Secrets of Mystara

Post 39 - A Conspiracy at the Highest Levels
A Conspiracy at the Highest Levels

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Ninmonth 18 (first full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)

Morning

The party is awakened early by the pre-dawn entrance of Dahlia to the inn. Some of the men sleeping in the common room groan and roll over for another chance at slumber. The Rhoonan woman lights a candle in the kitchen and sets to work making the dough for breakfast rolls. After it has risen she puts it in the oven, and the scent of the baking bread brings a yawning FluffyKitten down from the upstairs bedroom. She has been wakened from a dream in which she, as a brave halfling, was defending the rest of the party against a super scary monster.

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Fluffy’s dream. The captions read: “Super Super Scary Monster,” “FluffyKitten the brave halfling,” “The rest of the party,” “Convenient Hiding Rock,” and “Morgan the ‘few too many sips.’”

Standing beside Dahlia, Fluffy asks when the bread will be ready, at which the woman starts and looks about her, for the halfling has forgotten that she is still invisible from the day before. “War ar yu, barn?” she calls nervously, eliciting more groans from the common room as the men are awoken, again.

Fluffy backs up a few steps, then answers, “Don’t look – not dressed yet!” and Dahlia laughs.

“If yu can keep quiet until it is ready, I’ll put honning on yours,” she says, and the prospect of honey rolls enables FluffyKitten to let Dahlia finish without asking every five minutes whether it is done yet.

Once the clatter of pans and plates begins, those downstairs give up any pretense of sleeping and begin to ready themselves for the day. Morgan told them, the night before, not to discuss anything important in front of Dahlia, so they just make small talk through breakfast and washing up. Finally she empties their chamber pots and announces that she will be going to the market to get things for their lunch and dinner. Morgan pays her for the previous night and she leaves, seemingly quite content with her lodgers.

With Dahlia gone, they begin to plan the day’s true activities. Morgan and Thrud will cross the street to the barracks of the Ducal Guard, to make good their pledge to join the defenders of the city. Ember, Odleif, Bhelgarn, and Fluffy will head for the palace, and attempt to gain entry and see what they can suss out. Poncherius and Wolfbane will remain at the inn. Before they part ways, though, Morgan casts an invisibility spell on Ember, and Wolfbane does the same on Odlief, so that all four members of the palace team will be unseen. Morgan also returns the wand of paralysis to Wolfbane, on the off chance that she needs to use it.

Morgan and Thrud are immediately recognized when they stride into the Ducal Barracks, and promptly surrounded by a squad of guards. One of the guards looks vaguely familiar to them, except for his huge black eye. The sergeant of the squad informs them that they are under arrest.

“What for?” demands Morgan, and she is told sedition, and assault on lawful representatives of the Duke.

Morgan laughs, trying to hide her nervousness. “Oh, you mean last night? That wasn’t anything. We told you we were joining the Guard. We just wanted to see what the Guard was like, was all, who we would be signing on with. It was a friendly scrap, no blood spilled.”

The sergeant looks doubtful, but has his men march Morgan and Thrud into the compound. They have their hands open and in the air, but have not relinquished their weapons. When he tells them that he is going to take their arms and put them in a cell, Morgan shakes her head. “No, you don’t want to do that, lad. How can we help you fight the dwarves if we’re locked up in a cell? You do understand that there is dwarven army coming, don’t you? Why, Mistress Ember made an appointment for us with your captain a day ago, lad! You best be getting him, now.” Both Morgan and Thrud now lower their hands to their weapons, but don’t draw them.

Given the choice between disarming what are obviously two seasoned adventurers with just his squad, and getting his captain, the sergeant doesn’t take long to send for his superior. When the captain arrives, Morgan repeats her story about how the events of the last night were just a friendly test to make sure the Guard was worth throwing in their lot with. Perhaps the captain is less confident about their chances in the upcoming war, for Morgan’s point about not being able to help them fight from inside a cell seems to convince him. “They may keep their weapons,” he tells the sergeant. “And set them up an ‘interview’ with Weapon-master Vidar.”

The sergeant withdraws with his squad, and the captain takes Morgan and Thrud up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the main barracks and into a door on the second floor, which leads to a bare entry chamber (12). There are three other doors out of the room, one on each wall, as well as an open trapdoor to the floor below. The room may also double as a foul weather cloakroom, for there are dozens of pegs along the walls, but they are currently empty.

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They pass through the western door in to an officers’ mess (13). This room has four tables and several dozen benches in it. An open doorway at the far end leads to what is apparently a cooking area. Each of the tables is covered with a white cloth. The captain mentions that the first floor of the barracks is for the common soldiers, while the second is restricted to officers and support staff. While he doesn’t know yet what their particular talents are, he is wagering that as adventurers, Morgan and Thrud will likely be commissioned as officers. A few other men are in the room, and the captain introduces them as they sit.

The men are careful not to discuss any military matters, even when Morgan asks oblique questions. Some time later a huge bull of a man strides into the room. He is clad in plate and bears a shield; a longsword is at his side. “Vidar!” says the captain enthusiastically, but his salutation is met with nothing more than a curt nod. “Take these two to the practice room and put them through their paces. I want to know if they will have any value to the Guard.” Another nod, and the man turns and strides away. “You’d best be off,” the captain tells Morgan and Thrud, as the weapon-master disappears behind the door of the mess.

By the time Morgan and Thrud are in the entryway (12), the man is gone, but the door to the north is still swinging closed, and they manage to catch up with him in the hallway beyond, and enter the training room (29) with him.

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The room is mostly empty, save for a few open-topped barrels. The wooden walls are covered with nicks and gouges on all sides. The man gestures at Morgan and Thrud to move to the center of the room, while he stands with his back to the door. “So, is this individual duels, or both of us at once?” says Morgan nonchalantly, as she stretches and loosens her muscles.

“Duels?” scoffs the man incredulously, the first word he’s spoken. “Don’t waste me time, ootlander.” He draws his sword in a single, fluid motion.

“You take his left, I’ll go to his right,” whispers Morgan to Thrud, and the two begin advancing cautiously.

[Note: The combat runs with subdual rules, since the participants are trying not to kill one another. One quarter of damage is real, three-quarters is temporary, and will go away after a short rest. A character brought to exactly to zero hp is forced to yield, at less than zero s/he is unconscious but automatically stable).]

The huge man stands unmoving, but in a slight crouch, taught and poised, as Morgan and Thrud approach. When they are within striking distance, Morgan yells “Now!” and thrusts with her sword at the same instant that Thrud is cleaving with his axe. With breathtaking speed and coordination, the man simultaneously parries Morgan’s blow with his own sword while raising his shield to block Thrud’s axe. He then immediately spins, giving Morgan his back, but is already steps away before she can strike. He rains blows down mercilessly on Thrud, forcing him to retreat quickly and thereby keeping ahead of Morgan. When a wicked blow of his sword knocks Thrud to one knee he is forced to pause, allowing Morgan to catch him with a strike across his back.

He pivots, putting his back to the wall and his sword to Morgan so that she is forced to pause as well. Thrud staggers to his feet, then bellows as he charges the man, raising his axe completely over his head with both hands. Just as Thrud is about to land his blow, Morgan lunges as well. As if he anticipated her move, Vidar backsteps at the last second, so that Morgan has to pull short on her attack to avoid Thrud’s axe, which sinks deep into the floor. Then, before Thrud can pull his axe out, the weapons-master rushes him with a shield-bash that knocks the barbarian to the ground. This time, Thrud does not get up.

[Thrud started the combat at 26/26 and ended at -5/26. Total of 31 points of subdual damage, 8 points real damage, Thrud will awake at 18/26]

Vidar now advances on Morgan and she changes to a defensive posture. The two of them trade dozens of blows, nearly all of them parried. Every so often one of them manages to land a telling hit, and it is Morgan as often as Vidar.

[Note: This is the first time Morgan has used her “deflect” ability that comes with Skilled longsword use. Vidar is deflecting as well, but his longsword use is ranked higher than Skilled.]

Although the fight is even, Morgan can quickly tell that she will exhaust her stamina before this man does – he is not even breathing heavily! If she is going to win, she will have to do it soon. She launches a series of rapid, risky attacks, and one of them gets through his defenses, driving his shoulder back with a thrust that does not penetrate his armor but which will certainly leave a bruise. Even he looks surprised as he yields back then sweeps forward with a blow that starts low but ends high before she can raise her shield. He clouts her on the side of her head with the flat of his sword and the room goes black.

[Morgan started the combat at 22/22 and ended at -11/22, with his last blow hitting for 15 damage when she was at 4hp. Total of 33 points of subdual damage, 8 points real damage, Morgan will awake at 14/22]

In the blackness, Morgan hears a great splash of water and then Thrud sputtering. She forces her eyes open and sees Vidar approaching her, a large jug of water in his hand, just drawn from one of the barrels. “I’m good, I’m good” she protests weakly, and rolls from her back to her belly, manages to kneel.

By the time Morgan and Thrud are on their feet, the man has his breastplate off and is carefully appraising the dents in it. Seeing them up, he turns wordlessly and leaves the room and they are forced to follow against the complaints of their bodies. All the way down the hall Morgan is reflecting. She has had no respect for the guard so far and she thought this job would be as simple as confronting Draco. But if this weapon-master, beholden even to a captain, could best the two of them so handedly, will they be able to take Draco in a fair fight? How strong is he? Vidar has stopped outside a room, knocked on the door, and is waiting for permission to enter. Only that allows them to catch up to him and as they do Morgan notes with satisfaction the sweat marks on his chest and under his arms.

“Enter!” calls a muffled but familiar voice, and Vidar opens the door to an office (25), gesturing them inside. This room contains a desk and chair, a bed with several blankets on it, and a large chest. The captain is seated at the desk, but quickly rises to his feet as the door opens. He has apparently been working on a carving of a longship, and a pile of wood-shavings covers the top of his desk.

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“Well,” he asks the weapons-master, “what have you to report?”

“They’ll do,” Vidar says, and then closes the door as he exits, leaving Morgan and Thrud standing in front of the captain.

Morgan looks at the closed door incredulously. “We’ll do? What kind of…”

“Actually,” interjects the captain, “that’s the highest praise I’ve heard him give anyone. You two must be skilled, indeed. At ease, please.” The captain sits.

Morgan and Thrud attempt to look more relaxed, but there is only one chair in the room, and it is occupied.

“I’ve spoken to the commander,” the captain says, “and with Vidar’s approbation you will certainly be commissioned as officers. As you are foreigners, you will not be given command of troops – at least not until our men know you better and would take orders from you. But you certainly will have plenty of opportunity for dangerous scouting missions, disrupting supply lines, counter-intelligence and such. Don’t worry, we respect your abilities and will put them to good use.” The captain addresses Morgan specifically. “If I may say so, you have the look of the nisse about you.”

Morgan nods.

“Can you cast spells?”

“A few.”

“I’m sure that will be useful as well. Our first task for you both will be a simple town patrol this afternoon. It will give you a chance to get to know the town, get to know the men, and for them to know you. Why don’t you get yourselves cleaned up and be back here after lunch? Of course, you can eat in the officer’s mess if you’d like.”

“Begging you pardon,” objects Morgan, “but our service here would be greatly enhanced if we could know something about the Guard – number of troops, dispositions, chain of command, and such.”

The captain smiles. "Of course, how negligent of me. This is a small town, and I am used to assuming that all our men know such things as they need to. Troop numbers and lesser commands are, you understand, matters of high security. I won’t tell you them but I am sure an astute observer like yourself will pick them up soon enough. Here is what you need to know: both Master Thrud and yourself have the rank of Special Officer. As I said before, that doesn’t give you any command privileges, but it does mean that you are above command by anyone of lesser rank than captain. There are two Captains of the Guard – myself (Captain Yurigan) and Captain Haggar. Currently I am Captain of the Day and he is Captain of the Night, although we exchange after a time. We are in charge of the day to day activities of the guard, which include both town patrols and palace duty.

Above us is Guard Commander Olaf, who oversees our activities and in addition is responsible for all requisitioning and supplies for the Guard. Currently he also is tasked with implementing the defense of the town – planning patrols in the hinterland, fortifications, ship requisitions, and such. Above him is High Commander Sven, who functions as a personal assistant to Lord High Commander Draco. Together the two of them create the policy that keeps our land safe, in support of the Duke. That is your chain of command."

Morgan thanks Captain Yurigan and she and Thrud take their leave. They decide to lunch at Dahlia’s in case the palace group returns before they need to set out for their afternoon patrol.

Ember, FluffyKitten, Odleif, and Bhelgarn, all invisible, proceed from Dhalia’s to the Ducal Palace, pausing only long enough to watch Thrud and Morgan enter the walls of the Guard. As they round the unfinished walls of the palace, they catch wind of a rich, hoppy scent. The fountain, dry on their last visit, is now full. The waters appear golden in the morning light, and bubbles surround the eight fountains that shoot water into the air.

As they grow closer, the smell intensifies – and they realize that the fountain is not full of water, but beer! Before them shoots, streams, and foams all of the beer the duke has collected in taxes since his edict. The quartet stops for a moment, speechless at the duke’s folly. They had been walking hand-in-hand, to stay together. Suddenly FluffyKitten twists out of Ember’s grasp and scampers away. “Fluffy! Fluffy!” hisses Ember, looking about for guards, but the front of the palace appears deserted. A few minutes later, Ember feels a tug on her sleeve.

“I iz back!” Fluffy chirps.

“Ugh! Where were you? We’re holding hands so we can stay together!” says an exasperated Ember.

“Oh, I thought we holdy-hands ’cause we friends,” says Fluffy innocently. “I filled up a whole waterskinny with maltymalt for Morgan!” she announces proudly.

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it,” responds Ember begrudgingly. “How did you find your way right back to me, anyway?”

“Easy-peasy: you all smell like the fishy-paste we had last night! And Odleif needs a bath.”

“Do not,” mumbles the taciturn woodsmen. Rejoined, the four of them continue toward the palace, three of them hoping that the noses of the human guards are not as sensitive as that of the halfling.

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The wide porch is shaded by an overhang from the second floor, supported by ten massive columns. The doors are a pair of huge, wooden slabs. Morgan previously saw from a distance that these were carved, but could not make out the image – from here, the four of them can easily see they are carved with a skillfully wrought image of the Rhoonian crest: a longship, sail spread wide and running before a stiff breeze.

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When they reach the palace steps, they try the great doors, but find them locked. Ember and Fluffy begin searching for secret entrances to the right of the doors (one looking high, the other low), while Odleif and Bhelgarn do the same to the left. They find nothing in the inner porch, but when they reach the outer porch, Bhelgarn thinks he sees a thin line, as of the outline of a door, passing through the decorative stonework of the walls. He whispers to Odleif, and the man comes over to look. Just as he is examining the stone, there is the sound of a bolt being drawn back, and Odleif finds himself staring into a single eye. It is all he can do to keep from crying out in surprise, but he manages to control himself and then realize that the eye is looking through him, not at him.

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After several tense minutes, the bolt is drawn back into place, and Odleif is looking at a bare stone again. He turns and prepares to make the “cricket call” used by the party, but hears someone already using it. He and Bhelgarn head over to Ember, who points out to them that a group of of guardsmen is approaching. As the tramp of boots across the courtyard becomes audible, Odleif whispers to the others about the lookout hole he and Bhelgarn found.

The squad of guardsmen is marching straight to the palace doors, so the party makes sure that they stand well clear. They continue up the steps and in between the columns, but stop when they are some twenty feet shy of the doors. Then, they turn right, and move to the wall, directly opposite the lookout hole. The sergeant raps smartly on the wall, says a few words they cannot hear, and then a section of the wall opens up, admitting them. The squad of seven men all pass into the wall before the secret door closes.

Bhelgarn hurries to the wall, examining the carved stone. After several minutes, he steps back and whispers to them that he can clearly see the outline of the door, but can’t find any means to open it. Given that it is a guard access, it is likely that it can be opened only from the inside. Ember replies that Morgan said soldiers appeared on the porch – if this squad is relieving another squad, that one may be leaving soon – and perhaps the party can slip in. Bhelgarn says he doesn’t think the four of them can pass through in the time between when the last guardsman leaves and the door closes. He doesn’t mention his own girth. Ember says that she and Fluffy will try to slip inside, while he and Odleif should keep searching for secret entrances – but they should also keep their ears open for crickets and cries for help.

Ember and Fluffy take up position right next to where the door will open, while Bhelgarn and Odleif do the same at the opposite door, just in case one is an entrance and the other an exit. Some ten minutes later, the eyeslit on the door on the right opens, and two seconds later, the door itself. Seven men, different from the ones that went in, march out – and Ember and Fluffy manage to jump through the portal just before it closes behind the men!

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The room that Ember and Fluffy find themselves in (87) would be large enough, were it not crowded with guardsmen. Most are sitting on bare wooden benches, but a few are moving about, and there are some close calls as the two women wend their way past them and to the door in the rear of the room, where a pair of torches burn. Once there, there is little to do but wait and hope that that door will be opened as well.

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While she waits, Ember listens to the idle banter of the men in nordic. There is nothing out of the ordinary – discussion of the impending war, a debate about whether the honor of palace duty is worth the boredom, a comparison of the merits of various tavern wenches in the town. Fortunately, they do not have to wait long before the door opens. A single serving woman enters, bearing a bucket of water and a ladle. Ember is not able to slip out the door before it closes, but she slides her foot between the door and the frame so that it does not latch. The woman is young and comely, and all the guardsmen’s eyes are on her as she moves about the room, offering them each a drink in turn. When Ember judges that no one is looking, she opens the door just enough to slip through, and a second later feels FluffyKitten press up against her leg, so she lets the door close.

They are in a long, plain corridor lit by the occasional torch. They move swiftly along it and then turn the corner, and Ember’s heart drops. The entire corridor (86) is full of wooden doors – seven on the left side, but two on the right.

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Ember listens at the first door on the right. Hearing nothing, she resolutely opens it a crack and looks inside. There is a rough wooden table with some low, guttering candles, and many chairs. She cannot see all of the room in the low light – it looks like it goes back farther.

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Ember closes the door and sighs. “Well, we certainly won’t find the duke at this rate,” she whispers, and Fluffy giggles.

“Mr. Duke won’t be in the servants’ quarters, silly-head!”

“Servants’ quarters?”

“Yes’m. This is the part of the palace where the worky people live. Mr. Duke is in some grand chamber with crystalies and rugs and stuff. Look at the torchies! Fine people don’t want smoke in the nice part of the house! Mr. Duke will have candles, or maybe oily lamps!”

Ember is beginning to think that Fluffy has a point, but just to be sure, she asks, “Have you been in many palaces, Fluffy?”

“Ember! I TOLD you! I worked as a cooky person and a sewie person EVERYWHERE. I been in many, many palaces and estates and suchlike that.”

“Alright, alright,” Ember says soothingly, worried that Fluffy will be heard as she raises her voice. “How about you decide where we go next.”

Fluffy takes Ember all the way to the end of the hall, then pauses as the serving woman returns with a near-empty bucket, now entering the room Ember had just looked in. As soon as that door closes, Fluffy opens the last door on the right and steps through, with Ember right behind her.

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The wide passageway beyond has a closed door leading off it to the right, a wide stairway leading to the second floor in front of them, and an open archway to their left. A suit of plate mail and a pair of crossed swords hang to either side of the door. Candles burn in wall sconces, polished silver mirrors set behind them to reflect the light. “See?” says Fluffy triumphantly. “This is fine part of the palace, with nicy things.”

Moving further into the hallway, Ember and Fluffy can see that a serving boy sits on the stairs, polishing the wooden banisters. They proceed to their left, which opens into a huge room (80), bare of furniture but having eight stone columns reaching to the ceiling and dozens of tapestries covering every inch of wall space. The tapestries depict seafaring scenes in many different situations – naval battles, clear sailing, stormy weather, great sea beasts, and so forth. The only areas not covered are the opening through which they came, a similar opening across from them, and the massive wooden doors which can only be the front doors to the palace.

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In the center of the room is a hunched old serving woman, sweeping the floor with a fresh broom. A large set of keys is visible at her waist, but the ring runs through her worn leather belt. “Fluffy – check behind the tapestries, then meet me in the next room,” whispers Ember.

“Okey-dokey.”

Ember passes by the doors on her way across the room. There are stout metal braces to bar the doors from the inside, but no bar is in sight – it would need to be a tremendous log to cross the span. She gives a discreet tug, and finds the doors still locked – there is no latch, but a fancy iron locking mechanism requiring a key is visible, accessible only on this side of the doors.

The room beyond (81) takes Ember’s breath away, for unlike Fluffy, she is not accustomed to “nicy things”. The walls rise thirty feet to the ceiling, instead of the fifteen feet common to the rest of the building. The entire floor is a polished marble parquet, more marble than Ember has ever seen in one place. The columns here are the same finely crafted but simple supports that were found on the porch and in the entry room. A curtained alcove extends slightly over the floor of the ballroom from the second floor. There is no way to access the balcony from the floor below, but there are two modest wooden doors on the north wall. The most striking feature, however, is the row of stained glass windows all along the west wall. Starting at fifteen feet up the wall, they run almost to the ceiling. Their panes are a multitude of deep colors. Since it is morning, the exterior sunlight is not shining directly through them, but they are beautiful nonetheless. Ember can only imagine how exquisite the room would look in the evening, with the sun shining through and filling the ballroom with color, or at night, when the myriad of tall, white candles that adorn the columns were lit.

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When the sound of chirping crickets tells Ember that Fluffy has entered the ballroom, she sends the halfling to examine what lies beyond the door to the northwest, while she checks the southern wall for secret doors, as they seem to be missing access to that part of the palace. Indeed, she soon finds the outline of a door, but does not locate any mechanism to open it. While she looks, however, the door to the northeast opens, and a servant bearing covered platters passes through the ballroom and entry hall, then up the stairs. By the platters and sounds coming when the door is briefly open, Ember takes the room beyond to be the kitchens.

Fluffy returns and says that the room she scouted (83) was full of tables and chairs, but little else, and seemed to be used for storage. Ember doesn’t dare open the door flanked by the suits of armor at the base of the stairs when both the boy and the crone could see, so she decides they will go up the stairs and scout the second floor.

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Fluffy goes first. Since the stairs are wide and the boy is working on the banisters it is easy to slip by him, but two steps past him the stair creaks when she steps on it. The boy turns his head, sees nothing, and freezes. A few seconds later, he returns to his work.

Ember follows, and tries to avoid the creaky stair – but she doesn’t know which one it was, for she couldn’t see which one Fluffy stepped on! She guesses wrong, and there is an even louder creak. This time the boy gasps, starts up, and runs down the steps to the crone.

“Nan, Nan – there is something on the stairs! I heard it but can’t see it!”

“Calm yourself, Ned – it’s likely a cat’s got into the palace again.”

“This was no cat, Nan – I would have seen it – it sounds like something BIG!”

“Boy, you’ve been smelling the wood polish too long – get back to work!”

The rest of their conversation is lost to her as Ember arrives at the top of the stairs. The wide hallway above (92) gives access to most of the second floor. Four slender columns stand at the corners of the opening of the stairway from the first level. Ember and FluffyKitten can see one servant, a young woman dusting and polishing the wood of a door to their right, but the rest of the floor appears empty. There are many candles set in wall sconces, but none of them are lit, for the entire north wall is full of windows, shutters open, providing abundant natural light.

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Ember sends FluffyKitten to the left to try the far door, while she moves behind the stairs and to the right. She finds the door locked when she arrives, however. Fluffy’s door is within the line of sight of the serving woman, but so far from her that Fluffy does not hesitate to slip inside. She finds the chamber (100) to contain only four beds, four straight chairs, and six music stands. The windows are shuttered, and there is a fine layer of dust on things as if it has not been cleaned in quite some time. Fluffy does not explore further, as she does not wish to leave tracks in the dust. Instead, she backtracks and tries the other door nearby. This gives way to a curtained room (101) projecting slightly over the ballroom below. Four straight-backed chairs and four music stands are the only things to be seen in there, so FluffyKitten returns to the top of the stairs.

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The serving woman has almost finished the door she is working on. When she gathers up her cleaning supplies and moves down the hall, toward the door that Ember found locked, Fluffy and Ember slip into the door she just finished while her back is to them. Several tables and chairs are placed about this room (93), and the walls are lined with bookshelves. A soft carpet is on the floor, and the atmosphere is one of plush luxury mixed with homey comfort. FluffyKitten immediately begins to explore, but she seems more interested in the opportunities to hide under the tables and in-between the bookshelves than she is in the books themselves. For her part, Ember is initially overwhelmed. Of course, the Mother Temple in Soderfjord had a scriptorium, and Ember took her turn copying texts like all the novices, but she never saw anything like this. She has heard tell of the great library of the temple of Kvasir in Norrvik, but she finds it hard to believe that even that famed location has this many tomes. Simply put, she would not have believed that this many texts existed, let alone that they were gathered together in one place. It is obvious that the ancestors of Duke Stephen valued and respected wisdom – that his proclamations now are so bizarre and nonsensical strike her as a cruel twist of fate, indeed.

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As Fluffy plays “sneaky-peeky” through the room, Ember moves among the books, pulling some out and reading their runed covers before replacing them. There are histories and geographies of the nordic lands, manuals describing the techniques of all of the crafts practiced in Rhoona, geneologies and heraldries of the noble line of Rhoona and the kingdom of Vestland, studies of all of the different races, and many other volumes besides. Ember can’t help but feel that somewhere in all these books there must be a clue to the affliction of the duke, and maybe even a hint at a cure, but she knows that it would take her hours, if not days, to find it even if it did exist, even if she could recognize and understand it.

Eventually she gathers up Fluffy and gets ready to leave. She listens at the door, says a brief prayer, but can do little else to make sure the door is not currently being observed. She opens the door and she and FluffyKitten step out. In the middle of the hall stands the serving woman, staring at the door opening of its own accord. Ember leaves the door open behind her as she and Fluffy move away as silently as possible.

The serving woman goes to the door, pokes her head in the library, and calls out in a quavering voice, “Tom?” When she is not answered, she closes the door and moves to the top of the stairs. “Nan?” she calls down. “There is something odd here – I was sure I closed the library door well but it just opened by itself.”

“You see!” calls the boy’s voice from below. “I told you something is about! It’s bad spirits, I say!”

The serving woman shudders and makes a sign to ward off the evil eye. While she is looking down the stairs, Ember and Fluffy slip in another door, into what appears to be a private dining room (102). Three gorgeous crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. A beautiful, dark wood table, polished to a mirror-like sheen, occupies the center of the room, and twelve chairs are placed around it. Four stone columns, one near each corner, support the ceiling. High on a wooden orchard ladder, a young man is dusting the crystals of the chandelier farthest from the door. Looking down at the open door, he calls out, “Who’s there, now?” in a distracted tone.

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When no one answers, he calls louder, “I say, who’s there?” Ember and Fluffy move out of the doorway, into the corner of the room. The man sighs and climbs down off the ladder. He sticks his head out in the hall and says, “Knock it off, you guys, quit playing around.”

The serving woman’s answer is indistinct, but not his response, “Don’t open the door and leave it open – you know that’s not good form – just come in and close it or leave it closed.”

At that, the serving woman gives a high-pitched scream, and then there is a thump, as if she has fainted or been struck down. The man dashes out into the hall and begins calling for help.

A moment later the far door of the dining room bursts open. A huge, bull-like figure of a man charges into the room. His black beard is parted by a wicked slash of a mouth, and an evil gleam is in his eyes. He carries a drawn sword, a scarlet “D” is emblazoned on his chain mail, and there is a round shield slung across his back. Behind him comes a man in plate and shield, with a longsword at his belt, not drawn. A third man remains in the room from which the first two came, but Ember does not have a good look at him. She has a glimpse of the room beyond (103), which seems to be a richly appointed entertainment room, but sees little detail.

The man continues on into the hall and demands to know what is going on – the servants address him as “my Lord Draco” in hushed tones. He tells his adjutant to bring some guardsmen, then storms back to the room from which he came, slamming first one door closed behind him, then the other.

For the moment, Ember and FluffyKitten are in the dining room, with both doors closed. A few minutes later, Draco’s adjutant comes in, but he opens and closes the door so quickly that there is no time to get through. Once he is halfway across the room, with his back to them, though, Ember and Fluffy slip through the door back out into the hallway. The servants are gathered at the top of the stairs – the serving woman (Hilda) sitting on the floor, surrounded by the boy (Ned), the crone (Nan), and the man who had been polishing the chandelier (Tom). As Ember and Fluffy slip past them, Ember hears the woman saying – “It is the mistress, the mistress I tell you – she has returned to haunt us all…”

There is only one other door on the second floor, but it is in direct sight of the servants at the top of the stairs. Ember and Fluffy wait by it, until the arrival of a squad of guardsmen coming up the stairs provides a distraction, and then they slip inside. As Ember closes the door quickly behind them, the room becomes completely dark, except for the sliver of light coming from the space between the door and the frame.

