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Aphonion: Journals of a Licensed Diabolist (Sat. and Wed. updates, last 9/3, 9/10)

I proffered the second contract I had prepared in advance. She read it carefully, but the contract was short and clear, binding her to serve my will completely. She was reluctant, but finally drew blood again and signed her name on this contract as well. The ring I wore grew hot as she finished signing and the gold took on a slightly reddish tinge.

With that, I had bound my first devil to service, and with much more favorable terms than I had ever expected. I had expected her to negotiate on the length of service and would have agreed if pushed to service for a term of years. I also would have agreed to a more restricted servitude, but she had agreed to everything.

There are few ways to test an agreement that you have written. Most of the techniques for testing whether a devil has been bound serve to verify the nature of the contract when the devil has drawn it up. When the diabolist has drafted the contract, there should be no doubt, at least assuming the diabolist’s competence. Still, I had my doubts. She had agreed with so little resistance--a little negotiating, but not even insisting that I alter the contract itself, and without even any torment.

I instructed her to lower her resistance to a spell and cast detect thoughts. I had a clear read on her mind and asked her what her opinion of me was. Her thoughts, or at least her surface thoughts, were dominated by surprise at my audacity, although she also found me impressive and attractive, to the point of wondering whether she could draw my interest, despite my concubines. I sensed no reservations or secret hatred. While my spell was only a minor one and could not allow me to read beneath the surface thoughts, it was sufficient to resolve my doubts.

I spoke with his excellence the bishop, who congratulated me on my success and agreed that all appeared to be in order.
 

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At that point, I realized a last detail that I had not attended to with the binding. I hope that Lord Paranswarm will forgive me for being lax on this point, but I sought to make amends as soon as I realized it.

I turned back to Alveera. “Are you bound to the service of Lord Paranswarm, either directly or through your infernal hierarchy?”

“No, master, except as I serve him through you.” As she said that, she thought, <<I don’t think anyone in my hierarchy has ever served Paranswarm.>>

“Yet now you serve me, and I loyally serve the Lord of Orderly Darkness. You must serve Him directly as well. Kneel. His excellence will perform the ceremony to endarken you. I command you to cooperate.”

Alveera was obviously afraid of this command and remained standing. “But… my superiors will be most wroth with me for this.” As she said that, she thought, <<I’ll never be able to go home. They will take my lands and power…>>

“I ordered you to kneel, slave!” I held forth the binding ring, and she reluctantly dropped to her knees. I could hear her thoughts running desperately as she tried to think of some way to avoid being bound to Lord Paranswarm. “You are bound to me. Why should your superiors object to an additional binding?”

“Bindings to mortals are expected. It is the nature of things. But to agree to serve a power within the infernal hierarchy who is not part of my hierarchy… they will view that as a betrayal of the worst kind.”

“Be that as it may, to serve me, you must also serve Paranswarm.” I prepared to go through with the next binding ritual but then stopped. “And yet… it may not be worthwhile to draw the anger of the archdevil that you serve in Hell. I will have to think of this. Remain here.”

“How could I leave, master?” she asked, gesturing at the binding circle.

“Nonetheless, I command you not to leave even if the circle is broken.”

His excellence and I went for a walk--imagine that, me getting the honor of accompanying a bishop! I arranged for our route to take us onto the ground he had sanctified for the Mass. I explained that I did not want to discuss it where her superiors might have been scrying on us, but that I had recalled a way in which we could bind the erinyes to serve Paranswarm without any others knowing. The bishop agreed and authorized a subterfuge. And so I returned, informed Alveera that I would not require her to swear loyalty to Lord Paranswarm, and then released her from the circle, all for the benefit of any scrying superiors of hers.

After the next mass, I called her to me while I remained on holy ground. His excellence rapidly ran through the ritual, anointing her with oil and holy water and then healing the resulting wounds so there would be no physical sign, and I sent her on a meaningless errand-- the ostensible reason for calling her. She was still somewhat horrified by being bound to Lord Paranswarm, but His will is much more important than ours, let alone hers. Moreover, the binding was secret-- none would know of it but me, her, and the Church, so she should not lose power in the Hells, nor draw the anger of her superiors towards me. I cannot be certain that we successfully kept it secret, but I believe so.

