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%

Black Bard

First Post
Damn it!!! :mad: First Delem, then Zenna!!!
It seems that my favorite characters are always captured by fiends!!!! :p
I hope that she fares better than the poor sorcerer...
Anyway, great writing as always, Lazy!!!!

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Lazybones said:
Well, I'm not "simulating players," though that might have been interesting, to have a meta plot running parallel to the story with fictional players running the characters behind the scenes.

If you're in a surreal mood, you could have a writeup where the characters in the story try roleplaying characters in the modern world. ;)


Elemental said:
If you're in a surreal mood, you could have a writeup where the characters in the story try roleplaying characters in the modern world. ;)
Heh, I've considered a few times having the characters respond directly to your questions (Mole would be great for that), but thus far I've been able to control the impulse. :heh:

Thanks for the positive comments... now let's wrap up book VII:

* * * * *

Chapter 319


At first, it was just a sea of pain that poured into the black nothingness, but then, as consciousness slowly poured back with it, other things emerged that coalesced into a hazy reality. Light, bright and red, stabbing through closed lids like needles. Noise, a deep rumble that seemed to shake her very bones, a sick mewling that sounded like a tormented animal. A creak, close, metal protesting.

The pain washed her about, threatened to drag her back down into the black, a journey that she would have welcomed, if only for the release. What was it that kept her here? Voices... something, something she should know, recognize... voices at the edge of her awareness.

Slowly, fighting the pain as the brilliant red stabbed through her mind, she opened her eyes. As the world slowly swam into focus, she looked out onto a nightmare.

Her first thought was that somehow, she’d been cast back into Occipitus. The red glow, the heat, it was all evocative of the Abyss. But then reality returned enough for her to see that she was in an extensive cavern, a massive bubble of jagged, uneven stone. The red glow came from a great rent in the cavern wall, a cleft that disgorged a stream of lava that ran across the floor in a slow but constant current.

Black bars ran across her vision. As she pulled herself up, the pain still fighting her with every movement, the outside world swayed slightly. Confused, that pathetic mewling noise still distracting her from somewhere nearby, she looked around, trying to gain her bearings.

She was in a cage, one of many, she saw, all affixed to the branches of a great tree. Tree... no, that was the proper word for it, but the metallic monstrosity that dominated the center of the cavern resembled no living thing that she had ever seen before. She could feel the power rolling off it in waves, and even more trapped within, buried within the twisted depths of its massive bole, waiting to be tapped.

She was naked, with even the dignity of her robe stripped from her. A sharper pain twisted through the general haze. She reached up to her face. It was numb; she could not feel her fingers probing, but flakes of dried blood came away at her touch.

It was then that she realized that the tormented sound she’d heard was coming from her own throat.

“I see you’ve awaken,” came a familiar voice.

She looked down and saw Esbar Tolerathkas—or whatever his name truly was—walking toward her, along the cavern floor fifteen feet below the bottom of her cage. He was now clad in a robe of dark cloth, and he wore a sigil as an amulet at his throat; a metallic arrow with a circle—an eye, perhaps?—set in the center. The blue gem in his forehead seemed to pulse oddly, as if trying to echo the pounding of her heart.

She tried to speak, but only crude noises fluttered from her throat.

“I am sorry that we had to remove your tongue,” he said, as calmly as if he was commenting on the weather. “But we could not rely on anti-magic in this place to keep your gift in check. Your suffering will be brief; at least that much I can promise you. We are nearly prepared to begin the final ritual, and soon it will all be over.”

She tried to scream; the sound was so horrible that she stopped after a few moments. She looked around, desperate. All of the other cages were occupied. With a sickening realization she recognized the orphan boy, Terrem, looking at her with an expression that was... dead. And in another, Zenith Splintershield, his head bent beneath the weight of an impossible depression.

“You will be a participant in something truly great,” Esbar went on. “Again, I wish that things could be otherwise, but in the end, we all have to confront our destinies.”

She tried to shake her cage, but managed only to knock herself prone, the pain eagerly rushing back up into her damaged body. Looking at the bars, she saw that some of her flesh clung to them where she’d grabbed them; her hands were slick with bright red blood.

“You cannot destroy yourself,” Esbar said. “The pain will drive you into unconsciousness before you could have a hope of success. I’m afraid we’ve thought of everything.”

A heavy, measured tread drew her attention up, toward the far side of the room. Someone was coming.

“Ah, now you can meet one of the leaders of our little band,” Esbar said. Turning from her to the newcomer, he said, “Dyr’ryd, you may gather the others, we are ready.”

The hulking figure stepped from the shadows into the ruddy red glow of the lava plume. As she saw what he was, and as his gaze met hers, Zenna screamed.

She screamed until the blackness drew her back, back into the merciful embrace of oblivion.




First Post
Lazybones said:
She tried to speak, but only crude noises fluttered from her throat.

“I am sorry that we had to remove your tongue,” he said, as calmly as if he was commenting on the weather. “But we could not rely on anti-magic in this place to keep your gift in check. Your suffering will be brief; at least that much I can promise you. We are nearly prepared to begin the final ritual, and soon it will all be over.”

She tried to scream; the sound was so horrible that she stopped after a few moments.

Wow, that was so...WRONG. I'm very impressed!:)


First Post
“Again, I wish that things could be otherwise, but in the end, we all have to confront our destinies.”

Ugh. This reminds me of so many "have to sacrifice for the greater good" speeches. Of course, the speaker is rarely the one who is being sacrificed...

Great writing, Lazybones. :)


First Post

I've been reading since the beginning of Travels... and I think that was your greatest plot twist (and update) ever.

That was AWESOME, LB.


