Heroes of Hillsfar

Sporedome - Part 3
Four Beholders!

The sound of rushing water echoed before you as the party’s boat travelled down the river. There was no need to row, the fast current whisked the craft along and the oars were mainly used to stop the boat caroming into the rock walls or spinning around. Smaller distributary rivers branched off from the Waydown River at times. These had their own smaller tunnels to travel through, or sometimes just waterfalled into holes. Once they passed a group of kuo-toa who raised their spears, although whether in threat or greeting the party couldn’t tell.

After a couple of hours the raft exited from the narrow tunnel that held the river into a large cavern with a lake in the middle. Light flooded into everyone’s field of vision. The cavern they entered was colossal, they could not see the edge of it nor the ceiling, but what they could see was a multitude of fungus. Mushrooms, shelves, bowls, toadstool, lichen and a thousand other kind of fungus cover the walls, floor, and the sides and tops of rocks. Many mushrooms grew as tall as trees, creating a forest of sorts.
“It’s a fungal jungle!” exclaimed Minimus.
On top of the fantastic size of the fungi many of them glowed, some dimly, some brightly, some with an eerie pulsing light and others steadily. Bright clouds of sparkling spores floated through the air. With the glowing fungus and spore clouds you can tell this fantastic cavern was over 200 feet high and unguessably long and wide. The immense cavern was filled with wild, vibrant shades of blue, green, purple, and red. Despite the intense colours, it was tranquil and quiet.
“It’s beautiful,” said Zelda.

Ahead, close to the shore, they could see the raft with Arrizz and his escort, loaded with tied down crates and boxes. They were using poles to propel themselves, and were heading for where the water became a river again at the far side of the cavern. Cundall noted that the fact they were on the edge of the lake indicated that the lake was too deep for their poles.
“I wonder how far they have to go?” wondered Minimus.
“How far is Szith Morcane?” asked Zelda.
“Olon said it was about 21 days travel from Sporedome, it’s located underneath Daggerdale, but the Underdark entrance there has a magical barrier preventing entrance or exit,” replied Marie. “He said if we ever needed to go there the myconids would likely be able to tell us how.”
“The Zhentarim and Arrizz obviously know the way as well,” said Minimus. “We could also ask them.”
“Let’s pull ashore here,” said Cundall. “For all we know we’re bypassing where the braincap fungi grow.”
They pulled the boat up on the rocky shore.
“Get some cloth and wet it,” said Cundall, “ then tie it around your face. It should protect you from some of those spores, at least the ones that would like to land in a warm, dark area like a nose or throat.”
They all did so and then started moving into the jungle. They all remembered the vision about the braincap mushrooms they had in Gravenhollow so they knew what they were looking for as they walked. Aside from a few wide paths and clearings, the area was rocky and uneven. Zelda noted that the clumps of giant mushrooms could provide cover should they need to hide or make themselves harder to target.
Some fungi glowed softly, making much of the cavern dimly lit. Some sections, in particular those adjacent to clumps of unusually brightly-glowing fungus were well lit. Spore clouds sparkled as they floated through the air, casting odd shadows about the area. Zelda stopped to listen and could hear rushing water, rocks falling in the distance, but mostly there was just unsettling silence.
“_Faerzress_,” said Marie suddenly. “This entire region of Sporedome is saturated with faerzress.”
“We can’t do anything about it now,” said Cundall. “We’ll have to push on.”
The party made their way past glowing bulbs and clouds that twinkled softly in the darkness. Often they had to cut down huge stalks or hold their breath from a disturbed puffball. Everything smelt of decay.
“Oh no… it can’t be..” wailed Minimus, pointing ahead.
gasspore.jpgA familiar looking spherical creature with a singular eye and strange, waving stalks bobbed in the air in front of them. A beholder! But this thing was not alone, it seemed to have brought three of its friends!
“We’re dead,” said Minimus, although he drew his sword and made ready to fight.
“Wait, I don’t think…” began Cundall. Something was odd about the beholders. Their central eye did not move for one thing, and the multiple eye stalks seemed directionless in their waving. He asked Marie to try talking to them, but they did not reply to her greeting and question in Undercommon. They drifted closer. They would be on top of them soon. This was not how the only beholder they had fought so far had behaved.
“Stuff it,” said Cundall. “Shoot them Zelda!”
Zelda shot her arrows five times, one of them caught Cundall and stuck in his armour without seriously hurting him. He shot Zelda a glare, although she was too busy firing again. Upon being struck each beholder exploded with a mass of spores. Marie and Zelda were out of the spore cloud, having moved back to facilitate easier shoots with bow and magic, but Minimus and Cundall were well covered. They ran out of the spore cloud, holding their breath. Cundall ran to the river, waving Minimus to follow. They both jumped into the river to wash off the spores.
“Make sure you wash your eyes, ears, nose and mouth out thoroughly!” said Cundall when they could talk again. They both ducked their head under the water and used their hands to sluice water around their heads. Cundall also washed Chauntea out, who had not enjoyed the experience.
Marie and Zelda stood guard on the bank, but nothing assailed them from the fungal forest or the water. Eventually they came ashore again, Chauntea grunting.
“Must be some kind of fungal spore trap, or a creature that spreads its spores by exploding when people attack it thinking it’s a beholder,” said Marie.
“I’m glad we had those wet cloths around our noses and mouths,” said Minimus.
“Let’s go look around that area,” said Cundall. “There might be more victims.”
They trudged (or squelched in the case of two party members) back to where the exploding fungal creatures had been despatched.

The party had to wait for a few more minutes until the spore cloud settled. As the spores settle to the floor, they noticed something that had escaped their gaze earlier. Lying in a thick, softly-glowing patch of blue-green fungal undergrowth lay a corpse roughly the size of a child. Drawing closer, Minimus noticed that his features—while distorted in decomposition—were unmistakable. In life, the creature had pale, grey skin; bulbous, white eyes; and white hair. A derro. The creature had succumbed to the fungi of the area and already, bright purple fungi grew from various parts of his body. Slung across his shoulder was a mouldering satchel. Minimus retrieved the satchel, and quickly checked the body. He had replaced the wet cloth and turned his face away from the spores that were disturbed when he moved the body. The halfling opened the satchel and removed a book. Minimus rolled his eyes. More ruddy books. Marie, on the other hand, was predictably excited. She took the book and opened it up and read it, while the others took it as a cue to have a short rest.
After a while Marie looked up. “It consists primarily of insane ramblings accompanied by pictures of deformed fungi, infested derro, and maps labelled with nonsensical phrases such as ‘cave with the seven longings’ or ’the river of molten flowers’. Most of it seems to be written in blood or other bodily fluids” A look crossed her face as if she were fighting off nausea. Then she continued.
“The journal reveals a series of ‘revelations’ accompanied by information that provides some clarity. It talks about someone called The Sacred Seer, and there is some strong evidence to suggest it is a myconid. This Sacred Seer is a visionary who gifts her wisdom to her faithful folowers using spores of knowledge. Mallag – that’s the name of this dead derro – was sent by the Sacred Seer to capture treasure and potential spore servants from those who travel through or live within Sporedome, so that kind of hints this Sacred Seer may be evil or mercenary at best.”
Marie flipped over a couple more pages.
“He’s really insane, it’s hard to follow a lot of this because it doesn’t make sense. Here he says ‘The magic of faerzress has come, so glorious!’ and mentions that the faerzress has not always been here, but it began to appear in Sporedome and the fungi began to show signs of mutation from the magical radiation.” She flipped over some more pages and ran her finger along the words.
“Right, here it talks about the ‘demon derro’ and the need to protect the Sacred Seer from them.”
“Demon derro?” queried Zelda. “Could that be demon tainted derro?”
“Or derro that worship or are commanded by a demon?” suggested Minimus.
“Either way, let’s be wary of derro,” said Cundall, restraining Chauntea who wanted to snuffle about in the fungi.
Marie continued – “These demon derro are from some place called Ravagestone and are constantly raiding Sporedome, but since the faerzress has spread they have come more frequently, often cutting down huge swathes of the newly-irradiated fungus and taking captured or killed myconids with them. There’s some bits here saying that the other myconid circles – which I guess is like a community – do not like The Sacred Seer, and that one of them ruled by Sovereign Agaricus was seeking to destroy Her circle.”
“Does he say where this Seer lives? She might help us,” suggested Minimus. “Or we could encourage her to help us.”
“Maybe this Agaricus myconid would be better,” said Cundall. “He seems to know evil when he sees it.”
“These crudely drawn maps mention the ‘Seer’s Dell of Doom’ being located on the far side of Sporedome,” said Marie.
“Oh, Dell of Doom?” laughed Zelda. “That’s encouraging.”
It’s going to take us hours to get there,” said Marie, looking around and orientating the map.
“At least it’s a goal and we’re not just wandering aimlessly,” said Cundall. “Let’s go.”

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Sporedome - Part 4
Demon derro and the Sacred Seer

They continued onward, guided by the mad derro’s map. Within the hour they heard the sounds of chopping, and some voices. Zelda and Minimus snuck forward through the fungal forest to scout ahead. Soon they came across a derro camp, which could only be described as chaotic. They could see several derro—small gray skinned humanoids—poking and prodding myconid slaves with sticks to get them to cut down giant mushrooms and stack them together on the far end of the clearing. A cage held several small myconid sprouts who milled about in silence.
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Minimus and Zelda returned to Marie and Cundall and told them what they had seen.
“We could go around?” suggested Cundall.
“We can’t leave sentient beings in the hands of slavers,” protested Zelda. “Especially not demon derro slavers.”
“It’s not a natural way to die,” agreed Marie, looking pointedly at Cundall.
“Fine,” said the druid. “Let’s rescue them then.”
barlgura.jpgThe battle seemed to go well at first. The derro were surprised, and the died easily. However two of the derro were spell casters, and the first lightning bolt caused the party a lot of problems. Then things got worse when two of the dying derros burst apart and huge gorilla like demons climbed out of the gore. They both roared and attacked. The easy battle became tough. Minimus sliced and stabbed with his magic shortsword, but was knocked unconscious by a massive blow from one of the demon’s clawed fists. However by then the rest of the party had enough momentum and the battle swung the party’s way. The demons were put down, and their bodies dissolved in foul smoke and a black oily substance.
Minimus was revived with a potion of greater healing and the first thing he saw was Cundall’s face .
“Want a kiss?” asked Cundall, smiling.
“I’m not gay,” replied Minimus. “Ow, that hurt, it hit like an avalanche.”
“Those derro are aided by something that can summon demons,” said Marie. “They are demon derro indeed!”

