Heroes of Hillsfar

Malady in Elventree
Downtime

After the Cundall’s Hole adventure, the party had some downtime. The days had been turning colder for some time now, and now at the end of the second month of autumn, an icy wind blew off the Moonsea, indicating winter was nearly here.

Halfling_Symbol_2.jpgDuring his time off Minimus went on a bit of a bender and got into some trouble with those who police Elventree. It was nothing serious but he did have to pay a 40 gold piece fine (Elanil told him sternly that if they had a jail he would have been put there for a few days). During his time he scandalised the community by having a very public, romantic fling with a feisty, dusky skinned human female named Shaniqua, who was a known “party animal”, and who was not in the least bit intimidated by Minimus’ reputation. Many said it was she who led the renown hero astray and into trouble, but the party knew better. Minimus himself said his behaviour was a “one off” and he had been just letting off steam. Even after he sobered up, he retained his association with Shaniqua and they were often seen together at the Tree Spirits tavern.

Marie and Cundall travelled to Hillsfar together. Marie went to visit the Mages’ Guild, and use their magical workshop there, creating a set of gauntlets of ogre power for Minimus.

Cundall’s stay in Hillsfar was much shorter than Marie’s. He visited the priests of Chauntea at Lastholme and found them overrun with orphan babies, an indication of how far the madness had affected the lust of many of the folk of the town. He helped out a little, but was mainly there as a safe place to cast a locate object spell. He was looking for a specific magic item called The Deck of Many Things. Cundall had wanted this legendary magic item as soon as he had heard about it in stories. He had cast this spell before – in fact as soon as he gained the ability to do so – but never had a positive result. This time however, the spell indicated a positive reading which led him to a shop in the wealthier district of Hillsfar. magic_shop.jpgHe came to an antiques shop, and entered. He found that the owner of the shop appreciated Cundall’s straightforward approach and he acknowledged that he did have in his possession the rare magic item the Deck of Many Things. There was some negotiating, but really Cundall knew immediately the owner was no pushover and had a price he wouldn’t budge from, which was higher than Cundall could afford. The only thing in Cundall’s favour was that it was often difficult to find a buyer who could afford such an item. When the druid had counted out all his valuables – and many of the party’s valuables as well – from the bag of holding it wasn’t enough to purchase the item. It was then he offered the dagger of Lolth, the magic dagger of banishing they had found in the Fane of Lolth in Szith Morcane (see Szith Morcane Rescue – Part 4). They settled on a price of a thousand gold pieces, plus the dagger, for the Deck of Many Things. Cundall left Hillsfar elated.

While at the Mage’s Guild Marie was spoken to by the Master of the Mages’ Guild Nash Sorinius about taking on an apprentice. Initially she was reluctant because of her time spent adventuring, but eventually she agreed and returned to Elventree with an apprentice named Jerrard, a pock-marked and broody youth, the middle son of a merchant who was likely to get no inheritance. He did have a keen mind though, and good attention to detail.

“You can bring him along on our next adventure,” said Cundall, shaking Jerrard’s hand. “We need someone to open trapped doors.”
“He’s joking,” said Marie to Jerrard, noting her apprentice’s uncertain expression. “Mostly.”

Jerrard was housed in The Swaying Bough inn where Marie gave him some study to be going on with when she wasn’t around. He was a young man who seemed to take everything seriously and with an intense wonder.
“Has he actually ever been outside of Hillsfar before?” asked Zelda, watching Jerrard looking at the sky, and then the trees and tree houses of Elventree.
“He has, but not for any length of time,” said Marie. “I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with him. I might get him to copy spells when he gets a bit better at it.”
“There’s a big party for the Feast of the Moon in the Hall of the Unicorn tomorrow night,” said Minimus. “Elanil is going to perform. Have you heard her play? She’s amazing.”
“Everyone in Elventree will be there,” said Cundall. “It’s always a huge party.”
“Let’s go get a drink,” said Minimus. “I’m freezing my arse off out here. No above ground adventuring until winter is over!”
“We’ll go wherever we’re needed,” replied Zelda. “The needs of the people come before our personal discomfort.” She winked. “But hopefully the needs of the people will not stretch to snowy adventures!”

To be continued…

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Cundall's Hole Part 4
The Sanctum of Sin

Marie’s fears were well founded. As the party began their rest, kuo-toa led by the toad demon emerged from the water. Initially the toad demon looked like it might want to parlay, but Zelda was having none of it and sent her arrows into the demon’s thick body before it could get any words out. The demon roared and attacked, along with the kuo-toa. It was a tougher fight, as the toad demon was powerful, however the party prevailed once more.

“Surely we’ve thinned out their numbers now,” said Cundall, looking at the fallen kuo-toa. “But let’s find another place to rest.”
They moved outside the temple, found Arrizz still waiting at the boat and told him what had happened. They found a sheltered nook in the area but as far from the temple as they could manage and had a long rest there. Nothing disturbed them this time and they were able to recover their spells and give their wounds some medical attention. Dorian wanted to help, but was persuaded to wait with Arrizz on the boat until the party had finished exploring.

Marie and Cundall once again changed into crocodiles and towed the rest of the party underwater up the one water filled tunnel they had not explored yet. They emerged from the pool into a decadent room where banners of red silk hung from the ceiling and fine pillows covered the floor. A massive stone dais covered with cloth-of-gold blankets stood near the back of the hall. Two statues in the centre of the room depicted twin fish-like creatures with bat wings. The creatures who these statues depicted were lounging on the dais being attended by kuo-toa, including the priest who had escaped at the first combat. The kuo-toa were waving them with fans and serving them platters of raw fish. Music was being supplied by a battered looking gnome they recognised – Basil Grem – bard and member of the Protectors of Elventree. He was haggard looking, had multiple bruises on his face and body, and was playing flute, obviously putting very little effort into it.
cambion.jpgThe twin demonic creatures rose from their lounging with wicked grins. One stepped forward and said, “Foolish mortals, you should never have come here”. They flapped their wings and took to the air and the other ordered the kuo-toa to attack. What could have been a tricky battle was made easier by Zelda’s arrows, which easily punched through the winged creatures’ armour, and Cundall’s use of the confusion spell, which disorientated them and stopped them from using all of their demonic abilities. Meanwhile Minimus dodged around the kuo-toa who seemed clumsy in comparison and cut them down, supported by Cundall and Marie. Within a few minutes all of the party’s enemies within the area were dead. The demonic creatures had changed shape during the battle, back to their original form which was a red skinned humanoid with bat like demonic wings and horns. Basil had hidden himself in a corner, near the entrance to the oubliette. Minimus peered through the bars of the entrance down into the hole.
“Better get Arrizz,” he said. “There’s drow down here as well.”

Some hours later the remaining members of both the Protectors of Elventree – Rasputin the half orc bounty hunter, and Sneak the rogue – as well as the surviving drow, had their immediate injuries attended to and been given food and water. Another room had been a storage area, where the lizard mounts and baggage carriers had been placed, as well as the Protectors’ gear. As most of the drow had been killed, Arrizz decided to return with them to assist in getting all of the supplies and equipment back to the rebels. The Protectors would return back with the Heroes of Hillsfar. It would be a slow journey back, as the boat would be going against the current, and they would have to use poles to move it, but it was doable due to the Waydown River being slow and mostly shallow.
The kuo-toa had reverted back to being their neutral selves after the death of the two demons who had used charm magic to enslave the leaders. The tribe’s warriors had been significantly reduced by the battles with the party, and so were deliberating whether to move to join with a friendly kuo-toa tribe not far away or stay here at the temple, protected by the trio of giant white octopi who lived here. They were still arguing about it when the party left.

