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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 16

The monster was chasing Bredan through a dark forest.

He could hear it behind him, the harsh rasp of its breathing punctuated by rhythmic thuds of its claws tearing into the ground with each long stride. He couldn’t look back, didn’t dare shift his attention from the uneven ground ahead of him, but he could tell that it was getting closer.

Gnarled black trees with branches like deformed limbs rose up all around him. But they offered no hope of shelter; he already knew that if he tried to climb one it would crumble into ash. There was already a thick layer of it under his feet, slowing him just a little bit with each step he took.

The monster, apparently, had no such difficulties.

He didn’t have a weapon, and there was nothing around him with which he could defend himself. The trees didn’t leave anything behind but ash, and there were no stones, nothing he could pick up to try to hold off his pursuer. All he could do was keep running.

And then the forest ended, and a sharp cliff of crumbling stone rose up ahead of him. The cliff curved inward to his left and right, as if it had been set here as a trap, to pen him in.

As he looked around for a possible route of escape he saw the monster.

It had slowed down, confident now that its prey was trapped. It was a horrid combination of creatures. It had the furry, muscled body of a bear, down to the sharp curving claws that left gashes in the ashen soil with each step. But its head was insectoid, with huge multi-faced eyes and snapping mandibles that framed a mouth that dripped terrible acidic goo. It had a long snout that terminated in a point that stirred a memory, a hint that something wasn’t quite right.

But he didn’t get a chance to think it over as the monstrosity charged at him.

He ran toward the cliff, hoping against hope that he could climb it. But even as he placed his hands on the rock they crumbled at his touch, and he slumped back down. The rest of the cliff remained unflinchingly solid, offering no escape.

He turned around, his eyes wide, his mouth opening to scream. But before the sound could escape him he felt the bug-bear’s long proboscis plunging into his belly, deeper and deeper…

* * *

Bredan’s eyes flashed open as pain jolted through his stomach. He reached down to grasp at the shaft he’d felt impaling him, but there was nothing there, just his coat and the layer of armor underneath it. Even as his addled brain took that in the pain faded and he sucked in a deep breath. Looking up, he saw that Kosk was standing over him, his staff in his hand.

“You fell asleep,” the dwarf said. His voice was like the iron that covered the ends of his staff, hard and unyielding.

Bredan blinked and looked around. The camp was as he remembered it from the night before, when Quellan had woken him to stand his watch. The others were just stirring from their bedrolls. It was morning, though early enough that the sun hadn’t yet made its appearance above the horizon.

Morning.

His watch.

He’d fallen asleep.

“Sorry…” he mumbled as he started to get up. But Kosk’s staff flashed out, intercepting him. Bredan flinched, but the end stopped just short of impact, instead just pushing lightly into his chest.

“Sorry?” the dwarf asked. “You fell asleep on watch. It’s only blind luck that we weren’t all killed while you took your rest. Or have you forgotten the events of yesterday?”

“I said I was sorry,” Bredan said. That was as much to Glori and Quellan as to the dwarf, as the others had roused themselves enough to follow the exchange. Glori tugged her blanket around her body to ward off the morning chill.

“Sorry won’t keep you alive out here,” the dwarf said with disgust. He pulled down his staff and started to walk away.

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t the one that set a pace that left us all worn down and exhausted,” Bredan said. “I made a mistake, and I own that, but damn it, we’re not made of iron.”

The dwarf turned back slowly, and from the look in his eyes there was a battle brewing there, but Quellan quickly intervened, stepping between them. Kosk said, “You’d be better off letting us clear this up once and for all, lad. This boy needs some sense pounded into him.”

“Fine with me,” Bredan snarled back. “I’m not a rock, I’ll fight back.”

“While I admit that I would take a certain pleasure in watching you two beat the living crap out of each other, this is neither the time nor the place,” Quellan said. “We have a lot more to do today than…”

He trailed off as soft music filled the clearing. The three men turned to see Glori sitting on the stones at the edge of their camp, her lyre cradled in her lap. The bard continued her playing, her fingers dancing over the strings of the instrument, her plectrum plucking out the notes. The melody started slowly, soft and almost sad, but it quickly built in pace and intensity. She added a martial tone, evocative of soldiers preparing themselves for battle. That passage transitioned into a march, the sharp notes sounding like the endless trudging of booted feet over a long road. But under that cadence something else was growing, a buildup of energy toward an inevitable confrontation. Just when it seemed that the song would erupt in a clash of arms the melody shifted once more, returning the long plaintive sounds of calm and peace with which she had started. The sense of loss that had been present then was now almost palpable, the notes full of regret and sadness.

When she finally finished the three men just stood there watching her. Bredan had heard her place that piece of music before; she’d called it “Alephron’s Regret.” But here, on a dim morning in the middle of nowhere, it had sounded completely different than it had when played in the background of a busy tavern. For a moment he’d thought he was actually there, marching along with Alephron and his armies to the final confrontation with the Dead King.

From the looks on their faces their other companions had been likewise affected. Quellan’s eyes glistened with a bright sheen. “That was…” the cleric began, but he couldn’t finish the thought.

Glori tucked her pick into one of the high pockets of her coat, then took in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh before hopping suddenly to her feet.

“All right, who’s ready to start the day?” she said.

The sun had risen when they finally set out, though it remained hidden behind low clouds that promised another gloomy day. They deliberately avoided the old woman’s camp, but they had no difficulty finding the trail that led up to the cleft in the side of the bluff. The ascent was steep but manageable. They encountered a few places where loose rocks made the climb treacherous, but Kosk’s adage about the usefulness of rope proved true and they were able to manage that portion of the route without anything more serious than a few skinned knees.

Once they actually made it into the cleft the trail leveled out some, which was helpful given that the weak sunlight all but disappeared. As they passed out of the light into the narrow interior of the cleft Bredan felt a moment of panic; the shadowed shaft reminded him vividly of the dark landscape of his dream. But after a moment that premonition eased, and once his eyes adjusted he could see enough to make his way forward.

Glori paused, perhaps sensing that something was wrong. Looking back, she asked, “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Though I’m finding myself envious of your eyes.”

She smiled. “We could light torches…”

“No, I’m fine for now. I’ll let you know if it becomes a problem.”

“You lovebirds coming?” Kosk’s voice drifted down from above. It had been perhaps too much to hope that the dwarf might have eased his hurried pace a bit now that they were creeping up the side of a mountain toward who knows what, Bredan thought.

The two hurried to catch up but found that their companions were waiting for them not far ahead. Just beyond them the cleft narrowed until the two sides came together in an abrupt stop. Above them the cleft extended for another hundred feet to the summit of the bluff, but one look at the sheer cliffs was enough to dissuade them from any interest in that direction.

But there was no need to climb; their destination was just ahead.

At the spot where the facing cliffs met there was a dark opening that led into the interior of the bluff. It was definitely man-made; Bredan could just make out the outline of roughly-hewn steps that led up to it, and it was framed by massive lintel stones that were too smooth and regular to be a natural feature. He wondered at the effort that would have been required to build this place, so far isolated from any outpost of civilization. Or had it been magic that had done this, magic of the sort that had brought them here in the first place?

He was so intent on his musing that he didn’t hear what Kosk had said. “What?” Bredan asked. He turned to see that the dwarf—and the others—were unslinging their packs.

The monk shot him a look, but he thankfully didn’t comment on his woolgathering. “I said, leave your packs and all your heavy gear. Bedrolls, extra clothes, pots and pans, any food that’s not ready-to-eat.”

Bredan looked up and down the length of the cleft. There were plenty of places where a pack or a few loose articles might be stashed, but between the four of them… “But what if someone steals our stuff?” he asked.

“If you get caught in a trap or can’t maneuver in a fight, you’ll have a much bigger problem,” Kosk said.

“We’ll bring plenty of torches, so you can see,” Quellan said. “And if it comes to it, I can summon light with my magic.”

Bredan carefully unslung his pack and found a spot for it in the rocks where it might not be immediately visible to someone coming by. He had to admit that he’d gotten rather attached to Kesren’s creation, even though it was a relief to get its weight off his back. He reached inside and took out a few canvas-wrapped torches that he tucked into his belt.

He hesitated over the crossbow. He had no idea what they would find beyond that dark opening, but he had a pretty good idea that it would involve close quarters. On the other hand, too close and he wouldn’t have room to use his sword. Finally he took the bow and the case of bolts; he could always leave them somewhere if they proved too cumbersome and pick them up on the way out.

He paused again when he came upon his set of tools. Obviously they wouldn’t be doing any smithing here, but he could think of a lot of other situations where the various metalworking instruments could come in handy. And they were easily contained in the leather wrap that his uncle had given him, which came with its own carrying strap.

He glanced up and saw that the others were all not only ready, but they were all watching him. He flushed and quickly slung the leather wrap across his opposite shoulder where it wouldn’t interfere with his baldric. “Ready,” he said.

“Shouldn’t you load that thing?” Quellan asked, indicating the crossbow.

“No,” Bredan and Kosk said simultaneously. When Kosk just growled Bredan quickly added, “A small draw-operated bow like this, it can’t take the long-term strain on the string and arms that a heavier winch-operated bow can. Keeping it drawn too long will damage both the strength and accuracy of the weapon.”

“Well, you’re the expert,” the half-orc said. He took out a torch and a piece of flint, and with a few strikes on the flanges of his mace got the pitch head burning. He picked up his shield and led the way toward the dark opening, with Kosk just behind him. Glori and Bredan followed close behind.

The dark opening seemed to drink up the light of the torch, revealing its secrets only reluctantly. They saw a passage that curved to the left before straightening for as far as the light extended. The walls and ceiling were stone worked smooth, and there were only a few scattered bits of rock in the entry before the route forward cleared.

The cleric stepped forward warily, shining the torch around before proceeding. Kosk gave the stone blocks to each side a good look, tapping them with his staff.

“Do you really think there will be a trap right at the entrance?” Glori asked.

Kosk growled something unintelligible, and Quellan explained, “I think we’re better off assuming that everything’s a trap until proven otherwise.”

Bredan remained a few steps back so that he wouldn’t get in the others’ way. But as he waited he detected something, a sharp scent of something burning that at first he blamed on the cleric’s torch. But the scent deepened, adding a sulphurous tinge that he recognized from the forge—that smell was a sign of bad coal that wasn’t going to be good for heating metal. He had no idea what it meant here, but he instinctively knew that it wasn’t good.

Looking around, he saw something that he’d missed initially. To the left of the entrance, partially hidden behind the mass of the stone that framed the opening, there was a small crevice in the rock, extending under the lintel. The smell seemed to be coming from that crevice, and as he bent lower to take a closer look he saw that it actually went on for quite a ways, widening a bit beyond that initial gap.

“Um… guys…” he began.

Two red points suddenly materialized within the depths of the crevice, accompanied by a low growl.

“Guys!” Bredan warned. He stumbled back while reaching for the hook to cock the crossbow. “I think I found the guardian!”

The others turned quickly to look, but even as Quellan lowered the torch toward the crevice a mass of fur and claws and fury exploded out of the opening and attacked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 17

Quellan reacted instinctively, thrusting his torch into the snapping jaws of the creature. The monster bit down on it, splattering burning pitch all over its face. That would have given a normal beast pause, but the flames didn’t seem to have any effect on this… whatever it was. With its violent thrashing all Quellan could make out was that it was broad with stubby legs and had black fur. And powerful jaws full of very big teeth, of course.

