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(Cydra) The Final City

the Jester

Legend
The triple walls yet stand. Despite everything, Fandelose endures.

The Sword Empire of Thrush is no more. The cities of humanity are crumbling ruins. No music nor laughter sounds in the elven tree-kingdoms. The clangor of the dwarven thanedoms has gone silent.

It all began with the victory of Chaos over Law at the end of the Great War of Ethics. That was the death knell of civilization, for what is civilization but the imposition of order on the chaotic dance of nature?

Those heroes who won the Great War of Ethics put two of their own on thrones and built a great empire. For thousands of years they held off the fall, but when they themselves were gone, what they had built could not last. A great alliance formed- the Six-Fingered Hand, which united orcs, gnolls, kobolds, lizardfolk, goblinoids, and ogres into a tremendous force under the leadership of a cabal of mighty death knights led by Arawn the Black. The armies of the Hand swept through land after land, burning and slaying everything.

But one city stood, championed by a group of unlikely heroes. Fandelose, with her triple walls, was the bastion upon which the Six-Fingered Hand would break. A five-year siege of the city, at last broken by the heroes, was followed by a desperate attack on Arawn himself. And when fell Arawn, so fell the Hand itself. Without his leadership, the disparate forces united by his will collapsed into in-fighting, turning on each other. Inevitably, the Six-Fingered Hand dissolved.

And Fandelose stood, alone- or nearly so- in the whole world.

Constantly beset by remnant humanoid tribes, the city has no real outlying towns, for people outside the walls are prey for the monsters and evil humanoids that lurk in the countryside. There is no trade by road nor river, for there is no one to trade with. To feed itself, the city has converted the former estates of the nobility into huge fields of rice paddies, intercut with canals, but one bad year could kill the entire city.

This is Fandelose, soot-smudged city lit by firestone, last outpost of civilization, an unsustainable aberration in a world overcome by chaos, a point of light in the darkness.

This is Fandelose, the final city.

The air is always smoky here. It is, generally speaking, not wood that burns; it is firestone, mined by the dwarves who dwell in the Black Gorge just outside the city. The smoke hangs over every part of the city- the Upper District, where the farmers live amongst the rice fields, struggling to be heard by the city's political apparatus and increasingly enserfed; the Bronze District, now home to the city's upper crust and the wealthier businesses; and the Lower District, comprising the majority of the city, where the poor dwell crammed together in urban filth

It is four decades, more or less, after the fall of civilization. During the crisis period, it had been ruled by General Argus, and ever since, its government has swung back and forth between military dictatorship and civilian representative democracy. But when the civilian Bronze Council rules, it inevitably endangers the city by allowing too much freedom. The farmers cannot be allowed to leave, and those that do- and attempt to set up an outlying town, such as Red Bank- are inevitably captured or killed by monsters or members of the races of the Hand. For a time, one of the Heroes of Fandelose- Heimall Heinrickson- served as the city's military dictator, now titled the Argos; but his time is past. After another few swings of the pendulum, Heimall's son Otto has ascended.

The old heroes are largely retired or out of sight. It is a time for new heroes to rise.
 

the Jester

Legend
Let us start with a sign, or rather, the story of a sign. As with every story, it changes with each telling, and with the passage of time, the edges grow blurry. But nonetheless, this is the story.

Start with a pair of dragonborn, one of them drunk enough to stagger, and a dark-skinned dwarf between them. The dwarf comes from a small, ragged group of dwarven survivors that dwell in the Black Gorge, just south of the city. The gorge also hosts a tribe of orcs. These orcs were not part of the Six-Fingered Hand. Both the dwarves and orcs are nominally allies of the city.

The dwarf if named Dzedz Orcslayer*, and he hates orcs with a passion. Many of his people do. His clan- Clan Orcslayer- is a major faction in the area. They are the ones amongst the dwarves who would prefer (and sometimes work) to see the orcs exterminated.

Periodically, Clan Orcslayer gains the political advantage in the dwarven hold. This results in a war between the dwarves and the orcs, which generally ends in a dwarven victory, but a Pyrrhic one. And then it takes a century for the dwarves to recover their lost population, while the orcs do so in a decade and a half. This is one of many unsustainable conditions in the area, at least from the perspective of Clan Orcslayer.

The three halt for a minute as the drunker of the dragonborn cries out, “It's time for Mad Max to pack a bowl of hempflower! My friends, smoke with me!”

Mad Max Damage Hashish, as this dragonborn is improbably known, wears a suit of chain mail over his own silver scales. The long haft of some heavy weapon hangs across his back. He drunkenly unslings his backpack and extracts a glass pipe from it, ignoring the disapproving looks of the people passing by on the street. He wobbles, obviously well into his evening's drinking, as he pulls his pouch of hempflower out and mashes a bud into the pipe.

The other two crowd in as Mad Max strikes a torch, then uses it to light the pipe, taking an enormous hit before passing it to the other dragonborn.

The two of them aren't related. The second, considerably less drunk, dragonborn is green-scaled and looming, with a presence that Mad Max can't match. He also wears heavy armor and bears a maul blung across his back. He draws deep on the pipe as well, then passes it to Dzedz.

“Thank you, Carl Hungus,” Dzedz says, before taking a big puff himself.

“There!” cries Mad Max, pointing at a sign nearby.

The sign depicts and angry flightless bird, saddled but riderless, its wings raised in an aggressive posture and one talon raised, as if it were about to strike. This is the Angry Kocho Tavern, or at least, this is its sign. But this is not the sign that this story is about.

The three of them bustle into the tavern and seek out the proprietor, who doesn't want any trouble. Neither, the trio declames, do they. In fact, they want to help.

“We want to perform at your tavern!” Mad Max produces a lute with a flourish and strums it. Carl Hungus shakes and taps a tambourine.
.
“And I will use my magic to create a light show and some fireworks!” Dzedz adds.

The proprietor is not convinced. This does not deter the trio. With some trepidation, because these fellows are clearly armed and dangerous, the proprietor doesn't physically stop them, which- based on their level of intoxication and how little they're listening to what he says- is probably the only way to prevent this performance.

And at first things seem fine. Even the dubious must admit that, drunk or not, Mad Max can sing. As for the other dragonborn, well, he can mostly keep a simple beat.

It's the dwarven mage's enthusiastic contribution that goes awry.

First a spray of colors, which is itself a fine accent to an otherwise fairly entertaining, if impromptu, performance; and then a wave of flames, which sets a table alight. In turn, this causes several very strong drinks to spill, two of which likewise catch fire, and quick as that, the hems of a couple of robes are on fire. The people wearing those robes, in their consternation, accidentally catch a curtain and another bystander, and then starts the panic.

It's remarkable how quickly a situation can turn when you light it on fire. While the customers of the Angry Kocho scream and run, the proprietor immediately sets to work putting out the fire, shouting orders to his subordinates. There are also two adventurers in the place- well, two other adventurers- and they set to helping. Together, these kind people manage to save the Angry Kocho and contain the cost of the damages to several hundred marks.

The two dragonborn and the dwarf are nowhere to be seen in the aftermath, of course.

“I knew I should have posted this a long time ago,” the proprietor gripes, as he nails a large sign just outside of the door.

And that's the story of how the Angry Kocho Bar got its “NO DRAGONBORN” sign.



*”Dzedz” is pronounced, approximately, “Zed”. But if the next word starts with a vowel, the final Z is pronounced, so Dzedz's name sounds like “Zed”, but his full name sounds like “Zed Zorcslayer”.
 

the Jester

Legend
If we're going to be talking about the city, we may as well be comfortable. Come, there is a place we can sit and drink bean juice while I tell you these tales.

Bean juice? I'm surprised you haven't had it. It has been all the rage in the city for the last few years.

Bean juice is a dark brown juice served hot, almost like a tea. Yes, it is actually made from beans, but not ones that you would recognize. They are hard. I understand you roast them and grind them up before steeping them in hot water. Personally, I recommend adding some goat's milk to it, to lesson the bitterness. Others put honey in it to sweeten it.

Bean juice is a strange luxury. The city doesn't grow the beans, and as far as I know, they don't grow wild outside the city, either. It's a holdover from the imperial days. You see, Fandlose was a trading hub between wherever the beans were produced and wherever they were going. When the war happened, the Six-Fingered Hand disrupted trade, but not all at once. The long and the short of it is, for a time, the beans made it into Fandelose- which didn't have a taste for them- but not past it, to their final point of sale. So, for several decades, the beans sat unused in storage. There were a few attempts to do something commercial with them, but the folk of the city just didn't seem to have a taste for them. Or maybe the problem was that nobody had figured out how to brew the juice properly yet. Whatever, it was only a few years ago that the juice began to really take hold in the city. Now there are nearly as many cafes as bars.

Anyway, it's kind of funny. This place we're at- the Bean Juice Cafe- has been the site of many a gathering that turned out to be the start of an adventure. That's one reason why I brought you here. In fact, remember that story I told you about the sign? Well, this is where those three would-be entertainers met. I understand it was at that table right over there that Mad Max approached Carl Hungus and offered to buy his fellow dragonborn a cup of bean juice. And it was at that table over there- no, not that one, the one to the left, by the little shrine- it was there that, at that very same moment, Dzedz Orcslayer was talking to Lazarus. Lazarus was a half-elven scholar affiliated with the Cerulean Tower. He knew Dzedz's master from some academic work they had done together, and had recently sent a message to him asking for help. In return, Dzedz's master sent Dzedz to see what Lazarus needed.

