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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
You'll know it when you...hear it.
At first glance I wasn't very enthused about the Wild Magic sorcerer path in 5e, but after reviewing the surge effects chart I found a number of interesting narrative options to use in the story.

* * *

Chapter 64

Bredan, Quellan, Kosk, and Glori crouched behind the dense growth that cluttered the gully at the base of the hill, staring through the tall stalks at the ruin above. True to Xeeta’s word they’d managed to creep to within a hundred paces or so of their destination, but that remaining distance, a minute’s casual walk under normal circumstances, seemed much greater from their current perspective.

A bright flash appeared momentarily from the partially-intact structure in the center of the ruins, followed by a pulse of black smoke that thinned into nothingness as it rose into the air.

“That’s the signal!” Bredan said. He started to rise, only to feel Kosk’s heavy hand on his arm. “Hold a second,” the dwarf said.

“She might need our help…” the smith began.

“Hold,” Kosk repeated. “If the rest of them didn’t see that, then we might…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as a massive explosion erupted atop the hill, centered on the ruined building where the sentries had been stationed. This time there was no doubting whatsoever that the orcs would hear, as the loud rumble that echoed off the cliffs continued well after the ringing in their ears from the initial blast had faded.

“Oh, man, that can’t be good,” Glori said.

“Xeeta…” Bredan said. He started forward again, and this time made it a few steps up the slope before a shouted warning from Glori shifted his attention. Glancing back he saw her pointing to the cliff, and followed her finger to see what she had seen.

Even at a distance there was no mistaking them; the protruding snouts and piggish features were too distinctive. There were six of them, the orcs spreading out as they warily approached the ruin where a cloud of smoke continued to rise from the impact point of the fireball.

“Um… should we get their attention?” Glori asked.

“We have to keep them from converging on Xeeta,” Quellan said. He didn’t have a missile weapon, so he had to hold his mace and wait.

Kosk came forward and thrust Bredan’s crossbow into his hands. “Shoot the bastards!” he yelled.

Glori’s first shot was already on its way, and as the orcs turned toward them the first staggered as her arrow embedded in his side. But just as Quellan had predicted the orcs didn’t hesitate, lifting their spears as one and with a loud roar charging down the hill toward them, the injured one only a pace behind the others.

“Damn, they’re fast,” Bredan said as he lifted his crossbow, took aim, and fired. At first the shot looked true, but at the last moment the orc stepped aside and the bolt flashed past him. Glori’s second arrow embedded in another orc’s coat, but it was impossible to tell if it penetrated; in any case the orc kept on coming. She shifted to the side, moving away from the others, and for a moment Bredan hesitated, before Kosk gave him a shove and gestured to his empty bow. “Keep shooting!” the dwarf ordered.

But it was becoming clear that the orcs would be on them in moments. Kosk and Quellan stepped forward to confront the rush, their weapons at the ready. The dwarf drew one of his knives and hurled it in a flat arc that caught one of the orcs in the meat of his thigh. The orc warrior missed a step but recovered quickly and pointed his spear at the monk in promise, growing a challenge in his guttural tongue.

“More of them!” Glori warned. Her companions tore their eyes from the rapidly-closing orcs to see that another group of the creatures had emerged from the cave mouth above. Those three were noticeably larger than the others. Two carried massive bill-hooks, while the third wielded a nasty-looking flanged mace. They quickly moved to follow their companions into the fight, rushing toward the intruders in a steady lope.

But before the reinforcements could join their brethren they were interrupted by an attack from the interior of the watchstation. A barrage of scorching rays lanced out at them from the cover of the ruin. The first two rays hit the orcs armed with bills, but the one with the mace ducked under the last, the flames splashing harmlessly against the cliff behind him. All three orcs immediately converged on the figure that emerged from the ruin, the slight breeze rustling her charred garments and lifting bits of soot from her skin. Her spell of camouflage was gone, leaving her skin its normal tinge, as bright as a beacon.

Xeeta’s display of fireworks distracted Bredan, who cursed as his second shot missed wildly. His target raised his spear and rushed forward across the final interval separating them, yelling a battle-cry in Orcish. Bredan couldn’t understand the words but definitely got the meaning. He dropped his bow and unlimbered his sword, tossing the baldric aside as he cleared the blade from its scabbard. The orc lunged, taking advantage of the superior reach provided by his weapon. Bredan responded just as his uncle had drilled into him through hour after hour of practice, side-stepping and deflecting the thrust with his sword before pivoting into a sweeping strike. But the orc too proved experienced, as he anticipated the move and flung himself out of the reach of the huge sword.

Another loud blast echoed across the battlefield, this one much closer; Bredan started before realizing that it was Glori’s thunderwave. He didn’t even get a chance to glance aside to check the result of the spell as the orc rushed at him again. He could hear Kosk and Quellan fully engaged just a few steps away, fighting multiple foes. He’d only drawn one opponent, but at the moment that opponent seemed quite capable of demanding his full attention.

This time he didn’t wait for the orc to come to him, but lunged forward into an attack of his own. The orc, caught off-guard, nevertheless managed to poke at Bredan’s side with his spear. The head caught on the smith’s armor but still managed to pierce his side. Bredan clenched his jaw against the pain and slammed his sword down into the orc’s shoulder. The impact crumpled the thin plate of iron protecting his foe’s body and tore through the layered hides underneath. Staggering back, the orc dropped briefly to one knee before lunging again at his enemy. Bredan reacted fluidly, parrying the thrusting spear before driving the point of his sword through the orc’s chest.

Even as the orc fell, this time for good, Bredan’s companions finished off the rest of the initial cohort. The last one, his torso surrounded by the sparkling radiance of Quellan’s guiding bolt, succumbed to a blow from Kosk’s staff that hit so hard that Bredan could hear the bones crunching from five paces away. Both the cleric and monk bore wounds but they looked to be minor, and Bredan saw with relief that Glori appeared to be unharmed.

But that relief was short-lived as he turned his attention back up the hill, and saw that Xeeta was in serious trouble.

Xeeta had revealed herself on purpose, to draw the second group of orcs to her. The fact that the orcs had withstood her scorching rays confirmed that these were the band’s leaders, and as tough as they looked. They spread out to take her from several directions at once, wary of her magic.

They were right to be wary, as she touched her thumbs together and unleashed another burning hands. The orcs dodged back, but one couldn’t escape the wave of fire and fell, screaming as the flames crisped his flesh. The other two, however, surged ahead, no doubt expecting to take advantage of the lull before she could cast another spell.

They were going to be disappointed, Xeeta thought. The Demon was in her, and its potency was screaming through her blood. Drawing deeper upon her reserve of sorcerous power, she fired off yet another spray of fire, a quickened burning hands that tore into the two remaining orcs. Caught by surprise, both creatures were engulfed by the spell. The first was overwhelmed and joined his comrade on the ground. The orc with the mace let out a cry of pain as the fire seared his flesh, but he didn’t retreat or try to seek cover. The creature, a huge, hideous orc with one broken tusk, didn’t hesitate. He leapt forward, his mace sweeping around with a force that would not be denied. Xeeta had protected herself with mage armor before they had arrived at the ruin, but the spell was not enough to stop the mace as it slammed heavily into her chest. The impact lifted her off her feet, and for a moment all she could see was the vast arc of the sky before she hit the ground. Pain filled her vision with a red haze that blinded her for a moment.

When it cleared, she saw the orc standing directly above her, his mace already raised to finish her off.
 

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Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 65

Xeeta felt a cold fear clutch in her belly at the sight of the orc warrior standing over her, his mace raised to crush her skull. But before the creature could strike the feeling was replaced by a sudden, furious rage. It burned away the terror with its intensity, and with it came her magic, the full power of the Demon awakened by her brush with death.

“Burn,” she said.

And the orc burned.

Flames erupted around the warrior, enfolding him in a deadly wreath of magic. The orc tried to escape, to turn away from his fate, but Xeeta’s hellish rebuke clung to him, searing him until with one final staggering step he collapsed. The mace that had been about to crush the life from her body fell harmlessly to the ground.

Xeeta sucked in a breath and regretted it as pain exploded throughout her torso, scouring away the anger and everything else. She decided not to try to get up, which probably proved wise as a soft cough a moment later awakened new spasms of agony.

“Xeeta! Xeeta, are you okay?”

She turned her head—slowly, slightly—so she could see Bredan and the others rushing toward her. She saw the look in the boy’s eyes as he took in the scene, took in the destruction and death she’d unleashed. But she also saw concern as he knelt next to her. He was wounded himself, a red stain spreading under his mail.

“Don’t try to move her, boy,” Kosk said. “Wait for the healers.”

Quellan appeared a moment later, kneeling carefully beside her. “Where were you hurt?” he asked.

“Ribs,” she managed, though even that took an incredible effort. It felt like several sharp knives were piercing her body, but a moment later the cleric’s magic entered her body and the pain evaporated. She let out a relieved sigh, but remained where she was until the cure wounds spell took its full effect.

“Better?” he asked.

“Better,” Xeeta said. “Bredan, help me up?”

The boy offered a hand at once, and while she still felt a little unsteady, she was able to stand unassisted. “Thanks.”

“What happened?” Bredan asked.

“I had to stop them,” Xeeta said.

“That explosion of yours alerted them sure enough,” Kosk said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they heard that back at the village.”

“It… they were… my magic, sometimes it sort of… exceeds my expectations.”

The dwarf raised an eyebrow at that, but Bredan just nodded at the fallen orc and said, “Yeah, it looks like that guy found that out.”

Glori had moved over to the dead leader, and picked up his mace. “This looks unusual,” she said. The weapon was made of a dark metal that shone dully in the bright sunlight. “Better than the rest of their gear, anyway.”

Quellan turned from delivering a second cure wounds to Bredan to examine the weapon. “May I?” Accepting the mace from Glori, he gave it a few experimental swings. “It could be magical,” he said.

“Keep it,” Kosk said. “Nobody else here uses that kind of weapon. We should check out that cave, make sure there aren’t any more of them skulking about.”

After quickly checking the bodies they made their way into the cave. The interior was dark, so Quellan paused to enchant his shield with light so that Bredan could see.

Just past the narrow entry the cave widened into a cavern of considerable size. It was immediately obvious that the orcs had been camping there for some time. Their bedrolls were noisome heaps of rotting fabric and furs that even Glori with her eye for treasure wanted nothing to do with. But there was another exit, a passage of clearly-worked stone to their right that extended deeper into the cliff.

Kosk took the lead, though the passage only continued on for about fifteen feet before it opened onto another room. This one was only a fraction of the size of the outer cavern, and was almost empty save for three more bedrolls spread out around a cleared space in the center of the floor. It looked as though the passage had continued on at some point, though now it extended for only a few more feet past the room before ending in a complete collapse. There was another exit in the back of the room, a narrow, low passageway that only Kosk would be able to negotiate without ducking.

“Ugh, what’s that stench,” Bredan said.

“Orc,” Kosk said.

“No, it’s something different,” Bredan insisted, covering his face with his arm as if that could keep the odor at bay.

“Look, money,” Glori said. She pointed to a few gleaming bits of metal lying on the floor and went to investigate. In addition to a few silver coins she found a pair of dice made of ivory that she held up for the others to see. “Looks like we interrupted their game.”

“Back luck for them,” Kosk said. He’d moved over to the mouth of the cramped passage and sniffed at the air there. “I think the boy’s right. Something in here.”

Quellan came over with the light, which revealed that the passage extended for about ten feet before opening into a tiny vault. They could see the likely source of the smell: a pair of booted feet that turned out to be attached to a very dead man.

The vault was far too small to fit all of them at once, but Glori accompanied Kosk to check out the body. “Looks like the orcs killed him,” Glori reported. “I think he might have been a cleric; he’s wearing the sigil of Laesil.”

“Goddess of luck,” Quellan said. “It seems that his patroness’s favor couldn’t help him here.” He made a gesture of benediction and turned away, a dark look on his face.

