The Fall of Civilization - Page 10





  1. #91
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    With translucent, ghostly figures rushing her from both sides, Vann-La skids to a stop and starts swinging. Torinn rushes to join her, his spiked chain whistling through the air as he swings at the incorporeal figures attacking them. Heimall charges past her, roaring, “FOR THE EMPIRE!!” as he rushes at the three-skulled figure.

    “Let me prep the situation for you!” Iggy calls, pulling out his master’s wand of magic missile and firing a bolt of force from it. The missile blasts the triskulled undead in the chest and knocks him prone. “Hah!” crows the wizard. “He’s ready for you now, Heimall!”

    Heimall continues his charge, but as he gets close, a large, hulking figure rises from where it had been hiding in the pit. It has a long, wicked trident in its arms, which it extends, and Heimall runs right onto it- and is impaled.

    Coughing blood, the warlord still manages to jab the skull lord on the ground with Throat-Ripper. Then the huge figure hoists him up off the ground. Feet dangling, Heimall stares at his opponent. It has the worst features of some kind of terrible insect mixed with an all-too-human malice. It twists the trident and Heimall groans in pain.

    The skull lord rises to its feet with a clatter. Its three skulls glare. One of them fixes Heimall in its gaze, and he feels a bone-chilling fear gallop into his chest with a nearly physical impact. His lips turn blue with cold and he gasps. With a contemptuous heave, the insect-like creature pushes him off of the trident, and Heimall runs back a few paces.

    Behind him, Vann-La and Torinn destroy ghost after ghost, turning them into sprays of ectoplasm. Then the eyes of a second skull glow- and bits of goop from the slaughtered ghosts start to congeal, until one of them rises again.

    “Hey!” exclaims Vann-La. Then she points at the skull lord. “All right, you’re next!” –and she starts advancing towards the end of the hallway.

    “I’ve got the ghosts,” Torinn declares. “You get the skull lord!”

    In the back of the party, Ligir gasps. “That’s a mezzodemon!” he cries, pointing at the trident-wielding creature. “Heimall, Vann-La, watch out!”

    The mezzodemon doesn’t give them time to adjust their approach. Instead, it belches out a cloud of foul vapors that envelopes them. Coughing and hacking, Vann-La still manages to parry the trident blow on her shield, and she starts dancing with the demon, trying to parry its blows while sending a skull-shattering hammer blow at the skull lord. It wails from its two remaining skulls.

    Suddenly, a secret door in one of the alcoves swings open and more adversaries enter the battle, hitting the party in the flank. Three skeletons join the fray. The first two move in towards the heroes at the front, while the third advances on Ligir.

    But behind Iggy is Cook, who springs out of hiding to hurl a shuriken from his distant homeland of Muk Nam at the skeleton. It hits it, and in response, the skeleton- strangely- grabs its own throat.

    And rips its own spine out.

    Which it then proceeds to use as a weapon, swinging it like a whip at Iggy and hitting him with terrific force.

    Meanwhile, the mezzodemon manages to pin Vann-La with its trident, impaling her. It has a good amount of reach on her; she can’t reach it with her hammer. With a scream of anger and pain, she tries to push herself free- and fails! Behind her, the other skeletons engage Torinn, who is still working on the ghosts as well. Cook moves up to flank them from behind- one of them is ripping its spine out like its companion attacking Ligir did- and smashing ruthlessly at them with his frying pan.

    Iggy fires a magic missile as the spine-wielding skeleton moves inexorably forward towards him. He blasts it, but it keeps coming, cracking its bone whip at him and sending him reeling with the force of the blow. Shaking his head, he dimension doors away, between Cook and Torinn.

    In the thick of it, in other words.

    Heimall is pressing the skull lord back against the wall, landing blow after blow with Throat-Ripper, and its second skull shatters. The third one keeps reconstituting ghosts, however, which continue to tie Torinn down. At least he has smashed the non-spine-wielding skeleton into powder.

    Vann-La finally shakes herself off of the trident with a horrifying wail of pain. Then, staggering, she swings her hammer at it. Crack! It bounces harmlessly from the mezzodemon’s thick carapace. The Kree warrior grimaces, blood pouring from her chest where the trident had stuck into her.

    Beside her, Heimall slashes his glaive out again- and decapitates the third skull of the skull lord. It collapses in a tumble of falling bone. Gasping, shivering, Heimall turns to flank the mezzodemon, and he and Vann-La press their attack like a hammer and anvil!

    Iggy pulls out the sunpowder pistol that he looted from orcish pistoleers so long ago and loads it. Glaring at the spine-whipping skeleton, he shouts, “I always have a holdout!”

    Blam! Ligir fires the gun. Ping! His shot deflects harmlessly from the skeleton. Muttering to himself, he pulls and drinks a potion of healing to fortify himself; he has taken quite a beating!

    Torinn whips his spiked chain through another ghost, dissolving it into ectoplasmic residue, then whirls and parries an incoming spinal whip crack, redirecting it with his chain held taut. Immediately, the Dragon of Fandelose leaps to meet the foe, ablaze with the radiant fury of his deity. Cook dances in from the side, smashing the leg of one of the spinal skeletons badly enough to turn it into walking wounded. and Iggy finishes it off with a force orb. The three of them quickly annihilate the other skeleton and turn to the last standing foe: the mezzodemon.

    Vann-La and Heimall are still struggling with the demon. It keeps impaling Vann-La and holding her at bay, while most of Heimall’s blows rebound from it. Still, the demon is gushing ichor from multiple wounds. “You fools!” it sneers. “Even if you destroy this body, I shall return to destroy you! I will not truly die- I will just return to the Abyss that spawned me!”

    “Whatever,” replies Iggy, and he magic missiles the demon- and it falls.

    With another scream, Vann-La pulls the trident out one last time. Torinn and Heimall hurry over to heal her, and the party pauses to catch its breath.

    ***

    After a short rest, they find that the recessed area that the mezzodemon had been hiding in has a mix of earth, blood and crushed flesh and bone at the bottom. It is unwholesome, to say the least. But Vann-La cautions them, “I see something under there.”

    They look at her, disbelieving. “Damn sharp elven eyes,” comments Torinn.

    It turns out to be a trap door. They decide to finish searching the area above before investigating it, and carefully approach the secret doors that the skeletons came through. This leads to the 15’x35’ chamber that lies behind the door the party hadn’t yet opened from the front room. The only thing of note in the chamber is a pile of bones and stuff that turns out to be someone who had been ripped literally to pieces. A few serviceable pieces of gear are left, which Torinn and Iggy report are magical. Vann-La lays claim to the bastard sword- “I had been planning to change weapons before long anyway,” she says- while the elven boots go, ironically, to the dwarven Cook.

    Further searching turns up no additional exits or secret doors. Only the gruesome trap door remains.

    “All right,” sighs Ligir, “let’s get this over with.”

    The party returns to the pit area and scrapes through the muck to reveal the trap door until Vann-La can get a grip on the metal ring set into the surface. With a grunt, she pulls it open with a squelching sound.

    A brass ladder descends beneath the trap door. Vann-La peers downward, then draws her sword. “Worg,” she whispers.

    And then she leaps down the hole.

    Next Time: Deeper into Morl’s Retreat!
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  • #92
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    Quote Originally Posted by the Jester View Post
    Then again, August through September you prolly won't see as much.
    Another pilgrimage I'm going to miss out on. Drat. One day I too shall Burn.
    "People need vision.
    Sometimes you just have to add spices without a recipie."
    - My wonderful wife.

  • #93

    Hi Guys!

