Heroes of Hillsfar

Insidious Experiments - Part 6
Meeting Haedirn and Lyonthal

They moved down the stairs carefully. They ended at the foot of a small hallway which terminated in a door. As t hey approached there were images of three glyphs scarred into the wood of the door, and three distinct piles of ash collected at the foot of it.

“Those were the same key glyphs in the eyes of the homunculi,” said Marie. “Destroying the homunculi destroyed the glyphs locking this door.”
“Whatever,” grumbled Minimus. “It’s open now, look! It’s not even closed properly.”
The door hung open slightly, allowing light to pour forth from the gap it left within its frame. They cautiously opened the door and moved in, gaping at the scene in front of them.

This area was well lit from a glowing sphere hanging in mid air in the centre of the room – but the party immediately wished they couldn’t see what was before them. Nausea gripped them as they saw the body parts scattered everywhere – arms, legs, fingers, hands, torsos, heads even, laying about the floor. All female. Many were missing strips of flesh, or showed needlework stitching upon them. The room had an eldritch ritual circle emblazoned on the floor, and a large swath of blood stained across its centre.

Standing on the far side of the room was an elf, dressed in a robe, laughing and staring at something terrible beside him. A monstrosity of stitched flesh, some six foot tall, stood rigidly there. Its face was vaguely elven, and female.
“My beautiful Lyonthel,” said the elf, obviously Haedirn. “I thought I had lost you. And just when I bring you back, these wretches come to take you away from me again. Show them! Show them, Lyonthel, the strength of our love. Show them the lengths I have gone through. Show them for me, my sweet!” The creature lurched over towards the party of adventurers, mismatched hands outstretched.
The battle was tough. Lyonthal, or part of her was now a flesh golem and was resistant to most magics. Haedirn was seen as a real threat also, after he cast a blight spell that severely wounded Minimus. Zelda summoned Link to deal with the wizard, and the dire wolf spirit guardian kept the wizard busy casting defensive magic. The flesh golem was tough but was eventually worn down. Undead hands animated and attacked, latching on to Zelda who had to take her attention away from the golem to get rid of them.

Haedirn.jpgEventually the battle was won. As Haedirn lay dying, pinned against the wall by the horns of Cundall who had shape shifted into his giant goat form, the madness left his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “Tell them, I’m sorry..”. And then he died.

The party searched the room and his bedroom next door. They found more treasure including a cloak of elvenkind and Haedirn’s spellbook. There was a diary that told the story of how Lyonthal had fallen sick with Darkborne Rot after an Underdark expedition. Then the writing clearly showed that Haedirn had fallen to the madness that many creatures were succumbing to, there were long rambling passages in the diary about how he and Lyonthal were superior to all others and should live together happily forever. Because the cure resistant rot had destroyed parts of her body, Haedirn was forced to consider replacing those body parts, and had thus created the flesh golem.

The party also found a secret door which led to an escape tunnel emerging not far from the tower but hidden by bushes. They left and rested. While resting they could hear the sounds of ogres laughing, grumbling and occasionally fighting on the beach.
“We’ll sort you lot out tomorrow,” promised Minimus.

The following day the party used the trail down to the beach to approach the ogres. Three ogres were on the beach, killing turtles that had come ashore to lay eggs. There were about ten dead turtles, their heads smashed by ogre weapons. Cundall seethed.
“No mercy,” he said. “Kill them all.”
And so they did. Another three ogres emerged from the cave but a web spell from Maire stopped them charging en masse. She then shot at them with her crossbow, killing four of them with bolts through the skull – admittedly they had been wounded by the others, but the killing blows were impressive.
“We’re calling you ‘ogre-killer’”, laughed Cundall. He took the meat and shells from the dead turtles.
“Can’t leave them to rot,” he told the others. “The circle of life must be maintained.”

They returned to Lighthouse and told the leader of the community, the halfling Falwan Underbough, the good news that the ogres were dead, and the bad news that Haedirn had succumbed to madness and had also been killed. Falwan nodded sadly, and handed over the reward money that had been promised.

The heroes returned to Elventree and reported to their factions. Elendil was overjoyed to receive the shade coin and Nymarrath was pleased to receive the shield of Faimcir Glitterwing.

Thus ended the adventure of Insidious Experiments.

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Insidious Experiments - Part 5
Why Minimus hates desk jobs..

The next room to explore was a library. Haedirn and Lyonthal had accrued a vast collection of different books over their long life span. The walls of the room were lined floor to almost the ceiling with book shelves, each filled with volume upon volune of leather-bound tomes. An extravagant desk was centred between tow masterfully carved marble statues at the far end of the room. Strewn throughout the floor were many piles of books, each opened and stacked on top of each other. There was a blood spatter in one part of the room and books and papers scattered, as if a scuffle had happened in that spot. Another homunculus stared at them from the top of a book shelf. This one refused to talk to them and Minimus’ dagger turned it into a puff of blood and dust like before. Cundall and Marie noticed something change in the magic of the place when this happened, they were not sure what. Nothing menacing seemed to happen and so they continued investigating the books and papers. The books told a sombre story. Many related to cures, diseases, and spells. Others showed diagrams of humanoid bodies, instructions for cutting, grafting, and stitching flesh. These tomes in particular were caked in grim and dried blood, their pages earmarked with sections circled and notes scrawled in their margins.

“Doesn’t look good,” said Cundall. “I’m thinking his wife is dead and he’s maybe trying to bring her back as a flesh golem.”
“I agree,” said Maire. “All these books on stitching and grafting flesh are new, compared to all the others on diseases and spells.”

With Zelda guarding the door Minimus was bored. He kept an ear on the discourse between Cundall and Marie, but his attention wandered elsewhere. He went over to the desk. It was unlike any he’d seen before. It was made of a dark wood and ringed with stone, appearing natural and unnatural at the same time. It was devoid of anything on its surface, with the exception of a single open book. Minimus peered closely at the book. On its pages were odd markings. If this was a language, he was not familiar with it at all. It didn’t even look like proper writing. Minimus tried to open a drawer on the desk. Not only would it not open, he found his hand stuck.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said aloud. Then the desk changed, a seam split into a huge mouth with teeth and a long tongue like appendage emerged.
mimic.jpg Yelling for help, Minimus managed to twist himself away from the creature, and drew his sword. The others rushed to help. The tongue-like appendage swept the halfling back towards its body again and tried to bite him. It was not a long battle once the others were involved, but had a few scary moments for the halfling.
“I thought it was going to swallow me whole,” muttered Minimus, looking at the melted goo, eyes and teeth that had once been the Mimic.
“Well that explains the blood spot,” said Maire, pointing to the disturbed area with blood. “I’d say a zombie wandered in here and was eaten by the mimic.”

Having explored all of the rooms there was only one thing left to do. Descend the stairs to find Haedirn.

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Insidious Experiments - Part 4
Bring out your dead....

After their rest, the party re-entered the building through the tower.
“There’s got to be a better way in,” grunted Cundall, as he heaved himself up the wall of the tower on a rope.
“We could clear the boulders at the front,” called up Minimus from the bottom.
There was no reply other than an indignant “oink!” from Chauntea the pig as it’s basket was bumped against the wall.

Once inside the heroes continued their exploration. They found a room, once a study, now piled with corpses of villagers taken from the ogre raids on Lighthouse. All of the bodies were male, Marie noted. They still had not found any female victims. The adjoining cloakroom would normally lead to out on the beach, but the ogres had piled rocks against this door as well. In the cloakroom, looking at all the cloaks, walking sticks, travelling bags, boots and torches, decided to cast a detect magic spell, just in case. He was rewarded with his enhanced magical sight detecting transmutation magic coming from a pile of travelling bags. He plucked out the source, which she declared to be a bag of holding. This magical sack weighed the same no matter how many items you put inside.
“It does have a limit,” she admitted. “And if you go over that limit, or if the bag gets punctured, then bad things can happen. Like everyone nearby getting sucked into the astral plane.”
Cundall, as keeper and distributor of loot, decided he would take the bag. He considered what would happen if he placed the bag over someone’s head and then deliberately punctured the bag. He imagined a surprised looking detached head floating by itself in the astral plane.
“What are you smiling at?” asked Zelda.
“Oh, nothing,” replied Cundall. “Let’s move along. Time’s a-wastin’ and I don’t want to leave Emule on his own any longer than I have to.”

The study also had a door that led to a huge, circular room adorned with tapestries. The party quickly identified that this room was a puzzle. The tapestries told the stories of the faeries of summer, winter, spring and autumn and the gifts they gave each other. In the room was also four pedestals, carved to look like the seasonal faeries, each of them holding a sculpture of the gifts depicted in the tapestries. Cundall, Zelda and Marie pondered the puzzle, while Minimus became quickly bored and looked behind the tapestries, considered opening another door to the room, went back to the door they had come through. Those trying to figure out the puzzle tried placing the sculpted items – a leaf, a snowflake, a rose and a bird – to the pedestals matching the fairies who had received the gifts. It still did not work and nothing happened. Cundall started acting out all the actions of the fairies on the tapestries, but halfway through the dance of the fairies caught the others smirking and quit in disgust. Minimus wandered over and casually glanced at the tapestries.
“Why not remove the snowflake one?” the halfling suggested. “The tapestry says the snowflake melted in the Summer Fairy’s hands.”
Cundall and Maire did an identical faceplam and the druid removed the snowflake sculpture, leaving the others in place. Nothing happened for a minute, then with a grating sound a small dais was elevated from the floor in the middle of the room, which opened to reveal a locked chest.
“Oooh, let me!” said Minimus, pulling out his lockpicks. He had been practicing back in Elventree on the days the party were relaxing or doing other things. His face was screwed up in comical concentration, but he was rewarded with a visible click, and the chest lid popped open. Inside was some coins, a gold bracelet, a pouch of precious gems, and a small box containing an old, blackened gold coin that Maire and Cundall could detect the presence of shadow magic.
“That’s the shade coin Elendil needs,” said Maire. She closed the lid of the coin box and pocketed it.