The myconids came out of hiding when the last of the derro and demons were defeated. They peered cautiously at the party and approached hesitantly. Once they got close enough the myconids released their telepathy spores to communicate. For the party it felt like it went from silence to a busy marketplace with many voices speaking at once. Once they were able to filter out some of the noise they were able to ask questions themselves. The myconids stated that the derro were not sent by the Sacred Seer; rather, the creatures spoke at length about Ravagestone; a derro settlement not far from the Sporedome. They asked for assistance to spree the sprouts – the equivalent of myconid children. The myconids urged the party to come with them to talk to Agaricus, who was the leader of their circle. Marie remembered from the article that Agaricus was the only myconid actually standing up to the Sacred Seer. She asked more questions about the Sacred Seer, but the myconids only knew that the Sacred Seer had been accused with being involved with Zuggtomy, the demon queen of fungi, and spreading the demonic madness to myconids. They were unsure if these accusations were true or not.

The party decided to meet with Agaricus, and it was another couple of hours before they reached the circle of the myconid Sovereign. Ahead the party could see a collection of myconids. Many of them looked injured. In the background were several glass eyed derro who stared blankly, zombie like with obvious fungal growths protruding from various parts of their bodies. The myconids circled around one of their own kind. One was a regal-looking being with wise eyes and vibrant coloring. The regal myconid bore down on a second myconid as if yelling, but issues no sound. The myconid on the ground had a bright purple cap run through with black veins and blood-red gills, and seemed to have an extra arm. This myconid on the ground looked up with pleading eyes. As the party approached the entire congregation turned to look at them in silence. Moments later each of the myconids released clouds of spores that quickly engulf the party members. Almost immediately they once again experienced the dizzying sensation of dozens of voices echoing throughout their minds simultaneously.

Eventually the party found out what was going on. The Sacred Seer had been accused of corrupting myconids across Sporedome with the taint of Zuggtomy, the Lady of Rot, the Demon Queen of Fungi, as well as kidnapping sprouts from Agaricus’ circle. The elders of the circle had decreed that the Sacred Seer should be put to death to stop the spread of her taint. The Sacred Seer was denying all charges.
Zuggtmoy_0.jpg
When the party asked about the braincap fungi, only the Sacred Seer knew anything about them. This caused an ethical dilemma amongst the party members – do they allow justice to happen, or do they try and delay the sentence so as to interrogate the Sacred Seer. There was more discussion and it was worked out that Agaricus would allow the party to take the Sacred Seer to the braincap mushrooms – allegedly in the Sacred Seer’s grove called Doomspore Dell – on condition that any sprouts or any myconid prisoners are freed. Then they were to deliver the Sacred Seer back to Agaricus to carry out the sentence. This was agreed to, although not unanimously, some of the elders believed their law should be followed and the Seer put to death immediately. In the end the party decided to have a long rest and then leave with the Sacred Seer afterwards.

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Sporedome - Part 5
Doomspore Dell

sacred_seer.jpgThe rest time – the party couldn’t really call it ‘night’ in this huge cave that never changed – was marred by vivid dreams of becoming lost in vast forests of mushrooms for years and years before succumbing to and becoming a part of the forests.

After a rest and some food – edible but tasteless fungi Agaricus affirmed was safe and nutritious for ‘animals’, supplemented by their own rations – they set out with the Sacred Seer for Doomspore Dell. It took three hours as the terrain became difficult underfoot, and the giant fungi forest – “the fungal jungle” as Minimus kept saying – became thicker. Zelda suspected that the Sacred Seer was deliberately taking them in via a difficult route so they would find it hard to leave in a hurry if they needed to. Still linked with the Sacred Seer via the communication spores she did not speak her mind for fear of alerting the elder myconid, but resolved to be on her guard. Eventually they came to a place where the fungi trees were so thick it was like a wall.

The party approached the wall of decaying mushrooms tentatively, but the Sacred Seer encouraged them to push on, assuring the heroes that this was the right place. As they passed through the smell of death greeted you, followed by the ear-piercing shriek of odd-looking fungi that grew silent as the Sacred Seer entered the dell behind you. Inside the dell, the party were greeted by fungi that resemble tentacled skulls; short, squat toadstools that weep a viscous, red fluid from their gills; and tall, slender growths that spew noxious spores into the air like fetid chimneys. On the far side of the dell, nearly a dozen myconids mill about; their eyes meet you as you enter. These myconids were different, they looked warped, changed, mutated perhaps by the faerzress Marie thought. There were dead myconids on the ground, rotting. Unusual fungi grew throughout the area. They resembled tiny brains on short, thin stalks. The heroes knew from their vision in Gravenhollow that this was what they were after.
Mutant_myconid.jpg
“This is Doomspore Dell,” said the Sacred Seer, via the telepathic spores. “These braincap fungi can only grow where there are certain dead fungi present for them to feed on, AND there must be the magical radiation that you call faerzress. You likely cannot grow them on the surface. But I will provide you with as much as you need. I will cultivate it and give it to you to sell or use or however you wish. I only ask that you let me live. I want to live! Go back to Agaricus and tell him you killed me, I do not want to die.”
“Are the accusations against you true, about stealing the sprouts and myconids?” asked Cundall.
“Are the accusations against you about spreading the taint of Zuggtmoy true?” asked Marie.
The Sacred Seer would not admit to any corruption by Zuggtomy, she would only say that she had received ‘otherworldly clarity’ to her role in Sporedome. When asked, the Sacred Seer said that her role was to unite Sporedome into one big circle, and for her to rule. As a reward for helping, the Sacred Seer said that she knew of the drow outpost being overrun by fire giants, and was willing to provide myconids to assist when the time came to take the outpost back. She denied emphatically kidnapping any myconids or sprouts.
“All that are here, are here because they hear the call of change, the call of something better coming, and they want to be part of it.”
“Can we look around?” asked Zelda.
The Sacred Seer assured them there was no need. It would be a good idea to report back to Agaricus now, and tell him that there were no sprouts but that they had to kill the Sacred Seer, the myconid elder suggested.

Heedless, Zelda and Minimus pushed through the dell and into the thick mushroom forest on the other side. Here they found a large cage with myconid sprouts, being guarded by two huge misshapen giants. The party caught a faint telepathic thought from the Sacred Seer – “I do wish you had not done that.”

fomorian.jpgThe battle was on, Minimus and Zelda ran back to the dell, the mutant myconids attacked, while the Sacred Seer sought to escape. However she was followed and attacked by Minimus and eventually despatched. The giants – identified by Marie later as Fomorian Giants, a misshapen, evil giant with an ability to curse anyone it looks at with its evil eye. The mutant myconids were destroyed easily, but the giants were among the toughest foes the party had ever fought. Both Cundall and Minimus were cursed, their bodies painfully wracked and stretched, they developed a club foot and a hunched back, making it difficult for them to move quickly and use their weapons as effectively as they could have. Minimus ended up playing hide and seek in the fungal jungle for a while, to draw it away from Cundall who had been severely injured and allow Zelda to come tend to him. Marie used a fly spell to stay out of reach of their massive clubs, but still had to dodge rocks they hurled at her. The party were victorious in the end, but it was a battle that cost them much in their reserves of healing, and of pain and wounds taken. They looked at dismay at the battlefield where most of the braincap fungi had been flattened by the combatants. They were able to harvest some, however, and knew that more would grow. It would mean another trip into Sporedome later to get more.

The party searched Doomspore Dell and found a chest filled with coins. Why a myconid would need coins they couldn’t say, but assumed it was part of the Sacred Seer’s plans for domination of Sporedome.

They returned with the rescued myconid sprouts to Agaricus to report on the death of the Sacred Seer. While they were pleased to have the sprouts (some of which did not belong to this circle, but the party were assured they would either be adopted or returned home), those elders who opposed the party taking the Sacred Seer were outraged, as much as a myconid can be anyway, that the Sacred Seer had not faced their justice. Agaricus himself was unhappy, but later told the party that he knew it had been a risk but was disappointed the party members were unable to keep their word. He allowed the party to rest again before heading back to the Waydown. During their rest time they noticed a mind flayer speaking to Agaricus. After the mind flayer had left, they asked Agaricus about it.
“That is Huum,” said Agaricus. "He has provided counsel and aid to our circle, and to many other circles besides us. It was he who had warned us about the Sacred Seer.

The party left after resting, and Agaricus agreed to provide myconids to tow the boat upstream to the Waydown. He justified using myconids to help the party to the other elders by saying it would make the party leave that much sooner. It took much longer than the trip down, but the myconids seemed tireless – no wonder the derro liked having them as slaves Minimus thought.
“Light up ahead,” called Zelda. “I think it’s the Waydown!”
“Cundall’s Hole,” corrected Cundall.

There was no winch for the boat – the Zhentarim had long gone – but after much yelling Ziggy appeared at the hole. He lowered a rope and between him and Elum the party and the boat were hauled to the surface. The party told Ziggy about their adventures on the trip back to Elventree.

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Szith Morcane Rescue - Part 1
The Meeting

drow4564687576_c49fb59cb2.jpgOn the way back from Cundall’s Hole, with about two hours travel until the party would arrive at Elventree, they came across a horse laying, unmoving on its side in the middle of the road. Closer inspection revealed multiple stab wounds which killed the animal. Evidence of a struggle was apparent all around, as Zelda’s keen eyes fell on an immobile body on the edge of the woods. The humanoid creature had long white hair and black skin – drow! Before everyone was able to completely take in the situation, Elanil Elassidil, leader of Elventree and Harper agent ran out of the woods, brandishing a rapier. She was out of breath and had blood soaking her white shirt. Many of the buttons on the shirt had been ripped off. A lyre was slung over her back. She saw the party and ran towards them.
“Oh, thank the Gods! They’re coming!” she yelled.
A second later six drow ran out behind her. They saw the party and yelled and ran to attack, two of them running towards the wounded elf harper. Marie quickly cast haste on Elanil enabling her to quickly run away from the pursuing drow.