First Post
Wow, i've been reading your story hour since the begining. i'm running the AP right now and i use your wonderful writing as insperation to make my game better. this though is just beond what i could ever expect. you have truly advanced this story to a new level. please keep up the great work and know i'll be waiting every day to read the next update.



If these were real players....

I don't know how you would have pulled this off. Cutting out the tongue is brilliant. Will have to remember that one.



First Post
Another voice for the choir :lol: Great ending to the story.

Your writing seems to have become a lot darker as this book has progressed, I like it :] Now the pressure is on you to keep up this quality.

I suppose I should really get on with the PDF I was making of this.


Thanks for the comments, everyone.

* * * * *

The Shackled City, Book VIII: “Foundation of Flame”

Chapter 320

The Vault was one of the more obscure hidey-holes in the city of Cauldron—or more precisely, under it. In an odd correlation of ironies, the underground chambers were situated approximately sixty feet directly underneath the office of the Teerson Skellerang, the Captain of the Watch. Crafted two centuries ago by a particularly paranoid member of the city’s ruling elite, only a handful of people today knew of its existence. Four of those were gathered in the central chamber of the Vault, immersed in a vigorous argument. The room they were in looked smaller than its actual size, in part because of the partial walls that subdivided the back of the room into smaller cubicles used for storage and other miscellaneous purposes.

“Your recklessness in your choice of allies has threatened the very existence of the guild!” The speaker was a middle-aged human male, who looked as though he’d never been young and handsome. His name was Pratcher Olann, and he was a veteran criminal, peddler of obscenities, and dealer in illicit substances. He was also one of the highest ranked thieves, called Jesters, in Cauldron’s premier guild of iniquity, the Last Laugh. Unlike the others, he did not bother with painting his face in the harlequin decoration that was the primary identifier of members of that organization.

Velior Thazo seethed. Not so much because Olann’s charge was accurate; it ran counter to his nature to admit his own error. No, the half-fiend was angry because his grand ambitions, which had soared so high before that damned meeting at Rhiavati’s manor, now were crashing down around him in a blazing ruin. Thazo’s hands itched; he wanted to kill something.

“Those damned clerics have Jil, and it won’t be long before they ferret out this place,” another of the Jesters, a rail-thin elf named Karakates, added. “Adrick’s mint has already been uncovered and destroyed, and nearly two-thirds of our membership has been incarcerated... or killed.”

“Damned heroes,” the last Jester, a pudgy human woman named Wayrel Talinn, broke in. Thazo’s scowl deepened, though inwardly he agreed with the curse; if Talinn felt bold enough to actually speak up in a meeting of the Last Laugh leadership, then his once-lofty position had descended far indeed. She was a master poisoner, there was no doubt about that; but Thazo always thought of her as the two-bit whore she’d been when he’d first met her, a little over a decade ago.

“You will have to get out of town,” Olann went on. “You are the only one they saw, and you were the one Jil answered to.” And the one she hated most, Olann didn’t have to add.

Punks, he thought, glaring at his peers within the guild. His anger pounded in his veins like the blood of his fiendish ancestor, and all three of the others fidgeted slightly as his rage became obvious. None of the three other leaders of the guild were his equal; all were at best petty crooks, veterans of the softer side of organized crime. They all bore weapons—like most guilds of thieves, the Last Laugh did not tolerate weakness of any sort—but Thazo knew that he could take all three of them together in a fight, if it came to that.

Almost reflexively, his hand had stolen to the haft of his morningstar. But even as his fingers touched the familiar steel shaft, a shadow shifted beside him, and a familiar chill of danger settled over Velior Thazo.

Forcing himself to relax, letting his hand fall as he chuckled grimly, Thazo deliberately did not turn to look at the hulking figure that remained cloaked in shadow beside him.

“You are all panicking, acting more like marks than master rogues. The... defeat... we suffered was significant, but we are far from undone. Jil is dead, executed at the hand of that dwarven bitch in the name of “justice”, now unable to harm us further. And our adversaries have bigger fish to fry than the Last Laugh. We may have to lay low for a while, but we will continue to thrive, in the shadows.”

“They took out a whole safehouse, and went through some of our best talent like forged steel through beaten copper,” Olann said, his confidence obviously bolstered by the arrival of the shadowy newcomer. “We all agree, that you’ve made too many mistakes, Thazo. It’s time to cut our losses.”

Thazo managed a sinister, confident grin in return. With his inhumanly large jaws and protruding fangs, the effect was garish, and the half-fiend was completely cognizant of its effect. “You never complained about me when you needed someone removed for the improvement of your various little schemes, Olann,” he said. “I’ve been a Jester for seven years, and now you think you can just run me out, drive me from the guild that I painstakingly built into what it is today? Talos is still with me, always with me, never forget that!” He turned to the shadowy figure now, stared into the darkness of its hooded face with penetrating eyes. The massive figure stood there impassively. “You stand with these mice now, Trusk?” he asked. “You agree that the guild will survive without my strength?”

The only response was a glimmer of white within the black cowl as the bugbear shadowdancer showed his teeth, a deep rumble of a growl originating from deep within his body.

“We cannot afford this petty squabbling, not now,” Thazo went on, turning back to the other Jesters. “You think it would just be that simple, send me on my way, hope that your problems are solved? You could force me out, perhaps, but I’d take half of the remaining members of the guild with me. And if you think that pushing me out will stop the ‘Heroes of Cauldron’ from tracking the lot of you down, you’re as naïve as you are foolish.” Thazo knew that he was taking a risk; with his threat laid down, the best option for the Jesters was to simply kill him. And if Thusk sided with them, they might even be able to succeed in that aspiration.

“A moment ago, you said they weren’t interested in us,” Talinn pointed out, but the little conviction she’d been able to muster earlier had faded, and she quickly retreated into the shadows of the other two men beside her.

