Shackled City Epic: "Vengeance" (story concluded)

Who is your favorite character in "The Shackled City"?

  • Zenna

    Votes: 27 29.7%
  • Mole

    Votes: 17 18.7%
  • Arun

    Votes: 31 34.1%
  • Dannel

    Votes: 10 11.0%
  • Other (note in a post)

    Votes: 6 6.6%

  • Total voters
    91

Lazybones

Explorer
Greetings! Upon concluding my Travels through the Wild West series of stories, I’ve created this new tale, which involves a group of 1st level characters whom I will run through the Shackled City “Adventure Path” of modules that are being published in Dungeon magazine. The complete series of eleven modules in this series have been released: “Life’s Bazaar” in issue #97, and “Flood Season” in issue #98, "Zenith Trajectory" in #102, "The Demonskaar Legacy" in #104, "Test of the Smoking Eye" in #107, "Secrets of the Soul Pillars" in #109, "Lords of Oblivion" in #111, "Foundation of Flame" in #113, "Thirteen Cages" in #114, "Strike on Shatterhorn" in #115, and finally "Asylum" in #116. This series ultimately takes characters to level 20, just like the original “Adventure Path” (i.e. The Sunless Citadel et al.).

This story is entirely a work of fiction, although as with Travels I’m using standard D&D 3.5e rules behind the narrative. I’ve taken a few liberties with the material; I've located the story in the Forgotten Realms, and I may change a few minor details here and there. There might also be a few connections to Travels, as astute readers from that story will quickly realize...

Character statistics are provided in the Rogues' Gallery thread linked in my signature. As always, I appreciate all feedback. Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

Chapter 1

It was a stark and bracingly clear day, with the sun a bright orb in a sky that was one unbroken sheet of azure that stretched from horizon to horizon. A few wisps that weren’t quite clouds hung in the distant sky where the land met the vast expanse of the Shining Sea, barely visible even from the rising hills that gradually rose from the border of the Forest of Mir until they graduated into the jagged heights of the Alamir Mountains.

It was a rough, untamed region. The mapmakers put it within the borders of Calimshan, and the city of Almraiven with its magical wonders and gleaming towers of bronze was only a few days’ ride distant to the south. But the difference between the low country along the shore of the Shining Sea and the interior highlands was more than the sum of the miles that separated them, and the barrier of the Alamirs, for all their looming majesty, was only a slim separator from the chaos and violence of the city-states that perched like boils along the western shores of the Lake of Steam.

But for all that it bore a look of pristine isolation, the region was not entirely untouched by the taming hand of civilization. The long coastal road that ran hundreds of miles from Manshaka to Almraiven continued north along the shores of the Bay of Almraiven until it rose up into the Alamirs, forging a tenuous connection between Calimshan and the lands around the Lake. And there were settlements here, few and far between, but adapting to the demands of life in the region in often creative fashion.

One such sign of habitation was the winding road, little more than a track, that wound its way up into the hills from the lower country that abutted the Forest of Mir. This trail had a lengthy pedigree, originating hundreds of leagues distant in the Tethyrian city of Saradush, but here, out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed of little function save for accommodating the occasional wild creature traveling on its own private errand.

High above this landscape, coasting on the updraft that rose up out of the hills, a single eagle hung alone in the sky. As it followed a general southerly course, it flew over a pair of travelers making their way in the same direction along the road far, far below. For a moment the bird swept lower, as if curious, but then it changed course and headed abruptly westward, toward the unbroken sea of green that marked the expanse of the Forest of Mir.

One of the travelers looked up at the raptor as it flew off, tracing its movement with her eyes, one hand held to her brow to offer shade against the midday sun. She was tall and lean, clad in plain but well-made traveling clothes, a tunic of faded green cotton over breeches that were tucked into calf-high leather boots. Numerous pouches dangled from the belt that ringed her waist, as well as a sheathed dagger, and over it all she wore a long woolen cloak with a cowl pulled tight around her face despite the warmth of the sun. Wearing the cowl so kept her features encased in shadow, but revealed enough to show that she was fair-skinned, with a few stray wisps of rust-colored hair showing around the edges of her face.

“It’s just a bird, Zenna. Sheesh, relax, will you?”

The speaker was the tall woman’s companion, who cut quite a different figure. She was a gnome, her three feet of height barely bringing her up to the other woman’s waist. Her face was youthful, almost childlike, although there was a knowing twinkle in her bright green eyes. In contrast to the closed-off, almost suspicious manner of her fellow traveler, the gnome bore a friendly, open air about her. Her auburn hair fell loosely around her face, curling at the ends where it hung just shy of her shoulders. She was clad in attire similar to her companion, although her clothes were more muted in coloration, soft grays and dusky browns that blended well with the surrounding landscape. She too was armed, with a small sword on her hip that looked deceptively large on her frame, and the wide arm of a light crossbow jutted out from over her shoulder, above the compact traveling pack that she carried. The two walked together in a manner that bespoke long familiarity, the taller shortening her stride automatically to match the slower gait of her short companion.

Zenna turned and glanced down at the gnome woman. Her eyes, shaded by the edge of her cowl, were dark orbs that flashed with emotion.

“There is reason for my caution, Clarese, even if you will not admit it. This is more than just a lark; these are dangerous lands, in more ways than one.”

The gnome rolled her eyes. “Gads, you love the drama. I keep telling you, if they’d really wanted to find us, they would have long ago.” At the other’s suddenly penetrating look, she added, “Yes, yes, I’m wearing my pin. Anyway, I’m not a child, no more than you, anyway; I know to be careful. And call me by my chosen name, if you please; I show you the same courtesy, ‘Zenna’.”

Zenna’s features took on an expression that bespoke long sufferance with the mannerisms of her companion. “It is a vulgar name for a young woman.”

“I like it. ‘Mole’ suits me well, and it’s not inappropriate for an adventurer, don’t you think?”

“Very well, Mole; I wouldn’t want it said that my upbringing had not included instruction in proper manners for a young lady.”

The gnome laughed, knowing full well that this conversation was one they’d already had before and likely would again. Zenna’s lips tightened, and she opened her mouth to say something further, but Mole interrupted, “Let’s change the subject. So this place we’re going, this ‘Cauldron,’ it’s really built on the inside of a volcano?”