The creature thrust itself up to attack again, but before it could engage with teeth or claws Glori slid over to the side and shot it in the flank with her bow. The beast roared and spun to face her, but Quellan moved quickly to keep it penned into the narrow space of the crevice, slamming down his shield to block its progress. He could feel the impacts shoot up its arm as its claws tore into the layers of wooden boards. It took all his effort to hold onto the shield and he had no chance to try to grab his mace. The half-orc tried to plant his feet to hold it back but he was still driven back a full step, then two as the creature continued its furious assault. With a rasp it snapped one claw up over the rim of the shield, and he knew he couldn’t hold it much longer.

“On your right!” Kosk said, and Quellan shifted slightly to give the dwarf access to his foe. The monk snapped his staff into the creature’s skull, but if the blow hurt the thing it gave no obvious sign. Instead it twisted its head around suddenly and seized hold of the end of the weapon in its heavy jaws. It pulled back with equal fury, so fast that Kosk was drawn in before he could let go. Even as the staff flipped up into the air the creature lunged at him with its claws, trying to trap the dwarf underneath its bulk. But Kosk spun and drove a hard punch into its snout, knocking it back just enough for him to dart back out of its reach.

Now driven into a wild frenzy, the creature thrust forward again, knocking Quellan roughly aside and nearly catching Kosk despite his quick retreat. But as the monk escaped it turned on the cleric, who had no chance to bring his shield back around. The creature opened its jaws impossibly wide then lunged to snap them around Quellan’s exposed leg.

Quellan flinched, but before the monster could seize him it was struck from behind by Bredan. The smith’s huge sword impaled it through the back, driving down until the tip scraped against the hard stone beneath it. For a moment it looked like even that wouldn’t stop it, as it reared back in an attempt to bite its tormentor, but then with a last spasm that shook all of its limbs it crumpled and fell still.

For a moment they all just stood there staring down at the carcass, as if half-expecting it to get back up again and resume its assault.

“Is everyone all right?” Quellan asked. “Did anyone get hurt?”

“I think we’re all okay,” Kosk said. He prodded the thing’s head with his foot while Bredan stepped onto its back and yanked his sword free. Now that it was dead they could see what it was: a giant badger, in death remarkable only for its size. But there had been nothing normal in the way it had attacked, or in the way its eyes had glowed red when it had first lunged up out of the crevice where it made its den.

“That thing… it wasn’t quite right,” Glori said with a shudder.

“You can say that again,” Bredan said. He glanced over at Kosk as if expecting a comment, but the dwarf gave the dead creature one last look before walking over to where his staff had fallen. He checked the wood, which had a few fresh gouges near one end but otherwise seemed to be intact.

“Let’s go,” he said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 18

Quellan had no difficulty admitting to himself that he was afraid. Introspection was a skill that was strongly encouraged within the clergy of Hosrenu, and his particular circumstances had made him especially aware of his own perceptions. And there was plenty of reason to be concerned, he thought. Starfinder’s notes had indicated that the Eth’barat trafficked in magic from the Outer Planes, including summoned guardians. He didn’t know if that badger had been such or if it had just been an unfortunate beast that had become tainted by the power that resided here. He wasn’t sure which scenario he preferred; either was quite disquieting.

So he had no difficulty acknowledging his fear, but he made a strong effort to conceal it from his companions. Not out of any sense of bravado; Quellan resisted any behavior that struck him as “orcish.” But he felt like he had to project an air of stability to protect the group from the discord that seemed to be threatening their common cause. He had always preferred to avoid conflict, but here their ability to pull together as a team might be a matter of survival.

He was reminded of that in a stark manner as they made their way into the interior of the ancient shrine. He was in the lead, the light from a fresh torch pushing back the darkness, but they’d barely managed ten steps past the entrance he was greeted with a familiar smell. He stopped. The torchlight revealed that the passage opened onto a larger room ahead, but he couldn’t make out any details of what might be inside.

“Ugh, what’s that stink?” Glori asked.

Quellan knew the answer, but he let Kosk answer. “Death,” the dwarf said.

The smell grew stronger as they approached the room. The source of it was revealed when the light extended into the chamber.

Death was right, the cleric thought. The bodies—six of them, he counted—were scattered through the room. They were all hacked up, a gory mess, and he might not have been able to identify them if the old woman hadn’t warned them to look out for bugbears. They were imposing even in death, bigger even than the half-orc. Some of them still held bloody weapons in their hands, suggesting that they might have managed a few hits against whoever or whatever had killed them.

“What is it?” Glori asked. “What’s there?”

At the bard’s prompt Quellan stepped forward and to the side, clearing the entry so the others could see. Glori sucked in a startled breath as she took in the scene. Bredan looked pale, and Quellan wondered if he had ever seen death, violent death, up close like this before. Kosk took a more practical approach, prodding at the nearest body with his staff. That one had finally succumbed just a few steps from the entry, leaving behind a trail of blood that extended halfway across the room.

“What killed them?” Bredan asked. No one had an answer, but Quellan couldn’t shake a feeling that there was something wrong here, a sinister mystery he couldn’t quite identify.

Tearing his attention from the dead bugbears, the cleric examined the rest of the room. The place was oddly shaped, with angular walls that collectively formed a rough hexagon. The passage entered on one of the points. There was another similar passage on the far side of the room, though the torchlight didn’t extend far enough for him to see where it led.

More remarkable were the faces embedded in the walls. They were stone carvings, four of them, though a scatter of rubble under an uneven patch of wall suggested that there might have once been five. The stone faces were each about two feet high and only bore the vaguest features. But they were all subtly different, and as Quellan studied them he realized that they had been crafted to each represent a different emotional state, from joy and sadness to pain and anger. He idly wondered what the fifth one had depicted.

Kosk had finished his examination of the first dead bugbear and started forward into the room. “Careful,” Quellan said.

The dwarf shrugged. “If we aren’t going to turn back then the only way left is forward,” he said. But it was clear that he too was wary of the place, and he placed each foot carefully as he circled the chamber. The others followed him in, just as slowly.

“Those faces… they’re creepy,” Bredan said.

Glori gave one a closer look. “They just look like solid stone.” She reached out as if to touch it—the carving showing the drooping face of sadness—but then turned back to the corpses clustered in the middle of the room.

“No bugs,” Bredan said suddenly.

The smith’s words stirred an awareness in Quellan’s mind—he was right, the room was devoid of the crawling and flying vermin that should have accompanied this much death. And for that matter, while the bodies did stink, the stench should have been much worse given the confined space and the length of time they’d been here, assuming the old woman’s account had been accurate. It was as if the decay that naturally followed death was being held at bay here in this place.

Kosk finished his circuit of the room and returned to the bodies in the center. He grabbed hold of one by its armor, and with a grunt of effort lifted it up off the ground. Neither he nor any of the others spotted the gleaming axe that was pinned under its torso, and when Glori said, “Hey, over here,” he released the dead bugbear and went over to where she was bent over another of the corpses.

“What is it?” Bredan asked.

“This one’s belt buckle. Silver, solid silver. Might be worth twenty, thirty golds.”

Kosk frowned, “We shouldn’t be worried about loot, we should be worried about what killed these bastards.”

“We can worry about both things simultaneously,” Glori said, cutting the buckle free with her knife and tucking it into her belt pouch.

“There’s nothing else here,” Bredan said. “It’s almost like…”

He trailed off, but Quellan prodded. “What? What’s it like?”

The smith swallowed. “It’s almost like they hacked each other to pieces.”

“We should be moving on,” Kosk said. But when the dwarf turned he just stood there, staring at the four stone faces. Some of them were damaged, Quellan saw, chipped as if someone had tried to do to them what had happened to the mysterious missing fifth face.

Seized by a sudden premonition, Quellan stepped back to the entry. As he passed through the transition between the room and the passage he felt something, a faint tingle on his skin, just a slight pressure holding him back. It wasn’t enough to stop him, but he felt a cold feeling of dread in his guts as he turned to see the others all looking at him.

“What’s the matter, Quellan?” Glori asked.

“Try to leave,” he said to them. “Either that doorway, or this one.”

Kosk walked over to the far passage with purpose, but he came to a sudden stop right on the edge of the room. “I… I can’t,” he said. “I want to go, I just… I can’t take that extra step.”

Bredan and Glori went over to join Quellan at the entrance. “I can’t either,” Glori said. Her words were echoed on Bredan’s face. “Maybe you can drag us out,” the smith suggested. “Or knock us out…”

“I don’t think there’s time for that,” Kosk said as he came back toward them. The dwarf’s expression was a hard grimace, and he clutched his staff with fingers that were white with tension.

“What’s going on?” Glori said. “What’s happening?” Whatever the monk was feeling, she clearly was feeling it too as her eyes flicked back and forth wildly, darting from the stone faces to those of her companions.

“Ask them,” Bredan said, nodding toward the dead bugbears.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 19

Kosk’s lips tightened in a snarl and he let out a low growl as he raised his staff and leapt to the attack.

Glori flinched back as the iron-shot staff slammed hard into its target. The attacks kept coming, one after another, the head of the staff striking like a snake. She threw up her hands to protect her face as shards of stone shot past. “Ahh!” she yelled. “What’s he doing?”

“The faces,” Quellan said, as the dwarf continued smashing one of the stone masks embedded into the walls. “It’s the faces!”

Bredan turned to another of the stone faces. To him it seemed like the exaggerated expression of joy was mocking him. He realized with a start that he had his sword bare in his hands; he did not remember drawing it. He’d almost swung it, though that would have likely only shattered the steel. Trying to clear his head, he let the sword fall and reached for his tools.

On realizing his companion’s plan Quellan took out his mace and went to work on the stone face showing pain. He felt a jolt ring up his arm as he struck it, but nothing otherwise as he started methodically smashing the carving. Martial notes filled the air as Glori, realizing she had nothing useful for stone-crushing, strummed her lute. The song was evocative of the march she’d played that morning, the orderly structure of its melody helping to counter the discordant effects of the masks. Within a few moments her companions’ blows all synchronized to the music, a regular harmonic beat that was offset by the patter of shards bouncing off the walls or floor.

The stone faces might have lasted for centuries, but against the determined assault of three strong men they could not stand. Kosk was the first to complete his destruction, but as his mask shattered into fragments a pulse of mental energy erupted through the room. All four adventurers staggered back, clutching their heads.

“What… what was that?” Glori asked.

“Maybe… maybe the energy of the spell being discharged?” Quellan ventured. “Can you leave?”

Glori was nearest the exit, and she crossed to it in a flash. “No,” she said after a moment.

“More work to do, then,” Kosk muttered, lifting his staff again.

“Wait, just wait!” Quellan said. “I’m not sure how many of those pulses we can withstand.”

“You can get out,” the monk said. “Go wait outside, if you can’t handle it.”

“It’s not that I can’t handle it,” the half-orc said.

Glori idly dropped a hand to her lute, and as her fingertips brushed the strings Kosk turned to her. “And you can lay off that bloody racket! I can’t hear myself bloody think with all the noise you make!”

“It’s not my fault you have the artistic perceptions of a toadstool!” Glori shot back.

“You’re starting to get on my nerves!” Kosk shouted. Without realizing it he’d taken a step closer to her, leaving just a narrow gap between them.

“Leave her alone!” Quellan roared.

