(Cydra) The Final City

the Jester

Legend
Let us not forget, this is not the story of Flint and Dzedz and Carl Hungus and Mad Max and Laharl. This is the story of any adventurer or party of adventurers.

This is the story of Fandelose. This is the story of the city.

The city has many problems. The Coal-Faced Bastards constantly skirmish with the Bronze Tigers, careful not to tread on the toes of the Grey Brothers by dabbling in murder for hire, while the Smoke Fades sit back in obscurity and steal from everyone. The drug trade thrives; of uncertain legality and drawing inconsistent responses, the pooorer sections of the city are replete with everything from the relatively innocuous hempflower to the extraordinarily toxic dzur and everything in between, from nose candy to goofballs. Sometimes the authorities ignore the trade; sometimes, they demand payment to ignore it. At other times, they drive hard into some bad neighborhood or other, Cat's River or Tiger Town or the Breach, and violently prosecute the dealers, meting out summary justice in back alleys and leaving bodies behind.

The gangs know better than to respond in kind. The death of even one soldier of the White Battlet leads inevitably to harsh crackdowns, to revenge delivered more violently than any retort the gangs can muster. After all, the army is well-armed and armored, and they have the numbers. The Bastards still rememeber when, about fifteen years past, after a foolish lad caused an unfortunate escalation, even the youngest members of the gang who had been caught were found dumped in the alleys of their part of town, an unmistakable statement that the gangs should not go too far in provoking the army.

And then there's the money.

***

“You there!” Just shy of a shout, the call arrests Dzedz, Flint, Laharl, and Hungus in their tracks. The clatter of hobnailed boots on the cobbles marching toward them announces the White Battlet patrol.

“Yes, officer?” asks Dzedz.

“This is an illegal currency check,” the lead guard barks. “We need to search you.”

Laharl bristles, but Flint lays a hand on his arm and murmurs at him. The group submits to the search. It's either that or start a fight with the Army of Argos, and everyone knows that won't end well under the best of circumstances.

“So what's this, then?” At its conclusion, the guard holds Flint's pouch full of silver and gold pieces.

“Well,” Flint stammers, “we just re-entered the city from the megadungeon. I was on my way to a moneychanger, I swear!”

“A likely story.” The guard shakes his head and the pouch vanishes into the patrol's evidence box. So do Dzedz's coins. The others have already paid the moneychangers their 3% fee to change their gold to marks, and fortunately, the penalty for having illegal currency is no worse than confiscation. So the worst part of the situation is that both Flint and Dzedz are broke all over again.

The disgruntled adventurers seek out a tavern to drown their sorrows, with Hungus buying for his two demonetized allies.

“I told you you should have changed those coins,” Hungus sighs, taking a sip of his drink.

Dzedz snorts disdainfully. “Pay some crooked banker to turn my gold into bronze? I don't think so. Your city's money is stupid. You might as well draw denominations on paper, for all it's worth.” He takes another drink. It will take a lot more of them to drive the sick, dry, decayed flavor from his throat. If not for the Black Temple... he thinks.

“It's not worthless,” Laharl retorts, “as long as it pays for my bean juice and wine.”

“I guess we can go back in tomorrow or the next day,” says Hungus. “There's bound to be lots more treasure down there.”

“Gold pieces and marks,” adds Flint. Dzedz snorts again and shakes his head.

“We should have killed those guards and burnt the bodies,” mutters Laharl.

***

The next day, the poor all over again party checks in with Lazarus at the Cerulean Tower, with Dzedz hoping that the sages there might be able to provide the formulae for some spells that he could transfer into his own spellbook.

“Sorry,” Lazarus says, “the Collegiate isn't really an association of wizards. We're more sages and scholars. We do have a few hedge magicians and ritualists, but...” He shrugs. “However, if you can rescue Mileen, she is the most powerful wizard among us. She can probably help you out.”

“Great,” Dzedz grumbles.

“On that score, I've got some additional help for you. House Ilmixie is offering the services of one of their number. His name is Rorin. He's actually supposed to be here any time to discuss the matter...”

Indeed, half an hour later, the young noble and the adventurers are exchanging introductions. Rorin's bearing betrays the confidence of the young, well-trained, and untested. Yet when Dzedz and Hungus ask for a demonstration of his skills, he shows excellent form with his bow.

“All right,” says Flint. “Sounds like we're going back to Marble Hall.”

Yet the day slips away, and soon enough it's late afternoon. The party reconsiders, since starting their foray now is likely to leave them locked out of the city gates come nightfall, and settles on meeting up in the morning at one of Fandelose's numerous cafes. There, then, over steaming cups of bean juice, the group straps on its collective weapons, tightens its collective armor straps, shoulders its collective backpacks, and marches on its collective legs to the city gates, where Red Battlet guards wave them out after inquiring about their intentions.

Down into the Black Gorge, then back into the megadungeon they go.

***

The group explores beyond the great ruined bazaar that they had previously found, and before they find any monsters or treasure, they find a trap. The floor swings open, leading not into the pit that they first expect, but into a long chute. They tumble down, seconds passing to mark how far they are falling, and then, shouting in dismay, they spill through a one-way metal flap that slaps closed behind them. They drop heavily onto a stone-floored chamber, leaving them momentarily stunned.

Before they can regain their feet, something horrifying squirms out of an alcove to attack them.

The thing is vaguely worm-like, with a green body and a yellow belly. It is as thick around as a man's waist. Its front end has several tentacles surrounding a vicious beak. It lashes out viciously, delivering a terrific wound to Laharl immediately and wrapping its tentacles around him. The thing makes a strange chirring noise as it tears into the warlock with its beak. Laharl screams, struggling to pull away- and the thing rips him in two. Blood and gore shower the others, who, though staggered from the fall and surprised by the sudden attack, scramble to their feet and draw weapons.

Carl Hungus rushes forward and swings his maul, connecting solidly. And yet, the serpentine monster seems barely hurt. It turns on him, tentacles flailing.

“It's resisting my weapons!” Hungus cries.

Flint leaps in next to him, only to be yanked from his feet by those tentacles. The monster's slavering beak tears at his face, and the halfling shrieks in pain. “Help! It's got me!”

Dzedz steps right up to it and chants the syllables of a thunderwave. A tremendous report echoes through the room and down the halls. The monster tumbles back away from Flint, its grip broken, and Rorin manages to hit it with an arrow, doing some damage. The thing rights itself and scrambles back forward.

From down the hall, the sound of more chirring comes.

Flint and Hungus move to flank the monster, their weapons barely effective against it. “What is this thing?” the halfling cries.

Whatever it is, two more of them arrive, squirming their way into the chamber. Tentacles lash out, beaks dig into flesh. Groaning, Hungus falls onto one knee. Desperate, head swimming, he lays hands upon himself, trying to stave off doom.

Too little, too late.

A beak rip into him. The monster trills, almost purring, as Hungus' blood sprays out. The dragonborn collapses.

“Crap!” cries Rorin, leaping to the front, bow discarded, sword whipping free of its scabbard. He strikes, stabbing one of the monsters, trying to drive it back. Flint thrusts his rapier with all the adroitness he can muster, striking for whatever vitals the creature might have. But it isn't enough.

Dzedz sends a flame bolt sizzling into the most wounded monster, and finally it falls. But even as it does, the other two flail at Flint and bring him down, too. Collapsing, breath shallow, he groans once as his rapier tumbles from his hand to rest beside his unconscious form.

This isn't good, the wizard thinks grimly. Rorin stabs and cuts, but the monsters barely seem to feel his blows. Unfortunately, the young noble does feel their attacks, and screams in pain as a beak rips into his side. Blood starts to pour down, soaking the left half of his body.

“Help!” Rorin cries.

“What do you think I'm doing?” shouts Dzedz, casting another fire bolt. The flames do seem to affect the monsters; the one he hit recoils momentarily, and the smell of burnt flesh tickles his nostrils. But the two monsters both still stand, and their tentacles smash into Rorin, leaving rough wounds on him. For a moment, he weaves on his feet.

Then Rorin falls, and Dzedz stands alone.

Desperate, the wizard steps up next to the monsters and casts another thunderwave, blasting them back away from Rorin's bleeding form.

Neither one falls. Both right themselves. The first- the one that is less wounded- wiggles forward, lashing out at Dzedz. Its tentacle slaps at Dzedz, and for a split second he considers casting shield to protect himself. But he is almost out of spells already. To do so would be to forfeit the chance of another thunderwave. So he suffers the blow, staggering back a step, before unleashing another desperate flame bolt, this one at point blank range. He hits the monster again, wounding it further.

Then he realizes that the second monster isn't threatening him, because it is maneuvering to eat the unconscious Flint. Its razor-sharp beak stabs down into the halfling's throat.

No choice, thinks Dzedz grimly, and steps away from the monster threatening him. “Come on, you bastard!” he yells, as it strikes at him and misses. “Follow me!”

It's a dangerous maneuver, but he draws the monster closer to the one eating Flint, and as soon as they are close enough together, he catches them both in his last thunderwave.

KRACKABOOM!

The two monsters are blown backward. The one that had been starting to eat Flint doesn't rise.

Unfortunately, Flint's limp form is also caught by the spell, and flips end over end, coming to rest against one of the walls of the chamber. He is very still.

The final creature squirms forward, tentacles seeking its foe. Dzedz backs hurriedly away, then unleashes another flame bolt.

He misses.

The monster closes on the last of its prey that is still moving. Its tentacles seek him, slapping out.

And it misses, too.

One last chance, Dzedz thinks desperately. And he casts another flame bolt.

This time, he hits the creature square in the head, burning it badly. It squeals, tries to turn around, and collapses.

In the sudden quiet, the only sound is Dzedz's gasping breath.

How many levels deep am I? he wonders.

Next Time: Is anyone but Dzedz alive? Things have gone very, very wrong for this party of adventurers. Fortunately, there are others...
 

the Jester

Legend
“It's all over!” the street preacher cries. He stands, arms spread wide, wearing dark red and black. His hair is as wild as his eyes. “The world has ended!” The crowd moving past largely ignores him, but now and again another person joins those standing near him, watching him, listening to him. Most of them are destitute and unfortunate; some are diseased or crippled. Others are fit in body, but weak in mind. “It isn't going to end, it already has! It isn't in the middle of ending, it already has!” His voice rises and falls in a rhythm that is almost hypnotic. Some of those watching him walk away after a few moments, but others, enthralled, remain, and slowly his crowd grows. “The fall of the empire was a sign- but not the first sign! No, it was the last sign, and now the curtain has fallen!”

He pauses, febrile eyes taking in those closest to him. “But it isn't too late for you! Listen to me, follow me, and I will lead you to a new world- a better world! One that isn't hopeless, one whose final elements aren't falling into oblivion! Stay here, and there is no hope, but follow me, and I will lead you to Paradise!”

We will see more of this man. Oh yes.

But we won't see those who follow him again, except as faces sketched on posters of the missing.

***

In the waning days of the Sword Empire, generations after the death of Thrush, as the artificial bonds that tied the world-spanning empire together, a desperate decision was made at the highest levels. Because of the many rebellions springing up, because of the many independence movements, it was deemed necessary to remove maps from the public sphere. They presented too great of a risk of those rebellions spreading, of allowing revolutionaries to plan and find allies and bind together their own followers into armies, and given the network of long-distance transportation methods available to those who knew how to use them and where they led, maps were confiscated, burned, removed from libraries and homes, excised from books, cut out of tapestries.

From then on, maps were, and remain, state secrets.

Even those showing small areas were forbidden to the public. A map of the streets of the city? Unthinkable. One that shows an entire isle or continent? Inconceivable. Only at the highest levels of the imperial bureacracy or military apparatus, or in the most secret places, were maps allowed to survive.

Of course, a few slipped through the cracks. Not many, but a few. Hidden in private libraries, held by secret societies or adventurers, these few maps have great value.

Except, of course, that now most people would not even recognize a map for what it is.

That is a part of the culture of Fandelose. Just so you know.

***

“Hmmm,” Mad Max says.

He is at the Fandelose Brewery, and has just gotten his mug filled. The beer- made from rice, Fandelose's primary grain- is thin and yellow, but available, which is the best thing this side of delicious. He takes a deep drink, wipes his mouth with his left hand, and takes another look around.

Where the hell is Hungus? he wonders.

He has not seen his friend in several days. The two of them- as well as their other adventuring buddies- don't have a regular meeting place, exactly, but had been frequenting the brewery over the last week or two. It had been a convenient place to join up, since they're pretty nearly all heavy drinkers. But there has been no sign of him, or of Dzedz or Flint, for some time.

Grumbling, Mad Max scans the crowd for anyone he does know. There's a remarkably tall young human with a scraggly beard- obviously the best he can grow at that age- that is dyed blue. And there's a halfling sitting a table away from his who is wearing a sha shi, the cross-body sash that designates one as a monk of the Manticore Monastery. Next to him, talking animatedly, is a berobed human who has the distinct look of some kind of mage. Mad Max doesn't know any of them, but, should he need to recruit a whole new party...

He keeps looking. Most of the people drinking here are farmers, merchants, craftsmen. Few are armed, fewer still armored. But- he squints- there is one man in the corner, looking lost, who seems... familiar. Mad Max sidles closer to get a better look.

“Drolc!” he exclaims.

The half-orc looks up at him and smiles. “Hullo!”

Happily, Mad Max pulls up a stool. “I was just looking for some of my adventuring buddies! Good to see you!” He pulls out his pipe, packs the bowl with pipeweed, and sets it alight, then passes it to Drolc. The half-orc declines, but the halfling in the sha shi glances their way at the smell. Max gestures him over, and both he and the mage talking to him move over to join him.

“You look like adventurers,” Max declares. “That's a funny coincidence, because I'm looking for some adventurers.”

The blue-bearded youth turns his head at that. “Is that hempflower?” he calls. “Can I get in on that?”

“Sure.” Max offers him the pipe, and the fellow strides over to join them.

Introductions are made. The blue-bearded fellow calls himself Bluebeard (though his name turns out to be Tim); the halfling is Scotty Beandelver; the sorcerer, Zim Kairon; and Drolc reintroduces himself three times. Mad Max buys a round and passes his pipe.

Before long, this group has gotten drunk and high together (except for Drolc), and rather forgotten all about going adventuring.

***

The Manticore Monastery and the Pan Lung School are the city's two rival organizations of monks. The Manticore Monastery teaches the way of shadow; the Pan Lung School, the way of the open hand. Every spring, the two dojos have a large, public, semi-ceremonial battle in the streets.

Of course, monks from the rival schools fight a lot more than just the one time each year. Promising young Manticore monks attempt to ambush and defeat Pan Lung warriors, demonstrating the superiority of their techniques, while those from the Pan Lung School seek to prove that their fighting style can overcome the sneakiness of the way of shadow. Often, small groups of tegh monks engage each other throughout the year.

“That's why I want to find Master Lo,” Scotty explains with a hiccup. “He's out in the woods somewhere, secluded. They say he knows special secret techniques, and that he will teach them to those worthy enough to find him. He was brought up in the Manli- Manticore Monst- Manticore Monastery, just like me.” He belches.

“That sounds like a good adventure!” Zim says, recalling how this whole meet-up started.

Mad Max takes another puff off his pipe. “Sure, I guess. Is there treasure?”

“The treasure,” Scotty explains, “is the techniques he teaches.”

“Hmm.”

“Come on, we might as well try to find him!”

***

But, of course, things never go smoothly for a drunken band of adventurers.

