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The Kordovian Adventurers Guild



Game Session Date: 14 November 2015

- - -

It was definitely good to be back home. The guards opened up the gates to Castle Kordovia and Franco and Tantrum pulled the wooden cart inside. Once inside the castle walls, Ingebold led the mules to the stables, where a team of castle staff waited to lug the accumulated treasure into the castle's vaults. King Galrich's stewards seemed pleased with the amount of gold and gems the adventurers had amassed thus far. Word was sent of the heroes' return, and within moments Aerik Battershield had joined them.

"It's good t'be seein' ye, Little One," Aerik said to his daughter Ingebold, who seemed embarrassed at the personal term of endearment. "But if'n yer band doesn't need t'be returnin' immediately back to th' field, there's an issue right here I'd like fer ye t'be lookin' into, if'n ye've a mind."

"Of course, Father," replied Ingebold, looking to the others to ensure they were of a like mind. It turned out that about a week and a half ago there was an incident in one of the dwarven silver mines that burrow into Mount Stonehelm: a cave-in caused a bit of damage to one of the tunnels and buried a trio of miners under a cascade of stone. The other miners had since dug their way through the fallen stones, but now claimed the tunnel was haunted by those who had been slain. As a result, the miners now refused to work in that tunnel until the ghosts were cleared out. As a cleric of Moradin – and one of the kingdom's foremost adventurers, to boot – Ingebold seemed well-suited to take care of this matter and get the miners back to work.

There were three missing miners, whose bodies needed to be recovered and whose souls required being put to rest: Norgar Deepdelver, Cudgin Rockbrow, and Kelvin Stonecarver. Kelvin was Ingebold's distant cousin while the others were strangers to her; nonetheless, she felt obligated to retrieve the bodies of all three slain dwarves.

"Let's go talk to the miners," suggested Castillan.

At the silver mine, the group met up with one of the foremen, a gruff dwarf named Baerenor Gravelhauler. "We got most o' th' fallen stones out've th' tunnel," he explained, "but me boys won't be goin' back in there 'til them spirits is put t' rest."

"You see spirits?" asked Gilbert Fung.

"Not me meself, no," admitted Baerenor. "But ol' Brunik Slate-Eyes, he seen 'em clear as day, he did. That be good enough fer me."

"Maybe we speak to Brunik," suggested the wizard.

"Oh yeah, I seen 'em, all right," confirmed Brunik once he'd been tracked down and brought to speak with the adventurers. "Shamblin' right at me, still holdin' their picks, blood drippin' down their faces."

"Where this happen?" asked Gilbert.

"Down the end o' th' shaft what collapsed," explained Brunik. "Apparently their diggin' caused th' ceilin' to fall down on 'em, only that ceilin' was also the floor of a chamber right above. I poked me head up into this chamber, and there they was, comin' at me with their dead eyes just starin' straight at me." The miner shivered at the recollection.

"Sound like zombies," pointed out Gilbert. "You see all three?"

Brunik thought about it. "Well, at least two," he admitted. "I didn't stick around t' do a head count."

"Will you take us to the tunnel in question?" asked Finoula.

"I'll take you to the start o' th' tunnel," agreed Brunik. "But that's as far as I'll be goin'."

Brunik led the group into the tunnels. As the miners were exclusively dwarves they used no light sources, their inherent darkvision being all they needed. That actually worked out well for them, for they had no need for open flames which might set off pockets of flammable gas in the tunnels. Binkadink and Castillan broke out sunrods and activated them, giving those without a dwarven heritage a chance to actually see where they were going.

"Watch yer heads, now," advised Brunik as they entered the mines. Again, with an all-dwarven workforce, the miners saw no need to dig their tunnels any higher than about five feet tall. Binkadink and Ingebold were the only two heroes not discomfited by the low tunnels, as the elves, half-elf, and human all stood over five feet tall. Gilbert, the tallest of the group, had to hunch over considerably as he followed the others down the twisting passageways. "Stupid dwarves," he muttered to himself.

Within minutes, they arrived at the tunnel in question. Most of its length was bisected by a pair of metal rails, which Brunik explained were for mine carts, allowing them to haul away great loads of stone all at once. The carts were in use elsewhere, though, for the tunnel stood empty and alone. "This be as far as I go," said Brunik, then backed slowly away as if afraid to turn his back on the haunted tunnel.

Malaterminus, unsheathed in Finoula's right hand, reported telepathically to his mistress. "I can detect no sources of evil in the tunnel ahead," he silently advised.

"Let's go," said Ingebold, holding her holy symbol of Moradin in her right hand. The others followed, and sure enough, at the far end of the tunnel one side of the ceiling opened up to a larger cavern higher up. Half hidden among the scattered rocks on the ground was a battered miner's pick. Also scattered along the floor of the tunnel was a bunch of dirt; while the mine itself cut through the solid rock of the mountain's heart, apparently this particular tunnel was closer to the dirt of the mountain's outer surface.

Darrien tried climbing up but the rocks he used for balance slid away underneath him. Deciding to show him how it was done, Castillan sprung up the side of the tunnel wall and easily climbed onto the level above. The place smelled of mold and mildew, and no wonder, for it was a fungal garden of sorts with musty growths of wet-looking mushrooms of various shapes and sizes growing here and there. Not surprisingly, two stocky forms shambled over toward Castillan as the bounder got to his feet at the edge of the chamber's opening to the mine below. Each haphazardly carried a miner's pick, and while at first glance they did seem to be bleeding, in the light from the bounder's sunrod the blood looked to be green, not red - a fact the dwarven miners wouldn't have picked up using their black-and-white darkvision.

Castillan snapped his fingers and a short sword appeared in his right hand. He stepped forward and brought it to bear against the closest of the zombies, plunging the blade deep into its side. It made no cry of pain, barely noticing the gaping hole Castillan had carved into its side; instead, it swung its pick at him while the other zombie reached out to smack the elf with a closed fist. Castillan easily dodged the pick but was struck by the second zombie's slimy fist. Immediately, the elf felt a burning sensation on his wrist where he'd been struck; looking down, he saw the area was discolored and covered in a slimy residue that seemed to be growing along his arm.

"A little help up here!" he called down to the others. But they were having a difficult time climbing up the crumbling wall of the tunnel and into the upper chamber. Ingebold managed to pull herself up and immediately brandished her holy symbol at the shambling forms, but they seemed unimpressed by the sudden presentation of Moradin's emblem. Binkadink, Darrien, and Finoula all tried scrambling up the side wall, only to have their hand- and footholds crumble away. Finally, Gilbert grabbed up Binkadink and half lifted, half pushed him up to the fungal garden. The gnome immediately attacked the second zombie with his glaive, giving Castillan enough time to step back and scrape the olive-colored slime from his arm with the blade of his weapon.

On the lower level, Finoula and Darrien still attempted to pull themselves up the crumbling wall to no avail. Gilbert didn't bother trying to climb up himself; rather, since he could see the head of one of the slime-covered zombies, he targeted it with his wand of magic missiles. The magic energy shot into the plant creature, dropping it to the ground where it burst like an overripe gourd, revealing the intact skeleton of a dwarven miner beneath its fibrous, slime-coated body. Together, Binkadink and Castillan took care of the other one, careful not to let it drip its corrosive slime onto them during the battle. Then, once there was no longer any immediate danger in the room, they helped the other heroes climb up into the fungal chamber.

"Be careful not to step over here," pointed out Binkadink, indicating a patch of glistening-wet olive slime in a northern corner of the chamber. It was apparently the parent colony of the slime organism, no doubt capable of transforming anyone coming into contact with it into an olive slime zombie. The heroes gave it a wide berth as they crossed the fungal garden and exited into a side tunnel leading north, south, and, directly ahead, east. Binkadink stepped forward, looked north and south and saw nothing of interest but further branching passageways, and popped his head into the chamber to the east. This was another fungal garden, this one populated by speckle-capped toadstools - and a pair of giant ants tending to the fungal growths.

"Ants!" cried Binkadink, letting the others know what he saw as the two giant worker ants scurried over to do battle with the intruder in their nest. The little gnome slew the first ant with a quick slice of his glaive, but the second one scurried right over the body of its compatriot and snapped its mandibles at the fighter. From behind the gnome, Darrien shot it with his bow and the giant insect collapsed onto the corpse directly below it.

"Let's try this way," suggested Finoula, leading the way down the passageway to the north. It branched off northwest and northeast into two more fungal gardens, each occupied by more of the giant worker ants. Two scurried out of the passageway to Finoula's left, while four scrambled to bite her from the right. Each made straight for the elven ranger, and to Finoula's horror she saw they walked along the tunnels' ceilings as well as their floors. She tried fending off the two at her right with Malaterminus, only to be bitten on the leg and left shoulder by the pair on her left. She cried out in pain, and Binkadink managed to scoot up to her side, his much smaller stature aiding him in squeezing between the elven ranger and the pair of ants on her right side. This allowed Finoula to concentrate on the pair on her left, but each hero still faced two foes single-handedly.

Gilbert, Castillan, and Darrien were unable to do much in the way of help. Gilbert aimed his wand and waited to get in a shot, killing off the one on the ceiling to Finoula's left. Finoula took care of the one below it, but by that time had been badly wounded by several deep bites. At Binkadink's suggestion, she crawled past the twin ant corpses - at some points having to cut her way through a leg like a jungle explorer hacking her way through thick vines - to the fungal garden in the small chamber just beyond. This gave her the room to grab up a healing potion from her belt and swig it down, without fear of being further bitten by these singleminded giant ants.

However, Finoula had no idea the room she had just entered was not totally unoccupied. Hidden among the many mushrooms was a tiny fungus leshy, a sentient, mobile fungal growth with an odd number of limbs and eyes. It sprayed her with a stream of puffball spores, causing the elf to choke and cough but not much else. She quickly downed the contents of her healing potion before finding herself in combat once again, this time all alone, for Binkadink was still fighting with the ants at the corridor's branch - he'd killed one, but another ant in the chamber behind it dragged it away and took its place. The gnome was stuck fighting for his life against the two giant worker ants, unable to come to Finoula's assistance.

Behind him, Ingebold was trying to make her way past the gnome and his twin foes to come to Finoula's aid, but found it impossible to get past the frantic melee in the cramped quarters.

Further back, seeing no way to be of much use in the battle with the ants, Gilbert, Castillan, and Darrien explored south. The passageway branched off into two again, and the elf and half-elf went to explore its length, thinking to report back what they found. However, what they found was a much larger chamber occupied by two even bigger ants than those they'd encountered thus far. These were giant soldier ants, and each had a wicked-looking stinger on the back of its abdomen. They surged forward, attacking Darrien; the half-elf ranger had just enough time to note there were two sloping passageways out of this chamber, one leading up and one leading down, before he was forced to switch from the Arachnibow to his scimitar for some close-in combat.

Finoula, having shaken off the worst effects of the leshy's puffball attack, found herself defending against the asymmetrical creature's bite and claws. It tore into the ranger, causing her to fall back again and swig down the last of her healing potions. Then she realized that in this case the best defense was probably a strong offense, and the quicker she slew the fungus leshy the better off she'd be. So she sliced it up, with Malaterminus in her right hand and a short sword in her left. Before long, it was dead and decaying among the rest of the fungus in the garden, and Finoula had a moment to catch her breath and cut her way past the ant corpses in the passageway back towards Binkadink - for the chamber she was in was a dead end.

By then, Binkadink had managed to kill off the four giant ant workers that had sprung out of the chamber to the northeast, allowing Ingebold to squeeze past him and attend to Finoula's wounds.

In the chamber to the south, Castillan and Darrien were stabbing and slicing at the giant soldier ants with reckless abandon. Darrien got bitten by his foe, and the insect swung its abdomen around to stab its stinger into the half-elf's leg. Darrien felt a burning sensation where the acidic fluid seeped out of the wound, but this only gave him the incentive he needed to tear himself free from the ant's embrace. Then a final slice with his scimitar finished the creature off, at about the same time that Castillan had carved his own up. The two giant soldier ants collapsed to the floor, their legs still twitching spasmodically. But the heroes' victory was short-lived, for another two giant soldier ants came racing down the sloping passageway from some upper chamber, alerted by either the sounds of the previous fight or some chemical call unnoticed by the heroes. Darrien and Castillan each chose a new foe and started stabbing with their weapons, and despite each of them picking up a few more wounds from the battle, in the end they were victorious.

Then, before Castillan could say anything, Darrien went straight for the passageway sloping further down. Looking back to see if Gilbert had followed them - he hadn't - Castillan gave a mental shrug and followed the impulsive ranger deeper into the nest.

Gilbert, however, had heard a scratching sound coming from the corridor to the southeast - which, unfortunately, submerged deeper into the earth but at a curving slope, preventing the wizard from seeing what was making the noise. He called back to the others, who had killed off all of their insectoid foes and were being healed as needed by Ingebold. The trio lined up behind Gilbert, who told them, "I hear funny noise down that way. We better check it out." And then he pushed Binkadink ahead of him to allow the gnome fighter to be the first into any potential danger.

Following the sloping passageway, the gnome saw a long corridor leading into a very large chamber directly beyond - the queen ant's chamber, by the looks of the winged giant ant the size of a large horse at the back of the chamber. A giant soldier ant stood on either side of her, with some sort of humanoid fungus-man to the west side of the chamber. And dragging the unmoving body of a dwarven miner (who had obviously seen better days) was yet another giant soldier ant.

"That's Kelvin!" called out Ingebold, recognizing her cousin.

That was all the encouragement Binkadink needed to hear. Gnomish glaive held out in front of him, he started to charge down the corridor - but was then intercepted by yet another giant soldier ant popping out of a side chamber. As he wasted time fighting this new foe, Gilbert was able to blast the queen ant with his wand of magic missiles, hitting her squarely between the eyes as she bent forward to accept the dwarven morsel that had been brought to her by her loyal soldier. Kelvin's screams as she bit into his leg and dragged him away dispelled any question as to whether the miner yet lived. But not liking being shot with magic wands, the queen dragged her food off to the side of the large chamber where Gilbert couldn't get out a second shot. In the meantime, her two soldiers advanced upon the corridor, ready to protect their queen with their lives.

Back across the other side of the nest, Castillan and Darrien found a much larger fungal garden, this one much more haphazard than those at the north of the nest. While those each seemed to be groomed for specific types of fungus, this was a mish-mash of all types of fungus, molds, and slimes. Interspersed with the growths were the occasional glint of metal, making it appear as if this room served as a junkyard as much as a garden. Picking their way through the cavern and mindful of any olive-colored slime patches, they advanced to the the other end, through which they could see, through a tunnel with several side-branches, the queen's chamber. The sounds of battle came from it, including a dwarf screaming in pain.

The two raced recklessly through the tunnel, heads bent forward below the low ceiling. They passed two egg chambers where a giant worker ant tirelessly turned each egg over, and a nasty-smelling chamber filled with human-sized grubs, mouth-parts opening and closing as they sought the food yet another worker had dragged over from the fungal garden through which the heroes had just passed. But before they could exit the tunnel, a human-sized fungus man, a myconid given to the ant colony by a passing tribe of myconids as a peace offering, stepped into view. It shot a stream of pacification spores at Darrien, hoping to take him out of the fight - but in vain, for the half-elf ranger shrugged off the effects and buried his scimitar deep into the myconid's hardened flesh.

To the north of the queen's chamber, Binkadink had killed off the giant soldier ant that had sprung out at him, clearing the way for the others to approach. They had to fight their way past the two giant soldier ants guarding the chamber, but once one was dead, Gilbert got close enough to target opponents in the queen's chamber. He hit the queen with another blast from his wand of magic missiles, not wanting to accidentally catch Kelvin in the blast and absolutely certain of his magic missiles' ability to strike only what was targeted. He saved his scorching ray spell for the myconid fighting the two heroes in the narrow tunnel to the west of the queen's chamber.

In the meantime, Darrien, spying the unmoving form of the sole remaining dwarf they'd been sent to fetch, did what he deemed to be the most practical course of action: pulling out his Arachnibow, he shot the dwarf directly in the chest. However, by the time the arrow had struck him, it had transformed into a line of sturdy spider silk. Pulling in his line, Darrien dragged Kelvin away from the queen and across the room over closer to him.

While Binkadink and Finoula carved up the soldiers, Gilbert finished off the irritated queen with another blast from his wand. The giant queen ant shuddered once under the assault, then crashed to the floor of her cavern.

To say that chaos followed was an understatement. Every giant ant left alive in the nest instantly went crazy. The workers who had been tending to the eggs and grubs in the small chambers to the west of the queen's chamber instantly turned into kill-crazy combatants, biting Castillan and Darrien in a frenzy of snapping mandibles. Castillan was bitten and bleeding from numerous wounds, to the extent he was barely managing to stand on his feet. In desperation, and out of healing potions, he grabbed up one of Winkidew's questionable potions of gaseous form. Fortunately, he had learned from Darrien's early failed attempt to "drink" one of these potions, and knew what to expect; unstoppering the cork by his mouth, he inhaled the vapors that spilled from the opened potion flask, instantly becoming vaporous himself. He floated past Darrien, who was also on his last legs, and continued on past the myconid pounding into the half-elf ranger with its fungoid fists. Darrien collapsed into unconsciousness and fell to the floor, to be ripped into by the still-frantic giant worker ants behind him.

Fortunately, by this time, Binkadink, Finoula, and Ingebold had made it past the giant soldier ants and into the chamber. Ingebold rushed over to the queen's dead body and cast a much-needed healing spell on Kelvin Stonecarver. He'd been knocked unconscious during the cave-in, to the extent that he was thought to be dead by the giant worker ants that dug him out. While they dropped the other two dwarves into the patch of olive slime to become guardians of this new breach into their nest, Kelvin had been dragged over to a soldier's guard station, to be offered to the queen when she got hungry. He'd been comatose until the queen started trying to eat him, but now his cousin Ingebold was applying curative energy through his torn and battered body, and he'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life.

Together, the heroes killed the myconid, allowing Ingebold to apply healing spells to the unconscious Darrien while the others took care of the remaining giant worker ants. To finish the job, they killed off the grubs and cut through each of the unhatched eggs. Castillan, resuming his solid form, received enough healing from Ingebold to be able to stand steady on his feet, then did a thorough search among the "junk" of the nearby fungal growths. He managed to unearth a longsword and a masterwork dagger, as well as a half-rotten leather sack filled with coins and a couple of well-built arrows. It wasn't much in the way of treasure, but he reasoned it was better than nothing.

"Well, we rescue one dwarf. That not bad," stated Gilbert.

"And we took out a giant ant nest that could have caused trouble for the miners," added Darrien.

"And I have gotten to see firsthand your combat maneuvers," added Malaterminus telepathically to Finoula. "I believe with further demonstrations I will come to be able to anticipate your moves and aid you in striking with even further accuracy."

All in all, it wasn't a bad return visit to Kordovia.

- - -

I've always wanted to write an adventure where the PCs go up against a giant ant nest, and this is where I finally got my wish. Fearing that fighting ant after ant would get boring, I added the myconid, fungus leshy, and olive slime zombies as a way to spice things up. Plus, the olive slime zombies gave me my plot hook and a reason for the PCs to want to go fighting their way through the ant nest in the first place.

During this adventure, I did something I generally don't do: as each ant was slain, rather that remove the mini (I used a bag of 12 plastic ants I picked up at a birthday party store for the workers, plus some wingless bees for the soldiers, and an oversized ant for the queen) I left it in place but flipped it over. That way, the other players could see at a glance it was dead, but it still became a physical obstacle the PCs had to overcome. Several times during the course of the adventure the PCs were slowed down by having to clear the way of dead ants rather than go to the immediate aid of another PC. This added a different dynamic to the game, and I've found doing things differently can be a good way to make things memorable.

Also, climbing into the first fungal chamber proved to be quite difficult for some of the PCs, certainly more troublesome than I had anticipated. I made it a relatively simple DC 10 Climb check, but both Darrien and Finoula managed to fail three rounds in a row. Binkadink finally had Gilbert simply lift him up to the chamber rather than risk continued failure, and Finoula didn't get up there until the initial combat had been finished. Sometimes, the die roll results just aren't there for you when you need them!

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Mütter Museum shirt, which features a pair of human skeletons - it's my "go-to" shirt to wear to game sessions where the adventure will deal primarily with undead. In this case, it was a fake-out, since my plot hook was built to lead the players into thinking their PCs would be fighting the ghosts of dwarven miners. I have a family reunion T-shirt that features a large tree silhouette, which I had briefly considered wearing to tie in with the fact that the two slain dwarves were now olive slime zombies (and thus plants), but I decided instead to go for planting false information. Sometimes it's best to keep the players on their toes, and they're getting eerily accurate in gleaning information from my T-shirt choices.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 4​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 4​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 4​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 4​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 4​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 4 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 28 November 2015

- - -

The "road" that the group had been following through the Vesve Forest had become little more than a dirt track threatened with complete obliteration by the overgrowth of weeds. Still, every once in a while they spotted the recent tracks of a cart in a patch of mud to reassure them that they weren't the only ones ever to pass this way.

As the group turned a bend, a disturbing sight came into view: the crumpled remains of a small wooden cart, pieces of which were strewn across the path. Streaks of bright blood stained the ground, evidence of recent violence. As the adventurers looked at the scene in shock, Finoula's sharp elven hearing picked up a wheezing gasp, coming from under the cart. "There's somebody under there!" she called out as she leapt out of Daisy's saddle. Ingebold stopped the mule-driven cart, passed the reins to Darrien, and jumped down herself, ready to cast healing spells as needed.

Gilbert helped Castillan and Binkadink turn the remains of the small cart over, revealing a halfling who had been pinned underneath. He had obviously seen better days: his right thigh bone pierced through the skin and his labored breathing hinted at a possible punctured lung. He managed to say only "My brother...beetles..." before passing out. Ingebold said a prayer of healing over the little halfling, mending up his leg and easing his breathing. He flickered his eyes a few times before finally being able to focus on his rescuers.

"Wangle?" he asked.

"I'm sorry?" asked Finoula.

"My brother, Wangle," explained the halfling. "When the beetles attacked, he was thrown from the cart. Right before I passed out, I could hear my brother Wangle's voice calling from farther and farther away in the forest as he was taken away. Did you find him, by any chance?"

"No, I'm sorry, just you," replied Finoula sadly.

"And whatever was pullin' yer cart's gone, too," added Ingebold.

The halfling closed his eyes in weariness. "That was our pony, Pokey. She was a good pony."

After a few seconds, during which time the group started to think he might have fallen asleep, he snapped his eyes back open. "I'm sorry," he said suddenly. "My name is Gamber Mellowwine. Thank you for coming to my rescue. Can any of you see which way they might have taken my brother?" He tried to sit up, but winced in pain.

"Ye'd best stay right there," advised Ingebold. "We'll go find yer brother fer ye." Darrien had already started looking around and quickly realized you wouldn't need a ranger's woodlore training to be able to follow this particular trail. Bright red blood pooled in furrows in the dirt, where a large body - presumably Pokey's - had been dragged off the path and into the thickets. He didn't think it would be too difficult to follow the path the beetles had taken but there was no way for them to be able to take the wagon through the forest undergrowth. He advised the others to that effect.

"Help me lift 'im into the wagon," commanded Ingebold. Gilbert stooped to comply, and they made Gamber as comfortable as possible. In the meantime, Castillan had gathered up the goods that had been scattered across the road during the attack. There were pots and pans and silver cutlery, smashed clay jugs and broken glass bottles of what looked to have been fine elven wine, a couple of blankets, and a small leather bag filled with a dozen or so golden coins. All but the leather bag made it to the wagon with the halfling, but the elven bounder made sure that none of his adventuring partners saw the coins drop into his own belt pouch. "Here's your stuff - what survived, anyway," he told Gamber.

"Thank you," replied the halfling, his eyes fluttering back to sleep.

Finoula tied Daisy's bridle to the wagon while Binkadink gave orders for Obvious to guard the halfling and the wagon. Finoula debated whether to leave the timber wolf she had recently tamed as additional protection, but then decided against it. Wrath was still new to the group, and she wasn't sure he could be trusted alone with a tasty jackalope without her being nearby to intercede if it became necessary. "C'mon!" she called to her wolf, and he obediently trotted by her heels, tongue wagging happily.

Darrien led the way. The beetles certainly hadn't been concerned about hiding their tracks, that was for sure. After about fifteen minutes, the undergrowth and thick trees gave way to a clearing, a meadow filled with grass and flowers - and three gray-carapaced beetles scurrying about on all sixes. Each was the size of a man, and had its head down as it dug in the ground. Darrien held up a hand to those following behind him as a signal for silence.

"Are they burying something?" whispered Finoula. "Or digging something up?"

"Let's find out," replied Darrien in as quiet a voice. He started moving cautiously toward the beetles, moving south of the trio. Finoula and Wrath followed suit, taking a more northerly approach. Castillan had his bow in hand with an arrow already nocked, and headed straight for the beetles as quietly as he could. Ingebold, once again feeling the lack of ranged weaponry, cast a magic stone spell that imbued three small throwing stones with magical energy and held the first of them in her hand, ready to throw.

Gilbert looked around to see if there were any more beetles within sight. He saw none, just the three before him, to the south of the trail made by the dead pony - apparently they had doubled back? The wizard cast a message spell at Ingebold, Castillan, Binkadink, and Darrien - had he had more experience with the spell, he might have been able to include Finoula as well. "Stay very quiet," he advised, "but you can whisper replies back to me and I'll hear them." King Galrich's tales of his adventuring days often included their wizard casting a Rary's telepathic bond spell allowing the group to silently talk to each other; this was the closest Gilbert's magical acumen could provide for now.

Once Castillan felt he was close enough to be able to launch a successful sneak attack, he took aim and was ready to let fly with his arrow but Binkadink beat him to the first blood - the little gnome went charging through the grass in his fully-extended stilt boots and brought his glaive swinging down into the back of one of the beetles, his blade sinking in deep. Castillan released his arrow and it hit the centermost beetle in the joint just behind its narrow head and the shell casing on its back. Simultaneously all three beetles jumped up from their prone positions, standing up on their hind legs and grabbing up wooden javelins and wicker shields as they did so. They held their javelins as if to stab with them rather than throw them.

Binkadink again hit the beetle he had wounded and was surprised to see it still standing after two vital hits. Immediately, the other two ran forward and stabbed at the gnome with their javelins, while the wounded beetle backed off, then turned and started running east. Seeing that, Darrien shot at the fleeing beetle, fearing he was running back to their nest for reinforcements. His arrow bounced off the beetle's hard shell, but the trio of magic missiles from Gilbert's wand met no such resistance. The beetle pitched forward and lay still on the ground, dead.

Binkadink took several hits from the beetles' javelins, but gave back worse than he took. Once Finoula and Wrath reached the closest of the remaining two insects, they apparently decided they'd had enough, and started fleeing in the same direction their dead comrade had taken. They were quite fleet when they put a mind to it, and quickly outdistanced the adventurers. But Finoula had a response to that; concentrating intently, she gathered up the magical energy in her mind and let fly with the first spell she'd ever cast in her life. Immediately, the grasses of the meadow around the fleeing beetles started entwining around their limbs. Slowed considerably by the entanglement, they were unable to prevent Finoula, Castillan and Darrien from catching up to them, even though the heroes had to flank the circular area of Finoula's spell effect to avoid being tangled themselves. By the time the three of them - and Wrath, bounding by Finoula's feet and apparently having the time of his life - caught up to the sole remaining beetle, his cohort had managed to free himself from the spell's effects and run away out of sight.

While the group focused their weapons on the remaining frightened beetle-man, Gilbert and Binkadink looked at the area where the insects had been when they were first encountered, trying to see what they had been up to. The little gnome spotted a clump of dark material on the ground near where one had been digging, retracted his stilt-boots, bent over, and picked up...a truffle.

Holding it out to the wizard, he asked, "They were digging for truffles?"

"Uh oh," admitted Gilbert. "We maybe have wrong beetles." They hurried to catch up with the others.

By this time the sole beetle, still entangled by the grasses entwined around the two legs he was standing on and the middle legs holding a wicker shield and a javelin, was speaking for the first time. "Kee paway," it advised.

"We're not going to hurt you," replied Finoula, lowering her weapons and motioning for the others to do likewise.

"Kee paway," repeated the beetle. "I meenit."

"Can you understand me?" asked the elven ranger, first in the Common tongue, then again in Elven. The beetle gave no indications that it understood, merely repeating "Kee paway" as if it were a charm against harmful intent.

"Guys," said Gilbert as he and Binkadink approached. "I don't think these guys our beetles. Trail goes away from where other beetle ran."

"You mean," reasoned Finoula, "we just attacked and killed innocents?" Her face drained of all color at the thought.

"I think they were just out gathering mushrooms and truffles," added Binkadink, looking rather shamefacedly himself.

"What we do with him now?" asked Gilbert. "Maybe we put him out of misery and go back to following trail?"

"We're not killing him!" exclaimed Finoula. "If these aren't the beetles that attacked the halflings, then we've already done them enough harm!"

"Kee paway," repeated the beetle-man, as if the fifth or sixth time would surely be the charm.

"So, what are we going to do?" asked Darrien. Before a decision could be made, there was a commotion behind them. The adventurers had formed a semicircle around the entangled beetle-man, with their backs facing the direction the beetle that had escaped had run. Now, approaching from that same direction was a delegation of three more beetles. One might or might not have been the one that had escaped the adventurers' attacks - it was, quite frankly, rather difficult to tell them apart.

Two of the new arrivals flanked the third, short swords and shields at the ready. The third, surprisingly, was unarmed. "Query," it said, "which is cow?"

"What?" asked Finoula, thinking she must have misheard the question.

The beetle cocked its head to one side and looked among the adventurers. "Query," it repeated, "which of you is cow?"

"Um, we don't have a cow," answered Darrien.

"What you mean by cow?" Gilbert fired back.

The three new arrivals stared silently at each other as if conferring, although neither said a word. Finally, the middle one said, "Query: Who lays eggs for nest?"

"We definitely don't have a cow, then," answered Castillan.