Bredan let out a wild yell and threw himself back at his mask with a fury that briefly shocked the others out of their argument. With a chisel in one hand and a small hammer in the other he rained down blows on the stone face. Dust swirled into his face and covered his clothes, and for a moment he could hardly see, but he kept on delivering precise strikes. Before any of the others could intervene there was another loud, ominous crack, and they all tensed in anticipation of another wave of pain. That pulse came, but it was weaker this time and its effects quickly faded.

Bredan was already staggering toward the next mask, looking like some sort of ghoul with the pale dust covering his upper body, but before he could resume his attack Quellan intervened. “Wait… I think that might be it,” he said. “Try it now.”

Glori ventured to the exit once more, and this time she was able to step into the far passage without difficulty. “It’s okay,” she said. “It worked.”

“That…” Quellan said. “It was just the magic, it wasn’t us.”

“I know,” Glori said, with a look at Kosk. The monk was holding onto his staff tightly, staring down at his fists clenched around the wooden shaft. The others all watched him until he let out a breath and let his hands fall. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“No harm done,” Glori said.

Bredan took a steadying breath of his own as he replaced his tools in their case. He started toward his sword, but Kosk beat him to it. The smith looked suspicious for a moment as the dwarf lifted his weapon, but Kosk only slid it back into its scabbard and offered it to him. “Well done,” he said.

“Thanks,” Bredan said as he accepted the sword. He started to move past the dwarf, but Kosk interrupted him by asking, “Was it my face you saw? When you were smashing the stone?”

Bredan’s face cracked into a small smile. “Maybe.”

“Let’s get out of here, okay?” Quellan suggested.

“Aye, let’s see what other creative ways these Barat bastards have to try to kill us,” Kosk said.

They left the room but did not get very far. The new passage only extended for about twenty feet before it turned suddenly and ended in a solid wall.

“Um… dead end?” Glori asked.

“Don’t give up so easy,” Kosk said. He slipped past Quellan and examined the wall, running his fingertips over the surface. “This was built later than the rest of the place. Masonry work, and done in a hurry I’d guess.” He flicked a piece of mortar clear with his thumbnail and gave the wall a tap with his staff. “I expect the boy could chip us a passage fairly quick.”

“I wonder who built it, and why?” Glori asked. “To keep folks out… or to keep something in?”

“Like what?” Bredan asked. “Some kind of monster? Another guardian?”

“There’s no way of knowing,” Quellan said. “But the fact that someone went through this amount of effort suggests that there’s [/i]something[/i] important behind this wall.”

Kosk shrugged. “None of that matters. If we’re going to do what we came here to do it’s an obstacle we need to get through. So unless you want me to do it, time to start hammering, boy.”

The others stepped back and Bredan went to work. The hammer and chisel made a lot of noise, but after the ruckus they’d made back in the entrance chamber they were less worried about drawing unwanted attention. Even so, they took turns keeping an eye on the passage behind them. When Bredan finally knocked an opening through the wall with a clatter of stones they all tensed, half expecting something to jump out at them, but only darkness and stale air greeted them. Working together they quickly widened the breach until it was wide enough for Quellan to slip through. The half-orc bent low and squeezed through the opening, then made room for the others to follow behind.

The passage on the far side of the wall quickly gave way to a narrow stone staircase that wound deeper into the interior of the bluff. Quellan led the way, his torch held high to brighten the way for the others.

The stone steps descended steeply, twisting around upon themselves until they abruptly ended at a landing roughly ten feet square. The small room appeared to be empty, but Quellan’s torch revealed another passage that exited opposite the stairs.

The half-orc paused and glanced back to confirm that his companions were still close behind. Everything seemed well, but as he stepped off the bottom stair onto the floor of the anteroom a demon materialized in front of him and attacked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 20

The demon only came to half the cleric’s height, but what it lacked in size it made up for in ferocity. It had a hideous appearance, its form roughly humanoid but bloated and bulbous with a sickly gray hide that was covered in oozing sores. Its face was dominated by sagging jaws, and its arms ended in oversized claws that tore into the cleric’s legs before he could get his shield around in defense.

Quellan reflexively smacked it with the torch, but the flames were about as effective as they had been against the fiendish badger earlier. He tried to pull free, but despite his considerable strength the demon held on with a furious will, burying its claws deeper into the cleric’s legs.

With a roar of challenge Kosk leapt off the stairs to come to his friend’s aid. His foot sank deep into the demon’s spongy flesh, but the impact finally knocked it clear of its victim. The fiend flailed for balance before striking the wall of the room, where it stuck there for a moment before it pulled itself free and started forward again.

Quellan tossed his shield down and pulled out his mace, but even as he turned toward the demon their situation grew more difficult. As soon as Kosk’s feet touched the floor a second demon identical to the first appeared in a puff of black smoke right in front of the dwarf. It too immediately attacked. Kosk drove his staff into its belly, but it simply absorbed the impact and lashed out with a claw that drew bloody gashes across the monk’s forearm.

Glori had her bow out but couldn’t get a clear shot with the bulk of the cleric blocking the bottom of the staircase. Bredan pushed past her, his sword in his hand, but even as he started down the last few steps Quellan yelled, “Don’t leave the stairs! More of them may appear!” Bredan caught himself just in time, grabbing hold of the adjacent wall for balance. His boot swung out over the last step before it found stable purchase again on the bottom step. With both demons out of reach he retreated back a few steps before reaching for his crossbow.

Quellan met the first demon’s renewed charge, smashing it in the head. The blow would have crushed the skull of a normal creature, and it did stagger the demon, but somehow it still clung to life. It lunged at him again, its claws scraping on the iron scales protecting the cleric’s torso.

Kosk grimaced as blood seeped into the sleeve of his robe. The demon kept pressing him, trying to drag the monk into an embrace where its oversized claws could shred his unarmored body to ribbons. Having learned that its bloated body could absorb impacts he used his staff to keep it at bay, delivering sharp cracks to its face that soon left its already sagging features shattered. For a moment it seemed to fall back, but that was only to collect itself for another leap. With a corner of the room at his back it didn’t look like there was anywhere for the monk to go.

But even as Kosk planted his feet there was a sharp thwip as an arrow from Glori’s bow sank into the demon’s throat. The creature let out an ugly hiss, which became a squeal as Kosk knocked its stubby legs out from under it and drove his staff down into its face with enough force to crush what was left of its brains. The demon’s limbs twitched and then it fell still.

A pace away Quellan had likewise gained the advantage over his adversary. The demon kept attacking despite its injuries, but it just couldn’t overcome the discrepancies of size and strength. Even as it came in again, trying to get a fresh hold on its opponent’s leg the cleric kicked it hard, lifting it into the air and driving it to the hard ground. The demon sprang up quickly from even that rough treatment, but it was only to take a truly crushing blow from Quellan’s mace that relocated its head to roughly the center of its torso. With a final hissing sound it crumpled to the floor.

Bredan raised his bow, having finally gotten the weapon loaded, only to see that the fight was over.

“You’re bleeding,” Glori said as Quellan turned around. Instinct had her reaching for her lyre and starting down the steps before both Bredan caught her. “It’s still dangerous,” he said.

“I will be fine,” Quellan said, invoking another cure wounds spell. As the healing energies flowed through him the bleeding stopped and he let out a steadying breath; the demon’s claws had bitten deep.

The cleric went over to Kosk, who was staring down at the demon he’d slain. The creature was deflating like a waterskin with a deep puncture, and as they watched the thing dissolved into black wisps that quickly faded into nothing. “You should get that treated,” Quellan said, indicating the dwarf’s bloody arm. “My ability to channel the god’s power to heal is spent for the day, but you have the potion, or maybe Glori can—”

“It can wait until you figure out what caused those demons to appear, and whether more of them will pop in when those two come off those steps,” the dwarf said.

Quellan nodded. He tucked his mace back into his belt and held out the torch to play the light out over the floor and walls. He didn’t see anything at first, but after a moment he lifted his free hand and invoked the power of his patron. At his call a cool, steady light erupted from the palm of his hand. When he lowered his hand and that glow shone upon the floor faint silvery runes became visible, a spiral pattern of them that covered most of the surface of the room.

“What is that, some sort of spell diagram?” Glori asked.

“I would presume so,” the cleric said.

“Can you dispel it?” Kosk asked.

Quellan studied the runes for a long moment, then shook his head. “I don’t have that kind of power. But maybe if we disrupt the pattern…”

Kosk nodded. “Your tools, boy. Mind you, stay up there, just toss them to me.”

It only took a few moments for Bredan to get out his hammer and chisel, and a moment later the dwarf was kneeling on the floor where the first demon had appeared. He picked out a spot and random and delivered a hard blow that sent a tiny chip of stone flying. Focusing on the task, Kosk went to work methodically widening the mark.

“What were those things?” Glori asked while they waited.

“Manes,” Quellan said. “The least among demon-kind.”

“Those were the weakest?” Bredan asked with incredulity. “If that’s true, I hope we don’t run into any stronger ones.”

After a moment Kosk got up and started to wipe his brow before remembering that his sleeve was still soaked with blood. He’d cut six gouges in the floor, ruining the spiral pattern of the runes. “Do you think that did it?” he asked the cleric.

“I have no way of knowing,” Quellan said.

“Only one way to find out,” Glori said, but even as she started forward Bredan interjected, “No, let me go.” The bard frowned at his back but didn’t challenge him as he drew his sword and descended to the last step of the staircase. Quellan and Kosk each readied their weapons and stepped back to give the young smith room as he took a deep breath and stepped forward onto the edge of the pattern. When nothing happened they all let out a breath.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Glori said.

“Good thing to keep in mind, though, that a stray step in this place could mean death,” Kosk pointed out. He turned to Quellan as the cleric recovered his shield. The light still shone from his hand, though it dimmed as he closed his fist around the grip of the shield. “If you’re going to stay in the lead, you should give that torch to someone else.”

“I’ll take it,” Glori said.

“I should take it, it’s for my benefit,” Bredan said. “The rest of you don’t have any trouble seeing in the dark.”

“You need your hands free to swing that huge chopper of yours,” Glori said.

“I haven’t had much chance to swing it yet.”

“You killed the badger,” Glori said.

“I hate to interrupt this scintillating conversation, but we do have a cursed, trap-filled dungeon to clear out,” Kosk said. “Take the damn torch and let’s keep moving.”

Glori took the torch and stuck her tongue out at the dwarf’s back as he turned, drawing a grin from Bredan. With the burning brand holding the enveloping darkness tentatively at bay the companions set out again to confront whatever other surprises the long-dead architects of this place had created for them.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 21

They followed the passage that led out from the demon room for about twenty feet before it split, with a side-fork leading off to the left. Quellan chose that direction without discussion, and they made their way down another twenty-foot segment of corridor before it came to an end in front of an imposing-looking stone door.

Glori and the torch were back behind Quellan’s considerable bulk, so the cleric raised his hand and unleashed another beam of light to illuminate the portal. It looked to be a single massive slab of granite, attached to its threshold on giant stone pins rather than hinges. The cleric squeezed to the side so the others could see.

“That doesn’t look very promising,” Glori said. “Should we try the other way?”

“Might as well see if it’s locked while we’re here,” Kosk said. He finished his inspection and then smacked his hands together before positioning himself so his back was at the door and he could push off the threshold and the adjacent wall. “Maybe you’d better give me a hand, boy,” he said.

“I have a name,” Bredan muttered, but he came forward to assist the dwarf. With their disparity in size they were both able to apply their strength to the door.