En route to the city gates, they are ambushed by a group of young martial artists from the Pan Lung School. Before they know it, fists and feet are smashing into them. Scotty's sha shi marks them as Manticore Monastery allies.

The youths are no match for Mad Max; he is, by now, a relatively experienced warrior, and once enraged, he largely shrugs off their blows. And in his rage, he shows no mercy to them. Screaming wildly, he lays about him with his heavy maul, crushing bones and mashing flesh.

In turn, the monks switch to their most dangerous, most lethal techniques. And when the battle is done, although Scotty is bruised and beaten, their new sorcerer ally lies on the cobbles of the street with his neck at an angle that is clearly not correct for his anatomy.

“Gods damn it,” Scotty growls.

“Sad,” Drolc agrees.

Next Time: Oh all right, let's check in with Dzedz.
 

the Jester

Legend
The shallow gasps change to a slow wheeze. Then there is a cough, followed by retching and a groan.

“At last!” cries Dzedz. “I thought your kind was tougher than that. You've been out for hours!”

“What... what happened?”

“We fell into a trap.”

“I remember that. And...” A pause. “Those tentacle monsters.”

“Yeah. I stopped them, but barely. And...” Dzedz pauses too, then continues mournfully. “It cost us.”

Slowly, the other struggles to his feet. He looks around at the bodies scattered about- monsters and companions both. “Did... did anyone else make it?”

Dzedz jerks a thumb at one of the motionless forms on the ground. “He's still unconscious, but Rorin made it.” He sighs. “It's just going to be the three of us, Carl Hungus.”

“How deep do you think we are?” the dragonborn asks.

Dzedz shrugs. “Deeper than we were ready to be, is my guess.”

***

Once Rorin regains consciousness, the three take stock of their situation. They have no idea how deep beneath Marble Hall they are, nor have they the slightest clue on how to escape. They only know one thing.

“We have to go up.” Dzedz glances at his two companions. “We certainly can't just stay here. We're going to run out of food before too long.”

“We might be able to find stuff to eat down here,” Rorin replies. “Even goblin flesh is better than starving.”

Hungus makes a face. Dzedz snorts. “I'd rather eat stirges, but whatever.”

The three set off to explore. In short order they discover a bizarre and horrifying bedroom with art on the walls that straddles a weird line between pornography and edification of the dead. Emerging from a secret door come a stranger and more obscene group than our heroes (such as they are) could have anticipated- a group of creatures that can only be described as phallus-people. These walking phalli have arms and faces, wield maces fashioned into the lewdest of shapes, and demonstrate immediate hostile intent. Worse yet, they try to capture the trio of adventurers, intending to subject them to who knows what sort of terrifying abuse.

But the three of them manage to slay the strange phallic folk; they aren't even very tough, although they do attempt to blind our heroes by spewing sticky goo in their eyes. It is unsettling and disgusting.

“What kind of sick god made those, do you think?” comments Dzedz. It is, of course, intended as a rhetorical question.

Little does he realize that it is not only a good and relevent question, but one whose answer- and whose high priest- will haunt them.

Following the secret passage that the phallusians emerged from, the group finds a chamber manned by a mass of zombies. Too many zombies.

Desperately, Carl Hungus blocks the entry to the secret passage as the undead shamble towards them. “I'll try to hold them off!” he shouts, and casts protection from evil and good.

Dzedz and Rorin stay behind him, firing arrows and cantrips at the zombies, while Hungus makes a heroic last stand. The zombies crowd all around him, reaching for him, tearing at him- but the power of his god repels them. He strikes to the left with his maul, dropping one zombie, and another takes its place. He smashes it down in turn, then strikes to his right in the wake of an arrow's flight, hammering another zombie down. Another, and another... and another. All while their ripping claws can't seem to penetrate his guard, can't reach into the gaps between plates of his armor, can't defeat the holy defense that his god has lain about him.

Finally, gasping in fear, Carl Hungus realizes that he has run out of foes to smite.

“On the other hand,” Rorin says, kneeling down above one of the zombie corpses and drawing his knife, “we still don't know how to get out of here.”

“True.” Dzedz watches as Rorin begins to eviscerate the body. “What are you doing?”

“I'm checking them for treasure,” Rorin states. “What if one of them swallowed something?”

Dzed and Hungus exchange a glance. They are too weak to go on without the archer.

“That's really gross,” Hungus grumbles.

“Just wait a few minutes.” Rorin moves to the second body.

Thus did Rorin Ilmixie earn the moniker 'the Butcher of Fandelose'.

Next Time: Hungus, Rorin, and Dzedz run into more trouble!
 

the Jester

Legend
Drolc and Scotty awaken aching from the blows of the Pan Lung monks. They slept at Scotty's house, aware that they were in no shape for adventure. And yet... Drolc's dim mind ponders his missing friends. He wants to help, but... well... where are they?

Over breakfast and bean juice*, Scotty inquires, “Why the long face, Drolc?”

“Huh?” Drolc looks at him blankly.

“You look sad,” Scotty elaborates.

“Oh. Sorry. Friends missing. Drolc wants to find.”

“Okay, sounds good. We'll see what we can do.”

Drolc rises, pushing his chair back.

“After we finish breakfast,” Scotty expands. He takes a sip. “And our bean juice.”

***

The problem, it turns out, is that Drolc doesn't know where his friends are. That's why they are missing. He suspects strongly that they went out adventuring, but his dim mind overlooks the most obvious possibility- Marble Hall- and his lack of ability to communicate sophisticated ideas (such as “I have no idea where they are”) soon results in him leading Scotty on a wandering path following the river south of Fandelose.

When they are accosted by a hungry bear, Drolc drives it off without difficulty. But no sign of his friends.

Frowning, he continues to follow the river.

Under the water, green eyes take note of the two adventurers.

***

“For gods' sake. Would you freaking hurry up?

“I don't want to miss anything,” Rorin objects, sawing open the gut of another zombie.

Hungus heaves a sigh.

“You never know,” Rorin adds. “I've heard stories.”

“Yeah, it might have treasure inside of it if it's a monster that eats people whole,” Dzedz grumbles. “But these are zombies.”

“You never know,” the Butcher of Fandelose repeats.

***

Eventually, Rorin finishes with the grisly business of eviscerating the rotting intestines from the undead that the party defeated. It's a process that is both slow and foul-smelling. When he is done, his arms and the front of his body are coated in odoriferous black goop.

“No luck,” he announces.

“That's really gross,” says Dzedz.

“He's saying that, and he's a dwarf,” Hungus points out. “I really don't think we should wait for you to do that again. Especially because you're not going to find anything.”

“Hey, you get an even share of anything you find.”

“An even share of nothing, after an hour of stench,” replies Hungus.

“Fine. Don't wait around next time, and I'll keep whatever I find.”

“Let's just get moving,” Dzedz sighs.

They do, cautiously advancing into further unknown territory of the megadungeon. Before they have been moving for two minutes, they are ambushed by a pair of giant spiders, but the fangs of the monsters can't get through Hungus' and Dzedz's armor, and the adventurers put the beasts down in a few blows. Continuing along, they find a chamber that contains gigantic bats giving off ear-splitting shrieks, and shut the door and try a different direction.

The architecture is far rougher around here than they have seen previously; rather than the unnaturally smooth walls they have seen above, these caverns are rough-hewn. Some even appear to be a mix of pre-existing natural caves and rough stonework. Dzedz can't identify the authors of the architecture, but disdainfully notes, “It's crude work. Either it's rough because it was never finished, or it's just really half-assed.” Fungus grows plentifully, and here and there, water trickles down a wall or across the floor.

“I bet all this fungus is what keeps these things down here fed,” Dzedz comments. “It could probably support a pretty big-”

At that point, a gang of eight figures comes into view. They are upright, humanoid in form, but feathered. There heads sport cruel beaks; they are obviously some sort of wingless bird.**

And they rush forward, squawking and tearing at the three hapless adventurers, who set out to defend themselves as best they can. Hungus' maul splatters bird brains about, while Dzedz casts shocking pulse to deliver several small explosions that knock several of the bird-creatures from their feet. Rorin's arrows seems to grow from bird throats and breasts with remarkable speed. Soon, most of the birds are dead, and the remaining ones flee down an adjoining passageway.

“How's everybody doing?” asks Rorin.

“Wounded,” Hungus says, wincing. “But standing.”

“Likewise,” Dzedz agrees. “I could use a short rest.”

The others agree. Hungus plants the head of his maul at his feet and leans against the wall with a sigh. The dwarf wizard sits down cross legged. Rorin keeps an eye out for trouble. Given a little time undisturbed, the three of them can regain a little steam and then continue looking for an egress point.

Unfortunately, the bird folk don't give them the time. Seven of them find our heroes, and interrupt their attempt to rest rather dramatically, with loud screeches and a charge that sees Hungus forced to expend the last of his ability to lay on hands to keep himself conscious.

When the fight is over, Rorin cocks his head and declares, “There are more of them. I can hear them.”

“We aren't going to get an hour.” Dzedz grimaces.

The three have a quick discussion- try to hold this chamber (which has multiple entrances) against all comers, or find somewhere better to rest? There isn't a good option behind them; most of the places that they have passed through have had multiple ways in and out of them.

“We need to keep looking for a way out,” Dzedz says.

“If we run into more monsters, it could be trouble,” Hungus warns. “I'm pretty hurt already.”

“I'm not in the best shape, but if you can keep them off of me, I can keep blowing them up.”

Rorin says, “I'm in pretty good shape. I can tank for a while.” He draws his sword. “I'm not as good in the front as I am with a bow, but I should be good enough.”

“All right. I guess I'll back you up, then.” Hungus grips his maul.

“And I'll take the rear.” Dzedz assumes his position.

They advance again- and to their relief, they soon find a stairway heading up.

***

“Hello there.”

The dwarf hasn't drawn his axe, but his hand is near it.

“Uh, hello,” says Scotty.

“Friend?” Drolc asks hopefully.

The dwarf looks at them dubiously. Scotty and Drolc are pretty rough-looking. They just emerged from the shrubbery along the riverside, pushing their way into his small (and relatively hidden) camp. On top of that, one of them is a half-orc.

“We intend you no harm,” Scotty says, holding his open hands out. “We didn't know you were here. Sorry.”

“All right,” the dwarf shrugs, letting his hand drop away from the handle of his weapon. “No harm done.” He squints at them, keeping his gaze on Drolc for a few extra moments.”

“Drolc be friend,” Drolc says. Then his jabs his thumb at his chest and repeats, “Drolc.”

“Kriv,” the dwarf answers, pointing to himself.

“And I'm Scotty- Scotty Beandelver.”

The dwarf nods curtly, continuing to appraise them with his eyes. “From the looks of you, I take it you're adventurers.”

“Looking for friends,” Drolc says.

Kriv frowns. “Friends?”

Scotty elaborates, “His adventuring companions are missing. I guess he thinks they're out here or something?”

“Well, there's nothing out here but-” Kriv is interrupted by splashing.

And then a voice, mellifluous and sweet, like running water. “Oh please, help!”

Next Time: Things don't go so well!


*Coffee, if you don't already know that.

**Dire corbies, from the 1e Fiend Folio, for the record.
 

the Jester

Legend
As a lad, Scotty Beandelver had once played a prank that went quite wrong, leading him to a terror-filled escape across the rooftops with a pair of guard drakes hissing and scrambling after him. But the rooftops are the criminals' road, and Scotty inadvertently interrupted a Grey Brother mid-assassination with his frantic flight, leading the assassin to join the pursuit. Hot panic had risen in Scotty's young throat, and only his slight frame had allowed him to escape by wiggling through the narrow slats of a fence. The drakes pulled up short of the fence, snapping and tearing at it in rage, while the assassin slid to a halt behind them, cursing and deciding that it was better to let the kid go than to kill someone's drakes in order to continue the pursuit. After all, that would just draw more attention, and attention was an assassin's worst enemy.

So Scotty got away after a half-hour long chase, lungs burning, blood singing. The escapade had taught him a very important lesson, although a wiser individual might have learnt a different one. But the lesson that Scotty learned that day was, I can get away with anything!

A few years later, while Scotty was still a boy but old enough to understand the gravity of the situation, his mother fell ill. Slowly she dried up and withered, sinking into herself like a raisin. The physickers could do nothing; the priests only shook their head and offered early condolences while trying to cultivate reverence in the boy. But when she lay on the brink of death, Scotty's mother made a miraculous recovery, and she lived for another six years before finally dying in an accident involving a herd of giant goats. But her survival taught Scotty another lesson: Everything works out. Her later death did not dissuade him from this opinion, though if he had been at an age where things between his mother and he were less contentious, it might have.

Together, these two formative incidents left Scotty Beandelver with an entirely unrealistic and unwarranted optimism.

***

Water streams from the green figure's face, suggestive of tears. But it's just the river, pouring from the slight creature as it rises up, pulling itself up the banks by the grass and brambles alongside. It cries out, “I mean you no harm,” before repeating, “Please, help me!”

Kriv draws an axe out, but Drolc strides forward and extends a hand, helping the small stranger up. It has slightly elfin features, with webs of skin between its fingers and toes. Thin light blue hair is plastered to its scalp by the water, and a few bits of debris are tangled in the hair. The figure is naked, androgynous in form but for its genitalia, which reveal it to be male.

“What are you?” Kriv asks. The suspicion in his voice is plain.

“My name is Softscale.” He looks at the three adventurers desperately. “I am a nixie. Please- my folk need help! They are being terrorized by horrible monsters!”

“What kind of monsters?” Scotty inquires.

“We call them the dark ones,” Softscale replies. “They're so mean! And hungry! And they eat us!”

“We help,” Drolc declares. His mind is weak, but his moral compass is strong. If there's one thing the dull-witted half-orc knows, it's that when he encounters someone in need- he helps.

Kriv scowls. “'Dark ones', he says. Not very descriptive, is he? And where are these dark ones, anyway? In the water, I'll bet.”

“Yes!” Softscale exclaims. “They live in the river!”

“Shouldn't be a problem for us,” Scotty says confidently.

***

The city of Fandelose, despite its precarious situation, often rings with music. There are many would-be entertainers to be found, either playing in the cafes or taverns of the city, entertaining strangers at the parks, or even playing for friends in their own homes. It's not hard for such folk to find work, albeit usually short-term work. Sometimes, when someone is having a particularly exciting party or event, they will even hire more than one entertainer- sometimes a whole group, either to play together or to compete against one another.

The better-paying jobs usually involve more demanding performances, more talented performers, or more difficult or dangerous locations. And every once in a while, a performer or group of performers might be hired to do something truly unusual.

Thus it is that Durnithio, well-known entertainer and Lothario, has recruited two of the city's other bards to join him. He has chosen the gravel-voiced tiefling Morsado and the sweet-voiced halfling Featherbender Bix, knowing that their voices can harmonize with and compliment his own. And for this job, Durnithio knows, success is vital. Should the three of them put on a successful performance, the pay might be- well. Good enough to be, frankly, unreasonable. But on the other hand, should they fail to amuse, their hosts might not only not pay them the agreed fee, but might actually take them hostage or worse.

Not long after the three of them exit the city gates, heading south toward the Black Gorge, a cloaked figure slides into view, emerging from the rocks along the edge of the path. “You're Durnithio?”

“That's right,” the bard says, voice high and strong. “And these are my two assistants for the night!”

The figure throws off its hood to reveal an orcish face, studying the three of them. After a moment, the orc nods decisively. “All right, follow me.”