“Indeed. From what I’ve heard, it’s quite unique. The town is constructed in concentric layers, descending down into the rim of the caldera.”

“Aren’t they afraid that it’ll erupt someday? I mean, it doesn’t sound like the safest place to build a settlement, if you ask me.”

Zenna laughed, but it was an edgy, sardonic sound, in contrast to Mole’s easy and light laughter earlier. “Apparently it’s extinct, or sufficiently so that the residents aren’t preoccupied with the matter; there’s even a lake in the center. I think that the concern was more with security, given the nature of the region, and the site is defensible.”

Mole shot her friend a sly look. “And do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for, in this place?”

Zenna didn’t respond, though her jaw tightened slightly. Mole, regretting the provocation, immediately shifted the conversation yet again.

“So, how much further is it? My feet feel like we’ve already walked to Halruaa and back.”

“We might have been able to afford horses, if you hadn’t given away half your purse to those thieves in Saradush.”

“They were just children,” Mole said. “And it’s not like we’re broke; they needed it more than we did, and there’s always more gold to be had.”

“An interesting philosophy,” Zenna commented. “I’m sure there’s more than a few laborers, peasants, and tradesmen who might disagree with you. In fact...”

She broke off as Mole abruptly touched her arm softly. The young gnome was scanning the trail ahead, where the road twisted raggedly between a series of squat, uneven hills. The entire area was choked with thick, nearly dead brush that crowded up onto the fringes of the trail, along with the occasional stunted tree eking out a meager existence on the stony soil of the hills. A great deal of cover.

“What is it?” Zenna hissed, tensing as she scanned the area.

“There’s something there...” Mole began, already reaching back for her crossbow. She’d barely touched it, however, when the brush flanking the trail ahead stirred, and three men appeared. The trio were ragged-looking specimens, their dull brown garments further darkened by layers of dust and dirt, sporting careless beards and hard, almost feral looks that took on a particular intensity as they regarded the two women. All three bore weapons at their belts, and one also clutched a loaded crossbow that he brandished menacingly.

“You jees leef thet bow where eet ees,” said the crossbowman, the steel point of his quarrel lined up decisively with Mole’s chest.

One of his companions, a reedy man with a nasty scar that ran down the left side of his face, chortled, caressing the hilts of a pair of long knives tucked casually through his belt. The final stranger, who carried a scabbarded blade almost large enough to be called a sword, smiled at them, but the expression carried little in the way of warmth.

“Good day to you, ladies,” he said, and the calm way he spoke seemed to make the statement just that much more menacing.
 
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Kaodi

Adventurer
Shackled City

I am certainly looking forward to seeing the Adventure Path in action. Knowing now that is going to run to level 20 certainly means I am going to be committed to buying Dungeon every other month for quite a while...
 

Reg Dword

Visitor
I am looking forward to this. I like the way you began it Lazybones. Good to see your name on a story hour again.
 
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wolff96

Visitor
Good to see you back in the saddle. :)

Nice choice for your new story as well... I ran this adventure for my group and found it be extraordinarily well written.

There are a few nasty bits -- if you rouse the defenders below, they can muster overwhelming force -- but it is one of the best published adventures I've seen. Our group had a lot of fun with it.

Looking forward to seeing your take on it! Oh, and I hope your characters do a bit better than mine... they lost one to a creature in the city, nearly lost two more, and cleaned out the area and "won" by sheer bullheadedness. Kind of amusing.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
wolff96 said:
Looking forward to seeing your take on it! Oh, and I hope your characters do a bit better than mine... they lost one to a creature in the city, nearly lost two more, and cleaned out the area and "won" by sheer bullheadedness. Kind of amusing.
Well, you know me... I always take it easy on my characters, and only rarely is there a death among the PCs or "good guy" NPCs... :p

Story continues on Monday.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 2

“What do you want?” Zenna said, as Mole stood frozen, her eyes locked on the crossbowman’s deadly quarrel, beside her. Zenna herself felt a cold terror grip her somewhere deep down inside her gut, but she willed it aside through a sheer force of will.

The man with the sword stepped forward, flanked by the crossbowman on his right and the scarred man with the knives to his left. A good ten paces separated the two groups, but there was no shelter close enough to offer a possible escape from that crossbow.

“Just our due, m’lady, just our due,” the leader said. He took another step closer, slowly, as if not to spook them.

Mole started shaking, and let out a tremulous sound that might have been a sob of terror. She leaned slightly over toward Zenna’s leg. Still looking as though she was paralyzed by fear, Zenna could just make out the words that drifted up in the lyrical speech of the gnome tongue.

Can you handle the crossbowman?

Zenna reached down and patted the gnome, as if to console her. “Look, we don’t have anything... we’re poor travelers, we’ll give you what little we have, just don’t hurt us...” Under her breath, she added, also in gnomish, Need distraction...

“Please don’t hurt us!” Mole shrieked, falling to her knees in the middle of the dusty trail. “Please!” she repeated, clutching her hands before her.

If the bandits—for they were clearly that—were moved by the display, they did not show it. The knife-wielder chuckled again, and licked his lips, his eyes drinking in the lines of Zenna’s figure. The crossbowman said nothing, but the bolt-head did not move, holding both of them in line as ready targets.

“This doesn’t have to get ugly,” the swordsman said. “Throw down your weapons, and you won’t be harmed.”

“Yeah, I’ve known women who believed men who said that,” Zenna said, her voice tinged with equal measures of bitterness and sarcasm.

“We can do this the hard way, or the easy way,” the bandit persisted. “The easy way, you might not like it, but you’ll walk away from it, I promise. Zeek here,” he said, with a slight nod toward the scarred man, “he likes the hard way.”

Suddenly Mole let out another loud shriek, drawing the attention of all three men to her. She fell to the side, as if collapsing, but at the last instant she tucked into a roll, springing back to her feet in a single smooth motion. Even as she regained her footing, her arm snapped up, and a gleaming object flew from her fingers toward the bowman.