Ember and Fluffy wait a moment for their eyes to adjust, and they can see the rough shapes of furniture about the room, but little else. Ember whispers to herself, “Kroppen min som veke, min sjel som olje, min tro som gnist,” and in her palm appears a small flame, as that of a single candle. She holds this aloft as they inspect the room (96). They are in a small sitting room, with several pleasantly soft chairs and some small tables placed tastefully about. Two tapestries, both depicting peaceful woodland scenes, decorate the walls. An elegant crystal chandelier hangs in the center of the room, reflecting myriad points of red light from Ember’s flame. “Ooh…” says FluffyKitten, entranced by the dancing patterns of light, but the deep and gloomy shadows in the room give Ember a sense of foreboding.

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As they cross the room, Fluffy stifles a sneeze. “Fusty-dusty,” she sniffs.

There is a single door to the south – they listen at it, then enter. The room (97) contains a large wall-mirror, a delicate vanity table set against the wall and a small, dainty chair. A long wardrobe rack formerly held dozens of elegant evening gowns, but it has been tipped over and the gowns now lie on the floor in unkempt heaps. Ember doesn’t like the dark look of herself with the tiny flame in the mirror – it reminds her too much of the fortune-telling games the novices would play at on stormy evenings in the Temple, a minor blasphemy to the Norns. She likes even less poking through the gowns on the floor, but finds nothing there, to her relief. There are two doors in this room, so she and Fluffy each listen at one, but hear nothing.

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Passing through the west door, they find a small room (98) with a tiled floor throughout and a huge, dry ceramic tub at one end. Several racks line the walls, and some of these have thick towels hanging from them. There is little to see here, so they listen at the door and move on.

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The final room of the suite is large, with a number of items of interest. Thin rays of light come from shuttered windows. Ember looks outside, and sees no guards in the courtyard, so she extinguishes the flame in her palm, opens the simple latch on the window, opens the shutters outside, and then closes the window again. The room is now filled with light.

The room (99) is lavishly decorated. Several snow white bearskin rugs are placed about the floor, and a huge, feathery soft bed is against the south wall. The covers of the bed are messy, and one of the quilts has been dragged across the floor. A small writing table, a straight-backed chair at the table, and two low armchairs are the only other items of furniture in the room.

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Fluffy and Ember check the bed, but find it cold and deserted. The desk has paper, a floral scent still clinging to it, ink, quills, sand, a sharpener, and so forth, but nothing of interest. The door to the next chamber over is locked. Listening at the door, they can hear occasional movement on the other side as if the room is occupied, but do not hear speech. The duke obviously keeps a fine lady – but no one in Rhoona has mentioned a duchess. Who is this woman, and where is she now? Checking the quilt on the floor, they make a chilling discovery – the bottom has a few small but distinct bloodstains. Now even cheery FluffyKitten is feeling odd. “Time to go?” she asks in a small voice, and Ember agrees.

Ember again checks the courtyard nervously. There are still no guards, but she knows they will need to use rope to descend, and that will be visible for as long as they are using and not carrying it. She decides to try another exit.

Fluffy and Ember retrace their way through the mistress’ suite, and slip out into the hallway at the top of the stairs. Guards are everywhere in pairs, swinging their swords about in slow arcs as if feeling while blind. The servants look on nervously. The stairs, in particular, have three guards abreast, marching continually up and down with arms outstretched. With all the people about, they are lucky to have been able to slip out the door without its opening and closing being seen. “We’ll have to find another way down” whispers Ember in Halfling, and she feels FluffyKitten tugging at her hand.

The two of them stick close to the walls, avoiding both the guards and their probing swords. Fluffy brings Ember to a door along the south wall, and when they slip through it, they are on the balcony overlooking the amazing ballroom. There are guards here as well, but it is a huge space and the few men cannot hope to fill it.

Fluffy sets her new dwarven grappling hook on the railing of the balcony as far to the west wall as she can to avoid it being seen by anyone, and first she, then Ember, descend. With a careful flick of her wrist, Fluffy wrests the hook free from the railing with little more than the muted sound of iron scraping stone, and then catches the hook in mid-air, before it can clatter to the marble floor.

Carefully the two of them cross the floor far from the guards, pass through into main hall and from there to the side hall at the bottom of the staircase. Ember is heading for the servant’s quarters, to go out the way they came in, but even as they approach the door it opens and more guards come through. From the top of the stairs a voice calls in Nordic, “Send for more servants!” and a squad of soldiers starts down. Ember and Fluffy are in sudden danger of getting sandwiched between the guards approaching from the door and those descending the stairs, so the priestess grabs the halfling and pulls the two of them through the side door, hoping the twin suits of armor will shield its opening and closing from view.

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The room beyond the door (88) is lit by three oil lamps on low tables. The tables are in the corners of the room in sitting areas with a total of eight soft chairs and a couch between them. Multiple tapestries depicting rustic farm and hill scenes decorate the walls, four stone columns support the ceiling, and a thick carpet covers the floor.

There are doors on the north and east walls – Ember tries them, but both are locked. She and Fluffy listen at the door they came in, trying to find a lull in the tramp of boots outside. Eventually they slip out. The flow of soldiers and servants through the servant’s door has slowed, but not stopped. Ember judges that they could get through the door, but don’t have much chance of passing undetected down the narrow hallway to the guard room. They will need another way out – and that means going back upstairs!

They wait for several minutes next to the suits of armor until another squad of guards is ascending the stairs, then fall into step behind them, the noise of the squeaky stair lost in the crowd. At the top of the stairs they pull away from the soldiers, back to the mistress’ suite. Through the dark, spooky rooms they pass until they are again in the bedchamber.

There is just enough of a stone sill outside the window that Fluffy’s hook can find purchase. The problem is that with neither of them holding it, both the hook and its attached rope are visible. Ember lowers herself to the courtyard as fast as she can. Fluffy pauses on the ledge to shut the window behind her, but makes sure to leave it unlatched, and to close at least one of the shutters. Then she, too, comes down. With a neat flip of the rope, she retrieves the grappling hook and then both of them are off across the courtyard.

By the look of the sun it is mid-day, and they have spent two hours or so in the palace. By the time they emerge, Bhelgarn and Odleif have just finished checking the walls of the first floor of the palace, and then the defensive walls all around the palace, inside and out, for secret doors, but have not found anything. When they eventually find one another through their cricket noises they return together to Dahlia’s.

[DM note: completed palace walls are 31 squares x 50 feet x both sides = 3100 feet, plus 650 feet of palace itself less the 360 already checked, is about 3400 linear feet, which is about 11 secret door checks and nearly two hours to search]

By the time Ember, Odleif, FluffyKitten, and Bhelgarn arrive at the tavern, Morgan, Thrud, Poncherius, and Wolfbane have all had lunch – bread, greens, cheese, and cold-cuts of salted-rye sausage, and Dahlia has left again. While the new arrivals eat, they exchange news with the two newest members of the Ducal Guard, and then Morgan and Thrud have to leave for their patrol.

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Post 38 - A butt-load of ability checks AND a bar fight!
A butt-load of ability checks AND a bar fight!

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By the time Ember returns to the Crystal Girdle, the sailors are in a good mood, and do not mind when the party withdraws to a corner table near their gear and holds a hushed conversation. They decide to split up and investigate three areas of interest: Morgan and the already invisible Bhelgarn will walk around the Ducal Palace, Ember and Thrud will check out the barracks of the Ducal Guard, and Oldleif and FluffyKitten will examine the Temple of Cretia. In the meantime, Wolfbane and Poncherius will remain at the Girdle, guarding their gear and the camels. They all agree to meet back in the high market around dinner time, giving them several hours each for their respective missions. Morgan casts invisibility on Fluffy before she sets out.

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From the Crystal Girdle, it is not much more than a hundred yards to the wall surrounding the Ducal Palace. On Morgan and Bhelgarn’s left as they walk are shops, store fronts and houses, while on her right are the abandoned dwarven barracks. Arriving at the wall, Morgan whistles nonchalently and a second later hears Bhelgarn whisper “Aye, I’m here.” Together, they walk clockwise around the stone wall. It frustrates Bhelgarn that he cannot comment on the wall, the best structure he has seen in Rhoona and obviously dwarf-built – huge stones, cut at perfect angles, with no mortar visible. The wall itself is 20 feet high, but stone towers stick out above it to 30 feet. The towers have arrow slits and crenalated battlements, but the wall is smooth and featureless, lacking slits or any kind of ingress – no gates or sally ports are to be seen. They are three-quarters of the way around the structure, having walked along the high market and a second neighborhood, and rounding to the south side of the complex, before they can see the palace itself. For most of the south face the wall is absent, incomplete, though there are half-dug foundation trenches in some places, and marking rods and strings in others. Morgan has counted a total of eight towers in all, the last standing oddly by itself with no wall nearby.

The palace is two stories, nearly the height of the wall and thus invisible from outside. Between the unfinished wall and the palace is a huge pool, with a line of eight fountains down the center. The pool and fountains are dry, and their marble gleams brightly in the sun.

The palace itself is rectangular, some 250 feet wide and 150 feet deep, though the first floor of the main building is recessed from a great stone porch. Broad stairs ascend to the porch, while the second story overhangs above, supported by ten massive marble columns. The doors to the entry room are a pair of huge, wooden slabs, carved with an image she cannot make out at this distance. The palace appears to be structurally complete, but decorative carvings along the walls had only just begun before being abandoned.

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Since the whole complex seems to be deserted, Morgan considers approaching for a closer view, but just then a squad of soldiers appears in the western corner of the porch and marches down the steps. The main doors are still closed, and Morgan is not sure from where the soldiers exited the building. As the squad of six men and officer starts to make its way around the edge of the pool, Morgan continues her casual stroll, taking herself to a point where she is blocked from sight by one of three massive piles of cut stone which lies just outside where the wall should be. She whispers to Bhelgarn that he will need to get closer, but she daren’t. “Aye,” he says simply and moves off.

Morgan crouches behind the stone pile, unlacing and re-lacing her boot, listening for the tramp of the soldier’s feet. They appear to be moving to the west. To the east, she can see the villas of the wealthy, and more than one has a guard on its walls.

She has plenty of time to reflect on the palace as she waits for Bhelgarn to return. It seems odd to her that the palace has its back to the city, and its elaborate front facing the steep and barren hill to the south of town. It is a lovely view, to be sure, of green slopes, tiny goatherds with their flocks, and near the summit pine trees. But it bespeaks of the Duke turning his back on his own people. As she turns it around in her head she considers that it is perhaps more defensive. The buildings of the city press close against the palace wall to the east and west and would provide cover for any attackers, and even the stalls of the high market would protect attackers from being fired upon. If the as-yet-unbuilt gatehouse is to be on this southern side, it will command an open view and have a great field of fire. Still, the gatehouse could be put in “back” of the palace and have the front face the city.

It is a cool fall day and Morgan is glad she is on the south side of the stone pile, in the sun, and not in the shadow of the north side. The sun is much lower here than in Darokin, as low already in the fall as it is in the Darokin winter. Ah! Perhaps that is it. Certainly the front of the palace will have the sun in the winter while the back will be in darkness through the cold months.

While Morgan broods, Bhelgarn approaches the palace. He goes slow and careful, for within the bounds of the walls everywhere is new, hard flagstones and a careless step would echo across the empty courtyard. He walks once around the building for a brief survey. There are windows – some shuttered, some open, but all are on the second story. Around the back of the palace are three large chimneys that extend out from the stone wall. He sees no other obvious means of entry besides the main doors.

Back in the front of the palace, he checks the sun – they are supposed to be in the market in half an hour or so. He returns to the rear of the building and touches the stonework, beginning to push and probe, looking for any secret means of ingress.

[DM’s note: Bhelgarn can thoroughly search c. 1200 square feet in 10 minutes. 3600 square feet in 30 minutes, searching 10 feet high, is 360 linear feet of palace walls, which is all of the north wall and most of the west wall]

After half an hour he has searched less than half of the ground floor, and has found little but his sense of satisfaction at dwarven craftsmenship. He has noted several places in the rear of the palace where the stones are warm, warmer than they should be in the shade, and he suspects that chimneys have been built into the walls themselves rather than being added as structures beyond the walls. He returns to Morgan, and the two of them proceed to the market, casually avoiding a patrol of the ducal guard that appears to be inbound to the palace.

Ember and Thrud have walked from the Girdle, under the walls of the palace, around the edge of the high market, and arrived at the barracks of the ducal guard. The walls surrounding the barracks are as high as those of the palace, though without towers, and the whole complex is equal in size to that of the Duke’s home. The biggest difference is in age – the stones of the barracks walls are weather-worn and covered in moss and lichen. Ember figures the barracks are from the time of the Duke’s father, if not before.

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The whole thing is an odd trapezoid shape, with the shortest wall to the north and the broadest to the south, perhaps an artifact of the old city around it, for the neighborhoods crowd up against it on two sides and the Temple of Forsetta looms over it on a third. At the base of the walls is a narrow but deep defensive ditch – not a moat, just a deep chasm that would prevent any ram from assaulting the sturdy gates, of which there are five in all. Thrud and Ember, blending in with the local foot traffic, pass once completely around the walls. Two of the gates stand open, but only one (the easternmost of two on the south wall) has a thick, narrow plank across it so that a person might enter without having to scrabble in and out of the ditch. Nowhere do they see any men of the Ducal Guard, not even at the gate, although they have recently passed patrols of them in the streets.

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Ember and Thrud cross the plank and enter into the courtyard, which holds several buildings. Just inside the gate itself is a low, stone, windowless, single-story structure. It looks very solid and strong. Beyond it is a much larger structure of wood, built to two stories and with smoke rising from its stone chimneys. To their right is a large two-story wooden structure that could be a barn – there is a fourth building peeking out from beyond it.

With no one challenging them, Ember and Thrud continue into the courtyard. They can now see that a flimsy wooden 4’ wide catwalk runs around the entire perimeter of the wall on the inside, with here and there a makeshift ladder – but no guards are patrolling there. The gates they entered have braces for two bars on the inside, and the thick logs to match are leaned casually against the inside of the wall.

When they round the edge of the stone building, they have a better view. The wooden structure close at hand is indeed a barn, with a large set of double-doors open and facing them and a loft above. The smell of manure competes with that of roasting meat from the barracks before them. They can see two doors at ground level in the barracks, and a host of narrow, shuttered winders both on the ground floor and a second story above. Their inspection is cut short by the approach of two men, both in boiled leather jerkins with the tabards of the Ducal Guard worn over top.

The men begin by saying that they can’t be in here, and Ember apologizes, explaining that “it was open” and she could not find the guards. With her perfect nordic and a fetching smile, she diffuses the tension of the situation, but the men still insist that they must leave, before remembering to ask them their business. Thrud claims that he wants to join the Ducal Guard, what with the coming war. The men look him up and down, obviously impressed by his size and thick, corded muscles. They say that everyone is at dinner, but that he should return on the morrow and speak with the captain.

“Would that be Draco?” asks Ember, but the men shake their heads. Draco is the lord high commander of the Ducal Guard, but the captain of the guard is in charge of accepting recruits. The men try to turn them around and usher them out the gate, but Ember insists that they entered through a different gate, and walks forward across the courtyard. They protest and try to turn her back, but she strides ahead. The men are upset, but can’t seem to quite bring themselves to lay hands on what is obviously a priestess, and a winsome one at that.

Walking west along the base of the barracks, Ember and Thrud spy a narrow wooden stair rising on the outside of the structure to a door on the second story. On the western end of the building, flush as if a wing, is a one-story stone structure without windows. As they approach the western gate, which stands open, they have a good view of the fourth building inside the walls, small, wooden, and two-story but in need of repair. It is windowless.

“See,” says Ember, and gestures at the open gate, “this is how we came in.”

“I don’t think so,” says one of the guardsmen, pointing at the plank which does not cross the ditch but which instead is inside the gate, “unless you drew that in after yourselves.”

Ember laughs. “Silly me! I must have gotten completely turned around inside.”

Eager to usher them out, the men do not belabor the point but lay the plank down so that they can cross.

“Until tomorrow morning” says Ember, and one of the men repeats it, agreeing with her – but she catches a hint of regret on the face of the other. “Unless we see each other tonight? Where do the soldiers drink?” she asks, and one man smiles broadly, while the other scowls. “Thrud here would like to get to know his new companions,” she says to the scowling man, and after a second to sink in, Thrud nods.

“There’s taverns up and down all the streets around the barracks,” says the scowling man.

“But you can always find us guardsmen at the Laughing Gull,” says the smiling one.

“The Laughing Gull, then,” say Ember. She walks over the plank, followed by Thrud. When she turns to wave, the men are already drawing the plank back and then setting to close the gate. Ember and Thrud make their way up the street and to the market.

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Odleif and invisible FluffyKitten walked with Ember and Thrud as far as the high market, then turned west and headed for the foreign quarter. This area is populated by the immigrants from the Ethangarian Khanate. These nomadic steppe dwellers have established their own small community within the town of Rhoona, centered around the huge Temple of Cretia. The homes and shops of this area are arranged in a protective semicircle, with a wide gateway leading to the front of the temple. There are a few twisting alleys leading through the Ethangarian community, but the main street to the Temple is the only one Odleif thinks he can take without attracting undue notice. FluffyKitten practically hangs on his pantsleg the whole time, so he is confident of not losing her.

The poorest people appear to live live on the outer fringes of the sector, in shacks and hide tents, while the wealthiest members live on the inside, facing the temple, in odd buildings that resemble a carpenter’s interpretation of a yurt, with the hide walls replaced by wood. Several shops and stores also face the temple, and Odleif notes blacksmiths, butchers, leatherworkers, wainwrights, and a carpenter, as well as several food merchants. Though his pale skin and odd clothes mark him instantly as a non-Ethengari, there are norsemen come to trade with these people in the crowd with him.

Once inside the Ethangarian sector, much activity is visible – people and animals all about the place. Children, in particular, and dogs are ubiquitous – both of them traveling in small packs. The Temple of Cretia is a massive stone structure, and only three doorways are visible, all on the front wall. All of these portals are made of sturdy wood, and all of them are closed. Children play on the steps of the temple, and there are no non-Ethengari nearby. Odleif will have little luck approaching any closer without attracting attention to himself.

Instead, he whispers to FluffyKitten to do her thing. In the plaza before the temple, an old Ethengari man is exercising, or perhaps training, his horse – running it in circles about him on the end of a long lead while he flicks it lightly with a stiff whip. Odleif approaches and tries to make conversation, but the man knows no Common and he no Ethengari, so he resorts to gesturing in admiration at the horse.

FluffyKitten pulls away from Odleif, at first thinking to join the playing children but them remembering that she is here to scout the temple. She passes all along the low stone wall, all the way back to the shore of the fjord at the rear of the temple, but sees no windows. The building is only a single story, though she supposes there might be an attic under its peaked slate roof.

The Ethangari houses crowd close to the temple along its sides, but at the rear, there is nothing between it and the water. Also at the rear of the building is a single chimney extending out from the wall and rising above the roofline. There is, to her surprise, a window roughly in the center of the wall, and one with panes of glass besides, the only one she has seen in the building so far!

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Fluffy tries to climb the wall below the window, but there is no sill and the stones are smooth and without purchase. She continues around the corner of the building, just far enough to see that there are no windows along the entire north side as well, then returns to the rear of the temple.

She puzzles a minute – if she cannot climb to the window from below – perhaps she can let herself down from above? The roofline is not even ten feet above the window at its center, and the window is not in the center of the wall. Fluffy goes to the base of the chimney. Here the stones are rougher-cut, the mortar-gaps thicker, than the walls. She chances a trial hold – the stones are warm and dry. Securing her gear about her, she climbs up and is soon on the roof.

The slates are new and dry, and she easily makes her way over to the part of the roof above the window. Lying on her stomach and peering over the edge of the roof, she finds that the roof itself, including the soffit and fascia, is of wood, although it has been slated over. It is awkward work, but by moving as far out over the lip of the roof as she dares, and reaching out as far with her arm as she can, she is able to drive the blade of her dagger between two boards of the fascia, all the way up to the hilt. It takes her several tries and is quite noisy. She looks around nervously between each blow, forgetting for the moment that she is invisible.

Fluffy tests the dagger, trying to wiggle it, but it seems firmly embedded in the wood. Retreating to the roof, she ties two knots in her rope – a small and self-tightening one for the dagger handle, and a larger, loose one in which she can sit like a swing, and which will keep her from hitting the ground if she falls. It is hard to tie a knot when you can’t see the rope, but she finds that if she lets the rope lie on the roof rather than holding it up, it becomes visible.

Fluffy slides the small knot over the end of the dagger and cinches it. She hesitates, takes a breath, and slides over the edge of the roof. There is the briefest moment of falling, and then she slams into the stone wall – still suspended from the dagger. She grins to herself and begins to hum happily as she lowers herself down the rope until she is sitting in her swing in front of the window.

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Through the large, glass-paned window in the middle of the room’s west wall, Fluffy can see that the room (54) contains a large bed, a table and chairs, an open closet, and a colorful tapestry on one wall. The drop from the window to the ground outside is only five feet. The most striking feature in the room is the tall, gaunt, bald man clad in a black robe. He is sitting at the table reading some documents, with his face to Fluffy and using the light from the window to illuminate his papers. Fluffy examines the window carefully, but it is set into the wall without any way to open it besides breaking the panes. After five minutes the man has done little besides shuffle papers, so Fluffy begins an ascent of the rope.

She makes it back to the roof, pries loose her dagger, and goes over to the chimney. Smoke rises, but it is not thick, and carries with it the rich smell of roasting meat. It is a broad chimney, from a large hearth…Fluffy-sized? She climbs up on top and peers down. Less than fifteen feet down she can see the light of the fire reflected on the back of the chimney, and no grate or other obstruction that would block her passage. It is narrow, but that just means she will be able to use her arms and legs to brace herself, rather than her rope.

Fluffy takes a deep breath, then lowers herself, using just enough pressure so that she slides slowly down the walls, stopping when she can stand on the smoke shelf. Just below her, a kid goat on a spit is roasting over hot coals. By now she is out of her saved-up breath and has to inhale. Her eyes water and she fights back a cough. If she can angle it right, she can jump out of the hearth without landing on the coals with her bare feet.

Fluffy tries to maneuver herself into position with her arms, but as her palm brushes against the hot stone of the chimney she burns herself, jerks away involuntarily, and falls. Landing on the goat, she knocks one end of the the spit into the coals, then rolls out into a kitchen, coughing and gasping. She tries to shake the soot off her arms and legs so as not to track it over the clean kitchen floor, smells burning flesh, and turns back to see that one end of the goat has fallen into the coals and is smoking. She raises the spit back into its brace.

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Fluffy looks about the clean and well-furnished cooking area (53). Besides the hearth, several wooden counters, a closed brick oven, and a pantry are visible. Long tallow candles provide illumination. She is not looking long before the door bursts open and two Ethangari men – cooks, not guards – come in. One grabs mitts and pulls a covered dish from the oven, while the other starts opening the pantry and begins to remove porcelain plates and silver flatware. When the burned spot on the kid is noticed, the men begin yelling and gesticulating at one another. Fluffy moves to what she takes to be the least-used corner of the room.

Eventually one of the men begins to gather up the table settings and exits the door. He returns for more, and on his next exit Fluffy is right behind him. They emerge into a dining area (52), and a richly-furnished one at that.

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The table and chairs are of gleaming dark wood, and have been skillfully crafted. Several paintings hang on the walls, depicting waves of grass below awesome mountain peaks. An exquisitely detailed tapestry hangs on the wall by the kitchen, picturing masses of Ethangarian riders storming through the army of some foe, and a crystal chandelier hangs over the table.

As the man lays the table, Fluffy makes a quick circuit of the room, finding two doors. While the man is in the kitchen, she tries the one leading to a study (51).

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In this comfortable room, two low chairs are set around a small table, and a small desk is against the wall. The desk is bare, but there is a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table. Fluffy quickly goes through the desk drawers, but finds only quills, ink pots, parchment, sand, and the like. She makes to slip out the door – but finds it locked.

She returns to the door to the dining room and lays her ear against it. Judging the man to be out of the room, she opens it and is closing the door behind her just as he enters. He sets a bottle of wine and a crystal goblet on the table, but then comes to examine the door, looking about curiously before returning to his duties.

By now the table is mostly set – besides the porcelain and flatware she saw before there are now two linen serviettes. A large silver platter has a great bed of rice with most of the kid on it, less the burned quarter. There is a plate of greens and a thin root stew, and a pot of tea in addition to the wine. Although there are many chairs, the service is set for one only.

Fluffy tries the other door, and finds herself an open hallway leading to the room with the man in the black robes. He is still poring over his papers, but now an oil lamp burns on his table. The door behind Fluffy opens and one of the men from the kitchen enters, bowing low but not speaking as he approaches the bald man. The man says a few words in Ethangari, then begins clearing his table of the documents as the servant retreats. Fluffy’s attention is drawn to the tapestry, which she can see now appears to be a large map, complete with a trail marked in red and a large “X” on the side of a mountain.

Several minutes later the servant reappears, with a laden plate which he sets in front of the bald man. He brings the rest of the dinner in over the course of several trips, pours wine, and otherwise attends the man. Fluffy slinks back to the study, and returns with parchment, quill, and ink. While the man in black robes eats, she makes a copy of the map. The hardest part is juggling the parchment, quill, and ink pot simultaneously, for if she sets any one of them down, it becomes visible, and the servant has been through the door nearing on a dozen times.

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The area of land depicted in the tapestry

Near the end of her copying, Fluffy finds herself stifling an ever-more urgent cough. Finally, she is forced to retreat from the room. One of the serving men is still in the dining room, but when his back is to her she is able to slip in to the kitchen, where the other man is washing up. The goat is gone from the spit, but he has revived the coals and is boiling water on the hearth. Fluffy chokes back coughs all the way up the chimney, until finally back on the roof she can let free, spitting up dark phlegm. She climbs down the outside of the chimney and dashes off to find Odleif, who is still watching the horsetrainer at work. He does not see her, but can hear her wheezy coughs from below him. Together they walk to the high market.

Once the half-dozen comrades of the party find one another, they discuss their next move. Morgan wants to go to the Laughing Gull and pump the soldiers of the ducal guard for information. At the same time, she is desirous of finding an inn where they can have a private room. Returning to the Girdle, she asks the bartender about an inn. He says he doesn’t know of any. Rhoona, he says, is the first stop (or last, depending on how you look at it) of the caravan trail, and all of the local merchants have their own warehouses and villas and are in no need of inns. What little traffic there is of foreigners in the city has to content themselves with shared floorspace in the common rooms of the taverns.

Ember uses four orisons on Fluffy, who is still coughing fitfully.

Fluffy unrolls her copied map and they all have a look. Ember and Thrud believe that it shows the trade route over the mountains from Ethangar to Vestland, and next to the trail is a picture of a cave mouth in the side of a high peak. The map has a red blot on it at the crest of the pass separating the two countries.

Leaving Poncherius and Wolfbane to pack their gear and ready the camels, the party goes out in search of an inn. They do not find one, but working their way along the row of shops facing the Ducal Guard Barracks, they come upon tiny Delightful Dahlia’s. The common room barely fits a trestle table and two benches, and would be crowded were it not currently empty.

“No custom today?” inquires Morgan.

“Oh, I do well enough when the ale is flowing,” says the proprietress. “But since the Duke required taxes be paid in beer, I have neither ale nor beer, and my regulars don’t come here for my cooking.”

Morgan says that perhaps the party can help, then asks Dalhia how much to rent out the place just for them, exclusively, as they have ‘private business’ to address. Dahlia considers, then says for 8 gold she will let them have the entire place for the night – the common room below and her private bedroom, at the top of the stairs. She will make them dinner, leave after the washing up, and be back in the morning to make the bread. The party doesn’t take long to decide that is a great deal – the only hitch being she has no stable.

“The women get the bedroom,” declares Morgan in a tone that brooks no argument.

“What about you, where will you sleep?” Ember asks Dahlia.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll stay at my boyfriend’s for the night,” she says with a gap-toothed grin. “But I’ll be back before sunrise to start breakfast – so just make sure you’re done with whatever ‘private business’ you have before then”, she adds with a wink.