Thus do the three bards enter the megadungeon beneath Marble Hall. The orc escorts them through a bewildering series of passages and rooms, sometimes making them freeze silently for a few moments while some monster or other stalks past, and down a flight of stairs, through more chambers, down more stairs, until the three of them are thoroughly lost.

Lost, but surrounded by shouting orcs demanding entertainment.

***

Deeper still, Carl Hungus, Rorin Ilmixie, and Dzedz Orcslayer make a careful ascension up the stairs. They don't find the easy way out that they were all praying for; instead, they find more trouble. Giant rats, giant frogs, stirges- they fight their increasingly-wounded way through them all.

“I don't know about this,” Hungus whines as he binds his freshest injuries. “I'm not sure how much more of this I can handle.”

“It would be nice if we could find a place to rest up,” Dzedz says, “but the day's young yet. We would have to be somewhere safe, and we'd need a good long while undisturbed before it would be time to go to sleep.”

Rorin looks up from the bloody business of eviscerating giant rats. “On the bright side, we can probably eat some of what we've killed. Rats and stirges tend to be full of disease, but giant frogs should be safe. And they'll cook up quite nicely.”

Hugus grimaces.

“On the other hand,” the Butcher of Fandelose continues, “the longer we stay down here, the more danger we are exposed to.”

Dzedz grunts. “If we knew our way out, a hard run upward would be the thing to do. But we don't. We can't really shorten our time down here.”

“We can if we use more than an hour or two of the day to try to find our way out.”

“But we're also more likely to get ourselves killed,” Hungus protests. “What if we stick to areas we have cleared out?”

“We haven't cleared out any areas, just a few rooms,” Dzedz answers, “and I'm not confident that we can.”

“Also,” Rorin points out, “quite a few of the monsters we've been encountering don't seem like they stick to one area.”

Dzedz nods. “True enough. It's well known to my people that monsters wander.”

The dragonborn speaks up again. “Well, we have to do something. We're all wounded, and we have really limited healing capacity between us. I really think we should hole up somewhere.”

But there is nowhere to hole up that they feel is safe; or at least, not without backtracking- and heading deeper down into the dungeon again. Which is a prospect that is not just daunting, but potentially lethal.

So, despite all three of them being out of spells and running ragged, they do the only thing that they can- they continue looking for a way up.

***

“Underwater!” Kriv exclaims. “You're insane!” He eyes the flowing river with trepidation.

“Nah, we'll be fine,” Scotty promises.

“We help,” Drolc repeats.

“Thank you! Oh, thank you!” Softscale is beside himself, nearly weeping in gratitude. As Drolc starts to clamber down the bank to the water's edge, the nixie says, “I can help you help me. I can let you breathe the water for a time.”

“Perfect!” Scotty exclaims. He starts to follow Drolc, then glances up at Kriv. “Well? Come on, surely you aren't afraid of a little water! Especially when our friend can make it so we won't drown.”

“I'm not afraid.” Kriv bridles. “But we dwarves know about the dangers of water.”

“Oh, please,” Softscale begs. “The dark ones are powerful! Without your help, mighty dwarf, your friends might perish.”

Kriv grunts a curse, then slowly begins to stomp down the bank towards them. When he finally, reluctantly, joins his newfound friends, Softscale closes his eyes and begins to whisper strange words, brushing his webbed hands over the three adventurers and imparting water breathing to them.

“Let's go!” Scotty cries. He dives in.

“Follow me. I will guide you.” The nixie steps into the river and immediately drops below the surface.

Kriv curses again as Scotty submerges and Drolc heaves himself into the water. “This is a terrible idea! Everybody knows that the water doesn't like to let go of those it catches!” But nobody else is above the surface; nobody else can hear him. “Crap!” he shouts, then throws himself into the stream.

***

Hours of singing and playing have passed. The orcs have been properly entertained. The feast is done; the drinks have been drunk, the drugs ingested; the copulating couples have gone off to private places to copulate.

Durnithio mutters, “That went well.” The orc guiding him out gestures at a shaft leading up.

“That way leads out.”

“My thanks,” says the bard. “It was good doing business with you. Any time your people need a bard, send word to me.”

The orc gives a curt nod, then turns to make his way back to the sublevel of the dungeon that his folk control. Durnithio, meanwhile, begins his ascent.

But wait! You ask. Where are Durnithio's companions? What happened to Morsado and Bix? Why are they not leaving, too?

The answer is simple: a purse split three ways is far less rewarding than the entire purse. Durnithio has, in one fell swoop and with the slightest amount of aid from orcish narcotics slipped into his erstwhile companions' drinks, not only tripled his price, but also eliminated two potential rivals from the scene. Indeed, he chuckles silently, Morsado and Bix had shown themselves to have quite complimentary styles and voices. Should they work together, they might even one day supplant Durnithio's reputation as the finest bard in the Bronze District.

Well, no need to worry about that now. They will awaken to find themselves lost in the depths of Marble Hall. If they survive, excellent, I was so worried about you gentlemen after you wandered off, but I was too drunk to etcetera, etcetera. And if not... well! Good-bye, my fine fellows, and I'll mourn your loss. Alas for all those poor taverns that will need to hire new entertainment, but perhaps they'll be willing to spend a bit more to put a truly exceptional talent before their crowds...

Next Time: Three groups, all of them in trouble! At least one of them won't make it out alive!
 

the Jester

Legend
The first thing Bix becomes aware of is the pounding in his head. He's an experienced drinker and has had his share of hangovers, but this... this...

Bix knows that a hangover can be bad. It can grip your head in a pulsing vice; it can punch you in the stomach over and over again. It can make it so you can barely walk, see, and hear. It can leave you exhausted and feeling filthy, like a wrung-out rag. Yet as awful as it can be, something about this feels different. It lacks some distinctive queasy characteristic common to hangovers, and instead makes him feel as if... as if...

“We were drugged,” he groans. He takes in the area around him- it's underground, clearly still in the dungeon, overgrown with mold and fungus. He can't see much in the gloom, so he digs in his pack- thank the gods he still has that!- and pulls out his lantern. Once he can see a little better, he notes the still form lying in the weird growth nearby and shakes Morsado awake. “Hey! We were drugged!”

The tiefling groans and sits up, then immediately leans to his left and vomits.

“I don't know about you, but I didn't drink that much.” Bix frowns. “Where's Durnithio?”

Wiping his mouth, Morsado says, “Who do you think drugged us?”

“What do you- what, Durnithio?”

“That bastard. He probably thought that he could keep all the money and eliminate some o fhis competition in one fell swoop.”

Bix stares at him for a moment.

“Where the hell are we?” Morsado asks.

“I think we're still in Marble Hall.”

“That's not good.”

Both of them are starting to feel a little better; the aftereffects of whatever their rival used to knock them out clear quickly. So they elect to wait a few minutes, then try to find a way to exit the dungeon.

And then they hear a loud, frightening, wordless shout booms out somewhere in the darkness not too far away.

***

Below the water, everything is green. Softscale swims from Kriv to Drolc to Scotty, brushing a webbed hand along each of their necks, and announces, “You can breathe, now. Follow me!”

The nixie swims off, and the three follow, with Scotty swimming and the others two trudging along the river's bottom, underwater vegetation swirling around their calves, mud rising in their wake only to be carried past them by the current. The underwater environment seems slow-moving and eerie.

Soon their guide takes them to a rocky slab lying on the bottom with a crack in the middle of it. “Through there,” Softscale whispers. “That's where the dark ones are.”

“What are these dark ones, anyway?” asks Kriv, but Drolc is already pulling himself through the opening, Scotty swift behind him. The dwarf utters a curse and follows.

Behind them, Softscale wrings his hands.

***

“We're almost out of torches,” Rorin says.

Dzedz shrugs. “It doesn't matter. I have darkvision.”

“Yeah,” Hungus objects, “but neither of us do.”

“I can guide you guys.”

“What if we have to fight?”

Dzedz scowls. “I guess I should have learned the light cantrip, but who'd have thought a dwarf would need it?”

The three trapped adventurers continue to move along the halls and passages of the dungeon. They still have no idea how to find their way out or how deep they are. Every squeak in the distance makes them tense up, fearing another flock of stirges or pack of giant rats.

“I wonder how far down this place goes,” mutters the dwarven wizard.

Hugus shrugs. “I don't think anybody knows.”

“Who do you suppose built it?” Rorin asks.

Dzedz shakes his head. “I can't tell. The work down below was rough and primitive, but the stuff up above is so smooth, without braces or butresses, that it almost seems to break the principles of architecture. Whatever clever techniques the builders up there used, they're beyond even my folk.”

Dzedz leaves unsaid how rare it is that a dwarf can't recognize architecture. Was magic involved in keeping the halls, some of them quite immense, from collapsing under their own weight? Or does some folk possess a deeper stonecunning than the dwarves?

It's a mystery that will have to wait, as more squeaking comes from the darkness ahead. The party tenses; at least whatever is making the noises is at floor level. It's probably not stirges.

Then red, beady eyes come into view. More and more of them.

“Giant rats!” Rorin yells.

The vermin come rushing out of the dark at the beleagured trio.

***

“What the hell was that?” hisses Bix.

“I have no idea.” Morsado fingers the neck of his lute. “Either trouble or help.”

“What kind of help are we going to find down here?”

“Adventurers. Dwarves. Maybe even orcs.”

“Orcs!”

“We did just perform for them.”

“And ended up here! Left for dead!”

“But not dead. Besides, I don't think that was the orcs. Or at least, not all of them. Durnithio might have paid a few of them off to help dump us, but on the whole, they know that if word gets out that bards who go to entertain them never come back, nobody else will come down here for them again. And it's not like their folk are any good, musically.”

“And as we saw, they do like a good party.” Bix nods. “All right. So- move toward the noise?”

Morsado nods, and the two of them creep toward the source of the yell.

***

Beneath the crack is a dim chamber, the water filling it hazy with mud. An opening at the far end leads deeper in, and Drolc pushes himself through it without hesitation. His two companions follow quick on his heels.

The dark ones' champion lies beyond.

It is like a dark, distorted reflection of a mermaid, with a piscine lower body and an upper half that is roughly, but only roughly, that of a humanoid. Its thick arms bulge, clutching a long, wickedly barbed harpoon. It turns as the three would-be heroes enter.

Drolc is upon it, swinging his greatsword through the water. But water is thicker than air; he doesn't expect the resistance that it puts against his attack, and the dark one swims nimbly out of the arc of his weapon.

And then Kriv and Scotty reach it, and an intense battle develops.

None of the three adventurers has the proper type of weapon for this fight. The dark one, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to fighting underwater. It stabs one of them, then another, then the third, wounding all of them. They fight back; several blows land, and Kriv uses his action surge to land another.

But the dark one is tough and tenacious. Though bleeding from several cuts and bruised from Scotty's blows, it stabs Kriv violently, and the tip of its harpoon pierces the dwarf's lung. “Aagh!” he cries, the water near him rapidly changing color, and the dark one rips the harpoon free. Kriv shrieks, and the monster lashes out, grabbing him by the throat and holding him in place as his thrashing subsides. Finally, the dwarf goes limp.

“Kriv!” cries Drolc, and delivers a terrific blow. There is a flash of silver light as the half-orc smites the dark one, and the monster staggers, barely still conscious.

Then it swings the butt end of its harpoon around, catching Drolc alongside the chin. Drolc reels, seeing stars, and then a great pain runs all the way through his chest and out his back.

Already terrifically wounded, Scotty Beandelver considers making his escape while the dark one is busy tearing his two friends to pieces. But he has always, since the days of his youth, possessed an unreasonable level of optimism. He has always been sure that things will work out for him. So instead of taking to his metaphorical heels, Scotty swims in to finish the dark one champion off.

It is the last time that Scotty feels optimistic. In fact, it's the last time that he feels anything at all.

***

Rorin shoots a rat, but the pack has already almost reached them.

Dzedz rushes forward and casts a prestidigitation, shouting as loud as he can and using the cantrip to amplify it. The sound reverberates down the hall, terrifying the rats. They scatter and retreat.

“Good move!” Rorin says. “There were enough of them that they might have overrun us.”

They start to continue down the hallway, but a door down the way opens. Immediately, they strike defensive poses.

“Oh thank the gods,” comes a voice. Two people, and halfling and a tiefling, step into view. Both are dressed for a party, though both look as though they've already finished partying and it was a rough one.

“Uh, hello,” says Hungus.

“We're lost,” the tiefling states. “We could use a hand finding our way out of here.”

There is a long silence. Then Dzedz responds, “You and us both, pal.”
 

the Jester

Legend
Fandelose is a smoky, sooty city. The firestone lamps and furnaces at work constantly shed thick fumes when alight, staining walls and clothes alike in the city.

Near the city gates and posted at various points throughout the Lower District, posters cry out the names of missing persons while a ragged-looking evil preacher persuades more victims to join his vile cult. Elsewhere, a crowd of shouting farmers demonstrates outside the Bank of Fandelose, protesting predatory lending practices, protesting the military government that rules the city, protesting their increasing enserfment.

At the Breach, cursing artificers go over their math again and again, trying to figure out what caused the latest collapse. The hole in the city's wall that leaves it vulnerable to forces assailing it from outside won't fix itself, and the longer it remains, the worse the artificers look.

Meanwhile, outside the city, scouts from the hobgoblin remnant army called the Scarlet Fist creep close enough to observe the city's status. The Fist extorts an extraordinary amount of tribute from Fandelose each spring as a bribe not to sack the city. Though the Six Fingered Hand has fallen, the Scarlet Fist carries a piece of its legacy; its general, Heshwat the Younger, is the son of one of the Six Fingered Hand's infamous leaders, Heshwat the Eviscerator.

In the central citadel of Fandelose, Argos Otto receives briefings about the many threats facing his city. From the Scarlet Fist to a new tribe of lizard folk that seem to have moved into the forest to the southeast, from the giants that occasionally raid the city from somewhere in the hills to the northwest to the numerous griffons that sometimes attack groups outside the walls, he knows just how many problems face his people from without. Likewise, he knows about the troubles within the walls, from the disturbing possibility that there is a traitor amongst the Artificers' Guild to the unrest over the new coinage, from the rising violence committed by the city's gangs to the escalating tensions with the farmers... yes, he has plenty to keep him busy.

Elsewhere in the citadel, a soldier gets off duty and leaves the barracks to go to a tavern. But his route takes him into a back alley, and when he emerges, he no longer looks the same. He is but one of a whole secret second society that lives in hiding among the city's inhabitants.

Our city, the final city, Urbis Ultimate, is troubled.

***

In the megadungeon, a stroke of luck at last for the lost adventurers: another ascending staircase. It ends in a chamber guarded bya group of orcs and a guard drake. Hungus, in the lead, pulls up short and calls out soothing words in Draconic, trying to prevent the drake from attacking.

“Hey!” Bix calls. “We don't want any trouble! We just want to get out of here!”

“Remember us?” Morsado cries. “We just played your guys' party!”

The orcs rein in the drake. Tensions ease as it becomes apparent that they mean no harm to the party, especially to the two bards. “What happened? I thought you guys went home. And where's the other guy?”

“Yeah, good question,” Morsado responds. “Hey, I don't suppose you can point us at the way out of here?”

***

And thus, in short order, the party emerges from the dungeon at last. Blinking in the sunlight that is the first that they've seen in days, they all cheer raggedly.

“Time to get back home,” Hungus declares.

The group returns to the city.