“We will not be the ones to sunder the guild,” Pratcher Olann said. “But if you wish to remain a force within the Last Laugh, it will not be as a Jester.”

Thazo kept his smile from his face; he had won. Titles were unimportant, he knew; the end of it all was in the simple reality of power. And none of these fools—save for the enigmatic and deadly Thusk—had enough of it to seriously threaten his agenda. And Thusk, while a canny and vicious adversary, was not equipped for the subtle battles of politics, alliances, and backstabbing where Velior Thazo shone.

“Very well, I will serve the guild as a warrior in the trenches,” Thazo said. “But we will have to...”

“Aw, you mean you’re not going to fight?” came a small voice from the far side of the room. “Man, I was hoping for a little show—my money was on the big shadowy guy.”

They turned as one, sinking into ready crouches, weapons hissing from their sheaths. Thusk faded back into the shadows, disappearing from view. The other Jesters contributed useless exclamations—“Who are you?” “How did you get past the wards?” Thazo focused on more practical concerns; he stepped back to the wall, pressing a subtle protrusion there. Immediately a heavy door of reinforced steel slid down from above within the dark archway of the chamber’s exit, falling into place with a loud clang of metal on stone. The half-fiend also called upon the power of Talos, invoking the Storm God to fill the chamber with an invisibility purge. No hidden foes appeared, and it was only then that the evil rogue-priest allowed himself to relax—only slightly—as he looked up on the stranger who had intruded upon their conclave.

That intruder was an unassuming gnome woman, only a bit over three feet in height. She wore dark garments and carried weapons, but did not appear threatening; in fact, she seemed to have an amused look to her as she regarded the deadly leaders of the Last Laugh.

“Mole Calloran,” Thazo said.

“Velior Thazo,” the gnome returned. “Gosh, you’re uglier than I remembered.”

The half-fiend stepped forward, the bat-wings that were one of the gifts of his demonic heritage spreading behind him. His eyes were points of orange flame, and his morningstar seemed to pulse in his hand, as if eager to participate in violence.

“If they’ve found this place, we must flee,” Talinn urged. But Thazo did not move, fixing the intruder with a dark stare that the gnome returned with equanimity.

“You made a mistake coming here alone,” Thazo said. “You will pay, for that, and for the rest...”

The gnome shrugged. Ignoring Thazo, she turned to the other Jesters. “I’ve come here to give you one last chance. You’ve done a lot of ill to Cauldron and its people, but right now there’s a bigger danger, one that threatens the entire city and all within it. I have nothing against thieves’ guilds per se, but we cannot tolerate distractions. Get out of town, today, right now, and don’t come back... or face justice.”

“Your threats seem... small.” Thazo chuckled.

She turned a scathing look upon the half-fiend. “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you, Thazo. No, you don’t get this offer... your life is already forfeit, and you’re coming with me.”

A shadow shifted behind the gnome, slowly taking on substance as it loomed between her and the blocked exit.

“Your brazenness is almost... refreshing. Were these different times, I would almost welcome you among the Jesters,” Thazo said.

“You guys are a bit too sociopathic for my tastes.” She glanced at Olann and the others, who’d faded into the background behind Thazo. “Did demon-breath here even tell you what he was in on? That he and his friends were planning on making Cauldron over into ‘Fiend Central’? Can’t think that would be good for business...”

“Prattle on, little one,” Thazo said. “I know you have some little plot in play, for your friends to pop in here and rescue you from the lion’s mouth. But there’s something you should know. This place... this Vault, is more than just a chamber under the city. No, there’s a reason why we use this place. Its entire structure is surrounded by magically-treated lead plating; no scrying magic will penetrate it, nor does any magical teleportation function in or out of this place. In fact, when that door closed, all contact with the outside world was severed.”

“So you see, my little one, you are very, very much alone. And I am quite afraid that you are about to find our company to be most... unpleasant.”

And with that, he took a step toward her, his eyes burning like molten pools.


Sandain said:
Arg no! i've come to the end!
Just temporarily...

* * * * *

Chapter 321

“So you see, my little one, you are very, very much alone. And I am quite afraid that you are about to find our company to be most... unpleasant.”

Without shifting her gaze from the approaching Thazo, Mole pointed toward the other Jesters. “Last chance,” she said. “Join me now, or pay the price for your crimes.”

None of them moved.

“Never the easy way...” the gnome grumbled.

The shadowy form behind her darted at her back, as silent as a soft breath of wind. Somehow Mole sensed the danger, for she twisted nimbly to the side as a morningstar swept powerfully toward her head. Even though she avoided the full force of the attack by her dodge, she was still clipped on the shoulder by Thusk’s weapon, snapping forward into a smooth roll that absorbed the force of the impact.

Unfortunately, the motion took her closer to Thazo, who had already lifted his weapon to strike. But the evil priest took a moment to call upon his patron for aid, which gave her the split-second she needed to act.

“Gotta go,” she said, folding her cloak about her, and vanishing in a puff of gray smoke.

Thazo looked around, peering into the shadows around the circumference of the room.

“She’s gone?” Olann asked.

“Invisible, perhaps,” Karakates suggested.

“No,” Thazo replied. “She’s using the cloak of that blasted incompetent Finch. She cannot have left the room through the shielding... search every corner!”

The rogues spread out, their animosity temporarily forgotten in the face of an external threat. Thusk had disappeared again, lost in the shadows, and Thazo took the opportunity to reinforce his magical wards, enhancing both his strength and endurance with the divine power of Talos.

Despite the partitions in the room, there weren’t many places to hide. It was the elf who found her behind the cover of a half-dozen stacked barrels in a shrouded alcove. He revealed his find by staggering back into the center area of the room, a small crossbow bolt buried to the feathers in his shoulder.