The crossbowman had tracked her movements with his weapon, and as she rolled to her feet he sneered and tightened his grip on the trigger of the bow. But even as Mole began her maneuver, Zenna was taking action as well. Her stare became intensely focused as she drew her hands across her body in a complex pattern, weaving an invisible lattice with her slender, nimble fingers. Arcane syllables erupted from her lips, words not meant to be spoken by mundane folk.

The swordsman had drawn his blade, but as he recognized the signs of spellcasting, quickly threw himself aside.

The scarred man, on the other hand, drew both knives and leapt greedily toward Zenna.

A cone of blazing colors erupted from Zenna’s fingertips, engulfing both the charging knife-fighter and the crossbowman behind. The scarred man screamed as the lights overwhelmed his senses, knocking him unconscious. The crossbowman fired even as the color spray hit him as well, but Mole’s thrown knife had glanced off of his arm, doing no damage but throwing off his aim just enough so that the deadly bolt passed harmlessly between them. A moment later he, too, fell to the ground, out cold.

Two of the three bandits were down, but the third, the swordsman, had dodged out of the path of Zenna’s spell and now lunged at her from the side. The woman, her own vision dazzled from the effects of the color spray, did not appear to see him at first.

“Zenna, look out!” Mole cried. The gnome leapt into the path of the man, slicing at him with her shortsword. The bandit quickly dodged back, and the two faced off, their weapons of roughly equal size, but the human towering over the slight figure of the gnome.

Zenna blinked, then hurriedly drew back out of the way of the melee. The swordsman grinned as he took the measure of his foe, but his expression twisted into a frown as Zenna, now safely clear, started casting another spell. He quickly lunged forward, knocking aside Mole’s blade and thrusting his own weapon deep into her shoulder. Mole cried out and staggered back, a blossom of bright scarlet erupting over her tunic from the savage wound. The bandit was already rushing forward, hoping to finish the mage before she could unleash her magic upon him.

But Zenna completed her spell, and with a gesture the swordsman staggered, his sword dipping limply in his hand as a mental fog dropped over him. The daze only lasted a few moments, but even as he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, Mole came up behind him and with a vicious cry slipped half of the length of her sword into his back. The swordsman staggered forward a step and crumpled, but the attack had clearly cost the gnome, for she too fell, her sword slipping from her fingers to clatter uselessly in the packed dirt of the trail.

Zenna was there in an instant, bending over her friend. The wound was critical, she saw immediately, with blood continuing to gush out onto her shirt. Zenna, who was no stranger to battlefield wounds, quickly applied pressure to the wound with her hand, and clumsily tore off a length from her own undershirt to fashion a makeshift bandage. Her vision grew blurry as she worked to save her friend, and she realized that tears were flowing down her face.

“Damn you, Mole, don’t leave me...”

The gnome’s eyelids fluttered, and she looked up at her friend, the pain evident in her eyes. “I... I’m hurt bad, Izandra. I’m sorry...”

“You’ll be alright... we’re not far from Cauldron, I’ll get us there, you’ll see...”

Mole’s face twisted in pain as the wizard drew the bandage tight about her shoulder. Zenna—Izandra—feared that the thrust might have punctured her lung, but there was nothing she could do about it now. In Cauldron, there might be a priest that could provide magical healing; here there was no option except to wait for her friend’s death.

Mole took a ragged breath and looked up at Zenna. “Those others—they’ll recover shortly, and won’t be in a good mood when they do...”

Zenna nodded, and gently laid her friend down before she stood. With a grim expression, and her hand clutched so tightly on the hilt of her dagger that her fingers were white, she turned and walked away.

Shortly that problem was permanently solved.

Mole was pale, and her eyes had closed, but the bleeding at least appeared to have stopped. For a moment Zenna’s heart clutched in her breast as she feared that Mole had died, but then she saw the soft rise and fall of the gnome’s chest, and relaxed.

But that relief was only temporary, as she cast her gaze around her at the vast, empty hills that surrounded them. Mole needed healing, and she needed it soon.

Zenna worked quickly, first shrugging out of the light traveling pack that she wore under her cloak, and then dumping the contents of two of her larger belt pouches—holding a miscellany of basic gear—onto the ground. She opened the pack and quickly took out small packets of food, rope, a few spare shirts and assorted undergarments, and a compact lamp with a hooded shutter. She also took out a half-full waterskin attached to a leather throng, which she tucked into her belt. The backpack was now all but empty, and she quickly put it back on. She glanced down at the cloak. Without the concealing cowl, the full light of the afternoon sun illuminated her, revealing the details earlier obscured. She was young and attractive, her red hair framing soft, delicate features.

And also a pair of short, ivory-colored horns that jutted from her head just beyond where her forehead gave way to her cap of hair.

Quickly she bent down and recovered the cloak, sweeping it across her shoulders and snapping its clasp back into place before tugging the cowl back up to conceal her features. She then bent over the unconscious form of her friend, quickly divesting her of excess gear much the same way that she had just done for herself. Mole’s pack and crossbow were quickly discarded. Zenna glanced down at the gnome’s sword, now sticky with the congealed blood of her enemy, considering for a moment, but finally left it where it lay.

She bent low and wrapped her arms around the motionless form of her friend, and with a grunt lifted her as gently as she could. Mole wasn’t that heavy, but Zenna wasn’t very strong, and she knew that the burden would grow quickly with every step.

Without even a look back at the three corpses lying in the dirt, she started down the long road ahead, a road that she quietly hoped led swiftly to Cauldron.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 3

As the sun began to set behind the distant western horizon, the fifty-foot high city walls of the city of Cauldron, fashioned of massive slabs of black malachite, blazed with a glow that seemed almost magical. In the light of the setting sun the wall became a temporary shining crescent that ran halfway around the circumference of the great caldera. It was a dramatic sight, but one that the city’s four and half thousand residents, accustomed to the view, generally ignored as they hastened to complete their day’s business before the final waning of the day.

As the final remnants of sunlight faded and the city settled into shadows the glows of lamps and torches began to pop up throughout the city. From above it appeared as though the lights were clinging to the interior slope of the crater, for the town descended in concentric rings until one reached the lip of the dark lake that filled the center of the dormant volcano. A hundred sounds filtered together within the confines of the bowl; the clop-clop of horses and the creak of wheels as teamsters hurried home after the final run of the day, the general sounds of a hundred different conversations as folk likewise returned from their daily labors, even the whisper of the evening breeze from the mountains as it passed over the walls and swirled for a bit within the crater before continuing on its way.

