Belarus was able to divine patterns within patterns occurring all around him. Cloud formation and movement, the orientation of fallen leaves, and a stirring in his bones all led him to believe that they were crossing a Ley Line which, if followed, would surely lead the party to a nexus and the crossing site they sought.

View
Out of the Dark
And into the Cold

It’s funny how the mind works. You seem to remember firsts more than lasts. I was just thinking “I can’t remember the last time I saw a cliff” when we stumbled upon a dead end; a cliff underground. No, that’s not some fancy Dwarfish dance troupe, although the though did make me glance at Kok and giggle, I will admit. No, there literally was a cliff as our path came to an end. Luckily all our progress was not in vein since as soon as we began to backtrack the Duerger attacked.

Duerger you ask? Surprised us as well! Must have been following and they knew where we were going so they waited. Why’d they wait, you ask? Well this spot looks like it might, quite possibly, the worst place in the entire known and unknown world to have a fight. The ground is all slippery in some spots with a cave slime substance, and there’s enormous stalagmites elsewhere casting shadows and providing cover for their crossbowmen in the back. Crossbowmen you exclaim? Me too! And don’t forget the cliff. It seems I made a mistake in a past life and I am being punished.

But back to firsts; as the saying goes, “I’ll never forget the first time I saw an Umber Ravager.” Reason being is that the bugger nearly killed Kok with all his sound attacks and magic stuff. Well, I mean he didn’t nearly kill Kok. All the other Duerger with hammers bashing on him like some Harvest Fair strength contest did that part. Man that looked bad. Kok was brave enough to run into the middle of them and get their attention right off the bat. This left the rest of us to encircle and do our things. It was a surprisingly noble gesture, I mean, if you had never met the Dwarf. I knew he was trying to steal all the glory and I was not going to let that happen.

There was one among them who was a hocus-pocus type and maybe a female. While Kok charged the biggest thing on the field, she began to fire magiks toward the rest of the group; classic error. I fired two arrows with additional force, pushing her away from the flank and into the hands of Kok and Benji. What happened next was not pretty, I can only assume. I was working on the crossbowmen at that time, with the help of Eammon’s wit and fire. Benji said he had a “fiery wit” with ear to ear grin once, but it took me until now to understand why Eammon and stifled the halfman with the reply, “I appreciate the effort, lad, I really do, but please leave the word craft to me and I’ll leave the emaciated, terrifyingly efficient, disemboweling craft to you.”

Roland and Eammon were focused on the main body of the Duerger, with Kok in the middle of them and Benji slicing at their flanks. I was firing from cover and being ignored for the most part. We were turning the tide steadily and aside from Kok taking a bit of a dirt nap, our band was very efficient. There was a setback when we finally hurt one of the Duerger with a hammer enough to notice, he transformed into a large version of himself. All three of them did the same after enough punishment. Oh yeah, there was three of them. One took a liking to me and I had to draw him around a bit to rejoin the group. Problem was that he had gotten in a few hits and I went down. I don’t remember the specifics, but next thing I knew I was back in the fight with renewed vigor. The rest of the part glanced at me like I was a ghost, and from what I learned later, it was because no one had healed me. Put that in your ridiculous hat, Dwarf!

The big ones were the last to go down and we really had to team together and concentrate fire to make a dent. Umber no circumstance was this an easy fight. Things then took a turn for the worse after the battle. Kok was looking on edge, his eyes bloodshot with frustration, when he caught sight of Benji pocketing something off a corpse. I’ve seen the little bugger do it before, but I always assumed the band looked the other way since he is a bit of a charity case. Boy was I wrong. Kok leapt off of the rock he was sitting on and charged the little fellow. Still recovering from the fight, there was little chance for Benji to dodge. Lord Kokurl was benevolent enough to only knock the bugger unconscious. He then proceeded to lecture the motionless figure about “I’ve warned ya, peck” and “You knew this would happen, peck.” No one felt like pointing out the obvious flaw to his method, nor shooting the dumb bugger in his big dumb head to shut his righteous ass the fuck up. Okay, maybe I felt a twinge of the latter, but it passed quickly.