***

It is most of a week before they overcome their trepidation and mount another expedition into the dungeon. Those who survived the harrowing trap are torn between trepidation about returning into Marble Hall and the fact that there is massive loot to be had down there- if only they can find it.

Since they spend money like adventurers, buying rounds for everyone in the bar and such like, the siren call of loot soon wins out.

This time, the party consists of Hungus, Morsado, Bix, Rorin, Mad Max, and Sarec, plus a new fellow who the others met during one of their nights of carousing: Jahsiven. (Mad Max recruited him after discovering that they share an interest in fine pipe weed.)

This time the party goes back to the elevator and takes it all the way down. Morsado and Bix are once more able to talk the party's way past the orcs that guard the intermediate level with a meager bribe, allowing them to descend unopposed. Soon they arrive at the bottom; a single door offers egress from the chamber that the elevator has descended into. Much like the first area past the dwarf-works above, the walls are of uncannily smooth stone, without braces or buttressing.

Heedless of danger, Sarec throws the door open.

“Careful there!” warns Bix.

The door opens onto a hallway, 15' wide and 20' high. It leads into the darkness, past the light from his torch. The group jostles into some kind of marching order and then advances, soon reaching a four-way intersection. First they head right, quickly entering a very large chamber that opens up in all directions. Its floor is tiled in 8' squares of marble, many cracked and broken. Two great rows of pillars runs down the sides of the chamber, carved and painted to resemble great pillars made of coins, gems and other treasure.

“I like the décor,” comments Jahsiven.

On the other side, nearly 100' from the entrance, another wide hallway, this one a full thirty feet in width and braced by two more rows of similarly-decorated pillars, leads out.

“The pillars make me hopeful,” says Hungus.

“Does this look familiar to you?” mutters Mad Max.

As they head down the hallway, a flight of stirges suddenly bursts into action from where it was roosting on the ceiling. The hungry little beasts swarm over the party.

“Gah! I hate these things!” shouts Hungus. He rushes forward, away from them, and stumbled out onto the beach fronting an underground river. The bones of Vicious Toby have almost been completely stripped of their flesh; several giant crabs are feasting, but now, drawn by Hungus' movement, they engage the party from the other side.

The party falls back with Hungus, and Morsado creates a cloud of daggers behind them, chopping several stirges into bits. Once there is a barrier preventing the party from being attacked by everything at once, it only takes a moment for them to gain the advantage. The crabs are crushed beneath the weapons of Sarec, Mad Max, and Hungus, and Rorin's arrows and Morsado's spell soon dispose of the stirges.

“Well done,” says Hungus. “Hey, does this look familiar? Have we maybe been here before?”

Rorin kneels down above one of the crabs, drawing his dagger.

“Really?” Hungus rolls his eyes. “Are you going to do the stirges, too?”

“You never know what you'll find,” retorts Rorin.

“What's he doing?” asks Jahsiven.

“This,” sighs Bix, “is why they call him the Butcher of Fandelose.”

***

Moving further in, past the shallow river and into the network of caves on the other side, the party almost immediately runs into a massive group of little hairy gibbering creatures- humanoids, but behaving animalistically, swarming over each other and snapping almost mindlessly with their teeth.

“I think I remember these guys,” Hungus exclaims, as the tide washes over the party.

The gibberlings are easily dispatched individually; but the first group of them the party encounters numbers 17. That alone presents a problem. Fortunately, Morsado utilizes his cloud of daggers again, whittling the enemy numbers down, while the others put up a staunch offense that lays the foe low very quickly. Still, they suffer a few cuts and bruises from the fight.

But as they continue to explore the network of natural caves, they find more and more groups of gibberlings- some numbering only a half dozen, but others substantially greater. They find a mass of the monsters swarming hungrily over the corpse of a triceratops. The great numbers involve find the party pressed to the limit; only the fact that Bix, Hungus, Morsado, Jahsiven, and Rorin all have some healing magic allows them to keep going after that battle.

And that's when they come into the vast chamber filled with gibberlings.

If they thought the last battle pushed them to their limits, this one is even worse. Only the fact that the chamber the battle takes place in is huge, meaning many of the gibberlings need a few rounds to join the fight, prevents numbers from turning the tide in their favor.

When the fight is finally over and they count the corpses, they find that they have slain 36 gibberlings.

“All right!” exclaims Mad Max. “Did you guys see that? We're bad ass! We're not to be trifled with!”

“I'm just glad that I lived through that,” Bix gasps.

“Are you kidding? We destroyed those guys!”

“But,” Rorin says, “it could have gone either way.”

“Hey!” calls Morsado from one end of the cave. “Come look over here!”

It turns out that Morsado has discovered a large shaft leading straight down. The air coming up from it stinks, and the sides of the shaft are filthy and streaked with dung. It's too sheer to climb.

“Well, that's interesting,” remarks Rorin. He tosses a torch down the shaft. It lands about 50' below. Rorin can see that there's an open space at the bottom. “Looks like it drops into a room.”

A gnoll darts into view, grabs up the torch, and darts back out of view. Then the torch's light goes out.

“There are gnolls down there,” the ranger continues.

“Maybe we should come back to this later,” suggests Jahsiven. “Do we really want to go any further down? We don't really know how far down we are as it is.”

“That's a good point,” says Bix.

“That is a good point,” Hungus agrees.

“Aw, come on, you guys,” Mad Max wheedles.

Sarec looks hopeful.

“Let's finish checking out this level first,” Morsado says. “We can always come back- this shaft isn't going anywhere.”

Mad Max and Sarec reluctantly agree.

The group continues exploring the caverns around the river, exterminating several smaller groups of gibberlings as they go. Most of the areas are largely unremarkable, and there is a notable dearth of treasure.

Then they find a weird idol. Suggestive of a humanoid frog, it is streaked, multicolored. It appears to be a type of stone distinct from that of the cavern around it.

“That's weird,” says Mad Max. “Kind of creepy. I don't think I like it.”

Sarec nods. “I agree.”

Mad Max puts his hands on the altar and tries to push it over without success. But then he steps away from it. “I feel funny,” he says. “Is... what's happening?”

The others stare dumbfounded.

“Ow! It itches! It...” Mad Max scrabbles at his breeches. There is something swelling beneath them.

Bix covers his eyes. “Is that his-”

Then the swelling grows immensely, ripping free of his pants in an explosion of cloth.

Mad Max has just grown a third leg.

Next Time: A fateful day for Mad Max!
 

the Jester

Legend
“GAH!!!” Mad Max howls, fingers digging intSar the thigh of his third leg. “What is this thing?? Get it off of me!” The new leg kicks alongside his others, and Mad Max falls to the floor as he loses his balance.

“But it's your leg,” says Morsado.

“It's not- it's not my leg...” Mad Max groans in confusion.

Sarec pokes a finger into the new leg. “Can you feel that?”

“Of course I can feel that, it's my leg!” Mad Max gives a moan of despair. “What's happening to me? I'm a freak! I can't go on like this!”

“Why not?” Hungus asks. “It should make you more stable.”

“Are you crazy?” he splutters. “I have to get rid of this thing!”

The others try to convince Max to stay the course, but to no avail. He won't listen. Instead, he declares that he will return to the city and try to get help, perhaps from the Black Temple, whether the others come with him or not.

“You could die on your way out if you go alone,” Bix points out.

“I don't care! My leg!”

“Fine,” Sarec says. “We'll go back to the city, at least for now.”

***

Mad Max is a soldier in the army. When the party reaches the city gates, the guards on duty know him- and are shocked to see his new extra limb. For his part, Max is embarrassed, ashamed, and tongue-tied on the subject, and just rushes the party through the checkpoint without talking about what happened, despite the questions of his fellow soldiers.

Upon returning to the city, the adventurers head to the Black Temple, home to the priesthood of Vandreu the Townsaver in the hopes that the high priest there might be able to do something about Mad Max's third leg. “Maybe a remove curse or something,” muses Morsado. He shakes his head in consternation. “I really don't know what will work.”

The black priests agree to try in return for the party's help monitoring an upcoming protest. The farmers are marching in four days, demonstrating against the law that prevents them or their children from leaving their farms for other work. With the way tempers have been running lately in the city, the potential for violence is high. Nobody wants to see another riot. The damage to property and citizens alike would be terrible, and might force a major crackdown by the army. If that were to happen, who knows where it would lead? Nobody wins when the city fights itself.

“Watch for an elven agitator with white hair,” the priest says. “If you see him, don't engage, but watch him. Let us know what he does and says. On the subject of the leg, though, I must warn you, I don't know if we will have any success.”

Mad Max moans in despair.

“Do what you can,” Rorin says. “We'll help with the protest either way.”

The priest is right: their efforts amount to nothing. “The touch of Chaos is permanent,” their patriarch remarks dolefully.

***

Mad Max hurries away alone. For the next few days he shuns his friends and duties. He tries to work up the nerve to sever the leg himself, but he can't do it. He just can't. Despite everything, it is his leg.

He learns to walk on it, to run with it. He has his clothes refitted to accommodate it. He returns to work and files a report to explain his absence. He is upbraided by his superiors, but hardly hears them. His only solace is in drink and smoke. This new leg, his or not, is profoundly unnatural, and he doesn't know if he will ever get to used it.

He is a freak.

***

“All right, listen up!” the sergeant shouts. “The damn farmers are marching again! They're planning on coming across the bridge and into the Bronze District, and by Holthro's fist, they are a bunch of envious, venal bastards! There are a lot of nice homes and businesses packed with valuables on their route, and we all know how much they like to break windows and set fires! So our job is to make sure they don't cause any trouble!”

Mad Max doesn't really listen. He marches alongside his brethren, but he can't focus. He's half-drunk and very stoned. And he is a three-legged freak.

***

The city's Upper District is sometimes derisively referred to as the Rice District these days. During the war, it was converted into large rice fields in order to feed the city. Cut perpendicular to the river, canals water the rice, and roads snake around them.

At the moment, one of these roads is filled with a throng of singing, shouting, marching people. The city's farmers, or at least several thousand of them, are on the move. Seen from above, it is like an army of ants entering a river as one, forming a single squirming communal mass that slowly extends itself like a salient, crossing the bridge that leads toward the Bronze District, which is the city's center, home to the army's citadel, to the banks, to the rich.

A mass of soldiers awaits them, grim, threatening. The air is heavy with the threat of spilled blood. Spectators fill the roadsides, filled with that strange eagerness to see things go horribly wrong that almost inevitably grips bystanders at times like this.

In the crowd, Bluebeard awaits his target.

***

The tread of the farmers grows louder as the bridge fills with them. The clouds above are like faces staring down with furrowed brows and angry cheeks. In the vanguard of the mob is a rabble-rousing farmer who constantly shouts enflaming words. “We're not going to take it any more!” and “We have rights!” and “The army must give up its power!” A cart laden with sacks of rotting tomatoes and apples follows close behind him, two old women distributing the fruit as they go.

On the street not far ahead of the rabble-rouser, an uneasy Carl Hungus turns to Morsado, Bix, and Rorin. “I don't like this. I don't know how we're supposed to keep violence from happening, especially if Farmer John there won't shut up.”

“We could ask him to shut up,” Bix suggests.

“Are you kidding?” Rorin gestures at the farmers pressed around them. “We'd get torn apart. This is not a good scene.” He looks up at the surrounding buildings. “If the protest wasn't moving, I'd take to the rooftops, but there's no point unless the farmers hold still.”

The rabble rouser is exhorting the farmers to stand up for themselves, to refuse to let the military intimidate them. The farmers are bristling. The soldiers are growing angry. The crowd is starting to grow feverish with anticipation. The tension in the air is palpable; it can be smelled, and the aroma grows stronger as the front of the mass of farmers reaches the Bank of Fandelose.

Bix nudges his companions. “Look over there, in the farmers. Near the bank's left wall.”

He has spotted a white-haired elf.

***

Bluebeard scans the crowd.

There!

Bluebeard is a Grey Brother- an assassin. He is here, in this throng, for a reason. He pushes his way through it and moves in closer to his target. He surreptitiously draws a dagger.

The mood is growing fouler still. He takes a moment to assess the farmers, the soldiers, the crowd. The first rotten tomato flies. This is going to turn into a riot any minute, he thinks. I'll make my move when it does.

***

The tomato splatters off the shield of a soldier. She grimaces but doesn't respond. Then more tomatoes begin to fly, pelting them.

Mad Max is roused from his reverie when a squishy apple splatters against his breastplate. “Who did that?” he roars, and rushes toward the farmers.

He is the first soldier to break ranks. A sergeant yells something at him, but it is lost in the noise of the protest. Mad Max brings out his axe.

“Oh no,” cries Hungus. He shouts, “Don't do it, Max!”

Heedless of anything, Mad Max charges the farmer who threw the apple at him and, in a single mighty blow, decapitates him. The blow carries through, cutting into the person next to the farmer-

A child. A boy of ten.

In a spray of blood, the child falls.

Mad Max draws back in horror, shocked. The mob explodes in anger. The discipline of the army begins to disintegrate.

Bluebeard makes his move.

***

Afterward, after the farmers have been bloodied and broken and driven back to the Upper District, a dozen bodies lay in the streets. The city is in shock.

Mad Max is thrown into the Black Tower, awaiting trial.

Hungus, Bix, and Morsado lost track of the white haired elf.

A whistling Bluebeard collects his fee and returns to the Anthill Apartments to bask in the praise of his Uncle.

Next Time: Hungus sets out after the Hacker again!
 

the Jester

Legend
In the aftermath of the riot, the city hunkers down. The White Battlet triples the number of patrols it runs and increases the number of soldiers in each patrolling group. The farmers lock themselves in their homes. The gangs minimize their street presence. Everybody knows that the army's patience is as thin as the toe in a well-worn stocking.

Cafes and taverns are only lightly populated. In time, things will return to normal- surely they will- but for a few days, the Army is intolerant of troublemaking of any kind. Summary justice is the order of the day. Even the city's central market is quiet.

***

“I can't believe Mad Max did that,” Hungus sighs.

“I know what you mean.” Bix shakes his head and takes a drink. The events of the previous day still spin round and round in his head. “He murdered a kid!”

Rorin shivers. “I think that gaining a third leg must have driven him crazy.”

“Look at that!” Morsado barks a gravelly laugh. “Even the Butcher of Fandelose is distubed!”

Hungus finishes his beer and orders another. As quiet as the city is, they have the brewery almost to themselves. “There's nothing that we can do for him now anyway. And even if there was, should we? He straight up murdered that child.”

Morsado tugs at his beard. “What do you think the army is gonna do with him?”

“I don't know. Execute him? Lock him up for the rest of his life? Exile him?”

The four of them fall into a deep, brooding silence. This ends when the door to the brewery opens and a man walks in dressed in the raiment of a Pan Lung monk. Taking in the meager company available in the place, after a moment, he approaches the adventurers.

“Hello,” says Hungus warily.

“Greetings!” the stranger replies. “You look like adventurers.”

Morsado shrugs. “That we are, at least from time to time.”

“I am Krillan the Chronic. I am a monk of the Pan Lung School, and I seek to test my skills in the world!” He pulls out a pipe and begins packing it. “My masters wish me to seek adventure, so I'm looking for companions.”

“It is a dangerous world out there.” Bix nods. “As it turns out, we just lost a companion.”

“Oh? Did he die fighting some monster?”

“Not exactly...”

“What my friend is saying,” Hungus declares, “is that we have room for one more.”