The next room turned out to be a dining hall, which could host a good number of people. The only people here were zombies, two hulking ogre zombies, some ex-villager zombies, and some undead that had so much flesh carved off them they were just skeletons.

zombietime.jpg

The zombies closed while the skeletons used bows. Minimus used a table and chair as cover while he traded blows with the zombies. He threw his two daggers into vulnerable spots on the ogre zombies, limiting their movement towards him. Zelda fired arrow after arrow into the battle, while Marie used her damaging spells. Cundall saw this as a chance to shapechange into something that could help the party. He shifted into the form of a giant goat, and charged at one of the skeletons. It dissolved in a clatter of bones and sinew. Unfortunately this left him exposed and a long way from the protection of the party. One of the ogre zombies with one of Minimus’ thrown daggers in its knee could only hobble as far as Cundall and a massive club smashed into the goat. The remaining skeletons also damaged him, and so Cundall opted to reform his body back into human form, healing his body as he did so. He ducked under the table to avoid more damage, and threw things from his pack at the undead. The first was a vial of holy water which dissolved one of the skeletons, the next was a vial of acid which had the same effect and also splashed onto a nearby ogre zombie. He was considering a potion of fire breath next when Minimus, having destroyed the remaining zombies and one of the zombie ogres (with help from Zelda’s arrows and Marie’s spells) leaped up onto the long dining table that Cundall was hiding under and ran along its length, leaping off it while bringing his sword down in a vicious arc to stab into the chest of the remaining ogre zombie. It was about then Minimus took some acid damage from a second vial of acid thrown by Cundall from under the table. The halfling whirled angrily, wiping his skin.
“I mostly got them,” said Cundall, shrugging. “It was acceptable collateral damage.”

It was a long fight, but in the end the party were battered and sore, but all the undead had been put down. They decided to have a short rest in the room and bind their wounds. While resting, Cundall noticed two things. One was another – or maybe the same – homunculus up on a shelf. They tried talking to it, but the same irritated voice said that he was close to healing Lyonthal and had no time to talk to them. One of Zelda’s arrows saw it explode in a puff of dust and blood. The other thing Cundall noticed was that one of the frames around a painting on the wall appeared to be part of the wall, rather than separate from it. Intrigued, he looked at the painting – it was that of a lovely elven woman wearing a beautiful turquoise and ruby necklace, no doubt the famous Lyonthal, wife of Haedirn. After examining the painting, Cundall realised it was hinged and he swung it away from the wall like a door, revealing a space behind it that had a small chest. The chest was locked but was opened quickly with a knock spell (sadly it was too complicated a lock for Minimus to pick). Inside was the ruby and turquoise necklace that had been seen in the painting. Minimus whistled.
“That’ll be worth a bit of money,” he mused. There were also some coins and some rolled up pieces of paper that turned out to be love letters between Lyonthal and Haedirn. Perusing them indicated that occasionally they would foray into the Underdark, sometimes together, sometimes separately, to find spell components as well as alchemical and herbal ingredients for potions and poultices.
“They may both have picked up madness from the Underdark,” suggested Maire.
“He certainly sounded off his rocker speaking through that homonculy thing,” agreed Minimus.
“Let’s continue,” said Cundall, giving Chauntea an affectionate rub before placing her back into the basket behind his shield.

(to be continued..)

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Insidious Experiments - Part 3
The Mightiest Strike

ogre_zombie.jpgThe undead were dispatched without a lot of trouble. Minimus proved that zombies still have an intelligence of sorts by flinging his daggers at the ogre zombie, striking in vulnerable areas and giving it pause to advance further, while he dealt with the other undead. Then when the ogre zombie gave a breathless wheeze – which might have been an ogre roar if it had still been alive and could draw breath – and advanced the undead creature was quickly cut down by arrows, flame blades, and short sword strikes.

“Didn’t they say the ogres took men and women from Lighthouse,” asked Maire.
“They did,” agreed Cundall. “Why?”
“All the zombies we’ve seen so far are male. Judging by the clothing and the fair state of the bodies, apart from those it looks like the ogres have carved flesh from, they were the people taken from Lighthouse,” said the wizard.
“So maybe Haedirn is a necrophiliac as well as a necromancer,” suggested Cundall.
“Let’s push on,” said Zelda, realising there was only one way for this conversation to go, and it was downhill.

The next room appeared to be some kind of trophy room, dedicated to items featuring in events important to Haedirn’s past. Maire saw that many of the items were relics – items that were enchanted to hold just one spell – and some were mundane. They all had a framed card explaining what they were. There was a deck of marked playing cards that the card said once belonged to the traveller, journalist and adventurer Volothamp Geddarm, who Haedirn had travelled with for a time. There was a bag of glass, clay and stone marbles that apparently once belonged to the original First Lord of Hillsfar, the wizard Maalthiir as an adolescent. Minimus took a halfling crafted wooden pipe that, according to the card, would not go out unless the holder spoke the halfling word for “extinguish”. There were many other items too, a wooden doll with moss for hair that could cast spike growth one time, a small bell held in a frame with a tiny hammer that could cast knock (once), a glass eye with a brown iris which allegedly when activated allowed the person attuned to it to see through the eye for 12 hours, and four primitive masks, each of which could cast vicious mockery one time and was a gift from the Tree Ghost Uthgardt tribe for unspecified assistance.
“Can you use this?” asked Marie, hefting an ancient orcish warhammer. Reading the card she said “It was taken from the corpse of an orcish shaman of the Many Arrows tribe after an orcish raid into the High Forest. It apparently has a powerful inflict wounds spell on it, ready to go on it’s next strike.”
“I could, but it’s not my preferred weapon,” replied Minimus. “I like quick, sharp weapons. That would land a powerful blow if it hit, but I’m not really skilled or powerful enough to check the swing if I missed. I’d leave myself wide open for a counter strike.”
They took it anyway, as such items could be sold for a fair price.

BoneNaga.jpgThe next room held a surprise. Upon opening the door the heroes found a room plunged in darkness. Low moans and the clacking of bones greeted them, as several zombies and skeletons moved into sight. Behind them was a large serpentine skeleton, hissing something eldritch in a terrifying, raspy voice. The very next second a bolt of lightning shot from the bone naga, striking one of the zombies as well as Minimus and Maire. The wizard managed to dodge most of the blast, but Minimus was shocked and hurt. Zelda summoned Link, her spirit wolf guide and the massive dire wolf appeared behind the line of zombies. Cundall cast faerie fire on the bone naga, making it easier to see and hit. Link took out the zombie that had been weakened by the lightning bolt spell, leaving a hole in the defensive line. With something that was between a growl and a curse, Minimus snatched the ancient orc warhammer from Cundall and charged through the gap in the line of zombies, evading their grasping hands straight towards the bone naga. The halfling could feel the power of the spirit wolf flood him as well as he raised the great warhammer and brought the warhammer down on the bone naga’s skull. The creature tried to spin away, but lit up as it was in the darkness it was easy to adjust the warhammer’s arc to hit the creature where it would do the most damage. Minimus used all of his might and martial skill in the strike, aided by the spiritual power of the dire wolf, and the inflict wounds spell stored in the warhammer discharged as well. , With a ear drum shattering sound that could surely have been heard back in Elventree, the bone naga’s skull shattered into hundreds of pieces and the rest of it’s body writhed once with a clacking sound, then lay still.

There was silence for a second as Minimus stared at the remains of his foe, as if hardly believing he had pulled off such a dangerous tactic, and then spun with a grin as the other party members whopped and cheered. Then the zombies, still following their last orders, moved to attack. They were taken down after a short battle and only a few wounds taken in return. After it was done they all gathered round to express their admiration for Minimus’ skill, and Cundall’s foresight in lighting up the bone naga with faerie fire.

“I think we need to rest,” said Maire. “I’m totally out of spells.”
“Good idea,” said Cundall. “I want to check on Elum anyway, make sure he’s ok.” He was hoping Rasputin hadn’t decided to take the mule to make his journey to wherever he was going quicker.
“Look at this,” said Zelda. She was pointing to a display cabinet that held an an elegant elven blade. Down the side of the blade, scribed in Elvish, wasthe sword’s name: Bloodthirst. The crossguard was set with a dark amethyst, and in place of a pommel was the natural curved bone structure of the bone the handle was carved from. The plaque next to the sword declared this weapon belonged to Faimcir Glimmerwing, a famed elven warrior who fought in the Crown versus Sceptre wars of a millenia ago.