Because of our little family quarrel, we had to camp until the halfman’s wounds could be properly tended. As bad of a place to fight this made, it proved to be an easily defendable place to take a rest. Benji awoke from his deep sleep mostly oblivious to what had transpired. Kok lectured the lad again and Benji quietly accepted responsibility for what had occurred. He flashed Kok an innocent grin that hid a cold rage which gave me a shiver. That Dwarf should watch his pints, I think.

Finally we were able to proceed and eventually stumbled upon an exit of this blasted cave. “I can’t remember the last time I saw snow” was on the tip of my tongue as we found ourselves in some mountainous terrain. We were not outfitted for this type of terrain so we quickly descended the mountain. As night approached we were able to make camp and I was actually able to catch us some meat for dinner. “I can’t remember the last time I had rabbit stew” I thought as I quickly devoured my meal. We were set in a field of boulders to block the wind and I had pulled first watch. I did not get an opportunity to begin my watch as we were attacked while finishing our meal.

Belarus has the strange ability to show up right when needed. He must have been of in the woods rutting his horns against a tree like a deer or something. As the Orcs began to charge he muttered something and several fell. I don’t know if he knows, but the group seems to know he’s a hocus-pocus fellow. That’s the impression I get, at least.

Riding the wave of victory from our encounter with the Duerger the band fought with intensity that seemed to catch the Orcs off guard. They were soundly defeated and we set our camp. While doing so the Dwarf watched Benji like a hawk. Roland pointed out that the armor on the Orcs was too similar than what we were used to fighting. Listen to me, “used to fighting” like I’m some kind of professional Orc hunter. Boy I need a different profession.

Needless to say this was a bad sign. Those more familiar with history and whatnot informed us that Orcs are very rarely organized. I think Eammon said the last time they were was for that Bulls-eye fellow. He’s a bit indirect that half-elf, and the way words seem to linger in his moustache always gives me a headache. Summation – bad news. If they are being outfitted by someone, that means shit is going down.

With this newfound information we headed further down the mountain. Judging by the flora and terrain I estimated we were well into mountains north and east of Boldstone. How far we traveled underground is impossible to say. That aside we needed to get to some civilization. Our rations were running low, I was nearly out of arrows, and everyone could use a bath, except the Dwarf, who could use a boil. Like the inside of a pig that’s ate nothing but sardines, pickled in onion water and urine. Wrap that in some bacon and bake it and you’re close to his stench.

Arguing the finer points of geography and fauna with the band to pass the time, I did not notice the change in the terrain as a sign of trouble. It was unlikely that this area should be trampled, but hey, I don’t know where we are to begin with! Luckily we were able to stop a bit short of another ambush. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw an Ogre.” Lords above them are disgusting. Blubber, for lack of a better word, covered this beast as well as an assortment of weaponry sheathed in his own skin. Yuck. We set up a decent plan and engaged him and this rather nutty looking Orc. As we closed the distance some more Orcs appeared from the tree line to engage our flanks. We all did our best and were able to avoid the flankers only to find the Ogre and crazy Orc meant business.

After getting into it with the Orc, he threw himself into a frenzy, lashing out with vicious attacks. I kept my distance, smartly I may add, as he was bashing others quite well. The Ogre was no slouch as well, with an unbelievable stamina and ability to shrug off damage. I would have been more helpful except for these arrows that the Dwarf gave me. I swear they are made out of dried rope. I couldn’t hit a thing with them and was nearly shooting the others. I guess the band can survive without me as they cleaned up the two opponents and we went about our way.

Despite Kok’s watchful glare, Benji managed to pocket something off of an Orc corpse. I resisted pointing that out, primarily because we can use the bugger more with his hands intact. I did, however, pull him aside and washed my hands of the situation, letting him know I’d not stop the Dwarf if he’s caught again. I won’t get myself involved in his little pissing match with the Dwarf and risk the psychopath attacking me. Keep the peace and watch your junk, I always say.

