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  1. #81
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    Quote Originally Posted by carborundum View Post
    You'll know it when you...hear it.
    At first glance I wasn't very enthused about the Wild Magic sorcerer path in 5e, but after reviewing the surge effects chart I found a number of interesting narrative options to use in the story.

    * * *

    Chapter 64

    Bredan, Quellan, Kosk, and Glori crouched behind the dense growth that cluttered the gully at the base of the hill, staring through the tall stalks at the ruin above. True to Xeeta’s word they’d managed to creep to within a hundred paces or so of their destination, but that remaining distance, a minute’s casual walk under normal circumstances, seemed much greater from their current perspective.

    A bright flash appeared momentarily from the partially-intact structure in the center of the ruins, followed by a pulse of black smoke that thinned into nothingness as it rose into the air.

    “That’s the signal!” Bredan said. He started to rise, only to feel Kosk’s heavy hand on his arm. “Hold a second,” the dwarf said.

    “She might need our help…” the smith began.

    “Hold,” Kosk repeated. “If the rest of them didn’t see that, then we might…”

    He didn’t get a chance to finish, as a massive explosion erupted atop the hill, centered on the ruined building where the sentries had been stationed. This time there was no doubting whatsoever that the orcs would hear, as the loud rumble that echoed off the cliffs continued well after the ringing in their ears from the initial blast had faded.

    “Oh, man, that can’t be good,” Glori said.

    “Xeeta…” Bredan said. He started forward again, and this time made it a few steps up the slope before a shouted warning from Glori shifted his attention. Glancing back he saw her pointing to the cliff, and followed her finger to see what she had seen.

    Even at a distance there was no mistaking them; the protruding snouts and piggish features were too distinctive. There were six of them, the orcs spreading out as they warily approached the ruin where a cloud of smoke continued to rise from the impact point of the fireball.

    “Um… should we get their attention?” Glori asked.

    “We have to keep them from converging on Xeeta,” Quellan said. He didn’t have a missile weapon, so he had to hold his mace and wait.

    Kosk came forward and thrust Bredan’s crossbow into his hands. “Shoot the bastards!” he yelled.

    Glori’s first shot was already on its way, and as the orcs turned toward them the first staggered as her arrow embedded in his side. But just as Quellan had predicted the orcs didn’t hesitate, lifting their spears as one and with a loud roar charging down the hill toward them, the injured one only a pace behind the others.

    “Damn, they’re fast,” Bredan said as he lifted his crossbow, took aim, and fired. At first the shot looked true, but at the last moment the orc stepped aside and the bolt flashed past him. Glori’s second arrow embedded in another orc’s coat, but it was impossible to tell if it penetrated; in any case the orc kept on coming. She shifted to the side, moving away from the others, and for a moment Bredan hesitated, before Kosk gave him a shove and gestured to his empty bow. “Keep shooting!” the dwarf ordered.

    But it was becoming clear that the orcs would be on them in moments. Kosk and Quellan stepped forward to confront the rush, their weapons at the ready. The dwarf drew one of his knives and hurled it in a flat arc that caught one of the orcs in the meat of his thigh. The orc warrior missed a step but recovered quickly and pointed his spear at the monk in promise, growing a challenge in his guttural tongue.

    “More of them!” Glori warned. Her companions tore their eyes from the rapidly-closing orcs to see that another group of the creatures had emerged from the cave mouth above. Those three were noticeably larger than the others. Two carried massive bill-hooks, while the third wielded a nasty-looking flanged mace. They quickly moved to follow their companions into the fight, rushing toward the intruders in a steady lope.

    But before the reinforcements could join their brethren they were interrupted by an attack from the interior of the watchstation. A barrage of scorching rays lanced out at them from the cover of the ruin. The first two rays hit the orcs armed with bills, but the one with the mace ducked under the last, the flames splashing harmlessly against the cliff behind him. All three orcs immediately converged on the figure that emerged from the ruin, the slight breeze rustling her charred garments and lifting bits of soot from her skin. Her spell of camouflage was gone, leaving her skin its normal tinge, as bright as a beacon.

    Xeeta’s display of fireworks distracted Bredan, who cursed as his second shot missed wildly. His target raised his spear and rushed forward across the final interval separating them, yelling a battle-cry in Orcish. Bredan couldn’t understand the words but definitely got the meaning. He dropped his bow and unlimbered his sword, tossing the baldric aside as he cleared the blade from its scabbard. The orc lunged, taking advantage of the superior reach provided by his weapon. Bredan responded just as his uncle had drilled into him through hour after hour of practice, side-stepping and deflecting the thrust with his sword before pivoting into a sweeping strike. But the orc too proved experienced, as he anticipated the move and flung himself out of the reach of the huge sword.

    Another loud blast echoed across the battlefield, this one much closer; Bredan started before realizing that it was Glori’s thunderwave. He didn’t even get a chance to glance aside to check the result of the spell as the orc rushed at him again. He could hear Kosk and Quellan fully engaged just a few steps away, fighting multiple foes. He’d only drawn one opponent, but at the moment that opponent seemed quite capable of demanding his full attention.