And that's how the first of the current crop of adventurers first got together. It was Lazarus, and his missing friend, that pointed Carl Hungus, Mad Max, and Dzedz to the megadungeon beneath Marble Hall.

So sit back, sip your bean juice, and open your ears to me. Let me tell you another story....
 

the Jester

Legend
“You must be Tindul's apprentice,” says Lazarus. He's a half-elf, gray at the temples but still black on top. He is dressed as a scholar, in blue, and was reading a book while he waited for Dzedz's arrival.

“I'm Dzedz.” The dwarf extends a callused hand to the scholar, and they clasp forearms. “My master said you needed some help, and he sent me.”

“Ah, excellent! Let me get you a bean juice.” He catches the eye of the human behind the counter and raises two fingers. The man hurries over with a pair of steaming mugs. Lazarus smiles and nods, pressing a pair of marks into the man's hand.

“That's an expensive drink,” Dzedz remarks, taking a sip. “Thanks.”

“It's kind of an acquired taste, I admit, but it has grown on me over the last year or so.”

Possibly due the fact that it's mid-afternoon, the place doesn't have much custom at the moment. For a few moments, the two sit there sipping their drinks, enjoying the relative quiet- only a boisterous pair of dragonborn are disturbing the serene scene.

Then, Lazarus gets to the point. “One of my colleagues is missing.” He looks pained. “A wizardess. One of the only ones in the city.”

“And you want me to help find her?”

“If you can. Her name is Mileen.”

“Do you know her last whereabouts?”

“She was investigating Marble Hall.”

“You mean the megadungeon.”

Lazarus nods.

Marble Hall, properly speaking, is long gone. All that remains is the foundation, and a few crumbling walls. Centuries ago, the dwarves dug a small dungeon underneath the ruins, and broke into an existing- and much larger- dungeon. The place is fairly dangerous, but occasionally, adventurers attempt to delve it, which is why the dwarves maintain a guard on it: to extract a toll from passing adventurers while simultaneously guarding against monsters intruding into the dwarf-works.

“Huh,” grunts Dzedz. “Well, if I can find her, I will.”

“You definitely shouldn't try to go without some protection. From what I understand, the megadungeon is both quite large and very dangerous.”

“Did you say megadungeon?” one of the dragonborn shouts from the other side of the room.

“All right,” Dzedz says, looking the two dragonborn over. “I may have have an idea on that score.”

With that, he clasps forearms with Lazarus one more time, then stands up.

“A round for everybody!” calls the silver dragonborn.

***

The three of them hit it off instantly. Truth to tell, Dzedz isn't in a hurry to plumb the depths of a megadungeon; this Mileen is probably either fine or already dead anyway. So, instead of going to the famed triple gates of the city, which lead southward, where the Black Gorge (and the megadungeon in question) lies, the party's first adventure takes them out of the city to the north.

“There's this guy,” Carl Hungus says, “the Hacker. He's a bandit. I have a line on where he might be hiding out.”

“Is there a reward for him or something?” asks Mad Max.

“No,” Hungus says, “but he's a bandit. I'm sure he'll have treasure.”

“Does he have, like, a band of brigands that follows him?”

“Probably a few.”

“Who does he prey on?” Mad Max cries. “It's madness!” He pulls out his pipe and mashes a large bud of hempflower into it. His voice is fraught. He takes a long pull from his waterskin, and his lips come away smelling of rice wine.

“Probably people going to Red Bank and back,” Hungus answers.

Red Bank is a struggling thorp about twelve miles north of Fandelose, in the mountains. Created by Fandelosian expatriates, it is roundly condemned by the Argos as being indefensible and vulnerable. Indeed, periodically, monsters, humanoids, or giants raid the place, killing, burning, and taking people away as food or slaves. Still, especially given the situation with the vote franchise, people- especially farmers who would rather be anything else- still run to it. Supply runs back and forth to and from Fandelose are common, following the river north along the steep hillsides.

There is no road, but there is a path that travelers must follow. Some of the farmers who would be anything else choose, rather than life in a tiny collection of huts, struggling to survive on fish and game, a life of banditry. And those supply runs are easy prey for bandits.

Hungus knows all about this.

The Hacker is notorious in circles sufficiently well-acquainted with bandits. He is vicious. He is cruel. He is knows for savagely dismembering people without even rendering them unconscious first. He laughs while they watch themselves bleed to death. He likes to take slaves and dismember their friends in front of them so that they know what kind of master he's going to be.

Hungus figures that the Hacker is a bad enough of a dude that nobody will mind if the dragonborn enslaves him. And if the bandits have slaves or prisoners, who knows? Perhaps those folk will just never be rescued.

Maybe they'll just get a new master.
 

the Jester

Legend
Fandelose is famous for its impregnibility. Its triple walls, and the triple gates, are iconic enough to figure on the city's flag. And yet, the walls don't fully enclose the city. The geography to the north has always been considered sufficient to ward off attacks, and it has almost always proven to be true (the Six-Fingered Hand's attempts on the rice fields during the Fall excepted, and even that was repelled).

North, the hills rise, jagged and uneven. Boulders dot them, rough scrub grows on them (though fewer trees every year, as more and more are harvested for the city's needs), footing is uneven, unreliable, and steep. There are no real paths or trails that lead to the north edge of the city from the plains to the south; and the river, increasingly known simply as the Fandelose River, cuts a jagged, deep, fast-flowing gash through the mountains.

Red Bank, some twelve miles north of the city, is connected to the city only by the most tenuous trails that roughly parallel the river. As our three, ahem, protagonists- certainly not heroes- trudge through the high, grasping grasses, they spy a goat herder with his charges and exchange greetings. The herder is wary of them; Carl Hungus lingers a little to see if he'll turn his back on the three adventurers, but he doesn't.

“I'm telling you, the Army is where it's at.” The bastard child of a ramble and a rant is born from Mad Max as they journey along. He keeps on talking, increasingly drunkenly as the day progresses. He constantly smokes bowls of hempflower, more than either of his companions can keep up with. “You should consider joining up. I'm in the Red Battlet, myself. We're the heavy infantry. You know, I really like to fight. Hopefully we find this Hacker guy soon.”

“You said you have an idea where he might be, Hungus?” asks Dzedz.

“There are a couple of old bandit hideouts I've, uh, heard of,” the green dragonborn replies. “We're getting fairly close to the first.”

Suddenly an arrow shoots from the brush and catches Dzedz by surprise, thunking into his groin. The dwarf is turning at the moment it hits, and as the motion exacerbates the terrible wound, he screams and collapses.

Goblins erupt from the brush. More arrows shoot out from the tall grass, but miss the two dragonborn.

“Oh no!” cries Mad Max. “This is madness!!”

Hungus draws forth a maul and meets the goblin charge. In a single blow, he caves in the first one's chest. The other two that are charging pull up short and slash at him with notched, rusty scimitars. Both deflect off of his hauberk.

Max leans down and pours a potion of healing down Dzedz's throat. “Good thing I bought this!” he cries, then springs up and pulls his own maul out. “Maul brothers!” he roars, challenging the goblins.

An arrow hits him from the brush. Max curses.

Dzedz struggles upright, pronouncing weird arcane syllables, making strange gestures. An glimmering orb appears in his hand, and then shoots out. It hits one of the goblins and explodes. The goblin drops.

The two maul-wielding dragonborn strike down the two standing scimitar-wielding goblins, then rush the bushes. Dzedz hobbles after them. “Aagh!” he shouts, shaking one leg. Something blood-covered and grisly falls out of the bottom of his pants. “They took my manhood!”

There are four more goblins in the brush, and they try to fall back and hide. But the enraged dwarf won't have it. He fires off bolts of flaming arcane energy and drops two, while each of the dragonborn strikes down another.

“Aw, we should have taken one alive, as a slave,” says Hungus. “Or maybe even more than one.”

“Screw that!” Dzedz yells. “They cut off my-” He chokes up, scooping up his lost body part.

“Ooh, the root and the stones,” Max notes. “I'm sorry.”

“Still, a slave or two...”

“The Hand races deserve nothing but death,” Mad Max declares. “But maybe slavery is okay, too. I don't know.”

“I need to sit down,” says Dzedz.

***

“I don't see what good it will do to turn back,” argues Hungus.

“Dude, he just got unmanned!”

“And?”

“Maybe someone can help! A cleric or something...”

Carl Hungus laughs harshly. “There hasn't been a healer capable of that kind of stuff in Fandelose since the Fall! At least, not that I know of.”

“Like you know every cleric in town.”

“I think everyone would know if anyone could perform that kind of magic. For all I know, powerful magic has been lost with the Fall.”

“This is weird,” says Dzedz. He's looting the bodies of the goblins, which yield a few meager copper and silver coins. (At least it's real money and not those damned fake coins the city is using now.) “Look at this.”

The other two walk over to where the dwarf has knelt down. He is holding the mouth of one of the corpses open. The goblin's tongue is white and fuzzy, covered in some kind of fungus.

“Ew,” says Hungus.

“Madness!” crows Mad Max. He pulls out his maul. “Stand back!”

“Wait a minute-” Dzedz starts, then leaps back out of the way as Mad Max brings his maul down, smashing the head. “Hold on!” the dwarf barks. “We might be able to learn something here!”