The terrain continued to change as we headed further south and there were more signs of travelers. This put me more on edge and I kept a sharper lookout. Luckily for me this paid off. Well, kinda. I noticed in a large clearing someone hiding in a bush. To me that screams ambush, but to the Dwarf that screams charge. Well we can guess how that was resolved. After Kok charged the one that I pointed out, several more appeared and dammit, they’re elves.

“I’ll never forget the first time an elf shot me.” Of course it wasn’t some regular arrow like the kind I get. No, elves get special arrows for their fancy bows, the buggers. A thunderclap sounded its arrival in my arm, ringing my ears and solidifying my hatred of elves. The rest of the band was getting an earful as well. The elves were practiced in their ambush, popping from bushes and behind trees and then using some weird hand gesture mojo to help them slink away. I had to admire their discipline, primarily because our band has so little. Kok charged their back line, being peppered with arrows the whole way. Cedric and Benji followed begrudgingly to provide some support while Eammon, Belarus and I remained in cover, or at least tried to. They were still hitting us from afar and we were unable to counter as they’d disappear shortly after each shot.

“Fuck cowardly Duerger and fuck cowardly Elves…” Eammon muttered from behind his rock. The raspy coughs spoke of his state but the lack of eloquence was more to the point. Last time we had a fight like this, we nearly died. This looked like it might be the case as well. Kok was looking very bad and his belligerent curses were getting more strained, a testament to the Elves skirmish warfare. Benji was attempting to be everywhere at once in order to bring the fight to them, with varied success. Cedric was trying to issue commands, but the battlefield was reshaping too quickly and we were taking too much damage. I was able to get the occasional shot in on a few of their number and made solid contact with a more effeminate looking one. Belarus followed suit, but he and I were being peppered as we attempted to flank and had to move from cover. The band looked in a bad way and the pulse pounding in my ears was begging for retreat. Can’t we just not be heroes for once?

“Stand down! They’ll let us pass!” exclaimed Cedric. Did I just get mind powers? Or worse, he’s lost it?! Either way this can’t be good. We don’t stop fighting! Hell, we fight each other after we fight! It’s how we roll, bitches! I’ve been with these guys too long. Strangely enough Cedric said it again, this time more hurried and ran towards the rest of the party. The elves had stopped attacking and one of them seemed to be blabbering the same thing in elven. Eammon muttered something about measuring penises which I didn’t quite catch and Belarus’ glare seemed ready to ignite the elven leader for our trouble. Turns out they thought our goal was quite different. They had heard of the rampaging the Orcs had been up to and assumed we were connected to them. Once it was explained that we eat little shit Orcs for breakfast, all was well. Or something like that.

For most of the discussion after that I was busy glaring at Irristia, the female archer among them, who I had peppered quite well. She wouldn’t give me the time of day, although my archery skills were at least on par with her’s, considering the shape she was in versus me. Never mind we had them outnumbered, I was all ice eyes. The chicks dig that. Looking like you’re all pissed off when really you want to just try on their shoes. I mean, that’s what you mentally project in order to get their favor. Not that I’d do that, just that’s how it works. Well, not with her because, primarily the severe wounds I had afflicted, I guess. “I can’t remember the last time I got laid…”

View
Redundancies
Ambushes Abound under the Mountain

Cedric tells me that military life is full of redundancies. It is the orchestra pit playing in unison, multiple instruments performing an identical role, rather than the lone maestro upon his podium, baton in hand. Orders are repeated, alternative routes, alternative tasks, alternative men are designated so that the job will be done. This splinter of recollection from a fireside conversation pricks my mind, lodging just beneath its surface, as I scowl silently and place yet another booted step before its fellow. Each mine shaft looks like the one before it, each support the same uninspired geometry of dwarven design. We follow Del’s magical candle, and we follow the shades damned to walk these halls eternally. Both lead us in the same direction, further into the underdark. As I said—redundancies.

