The Kordovian Adventurers Guild



Game Session Date: 12 March 2016

- - -

Twilight was nearing and the heroes began looking for a good place to camp for the night. As they traveled down the road in their mule-driven wagon, with Binkadink and Finoula riding Obvious and Daisy, respectively, they turned a corner in the road and saw a sight none of them had expected to see: hanging from a branch directly in front of them was a man, his hands digging into the noose choking the life out of him. His legs kicked feebly, his actions slowed down, as his very breath was stolen from him.

Binkadink sent Obvious dashing forward, dipping his furry head beneath the hanged man and then raising his antlers to support the man's legs, as the gnome pulled his glaive from its holder at the jackalope's side and cut through the rope above the noose with a single swipe of his blade. He had hoped the man, thus freed, would steady himself on Obvious's antlers; no such luck - he plopped backwards onto the dirt of the dusty road beneath him, grunting in pain as he landed.

Castillan checked both ways down the road, looking for anyone nearby who might have done this. Despite the rapidly-setting sun, there was still ample light to see among the trees that dotted the landscape; nobody else was visible.

Ingebold leaped from the mule-wagon and raced to the man's side, channeling healing energy through her hand via a simple word of prayer to Moradin. The man groaned, stirred, and then bolted upright in alarm.

"Be at ease, friend," said Ingebold in a soothing voice, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Now then, who did this t'ye?"

"Did this?" repeated the man, bewilderment evident in his voice. "I did this. You shouldn't have cut me down!"

"Why not?" asked Finoula, stepping forward.

"Because I'll turn into a werewolf and try to kill you as soon as the sun sets and Luna rises!"

"Whoa now, hold on," said Castillan. "Maybe you'd better start this story from the beginning." At the man's hesitation, the bounder added, "There are enough of us here to take you out if you start growing fur and try to kill us. We're practiced adventurers, after all."

"Okay," replied the man, rubbing his sore neck and looking up at the seven adventurers standing around him in a ring as he removed the remains of the noose. Seven -- that should be enough, he thought. "My name's Hugo," he began. "I raise sheep."

"Again with the sheep," muttered Gilbert.

"It's sheep country," hissed Finoula to the heavyset wizard. "Let the man finish."

"Two nights ago, two of my sheep went missing from their pen," Hugo continued. "I found the prints of a wolf in my yard, so last night, I stayed up with my bow and arrow, hiding behind the well, ready to catch him if he came back. Well, I must have fallen asleep or something, because the next thing I knew, it was morning, I was naked in my yard, there was blood all over my hands and face, and Fuzzy was half-eaten."

"Fuzzy is a sheep?" guessed Finoula.

"She was, yes," confirmed Hugo. "There's Fuzzy, Wuzzy, Fluffy, Buffy...and Shaggy-Muffin. The two that went missing were--"

"We don't need names of sheep," interrupted Gilbert. "Get on with story." Then, at a stern look from Finoula, he added, "...Please."

"That's about all there is to it," finished Hugo. "I may be a simple sheep farmer, but I know what's what. I got bit by a werewolf, and now I'm a werewolf, too. I got it confirmed by a fortune teller and everything. So I decided I needed to end it all before I hurt anyone. It took me all day to find the courage, but as twilight got closer and closer, I knew I had to do something."

"Wait," said Gilbert. "When this fortune teller show up?"

"Late this afternoon. They had a big wagon, pulled by two horses. Vistani, I think they're called. The people, not the horses, I mean. They were just passing by. But anyway, I told the fortune teller my story, showed her my bite mark, and she confirmed my worst fears. What's worse, she said eventually I wouldn't be satisfied with just killing sheep, neither - I'd go after people!"

"Can we see this bite mark of yours?" asked Finoula. Hugo obediently stood up and lifted his shirt, exposing his left side. Sure enough, there were teeth marks on the side of his back, just above the waistline. "Ingebold?" Finoula asked, frowning.

"Oh, aye," the dwarven cleric confirmed. "Those be human teeth marks, all right. Ye weren't bitten by a wolf, Hugo - ye were bitten by a human!"

"A human?" exclaimed Hugo. "That can't be!" He turned in a slow circle trying to look at his own back.

"Well, it might be an elf," admitted Ingebold. "But it weren't no wolf, that's fer sure."

Darrien rummaged around in his coin purse, then approached Hugo. He placed a silver coin directly on the back of the sheep farmer's hand, held it firmly in place, then removed it and and examined the skin. It was unblemished.

"I don't know what's going on here," the half-elf ranger said, "but you're not a werewolf, Hugo. You don't react to silver. You weren't bitten by a wolf, but a person."

"Maybe the wolf bite turned into a human bite when the werewolf transformed back into human form," suggested the confused sheep farmer.

"I don't think it works that way," replied Castillan.

"Plus, if you bitten by werewolf only last night, you don't transform into werewolf last night," piped up Gilbert. "You transform tonight, for first time."

"And Luna's now up over the treeline, and you're not a wolf," concluded Darrien. It was true: this was the last night of the full moon, and Luna's rays now cast a warm light over the nighttime scene. And there stood Hugo, clearly still a human.

"Hmmm," he said. "I wonder what's going on?"

"Let's go check out your farm," suggested Finoula. "Maybe there's something there to indicate who's behind this."

"Do ye have any enemies?" asked Ingebold. "Anybody who might want ye dead?"

"None that I know of," replied Hugo. "I'm a sheep farmer. Who's enemies with a sheep farmer? Anyway, come on - my farm's over this way."

Hugo lived in a simple, two-room structure, with a small bedroom to the left and an open living area to the right. The only other structure on his land was a small building for the sheep, surrounded by a wooden fence to form a pen. A stone well provided water, there were a few apples trees in the back - and that was about it.

"Cozy place," commented Gilbert.

"This is where I woke up this morning," said Hugo, pointing to an area in the front, next to the sheep pen. "See? There's the remains of the clothes I was wearing yesterday." Darrien examined the clothes in the moonlight - and the everburning torches tied to the antler's on Binkadink's helmet - and grunted. "Look here," he said. "These rips look like they were made by claws after the fact, not torn apart during transformation."

"Prints!" called Finoula, her elven eyes picking out the paw-prints of a large wolf in the dirt of Hugo's land. "Two pairs of them, and - huh! It looks like they were standing on their back feet."

"So we're looking for two people wearing boots with wolf paws on the bottoms?" asked Binkadink. "This is sounding like something Jinkadoodle would come up with."

"Could be gnolls," offered Gilbert.

"Which ones are gnolls again?" asked Finoula.

"Hyena people!" replied the portly wizard. "We fight really big one in forest after fighting beetles in lair!"

"That was a gnoll?" asked Finoula.

"Well, maybe," admitted Gilbert. "It far too big for normal gnoll. Maybe it gnoll made big with spell or potion."

"Smoggety!" called out Aithanar suddenly from behind the well. Pointing to the ground, he added, "Flinkerdy snorkus!" Despite his nonsensical words, he had found yet another set of footprints - these made by a human or elf, probably a woman by the size of the feet, wearing moccasins or something similar. "Good eye!" said Finoula, and the young fighter's chest filled with pride.

Following the tracks, both sets of wolf prints and the woman's prints all led across the yard and out into the road. Tracking became more difficult there, given the hardness of the road's surface compared to the fresh dirt and grass of the farmer's yard. Checking through the house, Hugo confirmed nothing was missing - not that he had much in the way of goods to steal; Finoula noticed he had but one fork, one knife, one spoon, one cup, one bowl, and one plate.

"So where does this leave us?" asked Binkadink.

"I think we find Vistani wagon," answered Gilbert. "Hugo - which way wagon go?"

"It went right down the road in front of my house," the farmer replied. "Headed east."

"Saddle up," commanded Gilbert. "We follow road east."

Fortunately, it was a fairly straightforward section of road for the next dozen miles or so, with no major intersections. By simply staying on the main road, the group found the Vistani wagon about five miles from Hugo's farm. A simple camp had been set up, with two Vistani women cooking over a small campfire. Two black horses stood nearby, their reins tied to trees, and the brightly-colored wagon had a pair of sturdy logs wedged against one of the wheels to prevent it from moving. Hugo confirmed that one of the two women was the fortune teller he'd spoken to that afternoon.

"I greet thee," said the taller woman as the group pulled up, in what was apparently a ritual greeting. Both women wore head scarves over their dark hair, and their garb seemed to be many different layers of material in a variety of colors. Finoula's eyes were drawn to their footwear: soft leather boots in each case. Not conclusive by any means, but either one could certainly have made the footprints they'd found at Hugo's farm.

"Would you care to--Aaaah!" began the other woman, clearly frightened in mid-sentence upon recognizing Hugo. "Mark of the Beast!" She made some type of warding gesture with her hands.

"Beast? Me?" sputtered Hugo. "But they said--"

"Ladies," said Darrien, sidling up to the Vistani women - a role usually reserved for Castillan, but he had opted to sneak over to the Vistani wagon from the north, apart from the group, to see what he could learn, and thus had dropped off the side of the mule-driven wagon as soon as the Vistani camp had come into view. "I understand you've already met Hugo, but as you can see, the full moon is out and Hugo is not a werewolf."

"But, how can this be?" asked the fortune teller, Djolbana. "I myself heard his story, saw bite of wolf upon his back."

"It's not a wolf bite after all," said Hugo, lifting up his shirt and showing Djolbana his scar, already mostly healed by the spells Ingebold had cast upon him. "It's a human bite. See?"

"This very strange. Earlier today, it was bite of wolf. I have not heard of such magics as these before. But it is good you are not wolf! Come! Join Anelka and I for dinner! There is food for all - it is only simple stew, but we have wine and bread to share as well." As introductions were made all around, Castillan approached the enclosed wagon and saw the only door visible seemed to be the one at the vehicle's rear. The hinges showed it opened outwards; the rustiness of the hinges warned of a possibly loud squeak if he tried opening the door.

"What kind of stew this?" asked Gilbert.

"Mostly mutton," replied Djolbana, serving up a bowl. "But we add to it with what the gods provide. The men are out hunting now - perhaps they return with rabbit, or squirrel, or pheasant."

"Mutton, huh? You get mutton from Hugo, maybe?" asked Gilbert.

"Hmm? No, we buy lamb from farmer, three, four days ago."

"Hey, maybe you help us. Aithanar here, he hit head, now he talk funny."

"He's not the only one," added Darrien in a stage whisper.

"You shut stupid half-elf tongue!" scolded Gilbert, before turning back to the Vistani women. "You have way to help him?" Anelka waved Aithanar over to her side and looked at the back of his head, running her fingers through his hair. "I have herbs that may help," she said, then excused herself and went straight for the wagon's back door. "Fetch more bowls while you're in there!" called Djolbana, and Anelka waved her acknowledgement as she entered the vehicle. Castillan saw her coming just in time and ducked around the corner of the wagon, then rolled underneath it. As Anelka entered - confirming the squeaky hinges as she opened and closed the door - Castillan examined the wagon's bottom as best he could in the shadows, looking for either a trap door or a space between the wooden boards that would give him a peek into the vehicle's interior. He found neither, but he heard Anelka talking to herself inside the wagon, in a language he'd never heard before.

About this time, Finoula's hair suddenly changed color. She generally kept it in a long braid at the back of her head, the best to keep it out of her way during combat, and although it was a light, silvery color, in the moonlight and the glow of the campfire it seemed almost a pearly white. But then, in the blink of an eye, it darkened to a shadowy color, which only proved to be a deep purple once it had been pointed out to the ranger and she scooted closer to the campfire to get a better look.

"What in the world?" she wondered. Binkadink immediately began looking around for his cousin, although that explanation seemed less likely this far from home.

"Do you think it's faeries?" asked Darrien. "They like playing tricks, and some of them can turn invisible - or so my mom always said."

"Faeries, sprites, pixies," muttered Gilbert. "I wonder...."

A loud howl rang out across the clear night, seemingly from the northwest, cutting off Gilbert's mumblings. All other noise - the hoot of an owl, the chirping of crickets - ceased at once. "It's the werewolf!" shouted Hugo, the fact that all indications pointed toward there having been no actual werewolf involved in his attack the previous night immediately evacuated from his mind upon hearing the lupine howl. He jumped up and ran straight for the mule-driven wagon, hiding first behind it and then cowering underneath it. The heroes had other responses: they leapt up as well, but rather than flee in terror they held their ground, pulling out and readying their weapons. Binkadink jumped upon Obvious's back, while Djolbana stood up and huddled by the rest of the group, clearly frightened.

There were crashing sounds coming from the northwest as something large came pounding through the brush. Not wanting to be caught hiding underneath the Vistani wagon, Castillan rolled back out from beneath it the way he'd come, got to his feet, and snapped his shortbow into his left hand. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and drew the bow - and just in time, too, for an enormous dire wolf ran through some low scrub into the clearing and made a bee-line for the elven bounder, his closest target. Castillan saw the beast's eyes glowing an infernal red and lined up his shot to hit right between them. He launched his arrow but the beast dodged to the side at the last second, taking the feathered shaft in his furry back instead of the middle of his lupine face. And then he pounced at Castillan, biting down with his razor-sharp teeth and nearly knocking the elf prone.

"Screw this!" yelled Castillan, looking for a safe perch, and finding one at the top of the Vistani wagon. His muscles propelled by fear as much as by training, he ran up the side of the wagon and huddled flat upon the curved roof, snapping his bow back into his glove on the way up so he'd have both hands free to pull himself up. The dire wolf spun to face his foe and seemed ready to pounce up the side of the wagon in pursuit, but then another pair of targets presented themselves. Hippity-hopping around the front of the wagon from the west, Obvious raced up to the side of the great beast, allowing Binkadink's glaive to come crashing down and slice a wound deep into the wolf's flank. It howled in pain and spun to face this new threat.

Djolbana took the opportunity to race to the Vistani wagon, open the door, and join Anelka inside - where it was relatively safer. She slammed the door behind her, and when Gilbert went to follow he found the door closed and locked. "Hey!" he cried. "Open up!" But neither Vistani woman deigned to reply.

While Binkadink fought the dire wolf to the north of the Vistani wagon, Darrien raced along behind Gilbert and was perfectly placed to see another wolf come crashing through the foliage, this one from a bit farther east. He was the size of a normal-sized wolf, but his eyes blazed the unnatural red of his larger cousin. Darrien shot at the new arrival with an arrow from the Arachnibow, eliciting a howl of pain from the beast.

By then, Finoula and Wrath had followed Obvious's path and were adding sword-strikes and fangs to the fight against the dire wolf. Against the two warriors and their combat-trained animals, the dire wolf fared poorly and in short time he collapsed upon the ground, dead - only to vanish in a puff of rancid smoke after taking his last breath on the Material Plane. Wrath immediately shifted targets to the fiendish wolf Darrien was fighting, giving the half-elf ranger enough breathing space to summon forth the mantis-spirit stored in his amber necklace. The giant mantis materialized behind the fiendish wolf, striking out at him with its wicked claws, and before long the smaller wolf too had been slain - sending his form returning back to whatever foul plane he dwelt upon.

Collectively, the group looked around for any other foes, saw none, and breathed a sigh of relief. But then Castillan, still up on the roof of the Vistani wagon, called out a warning, just as two more lupine figures crashed through the underbrush and into the clearing. While these two had the lupine heads and shaggy fur of the two previous combatants, they stood upon their hind legs - they were, for all appearances, a pair of male werewolves in their hybrid forms. Fortunately for Hugo, he still cowered under the heroes' wagon and didn't see the actual, real-life werewolves, for the sight of what had overnight become his greatest fear would likely be too much for him.

There was shock on the faces of the assembled heroes, who had all come to believe that this whole werewolf business was all just some kind of elaborate hoax - but the giant preying mantis saw the two werewolves merely as another pair of enemies and struck out with its spined forelegs, catching the first of the lycanthropes, Andrei, in its deadly embrace. Ingebold took advantage of a pinned opponent and sent a spiritual weapon in the form of a glowing, dwarven warhammer crashing into Andrei's frame.

Snarling, the other werewolf, Stefan, made a rush at Obvious, the largest of the available targets within easy reach. The jackalope nimbly dodged aside - nearly spilling Binkadink from his back in the process - and then darted forward to catch the lycanthrope's fur between his rodent teeth. Stefan quickly learned just how deadly a big ol' fuzzy bunny rabbit with antlers could be in a battle, as the jackalope kept a firm grip on the hybrid's body with his sharp teeth as he shook him around like a rag doll. Stefan's growls of surprise soon turned to howls of pain.

Gilbert tried forcing his way into the door to no avail and fervently wished he knew the knock spell. Instead, he tried reasoning with the women, first jumping the gun just a bit and saying it was safe to come out because the werewolves had been dealt with (this was far from true, for while they were both being grappled by a large creature neither one was close to being killed just yet); then, when that produced no reaction, he tried taunting them by telling them they had just killed both of their werewolf husbands - hoping one of them would rush outside to verify his claims for herself. He was wrong on both counts there; not only were both werewolves still alive but they were also the brothers, not husbands, of the two Vistani women. But the end result was the same: no response from the women locked inside.

There were two small windows at the front of the wagon; at Gilbert's urging, Castillan peered over the edge of the roof and tried peeking inside, but couldn't get a good view from his perch. He did see an owl leave its tree branch perch and come flying straight for the other window, though - this was Dvani, Djolbana's familiar. Aithanar saw the owl fly through the window but realized he'd never be able to communicate that to the heroes given his current inability to speak anything but gibberish. On the roof, Castillan strained his ears to try to hear what might be going on inside the wagon's interior, but try as he might he heard nothing. So, seeing as how both fiendish wolves had already been slain and the two werewolves were both being contained by the jackalope and the mantis, the bounder leaped back down from his safe perch on the wagon's roof and reactivated the short sword he kept stored in his right glove.

Getting no results from the Vistani women, Gilbert decided to apply himself to the battle at hand. He cast a pair of scorching rays at Andrei, still pinned in the mantis's embrace, and did manage to strike him with one of the rays; the other, unfortunately, overshot the werewolf and smacked the mantis right in its triangular head. Each ray did similar damage, but the mantis looked to have come out the worse for wear of the two of them. Worse yet, the surprise of the "friendly fire" momentarily loosened the mantis's grip on its prey and Andrei wriggled free. He leaped for Castillan, sinking his claws into the bounder's shoulders and biting the startled elf at the side of the neck. Castillan shrieked and fell back, and Andrei turned to attack Finoula next. But Binkadink, struggling to keep his seat on Obvious's back as the jackalope jumped up and down, worrying his prey, the gnome fighter managed to swing his trusty glaive down upon Andrei, keeping him away from Finoula.

Stefan, meanwhile, was having a much more difficult time than he ever would have imagined escaping Obvious's grasp; what he had originally thought was a pushover creature of prey - he had visions of a cook pot full of rabbit stew for weeks - was actually doing him serious harm. He looked over at Andrei just in time to see him slain by a barrage of magic missiles from Gilbert's wand; the distraction was enough for Castillan to strike out with a thrust from his short sword, cutting through the startled werewolf's jugular vein and spilling his life blood onto the ground. Both lycanthropes fell to the ground within seconds of each other, changing form as they did so. Fur receded back into skin, lupine muzzles retracted, and two naked human men were left sprawled in the grass under the rising full moon.

"Okay, Castillan, we need you open this lock now," stated Gilbert, returning to the wagon's back door. The bounder put away his sword and pulled out his lockpicks, and after a minute's work he had popped the door open with a now-familiar creak.

The wagon's interior was somewhat cramped, with hanging curtains that could be pulled closed to wall off two "bedroom areas" with bunks that folded up into the walls, a set of cabinets along the left wall, and a table for eating in the front. There was a small, round table and two chairs at the back - complete with a crystal ball that Gilbert's practiced eye told him was not magical in any sense of the word - and a rocking chair in the far corner, toward the front of the wagon. But of Anelka and Djolbana (and Dvati) there was no sign.

Castillan swung his arms wide, feeling all around the cramped interior in case the two women were present but invisible - no luck. Gilbert poked his head back outside and asked if anybody saw them teleport or dimension door outside - no luck. But then the rocking chair began rocking of its own accord, and pots and pans started spilling out of the cabinets and hurling themselves at Castillan. "Ow!" he cried, after getting beaned in the head by a copper pot. He backed out of the wagon, noticing a humanoid form coalescing out of nothingness in the rocking chair. "Ingebold!" he cried.

The cleric rushed to the back of the wagon, expecting the bounder to need a healing spell or two. But he merely pointed a thumb at the rocking chair, and the scowling, wrinkled old lady sitting there, and said, "Undead, I think - she's all yours." Then he stepped aside, making room for Ingebold to enter the wagon.

Ingebold raised her holy symbol of Moradin and aimed it at the spirit, who snarled in irritation, faded from view for a moment, and then returned. "You invade my home," said Zolfina, the one-time leader of the Vistani family who owned this wagon. "I protect our home," she announced stubbornly, throwing up a pair of arthritic hands and sending more pots and pans flying telekinetically at the cleric.

"We defeated th' two werewolves outside, and sent th' two women fleeing," replied Ingebold, channeling positive energy through her holy symbol for a second time. This time, Zolfina reacted for more than just a moment, a look of astonishment crossing her cramped features. "They are defeated," she repeated, then disappeared from view - but not before the dwarven cleric saw the hint of a smile cross the elderly woman's features. "It's done," Ingebold called to the others when the ghost failed to reappear and the rocking chair stopped moving.

"So where women go?" asked Gilbert. "I all out of detect magic spells - you have any?" Ingebold replied by casting the required spell and looking around the room. "Up there," she said, pointing to the ceiling. "There's an aura of transmutation magic right there."

Gilbert puzzled it out for a moment, then announced, "Got it! Rope trick spell! They hiding in extradimensional space!" Then addressing the ceiling, he called out, "We know you up there! Come out now, we let you live!" When there was no reply, he asked Ingebold if she had a dispel magic spell ready, but she didn't - nor did the wizard. "Crap!" complained Gilbert. "Now we have to wait - maybe for hours."

"Maybe that would be a good spell to have on a scroll, for times like these," pointed out Darrien. Gilbert just harrumphed in irritation.

It took nearly seven hours for the rope trick spell to wear off and the two Vistani women to come crashing down to the floor. The owl also fell from the ceiling, but it managed to flap around until it made it out the nearest window. But by the time the rope trick spell had expired, the heroes had thoroughly explored the wagon, finding a hidden trap door on the floor leading to a cargo compartment, inside which they found a small bit of coins and gems but - of more interest - a handful of magic weapons, including Andrei's longsword, Stefan's short sword, and a whip with retractable thorns that belonged to Anelka.

"So," commented Gilbert casually, "you lock us outside wagon so werewolves can eat us. That not very nice."

"They did not eat you," pointed out Djolbana. "So no real harm was done."

"That not the point," countered Gilbert, his eyes narrowing in anger. "You try to kill us! And you try to blame Hugo for wolf attacks caused by your husbands!"

"They're not our husbands, you idiot," snarled Anelka. "They are our brothers!"

"Were your brothers," corrected Darrien. "...They're dead."

"Bastards!" cried Anelka, her face contorted with rage. She made to claw at the half-elf's eyes, and the sudden movement caused a necklace to slip out from her blouse. It held an image of Erythnul, the evil god of slaughter. That was all the heroes needed to assuage any guilt they might have had about fighting the Vistani sisters. The women fought savagely, but they were hampered by the close quarters in their wagon and were quickly brought down by the steel blades of the heroes.

Upon Anelka's death, the rocking chair started moving again, and Zolfina's image returned briefly. "You have slain my slayer," the elderly ghost said in a whispery voice. "Anelka wanted to lead family, killed me to make room for new leader. Always she was impatient, even as little girl. But now you have freed me. For this, I grant you boon.

"I can peer into future," she continued. "Sometimes it in pictures, images; others it like reading words from a paper. In either case, visions hazy, hidden – like reading or seeing through thick mist." The ghost's form became insubstantial, as if seen through a thick mist as well.

"For you, I see words," she whispered, her voice dissipating as well as her insubstantial body. "Ma," she said. "Returns," she added, then, squinting as if trying to make out the form of someone far away, "Later." And the final word she whispered before discorporating forever was "Minus...." Then she was gone.

"That was kind of creepy," admitted Castillan.

"She gone?" demanded Gilbert. "For good this time?" He had a fireball spell at the ready and was willing to burn the whole wagon down to get rid of the undead monster, if that's what it took.

"Looks t'be," replied Ingebold, stifling a yawn, looking out at the rest of the camp. Binkadink was fast asleep, still in his armor, snuggled up against a snoozing Obvious for warmth. Aithanar had ensured the mules and Daisy were brushed down and tethered to the wagon with plenty of reach, but then he had curled up in the back of the adventurers' wagon and was firmly in his nightly elven trance, blocking out Hugo's snores - for the sheep farmer had fallen into a deep sleep once he saw the werewolves had been taken care of.

"So what was she talking about, there at the end?" asked Darrien. "Whose Ma is returning? From where? And without what?"

"She just crazy old lady," scoffed Gilbert. "Probably just crazy old lady talk."

"No," corrected Finoula. Her hair had returned to its normal silvery coloration about an hour after its abrupt shift to vibrant purple, and now she seemed just as pale as her hair as the blood suddenly drained from her face. "Those weren't all words, just parts of them - and she got them in the wrong order. It wasn't 'Ma returns later minus' - it was 'Ma later minus returns.'"

Finoula held herself in her crossed arms, suddenly very cold. "'Malaterminus returns,'" she concluded.

- - -

This was an interesting change of pace. The players figured out almost immediately that Hugo wasn't a werewolf, coming up with a proof or two I hadn't even considered. They were fairly sure the Vistani women had something to do with the hoax by the time they met up with them, but they were afraid of jumping to a wrong conclusion - perhaps after killing the innocent aspis drones in a case of mistaken identity a few adventures back. But the arrival of the werewolves threw them (momentarily) for a loop, as by then they had convinced themselves there likely weren't any werewolves involved in pranking Hugo. But the Vistani family had gotten their practice down to a science. Kill farm animals on the first night of the full moon, do it again on the second night of the full moon and find a patsy, then leave incriminating evidence that the patsy's the one responsible for the killings. Then move on to a new town or village by the three days of the full moon the following month and repeat the sequence all over.

In any case, the group got three magic weapons out of this adventure, as well as an enclosed Vistani wagon and two black draft horses to pull it. (Jacob immediately came up with the names Castor and Pollux for the horses, and the names have stuck.) I made up the whip of thorns because the image Vicki chose to represent Finoula has such a weapon coiled in her left hand, and I decided to let the campaign catch up to the image. (Vicki recognized it for what it was immediately and called "Dibs" on it for Finoula.) They also got a wand of false life that I'm sure Gilbert will be able to put to good use in future adventures.

I also decided Zolfina hasn't fully left the Vistani wagon. Having spent years in the wagon as a ghost, now that she's passed on she's left behind "the ghost of her ghost" - basically, a permanent unseen servant spell effect that's limited to the wagon's interior. It will function as normal unseen servant with one main difference: it doesn't like anyone sitting in Zolfina's rocking chair. Anyone sitting in her chair - or setting something down there - results in a close-radius lowering of the immediate temperature as a warning, possibly followed up by a poltergeist-like telekinetic temper tantrum if the offender doesn't immediately clear the chair. I'm pretty sure Gilbert's not going to like that bit.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: As we played through this adventure on the same day as "Communion with the Sea Mother," I was still wearing my shark T-shirt. While I do have a wolf T-shirt that was perfectly suitable for this adventure, and I'm not against bringing a shirt to change into between adventures, I had failed to suitably plan ahead - my wolf T-shirt was in the wash.
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Game Session Date: 23 April 2016

- - -

Binkadink rolled out of bed knowing it was going to be a great day. It was the morning after they had finally rolled into the town of Garonis and he had at long last been able to pick up the masterwork gnomish glaive he'd ordered several weeks ago. Four days after the recent werewolf attack, he finally had a masterwork weapon - and one that had been crafted finely enough that, given time, he'd be able to have enchantments crafted onto it!

Although the last four days had seen nothing in the way of combat, they had been eventful nonetheless. Ingebold had been concerned that the bite wound Castillan received from the werewolf Andrei had scarred up; normally the application of healing spells smoothed over any resulting scar tissue. Worried that this might be the first signs of lycanthropy in the elven bounder, she'd asked Gilbert to read up on the affliction. Gilbert did so, paging through the books from the Purple Mage's library that he'd absorbed into the Omnibook, and the results of his investigations were somewhat grim. There were several suggested methods, most of which were infeasible given the amount of time that had passed since the elf had been bitten. But there was still one possible avenue left to them: Ingebold could cast a remove curse spell on the bounder under the light of the full moon. Of course, if Castillan had contracted lycanthropy the light of the full moon would cause him to begin transforming into a wolf, so they'd have to take precautions to prevent his escape if the spell didn't work. Fortunately, the next full moon was a whole month away, so they'd have plenty of time to make their preparations.

They'd also met up with a wandering bard two days out from Garonis who had shared their campsite and a meal. In return for their generosity, he'd sung several ballads from his repertoire, including several songs about the famed hero-king Galrich Slayer the First and his amazing exploits as an adventurer. It turns out Galrich had been paying bards to create songs about his combat prowess and his very powerful fellow adventurers, all as a means to pass the message: "Don't mess with Kordovia." To the group's further astonishment, the bard's latest song involved details of their own exploits; apparently Galrich had decided to spread the word that he had a new band of powerful adventurers working for him as well.

The other item of note was the continuing, if erratic, hair discoloration. Over the past four days, Castillan had returned from behind a tree (where he'd been relieving his bladder) with lavender hair; Gilbert had exited his tent the first thing the next morning with a bushy, green beard; the following day, after a lunch break on the road, Wrath had emerged from underneath one of the wagons sporting light blue fur (which he didn't seem to like much at all); and finally, right before entering Garonis the day before, Aithanar's long hair went from a deep black to a bright orange (he wore his hood up for the duration of the effect). In each case, the new coloration only lasted about an hour before the hair (or fur) in question returned to its normal color; of more immediate interest, on several of these occasions there were sounds of childish laughter and the flutter of invisible wings, although no culprit was ever spotted. Since the fairies - for the group was now convinced that they had somehow attracted the attention of prank-loving faeries of some type - weren't doing any real harm, the group decided to try ignoring them and seeing if they'd just go away. Gilbert, however, picked up some honey at a shop in Garonis and tried leaving it by the wagon as an offering to their unseen pranksters.

The others met up with the little gnome in the inn's common room, all sharing the view that it had been nice to eat a well-cooked meal, luxuriate in a warm bath, and get a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed before hitting the road again.

"Guys!" called Castillan, uncharacteristically clomping down the stairs in his haste. "I think I found us a big stash of loot just waiting to be claimed!"

"What this all about?" asked Gilbert.

"I was up late playing cards with some of the locals and I picked up some details about a dungeon that's supposed to be about ten miles out of town. Seems there was this retired adventurer named Arrogan who built himself a tower fort some time ago. The fort's in ruins, but the dungeon below it is still intact, with a bunch of treasure ready to be taken by anybody who can go get it."

"It's been there for decades?" asked Finoula. "And nobody's claimed it in all that time?"

"That's the thing," replied Castillan. "Arrogan's supposed to have been a distrustful sort, so he built a bunch of traps in it to kill trespassers. Oh, and get this, Gilbert - he especially distrusted wizards, so his dungeon is called 'the Magekiller.'"

"Lovely," snorted Gilbert.

"It gets better," replied the bounder. "The Magekiller is said to be extremely dangerous. Several adventuring groups have entered it over the years, but none have ever returned."

"I'm not sure that makes it better," pointed out Finoula.

"Sure it does!" argued Castillan. "That means the treasure's all still there!"

"I suppose..." offered Finoula. "What do you guys think?"

"Sounds good to me!" enthused Binkadink. "It'll give me a chance to put my new glaive to use!"

The group decided they'd give it a shot. So they finished a quick breakfast at the inn, paid their tab, and headed over to gather their animals and wagons. Once there, they started gearing up in their armor. "I get to try out my new armor, too!" gushed the little gnome. He'd decided to upgrade to a suit of gnomish full plate once he saw there was an armorer in town who catered to gnomes and halflings. This was indeed going to be a good day!

And so, half an hour after breakfast the Kordovians were on their way down the road, heading west out of town, following the directions Castillan had gotten from his card-playing buddies. It was an overcast day that threatened rain before nightfall. The group hadn't gotten too far down the road before Ingebold's hair was suddenly bleached of all color.

"Ach, not again!" swore the dwarven cleric. "Ye're pesky little buggers, ye are!"

"You look like a little old grandma," chuckled Darrien from the back of the mule-driven wagon.

Any reply from Ingebold was cut off by a scream from the road just around a bend ahead. Finoula and Binkadink, astride their respective mounts, sped to the front of the group and were therefore the first to see a young elf maiden staggering at the side of the road. It wasn't her screaming, though - the cries for help were coming from a cave about fifteen feet up the side of a rocky hill to the left of the road.

"No, stop - leave me alone!" called a female voice from the cave. At the same time, the young elven woman approached the Vistani wagon, trembling and clearly frightened. "That's my sister!" she cried. "She was grabbed by a--by a giant caveman! What do I do? What do I do?" And then she collapsed in tears at the side of the road.

Aithanar pulled on the reins of the Vistani wagon, bringing it to a sudden halt, and leapt down from the driver's seat to help her. In the back of the wagon, the door opened up on its squeaky hinges and Gilbert stepped out, plopping his hat of disguise onto his head and taking on the form of a young woman from his mother's faraway land. He had heard the elf's statement and in typical Gilbert Fung fashion was immediately suspicious that this was some sort of trap.

"Let's go!" called Binkadink, urging Obvious up the slope to the cave opening. Finoula dismounted from her pony and called for Wrath to stay with the wagons, then raced behind the hippity-hopping jackalope. Darrien and Ingebold leaped from the mule wagon in the back of the two-vehicle caravan and followed, joined by Castillan from the front. "Stay with the girl!" he called to his brother, who nodded in return.

"What your name?" Gilbert asked the elf in a falsetto voice - his magical hat altered his appearance but did nothing to disguise his voice.

"My name is Marielle," replied the tear-filled elf. "My sister Danielle and I, we were running away from home to get away from our brutish stepfather. Then, out of nowhere, this, this caveman rushed up and grabbed at us." The elf showed where the shoulder of her blouse had been ripped. "He almost got me, but I pulled away, and he grabbed up Danielle instead!" As if to punctuate her story, Danielle screamed again from deep inside the cave, "What are you going to do to me? No, no--HELP!" Marielle cringed at the thought of her sister in the hands of a creature admittedly even more terrifying than their cruel stepfather. "Will they be able to save her?" she asked, clinging to Gilbert's robes - which, fortunately, felt no different than the skirt they were currently masquerading as.

"They very strong heroes," Gilbert replied in his falsetto voice. "They save your sister, you see." Then, turning his attention to Aithanar, he said, "You give girl drink of water, I go into wagon and get her some food." Extracting Marielle's clutching hands from his robes, he went back into the wagon and waited patiently. Ever the distrustful sort, Gilbert had decided to put the elf maiden's loyalty to the test: if she was what she claimed, Aithanar would be fine upon his return; if she was playing them false, perhaps in league with the caveman, she might try to overcome the elf fighter if she thought it was only one against one. The wizard strained his ears to hear what they were up to, but it sounded like Aithanar was simply handing over his waterskin and the elf girl was drinking from it.

Meanwhile, in the cave, the rest of the group had an opportunity to make a quick perusal. Upon first entering the cave, Finoula noticed a square, wooden structure some 15 feet to a side leaned up against the wall of the cave to the left of the entrance. There were three poles, each about 20 feet in length, piled next to it. There also seemed to be two passages from this central room, veering off to the east and the west. Danielle's screams were coming from the west, so that's the direction Obvious headed with Binkadink still on his back. They bounded into a larger cavern containing only the ashes from an old campfire, but there was another passageway out of this larger cavern to the northwest. Obvious scampered down it, following a set of natural steps leading down another ten feet or so. Behind them, Castillan and the two rangers followed, with Ingebold bringing up the rear.

"Stop, please!" cried Danielle from ahead. "Leave me alone!" Binkadink saw the next cavern was split down the middle by a 15-foot vertical drop, with another natural set of stone steps along the eastern edge of the cave leading down to the lower level, which held further passageways to the northeast and northwest. But Obvious had no need for steps; a 15-foot drop was nothing to the surefooted jackalope. Leaping over the edge, Obvious landed gracefully on the lower level and turned the corner to the northwest, where the volume of Danielle's voice told them she was just around the bend.

Turning the corner, Binkadink and Obvious came to a sudden stop, for there was only a small, dead-end cave there. Two crude beds of straw and grasses lay along the wall in the back, and two female ogres wielding javelins stood at the ready to greet the jackalope-mounted gnome fighter. They both let fly at the startled jackalope with their javelins, one of them catching him in the shoulder, before each grabbed up a greatsword leaning against the wall. Of Danielle there was no sign; the gnome at first thought these two giants might have eaten her, but there was no blood, no cast-off elven garments, just a smirking ogress pleased with her efforts at reeling in the ogre band's next meal. As if to prove her point, she cried out "Help me, gnome, help me!" in the voice of the apparently non-existent Danielle while her counterpart chuckled.

The ogre mancatchers, Grinka and Jorza, swung their greatswords at Obvious, who hurriedly backed off out of range. His new glaive in hand, Binkadink jumped from the back of his jackalope steed, the better to shield Obvious from their attacks. Fifteen feet above him and to the south, Finoula and Darrien had just exited the steps and could see Binkadink in a combat stance, but they couldn't see who he was fighting as the ogres were behind a corner, hidden from view. But while the gnome caught their movement out of the corner of his eye, there seemed to be even more movement below them. Daring a quick glance in their direction, Binkadink saw that the 15-foot-tall vertical cliff housed two openings into another, larger cave, from which spilled out three more eager ogre combatants. Like the females he was already fighting, these three males wore tattered animal skins and carried javelins in their meaty hands, but instead of greatswords they each wielded a greatclub that looked to have been made from a tree trunk. They hurled their javelins at Binkadink and Obvious, and as the two hurled his way clattered off his full plate, the gnome fighter was glad he'd upgraded his armor. But Obvious took another javelin wound and was now bleeding heavily; at Binkadink's urging, he raced back up the steps out of harm's way.

As the three male ogres rushed at the gnome, the heroes on the ledge above saw them come into view. While Finoula and Darrien skidded to a stop, Castillan increased his speed to a full-out sprint and launched himself off the edge of the cliff, snapping his magic short sword into one hand and grabbing the dagger from his belt with the other. He landed on the westernmost ogre's broad back, plunging both blades in deep and hanging on, letting the weight of his own body carve the blades deeper into the ogre's flesh and muscle. He roared in pain and swung his body around. "Get it off! Get it off!" he cried in the Giant tongue to his fellows, and the middle ogre was more than happy to oblige, bringing his greatclub into a fierce swing straight at the bounder. But Castillan's reflexes were well-honed and he released both weapons, dropping nimbly to the floor and ducking under the blow - which went crashing into the wounded ogre's spine, sending him smashing into the side wall of the cave. He slid lifelessly down the wall; Castillan grabbed his weapons back in both hands and with a mighty tug extracted them from the ogre's corpse, spinning around to face his attacker with a grin of pure enjoyment on his face.

Darrien summoned the magical mantis from the amber necklace he wore around his neck, allowing it manifest directly behind the third male ogre while Binkadink was focused on the females. The giant insect caught the ogre in its claws, but not tightly enough to pin it; the brute spun around and smashed at this new threat with his greatclub. Up above, Ingebold was just entering the cavern from the longer set of steps to the south. Obvious called out a plea for healing to the cleric in the only language he knew, that of burrowing mammals, but the cleric didn't even register the jackalope as having spoken. Instead, anticipating a sudden need for a lot of healing spells in the course of the rest of this battle, she cast a sanctuary spell on herself.

In the larger cavern further south with the cold remains of the fire, a boulder shifted near the ceiling, and yet another ogre leaped down onto the floor, greatclub in hand, and raced down the steps Ingebold had just traversed. He stoked his rage as he ran, eager for bloody battle and the flesh of slain enemies that always followed immediately thereafter.

Outside, Gilbert had removed his hat of disguise and approached Aithanar and Marielle with a drawn wand in each hand, hoping to startle the elf maiden into thinking he was onto her - if, indeed, she had been up to no good. However, she seemed to have ignored any opportunity to get the jump on Aithanar while the two of them were alone, and the wizard began to think maybe she was actually on the up-and-up. But then the ogre barbarian's roar emanated from the cave and Marielle sprang to her feet. "I guess I'll have to deal with you later," she said offhandedly, then dissipated into a cloud of mist, which narrowed into a thin column and raced away into the cave.

"I knew it!" declared Gilbert, mentally patting himself on the back. You rarely get disappointed by expecting the worst from everyone, he thought as he raced up the slope to the cave. "You stay here with wagons!" he called to Aithanar, then turned back to the cave to get quite a surprise, for a cone of crystal snowflakes came blasting out at him. The cone of cold spell almost knocked him off his feet, but although he staggered in place he didn't give Marielle the satisfaction. Only Marielle was no longer an elf, he noted - she was now a blue-skinned, male ogre mage with two curving, ivory horns jutting back from his white-maned head. He held a greatsword in one hand and had a longbow strapped to his back. Oni! Gilbert thought, remembering stories his mother had told him when he was young. He cast a fireball at the creature in return, but the ogre mage's natural resistance to spells allowed him to shrug it off.

Seeing Gilbert almost knocked over by the ogre mage's spell, Aithanar abandoned the wagons and went racing up next to the wizard, ready to pull him to safety if necessary. But the ogre mage, Shin Sao, turned away contemptuously and was swallowed by the pitch darkness of the cave. Gilbert swigged down a healing potion, then turned to Aithanar and said, "Let's go get him!" Aithanar, pleased at being included as more than a wagon-driver and horse-tender for once, pulled out his longsword and followed Gilbert cautiously into the cave network.