“Learn something? Like what? They're goblins.”

“Even so.”

Carl Hungus leans in and murmurs, “Humor him. He did just suffer a... catastrophic loss.”

***

August afternoon slowly transforms into August evening. The oppressive heat subsides somewhat, but remains enervating. The hillsides to the west begin to fall into shadow.

“Up there.” Hungus points at a nearby hill with a wide, flat top dotted with large boulders. “There's great cover and a great view of potential victims on the way to Red Bank. Or so I hear.”

The three of them ascend, moving with care.

The single bandit on guard is half-asleep, and before he knows what has happened, he is unconscious and bleeding on the ground.

The party creeps to the edge of the small camp at the top of the hill. There are three bandits around a fire, talking in low tones and passing a skin of wine back and forth.

They don't know what's happening. In only a moment, two of them are dead, and the final one throws down his weapons, crying, “I surrender! Don't hurt me!”

Carl Hungus steps to the fore. “Are you guys working with the Hacker?”

“No.”

Hungus shifts his grip on his maul. “Do you know anything about him?”

“I- I heard a rumor about where he's camped, but I don't know if it's true.”

“Why don't you just tell me, and let me decide what to think.”

“Bandit's Rook. I heard he's at Bandit's Rook.”

“Hmmm.”

“You know where that is, Hungus?” asks Dzedz.

“Yeah. It's a little further north.”

“I want to go back to the city first. I want to see if I can get my injury repaired somehow.”

Hungus looks dubious. “We can try.”

“Damn right, we're going to try.” Dzedz grits his teeth. “I might even have to go on a quest.”

“As for you...” Hungus glares at the prisoner.

“I helped you! I told you what I know!”

“What's your name?”

“Benthum.”

“All right, Benthum,” Hungus declares, beaming. “You're now my slave.”

“Here,” Mad Max says, and gives Benthum a mark. The new-made slave stares at it dumbly. A mark is not an insignificant amount of money.

Staring at Mad Max, Hungus says, “I'm not sure you get how this slave thing works.”
 

the Jester

Legend
Of course, I left out the bit about the idol.

They found it on the goblins, a strange, crude, rough-carved idol, made of some soft. Black-and-green mottled stone. It made them uneasy to touch it, and with good reason.

When, after leaving Benthum manacled in Carl Hungus' apartment, the three went to find a a place to play for their evenings' drinks (after all, neither goblins nor bandits had had much in the way of coin on them), Hungus for some reason brought the small idol along. When things went so wrong, practically unnoticed in the smoke and flames and panic, an evil spirit rose from the idol. Even if only for a moment, it strove to drain the life from those around it.

But in the moment, everyone involved had had too many other things to deal worth to do much more than stave off its attacks and watch it vanish back within the idol.

***

“Should we go to a moneychanger?” Mad Max asks.

Dzedz sneers.

The coinage situation is... a little weird. The city has officially replaced the old imperial currency with their new money, which is made mostly of brass, excepting the highest value coins. The dwarves of Black Gorge scoff at and won't accept it, but it is now illegal to have unofficial currency in the city. By law, the party is obligated to take those silver and copper pieces to a banker of moneychanger and have them turned into guineas and pence. Naturally, the person doing the changing takes a cut of the value- 3%, to be precise. Of course, he or she has to be licensed by the Bankers' Guild; not just anyone can get in on what the dwarves disparagingly refer to as “the money scam”.

Get caught with illegal currency by the White Battlet, and it will be confiscated. Try to pay for something with it, and the merchant is legally obligated to turn you in, though some will instead wink and nod and palm the coin. However, the White Battlet sends people around out of uniform to try to get them to do just that. The penalties for accepting imperial currency are harsh and expensive in a city where most people are already teetering on the edge of insolvency.

Word is that Red Bank doesn't use coins at all- a frighteningly uncivilized approach to trade. But then, what does one buy in a community of a few shacks and a beer hall? When one donates one's time and work to his or her neighbors out of necessity, asking only the same in return, everyone shares the food and drink around a communal fire in the evening. You can't spend coins if there are no merchants or stores, and money is meaningless with nothing to buy.

“We better,” says Mad Max. “We don't want to lose our money.” He is drunk enough that he's weaving on his feet. Though their performance sobered him up a little bit, he has been hard at work drinking from his wineskin (now pitifully light) to compensate.

***

After changing their coins, the trio also changes their chosen drinking establishment. After all, the Angry Kocho no longer welcomes them. At the new place they choose, they have a chance meeting with another pair of adventurers, a halfling woman named Shelby and a human man named Kovian. The two explain that they are a part of the faction called the Goblin Killers. They're dedicated to exterminating the races of the Six-Fingered Hand- goblinsoids, lizardfolk, orcs, gnolls, ogres, and kobolds. Unlike most of the other factions that defend the city, the Goblin Killers are prone to wander far afield, searching for infestations of the hated evil humanoids in the wilds surrounding the city.

Dzedz finds himself more than sympathetic to their view. After all, his clan (and faction) wants nothing more than to be rid of all the damned orcs in the Black Gorge. Perhaps, he thinks, we can work together on that someday. But what he says is, “Do you guys know anyone who can reattach lost body parts?”

No. No, they don't.

***

“No, I don't,” Lazarus replies. “I'm sorry. Did... did it happen while you were searching for Mileen?”

“More or less,” Dzedz equivocates.

“Well, I'm very sorry.”

***

Oh yeah, Mileen. Dzedz tells the other two that he's actually supposed to be looking for someone. “She was investigating the megadungeon.”

“Megadungeon!” exclaims Mad Max. “Sounds like madness!” And he packs another bowl of hempflower. “I'm in! What do you say, Carl?”

“Sure, I just need to drop some food off for Benthum first.”

***

Benthum, it turns out, is concerned for his wife. His story, as best our heroes can put it together (for Benthum isn't a good storyteller, no sir), is that he was only acting as a bandit under duress. He, as well as several of the other bandits that the party earlier slew, were pressed into service by the head bandit of their crew by means of holding their families hostage.

“Great, more slaves!” exclaims Hungus.

“Just save her, please,” Benthum pleads. “Just bring her back to me.”

“We will,” Hungus lies. “Don't worry about a thing.”

“They hold them to the north, north of Red Bank.”

“Sure, okay, no problem.”

***

Instead, our heroes head south.

The city's great triple gates are always well-manned, which, on reflection, seems a little silly, what with the Breach and all.

The Breach is a section of the city's defensive walls that has collapsed. Not only that, at least one attempt at rebuilding it failed, leaving a gaping hole that any attackers can rush through. This means that Fandelose has a fatal chink in its armor. This is yet another reason why the city is desperate. For whatever reason, the Artificers' Guild has proven unable to effect repairs, and whenever a large tribe of Hand folk comes into the area, it takes hundreds of soldiers to properly guard it against attack. It means that, each year or so, when the Scarlet Fist- a large hobgoblin remnant army- comes to the city, Fandelose must pay tribute or suffer a grievous assault.

Nonetheless, our heroes pass outside the gates, Mad Max stopping to chat with those of his fellow soldiers who are on duty.

Then it's outside with the three of them.

The elevated roadway leading to the gates descends towards the plains to the south. Ragged, simple huts cling to the outer wall and are clustered to either side. These buildings are inevitably evacuated when the Scarlet Fist or a similar group comes into the area; they cannot be defended. There are therefore no businesses or temples or fancy homes. It's simply not safe for them.

Our heroes, such as they are, follow the roadway south for a few hundred yards before the gorge opens up to their right. They are above the shallow end of it; it deepens as it runs to the west, where dwarven tunnels are hewn from the surrounding stone. The orcs are somewhere around the middle of the gorge.

Marble Hall, or its remains, and the megadungeon beneath it, are at the near end. From the top, the party can see four dwarves standing guard over the entryway. A narrow trail cut into the face of the cliff allows an easy descent into the gorge, after which Dzedz leads the two dragonborn to the dwarves.

“Hey, Dzedz,” one of them calls.

“Gormund,” the wizard nods back.

“You taking these two in?”

“Yep.”

“You know about the fees?”

“Not precisely.”

“Down those stairs,” the dwarf jerks a thumb at the ruined foundation, “you'll be in the dwarf-works down there. At the point at which it breaks into the megadungeon, you'll each need to pay a silver piece to pass. And you have a pay a gold piece to come back in to the dwarf-works.”

“Understood.”

“Do you guys have gold?” asks Hungus. “Will they take marks?”

The dwarf coughs out a laugh. “We only take money, not stupid city fake coins.”

Nonplussed, the party realizes that they don't have the sort of money it will take to come back out of the place. After an animated discussion, the dwarf who has been speaking to them- Gormund- makes Dzedz an offer.

“Listen, cousin, I know another way in. A secret way. But, uh...” He holds his hand out expectantly, and the party presses their few precious silver pieces into his palm. Despite looking slightly disappointed, he leads them down the gorge a ways, before taking them into one of the many small caves that pock its sides. “Here.” He indicates a 3' diameter hole, almost perfectly circular, bored into the rock. “Crawl down this and it will take you into the dungeon. But I'm not sure exactly where.”

The three adventurers eye the hole dubiously.

“Why don't you go first?” Mad Max suggests to the dwarf.

“Me? I'm not going down there at all. I'm on duty.”

“I don't know if I trust this,” Max states. “I really think you should go first and prove it's safe.”

