Ghourmand Vale (3.5 campaign)


Last week, my son Logan finished up a 3.5 campaign called "Raiders of the Overreach" which he'd been running since October 2019. That was his second campaign in the same game world, the first being "The Durnhill Conscripts." But we jointly decided that when we finished up his latest campaign we'd let one of our players, Dan, put on the DM hat and run a campaign, which has the added bonus of allowing Logan and I to be on the same side of the DM screen for the first time for a whole campaign.

Dan has decided to name this new campaign "Ghourmand Vale," as that's the location where (at least for a bit, early on) the action's going to take place. It's going to take place in the modified Greyhawk campaign world where my first two 3.5 campaigns, "Wing Three" and "The Kordovian Adventurers Guild," took place. (So there's always the possibility that we might get a few appearances by some of the PCs/NPCs from those campaigns.)

In any case, here are the PCs we've created for this campaign, which we're due to start on Wednesday, 15 June 2022 when Dan and his family get back from their vacation.

Logan decided to run an elf archer and had originally set his PC, Chaevaris Noarunal, up as a ranger before he discovered a 20-level archer class on a D&D Wiki site. So that's his current plan: run Chaevaris as an archer through all 20 levels, in part just to try out the archer class, which is new to all of us. He plans on having his elf PC look down upon the shorter-lived races (like humans) as "children." Here's Logan's depiction of Chaevaris:

Chaevaris Noarunal.jpg

And speaking of humans, that's what I'll be running - specifically, a sorcerer named Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite. Poor Alistair has a few things running against him: he doesn't yet realize he's a sorcerer, for one thing, and doesn't consciously cast spells - things just seem to happen around him. As a result, all of his initial starting spells are comfort-related (endure elements, unseen servant, mage hand) instead of being particularly useful during combat and it'll take him a bit to realize that irritating grackle that keeps hanging around him is his familiar. Worse yet, he was born into a noble family and has lived a life of luxury (thus far), but when his sorcerous abilities started manifesting his father made the obvious (to him) connection that Alistair must have been trafficking with demons and has cast him out of the family. So Alistair's going to start out as a real fish out of water, having to earn his own living for the first time in his life and not really having any real idea of how exactly to go about it. Here's the image I'm using for Alistair:

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite.png

The last member of our household is my nephew Harry, who decided to give a half-elf paladin a try. His PC is named Harlan Starblade, his mother's an elf and his father's a human, and he worships Pelor. And that's all the backstory Harry needs (or intends to come up with). Here's the image he chose for Harlan:

Harlan Starblade.png

And that leaves Dan's wife, Vicki, a noted lover of halflings who has always feared running a halfling PC in any of my campaigns because she knows I'm not a big fan of them. In fact, she was hesitant to run another halfling PC because in "The Durnhill Conscripts" my PC hated halflings and picked on her PC mercilessly as a result, but I promised her that Alistair has no dislike for halflings (quite the opposite, in fact: he believes they're just mythical beings from fairy stories, although I haven't told her that yet), so she'll be running another halfling rogue, this one named Ageratum Purslane. Here's the image she came up with for Ageratum:

Ageratum Purslane.jpg

Normally, our party would be rounded out by a fifth PC played by Dan and Vicki's youngest son Joey, but he just graduated high school last month and will be moving a short distance away from home to attend college in the fall, and as a result has decided he won't be joining us in this campaign. (He'll continue on in my "Dreams of Erthe" campaign through the end of summer, at which point his PC will enter NPC status and be traded out among the other players as to who'll be running him along with their own PC each session. And he might occasionally join in a session or two as school breaks allow.)

So, we don't know a whole lot about this campaign, as the Ghourmand Vale is a part of the Greyhawk campaign world Dan created on his own (much like I did with Kordovia) and dropped onto the map. Dan has stated he's going to start us off with two NPC clerics of St. Cuthbert, who'll be traveling with us for a while (at least to start with).

Likewise, this will be the first Story Hour I attempt where the DM wasn't either myself or my son, which means when I write up the sessions I won't be able to pick the brain of the DM as quickly as normal to ensure I haven't put in any inaccuracies. The easiest way to do it would probably be to do the write-ups as Alistair's journal entries, but that has the unwanted side effect of putting him in the role of main character and I don't want that. So we'll just have to play it by ear and see how the first session goes.

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Good luck with the game.
a grackle familiar is so cool; coming from UK, we don't have grackles and first time I visited Texas about 20 years back i came across the birds for the first time. Amazing characters! I'm going to steal your idea for a familiar for my next arcane character.



PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 1​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 1​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 1​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 1​

Game Session Date: 15 June 2022

- - -

The Riverside Market in Greyhawk City's Old Town was filled with all kinds of people, and Ageratum Purslane leaned against the wall and watched them all. Many were old, familiar faces, mostly those behind the stalls hawking their wares, whether they be fish or vegetables or costume jewelry. Others she'd seen before now and again, frequent visitors to the marketplace, most of whom she'd already sorted into the appropriate category of "potential target" or "not worth the bother." A halfling fully trained in the fine arts of pickpocketing, it was her job to keep a lookout for suitable marks and then sneak in, snatching what she could before the theft was even noticed - and in the few times she failed to walk away from a victim with the gullible mark not even having noticed his purse was a lot lighter (or even missing entirely), her smaller size made it easier for her to disappear in a crowd.

Now, however, she saw a few new faces she hadn't seen before. There was a good-looking blond half-elf, the holy sun symbol of Pelor emblazoned on the tabard covering his armor, no doubt one of the new paladins having completed his temple training and being sent out into the world as a journeyman. Ageratum vowed to stay far away from him; paladins were usually trouble, not willing to bend at all on issues of morality like petty theft. This one was talking to a street urchin who had approached him; Ageratum's sharp hearing picked up a tale of scary monsters in a crypt where the boy's daddy was buried and the little halfling was glad to hear the paladin promise to look into it, as it meant he'd soon be going on his way and away from the marketplace where she did her best business.

Another strange face was a dainty-looking elf wearing comfortable-looking leathers and carrying a bow, with a well-stocked quiver of arrows hanging by a strap over one shoulder. Having just finished the sale of a half-dozen or so squirrels to one of the meat vendors, the elf was passing through the crowd, headed for the Elver, a local watering hole, no doubt to grab a drink before heading back to the forest or wherever it was elven archers hung about.

But then another stranger walked into Ageratum's field of vision, and this one had "POTENTIAL TARGET" practically stamped on his forehead. To say he didn't look like he belonged in the Old Town marketplace was an understatement - he didn't look like he belonged in Old Town at all. He wore fancy clothing of the type favored by the nobility: knee-length pantaloons, high stockings, and polished shoes with prominent buckles; a vest and twin-tailed waistcoat over a frilly white shirt; with a black ribbon neatly tying his light brown hair into a fashionable ponytail. He wore a rapier in a scabbard at his hip and dragged along a carpetbag, looking this way and that in puzzlement as if never having been to market before in his life - Likely the very truth of the matter, Ageratum thought to herself. She saw he wore a silver signet ring on his hand but had turned it around so its emblem faced inward, no doubt thinking that would shield the fact of his nobility from those around him (and not without good reason, as kidnapping the well-to-do was a fairly profitable occupation in this part of the city). Still, the halfling smirked at the thought of him thinking he blended in by doing so, and she vowed to go see what all was in that bag he carried in case there was anything worth pinching to be had.

Unfortunately, the aristocratic young man - not yet having seen twenty summers, if Ageratum was any judge of humans - looked straight at her and headed her way. She immediately broke eye contact and looked away, seemingly disinterested, and tried mentally shooing him away, to no avail.

"I say," the young nobleman said, "are you lost, little girl? Did you get separated from your mother or father?"

Ageratum glared up at him, not at all appreciating being mistaken for a human child. And then the nobleman realized his mistake, as he blurted out, "You--have a bosom! How--? Where did you get--?"

"Beat it, loser!" she snarled. "I'm a halfling, not some damned human brat!"

But this seemed equally as shocking to the young nobleman. "A halfling? You're real?" He reached and touched her shoulder to verify her physicality; Ageratum angrily slapped his hand away. "But--I always thought halflings were mythical beings from fairy stories!" Then, as an afterthought, he murmured to himself, "Perhaps that's why Father wouldn't let me play with that little boy with the sideburns!" But by then the halfling had stormed away, no longer interested in the contents of the carpetbag he clutched tightly in his left hand. There were other, less irritating marks to be had.

"Hey - you!" called over one of the merchants. Alistair looked over at him in surprise, shocked that someone had singled him out to talk to. "Yeah, you - you looking for anything in particular? You seem kinda lost."

Alistair stepped over to the merchant, a seller of some sort of meat pastry, it looked like. The nobleman's stomach churned; he'd never seen anything so inedible in all his life. "I suppose so - a means of earning money, for one thing." Alistair knew on an intellectual level that the lower classes performed various types of work in order to earn their coin and he supposed that was something he was going to have to do now, but he had no idea of how to go about it. Was there a place one went to be assigned employment?

"Lookin' fer work? I hear tell there's a couple of clerics in town, lookin' to hire on a wagon-lackey or two. You could see if they'd hire you."

"Ah, yes, excellent," agreed Alistair. "And what, pray tell, is a wagon-lackey?" The merchant just smirked at the young man's ignorance and pointed him to the Elver, telling him the clerics could be found in there and that they'd be better able to explain. Alistair thanked him and turned about, heading over to the tavern. The merchant just shook his head in disbelief. But Ageratum, who had remained within earshot and overheard the brief conversation, decided to head over to the Elver herself and watch the upcoming spectacle unfold. If nothing else, observing this spoiled-brat fop try to get a job should be interesting.

It was dark inside the Elver, whose main claim to fame was the quality of their eel pies, served either "wet" (the eels still barely alive and wriggling about) or "dry" (the eels having given up and succumbed to their fates). But sure enough, there were four people standing around a table in one corner, two of them wearing the holy symbol of Saint Cuthbert. Of these two, one was much older and rather hideous, with an angled, bald head sporting a few remaining tufts of hair, while the other was a younger man. The man and woman standing with them looked enough alike to likely be siblings, and Alistair was pleased to see they wore respectable clothing, not the rags that seemed to pass for appropriate garb among the rabble of Old Town. Still, Alistair wanted there to be no possibility of being seen by any of his friends or acquaintances and it was highly unlikely he'd run into any of them here, which was how he found himself in Old Town in the first place.

Alistair waited beside the siblings for a break in their conversation and then looked over at the uglier of the clerics, assuming his greater age made him the one in charge. "Excuse me," he said. "I understand you're looking for a wagon-lacker." Across the room, Ageratum nearly choked on the ale she'd just been delivered and of which she had only now taken her first sip.

"You do, do you?" sneered the elder cleric. "That's what you understand, is it? Well, yes, I'm puttin' together a wagon train that'll be heading to the boomtown in Ghourmand Vale and I'm looking to hire on some guard-folk. You think you're up to the task?"

"I should say so," affirmed Alistair with all the bravado of someone who had no idea what he was getting himself into. He had no idea where Ghourmand Vale was or what a boomtown might be, but he knew wagons were much like carriages so he figured he was halfway qualified already.

"Great," replied Father Barbados. "Only I'm in a discussion with these two folks right now, so come back later and we can talk about it. We'll leave in two to three days."

"Two or three days. Ah. Yes," stammered Alistair, wondering where he could sleep in the meantime.

But now the two siblings were sizing up Alistair. "You wouldn't happen to be an adventurer, would you?" the man asked, introducing himself as Carlton Thorpe and his sister as Maya Thorpe.

Alistair turned the thought over in his mind and liked what he saw. "Why, yes!" he agreed. "I can be an adventurer!" He had been a big fan of adventurers since his early days, although his father had disapproved of him wasting his time reading the exploits of such lower-class rabble. But his father no longer had any say in his life, now that he'd cast him out of the family - Alistair was free to make of his life whatever he liked and "Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, Adventurer" had a rather nice ring to it.

"Are you handy with that sword?" asked Maya.

"I have been trained in classical fencing since I was a young lad," Alistair assured her.

"Well, we have a job for a group of adventurers, but I don't think you could handle it by yourself," admitted Carlton. "Would you happen to have any friends willing to join you?"

Alistair gave it some thought, but of course all of his friends were members of the lesser nobility like himself - or like he had been up until this morning, in any case. Alistair was still a little fuzzy on the mechanics of the class system; if Father denounced him and kicked him out of the family, was he still a member of the nobility? He wasn't entirely sure - but he did know he was now persona non grata among his former friends, as nobody was willing to go against the edicts of Lord Ambrose Pastlethwaite. Not even his older brother, Atherton Wilford Pastlethaite to whom Alistair had tried to appeal to put in a good word for his reinstatement. But Atherton, as the eldest son, was the heir to the Pastlethwaite estate and would not go against Father's wishes, not that Alistair could blame him. "I fear not," he answered Carlton Thorpe.

"Well, if we can wrangle up a suitable group, I have a quick mission I'd like to hire you for: fetching our grandfather's crest, buried with him in the family crypt."

"I say," replied Alistair, blanching slightly. "Surely you don't mean...grave-robbing?"

"Not a bit of it!" reassured Carlton. "The old man's lying in state in a tomb that belongs to my family. You need only enter the tomb and bring back the crest. We'd like to take it with us when we depart Greyhawk for Ghourmand Vale. It's no great secret our family's hit upon some hard times..." - and indeed, Alistair could see the cuffs of Carlton's jacket were somewhat frayed and the collar of the dress worn by his sister Maya was the height of fashion...two years ago - "but we'd be able to pay 200 pieces of gold for the successful completion of the task."

"Forgive me," said the blond paladin Ageratum had seen talking to the orphan out in the marketplace. "My name is Harlan Starblade. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation. May I ask the name and location of this tomb?"

"It's the Von Weisswurst tomb," Carlton relied, pronouncing the W's as V's, "and it's about three leagues out of the city."

"Extraordinary," exclaimed the half-elf. "I have already agreed to look into the very same tomb by a young lad who says his father is buried there. I would be happy to aid in your own quest, as I will be there in any case on another matter."

"Very well," agreed Carlton. "That's two, then." Father Barbados grumbled silently into his tankard of ale, not the least bit pleased to have had his own conversation with the Thorpes - who were paying him to join his caravan - sidelined by this tomb business. Beside him, the other cleric, Brother Scrimshaw, busied himself with his own tankard of ale.

"I would be pleased to join both your quest and your caravan," said Chaevaris, stepping up to the table and looking first at Carlton Thorpe and then at Father Barbados. "You leave in two to three days, correct?" the elf asked the elderly cleric. Upon receiving a nod of assent, Chaevaris added, "Then I wish to hire on as security. My archery skills will prove useful not only in fighting off bandits but also in hunting down game along the road." And I wish to depart this city as soon as I can, was the thought left unvoiced.

"If you're going into a tomb, you'll want someone able to overcome locks," pointed out a voice from below the table, which eventually revealed itself as the halfling woman Alistair had mistaken for a "little girl" out in the marketplace as she climbed up onto a chair. "I'm Ageratum Purslane, and did I hear 200 pieces of gold?" Carlton agreed it was indeed and, satisfied the four adventurers would be up to the task he desired done, he gave them directions to the Von Weisswurst tomb.

"Do you have a carriage?" inquired Alistair.

"Perhaps you have forgotten the part about our family having fallen upon hard times," reminded Carlton.

"Ah. So, walking. Yes. Quite."

The four made their way out of the city and down the road towards the tomb, Alistair continually falling behind even the little halfling as he kept picking rocks out of his shoes. But they eventually made their way to the tomb where Funke Von Weisswurst lay in state. The tomb, as had been explained by Carlton Thorpe before their departure, was underground and carved from inside a cave, the entry to said cave being a squat, stone structure in a field bounded by four disused lampposts. As Chaevaris watched, a small, black bird landed on one of the lampposts and squawked loudly. The marble vault held a rusty, iron gate barring entry, but it wasn't much of an impediment as it wasn't even locked, as Harlan discovered when he pulled upon it. With a rusty squeak denoting years since its last oiling, the iron gate swung outward, revealing a sloping ramp leading down into darkness. Both Chaevalis and Harlan could see far enough into the darkness to notice the path branched out into a "Y" shape, the left tunnel being slightly narrower than the right passageway.

"That matches what Carlton said," pointed out the paladin. "One side of the tomb is for the commoners, the other side for the nobility."

"We going in?" asked Ageratum, pulling a sunrod out of her backpack and activating it. She looked at each of the men in turn. "What, none of you brought any means of illumination?" She snorted in disbelief and entered the tomb, the others following behind her. She then tossed the sunrod before her, so it bounced down the slope and ended up alongside the point of the "Y," where the tunnels veered off in two separate directions. Then there was a sudden gasp of air, followed immediately by high-pitched giggling. Chaevaris frowned, unsure if the giggling was a response to the sudden illumination in the darkened tomb. Harlan drew his longsword, peering into the darkness ahead and attuning his senses to the presence of evil. "There is evil ahead," he informed the group.

Eager to show the others he wasn't afraid, Alistair stepped briskly down the ramp until he reached the fork. He, too, had drawn his weapon - a rapier - and held it in his right hand while his left still clung to his carpetbag containing his only possessions in this world. And then, another little girl came speeding down the tunnel from the leftmost branch, skirting past Alistair and rushing down the other path. "There's bad things in the pit!" she screamed as she ran past.

"I say!" declared Alistair, looking to where the girl had run off to, but she was already past the radius of illumination of the sunrod. Ageratum advanced, picked up her light source, and tossed it down the narrower of the two passageways, the way the little girl had come from. This was likely the half of the tomb devoted to commoners. "Anybody hear anything?" she asked the others, straining her ears. There was a hushed voice, saying something in a language very similar to Dwarven - Gnomish, perhaps? - that sounded like, "You have got to be kidding me!" The voice was filled with exasperation.

Harlan continued concentrating on the emanations of evil inside the tomb. "There's evil coming from this direction," he said, indicating the way the girl had gone. "And also from this direction," he added, pointing the way the girl had come from.

"Well, let's go see what we can see," decided Alistair, stepping boldly forward to the left where the sunrod lay upon the carved stone floor - and immediately spilling forward in a heap, having struck his foot on a hidden tripwire. From his new vantage point upon the floor he saw the wall was not all solid - there was a section which moved slightly by his nearby motion. Regaining his footing and poking with the tip of his blade at what ended up being a painted curtain of canvas hanging over a narrow crevice in the stone wall, he was surprised when a dark face popped out at him from the crack - and another, similar face approached from the way the girl had gone. Both beings were small, barely taller than Ageratum, with coal-black skin and white hair. Drow, thought the halfling, before realizing these creatures were more the size of svirfneblin. Some sort of hybrid race between the two, then?

"You're no fun!" announced Smidge, stomping over from the rightmost tunnel.

"No fun at all!" agreed Smudge. "You're supposed to drop whatever you're carrying and run screaming from the vault! Didn't you hear the scary, crazed giggling?" He demonstrated the sound again for the benefit of the four adventurers, then spat out, "Bah!" when they continued to refuse to run away screaming in fear.

"I say," said Alistair, confused at what all was going on here. He turned to the female svirfdrowlin, for lack of a better term. "Did you happen to see a little girl come running by you?"

"She was the little girl," sighed Ageratum, surprised at the thick-headedness of this rich-boy fop. "Illusion magic or something, I'd wager."

"I say!" sputtered Alistair. "That's rather dastardly! To engage in such trickery...." His sentence ended abruptly, as the young nobleman was unsure how to express the full extent of his moral outrage.

"Fat lotta good it did us!" griped Smudge, stomping back into his hidey hole. Smidge followed, unable to slam the canvas curtain behind her but wishing fervently there was a way to do so. Still, they were confident of the four adventurers, only the halfling woman had any chance of squeezing into the narrow entrance of their burrow - perhaps if she were greased down with butter, or something - and they were sure they could fend her off in a two-against-one fight if it came to that.

"Let's go," said Ageratum, picking up her sunrod again and handing it to Harlan. "Maybe you should hold on to this, as you're the one who can sense the sources of evil."

"Were those...people...evil?" Alistair demanded.

"Oh, quite," agreed Harlan, which elicited a quiet "I knew it!" from the still-outraged Alistair.

"Hey, isn't the nobleman section this way?" asked Chaevaris, pointing towards the wider tunnel to the right as the others were heading left. "The crest we're here to collect should be over this way, correct?"

"We must also deal with the 'scary monsters' the boy in the marketplace mentioned," Harlan pointed out, and when it was suggested they were likely no more than the result of the sounds made by the mischievous hybrids the paladin insisted upon checking the whole tomb out just to be sure. Shrugging, Chaevaris notched arrow to bow and followed the others.

"It must be nice to be an elf adventurer," Alistair pointed out to Chaevaris as a means of making conversation. "Rather like Elfy Danger Silverleaf, I imagine."

"What?" demanded Chaevaris, not sure at all what this irritating human child was blathering on about.

"Elfy Danger Silverleaf," repeated Alistair in earnest. "He's a fictional character in a series of children's books. He's an elf adventurer - and you know he's a good one, because 'Danger' is literally his middle name!"

"Did your mother read these books to you?" asked the archer, voice dripping with condescension that went right over the young nobleman's head.

"No, not my mother, Nanny Rogers. Well, at least until I was old enough to read them for myself."

"That must have been a very proud moment for you," Chaevaris admitted dryly. "When was that, last year?"

The passageway to the left widened out into a larger area, basically a square with parallel grooves going from side to side, each groove filled with burial niches and most of the niches containing piles of crumbling bones. However, along the entire eastern wall, three fully intact and animated skeletons were up and about, clawing at the stone wall rather ineffectually, as their attempts at tunneling was wearing down their finger-bones at a much greater rate than it was having any effect upon the stone surface of the wall before them. "Evil," confirmed Harlan, examining them with his enhanced paladin senses. Then he charged forward, pulling a mace from his belt - for he knew from his paladin training that a blunt-headed weapon dealt the most damage against skeletal undead. However, the skeleton he had targeted - the closest - was too intent upon its digging to even notice the attack, even more so when it suddenly shifted to try its luck against a different section of wall and the paladin's mace missed the undead creature entirely. (Ironically, the mace-strike did more damage to the stone wall than the skeleton had been able to do with its feeble clawing.)

Alistair was right behind Harlan, charging in with his rapier drawn. He, however, had not attended any paladin school and had no idea the blade of his weapon was a poor choice of attack against an animated skeleton. He swung his blade across the back of the middle skeleton's ribs, where it made a harmless tune but did not seem to seriously affect the undead creature in any meaningful way.

Chaevaris took careful aim and released the notched arrow, sending it errorlessly striking its target: the skull of the farthest skeleton. However, while the arrow plinked off the bony cranium of the third skeleton it did not even begin to distract it from its digging attempts, so the elf doubted it had dealt the undead thing any great harm.

But then the middle skeleton ceased its digging efforts, as if belatedly realizing it was under attack. It spun about and sent a stone-sharpened pair of claws striking out at Alistair, ripping the lace at his throat and drawing a few parallel lines of blood across his neck. Alistair staggered back with a startled cry of pain, tripping over a loose bone strewn upon the floor and landing on his bottom, while Harlan stepped forward to engage the skeletal attacker with his mace. And then Alistair, heart pumping furiously, called out a few words that caused only puzzlement on the faces of his new-found companions: "Ogilvy, if you please...."

The effect was immediate. A skull, one of the loose bones from one of the nearest niches, rose up in the air and dangled above the skeleton Harlan was fighting, the one who had harmed Alistair. Once directly overhead, gravity kicked back in and it plummeted down upon the skeleton, but struck a merely glancing blow on its shoulder as the undead thing tried clawing at Harlan. Then, as Harlan backed defensively away, the skeleton did something quite surprising: it turned its back on the elf paladin and returned to its clawing at the stone wall. Harlan surmised that for whatever reason, if you didn't attack the skeletons they soon either forgot you were there or were overcome by some mystical compulsion to try to dig their way through the wall.

Chaevaris advanced cautiously forward, with the sudden idea of unstringing the bow so it could be wielded much like a quarterstaff, the canny archer having realized blunt weapons seemed to be the way to go against creatures made up of animated bone. Ageratum had come to the same realization and picked up a human thighbone, wielding it like a club. She slammed it against the skeleton in the middle and it collapsed into a pile of unconnected bones itself. And, somewhat surprising to the halfling rogue, the other two skeletons completely ignored her attack upon their cohort, keeping their single-minded focus upon clawing ineffectually at the stone wall.

Harlan realized these strange undead beings were going to have to be destroyed even if attacking them provoked counterattacks on their part, and stepped forward again to bring his mace swinging in at the first skeleton. He grazed it, just as another skull - or perhaps the same one, as the paladin hadn't been paying that much attention - rose up from the floor, hovered over the skeleton he was fighting, and then plonked down upon it, skull landing upon skull and sending the skeleton falling apart like the other had. That left just the one, and the other three managed to take it down while Alistair was swabbing at his neck with a handkerchief, unconsciously applying a prestidigitation spell to clean off his neck, the lace frills of his shirt, and the handkerchief itself. When he had completed his attentions, there was no blood to be found anywhere.

With the skeletal threat dealt with, Chaevaris turned to Alistair and made an accusation. "You didn't tell us you were a wizard!" the archer complained.

"Wizard?" asked Alistair, his brows lowered in puzzlement. "I'm no wizard - I'm a swordsman!" He staggered to his feet and brandished his rapier as evidence of his claims.

"You cast a spell - I saw it! Or how else do you explain that floating skull?"

"Oh, that - that was Ogilvy, I fear. He was a family servant when my brother and I were young boys, but he died years ago. For whatever reason, his spirit seems to have come back to me recently, mostly to fetch me things and see to my comfort. In fact, it was Ogilvy's presence, I am sure, that caused Father to accuse me of having made a bargain with a demon or devil from the Lower Planes. He seems convinced I was trafficking with demons and sold my soul to learn how to cast spells and he tossed me out of the family, lest I drag down the proud name of Pastlethwaite. Not that I can really blame poor old Ogilvy, though - he was just doing his best to look after me, as he did when he was alive." Alistair looked to the others and saw only expressions ranging from slight disbelief (on the part of Ageratum and Harlan) to outright scoffing (in the case of Chaevaris). "What?" demanded the young nobleman. "It's true!"

"Let's check out the other half of the tomb," suggested Harlan diplomatically. "It seems this half has been cleared of evil." His senses told him the wall the skeletons had been clawing at was still emanating waves of evil, but after several minutes the collapsed skeletons did not seem able to rise back up, so the paladin deemed it safe to move on.

Chaevaris was more than happy to go fetch the Thorpe crest and get out of the tomb and was likewise more than happy to voice that view. They followed the archer back to the "Y" - and noticed neither Smidge nor Smudge had made a reappearance, apparently sulking in their hidey-hole - and heard a series of angry caws coming from the direction of the rusty gate, where a small, black-feathered bird was venting some sort of avian frustration. The group ignored it and followed the elf through a doorway into a wider hall with doors on either side. Approaching the first of these doors, Chaevaris saw a sculpture of a boar's head and the caption, "Von Weisswurst" carved above in fancy calligraphy. "Here we go!" enthused the archer, ready to pull open the door.

"Hold up!" commanded Harlan, looking down the hallway. "There is evil throughout this passageway, but something seems to be blocking it just past the doorway."

"Weird," admitted Chaevaris, who then opened the door, eager to fetch the crest so they could all be on their way.

The chamber behind the door was mostly open, with an uncovered stone coffin surrounded by ropes hanging from the tops of four poles, as if the coffin were some sort of bizarre museum exhibit. Inside the coffin rested the desiccated corpse of an elderly woman. Or mostly desiccated, in any case, for while the rest of her skin was pulled tightly to her bones, her hands seemed almost lifelike, as if blood still coursed through the veins in those appendages. Even more odd was what she held in her hands: a plump, white sausage.

Alistair was oddly captivated by the sausage the dead woman was holding, and not only because during the long trek to the tomb he had finished off the paltry bread and cheese Nanny Rogers had packed in his carpetbag when she hastily gathered together a few of his things after Lord Ambrose Pastlethwaite threw his youngest son out of the family's manor house. Despite there being no illumination in the chamber, Alistair could almost swear the sausage was glowing in the light of Ageratum's sunrod, currently being held by Harlan as he stepped into the room to ensure the corpse in the coffin wasn't about to animate. After the paladin was convinced there was neither danger nor evil here (and Chaevaris was likewise convinced the crest they sought was not present), they turned to exit the room and check out the next door across the hall. But Alistair approached the coffin, reaching a hand out to tentatively touch the sausage.

"What are you doing, you idiot?" hissed Ageratum, as if afraid to talk too loudly in case it awoke the dead woman. Alistair ignored her and pulled the sausage from her hands, lifting it to his nose and smelling it as if it were a fine vintage cigar. It felt plump and juicy in his hands and he opened his mouth to take a bite.

"Are you seriously going to eat something you took from a corpse in a tomb?" hissed the astonished halfling. But Alistair gave no response; he was busy chewing the white sausage that tasted so good in his mouth - he was apparently much hungrier than he had been aware. And the meat not only tasted wonderful, it spread a warm feeling of contentment throughout his body. He wasn't consciously aware of it, but the healing power of the magical sausage closed up the scratches he had received at the sharp claws of the skeleton. He finished the sausage and licked the grease from his fingers, not even paying heed to the uncharacteristic crassness of his actions. "That was good," was all he had to say.

In the meantime, Harlan and Chaevaris had opened both of the doors on the right side of the hallway, in each case finding a solid wall of stone; those "future crypts" had yet to be carved out yet, apparently. That left only one final set of double doors along the same wall as the crypt holding the woman's remains, and Harlan could tell it was emanating a strong aura of evil. The doors also held the boar's-head emblem of the Von Weisswurst family and the name carved in fancy letters above. "The chamber we're about to open should be roughly on the other side of the wall the skeletons were trying to get through," he warned the others before yanking the doors open.

With the light from the sunrod (which the paladin had tucked into the top of his armor, so he could have a hand free and still wield his mace) spilling inside the crypt chamber, Harlan could see another open stone coffin surrounded by ropes, although one of the poles had been tipped over and the rope at the front of the coffin lay upon the ground. The coffin, however, was quite empty - for the body of what could only be Funke Von Weisswurst himself was shambling against the back wall, the same wall the skeletons had been attacking from the other side. As Funke spun around, the newly-minted adventurers could see he wore a family crest around his neck like a necklace, dangling from a heavy, black chain. Funke made a low, groaning sound as he turned to face the light spilling into his tomb.

The light only got brighter as Harlan ran across the room, switching weapons to his longsword as he charged the zombie. His blade went slashing across the undead body's chest, cutting open his garment and his rotting flesh but spilling no blood, for it had been many years since the blood flowed freely in Funke's now-undead body. Alistair followed at the paladin's side, stabbing the tip of his rapier deep into the zombie's stomach and pulling it back out, with little to no wound to show for his efforts. Then Ageratum charged in between the two, slashing at the zombie's lower abdomen with a dagger but failing to hit him, mostly from a desire not to hit either of her new compadres. (She wasn't yet willing to stretch the definition to "friends" - especially with the fop.) Chaevaris stayed in the doorway, firing an arrow at Funke, which pierced the top of his skull but seemed to deal it no particular harm; from that point on the zombie fought with a feathered shaft sticking out of his head like some bizarre, humanoid unicorn.

Funke swung an arm at Harlan but the half-elf easily managed to lean back out of harm's way; zombies, he was learning, were nowhere near as fast as skeletons. But Harlan likewise missed with his own follow-on attack, for the same reason as Ageratum had missed: the adventurers were too bunched up and they feared accidentally catching each other in their own weapon-strikes.

Having seen how ineffectual poking a zombie with a rapier had been, noticing Ageratum had entered battle wielding a pair of daggers, and assuming the halfling knew more about down-and-dirty fighting of undead than his own experience had thus far taught him, Alistair pulled the dagger from his own belt and slashed at Funke's midsection, with both good and bad results. On the plus side, Funke's garment and undead flesh parted before the dagger's blade, scoring a deep gash that unloosened a coil of intestines from the zombie's lower gut; on the down side, an undead zombie's inner guts smelled simply horrible and some of the dripping ichor almost landed on the young nobleman's shoes!

Ageratum stepped to the right so she was flanking the zombie with Harlan, attacking from the opposite side as the paladin. She slashed with both daggers in opposite directions, but her short stature worked against her and she didn't connect with the shambling corpse's gut in the same was as Alistair just had, catching instead nothing but the cloth of the zombie's pants. Another arrow came flying in from the doorway, only to shatter against the stone wall when it missed.

Funke shambled forward, allowing those surrounding it to lash out with their weapons. Alistair got in another lucky hit with his dagger, while Harlan and Ageratum's blades missed as the zombie made a staggering dash forward, seeking exit from his tomb. Right as he was about to run into Chaevaris - who had not expected the shambling thing to have moved so quickly and was scrambling to unsheathe a rapier from its scabbard - Harlan charged it from behind, practically slicing through Funke's spine. The undead nobleman fell to one knee, then toppled over, its lifeless body now bereft of whatever animating spirit had given it movement. Without a word, Chaevaris pulled the necklace containing the crest from around the zombie's neck. "Good job, everyone," said the elf. "Anyone opposed to getting out of here and turning this in to the Thorpes so we can cash in our reward?"

Nobody was opposed to the archer's plan.

However, upon retracing their steps back to the creaking gate, they found themselves facing a pair of dirt-smeared humans wielding short swords. "We'll take that crest," said Bargle.

"Awful friendly of you to fetch it for us," added Margus, "but we'll go ahead and take it back to Mr. Thorpe. But you all get to live, so take that for what it's worth. Now hand it over."

As one, the other three adventurers turned and looked at Harlan Starblade. He anticipated their questions and replied with a single word, the result of his examining the auras emanating from each: "Evil." That was all they needed to hear; they readied their weapons, assumed defensive postures, and Chaevaris taunted, "Come and get it, humans!" while firing off an arrow that just missed Bargle's head - but passed close enough to part his hair.

Roaring in defiance, the two sword-wielding commoners charged into the group, thinking they'd turn and flee before their onslaught and they could easily stab them in the backs. But the fledgling adventurers had determined these two bumpkins posed no real threat and stood their ground. Ageratum slashed at Margus's knee with her dagger, cutting through his raggedy pants leg and causing a stream of blood to soak down his leg and into his worn boot. He tried decapitating the halfling, but she easily ducked beneath his blade and it passed harmlessly over her head.

Harlan swung his longsword and cut right through Bargle's midsection, causing him to topple forward and collapse in a heap at the paladin's feet, the life having already fled his body. Chaevaris backed up enough to be able to shoot another arrow at Margus, but this one also missed, as did the next few attacks from Ageratum and Alistair, the inexperienced heroes once again bunching up too close together and getting in each other's way. It was Harlan, again, who struck the killing blow, this time channeling Pelor's power through his blade in a smiting attack that took the would-be thief's life.

"Obviously no Guild training," scoffed Ageratum quietly to herself. Everyone seemed to think you could just up and decide to be a thief, that it was as easy as just wishing to have the skills needed to make a successful living at the more morally questionable ways of earning coin. For these two, it was a mistake that had cost them everything, but Ageratum had no pity for the stupid fools. Blinded by greed, no doubt.

Chaevaris picked up the two short swords dropped by the pair of thugs and looked them over. Then, having decided, the archer stated, "I'll take this one" and slid it behind the belt holding the rapier's scabbard. They decided to leave the bodies where they lay, a feast for the crows. And speaking of crows, a black crow - or a bird very much like a crow, in any case - had regained its perch on one of the unused lampposts and was cawing away in irritation. "Stupid bird," scoffed Alistair as the quartet made their way out of the burial field and back the way they had come. "I wonder what his deal is?"

Upon returning to the Elver and meeting back up with Carlton and his sister Maya - who had taken rooms upstairs in the meantime - Chaevaris turned over the family crest and the heavy black necklace it hung from. "Any trouble retrieving it?" Carlton asked.

"Nothing we couldn't handle," answered the archer smugly. Carlton passed over a single amethyst as payment, causing Chaevaris to balk. "And how are we to split this evenly among us?" the elf demanded. Carlton Thorpe directed the group to a gem-cutter, where the amethyst was indeed valuated at 200 pieces of gold and sold for the same amount. Chaevaris counted out 50 pieces of gold for each of the four adventurers.

"The caravan leaves for Ghourmand Vale in a couple of days," Harlan reminded the group. "I have been sent out into the greater world to perform good deeds, and that seems as likely a destination as any. I intend to sign on as a member of the security forces."

"I plan on doing the same," announced Alistair. At least if he was out of Greyhawk City he'd have less of a chance of running into any of the noblemen who knew him in what he must now consider his previous life as a member of their upper-class society. "What about you, Elfy?"

Chaevaris glared at the idiot nobleman, mentally repeating, He's only a child, he's only a child.... "I was planning on doing the same." It was as good a way of escaping the general area as any other, and the archer was more than eager to be some distance away as quickly as possible.

"What about you, Miss Purslane?" asked Alistair, surprising the halfling not only in the silly fop having actually remembered her name, but treating her as if she were of a higher station in society than she truly belonged in.

"I haven't decided," she said, figuring she still had a couple of days to see if it was okay with her Guildmaster. After all, she'd been to a few cities and town out west in the areas they'd likely be passing on the trail to Ghourmand Vale; it was possible she could perform some Guild business if she joined the caravan. "We'll have to see."

- - -

Well, this was the first game session in our brand new campaign, and we all had fun trying out our new characters. I did hit a bit of a snag, though: right at the end of the fight with Funke the zombie, I got a phone call and had to go back into work, as I was on call that week and there was an emergency that needed attending to by someone from my office. So I didn't actually get to finish out the adventure with everyone else; I had my son Logan run Alistair along with Chaevaris and he also picked up another duty of mine: jotting down quick notes on what happened during the adventure so I could take that skeletal outline and flesh it into this Story Hour post.

With the exception of my nephew Harry, who doesn't like to put a whole lot of effort into a backstory for his PCs, we've all got some secrets known only to ourselves and the DM, Dan. I provided a bunch of family background and explained how I intended to run Alistair as a sorcerer who wasn't even aware he was casting spells (at least at first); Logan gave Dan extensive details about his archer PC's family and apparently there's a reason Chaevaris wants to get out of the local area pretty quickly; Vicki wanted Ageratum to belong to a thieves guild somewhat like that of the Gentlemen Bastards in the Scott Lynch "Locke Lamora" series of novels, and her halfling PC has apparently been to a few of the cities and towns we'll be stopping at (or at least passing by), providing plenty of opportunities for plot hooks along the way. And Dan has been loving all of the details we've given him, stating he has plenty of material just in that stuff alone to power a dozen or more adventures.

I should probably also explain the white sausage. Personally, I'm with Vicki: eating anything you found being cradled by a dead body in a tomb is probably not a good idea. But I had Alistair do so for two main reasons: I was down from 6 hp to 1 hp from a single hit from that skeleton and I knew none of us had, in this very first adventure, any source of healing whatsoever. (Dan had provided two NPC clerics for the excursion to Ghourmand Vale so we'll have some healing available during the trip, but neither of them came along on this side-quest for the Thorpes.) Putting in a sausage of cure light wounds seemed to me - having known Dan for several decades now - to be something he'd be likely to do. At work the next day I asked him whether the sausage of cure light wounds had been an original part of his adventure or if he'd just added it in once he saw it was needed, and he admitted it was very much the latter - he didn't want another stray hit from a monster to slay my sorcerer before the campaign really even got off the ground. However, we now have 50 gp each - the exact cost of a potion of cure light wounds - so if we end up without a source of healing next adventure, then it's entirely on us. (That said, it sounds like we'll be jumping ahead next game session to the beginning of the caravan's journey, so we'll have Father Barbados and Brother Scrimshaw with us.)

Finally, Dan held off on the meeting between Alistair and his grackle familiar, given I wasn't present there when the event would have unfolded. (By the time I got back from the emergency at the office, the game session had been finished for over an hour - I missed the last 30 minutes of the night's adventure.) We'll probably have that meeting occur at the beginning of next session.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 1​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 1​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 1​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 1​

Game Session Date: 22 June 2022

- - -

Eight days into the overland trek that Father Barbados had estimated was likely to be a 19-day journey, the four fledgling heroes had settled into the roles they had been assigned as part of the wagon train. Harlan was put in charge of security of the church's wagons - the others in the caravan were in theory responsible for the security of their own mounts and vehicles, but many of them assumed if there was going to be any trouble the heroes guarding the wagons of the clerics of Saint Cuthbert would take care of it - which meant he set up the rotating guard shifts for the night hours. He was also in full armor all day, ready to respond to any attacks by bandits or wandering monsters deciding to try their hand at grabbing up a traveler or two as a snack. Chaevaris was the group's scout, generally traveling up to a mile ahead of the rest of the caravan, ever alert for danger and generally capable of spotting it and dealing with it alone or sprinting back to the caravan with a warning of what to expect ahead. Alistair had been charged with keeping the wagons in general good repair, which mostly meant applying thick, sticky grease to the axles on a recurring basis - a chore he generally subcontracted to "Ogilvy," what he believed to be the ghostly spirit of a servant the Pastlethwaites had employed when Alistair and his brother were young but was in fact an unseen servant spell the nascent sorcerer had been casting unknowingly. Ageratum had been assigned the role of cook's assistant, which was fairly important since the primary cook - Brother Scrimshaw, whose knowledge about cooking could only be kindly referred to as "marginal" at best - left much to be desired. (Although Alistair wasn't particularly put out by the poor quality of the rations, as he unconsciously cast a prestidigitation spell before each meal and greatly enhanced the quality of the taste of Brother Scrimshaw's grub.)

Besides the two clerics who had organized the caravan and the Thorpes, the brother and sister who had hired the heroes to fetch their grandfather's family crest before they had even left Greyhawk City on their journey west, there was a small group of dwarves, another group of elves, and a few humans, all with their own beasts of burden carrying their owners' goods in wagons or carts or on heavy packs upon their backs. Some caravan members rode in the carts or wagons pulled by the horses and mules, while others walked; Alistair was glad he had made the smart purchase of a traveler's outfit - including comfortable boots - for the lengthy journey to Ghourmand Vale, and while he rode in one of the wagons whenever feasible, he had put in quite a lot of miles on foot these past eight days. But he also kept a wary eye out, for despite never actually having seen anyone spying upon him, he had felt off and on a definite sense of being watched.

Four days of travel had led the group to the city of Dyvers, while another four after that had brought them close to the Gnarley Forest; they camped for the night with the vast spread of trees just barely visible in the far distance. Brother Scrimshaw and Ageratum readied the evening meal as the others set up the tents and gathered up firewood to keep the cook-fires going, while Harlan ensured everything was locked down and he knew where each cart and wagon was located, and where every member of the caravan would be sleeping. As Chaevaris's elven heritage allowed for a minimal need for rest, the archer usually took a four-hour stretch of the night's guard shift, usually with Ageratum and Harlan each taking a two-hour shift. The clerics were left to sleep, so they'd have plenty of rest which would allow them to replenish any spells they might have cast during the previous day - other than a few potions and scrolls of cure light wounds the heroes had purchased with the money they'd earned from the Thorpes for retrieving the Von Weisswurst family crest, the Cuthbertians were the caravan's sole source of healing - and the general consensus between the other three was it was probably best to let Alistair get a full night's sleep, since he was apparently some sort of wizard even if he didn't seem to realize it himself. (Chaevaris was particularly insistent the young nobleman had somehow caused a skull to levitate and drop upon the animated skeletons they'd been fighting in the Von Weisswurst tomb.) Plus, without actually saying anything to Alistair, everyone probably slept better knowing their safety was not in the hands of the inexperienced rich-boy fop, who wasn't likely to know how to react if some sort of danger reared its ugly head.

But fortunately for those on guard duty, the eighth night passed uneventfully - until the screams woke the rest of the caravan up just as the sun was rising the following morning. The elven family had awakened from their nightly reverie to discover one of their children missing. As everyone was awakened by the elven mother's panicked screams, there was a commotion over at one of the wagons led by a family of human commoners - they, too, had a daughter missing.

A quick search throughout the camp convinced everyone the two missing girls were not hiding anywhere - and, in fact, unearthed a set of tracks near the wagons where the girls had been sleeping. One of the dwarven travelers nodded knowingly and said, "Aye, these be th' tracks o' kobolds, they be - mine vermin, th' lot o' them!" Father Barbados quickly lined out a plan: the caravan would stay exactly where it was for the moment, while the four heroes followed the tracks to fetch the girls back from the kobolds and return them safely to their families. (The unspoken alternative, in the case the girls had already been slain and eaten by the time the heroes caught up with them, was to avenge their deaths by slaying the kobolds responsible and returning the girls' bodies to their families for burial.) In the meantime, one of the elves would ride at top speed to the nearest town to fetch a group of men capable of providing security for the stopped wagon train until the heroes' return with the girls.

Harlan and Chaevaris wasted no time putting their armor back on, while Ageratum and Alistair gathered up their gear. Alistair opted to leave behind his carpetbag containing all of his worldly possessions; while the little halfling had helped him, with a few strands of thin rope, fashion a pair of straps that would allow him to wear it upon his back in the same manner as a backpack, there wasn't really anything in it the young nobleman felt he would need with him on a rescue mission - it mostly contained the nobleman's outfit he'd been wearing when his father kicked him out of the family (including those fashionable leather shoes with the buckles that had proven to be ill-suited to a life of adventuring), as well as a few extra items like his favorite book of elven poetry. But he had his waterskin and his rapier sheathed in its scabbard at his belt, as well as the potion of cure light wounds he'd bought in Greyhawk City once it became quite apparent to the young nobleman just how dangerous the life of an adventurer could be. He was all set - and, oddly, he was feeling an odd sort of mental "tug" toward the Gnarley Forest to the north. Perhaps Ogilvy was trying to tell him which way the kobolds had taken the girls?

Chaevaris led the way, as a keen pair of elven eyes was particularly well-suited to following kobold tracks through the wilderness, especially when said elven eyes belonged to an archer whose entire family had been raised to live off the land. And the trail did indeed lead to the north, towards the Gnarley Forest. It wasn't particularly difficult to determine which way the kobolds had taken the girls, either, as Chaevaris constantly pointed out drag-marks and reptilian footprints no bigger than Ageratum's. "They weren't even trying to avoid leaving any traces," the wood elf said with scorn.