“Excellent!” exclaims Krillan, and hands his pipe to Carl Hungus. “Care to smoke?”*

***

Once they are all good and buzzed, the party, including their new friend Krillan, strikes out for Red Bank. Red Bank is a small village about 12 miles north of Fandelose. Its existence is contentious; the resources required to keep it safe are greater than any value Red Bank has to the city, since it is a ripe target for giants, evil humanoids, and monsters. Despite the inherent danger, the lack of support makes it is a favorite destination for farmers who break the law and leave their plots.

The farmers and Red Bank supporters are deeply intertwined. The people of Red Bank need to know about the results- so the priest at the Black Temple told Hungus when he reported in afterward. He would have the party carry a message to an elder in the village, a man named Pursadin. Given their less than stellar performance vis-a-vis the white haired elf, the party feels obligated to agree. Especially since they might need to call upon the Black Temple for aid again some day.

Just north of the city, harsh hills rise, the river cutting through them. The party walks up stream, following a rough trail. They pass goat herds they go, the animals well-suited to the uneven terrain.

“They sure could use a road to Red Bank,” Hungus remarks as they walk.

The journey is full of rises and falls, but overall leads uphill. Though the party members, excepting Bix, are fairly fit, they all find the walk taxing after a few hours. When they break for a mid-day meal, perched atop a hillside, Carl Hungus says, “This is harder going than I remembered. Good workout.”

“Ugh,” groans Bix.

“You know,” the dragonborn continues, “while we're here, we should go after the Hacker.”

“Who?” Krillan asks.

“He's a local bandit leader. Last I knew, he was hiding out in Bandit's Rook; that's on the way to Red Bank, more or less.”

“Is there a reward for catching him?”

“Probably. Maybe? There's the reward of taking his loot, anyway.”

Morsado grins. “Well, if it's on the way...”

***

Speaking of bandits...

Ambush!

The party hasn't yet reached the hilltop known as Bandit's Rook when they suddenly find themselves surrounded. The bandit leader demands their gold and silver. Instead, the highwaymen receive the party's steel.

The fight is brief and brutal. When it is over, the adventurers continue toward Bandit's Rook, reaching it in another forty minutes.

Bix and Krillan attempt a stealthy reconnaisance. They return after half an hour.

“There aren't bandits in there,” Bix tells the others. “There are gnolls.”

“I saw two hyenas on watch,” Krillan adds.

“How many gnolls?” Hungus asks.

“I saw three,” Bix answers.

“We can take 'em,” Krillan says.

“Hell, I can probably drop one or two of them from here, if I can get a good line of sight on them.” Rorin thumbs his bowstring and grins.

“Right,” says Bix, “let's go!”

As the others advance toward the hilltop, Rorin scrambles up a tree, setting himself in the crook of a thick limb. He pulls out an arrow and takes careful aim.

Thwizz!

The arrow plants itself in the first hyena's neck. It collapses.

The other rises, bristling, and begins to yip. The gnolls, alerted, stand up and draw weapons.

The hyena yelps, staggers, and falls as the Butcher of Fandelose shoots it in the throat.

Suddenly the other adventurers emerge from the night, screaming battle cries as they rush up the path. The gnolls turn to meet them, but it seems they have no chance.

Then something comes screaming out of the sky, a dark blot across the stars. Sharp horns tear through flesh. Bix screams in pain. Something large and heavy smashes into Hungus' shoulder, sending him spinning.

One of the gnolls screams, diving away from the airborn predator.

What the hell is that? Rorin thinks, and fires a succession of arrows at the creature. It zips through the air, twisting and turning evasively, but he still manages to catch it once or twice.

But his arrows seem to have difficulty harming it. There is something supernatural about the beast.

Hungus deals a mighty blow to one of the gnolls, dropping it, as the winged creature wheels through the night sky, almost impossible to follow. Rorin hits it again even as Morsado and Bix combine their magic to finish off another gnoll with vicious mockery.

The final gnoll tries to run, but the winged monster descends on it, wicked talons tearing into its back. The gnoll cries out and falls, and the creature lands atop it, flipping it back over so it is face up.

The gnoll gives a final terrified shriek as the creature rips out its heart.

And then flies away with it.

There is calm on the hilltop.

Then: “What the hell was that??” Bix yells.

***

The Hacker might not be at Bandit's Rook, but the gnolls did have a human prisoner. Besides him, the party takes one of the gnolls prisoner, staunching his wounds before he bleeds out. “We can question him,” Hungus says, making air quotes around 'question'. “Also, I could maybe use a slave.”

“You can't enslave a gnoll,” Bix protests. “They aren't civilized. He's probably not even housebroken! We should just kill him.”

“Maybe he knows something,” Morsado points out. “We question him first, then- we see.”

“I can't support slavery,” Krillan adds.

“You guys,” sighs Carl Hungus.

***

Yarrfurr, the gnoll, proves to be eager to help in return for his life. He promises to lead the party to a hidden treasure, as well as to the Hacker's new hideout. The gnoll claims the Hacker has taken to running with orcs. All this, if the adventurers merely spare him.

The party agrees. After questioning the human prisoner, Krillan gets him mightily stoned and then they release him; though he was a bandit, he's no threat at the moment, and there are few enough humans left that even a bandit's life is precious.

The party returns to the road to continue their journey north; the Hacker's hideout, according to Yarrfurr, is just outside of Red Bank. Therefore, they can complete their mission even as they continue trying to find him. But when they reach the path, they are pleasantly surprised to find-

“Dzedz! What are you doing here?” Rorin grins and clasps the dwarf's hand.

“The bartender at the brewery told me where you guys were headed. I didn't want to miss out.”

“Excellent!”

“Hi, I'm Krillan.”

Once introductions are exchanged, the party continues north.

***

Red Bank!

It's a tiny community that survives largely by hunting and fishing. The ground is too uneaven for easy farming. There aren't enough people for any businesses to exist; the party is disappointed to find that there is no inn or tavern, but instead, they must stay on dirt floors or sleep rough outside.

Pursadin is easily located; everyone seems to know the old man. He has a shock of white hair above a deeply wrinkled face. When the party tracks him down, he is first somewhat suspicious of them, only relaxing after reading the note that they bear. “Too many times, strangers try to extort us or take our goods,” he explains. “But we're so small here that money is meaningless. All our trade is barter. What good are coins up here?”

“You can always take them to the city,” Hungus says.

“And be pressed back onto the farms we left behind? No thank you.”

A burly, bristling dwarf enters Pursadin's hut and speaks incoherently.

“What was that?” Bix asks.

“This is the Iron Patriot,” Pursadin says. “He is our greatest hero. Our protector.”

The dwarf makes mouth noises again.

“It can be hard to understand him.”

Morsado nods. “So I see.”

The dwarf continues talking, clearly trying to make some point or other.

“Well,” Hungus interrupts, “we don't want to take any more of your precious time. We have another mission up here. Have you guys had any trouble with orcs?”

The Iron Patriot exclaims something. Hungus is fairly certain the word 'orcs' was in there somewhere.

“From time to time,” Pursadin answers more comprehensibly.

“Well, I believe an old enemy of mine called the Hacker is in league with a group of them, and we're off to try to catch him.”

The Iron Patriot speaks again, jerking a thumb at his own chest.

“I think,” Pursadin explains, “that he wants to go with you.”

“Why not?” says Bix. “The more, the merrier.”

Next Time: The Hacker's hideout!



*The careful reader might notice a common trait between Mad Max and Krillan. That's because Krillan is Mad Max's player's new character. Pretty much any pc run by that player is bound to be a serious pot head and/or heavy drinker.
 

the Jester

Legend
Unfortunately, that wasn't a fumble at all! Mad Max's player said he was going to charge whoever threw the rotten fruit, killed the farmer in one blow, and then immediately said, "I cut down whoever is next to him"... and boom, suddenly, Max is a criminal. He probably could have gotten away with the farmer, but killing the kid touched off the riot and blew things out of control.

The deities in Fandelose are an interesting mix that is a sampling of the old cosmopolitan mix of hundreds or thousands of gods integrated into the Sword Empire. The gods present in Fandelose definitely make an incomplete pantheon, with huge gaps. Here you go- the first list is gods worshiped by at least a hundred or so people, the others are lesser worshiped but still have a presence in the city. There are actually the remains of several different faiths here (the Sun, the Sword Cult, one or two gods from the pantheons of Gorel, Pesh, etc).

There are definitely some oddities in there, like the Sea Queen, whose faiths might wither away in time (no sea access!), while there are other, huge missing portfolio areas (e.g. there's no god of love) that might eventually be claimed by the existing gods.

DEITY --- PRIMARY SYMBOLS --- PRIMARY PORTFOLIO
Garnet --- Silver rose --- Family, multiple births, siblings
Hamel --- A house, gear or door --- Civilization, walls, cities
Han Zo --- A stalk of rice --- Agriculture, farming, rice
Holthro --- A bloody-knuckled fist --- Violence, rage, revenge
Lester --- The four elements --- Adventure, heroes, heedlessness
Morlo --- A crutch, old man or beggar --- The downtrodden, beggars, the aged, slaves
The Sword Cult --- A greatsword --- Personal achievement, skill, the Sword Empire
Vandreu --- A black sword & shield --- Victory against overwhelming odds, righteousness, vindication; the Townsaver

DEITY --- PRIMARY SYMBOLS --- PRIMARY PORTFOLIO
Aresh --- Hands steepled together Hope, faith
Boccob --- An eye and/or book Knowledge, learning, magic
Dramos --- Two clasped hands Honesty, the law, teamwork
Empeth --- A coin or merchant's scale Trade, merchants, money, greed, thieves
Eschatonism --- Sunset, an hourglass with all its sand in the bottomThe end of the world
Froth --- A phallus in the mouth of a skull --- Necrophilia, rape, perversion, cowardice
Galore --- A saddled horse or yoked cow --- Domesticated animals
Malford --- A displacer beast --- Trickery, revisionism
Maltar --- A crimson eye --- Assassins, plotting, clever escapes
Na'Rat --- A black obelisk --- Chaos, change, upheaval, lost lore; the Chaos-Bringer
Olesh Perr --- A paintbrush or carving knife --- Craftsmanship, art, creativity
The Sea Queen --- The sea, a wave, water --- The sea in all its aspects
The Sun --- The sun --- The sun, day, summer, light
Tade --- A hammer and anvil --- Creation, the forge, improvements in technology
 

the Jester

Legend
Oh, on the topic of religions, I forgot to mention- Eschatonism sort of overlaps other faiths. One might be a worshiper of Malford who believes the end has come, for instance.
 

the Jester

Legend
The Iron Patriot shoves his face up as close to Yarrfurr's as he can, though the gnoll is over two feet taller than him, and shakes a finger. He berates the gnoll in a loud, incomprehensible voice.

“Is he giving him a warning?” Morsado whispers to Hungus, who shrugs, as mystified as everyone else. Yarrfurr looks at Dzedz for guidance.

“Uh, that's right,” he says. “You better listen to the Iron Patriot!”

***

Yarrfurr leads them to the north out of Red Bank. He explains that the Hacker's hideout is about a day and a half away from the little village.

“Don't try anything funny,” Carl Hungus warns him, “or you'll regret it.”

“Yeah,” Dzedz adds, “remember what the Iron Patriot said!”

Yarrfurr seems cowed, but he's a gnoll; by nature, he is bound to be treacherous, cunning, and cruel. The party keeps their eyes peeled for any sign that he is leading them into a trap. But by the time they bed down for the night, the party has ascended through several ridges of hills, and the land is becoming rougher and higher. Brightly-colored lichens cling to rocks, and small wiry plants clutch the thin soil like desperate fingers. Birdsong is constant, though as they ascend, the types of birds gradually change. Small lizards and scorpions scuttle from the group's path. Several times during the day, they spy goats bounding away, and twice griffons soar through the air within a few thousand feet of them. At one point, they pass a large ruined water storage tank, and another time a toppled monument is visible on a neighboring hill, but otherwise, the day is uneventful.

Hungus shackles Yarrfurr to a low branch on a sturdy oak at the edge of their campsite for the night. “I wouldn't run away,” the gnoll protests.

“You definitely won't,” Hungus agrees.

The party sets watches, declining Yarrfurr's offer to help. The night passes uneventfully, though the night is full of the sounds of nocturnal animals. Bats wheel through the sky, black silhouettes against the stars. The hooting of an owl sounds intermittently through the night; the distant scream of some kind of big cat is followed by the sounds of a brief struggle. But nothing disturbs the group.

Yarrfurr is, indeed, still there in the morning, leaning uncomfortably against the tree, arm suspended by the shackle. Morsado prods him awake and wordlessly gives him a strip of dried meat and a hunk of bread from his rations.

The Iron Patriot shakes his head and speaks again, uttering a long string of grumbling words that nobody can quite make out.

***

Early in the afternoon, Yarrfurr tells the party that they are approaching the hideout. “It's on the next hilltop over the ridge. But the Hacker probably has sentries watching for trouble. Last I knew, he was working with orcs, but I haven't seen him lately. Not for the last couple of weeks.” He looks hopeful. “Can I go, now?”

Dzedz shakes his head. “Not just yet. You're gonna help us take him.”

“That wasn't part of the deal!”

“Yeah, well, it is now.”

Iron Patriot yells at length in the gnolls face.

“That's right!” says Morsado.

***

The Hacker does indeed have sentries out on patrol. A group of six orcs stumbles upon the party as they advance, and there is a swift, furious skirmish. The engagement quickly turns in the favor of the party, and two of the orcs try to flee. Dzedz slays one with a flame bolt, but the other darts into the brush. The others delay the party just long enough for him to make good his escape.

Yarrfurr curses. “They'll know we're coming now for sure.”

“And they'll know that you're guiding us,” Morsado points out in his raspy voice. “Now you've got nothing to lose by helping us take them out. In fact, if you do, it may help you preserve your reputation!”

Yarrfurr stares at him for a moment, nonplussed, then sighs. “This way.”

***

Iron Patriot is a gibbering lunatic in battle, becoming even harder to understand. He seems to be triggered by strange things, perhaps certain words or creatures.

“I'm starting to suspect he doesn't understand himself, either,” Rorin mutters to himself after the second group of orcs is dispatched. He squats down and begins cutting the dead orc's belly open.

Iron Patriot stares at him and says something. He sounds disgusted.

“That's why they call him the Butcher of Fandelose,” Carl Hungus says.

They have attained the hilltop, fought their way through another half dozen orcs. But once again, the Hacker isn't there.

“I swear, this was his place a few weeks ago,” Yarrfurr exclaims.

“I believe you,” Hungus replies. “These guys are definitely the Hacker's type, and he's a half-orc himself. I know he has worked with orcs before. So my guess is that he's just not here right now.” He turns to the others. “I say we wait and see if he comes back.”

“It's getting a little late to head back anyway,” Dzedz responds. “And there's already a camp made up here.” True enough; though the hideout is primitive, merely tents and a series of large lean-tos for a combination of shelter from the elements and camouflage, there is a large stock of firewood near a large firepit edged with large stones. There are already large stones and chunks of wood, suitable for use as seats, around the firepit.

So the party settles in, staying alert but preparing to spend a night at the Hacker's hideout. And, as Hungus guessed, the Hacker returns home that evening, his own coterie of orcs with him.

The party hits them hard, and several of the orcs fall before they even know what is hitting them. The last thing they had expected was to be attacked from within their own camp. But the Hacker recovers his wits quickly and leads a charge against the party.