    Hey The Fall Of Civilization is a great topic of Discussion. Really it requires a thorough knowledge of History.I often do that but not good at History I use to acquire knowledge from the history Books and many time i planned to sort out the Consequences for the fall of civilization.

  • #94
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    Vann-La descends like a boulder, crashing down on the worg with tremendous force. It lets out a loud yelp, and the Kree warrior hears the exclamations of voices around the corner, speaking in Goblin.

    “They’re goblins down here, all right!” she shouts back up the ladder at her companions.

    Torinn is already almost at the bottom, scrambling down as quickly as he can. Vann-La presses the worg back with expert technique, rushing at it in a tide of iron. The worg lunges forward, snapping its jaws shut on her left forearm. She pummels it with the hilt of her sword and it dances back.

    A hobgoblin, backed up by a pair of goblins, races into view.

    Vann-La suddenly has her hands full as the hobgoblin charges her with a roar, its spear turning from her armor as it attempts to lead from the front. The two goblins are on its heels, and they move to flank the hapless Vann-La.

    Then Torinn drops into view, and suddenly his spiked chain seems to be everywhere. The two of them slash at the hobgoblin, who finds himself quite overmatched. He tries to turn the blows of the two adventurers- and fails utterly. As Torinn slaps his chain across the hobgoblin’s arm, one of the goblins cries out in Goblin, “Fall back!” The two goblins backpedal away.

    Just then, Vann-La cuts the worg’s head off, neatly ending its threat. She and the Dragon continue to press the hobgoblin, who can’t tries, but cannot disengage from the two of them. “Come back before they kill me!” he cries desperately to the goblins, still in their tongue (which several of our heroes can speak).

    “We’re gonna kill you anyway!” shouts Iggy from the top of the shaft, and he shoots the hobgoblin with a magic missile.

    “We’re getting reinforcements!” cries one of the goblins. He rushes out of the room via one of the two exits leading out and skids to a halt in front of a door. Throwing it open, he shouts for help.

    Crap, thinks Vann-La. She moves off in pursuit of the goblin, ramming her sword into him from behind and reaching across him to slam the door shut. Behind her, the others are finally getting to the bottom of the ladder.

    But not before she glimpses a pair of minotaurs moving forward in the room beyond, one of them gleaming and shimmering as if made of gold.

    The door flies back open even as Vann-La cuts the hobgoblin down and turns to focus more fully on the goblin, and suddenly the battle turns ugly. The golden minotaur creates an electric field that envelopes nearly the entire party, shocking them with terrific jolts of lightning!

    Ligir replies as a wizard should: with a fireball. It explodes around the goblins and the golden minotaur, and then another minotaur bullies its way forward, gritting its teeth and ignoring the flames. Iggy grits his teeth right back at the minotaurs and hurls a missile from his necklace of fireballs at it.

    BOOM!!

    It’s not enough, though, especially when more minotaurs push towards the fight. The golden one keeps firing lightning bolts, now that its electric field has worn off, and the party responds as fiercely as they can.

    But they are driven back, bloodied and faltering, until they are forced to turn and re-climb the ladder- or die. Vann-La covers the retreat, and as she scrambles up the ladder herself, the minotaur spellcaster that isn’t golden buffets her with horns of force. She is blasted upwards, but loses her hold on the ladder, and starts to fall-

    Iggy invokes his magic, and she manages to grab onto the ladder again as her fall slows to a slow, feathery descent. She scrambles up, desperate to avoid another magical assault from the minotaur cabalist.

    Behind her, she hears them roar. She is at the top of the ladder; with a mighty heave, she pulls herself out, sprawling on the muck of pulverized flesh and dirt, and cries, “Shut the door! Quick, block it!”

    The others are ready. They hurl the trap door down, then a couple of them stand on it while the others gather some heavy furnishing from above.

    Gasping, Vann-La rises. “Are you all right?” Torinn asks.

    She nods. “I need to rest and recover,” she groans. “Those guys worked me, especially that golden minotaur.”

    “We’ll come back and show them,” Cook promises. “In the morning, after we rest. Oi, I am very sore from this day’s activities.”

    A surfeit of heavy objects weighting the lid of the trap, the party retreats, leaving the worg, the hobgoblin and one goblin dead behind them. They themselves are badly battered, however, and even Torinn’s most diligent attentions can’t do much more for Vann-La until she has rested and recovered her strength.

    Still- “We came out ahead,” opines Hkatha. “Killed a few of them, and we all came out in one piece.”

    “Not bad,” agrees Torinn.

    ***

    After a good night’s sleep, the party returns to the trap door. Incongruously, Vann-La thinks of the chocolate that Lar-Gonn gave her, carefully wrapped in wax paper and stashed away in the depths of her backpack. Quietly, Hkatha eases the trap door open a crack and peers down. Then he eases the trap door shut again and whispers, “The goblin is down there again.”

    Iggy shrugs. “Let’s get him.”

    Hkatha throws the hatch of the trap door open again, with a bang this time.

    “Surrender!” he shouts, and casts a cloud of daggers on the hapless goblin at the bottom. Iggy follows up with a i]magic missile.[/i]

    The goblin opens its mouth, perhaps to shout an alarm.

    “Don’t make me come down this ladder!” Vann-La growls, descending rapidly.

    The goblin draws its sword and gulps, taking a half-hearted stab at the Kree as she arrives. “Help!” he squawks in Goblin.

    Another one-two punch from a cloud of daggers and a magic missile is all it takes. The goblin collapses, overwhelmed by the party’s offensive firepower.

    Quickly, everyone descends. No other enemies have shown themselves yet; the party takes a few moments to search the area, finding a chamber holding a well out and around one corner. In there, the corpses of the dead have been stored. The newly-slain goblin wears a fur cloak that the party recognizes as having previously been on Morl.

    “I wonder if they slew him,” speculates Heimall. “He failed them, after all.”

    “And he’s a cowardly bitch,” Torinn adds.

    “We could ask the next batch of Hand soldiers we encounter, or maybe at least one of them, if we took him captive,” Hkatha suggests.

    “I guess it’s possible,” nods Iggy. “But it’s also possible that he is held prisoner, or paid them off or something. He might not even be here anymore.”

    “We didn’t see any sign of where he could have gone,” points out Hkatha.

    “Further down,” replies the other wizard.

    ***

    The next door leads to the golden minotaur and a number of other, less golden-looking, minotaurs. An immediate melee breaks out, with Vann-La trying to engage the golden minotaur at short range. Unfortunately for her, it is quite capable of goring her with its sharp horns.

    This time our heroes are present in full force. Vann-la rushes into the thick of things, her sword sweeping in a red arc all around her. Heimall moves up behind her, Throat-Ripper jabbing with deadly precision. The others fire spells from the back.

    The minotaurs are forceful, but our heroes are overwhelming, now that they are present in full strength. Vann-La, Torinn and Ligir all focus on the golden minotaur and destroy it before it has time to electrocute the party too much, while Heimall and Hkatha keep the others contained.

    Despite their best efforts, however, one of the minotaurs manages to charge Vann-La, knocking her into a large pile of debris, which promptly collapses and leaves her half-buried.

    From a room on the other side of an open door, some kind of grinding noise has been emanating since the start of the fight. Now another minotaur’s voice calls out. “I tire of this! Bring them in here, I wish to grind them on the grinder!”

    “I don’t think we want to oblige them,” says Hkatha.