    This time he didn’t wait for the orc to come to him, but lunged forward into an attack of his own. The orc, caught off-guard, nevertheless managed to poke at Bredan’s side with his spear. The head caught on the smith’s armor but still managed to pierce his side. Bredan clenched his jaw against the pain and slammed his sword down into the orc’s shoulder. The impact crumpled the thin plate of iron protecting his foe’s body and tore through the layered hides underneath. Staggering back, the orc dropped briefly to one knee before lunging again at his enemy. Bredan reacted fluidly, parrying the thrusting spear before driving the point of his sword through the orc’s chest.

    Even as the orc fell, this time for good, Bredan’s companions finished off the rest of the initial cohort. The last one, his torso surrounded by the sparkling radiance of Quellan’s guiding bolt, succumbed to a blow from Kosk’s staff that hit so hard that Bredan could hear the bones crunching from five paces away. Both the cleric and monk bore wounds but they looked to be minor, and Bredan saw with relief that Glori appeared to be unharmed.

    But that relief was short-lived as he turned his attention back up the hill, and saw that Xeeta was in serious trouble.

    Xeeta had revealed herself on purpose, to draw the second group of orcs to her. The fact that the orcs had withstood her scorching rays confirmed that these were the band’s leaders, and as tough as they looked. They spread out to take her from several directions at once, wary of her magic.

    They were right to be wary, as she touched her thumbs together and unleashed another burning hands. The orcs dodged back, but one couldn’t escape the wave of fire and fell, screaming as the flames crisped his flesh. The other two, however, surged ahead, no doubt expecting to take advantage of the lull before she could cast another spell.

    They were going to be disappointed, Xeeta thought. The Demon was in her, and its potency was screaming through her blood. Drawing deeper upon her reserve of sorcerous power, she fired off yet another spray of fire, a quickened burning hands that tore into the two remaining orcs. Caught by surprise, both creatures were engulfed by the spell. The first was overwhelmed and joined his comrade on the ground. The orc with the mace let out a cry of pain as the fire seared his flesh, but he didn’t retreat or try to seek cover. The creature, a huge, hideous orc with one broken tusk, didn’t hesitate. He leapt forward, his mace sweeping around with a force that would not be denied. Xeeta had protected herself with mage armor before they had arrived at the ruin, but the spell was not enough to stop the mace as it slammed heavily into her chest. The impact lifted her off her feet, and for a moment all she could see was the vast arc of the sky before she hit the ground. Pain filled her vision with a red haze that blinded her for a moment.

    When it cleared, she saw the orc standing directly above her, his mace already raised to finish her off.

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    Chapter 65

    Xeeta felt a cold fear clutch in her belly at the sight of the orc warrior standing over her, his mace raised to crush her skull. But before the creature could strike the feeling was replaced by a sudden, furious rage. It burned away the terror with its intensity, and with it came her magic, the full power of the Demon awakened by her brush with death.

    “Burn,” she said.

    And the orc burned.

    Flames erupted around the warrior, enfolding him in a deadly wreath of magic. The orc tried to escape, to turn away from his fate, but Xeeta’s hellish rebuke clung to him, searing him until with one final staggering step he collapsed. The mace that had been about to crush the life from her body fell harmlessly to the ground.

    Xeeta sucked in a breath and regretted it as pain exploded throughout her torso, scouring away the anger and everything else. She decided not to try to get up, which probably proved wise as a soft cough a moment later awakened new spasms of agony.

    “Xeeta! Xeeta, are you okay?”

    She turned her head—slowly, slightly—so she could see Bredan and the others rushing toward her. She saw the look in the boy’s eyes as he took in the scene, took in the destruction and death she’d unleashed. But she also saw concern as he knelt next to her. He was wounded himself, a red stain spreading under his mail.

    “Don’t try to move her, boy,” Kosk said. “Wait for the healers.”

    Quellan appeared a moment later, kneeling carefully beside her. “Where were you hurt?” he asked.

    “Ribs,” she managed, though even that took an incredible effort. It felt like several sharp knives were piercing her body, but a moment later the cleric’s magic entered her body and the pain evaporated. She let out a relieved sigh, but remained where she was until the cure wounds spell took its full effect.

    “Better?” he asked.

    “Better,” Xeeta said. “Bredan, help me up?”

    The boy offered a hand at once, and while she still felt a little unsteady, she was able to stand unassisted. “Thanks.”

    “What happened?” Bredan asked.

    “I had to stop them,” Xeeta said.

    “That explosion of yours alerted them sure enough,” Kosk said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they heard that back at the village.”

    “It… they were… my magic, sometimes it sort of… exceeds my expectations.”

    The dwarf raised an eyebrow at that, but Bredan just nodded at the fallen orc and said, “Yeah, it looks like that guy found that out.”

    Glori had moved over to the dead leader, and picked up his mace. “This looks unusual,” she said. The weapon was made of a dark metal that shone dully in the bright sunlight. “Better than the rest of their gear, anyway.”

    Quellan turned from delivering a second cure wounds to Bredan to examine the weapon. “May I?” Accepting the mace from Glori, he gave it a few experimental swings. “It could be magical,” he said.

    “Keep it,” Kosk said. “Nobody else here uses that kind of weapon. We should check out that cave, make sure there aren’t any more of them skulking about.”

    After quickly checking the bodies they made their way into the cave. The interior was dark, so Quellan paused to enchant his shield with light so that Bredan could see.