“Whatever he had, the orcs took it,” Kosk said. He came back to the larger room but Glori lingered behind a moment.

“Should we bury him?” Bredan asked through his arm, still trying to protect himself against the stench.

“That would be a good gesture,” Quellan said.

“Hey, look what I found!” Glori said as she returned with a look of triumph on her face. She was holding a tightly-wrapped scroll.

“Where did you find that?” Kosk said. “I searched the body.”

“It was in his boot,” Glori said.

She unrolled the scroll and held it out so they could all see it. It was immediately recognizable as a map of the ruins. It didn’t show the interior of the cave, but in addition to the part of the exterior complex they’d explored it showed an additional structure atop the cliffs. There was an annotation there, “Suspicious hole – should investigate.”

The companions shared a look. “What do you think?” Bredan asked.

After a moment, Glori said, “I think maybe we should take our unfortunate friend’s advice… and investigate.”
 


Lazybones

Explorer
Sweet! Back from holiday to multiple instalments...and "piggish features" on the orcs. Nice!
Even though orcs have toughened up in recent editions and gone through something of a redesign, I always mentally picture them as like the Gamorrean guards from Return of the Jedi, who resembled the porcine guys from the 1e Monster Manual.

* * *

Chapter 66

It took them the better part of an hour to reach the top of the bluff. The sheer cliffs did not extend all the way around, but the slope was steep even at the more accessible portions and studded with loose rocks that would give way as soon as weight was placed on them. By the time they finally reached the crest all were scraped and dirty from multiple slides, though none of them had suffered any serious injuries.

“I was thinking about that cleric,” Glori said as she paused to brush prickleburrs out of her hair. “I wonder why he came here alone.”

“We don’t know that he was alone,” Quellan said. “Perhaps his companions were driven off by the orcs, or met their fate elsewhere.”

“Doesn’t matter either way,” Kosk said.

“Do you think he was connected in some way to… to that other thing?” Bredan asked.

Xeeta waved a hand. “This is where you change the subject,” she said. The tiefling looked as bedraggled as the rest of them, though her ruddy complexion showed less dirt than the paler humans.

Quellan came to a stop. He looked at each of the others before turning toward the sorceress. “No, it’s not,” he said. “Bredan was referring to a job we did together before we set out for Adelar. It was for a wizard named Starfinder, and it wasn’t that dissimilar from this mission. She was also looking for a source of ancient magical power, hidden by a cult called the Eth’barat that existed during the waning days of the Mai’i. Apparently they were all about stockpiling ancient lore in anticipation of the Empire’s fall.”

“Not that it helped them, apparently,” Bredan said.

“And you think that these Eth’barat were involved in this site as well?” Xeeta asked.

“There are some parallels,” Glori said. “An old ruin way off the beaten track, rumors of mysterious magic.”

“An obsessed scholar with a lot of ready cash looking for a few convenient adventurers to stick their heads on the block,” Kosk added.

“Somehow I don’t see Starfinder and Nordrum as being quite in the same category,” Glori said.

“For all we know they’re best friends,” Bredan said. “Or maybe he works for her.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kosk said. “We’re here, and it’s getting late. We should stop wasting time before we end up running into something we can’t handle.”

They made their way back to the side of the bluff that faced out over the ruin. They found another wrecked structure there, right where the dead priest’s map had indicated it would be. There wasn’t much left to it at all, just a cracked foundation overgrown with weeds, with stumps at each corner where it looked like tall pillars might have once stood. There were blocks of weathered stone scattered all over the site, remnants of the building that had once stood here.

“I wonder if there was an earthquake or something that wrecked this place,” Bredan said as they spread out to investigate the site. They couldn’t see the opening that the cleric’s map mentioned at first glance, but the tall weeds were thick enough to conceal such an entry from a casual examination.

“You would be surprised what the simple passage of time can do,” Quellan said.

“Nature is swift to reclaim her own,” Xeeta said.

Bredan turned to say something to her, but before he got a chance Kosk said, “Over here.”

They followed the dwarf around to the northwest corner of the structure. The weeds were particularly dense there, but they weren’t enough to mask the dark hole that extended under the overhanging mass of the building’s foundation stones.

Glori stepped forward and bent low over the opening. She thrust her head so far into the gap that Bredan started to reach for her before he caught himself. But no monstrous entity erupted from the darkness to seize her, and he reminded himself that she could see in the dark a lot better than he could. She lingered there a few moments and then drew back.

“Anything?” Quellan asked.

“It goes in pretty far,” she said. “I heard something, running water I think. There may be a cave or underground complex underneath all this.”

Xeeta, standing a few paces away from the others, thought she heard something and turned toward the bulk of the ruined structure. But there was nothing there, just the tall stalks of the weeds shifting slightly in the faint breeze.

“It looks pretty tight,” Bredan said. “Tough fighting in there.”

“I think it widens after the first bit,” Glori said.

“I’ll go check it out,” Kosk said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in tight spaces.”

“I can send in my dancing lights, see if there’s anything,” Glori said.

“No need,” Kosk said. He started to hand his staff to her, but then his eyes widened as he saw a wedge-shaped head covered in golden scales emerge from the weeds an arm’s length from Xeeta. The sorceress seemed completely unaware as the head split open to reveal gaping jaws dominated by two long fangs that glistened as they extended toward her exposed leg.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 67

Kosk threw his staff at the same instant that the snake lunged at Xeeta.

The improvised missile didn’t hit the creature, but the sorceress let out a startled sound and flinched back as the staff shot past her. The snake’s initial lunge came up short, but it quickly recoiled and tried again. It looked for an instant that this time it would connect, but its fangs brushed against the invisible barrier of the sorceress’s mage armor and rebounded harmlessly away.

The snake didn’t get another chance, as Xeeta finally realized the nature of the threat and beat a hasty retreat. She summoned a handful of fire and flung it at the creature as she fled, but the fire bolt was just as ineffective as the snake’s initial attacks.

But by then its attention was taken up by the lumbering bulk of Quellan as the half-orc charged forward. The snake hissed at him and make a probing move toward his legs, but the cleric quickly shoved his shield down into the uneven ground to form a rampart between them. The snake looked big enough to launch itself over that barrier, but the creature already appeared to be having second thoughts about the encounter. It turned from the priest and began to slip back into the dense knot of weeds from which had appeared, but before it could reach the shelter of its nest it was intercepted by a brilliant arc of steel.

Bredan’s sword struck it decisively a hand’s span beneath the dagger-shaped head. The sword clove through its thick hide like it was parchment, spraying droplets of blood over the ground as its head went flying into the tangled growth. Its body continued to coil and twist as if searching for its missing end, but within a few moments it uncoiled a final time and fell still.

Glori stepped around it and recovered Kosk’s staff. “You okay?” she asked Xeeta as the tiefling returned to rejoin them.

“Yeah. Thanks,” she said to Kosk.

Quellan knelt to examine the remains of the snake. “Ah. Giant golden viper. Highly toxic bite.”

Xeeta shuddered. “Do you think there are any more of them?”

“Large predators like this tend to be solitary, but there’s no way to be certain,” Quellan said.

“Maybe a whole nest of ‘em down there,” Kosk said. They all stared into the dark opening for a long moment, then the dwarf shrugged and said, “Let’s go.”

Kosk had no difficulty making his way into the hole; as Glori had predicted it widened once past the tight overhang of the foundation stones. The others watched—all save Xeeta, who kept a close eye out for more snakes—as he crawled to the back of the cave before dropping out of sight.

“Kosk?” Quellan asked.

“It’s okay, there’s a drop off here, but it’s only about five feet. There’s a much bigger cave down… ugh.”

“What’s wrong?” Glori asked.

“Bats. Better step back a moment.”

That was all the warning they got before a wild flutter of wings and high-pitched squeaks announced the arrival of several dozen bats that fluttered up through the cave and into the air. For a moment they swirled around the companions, but then they were gone. Glori leaned into the cave mouth, only to jerk back as one last bat flashed past her, squeaking as if protesting the invasion of its home.

“Was that really necessary?” she yelled down to Kosk.

“Better to clear them out then run into them while we’re in a hurry,” Kosk’s voice drifted up to them. “The cave goes on a ways, but I’ve found the source of the sound you heard. Better get down here.”

Glori shot a quick look at the others, then knelt and started wriggling into the cave opening.
 


Lazybones

Explorer
You do like to end on a cliffhanger

Come on, whatever went wrong crawling into a tiny cave?

* * *

Chapter 68

Glori had flashbacks to the tight confines of the kobold tunnels as she shimmied into the narrow opening, but she had no difficulty slipping through even with her bow and lyre. The same could not be said for Bredan and Quellan. Even after removing their packs and sliding their weapons in ahead of them the two had to squirm and scrape their way past the overhang. Quellan got stuck and there was a moment where it looked like he would not be able to join them, but with some prodding from behind by Xeeta he finally popped clear to where Bredan could drag him down to the wider space below.

Kosk helped Glori over the drop to the adjacent cavern where the bats had made their lair. She was greeted by the stink of their droppings, and her boot squished in something as the dwarf steadied her before turning to help Bredan.

“Eww,” she said.

Quellan had spelled a piece of wire with light to help Bredan, but even without it Glori had no difficulty making out the features of the lower cave. There wasn’t much to it, just an ovoid bubble in the rock with a low ceiling crusted with bits of bat hair and smears of guano. The rush of falling water was close, filling the confined space with sound, and she could see that its source had to be a narrow crevice on the far side of the cavern about twenty feet away. She started to sidle that way before Kosk cautioned her.

“Better wait for the others,” the dwarf said. Glori had to blink as Bredan appeared, the brightly glowing wire wrapped around the loose baldric that held his sword. She couldn’t see how he would possibly be able to use the huge weapon in these close quarters, but he’d left the awkward bulk of his crossbow behind and she could understand how he would want to bring more than a knife into these underground tunnels.

Bredan had crawled into the cave head-first, and he fumbled awkwardly over the transition to the lower-tier. Kosk cursed as he helped the human warrior get straightened out, a sight that Glori might have found entertaining if not for the potential death lurking in every shadow.

Finally Bredan got his feet under him and stumbled forward, almost braining himself on one of the uneven ridges of stone that protruded from the ceiling. Glori let out an exasperated sigh and took him by the hand, pulling him over to another part of the cavern that was out of the way.

“It’s times like these I envy you your body,” Bredan said. When Glori raised an eyebrow he quickly stammered, “I mean, that you’re so small. Not that you’re smaller than you should be. You’re a perfect size.”

“You should have quit when you were ahead,” Glori said. “There better be something down here, or Kosk will never let me live it down.”

“If there’s something bad down here, we won’t be getting out in a hurry,” Bredan noted.

“That’s the spirit,” Glori replied, punching him lightly in the shoulder.

With a grunt and a clatter of dirt Quellan appeared atop the ledge. Bredan went to help him, but the half-orc was able to twist around and drop down with considerably less drama than the smith. In his wake Xeeta popped through and slid to the floor with something almost approaching grace, reuniting their company.

“I am not looking forward to exiting this place,” Quellan said.

“Well, maybe we’ll run into another demon and we’ll all get killed,” Kosk said.

“Cheerful thought,” Xeeta said. “There must be a reason the structure above was built on top of this cave,” she continued. “It seems highly unlikely that the builders would not have been aware of it.”

“The water, most likely,” Quellan said, pointing to the far exit and the constant sound of splashing that filled the cavern. “There must be a spring or other underground source with enough pressure to lift it up to this level. Shall we investigate?”

“All right, but let me go first,” Kosk said. “That way I can help if you want to repeat your impression of a cork in a bottle of wine.”

For a moment it looked like the crevice would put the dwarf’s words to the test, but again after an initial narrow stretch the opening widened into a navigable passage. Bredan and Quellan had to turn sideways to fit, but they didn’t encounter anything as difficult as the cave mouth. The passage extended for about twenty feet, the sound of falling water building until it culminated in a ledge that overlooked another large cavern.