Maire used the little bell in the frame, activating the knock spell which popped the lock of the cabinet. Zelda took out the sword, admiring its balance and how it felt good in her hand.

“You’re an elf, you should have it,” agreed Cundall, in response to her inquiring look. The others agreed.

They checked the next room, which turned out to be a lightly furnished antechamber leading to the outside. The door to the outside could only be opened a fraction, as a pile of boulders had been piled up against it by the ogres.

They returned to the tower and climbed back down the rope they had left. Emul was still there, munching happily on some flowers. They made camp for the night.

(to be continued)

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Insidious Experiments - Part 2
Into Haedirn's Manor..

The tower was dark and Maire had to use her light cantrip. It had four levels, mostly used for storage, it seemed. One level had alchemy related materials in jars, vials, bottles and other containers as well as papers on experiments and ideas, written in two different handwriting.
“Looks like both Haedirn’s and Lyonthel’s handwriting,” said Maire. “We know they were both alchemists.”
Homunculus2s.jpgAnother level was stocked with boxes and packets of herbs, roots, pastes, bark and fungi. Yet another had spell component ingredients – Marie could see eyeballs, bat guano, bits of metal, insect legs, fine powder. This room also contained a small creature, high up on a shelf, peering down at the party. As Cundall noticed it, the creature bared it’s teeth at them. It was vaguely reptilian, winged, and no larger than a cat. Within its left eye Cundall could see the distinct glimmer of a vibrant, purple rune upon its pupil. It continued to stare at the party from the shelf.
“I do believe that is a homonculus,” said Maire. “Created by a wizard to perform certain tasks. If Haedirn is still alive, he can see us through its eyes.”
Cundall called up to the creature in greeting. The homonculus said in a deeper voice than anyone was expecting: “Go away. Leave this place.”
“I think we’re talking to Haedrin now,” whispered Maire to Cundall.
“Tell us what has happened,” said Cundall. “The ogres have all but destroyed Lighthouse, and are yet outside piling boulders against your door. But you do nothing.”
“None of your concern,” said the homonculus/Haedrin. “Leave or be destroyed.”
“Lighthouse is our concern,” piped up Minimus. “People are dying. Tell us what has happened to you.”
“Leave!” said the voice from the homonculus. “I have no more time. Leave now or you will never leave.”
The homonculus said nothing more, despite pleas and questions from the party. Minimus flung his dagger at the creature, which popped like a balloon in a puff of blood and ash.
“It can’t track us now,” he explained to the others. “No sense in letting Haedirn know what we’re doing all the time.”

The bottom room of the tower had two doors, as well as a corpse. The male corpse in farmer’s clothes was in bad shape, having been badly bitten and clawed by something powerful.
“Judging by the lack of blood, I think this person was already dead when it was attacked,” deduced Maire.
“Zombie” decided Zelda, looking at tracks. It might have been a corpse but it definitely walked in here on its own.
“And something tore it apart easily,” said Cundall. “Let’s keep a sharp look out.”

One of the doors opened to a wide hallway with more hallways coming off it, and other doors. One door was ajar, and Cundall could hear shuffling and clanking coming from beyond it. They burst into the room and saw a small sitting room, comfortably furnished but clearly neglected for some time. Standing in a corner, placing a silver candelabra in a large sack, was a male human. He was wearing loose, torn clothing, and had a shortsword sheathed at his side.
“Hey friends, fancy seeing something that breathes here,” he said, affably. “Tell me, nick anything good, did’ya?”

After some conversation, the man said his name was Gertz, and he had been living at Lighthouse when the ogres attacked. He had overheard one of the ogres say that Haedirn was dead.
“Yeah, so when I heard the ol’ wizard was dead, I came to have a look. He won’t be needing a fancy candle stick holder where he’s at, right?”
It seemed that Gertz was a burglar and thief, and took pride in it. He was happy to empty out his sack so the party could see that he did not have the shade coin or shield they were looking for. He mostly had small, valuable, easily sold items. When asked what he knew about Haedirn’s manor, he said;
“Don’t ask me what’s up with this place. Already had to put down a couple corpses that didn’t have the good sense to stay dead. I was expectin’ ogres, serves me right.”
When asked, Gertz said he had killed some zombies just around the corner. Cundall went to look, and saw the corpses had been torn apart, just as the first zombie corpse they found had been.
When confronted with this, Gertz admitted to having a bit of “the beast” in him. This rang alarm bells with Cundall. He now knew this man was a lycanthrope, a curse that turned all beings to animals. Not all lycanthropes were evil, but he suspected this man was.
“You know what, just let me walk. I’m looking for a magic sword that’s around here, but I ain’t seen it yet. I’m leavin’ and you just hold your fire, miss,” looking at Zelda who had her bow at the ready.
Cundall exploded into action, not willing to take the chance. Zelda was ready and fired at Gertz, the arrows seemed to have no effect and just dropped to the ground after striking him. Cundall cast flame blade and struck at him, and that did hurt. Gertz changed shape into a hybrid werewolf and leapt to attack.

Werewolf_Cut2.jpgHe wasn’t a particularly impressive werewolf. Cundall taunted him and asked if he was supposed to be a were-otter. Gertz seemed past being able to speak and savagely attacked. In the end he was no match for the party and had severely underestimated their capability. In death he reverted back to the small, poorly clothed man they had first met.
The party left his loot in the room with his body, to be collected later.

Rasputin then surprised everyone by stepping forward and produced a knife and a sack. He then cut off Gertz’s head and put it in the sack.
“What the…” began Minimus.
“Ï’m a bounty hunter,” explained Rasputin, calmly. “At least that’s what I’m doing for a job at the moment. Gertz is wanted dead by a few people who are willing to pay. He was an evil creature, and would do more harm to others if allowed to continue. The head is because those who are paying knew him and want proof. Gertz didn’t have any significant rings or anything else I could use as proof.”
“So now what happens?” asked Zelda.
“Now I leave you,” replied Rasputin. “I’ll go back the way we came. Thank you for your help. I think maybe I’ll go back to being an adventurer, rather than bounty hunting. You tend to make too many enemies.”
With that the half orc left.
“Well,” said Cundall, “I’m not sure how I feel about that. He seemed nice enough but bounty hunting seems like something an evil person would do.”
“Maybe he only hunts evil people or creatures,” suggested Zelda. “It’s not a lot different to what I do when I’m patrolling the edges of the Cormanthor Forest.”
“Save the philosophical debate,” grumbled Minimus, “or we’ll be here for another hour.”

Another room turned out to be an armoury. Weapons and armors of different ages and cultures lined its perimeter. An ancient elven shield was prominently on display, mounted in a showcase between two plate armor-bearing mannequins in the center of the room. Despite some misgiving, the mannequins were not magical, and did not spring to life. Just to be on the safe side, the party took their weapons from them. Cundall detected faint sparks coming from the shield, and Maire’s examination led her to believe the magic was from a spell cast on the shield, not the shield itself.
“It’s a trap,” said Minimus.
In the end the party left the room, and Maire, with just her arm and head poking around the corner, used a mage hand cantrip to lift the shield from the display stand. A bolt of lightning shot forth from the shield, but Marie ducked back in time. The force of the bolt cracked and chipped the wall where it had struck it, and its boom slowly faded from the echoing walls. But they had the shield and the protective magic had been expended.
“That noise should attract some attention,” said Zelda. And she was right. Around the corner came zombies dressed in rags, recently dead by the look of them. Some of them had flesh gnawed off them so they were little more than skeletons. And behind them, looming out of the darkness, a massive dead hulk, a zombie of an ogre.

To be continued…

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Insidious Experiments - Part 1
When ogres attack...

The party woke to the news that the community of Lighthouse had been attacked by ogres for a second time. The party rushed off to meet the leader of Elventree the Herald Elanil Elassidil. The elf looked concerned, looking up from a scroll as the party entered.

Elanil.jpg“Lighthouse has been attacked a second time, as you know, by the same group of ogres it seems. Initially it was thought they were just a wandering band, and had moved on, but now it seems they are staying somewhere in the area. Will you please head on up to Lighthouse and see if you can find out where these ogres may be lairing. The elven wizard Haedirn and his wife Lyonthal have provided some protection for Lighthouse in the past. It appears he has not recently. If you can, find out what has happened to him. Cundall and Zelda, I believe Nymarrath wishes to speak to you both before you leave.”

As the party made to go, Elenal asked Maire to stay behind. When the others had left Elanil spoke.
“If you find yourself exploring Haedirn and Lyonthal’s home, which I suspect you might as I fear the worst, I need a personal favour. For a long time now I have been trying to find a particular item called a shade coin. It is an old coin from the Netheril empire and will appear as gold but black with accumulated grime and may have a … darkness.. about it. I have been trying to find such a coin for a long time. It is likely, in fact I am almost sure, Haedirn, as a collector of historical items, has one. If you find it please bring it to me. You may be able to help me further with this, but the coin is the key otherwise nothing can happen.”
Maire said that she would certainly do this, if they find the coin.