“I hate orcs,” Dzedz Orcslayer shouts, hammering the Hacker and two of his lackeys with a shattering pulse. One of the orcs is blown from his feet by the power of the magic. Iron Patriot, Carl Hungus, and Yarrfurr counter the orcish charge with a charge of their own, and the two groups smash into one another. Arrows whizz past, striking several orcs, and Rorin chortles as one collapses. Morsado hurls insults and taunts, demoralizing the Hacker.

It doesn't take the party long to take out the orcs, but the Hacker is a tougher customer. He weathers a series of blows from Hungus and the Patriot, returning the favor with surprising strength and accuracy. He does his best, but alone, he is no match for the party.

Then Hungus crushes the Hacker's chest with a blow from his maul, and the fight is abruptly over.

***

Yarrfurr claims that the Hacker's treasure is the treasure he said he would lead the party to. While it's not a huge amount of loot, there are 6 platinum pieces in the mix, and the total worth is just over 90 gold pieces. Since the gnoll was so helpful in the fight, the party decides not to quibble. They let him go, not without misgivings. Once his shackles are removed, he runs away, vanishing into the hills.

The Iron Patriot seems disinterested in the loot, so the party splits what they have amongst the rest of the group. Then they return to Red Bank.

***

When they reach the small village, it is abuzz with distress. Very quickly, the party hears what happened.

Someone's heart was, quite literally, stolen. Ripped from her chest.

“That sounds strangely familiar,” Rorin says. “Remember that flying deer thing that we saw? That ripped out the heart of that gnoll and flew off with it?”

The Iron Patriot speaks wildly, gesturing for emphasis.

“Let's go see that old guy, the village elder,” suggests Morsado.

“Pursadin,” Rorin says.

When they see the old man, his eyes are bloodshot from grief. “What's worse,” he tells them, “this isn't the first time this has happened. This is the seventh person we've lost this way in the last six months.”

The party draws out the details. The killings have all happened outside the village proper, on the hills surrounding it. “Foolish young lovers,” Pursadin laments.

The Iron Patriot makes a rousing speech to Pursadin that nobody can understand. It takes him several minutes, and when he finishes, the elder nods gravely and says, “Thank you for your service.”

“Did you understand him?” asks Morsado.

Pursadin shrugs. “I may not understand his words, but I understand his heart. He is our greatest protector, and he wishes to protect us.”

The Patriot speaks again, decisively.

“Listen,” says Hungus, “I have a plan.”

***

It's a classic. They bait the trap with a volunteer- a matronly woman named Matilda, who sits with Rorin on Lover's Hill, feigning a romantic embrace. Meanwhile, the rest of them lurk in the bushes and trees nearby, waiting for anything to take the bait.

Matilda and Rorin are far enough from everyone else that the others don't hear her as she attempts to seduce the young ranger.

But nothing else comes of that night.

***

Iron Patriot waggles his finger warningly at Rorin as everyone settles in to sleep the day away. It was a long, fruitless night, and it gets cold waiting motionless in the bushes.

“We'll try again tonight,” Dzedz says. “We just have to be persistent.”

Morsado turns to Matilda. “Are you sure you're willing to keep doing this? You are risking your life.”

“It's for my people,” she answers. “If I can help stop this monster from killing more of them, I have to. Besides, you are the ones who are really at risk. You're the ones actually trying to slay it.”

“It's what we do,” Hungus declares.

***

That night, they do indeed try again. And this time, they have better luck.

An hour past midnight, the thing arrives, swooping in almost silently to attack Matilda. But Rorin is prepared. His bow is hidden in the grass. When the deer-headed winged monster swoops into view, he snatches it up and looses an arrow in a blur of motion.

The creature shrieks.

The rest of the party reveals themselves in a flurry of ranged attacks, including a flame bolt that illuminates Dzedz's location.

The monster slaps the air with its wings and seems to leap upward, banking and flying away. “Get it!” cries Rorin, loosing another few arrows, but it escapes into the darkness.

“Damn!” Hungus steps out of the woods and pulls his maul. “Is it coming back?”

The party waits, but- no, it isn't coming back. At least, not yet.

***

They discuss trying again the next night.

Dzedz opines, “It's too smart. It knows we're after it now. It's not going to come back.”

Morsado shrugs. “Maybe not. But think about this: it's only taking the hearts. Why? It must need them for something.” He spreads his hands. “And where else is it going to get hearts? Fandelose?”

“Besides, what's our alternative?” Carl Hungus drums his fingers on Matilda's table. “Give up and go back to Fandelose? Then it comes back and we aren't here to help?”

“We can at least try for a few nights,” Dzedz says.

***

That evening, as they are preparing to set out, a dirty figure with leaves in his hair and beard walks into town. He has the characteristic horns of a tiefling, and when Morsado sees him, he does a double take. “Uncle Stranger?”

The dirty tiefling stops and peers at him. “Morsado? Little Morsado? Is that you?”

“Stranger Danger!” cries Morsado, and the two embrace. “Uncle Stranger! I haven't seen you in years!”

“Yeah, I've been, uh, exploring my mind in the wilderness.” The tiefling's eyes come unfocused for a moment before resuming eye contact with his nephew.

“Guys, this is my Uncle Stranger Danger the Ranger.”

There is a flurry of introductions. It turns out that Uncle Stranger has been another of Red Bank's defenders, though more of a scout and watcher than a warrior.

“But I'm ready to take up arms to save our hearts,” he adds.

“Well,” Morsado grates, “in a couple of hours, we're going to head out to a trap we're setting, if you want to come in case we lure the monster in again.”

“A couple of hours, you say? There's still time! All right, I'll be back.” With that, he turns and lopes off into the woods, only to return about half an hour later with a bag full of psychedelic mushrooms, which he tries to press on everyone.

“We're maybe fighting a nasty monster tonight,” says Dzedz. “Maybe another time.”

By way of reply, Uncle Stranger eats a few more mushrooms.

***

Though his reasoning was sound, Dzedz's prediction is incorrect. Where he went wrong was in assuming the monster's response.

It knows they are hunting it, now- but instead of biding its time, when it returns, it brings friends.

Three of the frightful bird-deer creatures swoop in this time, and when the party springs their 'trap,' it's really halfway toward falling into the monsters' trap. Nonmagical weapons barely hurt them, and nobody has a magic weapon. With three of the monsters to deal with, the adventurers have their hands full.

They can't properly guard Matilda.

She cowers behind a large boulder, but one of the winged monsters disengages from the party and leap-flies over the rock. A moment later, the party hears her dying wail, and sees the monster ascend into the sky, a dripping heart held in its teeth.

“Oh no!” cries Dzedz. “Not Matilda!” He tries to slay the monster with a volley of magic missiles, but it keeps going.

The other two press the party hard, but they manage to take the monsters down after a significant amount of work. Since Morsado and Hungus can both heal, even when Uncle Stranger drops, the fight doesn't grow too dire.

But Matilda...

After it's over, the party stands over the matron's corpse. “She gave her life for her community,” Morsado sighs.

“We need to track those things to their lair,” Uncle Stranger says, “and kill them.”

Next Time: The party attempts to do just that!
 

the Jester

Legend
Rorin frowns. “Tracking flying creatures isn't easy.”

“Are you good at tracking?” asks Morsado.

“No,” Rorin admits.

“What kind of ranger isn't good at tracking? Uncle Stranger, what about you?”

“I'm an urban ranger,” Rorin protests.

“Yes!” Uncle Stranger stuffs a handful of mushrooms in his mouth and starts tracking. “I am amazing at tracking.” Yet his eyes seem strangely unfocused. “I'm the very best tracker! This way!”

“Hold on,” Hungus says. “Maybe we should wait until you have a little light.”

“Of course!” Stranger Danger chortles. “You are very wise!” With that, he plops down on his back in the grass to stare at the stars.

***

One might think that tracking a group of flying creatures would be impossible, and that isn't far from correct. But it isn't completely true. Even flying creatures leave signs- droppings, for instance. Feathers.

“Blood drops,” Uncle Stranger continues. “From the heart. And its own wounds. Look here!”

Though nobody but Morsado is quite sure they trust Uncle Stranger's tracking- and even Morsado has strong misgivings- the rest of the party follows the mushroom-addled tiefling. There's nothing that anyone else can detect that he is following; perhaps the mushroom visions he sees guide him. Either way, he leads them consistently up hill, going ever further into the hills, heading toward the mountains in the north.

That night, Dzedz and Hungus join Uncle Stranger in his fungus-induced reverie. Morsado just shakes his head. What if those deer-birds come back?

But the night passes uneventfully, except for the wheeling of the stars and the pulsing of the ground beneath the hallucinators.

***

Whether or not Uncle Stranger is really following anything, late the next afternoon, the party spies one of the deer-birds flying overhead. It spots them, too, and banks sharply, winging back in the direction from which it came.

“You see?” Uncle Stranger exclaims. “I told you we were heading the right way!” He gobbles up some more mushrooms.

The party hurries in the direction that the creature fled, eventually reaching a flattened hilltop with several large nests in it. In and around the nests are four more of the deer-birds.

Rorin looses an arrow and cries out, “Get 'em!”

The ensuing battle is quick and deadly. The party focuses its attacks, and almost immediately bring down one of the monsters. Meanwhile Dzedz blasts several others at once with his magic. When the deer-birds begin to fight back, Hungus and Uncle Stranger form a line and prevent them from reaching Dzedz and Morsado.

But it's hard to block flying creatures with an open sky to maneuver in. One of them launches itself over their heads and charges at Rorin. Its razor-sharp antlers stab into the ranger's chest, and he is forced to drop his bow and pull out his rapier. A back-and-forth follows, with Rorin jabbing at the monster and then seeking to parry its horns.

Meanwhile, a second deer-bird falls after being smacked around by Hungus, scorched by Dzedz, and caught in Morsado's cloud of daggers. The three of them turn to the fourth monster.

At the same time, the one that is dancing with Rorin catches him with a terrific jab of its antlers. His belly rips open, and the monster rips its way through most of his chest. With a shriek, the young man falls, bleeding, to the ground.

Uncle Stranger manages to stab the other deer-bird hard enough to leave it bleeding from the neck. It shakes its head, and a blow from Hungus' maul connects. Even though it resists the nonmagical damage, it collapses in a heap.

Together, the party finishes off the last of the monsters, and then Hungus checks on Rorin, fearing the worst. But he is still alive, albeit barely! Carl Hungus lays hands upon him, and the worst of his wounds close up.

Rorin groans and opens his eyes. “Did we win?” He clambers to his feet, looking around at the bodies lying about. “We won.”

“We won,” Dzedz confirms.

“Then I'd better get to work.” The Butcher of Fandelose draws a dagger.

***

Carl Hungus' powers are growing. He can hear the Lady of Dragons whispering to him when he sleeps; he can sense her eyes watching him with increasing interest as he becomes more powerful. She grants him ever greater abilities, ever mightier spells. He can ask for more as he proves himself more worthy.

He has grown worthy enough to ask for something truly marvelous.

The next morning, Carl Hungus sits in prayer, uttering invocations while he makes the sacred signs.

“What's he doing?” Uncle Stranger whispers.

“I'm not sure,” Morsado replies.

Ten minutes later, they are answered when a burst of smoke and brimstone appears. When it dissipates, a fiendish giant goat stands, awaiting its master.

“Scrote!” cries Hungus. “You are Scrote M'Goat!”

“Bah,” Scrote says disdainfully, sounding nothing like a goat.

***

Just off the far side of the hill from the nest, the party spies a marble monument. A 6' high statue of a gnome stands atop a plinth, arms akimbo, before the entrance. Obviously larger than life, the gnome stands proudly, wearing an antiquated captain's military dress uniform with a shortsword at his side. The statue was once painted in lifelike hues, but only flecks now remain. The plinth bears a plaque of soft greenstone, but the writing on it has eroded and is hard to read.

The party examines the writing carefully and manages to make it out. It says: “Here lies the tomb of Captain Perx. Faithful, steadfast, loyal, with steady hand and clever mind, a good friend to the people of his city and a good soldier to his emperor. 1977 to 2293 S.C. May his eternal rest be peaceful.”

Rorin recognizes the name. Perx was a soldier of note, well-known for his kindness, loyalty and intelligence.

The door itself has twelve iron spikes hammered into the ground at its base to keep it shut. Someone has scratched “Beware the dead” in the surface of the door itself.

“Interesting,” Dzedz mutters.

“I don't really like the dead,” Carl Hungus says. Then he turns at a strange, excited noise from Scrote.

Uncle Stranger is acting in a very improper activities with Scrote. “Hey!” Hungus shouts.

“No, he likes it,” Stranger Danger the Ranger claims.

Scrote looks at Hungus and winks. “Bah,” he says, but in a sexy tone.

Everyone stares at Uncle Stranger and Scrote M'Goat.

Then looks away.

Consenting adults and all that. Fiendish giant goat or not.

***

The party heads back to Red Bank, intending to return when properly rested and re-equipped (Rorin is nearly out of arrows). But once they are there, Uncle Stranger vanishes into the woods.

“I'm not really all that interested in looting the grave of a military hero,” Dzedz says.

That leaves Hungus and Rorin; but they are joined by Iron Patriot and a local halfling named Big John, to whom Iron Patriot seems to have some sort of strange attachment. He treats him with obvious affection, sometimes mussing his hair when rambling incomprehensibly at him.

***

The group removes the spikes from the door and pushes their way inside, though Scrote has to stay behind. Just beyond the door is a hall that opens onto a room, dusty but intact. It has an arched ceiling 10' high and two rows of pillars of pink marble. The walls are painted with images of Perx and his men fighting goblin and kobolds; laughing and celebrating; gambling, drinking and gaming; studying and learning; and helping construct what pcs from Fandelose recognize as Bronze Park. The back wall, where the Bronze Park images are, also contains a strange contraption.

Before the party can advance, half a dozen skeletons come clacking out of the shadows from where they lurked behind the pillars. There is a brief battle; though they are outnumbered, the party contains several stalwart warriors, and Big John proves adept with his fists. The skeletons' resistance to slashing and piercing damage doesn't much help against this particular group!

Afterward, the party examines the contraption, which proves to be a series of brass wheels within wheels, forming five concentric circles. Each wheel can be spun separately, each turning separately, while above the contraption is a small brass arrow pointing at the wheels and a large blue button. Each wheel is marked with the letters of the Common alphabet, although slightly antiquated versions of several of them.

Experimentation reveals that touching one of the wheels causes a clear chime to sound through the area, and a clear voice speaks a riddle. Each ring provides a different riddle.

The first is: I feed on death. Choose wisely, and I shall feed you. Choose poorly and sicken and die.

“That's a mushroom,” says Rorin immediately.

Dzedz nods. “Sure, but what do we do with it?”

The second riddle is: I have a face, but no eyes. I speak to you, yet have no mouth. I have leaves, but no roots nor bark.

The third: Of no use to one; yet absolute bliss to two. The small boy gets it for nothing. The young man has to lie for it. The old man has to buy it.

The fourth: You get many of me, but never enough. After the last one, your life soon will snuff. You may have one of me but one day a year; when the last one is gone, your life disappears.

The fifth: A barrel of rainwater weighs twenty pounds. What must you add to make it weigh fifteen?

“Hmm,” says Rorin.

They fiddle with the wheels at length. “It has to be a five letter word,” Dzedz declares. “It can't be mushroom.”

