Heroes of Hillsfar

Writhing in the Dark - Part 5
Rogue Thought

There was another basin in the moss and fungi filled room, Marie believed the indentation at the bottom of it would fit some type of animal brain.

azer_sm.jpgThey moved onto the next room, which was guarded by azer – dwarf like creatures with flaming hair and bronze metallic bodies. Most were warrior types, but a couple were spellcasting priests. It mattered not, the party scattered them and beat them down. Soon there was nothing left but cooling bronze azer bodies, flameless and lifeless. They had been guarding some kind of trapped chest which required some kind of memory game to open. Marie found it easy to work out, and soon had the lid popped open, released a blast of cold air. The magically chilled container contained several brains as well as some potions of greater healing.

The room, like all the others, contained a basin with an indentation in the bottom – this one was to be filled with a giant, bloated brain.

They checked their map, and then the door, which – as they expected – led back to the entrance room where Thistlelock waited patiently. Cundall spoke with the awakened tree and it told the druid that both the drow and the dwarf had passed it by warily.

There was nothing left for it but to try placing different brains into the basins. It took a couple of goes but as Marie expected, they were the key to opening the entry to the inner sanctum.

The Interior of this chamber had been festooned with many graven images of skulls and brains – some small, some large. There was only the faintest of light here, thanks to the shimmering, alien pulse of the concentrated faerzress in these halls and rooms. Three tall decorative jars stood in the centre of the room around a large pile of cushions, with a fourth one tiled and leaning on the soft surface. A steady stream of vicious and haunting whispers infiltrated the air, taking equal residence in the party’s ears as well as their minds. Rogue Thought was here, hiding in the shadows at first, an illithid with six tentacles instead of the usual four, dry skin, eyes sunken and shrivelled, and moved with an unsettling, preternatural grace. Marie thought it might have been an undead illithid at first, she had heard of such things, but it bled and howled when hit, so it was alive. Rogue Thought had allies, githyanki and an intellect devourer and they fought to save their master. The battle was fierce, the illithid used its many powers, including trapping Cundall in a force cage and stunning Minimus temporarily with its mind blast. But as its allies dropped one by one, it came under increasing attacks itself. Rogue Thought, at the end and too late, tried to flee by becoming invisible, but a simple faerie fire spell from Cundall pinpointed the aberration and arrows from Zelda finished it off.

There were not a lot of valuables in the lair. Rogue Thought had spent a lot of time creating the lair, but still had not been there a long time. The party cut off Rogue Thought’s head and took it with them. Cundall collected Thistlelock on the way out. It told them of the dwarf who had hung around for a while with its ear to the door while the combat with Rogue Thought was going on, and then departed quickly after the illithid was killed.
“Theara Gravelthumb,” said Zelda. “Curious.”
“Let’s keep our eyes out for her on the way back,” said Minimus. “She makes my danger sense tingle.”

However they did not encounter her or anything significant on the way back to Sporedome. Huum was pleased with the news and evidence of Rogue Thought’s death.
“This will go a long way to convincing the Elder Brain that we should be taking sides in the war against Graz’zt,” the mind flayer said. “You have our good will.”
“I’d rather have 1000 gold pieces,” grumbled Minimus, in halfling language.
“Back to the surface,” said Cundall. “I’ve had enough of this cold, dark place. There’s nothing green here. Unless it’s rotting fungus.”

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Writhing in the Dark - Part 4
The githyanki and the dwarf

As the door opened a chorus of guttural voices can be plainly heard, shouting what sound like angry insults at a voice retorting in Undercommon. A male drow elf appeared to be tied to a post, and four strange-looking green-skinned humanoids were screaming at him. One of the four carried a massive silvery blade, and all of them were wearing ornately carved, exotic armour.
The party piled in and immediately engaged the humanoid warriors who shouted in a strange language and defended themselves. Cundall’s air elemental immediately enveloped one of them and proceeded to snap his bones, and while the others fought hard, using their pain inducing weapons, they were no match for the party.
Githyanki2.jpg“What are these… things?” asked Minimus, kicking a corpse. “They look like starved orcs.”
“Githyanki,” said Marie. “From the Astral Plane. Very odd that they are here.”
“Who are you?” asked Zelda in her rough Undercommon as she freed the drow captive.
“Himo Do’Urden,” replied the drow, looking wary while rubbing his wrists. He picked up a githyanki greatsword, then threw it down with a snarl. “Cumbersome weapon,” he growled. He found a dagger on one of the bodies and tucked it into his belt.
“Related to Drizzt Do’Urden?” asked Cundall.
“We don’t talk about him,” replied Himo, making a sour face.
“Listen Homo..” began Cundall.
“Himo,” corrected Himo.
“Whatever. Can you tell us anything about this place?”
“No, they dragged me past a drow and three rivvel in another room, but other than that I know nothing.”
“Can you find your way back to your home?” asked Marie.
“I believe so,” the drow answered. He left without a backward glance.
“Rude bugger,” said Minimus. “Didn’t even say thanks.”
“There’s another one of those basins over here,” said Marie, pointing to one similar to the one in the other room. “This one looks like it needs a much smaller brain put in the indentation.”
“Some kind of puzzle, we have to put the right brain in the right basin?” suggested Minimus.

Beyond the next door the chamber was incredibly humid and the air was very stale. A faint acrid odor hung in the air, similar to freshly harvested alfalfa. The entire chamber was covered with fungus and moss, with several disturbing looking fungus covered lumps on the floor. Several large orbs hover in the air, bobbing gently. More alarmingly, they had a number of stalks growing from their central mass.
“Hold your fire,” said Cundall, peering at the creatures. “They are not beholders, they are those gas spores like we encountered in Sporedome the first time.”
“The ones that exploded when hit, spreading their spores onto whoever hit them?” asked Minimus.
“Good point,” nodded Cundall. “Fire!!”
Intellect_devourer.jpgZelda’s arrows popped the spore filled gas bags before they got close.
They explored the room, and found the lumps on the floor to be bodies – even worse was that a weird creature that looked like a brain on legs suddenly appeared out of one and stunned Minimus with a psychic attack. The creature was killed before it could do much more, and Cundall had to cast greater restoration to restore Minimus’ mind.
“There’s a live one here!” Zelda pulled out a female dwarf in chainmail from under some moss and fungus. Her eyes flickered open as the others came to look at her.
“Where am I?” she asked in Dwarvish, then again in Common.
She identified herself as Theara Gravelthumb, and the last thing she said she remembered was being ambushed by weird, slim humanoids and a mind flayer while she was on her way to Sporedome.
After ascertaining that she would be able to find her way to Sporedome, the party let her go.
They looked around more, and found body parts, including brains of different creatures, including one that must have belonged to a giant.
“That was odd,” said Minimus, after a few minutes.
“What, that giants have brains?” asked Cundall.
“No Theara the dwarf,” replied Minimus. “She didn’t have a weapon.”
“And she didn’t look for or ask for a weapon,” agreed Cundall, catching on.
“What?” asked Zelda.
“If I had no weapon, and had to traverse the Underdark to find my way to Sporedome,” said Cundall, “I’d at least look around for one, and if I couldn’t find one, I’d ask for one.”
“Spellcaster?” asked Marie.
“Or not what she said she was,” said Zelda. “Let’s be careful when we head back.”

To be continued…

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Writhing in the Dark - Part 3
Rogue Thought's Lair

hookHorror_s.jpgThe next three “days” were boring and they saw few other living things. On the eighth day they encountered insane ettins, and these were dispatched quickly. The ninth day say the heroes run into some hook horrors. These were able to be avoided, as were the band of bugbears detected early the following day. At this point the party knew Rogue Thought’s lair was close and did not want the noise of combat to put the mind flayer on alert.