Nymarrath.jpgMeanwhile while Minimus took himself off to the Tree Spirits tavern to await the rest, Cundall and Zelda visited the aged elven druid Nymmarath in the Silver Shadow Cave, the temple to the moon goddess Selune. Nymmarath explained that Haedirn and Lyonthal were both alchemists. Lyonthal was also an astronomer and a herbalist, while Haedirn was a historian who liked to collect items involved in elven history. In his collection was a shield from the Crown Against Sceptre Wars.
“More of an ongoing series of skirmishes really, between the empire of Netheril and the elven empire of Cormanthyr,” said Nymarrath, serving Cundall and Zelda tea. “But it drained both sides of resources. Eventually the elves of Cormanthyr managed to intimidate the Netherese into stopping their attacks. One of the most famous elven warriors of that time, over a millenia ago, was Faimcir Glitterwing. His shield, used during those wars, is now in the hands of Haedirn. In these dark times, that shield could be a symbol of the courage and tenacity of our people, of all who live in the Cormanthyr Forest. If the worst has happened to Haedirn and Lyonthal, as we think it might, it will no doubt be stolen by thieves who don’t know it’s true value. Return it to Faimcir’s people.”
Cundall and Zelda agreed they would help.

pack-mule.jpgSome time later the party were on the road north to Lighthouse, with Elum, the mule that Cundall had obtained by swapping the cart and draft horse acquired at the Red Plumes camp. It took about half a day to get to Lighthouse. Some horror had fallen upon this place. The town’s gates were mangled beyond recognition. The cobbled streets were stained with blood. Throughout the road leading into town, building walls were smashed in and the sound of sobbing echoed in the distance. The party encountered a funeral procession leading out of town, carts with many bodies. Cundall stopped to ask an old man for information. He told Cundall that the the first raid by the ogres was bad enough, but the one last night was awful.
“These raiders act with a lot of bravado, even for ogres. We don’t have no town guard, with a couple of exceptions those that took up arms against them were killed or took serious wounds, and no one wants to
chase them down to the shore. If Haedirn is dead, then all hope is lost.”
When Cundall asked more about Haedirn and Lyonthal, the old man replied;
“Haedirn and Lyonthal have been coming to Lighthouse since it first became a community, selling potions and offering advice and help. A few months ago Lyonthal stopped coming and Haedirn still came, but was upset and wouldn’t answer questions about his wife. He also stopped helping people.”
The party thanked the old man and moved on.

As they moved through the community built around the old lighthouse, they saw results of the ogres rampage – blood, damaged buildings, people of all races blank faced with shock or grieving. Even now efforts were being made by work parties to repair the worst of the damage, but they were listless and without hope, perhaps realising that tonight could bring another raid and all their work would be undone.

The adventurers arrived at the only tavern in town – The Five Legged Unicorn. Zelda looked at the sign with some distaste, obviously it was meant to be amusing because the unicorn’s fifth leg was not a leg at all. Cundall tied up Elum the mule to the post outside, and the party went inside, to find a subdued crowd. The heroes moved around, talking to people and gathered the following information.

“The ogres carried a lot of dead townsfolk back with them. Gods, what for? To eat? They also grabbed anything that caught their eye, coins, jewellery, anything shiny really.”

“Never trusted wizards as far as I could throw them, but Haedirn was more than that. He used to be an adventurer back when I was just a tyke, and they say he’s got gold and magic trinkets out in that house of his in the cliffs.”

“Haedirn was gentle, but he was powerful. Even in numbers, I don’t think these wretched ogres would be a match for him. It’s a sad day if he is slain by their ilk.”

“Sage Haedirn saved me mum’s life once, he did. She took a nasty fall on the business end of the wheat scythe that day he rode into town, and me and sis thought fer sure she was a goner. He came up to us, standin’ there, cryin’, when he saw us passin’ by on the way to the gate. I’ll never forget, he bent down, gave ma a drink o’ somethin’, and next thing I knew she was scoldin’ me agin like nothin’ was wrong. If you find the elf, tell him I owe him one.”

“Sad, thing, really, that old elf. Been comin’ round here since me pa was me boy’s age now. Never could afford what he sold, but he was kind and the kids liked him when he came about.”

“Haedirn and Lyonthal lived in their home built into the cliffs in a place called The Wailing Crag. There’s a tower stickin’ out the top of the cliffs, and the main entrances are down the bottom of the cliff on the beach. We had to make some deliveries now and then, furniture usually, or large crates or boxes he couldn’t carry himself.”

“When someone cried out, asking why Haedirn hadn’t saved them, one of the ogre brutes laughed and said ‘your wizard is dead, you gnats!’ and went on smashing things.”

Rasputin2.jpgThe party also met Rasputin, a half orc with a bruised face. Rasputin had been knocked unconscious by an ogre during the battle, and was bent on tracking the ogres to find out where they came from. He asked to join the party, and after some discussion, the party agreed.

Deciding they had enough information, and perhaps depressed at seeing the misery this town had endured, the party set off for the Wailing Crag and the house of Haedirn and Lyonthal.

“You can see what’s happened here,” theorised Cundall. “The wizard is apparently too powerful for the ogres to overcome. So I think he’s gone bad, the ogres are acting on his orders. He likely wants the bodies of the victims to make zombies.”

“We certainly have anecdotal evidence for that,” agreed Maire. “His change of manner. He could also be dead, or he’s changed because of the madness that has infected the lands. I did not detect any taint in Lighthouse though.”

The party chose to approach the manor built into and under the cliffs from the top.
“Wizards put all of their good treasure at the top,” said Cundall.
“Good point,” said Minimus. “We should definitely go through the tower.”
“I don’t know if that’s true in all cases,” said Maire, thoughtfully.
“The manor could have several levels into the ground,” pointed out Rasputin, “it would make sense to put his valuables as far away from any entrance as possible.”
The half orc had been mostly quiet. He carried an iron tipped quarterstaff, and at his belt a strange weapon consisting of two iron balls joined by a thick wire.
“Bolas,” he said, in answer to their question. “Sometimes in my profession, you want to take people alive.”
Rasputin’s profession had turned out to be bounty hunting, tracking down criminals and fugitives and taking them dead or alive back to whoever was paying.
“It’s not something I will do forever,” the half orc said. “It was something to do after I left the the community of monks I grew up with. I was told it would teach me many skills. And so it has.”

By the edge of the cliff, a great stone tower rises some thirty feet into the air, with parapets at the top, and some kind of strange structure with a giant telescope poking out of it.. There was no visible entrance on the ground level, but a half open door could be seen leading into the tower at the top level, behind the parapets.
Cundall walked Elum into the treeline some hundred yards away, tethering it loosely, making sure it could reach grass to munch on. He spoke to the mule, and was satisfied the mule could break free in case of danger, but would not wander far.

On returning to the party Cundall looked at the tower, noticing that something clawed had climbed its way up the wall. He pointed the claw marks out to the party.
“Whatever it was has come this way recently,” agreed Zelda, looking closely at the scratches in the stone. “Powerful claws, probably humanoid.”
Cundall shapechanged into a squirrel and easily climbed the rough stone to the top of the tower. Finding no danger the druid changed back again to human form and dropped a rope to the others. While he waited for them to climb up to him he looked at the half open door, which had been forced open, splinters of wood still on the ground. Movement from down on the beach caught his eye. He crouched behind the parapet and pointed to the others. Below the tower the cliff tumbled down to the shore abruptly. At the bottom, jutting out of the sides of the cliff, they could see two buildings. Three ogres were slowly piling boulders in front of the entrance to one of the buildings.
“What are they doing?” asked Minimus. “Should we go and take them out now so we don’t have to deal with them later?”
“They seem to be trying to keep something inside from getting out,” said Cundall.
“Or something from outside getting inside,” suggested Maire. “Maybe Haedirn does not want visitors – ever.”
“Or he’s gone mad or created something the ogres are scared of,” put forward Rasputin.
“We’re up here now,” decided Cundall. “We’ll deal with the ogres later.”

They made ready to go inside the tower.

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Doctor Jubal's Carnival of Curiosities - Part 3
Into the mirror universe..