The battle was short and sharp. The drow were dead in moments, apart from one female drow who stood blinking in confusion after Cundall had cast lesser restoration on her. Her name turned out to be Lualyrr – she refused to give her clan name – and now she was recovered from the madness, she was horrified at what had happened.
“It was like I was in a dream,” she said in heavily accented elvish. “But I couldn’t wake up, I thought I was invincible, that I was going to rule, what madness it was.” She looked at the other dead drow and sneered.
“They were unlucky, weak. I deserved to survive.”
Cundall was doubting the efficacy of his lesser restoration spell until he remembered that actually this would be a typical reaction to the death of companions for drow.

Cundall cast healing magic on Elendil and put her saddlebags, bridle and saddle into the boat to transport to Elventree. On the way back Elendil told them she had been returning from meeting Olisara Lightsong at The Stop when she was attacked by drow who slew her horse. The drow were clumsy and uncoordinated, otherwise she probably wouldn’t have survived, she put that down to both the madness and the fact the drow were attacking during the day, unheard of behaviour for them.

The following day back at Elventree the party was invited to a meeting of the Moonsea Emergency Council.
“Do you think we should go?” asked Cundall.
“Of course,” answered Marie.
“Don’t know,” said Minimus. “I was hoping to go carousing again.”
Zelda looked at the druid and the halfling. It was one of those looks.
“Well, it’s just an invitation,” grumbled Cundall. “We don’t have to go.”
“We’re going,” said Zelda, firmly. “And you’re both coming if I have to drag you by your ears.”
“All right, all right,” laughed Minimus. “We’re going!”

chaab2.jpgThe meeting was held in the Hall of the Unicorn – the temple to Meilikki, a nature goddess and tended by Seranolla the Whisperer, the gnome priestess and senior member of the Emerald Enclave. Other faction leaders were present, including Chaab, faction leader of the Zhentarim; Dornal Whitebeard, dwarf leader of the Lord’s Alliance faction; [[Zern Xerkstil | Zern
Xerkstil]], half orc paladin and leader of the Order of the Gauntlet; Nymarrath, elderly elf and head of the Silver Shadow Cave – temple to Selune in Elventree; Murssvayas Dhuurniv, drow wizard, emissary from the drow outpost of Szith Morcane and leader of the enclave of drow refugees just outside of Elventree; as well as Seranolla and Elanil.

As the meeting started, the following information was discussed:
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  • Szith Morcane, a drow outpost, has recently been taken over by the fire giants of Maerimydra led by Hledh
    Hellspawn.
  • The Council are concerned about this new threat and need to have it further investigated. This is why the Council have asked the characters to attend the meeting.
  • The drow that Elanil brought back with her has confirmed all of this information, but has also informed the Council that Solom Ned’razak, a drow archmage and former leader of Szith Morcane, is alive and being held captive in the outpost.
  • After Szith Morcane was captured, most of the fire giants and their slaves have left, leaving only a token force there.
  • That has been just about the only useful information that the drow prisoner has been able to give them. She had been suffering from the madness of Graz’zt.
  • Seranolla believed that the drow are coming up to the surface through a sinkhole that opened probably due to recent rainfall and seismic activity stemming from the events in Mulmaster. Locals have starting calling it “The Waydown”.
    “Actually, it’s called Cundall’s Hole,” said the druid, a little annoyed. “I created it. It’s Cundall’s Hole. The Waydown is a stupid name. If anything it should be called ‘The Way Up’ because that’s how we got out of the Underdark.”
    There were a few hard stares from the people of the Moonsea Emergency Council, but Cundall refused to be cowed. Seranolla.jpg
    “We believe some of the drow are coming through a recently excavated hole to the Underdark being called ’Cundall’s Hole’ by some,” said Seranolla. Cundall could have sworn there was a twinkle in her eye. “It is
    two days from Elventree, and about half a day’s travel from Hillsfar. Hillfarians have already been attacked by maddened drow.”
    “We need information,” said Elanil. “Solom Ned’razak can provide that for us. We’d like you to go and rescue him.”
    “And our reward for doing this?” asked Minimus. He saw Chaab nod slightly in approval. The council offered the characters a purse containing 1,000 gp if they could bring back Solom Ned’razak alive and unharmed, and half that to return his body.
    “We’ll do it,” said Cundall, resisting the urge to barter and looking too mercenary. In reality he would have done it for free, he told himself, but it was nice to be paid. The other party members nodded.
    “Time is important, we need you to get to Szith Morcane before he is killed or moved to Maerimydra,” said Elanil. It is a long way using the river, but maybe the myconids of Sporedome know a quicker way. Please ask them."

The party headed out the same day for the two day journey back to Cundall’s Hole. As they reached the hole, the amount of activity was surprising. Around Cundall’s Hole the party saw a contingent of human soldiers -members of the Red Plumes by the look of it. The soldiers wore splint mail, carried shields and longswords, and had shortbows slung over their shoulders. Most of them looked very young, more new recruits. They were overseeing a group of human laborers building a wall around the hole. Nearby there was a wagon filled
with barrels and crates. Many of the laborers were in line drinking water from the barrels and grabbing tack from the crates. The Red Plumes talked with them pleasantly and helped them carry the heavy stones they were using. There was also a winch whose rope leads down the hole. An older man in armor was arguing with another over a table strewn with plans.

Cundall told Zelda and Minimus to stay with Ziggy and Elum. He and Marie moved forward. As the pair approached, a few of the soldiers step in front of them and blocked their way to the older soldiers.
“What can we do for you travelers?” one of them says pleasantly.
“I am Cundall, folk hero and druid of Chauntea,” said Cundall. “What are you doing here at Cundall’s Hole?”
“Cundall’s Hole?” asked the Red Plume, puzzled.
“Never mind,” said Marie, interrupting Cundall’s indignant tirade. “What is going on here?”
“We are building a wall, the Guard Commandant Vuhm Yestral,” the Red Plume pointed towards the elder of the two men at the table, “has been tasked by the First Lord to do so after drow have been attacking the people of Hillsfar. Now please tell me why you are here.”
“What is your name?” asked Cundall.
“Jon,” said the Red Plume they had been talking to.
“Well Jon, we were planning to go down into Cundall’s Hole,” said Cundall. “We have an important mission.”
“Wait here,” said Jon, and went and talked to the Guard Commandant.

After listening to the soldier, the older man beckoned Marie and Cundall over to a nearby tent. The tent was appointed with chairs and a table. He took a ladle from a barrel in the tent and drank from it. He then offered some to Cundall and Marie, who accepted. It turned out to be beer.
“I buy it from the temple of Chauntea in Hillsfar,” he said. The Red Plume officer then sat at the opposite side of the table from them. He introduced himself as Guard Commandant Vuhm Yestral, and waited for their introductions. He then asked to hear about their “mission” into the Underdark. Marie took the lead and, knowing that the Guard Commandant was a member of the Lords’ Alliance, decided to be honest about their mission and who had hired them. When the members of the Moonsea Emergency Council were mentioned he nodded.
“I know Dornal Whitebeard, of course,” he said. “I have met him at the Lords’ Alliance faction camp, although I don’t advertise my presence. How can I help?”
“We’d like passage through to the Underdark,” said Marie.
“We can lower you down into the Waydown with our winch,” said Vuhm Yestral, “no problem”.
“It’s called Cundall’s Hole,” said Cundall. “I created it, I want to name it. I just want a feature named after me. I’m a folk hero after all.”
At the Guard Commandant’s blank look Cundall explained once again how Cundall’s Hole was created. When he finished Vuhm Yestral said he would put up a sign naming it Cundall’s Hole.
“Least I can do,” he said. “I’ll make the arrangements.” He called over Jon and gave him orders. After Jon left, Marie asked if there was any news from Hillsfar.
“Things are bad,” admitted Vuhm Yestral. “The madness takes more people daily, those that can have banded together for protection and to share resources. All the clerics are casting restoration spells all the time – they’re exhausted. I’m out of favour with the First Lord, this man Gheriot is his new favourite in the court. When this problem of… Cundall’s Hole.. came up, they saw it as a good way to get me out of the city. I am loyal
to the First Lord and to Hillsfar, but I do not trust this Gheriot. I think he has poisoned the First Lord’s mind which would explain why he is having bad dreams.”
Marie and Cundall told Vuhm Yestral what they knew about Gheriot, and the big day of bloody games at the Arena that were intended to supply souls to Graz’zt.
“It all makes sense!” said Vuhm Yestral. “I must return to Hillsfar and see what I can do. I fear it will only see me banished, but I must try.”
Jon arrived to say the party’s boat was ready to be lowered into the Underdark with the Red Plumes’ winch.

To be continued…

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Szith Morcane Rescue - Part 2
Welcome back to the Underdark

On the way to the winch, Jon explained that the Red Plumes had sent a patrol down once a day to clear creatures attracted by the light away from Cundall’s Hole. They had encountered kuo-toa, drow, oozes, giant spiders, quaggoth and derro.
“Out of those only some of the drow and the kuo-toa didn’t attack us on sight,” the young Red Plume corporal said. “But our orders were such that we quickly made enemies of everything we met. So don’t expect anything to be friendly now, we’ve kind of ruined that for you.”

The party sat in the boat as it was winched down. On the way down into the darkness the boat swung suddenly for some reason, it hit the cave wall, and caused the party to fall into one another. By the time the boat reached the bottom the bruises were already visible.

They stepped onto the solid ground outside the boat and Zelda pulled on the rope to let those above know that they can bring the rope and straps back up. The soldiers and workers fitted a basket to bring down a load of tools and supplies – Jon had also explained they were going to make a defence of sorts that patrols could retreat to if necessary while they waited to be winched up.

As they used this time to take in their surroundings the party were reminded that the Underdark was a whole different world from the surface. New sounds and smells accosted them as they slowly moved around this enormous cavern, making sure everything was safe. Minimus and Marie checked the boat for damage. There was a gouge in the gunnel – “the gunnel is the top edge of the side of the boat,” Marie explained – but otherwise it seemed fine.