"He talks kind of like you, Gilbert," whispered Binkadink, sending a reply back to the wizard via his still-active message spell.

"You shut silly gnome mouth."

"Query: Are you all Karls?" asked the lead beetle. This got the insect only puzzled looks from the heroes. He tried a different approach. "Query: Why you attack bugs?"

"Answer: We think bugs attack our friend," replied Gilbert, formatting his answer to fit the speaking style of the insectoid creature standing before him.

"Statement of fact: Bugs not attack your friend."

"Yeah, we figure that out by now."

"Statement of fact: You kill bug. Query: How you pay for dead bug?"

"Yeah, about that..." began Gilbert, but the bug cut him off.

"Query: You have weapons for bug nest?"

The group looked among themselves, then Binkadink placed his glaive on the ground and stepped forward. Pulling out his longsword, he offered it to the nearest of the beetles. This seemed to be sufficient payment for the senseless slaying of an aspis drone; the "noise-speaker" - one of two drones in the aspis nest who had learned the "noise language" of the humans some time ago by a woodcutter named Karl - silently pointed behind the group and one of the other drones scurried off, returning shortly with the slain drone over his shoulder.

"Statement of fact," began the noise-speaker. "Colony of beetles nearby. Guess: They likely killed friend. Suggestion: We travel to bug nest, then bugs and Karls go to beetle nest and find friend, kill beetles."

"Um, agreement to terms," offered Castillan, cutting free the still-entangled drone with his short sword.

"Are we sure about this?" asked Finoula, thinking about their recent excursion into a giant ant nest. She'd had enough insect-fighting in cramped quarters to last her for a good long time and hoped this wasn't a trap. But Malaterminus had advised her earlier on that the first group of beetles hadn't been evil and he assured her that the same was true of this second group.

The aspis nest wasn't far off, and the heroes were allowed to wait outside while the three drones took their dead compatriot inside - where, they'd been told by the noise-speaker, his body would be chopped into pieces and fed to the hungry grubs. "These guys don't put a whole lot of value on the lives of their drones," pointed out Finoula.

"Like ye said: they're just drones," replied Ingebold. "I suppose if we'd've attacked their queen, or cow, or whatever, it'd be a diff'rent story."

Eventually five drones emerged from the nest, ready for action. Each carried two of the wicker shields, two javelins, and two metal short swords. Castillan, getting a closer look at the swords, noted they were rather small and supposed they were likely of goblin make - quite possibly spoils of war. The noise-speaker came with them, but only to explain the situation to the group. "Statement of fact: these drones take you to beetle nest."

"You aren't coming with?" asked Finoula.

"Negative reply: no," said the noise-speaker. "Statement of fact: cow wants noise-speakers stay at bug nest, not get killed by beetles."

"Wait, so we have no way to talk to these drones?" asked Darrien.

"Affirmative reply: yes. Bugs talk to bugs, but use scent-language, not noise-language."

"As long as they know the way to the beetle nest, that's all we really need," said Binkadink. "Lead on, gentlemen."

The noise-speaker said a few words to his fellow drones in their silent scent-language, and they were off, the adventurers following just behind. It was a mile or so to the giant beetle nest, and the drag marks were apparent almost all of the way. Eventually, the trail led to a large open hole in the ground that led down into darkness at about a 60-degree angle. The drones started heading for the hole immediately, but Castillan held up his hand and gestured for them to stop. They did, staring silently at their strange combat partners, heads tilted at quizzical angles.

Not able to climb as well as six-limbed insectiods were likely to, Binkadink wanted an easy extraction route from the beetle nest they were about to enter. He tied a length of rope from his pack around a piton that he pushed into the ground, then anchored the first two feet or so of the rope's length with another half-dozen pitons. Only after that was done did he allow the group to proceed.

The adventurers all took advantage of the rope to guide them down into the lightless hole, whereas the aspis drones didn't seem to see the need. (Wrath remained topside, apparently not wishing to enter a shaft he might not be able to climb back out of.) Once at the bottom of the sloping shaft, Binkadink and Darrien's sunrods were the only sources of light beyond the feeble sunlight filtering down through the entrance.

The tunnel went both left and right. Selecting left at random, Castillan tossed a sunrod into the large cavern just ahead and exposed a scuttling beetle much larger than a human or even an aspis drone. This creature had a black carapace and a massive pair of pincers that looked large enough to be able to wrap around a human's torso without difficulty. As the giant boring beetle turned to face this new menace, Castillan noticed another similar beetle off at the other side of the large communal chamber.

"Two beetles!" he called to the others as he shot an arrow at the first of the boring beetles.

Behind him, three of the aspis drones stepped forward, throwing their javelins at the oncoming threats. Binkadink ran up, swinging his glaive, while behind him Darrien got off a shot with his Arachnibow. Gilbert fired off a barrage of magic missiles from his wand, and together they managed to slay the first beetle encountered in this chamber. Immediately, the group who had made it this far into the larger cavern focused on the second one, just now closing with the group. The aspis drones had by this time switched to their short swords and met it head-on.

However, there were more than just two giant boring beetles in this nest. Scurrying out from the tunnel to the right, accompanied by an intense shrieking sound, came a third boring beetle. Finoula slashed at it with her twin swords - Malaterminus informing her that these beetles were likewise not of an evil nature - and the other aspis drones hurled their javelins at it before closing for melee combat. Before long it too, had joined its dead comrades - for the other group had by then slain the second beetle in the nest's largest chamber.

Checking the way the third beetle had come, the group discovered what the shrieking sound had been: a type of fungus, interspersed with the many other types of fungal growths being harvested in this smaller chamber, which made shrieking noises when anything moved nearby. A quick scan through the fungus led the group to the source of their quest: the partially-eaten remains of both Pokey the pony and Wangle the halfling merchant. Ingebold unrolled a blanket from her pack and wrapped the halfling's remains in it; Gilbert solemnly took the bundle from her and hefted it over his shoulder.

A fierce barking from above gave the adventurers brief warning of the next danger they faced: a fourth beetle, returning to the nest after a failed hunting expedition. Already wounded, it was little match for the heroes and their aspis drone cohorts in battle.

The return to the aspis nest was uneventful; the aspis drones did their best to clear out the boring beetles' stock of mold growths and fungal shoots, their weapons sheathed in belt straps while their four upper limbs carried as much as they could hold. Once back at the nest, the noise-speaker had a final bit of business to attend to: he had noticed how the heroes apparently valued coins and gems; would the "Karls" be interested in trading weapons for the two gems and ring the nest had accumulated?

Looking at the proffered items, Castillan estimated the twin gems were worth about 500 gold pieces each and the ring another 75 at least. The drones happily exchanged the three "worthless" items to the adventurers for a dagger, a hatchet, and the small hammer they used to pound in their tent stakes.

"Suckers!" snickered the elven bounder to his friends.

<Statement of fact: These Karls prefer useless ornamentation over actual weapons!> said the noise-speaker to his fellow drones in the silent scent-language of the aspis. <Query: How have they managed to survive so long burdened by such mental deficiencies?>

<Admission of puzzlement: I have no idea!> replied one of the drones who had accompanied the heroes to battle the giant boring beetles.

Saying their goodbyes, the heroes retraced their way back to where they had left Gamber in their wagon. But the day's excitement had not yet come to an end, for they had just crashed through enough brush for the wagon to be visible across the road when they heard another creature powering its way through the wooded undergrowth. At first glance, it looked to be a simple gnoll - but then the true scale of the thing became apparent. The creature stood a good 15 feet tall, with a body of humanoid build covered in fur, and a head that definitely belonged somewhere on the hyena/wolf/dog/coyote spectrum. It hadn't yet spotted the heroes, but it had noticed Obvious, Daisy, the two mules, and possibly even the wounded Gamber Mellowwine laying helplessly on the back of the wagon. Regardless of whichever of these it had focused upon, its hungry expression showed that it thought of them as nothing more than its next meal. It made a beeline for the wagon, pushing aside saplings that stood in its way with one hand; its other held a scourge of chain links.

Darrien wasn't sure what they were facing, but he was certain he didn't want it snacking on Gamber or their riding mounts. In an instant, he had an arrow flying across the road and burying itself deep into the creature's shoulder. With a savage snarl the creature spun around, focusing its attention fully on this new threat. It headed in the group's direction, massive scourge jangling at its side.

Castillan reacted by bounding his way up the nearest tree trunk. Finoula's eyes narrowed at this act of apparent cowardice, but the elven bounder had merely secured himself a perch on a tree limb high up enough that the gnoll-thing shouldn't be able to reach him. With a snap of his fingers, his bow reappeared in his hand and he started shooting arrows at it as well.

Finoula, Binkadink, and Wrath had no ranged attacks, so they started across the way separating them from their new foe at their best speed, the gnome extending his stilt-boots as he ran. Gilbert blasted the giant gnoll with his wand of magic missiles, and Darrien, seeing that Castillan was taking care of things on the arrow front, took time from his own arrow-shooting to cast his first spell ever: a summon nature's ally that brought an eagle down from the sky to rake its talons across the gnoll's snout.

"What gnoll grow that tall?" asked Gilbert.

"I'm not sure meself," admitted Ingebold, "but d'ye think that might be Yeenoghu, the demon lord of gnolls?"

"What gnoll demon lord doing down here in Vesve Forest?"

"I've no idea," replied Ingebold. "But let's send him back to his Abyssal realm!" And with that, the dwarven cleric of Moradin cast a spell she'd never used before, a spiritual weapon. Instantly, a field of force in the shape of a warhammer took form and started smacking into the creature the heroes had dubbed Yeenoghu. Battered by the spiritual hammer, raked by an eagle's talons, and peppered with arrows from Castillan, the creature lashed out in some unseen way. Those in its immediate vicinity suddenly felt a wave of cold overtake them, leaving them drained of some of their vitality. The eagle froze up and fell to the ground, dead.

But by that time, Finoula and Binkadink had arrived. Between the elf's magic blade and the gnome's mundane one, they cut down the creature before it could do too much damage with its flailing scourge - Binkadink took the worst of it, but the little gnome was used by now to the role of "meat shield" and took it in stride. Sure, pain hurt, but it was fleeting and Ingebold's healing spells had always returned him to full vitality soon afterwards.

"That it?" Gilbert asked. "He not very tough for demon lord."

"Fine by me," replied Castillan, dropping down from his tree perch. "A win's a win. Now let's get the halfling here to the next town, and maybe find an inn for ourselves while we're at it. I could use an evening sleeping indoors for a change."

- - -

"A Boring Little Adventure" was one I had written back in the AD&D 2nd Edition days. I had submitted the idea to Dungeon Adventures as a companion piece to Dragon #260's "Ecology of the Aspis" article, but it was rejected (they had just accepted an adventure where boring beetles were the primary antagonist and didn't want to be too repetitive), so I shelved it. But I always liked the concept of a one-time team-up with aspis drones, so I updated it to the 3.5 rules and inserted it into this campaign. I did up five identical sets of stats for aspis drones and passed them out to the players, so they each ran their own PC as well as an aspis drone at that point. (And Logan was pulling triple duty because it was also his turn to run Ingebold.) I made stand-up aspis drone "minis" in the same style as my stop-gap PC minis, and numbered them so we could tell which was which. And everybody used metal PC minis for this adventure except for Joey, but that's only because his Darrien mini was at the stage where the initial base coat of solid black was on; Logan's Binkadink and Dan's Gilbert Fung were both (mostly) painted and Vicki and Jacob just used older minis from Dan's collection (from his college days) to temporarily represent Finoula and Castillan. Joey simply made do with the temporary stand-up Darrien mini I had made at the start of this campaign.

The bit with "Yeenoghu" was added in, though - it was never part of the original adventure, but was rather part of an ongoing mystery I wanted to throw into this campaign, and I told the players as much when their startled expressions after I had plopped the Yeenoghu D&D Miniature on the battle mat told me they all thought I was crazy for throwing a demon lord at them at 4th level. They immediately started trying to figure it out, and I admitted that I didn't expect them to figure anything out at this point - "Yeenoghu" was just a single puzzle piece that would hopefully all make sense once they had more pieces of the puzzle. So we'll see how that goes.

This was a relatively short adventure - I think it only lasted about three and a half hours. Thinking that might be the case, I had brought along the next adventure and we had time to run through that one during the same gaming session.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Well, I don't have any T-shirts with beetles on them - but I do have a "Yellow Submarine" T-shirt with (the cartoon version of) the Beatles on it, so that's what I wore to this session.
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Game Session Date: 28 November 2015

- - -

Heading back south the way they had been before, the timing synced up just right for the Kordovian adventurers to be hired on as caravan guards for the Baranford-to-Garonis route. The pay was less than when the route between the two cities had been plagued with bandit attacks, but it was an easy 20 pieces of gold each for an uneventful three-day security detail.

Once the wagon train had made it successfully to Garonis and the cargo unloaded to Grant Huntley's warehouse, the adventurers picked up their pay and immediately went shopping. They were getting low on potions - or at least potions that they weren't afraid to drink; Darrien still had his "Winkidew's special" potion of cure light wounds that experience from others of the same batch indicated was likely to be as easy to swallow as frog puke. Darrien happily plunked down a bag of coins at a small potion shop in Garonis, receiving in exchange a few healing potions made by alchemists who didn't take shortcuts like Binkadink's uncle did.

After the individual purchases had all been made and the group reassembled, they were discussing whether to continue on further south or stay the night in town. Ingebold was all for pressing on; while she'd be loathe to admit it, she seemed to have been bitten by the adventuring bug and was eager to see what other riches they might be able to procure for their little kingdom. Castillan, on the other hand, was arguing vociferously for an evening's stay at a decent inn, preferably one where he could get in some gaming with the locals and put his card-playing skills to good use, likely doubling his earnings if history was an indicator.

The discussion was cut short, however, by a commotion across the street from where the group's mule-driven wagon sat. "It's a scam, I tell you!" insisted an elderly woman being forcibly escorted from an establishment across the street. The sign above the door read "Bleakmann's Mortuary."

"I believe you're just distraught," insisted the black-clad man towering over her. "We at Bleakmann's disavow any knowledge of the incident in question. Once we've done our part, any such...incidents are entirely out of our hands."

He pushed her into the street, away from his door. "Now then, any further outrageous accusations from you and I'll be forced to call the constable. Unless you’d prefer to spent the evening in jail...? No? Then good day to you, madam."

The black-clad man then turned on his heels and returned to the mortuary, leaving the old lady fuming in the street. Then she saw the group watching the incident and her face lit up. She hurriedly crossed the street towards the group, a look of fierce determination on her face.

"Good afternoon!" she said, offering a gloved hand to Castillan, who had stepped forward as the most charismatic of the group. "My name is Coral Demogenes. Have you eaten? I would love to take to a nearby café - my treat - and make you a business proposition." Castillan made the introductions and said, with his most charming smile, they would love to listen to what she had to say.

After sitting down at the café and ordering their food, Mrs. Demogenes started her tale. "My dear Harold, he passed away last week," she began. "I had Bleakmann handle the burial, in the graveyard at the back of Pelor's Church. All seemed to go well, but I went to lay flowers on his grave this morning and I found signs that it'd been disturbed. It looked to me as if the coffin had been dug up and the hole filled back in, and sure enough, there's a coffin what looks just like the one I had poor Harold buried in, right there in the showcase at Bleakmann's! I dunno what his game is – maybe it's just as simple as selling the same coffin to poor widows like myself – but I don't like the thought of being swindled or lied to, and I certainly don't like the idea of poor Harold's remains just being dumped back into the cold ground without his coffin, if that's what they’re up to....

"So here's what I'd like to have happen," she continued, reaching into her purse and pulling out a small pouch of gold coins. "I want to hire you to look into things for me. You can't confront Bleakmann directly, he'll send the constable on you for sure, and what with you being strangers and all, I'm sure he'd be likely to take Bleakmann's side – but maybe there are other ways you could check into what he’s up to – for my sake, and for poor Harold's. I can pay you for your trouble - here are 50 gold pieces just for looking into this matter for me, with another 450 if you can prove that Bleakmann's up to no good." She looked up at Castillan. "What do you say?" she asked.

"Mrs. Demogenes, have no fear," assured the elven bounder, placing one hand upon the widow's and the other on her purse containing the down-payment. "We would be more than happy to look into this matter for you." And then their lunch arrived and no more was said on the subject.

"So how you want to deal with this?" asked Gilbert once Mrs. Demogenes had departed, after paying for the meal as promised. "We go rough up this Bleakmann?"

"Nothing quite so crude, just yet," suggested the bounder. "I think I'll go in as a customer, seeing as my dear wife just departed this mortal coil. I'd like to get a feel for the layout of the mortuary, if possible."

"Mebbe we should go talk to the clerics of Pelor," suggested Ingebold. "There's always the possibility that the old widow's simply jumpin' to conclusions. I'd hate t'be accusing this Bleakmann of wrong-doing if he's done nothing wrong."

"I agree," submitted Finoula. "Let's go find this Church of Pelor."

The clerics of Pelor's church were an agreeable lot, but they were all past their prime and didn't have a lot of input to offer. They admitted that they didn't have a guard on duty watching the graveyard behind the church where Harold Demogenes had been buried last week - but why would they, when they'd never had any such problems before? And they were all too willing to admit that they weren't in a position to oversee the graveyard at night, for they revered the Sun God and all went to bed early so they could greet the shining orb in the morning hours. They did offer to take the group to see Harold's grave, and they admitted that yes, it did look like it may have been disturbed recently, but they adamantly refused to allow the heroes to dig up the grave to see if Mr. Demogenes was indeed still buried there. It took hunting down Mrs. Demogenes to have her give the clerics her express permission to have her husband's grave dug back up before the Pelorian priests would agree to it.

"Why I always the one digging?" griped Gilbert as he started in with the shovel.

"Well, you're so big and strong," piped up Binkadink, standing just an inch or two over three feet tall; the wizard was almost twice his height at an inch under six feet tall. "I'd offer to do it, but it would take me forever. And you're doing such a fine job of it!"

"Why you not have your bunny over here helping me?"

"It's Obvious," smirked the gnome. "He could dig a hole, sure enough, but the dirt would be flying everywhere. He's not as precise as you are."

"You're doing a great job," added Darrien. The wizard sniffed in irritation but continued on, glancing over every now and then to see if Finoula was at all impressed with his expertise in the manly art of hole-digging. (She wasn't.) But eventually the hole was deep enough that Gilbert's shovel should have hit the top of the coffin. There was no way around it: coffin and body were both gone.

"Just my luck, I find ghoul tunnel down here," griped Gilbert. "Harold probably already a midnight snack."

"That's a horrible thought!" chided Finoula. But there were no tunnels visible in the hole Gilbert had dug, and after another half foot deeper even he agreed there was nothing further to be learned by any additional digging. The others helped haul him up out of the hole and Obvious began pushing the dirt back into the hole with his hind legs.

"Okay, what's next?" asked Darrien once the hole had been filled back in.

"I'm going to go check out Bleakmann's Mortuary," replied Castillan.

"I check out neighboring businesses," added Gilbert. "Maybe they tell us about Bleakmann."

"I'll come with ye," offered Ingebold.

"I think I'll go with Castillan," said Finoula, "only I'll hang back a little and see if Malaterminus can sense any evil around Bleakmann's place."

"Then I guess Binkadink and I can check out some of the other neighboring businesses, too," decided Darrien. The gnome nodded; he had no particular plans of his own.

The group returned to the street in front of Bleakmann's Mortuary. There were three buildings on that block: next to the mortuary was "Granny's Candies" and next to that was something called "Kendrick's Automatons." Darrien and Binkadink took a long walk around the back of the three buildings, to see if there were any back entrances they should know about. The only other door into any of the buildings besides their normal front doors was a door leading into the back of the mortuary; as it connected to a back alleyway, it seemed like a surreptitious way for the bodies of the deceased to be delivered without gathering a lot of notice.

Castillan walked directly to Bleakmann's Mortuary and stepped through the front door. On either side of the main entrance was a large display window showing a variety of caskets, from the simple pine box to a quite elaborate coffin of expensive woods, exquisitely carved in elaborate patterns. As he entered, a tall man in black rose up from his desk in an adjoining room and walked over to meet him. "May I help you?" he asked politely.

"Yes," replied Castillan. "It's my wife - she just passed away, somewhat suddenly. I was wondering if I could look at your caskets? I-- I'll need something to bury her in...." For added effect, the elven bounder made a face to give the impression he was holding back tears.

"Certainly," responded Bleakmann, taking Castillan to the display windows and showing off his wares. Castillan asked about cost and quality of workmanship, but while doing so he was also looking for signs that any of the caskets had been reused, and he also had his delicate elven senses attuned to see if he could detect any secret doors. Meanwhile, just outside, Finoula stood in the street and unsheathed Malaterminus. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, she took out a rag and started polishing the blade. "Anything?" she asked her intelligent sword.

"I do not detect the presence of evil in the mortician," replied the sword via its telepathic means. "If Bleakmann is involved in evil acts, it is not part of his normal nature to do so."

Finding no secret doors in the main passageways, Castillan turned the corner down a hall and asked, "And what's in here? Viewing chambers?"

"Yes," replied Bleakmann, showing him the two rooms set aside for such use. Neither was currently being used for a wake, so there was just a display coffin on a wheeled cart in each room. Castillan detected no secret doors in either of the rooms, but there was another door at the end of the hall that was marked for employees only. He desperately wanted to check on the other side of that door but could think of no logical reason for Bleakmann to entertain such a request without arousing suspicions. "All right, thank you for your time," said Castillan. "I need to decide a few things. I'll let you know my decision by tonight. How late are you open?"

"We generally close at six bells," replied Bleakmann, "but if you need, we can stay open later to discuss your wishes for the burial of your wife."

"Thank you, that's very kind. I'll try to be back by four bells or so." And Castillan exited the mortuary, having found nothing concrete tying Bleakmann to anything untoward. He approached Finoula and was told Malaterminus's findings. "Hopefully the others are having better luck," he said.

Next door, Gilbert, Darrien, and Ingebold were chatting up Granny Fanny, the owner and sole worker in the candy shop. As it turned out, she was friends with Coral Demogenes; the two played cards every weekend. She asked if that had been her friend arguing with Bleakmann earlier that afternoon, and upon being questioned about him, offered up that there had never been any complaints about Bleakmann's Mortuary that she could recall. The place had been there for decades; the current Bleakmann was the son of the original mortician who started the business.

"What about next door?" asked Gilbert. "Automaton sales? What that all about?"

"Well now, that's a different story altogether," admitted Granny Fanny. "They've only been open about a month or so. I don't know much about the owner or his salesmen; they tend to keep to themselves. Or at least they're not fans of candy - none of them have ever stepped foot into this shop."

"That crazy!" commiserated Gilbert. "This candy very good!" Indeed, Granny Fanny had been feeding all three of the adventurers samples of her wares during their conversation; feeling guilty otherwise, Ingebold purchased a small helping of the elderly lady's hard candies before leaving the shop with her two companions.

"I think we check out automaton shop now," suggested Gilbert, as his group met up with Finoula and Castillan. "Where that gnome?"

"He's across the street, keeping an eye on everything," replied Darrien. He waved him over and the six adventurers entered Kendrick's Automaton Sales. They were immediately accosted by two salesmen eager to sell the heroes a mechanical servant. Looking around the "showroom," the heroes could see four different automatons standing along the back walls of the room. Each looked more or less like a suit of plate mail armor, although in places where one might normally expect to see skin there was only wood. And the slits in the helmets were too thin to see any details of the faces within.

"Good afternoon," beamed one of the salesmen, a thin man in spotless white robes. "Can I interest you in the purchase of an automaton?"

"We just looking for now," replied Gilbert. "What all they do?"

"Why, anything you tell them to do!" replied the salesman eagerly. "Take him to your orchards and he'll pick apples tirelessly all day and night! Take him to your farm and he'll dig up the soil so it's ready for planting! Send him to the well with an empty barrel and he'll bring it back full to the brim!"

"Can they be used to kill?" asked Darrien.

"Why certainly, if told to do so!" admitted the salesman in white, eager to agree with a potential buyer. However, the other salesman, a larger man in black robes, was quick to point out, "Kendrick's is not responsible for the deaths of anyone killed with one of our automatons. It's no different than selling a sword; what you do with your automaton once you purchase it is your business, not ours."

"But yes, an automaton makes for a wonderful defender!" exclaimed the salesman in white, a much more eager individual. "He'll protect your home 24 hours a day if needs be, and he never complains! Never needs sleep! Never asks for payment for his work! Why, an automaton pays for itself in no time!"

"Just how much is an automaton?" asked Finoula, taking Malaterminus out of his scabbard again and wiping him down with a cloth, as if this were normal behavior inside a place of commerce. She pointed her blade at the nearest one. "Say, this one?"

"Two thousand gold pieces," the salesman in white answered Finoula's spoken question. In the meantime, Malaterminus was reporting to his mistress that while he was not detecting evil from the automatons, the signal he was getting seemed "muffled" somehow. "I believe there are auras of evil emanating from the constructs, but being hidden," he said over the telepathic bond he shared with Finoula. "There are spells capable of such things."

"Two thousand?" cried Castillan in a shocked voice. Apparently the thought of willingly parting with that much money caused him actual pain.

"Yes, I know, it seems like a lot of money at first," replied the salesman in black. "But as my associate has pointed out, it will pay for itself in no time at all. Just think of how much work you can get out of a device that never tires, never complains about boring duties, and never needs sleep. You'd have to pay three people to do what it can do all by itself, and those salaries add up quickly."

"I think I confer with my associates," said Gilbert. "We decide if we want to buy one."

"Very well," replied both salesmen, stepping away to let them talk among themselves but obviously eager to pounce back in at any moment to make the sale.

"What do you think?" asked Finoula. "Malaterminus thinks the automatons have evil auras being magically suppressed."

"I think I'd like to open up one of those helmets and see what's inside," remarked Darrien.

"I don't think you like what you see if you do," replied Gilbert.

"Why? What do you think is inside?" asked Finoula.

"I not surprised if we pop open helmet, say hello to Mr. Demogenes inside."

"You're kidding!" exclaimed Castillan in a voice a little too loud for Gilbert's liking. "Dead bodies being sold as automatons?"

"You shut noisy elf mouth!" hissed Gilbert. "We not want salesmen alerted to suspicions."

"But how can we find out for sure?" asked Binkadink. "Do we buy one, so we can pry it apart and see what's inside?"

"Did you hear the part about two thousand gold pieces?" demanded Castillan.

"I have better idea. Follow me," commanded Gilbert, heading over to the nearest automaton. Seeing this, both the salesmen approached the group, sensing an eagerness to purchase one of their expensive wares. But before either could get a word out, arcane syllables began spilling out of Gilbert's mouth. "You!" he commanded, pointing to an automaton. "You come here!" The automaton, which had remained motionless during the entire time the adventurers had been inside the building, took a few shambling steps forward, to stand as directed in front of Gilbert. "Open up helmet!" he commanded, and the automaton made a move as if to comply, but with no luck - the helmet was secured in place with no way to open it.

"This is most unusual!" declared the salesman in black, turning to the salesman in white in anger. "Did you give them the command word? We're not supposed to give them the command word until after the sale has been completed!"

"But I didn't--" began the salesman in white.

"ENOUGH!" shouted Gilbert, instantly silencing the two salesmen. "Nobody give me command word. I cast spell. I cast command undead spell! Now then, would either of you two imbeciles like to explain to me why a command undead spell caused what you're claiming is strictly an arcane construct to obey my orders? WELL?" The salesmen looked at each other in shock; neither seemed to have noticed that Gilbert Fung's speech mannerisms had altered significantly during the course of his diatribe, merely that his face radiated a dark fury and they suddenly felt a concern for their own safety.

"But, we didn't--" began one salesman.

"Kendrick assured us--" began the other.

"What's going on here?" demanded Kendrick, stepping out of his office at the commotion. He looked at the frightened salesmen, then at the furious Gilbert Fung and his quintet of career adventurers, and his mind held room for only one thought. Giving it voice, he called out: "Automatons! Kill everyone in this room!" before grabbing up his two salesmen by the collars of their robes and dragging them into his office with him.

The automatons all came to stumbling life and advanced upon the group. But Gilbert's spell was still in effect, at least on the one closest to him; he took advantage to give it a new set of orders. "Break down that door!" he commanded, pointing at the office into which Kendrick and his salesmen had dashed. Ingebold raised her holy symbol, but was spending too much of her concentration trying to line up the remaining three automatons into her area of effect, and as a result her turning attempt failed. But Binkadink sprang forth eager for battle, his glaive crashing into the armor of the nearest undead construct. Darrien shot arrows at them as well, while Malaterminus got to help Finoula carve up another one. Wrath, standing by his mistress, opted not to sink his teeth into a being made of metal, but he snarled a warning in any case. Castillan, standing closest to the door to the street, silently flipped the sign on the door from "OPEN" to "CLOSED" before joining the combat. By the time Gilbert's captive automaton had smashed his way into Kendrick's office, the other three had been destroyed; Ingebold's second turning attempt had exploded their skeletal insides to dust, causing the merged outer pieces of plate mail armor to crash to the floor in a clattering cacophony.

The adventurers poured into the cramped office area, where Kendrick and his two associates cowered in fear. Finoula pointed her sword directly at Kendrick and asked "Well?" Kendrick sputtered in fear and outrage, but the question hadn't been directed his way. Telepathically, Malaterminus answered: "The two underlings are not evil. Neither is Kendrick yet, for that matter, but he's close - I'd say he's headed that way, on the fast track as it were." Finoula relayed the information to the others.

Gilbert grabbed up Kendrick by his collar and pulled him close. "I should kill you right now," he snarled. Ingebold opened her mouth to intervene, but then he continued, "But I won't. But have no fear, you're going to pay for your sins, Kendrick. And you!" he said, focusing on the other two salesmen, "How stupid do you have to be to not realize what you're mixed up in like this? I'd be willing to believe you were both willfully ignorant, looking only at the two thousand pieces of gold with each sale." He had the automaton force all three into a side room - where a salesman could have the buyer sign the necessary paperwork, pay over the cost of the automaton, and have the command words transferred over in private - after Castillan had determined there were no secret exits from the room. He then tied up Kendrick with the sash of the salesman's own robes, stuffed a rag in his mouth, and told the other two they'd be dead meat if they helped Kendrick escape in any way. The wizard then stationed the automaton just outside the door with orders to kill the first person to open the door.