With that accomplished, I returned to my studies and found that my power was greatly increased. Truly, binding my first devil was a watershed moment for me. For the first time, I had access to spells of the third circle, no doubt because of her magical aid. [Konrad thus demonstrates the classic logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc--because A happens after B, it must have happened because of B. In fact, he received no bonus XP for binding a demon--he just happened to bind it immediately before hitting fifth level anyway.]

[End Session 3]
 
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[Session 4]

On the 5th of O-Tar:
After the day I spent binding Alveera, our group met to plan our next strike. I was surprised that neither the Temple nor the rightful government of the Count in exile gave us specific orders, but they must have their reasons. In addition to myself, the group included Duranic, the strange siblings Buzz and Spring, our kobold companion Twang, and a newcomer, Sideh. Sideh is a Tarkenian follower of Glor’diadel, not of the Lord of Orderly Darkness. Indeed, he is even a member of a religious and knightly order, the Order of the Shield of Light. But while he is among the heathen, he appears to be dedicated to fighting the Shadow and bringing Caldefor back into Orderly Darkness.

We discussed several possible next targets. While we had been involved in the destruction of two of the dragonholds, three remained. Striking at one of the remaining dragonholds, ideally before they have had a chance to truly increase their guard, would offer a major victory. In particular, if we could defeat the forces of Dragonhold Ripgut and defeat Lord Bastion, a vampire noble who betrayed Caldefor during the Grand Count’s apostasy, we would be in a position to permanently liberate a portion of Caldefor along the coastline. That possibility also raised a second possible target: rather than striking against Dragonhold Ripgut, we could launch an attack on Lord Bastion’s manor. Finally, there was some discussion of conducting further operations near the fallen Hastur towers at the far south of Caldefor, hoping to capitalize on the recently restored area surrounding the tower from which we rescued the matrix. After some discussion, we agreed that we would begin with an attempted strike at Ripgut, to be followed rapidly by an attack on Lord Bastion.

We pooled the knowledge we had and consulted with the minions of the Hastur to learn more of Ripgut’s defenses. The five dragonholds were not of equivalent strength. All were strong, but Blackgleam, the dragonhold destroyed in the bronze dragon’s deathflight, was the weakest. Ripgut could be expected to be substantially more heavily defended. At one point the Trodheim, the oldest and most powerful of the doyles, was stationed at Dragonhold Ripgut, but the Hastur informed us that it was recently drawn back. The doyles are the great worms of negative energy and destruction that serve the accursed Borsh’tro, may he and all his minions be delivered to Lord Paranswarm’s righteous punishment. The Hastur reported that the Trodheim was drawn back south to the mountains, beyond the historic borders of Caldefor, to guard the doyle young. They told us that that was because of a major event recently involving the doyles, but the Hastur either knew no details or did not see fit to inform us. Nonetheless, the assumption can be made that Dragonhold Ripgut is one of the more powerful dragonholds, possibly the most powerful besides Talonstrike, which has always been acknowledged as the strongest.

We asked the Hastur what forces besides the Trodheim were stationed at Ripgut. They stated that the most powerful defender would be Ripgut himself, the elder dragon in charge of the dragonhold. Each dragonhold is named after a great elder black dragon. However, Ripgut might not be present at any given moment. Rumor also placed a dracolich at the dragonhold. There are always eum at the dragonholds, of course, and there are sometimes demons, although more often if there is an attack plan.

The description of Ripgut himself gave us an idea. Ripgut does his own hunting and thus ranges further from his dragonhold than many of the other great dragons. Indeed, he favors hunting human-raised food, such as cows and horses, and has been know to cross into the Borderlands from time to time. The Hastur always respond to cross-border incursions, of course, but have never yet arrived in time to dispatch Ripgut.