Deeper in the cavern, things were getting hectic. Finoula had raced down the steps to fight at Binkadink's side, and together they had managed to slay one of the female ogre mancatchers and another of the three male ogres. But from the tunnel to the northeast came yet another pair of foes, a female ogre spellcaster of some sort with a dire rat familiar. The adept managed to catch Binkadink, Finoula, and the mantis with a burning hands spell, slaying the mantis outright and causing it to return to Darrien's necklace until its next use. The rat then went straight for Finoula, who fled halfway back up the steps with the vile creature in hot pursuit, nipping at her feet with its foul teeth. The last of the male ogre trio slammed his greatclub into Castillan's side, wounding the bounder to the extent that he decided to race up the cliff wall out of range of the brute's attacks. But just as he was pulling himself up to the upper level, the ogre barbarian, Burrak, made his appearance, slamming his massive greatclub into the first target at hand - Obvious. The jackalope crumpled under the barbarian's brutal assault, several ribs shattering from the blow. His life blood stained the floor as he lay literally only a moment from death.

Fortunately for Obvious, Ingebold was immediately at hand and she cast her most powerful healing spell on the wounded jackalope, mending his shattered ribs and bringing him just over the edge back into semi-consciousness. But the jackalope, still far from fighting strength, opted to rely on a trick fervently believed by bunnies the world over: If I don't move, you can't see me! He lay there on his side, breathing heavily but playing dead. Trusting that the violent ogre barbarian would seek active combatants over a prone and unmoving jackalope, the cleric started heading down the steps to the lower level, casting a spiritual weapon at the ogre adept on her way down. A field of energy shaped like a dwarven warhammer slammed into the enemy spellcaster, causing her to snarl in pain.

Burrak took another step into the cavern and slammed his greatclub into the next available target - Castillan. The bounder cried out in pain and willingly dropped back down over the cliff side to the lower level. That left Darrien as the barbarian's only target on that level. Rather than retreat, the half-elf ranger shot at the advancing brute with his Arachnibow, peppering his torso with arrow after arrow. But the barbarian was skilled at ignoring pain until after battle had concluded, and he continued his advance. His greatclub came smashing down on Darrien twice in rapid succession, and the ranger's lifeless body dropped off the edge of the cliff to land in a broken heap on the level below. Seeing this, Castillan dragged Darrien into the large cave beneath the upper level, noting as he did so there was a steel shield and a light mace propped up as decorations on small ledges in the cave, which was apparently the living quarters of the trio of ogre males. He almost grabbed up the Arachnibow for his own use, but at the last second recalled that doing so would only cause it to revert to a giant spider that would then fight him off. But the last of the male ogres on that level had unwisely turned his back to the bounder to face the deadly gnome fighter, and Castillan took advantage of his error to stab him in the back, slaying him instantly.

Out of victims on the upper level of the split-level cavern, Burrak leapt down off the side of the cliff and landed adjacent to Binkadink, who was doing his best to carve his glaive into the ogre adept and getting another burning hands spell in his face as a result. He turned to face the larger threat, allowing Finoula - and Ingebold's spiritual warhammer - to deal with the enemy spellcaster. But Burrak was a more powerful threat than any of the other ogres the gnome fighter had faced and he feared he might be brought down before he could do the same to his foe. So he called out, at the top of his lungs, in the secret language of burrowing mammals, for help.

Coming to his master's aid, the jackalope leaped off the cliff and stabbed Burrak in the back with his antlers, then jumped up and down on him for good measure. The ogre barbarian, already bleeding from a dozen ignored wounds sustained thus far in battle, was slain - quite an undignified death for a brute who had until then thought himself as a combat machine. Binkadink thanked his partner for the assist and Obvious skipped back out of the way of combat.

In the room with the ashes from the campfire, Gilbert spun around the corner, expecting to find the oni he'd been chasing, but there was nobody there. Aithanar came up behind him, sword at the ready, but there were no enemies within sight. And then Shin Sao suddenly appeared behind Gilbert, popping back into the visible light spectrum as he brought his greatsword crashing down at the portly wizard. But Gilbert spun around at the last moment and the ogre mage's strike missed by the narrowest of margins. Aithanar stabbed at the ogre mage, then followed Gilbert's lead and raced down the stone steps, fleeing before the ogre mage's flashing blade. Shin Sao followed the pair, his sword slashing out and catching Aithanar in the back, dropping him instantly. Fearing he'd soon follow the elven fighter in death, Gilbert tapped himself in the head with a wand and instantly assumed gaseous form. Deprived of his next intended victim, Shin Sao followed Burrak's earlier reasoning and leaped down to the lower level, where there was a pair of active combatants wielding dual swords and a glaive, respectively. By this time, the adept had retreated back to her own cave, but Ingebold's spell effect followed her unerringly, battering her even as she desperately cast healing spells on herself.

If Shin Sao expected to repeat his success with Aithanar, he was sadly mistaken. Binkadink gathered all of his strength and stabbed forward with the point of his glaive, which penetrated all the way through the surprised ogre mage's body, slaying him in one fell stroke. That left only the ogre adept in her own dead-end cave, and with only one exit there was nowhere for her to run. She was brought down by a combination of Finoula's swords, Binkadink's glaive, and Ingebold's spiritual warhammer.

However, any exultation over the vanquishing of their foes was soured by the high price it had cost the group, for Darrien and Aithanar both lay dead where they had fallen in battle. Gilbert reassumed solid form and helped bring their fallen friends out to the mule-wagon. Castillan was all for immediately returning to Kordovia to have his brother raised, but the wizard insisted on giving the ogre caverns a full once-over for loot. "It cost plenty coin to have both raised at temple - it only make sense we use ogres' treasure to pay for it," he reasoned.

"I don't have but the one scroll of gentle repose," Ingebold said, "and I don't have the spell prepared meself today. I can cast it on the one right now, and on the other tomorrow morning, if ye like. We can probably make Kordovia in five days, if we push it."

"Save scroll for later," Gilbert replied. "We only going as far back as Garonis. They have Temple of Pelor there, I pretty sure they can raise our dead."

"Hey, good," agreed Castillan, thinking about how little he wanted to roll into Kordovia with his little brother's corpse. If his father found out he'd broken Aithanar out of the Ravencroft Sanitorium, only to get him killed....

The ogres' accumulated treasure paid for about three-fourths of the cost of a pair of raise dead ceremonies; the rest was donated by the heroes. Ingebold didn't even flinch when they opted to forego saving half of the ogres' treasure for the kingdom of Kordovia; even she agreed that the need to return their slain to the land of the living was an overriding priority, and she was sure her father and King Galrich would agree.

- - -

This adventure was tougher than I had anticipated! Of course, it didn't help that neither Vicki nor Joey recalled that "giant" was their respective rangers' "+4" favored enemies until halfway through the adventure. It also didn't help when Gilbert more or less excused himself from combat for most of the adventure by being all suspicious about Marielle, but I should have come to expect that. (Dan never trusts any NPC if he can help it!) And while Aithanar's death was probably preventable (there's a reason the 2nd-level fighter doesn't usually adventure with the 7th-level party!), Darrien's was just some bad luck and high damage rolls. (Burrak hit Darrien twice in one round, bringing him down from 12 hp to -33, well beyond his ability to survive even with our "dead at your Constitution score below zero" house rule in place.) This was the first time Joey had experienced a PC death, too, and he took it kind of hard at first. But after Dan had an encouraging chat with him in a back room, he came back to the table and finished the adventure out by running Ingebold, who had been controlled by Dan up until that part. (It was his turn.)

The mace Castillan found in the male ogre trio's cave was a +1 light mace of ranged healing I had stocked there specifically for Ingebold. The group has already found itself in situations on numerous occasions where it would have been extremely helpful if Ingebold could heal the party members without having to physically touch the wounded PC; this was a way for me to integrate that ability into her, given that she's the party heal-bot/spare PC.

The players had hoped that having Aithanar raised would fix his speech problems, but as the raise dead spell description specifically states that any missing body parts (say, a finger) remain missing after being raised, I ruled that the damaged part of his brain is still damaged. So he'll continue only being able to speak gibberish for awhile. (And no luck at the Temple of Pelor for a heal spell, either - we've decided that most NPCs cap out at 10th level, and heal requires an 11th-level caster.)

We finished this adventure at about 4:30 PM after having started at noon. I had brought the original adventure I had led them to believe they were going to go through that session - "The Magekiller" - and the group opted to get a start on it, even knowing that we wouldn't be able to finish it that session. So we played through the first half of that one as well, but I think I'll wait until we finish the entire adventure and post it all at once as a single story instead of breaking it into two chunks.

One final thing I want to record for posterity: "Ogre Eight" is a pun, sounding phonetically very much like "Oh great!"

(Because puns are cool, that's why.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Dalek T-shirt, with the word "EXTERMINATE" directly above the image of the Dalek. Given that that was the intention of the ogre band - to exterminate (and then eat) the PCs - it seemed appropriate. And unfortunately, it proved to be doubly prophetic, as I killed off Darrien and Aithanar during this adventure. It also was an appropriate T-shirt for "The Magekiller," given the entire nature of that trap-filled dungeon.



I have an adventure coming up that will play off the fact that the PCs are starting to have songs sung about them, so I thought it might be appropriate to actually come up with a sample song extorting their prowess. Here then, is "The Kordovian Band," the song sung by the wandering bard with whom the group shared a dinner and a campsite immediately before the events of "Ogre Eight."

- - -

The kingdom of Kordovia is but a speck of land
But in that tiny country there are heroes well at hand
They travel 'cross the countryside, fight monsters for their kicks
Their power's near unlimited, though their number's merely six

To start with there's Finoula with her wave of silv'ry locks
She's tougher than a grizzly and she's crafty as a fox
With her twin blades in hand she races into mortal danger
But her heart holds no fear, for she's an undefeated ranger

Finoula is a powerhouse, but she's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

Castillan's a bounder, he can race right up a wall
He'll leap right into battle, and you'll never see him fall
You'll watch his mighty exploits and then wonder if you saw it
He'll slash out with his short sword though you never saw him draw it

Castillan's a powerhouse, but he's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

Binkadink's a little gnome but he is fierce and brave
He's slain a hundred monsters with his trusty gnomish glaive
His foes might try to run away but they have little hope
For Binkadink will chase them down on his fearsome jackalope

Binkadink's a powerhouse, but he's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

And when it comes to wizardry, the band's got Gilbert Fung
His mastery of spellcraft's astounding for one so young
His knowledge of the arcane arts is always at its peak
And you know you're talking to him once Gilbert begins to speak

Gilbert Fung's a powerhouse, but he's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

Darrien's an archer and he has a magic bow
That turns into a spider when he tells it to do so
His accuracy's amazing and it never seems to ebb
He'll shoot an arrow 'tween your eyes or wrap you in a web

Darrien's a powerhouse, but he's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

Ingebold's a cleric and she worships Moradin
She steps right into battle with an eager dwarven grin
Though she is short in stature her warhammer is a whopper
And it's already proven that not even death can stop her

Ingebold's a powerhouse, but she's not all at hand
For there are five more heroes in the Kordovian band

So put them all together and you've got a fighting force
A band of strong adventurers forged in the Goblin Wars
They've beaten orcish armies and they've slaughtered the undead
You best not fight against them, or you'll likely lose your head!

There are six adventurers in the Kordovian band
And they're the fiercest combatants to ever cross this land!



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 7
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 7
Darrien, half-elf ranger 6
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 7
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 7​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 1
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 6 (Moradin)​

Game Session Dates: 23 April 2016 and 14 May 2016

- - -

"How are you feeling?" asked Finoula, concern in her voice.

"I'm...okay," replied Darrien slowly, sitting upright with a confused look on his face. "What happened?"

"Ye don't remember?" asked Ingebold.

"The last thing I remember, I was fighting that big, burly ogre in the--aw crap, I got killed, didn't I?" The half-elf ranger looked around, surprised to find himself in an unfamiliar temple. But he recognized the sun symbol of Pelor and quickly put two and two together.

"Yeah, little bit," confirmed Gilbert. "But you all better now."

"How about you?" asked Castillan, looking down at his younger brother.

"Squabbedy stomash," replied Aithanar, a sudden look of disappointment on his face once he heard the nonsense still coming out of his mouth. "Forkibble! Pespy nonshabbadoo norkle finshimble!"

"My goodness!" exclaimed the Pelorian cleric who had personally overseen the raise dead spells that had returned life to the two fallen heroes. "Was he talking like that before he was slain?"

Ingebold saw Gilbert silently assessing whether or not he was likely to get away with asking for a partial refund from the cleric for returning Aithanar to life in a less-than-pristine state and cut him off before he could give it a try. "Aye," she answered quickly, "he were." Gilbert just glared silently at the dwarven cleric, wondering how much money her honesty had just cost them.

"Hey, let's not bother telling my mom I got killed, okay?" suggested Darrien, standing up for the first time since being raised. "She worries enough about me."

"Likewise, I don't think we need to mention your recent death and return to life to Dear Old Dad," Castillan said to Aithanar.

"Shonka freeble," agreed Aithanar.

After the excitement in the ogre caves and the raising of their two slain members, the group unanimously decided they'd be best served with another night in a comfortable inn, making a fresh start for the Magekiller dungeon in the morning. After all, if they were going to take on a subterranean tunnel network specifically designed to slay intruders, they wanted to be at their strongest, with a full complement of spells available. And so it wasn't until the following morning that the Kordovians finally made their way to Arrogan's abandoned ruins. They were easy enough to find, as was the set of stairs spiraling clockwise down into the ground. Aithanar promised - with a grim nod - to stay with the animals and the wagons this time and Finoula gave him a big smile of support as she told Wrath to stay with him. The group lined up single file - for the stairwell was rather narrow - and Binkadink led the adventurers down into the Magekiller, the twin everburning torches tied to the antlers on his helmet providing the group's only illumination.

Binkadink lost track of the number of circuits they made as they circled their way deeper into the earth, but it was at least five or six before the spiraling stairs leveled out into a large room. This first chamber was rectangular, about 25 feet wide and 35 feet long. A sculpted pillar stood in each corner, the columns carved in the shapes of fearsome female warriors with swords. There were open passageways in the center of the walls to the east, west, and south. A set of four straight stone steps led directly into the center of the room from the north.

"Here we go," called Binkadink to those lined up behind him. He stepped onto the first of the four steps. As he did so, the statue-woman to his left said, "You are not Arrogan." The gnome fighter whipped the blade of his masterwork glaive in the direction of the statue that spoke, but it seemed to have only been a magic mouth effect, for the statue didn't otherwise move, nor did it make any further utterances. Binkadink stood his ground and peered at the other three statues, but they likewise didn't seem ready to animate and attack. He took another tentative step down the stairs.

"These levels are intended for Arrogan alone," said the statue to the southeast. Again, Binkadink turned to face the speaker, but that was all it had to say on the subject. "Probably just scare tactics," the gnome said nervously over his shoulder to the others, and took another step.

As expected, doing so triggered a magic mouth spell on the woman carved into the pillar to the southwest. "If you are here to take that which belongs to Arrogan, then know that you will die here," the statue intoned, rather matter-of-factly.

Binkadink took the last step, staring over his right shoulder at the fourth statue as he did so. Sure enough, it said, "Arrogan has designed these rooms to kill people like you. And Arrogan has never made a mistake in his life."

Behind the gnome, the rest of the party had moved forward, filling in the top three steps. "Here goes," said Binkadink, stepping off of the bottom step and onto the chamber's floor. If the statues were going to animate and attack, surely it would be when intruders actually enter the chamber, he thought. But the statues remained motionless. The gnome was almost disappointed.

"Boy, this dungeon really a killer so far!" scoffed Gilbert from the safety of the very back of the line.

"Which way do we want to go?" Binkadink asked. "Always right, always left, or straight down the middle?"

"I vote right," offered Finoula.

"Right it is, then," replied the gnome, heading through the tunnel to the west. This went straight for 20 feet before a set of six steps led down into another room, similar in size to the one they had just left. This chamber had no other visible exits, though, and the wall directly across from the six stairs leading into the middle of the room was filled with a vast assortment of hanging weapons, mostly swords, axes, daggers, and a few scimitars. In the flickering light of his helmet torches, the gnome noticed most of them were dinged and nicked as if from heavy use.

Standing at the end of the corridor and directly in front of the first step down into the weapons chamber, Binkadink flipped his glaive around and tapped at the first step with the back end of his weapon. When that produced no effect, he cautiously stepped onto the first step, then repeated his actions for each of the six steps in turn. Tapping the floor produced no effect, but as soon as he stepped off the stairs the mounted weapons all rose up from their hooks simultaneously and massed into an animated swarm, slowly heading towards the intruder. Binkadink jumped back onto the steps and when he saw the animated weapons were still approaching, ran back up the stairs and out of the room, back into the corridor where the rest of the group waited. The gnome breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the weapons weren't going to chase him out of the chamber they were in, but rather retreated and hung themselves back in place once there were no longer any intruders present in the room.

"Let me try something," suggested Castillan, pulling a potion vial from his belt. It was a "Winkidew special" and even though it was labeled "potion of gaseous form" in neat handwriting, the bounder knew it contained vapors that needed to be inhaled rather than imbibed. He blew out a big breath, popped the cork while holding the vial under his nose, and inhaled deeply. Almost immediately, his form started to discorporate and he floated serenely into the weapons chamber. He was pleased to see his presence in the room didn't activate the weapons, which he had thought would be the case as they had only first been triggered when Binkadink physically set foot onto the floor of the chamber. But before the group moved on to other sections of the Magekiller, Castillan wanted to ensure there were no secret doors leading out of the room, so he floated along each of the walls in turn. It was while doing so he noted the bottom five feet of the outer walls were covered in narrow holes, each no wider than his thumb. Squeezing his amorphous body into one such hole, he saw a sharpened, spearlike device inside, ready to be shot at those who might somehow activate it. He then checked the six stairs, and while they were free of the holes the bounder did note each step was a solid, vertical, stone slab of a different size rather than the whole set of stairs being carved from one solid slab of stone. As the floor of the weapons chamber was five feet lower than the floor of the tunnel leading to the room, he surmised the stairs each probably lowered into the ground, making leaving the room that much more difficult while in that configuration - and practically impossible for somebody as short as Binkadink.

Before leaving the room, Castillan decided to examine the weapons. As Binkadink had previously noted, almost all of them were nicked and gouged, likely from numerous collisions as a mass of animated blades flying through the air, once activated. Two weapons in particular seemed almost brand new, though - possibly magical! thought the elf. He had no way to talk to the others while in gaseous form, but he did manage to narrow the tip of his amorphous cloud and use it to "point" to the two weapons in question, a longsword and a greataxe.

"Hey, what's up with Castillan?" asked Darrien, squinting into the darkness of the room. But he finally figured out what the bounder was trying to communicate, and he aimed his Arachnibow at the first weapon, letting fly with an arrow that became a string of spider-silk in mid-flight. Unfortunately, his shot missed, hitting the wall instead. He tried a second shot with similar luck. "It's the flickering light throwing off my aim," he groused to Binkadink. "Why can't your permanent, illusory light source give off a steady light instead of flickering around like a flame?" But his third shot hit true, adhering to the longsword still in pristine condition. Smiling, he gave the silk strand a tug - and the sword remained where it was, stuck on its stone-carved hooks. All the tugging in the world wasn't going to lift them up off their supports.

"All that for nothing," Gilbert snorted. "Here, I get those for you!" And then, casting an unseen servant spell, he commanded it to go fetch the weapons Castillan the cloud of gas was pointing to. The unseen servant was much more reliable than the Arachnibow in this instance and the two weapons floated over to the rest of the group without triggering the animating effect on the other weapons. "This dungeon a pushover!" the portly wizard chuckled.

Seeing no other way out of the weapons chamber, Castillan returned to the tunnel with the others but decided to remain in gaseous form for a bit - you never knew when it would be useful.

"Well, looks like we have to backtrack already," Darrien said. "You guys wanna go east or south?" The consensus was east, so Binkadink, the self-appointed "meat shield" of the group, led the way back to the statue-chamber and then through the doorway on the east wall.

Another 20-foot-long tunnel led to a set of six steps that were a mirror-image of those in the weapons chamber, although these stairs were situated along the northern wall of this new chamber instead of plunging straight into the middle of the room. The hallway itself was a bit more festive, too, with the last 15 feet taken up by full-sized mural paintings of three distinct people. The first of these was a stern-looking man dressed in finery; the middle portrait was of a pinch-faced woman in frills and lace; and just before the stairs going down stood a painting of a rakish-looking fop in a feathered cap. Each bore a familial resemblance; it was likely these were members of Arrogan's family.

Castillan, still in gaseous form, fled ahead to check out the chamber at the bottom of the stairs. Unlike the weapons display chamber, it was empty but contained another passageway further into the Magekiller - namely, a short tunnel along the south wall leading to a circular room with a 10-foot circular pit in its center. The bounder dropped his gaseous cloud-body into the pit and saw a number of potentially useful items mixed in with the slimy bones of several people who had apparently been slain in the dungeon in previous years. Unable to pick them up himself in his current form - and wishing to subject Gilbert's unseen servant to any potential dangers that might lie lurking in the pit rather than himself - he started floating back to the group, when his keen elven senses detected a slight crack in the eastern wall of the chamber with the stairs. Flying slowly over to it, he discovered a secret door - and then realized there were actually four of them, side by side, all along the eastern wall. As the crack ensured it wasn't exactly air-tight, he flowed into the tiny room just beyond one of the secret doors and found himself face-to-cloudlike-face with a withered specimen of decaying human. The creature stood upright in what was little bigger than a sarcophagus, its dead eyes staring ahead at nothing in particular. Castillan wasn't sure what he was looking at, but it was some sort of undead - in fact, it looked rather like those zombies they had dealt with at that inn earlier in their adventuring careers. Fortunately, the zombie wasn't attacking the bounder, not that he thought it would be able to harm him much in his current form anyway. But all of this was stuff the others needed to know about, so he flowed back out of the hidden room and returned to the corridor, floating past the others until he was back in the room with the four statue-women, where he returned to his solid form and described everything he had seen.

"There dead people inside walls?" reiterated Gilbert.

"Yeah, zombies, it looked like," confirmed Castillan. "Not really doing anything, but probably waiting to attack if we go in there."

"Peh! We deal with zombies before!"

"What do you think triggers them?" asked Finoula. "Touching the floor, like in the other room?"

"We don't need to touch the floor," remarked Darrien, looking over at their wizard. "Why don't you send in your unseen servant to go get the stuff out of the pit?"

Gilbert considered it, but he had no idea how far away the pit was from his current cramped position nearly at the back of the single-file line. "Don't think spell reaches that far," he said, rubbing his bearded chin in thought.

"Here, let's give this a try," suggested Darrien, speaking the words to a spell and summoning a timber wolf at the bottom of the stairs. It immediately jumped down to the floor and padded over towards the pit. However, Finoula's assessment had been correct: as soon as the wolf's paws touched the floor the four sections of the eastern wall swiveled open, releasing the undead forms of the bodies stored there in their individual niches. And that wasn't all, for the three sections of wall containing the mural portraits of Arrogan's family members also swiveled open, revealing three more corpses standing there. Awareness instantly bloomed in their unliving eyes, and with astonishing speed they struck out at the three adventurers standing immediately in front of them: Ingebold, Finoula, and Binkadink. At the same time, the four zombies stepped out of their niches in the lower room; three of them raced up to the stairs while the fourth veered south to chase the timber wolf.

The wolf didn't even notice the undead form fast approaching it from behind - his attention had been drawn to the pit where a skeletal hand was even now grabbing for a purchase and pulling the rest of its fleshless body up to the floor level. The bones were all covered in some sort of slimy mucus, and as the first slashed out at the wolf with its claws another skeleton climbed out of the pit behind it.

In the meantime, the three zombies attacked the startled heroes above, scrabbling with their ragged claws. Finoula shrieked in surprise, not expecting a zombie to move so fast - and belatedly recognizing the frills and lace on the moldering outfit the undead thing was wearing as matching that of the pinch-faced woman in the painted portrait. Ingebold instinctively pulled out her holy symbol of Moradin and channeled a blast of positive energy at the undead, causing the two zombies in front of both her and Finoula to cower in fear, trying to shrink into the back of their individual hidden niches. Finoula overcame her initial shock and stabbed at the cowering undead woman in front of her with her twin blades, causing it to crumble into a heap as its body lost its animating force. Just ahead of her, Binkadink came to the sad realization that his gnomish glaive was a great weapon for fighting those some distance away but not particularly suited for close-quarters combat. So he did the unexpected: he stepped forward, leaving an unguarded juju zombie at his back, and lowered his glaive before him to fend off the three racing his way up the stairs, confident his friends would keep him safe.

Finoula did just that, slicing into the undead flesh of the juju zombie the little gnome had abandoned to fight the other three on the stairs. She handily dispatched it, while at the same time Ingebold's dwarven warhammer came crashing down on the skull of the zombie cowering before Moradin's holy might before her. Binkadink's glaive went swinging past the head of the first juju zombie in line, its blade cutting through the dead flesh of the second one directly behind the first, but the next in line climbed over its fallen form to get to the gnome, even as the first one stepped up and tore at Binkadink's flesh with its filthy claws. Seeing only bits and pieces of the battle ahead, Gilbert squeezed his bulk past Ingebold and shot a magic missile at the juju zombie currently attacking Binkadink, but was unable to see if it had much of an effect.

On the floor behind the two remaining juju zombies, the timber wolf had been pinned in the corridor between the skeletons in the pit chamber and the juju zombie in the chamber beyond; its pitiful yelps attested to the wounds it was receiving at the undead claws of the two types of foe. Darrien winced sympathetically, but realizing the wolf had been absorbing attacks which otherwise would have been directed at the heroes, gathered up the remaining spell energy he was able to hold within his mind at one time and summoned a second timber wolf just as the first winked out of existence. Stuck as he was at the back of the line with Gilbert and Castillan, he was only able to have it manifest at the bottom of the steps, where it wasted no time in attacking the juju zombie fast approaching Binkadink. The undead beast spun and attacked the wolf after he had taken a bite out of its rotting flesh, giving Binkadink the perfect set-up to bring his glaive crashing down diagonally through the zombie's shoulder, practically decapitating it.

"These narrow corridors are a pain!" complained Darrien. "I can't see what's going on up there!" He wasn't the only one who felt that way; Ingebold was itching to move forward to where she could try to turn more of these undead, but three of her companions were bunched up ahead of her, preventing her from advancing. Then Finoula dropped off the side of the stairs and ran forward to help the second wolf fight off the skeletons, which opened up a space for Gilbert to move forward. He blasted the sole remaining juju zombie with another magic missile and this time was able to see it seemed to have absolutely no effect on the undead thing. Binkadink cut it down with his glaive, just as Finoula did the same to the first skeleton and Darrien's second summoned wolf dissipated, the short duration of the ranger's spell having expired. Binkadink and Finoula took down the last skeleton, the little gnome noting it was the slicing through the gloppy layer of snot that seemed to hurt these particular undead; once the mucus had been severed the bones fell into a heap. In fact, he even doubted the skeletons were undead at all, but rather controlled by the amorphous blobs coating their outer surfaces.

Seeing no further immediate threats, Gilbert sent his unseen servant into the pit to fetch out the items lodged down there. He was excited to see it excavate a spellbook, but when he opened it in eager anticipation, he saw the pages stained with blood and other bodily fluids, smearing and obscuring the magical inks encapsulating who knew how many magical spells. "No!" he cried. "This outrageous waste!"

Castillan wasn't interested in any moldy old spellbook, however - his focus was on the small pile of other items being brought up out of the pit. He ignored the rusty old short sword and even the pair of hand axes that looked to be in serviceable condition. Instead, he grabbed up the dusty vial of what could still be a viable healing potion and quickly snatched the pair of well-made leather boots once he saw their fine condition was a likely hint at a magical effect. He was still trying them on when the unseen servant brought up a dented light steel shield, a wand, and several coin pouches, but the jingle of coins from the latter brought his attention back their way. Spilling their contents out into his palm, he counted a handful of coins and a few small gems. Ingebold was examining the wand, but she handed it over to Gilbert once she discovered it was arcane in nature. "Here, a consolation prize fer ye," she said, "since th' spellbook's of no use." Gilbert took the proffered wand and swung it around, getting the feel for it and allowing it to attune to him if that was necessary. In any case, his spirits were temporarily brightened over the acquisition of the new magical bauble, and he left the ruined spellbook on the floor without a further thought.

As the pit room had no further exits, the group had to backtrack to the first chamber with the women-shaped columns. Binkadink peered closely at each one, still expecting them to animate and attack - perhaps now that they had acquired some treasure from the Magekiller dungeon? - but they were as immobile as ever. Shrugging to himself, he took point again and headed down the southern corridor, the others falling into line behind him. They went down a short set of stairs but the tunnel kept them on a constant bearing due south. Then the corridor opened up into an unusual circular chamber.

The ceiling height was about ten feet, the same as the tunnel had been, but the curved wall was metallic for the first eight feet or so, leaving about two feet of stone continuing on to the ceiling. There were seven metal rods sticking out equidistant from the circular wall; had there been a rod where the doorway opening had been it would have been a perfectly uniform eight. Each rod stood parallel to the floor at a height of about three feet.

"You know what this is?" asked Binkadink. "It's one of those revolving door deals, like we saw in that dungeon where Finoula found...." He didn't finish the sentence; by unspoken agreement, bringing up Malaterminus was thought to be in poor taste.

"What's with the bottom edge here?" asked Darrien. The bottom of the metal was zigzagged, so the whole structure was supported on the tips of the triangular sections all along the bottom edge.

"No idea," the gnome admitted, walking up to the nearest rod. "So I guess we all lift it and walk in a circle? Or just all push in the same direction and let it drag on the ground?"

"Before we do that, I want to see where it goes," said Castillan, dropping down to his hands and knees and crawling along the circumference of the circular room. He was looking at the sections of stone wall visible through the triangular gaps along the bottom of the metal structure. After making a full circuit, he reported back, "There's just one other hallway, directly across from the one we came through. So I guess it doesn't matter which way we push the thing - it'll be the same distance either way."

"But, if the tunnel just continues straight south from here, why put this metal thing in the way?" asked Finoula. "What's the point?"

"Could be to slow us down," suggested Gilbert. "Or maybe make sure you can only go this way if you strong enough, or have enough people with you. Or," he said as if a brilliant idea just popped into his head, "maybe it just there to make silly elf women ask 'How come?'" Finoula gave him her best glare and walked over to another rod, positioning herself to help push it counterclockwise. The others fell into place, with Ingebold and Binkadink - the two shortest of the bunch - complaining about how high up the rods were.

"One, two, three, push!" called the little gnome. Everyone pushed, and the metal cylinder barely budged. "Let's try that again. One, two, three, PUSH!" With a loud scraping sound, they managed to move the cylinder a few inches further around the circuit.

"Hold up a minute," suggested Gilbert, leaving his station.

"Tuckered out already?" asked Castillan.

"You shut silly elf mouth," countered the wizard. "I make things easier for us." And with that, he cast a grease spell in a circle all along the outer edges of the circular room, making sure to get underneath each of the triangular openings. "Everything better with lubrication," he said, giving Finoula a knowing look which she studiously ignored. Gilbert returned to his station, gave Binkadink a nod, and the countdown began again.

"One, two, three -- PUSH!" This time the revolving door was noticeably easier to move, but it still took the better part of a full minute to swing the metal structure around so its doorway now lined up with the tunnel to the south. "Whew!" exclaimed Binkadink, wiping sweat from his brow, and peered into the tunnel before him. After about ten feet of tunnel, it opened up into a square room, 35 feet to a side, with side passageways centered on the east and west walls. But the most significant feature of the room was the large, circular indentation in the middle of the room, a bowl-shaped depression with a 25-foot diameter. It was filled nearly to the brim with scummy green liquid, looking like a nonfunctioning fountain clogged by algae.

"Is that green slime?" asked Darrien. "I'll bet that's green slime."

"If it is, we don't want to go touching it," advised Binkadink, trying to remember how to get rid of green slime. "I think it burns," he said, pulling out an actual torch from his backpack and setting its tip aflame with a spark from his tinder box. "You guys stay here, while I go check this out."

Binkadink entered the room, burning torch in one hand and two illusory ones strapped to the antlers of his helmet. He stood at the edge of the corridor and tossed the lit torch into the pool of scummy water, expecting it to burn the green slime away. Alas, it wasn't green slime in the bowl-shaped depression at all, but rather an inactive arcane ooze. The torch landed on it and started to burn its protoplasm, causing it to arc up and send a pseudopod writhing towards the gnome. "Uh oh," Binkadink managed to get out before a thick wave of greenish glop came racing his way, engulfing him instantly. He immediately felt the burning of acid everywhere the protoplasm touched his skin. The little gnome tried backing away but was immediately entangled in the ooze's embrace, so he slashed at it with his glaive as best he could.

At the same time, Ingebold, Gilbert, and Finoula all yelled out in pain and grabbed their heads. "What's the matter?" cried Castillan, gripping his twin blades. He hadn't seen the ooze do anything but smother Binkadink and couldn't imagine what a blob of green matter could do to the others from that far away.

"Damn thing ripped spell right from brain!" yelled Gilbert. "Aye, same here," confirmed Ingebold, for she noted one of the most powerful spells she'd prepared that morning was now gone. Worse yet, the arcane ooze was using the stolen spell energy to repair the damage Binkadink had done to it with his torch and glaive.

"If that thing keeps eating your spells..." began Darrien, realizing the only reason he'd been spared from the creature's spell-draining attack had been because he'd already used up both of his for the day.

"We gotta get out of here!" reasoned Castillan, suddenly realizing why the revolving door had been placed where it was - and worse yet, why there were triangular openings all along the bottom edges of the metal cylinder. It would take them nearly a minute to get the doorway positioned back to the northern corridor, during which time the spell-draining creature could easily ooze its way into the cylinder with them.... "We're screwed!" the bounder cried aloud.

"We just gotta kill it!" called Binkadink, swinging his glaive into the amorphous creature's protoplasm body even as it constricted goopy strands of its body around him. The others quickly realized the truth of the situation; Castillan stepped up and slashed out at the bulk of the creature's body where it was filling the corridor on either side of Binkadink's struggling form, while Ingebold used her new mace to channel a blast of healing energy at Binkadink, keeping him as healthy as possible while being constricted by a creature whose very body oozed acidic fluids that burned into the little gnome's flesh. Gilbert cast a haste spell on the group, reasoning that giving everyone an extra attack would certainly help bring it down that much faster, hopefully faster than it could heal by stealing spell energy.

Castillan was soon engulfed as well as the arcane ooze's body surged forward, keeping Binkadink where he was but still managing to project part of itself into the circular room. Finoula activated her whip of thorns, extracting the thorns along the whip's length and sending it cracking into the advancing mass of protoplasm. Darrien sent arrows flying into it and Gilbert cast a pair of scorching rays down the corridor to strike the creature's back half - far enough back that he wouldn't hit Binkadink or Castillan - but was disappointed to see both rays strike true but have no effect on the ooze. And while still bound by the thick strands of protoplasm, the fighter and the bounder stabbed and slashed with their blades, slicing into the ooze's shapeless flesh. It was an uphill battle, as the ooze continued ripping spell energy from the minds of the spellcasters and using it to heal itself of the wounds constantly being inflicted upon it, but at long last the adventurers were successful; Ingebold's ranged healing spells managed to keep the two victims alive long enough for the group as a whole to destroy the vile creature. When it died, its amorphous body lost all cohesion, falling off of Binkadink and Castillan in globs and clumps, its entire body bubbling away as if being eaten by acid itself. Within minutes, there was only a series of foul-smelling green stains showing where it had been.

"I'm calling it a day," suggested Castillan. "We all need healing, and your most powerful spells are all gone. I say we go back topside and camp out - we can return again in the morning."

"Sounds good to me," agreed Binkadink, as Ingebold healed up the worst of his acid burns.

"No," countered Gilbert. "We go back up, maybe this place reset. We stay here tonight."

"Spend the night down here?" asked Darrien. "But all of our stuff's upstairs with Aithanar: blankets, bedrolls - heck, the new wagon's got four beds in it, and there are tents for the others! Plus our food--"

"Pshaw!" scoffed Gilbert. "What kind of adventurer you? We have trail rations, waterskins - that plenty for one night. We be fine."

Ingebold had no qualms about sleeping on a solid stone floor - as a dwarf, this was nothing particularly out of the ordinary for her. "We'll want t' set up guard shifts," she suggested.

"Agreed," said Castillan. "I'll take first shift." In the end, the group decided to make camp in the corridor between the room with the four carved statues and the circular revolving door room, the latter of which was declared the women's quarters for the evening. Castillan designated the circular pit south of the zombie chamber a makeshift privy, christening it as such himself. Binkadink extracted himself from his plate mail armor, realizing he'd never be able to sleep in it. But the group settled down to their evening routine and eventually they did sleep, one of them at a time spending two hours or so guarding the others from any unknown denizens that might show up.

The night passed uneventfully and in the morning they rose, donned their armor, prepared their spells, and were ready to press on with the unknown dangers of the Magekiller. "There were two side passages from the room that ooze came from," pointed out Castillan. Re-entering the revolving door, the group took their positions and pushed it a half rotation, getting the door opening synched up with the southern corridor. Gilbert looked nervously into the chamber, but the arcane ooze had not reformed - the greenish stains on the floor were all that showed it had ever been there.

The group opted to take the eastern corridor first and Castillan took the lead so he could check for traps as he went. He only made it about halfway down the corridor before he found his first anomaly: a small glyph of some type etched into the floor. "Hey, Gilbert, there's some kind of glyph on the floor here - you want to come check it out?"

"No," replied Gilbert from the back of the formation, thinking it might be a set of explosive runes or something similar. "You get good look at it?"

"Yeah, but I don't know what it might mean."

"Give it best shot. You doing fine."

Castillan shrugged and set about trying to disarm it as best he could. Generally, for a rune carved in a stone surface, the best way to render it harmless was to etch along it until the rune was different from its original shape. He bent over to scratch some side-marks into the thing, but accidentally triggered it - and found himself five feet in the air, floating harmlessly halfway between the floor and the ceiling. "Hey!" he called out, thrashing and swinging his body around wildly. He managed to turn himself sideways, such that he could reach one wall with his feet and the opposite wall with his hands, and walked himself sideways along the wall until gravity returned to normal and he plopped back down to the floor. "Uh, watch that bit there," he offered somewhat shamefacedly.

Binkadink was next in line. He tried jumping over it, but got caught in midair; fortunately, he was able to use the wooden end of his glaive to pull himself along the floor like a gondola pilot using a punt, until he joined Castillan on the far side. The others took the opportunity of a relatively harmless trap to simply leap into the air, get caught, and then pull themselves along the end of Binkadink's offered glaive-shaft.

"Well, that was different," admitted Finoula, "but what exactly was the point? It's not as if it actually harmed us in any way."

Gilbert gave it some thought. "No," he agreed, "but what if we ran this way from ooze? We stuck in air; ooze slides over, grabs us up. Then we yummy snack." It made sense; presumably that arcane ooze hadn't happened to have wandered by and decided to make that chamber its home but was rather added to the Magekiller dungeon by Arrogan.

Turning the corner, Castillan saw a 10-foot corridor to the south which ran into a wall. It wasn't a solid wall, though; rather, there was a two-foot-tall opening into a room beyond. Not wanting anyone to go crawling into an unknown room, Gilbert cast an unseen servant spell, handed it his activate sunrod, and sent it in to check the place out.

By peering through the floor-level opening into the room, the group saw a wooden chest against the far wall of the small room. The chest was inside a cell of metal bars; there didn't seem to be a cell door allowing entry. "That looks like trap," commented Gilbert.

"Possibly..." admitted Castillan, scampering around to check out the edges of the opening. It looked like the two-foot opening was the only entrance into the small room, and the wall directly above it was a stone slab that could easily be triggered somehow to come crashing down and seal anyone inside the room off from the rest of the dungeon. "I don't like the looks of this," the bounder said, after explaining his findings to the rest of the group.

"I have unseen servant open chest," Gilbert decided, instructing his still-active spell to do just that. The floating sunrod meandered over to the bars around the chest, but that was it - apparently the chest was locked or the lid was too heavy for the unseen servant to lift.

"I dinnae like th' thought of any of us goin' in there with no way t' get back out again," said Ingebold. "Hang on, though - I've got a stone shape spell that oughtta do th' trick." Casting the spell, the dwarven cleric carved away a five-foot section of the corridor and a chunk of wall to the left of the opening, making another way into the room. "That's better," she said, pleased with the results. Everyone funneled into the room, and Binkadink stuck his old glaive through the bars of the cage, first tapping it against the chest - "Well, it's not a mimic," he said - and then sticking the tip of the blade in the narrow crack between the chest's bottom and lid. Getting it in as deep as he could, he used it as a lever, and once Castillan and Darrien leant their strength to the task, they managed to pry open the chest's lid, finding out in the process why it was so difficult to open up: there were heavy chains attached to the lid's inside, which apparently went underneath the floor and pulled out the pins holding the door in place above the two-foot-tall opening. With a mighty crash, the door came slamming down, sealing everyone inside the room - or it would have, if not for Ingebold's side exit.

"It was just a trap," groused Castillan, looking inside the otherwise empty chest. "Not even a token copper piece for our efforts."

