Tenmonth 5 (continued – afternoon)
(eighteenth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)
They have been encamped in the copse since the evening of the second, so Morgan and Odleif have had three days to explore. Before the afternoon is over, they have agreed on an ambush spot, or, as they say when around Ember, “a spot to parlay”. A goat trail leads from the village, through the pasture, and up into the copse. Near the center there is a small clearing with a stream and several large boulders to hide behind. Their own camp is nearby but higher, where they have a better view of the fields and fjord, on a hilltop next to the spring which is the source of the small stream.
Once the spot is selected they all look it over in the evening twilight. It is agreed that Ember, Thrud, and Bjelgarn will wait in the open, while Morgan and Wolfbane are behind a large outcrop to their rear, Odleif is on a rise to their left, and Poncherius is concealed in the brush on their right.
The Plan. Left to right: Odleif, Poncherius, Ember, Bhelgarn, Thrud, Wolfbane, Morgan
They talk around their low campfire at dinner, the flames carefully ringed with rocks so as not to be visible from the village or across the fjord in Rhoona. Everyone agrees that Fluffy will watch the trail to the copse and give them early warning of the approach of Xanathon (and the Duke?). As for what to do when he arrives, they are more divided. Morgan asserts that if the presence of the soul gem does make Xanathon vulnerable to harm, they should immediately attack and kill him if possible, for once he recovers the gem they will not likely get another chance. Ember is more hesitant – if they agree to exchange the cure for the gem and accept him to parlay, she is honor-bound to treat him as a “guest”, under her protection. To attack him then, without warning, would make her an oathbreaker – and there are few sins worse than that. Morgan is (uncharacteristically?) non-insistent. Having made up her own mind that Xanathon will not be leaving these hills alive, Morgan chooses to ignore the moral quandary that Ember is facing and instead concentrates on honing her blades. “Too much talk and not enough action”, she mutters as she works her whetstone on her dagger.
There is some discussion of tactics “in the event the parlay becomes a combat”, posited on treachery on Xanathon’s part, not theirs. It is agreed that the signal for a coordinated attack will be for Bhelgarn, who still bears the soul gem, to say “…and now that you have the gem…”. At those words, everyone is to attack.
(nineteenth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)
Fluffy spends the morning sunning herself on a rock and watching the fishing vessels ply the waters of the fjord. In the late morning a sleek ship distinguishes itself by sailing straight out of Rhoona and across the fjord, but not deploying nets or lines. It rapidly crosses the fjord, but does not dock in the little port town on the north bank. Rather, it makes for the beach nearest the copse in which they are encamped. Although the deck of the ship is busy with figures, only two disembark. She watches them cross the pasture and move on to the goat trail. As they head for the copse, Fluffy gathers up her cat, which has spent the morning stalking field mice and drinking the milk Fluffy liberated from a passing nanny goat. Together, they hide where Fluffy will be able to see the two figures clearly as they pass. When they come into view she can see that the lead figure is clearly Xanathon. He is dressed in the same, or at least a similar, robe as he had before at the temple, and has his great black mace on his belt – but wears no armor. The other man wears similar brown robes, but with a cowl so great that she can see only his chin. It could be the Duke – but it could be any other human male of similar size. He doesn’t seem to be moving like a dog, though, or even a zombie thrall. He has no weapons visible, no suspicious bulges beneath his robes, and walks without the clink of chain or creak of leather armor.
Fluffy considers slowing the pair by climbing a tree and tossing her cat down on them, but worries for its safety (and her own, should she reveal herself to the priest). She wonders if she might grab a kid and throw that at them – but the goat herd she has been watching all morning is now too far away. In the end she turns and moves quickly through the forest, racing silently ahead of the pair on the trail.
Fluffy dashes into the clearing, but is not seen by any of the others until she betrays her position by shouting, “Baldy man coming! Other man with him!”
Shocked at first, Ember manages to reply, “Is it the Duke?”
“Don’t know! Too hidey!” Fluffy shouts, then turns and sprints off.
Ember gathers the rest of the party to her and invokes the blessing of Glöð upon them, and then sends them to their positions.
The party clusters around Ember to receive the blessing of Glöð
By the time Fluffy catches up to the figures on the trail, they are not far from the clearing. She waits for them to pass, then falls into line behind them, far enough back that they are unlikely to see or hear her. [Unbeknownst to Fluffy or the rest of the party, while she is gone Xanathon has cast Bless on himself and his companion, Resist Fire on himself, and Striking on his mace, while his companion has cast Detect Invisible, Wizard Eye, and Protection from Normal Missiles on himself, and then used his Wizard Eye to scout the clearing before they enter it.]