Based on this information, we form a plan to lure him to attack great, blessed steer. We could position a great black steer, ostensibly blessed by Lord Paranswarm with great size and vigor, and lure him to attack. Ripgut is one of the least intelligent of the great dragons, having survived on raw brute power. He is unlikely to be able to resist such bait. There is the danger that his advisors will intervene-- the Hastur could not say for certain who he relies on, but the dracolich is a likely possibility. Nonetheless, he is likely to believe that a quick raid will go unnoticed. But if we are prepared, that will allow us to hammer him when he crosses the border.
 

Our first thought was to acquire local cattle, from the villages that support the Hastur towers. However, Sideh, who has some knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, informed us that this would be impracticable. The towers are at the worst lands of the Borderlands, from a perspective of crops, at the edges of the Shadow where Borsh’tro’s foul influence already blights the land. To find the best steers, we would need to travel deeper into the inlands of Tarkenia, into the lands that bear allegiance to the local nobles and the Sultan.

After we finished developing our plan and received the commitment of the Hastur to play their role in it, we headed north to buy a herd of cattle. Our trip was uneventful. We met some small-time merchants but had no interest in their wares, nor they in our purposes.

Once we reached the prime grazing land of Tarkenia, Sideh suggested the right people to talk to about buying cattle. Though he knew who the right ranchers to speak with were, he seemed to doubt his negotiating skills at first. I viewed it as obvious that Alveera would be able to negotiate the best possible price for us, so I rotated my ring and summoned her.

I am not certain how to interpret Sideh’s reaction. He startled and then stared at her with an odd look to his face. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by her beauty? After a moment, however, he asked her, “How are you at negotiating?”

Alveera’s response was perhaps predictable. “I’ve negotiated with many men. In almost every case, I have given them their heart’s desire, in exchange for my heart’s desire.”

“Is your heart’s desire fat cows?”

She turned to me at that question. “Master, is your heart’s desire fat cows?”

I thought for a moment. It does not do to give a bound devil a careless answer, lest they twist it against you. Alveera’s contract forbids such treachery, of course, but nonetheless, care is always essential in diabolism. “Currently, yes.”

“Then that is my heart’s desire.” She smiled at Sideh.

Our new companion surprised me again by deciding that he would, after all, conduct the negotiations personally. I do not understand why he made that decision. Perhaps, as he is a priest, he feared that she would lead his coreligionists towards the Darkness? If so, then I should have reassured him that I would never breach the agreement the Holy Church entered into to not proselytize in establishmentarian Glor’diadelian realms. Someday, of course, they will all be endarkened, but as long as the Holy Church tells us that now is not the time, we must simply wait and spread the Darkness in the lands that are loyal to Lord Paranswarm or that serve none of the Ecumenical Alliance’s gods. Whatever his reasons, we all deferred to his expertise and understanding of local trade norms, and I dismissed Alveera.

Sideh quickly arranged for the purchase of forty cattle, including eight steers. The steers were large, fat, and well-fed-- while I have no expertise in such matters, they seemed quite extraordinary compared to the animals near the Shadowline. We arranged to travel with them back to the area near Circle Waterside and arranged for the Trueborn we had endarkened to take care of them. With that, the preparations for our trap were prepared.

We would position the cattle near the border, with the most magnificent steer prominent among them. A group of people disguised as scouts would bring news of these cattle to Ripgut-- a role that our detachment would take care of personally. Ripgut would almost certainly attack the steer, but to prevent him from flying off, the Trueborn would prepare the finest bull by making it eat an immovable rod. Ripgut would eventually overwhelm the rod’s magic or simply rip the steer off it, but with any luck the effort would slow him down enough to keep him from winging away. A dimensional lock or the equivalent from the Hastur would foreclose magical escape. Meanwhile, the Hastur Tower Guard would attack the dragon, to keep him pinned, to harry him, and to net him to further prevent escape. And then the Hastur themselves, ready for battle and waiting for Ripgut, would finish the dragon with needfire and their psionic devices. They assured us that they would be ready, and that while they rarely plan subterfuge themselves, they were happy to play their role in our plan. With their enormous power, against anything except an all-out assault, success would be assured. With all our plans prepared, we set out for Dragonhold Ripgut on the 7th of O-Tar. As the Dragonhold is about 100 miles south of the border, we instructed them to be prepared for Ripgut’s raid between 5 and 10 days after our departure.
 