[End of Cundall’s Hole adventure]

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Cundall's Hole Part 3
The Shrine of Two-Fold Sin

The keelboat continued on its way after the encounter with the kuo-toa. After rounding a bend, the river tunnel opened up into a vast cavern that was nearly fifty feet high, dimly lit with the glow of faerzress. The tunnel widened into a rocky shore to the right, creating a 140-foot wide dry cavern adjacent to the river. The cavern narrowed near the back end and terminated in a set of twenty-foot wide steps leading to a pair of massive stone doors.
“This is our destination,” said Arrizz, pointing for Minimus to steer the keelboat to the river’s edge. They tied up the keelboat to large rocks.
“My people who were collecting the goods should be here,” the drow said. “I fear something has happened. We should be careful.”

“What are they?” asked Minimus, pointing at two statues amongst rubble. The halfling, along with Cundall, and Marie moved forward to investigate the them. Zelda moved further into the cavern, looking out for threats, flitting amongst the rubble, her elven cloak blending in with the background whenever she stood still. Arrizz stayed on the keelboat, also looking out for threats.

The rubble of two destroyed statues, each with both crustacean and female human features, littered the floor of the cavern. In the midst this rubble stood two crudely carved statues with glimmering pearls for eyes. One statue was male and the other female. Each statue bore a mix of both human and fish-like features, and had bat wings spread behind it as they reached for each other.
“Weird,” said Cundall. “I think this rubble is the statue of the kuo-toa goddess, Bliddlepoop or something.”
“Blibdoolpoolp,” corrected Marie.
“Whatever,” Cundall said, waving a hand. “The main point is someone has destroyed it, next to a her temple, and erected some other half kuo-toa, half demon statue.”
“Doesn’t sound good,” said Minimus. “I wonder if Olon and the Protectors have encountered these demon worshipping kuo-toa.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all kuo-toa poo by now,” agreed Cundall.
“Along with Arrizz’s friends he was supposed to meet,” agreed Minimus. The halfling looked unhappy.
“What do you care?” asked Cundall. “His mission isn’t our concern.” Minimus didn’t reply.
“There’s a concentration of faerzress in this area,” said Marie. “We need to be careful about its effect on us. We’ve got braincap fungi, right?”
“Right!” said Cundall, patting his bag of holding as he moved towards the winged statues. He pulled out a dagger and reached up to the statue’s face and began to pry out one of the pearls. There seemed to be some sticky substance holding the pearls in place, Cundall assumed it was some kind of glue. However when the pearl popped out easily he suddenly realised it was not glue but some kind of sealant as a green-grey gas came billowing out of the cavity. Cundall coughed and retched, even though he had managed to avoid most of the poison cloud. The druid held up the pearl as if it were a sign of victory. Then peering into the vacant eye socket to make sure there was not another bladder of poison gas behind the other pearl, he popped that one out as well. Then he looked expectantly at Marie. The wizard sighed and used mage hand to pull out the other pearl once Cundall was out of the way. The poison gas cloud from that statue drifted harmlessly away.

“50 gold each, I reckon,” said Minimus, looking at the pearls in Cundall’s hand.
“Might be good for spell components,” said Cundall.

“There’s something going on in here,” said Zelda, with her ear to the stone doors, waving to attract the attention of the others. “Sounds like a ceremony.”
“Well, let’s go spoil it,” said Cundall.
They pulled the temple doors open, surprising the occupants. The scent of rotten fish filled this ruined hall. Puddles of murky water covered the green stones of the floor. Eight stone pillars carved with crude fish imagery stood in two rows in the center of the room. Three sections of the wall and floor were collapsed and filled with stagnant water. Near the back of the hall was a slab of black stone covered with bloodstains and four shackles holding a naked human male. He was surrounded by kuo-toa, one of which was holding a sacrificial dagger.
“Dorian!” cried Marie, recognising her brother. Zelda was already firing, and had six arrows away before the kuo-toa could even react. They did not take long to overcome, although one managed to escape by jumping into a pool, which was obviously much deeper than the party initially thought. Minimus popped Dorian’s manacles open with little effort using his lockpicks.
“What happened, Dorian?” asked Marie. Her brother, an ex-Red Plume, had been beaten and seemed exhausted.
“Attacked by the kuo-toa on the boat, and some white tentacles came out of the water,” said the young man. “They grabbed Olon and we didn’t see him again.”
“The others?” asked Cundall.
“Locked up in an oubliette with some drow,” Dorian replied.
“What’s an oubliette?” asked Minimus.
“It’s place you put people… to forget about them,” replied Cundall.
“The drow must be the ones Arrizz was to meet,” said Zelda.
“Are you able to walk?” asked Marie.
“Slowly, I think I have a couple of cracked ribs,” said Dorian. “Who said adventuring was all glory and treasure?”
“How did you get here?” asked Zelda.
“Those water filled holes lead to water filled tunnels,” said Dorian. He coughed and then winced. “The water filled tunnels lead to the other kuo-toa, their demonic leaders and the other prisoners.”
“Demonic leaders – I knew it!” said Cundall. “What can you tell us about them?”
“They have some charm ability,” said Dorian. “And they are smart, they use the kuo-toa’s madness against them. The kuo-toa think they are gods.”

Cundall was looking at the pools. “Marie, I think it is time for us to shape-change into something that can swim. Maybe crocodiles.”
And so Cundall using shapechange ability, and Marie using magic, both shifted into the bodies of crocodiles and explored the water tunnels. They found the kuo-toa breeding pools, filled with females and young and eggs. The found a lair of three giant white octopuses, partially lit by something glowing in a pouch. Cundall remembered the wizard Olon had a coin with continual flame cast on it, ( Sporedome – Part 1) and suspected that this was where Olon’s body had ended up. The octopi looked like they resented the intrusion into their lair, and so Marie and Cundall retreated.

hezrou.jpgAnother tunnel surfaced into a hall broken perhaps by an earthquake. Gnawed bones and rotting corpses littered the floor of this barrel-vaulted hall. Crude drawings covered the walls of the room, each depicting a giant toad eating two winged humans. A hideous stench fills this enclosed space. The source of the stench was a huge toad demon, eating the remains of a drow. It watched the surfacing crocodiles with interest, but they submerged again before it could investigate them further. They returned to the others, changed back into human form and told everyone what they had seen.
“There’s another tunnel which no doubt leads to the demons and the oubliette,” said Marie.
“We need to rest,” said Cundall. “We’ve used up a few spells.”
“Surely not here,” said Marie. “It’s too close.”
“We don’t have anywhere else to rest other than outside the temple near the river,” said Cundall. “We’ll just have to take the risk.”

To be continued…

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Cundall's Hole Part 2
Into Cundall's Hole

“I’m going to talk to Helck,” said Cundall, getting up.
“I’ll come too,” said Minimus.

Cundall sat down next to Helck, although Minimus stumbled and bumped into the commandant, nearly spilling his drink. Embarrassed, Minimus apologised still using his human boy voice, and left Cundall to it. The druid sounded out Helck to see if he could trick the commandant into giving him access to the Underdark. It became quickly apparent that although he was corrupt, Magarl Helck was not a fool and became suspicious. Before he could act on that suspicion, Cundall said: “2000 gold pieces.”
“What?” The commandant was temporarily flustered.
“2000 gold pieces for you, for two things. First, let us and all our supplies into the Underdark, and back up again when we need to return. The equipment is for those fighting against the demons in the Underdark, the better they are equipped, the less chance they have of swarming up out of the Underdark. Also we are searching for a wizard, one Olon the Underdark sage, and his escort who have gone missing in the Underdark. There is nothing we are doing that will bring harm or negative consequences back on you.“
Helck considered this. “And the second thing?”
“Change the name of the place from The Waydown to Cundall’s Hole. Change the signs and call it that.”
“Two THOUSAND gold pieces for letting you down into the Underdark via the hole, and bringing you back up again when you’re ready. And changing the name of this hole to Cundall’s Hole?”
“Right,” said Cundall. “And we want to go tonight. And we’ll need one of your boats.”

Commandant Helck rose from his chair and signalled the end of the feast. While Cundall and Helck discussed the details, the remaining Red Plumes left and kitchen staff cleaned the dining hall. Once the room was cleaned and empty, a sergeant came over to Magarl Helck in response to his beckon.
“These good folk are going into Cundall’s Hole,” said the commandant. “That’s the new name for the Waydown. Some of them are going anyway. The others can stay here overnight and leave tomorrow. Please organise some men to move their goods, I’ll meet you there.”