“On three, now,” Kosk said. After a glance back to make sure Quellan and Glori were ready he said, “One, two, threeee!”

The last word trailed out to a grunt of effort as both men put the full effort of their muscles into moving the door. For a moment it looked as though it was secured somehow, but then with a loud scrape of stone on stone it swung incrementally inward. With that proof that it could be opened they redoubled their efforts. The door seemed to actively resist them until it finally gave way enough to clear the thick threshold. Once it was at that point it was just a matter of time, as they could reach into the gap and use that leverage to pry the door open the rest of the way. It still took the better part of another minute to widen the opening enough to slip through.

Breathing heavily, Kosk and Bredan stumbled forward into the room behind the door. Glori was right behind them, her torch held up to illuminate the chamber. Quellan brought up the rear, grunting as he squeezed sideways to slide his large frame through the narrow gap.

At first they could not see much. The room was roughly fifteen feet wide and twenty feet long. There were no furnishings or other features of note, but as the light of the torch reached the far wall it glinted off of something metallic. A lot of somethings, in fact.

“What’s that?” Bredan asked. He started to take a step in that direction, but Glori stopped him with a warning. “Wait,” she said. She took out her pick and strummed a few notes on her lyre. The song was basic, just the beginnings of a melody, but the lyre began to glow. That glow was answered by an echoing radiance that formed around her, dividing into several motes of soft light that drifted forward as she continued to play.

“Woah,” Bredan said as the dancing lights slipped past him.

The lyre’s spell revealed that the far wall of the room was covered with iron spikes embedded into the stone. The spikes were evenly spaced a few feet apart, and covered the entire wall except for a small space in the center. Resting in that gap was a compact box that also appeared to be embedded in or attached to the wall.

“How much you want to bet that what we’re looking for, or something we need to get to it, is in that box?” Glori asked. She looked at the others, but it was clear that none were going to take that wager.

“There’s no sign that the wall moves,” Bredan said. “There would be scrape marks on the floor if there was some kind of mechanism.”

Kosk shot him a dubious look, but finally said, “You’re not as dim as you seem, boy.”

“He’s actually pretty clever sometimes,” Glori said. “I mean, not about books or stuff like that, but other things.”

“Gee, thanks,” Bredan said dryly.

“I’ll check it out,” Quellan said. But as the half-orc started forward Kosk interrupted him with a raised hand. “Better let me,” the dwarf said. “I’m better at evading if those spikes start shooting across the room or something.”

“Do you want my shield?” the cleric asked.

“I prefer not to get hit at all,” the dwarf replied. “Better get back out of the way, just in case.”

The others withdrew back almost to the door. Glori maintained her spell, keeping the dancing lights in the corners so they clearly illuminated the far wall without obstructing Kosk’s view. The dwarf went forward carefully, alert to whatever trap the Eth’barat might have set here.

But when he finally triggered the trap, it caught him completely by surprise. He was roughly in the middle of the room when from one step to the next the orientation of the room seemed to shift suddenly. Clearly whatever it was wasn’t just in his mind, for as ahead became down he found himself falling.

Straight toward the spikes that marched across the wall—now the floor—ahead of him.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Yikes! Very cool, a weird gravity trap :)
I just caught up again - great stuff! The group has their differences, but luckily not as aggressively as the bugbears.
Let's see how quickly Kosk van move...

Verstuurd vanaf mijn EVA-L09 met Tapatalk
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Thanks for the post, carborundum! This mod is a mini-adventure I wrote for a 3e group a few years back, I've updated it for 5e and I'll post it once (if?) our fictional adventurers make it through.

* * *

Chapter 22

“Kosk!” Glori shouted, but there was nothing any of them could do to help him.

Without anything to grab onto, there was nothing the dwarf could do to arrest his flight. He had a mental flash that he’d been stupid not to take a rope with him, or to toss a coin or an iron spike across the room first—anything but walk like an idiot right into the trap. But that insight lasted only an instant before it was replaced by a voice screaming warnings of what would happen when his body was impaled on those spikes.

Instinct had him twisting his body around, trying to catch up to the suddenly-changed sensory inputs. At the last instant he managed to smack a hand off the floor—the original floor, now a wall speeding past—and used that impact to spin around to face his feet toward the spikes. He didn’t have a chance to look down and could only hope that he didn’t impale one or both feet on them.

He felt pain as he landed hard, the pain of impact as his legs absorbed the shock of a ten-foot drop. He paid that price, accepted it as he forced himself to remain upright, not to roll or drop or do anything else until he knew where the spikes were situated.

As he got his bearings and the initial jolt faded he felt another lingering pain, this one a burning sensation that came from the side of his left leg. He looked down and saw that he’d gashed the limb on one of the spikes. Bright red blood was already soaking through his leggings and was starting to drip down onto the “floor” beneath him. But it could have been a lot worse; a finger’s length to the left and the spike would have stabbed right through his foot.

“Kosk, are you all right?” Quellan asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Stay back!” the dwarf warned, though the half-orc had only taken a single step forward. “The gravity shift hit me around the middle of the room, but it could vary for each person.”

Glori moved one of her lights toward the dwarf, but he waved at it irritably. Kosk grimaced as he lifted his bloody leg, then undid one of the fasteners that bound the wrist of his robe and used it to apply pressure to the gashed limb. The pool around his foot continued to grow as more blood dripped from the wound.

“You should drink your potion,” Glori suggested.

“I said I’m fine,” the dwarf growled back.

“We can toss a rope over and pull you out,” Quellan said. “But Glori’s right. If something else happens while you’re over there—a secondary trap, for example—we won’t be able to get to you easily. Better to be careful.”

Kosk muttered something under his breath but he took out the vial and downed its contents. At once the trickle of blood eased and the pain vanished.

“I’m going to check out the box,” he said.

It was strange, watching the others standing on what from his altered perspective was the wall of the room above him. Kosk knew it was he who was violating the laws of the universe, but to him it felt just as if the stone beneath him was “down.”

Putting aside such distracting thoughts, he carefully made his way through the spikes over to the clear space around the box. His injured foot squelched in his sandal and he left a bloody footprint with each step but he ignored that, focusing instead on the container.

Up close he could see that it was a solid-looking wooden chest, bound with strips of bronze that showed no sign of tarnish. The lock on the front was equally impressive. Kosk examined the chest for a moment then gave it a gentle shove.

“It’s not attached, it’s just the gravity effect holding it in place,” he reported to the others. He tested the lid. “It’s locked.”

“I can get it open,” Bredan said, tapping his case of tools.

Kosk considered a moment. “All right,” he said. “Let’s pull it out, then take a look.”

It did not take long to come up with a plan. Bredan would remain back by the far side of the room, well clear of the gravity field just in case something went wrong. He took some of the extra rope and wedged it into the narrow gap between the top of the stone door and the threshold. What remained offered plenty of extra slack. Glori and Quellan, holding onto the rope, advanced carefully to just shy of the spot where Kosk had started to fall, ready to grab the chest when it crossed the transition.

Bredan tied the other end of the rope in a loose knot to add weight to it, then unwound enough extra loops to reach across to the far side of the room. It was strange seeing the rope fly halfway across the room and then suddenly grow taut as the shift in gravity took hold. The effect seemed to be situated on a line that exactly bisected the room.

As Kosk took hold of the knotted end the rope hung in the air across the room, passing between Glori and Quellan. The dwarf quickly undid the knot and wrapped the rope around the chest, lifting it briefly so he could loop it around.

“Your friend’s not like any other monk I’ve ever met… or ever heard of,” Glori said quietly as they watched the dwarf work.

“Well, your friend’s hardly an ordinary smith,” Quellan replied.

Her eyes flashed over at him. “What do you mean by that?”

“Just that… well, he’s courageous. He obviously cares about you a great deal.”

“We’ve been friends a long time,” Glori said.

For a moment it looked like the cleric wanted to say more, but Kosk finished tying off the chest and gave the rope a few quick tugs. Bredan pulled on the rope, his strong arms quickly adding loops of rope to the pile growing at his feet. From Quellan and Glori’s perspective the chest hung in mid-air as it drifted toward them. It didn’t have that far to go, but the strange effect of the gravity shift made its approach seem portentous.

In the end, though, it proved no trouble at all. Glori and Quellan caught the chest just as it crossed the transition and started to drop. They set it down near the door and then Quellan helped Bredan pull Kosk over to their side of the room. They briefly debated taking the chest somewhere else before opening it, but given that every other room in this place had already tried to kill them they decided to stay. But just to be on the safe side they chose a spot close to the exit.

The chest proved as durable as it had looked, but after a dozen blows from Bredan’s chisel the lock finally gave way and it popped open. Despite the danger of still another trap the four of them crowded around to get a look as the smith carefully opened the lid and they peered inside.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 23

“No magic stone,” Kosk said.

“No, but it’s a good thing we were careful,” Glori said. She reached into the chest and took out several small vials that held liquid contents in a variety of colors and consistencies.

“Magic potions?” Bredan asked.

“Most likely,” Quellan said. He had taken another item from the chest, a tightly-wound scroll sealed with a blob of plain wax. He broke the seal and carefully unwound it to reveal neat lines of writing.

“What is it?” Glori asked, looking over his shoulder.

“I believe it is a spell scroll,” the cleric said. “Arcane, I think.”

Glori took a closer look. “Oh, the tiny hut! I know that spell. I saw my master use it a few times. It allows the caster to create a bubble of space that is protected from the elements and intruders,” she explained to Bredan.

“I thought you said you didn’t have any magical talent,” Kosk said.

“I don’t,” Glori insisted. “I couldn’t actually cast this, but I can read the description, obviously…”

“That’s more than I can do,” Quellan admitted. He held it up to the others, who both looked at it and nodded in confirmation. Glori’s expression became troubled, but she was distracted when Bredan turned back to the chest and reached inside. “Hey, what’s this?” he asked.

The object he took out of the chest looked like a dagger at first glance, but it was of very unusual manufacture. The hilt was made of two pieces of curved bronze that surrounded a core of pale green mineral. That “blade” extended out for about six inches beyond the handle, but while it was approximately shaped like a real weapon it ended in a snub notch rather than a point, and the sides were blunt rather than edged.

“It’s jade,” Quellan said. He handed the scroll to Glori and gave the odd dagger a closer look. “Some believe that the mineral can help to preserve the soul after death, and that it can add vitality in the later years of life. It’s used in burial rituals in a number of cultures for that reason.”

“Valuable, then?” Bredan asked.

“Indeed,” Kosk said. He’d been giving the dagger a lingering look, but when the others glanced at him he turned decisively and walked away. “Those Barat cultists wouldn’t have locked it up in there if it wasn’t important somehow. Pack it up and let’s keep moving before something else finds us.”

Glori had rolled up the scroll and placed it—reluctantly—in her pouch. “What about the potions?” she asked.

“Quellan can tell you what they are,” Kosk said. “He took a course at the monastery.”

“Really?” Glori asked.

The half-orc couldn’t blush, but he did manage to look a bit embarrassed. “Magical potions tend to have standard formulae that present distinctive features of odor, texture, and taste,” he said. “And even if that doesn’t work you can usually get a pretty good idea of the effect by tasting a drop.”

“‘less it’s poison, though I reckon you get a pretty good idea from that drop then too,” Kosk pointed out.

“Can you teach me?” Glori asked.

Before Quellan could respond Kosk said, “This isn’t a bloody seminar at the bloody monastery.”