No shade lingers more than a few dozen paces before it strays back from whence it came. One guide replaces another with a monotonous regularity, a pageant of silent failure and regret, of damnation. What cruel god bound them to that place? What sin was so grievous that they are forced to haunt the scene of their failure but remain unable to rectify it or seek absolution? Imagine: working the frets and fingering the empty space that a broken string once occupied, wearing through the wood itself as you desperately try to pluck a true note to replace the discord your clumsy, gnarled hand made when once the lute was whole. It is the word just on your tongue that would finish your sonnet, the face you recognize but cannot place, the crushing weight of a memory flitting just beyond the mind’s eye. Of standing in a door frame and watching a boy walk away, a tiny seed of doubt beginning to sprout that perhaps fathers are meant to deny sons some things. I will haunt that wooden frame until the world is ground to dust.

I shake my head curtly to clear my mind and focus on the matter at hand. The rough hewn nature of the walls, more gouged than cut into the rock, suggests we have passed through the mines and finally approach the underdark. The passage narrows briefly ahead, no doubt the partition between these two spaces, but as we draw closer Kok throws up a meaty fist to indicate a halt. He grumbles for Del to take a look at a portion of the rock ahead, saying something about sharp fairy eyes earned through avoiding a good honest fight.

Del leans in a bit, looking up, and nods to himself before he looks awkwardly over his shoulder. “Yeah, the dwarf is right for once. There’s some packed debris just above that patch of stone. Not sure if it’s a trap or somethin’, but best be keepin’ an eye out, you two, you hear me?”

Our spectral guide, this time a sinister looking dwarf in the shredded remains of leather and chain, pauses ahead of us in the adjoining chamber, as if curious why we have not kept pace. He glides back, then, perhaps to chastise us with an impatient gesture, but instead he passes directly into Kokurl. Del curses under his breath coarsely, something about the unkempt flower of farmer McGuffin’s daughter, and reaches for his bow, though young Benjamyn simply cocks his head to the side and smiles a little, curious to see what comes next. As if in response, Kok simply charges ahead and through the doorway.

Benji turns to me, grinning from ear to ear. “Would you look at that, Mr. Quinn! Have you ever seen anything—“

“Not the time, lad,” I interject, nodding my agreement to Del’s silent look asking whether he should follow the now possessed dwarf. He does, dashing through the opening just as Kok reaches behind a jut of stone to pull an otherwise unseen lever and send a number of all too sturdy portcullises crashing down, cutting off Benji and myself in a shower of rock and dust. His other hand pulls a different lever, and suddenly some spinning contraption of very, very sharp metal launches from a secret opening into the adjoining chamber, whirring past Del as the archer shouts “Aw, come on!?!” Having done its job, the specter leaves Kok’s body, and hovers menacingly nearby.

At about this moment, a pair of wraiths materializes slowly from out of the cave wall, skeletal claws grasping towards Benji and myself. I draw my songblade and take a step back—to secure better footing for the pending calisthenics of combat, I assure you—and nod quickly in the direction of the portcullis separating us from our comrades. “Perhaps, young Benjamyn, your considerable skills in skullduggery would be best utilized, or shall I say, deployed on behalf—“

“Not the time, Mr. Quinn,” the young rapscallion quips as he hurls himself, blade drawn, at the oncoming wraiths. I deploy my humble skills in the halfling’s aid, joining battle as I glance through the vertical bars of the portcullis to see Del back handspring, land, and fire another two arrows at the machine whirling through his chamber. His face is taciturn and focused, but despite his feat of acrobatics, he does not escape the pass unscathed.

Benjamyn and I acquit ourselves well, enough that one wraith glides through the portcullis in search of easier prey, hoping Del’s distraction will lead to an easy kill. Benji, with all the shortsighted altruism that youth can muster, wraps himself in his Mountebank’s Cloak, and with a polite notification that he’d be leaving me now, teleports into the adjoining chamber to offer his aid to our peers. “I’ll just stay here then,” I mutter to myself as I join the fray once more. Soon enough I stand triumphant, and with a clatter I hear the final demise of the ingenious death machine that sought Del’s life. Kok, apparently, had been enjoying repeat performances of his earlier possession, and only recently had his kind host fled once and for all into the ether. In a moment the portcullises are removed and our journey into the underdark can begin in earnest.