    Indeed not. While the minotaur cabalist tries to push several of our heroes towards said open door with horns of force, they manage to keep from falling into whatever trap the minotaur around the corner has set, chopping down the enemy one by one. Finally the angry minotaur around the corner tires of waiting for victims and charges out and into the fray, horns lowered, and knocks Vann-La from her feet! Bellowing and pawing the ground with one hoof, the minotaur suddenly staggers back as Torinn’s spiked chain whips into him from behind. He whirls in time to take a shot from Iggy’s gun. Then Vann-La rises up behind him and he is completely surrounded.

    “Dragonborn, git!” cries Heimall.

    Wilting under a quick succession of blows, the minotaur tries to fall back, but only succeeds in falling. Now only one remains- the cabalist, who seems uncannily adept at evading the spells and weapons of our heroes. Fighting desperately, she keeps moving, trying to reach reinforcements, but our heroes keep cutting her off. A blade slips through her defenses, then a spell. She bellows belligerently, but she is aware that her situation is desperate. Heimall hits her, hard, with Throat-Ripper, leaving a terrible bleeding wound, and she staggers away. But Hkatha quickly strides up close to her and invokes his fire shroud, burning her terrifically.

    She staggers away, but the blood loss is weakening her. Gradually, the cabalist sinks to her knees. Her chin falls onto her chest, and she collapses.

    Panting with exertion, our heroes pause for a few moments to catch their breath and do some healing and binding of wounds. Then they search the minotaurs, who are armed but without any real treasure.

    “We could try to carry that golden minotaur out and sell it,” suggests Heimall.

    “It’s not really gold,” replies Vann-La. “Look. It’s brass, with gold leaf on top. We could probably strip the leaf if we wanted to spend hours working on it, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort.”

    Examining the area they were in and the adjoining rooms, finding them mostly devoid of interesting things. There are several sets of minotaur bedding, a raised platform and the rough grinding wheel that, apparently, the minotaur had wanted to shove an adventurer’s face into. Iggy says, “I bet they sharpen their horns with that.”

    Having fully explored this area, the party heads back to the entry chamber. There is a second hallway that leads from it, which Ts immediately. A left turn leads the party to a long room with several piles of rotten straw and a few scraps of broken wood and rope at the end. Our heroes cannot discern anything about the room’s function, and it has no other exits, so they go back to the hallway and continue along. It Ts again; this time, to the right there are stairs going down. Again, the party turns left and continues along the hall, with jogs to the right briefly before continuing straight. Then there is another side passage, and down each path the party can see a turn almost immediately.

    “It’s a maze,” realizes Hkatha. “It fits. Minotaurs, you know.”

    Torinn says, “The question is, do we enter?”

    “Let’s just be careful,” says Vann-La.

    The party advances into the maze of passages.

    Next Time: The first maze!
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  • #95
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    The maze turns out to be crawling with strange beetles with horns that look remarkably like those of a bull. These minotaur beetles are uncomfortably large- about 6’ long, on average. And, as soon as they detect the party, they begin converging to attack them.

    The party at first moves forward to meet them in the larger spaces available to them, but as more of the beetles arrive, they find themselves falling back. The beetles thoughtfully help out by charging into and bowling over several of the heroes at one point or another. But in the end, they are beetles, with roughly the intellect of a stick, and our heroes cut them to pieces. Cook smacks his lips as he looks them over, but the others insist on continuing to move along, so he doesn’t have time to harvest any beetle flesh (or whatever it is that one would eat out of a giant beetle).

    The maze proves to have several small rooms within it, but no exits. The party returns to the entrance, then falls back further to the initial T intersection, just outside of the room from which they entered this level of the dungeon. They keep going, taking the right path (as measured from the entry) this time. The passage turns to the left, and then a wide stairway descends to the left. The passage continues, and branches again just ahead, to the right.

    “Let’s hold off on the stairs until we explore this level completely,” suggests Heimall. The others murmur agreement, and the party heads down the passage to the other branch-

    Where two more mezzodemons await, as well as several hobgoblins.

    Immediately, violence breaks out. The first demon strikes at Vann-La, who is in the party’s lead, and skewers her on the tines of its trident. “Not again!” she cries, blood flowing from her midsection as she struggles. This time, however, she is close enough to stab at the demon, but its insect-like carapace turns her blade.

    Throat-Ripper jabs into the demon as Heimall moves into position. “Vann-La, tear yourself free!” the warlord cries, but the elven fighter struggles ineffectively against the skewering tines of the mezzodemon.

    Meanwhile, the demon in the back grumbles to itself. The hall is too narrow for the demons to stand together*, so it can only lean forward and jab Vann-La, who is halfway around the corner. Better than nothing, but not the glorious bloodletting that the demon desires.

    Behind the demons, the hobgoblins start to fire crossbows as one of them shouts, speaking Goblin, “Intruders! Imperials!”

    One of the many doors along the hall opens up.

    “King Morl! There he is!” shouts Vann-La, even as the goblin king makes an underhanded throw that lands a dagger in Heimall’s chest. The warlord gasps, and Morl slips back out of sight.

    “That sneaky bastard,” growls Heimall, as he pulls the blade free of himself and lets it drop to the ground. Blood stains his hand, and Torinn utters a healing word.

    The party gets down to business.

    Their target is in sight- well, just about, anyway. And King Morl keeps darting in and out of view to make underhanded throws at people while the mezzodemons and hobgoblins have them pinned down. When the demons start belching clouds of poison out into the hallway, they seize an early and sudden advantage in the battle.

    Iggy hurls a fireball down the hallway by way of reply, and several of the hobgoblins, caught in the burst, burn and die.

    A quick, vicious fight ensues, with the hobgoblins dropping easily to the party’s might. The mezzodemons are a lot tougher, almost always having either Vann-La, Heimall or both skewered, and often held at arm’s length so that they cannot attack. The party focuses their attacks, and finally, a cloud of daggers from Hkatha finishes one of the demons off. The other suddenly finds itself alone, facing the entire party by itself, as King Morl slams the door to the room he is in shut.

    Quickly, then, the demon falls, and our heroes throw open the door, whereupon Morl surrenders to them.

    Success!

    The party binds him, then questions him, demanding information about the . He doesn’t actually know much, however- or so he claims.

    ”You expect us to believe that?” demands Iggy. “All right, get the pliers.”

    “No, it is true, I swear! You must understand,” Morl wheedles, “I am only a figurehead. It was Heshwat the Eviscerator who controlled our army. He needed me to keep the other goblins in line.”

    “Sure he did,” replies Iggy, unconvinced.

    “I was not the first, since the siege began! I was the fourth!”

    That admission convinces even Ligir. “Still, he must know something, if we only knew the right questions to ask,” mutters Hkatha. “Well, we should return him to Fandelose for further questioning by the general’s men.”

    “Should we finish exploring this place first?” asks Cook.

    “Hey goblin, what else is in this place?” demands Vann-La.

    “I don’t really know. I swear,” he squeals, seeing the look on Vann-La’s face, “I just came here for protection. I was just using the minotaurs! There are probably more of them, and maybe other things, I don’t know!”

    “We certainly can’t trust anything he says anyway,” Hkatha reasons. “Let’s stick him in a box and check things out.”

    The party does just that, shoving the protesting goblin king into a box from one of the chambers they have already explored and then weighting the top with several heavy barrels.

    “Don’t even try to get away!” orders Torinn from without.

    “It’s pretty cramped in here.”

    “Too bad,” growls Vann-La.