In the meantime, Binkadink, Castillan, Darrien, and Finoula had crossed the showroom and opened the door in the far corner, which led downstairs into darkness. "You think it's safe to leave them up there with Gilbert?" asked Binkadink.

"Ingebold's up there with him," pointed out Finoula. "She won't let him kill them."

"So...what's his deal?" asked Castillan, voicing the question they'd all been thinking. "He no talk like this no more. Now he's Mister Eloquent, all of a sudden, with a heavy dose of indignation and intimidation."

"I guess he really hates undead," offered up Darrien.

"Yeah, but the way he's speaking now? Was he just faking it all this time before?" But nobody answered Castillan's question, for they had by then made it down the stairs and discovered a large basement room, where two partially-assembled automatons stood motionless in the dim light of a few candles. One had armor on its head, torso, and legs, with only its skeletal arms showing it for what it truly was. The other had its skull still bare but was otherwise covered in plate mail armor. Between the two stood a pale-skinned necromancer, strapping on carved pieces of wood onto the first skeleton's right arm, so it wouldn't rattle around once its plate armor was grafted on. So engrossed was he in his work, Moonghost had failed to notice the adventurers' conversation as they descended the stairs from above.

Little Binkadink was the first to strike, cutting the necromancer deep with his glaive. Moonghost cried out in pain and crawled off to the corner, commanding the partially-disguised undead to slay the intruders. Darrien managed to place an arrow inside the eye socket of the helmetless automaton with a well-placed shot but it had no discernable effect, which was in and of itself rather creepy. Finoula and Wrath rushed forward, the ranger taking on an automaton while her wolf went after the much softer skin of the necromancer. "Get over here, you idiots!" Moonghost cried while the timber wolf chomped down on his left calf.

"Reinforcements!" called Castillan, running over to the doorway across the room from where he could hear the rush of what sounded like several sets of bare feet on the stone floor. The room beyond had no illumination at all, so it was only once the half dozen ghouls approached the assembly room, lit by a pair of Moonghost's candles and Castillan and Binkadink's twin sunrods, that the bounder saw what he was up against. He had time to snap his fingers on both hands, swapping out his short sword for his bow, and still have time to send an arrow straight through the neck of the closest ghoul before they swarmed the doorway. By this time Binkadink had made short work of both partially-finished automatons, and Finoula stabbed Malaterminus through the necromancer's bare chest, ending his life as well. Darrien and Castillan switched back to their swords and covered the doorway between the two rooms, keeping the ghouls at bay. Behind them, they could hear Ingebold and Gilbert coming down the stairs to join up with the rest of the group.

Three of the ghouls having been slain, Castillan bounded into the farther room and backed himself into a corner, drawing two of the remaining over by him and thinning out the herd a bit. This allowed Darrien and Finoula to cover those scrambling back to the doorway. And coming up as a sort of backup force was a strange sight: an animated skeleton with strips of muscle, skin, organs, and fat hanging off of it. Noticing the bloodstains around the ghouls they were fighting, Finoula felt the gorge rising in her throat as she realized the ghouls had likely been in the process of eating all of the fleshy material off of an animated zombie when she and the rest of the group had arrived downstairs and battled the necromancer. It made sense: animate a corpse, strip it of flesh until it was only skeletal so it wouldn't give off an odor of decay, cover it in armor, and sell it to an unwitting dupe as a magical construct. Disgusted by the notion, she stepped through the doorway and met the nearest ghoul with a powerful strike downwards that cut through its shoulder and halfway through its torso. She had to kick it in the chest to free her longsword, but the ghoul fell backwards and did not get back up.

The remaining ghouls and skeletal zombie were quickly dispatched, and then the group made a quick sweep of the rest of the basement level. They discovered a small collection of gems, which, judging by the finished automatons upstairs, would have been inscribed with arcane markings and mounted on the helmets to act as a sort of control point - probably allowing the "command words" to control the automatons to be changed once they were sold to a new owner. Castillan snatched them up, noting their likely value. Looking around, the group found Moonghost's simple quarters, a reanimation chamber where the recently slain were brought back to a lifeless animation, and two sets of stairs, one leading up and one leading further down. Darrien scouted down the lower stairs and reported back that they led to a series of ghoul warrens - fortunately empty, as the adventurers had slain them all upstairs - and a winding tunnel that the ranger surmised likely led to a hidden exit near the church of Pelor's cemetery. The fact that a dirt-stained coffin stood against the wall near the lower stairs gave further evidence that this was all part of a matter of course for the folks behind this fake automaton scheme.

"I'll bet one of those armor suits really Mr. Demogenes," said Gilbert.

"Oh, you're back to talking that way again, are you?" asked Castillan.

"It's more or less a habit by now," admitted Gilbert, smiling. "Yes, I'm perfectly fluent in the common tongue of this region, but I've found that when I talk like this, people think I stupid, no think I be much threat." He shrugged. "I take any advantage I get."

By common consensus, the group decided to take the stairs going back up to the street level. Deciding the distance between that stairwell and the one they had taken downstairs from the automaton shop likely put them underneath Bleakmann's Mortuary, Binkadink halted the group on the stairwell. "Hang on one minute," he advised. Returning back to the nearest slain ghoul, he used his glaive to chop off its head, then returned to the group holding his grisly trophy by the hair. "Let's go," he said, smiling a grim smile.

Castillan led the way, and sure enough he found himself in the back part of Bleakmann's Mortuary. He saw an actual morgue but headed straight for the public area of the building, turning the corner and heading for Bleakmann's office. The mortician rose from his chair when he recognized Castillan, eager for more business but puzzled because he hadn't heard the door to the front street open. "Have you come to a decision?" he asked pleasantly.

"Yes," replied the elven bounder. "I've decided to shut down your nasty little scheme."

"My nasty--?" started Bleakmann, beginning to profess his innocence of whatever Castillan thought he was up to, but then Binkadink entered the office and dropped the severed ghoul head directly onto his desk. The blood drained from Bleakmann's face, and he crumpled instantly. "It was all the necromancer's idea," he offered up. "He came to me. I wasn't going to go along with it, but when you think about it, nobody's really using the bones anymore, so there's really no harm being done to anyone's loved ones...."

Gilbert Fung had several spells prepared, ready to be cast with but a few arcane syllables, a gesture or two, and possibly an item from his pouch of material components. But he surprised even himself when his instinctive reaction to Bleakmann's excuses wasn't to cast a spell, combat or otherwise, but to curl his right hand into a fist and send it smashing directly into Bleakmann's face. He felt the surprisingly pleasant sensation of blood from the mortician's nose spill over onto his knuckles, and glared his best glare as Bleakmann staggered backwards to crash in a heap at the back of his office. He bent over the thin man, his own stout figure towering above the frightened mortician. "You NEVER desecrate the bones of anyone's ancestors!" he snarled. "You got greedy, you got stupid - now you're going to get what's coming to you!" He gestured and Castillan and Darrien grabbed Bleakmann up by his arms, frog-walking him out the front door. They went straight from Bleakmann's Mortuary to Kendrick's Automaton Sales, to pick up the three salesmen.

"Wh-what are you going to do to us?" asked Kendrick,

"We not do anything to you but turn you over to constables," replied Gilbert, falling back to his sing-song pidgin version of the common tongue. "But we show them what you up to, what you do to dead bodies...and then I think we stick around for the hanging."

- - -

And Gilbert turned out to be correct in that regard. We didn't role-play this part, but Kendrick and Bleakmann both got the noose; the salesmen in the black and white robes truly had no idea that the automatons were anything but what they had been told they were - magical constructs - and were thus allowed to go free, on the condition that they left Garonis immediately and never came back.

Also not mentioned in my write-up is the part where the group returned to Kendrick's to check out the secret door Castillan sensed in Kendrick's office - which, sure enough, was a hidden vault where he stored the cash he made from his sales. He had only sold a small handful thus far, but the adventurers were more than happy to relieve his vault of the coins. They left the tracking down of the few automatons that had been sold thus far for the Garonis officials.

Dan, who runs Gilbert, is a big fan of passing notes to the DM during play. One of his earliest notes he sent me was an explanation that Gilbert is perfectly fluent in Common, but prefers to play the fool to allow others to underestimate him. (Granted, this might have been in response to Vicki, his wife, asking him in exasperation during our second or third game session, "Gah! Are you going to talk like that during the entire campaign?") He also passed me a note during this game session that Gilbert has an undying hatred of undead, in part because his stepfather is a life-focused druid and his mother has taught him to have a deep respect for one's ancestors. I suspect this had not originally been part of his background, but was rather a good, in-game reason for him to drop the Short Round accent. However, whether he continues to talk in a normal voice around the other PCs or keeps up with the pidgin Common remains to be seen. Personally, while it was very jarring at first, I've become used to it and now it's so associated with Gilbert Fung in my mind that it seems really weird for Gilbert to be talking normally. And the other players, who didn't have the benefit of reading notes passed to the DM, had no idea that Gilbert was as fluent in their shared language as they all were. I actually like that, when a player's PC has a secret that gets revealed during the course of play.

- - -

T-Shirt "Worn": An Iron Man 2 T-shirt since the automatons, like the Iron Man and War Machine suits of armor on the shirt, moved around because there was someone inside of them. Since this was the second adventure in the same game session, I actually was still wearing the Yellow Submarine T-shirt I had worn when we ran through "A Boring Little Adventure" and only remembered my Iron Man 2 T-shirt was in my bag about halfway through this adventure. Instead of going into the bathroom to switch shirts (as I would normally do under these circumstances), I just briefed everyone on my T-shirt choice for the adventure and pressed on wearing the Beatles shirt.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 5
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 5
Darrien, half-elf ranger 5
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 5
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 5​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 5 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 1 January 2016

- - -

The group was in standard traveling formation: Ingebold, Castillan, Darrien, and Gilbert Fung in the mule-driven wagon while Finoula rode Daisy (and Wrath trotted at the pony's heels) and Binkadink rode Obvious on either side about ten feet ahead. The adventurers were making their way down the dirt road near the Ghostwood Forest, south of the small city of Garonis; it was a clear, sunny morning and looked to be a nice day. Binkadink was in a particularly good mood, having put in an order for a masterwork gnomish glaive at a weaponsmith's shop in Garonis before they had left that morning.

Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion to the group's left, from somewhere within the forest, and a group of eight purple spheres rocketed skyward above the tallest of the trees. These spheres blossomed out like a flower, with some falling to the wayside and others streaking out as if heading for a specific destination. Almost simultaneously, the six adventurers realized one of them was headed directly their way, morphing in shape as it did so.

"Incoming!" called out Gilbert in case the others hadn't noticed. Ingebold switched the reins to her right hand and grabbed up her shield with her left, ready to brace herself for impact if need be. But it never came to that; as the purple sphere closed the gap between itself and the adventurers it slowed down, continuing to alter its shape as it went. By the time it was hovering just to the side of the wagon, it had taken on the appearance of a purple, hooded robe - although one not being worn by anybody who could be seen.

Despite the apparent lack of a body, a voice called out from the hovering, purple robe. It said, in a clear, strong voice:

Greetings from the Purple Mage
Respected wizard, learned sage
His time has come, he's breathed his last
His treasure's yours, if you act fast

His manor's ripe for plundering
So help yourselves, but here’s the thing:
His traps you'll have to overcome
To prove your worth, so don’t succumb

One final warning you must heed
If you in fact take on this deed
By sundown, be outside its walls
Those still inside will surely fall.
With that, the purple robe exploded into a harmless cloud of shining violet and lavender motes that faded away in the slight breeze in seconds.

"Well, that weird," commented Gilbert.

"It sounds like we were just invited to loot the manor of a dead wizard," pointed out Castillan. "I'm in!"

"We might as well check it out," replied Finoula. "I imagine the manor's over there, where the explosion occurred. Should we leave the wagon and the animals here and hike through the woods, or press on down the road and see if it heads over that way?" Those seemed to be the only options, as there was no way the wagon would make it between the trees if they tried making a bee-line to where the purple spheres had begun their path.

"If it's a manor, there should be at least an access road leading to it," pointed out Binkadink. "And we'll make better time if we stay on the road." The group decided to continue on down the road for a short while in any case and see if the road - which thus far had been winding here and there rather than staying in an even reasonably straight line - made a turn to where the manor was likely located. Sure enough, after about a half a mile there was indeed a fork to the left, which led in the direction towards where the purple spheres had emanated.

But right before the group got to the fork, a large, horse-sized creature leaped onto the dirt-packed road ahead of them from behind a clump of trees. This was a frog, bigger than any the group had ever seen. It croaked loudly, managing to project a sense of great hunger and eager anticipation for a quick meal.

Finoula and Binkadink were the closest to the dire frog. The ranger kicked her pony to greater speed and pulled out her longsword, Malaterminus. As Daisy raced by the great beast, Finoula bent to the side and made a swipe with her blade - but the frog hopped back at the last moment, and Malaterminus merely swished harmlessly through the air.

Wrath had followed the pony's course and made an effort to bite the frog, but in avoiding the sword-thrust the frog had managed to leap out of the way of the wolf's snapping teeth as well. But Obvious was just as fast as the timber wolf, and Binkadink had led his jackalope to the other side of the frog, so avoiding Finoula only made the beast a better target for the gnome fighter. His glaive lashed out and the blade buried itself into the creature's flank. At nearly the same time, Darrien and Castillan sent arrows flying from the wagon over to the frog. They struck true, and the frog died a relatively quick death, his hunger still unsated - but no longer a problem.

After a bit of meandering, the side road did indeed lead up to a manor - a quite impressive-looking one, four levels tall with a set of stone stairs leading up to the double wooden doors. However, the doors were currently open, and standing in the doorway were two elven archers. Finoula and Binkadink slid from their riding mounts as Ingebold brought the mule-cart to a halt. The elven ranger quickly and expertly tied her pony's reins to the side of the wagon. "Watch over the other animals," Binkadink whispered to Obvious in the burrowing-mammal language they shared. Then, as a group, the six adventurers approached the manor, Wrath trotting alongside Finoula.

"Hold it right there," one of the elves called to the group, raising their bows and choosing their initial targets. "Don't even bother coming any closer; this manor, and everything within it, has already been spoken for. Looks like you got here a little too late. Now turn around and head on back, and nobody gets hurt. Go on, now."

That advice wasn't particularly palatable to the proud members of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild. Looking askance at each other, Castillan and Darrien took off like shots at either end of the stone path leading to the manor, raising their own bows in the process. Finoula and Wrath weren't far behind; Binkadink was just as eager for battle but lagged just a bit behind initially as he first elevated his gnomish stilt-boots to their highest setting. Ingebold and Gilbert were the farthest back, and the wizard took the opportunity to cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself.

"Evil?" asked Finoula as she sprinted to the manor, dodging arrows.

"Undoubtedly so," replied Malaterminus in her head using his telepathic powers of communication. "Both of them, very strong readings."

Castillan got off a shot that struck the elf on the left; as they got closer to their foes they could see a very strong family resemblance between the two. Aelios grunted in pain at the shaft sticking out from his shoulder, and replied with a shrill whistle, which his brother Stelios echoed - while shooting an arrow into Binkadink's side, just above his belt. Then, as one, they reached out and pulled the doors closed as they stepped deeper into the manor.

Castillan and Darrien, acting in unison like a well-oiled machine, each dropped to a knee and aimed arrows at the closed doors, ready to shoot at the first one to open them and stick their heads out. Before that happened, Binkadink reached the front doorstep, with Finoula and Wrath just behind him. He was shocked when a blue light suddenly encompassed his head; from just behind, Finoula could see the gnome's entire head wreathed in a blue halo. But the light didn't seem to have any negative effect on the gnome, so, shrugging, he pulled open the door, only to be shot at nearly point-blank range by Aelios.

Back at the bottom of the stairs, Ingebold and Gilbert got to find out firsthand what the earlier whistling had been about: from out of the surrounding trees, another timber wolf and a hyena came charging in from opposite directions, the hyena biting at the wizard while the wolf went for the cleric. Their cries were enough for Darrien to spin around and shoot at the hyena, helping Gilbert kill his foe. Ingebold slammed her warhammer against the side of the timber wolf's head, and then the wizard finished it off with a magic missile spell from the lesser of his two wands. Both beasts dropped to the ground, dead.

Up at the manor's double doors, Finoula had opened up the right-hand door, her head likewise erupting in a halo of blue light as she did so. She stabbed at Stelios with Malaterminus and her short sword both, getting in a shallow cut before the elf jumped back a step and shot at her, getting her just below the shoulder on her left arm. Wrath snuck in between their feet, his head momentarily displaying a halo of greenish light as he crossed the threshold into the manor, but extinguishing itself once he was inside. But once inside, he chomped down on Stelios's leg, causing the elf to roar in pain and crash to the ground. Binkadink finished off Aelios with his glaive; seeing this, when Stelios got back to his feet he abandoned his longbow on the ground and came up swinging with a finely-crafted scimitar. But his initial swipe was a ruse, for he almost immediately turned tail and tried leaping to the top of the lengthy dining room table that bisected the large room behind him, it being the shortest way to get to the stairs at the other side of the room. He didn't make it, being cut down by an arrow to the back, and collapsed face-down onto the wooden table, dead.

"We're in," stated Castillan, calling back to the others. Gilbert's head glowed green as he crossed the threshold and Ingebold gained a brief halo of a lighter, sky blue color, but there didn't seem to be any long-term effects from the chromatic displays. The group at first had assumed this was some sort of "marking" magic, so the manor could track them at sundown when they were supposed to be out of the building, but upon seeing the various colors displayed they finally deduced that this was some sort of personality test, showing who was of a generally evil bent and who was good. "I wonder what color these archers'd generate?" wondered Ingebold aloud.

"Probably nothing," decided Gilbert. "They dead. Dead people no longer good or evil - they just dead."

"You know, we all know you can talk normally," interjected Castillan. "Why you still talk like this?" he asked, imitating the wizard's singsong, pidgin way of speaking.

"I talk like I talk," replied Gilbert, visibly irritated. "We check out manor now."

The vast dining room took up the majority of the ground floor. There were six statues scattered along the edges of the room, and illumination was provided in the form of numerous everburning torches hanging in sconces. Examining the statues, Ingebold identified each in turn. "Lemure, barbed devil, bearded devil, another lemure, chain devil, erinyes. Interesting - each of these is a devil from the Nine Hells of Baator. This 'Purple Mage' had a strange sense of interior decoration."

"I no think these statues," replied Gilbert, examining the nearest. (Just by chance, it happened to be the erinyes, a voluptuous diabolic counterpart to the succubus demon.) "This too detailed. I think they not carved, but turned to stone." Casting a detect magic spell, he gave the statue a closer examination. "Yep, aura of transmutation magic," he announced. "All these statues the same."

In the meantime, a few of the others had checked out the three closed doors lined up against the wall to the east. The southernmost one was a study, containing several chairs, a small table, and carved shelves filled with books and various knickknacks. Looking them over, Castillan noticed the books were all selections of poetry. Unimpressed, he started calculating the likely value of the various trinkets, and was a bit happier to note that together they were likely worth more than a hundred gold pieces. That certainly beat books of poetry!

Ingebold had opened the middle door, finding it to be a rather unremarkable kitchen. Finoula had entered through the northern door, which proved to be a pantry - there was even a connecting door to the kitchen, and another that led outside; this latter one was barred from the inside. The food all looked fresh, but was mostly staples such as flour, wheat, sugar, wheels of cheese, and small barrels of water and wine.

"This boring," declared Gilbert. "Let's look upstairs."

There was just the one set of stairs leading up to the next level, and the stairwell continued up, leading to a third and a fourth level as well. The second floor contained a living room and two bedrooms, the larger one apparently belonging to the Purple Mage himself, judging from the chest of drawers filled with men's clothing, much of it in various purple hues. The smaller bedroom didn't look to be in current use and was likely for the occasional guest. The final room on this level was a small library, containing three chairs around a small table, a metal stove for heat - not currently lit - and five small bookshelves filled with books of various sizes and shapes. "But this is odd," pointed out Castillan. "None of the spines have any titles on them."

"Let me check it out," demanded Gilbert Fung, casting his eyes over the room with his detect magic spell. "Yep, they all magic," he announced, "Transmutation magic again. Hey elf, touch one and see what happen."

"Yeah, I don't think so," replied the bounder, stepping back out of the room.

"I have a stupid idea," suggested Darrien. "What if I shot at a book with the Arachnibow, and pulled it off the bookshelf with a silk line from outside the room?"

"That's...actually not a stupid idea at all," remarked Finoula. "Give it a go." Darrien did so, standing in the doorway of the small room and choosing his target. He let loose, the arrow turned into a silk line of spider web in mid-flight, he gave the book a tug...and then chaos followed. Not only did Darrien's target book come flying off the shelf, but so did every other book in the room. And they were literally flying - flapping their covers like wings, fluttering around the room in a chaotic swarm. Darrien quickly grabbed the door and pulled it back closed, as the sound of pounding books emanated from within.

"Anybody want to go in there?" he asked. Nobody did. Fortunately, even as everyone else was turning back to the stairs to see what was up on the third floor, Darrien gave the closed door one last look, and saw the doorknob starting to turn....

"Hey!" he cried, diving for the door and grabbing the knob, holding it in place. Apparently the book he had snagged was using the line of spider web still adhered to it to wind around the doorknob and pull it open. Fortunately, even an animated book was no match for the strength of the half-elf ranger, so Darrien was able to hold the door closed while Castillan tied one end of his rope to the knob and another to a nearby sconce holding an everburning torch. "There!" he replied, satisfied with his handiwork. "They shouldn't be able to get that open now."

The group moved upstairs, Binkadink in the lead.

Most of the third floor was one big room, with four much smaller rooms at each corner, those to the east containing doors and those to the west being separated by full-length curtains. The large room was lit not only by the everburning torches but also by a number of candles on the floor to the right, positioned around a hand-drawn magic circle in chalk, and on a series of tables directly across from the stairwell, upon which various alchemical experiments seemed to be in mid-progress. A series of bookshelves stood in the middle of the room to the left, as well as a table and chair. The table held a thick tome of some sort.

Binkadink entered the room, glaive in hand. As soon as he passed the first bookshelf, he was struck by a scorching ray spell, cast by a wizard who had been huddled between the shelves. The gnome was taken by surprise, but he gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge the pain, while at the same moment grateful that of the two balls of fiery energy the wizard had sent his way, only one of them had hit.

"Mira! Kira!" yelled Armond Petruzzio as he frantically backed away from the armored gnome. "Those idiot elves we left on guard duty have failed to do their jobs!" Two black-clad women slid out from behind the curtains to the west, and while the two elves at the front doors had looked to have a family resemblance, these two sisters were unmistakably twins. Each wielded a pair of sharp stilettos, and raced across the room to come to the assistance of Armond.

However, by that time, most of the rest of the adventurers had made it up the stairs. Gilbert cast a color spray at the nearest woman, Kira, who had been approaching Finoula with deadly intent. The female assassin was instantly stunned; Finoula had no compunctions about slaying her where she stood. Mira had come the long way across the room, avoiding the magic circle on the floor, and was approaching the bookcases where Armond and Binkadink fought it out. The gnome made a successful strike on the wizard with his glaive, but took a lightning bolt to the face for having done so. Smoke curled away from the gnome's armor, but he managed to strike the killing blow on the wizard immediately thereafter. Mira, meanwhile, was peppered with arrows and fell before she had had an opportunity to skewer anyone with her stilettos.

The room was quiet; the battle was over. But then Gilbert heard a telepathic call in his mind. "Wizard!" it called. "Behold: I am a book of infinite spells, sitting inside the circle upon the floor. Fetch me, and I can open up untold realms of magical power for you!"

"Yeah, I no think so," replied Gilbert aloud, drawing puzzled looks from his friends. Turning to Finoula, he said, "Have sword look for evil in circle." The elven ranger complied, reporting back that Malaterminus had indeed found an aura of evil emanating from the center of the magic circle. "Ha! We onto you!" laughed Gilbert. "How about you show yourself now?"

Whatever entity might have been inside the circle opted not to reply. Instead, Castillan heard a telepathic voice in his head. "Hey, elf," it said. "That book in the center of that circle in the floor? It's not really a book - it's a place to hide coins. Seriously, it's filled with platinum coins, centuries old -- worth a fortune, I bet! Why don't you go help yourself to them? The others don't need to know."

"Um, guys, something's in my head, telling me to go fetch that book on the floor there," reported Castillan.

"Don't enter the circle, whatever you do!" advised Ingebold.

"Yeah, there something in there all right," muttered Gilbert. "Here, maybe this help!" He said the words of a grease spell, carefully coating a portion of the circle's interior without having the edge of his spell effect touch the chalk outline of the circle. There on the floor stood two large footprints, made no doubt by there being an invisible creature standing at that spot (and standing there still) when the spell came into effect. They were large paw-prints, looking rather like those of an oversized tiger.

"Rakshasa!" deduced Gilbert. "Everybody stay far away from that circle!"

"Hey, elf chick," said a voice inside Finoula's mind. "I'm not a rakshasa, I'm a genie. I'll grant you three wishes if you want."

"I don't want anything from you," replied Finoula aloud.

"C'mon, three wishes. Anything you want. All you have to do is come over here and rub the book on the floor. That's my genie bottle."

"I'm not rubbing anything!" replied Finoula rather loudly, raising a few eyebrows.

The invisible creature tried a new tactic. "Here boy!" it telepathically called to Wrath. "Who wants some fresh treats? C'mere, boy!" But the wolf was not used to voices suddenly manifesting inside his mind, and rather than obey the voice he just whimpered and pawed at his head. Finoula guessed immediately what was happening and pulled Wrath over by her.

"Last chance, wizard," said the voice, trying again with Gilbert. "I'm really a wish-granting genie. You want that elf chick? Wish number one, she'll be all yours."

"How you know she not already mine?" challenged Gilbert.

"Oh, come on, man. Get real."

Deciding they'd spent enough time on the unseen menace, Ingebold cast a detect magic spell and gave the room a once-over. "There are auras of both conjuration and abjuration around that magic circle," she reported.

"So whatever's in there is trapped in there," reasoned Finoula. "Good to know."

"And this book is radiating very powerful magic," the dwarf added. This time, she was referring to a book on the round table near the bookcases, not the one inside the magic circle. She picked it up and read its title. "'Theoretical Astral Realms Delineating Infinite Spaces.'" She snorted. "Sounds like somethin' a wizard'd read." She put it down, but Castillan picked it right back up, curious about what could be so magical about it.

The inside cover of the book held a drawing of a bookcase, filled with a dozen or so books on its top shelf. He turned the book sideways to read their spines: Beholder Variants, Folk Tales of the Vistani, Quinquillian's Journals, and a few others - including the title of the book he was holding. He flipped to the book's inside back cover, which had a picture depicting a line of scrolls. "Hmm," he commented to himself, putting the book back down. Books weren't really his thing.

Finoula, in the meantime, had peeked behind the northernmost curtain - the room from which Kira the assassin had emerged - and saw a full-length mirror anchored securely to the floor. Her reflection looked back at her - and then spoke directly into her mind. "Beware, for the betrayal of a beloved friend is the worst kind to bear," her reflection said, her lips moving although the ranger's did not. Then it returned to being a normal reflection in all ways. The elf stepped out of the room to see if anyone else had heard anything from inside the room, but they were all busy checking out other parts of the arcane library and lab. Just to be sure, Finoula re-entered the mirror room and looked at her reflection, but it was back to behaving normally.

"Come check this out," she called to the others. Darrien was the closest; he stepped over and looked at the mirror. His reflection stared back at him, then said, quite clearly, "There are many different paths on which a race might be run; you are on a different path than where you believe yourself to be."

"Weird," agreed Darrien. He called Binkadink and Castillan over. They stepped into the room together and something odd happened. For a brief second, both the gnome and the elf were visible in the mirror, then Castillan's image winked out. Binkadink's image then said, telepathically, to the gnome, "One you cherish will prove to be from much farther away than you might imagine." Immediately after having passed on this information, Binkadink's mirror image vanished and Castillan's returned, secretly telling the elf, "One day, you will mate with an insect."

"I'll what?" demanded Castillan, but the image gave no reply. Now the mirror was reflecting the images of both adventurers in the room, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. But Gilbert and Ingebold both wanted to hear what their mirror images would tell them. Gilbert's said, "Some books always judged by covers; remember this after apparent sudden death." Ingebold's said, "A wounded heart may indeed be mended over time; forgiveness is key."

"Weird," everyone agreed.

Gilbert picked up the heavy tome on the table, and it had a much bigger effect on him than it had had on either Ingebold or Castillan. His mind was instantly flooded with instructions on how the book could be used to absorb other written works and later display them within its pages; indeed, the only reason the book was labeled "Theoretical Astral Realms Delineating Infinite Spaces" was because that tome had already been absorbed into the Omnibook. Gilbert smiled slyly and pocketed his new treasure.

Finoula checked behind the other curtain, but the contents there were less magical: an iron cage held the moldering bones of a human, the unholy symbol of Erythnul, God of Slaughter, still hanging from his skeletal neck. Castillan tried the door to the southeast, finding it to be a closet of sorts well-stocked with all sorts of arcane material spell components, neatly labeled. At the same time, Binkadink was trying to open the door to the northeast, but found it locked. He called the bounder over to help him out, and Castillan had the door open after a few quick seconds with his lockpicks. The room inside contained two chests, two crates, and two barrels, all closed.

Castillan cautiously peered at each of the containers, seeking hidden runes or other indicators of a magical trap. Seeing nothing, he randomly chose one of the chests and lifted the lid. It opened without trouble, exposing a pile of gleaming golden coins within. "Now that's more like it!" exclaimed the bounder, picking up a golden coin and admiring its luster.