For the past few days the party had to eat at least one of the braincap mushrooms per day, to stave off madness. In addition for the last two days of the journey, the faerzress was so prevalent that Marie complained of hearing a constant buzzing inside her head.

shaun-overlay.jpgFinally they arrived at Rogue Thought’s lair. The outside was guarded by two driders and several rust monsters. These were taken care of, but they found that the dense faerzress here affected arcane magic, so that any spell of power often had some kind of side effect, often flashy and harmless, like Marie’s skin changing colour for a short time, or the spell being more difficult to control, but one time the backlash of the spell was so bad that Marie was turned into a sheep! Luckily Cundall was on hand to cast a dispel magic to return Marie back to normal.

M14WROWs.jpgThistlelock had participated in most of the battles up to this point, and had proved himself to be a worthy member of the party, his mighty boughs smashing enemies. He was slowly developing a personality as well, as he came to grips with his new intelligence and way of understanding and interacting with the world. Cundall had also summoned an air elemental which provided more muscle and was able to attack the driders that were sticking to the cavern roof and firing their bows at the party.

After the creatures were killed the party explored the cavern, finding a heavy stone door at the far end of the area. The door had a lock of dwarven make, but it did not take Minimus long to pick it. Cautiously they swung the door open to reveal a bizarre sight. Four bodies were arranged around a table, as If they had been seated and inmid-conversation… then just stopped moving. There were a few oddly-colored pools of liquid around the room casting dim light and colorful shimmers across the nearby surfaces. It would have almost been calming if it weren’t for the sense of foreboding.
“Well this is a fairly jarring introduction to the lair of Rogue Thought,” said Marie. There being no obvious threats the party moved into the room. The bodies were of three male humans and a female drow. They
wee obviously dead, and a quick examination of the bodies revealed that each of them had four holes bored into the crowns of their skulls.
“I think their brains have been removed,” said Cundall, doing his best to peer into the holes.
“It’s what mind flayers do,” agreed Zelda.

The surface of the table was covered in maps, crumpled parchments, scroll tubes, and the remains of a recent meal – the food still looked fresh. The maps were large and detailed and were of the cities of Hillsfar, Mulmaster and Phlan. There were some empty scroll tubes – Marie took these – and playing cards – Minimus took these – and some crumpled parchments that turned out to be mercantile trade agreements between a drow outpost and the Red Plumes, signed by Magarl Helck. Minimus took these last as well, saying Elanil might be interested in them.
“The bodies do not bear any insignia of allegiance, they do not have any valuables and are, in fact, curiously devoid of any possessions that might identify where they came from,” said Marie. “Very strange.”
“Looky here,” said Minimus, who had lost interest in the table and was looking around the room. He pointed to a basin on the northern wall, with a small carved depression inside.
“This is getting weirder and weirder,” said Marie. “I think this depression is an imprint of a bottomup view of the underside of a human brain.”
“No doubt the mystery will become apparent when we get more information,” said Cundall. “Onward through the next door. Thistlelock, stay here and guard this door. In fact let’s close this door to the outer cavern.”
As soon as the heavy door was swung closed, Marie whistled.
“That’s better,” she said. “That door cuts out all the interference from the dense faerzress and I’m no longer hearing a constant buzzing. I think my magic will be fine from now on as well.”

They got ready to open the next door. Cundall could hear some kind of shouting on the other side. He didn’t recognise the language.
“Trouble on the other side,” he said. “They sound busy, so now is our chance to surprise them. Open the door!”

To be continued….

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Writhing in the Dark - Part 2
Back to Sporedome

Sporedome had changed since the party were last there. There were more drow there now – these were all freedom fighters and freed slaves – they had cleared an area of Sporedome for themselves near a network of caverns which they lived in. There were also some humans, elves and dwarves, with an odd smattering of other races. These were adventuring parties and groups and organisations who had committed forces to harassing the fire giants and demons of Szith Morcane and Maerimydra, such as the Knights of Myth Drannor. There were no duergar, derro, quoggoths or deep gnomes present however.

Huum2.jpg“Escaped slaves of other races usually depart into the Underdark to find their own kind,” said Huum, pouring some kind of sweet tea – no doubt made from some fungus, Cundall thought. The party were sitting with the illithid emissary in his own cave lair, as they had done before. Huum wasn’t actually speaking, of course, his mind was projected into those of the party.
“The Elder Brain of Ryxyg is being swayed to ally with the surfacers and Underdark races seeking to liberate Szith Morcane and removing the threat of Graz’zt from our area of the Underdark,” the illithid continued. You already know of one of our Pool who has accepted gifts from Graz’zt in exchange for knowledge of us. This means Graz’zt now knows where we are and what our capabilities and defences are. The time for fence sitting – as some of the humans say – is over. We need some assistance before we fully commit – we would like Rogue Thought – the name we now call the illithid who defected to Graz’zt, removed."
“And a entire community of mind flayers cannot do it?” asked Cundall.
“We could, but with difficulty. Rogue thought has been cunning. Galuum, the illithid you met ( Malady in Elventree – Part 5) finally tracked him down. Rogue Thought has laired in a particularly dense area of faerzress which causes our psionic ability to falter or even fail entirely. Therefore we need more brute force than we possess."
“What about your slaves?” asked Minimus.
“Our Elder Brain, and therefore we illithids of Ryxyg are not interested in the slaving habits of most others of our kind. We will happily enslave any humanoids foolish enough to attack us – it is rare but it happens. However we do not have many, and those we do have are subject to madness. Taking your lead, we have been harvesting the braincap fungi, but it is still a daily battle. As you know the fungi has its limitations.”
“Or these drow or surfacers here?” asked Marie.
“They are stretched thin. We did ask, but they do not see it as a significant gain for the war effort and refused.”
“So in return for us taking out Rogue Thought you will assist the effort against the fire giants and Graz’zt?” asked Zelda. She sipped her tea. It was a little odd, but she thought she could get to like it.
“Yes,” replied Huum. “The demon-tainted giants of Maerimydra have been uncharacteristically productive,
and we have been studying them for some time. During our investigations we discovered a few things: first, that the giants have created a number of significantly devastating arcane siege engines and plan to use them against thesurface world, starting with Elventree and Hillsfar; and second, we know how to disable those war
engines from a distance, using clandestine methods that would leave the perpetrator hidden in secret.”
“Well, that sounds useful,” said Maire. “Do you want Rogue Thought captured or killed?”
“We require Rogue Thought to be eliminated, all his possessions, holdings and physical remains should be thoroughly destroyed,” answered Huum.
“Do you require proof?” asked Cundall.
“I do not, but others of my collective are not so trusting as they do not know you,” said Huum, with an apologetic gesture. “If you would return his cilia to me, that will suffice. Rogue Thought has grown particularly long, and unique cilia.”
“Cilia are the facial tentacles,” explained Marie, seeing Minimus’ questioning expression.

The plans of the journey to Rogue Thought’s lair was made. It was going to be a 10 day journey through the Underdark, and Huum provided a map. Marie copied the map into Olon’s journal of the Underdark and left room to make copious notes.

david_williams.jpgThey had some time to prepare and rest before setting out.
“Did you really have to bring your tree?” asked Marie, gazing at Thistlelock who had settled down and seemed to be enjoying what passed as soil in Sporedome.
“He might be useful,” said Cundall. “He’s growing mentally, and I figured the best way to help is to give him new experiences. Anyway you brought your lizard familiar.”
“My pseudo dragon will not hold us back or slow us down,” said Marie.
“Neither will Thistlelock,” said Cundall, hoping that wasn’t going to be the case.