However, the trail kept on going. The sun reached its zenith overhead and the heroes were still following the kobold tracks, Alistair for one wondering how much farther the blasted kobolds could have gone but not wanting to voice his concerns (knowing full well he'd merely be looked down upon as a whining aristocrat unable to keep up with the more fit members of the lower classes, and he wasn't about to give them the opportunity for such condescension). They ate trail rations on the move, no one wanting to take the time out to stop long enough for a quick meal for fear they'd finally stumble upon the girls a mere minutes too late and have to explain to their parents they probably could have saved them if only they hadn't taken that lunch break. But the afternoon grew long and the sun was over by the trees of the forest and still they were following the kobolds' trail. Alistair had all but given up hope towards dusk, realizing it would soon be too dark for any possible hope of being able to see the kobolds' tracks, when he once again received a feeling as if he were being mentally contacted by the spirit of his long-dead former family servant, this time accompanied by a sense of desperate urgency. "This way, fellows, quickly!" he called, racing to a downed tree trunk at the top of a depression. On the other side of the trunk, at the bottom of the depression, stood two openings into the side of a small hill just beyond: a cave network of some type. He scrambled over the downed trunk, the others following behind him, and peered fruitlessly into the darkness beyond.

"We'll need light sources," replied Chaevaris, striking a light with flint and steel and starting a bullseye lantern glowing with flame. Then, holding it towards the larger of the two cave openings, the archer squinted to see into the cave. Ageratum pulled a sunrod from her pack while Chaevaris suggested someone take the lantern, saying, "I'd do better with both hands free, so I can use my bow."

Say no more," replied Alistair. "Ogilvy, if you please!" In an instant, the lantern was gently tugged from the elf's hand and floated in midair, being held aloft by the unseen servant spell Alistair had just cast without realizing it. Alistair unsheathed his rapier and directed his servant-spirit into the cave, following just behind with Chaevaris at his side, an arrow nocked and ready to fire. Harlan and Ageratum followed directly behind.

There was a short corridor heading west before it made a turn to the north, and from the western end stepped two kobolds. Chaevaris's readied arrow went streaking down the narrow passageway, making a tinking sound as it struck the tip of an ivory horn and went veering off to the side. The kobold threw the shortspear he'd been wielding and it too missed its target, going well above Chaevaris's head. But then the other one followed suit and its small spear hit the archer in the upper arm, the tip stuck in the elf's leather armor. With a snarl of irritation, Chaevaris pulled it free and tossed it aside, not liking having been the first of the group to be bloodied by their foes.

Ageratum snaked her way past the two companions before her and tossed one of her daggers at the first kobold, noting idly that neither reptile seemed to have any backup weapons; apparently they'd be relying upon teeth and claws until they could retrieve their thrown spears. But then she heard a noise from the north and spun in that direction. She couldn't see anything - the bullseye lantern was facing the two kobolds they were dealing with now - but it sounded like there were more kobolds approaching from some distance away to the north.

Harlan moved up, dodging the swipe of a set of claws from the foremost kobold as he brought his sword down upon it. But the little reptile was nimble and the half-elf's blade missed its target. However, it couldn't dodge from everyone at the same time and the tip of Alistair's rapier pierced the little reptile's breast, causing it to yip in pain and surprise. Chaevaris nocked another arrow and let fly, this one also missing its target, the kobold not currently otherwise engaged in melee. But then as one they hurled themselves at these intruders to their den, one going for Alistair and the other for Harlan in a flurry of teeth and claws. They were certainly putting on a great show of fearlessness, but neither managed to connect with their given targets.

Ageratum threw her only remaining dagger at one of the kobolds, who saw it coming in time and managed to dodge it - but was then cut down by a swing of Harlan's longsword. Just that quickly, the kobolds had taken their first casualty. Ageratum scurried forward to gather up the closest of her thrown daggers as the remaining kobold dashed about, avoiding weapon-strikes from Alistair and Harlan and another arrow from Chaevaris. However, it in turn was unable to hit any of its targets with its snapping teeth. Ageratum finally slew it with another thrown dagger, knocking it over into at least unconsciousness; not wanting to take the chance of it surviving, the halfling slit its throat with her blade before wiping the blood off on its scaly hide.

At Alistair's direction, "Ogilvy" spun the bullseye lantern to the north and the group could see a quartet of kobolds approaching, just at the edge of the area of illumination. "They are evil," Harlan announced, seeing he had plenty of time to analyze their auras before they got within spear-chucking distance. He stepped forward into a defensive position, his sword held before him, ready to strike. Alistair copied the paladin's move with his own rapier, as Ogilvy moved off to the side, out of the way. When the kobolds were still a good 80 feet away, Chaevaris released an arrow that struck one of the four kobolds right through the eye, killing him instantly. That gave the elven archer a distinct sense of accomplishment, especially considering all of the arrows that had missed thus far since entering the cave.

The other three raced forward, yipping and yapping with spears held before them, charging the intruders. One headed straight for Harlan - which was a mistake, for the paladin stepped to the side of the spear-tip and stabbed forward with his longsword, skewering the kobold straight through the heart and slaying him instantly. Another, apparently blinded by the bright light, mistook the hovering lantern as being held by something other than an unseen servant spell and viciously attacked it, yipping in surprise when his spear met no resistance by a physical body. Ageratum fetched her other thrown dagger and moved quietly up to the rest of the group, who were at this point eagerly fighting it out with the little reptiles. But despite a whole lot of flailing weapons (on both sides), very little actual hitting the enemy seemed to be going on. One kobold finally managed to poke Harlan in the leg with the tip of his spear; Ageratum was close enough to stab the little beast for the effrontery. Chaevaris brought down another kobold with an arrow strike, having practiced shooting at much shorter distances than those normally used in hunting prey. The last remaining kobold managed to get in another hit on Harlan before the half-elf slew it with his longsword, practically taking the thing's head off with a lateral swing of his blade.

The immediate fight over, the group took a moment to look around. There were bones lying scattered on the floor, the remains of past meals, but none of them looked to be fresh enough (they hoped) to belong to the girls from the caravan. There were two exits from this larger cavern, one to the west and one to the north; after a moment of concentration, Harlan deemed there was a greater concentration of evil to the north than there was to the west, although there were definitely sources of evil in both directions. Judging it prudent to take out the stronger enemies while the heroes were still relatively uninjured - Harlan and Chaevaris were the only ones hit thus far, and neither deemed it necessary to apply any magical healing, opting instead to merely bind their wounds as needed with clean linens from their backpacks - the paladin led the group north, accompanied by the floating bullseye lantern.

In the next room - a shrine of some sort, although it was apparent the symbols of a newer god had been inscribed over the older ones carved into the stone walls of the cavern - came a group of three strange creatures, entering from a passageway leading even further north. These creatures walked upright and were the size of a man, but had sloping, overly-large skulls ending in a distinct muzzle with protruding fangs. The creatures wore naught but a simple loincloth of ragged leather, revealing graying skin covered in knobby warts and protrusions. They spotted the heroes, raised their wooden clubs, and sprang forward into combat with a shared roar of impending triumph.

Alistair stepped forward fully into the temple but then dodged off to one side, raising his rapier in a defensive stance. Chaevaris brought down the first of these norkers with an arrow to the throat, killing it as it fell to the ground and choked on its own blood. Ageratum stepped in front of the archer, both daggers raised for action as soon as any of these hulking brutes got close enough to strike. Harlan followed suit, providing the remaining two norkers a row of three potential foes to fight, behind which an elven archer readied another arrow.

One norker opted to charge at Harlan, perhaps incensed by the holy symbol of Pelor the paladin proudly wore upon the tabard covering his armor. Harlan tried to dodge under the norker's club but wasn't quite fast enough, and then failed to connect when he swung his sword at the brute. The other norker chose to go after Ageratum, perhaps viewing the halfling as the weakest of the group and thus the easiest to kill, but while he managed to hit the nimble rogue she proved him wrong by rolling with the blow, staying on her feet and easily surviving the attack.

Alistair stepped forward and stabbed at the norker who had just attacked Ageratum - incensed at the mind-set of a brute who would deliberately attack a woman, no matter her stature - with his rapier, missing entirely. Chaevaris hit him with an arrow, but the norker merely roared in defiance and kept fighting on, ignoring the shaft sticking out of his midsection. But then Ageratum scurried up, both daggers slashing out in opposite directions as she sliced the brute's belly open, causing it to topple forward and fall to the stone floor, dead.

Harlan and the remaining norker danced around each other, swinging their weapons repeatedly but failing to hit. Alistair tried stabbing the norker and Chaevaris tried shooting it, neither with any luck. But then Ageratum snuck in and stabbed a dagger deep into its side, killing it while it had been concentrating on its larger foes. That'll teach it! the halfling thought, before realizing it was no longer in any position to learn anything ever again. She contemptuously wiped her bloody blades clean on his snout. "Now what?" she asked.

Harlan took a moment to unroll one of his two scrolls of cure light wounds, patching up the worst of his battle damage before leading the group to the passageway headed further north. "I say!" Alistair said upon entering what had apparently been at one point a kobold's throne room - Perhaps before the tribe of reptiles had been taken over by those larger brutes, the nobleman theorized. But he had Ogilvy cast the light from Chaevaris's bullseye lantern all around the room, while the archer used the inherent senses all elves gained at birth to see if there were any secret passageways out of what otherwise seemed like a dead-end room.

"There - in the corner!" called out the wood elf, pointing to the remains of a hanging curtain that had no doubt at one point been a vibrant green. Pulling it aside, Alistair saw a narrow passageway leading down into darkness. "This way with the lantern, if you please, Ogilvy!" the nobleman called out, following his unseen servant down a winding passageway that had to have led them at least 20 feet lower than the caverns above. About halfway down, the young aristocrat picked up the sound of a female voice singing - and in Elven, at that!

Arriving at the bottom of the winding passageway, Alistair saw two girls, one an elf and the other a human, both looking to be about seven summers old (although the nobleman realized the elf was probably several decades older than she appeared, given the elven slow rate of growth), sitting at the edge of stone ringing a fountain of water springing up from the ground. The spring water was slightly luminous, Alistair noted, as the human girl washed her face in the waters from the pool and the elf girl sang her song. "I say!" Alistair called as they shot a worried glance in his direction once they noticed the light from the bullseye lantern being directed their way. Then he switched to the Elven tongue, a language in which he had been tutored for many years. "Don't worry; we're from the caravan - we were sent to bring you back to your parents!"

"You talk funny," pointed out the elven girl in much more fluent Elven than Alistair had mastered.

"How did you get down here?" Chaevaris asked the elven girl in her own language, uncertain whether she spoke the Common tongue.

"Those little monsters gave us to the bigger monsters, who made us stay in the room upstairs," the elf child replied. "When they stepped out of the room, we found the tunnel down here. I don't even know if they know this place is down here! But the water is very refreshing, and they hadn't given us anything to eat or drink, so we helped ourselves." Alistair took the opportunity to refill his waterskin from the fountain, noting he'd nearly emptied it on the trip to the kobold lair. Harlan and Chaevaris each drank directly from the fountain, finding it had a magical effect, healing up the worst of their remaining wounds. Quick experimentation determined the fountain's effects affected each person but once, although it was possible it might heal them further again after a suitable amount of time had passed.

"Are you taking us back to the wagons now?" asked the human girl. "I want my Mum."

"Well, it's a long way away and it's getting dark outside," replied Harlan. "And we've...taken care of a lot of monsters upstairs, but we're not sure if there are any more up there or not. So I think the best thing for now is for you two to stay here where it's safe, while we go back up and make sure there are no other monsters to bother us. Then we can all go home tomorrow. How does that sound?"

"No!" cried the little girl. "I want to come with you!" Ageratum volunteered to stay with the girls in case they were afraid the heroes would leave without them, but they insisted - quite stridently - on coming with. Eventually, Ageratum agreed on behalf of the whole group, telling them they could come with them if they stayed well back from any monsters and stayed quiet. They promised, and Ageratum in turn promised the others she'd personally look after them. The girls seemed to take a shine to the little halfling at once; she was, after all, not only the closest thing they had to a mother figure at the moment but was also about their own size. "I'll keep them safe, too," Chaevaris promised.

"All right then," agreed Harlan. "Let's go." He led the six of them back up to the kobold throne room, well aware there had been that other source of evil emanations coming from the west, plus a passageway further east of where they had first entered the kobold warren.

Retracing their steps through the kobold throne room and the converted worship shrine (with Ageratum telling the girls to cover their eyes so they didn't see the dead bodies of the scary monsters and making sure they complied), Harlan led the group to the kobold hall with all of the scattered bones. A side passageway to the west led a short distance and then veered back north in a dog-leg before coming to a dead end. However, in that dead end stood two more kobolds with shortspears, as well as a few crawling, lizardlike infants and a bunch of leathery eggs yet to hatch the pair seemed to be guarding. The kobolds were the smallest the group had encountered thus far, possibly being much younger in age. Still... "Evil?" asked Alistair, turning to the half-paladin for confirmation.

"Evil," replied Harlan. That was all Alistair needed to hear; he ran forward and poked one of the kobold babysitters in the torso with the point of his rapier. Chaevaris hit the other one with an arrow, as it struck Alistair with its spear; shortly after, Harlan crossed the room and cut it down with his longsword. Ageratum hung back with the two girls while Chaevaris took out the remaining kobold with another well-placed arrow, and then the three took to wiping out the others, Chaevaris going so far as burning the unhatched eggs after dousing them with a flask of oil.

"Back to the front entrance," Harlan ordered, leaving the carnage behind and leading the group to the twin openings back outside. But then, rather than heading outside, he took the other passageway leading to the eastern side of the warren, which after a quick exploration led to a sort of assembly hall filled with weapon racks and barrels, all empty. Further north there was a stable of sorts smelling of fish and musk. There were a few sets of tack and harness, which along with the musky smell led Chaevaris to hazard a guess the kobolds had a few dire weasels they rode into battle. "They're probably out on a raid," the archer guessed, not realizing at the time just exactly how accurate that statement was.

By then, it was full night outside and Harlan confirmed his initial decision it was safer to spend the night here and get a good, fresh start back to the caravan in the morning. Chaevaris gave the entire warren a good look around and found no other secret passageways, other than discovering a set of camouflaged doors in the weasel stables leading outside. At some point during the archer's searching the duration of Alistair's unseen servant spell expired, sending the bullseye lantern crashing to the stone floor of the cave. "Ah, good!" exclaimed Alistair. "Ogilvy must have sensed there was no longer any danger and departed. Poor thing; it must be tiring for the old boy to manifest as long as he does."

Harlan, however, was not willing to put any stock in an unseen spirit's assessment of the overall safety of the situation and decided Ageratum and the girls would spend the night down in the relative safety of the fountain chamber, while the other three took turns on guard duty upstairs in case any of the kobolds or norkers returned during the night. But the night passed uneventfully - even though Alistair fervent wished he'd brought his bedroll along, although just how he'd have been expected to realize the kobolds would have taken the kidnapped girls so far away was beyond him - and the next morning, Chaevaris woke the two men and the three of them went down to the fountain chamber. There, they each drank their fill (and sure enough, the healing properties of the water apparently kicked in anew each day), then started their day-long trek back to the caravan. Ageratum took the time to snatch up all of the kobolds' shortspears that still seemed to be in halfway decent condition, figuring they were well-sized for her and would make good walking sticks for the girls on the way back, if nothing else.

As expected, the journey took all day, but Chaevaris kept them all going in the right direction, and was even able to direct them to several berry bushes after first deeming them safe to eat. They finally caught site of the caravan an hour or so past twilight - they hadn't been able to travel as quickly with the girls as they had when tracking the kobolds, and needed to take several breaks throughout the long trek - and walked into camp, to the surprise and joy of the caravan members, especially the families of the two girls. But there were several strange faces among the group, as Brother Scrimshaw explained to the heroes. "These are men from Celene," he said. "One of the elves rode out to gain their assistance, and it was a good thing they did - we were attacked while you were gone."

"Attacked?" asked Ageratum. "By who?" Alistair bit back the temptation to correct her by saying, "By whom?" - having learned his new companions did not seem to care as much about such things as did the young nobleman.

"A band of kobolds, two of them riding giant weasels," the cleric of Saint Cuthbert answered. "We fought them off, but there are plenty of wounded, and it was all Father Barbados and I could do to provide enough healing. He was injured fairly badly in the attack, too, I might add. He's sleeping in the wagon."

"Were there any norkers among the raiders?" asked Chaevaris.

"Norkers? Nope, nothing like that - just the kobolds." He took them over to where the bodies of the slain raiders - and their two mounts - had been dumped, off a bit away from the rest of the wagons. Harlan squatted down and lifted a crude symbol worn about the neck of a slain kobold, hanging by a piece of leather thong. "Hmm," he grunted, lifting it up to the others. "Anybody recognize it?"

Ageratum did. "That's the symbol that was scratched into the walls of the kobold shrine, over the older ones."

Harlan nodded. "It's the unholy symbol of Iuz," he said, dropping the wooden carving and letting it fall back on the dead kobold's chest.

By then, the elven girl had dragged her parents over to the heroes. "We give thanks for the rescue of our daughter," the elven man proclaimed in his own language. "Please, allow us to repay you with these tokens of our appreciation." Their honor demanded as much and they would not be swayed, so Harlan was given a masterwork elven longsword; Chaevaris was gifted a suit of elven chainmail; Ageratum was presented a masterwork short sword built for someone of her size, and Alistair was granted a masterwork silver dagger. "I will treasure this always," the nobleman replied in the Elven tongue, and if the girl's father winced at the human's horrific accent he had the good grace to at least appreciate the attempt.

Seeing this, the human girl's parents approached the heroes as well. "We're mere peasants, without much in the way of money or goods to properly thank you for bringing our daughter back to us, safe and sound," the mother said while hugging the seven-year-old tight to her side, "but when we get to Ghourmand Vale, you're all welcome to stay with us if you've nowhere else to go. We don't have much, like I say, but we do have a small home there waiting for us." Harlan thanked them for their generosity and excused himself to see about setting up security for the wagon train's members. He wasn't at all surprised to see the other wagons were taking the idea of setting up guards a bit more seriously now, instead of leaving it all to the fledgling heroes. The warriors from Celene said their farewells; they'd been more than happy to help out but it seemed the wagon train had their own adventurers back and they sought to get back to their own families. Brother Scrimshaw blessed them and sent them on their way with a small bag of coins for their assistance.

Harlan finished his guard shift late that night and was waking up Chaevaris when they both heard a noise. The archer, scrambling into armor and grabbing up bow and quiver while the paladin went to check it out, squinted out into the darkness - for the clouds were heavy and most of the watch-fires had burned low. They could make out a few small figures, shambling around as if drunk, making an erratic bee-line for the Thorpe wagon. As the two heroes approached the figures, Harlan saw they were two kobold zombies on foot and one riding upon the back of a dire weasel, the furry creature also apparently having joined the ranks of the undead.

Harlan cried out an alarm as he rushed toward the closest zombie, channeling Pelor's power through his new elven longsword as he brought it down in a smiting attack, but the staggering zombie managed to sway away from the blade at the last moment, whether intentionally or not being somewhat difficult to determine. Ageratum crawled out from under the wagon where she'd been sleeping, darting forward with her two daggers in hand, slashing at the nearest zombie but getting her foot caught up in her bedroll, which threw off her attack. Alistair attacked the undead dire weasel with his silver dagger, idly wondering if silver weapons had any special properties against undead - he dimly recalled, from the "Elfy Danger Silverleaf" stories he'd read as a young lad, that they were the weapons of choice against dreaded werebeasts. The elven blade hit true, sinking up to the hilt into the weasel's stinking flesh, and Alistair pulled it back out again, sad to see the wound had not caused the creature to bleed, but then belatedly realizing a zombie wasn't likely to bleed in any case - Funke Von Weisswurst certainly hadn't, and that was the young nobleman's only other experience with zombies.

The zombie Harlan had attacked swung a feeble arm towards the paladin's direction - quite easily avoided - while the one Ageratum had targeted shambled over her way. The dire weasel snapped its nasty rodent teeth at Alistair, catching him on the arm, while the rider on its back swayed to and fro, apparently in undeath unable to regain the riding expertise it had mastered in life. Harlan responded by swinging his new blade down at the kobold zombie who had attacked him, nearly severing one arm from the shoulder; it dangled from a hunk of muscle connecting it to the severed bone. The zombie suddenly sprouted an arrow shaft in its sternum, courtesy of Chaevaris's keen eye and well-strung bow. Then Ageratum made the killing blow with her daggers, sending the corpse to the ground where it once again lay motionlessly in the dirt.

Alistair stabbed ineffectually at the undead dire weasel and then fell back, grabbing his bleeding arm and hoping a bite from a zombie wasn't automatically horrifically disease-ridden. The weasel turned to Harlan, its next-closest target, and snapped its teeth at the half-elf, who easily dodged the slow-moving attack. But then the other kobold zombie headed his way as well. Harlan swung at the newcomer, slicing through the muscles of its chest, causing it stagger backwards a step before moving forward once again. Chaevaris launched another arrow at the kobold zombie, hitting it square on - not that the undead thing even seemed to notice.

Ageratum stabbed at the weasel and then stepped back a safe distance, having noted their speed was one distinct advantage the heroes had over these slow-moving, shambling corpses. But Alistair was apparently no longer willing to get within biting distance of the zombies, calling out, "Ogilvy, if you please!" At once, a rock rose up from the ground and maneuvered its way through the air before dropping down upon the kobold zombie with the arrow shaft sticking out of its chest; the rock hit the arrow and was deflected away and Ogilvy was entreated by Alistair to pick it back up and try again.

Harlan slashed at the zombie with his masterwork longsword, the blade ripping through undead scales and the muscle beneath. Then he too stepped back, allowing the zombie to come to him - better it waste its time in staggered movement rather than attacking with teeth or claws. Chaevaris, irritated that arrows weren't doing a whole lot against these lumbering undead, charged the standing zombie with a dagger, missing the jerking creature entirely. Ageratum used both of her daggers against the dire weasel zombie, dropping it instantly to the ground and causing its undead kobold rider to stumble from its back and try to attack the heroes while standing - however wobbly - on its own two feet. As Ogilvy dropped a rock and once again missed with it, the zombie struck a slow-moving limb in Chaevaris's direction. Harlan stabbed it and stepped back; Chaevaris stabbed at it, missed, and stepped back. Ageratum got in a hit and stepped back, and now it was almost a kind of game, seeing how long the heroes could "steer" the zombies one way or another, the undead not ever quite catching up to their living prey. Chaevaris, flanking a zombie with Harlan, managed to cut it down with a dagger-strike to the head - that was more like it!

There was now only one kobold zombie remaining. Ogilvy dropped a rock on its noggin as Ageratum stabbed it in the gut and stepped back. The zombie followed after the halfling, allowing Harlan, Chaevaris, and Ageratum to each get in an attack, neither of which managed to deal the undead reptile any harm at all. The zombie got in a lucky strike at Chaevaris, slashing its ragged claws along the elf's arm, but then Harlan brought it down with a final slash of his blade. "Is everyone okay?" he asked the others, getting responses indicating while there were wounds to be tended to, nobody was in any desperate need of healing.

"What caused them to animate?" Ageratum asked.

"Yes, quite, and why just those and not all of them?" Alistair added. There didn't seem to be any major differences between the three kobolds and the others who had failed to return to an unholy semblance of life, nor did the other slain dire weasel have any original wounds any worse than the one who had reanimated for whatever unknown reason. It was Chaevaris who came to the realization the four corpses that had animated had all been the physically closest to the Thorpes' wagon - and, the archer recalled, they had originally been heading directly for the Thorpes' wagon before being engaged in battle by the four-person wagon security team.

Harlan activated his paladin senses and scoured the slain zombies' bodies for any signs of evil; now that they were "dead" once again they had no such emanations of evil seeping from them - they were no more evil than the ground below them. However, turning about and facing the wagon containing the Thorpe siblings, the paladin got a distinct sense of evil coming from inside the wagon.

"That family crest!" Chaevaris gasped. "I'll bet that thing's evil - and that's why those skeletons were trying to get to it! It somehow animates and calls out to the undead it creates!"

Harlan pounded on the Thorpes' enclosed wagon and rose them from their slumber. "We'd like to see that family crest," Harlan told Carlton Thorpe, explaining their suspicions.

"Ridiculous!" scoffed Carlton - as the paladin realized he was getting a slight reading of evil coming from both Carlton and his sister Maya. But he brought forth the crest the heroes had unearthed from his grandfather's tomb and Harlan examined it closely. To his surprise, he picked up no evil emanations from it.

"Is there a way it might be magically shielded?" asked Alistair, subconsciously casting a detect magic spell just as he was wishing there was some way to tell if the crest was magical in any way. Just like that, he suddenly knew - in the deepest recess of his being - the Von Weisswurst family crest was magical in nature; perhaps Ogilvy was sending him some sort of a signal from beyond the grave? "I knew it!" he told the others. "It's magic!"

"How can you tell?" asked Harlan.

"It's--it's glowing! Can't you see it?" But to the others, it wasn't glowing at all.

"This is pure nonsense," complained Carlton Thorpe, closing back up his wagon and returning to sleep. The heroes vowed to bring their suspicions to Father Barbados in the morning; for now, the wounded cleric needed his sleep.

"But why would Father Barbados allow an evil brother and sister to join his wagon train?" asked Alistair, turning to Harlan. "Surely, as clerics, they could have detected the Thorpes' evil as easily as you?"

Harlan had no answer, but Ageratum did. "I think you'll find," she said, "that coin from evil folks spends just as well as coin from those of a nicer disposition."

"Hmm," frowned Alistair. He didn't like the explanation, but it would probably have to do. In the meantime, he helped the others drag the bodies of the zombies farther away from the wagons than the corpses of the kobolds and dire weasels that hadn't animated in the middle of the night.

- - -

So, two adventures down and we're already nearly halfway to reaching Ghourmand Vale! We're also well over the halfway point to 2nd level; after the next adventure we'll all undoubtedly level up.

The "feelings" Alistair has been getting - and which he's ascribed to the spirit of Ogilvy - are in fact coming from the nascent empathic link with his grackle familiar, who has been trailing them (hence the feeling of being watched) and saw the kobold raiders exiting the weasel stables as our group was approaching from another direction. Eventually Alistair will clue in that the bird is his familiar, but first he has to realize he's actually a sorcerer - and who knows how long that'll take?

We went through a real dry spell where most of our dice were out to get us; I think we once went two full rounds where nobody rolled a d20 that resulted in a two-digit number. That certainly didn't help shorten the combat any, and Dan had said he was afraid this one might go a bit long. (He was right, too - we played from about 6:40 PM to just before 10:00.) But at least I didn't get called away back to work at the end of the adventure, so that was a plus.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 1​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 1​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 1​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 1​

Game Session Date: 6 July 2022

- - -

"Give it here," demanded Father Barbados. Reluctantly, Carlton Thorpe turned over his family crest to the cleric's care. The four heroes had explained to the good Father the events of the previous evening, to include their belief the Von Weisswurst crest had been responsible for the animation of the three kobold zombies and the undead dire weasel they'd been forced to fight off to save the wagon train's sleeping members.

"It's perfectly harmless," complained Carlton Thorpe. "I don't know what these four are on about." Harlan had taken Father Barbados aside before they approached the Thorpes' wagon and explained the evil the young paladin had sensed in both Carlton and his sister Maya. Barbados had cast a detect evil spell of his own and confirmed the paladin's claims, but the Thorpes were part of his wagon train and he'd not send them away after they'd paid for safe passage, the same as any of the others.

"Be that as it may," Father Barbados explained, "I'll keep this in me own wagon fer th' time bein'. Once we get t' Ghourmand Vale, I'll be a-wantin' t' have it looked at by a feller I know. I give ye me word ye'll get it back after that." And that was the cleric's last word on the subject; Carlton Thorpe had no real recourse but to take the wagon master at his word.

"Very well," he agreed, a sour look upon his face. "See that I do!"

"Let's get t' packin' up," suggested Barbados. "It's time we were on our way!" Alistair saw to the loading of the church's wagons, stowing the tents and the cooking utensils they'd used to prepare their brief breakfast. Then he looked down over by the remains of the fire, its embers doused with the leftover water from the cookpot. There, on the ground beside the smoking ashes, stood a dark bird looking up at him.

"Oh great," grumbled Alistair. "That blasted crow is back!"

"That's not a crow," explained Chaevaris, head shaking in exasperation. "That's a grackle. And its presence here should be no surprise, given it's quite apparent the bird is your familiar."

"My what?" demanded Alistair. "Whatever do you mean?"

"I'm not sure why you continue to deny it, but you're quite obviously an arcane spellcaster - and that bird is your familiar."

"Preposterous!" exploded Alistair. "I'm no wizard! Besides, familiars are black cats - everyone knows that!"

The elven archer just sighed dramatically and asked, voice dripping with sarcasm, "And I suppose you got this nugget of wisdom from one of your 'Elfy Danger' books?"

"As it happens, yes," admitted the young nobleman. He recalled quite clearly that black cat familiars played an important role in both Elfy and the Wicked Wizard of Witchhaven and Elfy Fights the One-Eyed Wizard.

"Of course," Chaevaris snorted and turned away, quite apparently no longer interested in having a conversation with such a foolish child.

"It's very possible, you know," Ageratum piped in. "Familiars can be more than black cats. I know a wizard associated with the Guild that has an owl as a familiar, and another who has a rat." At that, Alistair frowned in distaste - a rat? Seriously?

But now that the seed had been planted in the young nobleman's mind, Alistair found it rapidly taking root. Was it possible? Could it be he was a wizard, after all? It would explain a few things that had happened, like books floating across the room in his father's library when he was too lazy to get up and fetch them. Here he'd assumed it was the spirit of his old servant Ogilvy come back after his death to look after his former charge, but perhaps it had really been him all along! "Well?" Alistair asked the grackle, who still stood there looking up at him. "Are you my familiar?"

The grackle, being a bird, did not have a face built for providing much in the way of expressions, but it managed to somehow project an aura of mild exasperation as it took flight and landed upon Alistair's shoulder. "Well then, I suppose I shall have to give you a name," the young man decided. "I shall call you...Ambrose." Lord Ambrose Pastlethwaite was Alistair's stern father, but it caused the ignorant sorcerer to break into a slight smile at the thought he would at least have one Ambrose in his life willing to listen to him and actually do what he said.

So I'm a wizard, Alistair thought proudly to himself. The concept certainly gave Alistair something to chew on during the rest of the journey to Ghourmand Vale.

And the next nine days passed by rather uneventfully, each day blending into the other without much to differentiate them. Chaevaris took point each morning, on the lookout for dangers as the wagon train followed in the elven archer's wake. Harlan stood by, ready to leap into battle against bold bandits or hungry wildlife, but neither put in an appearance - nor were they bothered at night by zombies heading toward the Von Weisswurst crest. Ageratum got better at cooking (and shared some of her secrets and discoveries with Brother Scrimshaw, much to the relief of those eating the meals they prepared) and Alistair took to the role of "wagon lackey" to such an extent Father Barbados often let him sit in the driver's spot and lead the horse pulling the elder cleric's wagon. In this fashion they made their journey and before they knew it had arrived in the boomtown of Ghourmand Vale.

"There it be, gentlefolk!" Father Barbados boomed as the town came into view. "Praise be t' Saint Cuthbert fer safe travels t' us all!"

Once arriving at their destination, the wagons making up the cross-country caravan each went their separate ways. The elves steered their wagons to the south of the town, for they were a family of delegates of Celene, one of the two bordering kingdoms arguing over which of them owned the land upon which Ghourmand Vale sat - the other being Veluna, to the north. The dwarves continued on to the nearby mountains, heading for the mines to be found there, while the human family reminded the four fledgling heroes of their offer to let them stay at their house until they made other, more permanent, accommodations. Harlan got directions from them and promised to meet up with them later, after they concluded their business with the two clerics of St. Cuthbert.

But it was soon after the two church wagons had been driven to the temple of St. Cuthbert and unloaded, and the four hirelings had been paid their wages - a hefty ten pieces of gold each - that a follow-on job landed in their laps almost immediately. Brother Scarborough, the cleric in charge of the temple during Father Barbados's absence, announced the food stocks they relied upon from a nearby farm was overdue in their delivery and food was getting scarce. Not wanting to have to rely upon constant castings of create food and water for their sustenance, Father Barbados hired the four heroes to go check out the situation at the farm. He gave them directions to the place - a good half-day's travel away - and sent them off with horses and a wagon while he dealt with the Thorpes, who were already wanting to get their family crest back. "I told ye - ye'll get it back after I've 'ad me friend look it over. I'll send word t' him at once; he should be here in no more'n a day or two - three, tops." Harlan noted the church was fairly new and lacked a graveyard, so he felt fairly certain keeping what he believed to be a cursed item in the temple of St. Cuthbert wasn't likely to raise undead in the meantime; he was also glad he no longer had to deal with the Thorpes, whose evil auras filled the half-elf with distrust.

"Why are we wasting time with wagons and horses?" asked Alistair. "I'm a wizard: I can just teleport us to the farmhouse!"

"You can, huh?" scoffed Chaevaris. "Using what spellbook?"

"Ah...hmmm," muttered Alistair. "I may have discovered a slight flaw in my plan." He had forgotten that wizards needed spellbooks. Well, perhaps commoner wizards did, but he was of noble birth: it was possible he was just so naturally gifted in the wizardly arts he needed no such crutches! Lifting his arms majestically to his sides, he concentrated on teleporting the group to the farmhouse Father Barbados had described...and then, well aware of Chaevaris's smirking face, climbed into the driver's seat of the wagon and picked up the reins. Ageratum climbed in beside him, while Harlan and Chaevaris each climbed up into the saddle of a horse. Together, the four headed down the road back the way the caravan had come, only heading south once they got back out of town.

They were getting near, if their directions were accurate, when they approached a Y-shaped meeting of three roads: the road the group was traversing, through a heavily-wooded section of forest, split into a fork just ahead, and according to Father Barbados they needed to take the right branch. But the sound of pounding hoofbeats was fast approaching from that direction and Alistair pulled back on the reins of the horse pulling the empty wagon, not wanting to cause a collision. It was good that he did so - and that Chaevaris and Harlan brought their own steeds to a halt beside the wagon - for a slightly larger wagon came barreling down the road, weaving erratically as the two hobgoblins in the front of the vehicle whipped the horses on faster and faster. A third hobgoblin hung on for dear life in the back of the wagon, occasionally repositioning a small crate or barrel as they shifted about. Then, just as the speeding conveyance went barreling past the heroes, the horses took the turn hard and the right rear wagon wheel snapped in half, canting the wagon to one side and throwing the three hobgoblins forward into the dirt. The horses, unable to drag the wagon any further with an axle digging into the ground, came to a well-desired halt, their tongues lolling from their panting mouths.

In an instant, Chaevaris lifted an arrow into place and sighted down it, focusing on a target: the left-most hobgoblin, just now picking himself up off the ground. The archer continued sighting down the arrow, lining up the shot perfectly. Not wanting to spoil the elf's concentration, nor do anything to alert the oblivious hobgoblins of their presence, Alistair silently slid the rapier from the scabbard at his belt and prepared himself to stab forward should one of these thieves step forward to attack him, for he could see many of the crates and barrels in the damaged wagon were marked with the holy symbol stamp of Saint Cuthbert. Alistair had no doubt this was the wagon of missing food they'd been sent to procure, and the hobgoblins the reason for the tardiness of its delivery. At his side, Ageratum silently picked up one of the kobold shortspears she'd taken from the den of reptilian raiders over a week ago and likewise readied herself to throw it as soon as Chaevaris let loose with the readied arrow. That, the little halfling decided, would be their signal to attack, and she chose the hobgoblin from the back of the wagon as her target, as he grumbled sourly to himself while inspecting the shattered wagon wheel.

Harlan took a moment to examine the auras of the hobgoblins, confirming his suspicions that they reeked of evil - for who would steal food from a farmhouse but those of an evil bent? He slid his masterwork longsword from its sheath as quietly as he could and awaited Chaevaris's attack, while one of the hobgoblins made as if to unharness the right-most horse from the now-useless wagon.

Once the shot had been lined up to the archer's satisfaction, a simple release of the bowstring sent the arrow flashing across the distance to bury itself in the left-most hobgoblin's neck, slaying him instantly. Almost immediately thereafter, Alistair called out, "If you please, Ogilvy!" - for even if he was a wizard and it was him causing the rock to rise up from the ground and hover above the second hobgoblin's head, old habits died hard - and the unconsciously-cast unseen servant dropped the rock, allowing it to plunk down upon the hobgoblin's head. He snapped his head up, looking to see who had just attacked him in so awkward a manner, and just barely missed being skewered by Ageratum's thrown shortspear, the tip of the weapon whizzing just past his head. But then Harlan dropped from his horse and charged across the road, bringing his blade stabbing into the astonished hobgoblin's chest before he had time to react.

That just left one hobgoblin, who leaped up onto the back of the horse he'd just freed and wheeled it around to return back to the farmhouse from which the trio had just left. That turned out to be a dire mistake, for as he rode past the paladin of Pelor, Harlan slashed at him with his blade, slicing open his leg something fierce. Chaevaris brought him down with another arrow, this one piercing the back of his head - and just that quickly, the battle was over, none of the heroes having even received so much as a scratch.

"This wagon has no spare wheel!" announced Alistair in indignation upon investigating the downed wagon. As a now fully-trained "wagon lackey," he found the lack of a spare wheel to be quite shocking. So he commanded Ogilvy to start transferring the goods from the broken wagon to the one he had driven from the church of Saint Cuthbert. The unseen servant, being nothing more than a spell effect, gave no indications of exasperation nor did it voice a single word of complaint, two qualities which leant themselves to full appreciation from the unknowing sorcerer. Harlan and Chaevaris stripped the hobgoblins of their weapons, loading them onto the wagon as well. Once the foodstuff had been successfully transferred and tied securely down, and the two horses from the broken wagon secured to the back of the good wagon by their reins, Harlan voiced the opinion they should continue on to the farmhouse to check on the inhabitants, for it was unlikely they handed over their goods to the three hobgoblins without a struggle. Alistair and Ageratum returned to the now-packed wagon, while Harlan and Chaevaris got back on their horses. The paladin led the way, the others following directly behind.

The road led directly to the farmhouse and it was quite apparent there had been a fierce combat here recently, for the ground before the building was covered in blood. Alistair brought the wagon to a halt and the two riders dismounted from their horses, tying their reins to a pair of trees while they scoped the place out. There was nobody in sight, neither in front of the farmhouse before them, nor over by the stables or shed off to the right.

Alistair decided to take the direct approach, heading towards the middle of the farmhouse, where a pair of double doors looked to be the main entrance to the single-story building. There was another door further off to the left and a shuttered window to the right, and it was from the window that a crossbow bolt went whizzing by the young nobleman's head, barely missing him. He spun about and saw the shutter was open a mere slit, but that had apparently been enough for an unseen sniper to let loose at him. "I say!" sputtered Alistair, but he at least had the good sense to run straight to the house and press up against the wall where the crossbowman would have a harder time shooting at him. Then, all thoughts of the front doors forgotten, he made his way towards the shuttered window, intending to yank open a shutter and plunge his rapier into the chest of whoever had just tried to kill him.

"We know you're out there!" called a voice from the other side of the window. "Pull back and we'll let them live!"

"Let us know the farmers are still alive and unharmed!" countered Harlan, taking the lead in the hostage negotiations.

"Um, they're drunk! They can't talk!" replied the voice in a fairly obvious lie.

"Then bring them outside, so we can verify they live!" countered Harlan. "You have my word as a paladin of Pelor you will come to no harm as you bring the farmers outside."

"How about this?" answered the voice, holding a man up to the window. The man had a dark complexion and his head was covered in what looked to be blue bandages, but he was quite obviously alive, for his eyes were open and he looked fearfully out the window at the newcomers on the front lawn. Harlan had been focusing his attention on the window and he caught a glimpse of a hobgoblin behind the fearful man - and quite clearly detected the miasma of evil emanating from the direction of the open window. The paladin began approaching the window, causing the turbaned man to be pulled back and the hobgoblin to call out, "That's not backing away! I said to back away!" Harlan ignored him and walked cautiously to the right corner of the building, past the shuttered window, and peered at the side of the farmhouse facing the stables and shed. He saw drag marks on the ground leading over to the stables, and heard the sounds of tramping feet coming from inside the farmhouse to his left.

Ageratum, in the meantime, had crept up to the double doors during the conversation between Harlan and the hobgoblin. She reached up, turned the knob, and when she saw it was unlocked she pulled the door open a crack just enough to look inside. A hobgoblin was coming from a room off to the left towards her - or more accurately, towards the room with the window from which the hobgoblin was repeating his demands that the heroes back away. But Chaevaris had sidled up behind the halfling and saw what she saw - only in the archer's case, it was enough to loose an arrow through the cracked-open front door, almost hitting the hobgoblin within. At the same time, Alistair had reached his limit and yanked open the shutter, stabbing at the hobgoblin within as the turbaned man had been allowed to step back. Neither Chaevaris's arrow nor Alistair's blade hit their targets, but in each case it was a very near miss.

Only now it was quite apparent (to both sides) that the fight was on. The hobgoblin leader, Snagger Bonesnapper, tromped to the front door, yanked it open, and was astonished to see a halfling woman on the stoop before him. (Ageratum, for her part, was equally surprised to see a hulking hobgoblin suddenly appear before her, and one holding a flaming sword, no less!) Of the two, Ageratum recovered more quickly from her surprise and stabbed out with her masterwork short sword, slicing a gash across Snagger's knee. But then his burning blade came crashing down upon the little halfling, cutting into her shoulder and causing her to fall backwards with a scream upon her lips. By the time she hit the ground she was fast unconscious and bleeding out, the only fortunate thing about the exchange being her leather armor had failed to catch aflame.

Harlan, hearing Ageratum's scream, turned back towards the window and charged forward, his longsword piercing the hobgoblin within, slaying him with one blow. Chaevaris fired another arrow, this time hitting Snagger in the chest as he stood just inside the doorway, eliciting a grunt of pain from the burly hobgoblin leader as the archer darted back a step, trying to stay out of reach of his flaming blade. But then Alistair, startled, unconsciously cast an open/close spell that slammed the front door in Snagger's face; the hobgoblin had stepped back in surprise when the door started slamming shut on him despite nobody being in reach to do so. Alistair had no way to lock the door and hadn't even consciously planned on closing it - he'd just wished to keep the brute away from the rest of the group so they could see to Ageratum's wounds. But through the open window, he could see the hobgoblin leader retreating into a back room, even as Ambrose - safely perched in the branch of a tree - sent his master a frenzied warning that there were three more hobgoblins approaching from the back of the stables and shed.

Harlan saw the approaching hobgoblins and wheeled to face them, charging forward at the one just now turning the corner of the farmhouse, skewering him on his blade and slaying him instantly. The half-elf barely had enough time to pull his blade out of the dead foe's guts before another hobgoblin was upon him, swinging his longsword at the man of Pelor. But Harlan deflected the blade with his shield, sending the hobgoblin staggering off to the side, off-balance.

At the same time, the hobgoblin who had come around the side of the shed came sprinting to Chaevaris, snarling and cursing as he came. And another hobgoblin poked his head out from behind the shed, seeing the fight going on in front of the farmhouse and deciding he wanted part of it. Chaevaris took the time to put an arrow directly between the eyes of a hobgoblin who had opened the front doors again and stepped out, then spun to face the two approaching from behind.

"Ogilvy--see to Miss Purslane!" commanded Alistair and the unseen servant grabbed the halfling by her collar and dragged her off to the left, away from the combatants. Ageratum had a potion of cure light wounds at her belt, which Ogilvy popped open and brought to the halfling's parted lips. Then, cradling the back of her neck with his invisible left arm, he gently poured the contents of the healing draught into Ageratum's mouth, the halfling drinking it instinctively. Within moments her eyelids fluttered and she woke up to find herself being cradled like a baby by an invisible force, while 30 or so feet away Chaevaris, Alistair, and Harlan were battling a trio of hobgoblins. Realizing instinctively what had happened, she found herself calling out "Thanks, Ogilvy!" even though she was well aware the unseen servant spell was in no way associated with the spirit of Alistair's childhood servant, other than in the confused mind of the young fop who hadn't even figured out he was a sorcerer yet.

Alistair, by this time, had stabbed a hobgoblin deep in the shoulder, then pulled out his blade and - as a force of habit from his fencing class days - asked if the hobgoblin wished to yield. The hobgoblin answered with a snarl of hatred and a stab of his longsword in the nobleman's direction; Alistair handily parried the attack away with his own blade, his other hand held upright behind his head in the manner of which he'd been instructed. Ambrose, in the meantime, spotted Snagger running from behind the house to behind the stables, apparently attempting to flee the scene. He was accompanied by two of his lieutenants, the three having apparently made the decision to abandon the rest of their forces and flee to safety.

At the front of the house, the man in the blue turban, Sarwan Bhao, turned to another man dressed almost identically but wearing a head-covering of red. "We should get the farmer and his wife to safety," he told Jawaharala Rami. "Yes," agreed the man in the red turban, and the two returned to the side room where two unconscious figures lay bound and gagged.

Outside, two hobgoblins were approaching Harlan warily, for they had seen the deadliness of the paladin's blade. He further demonstrated his swordsmanship by slicing his blade into the neck of one of his attackers, killing him instantly. Two more hobgoblins approached from beside the shed, gaping as they saw their mate chopped down before them. Ageratum ran towards Harlan, intending to do her part in the fight to free the farmers from these brutes and somewhat embarrassed that she'd been taken out of the battle so quickly. Chaevaris shot an arrow at a hobgoblin and missed, but the brute didn't get a chance to mock the archer because Alistair stabbed him in the belly while his attention was diverted to the elf and he died with his taunts still on his tongue. "I got him, Elfy!" Alistair reassured the archer, but he failed to see his reassurances caused nothing but a sigh of exasperation from the harried elf.

Inside, Bhao and Rami each had one of the two owners of the farmhouse balanced on a shoulder, their other hands each holding a scimitar for protection. Having heard Ageratum run past the front doors and realizing there was a battle going on out front, they made their way through the farmhouse to the back door. Then, stepping outside, they started making their way to the west, over towards the stables, following the same path Snagger had taken moments before them.