This one was several times the size of the cave with the bats. The source of the sound was a low slit in the wall that poured a constant sheet of water over the lip of the ledge. It dropped maybe ten feet into a pool in the cavern below. The light Bredan carried showed that the pool filled most of that space, though there was a narrow shelf of land that extended for maybe a third of the way around its circumference. They could see that there was another exit down there, a rectangular opening a step above the level of the water, too regular to be a natural feature of the cave.

“Well, well,” Glori said. “Looks like somebody was down here after all.”

“I can’t tell how deep the water is,” Bredan said. “It’ll hurt if it’s just a few inches deep.”

“Or if you land on one of those rocks,” Kosk said. The dwarf pointed out a series of low mounds that protruded from the surface of the pool, crusted white with mineral deposits.

“I’ve got rope, and spikes,” Bredan said.

“Look over there,” Kosk said, pointing to the far end of the ledge on the other side of the rushing stream. “That wall looks rough enough to climb down, and it’s close enough to that dry spit that we can avoid getting our feet wet.”

“Still a rough trip down if someone slips,” Quellan said.

“Fine,” the dwarf said. “You stay here and I’ll see if it’s safe.” Without waiting for a response he trudged through the stream. The water frothed around his feet, but he didn’t lose his footing and a moment later he was over on the edge of the drop. “Yeah, this shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

“At least let me get the rope…” Quellan began, but the half-orc didn’t get a chance to finish. As he started to turn around one foot slid into the water, and as the flow caught hold of his boot it slipped out from under him. Bredan reached for him, but the half-orc’s bulk was already dragging him down, and the smith had to let go before both were pulled over. Quellan fell face-first into the pool, striking the surface with another violent splash that actually managed to spray his companions above. The mystery of the pool’s depth was solved as the cleric stumbled up and managed to get his feet back under him, the water rising up to the middle of his chest.

“Is it cold?” Kosk asked. “It looks cold.”

Quellan shot him a look, then turned to examine his surroundings. He’d landed roughly in the middle of the pool, about ten feet from the edge of the pool and the other exit. He started wading in that direction, but after a moment he stopped, looking around him warily.

“What’s wrong?” Glori asked.

“I thought I heard something,” Quellan said. “Bredan, I’m going to create a new light, it’ll make the one you’re holding go out.”

“Okay,” the smith said.

Quellan touched his holy symbol to his shield, which began to glow softly. It’s light reflected brightly on the rippling surface of the pool, but it didn’t reveal any new threats. Several of the nearby mineral formations glistened in the magical illumination, as though they were studded with precious jewels.

Since Quellan was looking that way, he noticed when one of those formations shifted slightly. With a soft crack, a piece of one fell free and dropped into the water.

“Um, did you see that?” Glori asked.

The cleric was already reaching for his mace, but even as he touched the handle of his weapon another of the formations shifted and moved, followed a moment later by a third. Then, as if responding to some unseen common trigger, all three formations erupted, decades of encrusted minerals falling away to reveal what was underneath.

The source of the disturbance was three humanoid skeletons that rose up out of the water. Their bones, still glistening with the white encrustations of accumulation from the pool, clacked together as all three of the undead constructions leapt into the pool with bony claws extended toward the solitary cleric.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 69

The skeletons were too close for Quellan to evade their rush, even if he hadn’t been up to his chest in water. His companions above reached for their weapons, though they were too far away to immediately intervene.

The half-orc let his mace go and grasped hold of his holy symbol. As he presented it toward the undead creatures it began to glow with a soft white light. “By the Light… I compel thee!” Quellan cried, and for a moment the light intensified until it was twice as strong as a torch.

The skeletons quailed before that radiance. Two of them immediately recoiled and fled, heading for the edges of the pool. The last one hesitated, and for a moment an echoing pulse of reddish light shone within the empty interior of its skull. Whatever dark necromancy had animated it allowed it to resist the cleric’s divine magic, and it lunged forward again, a claw sweeping around toward his face.

But before it could strike a dark form hurtled down on it from above. Kosk held his staff pointed down like a spear, and the weighted end drove down into its skull like a sledgehammer. The dwarf himself followed a moment later, smashing through the skeleton’s body and launching a spray of shattered bones across the surface of the pool. For a moment Kosk went under, but then he burst up again, sputtering. “Bloody blasted cultists!” he cursed.

Quellan grabbed hold of his friend and guided them toward the narrow belt of ground on the edge of the pool. The skeletons had gravitated that way, and as they approached they again tried to flee past them, heading toward the opening in the back wall. The two adventurers intercepted them, Kosk shattering one’s leg with a blow from his staff while Quellan knocked the second back with his mace. The damaged skeleton turned back toward the pool, but before it could reenter the water it was blasted with a fire bolt from Xeeta. The flames didn’t have much effect against the undead thing’s soaked bones, but the impact of it knocked its spine just a bit off-kilter. The skeleton took a few creaking steps forward and then toppled forward, coming apart even as it hit the water.

Glori had her bow out, but there weren’t any more targets. “You okay?” she called down. Bredan likewise had drawn his sword, but on seeing that the dwarf and half-orc had things under control he’d passed on duplicating Kosk’s risky leap.

“Just peachy,” Kosk said.

“Hold on, we’ll come on down,” Glori said, tucking her arrow back into her quiver before slinging her bow across her back.

“Go ahead and secure the rope first,” Quellan said. “It’ll help when we come back this way.”

Bredan took out his tools and hammered in two spikes, one on their side of the rushing waterfall and the second above the uneven wall that Kosk had indicated as a possible route down. They all ended up getting wet, but without further threats appearing it was just a question of taking the time and care needed to negotiate the hazard safely.

Once they party had reunited on the shore of the pool, they investigated the opening in the wall. Kosk had confirmed that it led to a narrow passage that appeared empty, but he’d held off exploring further until they were all together. Alert to any further traps or guardians, they made their way deeper into the complex. Quellan respelled Bredan’s scabbard, shifting the light back to him to carry. The young warrior held the weapon aloft so the light clearly illuminated the stone of the corridor.

It was obvious that this part of the complex had been deliberately worked. At first the passage was rough-hewn from the stone of the bluff, but as they made their way forward it transitioned to smooth stone blocks that fitted together with barely a gap between them despite the lack of mortar. The passage ended about twenty feet from the cavern with the pool, with an archway that led into a vaulted chamber.

After tapping the stones of the arch a few times with his staff, Kosk led the way into the room. The place looked ancient, with a generous layer of dust covering the floor. Thick stone buttresses built into the walls arced up to support the ceiling twelve feet above. The ground was packed dirt rather than stone, and gave slightly as they stepped on it. The air was unsurprisingly damp, and lichens clung to the narrow gaps in the stone blocks of the chamber.

“It looks like maybe somebody already looted this place,” Glori said. She pointed to a series of niches in the walls, each a few feet deep with a shelf that could have held a small statue or other similar object. As Bredan came into the room his light revealed that all of them were empty.

“Tread carefully,” Quellan said. “There may still be active traps.” He turned to the left, where another archway was completely filled with a collapse that had sprayed rubble into the vault. He bent and picked up a rock the size of his head. “This place could be unstable.”

“Another way out over here,” Kosk said. They all came over to join the dwarf, who indicated an exit partially concealed behind one of the buttresses. It led to a passage much like the first, narrow but wide enough for all of them, even Quellan, to negotiate without difficulty.

“That was impressive, what you did with those skeletons,” Glori said to Quellan as Kosk did his usual check before starting into the new corridor. “I’ve heard about the power of priests to turn undead, of course, but I’ve never actually seen it done in person.”

“It is a potent gift from the gods,” Quellan said. “Unfortunately I cannot channel that power again until I have rested.”

“Maybe you won’t have to use it again, if you pay attention to what you’re doing,” Kosk grumbled from the passage. “There’s another room up here.”

After sharing a look Quellan and Glori followed him into the passage, followed by Bredan with Xeeta again bringing up the rear. The tiefling gave the arch a wary look, as if expecting a deadly trap to be triggered at any moment.

With his shield held tightly to his body to keep its iron rim from scraping on the walls, Quellan shuffled forward to where Kosk was kneeling at the end of the passage. Once more there was another arch, and a chamber that from their vantage looked similar to the one that they’d just left. The dwarf glanced up as the half-orc came forward, but didn’t move forward.

“What’s the matter?” Quellan asked.

Kosk shook his head. “I don’t know. Something’s not right.”

“Maybe we can have Glori scout it out using her dancing lights,” Quellan suggested, but Kosk was already leaning forward through the arch, carefully looking left and right to see if there was something waiting in ambush. The room was clear, but as he shifted his weight the stone block he’d stepped on settled with a soft and ominous click.

Kosk barely had time to register the sound before a massive stone block plummeted down from the ceiling, directly toward his exposed and unprotected head.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 70

Kosk had been expecting trouble, but he hadn’t expected it to come from above. He tensed, ready to spring, but the stone block fell faster than even he could react.

But a scant instant before impact the dwarf was jerked roughly back. The stone slammed hard into the floor and balanced there for a moment before it tottered over, dropping into the room with another loud crash. It was almost large enough to fill the archway, and had to weigh at least a thousand points.

Kosk remained quiet in Quellan’s grasp for a moment, both of them staring at the results of the trap.

“That would have squished me like a bug,” the dwarf finally said.

“Aye,” Quellan said.

“What’s happening?” Bredan asked. “What was that noise?”

Quellan let go of Kosk’s robe and the dwarf quickly straightened, adjusting the garment. “We’re all okay,” the cleric said over his shoulder. “There was another trap.”

“Yeah, just another bloody trap,” Kosk said. He stepped forward onto the block, using it as a platform to edge cautiously into the chamber.

The room was vaulted like the last, and likewise had niches in the walls. But these were long and narrow, forming depressions almost large enough to hold a person. Those horizontal slits were stacked several high, and most of them were bricked up, the mortar that had once sealed them crumbling from age and the dampness that suffused the complex. The ones that were open were dark slits that were deep enough to be ominous in what they might have concealed.

Quellan and Glori stepped to the sides as they passed through the arch, letting Bredan’s light spill into the chamber. It revealed that the place was roughly twenty feet long, culminating in a slightly raised platform dominated by a stone altar or table. The platform extended into a deep alcove that formed a rough hemisphere, a geometric oddity against the more regular lines of the rest of the complex.

Kosk stepped forward off the fallen slab. His sandals made a soft squelching sound as they sank slightly into floor; like the outer vault the floor was packed dirt.

“This place… it feels… dark,” Glori said with a shudder.

Bredan’s sword let out a soft hiss as he drew it from its scabbard. “How much you want to bet there’s another guardian here?” he asked.

No one offered to take his wager. The companions spread out slightly as they slowly moved forward toward the altar.

“I think there’s something in that round area,” Glori said. “Bredan, hold up the light.”

He did, and it revealed that the curving walls behind the altar had small niches cut into them as well. The light glinted on something in one of them, a small metallic object that had a distinctive greenish tinge.

“There’s no need to go over there and maybe trigger another trap,” Xeeta said. The sorceress had remained in the entry, standing atop the fallen slab in a half-crouch. “I can use my magic to bring whatever it is to us.”

The others had stopped when she’d started speaking, and when she was done Kosk nodded eagerly. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

The companions drew back to give her a clear line of sight to the alcove. Bredan glanced back at the wall behind him, where one of the open vaults was nearby at waist level. There was something visible near the end of it, just within the shadow of the opening.

He turned and lifted his scabbard to get a better look, but then a soft gasp from Glori drew his attention around.

The object she’d spotted was drifting slowly through the air toward them. He still couldn’t see what it was, exactly; it was roughly oblong and about a foot long, but it was crusted with a heavy green patina that masked its purpose. Verdigris; that meant that it was made of bronze. It was being held aloft by a translucent magical hand that cupped it almost like a real hand would have. Curious, he found himself moving closer without even thinking about it.

“Did you hear something?” Kosk asked.