Zenna staggered with difficulty down the wide boulevard of Obsidian Street, the outermost of the four avenues that ringed the interior of the crater. The pain in her arms and legs had subsided to a mercifully dull ache, but every step she took felt increasingly difficult, as though she was walking up a hill that grew steeper with each passing stride. In her arms, clutched against her body, she bore the limp form of Mole, only the labored sound of her breathing offering reassurance that her friend still lived.

Around her passed shadows, the citizens of the crater town. Her own mixed heritage gave her the power to see as clearly in the dark as in the brightest day, but to her eyes the people around her were still shades, insubstantial beings rather than living, caring people. Thus far, at least, the people of Cauldron had proven less than considerate, not that Zenna had expected anything different. Since leaving her home, the tiefling girl’s perceptions of the world had grown increasingly cynical. Faerûn was a cruel and heartless place, this sentiment only reinforced by the things that she saw and heard, and only those with strength and determination survived.

She could not know that the people of Cauldron had been confronted with their own difficulties in recent tendays, and that it was in part the stranger woman’s own demeanor that drove them away, rather than offering to help. Those few people she’d asked for directions had been startled at the way she’d appeared, a cloaked figure with her cowl drawn well down to conceal her face, carrying a heavy burden close against her body, and speaking with a voice drawn to the edge of hysteria, turning away half-before the surprised townsperson could fully realize what was happening.

But Zenna, in her agitation, lacked the perspective to see this, instead projecting her own feelings onto the strangers around her.

At least she’d gotten into the city, she thought grimly. The guards had been suspicious of the lone woman arriving at the north gate as the sun was setting below the horizon, but at least they’d let her bring Mole into the guardhouse, and one of them, an old veteran who’d clearly seen his share of battlefield injuries, helped by cleaning the ugly wound in the gnome’s shoulder and applying a fresh bandage. They’d directed her to the church of Helm, a short distance from the north gate, where she could find a cleric to help her injured friend.

Zenna bit back a curse as her boot scuffed on a loose paving stone, barely recovering from her stumble before she fell. If those guards had sent a rider to get a cleric, Mole would already be well, instead of just clinging to life. That part of her that was mired in cynicism wondered what the guards would have said if they’d seen her true form. The change self spell was among the first that she’d learned, allowing her to hide, at least for a brief time, the obvious features that betrayed her heritage. That brief duration, in fact, was what had driven her to haste, all but grabbing her friend from the surprised guardsmen and heading into the city to find the promised cleric.

A thin voice in the back of her mind whispered a warning, of how the clerics of the Vigilant One might respond to her appearance, but she squashed that thought ruthlessly. She could not afford to let that divert her, for Mole’s sake.

But it was with a sob that she hurried on, carrying her stricken friend.

She passed before the mouth of a dark alley, and it was her distraction, rather than an inability to see through the shadows, that caused her to miss the watcher until she was almost right on top of him.

Surprised, she drew back suddenly, as the dark figure stepped out from his vantage in the lee of one of the high brick walls of the alleyway.

The stranger was a man, and with her darkvision Zenna could clearly see that he wore a mask—no, his face was painted, with a garish design that covered half of his face in black, the other in white. He wore his greasy black hair tugged back into a ponytail, and a silver stud glinted slightly in one earlobe. He was clad in a black tunic that could not fully conceal the bulk of armor underneath, and the hilt of a short stabbing sword jutted from his belt.

“Move on,” the man hissed. “This is none of your concern.”

Belatedly, Zenna became aware of a commotion further down the alley. Looking in that direction, she saw a pair of tall men, attired and disguised in similar fashion to the one before her. The two men were assaulting a third figure, who was sprawled out on the dirty cobbles between them, trying in vain to shield himself from the kicks that the other two were raining down on his torso.

Zenna felt two things simultaneously; a tremor of fear that clutched at her gut like a cold hand, and a surge of anger that was so intense that for a moment red flecks flared in her vision. The man watched her, his eyes wary, with a touch of nervousness as they flicked out over the main boulevard, but all Zenna saw was the sinister mien, the threat inherent in the man’s posture, that hilt that his hand drifted toward...

The conflicting surges of emotion gave her strength. Clutching Mole against her body with one hand, she twisted the fingers of another in an arcane gesture, close against her body where the man would be unlikely to see in the gathering gloom. She felt a tingle as magical power flowed through her, the touch of the Weave that always sent a rush like the first flush of intoxication into her body. It was addictive, that feeling.

Zenna opened her mouth, and the cry she uttered was a stark scream, sounding too-loud in the quiet murmur of the evening.

“Guards! Guards!”

“Damn it,” the masked man muttered, coming forward quickly, his sword hissing as it issued from its scabbard. He lifted the weapon with its hilt forward, perhaps intending to quiet her with a quick blow to her head.

But Zenna’s spell was already taking effect, and even as the echoes of her cry faded in the night, other sounds were audible from a short distance down the street. The sounds of heavy boots on the cobbles, the clank of metal on metal, the voices of men drawing nearer. On hearing them the man abruptly came up short, his attack arrested in mid-stroke. With only the briefest hesitation he darted into the alley, where his two compatriots had already interrupted their assault, listening.

“It’s Gothrok’s boys!” the watchman hissed, and with that the three turned as one and darted down the alley, where it sloped down sharply toward the next lower street below. Behind them their victim lay stirring on the ground, moving in obvious pain.

The sounds of the approaching guards faded—it had been merely an illusion, a ghost sound cantrip summoned by Zenna’s magic—and the young woman started back down the street toward her destination. Before she’d gone more than a few paces, however, she hesitated. In her arms, Mole was quiet, but Zenna could feel the soft rise and fall of her chest. As the rush of excitement from the brief confrontation faded, her exhaustion returned tenfold, and only determination kept her from sagging against the front of the nearby building. For a moment, she thought she could almost hear Mole’s voice, remonstrating with her in that way she always did.