The party splits, half of them to return to the Crystal Girdle and move their gear, and the other half to look for a stable closer to Dahlia’s. A block away, and east of the barracks, they find the Grinning Goblin, with a large, empty stable. FluffyKitten is with the group that goes to the Girdle, but she hasn’t been there five minutes when she says “Boring,” to no one in particular, and is not heard from for a long while. It takes that group a while to realize that she is gone (what with her being invisible), and they are not sure what to do. Finally Ember sighs. “She knows where Dahlia’s is”, she says, “she’ll have to find us, since we certainly can’t look for her.”

FluffyKitten has decided that with the dwarves all leaving Rhoona so quickly, perhaps they have left something of interest behind – and their living quarters are so near the Girdle, she has to explore. If the party is moving to Dahlia’s, it might be some time before she could convince the party to come this way. They don’t really listen to her, anyway.

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The Crystal Girdle Tavern (square), less than 50 yards from the nearest former bunk house of the dwarven masons

When Fluffy arrives at the bunkhouses a few minutes later, she finds a patrol of the Ducal Guard. They are going from building to building. From the smattering of words she is able to pick up, Fluffy gathers that they are checking to make sure that all the dwarves have left – since they were given until sundown to make it out of town. Her strategy is simple then. Wait for them to search a building and leave, and then she will enter it behind them – the least likely place for them to find her is where they have just looked.

The bunkhouses are certainly built well, of solid stone, but are cheerless places as befits the sour old dwarves. There is nothing in the way of comfy pillows and thick blankets, pies on windowsills, spinny toys or anything else that by rights one should have in a house, thinks Fluffy. She spends nearly two hours in the eleven different buildings, until she loses the light and starts fumbling around and making too much noise. There is plenty there, but most of it is things that are worn and need to be mended or fixed – things that no one would bother to take with them if they were being marched out of town. She does find a few things in good repair – a grappling hook and a pair of scissors for herself, a bolt of raw cloth which she looks at but decides to leave, some knives which she carries around for a while and then abandons, a handful of bronze beard beads she plans on giving to Bhelgarn, and pack of crossbow bolts for Poncherius.

Gear and camels relocated, the party crowds around the trestle table in Dahlia’s enjoying a filling stew of bulgar wheat and potatoes, as well as brown bread with anchovy paste. Bhelgarn has no trencher set for him, and with Dahlia constantly moving from kitchen to common room, he is forced to eat off the trenchers of the others. He breaks off great pieces of bread when she is not looking, and uses it to sop up the stew from this person’s trencher and then the others. When his grumbles of displeasure grow too loud, Morgan announces to the room, “Boy, I sure am glad I’m not a dwarf in Rhoona right now – I’d hate to be shaved and stretched, you know.”

Ale is conspicuously absent from the table, and Dahlia has neither wine, mead, nor spirits for sale. The party is reduced to drinking boiled water with mint, which Ember assures them is quite healthy but which “defeats the purpose of staying at an inn,” says Morgan. “If I wanted mint tea I could be camping on the caravan trail.”

“At least you get a bed tonight,” rejoins Thrud.

After dinner, when Dahlia is washing up, the party sets a watch schedule, starting at ten. “That gives me time to find a place that is serving something potable and still get back before first watch,” says Morgan, “I believe I will visit the Lucky Gull.” Thrud and Odleif immediately agree to accompany her, and after a second, Ember announces that she should go as well for their own good. Bhelgarn only issues a non-corporal sigh and Poncherius is not following the conversation in Common anyway. Wolfbane sees the chance to be the first person in the single bed the three women will be sharing for the night and retires early.

It is after Dahlia has left but before the foursome has set out when FluffyKitten finally arrives, slipping incorporeally through the front door and yelling “Dinnertime for Fluffy” in her shrill voice. Ember, both angry and relieved, helps her find the leftovers. All of the anchovy paste is gone, but there is nearly enough bread and stew to satisfy her. Through mouthfuls of stew she tells Ember, in halfling, what she found in the dwarven bunkhouses, and Ember translates for the party.

Fluffy wrinkles up her invisible nose when she learns of the plans of the others to go to the tavern, and so she goes upstairs to join Wolfbane in bed.

The streets are dark when the four prospective carousers set forth, but the Lucky Gull is on the same block, a scant fifty paces away and they need pass only three shops, two alleyways, and a different tavern (the Rocky Point) before they arrive. Five members of the ducal guard are there, drinking and laughing. They are wearing boiled leather and have shortswords on their belts, but their helmets are on the table, their tabards off, folded, and placed far from where they might be spilled on.

Morgan strides in first and smells the ale before she even sees it in their steins. “Ale!” she shouts at the barkeep. “How fortunate we are to have found the only tavern in the city still serving ale! Four steins, please!”

The man looks at her sourly. “I’ve just found the one keg in the basement today, didn’t know I had it. It’s for regulars only.”

“That’s alright,” counters Morgan brightly, “tomorrow we four are joining the guard. We’ll be regulars soon enough.”

After a long pause, the barkeep says “It’s five silvers a flagon.” This price seems designed to dissuade her – being about ten times what it “should” be.

Morgan reaches into a pouch, takes out two gold coins, and tosses them on the bar. “Then we’ll take four, for starters. Top off the steins of our friends here,” she says, indicating the soldiers.

Once they are sitting amongst the guardsmen (except for Odlief, who prefers to drink alone), with their steins filled, and Ember and Thrud speaking nordic, the party finds an easy acceptance and relaxes for a bit. And then Morgan starts to probe.

“So, war is upon us, eh? Any of you worried?”

“Worried? Why should we be? We are led by Draco Stormsailor! The Duke sent those dwarves packing, and if they come back, Draco will know how to deal with them!”

“So you want to fight them?”

“Of course, you know how rich dwarves are! Now, there won’t be women or kine for plunder, to be sure, but I bet every dwarf we kill has ten gold rings.”

“Have you ever killed a dwarf before?”

“I haven’t had the chance, but how hard can it be, they are so little and all.”

“Well, you may see them as little ‘cause all you’ve seen is masons and such – have you ever seen a dwarven army, all clad in plate armor with crossbows and war hammers? Are you sure you know what you’re doing? ‘Cause I don’t think your little walls and gates will stand much chance…”

“Walls! What do we need walls for? A chicken fence is higher than a dwarf! Draco faced sea serpents and aquatic ogres and far worse than dwarves in his wild days. He’ll know what to do.”

At this point, Thrud feels the need to interject. “If Draco is so good at slaying monsters, why doesn’t he do anything about the dragon?”

“What dragon?”

“The black dragon of the Vast Swamp.”

“The Vast Swamp? That’s in Soderfjord – let those squabblers take care of their own problems.”

“Squabblers? What is wrong with Soderfjord?”

“Wrong? Well, nothing is really wrong, I mean they are good nordic folk and all, but they’re not even a nation! They don’t have a king! Just those jarls that fight each other all the time. If they would ever take a break from their bickering with each other, I’m sure they could rout a dragon, and not have to ask our Draco to deal with it.”

“Forget the dragon,” interjects Morgan. “You have bigger problems. ‘Cause the dwarves are coming, and I don’t think you’re ready!”

You don’t think? Who cares what you think! Some southern half-giant trollop and two Soderfjorders don’t have the right to dictate war policy in Rhoona…”

Who threw the first punch? That’s hard to say, things happened so fast. Morgan and Thrud lept to their feet, to be sure. Two of the guards grabbed Thrud, one on each arm, while a third squared off against him. Ember launched her stein at a guard while Morgan went for another. Thrud grabbed the two men holding him and brought their heads together, and one collapsed, unconscious. Odleif used his magic boots to leap across the room, but didn’t land well. The whole thing was over fast enough. The party members took a few punches, to be sure, but in less than a minute all five of the guards had been knocked out. To their credit, none of them, guards or party, ever reached to draw their swords, and used only their fists (and the stein thrown by Ember).

While Ember watched the street nervously, Morgan propped the men back up on their stools, putting them in suggestive poses. “You need to leave!” hollered the barkeep, but Morgan was in no hurry. “You have assaulted the Ducal Guard! I want you out of my tavern, now!”

Satisfied with her work, Morgan finally turned to address the barkeep. “I am truly sorry…” she said, “…for all the ale we spilled. Such a tragic waste.”

And with that, the four of them left, walking cheerfully back along the night street to Dahlia’s.

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Post 37 - Something is rotten in Rhoona

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The city of Backwater, where animals roam the streets overlooking the Saltfjord River and the air is hazy with smoke

Backwater was apparently named for its proximity to the Great Marsh, or perhaps for being at the “back” of the Saltfjord River, and not for its size. It is in fact the capital and largest city of the Jarldom of Hedden, and has several thousand people. Still, there is little central planning, and once inside the great timber palisade, the party is confronted by a bewildering array of dirt streets, with animals roaming freely, and everything obscured by a haze of smoke from a thousand hearthfires. The rest of the party is indeed grateful for Ember and Thrud, who are able to speak with the locals and find their way through the maze of streets and buildings while they lead the camels.

The party finds a comfortable inn for the night with somewhat begrudging stabling for the camels, and they are glad again for Ember, who smooths things over with the innkeeper. Morgan begins to talk about exchanging their camels for pack horses, or even for passage on a longship, but after some discussion it is decided that they will need more information to make that decision. Rhoona lies to the west, but plans are made to strike for Soderjord City instead, as both Ember and Thrud have business there and it is just a day’s further travel.

Ember and Thrud listen carefully to the conversations in the inn that evening, seeking information about the situation in Rhoona, but learn nothing they did not hear before in Castellan. Other talk is of the upstart young black dragon, and how the summer raiding season is going.

The next day the party is up early, and out along the road to Soderfjord city. They pass through many small communities and the trail leads through beautiful green country along the southern bank of the fjord. The fields are full and ripe for harvest, and the road is busy with travelers.

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The road from Backwater to Soderfjord City

On the low, level ground the camels are easy to ride, even with Wolfbane and FluffyKitten sharing a saddle, and they make excellent time, reaching Soderfjord in the evening. The city gates are still open, but most businesses are closed or closing. Ember and Thrud both grew up here (though Thrud has been away for much of his adult life, in the warbands of many different jarls), so they are natural guides and easily find the party a comfortable inn. They meet briefly, talking about their plans for the morrow. Then, tired from a long day’s travel, they retire for the night without staying in the common room to hear the gossip of the city.

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The great walled city of Soderfjord

The next morning Wolfbane agrees to stay at the inn and mind their gear. Thrud plans on returning home to his family, while Bhelgarn and Poncherius will visit the dwarven community. Morgan and Odleif will check the docks and stockyards, while Ember will take FluffyKitten to the Temple of Glöð.

Thrud’s father, a blacksmith in the Old City, has not seen him for the better part of a year, and is overjoyed. Thrud shows him Zargon’s horn, and tries to tell of his adventures, but he can never complete a tale. Just as he is well underway, his father spies a neighbor or a friend in the street, and interrupts to insist that they come and listen as well, and that Thrud begin again. By afternoon the shop is full and the forge is cold, the day’s work forgotten, and plans are being made for a feast that evening. When Thrud asks his father and the neighbors about Rhoona, they reply the more trouble the crazy Vestlanders want to stir up the better – less dwarven goods in the city means more work for them.

Bhelgarn, nearby in the forge district, hears the other side of the coin. Although the nordic people have long been allies of the dwarves, the trouble in Rhoona is stirring up tensions, and many in the local human populace are saying they would be better off without competition from the dwarves. This is, of course, foolish, since humans cannot hope to craft things as well as dwarven smiths – but then, humans are notoriously shortsighted.

Morgan and Odlief spend the day acquiring enough information to plan the party’s next move. In the stockyards, they find that camels are not much in demand in the Jarldoms, as they are little use in the winter and either refuse to go, or do not fit, on longships. The traditional nordic horses Morgan finds are little larger than ponies, and are often carried on longships. They are rugged creatures and strong for their size, but cannot carry nearly as much as a camel. They are certainly better animals for combat, being both swifter in a dash and more aggressive, but for overland transport the camels are clearly superior, being able to carry more and go further in a day. Morgan concludes that if they are to take the overland trading route they will want to keep their camels, but if they opt to go by sea they will need to exchange them for horses and ship’s passage. The traders in the yards tell them that the overland trade route is 192 miles from Soderfjord to Landersfjord, which would take them perhaps eight days with horses. From there, they can either cut cross-country to Rhoona (shorter, but off-trail through the wilderness), or stay on the trade route for another 176 miles. Altogether it is a journey of perhaps two weeks to Rhoona by land.

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Nordic horses are little bigger than ponies by Darokite standards

At the docks, Morgan and Odleif learn that, when the wind is with them, longships are far faster than horses or even camels – but when the wind is against them, they must use rowed movement, which is slower even than walking. The square sails do not permit tacking, so they are highly dependent on wind direction. From Soderfjord out to the sea will be rapid with the wind behind them; moving up the Vestfjord River to Rhoona will almost certainly be rowed. Out on the open sea – who knows? Perhaps a priest of Njord could tell them, but the sailors cannot. Morgan presses for an “average” and is told around two weeks – but that it could be anywhere from less than a week to as much as a month, all depending on the wind.

Morgan prefers a guaranteed two weeks by the trail (or perhaps less, with camels) to a chance at two weeks by sea, and it will allow them to keep the camels for the time being, and not lose value in changing them to horses. In fact, she returns to the markets to see if she cannot pick up more camels. As luck would have it, there is an Alaysian trader who had brought oils, spices, and bronzewear from the south to Soderfjord, and who is planning on returning laden with narwhal horn, walrus tusk, and silver. He finds himself with more camels than he needs for the return trip, and after a bit of haggling agrees to sell two of them, plus saddles and pack harness. Morgan also picks up food and cattle feed for five days, returns to the inn, and celebrates with large quantities of mead.

Ember and FluffyKitten spend the day at the Mother Temple. It has been only a few months since Ember left as a novice, and she is now returning as a priestess. Her sister novices are thrilled to see her, and her superiors are pleased, and talk about scheduling her priesthood ceremony, and selecting a kirk to serve. Ember, however, is more interested in discussing the situation in Rhoona, and upon hearing this, a messenger is sent to the Temple of Forsetta.

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Mother Temple of Glöð, Soderfjord City

FluffyKitten is given honeycakes and small beer, shown the temple and gardens, and plays cats-cradle with the youngest of the novices, just stripling girls like Ember was when she arrived at the temple. Ember herself asks to learn the prayer for speaking with animals, and is taught it. Her superiors are quite impressed that she has learned as many prayers as she has “on her own”, and remark that it is a sure sign of the favor of Glöð.

Ember has one close friend among the novices who pledged to keep track of her brother for her while she was away, and tells her that her brother is working the summer raiding season on a coastal guard longship based out of Soderfjord. As soon as Ember arrives, the young woman asks permission to go to the docks. When she returns, she tells Ember that they patrol up and down the coast near the city, and he is in port around once a week – but has not been seen for several days. She promises to give him word of Ember’s arrival and any message.

In the afternoon Ember is taken to the Temple of Forsetta. There she meets with several of their priests. The temples do not have an international hierarchy, but they do communicate with one another, and the priests of this temple have been in contact with their brothers in Rhoona, who are quite concerned about the situation there. They are desirous of someone trustworthy to investigate. They dare not do so themselves, for going against the duke would be treason – but they have sent a discrete plea for outside aid within the fraternity of their churches. When Ember says that she would be willing to help, the priests are both grateful and relieved, and prepare her a letter of introduction to their counterparts in Rhoona.

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Ember is taken to the temple of Forsetta

Evening finds everyone but Thrud back at the inn for the meal, and Ember tells the others that he is likely with his father and not to worry. She will go for him in the morning and be at the city gate before Morgan has the camels loaded and ready.

Morgan rouses the party before dawn, and has them sorting gear and loading the camels. She finds her throbbing head helps her focus her biting comments. Ember is glad to slip away and after asking a few people along the way has no trouble finding the hut of Thrud’s father, though she has never been there before. Thrud is still sleeping off last night’s feast, but she wakes him and tells him they are departing. His father is loath to see him go so soon, but when Ember explains that they have to resolve the situation in Rhoona before there is bloodshed, he does not gainsay the priestess.

Thrud and Ember find the rest of the party at the city gate, and together they spend the day on a return trip to Backwater.

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Back in Backwater

After they pack the camels the next morning, Ember negotiates a ferry passage across the Saltfjord River. The number of barges capable of transporting the camels is limited, but by using several ferrymen and a few return trips, they are able to get across for 5 coppers per person, and another 10 per camel.

As they organize on the far bank, Morgan readies them for the overland trek to Landersfjord. She tells them she hopes that the last four nights in beds have not made them soft, as they have about 200 miles to go before that is an option again.

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The overland trade route from Backwater to Landersfjord

The first day’s travel is through lowland pine forest. Here and there along the way are forester thorps, where poor carls eke out a living cutting timber and raising hogs and root vegetables. The second day they rise into the dry hills. The settlements are still sparse and cluster along the banks of streams, but are a bit more prosperous with cattle and small fields of wheat and barley. This is poor country with thin soil, and those in the party not from Soderfjord now understand why income from the sea, whether fishing or raiding, is so important in the Jarldoms.

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A village in the dry hills

By the end of the day the trail leads to the banks of a large stream that must be crossed. The fisherfolk of the place (Bornford) tell the party that the stream is actually the upper reaches of the Bornfjord River, and marks the boundary between the Soderfjord Jarldoms and the Kingdom of Vestland. Through a combination of quaint stone bridges over the deep sections, wading through calf-deep water in the shallow parts, and a few dry gravel beds, the party leads their camels across and makes camp on the far side. The fisherfolk agree to trade the jerky the party had planned to sup on for fresh-caught fish at the evening meal.

On the third day of travel the trail rises up into rugged, often forested, hills. The settlements grow farther and farther apart, and by day’s end they camp at the base of an impressive-looking mountain range. The deciduous leaves of the forests are changing, and on the slopes above them have even fallen. It is beautiful traveling weather during the day, but the nights are chilly. While still above freezing, Ember and Thrud tell them that they need to get to Rhoona before the first snowstorm or the roads could become impassable.

Early on the fourth day the trail passes its summit, and starts to descend, indicating that they are entering the Landersfjord valley. By midday they can see the river below them, and by afternoon the city at the end of the trail. Most of the city is on the far bank, so they pay for another ferry crossing and are able to find an inn as the streets darken. Conversation in the common room is dominated by the subject of Rhoona. The Vestlanders here are considerably more sympathetic to the duke than the Soderfjorders were, and believe that he is defending his people against the dwarves, but people are still concerned, and speculate as to the cause of the conflict and what the King may do in response. The only real new information the party is able to gather is that Stefan Rhoona has recently issued a decree that all crown taxes must be paid in beer, rather than coin! That has more than a few of the Vestlanders scratching their heads.

The party discusses where they will travel next, debating the value in reaching Rhoona sooner by heading overland. All along their route so far, the common folk have asked them if they have seen any giants come down from the mountains. Now Ember and Thrud are warning of snowstorms. It does not take them long to decide that they will stay on the trade trail around the Norrvik peninsula.

The next day they set out north along the trade trail, arriving at the city of Haverfjord well before dusk. They are nearly out of food, so Morgan calls for an early halt, a night at an inn, and a day of rest and re-supply on the morrow. Discussion at the inn is over the duke’s strange decree, and the party hears rampant speculation as to its cause. Some say it is because the dwarves have been passing false gold coins in Rhoona, some believe it is another way to get the dwarves to leave. “His Grace stopped paying them a month ago, but the creatures are squatting on human land and won’t clear out! Once the ale dries up, they’ll leave town soon enough.” Bhelgarn feels more than one unkind stare in the common room, and for the first time since arriving in the northlands he is justifiably uneasy.

In the morning, Bhelgarn elects to remain at the inn, with Wolfbane and Poncherius, while the others are out shopping. The looks he is getting from the servants at the inn are enough for him, without risking a confrontation with strangers in the city. The others have no difficulty securing supplies.

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The Norrvik peninsula

The party sets out of Haverfjord the next day. The city is set at the base of the dry hills and the source of the Marsfjord River. As they travel north, the land grows greener and the farms larger, eventually interspersed with dairy pastures. They are now close enough to the sea to have reliable rain, and the country is full of verdant fields such as they saw around Soderfjord. Ten miles out from the city they turn away from the river and head up in to the forested hills. The rest of the day is spent along the trail through towering pine forests.

By late afternoon they have crested the spine of the peninsula and are coming down the Norrvik slope, passing through a series of light forests and open meadows. Before them, a caravan is spread out – along the trail, but also off the sides of the trail. It is not traveling, but not encamped, either. Everywhere is chaos – merchants arguing with guards, guards arguing with drovers, pack animals are milling about in confusion. Morgan finds the guard captain and asks what is going on.

The caravan was about to cross the meadow just over the next rise, when advance scouts encountered a huge black bull. They tried to drive it away from the trail, for wild bulls will often charge pack horses. However, as they approached it, it charged them – and they were turned to stone! Now the merchants are demanding that the guards slay it or drive it away, while the guards are threatening to quit if they are sent after the beast.

The party moves quietly up to the ridge to assess the situation. Sure enough, in the bowl-shaped meadow, three stone statues of guards are on the trail, while a huge bull grazes nearby. Fluffy is sent ahead to scout. She gets close to, and then moves beyond, the beast. She conceals herself behind a bush and takes out her sling. Wolfbane uses phantasmal force and ventriloquism to distract it while Ember, Thrud, Bhelgarn, and Morgan move into melee range. Odleif provides missile support from atop the ridge. After the creature has been angered by missile fire, Morgan taunts it into charging her, then webs the space between two of the statues, entangling the creature and enabling the party to finish it off (after she barely escapes its curious green breath weapon). FluffyKitten takes a large piece of its hide, with an eye to making a cape with the stuff. The leathery hide is not covered with hair – rather some sort of stony-hard serpentine scales!

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The terrible petrifying bull creature

Returning to the caravan, the party finds themselves the heroes of the day, and even Bhelgarn gets hearty claps on the back and an invitation to share their meal. Morgan is more practical and asks the merchant master to pass a hat among the traders – she comes away with 20 gold coins which are added to the party funds. They camp that night with the caravan.

The next day the party, moving well-ahead of the caravan, comes down out of the highland forest to the coastal plains, and arrives at the great city of Norrvik, capital of Vestland and seat of the King. It is still afternoon by the time they arrive and they have some time for shopping after finding a suitable inn.

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The docks of Norrvik

FluffyKitten insists that they can find tanners and leatherworkers who can show her how to fashion a cloak from her bull-hide in a few hours. Ember visits shops with her, but the halfling becomes petulant when the master leatherworkers refuse to agree with her that their years of apprenticeship and training can be condensed into an hour lesson.

Odleif buys a quiver of “sheaf arrows.” He has been using Alaysian “flight arrows”: light shafts for long-range mounted combat in the open desert. These norsemen are used to fighting in thick forest, in raids on towns, or between ships. They prefer an arrow with a heavier head, less range, but a greater potential for damage.

That night, the talk of the common room is news of Rhoona. The party learns that the King of Vestland has recently sent a diplomatic delegation to the duke on the pretext of assessing his fall harvest and tax liability, but with a clearly implied mission to question him about the situation in the duchy. The most recent gossip is that the duke has issued a new decree – that anyone riding a horse within the limits of the city must be mounted backwards! This is a clear indication to most that something is rotten in Rhoona. However, the party still finds some people holding forth in support of the duke, and they hear arguments like the wealthy merchants and nobles are in league with the dwarves, and this is his grace’s way of humbling them (since common carls might well own beasts of burden, but not riding horses).

The next day’s travel is through the farming and dairy country along the coast, passing through the city of Bergen at mid-day, but not stopping. At day’s end they camp off the trail in the forest. A further day of travel takes them up into forested hills and finally, in the afternoon, to where the trail ends, at the ferry docks across the Vestfjord River from Rhoona.

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Across the river from Rhoona

The ferryman spits into the water when he sees Bhelgarn, but Ember speaks politely to him and he doesn’t say much after agreeing to a price. After several crossings, the party finally stands in the Old Town on the east shore of Rhoona City.

On their way in to the city, the party noted sheep, goats, cows, and horses all herded in the rugged but fertile country around the town. There are a number of taverns and fish shops along the waterfront, but no inns in sight (the flop houses frequented by sailors do not even have stables, let alone accommodations for camels). With the exception of the unfinished Ducal palace and portions of three large temples, all of the buildings in Rhoona appear to be made of wood, with either wooden or sod roofs. They are predominantly one story tall, and all but the largest are of one room.

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Rhoona City, nestled in the fork of a fjord

When Ember asks the ferryman for an inn that would be able to accommodate their beasts, preferably one close to the palace, the man indicates the docks on the other side of town and suggests a place called “The Crystal Girdle.” “They’re more like to serve his kind there,” he adds, hooking a thumb at Bhelgarn.

Between the camels and their dwarf, the party certainly attracts attention as they move through the streets and past the market square. As it turns out, the Crystal Girdle is just a block from the Ducal Palace and overlooks the barracks where the dwarven laborers are quartered. The stables are ample, but there are no private rooms – guests have a space on the floor in the common room. This does not sit well with Morgan, but Ember says it will do for one night as she has business at the Temple of Forsetta and does not have time to look for another place before dark.

The innkeep agrees to take them on, as well as their camels, and after stabling the beasts they begin to haul their gear in to the common room. At present there are some ten sailors, five maids, a petty merchant, and a dwarf in the common room.

The dwarf has a sour look on his face, but nods politely as Bhelgarn enters and mumbles, “greetings, cousin” in Dwarven, and then “Grimmvat Stonebreak, mason.”

The atmosphere in the tavern is quiet and solemn, with a conspicuous lack of drinking. Thrud orders an ale, and the barkeep shakes his head sadly and says that they have no beer or ale available. At present they are only serving mead, wine, and brandy. “If yu can aford it,” says one of the sailors darkly, and the others glare at the dwarf, who is drinking a watered-down wine and clearly not enjoying it.

Grimmvat grumbles irately about “human mismanagement.” After a short time, the party has all of their gear stowed, in a corner away from the door and the other customers. Throats are dry but Ember cautions Morgan it would be impolite to drink in front of the others without offering them something.

Grimmvat grows more vocal as he grumbles, “Blasted decrees! Where does the Duuke git these haarbrained ideas, anyhoo? If dwarves were in charge…”

The other patrons are clearly unhappy with his words, but the dwarf is burly and conspicuously wears a large stone mason’s hammer on his belt. None of them seem eager for a fight.

Ember slips out, promising to be back as soon as she can. Shortly after she leaves, a commotion can be heard in the street, and a passerby sticks his head through the tavern door to announce, “The Duke’s herald approaches, ya? There must be a new decree!” Very near to the tavern, the herald and a guard of ten soldiers pause. The herald unrolls a scroll and reads loudly:

“Be it known to all that his Benign Munificence, Stephen, Duke of Rhoona, has declared the following to be an official decree:

“Whereas, the scheming, greedy, and cunning nature of the dwarvenfolk is known to all,

Whereas, their short statures and bearded appearances are an affront to the sensibilities of decent humans,

and Whereas, the citizens of Rhoona have already borne the insulting presence of these creatures for too long,

it is hereby decreed that a state of war exists between the foul and corrupt domain of Rockhome and the virtuous and principled Duchy of Rhoona.

Furthermore, any dwarf found to be within the boundaries of said duchy within one hour of the reading of this decree will be considered a dangerous criminal subject to arrest. Its punishment shall be a public shaving of its face and stretching of its vile person upon the rack until such time as it has attained a more human stature.

Such is the word of the Duke of Rhoona."

A large crowd has gathered to hear this pronouncement, but their reaction is subdued and nervous. After making the decree, the herald and his escort move down the street along the waterfront, and the citizens drift back to whatever they were doing. From the direction of the dwarven barracks comes a number of cries and curses, and a growing bustle of activity.

“It’s Draco who’s behind this, and you can mark my words!” exclaims Grimmvat. “If it’s war he wants, then it’s war he’ll git. ‘Foul and corrupt domain’ indeed!” The dwarf works himself into a sputtering frenzy, and, after several more oaths and declarations, he moves off toward the dwarven community.

“He ain’t stayin’ here,” says the innkeeper, pointing at Bhelgarn.

“Of course not, he was just leaving,” says Morgan calmly. She takes Bhelgarn to the stables and, when no one can see them, casts invisibility on him. When she returns to the common room, she whispers to FluffyKitten to leave her boots in the stable. The halfling shrugs – she only uses the boots when scouting, as she prefers to go barefoot.