Doctor Jubal’s wagon was painted in garish colors, set off to one side of the carnival. Waiting outside the wagon were some of the motley-wearing white-masked fools. The Fools blocked the path of the party to the wagon, moving to block them if the party tried to walk around them. No amount of threats or orders made them do anything except stand and stare creepily at the party. Minimus snatched a mask from one of the Fools and recoiled at the disfigured face drooling behind the mask. Things were about to get ugly when Doctor Jubal came out of his wagon.
“What’s all this? What’s all this! We’ll have no fighting here, not at my carnival! We are peaceful folk. Entertainers! Take your fights elsewhere!”
grimm_ring_master.jpgHe ordered the Fools away and they obeyed, moving off and out of sight. Zelda didn’t think they had gone far and likely could come back at a moment’s notice. The party approached the Dr Jubal. He was tall, dark-haired man, dressed in red and black clothing, and had a whip draped around his neck. Cundall introduced himself but Doctor Jubal looked blank. When asked if he had heard of Cundall, Doctor Jubal snapped “No, why should I have? Do you think you are some kind of folk hero?”
Cundall, being his normal blunt self, and maybe only a little miffed at not being recognised, then accused Doctor Jubal of spreading diseases around the countryside. Doctor Jubal scoffed, stating “If we were to blame for a sickness wouldn’t my people be falling ill as well? This isn’t the first time we’ve been blamed for something not our fault. It is the way of simple folk to blame those they don’t understand.”
Cundall then asked about a girl with a bloody knife and a goat. Dr Jubal almost spat “Her! That little wench came here pretty much accusing me of being up to no good, just like you. She brought with her a strange goat and claimed that the goat had told her I was evil. Obviously quite mad.”
Cundall asked about the mirror maze and the Fools. Doctor Jubal replied the Fools were mentally disabled people he had found along the way, and he had bought the maze about a month ago in the Dalelands, around the same time Madame Darkness had joined the carnival. When asked why a drow not very good at fortune telling had joined, Doctor Jubal replied “People join my carnival to escape their pasts. This carnival is a refuge for those persecuted, and a home for those that have none. That’s all I have to say about that.”
“Look,” said Jubal. “You’re obviously well intentioned but you are completely off the mark. How about you examine people coming out of the mirror maze tent. Then maybe you will see, if there is anything going on, it is nothing to do with us.”
“Will you come with us?” asked Minimus, aware he was probably not going to be taken as seriously as he could be while he was holding a large fluffy teddy bear nearly his own size.
“Certainly not,” huffed the Doctor. “I am counting my workers’ wages and doing the books.”

The party moved off to the Mirror Maze tent. Using her senses and knowledge of arcane magic, Maire observed several of the people going in. She waited some time, the others getting increasingly bored. Finally one of the customers who had been one of the first to go in, came out a long time after many others she had observed had exited. He was the only one who had what the party were calling “taint”, that emanation of abyssal magic that denoted madness. She watched the man stumble off, looking vague and blinking at the lights of the lanterns.
“It’s confirmed,” she said. “The myth that the mirror maze is not causing taint has been busted!”

They went back to Doctor Jubal’s wagon, only to find it dark and there was no answer to his knocking. Marie almost squealed delightedly, able to cast her knock spell that she had only learned recently. Inside the caravan it was dark. There was a bag of money on the small table, as well as some ledgers and logbooks. Marie examined the books while the others looked around. All the information there seemed to be in order, some quick sums indicated the Doctor was not ripping off his workers, in fact was paying them well. But, and she almost missed this until she started going further back, the Doctor’s handwriting had changed about a month ago. It was subtle but the differences were there, obvious now she compared them.
“This Doctor Jubal is perhaps not the same Doctor Jubal who was in charge a month ago,” she announced and explained her findings. “There is also no entry for purchase of the mirrors at the time it was said they turned up – it looks like he was given them or paid for them off the books.”
“Let’s investigate the Mirror Maze,” suggested Cundall. “Everything comes back to the mirrors.”
They left the door open, no one noticed that the bag of money was now missing.

The party found the Mirror Maze was the one attraction in the Carnival that was free to enter. The mirror maze tent, easily the size of a small house, stood at the center of the carnival. A group of white-masked fools stood silently near the entrance, but moved away as the adventurers approach.

Inside the maze was dimly lit with low lanterns, relying on the mirrors to reflect the light throughout. This resulted in the entire maze being filled with flickering light and dancing shadows. The sounds of giggling and shouts echoed throughout. Cundall even thought he picked out some cries of alarm and horror. The walls and ceiling were covered in mirrors, some of which radiated magic. Zelda had made a decision not to look into any mirrors, but was finding it difficult to put her eyes anywhere else. There was one mirror where people were clustered around. Cundall decided to go and look. He saw himself, but he was tall, proud and dressed in the attire of the Grand Druid, with Chauntea the pig beside him as a magnificent boar.
“It can happen,” said Cundall. Chauntea snorted. He felt himself being pulled away and for a few moments had the urge to resist, but realised what was happening. Zelda and Maire manoeuvred the druid away from the mirror.
“It’s a trap,” said Maire. Cundall just grunted and moved on.

Most mirrors were not magical, they showed distorted reflections but that was all. Some obviously were, showing the party without faces, or showed them doing things they weren’t actually doing. After passing one rather lewd one, all party members had red, embarrassed faces as they moved on.
“I didn’t know you liked your teddy bear that much,” whispered Cundall to Minimus.
“I didn’t know you thought that way about Zelda,” replied Minimus. “And Chauntea. Together.”
“Lets just forget we ever saw that, shall we?” said Zelda and Marie almost in unison.

The maze didn’t seem that difficult to navigate at first, but you quickly find yourself becoming disoriented, even Zelda, which meant the effect was magical in origin. What looked like a clear passageway lead the party members face-first into a mirror. The interior looked far larger than the exterior might have suggested as their reflections seem to move in menacing ways. Without any way to mark your passage, the party were also quickly losing track of time.

The adventurers stumbled into a large open space within the maze and found a number of people chained to the floor. The symbol of a black six-finger hand surrounded by arcane runes was crudely painted on the floor between them. From the rumours the party recognized the six-fingered hand as a symbol used by worshippers of the demon prince Graz’zt. Maire recognized the runes as involved in rituals that create copies of the victim, while also draining the victim’s soul.

Most of the villagers manacled on the floor the party didn’t recognise, but surprisingly Doctor Jubal was there. Doctor Jubal looked disheveled, as though he had been there for some time. In total there are over a dozen individuals present, some lying down. Those that had been imprisoned the longest showed facial disfigurements and the party realised with horror that they were being transformed into Fools.
Doctor Jubal spoke: “Who are you? No, never mind that! Get us out of here before the demon comes back!” This was obviously the real Doctor Jubal, Marie realised that his voice pattern was different. The one they had spoken to had been an imposter.
One of the villagers began laughing and, clapping its hands, stood up. Without warning, his features melted away, and became indistinct like they were made of silvery putty. The “Demon” walked around the edge of the area, eyeing the adventurers as though unsure what to do. She – the party thought it had a hint of the feminine – bowed mockingly to the party and spoke:
“Is everything you can’t understand always a demon amongst you yokels? Nevertheless, you’ve caught me, oh what am I to do?”
She held her hands out as though surrendering and offering to be manacled… then grinned and dropped its hands to her side, changing shape into Doctor Jubal, then several of the manacled villagers, and even into Minimus (minus the teddy bear) as it laughed.
“I admit that the rumors about the sickness were inconvenient, but that is the price you pay for the Master’s gifts. Soon you to will know His blessing.” Minimus felt strange after seeing himself as the doppelganger. He ignored it and prepared for battle.
“It’s a doppelganger,” whispered Marie, then used her sensitivity to magic to view it. “But powerful, it has strong demonic taint.”
The fiendish doppelganger pulled out a set of unusual looking pipes and played a tune. A swarm of rats poured out of the spaces in between the mirrors, running for the party members. Meanwhile, a half dozen Fools stepped out of the mirrors – a manic look in their eyes.
Zelda had been ready. She had an inspired idea, and quick as she could fired arrows into the mirrors nearby, shattering them. The doppelganger seemed outraged, and tried something magical – Maire wasn’t sure what but it had something to do with the mirrors – and failed due to the smashed mirrors. Zelda smiled, then summoned her spirit guardian into physical form. A massive dire wolf filled much of the space, blocking many of the Fools and the rat swarms. The battle was on!

Doppelganger_-_Sam_Wood.jpgIt was fierce, the dire wolf took a lot of damage from various attacks, Cundall was using his new flame blade spell, producing a curved sword like energy wreathed in flame from his hand. It caused horrible burns when it hit, but Cundall had to be close to hit the enemy with it, and took a lot of damage himself. Minimus was everywhere (after tossing his teddy bear into a corner), stabbing and slashing with his magic sword Companion. And he was laughing gleefully with every stab and drop of blood spilled. It felt good, it felt… great. What a rush. He laughed joyously as he stabbed a Fool in the knee, then as it buckled, in the throat. He could have stabbed it in the side just as easily, a quicker death, but he used the edge of the shortsword and cut, spraying blood everywhere. Minimus howled as the Fool fell, clutching its throat uselessly, the noise of the halfling’s mirth drawing nervous glances from his friends. Maire cast magic missile at the doppelganger, then saw the mirrors that Zelda was destroying were reforming and becoming whole again. She decided she would help Zelda by shutting down the mirrors. The wizard concentrated, her mind grappling with the magic of the mirrors as she used its magic to shut it down, and stop it reforming after Zelda smashed it. It meant exposing herself to the taint. Marie was successful in stopping the mirrors reforming, but she felt the oily feeling of taint wash over her. In an instant Marie felt the taint sink in, and she felt…good. So good she wanted to.. just.. do whatever the hell she liked. Do whatever felt good no matter how ridiculous or how… wrong.. everyone thought it was. What did they know? Why should she conform to societies morals? She was a free spirit and would show everyone just how free she was by doing whatever she wanted whenever she wanted to! But in the meantime there was this combat to sort out. She continued shutting down the magic of the mirrors that Zelda was smashing. The doppelganger fell to Cundall’s flame blade, Minimus and Zelda’s spirit guardian dire wolf saw to the rest, and Zelda and Maire destroyed the magic mirrors. The swarms of rats had fled with the death of the doppelganger.