Sighing, she turned back to the alley and the battered victim of the masked men’s mugging.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 4

“Are you all right?”

“I... I think so.”

The speaker was a young man, in his late teens, perhaps, his body lean and lanky. His hair hung in an unruly mess about his face, which was marred by a nasty bruise on his right temple that was already beginning to deepen in color. He wore a plain cotton robe that had been torn in the melee, and as he shifted, slowly and painfully pulling himself up to a kneeling position, Zenna was surprised to catch a glimpse of what looked like a chain shirt underneath.

“Oooh, they gave me quite a going-over,” the young man said, probing his side with slender fingers before gently touching at his bruised face. Wincing, he clasped his left hand to his throat, where Zenna noticed that some sort of amulet or device was hanging on a slender chain around his neck. The young man’s hand closed around it before she could identify it, but to her surprise a soft blue glow began to shine from beneath, through the gaps between his fingers. The young man’s face became focused, and his voice took on a resonant, deeper tone, as if echoing from the insides of a spacious temple.

“Vigilant Helm, share your mighty blessing with your unworthy servant...”

The result of the injured man’s words was immediately evident, as the blue glow flared briefly before sinking into his body, infusing him briefly before it faded. With a suddenness that surprised her, he got up quickly, his earlier discomfort gone utterly.

“A cleric... you’re a cleric,” Zenna said.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry, I neglected to thank you for your help. My name is Ruphos Laro, acolyte of Helm. While I don’t think those toughs were planning on killing me, I’m sure they would have left me quite a bit more uncomfortable before they—what’s the matter?”

As he was speaking, Zenna, whose exhaustion and emotion had finally caught up with her, had sagged backward, only the wall of the alley keeping her from collapsing. She clutched at Mole with both her hands, trying to protect her friend, unable to keep a sob from slipping through her strained façade.

No, mustn’t be weak, she berated herself. But her strength, already taxed beyond limit, had finally faltered.

The young man was beside her in an instant, a worried look on his face. Zenna slid down to the ground, her legs folding painfully under her, and her cloak parted to reveal her burden.

“What’s this? A child?” Ruphos exclaimed, carefully extracting Mole from Zenna’s arms to get a better look at the injured gnome.

“No... my... friend... bandits...” Zenna managed. Tears were beginning to slip down her cheeks, defeating her best efforts to bite them back. “I tried to help her, I had to get her here... You’re a cleric, had to find a cleric...”

“Shhh,” the young man said softly. “I will help her.” Once more he touched his amulet—his holy symbol—and called upon the power of his god, holding Mole gently with his other arm. Zenna watched with fascination—she’d seen this before, of course, had seen her stepmother use healing spells many times, but it was impossible to deny the wonder and beauty of divine magic being wrought, each time somehow new and unique.

And then it was done. Mole stirred, and her eyes opened, searching around her with that inquisitive manner that the gnome girl carried about her like a second skin. “What happened?”

“You were injured, but your friend was able to bring you safely to me,” the cleric said. He reached over and extended his hand to touch Zenna’s face, preparing to extend the benefit of his powers to her. But Zenna, worried that he might see... that he might see too much, drew back suddenly. The cleric started in surprise, but shifted his attention to helping Mole up to her feet.

“You’ve lost a great deal of blood, and you’ll likely be weak for a time,” Ruphos told her. “You—both of you, should come with me to the Temple of Helm. My brethren can help tend to your needs, and see that you find someplace safe and comfortable where you can rest and recover from your travails.”

Zenna, bracing against the wall, struggled back to her feet. It was clear that the gesture cost her no small amount of energy, but she put on a determined look as she looked down at the cleric, still kneeling in the dirt of the alley.

“Thank you for what you did for my friend,” she said. “But really, we should—”

“What she means to say, is thank you, of course we’ll accept your generous offer of hospitality,” Mole broke in. “We’ve only just arrived in the city, and we appreciate any help you can provide us.”

Ruphos glanced at them both, his gaze settling finally on Zenna, who—reluctantly, it was clear—nodded.
 

Black Bard

Visitor
Good to see you back in the saddle, Lazy!!! And that's certainty of a good story....:D

The characters so far are just wonderful!! Yet I would love to see an elf as one of the main characters... Especially in Tethyr...
:D
Anyway, whatever you have in mind, I'm pretty sure it'll be great!!!
 

Lazybones

Explorer
BB: That's true, I guess I haven't done many elves... there was Lariel in Travels of course, but he was more of a supporting character.

I have my initial characters sketched out (there's one we have yet to meet, but will shortly), but others will come as we progress in the story. Perhaps one of the Fair Folk will make an appearance. Whatever he/she is, it won't be a Legolas clone ;)

* * * * *

Chapter 5

“So what happened back there?” Zenna asked, as the three of them continued down Obsidian Way, where the blocky outlines of the Temple of Helm could already be seen a few blocks ahead. Temples to the Vigilant One existed in cities and towns across Faerûn, and in contrast to regional variations in architecture and building styles, those temples all tended toward a simple, blocky structure that tended to make them easily recognizable wherever one traveled. Even in the near-darkness the two-story temple building was clearly distinct from its neighbors, its white marble setting a stark contrast to the black volcanic stone from which most of the city’s buildings were constructed.

The three had exchanged brief introductions, and Zenna had given a cursory summary of their recent troubles that was as much to inform Mole as to placate the cleric.

“It’s a long story... I’ll be happy to tell it to you, once we’re back at the temple. Things have been pretty tense here lately; there’s been... some abductions.”

Zenna glanced over at him; he looked troubled, but she could sense that he was holding something back. Not surprising; she and Mole had only just arrived in the city, and with a deep sword wound in the shoulder of one of them to boot. She looked around the darkened street, which was all but deserted now that night had arrived in earnest. She recognized it, now, the furtive looks and concern in the faces of the people she’d seen since arriving in the city. Cauldron wasn’t a happy place right now.