As soon as Ember spots Xanathon and the second figure approaching, she casts Glöð’s Wise Discernment. The priest, reacting to the motions of Ember, immediately halts and stiffens, while his companion begins a spell of his own. A moment later both men are glowing with the deep blue hue that indicates their intention to do harm, but the cowled man in addition has three magic missiles poised above his head, ready to fire at his slightest indication. Behind the boulder, Wolfbane protects herself with a magic shield.
Ember and Bhelgarn are prepared to make the exchange, Thrud is poised on a rock above them, while Wolfbane and Morgan remain concealed behind boulders
Fearing that this will quickly escalate, Ember holds up her open hands and shouts “Fred, fred!” Xanathon hesitates, and then walks forward into the clearing, followed closely by the cowled man. “Tell your companion to show himself,” Ember says, when they are close enough for her to speak without shouting. Xanathon gestures dismissively at the other man, and he lowers his cowl.
None of them but Fluffy have actually seen the Duke, and she is hidden, unseen by any of them at the edge of the clearing. Bhelgarn, however, does recognize the man – it is the mage who grabbed the tapestry from him and then disappeared during the attack of the temple berserkers. “Tha’ nae be th’ Duke,” he growls at Ember.
“You agreed to bring the Duke,” Ember says accusatorially.
“I agreed to nothing,” Xanathon says haughtily. “You sent a message demanding that I bring the Duke. And also demanding that I come alone – as if it were possible to do both.”
Ember has no ready response to this, but is still trying to make this exchange without bloodshed. “And yet, you have done neither. But we do have something you want. I assume you do want the item?”
Xanathon glowers for a moment, then waves the mage off. He walks slowly backwards, keeping his eyes on the figures in the clearing, stopping only when he reaches the shade of the trees at the edge. He does not see Fluffy, creeping from bush to bush, and she is able to get within a few paces of him, with his back to her.
When the mage is out of earshot, Xanathon says sourly, “You do have it, then?”
“Aye,” grunts Bhelgarn, and pulls out the cloth-wrapped gem, still affixed to its chain. He unwraps it just long enough to show the faceted sides to the priest, then covers it again, careful not to touch it. The dwarf notes that the stone no longer pulses with light as it has for the week since they obtained it. Instead, it is now emitting a constant, unwavering glow.
Xanathon is composed, restrained, but if there is one thing a dwarf recognizes in others it is covetousness, and desire for possession. “So, ye be wantin’ it, then?” Bhelgarn asks, but he can see the answer in Xanathon’s eyes long before the priest nods coldly.
“Our offer,” says Ember, now careful not to say they had an agreement, “was to exchange the gem for you curing the Duke – but as you have not brought the Duke, I do not see what you have to trade.”
“Draco is a fool,” spits Xanathon, “but even he is not fool enough to let me spirit the Duke away from him. He knows well that the people support him only because he claims to serve Steven. For my end, though, I am prepared to offer the cure…” As his hand reaches for a pocket in his robe, Thrud raises his axe above his head and prepares to leap down on him. The priest freezes.
“I am reaching for the cure,” he says coldly, and Ember nods at Thrud. The barbarian lowers his axe, and Xanathon produces a crystal vial, filled with a white powder. “Throw this in the Duke’s face, and he will return to normal,” he says, “though if I were you, I would wait a few days more.”
“And why is that?” demands Ember.
“If you restore the Duke now,” says Xanathon drolly, “his noble honor will require him to face the miserable dwarves in battle. Hundreds will die on both sides, but mostly northmen. Perhaps Rhoona will even be looted and put to the torch.” Seeing the looks of shock on the faces of Ember and Thrud, Xanathon smiles cruelly. “But if you just wait a few days,” he continues, “when the townsfolk see the dwarven army amassed outside their gates, they will beg Draco to depose the mad Duke. Then Draco will declare himself ruler, ride forth and apologize, the dwarves will return home, and no one,” he sneers with mock tenderness, “has to die.”
Ember is sickened, but can tell that the talking is serving Xanathon’s pride. She can use that. “So what do you get out of all this? Why do you care?”
Now Xanathon smiles. As Ember had hoped, his hubris is his weakness, and he is all-too-eager to explain his plan to them. “Draco and the Duke are both fools,” he says with relish, “but of the two of them, Draco has proven far more willing to work with me, for the benefit of my people. He will be a better ruler for Rhoona.”
“So Draco is to be your puppet, then?”
Xanathon shrugs. “Call it that if you wish, but think of all those innocent lives you will be sparing.”