The party moved back to the stables and said their goodbyes to Felratha and Ziggy The joydancer advised she would head from here to Elventree and Ziggy and Elum could travel with her. Arrizz quickly donned a cloak with a hood and a mask, while Cundall counted out Helck’s bribe money from his chest. A squad of a dozen soldiers arrived to carry the crates and sacks. The party followed them through the keep to double iron doors set into the wall at the end of a hall. Etched into the front of the doors was a depiction of a colossal man standing astride the city of Hillsfar. He had a stern look on his face and his shield was raised in a protective manner. Magarl Helck was waiting for them with a slip of paper. The commandant gestured for the sergeant to unlock the doors and then pushed them open, with an instruction for everyone to stay at the entrance until it was safe.

A 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-wide hole filled the centre of the room from which echoed with the sound of rushing water. A wooden treadwheel crane was built next to the hole. On either side of the hole, two earthen statues stood. These were obviously the guardian golems supplied the Hillsfar Mages’ Guild. Magarl Helck strode confidently and raised the paper to read from it.
“Has’than zann Queh”, he read, and immediately Zelda snickered quietly.
“It’s elvish,” she whispered. “It means ‘Blessed by Birth’.”
“Likely a sneaky bit of political commentary by a member of the Mage’s Guild who disapproves of the city’s views on nonhumans,” suggested Maire.
The commandant gestured the others to enter, and the soldiers placed the crates and sacks on a platform that could be lowered via the crane into the hole. Cundall handed Magarl Helck a sack of coins.
“I won’t count them,” said Helck. “As a sign of trust. Also you said you wish to come back this way, so I don’t expect you would cheat me.”

Arrizz and the party jumped onto the platform with the crates and sacks, and they were lowered down into the cavern with the Waydown river running through it. The party looked up at the Red Plumes looking down at them. Marie was surprised to see Magarl Helck pull something out of his pocket and looking at whatever it was in his hand with shock and horror.
“Nothing to do with me,” said Cundall, who had also noticed Helck’s reaction.

At the bottom they transferred the crates and sacks to a small keelboat. Zelda stopped as something caught her eye, and she moved to look at the wall of the cave.
She gestured the others over and pointed to a splash of paint on the wall. It was an “O” with an arrow underneath it pointed further downstream.
“Olon?” suggested Cundall.
“Must be,” said Marie. “He would have been this way, obviously, but it’s good to have confirmation.”
They returned to the keelboat and pushed off. The river was slow flowing except for some areas where it narrowed, and so steering the small keelboat, ideal for slower, shallower bodies of water, was not difficult.
Arrizz was at the bow of the boat, peering forward. He turned to Cundall and said in accented Common – “In about an hour we’ll come to a side tunnel where a small part of the river will split off. We go down that way towards an old temple. That is where we are meeting those who will take the goods from us.”

The keelboat continued on, propelled by the river current and they took it in turns to steer to keep it away from the rocky walls. They encountered patches of faezress here and there, as well as phosphorescent fungi, lighting parts of the tunnel. For the most part it was dark, so Cundall had to use a darkvision spell for himself and Marie. The others had their own darkvision. There were a few side tunnels, some taking a bit of the river with them, but many were dry, but these were not the ones Arriz was looking for. The drow was quiet for much of the trip.
“You don’t like surfacers much,” said Marie, speaking in Undercommon as she came to stand next to Arrizz.
“It’s more that I’ve come to realise that surfacers are just as evil and self interested as drow, we’re just more open about it,” he replied. “On the surface weakness is tolerated, life is too easy for many who don’t deserve it. I find it hard to live in such a world. There’s too much air and wind, and the open sky makes me dizzy. And much too much light! I miss the Underdark, I miss living in Szith Morcane. I will go back when it is liberated.”

As the drow predicted, after about an hour the tunnel they were looking for appeared and Minimus steered the keelboat slowly down that tunnel.
“Look!” Zelda pointed at another painted “O” with an arrow pointed down the tunnel.
“Well, happy coincidence,” said Cundall. “Saves us trooping all over the Underdark. I was wondering how we were ever going to find them.”
“The old temple is another five hours down this tunnel. The river is much slower here,” advised Arriz.
“Is the temple inhabited?” asked Cundall.
“A small tribe of Kuo-toa,” replied the drow. “Not aggressive, open to trade, which is why we chose the temple as a meeting place.”

The keelboat continued on uneventfully. After several hours Cundall noticed they were passing an artificial structure, like some kind of barricade holding a reservoir of water. It made him feel somewhat uneasy.
“Was that there last time you were here?” he asked Arrizz.
“No,” the drow replied. Cundall waited a few seconds but it was clear Arriz was going to say no more.
“There!” Cundall pointed at some kuo-toa faces among some rocks at the bank of the river. The druid waved, but the kuo-toa did not return the gesture. ‘Maybe it’s not a kuo-toa thing,’ wondered Cundall.
“I like this not,” whispered Arrizz. He began to tie all the boxes and sacks down, and was quickly assisted by the others.

They continued on for a short time before Cundall heard a roaring sound from behind them. The sound grew louder and quickly reached a deafening furor. Suddenly a wall of churning water crashed around the river bend behind you and swept toward your boat. As the massive wave hurtled down the river, a chorus of croaking cheers echoed off the tunnel walls around you.
“Hang on to something!” yelled Cundall.
When the wave reached the boat, everyone on board was thrown around violently. If they hadn’t been desperately clutching the cargo or the boat itself they might have been knocked over or even thrown overboard into the raging waters. The broad bottomed boat was not capsized, and Minimus was thankful that they had not brought their own boat, which being much narrower would surely have been capsized. None of the cargo was lost either, thanks to it all being tied down.

As the rush of water moved past the boat, Arriz and Zelda both stood up with weapons at the ready, obviously expecting an attack. They were not disappointed, several kuo-toa ran towards them and jumped from the river bank onto the boat, jabbing with their spears. Cundall noted the spears were metal, rather than the usual kuo-toa sharpened rock tips.
grid-thumb24.jpg
‘Thanks Magarl, for arming our enemies,’ he thought, parrying a thrust with his shield. Chauntea, in her basket strapped to Cundall, squealed in annoyance. She was getting bigger and Cundall suspected her days of being in the basket would be over soon. Besides she was throwing off his balance.

Some of the kuo-toa had pincer staffs, which they tried to use to grab hold of the party and then throw them off the boat. However they were ill-prepared for a serious battle with a seasoned adventuring team, and soon it was the blood of the kuo-toa staining the water. Not one of them had asked for quarter or tried to flee.
“If they were non-aggressive before, something has changed their minds about how they conduct themselves,” said Cundall, checking a body for any valuables before lifting it over the gunwale and pushing it into the water.

To be continued…

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Cundall's Hole - Part 1
Felratha's Merry Minstrels

About a half-day’s travel from Hillsfar was a hundred-foot deep sinkhole caused by the Heroes of Hillsfar using an earth elemental to collapse the roof of a cavern during their escape from the Underdark (see Side Trek – The Library of Gravenhollow – Part 4 ). Called the Waydown by some, and Cundall’s Hole by others (mainly Cundall), this sinkhole raised alarm among surface dwellers after demons, drow and other horrors began creeping up from its subterranean depths. To allay fears of inhuman invasion, the First Lord of Hillsfar Torin Nomerthal first ordered a wall, and then recently ordered a Garrison built around the Waydown to secure it.