She could sense rather than hear Mole walking along beside her. Her friend was all but silent when she wanted to be, which was most of the time. With Ruphos present there had been no opportunity for any more lengthy discussion of what had happened to them, just a few knowing looks that promised more explanations later. The two had known each other and traveled together long enough so that they could coordinate their actions with little or no verbal communication, when necessary. Zenna frowned. Not that it stopped Mole from doing what she wanted, like when she had broken in to accept the cleric’s offer of hospitality at his temple. The mage wasn’t comfortable with it, not by a long shot, but there didn’t seem to be anything to be done about it now... they had arrived.

Now that they were here, the temple didn’t seem as large as it had from a distance; a strange trick of shape and perspective. The façade of the main building that fronted the street was connected to a low wall that provided access to a courtyard adjacent to the structure. The main temple doors were flanked by a pair of statues, also apparently of white marble, carved into the representation of a pair of armored knights, their maces lifted high into the air. Ruphos did not head for the main entrance, however, instead turning to the side wall and opening a latch on a gate of thick iron bars that led into that courtyard. The courtyard, sheltered from the street by the wall, was deep with shadows, but Ruphos was familiar with the path and neither Zenna nor Mole had any trouble with the poor illumination. Ruphos, of course, didn’t know that.

“Careful, the path is clear, but there’s a few benches here that you can stumble into if you’re not careful. Just follow me, the rectory’s just over there.”

Zenna, of course, could see the building perfectly, a squat stone structure with a roof covered in overlapping crescent-shaped tiles. She pretended not to see Ruphos’s outstretched hand, offering them guidance, but Mole quickly took it, half-pulling the cleric down the path, chatting about some element of religious life or other. Zenna’s thoughts were on other matters, like what they might encounter inside the temple complex.

Ruphos led them to a heavy wooden door recessed into the stone wall of the rectory building. As he opened the door a shaft of warm light spilled out into courtyard, but before Zenna could gauge what lay beyond, Ruphos and Mole were already going inside.

The room wasn’t large, but looked comfortable and lived in. A considerable stone hearth in the far wall was cold, but a pair of oil lamps on the mantle above shed a cheery light. There were several comfy-looking armchairs flanking a wall-mounted bookcase holding several dozen titles, and a small table flanked by a trio of chairs beside a long wooden sideboard. Two doors led to other parts of the building, while to their right a narrow corridor appeared to give access to the temple itself.

“Everyone’s probably at the temple, or still out in the town,” Ruphos said cheerily. “With everything that’s been happening, we’ve been putting in some long days of late, and we only have a handful of clerics on staff here.” Now that he was home, in his element, some of his earlier gloom had departed. With his bruise faded, only the tears in his robe remained as evidence that he’d only minutes before been the victim of a violent assault. “I’ll get you some food and drink, and a place to rest, but first we’d better go tell Jenya what happened.”

There was no way to get out of it; well, not without an unpleasant display, so Zenna joined Mole and the young cleric as he led them down the passageway that connected the rectory with the temple. As they approached a thick stone arch Zenna could make out the smell of incense hanging heavily in the air, and the faint sound of a chime that reverberated for a moment then faded into nothingness. As she passed under the arch, she felt a momentary tingle pass through her body; a strange sensation that was gone before she could describe it.

The passage opened onto the back of the nave of the church. Despite the limited size of the structure, Zenna could not help but be a little impressed. Thick beams held up the roof, rising to a peak some twenty feet above. Wooden pews ran in twin rows from the entry hall to the altar area just in front of her, with an ornate wooden door to her left probably leading to the sacristy where the vestments and other sacred accoutrements of organized religion were kept. Though there were no worshippers present at the moment, everything was immaculate, clearly well-tended by the clerics of Helm that ran the temple. She estimated that perhaps a hundred worshipers could gather here at once; a paltry sum compared to the number that could fit in the Moontower in Iriaebor, or the great temples she’d heard about in Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep. Not that she’d seen them; while her parents went gallivanting off about the Realms, she’d been kept at home, under the watchful eyes of her parents’ friends, where nothing ever happened...

She started as she realized that she’d let her thoughts drift, that Ruphos and Mole were already talking to other people, several of whom were looking at her curiously. She felt herself color as she stammered out an apology, and came forward. The others were a pair of young humans, a man and a woman a few years older than Ruphos, clad in similar robes.

Mole sidled over to her, and covertly jabbed her in the thigh with her elbow. “Ruphos was just telling Morgan and Illewyn about our little misadventure,” she said. “Jenya, the acting High Priestess, isn’t here right now, but she’s...”

“Acting?” Zenna interrupted. “Was the former High Priest one of those abducted?”

She regretted her hasty words instantly, as the two young clerics looked at her intently, and even Ruphos looked a bit uncomfortable. Morgan, finally, whispered something to Ruphos, and the cleric nodded before turning back to her.

“Ah, in all the excitement, I’d forgotten... It’s a rule in all places sacred to the Watcher—no one can enter the presence of the Vigilant One with a hat, mask, or cowl that conceals one’s features. You’ll have to take off your cowl.”

Zenna felt her heart clench in her chest. She’d never been inside an actual temple of Helm, hadn’t known about such a rule, but she’d feared something like this ever since Mole had suggested coming here. She looked down at her friend with an accusatory look, but the gnome only smiled.

“Go ahead, Zenna... it’s all right.”

The three clerics were all looking at her now. The older man, Morgan, had tucked his thumbs into his belt, to Zenna’s eyes his hands threatening close to the iron mace that he wore dangling on his hip. Her mind was blank; she couldn’t think of an excuse, a way to get out of doing what she’d dreaded since they’d first arrived in this place.

It would be all the same as before. Coming here had been a mistake.

She sighed and reached up, dropping back the cowl.
 

Broccli_Head

Explorer
Lazybones said:
It would be all the same as before. Coming here had been a mistake.

She sighed and reached up, dropping back the cowl.
Oh, the angst! Oh the drama!;)
 
Last edited:

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 6

The gathered priests drew in a collective breath of surprise as Zenna revealed her face, and the stubby horns that jutted from her temples that were instantly visible. Ruphos’s eyes widened in astonishment, but Morgan’s response was more dramatic.

“A fiend in the Sanctum!” he croaked, drawing back and clutching at his mace.