“I never said it was safe,” the dwarf snaps. “You're going into a dungeon. It's almost certainly not safe, and I have a job to do.”

“I don't know if we should go down there...”

“You guys do what you want,” says Gormund. “But I've shown you what you paid me to show you.” And with that, he marches back out into the gorge.

“We can trust him,” Dzedz assures the dragonborn. “He's my cousin. And he's right; this isn't going to be safe no matter what.”

“I'll take the lead,” offers Carl Hungus.

Thus begins the first foray of many that the new heroes of Fandelose will make into the megadungeon beneath Marble Hall.
 

the Jester

Legend
The hole is almost perfectly smooth. Dzedz says, “This is probably a thoqqua hole.”

“What's a thoqqua?” asks Mad Max.

“It's a worm that burns its way through the earth and stone. They tend to wander the underworld, creating new passages.”

“Is this even going to reach the megadungeon?”

Dzedz grunts. “My cousin said it does. I trust him.”

On their hands and knees, the three crawl through the passageway. It heads in an almost straight line for ten yards before bending downward at a shallow angle. It then switches directions several times over the course of its several hundred yard length before finally breaking into a cave.

Carl Hungus is in the lead. As he pokes his head out and raises a torch, he can see that it is a natural cavern. He crawls forth and stands up, followed by Mad Max and, finally, Dzedz.

“Listen,” says Mad Max. “Do you hear that? Madness!”

Pausing, the others strain to pick out what he's talking about: distant gibbering, seemingly from many voices at once.

“Hm,” grunts Dzedz. “Sounds like a lot of 'em...”

“You know,” Hungus says, “we don't even have a healer.”

The three stand, listening for a moment.

“Sounds like they're getting closer,” Hungus remarks.

“I wonder how deep we are?” Dzedz muses. “I'm pretty sure we're deeper than the first level.”

“Guys, I think we should get out of here,” Mad Max exclaims. “That's the sound of madness!”

All things considered, the others agree, and a moment later, they're retreating up the thoqqua hole.

“We need to find a healer,” Carl Hungus states. “Then we can come try this.”

“Aren't you supposed to be looking for someone down here?” Mad Max asks.

“No, that's me.” Dzedz scowls. “Yeah, I guess we need to come back.”

“Also, I need some money,” Hungus says. “I have a slave to feed.”

***

There is an intersection in the city- a hard intersection. The intersection of Bronze Avenue and Soot Road. The territories of the two largest gangs in the city, the Bronze Tigers and the Coal-Faced Bastards, sometimes rub up against each other here. There are often fights, some restricted to fists and feet while others grow more serious. This corner has been the site of many a crime over the years.

One such crime was the mugging, when he was but a youth, of Flint Sureshot. Flint was just a halfling boy, still learning his songs and how to play his mother's mandolin, when he passed through this intersection. He was shoved from behind, laughter echoing around him. Face down into a muddy puddle he fell. When he rose, glaring, he saw a group of four Tigers, standing arrogantly over him. They beat him, mocked him, and broke his mother's mandolin.

He was just a boy. There was no way for him to fight back.

Now, Flint is fully grown (though still well under four feet in height), and he is just another resident of the Lower District. When he has to go through the intersection of Bronze and Soot, he usually keeps his head down and hurries through, barely looking at anyone around. But recently, this has changed. As a result of his dabbling in a number of exotic types of smoking herbs, he has become quite the hempflower afficionado. He does not have a regular supplier. This has meant that he has to seek out a dealer each time he wishes to feed his habit. And that has, on this fateful day, led both him and us back to that same intersection.

He has seen some of these rough-looking kids around. A lot of them have marked themselves with stripes, whether drawn on their faces or the backs of their arms, indicating that they owe allegiance to the Bronze Tigers. This isn't something that makes Flint especially happy, but the Coal-Faced Bastards are more likely to be violent, so despite his history with the Tigers, it could be worse.

The halfling sidles up to a group of young toughs. Their conversation- seemingly a competition over who can make the most unlikely boast about his or her sexual conquests- skips a beat as they notice him, but doesn't halt. Instead, one of the arrogant youths detaches himself from their clique and meanders over toward Flint.

“You need something?” the Bronze Tiger challenges.

“I was looking for a little hempflower.”

“I can help you with that, if I like the color of your money. I can help you with other stuff, too. Goof balls, nose candy, dzur...”

“Just hempflower for me,” Flint says, “at least for now.”

“How much you want?”

“I don't know...” Flint pulls a handful of marks out of his purse.

The Bronze Tiger's eyes widen. “You got some good money on you.” He swipes it from the halfling. “Hold on.” With that, he jogs away, heading west, deeper into Tiger territory.

Did I just get ripped off? wonders Flint.

The other Bronze Tigers keep up their loud braggadocios, ignoring him, for about ten minutes. There's still no sign of the gangster who took his money, and by now, he's pretty sure he's just been robbed, when finally one of the talkers strolls over to him, this one with a wide girthed half-elf.

“You need something?”

Annoyed, Flint snaps, “No thanks, I think I've gotten enough from you guys!”

“Oh, yeah?” The half-elf cocks an eyebrow, and the other Tigers turn at Flint's raised voice and swagger toward him. “How so?”

“Your friend was supposed to go get me some hempflower, but instead, I think he took my money and ran.”

The gangsters laugh. “Poor guy,” sneers the half-elf. “Here, you got a pipe? I'll pack you a bowl.”

This is not going well, thinks Flint, as the gangsters close in around him.

***

Dzedz, Mad Max, and Carl Hungus stumble upon the unconscious halfling about an hour later. He is laying in the street, eyes swollen almost shut, blood covering his face. His purse is next to him, emptied of coin.

“Wow, that sucks,” says Mad Max.

“Let's help him,” Dzedz says, lifting the small form and draping him over one of the dwarf's shoulders. “Come on, let's get him cleaned up.”

And that is how the trio finds their first healer.
 

the Jester

Legend
“That was satisfying.” Flint grins. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Carl Hungus replies. “Those Bronze Tigers never even knew what hit them.”

The halfling smirks. Even though he hasn't recovered the fancy pipe the Tigers stole when they mugged him, his newfound companion Max seems happy to keep packing bowls of his own. The hempflower doesn't heal his wounds, but it allows him to more easily ignore them.

Besides, he has the power of music on his side, and that can heal all wounds, given time.

The five of them (Benthum included) stroll out of the city's gates, nodding to Max's soldier buddies as they pass, and head into the gorge again, waving at the dwarves guarding the main entrance to the megadungeon before heading into the small cave with the thoqqua hole that Dzedz's cousin showed them.

A major advantage of the hole is that there are no dwarves standing there, waiting to collect a toll when the party enters (or leaves) the dungeon. As long as nothing ever ambushes them inside the tunnel, the group reasons, it is a superior means of ingress into the dungeon. Our heroes (such as they are) crawl again through the long smooth tunnel and emerge into the apparantly natural chamber where it terminates.

That strange, distant gibbering echoes all around them.

“What the hell is that?” Flint exclaims.

“We don't know yet,” Dzedz says.

“Let's go find out,” Mad Max suggests, and unlimbers his maul.

The chamber they are in has one exit, which rapidly forks. The first they try leads to a natural passage; tufts of filthy, matted hair lie here and there on the cavern floor. They turn around and head the other way, entering another natural cave. The gibbering is louder. Suddenly Max, in the lead, comes to an abrupt halt.

“Watch out!” he cries.

Then the giant spider descends from above, landing next to Carl Hungus and sinking its fangs into the dragonborn's shoulder. Fortunately, his green heritage makes him resistant to the spider's venom, but he still cries out in pain as the fangs dig deep holes into him.

Dzedz blasts the thing with a fire bolt, while the group's new halfling companion draws a rapier and leaps to the fore, thrusting the tip into the spider's thorax. The creature draws back, and Flint stabs it in the head, just missing an eye. More arcane flames blast it, and the thing falls onto its back, charred legs curling up.

“Damn!” swears Mad Max. “I didn't even have a chance to react!”

“I didn't, either,” grumbles Hungus.*

“You okay?” Flint asks. Hungus nods- “It's just a scratch”- and the group continues exploring.

The passage they are following soon breaks into an area of strange, unnaturally smooth stone. Dzedz frowns; it is neither dwarf-work nor the craftsmanship of any other folk that he can identify. The passage leads them into a large square chamber, its walls painted with scenes of elemental forces at work, churning together in a chaotic mess. Four pillars support the ceiling, each painted with images of of one of the four classical elements. Interestingly, the floor is wet.

“Hmm,” says Dzedz.

Flint starts to move into the room, but Max grabs his arm to halt him. “Hang on a second. I don't trust this. Look, it's wet. This has to be a trap.”

The group turns and heads back the other way, past the corpse of the spider, returning to the natural passage. Flint raises a hand. “Listen,” he murmurs. The party halts, straining their ears.

“Sounds like water,” says Dzedz.

“I don't hear anything,” declares Hugus. Mad Max shrugs.

They move forward cautiously. The passage opens onto the shore of a rapidly-moving underground river. As they start to look around, a figure from the shadows springs forth with a loud roar.

The creature looks like a goblin, but it has an exceptionally large nose and ears, with a mottled, warty, rubbery-looking, green complexion. He's bigger than most goblins, too.

Though the party has no way of knowing it, this is Vicous Toby.