Apologies for the posting delay. A combination of busy times at work, holidays, and poor net access at my parents' house caused me to miss some posts. I should be back on schedule for the foreseeable future.

----

After crossing the Shadowline, we passed through the dust clouds that blow continuously across Caldefor and made our way to the tunnel entrance of which we knew. We entered the tunnel. A few of the periodic translucent globes still glowed with an orange light, but most were long dead. The working globes were infrequent enough that we had no choice but to use my lantern. After three days of travel through the tunnels, we emerged-- still some distance from the dragonhold but much closer than we had been. The Shadow was darker, both visibly and in more metaphoric ways, now that we were several days from the border.

We passed some few Shadow creatures, but at first everything ignored us. Our disguises were sufficient that we looked like we belonged. Finally, as we approached the dragonhold, to the end of the second day of travel beyond the tunnel, something noticed us. There was very little movement there, presumably because the dragon kills nearly anything that moves close to its hold. Suddenly, we were surrounded by giant scorpions, giant soliphugids (camel spiders), and giant spiders-- many of them, ranging from the size of dogs to twelve feet tall. There were about two dozen of them over all, and they seemed to be just pushing past us.

Spring flew directly up and saw someone who was a beautiful woman from the waist up and a scorpion below that. She was some two-hundred yards away, in the midst of a stream of more insects and scorpions. We all recognized her strange form as clearly the effect of too much exposure to Shadow, with the taint mutating her, but none of us recognized her specifically. Spring also noted that she had a beautiful matched set of war-fans, and spiders crawling through her hair.

Spring returned to the ground, reported, and with a quick spell rendered Buzz invisible. I also went invisible, using my ring, and Sideh hid, though not particularly well.

The Shadow woman crested the dust dune ahead of us. Spring settled back to earth, more or less in front of her, and she leapt back onto the top of the dust dune. Despite her corrupted form, she moved very gracefully. She snapped both war-fans into the open position, with some sort of metal webbing linking the sharpened spines.

I have tried to recreate their conversation accurately, although I cannot swear to every word of it.

Spring spoke placatingly. “I mean you no harm.”

“Ultimately, we all seek to harm one another, but I’ll take you at your word.”

Spring shrugs. “I guess that is right, but in this specific meeting I mean you no harm.”

“What zouuvt do you serve?”

Based on my training in demonology, I knew that the zouuvt are demons that raise undead.

“I was killed on the front line and continued to serve.”

“Of course. Your loyalty to Lord Borsh’tro drove you to continue to serve.”

“What route do you follow?”

“I go to patrol the border. To wait for the one who challenged my master in his own city.” Her anger was obvious. At a further inquiry from Spring, she projected an image of Lankman, the peculiar dwarf we met before our recent expedition to Circle Greenfield. “He has stolen from my master. Goods and slaves, who he has taken to the service of the Light. He is imperious-- he will return.”

Twang interjected, “Who do you serve?”

“My master.”

“And who is that?”

“The Caldefor of Caldefor. You do not remember me?”

“I am not from here. Are you?”

“I am. I am the Marchioness of Uight.”

“Is that part of Caldefor?”

“It is. It was beautiful farmland.” The Marchioness appeared slightly disturbed as she said that, as if at some level she still understood the damage she had inflicted on her fief, but she quickly suppressed the response.

There was some whispered discussion about whether we should take a more active approach to the Marchioness. Some thought that she could be brought back to Orderly Darkness, while another suggested that we could take her prisoner. Still, without our sergeant present to decide on what we should do, we took no clear action.