The group backtracked to the arcane ooze chamber and went through the corridor to the west, the bounder once again taking point and checking for traps. He found what looked to be a hidden pit trap, noticeable by the fact that the same five-foot square of floor didn't appear to be attached to either of the side walls. Binkadink passed the bounder a couple of metal pitons, which he used to wedge each side of the pit trap door into place. However, all he got for his efforts was a dead end around the corner with a closed door promising more rooms beyond. But that promise was a false one; touching the knob blasted the bounder with a bolt of electricity, and the door was a fake in any case - it didn't even open but was rather a permanent fixture of the wall.

"This bites!" Gilbert cried aloud. "Everywhere a dead end? Where that stupid Arrogan's stupid treasure?" Then, mentally envisioning the layout of the Magekiller thus far, he called out to Castillan, "Hey! Elf boy! Go check for secret doors in ooze room!"

"Hang on a minute, I'm getting healed up," the bounder groused back at the wizard. Ingebold finished her spell, healing over the electrical burns on the bounder's hand where he had foolishly touched the doorknob. But then he gave the ooze's chamber a thorough check, finding nothing.

"Is that it?" asked Finoula. "Maybe the whole thing about treasure's just an unfounded rumor."

"That make no sense," snarled Gilbert. "Why go to all this trouble if there no treasure hidden? We just missing something." He racked his brain, going over the layout in his mind. "Wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "We go back to second room!"

The group had to reposition the revolving cylinder once again, but they made their way back to the room where the weapons had animated when Binkadink had stepped foot into the room. The wizard sent his unseen servant into the room to fetch each of the remaining weapons, one by one. The wizard examined each in turn as it was handed to him, but as expected they were of poor quality, no doubt exacerbated by clanging against each other when they formed a mobile cloud of attacking weapons. He sent the others in a line leading to the circular pit to the south of the room where the juju zombies had popped out of their hidden niches, and one by one the weapons were all unceremoniously dropped into the pit, three rooms away from the room where the weapons had all been on display.

"Aha!" said Gilbert as the last of the weapons was removed and sent to join the others in the pit. He pointed into the room, specifically at the wall on which the weapons had been mounted. "There our way to treasure!" Now that the weapons had been removed, four narrow indentations could be seen in the far wall, which had been covered by axe blades and the like when the weapons had been in place. Each indentation was about four inches wide, a foot or so tall, and several inches deep. More importantly, each held a lever raised in the "up" position. The four indentations were arranged on the wall in a diamond pattern, with the highest one directly above the lowest one, and one halfway between the two on either side.

"How did you know those were there?" asked Finoula, frankly astonished that their irritating wizard had figured out the hidden way to the rest of the Magekiller dungeon.

"I remember those stairs," Gilbert replied. "Elf boy here say they six separate columns, not one big piece of stone. One of those levers lower steps to ground level, and I bet there a door behind stairs, right below where we standing."

"So, which lever?" asked the elven ranger. "Is this some sort of puzzle?"

"Don't matter. We have unseen servant pull levers until we find right one." With that, he directed the unseen servant to pull the top lever. With a shriek of rusting metal, the lever flipped position, and oil started dripping down from thumb-sized holes in the ceiling, spilling onto the floor.

"Okay, not that one!" called Gilbert, directing his spell to return the first lever to its starting position. "Try one on right side!" The unseen servant followed its instructions and sure enough, each of the steps started lowering into the floor until they were level with the floor's surface. However, they didn't stop there - they continued sinking into the floor until they had formed an inverse set of stairs, one leading down into a lower level, but going from west to east instead of east to west. However, this new level was ten feet below the level were the adventurers stood, so Gilbert had the unseen servant return that lever to its starting position long enough for the heroes to step carefully into the room - and sure enough, the weapons that had been in the room were now far enough away that they didn't activate into a swarm to attack the intruders. Pulling the rightmost lever back down, the stairs reconfigured themselves and the group entered the lower level of the Magekiller.

The stairs ended at a T-intersection, with a short corridor going to the north and south. Opting to go south, Castillan turned a corner and found a large, square room, 25 feet to a side. There were three wooden chests each along the north and south walls, while the western wall held a shield, a longsword, two heavy flails, three daggers, and a heavy mace. "Now we're talking!" exclaimed Castillan enthusiastically, entering the room to examine the chests. None was trapped, but each was locked, the keys having been no doubt lost in the years since the Magekiller's construction. But Castillan's lockpicks had each chest open in but a moment. The chests each held coins and gems, to a total value of 24,000 pieces of gold; Castillan almost started hyperventilating at the thought of that much money. Gilbert cast a detect magic spell and determined both the longsword and the mace were magical; investigation of the masterwork shield - which held Arrogan's family crest: a ferocious, black griffon - revealed a scroll tube tucked into one of the straps. Binkadink opened the case, expecting to find a scroll to pass on to Ingebold or Gilbert; instead, he pulled out what looked to be a black handkerchief. Unfolding it, he saw it was circular, almost like a tablecloth for a round table.

Gilbert emitted a squeal of glee from halfway across the room. "You know what that is?" he asked. "That a portable hole!" After explaining the mechanics of a portable hole to the others, Finoula pointed out they could dump all of the coins and gems into the hole and carry everything out in one trip. "I love this place!" exclaimed Gilbert, his previous feelings towards the Magekiller all but forgotten.

There was only one more room left, the one at the end of the northern corridor at the bottom of the secret stairs. This room was the same size and shape as the other treasure room, although this one had only three chests lined up against the far wall. "More coins?" squealed Castillan, as excited at the prospect of more cash as Gilbert had been at the sight of the portable hole.

"Hold on," cautioned the wizard, holding the bounder back from entering the room. "One feature very common in dungeons like these: false treasure vaults. This maybe a trap." He sent the unseen servant to open the first chest, while Castillan watched in eager anticipation from the corridor just outside the room. It opened easily, revealing...hundreds, if not thousands, of little metal spheres - the chest was nearly filled to the top with them. At Gilbert's direction, the unseen servant brought one over for the wizard to examine. It had a small glyph on one side, which failed to explode even as Gilbert winced upon seeing it. He looked it over, then passed it on to Binkadink at his urging. "You think it's explosive?" the gnome asked. At the wizard's shrug, the gnome went back to the treasure room and hurled it against the far wall. It hit, bounced, and rolled across the room - but failed to explode.

Gilbert had his spell open the third chest, revealing it to be filled nearly to the top with similar metal spheres. But the unseen servant was unable to open the middle chest. Castillan went to go check it out, after promising not to touch anything. He didn't see any visible traps, but curiously, the chests all seemed to be securely attached to the floor.

"I'm kind of hesitant to try to open the chest," the bounder admitted.

"I have an idea," said Darrien, calling forth the mantis from his amulet. He waited for Castillan to leave the room, then instructed the mantis to lift open the middle chest.

It did so, with some effort - and the entire floor hinged down along the far wall, sending the mantis dropping into a 40-foot deep pit, thousands of metal spheres from the two outer chests pummeling it once it hit the bottom. Looking down into the pit, the heroes could see the spheres moving around, then rushing together to take on the form of a four-headed lizard. The orb construct hydra towered over the mantis, nearly touching all four walls at once. It didn't take long at all for the mantis to reappear in Darrien's amber necklace, its physical form having been utterly destroyed by the four-headed guardian in the pit below.

"False treasure vault," repeated Gilbert knowingly, noting with satisfaction that the orb construct had no way out of the pit. "We go back to wagons now."

Retracing their way out of the Magekiller, Gilbert was the first to step onto the first stair leading back up to the surface. Doing so - putting weight on the lowest step first - alerted the room's magical sensors that someone was attempting to depart the Magekiller. As a result, the four statue-women all activated at once. The two at either side of the stairs swept out with their swords, slicing into the surprised wizard and forcing him to jump back down off the stairs to avoid being further cut. Bleeding heavily from two deep wounds, Gilbert silently assessed his ability to take another set of blows like that one and pulled out his wand of gaseous form. "I out of here!" he called to the others before discorporating into a cloud of vapors and drifting towards the stairs.

Ingebold was next in line behind Gilbert, and she quickly assessed the situation: there were two statues flanking the stairs up, but once past them she knew there was a winding set of stairs spiraling up the surface, which were likely too narrow for the statues to be able to follow. "Run!" she yelled, doing just that. She took a hit from one of the caryatid columns' sword, but her armor deflected the worst of the damage - and then she was past them. The others raced in her footsteps, Binkadink taking up the rear. I knew they'd animate eventually!" he thought to himself on his way up.

Aithanar was surprised at the group's sudden appearance, a full day after having gone down into the ruins. "Squintific nonshass patine!" he exclaimed.

"We missed you, too," said Finoula with a smile.

- - -

This was a fun dungeon crawl. None of the players figured out the "trick" I had planted in the dungeon, although Logan scared me almost immediately upon entering the first chamber with the four caryatid columns, to the point where I was worried this adventure would take all of a half hour to complete. I had made it a point to mention, both in the plot hook up front (from Castillan's card-playing buddies) and from the caryatid column's magic mouth spell, that "Arrogan has never made a mistake in his life." Another way to say that is "Arrogan is always right." I had designed the Magekiller (which in-game had been designed by Arrogan himself) such that "always right" was the key to navigating the Magekiller safely. If you go into the caryatid column room and take a right, you end up in the room with all the weapons. Arrogan would stand on the steps - not stepping foot into the room - and use a mage hand spell to first move a specific weapon out of the way and then to pull down the rightmost lever, which formed the hidden stairs. Turning around and now going down the stairs in the other direction, two more rights would get him to the real treasure vault.

So, Binkadink's first words when they found out the caryatid columns weren't going to activate and attack them? "Which way do we want to go? Always right, always left, or straight down the middle?" But they didn't pick up on it, and the adventure took us two sessions to play through.

The two magic weapons from the treasure room went to Binkadink and Finoula. To a Medium-sized wielder, it's a +1 heavy mace; to Binkadink, it's a +1 greatclub. Logan made the case that's it's really just a big, heavy thing to smash enemies with, and I agreed. So Binkadink finally got his first magic weapon, in the adventure after he finally got a Small masterwork glaive. As for Finoula, this is where I finally made up for the subterfuge with Malaterminus; her replacement magic longsword is a +2 variable energy longsword; what that means is that you can "load it" with a spell (much in the same way as a spell-storing weapon), only doing so "aligns" it to a specific energy type. A burning hands spell (or higher-level fire spell) cast into the sword allows it to deal +1d6 fire damage; likewise, Melf’s acid arrow, shatter, shocking grasp, and sleet storm (or a higher-level spell of the same energy type) give it the ability to deal +1d6 acid, sonic, electricity, or cold damage, respectively. In addition, a magic missile spell makes it into a ghost touch weapon instead. In either case, it only retains the energy type of the last spell cast into it, but it stays attuned to that energy type until a new spell is cast into the sword, realigning it to the new type. Vicki was suitably pleased with Finoula's new weapon; now she has two main goals: to come up with a cool name for it, and to use it to kill Malaterminus the incubus who tricked her into killing Ingebold. (Logan jokingly suggested the name "Malaterminus-terminus," or "Evil Slayer Slayer.")

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: We got up to the part where the PCs had encountered the arcane ooze before we ran out of time during our first session, and I was still wearing my Dalek "EXTERMINATE" T-shirt from the first adventure we had played through that session. For the second session, where we finished off this adventure, I opted to stick with the same shirt, since it had subsequently been cleaned in the three-week span between game sessions.



Game Session Date: 21 MAY 2016

- - -

Six days after cleaning out the Magekiller dungeon, the group drove their wagons into Kordovia. The trip back had been relatively uneventful - if you didn't count Binkadink's hair turning bright red one day for about an hour and Daisy's mane and tail turning as bright yellow as her namesake for an equal amount of time on another. At Ingebold's insistence the first stop was straight to the castle, where they split up all of their accumulated loot, first giving half to the kingdom's coffers and then the other half being split up equally between the adventurers. After that, they each went their separate ways, some of them to pick up supplies (a few bought potions from one of Winkidew's competitors while Gilbert restocked his piton supply), others to check in with their respective families. But at dinnertime they all met back at Battershield Keep for one of Helga Battershield's famous "welcome home" banquets. Several hours later, bellies filled with food and drink and heads filled with local gossip, everyone stumbled off to their own quarters.

Hours passed. The moons rose, playing hide-and-seek behind windswept clouds. In the six converted bedrooms filling the two northern towers of Battershield Keep, the adventurers slept the sleep of the weary; Finoula, Castillan, and Aithanar - being full-blooded elves - cast their minds into reverie instead, reliving old memories, both good and bad.

But as Castillan reviewed his memories of when he first taught himself to run up walls, an outside noise disturbed him. Oddly enough, it was a sound that fit seamlessly into the memory he'd been reliving, the sound of boots scraping on a wall...but something was off. It took the bounder a moment to realize the discrepancy: it was the sound of two pairs of boots climbing down a wall. Castillan couldn't recall ever having met anyone who could do what he did and his memory had been of himself alone, so what exactly was going on? Fully awake now, he strained his ears and sure enough, he could hear someone - two someones, actually - climbing down the wall of the tower outside the narrow window-slit of his room.

"Aith! Wake up!" he hissed quietly, shaking his brother out of his own reverie as he climbed out of bed and slipped on his boots and gloves. He didn't want to waste the time with his armor; it would take too long to gather up and put on, and if somebody was climbing down the interior wall of the keep, time might very well be of the essence.

"Shombooty?" asked Aithanar drowsily. Being shaken out of elven reverie was similar to being awakened out of a deep sleep.

"Intruders!" whispered Castillan. "Grab your sword and follow me."

The two elves were in Castillan's room at the top floor of the northeastern tower. They crept down the steps to the mid-level room and rapped on the door. Inside the room, Wrath perked up his ears as Finoula was similarly awakened out of reverie. She stood from her lotus position on the floor in one fluid motion, opening the door and seeing the two Ivenheart brothers standing their in their night-tunics. She herself wore a short tunic over her leather combat pants, having removed the jacket when she retired for the evening. But as Castillan filled her in, she grabbed up her new longsword - she'd decided to call it Tahlmalaera, "The War Song Blade" - and followed the group downstairs to the ground level, where they could hear Ingebold snoring quietly in her room, the snores becoming even louder as they opened the unlocked door to her room to wake her up.

But that wasn't all they heard, for the sudden grinding noise and the clattering of chains told them the drawbridge was being lowered.

They weren't the only ones who heard that. Over in the northwestern tower, Binkadink on the ground floor and Darrien on the top floor both woke up from their slumbers at the sound. Neither could think of any good reason why the drawbridge would be lowered in the middle of the night, and each hastily grabbed up weapons and rushed for their respective doors.

Over by the recently-acquired Vistani wagon, parked in the middle of the keep's courtyard, Obvious snapped awake as well. The jackalope's night vision was good enough to pick up the shapes of two strangers, one at either side of the drawbridge, pulling on the chains which raised the keep's portcullis. Worse yet, approaching the lowered drawbridge from the access road were a dozen or so goblins. Obvious wasn't a brilliant tactician by any means, but he knew they meant harm to his friend, the gnome with the funny name that didn't actually mean anything, and he also knew which tower Binkadink had entered, so he lowered his antlers and hippity-hopped across the courtyard, goring the orc who stood just outside Binkadink's door. He struck true, eliciting a grunt of pain from the surprised orc, but the brute had a weapon at hand - a greatclub leaning up against the wall - which he grabbed up and slammed into the side of the jackalope's head with one practiced motion. Four of the approaching goblins also took the opportunity to send sling stones hurling at the jackalope's body, three of them striking true - and stinging more than Obvious would have thought.

The sounds of battle finally did what nothing else had done thus far - woke Gilbert up. "Now what?" he groused, throwing on his robe and drinking down a potion of protection from evil - one of the ones he'd just picked up this morning, and already he was using it! Then he stomped down the steps to the lower level to see what was going on, meeting Binkadink and Darrien at the bottom.

Across the courtyard, the door to the northeastern tower opened and Castillan stabbed at the orc standing there. But by then the portcullis was fully raised and the orc had grabbed his greatclub back up. He swung his weapon at the elf, who staggered back from the blow and then tried tumbling his way past the foe and into the courtyard. But the orc blocked his way, slamming the bounder again with his greatclub against the side of his head. Castillan's legs grew weak and wobbly, and it was only Finoula grabbing him and pulling him into Ingebold's room that prevented him from being knocked around further. Ingebold, fully awake now, cast a healing spell on the bounder, and then seeing Obvious bleeding in the courtyard used her light mace to send a blast of healing energy into the wounded jackalope as well.

Finoula, meanwhile, stepped forward into Castillan's place at the door and stabbed at the orc with Tahlmalaera. Wrath darted his head out of the doorway and bit at the orc's leg at the same time, then ducked back into the building where it was safer. Behind him, Aithanar had his sword at the ready but was stuck behind the bottleneck at the door into the courtyard.

Outside, the goblins advanced, the first row entering the courtyard of the keep. Obvious was the only obvious choice of targets for them, so they let fly and struck the jackalope several times with their slings. Obvious cried out in pain. He knew Binkadink was an accomplished fighter and hoped the gnome would fare well against these foes, but Obvious was bleeding from several wounds now and his every instinct told him to flee. So flee he did, racing to the south of the keep's courtyard and leaping atop the flat roof over the dining hall. He crouched in the back corner, against the southern wall, shivering in fright and pain.

The southwestern door suddenly flew open and there was Binkadink, magic greatclub in hand and ready to be used against its first victim: the orc standing immediately before him. As the orc turned to face this new threat, nobody saw another orc climbing down the steps along the eastern rampart, leading down into the courtyard. He - and the other two orcs - had been up on the highest level of the keep; how they'd gotten up there was anybody's guess at this point.

From behind Binkadink, Gilbert cast a slow spell at the line of enemies directly in front of him: the two orcs standing by the doors to the two northern towers and the four goblins standing between them. The spell affected the nearest orc and three of the goblins; Gilbert nodded to himself in quiet satisfaction.

Fully healed now and ready for action, Castillan slipped past the orc guarding the doorway then spun around and stabbed at him as he turned to meet the threat - just a moment too slow but just in time to see the bounder's blade slide deep into his side. The orc crumbled to the ground, bleeding profusely. Satisfied with his handiwork, Castillan somersaulted past the row of goblins, slashing out with his blood-slicked blade at the nearest during his maneuver. Back in the northeast tower, Finoula stepped up to block the doorway once again. She was focused on the goblins before her - her nearest foes - and thus did not notice the stealthy orc had finished climbing down the stairs from the rooftop and was sneaking behind the Vistani wagon, closing the distance between them.

The words of several prayers to Moradin spilled from Ingebold's lips: a bless spell, followed shortly thereafter by a prayer spell. Bottle-necked as she was behind Finoula, whose body filled the doorway and prevented enemies from gaining access to the tower's interior, the dwarven cleric figured it was the best way for her to assist her team at the moment.

Suddenly, a hell hound appeared in front of Castillan and blasted at him with its fiery breath. It caught Finoula as well, but neither was particularly hurt by the puff of flames; Castillan handily dispatched the beast, then, not wanting to bother with battling goblins, leaped up onto the roof of the stables along the western side of the keep, pulling himself up with hardly any effort.

About this time, an explosion blasted high in the sky. This was a signal arrow, cast by Chalkan or one of his arcane archers, who patrolled inside the borders of the Vesve Forest. The signal was a fireball cast onto an arrow which was then shot straight up into the sky, and it signified the orcs and goblins who had been plaguing the kingdom for the past dozen years or more had returned once again. All along the edges of the kingdom, garrison towers saw the fireball and blew on their signal horns, passing the warning on to the rest of the kingdom. Battershield Keep had such a horn, but situated as the keep was at the far southern border of the kingdom and never having been a target of the waves of orcs or goblins before in the past, it rarely saw any use. However, the timing of the signal arrow was interesting: as Chalkan's forces patrolled inside the border of the Vesve Forest and they were just now signaling the approach of the orcish and goblin forces, this meant the foes currently plaguing the inhabitants of Battershield Keep were either an advance army that had made it past the vigilant eyes of the arcane archers or perhaps were not even associated with the waves of attackers heading to the middle of Kordovia.

In the open doorway of the northwest tower, Darrien stood behind Binkadink but had a clear shot over the small gnome's head. He shot two arrows in rapid succession, striking the orc trading blows with Binkadink with both shots. The orc staggered and fell on his back, dead. But the first line of four goblin warriors advanced and started shooting at any visible enemies their slings. One hit the gnome, but Binkadink shrugged off the pain and advanced. However, before he could retaliate, the goblin fell over dead, as did two of his companions - as did every one of the eight goblins in the rear ranks. The remaining goblin, clearly shaken by this turn of events, sped away to the back of the keep as fast as he could. But inside the northeastern keep, Ingebold smiled grimly at the success of her holy smite spell.

Seeing the way had been cleared of enemies, Finoula stepped out of the doorway of the northeast tower. However, she felt the peculiar energy of a spell being directed at her, and all of a sudden her elvish vision shut down. "I'm blind!" she called out to her companions, finishing the thought with, "There's a spellcaster in the vicinity!" Darrien stepped out behind Binkadink and sent an arrow into the back of the goblin who had fled to the back of the keep and was trying to enter the door to the dining hall. The arrow struck true, and the goblin died on the spot. "Got him!" Darrien called out, assuming this was the spellcaster as it was the only enemy still visible to the half-elf ranger.

But from his vantage point on the stable roof, Castillan saw the sole remaining orc stealthily approaching Finoula. He leaped across the span from the stable roof to the top of the Vistani wagon, then dropped behind the orc, driving both blades into the brute's back. The orc grunted in obvious pain but didn't drop as Castillan had expected - instead, he whipped around and met the bounder's attack with one of his own. Startled at the orc's ferocity, the bounder slowly gave way, backing up against the savage fury of the orc's attacks. But at least I got him away from Finoula, the bounder thought to himself as he battled for his life.

Unable to see a thing, Finoula groped for the wall to the north and found the release mechanism for the portcullis. She might be out of the fight for now, but she could still see to the keep's defenses. As the portcullis came crashing down, Finoula called out to Ingebold, "Can you cure my blindness?"

"Not t'day I can't," the cleric replied, adding a dwarven curse for good measure. "I c'n cure ye, but I've not got th' spell prepared now! I'm sorry, but I cannae cure yer affliction until I've had time tomorrow t' prepare meself a new batch of spells."

"Crap!" swore Finoula, realizing how little she'd be able to contribute to defending the keep while blind. Darrien, seeing Castillan finally drop the orc he'd been fighting, saw no further enemies inside the keep and dropped his Arachnibow at his feet to help Finoula to raise the drawbridge. Wrath stood at Finoula's side, sensing her distress and protecting her from anyone who might try to harm her. Once the drawbridge was raised, Finoula felt a hand on her shoulder. "Spadinkinny kelpish," Aithanar said, leading her back to the safety of the northeast tower.

"Look around!" called out Binkadink, racing over to the steps that led to the top of the keep. "There might still be a spellcaster around here somewhere!" He traipsed up the steps in his gnomish stilt-boots and sure enough, as soon as he reached the top a trio of spiders - each larger than the little gnome - suddenly manifested on three sides of him. A distinctive whiff of brimstone informed the gnome that these particular spiders were likely from the Lower Planes. He fended off the one in front of him with his greatclub, but that only allowed the one behind him to scurry up and bite him on the back of the neck. With a roar of pain, the little gnome spun around and bashed the spider that had bitten him, crushing its squishy body with the power of his blow. In almost the same movement, he swung his weapon around and slammed it into the side of the third spider, which was even now moving up to bite him as well. It skittered back, wary of the gnome's powerful weapon.

Gilbert cast a fly spell on himself and took to the skies. He did a quick perusal of the keep's interior courtyard, but saw no enemies save the two spiders fighting Binkadink at the top of the stairs. He flew up to the top of the northwestern tower, and that's when his human eyes made out an unnaturally dark globe surrounding the top of the northeastern tower. Recognizing it as a darkness spell, the wizard surmised this was the location of the hidden spellcaster still plaguing them. Gilbert opened his mouth to call his suspicions down to his friends, when he was struck by several blasts of energy - a magic missile spell, no doubt. He wasn't sure from which direction it had come, but he did manage to warn the others that there was a enemy wizard hiding in the globe of darkness spell atop the northeastern tower.

Castillan heard the wizard's warning and looked up - he was standing in the northeastern corner of the courtyard, between the parked Vistani wagon and the tower. With a quick dash at the tower, he raced up the wall, alternately setting foot on the southern wall of the northeastern tower and the western side of the eastern exterior wall, and making his way up the 30 feet elevation of the tower until he was able to put his hand over the rampart and pull himself onto the roof. Sure enough, this part of the rampart was completely dark - so dark Castillan's keen elven vision could see nothing at all.

"Get out of there, elf boy!" called Gilbert, as he began the words to an Evard's black tentacles spell, centering it in the middle of the globe of darkness. Only when Gilbert saw Castillan racing south along the ramparts out of the range of the darkness spell did he complete the incantations causing writhing tentacles to rise up from the roof of the northeastern tower. He then flew about 30 feet above the rooftop of the northwest tower, focusing his attention on the tower across the drawbridge from him, hoping to hear the muttered curses of a trapped enemy spellcaster.

In the meantime, Darrien raced up the steps, shooting and killing one of the two remaining fiendish spiders as the other one tried webbing up Binkadink, but missed. Binkadink had the last arachnid slain by the time Darrien reached the top of the ramparts; each spider exploded in an acrid puff of smoke and brimstone upon its death on the material plane. Castillan continued running along the rampart until he had joined the fighter and ranger at the top of the stairs.

More energy slammed into Gilbert's hovering form, the result of another magic missile spell. The wizard dropped in altitude, hovering behind the western side of the northwestern tower, using the solid stone of the keep as a shield against the unseen spellcaster as he tried to figure out why his Evard's black tentacles spell had failed to capture his foe. But yet another series of magic missiles slammed into the wizard's body, from a position that had to be over on his side of the keep. "Crap!" he called out, coming to a sudden realization: "Spellcaster's invisible!! He over here on this side!" But the heavyset wizard was getting woozy from the magical onslaught he'd taken in the last few moments; he opted to race around the front of the keep over to the eastern side, hoping that the enemy spellcaster was on foot and couldn't keep up with Gilbert - and even if he could, he'd have to run into the black tentacles spell effect.

Hearing the wizard's warning, Gilbert, Darrien, and Castillan raced along the ramparts, across the southern section over to the eastern part of the keep. Realizing they were up against an invisible foe, Darrien realized the futility of shooting arrows at someone he couldn't see but popped a few arrows at random sections of the eastern rampart, possibly keeping the spellcaster worried if nothing else. Castillan took it another step, pulling out a tanglefoot bag and tossing it at the end of the eastern rampart, right before it opened up to the roof of the northwestern tower. But it flew through the air and landed as targeted without hitting the spellcaster; Castillan knew the goop in the bag would harden almost immediately, rendering his attack pointless.

The unseen spellcaster obviously saw Darrien as the greatest threat of the three combatants, for he chose him as the target of his next casting of the magic missile spell. The approaching heroes could hear their invisible foe's running footsteps on the stones of the keep tower's roof. Binkadink opted to try pushing him off the roof, holding his greatclub sideways before him in the hopes of striking the foe even if he couldn't see him. But luck was not with him; he reached the end of the rooftop and slowed to a stop without having hit the spellcaster. However, a 3-foot-tall gnome raised on stilt-boots to human height was apparently too much of a temptation for the spellcaster to ignore, for he followed Binkadink's tactics and bull-rushed the gnome off the side of the tower roof. The gnome fell the 30 feet to the ground and landed in a heap just shy of the moat.

But succumbing to that sort of temptation was contagious; Castillan couldn't actually see his invisible foe, but he now had a pretty good idea of exactly where he'd have to be standing to have just pushed Binkadink over the edge.... The bounder raced directly to that same spot at full speed, slamming into an unseen body and toppling it over the edge of the tower's northern wall, following through over the wall himself in the process. However, while the spellcaster fell the 30 feet at full speed and landed on the poor, battered gnome, the bounder used his proximity to the tower wall to slow down his speed significantly, until he was able to nimbly leap off to the side to avoid landing on Binkadink himself.

Gilbert had taken this moment of reprieve to drink down the contents of a newly-purchased healing potion, restoring a bit of his vitality without the nasty after-effects that Binkadink's Uncle Winkidew's potions always seemed to contain. He then cast a detect magic spell and flew over to the front of the keep, where Binkadink was attempting to stand back up and grab his weapon and Castillan was swinging his short sword around at potential areas where the spellcaster might be standing. While Gilbert's spell wasn't strong enough to overcome the greater invisibility spell, it did allow him to spot a wavering in the air, kind of like a heat mirage, which indicated the rough area of where the invisible spellcaster was likely standing.

"He to your left, gnome!" called out Gilbert, and Binkadink swung his weapon at the area indicated - but missed. The end result was the same, though, for the sorcerer, still cloaked in a greater invisibility spell, decided he'd had enough. No point in fighting to the death when he could easily escape and live to fight another day. With a few arcane syllables - which Gilbert was now close enough to recognize as the words to a dimension door spell - the unseen opponent was gone.

The door from the southeastern tower suddenly opened, and into the courtyard stepped Aerik Battershield, his dwarven greataxe in hand. He looked disappointed that there were no enemies left to fight, but he had no regrets in getting Helga to safety before leaving her to enter the battle with the Kordovian Adventurers Guild - who, it might be said, had handled themselves rather well in his absence. Ingebold filled him in on what had happened, the portcullis was raised and the drawbridge lowered, and the heroes all regrouped in the keep after dragging the bodies of the orcs and goblins outside on the access road to deal with in the morning.

An hour or more later, the group had determined to their own satisfaction that there were no more invisible enemies inside the keep. The sounds of battle from the north had ceased as well; apparently the Kordovian forces - including the mercenaries hired with the gold the heroes had unearthed thus far - had routed the orc and goblin forces once again. Helga came out of hiding and insisted on cooking up a quick meal for everyone, and then, by full agreement of all concerned, the group opted to go back to their beds - although Castillan volunteered to remain awake and on guard for the next hour or so, after which he'd wake Darrien to take a shift, and so on until the sun rose.

"Thank you," Finoula said to Aithanar, who had helped her to her room and settled her down against the wall where she preferred to perform her reverie. "Sambayu," he replied, and Finoula smiled at his nonsensical word, while perfectly understanding the "You're welcome" he most assuredly meant. Wrath settled himself at her side, Aithanar smiled down at her form, and then quietly closed the door to her room, leaving her in darkness that equaled the sightlessness of her blinded eyes.

"I've never tried undergoing reverie without sight," she confided to her wolf, who merely chuffed in response and laid his head on his forepaws. But sight or no, reverie was a matter of focusing inward, sifting through past memories and ordering the mind for the next day's activities. She'd be glad to have her sight restored in the morning, after Ingebold received her spells after her own period of mental preparation....

With a start, Finoula realized she was no longer alone in her room - there was somebody else there besides herself and Wrath. "Aithanar?" she asked, before the sound she had just heard finally registered as the flapping of leathery wings and the full weight of a human-sized body landing on the floor of her room. Ice water suddenly flooded her veins as a familiar voice replied, "No, not Aithanar...although I could certainly make myself look like him if you wanted."

Finoula slapped the floor to her side, desperately trying to find her sword, while calling out, "Wrath--attack!"

"Pfft!" scoffed Malaterminus, waving his hand and causing the wolf to vanish. Then the incubus looked down at Finoula, saw her blindly groping for her sword, and laughed. "You're blind!" he chuckled, picking up her sword and examining it. "So this is my replacement, huh?" he asked. "Not bad workmanship--but it will never truly replace me, will it, Finoula?" He casually tossed it behind him, and there was no sound of it landing on the floor; it just vanished, as Wrath had done.

"What do you want?" Finoula asked, knowing full well what an incubus would want with a pretty young elf. Knowing full well the demon could see her, she nevertheless started feeling the floor on the opposite side of where the longsword had been, hoping to find her whip of thorns.

"What do I want?" repeated Malaterminus, a smirk in his voice. "Well, that's the real question, isn't it? What do I want?" He looked over again at Finoula, whose hand was now inches away from her whip. "Hey, hey, enough of that," he chided. "It's not going to work. Haven't you figured it out yet? Weapons won't work against me, calling for help won't get you anywhere. There's absolutely nothing you can do to stop me from doing whatever I want...because, my sweet, this is all in your head!" As if to demonstrate, he waved his hand and Finoula's clothing suddenly disappeared as well, leaving her just as naked as himself - she still couldn't see a thing, but she could feel the sudden lack of clothing and sense the cool air on her bare skin.

"Now then, to business," said the incubus, making an effort to continue what he was saying while staring lustfully down at Finoula's body. "Oh, yeah, right. I want you to know that I haven't been ignoring you since you set me free from the form of that accursed longsword, I just had some business to deal with – specifically, getting my revenge on the enemy who trapped me in that form all those years ago. It was a succubus, by the way – an uppity bitch who didn't approve of me killing off my mortal victims after I'd seduced them. Like it's any of her business what I do? But I got my revenge; I did to her what I do to all of my victims, after I was done with her." Blind, Finoula was spared the visible evidence of Malaterminus's excitement at the memory.

"Anyway," he continued, "I had fully intended to finish up that business and head back your way, to deal with you as I deal with all the other mortal women I have dealings with. It's just kind of how I relate to them, you know?" He looked around the room for a bed, found none, and simply sat down on the floor next to Finoula. "But then I got to thinking. If it weren't for you – and your gullibility in killing that little dwarf friend of yours on my say-so – I'd still be stuck in that damned sword form. So I guess I owe you for that. It's kind of a new thing for me, owing a mortal a favor. Part of me wants to just kill you to avoid the debt, but I don't think I'd like living the rest of my life – my immortal life, mind you – with the memory of that debt being unpaid. So anyway, I came to a decision: I'm not going to have my way with you and then kill you, like I normally would." He gave Finoula a big grin as he said that, as if expecting gratitude for his extreme kindness.

"Nope," he reiterated, "Instead I'm going to do you a big favor. Two favors, really, when you consider the whole 'not killing you' thing. Nope, I'm also going to switch targets to whoever you want, and then we'll be even, and my debt to you will be paid in full.

"I noticed your little dwarf cleric friend is back among the living. Does she give you any grief about having killed her? Because even though dwarf chicks aren't really my thing, I'd be more than willing to do her for you. Or if not her, you got a mom always on your case? Just say the word, and I'll give her a night she won’t ever be able to top – because she'll be dead by the end of it." Seeing the expression on Finoula's face, he said, "No? How about a sister? Cousin? Some elf chick who stole your first boyfriend? Just give me a name, and she'll be my top priority. What do you say?"

Finoula steeled up all of her courage, not knowing whether she could trust the word of a demon that this was all merely in her mind - it made sense, if you thought about it, that a succubus or an incubus could mentally "prepare" their victim to receive them physically, but this felt awfully real! - and replied, "I want you to leave. Now. And never return."

"Really?" asked Malaterminus, surprised at this foolish mortal's response to his offer - an offer not likely to have been made my most demons, after all. "You'd rather have me as an enemy than point me toward someone you want killed?" He frowned. "Okay, whatever. Regardless, my debt to you is now paid in full. I won't actively seek you out, but if our paths ever cross again, I won't have any qualms about treating you like I would any other mortal woman."

"Oh, they'll cross again, you can count on that," promised Finoula. "One day, I will hunt you down and kill you for what you've done, and what you tricked me to doing to Ingebold."

"Then I look forward to our next encounter," smirked Malaterminus, stroking Finoula's chin tenderly. She moved to slap his hand away - but it was gone, as was the rest of the incubus; it was as if he had never been there at all. Finoula realized she was still fully clothed and she could hear the soft snoring of her wolf at her side.

"Damn," Finoula swore under her breath. She was unable to perform any reverie for the rest of that night.

- - -

This was an adventure I realized I wanted to do as soon as we had decided that Battershield Keep was going to be the de facto headquarters of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild. After all, I already had the cardboard keep built from our previous campaign, and the starting status of the campaign was that there had been these orc and goblin attacks going on for years; it only made sense that they'd eventually have to defend the keep. However, there were certain irregularities that didn't escape the notice of my players, such as why these particular orcs and goblins had apparently broken off from the rest of the group (which Chalkan's forces had discovered later, heading for the main section of Kordovia). So, while Dan had Ingebold prepare a remove blindness/deafness spell to cure Finoula's affliction, he also had her prepare a tongues spell and three speak with dead spells, one for each of the three slain orcs. (They reasoned the orcs would likely know more than the goblins; plus, Ingebold - and Aerik - wouldn't trust a goblin's word at anything.) So, here's what they asked:

1st orc:
Q1: "Why did you attack Battershield Keep?"
A1: "It had never been targeted before, seemed to be minimally defended, and likely had weapons we could take." (This seemed to tie in to the orcs and goblins who had attacked the garrison keep in the group's second adventure.)
Q2: "Who planned the attack"
A2: "The strike leader."
Q3: "What is the strike leader's name?"
A3: "Jaenryth." (The players decided this sounded like an elven name, which was intriguing.)​

2nd orc:
Q1: "Who does Jaenryth report to?"
A1: "Menriss."
Q2: "What does Jaenryth look like?"
A2: "Whatever he wants to." (This brought suppositions that Jaenryth might be a doppelganger.)
Q3: "What race is Jaenryth?"
A3: "Elf." (The players have suggested that that could mean Jaenryth is an elf, a half-elf, an elf/orc hybrid, or a drow - or even a doppelganger who normally appears as an elf when dealing with them.)​

3rd Orc:
Q1. "Does Jaenryth live in the Vesve Forest?"
A1: "No." (This caused speculations that the orcs and goblins - and Jaenryth - might be extraplanar.)
Q2: "What tribe are the orcs and goblins from?"
A2: "Baelrenoth." (The players have decided that this name sounds fiendish.)
Q3: "Are the orcs and goblins hired mercenaries?"
A3: "We fight to live."​

I also knew I wanted to keep the Malaterminus plot line active, but I had kind of written myself into a dilemma. While it had made perfect sense to me to have Malaterminus the magic longsword actually be an imprisoned incubus, I had kind of hoped he'd have been killed off during his initial encounter - but that didn't happen. So I now had, basically, a rapist demon on the loose with a perfectly reasonable (to him) desire to rape and kill my only female player's PC. Not wanting that to actually happen in the campaign, and definitely not wanting to have to role-play that particular encounter, I came to the realization that I could have Malaterminus offer to switch targets as a result of the debt he felt he owed Finoula. Even though she didn't take him up on the offer (had she thought to sic him on Feron, I had already figured out that the 20th-level druid, who's now a hierophant and a Sister of Ehlonna, would have made short work of him - although that would be a uncomfortable conversation to have the next time Finoula and Feron met up!), I figured I could have him decide his debt was paid and quietly leave the campaign, never to be seen again.

But no such luck. Vicki is adamant that when Finoula gets higher in level she's going to figure out a way to summon/gate and bind him in such a way that she'll be able to slay him permanently. So it looks like we'll be seeing Malaterminus the incubus again, much later in the campaign.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: "Chaotic Evil Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry." It seemed like not only a good fit for the orcs and goblins, but for Malaterminus as well.



PC Roster:
Darrien, half-elf ranger 7​

NPC Roster:
Caliandra, human sorcerer 6
Kizzie Birdsong, halfling bard 6
Quincy "Jorg" Battleborn, half-orc fighter 6
Thomas the Seeker, human monk 6
Vance Pelorian, human cleric 6 (Pelor)​

Game Session Date: 2 July 2016

This game session was a bit different, as shown by the PC/NPC rosters above. Due to Darrien having been slain by the band of ogres in "Ogre Eight" and subsequently returned to life via a raise dead spell, he was lagging one level below the rest of the party. (So was Ingebold, for a similar reason, but as she was the party NPC and "backup PC," I wasn't quite as concerned about her.) So the only reason this adventure came about was I wanted an opportunity for Darrien to catch up to the rest of the group on the XP front. I didn't even bother calculating the XP for this session, just hand-waving it that Darrien would end up with the exact XP count as the rest of the PCs at the end of this adventure, so when they next level up they'll all do so. (Again, Ingebold leveling up separately wasn't really an issue, as I generally level her up myself and can easily do so at home between gaming sessions.)

- - -

Darrien was alone, several miles deep into the Vesve Forest. He'd been patiently tracking a deer and the past few hours of silent work was about to finally pay off. The buck stood in a clearing, looking around but failing to notice the half-elf ranger. Darrien pulled back on the Arachnibow, lining up his shot...

...And then the deer panicked at the sound of terrified screaming coming from the south, accompanied by the noise of rapid footfalls tearing through the forest undergrowth. Darrien lowered his bow, his shot – and the prospects of venison for dinner – ruined, and turned to see what the commotion was all about.

Tearing through the underbrush came a half-orc in shiny, half-plate armor, a look of total panic in his face. Right behind him raced a scantily-clad human woman with long, dark hair, her face also showing an expression of abject horror. Behind them trailed three figures: a male human in brown robes, effortlessly carrying under his arm a halfling woman wearing a long skirt, with a bluish lizard bringing up the rear. Assuming the lizard was chasing the group of four, Darrien raised his bow and aimed at the trailing reptile.

"Don't shoot!" cried the halfling woman as path of the man carrying her veered over by Darrien. "That's Zapper -- he's with us!"

Once again, Darrien lowered his bow without having gotten off a shot. By then, the armored half-orc and the barely-dressed woman had slowed down, and the brown-robed man followed suit, placing the halfling gently on the ground on her own two feet.

"Are you two all right now?" asked the man in the brown robes, lowering his hood. Darrien could see his head was shaved completely bald.

"What the--?" sputtered the half-orc. "Why'd we run like that? And where's my greatsword?"

"You dropped it in your haste to flee," responded the dark-haired woman. "And we ran because we were under the effects of a fear spell. That damned beholder got both of us, after turning Vance to stone."

"Beholder?" asked Darrien, looking around. "Near here?"