Vicous Toby attacks with claws and bite, delivering terrible wounds. Benthum goes down with a shriek, and both Mad Max and Carl Hungus suffer greivous wounds. The blows they deal in return rapidly heal before their eyes.

Though the party has no way of knowing this, either, Vicious Toby is half-troll.

But the party is capable of delivering terrific damage. Vicious Toby's regeneration can't keep up. Even though he nearly eviscerates Max and leaves Hungus barely standing, once Dzedz realizes that Toby can't regenerate while he's being burnt, the dwarven wizard unleashes a steady stream of fire bolts until, finally, the tenacious little half-goblin falls.

“Nice!” exclaims Mad Max.

“Speak for yourself,” groans Hungus, binding Benthum's wounds. “I'm hurting.”

Flint steps up and sings a spell, first on Benthum and then on Hungus. Even so, the entire party is shaken and bloodied from the battle. They collect what loot they can find and retreat to the thoqqua hole.

“Good thing we got a healer before we went down here,” remarks Dzedz. “But we'll have to be careful. It's dangerous down there.”

“And we still don't know what that gibbering is,” adds Flint.

***

“It's a good year for griffons,” remarks Sarec, staring into the sky. Indeed, there are three griffons circling to the north, clearly watching prey- perhaps a wild garen or a goat that had strayed from its herd.

“Uh,” grunts his companion, Drolc.

Sarec is a human, and he wouldn't normally associate with someone with orcish blood, but Drolc has, over the years that they have known each other, shown himself to be of unusually good nature- no doubt due to the influence of his human half. Even so, Sarec would have long since left Drolc to his own devices, were it not for the fact that Drolc is just so stupid. He is dumber than many dogs that Sarec has known. In fact, he's dumber than some doors that Sarec has known. He drools on himself. He doesn't understand when people respond to him negatively. He barely comprehends money and the concept of paying for things. He has the mind of a slow four-year-old. Without someone to take care of him, the poor fellow would probably have died long ago.

But as time has gone by, his good nature has never wavered. Never has Drolc acted out of cruelty, as one would expect from someone with orcish blood. Never has he tried to force his attentions on a woman, or has he bullied his way into some shiny possession. Never has he stolen, not even a meal, not even when he was hungry indeed. Drol seems filled with an innate sense of right and wrong, almost as if his body were filled not with blood, but with liquid weal.

Sarec, on the other hand, is something of a savage. Disheveled, rarely well-bathed, often with twigs in his hair, the man has lived on the outskirts for his entire life, shunning the city much of the time. His unlikely friendship with Drolc has grown despite the differences between them.

One thing they share, though, is a need to support themselves. Thus, they find themselves on the way down to the Black Gorge, ready to pay their way into the megadungeon they have heard about.

And this is how they meet (and join) the rest of our heroes.

*These two both have very bad passive Perceptions and spend a fair amount of time being surprised.
 

the Jester

Legend
The city has many tales. Oh yes, do not be fooled into believing that the story I have been telling you is the only one of, or in, the city. There are many more, and they intersect, many of them, interweaving like strands on a loom. You only see the pattern on rug when you look at the whole from above.

Hear, for instance, the cries of the prophet near the gates. “The end has come!” he shouts. “The world is over! Our time is done! Can't you hear the call of the gods? They want us to move on to a better place. Follow me, and I will lead you there!”

We shall hear of him again. His story will interweave with many others in this city.

See the tensions rising as secret emissaries from the farmers argue their case to the druids of the Oaken Circle. “It's time to take drastic action!” a pregnant woman cries. “We can't wait any longer! We're barely better than slaves!”

“What you are suggesting could harm the entire city,” one of the druids replies.

“Then maybe they'll listen for once!”

Or look back in time a few years, to an angelic visitation, selecting a young half-elven woman for divine attention... perhaps for a special fate. Her story will touch us, too, as will that of her brother and his lover.

But let's get back to the seven heroes, standing together atop the Black Gorge in animated discussion.

***

Seven strong! Seven, now! That's quite a party!

Flint, of course, ready with bardic magic. The halfling with the dwarvish name. Then Sarec, leaning against the haft of his halberd; the two dragonborn, Carl Hungus and Mad Max, who is packing another bowl of hempflower; Dzedz Orcslayer, dwarf evoker; Drolc, half-orc with one-third of a brain; and, of course, Benthum, reluctant companion, something between a slave and a very well-paid man-at-arms.

Don't get too used to this particular group.

By now they have introduced themselves, and have established that they are all adventurers, and all are interested in the megadungeon for one reason or another. They've even made a run into town in the hopes of finding a healer for Dzedz's manhood, but alas, there is nobody powerful enough to do so.

“There might be someone in the dungeon that I'm supposed to find,” Dzedz now remarks. “This guy I know, Lazarus, asked me to find this wizard... Mileen, I think it was.”

“We're looking for someone, too,” says Sarec, “but we're bounty hunters.”

“Bad man,” Drolc agrees.

“Yes, Drolc, the bad man.” Sarec pulls a folded wanted poster out of his purse and passes it over to the dwarf. Dzedz unfolds the battered sheet and studies it for a moment, then grunts and passes it to Hungus.

“We haven't seen him,” says Hungus, “but maybe we could help each other out.”

“For equal shares of the treasure, of course,” adds Mad Max.

“Have you had any luck finding your Mileen?” asks Sarec.

“Not yet.”

“Well!” Sarec grins and claps his hands together, momentarily leaving his halberd to balance on its butt end before grabbing it again. “Let's go!”

“Only this time,” suggests Dzedz, “let's go in the front.” He glances at the newcomers. “Do you know about the fee?”

***

The dwarves are happy to admit the party to the dungeon, once everyone pays the entry fee. One of them leads the party down the stairs and into the first area, which they call the Dwarf-Works, and then returns above. Down below, more dwarves are on guard; one leads the party through a series of halls and chambers, then down another long passage.

Drolc wrinkles his nose. “Stinks.”

Their guide nods. “Aye, that'd be the garbage.” The passage opens into a very large room, lit with torches in sconces and lanterns set upon the floor. A large heap of refuse is in the center. Several more dwarves are on guard, scowling at the far end of the chamber, where the finished walls give way to rough, unfinished work.

“Down there.” The dwarf who walked them here points to where the rough area fades into blackness. “At the far end, there's a breach into the dungeon proper. Good luck.” With that, she turns and trots away.

“All right, then,” mutters Flint.

The group moves forward, lighting a torch of their own. Dzedz casts light on Hungus' shield, as well. At the end of the chamber they find the aforementioned breach- a hole that leads into a passageway, running to the right and left. They move through. The hallway is very high and wide, with strange, unnaturally smooth stonework that seems to hold itself up without more than minimal supporting architecture. “I've never seen anything like this,” Dzedz remarks.

***

They head to the left. The hall they are in is easily big enough for them to walk four abreast, but that's nothing compared to the huge chamber that it leads to. It extends well beyond their light, both across and to the right, though they are near the left hand portion. As they start to move in, a brace of kobolds attacks them, howling and yipping as they charge out from the darkness.

They outnumber our heroes, but not badly. And our heroes outweigh and outclass them. Blades cut, hammers crush, spells scorch, and the fight is over.

The giant room is some sort of ruined bazaar. The ruins of many booths and small shacks are smashed in the central zone.

“Who the heck set these up?” wonders Flint. “They're too big for kobolds.”

“A lot of them are too big for humans,” Dzedz notes.

They keep exploring. There are many exits from the huge hall. They pick one and find a hallway. It turns to the right after a short distance, but past the corner it slopes upward.

“Huh,” says Hungus.

They advance. The shaft levels out and turns again before entering another kobold-infested chamber with some sort of mechanism in it. After a brief clash, the heroes check out the weird mechanism. It consists of several large, thick chains that run up from the floor, across a cog, and then back out through the floor. Some sort of large metal spoke extends from one wall and through a link in the chain.

Dzedz studies it for a moment. “I bet if we disengage this, something somewhere else moves.”

“Let's wait until we know what it might be,” suggests Flint.

“Chain,” remarks Drolc.

There are no other ways out of the chamber. The group returns to the ruined bazaar and picks another exit.

***

They explore several chambers and halls in a bewildering array of directions, getting caught by a swinging blade trap at one point. It's obvious that the kobolds inhabit this general area in numbers; the party repeatedly encounters groups of them and either puts them to the sword or chases them off. Still, some of the encounters leave wounds on our heroes, and soon enough Flint's bardic healing magic is being taxed.

“Oh, uh, I might be able to help,” says Hungus. He lays on hands, causing some of the damage Mad Max has taken to fade.

“Thanks! I didn't know you were religious, Hungus.”

“Oh, hm.” Hungus turns away. “Anyway, I-”

“Who's your god?”

“That's not important right now. Anyway, let's-”

“I think it is. I think you should tell us who your god is.”

Hungus heaves an exasperated sigh. “Don't worry about it.”

“What kind of priest won't talk about their god?” Mad Max demands. “This is madness!”

“I'm not a priest,” Hungus retorts, “I'm a paladin.”

“Oh!”

And with that, the subject changes.

You don't really need to know, thinks Hungus. Somewhere in a distant corner of his mind, he hears a five-fold roar.

***

It's not just kobolds, of course. At one point, they fight a foursome of orcs, who prove much more dangerous than the kobolds. And when the group finds a strange, dead garden, several of the shrubs extract themselves from their dry beds and reveal themselves to be twig blights.