Harlan killed another hobgoblin with a single blow from his longsword, but this time it came at a cost, for the hobgoblin's partner managed to get past the paladin's defenses and stabbed Harlan in the side with his own blade. As Harlan staggered to one knee, Ageratum threw one of her kobold shortspears at the paladin's attacker, missing him but forcing him to concentrate on her instead of following through with his attack upon Harlan.

Chaevaris, however, alerted to Snagger's attempts to flee, decided that did not sit particularly well and raced past the shed, getting into a position to line up an arrow at the hobgoblin leader when he moved into view from behind the stables. Alistair called Ogilvy back over to "rock dropping duty" and the unseen servant dutifully grabbed up a rock from the ground as it moved into position, as Alistair tried stabbing the hobgoblin who had just brought Harlan to a knee. But while the attack missed, it gave the paladin enough time to force himself back onto his two feet, ignoring the blood oozing down the side of his torso from the stab wound.

But now Snagger stumbled into the open, tipping the contents of a potion vial down his throat as he shuffled, not wanting to fall on his face as he ran. His two lieutenants raced forward, oblivious to their leader falling behind them. Chaevaris let loose with the arrow, and it would have been an excellent trick shot if the archer had attempted to shatter the potion vial as Snagger drank down the last of its contents; as it was, the target had been Snagger's horrid face. "The leader's getting away!" Chaevaris called to the others.

At that, Alistair spun in place and sprinted away from the farmhouse as fast as he could. At first, Ageratum assumed he was fleeing for his own safety, which rather surprised her (partly because he'd already shown himself willing to put himself in danger, and partly because between them they'd already managed to slay the hobgoblins in the immediate vicinity) - but then she saw him leap into the wagon, snap the reins at the horse harnessed there, and steer the animal between the house and the shed. Ageratum leaped up onto the wagon as it passed by, and Harlan did the same, taking the opportunity to use his last remaining scroll of cure light wounds to heal up the worst of his damage as Alistair steered the horse towards Snagger. The hobgoblin was big and he was strong, but he was also wearing heavy armor and he couldn't outrun a horse, even one pulling a well-laden wagon. Chaevaris fired off another arrow at the hobgoblin leader, once again failing to hit. Elven cursing escaped the archer's lips, angry at having failed in front of the short-lived "children."

Alistair did his very best at running down Snagger, but the hobgoblin leader proved to be at least nimble enough to leap aside as the horse came barreling through the spot he's just been occupying. Then, ignoring the wagon (having correctly determined it would take awhile for it to move back into position to where he'd be in any danger), he locked eyes with the dainty-looking elf and charged, flaming burst longsword out and in full flame. However, although it would be a moment before Alistair could bring the wagon to a halt, Harlan leaped off ahead of time and started running back the way they'd just come, following in Snagger's wake. Ageratum followed suit, tossing a kobold shortspear at the hobgoblin and catching him in the back as he ran. And if Chaevaris's two misses in a row had been intended to give Snagger a false sense of security, the stratagem worked perfectly, for Chaevaris did not miss with the third arrow shot in Snagger's direction: it hit the charging hobgoblin straight in the upper chest, puncturing a lung. Snagger roared in fury, surprised to see a spray of blood accompanying his angry outburst.

Ogilvy dropped a rock at the leader but it missed, just as Alistair finally got the charging horse to stop and managed to leap out of the wagon himself, starting to run back towards the others (and trusting the winded horse wouldn't pull the heavy wagon anywhere on his own). By now, Snagger had caught up to Chaevaris and was swinging his flaming blade at the archer, but the elf was nimble and easily dodged out of the way. Harlan caught up to Snagger shortly thereafter and uncharacteristically missed with his own attack; up until now he'd been enjoying an almost unqualified success against hobgoblins, most of whom he'd mown down with a single swing of his longsword. But Ageratum caught the burly hobgoblin in the back again with another thrown shortspear, and Snagger was showing signs of being slowly worn down.

Chaevaris, having backed up out of reach, fired another arrow at Snagger but missed. Ogilvy also missed with his next dropped rock; Alistair, still too far away to do anything physical himself, cast a prestidigitation spell upon Snagger, turning his flesh a sickly, mottled green and brown. "Behold!" he called to the weary hobgoblin. "I, a mighty wizard, have inflicted leprosy upon your foul person!" But Snagger was too busy swinging his flaming sword at the foes surrounding him to pay any attention to any variations in his skin tone - he was fighting for his very life! A sudden lunge and a swing caught Chaevaris on the arm, nearly causing the bow to fall from the archer's grip. But then Harlan channeled the power of Pelor into his sword, bringing it crashing down in a smite evil attack - an attack that, sadly, missed its mark entirely, for Snagger's desperation made him more attuned to danger and he just barely avoided the paladin's empowered blade.

Oddly, it was Ageratum who made the killing blow; Snagger, now flanked by Harlan and a very winded Alistair, failed to notice the little halfling creep up and hurl her last shortspear with all of her might until it pierced the back of his neck and extended out of his bloody mouth. With a look of complete surprise on his face, Snagger Bonesnapper fell forward, dead.

"I believe I'll be able to put this to better use than you ever did," Harlan told the corpse as he pulled the flaming burst longsword from the dead hobgoblin's grip. "Come on!" he then cried to the others, running to the back of the farmhouse. "We need to see if the farmers are okay!"

They met up with the two turbaned men behind the house. "Ah, good, you've rescued them!" sighed Alistair, seeing the bound husband and wife on the shoulders of the dark-skinned men. "Good job, gentlemen!"

"You may place them there on the ground before you," Harlan said, pointing to their feet with the point of his new flaming longsword.

"Yes, yes, of course," agreed the men, doing as the paladin had indicated. "It is good that none of us has come to any harm."

"And who exactly are you?" demanded Harlan. "From your accents, you are not from around here. How did you come to be in the farmhouse with these people?" As he spoke, Ageratum stepped forward and started cutting the ropes binding the unconscious farmers and Chaevaris pulled the bandanas from around their mouths. Alistair wasn't quite sure why Harlan was taking such a firm tone against the two strangers, but then he didn't have the aura-reading training that all paladins received, and as such couldn't tell that the auras of these two men were blacker than even the Thorpes had been.

"I am Jawaharala Rami, and this is Sarwan Bhao. We serve our lord, Jasgund Singh. As to how we came to be here, this is also a mystery to us. We were walking down a road very familiar to us, and then it became very misty, and then the road was the one leading to this house, with two bands of the creatures you have slain fighting against each other. Great was their battle, with many dead on either side." That would account for all of the blood on the ground in front of the house, though Harlan. But that was assuming Rami was telling him the truth. "Go on," he said.

"The side that lost the fight was led by the other leader's brother, it would seem," Rami continued.

"Rumblegut," added Bhao.

"Yes, indeed, this is the name he was called," agreed Rami. "The dead were dragged away to the stables, out of sight."

"And you?" pressed Harlan.

"We were captured and brought to the room where these two had been bound. We also were bound. Then you arrived and have saved us all."

Ageratum had awakened the two farmers by this time. She asked them if they'd ever seen the two turbaned men before, and the married couple shook their heads. "No, the hobgoblins attacked us, tied us up, and almost immediately thereafter another group of hobgoblins showed up and attacked the first bunch. The one who tied us up clonked us on the head before going to fight the other group, I imagine."

"Let's go inside," Harlan suggested. Everyone entered the house via the back door, and the couple led the group to the room where they'd been stashed. There was a dead hobgoblin "on display" in the hallway, his head nearly severed from his body and his belly cut open, leaving his intestines spilling out onto the floor. "This is the one they are calling Rumbleguts," Bhao offered. The dead hobgoblin had a jeweled scabbard at his belt, and there was a rather beaten-up scimitar lying by his feet.

"And this is the room you were held in?" asked Harlan. The farmer and the wife nodded. "I'm not seeing any ropes where you two were tied up," the paladin said, looking over at Bhao and Rami. He looked at the scimitars the two men held. Rami held a rather beaten-up weapon, but the one Bhao held had fancy jewels embedded on the hilt. "And that looks to be Rumblegut's scimitar," he accused. "It seems to me as if you were likely in cahoots with the hobgoblins, and were perhaps rewarded for your assistance with that rather fancy weapon."

"This is not at all what happened," argued Bhao.

"Then I think you ought to come back with us to Ghourmand Vale," suggested Harlan. "I'm sure the clerics at the temple of Saint Cuthbert can tell us who's lying."

"I thank you for your offer, but our path lies another way," dismissed Bhao, looking shiftily towards his companion.

"I say!" exploded Alistair, not appreciating having been lied to by this pair of scoundrels. "You sound like a pair of dishonest bounders!" He pulled the rapier from its scabbard and pointed it at Bhao, who slapped it away with Rumblegut's magic scimitar. "Ogilvy, if you please!" the young nobleman called out, stabbing the point of his blade into Bhao's shoulder. Behind him, acting upon Alistair's barely-thought-out beginnings of a plan, the still-active unseen servant grabbed an invisible handful of intestines from the dead hobgoblin's belly and dragged them, uncoiling as they went, down the hallway to start wrapping them around Bhao's ankles.

But Bhao, seeing their jig was up, went immediately on an all-out offensive, slashing his scimitar across Alistair's chest, causing the would-be swordsman hero crashing backwards to hit his head on the floor and pass out. Rami was at his side in an instant, his own scimitar waving menacingly back and forth at the other three heroes. He scowled at the farmer and his wife as they backed down the hallway in fear; Bhao had claimed Rumblegut's scimitar as his own as payment for helping Snagger slay his brother and his ragtag band of hobgoblins, so Rami had insisted the wife would be his and Bhao could make do with the husband; now it looked like neither would be theirs if they couldn't get rid of this interfering band of heroes. Still, they'd already dealt with one, only three more to go....

But that proved to be more than the two could handle - especially when Chaevaris put an arrow through the turbaned head of Sarwan Bhao, killing him instantly. Harlan charged at Rami and missed, but then Rami missed at his counterattack against the armored paladin. Chaevaris hit the remaining foe with another arrow but it failed to take him down; it was another blow from Harlan's new flaming burst longsword that finally ended Rami's life.

Then, the threat eliminated, Chaevaris surprised everyone by immediately tending to Alistair's wounds. "I thought you didn't particularly like him," Ageratum said.

"I don't," Chaevaris agreed, ripping the sleeve from Alistair shirt and tying it tightly around his wound, stopping the bleeding. "He chatters incessantly like a little monkey, generally about things he doesn't fully understand himself."

"He's got a healing potion in the pouch at his belt," Ageratum pointed out - she'd bought hers when Alistair bought his, using the money they'd been paid by the Thorpes for fetching their family crest from the tomb of their grandfather.

"I'm well aware," added Chaevaris. "But I don't think we'll need it. He can rest comfortably in the back of the wagon. I am quite capable of steering the horse back to Ghourmand Vale. And once we get him there, Brother Scrimshaw or Father Barbados can heal him."

"You think he'll be all right?" Ageratum pushed, worried about the foolish fop who she knew quite well had saved her own life earlier by having "Ogilvy" tend to her wound from that flaming sword of Snagger's - now Harlan's.

"He'll be fine," Chaevaris reassured her. "And more importantly: he'll be quiet."

- - -

As expected, we leveled up at the end of this adventure, so we each added a second level of our original class. (I don't think any of us intends to multiclass our PCs for this campaign.) Vick and I both managed to roll a "1" for our hit points, which is a bit of a bummer. But Alistair now has a full-fledged familiar and he's closer to figuring out he's a sorcerer, even if right now he's fairly certain he's just a top-level wizard. I chose acid splash as his new 0-level spell, the first one chosen not based on comfort or laziness.

None of us is quite sure what was up with Bhao and Rami - they were apparently teleported from somewhere else across the world (if their story about the mists can be believed), but Dan made a point of name-dropping the lord they work for, so we'll probably be seeing more of their group. But it sounds like they were possibly slavers.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 2​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 2​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 2​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 2​

- - -

Dan sent us all an email detailing "what happens between adventures 3 and 4" so we could get that out of the way between sessions and not spend any time on it during our next game night. So I'll take what he wrote and turn it into a between-adventures interlude.

- - -

Chaevaris pulled the wagon to a halt before the converted barn that had been put into use as an impromptu temple of Saint Cuthbert. Harlan dropped from the saddle of the horse he'd been riding, the reins of the horse Chaevaris had ridden on the way to farmhouse tied to the pommel of Harlan's borrowed steed.

“Welcome back, lads!" boomed the voice of Father Barbados as he stepped outside to greet them. Eyeing the fully-laden wagon filled with the overdue food they'd expected days ago, he added, "Ye've done a right day's work with this." Then he noticed Alistair, bandaged and bloody in the back of the wagon, still unconscious from the wound he'd taken back at the farmhouse at the hands of a scimitar-wielding man in league with the hobgoblins who'd taken the food for themselves. "It looks like it was more'n a walk in the country, weren't it? Well, get 'im on down and I'll see to 'is hurts while ye tell me what happened and if I need new suppliers."

Harlan gave the cleric a quick breakdown of their exploits at the farmhouse while Father Barbados cast his most powerful healing spells over Alistair's wounds. The young nobleman fluttered his eyelids, looked around in confusion, and said, "I say! What happened?"

"Ye were wounded in battle, doin' that what ye were hired t' do," Father Barbados replied, handling out coin purses to each of the four heroes. "No shame in that."

The cleric looked to the skyline to see the time of day; twilight was fast approaching. "Carp should be here shortly. Then we’ll get that nasty bit o' a gem sorted out afore we give it back t' Thorpe. We may have t' give 'im a bit o' 'inducement' t' give up th' gem if'n it gets nasty, but we’ll get it sorted in th' end."

The heroes - aided by the temple clerics and Alistair's unseen servant "Ogilvy," cast anew - unloaded the foodstuff from the wagon while they waited for this Carp fellow to arrive. Harlan retrieved the weapons they'd taken from the hobgoblins, keeping three javelins for himself and turning the others over to the temple to do with as they saw fit. And then soon afterward there was a strong and persistent knock at the front door, announcing the arrival of Holyrood Carp.

"That'd be Carp," Brother Scrimshaw announced, going to the door and admitting the bard. Holyrood Carp was a tall, lanky man clad in leathers and sporting both a rapier and a lute. "Barbados!" he cried upon entering the temple. "I heard you have a bauble you need to understand and that it does some odd tricks. How spooky! Get the ale and the bauble and let's have a go at it. There's coin to be made in this town and I am in need."

Brother Scrimshaw fetched the coffer with the gemstone crest, along with a generous flagon of ale, and placed both on the table before Carp.
Carp took an initial draw on the flagon, put on a pair of supple, leather gloves, and opened the coffer. "Ooh, how pretty a thing is this!" he exclaimed. "Wherever did you get it?" While Father Barbados related the tale, Carp picked up the gemstone crest, feeling the weight of it and turning it over in his hands while he examined both the light in the crest's gem and the light being cast through the gem.

"You do indeed have an oddity here, Barbados," Carp explained. "You have the Blood Mirror."

"Th' what now?"

Carp explained. The gemstone embedded in the Von Weisswurst family crest was created as part of a war between two ancient, powerful figures as a way of giving their minions an advantage. It was taken from a cavern in the Lortmil Range, a series of mountains south of Ghourmand Vale, and imbued with magics by one of the rivals, but something in the elements of the stone wouldn't let it be wholly corrupted or purified. As a result, its magics amplified either the corruption or purity of the holder.

"So in th' hands o' the Thorpes - an evil pair o' siblings, t' be true - it animated th' bodies o' three kobolds an' a dire weasel, turnin' th' lot o' 'em into zombies," surmised Father Barbados.

"But in the hands of one of a more goodly bent," pointed out Harlan, "who knows what powers it might manifest?"

"Indeed," agreed Father Barbados. "Aye, this bears thinkin' about." And with that he lit his pipe and settled back into thought.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 2​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 2​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 2​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 2​

Game Session Date: 13 July 2022

- - -

Father Barbados offered to allow the four fledgling heroes to spend the night in the church of Saint Cuthbert, a converted barn. They readily agreed, although they'd also received an offer from the Stouts, the human family whose daughter they had rescued from kobold raiders during the trek to Ghourmand Vale, for the four to stay with them as long as they needed - and that offer now included either their home in Ghourmand Vale or the farmhouse they'd just purchased from the Bennigans, the young couple having decided being kidnapped by hobgoblins was more than they had bargained for. They planned to pull up stakes and try their hand in a more civilized land.

But now it was getting late and the quartet opted to take up the cleric on his offer to stay overnight in the church. "Well, I'd best be on my way," said Holyrood Carp, finishing up the last of his flagon of ale.

"Before you go," asked Alistair hesitantly, "am I correct in assuming you sing in taverns and the like?"

"I have been known to do so, yes," agreed the bard, not sure where this was going.

"And do you write your own songs? Or are you willing to purchase new material from others?"

"Why?" asked Carp, smiling at the young nobleman. "Are you a songwriter, by trade?"

"Oh, no, no," scoffed Alistair. "However, I am a student of elven poetry, and I had considered many of the elven classics could easily be turned into songs...I'd certainly be willing to give it a try, if you were interested."

"Tell you what - you whip something up and let me take a look at it, and we'll see where it goes from there," suggested Carp. He slapped Alistair on the shoulder for good measure.

"Very well, then, yes," agreed Alistair. This adventuring business could be somewhat lucrative - at least by the standards of the common people - but it also seemed to be rather hit-and-miss as far as how often an opportunity to make money arose. The young nobleman wouldn't mind a steadier source of income, and included in the carpet bag Nanny Rogers had hastily packed for him on his way out his father's door was Alistair's favorite book of elven poetry - surely some of those ballads could be put to music with a bit of determination!

"We've two small rooms not put t' much use as 'f yet," Father Barbados pointed out. "One fer th' men, one fer th' wimmen. Take yer pick, an' we'll see ye all in th' mornin'." He and Brothers Scrimshaw and Scarborough had their own rooms and headed to them, the sun having long since gone down.

"By all means, you may take your pick of the rooms," Alistair offered to Ageratum. Being a halfling, she graciously took the smaller of the two. "Very well, then, it looks like this one is for us, men!" Alistair said, heading to the other room, Harlan in step behind him. "Are you coming, Elfy?"

Chaevaris just sighed deeply at the hated nickname. "You go on ahead," the archer replied. "I may just camp out here in the vestry. I'm used to sleeping out under the trees on my own - I'll be fine."

"Suit yourself," offered Harlan. "Good night, then."

The next morning, as the four were eating a light breakfast with the three clerics of Saint Cuthbert, there was a knock upon the door. Brother Scrimshaw answered it, and there in the doorway before him stood Kasselban Picksmart, one of the dwarves who had been part of the caravan from Greyhawk City to Ghourmand Vale. He was the head dwarven miner at the Slippery Shaft Mine, up in one of the mountains that made up the Lortmil Range. "We've got a bit o' spot' o' bovver up at th' mines," Kasselban explained. "I was wond'rin' if'n we might borrow yer security forces, like."

"We have no security forces here," explained Father Barbados.

"Them lot," replied the dwarven miner, pointing a thumb at the heroes. "Them what kept th' wagons safe, an' fought off them zombies, like." The cleric explained the four heroes were no longer under his employ, but were able to be hired directly by the dwarves if they so desired.

"What is the nature of the problem for which you wished to hire us?" asked Alistair.

"Like I said, a spot o' bovver in th' mines. Not t' put too fine a point onnit, we done got ourselves a bit o' a gnome prollum!" The miner explained these gnomes had gotten into the bottom levels of the mines somehow, and he wanted to see if the four heroes were available to clear out the lower levels of these vermin - who had already caused the death of several miners - and see if they could find out how the gnomes had entered the mines in the first place. Once they'd found their entry point and reported back, the dwarves were sure they'd be able to seal off the gnomes' tunnel to prevent any further incursions.

The group looked at each other. "I am certainly willing to lend a hand," Harlan offered, for he had frowned at hearing of the miners already slain. After all, he had been sent out into the world outside Greyhawk City to do good deeds in the name of Pelor, and this was one such group in need of his services.

"I'm in," agreed Alistair. He had spent a good chunk of his earnings thus far on a set of arcane spell scrolls he was eager to try out, plus a light crossbow and a set of bolts he was likewise willing to learn to put to good use. Ageratum and Chaevaris echoed the sentiment, and Kasselban walked them to the mines, a trek of a good half hour or so, most of it up a rather steep incline. Less than halfway up the slope, Alistair cast an unseen servant spell and had "Ogilvy" carry his light crossbow, which was not all that light when climbing up the side of a mountain! (It wasn't actual climbing but rather walking up a steep road, but the point still stood as far as the young nobleman was concerned.) On the way there, they discussed their payment, a topic Kasselban had been hoping to avoid; he'd privately hoped they were still under the direct employ of Father Barbados, who might be willing to "loan them out" for a good cause.

"We shall be putting our very lives on the line," observed Alistair. "Given the risks - I assume these gnomes are fearsome creatures, to have slain a number of your miners already - I believe 500 pieces of gold apiece would be adequate recompense."

"500?" squeaked Kasselban. "We've no' got that kinda coin layin' about! I was thinkin' more along th' lines o' 200, tops." Alistair counter-offered 350 gold pieces, plus the free use of the lamps the dwarf had been planning on renting to them. Begrudgingly, the dwarf agreed.

Once inside the cave that led to the mines, Kasselban took them to the main elevator. This was a large, metal cube, 10 feet on a side, that was lowered by chains from a winch structure overlooking the vertical shaft. "Th' mines're 2,000 feet deep," Kasselban explained. "We'll lower ye t' th' lowest level, where there be none left but Greasy Thom, who be finishin' up a bit o' scaffoldin' work. When ye all get off, we'll bring Greasy Thom up. Then, when ye've finished wit' level six, just ring us up an we'll pull ye up t' level five, an' ye c'n clear that'n out as well. Then give us a 'oller an' we'll pull ye all th' way back up." He also explained there were "express elevators" - each only big enough for a single person at a time - that could be entered at the lower levels and activated, which would rapidly pull the passenger up to the top level of the mine.

"Is Greasy Thom going to be okay by himself like that?" asked Harlan. He didn't understand why they'd let a lone miner down there by himself if there had already been earlier attacks on the lower levels.

"Ah, Greasy Thom c'n 'andle 'imself all right - ye jus' wait'll ye lay eyes on 'im," assured the miner. He passed them four lit bullseye lanterns and bade them enter the metal cube in which a group of miners would be lowering them down the central shaft.

"You had best stay here, Ambrose," Alistair suggested. He didn't want his grackle familiar to have to brave the dangers of these vicious gnomes in the confined space of a series of mine shafts. "You keep an eye out up here for me." The bird just cawed and flew from the sorcerer's shoulder to land upon the handle of a shovel leaning against the stone wall of the cave. Alistair didn't realize it at the time, but this was the last he'd be seeing of Ambrose for some time.

With a series of chants keeping their rhythm, the dwarves lowered the lift down into the darkness of the mine. They'd been warned there was only minimal light down inside the mine tunnels; the dwarves didn't need any light at all, but they did keep a few torches lit down below for the benefit of their mules, which they used as beasts of burden to carry saddlebags of ore or rock needing cleared away. It took nearly twenty minutes to make the complete journey, but eventually the cube reached bottom and Chaevaris opened the door to let them all step out into the mine proper. "I'll leave my lantern here by the elevator, to help us find our way back," the archer offered. "I'll want to keep my hands free for my bow, in any case." Chaevaris's share of their earnings had been put toward the purchase of a masterwork composite longbow of a type built to capitalize on the wielder's strength and the elf was eager to put it to the test against these killer gnomes. Unlike these "children," Chaevaris fully expected they'd be up against not surface gnomes but svirfneblin, the "deep gnomes" who laired deep in the Underdark. Svirfneblin were one of the friendlier races one might expect to find living in the Underdark, but that certainly did not mean one couldn't encounter individuals of a more evil bent, and Chaevaris imagined that was the type they'd be meeting up with down here in the lowest depths of the Slippery Shaft Mine.

Level Six was, thus far at least, carved rather like a giant letter "H", with the elevator emptying out at the middle of the easternmost of the longer sides. There was a straight section ahead of them, with two side shafts leading off in opposite directions right by the elevator and another two side shafts branching off at the far end, by the scaffolding. But by the lamplight of the arriving heroes, they could see three figures over by the scaffolding, the two smaller ones on either side of the larger one, who was lying down on the cold stone floor of the mine being kicked by the others. The smaller figures had skin the color of gray slate and each carried a heavy pick and a light crossbow scaled to their shorter sizes - for they stood no taller than Ageratum.

The halfling woman stifled a cry at seeing the abuse Greasy Thom was taking - for she fully expected that was the identity of the dwarf lying on the ground being kicked - and raced forward in concern. But with her relatively short stride, she didn't get very far before Chaevaris had stepped forward, aimed an arrow at the leftmost svirfneblin, and released it to deadly effect. The arrow went flying over her head to bury itself in the deep gnome's throat, slaying him instantly.

"Ogilvy, if you please," Alistair said, his hand out to receive the light crossbow the unseen servant had continued carrying for him. Ogilvy passed the crossbow - already loaded and ready to shoot - over to its master. Alistair sighted down the shaft, lined up his shot in the manner he'd been instructed by the man in the weapon shop who had sold him the device, and pulled the trigger. The bolt went flying across the length of the mine, to crash against the wall beside the second svirfneblin's head. "Oh, rot and bother!" cursed Alistair - he hoped he hadn't been sold a defective light crossbow!

The second svirfneblin gave Greasy Thom a final kick, then, looking at four approaching heroes and not liking the odds, ran for the far corner. There, in the leftmost mine tunnel being carved out of the solid rock, a much smaller, narrower passageway connected to the mine - no doubt the means by which these svirfneblin were entering the Slippery Shaft Mine in the first place! Harlan gave chase, his flaming burst longsword providing him all the light he needed to find his way; he left his bullseye lantern on the ground beside the one Chaevaris had left at the elevator, the better for the paladin to have both hands free, for on his left arm he held his shield. Ageratum caught up with the fleeing svirfneblin and lashed out with her masterwork short sword, the tip of the blade slicing into the back of the deep gnome's calf as he ran. But then Chaevaris rounded the corner and just that quickly fired off another arrow that caught the small-statured killer in the back of the head, slaying him instantly.

Harlan went immediately to see to Greasy Thom, but it was quite apparent the miner was already dead, his body hacked apart by the deep gnomes' picks. The others checked out the narrow passageway for which the last svirfneblin had been running, and it ran diagonally for a bit, meandering this way and that - certainly no miner's tunnel. Chaevaris pulled a dwarven-sized knapsack from the last svirfneblin slain - and which the deep gnome had apparently taken from Greasy Thom - and inside it found a coin purse containing 15 pieces of gold and a half-pound chunk of what at first glance looked to be silver, but upon closer examination was actually a hunk of mithril; apparently the greedy dwarf had decided to help himself to a quite valuable chunk of the rare metal unearthed here in the Slippery Slope Mine. In fact, Chaevaris speculated that might have been what impelled Greasy Thom to stick around by himself in Level 6 when the other miners had been evacuated to allow the heroes to clear out the level. Typical dwarven greed, the elf thought.

"What do we do now?" asked Ageratum. "Should we bring Greasy Thom's body back up to the miners?"

"There doesn't seem to be any hurry for that," suggested Harlan. Turning to Chaevaris, he added, "I don't see any other passageways into or out of this level but the elevators where we came down and the tunnel the gnome was heading for. Would you mind doing a circuit around the mines and verifying there are no other hidden entrances?" Chaevaris, born with a full-blooded elf's keen vision, retrieved the discarded bullseye lantern and went to do just that, reporting back soon with a negative finding. "That's all there is," the elf announced.

"Then let's go check out this svirfneblin entrance," suggested Harlan. "We needn't explore its entire length, but we ought to make sure there aren't any more of these deep gnomes ready to ambush us when our backs are turned." He led the way, Ogilvy at his side carrying a lantern, with Alistair just behind them. Ageratum and Chaevaris came in just behind them, the halfling carrying the only other lantern the group brought with them, for the two heroes of elven descent preferred having both hands free. (Not coincidentally, of the four they also had the best vision and thus could make do with a lesser amount of illumination, although neither had the full darkvision of the dwarves.)

The narrow svirfneblin tunnel was completely unlit. Around 50 feet in, the passageway all of a sudden doubled in width; where before it had been a mere 5 feet wide - if that - it was now twice that width. Shortly beyond that was a wide room of a particularly odd shape: the tunnel connected to the long side of a staggered triangle, whose angled sides got progressively smaller, rather like a ziggurat seen from the side. At the narrow point this room met up with its exact mirror image, so seen from the top it had the general shape of a wavy bowtie. But Ogilvy's narrow beam of light from the bullseye lantern, aimed at the intersection of these two almost-triangles, allowed Harlan and Chaevaris to make out two figures in the farther room. They were talking; one had a gruff, menacing voice whose words - in a language none of the heroes spoke - seemed to be dwarven in nature and cadence, while the other spoke in a feminine voice that seemed somehow familiar, although none of the heroes could pick out individual words from this distance. The woman was garbed in a hooded cloak, obscuring her features, while the dwarf wore chain mail and carried a warhammer in one hand and a shield upon the other arm.

Ageratum decided to sneak closer to see if she could hear them better. But by the time she'd gotten close to the narrow gap connecting the two halves of the chamber the two figures had noticed the light from the two bullseye lanterns and stepped apart. Worse yet, the halfling had unknowingly approached a strange creature whose grayish skin almost perfectly blended in with the stone walls and she only noted its presence by the motion of the stone battleaxe it swung at her. She leaped back and in so doing likely saved herself from a much more grievous wound, but the axe's blade had been meticulously sharpened and it cut a line of pain down one shoulder as she frantically scrambled away.

Alistair stepped forward to come to Ageratum's aid, Ogilvy keeping pace with the second lantern, and the increased illumination revealed another of these gray-fleshed creatures across the room from the one fighting Ageratum. But Alistair's long-honed sense of chivalry forced him to ignore this new threat and concentrate on the one menacing his little halfling friend. This time his crossbow hit true, the bolt sticking out of the grimlock's torso, just below the rib cage. It hissed in pain but didn't fall over, still clinging to life. Chaevaris shot at it as well, with less effect, the arrow shattering against the stone wall by the creature's head.

Harlan, feeling the others had the first grimlock well in hand, charged forward at the other one, his flaming burst longsword cutting through the creature's midsection and causing it to stumble backwards, one hand holding its belly shut. Ignored for the moment, the duergar in the other room took on a defensive stance, ready to wallop anyone who got close enough with his warhammer. The cloaked woman also took precautionary actions of her own, but for now, at least, the four heroes were concentrating on the pair of grimlocks in the first half of the chamber.

The first grimlock swung at Ageratum again, but she nimbly ducked beneath his swinging axe and came through the attack unscathed, then stabbed forward with her own blade and caught him in the side, just below where the crossbow bolt protruded. The other one seemed determined to take Harlan with him as he died, catching the paladin in a swing of his own axe and then falling forward to the stone floor, blood seeping from his opened belly. Harlan was wounded from the surprising blow but far from out of action.

Alistair missed with his second shot at the remaining grimlock, then stepped protectively in front of Ageratum, shielding her from the gray-skinned creature's attacks. He saw, to his surprise, the grimlock didn't seem to have any sense of vision, its eyes merely dull orbs of a lighter gray without any pupils, staring lifelessly at the heroes. Then another of Chaevaris's arrows came whizzing past the young nobleman, catching the grimlock between his sightless eyes and dropping him at once. Alistair let out a sigh of relief; his shielding of Ageratum had been an instinctive one, but he had had no real desire to engage the axe-wielding grimlock in hand-to-hand combat!

Harlan took a moment to ensure the other grimlock's death by severing its head from its body, then looked over to the gap between halves of the chamber. The duergar had approached closer to the opening but had resumed his defensive stance, ready to attack anyone who got near. "Talk to them!" hissed the woman in the back. "They're blocking the only way out!" The duergar merely growled gutturally in reply. Harlan was fairly sure he hadn't been meant to hear the woman's quiet input to her duergar companion, but he had the excellent hearing of his mother's race and had made out every word. Even better, he had recognized the voice as that of Maya Thorpe. Instinctively, he cast forth with his evil-detecting senses and was not the least bit surprised to get the distinct feeling both shadowy figures in the back half of the chamber radiated auras of evil. He was, however, a bit surprised to detect a sort of background "ambient level of evil" all around him, in both halves of the chamber. He surmised this oddly-shaped room must have been used for unholy purposes, possibly many times in the past. Sacrificial chamber, perhaps?

Ageratum moved up to the gap and tossed a dagger at the duergar, but he swatted it away with his shield. Maya readied herself, seeing the heroes were now ready to focus their attention on her and her gray dwarf associate. But why were they here, and why now of all times? She didn't like the current odds against her.

However, Alistair probably buoyed up her spirits by completely missing the duergar with his next shot, the crossbow bolt flying so far away from the duergar he didn't even feel the need to flinch or move his shield. But at the nobleman's command, Ogilvy focused the lantern's beam directly at the gray dwarf, illuminating him in a beam of light. Chaevaris fired another arrow and missed, although the archer had come much closer than had Alistair and the duergar actually needed to duck to remain out of the arrow's path. Still, Chaevaris was not in the least bit amused to have performed no better than the silly human fop.

By then, Harlan had reached the limits of his patience and charged at the duergar. The move allowed the duergar to get in a hit on the paladin with his warhammer, but in retaliation Harlan's flame-covered blade bit deep into the duergar's chest, slaying him instantly. "Are you okay?" asked Ageratum, looking over to the half-elf paladin who had taken several hits in battle by this time.

"Well enough for now," Harlan assured her, and turned to face the woman in the cloak. "And now, Maya, would you care to explain your presence among these creatures?"

The woman did not like the four-against-one odds at all and decided to try to bluff her way past the heroes. Dropping her hood so they could all see who she was, she cried out, "Oh, thank goodness you've arrived! And just in time to save me from that brutish dwarf! I hesitate to guess his intentions!"

"We are not in the least bit impressed with your attempts at trickery," Chaevaris told her, frowning in disdain at the rather childish way in which she apparently thought she could convince them of her innocence. Turning to Harlan, the archer asked, "Is she evil?" Harlan confirmed she was.

"Anything magic upon her?" Chaevaris asked, this time turning toward Alistair. The sorcerer, jolted by the realization he could indeed determine whether she had any magic about her, hastily cast a detect magic spell (and congratulated himself for the ease by which it came, now that he was aware of himself consciously casting it), and replied, "Yes - there on her left hip, beneath the sash - something magic."

"Hand it over," demanded Harlan, holding out a hand.

"What? No! It's mine!" wheedled the woman, bristling as the paladin stepped forward and grabbed up a fist-sized ruby from her sash. Holding it up, he said, "It's the Blood Mirror!"

"I say!" exclaimed Alistair. "How did you get that back in your hands? Father Barbados had it stashed away in the church for safekeeping, just last night!"

"She must have retrieved it this morning, after we left for the mines," suggested Ageratum. "How? He wouldn't have turned it over willingly. What did you use, charm person?"

Maya opted not to directly answer the halfling's accusation (for that part was entirely correct), instead taking the opportunity to correct her. "It was Brother Scarbororugh, actually. He turned it over without question. And why not? It belongs to me - it's a family heirloom." She turned back to Harlan Starblade. "Now give it back, if you please."

"It is no such thing," replied Harlan in a stern voice. "It is a magic item crafted from a ruby taken from the Lortmil Mountains, with different powers based upon the inherent goodness or capacity for evil held by its wielder. You no doubt were hired to steal it from the tomb outside Greyhawk City and you and your brother in turn hired us to do your thievery for you. As such, you may consider yourself under arrest. Please turn over all weapons and magical items. Ageratum, you're probably the best of us with knot-craft, would you mind tying Maya's hands behind her back with her sash?"

"Not in the least," gushed Ageratum, eagerly applying herself to her appointed task. Chaevaris confiscated a dagger and a couple of rings, but none of them had any magic about them. There was likewise no magic to be found on the corpse of the duergar - but the elf did find a leather purse filled with diamonds. "Aha! Payment for the ruby, perhaps?" asked the archer.

"You may as well confess," suggested Harlan. "We intend to take you back to the church of Saint Cuthbert, and I'm sure the clerics there have a means of magically detecting lies."

"Assuming you can find your way back there," Maya said coyly. "You may find you need me after all."

"We'll see about that," said Harlan, taking her by the arm and leading her back the way they had come. Chaevaris, in the meantime, had searched along the walls of the odd room looking for secret or hidden doors and found nothing of the kind - although there was an oddity of sorts: a chunk of obsidian had been placed inside a gap in one wall. The elf puzzled over it for a moment, then followed Harlan and his prisoner down the passageway through which they had first come to the ziggurat-shaped chamber, expecting it to lead back to the narrower svirfneblin tunnel that breached Level 6 of the Slippery Shaft Mine. All thought of obsidian chunks were banished from the archer's mind.

"I say," brought up Alistair, "That odd chamber back there, it didn't have any other entrances to it, did it?" Chaevaris acknowledged it did not. "Then where did those gnomes come from?" he asked.

"That's...a very good point," admitted Harlan, looking ahead down the tunnel they were traversing. Although it was the exact same tunnel they had traveled through to get to the odd chamber where they fought the grimlocks and the duergar, on the way back it now apparently opened up to a cave set into the side of a hill. The sun was shining and it was significantly hotter than it had been when the heroes had walked to the mines with Kasselban Picksmart.

Harlan stopped Maya's forward motion with a gauntleted hand upon her shoulder. "Explain," he said, drawing his flaming burst longsword back out of its scabbard and holding the blade by her neck. The implied threat was obvious.

"Very well," replied the woman with a sigh. "There's a village below the hill. You're no longer where you think you are: we are all now in the domain of Jasgun Singh. We were hired to fetch the Blood Mirror for Jasgund and were told once we had it in hand it would tell us where to go so we could turn it over." Harlan held the ruby to his eye and looked through it and sure enough, he could see a path forward for him to take, one that led down the hill to the village below, to a specific house across the town. The paladin had heard of such magics: find the path was a spell that had this specific property, if he recalled his spellcraft training correctly.

"I don't think she's lying," Alistair interrupted. "I can't feel Ambrose's presence in my mind." Ambrose, as the young sorcerer's familiar, could send along empathic feelings through the link they shared - but only if they strayed no further than a mile apart. The grackle, it seemed, was no longer within a mile of Alistair's current position.

"But she's lied to us before," Chaevaris growled. "Give it up: who are you, really?"

Maya sighed again, quite theatrically. "Fine. My real name is Marjorie Mustaine. The man you know as 'Carlton Thorpe' is really Garabond Thorpe, and no, he's not my brother, merely another associate of mine in the same business."

"One you didn't mind selling out, once the Blood Mirror was in your hands. How much was that pouch of diamonds worth, do you think?" asked Harlan.

"I'd put it at about a thousand pieces of gold," replied Chaevaris.

Harlan looked back at Maya - or rather, Marjorie. She shrugged as best she could with her hands bound behind her. "I was the one who made the effort to get it back from that cleric," she pointed out. "He was content to just wait for the old fool to hand it back over."

"So how did we end up here - wherever exactly 'here' is?" demanded the paladin.

"I have no idea exactly where Jasgund's domain lies," Marjorie admitted, and Harlan got the feeling she was telling the truth. "But like I said, the ruby showed me which way to go, and I imagine there was some sort of teleportation gate or something at play."

"That svirfneblin tunnel, where it suddenly widened out!" exclaimed Chaevaris. "We passed through a gate of some sort and ended up here, while the real svirfneblin tunnel continued on to wherever it normally goes!"

"If that's true," asked Harlan, "then why didn't we end up back where we came from?"

"The gates aren't very steady," Marjorie answered. "And they don't stay in one place for very long. That's why I had to look through the ruby to see where I needed to go to end up where I could turn it over to Singh's man and get my payment."

Harlan moved the group forward again, to the cave opening. Sure enough, there was a village below them, filled with people going about their business: women in sarongs hanging out laundry, small children running through the dirt streets, men in turbans walking about on errands. The story Bhao and Rami had told them about walking through mists and suddenly being on a completely different road had sounded fake at first, but now seemed to have been the absolute truth.

"What do we do now?" asked Alistair. Unofficially, the group seemed to have automatically turned to Harlan Starblade for leadership.

The paladin was peering through the Blood Mirror. "Our way leads through the village," he said. "There's a building on the far end, with an overhanging roof providing shade and a kind of canvas-roofed pavilion before it. There are two men under the overhanging roof, talking to the group assembled in the shade of the pavilion. That's where we need to go, to the back half of the building with the overhanging roof."

"I say," remarked Alistair. "I fear we'll rather stick out amongst that crowd." It was true: between the five of them, they represented several different races - human, elf, halfling, and a half-breed mixture of elf and human - but all were much paler in skin tone than the dark-haired, dusky-skinned humans in the village above. And their clothing and armor was much different than the garb preferred by the villagers.

"At least they speak our language, if in a much different accent," added Chaevaris. "If you listen closely, you can hear what those two are saying." Alistair, Ageratum, and Marjorie strained their ears but couldn't make out the words of the two men under the overhanging roof, but Harlan and Chaevaris certainly could.

"Rejoice," cried one of the two turbaned speech-givers, Akahm Singh, "for two openings have presented themselves for two chosen children to study at the feet of the great Lord Jasgund Singh!"

"This a great opportunity!" enthused the other man, Kana Singh. "Who among you would send your sons to a life of wonderment? You, sir - yes! Your son will be elevated above his station to study under the tutelage of our great Lord!" The father, smiling with pride, sent his teenaged son forward to stand beside Kana Singh.

"You, son, you will fill the second slot!" announced Akahm Singh, pointing to another teenaged boy. He also stepped forward, chest puffed out with importance at having been chosen for such an honor.

"What of our daughters?" insisted another man, sitting beside a girl of twelve or thirteen summers.

"As it happens, Lord Jasgund Singh has need of a young girl of your daughter's age," Kana Singh assured the man. "It will be our great honor to present your lovely daughter before the great Lord's presence." The man pushed his daughter forward to nervously stand with the other teens between the two men.

From the top of the hill, Ageratum couldn't hear what the men were saying but she didn't like the fact the teen girl didn't seem to want to be there. "That seems kind of creepy," she pointed out.

"You don't know the half of it," Marjorie promised.

Harlan spun her around and started untying the sash from around her wrists. "Okay, this is how it's going to be," he told her. "We're already going to be a big enough spectacle in the village below by being foreigners. I don't want us drawing any further attention by us parading you around as a captive. But we'll be keeping your dagger, I'll be using the ruby to guide us to where we need to go, and with any luck we'll be led through whatever magical gateway leads back to Ghourmand Vale. No spellcasting on your part. Got it?"

"Got it," replied Marjorie, rubbing her wrists.

"All right then," Harlan said, stepping out of the cave and starting down the hill. "Let's do this."

- - -

So Dan kind of inadvertently let out that this "domain of Jasgund Singh," while not necessarily making up one of the official lands of the Ravenloft campaign, is more or less loosely patterned after the Ravenloft campaign (the original one from AD&D 2nd Edition - while we're aware there's now a 5E version, none of us has seen it). Given the descriptions, we're pretty sure we're in a D&D fantasy version of India, which makes it a pretty good bet Lord Jasgund Singh is a rakshasa - or if not, perhaps a weretiger. Fortunately, while both of those creatures are well beyond the combat capabilities of a quartet of 2nd-level PCs, the fact that he also told us the next adventure's called, "Ghee, It's Good to Be Back Home" is a pretty good indication that we won't be spending a whole lot of time in this pseudo-Ravenloft. Of course, given the random nature of the portals, there's every chance we won't have seen the last of Jasgund Singh and his cronies even if we do make it back to Ghourmand Vale next session. But Dan's also hinted that the only reason Jasgund Singh has an opening for two more students is because we killed Bhao and Rami last adventure, and also that if our suspicions about what type of creature he really is are true, there's every reason to suspect the 12-year-old girl has not been chosen for anything beyond his next meal.

As a reminder, Harlan is played by my 15-year-old nephew. The rest of the (adult) players all more or less decided we'd put the half-elf paladin in an unofficial leadership role for our party; in game, it makes sense as he's a respected paladin of Pelor, a Lawful Good Sun God, and out of game it's a good opportunity for Harry to take on a bit more responsibility where there's nothing more on the line than the pretend lives of a group of pretend characters in a pretend world. So far, he's taking to the role a bit hesitantly but I think he'll do fine in the long run.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 2​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 2​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 2​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 2​

Game Session Date: 20 July 2022

- - -

As the group of five walked down the hill - Marjorie having had her hands unbound but a gag inserted in her mouth and then covered with a veil, after Chaevaris had noted about half of the village women wore veils and this would help prevent their captive from casting any spells - the larger assembly broke up, with the three children being escorted away by the pair of Lord Jasgund Singh's men. By the time the quintet made it to the building (gathering a few odd looks their way from the villagers they passed, for they definitely stood out among this crowd), the fathers of the three chosen children and the others who had brought their own kids hoping they would be chosen to serve their great Lord had all gone their separate ways.

Having been told the way to go by a series of arrows as viewed through the Blood Mirror, Harlan led the group to a door in the back of the building from which the two Lord's men had given their spiel. The door led to a kitchen, inside of which one harried cook was bending over some pot of a spicy dish, his back turned. Harlan walked across the kitchen and out a different door, walking as if he belonged here. The others followed suit, Chaevaris keeping a hand upon Marjorie's arm in case she got any ideas. Then they exited through the other door, which led them to a clearing - some sort of alley between the buildings, perhaps? To the others there was nothing special about the place, but glancing once again through the large ruby Harlan could see a shimmering door just ahead, likely the temporary planar gate that would lead them back home.

"This way," he told the others, stepping forward to the doorway. The others followed his lead, and one by one they each passed through the gate and into another clearing - but this one was quite obviously in a grassy plains surrounded by forest, with trees more in line with the ones to which the heroes were accustomed: elms, firs, and oaks instead of palm trees like those on the other side of the gate. As Alistair was the last one to pass through the magical doorway, he was the one who heard a surprised, "Wait! Where are you going?" from behind him in the odd accent of the dusky-skinned people in the village they had left behind. But then, looking back the way he had come, the sorcerer saw nothing but forest lands all around him - the doorway had apparently closed behind him. "I say!" Alistair exclaimed. The life of an adventurer was a strange one indeed!