Zelda found that David Williams was in Sporedome with his fellow Knights of Myth Drannor, and they spent a couple of hours together walking and talking.
“It’s been hard,” said David. “We usually patrol and kill all demons or fire giants and their allies that we meet. Occasionally we’ll do a raid on Szith Morcane with the drow, but they are hard to work with, and – if truth be told – they are unreliable, given to rages, disobeying orders that could endanger the mission, and generally have a dislike of those other races who are trying to help them. Very occasionally we’ll do a raid on the siege engines they are building in Maerimydra, but each time gets harder, and we take more losses there than anywhere.”
“The illithids say they can help there,” said Zelda. “If we complete their mission.”
“If you can, and the illithids come through with their promise, it will save many lives.”

After their rest and preparation period the Heroes of Hillsfar set out for their trek to Rogue Thought’s lair. The first “day” – as much as they could judge a day in the perpetual gloom of the Underdark – was uneventful, as was the second. There were narrow places where they had to wait for Thistlelock to navigate his way through, which slowed them down a little. Cundall ordered Thistlelock to walk behind the party some distance, as the awakened tree was noisy when moving. On the third day the party encountered demons, but Cundall insisted on hiding and letting them past.
“We have a mission,” he said. “We don’t need to be weakened by fights we don’t need to get into.”

reddragon.gifOn the fourth day Zelda returned from scouting ahead to tell them a young red dragon was on the hunt up ahead. Cundall wanted to track the dragon back to its lair.
“Think of the treasure!” he said. “All dragons have loads of treasure!”
“You’re a nature boy,” said Maire. “Why do you care about treasure?”
“And what about ‘we don’t need to be weakened by fights we don’t need to get into?” asked Zelda.
“I’m a nature boy with a keep to run, do you realise how expensive it is to run a keep? Me either, but I bet it’s a lot. I need treasure.”

It was difficult tracking the dragon’s passage back to its lair, but Zelda was up to the task. Eventually after a few hours they came to an area that was hotter, and smelled of rotten eggs.
“Sulphur,” said Marie. “Indicates volcanic activity, perfect for a red dragon.”
Cundall ordered Thistlelock to stay near the tunnel into the lair, knowing that the awakened tree was vulnerable to fire.
“And if the dragon comes back that way?” asked Zelda.
“Just have to risk it,” replied Cundall.

The red dragon had bugbear slaves, who resented the intrusion of the party. They had been toiling with metal work, using the heat from the magma vents to heat up the metal. The lair had several exits, and partway through the battle the red dragon returned home – by another tunnel, luckily for Thistlelock. The red dragon was not massive, but it still could breath a decent amount of fire, and wasn’t above catching its own minions up in the blast as long as it mostly got the party. In addition it had ettin minions who also appeared having heard the commotion, and so the battle ended up being bigger than expected.

Marie decided that some more brute force was in order, and polymorphed Minimus into a Tyrannosaurus rex which then did battle with the dragon who was smaller. Had they a bard she would have made a glorious song or poem about the fight, and in the end it was Minimus rex who was victorious, assisted by Zelda’s arrows from hiding. The party healed their wounds and Cundall looked at dismay at the paltry (compared to his expectations) amount of treasure.
“Well, it was a young dragon,” said Marie.
They did find some magical studded leather armour, which Cundall put on. They consulted the map and continued on their way.

To be continued…

T-Rex_2.png

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Writhing in the Dark - Part 1
Downtime

Winter was here, it was cold in Elventree and snow wasn’t far away. There were bets being taken what night the snow would actually fall and stick.

The cold weather meant people stayed indoors more. Which meant there were more people for Minimus to interact with. As usual during their downtime, Minimus spent most of it carousing, playing and winning at cards enough to comfortably cover a luxurious lifestyle. Shaniqua was often by his side, sometimes involved, sometimes just observing.

Marie took another trip to the Hillsfar Mage’s Guild and kept the Master Nash Sorinius updated of what was happening. While she was there, Marie researched familiars, and on her return to Elventree used magic to seek out a pseudo dragon familiar, a female named Ciele. The pseudo dragon was young and mischievous, and had an established fondness for sweet pastries. It seemed to show respect to Chauntea though, and they even snuggled up together after a period of acceptance of each other.
pseudodragon.jpg

Cundall decided to use an awaken spell on a tree, which gave the tree some mobility and intelligence. He named the tree Thistlelock, and was often seen around Elventree, usually on the outskirts or surrounding forest not too far from Cundall’s shrine to the goddess Chauntea.
Thistlelock.jpg
Cundall also announced his intention to draw another card from The Deck of Many Things. On the night he chose to do it, the others gathered around to watch, horrified but fascinated at the same time.
“You really want to risk this?” Zelda asked. “You could lose everything.”
“Risk makes life worth living,” said Cundall, trying to project a calm that he did not feel. He looked around at the others who had come to his shrine home to witness the event. He knew if it went bad, they would not be able to help, but it was comforting having them there. It also meant he was less inclined to back out.
“I AM TAKING ONE CARD!” he announced, and drew a card and turned it over. Again there was the glow from the card and Cundall.
“The Throne,” said Cundall, showing the others. The glowing card dimmed and turned to dust in Cundall’s fingers.
“Nothing’s happened,” said Minimus, looking around. “I am guessing the Throne was a positive card.”
“It grants a small keep, plus the drawer becomes more glib,” said Marie, looking at her notebook where she had noted as much information as she could find out about the Deck of Many Things last time she was at the Mages’ Guild of Hillsfar.
Zelda laughed. “Even more glib, in this case.”
“So where is the keep?” asked Minimus.
Cundall looked around. He opened up the bag of holding and rummaged around. He pulled out a few trinkets and items, and then found and unfurled a scroll. It was a title deed to a small keep to the east past Elmwood on the River Lis.
“Bound to be riddled with monsters,” said Minimus.
“Bound to be,” agreed Cundall. “Probably sunk into the swamp too.”
“Probably burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp,” said Marie, quoting a famous troop of comedy bards.
“We should go look,” said Minimus. “When shall we go?”
“The weather is going to be bad for the next few days,” said Cundall. “After that maybe?”
“Sounds good,” said Zelda.

The weather for the next two days was bad, as Cundall had forseen. Snow appeared overnight and stuck this time, making some of those who had bet that night happy, and others not so much. Minimus spent time visiting friends, and Marie spent it tutoring Jerrard. Cundall tended his shrine and engaged with Thistlelock, and Zelda met some of the Knights of Myth Drannor who were having a rest in Elventree after spending time in the Underdark doing raids on the Fire Giants of Maerimydra. Zelda and a paladin of Torm from the Knights of Myth Drannor named David Williams were seen in the Tree Spirits tavern talking nearly all day, setting some tongues a wagging, as happens in small towns around the multiverse.

On the second day the Heroes of Hillsfar were summoned to the Hall of the Unicorn, where they met with some members of the Moonsea Emergency Council.
“Huum, the mindflayer emissary in Sporedome has asked for our help,” said Elanil. “I think this is a good opportunity for us to cement in our alliance with the illithids, because they will be very handy when it comes to taking back Szith Morcane and the final assault on Maerimydra.”
“This is about this Rogue Thought character, isn’t it?” asked Cundall. “We heard about a mind flayer who had allied itself with Graz’zt.”
“I believe so,” replied Elanil. “Whatever it is, Huum has asked for you specifically. Seems he is still unsure about the rest of us. But as you are available, it seems that his wishes can be accommodated. You are available, aren’t you?”
“Yes we are,” said Zelda, and the others nodded. Cundall’s Keep could keep for a bit longer, it had lasted this long without Cundall’s attention thus far.
“Good. Now the mindflayers have created a permanent teleport circle in Sporedome. It means it is easier to get to now, no more having to get past the Red Plume keep over Cundall’s Hole or travelling all of the way to Yulash to get down that way. We can send more supplies straight there. Sporedome has become a bit of a staging post. Anyway, I can give Marie the magical key that will allow her to teleport you all there.