But there are seven members of the party! Seven!

Together, they break the twig blights, run through the orcs, scatter the kobolds that they meet.

Unfortunately, this doesn't find them either Mileen or the wanted person, whose name is Pa'ash Svenko.

On the bright side, they do find whaa the chain mechanism leads to. With kobold corpses strewn all about, Dzedz exclaims, “It's an elevator!”

There is a lever in the back wall of the cage-like contraption, currently in the uppermost position of three. The chains run both up through the ceiling and down through the floor. The party hurries back to the hallway that led to the mechanism- perhaps not surprisingly, it's pretty close by- and disengages the metal pick from the chains. Then they return to the elevator and crowd inside.

“Let's go!” grins Sarec, throwing the lever down to its central position.

With an awesome clattering sound, the elevator begins to descend.

Next Time: The party descends!
 

the Jester

Legend
The elevator begins to descend, but slowly, oh so slowly. Our heroes crouch to try to see what's in the chamber below as it comes into view.

Orcs! Orcs are in the chamber below!

The orcs are craning their necks to look at the elevator as it descends. As soon as they see that it is carrying what look like adventurers, they roar and begin hurling javelins upward at it. Some bounce off the bottom of the elevator and fall back to the floor. Flint yelps and ducks as another almost spears him in the head.

The ceiling is 20' high, and the elevator is very slow. Too slow; Drolc jumps off the side, plummeting to the floor, where he lands with a painful grunt and then swings his sword. An orc staggers back, blood spraying.

“Yeah!” roars Mad Max, and he leaps after his half-orc friend. Sarec, meanwhile, takes advantage of the reach of his halberd, and thrusts the spike down into one of the orcs's head.

The orcs are tough- significantly tougher than the kobolds that the party dispatched so easily above. Most of the orcs take more than a single glancing blow to defeat. But soon enough, the party does manage to take them down, though they suffer a series of wounds, with Benthum being almost decapitated by a stroke from an orcish greataxe. Prompt medical attention keeps him alive, but after Hungus heals him and he comes to, his morale is clearly very, very low.

Meanwhile, Flint loots the bodies of the orcs. He finds a surprising amount of money on them- nearly thrity gold in assorted coins.

Dzedz eyes the guineas and marks in the mix with distaste.

There are two stone doors leading out of the chamber, plus the elevator itself. Hungus gestures at the lever. “We could go further down.”

“Yeah, but what's down there?” Dzedz shakes his head. “Whatever we find is probably going to be even more dangerous. We should wait until our power grows.”

The others agree to investigate one of the doors instead. It leads to a twisting hallway that shortly ends in another room, this one holding two orcs seated a table, arguing, attended by a handful of kobolds who are obviously slaves.

There is a sudden explosion of violence. Weapons clash. The kobolds do themselves credit by fighting for their masters, but they fall quickly. The orcs do better, delivering several terrific wounds before falling, but fall they do.

After the battle, neither Flint nor Hungus have any healing left. It's time to fall back. The party retreats to the elevator and ascends, then backtracks through the giant dark bazaar.

This time, as they are leaving, they are attacked. A giant spider the size of a young goat descends on them from above, undetected until it strikes. Benthum shrieks in terror. Great hairy fangs sink into Dzedz's shoulder, and he gasps, but fortunately, his dwarven heritage keeps him from feeling the worst of the venom.

Smack! Hungus' maul smashes into the spider. It rolls away, regains its feet, scuttles toward them again.

“I don't think so.” Fwoosh! Dzedz's flame bolt strikes true, consuming the spider.

The party takes this attack to be a sign that retreating was, indeed, the right move. They continue to backtrack until they reach the breach into the dwarf-works, then pass through. The wan light of the lanterns in the garbage room ahead provides a strange sense of relief: they have made it!

“How'd it go?” asks one of the dwarves guarding the area.

“Not bad,” Dzedz answers.

The party starts to move through the chamber, but the dwarf snaps, “Hold it! Before you move any further out of the dungeon, you need to pay the fee. A gold per head.” Grumbling, the party pays up. Flint tries to give the dwarves a mark instead, but they laugh. “We don't take that city bullcrap. Real money only.” With a sniff, the halfling complies.

The party returns to the city, reaching the gates not long before dark. “Nice timing,” one of the soldiers stationed at the gatehouse remarks. “Another half hour, and you'd be stuck outside until morning.”

***

Their next trip, rather than taking the elevator down, they explore the upper level of the dungeon. This leads them almost immediately into several encounters with stirges, which Dzedz is distressingly familiar with. “They're a common underground hazard,” he tells the others, his voice grim. “Think of them as like a cross between a mosquito and a bat, only they're the size of a cat. They're bloodsuckers and disease-carriers.”

They aren't the only vermin in the dungeon. More giant spiders- some with bodies almost as big as Dzedz's- roam the place, and our heroes have to deal with more than one of them.

And there are less physical dangers, too. After the group passes through a hall lined with broken mirrors, they find that they have fallen under a curse that gives them ill luck. Wineskins leak, ruining nice clothes. The heel of a boot snaps off. Armor straps come undone. Rivets somehow work themselves loose. A torch manages to singe Dzedz's beard.

None of them can do anything about it, but some time searching in town takes them to the Black Temple.

The Black Temple is an imposing structure near the center of the city, in the Bronze District, which was once strictly a business district, but has also become home to the city's upper crust since the Upper District was converted to rice fields during the Fall. Structurally, it is more like a small stronghold than a more typical temple. It is the center of the worship of Vandreu, the Townsaver, also called the Black Sword and Black Shield for his holy weapons. The Black Temple is also the home of one of the city's factions- the Black Avengers. Not all of them are followers of Vandreu, but most are. Many are even paladins.

There are a few priests at the temple. The lesser priests cluck their regrets, unable to help; but the high priest proves able to break the curse in return for three favors from the party.

The whole while, Benthum presses them to go after his wife. “Please,” he begs them. “She might not even still be alive! Please! Oh, Tabitha!”

“Sure, we'll get her,” Hungus reassures his semi-slave. “I heard a rumor she's in the megadungeon.”

***

The first favor that the party must do for the Black Avengers is to seek out and slay an owlbear that has been harassing the lumberers who have been going into the forest south and east of the city. It's dangerous work, especially given that it's fairly loud, but everyone knows that the city needs wood. Wood is easier and closer than building-quality stone, which is even more dangerous to try to quarry. But all that noise attracts predators.

“What's an owlbear?” asks Krud Johnson.

For this time, the party is not the same group that it was before. Indeed, Mad Max, Carl Hungus, Flint, and Dzedz are accompanied by a fellow named Krud Johnson, an acolyte of the temple.

Get used to this. This particular party of adventurers will establish some very unorthodox methods of group assembly before long. And this particular party will almost never actually be this particular party.
People will adventure with them, fall away, and return months or years later. The group will always remain unusually fluid.

“An owlbear,” says Dzedz, “is exactly what it sounds like. It's half owl and half bear.”

“They're very dangerous,” adds Hungus.

The group has another new member- Chewer, a foul-tempered mastiff that Mad Max selected for aggression. The warrior can barely restrain the dog on his chain.

***

The party issues forth from the city's gates. The roadway descends to the plains in the south, while to their left, the river- now known as the Fandelose River- twists its way through thicker vegetation. The river is essentially the border between the plains and the forest to the east.

The party follows the road south for a time, then veers east to an old bridge. Though cracked in places, the bridge is still serviceable, and our heroes pass across it into the woods.

Before long they begin to see signs of the foresters' work: tree stumps, areas where logs have been de-barked and de-limbed, small firepits, and the like. Not long after that, they start to hear distant chopping and sawing sounds.

There are other noises, too- movement in the woods. This is just more foresters, but our heroes treat the sounds with the sort of enthusiastic recklessness that one might expect of fairly novice adventurers.

“Chewer!” Mad Max cries. “Kill!” And he releases his hound.

Chewer lunges through the foliage, barking wildly. An all-too-human scream sounds from the other side.

“Uh-oh,” says Krud.

The party fights through the brush, but they're too late to save the hapless forester. What's left of his face looks like ground meat. Chewer is hungrily chomping on the man's cheek, ripping away hunks of flesh. Two more foresters look on in horror.

“Chewer!” cries Mad Max. “Bad boy! Down, boy!”

Next Time: Oops! Will our 'heroes' have any better luck with their owlbear hunt than eating the faces of the people they're supposed to protect? I guess we will see....
 

the Jester

Legend
Blood dripping from his muzzle, Chewer raises his head long enough to flatten his ears and give a warning growl.

“That's a bad dog,” Flint opines.

“No, he's not a bad dog!” Mad Max protests, advancing cautiously until he can take the far end of the chain that serves as the mastiff's leash. “He just didn't understand...”

“Nolin!” cries one of the lumberjacks, staring aghast at his faceless friend. The other forester turns and flees. Chewer raises his hackles and tenses, as if about to spring.

“Down, boy!” Mad Max commands.

The mastiff jumps, but the chain goes taut, holding him to Mad Max, who swiftly strides up to the dog and clouts it. “Knock that off!” he scolds.

Meanwhile, the final forester turns and runs, sobbing, into the woods.

“We're here to protect you from the owlbear,” Flint yells after him.

For a moment, the only sound is the rumbling growl of the dog. Thennn Dzedz remarks, “That could have gone better.”