“Oh, do control yourself, Morgan,” came a voice from the entry. All present turned toward the newcomer, a short, brown-eyes woman of perhaps thirty years. She was clad in a simple but functional clerical robe, and wore her long brown hair in an elaborate coif that fell down to her neck in a flowing cascade. She wore an expression that reflected impatience and brooked no challenge, and her frown was directed at the other clerics as much as the two strangers.

The woman strode with deliberation over to them, and rested her hands on her hips as she cast an evaluating gaze first upon Zenna, giving her horns the merest tilt of an eyebrow, then Mole, and finally Ruphos. Finally, she turned to Morgan, who was still clearly agitated, with his fingers white on the haft of his weapon. At least he hadn’t lifted it from the hook on his belt.

“Have you forgotten, Brother Morgan, that the wards upon the Sanctum prevent any evil creature from entering its confines?” Zenna nodded to herself, remembering the tingle she’d felt on passing through the arch earlier. But the woman had already turned back to face Zenna, fixing her with an imposing stare for all that she had to look up to meet the eyes of the wizard.

“I apologize for the precipitous behavior of my priest. I am Jenya Urikas, acting High Priest of the Temple of Helm in Cauldron. I extend to you the hospitality of our church. I can see that you’ve come a great distance, and are clearly exhausted by your travels. Illewyn, take our guests to the rectory and see that they have food, drink, and the opportunity to wash off the dust of the road. Morgan, go to the festhall and get Malakar and Serrah; they were helping with the work on the Winter Fund and have likely forgotten the hour.”

The two clerics nodded quickly. Under Jenya’s expectant stare Morgan moved toward the door, looking back once with uncertainty—and finding Jenya still looking after him—before turning and heading out into the night.

“He’s a good priest, but he takes the ‘vigilance’ part of our code a bit to close to heart,” Jenya muttered, as the man left. Turning to Ruphos, she said, “I heard on the way over that there had been a bit of excitement. Come to my office, and tell me what happened. You ladies, please go with Illewyn; I’ll come and meet with you again shortly.”

With Mole and Zenna staring after her open-mouthed, Jenya took Ruphos decisively in hand and steered him toward the door in the rear wall of the nave. Belatedly, they realized that they hadn’t even told the priestess their names. Illewyn noticed their reaction and smiled.

“Yes, she’s a force of nature,” the young cleric said. “But she’s had a lot to deal with since High Priest Delasharn departed.”

“Seems like there’s a lot going on here that we don’t know about,” Mole stated simply.

The cleric sighed. “These are difficult times in Cauldron. It was bad enough with the earlier disappearances, but now, with the children being taken... Jenya has publicly committed the Church to finding them, and bringing their abductors to justice, but thus far there’s been no information...”

“Children?” Zenna asked. “Children have been abducted? Ruphos mentioned some kidnappings, but he didn’t say...”

Illewyn nodded. “Come, we can talk about it more over a hot meal. Jenya can tell you more, later.”

* * * * *

A short while later, Mole and Zenna were together in a small, simple room with walls of undressed stone within the rectory. A curtain hanging in the doorway offered a modicum of privacy, and a pair of simple cots offered an opportunity for rest. Zenna was standing over a basin that sat on a table against the wall, the sleeves of her tunic rolled up as she washed her arms and neck with a towel already gray with the dirt she’d accumulated on the road. Mole was lying on one of the cots, although her eyes continued to roam the room, taking in every detail. She had her purse in her hand, and by the look on her face as she jangled it, she wasn’t pleased with what she heard.

“You left all my weapons? The least you could have done was recover my throwing knife! I had that specially made, you know! And that crossbow, that cost forty crowns!”

“I didn’t exactly have time to look for your knife, and other things were on my mind at the moment,” Zenna said without turning. Bending low, she lifted two handfuls of water and splashed them into her face, letting herself enjoy the cool feeling of the water against her skin. “And you were heavy enough besides.” Memory stirred of that long hike, her friend dying in her arms, and she felt a cold shudder.

She straightened and felt a hand touch her arm. Looking down, she saw Mole there, an uncharacteristically serious look on her face. “I’m sorry... Thanks, it must have been... difficult.”

Zenna nodded, and smiled, taking the gnome’s hand in her own.

They looked up as the curtain parted, revealing Illewyn’s familiar face. “Jenya would like to see you, now.”
 

Black Bard

Visitor
“A fiend in the Sanctum!” he croaked, drawing back and clutching at his mace.
Great!!! I loved that!!! Sorry, Lazy... but to me it was almost comical, not your fault, of course... but I have a player that is just like that...
Very good!!!;)
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 7

The High Priest’s office was as plain as most of the quarters in the temple complex, furnished in spartan fashion with a wide wooden desk, a few wall-mounted shelves, and several chairs. A bright open flame that burned brightly on the desk illuminated the room. Jenya was sitting at the desk as they entered, and Ruphos was there, standing at her shoulder with his hands clasped behind his back. Illewyn did not enter with them, instead departing back for the rectory after closing the door behind them. Jenya gestured for them to sit in the chairs that faced the desk.

“Ruphos has told me what happened,” the cleric began. “It would seem that we owe you a debt of thanks, for scaring off his attackers.”

“Do you have any idea of who it was who attacked him?” Zenna asked.

Jenya glanced up at Ruphos, and the two clerics exchanged a brief look. “Cauldron is normally a quiet city, but street crime is not unheard of.”

“But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill mugging,” Mole prodded.

“No. The way those thugs painted their faces... it is a symbol of a secret organization that calls itself “The Last Laugh.”

“A thieves’ guild?” Mole asked. The cleric nodded.

“And you think they’re the ones who are behind these abductions?” Zenna asked.

She and Mole had learned a bit more of what was going on in Cauldron from Illewyn, although the cleric knew little more than the vaguest outline of the facts. The disappearances of people had been going on for several months now, with both the Town Guard and the city’s various churches utterly stymied in terms of tracking down whoever or whatever was behind them. But what had the town in an uproar was the recent—only a few nights’ previous—abduction of four children from the city orphanage. The four had simply vanished from their rooms one night, without the faintest clue as to who had taken them or why.