Once things have calmed somewhat, Morgan passes a handful of gold coins, half of the money they got from the merchants, to Thrud and tells him to order a round of mead for everyone, the party and the others in the room. After the sailors have been drinking a while the mood in the tavern improves considerably. Morgan begins to talk with them and they seem to have forgotten that the party are outlanders and dwarf-friends besides.

When she asks them how this mess got started, they explain that the duke hired the dwarves to construct a huge stone palace for him. Previously, he had ruled from a large wooden fortress in the hills overlooking the city. Everything was going well until the duke’s human architects were inspecting the construction, and found that the dwarves had installed a series of secret doors into what was to be the palace treasury. Since these were not on the plans, it was obviously an attempt to return after the construction was completed and rob the duchy. The duke immediately called a halt to the work on the palace and refused to pay the dwarves. The dwarves denied wrongdoing, but refused to leave the city until their back-wages were paid. There has been a stalemate for near three months now, with the nation of Rockhome subsidizing the dwarves’ living in Rhoona as a matter of principle, and threatening the other nordic nations with sanctions if they do not take the dwarven side.

When Morgan asks who this “Draco” is, the sailors say that Draco Stormsailor is the head of the Ducal Guard, and the duke’s most trusted advisor. He is a fearless sailor and warband leader who was famous for his wild exploits on the seas before he settled down in Rhoona and accepted his current position from the duke. He is greatly respected and, they admit, feared by the people of the city.

Meanwhile, Ember is meeting with the priests of the Temple of Forsetta in Rhoona. They are very pleased that she has answered their call for help, but immediately warn her that if she starts to investigate, this must needs be her last visit to the temple. They cannot be seen as fomenting any treason – in part for their own safety, and in part because their god teaches the people to support and trust their leaders and the order of society. It is because most of the people in the city are of their faith, they explain, that they have been able to maintain calm among the populace even as the duke’s decrees have grown ever more bizarre.

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The Temple of Forsetta in Rhoona

Most of those not of their faith (mostly fishermen, sailors, and warriors) attend the Temple of the Spuming Nooga. This faith is a less restrictive one, believing that a person must strive against the circumstances of his life to make the best of a short existence. While they have not spoken against the duke, neither have they tried to convince the people of his authority.

Recently, a newer temple has been erected to Cretia, the god of the Ethangarians. Although currently there is but a small number of people in Rhoona from the Ethangar Khanate, they have erected a large and elaborate temple. The Forsettian priests know little about the beliefs of the foreigners.

The Ducal Guard is responsible for maintaining order in the community, as well as defending it from any outside threats. This brutally effective force is led by Draco Stormsailer, whose very name inspires fear and awe in most Rhoonians. Once Draco sailed to all parts of the world on plundering expeditions, but now he has settled down to the quiet life of garrison commander. He lives in the Ducal Barracks. It is said that the Duke respects his judgement above all other advisors.

Finally, the priests tell Ember that one of their order, Brother Eric, will be in the city disguised as a beggar, and that he will act as her contact should she need assistance.

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Post 36 - SO done with the desert
SO done with the desert

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Map of Ylaruam City

Ylaruam City is walled – actually, it has multiple walls. The lowest wall goes around the Low City, which is the trade and skilled labor district. The main roadway runs from the city gate in the east to the Iron Gate (10) in the west, passing through the marketplace (12). The marketplace is full of tent stalls and corrals, but permanent storefronts occupy most of the low city. A typical structure is two-storied, with the commercial space at the ground level and living quarters for the family above. The wealth and class of the establishments form concentric rings around the market, with the finest businesses overlooking the market, and diminishing in status the further from it. [Note: In the map above, these are indicated as turquoise for high-class commercial establishments, mustard for middling class, and beige for low-class]. The lowest-class occupations are along the wall. The southern wall, for example, is the home of the tanners (14), dyers (17), and butchers (18). To the west of the tanners is a large neighborhood called the “foreign quarter”, composed mostly of multi-story inns and lodging houses, since any native Ylarui would either have his own house or that of a relative in the city in which to stay. To the southwest of the foreign quarter, squeezed in-between the outer city wall and the inner wall of the high city, is “little dwarfton”. Although the dwarf merchants of the district are prosperous through the metals and gemstone trade, they are considered of lower social class than human foreigners. Even infidels may come to know the Eternal Truth, but the soulless (la ’iinsani en Alaysian) never can. Thus, they occupy the space farthest from the market, despite their wealth.

Inside the second, higher, wall, the High Town is mostly a residential district for those who are so wealthy that they do not live on the premises of the businesses they own. It contains the gardens, villas, and palaces of nobles and well-off merchants and, it is said, a university, a library, and a hospital. However, infidels are not allowed through the Iron Gate – at least not unless summoned by the Emir, whose great palace (1) lies behind the third and highest wall.

Morgan returns to the Weeping Camel Inn before lunch and calls a party meeting. After she explains what the Hallonica House told her, they agree to split into three groups. Ember and Thrud will have all of their gems appraised, a few at a time, so as not to raise suspicions. The others will look for Remmy.

They leave the foreign quarter together, and travel to the high market (21), where a mix of oil and incense vendors, jewelers, and gem-cutters have their stores. There they leave Ember and Thrud. Looping back along Coppersmith Road (16), they stop first in a bowyer’s shop and Odleif buys a composite shortbow (therupon giving his old shortbow to Morgan). Then they split into two groups, moving slowly up the street, looking into every shop, store, and stall, trying to spot the thief. None of them have had lunch – one at a time they buy morsels of food from cafes and street vendors so that they may blend in with the crowds and extend their time on the streets. At the second intersection, they turn to the south wall, reasoning that they are most likely to find Remmy in one of the back-alley gambling squats, palm wine joints, or opium dens that hide between the legitimate (albeit low-class) businesses. As they make their way closer to the butchers’ and tanners’ district, the smells get stronger, both the foul odors of those businesses and the incense burned by the leatherworkers and brass dealers on their street to mask the offending smells from potential customers.

Wolfbane, Bhelgarn, and Poncherius find themselves outside of a tea store. Open-air tables with men drinking leisurely are outside – inside are boxes and bundles of tea leaves for sale in bulk. In the back, behind some boxes, several men squat on the floor, engaged in a dice game, but their faces are hard to see. Far up the street, some sort of patrol is coming, men in uniform, perhaps the city guard. A barefoot boy in rags, begging outside the shop, gives a short, shrill whistle, and the men throwing dice stand, quickly exchange money, and begin moving boxes about. This looks like just the sort of place the party wants to investigate, so they move inside and pretend to be looking over the wares.

Half a block down and across the street, Morgan, Odleif, and Fluffy are in front of a wicker store, overflowing with baskets, boxes, fans, and likesuch. A man in nondescript woker’s clothes sidles up to Morgan and whispers. “Ssst! Morgan?”

Morgan, startled, whispers back, “Do I know you?”

“Hawethorn, Hallonica House. See those soldiers coming? Those aren’t city watch – those are the Emir’s own guards. Better make yourselves scarce. You know, you are awfully noticeable – I mean, a dwarf, and you – a six-foot woman with flame-red hair? You kind of stick out.”

The soldiers are scanning the crowds, and Morgan puts herself behind a large stack of baskets. Four soldiers and an officer stop outside the tea store – they have spotted Bhelgarn inside. Once all the soldiers have their backs to them, Morgan leads her group across the street and into an alley, trying to come around behind the tea shop – but there is no back entrance to be seen.

“You there!” shouts the officer in Common, while pointing at Bhelgarn. “You will be coming with us to the Emir!” As the soldiers enter the tea store, the patrons scatter, and there is a moment of confusion. Wolfbane, headscarf on, dashes out unnoticed with the rest of the customers. When the officer closes in on Bhelgarn, he up-ends a table, knocking the man down, and barrels his way out of the shop. The dwarf makes a hard left, crouching behind a wagon unloading in the store next door, with Wolfbane in front of him, trying to use her flowing robes to block him from sight.

As Bhelgarn peers out between the crates on the wagon, he sees the officer and two soldiers emerge from the tea store and, a second later, the remaining two soldiers, one on each side of Poncherius, holding his arms and frog-marching him up the street. The Cyndician looks confused but compliant. “What can you do?” Bhelgarn hisses at Wolfbane.

“I can web the lot of them, but not without being seen – and then they will be looking for a Darokite witch.”

Not finding a way into the store from the rear, Morgan, Odleif, and Fluffykitten continue along the back-alley until a branch connects it again with the main street. Morgan and Odleif hide behind the corners of buildings while Fluffy moves toward the street. When the guards with Poncherius pass, she darts out into the street, and grabs the hem of the officer’s tabard. He tries to backhand her, cursing in Alaysian, but she twists away. In a curious mix of Common, Darokite, and Alaysian, she says, “Dog bite me! Dog bite me! Big mean dog in alley. Come! Come!”

The soldiers look up the alley where she points, but none seem intent on following her. She shrugs and uncovers her head. “Lookit me!” she says to the officer. “I iz halfling! I iz one you want to captures!” The officer yells something at the two free guards, and they dart after Fluffy, who leads them down the alleyway. Down the street, Wolfbane and Bhelgarn enter the alley and begin making their way toward Odleif.

When the soldiers chasing Fluffy are out of sight of the street, Morgan casts a sleep spell. A second later Poncherius slumps in the arms of the soldiers, then one of them falls as well and they both collapse in the street, leaving one soldier standing over them. One of the soldiers in the alley falls, landing on a pile of broken crates and half-rotted tea leaves. The remaining soldier rounds the corner after Fluffy, whereupon Odlief clouts him mightily with his handaxe. The blow takes the soldier in the head, on his metal helmet. The helmet is dented but not split, and the man collapses unconscious with a trickle of blood running down his cheek.

Morgan casts a second sleep, and this one takes out the remaining soldier and the officer. Fluffy turns and runs back out in the street, shaking and slapping Poncherius until he rises, then leading him dazedly into the alley. By now Bhelgarn and Wolfbane have caught up, so the party is together. Blood is flowing freely from the guard’s head. Fluffy takes off his helmet, cuts a section of his tabard and wraps it around his head, and says “He be fine.”

Morgan leads the party back to the inn, using side streets and back alleys, but finds a squad of soldiers waiting outside. She dispatches Bhelgarn to little dwarfton to look for a place to go to ground while the rest of the party waits, hoping that Thrud and Ember are still at highmarket.

After about twenty minutes the soldiers leave, and she waits another ten before approaching the inn, slouching and making sure her headscarf covers her hair. The innkeeper tells her, “The Emir’s own guarrd was herre, looking forr you. I told them you had alrready left. I hope I made the rright decision.”

“You did,” she assures him, and hands over a platinum piece. “We need to get our things…”

“They are underr the strraw in the camels’ stalls,” he interrupts.

She nods and leaves, returning to the alley across the street and the party. In an ash pile she finds a piece of soot and has Fluffykitten write a note to Ember in Halfling – “Come to Short Town”. She tells Fluffy to give the note to one of her urchin friends, and have them deliver it to Ember – before she reaches the inn. Then, the party is to go to little dwarfton as inconspicuously as possible. She will meet them there.

Morgan casts invisibility on herself, then heads for the market. The Hallonica House Office is in an impressive stone building facing the marketplace. She sidesteps the guards in front of the house, whispers to a secretary that she wants to meet with the merchant master, and heads for his office.

BANG! When she crosses the threshold of the room, there is a flash of light. By the time she can see again she finds that he has risen from his desk, is pointing a wand at her, and she is visible.

“It’s Morgan…” she begins.

“Yes, I know now,” he interrupts. “Have you any idea how much a contingency-dispel magic costs?”

“No, but it’s a great idea. I need your help.”

“If it involves getting you and your party out of town and away from the Emir, I’m in.”

Morgan asks for assistance in retrieving the party’s belongings and beasts from the inn. The merchant master officers to have them waiting at the city gate, inside or out, this evening or the next morning. Morgan selects morning, outside. The merchant glances through a stack of papers, then tells her that Junior Merchant Alek will be leading a caravan north on the morrow. He will have their camels packed and ready for them to claim, once they are out of the sight of the city. Hallonica House will fill their waterskins for free and charge them at cost for food. “Make it for a week,” Morgan agrees.

Morgan makes her way to little dwarfton, visible but as covered as possible. Once there, she wanders aimlessly from storefront to storefront until a dwarven child, hair just coming in on her chin, tells her to follow her to her friends. She leads Morgan to the back of a warehouse, raps twice on the cargo door, and ushers her inside, closing it behind her.

All of the rest of the party are there – including Bhelgarn, Thrud, and Ember. Bhelgarn says that the dwarves will not shelter them while they continue to look for Remmy, because it poses too much risk to them, but will let them use a secret tunnel under the wall to escape the city – if they consent to be blindfolded. Morgan agrees. Ember says that she and Thrud had all of the gems identified, and were passed the note by an urchin when they were still one block from the inn, oblivious to the danger. Morgan tells them that their equipment and beasts will be waiting for them outside the wall in the morning. “Poor luck we didn’t find Remmy, but I am ready to be out of this city.” The others agree.

Around dinner time a dwarf appears with two kettles. Inside one is a simple meal – potatoes fried in camel fat, while the other contains water, cool and most likely well-drawn. “Ye cun use yon pot fer yer business, after,” he says gruffly, ignoring the faces of those in the party who have been waiting for hours to make water.

With neither beds nor bedrolls, the party bundle their robes for pillows and try to get some rest on the stone-flagged warehouse floor. Bhelgarn has tired of telling Fluffy, repeatedly, that there is nothing for her inside the crates of the warehouse and even if there were, she still is not allowed to look. “Fluffy…no…don’t…” he mumbles between snores.

They are woken long before dawn by four dwarves dressed all in black; tunics, breeches, and cloaks. They produce eight black bags, placing them over the heads of each party member and tying a cord about their necks. They lead them through little dwarfton in the dark, over rough cobblestones, and into another warehouse (judging by the sound of the door). A crate is slid across the floor, a trap door opened, and the party descends a ladder and then passes down a narrow tunnel, touching weeping rock wall on each side, walking through water several inches deep. At the far end of the tunnel they are permitted to remove their blinds. One dwarf, black gear removed, now dressed for desert travel, leads the way up a ladder, lifting a trapdoor that opens upon a copse south of the outer wall. He looks and listens for several minutes, then hustles the party up the ladder. Those in the party with infravision can see that the top of the trapdoor is covered with “fallen” branches and leaves and once in place would be virtually indistinguishable from the ground.

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A dwarf carefully checks the trapdoor

They try to thank them, but the dwarves are already gone. Emerging from the copse, those with infravision lead the rest of them onto the caravan road and into the crowd that has been camped outside the gate all night. Later, when the gates open and the flood of traffic from inside the city starts, they find it easy to surreptitiously join the workers and guards preparing the Hallonica House caravan. Morgan speaks with Alek. He tells her they should stay with the main caravan, spread out, none of them together, none walking by their own beasts, for at least half a day. If they wish to go off by themselves after that, they will make better time – he has personally inspected their camels and found them to be sound beasts, lightly loaded. Morgan asks what they should do if the Emir’s men come looking for them. Alek replies that they are likely still searching for them in the city – if she and the dwarf can keep their heads down for the first day, they will know soon enough if the Emir is sending anyone after them.

The caravan does prove slow-moving, and Morgan is restless all morning. Many patrols ride by, but none pay more than cursory attention to the caravan – only one even bothers to ask Alek to show him his customs form. When the caravan pulls off the road and begins making preparation to take a midday meal, Morgan has the others round up their camels, remove the empty bales, boxes, and barrels the House placed on them as camouflage, and mount. They ride for a good hour before making their own camp. After their meal they continue on until dusk, and Morgan estimates that they are now a good 35 miles from Ylaruam City.

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North along the caravan trail

The next day begins with a long, steady climb and they make their way out of the huge bowl of the Alaysian Basin. The sand dunes grow shorter even as the land rises, and patches of rock between the dunes emerge. Mountains appear on the northern horizon. By mid-day, they can see the fertile land of Tel al Kebir in a deep valley below them, but the caravan trail runs on a ridge above the valley, and the steep, rocky slopes down do not appear safe. It is afternoon but well before dusk when the trail turns and starts down into the valley, and they pass through many small farms and orchards. It is closer to dusk but still light when the walls of Cinsa-Men-Nu appear before them. It is a squat little trading town of perhaps a thousand people at the base of an escarpment. By the light of the evening sun they can see the caravan trail continues up the face of the escarpment, in an innumerable series of switchbacks.

In a brief exchange with the soldiers guarding the gate, they learn that Cinsa-Men-Noo is in the Emirate of Nithia, and all are happy to have left the Emirate of Alaysia behind them. Morgan is still concerned about the fate of Captain Haldimar, to be sure, but at the end of the day, “better him than me” she thinks. As a trial, they make no effort to hide Bhelgarn, and the guards do not say anything. Taking this as an auspicious sign, they boldly enter the town gates. The city is alight in a red glow, as the setting sun warms the escarpment above it. The marketplace is still a buzz of activity. Ylarui are everywhere, to be sure, but dwarves and northerners are in abundance as well, and Morgan notes that although the native Ylarui have darker skin than in central Alaysia, many have red hair or beards as well – perhaps there is northern blood about?

An inn is easy to find, and stabling for their mounts, but by the time that is secured the market is closed. Only two days out of Ylaruam City they are fine for food, but Odleif and Bhelgarn say they have equipment to get on the morrow. In the common room at night they listen – talk is of the tension between Rockhome and the Nordic countries, though many locals are hopeful that if the dwarves restrict trade to their northern neighbors, more trade will flow through the city, and thus they look on the potential conflict favorably. As far as the lost caravan and the Hallonica House, not a word is spoken. Ember and Thrud have been here before, though in the spring, and they ask the locals what to expect of Jotunvalk Pass this time of year. They warn of an early snow, though admit that the chance of that is low – they are more likely to see raiding by kobolds or even giants. They hope for the party’s sake that they are experienced – eight people and mounts is precious few to be braving the pass.

While most of the party has a leisurely breakfast, Odleif, Bhelgarn, and Poncherius are in the market as soon as the first venders arrive. Odleif picks up several utility items he left in the pyramid to save weight: a crowbar, hacksaw, caltrops, etc. Bhelgarn is equipping Poncherius, and finds him a suit of boiled leather that fits him well, as well as a light crossbow and a case of bolts. Once they are returned to the inn, the party sets out, through the north gate and immediately up the side of the escarpment.

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Climbing the switchbacks up the escarpment to the north of Cinsa-Men-Noo

It is hard work on treacherous slopes, and much of the way they are dismounted and leading their camels single file. There is no way a wagon could traverse this, and as the camels make missteps on loose rocks occasionally, they are thankful they are lightly loaded. The only comfort they get from the grueling climb is that for every step they take it is infinitesimally cooler, as they rise above the blazing desert below. With every step, their view increases as well. By the top of the escarpment, everyone in the party knows how to say “I can’t believe how far I can see!” in Cyndician, thanks to the constant repetitions of Poncherius.

Once they have gained the top of the escarpment, the rest of the day is spent working their way north and up along the trail through dry, barren, hill country. The ground is littered with broken baskets, split waterskins, and piles of dung attesting to frequent passage, but they do not see a soul the entire day, just circling hawks and vultures. A dry riverbed at the mouth of a steep valley marks the entrance of the mountain pass, and serves as their campsite for the night.

The next day they head up the pass. It is certainly cooler, but still dry, and they find no streams to re-fill their skins. Pines grow on some of the slopes, but cutting for firewood has kept them well away from the trail, which is fine with Morgan. No cover means no giant or kobold ambushes.

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Out of Alaysia and up the Jotunvalk Pass

They camp in the pass, and Ember says they are making great progress and might be able to arrive at Castellan by the morrow’s eve.

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The caravan trail from Cinsa-Men-Noo to Castellan

The next day they continue to climb before cresting the high point of the pass. Morgan swears she spots something moving in a stand of pine near the trail, and puts the party on alert, but nothing emerges. Once they are over the crest, it is easy going down the other side. Despite Morgan’s warnings, Ember insists on stopping to give thanks that they are now safely back in Soderfjord.

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At the crest of the Jotunvalk pass, a faint hint of snow remains in high summer

By afternoon they can see the sprawling city of Castellan far below them on the trail. As the afternoon wears on, they realize they will be hard-pressed to arrive by nightfall, and indeed, the city gates are closed by the time they make them. But this is no Ylarui city with mud-brick walls and a towering gate-house. The earth embankment and rough wooden palisade seems almost rustic. When Ember calls out in Nordic, the guards are happy to open the gate for them. “Now you will see true people, ya?” says Thrud contentedly.

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The gates of Castellan

Thrud leads them to an inn, seeming to judge by the size of the common room. Once they are stabled and quartered, he strides into the common room, jumps from bench to table top, and stands above all. Ignoring the jeers from those drinking at the table, he pulls Zargon’s Horn from his pack and throws it down on the table, knocking over two tankards – but now there are no protests, only a curious silence. “T’e god what wore t’is horn had twelve tentacles unt a mouth of teet’ like dirks,” he says. “Would ye hear t’e tale a-how I killed t’is god?” he asks the room. A few men at the table reach out and touch the huge, sleek, ebony horn, and nod.

Thrud begins his tale, relishing in Nordic, where the fineries of combat can be distinguished at a level of detail just not available in Common. By tale’s end, many men and women from the street have come in to hear, and there is a call for him to start over, from the beginning. He pauses to give everyone a chance to refill their mugs, and then starts again, adding even more embellishments this time, knowing that he has the trust of the audience. Upon that finish, even more people have crowded in to the common room, and the horn is being freely passed around. By last call Thrud has told the tale a half dozen times and had more than a dozen flagons passed up to him. As the innkeeper helps him up the stairs to the rooms with the rest of the party, he tells him not to worry about paying for the rooms in the morning – he has more than made that in tonight’s business.

Morning comes far too early for Thrud, but he consoles himself with a huge breakfast of porridge with cream and honey, bacon, eggs, and small beer. While the party is purchasing food for the road, he is visiting furriers, and finds for himself a huge bearskin jacket, with a hood and ruff lined in wolverine fur. It is far too heavy to wear now, but Ember says that today is the second of Ninmonth, and autumn not far off. Ember buys a bucket of lard in addition to their rations. On the road, she tells the party that while Thrud was playing skald the night before, she was asking about the Rockhome situation. They could not follow her conversation at the time, as it was entirely in Nordic. These Soderfjorders are alarmed, but also angry at what they call the “pig-headed Vestlanders”. “Why does that ‘Duke’ Rhoona want to spoil our relations with the dwarves?”, they asked rhetorically. “The fool doesn’t even have the decency to call himself a Jarl like a true norseman.” “There he sits controlling the access to the best trade route we have with Rockhome, and he thinks he can do as he pleases.” “Does he not consider how his pride will cost all of us? Obstinate Vestlander.”

The day’s travel is through dry hills, but these seem as much dry from the end of a long, warm summer as they are perennially barren. Certainly they cross several streams in the afternoon and at times the grass around them is high. By evening they arrive at a small village on the banks of a large river.

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Quaint Soderfjord fishing village on the edge of the Great Marsh

While they could book passage on a rivercraft, that would mean giving up the camels, and they intend to keep them a while longer – at least until somewhere where they can get a better price for them than this thorp. A large, flat barge provides them passage across the river, and by late morning they have started down the Marsh Road – a narrow trail of raised earth and rotting logs. The bugs are at them even before they make landing, and once the barge is unloaded Ember rubs herself down with the lard, covering all of her exposed skin but trying to avoid her hair. She then passes the bucket around.

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The marsh road provides passage from Castellan Valley to Backwater

Fortunately the camel’s thick fur and long lashes frustrates most of the mosquitos. No one relishes the thought of chasing a spooked camel into the marsh. Mile after mile of marsh trail is covered, with little sound beyond the droning of the insects, and the calls of the frogs and waterbirds. Early on the party spots something high in the sky – too high to make out clearly, but as the day wears on they realize it is large and circling them. Perspective is difficult, but it is descending gradually, and with a sickening feeling they come to realize it is larger than the largest marsh kite, larger than a dog, larger than a horse…by late afternoon the words “wyvern” and “dragon” are being used, but still it is far above them.

Morgan calls for a sustained march until it is so dark that those without infravision are in danger of walking off the trail into the marsh. They build a fire, and she has them unload the empty waterskins and food bags, arranging them to look like bedrolls. Then they wait until it is truly dark, lash the camels together, and start back along the trail at a careful walk. Morgan goes last, walking slowly backwards, maintaining concentration on the phantasmal force she summoned of people and camels gathered around the real campfire.

They are more than 200 yards away, and she is having trouble seeing the campfire through the clouds of insects, when Bhelgarn calls for a halt. He is leading the column, looking ahead with his infravision, and he has spotted something large on the trail ahead.

From the darkness comes a hiss, then a deep voice. “The falssse camp wasss a good idea, but it doesss not sssmell like you…” it says, in Nordic. Ember translates.

Morgan ceases concentration, and the images of people and camels wink out. She moves to the front of the party, squeezing past comrades and beasts on the narrow trail. “Who are you?” she calls out, in Common.

“SSSisssaren,” the voice responds. Bhelgarn pulls forth his sword and says “lumos”, and the marsh is lit brightly. Ahead of them on the trail is a huge, black, reptillian creature. Its great black wings vouch that it is the thing that was following them all day.

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“I am massster of thisss land,” it continues, switching into Common in response to Morgan.

“We did not know,” responds Morgan, a bit relieved the monster seems to want to talk, but very aware of the party’s precarious position on the trail, with no room to maneuver. “What do you want of us?”

A throaty rasping sound comes from the creature. Is it laughing? Purring? “You have ssso many interesssting sssmellsss,” it says, “but there isss one I cannot plassse. Thossse ssshaggy beassts you lead…I have never sssmelled one before. I wonder what one tassstes like?”

Morgan swallows. “They are called camels. If we give you one, you will let us pass the marsh?” Behind her, Ember lets out a horrified gasp.

“One for today’sss passsing. One for each day I allow you to traverssse my marsssh.”

Morgan turns to the party. There are nods of agreement, some sullen, some terrified. Even Ember, eyes damp, assents. They unload one of the camels, moving its gear to the others, then stake its lead rope to the ground. Ahead of them, the huge form of the creature slides silently into the water on the side of the trail, leaving barely a ripple. They continue on, the light on the solitary camel fading. It gives one grunt and a questioning bleat. Several moments later, there is the sound of an explosion of water and a terrified camel scream, then horrid rending noises. Their own camels bleat and pull nervously at their lines. Morgan leads them grimly on for another half mile, then permits them to camp.

“Cold supper, then get what rest you can,” she says. “We leave at first light, and no mid-day camp – we will eat as we walk. We need to be out of this marsh before nightfall.” No one objects.

In the morning they load the camels, but find them sluggish. Their gear, split between seven camels rather than eight, is still easily bearable, but at a reduced speed. They could lead rather than ride, but they walk slower than even the laden camels. The first thing they get rid of is the pack saddle from their lost camel, then Odlief’s extra food stores, then a days’ worth of water. By the time they are down to five days of food and four days of water remaining, Morgan feels the camels are unencumbered enough to move at full speed even when ridden.

They emerge from the marsh in the afternoon, though no village marks its end, just firmer ground and an absence of the log trail. By evening they spy the wooden walls of Backwater. Morgan has some choice words for the town guard, beginning with how aptly named their town is, when they can’t even post signs warning of the dragon. They are surprised at first, mentioning that the young black wyrm was unknown until this year, and has only recently begun to bother travelers, a sign that he may be emerging into adolescence and growing in confidence. As Morgan continues, they become apologetic, explaining that they have sent patrols after him, but he always disappears into the marsh, where their horses cannot follow. Morgan suggests that they prepare an ambush with beasts of burden as bait, and they promise to take it up with their officer…who is not present on the gate at the moment.

Once they are inside the gate, Ember tells Morgan that she shouldn’t be too hard on the guards. It is summer raiding season, and anyone of any capability and initiative is at sea, out on the longships. The guard this time of year is composed of green boys, old men, and those who have lost a hand or an eye or somesuch. Ember assures Morgan that when the true warriors return in the fall, or more like when the marsh freezes over in winter and they can hunt the dragon by sledge, then this will be taken care of.

“Even a green boy can post a sign,” huffs Morgan, but lets the matter drop as they search for an inn.

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Post 35 - Out of the frying pan and into the fire!
Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

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A line of green!