"Any idea where we might be?" Harlan asked the others. Chaevaris and Ageratum admitted the area looked familiar. "I think we're west of Welkwood," the elf explained, and the halfling said it reminded her of the area around the town of Enstad. The archer opined they were likely somewhere just north of the Lortmil Mountains, which put them southeast of Ghourmand Vale - several days out, likely, perhaps a week or more.

"Then I think we will no longer need you gagged," Harlan said, removing the veil and gag from Marjorie.

"What are we going to do with her?" Ageratum asked. "We gonna keep her prisoner the whole way back? If we do, we'll need to keep an eye on her around the clock, to make sure she doesn't try charming one of us" - and here she looked over at Alistair, Marjorie's likeliest target - "into turning over all of our goods, to include the Blood Mirror, just like she did to Brother Scarborough."

"I fail to see how we have any other choice," Alistair said. He knew the little halfling could be tough, but he certainly hoped she wasn't suggesting they kill the treacherous woman or anything. That wasn't the least bit sporting, and besides he was fairly sure Harlan Starblade wouldn't let them do it.

"This is where we go our separate ways," the paladin explained to Marjorie.

"Fine by me. Just give me back my stuff!"

"That is my intention," Harlan said, taking the cloth sash they'd taken from her and tying one end tightly around her right wrist.

"Hey, what gives?"

"Please, be seated." When Marjorie seemed disinclined to obey the paladin of Pelor, Ageratum helped her along by kicking the back of her left knee. Marjorie crumpled to the ground, her back against a tree. Harlan wound the sash around the tree trunk and the spellcaster's waist, then securely tied the other end to her left wrist, such that her arms were behind her, wrapped around the trunk. "This will keep you from following us right away," Harlan explained. "By the time you free yourself we'll be gone, and I sincerely doubt you have the tracking skills of a woodsman."

"You can't do this! I'll be killed by a bear or something! My death will be on your hands!"

Harlan produced the woman's dagger, holding it before her and her complaints ceased at once, as she looked at the armored half-elf kneeling before her. Surely a paladin wouldn't kill her in cold blood like this! But Harlan merely flipped the dagger in his hand and stabbed it down into the ground, burying its blade in the forest floor just past her feet. "This will make your task a bit easier, and will provide you protection against any wildlife you might encounter once you've freed yourself," he told her.

"What about my diamonds? And the rings and jewelry you took from me?"

"We're claiming them as recompense for your having tricked us into stealing the Blood Mirror from that tomb in the first place," Ageratum told her - and in Marjorie's seated position, the little halfling didn't need to bend down to talk to her like Harlan did. "And this," she added, "is to give us an even longer time to make ourselves scarce before you free yourself, so there will be little chance of us running into each other during our travels." And with that, she bonked the bound spellcaster on just the right spot on her temple to knock her into sudden unconsciousness.

"I say!" exclaimed Alistair. "She's-- she's all right, isn't she?"

"She'll be fine," Ageratum reassured him. "Just a little bump on the noggin to let her know we mean business. C'mon, I see some smoke over that way."

Thirty minutes of walking towards the smoke led the group to a small halfling village, just as twilight was approaching. "I know this place!" Ageratum said. "Cobb's Grange!"

"You've been here before?" Chaevaris asked.

"No, I just know it by reputation. Plus, there's a sign over there that says 'Cobb's Grange' in the Halfling language." She smirked and pointed to a sign much lower to the ground than would be one geared for the taller races; the others hadn't even noticed it.

The village had but a single tavern and it was closing up for the night, as this was primarily a farming village and the farmers all rose early in the morning. "I say, we aren't thinking of eating here, are we?" asked Alistair, a note of worry in his voice.

"Why, don't you like halfling food?" asked Ageratum. She'd never met anyone who didn't like halfling food, which was all very basic: not much with the fancy spices, just good, hearty meals that filled you up.

"It's just -- I've heard if you accept food or drink while in Fairieland you can be compelled to stay there forever. It's in all the literature." Chaevaris's head shook in disbelief and a hand rose up to pinch the bridge of the archer's nose as if to ward off an incipient headache.

Ageratum just stared blankly at the foolish fop for a moment, then recalled he had thought halflings were legendary creatures from fairy stories and myths when he had first met her. Now, after having stepped through two planar gates in a row, he had apparently gotten it into his head that they were in the Land of Faerie. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll use my fairy halfling magic to make the food and drink perfectly safe." It seemed the easiest approach, and sure enough it worked - Alistair's brow lost its worried creases as he felt reassured the halfling would be able to navigate them through the unknown perils of Faerieland.

"Naw, naw, naw, we're closing!" Flournish Bungthumper insisted as the four heroes approached the tavern.

"We've come a very long way," insisted Ageratum. "Couldn't you stay open just long enough for us to have a bite to eat? And is there a place we might stay for the night?"

"Naw, naw, the kitchen's already closed for the night!" the tavernkeeper repeated. "As for a place to sleep, we don't have much in the way for bigguns like your friends, there, miss - but you might try Bloodbag's - he'd likely put you up."

"'Bloodbag,'" repeated Alistair. "He certainly sounds like a pleasant fellow."

"Don't let him hear you calling him by that name," warned a halfling farmer just leaving the closing tavern. "He don't much like the nickname - best to call him by his real name, Torkleson Aldershoot." He gave the group directions to Torkleson's farm, where he raised ponies for sale.

Heading to Torkleson's farm meant traveling through the woods. With the sun going down, the group relied upon the two lanterns they had brought with them from the Slippery Shaft Mine, the other two having been left behind when they suddenly found themselves in Lord Jasgun Singh's domain. Ageratum and Alistair carried the sources of light, while Harlan unsheathed his magic longsword and set its blade ablaze with a command. They were several minutes down the forest path when they heard a high-pitched scream from ahead, accompanied by a set of snarls and barks. "Wolves!" guessed Ageratum, rushing ahead with the lantern in one hand, the other straying to her masterwork short sword.

"Ogilvy, if you please!" called out Alistair, summoning his unseen servant and passing the man-shaped invisible force his bullseye lantern so he could have both hands free to handle his light crossbow. Then he too ran forward, hoping the wolves hadn't gotten to their victim just yet. Turning a corner on the path, they saw two rather large gray-furred wolves, snarling at each other as they fought over which of them would get the halfling child whose head peeked fearfully out from inside the hollow remains of a tree trunk that had apparently been struck by lightning some time ago. "Stay down, we're coming to get you!" called out Ageratum to the young child, who dutifully hunkered further back down in the hollow trunk. Alistair sighted down his weapon and released the trigger, sending his bolt across the distance to plunge deep into the first worg's shoulder, causing it to yowl in pain and look frantically in the direction from which the bolt had been fired. Almost immediately afterward an arrow crossed the distance and buried itself in the creature's back, just above the shoulder, Chaevaris having gotten in a rather good shot from a considerable distance farther back than Alistair had been. The worg was now frantic with pain, but it was somehow still standing.

Harlan raced forward, sword out and alit with fire. The closest worg, crazed with pain, took its frustrations out on the approaching paladin and pulled Harlan down to the ground, where it could try to get a grip on the half-elf's throat. Harlan managed to stick the edge of his shield between the worg's slavering jaws, preventing himself from being ripped apart by the creatures wicked teeth. In the meantime, the other worg ran past the two struggling figures - and Harlan was too engaged with his current foe to be able to swing at this new enemy as he passed - and bit at Ageratum, catching her arm in its jaws. Alistair shot at this newcomer and missed, then ran up to try to aid Ageratum in getting her arm out from between the creature's teeth. The little halfling swung at her attacker with her short sword but failed to connect. Chaevaris stepped closer and sent a second arrow into the first worg, fully expecting that would slay the wounded beast, but was shocked to see the wicked lupine still clinging to life, if only by the narrowest of threads. But then Harlan sent his own flaming blade stabbing deep into the heart of his attacker and slew it at long last - it had been one of the toughest beasts the group had encountered thus far in their adventuring careers and the half-elf couldn't help but be impressed with its tenacity.

The remaining worg, yet to have been hit in combat, snapped at Alistair as he tried to aid Ageratum, but the sorcerer managed to pull back out of the way in the nick of time. And then two more arrows came whizzing out of the forest to land smack into the beast's side, causing it to yelp in surprise and pain. Alistair noted these arrows were only as big as the crossbow bolts he used, but these were fletched with feathers at the ends of their shafts - perhaps a halfling-sized set of arrows? The sorcerer's supposition was proven to be correct when a male halfling stepped out between the trees and called out, "Augnatios Aldershoot - can you hear me?"

"I'm over here, Dad!" the halfling child called back from the safety of the hollow tree. Then, realizing the amount of trouble he was in, he couldn't help adding, "Uh oh!"

Alistair took a step back and fired a final shot into the worg's head, killing him. Then the full-grown halfling stepped forward from between the trees, heading to the sound of his son's voice. "Auggie? It's safe to come out now, son! Now, get over here!"

"Yes, Dad!" the boy called as he scrambled out of the hollow tree trunk, and Ageratum saw he looked to be about 10 or 11 years old. She and Harlan each drank down a potion of cure light wounds, healing up some of the wounds they had suffered from the worgs' sharp teeth.

"I say," Alistair said as he walked over to the embracing halfling father and son, the older one slapping the boy on the side of the head in frustration after determining he was all right. "Did I hear you say the name 'Aldershoot'? You wouldn't happen to be Torkleson Aldershoot by any chance, would you?"

"I am," replied the halfling ranger. Alistair explained how they had been heading to his farm in hopes of being put up for the night. Tee halfling readily agreed, especially after the heroes had helped save the life of his boy, who knew better than to roam out into the woods after dark. He led them back to his farm, where his wife Sue served up a delicious meal of roast squash, mushrooms, carrots, and rabbit - Auggie was forced to serve everyone their meals, since per his father's insistence he would be skipping his own dinner that night to help him remember the importance of not wandering off to be devoured by hungry forest-dwellers. (Ageratum remembered to pretend to use her "halfling fairy magic" to take away the food's ability to trap mortals in Faerieland, allowing Alistair to relax enough to enjoy the meal.) The adults talked over the meal, Torkleson pointing out he had dozens of ponies for sale and a pair of light horses better suited for those of the taller races. They agreed to take a look at the animals in the morning, with a mind to buying a pony and both horses, the better to get back to Ghourmand Vale in as little time as possible. There was a single spare bedroom in the farmhouse, and since it was scaled to Ageratum's frame she got the use of it, the other three making themselves comfortable in the piles of hay in the barn loft. Alistair was quite impressed, not at the thought of sleeping like a commoner in a pile of hay - although he was slowly becoming accustomed to such things - but by the immaculate nature of the barn: not a speck of dust or a cobweb to be found. And despite himself, he found sleeping in hay made for rather comfortable accommodations after all.

The next morning, the heroes found a good night's sleep had done them all a world of wonder, although Ageratum still topped a hearty halfling breakfast - eggs, biscuits, mushrooms, and tea sweetened with honey - with another potion of cure light wounds to bring her up fully to fighting trim. They looked at the Aldershoots' animals and Ageratum picked out a pony for her own use, naming him Munson. Harlan claimed one of the two light horses for his own use - after all, the paladin wore the heaviest armor of the group - and named his mount Law. Chaevaris took the other horse and begrudgingly allowed Alistair to share the animal - but the young nobleman surprised the archer by being well-equipped to ride a horse, whereas the archer had never had the opportunity to learn to ride. "Don't worry, Elfy, I can show you how it's done!" promised Alistair, and Chaevaris found it necessary to spend a moment or two with closed eyes, slowly counting to ten. Nonetheless, it only made sense for Alistair to ride up front with the archer directly behind.

"Have you thought up a name for your horse? Because in the books, Elfy rides a horse named Swifty."

"I will not be naming my horse 'Swifty,'" Chaevaris replied. "I shall name him...Talkacha." Alistair stifled a smile; he knew the elven language quite well (although his accent was rather horrible when he tried speaking it), and he well knew that "Talkacha" was elven for "Swiftmane." Not quite the same as Swifty, but pretty darn close.

They paid Torkleson for the three mounts using jewelry they'd taken from Marjorie. In point of fact, they paid him more than the mounts were worth, but only because there was no way to get to the appropriate amount using only her rings, necklaces, and earrings. "I wonder how she's faring," Alistair voiced aloud.

"I wonder why anyone would care," Ageratum replied.

Torkleson, feeling bad about being overpaid for the three mounts, threw in two vials of antitoxin and a warning about the section of deep woods they'd be traversing to make their best time back to Ghourmand Vale. "There are plenty of spiders about," he told them. "Oftentimes, they gather together into vast swarms. Best be on the lookout, and don't go too fast down the paths or you're likely to run into a web or two. But the webs burn easily, so keep that in mind." A quick discussion between the four heroes led to the decision that Ageratum and Alistair should hold on to the vials of antitoxin, as they were the most likely to need them. Alistair pulled out the wad of spell scrolls he'd purchased back in Ghourmand Vale and found the one containing the burning hands spell. He looked it over until he felt he understood it enough to be able to cast it, and rolled the other "attack spell" scrolls back up into his "attack spell" scroll tube (the other scroll tube held the other spell scrolls not necessarily useful in combat), leaving the rolled-up burning hands scroll tucked loosely in his belt where he could pull it out easily.

"Thank you for the mounts, and for your hospitality," Harlan told the halflings before leading the group back to the edge of the woods. As per Torkleson's instructions, they kept an eye out for spiders as they rode, and the first 15 minutes or so passed by with only the occasional sighting of a web or two up high in the trees, among the branches. But then Chaevaris called out from behind Alistair, "There, to the left - that tree's covered in spiders!"

Sure enough, the elf's keen eyesight had picked out what Alistair at first had thought to be a fungal growth on the thick trunk of a large tree up ahead for what it truly was: literally hundreds of spiders, all crawling over each other. "Get your spell ready, just in case," Harlan advised the sorcerer.

"I have eight flasks of oil in my pack," Chaevaris pointed out. "I could pour a couple of them out upon the side of the path when we ride past, and you could set the oil ablaze with your sword."

"I like it," Harlan agreed. "Let's do it. Hold off on your burning hands spell for now, Alistair, but perhaps you and Ageratum should drink down your antitoxin, just to be ready." At Chaevaris's urging, after gulping down the antitoxin (which had a rather nasty taste until an unconsciously-cast prestidigitation spell altered the taste to that of Sue Aldershoot's honey-sweetened tea), Alistair steered Talkacha along the left side of the dirt path, coming rather closer to the mass of writhing spiders than the young nobleman was willing to admit he was entirely comfortable with. But the spiders failed to jump out at them, and soon enough Talkacha was past them with a nice sheet of flames rising up, a barrier of fire between the spider swarm and the three mounts and their riders.

But then a clicking sound came from the forest ahead of them and to the right, as they turned a corner and started heading directly west. As a result, the spider swarm abandoned the tree they'd been covering and crawled away from the sheet of flames, flanking around to the south. Unseen by the heroes, a second swarm of spiders - further back from the road behind them and thus not spotted yet - came around the northern edge of the flames and started trailing the three mounts, then darting into a clump of trees on the other side of the road. Harlan caught a glimpse of movement in the trees to the right and saw a strange, humanoid figure come up to the edge of the trees, hold out its hands, and squirt a stream of fluid across the road - a stream which quickly coalesced into a mass of clinging, sticky webs, blocking the road so the horses and pony couldn't pass.

But Chaevaris had spotted the figure and was the only one with enough experience living off the land to recognize it for what it was: a spider-headed ettercap. Leaping off the back of Talkacha, the archer brought the composite longbow up and fired an arrow at the humanoid beast, but it dodged behind a tree at the last moment and the arrow embedded itself into bark. Still, that was enough to alert everyone else of the ettercap's position and identity as a foe, even if none of the other three had ever heard of such a creature before. Harlan kicked Law forward, stabbing out at the ettercap with his flaming blade as he did so, cutting a deep slash in the fleeing creature's right shoulder blade. "Use your spell on the spiders!" Harlan advised Alistair as he did so.

Alistair climbed down from Talkacha's broad back and turned to face the creeping mass of spiders fast approaching. He pulled the scroll from his belt and started reading, holding his hands out as it showed in the margins. To his surprise, he felt a wave of heat flow through his body and come flying out of his fingertips, widening into a horizontal sheet of flames that he aimed down at the arachnid swarm before him. The spell was particularly effective, burning to a crisp at least two-thirds of the crawling menaces - but the others kept coming. "I say!" Alistair cried out as they scrambled forward, engulfing him and biting him through his clothes. He swatted at the arachnids, dropping the now-blank sheet of parchment that had until a moment ago held the burning hands spell waiting to be released. Across the road and in the clump of trees beyond, the second swarm advanced towards the ettercap, the arachnids approaching the creature who had called them forward into service.

Harlan had, by this time, leaped down from his mount and was chasing the ettercap through the trees. The creature spun and fired another web, hoping to catch the paladin in its sticky strands, but Harlan dodged the incoming mass and it exploded into a wall of webbing between two trees behind him. Chaevaris fired another arrow at the ettercap, but this one also ended up buried into the side of a tree trunk. Fortunately, Harlan soon caught up to his fleeing prey and brought the ettercap down with an overhand swing of his burning blade, cutting the ettercap's shoulder down to the bone and spilling him to bleed out upon the forest floor.

Ageratum, during this time, had coaxed Munson cautiously forward toward the webs blocking the road and was meticulously cutting them with the blade of her shortspear. She already had most of one side cut through, when Alistair summoned Ogilvy, had him pick up a loose stick from the ground, set one end of it ablaze by sticking it into the sheet of flames caused by the line of burning oil, and apply it to the remaining spiders making up the swarm trying to make a meal of Alistair. The sorcerer had by this time brushed off the majority of the spiders that had crawled upon his person, and as he backed away out of range of the others he cleaned the squish-stains of smooshed spiders from his clothes with another prestidigitation spell he wasn't even consciously aware of casting. But with the ettercap dead, the spider swarms soon lost interest in attacking the heroes, the few remaining from the original swarm wandering away in their own separate directions, while the spiders making up the second swarm - which had crawled over Harlan and were busy biting him where they could - got tired of the paladin squishing them and hopped off to go chew on the corpse of the ettercap, who after his death had somehow transformed from "master" to "food." Harlan retreated back to Law just in time to find Ogilvy and his burning stick clearing up the rest of the webs blocking the road. Those who had dismounted got back onto their horses and Harlan led the way forward once again. But they had no further encounters with any spiders in that section of forest and soon enough they were back in the open plains, heading toward Ghourmand Vale once again.

It took them the better part of three days to get back, but in the late afternoon of the third day they saw the Stouts' farmhouse ahead of them, which put them a mere four hours out from Ghourmand Vale. "There it is!" Chaevaris called out gladly, for sharing a mount with Alistair had been something of a chore.

"I say!" declared Alistair. "You're right, Elfy! But now I'm confused - at what point did we exit Faerieland?"

Ageratum bit her lips closed and stifled a snicker.

- - -

We leveled up at the end of this adventure, each of us reaching exactly 3,000.5 XP. As expected, everyone took another level of the same class they already had - I don't think any of us are planning on doing any sort of multiclassing at all.

For the record, "ghee" is a salted Indian butter that served no purpose at all in this adventure but to be a pun that sort of tied in to the pseudo-Indian domain of not-quite-Ravenloft from which we left at the beginning of this adventure. I have the AD&D 2nd Edition Ravenloft boxed set, so I lent it to Dan for him to peruse, for the randomly-occurring planar gates to the domain of Lord Jasgund Singh are something we all expect to see a bit more of over the course of this campaign.

And once we get back into town, we'll want to see if we can pick up where we left off in clearing out the Slippery Shaft Mine of the svirfneblin who have infiltrated it (we never did get to level five of the mine) or of the dwarves have already dealt with the problem during our four-day absence. (And if they have, we'll have to try to get at least half pay for having cleared out level six.) Also, Alistair needs to buy a horse of his own so he no longer has to double up with Chaevaris. Fortunately, despite how much he enjoyed the amazing fictional exploits of Elfy Danger Silverleaf as a boy growing up, I don't think the adult Alistair will want to name his horse "Swifty."
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 3 August 2022

- - -

Having arrived at the farmhouse recently purchased by the Stouts - who had offered to let the heroes stay as long as they might need as thanks for having rescued their daughter while part of the initial caravan taking them to Ghourmand Vale - and well tired of riding, the quartet opted to make a day of it. And while they'd only been gone three days, plenty had happened during that short span of time, as the Stouts filled them in over dinner.

"Those dwarven miners have been bad-mouthing you something fierce, for one thing," Mr. Stout informed them. "That leader of theirs - Kasselban, I think his name is? - refers to you as 'skeddadle-prone.' He seemed pretty miffed that you all disappeared from the mines without a trace."

"Not by any choice of ours!" argued Ageratum fiercely. "We ended up in another entire realm, facing duergar and grimlocks - which, if we hadn't taken them down, could easily have infiltrated their mines and done them considerable harm!"

"Indeed!" agreed Alistair, hot under the collar about the besmirching of his good name - and that of his friends. He noted Ageratum hadn't mentioned the numbers of the enemies they'd been up against - a sole duergar and merely two grimlocks - but also realized she hadn't actually given any hint at all of their relative numbers; if Mr. Stout opted to assume it was a much more fearsome horde than they'd actually been up against, that was on him, not them. He silently decided he'd use that very tactic against Kasselban Picksmart, as soon as they caught back up with him.

"We will be sure to disabuse him of any notion we were shirking at our duties," promised Harlan.

"In other news, the clerics of Saint Cuthbert - the ones who headed up our caravan - they've bought a stone keep and have moved into it from that old, converted barn they'd been using. It's about halfway between here and Ghourmand Vale - you'll pass right by it if you'll be heading into town in the morning," Mr. Stout said. He gave them directions on how to find the stone keep, and when asked what had prompted the purchase he told them what he'd heard from Father Barbados - the barn was too accessible to thieves, for the Blood Mirror, which had been stored there for safekeeping, had apparently been stolen from right out from beneath their noses.

"But we've got it back!" argued Ageratum. "It was that Maya Thorpe - her real name is Marjorie Mustaine, by the way, and she's not even Carlton's sister - she cast a charm person spell on Brother Scarborough and he just handed it right over! We met up with her in that other realm and took the Blood Mirror back from her." The little halfling explained what all had happened there in the land of Jasgun Singh.

"We'd best stop by the stone keep and fill in Father Barbados on what all has happened since we inadvertently left the mines," Chaevaris suggested.

"Agreed," said Harlan. "And then we'll return to the Slippery Shaft Mines and see if they've sealed off the svirfneblin tunnel we found on level six, and if they still need us to clear out level five for them."

"And we need to get paid," piped up Alistair. "Even if they got someone else to deal with level five, we still dealt with those two gnomes who killed that Greasy Thom fellow. And we'll want to return their two lanterns to them." Chaevaris and Harlan had left their borrowed bullseye lanterns back by the elevator on level six of the mines, but Alistair and Ageratum had still been carrying theirs when they breached the dimensions and ended up in Jasgun Singh's domain.

"Good idea - otherwise that dwarf will probably want to charge us for them," added Chaevaris.

The next morning they headed out, still riding bareback on their recently-purchased mounts, and Alistair and Chaevaris riding double since the four heroes only had three mounts between them. Mr. Stout's directions were easy enough to follow, and after a couple of hours on the road they found the stone keep right where the farmer had said it would be. It was singularly unimpressive, built for simplicity instead of ornamentation, a two-story stone structure surrounded by a low wall about 150 feet from the building. The wall was tall enough to keep out wandering animals, but wouldn't be much of a deterrence against determined enemy foes. Still, it was a step up from a converted barn.

There were five swineherds feeding their pigs outside the wall when the heroes rode up, but they scarcely paid them any attention. Father Barbados was outside the keep with a hoe in his hands, viciously attacking weeds in the yard around the keep. He looked up at the heroes' approach, squinted in the mid-morning sun, and grunted in recognition. "Well, I'll be," he said. "Kasselban's been lookin' fer ye."

"We are well aware," replied Harlan. "In fact, we're on our way to go see him now." He gave the elderly cleric an abbreviated version of how they spent their last four days. When Father Barbados explained about their having lost the Blood Mirror, the half-elf paladin removed it from his belt pouch and showed the cleric they had managed to get it back. Ageratum then filled him in on Marjorie's treachery, and how she'd used arcane spellcraft on Brother Scarborough to get her hands on it in the first place. Harlan then explained how the ruby had helped them find their way back to Oerth (Alistair noted the half-elf left out the part about traveling through Faerieland, but decided he was just giving the cleric the condensed version and said nothing) and why this Jasgund Singh likely wanted to get his hands upon it.

"That weak-minded simpleton!" exploded Father Barbados. "He could've said somefing t' me about that!" He looked about him, seeing Brother Scrimshaw over on the other side of the keep with a hoe of his own and an ever-growing pile of weeds. "An' I notice 'e's stickin' t' cleanin' inside o' th' keep, 'stead of workin' out 'ere in th' hot sun like th' two o' us!" Ageratum tried calming the cleric down, suggesting it was entirely possible Marjorie had used magic to make Brother Scarborough forget about handing her the Blood Mirror. But then Harlan suggested they'd best be moving on to go see Kasselban, not wanting to get into the middle of an argument between the three clerics of Saint Cuthbert. He bid the elderly man good day and swung his new horse, Law, back down the road. Ageratum followed on her pony Munson and Alistair steered Chaevaris's horse Talkacha behind them, the archer hanging on to the nobleman and not very pleased about it. Fortunately, Alistair had promised when they got into town he'd see about the purchase of a horse of his own, and in fact he'd been giving Chaevaris riding lessons during the last three days, as the elf's training had been solely on foot-based archery, not riding upon a mount.

Another two hours of riding and the group finally returned to Ghourmand Vale, after a four-day absence. As Alistair had promised Chaevaris, they went to a horse salesman where the young nobleman purchased a healthy-looking light horse he named Zephyr. All four heroes picked up saddles and bits and bridles for their mounts, for they'd been forced to ride bareback from Bloodbag's place, the halfling rancher not having branched out into such accoutrements for the animals he raised. And then, well into the afternoon, the four rode up to the Slippery Shaft Mines; as they neared the place Alistair felt a familiar sensation in the back of his mind and soon thereafter Ambrose alit upon his shoulder, cawing in irritation. "Believe me, I had no intention of being gone this long," Alistair promised his familiar, and the grackle eventually dropped into a silent acceptance.

"What ho - it be those skeddadle-prone heroes I hired half a week ago!" roared Kasselban when the heroes rode up to the entrance of his mines. "I thought ye'd had enough of th' dangers of a hero's lifestyle an' decided t' high-tail it wif me lanterns!" He frowned upon seeing the two lanterns still in the heroes' possession and apparently being returned to him, for he'd planned on charging them for their loss if he ever met up with them again. "An' what brings ye back t' th' job, then? Overwhelmin' sense o' guilt, were it?"

"I believe that's just about enough of your accusations," replied Harlan, and the dwarven miner decided it might not be a good idea to rile up a paladin of Pelor. He listened silently while the half-elf filled him in on what had transpired and then had to admit the miners hadn't done anything about level five but ignore it for the past four days. In his defense, he argued, they'd been busy on level six, where a vein of mithril had been discovered.

"Well, we're here for our pay for having cleared out level six for you - and preventing a duergar and grimlock incursion on top of everything else," Alistair said, "so you can either pay us half of what we agreed upon, or we'll take the full pay upon clearing out level five. Your call." Kasselban tried a few perfunctory arguments about why he shouldn't have to pay or why he should at least be given a discount, but he eventually had to admit they'd agreed to a price to be paid for a job to be done, and no time limit specified in which the heroes were to clear out both levels five and six.

"Very well, then," Kasselban grumbled. "Let's be off, then - I'll be comin' wif ye t' level five." He gave no reason for insisting on accompanying the heroes, but Harlan got the distinct impression it was to make sure they didn't "sneak out" again somehow to avoid doing the full job. Still, if the distrustful dwarf insisted on sharing the danger, who was the half-elf paladin to say no? The five entered the elevator car and a group of dwarven miners lowered them down to the fifth level, Ambrose once again being left behind topside for fear of the sorcerer losing his familiar on a more permanent basis than a four-day hiatus.

"You don't have a weapon," Harlan noted, looking over at the dwarven miner. "Don't you at least want a pick or something?"

"I'm not th' one gonna be doin' th' fightin'," argued Kasselban. "If'n I wanted t' clear out th' mines by meself, I coulda done it while ye all were buggerin' off elsewheres!" But then the elevator car landed with a bump on the stone floor of level five and the dwarf pushed open the door, leading the way into level five. The heroes followed, then spread out before the miner. "Best if you stay behind us," Ageratum suggested.

"Yes, by all means - leave this in the hands of Trained Professional Adventurers," added Alistair, for that was how he had started to think of his little group, capital letters and all.

Level five started out as a large cavern with a stone column in the middle left in place as a means of support. Harlan and Chaevaris took the right side of the column while Alistair and Ageratum went left, the paladin casting forth his senses ahead and seeking out auras of evil. There was no doubting it: there was evil directly ahead, at a spot where wooden braces had been installed to help prevent the tunnel from collapsing. He warned the others of his findings and moved forward, concentrating on pinpointing the source of evil. Alistair summoned his unseen servant Ogilvy and had him train the light from one of the bullseye lanterns up at the ceiling of the wooden brace, where Harlan said the evil was coming from. Chaevaris had an arrow nocked and ready to fire, the archer's keen vision focused along the shaft of the arrow and seeking a target.

Harlan stepped forward with his flaming burst longsword drawn and ablaze, acting as both readied weapon and torch. As he moved underneath the brace the choker reached down and grabbed at him with a wide, five fingered hand completely devoid of any bones. The creature's spiny hand raked across the half-elf's neck, but the nimble paladin avoided getting caught up in the choker's embrace and he swung at the beast with his full strength, the flame-covered blade slicing into the choker's side. Chaevaris's arrow went crashing up by its head, the arrowhead shattering against the stone ceiling. Alistair did a bit better with his crossbow, at least hitting the choker although his bolt didn't seem to faze the beast much. Kasselban, who had moved closer to watch the action, backed up upon seeing the fearsome monster infesting his mines; perhaps it was best to leave this job to the Trained Professional Adventurers after all!

Alistair quickly reloaded his light crossbow and shot at the choker again, the bolt catching the beast in its rubbery, boneless arm. Ageratum threw a kobold shortspear at it but it dodged the incoming missile. However, it was not able to evade Harlan Starblade's flaming sword and the paladin skewered it upon his blade, the flames burning the horrid beast from within. It fell to the mine floor, dead. Ogilvy continued shining the bullseye lantern on the corpse, allowing the heroes to see the choker carried nothing of value on it.

Continuing on down the passageway, Harlan heard the sound of running water ahead and around a corner. There, at the end of the shaft, there was a loose pile of rocks with a gap large enough for a svirfneblin - or the thin, rubbery body of a choker - to squeeze through the hole. "I think we've found your entryway," the half-elf informed the dwarven miner. "This, no doubt, was how the svirfneblin and the choker got into your mines."

"Wait," interrupted Alistair. "I thought they got in through that side tunnel on the lower level. Remember? When we were chasing the last svirfneblin, that's the way he ran."

"That passageway dead-ended about twenny feet in," replied Kasselban.

"Really? I say - how strange." Then the young nobleman realized they had never made it to the end of that passageway, for somewhere along its length had been the temporary planar gate that had shunted them to Jasgun Singh's realm.

Upon Harlan's instruction, Chaevaris gave the entirety of the fifth level a once over, the elf reporting back having unearthed no signs of any secret passageways leading into the mine. "The gap in the rocks leading down to the underground stream - that's the only other way in," the archer affirmed.

"Then we have complied with the terms of our agreement," Alistair said. "Your miners will be able to seal off this gap and then you need have no further fears of infiltration by undesirable creatures."

"Ye killed but one wee choker on th' whole level," Kasselban argued. "That hardly seems worth doublin' yer fee."

"The only thing being doubled is the half-fee we earned by clearing out one of two levels as specified by you," Alistair countered. "Now that we have cleared out both levels, we return to the full price agreed upon by both parties. Unless you wish to break an oath sworn before, and to, a paladin of Pelor?" Kasselban seemed to be dredging about in his miserly mind for any way to wriggle out of the deal, when there was the sound of pounding feet behind them. As one, the four heroes spun about, weapons ready to face this new threat.

But the "threat" turned out to be nothing but a pair of dwarven miners. "Boss!" one cried, blanching at the realization he had an elven archer aiming an arrow right between his eyes. "Whoa! Stop! It's just us - we got a message!"

Chaevaris lowered the bow and let out the string, which had been ready to send the arrow flying across the mine tunnel - it was only the archer's long experience at bowhunting that had prevented the dwarf from having been shot at. "What's th' message?" demanded Kasselban. "Who wants me?"

"Not you, boss - them heroes. A boy came running up, says they're needed back at th' keep. Some feller name o' Thorpe's causing problems."

The mine boss looked over to the heroes. "Sounds important," he said. "Imagine ye'll prolly wanna head right over there, quick-like."

"We will pass by your office on the way out," Harlan pointed out. "You can pay us our wages and then we'll be on our way. Kasselban scowled at this but saw no way out of it, and indeed he had paid them in full before they mounted up on their horses and headed back to the Keep of Saint Cuthbert, two hours away to the southeast. It was closing in on dusk as they rode up to the place they'd just visited that very morning.

As they rode their mounts through the opened gate in the wall surrounding the keep, they saw a robed figure just stepping inside the front door - possibly Brother Scrimshaw, but they were still too far away to tell for sure. The swineherds had apparently moved on since they'd seen them that morning, no doubt back at their farms and tending to their crops and animals.

Ageratum was the first one into the front door, as the others tied their horses' bridles to the hitching post out front. The front room was empty and triangular in shape, basically a choke-hold to ensure a single person could fight off those trying to enter, if need be. At the back of the room was a pair of double doors and the halfling swung them wide open, stepping into the main structure of the keep itself - a rectangle with a smaller rectangle in the center of the larger one, with "L-shaped" rooms in each corner of the keep. "Hello?" she called out, looking along the hallways that surrounded the central room. She could see a door on the east and west sides of this central room, as well as a few doors leading into the smaller sides of the "L-shaped" rooms.

"We're back 'ere!" called a voice with the brogue used by Father Barbados. Ageratum, having no reason to think otherwise, assumed it was the elderly cleric and took heart in the fact he didn't seem to be panicked or upset or anything; apparently they must have gotten the situation with Carlton - or actually, Garabond - Thorpe well in hand since sending word to the heroes to come to their assistance. Ageratum started heading along the western side of the central rectangle, given it sounded like Father Barbados was way in the rear of the keep. Alistair soon caught up with her, the nobleman's strides being much longer than those of the little halfling. Unseen by either, Ogilvy followed his master. They heard the sound of a door open and close, then silence.

Chaevaris and Harlan entered the keep, the archer going along the eastern hallway and the paladin trailing Ageratum and Alistair. Harlan sensed no evil in the area directly ahead.

"Where are you?" Ageratum called out again.

"We're in th' very back o' th' keep!" came the answer. Alistair turned the corner and saw Father Barbados standing beside a large fireplace. On the floor before him, looking very bruised and bloody, lay the unconscious form of Garaband Thorpe, the swindler who had hired the heroes to fetch the Blood Mirror from a tomb he claimed belonged to his grandfather, but it had recently become apparent all of that had been a lie - he'd been hired by Jasgun Singh to fetch the ruby so he could put it to his own nefarious use.

"I say!" declared Alistair. "Is everything all right?"

"Well, this one needs some healin' somethin' fierce, I can tell ye, but I'm afraid I'm all tuckered out - no more spells left t' me, ye see. Y'might want t' bring the paladin forth t' heal 'im, an' if ye've got th' Blood Mirror ye might want t' put it t' good use."

Alistair looked down at the beaten man. "Did you do this?" he asked.

"Naw, 'tweren't me, lad - he showed up here all beaten an' bloody." By this time, Chaevaris had rounded the opposite corner and saw the two in the back of the room, the cleric chatting with Alistair. Something seemed off to the elf, but despite multiple attempts at pinning down the wrongness of the situation, it continued to evade every effort. Chaevaris frowned, making eye contact with Alistair and trying to determine what was wrong with the scene being played out before them. Harlan had heard the cleric's suggestion and was surprised at the man's insistence he bring forth the Blood Mirror. Trusting his instincts, he passed the ruby over to Ageratum before turning the corner, and as he concentrated on reading auras (not surprisingly, the only emanations of evil were coming from Thorpe) the halfling stuffed the gem deep into the bottom of a belt pouch, out of view.

But Alistair had picked up on Chaevaris's suspicions and cast a detect magic spell, looking at the back of the keep as he did so. And as a result, a strange thing occurred: it was if he was now viewing Barbados from the other side of a body of water, whose ripples altered the man's face, such that sometimes he appeared to be the elderly cleric who'd traveled with them on the caravan to Ghourmand Vale - and at other times he looked like one of the men they'd seen in Jasgun Singh's village, extolling the virtues of studying under the great master's leadership. It took a moment for the young sorcerer to make sense of it, but he suddenly realized-- "That's not Father Barbados! It's an illusion! He's one of those turbaned men from that village!"

Seeing the man this close up, Alistair noted a few other things that hadn't been visible when they were spying on him from a cave in a hilltop. The man's eyes glowed slightly, and his pupils were vertical, like a cat's. Furthermore, his fingernails seemed to end in short claws.

"So," remarked Kana Singh, dropping the fake "Father Barbados" brogue accent and speaking in his own, slightly sing-song cadence, "the boy sorcerer finally comes through." The jig now well and truly up, Kana Singh found himself being targeted by Chaevaris - the archer had an arrow notched and ready to shoot, and was currently eyeing the foreign man to line up the shot for maximum damage potential - and Alistair was directing Ogilvy to the fireplace, where the unseen servant picked up a burning log and started bringing it closer to the imposter. Then Kana Singh struck, with all of the quickness of his assassin's training behind him. He darted at Harlan, swinging a scimitar at the half-elf, but taking a cut to the knee from Ageratum's short sword as a result. In addition, Chaevaris's shot hit the imposter in the upper back (instead of in the throat as the archer had intended, but Kana Singh moved much faster than anticipated). Kana Singh grunted in pain from his wounds but called out, "Serve now Bhadup Cheé!"

Kana Singh's servants wasted no time in heeding their master's orders. A door opened from the "L-shaped" room in the northeastern corner of the keep and a rogue stepped out, stabbing at Alistair. Fortunately for the sorcerer, he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye at the last moment and managed to duck out of range of the scimitar's slashing swing. But Harlan made a swing of his own, with his flaming burst longsword, and Kana Singh fell to the ground alongside the body of Garabond Thorpe. It looked like it might come down to a race to see which of the two would bleed out the fastest, but healing either of them was the least of any of the heroes' concerns. (In fact, Ageratum's short sword severed the impostor's head at the neck, almost as if she had put money down on Kana Singh dying first.)

Alistair took an instinctive step back, away from the rogue and then just as instinctively thrust a hand out in his direction. A pair of glowing darts shot out from the sorcerer's fingertips, striking the startled killer in the chest but failing to drop him. Ogilvy held the flaming log aloft above the rogue's head and released it, but it failed to hit its target.

Then another combatant entered the fray, stepping out from the other door to the same room the first rogue had exited. This man had the same swarthy skin as both Kana Singh and the rogue serving him but wore a much better type of armor: half-plate, by the looks of it, and very well made at that. But he also wielded a scimitar, apparently a very common weapon in the realm of Jasgund Singh. Alistair leaped back just in time to avoid getting disemboweled, and realized he preferred it a bit farther back from the front lines of combat, especially now that he could apparently cast magic missile spells. Fortunately, Chaevaris had the foolish sorcerer's back and shot an arrow at the rogue threatening him, hitting him in the arm and nearly causing him to drop his own weapon.

While all of this was happening over at the northeast corner, a door opened from the northwestern "L-shaped" room and out stepped another fighter, armed and armored in the same manner as his brother. His scimitar came slashing down at Harlan, but the paladin caught the blade on his shield and deflected it aside, stabbing the foe with his own flame-covered blade and pushing the sword's tip deep into the man's side. From the other door to that same room came another rogue, this one targeting Ageratum. But the halfling easily ducked beneath his swing; it was often a fairly simple task to tell which enemies had never fought a halfling before, for it was easy to forget how short they really were and the swings were often far too high to be much of a threat to a nimble halfling with her wits about her. But her counterstrike also missed, causing her to frown in frustration.

The first rogue was not one to disobey his master, but a quick glimpse showed his master - for this mission, at least - now had his head and body separated from each other and wouldn't see his cowardice. With a bleat of terror at his own impending mortality, he backed off from combat and ran screaming down the eastern hallway, heading to the front of the keep and hopefully to freedom to fight again another day. But Alistair was having none of that; with a few sprinted paces off to the side, he caught sight of the fleeing rogue and a second magic missile spell, cast straight into the coward's back, sent him sprawling lifelessly to the keep's stone floor. Ogilvy, in the meantime, picked the flaming log back up and tried again against one of the fighters, with no better luck.

The first fighter moved up to engage Chaevaris now that Alistair was out of range, but had no luck against the nimble archer. The elf took a step back, notched another arrow to the composite longbow, pulled it back as far as it could go, and released it all in a matter of seconds; the startled fighter got the shock of his life when the arrow grazed the area between his shoulder and his neck and was turned away by the barest of margins; another half-inch and it would have been buried deep into his unprotected neck.

Harlan and the other fighter were exchanging a series of blows but not having much success in making contact. The paladin risked taking an extra hit from his foe to position himself to better advantage, lining himself on the exact other side of the fighter such that Ageratum was now directly behind him. But she was too busy fighting off the other rogue to take immediate advantage of the situation, for it was all she could do to keep herself away from the rogue's deadly scimitar blade.

Alistair sent another two magical darts flying into the man going after Chaevaris, which was enough to convince the fighter to switch targets - maybe he'd have better luck if he helped gang up on the little halfling woman? But his swing missed Ageratum, and gave Chaevaris enough time to line up a really good shot against him. Harlan brought down the other fighter with a successful strike with his burning blade, then pivoted to face the rogue going after Ageratum. That was enough to break the rogue's will, and he dashed past Ageratum - too fast for the halfling to tag him with her own blade - and ran for the side door to the center room in the keep. The door opened and slammed shut as he ran inside, desperately seeking safety.

Ageratum faced the remaining fighter, stabbing out at his leg while Alistair cast another magic missile spell at the same foe. Then the sorcerer passed his waterskin to Ogilvy, mentally commanding his servant to pour the contents down the fighter's back. It wasn't much of an attack as far as damage went, but for the surprise factor it was a great success, for the fighter flinched at the sudden dousing. Just after he had struck Ageratum with his blade he writhed in surprise at the stream of water flooding down his back, which allowed Chaevaris to take him down with another well-placed arrow. And just that quickly, there were no longer any active combatants in the keep attacking the heroes.

But Harlan Starblade hadn't lost track of how many there had been here. Using a burst of positive energy to heal the worst of his wounds, he raced over to the door the fleeing rogue had run through and pulled it open. "There's one more, trying to get away!" he called to the others as he followed a narrow corridor to a set of stairs leading down. Chaevaris, on the other side of the central room, entered via the opposite door and also followed a set of stairs leading down. The stairs circled a central shaft leading down even further below the lowest level of the keep, to an underground river whose waters filled the well the central shaft bounded off. There were access points on each side of the central rectangular well-shaft, with buckets on ropes allowing water to be raised up to any of the three levels of the keep, the two above ground and the one below.

Ageratum wasn't particularly concerned about chasing down a rogue, knowing full well she'd never catch up to him with her own smaller stride. So instead, she satisfied herself by ensuring each of the other foes was in fact dead, using decapitation as her foolproof method.

Alistair followed Chaevaris to the stairs, seeing the elf holding a rope leading down into the water that was taut for a moment, then loosened as whatever had been pulling on the bucket released it. "I think he's gone down into the water!" the elven archer explained as Harlan pulled on the rope, raising a bucket now filled with water.

Alistair divested himself of the crossbow on his back and the rapier, potion pouch, and spell scroll tubes buckled at his hip. "With me, Ogilvy!" he called, pulling a handkerchief from his sleeve and passing it over to the unseen servant. "If I run into trouble, I'll send Ogilvy up with the handkerchief," the sorcerer explained.

"Here, you'll need this," Ageratum offered, activating a sunrod from her pack and passing it over to Alistair. She'd wandered down the stairs after having completed her own self-appointed, bloody task. Alistair took the sunrod, thanked her (as is only befitting for a nobleman having been granted a favor by a young lady, no matter her size), and leaped over the edge into the water, submerging himself completely. Beside him, his white handkerchief took the plunge as well.

From the light of the sunrod, Alistair could see the bottom of the well - that is, the space from the water's top to the bottom of the well-shaft's sides, for there was no "floor" to the shaft - was about five feet, with another good five feet of underground river or stream below it, stretching out in opposite directions. There was a definite current, but not one so strong the sorcerer couldn't keep himself in place with little effort. And that was good, for he could see, in the light of the sunrod's illumination, that the waters filling the underground tunnel went all the way up to the ceiling; there was no air above with which to grab the occasional breath. The rogue had made good his escape, for Alistair was certainly not going to chase after him with naught but a lungful of air and no idea how much further down the underwater passageway the next available breath of air would be. He returned to the well, popping his head back up above the water and using the bucket rope to help pull himself up onto the solid stone floor of the keep. As he dripped onto the stone, he realized he really hadn't had much of a plan on what to do if he had found the rogue there underwater, for he'd left his weapons behind and wasn't sure if he could even cast spells underwater. (He imagined he probably could, being a naturally gifted wizard and all, but one never knew.) Still he at least prided himself that even if he hadn't had much in the way of a plan, he at least had the natural instincts of a Trained Professional Adventurer - and that had to count for something. Elfy Danger Silverleaf, Alistair was quite sure, would have jumped into the well under similar circumstances, and that was good enough for him.

While the sorcerer had been exploring underneath the water, Ageratum had fished out the Blood Mirror and spent a few minutes peeking through it, but she didn't see any arrows like Harlan had. She passed it to the dripping-wet sorcerer and he gave it a go, but other than turning everything red, looking through the Blood Mirror didn't do anything for Alistair, either. He gave it back to Harlan for safe keeping and started buckling his equipment back on.