They spent the rest of the day getting ready, and then assembled at the Shrine to Chauntea. Marie cast the spell, using rare chalks and inks and crushed gems, and the heroes disappeared.

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Malady in Elventree - Part 6
Zortagra

A sonorous, resonant tone echoed through the tunnel. The group heard three clicks and the right eye of the bulette statue opened with a screech of metal. Inside they could see the balding head of an elderly duergar with an eye patch. He looked at the party, shook his head, and moved his eye patch to the other eye.
“This better be good,” he said, in Undercommon.
“We’re expected,” said Maire, seeing Cundall’s blank look of incomprehension.
“Oh, are you the entertainment?” said the duergar.
“Yes, yes we are,” replied Marie, doing a small illusion of fireworks.
“Great, great, you better come in then.” The eye shrieked closed, and a few second’s later the gate shuddered and there was some colourful cursing faintly heard. Then another shudder and the bulette’s jaws opened.
“Come on in then,” said the duergar, waving them in. “Welcome to Zortagra.”
Behind him was the town of Zortagra, basically some buildings carved from rock walls with one main street. The party could see some kind of commotion going on some distance away.
“I am Laird Shant Duerna,” said the duergar. “Noble veins run in my blood.”
Marie translated this to the others. They eyed his poorly fitting purple scale mail, and thought it was unlikely he was middle class, let alone nobility. Shant Duerna ignored the commotion behind, including the shouting and screaming. It looked like a fight and one side had won and were coming this way.
“There’s something happening..” said Marie, pointing behind Shant Duerna.
“Oh no, that’s just the voices in my head,” said the duergar, smiling. “I’ve learned..erk!”
An arrow hit the duergar in the back of the neck. A female svirfneblin, dressed in rags and carrying a shortbow ran to the dying duergar and catapulted off his back. She leapt into the bulette’s mouth and pointed to the tunnel the party came from. More emaciated svirfneblin ran through the gate, streaming past the party, pushing against each other, trying to emerge from the statue’s maw. Their clothes were ragged and torn. Most did not carry weapons, but a few had picks, axes, and bows. Near where the combat was, dead or dying duergar lay.
“What happened here?” said Cundall to the fleeing gnomes. None answered. Minimus grabbed one and held firm, his gauntlets of ogre power allowing him to easily stop his captive from escaping.
“What. Happened?” asked Cundall, firmly. Then got Marie to translate.
“Been slaves in our own city for years,” said the female with the bow in Common, who was still at the gate. She walked towards the party, ignoring the cries of the other svirfneblin for her to hurry and follow them. She seemed to be a leader. “Let him go, I’ll tell you what you want.”
Minimus let the gnome go. He didn’t run off, but hovered anxiously.

Tanglehair.jpgThe female svirfneblin was named Tanglehair. She told the party that the svirfneblin were captured by the duergar five years ago when they took the town over and forced them to work in the main smeltery of Zortagra. The gnomes have been treated poorly and only given a handful of mushrooms to eat once and awhile. The leader of the duergar in Zortagra is a female calling herself Deep Duerra. She had been strengthening the duergar against an impending mind flayer attack. She was making all the duergar drink her “special brew” which was supposed to make their minds strong against intrusion of mind flayer powers. However, five days ago their duergar overseers started acting strangely, handing out random beatings, acting as if they were nobility and too good to work and would go home, leaving the slaves to themselves. Four days ago all work in the smeltery ceased as all the duergar who worked there started killing the svirfneblin and each other for minor reasons. Three days ago, in the midst of the chaos, the svirfneblin managed to escape their cages and hid in the smeltery’s inactive kilns. Today when they peeked out of their hiding place, they noticed most of the duergar had collapsed into some kind of delusional stupor. They took a chance and made a run for it, taking their weapons. They met some duergar who tried to stop them just then, but the duergar was slow and delusional. From what they saw a few duergar were still conscious, but the bulk of the town had succumbed to madness.
“Where will you go?” asked Zelda.
“Blingdenstone,” Tanglehair replied. “We know how to get there, it will be a hard journey, but we know the Underdark, we can survive. At least, most of us can.”
“Here, take some food,” said Cundall, taking rations from his pack. The others did likewise.
“Well, thanks,” she said, gathering the food up with the gnome who had stayed. “This will give us a start. Look us up in Blingdenstone if you get there.”
They ran off and joined the others, and were soon lost to the darkness.

The party moved into Zortagra, moving past the bodies of the dead duergar and down a narrow street lit by torchlight. The smell of burning coal was mixed with something sickeningly sweet. Buildings on the party’s left and right were carved into the green-brown stone, leaving no spaces between the buildings. They had rock-cut monumental façades that feature up to four levels of unadorned balconies.

Several duergar had collapsed in the middle of the road, still alive but barely able to move, as if exhausted. A young female svirfneblin with a fishtail braid in her long, white hair danced and twirled toward the party, leading a group of several others stumbling from nearby buildings.
“Our goddess Duerra has returned to save us from the mind flayer incursion,” said one, gasping a little from effort. They all smelled of alcohol and sweat.
“Come join us in our celebration and revelry,” said another, attempting to grab Zelda roughly and force her to dance with him. He sank to the ground with a groan after Zelda’s knee had connected with his groin. The others stopped dancing and snarled at them, their faces going ugly.
There was nothing for it but to fight, but despite their numbers the duergar were outmatched and not fit for fighting. The female svirfneblin produced a handaxe and joined in the fighting against the duergar. The party conserved their spells for the most part, and relied on brute force, of which they had plenty.
“I’m starting to run out of arrows,” said Zelda, counting the arrows left in her pack. “I only have 40 left.”
“Next time we’re on the surface,” said Cundall. “We can’t do with you not having arrows.”

The thin female svirfneblin who joined you in battle used her dress to wipe the blood off her axe. She then hailed the party, saying, “You helped the others escape. The duergar have taken my family to the Temple! They plan to feed them to Deep Duerra!”
“Wait, who are you?” asked Cundall.
“Ashroot,” the gnome said. “I was a slave, I would have fled by I have been looking for my family.”
“Deep Duerra is the duergar demigod of conquest and expansion,” said Marie. “Surely there isn’t a deity here. More demon induced madness I suspect.”
“Deep Duerra is the leader of the clan of duergar,” said Ashroot. “She is doing some kind of ceremony, we should be able to catch them by surprise.” The gnome shot off down the street. The others hurried after her.

The street opened up to an immense, circular cavern. Two, wide columns of intricately carved stone – extensively defaced – framed the 30-foot-wide entry way. The area was dimly lit by the light of permanent faerie fire; pale green, purple, and blue flames flickered throughout the area. Within the cavern, an impressive pyramid of smooth-hewn stone, the peak of which touched the exact center of the cavern’s ceiling.

A handful of duergar danced ecstatically but exhaustedly in front of the structure amongst the mangled bodies of duergar and svirfneblin, alike. Through it all, the sound of frantic stringed music could be heard within the structure.
Ashroot pushed her way through the exhausted duergar, more than 30 in number, who seemed too tired to stop her, or the party. Some dropped to the floor where they lay, panting, perhaps even dying from exhaustion.
“The Temple of the Sundered Skull was formerly a temple devoted to Callarduran Smoothhands,” she said to Zelda who was right behind her as she pushed through the crowd. “When the duergar took over Zortagra, it was converted for use in the worship of Deep Duerra.”
“Look at all these bodies,” said Zelda, wrinkling her nose at the strong smell of blood and eyeing the corpses on the ground.