The party has their evening meal together and packs up camp. The marching is easy. Previously, going southeast, they would continually have to cross the ridges and bluffs running north-south. Now, moving mostly south, they can stay in one valley. This appears to be a wadi, or dry riverbed. It is after dark but well before midnight when they start coming upon greenery (shrub bushes and palm trees), and can see a series of lights in the distance. Poncherius, whose questions about the light void had mostly petered out after two days in the desert, now begins anew at seeing plants for the first time.

Approaching close to the lights, they find it is a small village. Ember calls a conference. She explains that in traditional Ylauri culture, women cover their heads and do not speak in public. Modesty and courtesy are the highest cultural values. They will need to tread carefully. Morgan looks incredulous. “I didn’t leave the pyramid to be treated like that,” she mumbles, but Ember’s words echo what Haldimar told her weeks ago so she does not disagree. Bhelgarn and FluffyKitten remember how often Hazrad explained to them that as non-humans, they could not receive the light of Al-Khalim. Most of the Ylauri people believe that dwarves, elves, and halflings have no souls, and many believe that they are desert demons incarnate in flesh. Approaching this village at night would be a bad idea.

The party makes camp within sight of the village but approaches no closer – except for FluffyKitten, who decides to test her new cloak and boots. Silently and unseen she creeps into the village. There are perhaps six or eight cloth tents, and four mud-brick huts, centered about a well. Only two of the buildings have lights burning.

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The “village” of Alwulsul at the edge of the desert

Suddenly there is a savage bellow, and she freezes. It is soon followed by more, as if of a great fierce beast. Fluffy remains terrified in place, until gradually she remembers the camels that traveled with the caravan. Creeping still closer, she comes upon a pen with four of the large, lanky animals. They continue to bellow and snort periodically, but it does not seem particularly directed at her, and the people of the village are not reacting.

Stealing up to a window in one of the lit huts, she sees a young man squatting on the floor by an oil lamp. He is working by lamplight, doing some sort of leatherworking with a sharp knife. Behind him in the darkness his family sleeps in bundles on the floor, in the single-room dwelling. Fluffy is reasonably sure the family includes children. She returns to the camp, making her case that they should visit these children in the morning.

After an uneventful night, those not on watch are woken even before dawn by the calls of the goatherd boys. Young boys call to their goats and call to one another as they leave the village in the pre-dawn dark and chill and disperse to find vegetation for their animals. The party breaks their fast within clear sight of the village but no one approaches them, even as the sun comes in to view. Shortly after dawn the village becomes much more busy – older boys lead the camels out, women and children fetch water from the wells. There is a conspicuous absence of adult men.

To be sure, the party is seen – many children turn and point at them, only to have their hands slapped town and then be hurried off by their mothers and older sisters. FluffyKitten is in favor of engaging the children right here, right now, but Ember and Morgan think that this village is too small and too provincial to be of use. They are more likely to be driven from this village than find help here, at least in their opinion. Fluffy grudgingly goes along.

By the light of day, the party can see settlements like ochre pearls on a necklace of green. This tiny community is followed by another, and another. Then this line of green running south meets a much larger line running east west – could it be the caravan trail? To the south are clearly irrigated fields and orchards, gardens and oases. They head south. There are no roads until they meet up with the main line and turn east – then they are on a clearly-marked trail. Even between settlements the trail is just mud and packed dirt, but that is better than shifting sand. The villagers along the way stop and stare at them, but no one engages them. The trail is well-traveled, and they pass men with laden camels and donkeys traveling either way, but they all look away as they pass.

It is early afternoon and they are all hot and tired when they approach a small fort. There is a watchtower, sandstone at the base with a mud brick turret. Not long after that they can see a group of men on horses approaching. A trader on the road gives the horsemen way as they ride by, approaching the party at a smart trot.

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A rough fortress

There are five horsemen in colorful uniforms, with great recurved bows and small scimitars. One additional horseman wears silk tabards over his armor, obviously an officer.

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Cavalry from the fort

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An officer speaks with the party

The men ride up alongside the party, but do not draw their weapons. The officier speaks to them in a thickly-accented Common, asking them who they are and what they are doing. Ember whispers to Thrud while Morgan scowls. Thrud explains that they were caravan guards but they became separated from their caravan. The soldiers begin to talk excitedly among themselves in Alaysian until the officer barks at them. He establishes that they are from the caravan, the one that was lost to the desert some five weeks ago. They ask whether there have been other survivors, and he replies, “Yes, I am being told there are some others, but not many.” He does not offer specifics. Abruptly, he ends the conversation with “You will be allowing us to escort you to Sulba, yes?” His tone implies that they do not have much choice.

It is just a short distance beyond the fort that the fields start, and Sulba is not far beyond that. This is a large trade center of several thousand people, a walled city, the largest they have seen since leaving Parsa over a month ago. The buildings are rough mud-brick but two and three stories high. As they approach they can see the great white tower of the mosque, sacred to the faithful of Al-Khalim.

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The fields outside the oasis and trading center of Sulba

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Sulba, with the white minaret of the great mosque of Al-Khalim

Traffic is backed up outside the western gate of Sulba, with the guards checking the bundles on donkeys, camels, and in wagons. Men in dark robes question the traders and make notes on scrolls. One man in silks holds a leather bag – he is surrounded by a half-dozen guards and is collecting money from a merchant at the moment. Despite the queue, when the cavalry officer rides up, he has only to speak briefly with the gate captain and the party is waved through. Heads turn and stare at the party, and continue to do so as they enter the crowded streets of the city.

They pass several open-air markets, some selling household goods, some livestock, and a large central one that is obviously a traders’ market for caravan goods brought from afar. Turning up a side-street they pass many inns and ascend a slight hill. Morgan notes that men in uniform patrol the rooftops, perhaps one or two per block. The smell of cooking meats, exotic spices, and fresh fruit in the marketplace is a sore temptation for the party that has lived on mushroom-meal and cricket-jerky for a month.

They arrive at the “Spreading Palm”, an inn indistinct from a dozen they passed, but tucked discreetly away at the end of a quiet residential street. The innkeeper emerges and has a brief conversation with the horse officer. Bhelgarn strains to understand them, but while modern Alaysian shares many sounds and written characters with Cyndician, a thousand years of divergent evolution has left little to no overlap in meaning or comprehension. At the conclusion, the officer tells them, “Do not worry about the charge, after your ordeal in the desert, you are guests of the city.”

The innkeeper smiles broadly and bids them enter. They find no one else in the common room. “Are there no other guests?” asks Morgan, forgetting that she is not supposed to speak – or does this not count as public? The innkeeper does not seem to take offense, and smiles again.

“Just you, just you, verry comfortable, verry good dinner!” he assures them, then shouts to the kitchen in Alaysian. He ushers the party upstairs and shows them two rooms, “One for the men, one for the women and girrrel, of course.” Each bedroom has a window fitted with a wooden lattice screen, so that the breeze can enter but they cannot be seen from the street – or the rooftops?

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From the courtyard below comes the bleat of a goat being killed. “Mmm. Dinner,” says Morgan. “Best thing that’s happened all day. Let’s order some beer…or palm wine, I guess.”

Ember shakes her head, then explains that the Ylauri don’t drink, or smoke, or gamble – at least in public, and she doesn’t know whether the inn is considered “public”. Morgan curses. “I don’t know what’s worse – that they are obviously keeping us prisoner here, or that we have to follow their stupid religious laws.”

She shakes her head to clear it, then whispers. “OK, they intend to hold us hear, but are going through a facade of courtesy. So we play along. Unpack your things, but not too well. We’ll have dinner, then talk more.”

It is agreed that Bhelgarn and Thrud will go to the market while dinner is being prepared – ostensibly to buy head scarves, but more to test the limits of their hosts’ control over their movements. FluffyKitten is already gone – but is later spotted playing with the children in the kitchen.

Bhelgarn and Thrud go downstairs, and announce that they will be headed for the market. The innkeeper makes no move to stop them, but does send a serving boy with them, “to carry anything they buy, and to help them returrn to the inn, should they stay out afterr darrk.”

In the kitchen, FluffyKitten tries to play with the children, but the women yell at them. Then she promises to help prepare the meal, and gets the children to show her their duties. In a short time she is both helping them and picking up words in Alaysian and is permitted to stay. Fluffy does not speak any language but Halfling well, but she has an incredible ability to rapidly acquire a smattering of phrases in any tongue.

The smell of dinner cooking wafts up to the party in their rooms above, making it hard to wait. Servants bring in heavily-sugared mint tea. Finally, shortly after Bhelgarn and Thrud return, dinner is served in the common room below. The food is placed on a low table surrounded by stuffed leather cushions – there are no chairs. There is seasoned goat meat, rice wrapped in fig leaves, couscous with nuts, copious amounts of tea, small round unleavened bread, humus, and a tabouleh salad. Everyone eats with gusto. Bhelgarn has asked the innkeeper to eat with them, and Ember makes sure to let the head serving woman know how much the food is appreciated. There is no need to dissemble there – everyone relishes the meal and eats until they are uncomfortably full.

After the meal the party relaxes on the cushions, with Bhelgarn plying the innkeeper in conversation. Ember and Fluffy make a show of helping to clear the table, but once in the kitchen Ember speaks with the head serving woman while Fluffy helps the children in their chores. Morgan discusses, loudly, with the rest of the party preparations to return to Parsa, and thence to Selenica.

Bhelgarn tries to get the innkeeper to talk about the caravan, but he is politely evasive, saying only that most of the people and all of the goods were lost – a few survivors did make it to Sulba weeks ago, but he has no idea where they are now. When Bhelgarn comments that the party is getting a lot of strange looks in the streets, he is happy to change the subject. He tells Bhelgarn that the people are surprised to see the dwarf together with the nordic people, Thrud and Ember, as there are rumors of difficulties between those people in the north. When Bhelgarn presses him for details, he says that he does not know much, only that the dwarves of Rockhome are rumored to be growing increasingly hostile with the human nations of the north.

Ember has more luck with the head serving woman. She mentions that the survivors of the caravan were all quartered at this inn when they arrived in Sulba many weeks ago, including a great merchant captain. She does not remember his “funny foreign name” but admits that it might have been Haldimar when Ember suggests it. They stayed here several days, before being taken away by soldiers of the Emir. When Ember says that the loss of the caravan seems to be a great tragedy, the woman opines that surely Al-Khalim was punishing the caravan for containing so many infidels. When asked why the party is receiving all of the strange looks, the woman suggests that Morgan with her arms and armor, shockingly tall and with flaming hair, is attracting too much attention.

Fluffy asks the children where they sleep – and most reply their mothers’ houses but there is one urchin among them who tells her he sleeps on the rooftops – that all the orphan children of Sulba do so. It is easy, he says, you just have to know which rooftops are patrolled and which are not, when the families of the houses below go to bed, and so forth. Some of them even have gardens and the urchins can find food! The children ask Fluffy whether she is an infidel, and she asks them to tell her about their faith. One of the girls says that the party, like everyone else in the caravan, is being punished because they refuse to acknowledge Al-Khalim as the One True God. Fluffy extracts promises from the children that they will come early in the morning to play with her, and bring her some token of their faith.

The party retires upstairs as the call to prayer goes through the city. They listen to the sounds of conversation below as the servants clean the kitchen and prepare to leave. At one point the innkeeper is heard shouting heatedly at the head serving woman. Gradually people leave and the sounds die down – the innkeeper and his family retire to the private rooms across an interior courtyard at the back of the inn.

The party holds a hushed conversation; Bhelgarn, Fluffy, and Ember sharing what they have learned. It is agreed that they cannot stay here – they could be turned over to the forces of the Emir in the morning – for what, they don’t know, but don’t intend to find out. Morgan and Wolfbane have rested enough since arriving at the inn to memorize spells, and both of them select invisibility. The plan is to render everyone in the party invisible, then slip out one at a time over the next several hours, make their way through the night streets to the east gate, and wait for it to open at (hopefully) dawn. They can make four people invisible to start, and then rest until after midnight to do the next set, with themselves being last. FluffyKitten refuses, saying that she is meeting with the children in the morning, but will find them. Ember warns her that if she is not at the east gate when it opens, they are leaving without her, and Fluffy agrees. Everyone packs as silently as possible, and Fluffy’s gear is divided between them.

At one per hour, invisible party members slip out of the inn throughout the night (around 10pm, 11pm, midnight, 1 am, 2am, 3am, and both Morgan and Wolfbane together at 4am) The door exiting the the common room to the street is locked, but it is an easy climb through the window that opens from the kitchen on to the interior courtyard, and there is a gate next to the stable that is bolted on the inside but not locked. Poncherius waits outside the gate for Bhelgarn, so by ones and twos all of them find their way through the streets to the east gate. Soldiers still guard the rooftops, fewer at night but present, but they are not heard. FluffyKitten bolts the gate behind the final pair of Morgan and Wolfbane and then returns to bed.

In the morning, Fluffy is woken before dawn by the sounds of the kitchen staff arriving and she goes downstairs to play with the children. One of them has a set of prayer beads for her, but has only taught her the first few lines of the prayer in Alaysian when there is the sound of many booted feet in the street. A squadron of soldiers is outside the inn, blocking both the common entrance and the courtyard gate. Their officer calls out, summoning the innkeeper.

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Soldiers surround the inn

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The officer speaks with the innkeeper

The innkeeper hastily unlocks the front door, and soldiers fill the common room downstairs. Fluffy can hear the heavy tramp of boots going up the stairs, and knocking at the door of the party’s rooms. When there is no response, the knocking turns to pounding and shouting. Fluffy asks the children who can hide her at their home, but their eyes grow wide with fear and a few stammer that they cannot defy the Emir. Fluffy nods, and tells them to play tag with her outside. The children leave the kitchen in a swarm, open the courtyard gate. The soldiers swat playfully at them, but do not seem to notice Fluffy among them in her local robe. The men move into the courtyard and bolt the gate behind them. Fluffy runs with the cover of the pack to the end of the street, then tells them to go back to the inn. As the sky turns gray, she makes her way to the open plaza in the center of the city. A caravan is assembling, but its destination is Parsa – and there seem to be no other caravans forming. Fluffy travels to the east gate. It is not open, but travelers are assembling outside of it already. There are no large caravans, but many individual traders, a few men leading groups of four or five camels or donkeys at most. The route from Sulba to Ylaruam City is in the heart of the Emir’s realm, well-patrolled, and free enough of bandits and raiders that such “small-time” travelers feel safe, even those without hired guards.

As FluffyKitten wanders about those preparing to depart, she hears Morgan. “Ssst! Fluffy! Get over by that wagon!” A large family group, several men and even more wives, are forming up near the gate, and one more child may not be noticed with the number running about there – hopefully each family will think Fluffy belongs to a nearby group.

Shortly after dawn the gates are opened. Soldiers wave the people through – apparently much less interested in what is leaving the city than what is coming in. Groups of soldiers form lines outside, preventing the entry of those who arrived after the gates closed the previous night and had to camp outside. The party members are unseen, but not unheard, and all are in danger of tripping over one another. Each one selects a creaky wagon or bellowing camel to walk behind, so as to cover the noise of their clanking armor and clinking coins.

The first half hour of travel is a sea of people and beasts, but slowly the travelers sort themselves out, the faster pulling away from the slower, and the gaps between groups increase. It will not be long before Fluffy is seen as not belonging to the group that she is with. At the first village they pass, there is a well and a small market, including a place selling camels. Odleif waits until Fluffy is under the awning of a stall, then holds her there. When he thinks no one is looking, he shakes her, shouting at her, “Girl, girl! I told you to wait for your father!” He is now visible, but his sudden appearance does not seem to be noticed by those around, busy haggling over market goods or jostling for position at the well.

The pair of “father and daughter” take their time looking over goods in the market until most of the travelers have left, then steer their way to the camels. In a mixed babble of Alaysian, Common, Darokite, and Cyndiciean, Fluffy explains to the owner that she will negotiate on the behalf of her poor, mute father.

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The camel vendor showing Odleif and Fluffy his animals

Fluffy explains that they will be requiring four camels, and pack saddles, and enough grain for the camels to make it to Ylaruam City. The man is happy to oblige. Once the beasts are picked out, Odleif shows the man a small handful of gems, and then the haggling begins. The price is finally set at either three of the gems, or two of the gems and 50 coins of gold. Odleif elects the three gems and the trade is made.

Odlief sets Fluffy on the back of one of the camels to test how docile they are, and they seem accustomed to being ridden. He makes sure they have drunk their fill from the trough next to the well before leading them out into the desert on the trail.

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Leaving Sulba

Once they believe they are alone, the party begins to speak freely. They plan on buying another four camels at the next possible venue. Everyone sorts through their gold coins, most of which are Cyndician, and trade the Darokite and Alaysian ones to Ember for her party Cyndiciean coins on a one-to-basis, until she has a pool of coins that can be spent without arousing suspicion.

It is supposed to be a two-day journey to Ylaruam City, but with the time spent haggling over camels in the two villages on the first day, it is midway through the third day when the walls of the great city can be seen. The party has long since run out of their own waterskins, and has been living off of Odleif’s stockpile. Even this would not have lasted another day, however, so they are happy to find the city. The trip from Sulba was uneventful. Certainly there were lots of soldiers riding up and down the caravan trail, but none bothered to stop the old mute man and his daughter leading the camel train.

As they approach Ylaruam City, everyone is impressed by the size. Thrud and Ember have been here before, but the others are unprepared for the massive city surrounded by green fields in the middle of the desert. The size rivals that of Darokin City, the point of reference for most of them, and it is certainly far larger than Selenica.

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Ylaruam City, the jewel of the Alaysian Desert

As they pass through the outlying villages on the trail leading to the city, the number of foreigners, both soldiers and merchants, grows. At the point in which Morgan feels that they will not stick out, the party drops their invisibility. There are even a few female mercenaries among the foreigners, though with headscarves. Certainly this seems like a much more cosmopolitan place than Sulba.

Ylaruam City has a large foreign quarter, and they head directly there, finding the “Weeping Camel”, a comfortable inn with two private rooms and stabling for their beasts. Morgan strides into the common room and yells for ale. When a serving wench brings her a flagon without anyone staring or batting an eye, she smiles. “Yes,” she says to the party, “we stay here.”

Immediately after unpacking they begin to discuss their next move, and FluffyKitten disappears. Bhelgarn finds “Little Dwarfton” and inquires about the rumors of hostility with the northmen. He has a quick dinner upon his return, then he and Thrud are dispatched to try to find an appraiser for their gems. Morgan hangs out in the common room all afternoon, drinking and listening to conversations. Fluffy has recruited a group of beggar children to show her over the rooftops to the business office of Hallonica Trading House, and given them a gold for their trouble.

In Dwarfton, Bhelgarn learns that the “human troubles” are confined to the nation of Vestland, and the Duchy of Rhoona at that. Rhoona has long been friends and allies with Rockhome. There is a young, new duke, “Stefan Rhoona” on the throne, and when he ascended, he began an ambitious program of civic improvements, utilizing dwarven engineers and workers to construct bridges and foundries. However, some months ago he stopped paying the workers. The dwarves have remained in Rhoona, hoping to negotiate payment, but tensions are rising. Rockhome has been putting pressure on the other nordic nations to sanction Rhoona until the duke pays his debts.

On Jeweler’s Row, Thrud and Bhelgarn find an old man whose shop is still open, even after others are closing in the evening. He agrees to look over their gems in return for 11gp. They start with five gems, and after he has looked at them, they show him a lot of twenty. His eyes go wide, and he clears his throat. He speaks loudly, so that the folk still passing by in the street can hear. “Given your armaments, good sirs, doubtless you are adventurers. I am happy to appraise your treasures, be let it be known that I will not buy anything unless you can show me you have paid the Emir’s tax.” They take their leave.

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The city at sunset

At Hallonica House, Fluffy argues her way past a guard and speaks to a merchant. Learning that they are from the caravan, he is most interested in meeting the party, and asks her to bring them at once. She claims not to remember where they are staying, eats honeycake and drinks wine, and when she leaves takes to the rooftops until she is sure she is not being followed.

In the common room, Morgan overhears one man say to another, “So, how long do you suppose old Haldimar can hold out?” She tries to insinuate herself in the conversation, but receives a “This is a private conversation – who the hells are you?”

“Someone with a fat purse who prefers not to drink alone.” The men begrudgingly allow her to join them, so long as she is buying. They are taciturn at first, but their tongues become more lively with each round. A month ago, she learns, the caravan arrived in Sulba – or at least what was left of it. Haldimar, a few merchants, and handful of guards, and no merchandise. It was a total and complete loss. After a few days in Sulba, all of the survivors were taken to the palace of the Emir. Most of them have been released, but Haldimar remains. Rumors are that he has something the Emir wants, some kind of information, but is refusing to turn it over. Most people believe that he is now held in Ylaruam City, but even that is not certain.

When FluffyKitten returns to the inn, well after dinner and near dark, she tries to get Morgan to come with her to merchant house. Morgan is angered that the halfling went off by herself. She is also too drunk to want to leave the inn tonight. Fluffy is incensed that she has set up an interview and Morgan refuses to leave. Ember has to intercede to calm things down, explaining to Morgan that Fluffy took steps to make sure she was not followed and making Morgan promise to go first thing in the morning.

After breakfast the next morning, Morgan goes to Hallonica House. She is received cordially and speaks privately with the ranking house head. He explains the situation thusly: Hallonica House pays the Emir to protect their caravans from bandits. Haldimar alleges that it was not the sandstorm that disrupted the caravan, but a bandit attack afterwords. If that was true, then the Emir is responsible for the loss and will have to make restitution to the house – which will be tens of thousands of gp, perhaps approaching a hundred thousand if the beasts are included and pensions for the men who perished are paid. If, on the other hand, the caravan was destroyed by the sandstorm, that is an “act of the gods”, and Hallonica House must eat the loss. Obviously each side has a huge financial stake in the issue. The guards and merchants released all swore that it was the sandstorm, and Haldimar’s failure in leadership thereafter, which resulted in the loss. However, several of them later recanted in private to the House, telling tales not only of a bandit raid, but that the bandits were not human. They claimed that they were short, bipedal but tailed, creatures who rose up from the sand during and after the storm. They say that their public swearing to the contrary was the condition of their release.

Hallonica house is confident that if Haldimar is allowed to testify at a trial in Selenica, they will win a judgement in their favor, but they cannot do so as long as the Emir holds him at an undisclosed location. They have tried asking the Darokite national government to force a trial, but the central government is dominated by the Mauntea House, which does not have a strong incentive to compensate the Hallonica House at the expense of their relationship with the Emir.

The merchant master pleads with Morgan for information about the fate of the caravan, but she can only say that they were separated from the caravan just before the sandstorm struck, so they really do not know the truth of the matter. However, Remmy the caravan guard claimed that he witnessed the bandit attack. The merchant is keen to find Remmy, who could corroborate Haldimar’s claim. Morgan provides a name and description, but can only say that the party is interested in reconnecting with him as well.

Morgan asks him about what is going on in Rockhome. He says that there is some sort of local disagreement between the Duke of Rhoona and the dwarves of Rockhome. The dwarves have been threatening the Vestland with an outright boycott and the other nordic nations with price increases if they do not take their side against the Rhoonese. The situation is one of increasing tension and insecurity. Morgan comments that both the situation with the Emir, and the situation with the Dwarves, is leading to a disruption of trade, and the merchant agrees.

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Map of Ylaruam City and surroundings

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Post 34 - Escape from the Pyramid!
Escape from the Pyramid!

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In a fine mood, the party ascends the stairs, and then the ladder, and re-unites with Pooches. They climb more stairs, then enter the Great Temple on the fifth level of the Pyramid and head for the fountains. Taking their time, they wash off the gore and filth with water, scrub themselves with sand, and wash again. Many even laugh and splash each other playfully. Finally finished, they retire to the room they have camped in before, where lizard jerky still hangs from smashed bedframes, and rest.

Once everyone is feeling up to the journey, the party decamps and begins the descent to the Undercity. After several hours of scambling through narrow stone passageways, they emerge into the humid darkness and busy noise of the city. They have not but entered the vault when they are met by a Brotherhood patrol. Bhelgarn bellows at the top of his lungs, in Cyndician, “ZARGON IS DEAD!” and Thrud produces the horn.

Several of the Gormite men dash off, one accompanies the party, only two remain at their post. By the time the party is halfway to the Maiden’s Enclave, they are surrounded by a large crowd. Work in the city has ceased. Cheering and celebration erupt. Throngs of people line up to see the horn, and the more daring try to touch it, or touch the talons that other party members carry.

It is quite a long time indeed before the party can settle in to their tent camp at the Maidens. They notice that the gates of the Enclave are kept open, and Cyndicians of all kinds, women and men, civilians, Maidens, and the other two factions wander in and out freely, without the Maiden guards challenging them. Only the tower is now restricted. Hours later, when Ember can finally call a private meeting, they all agree that they are now done and can leave.

“’Bout time,” spits Remmy.

Even during the celebration, the party sent a messenger to ask the Magi whether they were still willing to identify items, and the reply was of course, but still at one item per long sleep.

Now, with their departure agreed upon, the party sends out other announcements. Bhelgarn has caused it to be known that he will be accepting applications from anyone who wants to accompany him on his departure as an honored henchman, to partake in the wonders of the outside world. Morgan, Iris, and Wolfbane have asked the Magi whether they have any spell-plaques of third level, or a “create food and water”, or a “find city” spell of any level. Thrud has sent word that he would like to meet with the Brotherhood about trading his new magic spear for another weapon.

Eventually an invitation to the Magi Complex arrives from Alyria. The party travels there with there recently-recovered loot and has it examined by the Magi. When one of the functionaries removes the scroll from the scroll tube proffered by Remmy, he is immediately engulfed in a cloud of black smoke, and the scroll goes blank! A second later, Zargon appears, but a miniature, three-foot high Zargon, complete with glowing red eye, horn, and six tiny talons. The Magi scream and run about – Thrud and Bhelgarn wrestle the mini-Zargon into submission and stuff him into a sack, but his sharp talons begin to slice his way out. Finally the Magi carry in a metal chest, in which the diminutive creature is locked.

“Well,” says Alyria drolly, “it is safe to say that was a cursed scroll. Luckily, as I understand it, you are held in high regard by the Maidens. Perhaps you could take our unfortunate colleague with you and petition them for a remove curse spell? In the meantime, in what order would you like your other items identified?” Alyria goes on to tell them that the Magi have no spells for creating food or finding cities – she does provide them with a list of third-level spells, but asks 20,000 pieces of silver for each one!

After leaving the other items with the Magi, the party returns to the Maidens with the chest. The High Priestess agrees to perform a ceremony to remove the curse from the unfortunate Magi.

After a long sleep, the party plans their “day” over breakfast. Fluffy, Remmy, Thrud, and Odleif are all seriously wounded. Ember tells them to remain at the Enclave for the time being – she will gather mushrooms and see to their recovery. Morgan asks her about her spells, and Ember replies carefully that they have no reason to call upon Glöð for the moment; surely another priestess somewhere else in the world needs Her blessing more than the party does. Morgan snorts but relents, organizing the unwounded Iris and Wolfbane, having them load up with all of the pigskin bladders the Maidens will give them. She tries to get Bhelgarn, also unwounded, to come as well, but the Dwarven prince stubbornly insists that he will be entertaining applicants all day.

Morgan, Iris, Pooches, and Wolfbane spend the first part of the day ascending to the upper pyramid, carrying a load of bladders. They plan to fill these in the fountains of the great temple, then store them in their base on the second level. However, when they enter the temple, Morgan hears the slurping sounds of a large animal drinking at the fountain. Morgan approaches cautiously with the others just behind her. The creature is large, ochre, and in some sort of plated armor, with a long tail and feelers or antennae.

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The curious creature at the fountain

They are quite close when the creature hears, or possibly scents, them. Antennae twitching, it turns around and charges them as Morgan casts a web spell. It is held fast and entangled scant yards from them. The three women unload a barrage of spells – another web (further restraining it), two sleep_ (to which it appears immune), and three magic missiles (to which it eventually succumbs). Morgan has them leave the creature in place while they begin filling their skins.

Later, loaded with all they can carry, they ascend to their base, accessed with Bhelgarn’s key to the electrified door. Their lair appears secure, with the doors still spiked shut against intrusion and all of their items in the bee room intact. A soft light enters through the hole in the wall and Morgan finds herself longing more than ever for the fresh air of the outside world. They carefully store the filled skins and return to the Undercity.