    Just past the narrow entry the cave widened into a cavern of considerable size. It was immediately obvious that the orcs had been camping there for some time. Their bedrolls were noisome heaps of rotting fabric and furs that even Glori with her eye for treasure wanted nothing to do with. But there was another exit, a passage of clearly-worked stone to their right that extended deeper into the cliff.

    Kosk took the lead, though the passage only continued on for about fifteen feet before it opened onto another room. This one was only a fraction of the size of the outer cavern, and was almost empty save for three more bedrolls spread out around a cleared space in the center of the floor. It looked as though the passage had continued on at some point, though now it extended for only a few more feet past the room before ending in a complete collapse. There was another exit in the back of the room, a narrow, low passageway that only Kosk would be able to negotiate without ducking.

    “Ugh, what’s that stench,” Bredan said.

    “Orc,” Kosk said.

    “No, it’s something different,” Bredan insisted, covering his face with his arm as if that could keep the odor at bay.

    “Look, money,” Glori said. She pointed to a few gleaming bits of metal lying on the floor and went to investigate. In addition to a few silver coins she found a pair of dice made of ivory that she held up for the others to see. “Looks like we interrupted their game.”

    “Back luck for them,” Kosk said. He’d moved over to the mouth of the cramped passage and sniffed at the air there. “I think the boy’s right. Something in here.”

    Quellan came over with the light, which revealed that the passage extended for about ten feet before opening into a tiny vault. They could see the likely source of the smell: a pair of booted feet that turned out to be attached to a very dead man.

    The vault was far too small to fit all of them at once, but Glori accompanied Kosk to check out the body. “Looks like the orcs killed him,” Glori reported. “I think he might have been a cleric; he’s wearing the sigil of Laesil.”

    “Goddess of luck,” Quellan said. “It seems that his patroness’s favor couldn’t help him here.” He made a gesture of benediction and turned away, a dark look on his face.

    “Whatever he had, the orcs took it,” Kosk said. He came back to the larger room but Glori lingered behind a moment.

    “Should we bury him?” Bredan asked through his arm, still trying to protect himself against the stench.

    “That would be a good gesture,” Quellan said.

    “Hey, look what I found!” Glori said as she returned with a look of triumph on her face. She was holding a tightly-wrapped scroll.

    “Where did you find that?” Kosk said. “I searched the body.”

    “It was in his boot,” Glori said.

    She unrolled the scroll and held it out so they could all see it. It was immediately recognizable as a map of the ruins. It didn’t show the interior of the cave, but in addition to the part of the exterior complex they’d explored it showed an additional structure atop the cliffs. There was an annotation there, “Suspicious hole – should investigate.”

    The companions shared a look. “What do you think?” Bredan asked.

    After a moment, Glori said, “I think maybe we should take our unfortunate friend’s advice… and investigate.”
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  3. #83
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    Sweet! Back from holiday to multiple instalments...and "piggish features" on the orcs. Nice!

  4. #84
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    Quote Originally Posted by carborundum View Post
    Sweet! Back from holiday to multiple instalments...and "piggish features" on the orcs. Nice!
    Even though orcs have toughened up in recent editions and gone through something of a redesign, I always mentally picture them as like the Gamorrean guards from Return of the Jedi, who resembled the porcine guys from the 1e Monster Manual.

    * * *

    Chapter 66

    It took them the better part of an hour to reach the top of the bluff. The sheer cliffs did not extend all the way around, but the slope was steep even at the more accessible portions and studded with loose rocks that would give way as soon as weight was placed on them. By the time they finally reached the crest all were scraped and dirty from multiple slides, though none of them had suffered any serious injuries.

    “I was thinking about that cleric,” Glori said as she paused to brush prickleburrs out of her hair. “I wonder why he came here alone.”

    “We don’t know that he was alone,” Quellan said. “Perhaps his companions were driven off by the orcs, or met their fate elsewhere.”

    “Doesn’t matter either way,” Kosk said.

    “Do you think he was connected in some way to… to that other thing?” Bredan asked.

    Xeeta waved a hand. “This is where you change the subject,” she said. The tiefling looked as bedraggled as the rest of them, though her ruddy complexion showed less dirt than the paler humans.

    Quellan came to a stop. He looked at each of the others before turning toward the sorceress. “No, it’s not,” he said. “Bredan was referring to a job we did together before we set out for Adelar. It was for a wizard named Starfinder, and it wasn’t that dissimilar from this mission. She was also looking for a source of ancient magical power, hidden by a cult called the Eth’barat that existed during the waning days of the Mai’i. Apparently they were all about stockpiling ancient lore in anticipation of the Empire’s fall.”

    “Not that it helped them, apparently,” Bredan said.

    “And you think that these Eth’barat were involved in this site as well?” Xeeta asked.

    “There are some parallels,” Glori said. “An old ruin way off the beaten track, rumors of mysterious magic.”

    “An obsessed scholar with a lot of ready cash looking for a few convenient adventurers to stick their heads on the block,” Kosk added.

    “Somehow I don’t see Starfinder and Nordrum as being quite in the same category,” Glori said.

    “For all we know they’re best friends,” Bredan said. “Or maybe he works for her.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Kosk said. “We’re here, and it’s getting late. We should stop wasting time before we end up running into something we can’t handle.”

    They made their way back to the side of the bluff that faced out over the ruin. They found another wrecked structure there, right where the dead priest’s map had indicated it would be. There wasn’t much left to it at all, just a cracked foundation overgrown with weeds, with stumps at each corner where it looked like tall pillars might have once stood. There were blocks of weathered stone scattered all over the site, remnants of the building that had once stood here.