After that, they explored the rest of the keep and sure enough, they found Father Barbados and Brothers Scrimshaw and Scarborough tied up in the northwestern "L-shaped" room on the ground floor. After releasing them, Father Barbados explained he'd been stabbed in the back with something that caused his whole body to freeze up, then conked on the head and he lost consciousness. The other two hadn't been paralyzed, but each had been hit on the head and knocked out. Neither of the three had seen their attackers.

"Well, we sure have," explained Chaevaris, taking the three clerics out to see the corpses of the men they'd fought - corpses which now, with the exception of Garabond Thorpe, had been separated from their heads. "I thought you might want to interrogate Thorpe," Ageratum explained.

"That might be a bit difficult, given he's dead," Chaevaris answered. Brother Scrimshaw just shook his head and sighed.

Father Barbados spoke for them all when he said, "Well, no great loss, that one."

- - -

We ended up with a fair amount of loot from this adventure: Harlan took a suit of masterwork half-plate armor and Dan said a human-sized +1 dagger (taken from Kana Singh) was the functional equivalent of a halfling-sized +1 short sword, so Ageratum took that for her own use, but if we sell all of the other masterwork armor, masterwork scimitars, standard daggers, and the +2 scimitar we will have each earned 2,975 gp! Not bad!

Dan was rolling like crap most of the night; his two rogues and two fighters hardly ever rolled double digits on their d20 attack rolls. He also let us know that those five "swineherds" were in fact a disguised Kana Singh and his four henchmen, who'd been looking for Harlan since he'd last been sighted holding the Blood Mirror (either by the cook in the village or possibly by Marjorie Mustaine, if she found a way to report back to Jasgund Singh; none of us are under the delusion we've seen the last of her). And Dan had "Father Barbados" (the assassin Kana Singh under the effects of a disguise self spell) really foot-stomp his wanting Harlan to use the Blood Mirror, to the point we were all suspicious that something was up.

Next adventure, we'll be hauling the loot to Ghourmand Vale to sell it and we'll no doubt run into some sort of complications either there or on the way. But we've suggested to the clerics they have some grates or something put in the underground river on either side of their well, so they don't have a secret way into their fortified keep.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 10 August 2022

- - -

"You're welcome t' take th' wagon an' mules t' town," offered Father Barbados over breakfast. The heroes took him up on his offer, for they had the armor and weapons taken from the men they'd fought the night before in the new stone keep of the Cuthbertian clerics and a wagon would make it much easier to lug all that back to Ghourmand Vale, two hours away. Breakfast consisted of a thick beer with a rather nasty taste, or so thought Alistair until a prestidigitation spell cast upon the liquid nourishment made it taste more like the halfling honey-sweetened tea he'd been served by the Aldershoots and to which he had taken quite a liking. At Chaevaris's request, the sorcerer cast a second prestidigitation spell upon the elf's stein of breakfast beer to likewise alter the taste.

"I been thinkin' further on th' Blood Mirror," Father Barbados continued. "We'll be wantin' more info on it, an' t' that effort I want ye all t' head on up t' Mitrek t' fetch summa th' Cuthbertians there an' bring 'em back here."

"Mitrek?" asked Harlan. "Where is that, and how far is it from here?"

Ageratum was well acquainted with the area. "It's the capital city of Veluna," she explained. "Probably about a week's journey, north of here."

"Aye," agreed Barbados. "But we'll be wantin' some fightin' folks capable o' guardin' this new temple here, an' I know a folk or two up there what can prolly fill us in on summa th' gaps o' knowledge we got about th' gem." He looked over at Harlan. "D'ye still have it wit' ye, lad?" he asked.

"I have it right here," the half-elf replied, pulling the Blood Mirror from a pouch at his belt.

"Good: ye keep it wit' ye, then. I'll write down a list o' names an' a letter of recommendation fer th' Mitrek temple clerics while ye're down in th' Vale, an' when ye return th' wagon an' mules it'll be ready for ye."

The trip to Ghourmand Vale was uneventful, and once they got to the boomtown proper it was easy enough to find buyers for the excess armor and weapons the group had for sale. While they were at it, they stopped off at a moneychanger and had much of their accumulated coinage converted to easier-to-carry gemstones for the trip north, each of the heroes leaving themselves plenty of loose change for minor purchases along the way. But they deemed it best not to burden their horses with any excess weight if they could help it. They returned back to the stone keep, fetched Barbados's papers, and set off north towards Veluna.

They hadn't gotten more than an hour or two down the road when the ambush occurred.

Chaevaris, as always, had been riding lead upon Talkacha, followed in a single line by Harlan upon Law, Ageratum upon her pony Munson, and Alistair upon Zephyr. Ambrose had been flying ahead, checking out the road, then alighting and waiting for the others to catch up before taking off ahead again. The grackle was currently off in a field to the right side of the narrow road, scratching among the grass blades to unearth a quick insect treat. Directly ahead of Chaevaris, the road veered right around a steep, terraced hill covered in trees, and the bottom of which was an overturned wagon partially covered in branches and boughs; if that was supposed to have been an example of deliberate camouflage, it was a particularly poor job. But if nothing else it attracted the attention of those riding down the road for a second or two, and that's when the unknown ambusher from the top of the hill threw down a javelin at the elven archer.

It wasn't a particularly good throw, for the javelin struck the bottom of the overturned wagon and stuck in place, doing nothing further than alerting Chaevaris the group was under attack. It was a rather large javelin, though, causing the archer to wonder if their assailant might perhaps be somewhat bigger than a human or an elf. But now alert for danger, Ageratum pulled her short sword from its scabbard at her hip and looked about for trouble.

Chaevaris leaped down from Talkacha, who hurried off to the side of the road, encouraged by a slap on his hindquarters from his master, who'd taken cover behind the overturned wagon. "Ambrose?" Alistair called, and his grackle familiar took wing and flew to where he could see the attackers up at the top of the hill. Alistair got the sense of a big man and a big dog and reported that back to the others; it confirmed what Chaevaris had already suspected: someone larger than a man, possibly an ogre or a hill giant.

"Ogilvy, if you please!" commanded Alistair and his unseen servant spell took effect at once. The nobleman sorcerer passed his full waterskin to his servant with orders to go to the top of the hill and squirt the skin's contents into the face of the big man throwing javelins down upon them. Wordlessly, Ogilvy complied to his latest set of orders, the waterskin seeming to glide above the ground in a straight line for the hill, after which it started rising in elevation as the unseen servant began his ascent.

Harlan dismounted from Law and sent the pure, white horse over to follow Talkacha, as the paladin stepped up to the wagon and then, instead of using it as cover as Chaevaris was doing (the archer was sighting down an arrow raised to aim at the top of the hill, concentrating on finding the optimal moment to release it), the paladin stepped upon it and stood, arms held out to his sides in a "Well? Take your best shot!" gesture.

Ageratum decided to remain mounted and pushed Munson ahead down the road, following the curve around the hill and looking out for other ambushers. After all, her thieves guild training taught her one of the best ways to focus a target's attention away from the true threat was to give him a false threat to worry about. But try as she might, she saw no other combatants in the area. However, the ogre at the top of the hill saw her advance and chose her as his next target, but his second throw was no better than his first, and it lodged into a tree she had passed seconds earlier. With a growl of disgust, the ogre started climbing down the staggered slope of the side of the hill, deciding he'd do better in hand-to-hand combat with these travelers, as that played to his strengths. Behind him, his loyal dire wolf did the same, but rather than follow his master he went to the far back end of the hill, where the slope was much less steep - an important consideration for a four-legged beast who climbed down hills head-first. But Ambrose saw the lupine's movements and warned his master; Alistair in turn warned the others.

Then the ogre came into full view, crashing through saplings growing from the side of the steep ledge as he finally reached ground level over on the right side of the hill, facing Ageratum. Alistair sent Zephyr off the road by the other two (currently riderless) horses so he could get a better view of the approaching ogre, then fired off a magic missile spell that sent two bolts of energy flying across the distance to hit the ogre in his broad chest.

Harlan leaped down from the wagon and charged the ogre, his flaming burst longsword out and ready to deal damage, for the paladin had read the ogre's aura correctly and determined he was irredeemably evil. Unfortunately, the ogre's longer reach allowed his greatclub to come smashing down upon the charging paladin before Harlan could bring his blade to bear, and the ogre had much more muscle behind his swing than the half-elf could ever hope to muster. He almost crumpled under the attack but managed to not only stay on his feet but bring his flaming blade in on a side-swing that cut deep into the ogre's side - and channeled a blast of holy smiting energy through it for good measure. And then the paladin felt a strange, mental sensation he'd never felt before: the absolute certainty he'd be able to channel a second such smiting attack if needed, something he'd not yet trained on, for smiting evil foes was a tiring task that took much out of the paladin and normally required many weeks of practice before a holy warrior could perform the maneuver more than once per day. Still, Harlan didn't need to reflect too much on the reason for this sudden assurance; he decided it was most likely a direct result of having the Blood Mirror on his person.

Ageratum rode Munson past the ogre and slipped from the saddle, stepping up behind the brute who, naturally, had his full attention focused on Harlan. The halfling gave the ogre a quick lesson on underestimating a person's capabilities based upon their size by stabbing her blade up into the back of a meaty thigh, causing the ogre to bellow out in rage. At the same time, Chaevaris - who had been sighting down the arrow looking for the best opportunity to let it fly - found the moment and released the bowstring, causing the ogre to suddenly sprout an arrow in its left bicep, nearly causing him to release his grip upon the massive greatclub he preferred wielding in battle.

Without understanding how this turn of events had come about so quickly, the ogre saw black dots flickering around the edges of his vision as, staggered, he swung his club down at Harlan again. But this swing didn't have nearly as much power behind it and the paladin easily dodged it, only to have the ogre fall, unconscious and face-down, at his feet.

However, the dire wolf had made it down the hill by this time and was rounding the back of the hill to come aid his master. Chaevaris released an arrow in his direction but missed, and the lupine clamped his jaws down upon Ageratum's shoulder - fortunately, protected somewhat by the leather armor she wore. But she couldn't prevent the much stronger creature from pulling her backwards onto the ground and looming above her. The halfling feared in the next moment he would bend over her and rip out her throat.

Alistair also shared the halfling's fear and kicked Zephyr into a forward charge, casting a magic missile spell at the dire wolf to redirect his attention away from Ageratum. Harlan sensed no evil in the beast but charged at him anyway, anxious to rescue his halfling friend. His flaming blade cut deep into the dire wolf's shoulder. For her part, Ageratum stabbed up at the wolf with her blade but couldn't get much power behind the blow from her angle. Chaevaris moved out from behind the cover of the overturned wagon, hand effortlessly reaching back to fetch an arrow from the quiver, place it to the bow, pull back, and release, all in one smooth, practiced action. The shaft buried itself beside the wolf's neck.

Confused by all the pain it was experiencing all at once, the wolf recalled it had grabbed a morsel and snapped down at Ageratum, but the halfling wriggled enough to the side the lupine's muzzle snapped shut on empty air. Alistair fired another magic missile spell at it as he dismounted from his horse and bent to try to drag Ageratum away from the wolf. It pushed a paw down protectively upon her chest and snarled at Alistair, as if making a claim about whose food this was. Harlan stepped to the side and brought his flaming blade in for another strike, singeing the beast's fur as he cut into his flesh. It yowled in pain and turned to face the paladin, allowing Ageratum an excellent opportunity at his exposed throat, which the halfling refused to allow to go to waste. Stabbing up with her short sword, she pierced the dire wolf's neck and it died instantly, crumpling in a heap atop her. Alistair had to pull her out from beneath the beast; it was too heavy for her to lift by herself.

Harlan walked back over to the ogre to deliver a killing blow, when he made an interesting discovery: the ogre's wounds were starting to scab over. It wasn't a full-fledged regeneration, or if it was it was an awfully slow one, but it seemed as if the creature's body was being stabilized enough that he wouldn't automatically die of blood loss. He frowned, trying to decide if that was something the Blood Mirror might be doing, as kind of an inverse of causing dead bodies to animate as zombies; perhaps the gem sent out a field of positive energy that prevented those who might be slowly dying from being allowed to do so? It made a sort of sense. Alistair cast a detect magic spell on the ogre and verified he wasn't wearing any magic items that might have been the cause of the scabbing-over effect. "Try this on for size," suggested the paladin, as he stabbed his blade into the ogre's head, piercing through the skull and stabbing into his brains. Whatever slow healing the Blood Mirror might have been doing, it stopped any further progress on the ogre's body now that it was a full-fledged corpse. Just to be sure, Harlan applied the same sort of "just-in-case" methodology to the slain dire wolf, making sure it wouldn't be healed and revived back into a hungry carnivore looking for food.

Ambrose flew back down by his master and the feeling of safety Alistair sensed from his familiar told him the bird had spotted no further enemies. However, the grackle had found something of interest and pointed it out to the others by simple fact of flying away and landing at the back of the hill, where the dire wolf had climbed down. There were drag marks in the grass from the back of the hill, heading over to the west, where another, even steeper hill made a sort of cliff face. The drag marks went directly to the side of the cliff, where, hidden among the shadows, stood the opening of a cave.

"I say!" declared Alistair upon following his familiar. "We should check it out!"

"Let me heal myself first," replied Harlan, applying his own healing touch to the worst of the wounds he'd received from the ogre's greatclub. He wasn't the least bit surprised to feel as if he'd managed to channel a lot more positive energy through his hand than he'd been accustomed to being able to handle; apparently there were still unknown aspects to the Blood Mirror yet to be discovered! However, seeing even this additional amount of healing still had the half-elf paladin looking much the worse for wear, Alistair unstoppered a potion of cure light wounds and passed it over to Harlan. The paladin tried declining out of politeness, but Alistair was having none of it. "You, sir, are our only source of healing through spells," he insisted. "It is in our own best interests to keep you hale and healthy, that you may attend to our own healing needs as required." Accepting the logic, Harlan drank down the potion and felt much better. Ageratum drank down her own potion of cure moderate wounds, feeling the pierced skin of her shoulder heal up. Later, she'd have to see what she could to about the puncture marks in her leather armor, where the dire wolf's teeth had ripped through.

Chaevaris led the group to the cave entrance, bow ready to fire off an arrow if needed. By this time, Ogilvy had returned from his pointless trek up the side of the hill and returned the waterskin to Alistair, who then swapped it out with Chaevaris's lit bullseye lantern and sent the unseen servant forward into the dark cave. The stench was quite horrific, and the reason soon determined when they found human remains among the soiled blankets and such being used for bedding. None of the bones were connected, merely an arm here and half a leg there, most of them with rotting meat still attached. But other than a small hole in the back of the cave, from which protruded the top of a wooden ladder, the rest of the cave was empty.

There was a different smell coming from the hole in the back of the cave floor, evidenced by the clumps of dung adhered to the sides of the wooden ladder. "Ugh!" complained Chaevaris, nose held firmly between fingers and thumb in an effort to avoid the stench. "The ogre's been using this hole as a latrine!" It only made sense, for the hole was much too narrow for the ogre to have been able to squeeze through, and even if the dire wolf had been able to wriggle into the hole, it was unlikely he'd have been able to traverse the ladder. But with Ogilvy shining the light down into the hole, Ageratum announced she could see a row of chests lined up against the back wall. "Probably where the bandits - I assume that's what they were, who made this cave their hideout until the ogre and the wolf got to them - stored their treasure."

"Do you wish to go down there and check it out?" asked Harlan, looking dubiously at the ladder.

"Not until Alistair does his thing," the halfling replied, and the sorcerer just looked at her with a blank expression on his face. "I'm thing?"

"Prestidigitation spell to clean the dung off the ladder," she explained.

"Ah, yes, quite." Alistair performed the necessary gestures and had the wooden ladder stain-free in a jiffy. Only then did Ageratum agree to climb down into the foul-smelling pit, and only then with Alistair's handkerchief tied around her lower face to help keep out the stench.

"There are three chests and two barrels," Ageratum called back up to the guys. "The barrels are...ugh! Rotting meal. Never mind. Let me see about those chests...can you send Ogilvy down with the lantern?" Ogilvy, at the sorcerer's direction, climbed down the ladder and pointed the light as Ageratum indicated, the better for her to see if there were any traps on the first of the chests. As it turned out there was, but she missed it and she stuck her thumb on a poisoned needle upon picking the lock and opening the lid. But she pulled back her thumb, sucked out the poison, and spat it back out onto the pit's floor, declaring there to be no further traps on the chest. Inside were ten small pouches, each - after suitable investigation - containing a number of small diamonds. "Nice!" she enthused before moving on to the next chest.

After directing Ogilvy's lantern placement for optimal effect, Ageratum found the poison needle on the second chest and successfully avoided it while picking the lock. This was a larger container, more the size of a trunk, and it contained a ceremonial suit of armor with Pelor's blazing sun symbol on its chest. The halfling could tell this wasn't something one would want to wear into battle, but it probably looked mighty fine there in the temple, performing whatever ceremony Pelorian clerics got up to.

The third chest - this one the smallest of the three - wasn't even trapped, and it contained a series of glass potion vials. Four of them were labeled in cramped handwriting, identifying them as potions of neutralize poison. The others, judging from the looks of it, weren't even fully-formed potions at all, each containing reagents or chemicals or in some cases ground-up powders. Ageratum guessed these were useful in the crafting of potions, with only the four completed thus far. There were 30 of the unlabeled vials, with two empty spaces in the chest to hold another pair of potions, making a full 36 when fully loaded. Still, Ageratum was sure she could find a buyer in Veluna.

Harlan and Alistair climbed down the ladder and hauled the two chests and the trunk up to Chaevaris, Alistair fussing the whole time over whether his boots were getting filth on them. He rigorously applied another prestidigitation spell upon his outfit open returning back up to the cave. They decided to have Harlan try on the ceremonial armor just to see what it might do (for Alistair had confirmed it was in fact magical), and the paladin said it seemed to grant the wearer the effects of an eagle's splendor spell while donned. But he judged it too flimsy for combat and quickly removed it to put back on his normal armor; they packed it back into the trunk for transport to Veluna.

"How are we planning on bringing all of this with us?" Harlan asked. "Balancing it behind the saddle?"

"I have had some thoughts on that matter," replied Alistair, heading back to the overturned wagon. The others helped him remove the half-hearted camouflage attempt and flip it back onto its wheels, where Alistair - having spent the whole duration of the initial caravan to Ghourmand Vale as a "wagon lackey" - deemed it fit for use. Of course, they were missing the tack and harness that would normally be used to allow one or more beasts of burden to pull the wagon behind them, but Alistair was certain he could cobble something together using the assembled group's own lengths of rope. He offered up Zephyr for his experiments and soon had the horse pulling the wagon behind him, Alistair sitting in the driver's seat and steering the animal while the wagon held the treasures they'd taken from the cave. "We'll be traveling a bit slower than normal, at least until we hit a town and can purchase some normal gear, but I don't think we'll add more than a day to our travels," Alistair guessed.

And he was right: five days later (instead of the anticipated four), they first arrived in the kingdom of Veluna, where they purchased normal wagon tack and harness for Zephyr. It was still three days to the capital city of Mitrek, but they'd make it there just fine. Harlan picked up a wand of cure light wounds from the temple of Pelor in the town, and felt better about his ability to see to the group's healing needs beyond his own laying on of hands. Ageratum and Alistair made a few purchases as well, each buying a ring of protection from a magic vendor and Alistair adding a pair of bracers said to protect the wearer in combat, a goal of which the sorcerer heartily approved. Harlan had his masterwork half-plate armor given a layer of magical protection and Chaevaris did likewise with the masterwork elven chain armor given as a gift from the grateful elven couple whose daughter the archer had helped rescue. Chaevaris also dropped off the masterwork composite longbow purchased earlier for a magical upgrade, this time adding an enchantment said to help focus the archer's targeting and increase its damage potential. And with that, they pressed on with their journey, eager to see what Mitrek would bring.

- - -

And that's as far as we got last Wednesday. Furthermore, that's as far as this campaign will be going until at least the middle of October, as one of our number will be undergoing surgery that will require about six weeks of bedrest afterwards.

And despite the name as listed at the top of this post, while phonetically correct as written, a more exacting spelling would be "Ogre Ate Bandits" - as that's exactly what happened some weeks before before our PCs stumbled upon the area. Dan apparently enjoys the occasional pun-based adventure title, just as Logan and I do in our own respective campaigns.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 21 September 2022

- - -

After many days of travel, at long last Mitrek - the capital city of the kingdom of Veluna - came into view. The heroes had two places they needed to visit in the city; they had come all this way specifically to go to the Temple of Saint Cuthbert, to present the head cleric there with the sealed message they had brought with them from Ghourmand Vale, written by Father Barbados and asking for a force of faithful men to help guard the new Stone Keep he had purchased two hours from the Vale, and also requesting they pass on any information they might have about the Blood Mirror. Harlan still kept the magic ruby close at hand, but there were likely abilities to be tapped from the gem he had yet to master.

However, having unearthed a suit of ceremonial armor crafted with the holy symbol of Pelor in a cave taken over by an ogre and his pet dire wolf, Harlan intended to present it to the clerics of Mitrek's Temple of the Sun God. As that seemed like it would be fairly straightforward, the group unanimously agreed to swing by the Temple of Pelor first. (The fact the others had pretty much all decided the half-elf paladin was their de facto leader likely had something to do with this decision.)

Still, the decision having been made, Alistair steered the wagon toward the Temple of Pelor - despite never having been to Mitrek before, the temple wasn't difficult to find, considering it had the god's sun-symbol shining brightly over the city at the top of a tall steeple. He pulled on the reins to bring Zephyr to a stop and the other three dismounted from their own horses (or pony, in Ageratum's case). Tying the reins to a hitching post just outside the temple, the quartet approached the temple doors, Harlan and Alistair carrying the chest containing the ceremonial armor between them. (The young sorcerer was half-tempted to relegate the job to Ogilvy, and only the fear of scorn from the others of his team prevented him from taking this shortcut away from manual labor - which, in all truth, he did find to be somewhat beneath a man of his station.)

They were met by a man in the robes of a full cleric. "Good morning," he greeted them. "May I help you?"

"I would like to present a set of Pelorian armor we discovered during our travels to the head of this temple," Harlan explained. "Is he in?"

The cleric just smiled at the half-elf's assumption. "The Archcleric Carol Marduke leads this temple," he explained, "and she is, alas, currently meeting with others of her level in the city. However, I will be happy to set this aside for her upon her return." He motioned to a young acolyte, who ran up to take the chest from the two adventurers. "You may return this afternoon, around four bells, to receive the Archcleric's blessing."

"Very well, thank you," replied Harlan, watching as the acolyte struggled with his burden, taking it deeper into the temple. "Until this afternoon, then. May Pelor's holy light shine upon you."

"And upon you," intoned the cleric, bowing slightly. The four adventurers took their leave, returning to their mounts and moving on to the Temple of Saint Cuthbert. This was an impressive building indeed, much more intricate and elaborate than the simple Stone Keep from which they had come; while Father Barbados and Brother Scrimshaw resided in a squat, two-story slab of gray stone, here in Mitrek the Temple of Saint Cuthbert contained sweeping buttresses, tall, multicolored windows, and elaborate carvings among the rooftops and gables - including a gargoyle or two. (Alistair, gawking like a tourist, tried to see if these were carved stone statues or actual creatures trying to pass for the same and was unable to determine the truth of the matter.)

The cleric who met the group at this temple ushered them inside to meet the head cleric. Harlan passed over the sealed letter of introduction from Father Barbados and the elderly priest opened it and read it over quickly to himself, then again a second time, more slowly. Finally, he looked up. "I am somewhat surprised at the events unfolding at Ghourmand Vale," he admitted. "This situation with this Jasgund Singh, and the portals to another world...most distressing." He motioned for an acolyte to fetch them coffee and tea, explaining to the young lad to have someone fetch the Loremaster. "We will have refreshments until the arrival of the Loremaster, who will be better able to explain what is known about this Blood Mirror," the elderly cleric told the group, serving the hot drinks as soon as they were brought into his office.

The Loremaster - no other name was provided - proved to be a wiry old man with a long, gray beard turning to pure white at the ends. "This is what is known about the man seeking Blood Mirror," he began, and the heroes leaned forward to hear the old man's tale.

"They say, in a faraway land, Jasgund Singh was a loyal retainer to the Rajah of Chandarkhan. He, as such, had to meet his obligations to his liege. Jasgund was highly efficient and ruthless in meeting his duties. His people greatly feared him because, either openly or covertly, his subjects would often find their way into the belly of a tiger. If they failed in their duties, if they were less than obedient, if they went to sleep at night, they could disappear and the tigers would appear sated. The open actions kept the people obedient to the known laws, while the covert actions showed anyone could die.

"Singh kept the population in balance to work the farms, lumber and spice lands, and gem mines, and to feed his growing collection of tigers by encouraging large families and by luring and enslaving people from neighboring districts. Jasgund’s power and influence with the Rajah grew along with the productivity and control of his district. His fellow vassals began to notice their influence weaken along with their districts' populations. The Rajah of Chandarkhan welcomed the developments of Singh. Jasgund served the Rajah and could swing the balance of power for the Rajah’s plans in any meeting. Jasgund became the second most important man in the realm.

"Over time, the lesser lords developed a plan to discredit and destroy Singh. Balma Singh - no relation - persuaded the Rajah that a marriage would link Jasgund more strongly to the Rajah. Balma learned that Jasgund has become even more evil and depraved as his power had grown. Balma also learned that Jasgund has begun sacrificing humans to tigers and eating the heart of the victims along with the tigers as part of a ritual to some dark deity.

"Balma successfully substituted a common prostitute for Jasgund's Princess bride, the Rajah's beloved niece, knowing that marriage to a prostitute would disgrace Jasgund and that the real Princess would be condemned to ritual sacrifice in the prostitute's place. Balma exposed the prostitute during the feast following the marriage, in the presence of the Rajah. The Rajah demanded to know the fate of the true Princess, and Balma and his spies were quick to expose the crimes of Singh. Balma and the other vassals then laid their accusations and proofs of Jasgund's evil deeds before the Rajah, who had his retainers arrest Singh.

"They say the execution of Jasgund Singh was bloody, slow, and painful, concluding with the various pieces of Singh's body fed to his tigers. The tigers were then slaughtered and left on the plain as carrion for the beasts. Jasgund Singh’s spirit was then lost on the Demiplane of Dread in Bhādupa cī dā naraka, the Hell of Bhadup Chee."

The four adventurers looked at each other, puzzled. "How does this help us?" Harlan finally asked. "What of the Blood Mirror?"

"Ah, the Blood Mirror," replied the Loremaster. "That was a gem taken from a mine in Jasgund's lands, and imbued with great powers. It is said it possesses the ability to reflect and amplify the nature of the one who holds it: evil bringing forth evil, while good brings forth good. It allows a paladin - or his evil counterpart, a blackguard - to channel more power than normal when he affects undead or smites his enemies. And it infuses the area around it with either positive or negative energy, such that in a paladin's hands a gentle repose spell is cast upon those recently slain, while the mortally wounded find their wounds healing up and their bodies stabilizing without any effort. A blackguard finds quite the opposite: the bodies of the recently slain around him rise up as skeletons or zombies, each with a frantic desire to possess the gem and return it to its point of origin. And perhaps to aid in that effort, the wielder of the Blood Mirror is able to see the way to the sporadic planar gates that open up between the Material Plane and the Hell of Bhadup Chee."

"So that's why those kobolds and that dire weasel came back as zombies," Chaevaris said, thinking back on the excitement during the original caravan trek to Ghourmand Vale. That, of course, led to the heroes explaining their adventures thus far to the cleric and the Loremaster, which took up some time. But after a pleasant few hours at the Temple of Saint Cuthbert, at the end of which the head cleric assured Harlan he'd have a group of fighting men ready to return with them to Ghourmand Vale in the morning, the group took their leave. "We have time for lunch?" Ageratum asked. "The tea was nice and all, but I could use a full meal!" They found a suitable inn and had a decent meal, then decided to return to the Temple of Pelor to pay their respects to Archcleric Carol Marduke. However, upon their return they were met by a different cleric than the one they had met earlier. This man wore the same type of robes, but his was more elaborate along the seams, with a much larger holy symbol of Pelor hanging on a pendant around his neck.

"Good afternoon," he greeted them. "I am Bolton Verringer, Bishop of Mitrek, Councilor to Her Holiness the Archcleric Carol Marduke, Prelate of Pelor in Mitrek." He seemed to rather enjoy stating his full title. "I understand you have come to return a suit of ceremonial armor to our church. I'm sure the Archcleric will be most eager to see it."

"What do you mean?" demanded Chaevaris. "We brought it here this morning!"

"Indeed," agreed Alistair. His arms still felt a bit sore from having helped carry the chest with Harlan up the stairs to the temple interior.

A puzzled frown crossed Verringer's face. "To whom did you give the armor?" he asked.

"I'm afraid we didn't get his name," admitted Harlan. He then described the man as best he could, as well as the young acolyte to whom he passed the chest containing the armor, which only caused the bishop to frown all the harder. "That sounds like Otto," he said.

"Okay," agreed Harlan.

"Otto is our gardener," Bishop Verringer explained. "And the 'acolyte' fits the description of a freight-hauler we hired on last month to do odd jobs around the temple."

"Wait - so they weren't clerics?" sputtered Harlan. A reddish hue flushed his face at the thought they had presented the ceremonial armor of Pelor to a pair of...imposters?

"Not at all," replied Bishop Verringer. "As I said, they were a gardener, a dockworker, and there was a scullery maid named Miranda. All three were hired about a month ago. You say the two men were dressed as clerics, though?" he asked.

"Absolutely," agreed Harlan.

"Sounds like a scam job," mused Ageratum, who knew quite a bit on the subject. "They must have infiltrated the temple, specifically to steal items of value."

"You mean they knew we'd be coming here with the ceremonial armor?" Alistair asked, dumbfounded. "How in the world could they have known we'd found the armor, or that we'd be bringing it here?"

"Doesn't necessarily have to have been the armor they were after," Ageratum admitted. "That might have just been a target of opportunity. Who knows?"

"Well, Her Holiness is not going to be pleased that the ceremonial armor was stolen from under our noses," Bishop Verringer remarked. He sent a pair of acolytes to scour the temple, looking for any of the three apparent thieves. As expected, they returned soon thereafter to note neither of the trio had been seen since this morning.

"Do they live here in the temple?" Harlan asked.

"No, they merely worked here. My understanding is that they had all taken lodging in a place called the 'Inn on the Lane.'" He looked determinedly at the four adventurers before him. "I implore you: please find where they have taken the armor and return it here immediately. I do not want to have to explain to Her Holiness how we have all been so deviously duped!" He gave them directions to the Inn on the Lane, a dwelling on the very edge of the low quarter of the city, near a Pelorian mission led by Father Bouchard Coletrane, who spent his time serving the poor souls living in the slums and shadows of the beautiful city. The half-elf paladin gave the Bishop his word they would do their best to retrieve the ceremonial armor as soon as possible.

"That was embarrassing," Harlan admitted to the others as they mounted back up and turned to head towards the low quarter.

"Still, I hardly think we can be blamed for having been duped by a man wearing a Pelorian cleric's robes in a Temple of Pelor," fumed Alistair. "The very nerve of those bounders! To steal from a goodly church - it just goes to show, you cannot trust a cowardly thief!" He failed to see Ageratum's eyes narrow at the nobleman's harsh words.

It was approaching twilight as the group found themselves outside the Inn on the Lane. They tied their mounts' reins to a hitching post on the side of the street outside the inn; Alistair, fearful of the type of person one might expect to see in such low quarters turned his signet ring around on his finger so the Pastlethwaite crest was hidden on the inside of his closed hand, and advised his grackle familiar Ambrose to watch over the animals and wagon. "I expect you to alert us of the present of any low-life thieves looking to take what is ours," he advised the bird, and received a loud "Caw!" as his only response. Then he turned and followed Chaevaris into the inn, behind Harlan and Ageratum.

Walking through the front door, Harlan saw a grouping of four tables in the middle of the taproom, each holding four empty chairs - apparently, despite the early hour, none of the locals was much in an eating or drinking mood. There were only two people in the taproom at all: a tall man behind the bar who bent down upon the paladin's entrance and picked up a small keg, balancing it on his shoulder, and a shorter man dressed in black leather armor, lounging on a stool at the bar.

Ageratum saw the same view as Harlan (albeit from a vantage point nearly three feet lower than that of the half-elf), but she immediately recognized the leather-clad man as Beaufort "Shambles" McGuffin, a thief from a rival thieves guild than the ones she had worked for in the past. Shambles was a con man, although not always a very successful one, hence his nickname - which described the usual state of affairs when he tried putting a scheme into action.

Stepping through the front door behind Ageratum, Chaevaris saw the man behind the bar first and made immediate note how he purposefully kept the keg on his shoulder such that it blocked his face from Harlan's sight - and the reason for such desperate maneuvers became immediately obvious to the archer, once the elf recognized the man for who he was. "That's Otto!" the archer blurted out, and just that quickly the archer had an arrow notched and ready to shoot, sighting down the length of the shaft to target an arrow directly at the erstwhile gardener's throat. Alistair, entering the inn behind all the others, caught the general gist of the situation when he saw "Elfy" aiming an arrow at the man holding the keg, and the young nobleman too recognized Otto as one of the people for whom they were searching. "I say!" he declared, bringing the words to a magic missile spell to the forefront of his mind. About that time, Chaevaris's keen elven hearing picked up the sound of a door being closed in a hallway behind the taproom.

Hoping for the best, Otto tried carrying the keg out of a side door but soon found Harlan's unsheathed flaming burst longsword pointed at his throat. "Hold it right there, thief!" the paladin ordered, and Otto froze where he stood. "Slowly, now, place the keg upon the floor, keep your hands in view, and then you're going to take us to wherever you've stashed the armor you took from us."

"Now hold on, here!" demanded Shambles, pulling out a pair of weapons of his own - a rapier and a dagger, both looking to have been crafted at the highest quality. "I won't have you come barging in here and making baseless accusations against my customers!"

"Shut up, Shambles!" replied Ageratum, the scorn in her voice telling him exactly what she thought of him. The face he gave her showed he felt the same way about her. But the mere act of Shambles being armed emboldened Otto, who decided he could make a break for it. Slowly, he placed the keg of ale down upon the floor as ordered, but then he made to sprint across the back of the bar and flee to safety. He did not count on Harlan having anticipated such a move, and one swift downstroke of the paladin's flaming blade had Otto lying on the floor, unconscious and bleeding out. Of course, the heroes all knew that, due to the presence of the Blood Mirror, his wound would be sealed and his bleeding stop, leaving him unconscious but very much alive.

"This loser has two accomplices," Ageratum informed Shambles - and, looking down at the little halfling, he saw she too had drawn a pair of blades that were pointed his way. With Otto down, the archer and the wizardly fop were both aiming at him as well, the former with a drawn bow and arrow and the latter with a pointed finger, no doubt ready to fire off some nasty spell. Ageratum gave a brief description of the dockworker and the scullery maid.

"It may well be there are customers meeting that description..." Shambles nervously hazarded.

"Then take us to their rooms," Harlan demanded, stepping over Otto's body to point his blade at the thief's neck. "His room first."

"The man you killed, in cold blood?" Shambles asked.

"He's fine," replied Alistair. "Now, take us to his room, if you please."

"'If I please,'" grumbled Shambles. "As if I have a choice, my fine establishment being raided by a group of self-important hooligans, who think they can just barge in here and make all kinds of ridiculous accusations and demands...."

"Shut up, Shambles," repeated Ageratum. But despite his protestations of innocence, he led them out a side door of the taproom and down a hallway to a series of doors. "It's that one," he said, pointing to a door.

"Open it," Harlan ordered.

"You open it," Shambles countered. "I'm not opening it. I refuse to be ordered about in my own place, as if I were nothing more than some household servant! Why, I won this place fair and square, and I'm not about to--"

"Shut up, Shambles," Ageratum cut him off again. Harlan had him go to the end of the hallway, holding the complaining thief at sword-point while Ageratum examined the door for traps. She saw nothing untoward and opened the door, revealing a standard bedroom of fair quality. The blanket on the bed was rumpled, revealing recent use, but there wasn't anything of obvious value in the place, nor was there any ceremonial Pelorian armor hanging about - although there seemed to be something under the bed, a chest that could probably fit such a suit of armor. Ageratum pulled it out from underneath the bed, gave it a quick perusal for traps, found nothing, and opened it up. It was empty.

From down the hall, though, Shambles was keeping up his litany of grievances, getting increasingly louder, to the point Harlan suspected he was trying to warn the other two thieves of danger. While Chaevaris went toward the back of the hallway to see if he could see anyone trying to flee, Harlan called out for Alistair to "shoot this fool." Alistair happily complied, sending a magic missile spell blasting from his fingertips to strike Shambles in the chest, causing him to at least temporarily cease his noisy complaints.

Chaevaris had by that time found a back door to the building, presumably leading outside to a street or back alley, but it was locked solid. But Shambles had apparently decided he'd had enough as well, and when Harlan advanced upon the thief he stabbed at him with his blades. Harlan deflected the incoming strikes with his own blade, then swung at Shambles, who managed to dodge below the flaming sword. He opened the door at the end of the hall, ducking into an empty bedroom, stabbing at Harlan as the paladin followed. But Harlan's counterstrike sent the thief sprawling to the floor, looking very much the worse for wear. "Okay, okay, I'll talk!" Shambles cried out, dropping his weapons.

The tip of his flaming blade pointed down at the groveling thief's neck, Harlan replied, "It seems you've done nothing but talk since we arrived. Better make it worth my while - and quickly, for my patience has worn thin."

"Bishop Verringer hired us - me and the three thieves you're looking for, who had gotten jobs in the temple - to get the ceremonial armor. We were to turn it over to him if it showed up, and sure enough, you guys came waltzing right in with it. But we knew you had it, see, 'cause we've got people spread out all over the country looking for it and a few of our associates saw you with it in Veluna City. They've been following you since. Anyway, we decided, why turn it over to Verringer when we could sell it on our own and make a little coin? So that's what they did: grabbed up the armor and skedaddled down here, where we could sell it on the down-low."

"So where is the armor now?" demanded Harlan, emphasizing the importance of his question with the point of his sword, which drew a drop of blood from Shambles's neck.

"We had it stashed downstairs. The other two might have heard my warnings and taken it; I don't know. I honestly don't know!"

Ageratum and Alistair had, while this was going on, decided to do a room-by-room search for the stolen armor, each chest underneath the bed (apparently what served as a closet in these cheap quarters) coming up empty, and the chest being the only place a suit of armor could be stashed without immediately being seen. Chaevaris, unable to open the back door, aided in the search by checking out bedrooms along the back of the building. And while the chests under those beds were just as empty, the archer's keen elven senses did pick up on a secret panel in the floor by the bed. Prying it open, Chaevaris saw a vertical shaft with a wooden ladder bolted along one side, leading down into darkness. Without a moment's hesitation, the nimble archer scampered down the ladder, thinking perhaps this was where the armor might have been stashed.

"I say, nothing along any of the bedrooms on the western side of the building," Alistair reported in to Harlan, looking down at Shambles, groveling on the floor.

"I believe this idiot needs a nap," Harlan said, and Alistair happily complied, blasting him with another magic missile spell that sent the foolhardy thief into unconsciousness. "I'll tie him up," offered the young nobleman, ripping the sheets off the bed into strips with which to bind the low-life's hands behind his back and his ankles together, in case he woke up before the group had an opportunity to search through the entire inn.

Chaevaris walked the length of a lower-level hallway, discovering a secret panel in the otherwise apparent dead end and opening it. There was a creaking on the ladder behind the archer, but it was only Ageratum. The little halfling heard the sound of a door opening and closing, the sound of a lock being opened, and then another door opening and closing - all from above, and possibly even outside, for the downstairs hallway should be about flush with the building's back exterior, she reasoned. And the ladder they had used was but one of many; apparently each of the bedrooms on the ground level had a secret panel on the floor and a ladder leading down to this lower level - good to know.

There was a voice from above. Chaevaris cocked an ear toward the sound, listening intently. It sounded like a woman's voice, saying "Winston, you're back - we need help--" and then a gurgling sound, as if she were choking on her own blood. Chaevaris and Ageratum looked at each other and then, without a word, each scrambled back up the nearest ladder to return to the ground floor, where apparently there was some action going on.

Harlan had been walking down the side hallway towards the back of the building when the back door opened and a man stepped forward, sword in hand, blade slick with fresh blood. And then, stepping through the doorway behind him was a street urchin, a young girl of about fourteen. "Hey, are you a paladin?" she asked Harlan. "I've always wanted to have a paladin as a friend." Harlan felt a tingling in his mind, as if someone were trying to establish mental dominance over him. He focused on the girl's aura and was not at all surprised to see it as black as any he'd yet seen thus far in his life. The horrifically evil aura, the attempt a mental domination, and the pitch-black sky seen through the back door as yet another thief stepped into the building, all said one thing to Harlan Starblade, paladin of Pelor: Vampire!

Without any warning, the paladin exploded into a graceful motion, bringing his flaming burst longsword up over his head and crashing down upon Carly, the street urchin vampire spawn, his blade infused with the smiting holy energy of the God of the Sun as it swung down upon her. She shrieked in surprise and fury as the blade bit deep, but already her undead flesh was sealing up the bloodless wound. Winston stepped past his mistress to try to take out the paladin, but Harlan's blade stabbed him in the gut before he could make do with his own attempted attack. With a look of total shock on his face, Winston collapsed in a heap on the floor at Harlan's feet.

"I'll get him!" promised Randall, eager to prove his worth to their teenaged leader. The thief did actually manage to pierce through Harlan's armor, catching him in the elbow with the tip of his blade. But by then Alistair was advancing down the hallway to see what the commotion was all about, having bound up Shambles to his satisfaction and giving him a head-bash onto the floor for good measure, deciding it would not be a bad thing at all if the loud-mouthed thief woke up with a goose-egg on his noggin to remember him by. He saw a flash of fang in Carly's mouth as she hissed in pain and sent another magic missile blasting past Harlan's shoulder to strike her in the face. Then he unsheathed the masterwork silver dagger, from its sheath at his belt, eager to finally put his gift from the parents of the elven girl he'd help rescue from the kobolds during their caravan trek to good use, for he recalled Chaevaris telling him vampires were susceptible to silver weapons. And that matched with what Alistair recalled from the book, Elfy and the Vampire of Venom Valley.

But Alistair wasn't the only one about to enter the fray. Chaevaris had crept up a ladder in the corner and had bow and arrow ready to fire; opening the bedroom door behind the vampire spawn and her roguish minion, the archer sent the arrow streaking right into Carly's back. Unfortunately, even vampire spawn are blessed with a particularly thick skin, so the arrow failed to penetrate very far and in fact eventually just dropped from the teen urchin's back, having done little more than put a hole in the filthy dress she wore. And Ageratum, approaching from a side hallway, threw a kobold shortspear at Randall (the only foe in her field of vision at the moment), catching him in the meaty part of his thigh.

Carly advanced upon Alistair, swinging at him with a fist in anger at having had a damaging spell cast at her. The nobleman involuntarily took a step back and the blow swung past before him. Then he swung at her with his silver dagger, but he had had very little practice with such a short weapon - he was much more proficient with the longer-bladed rapier - and he missed her as well.

Harlan swung his flaming blade at Randall, dropping him in a single blow as he had done earlier with Otto - of the four adventurers, it was easy to see the young paladin was the fiercest among them when it came to melee combat. But, knowing now of the stabilizing influences of the Blood Mirror he kept on his person (in a pouch at his belt), he gave the downed thief no further thought, confident he'd be stabilized and prevented from bleeding out. Instead, Harlan spun about, looking for further combatants - but it seemed their only current foe was the 14-year-old vampire spawn, although given her undead nature it was entirely possible she was older than any of them, even Chaevaris, whose age was in the triple digits, despite looking like a relative youth.

Chaevaris stepped into the back hallway, an arrow notched and aimed at Carly. Ageratum rounded the corner of the hallway and threw another kobold spear at the vampire spawn, the weapon's head hitting her but failing to do much damage; it clattered on the floor after practically bouncing off her back. However, the halfling's attack was a turning point in the battle, for it was at that point Carly realized she was now fighting alone, her two minions both knocked out on the floor behind her. Frowning, she allowed her body to dissipate into a cloud of mist, which floated through the air into the taproom, where there was at least more room to maneuver if she wished to continue the battle. But she was more or less impervious to all harm while in her mist form, and there was nothing even the paladin could do but follow her as she floated away. But Harlan vowed to get her with his flaming blade the moment she turned back to a solid form. Chaevaris followed, arrow unerringly pointed at the mist-form and ready to let loose at Carly once she presented a viable target.

Alistair realized there was nothing much he could do to a vampire spawn in mist form and decided to go see if there was anyone else outside ready to burst in and attack. Fortunately, the back door had now been left unlocked, and while the nobleman saw no more attackers, he did see a young woman lying in the dirt of the alleyway, a large sack held in one hand. Never having met her before, he could only guess this was probably Miranda - which meant perhaps the large sack held the pieces to the ceremonial armor they were trying to retrieve. Ignoring the corpse - for he had assumed she was merely unconscious and stabilized due to the nearby influence of the Blood Mirror, but Winston had stabbed her through the gut and she had died almost instantly - Alistair opened the sack, hoping to see the Pelorian armor. In that he was disappointed, but not for long, for instead of the armor he found the sack filled with coins and gems; this was the thieves' combined loot from their various cons and scams, and Miranda apparently figured they'd be better served by her saving the monies they'd already gained rather than the armor they could hopefully sell to get some additional coin. Taking up the sack and seeing no further enemies waiting to pounce, Alistair returned back inside.

Ageratum, in the meantime, decided the guys had the situation well in hand up here and she'd do better searching the lower level. She activated a sunrod and dropped it down the shaft she'd already traversed down and back up once before, then climbed down, slightly irritated that the rungs had obviously been spaced for humans, not taking into account a halfling's shorter stature at all. She followed the hallway to the dead-end hallway where Chaevaris had unearthed the secret panel and entered the storeroom - empty, but for cobwebs. However, it too had a ladder in the corner and she decided to see where it would take her.

Carly eventually decided to return to solid form, but to stay out of the paladin's reach she first floated up to the taproom's 15-foot ceiling and regained solid form upside-down, standing on the ceiling with her innate spider climb ability. Of course, that didn't stop Chaevaris from firing off an arrow at her, but she already knew such nonmagical attacks held no danger for her. Sure enough, the arrow bounced harmlessly off her tough, undead flesh, causing the archer to swear in anger.