Ember has spent the day ministering to the four resting party members, washing their wounds, poulticing their bruises. She is welcome for the practice at using the mushrooms, and works under the guidance of the Maidens. For the party, accustomed to accepting the blessings of Glöð and instant cure-alls, it is a slow-going and painful recovery. By day’s end, however, Fluffykitten is completely restored to health.

Bhelgarn has spent the day among the folk of the city, repeating the story of the battle against Zargon again and again for the insatiable listeners. He does not mind the repetition, as it gives him the chance to assess the people and mention many times that he will be leaving soon, but that he can take with him an adventurous soul who would like to see the light void first hand. He soon finds that most of the Cyndicians of any ability either belonged to one of the three factions, or were a Zargonite – there are few commoners of note. The Zargonites are all slain, and the people of the factions are fanatically loyal to their sects: having labored their whole lives under difficult conditions to enact the overthrow of the Zargonites, they are now on a holy mission to restore the greatness of the city and have no interest in leaving. There are a few sympathizers among the common folk however, men and women who fed the factions information without actively joining them. Bhelgarn seeks these people out carefully, but finds that they are being recruited by the factions as well, who are looking for leaders among the civilians.

The party shares their meal together at day’s end, and are approached by a Magi, who turns over the wand to them and explains that it is a wand of illusion, with the command word alttawhum. As Wolfbane already has a wand and a magic dagger besides, this new wand is awarded to Iris.

After their long sleep, Morgan again recruits Iris and Wolfbane as water-bearers. Bhelgarn and FluffyKitten are fully capable, but both beg off, explaining that they have business in the city. Bhelgarn spends the day talking with six different candidates, and by day’s end has selected the one who seems most enthusiastic, a young man named Poncherius. Before the fall of the Zargonites he acted as a spy and lookout for the Magi, though he was never a member. He has no family, and says that he is indeed interested in the adventure of seeing the light void for himself, and of working with the great Prince Bhelgarn. Bhelgarn promises him a fair share of the treasure “after we leave the Pyramid”, a tolerant discipline, and frequent activity both hauling things and fighting.

FluffyKitten spends the day playing with the children of the city. Since many of their games take place in and around the Enclave, and since Fluffy knows so few words in Cyndician, much of the play is overheard by Ember. She quickly comes to realize that the halfling is asking all of the children about their families, their responsibilities, and who among them might not be missed. Alarmed, Ember confronts FluffyKitten and asks for her intent – and Fluffy admits she is looking for a child to take with them when they leave.

Ember explains to her in no uncertain terms that she can’t just steal a child, and Fluffy retorts that she is not stealing, she is adopting, and that she grew up without parents and turned out just fine. Besides, she needs a successor.

“Successor?”

“Yes. FluffyKitten is Blind Princess – I is needing someones to be Princess after me! I is taking child to train her to be Princess, too – help her learn all about world so she can come back and help her people.” FluffyKitten obviously thinks this argument of helping the Cyndicians will win Ember over, but the priestess remains unconvinced and tells Fluffy that she can’t take a child. Fluffy is insistent, and practically tells Ember that she can’t stop her. Finally, seeking a way to block Fluffy’s idea without creating a rift in the party, Ember tells her that in any event, she will need to get the permission of the faction leaders. Fluffy storms off to try to get appointments.

After many hours of hauling water, Morgan, Iris, and Wolfbane return in the evening. Ember tells Morgan concernedly about FluffyKitten and about Bhelgarn’s plans to bring Cyndicians out of the Pyramid. “Is that so?” muses the elf, wryly. “Perhaps I should be bringing along my Brotherhood sparring partner, then.” This was not the response that Ember was looking for.

As the party is preparing to retire, they receive news from the Magi that the cloak is one that will conceal its bearer. Morgan knows this is called a cloak of elvenkind, although the Cyndicians do not have a word for “elf”. The cloak is given to FluffyKitten, as one of the party members who will most benefit from remaining hidden.

After a long sleep, Morgan again organizes her work detail. This time Bhelgarn consents to go, and he decides to bring Poncherius with him, to see how the lad will work out. Lithe, lively, and able to see in the dark, the youth easily leads the group up through the tunnels to the Pyramid and enthusiastically fills waterskins in the fountains. However, once they are filled, he takes on only what Bhelgarn considers a “child’s load”. Even then, he frequently calls for breaks, and struggles ascending the ladder between the fifth level and the fourth. Bhelgarn had fancied him carrying out his own share of water, Bhelgarn’s, and the dwarf’s chain armor as well. He is realizing he may have to scale back his designs for the porter.

Fluffy spends her time talking to the different faction leaders. The Madaruans are the most friendly, knowing her well. They seem concerned that a child would want to take responsibility for another child, and do not believe anyone under her care would be safe. The Magi have little knowledge of the children of the Undercity (although they are learning fast, now that they are in charge of education) and do not suggest any candidates. The Brotherhood say that they have a few children they would like removed – sneak thieves and troublemakers, and are quite willing to part with them. Fluffy is enthusiastic about interviewing them, but Ember is again aghast when she learns, and says that they will not accept into the party anyone that cannot be trusted. After a long discussion between Ember and FluffyKitten, the halfling agrees that she will not take out a child, but will look for a more independent teen to be her successor as Princess.

In the relaxing time after dinner, the Magi return the shield to the party, saying that it is a powerful shield of protection, stronger than the one that Morgan currently bears. Morgan claims it for her own, and passes her enchanted shield on to Remmy.

After their long rest, Ember pronounces Thrud completely healed. He stops by the Magi to retrieve the as-yet-unidentified spear, and takes it to the Brotherhood to offer a trade. The Brothers say that none of them are trained in the weapon, but that he should try the Maidens, as it appears like something she is seen carrying.

Morgan has decided they have enough water near the surface and that today they will begin hauling food. When she speaks to the Maidens, however, she is told that food is still scarce in the city. Fungi is being planted in the fields under the direction of the Maidens, and in time will be abundant, but for the moment the years of mismanagement by the Zargonites have left few resources and many in the city on the verge of starvation. While the party will not be refused anything, the Maidens want them to know that any food they accept will be taken from the mouths of the hungry. Cryptically, they recommend that she speak to the Magi.

When Morgan meets with the Magi, they remind her that Auriga still has a large storeroom of preserved food on the third pyramid level. Not only do they give her permission to appropriate the food, they practically request that she do so, explaining that the sooner those Magi are without food, the sooner they will be forced to return to the Undercity, at which point Auriga will finally face censure and his cult of personality can be broken up. On behalf of the party, Morgan agrees to undertake a raid against their foodstores.

When Thrud catches up with Morgan, he requests that she speak to the Maidens about the spear. Entering the sacred tower, Morgan secures an appointment with the Great Mother, and shows her the weapon. The Mother is awed, and shows Morgan statuary depicting the Maiden with a spear, but explaining that the Maidens have not seen an actual weapon like that for generations, and none of them know how to use it. When Morgan agrees to instruct the Great Mother in its use, she is practically overcome. She brings out a hide-wrapped bundle, which is unwrapped to reveal a great axe, with some sort of dark wood haft and shining double-bladed head. Morgan accepts it gratefully, and to complete the transaction gives her old suit of chain armor to the Great Mother. Later, Thrud is overjoyed when he receives the axe.

Bhelgarn has reluctantly agreed to serve as FluffyKitten’s translator as she interviews teenagers, largely because it allows him to practice his Cyndician with Pancherius, who knows nothing of Common or Dwarven. He refuses, however, to use the word for Princess that Fluffy injects in nearly every sentence. After a day’s effort, Fluffy is elated when she locates a young woman who enthusiastically agrees to train as her successor. Fluffy brings the girl back to the Enclave to prove to Ember that the girl is coming of her own free will. When the priestess asks the youth why she wants to leave her home, she lets fly with a long complaint about how all adults are stupid, about how their pointless warfare has ruined the city for her generation, about how her parents don’t understand her or anything else, and about how she thinks the three gods of the factions are just as fake as Zargon was. She doesn’t know what the light void will be like and doesn’t expect it to be any better than here, but it certainly can’t be any worse because currently all of the adults of the city are conspiring to ruin her life. Ember listens gravely, trying to keep a straight face, and eventually FluffyKitten dismisses the girl in frustration.

Iris works all day long with her crickets, reinforcing their lessons from before.

That evening the Magi bring by the last item entrusted them by the party, a suit of chain armor they say is enchanted to be magically light as well as protective. This is claimed by Bhelgarn.

All the next day is spent in a long discussion of logistics. Morgan and Ember believe that if everyone can be responsible for three or four days of their own food and water, they can carry out all of the gems and jewelry Ember has already, plus all of the platinum coins they have recovered. Ember gets them to agree that regardless of who carries them, these coins are party treasure, not yet divided, in return for Odlief agreeing to carry a large reserve of food and water. A few of them, stronger and built for heavier loads, may be able to take some gold coins as well.

Early in the day Odlief realizes that the huge owlbear skin will just be one more thing weighing him down. He asks Fluffy to tailor it for him into a small vest. She agrees, and spends the day doing this, channeling her frustration at Ember, the factions, and the youths of the city into her work. She has enough material left over to make herself a pair of owlbear boots, complete with talons in front and back. By the end of the day she is walking around in these, waiting for people to ask about them, and then saying, “What boots? I haz bear feets!” She has also had a Maiden man smith set her claw from Zargon into the bronze helmet she collected from the Zargonite soldier she killed. Against the forehead of the helmet, the claw looks a good deal like the horn did on the real thing. After dinner, she spends a great deal of time with the comically large helmet and boots on, chasing the squealing children of the Maidens, and saying, “I is Zargon and I is going to eat you all! I is going to take you into the light void and Ember can’t save you!”

After the long rest, the party is ready to ascend to the Pyramid, for what they all believe will be the last time. FluffyKitten, annoyed that no one seems to realize how important is her idea of instructing the Cyndicians in the affairs of the outside world, has invited one representative of each of the factions. If she can’t take one of them with her into the light void, she at least intends to look out at it together with them, explain it, and have them carry that knowledge back to their people. It is a late start as Iris takes quite some time getting all of her crickets ready (she is bringing a full dozen!), but eventually they are under way. Iris has insisted that everyone bring along some of the dried cricket meal, and she herself ponderously maneuvers the large gilt throne through the narrow passages.

After a half-day of travel, the party settles the faction representatives and the crickets in the Maiden dormitory on the third level. Pooches is with them both as guard and herder of crickets. Morgan had favored the Gormite temple for their waiting room, but the Gormite Brother on hand was uncomfortable with both the other faction members and the crickets being housed there. The party, including Poncherius, then move to the hallway outside of the Magi storeroom to prepare for their raid.

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The Magi’s storeroom. Invisible guards are set by the statue and the stairwell while others empty the room through the secret door.

Thrud, Morgan, and Bhelgarn are each made invisible. Morgan and Bhelgarn enter the storeroom through the secret door and then take up position at the base of the Magi statue, just outside the sliding wall. Thrud and Wolfbane station themselves at the bottom of the stairs that ascend to the second level. The others (Ember, Poncherius, Iris, Remmy, Fluffy, and Odleif) begin to haul boxes, barrels, crates, bags, and baskets out of the storeroom, through the secret door, and into the hallway just outside the revolving corridor. They leave the containers of water, skins and barrels alike, undisturbed in the room. Things go well for over an hour until Ember lets a box slip while carrying it, shattering the ancient wood with a loud crash. Several moments later the wall panel opens and a solitary mage emerges. Morgan waits for him to pass and clouts him on the head from behind so hard that he is knocked out. She takes his silver dagger, binds him, props him up in the storeroom, and tells the others to resume their work – and Ember to be more careful. Now visible, Morgan changes guard positions with Thrud.

At last the storeroom is completely stripped of food. The party now moves all of the goods into the revolving hallway, turns it to align with the hall outside the Gormite temple, and then moves the stores into the temple itself. Most of the goods they leave in the temple, retaining only what food they plan on packing out for themselves. Finally they return to the Maiden dormitory, fetching the crickets, Pooches, and the faction representatives, and leading them up the stairs to the second level, then up the ladders to the first.

It is daylight, a late summer afternoon in the desert, intensely hot. The sand which once buried half of the lowest layer of the pyramid now comes halfway up to the second layer, fully sixty feet deeper than when they last saw it. All traces of the ruined city have been swallowed by the sand, and the pyramid nearly so. The party stares out in amazement, as do the faction representatives, though for different reasons. To the northeast and southwest of the pyramid are great stone bluffs, the only features sticking out above the sand as far as the eye can see. The party comes to realize that they are in an ancient, now dry, river valley, under a layer of sand scores of feet deep. The sandstorm that separated them from the caravan must have come at just the right direction to scour out the valley and expose the ruined city for the first time in…a generation? A century? More? But over the time they have been in the pyramid and undercity, the sand has been slowly filling the valley in again, resuming its usual state. At least that is the majority view – a few in the party contend that the sand is the same and it is the pyramid itself that is sinking!

Iris leads her crickets out on the sand in the shade of the pyramid and spends the next half hour adjusting all their harnesses, lines, and nets. Twenty-four separate ropes connect them to the throne and a large cargo net carrying Pooches, waterskins, and bundles of food and gear. FluffyKitten leads the representatives out on to the sand, and answers their questions about the world; the sun, the sand, the bluffs, the sky. The rest of the party adjusts their gear and packs, and makes innumerable trips to the base to retrieve waterskins.

At last Iris is ready for a test flight. She takes a fresh piece of fungus, rolls it in her hands until it is partially crushed and aromatic. The crickets’ antennae swish excitedly, but they remain mostly in place. Iris leads Pooches to the cargo net and has him lay down, fastens the fungus to the end of Bhelgarn’s ten foot pole, and seats herself in her throne, with the pole held out in front of herself and the crickets.

" Amba, amba! " she cries in Elven, and the crickets pull back their wing-sheathes and begin beating their wings. Sand flies in all directions and by the time anyone can see again the crickets are aloft!

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Iris’ cricket-borne throne

There is perhaps an hour or so before dusk – Iris plans on a quick scouting trip. The party and the faction representatives watch amazed as Iris guides her crickets higher and higher, then takes them in ever-expanding circles around the pyramid, going a bit farther out on each lap. Finally, as the setting sun touches the western horizon, she turns them and heads directly back, landing on the soft sand near the pyramid entrance.

The temperature is dropping rapidly as the sand radiates the heat of the day into the cloudless sky. Iris rewards the crickets with water and meal as she relates to the party what she saw: sand dunes in all directions, broken by occasional rock bluffs. No sign of the caravan trail, no sign of civilization, but the Altan Tepe mountains low and clear to the southwest.

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What Iris saw – sand as far as the eye could see

The party discusses plans as the stars come out and FluffyKitten explains the night sky to the faction representatives. With a clear view of the sun and stars, and the mountains, they can orient themselves and are unlikely to get lost. Unfortunately they do not know where they are. Morgan remembers vividly the maps of the area she studied, but does not know where on the map they are. The sandstorm hit when they were about halfway between Parsa and Sulba. They know they spent a day hopelessly lost during the storm, and then another three days going southeast in an attempt to find Sulba – at least so they thought. They are now realizing uncomfortably that Hazrad’s attempt to find Sulba may not have been sincere, given his subsequent betrayal of them, and his fevered claims that it was him all along. Was he really trying to find Sulba? Was he leading them in circles? Did he know about the pyramid and was intentionally leading them there? They don’t know and will likely never know.

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Morgan’s recollection of the desert. They were on the caravan trail, halfway between Parsa and Sulba, at the boundary between the Emirates of Makistan and Alaysia when the sandstorm struck. Where they are now, no one knows.

After some discussion, it is decided that they will travel by night to save water, and head as due southeast as they can. Regardless of where they are, three days of travel southeast should eventually have them cross the caravan trail somewhere.

Wolfbane has been silent during the discussion, watching the stars and planets. When the discussion ends, she tells them that they have been in the pyramid for about five weeks, based on where the planets are against the zodiac stars now as compared to before.

The party bids farewell to the faction representatives, wishing them success in their efforts to rebuild the city. As a final gesture, Morgan ceremoniously returns to the Magi the communication disk, and then they watch them re-enter the pyramid. Gear is readied, loads are lifted, marching order is set, and the party takes off across the sand.

They travel for several hours without incident, the desert air going from warm to cool to cold. Iris travels in large circles overhead, shouting down at them when she passes close by, warning them of steep dunes or impassable bluffs ahead, so that they travel generally southeast but along an efficient route.

Iris is neaby but behind them around midnight, when a half-moon rises in the east. The party can hear her voice, but she is talking to her crickets, not them. Her voice grows louder and its tone more concerned. “Quer, quer!” she shouts, and the crickets veer ever more eastward. As she passes directly overhead, she calls down to them, “It’s no use, I can’t control them!” Pooches barks alarmedly. “They are headed for the moon! I’ll try to meet up with you later!” The crickets, Iris on her throne, and Pooches slowly fade from view, headed due east into the rising moon. After a brief pause, the party continues southeast.

By night’s end, they have traveled a full twelve miles. All around them are great rolling sand dunes, but before them the land rises in a series of rocky ridges. It is time to make camp.

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The first night’s travel. Twelve miles over sand dunes to the edge of the rocky desert.

With no fuel for a fire the party has a cold dinner of preserved rations and water, then sets up shelter. They dig down a foot into the sand, hoping that will keep them cool in the day even as the upper layers heat up, then lay mushroom-cloth tents over top of their excavations. As the others settle in to sleep and the sky lightens, Ember and Thrud take first watch.

The heat rises steadily throughout the morning and afternoon. Outside it is unbearable – under the shade of the cloth in the dug-outs it is barely tolerable. People sleep fitfully, aided only by their exhaustion after a full night’s march under heavy loads. Poncherius and Bhelgarn share the late morning-to-noon watch, and the Cyndician expresses his grave concerns about this scorching, sapping, blazingly bright world. Bhelgarn reassures him that the desert is hard, but not all of the world is desert, and that they are traveling to someplace better.

In the early afternoon Morgan is on watch alone (the way she likes it, so as to not be distracted by conversation). Eventually she rouses Remmy and Wolfbane and crawls into a tent-pit.

It is early evening and still blazingly hot. No one wants to leave their shade, but eventually people’s stomachs demand “breakfast” and they begin to emerge. Wolfbane lies face down in the sand, a large bump on the back of her head. Remmy is nowhere to be seen.

When Wolfbane recovers consciousness, she recalls that Remmy and she were on watch, conversing normally, when he stepped behind her and began to rummage through a gear bag. That is the last thing she remembers. A quick search of the camp finds that all of Remmy’s gear is gone, as well as…“My crown!” yells Wolfbane in dismay. Odleif checks for tracks – Remmy’s are clearly visible in the sand at the edge of camp until he walked to a stone outcropping that leads to the high rocky ridge in front of them. Odleif says he has lost the trail there, but can try making concentric circles outward until he picks it up again. Morgan looks at Ember, and they both simultaneously shake their heads.

“We’re not chasing him through the desert,” says Morgan, “We need to save ourselves.”

“He took all his things,” says Ember. “He has three days of water at best. He can’t drink that gold crown.”

“If I ever find him again…” begins Thrud, but his planned atrocities are lost in the general noise of preparing the meal.

After eating the party breaks camp, then waits for dusk. They continue southeast, climbing a series of rocky ridges, each one higher than the last. Some time in the early morning hours the ridges have reached their maximum altitude, and from that point on, each one is slightly lower than the last. It is nearing dawn, and the party is searching for a camp sight, preferably with a large ridge to block the morning sun, when they are passing through a narrow defile. Ahead of them, Morgan can barely see gossamer webs completely blocking their path, running from rock wall to rock wall. She calls for light, and Bhelgarn’s sword fills the slot canyon with a bright glow.

Cose by, on the near side of the web, two huge, tan spiders cling to the cliff-faces. They appear dazzled by the light and don’t move. The party unloads spells and missile weapons at them until they are dead, then Morgan cuts through the web with her sword. They continue on.

A few hours later Morgan calls a halt at what she considers the perfect campsite. There is a narrow slot between two broader valleys. They will camp in the slot and have shade for almost the entire day, but still have options for maneuvering if they are set upon (particularly from above).

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After two nights of travel, the party is 24 miles south-east of the pyramid, crossing a rocky desert

Those on watch the next day spot a small herd of antelope, but they scent the party’s camp and never approach close enough to be hunted. As camp is roused in the late afternoon, the party discusses sending a lookout up to scout. Wolfbane has a levitation spell, and they have collectively 250 feet of rope. While a few of them break camp, the others find a path up to the top of the ridge. Securing Wolfbane with the rope, they watch as she ascends into the sky like a kite, pulled by the strong desert winds.

When she comes back down, she has exciting news. To the north, east, and west there is desert, sandy and rocky, all around. But in the south she was barely able to make out a thin line of green! River valley, oasis, irrigated field? She doesn’t know, but she knows she saw green, perhaps even close enough they could reach it with a single night’s travel!

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Green!

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Post 33 - To Slay A God
To Slay A God

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It is perhaps an hour after they have set up camp that Ember begins to groan and stir. Soon after, she is awake. The last thing she remembers is Morgan walking down the hallway in front of her into the room with the chariot of light. After that, she says, her memory is just a long series of nightmares with no clear meaning.

The party gives her a little time to eat, drink, and recover before telling her the story of what really happened. She is at first aghast, then incensed, and finally filled with resolve. She heals Thrud until the barbarian is conscious as well.

Meanwhile, Bhelgarn has been spending the time practicing weapons forms and is humming dwarven chants. When asked why he is so chipper, the prince responds, “Och, tha’ little doost-oop with Zargon was jess what I needed! Sure, we were caught with our knickers doon, but now we kin where he is at! I bet if we had a scrape or two more with some of the rough monsters doon here, ye’d all be ready for another go at the god!”

Morgan is dubious whether fighting more monsters to prepare them for Zargon is a good idea, but Thrud seems encouraged by the thought, and FluffyKitten and Odleif seem willing to go along. Iris is in favor of any plan that reunites her with Pooches. Thrud was the only one who was seriously injured in the fight, so after Ember has him up and ready, Morgan agrees to lead them back to the sixth level, where presumably the weakest of the imprisoned monsters are kept.

Thrud has mentioned how his axe blade turned on Zargon’s scales as if they were made of stone, and the party theorizes that magic weapons are needed to hit him. Ember agrees to loan her mace to Thrud when they face him again, and the rest of the party all have magic weapons – except for FluffyKitten.

“Can I haz stabby?” the halfling asks Wolfbane.

“No,” the mage responds, “The Brotherhood gave the magic dagger to me.”

“Can I haz stabby?” she asks again, a few minutes later.

“I said no. Fluffy, the dagger is mine.”

“Can I haz stabby? Pwease?”

“Arggh. I am not talking about this with you.”

“Pwease can I haz stabby pwease, miss wizard.”

NOOO!”

Half an hour later, Wolfbane finally agrees to loan FluffyKitten her magic dagger, just to get her to shut up.

Meanwhile, each of the party members have been sharing with Ember their version of the fight with Zargon. She is coming to realize how instrumental the daring of Iris and Wolfbane was – had Iris not put herself into harm’s way by jumping into the pit with Zargon and pulling Thrud out, and had Wolfbane not been able to slow his bleeding until Morgan’s potion could be found, her companion would most assuredly be dead.

During a pause in FluffyKitten’s pestering of Wolfbane, Ember asks to speak with Iris and Wolfbane privately, and they retreat into the short corridor to the east of the room they are in. Ember tells them that she wishes to reward their selfless acts, and offers them their choice of either her own share of the crowns recovered from Alexander and Zenobia, or the blessing of her goddess – in whatever form that might take. Wolfbane opts for the crown, Iris says she would like to accept the blessing.

The party returns to the sunlight room, and ascends both levels of the ladder to arrive at the room where the wood statues attacked. Pooches immediately bounds to Iris, nearly knocking her over, and it is some time before she has him calm enough that they can proceed.

They head out into the southern hallway, the one filled with doors that bear what they believe to be the imprisonment sigil of the Zargonites. As it is considered his idea, Bhelgarn volunteers to touch the first sigil. Reaching forward with his sword, Bhelgarn cautiously raps on the door – the sigil seems undisturbed. He then braces himself to push against the stone valve. Just as the slab moves, there is a flash from the sigil. Red light traces along the outline of the doorway and there is a soft “whooshing” sound, as if a vacuum seal has been broken.

Inside the room (60) are three dogs, looking like sandy-colored short-furred desert dogs. For a few seconds they stand frozen, as if statues or in suspended animation, then they slowly begin moving. The party waits to see their reactions, and they begin to investigate, sniffing each of the party members in turn. Suddenly one of them vanishes, only to re-appear a second later in the hall, standing next to Pooches. The two exchange yips and growls as if speaking, and after that the new dogs seem quite relaxed, as well as eager to follow the party about. All three of them now display frequent disappearing and reappearing.

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The odd dogs that disappear and reappear

The party works their way along the hall, pausing again at the door that feels cold to the touch, but no one seems interested in breaking that seal, so they continue on.

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Reaching the trio of rooms at the end of the hall marked with the symbols of the gods, they first try the one with no warding sigil (Gorm), and find it empty (70). It appears to have been a living quarters, but all remaining items are ancient and worthless, as is typical of this level.

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Next up is the door with the symbol of Usamigares (72). Bhelgarn opens the door, producing the same red flash and seal-breaking sound. Inside are two huge bull-headed men bearing great axes.

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Bull-headed men

What follows is a brief struggle, with the party aided by the fact that the creatures, while immediately hostile, seem to take some time to fully come to their senses. The disappearing dogs remain in the hall, heads cocked quizzically.

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The party moves to the last of the three doors, the one in the center (71). Anticipating another fight, this time they rush in immediately upon opening the door, so as to take maximum advantage of their time before the creatures trapped within can react.

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The snake-haired women that can turn you to stone!

The two reptilian women within have snakes for hair and the party quickly succeeds in striking them down. However, even as the second one falls, FluffyKitten stares wide-eyed at them and feels a sudden lethargy overtaking her. As the rest of the party looks on, Fluffy seems held rigid as if paralyzed – then turns an ashen color – then has her face actually harden and appear as stone!

The petrification spreads to the halfling’s head, then her neck and is extending into her torso. Not just her flesh, but her whole form, clothes, armor and all, is rapidly becoming a stone statue.

“My dagger!” screams Wolfbane, and frantically digs through her pack. She produces the bone tube as the petrification has reached Fluffy’s upper thighs, and has the scroll out and is reading it when the hardening reaches her calves. As the symbols on the parchment flare into light and then fade, a blue glow surrounds Wolfbane, then shoots out to FluffyKitten. In a second, Fluffy regains her living color and can move again.

As the halfing stands there dazed, before she can react, Wolfbane yells “No more dagger for you!” and wrenches the blade from her hand.

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“Enough!” shouts Morgan in a commanding tone. “Sorry, Bhelgarn, but this is not helping us get ready for Zargon. We are getting sloppy, and that just almost cost us a party member. We are done opening doors and fighting random monsters. We are going to rest now, and more importantly, we are going to make plans.”

Brooking no dissent, not that there is much, for even Bhelgarn (after decapitating both snake-women and placing their heads in his bag) voices no objection, Morgan leads the party back to the “captain’s room”, where they had previously rested. The dogs that had been following them are now nowhere to bee seen, and do not re-appear.

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Over the next several hours, a careful plan is concocted, with much detail. The central premise of the plan is that Zargon will be difficult to damage with weapons, so a priority is placed on spell attacks and the use of oil. It is hoped that it will be easier to hit him with oil flasks, and further hoped that he will be damaged by fire. Ember plans on taking her Harangue spell. She has not used this before, but effectively neutralizing Zargon’s attacks is seen as key. Remmy and Thrud are to be inserted invisibly into the pit and will then attack the helpless Zargon. At some point acid is mentioned as a possibility, should Zargon prove resistant to fire. Morgan leads an away team back to the fifth level, gathers twenty intact wine bottles (as well as Odleif’s owlbear skin), and carefully fills them from the acid room, returning to the party with them all intact by carrying them bound in ancient iron barrel hoops. She also has several bags of sand, gathered from the floor of the room whose walls talk. At the end of sixteen hours, Ember has healed those who needed it and the party is ready to set out.

This time, the party leaves their non-essential camp gear in the captain’s room, taking only what they plan on using in the fight with Zargon. Pooches is left to guard it. They stop briefly in the room of the bull-headed men to gather the body of one of them, decapitating it first. They travel quickly to the ladder room, and down to the eighth level, for the cost of a few more copper coins. Forfeiting another magic item to the woman in white, this time the knock ring they were given by the Magi, they take the stairs to ninth level and arrange themselves outside the door to the slide-trap room.