They approached the pyramid entrance, which had an unusual skull hanging from iron chains.
“Without the tell-tale tentacles it is difficult to tell, but I think that skull belonged to a mind flayer,” said Marie.
Water cascaded down the walls of the pyramid, collecting in a shallow “gutter” that ringed the pyramid just above the structure’s entryway. The gutter channels the water towards the entryway, where it falls in a sheet in front of it. Ashroot lead the approach to the structure and walked directly through the wall of water, which distorted her form as she emerged on the other side.
“I guess we’re going in,” said Cundall, “but I think be on guard, I don’t quite trust our little gnome guide.”
They moved through the curtain of water, only to find the sheet of water had functioned as a dispel magic and Marie’s mage armour was gone, as was all of the protective magic spells the party had been using.
Duergar_-_Eva_Widermann.jpg
The ceiling of the pyramid sloped gently inward to a height of 100 feet. The central room was large with a single door on the wall opposite the entry. The entire area was dimly lit, again by the light of permanent faerie fire; pale green, purple, and blue flames flicker throughout the area. A female duergar sat atop a plinth playing a lute with reckless abandon. A dozen or so duergar danced wildly around the room while a dozen more were lined up in the back of the room. There, a female duergar poured liquid from a huge samovar-fashioned in the shape of a six-armed woman with the lower limbs of a snake-into a large, clay mug.
Marie heard her say; “The maddened mind is bitter and ill-tasting to the illithid! Drink deeply and defend yourself against them!” to each person as they drank. The duergar in line took turns to drink from the mug and then moved to join their peers in the center of the room; dancing and cheering with eyes burning with madness. Ashroot was no where to be seen.
“I knew it,” whispered Cundall. “Right team, looks like a straight up fight, crowd control spells ready, Marie!”

The fight was joined quickly before the duergar realised what was happening. Marie’s wall of fire burnt more than a dozen to cinders before they knew they were attacked, while Zelda’s arrows found and killed the closest duergar guards. Cundall’s confusion spell affected a group of duergar, most of which stood doing nothing while others moved in random directions or attacked a random target. Then he cast insect swarm from his staff to plague a duergar spellcaster. Ashroot appeared, looking more like a succubus now than a svirfneblin, and then quickly charmed Minimus, but Marie cast dispel magic to nullify the effect. Ashroot then summoned four shadow demons, and these took some time to destroy, all the while having to deal with the duergar also. Ashroot moved away and used the attacking duergar to stop any attacks on herself. Just as the duergar were thinning out and Ashroot was being cornered, she ran to a carved and decorated bell near the plinth and rang it, crying out in a terrible chanting voice, laden with power.
The ringing still echoed in Minimus’ ears; seeming to echo and bounce around inside of his skull until it became a cacophony of senseless noise. He could see the others holding their ears and so knew it was affecting them also. The lights dimmed in the room and the air filled with the stench of brimstone and excrement. Something was in the room that was not there before…
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The battle had been tough before, this monster, which seemed to combine all of the most terrible and aggressive elements of ape, boar and demon in a huge savage beast more than twice as tall as a human. It was resistant to magic, it was terrible in it’s strength and fury, and could teleport short spaces. It was perhaps the most terrible single foe the party had fought thus far.
With everyone in the party bloodied and having to use healing after an epic battle, it was Minimus who delivered the killing blow, kissing his dagger before hurling it at the creature, who had also taken terrible wounds from sword, spell and arrow. The dagger struck the creature in the face although it barely responded. The halfling followed it up with an acrobatic tumble before launching himself off the side wall to bury Companion into the creature’s chest. Minimus was flung away, but the demon was down and dying, it’s body disintegrating in the manner of demon flesh until it was dissolved into foul smoke and a thick, tarry residue.

As the party recovered, using their healing magic, it was found that Deep Duerra had been hiding under a table for the entire battle. She was dragged out and interrogated none too gently. They found out the following bits of information:

  • Deep Duerra was, in fact, a goddess, and as such did not demonstrate her godly powers at the request of mortals.
  • Deep Duerra realized she was the reincarnation of the goddess after drinking from the marilith-shaped samovar.
  • A month ago Duerra’s consort was captured and put into slavery by the fire giants of Maerimydra.
  • Two tendays ago Duerra led a raid on Maerimydra to rescue her consort, who was being held in one of Hledh’s lairs.
  • Though she was unable to save him, Deep Duerra stole many treasures from Hledh’s lair, including the marilith-shaped samovar, and the fiddle.
  • The fire giants of Maerimydra were amassing a great many weapons and engines of war, as if they were preparing to march. Oddly they also had a pile of everyday items made for Medium and Small sized creatures. Some like the samovar and a fiddle were quite pretty and the grey dwarves helped themselves to them.

“This is bad,” said Marie. Cundall nodded.
“Why?” asked Minimus.
“Graz’zt has been creating these items to sow madness in areas where there is no faerzress,” said Marie.
“Let’s smash all of these items that we find, and maybe take one back to Elventree for them to study,” suggested Marie.
They forced Duerra to show them her stash, and there were clothes, more instruments, and the like. These were all destroyed and set on fire. They left Duerra there, wailing for her subjects to come to her, and headed back to the surface.

To be continued…

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Malady in Elventree - Part 5
Galuum

They continued on down beside the small tributary river. The tunnel turned sharply, and the area opened into a large cavern, partially lit by faerzress. About halfway into the cavern, the party heard screaming. It appeared to be an ambush!

Zelda blended into the shadows and fired arrows at the oncoming duergar, who were seemingly insane. She caught sight of another figure, taller and slender, hiding behind a stalagmite towards the back of the cave. In league with the duergar, or scared of them? She couldn’t tell.
Meanwhile the rest of the party made short work of the remaining duergar, who were yelling in Undercommon about “smiting” and “if you strike me down I will rise stronger than before!” None of them did. They lay dead and broken, their blood pooling in hollows in the cave floor.
“Well, that was odd,” said Minimus, wiping his sword Companion on the ragged clothes of a duergar.
“There’s something else here,” said Zelda, pointing to the rear of the cavern. The figure emerged from behind the stalagmite and approached, its hands up and showing empty. When it got close it removed its hood, showing glistening tentacles where a mouth would be.
Galuum.jpg“Another mind flayer,” grumbled Cundall.
“Another?” echoed the mind flayer’s thought in their mind. “You have met another of my kind?”
“Huum,” replied Cundall, “in Sporedome.”
“I know Huum,” said the creature. “We are from the same pool.”
“Why are you here with these…?” Marie indicated the dead duergar.
“I am searching for another of my kind, an aberration of cognition,” said the mind flayer. “My name is Galuum, of Ryxyg. These duergar tried to attack me, so I mind-enslaved them, thinking them useful tools. However they were too badly tainted by madness, and started fighting amongst each other about which of them was the true god. I was about to kill them myself when you showed up.”
“Why are you looking for another illithid?” asked Marie.
“Our Elder Brain had thought we might stay neutral during the demon infestation,” replied Galuum. “We were not affected by the madness, although our slaves were. Despite word that Orcus had taken control of a large illithid colony far from here, we thought – we hoped – we would not need to risk ourselves and take direct action. It was a constant topic of debate in the colony. Then one of us accepted ‘gifts’ from the demon lord Graz’zt. Gave him different power, and he was corrupted and lost. This is unacceptable. This one we now call ‘Rogue Thought’ and he knows too many of our secrets to be allowed to live, as if his heresy and defection was not enough. We hunt him, we think we know where he is, but we must confirm. I am hunting him.”
“Can we help?” asked Cundall.
“Mayhap,” replied Galuum. “We suspect he is hiding behind slaves in a faerzress dense area that warps magic and deflects our own powers. If this is the case, a more brawn approach my be required. With your permission Huum will contact you if this is the case.”
“You have it,” replied Cundall, ignoring the looks of the others.
The illlithid nodded and moved off.

“What?” demanded Zelda. “We’re doing jobs for illithids now?”
“Look, they’ve been fence sitting for a while,” said Cundall. “They’re ready to take action against Graz’zt. Why not get on their good side and they can help us more directly. A colony of mind flayers could be useful allies.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” said Zelda, thoughtfully.