Ember’s rage is rising. The innocent lives spared should not have to live under the twisted control of one so wicked as this, she knows. If she has to make herself oath-breaker to stop him, she is willing to pay that price. Tight-lipped, she nods to Bhelgarn. “Make the exchange.”
“Back orf!” says the dwarf sternly, and the priest looks at him confused. “Back orf,” he repeats, but it is not until he waves his hands that Xanathon understands. He retreats some twenty feet until Bhelgarn motions at him to stop. Now the dwarf comes forward ten feet, unwraps the gem, and lays it on the ground. Were it not broad daylight the glow would be overwhelming. Now Bhelgarn backs away and motions Xanathon forward.
The priest walks up until the gem is at his feet, stoops and lays the vial of powder on the grass, and retrieves the gem by its chain.
When he stands, it is Ember who says loudly, “So now that you have the gem, you should remember…”
TWANG! sings Odleif’s bowstring, then swish! and thud! goes the arrow as it sinks into Xanathon’s back. He does not flinch or wince, and his face betrays surprise but no pain.
Ember continues speaking to him, “…that, just as you said, we agreed to nothing!”
At the moment the arrow sinks into his back, the brilliant light of the gem goes out. Bhelgarn (later, when re-telling the tale) swears that he sees a ghostly form of the priest, the same as that he saw in the depths of the gem, fly from the gem and into Xanathon’s chest.
Morgan dashes out from behind the rocks and sends two magic missiles at Xanathon. These strike at his chest, burning away the robe and knocking him back – it is the first they have seen him damaged! Bhelgarn slashes him with his sword, and the blade comes away bloody. Thrud jumps off his rock, landing in between Xanathon and Ember, and protecting her from both priest and mage. Ember calls for the Forge of the Mother and the blade of Thrud’s axe begins to glow red-hot.
Xanathon turns and begins to run, allowing Thrud to strike at his back with his glowing axe, which slices his flesh and sets his robes to smoldering. Bhelgarn hangs back to activate his boots, while Thrud is guarding Ember, and Morgan is summoning more missiles as she disappears behind the rocks again. Thus with no armor and no pursuers for the moment, the priest makes it across the clearing, practically collapsing beneath the shelter of a pine tree.
Morgan completes her spell and then, confident in the ability of Wolfbane’s new ring, pushes her out from behind the other side of the boulder, yelling at her “Draw fire! Draw the mage’s fire!” Wolfbane attempts to paralyze the mage with her scepter, but finds that she expended the last charge back in the shrine.
With his magic boots, Bhelgarn sprints across the clearing. Then Xanathon’s mage completes a spell, and a purple ray shoots from him to the dwarf. Bhelgarn’s form crumples and collapses, leaving nothing remaining in the clearing. Ember cries out in shock and horror. (Later, retelling the tale, Odleif claims that from his vantage point on the rise, he saw Bhelgarn actually shrink down to the size of a small lizard, and remain a dark form in the low grass).
“Oh-no-you-di-n’t!” shouts Fluffy, emerging from concealment to stick both her daggers into the mage’s lower back. He shrieks and wheels about, then with a gesture shoots all three of his magic missiles at the halfling, sending her reeling. Fluffy shakes her head and stabs a dagger into the mage’s belly. He doubles over and collapses on the ground.
Crouching in the cover of the tree, Xanathon waves an arm. Instantly ten fallen pine branches transform into black, writhing snakes that encircle the ground around him protectively. Poncherius impales one with a crossbow bolt, but nine remain.
Across the clearing, Morgan can catch glimpses of Xanathon’s robe behind the tree, and she sends two magic missiles at him, spoiling his next spell just before its completion. Fluffy dances nimbly over the snakes to cut Xanathon with both her blades, and he falls back motionless on the ground among the serpents. With a sound of shattering crystal, the gem still clasped in his lifeless hand turns to powder and vanishes in the breeze.
Odleif sees the curious black lizard moving preternaturally fast towards Ember, so he stows his bow and runs down the ridge. He scoops the creature up in his hands, discovering it to be a black newt with curious red spots on its head and copper-colored eyes.
Wolfbane puts the remaining snakes to sleep before they can bite anyone. Morgan cleaves off the priest’s head and then goes to confirm that the mage is indeed dead. By the time she turns back around, she sees Fluffy working her daggers in the priest’s face.
“Hey! That head is mine!” Morgan objects.
“S’okey,” Fluffy shrugs. “Me just want googly-mooglies.” Indeed, she has freed both of Xanathon’s eyes from their sockets and is even now holding them up in her small hands.