Spring asked, “Do the dragons look for this dwarf as well?”

“They do. Greatclaw in particular looks for him. The dwarf mated with one of his shes-- one of its mates, in the harem. Greatclaw seeks revenge for this, as I seek revenge for my master.”

“Why not pursue him directly, then? Do you not fear his escape?”

“It has been revealed in a divination that he will return soon. I will not pass the border. Except for the greatest of us, the pain from crossing the border is very great, and the alarm that would be set off would cause us to be eradicated.”

Twang asked, “What if you could cross without setting off an alarm?” I still worry about the kobold sometimes. How can we be sure that he has fully renounced chaos? Still, I am ordered to serve with him and must not question those orders.

“If that could be guaranteed, there would be no border to cross.”

We exchanged some further pleasantries, and the fallen Marchioness moved on, continuing towards her patrol position.
 

The following day, we entered the area immediately around the dragonhold. We noted many undead, and small groups of black eums marching in tight military groups, armed with bronze weapons. They paid us no attention at all. A few of them looked us over, but after one glance at the undead with us, they ignored us. We continued marching in to the dragonhold. About mid-day, we approached the fortification.

This dragonhold was more massive and more heavily developed than Dragonhold Clawfast had been. The hold itself was built of huge stones, many cemented in place, with battlements, an enormous gate, desultory groups of slaves, and small groups of black eums here and there. They also had some preparations for defensive alerts, including a gong system to alert the keep during an attack. In addition to the more usual creatures of chaos, Sideh spotted a group of things that at first glance he takes to be rills, simple little waves in the dust, but one of them moved directly against the wind. He pointed them out, and we all stared carefully, eventually identifying three total and agreeing that they were clearly acting as entities, not natural phenomena. Our best estimate was that they were small corrupted elementals-- more likely a sign that the dimensional walls are starting to break down, rather than actual servants of the dragon. We carefully planned a route to avoid them. By the time we circumvented them, it is clear that the eum patrols also avoid them.

As we approached the fortification, we noticed another difference from Dragonhold Clawfast. There were no masses of weak creatures: a few goblyns, but not any meaningful number, and no trueborn or pureblood at all. In fact, the undead may be the most significant armed force, with orders of magnitude more than at other dragonholds. Many of the undead were intelligent; they seemed to assume that Spring was a specter, and they deferred to his precedence. Out of the army of undead as a whole, we identified mostly skeletons, greater skeletons, and monster skeletons, with a small number of specters. There were regrettably few zombies, ghouls, or other flesh-based undead, rendering our bonewater dust largely useless.

We also saw a small band of lamia, with a priestess wearing a headdress and led by a huge woman on a large horse, heading off to the northwest. This could only be a chaos champion and her warband-- more than we could likely handle, and in any event not part of our objective. We found an area sheltered by a small hill, mostly out of view, and huddled to plan.

[End Session 4]

Since this is a short post, here's a bonus sidebar on eums:
Eums are called the “common castings of chaos.” When the Six joined Borsh’tro, they said that they needed servants. Borsh’tro is not good at creating, but he is very good at changing, so he took captured people and changed them into eums. Borsh’tro created one color for each of the Council of Six. The black eums were created from half-dragons that were children of Gnnnst. But while the first eums were created from captives, once they were changed, they could breed true. Eums are designed for Shadow-- they need very little outside nourishment. The six types are: Orange, called “vein-slitters,” who follow Kartholuna; Green, “soul-flayers,” Borugud; Brown, “blood-sprayers,” Tamara; Yellow, “those who creep below,” the Worm who Bores Beneath; and Black, “howling bounders,” Gnnnst. The vast majority of all eums are Chaotic Evil. In addition to the six major types, they also have periodic mutations. As a result, there are different variants, both individual mutants and entire bloodlines that are distinct from their overall type.
 