    The party keeps exploring, heading down the wide stairs that they had bypassed in attacking the demons and King Morl. The broad stairs drop down into a large circular chamber about 30’ across. Opposite the stairs are a huge set of double doors, and there are two other doors along the wall as well. Within the room itself are two cages of steel bars, each about a 5’ cube. A scrawny goblin is in the chamber, examining a table, which holds the strapped corpse of another goblin, restrained by the wrists and ankles.

    The goblin cowers back and begs for its life. “All right, what are you doing here?” demands Torinn.

    “Why did you kill that guy?” asks Ligir.

    “It wasn’t me,” snivels the goblin. “It was the evil... dead... not dead... minotaur mean lord!”

    “What do you mean?” asks Torinn. “Describe this minotaur... ‘mean lord’.”

    “Well,” the goblin says haltingly, “he is wrapped in bandages.”

    “A minotaur mummy!” Hkatha adds a curse.

    Vann-La speaks up. “Where is this mean lord?”

    “Through there,” the goblin says, cringing back as it indicates the double doors.

    “What about the other doors?”

    A shrug. “Storage. And a back way to... to the mean lord.”

    “All right, don’t go anywhere.” The party climbs up the stairs about halfway to discuss what to do with the goblin. It turns out that their discussion is academic, however, for when they return, the goblin is gone, and the double doors are ajar. The party retreats up the stairs and changes plans.

    Time to rest.

    They retreat to the store room in which, they find, King Morl is still securely boxed.

    Next Time: The party continues to change plans!


    *Though I understand that mezzodemons have since been errata’ed to be medium, not large. However, being large makes the skewering tines soooo much cooler.
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    What Has Gone Before
    The Six-Fingered Hand, an alliance of evil humanoids banded together under the death knight Arawn, has rampaged throughout the Empire and driven it to its knees. Our heroes fled one doomed city, Chebonnay, and traveled under the mountains to the city of Fandelose. After freeing General Argos from unjust imprisonment set up by Millbury, an aide to the corrupt daVoi family, the party helped prepare the city for the oncoming onslaught and siege- and siege that lasted for nearly six years. Finally, our heroes snuck out of the city and arranged a distraction to draw off the guards of the enemy command tent, and then made a savage assault on Heshwat the Eviscerator, local general of the Hand, and his subordinates. One, Morl, King of the Goblins, fled; and now, with the siege broken, the party has tracked him to the Warrens of Baphomet, a dungeon created by minotaurs to enable the worship of their savage demonic patron. After some hard work and a few minor setbacks, the party managed to capture Morl and lock him in a box, but before returning to Fandelose with their prize, they have determined to continue exploring the Warrens of Baphomet....

    ***

    Though they are nervous about the possibility of the minotaur mummy dropping in on the party nonetheless sets out to take a well-earned extended rest. They have been exploring and fighting for hours; constantly on edge, with enemies potentially coming from anywhere. Now they have retreated to the store room where the Goblin King Morl remains trapped in a box.

    “You okay in there?” Torinn raps his knuckles on the box holding the goblin ruler.

    “It’s awfully cramped,” is the response.

    “I bet you’d fit better if we cut you up,” snaps Vann-La.

    “Well, wait a second. He has a point, honestly,” says Hkatha. “And we want to get information out of him- I’m sure he has some, even if he doesn’t know it.”

    “What are you suggesting?” asks the Kree warrior, scowling.

    “We could put him in a bigger box.”

    ***

    Morl is grateful enough and makes no attempt to escape when they pull him out of one box and into another. “This is better,” his muffled voice announces, once he is sealed up again.

    “All right,” sighs Hkatha, “I’m spent. It’s time to rest.”

    “Well,” Iggy responds, “maybe we should get him back to the city first.”

    Everyone looks at him.

    ”There is a mummy minotaur out there somewhere,” he points out. “Best to meet it on our terms, not its.”

    “True,” nods Vann-La. Everyone else gradually gives their assent as well, and the party hoists the boxed goblin king and moves towards the exit. However, once they reach the ladder up to the first level of the dungeon, it becomes apparent that they will have to release the goblin king from his box to get him out of the place. After a stern warning, they release him again, and, keeping some of them before and some behind him, they escort him up the ladder.

    The rest of the trip back to Fandelose is easy and uneventful. The party interrogates King Morl more as they walk, and the goblin proves to be fairly forthcoming about the refuge that he had sought. Regretfully, he just doesn’t know much. “After you attacked Heshwat’s tent,” he explains, “I fled with a few of my followers. We met the minotaurs, and they agreed to help us. They led us to their warrens, and their leader- the mummy- but we weren’t allowed to go anywhere we wanted, just where they wanted us to. Tensions were rising between us, anyway.”

    “Where is all your treasure?” asks Torinn.

    “I had to give most of it to my followers, to keep them loyal.”

    Ligir thinks, Ahh, that explains the winter wolf cloak that one goblin was wearing. I knew that I saw it on Morl when we attacked!

    ***

    Back in Fandelose, Colonel Jaxe takes great pleasure in relieving the party of their prisoner. “Put him in the Black Tower,” he orders the guards that take Morl away. Then he turns to the party and beams proudly at them. “Well done!” he exclaims. “You took out most of the leadership and brought us the rest! But,” he cocks an eyebrow, “aren’t you all supposed to be on leave?”

    “We’re working off the clock,” answers Hkatha. “I know, it’s terrible.”

    “What are you talking about?” Vann-La snorts. “Hunting goblins is a vacation.”

    “Sir,” Ligir asks hesitantly, “is there any word on the army’s pay?”

    Jaxe’s face smooths into a mask. “We have made some small initial dispensations wherever possible,” he replies. “We will pay everyone’s back wages as soon as we are able to. Between you and me, one way we are doing this is by gathering the loot and plunder from Hand depots wherever we find them, as well as from destroyed towns and cities. It is distasteful, but necessary, because otherwise, we won’t have the money to pay you folks.”

    “I see.”

    Vann-La speaks up again. “What about a return to civilian rule of Fandelose?”

    “You would have to speak to General Argos about that, but I am sure that as soon as it is safe to do so, he will return the reins of power to the Bronze Council.”

    “Do you know when he plans to do that?”

    “As soon as it is safe,” Jaxe repeats, “I am sure.”

    ***

    When the party returns to Morl’s Retreat, as they are calling it, Ligir has a new toy. The party waited in town long enough for him to enchant his magical pistol into a lightning pistol. “Now it’s even cooler than before!” he exclaims. He practices quick-drawing it from the holster at his hip, and is becoming quite good at it. His studies of the properties of the sunpowder itself are progressing.* He is becoming a crack shot.

    It makes him so confident that he takes the lead as the party returns to the chamber where they met the pitiful, cringing goblin that warned them about the ‘mean lord’ of the minotaurs.

    He’s back in the room, slouching around. Immediately, Ligir pulls his pistol and takes aim. “Don’t move,” he warns.

    The goblin throws his hands up, surrendering.

    Vann-La squints. Something’s wrong, but what? she thinks. Then: Who cares?

    With one swift motion, she draws and hurls her magical javelin at it. It lances through the air- only to stick momentarily in the air near the goblin. It grunts, and then, in a deep, growling voice, it snarls, “You’re going to regret that.” The javelin returns magically to Vann-La, who is staring aghast at the oni as its face begins to melt. It seems to grow in size, gaining mass, as it reveals its true form: a 10’ tall, blue-skinned humanoid with a demonic, skull-like face.

    “It’s an oni!” gasps Iggy.

    And then it attempts to harvest their souls, and a snapping, tugging chain of necrotic energy dances across Vann-La, Cook and Torinn. The dwarf and the elf resist, but Torinn gives a great groan as he feels his essence flow towards the oni to be consumed.