They continued towards Zortagra.

Within a couple of hours of meeting Galuum, the party heard the roar of rushing and falling water down a nearby passage, indicating a waterfall. Once they reached the waterfall, they easily found a trail leading over the falls marked with the painted images of a squid being split by a sword.
“On the right track then,” said Cundall.
“Of course,” smiled Zelda. “Olon’s book has been very helpful, plus the information from the duergar fiddler. And of course, you have me. Hard for me to get lost, even down here.”
“We’ve been adding to the book,” added Marie. “It’s going to be a valuable work one day.”

Another hour of travel along a well used tunnel and it appeared to end at a 40-foot-tall statue of a bulette bursting out of the stone it was carved from. Its eyes and jaws were closed. In its right claw hung a huge bronze gong. They approached closer and it became apparent the jaws of the bulette was the gate.
“They’re not going to be able to be forced open,” said Minimus, looking at the jaw mechanism.
“Well then, we either wait for someone to come out,” said Cundall, “or we ring the gong and talk our way in.”
“We should wait,” said Zelda, “so we have more inform….”
Cundall rang the gong.

To be continued….

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Malady in Elventree - Part 4
Back to the Underdark

At Yulash the party found that the Red Plume garrison were surrounding the ruins with a wall and watch towers. They went up to a nearby wooded hill which overlooked the camp and made a map.
Yulash_map1s.jpg
The Red Plumes and hired labourers were building a wooden wall around the ruins. The heroes had heard that sometimes monsters emerged from the Underdark from Yulash, but it was rare.
“That’s a lot of effort,” said Zelda. “Something must have happened for them to want to build a wall around ruins no one lives near.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Minimus. “Sneak in after dark? That wall isn’t finished, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Here comes someone else,” said Cundall, pointing. “Looks like lovers this time. Chauntea save us.”
Chauntea the pig grunted at her name. The trouble with being on a lookout is that other people think it is a good place to visit too. The party had had to hide several times, once from lovers – a Red Plume and a serving girl, once from a drug user smoking what Minimus identified as “silkroot”, and once from a woman bringing the Red Plume guard dogs up for a run. The heroes vacated the entire hill for these last visitors, in case they were detected.

They withdrew part way down the far side of the hill for a couple of hours while the lovers went at it, and they decided what to do. After a long discussion, they decided to sneak through the camp after dark. And if they were caught, they would demand to see Vuhm Yestral, the commandant in charge of the Red Plumes garrison at Yulash. They had met him before at Cundall’s Hole when there was only a wall around it (see Szith Morcane Rescue – Part 1).

In the end this is what they did. With no one in metal armour and all stealth taken, they managed to make it through into the ruins. They followed their map to the ruins whose basement led to a tunnel providing access to the Underdark. The descent was a harrowing experience, as they had been warned. The only thing more suffocating than the walls of the narrow chimney was the crushing darkness that quickly enveloped them. If that wasn’t bad enough, Marie and Minimus had to put up with Zelda and Cundall bickering about the fact he had traded in the dagger of Lolth for the Deck of Many Things. However, before long, the party arrived at the bottom. Cold, ankle deep water trickled around the island of jagged stone they were standing on, flowing towards the northeast.
“This isn’t right,” said Cundall. “The water is too low.”
“Something is wrong,” agreed Minimus. “Something must be blocking the river upstream.”
“We want to go downstream,” argued Zelda. “Whatever is happening upstream isn’t our concern.”
“But it’s going to be a problem for us too,” said Minimus. “We’ve used the Waydown River several times to take us to Sporedome or wherever. If it’s this bad downstream, then no one is going to be able to use it.”
“Will we have time?” asked Marie. “Our mission might end up being time sensitive.”
“Minimus is right,” said Cundall. “We have a chance of fixing this now. I think we should go look upstream a ways. Let’s vote using our thumbs up or down method.”
They all voted in the end to go and have a look at what was causing the blockage to the river. They had moved upstream for about an hour, when the saw the culprit. A dam built of river rocks spanned the entire river, with some water spilling over the top and through the fitted stones.

Umber_Hulk_s.jpgInvestigating the dam soon brought out the culprits – four umber hulks. The battle was a tough one for the party, due to the magical eyes of the umber hulks which could (and did) caused disorientation and confusion in those who looked at them. Party members were thrown into the water (or walked in, confused). Cundall shapechanged into a killer whale in the dam at one point and had Zelda riding on his back, firing arrows. Then Cundall got confused and while trying to bite an umber hulk, bit Minimus instead. In the end the magical beasts were killed, and a shatter spell plus a few bashes from a killer whale body, destroyed the dam wall for good. The Waydown River was flowing once more.
“I think this river should be named Cundall’s River now,” said Cundall. “It has a good, folk hero kind of ring to it.”
“Oh no,” said Zelda. “You’ve already had the sinkhole named after you. How big do you want your head to get?”

The party continued down the tunnel, walking beside the now flowing river. They found the side tunnel leading to Zortaga, with a little bit of the river splitting with it, and followed it for some hours. The party came to a section that seemed choked with spider webs. A dense amount of webbing appeared at another tunnel veering off to the right.
“Wait,” whispered Cundall. “Look!” He pointed at a large net strung across the tunnel, cleverly hidden amongst the webs. They approached it carefully.
“It’s not set up properly,” said Minimus. “I think it’s part of a trap that hasn’t been set up yet.”
“Which might mean the person who started to set it up might be up ahead,” said Zelda.
“They might be using it as something to tie up any pursuit,” added Marie.
“Let’s go carefully,” said Cundall. “My giant brain tells me they are probably up ahead.”
kuotoa_s.jpg
Cundall’s new giant brain was correct. Around the bend they saw the scaly posteriors of a group of kuo-toa as they leaned over a barricade fence of root and rock. Their attention seemed to be focused downstream.
The party opted for diplomacy, and after a moment of fright for the kuo-toa to have potential enemies sneak up on them from behind, they talked to Marie in Undercommon, although one of them, a kuo-toa whip (acolyte) named Shoolpop could speak halting common. They were keeping watch for mind-flayers who they expected to come down the tunnel at any moment. The party told the kuo-toa they were powerful adventurers and that they were heading in the direction where the mind flayers were apparently going to come from. This caused some concern amongst the kuo-toa, with the consensus being the party were all going to die, and could they leave their valuables with the kuo-toa before they left. More discussion revealed that the kuo-toa had not actually seen any mind flayers, only heard from some duergar that a mind flayer colony known was on the other side of the duergar community. The kuo-toa had, according to their own legends, been slaves of mind flayers at one point in their history, and would fight the mind flayers rather than let it happen again. There had been bad blood between the duergar and the kuo-toa, and so offers of an alliance were rebuffed.
“Besides,” said the kuo-toan arch-priest, “they’d have to come through Zortaga, the duergar community, first to get to us.”
“What is down that tunnel,” asked Cundall, pointing at were the spider webs were thickest. The kuo toans looked at Cundall as if he did not actually have a giant sized brain.
“Spiders,” they said.
“Maybe we should go look,” said Cundall. He was pretty sure that was not the entire story.
It turned out the kuo-toans had been training the spiders not to attack them, so they could run into the spider lair and not be attacked by them, but anything that was chasing them would be. Cundall decided this was as much as he needed to know, he wasn’t going to rob the rather scared kuo toans of one of their primary means of defence. They said their goodbyes and continued on their way.

To be continued…

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Malady in Elventree - Part 3
The Fiddler

“Right, just what I wanted to hear,” said Cundall. “I couldn’t take the chance that Elisande was setting us up. Let’s go.”