The Heroes of Hillsfar (minus 1 member) found themselves waiting outside of Elventree, on their way to Cundall’s Hole. Elum the mule, carrying a few sacks and Cundall’s chest, accompanied by Ziggy, waited with them.
“So where is the imp?” grumbled Cundall.
“Don’t call him that. Minimus said he would meet us outside of town,” said Zelda. “He’ll be here.”
“Here he comes,” observed Maire. “Why does he have a horse and cart?”
Minimus pulled the cart to a stop next to his fellow adventurers.
“Want a lift?” he asked with a wink.
“What’s all this then?” asked Cundall, looking at the crates, sacks and boxes piled on the cart with some suspicion.
“Apparently we need to get these supplies to the drow rebels, we’re meeting a representative before we head in,” replied Minimus. Cundall thought his face looked too blank. He decided the halfling was up to something, but also decided he couldn’t be bothered with it. The druid climbed up onto the cart and sat on a crate.
“Why is Elum coming?” asked Minimus. "Aren’t we going into the Underdark? We won’t be able to take him into The Waydown.”
“You mean Cundall’s Hole,” corrected Cundall. “And no, he won’t. Ziggy will wait for us with Fapper, or whatever her name is.”
“Felratha,” said Maire, climbing up onto the cart and sitting next to Zelda. “How is it you can remember the name of hundreds of plants and animals, but not someone’s name?”
“I like plants and animals,” sniffed Cundall. “Onward, hobbit!”
“No one calls us hobbits,” grumbled Minimus. “That’s just from a story.” He clicked his tongue and flicked the whip and the cart took off, Ziggy and Elum following behind.

“So we’re going to rescue Olon, right? That supposed sage of the Underdark,” asked Cundall.
“And my brother,” said Maire.
“And the rest of the Protectors of Elventree. They were escorting Olon,” added Zelda.
“And deliver these goods,” said Minimus. “Our contact is waiting for us with Felratha.”
“Remind me who Felratha is again,” said Cundall.
“She’s a Joydancer, a religious performer and worshipper of Lliira, goddess of joy, happiness, dance, festivals, freedom and liberty,” said Maire.
“She travels around in her caravan, performing for communities,” added Zelda. “Honestly, Cundall! Were you even at the briefing we got from the Moonsea Emergency Council?”
“I don’t like meetings,” shrugged Cundall. “Besides, Chauntea was restless, most of my attention was on keeping her quiet. She hates meetings too.” He patted the pig who sat happily next to him, watching the countryside go by.

They spent a day travelling along the road towards Hillsfar, meeting the occasional merchant and their armed escorts. There was one mounted Red Plume patrol who looked them over as they rode past.
“This time two years ago we would have met halflings, elves, dwarves, maybe a smattering of other races,” observed Zelda. “Now just humans on the road.”
“Humans are acting as go betweens in trade with Hillsfar,” replied Marie. “I expected it would drive prices up, but the effect has been minimal. I think the merchant guilds are wary of what will happen if prices get too crazy.”
“Things are crazy enough with the madness,” agreed Minimus. “Stumbleduck thinks the guilds are actually working with the non-human races to smooth all this over. The First Lord probably underestimates how much farming produce halflings actually sell to Hillsfar. But prices are going up nevertheless.”

They spent an uneventful night at a wayside stop with two other merchant caravans, all of which were protected by guards provided by the Zhentarim. Even in these times it was common at these times for travellers to mingle and tell each other news.
“You need reliable help in times like these,” advised a tall merchant with a pencil thin moustache. “The Zhentarim are reliable, although their prices are steadily getting more expensive as their services are more in demand and there are fewer alternatives available.”
“I think I just figured out why prices are going up nevertheless,” whispered Cundall to Minimus.

The next day they set off once more for Cundall’s Hole. They moved off track to the rendezvous point and soon came upon a painted covered wagon resting near a small campfire in a copse of trees. Glass baubles, paper decorations, and a neatly painted sign reading “Felratha’s Merry Minstrels” hung from the awnings of the wagon. Two hooded figures sat around the campfire and looked up at the heroes’ approach. A red haired woman rose to greet each member, introducing herself as Felratha and, when everyone had arrived, she introduced her companion. Hesitantly, the figure drew back his hood revealing a drow with a face scarred by some disease. He nodded at the heroes.
“Arrizz!” exclaimed Zelda. “You’re the contact for the drow. I should have guessed.”
The party settled around the fire to discuss what would happen next.

felratha.jpgFelratha was a bubbly woman with a kind heart. She indicated she had been greatly disturbed by the recent treatment of non-humans in and around Hillsfar. A look of deep sadness filled her eyes whenever she described seeing a non-human in chains. She carried a lute strung over her shoulder at all times and frequently used it to play a lively tune whenever things grow dull.
“Things have been bad in the Moonsea area for a while,” she said, playing some chords. “I feel there is little room left for joy in Hillsfar. I aim to change that by travelling around, performing. I am also willing to assist you all get past the Red Plume garrison and enter Cundall’s Hole. Being performers will get us in and allay suspicion, then it’s up to you to do the rest. We just need to work on some acts.”

They spent a couple of hours working out some acts that would satisfy the garrison and pass as entertainment. A plan was hatched to sneak through the garrison once everyone was abed to enter Cundall’s Hole. Then Arrizz and Minimus went through the inventory of goods on the cart.
“That’s a lot of gear to be bringing down,” observed Felratha.
“We’ll work out a way,” said Cundall.
“This mission relies on discretion,” said Felratha. “Captain Maggarl Helck is the garrison commandant, a corrupt man who is likely to happily hide a minor incident at the garrison to keep safe his position. If a major battle breaks out, however, he has no other option than to report the disturbance to his superiors. He will no doubt blame it on local non-humans which, in turn, may lead to more violence against those in the area. We must try to avoid an all-out violent incident.”

Later that day, just before dusk, Felratha’s wagon, followed by Elum and Ziggy, made it’s way to the garrison built over the top of Cundall’s Hole. The non-humans were covered up, and Minimus made to look like a human child. Cundall was dismayed to find signage indicating the area was called The Waydown. Used to Felratha’s wagon, they were waved into the stable area where they were met by the officer on duty. He obviously knew Felratha and they shared a joke before he nodded to Cundall and Marie standing nearby, and cast his eyes over the others, unpacking their performing gear before leaving.
“We’re up before dinner, so we have about an hour to quickly rehearse and get ready,” Felratha said. They set to it. Ziggy assisted where he could, grinning at the costumes they tried on and helping Minimus shave.

An hour later they entered the area where they were to perform, pushing a screen before them where they could make costume changes. The wooden tables of the dining hall had been pushed against the walls. As Felratha and the heroes entered the room, dozens of Red Plumes soldiers stood and gave a rousing cheer. A moustached man wearing a more elaborate uniform raised his hands to silence the crowd. He smoothed his moustache and called out, “Red Plumes, your Captain speaks! In light of recent tragic events, I felt that an extra helping of good cheer was in need. I give to you Felratha’s Merry Minstrels! As you make sacrifices for me, I too will make great sacrifices for you!” The Captain clapped his hands and beckoned for the show to begin.
Felratha started the show by performing a bawdy drinking song to great applause, while Arrizz, totally disguised behind a lion mask and golden cloak and gloves, juggled shortswords with Minimus, who was dressed and made up to look like a young human boy. His youthful face and slim build helped with this illusion. Both acts received tremendous applause.

“Behold, Red Plumes,” said Felratha, one hand indicating the screen. “You are about to witness an amazing act. Soldiers and sergeants, officers and orderlies – I present The Dancing Beavers!” There was huge applause, cheers and catcalls, until from behind the screen came two actual beavers – Mairie and Cundall who were shapechanged. There was silence for a dreadful moment, before the entire audience burst out into raucous laughter and joined in Felratha’s song while the beavers danced and cavorted before returning behind the screen at the end of the song. They took it in turns to perform for an hour. Marie told a heroic story of the First Lord as a young man, assisted by illusions and glamers to bring the story to life. Minimus, dressed as a clown now, did a tumbling act, and Cundall told jokes, which he was good at. Felratha finished with a few popular songs the Red Plumes could join in with and then it was over.