"About half a mile or so back that way," responded the bald man. He extended his hand to Darrien. "I am Thomas the Seeker," he said by way of introduction.

"Darrien," replied the half-elf, shaking the monk's hand.

"'Darrien?'" asked the half-orc. "I thought you looked familiar. You was at Bunnihilde's party, wasn't you?"

"Uh, yes, I was," Darrien admitted. "I take it you were there too?"

"Yeah. Up until recently, I was one of Bunnihilde's bodyguards. Now I'm the leader of Lord Cavelthorne's adventuring band. M'name's Jorg."

"Lord Cavelthorne wants you to use the name 'Quincy Battleborn,'" pointed out the tall woman, smoothing out the silk of her skin-tight dress and causing Darrien to stare in obvious approval as she did so. The blue-skinned lizard walked over to her and rubbed up against her ankle.

"'Jorg' is short for 'Quincy'," argued Jorg.

"So you claim. In any case, Darrien, my name is Caliandra, and this is Zapper, my familiar. And this," she said, indicating the little halfling, "is Kizzie Birdsong."

"Very pleased to meet you," replied Kizzie, looking up at Darrien in undisguised awe. "We have all heard very much about you and your band; in fact, Lord Cavelthorne decided to fund our little team here based on the success Kordovia was having with theirs."

"We should consider going back to face the beholder," suggested Thomas. "There's no telling what he might do to Vance if we don't get back to him in time."

"Yeah -- and I wanna get my greatsword back."

"Darrien," asked Kizzie, "Would you consider coming with us? We could certainly use the assistance, if you're willing. Cali has a vial of stone salve that can restore our petrified cleric, and now that we know that we'll be up against a beholder we can take precautions. He kind of took us by surprise, popping out from behind a tree like he did."

"I'd-- uh, sure, I'll help," answered Darrien, forcing his gaze away from Caliandra's low-cut dress. "What's the plan?"

"I think invisibility's the way to go," replied Caliandra. "Between Kizzie and me, we can cast enough spells to cover all five of us. Hopefully, that should allow us to get close enough to the beholder without it seeing us."

"Just remember to stay away from its central eye," suggested Thomas. "If you fall into its arc, you'll become visible again in an instant. And likewise, the spells will hold only until you first attack a foe." And then he vanished into apparent nothingness, Kizzie having cast the first of the invisibility spells upon the wandering monk.

Caliandra faced the half-orc. "Are you ready, Quincy?" she asked.

"Wait!" Jorg answered. "Hey, Darrien, you got a sword I can borrow?"

Darrien unbuckled his weapon belt and passed it over to the half-orc fighter. "Just this scimitar," he replied.

"That'll do," said Jorg, buckling it on and pulling the gleaming weapon out of its scabbard. "Okay, now I'm ready," he said to Caliandra. "And it's 'Jorg,'" he belatedly corrected her.

Once everybody was invisible, Darrien took the lead, suggesting the others stay back a bit from him - he didn't want Jorg's clanking armor to alert the beholder of intruders. Following the trail they had left was child's play; apparently nobody in Lord Cavelthorne's band had any ranger training. Darrien had no trouble finding the spot where the group had encountered the beholder, for it was marked by Jorg's shining greatsword lying abandoned in the dirt. However, there were no signs of either the beholder or the cleric it had petrified.

"C'mere, you!" said Jorg's disembodied voice as the greatsword lifted up off the ground. "Here's your scimitar back, Darrien." The half-elf and the half-orc waved their arms around, neither being able to see the other, until their hands collided and Darrien felt the leather of his scabbard pressed into his palm. It popped into full visibility once it left the half-orc's hand. Putting the belt on and buckling it around his waist, Darrien was surprised that once on it remained visible - as did Jorg's held greatsword.

"You two are going to blend in just perfectly," remarked Caliandra. "That beholder will never see you coming."

"So where's Vance? An' where is that blasted beholder?" snarled Jorg.

"Look here," said Darrien, pointing at a set of scrape marks in the dirt by a half-buried boulder, and then realizing nobody could see where he was pointing. "There, by the boulder," he articulated. "It looks like the stone was dragged to the side and then something else heavy was dragged over to it. Give me a hand lifting the boulder, will you?"

The group all approached the boulder, inevitably bumping into each other in doing so, as again, nobody could see anything other than Jorg and Darrien's general positions due to their floating blades. Once everyone was positioned around the boulder, they lifted it up - it ended up being a relatively flat slab of stone, not the upper part of a round boulder after all - and carried it off to the side. Hidden beneath it was a tunnel drilling straight down into the ground. "I'd bet anything your friend's down there," Darrien remarked.

Jorg peered over the head of the shaft, using his inherent darkvision to see how far down it went. "Quite a fall," he declared. Caliandra took the time before the descent to cast a mage armor spell upon herself and Zapper, while Kizzie and Thomas downed potions - she drank a potion of spider climb and he quaffed a potion of darkvision.

"So, who's got rope?" Darrien asked the group at large. Surprisingly, for a group of four professional adventurers, nobody had any rope on them. "You guys don't do a whole lot of underground explorations, do you?" Darrien asked, as he pulled out his own 50-foot length of sturdy rope.

"As a habit, no," replied Caliandra. "Most of our encounters have been above ground." Darrien tied one end of his rope to a sturdy tree limb - a process made immeasurably more difficult by not being able to see what he was doing, until he wised up and dropped the rope completely, allowing it to return to its visible state, before picking it back up and tying it off.

"Anything worth seeing down there, Jorg?" the ranger asked.

"Nah. It goes down for about 30 feet or so, then it widens out for a bit, then goes back to this size for another 30 feet or so."

"This may help," said Kizzie, sending a dancing lights spell down the shaft to hover in the center of the wider section. Darrien peered over the edge, saw nothing approaching, and apprised the group of his intentions. "This rope won't go all the way down to the bottom," he said. "So I've tied the end around my waist, and I'll go down as far as I can go. I have a way to make more rope once I get down that far."

"You do? Interesting," commented Thomas.

Lowering himself down the shaft, Darrien kept his feet against the wall and both hands on the rope. Jorg's estimates were pretty accurate; the vertical shaft from the surface was about 30 feet deep before opening into a spherical chamber with a 40-foot diameter - Darrien entered this chamber via the hole in its ceiling and dangled just above the "equator" when he ran out of rope. He could see four side tunnels spaced equidistant around the equator, and a fifth tunnel directly below him, continuing on for some distance. In addition, there were four other tunnel openings about halfway down between the equator and the lowest opening; these were centered diagonally between the four tunnels along the equator.

The half-elf climbed back up a couple of feet, tied himself off in this new position, and then pulled out his Arachnibow. He aimed for just above one of the four equator tunnels and let fly with an arrow, having it convert to a strand of spider silk as it hit its target. Holding on to the silk line, he untied himself from the end of the rope - and jumped. He landed hard on the lower curve of the bottom hemisphere of the chamber, but kept his hand gripped on the line to prevent himself from sliding all the way to the tunnel entrance at its bottom center.

"Next guy, come on down!" he called up to the others. "And let me know when you get to the end of the rope!" In the meantime, he rummaged through his invisible backpack until he found an invisible metal piton by touch, and tied the end of the silk rope to its middle, again letting go of both so he could actually see what he was doing. This invisibility stuff makes life difficult! he thought to himself.

"I'm in position!" Thomas called from the end of the rope. "What do you want me to do?"

"I'm going to throw this piton up to you!" Darrien replied. "If you can catch it, tie the end of the silk rope to the end of your rope, and then you can all climb straight over to one of the tunnels!" It took some doing, but Thomas eventually got the two lines tied together, and then Jorg climbed down, followed by Caliandra (with Zapper perched on her back).

"Who does that leave? Kizzie?" called up Darrien.

"I'm right here, beside you," said the halfling.

"What? How'd you get down here?"

"I drank a potion of spider climb and walked down."

"Hmmm. Just out of curiosity, it didn't have spider legs in it when you drank it down by any chance, did it?"

"Ew! I should say not! Why ever do you ask?"

"No reason," muttered Darrien.

With everybody finally in the central cavern, standing carefully around the 10-foot-diameter hole at the bottom to prevent them from falling in, it made sense for Kizzie to go exploring. "I'll just pick a tunnel, go peek, and report back," she promised. She had her dancing lights spell travel along with her, providing illumination.

Kizzie decided to try the lower tunnels first, as they would be the easiest for the others to gain access to. However, the first tunnel sloped down at a 45-degree angle, swerved off to the right, and ended up in a smaller, spherical room, this one about 20 feet in diameter. It was covered in sheets of thick webbing, and the halfling thought she saw the shadow of a spider about her size traversing one of the webs. Deciding there was no way Vance would be in there, she retreated back to the others and reported her findings.

The next tunnel she tried also veered downwards before opening up into a 20-foot-wide spherical chamber. This one was occupied by a pair of strange-looking creatures. Each had a snakelike build, with a head containing a parrotlike beak flanked by four tentacles. Kizzie had heard of these creatures - they were called gricks. But she didn't recall them having a fifth tentacle at the top of their heads, ending in an eyeball. These two did, though, and they had some way of detecting her presence as well, for each one shot a ray out of its eyeball. Fortunately for the little halfling neither ray hit its mark, but they were both too close for comfort. "Guys? Help!" she called.

Caliandra was the closest to the tunnel Kizzie had gone down and thus was the first to respond. Hiking up her dress, she ran up the curved section of the hollow sphere's exterior, grabbing at the bottom of the tunnel with both hands and pulling herself up. Zapper, being a shocker lizard and better suited for climbing, had an easier time of it. They each reached the top of the tunnel at the same time, and then the sorceress let herself slide down the winding shaft as her familiar ran alongside her. Caliandra managed to steer herself between the two gricks, and fearing to attack them this early and thus make herself visible, she opted instead to cast a shield spell on herself.

Zapper had no such hesitation; he blasted the closest grick with an electrical charge, ending the duration of his invisibility spell in the process. Kizzie, in the meantime, followed Caliandra's lead and found a way to be helpful without attacking directly; she started singing an inspiring tune to aid her friends' attacks.

Jorg was the next to slide down the tunnel shaft, and unable to see his two invisible female companions, plowed straight into Caliandra, sending her sprawling across the room. Back up at the central chamber, both Thomas and Darrien initially failed to make it far enough up the sloping wall to pull themselves up to the tunnel, but the ranger made it on his second try. Unfortunately, his path was identical to that of Jorg, and he went crashing into the invisible half-orc, sending him prone. But that only got the fighter's dander up; rising up to a standing position, he sent his magical greatsword crashing down into the grick at his left, nearly cleaving it in half with one stroke. Then, in a practiced maneuver, he swung around and sent his blade slamming down into the other grick's body, cleanly severing it in half. Writhing half-gricks flopped around the room spewing blood, and Jorg stood - now fully visible - grinning down at his handiwork. "Now that's what I'm talking about!" he said.

"Thanks, guys!" said Kizzie. "I'm going to go try out another tunnel." Jorg gave the grick chamber a quick once-over, at first seeing nothing but small rocks and pebbles - but then noticing that a trio of the rocks was actually leathery eggs. He took great satisfaction in smashing them each underneath his boot heels.

The next tunnel at the same elevation turned out to lead to a chamber filled with a pile of rotting animal parts. Kizzie gave it a quick once-over with a hand over her nose to block out the stench, when a slight movement caught her eye. Amidst the carrion and rotting meat, an eyestalk popped up, followed by the head of what looked like a giant caterpillar - only one with eight writhing tentacles ringing its mouthparts. Recalling how the gricks-with-eyestalks were able to sense her presence, Kizzie opted to immediately exit back the way she had come.

Meanwhile, back in the grick room, the other adventurers were trying to do just that, but the slope of the tunnel was just too steep. They managed to figure out that by shifting their sideways direction back and forth they could use gravity to their advantage in the curved tunnel to get a boost of speed, but it was still tough going. Finally, in frustration, Darrien shot another arrow up to the top of the tunnel, having it turn into spider silk that allowed Jorg, Caliandra, and himself to climb back up to the central chamber, with an invisible Kizzie and an invisible Thomas. (Zapper didn't need the silk strand and looked down pityingly at the struggling humanoids as he passed them climbing effortlessly up the tunnel.)

When they did get back, though, they saw the carrion crawler exit its own tunnel shaft. "Look out!" called Darrien. Thomas spun around and instinctively punched out at the wriggling beast, turning himself visible as he did so. Darrien shot at it with his magical bow, likewise returning to visibility. Kizzie began singing again, encouraging the efforts of the monk and the ranger, and together, they got the monster on the ropes before it could hit anyone with its paralytic tentacles or its grafted-on eyestalk. But it was a well-targeted magic missile spell from Caliandra that finally slew the beast.

"Well, that's all of us but you visible now, Kizzie," remarked the sorceress. "So much for us being able to sneak up on the beholder."

"What's the deal with all of the eyestalks on these beasts?" asked Jorg. "Did somebody carve up our beholder and hand out the pieces?"

"Whatever process was used, it wouldn't have happened that fast," replied Caliandra. "When we first encountered the beholder, it had all of its eyestalks in place. One would assume it's been grafting eyestalks from others of its kind onto these...guard-beasts, I presume."

"Unless it has a means of regeneration," pointed out Darrien. "Then it could be using its own eyestalks, and allowing them to grow back."

" disgusting," decided Caliandra. "But also a distinct possibility." The half-elf beamed at the implied praise at his deductions; he found himself wanting the shapely sorceress to think highly of him.

While this discussion was going on, Kizzie was checking out the fourth and final of the lower tunnels. It arced downward for a bit before leveling out, and as the halfling turned a corner and the inevitable 20-foot-diameter spherical chamber came into view, so did a hideous creature with a large, central eye, an open mouth filled with sharp teeth, and numerous eyestalks growing out from its spherical body. Kizzie stifled a shriek of terror at the sight of the beholder, but then realized it wasn't moving at all. Daring to step closer, she discovered to her immense relief that it was simply a carving, a three-dimensional projection from the far wall. She also noticed that it seemed to have more than the usual amount of eyestalks, but Kizzie didn't stop to figure out why - Vance wasn't in this room, and neither was its beholder captor, and that was all that mattered. She returned to the others and described what she had seen.

"We'll have to focus on the higher-level tunnels, then," reasoned Thomas. "I'll try this one." With that, he raced up as high as he could along the curved wall, then spun around, raced back down the way he had come - making sure to skirt around the pit in the floor - and up even higher on the opposite side of the chamber. He pulled himself up to the tunnel's level, gave the group a thumbs up, and cautiously explored the horizontal shaft, his potion-granted darkvision allowing him to see perfectly fine in the blackness of the winding corridor.

About this time, Kizzie's dancing lights spell expired. She gave a little shriek of surprise and Darrien called out for nobody to move - they were standing around a 10-foot diameter hole in the floor and he didn't want anyone to fall in. Feeling around in his backpack, he pulled out and activated a sunrod. "That's better," he said, passing it to the halfling before activating a second one for himself.

"I'm not gonna be able to run up that far like Thomas did," admitted Jorg. "Not in this armor."

"Yeah, me neither," agreed Darrien. "But this'll help." And he shot three more arrows, sending silk strands up to the other three upper tunnels. Jorg took one, Kizzie another, and Caliandra a third, with Zapper climbing up on her back as she pulled herself up the silken cord. Darrien spent almost no time at all in deciding which tunnel he'd explore, following Caliandra up the rope to the west.

Jorg pulled himself up into the southern tunnel and was pleased to see that while it veered off to the left, it remained level. Furthermore, the tunnel ended in the typical 20-foot-diameter spheroid, but this one had a floor level with the rest of the tunnel. But while Jorg tightened his grip on his weapon in anticipation of a potential fight with a beholder, when he reached the room he found it filled with statues of animals: a deer, a bear, a turtle, a rabbit, and even a racing snake.

"Hmmph," he snorted and turned to leave, but a bit of motion caught his eye - up near the ceiling, there was a bobbing form, like that of a balloon. Stepping further into the room, he saw a beholder from an unusual angle: directly below it. With a grin on his face, he swung his greatsword up into an arc, slicing into the eye tyrant's spheroid form. "This's for Vance!" he called as his blade bit deep.

The beholder roared in pain and swung around to face its enemy. "Who's there?" it demanded. "Who attacks Jvirniqqa the Maimed?"

Jorg's mouth opened in surprise. The beholder he faced had a gaping hole where its central eye had once been, and each of its ten eyestalks was nothing more than a severed stub. Apparently the fighter had found the source of the beholder eyestalks that had been grafted onto the gricks and the carrion crawler - and perhaps the spider as well. "You're not the beholder who turned Vance to stone," he said.

"No, I am not," agreed Jvirniqqa. "The one you seek is an Evil Eye, an abomination that must be slain, for it is a mutant deviating from the perfect image of the Great Mother. I will help you slay it, and then you can lead me out of his lair. Agreed?"

Jorg actually thought about it for a moment, then gave his answer with a two-handed slash with his greatsword, which carved another gash in the side of the maimed eye tyrant - or eyeless tyrant, as the case might be. Jvirniqqa roared again in pain and frustration and tried dropping down to Jorg's level, the better to bite his head off, but the half-orc fighter easily avoided the blind monster's fumbling bites. He gave it another deep gash, then realized he was wasting his time and turned to leave. Jvirniqqa tried following him, teeth gnashing and eyestalk stumps twitching in helpless futility, but he constantly bumped into the wall and bounced off. Jorg got to the end of the tunnel and climbed back down to the bottom of the central chamber, then started climbing up the way Caliandra had gone.

In the meantime, Kizzie had come to the end of the eastern tunnel. It was much shorter than the others, reaching a mere 10 feet or so before angling straight down. The spheroid chamber at the end of it was filled with water up to its equator. Standing on the side of the tunnel, Kizzie squinted to see through the water without actually entering it, and finally tossed in the sunrod Darrien had given her. It splooshed into the water, causing no creatures to fly out of the pool, and the water was clear enough for the halfling to see to the bottom once the sunrod had fully submerged. Chocking it up to a source of drinking water for the denizens of the underground network - which, Kizzie suddenly realized, consisted of creatures capable either of levitation, like the beholder, or climbing vertical surfaces like she was currently doing, and thus would have no problems lowering themselves down for a drink - she cast an unseen servant spell to retrieve the sunrod from the bottom of the pool.

Thomas was exiting his tunnel as Kizzie headed over to the tunnel Caliandra and Darrien had entered. "Anything?" she called.

"An empty chamber," the monk replied. "Possibly a beholder bedroom, for all I could tell. But no beholder."

"Then it's either in the western chamber, or the tunnel leading directly below us," reasoned the halfling.

"Let's catch up with the others, just in case."

The western tunnel, like most of the others spreading out from the central chamber's equator, remained level, although it did take a hard turn to the right halfway down its length. Caliandra opted to send Zapper down the corridor as a spy, thinking he'd have a better chance of remaining unseen by the beholder if it was in the chamber beyond. The brave little shocker lizard crawled forward slowly on its belly, scootching up silently to the spheroid at the end of the tunnel. Before he got to the end, though, he got a good idea of what was stored here: humanoid statues. He could make out a gnoll, an elven archer - and there, in the front, was the petrified form of Vance Pelorian, shield held before him and mace at the ready. "I found him, Mistress!" he called back to Caliandra in the private language they shared.

"Finally," Caliandra replied, passing the goods news on to Darrien. "We found your friend," Darrien passed on to Jorg, who had approached the half-elf in the meantime. Behind Jorg, Thomas and Kizzie were entering the tunnel as well.

And then, without warning, Vance shuffled forward, causing Zapper to retreat in confusion. He looked back at the cleric's form to confirm that he was still petrified, and sure enough, his entire form was still that of solid stone. "He's moving!" Zapper explained to his mistress.

"Vance is okay!" Caliandra exclaimed to the others, and as a group they turned the corner, expecting to see a revived Vance, somehow hale and hearty once more. Instead, Vance swung his mace at the nearest target, Thomas, who easily ducked the blow.

Thomas wasn't sure what was going on, but his combat training kicked in, and without conscious thought he ducked around Vance's stone form, positioning himself directly behind him so that one of his companions could get into a flanking position. However, in doing so, Thomas saw what hadn't been patently obvious from in front of Vance - there was a beam of light extending back from between the cleric's shoulder blades. Following the beam back to its source with his eyes, Thomas saw a beholder floating up at the top of the ceiling, one of its ten eyestalks aimed directly at the petrified form of Vance Pelorian, connecting the two with a barely-seen ray.

"Beholder!" called the monk to the others, as he rushed forward and leapt up to drive the side of his hand into the Evil Eye's underside. He had hoped it might be softer there, but the monk was disappointed in the sheer hardness of its armored form.

Jorg rushed up, eager to do battle with a worthy foe, as Darrien notched an arrow to the Arachnibow and let fly. Caliandra pulled the vial of stone salve from her pouch, popped off the top, and scooped its contents up into her fingers. Then, rushing forward and dodging a blow from Vance's mace, she wiped the salve onto the side of his arm. It glowed where it hit, and almost immediately began spreading across his arm, down his torso, and outward in all directions until his entire body glowed with an aura of transformation magic. Then, with a gasp of expelled breath, Vance Pelorian stumbled forward.

"Welcome back," Caliandra smiled at him.

"It looks like I have the opportunity for several new experiments," said the Evil Eye, a beholder mutant named Gzornyx. Addressing Thomas, who was attacking it with a flurry of hand-to-hand blows to little effect, it pondered, "I wonder what you'd look like with an eyestalk growing out of your face?" As it focused its verbal attention on the monk, several of its eyestalks suddenly shot out various-colored rays. The one that had been constantly shooting at Vance's petrified form turned off, then refocused on the gnoll statue, bringing it instantly to a semblance of life. It swung at Thomas with a stone paw, while Darrien was hit with another ray that sapped him of both his strength and dexterity. And while the monk was busy evading the petrified gnoll, he was hit in the back with another eye ray; fortunately, his inherent focus on physical perfection allowed him to shrug off whatever effects it might have brought.

Vance spun around, facing the creature that had petrified him what seemed to him like only seconds ago, back up on the surface. Deciding his best contribution to the group effort was a prayer spell, he stepped back out of the field of battle. Kizzie had similar thoughts and burst into a hearty song that bolstered her friends' fighting abilities.

Caliandra sent a lightning bolt spell cascading into Gzornyx's body; in immediate retaliation, he sent an eye ray crashing into her that caused her to turn to stone. Zapper flipped out at the apparent death of his mistress, and immediately fled down the tunnel back to the relative safety of the central chamber. In the back of the familiar's mind, though, he wondered how the eye ray - and Cali's spell, for that matter - had managed to work while within the arc of the Evil Eye's central eye. Wasn't a beholder's central eye supposed to negate all magic?

Darrien managed to get a small barrage of arrows into the Evil Eye by moving forward as he shot, narrowing the distance each arrow had to fly. Thomas continued his flurry of blows, darting around to strike the creature here with a fist and there with a well-placed kick, but it was Jorg - and his magic greatsword - that felled the vile creature. A deep gash running along its side, the Evil Eye started lowering to the floor of the statue room. The eye ray that had been animating the gnoll statue shut off, and the hyena-man froze in its new position. Gzornyx's final words were muttered in its own language, and thus had no meaning to anyone there in the room with it.

"Great, so we got Vance back but lost Cali!" grumbled Jorg. "Now what are we gonna do? We don't have any more of that gunk she used, do we?"

They did not. But Darrien offered to fetch a wagon to transport her petrified form to the Temple of Moradin in Kordovia, if they could figure out how to get her out of the underground lair in one piece. Going through their items, Jorg finally realized he had a potion of gaseous form, and that if he hefted Caliandra up into his arms while somebody fed him the potion, she ought to turn to mist along with him. There was some discussion about possibly saving the elf as well, but as he was unknown to the group they had no way of knowing his status; for all they knew, he could be a force of evil better left petrified. (In addition, Jorg was certainly strong, but not strong enough to carry them both at the same time.) Darrien promised to send word of the petrified elf's description to the elves of his small kingdom, and see if he could be identified and rescued.

But before the group left, they finished exploring the network, just in case. The bottom shaft led to a fungal garden, fortunately a source of food instead of a den of mobile monsters. The shrine with the carved beholder gave up 20 good-sized gemstones, one at the end of each of its eyestalks - Vance suggested this was likely a representation of the beholder deity, as conceived by the Evil Eye. By mutual agreement, the gemstones were sorted into five shares of four, with Caliandra and Vance splitting one share between them and a full four stones going to each of the other adventurers. Darrien pocketed his share, thinking to himself he'd rather have forgone the treasure and had Caliandra unharmed. But he made sure everybody got up to the surface safely, then hurried off on his own to Battershield Keep, leaving the others to guard their fallen sorceress's form.

Hours later, Darrien returned to the group with his teammates' mule cart, pulled by Franco and Tantrum. Caliandra's body was hauled up onto the back, and then Darrien drove it back to Kordovia, the others walking or riding with him. He knew the dwarven clerics would likely be able to restore Caliandra back to her normal flesh and blood (especially once Jorg assured him that Lord Cavelthorne would repay the dwarves the cost of the required spellcasting). During the whole ride back, Darrien thought only of how good it would be to have Caliandra back among the living. To hear her voice again, to see the warm glow of her skin...

There was no doubt about it. Darrien was smitten.

- - -

This was a welcome change of pace and an opportunity for the players to get to try out some new races and classes that they hadn't had the opportunity to play before. Vicki has lamented the fact that my well-known hatred of halflings made a halfling PC unlikely (or at least short-lived), so I thought I'd give her the opportunity to run one - and a bard at that, a class she had wondered whether it would be fun to run. (Her verdict: it was okay for a single session but she didn't think she'd have much fun running a full-time bard PC. I concur.) Dan enjoyed the relative simplicity - and high damage potential - of running a half-orc fighter, and Jacob has a newfound appreciation for the monk's good points and bad points. Logan's played sorcerers before (even a female one, in a prior campaign) so that was nothing new, but I wanted to round out the party a bit and I knew he wouldn't mind playing a PC of the opposite gender.

I don't envision having to use these NPCs as "stand-in PCs" to catch one of our normal PCs up to the others in the XP department like I did for this adventure, but they're there if we ever need them. And who knows, having a rival adventuring band, even a friendly rival one, can't be a bad thing in a campaign - we may be seeing Lord Cavelthorne's group again sometime in the future.

Oh, and after we finished this adventure Joey leveled up Darrien, so now everyone's at 8th level except for Ingebold. Joey opted to spend 2 skill points to have Darrien learn the Draconic language. I asked him to justify how Darrien would have done that, and sure enough, checking the PC sheets Caliandra speaks fluent Draconic. So I figure she was more than happy to teach him the basics in a "crash course" between this adventure and the one that follows, which I had already decided would take place a week or more later in game time. Darrien having rescued her petrified form from a beholder's lair and getting her restored to flesh and blood, I'm sure she saw it as a well-deserved reward. (And I'm sure Darrien enjoyed the one-on-one time learning the basics of Draconic from her.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: A light blue Red Cross T-shirt I received recently when donating blood. I figured it was a good way to represent the "new blood" of Lord Cavelthorne's band of adventurers.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 8​
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 8​
Darrien, half-elf ranger 8​
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 8​
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 8​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 1​
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 7 (Moradin)​

Game Session Dates: 2 July 2016 and 10 September 2016

- - -

It had been weeks since the latest assault on Kordovia by a band of orcs and goblins. As always after such an attack, the time was spent burning the bodies of the enemies, laying to rest those who had fallen while keeping Kordovia safe, and generally getting things back to normal. Darrien had spent quite a bit of time with Caliandra learning the basics of the Draconic language, and while he'd have been perfectly content continuing on with his lessons for as long as the shapely sorceress was willing to tutor him, at last the time had come for the adventurers to move on. With a saddened heart, the half-elf ranger bid farewell to the human sorceress and her shocker lizard familiar, and they each went their separate ways - Darrien to meet up with the rest of his band at the castle and Caliandra to meet up with the adventurers of her own small kingdom to the south.

The others were packing up when Darrien arrived. He threw his gear into the back of the Vistani wagon as Castillan and Aithanar made sure enough feed was loaded up in the back of the mule-driven wagon. Once everything was in readiness, Ingebold climbed up into her father's wagon and grabbed the reins of Franco and Tantrum, while Aithanar climbed up to the front seat of the Vistani wagon, ready to drive Castor and Pollux off into unknown adventure. But first....

"Pishutant?" said Aithanar in surprise, picking up a folded bit of parchment that had been lying on the seat.

"What's this?" asked the bounder, taking the parchment from his little brother.

"What what?" groused Gilbert from the back of the wagon. "Why we not going yet?"

"Somebody left a note for us," replied the bounder, flipping the parchment over and noting the seal in the wax holding the paper folded consisted of the seal of Kordovia. "Looks official," he added, popping open the seal with his dagger.

Binkadink and Finoula were already on their respective riding mounts, so rather than dismount they steered Obvious and Daisy over by Castillan. "What does it say?" asked Finoula.

Castillan unfolded the parchment and read aloud. It said:
Time is of the essence. Depart immediately for the southern part of the Vesve Forest. All will be explained to you shortly.
"Well, that's pretty straightforward," noted the bounder.

"Is it signed?" asked Binkadink.

"Nope. Got the royal seal on it, though."

"That's definitely a woman's handwriting," pointed out Finoula. "Could it be from Princess Kaelanna?" King Galrich had rescued Kaelanna as a newborn, as her elven mother wanted nothing to do with a half-dragon daughter. Opting to raise her himself, she had lived almost all of her life in Castle Kordovia, and as she was Galrich's adopted daughter, when he was elevated to king he made her a princess as one of his first royal decrees.

"Who cares?" piped up Gilbert from the back of the wagon. "We not decide which way to go yet, royal note says go to south part of forest. We go to south part of forest. Let's go!"

Without further discussion, the group got underway. As usual, Ingebold led the way in the mule cart, followed by Aithanar in the Vistani wagon, while Finoula and Binkadink trailed off to each side, Finoula's wolf loping along after Daisy. Castillan often walked ahead when exploring new territory, but as they were traveling through the kingdom to get to the Vesve Forest, he opted to sit in the open mule wagon with Darrien and Ingebold.

It was an uneventful trip, for the first hour or so. Then Gilbert, sitting in the back of the covered wagon reading through his Omnibook, got a surprise when the hidden hatch in the middle of the wagon's floor popped open and a young woman started climbing out.

"Phew!" she sighed. "It's stuffy down there! Not to mention I could feel every bump in the road!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" cried Gilbert, leaping up from his seat and pulling out a wand. He had it aimed at the blond woman before she turned to the sound of his voice and he finally recognized her.

"Your Highness!" he said, awkwardly lowering his wand. "What you doing here?"

"We're on a secret mission," Princess Kaelanna responded. "But enough time has passed, and we've put a sufficient number of miles behind us, so I no longer need to hide my presence."

"Shombick fleedle scrimbooly?" asked Aithanar through the open windows on either side of him. He was certain he could hear Gilbert talking to some lady, and the fighter was sure the portly wizard had been alone when they started their journey this morning....

Gilbert approached the front window, stuck his head out, and called to the others. "Everybody stop! We have situation here!"

Several minutes later, everyone stood in a circle behind the back door of the Vistani wagon, while Princess Kaelanna held court of a sort while sitting in the open doorway. It was the closest any of the group had gotten to the princess, as she spent most of her time alone in her tower in the castle attending to her studies. She's quite beautiful, Finoula noted to herself - despite the slight greenish tinge to her skin, she had classically sculpted elven features and a head of hair so blond it was almost white. It took close scrutiny to notice the crown of narrow spikes she wore on her head was not actually a crown, but a series of thin horns jutting up through her hair.

Gilbert started the discussion. "This not a good idea! Anything happen to princess and king have our heads."

"Quite the contrary," argued the princess. "First of all, nothing is going to happen to me, as I'm traveling under the protection of the finest of Kordovia's adventuring heroes. Secondly, Father would never have you killed simply because I came to harm on this mission."

"May I ask what this mission is, Your Highness?" asked Finoula.

"It is a mission of the highest importance to Kordovia," replied Princess Kaelanna. "I would prefer not to say anything more until we get there."

"Get where?" demanded Gilbert, belatedly adding, "...Your Highness."

"I will direct you as we travel. It should only be another four or five hours. And I should like to get a move on, so we can get to where we're going, I can have my discussion, and we can be back to the kingdom before nightfall."

"Discussion? May we ask with who, Your Highness?" asked Binkadink.

"If'n she wanted ye t'know, likely she'd've told you," snapped Ingebold. "She is King Galrich's daughter; it's our responsibility to do as she says, an' t'see her safely there an' home again."

"Ingebold is correct," replied Princess Kaelanna. "As a Princess of the Kingdom, you are technically bound to obey me. And furthermore, me risking my life out here is no different than Ingebold risking hers. If Aerik Battershield can allow his daughter to go out on adventures, then how can King Galrich do any less?"

"I no sure..." mused Gilbert.

"Plus, if you don't take me on this mission and return me to the castle instead, I'll just sneak out on my own. Then I'll be gone much longer, exposed to greater dangers by myself, all alone, without a band of heroes to keep me safe."

"Wait, 'sneak out'?" repeated Darrien. "Your Highness, does King Galrich know you're on this mission?"

"," admitted the princess. "But if he knew about it, I'm sure he'd agree it's in the best interests of the kingdom for me to go meet him!"

"'Meet him?' Your Highness, you aren't trying to elope or anything, are you?" asked Finoula, imagining how angry King Galrich might be at those who helped his daughter sneak off to get married without his knowledge.

"Married? Don't be ridiculous! He's my brother, you don't get married to--" Princess Kaelanna stopped her sentence right there, aware that she'd probably just given too much away. Maybe they won't pick up on it, she thought to herself.

No such luck. Gilbert not only picked up on it, he took it one step further with a leap of conjecture. "This brother of yours, he not a dragon by any chance, is he, Your Highness?"

The princess's guilty expression told all. "As it happens, yes, he is," she admitted. "But he's really nice! And Kordovia would greatly benefit having a green dragon as an ally!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" repeated Gilbert. "Green dragons -- they evil!"

"Clauguthrax is not evil!" objected Princess Kaelanna. "And I'm part green dragon! Are you saying I'm evil as well, wizard?"

Gilbert quickly thought through the ramifications of King Galrich finding out he'd tarred his daughter as evil because of her draconic heritage. After all, the King of Kordovia himself had orc blood running through his veins, and orcs were nothing but a scourge on the kingdom, but none would dare say King Galrich was evil as a result. "No, Your Majesty," he muttered quietly.

"Then we're done discussing it," she said, standing up to signify an end to her impromptu court. "We will press on and meet with Clauguthrax; I will get him to ally with Kordovia; and we'll all be back to the castle by evening. Father won't even know I've been gone, and in the event he does find out I promise I will shield you from all blame. Now then, back to your positions! Let's get back on the road!"

Everyone hurried to comply. Some stole quick glances at each other, managing to express "I've got a bad feeling about this!" without saying a word. But they were soon back on the road, winding their way through the Vesve Forest, headed south. As promised, Princess Kaelanna directed them where to go whenever they approached a fork in the road; nobody dared ask her how she knew where she was going, or how she had been in contact with a green dragon many hours from home when she seldom even left the castle, let alone the kingdom.

About four hours later, they were ambushed.

The small wagon train turned a corner on the dirt road they'd been following, and there was a downed tree ahead of them, blocking the path. Castillan, who'd been riding in the mule wagon, leaped down and raced up to check it out. Thinking to get a good vantage point from atop the downed trunk itself, he dashed forward with all his speed, leaped high into the air - snapping his fingers in mid-flight to bring his blades to hand - and only during his descent onto the trunk realized this was no tree at all. Instead, it was a mock-up constructed of intertwined webs and covered in places with branches and leaves. The bounder landed on both feet, sank into the construct nearly up to his knees, and was held fast in place.

"It's a fake! I'm stuck!" he called back to the others.

Both wagons had come to a halt at the sight of the obstruction. Darrien stood up from the back of the mule wagon and notched an arrow to the Arachnibow, looking around for danger. He spotted a spidery leg from behind a nearby tree and called out a warning to the rest of the group. And then, as if on cue, the attackers leaped out as one.

An ettercap dropped from a tree next to the mule wagon and immediately fired a strand of webbing connecting the wagon to the trunk of a sturdy tree. Another dropped down onto the top of the Vistani wagon and did the same. A third of these spider-creatures dropped down onto the false tree they had made out of webbing and moved to attack Castillan.

Inside the Vistani wagon, Gilbert hurriedly cast a false life spell on himself. "We got trouble, Your Majesty! I think you better go hide in trap door in floor!"

"What? I can help fight!" Princess Kaelanna argued.

"Spindooky flammajam!" called Aithanar as he scrambled into the wagon by crawling through one of the front windows.

"What is he saying?" asked the princess.

Aithanar had opened the trap door and was beckoning for the princess to hide inside. "He say 'Gilbert absolutely right, like always!'" the hefty wizard replied, guiding Kaelanna to the opening in the floor. Reluctantly, she dropped down into the hidden compartment and Aithanar closed the lid and stood atop it, sword raised as ready to be the last line of defense, if it came to that. "Good lad," Gilbert commented and, opening the back door to the wagon, stepped outside into a combat zone.

Three massive spiders, with leg-spans of 10 feet or more, had darted forth from their hiding spots behind trees and gone for the mules. Franco had been bitten and was rearing up, and Tantrum was doing his very best to keep another one at bay by kicking at it with his forehooves. The third had been intercepted by Binkadink and Obvious, and before the gnome could bring his glaive to good use his mount had bitten deep into one of the multijointed legs, then used that grip to bounce it up and down into the air, finishing up by jumping up and down atop the wounded spider. Binkadink took the opportunity to slide off of his mount right before the vigorous stomping began, not wanting to subject himself to that level of rodeo showmanship - past history indicated he'd likely have been thrown from the saddle in any case.

Up on the fake tree, Castillan was battling it out with one of the ettercaps. They'd traded blows a few times, but Castillan's general immobility limited his ability to get in any truly devastating strikes. He was managing to get a stab in here and there, however, while avoiding the spider-man's own venomous bites.

Finoula and Wrath were fighting the ettercap on the ground by the mule wagon, while Ingebold's attention was on a spiritual hammer she had attacking the spider that had been going for Tantrum. Darrien took a moment from shooting arrows at the spider attacking Franco to summon his giant praying mantis, and it manifested immediately behind Franco's assailant. In a blur of motion, the mantis struck out with its claws and grappled the massive spider, pinning it in place long enough for Binkadink to finish it off with his glaive. Likewise, the spider under assault by Obvious decided it had had enough and attempted to retreat back into the forest. But the jackalope was having none of that; it raced after the fleeing arachnid and stabbed it to death with his antlers, leaving its legs twitching in post-death spasms.

Gilbert saw the third ettercap was still on top of the wagon. It had managed to attach strong webbing from the wagon's top and sides to no less than three different trees, ensuring it wouldn't be going anywhere soon. The wizard blasted up at the spider-being with a charge from his wand of burning hands. In response, the ettercap shot webbing down at the wizard, immobilizing him. He then leaped down off the wagon, landing perfectly in place before Gilbert, its mandibles open wide, venom dripping from the ends of its fangs. But while Gilbert was entangled in webbing, he still had his wand of burning hands in one hand - and a false life spell providing him an extra bit of padding from true harm. He fired off a blast at point-blank range, burning through the webbing and blasting the ettercap right in its spidery face.

Ingebold stepped down from the wagon, approaching the last remaining spider with her warhammer in hand. While her spiritual hammer continued attacking the spider from the back, she did likewise from the front. Before long, it too was dead.

After she and Wrath had killed the ettercap they had been fighting, Finoula used her magic longsword to slash through the webbing adhered to the mule wagon by her now-dead foe. Then she turned and went to do the same to the webs anchoring the Vistani wagon in place. At the front of the wagon train, Castillan finally managed to slay the ettercap he'd been fighting, and then spent some time extricating himself from the web-tree.

That left only the singed ettercap by Gilbert of the original ambush party. It looked behind it and saw at a glance that all of its partners were now dead. Deciding that the mules and horses were no longer worth the effort - or the danger! - it shot a web-line into the tall branches of a nearby tree, intending to haul itself up into the trees and flee. But by then, Finoula and Wrath had approached the back of the wagon, and the wolf bit hard on the ettercap's leg as it tried to jump up onto its web. The wolf didn't manage to trip the ettercap but it held it in place just long enough for Finoula's blade to cut deep into its side. Hissing in pain, the ettercap pulled itself up onto its web and fled up to a high branch. Then, spilling a yellowish ichor from its wounds, it hissed down at its would-be prey in anger and staggered away through the branches.

After making sure that everyone was okay, the rangers used their healing skills on the mules while Gilbert burned away the fake tree made of webbing. Princess Kaelanna was released from her hidey-hole, given a full explanation as to what had occurred, and then the group was once again off to their unknown destination to meet with a green dragon that the heroes were all afraid they'd end up having to fight for their very lives, Princess Kaelanna's reassurances notwithstanding.

- - - [The first gaming session stopped here] - - -

After another half-hour of travel, Princess Kaelanna led the wagon train to a spot in a small clearing. "We shall leave the wagons and animals here," she commanded; as per the normal routine, Aithanar remained behind as well. Exiting the wagon, she led the way through the forest as if knowing exactly where she was going, although to the best of the group's knowledge the princess almost never left the castle in Kordovia.

"I still not like this!" hissed Gilbert, certain they were walking into a trap. Darrien lagged behind, far enough so he could quietly cast a spell on himself that would partially shield himself from the effects of acid-based attacks.

Finally, after about a ten-minute hike, Princess Kaelanna turned to the rest of the group and said, "Be ready, but there should be no danger. I will do all of the talking." And then she strode forward past some bushes into a small clearing, calling out "Clauguthrax! I am here, as we discussed!"