After the battle the prisoners were released. A couple of them were too far gone and without the evil mirrors to sustain them, they died. The others recovered over time, although the magic of the mirrors had affected them in an odd way. The features of all of them had flipped from one side to the other – where they had a mole or a tattoo on one side of the body, it was now on the other. This meant any writing on the tattoo was now reversed. They found out later the mirror doubles out in the community shattered like glass around the same time the mirrors were destroyed in the fight.

The carnival was thrown into disarray, but the real Doctor Jubal once more took command. He profusely thanked the adventurers, and said that they will always have a warm meal and a soft bed waiting for them at the Carnival of Curiosities. Hope Kellar, the mayor of Hillpicket was amazed that not only were the party members able to discern the truth about the goings on within the carnival but that they also survived to tell the tale after hearing the story.

Doctor Jubal – and his carnival workers – were sad that a lot of money had been stolen from his caravan after the door to his caravan was left unlocked, but they had enough from the day’s takings, and the takings from the next couple of days to give the party around 200 gold coins.

The strange feeling that came over Maire and Minimus had subsided and they felt in control of themselves, but they felt it still there, lurking underneath.

The party went home to Elventree, after a very strange adventure.

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Doctor Jubal's Carnival of Curiosities - Part 2
Step right up, step right up!

The caravan of wagons had been drawn into a square and chained together to form a fence of sorts. Tents had been pulled up, with signs outside them advertising the strange and otherworldly delights within. Fairground rides and sideshows were crowded in among stalls selling honeyed cakes, beer and wine. Cloth walls separated areas, turning the fair into a maze with a new delight around every corner. Over the hullabaloo, discordant pipe-organ music blared from a wagon near the center of the carnival. There appeared to be more people visiting the carnival than the characters expected, judging on the size of the village. Many folk from neighboring villages must be there as well.

The most interesting part of Doctor Jubal’s Carnival of Curiosities to the locals were the side-shows. Stalls with bright canopies offer “punters” a chance to win prizes in games of skill and chance. There were archery butts set up with prizes for getting arrows in the center, a game involving knocking objects down with a ball, another where the challenger must walk across a plank over a large tub of water while heavy ropes swing back and forth in an attempt to knock them off, and a series of stalls involving variations on guessing games and quick gambling games (three-cups-and-ball, find-the-lady, and how-many-fingers-am-I-holding up?). Zelda had a go at the archery contest and, despite some cheating on the behalf of the attendant who Zelda suspected had a foot operated device to make the targets move just a fraction to the side, finally managed to score three bullseyes with her arrows (it cost her about 12cp for four attempts). The attendant made a great show to the crowd of spectators of presenting Zelda with a big stuffed teddy bear with buttons for eyes. She gave it to Minimus who struggled with its size, it was nearly as big as he was. Meanwhile Marie had won a “guess the amount of beans in a jar” competition, it took her several attempts because the jar had been placed in such a way in the viewing box so as to confound their perspective due to the way the box corners were angled. She won a cloth and cotton stuffed toy horse, which she waved it in triumph when she saw the rest of the party, but her face fell when she saw the size of the teddy bear Minimus was holding.

“Dancing rats!” said Cundall, seeing a sign. “I’d like to see that.”
“How about The Exoticum?” suggested Minimus, reading another sign. “They have an angel from heaven apparently.”
“Madam Darkness, the fortune teller. Sounds interesting,” suggested Maire, seeing a sign over a nearby tent.

Zelda nudged Cundall, nodding towards an altercation between two locals. Both seemed drunk, one belligerent and one vague as if confused.
“Me Help! You mocking not I’m,” said the confused one.
“Just ‘cause I’m a farm labourer you takin’ th’ piss,” said the other, more obviously drunk and swung a wild fist and missed. The confused one stepped back and tripped over his own feet and fell onto his back.
Cundall stepped between them, making placating sounds and gestures. The belligerent farm labourer, already feeling his honour had been satisfied, stalked off. Cundall helped the confused one to his feet, helped by Marie. Now that he was up close, Marie didn’t think he was drunk, but was vague and confused.
“You thank,” said the man. Then frowned. “I aren’t, backwards talking I’m”.
“Yes, you’re talking backwards,” began Cundall. “What.. hey? Come back!” The man had started wandering off, a blank look on his face. He stopped and looked around at the druid’s protestations.
“What exhibitions did you visit or look at?” asked Cundall.
“Madam.. uhh..” he looked confused as if he had lost his train of thought.
“Darkness?” suggested Maire.
“Yeah.. and.. mirrors…fools……listen…remember…someone…mirrors…they…call…us…the…mirrors…” The man started to drool and wandered off, this time not responding to calls for him to return.

As they watched him wander off, they became aware of a group of motley clothed men who had gathered around them. They were all wearing white plain masks covering their entire face and were entirely silent.
“What do you lot want?” growled Minimus. “Go annoy someone else.”
foolmask2.jpgAs if obeying some unseen command all together the masked men began tumbling and clowning. Soon enough, however, they start to be a genuine nuisance as the party tried to walk off – mirroring their actions and mocking the characters in their high-pitched laughs as the adventurers tried to get past them. They never used real words. Eventually, the masked men start grabbing at the heroes; attempting to pull them to the ground or grab their weapons. Minimus had enough after one snatched the huge teddy bear from his grasp. The halfling drew his sword with a snarl. Suddenly a carnival worker who had been passively watching up until that point hurried over and shouted “Shoo! Shoo, off with you! Away fools!”
The fools ran away, dropped everything that they had grabbed from the party members as they fled. The carnival worker watched them go and then turned to the party.
“Sorry about that. The fools are new to the carnival. The mirror maze is spooky enough, but those fools are just trouble waiting to happen.”
The carnival worker said they could ask Eliah Coastoar anything about the carnival. He had been here for many years, nearly as long as Doctor Jubal. He gave directions as to where Eliah could be found.

62hXPNi.jpgThe party moved off to find Eliah. On the way they passed Madame Darkness’ tent and Cundall decided he wanted to go in and investigate. Marie decided to go in with the druid and they paid their money to the ticket seller and entered. Like many things in Doctor Jubal’s Carnival of Curiosities, Madame Darkness was not a bona fide fortune teller. Marie could tell she was using cold reading skills, picking up on body language to shape her fortune telling. Between the smoky interior of the tent and the veils that she wore it was hard to tell that Madame Darkness’ fortunes were as fake as her presence as a sun-elf, because dark skin under a bit of flaking gold body paint told Maire that she was actually a drow. When confronted with the fact, Madame Darkness acknowledged the ruse without shame or anger. She took off her veil, revealing an attractive female drow. Madame Darkness stated that she had fled the Underdark due to the madness that was spreading and the attacks on Szith Morcane – the drow outpost she was living at – by fire giants, led by a six fingered fire giant queen. She had come up to the surface through an old tunnel in the Dalelands, and had been subject to abuse and scorn. The folk of the Dalelands had a history of conflict with the drow. So when Doctor Jubal’s carnival came through, she joined it, coming up with her fortune teller act. It was the first time since coming to the surface she had felt accepted. When asked about the Fools, Madame Darkness said they had started appearing about a month ago, and she had only joined a month after that. Cundall asked her about the tent of mirrors, Madame Darkness refused to discuss the mirror maze . It reminded her of the strange feelings that made her flee the Underdark. Marie told Madame Darkness about the drow enclave outside of Elventree, and Madame Darkness seemed interested. She said she would consider it as she wasn’t really a good fortune teller.

The party moved on to find Eliah Coastoar. This roustabout and seller of pies and wine was found outside the Exoticum with his trays of goods. The party approached him and found him to be chatty and friendly. After hearing about the Fools, Eliah offered free wine and honey cakes to smooth over any bad feelings. He was able to tell the party the following information.

  • Doctor Jubal ran the Carnival and spent most of his time in his wagon counting his money and dealing with the day-to-day running of the carnival. “He pays our wages on time and asks no questions; we don’t ask no questions right back. I like that,” Eliah said. “But if you want to talk to him, I can tell you where his wagon is.”
  • Doctor Jubal recently bought four new attractions to the carnival: Madame Darkness, a mirror maze, dancing rats, and the fools. “I don’t trust those fools. Creepy.”
  • The Fools are loyal to Doctor Jubal, and obey him unquestioningly. They eat separately from the rest of the carnival and do not socialize. The fools joined the carnival only month or so ago, and there seem to be a lot of them. “Never seen one without its mask on, never talked to one neither.”
  • The Mirror Maze. The mirror maze was at the center of the carnival and, unlike every other attraction, was free to enter. “The fools hang out there, they seem to like it.”

After leaving the carnival roustabout the party decided the best thing to do was confront Dr Jubal. The set off for his wagon using the directions supplied by Eliah.

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Doctor Jubal's Carnival of Curiosities - Part 1
The village of Hillpicket

The party arrived in the village of Hillpicket, a small agricultural community southeast of Hillsfar in the late afternoon. They were there to investigate a travelling carnival that was suspected of spreading a disease of madness, where the victim was said to go mad, become unable to control their emotions, and then lapse into comas and eventually slip into the long dark night of death.