“Maybe we’d better get out of here first,” Bredan added.

“Well, maybe one of those potions might end up saving our lives,” Glori returned.

“It’ll just take a moment,” Quellan said, carefully unscrewing the plug on one of the vials. In his hands the vial looked tiny and fragile, but he handled it deftly and quickly sniffed at it and swirled it before tipping a single drop onto the nail of his little finger and touching it to his tongue.

“Healing,” he said. He handed the potion to Kosk to replace the one he’d used. The other two he identified as heroism and lightning resistance, which he passed on to Bredan and Glori respectively. The bard kept looking at hers, holding the vial up to the torch so that the pale amber liquid sparkled in the light.

“Can we keep moving now?” Kosk asked. “I’d like to be clear of this bloody place before bloody nightfall.”

“I thought monks were supposed to be patient,” Bredan said. “That you can meditate for days without moving a muscle, that sort of thing.”

“Brother Stonefist has been working on his patience,” Quellan said. “Very intently.”

“You have no idea,” the dwarf muttered under his breath.

Taking their prizes with them, the adventurers retraced their steps to the intersection and selected the other fork in the passage. That route also ended in another door, though this one was even more remarkable than the last.

The door was a slab of solid stone a few shades darker than the surrounding walls. This one lacked hinges, pins, or any other apparent mechanism for opening it. The only obvious feature was a narrow slot set at approximately eye level, and as they got closer the torchlight revealed several rows of shallow runes etched into the stone above it, right below the upper lintel of the doorway.

“Are those dwarf-runes?” Bredan asked, squinting to read them in the weak light.

Kosk responded with a snort. “Hardly.”

Quellan summoned light again, and with the bright glow clearly revealing the inscription they all studied the strange markings. “They’re Draconic,” Glori said.

“Do you understand that tongue?” Quellan asked.

Glori shook her head. “I recognize the script, but I never learned the language.”

“I thought you were a scholar,” Bredan asked the cleric.

“Hey, how many languages do you speak, kid?” Kosk asked.

“I am reasonably fluent in a number of languages, but unfortunately Draconic is not one of them,” Quellan said.

“So basically if this is a warning, we have no way of knowing what’s waiting for us,” Kosk said.

“Would it matter?” Bredan said. “We’re going to open it anyway, aren’t we?”

“The question is how,” Glori said. She gave the door a rap with her knuckles. “Don’t think you’re going to be able to chisel this one down, not unless we’re willing to spend a few weeks here.”

“The jade dagger,” Quellan said.

“Not a dagger, a key,” Bredan said, catching the cleric’s meaning. He produced the device and slid it into the slot in the door. It fit perfectly, and after a moment the entire slab began to descend into the floor. The low rumble of some hidden mechanism accompanied the motion until the embedded key reached floor level, at which it abruptly stopped, leaving a low barrier that they could easily step over into the room beyond.

The chamber was even larger than the last, maybe twenty feet across and twice that in depth, with the far wall just a vague shadow at the edge of the torchlight. Once again Glori strummed her lyre and summoned globes of light that drifted out to illuminate the details of the room.

“Woah,” she said.

Like the room with the gravity trap this one looked empty at first glance, but the dancing lights revealed several distinctive details. There was another exit in the far corner, a stone door that was dominated by a macabre carving of a grinning skull. That was ominous, but what drew their immediate attention was the floor. The segments on their side near the entry and on the far side by the other door were plain stone like the rest of the complex, but in between them was a roughly twenty-foot square covered in a grid of smooth tiles about two feet on a side. The overwhelming majority of those were black, but six of them showed colors that had only slightly faded with time: blue, red, green, yellow, violet, and white.

“Oh, bloody hell,” Kosk said.

“It’s a puzzle,” Glori said, clearly excited by the prospect.

“How much do you want to wager that the inscription on the door is some sort of clue?” Quellan said.

“I hate bloody puzzles,” Kosk said. With a decisive jerk on his robe he started forward across the room. He gave the colored tiles a wide berth, selecting a row near the left wall that was entirely black.

“Kosk, wait!” Glori said, but the dwarf was already on the tiles, and he didn’t hesitate. It only took a moment to cross the tiled portion of the floor, and nothing happened until he stepped off the last tile onto the plainer stone on the far side.

At which point he was vaporized with an electric sizzle and a puff of gray smoke.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 24

For a moment the three remaining adventurers could just stare at where their companion had abruptly disappeared.

Before any of them could react further, there was another crackling burst of smoke on their side of the room, one that quickly disgorged a stunned dwarf onto the floor. Quellan was at his side in a heartbeat, but Kosk seemed to be all right, if a bit singed by his magical journey across the room.

“What happened?” Bredan asked.

“What’s it bloody look like!” the dwarf said as he staggered to his feet, shaking off the cleric’s steadying hand. “Another bloody magical trap!”

“Hold on, I’ll go take another look at the door,” Glori said.

“I can maybe clear the tiles altogether,” Kosk said, regarding the floor pattern with a suspicious growl.

“That’s twenty feet if it is a yard,” Bredan said. “You’ll never make it, not without enough room to get a running start.”

“I could get a boost from my staff,” the monk suggested.

“Look, just wait a blasted minute, okay?” Glori said. She turned back to the door, but Bredan stopped her. “Hey, wait, what if the door closes behind us?”

“Then I guess you’ll be trapped here for all eternity,” Glori said. When Bredan’s expression turned into one of horror she said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch anything.”

“I’ll go with you,” Quellan said.

Bredan hesitated, but before he could commit either way Kosk tugged on his arm. “Come over here, I have an idea.”

Glori stepped over the sunken door and moved aside to let Quellan pass before returning her attention to the door and the runes now just above floor level. She flopped down without feeling self-conscious, making sure her lyre was not in danger of being crushed before she scooted forward to look at the inscription more closely.

“Come on, you’ll have to crouch down to get a closer look,” she said to Quellan.

She was so focused on the runes that she didn’t notice the cleric’s hesitation, or the look that crossed his face before he dropped to one knee and bent low so that his head was close to hers.

“Damn it, I thought the room might jog something loose,” Glori said after a long moment.

“I think I recognize some of those runes!” Quellan said.

“Oh? Which ones?”

Quellan pointed to some of the markings on the door. “These here… this one, and this one. And this here. I read them, I think… in a book…”

“What do they mean?” Glori asked. She grabbed hold of his shoulder, again failing to notice his reaction.

“Um… I don’t… I think it was Tevran’s… no, it was Cheslan’s Iconography of the Soul, that’s it! They represent emotions!”

“Emotions?” Glori asked.

“Yes. See, this one’s envy, and this one here is anger. They repeat on successive lines. And fear up here in the right, near the start—draconic reads right to left, that much I know—and again here.”

“This one at the end, I think that’s pretty obvious,” Glori said, pointing to a rune that resembled a skull. What’s this one next to it?”

Quellan frowned. “I’m not sure, but I think it might be…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as he was interrupted by a sound of fast-padding feet on stone that was followed by a loud grunt of effort. The cleric and bard shared a knowing look but even as they started to get up they could hear a familiar sizzling pop from the room beyond.

They ran into the room to find Kosk lying on the floor again, with wisps of smoke just dissolving above him. The dwarf had clearly suffered from his second trip through the trap’s teleporter, but he didn’t look to be seriously hurt as he pulled himself up, cursing.

Bredan turned with a look on his face like a child caught filching cookies. “He almost made it,” he said. “I boosted him, he just barely clipped the furthest tile…”

“I am getting over there,” the dwarf said.

“We don’t even know if that will work,” Quellan said. “Maybe you don’t have to touch the tiles at all to trigger the trap.”

“Do you have a better option?” Kosk shot back.

“We’ve partially deciphered the inscription,” Quellan said. “Some of the runes represent emotions.”

“So? We’re not dealing with emotions, we’re dealing with colors.”

“Colors… emotions…” Glori said, turning away from the argument to consider the floor pattern again.

“Maybe that potion you found, the one that resists lightning?” Bredan said. “It looks like the trap hits you with lightning.” He pointed to Kosk’s robe, twice-singed in his passage through the trap.

“That still won’t help us get us past the teleport effect,” Quellan pointed out.

“Well, maybe we can try stepping on the colored ones, see what happens,” the smith suggested.

“I’m going to try the jump again,” Kosk said. “This time, both of you help me.”

“We don’t know…” Quellan began, but the dwarf cut him off. “Well, we’ll try this, and then if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else!”

“Glori!” Bredan cried.

The others turned to see Glori walking out onto the tiles. She walked straight to the white tile, roughly in the center of the room. She remained there for a moment, then took a deep breath and pivoted to face the yellow tile. The three men held their breath as she reached it, then turned to her next destination. She completed the pattern quickly, not pausing as she walked from green to red to blue and then straight across the room toward the far door. She hesitated just a moment over the final step off the tiles, the one that had gotten Kosk several times already, but when she did finally cross that transition nothing happened.

She turned back to face the others, a triumphant smile on her face.

“What was the secret?” Bredan asked.

“Emotions.” She pointed to the colored tiles. “Emotions are associated with colors. Think about it; we use them in stories and songs all the time. White to start with, the color of innocence. Then it was just following the order they appeared on the door. Yellow for fear, green for envy, red for anger.”

“But I never got a chance to tell you what the penultimate rune was,” Quellan said. “The one right before the skull.”

“Let me guess,” Glori said. “Sadness.”

Quellan nodded.

“And what about purple?” Bredan asked.

“I didn’t see how it fit, so I skipped it.”

“And how did you know to start with the white one?” Bredan asked.

Glori shrugged and grinned. “I guessed.”

“Clever,” Quellan said.

“Annoying,” Kosk said. “So what, we just step on them in that same order?”

“It worked once, anyway,” Bredan said. He walked out onto the tiles, echoing Glori’s path.

It only took a minute for each of them to complete the pattern and reunite on the far side of the room. The ominous door with its grinning skull offered another potential obstacle, but as soon as Kosk touched it the slab receded back a few inches and sank slowly into the floor. Unlike the previous door this one descended completely, leaving the route into the space beyond invitingly open. But the adventurers hesitated a moment, wary of what deadly surprise the long-dead cult might have for them next.

“Bloody hell,” Kosk finally said, striding forward into the next room.

It quickly became clear that they had finally come to their destination. The room was slightly smaller than the one they had left, an elongated ovoid that they entered at one narrow end. At the far end there was a crude table or altar fashioned out of stone slabs, and atop it rested a fist-sized crystal that caught the light of the torch and flashed it around the room.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 25

“Is that it?” Bredan asked. “The stone?”

“Yes,” Quellan said.

“How do you know?” the smith asked.

“It fits the description,” Glori said. “And what else could it be?”

“Didn’t the wizard say it would be hidden?” Bredan asked. “That the cult used misdirection?”

“It’s really the stone,” Quellan said. “I’m not sure how I know, but I can feel its power. It’s… remarkable. It feels like… home.”

Kosk shot his friend a dubious look. “Keep it together a bit longer,” he said. “What are we going to do about that?”

He pointed, and the others realized that they had missed an obvious feature of the room in their intense initial reaction to the sight of their goal. There was a design marked into the floor, a circle roughly five paces across in the middle of the room. This one looked like it was sketched onto the stone rather than engraved into the surface, marked with what looked like some sort of reddish chalk. The runes that made up the design were not in any language any of them knew, but their previous encounters in the shrine made them only more ominous.