While the others mess around with the wheels, Rorin pokes around the rest of the room. “Hey,” he calls after a few moments, “I found something. There's some kind of mechanism here.” He stands at one of the pillars.

Hungus hurries over to try to trick it open, since he is proficient with thieves' tools. After a few minutes, he scowls. “I don't think this will open unless we solve the riddles.”

“Maybe there's another way.” Rorin pulls out his sword and sets to work, prying at the mechanism. It takes over an hour, and he ends up bending his blade, but he finally pries it open, revealing a 5' diameter shaft with a ladder that descends about 20' to the middle of another chamber.

This room is 30' square, with a 10' high ceiling. The air is filled with a foul charnel odor. Old moldy tapestries hang on the walls, two per wall, flanking the three exit doors and a polished steel statue of the Sword Emperor, which dominates the west wall.

As the adventurers descend, four stinking, animate corpses rush out at them from hiding places behind the tapestries. The tomb robbers are caught off guard; the ghouls paralyze Rorin before they can respond.

Iron Patriot roars and lays about him with his maul. He gibbers words that nobody can understand. Hungus finishes off one, then another, wounded ghoul. In moments, the adventurers stand triumphant, and Rorin is beginning to twitch again.

“That wasn't so bad,” Big John says.

The tapestries are too moldy for anyone to discern what was once depicted on them. The statue of the Sword Emperor shows him in an aggressive posture, weapon raised, face fierce.

The first of the two flanking doors leads to a chamber that contains only a dry basin. The second has another contraption with concentric metal rings, similar to the one above, but without the lettering, only a colored marking. Carl Hungus suggests that it's a way to re-open the shaft from below, without having to consider the riddles.

Neither of those two chambers has any other exits. The third door out of the room with the statue leads to a 15' wide, 15' long entry passage with an 8' high ceiling, leading to a 30' x 30' main chamber with a 12' high ceiling. When the Iron Patriot enters the chamber- he is at the point of the party's formation- four man-sized elegant bronze lanterns, hanging from thick chains, flare to life with a warm yellow glow, and the temperature changes from the typical cool of an underground area to a pleasant, summery warmth. The room's main feature is obvious: a clear sarcophagus containing the skeletal remains of a gnome dressed in rotten finery, with a number of bejeweled items on his person, a short sword at his side and a book on his chest.

The party moves very carefully, expecting traps, expecting the corpse to animate- expecting some danger. But there isn't any. They have made their way to the true tomb of Perx, and when they manage to prise open the sarcophagus, they find themselves with a considerable amount of loot, including spell scrolls of grease, blur and hypnotic pattern.

More important, they take Perx's sword, a rapier, which Rorin claims. It is clearly a special weapon, but they have no way to identify it at the moment.*

Next Time: The Iron Patriot goes to Fandelose!


*The Sword of Perx is a unique magical weapon that requires attunement. It grants a +2 bonus to initiative if it's in hand when initiative is rolled and granting its wielding proficiency in Intelligence saving throws. However, when in combat with kobolds or goblins (not other goblinoids), it also gains a +1 bonus to attacks and damage and a +1d6 bonus to critical severity. Rorin learns all that some time later.
 

the Jester

Legend
The Iron Patriot is profoundly uncomfortable in the city.

The crowds remind him of masses of soldiers fighting for their lives, dying. There are far too many people, and there is far too much smoke. The clamor reminds of him dimly-remembered events in the trauma that have made him who he is.

Why has he come here?

He glances at the companions with whom he is walking. Fundamentally, the reason he has just entered Fandelose is this: they cannot comprehend him, and on the trip back through the hills, he couldn't orient himself toward Red Bank. Now he wants to go home as quickly as possible.

Yet the Iron Patriot feels unable to leave the group for a single reason: Big John, whom the Iron Patriot has mistaken for a child. For as much as the Iron Patriot is the defender of Red Bank, he is also the defender of children. And if ever he has seen a child in need of a good example and some firm guidance, it is Big John.

Thus, as the party heads through the Lower District, when a young tough approaches the group to try to sell them drugs, the Iron Patriot steps up with a waggling finger and a ranted message that nobody quite catches.

But the thug catches Iron Patriot's tone, and summons a rag-tag collection of gangsters to his side.

Iron Patriot warns them. He gives a long, incomprehensible speech.

“Look,” says Hungus, “we don't want any trouble. Our friend is just a little bit excitable.” Dzedz and Roran exchange a glance. “Why don't you just move aside, and we'll be on our way.”

One of the young toughs says, “I think they should pay a penalty.”

There is a general chorus of agreement.

“No, I don't think so,” Dzedz retorts.

And the Iron Patriot has had enough. He rushes forward. The thugs pull out clubs and surround him. “Damn it!” swears Hungus, drawing out his maul and striding toward the group.

The clash is relatively brief. Once they realize that they're facing real trouble, the gang scatters. Hungus casts a couple of cure wounds spells, and the party moves on.

***

Sipping his bean juice, Dzedz asks, “What now?”

The Iron Patriot ejaculates mangled words nobody can make out.

“I think we should go back to the megadungeon,” Carl Hungus says. “We can go back to that big shaft we found and go down on ropes.”

“You mean the one with the gnolls?”

“Yeah. The gnoll hole.” Hungus grins, inordinately pleased with himself.

***

The Iron Patriot would just as soon go home. He isn't needed here. He tags along, haranguing his compatriots. When the group sets out for the dungeon, he waggles his finger at Big John. Crestfallen, the halfling stays behind. Dzedz, Roran, Iron Patriot, and Hungus form the expedition.

The group again takes the smooth round passage bored by a thoqqua into the gibberling level, and again are soon beset by large numbers of the little hairy monsters.

Dzedz comments, “They must breed really fast. It seems like no matter how many we kill, there are just as many when we come back.”

“Maybe we just need to try harder,” Roran says wryly.

***

Shortly before they reach the gnoll-hole (as they are now officially calling it), the party runs into another adventurer- a dwarf named Krank Cleigier. He hails them as he stomps toward them.

“Hello,” says Dzedz after the group and Krank introduce themselves. “I take it you're down here looking for loot?”

“Yes, but I haven't been having much luck. These little hairy guys don't carry anything, at least not as far as I've seen. And they're easy to kill one-on-one, but they run in large groups...”

“That's why we should run in large groups.” Dzedz grins. “Why don't you join us? Even shares.”

“Even shares,” Krank replies, nodding.

***

The gnoll-hole is 50' deep, and once again it is guarded by gnolls at the bottom. The party pushes through, then out into another chamber with more gnolls.

Then into another chamber with more gnolls.

It rapidly becomes apparent that this level is controlled by gnolls (assuming that the gnolls themselves aren't the lackeys of something more powerful). The party pushes several rooms deep, finding some treasure, but then more groups of gnoll warriors start to arrive, responding to the sounds of fighting.

The party is forced to retreat.

By the time they reach the shaft, they are in a full route. Hungus and Krank are badly wounded, and neither Dzedz nor Roran are without a scratch or two. Roran is forced to make a bold stand, stabbing with the Sword of Perx and holding the doorway while his wounded friends pull themselves up the rope that they left dangling down the gnoll-hole before finally breaking and running himself. He gets away, suffering a few more stabs and cuts to the legs as he scrambles up.

“They're climbing after him!” Dzedz calls.

“Not to worry!” Hungus pulls out a dagger, and as soon as Roran makes it to the top of the shaft, he saws through the rope. The gnoll falls, landing with a crunch. “Ha!” the dragonborn chortles.

“Don't gloat,” Roran warns. “Let's get out of here!”

As if to confirm the ranger's concerns, an arrow whizzes past Hungus' face. “Right,” he says.

The party returns to the city.

The Iron Patriot has had enough. He leaves alone, following the trail to Red Bank. He can only hope that kid Big John comes back to him; he could really use a father figure.

***

The beer is flowing in the Fandelose Brewery. The party had some success in their last expedition, and nobody spends money like adventurers flush with success. And nothing breeds a thirst for more adventure like a successful expedition that brings back riches.

Inspired by the rounds purchased by Carl Hungus, Dzedz, and Krank, a none-too-bright fellow named Charly asks to join them on their next adventure. “Sure, why not?” Hungus cries drunkenly.

Morsado and Uncle Stranger walk in, spot Hungus and Dzedz, and come over to join the group. Soon they're all deep in their cups. Even so, Hungus deflects when Uncle Stranger asks after Scrote.

“There are goblins raiding travelers between here and Red Bank,” says Uncle Stranger. “You guys interested in helping me to drive 'em off?”

“Sure, Uncle!” Morsado grins at him and takes another deep drink, wiping foam from his beard.

“Why not?” Dzedz shrugs. “It's a good cause.”

“And they probably have some treasure,” Hungus says, “especially if they've been getting it from travelers!”

***

The goblins aren't hard to find; the party simply travels between Fandelose and Red Bank, back and forth, for several nights.

The goblins, accompanied by worgs, come at them from out of the darkness. They come more than once over the next few nights, but each time the party slays some and drives the others off.

On the third day, they meet a pair of travelers who have also had trouble with the goblins. One of them, a fellow named David, is a young scion of one of the local noble houses, House daVoi. He is out sowing his metaphorical oats. In short, he is an adventurer.

“What about you, friend?” Hungus asks the other man.

“I am Johann, and I am here to preach the word of the God-Bomb!” the other man proclaims. “Have you been touched by its power? The God-Bomb touches us all, friend!”

“Uh, that's nice,” Hungus says, nonplussed.

David daVoi shrugs. “I don't know, cousin.”

***

There are more dangers in the area than goblins. Griffons circle overhead, but don't approach. Instead, trouble comes from below. Huge burrowing insects erupt from the ground, spitting acid.

“The God-Bomb take you!” shrieks Johann, and radiant power blasts one of them. The other members of the group begin to reconsider their opinion of the fanatic.

The party squashes the bugs. Later, when a hungry bear attacks them in camp, Johann again proves his usefulness.

But the goblins!

***

The goblins, it turns out, are led by something else: a barghest, a terrible fiend from the lower planes that can shift between the form of a goblin, that of a dark wolf, and a sort of hybrid form. The party learns this when they take a goblin prisoner after yet another attempted raid on them.

That's not all they learn, either. It turns out that not all the local goblins are aligned with this barghest. The ones who are now wear the sign of the Iron Butterfly, but many others are members of the White Tongue tribe, who do not support the strange new idolotrous religion that the barghest is pushing.

“You tell us where the barghest's lair is,” says Johann, “and we will cleanse it from this plane! It will feel the wrath of the GOD BOMB!!!” He is shouting by the end of his statement.

Hungus adds, “Better yet, we'll let you live!”

“Will you release me?”

“Sure!”

The goblin nods. “I'll point it out tonight. You will be able to see it once it's dark.”

Indeed, when night falls, the goblin gestures at a nearby peak. “There. You see?”

Peering carefully, Hungus shakes his head. “There's nothing there.”

But Johann has sharp eyes. “There's a light up there. It's hidden, but I can see it. It's a sign! GOD-BOMB!”

Next Time: Our heroes enter the barghest's lair!
 

the Jester

Legend
The Final City is a pressure cooker. Since long before the disastrous protest at which Mad Max unleashed his fury upon a young lad, the pressure has been building, but that particular moment won't be forgotten. Yes, the Army of Argos managed to shove the lid back on and hold it closed, but Mad Max's actions have certainly turned up the heat.

In the Upper District, groups of farmers meet, some openly, some in secret. People rant and cry over their losses, but the murder of a child is unforgiveable. Demands for Max's head are sent to the Citadel, vanishing into the military decision-making apparatus with no reply.

Elsewhere, in the hills outside of the city to the west, a large number of members of the Oaken Circle meet. The Oaken Circle is what remains of the druidic order that has long existed in parallel to civilized society, hiding in plain sight. The Oaken Circle's sympathies lie far closer to the farmers than to the army and the authorities in Fandelose, and they discuss what they can do to aid the farmers' plight. Their discussions will continue for months as they debate a proposal brought by one of their less forgiving heirophants- to attack where the city is weakest, its food supply.

“But the farmers are our allies,” another druid protests. “If there are food shortages, they'll be the ones to suffer deprivation first. And if the Argos discovers that they intentionally sabotaged the crops, they'll be made to suffer.”

But the one who proposed the idea shakes her head. “I've developed a spell for just this purpose,” she declares. “A spell that will both protect the farmers and harm the city.”

“You Shadow Circlers are all the same,” sneers a goliath. “You just want to see the city fall.”

“Is it wrong to wish to see even humanity return to its natural state? Is nature not what we all swear to uphold?”

“It could be argued,” says another druid, this one a centaur, “that the city is the natural state of humans.”

They will not resolve their debate for months. When the moot breaks up, one particular member wild shapes into a swift and wings away, descending in the hills just outside a strangely landscaped area. Giant ants rush all about, working to create a monoculture garden to encourage the growth of giant aphids for their nectar production. Here is the lair of a druid who did not attend the moot- one who is no longer welcome among his fellows. One who has turned from his own kind, firmly and with purpose; one who was once of the Shadow Circle, but who found satisfaction in a different way.

This is the lair of the Ant-Man.

***

The journey to and up the mountain with the flame upon it takes several more days. Along the way, the group has to fight off several natural predators- a bear, an owlbear, a flock of blood hawks. As they draw closer, they encounter a group of goblins led by a hobgoblin warlord. After a brief, fierce clash, the party puts them to the sword.

“We're getting closer, cuz,” David daVoi says.

But as they come closer, they become more obvious to the goblins of the Iron Butterfly. From their vantage point above, the tribe can see them coming. And so the attacks become more frequent, with a group of worgs rushing out of the trees at them.

Not long afterward, they stumble upon the remains of a campsite, but upon examination, it is too clean and well-tended to have been used by goblins. In addition, there is only one set of footprints in the camp, and they are larger than those a goblin would leave.

Several hours later, the party catches several goblins secreted in the brush, spying on them, and ensures that they can't report back.

“It's a sign!” Johann shrieks. “A sign from the GOD-BOMB!! Here, so far from home, so close to danger, we are shown that this place is for us, for our kind!” He rants on for several minutes- long and loud enough, in fact, to draw the camp's former occupant out.

It is Sarec, who has been idly mulling over the idea of changing the spelling of his name.

“Hey there, Hungus! It's been a while!”

“What are you doing so far from the city by yourself?”

“I'm out adventuring. I'm not a fan of the city, really. I've been hunting goblins.”

“You should be careful, cousin,” David daVoi says. “It's dangerous out here.”

“I'm not worried. I'm an outlander. We're used to this stuff.”

“You realize that most of the outlanders around here have died off due to monsters, right?” Hungus shrugs. “I'm just saying.”

“I'm not worried,” Sarec (perhaps Sarek, in the future?) repeats. “I'm a bad ass with my haliburt.” It takes the others a moment to realize that he's referring to his halberd. “If they even come too close to me, I'll smack 'em!”

“One of these days,” Hungus sighs, “you're going to end up eaten by griffons.”

“No way!” Sarec grins. “I'll be the one eating griffon steaks!”

***

Sarec isn't the only friendly face our heroes meet on their way up the mountain. When they break for an extended lunch, the Iron Patriot catches up to them from behind. He, as usual, is trying to protect his home, Red Bank, from the perennial threats surrounding it. When he enters the party's camp, he exclaims in a happy tone, then speaks at length, not that anyone can understand him.

Nonetheless, David daVoi answers him: “Welcome aboard, cuz!”