Felratha took out a lap harp and began to play some soft music. The soldiers quickly slid all the tables back into position so that dinner could be served. Cooks ran back forth from the kitchen, delivering a feast of roast meat, mashed potatoes, and cabbage. Cheap wine and ale was served in plenty throughout the night. The Red Plume had set aside a small table near the back of the hall for the Felratha’s Merry Mistrels. Over the dinner period a stream of Red Plumes visited the table to deliver free drinks and chat, saying how much they had enjoyed the show. Arrizz at this point had returned to the wagons, taking some food with him for himself and Ziggy, as it was too hard to maintain his disguise in this situation. Zelda kept her hat on, covering her ears and said little. Minimus still looked like a boy. Felratha took her lute and moved among the tables, playing a song here and there. Cundall and Marie kept most of the attention of the visiting soldiers on them. They found out some interesting information.
“Captain Helck has the only key to open the door to the Waydown,” said a sergeant, looking like military sergeants the world over. “Lately he has been organizing expeditions to explore the Waydown River. The goal of these trips is to treat with some local denizens for goods that Captain Helck personally takes control of. On the last excursion, two soldiers were dragged into the water when a creature with giant, bone-white tentacles attacked the boat. At least that’s the story the survivors gave.”

Another soldier told how the kuo-toa who they had been trading with have recently become hostile, trying to drive the Red Plumes away.

A different soldier, a veteran of recent trips into the Underdark, said that the area to the Waydown was guarded by two golems, given to them by the Hillsfar Mages Guild. They would attack anyone entering who did not know how to disable them. But only Captain Helck knew how to disable the golem. He kept the passphrase given to him by the Mage’s Guild on a piece of paper because it was in a foreign tongue and difficult to pronounce.

An officer informed them that Guard Commandant Vuhm Yestral, who was in charge of the construction of the keep over the Waydown had been assigned to Yûlash after the speedy completion of the garrison. The Red Plume officer obviously did not think highly of Guard Commandant Yestral.
“You don’t seem to like him much,” said Cundall. “Was he a bad officer?”
“Not at all, he was a good officer,” replied the Red Plume. “However Yestral was not very zealous in enforcing the Great Law of Humanity and there was also some kefuffle at court. Apparently he accused Gheriot, the Master of the Arena, as being in league with demons. Apparently quite true it appeared in the end, but at the time Yestral was banished from the court and still has not been forgiven. His reassignment to Yûlash pushes him even further from the city and any influence he might gain there.”

Time passed and the Red Plumes started drifting away – some to their duties but most to retire for the night, no doubt having full days on the morrow.
“I’m going to talk to Helck,” said Cundall, getting up.

To be continued…

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 10
Confronting Vehloch!

“I’ll go up first,” said Zelda.
“I think not,” said Sierué. “This is a drow problem. We should wait for Kaele Icaryd.”
“We don’t have time,” argued Zelda.
“You just want to loot more of our heritage,” snapped the female drow, looking daggers at Cundall who was carrying the valuables they had found.

Maire rolled her eyes.
“Come on Cundall, let’s get up there,” she said, taking a few steps up the stairs. Cundall followed, with Minimus following behind. Marie had only gone up a short way when an audible click sounded under her shoes.
‘Maybe I should have let Minimus go first,’ she thought briefly, before rocks and boulders were released by a mechanism to crash down on top of her and Cundall. Minimus managed to dodge away, but Cundall and Marie were both caught by the rocks. There was a shocked silence for a minute, until Zelda and Minimus cleared some rocks away to drag out Cundall. He had been injured, but not too badly. Marie had fared much worse, being caught by the brunt of the cascading rocks that had completely blocked the stairway.

Marie was barely conscious, she could hear the others calling her name and moving rocks, but she was too weak to call out. Everything was going dim and even her pain seemed to be distant.
’I’m going to die,’ she thought. ‘Well… that sucks.’
Then she heared a sibilant whisper as the darkness closes in around her. “Do you want to live?”
She felt the presence of something, not physical but more spiritual, powerful and old. The wizard did not have time to ask all the questions she wanted to ask before death would claim her.
“No,” she whispered. “I fear the cost may be too high.”
“So be it,” said the voice and let go – Maire realised the entity had been supporting her life so she could answer. She died.

In the meantime Kaele Icaryd and the other drow arrived. They helped move the rocks to recover Marie’s broken body. Then they continued to remove rocks with Minimus and the wight guards, so that the staircase could be accessed.

“What do we do?” asked Zelda, shocked by the turn of events.
“We either leave her, or…” said Cundall. “Or we animate her corpse so that she can follow us and return with us.”
“I thought you said undead are an abomination against nature?” said Zelda.
“I’m not doing it for any personal gain, it’s just so we can get her home.”
“You’re not thinking of using her as a trap detector?” asked Zelda.
“It may have crossed my mind,” said the druid. “But it’s mainly so we can get her body back home.”

Cundall cast animate dead on Marie’s body. As soon as he released the magic he knew something was different. Something had taken control of the spell and given it more power. The druid sensed some divine power was behind it, but he was unsure if it was benign or malignant.
Maire’s body gave a shudder and all her bones and ligaments snapped back into place. She raised her head, then climbed to her feet. She was a little clumsy, and her eyes looked flat, without a spark of true life, Cundall thought.
“So you got your way after all,” said Marie, apparently to thin air.
“Pardon?” said Cundall. “Are you talking to me?”
“What’s dying like?” asked Minimus. “Any tunnel of light?”
“Are you all right?” asked Zelda. “Cundall cast animate dead on you, but we expected you to be more.. ah.. zombie like.”
Marie ignored them all. She raised her hands, looking at them, then took a few steps.
“I don’t feel like I’m really in my body,” she said. “I feel like I’m just animating my body like a puppet. I feel slow and clumsy.”
She cast a spell and a small illusion of stars and planets swam around her head.
“My magic still works,” she observed. “Good to go.”

While the others worked, Cundall examined the letter he had taken and hidden from the others.
“What does this say?” he asked Maire. Maire took the letter and read it. Most of it was useless, however one part caught her attention and she read it to Cundall.

…but of course my enemies are many, so special measures must be taken to defend the library. I’ve taken the precaution of installing a dead-fall trap on the stairs that lead into the library from the Fane. If – or when – my sisters turn against me, I can retreat to the library and seal the stairs behind me. The switch is hidden behind a block in the wall by the third step from the bottom. Tell no-one of this, or I shall have your eyes. Until we next speak, Alisannara Morcane.

Maire turned to regard an uncomfortable looking Cundall. She thought she should feel something but, like everything else, her emotions seemed to be far removed and there was only a faint hint of annoyance. She turned and helped the others clear away the rubble.

It took an hour before the stairway was clear enough to be climbed. This time Minimus checked for traps and said he found none. Zelda went first, followed by Minimus, Cundall, Maire, Sierué and then Kaele Icaryd and the rest of the drow. Cundall tried to insist that Kel Morcane and the rest of the undead remain behind.
“You rivven do not command me,” hissed the wight. He and his undead guard followed behind.

The stairs ascended to a stone trapdoor. Raising it with care, Zelda peered into a familiar shadow-filled ruined hall shaped like a hollowed spider. Tiny spiders crawled everywhere, and their webs clung to every surface.

vehloch.jpgIn the center of the hall, a floating disc of blood quivered above a ring of candles. Every few seconds, bloody gouts broke its surface from above and below. A man wearing crimson robes and a black iron crown stood nearby. Long horns curl from his brow and scaled wings sprout from his shoulders, yet Zelda thought she had never seen anyone so beautiful. Vehloch! He was concentrating on the ritual, which allowed the heroes to quietly make their way out of the stairway into the Fane. Movement in the shadows caught their attention. Demons were coalescing, the party had only seconds to make their stealth count.

“Swift death to you who have wronged me,” Zelda whispered as she released the first arrow, quickly followed by a second. They struck home, the magic of the bow and the elf scout’s precision placement causing the maximum amount of damage to the demon’s body. She fired two more as the incubus reeled, the ritual disrupted and the circle of blood collapsed. Then as the demons from the shadows launched themselves and the battle began, Zelda launched another two arrows. Vehloch fell, a look of surprise on his face as his life force fled from his ruined body. Like the other demons, his body dissolved into a stinking black mess and a foul odour.