Almost immediately, a reptilian head rose up from a cave opening in the forest floor some fifty feet before her. As the great beast exited his subterranean lair, the heroes marveled at his size; Gilbert blanched, realizing this gargantuan dragon was much more than they'd be able to handle, if it came to a fight.

"Kaelanna, my dear little half-sister, it is good to finally meet you in person. So, you're an elf – how exactly did that come to be?" asked the green dragon good-naturedly. He didn't even seem to have even noticed the rest of the group.

"How did I become dragonblooded?" asked Princess Kaelanna. "My first father was an elf, of whom I know nothing; the green dragon Antharvalos was my second father, by imbuing his essence into me while my elven mother was still pregnant; and now King Galrich is my third father."

"King Galrich, you say?" asked the dragon, bemused. "Then I am in the presence of royalty?"

"Adopted royalty, in any case, but yes," replied Kaelanna.

"And these others?" the dragon asked, finally looking at the assembled heroes for the first time. "Did you perchance bring them to me as a snack?"

Here we go! thought Gilbert. If I start with an Evard's black tentacles spell, I can hopefully immobilize him, so all we have to worry about is his breath weapon.... But before he could start the words to his spell, Princess Kaelanna made a "calm down, I've got this" motion with her hand. "These are my loyal retainers from the Kingdom of Kordovia," she responded. Clauguthrax seemed a bit miffed at that.

"Well then," he decided, "if I'm not to eat them, then perhaps I can put them to good use while we have our little chat. See if they can do something about these blasted squirrels! Their incessant chattering drives me crazy!" The heroes listened carefully, but nobody could hear any squirrel chattering - it must be true, what they said about enhanced draconic senses.

"You want us to leave, go hunt squirrels?" reiterated Gilbert, relieved at the opportunity to get away from this dangerous threat.

"Whatever it takes to get them to be silent!" agreed Clauguthrax.

That sounded like a great idea to Gilbert Fung; he'd be willing to go square-dancing with squirrels if it meant getting away from the presence of the immense green dragon who might change his mind at any moment about gobbling them down as a snack.

"We cannot be leavin' ye behind, me Princess," argued Ingebold.

"I am perfectly safe here, with my half-brother to protect me," replied the princess. Ingebold couldn't think of a good way to voice her concern that it was the half-brother she was worried about, but the dragon interceded on her behalf, amused at the thought that the little dwarf thought she could actually protect Kaelanna from him, if it came down to that. "You're certainly welcome to keep your bodyguard close at hand," said the dragon.

"Then I'll be here, at the end of th' clearing," offered Ingebold, stepping out of earshot to allow them their privacy, but still near enough to come running at the first sign of trouble.

"Are you sure about this?" asked Finoula.

"I cannae leave th' princess," replied Ingebold. "Ye go on; I dinnae think ye'll be needin' much healin' in a fight against squirrels. An' if'n ye do, ye've plenty of potions t' tide ye over."

"She right - let's go!" suggested Gilbert, ushering the rest of the group away from the dragon's lair. Once at a sufficient distance, he said, "Okay, how we deal with squirrels? Kill them all?"

"What?" replied Finoula, shocked at the thought. "Slaughtering squirrels, that's your solution? What will that solve?"

"Dragon gets good night sleep, we get plenty of meat for cookpot."

"Squirrel meat's pretty good," admitted Darrien, who had killed his fair share of them in the past.

"There's got to be a better way."

"Why don't we see what the squirrels have to say?" asked Binkadink, elevating himself up to his highest with his gnomish stilt-boots and making chattering noises up at the trees. His queries, in the language of burrowing mammals, were quickly answered; although the others hadn't picked up on it, the further away from the dragon's cave the group had walked, the louder the squirrel-chattering had become.

"What seems to be the trouble?" asked the little gnome. Given their relative intelligence, their answer was provided in little snippets of words.

"Snakes. Men. Both. Badsnakes. Sing. Bad. Badsong. Sing badsong. Climbers die. Gulp! Eaten. Climbers run. Climb. High. Badsnakes climb. Badsong. Fall. Die. Eaten. Bad. Warn climbers. Badsnakes come!" The squirrels were visibly shaken at the memories, and several fled at the repetition of the events of recent days.

"Can one of you lead us to where we can find the badsnakes?" asked Binkadink, but the squirrels all fled, screaming their warnings to their neighbors. The gnome translated his findings to the others.

"You think these are the same snakemen from the Henderson farm?" asked Castillan, thinking back to the group's very first adventure together.

"They called 'yuan-ti'," replied Gilbert. "And who knows? Could be. They not normally found here, anyway - like hotter climate. Weird to find one group, weirder to find two. They probably same ones."

Wandering around and letting Binkadink call up to the trees, the group eventually found a squirrel of braver demeanor willing to lead them to the "badsnakes." He was only willing to get as close as eight or ten trees away, though, before pointing out "that way," and scampering away in the opposite direction at maximum speed. The group headed in that direction with weapons drawn, the rangers Darrien and Finoula leading the way. Before long, they found a small pile of assorted bones, not only of numerous squirrels but also small woodland creatures like the occasional badger or woodchuck. Darrien recalled for the group that many snakes swallowed their prey, digested them whole, and then disgorged the bones.

"The lair's probably close by," offered Finoula - and she was right, for hidden in the shadows of the surrounding trees was a hole, not quite three feet in diameter, angling down into the earth from between the roots of a great oak tree. "This looks like it," said Binkadink, crouching down and walking in, only to return after a few moments, crestfallen.

"What's the matter?" asked Darrien.

"Sharp turns," replied Binkadink. "My glaives are too long to fit."

"Give 'em here," offered Castillan, taking the two ten-foot-long polearms and balancing them across a pair of low branches. "We'll come back for them after we've dealt with whatever's inside."

Binkadink made do with his greatclub in hand, then crouched over and re-entered the low tunnel. Finoula followed, crawling on hands and knees. "You coming?" she asked the others, but they opted to let the first two check it out first.

The low tunnel of hard-packed dirt made frequent dips and turns but eventually opened up into a larger chamber. The twin everburning torches tied to the antlers of the little gnome's helmet lit the way; just ahead, Binkadink saw a stick lying across the floor in the place where the tunnel opened out into the greater chamber. Not trusting it, he reached in and tried pulling it into the tunnel with it, and doing so he triggered the trap: one end of the stick jostled one of a pair of upraised sticks on either side of the tunnel entrance, allowing the small branch they were supporting to come crashing down - on the spot Binkadink would be occupying had he simply walked or crawled into the chamber. The branch had several sharpened rib-bones sticking out of it in all directions, which could have done him some harm - but it hadn't, so Binkadink congratulated himself as doing as fine a job of trap-avoidance as Castillan could have done. He stepped into the empty chamber, beckoning to Finoula that it was safe to follow.

Looking around, the two were in a roughly circular chamber with a curved ceiling, about eight feet tall in the center. There was the occasional root coming out from the ceiling, but the ranger noted there wasn't enough materials to work with to fuel an entangle spell. The only other feature was another low tunnel leading north.

"It's safe to come on down, you big sissies!" Finoula called up to the remaining heroes - and simultaneously alerting the rest of the inhabitants of the underground den that there were intruders about.

Once Darrien, Castillan, and Gilbert had entered the larger chamber, Binkadink scouted head through the low tunnel to the north. Behind him, Finoula, Darrien, and Castillan got down on hands and knees to follow, while Gilbert loitered around at the entrance, examining the crude workmanship of the bone-branch. As the gnome approached the end of the short tunnel, he could see it opened into a much smaller chamber, with a diagonal tunnel leading down to a lower level - and a guard popping around a corner from the right!

The snakeman slithered along the floor of the chamber, bent low to face the tunnel, opened its mouth wide, and gave forth a sonic howl that rattled the teeth in the little gnome's head. He, along with those behind him (except for Gilbert, who was safely out of range), cried out in pain, while the snakeman doubled back the way he'd come. By the time Binkadink entered the small guard chamber, the snakeman was gone. The gnome raced down the sloping tunnel - the only way the snakeman could have gone - and very nearly lost his balance, as the tunnel dropped at about a 45-degree slop, before angling straight down for a few feet, finally opening into another round chamber from the ceiling.

Binkadink plopped onto the floor of this lower chamber. It too was about eight feet tall at its highest point and had a large steel shield propped up against the northern wall, but the gnome's attention was focused on the two snakemen in the chamber with him, one to the north and one to the south. Each held an odd-looking weapon, a long, metal shaft with a small, round ball on the end, rather like an extra-long mace. Binkadink got to experience these "floggers" in action, as each of his serpentine foes closed and whacked the gnome with their weapons. Binkadink raised his arms to fend off the blows, and was completely surprised by the direction of his next attack. Finoula, having entered the diagonal tunnel behind the gnome but having opted to travel head-first, lost her balance along the steep slope and came crashing down onto the befuddled gnome. The yuan-ti applied their floggers to the elven ranger with vigor, causing her quite a bit of damage, for her armor wasn't metal like that of her gnome companion. She got out a hit against one with her longsword, but was disappointed to note that the additional sonic damage didn't seem to faze the serpent.

Castillan was the next to enter the chamber; using his training as a bounder, he managed to land on his feet along the western edge, Snapping his fingers as he landed, his blades popped into his hands, ready for combat.

In the guardian chamber above, Darrien took the time to unstrap his Arachnibow from his back, allowing Gilbert to enter next. The heavyset wizard cast both expeditious retreat and spider climb upon himself, then sped-crawled down the sloping tunnel, scampering along the ceiling of the lower chamber once he got there. Behind him, Darrien followed Finoula's earlier example and entered the sloping tunnel head-first, hoping it would widen at the bottom and he could shoot arrows at the enemies below. It didn't work out that way for him; he had to forego his bow-shots in the cramped tunnel, and thus did the only thing he could do from his current position: raise a hand to his amber necklace and summon forth the giant praying mantis stored within.

In the chamber below, the yuan-ti Binkadink had chased into the chamber bellowed forth a sonic attack that once again hit all but Gilbert (and the mantis that was just now forming along the eastern side of the chamber); the gnome, crawling out from underneath Finoula and receiving a bash from a flogger for his efforts, belatedly recognized this as the "badsong" described by the squirrels topside. Finoula collapsed into immediate unconsciousness from the sonic attack, having already suffered many blows by the odd flogger-weapons. Seeing this, Gilbert cast a hasty fire shield spell on himself and dropped from the ceiling, positioning himself between the southern snakeman and the unconscious ranger. Hoping to draw the yuan-ti's attacks onto himself, he grabbed up a magic wand - his wand of false life - and waved it in the reptilian foe's face.

Castillan took the opportunity of the yuan-ti's concentration on Gilbert to stab his blade between the reptile's scales. It slid in deep, sliding back out covered in deep, red blood. At the same time, the mantis struck from the other side, catching the snakeman in its claws but failing to purchase a hold. Binkadink stood up and slammed his greatclub into the yuan-ti as well; everyone was hoping to kill it before it could produce its own blast of "badsong."

Given a plethora of enemies, the yuan-ti did just what Gilbert had hoped and struck at him, slamming him twice with his metal flogger weapon. Each blow activated the wizard's protective fire shield spell, but Gilbert was disappointed to see the reptile shrug off the effects of the retaliatory fire attacks. These sonic yuan-ti resist fire as well! he thought to himself.

Castillan got in another good attack against the southernmost snakeman; this attack was enough to finally slay it. Gilbert took the opportunity to apply his wand of false life to Finoula's unconscious form; the elven ranger woke up with a splitting headache from the sonic attacks, but struggled to her feet with her blades in hand.

Binkadink focused his attention on the remaining of these sonic yuan-ti, smashing his greatclub against the beast's side, while it returned a couple of blows with its flogger in retaliation. Heavily wounded by this time, Gilbert, Finoula, and Castillan each took a swig from their potions of healing in an attempt to stay in the fight, each fearing the remaining snakeman's next "badsong" might otherwise take them down.

The mantis struck out at the yuan-ti with blinding speed, grasping it in its foreclaws and biting deep as it grappled the snakeman. Gilbert looked around and his eye caught what looked like a hole behind the shield propped along the north wall. "This not good!" he called, kicking the shield away and revealing another narrow tunnel sloping upward to the surface.

Darrien dropped to the chamber, just as the last remaining yuan-ti was slain. Pointing to the revealed tunnel, Gilbert said, "There might still be third yuan-ti alive!" The truth of his statement was indicated by an angry hissing from the tunnel coming from the ceiling above, as the third sonic yuan-ti, having escaped from the chamber before the heroes entered, had raced back to the front entrance in hoped of catching the intruders in a pincer maneuver.

Darrien quickly deployed his mantis to the upper tunnel; the great insect flew up into the tunnel just as the third foe crawled into view. The mantis snatched out with its grasping claws, catching the surprised reptile in a grapple and then biting at it with its mouthparts - but then it simply vanished, its duration having expired. Looking down at his amber amulet, Darrien saw the mantis had returned to its normal stasis within.

However, the temporary reprieve had given the heroes time to magically mend their wounds with more frantic swigs of healing potions. The sonic yuan-ti surprised the heroes by not entering the chamber to fight them; rather, it kept the bulk of its serpentine length in the tunnel above and dropped its humanoid torso down from the hole in the ceiling, swing at the nearest target - Finoula - with an oversized scimitar. Once again, the elf dropped to unconsciousness from the blow, and Gilbert swore under his breath at their lack of a cleric on this "perfectly safe squirrel-hunting" mission. He cast a grease spell up at the tunnel, causing the surprised snakeman to come plopping down in a heap of serpentine coils onto the hard-packed floor of the lower chamber. The air knocked out of it, it didn't stand a chance; ringed by angry adventurers, it was pummeled by various weapons until slain.

As Gilbert carefully pulled one of Finoula's healing potions from her belt and poured its contents down her throat, Castillan checked out the large steel shield. It had a scroll tube wedged in a compartment on its inner surface. He pulled it out and removed the sheet of parchment from inside, but it was covered in arcane runes he couldn't read. Passing it along to Gilbert, he focused his attention on the exit passageway. It was lined with sharp sticks pointing towards the exit, apparently so that exiting would be a simple matter but the sonic yuan-ti need not worry about anyone sneaking in from that direction.

"Bah!" scoffed Gilbert, after having cast a read magic spell to determine the scrolls' contents. "It a reincarnation spell, for druid! What we do with that?" But by then Finoula had awakened yet again, and slowly sat up, looking all around her. "What happened?" she asked.

"You asleep on job again!" groused Gilbert, hiding the fact that he had worried about her safety throughout this entire battle. Finoula noted his arm was still wrapped protectively around her shoulder; with a look at the wizard, he quickly removed it. "Let's get back to dragon, see if he eaten our princess and cleric yet!" he said.

Fortunately, both Princess Kaelanna and Ingebold were in fine health upon their return. Binkadink had called out to the squirrels during their return, telling them the "badsnakes" had been killed and they need not worry any more, and that furthermore they should avoid nesting in the vicinity of the dragon's den.

"Are you sure you need all of your retainers?" asked Clauguthrax. "I could do with a snack." The group, not sure if he was just kidding, offered to bring him forth the slain bodies of the trio of sonic yuan-ti. Doing so meant slogging back over to their den, but the portable hole - which they had to grab from Ingebold before they set off - made the job much easier than it would have been otherwise. Satisfied with his snack, Clauguthrax said his farewell to his half-sister and the group returned to the wagons, eager to get the princess back to the castle before she was missed. Inexplicably, Princess Kaelanna's white-blond locks turned a bright pink on the way back to the Vistani wagon.

"So, were you successful, Your Highness?" asked Finoula as she rode Daisy back alongside the Vistani wagon as they trundled on home to Kordovia.

"I think so," Princess Kaelanna gushed. "He said he'll think about it, but I think he can be swayed to assist the kingdom in times of need."

However, once Princess Kaelanna had been successfully smuggled back into the castle - her hair having returned to its normal color after an hour or so of its sudden pinkness - the group was faced with another dilemma. Before they let her depart, Finoula - who the group had tasked with being the one to give her the ultimatum, thinking because they both shared an elven heritage Kaelanna might heed Finoula's advice where she might not if it were given by someone else - asked for a final word.

"Your Highness, you have to tell King Galrich about what we've done today," Finoula said.

"I will, in time, once I've received Clauguthrax's final decision. He will be pleased with our efforts, I think."

"I'm not sure that will be his first reaction," argued Finoula. "I can't imagine he'll be too happy with your sneaking away from the safety of the kingdom - or with us having assisted you."

"I've already told you, I'll make sure Father does not punish you for assisting me."

"And you're assuming the dragon will agree to aid us," added Finoula. "It's possible that he may opt not to assist us, or - worse yet - to attack us. That Antharvalos -- isn't he the green dragon that King Galrich helped slay as an adventurer? Isn't it possible that Clauguthrax will seek revenge, especially now that he knows where King Galrich is to be found?"

"He'd never do that -- he's my brother!" replied Kaelanna. "He'd never do anything to harm me!"

"Your Majesty, I hope that you're correct. But King Galrich needs to know about what we've done, at the very least so that he may make preparations for the worst - even though that'll likely never come to pass," she hastily added, seeing the anger rise in the princess.

The half-dragon seemed to think on Finoula's words. And then the elven ranger added the ultimatum: "If you don't tell His Majesty, Your Highness, then I'm afraid we will have to do so ourselves."

Princess Kaelanna's eyes narrowed in anger. "You would do what I expressly forbid?"

Finoula was resolute. "Our loyalties are to the kingdom, and to King Galrich, before to yourself, your Highness."

The half-dragon princess seemed to be exerting a great effort to calm her emotions. Finally, she trusted herself to speak. "Very well," she conceded. "I will talk to Father myself."

"Very good, Your Highness," Finoula responded, bowing low at the princess's exit.

The others sidled up to Finoula after the princess had stormed out. "Hey, nicely put," offered Castillan.

"Yeah, good job!" added Darrien.

"Yeah - it almost make up for you sleeping on job during fight with snakemen!" interjected Gilbert, earning him a swat on the arm.

- - -

Wow! When we played the first half of this adventure on the 2nd of July, I had no idea it would be a full ten weeks before we'd have another opportunity to game. But we had all kinds of things pop up to block our potential gaming weekends, and it was only last Saturday before we were able to finish the adventure. We gamed for a full six hours, finishing this adventure and then going through the adventure that follows. And we've already set the next game day for two weeks from last Saturday, so hopefully we can avoid ten-week gaps between sessions in the future.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: We started this adventure at the end of the same session that we had run through "The Evil Eye," so I was still wearing my Red Cross T-shirt. But that was still thematically appropriate, as Kaelanna was seeking a "blood relative." For the second gaming session, I went for broke and wore a black T-shirt with a green dragon on it - there was no need to keep it a surprise, since by that time the players all knew they were headed into an encounter with a green dragon.
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Game Session Date: 10 September 2016

- - -

I'm going to break one of my own self-imposed rules for this campaign - and this Story Hour - and detail the events of our next adventure, "Rimbule the Metamorph." I had originally fully intended not to use any published material for the entirety of this campaign, but "Rimbule the Metamorph" is an adventure I had written and submitted to Dungeon magazine, where it was rejected - but then subsequently printed in Mongoose Publishing's Signs & Portents magazine when I decided to give it a shot there. Hopefully, those of you reading this write-up won't be running your own PCs through this adventure, but given that it was published in 2004 back in issue #7 of a magazine that's now been out of print for years, I'm hoping my spilling these details will have a very minimal impact on anyone reading this.

- - -

After returning Princess Kaelanna to the castle, it was kind of pointless to head back out again given the scant amount of daylight left in the day, so the Kordovian Adventurers Guild members opted to spend the night at Battershield Keep and get a fresh start in the morning. Now, several hours past the light of the new dawn, the team was once again traveling through the Vesve Forest - but Ingebold, in the mule-driven wagon, opted to avoid the roads that would take them anywhere near the lair of Clauguthrax. Aithanar followed her lead in the Vistani wagon, while Binkadink and Finoula rode their respective mounts to either side as usual, Wrath loping alongside the pony of his mistress.

A sudden scream from just ahead brought both wagons to an immediate halt. Binkadink, riding on Obvious on the right side of the dirt road near where the scream had come from, sent his jackalope scampering over to the underbrush, seeking the point of origin of the scream. They arrived just in time to see a young woman's face twisted in apparent agony, her right hand clawing at the ground in an attempt to stop being pulled backwards into the scrub - and then she was gone.

"Over here!" called the gnome to his companions, before sending Obvious plunging through the undergrowth.

Castillan, who had been riding on top of the Vistani wagon's roof as a lookout, leaped down to the right and went scouting ahead towards where Binkadink and his jackalope mount had left the road - and where further screams were now emanating, including what sounded like a gasp of surprise from the gnomish fighter. The door at the back of the Vistani wagon opened and Gilbert Fung stepped out, grumbling about having stopped. He stormed over toward the mule wagon, but came to an abrupt halt at the movement along the growths between the trees to the side of the road, as eight dark figures stepped out from the forest. Each was the size of a man, but stood in a hunched posture as better fit their ratlike build. Whiskers twitching, pink tails dragging behind them, their faces grimaced in what were apparently broad smiles as they called out to each other.

"Dibs on the fat one!"

"I got the one in the wagon!"

"The dwarf chick's mine!"

"Guys, there are plenty to go around! We'll all get points for this lot!"

Darrien, having gathered from their conversation that these ratmen meant them no good, stood up in the back of the mule wagon where he'd been riding, took aim with his Arachnibow, and placed a second arrow into the chest of a ratman before the creature had even noticed the first arrow the ranger had placed there but a second prior. With a high-pitched squeal of pain and surprise, the ratman fell backwards, dead.

Finoula led her pony Daisy around the back of the Vistani wagon, uncoiling her whip of thorns. Wrath followed her, then made a rush for the ratman the furthest back from his fellows. As the ranger's whip caught up the second ratman in line and pulled him prone, the wolf bit deep into the first ratman's leg and dragged him to the ground. Between the wolf's teeth and the whip's thorns, neither of the two ratmen got back up again alive.

Ingebold dropped the mules' reins and leaped to the ground, her warhammer in hand. "Dwarf chick, eh?" she repeated, swinging her weapon menacingly.

In the meantime, three of the ratmen had surrounded Castillan in a semicircle and had gotten in a few bites, causing the bounder - with the threat of wolf lycanthropy still hanging over his head - to wonder if he was facing wererats, and if so, what would happen if he caught rat lycanthropy on top of the wolven strain he'd likely already picked up. The bounder snapped his weapons into his hands and went to stab at the ratman at his left, only to have him drop to the ground, one of Darrien's arrows embedded in his throat. Castillan switched targets over to the next one, only to have the same thing happen. He was quicker than the ranger the third time, though, his short sword plunging into the ratman's side. "Nice of you to leave me one!" he called back to his friend.

Past the ring of roadside trees, Binkadink and Obvious saw who was pulling the woman back - and just how much of a "woman" she really was. The aggressor was a male centaur with elven facial features, tugging on a rope tied to the woman's back leg. But her back leg was that of a tortoise, as was her other leg and her left arm and hand - complete with a hardened shell covering her entire body. Only her head and her right arm and hand were still human. But, odd hybrid creature or not, Binkadink was moved by her screams to do what he could to help - which consisted of encouraging Obvious forward enough to bring his gnomish glaive to bear, slicing the rope in twain with a single downward thrust. The centaur staggered backward, and Obvious turned to face him. Binkadink raised his glaive to ward off the centaur, but the tortoise-woman called out, "Don't hurt him! He's been charmed into preventing my escape!"

Back at the roadside, Gilbert cast a burning hands spell over Ingebold's head to set the fur of an approaching ratman ablaze, while the cleric brought down the last of the eight with her warhammer. Seeing no further threats, the group jointly decided to leave Aithanar and the animals with the wagons, while they went to find Binkadink and Obvious on foot.

Stepping between the trees, Gilbert's highly-attuned magic senses were triggered. "This an illusion," he said, indicating the trees and heavy undergrowth all around them. It was a very accurately-cast hallucinatory terrain spell, or rather a series of overlapping spells of the same type, cast to prevent anyone from outside the perimeter of the ring of spells from being able to see inside. Only once inside the ring did the hidden grove come into view.

A broad clearing, roughly circular, covered hundreds of feet straight ahead. Right about in its center stood a two-story, circular stone keep surrounded by a palisade and a moat. There was a pond nearby and a small obelisk, with a few figures here and there. But of immediate interest were the tortoise-woman and the centaur directly in front of Obvious and Binkadink. "What the Hell?" asked Gilbert Fung, never one to let his true feelings be hidden. "What you supposed to be?"

My name is--well, you might as well call me Turtle," said the hybrid. "The centaur is named Valgard. Until recently, he was an elf." Valgard nodded his agreement, or possibly it was intended as a welcome, for he was not actively trying to fight the heroes, as none of them were attempting to leave the hidden grove.

"There are a few more freaks up ahead," said Turtle. "I'll introduce you to them." And she started crawling towards the pond and the obelisk at tortoise speed. Valgard and the heroes followed her.

"All of us were, at one time or another, captured by a wizard named Rimbule, or by the ratmen he has in his employ," began Turtle.

"We killed eight of them on the road," offered Castillan.

"You did? Did you happen to remove their rings?" At the bounder's negative reply, Turtle explained: "The ratmen are the only ones allowed to exit the grove. There are magical alarm symbols hidden all the way throughout the edges of the grove. Once you get too close, they start causing you intense pain, which gets increasingly worse with every step you take towards safety. I was trying to fight my way past the pain and get out, but Valgard dragged me back. He's been charmed by Rimbule to keep those of us with our own free wills from escaping. So has Gandlebain here, too, another elf captive." Another beast-man loped up to the group, his upper body that of an elf, his lower half that of a goat. "Rimbule's made a satyr out of him."

"So what were ye supposed to be?" asked Ingebold.

"The gods only know," lamented Turtle. "Some sort of humanoid turtle, I imagine. I was one of his earliest human test subjects. As you can see, he got increasingly better over the years. Come on down here, Jolinda, they're not here to hurt us." A bird-woman flapped her wings and alit from the top of the nine-foot-tall obelisk, landing on the ground by Turtle. "Jolinda was a trader, traveling through the forest, before she was abducted by the ratmen and turned into a fake harpy." The heroes could see that despite the harpy build, Jolinda's human part was quite beautiful - unlike any true harpies, who were universally ugly in appearance. She was also a harpy in build only, lacking any of the magical song-based abilities of a true harpy.

"This is another one of Rimbule's early works: we just call him Snake." Turtle pointed out a shambling form, a man-sized reptile with a human left leg and right arm jutting out from an otherwise serpentine form; the creature tried walking upright like a man, shuffling along on his one leg and using his curved snake body as an impromptu second standing limb. "Snake's mind's all gone," Turtle said, as Jolinda flapped her wings and made for the safety of the top of the obelisk once again. "He'll try to eat you, but he's slow enough we can all pretty much avoid him."

Turtle led the others to another hulking form, this one looking like a man-sized minotaur - until he turned around, exposing the udders hanging between his legs. "We call this one Minotaur," Turtle said. "His mind's that of a cow. He's a nice enough sort, does nothing but eat, sleep, and low when he wants milked." Castillan couldn't help sneering at the concept.

"And that's all of us, except for Tukio," said Turtle, changing direction and heading for the pond. "She doesn't need to be charmed to stay where she's at, as you'll see." A ripple in the middle of the pond became an arrow-shaped wave as an unseen form headed towards the group. Surfacing, the heroes saw a lovely young woman, with almond eyes like Gilbert's...and the lower half of a giant trout. "Rimbule's very own mermaid," Turtle commented.

"So, I assume this Rimbule lives over in the keep?" asked Binkadink. "Maybe we can convince him to change you all back."

"I'm not sure if that's even possible," lamented Turtle. "But we'd all appreciate it if you were able to."

"What can you tell us about him?" asked Finoula.

"He's a wizard - a transmuter, not surprisingly. He has three women helping him. I don't know what their deal is, but he never uses them for his experiments."

"Watch out for the dark-haired one," offered Tukio. "Her name's Tchiu -- she's crazy!"

"You can't miss her: she has a demon-skull tattoo across half of her face," added Turtle.

"Sounds lovely," muttered Darrien.

Turtle picked up a stick and started drawing a map of the keep in the dirt. "There are two floors above, and at least one level underground," she said. "I've only ever been in the upper rooms, back know." She explained the layout she'd drawn, pointing out the rooms where Rimbule spent most of his time.

"We'll have to get past the moat, and the wall around the keep," pointed out Darrien, squinting at the keep.

"There's an owlbear in the moat," warned Turtle. "The ratmen feed him spare parts from Rimbule's experiments."

"What their deal?" asked Gilbert. "He turn them into monsters - why they work for him?"

"They have an exclusive deal with Rimbule," explained Jolinda from her perch. "They can buy their way back to human form - after a ratman supplies Rimbule with ten victims, he'll return him to his human form."

"So he say," scoffed Gilbert. "And they believe him?"

"I've seen it happen, at least twice," countered Turtle. "Each time, the former ratman strolled out of the grove a free man."

"Hmmm," Gilbert mused. Then, changing subjects, he turned towards Jolinda. "You! Bird-girl! You think you can fly to top of keep carrying gnome?"

Jolinda blanched at the very thought, and rapidly shook her head. "No way. That's too high! I'm...I don't like heights." Gilbert rolled his eyes and made a rude noise with his lips.

"I know of another way in," offered Tukio. That got everyone's attention, and they turned to face the young mermaid.

"At the bottom of the pond, there's an underwater passageway that leads to the keep," she said. It ends at a well, in a pitch-black room somewhere in the keep's lower level." Darrien looked over at the keep, judging the distance. "I don't know," he said. "That's an awful long distance for us to be holding our breath underwater," he began.

"Not so hard if we inside portable hole!" replied Gilbert, turning to Ingebold. "Open up hole, so we all climb inside!" The dwarven cleric scowled at Gilbert's choice of words, but pulled out the portable hole - which she kept rolled up in a scroll case at her belt - and explained its usage to Tukio. The mermaid agreed to roll up the item, swim to the well, and open the hole on the side of the well.

"You stay here, and look after the others," said Binkadink to Obvious in the burrowing-mammal language they shared. The jackalope nodded its antlered head in response, and hippity-hopped over by Turtle.

"Anything else we should know about before we go in?" asked Finoula.

Turtle and Tukio looked at each other, thinking, before they both blurted out "Batcat!"

"Rimbule's got a cat familiar that he upgraded," explained Turtle. "Now it has bat wings and a bat's head. It's a creepy little thing. Anyway, he often spies on us, making sure we're not up to anything, and reports back to Rimbule."

"If you see it, kill it," recommended Tukio. And with that, the heroes stepped into the extradimensional space of the portable hole, Tukio rolled it up, and they waited while she swam through the underwater tunnel to the keep. There wasn't much air inside the space, and the air that was there was stale, but at least the two everburning torches on Binkadink's helmet-antlers gave them enough light to see by. After several minutes, there was a breeze of equally-stale air, bringing with it the smell of fresh water. "There you go," said Tukio," and suddenly, there she was, her wet skin gleaming in the light of Binkadink's torches as she spread the portable hole open along the side of the well's interior. "Good luck!" she called to the heroes before ducking back down beneath the surface of the water.

Darrien stepped up to the edge of the hole, now in a vertical orientation although it had been flat on the ground when they stepped into it. Aiming at the ceiling in the magical torchlight with his Arachnibow, he shot an arrow that became a web-strand by the time it hit. He gave it a good tug to make sure it was secure, then passed it over to Castillan, their resident climbing expert. The bounder was up the line in no time, kicking himself over the top of the well and looking around in the dim light. The room wasn't much bigger than the well, with just enough room to walk around it. But then, as Darrien started climbing up the web-line, Castillan's keen elven senses detected a hidden door along one wall. As Castillan worked out how to open it, Gilbert called back to Darrien to fold up the portable hole on his way up the web-line.

"Anything to prevent a little effort on your part," scoffed Finoula.

"Actually, that was a pretty good idea," remarked Binkadink. "I wasn't really looking forward to climbing that line in this armor."

"Nor I, now that ye come t' mention it," added Ingebold. Finoula just shrugged and waited for the extradimensional portal to open back up. By the time they climbed out, they were no longer in the well room - they were in the room on the other side of the secret door Castillan had unearthed. This was a storage room of some sort, filled with clutter from a half-dozen merchant wagons - likely those attacked by the ratmen while in search of victims for their master's experiments. Now that the adventurers were out of the magical hole, the bounder wasted no time filling the extradimensional space with everything of value he could find in the room. Elven wine, chain mail armor, assorted weapons, blankets, pottery, carved stone gargoyle statuettes - in it all went. "We'll sort through it all later," he explained.

After rolling the portable hole back up, Castillan opened the only door leading out of the room a crack and peered out. There were everburning torches in sconces along the wall, providing enough illumination to see a couple of doors on either side of a short hallway and a set of stairs leading up to the upper levels. "Clear," he said, just as the sound of a slamming door came from the door to the left.

Quickly tiptoeing up to the door, Castillan opened it an inch and peered through. The narrow corridor on the other side was curved like a rainbow, with a series of four metal cell doors visible - and probably another two or three around the bend that the bounder couldn't see. Castillan heard a feminine voice say, "That should hold you for awhile," then a rattle of keys.

Quickly whispering the details of what he'd seen to the others, they decided to set up station for an ambush. Finoula went halfway up the stairs to keep watch for any intruders from that direction, while a few steps lower Darrien had his Arachnibow trained on the door to the cell block. Castillan had the best position for which to strike the jailer; as soon as the door opened and she stepped through, he'd be able to strike with both blades. The others were out of immediate visibility but ready to strike out as needed.

They weren't needed; as soon as the jailer stepped through the doorway, Castillan struck. Seeing a very good-looking redhead standing before him, though, he had a sudden change of heart and swung his blades around before striking her with them; as a result, he struck her with the blunt ends of his weapon-hilts, one at each temple, and she crumpled in his arms.

"Give me a hand with her," he hissed to the others. Gilbert stepped forward and grabbed her legs, and they carried her back into the storage room. There, she was thoroughly bound and gagged and stashed in the corner.

"And just what do you plan to do with her now?" asked Finoula.

"I want to interrogate her," replied Castillan. "I only gagged her in case she wakes up before we're ready. Ingebold, do you have a zone of truth spell prepared?"

"Aye," replied the dwarven cleric, beginning the words to the spell. At the same time, Gilbert cast a magic circle against evil spell upon himself, then stood over at the other end of the room. "We see if her answers change once I walk forward and she in spell's range," he declared.

The young woman's eyelids began to flutter and she looked around her in sudden fear, finding a group of strangers huddled around her. Castillan stepped forward. "We're not going to hurt you," he said. "I'm going to remove the gag from your mouth. You won't scream, will you?" The frightened woman shook her head rapidly and the bounder released the gag. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Morghan," she responded in a fearful voice.

"Why you helping Rimbule?"

"I--I don't want to end up a hybrid freak, like those others."

"How many others does Rimbule have working for him?"

"Two others, like me," Morghan replied. "Their names are Tchiu and Kharn." Even without the zone of truth spell active, Tchiu's name tracked with what Tukio and Turtle had told the group earlier. "And he has a bunch of rat-people working for him, too."

"We took care of them earlier," Castillan reassured her.

Gilbert stepped forward and took over the questioning. "You spellcaster?" he demanded.


"You a cleric?"


"What you do before you work for Rimbule?"

Morghan took a moment to compose her thoughts before answering, which Finoula noticed immediately and attributed to her trying to evade the truth while under a spell preventing her from out-and-out lying. "We traveled, the three of us," she said. "We had various interactions with different people along the way."

"That's a pretty evasive answer," pointed out Finoula, already placing Morghan firmly on the "people we shouldn't trust" list.

"Who guys in cells?" continued Gilbert.

"They're future experiment victims," Morghan replied. "They were captured by the ratmen."

"Why Rimbule make freaks?" demanded the wizard.

"He wants to learn transmutation, build himself more powerful body," replied the redheaded captive. "But he wants lots of practice first. He doesn't want to make any mistakes when he's putting his own body on the line."

Gilbert leaned forward, pressing into the captive's personal space. "What you do if we kill Rimbule?" he asked.

"Escape from here, and move on," replied Morghan, with a wistful tone to her voice. "We never expected to be in this position."

Gilbert turned to the others. "I think we hear enough," he declared. "Now listen," he said, turning back to Morghan. "We put gag back on you, put you in cell until business done with Rimbule. We come back and get you after we done." The redhead hastily nodded her agreement to this plan and willingly opened her mouth so the wizard could put the gag back in. Then she was carried back to the curving hallway, Darrien fumbling with the ring of keys they'd taken from her until he found the one that opened the first cell. Morghan was placed inside, then locked in. The cell was wedge-shaped, with a solid iron door containing only a small, barred window with which to look inside.

"Who's there?" called out a voice from the next cell. Gilbert ambled over and looked inside the window. "Who you?"

"My name's Roger," he replied. "The guy in the next cell over's Walthern. Are you setting us free?"

"Maybe later," replied Gilbert. "First we deal with wizard Rimbule. Then, after that, we come back, let you out."

"Okay," agreed Roger, not really wanting to help deal with a wizard who could turn people into ratmen - or worse. "Just don't forget about us, okay?"

"Let's go," said Binkadink, leading the way up the stairs, his gnomish glaive at the ready. All of this talking had been necessary but boring; he was eager for some wizard-stabbing!

The first door they opened on the ground level led into a large dining room, with a dozen elaborately-carved chairs around an equally impressive table. But it was empty of enemies; Binkadink closed the door with a frown and moved on to the next room.

This was the kitchen, and it had an open doorway rather than a door. As Binkadink rounded the corner into the room, he heard a soft, feminine humming. Darrien raised his bow at the ready, and Castillan placed a hand on the gnome fighter's shoulder, holding him back. Through hand signals, he indicated he wanted to sneak up on her rather than alert her to their presence through the clanking of the gnome's metal armor. Binkadink tightened his grip around his glaive in anger, but nodded his acceptance of the bounder's logic and gestured with his head for Castillan to go on in.

The bounder got a single, silent step into the kitchen when the humming stopped and Tchiu spun around, favoring the bounder with the demon-tattooed half of her face first. The tattoo covered the entire right half of her face, seeming to pull her mouth into a twisted grin filled with razor-sharp teeth. Castillan froze for a moment in shock, but Darrien had no such qualms - he sent an arrow flying across the room, to the left of the bounder, to impale the right side of Tchiu's upper torso, just below the shoulder. Without a word, Tchiu bent her neck at an awkward angle, glanced down at the offending shaft, then turned her gaze back at Castillan with her half-demonic grin, her head still at a tilt. Castillan was wondering just what kind of a fiend he was up against when Tchiu suddenly dropped to her haunches and scurried up the chimney.

Snapping out of his frozen trance, the bounder dashed across the kitchen to the fireplace and looked up. There was a humanoid shape scurrying up its length above, headed for the upper level. Castillan braced himself against the opposite walls of the narrow chimney and started to follow, when his instincts told him there was something coming down the chimney at him, fast. He dropped back to the bottom of the fireplace, only to have Darrien's arrow plunk harmlessly off his shoulder, Tchiu apparently having plucked it out and discarded it on her way up.

"She's going up the chimney!" Castillan shouted to the others while he started back up himself. Binkadink, elevated to his full height on his gnomish stilt-boots, raced back to the stairs; across from the stairs to the dungeons was another set leading up to the top floor of the keep. Finoula followed behind the gnome, with Darrien, Gilbert, and Ingebold trailing behind her. As the gnome raced up the curved stairwell, he visualized in his head exactly where on the upper floor the chimney would lead to. There were two possibilities: Rimbule's study or his bedroom. The study was the closer to the top of the stairs, so that's the door he kicked open first.

The wizard Rimbule was ready for him. He cast a quick spell at the gnome, who through sheer force of will managed to shrug it off - although he got the impression the transmuter had just tried to alter his body in some way. Finoula dashed in behind and around the gnome, spotting Tchiu crawling up out of the study's fireplace. As she ran towards the transmuter responsible for the half-animal hybrids outside, she managed to get a close look at the necklace Tchiu was wearing: it was a wire necklace, through which several fishhooks had been attached; to most of these, a live mouse had been impaled, and their writhing attempts to escape made the whole thing jostle this way and that. Seeing Finoula's gaze and enjoying her discomfort, Tchiu's human smile widened almost to that of her facial tattoo.

Finoula's temporary distraction cost her a shot at the transmuter. Rimbule opened the door behind him - which led to his arcane library - and cast a magic missile spell that sent multiple streaks of energy cascading into the elven ranger's chest. Then he casually kicked the door shut before him. Behind her, Tchiu began battering Finoula with fists that struck blows as solid as those from a mace or hammer. Then, climbing out of the fireplace, Castillan stabbed Rimbule's raven-haired assistant from behind, his short sword impaling her through the stomach.

As the bounder pulled his blood-soaked blade back out of Tchiu's body, Finoula saw her features start to melt. The tattoo soaked back into her flesh, along with her nose and her hair - and, even more surprisingly, her clothes. What fell to the floor dead was a gray-skinned, bald humanoid with an oversized head.

Binkadink missed all of this occurring mere feet away from him, for he was focused on kicking open the door to the library and stabbing at the transmuter with his glaive. He was successful at both, but after a line of blood was ripped across the transmuter's chest, he staggered away with a grunt - and then disappeared from view. Binkadink swore a gnomish oath, thinking the wizard had just teleported away.

In the meantime, another figure came into the battle. Emerging from a set of stairs that led to the roof, a blonde woman wielding a crossbow pointed her weapon at Darrien, but the half-elf archer was quicker than she, and arrows suddenly peppered her body before she could even get off a single shot. She fell to the floor, her voluptuous body undergoing the same sort of transformation as Tchiu's had done mere moments earlier. "They doppelgangers!" Gilbert called out to the others, getting a first good look at the corpses littering the floors.