They first dismantle the door and door-frame, giving themselves more room to work. The ancient wood crumbles and splinters easily, and they spend more time moving the pieces out of the way then prying it from the stone.

(Round 1)
While Bhelgarn pounds a piton into the stone floor, Morgan and Iris both pre-cast magic missile. Glowing arrows appear next to them – they will have about ten minutes to target them before they disappear. Wolfbane casts invisibility on Remmy. As Bhelgarn’s hammer falls, echoes of the blows fill the stone halls around them. “’Ear that, Zargon?” huffs the dwarf. “We be comin’ for ye, boyo.”

(Round 2)
Bhelgarn pounds in another piton, Morgan and Iris both arm themselves with another magic missile, and Wolfbane casts a shield spell on herself.

(Round 3)
Bhelgarn attaches ropes to both pitons, and carefully throws them down the length of the hall that will become the slide. Morgan casts bagfuls of sand down the hall so as to make the surface as frictive as possible. Odleif lights a torch. Iris casts Invisibility on Thrud. FluffyKitten stuffs two bottles of acid down the neck-hole and into the stomach of the bull-man, with a bit more gusto than is to everyone else’s taste, burying her arm in the body of the beast. Remmy carefully coats his blade with all of the different contents of the many flasks he carries. The thick liquid inside has been drying rapidly in the parched desert air, and he does not figure they will be potent much longer.

(Round 4)
In a carefully-timed sequence, Thrud and Bhelgran, with ropes looped loosely about their forearms, push the body of the bull-man forward. As they progress, the floor begins to lower slowly, then swiftly drop. When it gets to the critical angle, the body begins to tumble of its own accord, rolling forward and then dropping into the pit with a splash. They grab their ropes to keep from falling themselves, and Bhelgarn closes his eyes, removes a snake-woman head from his bag, and tosses that in on top of the bull-man body. Wolfbane casts her Ventiloquism spell. Odleif lights his hooded lantern, placing it on the floor of the hall with several arrows nearby. Finally, Morgan casts her hold portal on the ramp, to keep it open even after Thrud and Bhelgarn have pulled themselves back up.

(Round 5)
As the ramp opens, Zargon can be seen waiting at the bottom (at least by those with infravision), apparently forewarned by all the noise above. From the body at his feet, or perhaps the head lying next to it, emerges the voice of Wolfbane. “Oh, dear. I have fallen down this ramp and my head has come off. I hope some monstrosity does not find and eat me before I can stand up…”

Zargon’s tentacles find both the head and the body and lift them up out of the slime. The head he tosses into his great maw without ill effect and swallows without even chewing. He is beginning to munch on the great body of the bull-man when Ember begins her Harangue: “Forbannet være du , forferdelig skapning! Hvordan våger du besudle dette stedet med ditt nærvær! Hvor mange århundrer har du spist de happless fangene lei deg? Hvor mange mennesker har blitt drept i Undercity i sjofel navn? Sannelig, jeg ringe ned vrede GLØD på deg! Hun skal brenne deg med ild vegeance og flammene av rettferdighet!”

Morgan hastily opens the stoppers of her two oil flasks and stuffs rags into their necks.

(Round 6)
Ember comes to realize that her harangue is not working. She believes that Zargon is not sentient enough to have a conscience, and so is unaffected. “Wait, wait!” she cries to the others, but they have already sprung into action.

Thrud and Remmy slide quickly down the ropes and spread out, moving around to the rear of Zargon. “Now!” cries Morgan, and she looses her two magic missiles into the body of Zargon, with them exploding as they hit. Iris quickly follows suit. Bhelgarn, Odleif, and FluffyKitten all throw acid bottles that break on the body of Zargon, the acid hissing and sizzling as it burns his flesh. He seems easy enough to hit as such – in fact, with his huge body filling the space of the ramp, it would be hard to miss.

Zargon’s tentacles jerk in pain as he is struck blow after blow. He drops the mangled, half-eaten body of the bull-man into the slime.

[Zargon took a total of 36 points of damage this round, with four magic missiles at d6+1 each, three acid bottles at 2d4 each, and another two inside the minotaur for half damage]

(Round 7)
Seeing the obvious effect of the acid, Thrud ends his invisibility by tossing a bottle, breaking it against Zargon’s back. Remmy stabs at a foot-tentacle with his envenomed blade, but the stony scales turn aside his weapon. Bhelgarn, Odleif, and FluffyKitten, now joined by Iris, throw acid-filled bottles at Zargon. Three impact him, but Odlief’s goes wide as Zargon begins to turn and move away from the ramp. It lands somewhere deep in the room, splashing down in the slime. Morgan lowers her flask to Odleif’s lantern just long enough to catch the rags on fire, then hurls it at Zargon. With satisfaction, she sees it shatter against his body and then a large section of his skin erupt in flames.

Zargon is slowly retreating from the ramp, and turns and faces Thrud and Remmy in the pit. His arm-tentacles lash out, and both of them are slashed by talons.

[Zargon took a total of 19 points of damage this round, from four acid bottles at 2d4 each, and an oil flask for d8]

(Round 8)
Zargon moves into the corner of the room, and then turns around defensively, back to the wall and out of sight of the hallway above. His talons continue to slash wickedly at Thrud and Remmy, scoring nasty hits on each. Those in the party hurling acid and oil are forced to come halfway down the ramp to see him. Bhelgarn is out of acid, but Ember quickly hands him the bottle she carried. Bhelgarn, Thrud, and Iris all throw acid, with two of them hitting, and Morgan lands another oil flask, adding further to the flames engulfing the gigantic body. Odleif takes a step forward to throw, but a tentacle from Zargon wraps around him, and bears him cursing to the great maw. A huge bite savages the woodsman’s body, but he curses again and breaks his bottle against Zargon’s face, splashing both the monster and himself with acid. FluffyKitten is out of acid – she rapidly descends a rope and begins evading tentacles while she stabs at Zargon’s huge bulk.

[Zargon took a total of 23 points of damage this round, from four acid bottles at 2d4 each, and an oil flask for d8]

(Round 9)
With Zargon’s great eye filled with acid from Odleif, his tentacles lash out in all directions. Thrud dodges them, runs up to the main body, and buries his axe deep into the creature. Zargon’s huge form wavers, then collapses into the muck and slime, throwing the body of Odleif clear and crashing down scant inches from FluffyKitten. The god is dead.

The party erupts in shouts and cheers, even while Ember rapidly descends the ramp and wades through the muck to Odleif’s side. He is severely wounded, but still conscious. Bhelgarn and Iris descend into the pit. Wolfbane and Morgan remain above, with Morgan directing the search for treasure and Bhelgarn holding aloft his sword for light.

Deep under the muck, the floor of the pit seems carpeted in equal measure with bones and coins. The party ignores these and tries to find larger items. Eventually they come up with a set of human-sized chain armor (Bhelgarn), a shield (Thrud), a spear (despite their suspicions, this is not Hazrad’s – Thrud), a cloak (Fluffy), boots (Iris), a scroll tube (Remmy), and a wand (Morgan). All of these are hauled out. Thrud and Bhelgarn squabble over Zargon’s great black horn, but eventually it goes to the human barbarian. Several in the party rip and cut out teeth or talons from Zargon’s corpse. Others begin to sift through the muck, ignoring the silver coins but keeping the platinum.

As the party files up the ramp, Ember is the last to leave. She first says a few words of thanks to her goddess, then carefully removes a belt pouch. She takes out 13 copper pieces, 4 gold coins, and 1 electrum, and tosses them into the muck below. Asked about this later, she mentions that this was treasure she was carrying for Hazrad, and leaves it at that.

Weary yet elated, the party retraces their steps back to the captain’s room and the waiting Pooches.

[DM’s note; enough xp was gained for Thrud, FluffyKitty, and Pooches to each advance to level 5]

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Post 32 - The Hazard of Hazrad
The Hazard of Hazrad

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After a good rest, and innumerable heartmending and remedy spells from Ember, the party is ready to go. They decide to scout a bit on this level before descending. Ignoring the hacked and shattered remnants of the former guardians, they pass through the far door of the wood statue room rather than using the floor trapdoor. They find a long corridor which eventually curves around and meets up with part of the level they have already explored. Six doors in total come off the hall; five have sigils on them.

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The three doors clustered together at the end are immediately recognizable as bearing the symbols of Gorm (a lightning bolt), Madarua (a sheaf of wheat) and Usamigares (a snake coiled about a staff). These sigils are carved into the rock itself and look dull and old. But two of these doors also have red symbols, which do not seem to be carved into the rock as much as traced into the air in front of the door – their forms producing an unsettling glow and seeming to twist and shimmer. Wolfbane recalls for the party that the tiger-women said that some of these rooms were magical prisons, and suggests that the sigils are somehow warding the doors.

Of the three doors not clustered together, only the two westernmost ones have the red symbols, but no carvings. The middle door feels strangely cold to the touch, the eastern door is blank, and when opened leads only to an empty chamber with a few remains of a bunkroom.

Satisfied that there are no lurking surprises or alternate accesses to the level below, Morgan leads the party back to the room with the trapdoor in the floor and they again open it. By the light of Odleif’s lantern, they can see that the ladder descends some twenty feet to another chamber, but continues through a hole in the floor, going deeper even than the next tier down.

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However, as the lantern light penetrates the room below, shapes are seen moving. Two large dogs, as big as mastiffs, slink about the room, passing in and out of the light. They have copper-colored fur and red eyes and seem not at all surprised at the party’s appearance. One of them pads quietly over to the base of the ladder and sits, looking up expectantly.

After a bit of discussion, FluffyKitten volunteers to contact the “pretty doggies!” She sets her foot on the first rung of the iron ladder, but it groans and flakes of rusted metal slide off. Instead of using the ladder, she has a rope tied about her waist. With one hand on the lantern, she is carefully lowered through the trapdoor.

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From her new vantage point, FluffyKitten can see that the room is octagonal, but the walls are very rough. There appear to be paintings on them, but they are so faded that she would have to examine them closely to discern their content. What is more obvious is that the room, in addition to the pit in the floor, has three door exits. These are wooden doors with regular door frames – the first she can recall seeing in the temple. Finally, there is a large pile of thousands of coins near the center of the room. The second dog sits by the pile, while both eye FluffyKitten.

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Fluffy thinks for a bit, then uses her free hand to pry a gold coin from her pocket. She tosses this over to the pile, missing but landing on the stone floor nearby. At this, the two dogs relax considerably, even, she thinks, grinning at her. With a few words to her companions, she is pulled back up.

If the Zargonites are guarding access to their god, the party reasons, it would make sense to have creatures stationed at each level. They fought the wood-carved statues in this room, but perhaps they can pass the guard dogs below by simply offering a coin. The party decides on the order they will descend, and remind one another not to have more than one person on the ladder at a time, and to have coins ready.

One by one the party members climb down the ladder, with it creaking and complaining at every step. Each tosses a coin on or at the pile, and the dogs make no hostile moves, as if everything is completely natural. Finally only three of the party remain in the room above – Iris, Pooches, and Bhelgarn. Bhelgarn by now has a basic design he favors for making a rope harness for Pooches, and he has been working at this as the others descend, then, with the help of Iris, he slips it into place over the dog. Lowering his center and bracing his legs, he squats and feeds out the rope, while Iris talks to her dog to keep him calm.

For the first ten feet, when Pooches is in a blind shaft, everything goes well. But at his entrance to the room below, the other dogs sit up and take notice. Their hackles rise and they begin a low growl. Pooches, hearing them, begins barking, jerking his body so that the rope swings crazily and slaps against the side of the ladder. Iris calls down to Pooches, desperately trying to calm him, but his barks grow in intensity and the growls of the guard dogs below deepen.

“Bring him up, bring him up!” cries Iris, and Bhelgarn struggles to raise the rope.

“Let ‘im doon, bring ‘im oop, mak up yer mind, elf”, he mumbles under his breath in Dwarven.

With Pooches back by her side, both Iris and her companion calm themselves. Morgan calls up to her, “Iris, it’s the only way down – we looked through the whole level!”

“I’m not leaving Pooches!” Iris calls down. There is a brief pause before Morgan responds.

“If we are fighting Zargon, we are going to need everyone.”

Still muttering to himself, Bhelgarn eases his bulk onto the ladder and shimmies down, then tosses a coin on the pile.

Morgan calls back up, “Iris?”

Iris holds Pooches’ head in her arms. She is on the verge of tears. “I promise I will come back, and I won’t be long,” she whispers to him. “But you have to stay here, do you hear me? Stay here.” When she lets go, Pooches whines, but circles a few times and lays down on the dusty stone floor. Morgan is about to call again when she hears the light step of Iris’ booted foot on the first ladder rung.

With everyone but Pooches in the room below (79), their toll paid and the dogs relaxed, the party begins to take stock of the room. Remmy notes that the coins guarded by the dogs are all copper – all except the gold ones thrown by the party. “Figures,” he says and spits. He takes a step forward to switch his coin for a copper, but the dogs begin growling again so he backs off.

Odleif and Bhelgarn are examining the doors of the room. They are indeed wooden, and ancient – rotten and ready to fall at any time, and the wooden door frames with them.

Ember and Morgan are looking at the wall frescos with the light of Odleif’s lantern. They show people dieing. Concerned at first, Ember slowly comes to realize that they are all scenes of natural death – disease, old age, accidents. In none of them is anyone being intentionally killed, much less sacrificed. The setting appears to be Cyndicia during the time of the kings, when people lived above ground.

Although the ladder is the obvious way down, the party is rested and at full health, and agree to explore this level a bit. They move out into the hallway, Odleif checking for tracks, Remmy for traps. This level appears to conform to the motif of the level above – empty corridors separating rooms carved from bedrock. From where the party emerges, there is a branching corridor to the north with two doors, a turning corridor to the south with one. The door behind them is plain, but the ones to the south and immediate north have the glowing red symbols on them. The far northern door is blank, however, and this they enter.

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The room (81) is large but empty. The dust is thick on the floor and there are no tracks. The air is stale and here, away from the dogs, very silent. The party is conscious that every noise they make, every footstep, every clink of their armor, is foreign to this place. The fresco shows two humans standing together in some sort of field or garden – eventually Ember realizes that it is a burial grounds. One man is passing a purse or pouch to the other – could he be selecting or buying a gravesite?

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They pass through the door into the T-shaped corridor beyond. Oleif estimates that the southern branch would take them to the room they passed on the way here, if it is of comparable size to the other two. In any event, the door is marked with the glowing sigil, so they avoid it and head to the other door. In this one, the entire lower half of the door has fallen and splintered on the floor. Odleif does not believe the upper part will stay on the hinge if touched, so they take turns crouching and passing into the room beyond.

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The room (75) has another door exit, the far door also with its lower portion missing. As they enter, one at a time, someone notices a large hole in the rock wall, where a natural fissure has been worn away. Even as it is pointed out, already creatures are emerging from it.

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They seem to be some sort of emaciated giant weasel, but with drab, dirty, disheveled coats. They attack fearlessly, desperately, even as the front ranks of the party hack away at them. In a few minutes all three are dead, their blood pooling on the stone floor.

The party surveys the crack in the wall from which they emerged, wondering where it leads. FluffyKitten, the only one with any real chance of entering it, volunteers on the condition that she gets to take Odleif’s lantern with her. It is wide enough that she does not have to squeeze, but she is on all fours and at one point even on her belly, trying to push the lantern ahead at an angle without spilling it. Then the passage turns abruptly and enters a small chamber.

The chamber is lined with hair and full of bones, and here and there the glint of coins. Fluffy takes a few gold pieces but without any great gusto. Then she sees what looks like a femur until she realizes that it is far too uniform, actually a perfect cylinder. She grabs it, turns around, and crawls out.

In the meantime, Odleif has been prodding the weasels with his boot. “Funny,” he says.

“What’s that?” asks Morgan.

“A month ago, I woulda bin skinnin’ these an’ happy about the pelts. Now I gots more gold then I kin carry. I otta be at least takin’ the meat, but it’s easier ta jess eat the food we brought then try to make a fire outta five hunnerd year old doors.”

“Yes, the adventuring life is strange,” Morgan admits.

Odleif whistles. “Skinnin!” he exclaims. “I almos’ fergot me owlbear suit. We lef’ it dryin’ in the wine cellar, ‘member? I gots to get that afore we kin leave – them feathers’ll keep me warm onna cold desert night.”

FluffyKitten emerges from the fissure in the rock, and hands the lathed bone tube to Morgan, who finds and twists off the stopper. A single brittle piece of parchment emerges – and it is written in magic glyphs. “That’s not Cyndycian,” Morgan says, “at least not modern Cyndician. Those are standard magic runes.”

Morgan and Iris crowd around. The consensus is that it is a spell scroll, with a single intact spell, and the start of a second one, spoiled by the flaking away of the ancient paper. “Did either of you take read magic?” Morgan asks.

Wolfbane has it prepared – she casts the spell, and uses it to decipher the runes. Finally, she says, Dispel Magic.

Morgan nods appreciatively. “That’s third level, I think – more than any of can cast for now. That’s going into someone’s spellbook as soon as we have time, calm, light, and ink.” She carefully re-inserts the scroll into the tube, screws in the grooved stopper, and hands it back to Wolfbane. “Keep it safe.”

Now that the lantern has been returned, Ember uses it to study the frescos. Numerous people are gathered around a site marked with a stone monument. Those closest to the stone are dressed in fine robes. She thinks the painting depicts a funeral service.

The party passes out into the far corridor, which is oddly Y-shaped. One branch runs back the way they came, to the south-east, so they take the west fork. This soon splits into two hallways. The south branch door has a glowing sigil, but the north branch one is bare. “We can open these and bash imprisoned monsters after we tackle Zargon,” says Morgan. “We want to stay fresh until then, so let’s stick to doors that don’t scream trouble.”

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Passing into the chamber beyond the unmarked door (73), the party finds it empty. The frescos depict the various stages in preparing a body for burial. The party is aided in their interpretation by their memory of the implements they saw in the embalming room on the tomb level, for they would otherwise be unfamiliar with many of the devices depicted.

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They backtrack to the third leg of the Y, running diagonally. As Odleif suspected, the unmarked door gives way to the room with the dogs. They have done a long loop, but have one more door to check if they want to search the level.

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The corridor beyond has many different branches, eventually leading to four different doors besides the one they came through, all but one with the glowing sigils. “It’s a blasted menagerie doon here,” grumbles Belgharn, “didn’t those Zargonite priests have nae better things t’ do asides making magical prisons?”

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“You mean when they weren’t busy sacrificin’ people and oppressin’ the oontercity, ya?” says Ember grimly. She is growing increasingly nervous about this idea of facing a god in battle, her loyalty to Thrud notwithstanding.

They try the one unmarked door, which leads to a somewhat smaller room than the others (76). It is deserted, but has frescos showing some sort of large burden being hand-carried by several people and followed by many others through crowded city streets. Given the context of the other frescos, most likely it is a funeral procession.

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Having now exhausted all unmarked doors on this level, they return to the ladder room with the guard dogs, and arrange themselves in preparation for their descent. One at a time they climb down the ancient iron ladder.

They emerge in a room (90) with no apparent guardians, but two doors, also of wood. The west door is reasonably intact, but the east one is missing its handle, and in fact there are actually smooth-edged holes going all the way through it in the region of where the handle would be. Centuries of contact with hands and skin have worn through the ancient wood. The frescos here do not show specific figures – rather, the entire room – walls, floor and ceiling, have been painted a dull mustard color. The floor has been subsequently worn down to unpainted stone in all but the corners, however.

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“Ugh,” says Morgan, “bad decoration choice.”

“No,” rebuts Ember. “You haf to remember this is faded, ya? I tink the original color would be much brighter…a yellow.more like..sunlight.” She smiles despite herself.

“Well, that’s certainly cheerier than all the death cult images above.”

“No, no,” again Ember shakes her head. “This whole pyramid, aboof and below, is a temple. These paintings are a meditation, ya? They tell stoories, like tapestries or colored glass windows for us. This is from before the Zargonites. Aboof we saw the process of death in the world – but now we get to see what happen after death – and for the original Cyndiceans – that meant sunlight.”

Morgan shrugs. She would prefer actual sunlight to thousand-year-old sunlight-colored paint. Best to keep moving. “I don’t need Odlief’s tracking skills to know that’s the door the priests use,” she says, gesturing at the pitted east door. “Let’s get a quick check of the wrong one first, though.”

The branching corridor beyond the western door provides access to three other wooden doors, two with sigils. The one without is to the northwest.

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The room beyond has another door, and the frescos depict a narrow bridge passing over an abyss.

“You see,” Ember says confidently, “We are seeing the journey of the souls.”

The door out of the room leads to a short corridor, but the door at the end of that is warded with a sigil. “Okay people,” says Morgan. “Back to the right door – the door the Zargonites actually use.”

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Leaving the ladder room to the east, the hallways run to a single door in the south, but a four-way intersection with three doors in the north. Tracks in the corridor show the obvious passage is to the closest door in the north – and it is also the only one that is not warded.

The party enters. In the center of the small room is a stone staircase going down. The frescos here, curiously unfaded, show a woman in a white robe kneeling next to a pool of fire. As they approach the stair, the woman moves!

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Stepping out of the wall itself, the woman now stands before them in the room. The wall painting still shows the pool, but not her. “Hold,” she says in a melodious voice, not in Cyndicean, but heard as the native language of each of them. “If you wish to descend, payment must be made.”

“Payment?” queries Morgan. “Of what sort?”

“Something valuable. Preferably magic.”

The party confers briefly, until FluffyKitten offers up her magical shield. The woman in white accepts it with a graceful smile, gestures at the staircase, and fades back into her wall painting. They proceed down the stairs.

The first of them are not even off the stairs and into the room before they are attacked by a monstrosity. A huge skeleton, or an assembly of several skeletons, surges forward slashing at them with four different swords! It is as if someone has taken a giant skeletal frame and attached many different arms on it before animating it with malevolent intent.

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It is a pitched battle, and many in the party are wounded, mostly because the majority of them are still trapped on the narrow stairs and can’t assist. By the time Ember arrives to attempt to turn the creature it is slain, or perhaps dismantled? The swords are checked – they are hefty iron weapons and strangely preserved, but not better than anything the party already carries. The frescos depict a woman dressed in white who is washing the spirits of the dead in a pool of fire. She is obviously the same woman as in the room above, but these frescos are faded and she shows no sign of moving.

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The party confers briefly, and decides to continue despite their wounds. They are operating under the assumption that the under-pyramid is a reverse image of the upper pyramid, and so will have five layers, with Zargon at the bottom. That means they are just one tier away and are thus too close to stop now. They do decide to follow the Zargonite tracks though, going straight to Zargon rather than exploring this level first.

Of the three doors in the room, the western one is obviously the more used, so they open it and start down the hallway. The first door they come to is warded, and the tracks do not lead that way, so they continue. Rounding a corner, they see that the tracks lead to an unwarded door.

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Entering, there is a short hallway and then a room where the frescos show glowing spirits boarding a winged boat made of golden light.

Just as the first of them are entering the room, the entire corridor shifts and drops, turning into a slide down to the level below! Even as those in the front scramble to keep from falling, their senses are assaulted by a terrible odor of offal.

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Morgan, in the lead, is able to jump clear of the trap slide into the room ahead, but Thrud and Odleif tumble down and drop into the pit below, landing with a sickening squelch. The rest of the party is still in the hallway, staring through the open door down the slide.

Odleif has managed to keep his lantern lit, despite the slide and fall into the thick layer of black slime. He raises it to assess their surroundings. The floor is littered with bones, most unseen under the slime, some floating on top. The room is forty feet on a side, with no other exits than the slide.

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Suddenly, he hears a rustling noise from the north wall. There, a huge humanoid figure rises from the slime, standing 15’ tall. Its head is that of a giant lizard. A black, 2’- long horn curves upward above its single red eye, and sharp teeth fill its mouth. Instead of arms, the creature has six tentacles, three on each side of its body. These end in razor-sharp talons. Instead of legs, the creature slithers toward Odlief and Thrud on six more powerful tentacles.

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It moves sluggishly, as if just awoken from a sleep or torpor. There is a wheezing cough, and Odleif realizes that there is a figure wrapped tightly and held in one of the tentacles – a human body – it is Hazrad! The nomads’ legs hang at a crazy angle, as if broken and mis-healed. And then he laughs, an excited, erratic laugh.

He begins speaking in Alaysian, then thinks better of it and switches to the accented Common the party is familiar with. “Fools!” he cries, “Only now at the end do you understand! It was I – it was always I! I led you to the Pyramid, I scared you ever deeper and frustrated your efforts to leave, I attacked FluffyKitten, I discovered this ancient offspring of Set! Now, Zargon will eat your bodies, but I will feed your souls to Thanatos!” Hazrad begins laughing hysterically.

In the hallway above, Morgan has carefully made her way back to the party, who are listening horror-struck to Hazrad’s taunts.

As the extent of Hazrad’s betrayal dawns on Thrud, the barbarian is filled with rage. Yelling a war-cry, he hefts his axe and charges forward at Zargon, connecting solidly. The axe glances off with a resounding clang, the scales feeling as hard as stone. Odleif aims an arrow at the creature’s single large eye, but it lurches forward and the arrow breaks when it strikes the huge head.

Hazrad shouts at the creature, and it raises five taloned tentacles to engage Odleif and Thrud. Then, looking at the party clustered at the top of the ramp, Hazrad screams “Terror of Set!” Ember’s face goes ashen and she collapses, unresponsive, on the floor.

The party is in disarray, everyone shouting at one another. Wolfbane is firing paralyzation rays from her wand (Zenobia’s sceptre) but they seem to have no effect on Zargon. Morgan is yelling, “Hazrad, we have to take out Hazrad!” but neither she nor Iris can seem to get a clear shot.

Thrud is slashed by talons from Zargon, each backed by a terrible strength and opening deep wounds as though from a sword. Odleif is backing up, trying to reach the ramp overhead. “Hazrad!” calls out Morgan again. Bhelgran has tied a rope so that the party can safely descend the ramp without falling. Now, pulling a hand axe from his belt, he hurls it at the nomad, and it sinks into his leg. Blood flows freely, but the man does not even wince.

“Dread of Set!” Hazrad cries, and Morgan screams in fright. Knocking party members out of her way, she flees down the hall. A barrage of talons rains upon Thrud, and he falls unconscious into the slime. Odlief continues to shoot arrows, but now at Hazrad, and lands one in his chest, causing him to scream in pain. This is followed by a flash of light, as Iris sends a magic missile at him, and he slumps forward and ceases his cries.

Iris descends the rope and, with Odleif’s help, manages to heft the huge bulk of Thrud on to the ramp. Blood flows freely from his wounds and his body is cold and pale. Iris is now joined by Wolfbane, and the two of them drag the barbarian up the ramp and into the hallway. With no weight on it, the ramp slowly rises into its position as the “floor” of the hallway. Wolfbane works desperately, pressing rags against Thrud’s wounds to stop the flow of blood. From beneath them comes muffled but revolting crunches and gurgles as Zargon consumes the body of Hazrad.

[DM’s note – Thrud stabilized at -9hp, one round away from permanent death]

Despite attempts to shake and slap Ember, she is unresponsive. Thrud is near death, and the party remaining fears that moving him could prove fatal. “Didn’t Ember have a potion?” someone asks. “Yes, but we don’t know what it does.” “I think Morgan had a healing potion.”

Bhelgarn, moving supernaturally fast, takes off, in the direction Morgan fled. He finds her shaking and wailing in the corner by the door to the room with the stairwell, trembling and unable to open the door. A quick search of her pack reveals the potion flask.

Bhelgarn returns to the group. Iris holds Thrud’s head and pours the potion down his throat. The blood seeping limply from his wounds stops, his ragged breathing evens. He is still unconscious, but appears stable, to the point that they deem him safe to move.

Carrying Thrud and Ember both, the party retreats to where Morgan trembles in the corner, As the minutes go by her trembling quiets, then ceases. Finally she speaks, sounding more irritated than afraid. “Well, that was a fiasco, but we are all alive. Hazrad?”

“Dead,” says Bhelgarn. “Eaten, I think,” he adds.

Morgan nods in grim satisfaction. “Well, let’s find somewhere safe to wait and hope Ember recovers.”

They open the door and go up the stairs to the eighth level, then down the hall and into the “sunrise” room at the base of the ladder. “Can you get them up?” she asks Bhelgarn.