Bredan turned to look at the dwarf. He and Quellan had moved to the far side of the chamber, and both were looking around. The mage hand had stopped moving, but when nothing happened Xeeta gestured and it continued pulling the artifact toward her. As it approached Glori stepped forward to take it.

But even as she reached out toward the hovering object she came to a sudden stop. She looked down, a look of confusion on her face. Bredan also looked, and saw the reason for her trouble: a sickly gray-green hand topped with yellowed claws had emerged from the floor and seized hold of her ankle.

“Monster!” Bredan yelled. He rushed forward, but was still several steps clear when the ground around Glori exploded and a creature surged up to attack her. The adventurers barely had time to register a humanoid figure caked with mud and huge slavering jaws before the bard was flung up into the air. The creature was still holding onto her ankle, and as it reared up it latched its other hand around her throat. The young woman’s scream abruptly died, and the monster pulled her into a tight embrace, its jaws opening wide to reveal rows of sharp teeth. She didn’t struggle as it twisted her head roughly aside, leaving the pale flesh of her throat completely exposed to its deadly bite.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 71

A scant instant before the hideous monster would have torn out Glori’s throat with those awful teeth, Bredan slammed into them.

The impact loosened its hold on the girl, and in that moment of advantage Bredan tore her from its grasp. He pulled her away. The creature recovered quickly and would have followed, but its legs were still embedded in the mud of the floor. It took it only a second to free itself, but before it could pursue its escaped victim Kosk rushed up from behind.

“Chew on this, ghoul!” he hissed, sweeping his staff into its back. The creature shifted quickly, and the blow only glanced off its side, doing little damage. The dwarf recoiled, choking, “Gods, that’s foul!”

“It’s a ghast!” Quellan warned. The priest held up his holy symbol, which began to glow with a bright light. The undead monster slashed its head right to stare at him, hissing in fury.

Bredan pulled Glori over to the side of the room. She was limp in his grasp, and as he laid her down he could see that her limbs and body were all tensed, like she was clenching all of her muscles at once. Her eyes were open and her lips twitched as though she was trying to say something, but no sound came out.

“Glori!” Bredan asked. “What’s wrong, what did it do to you?”

“She’s paralyzed!” Xeeta yelled. She cursed as the fire bolt that she hurled at the ghast flashed past its head, exploding harmlessly on the far side of the room. She’d had to aim high in order to avoid accidentally hitting Kosk. “She’ll recover, assuming that thing doesn’t kill all of us!”

Bredan nodded and left his friend, reaching for his sword.

Quellan launched a guiding bolt at the ghast, but the undead monster anticipated the attack and ducked under the streaking pulse of divine energy. The half-orc reached for his mace, but the creature was faster. It closed the gap separating them in a single leap, its claws lashing out as it landed. With one hand it seized hold of the cleric’s shield and pulled it down, and then the other flashed across his face, scraping over his helmet before tearing bloody red lines across his face. The impact knocked Quellan back, and like Glori he stiffened as he collapsed, paralyzed by the creature’s fell power.

Before it could move to finish him, off, however, Xeeta launched another flaming bolt, this one striking it squarely in the center of its back. The ghast let out a furious shriek and spun to face her, the violence showing on its face causing her to stumble back a few steps.

But even as it started toward her, Bredan stepped into its path. His sword swept out in a brilliant arc, the steel glowing in the light from his spelled scabbard. But the ghast sprang nimbly back, and the stroke met only empty air.

The two combatants faced off, each wary of the other.

Kosk came at it again from behind, his face twisted from fighting off the effects of its poisonous stench. But as he swung the staff the ghast twisted its torso and swept back an arm at an angle that would have been painful for a man. The staff glanced off its forearm before it locked its claws around the weapon and tore it from the dwarf’s grasp. The ghast flung the staff at Bredan, doing no harm but forcing him back a step.

Kosk held his ground. His sandaled feet ground into the muddy earth, and for a moment his face became blank as a look of intense focus flashed in his eyes.

Then he exploded into a blur of motion.

Kosk drove one fist into the ghast’s side, delivering a blow that would have shattered ribs on a normal man. Clearly even the undead monster felt it, for it spun around to face this foe, even though that left its back momentarily open to Bredan and Xeeta. It hissed as it raised a claw to strike.

But Kosk wasn’t finished. His arms moved like the snap of a whip, delivering a series of impacts that pulverized the ghast’s body. The creature withstood that assault but each time it tried to counter the dwarf was already moving to deflect and attack again.

Finally he let out a sharp sound, more like a focused blast of noise than a battle cry, and launched one last attack. His fist struck the ghast in the breastbone with a force that knocked it off its feet. It spun around and landed hard in the mud.

Driven by the unnatural unlife that animated it, the ghast did not stay down long. But even as it rose to its feet, perhaps a bit unsteady after the hammering it had taken, Bredan’s sword came sweeping down. This time it could not evade in time, and the blazing arc of steel tore its chest open from its shoulder to the opposite hip. For a moment it looked as though even that would not stop it, as it took a step forward and reached out a clawed arm toward the swordsman. Bredan drew back a step and raised his sword to a ready position, but a second stroke was not necessary. With a final hiss of frustrated rage the ghast crumpled to the ground and did not move.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 72

“So that’s what we came here for?” Kosk said with a frown.

They were all standing around the altar stone, with the object that they’d found resting on its surface. It was a bronze lamp, of the style that had a handle on one end and a long spout on the other where the oil burned. The lid to the reservoir was buried under a layer of crusted patina, along with most of the rest of the lamp.

“How should we know?” Glori asked. She still looked rather pale. She and Quellan had recovered from the ghast’s paralyzing touch shortly after the creature’s death. The two had treated the worst of their wounds with their healing magic, but all of them still had lingering effects from their battles both in and under the ruins. After the destruction of the ghast they’d all sought out the shelter of the raised portion of the floor, careful of disturbing any more traps left behind by whoever had built this place. But no more dangers had appeared, at least thus far. Kosk had gone over every inch of the altar and the surrounding alcove before pronouncing that he had found no traps or secret panels that might have hidden anything from them. The charnel-house stench of the dead ghast persisted, making the air in the vault unpleasant, but after all they’d gone through a foul stink was hardly worth remarking.

“I believe that it might be magical,” Quellan said. “It will take some time to learn more.”

“Let’s take it and go, then,” Kosk said. “You can look at it all you want once we’re well clear of this place.”

“We’re all beaten up,” Bredan said. “It will be just as hard getting out of here as it was getting in, if not more. A short rest might be in order.”

“I have a spell that can help all of us,” Quellan said. “Healing magic. It’s a ritual prayer that takes ten minutes to complete.”

“This doesn’t strike me as the best place to linger,” Kosk said.

“Bredan’s right,” Glori said. “I think we could all use a boost before we retrace our steps out of here.” She kept rubbing her arms, though it wasn’t especially cold. The scratches that the ghoul had torn in her neck had mostly healed, leaving just pale scars that were barely visible in the light from Bredan’s scabbard.

“We’ll need to make camp in the ruins above, in either case,” Xeeta pointed out. “Unless you want to make your way back to the village in the dark.”

Bredan shuddered at the suggestion. Kosk didn’t look happy, but he nodded to Quellan and said, “Best get it over with, then. I’ll keep watch.”

“You can move around and talk, but don’t leave the room until the spell is completed,” Quellan said. Kosk grunted assent and went over to the entry, stepping up on the fallen slab that had almost killed him. He stood in the arched exit as if daring it to try something else. Xeeta moved around the perimeter of the room, examining the open vaults that penetrated into the walls. She didn’t reach into any of them, prodding only with her wooden rod.

Quellan used his cloak to begin clearing a spot near the altar of dust, then laid it on the hard floor and knelt upon it.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Glori asked.

“No,” Quellan said. “I just need to concentrate.”

Nodding, Glori sat down on the edge of the raised area.

“Are you okay?” Bredan asked her.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“You did nothing to be sorry for,” he told her.

“I just… when that thing touched me… I just couldn’t move. It was like I was trapped in my own body. I thought I was going to die.”

“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Bredan said.

“I know. I’m sor—yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just that I’ve never felt that helpless before.”

“There have been many times since we’ve left Crosspath that I’ve felt that way,” Bredan said.

“I guess I dragged you into all this,” she said.

“I knew what I was getting into.”

“Really? I sure didn’t.” She let out a soft laugh. “It’s definitely been an adventure, that’s for sure.”

“Maybe you can write a song about it.”

“Yeah.” She leaned her head against the solidity of the stone wall at her back, and closed her eyes.

Bredan sat there a moment longer. The cleric was chanting now, a low string of syllables that made no sense to the smith. He watched Xeeta as she continued her explorations, finishing one wall before crossing to the other side of the room. He noticed that she’d moved past the niche where he’d spotted something earlier, just before the fight with the undead guardian had begun. She hadn’t stopped at that opening, or taken anything as far as he could see. Frowning, he got up and walked over to that spot.

The niche looked undisturbed, but as his light penetrated into the opening he saw something, a small flat rectangle. It was a book, he realized as he reached in and pulled it out. It looked old, very old. It was bound in leather that looked like it hung together more out of habit than anything else. Curious, he opened it.

The pages of the book clung together, but finally it parted to a random interior page. The parchment was in even worse shape than the cover, the pages cracked and crumbling even as he tried not to damage them further with sudden movements. But his eyes were drawn to the writing that covered them.

Bredan was hardly a scholar, but he’d learned how to read and write at a young age, and his uncle had even given him a few books of his own, mostly stories of adventure and magic. But these letters were unfamiliar. They covered every inch of the faded parchment, as distinct and detailed as if they’d just been written. He found that he could not look away, the pages swelling until they filled his vision, absorbing his full awareness. He thought he could just barely grasp the edge of understanding them, as if he could decipher the text if he could only manage to concentrate a bit more.

He was so focused on the book that he nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice asked, “What’s that?”

He barely managed to keep from dropping the book as he turned to see Xeeta standing next to him. “A book,” he said.

“I can see that. Looks old. I guess whatever was written in it has faded away.”

He blinked and was about to ask her what she meant when he looked at the book again. He almost dropped it again in surprise. The poor condition of the parchment hadn’t changed, but the writing he’d seen earlier was gone.

“Hey, are you okay? Maybe you’d better let me take that.”

He looked at her, then at the book again. There was no writing, no hint that there had ever been any writing.

“Bredan?”

“Um… yeah, sure.” He closed the book and thrust it at her.

She took it from him carefully. “Usually when a book is thus far gone there’s nothing you can do for it, but there are techniques you can use that will sometimes bring out impressions of what used to be on the page. Given the circumstances, there may be something important. I’ll bring it back with us, see what I can find.”

“Okay.”

“I did find something, though,” she said. She put the book down and held up a small bag, the leather in as poor a condition as the cover of the book. She carefully unfolded it to reveal a handful of dark stones that flashed in the light.

“Moonstones,” she said. “Very well cut. Should be worth a decent amount, once we get back to civilization.”

“That’s great,” Bredan said, still distracted.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry, just… a long day, you know?”

“I understand.” She nodded to where Glori was just getting up. “I think the priest is almost ready.” She took off her pack and carefully found a space in it for the book and the bag of gemstones, then followed Bredan back over to the raised platform and the altar.

There was no dramatic flash of light or musical tone to announce the conclusion of Quellan’s spell, but there was no mistaking when it took hold. Bredan let out a soft gasp as a wave of well-being swept through him, erasing the lingering effects of fatigue and injury. A pain that he hadn’t even realized he still had vanished from his side where the orc warrior had stabbed him in the ruin above. Glori and Xeeta likewise showed on their faces the effects of the curative magic. Bredan bounced on his heels and suddenly felt as though he could run back to the village without difficulty.

“Nice,” Kosk said from the doorway. “Can we go now?”

Glori turned to Quellan, who leaned on the altar as he got up. “Do you need to rest a moment?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said.

“Xeeta found some gems,” Bredan said. “Moonstones.”

“Cool,” Glori said, but there was still a cloud over her manner, stealing some of her usual enthusiasm.