“Nice work,” Thazo snarled at the injured elf, his voice thick with sarcasm. Roughly pushing the elf aside, he started toward the gnome’s hiding place. He didn’t have to go far; the gnome came to them, running across the ceiling, clinging to the smooth stone through some form of magic.

The ceiling was just high enough to take her out of easy range of their melee weapons, but the Jesters had other resources. Thalinn hurled a small dart, no doubt envenomed with some nasty toxin, but the gnome narrowly dodged the missile. Thazo had a more direct response: a blast of searing light that drew a cry of pain from the annoying gnome girl. However, Thazo’s spell failed to dislodge her from the ceiling.

Olann added to her difficulties a moment later, lifting a hand that bore a bronze ring fashioned into the head of a ram. He spoke a word of command, and a bolt of force smacked solidly into the gnome’s back, knocking her free of her perch to fall to the hard ground below. She landed smoothly in a roll that absorbed the energy of her fall, but as she looked up, she saw that the bugbear shadowdancer had reappeared before her, his weapon lifted to crush the life from her body. The other Jesters closed in around her, closing off all avenues of escape.

“Time to die, little rogue,” Thazo said.


Lazybones said:
She turned a scathing look upon the half-fiend. “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you, Thazo. No, you don’t get this offer... your life is already forfeit, and you’re coming with me.”

Badass. :D


Chapter 322

A huge metallic CLANG sundered the quiet of the Vault, and as the rogues turned toward the sound, they saw the solid steel door bulge inward into the room. A moment later a line of light shone through the door as a rent opened in the metal of the portal, followed a moment later by yet another tremendous blow.

“Time’s up,” Mole said. She darted for the edge of the surrounding circle, taking another painful hit from Thusk as she did so. But she avoided the attacks of the other rogues, finally tumbling between Olann’s legs before the startled Jester could react.

“Fool! Now our doom is upon us!” Karakates hissed. Thazo turned upon the injured elf, and with a single sudden strike crushed his skull.

“Fight them off, all of you, or I’ll do the same to you!” he snarled at the others. Thusk had already disappeared from view again, but whether to get into position to strike, or to flee, was impossible to discern. Talinn drew out a potion vial and downed the contents, but by the look on her face it did not have the desired effect. She didn’t know that Thazo’s invisibility purge was still in effect, hindering her attempt at escape.

The ravaged metal of the door protested under the continuing assault. Now multiple gashes revealed hints of motion beyond, and with a final groan of twisted metal the remnants of the door came crashing forward to slam hard onto the stone floor of the room.

Beorna stepped forward into the room, her adamantine sword resting against her shoulder as she surveyed the chamber. “Looks like we found another rat’s nest!” she said, lifting the heavy sword easily into a fighting position. Behind her, Arun and Hodge moved into the now-open doorway, and behind them Dannel, his bow at the ready.

“Kill them!” Thazo roared, conjuring an unholy blight that raged in the confines of the doorway and the passage beyond. For a moment the dark energies of the spell obscured the heroes, but then Beorna stepped forward through the dissolving storm, apparently unharmed, dropping her adamantine sword and replacing it with the holy blade that seemed to sing as she drew it from its scabbard.

“You and I have unfinished business, fiend!” she said, rushing forward to meet Thazo.

The rest of the heroes emerged from the blight injured, but with more than enough fight left in them to engage the remaining rogues. Blood already covered Arun and Hodge’s armor, but it clearly belonged more to others than the two dwarves, who seemed little hindered as they charged the other Jesters. Olann lifted his hand and fired another blast from his ring of the ram at Arun, but while the force-bolt hit the paladin with the force of a giant’s punch, Arun stood his ground and even managed a counter that drove the guildmaster back, bleeding from a deep gash in his side.

On the other flank of the battle, Hodge saw Talinn trying to sneak around toward the door, and moved to block her. The Jester took out a small tube from a hidden pocket and lifted it to her mouth, blasting the dwarf with a spray of toxic dust.

That was enough for Hodge; he unleashed a full assault upon the poor woman, tearing into her with powerful strokes that knocked her back against the shelving lining the wall. Old pots and jars clattered around her as she fell to the ground, bleeding out her life through the multiple wounds.

“Tryin’ to poison a dwarf... yer got nerve!” Hodge grunted, although his eyes were watering somewhat as he wiped his gore-splattered axe on his pant leg. He let out a loud sneeze and spit up a fat glob of phlegm before turning back to the melee.

Dannel entered the room last, taking aim at Thazo before he spotted a shadow descending upon Arun from behind.

“Arun... watch out!”

But his warning came too late as Thusk smote Arun from behind. A cackling surge of chaotic energy tore into the dwarf as the shadowdancer’s anarchic morningstar unleashed its fell power upon the lawful knight. Olann took advantage of the assault to attack as well, but even flanked by two rogues Arun’s magical armor was more than enough to turn the narrow blade. There was no denying that the paladin was hard-pressed, however, and he favored the side where Thusk’s morningstar had delivered its painful blow.

But Thusk had left the concealing shadows behind, and now he in turn confronted the deadly assault unleashed by the companions. Working in unplanned coordination, Dannel’s arrows slammed into the bugbear’s back, punching through his cloak and the chain shirt beneath it. Arun, meanwhile, unleashed a full attack with his holy sword, the shining blade driving back the shadows that surrounded the monstrous rogue, each swing biting deep. Thusk staggered back, grievously wounded, but before Arun could lunge in to finish him, the shadows shifted and the shadowdancer disappeared.