The demons were mopped up quickly by the drow and the wights, until they were all left looking at each other. Cundall realised this was a pivotal moment, where it was possible the drow and undead might unite against them. Kaele Icaryd obviously realised this too.
“Kel Morcane,” she addressed the undead drow wizard, “do not think this absolves you from your crime. You have much to do to atone for your betrayal.” The wight scowled and led his guard away, back down to the library.
“We must leave quickly,” said Kaele. “There are many demons guarding the Fane and although no doubt were given instructions not to enter, they will investigate sooner or later. Let us go.”
“We’re not going on those flying things again, are we?” asked Minimus.
“We are not,” replied Kaele, a small smile on her lips. “It’s back up the tunnel to Daggerdale for you.”
“Oh thank the gods,” the halfling breathed.

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 9
Searching the library

There was a stone door at the far end of the room that Kel Morcane advised led up to the Fane of Lolth. However the wight insisted that the legend lore scroll be found first as it may give clues about how to easily defeat the leader of the Crimson Trinity. Thinking there may be treasure around as well, Cundall agreed. They started looking around.

One of the exits from the main area led to a map room which contained maps, naturally enough, but also many scrolls that indicated Alisannara Morcane was keeping information on all of the drow noble houses, detailing lineages and the rivalries of drow houses and individuals. Sierué peered at a couple and announced the information was out of date by many decades, maybe even a century or more.

Cundall also found part of a letter that he was unable to read, but it looked like it might be interesting. He tucked it away so that Marie could read it later when Kel Morcane and Sierué were not around. He didn’t trust that drow, he’d caught her looking at the other party members with the same expression that she might display if she had been picking something off the sole of her boot. And no one should trust Kel Morcane who was both a drow and an undead abomination.

flat550x550075f.jpgIn another alcove a cluster of egg sacs was gummed under the ridge. There was a fist-sized white spider squatting motionless on top of them. When Cundall peered into the alcove, Sierué was already there, apparently examining the spider.
“A pale creeper,” she said in her accented common tongue. “Nasty poison. Stay away from it. There is nothing else here.”

Cundall looked around anyway, earning a snort from the drow. She was right, there was nothing else to be seen in the alcove. However when he came out of the alcove he was distracted by something he had seen, or rather something he couldn’t see. A shadow where there was nothing to cast it, a faint noise where no creature was there to make it. Whatever it was had been watching them without interfering. Perhaps it was now time to let everyone know.
“There’s something in here with us, something invisible,” said Cundall, loudly. A small giggle followed this announcement, and a flap of invisible wings. A small, whiny voice spoke in common from high on a bookshelf.
“About time you noticed me, I’ve been here such a long time.”
“Show yourself!” hissed Kel Morcane, his wight guardians reflecting his agitation, drawing their swords.
“I think not,” said the voice, using Undercommon, the same tongue Kel Morcane had spoken in. Zelda wondered if the voice belonged to the imp they had met in Cormanthor Forest a few months back, but decided it was too different. The voice switched back to Common. “One thing I’ve learned in the century or so I’ve been here is that you Prime Material Planers are unpredictable. And dangerous. I am weak and no threat, but you might kill me anyway because you can. I have survived by remaining invisible, or taking the form of beasts or vermin”
Zelda remembered the large centipiede she had seen earlier.
Quasit.jpg“So why stick around?” asked Cundall.
“This is the library of my mistress, Alisannara Morcane. I’ve been here since her demise at the blades of the Kiaransalee worshippers. I do love how drow butcher each other over trivia. I did not really wish to return from whence I came, especially these days when things are so exciting.”
“Fluuz Agruub,” said Kel Morcane. “I remember you, quasit. Tell us where Alisannara’s scrolls are.” Maire translated for the others.
“Oh I know where the scrolls are, but where’s the fun in telling you outright? No, I shall give you a riddle.” The quasit gave a theatrical cough.
“What looks back but cannot see, yet moves in perfect harmony?”
Kel Morcane hissed in agitation, while the others pondered the riddle. They put up several ideas, until Minimus, who hadn’t spoken yet, said “A mirror?”
“Of course,” said Cundall. “But there are no mirrors here.”
“The pool of water?” suggested the halfling, pointing at the water in the middle of the room.
“You’re supposed to be the dumb fighter,” laughed Zelda. “Good job, you seem to have a head for these kinds of things.”
The party approached the pool and examined the reflection of the room on the surface of the still water.
They could see a mysterious stone door in the reflection, in a space that showed no door when looking at it normally. Three spider sigils were cut into the door’s surface.
“Hidden by an illusion,” said Maire, going over to the door, feeling the wall. “I can feel the sigils here, even though I can’t see them.” She experimented a bit, and then pressed all the sigils at the same time. With a click, the secret door slid open. Beyond was a tiny chamber lined with scroll cases. A golden scroll case sat on a shelf opposite.

Examination of the scrolls revealed many contained magic spells inscribed on them, including a protection from fiends spell. The gold scroll case contained the legend lore spell. There was some disagreement between Kel Morcane and Cundall about who should cast it, but in the end Cundall just handed it to Marie and told her to cast it. Despite being annoyed at the drow wight’s orders, Marie saw the wisdom in his suggestions and used Kel Morcane’s wording on the question about Vehloch and how he might be defeated. A shimmering light, vaguely humanoid in shape, appeared and spoke in an echoing voice:
“Emperor of lies, whose words bring kings to their knees. Beauty so great, the Dark Prince cursed him to weep blood in the looking glass. Lord of three, who rules through a crown of command.”
The shape then disappeared.
“What the…?” said Minimus.
“It seems that we must get him to look in a mirror,” suggested Marie.
“The creature has a crown of command which it can use to dominate others,” said Kel Morcane. “We must kill it quickly.”
“You won’t be included,” growled Cundall. “I don’t trust you to turn on us the minute Vehloch is slain.”
“So be it,” Kel Morcane gave a rattling laugh. “We will step over your corpses and come finish him after you soften him up.”
“Bickering amongst the allies,” came the quasit’s voice. “No wonder the demons are winning the Underdark.”

In addition, the heroes found the following treasures: a pouch containing 150 gold coins in drow coinage, a black pearl (Minimus estimated it could be sold for around 500gp), a dragon tooth carved with scenes of murder (Minimus’ estimate was 100gp value). There was also a silk robe embroidered with web-like patterns (250gp for that, Minimus thought). The halfling also found a book of drow poison lore on one of the shelves. He tucked that into his backpack.

When everyone was ready, Minimus opened the stone door, showing dusty stairs leading up into darkness. It was time to confront Vehloch.

To be continued…

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 8
The Library of Alisannara Morcane

The stairs exited into a natural cavern. To the right, a table squatted in large alcove, with a glowing crystal resting on its surface. To the south, the cavern opened into a wider grotto lit by eerie green radiance. A patch of strange toadstools grew near the entrance. Minimus looked at the toadstools with interest. Were these the toadstools that they had seen the fey’ri sorcerer use to create sleep potions? He went closer to look. Moist toadstools sprouted from the base of a stalagmite. Weeping pustules covered their orange heads, and they stank of rotten flesh.
“Careful!” called out Sierué. “Those toadstools sicken to the touch. My people use them to make dreamwhisper, a powerful sleep drug. One drop can send a legion to sleep.”