“You can count your loot later,” Kosk said. “Less talking, more leaving.”

Glori took the ancient lamp and dropped it into her bag. “Okay, let’s go.”
 


Lazybones

Explorer
Oh noes, the book is eeeeevil! Glori is sombre just from proximity, now what?
*cue sinister laughter*

* * *

Chapter 73

The journey back to Northpine was uneventful, but they were all relieved when the rooftops and chimneys of the village came into view in the gap between two hills ahead of them. None of them had talked about it during the hike, but each had carried a small fear that the cyclops or some other hazard might have found the place while they were gone. The Northpiners were independent, hearty folk, but the thought of them facing the giant or a band of the humanoids they’d encountered did not lead to happy outcomes.

“When we get to Adelar, we should tell the King’s men about all of these monsters,” Glori said.

“What do you think that will solve?” Kosk asked.

“They could send patrols, or something, I don’t know,” Glori said.

“Bands like the ones we faced would just evade a large force until they leave,” Kosk said. “Threats like these are nothing new in places like this, where civilization hasn’t set down deep roots.”

“Well, we shouldn’t do just nothing,” Glori persisted. “If nothing else we should warn them about that giant being on the loose in the area.”

“We will warn the villagers, and pass on the warning in every place we visit,” Quellan said. “But I fear that Kosk is right about the big picture. At least we’ve eliminated several significant threats to the local communities in the time we’ve been here.”

For a moment it looked like the bard wanted to argue, but finally she let out a sigh and nodded. “You’re right,” she said.

They trudged on another fifty steps in silence, then Glori turned and looked over at Bredan. “You’ve been quiet,” she said in a low voice.

“I’ve had a headache,” he said.

“You should have told me,” she said. “Maybe my healing…”

“It’s fine,” he interrupted. “It’s not bad. I just need some rest. We all do.”

Glori drew back a step but didn’t press him. Instead she turned to face Kosk and Quellan. Xeeta, as was typical, was bringing up the rear, and she didn’t seem to share their eagerness to return to the village. She’d put her cloak back on, and the cowl was raised to its usual place covering her head.

Walking backwards, Glori asked, “Should we talk more about what we’re going to do with that lamp?”

Kosk shook his head. “What’s there to talk about? We give it to the sage and we go on our way. All of this has just been a distraction from our main goal here.”

“Yeah, I know. But I’m still not sure about this Nordrum character.”

“You weren’t so careful about the elf woman,” Kosk said. “And you’re usually the first to take a bag of coin when it’s offered.”

“That’s not fair,” Quellan said quietly. “I admit that the fellow is odd, but he’s given us no reason to suspect his motives. And my studies of the lamp haven’t turned up anything dangerous. As far as I can tell, it serves as some kind of focus or aid to divination magic.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” Glori said. “It’s probably nothing, just… I don’t know. A feeling, I guess.”

“I have a spell that can detect evil,” Quellan said. “But it’s mostly useful for sorting out potent auras or sensing magical creatures, it’s not really effective at determining someone’s motivations.”

“If we’re going to keep it, then we may wish to reconsider returning to the village,” Xeeta suggested. The others glanced back at her; even now that she’d been a member of their company for a while she rarely participated in these discussions.

“Too late for that,” Kosk growled, nodding toward a small figure who’d appeared ahead and was running eagerly toward them.

“Indel!” Quellan shouted, waving as the boy approached. “You know better than to leave the village!”

“Bloody kid’s parents need to give him some bloody chores,” Kosk muttered under his breath.

The village boy was out of breath by the time he reached them, but his face was alive with excitement. “They found him! They found Caric!”

“What?” Glori asked. “When?”

“Right after you left, yesterday!” The boy grinned as the others gathered around him, all save for Xeeta, who remained back a few steps with her cowl drawn low over her face.

“Where was he?” Glori asked.

“He was hiding in the crawl space under the Devison farm,” Indel reported. Sucking in a quick breath he continued, “Apparently he was trying to avoid punishment for some apple butter he’d stolen, and when he heard everyone looking for him he decided to stay there. He’d made a nice little nest for himself down there, some kind of game. They caught him when he snuck out to steal food.”

“I’ll break his legs,” Kosk said.

“Why didn’t they send someone after us?” Bredan asked. “I’ve seen horses in the village, they could have sent someone.”

“I don’t know,” Indel said. “I just know that Caric’s in big trouble. There was a lot of yelling… I thought that Darik Anthernorn’s head was going to pop, the way he looked. The sheriff had to take him outside. Caric’s mom was crying a lot. Man! Everybody’s all riled up.”

“Well,” Quellan said. He looked at each of his companions in turn. “I suppose that’s that, then. Come on, we’d better get back.” With an extra nod toward Glori he added, “We can decide what we want to do when we get there.”

Indel ran ahead of them as they resumed walking toward the village, no doubt to spread the word of their approach. “One leg,” Kosk said. “Just let me break one leg.”

“I’ll hold him down for you,” Glori said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 74

As they entered the village it was clear that recent events still had the population on edge. They saw several clusters of villagers engaged in conversation as they approached the inn, but on seeing the adventurers they quickly separated and went about their own business. That business all seemed to be in locations far away from the strangers.

“What’s wrong with them?” Bredan asked. “You’d think we hadn’t saved their village a few times over.”

“They are uncertain about how you will react to the news of the boy,” Xeeta said. “Or maybe they saw the dwarf’s face and assume we already know.”

Kosk muttered something under his breath, but his scowl eased only fractionally under their scrutiny.

Before they could reach the Gray Oak Inn, Erron Laddrick came into view from behind the sprawling structure and hailed them. The sheriff wore his sword and looked like he’d already had a long day.

“You heard the news, I suppose,” he said when he got close enough to speak without raising his voices.

“We are just glad that the boy is safe,” Quellan said.

“We also have news,” Glori said. She quickly provided an overview of their encounters, including the cyclops and the orcs. She left the details of what they’d found in the cave complex vague, and didn’t mention the lamp.

Laddrick’s expression grew more concerned as she spoke. “First kobolds, then goblins, and now orcs? And a giant?”

“The orcs were the remnants of a group that invaded the elves’ lands on the far side of the Dry Hills,” Quellan said. “The cyclops remains a threat, but I believe it headed deeper into the hills rather than in this direction. It was wounded, and not looking for a fight.”

“I’ll have word sent to each of the other villages in the area, just in case,” Laddrick said. He gave them all a looking-over, his gaze lingering on Bredan, who looked like he might fall down. “You look like you’ve had a rough couple of days.”

“We are used to such things,” Quellan said.

“Well, I am sure the Village Council will want a full report, when you’ve had a chance to rest and get something to eat. I’ll pass on what you told me. I’d ask that you keep quiet about the giant, at least until I’ve had a chance to warn some people. I’d prefer to avoid a panic in the village.”

“Understood, sheriff,” Quellan said.

Laddrick had barely taken his leave and they had not yet continued on to the inn when someone else came rushing to meet them. Kosk spotted him first, “Here we go,” he said.

Nordrum looked as casually disheveled as ever, but he also looked like he’d gotten hardly any more rest than the adventurers had over the last few days. His eyes flicked to each of them as if he could see what they carried. “Did you find anything? Was there anything there?”

Glori shared a look with each of the others and said, “Oh, we found something.”

“Could we maybe do this in the private room in the inn, rather than in the street?” Kosk asked. “At least there we can get some ale. You’re buying, sage,” he added.

Innkeeper Beedlebrim seemed happy enough to see them, though the villagers in the common room seemed as ill at ease as the others they’d encountered outside. He offered food, hot water, and towels for washing, but when Nordrum looked like he was about to explode at any further delay they just asked for the use of his back room and a few pitchers of ale.

The sage fidgeted by the fireplace until Beedlbrim came in with a platter laden with two pitchers, half a dozen mugs, and a plate of steaming rolls. Bredan barely waited until the innkeeper set the platter down on the table before he stuffed one of the rolls into his mouth.

“Mfrmph, dat’s good,” he mumbled through the hot bread.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Glori chided. Kosk filled a mug and drained it before filling a cup for each of them.

“You were successful, I know it,” Nordrum said. “What did you find?”

“I hope you brought your purse, sage,” Kosk said.

“We found a lamp,” Quellan said. “A bronze lamp.”

“It was guarded by some skeletons and a ghast,” Kosk said. “The latter, it didn’t go down easy.”

Quellan took off his pack and dug into it. “We believe that the lamp is an aid to divination magic,” he said.

“The Lamp of Kharduzz,” Nordrum breathed, his face transported from eagerness to awed joy. He bent over the table as Quellan took out the cloth bundle and unwrapped it to reveal the artifact.

It didn’t look like much sitting there on the table in the daylight spilling in through the window. In fact, Bredan thought, it sort of looked like a piece of junk. He took one of the mugs and drank swallows of ale, trying not to think about his headache.

Glori was watching the sage intently. “Is that what you were looking for?” she asked.

Nordum smiled and looked up at her. “Indeed, the Lamp is an exceptional find. Well worth the reward I offered.” He reached into one of the pockets of his robe and drew out a small, tightly-bound bag and a small scroll tucked into a leather tube. “There are a hundred gold coins here, and a writ of credit for the remainder that any merchant house in Adelar will honor.”

“Well then,” Glori said, reaching out to take the bag and the scroll. She looked over at Xeeta and said, “Hey, maybe he can help with that book you found…”

Nordrum’s hand shot out and locked on the bard’s wrist, holding it tight. Glori looked up at him in surprise, and Quellan stepped forward with a look on his face that had the sage releasing her quickly. “My apologies. A book? You found a book at the site? May I… may I see it?”

The companions shared another look—the sage was almost trembling with anticipation—but Glori deliberately put the bag of coins and the writ of credit away before saying, “Don’t get excited, it wasn’t exactly in good shape and the contents were completely unreadable.”

Bredan’s left eye twitched, but he didn’t say anything.

Nordrum’s hands fidgeted until he grasped hold of his robe, hard enough to turn his knuckles white. “Yes, of course. But, still. Written works from this era are so rare, and… if I could just see? If it’s a matter of money, of course I would be happy to double the reward. Triple it. That is… if it’s anything salvageable, of course.”

Glori looked at each of the others before she turned to Xeeta and nodded. The tiefling, still wearing the concealing features of her alter self spell, drew out her pack and carefully extracted the wrapped parcel inside.

The sage watched every small motion. It was as if the others had ceased to exist. But as she began to unwrap the blanket she’d folded the book into for protection she frowned. “That’s odd,” she said.

“What is it?” Glori said, turning to look. They all did, forcing Nordrum to crane his neck up to see.

In answer the sorceress stepped forward to the table and lifted the blanket. Nordrum lunged out to catch the book, but all that came out was a cascade of dust. There were tiny bits of matter in it, but mostly it was just dust, a fine gray mound of it that gathered on the table. Nordrum stared at it as if someone had just told him his child had drowned in the river.

“Like I said, not in good shape,” Glori said.

With an obvious effort Nordrum tore his attention from the remains of the book. “And… you said it was unreadable. That means you looked at it, yes?”

“Yes,” Glori said. “The pages were blank.”

“Whatever text might have once been on it had long since faded away,” Xeeta said. “The conditions where it was found were extremely poor, moist air and cold.” But her eyes flicked to the pile of debris, and she frowned.

“Alas,” Nordrum said. “Alas.” He turned back to the lamp, running a finger along the stained metal.

“Yeah, well,” Kosk said, putting his mug down on the table with enough force to draw their attention. One of the pitchers was completely empty, and the second one close to it. “If that concludes our business, I’ve got an empty belly and a second skin of dust and grime I’d like to shed.” With that they departed, leaving the sage bent low over his new treasure, examining every detail in the waning afternoon sunlight.
 


Lazybones

Explorer
Today's update brings us to the end of Book 3. Book 4 will begin with the introduction of a major foe (thus it is entitled "BBEG," continuing the theme of naming the books after RPG tropes).