But Carly had only recently been turned into a vampire spawn, and that 14-year-old body of hers held a 14-year-old's mind, one not yet the best at strategizing. Harlan, seeing his prey so far away, climbed onto a chair and from there onto a table, from which he was able to swing his flaming burst longsword over his head and connect solidly with Carly's undead flesh. At the same time, Alistair called out, "Ogilvy, if you please!" and the unseen servant manifested beside his master. Holding out his masterwork silver dagger, Alistair instructed Ogilvy to take an arrow from Chaevaris's quiver and cut off the arrowhead, leaving a pointed tip at the end of the wooden shaft - basically, a wooden stake with feathered fletching at one end. He recalled that was how Elfy had defeated the vampire in Elfy and the Vampire of Venom Valley, so he saw no reason it wouldn't work in real life as well.

Carly ran a few steps along the ceiling, enough to once again be out of range of Harlan's flaming blade. She seethed at the damage she'd taken, but knew her innate fast healing process would take care of her present wounds. But it was irritating - these people refused to be taken out, and the two times she'd tried dominating them had ended in failure. Finally, she resorted to bargaining. "If you just give me the Blood Mirror, we can all go our separate ways, and none of you has to die!" she called from her ceiling perch.

"And just why do you want the Blood Mirror?" asked Harlan, jumping down from his table and moving it closer to where Carly hung from the ceiling. But she saw what he was doing and scampered farther away.

"I don't want it. I don't even know why Father Coletrane wants it. But he does, so you need to give it to me."

"So Father Coletrane is your master?" asked Harlan, keeping her talking.

"Yeah, and if you think I'm tough, he's a lot tougher than I am! You wouldn't want to mess with a vampire of his power!" By this time, Ogilvy had finished his work and passed the sharpened arrow-shaft to Chaevaris, who shot it up at the vampire spawn - and missed the shot, for she was shifting away from Harlan again, who was repositioning tables to try to be able to reach her with his sword. Chaevaris swore again, and Ogilvy started sharpening another arrow for the elf's use.

"I was not aware Father Coletrane was a vampire," Harlan called up to Carly. "Isn't that kind of odd - a cleric of Pelor who's also a vampire?"

"Well, he wasn't a vampire until just recently," Carly admitted. "Some other vampire turned him, and then Father Coletrane turned me. But anyway, let's get back to the point - are you going to give me the Blood Mirror or not?"

Alistair walked into the room, carrying the sack of treasure. "And what does this Blood Mirror look like?" he asked.

"It's a red gemstone. A ruby, I think."

That let Alistair know this vampire girl had never actually seen the Blood Mirror before. Which was all for the best - he rummaged around in the sack until he found a ruby, one much smaller than the one in Harlan's belt pouch and containing no magical properties at all. But if Carly had no idea what the true gem she was after looked like.... "If I give this to you, do you promise not to hurt any of us?" he asked the vampire, whose eyes widened at the apparent sight of her goal. Alistair was just hoping she'd come down here and fetch the ruby so Chaevaris or Harlan could kill her - preferably Chaevaris, because while Harlan's blade could force her into mist form to spend the rest of her evening resting in her coffin, a wooden shaft through the heart would slay her permanently. He set the ruby onto the table before him and stepped away.

Carly took the bait, flowing into mist to return to the floor and then reincorporating to grab up the gem, only to have Chaevaris shoot her in the shoulder with a sharpened arrow shaft and Harlan come racing at her, swinging his flaming blade. But she flinched away at the last moment and his blade slammed into the top of the table, jostling the ruby bait. Furious, she slammed Harlan with the full force of her undead body, sending the paladin reeling off to the side, drained of a bit of his vitality. But that didn't keep him out of the fight; spinning around, he brought his flaming blade in sideways for a cut deep into Carly's side - deep enough that had she been a living foe she'd have been instantly slain. As it was, the attack was enough for Carly to lose control of her undead form, scattering into particles of mist which coalesced into a loose cloud and started flowing through the air to the front doorway, seeping beneath it on her way to her coffin, wherever that might be.

"Do we track her?" asked Chaevaris.

"Track mist at might? No, I'm afraid we've lost her for now," Harlan decided. Then. looking around the room, he asked, "Where's Ageratum?"

Ageratum, at that moment, was in a plush-looking bedroom - one of the best the inn had to offer, she'd wager, with plump pillows on the bed and a puffy blanket of much higher quality than the ones in the other bedrooms she'd seen. But sure enough there was a chest under the bed and when she went to pull it out, it was much heavier than the empty ones they'd discovered thus far. It was locked, too - another good sign. The little halfling gave it a cursory check and didn't see any obvious traps, so she got out her lockpicks and went to work - triggering a non-obvious trap, but fortunately the poisoned needle merely scraped along a thumbnail and was deflected away from her skin. Breathing a sigh of relief that the trap hadn't been any worse than it had been, and deciding she didn't really need finesse so much as brute strength in this instance, she put away her lockpicks, got out her chisel and hammer, and had soon smashed the lock open. Try to poison her, would they?

As she'd hoped, the chest opened to reveal the ceremonial armor they'd handed over to Otto, believing him to be a legitimate priest of the Pelorian order. Harlan would sure be glad to see this in their hands again!

Once Ageratum reunited with the guys and proudly showed them her findings, the group decided to head directly over to the Temple of Pelor and get the armor into the hands of the Archcleric Carol Marduke before anything else happened to it. But when they arrived, it was none other than Bishop Verringer who met them at the door. "Ah, you have recovered the armor!" he said with an obvious sigh of relief. "Her Holiness will be most pleased to see it. Thank you for your efforts in effecting its safe return." He held his hands out to retrieve the armor, but Harlan was having none of it. In fact, he checked the Bishop's aura at once, surprised not to see the stain of evil suffusing it.

"We would prefer to see the armor in the hands of the Archcleric herself, if you don't mind," Harlan replied.

"I will personally see that it reaches her," Verringer promised.

"Forgive us, but I think we'd be foolish to deliver it - once again - into the hands of someone undergoing subterfuge," Alistair piped up. "Shambles confessed you hired him - and his trio of guttersnipe thieves - to steal the armor if and when it arrived, and then you had the misfortune of having them steal it out from underneath you. We intend for the Archpriest to take this armor directly from us, so petty underlings, even those with the title of 'Bishop,' need not be bothered."

Bishop Verringer scowled at the effrontery. "I hardly think the Archcleric--" he sputtered, but was cut off.

"Bishop Verringer," said a voice from behind him, "why don't we allow the Archcleric to speak for herself? What is going on here?" Verringer spun about and blanched at the sight of the Archcleric Carol Marduke stepping into the room, an angry look upon her face. He blanched further to think of how much she'd already heard, and realized there was no way to get out from the accusations to come. His mouth opened and closed several times like a fish as Harlan explained the full story about the ceremonial armor they'd unearthed in a cave, put there by a band of thieves who had subsequently been taken out by an ogre and a dire wolf, and the events that followed as they had attempted to turn the armor in here at the temple. He also told her about Father Coletrane's recent vampire status.

"I see," replied the Archcleric, frowning even harder at Bishop Verringer. "You are hereby restricted to your personal quarters until I decide what to do with you," she advised him. "Do I need to have the temple guards escort you, or do you think you can find your own way? You do realize any attempts to flee will not get you very far; the gaze of Pelor reaches everywhere."

"The guards will not be necessary, Your Holiness," he replied, consigning himself to his fate. He gave a bow, then walked out of the room using the door through which the Archcleric has entered.

"Now then," said the Archcleric to Harlan, "let's see about getting a restoration spell cast upon you. Vampires are terrible things! We will have to do some house cleaning in the low quarter of the city, I see."

- - -

Alistair kept the two masterwork weapons he took from Shambles, keeping the rapier for himself and passing the dagger to Ageratum (for whom it serves as a halfling short sword). Chaevaris's part of the loot went towards the purchase of 10 sleep arrows, but everyone else just kept their cash for now. Harlan's saving up for a pair of boots of striding and springing so he can get back to a 30-foot move speed (he wears heavy armor), and is now less than a thousand gold pieces from his goal.

But one thing we've realized about this campaign: with the Blood Mirror automatically stabilizing everyone within 75 feet who drops into negative hit points, we have the potential to create new, ongoing enemies every single adventure. (Or we become bloodthirsty killers, slitting the throats of those the ruby stabilizes to preclude that from happening.) Dan admits that's an unintended consequence of the ruby's powers, but it's one we'll have to be wary of in the adventures to follow.

With a dozen or more trained fighters returning to Ghourmand Vale with us, it might not be easy to come up with an adventure to challenge such a large group, so Dan might hand wave the return leg and have us start off next adventure already back home. But we'll be skipping next week's session; I'll be out of town on a business trip.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 3​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 3​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 3​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 3​

Game Session Date: 5 October 2022

- - -

After all the time spent traveling, it was good to make the final turn in the road and see the Stone Keep just ahead. The trip from Mitrek had been uneventful; not surprisingly, nobody really wanted to mess with a caravan of four professional adventurers when they traveled with a contingent of 20 clerics and fighters (all human) in the service of Saint Cuthbert, especially when accompanied by a cleric of considerably more power than even Father Barbados or Brother Scrimshaw. But Father Kilkenny was a decent enough sort - and it was a good thing he was, for once the group made it through the gate and onto the Stone Keep's lands, it soon became apparent the new cleric would be taking over the facility, with Barbados kept on as his second-in-command. The new security team was to bunk upstairs in the upper level of the Keep, and they ran up the stairs in the building's center to pick out who'd be sleeping in which bunkrooms.

"Farmer Stout's been by, just this mornin'," Father Barbados informed the adventurers once they had unpacked. "I told 'im I'd sent ye all his way once ye got back - seems 'e's 'ad a bit o' bother with some sorta varmint gettin' into 'is crops, tearin' down 'is nut trees, an' th' like."

"It's pretty late," Chaevaris observed. "If we're to be hunting down a large animal, it might be best to get a start fresh in the morning. Hunting large game can be considerably more dangerous in the dark."

"I quite agree," Alistair added, although in his case it was merely because he relished an evening not spent in the saddle, if he could help it. Adventuring could be dreadfully exciting and dashing and all, but darned if it didn't take a toll on one's bottom! But fortunately, the others agreed and the four were allowed to spend the night in the Keep. Chaevaris promised to wake them all up at sunrise. And sure enough, the elf did exactly that, to the assorted grumblings of Ageratum and Alistair, at least - Harlan made no complaints, merely gathering up his armor and getting ready for another day spent aiding others in need. They gathered up some food to eat on the road and they were off, sending their mounts running off in the direction of the Stout farm, an hour or so from the Keep at the speed of a good horse.

When they arrived, they could see the devastation quite readily. Trees were knocked over, fifteen at least, so the fruits or nuts from the upper branches could be more readily devoured. And the gardens were a mess, with uprooted vegetables missing from their even rows. There were deep hoofprints in the dirt around the gardens and large, smelly droppings - enough to let Chaevaris know exactly what it was they were dealing with. "Dire boar," the archer declared. "A large one, too. And here, tracks of a smaller one as well, perhaps a piglet - but one the size of a fully-grown pig of the type you'd find on a farm."

"Are they dangerous?" asked Ageratum.

"Very much so," Chaevaris answered her. "They have exceedingly bed tempers and will often fight on after having suffered mortal wounds." The archer squinted in the morning sunshine, looking at the trail of devastation the dire boar had left behind. "Well, tracking it shouldn't be too difficult, at least. Come on, let's go!" Leaping back up onto Talkacha's saddle, the archer pulled on the horse's reins and set off in the direction the tracks led, the other three mounted heroes falling into line behind.

After nearly an hour on the trail, Chaevaris held up a hand, signaling for the others to hold up. "We're near," the wood elf declared quietly, nodding toward a clump of wild plum thickets. The others strained their ears and were able to pick up what the archer's elven senses had already heard: a low grunting and squealing coming from the other side of the thicket. Ahead, the trees thickened to the edge of a forest, leading up a slope to the hills above.

"Ambrose, if you please," Alistair told his familiar, who had been perched upon the young sorcerer's shoulder. Without a moment's pause, the grackle took flight, rising up to where he could see above the thicket. Alistair hadn't yet bonded with his familiar to the point where they could talk back and forth to each other, but he was well aware he'd be able to sense the bird's stronger emotions, like fear for his master if there was anything ready to pounce on him. (While in Mitrek, Alistair had searched out a temple of Boccob, God of Magic, and had a nice chat with the clerics there about how exactly sorcerers worked, and as a result had a much better understanding of his role in the adventuring world. It was, quite frankly, embarrassing to recall he had assumed he was a truly masterful wizard savant to be able to cast spells without need of a spellbook; it turned out sorcerers just were a more natural, instinctive type of spellcaster, not any better than a wizard but simply approaching spellcasting from a different angle.)

The other side of the thicket, as Alistair found for himself as he urged Zephyr forward up the slope, was a mass of mud before a hillside - but one with an open door in the side of the hill, into which the sorcerer could see the back half of a boar walking as boldly as you please. The door was of a normal size for a human, so Alistair had no doubt this was the dire boar piglet, not the full-grown model - which, as Chaevaris had pointed out from the size of the hoofprints left behind, simply would not be able to fit through a human-sized doorway.

But before Alistair could dismount and follow the pig into the doorway, there was a crashing sound from further up the hill. It was the sound of toppling trees, accompanied by snuffling and grunting; the dire boar had apparently become aware of the heroes' approach. All thoughts of the dire boar offspring were left behind as Alistair wheeled Zephyr around to face this much more deadly threat. Ageratum urged her pony Munson up beside Alistair, a kobold spear held before her like a lance, ready to stab into the dire boar as soon as it made itself visible - which, if the increasing sounds of trees being pushed aside were any indicator, would be any moment now.

On the other side of Zephyr came Law, who stopped as his master unsheathed his flaming burst longsword and prepared it for action. Chaevaris dismounted from Talkacha, an arrow already notched in the magic longbow and now being aimed at the sounds of the approaching, angry dire boar.

With a final clump of trees being thrust out of the way by a pair of tusks larger than could be easily believed, the dire boar made its presence known. Alistair's face paled; he'd heard Chaevaris describing the fearsome disposition of a dire boar but no words could give justice to the monster trotting before the young sorcerer. But before Alistair could make a move of any sort, Ageratum sprang into action. Her kobold spear went back and then was thrown with as much force as the little halfling could muster. It hit the dire boar on the right side of its massive head, burying itself in the tough hide between a multitude of sharp-looking tusks that sprouted from the beast's mouth. Chaevaris's arrow likewise went flashing by, but to the archer's disappointment it went bouncing off the monster's rough skin.

Alistair finally found his courage, shaking off the trembling fear the creature's sudden appearance had caused. Urging Zephyr a few steps back out of range - steps the light horse was more than willing to take - the sorcerer sent a magic missile spell streaking from his fingers, the twin darts flying across the gap and striking the monster boar in the snout. Ageratum threw another spear, this one also sticking out of the boar's side like a harpooned whale, while she steered Munson back out of immediate harm's way.

Harlan took a more hands-on approach; dismounting from Law a safe distance away (not wanting any harm to come to his pure white mount), he charged the dire boar from its left side, bringing his flaming blade down in an overhead arc that buried the blade deep into the dire boar's side. But such reckless actions had consequences; while Chaevaris lined up another arrow, trying to hit it in a crippling area like an eye, the boar retaliated against Harlan's attack, butting him with a head that weighed more than the half-elf in his full armor, the strike simultaneously causing a half-dozen tusks to slash the Pelorian paladin. Just that quickly, Harlan was down, out, and bleeding profusely - and it was only the magic aid of the Blood Mirror in his belt pouch that caused the deep gashes from the monster pig's tusks to close up and stabilize the paladin, a scant few moments from death's door.

Alistair fired off another volley of two magic missiles, unerringly striking the dire boar's side while fervently coaxing Zephyr to approach the monster, hoping to entice the boar away from Harlan even if it meant providing his own horse as a (hopefully) more enticing target. Despite his own self-image as a brave adventurer, Alistair found his left leg - the one closest to the dire boar - rising up Zephyr's side in an unconscious effort to prevent himself from being gored by the ferocious creature's tusks.

Kicking Munson into action, Ageratum rode around the dire boar, keeping their distance from the maddened beast until they were directly behind it and out of its field of vision - and then she struck, bending forward and stabbing her magic short sword into the beast's hindquarters. It squealed in pain at this unexpected attack.

Chaevaris released another arrow, which buried itself in the creature's skull, midway between its eyes but a little higher than the elf had hoped for. Still, the result of the shot couldn't be cause for much complaint, for the dire boar's eyes crossed, then rolled up in its head as it fell over to the ground, dead, with the sound of a fallen boulder crashing during an avalanche.

In a flash, Ageratum was down out of Munson's saddle, pulling Harlan's head onto her lap and unstoppering a potion of cure moderate wounds. Carefully, she poured the vial's contents down into the paladin's mouth, careful not to go too fast lest the liquid healing get coughed out in a choking fit. But the potion did its work, healing up the worst of Harlan's wounds, enough that he was soon able to sit up on his own and use his innate ability to lay on hands, channeling a small bit of Pelor's healing energy into his own damaged body. "Thank you," he told the little halfling, before applying a single charge from his wand of cure light wounds to finish up the healing Ageratum had started with her potion.

"Think nothing of it," Ageratum said. "It's in my own best interests to keep our main source of healing from getting croaked!"

"I say!" remarked Alistair. "Shall we see where the little pig went?" He climbed down out of Zephyr's saddle and instructed Ambrose to keep an eye on the mounts for him. But Chaevaris was already checking on the pig's whereabouts, walking through the doorway and stepping into a dimly-lit cellar. There were eight barrels off to the right-hand side, two rows of four, while to the left was a pen of some sort filled with piles of straw. A set of double doors stood on the opposite wall, but there was no pig to be seen.

Alistair walked into the cellar beside Chaevaris and intoned, "Ogilvy, if you please!" At once, the unseen servant Alistair now knew to be nothing more than a spell effect (but privately still felt like it could be the spirit of his childhood servant) manifested by his side. Chaevaris passed over a bullseye lantern, which Ogilvy lit and held aloft, passing the beam of light from one side of the cellar to the other.

"There!" called out Alistair, looking at the dirt-packed wall on the far side of the room, past the barrels. Dirt was spilling out of the wall, as if something were digging its way into the cellar. "Keep the light focused right there!" Alistair ordered, readying another magic missile spell if the thing that popped out of the wall turned out to look menacing. Harlan and Ageratum, in the meantime, examined the double doors to the north. "I don't see any traps," the little rogue informed the paladin. She reached up and turned the handle quite easily. "Not locked, either," she observed. Pushing the door open, she saw a short hallway, empty until the far end, which ended in a spiral stairway leading up to a higher level of the building - not surprising, given the room behind them was a cellar. Judging by the slope of the hillside, Ageratum decided the building wasn't entirely buried in the side of a hill; the upper level - or levels - likely rose up out of the ground of the hill. Unfortunately, with the growth of trees leading up to the edge of the hill, any such building was all but hidden from the muddy patch just outside the cellar door.

Chaevaris backed up by the pen, arrow aimed at the dirt patch growing larger in the side of the wall. And was it the elf's imagination, or did that look like a tentacle that popped out of the wall, before grabbing a clump of dirt and rock and pulling it inside the hole? "Get ready!" the archer warned the others.

Alistair, who had gotten bored waiting for some unknown creature to dig its way into the cellar, took the opportunity to pop the top off of the nearest barrel and peek inside. That was a mistake, for the reek that came out of the barrel just about set the sorcerer's eyes watering and the gorge rise in the back of his throat, as the stench of rotting meat wafted across the room. Slamming the lid back in place, Alistair focused his attention back on the emerging intruder from the cellar's dirt wall. Ogilvy stepped onto a barrel to be out of the way, still focusing the beam of light from Chaevaris's lantern on the side wall. Harlan, by this time, had returned from the stairwell (leaving Ageratum there to listen to see if she could hear anything from the level above), and positioned himself ready to strike with his flaming blade at whatever popped out of the wall. Instinctively, he cast his senses forth to see if he could detect any evil coming from the dirt hole, but he picked up no such sensations. Still, he knew full well a lack of evil did not mean a lack of danger; the dire boar they'd fought outside was a good example, for it had not been evil yet it had almost killed him.

Ageratum, sitting on the bottom step, heard a whisper coming from upstairs. "The real treasure's in the room to the west upstairs," it said. "Just come take it." But the words were too clear in her head to have been a whispered voice from the level above; Ageratum realized this was some sort of magic at work, and thus some sort of ploy - a trap to get her separated from the party, perhaps?

The creature finally emerged from the hole it had dug in the cellar wall. At first, Harlan thought it was a nest of snakes all writhing together, and the shock caused him to miss with his sword-strike. He stepped back to avoid being bitten, and it was only then, in the light of Chaevaris's bullseye lantern, that the half-elf realized his mistake, for those weren't serpents emerging from the hole, they were tentacles attached to an insectoid head, which itself was mounted upon a greenish body like that of a giant cutworm. Harlan had heard of such creatures: carrion crawlers, they were called, and their tentacles were said to contain a powerful neurotoxin that froze its victims into temporary paralysis.

Alistair had never heard of carrion crawlers, but he didn't like the look of giant worm-creatures with waving tentacles on their faces and he let his magic missile spell cross the gap between them and blast into the head of the emerging beast as it crawled from the hole it had dug. Harlan stepped up behind the creature and swung again at the grub-thing, but its many legs allowed it to skitter off to the side in just enough time for the sword-blow to come up short. Alistair fired off another magic missile spell, knowing full well that particular spell was pretty much guaranteed to hit its target, and it did, this time blasting the creature in the side as it turned to face Harlan, tentacles writhing wildly. Ageratum opened the double doors and returned to the cellar about then, not wanting to be the target of any more whispered spells, and saw the commotion with the giant worm-thing. She stepped into the room just in time to see Chaevaris's arrow go flying across the side of the room, to miss the carrion crawler entirely and embed itself into the side of the dirt wall from which the creature had emerged.

With a sudden burst of speed, the carrion crawler was upon Harlan, paralytic tentacles slamming into the paladin wherever they could. But fortunately most of the tentacles hit nothing but Harlan's armor, and the helpless paralysis the half-elf had feared did not come to pass. But then another pair of magic missiles came dashing across the room to bury themselves in the monster's flank, and with a final shiver, the carrion crawler fell onto the dirt floor of the cellar, quite dead.

"Well done, Alistair!" said Harlan. "You managed to kill the thing on your own!"

"I reckon so," admitted the young sorcerer, pulling the light crossbow from his back and setting a bolt into place. "I'm rather afraid, though, that was the last of the magic missile spells I shall be able to muster up today. From here on in, it's crossbow bolts or my trusty rapier." Before they moved on from the cellar, Alistair took a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his nose, then, warning the others, had Ogilvy open the lids to each of the other seven barrels. One never knew, seven of them might indeed be nothing more than rotting meat but the eighth could well be filled with diamonds or something.... But no, all eight were filled with rotting meat, and the combined stench more or less forced the heroes over to the double doors and the short corridor ending in the stairs spiraling upwards. It was the only way forward, Chaevaris not having found any secret passages in the cellar or stairway chamber.

"I say, whatever happened to that pig I saw entering the cellar?" Alistair wondered aloud. "It couldn't have opened the doors on its own and there's nowhere else it could have gotten to in here." Chaevaris looked inside the pen and there, laying in the straw, was the head of a chicken. Bending down to pick it up, the archer noted with puzzlement it was made of solid stone, and it was either the work of a master craftsman or it was an actual chicken's head somehow turned to stone. But there was nowhere in the piles of hay inside the pen for the pig to be hiding, so the elf dropped the petrified head back onto the straw and joined the others in the hallway leading to the stairs.

Ageratum warned the guys about the whispered enticements she'd heard. "It would seem there is a spellcaster about," Harlan declared. "Let's see what the level above shows us." He mounted the stairs, the other three following behind him. There was a door at the top of the stairs; opening it, Harlan saw another door off to his left, a set of bookshelves along the northwestern corner, a broken summoning circle on the floor over to the right, a worktable along the southern wall, and a fireplace on the east wall on the other side of the summoning circle. Other than that, the place was empty. The spiral stairs continued on to the half-elf's left, rising up to another level above.

After Ogilvy sent the lantern crossing back and forth across the room, Chaevaris went over to the closed door and gave it an attentive listen. There were scratching noises coming from the other side, almost as if a chicken were walking around in the room beyond. Motioning toward the others, and getting Ogilvy to hold the lantern towards the door so the light would spill into the other room once the door was opened, Chaevaris turned the handle and pushed the door open. Inside, there was nothing but a series of crates, five in all, although there was a bird of some sort, with a comb like that of a rooster, behind one of the crates in the northwest corner of the room; the top of its head visible above the crate. "Brrk!" the bird sounded in irritation, aware of the intruders.

Chaevaris stepped up upon the nearest crate, readied arrow already pointed in the bird's direction. Then Ageratum charged into the room with her magical short sword in hand. She wasted no time, ducking behind the row of crates to the north and attacking the hideous bird. And it was quite hideous, with a long, drooping tail of wilting feathers dragging behind it and features more reminiscent of a reptile than a bird. The halfling's blade opened a gash across the side of the bird's head, ending when the weapon dragged across the bird's beak. It squawked in pain and snapped ineffectually at the nimble halfling. Then it moved across the room, escaping from Ageratum's blade and heading closer to Chaevaris.

With Ogilvy shifting the beam of light directly on the cockatrice, Alistair sent a crossbow bolt shooting across the room at it. Despite his best efforts, the bolt went high, darting over the beast's head and clattering off the side wall. Chaevaris's shot likewise missed the beast by a hair. Then Harlan was upon it, his flaming blade cutting deep into the creature's side. While it spun to face the paladin, Ageratum ran up behind it and stabbed it just above one meaty thigh, just as its beak got a grip on Harlan, causing his hand to temporarily go numb at the site of the bite. The half-elf could feel a sort of paralytic effect try to take hold of him but was able to shrug it off. He didn't realize the cockatrice's major claim to fame was its unearthly ability to turn those it bit into stone; it had no doubt been responsible for the lifelike chicken head Chaevaris had found down in the straw-filled pit in the cellar.

Fortunately, Alistair's next crossbow bolt was right on target, striking the cockatrice in the back of the head before it could try to turn any of the other heroes to stone. With a final squawk of outrage, the creature fell to the floor, dead. Harlan opened the nearest crate, finding nothing but dried-out herbs and the like. There was also a door on the western wall; opening it, the paladin saw it led outside into the forest - it looked like Ageratum had been correct and the two-story house was in fact mostly aboveground, shielded from view by the thick forest of trees around it.

Alistair returned back to the main room, casting a detect magic on himself, for he had seen a few vials of liquid among the books on the shelves. A few of these turned out to be magical in nature: a vial of silversheen and another of stone salve. But as nothing else in the room contained a magical aura, the group jointly decided to head on upstairs to the top level of the building.

The top floor was one large, open room, with a smaller, closet-sized room sticking out from the middle of the south wall to break up the outer room into two distinct halves. Harlan saw a four-poster bed with its draperies closed directly ahead, a desk and chair off to the left, and a fireplace along the eastern wall. Mewling noises were coming from behind the bed-curtains, followed by the occasional yip.

Ageratum strolled boldly into the room, heading directly for the desk. She gave it a cursory check for any obvious traps and then, seeing none, she opened the bottom drawer. It contained sheets of unused parchment and a bottle of ink, nothing untoward. But from her vantage point she could see a vanity along the northeastern corner of the room, to the left of the unlit fireplace. She wondered what all it might contain and decided she'd check it out after searching the rest of the desk.

But then, stepping up in front of the fireplace from its resting place to the south (and out of view from those in the doorway by the stairs, for the smaller room blocked the line of sight), stood a gray-furred wolf. It had a collar around its neck, from which dangled a pouch of black leather. Ageratum's brow furrowed in puzzlement, for the collar indicated the wolf was some sort of pet but most pets didn't carry pouches around their neck. Was it a pouch of material components and the wolf a shapeshifting wizard? Worse yet, were they trespassing into the home of a werewolf? In any case, Ageratum shouted out, "Wolf!" to her companions, pointing to where the creature had just appeared for the benefit of those still in the stairwell who couldn't yet see its location.

Harlan stepped fully into the room, scanning for evil emanations. Oddly enough, the wolf's aura had no source of evil surrounding it, although there was a definite miasma of evil coming from the bed's shrouded interior. After Harlan pointed out his observations to the others, Chaevaris advanced upon the bed and pulled aside the draperies, using the tip of the longbow to do so. Sure enough, the mewling and yipping sounds had come from a half-dozen wolf pups, newly-born by the looks of them. And although they were as cute as any puppies the elf had ever seen, these could only be the source of the evil Harlan had sensed.

Alistair held his light crossbow trained on the wolf, ready to fire if it made any sudden moves. But it just stood there, looking back at the sorcerer as if daring him to fire. Then, without seemingly have moved a muscle, the wolf somehow sent a wave of crushing despair flowing over Alistair, Chaevaris, and Ageratum; Harlan had been shielded by his position on the other side of the bed. Alistair and Ageratum took the full force of the spell, whereas Chaevaris felt the spell's attack but managed to mentally fend it off.

However, that was all it took for Alistair to continue on with his planned attack - he knew full well from a childhood of fairy stories that wolves were not to be trusted. He shot the wolf with his light crossbow, but under the effects of the crushing despair spell the bolt went wide, hitting the fireplace interior and causing a puff of soot and ashes to be expelled in a little cloud. The wolf didn't even move, but its lupine muzzle seemed to be laughing at the flustered sorcerer. "I say!" Alistair fumed. "Light up the wolf, Ogilvy, if you please!" Ogilvy responded by training the bullseye lantern directly upon the wolf, putting a spotlight upon it in a way.

It was at this point that Grubbins attacked.

The imp seemed to suddenly materialize in the air behind Harlan, stabbing at the paladin with a scorpion-tipped tail stinger. In reality, he'd been hanging on the ceiling, invisibly, directly above the doorway to the stairs when the heroes showed up, and thus had been behind Harlan when he scanned the room for evil. Fortunately, the stinger hit Harlan's armor and was directed away, but the sudden attack alerted the half-elf to the imp's presence and he spun about, swinging his flaming burst longsword at the winged fiend. The blade cut deep into the imp's side, causing him to screech and swear in Infernal. Ageratum raced up and swung at the imp from behind, but missed - it was still in mid-flight and was currently too high up for the little halfling to reach.

Still without moving a muscle but keeping its eyes glued directly upon Alistair's, the wolf directed a charm monster spell at the young sorcerer. "I say!" erupted Alistair, having successfully fended off the mental attack and incensed at the effrontery of the wolf at having tried to make of him a mere puppet, to be moved around at the wolf's every whim. But then the wolf finally moved, loping back to the south and out of immediate view, hidden behind the smaller room projecting into the larger one.

Harlan channeled holy energy into his flaming burst longsword for a smiting attack, but the wounded imp managed to aerially dodge the blow. Chaevaris sent an arrow shooting up at the little devil, but it too missed its mark. Alistair, seeing the trouble the imp was causing the others, sent an acid splash spell its way, but he had no better luck and the spell hit the ceiling instead of the flying fiend.

However, Grubbins didn't like his chances against four determined adventurers and called out in the Common tongue, "Wait! I'll help you -- don't kill me!" Ageratum tried hitting the aerial imp as he bargained, telling him what at least what her thoughts were on the subject. Fortunately for Grubbins, her sword missed its mark. But in avoiding her sword the imp had failed to keep track of Harlan's, and the paladin cut him down out of the air to fall lifelessly to the floor, its little torso cut nearly in half. It was quite obviously even the stabilizing effect of the Blood Mirror wasn't going to do anything to keep Grubbins from death - the imp was already fully dead. Just to be sure, though, Ageratum stabbed her sword directly between the imp's eyes, erasing any doubts on the matter.

Chaevaris raced over to the fireplace, expecting to see the wolf there to the south, but there was only another vanity in the southeastern corner, a mirror image of the one to the northeast. "It's invisible!" hazarded the wood elf, pulling out a handful of caltrops and scattering them on the floor directly ahead.

Alistair pulled out his rapier and advanced upon the bed full of puppies. "Show yourself!" he demanded of the invisible wolf. "Or I shall start killing your puppies!" To show he meant it, he allowed the point of his weapon to stab at the nearest puppy's unprotected chest; while he had expected the point to pierce the soft fur and at least bring forth a drop of blood for effect, the weapon was deflected away from the puppy's flesh by a hide much tougher than the sorcerer would have believed.

Harlan observed the helpless puppy's tough flesh avoid damage from a masterwork rapier and suddenly everything fell into place. "Barghests!" he exclaimed. "That's not a wolf--it's a barghest!"

"Whatever is a barghest?" demanded Alistair.

"Foul fiends from the Lower Planes," explained Harlan quickly. "They can take the forms of wolves or goblins! And it explains the spellcasting!"

But Ageratum wasn't about to let inherently tough fiend-skin stop them. Pushing Alistair aside, she gathered up the ends of the blanket the barghest pups were lying upon and folded it up into a makeshift sack of squirming puppies, lugging the wriggling mass onto her back. She wasn't sure what she was going to do with them just yet, but at least she had them all corralled together. The puppies, in the meantime, seemed to think this was some sort of game and yipped and yapped in delight.

The barghest suddenly appeared behind Harlan, biting at him with her powerful jaws, but they failed to close upon him as she had intended. Harlan, for his part, was surprised at the barghest's sudden appearance from the stairwell, unaware that the barghest had never been invisible at all; once she'd been out of view from the others she had used a dimension door spell effect to reposition herself on the spiral staircase, out of sight. Harlan instinctively swung his flaming blade at the wolflike beast, but missed.

Chaevaris shot an arrow successfully into the barghest's shoulder, but was able to tell the creature's fiendish nature allowed her to shrug off the worst of the damage inflicted. "Bitch!" swore the elf, realizing the word had two meanings in this case and both of them were equally applicable.

By then, Alistair had belatedly recalled the stack of spell scrolls he'd purchased earlier, before their trek to Mitrek to fetch members of the Saint Cuthbertian faith to man the Stone Keep. He kept them in two stacks, rolled up into one of two scroll cases, separated into "attack" and "non-attack" spells. Unrolling the scrolls from the former case, Alistair read off the words to a magic missile spell and sent two glowing darts flying from his fingertips and into the barghest's side. He was dismayed to see the words to the scroll were now gone; apparently that part of spellcasting was true, even for sorcerers from the upper classes. Bummer!

"Back off, or your puppies suffer!" Ageratum warned, swinging her bag of barghest pups into the wall for good measure. She imagined any new mother would back off of combat to protect her own offspring, but in this supposition the halfling was sadly imposing her own views onto that of a fiend from the Lower Planes; the barghest cared only for her own continued existence and increase in power and any number of those puppies she'd recently birthed might very well have ended up as a future meal for her. The puppies, in the meantime, thought this was all kinds of fun and squealed in delight with each blow from being slammed into the wall.

With a growl of hatred, the barghest threw herself upon Harlan, biting him with her wicked fangs and raking him with her sharp claws. The damage was enough to force the half-elf to momentarily step away from the fight, using a charge from his wand of cure light wounds to keep him in the fight long enough to see this beast destroyed. Chaevaris sent a special sleep arrow - one of ten purchased in Mitrek - slamming into the barghest; while the arrow made its mark the sleep effect failed to materialize, the fiendish wolf-thing apparently able to shrug off the effects.

Flipping through his attack spell scrolls, Alistair next tried a shocking grasp spell. But the only shock coming about as a result was the one Alistair got when the still-nimble beast successfully avoided his outstretched hand long enough for the spell to fizzle away to nothingness. "Oh, bother!" grumbled the sorcerer.

Seeing her threats - and wall-slams - were getting her nowhere, Ageratum dropped the bundle of barghest puppies and pulled her magic short sword back out from its scabbard. She swiped at the barghest with her blade, but missed. The wolf-fiend retaliated against the halfling, snapping at her with her fangs and clawing at her as well, but the damage she'd taken thus far was starting to take its toll and only one set of claws went raking across Ageratum's armor. And then Harlan finished it off with a second smite evil attack channeled through his flaming burst longsword, the flames erupting in full force as the strike hit true. The barghest yelped in pain for the first time and then was silent - small wonder, the others noted, as her decapitated head went bounding across the room. The barghest's now-headless body collapsed on the floor.

Ageratum was there in a flash, easily pulling the collar from the stump of a neck and reaching inside to see what was stored in the leather pouch. It was a diamond, about an inch and a half in diameter. After casting another detect magic spell, Alistair confirmed the diamond had an aura of transmutation magic. Intuiting the smaller room jutting from the south wall could very well hold the treasure of whoever lived here, the halfling opened the door and was surprised to see a sunken, marble tub in the middle of the room. But Alistair confirmed the tub was likewise magical in nature, and the four receptacles along one edge of the tub's surface, each the proper size to hold the magical diamond, convinced her the gemstone she held in her hand was some sort of key. Experimentation proved that placing the diamond in the blue receptacle caused the tub to start filling up with cold water, but once she removed the gem the water receded. The red receptacle did the same trick, but with hot water; the white one caused water of room temperature to begin to fill the tub. But while all of this was interesting, it was the black one that sent the halfling into paroxysms of laughter and unbridled joy, for that was the setting that caused the tub to open into an extradimensional space where the wizard who had once lived here - and who had been devoured by the barghest after a bungled summoning spell downstairs brought forth a different creature than the one intended - had stored his treasures. Said treasures included a rod of wonder, an immovable rod, a ring of protection more powerful than the one Alistair wore, a set of bracers of armor identical in strength to the ones worn by both Alistair and Ageratum, and the wizard's spellbook - to say nothing of the coins and gems valued at a combined total of 20,000 pieces of gold. "Wee hee!" chortled Ageratum, flinging handfuls of coins in the air.

"We'll need to pull all of this out of here," Harlan observed. "And we'll probably have to return to the Stout farm to see if we can borrow a wagon to bring it all back with us to Ghourmand Vale."

"Indeed," agreed Alistair.

"We'll need a large wagon and four heavy horses to get the dire boar back to the Stouts," Chaevaris added. "And that's even after I field dress it, taking only the meat."

"I imagine that's true," agreed Harlan.

"We'd best be about it, then," advised Chaevaris, making to join Ageratum in the extradimensional treasure vault to start hauling the valuables out into the bedroom.

"Hold up a moment," Harlan advised, placing a hand upon the elven archer's arm. "Let's give her a minute or two to play with the riches first."

"Whatever for?" asked Chaevaris, frowning and not understanding the reason for the delay.

"You know, I don't think I've ever seen Miss Purslane so happy before," observed Alistair, watching the little halfling joyfully throw another handful of coins in the air to watch them fall to the piles all around her.

"That's why," Harlan told Chaevaris, and even the practical wood elf had to agree.

- - -

This was a fun but frustrating adventure to run through: fun because it was well-written, had a few mysteries that were fully explained at the end (such as where did the "dire boar piglet" go? - it was the imp in an alternate form) and an opportunity to fight some creatures we'd never fought before; frustrating because about halfway through the session our players' dice all decided to universally betray us. Seriously, we went through an awful lot of single-digit results in a row on our respective d20s, while Dan's dice were doing their best job of sucking up to the DM and providing him with successful crit after crit. I was seriously concerned we might meet up with our first PC death when Harry's d20 suddenly had a "Wait a minute--what am I doing?" crisis of faith moment and provided him with a confirmed critical hit using his last smite evil attack with a +1 flaming burst longsword, which ended up dealing a whopping 41 points of damage in one attack.

But the amount of treasure was well above standard, and on top of it we all made it to 4th level after the adventure was over. (Alistair finally gets scorching ray - that's worthy of a "Wee hee!" from me!) I'm thinking of taking Alistair's share of the treasure and purchasing a CL 9th wand of magic missiles - 50 doses of 5d4+5 points of force damage per round ought to (hopefully) hold him until he's powerful enough to do that much damage with the spell on his own.

And yes, we drowned the barghest puppies in the tub once we had cleared out the vault. That particular fact isn't likely to be mentioned in the bard songs Alistair hopes will one day be sung about this band of heroes (even if he has to write them himself); nobody wants to be branded as a "Puppy Killer," no matter how inherently evil the infant barghests might have been.

We'll be skipping next week's session, as this time Dan will be out of town all week. And there's a chance I'll be out of town the following week, so we'll have to see how things go. It might not be until 26 October until our next Ghourmand Vale session.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 4​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 4​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 4​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 4​

Game Session Date: 2 November 2022

- - -

"Me?" Alistair asked, a confused look crossing his features. "There's someone here to see me?" His brow furrowed as he struggled to come up with who would be here at the Stouts' farmhouse, specifically looking for him - nobody from his old life knew he was here, and those who knew him in Ghourmand Vale would likely be looking for the group of adventurers as a whole, not just the young sorcerer. Unless...could it be the bard Holyrood Carp, come to take him up on his offer to write songs for him to sing in the taverns? Excitedly, Alistair rose from the breakfast table while Mr. Stout, returning from the front door, replied with what he knew.

"An older gentleman, an older lady, and a young woman, all arriving in a carriage," he said. "And the young lady seems to be rather far along in the family way."

"And she's looking for you?" demanded Ageratum, her eyes goggling in disbelief and her mouth hanging open. "Alistair - did you get some young lady pregnant?"

"What? No, no I never - that is, I wouldn't - I, ah," stumbled the nobleman, now very much concerned about just who these visitors might be. His face reddened at Ageratum's suggestion, as he vacillated between the conflicting desires of explaining how that was simply impossible and not wanting to have to admit to having had absolutely no experience in such carnal matters. He finally decided to stop talking altogether, lest his puzzled tongue betray him.

Stumbling to the door, he saw several familiar faces. Standing at the side of the carriage was none other than Brother Scrimshaw, the Cuthbertian cleric the group had traveled with on the 19-day journey from Greyhawk City to Ghourmand Vale those many months ago. His back was turned as he helped down the two ladies from the carriage. The first was a girl about Alistair's own age, her belly quite visibly swollen with the life she carried within - and had been doing so for at least seven, if not eight months already, by the look of things. Alistair was quite certain he'd never seen her before in her life and was somewhat concerned this was some sort of money-making scam, for he'd heard it somewhat common for an unwed mother of the lower classes to try to blame her pregnancy on a nobleman, in the hopes of marrying into a rich family or at the very least being paid off to go far, far away. But then Brother Scrimshaw helped her traveling companion down from the carriage, and it was Alistair's turn to stand slack-jawed, for there before him stood Nanny Rogers, the woman who had raised him since birth.

"Nanny?" Alistair croaked, puzzled at her abrupt appearance all the way out here, 19 days distant from Greyhawk City. But then suddenly everything snapped into place. "Father's forgiven me!" he exclaimed, unable to keep the glee from his voice. "You've come to bring me back home, to the family!"

"No, dear," replied Nanny Rogers sadly. "I'm afraid you know your father - once his mind has been made up, there's very little chance of him ever changing it." Alistair frowned dejectedly, disappointed that he was still an outcast from his own family, and then angry at himself for having gotten his hopes up in the first place.

He quickly recovered; he didn't need his family and had proven quite well he could survive without their money. "Then what brings you here?" he asked. "And who, may I ask, is this?" he continued, approaching the pregnant young lady. His suspicions about a scam had subsided; surely Nanny Rogers would have no part in such a foul deed! "Alistair," he said by way of introduction, taking the young lady's hand.

"This is Julianna Montjoie," Nanny Rogers replied on the young lady's behalf. "Your brother's wife." That brought Alistair's face back to a slack-jawed configuration, if only for a moment before he comported himself in a way more better fitting a young aristocrat. "Then you're my sister-in-law," he reasoned aloud. Glancing down at her extended belly, he added, "And I'm going to be an uncle!" This was all happening too quickly for the young man, but he belatedly remembered his obligations. "Please, come inside, you must both be tired from your journey."

Mrs. Stout offered up some breakfast refreshments to the two visitors; Brother Scrimshaw thanked the farmer's wife but declined her offerings. He sat in the corner while Nanny Rogers explained why the two of them were here. "Things have changed since you left Greyhawk City," she began. "Your father has started winding down from his business engagements, allowing your brother Atherton to step into the leadership role. And there has been a new rival rising up, attempting to take over some of the family's business dealings. So far, Atherton has managed to fend them off, but they're a bit on the cutthroat side of things, and he decided it would be best if Julianna were far from harm's way."

"But all the way here at Ghourmand Vale?" asked Alistair. "How did you - or Atherton - know I was even here?"

"We didn't, dear," Nanny Rogers explained patiently. "Atherton has some money put into a finishing school out this way: The Home for Castaway Girls, on the outskirts of your Ghourmand Vale. He felt that would be a good place for Julianna to remain safe, while all of these business rivalries ran their course. We stopped at a stone keep for directions, ran into this helpful young cleric here" - Brother Scrimshaw nodded his head in acknowledgement - "and when we mentioned the Pastlethwaite name, he offered up he knew where you were staying. We therefore thought it best to seek you out, not only to see how you were faring but also to ask you to escort us to the finishing school."

"By all means," Alistair agreed. "We'd be more than happy to accompany you on the remainder of your journey. Here, allow me to make the introductions of my fellow adventurers - I'm an adventurer now, you know! This is Chaevaris, an elven archer - just like Elfy Danger Silverleaf!" Chaeveris's eyes rolled in exasperation as Alistair continued on with the introductions. "This is Harlan, a paladin of Pelor - I'm sure even father would approve of me spending time with a paladin. And this is Ageratum: she's a halfling from the Fairylands!" The young nobleman couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. "We're all Trained, Professional Adventurers," he boasted.

"That's very nice, dear," Nanny Rogers assured him, finishing up the cup of honey-sweetened tea Mrs. Stout had provided her. "But, if you feel ready to continue our journey, Juli? We've apparently only a few more hours to go."

"Yes, all right," Julianna agreed, heaving herself up from the chair in which she was sitting comfortably.