The Waydown river was still a fast moving body of water, but it seemed deeper than the last time they were here. It flowed into the chamber, travelled the length of the cavern, and then exited on the other side.
Unexpectedly, the heroes heard a loud twang and something large crashing down the sinkhole. Looking up they saw wood, tools, and pieces of the basket falling down the sinkhole. It was going to be landing right on top of Marie and Minimus, although they both managed to dodge out of the way of the larger pieces at the last moment. As they moved out from under the remains of the basket, Minimus’ heart sank as he saw a black tar-like substance on some of the pieces. The substance starts to move towards him, leaving a trail of slime that was eating away at anything it touched.
kuotoa2.jpg“Black pudding.. thing!” he yelled. “It must have attached itself to the basket when it hit the wall.”
The party knew a bit more about the creatures from the last battle they had, and Marie refrained from hitting it with a lightning bolt and the others did not use slashing weapons which would split the amorphous monster into two or more creatures. The black pudding soon lost its coherency to the wounds taken from other weapons and attacks and died as its internal mass spilled over the rough stone. No sooner had this happened than a group of kuo-toa arose from the river and attacked. A couple were spell casters and a fierce battle was fought with the Red Plumes cheering from above. The party had the early upper hand in the combat, but that all changed when one of the kuo-toa cast a control water spell that caused the Waydown River to rise and flood Cundall’s Hole. The next minutes of the battle were fought underwater or on the surface. Eventually the kuo-toa were also killed, with help from two giant toads that Cundall had summoned and from Cundall who had shapechanged into a giant seahorse and had Zelda ride him straight at the spellcasters. Meanwhile the summoned toads had swallowed two of the kuo-toa whole! The party were victorious, but it was one of the more unusual battles the party had been in and one that they had taken wounds from.

“Well, that was a nasty welcome back,” grumbled Minimus. He had been affected by a hold person spell during the combat which had paralysed him for a short time. The halfling hated the helpless feeling that came with being affected by paralysing magic.
“That was amazing,” said Marie who had spent the last part of the battle on the boat, “those giant toads were a great help, and the way you turned into a giant seahorse and rammed the kuo-toa priest with Zelda on your back turned the battle in our favour.”
“That’s why I’m the party leader,” said Cundall, smugly. “When it matters, anyway.”
The waters had retreated with the death of the kuo-toa spellcaster, and with a final wave to the Red Plumes (except for Minimus, who spat on the ground) the party now boarded it and set off down the river.

The boat travelled through the darkness, although this was punctuated by areas of low light, from either faerzress or phosphorescent fungi (or sometimes both). Marie cast a light spell so they could see during the dark stretches to make sure they were not drifting too close to the rocky sides of the river, using the oars to fend themselves away. Side passages radiated off the river passage, some with smaller, distributory rivers and some without. In a couple of hours they were back in Sporedome, the huge cavern filled with fungi or all types and shapes. The river fanned out into a small lake, but continued out the other side of the cavern, too far away to see.

“What’s the plan?” asked Minimus.
“Stop at the shore here,” answered Cundall. “I’ll do a locate plants spell to see if we can find some more braincap fungi nearby, and search for myconids.”
“Don’t have to look too far,” said Minimus. “Myconids and derro dead ahead!”
Derro_by_BenWootten.jpg
Two creatures had suddenly burst out of a grouping of bright purple mushrooms. A very small humanoid with dark skin, white hair and mustache, white bulbous eyes, and wearing armor was chasing a tall multicoloured myconid. The small creature caught up to the fungi and tripped it, all the while spouting off gibberish. More derro ran out from the cover of the flora. They tried to take possession of the myconid from the first derro. A scuffle started, enabling the myconid to escape without the derro noticing. What they did notice, however, was the party’s light. They all produced crossbows and started loading and cocking them. Zelda rushed to get her bow out and in an uncharacteristic fumble shot her first arrow into the bottom of the boat.
“Oops!” the elf said as she reached to pull the arrow out.
“No, don’t..” began Marie, but it was too late. Zelda pulled the arrow out and a trickle of water started entering the boat from the small hole in the hull.
“Row faster!” ordered Cundall.
Minimus, whose turn it was to row, pulled on the oars and the boat moved towards the rocky shore. The derros loosed a volley of crossbow bolts none of which found a target, although at least one hit Cundall’s shield.
Meanwhile Marie stood up and cast wall of fire. In the time it took for the derro to screech in fear and turn and run, they were all doomed. Some who were a little slower were engulfed in flame, while even those that had avoided the actual line of fire were quickly overcome by the heat and lay still, their skin burning and peeling away, anything flammable on them burst into flame.
“Well… damn!” said Cundall.

They made it to the shore and Cundall cast mending on the boat to repair the small hole. By now a group of myconids had broken from their camouflage and surrounded the party. They made no hostile moves, except that they collectively moved their arms and spores come forth and envelope all of the heroes.
Within seconds of breathing in the pollen, the party members could hear voices in their head. The myconids seem to all be asking if you can hear them.
This group of myconids were not from Agaricus’ circle, although when asked they all knew of him. Cundall asked if they knew of a quicker way to get to Szith Morcane. They said their sovereign might know and if he didn’t then Huum would know.
“Huum?” asked Minimus.
“The mind flayer that we saw talking to Agaricus,” reminded Marie.
“If he offers a head massage, say no!” said Cundall.

The druid cast locate plants and detected a patch of braincap fungi within half an hours walk. They travelled the distance and picked a crop of braincap fungi and put them in the bag with the others. They then accompanied the myconids back to their circle.

The myconid sovereign had a name that might equate to sounding like “Chute” although because they don’t actually pronounce words, names when sounded out or written only approximate what it felt like in their heads. Chute confirmed the following information:

  • The derro occasionally come into Sporedome and wreak havoc among the myconids. They are completely deranged and attack for no other reason than to kill. They know there is a derro city somewhere far from this cavern. The derro call this city “Ravagestone” and they refer to whoever is commanding them as “Mother”.
  • Lately their attacks have been more frequent and ferocious. They have started carrying away the bodies of the myconids they kill.
  • The increase could have something to do with a new presence in the Underdark.
  • No creature knows what the entity is but they all feel its pull toward madness.
  • When asked where Szith Morcane is, Chute was able to give them directions. It was about 21 days walk from here. However, he happened to know a creature that knows of a portal connected close to there. The creature is known as Huum and has been friendly to the myconids.

“A portal will be better than 21 days walking through the Underdark,” said Cundall.
“We’d be in poor shape by the time we got there,” said Marie.
“And stark, raving mad if the braincaps ran out,” agreed Minimus.
“Looks like we’re going via portal,” said Zelda.

Huum.jpgFour myconids escorted the party to Huum’s lair which appeared to be inside the cave wall. The telepathic link that existed between the party and their myconid friends had worn off by the time they stopped and pointed down a short passage. The passage ended at an elegantly carved stone door that has a giant knocker.
Before anyone was able to knock, the door flew open and a hairless purple-skinned humanoid with writhing tentacles surrounding its mouth said in common, “Ahhhh. Come innnnn. I have tea waiting on the table. You musssst be dyyyying of thirsssst."

The tea was weak but refreshing. Huum asked what he could do for them. Cundall decided to be honest and explain their situation, and why they were doing it.
“Yessss I can give you accessss to Szith Morcane, for a pricccce.”
“Not someone’s brain, I hope,” said Cundall.
“Morcane’ssss leader is a ssssimply awful drowwww, by the name of Sssssolom Ned’razak. He hassss ssssomething of mine. It issss a broachhhh that protectssss hissss mind from my prying into hissss brainnnn.”
Huum wanted the characters bring the brooch back to him and he would allow them to use his teleport circle. He also promised that he won’t hunt them down and eat their brain for his next meal. They thought he was probably joking.
“How would you find us, we could go anywhere?” smiled Minimus, really hoping the mind flayer was being humourous.
“Becausssse now that you have sssspent ssssome time with me, I will not have a hard time locating you in the futurrrre.”
“Ah,” said the halfling. “Handy ability that.”

Cundall decided they had spent enough time trying to figure out mind flayer humour and asked if they could go now. Huum slowly rose and walked toward another door in his chamber, with the party following. After quietly mumbling something to himself Huum opened it and a bright orange glow was seen from inside the room. Marie decided he likely uttered a magical password to deactivate the room’s protections. Huum then walked into the room, again followed by the heroes.

Inside the room was a glowing circle on the ground, whose magical energy extended up to the ceiling. He looked at the group and said, “Right through there is the way to Sssszith Morcannnne. Pleasssse ssssend Ssssolom my regaaaaaaards." Before they left, Huum warned them that they will not be able to return the way they came, although they might find other ways to get back to the surface. There was, for example, a tunnel leading from Szith Morcane up to Daggerdale on the surface, although it was currently blocked by a magical barrier. However Solom Ned’razak would be able to dispel it, if they wanted to go that way.

They stepped into the portal.

(to be continued)

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Szith Morcane Rescue - Part 3
Arrival

Stepping through the portal was almost unnoticeable. One moment they were in Huum’s refuge, and the next they found themselves in a small cavern. A single table was the only furniture present and there were two bodies of drow lying on the floor. Next to them lay the carcass of a giant spider. The smell of rotting corpses was overpowering. A multitude of insects crawled over the bodies. A cave mouth was the only way out that they could see.

Zelda looked around to see what tracks were evident in the dust, dirt and old blood. There were the clawed feet of various creatures, as well as the drow boots. Some clawed creatures – at least two types – had entered the cave and used claws and strength to kill the drow. Any valuables appeared to have been looted, suggesting at least one of the creatures was aware of loot.
“Demons maybe?” suggested Cundall.

Szith_Morcane_Chasm.jpgThey went to look outside the cave and immediately instincts urged them to take a step back. An enormous chasm lay immediately outside the opening. Carefully peering out, the party could see the chasm was 30 feet across to another rock wall, and deeper and broader than their light extended. Far below, they could hear the sound of rushing of water. A giant web stretched across the surface of the cliff they were on, as well as the cliff on the opposite wall. They could see cave entrances similar to the one they were at and some much larger on the opposite chasm wall, and more on the one they were on. Above the chasm was a massive stalactite, some strands of web leading to some of the dark entrances, indicating the structure may have been hollowed out and used.