The xenophobic and paranoid citizens of Hillsfar had refused Doctor Jubal permission to come into the city, so he took his show to the rural communities of the region in an effort to regain his expenditures in coming to the Moonsea. As the sickness spread, so did the rumours about the carnival. Everyone took notice. Each of the five factions wanted the sickness to stop spreading. For some it was concern over the victims. For at least one of the factions, the sickness was bad for business (unless they could be the only ones to find a cure). The party, representing two of the factions, was asked to investigate by travelling to the next community that Dr Jubal’s Carnival of Curiosities was scheduled to visit – the village of Hillpicket – and investigate.

The trip to Hillpicket was dominated by discussion among the party about the new adventurers Elventree was recruiting to deal with the current crisis in the Hillsfar region. They were called The Protectors of Elventree. The party knew two of people they had recruited, both had been rescued from the Arena by the party – Tobias Proudfoot, the young druid, and Sneak – the tiefling rogue. Marie also knew that Basil Grem, the gnome bard, had been asked but yet to accept. They were unsure of who else had been recruited. Elanil Elassidil had told Marie that the Heroes of Hillsfar (as Cundall, Zelda, Maire and Minimus were being called by many) were doing wide ranging tasks with high risks. The Protectors of Elventree would stay close to Elventree, and perform smaller tasks, help out people where they can, solving low key problems. The party weren’t sure how to react to this news.
“Maybe we should kill them and take all their stuff,” said Cundall. No one was entirely sure if he was joking.

The tiny village of Hillpicket was one of several farming communities with a semi-fortified warehouse for the farmers to store goods in the way to market. The village also had a smithy, a tiny shrine to Chauntea, and a building that served both as an inn called “The Flying Mermaid” for travelers and the village mayor’s abode.

As the heroes settled in to the inn’s common room (with the carnival in town, all of the private rooms have already been rented) they had a chance to talk to some locals. The villagers of Hillpicket were plain farming folk; uncomplicated people, though far from the rural simpletons that the less charitable people in Hillsfar might imagine them to be. The party circulated around, talking to the locals.

Cundall first talked to a farmer he recognised and who recognised him.
“My apples are great,” said the farmer whose name was Mal. “I be good at grafting now, thanks to you.”
“That’s interesting, I thought I was showing you how to grow lemons,” replied Cundall. Mal laughed. “That would explain the bitter taste of the apples,” he joked. “The lemons didn’t work out, citris fruits don’t seem to like the soil hereabouts, but the grafting you showed me work well with pretty much anything.” The farmer was here with his family, they were hoping the carnival would come tonight, otherwise he would have to come back tomorrow.

Cundall found an old herbalist named Aelia to be convinced that the coming carnival was evil and that the mayor and several prominent farmers were aware of it but covered it up because of the money the Carnival would bring to Hillpicket as the locals from all nearby communities would come see it.

Minimus and Marie talked to a gay married halfling couple Chay and Fred Banniser who had a candle business and not much to say that didn’t involve goose-fat tallow. He thought he might sell some extra candles because folk might stay up later for the Carnival, but wasn’t expecting too much.

Cundall then talked to Mira Roper, an off-duty Red Plume guard. One of the handful of Red Plume guards in Hillpicket, she made it clear that she did not subscribe to the Great Law of Humanity. Her time in the rural areas of the region had taught her that Hillsfar’s views on non-humans were ill-based and downright false. Her colleagues who had been in Hillpicket longer than Mira were all of the same mind.
Mira said that if all went as planned, the carnival should arrive that night or early morning. As one of the guards, she was concerned about all the strange people in town. She even saw a dirty little girl with a bloody knife talking to an odd-looking goat. When asked further, Mira said she was going to investigate but was distracted by another matter, and the girl had gone when she looked next.
Though she wants to have fun, Mira was concerned with the rumors of bad things going on with the Carnival. “People are quick to ignore Goodwoman Aelia, but what if she’s right?” Mira asked. Mira also owned a small business producing and selling goat products – goat milk, cheese, meat. In response to Cundall’s question she affirmed that many goats and other animals in the area had been born recently with defects – extra head, extra set of legs, red eyes, quick growing, and almost all of which, if they survived, were unusually aggressive. All such animals were put down after birth as a matter of course these days.

Minimus talked to Keig Cherritt, a gnome beer, spirits and cider-maker. Most of the drinks at the inn come from his farm. Out of everyone in Hillpicket, Keig was expecting to make out the best financially from the Carnival’s visit. He had been brewing barrels of special cider just for the carnival. He had already sold one to the Bannisters, he said.

Cundall also talked to the Mayor Hope Kellar, who was also the owner of the Flying Mermaid, and former sailor (which would explain the inn’s unusual name). Hope had been married twice, and, judging by the way she flirted with Cundall, was looking for the next suitor. She was excited for the carnival due to the business and income it will no doubt bring into Hillpicket. She had not heard anything about the tales of madness and assumed it was just idle gossip.

Cundall conferred with Zelda, who had been observing from the bar all this time. He wanted to see if Zelda could track the child and the goat that Mira had mentioned. They interrupted Maria, still talking to Chay Bannister about which candles produced the best light for reading, and rescued Minimus who was just considering buying a tun (a small cask) of local whiskey from Keig the gnome. They went into the main street and looked around. It was dark but Marie cast a light spell. Zelda did see a small human’s footprints here and there accompanied by a small goat, but a lot of traffic had passed by since and the tracks were obscured and impossible to follow. At least they knew this strange girl existed. Cundall thought that the fact a goat was involved, and based on their experience at Fairborough Farm, that this was perhaps not a good sign for Hillpicket.

They were about to return to The Flying Mermaid when they heard a commotion near the village green. Somebody was ringing a bell and shouting, and there was a muffled explosion. The party drew weapons and moved towards the noise. However it quickly becomes apparent that this was not an attack on the village, but the carnival. A female tiefling dressed in motley, wearing goggles and with decorative facepaint stood next to a burning barrel of pitch. The tiefling was ringing a bell and shouting about the carnival in a rich, sing-song voice:

“In the darkness, a joyous light,
the carnival comes to you tonight!
Come one come all,
come see us tumble and fall!”

tiefling_barker.jpgAs she shouted this last bit a pair of acrobats sprang out from the burning tar, miraculously unburnt (Marie considered that the barrel must have had a hidden compartment), and began to tumble and jump in the fire-light. When the sleepy village has been roused the tiefling began to hand out free tickets to those in the front of the crowd saying that the carnival will open within the hour. The Heroes of Hillsfar each received a ticket to enter the carnival.

A short way away from the village a train of wagons is unloading its contents. As the carnival begins to set up by the light of guttering torches, the acrobats and the tiefling in motley entertained the crowd.

Within an hour the carnival had set up, remarkably quickly.
“We might as well go in now,” suggested Cundall. He was soothing Chauntea, who seemed somewhat distressed at all the noise and activity. The party gave their tickets to the tiefling at the gate who smiled and waved them through.

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Shackles of Blood - Part 5
Daring Rescue from the Arena

Back at Elventree the characters reported to their various factions. Marie spoke to the Moonsilver Herald Elanil Elassidil, while Zelda and Cundall reported to Nymarrath the aged druid. Minimus said he was off to the Tree Spirits, a tavern built in the boughs of a huge oak.

After receiving a brief of what had happened, both faction leaders agreed to meet with the party in the morning to provide a coordinated response. The party headed off to meet Minimus at the tavern. While there they got the local news from other tavern goers.

  • Something huge and powerful was attacking Red Plumes and merchant caravans alike on the Moonsea Ride. Bodies, horses, and wagons had been found on the road completely torn apart. The Red Plumes were doubling their patrol sizes on that road. The elves of the Cormanthor Forest had tried to track the creature, but the tracks disappeared as if it had flown away or teleported out.
  • A mysterious sickness, where people seemed to get cracks across their skin and lose their memory and behave bizarrely and chaotically was taking hold in some rural communities. It seemed to be linked to Dr Jubal’s Travelling Carnival and the illness appeared soon after its visit.
  • Shallow graves have been found of people who look like they have been ritually sacrificed. The graves are often marked with the symbol of a black hand with six fingers.

The next day the party, Nymarrath and Elendil all worked out what to do next. As well as Arrizz, there were kidnapped farmers and other non-humans imprisoned in the gladiator secure barracks, once used to house condemned criminals. They worked on a plan to rescue them. Minimus thought they could pose as Red Plumes escorting prisoners into Hillsfar just to get through the gate. Even though it wasn’t really what he was suggesting, Cundall had an amusing vision of Minimus dressed up as a Red Plume. The druid said “I can see it now, you burst into the secure barracks saying, ’I’m Minimus, I’m here to rescue you’, and they’d say ’Aren’t you a little short for a Red Plume?’”
Elendil favoured a plan for the party to pose as captured prisoners taken to the secure barracks and then escape with help she could put in place. Cundall was opposed to that, and between them the party came up with a plan.

Cundall and Maire would take the cart, with a large amount of hay, into Hillsfar. Minimus and Zelda would use the smugglers tunnels that Minimus knew about, from working with Stumbleduck. After meeting up at Titys Emporium they would use the hay cart to move hidden around the city and find a way to break the non-humans out of the secure barracks.

And so it transpired as planned. Minimus and Zelda paid the 5gp each fee to use the smugglers’ tunnel which led direct to Titys Emporium. Cundall and Maire took the cart through the front gate – paying 2gp each and 5gp for the cart entry fee, and having their names put into the huge book at the front gate after being quizzed about their business.