***

Flint argues unsuccessfully for putting the dog down, especially now that he has developed a taste for human blood. Failing to win that argument, he suggests at least compromising by cleaning the blood off of Chewer's face. But Chewer doesn't seem too interested in being washed, so Mad Max offers a compromise of his own and packs a bowl of hempflower, following it up with a skin of rice wine.

The foresters are less amenable to Max's apology, but what can they do? The party is heavily armed and armored, and they have that growling, blood-faced beast at hand. So the bravest of the dozen woodsmen that have gathered, nervously clutching their axes, appoints herself their speaker and steps over to the party. “What do you people want?” she asks. “We don't have any money.”

“We're actually here to help you with the owlbear problem,” Hungus answers.

“Yes,” Max interjects, “this hound is specially trained to seek out owlbears! Uh, sorry about your friend.”

The woman stares at him for a moment, then shakes her head. “You've killed as many of us as it has.”

“Oh, uh, whoops.”

She shakes her head. “Well, good luck to you.”

“Any idea where we can find it?” asks Krud.

She shrugs. “Deeper in the woods. We've heard its call from the east.”

East it is, then. The party leaves the traumatized woodsmen behind, watching for any sign of the owlbear. Benthum asks, “What about my wife?”

“We'll get to her, don't worry,” Hungus lies.

The woods get thicker very rapidly. Right along the river is where most of the wood that makes its way to Fandelose is felled, for it can be poled upstream and ultimately carried the shortest possible distance. Some especially bold folk have tried taking it overland by wagon, but this has been less successful, with several such attempts failing and the people involved simply never returning to the city. Presumably, they were eaten by monsters, enslaved by hobgoblins, or worse. Thus, one need go only a few hundred yards east of the foresters to find areas where the woods have grown and thickened, uninterrupted by any humanoid touch, for forty years or more.

Our heroes thus find themselves pushing through significant amounts of underbrush and tangled thickets. It is hard work, and it is taking them further away from the city's influence than most of the party have been before. There are many types of trees and birds that they have never seen before. Strange chirps and hoots sound around them.

Then, a strange sound, unlike anything any of them have heard before, yet somehow impossible not to recognize immediately:

”RRRAAAH-HOOOOOOO!”

“That,” says Dzedz, “has got to be an owlbear.”

The party moves through the brush, heading toward the sound. The call is followed by an ungodly loud squawking and roaring, and by thrashing and crashing noises.

“Maybe it's fighting something,” says Hungus. “That would be perfect! It might even already be wounded!”

“Or maybe we'll have to fight whatever it's fighting, too,” says Krud, but nobody is listening. With a shrug, he moves after them.

But when they burst through the foliage, they find that the owlbear isn't fighting. In fact, it isn't an owlbear at all.

It's two owlbears. And they're mating.

What an embarrassing scene! For a moment, the more naïve members of the group consider giving the owlbears time to finish before engaging them, but Krud dispels any notion of avoiding battle by immediately casting a sacred flame at the female (or at least, the one being mounted by the other). Benthum fires a sling bullet at the same one, while Flint mocks it viciously.

“Get 'em, Chewer!”

Mad Max release the chain, and his mastiff rushes forward, barking wildly, and attacks the male owlbear. The dog sinks his teeth into the owlbear's ankle. The owlbear roars, and Mad Max leaps forward and deals it a mighty blow with his maul.

Then Dzedz steps up and blasts the two owlbears with a thunderwave. If the previous attacks hadn't ruined their moment, this certainly does, blowing them apart and echoing in the surrounding woods.

The owlbears are both enraged. Really, who wouldn't be? They pick themselves up and rumble forward, all claws and teeth. The female rushes forward and snaps at Dzedz; only a timely shield spell saves him. But even that doesn't protect him from a telling swipe from the owlbear's claw.

Meanwhile, the male advances on Chewer, slashes him with a claw, and then literally bites his head off, ending any chance of the “put the dog down” debate revivifying itself.

Carl Hungus leaps to the attack. He brings his maul up and around into the female's side, and there is a dazzling burst of light as he smites it. The monster opens its terrifying beak and lets out that characteristic howl again: “RAAAA-HOOO!”

Mad Max screams, “Chewer! Nooooo!!!” With a sob, he rushes forward and strikes the male owlbear as hard as he can, cracking it in the chest with his massive hammer. The party surges forward, everyone striking resolutely and hard, and in a moment more, both owlbears succumb to their blistering assault.

But it is too late for Chewer.

***

Mad Max grieves in his own way. He drinks deep from his wineskin, finishing it off and tossing it aside before starting a fresh one.

“Well, that's the first thing,” says Dzedz.

“Huh?” Mad Max hasn't been paying a lot of attention.

“We have to do two more favors for the Black Temple before we're square.”

“Oh yeah! What's next?”

“They said something about providing security at a protest.”

“What's the third thing?”

“We have to deliver some kind of message for them.”

“Huh. That's a lot of work.”

“Remember how much that mirror curse sucked?” Hungus says. He shakes his head. “We need to stay on the Black Avengers' good side in case we need help like this again.”

The party crosses the river, again taking the bridge, and turns north along the old roadway.

Mad Max brightens. “Hey, it isn't too late yet. What do you guys say we go back into the megadungeon on the way home?”

Next Time: Heads!
 

the Jester

Legend
The party once more pays the dwarves guarding the entrance to allow them into the megadungeon. They return to the elevator that they found previously and descend once again, this time throwing the lever all the way down rather than to the middle position. Unlike the first time they took it, nothing guards the first room down.

“We could explore...” Flint suggests.

“Let's go down,” says Mad Max. “We just killed two owlbears! We're bad ass!”

Down they go.

The elevator ends its descent in another room of unnaturally smooth stone. Dzedz shakes his head. “Magic must have been involved in this. This ceiling needs supports, but it doesn't have them.” He scowls.

A single door leads out. When opened, it reveals a 15' wide passageway heading away. The party forms up into a marching order, with Hungus and Max in the lead, and moves out. Unfortunately, neither of them is very observant, and when they reach a four-way intersection after around 60', they are caught entirely off guard by a sudden flock of stirges.

“Not doing this!” says Dzedz. He casts a thunderwave, catching the entire group of stirges, and slays them all with a single spell.

Crud shakes his head. “That's impressive!”

“I have a thing about stirges.”

“Forward?” Flint prompts, and the group advances through the intersection. A short passage ends in a stone door. When they throw it open, they see a chamber that they recognize, with four pillars, each carved with representations of elemental forces.

“We've been here,” says Mad Max.

Dzedz, who has been mapping, digs out his parchments from their previous expeditions into the dungeon. After a moment, he jabs his finger at one of them. “Here. We're actually pretty close to the thoqqua hole.”

“Where to, then?” asks Flint.

Mad Max strides to one of the doors leading out of the chamber and throws it open in answer to the halfling's question. Then his face contorts in disgust, and he steps in. “There's bodies in here.” He wrinkles his nose. “Ugh.” He peers at the closest body. “There's something wrong with his ears.”

The others follow him into the room, but even as they file in, the bodies in the chamber are starting to jerk and move strangely, not rising, but....

“What the hell?” exclaims Crud.

With a wet ripping sound, the heads of the corpses in the chamber detach. Their ears, our heroes belatedly realize, are distended, oversized, and now they begin to flap like the wings of bats. Grotesquely, the heads begin to shriek as they fly towards the adventurers. Benthum seizes up in terror, letting out a low moan.

“Agh!” Hungus cries, and swings his maul at the nearest head, missing it cleanly. It bobs and weaves past him, and Flint manages to score a wound on it as it does. Then it gives Dzedz a horrible kiss, pushing a swollen tongue into his mouth.

The dwarf wizard pushes away, tripping and falling on his back. He gags. Even with the lack of acuity typical of the dwarven sense of taste, he nearly vomits.

Crud calls down the power of his god in a sacred flame, damaging one of the flying heads. Mad Max roars and enters a rage, then smashes another against the wall of the chamber, squishing it and sending blackened brains squirting onto the floor.

Two heads remain- then one, as Hungus strikes down the wounded. The party turns their attention on the final one and slays it in a few moments.

Dzedz is still coughing and spitting, trying to clear the taste from his mouth. He takes a drink of ale and swishes it around his mouth, then spits it out.

“You okay?” asks Mad Max.

“I'll be fine,” the dwarf answers, but he's wrong.

***

The room with the flying heads has no other exits out of it, so the party backtracks to the chamber with the four pillars in it. Two exits that lead from it remain untried- or so it seems, until Dzedz looks again at his other map. “Actually, we've been that way. That passage leads to the thoqqua hole. But we haven't checked out that final door there.”

The door opens onto a chamber full of strange smoke. When our heroes enter, they find themselves starting to fall asleep, so they quickly leave the chamber behind.

“Are we ready to go back to the city yet?” asks Benthum.

Flint smirks. “You know, if we go out through the thoqqua hole, we won't have to pay the dwarves.”

Exeunt, stage right.

***

When the party gets out of the Black Gorge, night has already fallen. The city gates are shut for the night.

“Hey, guys!” Mad Max calls to the guards.

“Hey, Max,” one of them says.

“Any chance you can let us in?”

“Ah, sure.”

It pays to have a soldier from the Army in your party. There will be times aplenty when this group or another won't be so lucky and will have to wait out the night outside the safety of the walls. But Mad Max is a soldier of the Red Battlet, and there is a code amongst the soldiers. They take care of one another. They are brothers are sisters of a special family, one born not of the blood of the womb but of the blood that they spill in defense of one another.