The dwarf surveys the bulk of the two humans. “Ember, aye, no worries. Thrud? Maybe, if Odleif steadies the rope, but who’s ta say ‘e doesn’t open oop inside – I mean, start bleedin’ or summit.”

Morgan nods, then leads the group through the other door, down the hall, and into the room with the picture of the abyss (83). “And here we are,” she says, “make yourselves comfortable – who knows how long we’ll be here.”

[DM’s note: Bhelgarn has leveled to fifth.]

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Post 31 - To find a God

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As the dust settles in the hallway, Morgan rests against the cool stone wall.

She drinks lightly from her waterskin, then asks the group what they are to do next. She ponders aloud, “We have, by Odleif’s reckoning, completely explored the upper layers of this pyramid. Mayhap the lower levels are filled with only poor pathetic creatures trapped by the Zargonites. If that is the case, I crave the sun on my face and the wind in my hair more than I want to kill mindless creatures of the dark. What honor is in that, after freeing a king, queen and a city? It may be time to make preparations to leave – to seek fortune and glory in the sun.”

Thrud, who has been loosening the straps on the recovered plate armor, looks at Morgan as if the answer is obvious. “Mistress Ember haf new armor, ya?”

“Ya…I mean, yes,” says Morgan, wondering where this is going.

“Wolfbane haf wand, Iris and Odleif haf new sword, ya?”

“Well, technically Odleif’s sword is not new, but okay…”

“Den it is obvious, ya? We are ready to face Zargon. Time to kill the god.” Seeing the doubtful look in Morgan’s eyes, he elaborates. “To die in glorious battle is any warrior’s wish. I haf this chance hundred times over already. But to kill a god? Not even the skalds sing of such things! How can we leave without that?”

Thrud made this argument before, in the Undercity, and managed to convince everyone but Remmy and Wolfbane. Does his view still hold sway? Morgan looks at the faces of the others. They are convinced. She takes another swallow of water, to give herself time to think. The desert crossing will be hard – they will be lost and will have only what they can carry. At the first difficulty, half of these “heroes” will want to return to the pyramid. Before she leads them away, she needs to make sure there is nothing to return to, that they all are truly desirous of leaving.

Morgan speaks, “If the barbarian (or others) has a burning desire to take on a god, I will aid him. Chances are it is just another monster trapped in room that was fed the helpless victims of the Zargonites.”

“What say you? Shall we continue our room by room slaughter? Find a god? Or seek out the sun?” She asks as if deliberations really need to be made, but she can see in their faces that it is already decided. So be it.

The party knows their way well by now – all the way around the fourth level – the tombs – and down into the fifth level – all along one side, and in to the secret room where they fought the wererats, down in to the chamber with the giant scorpion (61).

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Only the scorpion is not here now – it is gone, though traces of exoskeleton do remain on the floor. The door to the west they have been through – they rested in that empty chamber (58). The two doors to the south are unexplored – though quick looks show then to contain long corridors. The door to the east – that was the direction the last surviving wererat ran. They will begin there.

While the pyramid above is built from immense limestone blocks, the under pyramid is carved from bedrock. So far, all of the rough-hewn chambers found are joined by connecting tunnels between them. Bhelgharn assures them that while all of the construction is ancient, the rooms themselves are much older than the pyramid above. What is contemporaneous with the upper pyramid, however, are the doors – all of the doors on this level have the counterweighted stone “swinging” mechanisms.

After traveling down the hall, the party enters the next chamber (64). In it are what appears to be the remains of a kitchen – several ovens, open grill hearths, a grain-grinding wheel, stone benches and tables. The ovens are nothing like the Cyndicians use now, and seem designed for a time when wood was still a fuel source (as opposed to pig dung).

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Also in the room are two human females, each wearing the mask of a tiger. Bhelgarn steps forward and addresses them in Cyndician. They are no friends of the Zargonites, to be sure, and are interested in the news of their fall and the liberation of the Undercity. They tell the party that Zargon is on the bottom of the under pyramid, and that most of the rest of the rooms are used as magical prisons by the priests. When Bhelgarn specifically asks about the door on the other side of the room, they say that this section of the pyramid is empty and of no interest to the party – but they don’t volunteer to let them pass through.

The party respectfully retreats to consider their options. They don’t exactly trust the tiger-women, but they did not seem overtly hostile. They decide to continue exploring and see whether they can confirm their story.

They next try the southwest door. The room beyond the corridor (59) is completely bare, with not a trace of furnishings or equipment. Of more immediate concern is the huge mass of black goo just inside the door. It is animate, and eagerly starts at the first characters through. The whole party reverses direction. As the counterweighted door closes, the goo-creature moves into the door frame, and demonstrates that it has enough force and structural integrity to keep the door open as it seeps its way through, if not enough to actually open the door itself. Fortunately it proves slow, and by the time the party has dashed back into the room with the staircase up, it has been safely sealed in the corridor between rooms.

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Hearts still pounding from the narrow escape the party opens the remaining unexplored door. This leads not to a single chamber, but to a branching corridor nexus. They first try a room that looks to loop back around the tiger-women (65).

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It contains pottery and stone food storage containers – boxes, urns, vessels. All are either empty, or the food within has long since rotted away hundreds of years ago. Even the stoppered-containers have had their stoppers dry and crack, and what was preserved within long since spoiled.

The room beyond (68) appears to be an abandoned mess hall, with stone tables and long-rotted wooden benches. A few broken pottery bowls is all that remains. After a cautious peek through the door confirms that it does indeed connect back to the tiger-woman lair.

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The party retreats and tries another room off of the branching corridor. This room has rusted and rotten tools all along the walls – the remains of axes, adzes, shovels, picks, and so forth. What may once have been racks have collapsed on top of the tools, but have rotted away as well. In the center of the room is a trap door in the floor – possibly an access for the next layer down. Next to the trap door are two crude wooden sculptures of people – and they are not wearing masks.

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As the party enters the room, the figures animate and move forward to attack. They are slow and stiff, and the party quickly hacks them to pieces.

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The party lifts the trap door, and indeed finds a rusty iron ladder descending into darkness. Not sure if they are ready to go down just yet, they agree to explore a bit more on this level and then take a rest. Backtracking to the corridor, they open the door at the end. This leads to a large chamber, but one that is half-collapsed (69). The eastern and southern “walls” are just a piles of loose stone debris from where the ceiling has caved in. Thick dust from the collapse covers everything, including the few bits of broken pottery and scraps of rotten cloth. The party is about to abandon the room when the rubble starts to move.

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Slowly at first, stray rocks and boulders tumble aside, then the entire collapsed section seems in motion. Thrusting itself up above the rubble, a huge, gray, worm-like creature emerges. It has no eyes – or the ones it has are covered in dust and debris. It is narrow, but nearly as long as the room itself. Seeming to waken from torpor or starvation, it gradually becomes more active until it launches itself at the party. It is a simple creature, but its gaping maw packs a huge bite, and several of the party are seriously wounded.

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One is is dispatched, everyone agrees it is time to rest, but Bhelgarn insists they find another place. The creature’s death-throes have set of ominous rumblings in the rock, and he fears another collapse is imminent.

The party retreats back down the hall and tries another door. This one leads to a long-abandoned chamber that appears to be the quarters of a captain of the guard (62). There are weapons, a cot, even two chests – but everything is rusted and rotten beyond use. It does, however, appear to be a safe and quiet place to rest, so the party sets up camp for some sixteen hours.

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[DM’s note: During the rest, Iris levels to 4th, Odlief levels to 5th, and Ember learns the prayer to cast heat metal.]

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Post 30 - The Return of the King
The Return of the King

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The party rests for four hours in the room on the fourth level they claimed from the shapeshifters. After that time, Ember is again able to heal – and brings FluffyKitten to nearly full health. Bhelgarn, however, is still greatly wounded from the shapeshifter fight. Still, many in the rest of the party are hale and hearty. The group decides to send an expeditionary team to the room that housed the gel creature (before the party set it free) while Bhelgarn recovers back at camp. Ember and Bhelgarn remain behind, as does Thrud, to guard them.

The way to the room is clear, the wedges in the pit trap hold, and the away team quickly reaches their destination. They examine the bed, the shelving, and the chest. Once wood, all of the items are scored and pock-marked as if they had been long submersed in acid. When touched, they crumble into a dry powder. There is nothing of use or value in the room.

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The away team is returning to base when they are waylaid by a giant lizard – seemingly a twin of the one fought a few hours ago. It manages to take the small group by surprise and some of them are wounded before it is finished off. When they arrive at camp Ember finds more of them in need of healing than when they left.

In the end, they remain in the room, burning bunk beds and eating lizard, resting and talking, for near half a day. It is a good spot to rest, with the abundant lizard meat on hand and fresh water a few minutes away in the Great Temple. In the end, with everyone fit to travel, they decide to return to the Undercity and collect WolfBane.

The route down and back is by now familiar, and there is little out of the ordinary. They do rest a bit at their destination and wait for the mage to finish her training.

Their first stop after their return to the fifth level of the pyramid is the acid room. Wolfsbane casts levitate and then grabs Remmy – the two of them are carefully tied together by Bhelgarn, who tethers them to a rope he holds. WolfBane floats to the ceiling, Remmy hanging underneath her. Bhelgarn gives them a prod with his pole, and they drift out over the stone box in the center of the room. Their eyes sting from the acrid fumes, and they cough. Remmy calls for pushes and pulls until he is satisfied with his positioning over the vault.

Talking to WolfBane, Remmy calls on her to lower him down over the stone chest. He carefully checks it for traps, then opens the lock. Inside the chest is full of silver coins – thousands of them! Remmy probes the coins with his dagger and eventually comes up with a scroll tube, which he hands to Wolfbane. He keeps probing, but believes that only coins are left. The party is not at all interested in carrying silver out through the desert, but is open to the possibility that they could trade it to the Magi for more spells. Remmy begins filling a sack with coins. Those watching from the vantage of the doorway, however, do note that as coins are removed, the vault seems to be rising. Upon being told this, Remmy immediately pauses – there could be a trap mechanism under the acid he would not be able to search for – something that could be activated by the removal of weight from the pillar. The swiftest party members are dispatched to collect bottles from the owlbear room and fill them with water from the fountain in the Great Temple, then return.

“How long does your levitate spell last?” Remmy asks WolfBane nervously.

“This, I do not know,” she says, “It is the first time I cast her, oui? And the Magi, their units of time do not match ours – but they say it lasts a while, non?”

As bottles start arriving, Remmy places them in the vault and draws forth coins. Eventually he fills a sack and a half with coins and still hasn’t take a tenth of those available. He and WolfBane are pulled to safety.

There are only a few places left the party have not explored on the fifth level. They return past the “crashing walls” and enter the “nightmare room”. The chairs have been knocked over, but it is otherwise empty. The party never explored the doors to the north, so they do so now.

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The room appears completely deserted. Here and there there is a piece of ripped fabric, a button, a bit of rotten food, but the enormous room is otherwise empty.

The party also searches the “secret” hobgoblin guardroom, as they did not have time to previously. There are eight sleeping rolls and a small writing desk, a large cask of water and some chamber pots, but nothing else. Morgan takes note of the place as an excellent one to rest if need be – the water, beds, and secret access all recommend it, but the peephole into the next room, and the natural alarm provided by the crashing walls make it ideal.

In fact, she calls for a rest then and there and examines the scroll tube recovered by Remmy. She removes the stopper and spreads out the ancient parchment on the writing desk. The lettering is in Cyndician. As far as she can recall, this is the first time she has seen written Cyndician (that is, in ink on paper rather than carved in stone or cast in metal). Bhelgarn is of no help, for he only knows the oral language. Morgan uses her comprehend languages spell, and the words rearrange themselves on the page for her. She realizes that it is actually in two parts, two different prayers. She is reading a clerical scroll, and the spells contained are purify food and drink and remove curse. The second is quite powerful, she knows, but how to use it – she can read it – but can’t call upon divine power. Ember has the backing of her goddess – but can’t read the writing. Perhaps they can trade it to the Madaruans, or (hopefully not) ask them to cast it for the party when the need arrises, that is, should someone be cursed.

While Morgan studies the scroll, Odleif studies the bits and pieces of maps he has made, joining the pieces together into a drawing he sketches on the floor. As far as he can tell, he announces, the party has completely explored the fifth level. Barring searching every corridor for secret doors, it is clear and they are done here. A cheer goes up.

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The party returns to the secret treasure room near the exit to the fourth level (43). Along the way, they gather the sacks of gold coins from the ogres and urns of electrum coins they left in the room of the iron statues (47). After depositing these, and the sacks of silver coins from the acid room (52), they ascend the ladder to the fourth level, hauling Pooches up after them.

Morgan reviews Odleif’s map scraps. There are a number of unexplored places on this level, but if they work roughly counterclockwise, they can hit them all and finish where the apparitions scared the party. “And Hazzerd tried to kills me!” squeaks FluffyKitten in halfling, and Ember frowns.

The party passes down the corridor and round the corner to a door they have passed many times but never opened. There is a two foot wide hole near the bottom of it, where the stone has been broken away. Entering the room, they see that the walls have paintings of a throne room with a man giving advice to a succession of kings and queens. In the center of the room on a small dais is a wooden coffin. Large holes have been gnawed in its sides.

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The lead members have not taken but a few steps into the room when the coffin lurches, and three furry creatures launch out of it and streak toward the party.

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They are fast and furious, but soon lie dead. Once they stop moving, the party can examine them and find that they are giant shrews. Their coffin-lair is empty except for old droppings and tiny bones.

There is nothing else of interest in the room.

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Continuing on, the party finds the embalming room that some of them entered before. Forewarned about the shadows, they enter cautiously with weapons drawn. Indeed, they are but halfway across the room, when five shadows detach themselves from the normal ones flickering on the walls and come after them. Two are formless shades, one a giant mastiff, and two seem to be making copies of party members. These prove hardier foes than the shrews, and Bhelgarn is hit before all of the shadows are dispelled. Immediately the dwarf feels chill and weak, but Ember can find no trace of a visible wound on him.

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The party searches the shelves and finds many jars and casks of spices and a few with the ancient remains of organs. Ember takes a few herbs that may be useful but is dubious of their potency after so many years. There is an assorted collection of dissection equipment, but they are all ancient and rusted. The tables are large and heavy but contain nothing but ancient scratches and stains. A bin in the corner contains old linens, mostly rotten winding cloths like those used in wrapping up “mummies”. Under the wraps is a large wooden chest – Remmy removes a potion from it and a handful of gold coins, but leaves the remainder of the cold coins there.

The party retreats back down to the main corridor along the southern edge of the pyramid, then is forced to curve back north. They are expecting to find the boulder blocking their way, but instead they encounter a door to a room they did not previously know existed.

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Inside, the walls of the room show painted scenes of a man signing documents and organizing tax collection. A wooden coffin that has been smashed open is lying on the floor. Six pale-skinned humans stand around the coffin – they all have wounds bad enough to kill a normal person.

As the party rushes in to the room, the dead are slow to respond. Many are already dispatched by the time Ember enters, and calls upon the Hearth Mother to incinerate the corpses of those that remain. Nothing useful or valuable is found in the room.

Exploring the corridor beyond the room, they finally find the southeast corner of the pyramid, where the boulder is lodged, blocking passage. Returning to the bone room, they are able to avoid the blocked passage.

Near the boulder is a room they have never entered. An elaborate jeweled coffin lies in the center of the room. Next to the coffin is a worm-like creature, 9’ long and 3’ high. It has
many legs and its mouth is surrounded by eight tentacles. Each tentacle is 2’ long.

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The worm scurries at them, and strikes with its tentacles. They seem to do no damage, but some of the party hit by them are paralyzed! After the worm is slain, they rest briefly in the room, hoping the paralysis will go away. In the meantime, Remmy pries all of the jewels off the coffin and pockets them. Ember warns him not to remove the treasures of the dead without need, and without leaving something in return, but he just shrugs and mumbles, “Yeah, whatever.”

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It is perhaps an hour later when the paralyzed can again move. Bhelgarn notices that his shadow-weakness is gone as well. Odleif has spent his time piecing together maps, and believes that they have this level clear as well – except for whatever lies beyond the apparitions of the king and queen. With more than a bit of trepidation, the party readies to travel to that section of the tombs.

When they are close, and about to enter the labyrinthine passages, Morgan casts web, completely blocking off the hallway behind them. “No retreat, no surrender,” she says mockingly – but they all know she means to catch the ones that run from fear.

Cautiously inching forward, the party creeps ahead down the hall. A chill wind blows past them, swirling the dust on the floor. The dust coalesces into the shimmering, ghostly figures of a man and a woman. They are dressed in costly clothing, and both wear golden crowns. The man raises his hand and gestures for you to stop. “Go no further,” he warns, “lest the curse of King Alexander overtake you!” His voice rings in the ears of them all, but each in their own native language. “I am Queen Zenobia,” the woman says. “Turn back; only death awaits you!”

A few of the party manage to stay, though trembling in fear. The rest turn and run, trapping themselves in the webs. By the time those remaining cut them free, they are again in control of their faculties. “Well, that went better than last time,” says Morgan, recalling when the entire party was dispersed between two levels of the pyramid, and Fluffy was left alone with Hazrad.

Collecting themselves, they begin searching the walls. At the far end, just before the corridor turns, Iris finds a section of wall that is not the huge, solid limestone blocks most of the pyramid is built from, but a mortered-over gap between the blocks. Digging at the ancient mortar and plaster, they are able to rapidly carve out a space between the blocks, soon revealing a great open space beyond.

Squeezing through the narrow gap between the blocks, the party enters a hall unlike any they have seen before in the pyramid, let alone on this level of tombs.

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The floor of this long, narrow room has a colorful red and white checkerboard pattern of 2’X 2’ squares. Court scenes are painted on the north and south walls. In the east wall, there is a 2’ high opening at floor level near the southeast corner.

Bhelgarn lifts his magic sword high and casts as much light as he can. It appears that they are in the royal burial chamber. He believes that the east “wall” was really blocks designed to fall and seal off access to the royal tombs – the gap appears to be a block that fell incorrectly and got wedged in place. Human stonework, of course.

Both Bhelgarn and Remmy look about the room. The slits in the ceiling are obvious – the floor tiles, each independently mounted. It is obviously a trap, but which tiles are the trap and which are safe? The party crosses carefully, in twos and threes, the leaders tapping on the floor ahead of them and the followers attempting to walk exactly where those in front stepped. Iris tells Pooches to wait at the opening to the labyrinth, and WolfBane and Odleif wait with him.

When about half the party is across the room, someone steps on a tile that depresses with a resounding “click!”. Immediately three huge pendula fall from the ceiling, then begin a rhythmic swinging across the width of the corridor. A strange greenish goo drips from their handles.

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When most of the party is on the other side of the swinging blades, Bhelgarn investigates the partially-fallen block. It looks to be about ten feet deep, but the space then opens up into the same corridor – just two blocks were dropped. He examines the stonework carefully – the blocks appear to be well and truly stuck, and have lasted so for hundreds of years or more. Still, something as slight as the movement of the pendula could have changed the pressure on the stone blocks. He swallows once and crawls under on hands and knees. He is halfway across when he hears a groan come from within the stone, but does not see anything. He stands on the far side, in the narrow space before another set of huge, fallen blocks. These shattered on impact, with great cracks running through them and their upper reaches splintered into fragments. If someone could give him a boost, he might be able to clear away the rubble…

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A few more brave souls from the party squeeze under the unfallen block. Some crawl on hands and knees as he did; others lie on their backs and push themselves with their feet. When enough are assembled, the taller members hoist the lighter ones, and a passageway over the smashed blocks is cleared. This takes about ten minutes – in the meantime, the pendula have stopped swinging and have rest themselves in the ceiling.

FluffyKitten is the first over the blocks. It is just one set, then she can drop lightly to the floor beyond. “More blocks, more blocks” she calls back. “Squeezy squeeze ahead!”

The next person behind her sees what she means – ahead a series of blocks, more than one layer deep, have fallen crookedly – leaving a gap that could be traversed, or that could go back quite a ways before dead-ending. Fluffy starts ahead with confidence, though she leaves the rope around her waist that was tied there before she climbed over the last set of blocks.

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Fluffy has not been through long before the rope grows slack and the sound of her voice comes back, muted by the stone twists and turns, calling “Door! Door!” excitedly.

One by one, the party squeezes through the narrow, angled gaps between the mis-fallen limestone blocks until they stand next to FluffyKitten before the doors. These are like the huge stone counterweighted doors common in the pyramid, but they are set with great brass rings to be pulled. Remmy checks them for traps, then indicates that the party should proceed.

Pulling on the rings of both doors, the party opens a large burial chamber. The room contains two large sarcophagi. Both gleam with golden highlights and have carved lettering in Cyndician. Surrounding the sarcophagi are a number of large wooden chests. The room is littered with broken objects: two smashed thrones, a broken chariot, smashed pottery, broken weapons, and torn clothing. Piles of bones cover the floor. On the walls is a mosaic showing famous events from the reign of King Alexander and Queen Zenobia, whom the party recognize both from the room of walls that talk, as well as the apparitions just outside.

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The party proceeds cautiously into the room, trying not to step on the bones on the floor, though this is nearly impossible. Remmy immediately begins checking, then opening the chests. There are four, each containing thousands of coins, sorted into silver, gold, electrum, and platinum. Ember watches him suspiciously. Bhelgarn examines the sarcophagi, and finds them to be wooden, just covered with golden paint to make them appear gold. “Nae even gilded?” he says to himself, “Summit ain’t right…”

Picking up on his dissatisfaction, the party soon joins him in rapping on the walls. Along the north wall, the dwarf finds a spot where the wall behind the tiles sounds hollow. He uses an iron spike and the back of his axe to chip away at the tiles, then the plaster underneath, then a thin layer of framing wood, and finally into an open corridor behind. “Och! Noo war gettin’ soomwhare!”

A few of the party, led by Remmy, advance down the hidden corridor, which bends back and ends in a door. Through the door is a plain stone room, a marked contrast from the opulence of the previous burial chamber. An oblong box made from stone slabs lies in the center of the room. The box is 3’ high, 7’ long, and 3’ wide. There is writing all over it – Cyndician, as well as several other unknown scripts. Iris recognizes one as using magical symbols, and she casts her read magic. Translating what she reads into Common, she tells the party. “May the curse of darkness destroy all who dare desecrate my resting place.”

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Remmy grabs one corner of the huge stone lid, and encourages the others to do the same, “before Ember shows up.” Bhelgarn needs little persuading; the priestess is indeed still in the burial chamber.

Inside the stone sarcophagus is a wooden coffin. Remmy grabs the lid of this and lifts, as he says “Gems and jewelry, gems and jewelry…”

Immediately the body inside lurches up, its clawed hand grabbing Remmy by the throat. Its once-fine robes have rotted to rags, but it still wears a jeweled crown over long, disheveled hair.

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Remmy tries to scream, but manages no sounds. The others in the party fall upon the corpse, landing blows with their magic weapons until it lets go to defend itself. In a few moments the body goes limp. Remmy sits on the floor, a dazed look on his face, as the others run in to the room. Ember examines him, finds no wounds beyond faint scratches in his throat, but feels his skin cold, almost chill to the touch. He begins to tremble. Ember looks first at the sarcophagus, noting that there are nordic runes on it amidst the other scripts. They are of an archaic form, but still recognizable: curse, darkness, destroy, protect, holy, rest. Then she looks at the body. This is not a corpse of hundreds of years old – no such body should be so well preserved, with intact flesh and hair, sunken eyes. The body was taken over by an evil spirit and preserved, very shortly after death. The preservation is powerful – far more so than that of a zombie. She believes it is a haugvette.

Ember kneels and prays to the Hearth Mother, imploring her to bring light to this darkest of places. She is oblivious to Bhelgarn, who has recovered the crown, to Morgan, who has reached into the coffin and pulled out a rune-covered scepter, and to Remmy, who is now leaning against a wall, trying to control his trembling.

Ember does not feel the powerful yet calming sensation she does when in the presence of the Mother. But there is another spirit present – waiting, watching. It does not seem threatening, so Ember reaches out to it. Standing before her, Ember sees Queen Zenobia – but not the transparent ghost of the labyrinth or the faded portrait from the walls that talk, but a solid, regal, woman, smiling.

“Thank you,” the queen says, “Thank you, thrice-blessed priestess of a foreign land.”

“Tre ganger velsignet?” asks Ember – out loud in her vision, though the party barely notices her lips moving.

“First, that you have overthrown the priests of Zargon, second, that you have rescued my people and restored the Three True Gods, and now, that you have dispatched the evil spirit defiling my body. At last I can rest, can leave this world for the next.”

Det er bra” replies Ember.

“Yes, it is good. But I must ask you one more boon.”

Hva er det, dronning?”

“My royal husband, King Alexander, languishes in this plane as well – his soul captive while a spirit of sorrow inhabits his body. Please, dispatch that spirit as you did the one that defiled me. I freely grant you all our mortal treasures in return – take our grave goods. Do not bother with the items in the false tomb – they are there to fool grave robbers, such as the one that was just struck by the spirit.”

“Jeg vil gjøre som du spør. Gå i fred,” says Ember, and she feels the spirit depart.

Ember rises from kneeling and tells the party that they must find the king’s true chamber, but that they may take what they find there. She again examines Remmy, who by now has stopped trembling. He tells Ember that he feels weak, and confused – as if there are gaps in his memory – things he should know, but does not.

[DM’s note: Struck by the wight, Remmy lost one level, going from 22445 xp to 10767 xp].

Remmy asks Ember if she can cure him – perhaps after she rests? Ember replies that such a cure is beyond her power, but that even if she could, she would refuse him. What happened to him was justice for the gems he brazenly stole from the nobleman’s sarcophagus. Remmy scowls and strides off.

The party returns to the false tomb. Morgan leads the search for a secret entrance, reasoning that it must be opposite the one that led to the queen’s chamber, and they are quick to find it.

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At this point, as they prepare to enter the king’s chamber, WolfBane decides that she is tired of waiting. Leaving Pooches and Odleif behind, she begins to carefully cross the checkerboard floor.

The party find the the walls of king’s chamber to be are bare. In the center of the room is an oblong box made from stone slabs. Suddenly, rising out of the stone box is a translucent, ghost-like figure. The pale figure has glowing red eyes and a large, dark mouth. Before those in the lead can cross the room, it opens the gaping wound of a mouth and keens sharply. Everyone in the room and in the hall beyond is struck by a wave of sadness and regret so intense it is physically painful.

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WolfBane, standing before the brass-handled doors, hears the keening but is not affected by it. Behind her, she hears a few pebbles fall off the rubble pile and skitter across the floor.

The party leaps into action, attacking the keening spirit with everything they have. Normal weapons pass through it with no effect, but magic weapons make it shimmer, disrupting its form. It keens again, making them despair and desire surrendering on the spot. They press on, and it keens one final time before a sword slice disrupts it completely.

WolfBane hauls on one heavy door, opening it with difficulty. Behind her, the stones can be heard groaning and straining. A throbbing rumble can be felt from the floor.

In the king’s chamber, Bhelgarn and Remmy rip open the stone sarcophagus and tear off the wooden coffin lid. Morgan feels the rumbling, as they all do. “Grab it and go!” she yells, “grab it and go!”

Inside the coffin is the body of a man with short hair and a full, rich beard. He is wearing plate armor and his crossed arms hold a sword on his chest. Bhelgran grabs his crown, and at the touch of the dwarf’s glove, the body crumbles into dust. Others in the party grab the plate armor and sword, and then they all dash into the false tomb, passing Wolfbane just as she is about to enter the secret corridor. Morgan spins her around and pushes her after the others.

All through the misfallen blocks, the party can feel the trembling and hear the rumbling increasing, seeming to echo with the keening. They help one another over the rubble pile from the shattered blocks, even as split pieces begin to calve off and fall about them on the floor. Two and three at a time they crawl under the hung block. Bhelgarn is the final one through, and he can hear the shattered blocks tipping now, falling in great slabs on the floor. Dust is jetting out as the ceiling of the false tomb collapses and its doors tumble down. The huge slab above him groans, then, just as he pulls his feet free, it slams down into the floor and the ceiling of the pendulum room begins to crack and buckle.

“Make way!” shouts Morgan, but Odleif is already leading Pooches through the narrow gap into the labyrinth-hall. The party dashes across the corridor, but when the pendula appear, they are not swinging – rather they fall to the floor and clatter as they land while the floor itself bucks and shakes.

A few seconds later, and they all stand in the labyrinth hall, covered in dust but otherwise unharmed. “Och,” says Bhelgarn disparagingly. “Human stonework.”

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