    Then it turns and darts out the (open) double doors and around the corner, bellowing, “Intruders!”

    “I think it is a ruse!” Cook cries. “We should not follow!” He falls back and takes to the shadows.

    Loridell invokes a sacred circle on the group and says, “Maybe we should just advance with a touch of caution.”

    At that, Hkatha casts invisibility on himself. Cook, meanwhile, slides forward through the shadows until he can peek around the corner. There is something waiting there, as I suspected, he thinks, and then leaps out and hurls a dagger at it.

    It bounces from the bandaged arms of the form.

    “Here is the mummy!” Cook wails.

    Iggy hurries to gain a good enough vantage point that he can see the mummy. The room beyond the double doors, he notes, has four large sets of horns protruding from the wall. It would really hurt to get pushed onto one of those, I bet, the wizard thinks. Too bad this guy isn’t in a position where I can do that...

    The room has a single exit, a hall leading to a set of downward stairs. At the top of the stairs is an undead minotaur, its fur patchy and rotten, tattered bloodstained bandages wrapping its body. With a few passes through the air and a collection of magic words, Iggy casts a spectral ram- but the mummy braces itself and catches the spell on its own horns, standing firm against it.

    Loridell rushes past him, but as she gets close to the mummy, she feels despair wash over her. “We can’t beat this thing,” she groans. She swings her axe with lackluster force, and it just bounces off the mummy.

    The oni, meanwhile, moves down the stairs. At the top, the mummy begins falling back as well. The party starts to press forward, but at the bottom of the stairs, the oni cackles to itself. It squeezes the wound that Vann-La’s javelin caused to it. Several drops of blood hit the floor.

    And suddenly, everything changes. The floor of the chamber that the oni is in turns into a mass of raw, bleeding flesh. The mummy jumps the last few steps and cries, “BAPHOMET!!”

    Demons erupt from the floor.

    Next Time: The fight gets serious!


    *At this point in the story hour, Iggy is 10th level; at 11th, he plans to take a custom paragon path, the Pistol Mage.
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    Springing from the spatters of blood that hit the floor, the pair of demons is fleshy, well-muscled and vicious-looking. Torinn immediately identifies them as carnage demons, but that designation doesn’t really provide any helpful information to the party.

    Iggy isn’t waiting to see what they can do. He hurls first a fireball into the area, and then follows it up with a globe from his necklace of fireballs. The twin detonations shake the bloody room; foul vapors rise from the scene, boiling into the air and making our heroes gag with their stench.

    The oni replies with another wrenching attack on the party’s souls, trying to jerk them free and devour them, and the mummy gestures and a pair of horns of force slam into Iggy, knocking him up the stairs! The minotaur mummy laughs harshly and charges forward, goring the wizard and knocking him back further! The oni, meanwhile, moves out of sight to the side, and Vann-La’s keen ears detect the sound of a door opening.

    The two carnage demons lope up the stairs towards the party, but Loridell interposes herself. They claw wildly at her while she hacks back, her axe whirling around her! While Vann-La moves up to stand beside Loridell, Torinn gets in the mummy’s way before it can finish off Ligir.

    Then, behind Cook, the oni emerges from a side door, which necessitates a sudden change in his tactics. Instead of hurling daggers or shuriken from where he is, as he had planned, the dwarf instead somersaults away before he hurls a dagger towards the mummy, wounding it in the knee.

    Suddenly Hkatha reappears, behind the enemy, as he launches a fireball! It catches the two demons and the mummy, none of whom are expecting it; a moment later he follows up with a scorching burst. Vann-La moves into the center of the enemies and forces them to come and get it, dealing punishing blows against the monsters around her. Hkatha hits one of the carnage demons with a force orb that explodes and sends waves of force out that also slap the minotaur mummy. Loridell leaps up and swings her battle axe mightily, sinking it into the demon’s head. Hot, black blood splatters all over; the demon collapses. Torinn charges in and slays the other one, and then the party focuses on the oni, cutting him down when he attempts to get some distance between himself and them.

    That leaves the mummy, who proves to be most troublesome, using either horns of force or his own horns to knock Iggy and Torinn around, and eventually impaling Iggy on the bull horns mounted on the wall in the upper chamber! The wizard screams in agony, writhing on the horns. With a gasp, he dimension doors away from the horns, freeing himself- and almost collapsing with the pain.

    The minotaur mummy roars a challenge and swings its mace, dealing tremendous blows to the party members that dare face it in melee. Vann-La stabs it with her sword, finally bloodying it; it whacks her back, and then she’s bloodied too. The fight is vicious, but now that the other monsters have fallen, numbers will surely carry the day.

    And, finally, they do, as Loridell lops off one of its horns, Torinn hammers it with a righteous brand, and Vann-La finishes it off, pushing it into a last-minute wall of fire erected by Iggy with a tide of iron.

    Iggy sustains the wall for a while to be certain that the minotaur is dead; then the party allows themselves a brief respite to regain their breath, to re-center themselves. Then, a search of the nearby rooms yields a chest with about 4000 gp in it. Iggy whistles. “That’s a lot of money!”

    Hkatha snorts.*

    ***

    The “steak room,” as Vann-La calls it, eventually reverts to normal stone again. “I wonder how that gets triggered,” muses Heimall.

    Cook says, “Maybe say that name that the mummy said when he went down there, what was it, Ba-”

    “Good idea, but probably best not to say it right at the moment,” interrupts Iggy.

    “Or maybe,” suggests Hkatha, “you have to spill blood there.”

    Iggy shrugs. “Or both.”

    ***

    According to their map, the party only has one more path to explore. When they reach it, it leads into another maze, with an immediate triple-branching at the very start and more side branches visible in two of the directions available. They move down until they have a choice and elect to go right.

    About a third of them start to go in each possible direction.

    They all stop.

    “Wait, we said right,” says Iggy.

    “Exactly. We went right, you guys went left,” replies Hkatha.

    “No, we were going right.”

    Vann-La frowns. “Well, let’s try again.”

    The same thing happens: it seems as though roughly a third of the group believes each direction is the right hand direction.

    “Some kind of maze magic,” Iggy sighs.

    “Let’s go back,” Vann-La says. “We don’t need to go down here anyway. We got Morl.”

    The party starts to head back- and about a third of them think each of the three available paths is the right way to go.

    “Uh-oh,” grunts Torinn.

    The party strikes out again, but this time the lead member makes the decision. Everyone else follows. This technique works- but who knows how lost in the maze they will become?

    Then again, what choice have they?

    As they proceed deeper and deeper into the Maze of Lost Hope, devoted to the demon prince Baphomet, lord of minotaurs, our heroes become increasingly aware of an evil presence that squats on their minds, crushing hope and cheer. As they navigate their way- at least, as best they can- the psychic malignancy grows ever stronger, weighs ever heavier. Soon they are growing short-tempered and angry with each other.

    Not long after that, they start coming to blows.

    “Wait!” cries Torinn desperately. “It’s this place. It’s influencing us, stealing our hope, filling us with hate and anger. We can’t let it win!”

    “If only we could get out of this maze,” groans Heimall.

    “It’s certainly logical, given that this is a minotaur-based place devoted to Baphomet,” muses Hkatha. “But what’s at the center? Another undead minotaur? More beetles?”

    “It seems like this maze is the more, er,” Iggy searches for the right word for a moment, “serious one. We navigated the other one without any trouble.”