"If they're both doppelgangers," reasoned Finoula, "how much do you want to bet that Morghan tramp downstairs is one as well?"

"We worry about that later!" advised Gilbert, trying in vain to open the door from the stairwell into the library - where it sounded like Binkadink had trapped Rimbule. But it was no luck - the door was apparently arcane locked.

Inside the library, Binkadink had a sudden idea and started swinging his glaive out horizontally, making sweeps across the room. One swing hit an invisible form - not with the blade, curse the luck, but with the wooden shaft - but it was enough for the gnome to determine Rimbule was still in the room with them. "He's in here, invisible!" he called to his friends, but then heard the muttered words of another spell emanating from the library.

Gilbert rushed the long way towards the library, through the transmuter's study. "Everyone stay out of library!" he called, preparing the words to an Evard's black tentacles spell. But he was promptly ignored by Finoula, who burst into the room to help Binkadink find their invisible foe with their slashing blades. Neither of her blades hit.

Cursing his teammates' refusal to follow his directions, Gilbert switched spells at the last moment. If he couldn't cast an Evard's black tentacles spell to capture the transmuter, he could at least undo the effects of his greater invisibility spell, and put all of the combatants on the same level. With that thought in mind, Gilbert cast a darkness spell in the room. He mostly got the effect he wanted, but only by nullifying the everburning torches in sconces around the room - as well as the two tied to the antlers of Binkadink's helmet. A bit of light leaked in from Rimbule's study.

"Close the door!" advised Binkadink, aware of what the heavyset wizard had intended. Gilbert turned to do so, but a flitting noise whizzed by his head. "I think he invisible hummingbird now!" reasoned Gilbert.

Rimbule was indeed a hummingbird, having polymorphed into that shape while still under the effects of his greater invisibility spell. He wasn't sure who these adventurers were or how they'd gotten into his keep - blast that Batcat anyway, what had he been doing to keep him from warning his master? - but he wasn't going to worry about that now. The first order of business was to escape; he could always sneak back afterwards and pick them off one by one while they were otherwise engaged. These thoughts filled his hummingbird brain as he flew past Gilbert, angled out of the study, and flew past Darrien and Castillan.

But Castillan had heard Gilbert's warning, and his keen elven hearing helped him to pinpoint the location of his invisible foe. He swung with his short sword, hitting something in midair and sending it staggering away. Darrien dropped the Arachnibow, pulled out the scimitar at his belt, and tried to follow suit, but his blade-swings were uneventful - at first, anyway. A lucky strike managed to hit the dazed wizard in his hummingbird form, and he dropped to the corner of the stairwell, dead.

With Rimbule and two of his doppelganger assistants slain, Finoula wanted to go back to the dungeon cells immediately to check on Morghan. Sure enough, the cell was empty, save for the discarded gag and ropes that had bound her. As a doppelganger, Finoula realized, it would have been a simple matter to transform into a much smaller form - like that of a goblin or halfling - shrug out of the ropes, and them change into something that could either fit through the barred window or reach the lock to open it. Whether it was something extremely thin and flexible or something with long arms, the doppelganger had managed to open her cell door and escape while the heroes had been busy with fighting Rimbule above.

After a room-by-room sweep for treasure - carried out under Castillan's watchful eye, so that they wouldn't miss anything of value - the group released Roger and Walthern from their cells. They were glad to have been released, and even more thankful that they had not been turned into ratmen or anything worse.

While the others had been looting the rest of the keep, Gilbert had spent the time transferring the contents of Rimbule's library into his Omnibook. In doing so, he'd discovered Rimbule's spellbooks, and found a couple of spells as of yet unknown to the portly wizard. Gilbert smiled at the thought of deciphering their contents and learning how to cast those spells, increasing his own spell repertoire.

Unfortunately, the wizard found nothing in the way of restoring Rimbule's previous victims to their normal selves. He had several ideas - there were a number of spells that could alter a person's appearance, but all of the ones he had personal knowledge of were only temporary - so it looked like Turtle and the others would remain trapped in their current forms until a more permanent solution could be devised.

This came as a major disappointment to the victims, once Gilbert explained the situation - especially Turtle, whose form was the most debilitating of those who had retained their normal intellect. (Snake's form was equally clumsy, but his mind was gone, and the group universally decided he's be left behind when they all departed.) The hybrids were able to confirm that Morghan had indeed escaped, as they saw her fly off on Rimbule's hovershell, a magical crossbreeding of a large turtle and a giant dragonfly. That at least suggested that the group could escape the pain-inducing defenses of the hidden grove by flying over them, so the decision was made to place everyone but Binkadink into the portable hole, after the gnome had received spells from Gilbert that nor only increased his inherent constitution (and thus pain tolerance), but also granted him the ability to fly. The gnome had the time of his life flying over the treetops of the hidden grove, and would have continued doing loop-de-loops in the air if not for the thought of the minimal air supply inside the portable hole - it would have done no good for him to have suffocated all of his friends, including his faithful jackalope, while he had fun flying about. So he landed by an astonished Aithanar and opened the hole allowing the heroes and the unfortunate experiment victims out.

"Where shall we go?" asked Gandlebain the pseudo-satyr.

"We'll take ye back to Kordovia with us," decided Ingebold. "I'm sure ye can stay at th' Temple of Moradin, while we do what we can to find a way t' return ye t' yer normal forms." And so that was what happened; the temple clerics agreed to look after those victims who needed tending to - like Minotaur, who grazed contentedly on the grass behind the temple and provided fresh milk for breakfast to the clerics. Valgard and Gandlebain needed no tending to; they opted to explore the Vesve Forest in their current forms, and check back occasionally with the temple to see if any progress had been made. Turtle and Jolinda stayed at the Temple of Moradin, desiring the protection a dwarven temple could provide; Turtle didn't want to interact with the rest of society in her present form, while Jolinda feared being mistaken for an actual harpy and slain on the spot. But she took a liking to the dwarven temple chants, and soon added her own voice to their ceremonies - a strange sight indeed: a bird woman perched on the back of a stone pew chanting the words to a dwarven hymn.

Tukio's condition required her to remain wet, or her fish-scales started to dry out and cause her pain. She ended up "living" in the largest fountain of the king's castle, where she was a favored addition. The mermaid spent her time partly on exhibition but mostly in conversation with those who came to see her. While still desiring her human form back, she decided to make the best of her situation and came to enjoy the frequent visits.

"You know," said King Galrich, several days after Rimbule's "freaks" had been incorporated into the kingdom, "the neighboring lands already refer to Kordovia as 'The Monster Kingdom.'"

"Do they, Your Majesty?" asked Aerik.

"They do. After all, we have an orc for a king and a dragon-elf as a princess."

"Half-orc," corrected Aerik.

"Orc, half-orc - it's all the same to most people," responded King Galrich. "And now we have a mermaid in our castle, a minotaur, harpy, and...whatever that Turtle woman is, living in our largest temple, with a centaur and a satyr coming into the kingdom at will and the possibility of a green dragon allying with's no wonder they call us that."

"Perhaps some good will come of this, Your Majesty," suggested Aerik.

"Perhaps; we shall see," said King Galrich.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: We went through this adventure on the same day we finished up "An Audience with the Princess," so I was still wearing my green dragon T-shirt. And, as I had nothing particularly appropriate for "Rimbule the Metamorph," I was fine with not changing into anything else.
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Game Session Date: 10 September 2016

- - -

"Are you sure about this?" asked Castillan, stepping out of the Vistani wagon in his undergarments.

"It be our best course of action, given th' timeframe," replied Ingebold. "Now climb up into th' mule wagon like a good lad."

Castillan complied, climbing into the back of the flat, wooden wagon the dwarven cleric generally drove. The two mules, Franco and Tantrum, were tethered nearby and contentedly eating grass by the roadside where the group had opted to set up camp for the evening.

"Now give me yer leg," commanded Ingebold, taking Castillan's left foot and tying it securely with a sturdy rope. Once satisfied with its tightness, she pulled the length of it through the spokes of the right rear wagon wheel, wrapped it around a few spokes for good measure, then passed the rope beneath the wagon and did the same using the left rear wagon wheel, before passing it back up onto the back of the wagon, where she tied the loose end around Castillan's right ankle and pulled it tight.

"Ouch!" complained Castillan, his legs now spread wide and bound in place.

"I'm surprised at your griping," teased Finoula. "I'm sure you've paid good money in the past to be tied up like this."

Binkadink approached with a glass vial and extended his gnomish stilt-boots so he could pass it to Castillan over the side of the wagon before the elf's hands were bound as well. The bounder took the flask from the gnome, who marveled it had been many months since he'd last seen Castillan without the twin gloves of storing that usually kept his blades from view. "What's this?" the bounder asked, before upending the contents and drinking it down in one swig. He made a face at the taste, then guessed, "One of your uncle's concoctions?"

"No," answered Binkadink. "He got it from an acquaintance of his -- it's poison."

"What?" gasped Castillan, as Finoula bound his left hand tightly with another length of rope. It followed a similar course as the rope binding his legs: through the spokes of the right front wagon wheel, under the wagon, through the spokes of the left front wagon wheel, and then over to the bounder's right wrist, which Finoula was even now starting to wrap with the loose end of the rope. "What are you trying to do, kill me?"

"Nothing so sinister," replied Binkadink. "It's liquefied insanity mist -- it'll just dull your senses for a bit. With any luck, you won't instinctively try to ward off the effects of Ingebold's spell."

"Yes, none of that," scolded the cleric. "I kin only cast th' spell so many times, an' each time ye try t' fight it, that's that much less 'f a chance we'll be havin' fer a successful outcome."

"Yes, ma'am," Castillan answered, lowering his head back down against the wood of the wagon, now that he was tightly bound in a spread-eagled fashion. Already, his mind was getting fuzzy and it was getting harder to speak. " much longer?" he asked.

Ingebold cast her glance at the twilight sky. "Not much longer now," she reassured him.

"You think this work?" asked Gilbert, ambling up now that it was almost time.

"It'll work -- ye're th' one who came up with th' process," answered Ingebold.

"You got spells ready?" Gilbert prompted. "Remember, if first spell fail, start casting second one right away. We probably don't have time for you to cast it as many times as you have stored in head."

"I know what I'm doin'," chided Ingebold, shooing the irritating wizard away. "Why don't you worry about what ye'll be doin', instead of pesterin' me?"

"I know what I be doing," replied Gilbert. "I have Evard's black tentacles spell all ready to go."

"And I know what I'll be doing," added Darrien, taking a silver arrow from his quiver and fitting it to the Arachnibow.

"I'm sure it won't come to that," said Finoula hopefully.

As the sun set and the sky grew darker, Ingebold stepped up to the front of the wagon and looked back at Castillan, spread-eagled before her, his head by her feet. "I'm sure Moradin will understand me use of this spell," she said, then cast a bestow curse spell on the already dazed bounder, forcing his mind and willpower to recede even further.

The first rays of Luna crept over the tree line and cast their wan light upon the group of adventurers. Castillan tensed, then bucked under his restraints as a spasm of pain shook his frame. Without a moment's hesitation, Ingebold began the words to her first remove curse spell. It was the one with the best chance of success, as this casting would strip away the bestow curse she had just cast upon Castillan; any further castings wouldn't have the additional chance of success provided by his further addled state of mind. But the cleric needn't have worried; the group had taken all of the precautions they could think of, and the spell was a success. Just as a light fur started sprouting from the nearly-naked bounder's flesh, it suddenly halted its growth and began receding as quickly as it had grown. Castillan's head slumped to the right as he lost consciousness from the ordeal.

"Squentiffick blastulong!" suggested Aithanar, pulling at the ropes of his brother's left wrist. Castillan was untied, and then left where he was in the back of the wagon. Aithanar threw a blanket over his brother's body so he wouldn't be cold during the night.

"He'll likely be out th' night long," commented Ingebold.

"Well, that's one way to get out of patrol duty," commented Darrien, stowing away his silver arrow and glad that it hadn't been needed after all.

"I'll take the first shift," offered up Finoula.

- - -

Unconscious, Castillan did what elves almost never do at night, since they enter a trance rather than sleep -- he dreamed. In his dream, he was running through a dark forest, pursued by an enormous, ravening wolf. The bounder raced between trees and leaped over rocks, but the wolf not only kept pace with him, it was slowly gaining on him. And then the impossible happened: the sure-footed elf, capable of running straight up a wall or leaping from one rooftop to another without breaking a sweat, tripped over a root and went tumbling headfirst onto the forest floor. Hastily, he flipped over onto his back, snapping his fingers to bring forth the short sword stored in his magical glove -- only to find he was no longer wearing either of his gloves. Nor his leather armor, now that he noticed it.

The wolf loomed above him, its mouth open in hunger and drool spilling over its black lips. Castillan instinctively knew that if the wolf got a bite of him, his life would be over.

And then, in the near-darkness of the dream-forest, a light came blazing forth. At its touch, the ends of the wolf's fur began to singe and the creature backed off, howling in pain. With one last, evil look of pure hatred in Castillan's direction, the beast loped off, away from the light to be swallowed up in the darkness of the forest.

Castillan turned toward the light, instinctively raising his had to block out the worst of it. It was the hammer-and-anvil holy symbol of Moradin, chief god of the dwarves, which had driven off the massive wolf.

Bathed in Moradin's light, Castillan dropped back against the forest floor. It had an earthy smell, the scent of growing things, of life. It was restful here, Castillan decided, as consciousness drifted from him in the dream world of his imagination.

And in the morning, when Castillan awoke, he no longer had the taint of wolven lycanthropy running through his veins. Furthermore, the bite mark he had received from the werewolf Andrei - which had failed to heal over despite numerous curative spells cast upon the bounder since - was now completely gone.

Castillan smiled. Today was going to be a good day.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Still the green dragon T-shirt, as it was still the same session.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 8
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 8
Darrien, half-elf ranger 8
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 8
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 8​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 2
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 8 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 24 September 2016

- - -

While the members of the Kordovian Adventurers Guild were in town, a traveler came down from the mountains to the north. He told of a vast plain on the northern side of the Clatspur Range, where barbarian tribes held sway, a land containing a lake bigger than many seas - but of the greatest interest, especially to Binkadink Dundernoggin, recent owner of a masterwork gnomish glaive, was the tale of a group of blacksmiths and wizards just past the mountain range who specialized in the creation and upgrade of magic weapons.

"Let's go north!" pleaded the little gnome. "We've been south many times before, and we've been in the Vesve Forest quite a few times now, but we've never been through the Clatspurs!"

"The Ravencroft Sanatorium is in one of the mountains of the Clatspur Range," reminded Castillan.

"Yeah, like the closest mountain!" argued Binkadink. "I'm talking about going through the pass and checking out what's on the other side!"

"There's plenty more to see of the Vesve Forest," pointed out Finoula. "That place is huge! We could spend our entire careers searching through that forest."

"Who wants to do that?" argued Binkadink.

"We might find out where all those damned orcs and goblins are coming from," added Darrien. "That would be a definite plus."

"Aw, come on, guys," wheedled the gnome.

"Quit with th' teasin' already, you lot," chided Ingebold. "Ye kin see th' poor fella's gonna just about die of frustration if we don't go check out this weaponsmith group we heard about."

"I will!" agreed Binkadink. "Right here, on this very spot! And it'll all be on your heads."

"Can I have your stuff?" asked Darrien.

"What all this fuss about?" demanded Gilbert. "We go north, check out weapon guys. They have wizards there, maybe I trade some spells."

"Yes!" shouted Binkadink, then turned his attention to his masterwork glaive. "Don't you worry, I'm going to get you enchanted. You'll like that, won't you? Of course you will."

Gilbert shook his head in disbelief. "You a twisted little freak," he said.

"Maybe," agreed Binkadink. "But I'm a twisted little freak who's going north to get my glaive enchanted!" And he did a little jig, dancing in a circle holding his glaive as if it were his dancing partner.

Binkadink was in a state of near-ecstasy for the next full day. Riding along on his jackalope, he realized that each hippity-hop took him that much closer to getting a magic weapon. The others were lucky: most of the weapons they had run across in their adventuring careers thus far were sized for humans, elves, and dwarves; Binkadink well knew their chances of just happening across an enchanted gnomish glaive in the course of their adventures were practically nil. Nope, if he was going to get an enchanted blade, he was going to have to take matters into his own little hands.

By the morning of the second day, his ecstasy had hardened into a realization that it would be well over a week of travel to make it through the mountain pass, if what the visitor had said was accurate. He'd have to be patient, there was no way around it. And while the path thus far had them winding along the valleys between the mountains, he knew there would be places ahead where they'd be climbing up into higher elevations, where they'd be dealing with colder temperatures than those the gnome had been accustomed to.

But all of his thoughts about upgrading his glaive and the journey ahead were dashed from his mind once he saw the two horses running across the sky.

"Do you see that?" he asked Obvious in the language of burrowing mammals.

The jackalope snorted in laughter. "They can't do that!" he observed. "They're silly!"

"Apparently nobody told them they couldn't. Hey guys -- look!" The gnome pointed up at the sky ahead, where the two equine figures were banking in a turn and heading directly for the two-wagon train.

"Are those pegasi?" asked Finoula, looking up from atop her pony, Daisy. Wrath trotted along at her side as she shielded her eyes in the glare of the sun. "I don't see any wings." Darrien got out his Arachnibow, just in case they weren't pegasi, or weren't something else of an equally pleasant demeanor.

As the two groups converged, the sky-horses dropped in altitude, lowering themselves almost - but not quite - to the level of the road. The group - all but Gilbert, who preferred traveling in the comfort of the roof-topped Vistani wagon - could see these horses were built more like unicorns. They each had an ivory horn jutting from their forehead and silvery-white manes flowing behind them, and they even had tufts of beard in the manner of goats. But these creatures had draconic scales along their front legs, like no unicorn any of the group had ever seen, or even heard of, before. Both wagons came to a dead stop, as Finoula and Binkadink on their mounts did the same just ahead, and the horned sky-horses slowed slightly as they got within reach of the group.

Ironically, although Gilbert was the only one of the group the two equines couldn't see, it was he whom they addressed. Using some means of telepathic communication, they "spoke" in unison directly into the heads of the whole assembled group.

<Gilbert Fung, time is of the essence – the life of your honorable mother is at stake! Prepare to return to her side at once!>

"What the--" sputtered Gilbert, rushing out of the wagon's rear door to see what was going on. As he did so, the spirit ki-rin trotted - still several inches above the ground - past a startled Binkadink and Finoula on their respective mounts, past Ingebold and Darrien in the mule wagon, one on either side, and up towards Castor and Pollux at the front of the Vistani wagon. Castillan, who had once again been riding atop the roofed wagon, leaped down, standing beside Gilbert as the portly wizard rushed to meet the spirit ki-rin who had brought him dire warnings about his mother.

But before he could ask aloud any questions, the spirit ki-rin became insubstantial. Looking like misty outlines of their equine shapes, they drifted towards the black horses hooked up to the Vistani wagon. Then, their misty bodies narrowed and shrank, heading directly into the horses' nostrils.

Finoula, anticipating what was going to happen next, leaped off from Daisy and ran towards the Vistani wagon. "Everybody into the wagon!" she called, grabbing a startled Ingebold on her way. "Aithanar! Swap with Ingebold!" Without a moment's hesitation, the elven fighter leaped down from the seat of the Vistani wagon, helping Ingebold climb up when she got there.

"Stay with Aithanar, and keep him safe!" called Binkadink to his riding mount, as he extended his gnomish stilt-boots and raced to the back of the Vistani wagon, climbing in with Castillan and Darrien. "Come on!" he yelled to Gilbert.

"What they doing to horses?" asked the wizard in wonderment.

"You're going to be left behind if you don't hurry!" yelled Finoula, half dragging Gilbert to the back of the Vistani and stuffing him through the door. She jumped in and slammed the door shut as Castor and Pollux reared up, kicked their forelegs, and then leaped forward into the sky. Aithanar ducked as the Vistani wagon raced just above the mule wagon, the two pitch-black draft horses rising up into the sky, pulling the roofed wagon behind them. "Boojagga!" he called to a clearly frightened Ingebold at the reins.

Once at a sufficient height, the two horses banked and raced back the way the group had come. Although it had taken them a day and a half to get as far as they had, they could tell the trip back home would be significantly faster.

Inside the crowded wagon, Finoula fretted about Aithanar. "We probably should have told him to start on back home," she said. "I don't want to have to walk all the way back there once we've dealt with whatever this is about."

"He's a big boy -- he'll figure it out," reasoned Castillan.

"This about my mom," Gilbert reminded the group. "We worry about Aithanar after we deal with my mom."

"So where is your mom?" asked Darrien. "Any idea what's going on?"

"She back at home," snapped Gilbert. "We find out when we find out."

Time seemed to crawl inside the cramped wagon, with Gilbert worriedly going through his spell repertoire and wondering what they'd be facing when they returned to his parents' cottage. The others were curious how Gilbert's mother, an unassuming housewife, ranked a warning and rescue attempt from a pair of dragon-horses coming down from the sky. It was apparent Gilbert wasn't in a talking mood, but it was also apparent that he could use having something to do besides wait for the trip through the sky to conclude. Castillan broke the silence.

"So, Gilbert, any idea what those cloud-horse things were?"

"They ki-rin. My mom tell stories of them when I little."

"Ki-rin, okay. And, any ideas why they're helping us go rescue your mom? They seem pretty powerful; I don't imagine they just show up every time somebody's in danger. What's so special about your mom?"

"My mom just my mom."

"Is she, like, somebody famous?"

"She just my mom, okay? She a sorcerer. Not an adventurer, just a sorcerer. She wanted me become druid like my dad, but that not work out so good. And I don't have natural talent for magic like she does - I study spells from books. She a sorcerer, I a wizard."

"These ki-rin, are they from her homeland?" pressed Finoula. "I've never heard of them before."

"Yeah, they from where she born. Way over on other side of world."

"How long ago did she leave?" pressed Finoula.

"Long time ago! When she just little girl!" exploded Gilbert. "How about you save questions for my mom, ask her after she safe?" The others took the hint: Gilbert was too worried about his mother's safety to be distracted by a bunch of background questions. The heroes sat in an uncomfortable silence for the remainder of the trip. Finally, though, Ingebold ducked her head through one of the windows at her shoulder and called back to the others, "We're goin' down!"

Fortunately, this was a controlled descent. Just as sure-footed as the spirit ki-rin had been when the group had first encountered them in the mountains, Castor and Pollux dropped gracefully to just above the ground, then went a step further and returned their hooves to solid earth once again. With a slight bounce, the Vistani wagon touched down and the two horses slowed to a halt. Before the wagon had stopped moving, Gilbert was out the back door and around the side of the wagon. From this vantage point, he could see Castor and Pollux panting heavily, blowing clouds of smoke from their nostrils. Not surprisingly, the vapors took on the forms of a pair of familiar-looking equines, and the spirit ki-rin were once again in their normal forms - and still not quite touching the ground.

<We dare approach no closer from the air, for fear of alerting your enemies to your presence,> they said in their twin voices. <Be cautious! Your enemies are already in your mother’s cottage.> And with that final telepathic warning, they turned in unison and cantered up into the sky.

"I know where we are!" exclaimed Gilbert. "This fishing pond, half mile from cottage!"

"Wh-- what in the world is going on, son?" asked a new voice.

As the others climbed out of the Vistani wagon and Ingebold jumped down from her perch - her legs shaky after being out in the front of the wagon as it flew across the sky - an older man approached. He wore patched robes of brown and green and held a simple fishing pole in his hand. Unkempt brown hair fading rapidly toward gray spilled out from his head and face.

"Dad!" greeted Gilbert in surprise. "Come on! Mom in trouble!" And with no further explanation, the wizard cast a fly spell upon himself and was gone.

Without time for introductions, the group of heroes started running in the direction Gilbert had taken, urging Verdant Gristwold, Gilbert's father, to come with them. He needed no argument, racing as fast as he could go up to the top of a hill that had shielded the low-flying wagon from the Fung cottage.

Binkadink, running as fast as a gnome in stilt-boots could run, cursed at having had to leave Obvious behind. "Here!" called Darrien, pulling out his new acquisition - an ebony fly he'd looted from one of the doppelgangers' rooms in Rimbule's keep - and calling out a command word. At once, a housefly the size of a pony manifested on the ground just ahead. "She's all yours!" Darrien offered.

"You sure?" asked the gnome as he leapt up onto the insect's back. But the fly buzzed off before the ranger could reply, and Binkadink rapidly caught up to, and passed, Gilbert in mid-air. "It that house!" pointed out the wizard as he was passed by gnome and fly - but Gilbert needn't have bothered; there was only one house in the direction they were flying, and the fact that there was a sinister-looking, black-clad man standing on the roof and two more prowling around the house from each side gave away the potential danger.

As Binkadink closed the distance, the roof-top assassin pulled a couple of items from inside his robes and flung them at the gnome's direction. The first one whizzed by his head, but the other hit him smack in the chest. It wasn't enough to penetrate the gnome's armor, and it didn't stay in one form long enough for Binkadink to get more than a quick glimpse in his peripheral vision that it looked like some kind of flat, metal sculpture of a spider with sharp, pointed legs sticking out in all directions, before it began morphing into the real thing. In a mere second, Binkadink found himself riding a pony-sized fly through the air at over triple the speed he could manage on the ground on his fastest day, only now with a large fiendish spider biting at his throat and injecting its fiendish venom.

Realizing the spider was much too close for his glaive to be of much use as a weapon, Binkadink swung it around beneath the fly's throat and caught the end in his other hand, then mentally ordered the fly to flip over while in flight. He had hoped to knock the spider from its perch, but no such luck - the blasted thing had a good grip on the fly's back and wasn't about to be dropped that easily. Binkadink's mind raced for a new plan - but then that turned out to be unnecessary when the fly crash-landed onto the Fung cottage's roof. The gnome went sprawling in a heap, the spider right beside him. And now here raced over the rooftop assassin, armed with a sturdy bo staff that came crashing down at the gnome's head. Binkadink dodged just in time, then sent his own glaive stabbing up at the ninja, managing to graze his side.

As Gilbert approached his mother's cottage, he could see Binkadink getting to his feet and trading blows with a black-clad ninja on the roof, while a large spider menaced the gnome from behind. Worse, there were two more ninja at the ground level, and as the wizard watched, each sprang up the wall and climbed onto the roof as easily as Gilbert had ever seen Castillan do the same. But they were at each end of the roof, whereas Binkadink was fighting over in the middle of the roof's front slope. Gilbert aimed to the right of the ninja with the bo staff, throwing a blast of magic missiles into his face as he sped past. But he had no real interest in the rooftop fight: his concern was for his mother, and the fastest way he knew of to get inside the cottage was to head for the hole in the center of the roof.

A woman from the Far East married to a man from the West, Harriet Fung had had the house Verdant built for the two of them - and then later three, once Gilbert was born - built in the shape of a large rectangle, with a rectangular hole in the middle. The entire front section was built in the style of the Western world, with chairs around a dining room table and a study for Verdant, with wooden doors closing off those rooms that weren't accessible through open doorways, while the back half was built with an Eastern aesthetic, with sliding wall panels and low tables for eating while kneeling on the floor. The rectangular section in the middle of the building was Harriet's meditation garden, a simple, dirt path winding through a pebbled ground with an oval reflective pool in one corner. Three of the sides were surrounded by a raised wooden floor, and wooden pillars at each corner marked the boundaries of this area of serenity.

Currently, Harriet Fung was bound to one of these pillars, the one in the northeastern corner of the pebble garden. A black-clad ninja held a blade to her throat, while directly before her stood another Eastern woman, one Gilbert had never seen before in his life. She was speaking in the singsong, almost musical language of Harriet Fung's homeland, a language the wizard had heard spoken in snippets over the course of his life, but one his mother had refused to teach to him, for she wanted her son to speak like those who lived around him rather than like someone from half a world away. Her face was an impassive mask, refusing to look at the plaque the other woman held in front of her.

With a start, Gilbert recognized it. It had been taken from the wall of the front dining room, and had Gilbert's handprints from when he was four years old in the middle of a baked clay slab, into which had been carved the words "I LOVE YOU MOMMY." Verdant had helped little four-year-old Gilbert make it as a gift for his mother over a decade and a half ago.

Up on the rooftop, Binkadink was holding his own against the nearest ninja and the fiendish spider, but now two more ninja were entering the combat. Three enemies were more than the little gnome could keep track of, and the newcomer on the left managed to get in a good strike with his short sword - which, judging by the way Binkadink felt immediately afterwards, had been poisoned.

Fortunately, help was at hand. The ninja approaching on the right never did get a chance to actually enter the fray, as he was downed by a series of arrows courtesy of Darrien and his Arachnibow. Darrien had slowed to a stop, allowing Finoula and Verdant to continue on ahead of him while he lined up his shots. Behind him, he could hear Ingebold's heavy breathing as she struggled to catch up to the rest of the group, hampered by heavy dwarven armor and stumpy dwarven legs.

But next on the scene was Castillan, his bounder training having allowed him to pull ahead of the others and race up the front wall of the cottage and climb up onto the roof in one seemingly effortless motion. He had veered left during his approach, such that he ended up behind the leftmost ninja who had stabbed Binkadink. Sensing the bounder's approach, the ninja broke off from attacking Binkadink to deal with this new threat.

Gilbert flew down through the building's central opening, coming to a landing immediately before the woman holding his plaque. When Harriet saw him, she cried out, "No! Run, Mudpie! Save yourself!" But the woman, Ryuko, had a tongues spell in effect and understood the strange Western language Harriet spoke. Her almond eyes widened in disbelief as she realized the heavyset half-breed standing before her was the child she had been questioning Harriet about. Ryuko's face curled into a sneer of contempt as she practically spat out syllables in her own language, which were immediately converted to the Common tongue of the region.

"Step no further!" Ryuko commanded, "or your mother's life is forfeit!" When she saw Gilbert pause in frustration, she continued. "You do not realize it, but back in Kozakura there has been a successful coup against the former Emperor. The new Emperor has decreed that all members of the previous ruling family are to be slain. And that includes your mother here, even though she is but a distant cousin. When we teleported in to accomplish our mission, we found signs that she had birthed a child, but I see now that you are but a contemptible half-breed, ineligible to rule from the Jade Throne. Therefore, your life will be spared, as well as those of your companions. I will return to the new Emperor with your mother's head as proof of her death. I warn you this: do not attempt to have your mother raised from the dead. We will be scrying here occasionally, and if we see her returned to life we will return with a much larger force – to slay her again, as well as you, all of your friends, and all of your neighbors. I trust you will not be so foolish as to cause this action to pass." Ryuko raised her voice, calling out to her minions. "Back to me! Prepare to depart with our proof!"

Up on the rooftop, Castillan ensured the ninja he'd been fighting had no chance to respond to the wu jen's summons, for his twin blades got past the assassin's guard, skewering him on the spot. Likewise, Binkadink finally bested the ninja with the bo staff he'd been fighting since his arrival on the rooftop. (The fly, he noticed, had crawled away from danger as soon as it had gotten its bearings.) As for the fiendish spider, it exploded in a puff of nauseous gas upon its death, the vile creature the second rooftop victim of Darrien's marksmanship with his Arachnibow.

During Ryuko's explanation, Gilbert had remained rooted to the spot, not wanting to have the ninja threatening his mother slit her throat as the result of any actions on his part. But he hadn't been helpless; he'd stealthily slipped his wand of gaseous form into his hand, and was even now judging the distance between himself and his mother. Could he touch his mother with the wand before the ninja threatening her could slit her throat? It was a question he'd been scared to have answered, but now it looked like he had no choice. He started forward, but in the blink of an eye the ninja's weapon sliced through Harriet's delicate throat. Her head remained in roughly the same location, only now it was being supported solely by the grip of the ninja holding her by her long, black hair.

"NO!" Gilbert screamed, unable to reach his mother in time - he'd hoped to turn her into mist, so she could escape on her own - and dropping back into a hasty Plan B: Evard's black tentacles. If he couldn't save his mother, he could make damn sure these bastards didn't escape with her head. And screw the warnings - his first action after slaying these assassins would be to have his mother restored to life, and to the Nine Hells with the consequences.

Two more ninja, who had been searching the cottage for clues as to Harriet's offspring, exited the rooms they were in at their field commander's summons. One stepped out of Gilbert's bedroom and stood right next to the decapitator; he ended up caught up in Gilbert's spell as rubbery, ebon tentacles sprang up from the floor to encompass the Eastern trio. The other had been searching the master bedroom; he exited to hear the clomping of footsteps on a wooden floor, and spun to face Finoula and Verdant as they arrived in the area, having had to go through the front door of the house and around to the left of the interior.

Ryuko cursed, unable to touch her ninja and teleport away. The ninja closest to her, seeing their predicament and putting the mission ahead of all other concerns, attempted to fling Harriet's head to his field leader, but the tightening tentacles ruined his throw - and Ryuko's own attempts to catch it. But seeing that she'd likely not be able to retrieve Harriet's head, Ryuko chose to teleport away to report the mission's success, even without the proof of a decapitated head. She reasoned to herself that she could always scry upon Harriet's headless body if the new Emperor needed proof. With a single arcane syllable, she vanished from the room.

Binkadink and Castillan dropped down into the meditation garden, careful to land in the half of the area not covered in writhing tentacles. The gnome had his glaive out and ready to slash out at either of the trapped ninja that might find a way out of the mass of tentacles, but the ebon appendages choked the life out of the two victims before they had a chance to escape. Seeing this, Gilbert deactivated the spell with a word. Behind him, Finoula slew the last of the ninja, and Verdant ran up to the body of his lifeless wife. Gilbert had retrieved her head and placed it gently next to the body.

Ingebold finally made it to the scene, completely out of breath, and the others filled her in on what had happened. "Can she be raised?" Gilbert demanded.

"Nay," replied Ingebold, sadly. "Not' body needs t' be intact," she explained.

"Would bringing her back be the safest course of action?" broached Finoula. "If they'll be scrying on her and they see her, they'll just be back with a larger force...." The ranger hated bringing this up, and perfectly understood how she'd feel had it been her mother slain, but she still felt they needed to discuss the ramifications of their next move. She expected Gilbert to explode at her, but he just stood there, his hand on his chin, rubbing his beard.

"Gilbert...?" Finoula began.

"Be quiet. I thinking," Gilbert said softly. The others stood silently by his side, as Verdant held Harriet's delicate hand in his own. Then Gilbert's head snapped up, a wicked grin on his face. "Fly boy!" he called out to Darrien. "What we do with scroll we found in yuan-ti nest, with shield?"

"It's...I think we left it back at Battershield Keep, to be sold."

"You get on fly, fetch it, bring it back here!" Gilbert ordered. Darrien and Castillan went back outside to go fetch the ranger's ebony fly, still active from Binkadink's wild ride to the rooftop.

"What's the scroll?" asked Finoula, not remembering what spell had been on it, only that none of the group had been able to use it.

"It a druid spell: reincarnate!" Gilbert announced triumphantly. "Dad can cast it, Mom returns in new body, stupid Emperor's goons can scry all they want! -- they never see her!"

Verdant had to be talked into using the spell; as a druid, he understood the circle of life and that all things must die eventually. Still, he knew Harriet's death was a crushing blow on their only son.... He eventually decided he'd cast it, knowing if Harriet didn't want to return to life in a new body, her spirit could always decline the offer. "We'll leave it up to your mother, then," he told his son.

Darrien returned with the scroll, Verdant studied it - for he'd never cast the spell before, it being much more powerful than those he'd mastered thus far - and the group gathered around Harriet's body as he performed the spellcasting. Harriet's body began glowing with a spiritual energy, soon becoming too bright to look at directly. As the spell finished, the glow diminished and Harriet sat up in her new form.

Her hair was the same: a deep, glossy black, long and straight. She was still in the same kimono she'd been slain in, for the spell did nothing to alter the garments of the reincarnated soul, merely its body. Her skin was now an olive green; her painted nails long and sharp; several of her teeth were sharper than she was used to, and her voice was much deeper than Gilbert and Verdant were used to. "Husband?" she said. "What happen?"

Verdant helped his wife to her feet and they were both shocked to see his petite wife was now as tall as he was, and nearly as tall as Gilbert.

"You were killed. A little," Verdant explained, gulping heavily and fearful that his wife would be less than pleased at the results of their attempt to restore her to life.

"And now I an orc," she commented, almost to herself. "Mudpie! This your idea?"

"Yes, Honorable Mother," Gilbert replied sheepishly, using his best "suck-up-to-the-parents" voice. "But I have hat of disguise you can wear! Just...maybe don't make you look know, you."

Harriet blew out a sigh of exasperation. "If this what Fate have planned for me, who I to argue? But look! Blood all over favorite kimono! This never come out!"

"You're okay...looking like an orc woman?" asked Verdant.

"I still me inside!" replied Harriet, before furrowing her brow. "Only maybe we let neighbors know what happen, so they don't kill me when I show up at marketplace looking like orc who attack kingdom."

"What made you remember the scroll of reincarnate?" asked Binkadink.

"Purple Mage," answered Gilbert. "My mirror prophecy say, 'Some books always judged by their covers.' And then it say, 'Remember this upon apparent sudden death.' Only now, I realize it really 'a parent's sudden death.' It warning, not to bring mother back to life looking like she used to."

"It's kind of creepy, having our prophecies all come true like this," admitted Finoula.

"Tell me about it," grumbled Castillan. "I'm supposed to end up mating with an insect."

- - -

In the end, the players eventually decided that Harriet would keep Gilbert's hat of disguise so she wouldn't have to spend her whole life looking like an orc, especially in a kingdom that had been periodically attacked by orcs for the past dozen years or more. They also decided Harriet should wear the ring of mind shielding the PCs took from Rimbule's dead finger, on the theory that if Ryuko ever scries on Harriet Fung to see if she'd been returned to life, all she should get is "static," which might plausibly be caused by Harriet still being dead.

Of course, I decided once the events of Harriet's death and rebirth were made known to King Galrich, he immediately invited her to the castle for an introduction. Dan was initially a bit concerned that the half-orc king might be "putting the moves" on his PC's married mother, but I explained that Galrich had a longer-term goal in mind: he'd be teaching her the Orc language, so she could be sent on a mission to infiltrate a future band of orcs and goblins attacking the kingdom, specifically so she could escape with the survivors and see where they went once they retreated. Of course, since it will take Harriet quite some time to master the Orc language (especially considering she's mastered Common in the same pidgin version that Gilbert uses), this ploy is probably another 8-10 levels away.

Harriet's back story: she was a distant cousin to the Emperor of Kozakura, one of the lands of Kara Tur. When she was 12 or so, her family decided to marry her off to some 60-year-old whose family they wanted to bond into their own. Twelve-year-old Harriet (birth name unknown; I imagine "Harriet" was one of the first women she met when she got to the Western world and she adopted it for her own to help her blend in) ran away from home. She snuck aboard a merchant vessel (one of Cal Trop's, one of Dan's PCs from our previous campaign in the same game world), was discovered by the cook, who took her under his wing and helped her hide, in exchange for her assistance preparing meals during the voyage. (I imagine those were some of the best meals the sailors had had on that whole voyage, as Harriet's quite the cook.) When she got to the Western world, she made her way steadily inland, gradually picking up snippets of the language, and she eventually settled down in Kordovia after having met an older man, Verdant Gristwold, who she'd end up marrying.

Incidentally, the PCs leveled up to 9th after this adventure, and that was the level Dan had planned for Gilbert to gain the Improved Familiar feat, with intentions of summoning a Small earth elemental he'd call "Mudpie." I worked that into Gilbert's back story, having decided it was a childhood nickname since toddler Gilbert liked playing in the mud. (That also explained the "I LOVE YOU MOMMY" plaque which tipped Ryuko off that there might be another potential threat to the Jade Throne out there somewhere.) Gilbert now knows the polymorph spell, so he's planning on having Mudpie become Medium or Large as the situation dictates, and Gilbert's gained himself a combat stand-in, much like Logan's wizard did with his own improved fire elemental familiar in our last campaign.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I have a T-shirt with an image called "Jade Warrior," featuring an Asian swordswoman in very minimal attire - basically, little more than what Red Sonja wears in the comic books, only with armored spikes on her shoulders. I chose this for several reasons: the adventure featured Gilbert Fung's mother, the equivalent of an Asian woman in the Oerth campaign setting, so it was thematically appropriate; but also because my wife is not particularly a big fan of this T-shirt, so I generally only get to wear it on rare occasions. This one certainly qualified.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 9
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 9
Darrien, half-elf ranger 9
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 9
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 9​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 2
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 8 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 29 October 2016

- - -

Traveling north back through the Clatspur Mountain pass in the Vistani wagon, the group met up with Aithanar heading south in the mule wagon, Daisy the pony, Wrath the timber wolf, and Obvious the jackalope all following behind. The two groups formed back into one: Aithanar swapped wagons and took his accustomed place back driving the Vistani wagon while Ingebold took up the reins of her father's mules; Binkadink and Finoula mounted Obvious and Daisy, respectively; and Gilbert Fung sat inside the Vistani wagon ignoring everything but the pages of his Omnibook, researching variations of the ritual used to summon a familiar to service. Then they resumed their northern journey, Binkadink especially eager to meet up with the group of weaponsmiths and wizards specializing in magic weapon enhancements, rumored to be just north of the Clatspur Mountain range.

The rest of the day was uneventful and the group found a nice clearing in which to camp out for the night. Ingebold got a campfire going while the two rangers scouted out some fresh meat for dinner. Aithanar tended to the draft animals, paying special attention to Daisy, knowing that doing so would win him a smile and a few sweet words of gratitude from Finoula. Gilbert continued his studies.