Thazo, bolstered this time by the full power of his patron, met Beorna in a violent clash of steel upon steel. Initially confident as his first stroke slammed hard into the dwarf woman’s chest, hurting her even through the heavy adamantine mail she wore, he was quickly reminded of the templar’s ferocity in battle as her assault tore into him. Her sword, likewise infused with holy power, tore through the magically enhanced steel of his breastplate as though the armor plate were made of soft leather, biting deep into the flesh beneath. Staggering back, blood gushing down his torso from the wound, he looked around.

Talinn was down in a bloody heap. Olann had thrown down his sword and now knelt for mercy before the paladin, begging for his life like the craven that he was. Thusk had disappeared, and if he wasn’t already a hundred paces away, leaving them and this mess far behind, Thazo would have been greatly surprised.

The doorway beckoned him, taunting him, with too many enemies blocking his escape. The templar lifted her weapon, looking down the shimmering length of the steel at him, with eyes as cold as ice.


“So you can drag me off to a formal execution? Not likely.”

“Then taste the justice that you have earned.” The sword came up, and behind her Thazo could see the other dwarf, the axe-wielding warrior, coming at him from the side, while the elf took aim at him with his bow.

But the templar’s parley had given him a vital instant in which to prepare, and he took it, calling upon the potency of a second unholy blight. Even as the spell exploded through the room, he was running for the exit. Something hard caught him in the side, crunching ribs, and as the elf materialized from within the crowd an arrow punched into his gut, stabbing a deep tendril of pain through him. But then the doorway was before him, with the dark tunnel offering escape beyond.

Agony erupted through his foot, and with his next step the limb gave out under his weight. Thazo fell hard, his monstrous face caroming off the stone threshold before he splayed out atop the ruin of the steel door. He tried to get up, but his body refused to obey his commands. Barely clinging to consciousness, he managed to look up and see the gnome standing before him, a small, bloody knife in her hand.

“You were saying?”

Thazo tried to reach out to Talos, but the power of his connection to the god was already fading from him. All he saw was a bright light as the templar... or was it the paladin? stepped forward, a shining sword blinding him with painful light. The last thing he heard was a single word.



Chapter 323

With a final heave of effort, Mole laid the last suit of armor—sized to a human, and therefore cumbersome—onto the low counter. The breastplate still bore a nasty cleft in it, and bloodstains still decorated the armor where the hasty cleaning hadn’t quite reached, but it still bore a potent enchantment.

One that hadn’t saved its former owner, but made it valuable nonetheless, even damaged.

“Okay, that’s the last of it,” Mole said with a grin, refastening her bag of holding and tucking it back into the pouch at her hip.

“Quite a haul,” Skie Aldersun said, giving the objects scattered along the long counter a preliminary survey. In addition to Velior Thazo’s breastplate, the display included the half-fiend’s morningstar and magical gauntlets, Pratcher Olann’s magical rapier, a dozen assorted masterwork weapons they’d taken off of slain Last Laugh rogues, and a few suits of magical chainmail worn by the mercenaries in Vhalantru’s manor that Mole hadn’t gotten around to unloading yet. She’d had to dump out the usual contents of her magical bag to make room for it all, and there were still a few things in her quarters at the Temple of Helm that had been too bulky for this particular trip.

“Don’t forget the adventurer’s discount for the Heroes of Cauldron,” Mole replied with an even wider smile.

The other gnome lifted one of the weapons and examined it with a critical eye. “You’ve done well, Mole; almost too well. I’m afraid that my coffers are nearly empty, thanks in no small part to the activities of you and your companions, and I won’t get more coin until the payment for the last shipment of merchandise that I sent to Almraiven arrives at the end of the month. I will certainly credit your account until then, if you wish.”

Mole frowned, but then, as she often did, she quickly spotted the positive side of a setback. “Maybe a trade?”

Skie gestured toward the various displays throughout the main room of her shop. “You know my inventory better than I, nearly,” the older gnome said. But there was a canny look in her eyes as she added, “Although... there was something new that I just recently acquired, that you might be interested in...”

Mole’s smile returned; she knew that Skie had been leading her to this since she’d walked in the door. It was refreshing, dealing with another gnome; human merchants were just so damned serious about everything.

Feigning disinterest, as she looked over an amulet that she’d sold to Skie only a tenday back, Mole said, “Oh?”

The ring was very impressive, even before Mole picked it up. Lying on the white cloth that Skie had brought it out in, it was nearly invisible. The band was crafted of a transparent material much like glass, except that it was as heavy as metal and solid, too; Skie demonstrated that by bouncing it off the nearest wall and catching it as it flew past.

“What’s it do?” Mole asked.

“Try it out.”

Mole put on the ring. “I don’t feel any diff... oh!” Looking down, she gleefully realized that she couldn’t see herself; she was invisible.

She reappeared a moment later, her grin as wide as it had ever been. “Interested?” Skie asked.

“Oh, I think we can do business.”

* * * * *

The counter was made of thick, very solid wood planks, but it squeaked in protest as Arun laid the last of the heavy sacks upon the polished surface. Metal clinked slightly as an indication of the contents of the bag, which joined its fellows to make an impressive treasure.

Vortimax Weer’s eyes were wide as he took in the fortune in hard cash sitting on his counter. “I trust you and your elvish companion will be content with the enhancements,” the mage said. “I don’t normally do armor, mind you, but for the Heroes of Cauldron...”

“Thank you, master Weer,” Arun said, gesturing to Hodge who was folding Dannel’s mithral shirt into a compact bundle for travel, awkwardly juggling that with the wooden box that he carried under his other arm. Arun carried his own armor, and he looked somewhat uncomfortable clad in a simple tunic and leather breeches, not dissimilar from any of the hundreds of laborers who made their living in Cauldron.

Of course, not many laborers carried a holy longsword slung across their backs.