"I'll ride with you in the carriage!" Alistair declared as the adventurers gathered up their gear. Brother Scrimshaw agreed to ride Alistair's horse Zephyr; they'd be dropping him back off at the Stone Keep on the way to The Home for Castaway Girls, after which time Harlan had agreed Zephyr's reins could be tied to the back of the saddle of his own mount, Law. Alistair chattered almost non-stop during the trip, asking Nanny Rogers about things that had transpired back home since his abrupt removal from the family. He also learned more about his sister-in-law; she'd married Atherton shortly after Alistair had left, and at her husband's suggestion was traveling under her maiden name so as not to draw attention to her status as a member of the Pastlethwaite family. And no, Nanny Rogers hadn't brought any of the "Elfy" books with her; she patiently explained to her former charge that she had not expected to have run into him during their travels.

"Oh well, more's the pity," sighed Alistair. "I'm sure Chaevaris would enjoy reading them."

When they arrived at The Home for Castaway Girls (after saying their farewells to Brother Scrimshaw at the Stone Keep), Alistair was amazed at its elaborate construction. This wasn't some hastily-slapped-together building like so much of Ghourmand Vale's architecture; the building had quite evidently been in place for a century or more, and built with an eye for detail. The structure rose up two full stories with what was likely an attic section at the very top. After helping Nanny Rogers and Julianna from the carriage (and what a treat riding in luxury in a carriage again had been, after all of his experiences as a "wagon lackey!") and tying the horses' reins to the tethering post out front, Alistair stepped up to the double doors and knocked loudly. "Just walk right in, dear," suggested Nanny Rogers, opening the door and doing just that. There was a reception hall at the front of the building, with another set of double doors straight ahead and larger rooms at either end: a classroom to the west and a lunchroom to the east, both rooms filled with teen girls attending the finishing school.

Nanny Rogers took the lead as if she'd been here before. Opening the doors, she stepped into the office just beyond, where a pair of school workers - a human administrator named Kay Murphey and a young halfling named Constanza Taterbloom - sat at desks appropriate to their size. "May I help you?" asked Miss Murphey, an elderly matron with a no-nonsense air about her.

Reaching into her sleeve, Nanny Rogers extracted a sealed piece of parchment and handed it over. "Our letters of introduction," she announced as Kay opened the letter and read it over for herself. Another woman entered the room from a door on the north wall, this was Lolene Goldthame, the woman in charge of the finishing school. "Julianna here is to be enrolled in your school and I am to remain on as her attendant," Nanny Rogers continued. "You will see the letter is signed by Atherton Pastlethwaite, one of your benefactors." She said this as if expecting no resistance, and indeed there was none. "Very well," Miss Murphey agreed, passing the letter to Housematron Goldthame. "I'll have Constanza here show Miss Montjoie around while we sign the official documents."

"Certainly," agreed the halfling, jumping down from her seat. But before she could show Julianna around, a second pair of ladies burst into the office, pushing past the heroes standing at the back of the room. "Mistress Claudine and Miss Cora Blaum," the older of the two announced, producing a letter of introduction of their own and practically shoving it into Lolene Goldthame's hands, as if instantly intuiting she was the highest-ranking of the school staff in the room.

"I say," began Alistair, disturbed at the rudeness of these newcomers. One would think one would wait one's turn until the previous business at hand had been completed, surely! But then Housematron Goldthame began reading aloud from the letter and suddenly rudeness was the least of Alistair's concerns. The woman's voice took on a ragged aspect, and cracked as she intoned, "Let there be ghosties and ghoulies, and long-legged beasties!" Her voice suddenly broke into an unholy cackle of wicked delight, and she raised her head in glee. But the heroes could see an abrupt change had overcome the Headmistress: where before she stood straight and tall, now her body hunched forward, her curved spine leaning her closer to her visitors. Her skin was a sallow, greenish color, somewhere between old moss and the bile of sickness; her hair, moments before a dark, lustrous brown, now hung limp and pale in mottled strands the color of moonlight.

And she hadn't even gotten the worst of it. Before her, Kay Murphey and Constanza Taterbloom lurched forward, dropping to the floor as their bodies writhed and reconfigured themselves, morphing completely into canine forms, black, with a reddish made reminiscent of fire trailing down their spines. With sulfurous breath leaking from their muzzles, the two hell hounds snarled and dashed forward, leaping to attack the greenhag now standing before them.

"What the Hell is going on?" demanded Ageratum, unsheathing her short sword and ready to defend herself if any of these monsters got the idea to turn her way. Alistair was equally perplexed about the situation but had the presence of mind to grab his nanny and his sister-in-law and try to drag them back, out of harm's way. He spun and tried to open the double doors behind him, but somehow they had become locked and he couldn't get the door to budge. This was like a bad dream, but even worse because it was really happening! The sorcerer cast a detect magic spell and discovered there was a magic effect on the door keeping it from opening. Bother! Ageratum stepped to their side, keeping her blade between the two ladies and the monsters going after each other in the back of the room.

Harlan cast forth his paladin's vision and detected evil emanating from the greenhag and the two hell hounds, which didn't surprise him in the least. There was a door to his left, on the west wall of the office area, and he gave it a try but it too had been arcane locked. Chaevaris grabbed up the letters of introduction, intending to give them a good read later - maybe they gave some clue about what was going on. Then, pulling a sleep arrow from the quiver and setting it in place at the bow, the archer shot the nearest hell hound (the one who moments before had been Kay Murphey), catching the fiendish dog in the flank. However, the beast shook off the attempts at inducing magical slumber, focusing its attention - and its fangs - on the greenhag.

The hag, for her part, was likewise focusing her own attention on the two devil dogs attacking her. A set of jagged claws went ripping across the fur of the one with the arrow sticking out of its flank, and this was enough for the hell hound to crash to the floor, reverting as she fell back into her human form. Kay lay there unmoving, well into unconsciousness and bleeding from her wounds, but as Chaevaris watched, the wounds sealed up seemingly of their own accord; the wood elf archer knew full well, however, this was the result of the Blood Mirror Harlan carried with him at all times.

Alistair once again found himself being pushed aside by the two late-coming women. They kicked at the stuck doors, the younger one crying out in pain as she did nothing more than injure her foot, but the older one managed to kick her way through the western door. She grabbed up her younger charge and they stepped through, back into the entry hall from which they had come.

A door in the back of the office suddenly opened, and there in the doorway stepped an elven woman waving a wand in the direction of Nanny Rogers and Julianna. "Get out, evil ones!" the elf screeched. Alistair, in the process of sending a scorching ray spell at the hag - the first time he'd tried casting the spell in combat - was flustered at the elf threatening his nanny and the ray went wide, flying past the hag's shoulder to blast the back wall. Ageratum, in the meantime, had stepped forward and swung her blade at the other hell hound, the one who had been a halfling before the sudden transformation. She missed, but it was a worthwhile effort. Harlan, likewise, charged into battle against the greenhag, swinging his flaming burst longsword at her, but the hag's attention seemed solely focused on the remaining hell hound. Chaevaris, looking at the scene and deciding it was well in hand, opened the folded parchments and gave them a quick scan. The first one had been the one Housematron Goldthame had been reading when everything erupted into chaos. It read:

Kindly accept our gift.​
It is given in hopes​
it will Destroy any enmity.​
We seek peace.​
Through profound respect​
between us and Yourselves
The healing of old wounds​
and grievances between us​
should begin Tonight.​
Roy Moudo​
P.S. Your acceptance means things can be as they were when the new Dawn breaks.​

Chaevaris was no spellcaster, but the elf instantly saw the three words italicized spelled out the short sentence, "Destroy yourselves tonight." No doubt this was the trigger of whatever spell or ritual had been set in place to cause the school workers to transform into monsters and try to kill each other. Glancing at the other sheet of parchment, the archer saw:

The enemy is stepping up attacks on our enterprises and becoming more bold. They are including family members in the scope of their attacks. That's why I send you my wife and child. Keep them safe.​
I do not believe they understand the role your home plays in our enterprises or where our agents are.​
We still have allies reliant on our services, but meeting the needs may become more difficult. We are almost at the point of direct and open action. I hope it doesn't come to that.​
I've secured funding for your home for the next two years, it's with the gnomes. They'll see you properly provisioned.​
I'll send word as I can.​

Fortunately, the elf was a quick reader and a glance was all it took to make sense of the letters. It sounded like this "girls' finishing school" was much more than it looked on the surface, but just what all else it was involved in was beyond Chaevaris's current understanding. Looking back up at the combatants in the room, Chaevaris noted the hag had taken down the remaining hell hound, who had shifted back into halfling form upon being rendered unconscious, her wounds likewise stabilizing under the effects of the presence of the Blood Mirror.

Alistair interposed himself in front of the two women with which he had arrived at the school, raising his hands in a gesture of noncombativeness. "Don't attack!" he called out to the wand-wielding elf. "We're not the ones who transformed the others!"

"Who are you?" demanded the elven schoolmatron.

"Merely a new admission to your school," the sorcerer began, indicating Julianna, "and my nanny. I'm Alistair--oh! Atherton Pastlethwaite's brother!" This last bit he added as he recalled Atherton was one of the benefactors of the school, and the name-dropping worked as he'd hoped, for Calandra Valadane dropped her wand, looked around, and said, "Bring them here with me, where we'll be safe!"

Looking through the open door to the south, Chaevaris noted the two women who had brought the curse-triggering letter were kicking open the front door to the building. "Don't let them get away!" the archer called. "Those two are the ones behind all of this!" Pulling out his newly-purchased wand of magic missile - which had cost nearly all of the money Alistair had earned lately in his adventuring career, for it was as powerful as such wands came - the young sorcerer shot off the first charge, sending three missiles darting into the back of the older woman and two more striking the younger one, still favoring her sore foot. "Got 'em, Elfy!" Alistair called, although now that he looked, neither had fallen from his blast of magic missiles. That was disappointing! He hoped he hadn't been swindled by the man at the magic shop where he'd made his purchase; Alistair had learned over the course of his short adventuring career that there were many folks about with less than scrupulous morals.

Ageratum followed the two fleeing women and threw one of her kobold spears at the younger one, hitting her higher up than she would have preferred; instead of skewering her through the back, the halfling had merely managed to lodge the spearhead up by the shoulder. The woman merely reached back and brushed it off as if it were no more than a mere dart. Chaevaris shot an arrow at the older woman, hitting her squarely in the back - but then, as the woman turned to try to grab the arrow out, the archer could swear the woman had an elven face. And, come to think of it, the woman's dress was now green, where before it had been a dark yellow. What was going on here? The answer was given when Alistair released another blast from his wand, this time sending all five missiles streaking into the younger of the two women. She jolted when struck, toppled forward, and collapsed unmoving onto the school's front lawn - and, in the process, all aspects of her appearance melted away, leaving a bald, gray-skinned creature with a bulbous head lying, unconscious but stable, on the ground.

"A doppelganger!" swore Chaevaris aloud. Ageratum raced after the other one, who had stopped momentarily to see to her companion. The halfling caught up with the older woman, now having completely changed shape into an elven woman (likely in an attempt to disassociate herself as anyone having been to the school), but the halfling wasn't fooled; she threw another spear at the "elf," catching her right through the kidney - or at least where a kidney would be in an elf; there was no telling what all strange internal organs lay inside the malleable form of a doppelganger.

Harlan channeled holy energy into his sword and made a smiting attack against the hag, but the gnarled creature was nimble for all her apparent deformity and was able to avoid the blow. And then, just that quickly, she sprang to the attack, lashing out with her wicked claws. Harlan deflected one set with his flaming blade, but the ragged nails of her other hand scored lines down the side of the half-elf's face. Angered at the assault, the paladin swung hard at the hag with his flaming blade, this time catching her in the side as she tried to scramble away from the blow. At that point Chaevaris, who had been standing in the open doorway of the office shooting outside the building at the fleeing doppelgangers, determined the feisty halfling had the other doppelganger on the ropes and spun about to see to Harlan's foe. Another arrow was instantly fitted to bow and fired, the shaft burying itself in the hag's side. Blood now spilled from the hag's lips as she snarled at her foes in obvious pain. She swung at Harlan again with her wicked claws, but the attack was much slower now and the half-elf barely needed to dodge to avoid the claws.

The elf-formed doppelganger spun in place and grabbed at Ageratum, but the nimble halfling tumbled out of the way, landing on her feet with another spear raised in a defensive stance. But then Alistair, still inside the school building, blasted the creature with another charge of his wand and she fell unconscious to the ground, elven features and green dress being absorbed back into the gray-skinned creature's true form.

The doppelgangers were still well within the radius of the Blood Mirror's area of effect, and as Ageratum watched, the wounds closed up on the two gray beings - the magic gem wouldn't restore them to consciousness, but it would ensure they didn't bleed out. Well, Ageratum wasn't having any of that! Pulling a dagger from her belt, she stepped over the body of the nearest doppelganger and slit its throat from one side of its neck to the other. She watched approvingly as the creature's life-blood spilled out of its carved-open throat and the doppelganger died, having received wounds far too grievous for the Blood Mirror to be able to overcome. Then, a satisfied grin on her face, Ageratum walked over to the other doppelganger, ready to do the same to it.

With the doppelgangers having been taken care of, Alistair and Chaevaris were free to return their full attention back to the greenhag still in physical combat with Harlan. Chaevaris shot a couple of arrows at the hag but missed, in no small part due to making sure the arrows came nowhere near striking Harlan by accident. Alistair made the assumption the hag must be near death and cast a magic missile spell of his own at her, rather than use up another charge from his wand (which he'd planned on having last him long enough until he was able to cast the spell at a comparable level of power himself), but while the spell hit true it didn't drop the hag as he'd hoped. The hag got in another lucky strike against the paladin, scoring the other side of his face with her claws, before a kobold shortspear came flying into the room to strike the hag in the back of her head. She dropped to the floor instantly, while the weapons dropped from her body and her wounds sealed up, courtesy of the Blood Mirror. Only now, as she lay there unconscious, she had returned to her normal form, that of Housematron Goldthame.

"I say," declared Alistair, "does anyone have any idea - any idea at all - as to what's going on here?"

Chaevaris held up the "letter of introduction" the doppelgangers had passed over to Housematron Goldthame to be read aloud. "Best I can figure, this is some type of magical trap or something," the elf told the others.

"Do you guys hear that?" asked Ageratum.

"What?" asked Harlan, wiping the blood from his face.

"Moaning and groaning, coming from that way," replied the halfling, pointing to the east, "and breaking glass coming from over there," she added, pointing over to the west. The noises were coming from the opposite wings at the sides of the building, the dining hall and a classroom.

"We'd best stick together," suggested Harlan, leading the way back to the front hall and then heading over to the classroom to the west. Entering it, it gave every appearance of being a normal classroom, with rows of student desks facing one side of the room, at which stood a larger desk, and a writing slate hanging on the wall - but instead of students and an instructor, the room was filled with undead skeletons, ten in all. One had apparently panicked during the transformation and broken a side window, whose glass had shattered.

Alistair was the first to react. He cast another of his lower-powered magic missile spells at the nearest skeleton and, as expected, it caused the creature to fall to the floor, resuming the form of a normal, teenaged student in the process. Ageratum dashed into the room next, slamming the pommel of her short sword into the next skeleton's hip bone. But then Harlan raised his holy symbol of Pelor and sent a blast of positive energy through it. As one, the remaining nine skeletons all transformed back to their normal forms and collapsed, unconscious, to the floor. "Frankly, I'm a little bit surprised that worked," admitted the paladin. "They all apparently gained the full powers - and limitations - of undead creatures during their transformation. Come on, there's another door in the back."

Harlan led them to the back of the classroom and through a door which led to the building's kitchen. The place was currently a shambles, with all manners of creatures attacking each other. A skeleton was fighting a goblin at the near end of the kitchen; lying on the floor in the middle of the kitchen was an unconscious halfling in the traditional kitchen garb of apron and chef's hat; at the far end, two goblins were perched upon a set of cabinets while below them, two zombies tried to claw them but couldn't reach.

Alistair cast another magic missile spell at the goblin, taking it out and turning it back into a scullery maid in the process. Ageratum made a dash past the skeleton, heading over to deal with the zombies (which she knew would be more susceptible to the blade of her short sword). The skeleton matched her pace but seemed to have no interest in attacking her; it was focused on the zombies in the back, trying to get to the cornered goblins - which themselves were throwing items down from the cabinets at the zombies. As part of the curse, it seemed as if the transformed creatures were primarily focused on slaying other transformed creatures of a different type, fighting back against others (like the heroes) only when actively defending themselves, as with the greenhag fighting with Harlan after he attacked her first. That was good to know!

Harlan stepped forward and sent another blast of positive energy through his holy symbol, and the turn undead attempt was fully successful in that the skeleton and the two zombies all collapsed unconscious into their normal forms, that of students from the school. The goblins, with no other transformed creatures to attack, scrambled down from the cabinets and scampered to a door to the east, which led to the dining hall - and a group of nine zombies. Chaevaris took out one goblin with a well-placed arrow, dropping it and reverting it back to an unconscious housemaid.

Alistair ran down the length of the kitchen, getting the sole remaining goblin with another magic missile spell. She, too, became a housemaid, which led the sorcerer to theorize the form a cursed school member became was somehow linked to what role they played here in the school. Harlan came up beside Alistair and turned undead once again, this time taking out the five nearest zombies, all of which reverted to unconscious schoolgirls. But with the goblins now gone, the remaining zombies had no other transformed foes to attack, and they milled about, wandering aimlessly. The others stopped their own attacks, allowing Harlan to take the remaining zombies out with another blast of positive energy. "That's it. I'm spent," the paladin admitted. "Let's hope there are no more undead we'll have to deal with."

"I don't know," replied Alistair, his ear to a door in the middle of the kitchen. "I'm hearing groans and shuffling from the other side of this door. Could be undead." Upon Harlan's nod of approval, Alistair opened the door, revealing a set of stairs leading down into darkness. Alistair immediately called out, "Ogilvy, if you please!" and handed Chaevaris's bullseye lantern to the unseen servant, instructing it to shine the beam down the steps. Stepping into the light, squinting in annoyance, were two filthy figures: a ghoul and a ghast.

"Undead, all right," remarked Ageratum glumly. The little halfling didn't like fighting undead - they shrugged off her best attacks, when she used her blade in just the right spots to deal extra pain and damage to a living foe. Still, she sent a kobold halfspear flying down the stairwell to strike the ghoul in the chest. Then Harlan stepped forward, flaming burst longsword in hand, no longer able to attempt any further turn undead maneuvers but determined not to let either of these undead beings out into the kitchen to attack any of the others in the school.

But Harlan standing in the doorway didn't prevent Chaevaris from shooting past him; the arrow buried itself into the ghoul's chest as well and it toppled backwards, transforming back into a groundskeeper as it did so. The ghast scrambled up the stairs and the half-elf's face scowled as his stomach turned at the awful stench the undead thing brought with him. Alistair blasted the ghast with a magic missile charge from his wand, but it wasn't enough to finish off the undead thing. Ageratum held a spear at the ready but there were too many other people in the way for her to be able to attack, so she backed off and assumed a defensive posture. In the extreme close quarters, neither Harlan nor the ghast were able to deal the other much damage, and even Chaevaris missed with a close-quarters arrow shot. It took another blast from Alistair's wand to finally take the creature down, whereupon it resumed the form of another groundskeeper.

That took care of the basement and the entire ground floor of the school, so the heroes found a set of stairs that led up to the second floor. The arrived on a landing, from which there was another set of stairs leading up to the attic. But webs covered the attic steps, and three spiders, each the size of a full-grown man, skittered along the ceiling. Alistair fired a magic missile spell at the first spider but failed to bring it down; Ageratum did the honors with a thrown shortspear at the same spider, causing it to literally fall from the ceiling. When it hit the floor, fully unconscious, the spider had become a parlor maid.

Harlan stepped onto the first couple of stairs - careful to ensure he didn't get entangled in the webs just beyond - and the added elevation allowed him to reach another spider on the ceiling with his flaming blade. The spider fell from the ceiling, landing onto the floor as another unconscious maid. Chaevaris shot the third spider with an arrow, but the hit wasn't enough to drop the creature and it scurried along the ceiling, looking to get above one of the heroes so it could drop down upon them.

But then there was a commotion from higher up the stairs. Flying down from the attic - where the school's maids had their quarters - came a quartet of strange creatures, shrieking humanoid heads with flapping bat-wings in place of ears. Two of these vargouilles got tangled up in the spider webs, while the other two managed to make it into the hallway landing.

Alistair still had his wand of magic missiles in hand and he fired off a shot, sending one missile each to the four vargouilles and the sole remaining spider. Only one of the vargouilles dropped as a result of this magical barrage, but each of the others looked sufficiently hurt that it didn't look like it would take much to take them out. And that proved to be the case: while the spider skittered over to attack one of the vargouilles trapped in the webbing, Ageratum's spear hit a vargouille and sent her falling to the floor, now an unconscious groundkeeper. Harlan stabbed at a trapped vargouille, converting it to another human while his flaming blade set the webs ablaze, which took out the spider and the remaining trapped vargouille. That looked to be that.

But was it? The heroes had no way to know, so they backtracked to Headmatron Goldthame and Harlan applied some healing magic through his laying on of hands to revive her. From her they got an accurate head count and Ageratum volunteered to go back through the building's rooms to make sure everyone had been accounted for. In the meantime, Mistress Goldthame confirmed that the Home for Castaway Girls, under Atherton Pastlethwaite's patronage, had been converted to a training school focused not only upon bettering a young lady's manners, poise, and culture (as best befit a finishing school), but also teaching them how best to gather information about the businesses of the families into which they were inserted, either through arranged marriages or as hired positions such as nannies, secretaries, maids, or the like.

"So it's basically a front for a school for intel-gathering," remarked Ageratum, having returned to report back that everyone had been accounted for and was still breathing. "I've seen such things before. A spy school, basically."

"We prefer to think of our graduating students as members of an intelligence network," sniffed Headmatron Goldthame. By this time, Calandra had returned with Nanny Rogers and Julianna Montjoie. "So how exactly did you manage not to be affected by the curse?" asked Harlan. Calandra explained that she had been in reverie, and as was her custom she was inside a magic circle against evil while her mind was occupied on organizing memories and unaware of the outside world. "I can only imagine that's what prevented my own transformation," she suggested.

"Well, in any case, I don't think we want Julianna registering in your school after all," piped up Alistair.

"Oh?" asked Nanny Rogers. "Those were Atherton's explicit instructions."

"Yes, but that was when he believed the school's true function and association with him were unknown," Alistair countered. "Obviously, somebody tried killing off everyone associated with the school, in a very roundabout way, granted, and one that failed primarily due to our presence here when the curse was activated. But either those doppelgangers Ageratum took care of were going to report back on their success, or the ones behind it probably have some other way of checking out on the success of their plan. In either case, eventually they're going to find out nobody at all was killed and the business is carrying on as usual. And that will likely have one of two effects: they'll either back off, seeing the place as too well defended, or they'll come after it with an army. I don't think Atherton wants to take the chance that they'll choose the latter response."

"Then what do you suggest, dear?" asked Nanny Rogers.

"Well, we can't very well bring you back to the farmhouse with us, as it's not very defensible and had already been overrun by hobgoblins once since before the Stouts took it over. But I think I know a place where you and Julianna will be safe." He didn't voice it aloud, for he felt it would be safer if the members of the Home for Castaway Girls didn't actually know of the location of Atherton's wife (and, soon enough, child), but he was certain he could have them put up at the Stone Keep for now, until a different arrangement could be made. "I assume you have a means of getting word to Atherton?" he asked the school matrons. They verified they did indeed.

"Then if you please, let them know what occurred here, and that Julianna and Nanny Rogers have been brought to a safe place." They agreed to do so.

"Let's start getting everybody healed up," suggested Harlan, as he moved off to do just that. His paladin training wasn't advanced enough to be able to channel enough healing energy through his hands to awaken everyone, but he could start with the staff, who would be better able to see to the girls' needs as far as healing went. Some of them might have to do with having their wounds cleaned and tended to, while they were left to awaken on their own.

"I have a question for you, Nanny," Alistair said.

"Yes, dear?"

"Back in the main office, how did you know that door you went through was unlocked? All of the other doors to that room were locked, by magic. Have you been here before?"

"Oh, but it was arcane locked, dear. I just used a knock spell to open it. And yes, this isn't my first time visiting this school." She left it at that, volunteering no further information as to whether she had been a visitor or perhaps a student at the finishing school. There was, after all, much in her past life of which Alistair was unaware.

He, however, had focused in on the other bit of knowledge she'd provided. "Then you're a sorcerer? Like me?"

"Not a very powerful one, dear, but yes. I know a few spells, that's all. Sorcerers tend to run in my family line; my grandfather was quite powerful in his day, they say."

"So you knew I was a sorcerer, back when I was casting spells at home without realizing it?"

"I suspected, yes - but you know your father. He was not to be swayed by the words of a mere employee, not when he'd already decided the reason behind your sudden abilities."

"Yes, that's true enough," agreed Alistair sadly, thinking about his father and his inability to allow his mind to be swayed by anything as frivolous as facts, once he'd decided what was what. None of Alistair's arguments that he had not been trafficking with demons had had any effect upon changing his father's mind about his own youngest son.

Ageratum, however, found her mouth hanging open in astonishment once more as she looked back and forth between Alistair and his nanny. This was the woman who had raised the young nobleman from his she'd been with him all of his life until he got booted out of his family...and sorcerers ran in her bloodline.... Was it possible? Was Nanny Rogers Alistair's real mother? This would bear some thinking over, and possibly some investigating on her own, if she ever found her way back to Greyhawk City.

- - -

So, this adventure was kind of a weird one. Dan had decided he wanted an adventure with a Hallowe'en theme, and he made numerous changes to the adventure as he had three weeks to write it instead of the normal one, due to some scheduling issues with our two families. (I was away for a week on a business trip, then the following week they were on vacation.) He'd originally intended the schoolhouse to be a Home for Unwed Mothers and Julianna to have been a commoner with whom Atherton had had a fling and then discarded, but then he started playing around with different notions and this eventually turned into a plot by his unknown business rivals (or maybe their allies). As a result, it ended up having some plot holes, as far as sticking within the D&D rules goes: the "curse" that caused the inhabitants of the school to transform and try to kill each other was much more powerful than even a wish spell (which wouldn't likely have been able to affect that many people all at once); when Dan saw me trying to puzzle out what was happening (was this all an elaborate set of illusions?), he just confessed the curse was a bit of DM "hand-wavery" allowing him to set the adventure in motion and allow us to fight a bunch of traditional Hallowe'en monsters in a setting where we normally wouldn't find them. But even the details of the curse had been altered more than once; at one point he was going to have a guards and wards effect on all the doors, but then he settled on just making them all arcane locked, although that actually went against the desires of the people behind the curse if they actively wanted the transformed people to slay other transformed people in different forms. Even that worked against the curse-bringers, because when a classroom of students and their teacher all turn into skeletons, there's nobody for them to fight. Finally, Dan had forgotten the stabilizing effects of the Blood Mirror, which, with its 75-foot range, easily covered the entire school. And the fact that the transformed creatures focused their entire attention on other transformed creatures meant the majority of the adventure was like our PCs shooting fish in a barrel. Other than the two hits Harlan took from the hag's claws, none of us lost any hit points whatsoever. And we all leveled up to 5th at the end of the adventure, after just having leveled up to 4th after the previous adventure.

Oh well - it was no doubt a learning experience for Dan. And we did get some more background on Nanny Rogers. Vicki, who plays Ageratum, came to the possible realization of Alistair's birth on her own, whereas I provided Dan with the possibility when I first wrote up Alistair's background at the beginning of the campaign. I hadn't counted on him making Nanny Rogers a sorcerer, but it makes sense and casts just a little more doubt onto Alistair's true parentage. Despite having been raised as a nobleman, his mother may have very well been a commoner! I guess we'll all have to see how this plays out.
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PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 9 November 2022

- - -

For once, the four adventurers were all off doing their own thing when the excitement hit. They'd jointly decided to visit the marketplace in Ghourmand Vale, but once there Ageratum excused herself and went off on her own, exploring the dark alleyways, memorizing the layouts of the major streets and the various ways one might escape pursuit (should such a thing come to be needed), and keeping an eye out for any unwary travelers who might not notice the weight of their coin purse being significantly lightened. Alistair went straight for the Dark and Light Inn, a tavern where those with spellcasting prowess met to swap tales and lore; the fledgling sorcerer had been learning quite a bit about the workings of arcane spellcasting from an older - if not particularly powerful - wizard named Blorkane. Harlan was over in front of the Shrine to Pelor, feeding the orphans who often ran amok in the streets but were always ready to stop their mischief if there was a scrap of food to be had. And Chaevaris had decided, like Ageratum, to check out the various streets and alleyways, but the elven archer chose to do it by climbing up onto a rooftop and getting a good view from a higher perch.

"I say," remarked Alistair, sipping a cordial, "I rather think that's a particularly foolish thing to do."

"Whaddayamean?" demanded Blorkane. "It's a brilliant idea! Imagine how soft and flaky the pork would be!"

"But isn't an aboleth that three-eyed fish with tentacles that mentally controls its slaves and turns them into subservient fish-men?"

"It is," Blorkane conceded, not sure where the young nobleman was going with this train of thought.

"Well, then I rather doubt magically combining the two into one creature would be a smart idea at all. Aboleths are restricted to Underdark bodies of water, yes?" Blorkane nodded his agreement. "Then we need not worry overly much about them, as long as we stay above ground, correct? But if you start magically breeding them with pigs, you run the risk of creating a pig with the powers of an aboleth, capable of running around, overcoming people's willpower, and turning them into mind-slaves. I hardly think the risk is worth it, just for some tastier pork. Maybe a better approach would be coming up with some sort of, I don't know, pork tenderizer? Or some spices?"

"Bah! You're focusing on the possible bad stuff and ignoring the potential benefits of a...a pigoleth!"

Alistair raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Is that what you're calling this monstrosity?"

"I'm not necessarily sold on it," Blorkane admitted. "Hamoleth? Porkoleth?"

Just then another voice called out, causing (not without some amount of relief) Alistair's conversation with Blorkane to come to a halt. "Help me! Help me!" the voice cried. "They're gonna eat me!"

Naturally, this drew everyone's attention to the person doing the screaming. It was a man in dark studded leather armor, with a rapier and a dagger at his belt but both still sitting in their scabbards. He came rushing into the marketplace from a side alley, screaming in terror and pushing people and carts aside as they got in his way. Chaevaris could see the man quite clearly from the rooftop; curious as to what could be causing the man (who seemed somehow familiar to the archer) such fright, the elf glanced back down the man's wake and saw two supple women following him determinedly. They each wore brown leggings and sandals, with tight vests and no visible weapons Chaevaris could see. The women slowed down and got their bearings, as if quite surprised to find themselves in a crowded marketplace. Glancing silently at one another, they seemed to reach some sort of unspoken consensus and mingled quietly with the crowd, breaking off down a back alley when the opportunity presented itself. Chaevaris tracked them visually by their dark black hair until they passed behind a building and were hidden from the archer's keen sight.

The panic-stricken man, however, seemed to have no idea the two women were no longer following. Leaving a trail of overturned carts behind him, he rushed through the crowds and ended up heading for the outdoor eating area of the Dark and Light Inn, where he and Alistair locked eyes and immediately recognized each other. "You!" each called out, but the other man begged to the young sorcerer, "Please! You've got to save me!"

"I don't acknowledge the requirement," Alistair said stiffly, rising up from his chair and looking to see who might be following Beaufort "Shambles" Maguffin, the low-level thief they're had a run-in with up in Mirtek, when he and his band had ended up with the ceremonial Pelorian armor Harlan had turned into the church there, only to have had it stolen from underneath it by cohorts of this Shambles fellow. Try as he might, the sorcerer could see nobody trailing after the thief - although quite a few merchants were shaking their fists at him (or engaging in other one-handed gestures) as they picked up the wares he'd tossed aside in his panic. "Save you from who, exactly?" Alistair asked, puzzled.

"Two women - part of his, his harem or his band of loyal followers, I dunno! They'll eat me alive, like they did to Callie! Oh, poor Callie!" Without asking, Shambles grabbed up the glass of cordial from Alistair's table and drank it down to steady his nerves. Blorkane decided now would be a good time to go replenish his own drink and wandered off inside the tavern's interior, leaving Alistair to deal with this crazy man he apparently knew from elsewhere.

"Perhaps you'd better start from the beginning," suggested Alistair, frowning down at his empty glass.

Shambles complied as best he could, but his tale was a somewhat rambling account, and he told it while looking all around him nervously. Apparently, he and a bunch of his gang from Mirtek decided to come try their fortunes in Ghourmand Vale. Shambles insisted on giving Alistair a full list of his teammates: besides the aforementioned Callie the elven rogue, there was apparently the leader of the bunch, one Dalton Bunge; a rather sinister elf named Elway; one Mabel Trant; a fighter named Patterson; a half-elf bard named Balatray who seemed to be a particularly close friend of his; and a pair of dwarven twins named Burkin and Pitkin. They had all been on the road to Ghourmand Vale when suddenly...they were on a different road entirely, in a land with a hotter clime. (Alistair, whose eyes had been glazing over during the recitation of Shambles' friends and cohorts in crime, started picking up interest in the tale now that he recognized them as having passed through a planar gate like the one his own group had encountered while checking out the Slippery Shaft Mines.) And sure enough, they were brought before Jasgund Singh, who, over the course of the next three weeks, had enticed most of Dalton Bunge's group into joining his own forces. This all came to a head at a banquet Shambles had attended just minutes ago, when Callie had finally decided she'd had enough and wasn't going to be a part of Jasgund's group.

"It was horrible!" Shambles wailed. "This Jasgund, he had a wicked smile on his face, and he just gave a little nod and just like that, everyone was grabbing at poor Callie! They pulled her onto the table, and they ripped at her clothes and they ripped at her flesh, and they started eating her! One of Singh's men, he cut open Callie's chest and pulled out her heart, and tossed it into a goblet and presented it to Jasgund, and he said something about how she was too faint-hearted but even faint hearts served their purpose, and then he turned into a tiger, and started eating her heart, and all of my men - well, most of them - started ripping off chunks of Callie's flesh and they were eating her, and me and Balatray, we just got up and started running, and there were people chasing us, and we got separated, and I dunno where Balatray went but all of a sudden I was here in this marketplace, and--"

"Okay, okay, slow down," soothed Alistair. "Whoever these women were who were chasing you, it doesn't look like they're here now, so you're safe." Alistair still couldn't stand the low-life blubbering there before him, but he could at least acknowledge he'd been put through an emotional wringer. By now, Harlan had seen the ruckus and had sent the orphans inside the shrine while he ambled over to the Dark and Light Inn to see what all Alistair was dealing with. Ageratum had headed over as well, having recognized Shambles from her own previous associations with him. Whatever trouble he was in now, she had no doubt it was something he'd brought on himself. Harlan focused his attention upon Shambles' aura, and was somewhat surprised to see it was not suffused in evil.

But then a cawing alerted Alistair's attention and he looked up to the top of the little shed in the back of the open-air dining area in which he and Shambles were talking. Ambrose, his grackle familiar, was atop the roof and looking to the south. "We've got incoming," the grackle informed his master in their special language. "Two women, to the south."

Alistair spun in place to look at where his familiar had indicated the women were approaching from, and that drew Shambles' gaze that way as well. "It's them!" he cried aloud, drawing the women's stares directly at him. As one, they smiled silently, as if pleased to have once again caught sight of their prey. Shambles drew both of his blades, wielding them in shaking hands. Without any fear of looking cowardly, he cowered behind Harlan. The paladin unsheathed his own sword and set its blade aflame, ready for action.

Without changing her stride in the least, the closest of the two women - changed. Her skin, already darker than that of those around her, darkened further and sprouted fur, while her face elongated, her nose and mouth extending out into a short muzzle, her ears moving higher up the sides of her head as her long, black hair receded into the striped fur now covering her head. Her body was still that of the human woman she had at first appeared to be - and she wore the same items of clothing she had worn into the marketplace - but it was quite obvious this was no human woman striding forward to reach Shambles - it was a weretiger in hybrid form. Gurpeet gave a little growl of anticipation in her throat as she advanced.

"Evil?" Alistair asked Harlan, although he has fairly certain he already knew the answer.

"Evil, both of them," the half-elf paladin confirmed.

Chaevaris hadn't been able to hear the conversation going on below, but didn't feel the need to know much else beyond "woman turned into a weretiger and is heading towards my friends with likely evil intent." An arrow came streaking down from the archer's bow to hit the weretiger in the side, but it seemed to bounce right off her hide without effect - and it had been a sleep arrow as well, so if it had penetrated Gurpeet's flesh there would have been a blast of magical energy that might have put her to sleep. The lack of such a burst informed Chaevaris the arrow had had no effect whatsoever. For the first time, Chaevaris regretted not having picked up any silver-tipped arrows, for the archer knew from stories passed down from the family that silver was anathema to most lycanthropes.

Harlan's assurances kept Alistair from feeling bad as he pulled out his wand of magic missile and sent a burst of five missiles at one of the two approaching women, but his own upbringing caused him to target Gurpeet rather than her companion Gurleen, who still wore the form of a human woman. Somehow, it just didn't seem right to fire a combat spell at a woman who had yet to attack them, yet it wasn't as bad shooting a tiger-woman. After all, even if she hadn't attacked anybody either, her mere appearance was causing quite an uproar among the marketplace members, as shoppers ran away from the tiger-monster and merchants abandoned their own wares to save their own lives.

As Ambrose flew from the top of the shed to the top of the tavern - it was further away from the pair of Jasgund's followers, and the grackle had an instinctive fear of anything cat-related - Ageratum scuttled over to the shadows behind the shed, waiting for the two women to pass. She had a kobold half-spear at the ready to throw at whichever one was closest.

Gurleen shifted form as well, and now there were two obvious weretiger hybrids in the marketplace. But while she shifted form she sprinted forward, showing incredible speed as she made a bee-line for Shambles. She had to pass by Harlan to get to her prey, and the paladin wasted no opportunities to bring his flaming burst longsword crashing into her side. She snarled in hatred at the paladin, seemingly more angered at he flame of his blade than at the blade itself, for as Harlan examined where he'd hit her there was no cut, merely a burn mark where the fire had struck her. He spun in place and struck her again, and this time the momentum of his movement allowed the sword to cut into her a bit. Harlan was glad to see although these weretigers had an impressive amount of natural protection against physical wounds, they weren't impervious! it would just be a matter of time to take them down.

Shambles thrust his own weapons out at Gurleen, missing with his dagger but hitting her with his rapier - but not, alas, with enough force to pierce her thick pelt. Gurpeet, in the meantime, went after Harlan as he seemed to be an obstacle in her way to get to the man Lord Jasgund wanted dead. But as she leapt at the paladin, she was hit in the side by Ageratum's thrown halfspear. It wasn't silver-coated or anything, but the halfling's knowledge about where to strike to deal the most damage came in handy, for in hybrid form a weretiger's vital organs were in the same place as they were in human form, which worked to Ageratum's advantage. The pain of the spear wound was enough to distract Gurpeet enough that her claws missed Harlan completely.

The fight was now spreading out of the inn's outdoor eating area and into the streets beyond. Leaping over to an adjacent roof, Chaevaris had a better vantage point of the two weretigers. Out came another arrow - a standard one, not a sleep arrow - and the archer started lining up a shot against one of the weretigers, aiming at a point for maximum damage.

Harlan channeled holy energy through his longsword and sent a smite evil slash of his blade at Gurpeet. Once again, the damage from the blade itself was minimal, but the heat from the flames and the holy power seemed to have an effect, as the weretiger once again snarled in pain and anger. Alistair sent another blast from his wand over to Gurpeet, wanting to aid his friend Harlan more than he felt it necessary to keep Shambles safe. At least magic missile spells dealt with force energy, which was powerful enough to affect targets no matter how thick their pelts.

"Ageratum! Silversheen!" Chaevaris called down from the rooftop perch, still aiming at the weretiger target of choice. Ageratum held the vial of silversheen the group had discovered in the wizard's house where they'd fought the barghest, and if the elven archer was suggesting she use it, Ageratum was more than willing to trust it was a smart move. She quickly pulled out her masterwork short sword and applied a coating to its blade. Then she moved forward, to flank the weretiger attacking Shambles. She snorted in disdain at the thought of having to rescue the little idiot, who'd gotten his nickname by the way all of his plans seemed to fall apart.

Gurleen went into a flurry of motion, striking out at Shambles with claws and teeth too fast for the slow-witted thief to be able to stop. One set of claws ripped at his throat and he fell backwards, conking his head on the cobblestones as he lost consciousness. But while the blow might have been a lethal one otherwise, within the proximity of Harlan's Blood Mirror his wounds sealed up and he remained stable, near death but not in any danger of crossing that line.

Gurpeet went into a similar frenzy against Harlan, and while he was able to avoid her bite - the most dangerous of her attacks, he was well aware, for its ability to transmit the curse of lycanthropy to her victims, although as a paladin he was personally immune - her claws ripped into him, digging in deep. He stumbled a few steps backwards under the effects of the attacks, blood streaming through the seams in his armor where she'd cut him. He was forced to use his new-found ability to cast actual spells to heal some of the damage he'd just taken by casting a cure light wounds spell upon himself. But, having expended the only spell he was capable of casting that day, Harlan was well aware he would not survive many other attacks of that nature.

Chaevaris continued aiming at Gurpeet but did not yet let loose the readied arrow. Alistair, having heard Chaevaris calling down the suggestion to use silver weapons against the weretigers, recalled he had been given a silver dagger of his own. He pulled it out of his scabbard with his left hand, but knew full well his own skill with the weapon would not allow him to deal as much damage as he could do with his wand. Still, it looked like Harlan could use a breather, so Alistar moved over in front of the paladin and waved the silver dagger about, hoping to distract Gurpeet's attention away from the half-elf. To help focus her attention away, he blasted her in the face with another charge from his wand of magic missile, which he realized he was starting to get rather dependent upon, for it dealt a lot more damage than he was capable of dealing himself at this level in his adventuring career.

Ageratum, in the meantime, sent the silvered blade of her short sword deep into the back of Gurleen, who was standing over the downed Shambles. But while she dropped to her knees as a result of the attack, it wasn't solely for that reason - she'd also wanted to drop her muzzle down to Shambles' unprotected neck, and she did just that, ripping out his throat with her impressive set of feline fangs. Blood flowed from Shambles' neck in such quantities there was no denying he was dead, far beyond the Blood Mirror's ability to stabilize.

Unfortunately, Alistair's attempts at drawing Gurpeet away from Harlan were unsuccessful, as the werebeast continued focusing her attention upon the paladin. She managed to graze him with one set of claws, enough to cause him considerable pain but not enough to drop him - nor enough to get him to back down from a fight against evil. In fact, he summoned up his reserves and channeled a second smite evil surge of holy power through his flaming blade, catching her for a decent amount of damage. And then Chaevaris finally released the arrow and it sank into Gurpeet's shoulder, causing her to hiss in additional pain.

But by now both weretigers were looking to be fighting on the last dregs of their own strength. Taking a gamble, Alistair fired off another shot from his wand, this time splitting up the magic missiles such that one hit Gurpeet - the most ragged-looking of the two - while the other four went streaking over to strike Gurleen. The sorcerer had guessed correctly, for both werebeasts collapsed to the cobblestones, unconscious and reverting back to their human forms. Ageratum went quickly to the nearest, feeling for a pulse. She nodded over at Alistair, nodding that she was still alive.

"I say!" Alistair declared. "You look quite the worse for wear, my friend!" He took Harlan by the elbow and walked him away from the others, under the shade of an overly-large umbrella atop one of the abandoned merchants' carts. He fished a potion of cure light wounds from the pouch at his belt and passed it over to the wounded paladin, all the while making surreptitious stabbing motions back at Ageratum. The halfling took the hint, slitting the throats of Jasgund's fanatical devotees, realizing neither of the two of them would ever give over any information about their terrible master, trapped in his faraway lands. By the time Harlan had opened the flask and drank down the contents, the deeds were done - the women in the brown garments and sandals were well and truly dead, and Ageratum was polishing her short sword before returning it to its scabbard.

Chaevaris had scrambled down from the rooftop and joined the others. Looking down at Shambles, the archer observed, "He's dead as well."

"No big loss there," Ageratum replied, looking over at the black, studded leather armor Shambles wore. "You think that's magical?" she asked Alistair.

A quick detect magic spell gave Alistair her answer. "It is indeed."

"I thought so - here, give me a hand getting it off of him. If it's magical, it ought to alter size to whoever's wearing it."

"Um," began Alistair, looking nervously around them to see if they were being observed; he didn't want to be seen "rolling the dead," as the slang went.

"Nobody's watching," Ageratum said, scowling. "Quit being such a worry-wart and give me a hand here!" Face red with embarrassment, Alistair pulled off Shambles' boots and tugged the leather pants down the dead thief's legs as Ageratum struggled getting the top piece over his head. She managed, but the armor was hopelessly soaked in the corpse's blood. "Clean this up for me?" she asked the sorcerer, who sighed and obligingly cast a prestidigitation spell to clean the blood from it. "Thanks!" the little halfling said, gathering up the too-large armor and scampering off into the shed to change.

By the time Harlan had found someone to summon whoever represented the forces of law and order in the area and they had finally made an appearance, Ageratum was in her new magical armor - and sure enough, it now fit her as if it had been designed for her frame. Harlan explained to the authorities that the two dead women were in fact weretigers - or had been, before they had been forced to slay them to protect the locals. Fortunately, with the combat over, many of the merchants had returned to their carts and were able to confirm the paladin's tale that these had both been tiger-women, and that one of them had slain the man lying in the street in his underclothes.

"Don't worry, I seen a lot worse than this in my day," said the weary man in charge of keeping the peace in the boomtown environment of Ghourmand Vale. He motioned to Merton Funk, the streets commissioner, and a few of his workers who'd come along to investigate the source of all the excitement. "Pack 'em up," he said and the two workers hurried to comply, wrapping them in blankets.

"I say," Alistair said to one of the workers. "What happens to them now?"

The worker snickered and replied, "You prolly don't wanna know. Just, you know, maybe don't go buying your bacon from Mistbrenner's farm if you’re particular about your vittles. Oink, oink, oink, and the problems're all gone--hah! Mister Funk here ain't too particular."

"Hey, less talk and more work!" called out Merton Funk.

"Yessir!" replied the worker, bending to his task.

Alistair realized the worker had been quite correct: he hadn't wanted to know.