The party disperses into the city, going to the various places that they call home.

Despite his hearty constitution, Dzedz doesn't feel very well. His tongue is swollen. And he still can't get that taste out of his mouth.

***

Speaking of tastes, how about that bean juice? Rich, hearty, hot, and heady. Cafes are all the rage. They are open all over the city, almost as prevalent as taverns. As the fad has taken hold over the last few years, people have experimented with different ways to fix it. Some add the milk of goats or rice; others put in a pad of butter. Some salt it, some put sugar in, a few add a mash of hot peppers.

Right now, the fact that the entire supply that is available, or that is likely to be available, is what is stored away in the city has not become much of a factor in its price. There is yet to be a scarcity. Even so, a cup of bean juice averages around one mark in price.

For now, though it's a bit on the pricy side, bean juice is within almost everyone's reach, at least once in a while.

For now.

***

Dzedz awakens halfway through the night, gagging on the taste of his own tongue. He is sweaty, feverish. He hawks up a massive loogie, and it is as black as firestone and smells of rot.

His head swimming, the dwarf rises, throws on a robe, and stumbles out into the street. He makes his shambling way through the darkness of the nighttime streets of the Lower District up the hill into the lit roads of the Bronze District, and thence to the Black Temple.

Dzedz puts himself further into debt.

***

Anyone remember Hkatha? Hkatha Ilmixie? One of the Heroes of Fandelose during the Fall, who helped save the city and ensure that something survived?

Hkatha Ilmixie, founder of the School for Gifted Youngsters, is a noble of one of Fandelose's old lines. The Ilmixie are a house with a somewhat ambiguous reputation. While, yes, Hkatha was a great hero in his day, it is whispered that his line sometimes spontaneously produces tieflings, and everybody knows what that means.

Well, if you don't, then let me spell it out for you: At some point in the past, the Ilmixies had dealings with fiends. Probably devils. Sure, they're a human family- except for the occasional spawn that shows their true nature. It's not entirely common; not every generation has one, although Tzizz is only two generations removed from Hkatha, and that young fellow is clearly a tiefling.

But we're not talking about Tzizz, not yet. Today, we're talking about Roran- a scion of the house that doesn't have the horns or tail or hooves. No, Roran is full-blooded human, with no taint in him... except that that he might pass down to his descendants, thanks to the dubious choices made by his ancestors.

Roran is a young Ilmixie, skilled with a bow. A noble who has spent little time outside the walls, yet fancies himself a ranger (perhaps an urban one?). Eager to prove his worth to his house, to make his grandfather Hkatha proud, Roran has always been somewhat disappointed in his lack of sorcerous potential. He always wanted to be a gifted youngster- to go to that school, to have the natural talents that earned such intense attention from his grandfather. But then, some of those youngsters found their powers too much to deal with. There are even a few, Roran knows, who had to be sent to Professor Whorl's Institute for Study of the Mind when they went mad after their magical abilities first manifested uncontrollably.

He never had the potential for sorcery. Instead, he trained in more martial pursuits, following his natural sharp eye and steady hand to the center of the target. His arrows land closer to the center than most, and he got better every year. Yet he was not yet blooded. He was too young to have fought in the war against the Hand, or when the city was breached by the Scarlet Fist. He had not yet taken a turn atop the wall while enemies assaulted Fandelose, but the next time they did, he would. And he would show himself a hero.

“Are you listening?” Hkatha asks.

“Huh?” Roran snaps out of his daydreaming.

Hkatha heaves an exasperated sigh. “Damn it, I'm not repeating myself. Go to the Cerulean Tower and see a man named Lazarus. Tell him I sent you. And help him with his problem.”

***

Lazarus' problem, of course, is that his colleague Mileen is still missing, and he's increasingly afraid that she isn't coming back. He introduces Roran to Dzedz, Flint, and Carl Hungus, who explain that they have been searching dilligently, to no avail. Innocent whistling and all that.

“This is Laharl Umbra,” says Lazarus. “He'll be going with you to help.” Though he doesn't say it, everyone in the room understands that Laharl is also there to make sure that the party is actually doing its job.

***

Mad Max, meanwhile, is too busy with his day job for adventuring. But he's been giving it a lot of thought, and he's decided that it is time to switch from chain mail to bare-chested manliness. He redesigns his garb to be more metal in the metaphorical sense, while having far less in the literal sense.

“I've been channeling my anger lately,” he explains happily to one of his co-workers.*

Another pops in. “Hey, did you hear about that new clinic on the edge of town? I hear that the guy who runs it harvests organs from people who die in his care.”

“What for?”

“I have no idea, but the guy's supposed to be really creepy.”

“Ha, sure. What's he gonna do, eat a bunch of livers?”

“I wouldn't put it past him.”

“Huh. Madness.” Mad Max packs a bowl of hempflower in his pipe. “Let's smoke a bowl.”

Next Time: Things go horribly wrong in the megadungeon!


*In other words, Max has gone from being a fighter to a fighter/barbarian.
 
Hey Jester!

Glad to see you were able to post again. I've missed the adventures in Cydra.

Speaking of such, I'd like to get a look at the timeline of your world if possible? I poked around after reading these again, and it seems that Wikispaces is no more. I hope you still have copies of your data about.
 

the Jester

Legend
Hey Jester!

Glad to see you were able to post again. I've missed the adventures in Cydra.

Speaking of such, I'd like to get a look at the timeline of your world if possible? I poked around after reading these again, and it seems that Wikispaces is no more. I hope you still have copies of your data about.
Thanks, it's good to be doing it again! I spent several years with my writing efforts focused on a trilogy of novels (and am at the stage where I am editing/getting others to look them over/etc).

I'm at my girlfriend's house for the next few days, so I don't have all my notes available, especially from earlier editions. However, I'll be happy to post something after I get home. I can probably answer specific questions if you have some, though not in great detail or accuracy regarding the early eras (e.g. the time of the Elder Elves, the Miloxi era, etc).
 
An idle question I had was the rought timeline of "recent" events. The "modern age" of cydra we've been exposed to is from just after the defeat of Fuligin to the times of Fandelose. I'm a bit confused as to how events flowed and where the big time jumps are. There's a couple of millennial time skips there, I believe.
 

the Jester

Legend
An idle question I had was the rought timeline of "recent" events. The "modern age" of cydra we've been exposed to is from just after the defeat of Fuligin to the times of Fandelose. I'm a bit confused as to how events flowed and where the big time jumps are. There's a couple of millennial time skips there, I believe.
Yeah, there's one big jump after the end of the 3e epic stuff- Thrush was installed as the new emperor of (what would become) the Sword Empire, and then we wrapped up. When I started the 4e game, I advanced time an indeterminate amount, but probably no less than several thousand years, given the long lifespans of epic 3e pcs. The whole idea there was to push the setting past the point when the last of the epic characters would no longer be a going concern; everyone is dead/merged with the land/ascended into a heavenly form/whatever. I did not want to have to mess around with converting level 30+ epic pcs into a new edition, especially since the 4e epic rules were, at least initially, pretty thin. (Though I have to say that, by the end, they turned out to be my favorite iteration of epic D&D so far!)

So the timeline that has been written up in the story hours, using the OLG (Our Lord Galador) calendar, is something like this:

c. 100 OLG- Dexter. This includes the Cydra: The Early Years story hour, as well as some of Delilah's Tale.

c. 217 to 225 OLG- Games after I moved to Davis, where the epic stuff (eventually) took place. This started with a party including Lucidemacs, Siglenisten, Maybell Nontrophia, Ruwena Chudstone, and others, which haven't been written up yet. This led to the conflict with Fuligin, which led the party to Darkhold, which led them to time travel back my old campaign setting, pre-apocalypse, in order to gather what was needed to both fight Fuligin and to turn Cydra from a simulation inside Darkhold into a real multiverse. I don't think any of this is written up except as flashbacks and exposition.

c. 320 or 330ish OLG- the pcs leave Darkhold, and find that approximately a century has slipped away. This era includes many groups and most of the story hours.

Later by no less than 3,000 years- we get into the 4e and 5e stuff, including this thread, Adventures in the Eastern Province, and the Fall of Civilzation. (The FoC is about 45 or 50 years before 'game present'.)

One story hour was set further still in the future- the Year 272 Campaign. It was set about 27,000 years ahead of the epic game, but was played long before the epic game finished up. So that's probably anywhere from 10,000 to 23,000 years from the current 'game present'.

I hope that helps clear things up to some extent. One thing I'll note, though, is that a lot of the time skips are purposely somewhat vague, so that I can fill in details later as needed.
 
The whole idea there was to push the setting past the point when the last of the epic characters would no longer be a going concern;
Makes perfect sense, I've done similar things.

...led them to time travel back my old campaign setting, pre-apocalypse, in order to gather what was needed to both fight Fuligin and to turn Cydra from a simulation inside Darkhold into a real multiverse.
Oh... I seem to have missed that tidbit. Interesting.

I hope that helps clear things up to some extent. One thing I'll note, though, is that a lot of the time skips are purposely somewhat vague, so that I can fill in details later as needed.
It does! Thank you.

I have a long standing campaign myself, and lately I've been organizing the DM's view of my timeline. Being vague on certain dates is important and useful to allow foresight!
 

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