    The party’s anger continues to grow. Iggy, Torinn and Hkatha try to use their knowledge of the arcane to lead the party, while Vann-La keeps a keen eye open for any sign that they are crossing their own path. “Dammit!” roars Heimall, smashing his fist into the wall hard enough that he almost breaks it.**

    They stomp on.

    Finally, as the pressure on their minds is just starting to become unbearable, they find a chamber-

    “Careful,” warns Vann-La, halting. “There’s a drop. About... ten feet, it looks like.” She frowns, surveying the chamber. “It looks like a couple of feet of brackish water at the bottom. There are a couple of rocks protruding above the surface, and lots of... fungus, maybe? Something is growing on top of the water, anyway. There’s a door on the other side.”

    “What’s that smell?” asks Cook, wrinkling his nose in distaste.

    Indeed, a foul, fish-and-cattle stink comes from the chamber. “I don’t know,” Vann-La replies.

    “That no good to eat,” Cook says.

    That makes everyone uneasy. Cook has shown that he will harvest, scavenge, salvage and eat virtually anything.

    “I don’t know about this,” mutters Iggy. “Water, you say?”

    “Yeah...” Vann-La considers her options. If we don’t check this room out, we’ll have to go back into the maze. She sighs. “I think we should check it out.”

    “I’m not so sure,” Hkatha retorts.

    Suddenly Vann-La cries, “There’s something in the water!”

    Iggy whirls- and casts a magic missile at Hkatha! The other wizard yells in surprise. “What are you doing?” he exclaims.

    “It took control of me for a moment!” Ligir sputters. He whirls to face the water and fires a magic missile where Vann-La indicates the shape in the water is and fires a second magic missile, this time at it. However, it zips into the water and fails to hit the target.

    Vann-La, meanwhile, decides that the water is shallow enough to fight in and leaps down with a splash. I’ll get on one of the boulders. Now, where the hell did it go?

    No sign of it.

    It’s elusive...

    And then, suddenly, it pops up out of the water with a strange, warbling roar. Our heroes stare at it, aghast, wondering what the hell it is. The weird fish-cattle stench intensifies immensely- for the creature is a disgusting mixture of minotaur and some kind fish-like, tentacled sea monster. A bull’s horned head tops a semi-humanoid torso that ends below in a fishy lower body. Powerful, leg-like tentacles squirm beneath it.

    Vann-La strikes. She has been waiting for it to show itself! Her sword sings through the air, bites into the beast’s shoulder. Blood sprays out and the monster screams, then rams its horns into Vann-La and tosses her aside. She flies up and across the room, landing in a heap near the far wall!

    Then, glaring at Heimall, the beast hypnotizes him- and Heimall, who had his bow out, pivots and shoots Vann-La in the shoulder!

    “Sorry!” he cries immediately. “Damn it!”

    “It’s gruesome!” Cook gulps. Then, his eyes widen. “Wait, where did it go?”

    “It’s still right there, what are you talking about?” exclaims Iggy- then his eyes widen. “Wait... it’s gone!”

    One by one, our heroes lose sight of it. It doesn’t submerge or teleport; they just can’t see it any more.

    Then, Torinn moves to where he can see it. “Wow, that’s ugly,” he comments. He squints at it, misses it with a sacred flame, and grumbles to himself.

    ”You can see it?” cries Heimall.

    “Yeah...” The monster hisses in rage at the dragonborn, but nobody else hears it. “I think- it’s some kind of minotaur crossed with a morkoth.”

    “What the hell is a morkoth?” demands Loridell.

    “It’s an underwater maze-dwelling creature,” Torinn starts, and then Heimall leaps down into the water, completely against his will. “Hey! What are you- oh. Morkoths can hypnotize you. It is said that they lair in mazes- the connection with Baphomet makes sense- and that if you travel their maze, sometimes they can come up behind you and bite out huge hunks of your flesh without your even noticing!”

    “So,” Vann-La says, rising to her feet, “it’s not good that we can’t see this thing?”

    “And it can hypnotize people,” Torinn adds. He jumps down into the water himself, his spiked chain at the ready.

    “Obviously!” snaps Heimall. He fires his bow blindly, hoping to hit his unseen adversary, but misses.

    From nowhere, an invisible attacker slams into Vann-La. She brings her sword up to guard herself just in time. Then it moves away, charging Torinn and knocking him sprawling.

    Ligir is sweating, trying to force his eyes to see it. I know it’s there! It just hit my friend! I must pierce its illusion! Suddenly- it is there, he does see it! With a grim smile, Ligir casts a spectral ram, knocking it back and away from Torinn. Then Ligir squeezes off a shot from his pistol. The report is deafening, but the bullet zips into the water harmlessly.

    Hkatha can’t see it- but he saw the ram, and he knows how it works. He casts a lightning serpent at the morkoth of Baphomet, and when it strikes, even failing to grasp the foe, it does some good, shocking it (with the presence of the water helping exacerbate this) and slowing it.

    Vann-La and Torinn rush back in to get close, and Heimall utters a commander’s strike at Vann-La. She swings and wounds the beast, even not seeing where it is. But in response, it gores and tosses her- then does the same to Torinn, leaving it clear to use its hypnotic glare on Heimall again- who whirls and shoots Hkatha in the leg. “Ow!” shouts the tiefling.

    The wizards pour the spell fire on: scorching burst, sleep, cloud of daggers... several attacks that don’t need the exact precision of knowing where your target is prove remarkably effective. The warriors cluster around, striking when they know where the monster is and falling into defensive stances when they don’t.

    The poor morkoth! All this tasty prey, but they keep playing dirty, lighting it on fire and worse. It vanishes from their perceptions, maddeningly elusive, but when Ligir creates a wall of fire that fills a quarter of the room, its options become very limited. It charges Cook, knocking him away and throwing him from his feet, but Vann-La hits the monster with a disruptive strike that is a virtually perfect blow.*** Then she hits it again, this time driving it with a tide of iron and forcing it, squealing, back into the wall of fire!

    The party moves close, and when it tries to come out of the wall, Vann-La stops it cold. It grabs Hkatha and hurls him into the flames, but the Ilmixie just laughs and strides from it, barely injured thanks to his infernal heritage. Then it uses its hypnotic glare to force Vann-La to walk into the flames itself.

    “Torinn, get it!” commands Heimall, and the dragonborn’s spiked chain smashes into the side of its head, dealing a terrible wound. It staggers, and Vann-La roars as she grapples it back into the flames again.

    Hkatha adds another scorching burst to the mix, and that’s it: the beast dies with a smell like burnt burgers cooked in fish sauce. Gagging, our heroes fall back for a moment.

    Then it’s time to loot.

    Next Time: On Leave!

    *Hkatha, of course, is an aristocrat, so a few thousand gold pieces is small change to him. Of course, he’s also deeply in debt.

    **This maze was a skill challenge- I’ll post the details for kicks. Once the pcs were in ‘phase three’ of the skill challenge, each character had to make a basic attack at the nearest ally or else lose a healing surge on his or her turn.

    ***During this fight, the party kept on critting- this was a crit, Vann-La crits again when she knocks it back into the wall of fire, Cook got a crit, Torinn got a crit, the wizards critted when they couldn’t even see it... Sheesh.
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    I almost forgot- here's the skill challenge for the Maze of Lost Hope.

    Navigating the Maze of Lost Hope
    Level 12 Skill Challenge
    This skill challenge will go through three phases: in the first, the pcs must manage to get a grip on themselves and their surroundings, and realize that they are progressively under the influence of an evil force. This lasts until the pcs get two successes. In the second phase, the demonic force acting upon them intensifies, and they must resist its influence as it seeks to provoke them into frenzies of rage. Once they have six successes, the pcs can move to the final stage, where they must find their way to the far side of the maze as the malicious forces grow to their strongest might and deal with the terrifying monster in the Chamber of False Hope.