With closer inspection of the web Zelda could see that the strand connected to the cave they werein had been spun to act as a ladder. The ladder extended straight down to a second cave that was 130 feet directly below. As they continued to look out, a third cave was spotted approximately 100 feet below and to the left. There were many diagonal strands of webbing that can be used to travel to that cave.
“Some of these are sticky,” said Zelda, “and some are not, just like a normal sized spiderweb. The non-sticky strands allow the spider to move around without getting caught in its own web.”
“So.. the drow that lived here use the web to move around?” asked Minimus.
“How did this place ever get taken?” asked Cundall.
“They must have had inside information,” suggested Marie. “Someone betrayed them, or they used some technique to get the information from a prisoner.”
“They certainly were raiding for a few months prior to the attack, according to the drow in the enclave anyway,” said Cundall. “Plenty of time to get prisoners to torture for information.”
There were occasional cocoon like bodies on some of the sticky strands, but not many.
“Where to?” asked Minimus.
“No idea,” said Cundall.
“I’m thinking we should have done some research on Szith Morcane before we came,” sighed Marie. “We kind of got caught up in the rush to save this drow before he is moved to Maerimydra. Can you see anything that looks like a barracks entrance?”
“Nope, just some big and small cave entrances. Let’s head down,” said Cundall, “it’s a good a place to look as any.”
They started using the web strand ladder to descend down to the cave below them, looking down frequently.

The enormity of the web they were climbing down was only realized as they travelled to the other caves. As they climbed, they found that the strands of the web resonated and vibrated at the slightest touch. The heroes were half way down to the center of this particular strand when they saw it. What could only be described as an enormous spider leg, as long as an immense tree, extended from the darkness and touched a thick strand of vibrating web—silencing it. It nudged gently at the sticky rope before the leg withdrew and disappeared back into the darkness.
“Oh gods,” said Minimus, “did you see the size of that leg!” They hurried to get to the next cave.

Now they were out on the cliff face they could see other cave openings. A half dozen total caves lined this side of the chasm, though four of them were blocked with rubble and detritus, leaving them impassable. There were more on the other side, and had long strands of thick spider web reach across the chasm gap.
“Look there,” said Cundall, pointing at a huge shape mostly covered with webbing. It must have been a giant at one point, but what they could see of the body was sunken and shrivelled, as if its insides had been sucked out. ‘And it probably had’, thought Zelda.
“I’m going to look at the body,” said Cundall.
“What, are you crazy?” said Minimus. “Big, fat super spider remember?”
Cundall shuffled over on a few strands, testing and avoiding the sticky ones. He got close to the body, that of a fire giant he judged, seeing the dark skin and flame orange hair. It had a large sack, mostly empty, and tugged on it to free it with a bit of difficulty – and some trepidation when his movements made the web vibrate. No colossal spider appeared though. He finally got the bag free and they all climbed down to the next cave. This cave seemed to be similar to the first, although it had more rooms and no bodies. It had been thoroughly and messily ransacked though. Zelda and Minimus righted a table made of a hard fungus that obviously was used as wood, and Cundall dumped the giant’s bag on it, spilling the contents out. There were some coins, but also a large scroll case. Opening it a map fell out that covered the entire table. It was a map of most of the area of Szith Morcane, many of the caves identified in the written giant language.
“Looks like you were right,” said Cundall. “The invading force knew exactly where to go and what to hit first. Treachery! Which, come to think of it, is what you’d expect from drow.”
“Here is the barracks, where we think Solom Ned’razak is being held,” said Marie, pointing to a cave on the map. She went to the cave entrance to look to get her bearings. “It’s below us, on our side of the chasm,” she said.
They packed up the map and left the cave, climbing down to the cave Marie had identified. As they climbed onto the ledge where they believed the Szith Morcane barracks to be, the party could see into the cave ahead. The entrance was dimly lit by the light in the room beyond.
“Fire giants don’t have darkvision,” said Marie. “So they’ll light up wherever they are. The light might mean they are still there.”
The main barracks double doors were open, and not forced that they could see. Marie thought the main force of drow soldiers would have likely been outside the barracks already, fighting the invaders. The first room they entered was large, and there was signs of battle – blood patches and splatter, broken furniture. The party were looking around when they heard the sound of approaching footsteps from further within the barracks. A fire giant wielding a massive sword strode into the room accompanied by three feral humanoid cat like creatures with no weapons but their claws and teeth. There was no preamble, Zelda was already firing as the giant roared for his minions to attack. giantFire_s.jpg The battle was fierce, although a few things went in the party’s favour. The giant swung his sword overhead and it scraped on the roof, spoiling his blow on Minimus. The quaggoths (Marie would tell them later that’s what they were called) spoiled each others attacks in their eagerness to get their claws into Cundall. Of course the party had their share of bad luck also, notably when Minimus slipped and landed prone in front of a quaggoth which pounced on him.
quaggoth-01s.jpg“Oh, Nanna, I might be coming to see you soon,” thought the halfling. Only the fact he was covered by his shield saved him and he managed to fend the creature off and get back to his feet. The battle finally went the party’s way. Zelda continued to pump arrows into the fire giant, and Minimus, once recovered from his trip, slashed at the giant’s feet and legs until blood fell like rain. The quaggoths were vicious in attack, but with no armour were easy to strike and kill. It took Link and summoned fey spirits in the shape of giant eagles to assist, but In the end the giant was dead, its body taking up a fair chunk of the floor space, as were its quaggoth minions.

The party took a short rest to bind wounds and search the body. The giant had nothing of worth, perhaps it kept its treasure elsewhere. It did have a key, however, and not a giant sized one.
“Hopefully this is the key to the cells,” said Marie.
“Lets get moving,” said Cundall. “Sooner we’re out of this place the better.”
They found rooms that housed drow soldiers, but beds had been overturned and their chests ransacked. The chapel to Kiaransalee – the drow deity of undeath and vengeance – had been defiled, and the mess hall and kitchen was thoroughly trashed, the odour of spoiled food wafting through the nearby rooms. Rats, bugs, and maggots were prolific in the kitchen especially.
“Doing their best to clean up,” said Cundall. “They’re trying to help!”

Eventually they found the cells where several drow were imprisoned. At first the drow thought they were part of the invading force. They tried to free a male drow called Jizzin to use as a guide, but close to the entrance he cast darkness and tried to run. In his weakened state he was easily recaptured. They tried talking to the female drow but they proved to be especially rude and non-cooperative.
“That’s more like it,” said Cundall. “All the drow we’ve met so far have been… I don’t know.. normal. Not like the drow we’ve heard about in legends where they would eat your face and backstab their allies.”
“Truth rarely matches legends and stories, no matter who it is,” said Marie. ‘Even folk heroes,’ she thought.
Once they realised the drow were not part of the invading force, they were marginally more cooperative. They found out the following information:

  • Solom Ned’razak was being held in House Morcane where he was being interrogated by a demonic blooded fire giant.
  • House Morcane was the cave at the bottom of the web, just below the Fane of Lolth – an abandoned temple in the shape of a huge spider.
  • The fire giants came with demons and destroyed everything they came into contact with. They knew how to use the web to move around.
  • The invading force was led by Hledh Hellspawn of Maerimydra. She is a fearsome fire giant who commands a legion of demons.
  • Hledh was no longer in Szith Morcane. She left one of her fire giant captains in charge (the one interrogating Solom Ned’razak) while they took the rest of the drow back to the arena in Maerimydra.
  • The drow in these cells were patrolling and missed the big battle, being captured when they returned to Szith Morcane.

In the end the party decided they couldn’t trust the drow. They gave them some food and water from their own rations, and told the drow they would free them after Solom Ned’razak had been rescued. They used the map to find House Morcane. They exited the barracks and moved onto the web once again to climb up to the cave entrance to House Morcane.

(to be continued)

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Szith Morcane Rescue - Part 4
The Fane of Lolth

The party climbed up the strands of the giant web up to House Morcane. There was little danger of falling, as long as you were reasonably fit and strong. Marie thought elderly drow might find it difficult but still achievable.
“Don’t you ever stop thinking,” said Minimus, who was climbing ahead of her. “I can hear your brain ticking over.”
“Nope, our brain is designed to think,” said Marie.
“And sometimes it thinks crap, stuff that isn’t true, or not helpful,” said Minimus. “I sometimes find it better not to think. At least that’s what I think.”

As they neared the cave entrance to House Morcane a large structure came into sight – the Fane of Lolth. It was a huge structure in the shape of a spider with eight legs which functioned as stairs, leading down into House Morcane. Finally the party made it to the cave opening at the end of the strand of web they were on. They easily moved onto the ledge and Marie’s light spell illuminated a large stone worked room. Its angled walls indicated that it was vaguely octagonal in shape. There were two openings that led out of this room. There was also another ladder that resembled the one you have been climbing on, that lead through an opening in the ceiling to the spider leg stairs and up into the Fane of Lolth.
“Maybe we should look up there,” suggested Marie.
“Good idea,” replied Cundall.

More climbing and they entered the Fane of Lolth. It smelt musty, old and dust was thick on the floor with no tracks other than that maybe of spiders. It was divided into two large rooms.
“No one has been here for a long time,” said Zelda.
“That’s weird,” said Cundall. “Aren’t drow supposed to be Lolth worshippers? You’d think they’d be here all the time.”
Marie again wished she had done some research on Szith Morcane before heading down into the Underdark.
“Maybe they worship a different drow deity here,” she suggested.
“Let’s look around carefully,” said Cundall.
Spider_push_dagger.jpgThe party explored all the walls and areas, and found a cleverly disguised cabinet, nearly invisible but Zelda’s fingers just found the edge. It had a glyph of warding inscribed on it also, and so Marie used mage hand to pull the drawer open. Inside was a spider decorated push dagger – one you used to punch with rather than the traditional stabbing action. It was resting on a display of black velvet. Carefully Cundall picked it up.
As soon as he touched the dagger there was movement around them. Creatures of shadow looking vaguely drow like materialised out of all the surfaces.
“They’re coming out of the walls!” yelled Minimus.
The battle was joined – the creatures were resistant to mundane weapons, but the party had an abundance of magic imbued weapons, either crafted – such as Zelda’s Oathbow – or through spell – such as Cundall’s shillelagh spell. The wraiths’ touch imparted a cold chill to the bones of anyone afflicted, making them a little easier to be hit again. However despite a shakey start the creatures were eventually dispatched.
“Now we need a long rest,” said Minimus. He ached from the necrotic touch of the undead.
“Here?” asked Zelda, looking around.
“Why not?” asked Cundall. “It’s clear no one comes up here, we’ve cleared out the undead, it’s perfect.”
“Apart from all this dust,” noted Marie.
“You’ll survive,” said Cundall. “We’ll rest here.”
Cundall examined the dagger they had found.
“Sacrificial dagger?” Zelda wondered.