The village of Northpine is another of my scenario creations. I haven't updated it for 5e, but if you're curious the village and its various sidequests are posted on my Web site at http://lazybones18.tripod.com/dndpine3e.htm.

* * *

Chapter 75

Bredan tried to ignore his headache as he made his way down the hall of the inn to the broad flight of wooden steps that descended to the common room. The inn was quiet. It was late, but not so late that there wouldn’t still be people drinking and enjoying themselves in any of the inns in Crosspath. Rural folk went to bed earlier, it seemed.

He made his way down the stairs, careful to hold onto the railing. His head seemed to pound with each step he took. The headache had been with him since they’d left behind the ruins, but it had gotten worse, enough that he couldn’t sleep despite his exhaustion. It had been about the only thing that had kept him from dozing off during their meeting with the village council earlier. Fortunately Glori and Quellan had done most of the talking and there hadn’t been any need for him to speak up.

A single lamp burned low in the common room, enough for him to negotiate the stairs without an accident. Its light revealed one other person still awake, seated at a table close to the lamp so he could read the book he had folded open on the table in front of him. Quellan was intent on his reading, but as Bredan stepped on the last step it let out a low creak and the cleric looked up and nodded in greeting.

Bredan went over to the bar and reached behind to grab a bottle of the local brandy that the villagers made from apples and pears instead of grapes. He took a silver coin out of his purse and left it in the space where the bottle had rested, then took a pair of glasses and went over to the half-orc’s table. It was still a strange feeling, having a full purse. And that wasn’t even counting what they would get when they got to Adelar and cashed in the sage’s letter of credit.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Bredan asked as he put the bottle and glasses on the table.

“No. None for me, thank you,” Quellan said as Bredan poured out a measure of the spirits. The stuff was like the hard cider he’d sometimes drunk back home, but it had a decent kick. He hoped that it would help ease his headache.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

Quellan held up the book. It had a plain leather cover without even a title on the front or the spine. “It’s called The Principles of Knowing. It’s one of the core texts of my faith. I haven’t taken the time to read in quite a while, it helps me focus my thoughts.”

“I can understand why you might want to do that, after… after everything.”

“Is it what you thought it would be?” Quellan asked. “All this, the adventuring life?”

“Well, it’s not quite one of Glori’s stories. But it hasn’t been dull.”

“No, that is certainly true.”

“I don’t know. This can’t be typical. One village, with so many troubles.”

“It may be much worse in the north.”

“I know. I know that’s what everyone keeps saying, and I understand what we’re getting ourselves into. Or at least, I know it can be bad. But it’s necessary, right?”

“I am not trying to talk you out of your commitment,” Quellan said. “I know you have skill, and a good heart. The challenges we faced here will make a real difference in the lives of these people, even if we had nothing to do with finding the missing boy.”

“A fact that Kosk will no doubt never let us forget,” Bredan said. He finished off his brandy and considered the bottle.

The front door of the inn swung open and a familiar figure came inside. “I saw the light,” Erron Laddrick said. The sheriff wore his sword, and he had a small hunter’s bow slung across his back.

“Come, join us, sheriff,” Quellan said.

Laddrick’s boots sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet of the sleeping in as he crossed the floor to their table.

“Do you patrol the village often at night, sheriff?” Bredan asked.

“I do enjoy the quiet of the night,” Laddrick said. “Though I must admit, I have been taking evening walks more often since you arrived.”

“Understandable,” Quellan said. “Would you care to join us for a drink?”

Laddrick glanced down at the bottle. “Perhaps just a small one,” he said.

Bredan poured him a measure and refreshed his own glass. “Thank you kindly,” Laddrick said as he took his glass. He took a drink then glanced at each of them. “So,” he said, “are you planning on resuming your journey north tomorrow?”

Bredan paused in the midst of lifting his glass to his lips. “You’re the third person to ask me that today,” he said.

Laddrick put his glass down on the tabletop. “The folk who live here are simple folk, living simple lives,” he said. “Since you arrived here, things have been anything but simple.”

Bredan put his glass down with rather more force than the sheriff had. “Are you suggesting it’s our fault that all this happened? If we hadn’t come along those monsters would still be there, and the danger to your village would be greater than it is now.”

Quellan leaned forward to interject, but Laddrick forestalled both of them with a raised hand. “Peace,” he said. “I’m not saying you’re wrong about any of that. I’m just telling you that people are nervous, and scared.”

“These events are likely related to the war,” Quellan said. “Those orcs, at least, they came from the north. We’re just lucky they faced the elves first instead of coming directly south through the Dry Hills. From what the elves told us, there were over a hundred of them at one point.”

Laddrick nodded. “We are grateful for all you’ve done. In fact, some of the local figures took up a collection, as a gesture of thanks.” He reached under his cloak and took out a small pouch that jingled slightly as he set it on the table.

“That’s not necessary,” Quellan said, but now it was Bredan’s turn to hold up a hand. “Don’t be too hasty,” the smith said. “You know Glori would never forgive either of us if we turned down a reward.”

“It’s less than you deserve,” Laddrick said. “And after everything with the boy… well, it would be a relief to some folks if you took it, along with my personal thanks.”

Quellan looked at Bredan and nodded; the smith took the pouch and tucked it into a pocket of his coat. The sheriff stood. “Thanks for the drink,” he said.

Quellan stood as well, followed by Bredan. “We are glad we were able to help,” the cleric said. He offered a hand, and after a moment the sheriff took it. “As for your first question, I think we will be moving on in the morning. Our dwarven friend has been quite… impatient, and events are no doubt moving swiftly in the north.”

“Good luck,” Laddrick said. “If I were still a young man I’d be envious of you, but I’ll be honest… I’m glad I’m not walking your path this time around.”

“We’re just doing what has to be done,” Bredan said.

Laddrick nodded. “I bid you good evening then, gentlemen.” With a final nod he retraced his steps, his boots clattering upon the empty floor before he reached the door and disappeared the way he had come.

The two adventurers let the silence recover a bit before Quellan said, “Well. I suppose I should try to get some sleep, if we’re to have a long day tomorrow.” He nodded toward the bottle. “You may wish to do the same.”

Bredan’s eyes lingered on the bottle a moment before he replaced the cork, but he brought it with him when he turned back to the stairs. Quellan walked with him, the half-orc’s steps causing the smooth floorboards to creak heavily under him.

The two reached the stairs before Bredan turned suddenly. “I wonder what’s been happening in the north while we’ve been here,” he said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I've got a decent number of chapter drafts ready at this point, but I wanted to give readers a heads-up that I may put this story on hold in November so I can participate in my seventh National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You can find my past entries at https://nanowrimo.org/participants/lazybones1969/novels.

Here's Book 4.

* * *

Book 4: BBEG

Chapter 76

A breeze picked up as Kurok made his way down into the valley, but it did little to ease the heat of the day. It did kick up a fair share of dust, especially as the gusts reached the cleared area where the bulk of the legion camp had been assembled.

The camp had long since spread beyond its original boundaries, and tents dotted the steep slopes that surrounded the valley floor. But most of the activity was down below, a dense knot of figures that bustled about in apparent confusion. But Kurok could see the order within the chaos, and the purpose that drove every figure from the most battle-hardened veteran to the lowest slave.

The sentries on the outer edge of the camp saluted as he approached, but made no move to hinder him. Kurok ignored them as he had ignored the heat and the dust. He moved without hesitation into the hubbub of the camp, a small bubble of space moving with him as those he encountered made way for him to pass.

The noise within the camp was ferocious. A constant hammering issued from the half-dozen forges arranged in a neat line behind the massive supply dumps covered by straining tarps. That din competed with the shouts of rankleaders and war captains as they issued commands to their warriors, and the crack of whips as slaves and drudges were chivvied just as aggressively to their tasks.

At one point he had to pause for a moment as an ogre trudged past, dragging a bundle of tree trunks behind it in the dirt. The hulking creature was having difficulty with the load, but on seeing Kurok it lowered its head and redoubled its efforts, dragging the trailing burden clear of his path within moments. A pair of horse-drawn carts loaded with supplies was following in the ogre’s wake, but their drivers yanked their animals to a halt until he had passed. Kurok could hear them lashing their mounts back into motion as if eager to make up the few seconds they had lost.

His cloak swirled around his feet as he crossed the camp with long strides. His destination was visible ahead, at the crest of a bony ridge that jutted from the side of the valley like a giant’s shoulder. The tent was several times the size of the ones the warriors used, and it was visible from everywhere in the camp. A single banner fluttered in the breeze above it. It was the only banner, badge, or sigil anywhere in the camp. Kurok knew that there were representatives of nearly a dozen tribes, clans, and warbands here in the camp, members of not only the assorted goblinoid races, but also those allies they had brought to their cause, like the ogre he’d seen earlier. But their old allegiances had been sundered. Now they were all members of the Black Arrow, the last of the legions assembled to join the army of the High Warlord, Kavel Murgoth. It was that symbol that danced upon that banner, the symbol that would lead them as they marched down from the mountains to join the forces already engaged in the fight against the humans who lived in the lands below.

Lands that would soon be theirs.

With his attention distracted, he only belatedly realized that he’d almost walked into a dense knot of marching warriors. Cursing his lack of attention, Kurok came to a sudden stop, facing the approaching ranks of armored hobgoblins. Their rankleader quickly changed their route to avoid a collision, and an officer hurried forward to meet him. Kurok’s lips twisted—more in exasperation at the delay than offense—but he froze as he recognized the officer.

“Apologies, Blooded,” the hobgoblin said. He was a big man, his faced marked with the ritual notches of a veteran of many engagements. He stood straight and smacked his fist against his armored chest in salute, his thumb tucked inside his fingers in a gesture of submission. His eyes didn’t quite meet Kurok’s, and he held the salute as if prepared to stand there all day.

It took Kurok a moment to control the flood of memories that rushed over him. Does he know who I am? he thought. Who I was? Does he remember?

He made a small gesture of acknowledgement, also conveying dismissal, but to his surprise the officer lingered. “I have heard of your success against the orcs, my lord,” he said. “I hope that soon we will march to join the war against the humans.”

Kurok’s eyes flicked from side to side to see if anyone else was paying attention to the exchange. The marching soldiers were already a good distance off, and while there were dozens of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears within a stone’s throw they were all hurrying about their own errands and tasks, leaving an empty circle around the two of them. The officer still hadn’t moved; he’d released his salute but he continued to hold himself in a rigid stance of deference.

“Soon enough, War Captain Gurag,” Kurok said. He was watching the other carefully as he spoke, but did not see any overt reaction to his use of the officer’s name. Gurag saluted again, then turned and continued after the soldiers, moving at the casual pace his rank permitted. Kurok stood there for a long moment, watching him until the bustle of the camp swallowed him up.

The unexpected encounter lingered with Kurok as he exited the camp and started up the steep trail that led to the tent atop the crest. There were guards there too, if somewhat more subtly placed than the earlier sentries, but they recognized what he was and let him pass.

The breeze was stronger atop the ridge, but it barely shifted the heavy canvas walls of the huge tent. The banner continued to dance as if trying to escape. From up close the black arrow was the size of an ogre’s spear, the jagged hooks embedded in the tip clearly visible. To Kurok it seemed to be pointing south, to where the legion would be going once all preparations were complete.

The interior of the tent was cloaked in murkiness that was in sharp contrast to the brightness outside. But Kurok had long since mastered the darkness. He let the heavy outer fold of the entry fall shut behind him.

The tent was divided into two parts by an interior drape that hung from the central supports. The front part contained a folding desk, several chairs, and a few other small pieces of furniture. From the craftsmanship they all looked to be human-made. His people knew how to make armor, weapons, and fortifications, but they lacked the skill and patience to put art into everyday objects.

Perhaps, when they had conquered the rich lands to the south, they would be able to learn those skills. Or have human slaves to do it for them, which amounted to the same thing, in the end.

“Come,” a soft voice from the back of the tent called to him.

The darkness was even thicker in the back, augmented by a censer that provided only the barest spark of light but dense twisting weaves of fragrant smoke. Kurok recognized the narcotic but made no effort to avoid the vapors.