    Level: 12
    XP: 3000
    Complexity: Special (10 successes to complete). Whenever a pc fails a skill check, see the notes in the Complications section, below. Once phase two of the skill challenge has begun, things get uglier; see Complications for details.
    Primary Skills (phase one): Arcana, Dungeoneering, Insight, Religion.
    Primary Skills (phase two): Arcana, Diplomacy, Insight, Perception, Religion.
    Primary Skills (phase three): Arcana, Dungeoneering, Insight, Perception.

    Arcana (DC 21): In phase one, this allows a pc to sense some sort of malignant presence. In the second phase of the skill challenge, an Arcana check allows a pc to use his magical knowledge to help ward his mind against the evil influence pressing against him. In phase three, an Arcana check allows the pc to pierce the confusing spell that is twisting their minds.

    Diplomacy (DC 17): In phase two only, a pc can use Diplomacy to try to talk an angry companion down.

    Dungeoneering (DC 21): This skill will help the pcs realize that they are being confused and disoriented, and help them get past it.

    Insight (DC 17 in phase one, 21 otherwise): Insight helps the pcs pierce illusions and find their way despite the befuddlement affecting them. It also helps in phase two by helping them become aware of the strange force affecting the party.

    Perception (DC 25): In phases two and three, Perception helps the character to find his way and avoid being further confused.

    Religion (DC 21 in phase one, 17 in phase two): In phase one, Religion helps the character realize that there is some kind of fell influence. In phase two, a character can use his faith to resist the influence of the powers working against the party.

    Complications: Once phase two of the skill challenge begins, there are malignant forces working to enrage the pcs. They all begin to grow angry and irritable. If anyone fails a skill check on the challenge, that character makes a basic attack at the nearest ally. If two characters in a row succeed on their skill checks, a random pc grows angry enough that he or she must either make a basic attack at the closest ally or lose a healing surge. Once the third phase of the skill challenge starts, each character must either make a basic attack at his or her nearest ally or lose a healing surge each round on his or her turn (usually from charging, head down, into a wall out of frustration and anger).

    Success: Once the pcs have achieved two successes, they move to phase two of the skill challenge. Once they have achieved six total successes, they move on to phase three. When they achieve ten successes altogether, they find their way at last to the morkoth. The pcs cannot “fail” the skill challenge, per se; however, failing to succeed can lead them to their deaths.
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    Typical soldiers on leave drink and whore. They get into bar brawls. They bitch about their commanders and their realms, mock the navy and the enemy, grumble about how long it has been since they have seen their families.

    It is a rare soldier indeed who, confronted by a month of free time, keeps working. Loridell has had enough for the time being; she joins her brothers and sisters in arms in the taversn.

    But there’s just so much to do!

    Among other things, the dwarves have been having problems with something that was released from deep below the earth in the trap that they triggered six years ago, at the outset of the siege. Although Ligir argues for a return trip to the Feywild to try to find the black unicorn that he has had occasional fleeting contact with, the party (minus Loridell) eventually agrees that the threat to the dwarves must come first.

    They head into the Black Gorge, just outside of Fandelose. The dwarven sentries recognize them- they are, after all, friends of the dwarven Thane and have helped the dwarven operation in the past. They head down to question survivors of the mysterious creature’s attacks, fighting off a band of hideous, red cap wearing fey along the way.

    The Dunstone brothers didn’t get a good look at the thing, but one of them says, “It seemed to club us, but I don’t know if it used weapons. It didn’t seem humanoid. And it could vanish at will, almost as if it wasn’t there! It was hard to concentrate around it...”

    Cook shudders, thinking of the morkoth of Baphomet. I hope it’s not another of those creatures!

    But it isn’t. When the party finally finds it, searching in the areas that the monster has struck from, it proves to be some sort of strange, almost worm-like creature with six tentacles. It is equally capable of moving along the floor and the ceiling- and worse yet, it is able to teleport, seemingly at will, and when it does, it distorts reality around it, leaving anyone too close to it dazed.

    To top it all off, it can turn invisible.

    But our heroes aren’t called the Heroes of Fandelose for nothing. They take care of the problem and bring the head back to the thane, who- as always- joins them for a dwarven mug of dwarven ale. Long ago, he gave each of our heroes a stein of their own; to this day, they make a point of carrying them when they go to the Black Gorge.

    After the celebration, the party returns to Fandelose. This time, Iggy wins the argument, and the party agrees: they will return to the home of the mad architect Hyswell the Bitter, whom the party slew before the siege. There, they know, there is a crossing to the Feywild; using his fey crossing ritual, Iggy can allow them to cross over, between the worlds.

    ***

    With the ritual at their beck and call, there is no need to wait for the barrier between the worlds to weaken of its own accord. Instead, once they reach the mad architect’s house, now filling with dust and dead insects, Iggy- an eladrin- easily goes through the requisite words and gestures until a glittering membrane of greenish-amber seems to wash over them.

    And ah, but they feel alive all of a sudden!

    Their journey into the Feywild makes their blood sing, makes their brains brilliantly alert, their senses vibrantly acute. The realm itself energizes and affirms; it makes them feel, somehow, more capable.

    They are looking for the black unicorn; what they find is a large number of goblin tracks.

    “The Hand?” wonders Heimall.

    Ligir shrugs uncomfortably. “It’s hard to say. There are plenty of goblins in the Feywild that aren’t part of the Six-Fingered Hand...”

    “Why? What are they doing here?” demands Vann-La.

    “This is a whole world. There are all kinds of... unsavory things that live here.”

    Vann-La scowls.

    The party starts to follow the goblin footprints, but before long a large shadow crosses over them.

    A green dragon.

    Weapons hiss free of their scabbards. Hkatha clutches his orb; Iggy draws his gun. Cook darts into cover. The party watches for signs of it.

    “There,” hisses Hkatha. “It’s circling us.”

    It drops out of sight; due to the trees all around them, if it isn’t pretty high up, they can’t spot it.

    The wind picks up.

    And it flies in to attack from the side, darting in under the tree line.

    Vann-La rushes out to meet it, hitting it with a steel serpent strike, and its claws scrabble at her, but her armor prevents her from serious injury.

    Then the chaos of battle takes over. Blows fall; others are deflected from scales or armor, or parried by weapon or shield. Cook buries a shuriken in the dragon’s lower back, leaving it walking wounded. “I’m gonna eat your eyeballs, dragon!” the dwarf yells.

    The dragon’s eyes blaze yellow. It rises up above the party, and they cannot help but quail. Its very presence is frightful enough to leave Vann-La, Cook, Hkatha, Ligir and Heimall all stunned with terror for a few precious moments, but Torinn uses an awe strike to keep the dragon pinned down long enough for the others to recover... he hopes.

    The dragon breathes, a cloud of toxic gas, green and foul-smelling. It envelops Torinn just as he takes a deep breath, and he coughs madly, with flecks of blood erupting from his nose.* Hkatha and Heimall groan in pain as the gas envelopes them as well.

    But then Iggy, Vann-La and Cook throw off their momentary paralysis. Iggy hits the dragon with a magic missile and Cook makes a sly flourish that sends his dagger into the dragon’s neck. It grunts, then winces as Torinn’s spiked chain slaps it hard across the face. The dragon claws at the dragonborn twice, opening itself up to a blow from Vann-La, and then starts to retreat.