The druid took the handle as if to use it. Nothing. He felt nothing, although his instincts told him that this was a magical weapon.
“I’ll spend some time examining it,” he said.
The party got ready to settle down. They took some dried meat from their ration packs and chewed while talking in low voices, sitting on their packs. Cundall examined the spider dagger. He held it, examined it closely. He held it in his hand as if to use it and concentrated, closing his eyes, attuning himself to the magic of the dagger.
Suddenly he felt another presence, one that he had known before in the Gravenhollow Library – Lolth! She could feel him, could sense his mind – she knew where he was! He felt her questing mind seeking to encircle his own and the great, foul power behind her. She was seeking to control him, or maybe to pry his brain for more information. At the same time he found that he was able to resist her without too much trouble, but he dropped the dagger anyway. The connection with Lolth was suddenly severed.
“What is it?” asked Marie.
“Bloody Lolth!” said Cundall. “It’s her dagger, or rather it’s connected to her. I could feel her trying to control me through it.”
“And did she?” asked Minimus, chewing casually.
“No, of course not,” Cundall replied. “But I think this could happen again. If I were badly hurt or distracted, I think there is a chance she could if she wanted to.”
Cundall used his robe to pick up the dagger and placed it in the bag of holding.
“Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” asked Marie. “If that dagger punctures that bag, say goodbye to everything in it and all of us can be sucked through to the astral plane.”
Cundall agreed and removed the dagger again with his robe, and put it into his belt. He then settled down to sleep. He was attuned to the dagger so he knew its other powers which he would talk to the others about later, including its ability to banish otherworldly creatures – including demons. Maybe they could even use it on Graz’zt if they had to. But for now – sleep.

To be continued..

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Szith Morcane Rescue - Part 5
Rescue of Solom Ned'razak

They all slept well for the first time in a long time; it was if the temple itself shielded them from the influence of madness. Zelda, being an elf, did not need sleep but found that her trance was restful and free from intrusive thoughts and images. They kept turns in keeping watches of course, and the sounds of cries, growls, shouts, rocks falling were all heard faintly from outside, but the rest period – using the word ‘night’ is meaningless in the Underdark – passed without incident.

They climbed down the spider leg staircase back down into House Morcane. The house was thoroughly ransacked and furniture and features destroyed, in two cases they found the ransackers – the first was a large frog like demon (Marie would later call it a ‘hezrou’ in her notes) accompanied by two collared drow slaves who instantly surrendered after the demon was killed. They were interrogated and came from Maerimydra with the invasion force although were not part of the fighting due to not being trusted enough. They had been put to work scouring the caverns, rooms and chambers for valuables, and looking for any hidden survivors. They assured the party their intention was to join the drow resistance, still harassing the forces of Maerimydra. They advised that the demon blooded fire giant Fydor was interrogating Solom Ned’razak in Solom’s own chambers. They were released. Everyone then laughed with Minimus, who had accidently stepped in a bucket when trying to take the hezrou and drow by surprise, making so much racket he and Zelda had to run back to the party with the demon and its entourage in pursuit.

The second lot of ransackers was a group of demons, including a chasme – one of the fly like demons they had encountred before, and quaggoths tearing apart and eating food from the House Morcane store room. During the battle the magical droning of the chasme failed to have the same impact on the heroes that had happened previously – except for Maire who slumped to the ground but was woken by Cundall giving her a punch. The quaggoths kept their distance until the chasme was killed, obviously not immune to the demon’s droning ability. During the battle the giant Fydor arrived, attracted by the noise. He brought with him a massive hell hound and the battle looked like it might turn in the foe’s favour until Marie cast polymorph on Cundall and turned him into a mammoth. Chauntea the pig ran away to a safe corner of the room, peering at events from behind some broken crates.

wooley_mammoth_by_critical_dean_s.jpgAlready affected by a haste spell, Cundall charged at the fire giant, smashing through both the door and door frame and took a chunk out of the stonework as well. The charge of Cundall as a huge beast not only caused huge wounds to the giant with his tusks, but the force completely bowled Fydor over, and Cundall then took the opportunity to trample him. The giant and the hell hound retaliated, Fydor getting to his feet and using his huge sword which also caused massive wounds to Cundall’s hairy body, and the druid also had to endure the hell hound’s fiery breath as well as having to fend off the creature leaping onto him and trying to tear chunks of flesh from his polymorphed body. A quaggoth behind the mammoth also did damage until Cundall had blood pouring from multiple wounds. However he lunged forward again with his tusks, skewering the chest of Fydor the giant who died quickly. The hell hound was dispatched quickly by Zelda’s arrows and Marie’s spells, and Minimus aided in the destruction of the rest of the demons and the remaining quaggoth.

solom2.jpgSolom Ned’razak turned out to be a middle aged drow in robes, tied to a chair in the only room that had not been ransacked. There was a small amount of loot that Fydor had been collecting, including a magical staff of swarming insects that Cundall appropriated with some glee, finally having a magical weapon of his own. Solom had been beaten, although not severely. The party kept him tied up while they interrogated him themselves and the drow revealed the following information in perfect command of the surfacer common tongue:

  • The fire giant attacked about four tendays ago.
  • Their leader, Hledh Hellspawn, led an army of fire giants and demons up the chasm wall into Szith Morcane.
  • Many of the inhabitants have been taken back to Maerimydra to fight in the arena.
  • Hledh left the fire giant Fydor here in charge of the remaining demons and slaves to clean up any stragglers and to question me.
  • On the way back to Maerimydra she had the giants collapse all but two of the access caves. He suspects it will take many years to clear that up.
  • Fydor wanted to know where all the valuables were and what magical defenses the place had.
  • They plan on bringing more giants and demons back soon to take complete control of the outpost. Solom prefers not to be here when that happens.
  • A drow wizard named Kel Morcane betrayed Szith Morcane to Hledh by helping her plan the attack, telling her about which giant spider web strands to use, and by opening the gates to the barracks as well as to the Inverted Tower – which was a small drow wizard school located in the massive stalactite above the chasm. Kel Morcane had not been seen since the attack, so he may have been killed by the invaders when he was no longer useful, or perhaps had been taken back to Maerimydra.
  • Solom apparently did not appreciate Minimus scrawling and doodling on his paperwork on his desk (once the halfling had thrown a dagger at it to make sure it wasn’t a mimic), and then bouncing on his bed and asked him to stop several times.
    “I’m bored,” said Minimus. “All this talk.”

They were about to untie him when Marie had a sudden thought.
“What was it the giant was interrogating you about?” she asked.
“Yeah, what was that about?” asked Cundall.
The drow deferred and balked, but eventually he relented and told them that in a secret chamber there was a drow vampire in a coffin – paralysed with a stake through her heart. The drow was Dorina T’Sarran, vampire priestess of Kiaransalee – the drow goddess of undeath and vengeance – and the previous ruler of Szith Morcane. In typical drow style Solom Ned’razak had kept the drow vampire close by and would go and talk to her and tell her how her former city was doing under Solom’s care. They had to look, of course. They justified it by saying that Solom Ned’razak could be lying and that there could be prisoners in the secret chamber, but they were curious to see a real vampire. The coffin was the only thing in the room, and had a bass-relief carving of a drow woman on it with holds where the nose and mouth were. Later they found out that this was Dorina’s original coffin and that the holes were placed so she could return to the coffin in mist form. Taking off the lid they found a gaunt drow woman with yellowish white hair and a snarl on her feral face, completely still, paralysed by the wooden stake piercing her heart. The party deliberated and re-deliberated, Zelda changed her mind at least once about what to do, but threatened to leave the adventuring party if they took the stake from the vampire’s heart.
“Maybe we should get her to turn us into vampires,” mused Cundall.
“What?” retorted Zelda. “Are you crazy? Marie! Check him for taint!”
“Have a braincap mushroom,” added Minimus.
“It would be interesting, we’d have great powers we could use for good,” Cundall replied.
“We’d never see the sun again, we’d hate nature, we’d want to kill everything,” said Zelda, clearly horrified at the suggestion.
“It was just a thought,” said Cundall, defensively. “I have no inner monologue.”

They voted on whether to put the vampire in the bag of holding or kill it here, or leave it. They didn’t want to leave it in case the fire giants found it. They went back and asked Solom, still tied up and waiting patiently, why the fire giants wanted to know about the vampire.
“They are hoping to use her hate of me and all surfacers to sway her to being an ally of Graz’zt and Hled,” he replied. “I think the safest option is to kill her if we’re not going to leave her sealed up in there.”
“And how do we do that?” asked Cundall. “Cut her head off and sew garlic and holy wafers into her mouth?”
“You’ve been listening to myth and legend,” Solom laughed softly. “The only ways I know are to expose her to direct sunlight, or put her under running water. Cutting her head off will just put her into mist form, which will work if we destroy her coffin because she won’t be able to regenerate, but if she has another coffin hidden anywhere nearby, then she will rest and regenerate there. We can’t take the risk.”

The voted and argued and revoted. Zelda was firm in her decision not to remove the stake, and Minimus was firm in his decision to kill her and be done with it, and eventually the others came around to his way of thinking. They untied Solom and took everything worth taking. This included a cheap brooch of paste and green cut glass. This was apparently the brooch Huum the mind flayer wanted. When asked if this was the brooch that Huum would want, Solom just laughed and said that he had managed to convince Huum that the brooch protects Solom from his powers.
“It doesn’t do any such thing,” Solom said. “I am easily able to resist Huum’s powers through strength of will.”
They took it, intending to give it to Huum, as agreed, even if it did nothing.