As something of a wordsmith myself, I must tip my feathered cap to the dwarven poets who coined this blasted hole’s name. As it is indeed “under” the untold weight of a mountain, it is mercilessly “dark” despite any attempts to hold that inky blackness at bay. Our sunrods are beginning to run out, and thus we have fallen back upon torches for this part of the journey. The oily smoke from the flames burns my eyes and undoubtedly leaves a sooty path along the cavern walls (as the ceiling rises far beyond what our meager light can reach) that any future adventurers may cheerily follow to their own demise.

After a time Kokurl calls for us to slow our advance once more, squinting ahead and informing us that a chasm blocks our path. At that moment, four crossbow bolts clatter against the stone and amongst our ranks from unseen attackers, and with a shout, we dash against the wall to find some sort of cover. No more come, but the faint glimmer of the bolts strewn about our path urge us to find an alternate route, a call we happily oblige as we slip into an adjoining offshoot of our path. This too reveals itself to be a dead end, neatly split by the same chasm, and so we reluctantly turn back.

Evincing the careless bravado only those fully encased in steel can muster, Kok clatters his way across that original expanse without harm and shouts that he’s found another route, and as full consideration of any action’s implications is fundamentally opposed to the very fiber of his being, Benjamyn immediately follows suit and joins the dwarf.

Pressed against the cold stone, I try to peer around the protection of my cover, but the smoke of my torch stings my eyes, and even were I not blinking the heady fumes from my vision, the other side of the chasm squats silently in blackness. Mouthing a silent prayer to whatever gods squander their idle moments peering beneath mountains, I dash into the open. My laboring breath rattles in my ears, and just as I begin to think I’ll make it to the others, three bolts strike me at once. My momentum carries me another few feet, unceremoniously depositing me on my side, propped up by the quarrel lodged in my chest. I try to breath and I hear a rasp of air somewhere, but it feels like someone is sitting on my chest and no air seems to come. The coppery tang of blood fills my mouth, and as—

Someone is dragging me, but I can breathe. I stifle a grimace as I swallow most of the blood in my mouth and open my eyes; I’ll undoubtedly sick it up later. Derek sets me against a wall, then silently leans closer to the edge to look up the original path. My torch sputters fitfully on the empty rock where I fell, and an empty vial of some sort slowly rolls to a halt beside it. The ranger glances back over his shoulder at me as he nocks an arrow, his face cast in shadow relieved by lines of orange and red. “Thanks for distracting the duergar long enough for me to get across,” he says, turning back to look into the darkness. “Stupid as all get out, but yeah, thanks.” It looks like his brow furrows then, though it’s difficult for me to tell with him looking away and me being in agony. “You’re good at words. Is it ‘duergar’ or ‘duergars’ if I’m talkin’ about a brace of ‘em? Probably got to be four snipers at least. Most like a few bruisers to watch their backs, too.”

I groan and check the holes in my coat. They are clearly beyond repair, and the silk lining is utterly ruined. I groan again. “Duergar. Like ‘deer’ or ‘sheep.’”

He looks back at me. “How so?”

“Grammatically. They’re the…. Shouldn’t you be killing them now?”

“And stick my neck out to get shot like you did, old timer? Naw, I said I’d watch for attacks from the rear, but I’m really just keepin’ an eye on you and waiting for the dwarf to get impatient enough to charge.” Derek chuckles to himself and turns back to the darkness, shifting his weight to keep his legs from cramping. “Kill ‘em, he says.”

Derek’s words, it seems, were prophetic. Huddled together not long after, wounded and without hope of healing ourselves further or succor from our comrades, we knew not how to proceed. Galled by the enemy’s utter strategic outmaneuvering of our little band, I was too distracted by my own frustration and despair to notice the grim resignation on the dwarf’s face, though the clamor raised as he pushed his armored form to his feet finally drew me from my reverie. With a nod, he tightened his grip on his beloved axe, turned the corner, and charged blindly at the enemy, shouting all the while. Benjamyn, realizing he would never have a screaming shield launch itself in front of him again in the near future, silently charged after the dwarf. Imagine my surprise when it was our diminutive companions, and not the duergar, who eventually returned to our secluded shelter.