    “I wonder if there was an earthquake or something that wrecked this place,” Bredan said as they spread out to investigate the site. They couldn’t see the opening that the cleric’s map mentioned at first glance, but the tall weeds were thick enough to conceal such an entry from a casual examination.

    “You would be surprised what the simple passage of time can do,” Quellan said.

    “Nature is swift to reclaim her own,” Xeeta said.

    Bredan turned to say something to her, but before he got a chance Kosk said, “Over here.”

    They followed the dwarf around to the northwest corner of the structure. The weeds were particularly dense there, but they weren’t enough to mask the dark hole that extended under the overhanging mass of the building’s foundation stones.

    Glori stepped forward and bent low over the opening. She thrust her head so far into the gap that Bredan started to reach for her before he caught himself. But no monstrous entity erupted from the darkness to seize her, and he reminded himself that she could see in the dark a lot better than he could. She lingered there a few moments and then drew back.

    “Anything?” Quellan asked.

    “It goes in pretty far,” she said. “I heard something, running water I think. There may be a cave or underground complex underneath all this.”

    Xeeta, standing a few paces away from the others, thought she heard something and turned toward the bulk of the ruined structure. But there was nothing there, just the tall stalks of the weeds shifting slightly in the faint breeze.

    “It looks pretty tight,” Bredan said. “Tough fighting in there.”

    “I think it widens after the first bit,” Glori said.

    “I’ll go check it out,” Kosk said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in tight spaces.”

    “I can send in my dancing lights, see if there’s anything,” Glori said.

    “No need,” Kosk said. He started to hand his staff to her, but then his eyes widened as he saw a wedge-shaped head covered in golden scales emerge from the weeds an arm’s length from Xeeta. The sorceress seemed completely unaware as the head split open to reveal gaping jaws dominated by two long fangs that glistened as they extended toward her exposed leg.

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    Chapter 67

    Kosk threw his staff at the same instant that the snake lunged at Xeeta.

    The improvised missile didn’t hit the creature, but the sorceress let out a startled sound and flinched back as the staff shot past her. The snake’s initial lunge came up short, but it quickly recoiled and tried again. It looked for an instant that this time it would connect, but its fangs brushed against the invisible barrier of the sorceress’s mage armor and rebounded harmlessly away.

    The snake didn’t get another chance, as Xeeta finally realized the nature of the threat and beat a hasty retreat. She summoned a handful of fire and flung it at the creature as she fled, but the fire bolt was just as ineffective as the snake’s initial attacks.

    But by then its attention was taken up by the lumbering bulk of Quellan as the half-orc charged forward. The snake hissed at him and make a probing move toward his legs, but the cleric quickly shoved his shield down into the uneven ground to form a rampart between them. The snake looked big enough to launch itself over that barrier, but the creature already appeared to be having second thoughts about the encounter. It turned from the priest and began to slip back into the dense knot of weeds from which had appeared, but before it could reach the shelter of its nest it was intercepted by a brilliant arc of steel.

    Bredan’s sword struck it decisively a hand’s span beneath the dagger-shaped head. The sword clove through its thick hide like it was parchment, spraying droplets of blood over the ground as its head went flying into the tangled growth. Its body continued to coil and twist as if searching for its missing end, but within a few moments it uncoiled a final time and fell still.

    Glori stepped around it and recovered Kosk’s staff. “You okay?” she asked Xeeta as the tiefling returned to rejoin them.

    “Yeah. Thanks,” she said to Kosk.

    Quellan knelt to examine the remains of the snake. “Ah. Giant golden viper. Highly toxic bite.”

    Xeeta shuddered. “Do you think there are any more of them?”

    “Large predators like this tend to be solitary, but there’s no way to be certain,” Quellan said.

    “Maybe a whole nest of ‘em down there,” Kosk said. They all stared into the dark opening for a long moment, then the dwarf shrugged and said, “Let’s go.”

    Kosk had no difficulty making his way into the hole; as Glori had predicted it widened once past the tight overhang of the foundation stones. The others watched—all save Xeeta, who kept a close eye out for more snakes—as he crawled to the back of the cave before dropping out of sight.

    “Kosk?” Quellan asked.

    “It’s okay, there’s a drop off here, but it’s only about five feet. There’s a much bigger cave down… ugh.”

    “What’s wrong?” Glori asked.

    “Bats. Better step back a moment.”

    That was all the warning they got before a wild flutter of wings and high-pitched squeaks announced the arrival of several dozen bats that fluttered up through the cave and into the air. For a moment they swirled around the companions, but then they were gone. Glori leaned into the cave mouth, only to jerk back as one last bat flashed past her, squeaking as if protesting the invasion of its home.

    “Was that really necessary?” she yelled down to Kosk.

    “Better to clear them out then run into them while we’re in a hurry,” Kosk’s voice drifted up to them. “The cave goes on a ways, but I’ve found the source of the sound you heard. Better get down here.”

    Glori shot a quick look at the others, then knelt and started wriggling into the cave opening.
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    You do like to end on a cliffhanger

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    Quote Originally Posted by carborundum View Post
    You do like to end on a cliffhanger
    Come on, whatever went wrong crawling into a tiny cave?