***

Thus reinforced, the party cuts their way up the mountain, hewing through wave after wave of goblin assault. Some come with worgs, but the number of goblin-wolves is rapidly depleted.

Soon our heroes face the sole surviving worg- an immense, old, grizzled bastard, ridden by the barghest itself, though the fiend's identity is not apparent until our heroes find their weapons barely able to hurt it.

“The God-Bomb take you!” screams Johann, calling down the wrath of his deity in a burst of radiant power.

The barghest and its worg ally are much tougher than any of the goblins the party has fought before. They have the last five goblins of the Iron Butterfly tribe with them, along with the worg mother's five young (but still fully-grown) brood. Yet Krank, Hungus, daVoi, and Sarek form a line that keeps the mass of enemies back from Johann and Dzedz, who hurl spell after spell at the barghest.

The goblins fall first, but then the barghest manages to run David daVoi through with his spear. The noble scion collapses, blood spraying everywhere.

“No you don't!” Hungus cries. He strikes and unleashes a smite, driving the barghest back.

Then it changes, its body flowing into a new form- a hybrid goblin-worg, all snarling teeth and slashing claws. It leaps onto Hungus, and the two struggle.

Johann leaps forward to daVoi's bleeding body. “It's not too late for you, brother!” the fanatic shouts, eyes blazing. “The power of the GOD-BOMB can still save you!!!” He presses his hands on daVoi's wounds, and they knit shut. David daVoi's eyes snap open, and he staggers to his feet.

A worg rushes at him, but Sarek cuts it down before it can reach him.

Dzedz fires off a shattering pulse, damaging most of the remaining enemies and throwing the big worg from its feet. “Now!” he shouts. “Get it!”

Though Hungus is still too busy dueling the barghest, the other warriors do as Dzedz asks. Krank finishes the large worg with an overhand blow of his axe. The remaining worgs, seeing their mother die, break and flee.

The adventurers let them go, finally free to place all their attention on the barghest itself.

Snapping, snarling, the monster backs up slowly as the warriors of civilization press it. Sarek's halbert hacks into its chest; Johann hits it with a sacred flame; daVoi rushes to flank it with Hungus.

Dzedz calls out, “You're done, monster!” He blasts it with a volley of magic missiles, but it still won't fall. It rips open daVoi's wounds, sending him spinning back to the ground.

With a growl, Hungus says, “Feel the power of my Queen!” He roars and swings, unleashing the last of his power in the mightiest smite he can.

The monster wobbles, but remains standing.

The Iron Patriot gives a cry, screams incomprehensibly, and attacks, laying into the barghest with all his might. Making confusing noises, the dwarven defender of Red Bank puts his all into it. Flecks of foam fly from his mouth. And finally, a punishing blow from his maul connects with the fiend's head, and the barghest falls at last. In only moments, its corpse begins to give off foul vapors, and in less than ten minutes, all that is left of it is a stinking, greasy stain and some rancid, rapidly-softening bones and hair.

***

Once more, the Iron Patriot finds himself in the wrong place.

After looting the treasure from the Iron Butterfly goblins' lair, the party returned to the city. Somehow, Iron Patriot missed the turn to Red Bank again- and here he is, back in the damned city. He complains to the others, but they just don't understand him.

At least he can look for Big John while he's here.

***

All that money is addictive. These adventurers, far from heroes when they began, have at least acted heroically. They have aided the most helpless people in the area, the folk of Red Bank; they have driven away a fiend from the Lower Planes; and they have come out wealthy for their efforts.

“The next step past wealthy,” Hungus points out to the others, “is downright rich! We've gotta keep doing this stuff.”

“We already killed the goblins,” Sarek says. “What next?”

Dzedz and Hungus exchange a glance.

“Let's go back to the gnoll-hole,” suggests the wizard.

“Yes!” cries Hungus. “Megadungeon!”

The party keeps drinking. The brewery, while not a tavern per se, has become one of their favorite haunts. It is also rapidly becoming infamous for the adventurers who come and buy rounds for everyone. Business is good.

“I want to buy a house!” Hungus declares.

But that's easier said than done. After all, if someone in the city sells their house- where would they live? There is only one answer: outside the walls. And living outside the walls is very, very dangerous. Only the boldest or more desperate do so, and most of them are picked off by one threat or another after a few years. The houses that cluster near the walls just outside the city are safest, but even they suffer the depradations of the local wildlife. Griffon attacks, while not common, are far from rare. Owlbears, giant insects, and other things periodically hunt the alleys in the dark of night, and the careless frequently go missing.

Far easier, the group will eventually find, is locating a house for rent.

Next Time: Our heroes head down the gnoll-hole to the Laughing Level!
 

the Jester

Legend
This is not a city of heroes. Not now; not yet. The Heroes of Fandelose have had their day, and those days are past. They are dead, or old and retired, or just retired. A new crop may rise, and it may happen soon, but for now, the city's champions are less heroes and more adventurers.

But villains- ah, villains. Fandelose is full of villains.

Some are hidden in plain view, preaching to the city's poorest and most disenfranchised citizens, spreading the word of their foul god. Others keep their faces turned away from the public at all times, fearing the shining of the light of discovery on their unsavory activities. Some work invisibly within the organizations that the city must trust to protect it, undermining it from within.

But there are others who are more blatant, whose faces adorn wanted posters. Others such as Pa'ash Svenko, tiefling warlock, known devil-worshiper, known bandit, wanted for murder, arson, robbery, destruction of property. Surely, if he were resident within the city, such a famous villain would be turned in to the authorities in no more than a few days. At the very least, someone would tip off the White Battlet as to where to find him. The price on his head would be too high to resist.

Instead, such a villain, one who depended on raiding the civilized folk for both his own sick satisfaction and to ensure he and his lackeys can live in comfort, might choose a relatively safer place to live. Somewhere, perhaps, that offered an opportunity to cow and lord over weaker creatures, a place to set oneself up on top of a social hierarchy.

That's right. Pa'ash Svenko lives in the megadungeon.

And- oh, yes. Cast back your mind. Do you remember Mileen? Mileen, the missing colleague of Lazarus, for whom Dzedz was supposed to look so long ago?

Whoops.

***

This time, the party includes Carl Hungus, David daVoi, Johann, Dzedz, Sarek, and the Iron Patriot. As they descend into the dungeon, the distressed dwarf complains incoherently, clearly telling them something very important to him.

They follow the thoqqua hole to the gibberling level, then fight their way through a pair of giant spiders en route to the gnoll hole.

“Hey,” says Dzedz, “didn't we leave ropes here before?”

Indeed they did, but there is no sign of them now.

“It was probably the gnolls,” Sarek says.

The party drops new ropes and descends into another battle with the gnolls. They fight their way through, press forward into another area with gnolls and their pet hyenas.

The party doesn't recognize the danger they are facing until it is almost too late.

Among the enemy is a ghoul. It paralyzes David daVoi and Sarek, almost turning the tide against our protagonists before a raving Johann can call upon the power of the God-Bomb to turn the ghoul.

They press further into the gnolls' area. Hideous laughter echoes down the halls, coming from hyenas, both normal and giant, and gnolls alike. There are enemies closing in from everywhere, from every direction.

The party intercepts one group of gnolls, puts them to the sword. To their surprise, they find that the gnolls are transporting a pair of prisoners: a scared-looking halfling named Tommy and an elf named Keymaepa.

“This is awkward,” says Sarek. “I mean, we don't want to leave you on your own here, but we're kind of in the middle of something here, and we haven't found much treasure yet.”

Dzedz asks, “Do you have any useful skills?”

The elf smiles. “I am a warlock.”

“And I'm a druid,” the halfling answers. “And I'm pretty sure that these gnolls you just slew have our gear.”

“I wouldn't mind the opportunity to get a little revenge while we're here,” Kaymaepa adds.

“That settles it!” Sarek smiles at them. “You can come with us!”

“Equal shares for all,” Dzedz says.

***

The party, swollen with their two newest members, advances further. The gnolls' areas tend to be ill-kept, messy, with garbage and waste often left lying in plain view. The party finds their meat larder, which hangs with both humanoid corpses and several sides of cattle.

Solemnly, Kaymaepa touches one of the dead humans. “This was one of our adventuring companions.”

“I'm sorry,” says Sarek.

Further on, they cut through half a dozen guards in a foyer outside a well-appointed lair. Here they meet a much more dangerous gnoll than most they have met, dressed all in red plate armor, along with his four personal guards. Clearly, he is some kind of leader- but with such a large party, he and his guards have no chance. David daVoi finishes the gnoll captain off, slicing his throat.

“Too bad that armor is so big,” Hungus remarks. “You guys could use some plate armor.” He nods to Sarek and Johann.

The party takes stock of itself. A few of them are a little banged up, and most of their healing has been expended by now, but Dzedz still has several powerful spells available, and Hungus has one or two tricks left up his sleeve. They decide to keep going.

The next door they open leads to a large chamber, within which is a hydra.

Tommy slams the door shut, and David daVoi throws his weight against it. “I don't think we want to fight that!” the halfling exclaims.

But they may not have the choice. The door explodes outward and one of the hydra's heads smashes it to pieces.

“Why not?” shouts Sarek, leaping forward into the room and slashing with his halberd.

“The God-Bomb will protect us!” shrieks Johann, hitting the hydra with a sacred flame

David daVoi shrugs and leaps to stand with Sarek. Hungus hangs back for a few moments, but finally rushes to the front as well. Tommy uses his last spell slot to coat the hydra in faerie fire, while Keymaepa unleashes eldritch blasts at it.

The hydra is very dangerous, but as long as it is confronted by many targets, it seems that its heads are not very good at working together. Each snaps at whoever is closest to that head. And slowly, the party cuts it to pieces, finally finishing it with a flame bolt from Dzedz. The fight leaves the front line warriors all wounded, but only daVoi is knocked unconcscious. Tommy quickly scrambles forward to stabilize him.

***

Everyone agrees that it's time to withdraw. Carting daVoi's unconscious form, they retreat back through the gnoll level toward the gnoll hole.

Halfway there, they are ambushed by a pack of hyenas. They cut the beasts down.

“There!” Dzedz points just ahead. “The ropes! That's the gnoll hole!”

They hustle forward but are intercepted by a trio of gnolls that barrels into them from a side passage. Hungus smashes one down, Sarek cuts the second one in half, and Johann's holy power eliminates the third.

Tommy and Keymaepa scramble up the ropes, followed by Hungus. At the same time, Sarek quickly ties a harness around daVoi at the end of the ropes. Hungus hoists their unconscious ally aloft, his arms bulging with the effort. When he's done, he unties daVoi and drops the rope back down for Sarek. He and Dzedz climb up.

“What do you think? Should we leave the ropes again?” asks Hungus.

Dzedz shrugs. “We might as well. We got enough loot to replace them, that's for sure.”

“Someone somewhere is going to be collecting quite a pile of rope,” comments Sarek.

***

The party returns to the thoqqua hole and exits the dungeon via it. Once outside, the party parts ways. Hungus, daVoi, and Johann sleep in the Black Gorge, intent on re-entering the megeadungeon the next morning, while the others return to Fandelose.

“If you guys ever want to join up for an adventure with us,” Hungus tells Tommy and Keymaepa before they split up, “we hang out at the brewery a lot.”

The next morning, after using up their healing to ensure everyone is in good shape, Hungus, Johann, and a revived David daVoi head back in.

***

They make it to, and down, the gnoll hole without any trouble. There are no guards at the bottom.

“We must have depleted their numbers pretty severely,” Hungus remarks.

They explore. The level is large, densely packed, with many rooms and numerous passageways. They find a sleeping ogre and back away, leaving it alone. Before long, they find a stairway down.

“The God-Bomb will protect us!” Johann asserts.

They descend, passing into a large chamber. And it is there that disaster strikes.

Lurking in the shadows, a huge monstrous spider covered in bristles that drip acid senses the three of them. As they take in their surroundings, its scuttles forward with in silence, and before they are even aware of it, it sprays a cone of caustic acid all over them.

All three of them shriek in pain. But Johann is quite literally half-dissolved. The cleric's God Bomb does not protect them after all.

Hungus curses and strikes back, unleashing a mighty smite, but the spider monster shrugs it off. DaVoi's jab also hits, but barely hurts it.

The two flee, retreating up the stairs. The spider lets them go, content to slurp up Johann's remains. Hungus has only a meager amount of healing ability left; he uses it now, but both he and daVoi are still wounded.

David daVoi shakes his head. “This may have been a bad idea, cuz. I think we need to get out of here.”

He's right. But as they move through the gnoll zone, they are intercepted by half a dozen gnolls and a giant hyena.

The two of them freeze.

“Drop your weapons,” growls one of the gnolls in Common.

They have no choice.

***

In chains, stripped to their loincloths, they are cast before a tiefling who sits upon a large chair. “I am Pa'ash Svenko,” he says, sneering at them. “You are now my prisoners.” He looks them over.

“This one had fancy armor,” one of the gnolls says, pointing at Hungus. Pa'ash glances at the platinum-chased armor that Hungus has invested some of his treasure in.

Pa'ash smirks. “Good. We shall see. If your lives are worth enough, we shall keep you for ransom. If not...”

daVoi says, "I'm a noble."

***
 

the Jester

Legend
Now before we switch our focus for a bit, it's time to talk about the elephant in the room- or, perhaps, the room in the elephant. If an elephant is a house. Which is to say, we're talking about the aforementioned rental house.

Now, to be perfectly frank, neither my notes nor my memory recall exactly when it is that Hungus, David daVoi, Dzedz, Mad Max, and the rest (but primarily Hungus) managed to rent the house on Banker Street, but it seems likely that it was before this point in our ongoing tale, so let's talk about it.

The fact that there are no other places to live other than the city makes anyone who owns property within the walls extremely reluctant to part with it. After all, once you do, your options are limited to either renting a room or apartment, building a new place outside of Fandelose proper, or living on the streets. So someone giving up their home for a quick pay out is simply not a thing anymore.

On the other hand, there are times when homeowners die. If there is no clear heir, the city seizes the property, which is subsequently either awarded as a reward for service or repurposed for the good of the city, such as by being converted into an apartment building.

All of this means that the adventures' attempts to buy property in the city had proven fruitless. Stymied, Hungus instead hit upon the idea of renting an empty house in the Bronze District. And as it turned out, there was such a place available for a steep price at #14 Banker Street, located literally right across the street from the Fandelose Brewery. For obvious reasons, this seemed like an ideal location, and the place was fairly large, with several buildings, two storeys, a large basement, and a sturdy roof- all important considerations. Hungus secured an arrangement with the owner, although their relationship would sour over time as the house became less reputable, notorious for hosting constant parties full of violent adventurers, and as Hungus repeatedly violated the agreement's "no modifications to the house" clause. Also, the small herd of goats atop the roof, often loudly and publicly violated by Scrote, made any nod toward discretion impossible.

Many times, Hungus or Mad Max or another of the people who invested in the house would come home and find it filled to bursting with disreputable adventurers drinking their booze and eating their food. Often, when a group went out on an expedition, they would leave a note for their friends, telling them where the group had gone. "We're in the gnoll hole." "Heading to Red Bank." "East of town, in the woods, looking for owlbears." Whatever. It made it easy for different adventurers to find each other, to join forces, or sometimes, to prey on each others' successes or failures.

This was the start of Fandelose's Adventurers' Guild, started inadvertently and mostly by rumor, and which mostly consisted of bandits raiding or extorting travelers going to and from Red Bank- a problem that would plague the area for years.
 

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