[Session 5]

12 O-Tar:
We examined the gong system in more detail. It was a fairly straightforward alarm design. In all likelihood, if any one point raised the alarm and began beating their gong, the others would pick up the warning to raise the alarm throughout the dragonhold. We could see three such posts on our side of the fortress, and we inferred that there were probably more on the other side.

Spring levitated directly vertically to get a better angle on the fortifications. After he returned, he reported a central command post, surrounded by skeletal beings that had once been people. One of the skeletal warriors had a horn-- rather pointlessly in light of its lack of lungs or lips. But while that detail seemed rather pointless, it was part of a general pattern of preparation and organization. Indeed, our consensus was that the defenses were better organized than any other dragonhold we had seen or heard of. Based on what we had heard before crossing the border, I presumed the dracolich had instituted the better organization.

We split into two teams. Twang and Spring were to head into the fortification with the mission of planting the information about the steer, spreading various misinformation, and gathering information about possible faultlines within the enemy that we could exploit. For our part, Sideh and I were to scout around outside further, trying to see what we could find out by eavesdropping on the enemy. [Buzz missed this session, so she was not included.]

While I do not have direct information on Twang and Spring’s efforts, I have recorded what they reported doing, seeing, and hearing. They rushed towards the fortification from our position-- not charging it, but moving openly and with haste. The eum appeared interested but refrained from investigating, likely for fear of angering Spring. Twang and Spring approached the entrance on the side of the dragonhold facing us, more or less on the west of the structure.

An incorporeal, floating undead moved to block their path. “Hold. What brings you in such haste, cousins?”

“Urgent news for Ripgut,” replied Spring. “Signs of interesting food.”

“Pass through the first portal. You will be instructed there.”

They hurried on and were met by a black eum in beaten armor who waited at the portal. “You bring news?”

“Yes. There is beautiful, luscious cow. It is located by the line. We were able to retrieve two of them, but they did not make it back.”

“Hmmm. You bring this news for Lord Ripgut.”

“Yes. We thought he would be interested.”

“What is your name?”

Twang gave his true name, but Spring said that he was called Doc.

The black eum nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, Lord Ripgut will wish to know of this.”

“Shall we inform him where it is, then?” pressed Spring.

The black eum laughed, a coarse grunting sound. “It is fascinating the impulses that survive death. Greed survives. Hope survives. Love survives. But what, one wonders, would the dead do with such things?”

Twang showed a toothy smile. “If it makes any difference, I’m not quite dead.”

“You could have fooled me. Very well. If you wish to report this directly to Lord Ripgut, in the hopes of some pittance, pass beyond the seneschal dracolich and report there.”

Spring and Twang proceeded into the keep proper, but without any idea where the dracolich might be. Virtually everything they saw ignored them. They counted dozens of undead, some even more incorporeal than Spring. Most of the incorporeal undead were shadows, though once in a while they passed something else. Here and there, a small group of black eum marched or stood guard.
 

Meanwhile, Sideh sneaked up on a group of black eums, while I lurked invisibly nearby to support him. We overheard conversation among the eums, but it was just meaningless chatter as far as I could tell. They spoke Shadowspeak-- I could understand a little because of my training in Abyssal, but not all of the details. We easily figured out the eums’ organization. Their principal unit appeared to be squads of six eums led by what we referred to as a corporal. There were definitely also sergeant equivalents, commanding multiple squads, and at least one rank above that. The eums performed a regular patrol of their area, but there was something odd about their methodology. We concluded that they were more concerned with watching for other creatures of Shadow than with forces of the true Darkness or of the Light. In particular, the eums seemed somewhat scared of the incorporeal undead, although they ignored the skeletons.

After observing the patrols for a while, we carefully followed one of the “lieutenants,” by which I mean the eum ranked above the sergeants, to see where it would go. Once every half-hour, a runner would take a report from each sergeant up to a more grizzled and senior eum. I carefully copied its rank insignia in my notebook. After several such reports, the lieutenant entered a spiral stair just inside the gates on the south of the fortress and trotted up the stairs. While it was much more difficult to continue to shadow it as it entered the fortification, we continued following.