After dinner, Gilbert announced he was ready to prepare for his familiar-summoning ritual. He found a clear area a few yards from the campsite and, consulting the pages of his Omnibook, began tracing images in the dirt with a stick.

"Is that all you need?" asked Binkadink. "I thought magic circles were supposed to be made out of inlaid silver, or something."

"You thinking permanent magic circles," scoffed Gilbert. "This one serve purpose just fine."

"What are you going to summon?" asked the gnome. "A toad? I could see you with a toad. My cousin Jinkadoodle has a toad familiar." When the heavyset wizard continued to ignore him, he added, "His name's 'Croaky'."

"There!" announced Gilbert, looking down on his handiwork and oblivious to Binkadink's tales of Croaky the toad familiar. The others stepped up to watch what would happen next. Gilbert tossed aside the stick with which he'd inscribed his runes along the magic circle, closed the Omnibook, and began speaking the words to an ages-old ritual by memory. Binkadink leaned forward, eager to see what would show up in the circle.

What the group hadn't expected was for the ground beneath the circle to start buckling and heaving, then erupt up and out as a squat, humanoid being rose up from the ground as if he'd been buried there. In a gravelly voice, the stocky earth elemental, standing at his full four-foot height, said the first words of his existence since being summoned from the Elemental Plane of Earth: "How I serve you, Master?--wait, why I all pink?"

It was true: the dirt and rocks making up the earth elemental's body were a universal pink in color - a shocking, almost nauseatingly bright pink. Gilbert looked down in shock, then started flipping back through the pages of the Omnibook. "I wonder..." he mumbled to himself, while Binkadink gave a wide smile. "A pink elemental!" he announced, impressed. "That's a whole lot better than a toad!"

"I say words right..." mumbled the wizard, frowning. "Diagram right, too..." He snapped the book closed. "This same trick as hair color changes!" he announced, then shook a meaty fist to the skies. "Stupid faeries! You leave Mudpie alone!"

"So this not permanent?" asked Mudpie, looking down at his pink arms.

"No, you be back to normal soon enough," consoled Gilbert Fung.

"Good. I no like being pink," grumbled Mudpie.

"Check it out," whispered Castillan. "He talk just like Gilbert."

"Great," grumbled Finoula. "That's just what we needed."

- - -

The next morning the group continued their travels north - only this time, Mudpie (now his normal coloration) sat in the Vistani wagon as well as Gilbert. Castillan sat in his customary perch on top of the roofed wagon, acting as a lookout. But the road the group was following was becoming narrower, and before long they were traveling single file, with no way for another wagon to pass them in the opposite direction, as the cliff wall to the left was nearly vertical and the mountain to the right rose up at a steep angle as well. Binkadink and Obvious took point, followed in turn by Ingebold driving the mule wagon with Darrien in the back, then Aithanar driving the Vistani wagon, and Finoula, Daisy, and Wrath acting as rear guard.

Suddenly, there was an incoherent roar of rage from above and a boulder came crashing down in front of the Vistani wagon, narrowly missing Castor and Pollux, who both reared up in fright.

"Thieves!" cried a deep voice from above. "Steal my treasure from me, would you? My silver, my gems – my daughter? You'll die for this effrontery!"

From his vantage atop the Vistani wagon, Castillan could see the bald head of a giant on a ledge he judged to be about 30 feet up the mountainside to the right. "We mean you no harm!" the bounder called up to the angry giant. "And we're just now arriving here - we've never met you before, nor have we taken anything belonging to you!"

"Lies!" was his only answer, as Fjordak Cragbrow bent down to pick up another boulder. Darrien nocked an arrow to his Arachnibow and aimed up at the giant, but the ledge blocked his shot. Still, he was ready to release his arrow just as soon as the giant gave him a target.

Binkadink grabbed up a potion from his belt and uncorked it. It was one of Uncle Winkidew's potions of spider climbing, and the gnome knew from past experience his uncle hadn't properly ground the spiders' legs as he should have. But he wasn't planning on picking spiders' legs out from between his teeth - he had a better idea. "Hey, Obvious," he said in the language of burrowing mammals, "Would you like to be able to hop all the way up to that ledge?"

"Sure!" agreed the jackalope, and the gnome leaned forward and poured the contents of the potion vial down his mount's throat. "Let's go!" he cried, leaning forward and getting a good grip on the jackalope's horns as Obvious hippity-hopped up the near-vertical mountainside. They arrived at the other end of the ledge from where the stone giant was lifting the next boulder he'd thrown down at his enemies.

At the back of the wagon train, Finoula had seen Obvious and Binkadink loping up the side of the mountain and surmised how they'd done it. That gave her an idea: she pulled out a potion of her own, advised Wrath to stay where he was and guard Daisy, and then swigged it down. Immediately, her body broke apart into tiny particles, and a vaguely Finoula-shaped cloud of mist started floating over to the mountainside and rising up towards the giant's ledge.

"Look, we're not here to hurt anybody," advised Binkadink in his most calm, soothing voice - but just in case, he gripped his masterwork glaive and readied himself for trouble.

"I know why you're here!" roared Fjordak, tossing his boulder. Obvious scooted to the side and it missed, bouncing down the cliffside and coming to a hard stop against the mule wagon. Darrien leaped down from the wagon to examine it for any damage, but it was okay - and he had Ingebold drive the wagon up a ways, hopefully out of range of any other thrown rocks, or at least far enough away that they wouldn't be a primary target. Once far enough away, the dwarven cleric called for Franco and Tantrum to halt, then tied off the reins and ran back towards the others.

Below the giant's ledge, Castor and Pollux paced in place nervously, the first thrown boulder blocking their way. It was big enough that the wagon couldn't get past it, and in the narrow channel there was no way to turn the wagon around; they'd either have to back the wagon the way it had come or move the boulder - and neither action was one the group had time to deal with at the present.

The back of the Vistani wagon popped open, and out stepped Gilbert and Mudpie. "What all the commotion out here?" groused the wizard, as he stormed over to the front of the wagon to see Aithanar having abandoned his post in the rider's seat and unbuckling Castor from his harness. "What you doing?" he demanded of the elf, knowing in advance he'd get only gibberish in response.

"Quinta shebodder!" replied Aithanar, pointing up to the ledge and continuing to free Castor. He might not be able to get the wagon out of harm's way, but he could certainly save their horses!

Up above, Fjordak didn't bother with another rock; instead, he rushed forward and struck Obvious two hard blows with fists as hard as stone. The jackalope staggered, and Binkadink leapt from his mount's back, glaive already swinging in retaliation. Standing on the Vistani wagon trying to get a view of what was going on, Castillan heard the sounds of battle and decided his attempts at diplomacy were of no further use. So, backing up as far as he could, he sped across the wagon's roof, leapt to the side of the mountain, and allowed his momentum to propel him high enough up the nearly-vertical slope that he could pull himself up to the ledge. Crawling up, he saw he was behind the stone giant, whose attention was focused on Obvious and Binkadink. The gnome, for once, wasn't elevated to human height in his stilt-boots; apparently when up against a giant he preferred to use his short stature to his advantage.

A snap of his fingers brought Castillan's weapons to hand, and the bounder quietly stepped forward.

Binkadink swung his glaive at the giant, catching him across his broad chest. In his peripheral vision, he saw a cave opening to his left, although the only way in seemed to be across a wide pit. There was a long slab of stone placed along its center, but it looked fairly wobbly. Still, the little gnome figured it made for a retractable access point to the giant's cavern network, which seemed eminently practical. While trading blows with the giant, he managed to see Obvious still woozy from the giant's blows, and called for him to go back down to the ground, to find Ingebold. The gnome was certain she'd take the time to heal his friend.

Finoula continued rising up the side of the mountain, frustrated at the slow speed with which she could get her misty form to rise. Gilbert, Mudpie, Ingebold, and Darrien were the only combatants still on the ground, and Darrien soon excused himself from their number by summoning his giant mantis and riding it up to the ledge, arriving in the same spot Obvious had first chosen. The jackalope bounded down to Ingebold's side, and she gave him a quick prayer of healing which mended his wounds. Then, fearful of thrown boulders, she cast an entropic shield upon herself. She always felt bad casting protective spells when she was the only recipient, but there was nobody in range she could heal now that she'd tended to the jackalope's wounds, and as the others had drilled into her head on repeated occasions, they relied upon her for healing so it was in their own best interests that she kept herself safe.

During this time, Gilbert had had his familiar help him up onto the top of the tossed boulder blocking the draft horses from passing by. Looking up at what he could see of the combat up above, he tried casting a charm monster spell on the stone giant, but Fjordak apparently shrugged it off. The wizard then cast a haste spell encompassing Binkadink, Castillan, and Darrien. Then, jumping back down from the boulder, he asked Mudpie, "There some way you get me up there?"

In reply, the earth elemental grabbed his master's robes by the back of the neck and approached the cliff. Using his ability to "swim" through solid rock, the elemental did so while keeping one hand - the one holding Gilbert's robes - exposed to the air. As a result, Gilbert found himself being dragged up the mountainside, feeling every projection and extrusion of rock hit his body along the way. Battered and bruised, he stood up on the ledge - just in time to see Fjordak fall over it, his dead body plunging to the ground below after having been toppled by the forces fighting him. He might have been a powerful stone giant, but he was no match for a gnome's masterwork glaive, a giant mantis's swift-striking claws, a bounder's sneak attacks with his swords, and an archer's arrows - at least, not all at once.

Ingebold hesitantly approached Fjordak's body, unsure if he was really dead or just faking, but the closer she got the more sure she was of his death. She noted he wore little but a loincloth in the way of clothing, yet had on an impressive-looking pair of fingerless leather gloves sporting leather studs. On a whim, she pulled one glove off the giant's hand and was pleased to see it magically resize to the dimensions of her own hand. So it is magical, she surmised, pulling off the other one and stashing them in a belt pouch, not wanting to wear them in case they were responsible for the giant's erratic behavior. Then she gestured for Obvious to approach, and pointed up to ledge. She couldn't speak to the jackalope like Binkadink could, but she got her intentions transmitted through pantomime. Awkwardly climbing onto his back (for she was only slightly taller than Binkadink, and didn't have the advantage of a pair of gnomish stilt-boots), she kicked with her legs and soon the jackalope was hippity-hopping back up the mountainside, this time with a dwarven cleric gripping his antlers in terror.

Finoula had finally made it to the top of the ledge in gaseous form, but opted not to resume her corporeal form just yet - there was that pit trap to cross first.

"Looks wobbly," remarked Binkadink.

"So how'd the giant get across it?" asked Castillan.

"Easy - his arms would be long enough to steady himself on the side walls," replied the gnome. "We wouldn't have that option." He looked down into the pit. "Looks about 30 feet deep," he observed.

"That's as low as the surface of the road below," observed Castillan. "I wonder if there's a hidden passage at ground level?"

"That only get us into bottom of pit," pointed out Gilbert. "We still need way out of pit."

"So what do you suggest?" asked the bounder.

"I'll show you how to get across," boasted Darrien, climbing back onto his mantis and having it fly across. They landed in a cavern about double the size as the ledge outside. The cavern wasn't empty, though - there was a cave cricket perched up on a high ledge. It began chirping immediately - for all of a few seconds, the time it took for Darrien to pepper it with arrows. But that was long enough for it to have awakened something in the next cavern over: the ranger heard a distinct "Whuff?" of something being roused from sleep and a deep growl of irritation.

"Uh oh," said Darrien.

Castillan looked at the stone slab, decided speed would be to his advantage, and raced across the span, his bounder training keeping him balanced and safe. The elf then readied his swords for the moment the creature in the room beyond made an appearance. Binkadink realized Obvious's temporary spider climb abilities would keep him perched on the stone slab even if it jostled a bit, and had his jackalope escort both him and Ingebold in one trip. Finoula simply floated across the bridge in mist form, then resumed her physical form in the cavern with the dead cave cricket. And Gilbert had Mudpie repeat his trick of gliding through solid stone while dragging him along by an extended hand, this time strolling through the wall and dangling the wizard over the open pit.

By then, the cave was getting a bit crowded. It got even more so when the dire bear, Thick-Pelt, ambled out of the cave where he'd been sleeping, the one he shared with Fjordak Cragbrow, to investigate the strange sounds and even strange scents he'd noticed emanating from this cave. He was rewarded for his efforts with a narrow blade slicing deep into the side of one furry cheek. Enraged by the pain, Thick-Pelt reared up and swiped at the offending elf with a long-clawed paw. His swipe cut deep into Castillan's side, and the great bruin pulled the bounder in for a hug. Castillan screamed in pain as he felt several ribs crack.

The next to react was the giant mantis, which struck out again lightning-fast with its claws. They struck true, but the bear's size and his thick fur helped prevent him from being caught and stuck in the mantis's embrace in the same way the elf was caught in his own. Ingebold voiced a quick prayer and a spiritual hammer manifested directly behind the dire bear, striking at it with uncanny accuracy. Darrien began shooting arrows into the bear's side, glad that the beast was big enough he had plenty of target to shoot at far enough away from Castillan that he wasn't risking accidentally hitting his friend. Binkadink used his glaive's long reach to poke at the bear, soaking its fur in its own blood. Ingebold pulled out her magic mace from her belt, pointed it in Castillan's direction, and channeled positive energy - which would have otherwise powered one of her strongest spells - through the mace and into the bounder. While still caught up in the bear's embrace, the elf felt vitality coursing through his system, knitting his ribs and healing the claw marks ripped through the side of his torso.

In the midst of this combat, nobody noticed a thin ray striking out from the darkness of the caverns not yet explored. It struck the mantis, which sat on its four back legs and looked at the combat before with uncaring, multifaceted eyes. To its insect brain, the combat ahead had nothing to do with it; it wasn't hungry, so why waste energy fighting?

Attacked from all quarters, Thick-Pelt hung on to the morsel it already had in its grasp; strengthening his hold on Castillan, he snapped his teeth down on the bounder's shoulder. Castillan again screamed in pain, realizing that Ingebold's recent healing was the only thing that had kept him alive thus far - and he was desperate for some more of it, pronto! Mudpie entered the fracas, slamming at the bear with his stony fists; Finoula stabbed at it with her twin swords; and those attacks, as well as the arrows and spiritual hammer, soon took the great bear down. Castillan groaned in pain as the beast collapsed on top of him, and Finoula sheathed her swords to help pull him out from underneath the slain bruin.

The battle over, Gilbert stepped past the bear's corpse to check out the cave from which it had emerged to fight the heroes. It was a simple cave, its walls painted with a series of geometric designs, and a few furs on the floor making up crude beds. In the meantime, realizing the light from the cavern system's outer opening was doing little this far back and Binkadink's helmet was presently their only light source, Darrien activated one of the sun rods in his backpack. Then he stepped past the slain dire bear and walked into a much larger cavern beyond.

There were two indistinct shapes to his left and straight ahead, each easily 10 feet tall, but the ranger ignored them - they didn't really even enter his consciousness. Instead, he was struck by a simple realization: his "friends" were simply waiting for the right time to kill him and steal all of his belongings! He spun about, seeing Mudpie ambling up to stand beside him. Of course! thought Darrien. Who ever heard of a walking pile of dirt and rocks? This was obviously an assassin in a ridiculous costume, hoping to get past the ranger's guard.

"It won't work!" screamed Darrien, stepping back and firing arrow after arrow into Mudpie's thick body. Some were deflected off the harder, rockier parts of the elemental's form, while others impaled themselves deep into those sections comprised mainly of dirt. "I'm on to your tricks!" the half-elf ranger screamed, reaching into his quiver for another arrow, while Mudpie looked back at Gilbert for instructions. The wizard waved him back to him, so he could transfer a spell onto his familiar. Mudpie shrugged, not understanding the workings of this strange group yet, and headed back to heed his master's call.

Binkadink and Finoula looked at each other, realizing something had affected their friend. Each taking a deep breath in case it was due to something he'd inhaled - the gnome remembered the strength-sapping mushroom spores they'd encountered in the lizardfolk cave; this might be something similar - they leaped forward, weapons drawn. Not having breathed in the nearly-invisible spores in the cavern, they were able to fully focus their attention on the two fungoid monstrosities standing in the cavern before them.

The one on the left was roughly humanoid in shape, with a wide mushroom cap forming a hat of sorts at the top of its head. It pointed a stumpy appendage at Binkadink and a stream of particles struck him in the chest, exploding into a fine mist of spores. But the gnome clamped down even harder on his lips, willing himself not to breathe, all the while realizing that these spores now covered the front of his armor; eventually, he'd have to take a breath....

The creature on the right was built more like a mushroom, only one with half a dozen or so hard, wooden stalks acting as legs. Its cap was raised upwards on all sides, forming a sort of cup of gargantuan proportions. It, too, leaked spore from its body, and the elven ranger feared what would happen if she were foolish enough to breathe them in.

Choosing their target as one, Binkadink sent his glaive swinging at the basidirond, even as Finoula danced forward and slashed out at it with her swords. Before the six-limbed fungal beast could retaliate, sudden danger came from an unexpected direction.

"You're a part of it!" screamed Darrien, sending four arrows in swift sequence darting at Finoula, each striking true. The elf stumbled, dropping to one knee, and it took all of her willpower not to breathe in as a response to the sudden attack. Above her head, the spiritual hammer went streaking by, Ingebold having redirected it at the basidirond.

Gilbert stepped forward, took in the situation at a glance, and cast an Evard's black tentacles spell at the back of the cavern - which, he noted, ended in an open space leading down to unknown depths. Ebon, rubbery tentacles sprang up from the ground, trying to entangle the basidirond and the myconid circle leader. Their initial attacks were unsuccessful; the basidirond ambled forward, out of the spell's range, and kicked a wooden appendage at the gnome fighter, as the humanoid myconid made its way slowly forward, eager to be out of the range of the grasping tentacles.

Binkadink stepped back and stabbed at the basidirond, killing it; the creature's oblong body went crashing backwards into the reach of the grasping tentacles, where it was eventually pulled apart.

Castillan, still sorely wounded by the bear's attack, took a deep breath and raced past the tentacles to his left. He dodged past Darrien, standing in a passageway that looked to have a set of natural stairs leading down, and into a different cave opening. His elven eyes could make out two smaller, fungoid forms menacing a cringing shape trying her best to hide underneath a blanket made of thick, woolly furs. Although this was a female stone giant - Fjordak's daughter, Bodelka - who would have towered over the myconids if she stood up, she seemed paralyzed with absolute terror.

One of the myconids turned to swipe a malformed limb at the bounder, who easily dodged it; the other backed up in shock and began exuding spores at a rapid rate. Although the bounder didn't realize it - he held his breath, fearful of ill effects if he breathed in the spores - these were merely the myconids' way of alerting others of their kind that danger was present. And Bodelka's fear, although induced not by the myconid guards threatening her now but rather by spores emanating from the basidirond when it first entered the giants' lair through the rift at the back of their cavern network, had run its course. Shaking her head furiously as if angry at her earlier fear, she threw the furs away from her, stood to her full height, and took in the situation with a clear head.

There were two of the strange mushroom-people in her room, as well as an elf in leather armor. Outside her sleeping cave she could see two women, one an elf and the other a dwarf, both as much a trespasser as the fungoid beings. And behind them stepped a male gnome, swinging a bladed weapon at something she couldn't see.

Bodelka's course was clear: she must rid her home of these intruders, and the best way to do that was to get to her father and their trained dire bear so the three of them could stand together. She raised her hand to the amulet she wore around her neck, spoke a command word, and her body vanished, transformed instantly into a lightning bolt which shot across the cavern, catching all three humanoids and one of the little fungus-men in her room. The three adventurers merely staggered under the sudden onslaught; only the fungus-man had the good grace to die. And then, less than a second after her sudden transformation, she reformed into her normal body, this time standing at the opening of her father's cave - from which she could see the slain corpse of Thick-Pelt.

Gilbert, standing inside Fjordak's sleeping cave, was astonished at the sudden arrival of a bald stone giantess before him; fortunately, he had finished the spell he'd been casting at the time, and Mudpie's body was polymorphed into a larger version of himself, one standing four times his normal height. He raised a massive fist to strike at the giantess, but as he did so the myconid circle leader stepped just behind her, advancing upon Binkadink. Judging the myconids to be the invaders and the real threat here, Gilbert sent his temporarily 16-foot familiar to attack the circle leader instead of Bodelka. One slam of his fist smashed the myconid's entire head from its body, and the circle leader fell back into the embrace of the Evard's black tentacles spell.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the myconid threat. Rising up from the rift was an even larger myconid, this one the sovereign, the leader of the entire invasion force. Having been driven off by greater threats in the vast Underdark, the shattered remains of a small group of myconid colonies had traveled this close to the surface before finding a place of relative safety - and if the current occupants needed to be evicted, then so be it. The myconid sovereign, under the same spider climb effect he'd bestowed upon the rest of his shattered circle via the touch-wand he'd created from a slender shoot of his own body, reached the level of the cavern floor but found it filled with waving, ebon tentacles. That would never do! Fortunately, the bodiless appendages only rose about halfway to the cavern's 20-foot ceiling, so the sovereign simply climbed higher up the rift wall before entering the cavern above the waving tentacles.

Gilbert saw this new threat and sent his earth elemental familiar to deal with it. Mudpie merged into the stone wall of the cavern, swim-climbing through the ceiling of the adjacent cavern, to pop out of the opposite wall where moments earlier the myconid sovereign had been standing sideways. However, by the time the elemental had traversed that distance, the sovereign had moved past the range of the tentacles and stood in a place of relative safety: Bodelka's sleeping cavern, still occupied by Castillan and the remaining myconid guard. This smaller myconid swung a fist at the bounder, who had been hurt enough earlier by Thick-Pelt that he didn't relish a fight, even with a fungus-man smaller than himself. As the sovereign entered the cave via the wall near the ceiling, Castillan ducked beneath and exited the chamber, heading towards the natural stairs leading down he'd passed earlier.

The top of these stairs were currently occupied by Darrien, whose spore hallucinations still convinced him his so-called "friends" were plotting to kill him and steal all of his worldly possessions. While getting a few shots off at Binkadink, he saw Finoula pull the whip of thorns from her belt and send its coils lashing out at his feet. While a part of his mind noted the thorns had not been activated, the rest of his addled brain dismissed this fact as insignificant - the elf was still attacking him, wasn't she? Proof of her betrayal! Finoula got the ends of her whip wrapped around Darrien's ankles and pulled his feet out from beneath him, sending him crashing to the ground. She had hoped she might knock him out, so maybe the spores would burn out of his system by the time he woke up, but no such luck - the ranger untangled the whip from his ankles and scrambled back to his feet. Seeing himself surrounded by three of his adventuring enemies, he chose the nearest target and sent an arrow flying at Castillan, who barely dodged it in time.

"Watch it!" demanded the bounder, aiming his swords at Darrien and ready to strike back if necessary.

Seeing Castillan's wounds were keeping the bounder from being at his full fighting strength, Binkadink stepped forward, his stilt-boots elevating him to a height better geared toward fighting a half-elf. Darrien, without a moment's hesitation, shot an arrow at the gnome fighter; Binkadink, with any hesitation on his part, sent his glaive slashing at the ranger.

"No!" screamed Finoula, fearful that the gnome would kill Darrien to keep the rest of the party safe. But she needn't have worried; at the last moment, Binkadink had twisted his weapon so the flat of the blade slammed into the side of Darrien's head. Eyes rolling up into his head, Darrien dropped backwards down the stairs, unconscious but still breathing. Seeing a way clear of battle, Castillan leaped after him, jumping from wall to wall above his friend's body and dropping back down to the natural stone steps - only to find an even smaller myconid form waiting there for him. This was an elder worker, part of a group of four such beings that had traveled down to the lower level of the cavern network to explore its contents. Not wanting to deal with the creature, the bounder leaped over its head and landed in the wider cavern at the bottom of the stone steps - and seeing three more elder workers in battle with a giant snail. I can't catch a break! the bounder thought to himself, looking for a safe place to drink down a potion of healing.

Back at the top of the stairs, Bodelka cried a wordless cry of rage and grief and struck out at the target nearest the body of her pet dire bear - Ingebold - with her rock-hard fists. Ingebold retargeted her spiritual hammer at the giantess, then followed its attack up with a few of her own with her warhammer. Bodelka snarled and touched her amulet for a second time; her body became a lightning bolt and passed through the dwarven cleric and Finoula before reshaping itself back to stone giantess form less than a second later, stopping at the top of the stairs.

In her sleeping cave, the myconid sovereign was in a blow-by-blow battle with an enlarged Mudpie. The battle was rather lopsided, though, given that the earth elemental had no need to breathe and was immune to the myconid's spores; furthermore, he attacked while most of his body was still "earth gliding" within the stone wall of Bodelka's cave. The myconid soon fell to the floor dead, its plans of finding a new safe haven for its circle as demolished as its fungal body.

Bodelka used the powers of her lightning amulet for the third and final time that day, sending her in lightning bolt form down the stone steps, through the bodies of Binkadink, Castillan, and the elder worker at the bottom of the steps. Once again, this was enough to slay the myconid, while the others simply soaked up their damage and looked ready to fight some more. Bodelka found herself back in her stone giant form standing next to the flail snail her father had allowed to lair in the cavern, protecting their herd from intruders.

Before the stone giantess could do anything further, Castillan was off in a shot. He raced past the two remaining myconid elder workers (one of whom was slain by the flail snail as he ran past), through a trio of stalagmites, and into what felt like a much, much larger cavern than any others he'd seen in this entire complex. Far away from any light sources, even Castillan's elven eyes could make out little more than dark shapes in the cavern. But the place had the stink of a barnyard - and this soon proved to be an apt comparison, as a shaggy-pelted bovine wandered up to the startled elf and bellowed at him. On a whim, Castillan put his hand out and patted the side of the enormous, shaggy head of the being stooping down to him. The rothé mooed in contentment, drawing a few more such creatures towards them. Relieved to no longer be among enemies, Castillan passed around head-pats and scratches behind the ear while he pulled the "Winkidew Special" healing potion from his belt and tried to swig it down. It took him a few seconds to work up the resolve to actually drink it down, for it smelled worse than the dung-filled cavern of over half a dozen stench kows, but he managed to drink it down - only to heave it all up a few seconds later. Unimpressed by the elf's gastrointestinal discomfort, the rothé gathered around to be petted.

Mudpie's fist suddenly slammed out from the cavern wall and smashed into Bodelka. The earth elemental stepped out from the wall, pleased with its sudden combat power in this new, larger form. But its overconfidence was soon brought to a halt when the stone giantess proved her own strength with a series of punches that brought Mudpie crashing to the ground with a massive crash. The flail snail slithered onto his back, hoping to use this higher elevation to its own advantage.

At the top of the stone steps, Ingebold bent over the unconscious Darrien and cast one of her most powerful healing spells. He fluttered his eyes, sat up, and looked confused - but he showed no signs of wanting to attack his companions, which was certainly a good sign. Binkadink squeezed past the ranger and raced to the bottom of the steps, only to take a series of well-placed strikes from the giant gastropod's writhing appendages, each bearing more than a passing resemblance to a mace. Behind him, Finoula used the gnome's body as a shield to slip past the flail snail and stab at Bodelka with her swords.

Gilbert stepped to the top of the stairs and peered down, looking for his familiar - whose cry of pain and mental anguish had been transmitted through the mental link the portly wizard had with his stocky familiar. Bodelka was within sight, so he sent a blast of five magic missiles flying down at her. As Binkadink stabbed at the snail with his gnomish glaive, Darrien re-entered the fight, this time alongside his adventuring partners, and sent a flurry of arrows at Bodelka. The giantess stepped back from the stairs, moving further into the snail's cavern and out of immediate sight of half of her opponents.

Ingebold and Darrien took this opportunity to go down the steps and into the snail's cavern. The cleric headed immediately to Mudpie's fallen form, confident in Binkadink's ability to keep the flail snail, perched on the earth elemental's body, sufficiently focused on fending off his glaive to give her the chance to cast a spell of healing upon the familiar. Her spell woke the elemental immediately; standing up - the flail snail sliding effortlessly off his body in the process - and heeding Gilbert's frantic gestures to return to the wizard's side, Mudpie felt yet another of his master's spells being granted to him. Obeying Gilbert's orders, Mudpie sank back into the stone floor of the cavern, traveled to just underneath where Bodelka was standing, and popped back up - simultaneously releasing the vampiric touch spell Gilbert had passed his way.

Ingebold went running to the back of the cavern, looking for Castillan, who she knew could use some healing. Bodelka, leaping away from Mudpie's unexpected attack, found herself standing beside the dwarven cleric and struck out at her. Ingebold ducked and cringed as if warding off the giantess's next blow, but it was a fake-out and her spiritual hammer slammed into the back of Bodelka's head, vanishing immediately afterward as the spell had run its course.

Darrien's arrows finally brought the stone giant crashing to the ground, dead, while Castillan - having gotten over the dry heaves caused by Winkidew's faulty healing potion - was ready to return to battle and sent an arrow from his own shortbow into one of the cracks in the flail snail's shell, killing it.

"Is that it?" asked Finoula, looking around for enemies and finding none. That was because the last remaining myconid elder worker, having seen the rest of his troop fall before these powerful enemies, had slipped into the hoped-for safety of the rothé cavern - where he had been promptly eaten by two of the massive stench kows.

A thorough search of the cavern complex unearthed the "silver and gems" Fjordak had been ranting about while under the effects of the basidirond's spores, as well as a series of delicately-carved stone figures in Bodelka's room - she had apparently been quite the sculptress. Castillan insisted on checking out the rothé cavern under proper lighting, and unearthed three clear diamonds, each nearly the size of his palm and practically invisible at the bottom of the clear pool of fresh water at the back of the stench kows' cavern. Finoula claimed Bodelka's lightning amulet, having recognized the command words as an elven phrase meaning "lightning-bridge rider." As the amulet had apparently been crafted by an elf, she felt it only appropriate that she put it to good use from that point on. And once Gilbert identified the gloves Fjordak Cragbrow had been wearing as gauntlets of ogre power, the group handed them over to Binkadink, who argued he could best use the magical boost to his natural strength, given he had only his own strength powering the blows of his weapons. Gilbert ended up with the touch-wand of spider climb from the myconid sovereign.

After having explored the entire cave network, Obvious's spider climb spell effect had worn off, and the pacified giant mantis had returned to the magical stasis inside Darrien's own necklace. Rather than use up a charge from Gilbert's new touch-wand, Ingebold unrolled the group's portable hole and everyone but Castillan stepped inside, allowing the bounder to cross the wobbly bridge across the entrance pit and back down the cliffside to his brother Aithanar, who had returned the draft horses to their harnesses once all of the fighting had left the immediate vicinity and taken place deeper into the mountain's interior.

Finally, with everyone back out of the portable hole and healed by Ingebold's remaining spells, the group got the thrown boulders - and Fjordak's corpse - out of the way enough to allow the Vistani wagon to pass by.

"Back on the road again," said Castillan with a smile at his little brother.

But Aithanar wasn't smiling back. "Goonton winwicky!" he said, pointing at his brother's head.

"What?" asked Castillan, turning to see if Aithanar had been pointing to something behind him. But he hadn't; Aithanar had been pointing at Castillan's hair, which had abruptly changed to the bright red of a poppy.

"Getting tired of this nonsense!" yelled Gilbert to the surrounding air, but the surrounding air gave no response back.

- - -

At the beginning of this adventure I had Dan roll a Spellcraft check when having Gilbert Fung summon his advanced familiar. Dan had, weeks earlier, bought a Large earth elemental and painstakingly painted it in natural stone colors, planning on using it to represent Mudpie when polymorphed into Large size (something Gilbert plans to make permanent once he learns the permanency spell - it's listed in one of the spellbooks he's acquired, but Dan rolled a "1" when Gilbert was attempting to learn that spell after attaining 9th level).

Wouldn't you know it? - Dan rolled a "1" when making the Spellcraft roll. We were prepared to use a galeb duhr miniature to represent Mudpie when he was in his normal, Small earth elemental form, but I had come prepared for the eventuality of a botched Spellcraft roll. Palming the galeb duhr in the same hand I had already hidden another figure, I gave Mudpie's introductory speech before plopping the second figure onto the table - a pink Jigglypuff Pokemon figure I had picked up from somewhere years ago. I think I had everyone believing for a moment or two that Mudpie was going to be permanently pink due to a botched Spellcraft check, before informing the group that Mudpie's odd coloration wore off after about an hour - whereupon the group realized it was apparently the same cause as whatever had been playing around with their hair color the last 10 adventures or so. (The story behind that little mystery will be revealed during the course of the next adventure, no doubt to the relief of my players.)

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I was originally just going to wear my gray T-shirt to represent the "stone" part of this adventure, before realizing I had a more creative option. Instead, I wore my Einstein T-shirt, which has him smoking a pipe and the smoke taking on the form of colorful galaxies behind him. That represented "getting stoned" fairly well, I thought - and best of all, it was only obvious in hindsight, so it gave my players no real hint as to what they might expect to show up in the session's adventure.

In fact, it had quite the opposite effect: Logan "misread" the meaning behind my T-shirt, realizing I do not own a red dragon T-shirt, realizing also that he painted two red dragon miniatures for me recently, and realizing that red dragons lair in the mountains, he put those facts together and surmised the PCs would be facing a red dragon (or dragons) at some point in this adventure. In fact, this bit of meta-gaming might have had some detrimental effects on the PCs' overall success, because after Logan's reasoning was spelled out at the table, Dan opted to forego having Gilbert Fung prepare any fireball spells for this adventure (and then voicing his regret about having done so later on).

Coincidence? You be the judge.
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Game Session Date: 19 November 2016

- - -

Finoula, having taken the last guard shift, watched the morning sun's rays rise over the peaks of the Clatspur Range and finished her final excursion around the circumference of the camp. As she approached Binkadink, snuggled against the warm fur of his jackalope mount and still snoring softly, something seemed wrong. It took her a moment to realize that Obvious's fur was now the pure white of a snow hare. She strained her ears to try to pick up the sound of fairy wings - or fairy laughter - but heard only the normal noises of the mountain forest around her. Waking everyone up, she added some fuel to the campfire and started getting the breakfast meal ready. Binkadink yawned and stretched, then jumped to his feet in shock once he saw the color of his mount's fur.

"When did this happen?" he asked. Finoula just shrugged; she hadn't been paying particular attention to the color of the jackalope's fur with every pass she made during her guard shift. But Obvious didn't seem particularly fazed by it, nor did he once it returned to its normal earthy brown shortly after the group got back on the road.

"Stupid fairies," grumbled Gilbert.

The rest of the day's northerly journey was relatively uneventful. Binkadink was fairly certain there should only be a day or two left in their trek before they exited the Clatspur Range, and hopefully met up with the wizards and weaponsmiths said to have set up shop thereabouts. He daydreamed happily about magical gnomish glaives while Obvious hippity-hopped along with the rest of the group.

"We'd best be findin' a place fer th' evenin'," suggested Ingebold from the driver's seat of the mule wagon. "It'll be gettin' dark soon." Indeed, twilight was fast approaching.

"There's a fire up ahead," advised Castillan from his perch on the top of the Vistani wagon. Sure enough, just ahead to the right was the flickering light of a campfire, in a wide clearing large enough to hold both wagons and make for a comfortable evening, surrounded on three edges by the cliffsides of the forested mountains. However, the space was already occupied by a pair of female centaurs, one of them blonde, the other a brunette. Upon the arrival of the adventurers, they looked up from their cook fire preparations and smiled in greeting.

"Hello," said the blond centaur. "My name is Starflower, and this is Dawnsong. Do you wish to join us for the evening?"

Dawnsong looked up at the new arrivals and her mouth hung open in shock. "I'm sorry," she said, smiling shyly, "but you wouldn't happen to be the Kordovian Band, would you?"

"'The Kordovian Band'?" repeated Finoula. "How did you know we were from Kordovia?"

"We shared a campfire with an elven bard a few nights ago," the centaur admitted. "One of the songs he sang was 'The Kordovian Band' - and it described each of you. There probably aren't a lot of gnomes who ride jackalopes. You must be...Dinkabink?"

"Binkadink," corrected the little gnome with a friendly smile, dismounting from Obvious's back.

"Binkadink! Yes!" said Starflower, clapping her hands. "And you must be Finoula! And Ingebold! And Derry...?" she added, clearly trying to scrounge up the half-elf ranger's name from memory. Darrien supplied it to her, and introductions were made all around. Gilbert stepped aside as Mudpie rose up from the ground where he'd been standing. "Oh!" exclaimed the centaurs. "I don't think he was in the song!"

"He new addition to group," exclaimed Gilbert, giving the centaur women a wide smile. The fact that neither wore any clothing might have had some small bearing on his general level of friendliness to two strangers he'd just met - the wizard usually trusted nobody until he'd had time to study them for some time.

"Will you join us in honeywine porridge?" asked Dawnsong, adding several more handfuls of grain into the cook pot over the fire.

"Gladly!" replied Castillan, leaping down from the wagon and approaching the bare-chested centaurs. Finoula gave a slight sniff of irritation at the fact that the men of her group all seemed to be ogling the centaurs, who seemed indifferent to their nakedness. At least Aithanar wasn't paying them any attention; as usual, he was attending to the horses and mules, and as usual, he was giving Finoula's pony Daisy special attention. The elven ranger smiled at him, and he returned her smile wholeheartedly.

After a nice meal - the honeywine porridge was actually very good, and the adventurers offered up some of their own food stores in return, which the centaurs accepted with great relish - and as the sun went down, Starflower turned to the group and asked, "So what brings you here to the mountains? Are you here about the dragon?"

"Dragon?" repeated Binkadink, suddenly all ears. He'd love to test his mettle against a dragon - although, on second thought, he'd actually kind of rather his first dragon encounter happened after he procured a magical glaive.

"A red dragon, yes," affirmed Dawnsong. "They say he's twice the size of a horse, and he's been shaking down the villages in the area, seeking tribute in exchange for not burning their homes to the ground."

"You see this dragon yourself?" Gilbert asked.

"No," admitted Dawnsong, "But we heard about it from the bard, and from another traveler on the road just the other day."

"And why are you here?" asked Finoula.

"Oh, we're nomads," replied Starflower. "Druids, actually - we explore the vastness of Skerrit's bounty, living off the land and helping those we meet on the way."

"Who Skerrit?" asked Gilbert Fung. "I thought druids worship Ehlonna, or maybe Obad-hai."

"Oh, we honor both of them as well," admitted Dawnsong. "But Skerrit is the God of the Centaurs, and as such deserves our primary reverence." Then she suddenly flinched. "Did you hear that?" she asked.

Everyone strained their ears, trying to hear whatever it was the centaur had picked up. There were the normal sounds of the forest around them - chirping crickets, the quiet susurration of the wind through the leaves - and the crackling of the campfire before them, but both Castillan and Darrien could also make out the droning of insect wings growing louder, occasionally sprinkled with the sounds of muffled laughter.

Suddenly, Starflower's blond hair changed hue to a bright magenta. "What's going on?" she cried.

"It the fairies again!" yelled Gilbert, looking up at the air above him but seeing nothing - not that they'd ever actually seen the fairies that had been plaguing them for months. Binkadink's eyes bulged wide as he stared at Starflower's reddish-purple hair as if he couldn't believe what was happening - which was absolutely true, for he was the only one in the group (besides Obvious, who couldn't speak to anyone but the gnome) who knew that he'd been the one responsible for the sudden hair discoloration effects over the past few months. After all, what was the point of a prank-loving gnome being able to activate daily prestidigitation and ghost sound effects if they weren't put to good use?

Dawnsong spoke the words to a quick spell, causing her eyes to glow a bright blue, and looked about her. "It's a band of fairies," she announced. "Invisible, as I suspected. And-–what's this? Their heads! They look like, like some sort of insect! Look out!"

The centaur pushed Finoula back, stepping forward as if to protect her. "Everyone down!" she cried. "They're firing some sort of rays!"

Chaos exploded around the campfire. Those heroes of a martial bent grabbed up their weapons, while Ingebold cast a quick magic circle against evil spell and Gilbert caught all of his group's members in a haste spell. But sporadically, each could feel the invisible rays striking at them, making them feel weaker in some hard-to-define way. Dawnsong, the only one in the group capable of seeing where the attacks were coming from, did her best to describe to the others when to duck, occasionally trying to pull them out of the way or shield them with her own body. Starflower looked up to the air above them and lamented that she'd not prepared any spells useful for this unseen attack.

Binkadink had no spells to cast but he had a glaive, and while he couldn't see any enemies, he figured he could put his weapon to better use than swinging it wildly around above him and hoping he hit something. Instead, he stabbed into the campfire, tossing ashes and embers directly above the flames. "Kick up dirt!" he called to Obvious in the burrowing-mammal language they shared. The jackalope started scuffing his back legs, kicking up a cloud of dirt behind him. The air above them exploded with the irritated shrieks of the unseen insect-fairies, who must have thereafter dodged around the clouds that might have exposed their whereabouts.

Darrien was the first to realize that having everybody standing around the campfire in one big clump might not be the best tactical position. Hoping to draw some off from the rest of the group, he sprinted around the campfire and headed for the Vistani wagon. Gilbert saw this and apparently gave it his blessing, for he started to follow. "C'mon, Mudpie, we get to safety!" he called - before jumping from a sudden jolt and falling face-first to the ground. Mudpie, sensing his master was unconscious through the empathic link they shared, did his best to follow his master's last instructions. Sinking down below the ground with one hand still raised above it, he earth-glided through the dirt, his one hand sticking up like a shark's fin through the water. The bulky hand grabbed Gilbert by the collar of his robes as it passed, and the heavyset wizard's body was dragged face-down through the dirt on the way to the Vistani wagon - where Darrien, to his dismay, found the back door was locked! Cursing in frustration, he was struck by an unseen foe and collapsed, unconscious, to the ground.