“We should deal with that before we try for the stone,” Kosk said.

“We can easily get around it,” Glori said.

“Don’t you remember what happened with those demons?” the dwarf persisted. “How much do you want to bet something awful pops into that circle when we touch the stone?”

“It may not be that simple,” Quellan said. “This one is obvious, unlike the other. It could be breaching the circle that summons the guardian. Or it could be set to trigger on contact with the stone… but the circle could keep the thing in check. Summoning circles are often set up like that, to protect whoever is conjuring from the effects of the planar breach—or from the creature that comes through it. Planar bindings can often have wildly unpredictable effects.”

“So what you’re basically saying is that we could be screwed either way,” Kosk said.

“That seems to be the theme of this place,” Bredan commented.

Kosk glanced at him then returned his focus to the cleric. “Look, you’re the expert when it comes to magic stuff,” the dwarf said. “Just make a decision.”

Quellan paused a moment. “Leave it be,” he said.

They made their way slowly around the perimeter of the room, checking for any sign of traps or other dangers that might be a bit less obvious than the summoning circle. Glori strummed her lyre and again sent out her dancing lights, letting them drift around the room to brighten every inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling. But their searches found nothing amiss, and they finally ended up in front of the altar.

The magic stone was set upon a small pyramid of metal struts that was partially embedded into the substance of the altar. The artifact appeared to be simply resting there, without any catches or bindings that they could see. It was difficult to examine it closely, as every subtle shift and movement of the torch caused a fresh cascade of reflected light to scintillate off its uneven surface. A search of the altar uncovered no obvious mechanisms either on top of or under it, though they already knew that the Eth’barat had been accomplished at keeping such things hidden.

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Kosk said. He started to reach for the stone, but Glori stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Let me do it,” she said. “I’ve got the least fighting ability of anyone in the group. If something does pop up you should all be ready to deal with it.”

“Nobody thinks less of you because you’re not a fighter,” Bredan quickly said. “At least I don’t.”

“As long as someone does it,” Kosk muttered. He took his staff and headed around to the far side of the altar, where he could keep a close eye on the rest of the room. Quellan and Bredan moved to flank the bard, leaving enough distance to maneuver if it became necessary.

“It’s a good plan,” Quellan said. “Whenever you’re ready, Glori.”

She nodded and double-checked to make sure her lyre and bow were out of the way. She put the torch down on the edge of the altar, pausing just in case that triggered some kind of trap. But nothing happened, other than the scintillations within the crystal shifting again. She took a deep breath, and after one last glance at the others she reached out and took hold of the stone.

As soon as her fingers contacted the crystal there was a flash of light and smoke similar to the teleportation effect from the room outside. The smoke cleared quickly to reveal another creature.

This one was smaller than even the demons they’d battled before, though like them its flesh had a soft, runny look, like a candle that had been left too close to the fireplace. But this one was otherwise completely different; it had wings that it flapped wildly to keep it aloft, and its flesh was the bright orange of an open flame. That similarity wasn’t limited just to its color; its arrival was accompanied by a rush of heat that they could feel even from five steps away.

No sooner had the creature appeared that it flapped its wings and lunged forward. But it hit something, an invisible barrier that rebuffed it. It let out a thin screech and regarded them with an angry look. None of them missed the fact that the barrier coincided with the chalk circle etched into the floor.

When the mephit appeared Glori’s hand had clenched reflexively around the stone and she yanked it back. The artifact came free easily, but as she jostled the metal stand they could all hear a clear and decisive click from somewhere inside the altar.

That ominous sound was followed a moment later by an echoing snap from directly above them. The companions looked up just in time to see a trapdoor that all of them had missed swing open on the ceiling. Two oblong objects fell from it, plummeting toward the front of the altar, right toward where Kosk was standing.

The dwarf reacted faster than any of them. He lunged out and snagged one of the objects from the air. It was a clay jug, sealed with a stopper rimmed in wax. Even as he secured it in his arms he tried to swing around and intercept the second, but he was just a scant instant too slow. The second jug struck the front edge of the altar and shattered. Its contents, several hundred metal spheres each roughly the size of a grape, were launched across the room. They bounced off the altar, the floor, and the companions. Others hit the ground and rolled, quickly covering almost the entire floor of the room.

At least a dozen crossed the chalk circle that was keeping the summoned mephit penned in.

The creature reacted immediately, flapping its wings again to launch it forward at the adventurers. But even as they lifted their weapons to fight it the thing opened its narrow jaws wide and unleashed a gout of flame that engulfed the entire space around the altar.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Thanks, guys! I appreciate the feedback. I'm having fun writing this one.

* * *

Chapter 26

The four companions dove for cover as the magma mephit breathed a spray of flames onto them. But only Glori had good protection, ducking behind the solid mass of the altar. Both Bredan and Quellan retreated from the flames and got only mildly singed.

But Kosk had nowhere to go. The dwarf ducked and turned, protecting the clay jug in his arms from the flames. He didn’t know what it held, but he’d felt the slosh of liquid inside and guessed that whatever it was would only add to their difficulties. He quickly tucked it as far under the altar as he could reach and then rounded on the mephit, his staff sweeping up to intercept its attack. The iron-tipped end struck it in the body but it was only a glancing blow that inflicted little damage. The creature responded by lashing out with one of its hind legs, slashing into Kosk’s shoulder with its claws. The heat of its body caused the wounds to sizzle, and the dwarf stumbled and went down, scattering a few dozen of the steel balls as he fell.

Before the creature could finish him off Bredan lunged forward, sweeping out with his sword. He was moving a bit awkwardly, sliding his feet instead of striding, but that kept him from slipping on the steel balls. The mephit saw him coming and started to draw back, but the young smith still clipped its body with the tip of his blade. It wasn’t a killing blow, but the sharp steel ripped open a gash in the thing’s side, and it let out a sharp squeal that was now obviously a cry of pain. It fluttered back out of his reach, dripping gobs of blood that sizzled as they struck the floor.

Quellan immediately moved to help Kosk, but as he came around the altar the half-orc slid on several of the steel spheres littering the floor. He grunted hard as he caromed off the protruding stone, but as soon as he struck the ground he pushed himself up, crawling forward the last few steps to the fallen monk. His healing magic had been depleted in their earlier confrontations, but he didn’t hesitate to take out his own potion and pour its contents down the dwarf’s throat. Kosk coughed and gasped but managed to keep the healing liquid down while it worked its magic.

Bredan kept pressing the mephit, sliding after it as it flapped awkwardly around the perimeter of the chamber. The creature could have escaped through the open door, but either the magic that had summoned it kept it here or its anger overrode its fear of them. With the need to be careful moving around the smith couldn’t easily catch the more nimble creature, but the room wasn’t big enough to let it escape the long reach of his huge sword. An arrow flashed past it, narrowly missing its head, and it chittered an angry remark in Glori’s direction before diving to avoid another sweep of Bredan’s sword. But its escape had pushed it closer to the others, who were beginning to recover from its initial assault.

“You’re running out of room!” Bredan yelled at it.

The mephit spun back to face him, and let out a cackling sound that might have been laughter. Bredan frowned and lifted his sword, but before he could launch another attack he felt a wave of heat pass over him. Looking down, he realized that the heat wasn’t coming from the creature, or rather it wasn’t directly. It was coming from him, or more precisely from his armor, which had begun to glow. That glow quickly deepened into the familiar ruddy color he knew so well from the forge.

He managed to get the coif protecting his head off, tossing the glowing links aside even as they burned his fingers. But he couldn’t get the hauberk that covered his body from neck to hips off him, and he screamed as the heat seared through his body.

“Bredan!” Glori cried, as her friend collapsed. Without thinking she leapt over the altar and ran toward him, steel balls skittering away as she kicked them. Somehow she managed not to fall, but as she neared the fallen smith the mephit turned and dove at her. She had her dagger, but that seemed a pathetic weapon against such a thing.

The mephit extended its claws toward her unprotected face. In reflex Glori brought up her hands, including the one that still held onto the stone of the Eth’barat. The crystal seemed to glow in her hand, and against that radiance the planar creature was repelled almost as it had been by the magic circle earlier. It fluttered back, trying to get its bearings.

Something flashed in the air and struck the creature. The mephit flinched, and as it spun around Glori could see one of Kosk’s knives embedded in the sagging flesh of its torso. The wound seemed to focus its attention again, however, and it came again toward Glori. She lifted the stone again, but this time the little imp kept back and opened its jaws wide to breathe another spray of flames.

Glori flinched back, but before the creature could unleash its magic a loud roar from right behind her startled her and nearly caused her to slip on the unsteady floor. The mephit apparently was startled as well, for it aborted its attack and tried to swoop clear of the approaching threat. But it couldn’t get out of way in time of the charging half-orc who shot past Glori and leapt into the air after the fleeing creature. His mace intercepted it with a solid crack of shattering bones. The mephit let out a hiss and flopped to the floor, where its body seemed to collapse into a heap of what looked like bubbling magma.

When Quellan saw that his eyes widened. He turned and grabbed hold of Glori, thrusting her in front of him as he turned his back toward the creature. The bard tensed, expecting something terrible to happen, but the remains of the mephit just sizzled for a moment and then dissolved into smoke that disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared.

“Bredan!” Glori said. She pulled clear from Quellan and ran over to him. The smith was still conscious, but he was obviously in incredible pain. Glori took out her waterskin and sprayed its contents onto his armor. The water hissed into steam, enveloping him for a moment but cooling the armor enough for the cherry glow to fade. She followed that up with a healing spell from her lyre, the magic steadying his breathing and easing the color where his skin had been burned from contact with the hot mail.

“That… what was… that thing?” he asked.

“A mephit,” Quellan explained. “A creature of the elemental planes.”

“What… what was that about, with Glori earlier?” Bredan asked. “You acted like it was going to attack again, after you hit it.”

The half-orc looked embarrassed. “Ah, well…” he said. “From the accounts I’ve read, they can, ah, explode when they die.”

“Explode?” Bredan asked. “Remind me not to take any more jobs for wizards.” He grimaced as Glori helped him up, but he didn’t seem seriously hurt by his near-brush with death.

“Speaking of jobs, maybe we’d better put an end to this one,” Kosk said. The dwarf was moving a bit gingerly as well, shuffling to scatter the lingering steel balls out of his path as he came over to join them. His robe looked as though it had been shoved into a fireplace a few times.

“We’d better take a short rest first,” Quellan said. “Our resources are almost depleted, and we’re in no state to deal with any more surprises.”

The others all looked to Kosk, and for a moment it looked like the dwarf would protest. But finally he shook his head and said, “Fine by me.” He shuffled forward to the nearest wall, and with a grunt slowly slid down against it, then folded his legs in front of him and closed his eyes.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 27

After resting for about an hour the companions retraced their steps back through the shrine. Glori kept custody of the artifact, putting it in the special container that Starfinder had given them. That was a wooden box just barely big enough to hold the stone, with faint marks in silver filigree traced upon the panels. After lighting a fresh torch, they set out again.

They were wary of more traps, or another surprise designed to catch someone trying to depart with their prize, but the Eth’barat apparently had already thrown everything they had against them. But as they made their way back up the steps and approached the entry chamber with the now-ruined stone masks they sensed motion up ahead. Quellan whispered a warning back at the others, but they all knew that whoever it was must have already seen the light from their torch.