The eum came to attention as it reached the top of a tower. “All is quiet, commander. We see no sign of either the Marchioness or of the Chaos Champion coming from the south.”

“Excellent, lieutenant. We should be particularly careful with the Chaos Champion from the South. She is aligned with Maliat. Those who are still on this side of life need to worry about the followers of Maliat.”

“Yes, Commander Zolt.”

“Return to your duties but be watchful. Our lord is most wroth. You should avoid him as his anger may spill out onto such as us.”

The lieutenant saluted and proceeded back down the stairs. As he returned to his post, we withdrew to discuss what we had heard and to await our allies. Sideh and I recognized the name of Maliat, mistress of postulating disease. As the Church has long known, her champions spread diseases on the battlefield that kill the people they are fighting. The disease cannot spread far beyond the battlefield as plagues because of the Compact, but even if her champions lose their battles, they may still kill their foes. I of course do not credit the rumor that even clerical cure disease is not reliable against her diseases. Perhaps the blessings of lesser deities are insufficient, but surely the priests of Lord Paranswarm, and the healers devoted to his Holy Daughter the Weeping Woman, are more than capable of curing any disease. Nonetheless, I had never heard reports that even the enemies fear her champions.
 

As Spring and Twang proceeded, they encountered great stairs going up and down. Without any definitive way to tell which direction was correct, they headed down a somewhat broken staircase for a considerable distance before arriving at a bottom landing. A few guards gave them a cursory inspection but did not question them, and they passed into the lower level.

Below ground, a great many more of the people were alive than dead, although there were some dead, here and there. Faced with a choice of traveling east, north, or south, Spring and Twang went roughly towards the east, with Spring trying to form a mental map of where they were. Twang later reported that the east smelled damper than any of the other directions. After several hundred yards, they emerged into a large room. A substantial number of black eums and some undead stood, or in some cases floated, at the side of the room they entered on, while a small group of figures, each about 4 feet tall with gray skin and dressed in matched armor, stood across the way by stairs elegantly carved out of the rock and leading down. A eum hand reached out as they entered and grabbed Twang. “Now don’t be going out there and be queering anything.”

At that command, Twang and Spring stopped and watched what was apparently a delivery of barrels and crates. The gray figures looked something like dwarves, but gray and with scragglier beards. There was discussion, clearly about business, although in a language that they could neither understand nor recognize. An officer on the side of the dragonhold held forth a bag of loot, apparently as payment. The eum handed over the bag of old jewelry and ancient coins. With that, the gray-skinned dwarves carefully ported the barrels and crates into the center of the room. It was not obvious what they contained-- the barrels did not slosh, as they would if they were filled with ale or wine, and they were plain barrels, sealed with wax.

In due course, both sides tipped their hats, and the gray-skinned dwarves departed. The heavily armed ones remained in place until the others were gone, and the heavy doors crashed shut as soon as they had departed.

Twang turned to the eums and asked, in the kobold language, “What is going on here?”

The lead eum officer simply tipped his hat and wished Twang good day, so Spring stepped forward and translated Twang’s question.

“Mushrooms, fresh from the Underdark. They make fine eating.”

Spring raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that there was Underdark around here.”

“There is Underdark everywhere, is there not? But that is just a small passage to a minor kingdom, I believe.”

Spring indicated understanding and then continued, “We have an urgent message for Ripgut’s seneschal.”

“You have gone far astray.”

“We are tired from our long voyage. We have news from the Shadowline.”

“News from the Shadowline?” From the sudden change in tone and attitude, they could tell that the officer viewed that as of the highest importance, and made them worthy of his actual attention rather than bored smalltalk. “Head back seven crossings; there is a hidden stair on the right. Ascend it to the main level. Take the spiral stair up to the high level. The seneschal is there.”

“Are we permitted to take the hidden stairs?”

“They are hidden only by disuse. Those stairs are unstable, but you do not seem heavy. That route will take you to Lord Dracul.”