With Kok’s help, I rise to my feet and move on with my comrades, but try as I might, I can’t quite take a full breath or rid myself of that coppery tang in my mouth. Soon, however, I am returned to the dull monotony of a journey on foot, of the gray hours that span between the frantic seconds of combat or discovery. Yet those brief flashes can offer much needed perspective. The left and right of my shuffling steps may seem utterly redundant, but doubling either one just once will set me on a new path. Military life may be full of redundancies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lower rungs of the ladder appreciate being redundant; I can’t help but wonder if some internal politicking we knew nothing about had something to do with the baron’s sudden stiffening when he read our missive. Perhaps that is why he took the word of the mad priest, who descried the ostensibly evil deeds of Belarus merely because he is a tiefling, compounding the tragedy of Tucker’s Path with our unjust imprisonment, a tragedy all its own. As I said—redundancies. I glance at Benjamyn’s back as he saunters in front of me, and I wonder if Gors ban Dalarius sent other emissaries to do the same task as us. Are we the redundancy? Are we at all essential to the deeds of gods and great men that stir around us more by the day? I’d like to think so, but I imagine mice have considered themselves masters of the universe before me, and I fear should we remain much longer in these dark passages, our humble end will go unnoticed and unremarked.

View
Underground
Dwarven decor - ground floor

Underground, again. I can’t say that it’s surprising really. I mean the “Saving the World” job field doesn’t exactly entitle frolicking in meadows. If only. I could go for some rabbit stew.

When that feisty Dwarf bastard closed the door behind us knowing his fate it made me cringe. I could never understand that whole self-sacrifice bit. Too dramatic for my taste. There’s always more than one solution to a problem, and if you can’t think of it then you’re not thinking hard enough. Not that he’s a coward; no, definitely not. Just a waste is all. The way that Kok handles an axe we could sure use another Dwarf on the team.

Speaking of Kok, after several dreary hours down these endless dark tunnels, I’m fairly certain he’s mad. He keeps muttering about the carvings on the wall like he knows what they mean. Everyone else can read what they say, but the Dwarf seems to feel what they say. I’m somewhat glad I don’t know Dwarfish else I might be forced to call him on his artistic taste and we all know where that’d end up!

Luckily, the combination of the artistic Dwarf and the rest of the party allowed us to find a large door which looked promising. It was huge and very ornate, with a large hammer that apparently belongs to More-a-din. Upon opening it revealed a very large room in both dimension and height, with sturdy stone pillars spaced evenly about. We advanced slowly to find a large fountain type thingy in the middle with a large anvil in the center of it. Kok explained it was for baptisms, which I have to admit makes sense considering how odd Dwarves think, except my first mental image was of a bearded Dwarf lady bashing her kid against the anvil until its face was as flat and ugly as Kok’s, and heck, even that makes a little sense. The room seemed long abandoned from all the dust and cobwebs but everyone else was on edge. It was not until I noticed the ghostly Dwarves muttering in their strange tongue did I understand their hesitation.

Some of the party tried to communicate with these ghostly figures. Personally, I took cover. Sure there are stories of not-so-evil ghosts like “Benbo the Barber”, the cantankerous ghost who trims your eyebrows in your sleep if you don’t finish your dinner, but these buggers looked serious in their eyes, er eye-sockets, er, you know what I mean. No sooner than I had begun to question what everyone was talking to these ghosts about then an icy breeze blew through the chamber.

I immediately knew this meant trouble. No breeze had been down here in decades with all the dust and cobwebs about. The previously calm ghosts began to move around more directly and their appearance seemed to change. Hostility permeated the room and it looked like a bad pinch for a fight, with the poor visibility and being outnumbered. Oh, and the ground was all rough and uneven so it slowed down any movement. LMJ (Lord Marshal Junior) issued a few commands and we collapsed around him a bit, except Captain McAxealot, of course. He went charging off into the mist screaming in Dwarfish. If I ever meet his mother I am going to give her a piece of my mind, preferably from a good distance, with perhaps a moat or bog in the middle.