    * * *

    Chapter 68

    Glori had flashbacks to the tight confines of the kobold tunnels as she shimmied into the narrow opening, but she had no difficulty slipping through even with her bow and lyre. The same could not be said for Bredan and Quellan. Even after removing their packs and sliding their weapons in ahead of them the two had to squirm and scrape their way past the overhang. Quellan got stuck and there was a moment where it looked like he would not be able to join them, but with some prodding from behind by Xeeta he finally popped clear to where Bredan could drag him down to the wider space below.

    Kosk helped Glori over the drop to the adjacent cavern where the bats had made their lair. She was greeted by the stink of their droppings, and her boot squished in something as the dwarf steadied her before turning to help Bredan.

    “Eww,” she said.

    Quellan had spelled a piece of wire with light to help Bredan, but even without it Glori had no difficulty making out the features of the lower cave. There wasn’t much to it, just an ovoid bubble in the rock with a low ceiling crusted with bits of bat hair and smears of guano. The rush of falling water was close, filling the confined space with sound, and she could see that its source had to be a narrow crevice on the far side of the cavern about twenty feet away. She started to sidle that way before Kosk cautioned her.

    “Better wait for the others,” the dwarf said. Glori had to blink as Bredan appeared, the brightly glowing wire wrapped around the loose baldric that held his sword. She couldn’t see how he would possibly be able to use the huge weapon in these close quarters, but he’d left the awkward bulk of his crossbow behind and she could understand how he would want to bring more than a knife into these underground tunnels.

    Bredan had crawled into the cave head-first, and he fumbled awkwardly over the transition to the lower-tier. Kosk cursed as he helped the human warrior get straightened out, a sight that Glori might have found entertaining if not for the potential death lurking in every shadow.

    Finally Bredan got his feet under him and stumbled forward, almost braining himself on one of the uneven ridges of stone that protruded from the ceiling. Glori let out an exasperated sigh and took him by the hand, pulling him over to another part of the cavern that was out of the way.

    “It’s times like these I envy you your body,” Bredan said. When Glori raised an eyebrow he quickly stammered, “I mean, that you’re so small. Not that you’re smaller than you should be. You’re a perfect size.”

    “You should have quit when you were ahead,” Glori said. “There better be something down here, or Kosk will never let me live it down.”

    “If there’s something bad down here, we won’t be getting out in a hurry,” Bredan noted.

    “That’s the spirit,” Glori replied, punching him lightly in the shoulder.

    With a grunt and a clatter of dirt Quellan appeared atop the ledge. Bredan went to help him, but the half-orc was able to twist around and drop down with considerably less drama than the smith. In his wake Xeeta popped through and slid to the floor with something almost approaching grace, reuniting their company.

    “I am not looking forward to exiting this place,” Quellan said.

    “Well, maybe we’ll run into another demon and we’ll all get killed,” Kosk said.

    “Cheerful thought,” Xeeta said. “There must be a reason the structure above was built on top of this cave,” she continued. “It seems highly unlikely that the builders would not have been aware of it.”

    “The water, most likely,” Quellan said, pointing to the far exit and the constant sound of splashing that filled the cavern. “There must be a spring or other underground source with enough pressure to lift it up to this level. Shall we investigate?”

    “All right, but let me go first,” Kosk said. “That way I can help if you want to repeat your impression of a cork in a bottle of wine.”

    For a moment it looked like the crevice would put the dwarf’s words to the test, but again after an initial narrow stretch the opening widened into a navigable passage. Bredan and Quellan had to turn sideways to fit, but they didn’t encounter anything as difficult as the cave mouth. The passage extended for about twenty feet, the sound of falling water building until it culminated in a ledge that overlooked another large cavern.

    This one was several times the size of the cave with the bats. The source of the sound was a low slit in the wall that poured a constant sheet of water over the lip of the ledge. It dropped maybe ten feet into a pool in the cavern below. The light Bredan carried showed that the pool filled most of that space, though there was a narrow shelf of land that extended for maybe a third of the way around its circumference. They could see that there was another exit down there, a rectangular opening a step above the level of the water, too regular to be a natural feature of the cave.

    “Well, well,” Glori said. “Looks like somebody was down here after all.”

    “I can’t tell how deep the water is,” Bredan said. “It’ll hurt if it’s just a few inches deep.”

    “Or if you land on one of those rocks,” Kosk said. The dwarf pointed out a series of low mounds that protruded from the surface of the pool, crusted white with mineral deposits.

    “I’ve got rope, and spikes,” Bredan said.

    “Look over there,” Kosk said, pointing to the far end of the ledge on the other side of the rushing stream. “That wall looks rough enough to climb down, and it’s close enough to that dry spit that we can avoid getting our feet wet.”

    “Still a rough trip down if someone slips,” Quellan said.

    “Fine,” the dwarf said. “You stay here and I’ll see if it’s safe.” Without waiting for a response he trudged through the stream. The water frothed around his feet, but he didn’t lose his footing and a moment later he was over on the edge of the drop. “Yeah, this shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

    “At least let me get the rope…” Quellan began, but the half-orc didn’t get a chance to finish. As he started to turn around one foot slid into the water, and as the flow caught hold of his boot it slipped out from under him. Bredan reached for him, but the half-orc’s bulk was already dragging him down, and the smith had to let go before both were pulled over. Quellan fell face-first into the pool, striking the surface with another violent splash that actually managed to spray his companions above. The mystery of the pool’s depth was solved as the cleric stumbled up and managed to get his feet back under him, the water rising up to the middle of his chest.