When they entered the room they found a familiar face waiting for them. Arras was examining a small steel axe that she’d apparently found under one of the dead bugbears. None of them failed to notice that she’d flipped the hulking corpse over on her own.

“You missed this,” she said, holding up the axe. “A minor enchantment, but valuable nevertheless. Fairly careless, I’d say.”

“Were they working for you?” Kosk asked, indicating the bugbears with one hand while the other kept a ready grip on his staff.

“Did you find the book?” Arras asked.

“What book?” Bredan asked. Kosk’s face twitched, but he kept his focus on the old woman.

Arras shifted her attention to the smith. She didn’t say anything, but after a moment Bredan flinched back. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Never mind,” the old woman said. “You can take your rock and go.”

Kosk took a step forward. “You’ll answer our questions first.”

“Or else what?” Arras asked. “Don’t bother, I already know the answer. And as amusing as that might be, I have more pressing concerns to attend to.”

“Now wait…” Quellan said, but before he could finish his statement the old woman made a small gesture and disappeared.

“Hey, where’d she go?” Bredan asked.

Invisibility, I expect,” Kosk said. He held out his staff and walked quickly over to where Arras had been standing, but found only empty air.

“Maybe a teleport?” Glori asked.

“If she’s that powerful, we should be grateful she didn’t want to stick around and chat,” Quellan said with a meaningful look at Kosk.

“Are you all right?” Glori asked Bredan.

“Yeah. I felt… it was like she was in my head, somehow.”

“Another magic spell,” Quellan said. “More powerful than I could manage.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Kosk said, and that time none of them disagreed.

The trail down the bluff gave them no difficulty, though they were careful to use their rope again on the descent. They found Arras’s camp empty save for some assorted litter; there weren’t even any tracks to suggest which direction the mule might have gone. They had only spent a few hours in the shrine, but they all agreed it might be better to remain close to the shelter of the bluff before starting out on the return journey. They still had a few healing potions left in reserve, but they also still had a few lingering injuries and the cleric and bard would be able to treat them the next day when they had a chance to recover their spells. Glori explained that the magic in her lyre functioned much like that of a living caster who could cast a certain number of spells each day.

Kosk went over every inch of the old woman’s camp and the surrounding area before he joined the others around the fire. She’d even left them some cut wood nearby, so all they had to do was refresh the pit and light it. Glori helped Bredan get out of his armor, wincing as she saw the damage it had done to his clothes during the mephit’s magical attack.

“I hope I don’t need to tell you to trust my instincts in the future,” Kosk said to them. He pointed a finger at Bredan. “If you hadn’t raised such a stink earlier, we might have gotten a chance to search the old woman while she was out, and find out what she truly was.”

“We’re still not sure what she truly is,” Glori pointed out. “And she might have just been shamming when you hit her.”

“There are some things you can’t fake,” Kosk said, but he frowned as he considered her words.

“The ends don’t justify the means,” Quellan said as he unpacked food from their stores. Their packs, at least, had been right where they had left them.

“Well, we got the jewel,” Kosk said. “You do have it, right?” he asked Glori.

“Yes. Don’t worry, I’m keeping a close eye on it.”

“It didn’t seem like Arras was interested in it,” Bredan said.

“Still, we shouldn’t let our guard down until we’re back in Crosspath,” Kosk said.

“I don’t think anyone will disagree with you there,” Glori said. She looked serious, but after a moment broke into a wide grin. “You have to admit, though, that we kicked that shrine’s ass.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 28

It was a dreary, blustery day in Crosspath. A steady drizzle had kept up for most of the morning, leaving the streets muddy but not quite sodden. Sharp gusts of wind occasionally swept through the town, rattling shutters and whistling through gaps in old boards. The few folk who were out and about hurried on their business, their heads down and their coats or cloaks tugged tight around their bodies.

Despite the unpleasantness of the day, the four adventurers lingered as they came to the intersection that would take Quellan and Kosk back to the monastery and Glori and Bredan into town. While each of them had known that their quest would end at this moment, the shared bond of their recent experience added a few extra moments of delay before their final farewell.

The meeting with the wizard had gone smoothly and was almost an anticlimax. Starfinder had not asked them for any details of their adventure, and if anything had seemed eager to send them on their way once they had indicated that they had been successful in their mission to recover the stone.

Bredan was still a little bit stunned from that brief encounter and reached down to touch his pouch for about the twentieth time since leaving the wizard’s abode. Inside was a linen purse that contained precisely eighty-seven gold and five silver pieces. He hadn’t counted it yet, but he had no doubt that the number of coins would be exact. It weighed just a few pounds but somehow it felt heavier. He couldn’t help but think of all the things he could buy with that money, but his resolution to hand it all over to his uncle to rebuild the Karras Forge hadn’t wavered.

That thought did remind him of something else, however.

Quellan and Glori were looking at each other, each of them obviously unwilling to put the words to their parting of ways. Not surprisingly it was Kosk who stepped forward first. “Reckon we’d all better be on our way,” the dwarf said in a gruff voice.

“Quellan I almost forgot, I still owe you for the crossbow,” Bredan said. He started to reach for his pouch again, but the half-orc forestalled him with a raised hand.

“Keep it. It may come in handy someday.”

“Yeah, it’s not like you needed it on this trip,” Kosk noted.

“I suppose this is good-bye, then,” Quellan said.

“Come on, it’s not like you’re heading to a different town,” Glori said. “I’ll stand you a drink at the Tusk sometime. Assuming that’s not forbidden in your order.”

“It would be amusing to see them try to enforce such a ban,” Kosk said.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” Glori said, thrusting out a hand. After a moment, Kosk shook it.

She turned to Quellan, but before either could say anything they all became aware of a commotion coming from the direction of the center of town. They could hear voices, some of them quite agitated, accompanied by a stream of people who emerged from the town square heading to the outer ring of homes and businesses. They didn’t look like they were fleeing some immediate emergency, but the looks on their faces were universally fraught with worry.

“What’s all this now?” Kosk asked.

Bredan saw someone he knew and ran forward to intercept him. “Kev, what’s going on?”

The young man was dressed in his working clothes—he was one of the hostlers at Cody’s Yards—but was clearly flustered. “You haven’t heard?”

“We only just got back into town,” Glori explained.

Kev gave Quellan and Kosk—but especially Quellan—a long look before his eyes yanked back to Bredan. “A whole army of goblin-folk has invaded the north,” the hostler said. “Hundreds of them, maybe thousands! Several villages were burned and a whole bunch of people were killed! The King… they just read his proclamation in front of the town hall.”

“What did King Dangren have to say?” Kosk asked.

Kev blinked a moment, as if surprised to be asked that question. Glori snapped her fingers to get his attention. “Kev… what was the proclamation?”

“It’s an order of conscription… the King’s raising an army!”

* * *

Author’s Note: when I first had the idea for this story I started with a module that I’d written some years back for 3e and actually ran for a live group. I’ve updated “The Shrine of the Eth’barat” to 5e and attached it for anyone who is interested.
 

Attachments

Lazybones

Explorer
Thanks for sharing the adventure, Lazybones! :)
Of course!

Here's part 3 of the story, continuing the meta-RPG theme. I'll post the Level 2 stats for the party at the end of this post.

* * *

Book 3: SIDEQUESTS

Chapter 29

Bredan stared into the dancing flames of the campfire and wondered if he’d made the right decision.

The rain had finally let up and it had actually turned out to be a pleasant evening. The lingering light of the sunset ignited the far horizon with a diverse palette of colors. The breeze that stirred the fire was mild, promising a relatively warm night. Bredan could hear the clatter of pots as Quellan cleaned up the dishes from the evening meal in the stream just behind their camp. Glori had gone off to attend to nature’s call, though he knew she would be close enough to bring the others quickly if something threatened. Kosk was seated across the fire, but the smith might as well have been alone for all the attention the dwarf gave him. That was fine with Bredan. His thoughts were distracted, and he mentally retraced the steps that had brought him back to the wilds in the company of his former companions.

The reaction in Crosspath to the King’s proclamation had been dramatic. Every time that Bredan had gone into town it seemed that it was the only topic of conversation. Among his peers there had been plenty of talk about signing up, taking the King’s coin and marching north to do battle with the fierce humanoids that had invaded the kingdom and slain the brave homesteaders of its northernmost province. From the tone of those discussions, many of the town’s young men weren’t even willing to wait until the royal recruiter arrived with the census roll and the pay chest.

Bredan hadn’t let himself get drawn into such talk. He’d been content to give his share of Starfinder’s reward to his uncle. The work of rebuilding the forge had already begun, and for several days Bredan found himself working from dawn to dusk and sometimes beyond. There was plenty to do, more than enough to leave him too tired to ponder abstract thoughts, but he still found his mind wandering. He certainly wasn’t nostalgic for the Dry Hills or the terrifying confrontations they’d had at the shrine of the Eth’barat, but it was difficult to lose himself in the mundane work of rebuilding the forge after everything that had happened.

His uncle hadn’t failed to notice the change. On the third morning after his return the elder Karras had taken Bredan aside. “I’ll be forever in debt to you for what you’ve done here, boy,” he said. “No, I suppose I can’t say that anymore. You’re a man now, and have been for quite some time. Rather too old to be an apprentice, I wager.”

Bredan had been too surprised to say anything. “I was thinking of taking on another boy when we get the forge going again,” his uncle had continued. “Business might be a bit slow this winter, what with so many of the younger men heading north. Not really enough work for two smiths.”

In hindsight, Bredan could recognize that his uncle had seen his situation more clearly than he had and was giving him a little push in the direction he’d already chosen to go.

He probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Glori had come to that realization before he had. When Bredan had run into her in town he’d barely had a chance to tell her about his talk with his uncle before she was planning their trip north. She’d bought some new clothes and a few other assorted things but still had most of her share of the wizard’s gold, more than enough to buy supplies for the long journey to Adelar. Though presumably they wouldn’t need to spend too much; the royal proclamation included a directive that businesses along the route north provide room and board to recruits that were headed north to join the King’s army. The royal recruiter might not make it to distant Crosspath for weeks, but it didn’t take Glori long to secure a signed and stamped scroll from the town council that included their names and a list of references.

After all the chatter he’d heard Bredan had expected that they’d be heading north with a large band of recruits. But when the day came the horde of would-be soldiers failed to materialize. The young folk he ran into offered various excuses. There were the demands of the upcoming harvest, family commitments, and a stated desire to wait for the King’s man to arrive before signing up. When he and Glori had finally headed to the rendezvous on the eastern side of town there had been only two others who were waiting to join them.

In hindsight, maybe Bredan shouldn’t have been surprised to see them either.

Kosk had looked fit to chew rocks on seeing them, but Bredan thought that Quellan had looked pleased. The cleric and monk were the Abbess’s response to the King’s proclamation. But just maybe, it occurred much later to Bredan on the road, the odd pair had had as much difficulty fitting back into their lives at the monastery as he had at the forge.

There were no gifts or elaborate farewells this time around, other than some bundles of food that Glori’s friends had prepared for them. It seemed like Bredan’s folk hero status had already faded. Or maybe it had been something else. He’d noted that the young men who had seemed so eager just days before had gone out of their way to avoid taking notice of the small company as it left Crosspath and set out on the long and lonely road north. Maybe they’d resented him because he alone of the men his age in town, the only one who hadn’t bragged of war and adventure, had actually set out on that road.