Solom also told the party he could dispel the magical barrier preventing access to the surfacer lands of Daggerdale. The route to Daggerdale would then be less than a day’s travel.
“Where will you stay afterwards?” asked Zelda, as they moved out. “After you have told the Emergency Council everything you know?”
“I will return to the Underdark, probably to Sporedome. Apparently there are drow living there now, those that do not wish to live on the surface. Huum and I can play chess and consider how we can assist the Emergency Council destroy Hledh and send Graz’zt back to the Abyss.”
Cundall reflexively touched Lolth’s dagger at his belt. He had not grasped it since he had dropped it that time he felt Lolth’s attempt to pry into his mind. The druid saw Solom looking at the dagger with only a slight widening of the eyes betraying surprise and maybe wariness.

Solom gathered all his papers from his desk, looking at disgust at the stick figures drawn over them by Minimus and large ink splotches.
“This information might be of use to the council,” the drow said, “if they can still read it.”

They climbed down the web to the barracks area to free the drow there. The drow spoke briefly with Solom who advised them to join the resistance force who were fighting the forces of Maerimydra. Then Solom and the party continued down to one of the lowest caverns. This was a wide area with many rooms. Solom Nad’razak waved a hand at the area.
“This was a market area, back in the days when Szith Morcane was a trading post. We have had some trade pass through here in the last few decades, but nothing like the old days. And no trade at all since we started being attacked by the forces of Maerimydra."
The market area had a steep but walk-able descent down into a long series of caverns that once appeared to hold a slum / shanty town area. Unlike Szith Morcane which had been lit because fire giants did not have darkvision, it was all dark down here. Marie activated her light spell. All the barricades, shanties, huts and buildings they could see were all flattened or damaged in some way. The area smelt of death and there were some decomposing drow bodies seen here and there, many of them partially eaten.
“This was a commoner area,” said Solom. “The hardest to defend and the first to fall.” They continued their pace through the common area, over a small stream and into another network of caves. Another stream led to a small, dark lake with a stream cascading into it as a waterfall.
“Here,” said Solom, “we can destroy her here.”
This sparked another round of debate whether Dorina the vampire could be converted to the dark side, with Solom arguing that she would kill everyone once the stake was removed, and he himself would either be first killed or maybe last by a long, long time. Again Zelda and Minimus argued strongly for not taking the chance with a vampire. Marie and Cundall eventually agreed. Again. They turned to Solom, who had been watching with what might have been a sneer.
“You go in first,” said Cundall.
“You.. think I’m a vampire?” asked Solom.
“Let’s not take the chance,” said Marie. “In you go please. Set our minds at ease.”
“I think you would know as soon as we got outside,” grumbled Solom, but he waded into the pool and stood glowering at them as he became thoroughly wet.
“Well?” he yelled, over the sound of the waterfall.
“Come out then,” yelled back Minimus, grinning. The sight of a wet, bedraggled drow arch-wizard tickled his funny bone.
They took the coffin out of the bag of holding and undid the lid they had tied down to ensure it didn’t come off during the trip.
“Let’s do it quickly,” said Marie.
They pushed the open coffin under the waterfall, and after a few seconds saw steam rising from the coffin as the running water acted like strong acid on her body. There were no screams as Dorina remained paralysed, but in a few seconds all her flesh had been stripped from her body. Soon there was nothing left but bits of skeleton. Cundell took the teeth from the remains of Dorina’s skull.

They moved on to the steep tunnel that let up to the Dordrien Crypts in Daggerdale, not far from the main town of Dagger Falls. Solom dispelled the magical barrier that he himself had placed here nearly a century ago to stop raids from the drow and revenge attacks from the surface lands.

They trudged into Daggerdale, tired, sore and only wanting to go home. They purchased riding horses and spent the next few days riding back to Elventree.

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 1
The Mission

Loreena_Stormwind_s.jpgA dozen adventurers gathered in the Hall of the Unicorn, the temple to Mielikki, Nature goddess, in Elventree. Loreena Stormwind looked around at the others without being obvious. There were paladins and a cleric in shiny armour from a holy Order, there were also the famous Heroes of HIllsfar – including Cundall the folk hero that many knew; Marie the famous wizard that some called “Beholder Slayer”; Zelda, the tall athletic elf with the wondrous bow called Shadowsong; and the fierce halfling named Minimus, ex gladiator of the Hillsfar arena who was said to inspire fear in anyone who faced him in combat. There were also a few others – like her – that were not well known at all. These included a strong looking human male in armour and shield, a dwarf cleric of Torm, an unusual choice of deity for a dwarf; and an oriental looking woman in lacquered armour and a long, curved blade. The expression on her face was impassive although Loreena thought she detected a faint edge of bitterness.
Sakura2.jpg‘She looks like she just bit a lemon,’ Loreena thought, ‘and is trying to hide it’.
Loreena did not know why the Lords’ Alliance faction, to which she belonged, had called her to Elventree; only that it was of great importance and utmost secrecy. Facing them was a small group of people that were known as the Moonsea Emergency Council. Among its members were a couple of female elves; a female gnome; a human male; a male drow who was obviously a spellcaster of some type; a couple of half orcs in polished armour; a dwarf Loreena knew to be Dornal Whitebeard – the senior Lords’ Alliance agent in the Moonsea region; and a hooded figure.

One of the half-orcs – a cleric in plate armour – stepped forward to address the assembly.
“I’m Dargol-Rend, Battle Chaplain of Tempus and Vindicator of the Order of the Gauntlet. We’ve received news from our…uh..allies… that agents of the demon lord Graz’zt are abroad. As we speak, they’re preparing a blood ritual to feed their Dark Prince. We’re going to stop them.”
The robed figure stepped into the torchlight. He had the bearing of the fey, though a hood hid his face. He removed his hood and everyone could see he was drow, older than the other on the council, but straight of back and a fierce determination in his eyes.
“In the Abyss,” the older drow said, "they called them the Crimson Trinity. Their corruption has swept through the Underdark to consume my home, Szith Morcane. Tomorrow, two arena battles will occur: one here in Hillsfar, the other deep below, in the colosseum of Maerimydra. The Crimson Trinity is behind them both. They plan to sacrifice all who die to the demon lord.
“I am Solom Ned’razak. I am indebted to some of you already, and to those of you to whom I am not, I will be soon. I ask for your help to win back Szith Morcane and destroy the Crimson Trinity.”
Dargol held up his hand to silence the sudden outbreak of murmuring, some of it excited, some grumbling about helping the drow.
“Enough! We’re going to smuggle some of you into the two arenas as bait. If you can hold out, it’ll keep the Crimson Trinity divided between Hillsfar and Maerimydra. That’ll give the rest of you a chance to hit their leader in Szith Morcane, and shatter the ritual. Questions?”

Thain.jpgOnce questions were answered the group were divided up. The team of paladins and the cleric of the holy Order – Loreena was not sure which it was – would be going to the Maerimydra colosseum to ensure the incubus Oromoth did not make it back to Szith Morcane to help with the ritual. The Heroes of Hillsfar were to travel to Szith Morcane and disrupt the ritual which would convert the deaths in the arena and colosseum into power for Graz’zt and kill Vehloc, the leader of the Crimson Trinity, and it seemed that herself, the oriental woman, the strong looking man and the dwarf cleric of Torm, were to be smuggled into the Hillsfar arena to delay or kill the incubus Gheriot, the last member of the Crimson Trinity.

Dargol-Rend, the cleric of Tempus, came over to their group. Loreena knew of the half orc – one of the few non-humans allowed to stay in Hillsfar because he fought in the arena frequently. ‘And because he is popular and forceful,’ Loreena thought.
The half orc spoke to them, much more softly than when he had been addressing the entire group.
“Well met. I know you all, or know of you at least. Let me tell you what you need to know. Gheriot – incubus and member of the Crimson Trinity – has been appointed Master of Ceremonies to infiltrate the First Lord’s court. The gladitorial games scheduled for three days hence have been advertised far and wide and have drawn crowds from across the Moonsea. The games will reenact the downfall of the “Red Tide”, an armada of notorious Moonsea pirates. Gheriot has flooded the arena for the event. A host of vagabonds, criminals, and non-human slaves face trial by combat, facing professional gladiators, many of them affected by the madness of the land. Before the games begin, you will be smuggled in to assist the side that are expected to lose – the Red Tide. I am to fight alongside you. If we can hold out, we’ll delay Gheriot in Hillsfar. This will give the Heroes of Hillsfar a better chance to stop the blood ritual and hopefully kill Vehloc. If we get the chance we must slay Gheriot."
The half orc gestured to a the gnome, who walked over quietly. Loreena knew her to be Seranolla the Whisperer, the senior member of the Emerald Enclave faction.
“Well,” she said quietly, in fact so quiet they had to strain to hear her, “there is another task we must ask of you. The elves of Cormanthor recently petitioned First Lord Torin Netheral to repeal the law that outlaws non-humans from his city. His response was to hurl their envoy into the arena. Arias Goldthorn is the Emerald Enclave’s chief contact in the Elven Court, and we want him back alive. He shouldn’t be difficult to find. Oak here,” she patted the tall, strong man on the arm, “knows what he looks like.”
Oak nodded and turned his steel grey eyes to the rest of the group.
Oak.jpg“I am Oak,” he said, “member of the Emerald Enclave.”
Loreena saw this as the time for introductions. “I am Loreena Stormwind, archer and citizen of Hillsfar, member of the Lords’ Alliance.”
“Thain Grimthorn,” said the dwarf, “priest of Torm and member of the Order of the Gauntlet.”
All eyes turned to the oriental woman.
“Sakura,” she said, simply and returned her lips to a thin line. Her accent made her name sound like a curse. If she was a faction member Loreena had no idea which one. ‘Probably Zhentarim,’ she thought, which would explain why she did not want to state her faction. The Zhentarim would not be well regarded in this company, although she knew that at least one of the Moonsea Emergency Council would be a Zhentarim member.