    “Is it cold?” Kosk asked. “It looks cold.”

    Quellan shot him a look, then turned to examine his surroundings. He’d landed roughly in the middle of the pool, about ten feet from the edge of the pool and the other exit. He started wading in that direction, but after a moment he stopped, looking around him warily.

    “What’s wrong?” Glori asked.

    “I thought I heard something,” Quellan said. “Bredan, I’m going to create a new light, it’ll make the one you’re holding go out.”

    “Okay,” the smith said.

    Quellan touched his holy symbol to his shield, which began to glow softly. It’s light reflected brightly on the rippling surface of the pool, but it didn’t reveal any new threats. Several of the nearby mineral formations glistened in the magical illumination, as though they were studded with precious jewels.

    Since Quellan was looking that way, he noticed when one of those formations shifted slightly. With a soft crack, a piece of one fell free and dropped into the water.

    “Um, did you see that?” Glori asked.

    The cleric was already reaching for his mace, but even as he touched the handle of his weapon another of the formations shifted and moved, followed a moment later by a third. Then, as if responding to some unseen common trigger, all three formations erupted, decades of encrusted minerals falling away to reveal what was underneath.

    The source of the disturbance was three humanoid skeletons that rose up out of the water. Their bones, still glistening with the white encrustations of accumulation from the pool, clacked together as all three of the undead constructions leapt into the pool with bony claws extended toward the solitary cleric.

  8. #88
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    Chapter 69

    The skeletons were too close for Quellan to evade their rush, even if he hadn’t been up to his chest in water. His companions above reached for their weapons, though they were too far away to immediately intervene.

    The half-orc let his mace go and grasped hold of his holy symbol. As he presented it toward the undead creatures it began to glow with a soft white light. “By the Light… I compel thee!” Quellan cried, and for a moment the light intensified until it was twice as strong as a torch.

    The skeletons quailed before that radiance. Two of them immediately recoiled and fled, heading for the edges of the pool. The last one hesitated, and for a moment an echoing pulse of reddish light shone within the empty interior of its skull. Whatever dark necromancy had animated it allowed it to resist the cleric’s divine magic, and it lunged forward again, a claw sweeping around toward his face.

    But before it could strike a dark form hurtled down on it from above. Kosk held his staff pointed down like a spear, and the weighted end drove down into its skull like a sledgehammer. The dwarf himself followed a moment later, smashing through the skeleton’s body and launching a spray of shattered bones across the surface of the pool. For a moment Kosk went under, but then he burst up again, sputtering. “Bloody blasted cultists!” he cursed.

    Quellan grabbed hold of his friend and guided them toward the narrow belt of ground on the edge of the pool. The skeletons had gravitated that way, and as they approached they again tried to flee past them, heading toward the opening in the back wall. The two adventurers intercepted them, Kosk shattering one’s leg with a blow from his staff while Quellan knocked the second back with his mace. The damaged skeleton turned back toward the pool, but before it could reenter the water it was blasted with a fire bolt from Xeeta. The flames didn’t have much effect against the undead thing’s soaked bones, but the impact of it knocked its spine just a bit off-kilter. The skeleton took a few creaking steps forward and then toppled forward, coming apart even as it hit the water.

    Glori had her bow out, but there weren’t any more targets. “You okay?” she called down. Bredan likewise had drawn his sword, but on seeing that the dwarf and half-orc had things under control he’d passed on duplicating Kosk’s risky leap.

    “Just peachy,” Kosk said.

    “Hold on, we’ll come on down,” Glori said, tucking her arrow back into her quiver before slinging her bow across her back.

    “Go ahead and secure the rope first,” Quellan said. “It’ll help when we come back this way.”

    Bredan took out his tools and hammered in two spikes, one on their side of the rushing waterfall and the second above the uneven wall that Kosk had indicated as a possible route down. They all ended up getting wet, but without further threats appearing it was just a question of taking the time and care needed to negotiate the hazard safely.

    Once they party had reunited on the shore of the pool, they investigated the opening in the wall. Kosk had confirmed that it led to a narrow passage that appeared empty, but he’d held off exploring further until they were all together. Alert to any further traps or guardians, they made their way deeper into the complex. Quellan respelled Bredan’s scabbard, shifting the light back to him to carry. The young warrior held the weapon aloft so the light clearly illuminated the stone of the corridor.

    It was obvious that this part of the complex had been deliberately worked. At first the passage was rough-hewn from the stone of the bluff, but as they made their way forward it transitioned to smooth stone blocks that fitted together with barely a gap between them despite the lack of mortar. The passage ended about twenty feet from the cavern with the pool, with an archway that led into a vaulted chamber.

    After tapping the stones of the arch a few times with his staff, Kosk led the way into the room. The place looked ancient, with a generous layer of dust covering the floor. Thick stone buttresses built into the walls arced up to support the ceiling twelve feet above. The ground was packed dirt rather than stone, and gave slightly as they stepped on it. The air was unsurprisingly damp, and lichens clung to the narrow gaps in the stone blocks of the chamber.

    “It looks like maybe somebody already looted this place,” Glori said. She pointed to a series of niches in the walls, each a few feet deep with a shelf that could have held a small statue or other similar object. As Bredan came into the room his light revealed that all of them were empty.