Travelling through Hillsfar, Maire was horrified at the behaviour of some of the citizens. It seemed a proportion of them had completely given themselves over to hedonistic pursuits. There were long lines of people waiting to take their turn in brothels, and taverns where the Hillfarians there were all inebriated – every person. It was common for some people to be drunk, but rare for every single person in the tavern to be so. There were many women with young babies – they saw two pregnant women with babies on their hips arguing with a milk vendor over his limited supply. A filthy man dressed in filthy silk robes gibbered and spoke to things only he could see, and, seeing them looking, shook a six fingered fist at them before turning away. They saw people having sex in alleyways, and other people fighting in alleyways, sometimes close to the people having sex. It was more evidence of the demonic taint taking hold. Maire thought that it was no wonder Deirk wanted to leave Hillsfar with his family and start a new life and would seize any opportunity to do so.

Stumbleduck.jpgAt Titys they all met Stumbleduck, a humourless gnome who had been living out of sight in Hillsfar. He confirmed what they had been seeing – many Hillfarians had become hedonistic, self indulgent, narcissitic, pursuing sex, drugs, alcohol at the exclusin of all else, while others became aggressive and violent. The Red Plumes had lost about one tenth of their number to this mysterious condition, and businesses were suffering. And yet the First Lord and the senate appeared at a loss of what to do. Hillsfar’s population had swollen by a third as was usual during summer months, and visitors were also succumbing. Stumbleduck also told them that the Arena was going to hold a new spectacle tomorrow – the re-enactment of the fall of Northkeep, the first truly civilised human settlement in the Moonsea area, destroyed by the Dark Alliance, a host of evil inhuman forces and their priest magic, with the assistance of a black dragons and ragged sailing ships over a thousand years ago. The Arena was being waterproofed and would be filled with water tonight from large pumps under the Arena, and gladiators would battle it out. Stumbleduck said that there were no goblins or orcs left, so the role would be played by halflings in goblin costumes. The halflings were from the Hillsfar Rogues’ Guild who had decided to stay in the city but were captured a few weeks ago. They had survived in the team fights so far in the Arena and were crowd favorites. Stumbleduck was unsure who would oppose them, probably some humanish looking non-humans with some professional human gladiators to provide some quality so it wasn’t one sided.

Maire decided to visit the Hillsfar Mages’ Guild and let them know what had been happening outside of Hillsfar. To her surprise she was ushered in to see the Archmagus of the Guild, Nash Sorrinius. He listened to what she had to say and approved of her actions. As they were strongly linked with the Harpers, and of course because Maire was still a Guild member, Nash was happy to provide support, and gave authorisation for Maire to copy a spell from the Guild library. Nash advised the Guild was not ready to move against the First Lord, but was still opposing him in secret.

Cundall left to observe the secure barracks. It was a rectangular single story building with few windows, next to some warehouses and in front of the Arena. There was not a lot of foot traffic in this area, most of it was on Arena business or to the nearby private residences. The druid observed a guard shift change, and one guard went into a residence, but the other went to a tavern. Cundall followed the guard and struck up a conversation in the tavern and was told his name was Charo. He found out the following:

  • The secure barracks holds a mix of non-humans, the halflings who will be dressed as goblins for the extravaganza, but also a halfling druid captured a week ago as he passed through The Docks.
  • The drow Arrizz was to fight tomorrow as well.
  • There are some professional human gladiators who fight for their own reasons, usually to pay off debts. These are used sparingly as they could usually make mincemeat out of those captured non-humans who are often farmers, merchants or tradesmen. These usually peaceful folk are usually given a drug just before the match to make them more aggressive.
  • The halflings from the Rogues’ Guild are a handful. They have taken the drug every time it was offered and seems to have had a permanent effect. They are always aggressive and dangerous and have learned to love to fight.
  • There is a lot of betting at the Arena. Sometimes guards are given bribes of 25gp for each person wanting to come down and look at the combatants the night beforehand, so they can get a better idea of who to bet on.

On hearing that, Cundall knew what had to happen. He posed as someone who would be betting the following day, and paid 25gp for himself and Maire to inspect the combatants. He organised to meet Charo later in the evening, and hurried back to Titys Emporium. Maire had returned at that point and agreed with the plan. They paid one of Stumbleduck’s employees to drive their horse and cart outside Hillsfar to near where the smugglers’ tunnel ended, so that if all went well they could escape in the cart.

At the appointed hour after dark Maire and Cundall met Charo outside the secure barracks which had one of the on duty guards at the door. Minimus and Zelda were hiding on the roof of the single story private residence opposite. After introductions, Charo took them both inside, leaving the on duty guard at the door outside. In the first room there was a card table where two more guards sat. They nodded at Charo and Marie and Cundall and went back to their game. Obviously this happened a lot. The next door was unlocked and led to a corridor with cells. Cundall inspected all the cells, finding the surprisingly young halfling druid, Arrizz, two cells filled with halflings, a tiefling, a family of dwarves, and a store room. There were also several empty cells. Charo explained that the number of non-humans being caught was less over the last few days. Cundall had mouthed in druidic language to the halfling druid to “get ready”. He had also exchanged a knowing look with Arrizz, who had been able to conceal his surprise at seeing Cundall’s face at his cell door window.

And then it was on. Maire cast charm on the guard, got him to open the door to one of the halflings’ cells and got him to go in with himself. He suddenly threw daggers and a small shovel on the floor for the halfings to use, yelling “Get him!”. The halflings needed no second invitation and grabbed the weapons. The guard’s charm magic was nullified by the attack, and he fought back. He was a competent warrior and killed one of the halflings quickly. Cundall had to cast heat metal on his longsword so that he would have to drop it and could only use his shortsword. The halflings were vicious and stabbed Charo mercilessly, Cundall was hoping very much they would not start on him next. As Charo’s body hit the ground he grabbed the key and threw it to Maire who opened the other cells and then the door to the card room where he used an illusion to keep the guards busy for a few vital seconds while they got organised.

Meanwhile outside the sounds of combat were heard by Zelda and Minimus. They took out the guard at the door and opened the door. Between the rabid halflings and the party, the other guards were defeated. Marie noted that the last guard had a very ornate shortsword, and used detect magic to see that it registered as a magic sword.

Meanwhile outside a large, scarred man had stopped outside with a horse and cart of hay, similar to the party’s. Zelda rounded on him, bow at the ready. He put up a placating hand.
“Whoa,” he said in a rich, deep voice. “I’m Fayd Uldrane. I’m here to help. This cart will hide your escapees and take them back to wherever you have planned. You need to act quickly, even though there are few people about, I’m sure the alarm will be raised soon.”
“Who are your masters?” Zelda demanded, not lowering her bow.
“Zhentarim, if you must know,” replyed Fayd. “But it’s supposed to be a secret, so I’d appreciate you not blabbing it around.”
“What do they want? What will this help cost us?”
“Nothing, our goals are similar, and while they are the Zhentarim family are happy to assist you.”
“We need to leave,” said Cundall. He was eyeing the youngest dwarf who did not look well. The other non-humans dived into the hay and were hidden quickly. The remaining halflings (two more had been killed in the battle with the guards) ran off down the street. One stopped to say “We’ll go back to our Guild and report, they can get us out of the city if that seems best. Thank you.” And then he too ran off after his fellow Rogues’ Guild members. Fayd said goodbye also, saying his face was too well known, and asked where he could pick up his cart. Cundall told him and he nodded.

Cundall and Maire drove the cart to Titys Emporium, paid for the party and all of the escapees to take the smugglers’ tunnel out of the city, which they did. The set out straight away for Elventree, despite the late hour.

On the way they asked about the young adult dwarf. The other dwarves, farmers they were, told them that their son had gotten sick after visiting Doctor Jubal’s Travelling Carnival. They had also visited the Carnival but had not gotten sick. They had split up though, and met their son afterwards, so he could have picked it up when they were not with him. The young dwarf had a vacant expression, drool falling from the corner of his mouth. A network of cracks had appeared across his skin. The others were staying far away from him in case it was contagious.

Also on the journey they examined the magical sword taken from one of the guards. It had “Companion” etched along the blade in the language of halflings. They decided Minimus should have it. He spent some time attuning himself to the weapon, discovering that when holding it Companion would grant him darkvision. It’s enchantment made it hold a fine, sharp edge which would be of help in any combat.

Tobias_Proudfoot.jpgThe young halfling druid, Tobias Proudfoot, was also a worshipper of Chauntea on his way to meet with Seranolla when he was captured. Tobias was originally from the Dalelands where he performed a very similar task to Cundall – assisting farmers work with nature to improve their yield without harming the natural environment. Being young looking was challenging for the halfling, as farmers often tended to think it implied a lack of knowledge. Cundall spent quite a few hours conversing with the young lad.

A few days later the refugees were unloaded in Elventree, where some went back to their homes, or stayed in Elventree or moved on to Lighthouse. Arrizz returned to the drow enclave at the Dancing Stone. The young dwarf was still not making any sense with his occasional babbling and then lapsing into a coma before dying. His parents returned back to their farm broken hearted.

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