Morgan searches Xanathon’s body while Wolfbane checks the mage. On Xanathon, Morgan finds his mace, his holy symbol, and, deep inside a pocket in his robe, a glass vial with powder seemingly identical to the one he left on the ground. “That treacherous bastard,” Morgan mutters to herself as she marks the cork top with her dagger to make sure she can later tell them apart.
Wolfbane finds a ring and a dagger on the mage, but has to hold the dagger above her head to keep it out of the grasp of Fluffy.
Across the clearing, Odleif shows the newt clasped in his hands to Ember.
“What is that?” she asks.
“I reckon itta be ther dwarf.”
Ember gasps. “Bhelgarn, is that you?” she asks. The newt bobs its little head up and down rapidly.
“Okay, I can do this…I can do this. I just need time to pray.”
“Well, don’t take too long,” says Wolfbane, joining them. “The danger with polymorph other is that the longer the victim is in the new form, the more likely he will lose his mind. Eventually the Bhelgarn we know will be gone and that will just be a newt.”
Odleif passes the newt to Ember and she moves off into cover to rest and pray after quickly healing FluffyKitten. As the others begin cleaning their weapons, Poncherius, who has not left his vantage point, calls down, “Someone’s coming!” He has seen the glint of metal in the noonday sun at a distance from between the trees to their north.
[Note: When Poncherius leveled after the shrine, he took Danger Sense NWP]
The party hurriedly re-arranges themselves to ambush the newcomers. They are assaulted by four fighters and three priests, all in the robes of the temple of Cretia, with armor underneath. After Wolfbane entangles one in a web, the melee that follows is brief. All but one of the Cretians are slain, with none of the party wounded. One priest escapes, fleeing when his fear spell is reflected back at him by Wolfbane’s ring. Morgan is keen to pursue him at first until she realizes that he is fleeing away from the fjord and the ship, into the hills. At that, she lets him go, but insists that they take turns watching the ship, which is still pulled up on the beach below the copse.
It is late afternoon by the time Ember has rested enough that she can pray for spells (although she does not rest enough to recover her spell of third level), and early evening by the time she has actually prayed for them. Morgan and Wolfbane have taken the opportunity to rest and recover their own arcane magic.
Ember holds the newt in front of her. “Is it still you, Bhelgarn?” she asks. The newt again bobs its head, though less vigorously than before. She sets it gently on the ground in front of her. “Don’t move,” she cautions.
Ember closes her eyes and open’s her mind’s eye, trying to see the magic transformational aura that surrounds Bhelgarn, imprisoning him in the form of the newt. When she thinks she can see it, she imagines it as tendrils of flame, and in her hands a bellows. As she casts her spell, she works the bellows, hoping to stoke the magic flames so high that they exhaust their connection to the otherworld and snuff themselves out.
[Ember does not have Dispel Magic. By using Gutter, Flicker, and Flare, she is trying to “blow out” a temporary magic effect, but with a chance to make it stronger. Each round she forces another save vs. spells for the magical effect, based on the save of the caster. Dervill (MU9) needed a 10 or better to save against spells, and he will save at + 3 since he was three levels higher than Ember. However, if the save is made, the amount it is made by becomes a penalty on the next round, as the magic has burned too intensely. Likewise, if the save fails, the amount it fails by will become a bonus to the next save. Only if it fails by a modified roll of one or less will she be able to end the spell.
(1) Roll 18 + 3 = 21 (over by 11). FLARE – Bhelgarn has to make another save to retain his mind.
(2) Roll 20 + 3 – 11 = 12 (over by 2). FLICKER.
(3) Roll 5 + 3 – 2 = 6 (under by 4). GUTTER.
(4) Roll 8 + 3 + 4 = 15 (over by 5). FLARE – Bhelgarn has to make another save to retain his mind.
(5) Roll 2 + 3 – 5 = 0 (less than 2). SNUFF OUT – The spell is broken!]
Although Ember comes dangerously close to trapping Bhelgarn forever in the body of a newt and losing his dwarven mind, in the end she manages to blow out the spell and free him!
Once Bhelgarn is returned to them as a dwarf, they quickly strip the bodies of the fallen priests and warriors. Their plan is to disguise themselves as Cretians and approach the ship, with Bhelgarn and Thrud (unmistakably non-Ethengarian) as “captives” and Fluffy hiding. Everyone else will be dressed as a priest or fighter. With the cowls of the robes up, they hope to be able to get quite close to the ship before their deception is recognized – close enough to board it before it can set out at least.
Disguised, they leave the copse and head down to the fjord as the sun sinks low in the west.