    “Tread carefully,” Quellan said. “There may still be active traps.” He turned to the left, where another archway was completely filled with a collapse that had sprayed rubble into the vault. He bent and picked up a rock the size of his head. “This place could be unstable.”

    “Another way out over here,” Kosk said. They all came over to join the dwarf, who indicated an exit partially concealed behind one of the buttresses. It led to a passage much like the first, narrow but wide enough for all of them, even Quellan, to negotiate without difficulty.

    “That was impressive, what you did with those skeletons,” Glori said to Quellan as Kosk did his usual check before starting into the new corridor. “I’ve heard about the power of priests to turn undead, of course, but I’ve never actually seen it done in person.”

    “It is a potent gift from the gods,” Quellan said. “Unfortunately I cannot channel that power again until I have rested.”

    “Maybe you won’t have to use it again, if you pay attention to what you’re doing,” Kosk grumbled from the passage. “There’s another room up here.”

    After sharing a look Quellan and Glori followed him into the passage, followed by Bredan with Xeeta again bringing up the rear. The tiefling gave the arch a wary look, as if expecting a deadly trap to be triggered at any moment.

    With his shield held tightly to his body to keep its iron rim from scraping on the walls, Quellan shuffled forward to where Kosk was kneeling at the end of the passage. Once more there was another arch, and a chamber that from their vantage looked similar to the one that they’d just left. The dwarf glanced up as the half-orc came forward, but didn’t move forward.

    “What’s the matter?” Quellan asked.

    Kosk shook his head. “I don’t know. Something’s not right.”

    “Maybe we can have Glori scout it out using her dancing lights,” Quellan suggested, but Kosk was already leaning forward through the arch, carefully looking left and right to see if there was something waiting in ambush. The room was clear, but as he shifted his weight the stone block he’d stepped on settled with a soft and ominous click.

    Kosk barely had time to register the sound before a massive stone block plummeted down from the ceiling, directly toward his exposed and unprotected head.

  9. #89
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    Chapter 70

    Kosk had been expecting trouble, but he hadn’t expected it to come from above. He tensed, ready to spring, but the stone block fell faster than even he could react.

    But a scant instant before impact the dwarf was jerked roughly back. The stone slammed hard into the floor and balanced there for a moment before it tottered over, dropping into the room with another loud crash. It was almost large enough to fill the archway, and had to weigh at least a thousand points.

    Kosk remained quiet in Quellan’s grasp for a moment, both of them staring at the results of the trap.

    “That would have squished me like a bug,” the dwarf finally said.

    “Aye,” Quellan said.

    “What’s happening?” Bredan asked. “What was that noise?”

    Quellan let go of Kosk’s robe and the dwarf quickly straightened, adjusting the garment. “We’re all okay,” the cleric said over his shoulder. “There was another trap.”

    “Yeah, just another bloody trap,” Kosk said. He stepped forward onto the block, using it as a platform to edge cautiously into the chamber.

    The room was vaulted like the last, and likewise had niches in the walls. But these were long and narrow, forming depressions almost large enough to hold a person. Those horizontal slits were stacked several high, and most of them were bricked up, the mortar that had once sealed them crumbling from age and the dampness that suffused the complex. The ones that were open were dark slits that were deep enough to be ominous in what they might have concealed.

    Quellan and Glori stepped to the sides as they passed through the arch, letting Bredan’s light spill into the chamber. It revealed that the place was roughly twenty feet long, culminating in a slightly raised platform dominated by a stone altar or table. The platform extended into a deep alcove that formed a rough hemisphere, a geometric oddity against the more regular lines of the rest of the complex.

    Kosk stepped forward off the fallen slab. His sandals made a soft squelching sound as they sank slightly into floor; like the outer vault the floor was packed dirt.

    “This place… it feels… dark,” Glori said with a shudder.

    Bredan’s sword let out a soft hiss as he drew it from its scabbard. “How much you want to bet there’s another guardian here?” he asked.

    No one offered to take his wager. The companions spread out slightly as they slowly moved forward toward the altar.

    “I think there’s something in that round area,” Glori said. “Bredan, hold up the light.”

    He did, and it revealed that the curving walls behind the altar had small niches cut into them as well. The light glinted on something in one of them, a small metallic object that had a distinctive greenish tinge.

    “There’s no need to go over there and maybe trigger another trap,” Xeeta said. The sorceress had remained in the entry, standing atop the fallen slab in a half-crouch. “I can use my magic to bring whatever it is to us.”

    The others had stopped when she’d started speaking, and when she was done Kosk nodded eagerly. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

    The companions drew back to give her a clear line of sight to the alcove. Bredan glanced back at the wall behind him, where one of the open vaults was nearby at waist level. There was something visible near the end of it, just within the shadow of the opening.

    He turned and lifted his scabbard to get a better look, but then a soft gasp from Glori drew his attention around.

    The object she’d spotted was drifting slowly through the air toward them. He still couldn’t see what it was, exactly; it was roughly oblong and about a foot long, but it was crusted with a heavy green patina that masked its purpose. Verdigris; that meant that it was made of bronze. It was being held aloft by a translucent magical hand that cupped it almost like a real hand would have. Curious, he found himself moving closer without even thinking about it.