The room’s sole occupant was seated in a chair near the back of the tent. He wore the darkness like a cloak, and even though the air in the tent was hot and stale he was draped in heavy folds of black cloth that covered him from head to toe. Even Kurok’s exceptional vision could not penetrate the depths of that cowl, though he could feel the weight of the other’s stare upon him.

“Kurok,” he said. “I had wondered if perhaps you would not return before our departure.”

“My lord Zorek,” Kurok said. “I have completed the task you set me to.”

“Ah. The reason for your delay?”

“The orcs outnumbered us two to one, my lord. But they could not withstand the power of the Veiled One.”

“They are destroyed, then?”

“The tribes have been sundered, their holds cleansed, their supplies taken. A remnant fled to the south, but they are no longer a threat to us. Casualties were light. I have prepared a full report.” He dug into his belt, producing a small fold of leather, but the robed figure casually waved it aside. “I had little doubt of your success,” Zorek said. “You have risen quickly even among the standards of the Blooded. Your name has been mentioned more than once among the war councils, and even Murgoth himself knows who you are.”

Kurok felt a brief flutter of emotion, but he quickly tamped it down. He knew Zorek well enough to know when praise was a prelude to something more. He waited in silence for that addendum.

Zorek watched him for a moment, as if he could read Kurok’s thoughts. “We have another task for you.”

“I exist to serve,” Kurok said.

“Yes,” Zorek said. “Yes, you do. The Black Arrow departs in two days. The army of the human king has departed Adelar and marches to engage the High Warlord.”

“With the power of the Veiled One, we will defeat them,” Kurok said.

“Perhaps,” Zorek said, almost causing Kurok to betray a reaction. The way it was spoken, that one word could have implied that Zorek did not care about the outcome, or that it did not matter. But that made no sense, given that the Blooded had been working for decades now toward this moment, toward the clash that was building in the soft human lands to the south.

Zorek paused for a long moment, as if savoring his reaction. Finally he continued, “You will not be heading south with the army.”

Kurok rallied enough not to respond, at least outwardly. Showing doubts or asking questions would only weaken his position, it would not change the outcome of this conversation. With more confidence he waited for more.

Zorek nodded to himself, perhaps satisfied with Kurok’s recovery. “There is a place, a place far from the war, but a place of importance in our broader campaign. The minions of the human king are there, but not in strength. There is an important task that you must do there. Our agents are already preparing the way, but it will fall upon you, as one of the Blooded, to accomplish this task.”

Kurok knew he had not been told anything significant as of yet, but he felt that something was expected when Zorek paused again. “I will not fail,” he said.

“No, you shall not,” Zorek said. “Now listen carefully, and heed my words. You have a long journey ahead of you, and by the time the legion marches you must already be far from here. You will travel alone, but there is an army you will gather along the way, and the Veiled One may see fit to grant you added power to accomplish your task.”

Kurok listened as Zorek continued his instructions, and did his best to conceal his surprise as he learned more about his assignment.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 77

Gurag slept uneasily, tossing under the thin blanket atop his cot. The hobgoblin war captain had a private tent, befitting his rank, though one could have crossed from the front flap to the back wall in just four steps. Other than the cot, the only furnishing was a folding wooden armor stand that kept his heavy suit of leather and metal out of the mud. His sword was closer, hanging from the central post within easy reach of the cot.

The temperature in the tent suddenly dropped, and a plume of white mist rose from the captain’s lips.

Gurag shot up suddenly, reaching for his sword even as he swung his legs around to the floor. But even as his fingertips brushed the hilt he felt his muscles freeze. He was barely able to grab hold of the cot to keep himself from falling on his face, but beyond that he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.

A figure came into the tent, shrouded in darkness. Through a supreme effort Gurag was able to twist his head just enough to see the intruder, though even his darkvision was not enough to pierce the gloom under the deep cowl the other wore.

He tried to speak, but the only sound he could manage was a strangled gasp.

“Come now,” the other said. “You cannot tell me that this visit is a surprise, old friend.”

“Gaaaaaargk...”

“I knew you recognized me, earlier,” Kurok said, coming fully into the tent and letting the canvas flap swing shut behind him. That left the interior of the tent almost pitch black, but Gurag could still feel the physical presence of the other hobgoblin. The captain tensed, trying to push his outstretched hand toward where he knew his sword to be. It was as if his entire body had been wrapped in invisible shackles; he could not move. He let out another vague sound.

If Kurok noticed his efforts, or was disconcerted by them, he gave no sign. “Yes, that was a long time ago,” he said conversationally, as if responding to something Gurag had said. “We were younglings. But I have not forgotten, none of it. The torment that you and your friends inflicted on me. Back when I was small, weak.”

“Gurrrk…”

“I know, it is our way. But you took such pleasure in it. Do you recall that one time that you stripped me naked, tied me up, and left me dangling over the cliffs that overlooked the village? Everyone saw, and laughed. My mother, she beat me, did you know that? Said that I was weak for letting anyone do that to me. Not that I could have done anything. I was weak, then.”

Gurag strained. He thought he could feel the force holding him bend slightly against his efforts. Digging deep, he concentrated the full force of his will on moving his hand. His fingers trembled with the effort, but after a moment he felt the familiar solidity of his sword’s hilt brush the tips.

“I suppose I should thank you,” Kurok said. “You weren’t there when it finally happened, you had just left to begin your training with the warrior cadre. But others took your place. It was one of them that I struck down with the power. Not enough to kill him—I was not yet then what I would become. But I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to.”

Gurag pressed forward, slowly. His fingers slowly began to clench shut around the hilt.

“After that, it all changed,” Kurok said. “I had proven that I was one of the Blooded. Such honor. Everyone in the village came to watch when they came to take me. Of course, I did not know then that what they would put me through would make the torments you inflicted seem insignificant by contrast.”

Gurag could feel the power holding him start to ease. Trying not to betray his effort to his adversary, he tried to shift his feet.

Suddenly Kurok made a gesture with his hand, and the paralysis holding Gurag vanished. The hobgoblin immediately rose up, drawing the sword even as he pivoted into a powerful thrust.

Kurok made now move to evade the attack. As he lunged Gurag could see what looked like ice crystals clinging to his cloak.

He stabbed true. The sword failed to penetrate the warlock’s body, but clearly Kurok felt it, and he drew back a step, grunting in what might have been pain. But Gurag staggered as a jolt of icy cold that made the earlier paralysis feel pleasant by comparison shot through his body. That wedge of chill penetrated to his bones, and it was all he could do to keep his grip on his sword. As he drew back he could see that ice crusted the length of the blade.

Gurag looked up at Kurok, who still hadn’t moved. “What… what do you want from me?” he gasped.

“I want you to know what it felt like, atop the cliff,” Kurok said.

Gurag shifted slightly, glanced past the warlock at the entry. With his sword he could possibly cut another way out, but the tough canvas would likely require more than one stroke to tear an opening, and that would leave him vulnerable. On the other hand, there were hundreds of warriors within this part of the camp who would hear a shout of alarm even through the thick walls of the tent.

“Go ahead and cry out,” Kurok said, as if he’d read his mind. “I have arranged for us not to be disturbed.”

Gurag lunged forward again, but it was only a feint. As Kurok started to turn toward his attack he kicked his cot toward to the warlock. Camp furniture was too fragile to do much damage, but it distracted his adversary for just a moment. But as Gurag dove toward the exit a thick arm shot out from the black cloak and snagged him around the throat.

The hobgoblin captain was surprised as he was yanked back into the tent; the warlock was unexpectedly strong. Gurag still had his sword, and as they struggled he reversed the weapon and drove it back in a thrust that would impale his adversary. This time he got a hiss of pain, telling him he’d struck true, but once more he paid for it as the icy cold of the warlock’s magic poured into him.

He’d thought he was prepared for it, but this time the terrible chill seemed to scour him, stealing away his strength like a siphon. The sword fell from his grasp as his entire arm went numb. He tried to shift his weight the other way, to twist free of his attacker’s grip, but Kurok merely shifted with him, adding his own weight and bearing the dazed captain to the ground.

“The power of the Veiled One protects me,” the warlock hissed in his ear. Gurag tried to struggle, but his own body was failing him, his muscles refusing his commands. The entire right side of his body felt dead. He fumbled with his left hand, trying to find his sword. He got a knee under him and tried to buck off his enemy, but their respective positions had him at a decisive disadvantage.

“Mercy,” he gasped out.

He felt Kurok’s start of surprise. But a moment later the warlock leaned in again and hissed in his ear. “Mercy is not our way,” he said.

Gurag tensed for another last-ditch effort, but before he could move Kurok shifted his free hand. A puff of something erupted into Gurag’s face. It seared as it burned his eyes, kept burning as whatever it was traveled into his lungs. After feeling nearly frozen through a moment ago, now it felt like he was on fire. His struggles weakened as his legs kicked uselessly at the muddy floor of the tent.

Kurok waited until it was finished before he rose. His side stung where Gurag’s second thrust had pierced through the protection of the Armor of Agathys. But the spell had served its purpose, and he’d learned to ignore far worse pains. He had a long night ahead of him and long days after that.

There was much to be done before he reached the Silverpeak Valley.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 78

Stayer’s Holding wasn’t much more than a village, but it boasted three inns and half a dozen taverns. But after more than a week of tiny hamlets and isolated settlements—when they weren’t sleeping under the open sky of the wilderness—the place seemed crowded and busy to Xeeta’s eyes.

Part of it was that the village—town, whatever—was busy. Stayer’s Holding was less than a day’s travel from Adelar. The latter place was a true city, the largest in the north, with more than ten thousand inhabitants.

Xeeta had been in larger cities, but at the moment the thought of Adelar filled her with apprehension. But that was where her new friends were going, to join the armies that King Dangren was gathering to fight back against the goblinoid hordes that had swept down from the mountains some months ago into the northernmost territories of the Kingdom of Arresh.

Xeeta had no interest in joining the armies of Arresh. It wasn’t just that she was from far away from here. Her heritage marked her as an outsider, and there were many, if not most, who would see her as little better than the creatures that the army was preparing to fight. She kept the cowl of her cloak up despite the heat of the afternoon, but that was an imperfect disguise, not quite able to conceal the bulk of the curved horns that jutted from her temples, or the ruddy tint of her skin, too red to be even the fiercest sunburn. She rarely smiled, for that revealed that her teeth bore subtle points. She had seen brave men recoil from that smile.

A faint clacking of wood striking wood penetrated her thoughts and confirmed she was nearing her destination. Stayer’s Holding was just large enough to get lost in, but she’d completed her errand and now it was time to make the decision she’d been dreading since she and her companions had left the troubled village of Northpine behind them.

The inn was called The King’s Bounty, and while it boasted three stories and two spreading wings it wasn’t even the largest in Stayer’s Holding. But like the others it was crowded with other travelers, many of whom looked as though they carried everything they owned on their backs. Xeeta and her companions were in that category as well, but at least they had full purses, and each other to keep an eye on their backs. It had been a while since she had felt that way. For much of the time since she’d left Li Syval she’d felt more like the obvious refugees seeking shelter from the war in this place.

The thought had her pausing again, but finally she let out a sigh and continued past the front porch of the inn to the stableyard. It was crowded as well, with carts and wagons laden heavily with piled belongings hastily gathered. But there was another yard in the back of the inn that was more or less empty, save for the clacking that grew louder as she made her way in that direction.

As she came around the side of the inn she could see the source of the sound. Two people were sparring with practice swords made of wooden slats bound around a rod of metal to add weight and strength. From the looks of them they’d been at it for quite a while.

They were the two she had come to see, but she drew back into the shadows to watch them as they battled.

From a first glance it didn’t seem like much of a contest at all. The man was young, a human of maybe twenty years, and the loose shirt he wore failed to hide the muscle that corded his arms and torso. He had been a blacksmith, Xeeta knew, and he had only gotten tougher in his brief career as an adventurer. The wooden sword he was using was only a fraction of the size of his actual blade, which was propped up against a pile of crates next to the back door of the inn.