Meanwhile Marie was drawn to the glowing crystal. A glowing shard of purple crystal rested on an old laboratory table. Glass flasks and alembics surrounded the shard, their liquids long evaporated. She sensed the aura of the crystal and knew what it was.
“This is faerzress, trapped within this crystal,” she said.
“What for?” asked Cundall. “A never-ending light source, maybe?”
“Perhaps, but more importantly we know that those braincap mushrooms we are using to protect ourselves from the madness can only grow in areas of faerzress.”
“And if we can find a way to trap it, we might be able to grow them on or near the surface,” replied Cundall. “You’re a genius. Or rather we’re both geniuses, because we both thought of it.”
Marie wondered, with some annoyance, if part of being a folk hero was sharing credit for other people’s ideas. She was going to make sure that the Mages’ Guild, at least, would hear of this idea and credit solely her. ‘I swear that Cundall will not take undue credit for this idea, or my name’s not Marie Seneforth, Beholder-Slayer!’ she thought, as she wrapped the crystal in a spare cloak and gave it to Cundall to put in the bag of holding.

After Sierué had moved off to enter the library proper with Zelda, Minimus had carefully, without touching them with his skin, picked the toadstools and placed them in a small bag, which he stowed in his backpack.
Zelda looked around the room, ready to slip into shadows or behind cover. Patches of glowing moss illuminated this grotto. Two rocky promontories hugged the walls, cradling a wide pool in their arms. The reflection of the cavern roof tricked her eyes into thinking a deep pit lies before her. Hundreds of cubbyholes pockmarked the grotto’s walls, each containing bundles of rotten scroll cases. Smaller caves struck off to the west and east, and a large door was set into the wall opposite.
“Is that the door to the Fane?” Zelda asked Sierué, speaking in elvish. The drow was scornful.
“No, of course not. It will be a secret door somewhere. Drow would not give such easy access to such a sacred place.”
“You don’t like surfacers much, do you?” observed Zelda.
“It is embarrassing and insulting to receive help from rivven,” the drow gestured at Cundall, Minimus and Marie, “and from the likes of you. Your culture is pathetic. All elves are superior to other races in every way. Why do you darthiir not simply enslave these others? They could not stop you.”
“Our culture takes the long view,” replied Zelda. “There is advantage in cooperation. And you drow are so fixed in your ways of domination and betrayal you now lack the flexibility to adapt to real threats. You see only short term gains in everything and cannot see that eventually the great numbers of humans, rivven as you call them, would destroy us. They are a destructive and innovative race – far more dangerous than either orcs or drow.”
“Pah, you darthiir are weak of mind and spirit. That is why we drow drove you to the surface. We..” Sierué broke off as the others approached. She glowered at the humans and halfling.
“Having fun, are we?” asked Cundall, noting the tension between them. “Well, let’s look for this entrance…” The druid stopped as dark figures emerged from the smaller caves.
Not yet seeing you, a robed drow strides from one of the caves nearby, accompanied by a pair of drow warriors. Their skin stretched tight over their bones, and blue fire burned in their eyes. The leader hissed an order to his warriors, and they started tearing scroll cases from the walls.
“Undead,” whispered Marie. Her hands went to her pearl of power around her neck, ready to use it as a spell focus. The undead leader spoke to its minions in Undercommon. Marie translated for the others.
“Alisannara hid her treasures well. Find that scroll, and we’ll toast our vengeance with the blood of the Crimson Trinity.”
“On our side then,” suggested Cundall. “Or at least against the Crimson Trinity, which is good enough.”
Finally hearing the party, the undead drow turned towards them and approached.
Kel_Morcane.jpg“That is Kel Morcane,” hissed Sierué. “Betrayer of Szith Morcane! He provided information to the fire giants and opened the door to the barracks and the gate to the Inverted Tower.”
“I am he,” agreed the wight in a rasping voice. “And you are correct. I did those things.” Flanked by his guards, he moved towards the party.
“Know, rivven, until recently, I, Kel Morcane, was a wizard of House Morcane. The incubus Veloch came to me in my dreams, promising power in return for loyalty. I succumbed to its fiendish charms, and was tricked into opening the gates to Vheloch’s army.
“As Szith Morcane burned, I cut my own throat, cursing Vheloch in the name of Kiaransalee with my dying breath. The goddess heard my rage and cry for retribution, and I and my guards returned as you see us now, and we seek bloody vengeance!”
“That’s screwed up,” answered Cundall, flatly. “You are an abomination against nature and– ow!” Marie had nudged him hard in the ribs and stepped in front of him.
“What is your intent?” she asked Kel Morcane.

Kel Morcane revealed that he was searching the library for a lost scroll of legend lore, which he hoped can reveal Vheloch’s weaknesses. The wight believed Alisannara Morcane hid her magic scrolls in a secret room somewhere within the library.

To be continued….

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 7
Back to Szith Morcane

While the other adventurers were fighting for their lives in the Maerimydra Colosseum and the Hillsfar Arena, the Heroes of Hillsfar were on a strike mission to Szith Morcane. They had been teleported to a cavern near the Underdark town, but still had some way to go. They had met a group of drow resistance who were to help them. The leader of the drow was a female warrior named Kaele Icaryd. She at least appeared to welcome the heroes’ help, the majority of the other drow seemed surly and resentful of the party’s involvement. Maire, as the only person who could speak Undercommon, heard muttering about “we don’t need help from their kind”, and “this is our home, we don’t need their help to free it.”

Kaele Icaryd and one of the resentful looking drow moved forward to speak with the heroes.
“My people know the outpost’s secrets, and can show you where to tread.” Kaele indicated the surly looking female drow with her. “This is Sierué Xelath. She will be your guide. Move fast, and show no mercy.”

The group of drow moved, quickly and quietly out of an exit from the cavern. A chasm yawns before them.
“This is not the chasm of Szith Morcane, but it joins onto it,” Kaele said. Then she stepped to the edge said something in a hissing, whispered tongue. Moments later, dozens of sleek, ray-like creatures glided down from above and perched on the ledge. Sierué gestured towards them.
Cloaker.jpg“The cloakers will carry us to Szith Morcane, specifically to an area that has a secret entrance to the Fane of Lolth,” she said in thickly accented Common tongue. “Mount up, and follow my mark. It’s almost time.”
Cundall cast darkvision on himself and Maire. Zelda with her elven sight, and Minimus with the darkvision provided by his magical sword did not need it. With some trepidation the party climbed on top of the creatures’ backs and strapped themselves into a roughly made harness of rope and leather.

The cloakers dove into the abyss. Silently the creatures glided through the dark, swooping between sticky spider webs and outcrops of rock. Here and there, patches of glowing fungus illuminated the gloom. Cundall was enjoying the ride, although he did not like the cloakers, he could sense they were not a natural creature – of this world at least. He was sure the dislike was mutual.

Zelda felt exhilaration as the cloaker moved about through the air.
‘This is what it is like to fly,’ she thought. ‘It’s amazing!’

Minimus spent most of his flight time holding tight to the harness.
‘This is what it is like to fly,’ he thought. ‘lt’s horrible!’
The harness on Minimus’ cloaker was not meant to accommodate a body smaller than that of a human or drow and so there was a disturbing amount of movement when the creature swerved and dipped in flight. One time the halfling gave an involuntary stifled squeak of alarm when his body shifted substantially when the creature banked around a large stalagmite. He had to sheath Companion which deprived him of darkvision which made the flight in darkness even more gut-wrenching. When telling the story later Minimus swore that from that time on the creature did everything it could to make him squeak with fear again as it changed course and altitude even more quickly and sometimes for no reason.

Maire was fascinated with the cloakers. She had heard they were intelligent, and tried speaking to her mount in Undercommon. The creature’s mouth was on its underside, so it was difficult to make out it’s whispered answers, but it did reply. Apparently they were assisting the drow because promises had been made about “sacrifices”. It was difficult to get more specific answers from the creature as its thought processes apparently worked much differently to hers and did not understand some questions and she did not understand some of its answers.

vrock.jpgWith a bloodcurdling scream, a dark shape leapt from a rock ahead. It looked like a cross between a huge man and a giant vulture, and it left the stench of offal in its wake. Kaele Icaryd’s voice echoed through the darkness.
“That demon’s heading for the outpost! Stop it before it raises the alarm!”