“I... I just don’t know,” Jenya finally admitted. “The Last Laugh is certainly not an upright stalwart of Cauldron, but they’ve never done anything like this before. But tonight...” she glanced again up at Ruphos, who shifted slightly. “Ruphos had gone to the orphanage earlier, to offer consolation to the other children. Tell them what your attackers told you.”

Ruphos looked a bit uncomfortable as their attention shifted to him, but he cleared his throat and said, “They jumped as I was walking home, and dragged me into the alley. At first I though they were just thieves after my purse, but as they were beating me, one grabbed me and said, ‘Stay away from the orphanage!’”

“Well, that seems like a pretty incriminating bit of evidence, I’d say,” Mole said.

“We appreciate what you’ve done, offering us your hospitality, healing Mole,” Zenna said. “But why are you telling us all this? We’re just a pair of complete strangers who have only just arrived in town.”

Jenya didn’t respond immediately, only regarded them with an impenetrable gaze. Finally, she leaned forward across the desk, folding her hands before her. The desk was a bit too large for her, and she nearly had to stand to do so.

“I don’t know what brought you to Cauldron,” she began. “From what Ruphos told me, you had some trouble on the road, but overcame a difficult encounter. And you handled yourself well against those Last Laugh thugs. Clearly your skill in the arcane is significant.”

“My talents approximate those of a full apprentice,” Zenna said plainly and truthfully.

“Let me be completely frank with you. The Church has been placed in a very difficult position by these abductions. The people are scared, and they want answers. We’ve done what we can, used our resources to their fullest potential, worked with the other churches, and the guard... and yet those answers have not been forthcoming.”

“I still don’t see how this concerns us,” Zenna said, though in truth she was beginning to see where this was going.

“Whoever is behind this, they clearly know enough about the churches—ours and the others... the churches of Lathander and Tempus, while of divergent faiths, have been cooperating with us on this—to avoid detection. What we need is an outsider, someone who can poke around in the shadows, and hopefully uncover a clue that we’ve missed.”

Even though she’d suspected it was coming, Zenna was still surprised to hear the words. “So you want us to work for the church of Helm? And what’s more, to work for the most lawful and disciplined church in Faerûn as... I don’t know what word to use, ‘spies,’ ‘agents’?”

Jenya’s mouth tightened slightly as an expression of displeasure. “As I said, these are difficult times. And we’re willing to compensate you for your help, if you’re able to find out anything that can help us.”

Mole had perked up noticeably with the cleric’s last statement, but Zenna continued before her friend could chime in, her voice soft but earnest. “You have gotten a good look at me, I assume. Who is going to trust someone of my blood?”

Jenya did not back down. “I have no doubt that you’ve had a difficult time, and have learned to adjust for the reactions that you must constantly get. Cannot you see, that this experience makes you even more suited for such a task?”

Zenna blinked, and opened her mouth before she realized that she couldn’t think of a ready response. She felt Mole’s hand on her arm, and subsided. Her friend asked, “What other leads do you have?”

Jenya’s gaze shifted to the gnome. “I... there is a clue, though I have not yet been able to make meaning of it.” She glanced up at Ruphos yet again, just for a second, but in that glimpse it seemed as though the cleric’s face had held a hint of—what?—embarassment?

“The Church possesses a weapon of great power, the Star of Justice. This device is rightfully within the custodianship of the High Priest, but in his absence... Late last night, I called upon its power to cast a divination. As is the way with such magics, however, the information I received was cryptic.”

Mole was sitting on the edge of her chair, clearly fascinated. Zenna, however, was feeling quite less sanguine. “What did the spell tell you?” the gnome asked.

“It was a riddle, of sorts,” Jenya explained. She took on a focused expression, then recited,

The locks are key to finding them.
Look beyond the curtain, below the cauldron
But beware the doors with teeth
Descend into the malachite hold
Where precious life is bought with gold
Half a dwarf binds them, but not for long


“Ah, a riddle indeed,” Mole said.

“What was the question that you posed, specifically, when you cast the spell?” Zenna asked.

Jenya blinked, surprised by the question. “As I recall, I asked, ‘Where are the children who were abducted from the Lantern Street Orphanage?’”

“Below the cauldron... it could be that they’re being held somewhere under the city,” Mole suggested.

“I thought of that,” Jenya said. “But the locks? The locks of the orphanage, perhaps?”

“I spoke to the headmistress of the orphanage today, when I visited,” Ruphos said. “There wasn’t any sign of forced entry.”

“Perhaps an inside job, then,” Mole suggested.

“A question that I hope you will be able to answer,” Jenya broke in. “In any case, it cannot hurt to have another group of eyes and ears joining the search.”

“We have not yet agreed to help,” Zenna said.

“Say we did agree,” Mole said. “What support could we expect from you guys?”

“The Church can provide healing, and other divine aid, but it would be best if you did not come here, at least not openly. It would defeat the whole purpose of having a group of outside investigators if you were seen to be connected to us. You can work through Ruphos, who will be your contact, and will help with your investigation.”

Zenna raised an eyebrow, and glanced up at the priest, who fidgeted slightly under the scrutiny. “Him? Forgive me, but Ruphos doesn’t exactly seem like the ‘covert operative’ type, and as you said, people here would recognize him easily.”

“Perhaps not,” Jenya said. She reached into one of the drawers under her desk, and drew out a small cloth object. It was a hat, a simple and rather worn device of faded green fabric with a peaked front and a felt liner. She handed it to Ruphos, who shook it out and placed it onto his head.

As Zenna and Mole watched in fascination, Ruphos’s features began to twist and reform, shimmering slightly before settling into the appearance of a new man. He was now a good deal older, perhaps in his forties, with a thick beard and dark eyes that seemed almost black. The hat was now a wide-brimmed leather teamster’s cap.

“What about his clothes?” Mole asked.

“This particular hat of disguise only works with facial features, and of course its own appearance,” Jenya said. “But clothes can be changed. It doesn’t change the voice, either, but I suspect that few would associate Ruphos’s voice with his true identity, given a dramatic enough change in appearance.”

Mole nodded, considering. “I can see how that would be an advantage. Now, we were talking about gold...”

But Zenna had not taken her eyes from Ruphos. “We’ll help you find the children,” she interjected. “In exchange for the hat.”
 

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