The first few days of their journey had passed swiftly and unremarkably despite the weather, which remained rather dismal. But they all had waterproof cloaks and good boots, all save for Kosk, who didn’t seem to care how dirty his feet got. For a time he even removed his sandals and walked barefoot, his thick toes squelching in the mud.

The north road was hardly well-traveled and they’d only met a handful of other travelers, but they also didn’t run into any bandits or monsters. On the first three days of travel their only potentially dangerous encounter was with a giant boar, but the creature ran off into the trees at their approach. Kosk had muttered at missing a chance to improve their rations but Bredan had been secretly happy; he’d only gotten a quick look at the beast but it had possessed tusks as long as his arm. They had passed through several settlements, but they had all been tiny villages or hamlets, nothing approaching the size of Crosspath.

A heavy trudge of boots through the mud announced Quellan’s return to the camp and brought Bredan back to the present. A moment later Glori appeared from the opposite direction and happily sidled up to the fire. Quellan handed Bredan’s iron pot, now clean, back over to him. They had so quickly fallen back into their usual patterns that it almost felt to Bredan like they were old traveling companions rather than near-strangers who had first met less than two weeks ago.

“How long do you think it will take us to get to Adelar?” Bredan asked.

Both Quellan and Glori started to respond; after a moment the half-orc shrugged and gestured for her to continue. “A week I’d say, maybe less if the sun comes out and the road dries out a bit,” she said. “We haven’t gotten very lucky with the summer storms thus far.”

“Winter storms would be a lot worse,” Kosk said.

“That is certainly true,” Glori said.

“Are there more settlements along the way?” Bredan asked.

Kosk let out a snort. “Miss your warm bed, boy?”

“There’s nothing wrong in preferring a bed to the ground, or a hot meal in a common room to trail stew,” Bredan said. “No offense meant to your cooking, Quellan.”

“None taken,” the cleric said.

“The locals out here won’t be welcoming to folk like us,” Kosk said. “Out here in the wilds, strangers mean potential danger.”

Bredan hadn’t missed the looks they’d gotten in the tiny settlements they’d passed through thus far, especially the looks sent the half-orc’s way. “We’re on the King’s business.”

Kosk snorted again. “Aye, and look how much that’s gotten us thus far.”

“It’s too bad we’re not in the eastern part of the kingdom,” Glori said. “In the Liir Valley there are towns the size of Crosspath every few days on the main road, with decent inns filling out the gaps. Between the King’s writ and my own skills, I doubt we’d have paid for a room or a meal the entire trip north.”

“Might as well wish for a magic carriage to pop out of the aether and carry us off,” Kosk said. “It’s only rough lands between us and our destination, with equally rough people living on them. Marks on paper or sweet songs won’t sway them, only hard coin and hard words.”

“As always, your words offer inspiration to us in our journey,” Glori said dryly.

“It’s only truth,” Kosk said.

“I wonder what’s happening right now, in the north,” Bredan said.

“Nothing good,” Kosk said.

“I know you see me as a smith who only plays at arms,” Bredan said. “But I do understand what war is. My uncle was a soldier.” And my father, he didn’t add.

“This won’t be like any war you know,” Kosk said. “Not against this foe.” He looked like he was going to say more, but he glanced over at Quellan and abruptly fell silent.

“Kosk is right,” Quellan said. “Goblinoids are not like the civilized races. They care only about raw power and bare self-interest. In that they are much like the orcs. I fear that the only resolution to this crisis will be the utter destruction of these invaders, with no quarter asked or given on either side.”

Quellan’s statement killed the conversation and the companions sought out their bedrolls. It was Bredan’s turn to keep first watch, and Kosk sent him a long, meaningful look before he wrapped himself in the thin drape that was his only protection from the night chill and went to sleep. Bredan hadn’t fallen asleep again on watch since that one time near the shrine, but on this night he doubted he’d have any trouble staying awake, not after the conversation they’d just had. He remembered the dead bugbears they’d encountered in the shrine. He tried to imagine one of those huge creatures alive and coming for him with an axe. The shudder that passed through him had nothing to do with the night chill.

Careful not to make any noises that might disturb the others, he took up his sword and moved off a short distance from the campfire to begin his vigil.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Bredan Karras, Human Male Fighter, Level 2
AC 16 (chain mail), hp 19, Str 16, Dex 11, Con 15, Int 9, Wis 14, Cha 13
Attacks Greatsword +5 melee (2d6+3 damage), Light Crossbow +2 ranged (1d8 damage)
Background: Folk Hero
Skills: Animal Handling +4, Athletics +5, Perception +4, Survival +4
Special Abilities: Fighting Style: Great Weapon Fighting, Second Wind, Action Surge
Equipment: Chain mail, greatsword, light crossbow and 20 bolts, light hammer

Glorianna (Glori) Leliades, Half-Elf Female Bard, Level 2
AC 15 (leather armor), hp 17, Str 10, Dex 16, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 8, Cha 16
Attacks Shortbow +5 ranged (1d6+3 damage), Dagger +5 melee (1d4+3 damage)
Background: Entertainer
Skills: Acrobatics +5, Deception +5, Sleight of Hand +5, History +3, Investigation +3, Performance +5, Persuasion +5
SA Darkvision, Bardic Inspiration, Jack of All Trades, Song of Rest (d6)
Spells (DC 13, 3 1st level slots/day): 0/Dancing Lights, 0/Minor Illusion, 1/Animal Friendship, 1/Cure Wounds, 1/Heroism, 1/Sleep, 1/Thunderwave
Equipment: “Magic” Lyre, leather armor, shortbow and 20 arrows, dagger, brooch of antivenom (3 charges)

Kosk Stonefist, Hill Dwarf Male Monk, Level 2
AC 13 (no armor), hp 21, Str 15, Dex 12, Con 16, Int 10, Wis 14, Cha 8
Attacks Quarterstaff +4 melee (1d6+2) and Martial Arts +4 melee (1d4+2), or darts +3 ranged (1d4+1 damage)
Background: Criminal
Skills: Athletics +4, Deception +1, Insight +4, Stealth +3
SA: Dwarven Toughness, +10 movement, 2 Ki points (flurry of blows, patient defense, or step of the wind)
Equipment: quarterstaff, 10 darts

Quellan Emberlane, Half-Orc Male Cleric, Level 2
AC 15 (scale mail, shield), hp 17, Str 16, Dex 8, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 15, Cha 10
Attacks Mace +5 melee (1d6+3 damage)
Background: Acolyte
Skills: Arcana +3, Insight +4, Intimidation +2, History +5, Medicine +4, Persuasion +2, Religion +5
SA Darkvision, Relentless Endurance, Savage Attacks, Knowledge Domain, Channel Divinity (1/rest), Knowledge of the Ages (gain proficiency in a tool or skill for 10 minutes)
Spells (DC 12, 3 1st level slots/day): 0/Light, 0/Spare the Dying, 0/Thaumaturgy, 1/Cure Wounds, 1/Detect Evil and Good, 1/Guiding Bolt, 1/Purify Food and Drink, 1/Shield of Faith, 1/Command, 1/Identify
Equipment: Scale Mail, Mace, Shield
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 30

Northpine didn’t look like much at first glance.

They smelled the village before they saw it, the familiar tang of wood smoke underlaid with the more tantalizing smells of cooking. Those smells added a spring to tired legs at the prospect of a lunch that didn’t come from their preserved rations.

The road took them around a gentle curve that navigated between two lightly forested hills, and then the village was spread out in front of them. It wasn’t very large, maybe two dozen assorted wooden structures scattered among a patchwork of fields full of ripe crops and pastures where animals cropped the rich summer grass. There was no wall around the village, but the companions could see the subtle signs of the frontier in the narrow windows and reinforced doors on the houses. Most of the roofs were thatch, though several larger structures in the center of the settlement had shingle roofs and actual glass in the windows, suggesting at least a general prosperity.

There was a crowd that had to represent a considerable percentage of the village’s population gathered in front of one of those buildings. A few men standing on its raised porch were addressing the crowd. The adventurers were too far away to hear what was being said, though they could feel the general sense of disquiet in the scene.

“I wonder what’s going on down there?” Bredan asked.

“None of our business,” Kosk said.

“Are you guys from the Baron?”

They all turned to the side of the road, where a human boy they somehow hadn’t noticed emerged from the shade of a tall oak tree. He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven, and was dressed in simple clothes that bore the usual allotment of stains and rips typical for one his age.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to talk to strangers?” Kosk growled. His growl deepened when Glori reached out and smacked him on the arm.

“We’re not with the local baron,” she told the boy. “We’re not even sure who the local baron is, actually. We’re headed north to answer the summons from the King.”

The boy looked disappointed. “Yeah, they said it would be at least a week, but I thought maybe you might be sent to help.”

“What’s happening here?” Quellan asked. “Why do you need help?”

If the boy was fazed by the half-orc’s appearance he didn’t show it as he hurried forward to join them. “It’s Caric,” he said. “He’s gone missing.”

“Not our business,” Kosk muttered, but this time the comment was barely audible.

“Who’s Caric?” Glori asked. “Is he a friend of yours?”

“He’s just a kid,” the boy said.

“As opposed to…” Bredan said, but Glori silenced him with a look. “I’m Glori, and this is Bredan, Quellan, and Kosk. What’s your name?”

“I’m Indel.”

“And how long has Caric been missing?”

“A couple of days. They sent word to the Baron for help, but they said it would be a week until we heard anything back, since he’s way over in Eastfork.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” Quellan asked.

“The local council. Come on, I can show you.”

It seemed obvious where they were going, but they let the boy lead them. Glori asked him a few more questions about the missing child, but Indel wasn’t able to add much more information. Caric and his mother lived together on the outskirts of the village, and there hadn’t been any signs of a violent abduction or an unfortunate run-in with some passing predator. Apparently such encounters were not unheard of, which explained the local architecture.

Their arrival created a bit of a stir. There were almost a hundred people gathered in the village center, and their looks of uncertainty and worry were not eased by the arrival of the four armed strangers. Indel walked with them, no doubt soaking up the adulation of his peers for being associated with such notable visitors, until a woman who was obviously his mother rushed forward from the crowd and pulled him away.

The villagers drew back as the adventurers approached, leaving an open route to the men waiting on the porch of what appeared to be the local inn. The other structures around the village core were typical and included a smithy, a general store, a small stone temple that bore the sun sigil of Sorevas, and a handful of houses. It looked as though almost everyone in the village was present here.

Many of the whispers that went through the crowd were accompanied by alarmed glances at Quellan in particular, but the half-orc pretended not to notice and led them straight toward the waiting notables. The local leaders were all humans, though there was a dwarf clad in the familiar attire of a smith in the forefront of the crowd who watched their approach with interest. Another man in a robe who had to be the local priest recognized Quellan’s sigil and whispered something to his neighbor, a young man in rich clothes who wore several silver rings on his fingers.

One of the leaders, a man in his fifties who wore a sword on his hip, came down the porch steps to meet them. “I’m Erron Laddrick, the local constable,” he said. “Who might you be?”

“My name is Quellan Emberlane,” the cleric said. “My companions and I are headed north in response to the King’s call.”

Laddrick nodded; obviously news of the proclamation had reached this village. “So you’re just passing through?”

Quellan looked at each of his companions in turn. Kosk looked sour but resigned, Bredan uncertain. But Glori showed no doubt whatsoever as she stepped forward and said, “Actually, we’re here to help.”
 

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