The race was on. The vulture demon was faster than the cloakers, however Cundall cast a haste spell on his cloaker, and Maire cast the same spell on Minimus’ cloaker much to the halfling’s alarm. Now the flying ray like creature was barrelling along at twice the speed it had been, rolling and banking with Minimus hanging on with grim terror. When his cloaker got close, Cundall then cast confusion on the demon, which slowed it down further, and it could be despatched by all of them. Then they continued on to Szith Morcane.

The cloakers landed on a narrow cliff ledge. As they all dismounted, Kaele Icaryd brushed the webs aside to reveal a hidden door in the rock face. She layed her palm on an engraving of a spider, and the door glided aside to reveal a dark passage.
“The ritual is being conducted in the Fane of Lolth, which has been empty for many years. However the normal entrances are guarded and warded. There is another, secret entrance. Somewhere in these caves is the hidden library of Alisannara Morcane, which should have a secret passage leading to the Fane of Lolth. We’ll split up. Whoever finds the library first should light a beacon to guide the others.”
She handed Cundall a crimson torchstalk. Accompanied by their drow guide Sierué Xelath, the heroes stepped into the silent gloom.

female_drow_rogue_s.jpgThe tunnels were old, there were many empty rooms. In some places there had been fighting, in others it was obvious they had been abandoned a long time. Finally a rough-hewn staircase descended into the dark. Thick webs draped the steps, crawling with glistening spiders. Sierué pointed to a drow sigil in the stonework above.
“The seal of House Morcane. We’ve found the library.”

Cundall broke the crimson torchstalk, which radiated a red light, and left it at the stairs. They began to descend down into the library.

To be continued…

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Blood Above, Blood Below - Part 6
Flight of the Pegasi

They took a minute to cast what healing magic they had, choose their next target, and rescue the captives who had been hanging upside down. While they gathered their breath Krynn looked at the other points of battle. On one platform a fire giant spellcaster was hurling fire magic into groups of slaves on spider mounts climbing the barbed chains to get to him. He had destroyed many, but other slaves were using the other chains and it seemed they would soon overwhelm him. As they watched, hitherto invisible gorilla like demons appeared to help defend the fire giant warlock. It was suddenly more evenly matched.

flaming-skull-71940.jpgAnother tower also had a fire giant spellcaster, ringed by giant sized flaming skulls that spun through the air, firing more fire from their glowing eye sockets. The fire giant was animating chains to bludgeon and grapple slaves. Less slaves were attacking this one, but Krynn’s eye for tactics told him that although the fire giant was powerful, he was not well versed in battlefield strategies, concentrating too much on the largest group of slaves allowing the others to get close. The paladin estimated the fire giant would soon be overwhelmed.

That left the last platform. Here a younger but still formidable fire giant was throwing exploding javelins at small groups of slaves. His accuracy was deadly, and Krynn did not think they had any chance of winning this battle. The slave numbers attacking this platform were much too few. On this platform Krynn saw with horror that a creature of good – a pegasus – was cruelly chained to the upper platform, trying to keep away from four cages where massive hell hounds lurked just out of reach.

“That one!” said Krynn, pointing to this last platform.
The others took in the situation and agreed, moving carefully back onto the barbed chains. They were soon back on the ground of the colosseum and climbing more barbed chains up to the platform of the young giant. By the time they got there the last of the slaves had been killed, and they were facing the fire giant on their own. Not only that, the fire giant had four dire-wolf sized hell hounds to protect him. The battle commenced and another hazard became apparent; the pegasus was secured to the platform with a spike through it’s hoof. The creature, maddened with pain and fear, tried to remove itself as far as possible from the massive hell hounds, but the chain made it fly in a circle. The chain securing it swept unwary combatants off their feet. Sir David Williams was caught once, but so too were a couple of the massive hell hounds. The hell hounds fought as a pack, attempting to work as a team to bring down the characters. However the combination of strong armour and heroic abilities in the end proved too much for the giant and hell hounds. Even so, the heroes were battered and blackened from their ordeal, and had to take a short rest to heal.
“I don’t have any healing left,” gasped The Douglas, who had taken a particularly savage attack and fire breath from the creatures.
Meanwhile Krynn did his best to calm the pegasus, which responded to his calm voice and gentle touch. It landed next to him, favouring it’s bloody hoof, tired and hurt but not defeated.
“I think I can ride it,” said Krynn.
Krugar grunted.
“That’s right, don’t you have to be a virgin?” asked The Douglas. “We know you’re not, on our way to Elventree at The Stop you took up with that-”
“That’s unicorns,” interrupted Krynn. “I could be a dirty old man with good intentions and ride a pegasus.”
“That’s lucky then,” laughed Sir David. Then he thought and said; “You know men, I think it’s time we cast our find steed spell. Then we can all have flying mounts.”
“And we can just fly over there and smite Oromoth right now,” agreed The Douglas with some enthusiasm, “and not wait to kill the rest of these time wasters on the platforms.”
“And save lives of those slave gladiators down there,” said Sir David.
“That too,” agreed The Douglas.
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The spell took 10 minutes to cast, and it summoned celestial spirits which also took the form of pegasi. By this time Krynn had gained the trust of the rescued pegasus and was able to ride her.
“My mount says her name is U’Dehl!” announced Krynn.
“I’m calling mine Longshanks!” said The Douglas.
“Mine shall be named.. ummm.. Steve!” said Sir David.
They laughed and mounted – Krugar, not being a paladin, did not have a mount, and jumped on behind The Douglas. They raised their weapons and their voices in challenge, drawing the eye of all in the colosseum, and charged through the air towards the royal box with the fire giant queen and Oromoth of the Crimson Trinity looking on in surprise and alarm. Missile weapons, like rocks and crossbow bolts flew towards them – but these were few because the slaves saw what was happening and redoubled their attacks. They kept the fire giants in the colosseum busy, as well as the few slaves with bows targeting the fire giant guards on the walls, distracting them from attacking the heroes.

Oromoth rose to address the baying crowds, his wings unfurling.
“Enough! These slaves defy the Dark Prince. They defy us! Let them be -”
With a roar, Queen Hledh rose from her bed of skulls. She grabbed Oromoth and backhanded him across the face, knocking him off his feet.
“You defy the Dark Prince with your failure, Oromoth!” she shouted, her voice echoing around the colosseum. “Now pay the price in blood! Prove yourself worthy to me… or die trying!”
Oromoth rose to his feet and wiped the blood from his lips.
“So be it”, he snarled, as the fire giant queen left the royal box. She left two fire giant guards with Oromoth.

The heroes used fly by attack tactics. Their flying mounts used their skill to avoid being hit by melee weapons while the heroes slashed and smashed while they were briefly in range. However Oromoth was casting fire bolts and the giants had rocks to throw, and they often hit the larger pegasi rather than the heroes, resulting in severe injuries. By this time one of the giants was down and the other and Oromoth were also injured.
“Let’s land,” shouted Sir David, “and take them out.”
“I’m helping the captives,” yelled Krynn, pointing to where the surviving slaves, many of them wounded, were trying to break out of the colosseum through huge gates. Fire giant guards were hurling rocks down to kill the increasingly desperate gladiators. Krynn used his speed and the momentum of the pegasus to burst through the gate, allowing the slaves to pour into the city beyond the colosseum. A vulture like demon intercepted Krynn and U’Dehl and a ferocious mid-air battle was fought above the escaping slaves.
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Meanwhile the rest of the heroes despatched Oromoth and the remaining fire giant. They looked to pursue the fire giant queen, but she had long gone.

“Time to get out of here,” said The Douglas, looking out over the corpse strewn arena. Most of the fire giant spectators had fled, although some were still there, fighting with each other.
Krynn had managed to dispatch the vulture demon, and had escorted as many slaves as he could to the extraction point where drow wizards waited to teleport them back in several groups. It took several powerful wizards using up their 7th level spell slots as well as exhausting several magic items to teleport everyone back to Elventree, but despite their concern about pursuit the chaotic nature of the demons and demon-blooded fire giants worked in the allies’ favour, and by the time pursuit was organised it was far too late. The mission had been accomplished, as well as the rescue of scores of captives.

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