That proved to be a mistake. None of the six containers had been trapped, but it looked as if each of the coins stored inside had been. The coin wriggled out of Castillan's grip as, at the same time, coins began spilling out of the other containers. They all whirled together in the middle of the room, taking on the semblance of a gigantic insect of some type.

While it was taking form, Castillan jumped back out of the room and slammed the door back shut. "Slight problem!" he said over his shoulder to the rest of the group.

"What's up?" asked Binkadink, but then the problem became evident, for a steady stream of coins began shooting out the bottom of the door, bouncing off the bookcase, and rebuilding the praying mantis form out along the northern wall of the larger room.

Darrien didn't need any instructions from the others; he knew instinctively that a giant praying mantis made of gold coins couldn't be a good thing. He shot an arrow at it, striking it straight in the middle of its mass, but the arrow was swallowed up into the creature's midsection and it was difficult to see whether it had had any effect at all. Gilbert pulled out the more powerful of his two wands of magic missiles, and sent a barrage of three streaking blasts directly into the creature; its form warped and buckled where the missiles struck, giving the wizard a tentative indication that at least his blast had done something.

But then the coin golem returned fire. Raising one of its forelimbs, rather than striking out with it in the manner of the praying mantis upon which its body was formed, it simply dissolved its limb, shooting the coins that had made up its mass at high speeds in a cone directly in front of it. Gilbert and Ingebold were both in the area of effect -- and so was the magic circle drawn upon the floor in chalk.

Binkadink brought his glaive down in a slashing arc into the coin golem's body, but it merely cut a path through the ever-shifting coins and had no visible effect. Likewise, Finoula stabbed at it with Malaterminus, but it was difficult to see if the construct was in the least bit discomfited. In the meantime, Wrath, who had no desire to try to bite at floating metal coins, started growling at something at the back of the room. Finoula looked back at her wolf, then tried to see what it might be growling at -- and saw the line of greasy footprints on the floor.

The invisible hellcat, upon being freed by the coin barrage spilling over onto the imprisoning magic circle, had been eager to attack the closest person in the room, but that had been Gilbert Fung - and he was still protected my a magic circle against evil spell. Unable to get to the portly wizard, the hellbeast had circled around the back of the room, skirting the bookshelves and coming up behind Binkadink. Finoula screamed out a warning and the gnome spun around, looking for an enemy but seeing none. Then the hellcat ran a clawed paw across the little gnome's chest and he immediately grasped the situation. His glaive strikes didn't look to be doing much against the coin mantis; he'd see how well an invisible hellcat liked them.

Unfortunately, by this time many of the party had been sorely wounded in their various fights, and Ingebold herself was no exception. "Head upstairs!" called Binkadink, making a tactical decision. Both of their current enemies were rather large; they could easily hold them off in the stairwell, where only one of them could attack the heroes. He ran past the coin mantis over to the stairwell, then stood guard while ushering the others up the stairs. "Healing spell?" he asked Ingebold as she passed by, and she channeled healing energy through her fingertips and into the gnome as she ran past. Gilbert, Darrien, Finoula, and Wrath made it to the stairway, but Castillan was in the back of the room, and the coin mantis had cut off the entrance to the stairs by that time. Left in a very large room with an invisible opponent, Castillan weighed his options and took the less obvious route: he kicked in a window, climbed through it, and then scurried up the outer wall of the manor like a lizard, reaching the rooftop before the others.

Back in the stairwell, Gilbert stayed back enough to be offered some protection but close enough to still be able to shoot at the coin mantis with his wand of magic missiles. Ingebold shuffled between the rest of the heroes, applying healing magic where it was most needed.

Climbing over the parapets and up onto the rooftop, Castillan stood under the afternoon sun. The entire front half of the manor was open to the air; only the back half was roofed over. Underneath this roof, the bounder found a few more of the diabolic statues that seemed to pepper this whole manor; oddly enough, these two - both erinyes - were glowing, giving off pulsating waves of light. But they weren't moving and there didn't seem to be anything bad happening as a result of their glowing, so the bounder put it out of his mind. Instead, he wandered to the center of the roofed section, where a purple-robed man lay slumped into a circular pool of water, his hands and head submerged. Pulling the man out, Castillan saw the man's skin was a light purple and his hair a darker purple; other than that, he looked to be a human in his late sixties or early seventies. But he was unmistakably dead, and his pruned fingertips gave evidence he'd been half-submerged in the pool for some time. There was nothing Castillan could do for the Purple Mage, but he was sure the Purple Mage wouldn't mind if the bounder removed the two magic rings from his fingers, the amulet from around his neck, or the wand in his pocket and the scroll case at his belt.

While Castillan was busy looting the Purple Mage, Gilbert fired the final blast from his wand that took out the coin mantis. Immediately, each of the ten thousand coins or so fell clattering to the ground. At the same time, the glowing waves of energy emanating from all of the diabolic "statues" in the manor ceased, their power no longer needed to run the defensive coin golem. The hellcat raced up to the stairwell, but was kept at bay by the protective spell centered on Gilbert. It snarled its irritation.

But then Gilbert had an idea. "Dwarf!" he cried. As Ingebold approached, he asked her "You have magic circle against evil spell you can cast?"

"Aye," replied the cleric. "Are we needin' another one?" At the wizard's instruction, she cast her own version of the spell, then kept the hellcat from following up the stairs by the simple measure of standing there and staring it down. Gilbert, in the meantime, clambered up the stairs, digging around in his spell component pouch as he did so. When he reached the battlements along the manor's front, he popped a spider in his mouth and began a quick spell. Once the spider climb spell took effect, he climbed down the outer wall, backtracking along the route Castillan had taken to get to the rooftop. Sneaking in through the window, Gilbert raced over to the stairwell as fast as his heavy form would allow him to go, telling Ingebold to back up as he ran. She did so, the hellcat entered the bottom of the stairwell, and then, sensing a trap, tried to back out. But by then, Gilbert had sidled up to him, blocking off his access with the outer perimeter of his magic circle against evil spell. Unable to cross the boundaries of the two spells any more than he'd been able to cross the chalk-inscribed magic circle that had bound him in the Purple Mage's arcane library, the hellcat was trapped. It could do nothing but shriek as Darrien and Castillan shot arrow after arrow into its hide, eventually killing it.

"Like shooting fish in barrel," exclaimed Gilbert, inordinately pleased with himself.

After that, it was simply a matter of racing against the clock. Nobody knew what would happen if they stayed in the tower past sunset, but nobody wanted to stick around to find out. Fortunately, the magic that formed the thousands of coins into a mantis golem was apparently a one-time effect; Gilbert had the others scoop the scattered coins into their original containers and lug them down the stairs to the waiting wagon, while he tinkered with the Omnibook and learned how to get it to absorb other written works into itself. He didn't get the Purple Mage's entire library contained within the Omnibook - there wasn't time for that - but by ignoring obvious works of poetry and sticking to the more useful topics, he managed to absorb a good portion of it.

As the sun started to set, though, everybody rushed out of the manor. They brought the wagon and the animals with them down to the edge of the pathway leading to the Purple Mage's manor, where they could still keep it in view but hopefully be far enough away from any harm that might come from being too close.

Inside the manor, as the sun's rays diminished, the diabolic statues began pulsating again. The cascading waves of light pulsed ever faster and faster as time progressed, until when the sun finally went down the entire manor gave off a blinding flash of light. Even after instinctively looking away, the heroes were unable to see anything but an afterimage of the manor for a good half minute.

By the time their vision cleared, the manor was gone.

- - -

Inside the manor, things were happening all at once. The statues all gave off a final pulse of blinding light, and the entire manor disappeared from the prime material plane. The devils rose up from their frozen positions, no longer trapped by the Purple Mage's spells, no longer being used as power sources to fuel various magical effects in the manor (like the alignment-detecting runes on the front porch, or the mirror of prophecy, or the coin golem mantis, or the swarms of animated books in the study and the animated cutlery the heroes had avoided setting off in the kitchen). They rose, stretched, and vowed vengeance against the one who had summoned them from the Nine Hells and then ignomiously trapped them.

But there would be no vengeance, for the Purple Mage was already dead. He had received a dire prophecy that morning from his daily check-in with the magic mirror, one hinting at his impending death. Going upstairs to perform further divinations at his scrying pool, he had confirmed his worst fears: today was the last day of his life. The news caused his elderly heart to collapse in his chest, confirming the truth of the morning's prophecy.

But the Purple Mage died contentedly, knowing that he had put safeguards into place. He'd never get to convert the hellcat into a power source like he had the various other devils before him - a shame, too, for he was eager to see what an invisible statue looked like - nor would he get to finish his experiments with the Omnibook, but he knew that the imprisoned devils would not be let free upon the Oerth just because he was no longer alive to cast the required spells upon them each night to keep them trapped in their immobility.

The devils had no sooner regained their mobility when the Manor of the Purple Mage reached its final destination. Popping into sudden existence from the prime material plane, the manor appeared in the rancid skies of the Nine Hells, directly above a lake of burning fire. It plummeted to the bottom of the lake, its imprisoned denizens finally returned to their diabolic home.

- - -

We played through this adventure at my house, as we traditionally host a D&D game session on New Year's Day and follow it up with a two-family dinner, then exchange the Christmas gifts we've gotten for each other. This time, Jacob arrived separately about an hour after his parents and his brother; he'd picked up a last-minute opportunity to get in a half-day's work. (Sometimes it's hard to believe that Jacob, who was 8 years old when we first started gaming together, is now a college student. Fortunately, his college is a mere 45-minute drive from his parents' house, so he still makes it home every other weekend.) But Vicki ran Castillan until Jacob showed up; he came in right after the fight with the dire frog, so he didn't miss much.

Poor Joey, though! He had stayed up very late the evening before (New Year's Eve, after all), and was dead tired. That's not much of an exaggeration, either, as he fell heavily asleep right there at our dining room table during the game. Jacob carried him over to our living room sofa, where he slept in a comalike slumber all through the rest of the adventure, all through dinner (we tried waking him, but it just wasn't going to happen), and all through the gift exchange afterwards. He was still groggy and half-unconscious when his mother put his shoes on and his dad carried him to their vehicle to head back home. (My wife Mary packed him a heat-up serving of the dinner he missed, in case he woke up hungry at home, but I'd be willing to bet he slept through the night.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Doctor Who TARDIS shirt, because the Omnibook, like the Doctor's TARDIS, is "bigger on the inside than it is in the outside." Also, the Manor of the Purple Mage is a dwelling capable of going from one place to another, much like the TARDIS - although it only ever got to make one trip, the one time, before being destroyed forever. (As an inside joke, I made the book that the Omnibook was originally disguised as be a work whose title's first initials spelled out "TARDIS.")
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Game Session Date: 16 January 2016

- - -

The road had become little more than a wide, well-worn dirt path winding between rocky hills. As the two mules pulled the wagon steadily forward, a figure suddenly appeared up ahead, staggering toward the heroes. Upon their approach, he dropped to his knees, a bloody hand holding the left side of his torso, where his robe was torn open by a group of parallel rips.

Ingebold reined in Franco and Tantrum and the wagon slowed to a halt. Finoula dismounted from Daisy and examined his wounds as Ingebold raced up, the words to a healing spell already spilling from her lips. She placed her hand upon the wounded man's side and allowed positive energy to channel through her fingertips and into the wounds. Binkadink, meanwhile, remained mounted on his jackalope and alert for danger; Obvious followed his rider's lead and looked about as well.

"Did you notice the discoloration along the edges?" asked Finoula, cradling the man's head on her knees.

"Aye, 'tis poison, by th' looks've it," replied the dwarven cleric. Then, turning her attention to the man's face, she asked, "How'd ye come t' get these wounds, then, friend?"

"...Dragon," gasped the wounded man, looking down at his ripped robe and noticing the cleric's spell had already stopped the bleeding. He was already looking better, too - the sallow color of his skin had taken on a more natural coloration. But he remained where he was, sprawled out on the ground with his head on Finoula's knees.

"Forgive me," he said, gasping for breath. "I'm still a bit weak...dizzy. But thank you."

Taking a deep breath, he began his tale. "My name is Derringold. I was riding south, 'bout half a mile from here I guess, when out of nowhere this dragon came racing up outta the hillside. He bit deep into my horse and swiped me here, on the side, with his claws. I only managed to crawl away because the dragon was too interested in eating my horse. But take care, 'cause if you follow the road in the direction you're traveling, it'll take you right past where it happened."

"A dragon?" asked Darrien. "What color was it?"

"Color?" repeated Derringold, as if unable to understand why that would make a difference. "Gold, I guess."

"Gold dragon attacked you?" demanded Gilbert. "That make no sense."

"Yellow, then? Tan?" amended Derringold. "It all happened so fast. The dragon was just a blur of motion, and I didn't stop to take a good look at it."

"I never heard of no yellow dragon," mused Gilbert, skeptical.

"Well, you'll get to see one for yourself if you continue on that way. Forgive me, but I have no desire to return to go see it again. I'm out a horse, but other than a bedroll and a few days' worth of travel rations, I'm not out anything else. I'll carry on on foot from here."

"Where are you headed?" asked Castillan.

"I'm a penitent, on a pilgrimage," replied Derringold, and declined to elaborate.

"Let us at least offer you a little food," suggested Finoula, rising up to fetch some of her own travel rations from the wagon. Derringold was sad to have her stand up; he'd been very comfortable resting there on her lap. But he slowly got to his feet as well and took the offered food with many thanks. "May the gods bless you all," he offered as he continued his southern journey.

"So, a dragon," said Binkadink as everyone mounted back up. The others couldn't help but notice the eager gleam in his eye at the thought of testing his mettle against a dragon. "How do we want to handle this?"

"A gold dragon?" repeated Gilbert, still trying to wrap his head around the concept of a good dragon gone bad. "That poisons people and eats their horses?"

"We could take a different way home," offered up Castillan. "Nobody says we have to go riding past a dragon's lair."

"Dragons are notorious treasure hoarders," replied Binkadink from the back of his jackalope mount. "There are two possible outcomes here: it's a real dragon, and we kill it and take its considerable treasure for ourselves; or it's not a real dragon but we remove a danger to those passing by."

Castillan had pretty much stopped listening to the gnome after "considerable treasure." "We really should take it out," he said. "It is a danger to those passing by."

"It might be a wyvern," suggested Darrien. "Aren't they poisonous?"

"Let's go find out," replied Binkadink, sending Obvious hippity-hopping on ahead. Finoula followed on Daisy with Wrath at the pony's heels, and the others followed along in the mule-driven wagon.

Sure enough, there was a big pool of blood in the road about a half mile to the north, with drag marks showing something large had been tugged off to the hillside to the right. Binkadink and Finoula dismounted, Ingebold brought the wagon to a halt, and the group slowly made their way north on foot, as quietly and cautiously as possible while Obvious stayed behind guarding Daisy and the mules. There was a cave in the side of the rocky hill; Castillan immediately began climbing up the near-vertical face of the hill, maneuvering himself so that he'd be directly above the cave opening. If a dragon was going to leap out at them from the cave, he wanted to be able to drop down upon it from above.

Binkadink cautiously approached with his gnomish glaive in both hands, the flickering light from the everburning torch he'd attached to the antlers on his helmet providing just enough illumination to make out the cave's interior. The first thing the gnome noticed was the dead horse on the ground; it was a white stallion and it stood out amongst the murk of the cave interior. Then a head lowered from above the horse and took out another chunk of flesh. Binkadink stared straight into the eyes of a reptilian monster, who stared back at the gnome as it swallowed down its bites of horseflesh. A chain rattled from an iron collar around the beast's neck; its other end trailed back behind the creature to be swallowed in the deeper shadows of the cave.

Binkadink readied himself for the expected attack, but the giant lizard - for now that the gnome's eyes were getting accustomed to the gloom of the cave's interior, he could see the creature had no wings - merely bent down and bit off another chunk of flesh from Derringold's slain steed. He seemed content to continue on with his meal as long as these other creatures didn't try to enter his cave and take the dead horse from him.

"What's going on?" hissed Castillan from above, still poised to leap down upon a dragon that wasn't cooperating by sticking its head out of its cave.

Finoula had a sword in each hand; Ingebold wielded her warhammer; Gilbert held out a magic wand; but nobody was eager to enter the cave to face the "dragon." Darrien took matters into his own hands, firing an arrow into the lizard's shoulder. Its only reaction was to hiss in anger, an unnerving sound like dozens of teakettles boiling over all at once, before taking another chunk out of the meal at its feet.

"It doesn't want to come out," observed Finoula, starting to empathize with the creature who, after all, was just trying to eat its meal in peace. But she could see into the cave, and mingled in there with the bones of previous meals of the occasional horse and donkey, she saw the bones of humans and elves. Like it or not, this overgrown lizard was a threat to those simply wanting to pass by its lair. And the fact that somebody had leashed it here with a chain meant that they were putting travelers in harm's way - that had to be stopped.

"I have a dumb idea," announced Darrien suddenly. "But I think I can get that thing out here." The ranger took careful aim, then let loose an arrow from his Arachnibow. The arrow flew true, hitting not the giant lizard but the remains of its meal - and through the power of his magical bow, the arrow had transformed into a length of sturdy spider silk in mid-flight.

"Give me a hand with this," the ranger asked those around him. Finoula sheathed her swords and helped Darrien tug on the cord. To the giant lizard's annoyance, its meal started dragging its way out of the cave. It pounced on the dead horse, got a firm grip on it with its teeth, and tugged back. The two rangers had to release their cord to avoid being pulled into the cave with the hungry lizard.

"Oh, for pity's sake," grumbled Castillan, starting his way back down the side of the hill. It was apparent he wasn't going to be diving directly onto any dragons' heads anytime soon.

"We'll have to swarm it," suggested Ingebold, running in to smack the lizard with her warhammer. Gilbert followed up with a blast from his wand of magic missiles, while Darrien pulled back the bowstring of the Arachnibow and fired, this time allowing the arrow to remain an arrow. Finoula unsheathed her swords and waded into battle, as did Binkadink and - eventually - Castillan. Even Wrath got into the action, darting in to bite at the lizard's leg and then dropping back again. A few of the heroes got bitten, but they were wary of its claws, which was apparently where the creature's venom originated. Eventually, they brought it down without anyone being poisoned.

There were two other exits leading further into the hill from the giant lizard's lair, one to the north and one to the east. As the chain led to the opening to the north and the passageway to the east was larger, that's the way the heroes opted to go. Binkadink led the group through the narrow, winding passageway until it opened up into a much larger cavern, this one stocked with all manners of fungal life. Mushrooms and toadstools of wide variety glistened along the floor of the room, save for two distinct paths that meandered among them, each leading to a separate natural exit. There was enough light to see that flowstone formed natural stairs leading down at either exit.

"Keep eyes open," warned Gilbert. "Stay away from any fungus that moves." He was specifically thinking about strains of ambulatory violet fungus he'd been reading about in one of the books he took from the Purple Mage's library. The group cautiously made their way through the fungal stalks, Finoula and Wrath leading the way to the exit to the north while Darrien went to check out the one veering off to the northwest. Binkadink was at the fork of the "Y" while Ingebold, Castillan, and Gilbert remained back in the narrow corridor, waiting to see if it was safe before entering the cavern themselves.

Seeing this, the lizardfolk rangers spying down into the cavern from the level above decided to take action. They dangled upside-down from three holes in the ceiling, letting fly with sling stones that swished into the chamber below. Each stone struck true, but none had been aimed at the heroes; instead, each hit a particular type of fungus, causing them to explode into a cloud of spores that quickly encompassed the room. The adventurers already inside the fungal chamber started coughing; those of lesser constitution felt a strength-sapping weakness coursing through their limbs. Even Ingebold back in the narrow corridor was affected, but her dwarven constitution allowed her to shrug off the intended effects. Castillan took a deep breath and scooted past the dwarf into the room, giving it a quick scan all around before ducking back into the narrow corridor. But he then called into the chamber what he'd seen: "There are holes in the ceiling! There's something up there above us! Everybody, quick, get through the room and to the passageway on the left!" The bounder couldn't see where either of the natural sets of stairs led; he'd just picked the leftmost exit at random.

Taking a deep breath, Gilbert ran into the room, while Darrien, Finoula, and Wrath ran down the two sets of stairs positioned directly in front of them. Darrien found himself in a small, dead-end cavern; Finoula and Wrath were in a much larger cavern with a large pool of water directly before them. They were all glad to be out of the cloud of spores; the ranger in particular had choked down a large quantity of spores and felt to be at about half her normal strength.

"I said the passageway on the left!" chided Castillan as he ran into the room behind Gilbert. Now the party was split into two groups, and all because they hadn't listened to him. Amateurs! he thought to himself.

The three lizardfolk rangers had already known what was coming when they let fly with their sling stones, so they had prepared themselves by taking in large gulps of air before striking. Now, still holding their breath, they dropped into the room and sought their initial targets. Two happened to land on either side of an astonished Gilbert Fung, and struck out at him with teeth and claws. Another dropped down in front of Ingebold, preventing her from even entering the fungal chamber.

The wizard and the cleric each got a good look at their foes, and these were not at all like any lizardfolk they'd heard of before. To begin with, their scales were a pearly, almost translucent white, causing them to appear to be ghostlike, especially in the dim light of the cavern amid clouds of swirling spores. Their eyes bulged out and their fingers had retractable claws and large, sticky pads on the tips - all in all, they looked rather like albino, humanoid geckoes. And as it turned out, these lizardfolk rangers had specialized training about the best way to strike at their favorite meals - humans - as Gilbert learned to his dismay, suddenly-deployed claws cutting through his robes in much the same way as Derringold's had been ripped. At least they're not poisonous, the wizard thought as he did his best to defend himself.

Fortunately, Binkadink was just in front of the wizard when the lizardfolk attacked. Whirling around, mouth sealed tightly in an attempt not to breathe in any more of the strength-draining spores, he brought his glaive crashing down upon the nearest reptile, dropping the lizardfolk where he stood. Darrien shot at the other one attacking Gilbert, having gotten a good breath of clean air in the dead-end cave. And back in the narrow tunnel, Ingebold slammed her warhammer into the side of the lizardfolk threatening her.

Stuck behind Ingebold and unable to get past her and into the fray with her swinging her warhammer about, Castillan backed further down the corridor, then sprinted toward the dwarven cleric. Before he got to her he leapt up onto the side of the wall, bounding from it to the other wall opposite, back and forth keeping his momentum going and also rising up the walls as he progressed. Finally, he somersaulted above both the cleric and her lizardfolk opponent, dropping down into the chamber, spinning around, and stabbing the reptile in the back with the short sword in his hand.

That was all the prompting the lizardfolk ranger needed; it immediately stepped back from between the dwarven cleric and the elven bounder, then, surprisingly, ran straight up the wall, across the ceiling, and through a hole partially hidden between hanging stalactites just large enough to allow its girth.

Ingebold took a step back, further into the narrow passageway, but more importantly, even further out of the cloud of spores taking their own sweet time to settle back to the stone floor. Pulling a glass vial from her belt, she pulled out the stopper and quickly swigged down its contents, wincing briefly at the taste. But then, Winkidew Dundernoggin's potion of spider climb took effect and the dwarven cleric took a deep breath of fresh air, stepped back into the fungal chamber, and raced up the same wall and ceiling, to crawl through the hole and into another unlit chamber directly above the fungal garden.

The lizardfolk ranger had been waiting - perhaps not for the dwarf, but for anyone who might be able to follow. He lashed out with his retractable claws, catching the cleric in the shoulder and neck above her armor, but she swung her warhammer into the reptile's ghostly-colored head and brought him crashing to the stone floor, dead. Only then did Ingebold think to cure her own wounds.

Down in the lowest cavern discovered thus far, Finoula had turned to look back up the natural stairs leading to the fungal chamber, surprised to see that nobody had followed her to safety. Wrath's sudden growl alerted her to danger; spinning around, she saw a smooth rock in the middle of the subterranean pool, and in the span of time it took her mind to process whether or not it had been there before, it moved. A large, lobsterlike creature rose up from the pool, water streaming off of its carapaced back. A serrated pincer snapped out at her, striking her but failing to catch her within its crushing grasp. With a yell to the others, the ranger backed up the narrow stairway, where she guessed the creature couldn't follow due to its size. Wrath growled and snapped at the nearest of the creature's four legs, now that it had stepped almost completely out of the water.

The chuul, for its part, ignored the wolf snapping at it in favor for the larger - and, it knew from past experience, tastier - elf scurrying back out of reach. But just as the elf made it back to safety, more delicious morsels made themselves available. Darrien had by this point made it halfway down the stairway and was firing off arrows at the chuul, to little effect; the creature's hardened carapace protected it from most such damage. But Binkadink had also made it down the stairs, and he raced all the way to the chuul, striking at it with his glaive.

The chuul snapped its claws at the little gnome, capturing him and rising him up off the stone floor. And now Castillan came down into the pool cavern, flashing short sword attempting to pierce the chuul's armor. The monstrosity transferred the wriggling gnome to the tentacles hanging down from its mouth, and while it took a moment or two for the paralytic secretions to immobilize Binkadink, eventually the gnome had succumbed and the chuul was able to snatch up the bounder in its claws as well.

By then, even Gilbert had made it down the stairs, having finished off the remaining lizardfolk ranger with his trusty wand of magic missiles. Seeing the situation, he quickly calculated distances and let fly with a fireball in the back corner of the chamber that caught only the back half of the chuul in its fiery explosion, only narrowly avoiding having it extend as far as Binkadink or Castillan, both still caught in the chuul's embrace. Castillan was still held firmly in a serrated claw, and as he was not paralyzed he was fully able to scream in pain as the merciless claw continued squeezing him tighter and tighter, until he thought he'd surely snap into two pieces. Consciousness left him and he fell limp in the chuul's claw, struggling no more.

Upstairs in the fungal garden, Ingebold walked back down the wall, surprised to see nobody else there but two slain lizardfolk. She followed the sounds of battle down the stairwell to the right, and made it back to the others in quite literally the nick of time. Several of the heroes had potions of healing at their belts, and were desperately trying to reach the unconscious bounder. Gilbert had been attacking the chuul from the left side of the pool cavern, where he could shoot out sheets of flame from his wand of burning hands, in an effort to slay the chuul quickly. For the chuul had taken quite a bit of damage in the last few minutes of heated battle and had decided enough was enough. It held a paralyzed gnome in its tentacles and an unconscious elf in one claw; it was time to cut its losses and flee the scene with its two morsels of food. As a result, it had deliberately backed into the pool of water, submerging its treats to drown them but also feeling with its two back legs for the submerged tunnel that led to the underground stream from which it had originally come.

Darrien, in a last-ditch effort, turned his sights from the nearly-dead-but-not-dead-quick-enough lobster-beast to his fellow adventurer Castillan, whose unmoving form he could still see below the water thanks to the illusory flames emanating from Binkadink's submerged everburning torch. The half-elf ranger fired a shot at Castillan, catching him right between the shoulder blades. Fortunately for the bounder, Darrien's arrow had become a line of strong spider silk before striking him; with a frantic tug, Darrien snagged the bounder out from the unsuspecting chuul's grip. Another strong tug pulled Castillan's unconscious - and heavily bleeding - form up onto the stone floor of the cavern, where Ingebold instantly healed the worst of the bounder's wounds with a single touch and the words to her most powerful healing spell.

Gilbert swapped wands now that the chuul was completely submerged, but he was able to still target the beast with a barrage from a wand of magic missiles even if burning hands was no longer an option. The missiles struck unerringly, and that was more than the harried chuul was able to handle. It collapsed, completely submerged, and Binkadink's unmoving form was released from its tentacles...to plunk down to the bottom of the pool, weighted down as it was by metal armor. Finoula waded into the pool and pulled the gnome to safety.

After that, there was a brief span of time when the adventurers weren't in combat. They took the opportunity to drink down healing potions as needed, and Ingebold applied spells as well. Then it was time for further exploration: there was a small chamber off to the west of the pool cavern, containing a quite unexpected sight: a feral troll, growling and menacing, but rendered helpless by the fact that his head and hands were locked in a heavy wooden stock, the whole thing chained to a thick stone column formed by the merging of a stalagmite and stalactite.

"What in the world?" asked Castillan, surprised beyond belief.

"Why would the lizardfolk have an imprisoned troll in their caverns?" asked Finoula aloud.

Gilbert gave it a moment's thought. "He food," the wizard finally replied. "Carve off troll meat, it grow back. Never run out that way."

Finoula's face displayed her horror and disgust at the thought. "That's horrible!" she exclaimed.

"We kill him, put him out of misery. But we do that later. He not going anywhere." And the rotund wizard started shooing everyone back up the stone steps leading back up to the fungal caverns. Ingebold was the first up the steps, and there she got a surprise of her own, for the once-empty cavern was now filled with four angry, hissing lizardfolk who bent over their slain males. They raised their heads her way and displayed their sharp teeth, then moved in for the kill. Ingebold stepped forward and met the first one's attack with her warhammer, slamming it off balance to the side.

Before the other lizardfolk females could press the attack, Binkadink, Finoula and Wrath filled up the area beside Ingebold. In the meantime, another lizardfolk popped out of a hole in the cavern ceiling above the underground pool, crawled silently along the ceiling, and dropped down behind Gilbert. The wizard and Darrien dealt with it, since Castillan was already halfway up the steps leading to the fungal cavern.

With the bounder's assistance, the others made quick work of three of the lizardfolk females in the fungal cavern; the fourth, seeing herself hopelessly outmatched, fled up a wall and up a hole in the ceiling. Ingebold tried following her, discovered the spider climb effect was still active from the potion she'd drunk before, and scooted up through the same hole in the ceiling a few moments behind her prey.

Gilbert returned to the fungal cave to find the others discussing how best to follow to the upper level. Behind him, Darrien was searching the pool cavern's ceiling, looking for the hole the lizardfolk had used to get the drop on him and Gilbert. He soon spotted it, and had to wade into the pool to get directly beneath it. Then, he used the special power of the Arachnibow for the third time that day, sending a silk line directly up through the hole in the ceiling and attaching it to the roof of the level above. Stowing his bow on his back, the half-elf ranger tested its strength by tugging on it; finding it fully adhered, he started climbing.