The party went to Elanil as she was leaving the stage to applause. Zelda and Minimus put a restraining hand on the annoyed duergar to stop her climbing the stage. After a few short words, Elanil accepted that the party believed something was wrong.
“Brilmara,” she said to the duergar. “Please come with me.”
Brilmara, the duergar, sudden tried to rush for the stage, wailing “I must play, I must play!” although only Marie could understand her. Zelda and Minimus held her until Elanil’s guards arrived, and the duergar was whisked away inside the Hall of the Unicorn. Elanil and the party followed, with the Herald waving for the next act to go on. Cundall looked over to where Elisande and the goat had been watching – they were gone.

The interior of the Hall of the Unicorn was serene, a striking contrast to the celebrations occurring just outside its door. Passing through the doorway, the first thing one could see was an immense statue of a unicorn, captured in flawless detail. A gnome in simple green robes was dusting the statue, her short arms clutching a long broom in an attempt to get at the higher, less accessible bits.
“Seranolla,” Elanil gave the gnome a start as she, the heroes and the guard burst in, “put the kettle on and get our guests some of the half-cakes that Falwan sent this morning. It’s going to be a long night, methinks.”

The duergar was dumped on a bench along the temple’s wall. She appeared to be quite delirious; when either a Marie or Elanil approached her, she was utterly unresponsive. Elanil tried a dispel magic to no avail, and then Cundall cast restoration on Brilmara. This seemed to break the duergar from her delirium enough for her to mutter the words “She returns” and “Stop the flayers” in Undercommon. Marie translated. Zelda noted the duergar accent with interest – the elf was studying to learn Undercommon from Marie.

“Look at this,” Cundall moved Brilmara’s hair away from the back of her neck, revealing a tattoo of a stylized squid split by a sword.
“What does it mean?” asked Minimus. “Gang tattoo?”
“Duergar often have clan tattoos that honor the achievements of their ancestors,” said Elanil. “I would expect their entire clan to have this tattoo.”
“I don’t think we will get much more out of her,” said Seranolla, serving up tea and half-cakes. “What can the instrument tell us?”
Elanil examined the fiddle, and the more she looked at it, the more furrowed became her brow.
Sentinel.jpg“I need The Sentinel here,” she said, referring to the unnamed and reclusive wizard who was the caretaker for the temple to Mystra, goddess of magic, in Elventree. Seranolla sent off one of her people to fetch The Sentinel. He returned quickly, cowled and masked as usual. The Sentinel was man perhaps in his 30’s, of average height. It was known that his mask was for tradition rather than disguise, and in private The Sentinel was happy to dispense with it. On Elanil’s request he examined the fiddle.
“I need to take this back to my laboratory,” he said. “I’ll have an answer for you in the morning.”
“There’s not much else we can do,” said Elanil. “Go enjoy the rest of the party, if you can. Come back here in the morning.”

The Heroes of Hillsfar returned to the party, but their heart wasn’t in it. Only they knew that a disaster had been averted, although what type of disaster was yet to be found out. They all retired early for the night – much to Shaniqua’s disappointment.

However, Cundall stopped the others before they left for the night.
“I’m going to draw a card, from The Deck,” he said. “You can be present if you want.”
“Oh I do,” said Zelda. “I’m going to laugh long and hard if you get whisked away into some extra-planar dungeon or something. I can’t believe you got rid of the dagger of Lolth! I found it after all.”
“All right, don’t start that again,” said Cundall. “What’s done is done.” He turned to go into his room and the others followed. He took out the deck from his bag of holding.
“I am drawing ONE CARD!” he announced, theatrically. “You have to say how many cards you are drawing,” he explained to the others in a quieter voice.
“Is there any danger to us?” asked Marie.
“No,” said Cundall. “At least I don’t think so.” And before anyone could say anything else, he whipped out a card. Everyone could feel the thrum of powerful magic being activated, and the entire deck glowed, with Cundall and the card he was holding glowing brightest of all. The druid’s eyes were rolled back in his head as his entire body tensed up. Minimus was considering slapping the card out of Cundall’s hand, when suddenly everything stopped glowing and Cundall slumped, his eyes fluttering open.
“Wow,” he said. He showed the card to the others – it was The Star. Then it crumbled away in his hand, as if it’s magic was spent and that was the only thing holding its atoms together.
“I feel…” said Cundall.
“Yes?” said Zelda.
“Not much different.”
“The Star grants an increase in either your faculties or body,” said Marie.
“Well, obviously I took faculties,” said Cundall. “And now I find myself sleepy, so if you lot will excuse me, I’m off to bed.”

The following morning they assembled at the Hall of the Unicorn, picking their way through those who had been hired to clean up after the night’s festivities. Inside the Hall was Elanil and Seranolla. The Sentinel had arrived and reported and had left, avoiding attention.
“I was able to prepare more spells,” whispered Cundall to the others. “My brain is bigger.”
Minimus looked for evidence of this, but gave up when he couldn’t see it bulging out of his ears. He decided maybe it wasn’t that big to start with. Meanwhile Elanil was talking.

“Brilmara arrived in town four days ago,” said the Herald. “Since then, she has been playing her flute around town and started working at Tree Spirits; earning a few silver pieces in the process. We kept an eye on her for the first couple of days, but relaxed after she seemed to be a genuine refugee. She did not produce the fiddle until last night.”
“The Sentinel confirmed that the fiddle itself is of rather unique construction. It is constructed of what appears to be alchemically-treated hallucinogenic mushrooms. The strings are made of the hair of derro; an insane race of dwarf-like creatures from the Underdark. The fiddle registers as magical, but a more of a residue of demonic magic, as if a powerful demon had possessed it, or owned it for a while. So it is not only associated with a being of madness, it is constructed of specific materials associated with madness. The Sentinel believes it is likely the instrument would inspire madness in its listeners.”
“So it was to be a deliberate attack?” asked Cundall.
“It seems so. Brilmara is better today. But it means she is acting more like I expect duergar to act – resentful and resistant. We’re not going to get much out of her I suspect.”

Elanil feared that this duergar was not in Elventree by mistake and that if her presumptions were true, the fiddle was a way of making madness become contagious away from faerzress and someone intended to use it like a weapon. She wanted the heroes to find out where the duergar and her fiddle came from and, if possible, put an end to any more of these musical instruments or any other madness inducing items.
“Brilmara’s tattoo likely indicates that the her clan must have encountered mind flayers in the past, and likely still resides near them. After consulting a map, I suggest the duergar settlement of Zortagra as the most likely candidate due to its proximity to the mind flayer enclave of Ryxyg. Zortagra was a small svirfneblin outpost that fell to duergar not long ago.”

They discussed the mission. It was decided the best way to get to Zortaga was to enter the Underdark via the ruined city of Yulash, and follow the river for a short way until the tunnell for Zortaga was found. Olon’s book of the Underdark, still held by Marie, would guide them.

And so it was the brave adventurers left their loved ones behind (Shaniqua, Jerrard, Elum and Ziggy) and set about a cold five day trek to Yulash, past Hillsfar and The Stop. It was a mostly uneventful trip, one of those times that dragged on but they always leave out of heroic stories. As this is a heroic story, we will leave it out also.

To be continued..