Battle commenced and everyone slipped into their roles. Benji began to dart about pillars while Roland yelled commands of banishment and other holy stuff. Cedric backed up Roland and I tried to pick off a few with my arrows. Things seemed to go well and the occasional “Oi! Suzie do nae take kindly to cowards!” and “Dis is how a real Dwarf fights!” let me know Kok was doing well. Roland then pointed out a target near the fountain and said it was a wraith. I’m not sure what it was, other than it made me feel like I had drunk too much the night before and had cobwebs in my brain. Cedric called for us to take it down, and Roland hit it with some holy light. Benji was around a pillar engaged in combat so it was left to the Master of the Bow (me) to finish the monster. Unfocused as I felt, I still managed to summon the inner fortitude and put four arrows into the bugger in the blink of an eye, bringing him down. Spurred on by Cedric’s words I shot one additional arrow at a ghost near Benji, taking him out as well. Basically, I saved the day.

After the fight the Dwarf claimed that he had single-handedly won the battle when I pointed out that he was using Suzie, so it would have been double-handedly. He then said there was something on his person I could double-hand and told me to go back into the corner and knit some stockings. I pointed out with a smug grin that I had slain the wraith and shot five arrows in less than two seconds, but he cut me off with a comment about delicate, lady arms and stomped off to examine the walls. If it takes me filling him full of arrows, I will earn that Dwarf’s respect! Anyhow, between the observant persons of the group and the Dwarf’s interior-decorating experience, we determined the exits and their significance. We set off in the direction that would most likely lead to a way out with the group not much worse for wear.

The carvings seemed more ornate the further we went, if that is possible. You really need to wonder about a people who are so small in stature but insist on making these huge carvings and wielding huge axes. Compensating much? The only ones I recognized were of that More-a-din fellow, but I was more concerned with the few ghosts appearing out of structures and shadows. They seemed harmless (again) and were not taking much interest in us, but as we advanced further they gradually started following until we had a large mob trailing us. I suggested we beat-feet towards the exit but LMJ said we just need to keep our cool and Kok called me a pansy. It’s almost become an acceptable nickname as I hear it so often; the sting has long since past. We did begin to move a bit more rapidly (without running) and made it to a very large opening with an enormous statue of the legendary Oghrim Ogresbane, the patriarch of the Ogresbane clan, or so I’m told. As we arrived at his feet the ghosts looked agitated but kept their distance. Before us appeared a better defined ghost with seemingly important standing based upon his armor and clothing. He said something to the others about a test we didn’t take, or were supposed to take, or skipped. All I know is that he led us to a huge pyramid shaped thingy with rooms on each floor.

On each floor was a room with a description of the test inside, but it was cryptic. I didn’t understand them much, since they were in Dwarfish and all, but the more scholarly fellows seemed to predict their purpose. Turned out the one they sent me into fit like a glove, well, maybe not that well. There was this big old pile of treasure on at one side of the room and nothing you could see to impede you. Classic trap, I chuckled, and then wished I had the Halfman with me. He’s had formal training in this stuff where I just knew how to keep out of trouble on the farm! Anyhow, I took my time and avoided the pressure plates on half of the room only to lose my footing while doing a back hand-spring through the trip wire portion. A fiery (literally) ghost appeared and set me ablaze for my mistake! I sped towards the end of the room and quickly began to shut down the final pieces which were small reflective surfaces that trapped beams of light. If the beams were broken, well, something bad would have happened!

I made it out by the skin of my teeth (eyebrows, really – burning hair stinks). I think Cedric and I were the only ones to look like we had trouble. Sure, give the easy challenge to Mister O’Braggard and the tough one to me. Got a good load of coin for my trouble, although I’m not sure what good it’ll do down this dank Dwarven graveyard. Maybe some archeologists will think I was someone important when they find my bones in a thousand years.