In the fungal chamber, Binkadink and Castillan had been boosted up by Finoula and scrambled through a hole in the ceiling. Gilbert ambled up and gave the ranger a questioning look.

"Yeah, I don't think so," replied Finoula, staring at the wizard's oversized belly. "How about you give me a boost, instead?" Gilbert shrugged, then bent over with his hands cupped, allowing the ranger to step into his grip. Rising up, he pulled her up to his shoulders, and then she scrambled up through the hole in the ceiling after the others.

"Just you and me left," Gilbert replied to the wolf. Then, calling up to the hole, he said, "Hey! One of you throw down rope!"

Up on the upper level, none of the heroes was in a position to comply with the wizard's request, because they were facing not only the female lizardfolk who had escaped up here, but four more of her tribe. "Fine!" grumbled Gilbert to himself, rummaging through his own pack to pull out a grappling hook and a rope of his own. While bloody combat ensued above, he swung the rope around his head and tossed it up through the hole, getting lucky on his first shot. Then he started climbing, taking a considerably longer time doing so than Darrien had done minutes earlier.

In fact, when Darrien popped through the hole above the pool, he found out the lizardfolk had been making good use of it, for sitting on the floor near the hole was a wooden bucket and a length of rope, with which they apparently drew water from the pool below - a set-up that no doubt came in very handy once the chuul entered the pool from the underground stream nearby. Untying the rope from the bucket, Darrien coiled it up and tied it to his belt; there was no telling when that could come in handy!

Wandering into a larger cavern to the south, the half-elf ranger heard sounds of battle. Sure enough, there were four of the ghostly-colored lizardfolk crowded around the entrance to a smaller cavern, where they attempted to rip into Darrien's friends with their teeth and claws. Silently, he scooted over directly behind them and started cutting them down with his bow. The remaining lizardfolk then found themselves trapped between two forces, and were quickly brought down. By the time Gilbert climbed up through the hole - it was a bit of a tight fit - the combat was over. "Hrrmph!" he snorted in disgust.

Further exploration found the tribe's treasure, such as it was, stored in a series of canvas bags. Besides a handful of coins (no doubt taken from slain travelers), there was also a masterwork dagger (with dried troll's blood confirming Gilbert's suspicions about the purpose of the troll imprisoned below) and a red gemstone on a necklace the lizardfolk likely didn't even realize was magical in nature.

"Well, that that," announced Gilbert. "Guess all that left is go kill troll."

"Ew," replied Finoula, but she had confirmed through Malaterminus earlier that the troll was an evil creature, and she convinced herself it was a mercy killing in any case. She didn't want any part in killing it, though, helpless as it was.

- - -

Obvious was glad to see the return of the heroes.

"Everything go well?" he asked Binkadink in the language they shared.

"Fine," replied the gnome fighter, climbing back into the saddle. "But that wasn't a dragon after all." There was a hint of disappointment in his voice; he'd have to wait a bit longer before he got to test his combat prowess against a dragon, it seemed.

- - -

We played through this adventure in one session, then upgraded everyone's PCs to 6th level immediately afterward. We had one anomaly: usually we switch off between the players as to who runs Ingebold in any given session. (I certainly don't want to do it - I prefer that she not be a DMPC, and switching off allows Joey to get the occasional taste of running a primary spellcaster character.) This time it was Vicki's turn to run her, so she made all of Ingebold's spell selections, and then right when the group first encountered the giant lizard in the cave, Dan kept "back seat driving" as far as to what Vicki should have Ingebold do, much to Vicki's irritation. "You know what?" she finally asked. "Why don't you run her, since you know exactly what she should do?" We also ran into a lot of disappearing players; about half of the time it seemed no matter whose turn it was, that person was invariably not in the room, either off in the bathroom or wherever. So if it was Ingebold's turn and Dan wasn't in the room, Vicki would run her. Vicki seemed to run her more as a healer, whereas Dan ran her more as a front-line fighting type. (This explains her somewhat schizophrenic behavior during this adventure; normally Ingebold - the party's primary healer - doesn't go chasing off after a single opponent by herself, leaving the rest of the group in combat by themselves with no clerical backup.)

We also came really close to having our first PC death. Castillan, in the clutches of the chuul, was unconscious and failing to stabilize, and Ingebold was off fighting her own lizardfolk enemy two different levels away. With half the party at reduced strength due to the fungal spores, there was no way they were going to be able to get him away from the chuul before he was slain. (He was taking automatic crushing damage every turn.) Joey's bright idea would have instantly saved the day, but then he didn't roll high enough to legally pull Castillan from the chuul's grasp. Not wanting to just out-and-out cheat and hand-wave Castillan's rescue, I gave the group a couple different opportunities for my dice to betray me. I ruled the chuul had been surprised by the sudden tugging away of his prey, and made the chuul make a Reflex save to hold onto the bounder. When that failed, I had the chuul decide to just be happy with a gnome snack (since by that time the chuul was at pretty low hit points). Jacob was sweating it out, and I was rooting for Castillan to make it out alive, but we've always been a "let the dice fall where they may" group and had there been no way to keep Castillan alive I was perfectly willing to let him die. After all, that's one of the reasons we even have Ingebold: as a backup temporary PC to keep a player in the game in case of PC death.

But fortunately, it didn't come to that.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Since the plot hook was an alleged encounter with a "dragon," I decided to play up that angle by wearing one of my dragon T-shirts. I went with the green dragon with lightning bursts in the background of a black T-shirt.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 6
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 6
Darrien, half-elf ranger 6
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 6
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 6​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 6 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 23 January 2016

- - -

The sun was at its zenith as the mule-driven wagon followed the road into a narrow valley containing a small farming village. A signpost welcomed the adventurers to Harveston, which contained only a few nondescript buildings, one of them – judging by the bell tower and the sun-symbol inscribed upon its side – a small temple to Pelor. Oddly, a tree stump sat in the middle of the small village, one side of its outer trunk much higher than the rest of it.

The door to the temple swung open as the group approached, and an elderly human cleric exited, wringing his hands in nervousness and fear. "Oh," he cried in anguish, looking at each of the heroes in turn but seeming to give Ingebold extra attention. "Oh, if only you'd arrived half an hour before!" The gray at his temples and the wrinkles around his eyes marked him to be in his mid-fifties or thereabouts.

"What seems to be the problem?" asked Binkadink, still astride his jackalope friend Obvious so he could talk to the human cleric at eye level. Just to his right, Finoula dismounted from her pony, Daisy; her timber wolf, Wrath, plopped on his rump near her feet, tongue lolling to the side as he took in the discussion.

"You look to be adventurers," replied Father Barthel. "We are in desperate need of your help, for our small village has been terrorized by a band of giants from the hills beyond the valley. But I should start at the beginning.

"It began a few weeks ago. A giant strolled into the village, bold as you please, and with a few strokes of his axe chopped down the apple tree that grew right here in the town's center. He said he and his band had decided to take this village under their protection, but he demanded tribute for their efforts. At first, it was every two or three days. He would show up here, throw rocks at the bell to summon us all to the village square, and we were expected to all drop what we were doing and 'show our respect' – that’s what he called it. What that meant was giving him a fat hog or a sheep for him to take back to their lair and slaughter.

"We didn’t much like this arrangement," continued Father Barthel, "but what could we do? We're a small group of farmers, nothing more. We paid the price, every few days or so.

"Then, three days ago, one of the farmers, Buck Hensley, decided to go get help from one of the neighboring communities. That turned out to be a bad idea. Two days ago, the giant showed back up, and once he had us all assembled before him, he reached into this bag he carried, and he-- he pulled out Buck's head. He said he was disappointed in our lack of faith in their ability to keep us all safe. He said we'd have to be punished. He...he said they weren't going to be satisfied with a pig or a sheep this time. They wanted Buck Hensley's wife, Verna."

The cleric licked his lips, his throat going dry from the memories. "Again, what could we do?" he pleaded. "The giant said we could either turn over Verna to him, or he'd be back with the whole gang and they'd just slaughter us all.

"To my shame...we...we let him take Verna." The cleric looked down at his feet, unable to meet the stares of the heroes gathered around him.

"The giant came back this morning," he continued, his voice barely audible. "We were hoping they'd go back to accepting a pig, but it seems they've developed a taste for human flesh. The giant allowed us to pick who would go back to their lair with him this morning. Sherman Goodhost, he had a guest staying with him, a traveler named Rebo.... We roused him from his bed, and we gave him to the giant not a half an hour ago. He was a stranger, you see, not one of us.... We didn't know what else to do!"

He looked back up at the group with a look of anguish on his face. "Please – I beg of you – save us from this hell! Rid of us the giants, before they pick us all off, one by one!" Father Barthel looked hopefully from one hero to the next, but seemed to have a hard time making eye contact with Ingebold, once he'd seen the holy symbol of Moradin she wore around her neck. His shame was so much greater in the presence of another cleric of a goodly god.

"Can ye tell us more about this giant?" asked the dwarf. "And about how many there be in this band of his?"

Father Barthel gave as good a description as he could of the sole giant the villagers had dealt with thus far, the one who came down and sat on his homemade "throne" that was once the apple tree growing in the middle of the village square. From the way he described him, especially the cleric's best estimation of the giant's height, Finoula and Darrien determined they were likely dealing with an ogre. But Father Barthel had no idea how many other ogres there might be living with this one.

"Do you know the location of their lair?" asked Darrien.

"Not its exact location," admitted Father Barthel. "But he always comes from this direction" - he pointed to the north of the village - "and heads back that way after we've given him his tribute. It leads into rocky hill country - I don't think your wagon would be able to make it, although your pony and this...horned, bunny thing...would likely have no trouble making the trip."

"So how do we want to approach this?" asked Castillan. "Shall we hide out here until the next tribute day, and take him down six to one?"

"Castillan!" scolded Finoula. "We can't leave that traveler, Rebo, in the giants' clutches!" Turning to the cleric of Pelor, she asked, "You said they had about a half hour head start on us?"

"About that, yes," confirmed Father Barthel.

"Okay, here the deal," piped up Gilbert, speaking to the cleric for the first time. "We leave our mules and wagon here, but we leave horned bunny thing and wolf here too. They keep eye on wagon, make sure none our stuff go missing." If Father Barthel was insulted by the insinuation, he knew better than to say anything aloud to the people who might be able to solve their giant problem once and for all. He heartily agreed to keep the wagon parked right outside his small temple, and, excusing himself, ran inside for a moment. He returned with three glass potion vials. Handing them over to Ingebold, he said, "These may be of use to you. They are potions of cure light wounds, the last source of healing available to us." Swallowing down his embarrassment, he admitted, "Pelor has not seen fit to grant me spells since we handed Verna over to the giants."

"Thank ye," said Ingebold, taking the potions. "We'll use them only if absolutely necessary," she promised.

"We'd better get going, if we're to catch up with the giants before Rebo becomes their next meal," pointed out Darrien. He was eager to track them down to their lair.

And tracking them to their lair was a ridiculously easy prospect - it was as if the ogre didn't care in the least about hiding his trail. Following his tracks, Darrien saw numerous places where the ogre could have easily avoided leaving a nice wet footprint in a patch of mud but didn't bother; it seemed the ogres had no concerns about being tracked down by a group of weakling farmers. Older foot traffic - apparently made by the same pair of ogre-sized boots - verified that this trail had been used on numerous occasions in the past.

The trail did lead up to rocky hills, where footprints were few and far between, but Darrien and Finoula were well-versed in tracking prey and had no trouble finding enough evidence that the ogre and his human captive had continued on this way. The trail led to a cave opening in the side of a hill, partially obscured by shadows from an overhanging slab of stone.

"That likely the place," whispered Gilbert, casting an extended version of the mage armor spell upon himself in an equally low tone.

"Let's go," offered Darrien, leading the way, his Arachnibow out and an arrow nocked and ready to shoot.

"Wait for me," hissed Binkadink, scooting forward on his extended gnomish stilt-boots. The little gnome stood all of about three feet high but prided himself on being their "meat shield" - the front-line fighter willing to take the brunt of the attacks of whatever enemy they were fighting.

As they approached, they heard a low growling from the shadows of the cave and a shaggy head peeked out from the side of the cave's opening. Darrien recognized it immediately as a dire wolf and let fly with his readied arrow, causing a yelp of pain when it struck true. The dire wolf raced around the corner to stand immediately in the cave's entrance, but was cut deeply by a swing from the gnome fighter's trusty glaive before he could get to the heroes. A blast of magic missiles from Gilbert's wand ended the wolf's life before he could sink his wicked fangs into any of the adventurers.

But the dire wolf wasn't alone - coming around the corner stepped another of these vicious beasts, snarling and growling in hunger. Binkadink crawled over the corpse of the first dire wolf to get to the second; behind him, Castillan took a running leap and hurtled over the corpse, springing off the new threat's head to somersault to a stop directly behind him. A snap of his fingers in mid-somersault had magically summoned his short sword to his hand, which he stabbed deep into the dire wolf's flank. The beast roared in pain and spun around at this new threat, allowing Binkadink to cut deep into the creature's other side with his trusty glaive. Behind the first corpse, Darrien shot another couple of arrows into the wolf's shaggy body, and then it, too, slumped to the stone floor of the cave, dead.

Entering the cave, Gilbert cast a darkvision spell upon himself, surprised at how everything suddenly came blazing into focus - even if it was all in black and white. Handy spell, he thought to himself. Finoula opened her pack and pulled out an everburning torch matching the one tied to one of the antlers on Binkadink's metal helm. But the elven ranger had been practicing attacking with a weapon each hand and didn't want to forego a second attack by holding the torch. So she summoned the gnome over and took a moment to tie her torch to the gnome's other antler. "At least now you're symmetrical," she said, smiling.

Side caverns split off from the central cave to the east and west, while directly ahead to the north, the cave floor suddenly dropped off to another level some twenty feet lower. Checking out the way to the east first, Castillan found a crudely-stitched patchwork of mangy furs hanging from the ceiling. Pushing it aside with a gloved hand, he found a pile of furs making up a simple bed. An unlocked wooden chest standing against the back wall looked inviting; seeing no obvious traps, the bounder opened the lid to find it nearly full of assorted coins and gems. He looked suspiciously around the room, seeking out traps and finding none.

"This is a lot of treasure to be just sitting here," he observed.

"Leave it," commanded Gilbert. "We get it on way out."

The next chamber over was another den of sorts, a dead-end cavern containing a torn, lumpy canvas tent that looked as if it had blown over in a heavy wind. Binkadink peeked into the tent (deducing that whatever giant slept here likely used it as a blanket, for there were no tent poles propping it up), he found a canvas sack easily large enough to cart the gnome around in. Opening it, he found another pile of mixed coins and gems. "This is too easy," he exclaimed. "Hold up a second; I want to try something." The little gnome closed his eyes, steadied his mind, and then snapped his eyelids back open, hoping to see through whatever illusion might be cloaking the room's true contents. But there didn't seem to be any illusion; collecting this treasure really was apparently this easy. "Hmmm," Binkadink said to himself, before giving the sack of coins and gems a final, wistful look and leaving it behind where it sat.

Nobody was quite so willing to explore the next chamber, though - it was creepy. Scores, if not hundreds, of large finger bones hung dangling by what looked to be dried tendons from the ceiling, forming a macabre type of beaded curtain, through which the heroes could see an overly-large hammock made of some type of warty, greenish leather.

"What is that, toad skin?" asked Finoula.

"Go check it out and see," suggested Darrien.

"No, thank you," replied the elf to the half-elf.

Darrien squinted through the ghoulish curtains. "There's something shiny underneath the hammock," he pointed out.

"Go in and check it out," spurred on Finoula.

"No thank you," echoed the half-elf to the elf.

"I no think that toad skin," piped up Gilbert. "Move out of way." The heavyset wizard walked up to the hanging finger bones, extended a wand between the strands, and fired off a magic missile from the lesser of his two wands. It struck the hammock, leaving a slightly blackened area where it hit. The wizard watched to see if the damaged area would "heal" itself of the damage; even though it didn't, he surmised, "I think that skin from troll."

"Ew!" remarked Finoula, wrinkling her nose in disgust and walking away from the chamber. She approached the ledge, and heard a sound - somewhat like a raspy laugh made by a rather large creature, echoing throughout the empty caverns to the north.

"Guys!" she called. The others followed her to the floor's edge, where it dropped down to a lower level. The enormous cavern below them had four other passageways branching off from it, but its most distinctive feature was the wooden cage standing in the middle of the chamber. It had been crafted of sturdy branches tied together into a rough cube some ten feet to a side. A rusty chain rose straight up from the cage's top, through a couple of pulleys mounted to hanging stalactites, with its end dangling directly above the group's heads, although high enough up that they hadn't noticed the chain when first entering this upper chamber.

"Is Rebo in the cage?" asked Darrien, squinting in the poor light.

"Nay, 'tis empty," replied Ingebold.

"We go down," decided Gilbert, unpacking his grappling hook and looking around for a place to anchor it. Finding a suitable area, he tossed the coil of rope down to the lower level.

"I'll go first," offered Binkadink, lowering his stilt-boots for the climb down; it would have been somewhat awkward making the attempt with them fully extended. Once he made it safely to the bottom he re-extended his stilt boots, regaining his former human height while Finoula headed over to start climbing down the anchored rope next.

"Before you climb down, I have something for you," announced Gilbert, casting a spell on his hand and then smacking the ranger's butt immediately after. As had happened the first time he'd tried that means of applying a touch spell to Finoula, the wizard got a slap across the face for his efforts.

"What?" complained Gilbert, rubbing his sore cheek. "I cast magic circle against evil spell on you! You welcome, by the way!"

"Find a new way of casting it," warned the ranger, rappelling down the short cliffside via the rope and joining Binkadink on the lower level, where she pulled out her two swords once again. Above them, Darrien had his Arachnibow nocked and ready to shoot at anything that might approach the duo.

He got his opportunity almost at once. Emerging up a set of naturally-occurring stairs on the floor of the lower cavern's southeastern passageway stepped an ogre with a greatclub balanced over a meaty shoulder. "Wha--?" he gaped at the sight of the two heroes, an elf and a gnome, who had entered the giants' lair willingly. Then Judlok grinned an evil grin at the absurdity of self-delivered meals and went sprinting into the cavern, swinging his greatclub off his shoulder and over his head for a downward smash. He picked up an arrow in the upper part of a thick arm during his rush across the cavern but barely seemed to notice.

"He's evil!" announced Malaterminus to Finoula via the telepathic link they shared, mere seconds before the greatclub came crashing down on the elf. She rolled with the blow, but it still took the wind out of her and staggered her to one knee. Binkadink stepped forward, glaive slicing into the ogre's massive chest, eliciting a mere grunt of pain from the enormous barbarian as he swung his greatclub over his head for another swing. Darrien shot at him again from the upper ledge; Castillan did likewise before leaping down the cliffside and slowing his fall along the way before dropping catlike onto the lower level; and Gilbert's wand of magic missiles was put to good use, but the ogre's second swing sent Finoula crashing to the cold, stone floor, consciousness having fled as her life's blood oozed out of a gaping gash on the side of her head.

Seeing this, Ingebold practically leaped for the rope and slid her way down to the lower level, intending to heal her friend before she bled out. But circumstances forced her to forego her intended actions, for Judlok the ogre, having been severely wounded by being the sole target of a band of six heroes, was starting to feel woozy from loss of blood himself. Forcing himself out of his blood rage in an effort of self-preservation, he scooped up Finoula by the ankle and ran through the nearest exit, to the southwest, dragging his next intended meal behind him.

"No!" cried Binkadink, following hard on his heels and trying to cut down the fleeing ogre with his glaive. But the cavern into which Judlok was fleeing was not empty, for stepping forward into the radius of light spilling out from the gnome's antlered helmet was an even larger giant, this one sporting two heads. He held a pair of wicked-looking morningstars in his massive fists, each fashioned from the trunks of smallish trees, out of the ends of which sprang metal spikes in all directions. The gnome was forced to direct his attention toward this new, and much greater, threat.

Fortunately, Castillan had the little gnome's back. Taking careful aim with his shortbow, he fired a shot into the back of Judlok's head, and the ogre barbarian pitched forward, releasing Finoula's ankle as he died. The elven ranger was close to death herself by this time, but Ingebold managed to grab her up by the shoulders. Realizing that healing her right there and then would be putting the two of them at risk, she scooted backwards, dragging Finoula out of harm's way where she could heal the fallen elf at her leisure while the others provided cover.

Binkadink swung his glaive at the massive ettin, but Vorr-Gorr parried it away with a sideswipe of a giant morningstar. And out of the corner of his eye, the gnome spotted movement coming from the south. Sparing a quick glance, he felt a momentary stab of fear as he watched yet another giant approach, this one very familiar as the group had only recently discovered a green-skinned troll bound in the cave of the ghostly lizardfolk. This troll, however, was not a bound captive but a full member of this small band of misfit giants; Vangar Wartyskin sidled up nonchalantly to the gnome trading blows with Vorr-Gorr, apparently in no real hurry to slay the intruder and completely convinced of the eventual outcome of the combat.

By then, Gilbert had made it down the rope to the lower level and blasted the ettin with his more powerful wand of magic missiles - which, he noted with chagrin, was getting low of charges. From his vantage point near the cage, he was able to see the troll enter the passageway opening into the larger chamber, Binkadink tactically retreating before him.

"I knew that troll-hide!" he declared, thinking back to the hammock on the level above. Apparently Vangar Wartyskin had no qualms about carving apart his own body to provide raw materials for projects as needed. In fact, standing by the cage, the wizard couldn't help but notice that the tree limbs of the cage seemed to be tightly bound together using the same sort of sinew from which dangled the hundreds of finger bones in the troll's den above....

From his perch, Darrien was able to target the ettin once the brute stepped forward in an attempt to get at Binkadink. Gilbert made some quick mental calculations and fired off a fireball spell that completely engulfed Vorr-Gorr and partially covered Vangar without encompassing Binkadink as well. The ettin roared in pain with two voices, the echoes dancing around and around the voluminous caverns.

About this time, another giant entered the scene, this time from the passageway directly to the north. This was the hill giant Graff, who had taken time from their game of who-can-hunt-down-the-prey-first to get the cookfire started in the northernmost cavern, which had an air passage to the surface above. He stormed out into the chamber with the cage, amazed to see a group of adventurers in active combat with the other members of his band - save for Judlok, who he now saw was dead on the ground. Picking up a hefty stone, he pitched it at Castillan without missing a stride. Fortunately for the bounder, he saw the stone coming his way and ducked; the stone likewise went sailing harmlessly over Ingebold's head as she bent to cast a second healing spell on Finoula, who suddenly sat up and looked about her in shock, trying to catch up to what was going on since she'd been knocked out.

Seeing the hill giant about to enter the fray, and noticing that he was standing next to the massive cage, she cast an entangle spell directly at the branches of the handcrafted enclosure. The cage warped and buckled, reaching out at Graff and entwining twisted limbs around the startled giant.

At about this time, Binkadink had successfully slain Vorr-Gorr, slicing his glaive in a downward thrust between the two heads and cutting deep into the ettin's chest. Vorr looked at Gorr in shock; Gorr returned his gaze, and then four eyes all rolled up into the twin heads as the two-headed giant collapsed to the ground, nearly pulling Binkadink's glaive along with it. Vangar Wartyskin tried swiping at the gnome with a set of wicked claws, but the canny fighter dodged below the trolls' digits by lowering his stilt-boots in the nick of time.

Then the little gnome came to a decision: the troll was slowly regenerating the wounds he and the archers were dealing to it; better to leave the troll to Gilbert and his fire spells and concentrate his own efforts where they could do the most good. With that, he spun around on his heels and brought his glaive crashing down upon Graff the hill giant in a powerful overhead swing. Vangar darted forth, eager to grab up the gnome that had foolishly turned his back on him, but was hit by a charge from Gilbert's wand of burning hands. Vangar cried out in pain as the flames burned his skin, while Finoula darted back into the fight, Malaterminus slicing in underneath the sheet of flame and cutting a gouge down the creature's midsection. Surprisingly, before the gash could heal itself back up, several golden coins spilled out from the troll's skin, clattering onto the stone ground. (It was a sound that immediately drew Castillan's attention, attuned as he was to the various sweet music made by money. But then the elf returned his attention to the fight, sending an arrow deep into the entangled hill giant's throat.)

Darrien's arrows from above and Binkadink's slashing glaive eventually finished off the hill giant, and Finoula, seeing this, mentally dismissed her entangle spell so it would be safe for her and her allies to walk past the cage without being attacked by the thrashing tree limbs. That left only Vangar Wartyskin, and Gilbert still had one fireball spell ready to fire.... The troll didn't last long after that.

After Vangar crashed to the ground, Binkadink decided to play it safe: knowing of the troll's incredible regenerative powers, he hacked at it again and again with his glaive, coins spilling out of the corpse with each blow. Then, satisfied with his work, he declared, "That'll take him a good bit of time to heal back up!" and sent Castillan over to the giant's cookfire in the chamber to the north to fetch a burning log with which to set the troll's corpse ablaze, just to be sure. Castillan, though, subcontracted the "fetch-a-burning-log" mission to Finoula, as he had a better use of his time: namely, slicing through the troll's skin for the many coins hidden within. "He's a walking treasure trove!" chortled the bounder with glee.

"Ew!" commented Finoula, passing the burning log to Castillan. "Why in the world would he have done that?"

"Two reasons," surmised Gilbert. "One: treasure stay by him, nobody steal it. Two: he get to wear armor under skin."

"Ew!" repeated Finoula.

Another figure approached from the passage the troll had taken from the south. But this was no giant, rather, a frightened-looking human in a travel robe over his clothes. "Is it safe?" he asked of the group at large.

"Ye must be Rebo," said Ingebold, stepping forward. "Aye, it be safe - th' giants're all dead. Here, ye look to be needin' a drink." She passed over her waterskin, allowing the frightened Rebo to drink deeply. "We'll escort ye back to Harveston, to fetch yer belongings."

"Those traitorous bastards!" declared Rebo. "They turned me over to that brute, knowing I'd be eaten alive!"

"Aye," admitted Ingebold. "They were frightened, out of their league. But we'll let no harm come to ye." It took some effort to calm Rebo down, but they eventually managed to dissuade him from his stated goal of wiping out the villagers.

"We grab up a few things before we leave," explained Gilbert once everyone had climbed back up to the upper level. Then he sent various members of the group to grab up the treasure they'd found in the giants' dens they'd explored thus far. The glint of light from beneath Vangar Wartyskin's hammock turned out to be from two largish gemstones, apparently too big for him to hide beneath his own skin. And they checked out Vorr-Gorr's den to the west, which they hadn't explored yet, finding a leather sack full of gems and coins - and a chunk of amber on a golden chain, with a praying mantis trapped inside it - hidden beneath a rock. Gathering up their various treasures, the adventurers returned back the way they had come.

Upon their arrival, Father Barthel gave a broad grin that quickly broke into full out chortles of glee. "We are saved!" he cried out jubilantly. Gilbert oversaw the loading up of the wagon, while Ingebold went with Rebo to fetch the belongings he'd left behind in the spare room of Sherman Goodhost - who passed the goods over to Rebo without looking him in the eye or saying a single word.

Before continuing on to the north, Ingebold returned the three unused healing potions to Father Barthel. "Thank you," said the cleric. Ingebold noticed that while they had been packing up the wagon, Father Barthel had been packing as well. He no longer wore the robes of a cleric of Pelor, although the sun god's holy symbol was still prominently displayed on a pendant around Barthel's neck. "I am of no good to my flock, after my actions," he said in way of explanation. "I will journey to the south, to one of Pelor's monasteries, to seek atonement. In the meantime, this will be the only source of healing for the village until either I return, restored, or a new cleric is sent to tend to the village's spiritual needs."

"Good luck to ye, then," replied Ingebold.

"And to you," responded Barthel. And with that, the heroes climbed into their saddles or onto the fully-loaded wagon, and returned to the road leading north, back to Kordovia.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Three years ago, Dan and Vicki got me a black T-shirt for Christmas with the caption "Chaotic Evil means never having to say you're sorry." Since all four giants were chaotic evil, it seemed appropriate.
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Game Session Date: 23 January 2016

- - -

The group continued north through the Vesve Forest, still two days out from the kingdom of Kordovia. It was nearing twilight and Binkadink and Finoula, astride their respective mounts, were looking for a good place to make camp for the night. Behind them the overladen wagon, filled with various treasures collected among their travels, was dutifully being pulled by the tireless efforts of the mules Franco and Tantrum. Concerned about the additional weight of the treasure, Darrien and Castillan walked on foot beside the wagon. Concerned not at all about the comforts of beasts of burden, Gilbert Fung sat in the back of the wagon, kicking his feet and humming a wordless tune while ensuring nothing crept up behind them.

A rustle of leaves alerted the group to a disturbance up ahead. There was a large clearing just ahead, where a pair of dirt roads crisscrossed in a junction - a good place to stop for the night, it occurred to the rangers. But the underbrush to the right of the path the group had been traversing began to jostle and shake, and the dirt below it buckled as if under the throes of an earthquake. But it was no earthquake causing the motion, as evidenced by a bullet-shaped head emerging up from the ground, undergrowth spilling down the sides of its hardened carapace as it clambered up to the surface world. Then, with a snort of dirt, it headed straight for the adventurers.

Binkadink and Finoula brought their mounts to a halt; Ingebold did the same with the mules. Castillan immediately headed for the lowest branches of the nearest tree, snapping the fingers of his left hand once secure in his perch to release the shortbow stored in the magical glove he wore on that hand. Darrien, for his part, reached behind his back and grabbed up an arrow to slide into his Arachnibow.

Finoula's wolf companion Wrath was the first to approach the bulette. Sensing a danger to his mistress, he leaped out at the creature, jaws snapping at its foreleg. But the bulette was surprisingly fast and it snapped down at the attacking timber wolf, crushing the poor creature between its own powerful jaws. Wrath whimpered in pain, extracted himself from the bulette's snapping beak, and limp-trotted away from the beast.

