(Cydra) The Final City


log in or register to remove this ad

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.
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top