- - -

This was one of our shorter sessions - not surprisingly, since it was basically just one combat encounter with some backstory ahead of time - and we were done in less than an hour and a half. It made for quite a difference from our previous session, in which Dan had used 41 different counters to represent the monsters we encountered and the other NPCs we dealt with!

Incidentally, we'll be skipping the next two Wednesday sessions, as I'll be on a business trip this week and then next week Dan and Vicki have company in for Thanksgiving. So we're planning on starting this back up on 30 November.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

Greetings! I trust you are in good health and fine voice. I have completed the first of the songs I had in mind when I presented my proposal to write lyrics you might find useful in your bardic travels; I can only hope you will find the following submission worthy enough to add to your musical repertoire. As far as remuneration goes, I leave that up to you, as I admittedly have no idea of the proper value of written lyrics; I shall of course trust a man of your standing to put a fair value upon my efforts should they prove to be of use to you. Alas, I have no training in music, so I shall leave it to you to devise the tune most appropriate to the following verses.

In any case, this first song is the tale of my good friend and the leader of our band of Trained Professional Adventurers, Harlan Starblade.

The lyrics follow:

He's got gorgeous blond locks and a friendly, knowing grin​
He's the epitome of a paladin​
He's the wistful dream of every lovely barmaid​
He's none other than the half elven Harlan Starblade​
It wasn't long ago when he first felt the call​
And he didn't need to give it very much thought at all​
Dedicated his life to helping others​
Sees the world's people as his sisters and brothers​
He went to the Temple of Pelor for training​
Soaked up the lessons that others found draining​
Mastered the longsword, wields it with ease​
His foes often find themselves weak at the knees​
Now he travels the world, going where he's needed​
Nobody's pleas for his aid go unheeded​
The undead see him and they turn and run​
For his blade burns bright with the flames of the sun​
He smites evil foes with the power of his faith​
Even foul monstrosities, be they zombie or wraith​
And the Blood Mirror helps those around him stabilize​
For he values all life, you can see it in his eyes​
So let it be said: evil-doers, you've been warned​
Harlan will bring you down, and he'll leave you unmourned​
He won't back from a challenge, be it dragon or balor​
There is just no stopping this bold paladin of Pelor​

I shall eagerly await your response as to the potential value of this first offering, and in the meantime I shall begin work on a few other songs that have come to mind.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite

- - -

My good Lordling Pastlethwaite,

I've bent the strings of my lute to the tale you've spun and believe we can indeed spin it in to a golden notoriety yielding coin, conversation and, for Harlan, admirers that will flock to his banner (or whatever else he may wave).

I will include it as part of my repertoire during my next performance.

I’m good, the song is good, and we will all be a bit richer (honestly, I’ll be a bit of a bit more richer).

Your friend and partner,




PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 30 November 2022

- - -

Mrs. Stout walked into the common room where the four adventurers had been talking. "I have a message for you," she told them, handing a sealed sheet of parchment to Harlan. "It was delivered by a knight on horseback, no less."

Harlan broke open the seal and read the contents. "We're wanted at the Stone Keep," he informed the others. "We're to meet with a Talantis Vertiver, an emissary of Celene."

"I say!" declared Alistair. "That sounds rather important." They gathered up their gear, mounted their horses, and rode off to the Stone Keep with all haste.

Once there, the heroes couldn't help but notice the improvements that had been made to the fortress over the past month. There were paladins stationed in each of the corner watchtowers, and another greeted them at the front door. The place certainly was a lot more professional-looking now that Father Kilkenny had taken over duties as the head cleric there. He was there to meet them inside the keep, introducing the heroes to a number of elven delegates from Celene. Talantis Vertiver, the leader of this group, explained the situation as they sat around the table, eating grapes and cheese and sipping from tall flutes of wine. "One of our delegates has gone missing," he explained. "Twenty days ago, one of our number, Captain Olotores Oakcrown, was sent on a four-day journey to Enstad, the capital of Selene. He carried with him a dispatch to the Enstad elves, but he never arrived."

"I say, are you all right?" Alistair asked Chaevaris, who had begun choking and coughing.

"I'm fine," the elven archer replied. "Wine went down the wrong pipe." Turning to Talantis, Chaevaris added, "Forgive me - please continue." Nobody noticed how the elf's face had whitened at the mention of the name of the missing delegate.

"Captain Oakcrown never arrived," Talantis continued. "He disappeared on the fourth day of his trip. We would like to send you along the route he took to see if you can find him. Divinations indicate he's still alive, so when you find him please return him either here to the Stone Keep or bring him to Enstad. As for the dispatch he carried, the information is already out of date, so you need not bother trying to recover it."

"Enstad's a four-day ride on horseback," Ageratum stated. "Longer if we take the wagon."

"Will we need the wagon, though?" asked Chaevaris. "We can carry what we need in our packs - we'll make better time that way." That, ultimately, was decided upon, and although Alistair was a bit disappointed his expertise as a "wagon lackey" would not be needed, he at least understood the logic behind the decision. They packed their gear, mounted their horses, and were on their way.

Several minutes on their trek, Chaevaris had come to a decision and told the others, "For the duration of this mission, I'd like you not to call me by my real name."

"Oh?" asked Harlan. "Then what should we call you?"

Thinking it over, Chaevaris finally replied, "'Kesiri Daquin Ariradh.'" It was as good a name as any. But the archer had forgotten all four of the heroes understood the Elven language, and it didn't take long before they'd translated the false name into the Common tongue. "'Elfy Danger Silverleaf?'" Ageratum asked, frowning. "Really?"

Alistair's eyes bugged out and his mouth opened in astonishment. "I knew it!" he cried. "You're the real Elfy 'Danger' Silverleaf! The books were written about your exploits!" And that opened up a floodgate of questions. "Did the author pay you for the stories? Are all of them true? In Elfy and the Owlbear of Mammoth Falls, how did you know the owlbear had a snapped-off arrow in its shoulder that was causing it pain and driving it to attack others? How come you don't ever shoot grappling hooks from your bow like that time you did in Elfy and the Rescue of the Trapped Princess?" Chaevaris thought silently, This might not have been my smartest plan....

The first three days of riding were uneventful, Chaevaris finally demanding Alistair hold all questions until they stopped for rest breaks, so they could keep an eye out for signs of the missing elf (and then giving noncommittal answers when possible). It was on the morning of the fourth day of travel - expecting to reach Enstad by the evening - that they ran into their first bit of excitement. There was frantic motion in the treetops as they rode through the forest, finally revealing itself as a raccoon, leaping from tree branch to tree branch. It had a panicked expression on its masked face, and the reason for that panic became clear when a longbowman stepped out between the trees, took careful aim, and sent an arrow shooting straight at the creature. The arrow pierced the raccoon in the left shoulder, flying straight through the creature's flesh and exiting in a spray of blood. With a cry of pain, the raccoon fell from its perch and landed in Chaevaris's lap.

The mounted archer looked down at the raccoon, who was frantically pointing to the south, then over at the longbowman approaching from the north. "It's him!" Chaevaris hissed to the others in a low whisper, before pulling on the reins and turning Talkacha away. Then, in a much deeper voice, Chaevaris informed the others, "You three deal with him! I'll take my animal companion to safety!" Kicking Talkacha's sides, the elven archer - with hood fully raised to prevent anyone from seeing any facial features - cradled the raccoon and took off as fast as the horse could go.

Ageratum pulled out her daggers, holding one in each hand as she turned her pony Munson towards the approaching elven bowman. Harlan similarly pulled the flaming burst longsword from its scabbard and held it at the ready. "Who are you?" he asked the archer, but the elf, seeing the raccoon speeding off on horseback and apparently not wanting to have to deal with these three defenders, merely lowered his bow and turned back the way he'd come, running between the trees. Realizing they wouldn't be able to follow him on horseback through the tightly-packed trees, Harlan let him go.

"I say, was that him? Captain Oakcrown?" Alistair asked.

"That's what Chaevaris said."

"What's gotten into him, anyway?" Ageratum asked. "Hood up, fake name, deep voice - it's like he doesn't want this Oakcrown guy to recognize him."

"Let's go find out," Harlan answered, turning Law in the direction Chaevaris had run off. The others followed, and they found their errant archer a quarter mile distant, Talkacha standing still in a clearing. The reason for the stop became apparent when the raccoon wildshaped back into his true form: an elven druid. He touched his wounded shoulder and applied a healing spell to it.

"Thank you," the druid said, introducing himself as Ralandane Elbart. "I am a local druid of these woods."

"Why is Captain Oakcrown trying to kill you?" Chaevaris asked.

"He was told to. I first saw him over two weeks ago, riding a stallion. Then a beautiful elven woman stepped onto the road before him, smiling, and he stopped, dismounted, and walked away with her. They went to a cottage in the woods not too far from here. That cottage is right in the middle of a lot of strangeness going on in the woods here, and that woman is behind it somehow, I think. There were others with her at the cottage, too many for me to be able to handle on my own. But I was spotted, and the woman sent the archer to kill me, and he's been doing his level best ever since to do just that. I wildshape when I can to try to throw him off, but he's always picked up my trail."

"The elven woman has probably charmed Oakcrown into subservience," Alistair mused. "She may even be dominating him."

"Or he could just be a colossal jerk," Chaevaris opined, "doing whatever a hot piece of elven tail asks him to."

"Regardless, we were sent to fetch him," Harlan pointed out. He turned to Ralandane. "Can you lead us to this cottage?" he asked. The druid was more than capable, taking them via a winding method that had them approaching the cottage from a different angle than if they had just followed Oakcrown's path. They tied their mounts' reins to trees several hundred feet from the cottage, where Ralandane offered to stay and watch over them. "I don't wish to be charmed like he was," the druid confessed. "But I do have some spells prepared that could be of use."

After explaining what spells he could cast on the others to aid them in any combat situations that might arise, the group decided to have Harlan be the recipient of both the bear's endurance and barkskin spells Ralandane had prepared. The druid warned the group there could be as many as four people in the cottage, possibly even more: the woman, who seemed to be in charge; Captain Oakcrown; a half-elf with a lute; and another elf who carried a battleaxe but wore no armor. At Ageratum's questioning, he offered up he hadn't ever seen any evidence of any guard dogs.

"Good," the halfling replied. "Dogs can be a real pain."

Alistair spoke a few words to Ambrose in their own special language, and the grackle flapped off the sorcerer's shoulder to do a reconnaissance flight around the cottage. After a few minutes, the bird alit back upon Alistair's shoulder and reported what he'd seen. Alistair, in turn, translated the grackle's findings for the others. "The front door is the only way in," he said. "There are four windows: one on either side of the front door, and one each on the east and west sides, each over by the front of the cottage. The windows have shutters, all of which are open, and the windows are glass, covered with a wooden latticework. Ambrose doesn't think they open. He saw two people inside: the woman, sitting on a sofa directly across from the front door, and the bard playing the lute by her side. Oh, and Captain Oakcrown is perched on a branch in a tree off to the east of the cottage, standing guard."

"That's only three accounted for," Harlan observed. "Any sign of the fighter with the sword?"

Alistair conferred with Ambrose. "He didn't see him," Alistair said. "He might be in the back of the cottage. There are two hanging curtains on the north wall of the entry room, where the lady's listening to the music being played by the half-elf, which likely lead to the back half of the building. Or, he might not even be present - maybe he's off on some other errand for her."

Harlan gave it some thought. "We'll need to avoid the east side," he said. "I was hoping to be able to move in using a pincer formation, but if there's no back door, that's out." Harlan could definitely pick up a single source of evil in the room, sensing it even through the wooden wall of the structure.

Eventually they struck up a plan, focused upon taking out the elven woman as quickly as possible, and hoping that the others were merely charmed into doing her bidding - and furthermore, that with her out (either unconscious or dead), she'd no longer be able to control her unwilling minions. Three of the heroes made a long arc around to the west side of the cottage, quietly approaching it from that side and staying low beneath the window. Ageratum scooted around to the front door and examined the knob; without touching it, she could tell it was unlocked and it didn't look to be trapped. Harlan came over by her side, longsword out and ready, although he had mentally shut off the flames of his blade, so as not to cause flickering light that Oakcrown might be able to notice, even if his vantage point from his perch did not include the front door. Alistair and Ambrose waited by the western window, and with a quietly cast spell, Ogilvy joined them. Alistair handed a fist-sized rock to his unseen servant and was about to explain the plan when he realized it wasn't necessary - Ogilvy would perform as his master directed, when mentally commanded to do so. Alistair cast a touch of idiocy spell on his familiar, with directions for Ambrose to go set it off by touching the elven woman, whom Alistair suspected was some sort of wizard or sorcerer herself. Chaevaris, in the meantime, remained over at their original location, where the archer could get a bead on Captain Oakcrown, who was apparently unaware of being targeted down a readied arrow's shaft.

The signal to attack was Ogilvy's smashing of a diagonal section of glass in the western latticed window. Once the unseen servant had done just that, Alistair pushed Ambrose through the opening with one hand while he pushed his wand of magic missile into the opening shortly thereafter, to get off a blast at the woman while Ambrose's triggered spell (with luck) reduced her mental faculties, hopefully to the point she'd be unable to cast some of her more powerful spells. At the same time, Ageratum pushed open the front door, allowing Harlan to charge into the room, igniting his blade as he channeled a smite evil attack through his sword. And Ageratum threw one of her kobold spears at the woman as well.

All of this went off, but not entirely exactly as planned. As Ambrose flapped across the room to deliver the touch of idiocy spell on the woman, he was blasted by a sudden bolt of force that sent a few feathers flying from his wings. An elven sorcerer, who until that moment had been standing invisibly to the west of the woman, suddenly popped into view when he cast the magic missile spell at the intruding grackle. Fortunately, the bird, although sent off course by the power of the blast, regained his momentum in an instant and managed to touch a wing to the woman's hair, sending the spell flashing into her body. Even better, the spell was fully successful, as evidenced by her shocked reaction as it took its full effect, slightly reducing her mental faculties. Ambrose flapped around the room, finally alighting in a corner where he hoped to remain out of the way until he could exit through the front door.

Harlan's charge was also successful, but he had a harder time getting to his target than he had intended. As soon as he stepped into the cottage, his mind was bombarded by a spell cast by the half-elven bard, and the paladin had to force himself not to drop his plan altogether and just laugh at the whole ridiculousness of the situation. Fortunately, he was able to suppress the effects of the Tasha's hideous laughter spell and all that slipped past his lips was a stifled giggle. But the woman had also apparently been ready for the paladin's charge, for he could feel her presence in the back of his mind, telling him to stop his attack and protect her at all cost, even if it meant fighting his former friends. His will was strong enough to overcome that attempt as well, and he finished his charge, channeling additional holy power through his flaming burst longsword - which he'd mentally reignited during his charge across the room - and the blade cut into her side, causing her to shriek in pain. Her pain was compounded by the blast from Alistair's wand sticking through the gap in the window; it would have been compounded even further from the thrown halfspear, but Ageratum's throw was slightly off.

Outside the cabin, Chaevaris heard Oglivy's smashing of the window glass and fired off the arrow being held at the ready. It crossed the clearing and buried itself in his right thigh. He grunted in pain and released his own arrow, which struck Chaevaris in the upper part of the left arm. But Chaevaris clamped down on any pain, not wanting to give Oakcrown the satisfaction of knowing he'd caused any pain to his target.

Inside the cottage, the half-elf bard dropped his lute and charged at Harlan for having the audacity to strike his beloved mistress with his flaming sword. His dagger cut into the paladin's side, but the worst of the blow was deflected by Harlan's armor. And then, with the rustling of the easternmost curtain, another figure entered the fray: the elven fighter with the battleaxe and no armor which Ralandane had warned the heroes about. He likewise raced to attack Harlan, but the paladin was able to avoid the swinging axe with ease.

Alistair cast a scorching ray at the elven woman, pointing his finger through the opening in the window. But his spell went wide, striking the wall behind her instead of its real target. Alistair voiced an uncharacteristic curse; he'd hoped his spell would have brought her down, for she truly looked to be on her last legs. Perhaps this was a valuable lesson on the difficulties in casting at a target from outside the building in which she stood.

Suddenly, Alistair's view of his target was blocked by Moonstone, the sorcerer who'd blasted Ambrose. He had a wand of his own and positioned himself so he could use it on Harlan without harming his own allies. Voicing the command word, a sheet of flames spread out from the tip of the wand: burning hands, Alistair realized. He grinned as he realized that wand would be his if they took these foes out. Harlan barely even noticed the sudden burst of flame from his left, even as they warmed that side of his armor. He was, instead, focused upon his own attacks, which ignored the bard and the fighter at his side and sent the blade of his flaming burst longsword, imbued with holy energy from Pelor, crashing into the side of the elven woman who the paladin's senses revealed as the only source of evil inside the entire room. She screamed her final shriek of defiance as she fell to the floor, dead beyond the Blood Mirror's ability to prevent.

The effects of the woman's death were instantaneous. As had been hoped, the others in the room - Moonstone, the bard, and the battleaxe-wielding fighter - all shook their head as if awakening from a bout of sleepwalking. Harlan immediately deactivated the flames from his blade and held the sword and his other hand up before him, showing them he was no longer in a fighting stance. "We mean you no harm," he told them.

"Nor we you," answered the elven fighter, lowering his battleaxe.

Outside the cottage, however, things were continuing on as before. Chaevaris sent another arrow flying at Oakcrown, thudding into the side of the trunk of the tree in which he was perched. He let loose with another arrow of his own, the tip of the arrowhead catching the side of Chaevaris's cheek as it flew past. Oakcrown then dropped from the tree, pulled the arrow from his leg, and limped away in the opposite direction from the cottage.

Chaevaris yelled, "It's definitely off!" in Elven at Oakcrown's back.

"You bet it is!" Oakcrown called back over his shoulder in the same language. "I don't want anything to do with such a*tty shooter!" However, his continued limp gave silent evidence to Chaevaris's actual marksmanship skills.

"Hey, wait," Ageratum called over to the others. "Oakcrown's leaving again - aren't we supposed to be bringing him in?"

"We are," Harlan replied, stepping outside the cottage and seeing Captain Oakcrown and Chaevaris rooted in their respective spots, engaged in calling each other names in their native tongue.

"Elitist bastard!"

"Dung-eating common rabble!"

"Pompous, self-important blowhard!"

"Flat-chested, unappealing peasant!"

Eventually, Harlan was able to get them to quit their name-calling and appeal to Oakcrown's sense of duty by informing him they'd been sent by Talantis Vertiver to discover his whereabouts and the reason he hadn't completed his dispatch mission. A look of shame crept over the elven Captain's face as he realized his dereliction - unwilling as it might have been - had impacted the nation of Celene. Without another word, he limped over back towards the cottage, studiously avoiding Chaevaris's gaze.

But while Alistair was mentally running their elven words back in his mind (he read Elven with a much faster speed and a better comprehension than he did when hearing it spoken aloud), Ageratum had followed along with the insults perfectly fine and realized the import of Oakcrown's final barb. She strode up to Chaevaris and said, "You're an elven woman?"

Chaevaris looked down at her diminutive companion. Of her three cohorts in the adventuring business, Ageratum was the closest in age and the one she least considered to be a child. "Yes," she finally admitted. The halfling smiled and offered her fist for a fist bump, which Chaevaris half-heartedly gave.

Ageratum spun and faced Alistair. "Did you know?" she demanded.

Alistair's mind was just now catching up to the revelations. "I-- well-- yes, of course, I realized immediately," he stammered. "I just...figured there must be a good reason why Chaevaris was masquerading as a man, and so I--" Then a sudden realization hit him, one more devastating to him than the fact he'd merely assumed Chaevaris, with her short hair and slight build, had been male. "You're not the real Elfy 'Danger' Silverleaf!" he cried.

Chaevaris just shook her head sadly. "Child," she sighed.

But then any further discussion was pre-empted when Moonstone informed the group there was an elven girl downstairs in the cabin. "She had us grab her the other night," he admitted. "See, she's not really - well, wasn't really an elf; that was just one of her forms." He explained she was a foxwoman, a form of lycanthrope who abducted children and passed on her shapeshifting abilities to the next generation in that fashion. "She referred to it as a 'wedding,'" Moonstone further explained. "She was planning on turning the little girl into a foxwoman like herself tonight."

Harlan led the group through the curtain (which led to a kitchen), and from there down a set of stairs which led to the foxwoman's bedroom. There they found the elven girl, looking to Alistair's human eyes as if she were a mere six or eight years old, asleep in the bed. There were no restraints keeping her in place, as she'd already been charmed into accepting her new life with her new "mother." Ralandane, once he was brought to the cottage, recognized the girl and promised to return her to her family.

However, at Ageratum's insistence, the heroes gave the lower level a full exploration and the crafty halfling discovered a hidden door in the wall which led to a natural cave opening beneath the cottage. It smelled of old bones and rotting meat, and sure enough it was the foxwoman's den for the times when she wore a fox's form. But of more importance to Ageratum were the three chests stacked against the back wall of the cave; after determining they weren't trapped, she opened each one, revealing a large quantity of coins and gems. She also found a pearl-handled dagger with a silver blade, which would serve the halfling perfectly well as a short sword. A detect magic spell cast by Alistair confirmed it carried a dweomer that increased the wielder's combat prowess and effectiveness. He also uncovered the magical nature of one of the candles in the bathing room, which, when lit, cast a calm emotions effect. "Nice haul!" Ageratum enthused, figuring after taking the pearl-handled dagger out of the equation, there was the equivalent of about four thousand pieces of gold in treasure for each of the four heroes.

As Ralandane took the elven girl back to her family and the other formerly charmed victims of the foxwoman each went their separate ways, Olotores Oakcrown went to fetch his horse, promising to return. While he was gone, Ageratum pressed Chaevaris for details. "So what's the deal with you two?" she asked.

Chaevaris sighed. "Olotoris and I trained in archery together," she explained. "My parents were quite taken with him, and arranged a marriage between us. I wanted nothing to do with marrying him, so I took the opportunity of signing on with a caravan taking me 19 days away from Greyhawk City, thinking I'd never have to deal with him again. Apparently, he had similar feelings about the prospect of marrying me." Looking down at her elven chain mail armor, hanging flat from her shoulders and undisturbed by even the slightest hint of a breast, she added, "After all, my sister Ennala was the one with the traditional feminine elven good looks. Had I known he had no interest...."

"Had you known that," Alistair interjected, "you'd never had met up with us, Elfy, and think how sad a life that would have been!" Then, seeing Chaevaris's scowl and properly chastised, he lowered his eyes and amended his statement with, "I mean, Miss Noarunal."

"That's a little better," Chaevaris admitted. Maybe these "children" could be trained after all....

- - -

So, a dozen adventures in and we finally got to Chaevaris's big secret. Logan had decided on running a female elf archer but decided his PC was going to look very much like a male - flat chest, short hair, not much of a feminine figure - because he thought it would make for a good surprise to drop on the other players later in the campaign. However, I'm the one who made the initiative cards for the PCs, and when I saw the image Logan had chosen for Chaevaris I commented on how he looked like a girl. (I had naturally assumed Logan would be running a male PC, since in all of our campaigns thus far the players had all played PCs matching their own genders.) And when I heard the limited backstory he was willing to tell me - that Chaevaris was just looking for a reason to get far away from Greyhawk City - I jokingly asked if he was running away from an arranged marriage. Seeing the crestfallen expression on his face (and probably assuming I'd picked up more than I did, given our similar "mental wavelengths"), he told me the full story and just asked that I keep it from the other players.

So, I not only did just that, but as I started writing up this Story Hour I deliberately avoided using any pronouns when describing Chaevaris. It was never "he picked up an arrow and placed it in his bow," it was always "the elf picked up an arrow and put it in place in the bow" - the only exceptions being when any of the other PCs were talking about Chaevaris. In those instances, I allowed myself to use "he" and "him" if that's how Ageratum, Alistair, or Harlan would describe their archer companion. Now, I no longer have to worry about such linguistical contortions, which is a bit of a relief. Of course, Alistair will now be referring to Chaevaris as "Miss Noarunal" as that's how he was brought up.

Incidentally, at the end of this session Logan informed us "Chaevaris" in Elven is a unisex name (like Drew or Jordan); when pronounced "Shuv-air-us" (which is how he pronounces it for his PC) it's considered feminine, but when pronounced "Shay-vair-us" it's considered masculine. Kind of like Michael and Michele, I suppose, although I do know of several female Michaels.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

Attached please find another song I have penned in my free time between living the life of a Trained Professional Adventurer. This one deals with the female member of our little group, Miss Ageratum Purslane.

The lyrics follow:

Ageratum Purslane came over from the Fairy Land​
Made her way to Greyhawk, joined up with a merry band​
She isn't very tall, she's the size of a six-year-old kid​
But she's got a bosom like no human child ever did​
Ageratum Purslane wields a short sword just her size​
If he bends down, she can stab a fellow 'tween the eyes​
If he refuses, and stands as tall as he can be​
It won't make a difference: she's got a kobold spear or three​
Ageratum Purslane truly has a heart of gold​
(She's also got an eye for it, if the truth be told)​
Rescued two young girls from kobolds who were seeking meals​
But watch her, for it's not just hearts that she often steals​
Ageratum Purslane is quite deadly in a fight​
She knows where to strike a foe so it hits just right​
Don't make the mistake of underestimating her​
Or she'll strike you dead, it'll be too late for hating her​
Ageratum Purslane disables traps with ease​
And she makes her way through locked doors quick as you might please​
In a band of heroes she certainly pulls her weight​
(But don't ask how much she weighs - that idea's not great!)​
Ageratum Purslane's armor is equipped with studs​
And she can really hold her own when she's drinking suds​
Despite her small size, she can drink you under the table​
Probably due to magic - she's a halfling right out of a fable​
Ageratum Purslane's a figure filled with mystery​
Nobody truly knows her full history​
Just how did she gain these impressive combat fighting skills?​
And how high a number's needed to count up all her kills?​
Ageratum Purslane's classy, confident, and cute​
A Trained Professional Adventurer, to boot​
The man who ever wins her heart is in for quite a treat​
But if he ever breaks that heart, hope he is quite fleet!​

I hope this one also meets with your approval and will enhance your current repertoire of tavern songs.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite

- - -



PC Roster:
Ageratum Purslane, halfling rogue 5​
Alastair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite, human sorcerer 5​
Chaevaris Noarunal, elf archer 5​
Harlan Starblade, half-elf paladin 5​

Game Session Date: 14 December 2022

- - -

After turning Captain Oakcrown over to the Enstad government officials, the four heroes spent a bit of time checking out the Enstad shops. Chaevaris picked up a quiver of Ehlonna and a variety of different types of arrows, but the group quickly found the more time they spent in town, the more veiled looks they were getting from the town's citizens; apparently Oakcrown had wasted little time in bad-mouthing his former training partner and her adventuring companions. As one, they decided the sooner they were back on the road to Ghourmand Vale, the better.

Fortunately, their four-day trek back towards the Vale was uneventful. When they dismounted at the Stout farm and went into the farmhouse, Mrs. Stout handed Alistair a sealed piece of folded parchment. "This was delivered for you," she said.

Opening the letter, Alistair found it had been penned by Holyrood Carp, the bard for whom he'd recently been writing songs. "He's performing at the Dark and Light Club," the sorcerer told the others. "We're invited to watch his act." Skimming over the rest of the brief missive, he added, "Oh! And he's gotten a lot of positive feedback on the Harlan song. He'll be performing the Ageratum song for the first time tonight." That was reason enough to make the two-hour journey to the town of Ghourmand Vale after eight straight days of travel. But first, they availed themselves of a home-cooked lunch by Mrs. Stout - well appreciated after more than a week eating on the trail.

The Dark and Light Club had been undergoing some renovations since the last time the group had been there - there was now a second story that hadn't been there before. As Alistair had been a steady customer at the club, picking the brains of the wizards and sorcerers who spent much of their spare time there, learning what he could about the ins and outs of spellcasting, he was recognized by the workers there and allowed to check the place out. The upper story was mostly a balcony overlooking the tables facing the stage; the spiral staircase was over in the southeast corner and there was dumbwaiter leading to the kitchen below along the western wall. According to Carp's letter, they had a box reserved along the balcony for the evening's act.

With several hours to kill, the group picked up a few potions from a wizard's cart and ate a supper in one of the eating establishments that had sprung up all over the boomtown. But they were back at the Dark and Light Club in time for the performance, in full gear - for one never knew when combat would erupt; the last time they'd spent time here they'd been attacked by weretigers. They made their way up the stairs and took their seats. There was some sort of illusion in place just outside the balcony seats, too (not surprising in a club run by retired wizards): looking out over the balcony, it appeared as if those seated were on the shore of a dark lake with still waters, flanked by a forest of thick trees in the distance. It was a quite impressive illusion, but as the time for the performance came near, the waters of the illusory lake started clearing and the group could see Holyrood Carp on the stage below, as well as the tables where the audience sat. Alistair was glad to see the seats were almost all filled; Carp had managed practically a full house.

"Hey, that's Kasselban!" Ageratum said, pointing down at the dwarven head of the Slippery Shaft Mines in the audience below. He was being served a full mug of ale by one of the good-looking women who worked for the club.

Harlan spotted a few other people in the crowd below that they knew: Macrell Slade, the head of the town guard; Merton Fink, the head of the public works who was responsible for hauling away trash (as well as dead bodies); and Caraban Monteison, head of the Merchant Guild. "Hmmm," he murmured to himself, frowning.

"What is it?" asked Chaevaris.

"The serving girl down there by Funk and the others," he said. "Does she look familiar to you?"

Chaevaris squinted down into the dark level below. The serving girl was just that: a girl, maybe as old as fifteen but surely no older; much younger than the other waitresses bringing drinks to the patrons before Carp began his set. She did look somewhat familiar, but where had she seen her before? Then it hit her: "She's that vampire spawn we fought in Shambles' bar up in Mitrek!" she hissed to Harlan.

"I say!" piped up Alistair, peering down at the group below and trying to make out the young waitress; it didn't help that he had no elven heritage like Chaevaris or Harlan to enable him to see better in dim lighting. "Is she evil?"

Harlan focused his paladin senses on the group below. While he picked up slight readings from a few of them - likely indicating a leaning towards greediness or a willingness to screw over a neighbor to ensure a personal advantage - the young waitress's aura blazed with evil. "Absolutely," Harlan answered. "It's her."

"Her name was Carly," Ageratum piped up. She, at least, had remembered the vampire's name.

"What shall we do?" Alistair asked. "We can't very well go shooting arrows or scorching ray spells down into a crowded bar area." But the moment had passed in any case, for Carly, after placing drinks upon the table of the movers and shakers of Ghourmand Vale, departed back to the kitchen area, directly below the balcony.

"We need to check her out!" Ageratum answered. She made her way to the dumbwaiter cabinet, opened the door, and saw that the device was down on the ground level. Still, as a halfling, that posed little problem for her: she crawled into the opening and slid down the rope, landing upon the top of the dumbwaiter. Taking out one of her daggers, she pried a few boards loose from the dumbwaiter's roof and peeked into the kitchen area. Carly had just opened a back door to the alley behind the club and walked outside.

Alistair, Harlan, and Chaevaris took the spiral stairs back down to the ground level, the sorcerer indicating to the bartender behind the bar that he needed to go into the kitchen and the other two were with him. The bartender gave a "thumbs up" indicating he was okay with it, and the three went through the kitchen door, to find Ageratum climbing out of the dumbwaiter. "We'll need to hammer the roof boards back in place," she told them, then went over to the back door, sliding it open a crack and peeking outside. "She went out this way," Ageratum told the others.

Carly was about 30 feet down the side alley, talking to a commoner. He bent down, picked up a dead body, and passed it over to Carly; it was a blond woman dressed like the waitresses back in the club. Carly shifted her over her shoulder, her vampiric status making her much stronger than she looked. Then she continued on down the street while her conspirator took off in another direction.

"We follow," announced Harlan, stepping outside and heading in the direction Carly had taken. Chaevaris did more than that; taking one of her newly-purchased silver-headed arrows from her quiver of Ehlonna, she placed it in her longbow, took careful aim, and sent the arrow flying across the distance to land with a "thunk" into Carly's back.

"Ow!" cried Carly, turning about to see who had just attacked her. Alistair took the opportunity to fire a blast from his wand of magic missiles at her face, causing her to cry out in pain and irritation once again. Ageratum started chasing after her, confident that her boots of striding and springing would allow her to keep pace with a human for once, even if that human was now a vampire. As far as she was aware, Carly didn't have the full list of vampiric powers at her beck and call and wouldn't be turning into a bat or anything. And carrying a corpse over her shoulder could only slow her down. Ageratum was looking forward to finding a use for her silver dagger, as silver was said to be one of the substances particularly deadly to vampires.

However, she didn't get the chance, for another silver-tipped arrow from Chaevaris's bow caused Carly to discorporate into mist. The body she'd been carrying turned to mist as well, which made some sort of sense, since at this point it was merely an object the vampire spawn had with her, no different than a carried weapon or the clothes she wore.

"I say!" declared Alistair. "It's a clear night out - we should be able to track her to her nearest coffin and then finish her off for good!" When they'd "slain" her in Mitrek, it had been a foggy night out and her gaseous form had been unable to be tracked. But now, in the moonlight, the group could see the small cloud of mist that had once been Carly's corporeal form, and as they watched, it drifted away from the city streets and off into the fields. Best of all, it drifted at a much slower speed than Carly would have been able to maintain in human form, so keeping pace with her was no problem. Alistair mentally called for his grackle familiar, Ambrose (who'd been waiting on the roof of the Dark and Light Club while his master went in to hear Carp's performance), and he even had time to summon Ogilvy, his unseen servant. Chaevaris lit her bullseye lantern and handed it over to Ogilvy, and the spell effect, at Alistair's command, kept the light trained on the floating mist as they followed at her drifting pace.

The mist led the group to a deep ravine in the middle of a field, then slid down the first of the slopes along the embankment. There were three such sudden inclines before hitting the bottom of the ravine, which was empty save for a brush heap along one edge. The mist flowed unerringly towards the brush heap.

"Down you go," Alistair ordered Ogilvy, and the unseen servant obediantly went down the various slopes, keeping the lantern-light focused upon the mist. Ageratum leaped down from level to level without incident, aided by her new magic boots. Harlan took a slower, more cautious approach during his descent, while Alistair and Chaevaris chose to stay up at the top of the ravine. After all, if the mist had gone down into the ravine, Carly's coffin would likely be down there, and from their vantage point they could see the only place it could be hidden was inside the brush heap. They'd wait for Ageratum and Harlan to dig it free, while they stood guard where they could see anyone who might try to interfere.

However, the interference came not from above, but from within the ravine itself: a viny tendril came snaking out from the brush heap to strike Ogilvy's lantern, knocking it from the unseen servant's grip and sending it crashing to the stone floor of the ravine. "I say!" declared Alistair, looking down from above. "It's a shambling mound!"

Despite the tales of various strange creatures about which the young sorcerer had been learning, it was not a shambling mound that rose up from the "brush heap." It was worse - a tendriculos. But despite not knowing exactly what it was he was fighting, Alistair sent a scorching ray blasting down at the "brush heap" as it reformed. The spell hit true, but it did not cause the plant monster to be engulfed in flame as the sorcerer had hoped. Chaevaris had likewise expected a fire-based spell to do more damage to the plant-beast than it had done, and decided she'd see what could be done about that. Unstoppering a flask of oil from her belt, she threw it down at the tendriculos, already having achieved its full size and standard shape. The oil soaked into the monster's vegetable fibers; hopefully that would encourage it to burst into flames upon the next fire-based spell.

But before Alistair could put that theory into practice, Harlan charged forward, bringing his flaming burst longsword swinging at the creature's base. Unfortunately, the oil had hit the creature much higher up, so while the half-elf's blade cut into its plant fiber and the flames singed a bunch of its leaves, the strike was likewise not enough to set the thing ablaze. Then the tendriculos shambled forward, shooting two tendrils lashing out at the paladin while it bent over and tried to catch him in the massive maw opening up in its upper part, where stiff, pointed thorns took the place of teeth. Fortunately for Harlan, he was able to avoid all three of the plant's attacks as he dodged off to one side.

Carly, in mist form, slid beneath the tendriculos's massive bulk. Ageratum noticed this and assumed that meant the vampire spawn had her coffin underground beneath the ravine, but right now she didn't have time to follow through with that thought - there was a giant, ambulatory plant attacking Harlan! She threw a shortspear at the tendriculos and couldn't help but hit the thing, but whether she did much damage to it was a matter of conjecture.

Alistair sent another scorching ray down at the tendriculos, setting a small portion of it on fire. But the flames burned out before too long; the creature was probably somewhat damp from dew or something, the sorcerer reasoned. Chaevaris sent a normal arrow into the plant-thing's mass, where its feathered end stuck out of the thing's "head" - if a creature made of plant fiber could be said to even have a head. Down at its "feet," Harlan pressed on the attack with his flaming sword, and then found himself the target of the plant's attacks once again. Unfortunately, this time the tendriculos was much more successful, whipping him with its flailing appendages and then catching him up in its thorny maw. Harlan felt himself being elevated as the creature, having bent down to bite at him, once again stood to its full height. Then the paladin felt himself being swallowed whole, his body falling down a fibrous tunnel to land inside some sort of gullet. The half-elf grinned, in part at gladness to still be alive, but also because here, inside the beast's "stomach," he could no longer be swatted at by tendrils or bitten by a thorn-laced maw, whereas his flaming burst longsword could be used to chop up the creature from the inside as well as it could from outside!

The plant shuffled around a bit again, startling Ageratum enough that her next thrown shortspear missed its mark entirely. Alistair cast another scorching ray at it and Chaevaris sent another arrow striking the creature beside her previous shot, but the sorcerer noticed, with concern, that some of the previously singed areas were starting to grow back with fresh-looking vegetation. Surely this creature couldn't regenerate? It was starting to look as if it did, and if so, it was going to take a fair bit longer to bring the plant-thing down.

Harlan swung his flaming blade at the stomach interior, cutting open a gash in the side of his plant-fiber cave. It started oozing liquid, which at first the paladin took to be some sort of sap-like blood equivalent, until some of it dripped on him and burned like acid. Belatedly, Harlan realized if the plant-beast had the equivalent of a stomach, it made sense for it to have some sort of stomach acid as well. He vowed to cut the thing up from the inside as fast as he could...and that's when he noticed the secondary side effect from the plant's internal juices: his muscles had locked up and he was paralyzed! An initial burst of panic threatened to overcome the paladin's mind, but he willed himself to calmness and thought his way through his current predicament. True, he couldn't move his body, but his flaming blade was still alight and its fires were burning the creature's interior fibers, even if he couldn't use the sword to stab deep into the plant's mass. Also, he didn't need to be able to move to be able to channel Pelor's positive healing energy into his body, healing the worst of his wounds. Still, he had a limited amount of healing energy he could channel each day, whereas the plant thing would presumably continue to pump out its acidic secretions as long as it had someone inside its gullet...he hoped the other three could bring this beast down, and fast!

Outside the beast, they were doing their very best to do just that. Ageratum skirted away from an attack by the tendriculos, leaping over its striking tendrils and ducking beneath its attempt to bite her; there were times when it helped only being three feet tall, and this was definitely one of them! At the top of the ravine, Chaevaris and Alistair continued sending down arrows and scorching ray spells, each doing their part to whittle the thing down. Ageratum decided to switch to her short sword, figuring slashing at plant fiber would likely do more damage than just poking it with a spearhead.

But then the tendriculos shifted again, crawling up the first slope, which brought it within range to snap out at Chaevaris. Faster than the elf would have thought possible, it slapped her with two lashing tendrils and then darted its entire upper body forward, and she found herself inside its maw, thorny teeth clamping down upon her legs. Ageratum continued slashing at the thing with her sword, but she got the sinking feeling it was like trying to chop down a tree with a pocket knife.

Alistair backed up a considerable distance, but making sure he could still at least see the top of the creature's head. He aimed and cast his last scorching ray spell of the day, fortunately finally hitting the spot where Chaevaris's flask of oil had landed, for the flames that burst forth from the spell were about twice as big as those from the sorcerer's previous scorching rays. Inside the creature's maw, Chaevaris had no room for bow maneuvers and thus slashed at it using her rapier. She could see a flickering light from below, no doubt Harlan's flaming blade doing its thing. Unbeknownst to the archer, however, Harlan was not faring very well - he'd used up all of his available healing energy and was still unable to move at all.

Ageratum continued attacking the tendriculos with her shortsword, while Alistair had been forced to switch over to blasts from his wand of magic missile. He was glad he'd paid the highest possible price for his wand, ensuring it dealt the maximum amount of damage per charge, for the blasts from his wand were much more powerful than he was currently able to channel through casting the magic missile spell himself, although that would come over time and with experience, or so assured the wizards and other spellcasters back at the Dark and Light Club. But the group's continued efforts - Ageratum's short sword, Chaevaris's rapier, Harlan's flaming blade, and Alistair's magic missile charges from his wand, eventually had the desired effect: the tendriculos crashed over sideways, landing in a heap. So focused had the heroes been on dealing it damage to bring it down, they'd failed to notice when it had stopped attacking them in return; they'd had it finished some time ago but its plant body had been stabilized by the power of the Blood Mirror, and they'd had to deal it enough damage to overcome the magic ruby's stabilizing effects. But once its metabolism ceased its gullet stopped producing acid, and Chaevaris was able to pull a still-paralyzed Harlan back up the passageway to its mouth, where she was able to drag the paladin out into the open night air. Ageratum was there in a jiffy to pour the contents of a potion of cure light wounds down Harlan's mouth; it wasn't able to restore him to mobility, but it did heal over the acid burns that had been covering his body. And, a few minutes later, mobility was restored to the paladin's limbs, the paralytic properties of the tendriculos's internal liquids having run their course.

"I say!" called down Alistair once it was apparent that combat was over and done with, "Is there any sign of a coffin?" He'd go down and check for himself, but it looked rather muddy down there and he preferred not to get himself that dirty if at all possible.

Chaevaris looked over at where she'd last seen the gaseous form of Carly the vampire spawn, where the "brush heap" had first been seen. There was nothing but a solid stone layer at the bottom of the ravine - but wait a minute, there was a slight crack at the bottom. Chaevaris tried widening the narrow hole with her fingers, but it was solid stone. "She went through a crack in the rock," she called back up to Alistair. "There's probably a cave underneath here, somewhere," she hazarded.

"I'm afraid we'll have to wait for another time to try to find the cave entrance," Harlan announced. "We're not up for another battle like this last one. For now, it'll have to be enough to know that Carly's in town. That would have been a remarkable amount of effort on her part, getting at least one - if not more - of her coffins moved down here from Mitrek. We'll need to be alert to the possible presence of Father Bouchard Coletrane, the vampire who sired her, as well - if she survived the purge in Mitrek, he may well have also done so."

"You'd think with the resources of the entire church of Pelor at their disposal, they'd have been able to take care of two vampires..." grumbled Chaevaris.

"Vampires can be rather tricky to kill," replied Harlan. "But in any case, I believe we'd best return to the club for now." That sounded like a good plan to Alistair, who'd been eager to hear the response to the singing of his two songs. Alas, by the time they returned the bard's session had been finished, but they were able to talk to him over a few drinks afterwards.

"They were both quite well received," Carp assured the group. "I've sung the Harlan song several times now, and I dare say there are a few young ladies more than willing to get to know our paladin with the 'gorgeous blond locks' a bit better, if you know what I mean." He threw Harlan a knowing wink.

"The pursuit of Pelor's goals leaves no time for such nonsense," Harlan replied.

"And Ageratum's song?" demanded Alistair.

"Went over quite well, quite well indeed," replied Carp. "Here, this is for you." And he handed over a small pouch of coins. Alistair opened it and saw 15 pieces of gold. He, along with his friends and comrades-in-arms, had unearthed quite a lot more gold in their short adventuring career, but this felt different to Alistair - this was money he had earned, using his mastery of the Common tongue and knowledge of song rhythms. If this is what the common man felt after a day's hard work, he could understand why not everyone wanted to be a nobleman.

- - -

That tendriculos was the toughest opponent we've fought to date - Harlan was probably one round away from being permanently slain (or as permanently as it ever gets in D&D). He was already into negative hp when we finally killed the tendriculos; we play that you're "dead-dead" once your hit point total reaches the negative of your Constitution score. (Harlan has a 12 Constitution and was already at -5 hp, and the tendriculos stomach acid was dealing 3d6 acid damage a round.)

It's a little bit of a bummer that Carly has escaped us twice now; maybe the third time will be the charm!

Dan and his family are on vacation starting this week, so we won't have another session in this campaign until 4 Jan 23 (or possible even 11 Jan 23, depending on how much time he has when he gets back home to work on an adventure). He's dropped hints that we'll be dealing with pirates soon, which will be a bit of a trick since Ghourmand Vale is landlocked, but we'll see what he comes up with.
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To the Esteemed Bard, Holyrood Carp,

I am so pleased to hear of your continued success with these new songs. Please accept the latest of my efforts, this one about our elven archer, Chaevaris Noarunal.

The lyrics follow:

Can you survive in the wilderness on your own?​
Forage for food while you're all alone?​
Build yourself a shelter made of hides and bone?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you craft a longbow all by yourself?​
Build enough arrows to fill a shelf?​
Hunt in the forest like a woodlands elf?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you track your quarry throughout night and day​
Sight down your arrow pointed at your prey​
Can you kill it with one shot 'fore it gets away?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you've downed the animal that you've chased​
And you're looking forward to how it will taste​
Can you use each part so nothing goes to waste?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you stare down those with whom you have a beef?​
Can you hold your own 'gainst those who cause you grief?​
Can you compare to Elfy "Danger" Silverleaf?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you steel yourself to fight against undead?​
Can you kill hobgoblins who'd sever your head?​
Can you turn from family who would see you wed?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
Can you slay a petrifying cockatrice?​
Fight a weretiger, and then do it twice?​
Slide through shadows quieter than mice?​
Chaevaris Noarunal can.​
If you see an archer without a big chest​
And tight leather pants are what fits her best​
Then what feature will leave you most impressed?​
...Chaevaris Noarunal's can.​

I look forward to continuing our joint efforts in bringing notoriety to our adventuring band and coinage to your worthy efforts in spreading word of our exploits. I fear the next song will have to be about my own self, a fact that brings no small amount of trepidation.

With Fond Regards,

Alistair Mandelberen Pastlethwaite

Epic Threats

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