By this time Finoula had leapt down from her pony Daisy and unsheathed her intelligent longsword, Malaterminus. "The beast is not evil," reported the sword through the telepathic channel it had with its owner, but the news meant little to the elven ranger; the bulette had hurt her wolf and it would pay dearly for the transgression! She flashed out with Malaterminus, cutting a groove in the bulette's thick flank, while her other hand stabbed out with a short sword.

Binkadink, in the meantime, had remained mounted on his jackalope and spurred Obvious around to the back of the bulette, grabbing up his gnomish glaive from the harness he had fastened for it when riding. His blade bit deep and Obvious gave the creature a stab with his antlers for good measure while he was at it.

Faced with an elf at one end and a gnome on a jackalope at the other, the bulette opted to attack the most delicious morsel: the antlered rabbit. Two swipes with its vicious claws and a bite with its serrated beak, and Obvious was in considerable pain. He dropped to the side, spilling his gnome rider to the forest floor.

Jumping down from the wagon, Ingebold cast a divine favor spell upon herself as she approached with her warhammer in hand. Castillan and Darrien each sent arrows flying at the bulette, one from the ground and one from the trees. Gilbert begrudgingly used one of the last few remaining charges from his more powerful wand of magic missiles, and together they slew the bulette before it could kill any of the group.

But just because none the group had been slain, it didn't mean none had been harmed; Wrath still limped painfully and Obvious was unconscious on the forest floor, his life-blood spilling into the dirt. "Heal him!" pleaded Binkadink and Ingebold quickly complied, channeling one of her most powerful healing spells through her hand and into the jackalope's flank. Broken ribs mended, torn flesh repaired itself, and after two such spells Obvious was awake and back on all fours. The dwarven cleric applied her healing spells to Wrath as well, and before long he was back to his normal old self.

"I think we camp here tonight," decided Gilbert, seeing as the sun was going down. Nobody argued against his plan.

- - -

A few hours later the clearing had taken on quite a different appearance. At Darrien's suggestion they had dragged the bulette's corpse over to the hole he had popped up from and stuffed him back down it, covering the top of the hole with stones in an effort to keep scavengers at bay. The wagon was now in the middle of the clearing with a blazing cookfire beside it. Daisy and the two mules had been tethered to the wagon with long enough ropes to give them plenty of space. Five tents were arranged in a semicircle on the other side of the fire; Darrien's had been destroyed months earlier in a fight with a group of bandits attacking caravans between Garonis and Berenford, but Castillan willingly lent his to the half-elf ranger, stating his desire to sleep up in a tree for the night. Where it's safer! thought the bounder, but Darrien was more than happy to take Castillan up on his offer.

Darrien cast an alarm spell around the campsite, triggered to silently alert him should anyone enter the warded area. Despite this, the group decided to keep two-hour watch shifts throughout the night. Ingebold volunteered to take the first watch, since she needed an uninterrupted block of sleep in order to replace her depleted spells in the morning. Finoula offered to take the next shift, with Castillan and Binkadink taking the next two, in turn. And so, about two hours before midnight, the others turned in for the night, leaving Ingebold to tend to the fire and guard the camp.

- - -

Two hours later, Ingebold woke up Finoula as planned. "It's been quiet," remarked the dwarf, removing her outer armor and laying it out on the ground next to her bedroll. "It's a nice night out, too – I think I'll just sleep out here under the stars, instead've in that stuffy old tent." She made her preparations, said her evening prayers to Moradin, and then climbed into her bedroll. "G'night, Finoula," she said.

"Good night," replied the elven ranger, sitting on a rock by the fire and pulling out Malaterminus to give him a good polish during her watch-shift.

About ten minutes passed without incident. Ingebold drifted off to sleep and began to snore quietly. Then, in the still of the night, Finoula heard a telepathic call as her intelligent longsword spoke directly into her head: "Finoula, it is absolutely imperative that you do not answer me aloud. Make no sound at all, as your life and those of your friends are at stake. If you understand, please acknowledge me silently in your mind."

Finoula froze, eyes roving around the campsite to try to detect what threat might be imminent. But she saw nothing and silently complied with her sword's request. "I understand," she thought to her sword, confident that his telepathy would pick up her silent response.

Apparently satisfied that he had her attention, Malaterminus continued his telepathic conversation. "I am unsure of how it happened," he said sadly, "but sometime during the last two hours Ingebold was apparently slain and her body removed from camp. That creature sleeping there, wearing her form, is an insidious, shapeshifting creature known as a doppelganger."

Finoula stifled a gasp, worried that the slightest noise might wake the doppelganger wearing her friend's form. She turned her head towards Ingebold's bedroll and saw to her relief that the creature hadn't wakened.

"I'm afraid you're now in terrible danger, but I have no choice," continued Malaterminus. "Dopplegangers are telepathic in nature, which is why I had to wait until it was fully asleep before I dared warn you. And now that you know its true nature, if it wakes up and reads your mind, it will know that you know of its duplicity."

"What should I do?" asked Finoula over the mindlink they shared.

"I'm afraid our options are limited," replied Malaterminus. "You dare not try to wake any of the others, for doing so might make enough noise to wake the doppelganger. Even if you just screamed and woke everyone all at once so you'd outnumber the doppelganger, it would just assume one of your forms and grapple its look-alike victim so the others won't know which one to attack."

"How can you be sure it's a doppelganger?" asked Finoula.

"I read its mind as it was drifting off to sleep. It was thinking about how it dragged Ingebold's body away from camp and covered it with a bunch of branches. Furthermore, it intends on killing off one of you each night from now on, occasionally shifting into the form of the recently-slain person to keep the rest of you off guard."

"But it didn't detect you reading its thoughts?"

"It didn't, possibly because mine is not an organic intelligence, like yours. As I am a crafted weapon, a device, it would seem that the doppelganger is unable to read my thoughts. Which is fortunate, else it would already know we're on to it. But it plans to take out either you or the gnome next, probably tomorrow evening, since neither of you has any prominent spellcasting ability - especially the gnome, who has none. The doppelganger can easily fake being a warrior, but it does not have the capability to fake spellcasting and it is aware that if it tries to use Darrien's Arachnibow the weapon will attack it in spider form, so it will likely save him for later. Right now, its biggest worry is that it will be put into a position tomorrow where it - as Ingebold - will need to cast a spell of some sort, and possibly be found out. But once it kills you or the gnome and takes over the shape of its victim, it will be much easier for it to maintain the illusion."

"So what should we do?" repeated Finoula, saddened at the thought of the death of her friend and eager to avenge her.

"I see only one course of action. You must quietly go to the doppelganger's sleeping area and dispatch it yourself. I suggest a downward thrust directly through the creature's heart. Since it's taken on Ingebold's form, its heart will be in the same place it would be on a dwarf." Sensing Finoula's hesitation, Malaterminus added, "I will help guide your hand, that we might slay it with one blow."

Finoula swallowed once and steeled herself for what had to be done. "All right," she said over their link. "Let's get this over with." She was already thinking ahead to what she'd need to do afterwards: awaken the others, search the vicinity for Ingebold's body, have Gilbert cast a gentle repose on her corpse to preserve it during the remaining two-day trip to Kordovia, where hopefully the clerics of her dwarven church could restore her to life....

"Focus," suggested Malaterminus.

Cautiously, Finoula took slow, careful steps towards the form of the sleeping doppelganger, well aware that the fate of her entire adventuring group was in her hands. She made it to Ingebold's bedroll without waking the impostor, then quietly shifted Malaterminus in her hands for a downward thrust. "I will guide you," reminded Malaterminus. Finoula took in a deep breath, raised the sword high above her head, and then thrust down with all of her might.

As the blade struck through her chest, Ingebold's eyes and mouth opened wide in shock. She locked her gaze with Finoula, a look of abject betrayal on her face, as her head fell back and she breathed her last breath.

What happened next occurred over the span of a mere second or two. The elven ranger heard a terrible laughter in her head, as the longsword in her hand writhed and shifted form. A crack split the blade from its tip, spreading it out into a pair of leathery wings and the upper torso of an incredibly handsome man. At the same time, the sword's crosspieces bent down and become a pair of powerful legs, leaving Finoula still holding what was once the sword's hilt – and was now a throbbing member of the demon's anatomy.

"You foolish mortal," sneered the incubus. "I knew I could count on you to perform the act of betrayal needed to free me from that accursed form."

A thousand thoughts went flooding through Finoula's mind all at once: the way the sword had called out to her telepathically from its slot in the underground dungeon complex, claiming to be a tool for good and the fulfillment of a prophecy; the fact that it had been hidden away like that, in a narrow slot in solid stone protected by a pool of acid and a pair of animated suits of armor deep below the ground, specifically to prevent it from finding a way back to its true form; Finoula's prophecy from the magic mirror in the manor of the Purple Mage: "Beware, for the betrayal of a beloved friend is the worst kind to bear...."

One thing was sure: there was no longer any need for silence. Finoula screamed as loud as she could, a cry that combined anguish over the death of her friend at her own hands, disgust for the cruel trick that had been played upon her, and hatred for the perfectly-formed demon standing before her. She stepped back away from the incubus, grabbing for the short sword on her back, as the other members of the group were jolted instantly from their sleep.

Malaterminus's eyes flashed in anger; he'd been hoping to be able to charm the elf into instant obedience and lead her away from the camp, where he could do to her what he loved most to do. Yes, he was an incubus, whose job it was to seduce mortal women into sin, but his name - meaning "Evil Slayer," not "Slayer-of-Evil" as he'd told Finoula when they had first met - had been given to him because he preferred performing the standard acts of an incubus until his mortal victims had been slain.

"Ah well, it was perhaps not meant to be," he sighed, flapping his wings and rising a good twenty feet into the air, out of the range of the infuriated ranger. Then he cast out a summons across the planes, smiling in satisfaction as his call was answered and two goatlike humanoid demons appeared around Finoula.

"What going on?" demanded Gilbert, climbing out of his tent, his sleep-befuddled mind having a hard time fitting together the two goat-demons attacking Finoula and the bat-winged, naked man hovering in the air above her.

Castillan had awakened from his elven trance and snapped instantly to full awareness. He had no idea what was going on, but he did see Finoula battling a pair of goat demons armed with nasty-looking halberds just below him. Leaping silently down from his tree perch, he snapped the fingers on his right hand, summoning his own short sword as he landed behind the nearest demon, and plunged its blade deep into the fiend's back.

By then, Darrien and Binkadink had also crawled out of their respective tents. The gnome grabbed up his glaive and leaped upon Obvious's back, sending the jackalope hippity-hopping across the campsite to the battle between Finoula and Castillan against two goat-headed schir demons. Binkadink leaped to the ground, speared his glaive into the side of the demon Castillan had just backstabbed, while Obvious bit into the scruff of the other one's neck. Flinging his head up and down, he dropped the second schir demon to the ground and began leaping up and down upon him, to the satisfying sound of breaking bones. The schir demon's halberd was dropped to the ground as the fiend fended for its unholy life against the enraged jackalope.

While grabbing up the Arachnibow, Darrien mentally activated the new amber amulet of vermin he'd recently taken from the cave of the giants. Instantly, a giant praying mantis manifested by Castillan's side, causing the bounder to jerk in surprise as the giant insect stabbed out rapidly with its claws, catching the schir demon still standing in its spined embrace.

Gilbert had cast a mirror image spell upon himself and now five identical Gilberts came creeping up around the back side of the campsite, skirting around the panicked mules and pony still tethered to the wagon. He cast an attack spell at Malaterminus, who was hovering in place watching his schir demons take a pounding, but the incubus's inherent spell resistance caused the wizard's spell to harmlessly fizzle out. Still, the wizard was a potential threat, so the incubus focused his will upon Binkadink, while simultaneously telling the gnome telepathically, "Beware, friend, for that is not Gilbert: a spellcasting doppelganger has taken his form and now approaches to slay you all!" Binkadink, his mind befuddled by the charm person effect just planted directly into his mind, took this information at face value: that wasn't Gilbert, it was an enemy. Still, that wasn't as important at the moment as seeing to the safety of his friend and trusted mount Obvious, who was still grappling with the second schir demon. He filed the information as to Gilbert being a doppelganger away in his head, to be dealt with once Obvious was safe. After all, he'd almost lost his furry friend once before the previous day and wasn't about to lose him now!

Darrien began pumping arrows in the schir demons, while Finoula, Binkadink, and Castillan stabbed at them with their weapons and Obvious and the mantis struck out with teeth, antlers, and claws. Even Wrath got into the action, snapping at a cloven-hoofed foot as the demons gave their primary attention to their humanoid enemies. But the schir demons both fell to the onslaught, each dissipating in a puff of rancid air as they were slain, only to reform back in their Abyssal realms.

Still hovering in the air, Malaterminus shook his head sadly at the fact that neither of his subservient demons had managed to slay even one of the heroes. In an instant, he teleported to Finoula's side, thinking to grab her up and fly away with her, but she evaded his grasp, snarling, "Get your hands off of me!"

Malaterminus now found himself the sole target of the band of six - well, five now, as it was Ingebold's death that had freed him from the indignity of being trapped in the form of a sword - heroes and a trio of animal helpers. He knew his inherent spell resistance and ability to shrug off damage from weapons that weren't especially crafted with good-aligned enchantments or of cold iron should keep him from serious harm for some time, but he wasn't willing to take the chance. He'd been freed from the sword form he'd been bound into by a rival demon and it was high time he planned out a fitting revenge. Plus, he had been gated to the material plane way back when - any death he suffered here would be permanent. And there would be ample time to reward Finoula in a proper fashion; demons were, after all, virtually immortal. So he teleported away, this time to a spot in the air some thirty feet above the group's wagon, keeping himself aloft with strokes of his powerful wings.

"Farewell then for now, my sweet Finoula," he called down. "When next I find myself back on this dreary mortal plane, I'll be sure to look you up. After all, I have so much to thank you for! You know, I could just love you to death - and some day, perhaps soon, I just might!" he added with a knowing smirk. And with that, Malaterminus's perfect body exploded into a puff of rancid gas which dissipated quickly in the night air.

"What the hell happen here?" demanded Gilbert, dismissing his mirror images and dispelling the charm person effect on Binkadink, who had turned menacingly to face the "doppelganger threat" now that Obvious was safe. Everyone turned to Finoula for answers, but she had dropped to Ingebold's side and was brushing the hair out of the dwarf's face, tears of regret leaving trails down her face. She sobbed to herself quietly before turning to the others and explaining everything that had happened.

"It wasn't your fault," offered Darrien, placing a hand on his fellow ranger's shoulder. "With the information you were given, you did what you thought was right...." Finoula didn't answer, just hung her head lower.

"I go get gentle repose scroll," remarked Gilbert, trudging back to the wagon to fetch the Omnibook, where he had absorbed the scroll he'd found on the body of the Purple Mage.

Nobody slept any more that night. As soon as the sun rose they placed Ingebold's magically-preserved body up on the wagon, Darrien took the mules' reins, and they were on their way. Finoula rode on ahead astride Daisy, as usual, with Wrath trotting along good-naturedly at her pony's heels. But one thought kept rolling around and around in the ranger's head as they made their way closer and closer to their little kingdom: What am I going to tell Aerik and Helga?

- - -

I had been patiently waiting to spring this adventure onto my unsuspecting players, and onto Vicki in particular. This wasn't sudden deviousness on my part, either; I had planned for this betrayal from the first moment I created the longsword Malaterminus. (I tried covering my tracks from the beginning, too; not wanting a detect evil spell to be able to "spill the beans" about the longsword's true nature, I had Malaterminus the sword able to mask his own alignment and that of its wielder, spinning it as a way to prevent evil fiends from being able to detect the inherent goodness of the sword and its wielder.) But I had thought, when I was first planning out the broad course of the campaign, that I wanted to make sure that within the first several levels each PC got a "cool" item to use, and then followed that thought up with "And wouldn't it be cool if one of those 'cool' items was in fact something nasty instead?"

My initial idea was that Malaterminus might be a pit fiend or a balor, but I soon ruled that out because I didn't want the sword's true nature to only be revealed at the very end of the campaign (which is when I'd have to do it if I wanted the PCs to have a chance of surviving a fight with Malaterminus in his true, fiendish form). None of the lesser demons and devils seemed like a good fit, though...and then Paizo came out with their Pathfinder Bestiary 3, which included stats for both the incubus and the schir demon. An incubus, I decided, was the perfect fit: a seducer demon, perfectly suited for lying as needed and arranging conditions for its own release. Plus, it was of a low enough CR that I could spring this plot twist on the players relatively early on and still have plenty of time for them to recover. (I didn't want "being tricked by Malaterminus" to be Finoula's defining trait.) So I introduced Malaterminus as a plot element in adventure #7 and let the truth come out in adventure #14. Considering I intend to have about 50-60 adventures during this campaign, that felt about right.

I had come up with a reason for having Finoula take the second shift of watch duty but Vicki beat me to the punch by having Finoula volunteer to do so. That certainly made things easy! So I did what I've done several other times to my players when I had information only one player could know about: I banished the others to Joey's bedroom and gave them the understanding that I'd be swapping out players based on whose PC was on guard duty at the time. So, after getting Vicki to have Finoula kill Ingebold and revealing Malaterminus in all of his demonic evil, I suggested to Vicki that there was no real reason for Finoula to remain quiet anymore and it would actually be kind of funny if she screamed at the top of her lungs for help, just to see the expressions on the other players' faces when they came running back into the kitchen. So she did, and in they raced with expressions of panic on their faces. (I later learned that Dan had not gone to Joey's bedroom with the others, but rather to his own bedroom - they're both down the same hallway from the kitchen, where we play - and had almost fallen asleep on his bed when Vicki started screaming for help. That certainly explained his expression!)

Anyway, my biggest concerns were that Vicki was going to hate this turn of events and that the other players were going to give her grief for "foolishly" slaying Ingebold. To address the second concern, I stressed to the other players after the event occurred that I had intentionally led Finoula down a specific path by carefully misleading her about the true nature of Malaterminus and the "Ingebold doppelganger." (I even, after the adventure was over, read them everything I had read to Vicki so they could see how easily it would have been to be fooled.) As for Vicki hating the turn of events, I confess: I got lucky. She had originally been overjoyed upon finding Malaterminus and being told Finoula Cloudshadow was a prophetic figure destined to one day save the world; I admit to wincing a little at her initial excitement, knowing in advance that I was just setting her up for a fall. But at the end of this game session, as we were packing up, she said she had been totally surprised at the reveal, and said it was kind of like something bad happening in a really good book: you were sorry to see the bad thing happen, but at the same time it was fascinating to see it unfold and see what would happen next.

But bottom line: I've been blessed with a great group of players who let me get away with stuff I probably wouldn't get away with in just any gaming group. And to make it up to Vicki (later, in an adventure down the road), I have a cool idea for a replacement sword for Finoula. Now I just need to find a way to get Vicki to trust me enough to have Finoula claim it as her own....

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: The same "Chaotic Evil means never having to say you're sorry" T-shirt, since this was the same gaming session as "Playing With their Food." But it was just as appropriate for this adventure, given the chaotic evil nature of Malaterminus.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 6
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 6
Darrien, half-elf ranger 6
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 6
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 6​

NPC Roster:
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 5 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 13 February 2016

We took care of some "follow on" actions after Ingebold's death during this session, then moved on to the adventure I had planned. Since it's going to be a rather lengthy write-up and Ingebold's return to life had nothing really to do with the adventure that followed, I'm going to write this up as an interlude and then follow it up with the actual adventure in a separate post.

- - -

"Where should we go first?" asked Darrien as the mule-driven wagon pulled onto the road leading into Kordovia.

"The Temple of Moradin?" suggested Binkadink, riding alongside the wagon on his jackalope mount. "We'll need to get Ingebold raised, and the clerics there will probably need to do some preparation ahead of time. I don't think they're ready for this sort of thing day in and day out."

"No," said Finoula - one of the few words she'd said over the course of the last two days. "Battershield Keep. Aerik and Helga need to know." And then she trotted Daisy ahead, out of easy vocal range of the others. When the road split, she veered off to the path that led to Battershield Keep, confident that the others would follow her lead.

"She still touchy," commented Gilbert. Nobody replied.

Once inside Battershield Keep, Finoula dismounted and approached the dwellings at the back. Aerik had yet to report for duty at the castle, so he was on hand to hear the news of his daughter's death from the elven ranger firsthand. Upon hearing it was Finoula herself who had slain his daughter, Aerik's hands involuntarily curled into fists and he took a step toward the ranger as if to strike her. Finoula stood tall but motionless, unwilling to defend herself from the angry dwarf's reaction, but it didn't come to that - Helga silently placed a hand on her husband's shoulder, spinning him to her, and he collapsed his forehead on Helga's shoulder, sobbing audibly. She looked sadly at Finoula, but her expression said she knew there had to be more to this story and she was willing to hear it from the ranger before jumping to any conclusions.

As the wagon trundled up with Ingebold's body respectfully laid out in state in the back, none of the heroes said a word, not wanting to break the silence of the moment. Even Gilbert Fung, who usually had a comment to make about everything, held his tongue.

Eventually, Aerik regained his composure and turned to face his daughter's killer. "The full story," he demanded. "Tell me everything."

And Finoula did.

- - -

The next stop was the Temple of Moradin, with Aerik now driving the wagon and Helga sitting in the back with the body of her slain daughter. The gentle repose spell cast upon her two days ago still had her looking as if she were merely sleeping - especially since the heroes had placed a blanket over her and tucked it in around her, covering the spot where Finoula's demon-sword had pierced through her chest and punctured her heart.

The other heroes walked in silence behind the wagon, the animals having been left behind in the Keep's stables. Aerik kept the pace slow, as befitted a funeral procession. They passed by farmland, gathering several curious looks from the workers in the fields.

At the Temple of Moradin, Aerik stopped the wagon and jumped out. He scooped up his daughter's body and solemnly carried it into the stone building. The others trailed, Castillan and Darrien flanking Helga Battershield, ready to catch her if she should faint. But Helga was a dwarven woman, and they were made of strong stuff. Her face was impassive as she followed her husband and daughter into the temple.

A pair of clerics approached immediately, saw the situation, and steered Aerik into a room in the back, where he placed Ingebold's body on a slab of solid stone.

"Return in the morning, at first light," suggested the head priestess. "We will be ready for your daughter's return to life at that time." Aerik merely nodded, then spun on his heels and headed back toward the exit, saying nothing and making eye contact with no one. Helga followed in his wake, but placed a hand on Finoula's shoulder as she passed. The heroes maintained their silence until the Battershields had left.

"I think we might want to give them their privacy for the evening," suggested Binkadink. "What do you say we all head back to our own families for the rest of the day and meet back here tomorrow morning?"

"Good call, gnome," replied Gilbert. "I see you guys later." The others started to follow him toward the door.

"One moment, please, Miss Cloudshadow," said a voice from behind the heroes as they turned to leave with the portly wizard. Finoula turned to see the head priestess approaching her. "As ye are one of the king's servants, I believe I can trust ye not to leave town." Finoula stared at the dwarf's impassive face, belatedly realizing she expected an answer. "You can," she said.

"Good. Then I expect I'll see ye tomorrow at the morning's ritual."

"I will be there," promised Finoula, wearing an expressionless face of her own.

"Good. I gather ye've just returned from the field, but tomorrow - no weapons and no armor in the temple. Tell yer friends."

Finoula merely nodded, then turned and followed her friends outside.

- - -

The group took the wagon to the castle, to turn in their accumulated treasure and receive their own shares - this was after leaving behind the cost of the raise dead spell with the Moradin temple clerics. They split up after that, each going about their own business. Gilbert picked up a few low-level scrolls from one of the few merchant wizards in the kingdom. Darrien returned home, to be nearly hugged to death by his mother, who lived vicariously through her son - the adventurer! - and his mighty exploits. She forced him to a seat in the kitchen and fired question after question at him, reveling in excitement at each of his stories. Binkadink returned to his uncle's potion shop, to be met with a grumpy rant about how much money Uncle Winkidew was losing now that King Galrich had gotten it into his head that the gnomish potion-crafter should keep the heroes well supplied.

"Do you know how much this is costing me?" he demanded - but Binkadink could see through his uncle's gruff exterior to see he was pleased his nephew had returned home safely. And Jinkadoodle was glad to see his cousin, prompting Binkadink that it was his turn for retaliation in their prank war, and just what was taking him so long? - because he had a real doozy planned once it was his turn again.

Castillan returned to his family's estate to be met with a squeal of excitement from his youngest sister Malrin. Immediately, there was a rush of bodies as his other sister Laerornith and their mother Daerdis came into the hallway to greet him.

"Your father's in his study," mentioned Daerdis matter-of-factly, although Castillan well knew there was no way in the Nine Hells his father would actually came out to greet him, given their recent animosity toward each other.

Looking around, the bounder noticed his little brother Aithanar was missing. "Where's Aith?" he asked – and the smiles on everyone's faces turned off as if by a switch. Daerdis looked away in pain; Malrin looked down sadly at her feet. It was Laerornith – never one to be shy – who responded, "Father sent him away."

Over drinks in the kitchen, the full story came out. A week or so ago, Aithanar got into a fight at a tavern and hit his head on the brick fireplace, rendering him unconscious. Upon being reawakened, he could no longer speak coherently – everything he said was nonsensical gibberish. Castillan's father Aroben, not wanting the shame of an incoherent, wit-addled son damaging the family name, had him sent away "for rest and recovery" at Ravencroft Sanatorium, tucked away in the mountains north of Kordovia.

"It's where they send the crazies," piped in Laerornith. "Father says he's just resting, and he'll be back when he feels better, but nobody ever 'gets better' at the loony bin. They just stay there, locked away, where they won’t bother anyone."

"That’s enough!" admonished Daerdis. "Your father has made his decision, and I'm sure it was the right one."

Castillan was not so sure that was necessarily the case.

Finoula, meanwhile, returned to her mother's home. "Finoula!" shrieked Feya in delight, a broad smile plastering her face at the sight of her eldest daughter. "You're home! I see the adventuring life has been treating you well. And good news: Feron has sent word that she'll be by to visit in a week or so!"

But then her brow furrowed as she looked closely at Finoula, able to sense – as she had always been able to do for Finoula's entire life – that something was bothering her.

"Finoula?" she asked. "What's wrong, daughter?"

The tears Finoula had been holding in for two days flowed out as she explained the events of the last few days to her mother.

- - -

The next morning, the group reassembled outside the Temple of Moradin, going in together. As requested, none of them was armed or armored. They saw Aerik and Helga sitting together in the front of the small crowd gathered already in the temple. Nearly all the others in the temple were dwarves; the heroes took seats in the rear of the temple and tried to look unobtrusive.

Up in the front of the temple was a stone slab, upon which lay Ingebold's body. She had been cleaned up and dressed in a pure white robe. The head priestess stepped forward and began casting a spell over Ingebold's form. Light suffused her hands, which she placed on Ingebold's temples, encompassing her head in a golden, halo-like effect. Unseen underneath her robes, the sword-wound over her heart sealed up, leaving no trace of a scar, and the restored organ began pumping blood once again. The fallen cleric took in a gasp of breath and sat up suddenly, looking in bewilderment around her. For a brief moment, her gaze locked with Finoula, but her face betrayed no emotion - it was as if the risen cleric hadn't even recognized the ranger.

Temple clerics helped Ingebold to her feet, then took her to the rooms in the rear of the building. "Moradin has returned Ingebold Battershield to her family," the head priestess announced. "She must rest after her ordeal; tomorrow, she will be ready to complete the process of healing in full. Praise Moradin!"

"Praise Moradin!" roared the crowd in unison, then got to their feet and prepared to leave the temple. A temple page approached Finoula. "You will return tomorrow morning," she announced haughtily. "Your fate will be decided upon at that time." Then she spun on her heels and exited the main chamber.

"What that supposed to mean?" demanded Gilbert.

"We will find out tomorrow," replied Finoula, then excused herself and left.

"Wait a minute - they're not going to try to hold Finoula accountable for Ingebold's death, are they?" asked Darrien. "It was an accident! She was tricked by a demon--"

"We all know that," countered Gilbert. "But I don't know if they know that. Or if they care."

"But Aerik and Helga know the full story," pointed out Binkadink. "I'm sure they told the church what happened."

"Who can tell with dwarves?" grumbled Gilbert. "You no can see what they thinking when they get all stony-faced!"

"Hey, keep it down!" hissed Castillan. "We're in a dwarven temple. Maybe let's not go disparaging dwarven personality traits quite so loudly, huh? C'mon, let's get out of here before we make matters worse!"

- - -

There were nowhere near as many people at the temple ceremony the next morning; besides the five adventurers sitting in the front row there was only Ingebold, standing impassively at the front of the raised platform in the back, and six temple clerics, arranged in two rows of three before her. The temple clerics were all in their full battle armor and each gripped a warhammer diagonally in front of them. Ingebold wore no armor, merely her white and red temple robes; she held a rolled-up scroll in her hand. With a start, Finoula realized that this was how Ingebold had originally intended her life to be, administering to her flock at the Temple of Moradin, not traveling the land as an adventurer.

"Finoula Cloudshadow, approach!" called out one of the armor-clad clerics; none of the adventurers had recognized the head priestess until she spoke. Finoula dutifully rose from her seat and, at the head priestess's orders, dropped to her knees immediately before the two rows of clerics. Then Ingebold stepped forward, unrolled the scroll before her, and began to chant. The clerics joined in, and for the next forty-five minutes or so there was only chanting and supplications to Moradin in the Dwarven language - which left the puzzled heroes somewhat in the dark as to what exactly was going on. But they dared not interrupt whatever ceremony this was. And neither did Finoula move during the chanting, her head bowed and staring at the floor before her.

Finally, the chanting stopped and Ingebold continued the rest of the ceremony in the Common tongue of the region, for the benefit of the other heroes.

"Finoula, yours was th' last face I saw before I died," she said. "It was a face filled with hatred, and with repulsion. It's a face I c'n still see when I close me eyes...a face I'll likely take with me to me final days. I died not understandin' what ye were doing, nor why.