“I’m sure that your elixirs will be as useful as always,” Arun added, as the wizard started transferring the heavy sacks to the cart on which he’d wheeled out the upgraded suits of armor. Weer waved at them absently as the two dwarves exited the shop.

“I’ll feel better once I have this back on,” Arun said, fastening a leather strap around the compact bundle of armor and slinging it across his back.

“Damned but yer could buy yerself an inn for what yer paid that wizzerd,” Hodge said.

“Knowing what we are up against, we will likely need the protection,” Arun said. “In fact, I wish you would reconsider, and allow Weer to upgrade your items as well.”

“I heard ‘ow much he wanted to magick up this stuff,” the other dwarf retorted, rapping his own breastplate with his gnarled knuckles. “I got better uses fer me money, thank yer.”

“I would have been happy to pay for the upgrade out of my own share...”

“Nah, yer spent that extra coin on folk who needed it more, I reckon.” The dwarf frowned, as though the comment had snuck up on him unawares. Hodge stuffed the mithral shirt into the strap that held his huge axe in place across his shoulders. “Come on, let’s get this junk back to that elf.”

“That elf” was at that moment testing his new bow in the long but narrow yard behind the rectory of the Temple of Helm. The target he’d hung up on the back exterior wall of the temple stables was small, only about a foot across, but it may as well have been half that size based on the holes he’d already punched in the thick cork.

He had a small audience; a few of the newcomers that everyone was referring to as “Arun’s recruits” had taken breaks from their chores to watch his archery. But Dannel ignored them as he took another practice arrow from his magical quiver, drew, aimed, and released in a single smooth movement that took less time than the space between two heartbeats. The arrow struck only an inch from the center of the target, but Dannel frowned, checking the string of the bow. The weapon was still new to him, in no way the match of the magical bow he’d lost in Vhalantru’s secret dungeon, but still an exceptional construction. But Dannel’s attention was only partially upon his practice, and the song that filled him when he drew his bow in anger was discordant. He was distracted.

Mole materialized right in front of him, a bit disappointed that Dannel didn’t jump. Mole had been trying out her new ring all afternoon, and already Hodge had threatened her with dire consequences if she came within so much as twenty paces of him. Without turning his attention from his examination of the bow, Dannel said, “You stepped in something, and left tracks.”

“Eeew,” Mole said, looking down at her boots. Dannel ignored her, looking at the target as though he could transfix it with just his stare, then he shrugged slightly and unstrung his bow.

“Arun and Hodge aren’t back yet?

“No,” the elf replied.


“She has not returned.”

“Well... she didn’t leave a note this time, but it’s too soon to worry, I think. She probably just went to Saradush again for some more scrolls. I mean, she’s been distant and all, ever since... well, for a while. She’ll be back, she knows what’s at stake...”

“With everything arrayed against us, I am not willing to wait. This morning I asked Jenya to scry her, and to try and reach her with a sending, Dannel said. We’ll have an answer tonight, after the meeting.”

Mole made a face. “We still gotta go to that? Bunch of nobles... booo-ring!”

Dannel’s features were tight, betraying the depths of his worry of Zenna, but he forced a smile. It had only been a day since Zenna had vanished, and Mole was probably right, but Dannel could not shake the sick feeling in his gut that something ill had befallen her. They’d already had one group of assassins seek them out...

When she did come back, he was going to kill her.

“Those nobles will have a lot to say about Cauldron’s future,” Dannel pointed out. “Besides, you had fun at the Cusp of Sunrise that last time.”

“That’s true. That Vanderboren... man, you remember the look on his face when I rolled the twenty?” But Mole’s grin faded too, after a moment, as her thoughts too drifted back to her friend.

Where was Zenna?


First Post
Wonderful as usual. Nice to see the heroes in one of the downsides of adventuring (upgrading equipment). I wonder how Zenna is faring?


Krafus said:
Wonderful as usual. Nice to see the heroes in one of the downsides of adventuring (upgrading equipment). I wonder how Zenna is faring?
Well, other than being held in a cage as part of a hellish ritual with her tongue ripped out, I'd say she's doing okay... :p

RE equipment; I've kept the pace of the campaign running real fast from mod to mod, making it tough for the heroes to upgrade their gear. This isn't the campaign authors' fault; the mods in fact do suggest giving the players some time to manufacture magical items and/or take side trips to the big city to upgrade. I think they're well behind what players of their level should have at this point, although I haven't done a tally recently. They do have some big bang-for-your-buck items (like the holy swords) but haven't really had a chance to upgrade that most real players would get.

Anyway, I'm off work today, and I'm two posts from a good cliffhanger, so I'll post one now and the other later today.

* * * * *

Chapter 324

The Grand Library at the Cusp of Sunrise was a popular outpost among the wealthy scions of Cauldron’s leading families. Now the long windows in the dome above let in only a muted light from the overcast skies, while a slight patter of drizzle against the leaded panes served as a reminder of the dreary day outside. Normally the ill cheer of a rainy day did not penetrate to the floor of the great chamber, with its roaring fireplaces, soft leather chairs, open bar, and various nobles at play at cards or rounds of gemsnatcher. But today, the feeling in the Library was tense. The soft chairs and game tables had been removed, and the bar was closed. The broad chamber was full of people, some of Cauldron’s leading lights, clad in garments of expensive cloth cut with a nod to the latest fashions.

Cauldron’s leading churches—with the notable exception of the fallen church of Kelemvor—were represented. Jenya Urikas was there, clad in a soft white robe that framed her warm face and the dark curls that cascaded down to her shoulders. She looked tense but calm, a noticeable contrast to Kristof Jurgenson of the small church of the Morninglord. The cleric of Lathander was clearly ill at ease in this gathering, and he stood off to the side, fidgeting with his cloak. More stoic was Omar Tiskinson, the Second of the Church of Tempus. The martial priest’s hard expression seemed etched in stone, and whenever he moved the heavy greatsword slung across his back clattered slightly against the breastplate that he wore under the surcoat bearing the fiery sigil of the God of War.