His opponent was a lithe young woman. Even if one couldn’t see the subtle hints in her features, the slight points of her eyes or the tilt of her eyes, her part-elven heritage was clear in the fluid grace with which she moved. She too had a real sword waiting for her, a slender longsword in a black leather scabbard. But far more notable was the silver lyre standing next to it, carefully laid atop a leather scrip to keep it out of the dirt of the yard. The lyre was impressive, but it was just a tool, a focus for the half-elf woman’s bardic magic.

The woman was moving well, but to Xeeta the outcome of the fight looked inevitable. And even as the thought formed the smith swung his blade around in a powerful arc. The half-elf shifted into a parry, but too late realized she couldn’t absorb the force of that swing. She let out a high-pitched sound and darted back, flinching as the collision of the swords launched hers across the yard almost to the back fence.

“Damn it,” she said, shaking her arm to loosen the sting of the impact. “I really thought I was getting the hang of this.”

The young man straightened and offered a salute before he lowered his weapon. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Glori. You’ve come along quite swiftly. You’ve picked it up faster than I did when I started. Far faster.”

Glori grinned and rubbed her arm. “You’re a good teacher, Bredan.”

“With your speed, I think you’ll be a decent swordswoman before you know it.”

“It’s strange,” she said. “When we’re sparring, it’s almost like music. As if the sound of the blades clashing are the notes of a song. It seems to come easier if I don’t think about it, just let it wash over me.”

“Whatever works,” Bredan said with a grin. “Hey, I got you something.”

Glori had started to head over to recover her weapon, but at his words spun around with an eager look on her face. “A present? Give it over.”

His grin matched hers as they made their way over to the crates. Xeeta remained under cover, watching them.

Moving in an exaggerated manner that made it clear he had planned this, Bredan moved one of the crates and picked up a package he’d left under it. It was a small bundle, wrapped in heavy linen and secured with leather cords. She quickly got it open and let out a surprised sound. Xeeta couldn’t see what it was and almost stepped out around the building before she caught herself.

A moment later Glori held up her present. It was a shirt of fine chainmail, the links gleaming in the bright afternoon light. “This is… you didn’t have to buy this for me out of your share of the loot.”

Xeeta’s hand reflexively dropped to the full purse tucked into an inner pocket of her coat. It was more silver than gold, but still a lot of coins. Their explorations and clashes with humanoid tribes around Northpine had resulted in considerable treasure, and that was not even counting the writ of credit that Glori carried, to be cashed in when they got to Adelar.

“It’s worth it, to keep you safe,” Bredan said.

Glori hugged him, then carefully folded the shirt and tucked it back into the wrap. “What about your armor?”

“I can keep it up,” he said. “Maybe I can rent some time in a forge when we get to Adelar.”

“We may not have time,” Glori said.

Bredan nodded, though he looked uncertain. Xeeta knew that he was nervous about joining the King’s army. Not that he should doubt his own skill, she thought, but his father had been a soldier, and the young man had set him up on a high pedestal in his mind.

“It’s Quellan who needs new armor,” Glori went on.

“I plan on helping him pick out a suit of half-plate when we arrive,” Bredan went on. “If we can find one that fits him.”

Xeeta smiled at the mention of the half-orc. It was the cleric of Hosrenu, god of knowledge, who she thought understood her the most out of her new companions. He certainly had faced more than his share of intolerance, yet somehow managed not to let it get to him. That was a skill that she had not yet mastered.

“Come on, let’s go get washed up,” Glori said. As they started up the short flight of steps that led to the back door of the inn Xeeta realized that her chance to do what she had come here to do was slipping away. She almost let them go, but at the last moment stepped into the sunlight and said, “Hello.”

“Xeeta!” Bredan said, his smile as warm and honest as his greeting. “We were just practicing. We were going to go inside…”

“I know,” Xeeta said, her nervousness returning with an intensity that caught her by surprise. “I just… I just wanted to talk with you for a moment.”

“Well, come on inside, I should just wash up a bit before…”

“You’re leaving,” Glori said.

Bredan blinked, looking between the two women before his eyes settled on Xeeta’s. When she nodded he looked unhappy. “You’re… why?” he asked.

“You knew that this was coming, that I was reluctant to go to Adelar,” she said. “Towns are not a place for me. There are too many who would react with horror, if they saw what I was.”

“We’d protect you,” Bredan said.

“I know you have been very supportive, both of you, but I do not want to be protected. Nor do I wish to distract you from your mission. It is important, but this is not my war.”

Bredan looked confused, but Glori nodded in understanding. “Where will you go?” she asked.

“Someplace quiet,” Xeeta said.

“But you haven’t gotten your share of the sage’s gold yet,” Bredan said. “If you just stay with us for one day longer, we can cash in that writ of credit…”

Xeeta held up a hand to forestall his argument. “That’s not necessary,” she said.

“You have as much right to it as any of us,” Glori said. “Even if you don’t come to the town with us, we can pay you out of the coin we got in Northpine.” Bredan colored slightly, no doubt thinking of the money he’d spent on Glori’s new armor.

“No, I mean it,” Xeeta said. “You have given me enough, and not only my freedom. The way you accepted me into your company… it means a great deal to me.”

“I hope you will say goodbye to Quellan and Kosk… or at least Quellan,” Glori said.

“Yeah, you can come in and have one last drink,” Bredan said. “A proper farewell. It’s late, in any case; you should stay tonight and get an early start in the morning, like us.”

“I would, but I… I have made arrangements,” Xeeta said. “For at least the first part of my journey. I have to go now.”

“It’s been good having you with us, even for a short time,” Glori said, coming down the steps to enfold her in a brief hug. “I’d tell you to be careful, but I know you can handle yourself.”

“I’m sorry you have to go,” Bredan said, replacing the bard with a hug tight enough that Xeeta let out a bit of gasp. The boy did not know his own strength.

“Try not to crush her,” Glori said. Bredan released the tiefling and stammered an apology. “I hope we’ll meet again,” he said.

Xeeta nodded. After one final look at each of them, she turned and headed back the way she had come. Bredan and Glori watched until she disappeared around the end of the inn, but she did not look back.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 79

Bredan’s first impression of Adelar was that every single person in the kingdom of Arresh had been gathered together and placed inside its walls.

The city was perched atop a bluff that overlooked the surrounding landscape of the Sarund Valley. From a distance it had resembled a huge castle, surrounded by a tall stone wall that hid all but the tallest rooftops and towers behind its bulk. They had been able to see it from miles away, looming on its rock like some vigilant sentinel.

The streets were packed with people, animals, and vehicles of all sizes. Bredan did not see how they could all fit, or how the pedestrians avoided being crushed to death under the carts and wagons that barely seemed to slow as they passed through the sea of people. Somehow business was being conducted through the chaos, with merchants crying out from shop fronts or compact stalls tucked into the narrow spaces between buildings. Every time Bredan turned his head it felt like someone was shouting in his ear, trying to entice him into buying something. The sights, sounds, and smells were almost overwhelming.

Someone collided into him as he tried to take it all in, and he was nearly run over by a wagon that rattled past almost before he knew it was there. The driver shouted something at him that he couldn’t quite make out but was obviously insulting, and when he looked back to see who had struck him he couldn’t make him out in the crowd. A moment’s alarm had him grasping for his purse, but it was still where it was supposed to be. It had been an accident, not an attempt to rob him.

He flinched as someone grabbed him and almost reached for his sword before he realized it was Kosk. The dwarf had a wry look on his face. “Try not to get yourself killed before we make it to the war,” he said.

Bredan followed him over to a slightly quieter spot along the side of the street, in the lee of a squat building that he identified as a guardhouse even before he saw the soldier standing in its doorway. Glori was speaking with the man, who looked barely older than Bredan himself, with a bowl-shaped iron cap tilted low over his face and a suit of studded leather armor that looked to be a size or two too large. Quellan was just standing there, but the way the soldier’s eyes kept flicking over to the half-orc suggested that his kind weren’t very common in Adelar.

By the time that Bredan and Kosk rejoined the others Glori had gotten whatever information she’d wanted, and they resumed their way deeper into the city.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Bredan asked Quellan.

“Glori is more familiar with places like this than I,” the cleric responded. At least he too seemed to be unsettled by the place, though on him nervousness looked indistinguishable from ferocity.

Glori led them, and if she was intimidated by the crowd she didn’t show it. When they ran into a particularly dense knot of people she shouted, “Make way! Make way!” in a surprisingly booming voice, and to Bredan’s surprise people did make way for them to pass. Or maybe it wasn’t that much of a surprise, he thought, noticing how people’s eyes widened when they fixed on Quellan. The half-orc’s eyes were focused on a point directly ahead, refusing to acknowledge those stares. Kosk followed in his wake, muttering to himself. The dwarf drew his own share of double-takes, with his clean-shaven features and his monk’s habit, both unusual enough to draw attention. But the dwarf’s face was set in an expression that caused people to hurry out of his path almost as quickly as they did for Quellan.

Crossing the city seemed to take hours, but Bredan knew that couldn’t be right from the slow shifting of the shadows from the sun high overhead. They passed taverns, shops that looked interesting, even a theater covered in colorful bunting that extended out over the street on long wooden poles. They had agreed that they would report in first, to make sure that the local authorities knew about the humanoid forces they had encountered around Northpine, and to find out what was happening with the war. The people they had talked to on the road had offered a hundred different stories and rumors, ranging from the complete and utter defeat of the raiders to reports of a legion of a thousand screaming goblinoid warriors a day’s march from the city. But it had been a long walk, and as they passed another tavern with double doors open wide he thought that maybe one drink would not delay them overmuch.

He drifted in that direction and was about to suggest it to the others when he caught a glimpse of the interior. The place was crowded, with every seat he could see taken, but there was none of the laughter or music or games he remembered from the Boar’s Tusk or the other taverns back home. The faces he could see either looked sullen or dazed, as if they didn’t quite realize where they were or how they had gotten there.

“Bredan?” Glori called. She’d paused just ahead and was looking back at him. They all were.

“Coming,” Bredan said, hurrying to catch up.

It was like that throughout the city, worry and uncertainty draping the city like a heavy cloak. Many of the people they encountered were armed, and a good share armored as well. Even the merchants carried knives openly, and the ones in nicer clothes had guards shadowing them, hard men and women who shot him looks as if he might attack their charges right there on the street. But Bredan also saw clusters of families huddled together in the narrow spaces between buildings, sometimes with a mound of luggage and other possessions, other times just with the clothes on their backs. What he didn’t see were beggars, and fewer soldiers than he’d thought to find in a city at war. Maybe the army was staging somewhere outside the city, he thought. There had been guards at the city gates, but they hadn’t stopped them from coming in, had just stood there watching the constant flood of people coming in and out.

At one point he heard the familiar hammering of a smithy, but the narrow streets twisted the sounds so that he couldn’t tell where they were coming from. He was so distracted looking around that he almost ran into Quellan’s back before he realized that they had come to a halt.

They stood on the edge of a small square. There were people about, but after the crowds near the gate the place looked relatively deserted. But Bredan noticed that only in passing as his eyes were drawn ahead and up, at their destination.

Adelar was a fortified town, but the Governor’s Keep was a fortress within a fortress, a massive block of stone surrounded by a wall twenty feet high. Two tall towers rose up behind it, flanking a steeply-slanted roof covered in dark tiles. The flag of the King flew on a standard atop the taller of those towers; the armored knight and his rearing charger had to be almost life-sized upon that huge standard. Armed soldiers in livery that matched that flag stood atop that wall, and next to the narrow opening that led into the keep. These guards didn’t look as casual as the ones manning the city gates, and Bredan felt a disturbing sensation that they were watching him specifically, even from across the square.

Even Glori seemed to hesitate in the face of that imposing edifice, but after a moment she squared her shoulders and said, “Well, we’re here, let’s go.”
 

Halloween Horror For 5E

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