The boss-type ghost congratulated us for our passing and said we could leave. At least, that’s what I imagine he said since it was in the gravelly tongue of Dwarfs. The only thing I’ve heard that sounds similar is my poop shoot after eating a load of spiced trout. Man I could go for some trout. Eventually, it was left up to me to get things going since everyone else seemed content to have afternoon tea with this ghost bugger, so I asked him directly “How do we get out”. He seemed to appreciate my style and gave me a magic candle as a reward. Its flame will always flicker towards the exit, providing us a direction. Now, I guess, all we have to do is follow it. How hard could that be, right? God I hate Dwarfs…

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Bowels of the Earth
Day # 3

Dear Diary

It’s too fuckin hot in this hole; hot and smelly, like a mixture of rotting fish, pungent sweat, and human excrement. (I say human, because we all know the excrement of dwarves smells like honey and daisies.) And this time it is not coming from the wee pansy. The pathetic moans of the other prisoners spread a wave of melancholy across the dungeon. Also the food here is shite. Normally I can eat anything, but the crap they feed us in here is inedible even by my low standards. Us nonhumans are all locked in one cage and everyone else is scattered across those tha’ remain. However, even in here, Horny is attracting a lot of attention. The wee pansy is also causing a bit of a raucous. All of her screamin and complainin are testin my last nerve and is even beginnin to earn the ire of the guards. Every now and then, she will keep twitching her eye at me. I cannot tell if she has a bit of dust in there or she is havin a seizure. Gods I wish she would stop talking, “SHUT UP YOU TWAT!” There she goes winkin at me again. Is she a bit of a poof I wonder? Tha’ certainly would explain a lot, but me thinks she is tryin to get at something.

Anyway, I did not see tha’ preacher man who landed us in this mess, but I sure wish tha’ Suzie and I could thank him personally. Show him how much we appreciate all his lies. Like I would kill innocent unarmed children and women. I find tha’ disgustin. I fuckin hate liars and thieves! If you cannot trust a man to do what is right, or keep his wits in battle, then what good is he? What is tha’ pansy up to screamin and winkin, screamin and winkin. “SHUT UP YOU DAFT PRICK OR I WILL RIP OFF YOUR ARM AND BEAT YOU WITH IT!” Yup, winkin again. Her brains are definitely addled. The others are tryin to plan some great escape. We just got news tha’ we are to be hung on the morrow. Like there was ever to be any other outcome. Tha’ shaved poof of a dwarf said tha’ he could get us outta here. Ha! Tha’ nancy boy has about as much chance of springin us as I do of growin a beard. “A’RIGHT PANSY I’M GONNA RIP OFF YOUR GODS DAMNED HEAD AND PISS ON YOUR CORPSE!” There she goes again, winkin, this time with a grin. What’s her game? Me thinks she is playing me for a fool for some reason. The old man, Horny, and the Peck are still plannin our hopeless escape. I have seen the way these soldiers carry themselves. Escape is not an option. I just plan on grabbin tha’ piss pot there and brainin as many of them as I can before I fall. Go out with a fight and show them tha’ this dwarf’s bite is worse than its bark. “SERIOUSLY, PANSY IF THESE BARS WERE NOT HERE!” Winkin? Is this bastard tryin to egg me on? Get me all riled up? Ah well, I suppose tha’ it could not hurt. “GUARDS LET ME AT HIM FOR ONE MINUTE! FOR THE LOVE OF THE GODS LET ME AT HIM SO I CAN SHUT HIS FUCKIN MOUTH! GUARDS! GUARDS! LET ME AT HIM!” Oooh. The guards just dumped a week’s worth of piss and excrement all over the wee pansy. Well tha’ would’ve been funny had I done it, but kickin a defenseless girl when she is down is just cowardly. There are a few more people tha’ Suzie and I need to instruct in proper manners. Well it appears these ponces have quit their scheming, so I best get some sleep before our hangin . . . I mean escape. This’ll be a laugh.

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