Soon the four of them accompanied Dargon-Rend onto a cart Dargol-Rend calls your company forward. You fasten your weapons and gear, and clamber onboard a convoy of ox-carts and began the two day journey to Hillsfar. On arrival in the pre-dawn early morning they were waved through the gates by the Red Plume guards after a small pouch of coins had changed hands. Slowly, the carts trundled through darkened streets to the arena. Arena guards waved the convoy inside the slave pens. Before the slave masters could question their new arrivals, the wagon drivers cut them down with crossbow fire. They dragged the corpses out of sight, and pulled on their uniforms.

Dargol-Rend ushered the party of four into the slave pens, where they were stared at by dwarves, drow, elves, halflings and humans, some obviously suffering from the demon madness. Inside, flooded passages led to the arena gates. Dargol-Rend pointed to an armada of warships moored up in the passages.
“All aboard! Dawn comes, and the crowd soon bays for blood. By Tempus, let it not be ours!”
The party chose a boat at random and boarded it. Dargol-Rend handed Loreena a smooth stone with runes engraved on it.
“This is a sending stone,” he said. “We can communicate through it, as I will need to be on the flagship,” – he pointed to a larger boat with two sails. “Remember, where possible you are not to kill anyone, as this will just feed the ritual. Bash them unconscious if you can, but only kill if you must.”
Loreena was sure she heard a faint, disapproving sniff from Sakura.
“We will, Battle Chaplain,” said Loreena.

There was a couple of hours wait while the slaves were released and assigned to boats. While their boat had a single sail, a deck under the maindeck held eight slaves who would row. Sakura was to attend the helm and call down orders to the oarsmen, Loreena was to be the leader, and Thain and Oak would operate the large ballista on the forecastle deck. The weapon had five thick shafted bolts each of which had a wedge shaped iron head to split the sides of the enemy ships. There was also provision to set the ballista bolt aflame before firing it, so that the enemy ship had a chance of catching fire.

The worst part was the waiting. However within a couple more hours the sound of the spectators was loud enough to be heard. Then drums thundered as the gates ground upward. Sunlight sparkled on the arena’s flooded surface, and spectators thronged the grandstands. In the royal box, an obese nobleman rose to address the crowd. With a sweep of his arm, the Master of Ceremonies gestured to five rafts decked out as fortresses. On each, a band of gladiators guarded a fluttering pennant.
“Behold the cities of the Moonsea!” Gheriot said, his voice amplified by magic. “It is the tenth century, and our neighbors quake beneath the onslaught of a foreign armada. Citizens of Hillsfar, I give you… the pirates of the Red Tide!”
Lorrena could feel the roar of hatred that washed over them from the crowd. On one of the platforms, a trebuchet cranked into readiness.
“Only one city could muster the ships to defy them,” continued Gheriot. “Only one navy had the skill to defeat them. Beloved citizens, I give you… the glorious armada of Hillsfar!”
Gates opened on the far side of the arena, and a fleet of warships emerged into the sunlight. The fight was on!

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 2
The Red Tide

“Take us out, Ms Sakura,” ordered Loreena, striking a pose on the deck. They had decided to call their ship The Happy Drow. Loreena could see the other fleet with blue sails had the same number of ships. Knowing something of the Hillsfar arena, she doubted that the Red Fleet ships were of the same quality, and likely to sink more easily. This was going to be tricky. At Sakura’s barked command the oar slaves below the deck started rowing and Sakura manoeuvred them out into the flooded arena. They could hear Dargol-Rend bellowing from the flagship, a larger two sailed ship that lacked the forward ballista.

The flag of Mulmaster flew above a fortress built from rusted metal plates. Armoured gladiators guarded the lower deck, accompanied by a muscular man in leather robes with the black fist of Bane painted on them. Near the top of the fortress, a metal cage imprisoned some kind of automaton. Taller than a man and perhaps at least four times the bulk, the metal automaton’s arms ended in great metal flails.
“Well, that thing doesn’t look good,” said Loreena to Sakura, who was steering the ship. “Let’s hope it stays in the cage.”
Sakura’s reply was a sniff, that plainly said “As if!”

bloodgolem.jpgThe battle of Mulmaster was mostly a one sided affair. The muscular man with the leather robes was a spellcaster who was briefly able to paralyse with magic, but even so the four heroes fought as a unit and while they were hurt by the gladiators and the spellcaster they gave out more than they took. The party avoided a killing blow, instead choosing to swing the flat of their blade or axe at the last to knock their opposition senseless. Except Sakura, who neatly dispatched all her enemies with a blade through the neck or chest. When Loreena yelled at her to stop killing because it would fuel Graz’zt if the ritual went ahead, Sakura shook her head and said “I give them honourable death. No honour in defeat when they live.”
Although the gladiators were competent combatants, the trouble really begain when the first spell was cast by Loreena, who used her magic to improve the morale and fighting ability of her companions. Some of the magic from the spell was diverted through some unknown process to the cage, which opened up, releasing the automaton. It thundered and groaned its way to the party, releasing a great amount of heat. It was a handful, and difficult to avoid it’s swinging flails. The party were in danger of losing until Oak, assisted by Thain, manoeuvred the construct to the edge of the pontoon, and then throwing down their weapons suddenly rushed at it, using their strength to push it into the water where it disappeared with a great splash. Loreena peered down into the water, but could not see it. For a while she was worried it would re-appear – it did not need to breathe after all – but perhaps the cold water doused the fires of whatever was powering the automaton for it did not show itself again.

The crowd near them cheered their progress, roaring their approval at their disposal of the automaton and louder again when they took the flag. Loreena made a big show of taking the flag, rousing more cheers, much to the annoyance of the Red Plume crossbowmen on the walls who glared at those cheering for the ‘enemy’. They took the flag back to their ship, healed themselves as best they could and decided to head for the next ‘city’. However as they sailed towards the pontoon city, they were intercepted by a blue sailed ship, that of the Hillsfar navy. Sakura tried to manoeuvre their ship to get a shot off while denying them a shot but neither captain was able to outfox the other.
“Someone’s strapped to the bow,” observed Thain. He pointed to a figure tied cruelly to the bow of the ship, across the ramming prow of the ship.
“That’s Arias Goldthorn,” exclaimed Oak. “The envoy from the Elven Court!”
“If that ship rams us, he’ll be a bloody smear on the bow,” said Loreena. “Sakura, don’t let them ram us!”
Sakura grunted, and did well enough in handling the ship. The wind had picked up enough for the oars not to be needed, so they were withdrawn and laid flat to the side of the ship. Thain fired a firey ballista bolt at the ship, which struck it and started a small fire, although this was quickly extinguished.
“Hey, they have buckets on ropes to put out the fire!” said Loreena, looking around. “We don’t have any. I suspect the odds have been stacked against us. Bring us alongside to board – we’re going to lose any fiery ballista match.”
The other ship seemed happy to fight hand to hand and did not oppose the Happy Drow’s approach. There were many gladiators on the other ship, outnumbering the heroes by two to one, but again they were overconfident, perhaps having been told they were fighting weakened and inferior opposition, Loreena suspected. Even so it was not an easy battle and required concentration and discipline to limit their advantage of numbers. But in the end they knocked out all the gladiators (or killed them in Sakura’s case), freed the Arias from the bow, took all the unused ballista bolts for their own ship, and sabotaged the ship so it could not operate, including throwing all the oars into the water and cutting all the lines to the sail. They also took the buckets and rope so they could douse fires on the Happy Drow.

dragomira.jpgThey bore down on the pontoon bearing the flag of Thentia which flew from the battlements of a high wooden tower. At the tower’s base, a female gladiator in bone armour sat astride a giant scorpion.
“Dragomira,” whispered Loreena. She had heard tales of the female gladiator who added the bones of those she defeated in the arena to her armour and had a giant scorpion as a mount.
She heard Dargol-Rend speaking through the sending stone.
“That gladiator may not be the only thing defending that tower. Be wary! Thentia has always been a place of magic.”
“Let’s loose a volley of arrows at her before we get onboard,” said Thain.
They fired a round of arrows at the woman and her unusual mount. Oak and Thain fired a ballista bolt at them, scoring a hit and knocking Dragomira off the scorpion. She got up unhurt, the scorpion having taken the brunt of the ballista bolt but by then Oak, Thain and Sakura were onto her, hacking and swinging. Loreena finished off the scorpion with arrows from her magical bow, firing several into its head in rapid succession. Dragomira showed why she was feared, with vicious counter attacks and seemingly willing to take some hits on her armour which was difficult to penetrate. Oak was knocked down twice and Thain had to manoeuvre around Dragomira to tend to him. Thain himself had been badly hurt, and Sakura was continually being frustrated as Dragomira turned and blocked almost all of her thrusts with her curved blade. An attempt to push her into the water likewise failed.

Meanwhile Loreena had climbed the ladder to the tower to procure the flag which was surrounded by green flame. ‘Obviously magical,’ she thought. She saw two chests, one marked with a warrior’s symbol and one with a wizard’s symbol both with slots that looked like the nearby sword would fit as a large key. Remembering that this pontoon represented Thentia, which was known for it’s magic, Loreena chose the chest with a wizard’s symbol, inserted the key and was rewarded with the green flame dying out and she was able to procure the flag. She waved it at the crowd with a fist raised in victory. The crowd roared their appreciation.
‘I could get used to this,’ thought Loreena. ‘No wonder some of the gladiators love it.’

Dragomira had been holding off three opponents. However in the end she could not do enough damage to put down Thain, Oak and Sakura, and eventually they started to get more hits in on her. The more she got hit the easier it was to score more hits, and eventually Dragomira went down, knocked unconscious by Thain’s hammer.
“Don’t kill her,” Oak warned Sakura.
“I do not deserve to give her the honour of death,” said Sakura, sullenly. “I did not strike her once! She was very skilled.”
“Her armour is good though, not badly damaged,” said Thain. “Too big for me.”
“I will honour her by wearing it,” said Sakura. “Do that much at least.”
Her own lacquered armour had been getting battered, and she stripped the unconscious Dragomira of her bone armour and put it on as their ship sailed away. She kept her chain shirt underneath it for protection where the bone armour did not quite cover, unlike Dragomira, whose had part of her arms bare.

(to be continued)

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