    Vann-La charges across a bank of mossy rocks at it, landing another blow. It doesn’t even look all that badly wounded, she thinks. Why is it-

    “I am here to impart knowledge,” the green dragon says with a laugh, “if you survive!”

    “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine!” Iggy replies, firing his pistol. The bullet bounces from the dragon’s thick scales. Simultaneously, Vann-La rushes up and hits the dragon with appalling force. Unfortunately, this leaves him too close to avoid Hkatha’s fireball, which explodes in a whoomph of orange flame! Ferns and bushes blacken and die; a tree catches fire. Vann-La grits her teeth and lets the fire wash over her, assuming a combat stance and letting a rain of steel whip all around her as her bastard sword cleaves through the air!

    The dragon laughs, seemingly delighted by the deep cut the Kree warrior’s sword slashes in its side. It breathes another cloud of venomous vapors out, and Vann-La reels back, coughing and gagging. It lays a claw across her, ripping open her chest and breast, and she staggers back a step. Then the dragon slashes her again, this time across the leg, and she stumbles.

    It fixes her with its gaze, and, irrationally, Vann-La backpedals, giving it enough room to spread its wings and take to the air without being assaulted. Leaves shower down from the forest canopy overhead as it breaks through to the sky.

    “Follow me!” it cries, and wings away.

    “Damn it!” curses Heimall. “It got away!”

    “Maybe, but maybe not,” replies Hkatha. “Look.”

    Indeed- the dragon flies much faster than the party can walk, and it should be able to easily make its escape. Instead, however, it moves off a ways and then circles- far enough away to be out of range of any of our heroes’ attacks, but close enough to tantalize them- to lure them after it.

    “It must be trying to trick us into falling into a trap,” says Hkatha grimly.

    “Quick, let’s fall for it,” answers Vann-La wryly.

    The party pursues.

    ***

    The dragon leads them on a merry chase. Almost two hours go by before it finally lets them catch up with it.

    And when they do, they are disconcerted to find that its face has changed.

    Now its tongue lolls out like a pug’s. Its eyes bulge and are constantly rolling; they don’t seem to focus evenly on anything, nor do they track together. Brightly colored- feathers? Fur? Scales? Our heroes can’t quite be sure- run off the dragon’s back and wings.

    It laughs as they approach, weapons in hands. “There is no longer any need for combat!” it cries. “I have tested your mettle, and found you worthy!”

    “Gee, thanks,” Iggy retorts sarcastically. “Give us one good reason why we shouldn’t cut you down now!”

    The dragon’s laughter booms through the lush forest again. “I will give you a name, a most important and precious name to you! A name connected to the beginning of your foe...”

    “Arawn, right? Yeah, we already know his name.”

    The dragon laughs again, and says, “No- Dawn.”

    Who the hell is Dawn? wonders Hkatha. A moment later, he voices his question.

    The dragon’s response is circuitous. “She is the start of it all! Too many betrayals, and now too many beauties. Ahh, too many, too many. He has been betrayed too many times, and only once. Infinity and solitude. There are too many of her. For too long- too short. It seems like forever. Too many betrayals- she betrayed me. They betrayed me! SHE betrayed me!”

    “Well, that’s clear,” remarks Hkatha in the following silence.

    “I am a fey oracle,” the dragon retorts. “What do you expect?”

    “If you have something to tell us,” Ligir sighs, “please, just do so. If you have advice, give it to us. If you’re just playing around, just knock it off.”

    The dragon howls laughter again. “Advice? Aye, here’s a piece of advice for you. Before you go to Tirchond, you must have the Silver Rose.”

    ***

    They can’t make heads or tails of what the dragon is trying to tell them, at least not much, at least not yet. There are two things that they keep in mind, though: the Silver Rose and Dawn. But what do they mean?

    While they think it over, the party decides that they might as well get back to the pursuit of the goblins that they were tracking. They did come from uncomfortably close to the fey crossing into the real world; the chance that the Hand is moving on the Feywild as well as the material plane seems worth investigating.

    The party ends up following a waterway replete with frolicking nixies. The fey confirm that the goblins are in uniforms with a hand motif. Our heroes continue along, and more of the nixies help guide them to a dark passage that leads into the Feywild’s parallel to the Underdark- the Feydark.

    The nixie paints a picture of the Feydark as a terrifying, mysterious, deadly place. The Feywild is a lot like the world, only moreso. Trees are taller, more alive, give better shade, harder wood. Wilderness is wilder, more untamed, more dangerous.

    The Feydark is deeper, more convoluted, more frightening than the mortal world’s Underdark. It is almost a living thing unto itself. The tunnels might change while a group travels through them, unable to find the way out- because it no longer exists. Worst of all, the rulers of the Feydark are the terrible, deformed giants known as fomorians- equally twisted in mind and body, foul-brained, foul-odored, with crippled limbs and crippled morals.

    “If the Six-Fingered Hand is trying to ally with these fomorians,” says Heimall, “we have to stop them. They could be very dangerous allies.”

    The party pursues, heading into the tunnel. Their quarry don’t seem to be moving very quickly, so the party hopes that if they move quickly, they might be able to catch up. The darkness quickly closes in behind them, the dappled amber light of the Feywild forest lost far above. Rocks shift treacherously underfoot. Here and there, pools of water or trickles of mud run along the floor or drip down the walls. The smell of loam and earth is gradually replaced by the deep, strong scent of stone. The oppressive sense of thousands of tons of rock above the party presses down on them.

    Deeper. Deeper. Further from the sun, from places of hope and joy.

    Until, finally, the party comes into a large chamber with several exits. Something moves towards the party, fast, only half-illuminated by their light spells.

    Iggy doesn’t hesitate. He shoots from the hip, and his bullet blazes out and hits a small creature moving very fast.** It is humanoid, grey-skinned, three-toed and evil-faced, with pointed ears, needle-like teeth and large, glossy eyes.

    “It’s a quickling!” Torinn exclaims.

    Behind it, another quickling zips into view- and a trio of hulking, one-eyed creatures move up.

    “And cyclops,” adds Vann-La, whipping out her sword.

    Especially since Iggy already shot one of them in the chest, it doesn’t look like a parlay is going to happen. Instead, a vicious, violent fray ensues, with the quicklings moving with such speed that they are nearly invisible. The cyclops stick to brute force, swinging great battle axes and hurling spears.

    They are strong and wily combatants, but even so, our heroes manage to overcome them after a struggle. The quicklings keep trying to corner Iggy, but fortunately, he is able to fey step and dimension door out of imminent danger. Hkatha uses a flaming sphere positioned very close to himself to keep the quicklings from threatening him without consequence; thanks to his diabolic blood, he is barely singed by the sphere.

    When the battle is over, the party is wounded and their strength is depleted. “We have to rest,” groans Heimall. “But we have to catch up with them!”

    “We’ve passed two of their campsites,” says Torinn. “So we’re moving twice as fast as them. We don’t want to come up on them if we can’t take them.”

    The party agrees and makes camp. Already they are losing their circadian rhythms; they have no idea how long they have been below ground. They set an uneasy watch after Vann-La finds the goblins’ tracks. Then the rest of them lay out and go to sleep.

    Next Time: Will our heroes reach the goblins before the goblins reach the fomorians?

    *Breath weapon critical hit.

    **Shoot from the Hip is Iggy’s paragon path 11th level attack power, which lets him fire a shot before initiative as long as he perceives the enemy and has his gun out and loaded.
    the Jester

    The Monster Project

    Buy my first self-published weird sci-fi novel from Amazon here!

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