Several of the city’s leading merchants and other important factors were also present. Unlike the priests, they seemed inclined to group together, as if drawn by the common bounds of profession that set them apart from the other groups present. All had interacted before with the companions before, each playing a minor role in the developing saga of Cauldron’s fate. The halfling Tygos Mispas and the gnomes Keygan Ghelve and Skie Aldersun formed a small circle, chatting amiably. The shorter folk were overshadowed by two men who appeared to be prosperous merchants. They were far more than that, however; the half-elf Meerthan Eliothlorn was the leader of the influential Striders of Shaundakul, while Maavu Arlintal was a prominent figure in the Chisel, a semi-secret group that operated out of the nearby community of Redgorge. Both men were also skilled wizards, and both surveyed the gathering with intent looks that saw much that wasn’t immediately evident.

In addition to the clerics and the merchants, two other groups were represented at the meeting. The small cluster of nobles included several whose names were already well-known to the adventurers, who’d had dealings with their children before. Ankhin Taskerhill was particularly dominating, a somber, ebon-skinned gentleman with a prominent jaw and hard eyes that could flay a competitor with the intensity of his gaze. By contrast, Premiach and Aeberrin Vanderboren seemed less at ease in these surroundings, almost huddling together near one of the bookcases instead of offering idle chatter with any of the other guests. The two had made a fortune in real estate speculation, but there was a trace of the rogue still about them despite their finery, especially the wiry Premiach. Ophellha Knowlern was one of only two elves present. She looked cold and distant in a soft blue robe that framed her pale features and delicate, graceful figure. She was also the owner of The Drunken Morkoth, one of Cauldron’s most prosperous inns.

The final group consisted of the adventurers, the band known throughout the city now as “The Heroes of Cauldron.” But at the moment, none of them looked particularly pleased to be present at this gathering.

“This is a waste of time,” Dannel said, fidgeting. He wore a new doublet that flattered his lean figure, but which still bulged slightly where his shirt of mithral links settled beneath the rich fabric. He bore no obvious weapons, but his magical quiver—with Alakast and his new bow inside—was slung across his right shoulder.

“Politics is just another battlefield,” Beorna said. She and the other dwarves wore their armor and carried their weapons, and their sheer physical presence dominated the gathering. Her adamantine armor had been polished to a reflective sheen, and the sigil of Helm across her breastplate glimmered with the reflected light of the many lamps that were mounted around the circumference of the room.

“Jenya will need our support,” Arun said. “We are popular amongst the general population of the city, but these nobles will not be so quick to lend their allegiance, regardless of what fawning words they may speak.”

Hodge only frowned; he looked very much like he wanted to spit, but Beorna had taken him in hand before the meeting and spoken to him for a full five minutes. Since then, the dwarf had been utterly silent. He even looked halfway presentable, although there were tangles in his beard that even an adamantine comb might have had difficulty penetrating.

“When are they going to start?” Mole asked.

“They are waiting... ah, I believe that’s him now,” Beorna said, drawing their attention to the entry where a tall gentleman entered. Clad in meticulous white trousers and coat with red trim, Zachary Aslaxin’s face was dominated by a copious moustache and penetrating blue eyes that swept the room as he nodded to the gathering.

“With all your wealth, you could not afford a timepiece?” Taskerhill said. “The hour of this meeting was plainly set, Aslaxin.”

The other nobleman turned toward his rival, and for a moment the air between them was electric as their stares matched. Finally, the newcomer pulled off his gloves and swished them through the air dismissively before tucking them in his belt. “I offer apologies to all present for any inconvenience caused by my delay. Please understand that I fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation faced by our fair city.” Turning to Jenya, he added, “Lady Urikas, I believe you are playing hostess to this gathering?”

Jenya nodded, and came forward to stand in the middle of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen of Cauldron. Thank you all for coming today. Lord Aslaxin speaks truly to the gravity of our circumstance. I tell you this; I will speak with candor to you today, and I will not equivocate: Cauldron is on the brink of utter disaster.”

“Isn’t that just a bit overly-theatric, priestess?” Taskerhill interjected.

“I think, my lord, that we would do well to hear what the High Priestess has to tell us,” the elf woman Knowlern replied.

Jenya nodded. “Thank you, Ophellha. No doubt you have all heard of the recent events at the Temple of Kelemvor, and of the demise of the false Orbius Vhalantru.”

“Yes, a fearsome creature indeed,” Aslaxin said, with a nod to the adventurers.

“These events are linked to an even greater threat,” Jenya went on. “The efforts of these brave souls,” she said, also indicating the companions, “fighting on our behalf, has uncovered a dire plot that seeks to accomplish nothing short of the destruction of our city, of opening a permanent gateway between Cauldron and the fiendish plane of Carceri.”

Hi Lazybones,

I had to quit your SH for some time, but just caught up. It's amazing how you've let your characters progress !!! I have to say I like them all - except Morgan, but they did the right thing and left him in the abyss. ;)

Too bad what Zenna got herself into, though, but I love the twist with a party member being a shackleborn!

Thank you for taking the time to write this SH, Lazybones. I'll definately stick around until the end !!!

the knight

[edited for spelling]
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Thanks, Neverwinter Knight! I saw you post a lot in the JollyDoc Shackled City thread... I read his for a while before he pulled far ahead of where I was in the story.

* * * * *

Chapter 325

There was a pregnant silence, but while most of those present were shocked by the news, the companions could see that almost all of them appeared to expect it, or something equally serious. The nobles, particularly Taskerhill and Aslaxin, wore faces that might have been chiseled in stone, but a fiery passion burned in their eyes. Whether it was concern for Cauldron and its people, or for their own private interests, was impossible to determine.