"It's since been explained t'me that ye weren't tryin' t' kill me, but rather to kill what ye thought was a doppelganger. When I first heard this explanation, I thought it was nonsense. I figgered if th' roles had been reversed, why surely I'd've known it was ye there before me asleep in yer bedroll, not some shapeshiftin’ monster!

"But I've talked to me father, and he says he encountered a doppelganger in th' past, and sure enough they c'n look like whatever they want, down t' th' finest detail. In fact, he tells th' story of how he left King Galrich alone in a room with a doppelganger assassin what was tryin' t' kill 'im so's he couldn't be crowned king – not only that, but me father stood guard outside th' room so th' killer wouldn't be disturbed! But both he an' King Galrich were taken in by th' creature, for he looked indistinguishable from their boss at th' time. So I can't fault ye for not bein' able t' tell th' difference between me and a shapeshiftin' monster, odd as that seems to say aloud.

"Then there's th' matter of havin' taken th' advice of a demon, not only on th' night of me slayin' but fer months afore that. But it weren't just ye alone who'd been tricked; we all of us believed th' blasted sword were nothin' more than what it claimed t'be. So ye can't be faulted fer that, either.

"Some might say ye were foolish not to have heeded yer prophecy, th' one ye received in th' manor of th' Purple Mage. 'Beware,' it said, 'fer th' betrayal of a beloved friend is th' worst kind to bear.' But prophecies, by their very nature, are never clear cut an' c'n often be open to multiple interpretations. I think most of us thought it was warning against ye bein' betrayed, not bein' th' betrayer yerself.

"And, as ye know, I received a prophecy of me own in that manor. 'A wounded heart may indeed be mended over time; forgiveness is key,' it said." At that, Finoula raised her head to look Ingebold in the eye, the first glimmers of hope lightening her heart. "I never thought to interpret it quite so literally," Ingebold continued, "but it were indeed 'a wounded heart' what killed me that night, pierced as it were by th' sword-demon.

"A year ago, Finoula, ye and I were strangers to each other. Sure, we lived in th' same kingdom, but we traveled in different circles. Now, we're both part of th' same band of adventurers, doin' our best fer th' kingdom. Ye and I are no longer strangers, but battle-sisters. And I now know that hate-filled face – that's likely t'be givin' me nightmares from here on in – weren't directed at me, but at what ye honestly thought was not only a danger to th' group, an' t' th' kingdom too, but th' very monster what'd already slain me. That was a face of a woman dealing vengeance – justice – to th' slayer of a battle-sister. An' I c'n tell ye truthfully, I'll sleep better knowin' that if'n I ever do fall in battle, me battle-sister'll be there t' avenge me death."

Ingebold took a deep breath before continuing her speech, which was the tail end of the hour-long casting of an atonement spell, a spell the head priestess had felt it was important for Ingebold herself to cast, even though it was a more powerful spell than that which the adventuring cleric was normally capable of casting - hence the scroll.

"Finoula Cloudshadow of th' Kingdom of Kordovia," she intoned, "I, Ingebold Battershield of th' Kingdom of Kordovia, do hereby pronounce ye absolved of all blame – an' of all guilt – in th' matter of me recent death. Let us all put this matter behind us, speak of it no further, and get back t' th' business at hand of doin' what we c'n fer our kingdom." And with that, the spell completed, she walked forward to Finoula and placed a hand on her head in benediction. Finoula felt a wave of peacefulness and contentment flood through her body, and the stress and guilt of the past few days washed out of her system.

As one, the six temple clerics lifted their warhammers in their right hands and sent the ends crashing to the floor in a loud clamor, resting their hands on the business ends of the weapons - as if they were no longer weapons, merely heavy walking sticks. The simultaneous crash of six dwarven warhammers on the stone floor had the same effect as a judge pounding his gavel at his desk: case closed! Finoula had been somewhat worried, fearing in the back of her mind that these six might have been intended to be her executioners. But she took Ingebold's offered hand and rose to her feet.

"I think your father hates me," Finoula said.

"Nah," countered Ingebold. "Well, maybe a little, there at first," she amended, "but me Ma's got 'im straightened out."

"Come on," said Castillan, joining the two. "If we're going off into the field again, I'd like to head north this time."

"North?" asked Gilbert. "Why north? What up there besides mountains?"

"Well, for one thing, there's a place called Ravencroft Sanatorium, about a half day's ride from here. I want to stop in and see if my brother's okay."

"I'll get me gear," said Ingebold, patting and then releasing Finoula's hand.

"Let's all meet up at Battershield Keep in an hour," suggested Darrien.

"Deal," replied Gilbert. Then, to Castillan, he asked, "Why your brother in crazy-house?"
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Game Session Date: 13 February 2016

- - -

"That must be it there," remarked Darrien, pointing ahead to the stone wall. A pair of thick, wooden doors stood in the middle of the stone wall; both doors were closed and there were no handles on the doors' exteriors.

"That not very friendly," grumbled Gilbert.

"You'd think there would be a bell or something," commented Finoula, riding alongside the wagon on her pony, Daisy. "How do they know when someone's arrived?"

"I show you how they know," remarked Gilbert, dropping down from the wagon and walking up to the wooden doors. Once there, he pounded on them with a meaty fist. "Open up!" he demanded. "We here to check out your facility, make sure it doing everything right!"

"Who's there?" called a gruff voice from the other side of the wall.

"I here!" replied Gilbert. "Now open up, pronto!"

"Do you have an appointment?" demanded the unseen voice.

"We don't need an appointment!" called back Castillan. "We're here to check up on my brother!"

"That pretty stupid," whispered Gilbert to the bounder. "Somebody not let you in without appointment, you tell them you have appointment."

"Oh, an appointment!" amended Castillan. "Yes, we have an appointment."

"With who?" demanded the voice.

"With...the person in charge," replied Castillan. "I've forgotten his name."

"This is ridiculous," announced Finoula. "Please let us in, we only wish to talk with whoever's in charge and make sure a family member's doing okay here."

"Piss off!"

"Well!" replied Finoula, shocked at such course language from someone working at a facility that was supposed to help those in need. Looking off to the left of the gate, she saw a bald head peeking over the wall, checking out the group. The guard ducked back below the wall before she could call out to him. She turned to the others. "What can we do?" she asked.

"I don't know about you, but I'm going over the wall," announced Castillan. "I'll open up the gates once I'm in there." He backed up several steps, then raced at the wall at full speed, easily running up the ten-foot wall. Once at the top, he braced his hands upon the top...then cried out in pain and dropped back to the ground. Instinctively, he slowed his fall on the way down, leaving a streak of blood on the wall's exterior.

"Are ye okay?" asked Ingebold, approaching the bounder.

"The damned wall's got glass shards embedded on the top!" complained the bounder. "What the hell?"

Binkadink turned to his jackalope mount. "Obvious, do you think you can jump over that wall?" he asked in the language of burrowing mammals.

"Easily," scoffed Obvious. "Hold on tight!" The jackalope hippity-hopped across the ground, then sprang up and leaped over the wall, easily clearing the top with half a foot to spare. As they flew over the wall, Binkadink saw it was five feet thick and surrounded a one-story building made of the same bleak, gray stone. The jackalope landed sure-footedly on the lawn and skidded to a stop -- and then Binkadink realized he was up against more than a couple of surly guards. The two guards spun to face him, and the gnomish fighter saw they were armed only with truncheons - easily handled, if it came to a fight - but there were also two other creatures there on the grounds which the gnome had at first thought were mere guard dogs, until he saw their human faces and the fact that their front paws were inarguably human hands.

"Wh-what the--" he sputtered as the first of these human hounds growled and rushed him, running on all fours and yelling "Kill-kill-kill-kill-kill!" in a disturbingly human voice.

Finoula, in the meantime, had ridden Daisy over to the side of the wall and stood up on her pony's saddle, peering over the wall. She saw Binkadink and Obvious fighting off some sort of strange human dog, with another racing over from the other side of the gray building. But she also saw what looked like a spider the size of a washtub scampering over the roof of the building. It was difficult to tell for sure, but for a moment there Finoula could have sworn the spider's body was shaped like a human head. Over on the other side of the gate, Darrien carefully climbed up the side of the wall, peeking over the top without cutting his hands on the glass shards, but he was too late to see the spider-thing scurry away.

At Binkadink's cries of disgust from the other side of the wall, Castillan decided he was tired of waiting. Racing up the wall again, he flipped over the top, somersaulting in midair and landing gracefully on his feet on the other side. The second human hound altered its trajectory, making for the bounder as he was a closer target than Binkadink and Obvious. It snarled and swore, trying to bite Castillan's legs, but the bounder snapped his fingers and a short sword appeared in his right hand. He stabbed out at the beast, eliciting a cry of pain that mirrored the other human hound's, for by then Binkadink had skewered the unfortunate creature he was fighting with his glaive.

The two guards rushed over, truncheons at the ready. Figuring that anyone allied with these abominations was likely of an evil bent, Binkadink brought his glaive around and cut deeply into the nearest guard's abdomen. The man dropped to his knees, fell over, and then his head went shooting toward the gnome, trailing a loop of thick intestines behind it. Binkadink shrieked in surprise and horror and Obvious hopped back from this sudden attack, allowing Binkadink to bring his glaive down upon the disembodied head over and over in what was less of a practiced warrior's combat maneuver and more of a panicked "kill it kill it kill it!" reflex.

"That's it, I'm going over," announced Finoula. She pulled herself up onto the top of the shard-covered roof, rolled across its expanse - hoping her armor would protect her from the worst of the cuts - and dropped to the ground on the other side. By that point, there was only one guard left, and the elven ranger had arrived just in time to see Binkadink run it through the torso with the tip of his glaive. The guard's head came rocketing back, propelled by a thick, serpentine body that looked like nothing so much as a large section of intestines. "Ew!" screamed the ranger, stepping back instinctively as she brought her two swords out. But Binkadink had had a bit more time to accustom himself to the horror of these "gut nagas," and he cleaved through this second creature's head with his trusty weapon, leaving four - or six, depending on how you chose to count them - bodies dead and bleeding on the lawn of Ravencroft Sanatorium.

"Open the gate," suggested Binkadink, and Finoula hurried to comply. It was barred with a thick slab of wood, but she managed to lift it out of its grooves and pull the heavy wooden gates open.

"About time!" complained Gilbert. "What take so long--ew, what the hell that?" Gilbert had gotten his first look at the bodies of the creatures sprawled on the ground. "What kind of place this supposed to be?"

"What happened to your face?" asked Castillan in turn, for the wizard's face - and entire body, upon closer look - was a bright blue. "Oh, never mind; it's a 'Winkidew Special,' isn't it?" Stuck outside the gates with Ingebold while the others battled the guards and hounds, Gilbert had taken the time to quaff down one of Binkadink's Uncle Winkidew's mage armor potions, which had the unfortunate side effect of turning the imbiber's skin a bright blue. "You look like a goof," decided the bounder.

"Yeah, well I a goof that harder to hit in battle," replied Gilbert. Then he activated his hat of disguise, taking on the appearance of one of the guards. "And now I a freaky guard, not a goof!" he announced. "Let's loot these stiffs."

A quick search of the guards' bodies revealed a set of identical-looking key rings on each corpse, which the group took for themselves. "Let's go inside," suggested Darrien, his Arachnibow at the ready. Ingebold drove the mule wagon inside the confines of the wall, and then Daisy, Obvious, and Wrath were left with the mules while the heroes headed for the front doors.

"Just what kind of idiot your father, anyway?" demanded Gilbert as they approached the front doors of the sanatorium. "Who puts son in loony bin run by monsters?"

"I'm no fan of my father's, but I highly doubt they put their monsters on display when taking in new clients. And knowing Aroben, he likely didn't spend a whole lot of time and effort checking the place out, as long as it kept Aithanar out of the public eye."

"He still an idiot."


By that time, Darrien had found the key on the ring that opened up the locked front door. Waiting inside for them were two more of the human-looking guards, who blocked the way past the entry foyer, which was decorated with soothing landscapes and a portrait of the sanatorium's founder, one Dr. Silas Ravencroft. Darrien sent an arrow speeding over Ingebold's head and into the torso of the guard on the right, while Finoula's swift swords stabbed into the guard on the left. Sure enough, these guards were just like the ones encountered outside, for the headless bodies were mere organic housings for the gut-nagas coiled within. But Binkadink had been ready for such an eventuality and his glaive cut the first gut naga to appear to ribbons. Gilbert sent a magic missile from his lesser wand into the second such creature, killing it as well. Then the group spun in both directions, to the double doors at the east and west of the hallway they were in, but no further enemies presented themselves.

Spreading out, they searched the rooms immediately accessible from the hallway, discovering a cloakroom, a bathroom, a small conference room of some sort, what looked to be a break room, and what could only be the administrator's office. Gilbert applied himself to a vigorous search of this last room, uncovering a small lockbox filled with coins and gems (once he got Castillan to open it, as none of the keys from the guards' key rings fit) and a set of records. Flipping through them, he found Aithanar Ivenheart's name. "He in room 9!" announced the wizard.

"Great!" replied Castillan. "Where's room 9?"

"No idea. It list of names and room assignments, not handy blueprint. Let's go this way." Gilbert found the double doors to the west were locked, but Darrien was able to open them with a key from the key ring. Immediately upon opening the doors, a cacophony of voices became audible: an insane cackling, the occasional scream, and a voice which repeated, over and over, "No. No. No. No. No. No...." A quick perusal through the nearest unearthed a kitchen, small dining area, and food storage area, all showing signs of recent use and an unhealthy disdain for cleanliness. But then the group turned the corner to the north, and a series of barred doors on either side revealed the first of the inmate cells. Each was a metal door with a small, barred window at head height; one, at the far side of the hall, had a spidery creature affixed to the side of the door, whispering to the inmate imprisoned within. From the cell came the unending litany: "No. No. No. No. No...."

Darrien fired off a shot at the spider-thing, forcing it to drop to the floor and spin around to face its attackers. And sure enough, Finoula's quick glimpse of the beast outside had been correct, for the creature's body was made up of a human head. It shrieked in pain and surprise, and then another blast from Gilbert's wand of magic missiles slew it. Its body fell backwards, its spidery legs curling up to encompass its human face. "Ew," repeated Finoula.

"Guys, look - room numbers!" said Castillan, looking at the numbers stenciled in fading paint on the doors, below the barred windows. "Help me find 9!" But the cells in this section of the sanatorium reached only to 8.

The hallway made a right angle up ahead, just beyond a pair of doors which led to a washroom - both laundry and bodies, it seemed - and a bunkroom for guards. But then turning the corner from the east was another sanatorium guard, this one dressed more slovenly than the other four encountered thus far, with his shirt open to the waist and untucked. The reason for this soon became clear; what had at first looked like elaborate tattoos were in fact a series of faces grafted onto the skin all over his body. Seeing the heroes, he roared - from more than one mouth - and rushed to the attack. Finoula was closest, and while her longsword sliced a gash in his side, he shrugged it off and pressed in to her, trying to capture her in a bear hug which would allow the faces on his chest and stomach to bite at her. She blocked him with a boot to his chest, kicking him away from her and allowing Binkadink to bring his glaive to bear. But even so, this guard was much tougher than the hollow "gut naga" bodies of the other guards, and the battle took much longer before they were able to bring him down. Castillan had been in the back of the lineup, and as a result had had a difficult time reaching the face fiend - so he ducked into the guards' bunkroom, extricating four pouches of coins, likely their recent pay.

"Hey! Room 9!" called out Darrien after the face fiend had been slain, causing Castillan to scoot back out of the bunkroom and head over to the cell his brother had been assigned to, according to the documentation Gilbert had found. Along the entire back wall were more of the inmate cells.

Cell 9 was empty.

"Ah, crap!" yelled Castillan. "They better not have turned him into any of those...things!"

"He's only been here a couple of days," Finoula reminded the bounder. "Hopefully, they haven't gotten around to him yet. Bink, what are you doing?" Binkadink had pulled the shirt off the slain face fiend and was working on removing his pants.

"Just checking," admitted the gnome sheepishly. And then, as if further explanation was necessary, he added, "I wanted to make sure none of these faces were...you know...elven."

"Oh, gross!" exclaimed Castillan, turning green at the thought of finding Aithanar's face grafted onto the thing they'd just fought. "...They weren't, were they?" he asked, steeling himself for an answer he didn't want to hear.

"Nope, doesn't look like it," replied the gnome, his examinations complete. The bounder let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

Further exploration of the rooms off the back hallway revealed a bunkroom for the attendants, the administrator's rather elegant bedroom, and a small hallway apparently leading to a courtyard in the center of the building. Inside the administrator's bedroom the group unearthed a series of wizard's spellbooks, which Gilbert took the time to flip through, mentally noting which spells were listed to get an idea of what they might be facing if and when they ever found the ruler of this loony farm. He also noticed that several of the most basic spells - those taught to nearly all those aspiring to become wizards - were missing, leading Gilbert to surmise that this unknown wizard was a specialist, giving up the schools of abjuration and conjuration, likely due to a focus on transmutation. That worth noting, he thought to himself, pocketing the spellbooks into his backpack, not wishing to take the time to make them permanent additions to his Omnibook just yet.

But of equal interest to Gilbert was a series of controls along one wall of the hallway. He was examining it intently when they heard a woman's screams from around the corner. The others raced around the corner to check it out, leaving the wizard to puzzle out the controls by himself.

There were another dozen or so cells on the eastern side of the building, which, judging by the few inhabitants they saw inside several of the cells, was the women's ward. A strange little creature was jumping up in front of one of the cells, peeking into the cell's small window while the woman within screamed at it to go away. The creature's entire body was a human head, from the sides of which dangled tiny, baby-sized hands. A pair of short legs, looking more like the fingers of a giant, ended in another set of tiny hands in place of feet. Binkadink stifled a bleat of horrified laughter at the sight of the thing, which alerted it to the heroes' presence. "Uh oh," it said to itself before scampering down the hallway, away from the heroes, and turning the corner out of view. Binkadink and Darrien gave chase, leaving Finoula, Ingebold, and Castillan to check on the woman inside the cell.

"Are ye okay in there?" asked Ingebold, scowling slightly because she was too short to see inside the small, barred window.

"Who's that?" asked the woman, in a voice filled more with astonishment than alarm.

"My name is Castillan," interjected the bounder, always ready to handle conversations with the ladies. "Who are you?"

"My name is Elsabeth Gayle," replied the young woman. "I was one of the attendants here."

"What happened here?" demanded Finoula, eager for an answer as to why the building was crawling with monsters.

"The sanatorium was taken over by a crazed wizard who calls himself the Fleshcrafter, half a year or more ago. He killed Doctor Ravencroft and took his place, and has been using the sanatorium, and the workers and inmates housed within, as fuel for his horrific experiments."

"Castillan, let her out of there," demanded Finoula.

"Are we sure she's telling the truth?" whispered the bounder as he flipped through the keys on the ring.

"She's the first person we've met in this place who still seems normal," replied Finoula. "That's good enough for me." Castillan found the right key and turned it in the lock of the cell door. "Tell me, have you seen an elf named Aithanar Ivenheart?" he asked. "He would have been brought here a week or so ago."

"I'm sorry," answered Elsabeth. "I've been locked up in there since the Fleshcrafter took over."

"Do you know where we might find this Fleshcrafter?"

"I believe he does his abhorrent work downstairs, in the lower level below the building."

In the meantime, Binkadink and Darrien had tried following the head-thing around the corner, only to find it had disappeared. They briefly searched the nearby rooms since the double doors ahead were still locked. (If Binkadink's mental map of this building was correct, these would be the double doors leading to the front hallway.) There was another dining area and a food preparation area - apparently the Ravencroft Sanatorium believed in gender segregation of their clients - and a linen closet. It was in this last room the gnome finally found his prey, and his glaive made short work of the ambulatory head.

Meeting up with the others, Gilbert announced he had figured out the controls on the panel in the back hallway. It appeared as if they were used to access the lower level, turning the floor of the access hallway to the outside into a ramp leading downwards. Elsabeth confirmed his suspicions, and then scurried off to tend to the other patients - whichever ones were left after the Fleshcrafter's depredations, she amended.

"Everybody ready?" asked the blue-skinned wizard.

"Hold up," advised Ingebold, healing up those who had been wounded in battle thus far, and then following up with a magic circle against evil spell that simple had to be useful in this place! "Aye then, ready," she said once that had been taken care of.

Gilbert activated the controls, and the doors to the south swung open as the floor became a ramp, leading down to a single, large room below, filled with all manners of strangeness.

Castillan was relieved to see his brother Aithanar was still alive. Unfortunately, he was in the back of the room, strapped to a table, with the recognizable form of Dr. Ravencroft himself leaning over him, scalpel in hand, which the heroes now knew would really be the Fleshcrafter. And then scattered around the rest of the vast room were three more of the Fleshcrafter's creations. The first of these was a simple flesh golem, a patchwork giant made from the mismatched body parts of several different corpses, which stood to the west side of the ramp. Another was a tangle of four arms attached to a bald head, which stood in the northeastern corner on the room, on the other side of the ramp from the golem. But the biggest creation was easily the Fleshcrafter's most deranged: a gargantuan amalgamation made up of the fused bodies of at least a dozen or more people. Built somewhat like a hulking toad, it had a gaping maw filled with teeth formed from human rib bones; below the mouth was the inverted upper half of a human torso, with its lower half merging into the bulbous flesh above its mouth; its legs and feet had been crafted from broken human bodies; and the thing's entire body was covered in doughy, pimpled flesh, with the occasional oozing pustule or protruding bone adding to the overall mind-bending awfulness of the fleshwarped monstrosity.

It took only a second or two for the two opposing forces to see their opposite members and size them up. Then, with only an obligatory "EW!" bursting forth from Finoula's throat giving voice to the spectacle before them, combat erupted all at once.

Castillan had snapped the fingers of both hands, swapping out his short sword for his shortbow, and sent an arrow across the room to the Fleshcrafter, striking him in the shoulder. Darrien had similar thoughts, but he took an extra moment to line up his shot and then activated the Arachnibow's powers as his arrow sped across the room; when it struck the scalpel in the Fleshcrafter's hand, the arrow had become a strand of spider silk. With a quick tug from the other end, Darrien brought the scalpel flying across the room, to fall to the floor beneath the fleshwarped monstrosity's hideous feet.

Gilbert's initial assessment of the scene was that there were some tough-looking monsters in the room, and an area-of-effect spell was the way to go. Mentally calculating distances to ensure Aithanar would be outside the blast radius, he cast a fireball spell against the western wall that encompassed the flesh golem, fleshwarped monstrosity, and even the Fleshcrafter. The enemy wizard buckled in pain from the spell and Castillan's arrow that he pulled from his shoulder, and then a strange thing happened: either because he had lost concentration, or the spell's effects had naturally run their normally allotted course, or perhaps because he no longer felt the need to cloak himself in an illusion, his features buckled and warped, and Dr. Ravencroft's guise vanished, to be replaced with the Fleshcrafter's true form.

The Fleshcrafter - he used no other name, other than when he was impersonating the sanatorium's founder - had apparently not experimented solely on others. The skin was missing from the entire front of his face, leaving exposed muscles in their place. A hole in his forehead showed where he had used a bone drill on himself in an act of self-trepanation. Visible on the skin that remained on his neck and the back of his bald head were numerous small tattoos of arcane symbols. He called out orders to his troops, using a term - "Sergeant-at-Arms" - that proved he was twisted in more ways than the purely physical: he was also, apparently, a lover of puns.

Castillan knew he needed to get across the room to confront the Fleshcrafter and free his brother, but the fleshwarped monstrosity stood in his way. Deciding the best way past the creature was over the top of it, Castillan snapped the bow back into his magical left glove, raced down the ramp, and launched himself at the aberrant beast. He had planned on running right over the top of it, but once airborne he got the shock of his life when the malformed thing proved to be quite nimble. Much like a dog snapping a thrown treat out of midair, the monstrosity spun its malformed head around, mutated mouth open wide, and gulped Castillan's now-screaming form deep into its gullet.

The bounder decided immediately he didn't want to spend any more time inside the belly of the hulking glob of fused flesh than he absolutely had to, the incessant worry in the back of his mind teasing him with horrific thoughts of becoming absorbed into the beast somehow and becoming part of its misshapen flesh. So he unstoppered a flask of his own "Winkidew's Special," this one a potion of gaseous form that was less a liquid and more a gas. Inhaling its vapors, the bounder felt his own body dissipating into a fine mist, which seeped unnoticed out of the side of the fleshwarped monstrosity's mouth.

Back on the ramp, Ingebold and Binkadink had started their descent into the room when the Sergeant-at-Arms, the four-armed head-thing, grabbed the side of the ramp and flipped itself up onto the inclined plane immediately before a startled Ingebold. It wielded a pair of sharp knives in two of its hands; the cleric picked out a pair of leather sheaths strapped to two of its forearms. But then she was dodging the waving blades, smashing the creature away with her warhammer when she could (for it dodged and bobbed like a deranged monkey, making striking it quite an ordeal).

On the other side of the ramp, the flesh golem grabbed at Finoula with a powerful hand, but its movements were slower than normal, a fortunate side effect of the fireball spell Gilbert had lobbed its way. Finoula managed to dodge out of its grasp, and then she sprang forward, stabbing at it with her blades while Darrien backed her up with shots from his magic longbow.

A misty Castillan slowly flowed across the room, coalescing back into solid form once over by the Fleshcrafter. The deranged wizard backed out of range, especially once a snap of the bounder's fingers caused a short sword to manifest in his right hand. Then he cast a spell of his own, having noted that Binkadink, of all of their enemies, was dealing out quite a lot of damage with that ridiculously-oversized glaive of his. The hold person spell took immediate effect and the little gnome froze in mid-stance. Fortunately, Finoula was at his side and saw what had happened, so she pulled him back up the ramp and out of range of the flesh golem and the fleshwarped monstrosity that was even now lumbering up the ramp towards them. By then, Ingebold had smashed the Sergeant-at-Arms upside the head, and Gilbert finished it off with a magic missile from his wand as it tried to scamper off to safety. The portly wizard followed up with a ray of enfeeblement at the gargantuan abomination, which he hoped would have some effect. Unfortunately, the thing was so big it was difficult to see if the slight diminishing of its overall strength would prove to be noticeable.

Castillan, by then, was stabbing at the Fleshcrafter, while his brother Aithanar finally realized who it was coming to his rescue. "Squah!" he cried out. "Bindish rolly! Duvong skimmy vandoozle!" While Castillan was distracted by his brother's nonsensical ramblings, the Fleshcrafter managed to get off a spell fired directly at the bounder, but fortunately Castillan managed to shrug off its effects - which saved him from having to fight the rest of this battle while blind. The Fleshcrafter looked around for allies and saw his golem and monstrosity were both busy with numerous foes. But that stab-happy gnome had finally shrugged off the effects of the hold person spell; since he seemed vulnerable to enchantments, why not follow suit with another one? "Gnome!" he called across the room. "Come help defend me against these threats!" It was a ridiculous request...unless you noticed the subtle hand gestures accompanying his speech, which identified his request as the verbal components of a charm person spell. Binkadink was once again overcome - for as long as it took for Ingebold to step up to him, suppressing the charm effect with her magic circle against evil spell. Then the gnome and the dwarf concentrated their attacks on the fleshwarped monstrosity still intent upon climbing the ramp up to them.

Castillan stabbed again at the Fleshcrafter, drawing blood for a third time, when the wizard realized enough was enough. He grabbed up a wand from his belt, aimed it at himself, and morphed into a cloud of vaporous gas. "Crap!" yelled Castillan, swinging his short sword ineffectually through the gaseous form of his foe. At his side, Aithanar expressed his agreement with a heartfelt "Vallen foo!"

But up at the top of the ramp, Gilbert had witnessed the Fleshcrafter's attempt at escape. He focused on the translucent cloud of gas, aimed his wand, and sent a trio of magic missiles striking unerringly at the cloud. The magical energy did the trick; the Fleshcrafter reverted to his solid form seconds before crashing to the floor, dead.

"Blinkus!" called Aithanar, struggling with his bonds. "Folky blifoodoo!" Castillan ran back to his brother's side, struggling to find meaning in his nonsensical words. "Can you understand me?" he asked.

"Grantula!" replied Aithanar.

"No, just nod 'yes' or 'no,'" corrected Castillan. Aithanar dutifully nodded "yes." "I'm going to free you - are you able to stand on your own?" Aithanar nodded again, and Castillan cut his bonds, releasing him from the operating table.

Binkadink's glaive was steadily carving up the monstrosity, and to everyone's horror, they recognized a head merged with the top of the misshapen body. It was Dr. Silas Ravencroft, the original, whose body had been merged with many others to form the gargantuan horror. Although his eyes were crazed, he apparently still had enough of his original faculties to approve of the beast's impending death. "Kill...me..." he sputtered. His bearded face screwed up in horror, Binkadink did his best to comply. And eventually, between his own blade-thrusts and some judicious ranged spells from Gilbert and Ingebold, the aberrant horror was slain. As it crashed to the floor on its side, Ravencroft's embedded head gave a final smile of gratitude as his eyes rolled up into his head.

After that, slaying the flesh golem was simply a matter of time, for the creature was slow to move, slow to strike, and slow to react. The six heroes - and Aithanar - had no trouble evading its reach, while the two archers peppered it with arrows and Binkadink carved it up with his glaive. Before long it, too, crashed to the floor, unmoving.

"Man, you've been cranking out the damage with that thing today," observed Darrien.

"I put some magic weapon oil on it outside the gate," the gnome admitted. "That stuff works pretty good. Once we get back to Garonis, I'm going to pick up a masterwork glaive I'm having custom-made. And maybe then, after a while I'll be able to start having the thing enchanted. Then we'll see how much damage I can do!"

"Are you okay?" Finoula asked Aithanar.

"Squabbus," the elf replied. "Bandacraff minard." Finoula smiled dreamily at Castillan's brother; he might not make any sense, but he certainly was pleasant on the eyes! Aithanar apparently felt the same, and the two elves stood amidst the horrific corpses of flesh-twisted nightmares, oblivious to all else around them.