    “Did you hear something?” Kosk asked.

    Bredan turned to look at the dwarf. He and Quellan had moved to the far side of the chamber, and both were looking around. The mage hand had stopped moving, but when nothing happened Xeeta gestured and it continued pulling the artifact toward her. As it approached Glori stepped forward to take it.

    But even as she reached out toward the hovering object she came to a sudden stop. She looked down, a look of confusion on her face. Bredan also looked, and saw the reason for her trouble: a sickly gray-green hand topped with yellowed claws had emerged from the floor and seized hold of her ankle.

    “Monster!” Bredan yelled. He rushed forward, but was still several steps clear when the ground around Glori exploded and a creature surged up to attack her. The adventurers barely had time to register a humanoid figure caked with mud and huge slavering jaws before the bard was flung up into the air. The creature was still holding onto her ankle, and as it reared up it latched its other hand around her throat. The young woman’s scream abruptly died, and the monster pulled her into a tight embrace, its jaws opening wide to reveal rows of sharp teeth. She didn’t struggle as it twisted her head roughly aside, leaving the pale flesh of her throat completely exposed to its deadly bite.

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    Chapter 71

    A scant instant before the hideous monster would have torn out Glori’s throat with those awful teeth, Bredan slammed into them.

    The impact loosened its hold on the girl, and in that moment of advantage Bredan tore her from its grasp. He pulled her away. The creature recovered quickly and would have followed, but its legs were still embedded in the mud of the floor. It took it only a second to free itself, but before it could pursue its escaped victim Kosk rushed up from behind.

    “Chew on this, ghoul!” he hissed, sweeping his staff into its back. The creature shifted quickly, and the blow only glanced off its side, doing little damage. The dwarf recoiled, choking, “Gods, that’s foul!”

    “It’s a ghast!” Quellan warned. The priest held up his holy symbol, which began to glow with a bright light. The undead monster slashed its head right to stare at him, hissing in fury.

    Bredan pulled Glori over to the side of the room. She was limp in his grasp, and as he laid her down he could see that her limbs and body were all tensed, like she was clenching all of her muscles at once. Her eyes were open and her lips twitched as though she was trying to say something, but no sound came out.

    “Glori!” Bredan asked. “What’s wrong, what did it do to you?”

    “She’s paralyzed!” Xeeta yelled. She cursed as the fire bolt that she hurled at the ghast flashed past its head, exploding harmlessly on the far side of the room. She’d had to aim high in order to avoid accidentally hitting Kosk. “She’ll recover, assuming that thing doesn’t kill all of us!”

    Bredan nodded and left his friend, reaching for his sword.

    Quellan launched a guiding bolt at the ghast, but the undead monster anticipated the attack and ducked under the streaking pulse of divine energy. The half-orc reached for his mace, but the creature was faster. It closed the gap separating them in a single leap, its claws lashing out as it landed. With one hand it seized hold of the cleric’s shield and pulled it down, and then the other flashed across his face, scraping over his helmet before tearing bloody red lines across his face. The impact knocked Quellan back, and like Glori he stiffened as he collapsed, paralyzed by the creature’s fell power.

    Before it could move to finish him, off, however, Xeeta launched another flaming bolt, this one striking it squarely in the center of its back. The ghast let out a furious shriek and spun to face her, the violence showing on its face causing her to stumble back a few steps.

    But even as it started toward her, Bredan stepped into its path. His sword swept out in a brilliant arc, the steel glowing in the light from his spelled scabbard. But the ghast sprang nimbly back, and the stroke met only empty air.

    The two combatants faced off, each wary of the other.

    Kosk came at it again from behind, his face twisted from fighting off the effects of its poisonous stench. But as he swung the staff the ghast twisted its torso and swept back an arm at an angle that would have been painful for a man. The staff glanced off its forearm before it locked its claws around the weapon and tore it from the dwarf’s grasp. The ghast flung the staff at Bredan, doing no harm but forcing him back a step.

    Kosk held his ground. His sandaled feet ground into the muddy earth, and for a moment his face became blank as a look of intense focus flashed in his eyes.

    Then he exploded into a blur of motion.

    Kosk drove one fist into the ghast’s side, delivering a blow that would have shattered ribs on a normal man. Clearly even the undead monster felt it, for it spun around to face this foe, even though that left its back momentarily open to Bredan and Xeeta. It hissed as it raised a claw to strike.

    But Kosk wasn’t finished. His arms moved like the snap of a whip, delivering a series of impacts that pulverized the ghast’s body. The creature withstood that assault but each time it tried to counter the dwarf was already moving to deflect and attack again.

    Finally he let out a sharp sound, more like a focused blast of noise than a battle cry, and launched one last attack. His fist struck the ghast in the breastbone with a force that knocked it off its feet. It spun around and landed hard in the mud.

    Driven by the unnatural unlife that animated it, the ghast did not stay down long. But even as it rose to its feet, perhaps a bit unsteady after the hammering it had taken, Bredan’s sword came sweeping down. This time it could not evade in time, and the blazing arc of steel tore its chest open from its shoulder to the opposite hip. For a moment it looked as though even that would not stop it, as it took a step forward and reached out a clawed arm toward the swordsman. Bredan drew back a step and raised his sword to a ready position, but a second stroke was not necessary. With a final hiss of frustrated rage the ghast crumpled to the ground and did not move.
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