“The rumblings under the volcano,” Premiach Vanderboren said. “They are linked to these efforts, I presume?”

“Who is behind this plot? And what can we do to stop them!” Omar Tiskinson exclaimed.

Jenya nodded in answer to both questions. “From what we have learned, these enemies are part of a cabal who call themselves the Cagewrights. Their plans have been dealt a setback by the revelation and destruction of Vhalantru, but we have not been able yet to track their leaders, or uncover the location of their secret headquarters.”

“The population... they must be notified of this,” Tygot Mispas said.

“Don’t be a fool,” Taskerhill said, cutting the merchant off. “What do you want to do, start a panic? The city’s already a tinderbox, and you want to splash oil upon the smoldering flame? Imagine your shop looted, people stampeding each other in the streets...”

“Yet we cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope the threat goes away,” Aslaxin added. “I think we should prepare a contingency plan for the evacuation of the city.”

Jenya nodded. “That was one of the suggestions that I brought to this gathering. The Temple of Helm will lend whatever aid it can to the planning and execution of that plan, should it become necessary.”

“Evacuation?” Aeberrin Vanderboren said. “Shouldn’t we first seek help? I mean, if what you say is true—no offense, priestess—then this danger threatens the entire region. What of the good churches, the guildlords of Almraiven, the magnates of the city-states on the Lake of Steam... or even the pasha, in Calimport?”

“I believe you will find that most of the powers of the ‘Shining South’ would consider troubles in distant Cauldron beneath their notice, lady,” Meerthan Eliothorn said. “Those who might be able to help have already been contacted, but aid may be slow in coming. We must be prepared to act on our own.”

Maavu Arlintal stepped forward. “It would seem that, if belatedly, Cauldron is awakening to the depths of the danger that I have been warning of for months. What course do you propose we take now, High Priestess? Can your divinations reveal how this threat is to be overcome?”

Jenya met the merchant’s eyes with an unflinching gaze. “The people of Cauldron will need strong leadership, to face the inevitably darker days that will follow. I have called this meeting, to propose election of a new leader to replace the former mayor.”

“Election?” Taskerhill said. “An odd concept if you want a strong leader. Do you intend for us to vote, then? Cast secret ballots into an urn and draw out the man—or woman—with the strength to save us?”

Jenya’s mouth tightened. “I’d hoped we could come to a consensus, actually. We represent different elements of the city—church, trades, nobility—and it is vital that we present a united front to the people of the city.”

Taskerhill did not hesitate. “Then that leader should come from the ranks of those already recognized as leaders by the people of the city: the nobility.”

Aslaxin laughed, a deep, rich sound that echoed in the domed chamber. “Subtle, as always, Taskerhill.“

“If you have something constructive to add to the discussion...”

“Oh, just shut up, the lot of you,” Arun said, stepping forward between the two men. “This is pointless. I don’t know you men, but I’ve been here in Cauldron for nigh on a year now, and I’ve never heard of either of you. But I have seen first-hand someone who has given everything of herself for the sake of this city and its inhabitants. She has already shown initiative, bringing you all together, acting while others talked and dithered. If it’s a proven leader you want, you could do a lot worse than Jenya Urikas.”

Everyone turned to the priestess, who’d suddenly grown pale. But Beorna had moved up behind her while Arun spoke, and now she stood at Jenya’s side, whispering something lost in the general noise of activity that followed Arun’s declaration.

“I’ll not support a theocracy in Cauldron, and nor will the people,” Taskerhill said bluntly. But many of the other comments were positive, with the other two priests offering guarded support, and the merchants generally favorable.

“High Priestess Urikas has been my friend since she came to Cauldron, ten years ago,” Ophellha Knowlern said. “She is up to this task.”

“Your recommendation comes highly valued in its own right,” Meerthan Eliothorn said to Arun. “You and your friends have fought hard for Cauldron, and the people respect your judgment.”

“I do not doubt the worthiness of the High Priestess; she has proven her mettle,” Aslaxin said. “But she is young... not yet thirty? Perhaps we should consider tempering the vitality of youth with the value of experience.”

Taskerhill responded with another cutting barb, and several others joined in the exchange. As the debate continued, Mole leaned over and said to Dannel, “Do you think any of them would notice if I turned invisible and snuck out of here?”

Dannel shook his head. “Don’t do it unless you can take me with you,” he muttered. But he frowned, turning toward the abandoned bar on the far side of the room. There was something, unusual...

“What is it?” Mole whispered.


Mole looked in that direction, and while there was nothing unusual to be seen there, her attention did come just in time to detect a faint, “WHUMP” of air, a sucking sound that was accompanied by a hazy shimmer that hung in the air for just a heartbeat before dissolving.

The disturbance hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed by the others in the room. “What in the blazes?” Taskerhill said, annoyance etched on his features at being interrupted from a point he’d been making.

But Dannel and Mole were already surging to action. The two had shared an instant’s glance, confirming what each had sensed, the subtle clues that revealed the truth of what had just happened. Then the gnome was flipping her rapier out of its scabbard as she leapt forward into a twirling somersault. In mid-leap, she abruptly vanished. At the same time Dannel’s longbow slid out of his enchanted quiver at his command, along with an arrow that jutted from the magical container, ready to draw as soon as the archer strung the bow.

“Someone’s here, invisible!” Dannel shouted in warning, but before the rest of the occupants of the room could overcome their initial confusion, a cackling voice barked out a phrase in the language of magic, and a pinpoint of bright flame appeared out of thin air before erupting into the familiar and deadly conflagration of a fireball.

Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition Starter Box

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