Spring and Twang followed those directions, though they thought the stairs were not so much hidden as obscured by a partially collapsed wall. Twang’s weight posed no risk, but they could see that regular use by eums or other heavier individuals could lead to a full collapse. At the top of the stairs, they went north to a great stair and further up to a large receiving area, where a group of things received people at tables. Most were eums, but one was a magnificent half-dragon and another was undead, clearly the dracolich’s seneschal.
 

For the dialogue that follows, I have transcribed it as if the report from Twang and Spring was verbatim. I rather doubt that it was, but I do not see any better way to record all of the information they provided me as accurately as possible.

Twang approached the seneschal and saluted. “Big news! Food!”

“Cows!” interjected Spring.

“Large cows. Cows. Many cows. North. At Shadowline.” At that point, Twang lapsed into the kobold language. Spring translated and explained that there were many beautiful cows just north of the Shadowline. They bought two from not particularly discriminating merchants and brought them back, intending them as a gift for Ripgut, but they were eaten by the Marchioness when she met them on the way back to the Dragonhold.

The undead nodded thoughtfully. He was skeletal, but dressed in a robe and clearly intelligent. “You were lucky to escape with your lives, loyal servants. The Marchioness marches to her own drum and that of the Count of Caldefor. Anything is possible with the Marchioness. She is an angry and powerful woman. You have done well. What are your names?”

Twang gave his actual name, while Spring identified himself as “Dack.”

“I shall mention the word to my master, Lord Dracol. How many did you lose raiding?”

“Ten,” said Twang.

“We were the lucky ones.”

Twang pointed at Spring and muttered, “Coward.”

The seneschal’s skull looked back and forth between them-- without any skin on the skull, they could not read its expression. “You will be rewarded. The next captives that are brought back, you may choose one.” It passed its hand over a sheet of copper. Two words appeared on it; they were clearly in Shadow, and neither Spring nor Twang recognized them. They each tried to memorize the strange characters-- Spring failed at both, but Twang was able to memorize his own name.

“What should we do about the unruly forces of the Marchioness?” asked Spring.

“The forces of the Marchioness will not respond to us. If my lord chooses to do something about it, it will have to be something involving force. However, word has reached us that our cousin in Dragonhold Blackgleam has been eradicated by an ancient and dying wyrm. It will be months before another of the horde of the blessed Gnnnst can move forward to reestablish the hold, and the methods are such that it will be two or three years before the hold is fully reestablished. And so our great lord has ordered us to maintain our forces and resist using force as is natural to bolster support.” The undead paused. “Your lord and master prefers to keep a certain involvement in the procurement of food. He may wish to visit this market himself.”

Spring tried another tack. “Should his greatness be concerned about the Champion’s sparring? I don’t know if you should call it sparring-- it was a one-sided fight. Outside with some of the guard.”

“One of the Marchioness’s people sparred with a guard?”

“The Chaos Champion, with the lion things.”

“Ah, you speak of the Chaos Champion Liliana, accompanied with her lamia. She is our own, and within the Master’s favor. She takes liberties, but she has received many blessings from the Council. Best to avoid her when she is in a playful mood. She has left for some days. She was sent on a mission.

“She is going to reconnoiter. There are rumors that a large quantity of clingfire was used on Blackgleam. That may imply that the Light is moving. Liliana was once of the light, and when she turned to the Shadow, the Council blessed her greatly. The lamias will be sent in as decoys, and then she will pass the Shadowline and blend in. We will know if an army is being massed for an attack. Liliana and one or two of her chosen will conceal themselves in the countryside and begin to investigate.”

Spring smiled eagerly. “I hope they do attack. Our master will be ready.”

“I like the way you think. It is unfortunate that you are stuck in such a lowly form. If you continue to do such wonderful work, perhaps Lord Drakhl will summon one of his allies from the Abyss and elevate you to a higher state.” With that, the skeletal undead turned and headed off to report. It approached a wall at the back of the table. The wall shimmered-- almost a grayish white-- and then it passed through.
 

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