"He under curse?" asked Gilbert. "Maybe restoration spell help? Or break enchantment?"

"I doubt it," replied Ingebold. "Castillan said 'e 'it 'is 'ead. More than likely, the speech part of 'is brain's all jollywampus. It'll likely take a heal spell, which's above me own casting ability - and will be, fer some time."

"He could come with us," suggested Finoula. "We need someone to look after the animals while we're off adventuring."

"Yeah, I suppose," agreed Castillan. "We certainly can't bring him back home in this condition. Father will just stash him away somewhere else, out of public view. How about it, Aith? You want to join our little group?"

"Bassa jublin," Aithanar readily agreed, still not taking his eyes off of Finoula. He didn't need words to express his feelings for the young ranger, and it seemed like the feelings were mutual.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My "EVIL CLOWN SCHOOL - GRADUATE WITH HONORS" T-shirt, which features an evilly-grinning clown as its logo. Given a sanatorium filled with evil, fleshcrafted freaks, it seemed appropriate.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 7​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 7​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 7​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 7​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 7​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 2​
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 6 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 12 March 2016

- - -

The group had returned to Kordovia, but without any of the normal fanfare; rather, they had avoided Battershield Keep and the castle at all costs, keeping to the back roads and stealthily making their way to the wealthy neighborhood containing Ivenheart Manor. Binkadink and Obvious had broken away from the others and skirted the Vesve Forest along the eastern front of the kingdom, to position themselves at the southern border, where they'd be met later by the others. Obvious - a pony-sized rabbit with two antlers sprouting from the top of his head - was just a bit too obvious for a group wanting not to be noticed.

Ingebold pulled the wagon to a halt a block behind the Ivenheart estate. Castillan and Aithanar immediately jumped out. "We'll be back in a bit," promised the older of the two brothers. Finoula pulled up behind the wagon and scratched Daisy behind the ears while they waited. Wrath was enjoying an unaccustomed ride in the wagon, the better not to be noticed, for there weren't too many timber wolves that trotted freely through the kingdom of Kordovia. In the back of the wagon, Gilbert Fung was giving Wrath's tummy a good scratching and keeping the wolf occupied while the elven brothers grabbed up Aithanar's gear without alerting their father, Aroben, of his youngest son's unexpected release from Ravencroft Sanatorium. The fact that Aithanar was still unable to speak without babbling nonsense meant Aroben would rather he be kept out of sight, the better to protect the Ivenheart name.

The minutes passed. Predictably, it was Gilbert Fung who first voiced boredom. "How long it take to grab up adventuring gear?" he groused. "Put on armor, buckle on sword - there, done!"

"I'm sure he's got more than just that," replied Darrien.

"Plus, it's not like they're going to just walk through the front door," added Finoula. "They need to sneak everything Aithanar's bringing out of the manor without running into their father. I imagine that means-- hello? What's this?" As the elven ranger had been talking, a brightly-colored songbird had flown right up to her. It lit upon her left wrist and cocked its head, looking at Finoula expectantly. Taken aback, Finoula wasn't sure what was going on - and then she saw the band of paper folded around one of the bird's feet.

Carefully removing the paper from the creature without hurting it, she began unfolding it to see what message had been sent to her in this unusual fashion. The bird, its duty fulfilled, leaped from Finoula's hand and took to the skies.

"What's it say?" asked Ingebold.

Finoula read the message aloud to the others. "'Finoula - Please return home at once. I wish to see you again one last time. Feron.' It's from my little sister. Guys, we need to swing by my mother's house before we head back south out of Kordovia."

"That'll be fine," replied Ingebold. Gilbert just sighed. "This most nonchalant stealth mission ever," he groused. "We supposed to sneak in and out like ninja, not spend time visiting relatives along the way."

"It'll be fine," reassured Ingebold.

"What's a ninja?" asked Darrien. Gilbert opted not to elaborate. "What taking those elves so long?" he groused instead.

"We're here," replied Castillan, dropping a rolled-up bedroll and a backpack into the back of the wagon, then hopping in himself. Aithanar, now wearing a well-made suit of fine leather armor, followed his brother into the wagon.

"Any trouble?" asked Darrien.

"None," replied Castillan. "Shobba goon," confirmed Aithanar, shaking his head in negation.

"Lead on, then, Finoula," said Ingebold, allowing Daisy to skirt around the wagon before giving the mules a flick of the reins. Finoula led the group to her mother's cottage and, as it was secluded off to itself in a small grove of trees at the end of a quiet block, the group didn't feel the need to be as stealthy as they had at Ivenheart Manor - after all, the fact that an animal messenger spell had been cast to send a songbird-provided note to Finoula meant Feron already knew she was nearby. "I'll try to be brief," the ranger promised.

"Take whatever time y'be needin'," offered Ingebold. "It sounds like it might be important."

"Doubt that," grumbled Gilbert.

Entering the cottage, Finoula saw her mother, Feya, through a window sitting outside on a bench in the back yard, sipping tea with Finoula's younger half-sister, Feron. Upon her approach, Feron stood, putting her teacup on the bench beside her, and opened her arms for a hug. The ranger begrudgingly submitted to an embrace. "Finoula," said Feron, "Thank you for coming to see me off."

At Finoula's puzzled look, Feron explained. "I've been granted leave by the Sisters of Ehlonna to return here one last time, that I may say my goodbyes to you both. I've been accepted into the Inner Circle and, as such, I'll be unable to visit you here any longer. Once I return to the Sisters, I'll begin a new life – in the same way a caterpillar ends its old life by becoming a butterfly. I will likewise undergo a transformation and be bound, physically and spiritually, to the Great Oak of Ehlonna, the wellspring of Her power here on the Material Plane."

She turned to Feya. "Mother, thank you for raising me to be the person I am today. And Finoula, I know we haven't always gotten along as well as perhaps we should have, but I truly wish you all the best in your adventuring career. Believe it or not, I always looked up to you when I was little. And should you ever find your way to Ehlonna's Grove, I'll be there. Perhaps, someday, we can truly be Sisters together."

"We'll have to see," replied Finoula, not entirely sure she wanted to spend her life working with her little half-sister - who, as a half-elf, with human blood speeding her development, had already risen to the highest ranks of Ehlonna's service while Finoula was just starting to make a name for herself as an adventurer all these years later.

Giving a final hug to her mother and her older half-sister, Feron stepped back by the garden and raised her arms out at her sides. An immediate riot of color exploded behind her as a chaotic swarm of butterflies erupted into the air, their erratic fluttering eventually settling into a circular shape behind Feron. Then, with a sad smile, she turned from her family and stepped through the ring of butterflies, disappearing from view. The swarm dispersed almost immediately.

"Showoff," muttered Finoula under her breath.

Feya was obviously distraught at her youngest daughter's final farewell, but she bore her sadness with a regal bearing – that is, like an elf. Seeing her mood, Finoula asked, "Mother? Will you be all right? I'm sure I can stay for a bit if you need--"

"No," Feya replied, cutting her daughter off. "You have your duties, just as Feron does. Best you be about them. I'll see you the next time you're back in town." And she smiled at Finoula, her "everything-will-be-all-right" smile that had always reassured her daughters in the past. Saying her farewell, Finoula returned to the wagon - and stopped short once she got a glimpse of Aithanar. Idiot! she chided herself. Feron was right here - she could have healed Aithanar of his affliction! But then she realized that once Aithanar was cured there would be no need for him to avoid his father; maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to have him hanging around with the group for awhile.

"Everything okay?" asked Ingebold as Aithanar handed Finoula Daisy's reins.

"Yes," replied Finoula, smiling her thanks at Aithanar. "Let's go catch up with Bink."

Binkadink and Obvious were waiting for them at the designated rendezvous, but the little gnome stood out even more than he would have normally just by hanging around with a jackalope. "Um, what's the deal with the hair, Binkadink?" asked Castillan.

"What do you mean?" asked the gnome, clearly puzzled by the question.

"It's bright pink!" replied the bounder. "Pinkadink!" declared Darrien, clearly amused at the sight. At that, Binkadink pulled some of his hair away from his head, getting it into his field of vision. "Sunnova--!" he exclaimed, then started looking all around him. "Jinkadoodle!" he roared. "Where are you hiding, lad? I know it's you - come out!" But the gnome's prankster cousin made no appearance, despite Binkadink's threats of retaliation.

"Let's just go," he finally snarled, climbing onto Obvious's back and cheering himself with thoughts of retrieving the masterwork glaive he'd ordered from a weaponsmith in Garonis. The others followed, and the group made its way south. After about an hour, the gnome's hair and beard resumed its normal blond coloration and his mood improved significantly, but he was occasionally heard muttering ideas for a suitable revenge against his cousin.

- - -

The next day the group resumed their journey, after having made camp by the side of the road the night before. It was two hours before noon or so when they heard a voice calling from the other side of the hill they were cresting. "Drunilda!" said the voice, which proved to belong to a human peasant. He wore a worried expression and he approached the heroes as they pulled to a stop. "I beg your pardon," he said, "but have you seen a young woman recently around these parts? It's my daughter, Drunilda – blonde, about yea tall, nineteen summers old. She went missing two days ago, she did." The shepherd, Willem, explained that after she went missing, the flock of sheep she'd been tending was found wandering alone; furthermore, there were several sheep missing from the flock. He'd been searching for her since. He was terribly distraught, as Drunilda was his only family since his wife died several years ago.

"I've not much in the way of payment," Willem explained, "but if you can find her, I'd gladly give you one of my sheep."

"Are you sure she was around here when she went missing?" asked Darrien.

"Aye," replied Willem. "I found her crook right over here." He displayed the shepherd's crook he'd been leaning on, and took the group over to the side of the road where it had been found. The group spread out, and Darrien found a bit of fleece stuck on a prickle-bush that indicated the flock had indeed been here recently.

"Look here," called Finoula. She had been examining the dirt of the road, and found a pair of scrape marks that could have been caused by a pair of feet being dragged. "Was Drunilda wearing sandals?" she asked Willem, receiving confirmation from the shepherd. "It looks like she was pulled sideways right about here. I've got clear prints of her sandals here, and then over here" - the ranger took a few steps towards the side of the road - "the side of her sandal kicked up some dirt."

"So she was - abducted?" asked Willem, aghast at the thought. "By who?"

"By what," corrected Darrien, pointing further up the hill where a clear print was visible. It was about the size of a human foot, but with indications of webbing between the wide toes.

"Girl abducted by giant duck?" asked Gilbert incredulously.

"No, but probably some aquatic creature."

"The nearest decent-sized body of water is the Velverdyva River," pointed out Binkadink. "And that's ten miles to the west."

"Where duck take girl?" asked Gilbert, but Darrien was already following the tracks up the rocky hill. "The trail ends here," he said, standing before an enormous boulder. It was easily too heavy to lift, but Castillan quickly noticed a groove along the entire boulder, near where its weight buried it in the ground. But although he circled the boulder twice, he could find no evidence of hinges.

"Maybe it unscrews?" suggested Binkadink. But although the heroes tried twisting it both one way and then the other, they couldn't get it to budge.

"Over here!" called Darrien. The young ranger had found another suspicious-looking boulder nearby, this one much smaller - and with visible hinges. "I think it's a hatch." Binkadink strode over and pulled up on the rock, causing it to open up like a clam shell. There was a vertical shaft directly below it, leading down into darkness. A series of indentations along the west side served as a primitive ladder, and there seemed to be a passageway to the south about 10 feet down, although the vertical shaft continued on much deeper than that.

"I'll go first," offered Castillan, climbing down and moving cautiously and quietly down the southern passageway.

Almost immediately, there was a grinding noise. Castillan froze, but the noise had come from the surface above, so he continued down the short corridor, peeking carefully around the corner when he got there. The noise came from just ahead, and the bounder saw a scaly elbow sticking out of an alcove as the creature it belonged to grunted in its labors at turning a wheel mounted on the wall. With each crank of the wheel, a bit more sunlight came streaming in from a hole in the ceiling further down the corridor. Mentally calculating the distances, Castillan imagined the sunlight coming from the ceiling was right about where the large boulder with the seam on its bottom was located. Topside, this was confirmed by the other heroes, who were surprised to see the top section of the boulder slowly rotating along its northern section, revealing an opening beneath. Finoula approached cautiously, peering over the edge.

There was a diagonal ramp angling down from just beneath the boulder, aimed at an enormous cavern below the ground. The cavern was about 30 feet high - or at least the ceiling was 30 feet higher than the surface of the pool of water filling the cavern from wall to wall; there was no telling how deep the water might be. A platform rose up from the water along the northern wall, and atop this platform stood a stone statue of an immensely strange being: a composite entity with the head and claws of a lobster, but a human woman in all other aspects. The statue was about 20 feet tall, and centered directly in the beam of sunlight streaming down from the boulder-hole. It's some sort of ceremony! thought Finoula, as her elven vision allowed her to make out the figures below in the dim light, even as the light steadily increased as the boulder-aperture got bigger with each turn of the wheel in the passageway below.

At the foot of the lobster-woman statue stood another figure almost identical in all regards, although this one was unmistakably alive rather than carved from stone. It was a human woman, with the head and claws of a lobster; the lobster bits bright red whereas the woman's skin otherwise conformed to normal human flesh tones. Flanking her on either side were two fish-people, their heads somehow reminiscent of both fish and frogs, with bulging, goggly eyes and webbing between fingers and toes. In both northern corners of the pool were triangular ledges; the one to the northeast held another of these fish-people, this one in ceremonial robes.

Finoula headed over to the hatch, where Binkadink and Ingebold were just starting to climb down. "Come look at this!" she whispered, and Gilbert and Darrien followed her over to the large boulder. Gilbert pursed his lips upon seeing the giant statue below. "I think that called 'the Sea Mother'," he said. "It have another name: 'Blippity-Bloop-Bloop,' or something like that. And those fish people called kuo-toa, I think."

"That chute's probably where they drop food they've captured from the surface world," surmised Finoula. "I'll bet that's where those missing sheep went - and probably Drunilda, too."

"Could be," admitted Darrien.

"So what should we do?" asked Finoula.

"Let's watch, see what they do," replied Gilbert.

That's exactly what Castillan was doing. Once the kuo-toa had finished turning the wheel he rounded the corner, standing in the flat section of the area just beneath the fully-opened boulder. Then he went down the ramp. The bounder - and the trio of heroes just above - heard a loud splash of water from below as he landed.

The lead kuo-toa raised her arms in some sort of benediction and spoke a few croaking words in a language none of the heroes had ever heard before, and then the two flanking the lobster-woman gave her a gentle push, leading her to the edge of the platform, and the stairs that led down into the water. She walked slowly and unsteadily, as if drugged.

And then all eyes turned to the ceiling - not always at the same time, even in any given kuo-toa head, for their eyes moved independently - as the groaning sound of stone on stone was repeated and the boulder started closing again. Castillan had moved around the corner, thinking that if these fish-people wanted the aperture open, then he'd close it and see if that brought them up here to investigate. But after a couple cranks of the wheel, he realized he was closing off what could be the only source of light in the chamber beyond, which wouldn't help the heroes any. So two cranks later he left it where it was.

But by then the damage was done. Croaking out an order, the kuo-toa head cleric pointed up at the opening, where Gilbert was peering down into the cavern, casting an oversize shadow over the statue of Blibdoolpoolp, the Sea Mother. He cast a fireball spell at the northeastern corner, catching not only the head cleric but one of the other kuo-toa flanking the lobster-woman by the statue, eliciting croaks of pain. But then the two kuo-toa clerics joined hands and sent a bolt of lightning up at the heavyset wizard. With a cry of pain of his own, Gilbert scrambled back out of sight.

And Gilbert wasn't the only hero suddenly noticed by the assembled kuo-toa. Another, more powerful bolt of lightning crossed the chamber from one corner to the one opposite, as the lead cleric blasted Ingebold on the ladder just above Binkadink. She likewise grunted in pain but didn't release her grip on the ladder - a good thing, too, for Binkadink had just reached the triangular platform at the southwest corner of the pool, and she would have landed on him if she had.

"Uh oh," remarked Binkadink, as over a dozen kuo-toa heads popped up above the surface of the water. About half of them started heading his way, and by the looks of it they were armed with shortspears. The other half, upon croaked orders of the lead kuo-toa, lined up on either side of the stone steps leading down into the water. Apparently whatever ceremony was about to begin would continue on despite the heroes' interruption.

Darrien and Finoula jumped down into the pit below the boulder, their shadows cutting dark areas from the sunlight's beam. They both started firing arrows from their bows, choosing targets from the heads lined up on either side of the steps. Castillan turned the corner and joined them, snapping his shortbow into existence in his hand as he did so. He chose one of the two kuo-toa on the statue platform as his target and started firing.

Up on the surface, Gilbert had cast a fly spell upon himself before entering the pit and walking down the ramp. Pushing his way past the three archers, he leaped off the edge, hovering in the air at the top of the chamber and looking around for the best targets.

Binkadink had his glaive out and was cutting at the nearest of the kuo-toa combatants. But there were about eight or so headed his way, and worse, suddenly rising up from the dark waters was the unmistakable form of a chuul. The heroes had encountered one of these lobster-monsters before in the caves of the wall-walking lizardfolk, and that one had nearly killed Castillan. This one snapped its claws at Binkadink, eager to cut the little gnome in half.

That made Gilbert's decision easy: he cast an Evard's black tentacles directly on the water's surface at the southern edge of the pool, and dozens of ebon tentacles snaked out, grabbing up kuo-toa targets and engulfing them in rubbery appendages. The chuul avoided this fate and skirted over to the westernmost wall, continuing to snap at Binkadink. Three times it managed to catch the gnome in a pincer, but each time the gnome managed to wriggle out of its grasp before being dragged beneath the water.

It was only when the lobster-woman entered the water to her knees, taking her first steps between the waiting kuo-toa on either side of her, that the obvious sudden struck Darrien. "By the gods!" he exclaimed. "That must be Drunilda!" He sighted her along his next arrow, aiming between her breasts, and let fly. By the time the arrow hit her it had become a line of strong spider-silk. "Give me a hand!" he commanded, and Finoula dropped her bow to help him pull the length of silk-line back towards them.

Below, Drunilda felt a sudden tug and sprawled forward into the water. She barely registered it, still heavily drugged as she had been by the kuo-toa clerics before the ceremony, when she had a lobster-head mask and claw-sleeves put over her own head and arms. She didn't even feel the two bites that were taken out of her as she was dragged past the line of hungry kuo-toa, eager to participate in the communion ceremony in which they literally became one with the representative of their Sea Mother.

Seeing that Finoula and Darrien had the situation well in hand, Castillan snapped his shortbow back into his left glove and decided to try something. Walking to the edge of the ramp, he dangled over the side by his right hand, positioned his feet, and then let go, racing along the wall as gravity sped his fall. He had been aiming for the triangular platform at the southeastern corner of the rectangular pool, well away from the black tentacles grabbing up kuo-toa combatants. He missed, but not by much; his hand snagged the platform as he fell into the water, and he managed to pull himself up before the only two kuo-toa combatants outside the range of the tentacles could get to him. Standing on the platform, Castillan saw a door before him. He opened it without thought and slammed it shut behind him. Fortunately, it could be barred from the inside, so he did so, just as pounding on the door told him the two kuo-toa had followed him and were trying to get in. But they weren't very persistent; after two pounds on the door they stopped, and a pair of splashes told the bounder they'd jumped back into the pool.

Popping a sunrod, Castillan looked around. He was in a small living area, some 10 feet by 15 feet, with a door on the far side of the room and a hole in the floor leading into a pool of water -- Uh oh! Castillan scurried around the pool and through the next door as the first of his two pursuers popped his head up through the opening in the floor. Stupid kuo-toa apartment's got another way in on the submerged lower level! he thought. Unfortunately, this second door didn't lock, so the bounder scrambled down the short corridor and turned a corner, where he had to stop short before falling into an octagonal pool of water. This one was filled with what looked like minnows the size of his arm; he imagined this must be a kuo-toa nursery, and these must be baby kuo-toa. But there was no other way out of this room, so with a snap of his fingers the bounder brought his short sword into his right hand and he prepared himself for a two-on-one battle against his pursuers.

Still hovering over the pool, Gilbert saw a fatal flaw in the rangers' plan to rescue Drunilda - the path she'd be dragged along would lead her directly into the area of effect of his Evard's black tentacles spell; due to being 30 feet above the water in a sloping ramp aimed directly at the Blibdoolpoolp statue along the northern wall, neither ranger could see the tentacles grabbing up kuo-toa directly below them. So he flew over, dropped down directly in front of Drunilda, scooped her up, and flew her up to the sun-tunnel ramp, barely even noticing she was naked until he'd delivered her to the rangers. Darrien set down his Arachnibow and escorted her around the corner, over by the wheel-mechanism that opened the sun hatch and out of view of the kuo-toa below. Seeing the blood dripping from her left side, just below the ribs, and the outer edge of her right thigh, he pulled off her lobster mask and claws and helped her down a healing potion from his belt. Her eyes were unfocused, her stance unsteady, but Darrien was pleased to see the chunks of flesh heal over after she drank the potion. "Come on," he said, taking her by the hand and walking her over to the vertical shaft. "Let's get you back to your father." He had to balance her over his shoulder to get her up the ladder, but he did so, and Willem was overjoyed to see his daughter alive - although somewhat taken aback to see her naked in the arms of a half-elf adventurer.

By this time, Binkadink found himself in dire straits. He shrugged off the effects of a spell cast across the pool by the head kuo-toa priestess, which judging by the way motes of darkness flickered in the corner of his field of vision had been intended to blind him, and concentrated his attacks on the chuul. The creature grabbed up the gnome in its claws for a fourth time, and this time its grip was tight enough to prevent the fighter from squirming away. The chuul swam backwards with its prize in its pincer, and Binkadink guessed what was likely coming so he took in as deep a breath as the crushing claw would allow. And sure enough, the chuul's next act was to submerge itself beneath the water, dragging the gnome down with it while it continued to crush his torso, until Binkadink wanted to cry out in pain. His hands were still free, and there was a healing potion at his belt...but he couldn't figure out how to drink it underwater. He figured his only chance of survival was in killing the chuul before it crushed him to death. And sadly, the chuul seemed to be hurting him much more than he was managing to hurt it.

Unseen behind him, a new force entered the combat. A large, round grate of interlocking bars in the southern wall allowed water in without allowing enemies to enter; the kuo-toa kept this closed and locked when not being used to enter the submerged tunnels that led to a vast, Underdark sea continuing on for miles, confident that the mechanism to unlock it from the inside was too far away for any arm to reach from the other side. And they were right, to an extent...but an aboleth's tentacle could reach inside quite handily and open the grate. In an instant, the southern entrance to the kuo-toa communion pool was filled with the aboleth and a score of its skum servants - never mind that half of their number were only illusions generated by the ancient, aquatic beast.

A spell cast by a kuo-toa cleric from above brought a trio of fiendish sharks patrolling the pool; it had been intended that they attack the kuo-toa's enemies, but they were distracted by all of the blood in the water and started biting the corpses of the various kuo-toa slain thus far, for not only had the ebon tentacles crushed the life out of a few of the shortspear-wielding kuo-toa by this time, but the archers had slain a few of the noncombatants that had lined up for the ceremony and were now scattered in panic. Seeing this from above, Finoula cast a summoning spell of her own, bringing forth a porpoise to try to hold its own against the sharks, to hold them at bay. And the skum forces, safe from the spell-crafted tentacles by remaining submerged beneath them, stabbed up at the kuo-toa combatants caught up in the Evard's black tentacles spell, slaying them outright.

Ingebold, now on the platform abandoned by Binkadink, was doing what she could to save the life of the little gnome. A spiritual weapon in the form of a dwarven hammer slammed into the chuul's carapace; fortunately, the gnome had two everburning torches firmly attached to the antlers of his helmet, allowing the dwarven cleric to help target her enemy. She was blasted again by a lightning bolt from across the chamber, courtesy of one or more of the kuo-toa spellcasters, but she ignored the effects and concentrated on trying to help the gnome. And by now, Binkadink was almost beyond help, his gnomish body taken to the very brink of its endurance.

"Can you heal him?" called Gilbert, once again hovering over the pool.

"Not from here - I've gotta touch him!" called back the frustrated cleric. Gilbert dismissed his Evard's black tentacles spell - it seemed to have done its job, as those kuo-toa caught in its embrace had been slain - and dove into the pool, glad that the fly spell worked equally well underwater, reached out to Binkadink, and did the one thing he could think to do to strengthen the gnome fighter. He couldn't actually provide healing energy like a cleric could, but he could artificially boost Binkadink's already seriously healthy constitution, giving him the energy to hold out for a few seconds more.

About this time the chuul noticed the underwater intruders and it released Binkadink from its claws, transferring the gnome to its writhing facial tentacles so its pincers would be free for combat with the aboleth. One of the summoned sharks bit at the aboleth, but it contemptuously slapped it away with its tentacles, concentrating its mental energy upon the chuul, subsuming the lobster-monster's will beneath its own. Fully dominated, the chuul now obeyed the aboleth's mental commands - and its new slave even came with a free humanoid, suitable for transformation into a skum servitor, given time.

Mentally perusing the spells he had left, Gilbert almost tried casting a scorching ray spell at the chuul while underwater - realizing that theoretically at least the spell's fiery energy could be channeled into a blast of superheated steam, although he'd never tried it that way personally - before smirking to himself and reaching for a wand at his belt. He flew over and hit the gnome with a blast from the wand just as Binkadink's consciousness left him for what would otherwise have been the final time - and the gnome's body dissolved in the water, bubbling to the surface to coalesce there as a glowing cloud of gaseous mist.

Gilbert rose as well, propelling himself out of the water and high into the air. He looked around and saw chaos all about him. The water churned with combat, as kuo-toa fought skum; the kuo-toa clerics had dived into the water to face this new enemy directly. Finoula had attached a rope to the wheel-mechanism and trailed it down into the water below; Darrien had returned to her side and was picking off targets with his Arachnibow; Ingebold was still on the platform in the southwestern corner, whacking at anything that came near with her warhammer; Castillan was nowhere to be seen, but he had gone through a door alone and was presumably fine. The wizard made his decision. "Ingebold! Climb back up! We leave!"

"But what about Binkadink?" she answered.

"He be fine! He stay a cloud for another ten minutes or so! We come back then!" Trusting in the wizard's logic, the dwarven cleric began climbing back up the ladder on the side of the wall, feeling less exposed once she reached the vertical shaft it became for the last ten feet. Gilbert flew up to Finoula and Darrien, explaining his logic. "I'll stay here," offered Darrien, tying the rope Finoula had cast down into the water around his waist so he wouldn't fall over the edge, then readying an arrow in his Arachnibow. "When the gnome becomes solid again, I'll catch him up in a silk line."

"Good plan," agreed Gilbert. "Now, hopefully stupid elf boy know enough to stay low until we go get him."

Castillan by that time stood over the corpses of the two kuo-toa combatants he'd slain in the corridor leading to the youngling pool. He then backtracked the way he'd come, peeking out through the door and taking in the scene before quietly closing the door again. He'd seen Darrien up in the shaft, waiting, and while he wasn't sure what the glowing cloud of mist was all about, he could see that the other heroes had retreated. Figuring Darrien would be in panic mode had the other heroes been captured or slain, Castillan kept his ear to the door and waited for the splashing frenzy to die down. Then he waited another minute, and another one after that for good measure, before opening the door again and peeking outside.

Darrien was pulling on a strand of thin silk, reeling an unconscious Binkadink in like a fish on a line. "Hey! Darrien!" called the bounder, holding his arms out wide. "Shoot me next! There isn't any other way out of this area!"

- - -

After everyone was back topside and had been healed by Ingebold's spells, the heroes determined their best course of action was to re-enter the compound. Binkadink absolutely insisted they retrieve his glaive from the bottom of the pool; it had slipped from his unconscious fingers when he returned to solid form after the effects of Gilbert's wand of gaseous form wore off. Fortunately, the aboleth hadn't been trying to move into the kuo-toa lair - it was just on a raiding mission for slaves and moved on once it had what it had come for. Stripping down to his skivvies, Binkadink had been able to find and retrieve his glaive.

And there were rooms to check out in the air-filled half of the complex, even if getting to them was a bit difficult. But a silk-line from the sun-tunnel to the Blibdoolpoolp statue made a handy zip-line to the northern section of the compound, and the decision to explore paid off when they found the kuo-toa treasury, which held some odd-looking coins, a few gems, and an enchanted light crossbow which gave off a bright illumination (the fact it had been draped with a tarp hinted as to why it had been kept here instead of used by any of the kuo-toa combatants; they obviously didn't like bright lights). The group also found a bunch of clothes, whatever the previous Blibdoolpoolp stand-ins had been wearing when captured, including Drunilda's robes and sandals. (The shepherdess, having since overcome the effects of the drug she'd been given, gratefully traded the woolen blanket she'd wrapped herself in while she sat at the back of the mule-driven wagon for her own garments.)

"You must return home with us!" offered Willem once the group returned from below for the final time. "We'll get you a hot meal, and a sheep for your payment! I can never thank you enough for what you've done!" Binkadink was eager to get back on the road - there was a masterwork gnomish glaive waiting for him in Garonis - but it seemed impolite to decline the shepherd's offer.

"What shall we name our sheep?" asked Finoula as they departed back on the road south some hours later, their woolly payment sitting in the back of the wagon.

"Name her?" scoffed Gilbert. "I name her 'Dinner.' We butcher her at camp tonight! I even give your wolf a portion - he been eyeing her since we got her."

Finoula looked at Wrath, whose eyes were indeed fixed on the delicious morsel sitting in the back of the wagon, and said nothing.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I have a dark blue T-shirt with several sharks on it (the sharks even glow in the dark), a purchase from an aquarium many years ago. It was the best fit for this adventure, and originally I was afraid it would give away too much - since Kordovia is a land-locked kingdom hundreds of miles from the sea - but eventually I realized any "hint" the players might get from my T-shirt would be a wild guess at best, so I went for it.
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