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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​
Alistair 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 Pastlethwaite 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​
Alistair 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​
Alistair 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​
Alistair 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​
Alistair 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​
Alistair 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​
Alistair 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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