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Malady in Elventree - Part 2
The Party..

shaniqua.jpgAt the night of the party for the Feast of the Moon, the Heroes met outside the Hall of the Unicorn, the temple to Mielikki. An abundance of torches lit the 100 or so people dancing to the music of four human performers up on a 50 foot wide semi-circular stage.
“Minimus,” Cundall greeted the halfling with a smile, which froze a little when he saw Shaniqua behind him. “Shaniqua.”
“Cundall,” she greeted him back affably.
“Where are the others?” asked Minimus. He had to raise his voice to be heard.
“Getting drinks,” Cundall waved to where a number of outdoor bars were arranged around the clearing, serving drinks and snacks.
“I’ll get us some,” said Shaniqua. She nodded enquiringly to Cundall’s half empty mug, but the druid shook his head.
“Still hanging around then?” he said to Minimus as the girl headed to the closest bar.
’She’s different," said Minimus. “She’s fun, she doesn’t take any shit, and she’s not after anything. I don’t understand why you don’t like her.”
Cundall didn’t answer. He suspected it was that a fear she might want to join the adventuring group, and Cundall didn’t want that. But he didn’t want Shaniqua to take Minimus away either.
“I don’t sense anything bad about her, I don’t really know.”
“Jealousy?” asked Minimus, grinning.
Cundall knew by now that Minimus was not the dumb fighter type he sometimes gave the impression of being. The halfling had often provided the missing idea or insight that was the key to solving a puzzle on their adventures. Even this time he had ascertained what the problem was.
“I think I am,” replied Cundall, laughing and raising his mug in salute to Minimus before drinking. “Don’t worry, I’ll be nice.”

Zelda and Marie arrived, with Jerrard in tow looking overawed at the situation. Cundall decided getting the boy a few drinks might be the best way to loosen him up a little. The performers finished their set just as Shaniqua arrived back with a mug of ale for herself and Minimus, shrugging an apology to the new arrivals. Marie shared a little of Cundall’s unease around Shaniqua, but Zelda – who had long been a drinking companion for Minimus both before and after Shaniqua was on the scene – smiled warmly at the girl before heading off to get drinks for herself, Maire and Jerrard. Cundall finished his ale and followed her with his empty mug. He saw Elanil climb onto the stage. It was time for her to perform her duties as Moonsilver Herald. Heralds had a number of duties on the Feast of the Moon, a day when the dead were traditionally honored. Prime among these was to perform the Bloodsong ceremony, at which a Herald publicly recited the genealogies of each noble family in the area. In this way, the Heralds reaffirmed a noble family’s traditional authority and status, as well as the respect accorded to them. The crowd cheered to varying volumes as the names of the nobles were called out, depending on how popular they were.

A bronze-skinned male elf was standing behind the bar handing out drinks. Zelda knew him to be Paelior Copperleaf, someone who had propositioned her more than once. She briefly considered heading to another bar, but decided she couldn’t be bothered. He flashed a brilliant smile in greeting.
“I’m staying sober tonight,” he said, loudly. “Work before pleasure, got to keep my wits about me, something you’d know about, being an adventurer.” Zelda just nodded in response.
“Of course,” Paelior went on, “I’m free to do whatever after the festivities.” He left the rest unsaid as he handed Zelda and Cundall mugs of ale.
Zelda just nodded again and took the offered mug, ignoring Cundall’s smirk. She looked around the area to see if she could see anyone else she knew. At another table she could see Valantha Moonbreeze, a silver-haired female half-elf with a tremendous sense of humor. Valantha was selling finger food at the festivities but Zelda knew she would accept payment in jokes and funny stories as well as a coin or two. She was currently laughing with two wood elves from the Elven Court who she knew slightly. basil.jpg She saw Basil Grem, the gnome bard and member of the Protectors of Elventree who seemed to have recovered from his Underdark ordeal. He was playing his flute, following the tune of the performers but adding in extra notes, to the obvious enjoyment of those near him. She also saw Dark Linsa, a grey-skinned half-elf that she had often seen talking to Minimus. Zelda knew that Linsa was a member of the Welcomers – a thieves’ guild in Phlan – and had arrived as a refugee when that city had been taken over by a green dragon and its followers. Her eyes moved around and stopped when she saw sitting in one of the trees a dirty teenage girl and a small black goat with milky white eyes. The girl was devouring a large plum pie; filling dripping from her chin and staining her dirty, tattered dress. Zelda nudged Cundall and pointed at the girl.
“It’s Elisande,” she said. “I heard that she was in town. I have no idea where she is staying, she’s like a ghost.”
“We need to talk to her,” said Cundall, “and ascertain what her motives are.”
“I think if she were evil, Elanil would have been onto her by now.”
“I’d still like to know more about her,” said Cundall, moving towards the tree the girl was sitting in. Zelda followed.

“Hello,” said Cundall, smiling. He noted the black goat looked at him, despite having milky white eyes associated with blindness.elisande.jpg
The girl stopped eating pie and wiped her mouth with her arm.
“Who might ye be? Ye be Cundall?” she asked. “Goat knows you. Says you got heart.”
“Does he, now?” said Cundall, eyeing the goat.
“She be she,” corrected Elisande, and took another bite of the plum pie, slurping the juice noisily.
“Das funny, you nature man but you dunno if lady goat,” Elisande continued. “Are yous here t’ see the fiddler? Goat say she extra good. Goat sayin’ I gotta ta hear the song before I meet da Dark Man. I’s gon’ love it!”
“Who are you?” asked Cundall.
“Elisande,” said the girl, around a mouth of plum and pastry.
“I was talking to the goat,” said Cundall. The girl stopped and stared.
“You can hears her same?” she asked. “Good. Sometimes thinking I’m potty same as everyone.”
After getting no reply from the beast Cundall cast a speak with animals spell and spoke to the goat.
“So are you a goat?” he asked.
“We both know that I am more than a goat,” said the goat. Zelda just heard them both bleating.
“And your intentions with this girl,” asked Cundall, “and Elventree?”
“Benevolent,” replied the goat. “This girl is more than she knows, but needs guidance and protection. She may play a part in things to come.”
“Can you give me any proof that you mean no harm?”
“None,” replied the goat. “Other than Elanil and Seranolla know of me and believe I mean no harm.”
“Who is the Dark Man the girl is talking about?”
“That, I believe, is Graz’zt,” said the goat. “A divination revealed it. I do not know how or why yet.”
“And this fiddler?”
“A duergar, with a special fiddle,” answered the goat.
“Special how?”
“Special, not in a good way.”
“Why don’t you do something about it?” asked Cundall.
“I have, I’ve told you.”
“You don’t talk straight, do you?” grumbled the druid.
“I don’t see things the same way you do,” replied the goat. “But I do what I think is important. You might want to hurry, there isn’t much time.”

Cundall saw Elanil had finished the Bloodsong Ceremony and was introducing a new act, a storyteller, who would tell a few stories, both funny and dramatic, of heroes who had since passed on. But among the other acts near the stage, awaiting their turn, he saw a female duergar with a fiddle. That must be the one.
“Come on,” he said to Zelda. “I need to see Marie real quick.”
They found Marie listening to her apprentice Jerrard, who had already had too much to drink, drone on about how no one understood him and that he was really grateful that Marie had made him her apprentice.
“Hey Jerrard,” interrupted Cundall. “Here, you forgot your handbag. Now fuck off. Marie, I need you to cast contact other plane for guidance.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” said Marie, annoyed at Jerrard’s treatment.
“Look, we don’t have time,” said Cundall. “Trust me, this is urgent and important. Sorry Jerrard, but we don’t need you whining right now. Marie, ask your ancestor or whoever about this fiddler coming on. It might be bad for everyone.”
“All right, but if I go nuts, which is a possibility with this spell, I’ve only just got it, hit me with a greater restoration please.”
“Deal, now hurry.”
Marie, Zelda and Cundall moved away from everyone, while Marie cast the spell as a ritual. The spell allowed contact between her and someone wiser than she, whether an ancestor spirit or an entity from another plane, and ask several questions. This time she contacted the spirit of Meira Faerenduil, the elven ghost they had freed from guard duty at Eventide Abbey (see The Ghosts of Eventide Abbey – Part 9). She asked the questions and listed to the urgent, whispered answers that only she could hear.
“Well?” asked Cundall when Marie finally opened her eyes.
“We have to stop that fiddler from taking the stage!” said Marie. “It’s going to be bad if she gets to play.”

To be continued…

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