Over by the campfire, things weren't much better. Finoula, Aithanar, Binkadink, and Ingebold had likewise been rendered unconscious by their invisible foes, and, eyes rolling up into her head, Starflower soon followed suit. Castillan just barely dodged out of the way of the falling centaur before he, too, was overcome by whatever had been striking the group. Wrath and Obvious fell next, followed by Dawnsong, the only member of the group capable of actually seeing their foes. Mudpie was the last to fall, standing protectively over the unconscious body of his master; his last conscious act was ensuring his rocky body fell away from, rather than atop, Gilbert Fung when he collapsed.

Silence reigned around the campsite, the only noises now the crackling of the flames and the returning chirps of the crickets in the surrounding forest.

- - -

Binkadink fluttered his eyelids, wondering where he was. He was lying on his back, staring up at a stone ceiling; the flickering light told him there were torches nearby. He sat up, and discovered two things immediately: first, he had been stripped of his armor and weapons and was now wearing only a pair of his traveling clothes; and second, there was a manacle around his left wrist.

Looking down, he saw the manacle was connected to a short length of chain which went through a triangular hole at the top of a metal spike sticking up from the stone floor and connected to another manacle around Obvious's right front paw. The two were in a small, square room, 15 feet to a side, with a single door flanked by everburning torches and with a glowing rune of some sort directly above it. To the wall at right of the door was a box with a hinged top lid; just before it, the handaxe the heroes used to cut firewood was lying on the floor, just out of reach. It looked like there was a small piece of paper underneath it.

As Obvious began to stir, a small figure stepped into view from the back of the room. It was the size of a child's doll, made from carved wood, with a painted face that included spiraling designs on each cheek. "Hello, Binkadink," it said in the Common tongue. "I want to play a game. You are known for your loyalty to your friends and family. But how long will that loyalty last under stress? Underneath the handaxe is a card that will let you know what you need to do to escape this room safely. But you should know that your chains are adamantine, and escape likely won't be as easy – or as bloodless – as you'd wish."

With a feeling of dread, Binkadink stretched out as far as he could towards the handaxe - and came up several inches too short. Asking Obvious - who, oblivious to the Common tongue, had understood nothing of what the animated doll had said - to move as close as possible to the spike in the floor between them, the gnome managed to grab the handle of the handaxe and drag it and the paper on which it rested over to him. The paper was a rectangle folded over once to form a square, and was inscribed with Binkadink's name. Opening it, the gnome read to himself:
Binkadink looked down at the handaxe, then over to his faithful steed and trusty companion, and felt a sinking sensation at the pit of his stomach.

- - -

Gilbert Fung rubbed his eyes and sat up, grumpily. He still wore his traveling robe but had none of his adventuring gear with him – his backpack, wands, potions, scrolls, the Omnibook – all of it was gone. Likewise, Mudpie was not in evidence, and with a shock the wizard realized he couldn't even feel his familiar's mental presence through the empathic link they normally shared.

Getting up and looking around, Gilbert found himself in a small room illuminated by a pair of everburning torches on either side of a wooden door. Above the door was engraved an arcane rune of some type. On the floor by the door was a folded piece of paper with Gilbert's name on it.

As Gilbert bent over to pick up the note, a small figure stepped forward from the shadows along the back of the room: a child's doll, it looked like.

"Hello, Gilbert," it said. "I want to play a game. You are separated from your friends, in a room with only one visible way out. You often talk as if you know more than your companions. Here is where you can prove your mental superiority. The card will tell you what you need to do to exit this room safely."

Gilbert opened the card and read:
"I not happy about any of this!" Gilbert announced loudly to the room at large. The doll said nothing, merely stared up at the portly wizard as if curious as to what he would do next.

- - -

Finoula woke up on the cold stone floor of a small room with a single door flanked by everburning torches. Above the door was an arcane rune.

Sitting up, the ranger saw a three-foot-tall stone urn in the middle of the room, on the other side of which she could hear Ingebold stirring. The urn's top was covered by means of a stone lid with two handles sticking out of the sides. The urn looked to be about two feet wide.

As the women rose to their feet, they realized they were both wearing their travel garb but their armor, weapons, and associated adventuring gear – including even Ingebold’s holy symbol of Moradin – was missing. The dwarven cleric's hand went instinctively to her neck, where her holy symbol would normally have been.

A small figure approached from behind the urn, the size of a child's doll. "Hello, Finoula. Hello, Ingebold," it said. "I want to play a game. You two are the only female members of your adventuring group. As such, some might think you were therefore the weakest members of the group as well. Here you will have an opportunity to dispel those notions – or reinforce them. There is a card by the door that explains what you need to do to escape this room unscathed."

With a snarl, Ingebold grabbed up the doll by its neck and started to shake it, then realized how silly it was to try to frighten what was obviously an animated object, no doubt speaking pre-programmed words via a magic mouth spell or similar magic. She tossed the thing into a corner, slightly unnerved to see it right itself and stand there, looking at the two. "What's th' card say?" Ingebold asked.

Finoula read aloud:
Examining the urn, the women saw it was carved directly from the room, as it and the floor all seemed to be of the same unbroken construction - so there was no way to tip it over.

"I wonder what else's in th' urn," Ingebold muttered to herself. Finoula frowned her agreement.

- - -

Darrien woke up on a cold, hard, stone floor. He was wearing a travel outfit, but his armor, weapons, and other adventuring gear were all missing. Looking about, he saw he was in a small room carved from solid stone with a single door as the only way out. Flanking the door were two everburning torches, and there was a strange rune overhead. On a ledge along the wall to the right of the door were five straight-edged shapes.

"Hello, Darrien," said a voice behind the ranger. "I want to play a game." Looking around, Darrien saw a child's doll stepping forth from the shadows at the rear of the chamber. "You're the quiet one," it continued, "Often full of good ideas, but not always presenting them to the group at large. Now, you'll have to count on your own wits to get you out of the predicament you now find yourself in. There's a card on the floor which explains what you need to do to exit this room."

Darrien picked up the card and read:
Looking at the door, he could see a diamond-shaped indentation. And sure enough, the small ledge to the right contained five keys, each the same except for the geometric shape at the end you'd hold to use the key. One looked kind of like a simple house, one looked like an elongated "V" or "L" - but all had straight lines along their outer edges, and either right angles or angles looking half that wide.

Darrien picked up the first two keys and positioned them inside the diamond, trying different configurations.

- - -

Castillan came to sitting upright on a cold stone floor. His arms were bound at his sides from shoulder to elbow by strong ropes and after a moment he realized he was bound back-to-back with his brother Aithanar. Both were wearing their travel clothes but seemed to be missing all of their armor, weapons, and equipment – with the sole exception of both of Castillan's gloves of storing.

Looking around, the bounder could see he was in a small room with a single door, upon which was inscribed a strange design of overlapping straight lines. A pair of everburning torches provided the only light in the room, but above the door the bounder could see some sort of arcane glyph.

Just as the elf was about to snap his weapons into his hands and try to cut the ropes binding him to his brother, a small figure stepped forward from the shadows of the back part of the room, no larger than a child's doll. "Hello, Castillan. Hello, Aithanar," it said. "I want to play a game. You are the eldest of the Ivenheart siblings, Castillan, but did you rescue your brother out of responsibility for his well-being, or simply to annoy your father? You may have noticed you are still wearing your gloves. However, they no longer hold your weapons; one now holds the key to allow you to exit this room safely, and the other holds a particular menace that, if released, will spell almost certain doom for Aithanar. You could easily activate both gloves and guarantee your freedom, but at the cost of your brother's life. There is a card by the door which explains what you need to do."

"Squimba shondookie?" asked Aithanar, with not a little fear in his voice.

"I don't know," Castillan answered. "See if we can scoot over to reach the card."

Working together, the two elves scooted along the floor until the elder brother could scoop up the card. Dexterously opening it one-handed, he pulled it close to his face and read it aloud to his brother:

"Stand up," commanded Castillan. Pushing against each others' backs, they struggled to a standing position. Then Castillan circled around until he faced the door and could get a good look at the design carved into it. There was a square, with a great number of intersecting lines going across it in various directions.

"This is going to suck," complained Castillan, starting a mental tally of how many different triangles he could put together in the carving.

- - -

Binkadink realized there was no way he was going to do the obvious to Obvious and cut off his right front paw. "See if you can reach the box by the door," he advised his jackalope, moving his chained left wrist as close to the spike as it would go, to give Obvious the longest stretch of chain he could provide. It wasn't enough; the jackalope couldn't reach the box with his antlers, let along one of his paws.

"There's got to be another way," mused Binkadink. Then, in sudden inspiration, he placed the handle of the handaxe through the triangular hole at the top of the spike; it just barely fit. "Help me push," he told Obvious. Together, after straining to get it started, they felt the spike turn a bit counterclockwise. Then it was easy work to unscrew it, although bound by the chain as they were they had to reposition themselves as they moved counterclockwise in tempo with the unscrewing of the spike into the stone. But at last the spike was free of the stone floor, and the two companions were that little bit more free themselves - they could move about the whole room, even if they were still bound together by the adamantine chain, now with a spike dangling from it.

Moving by the door, Binkadink opened the top of the box and told Obvious to put his right front paw into it. Thinking this was some kind of a game, the jackalope happily complied - and the rune above the door stopped glowing. "That should do it!" exclaimed the gnome, opening the door and seeing what lay beyond.

- - -

Gilbert studied the glyph above the door. He was fairly sure it was one of the various symbol spells; which one, he couldn't be absolutely certain, as two wizards could each scribe a symbol of death, say, without them necessarily looking anything alike. He'd love to examine it under the effects of a read magic spell, but he knew such a spell required a small glass prism - which was wherever his pouch of spell components currently resided. After giving the rest of the room a cursory inspection and finding no secret doors out of the room - and glaring at the now-silent animated doll following his every move with its glass eyes - he reread the contents of the note.

"State," stated Gilbert in a loud, commanding voice, then looked up expectantly at the glyph. Its glow continued unabated. "Hmmph!" sniffed the wizard - he had hoped "State the command word" might have been patterned after the way he himself chose to speak, but that apparently wasn't it.

"I suppose my fifteen seconds long since up," he muttered to himself, then looked back down at the card. A sudden smile broke across his face. "You think you too clever for Gilbert Fung," he announced aloud to the air around him, "but Gilbert Fung too clever for you! Throofoxathanie!"

At the spoken command word - formed by stringing together the second letter of each word on Gilbert's instruction card - the magical rune's glow ceased. "Ha!" chortled Gilbert in glee, opening the door and exiting the room.

- - -

"One, two, three -- heave!" called Finoula, and the two women strained to lift the heavy stone lid off the urn. This, their third attempt, proved to be the one that did it; they carefully maneuvered it to the floor lest it land on one of their feet. "Phew!" whooshed Ingebold, wiping her brow.

Finoula peered inside the urn. The walls of the stone structure were a solid two inches thick, leaving about a 16-inch diameter opening in the middle of the urn, which was filled almost to the top with brackish water.

"Th' key's in there?" asked Ingebold, looking at the narrowness of the urn's interior. "I dinnae think I'll fit inside it, Finoula."

The ranger looked skeptically at her stout companion's broad shoulders and wider hips, and came to the same conclusion. "That's all right," she said, "I think I'll be able to fit." Just to make sure she wasn't about to dive into an urn of acid, she plucked a silver hair from her head and dropped it into the water, letting its end float for a minute before plucking it back out from the end she'd never released. Examining it closely, it was perfectly fine: wet, but not eaten away.

With a sigh of resignation, Finoula pulled off her boots and socks, then boosted herself up to the top of the urn and straddled it.

"Yer goin' in feet first?" asked Ingebold.

"It's safer that way," remarked Finoula. "Head-first, I'd have to hold my breath. It might take me a bit longer to grab up the key in my toes, but at least I'll be able to breathe normally while I do so."

"Aye," agreed Ingebold, "but I dinnae think ye'll be able to bend yer knees much in that wee hole. Ye'll have t' use yer feet, like ye said."

"Well, here goes nothing," the ranger said, and dropped into the urn. Water splashed out over the top, displaced by Finoula's body. She immediately realized there were two surprises in store for her. First of all, despite the urn standing a mere three feet tall, the interior went at least four feet deep; Finoula sunk down to where the water level was above her clavicles. Her arms grabbed the urn's top in surprise, as she hadn't expected to sink down that deep, but her feet touched bottom and after a few moments her toes bumped into something metal.

That wasn't all she brushed up against, however. She felt, at various points along her body, small objects that had been floating in the water bumping into her. Her first thought was admittedly ridiculous: that she'd jumped into not an urn of water but one of soup, and was bumping up against carrots. But then, with a wave of disgust, the ranger realized those weren't carrots, and a startled scream escaped from her lips.

"Are ye okay?" asked Ingebold, worry creasing her brow. Her battle-sister's face had turned pale, and she could see Finoula was clamping down on an even louder scream struggling to get out.

"Can't--grab--key--with--toes," hissed the ranger, sweat now pouring from her face.

"Try holding it between both feet," suggested the cleric. Finoula concentrated, then started pulling herself up out of the urn. "Did it!" she said, sitting on the edge of the urn and leaning backwards, allowing Ingebold to help lift her to the floor while she concentrated on keeping the metal key pinned between her feet. Once safely on the stone floor, dripping wet in a pool of filthy water, the ranger silently passed the key to Ingebold. "Here," she said through clenched teeth.

"D'ye want me to--?" began Ingebold, but Finoula shooed her way. "You get the door open," she commanded. "I'll...get...these." And with a look of abject horror on her delicate elven features, Finoula began pulling off the leeches that were clinging all over her body and flinging them across the room.

Ingebold turned the key in the door, and the glyph's faint illumination ceased. She turned the knob, and the door opened easily. Then she helped pick off the rest of the leeches, and the two staggered over to the door to see what was in the room beyond.

- - -

Darrien was having a difficult time getting four of the puzzle-piece keys to form a diamond. Deciding he had a 20% chance of guessing correctly whichever piece he chose, he placed the house-shaped key into the keyhole of the door, turned it to the right - and was shocked, quite literally, to find out he had guessed incorrectly. The electricity sent him staggering across the room, dropping the key to the floor in the process. He failed to notice that during his attempt the glyph above the door flashed brighter, it having been triggered by his incorrect choice. Fortunately for him, he was able to subconsciously shrug off the intended effects without even being aware his mind had been under attack.

Giving himself a moment to recover, he picked up the fallen key and returned it to its place on the shelf. However, he found he had no desire at all to try a second key; maybe he'd best figure out the damn diamond puzzle after all!

Each of the puzzle pieces had lines of some sort drawn across their top faces, the side that would be visible when forming the diamond. Darrien had been using these lines as guides, thinking that lining them up might help him figure out which pieces went where. But then he decided that might just be what they wanted him to think, so he studiously ignored them. And sure enough, after a few different combinations, he finally found one that worked, where the square piece had been placed oriented like a square, instead of like the diamond shape the guide-lines had suggested it must be. With four keys forming the diamond, Darrien placed the fifth into the keyhole and turned it. He held his breath when doing so, half expecting another shock, but the key turned without incident, the glyph's light diminished above the door, and the door opened into another room. Smiling happily at himself for having solved the puzzle on his own, Darrien stepped into the next room.

- - -

"Okay, I have my answer," said Castillan. "Now let's turn around so you can look at it, and you see how many triangles you can find. Okay?"

"Bastooka," replied Aithanar, shuffling around. After a few minutes, he replied, "Penta bandoogle."

"You've got a number?" asked his older brother. "Then start tapping your foot the number you came up with, and I'll keep track." Painstakingly, Aithanar started stomping his foot. "One, two, three, four..." counted Castillan, until Aithanar's foot-stomping stopped after 32 taps on the floor.

"You counted 32?" asked Castillan, turning his head to see his brother nod. "That's what I came up with, too! So that means the key's in my right glove!" He snapped the fingers of his right hand, expecting a key to appear there.

It didn't. What appeared instead was a metallic snake - an animated automaton in the shape of a cobra. Castillan made a grab for the thing, but it slid out of his grasp and landed on the stone floor with a thunk! before wriggling to Aithanar and sinking its needle-sharp fangs into the fighter's side, internal mechanisms injecting the first of three doses of poison into Aithanar's body. He screamed in surprise and pain, and thrashed about, trying to get free.

Castillan realized they must have both miscounted the triangles, and snapped the fingers of his left hand now that there was no longer any reason not to. A key appeared in it, and he spun the bound pair around so he could try to get it into the keyhole of the door. However, this proved to be a rather difficult task to accomplish while tied to his brother, who was avidly ducking and weaving in an attempt to avoid being struck again by the miniature iron cobra. No such luck. The mechanical construct got another bite in and more venom was pumped into Aithanar's system. Already the fighter felt the strength flowing out of his muscles, and it was almost all he could do to stay on his feet.

"Here! Take the key!" commanded Castillan, bringing his left hand down by his side and passing it into Aithanar's right hand. Then he swung the pair around again, holding as still as possible so Aithanar could maneuver the key into the keyhole while he tried to grab at the iron cobra as it struck past the bounder in an attempt to home in on the younger Ivenheart brother. Castillan's fingertips brushed the iron body but he was unable to get a good grasp on the thing. It was successful in biting Aithanar a third time - but too late, for the weakening fighter managed to get the key into the keyhole and had just enough strength to turn it.

Looking over his shoulder, Castillan saw the glyph above the door darken. "It's safe!" he cried. "I'll kick the snake, you open the door, and run through! I'll pull the door shut once we're past!" But this was too much for the greatly weakened fighter, with three doses of strength-draining venom coursing through his veins. So once again they swapped spots, Aithanar kicking feebly at the iron cobra (and missing), while Castillan opened the door, leaned forward so his brother was perched on his back, and ran through the doorway. He spun around, slamming the door shut just in time - the iron cobra's striking body hit the door instead of the elf it had been targeting.

"We're safe!" announced Castillan.

Aithanar, looking up at the jagged ceiling 20 feet above him in this new room, saw exactly how wrong his brother was and screamed out a warning - "Pondookle!" - before the piercer came plummeting down to stab the fighter deep in his shoulder.

- - -

Binkadink and Obvious looked through the doorway to the chamber beyond: a rectangular stretch of cavern, some 15 feet wide and twice that long. The floor was covered with numerous puddles and the sound of dripping water echoed throughout the chamber. At the far end stood a closed door.

"I don't trust those puddles," Binkadink said. He and his trusty steed walked up to the closest one and lowered the chain, dangling the hanging spike into it. Ripples covered the puddle's top at the intrusion - and then a thick pseudopod struck out at the jackalope from the puddle. Binkadink chopped at the gray ooze as it launched an attack at Obvious, the blade of the handaxe cutting through the protoplasm as the ooze slid like a wave to cover the side of the jackalope's furry side. Obvious couldn't reach the ooze with his antlers, and Binkadink feared using his handaxe against it while it covered his mount - so he used the adamantine chain to try to scrape it off his friend. While it didn't have the intended effect, the ooze's caustic properties ate through the chain and the gnome and his mount were no longer chained together.

However, the gray ooze was still eating away at Obvious with its acidic body. Shrieking in pain, Obvious shook his body back and forth and managed to dislodge the gray ooze. It splatted to the floor and Binkadink chopped at it again with his handaxe. Obvious gored it with his antlers - perhaps instinctively using the one part of his body that would grow back each year - and together, they slew the protoplasmic beast.

Then, bound by friendship if no longer by chains, they carefully made their way along the length of the rest of the corridor, avoiding all puddles. Fortunately, there had only been the one gray ooze in the room, and the door at the other end was unlocked.

Best of all, the room just beyond held the group's mule wagon, Franco and Tantrum, Daisy and Wrath, and the rest of everybody's gear. Binkadink ran over to the piles of equipment and started strapping on his armor.

- - -

Gilbert stared in disbelief at the room beyond the door. It was an open area about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. There was a door at the opposite end, but unfortunately the only way to get there was along a narrow balance beam that bisected the room at the level the wizard was standing on. And there looked to be about a 20-foot plummet on either side of the balance beam should he fall.

...And that wasn't even taking into account the half dozen bladed pendulums swinging side to side just above the beam as Gilbert stood there getting his bearings.

"This crazy!" snorted Gilbert. He couldn't see much about the floor in the other room, as the only light sources were back in the room in which he'd woken up. But that was easily remedied: the everburning torches were easily removed from their sconces, so he picked one up and hurled it as far as he could into the balance beam chamber. It hit a pendulum and fell to the floor, landing near a spider larger than even the portly wizard.

"Oh no, you don't!" he announced to the spider. Whoever had kidnapped him and placed him in this facility had taken away his spell component pouch, but there had been no way for them to remove the spells Gilbert had already prepared in his head the previous morning. And one of those spells was a scorching ray spell, which could be activated solely with the proper magic words and the pointing of a finger. Gilbert cast the spell, sending a pair of flaming blasts of fire streaking down at the spider. Both struck unerringly, and the arachnid horror crumpled up into a ball of flame and twitching legs.

"And now I have new light source," chuckled Gilbert to himself before turning his attention to the swinging pendulums.

Gilbert didn't like the thought of having to balance along a thin beam, dodging slicing blades and possibly falling down 20 feet to a hard stone floor. So, hitching up the pants he wore beneath his robes, he chose a different approach. Removing his belt, he wrapped one end around his meaty left hand. Then he lowered himself down one side of the balance beam, hanging on by his right arm. He swung his belt beneath the beam, so the buckle end flipped over it. This end he grabbed with his right hand, then wrapped it around his right wrist, so he was now hanging below the beam by his belt. Then he reached up, grabbed the beam, and pulled himself forward. With his belt around his wrists, he had a contingency plan in place if he couldn't support his weight for the full trip across the beam - which turned out to be a wise move, as he lost his grip twice during the perilous trip. But having seen that the blades crossed several inches above the beam, he had decided it would be safer to not have to worry about them at all.

Once at the far end, Gilbert hung by one arm long enough to free one wrist and get both arms on the same side of the balance beam, then pulled himself up to the top with the last of his flagging strength. Covered in a pool of sweat by this time, he stood up, leaning against the door and supporting himself with a hand on the door handle, before catching his breath and finally opening the door.

"Oh, hey, hi," said Binkadink, strapping on his armor. "Your stuff's over there."

Gilbert stumbled over to his backpack and verified that the Omnibook was still there. He strapped on his spell component pouch, still worried about the lack of mental contact with his familiar. "You no see Mudpie, Bink?" he asked the gnome.

"Mudpie? No," admitted the gnome. "But Wrath's tied by a rope around his collar in the back of the mule wagon, Franco and Tantrum are right there, and Daisy's tied there too. Castor and Pollux and the Vistani wagon are missing, though - apparently there was no room for them in here. I assume they're all out there somewhere, and Mudpie's probably with them." Binkadink pointed to a pair of large doors along the largest wall. "They're locked - I checked. But I'll bet the key's inside this puzzle box." Sure enough, sitting with the group's piles of equipment was a wooden puzzle box they'd never seen before.

Gilbert stroked his beard as he thought. "If he out there, I feel him in my mind," he muttered. "Aha! Where Ingebold's pack?" The wizard started sorting through the group's backpacks until he found the one belonging to the dwarven cleric. Untying the fasteners, he pulled out the rolled-up portable hole she carried for the group. Spreading it open on the floor, Gilbert laid down next to it and stuck his head into the opening. "Mudpie?" he called. "You in there?"

"I here, Master," came a gravelly voice.

- - -

The corridor stretching before Finoula and Ingebold was about 30 feet long but only five feet wide, with a tiny ledge along both sides a scant hand's-width wide. At the far side of the corridor stood a closed door. Unfortunately, the floor was about 20 feet lower than the room in which they had awakened some minutes before. Straining her elven vision in the dim light from the room behind them, Finoula saw the floor below was spotted with various puddles.

"I don't like the look of that," she muttered, looking back into their starting room for something to toss down there. She grinned evilly when spotting the animated doll. Grabbing it up, she brought it to the door and tossed it to the lower floor in the corridor. It said nothing as it fell, its only means of verbal communication the magic mouth spell that had been triggered when both victims had awakened. The doll landed with a splash, then got back to its feet and looked up at them, as if waiting to see what they'd do. It looked like a leech or two was now climbing up its wooden body.

"It's a bit of a drop," commented Finoula.

"We c'n give th' ledges a try," pointed out Ingebold.

"We could, but if we fall off we're in for a world of pain. I think I'd rather get down there at my own decision." The ranger lowered herself feet-first over the edge of the doorway, then dangled from her fingertips. "Here goes," she said, and let go. She fell, landed on her feet, and stepped backwards to prevent herself from falling prone. She was glad to have her boots back on, for she now stood in a puddle and sure enough, there were leeches crawling on her boots.

"You next!" Finoula called up to her battle-sister. Ingebold followed suit, and Finoula's attempt to catch her as she fell sent the two of them sprawling on the wet, stone floor, with leeches eagerly seeking any exposed skin. They took a moment to clear themselves of the blood-sucking beasts, then made their way down the corridor, avoiding the worst of the puddles. At the far end, the door stood closed some 20 feet above them.

"That looks a lot higher from down here," remarked Finoula. "I don't think even if you stood on my shoulders...." She didn't bother finishing her thought - that definitely wouldn't work. Turning to her battle-sister, she asked, "Spells?"

Ingebold did a quick mental inventory, determining what she had available that didn't require any spell components or her holy symbol of Moradin. She shook her head sadly.

"Well then, there's one thing we could try," suggested Finoula, then cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted up at the door, "HEY! GUYS! WE'RE DOWN HERE!"

After a brief moment, the door opened up and light spilled down from the doorway. Gilbert Fung looked down at them. "We toss you down rope!" he promised.

- - -

The Arachnibow lay at Darrien's feet, one arrow lying beside it. He, too, faced a 15-foot-wide, 30-foot-long corridor, but his had a floor the same level as that of his starting room - for the first five feet. The other 25 feet of the corridor was 20 feet below him, and the door at the other end was thus 20 feet above floor level although at the same level as where Darrien currently stood.

The ranger picked up and strung his magic bow and scooped up the arrow. He could try shooting a web-line across the room, maybe tying it to the door here...or maybe lower himself to the bottom of the pit, traverse its length, and then use a web-line to climb back up to the door level. He briefly thought about shooting a web-line at the middle of the ceiling and trying to swing across to the door at the other side, but he quickly gave up on that idea - it didn't look like there was a ledge at the other side, so if he missed he'd have wasted his one arrow.

Wearing the Arachnibow over his shoulder and clamping the arrow between his teeth, Darrien lowered himself over the edge and dropped to the floor. So far, so good, he thought. He had a plan, and there didn't seem like there were any major complications in his way....

Halfway down the corridor, Darrien ran - quite literally - into a major complication.

He'd been walking down the length of the corridor, his half-elven heritage allowing him to see in the gloomy light spilling down from the room above, when he bumped into something that wasn't there. Well, that wasn't really true: it was obviously there, it just wasn't visible. The ranger's first thought was that he'd bumped into an invisible wall of force, but that supposition was quickly proven false when the invisible thing bit him on the shoulder.

Darrien leapt back, bow in one hand and arrow in the other. He had just the one arrow, so if he shot it at the invisible monster he'd have to make it count - and then he might not have it available to form a web-line out of the pit. Making a rapid combat decision, he held the Arachnibow by one end and swung it like a club at his unseen foe. It struck, but the ranger had no idea how much he had hurt the creature, not being able to see it wince in pain or anything. And so far it had remained completely silent; Darrien couldn't even hear any breathing. Bow at the ready, he strained to hear it - and was bitten again. He swung, struck, and backed further down the corridor, flailing wildly in an attempt to fend it off. At this rate, he realized, he'd never make it to the far end of the corridor and what he hoped would be freedom!

- - -

Binkadink opened a door at random. He had come through one, Gilbert through another, and now Ingebold and Finoula were climbing up Gilbert's rope through yet another. Hopefully, that meant Castillan, Aithanar, and Darrien were behind these other two.

The room beyond was a corridor, 30 feet long, and about 7 feet wide at Binkadink's end and 15 feet wide at the far end; it angled into its narrower width about halfway down its length. The stone floor was strewn with gravel and variously-shaped rocks, and at the far end was a rather unusual spectacle: Castillan and Aithanar, tied back-to-back, with Castillan hunched over such that his little brother's feet didn't touch the ground at all. Aithanar was screaming in pain; while he couldn't make coherent sense while trying to talk, he communicated just fine when using the universal sounds of agony. There seemed to be something sticking out of his torso, a sort of inverted cone; as Binkadink rushed into the room to help, it dropped off to the side as Castillan staggered forward.

"I'm coming!" Binkadink yelled to the group and stepped into the corridor - only to receive an attack of his own as a piercer dropped down from the ceiling just above him. It struck, but it struck the metal of Binkadink's gnomish plate mail armor, and bounced harmlessly to the side of the gnome. As did the next three that dropped down on the gnome; Aithanar cried out in pain again as another struck him. Castillan cried out as well, but in frustration rather than pain: his brother was too weak to support him, so he had no choice but to run as fast as he could through the gravel-filled room, leaving his brother a helpless victim to the piercer's attacks. But fortunately there were only half a dozen in the chamber and Binkadink's sudden presence had attracted four of them to attack him; even more fortunate, once having dropped from the ceiling it took a piercer quite some time to regain its lofty perch, moving along at snail-like speeds. The trio had no further trouble form them as they exited the room and Binkadink severed the ropes binding the two brothers together. By then, Aithanar was unconscious and bleeding out, but Ingebold was now free from her pit as well and tended immediately to the elven fighter's wounds.

Looking around, Castillan grabbed up his blades and noticed Darrien was still missing and there was one closed door among the five that arced along one side of the six-sided room with all of the heroes' adventuring gear. Opening it, Castillan saw the half-elf ranger swinging at an unseen foe with his Arachnibow. "It's big, and it's invisible!" called Darrien, seeing Castillan standing in the doorway at the end of the corridor.

The bounder backed up and took a running leap through the doorway at an angle, running along a side corridor wall before landing on something hard just in front of Darrien. Castillan landed in a crouch, with both of his blades stabbing down into the unseen creature's upper surface. From the feel of it, Castillan imagined an invisible crab, with a hardened, curving carapace being the surface upon which he had landed. He wasn't far off with his assumption, for once he and Darrien had slain it, its slowly started fading into visibility, and it proved to be a fungal creature with four wide, broad legs. "Phantom fungus," Gilbert identified as he looked into the room after having dropped the same rope with which he'd rescued Finoula and Ingebold down for Castillan and Darrien.

Once everyone had retrieved their equipment and Binkadink voiced his guess that the key to allow the group to exit this testing facility was inside the wooden puzzle box, Finoula was all for having Ingebold smash it with her hammer and be done with it. But Binkadink argued against such action; it could damage the key and the gnome had a use for the box once the key had been retrieved.

"Hand it over, gnome," said Gilbert. "I figure this out." But after several fruitless minutes, Castillan snagged it. "It's probably more suited to my expertise," he said - and sure enough, in a few moments he had figured out the opening mechanism and retrieved a key. Expertly checking the twin doors for traps and finding none, he put the key into the doors and unlocked them. They swung open like a pair of barn doors, and Ingebold led the mule wagon outside into the fresh air - where, not unexpectedly, Castor and Pollux stood in place before their Vistani wagon. The sun was not yet at its zenith; it was apparently at least the next morning after their abduction, but they had no way of knowing how many days they might have been unconscious.

"Wait a minute, what about Starflower and Dawnsong?" Finoula asked. "Where were they taken?"

"Maybe the tests were only designed for victims with humanoid form," suggested Darrien. "I can't imagine a centaur moving across a balance beam or climbing down into a pit."

"I starting to wonder about those two," replied Gilbert. "Kind of funny, we attacked by invisible fairies only they see."

"Well, we've been bothered by those fairies for months," pointed out Finoula.

"Um, well..." began Binkadink. "No we haven't. All those other times...that was, um...that was me."

"WHAT?" exploded Gilbert. "You play tricks on us, gnome? Think it funny?"

"Well, yeah," admitted Binkadink. "That's kind of the whole point of playing tricks on people: it's funny."

"Let's deal with this later," snarled Finoula. "Right now, I say we get out of here."

"But what about th' folks who captured us?" asked Ingebold. "If they captured us, they've likely captured others. Should we let a threat like that go unpunished? Could be that others've been killed."

"Yeah, and maybe they leave treasure behind," pointed out Gilbert. "What happen to all our stuff if we fail our puzzles?"

"An excellent point!" agreed Castillan, in much better spirits now that he was back in his combat leathers and his brother had been restored to full health. "Rangers, look around! Maybe those centaurs left some tracks!" They didn't, but Darrien did find a few tracks looking like they had been made by a large feline - a lion, maybe, or a tiger. They were about a hundred feet off the mountain path leading to the testing facility, so the group searched around that area before Darrien found a section of mountainside he could put his hand through. "Illusion!" he called out triumphantly.

The heroes immediately regrouped into combat formation: Obvious and Wrath stayed with Aithanar at the wagons, while the six adventurers and Mudpie - now polymorphed into a much larger size - entered through the permanent illusion. The corridor they entered had been carved directly into the stone of the mountain, and it was about 20 feet wide. A set of steps led further down into the facility, but each step was twice as big as those that would have been made for something human-sized.

Directly ahead, the group found the leader of the testing facility in a room that smelled like a lion's den. She sat regally on the stone floor before an elaborate curtain, her front paws crossed over each other while her humanoid upper torso stood upright as if at attention. Her black wings were tucked in at her sides, her black hair cascading behind her bare human shoulders. She smiled down at the heroes and then Spiral the gynosphinx said, "Well, I see you all survived your tests. Well done! But you have no business back here – you’d best be on your way, or I'll have no choice but to slay you for your trespass."

"Where the centaurs?" demanded Gilbert. He was still suspicious that they had been in cahoots with the gynosphinx, but there was always the possibility that they'd been charmed against their will.

"Where indeed?" purred Spiral. "Arabessa! Myndavia! We have visitors!"

Binkadink didn't need any further proof that the centaurs had been working for Spiral than the fact they had used false names. He elevated his gnomish stilt-boots and charged Spiral, his glaive stabbing into her side. Spiral roared in pain, the vocalization sounding more leonine than human, as she raked at him in return with claws from all four of her paws.

Finoula, finding a face behind the leech traps she'd had to endure, activated the lightning amulet she once again wore at her throat. Her body instantly converted to a bolt of electricity, she raced through Spiral's body - careful to avoid Binkadink, who was now standing before her - and resuming her form just in front of the curtain. After the gash in her side from Binkadink's glaive, the blast of electricity was all it took for Spiral to collapse to the stone floor, dead. Finoula grinned triumphantly.

Two familiar shapes approached from a side corridor. "What are you guys doing here?" asked Starflower.

"Dealing with you!" responded Darrien, sending a series of arrows showering into the blond centaur's body. She snarled a rather lionlike roar of pain as well, and then Dawnsong said, "I guess we no longer need to wear these shapes, then, do we?" Instantly, the two centaurs transformed into their true shapes: where once their lower halves were patterned after horses, they now had the appearance of lionesses.

"Lamias!" announced Gilbert, although he mispronounced the word - you could always tell who had gained their knowledge from a book instead of having heard the word spoken aloud.

"Lamias!" corrected Myndavia, her guise as Dawnsong the centaur no longer needed. She leapt forward, claws at the ready, only to have Castillan beat her to the punch. He mirrored the same run-along-the-wall trick he'd done when leaping onto the phantom fungus, only this time he merely took a stab at the lamia in passing; his main goal was to get behind her to set her up for being flanked by another combatant.

Gilbert cast an attack spell onto Mudpie, then sent him underneath the stone floor to pop up and deliver it to one of the lamias. Mudpie popped up beside Arabessa - now no longer wearing Starflower's form - and tapped her with a misshapen fist, activating the shocking grasp spell the portly wizard had loaded onto his familiar. The lamia made to attack, but her claws raked fruitlessly against his stony exterior, whereas his stone-hard fist blasted painfully into her face, the breaking of bones clearly audible over the sounds of combat.

Ingebold cast a spiritual weapon, shaped like a hammer of Moradin, which crashed down upon the two lamias. Binkadink switched targets from the now-dead gynosphinx and his glaive cut deep gashes into the group's only remaining foes. Before long, the lamias joined their leader in death.

Behind Spiral's curtain were her treasures, and there were more in the den the lamias had shared between them, but before gathering up their loot Gilbert wanted to make sure there was nothing else out there waiting to attack them. Exploring the rest of the testing facility, the group found a long, curving corridor that flanked the rooms they'd each awakened in; each had a large, heavy section of stone that could be pulled back to gain access to the starting rooms. From inside the rooms, these sliding doors comprised the entire back walls, explaining why those who had searched for secret doors had been unable to find any.

However, at the back of the facility the group found four more workers. These were all human, one of them a sorcerer and the rest mere laborers. They'd been used basically as slave labor, crafting the dolls that Spiral then granted a semblance of life in a ritual that made them her unliving homunculi; she'd been able to see through their eyes and keep up with the group's progress in that fashion. But now, no longer charmed into servitude by the slain gynosphinx, the humans were allowed to go free.

"Let's get back to those treasuries," exclaimed Castillan after they saw the workers out of the facility, to make their ways back to their individual homes. "I saw what looked like some pretty good stuff."

"Yeah, and the extra money will come in handy once we find those weaponsmiths!" exclaimed Binkadink, still dreaming about a magical gnomish glaive.

"We see about that," retorted Gilbert. "We might have to lower your share, charge you a 'mess with hair color' fee."

"Aw, c'mon guys!" whined Binkadink. "It was just a joke! Okay, a continued series of jokes, but c'mon -- it was pretty funny, you have to admit!" Binkadink looked around him and saw only a ring of frowning faces looking down at him - for he'd lowered his stilt-boots after combat had ended.

"Guys?" he wheedled.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: The T-shirt idea this time was partially a brainstorm of my son Logan's. He decided that no matter what shirt I ended up wearing, he would wear his X-Files T-shirt, specifically because it has the phrase "TRUST NO ONE" in large print on the back. He thought it would be cool if, just this once, the "adventure clue" was on his shirt instead of mine. (The "adventure clue" he focused on was that it had been Binkadink all along responsible for the changes in hair - and fur - color over the past several months, courtesy of his once-a-day prestidigitation spell-like ability, sometimes mirrored up with his once-a-day ghost sound spell-like ability to make the "giggling fey" noises that occasionally accompanied the prank.) I opted to wear one of my dragon shirts, this one a stylish blue-scaled Eastern dragon, as a red herring lining up with the tale the centaurs told of a red dragon menacing the local area. But was it, as the players mused at the end of this session, merely a ruse to distract them from the lamias' true plans, or was that part true? After all, if Spiral and the lamias had been spying on them, they knew Ingebold occasionally cast the zone of truth spell on people they suspected of lying to them. And I did have those red dragon minis Logan had painted....

Oh well. No doubt time will tell if there are any red dragons in the PCs' immediate futures.
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Game Session Date: 3 December 2016

- - -

After nearly a week passing through the Clatspur Mountain Range, the group was glad to be back on level ground again. The wagons rolled forward, pulled by the two mules and two black draft horses, while Finoula and Binkadink rode alongside on their respective mounts. Two hours before noon, a large wooden structure came into view alongside the road, its appearance foreshadowed minutes earlier by the rhythmic sound of hammers pounding on anvils.

"We're here!" exclaimed Binkadink with unbridled joy. At long last, he was going to get his masterwork glaive upgraded to a true magic weapon!

The hammering came to a stop as the wagons approached and the group dismounted, the weaponsmiths looking up at the newcomers. They were a mixed lot: two burly dwarves, Nuldurn Bladesmith and Sturgar Ironbeard; a pair of strong-looking humans, Jon "Hammer" Hooper and Katerina Glynn; and a gnome even shorter than Binkadink, Norbert Gasperwillock. "Hey, Sabra, we've got customers!" Norbert called behind him.

An attractive human woman entered the workshop from a door in the back and introduced herself as Sabra Runespeaker. She wore an ankle-length gown with a low neckline, totally unsuited to work at the anvil, but the ferret perched on her shoulder suggested a familiar, which further suggested she worked in the magical enhancement area rather than the actual crafting of weapons. "I'm afraid we can't really accept new orders at the moment," she apologized. "My master, Pentaclus, has gone missing, and until he returns we're unable to do much more than the very basics."

"Missing?" echoed Binkadink, crestfallen. "But--when, how...?" He stumbled over his words, his dreams of getting his glaive enhanced falling apart just when it looked like they were finally going to become a reality.

"He just came back from the estate sale of one of his wizardly colleagues," Sabra explained. "He was admiring his new purchases in his study. That's the last anybody's seen of him, and that was several hours ago."

"Who last to see him?" demanded Gilbert.

"I was," Sabra replied. "I happened to be walking past his study, and I heard him saying something about tigers – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – so I peeked my head in and he was gone. We haven't seen hide nor hair of him since."

"Can we see study?" Gilbert asked.

"Sure," replied Sabra, leading them through the door from which she'd originally emerged. The others followed, leaving Aithanar tending to the draft animals and Obvious and Wrath taking a nap under the warm sun at the front of the workshop. Seeing that Sabra was dealing with the potential customers, the weaponsmiths went back to their work, hammering out the weapons that had previously been ordered by other customers.

Pentaclus's study looked like any other wizard's study, with crowded shelves of tomes and scrolls and a small desk and chair. Several magical odds and ends were scattered throughout the room.

"What his recent purchases?" asked Gilbert. In response, Sabra piled a few items onto a clear spot on her master's desk. "This wand of light, these tomes, and this crystal ball," she said.

Gilbert picked up the wand and examined it closely. It was a rather nice wand, he thought to himself before setting it down and examining the stack of books. Each was dedicated to the study of magic, but none were actual spellbooks - instead, they dealt with theories about component usage among various individual spells, several different styles of magic, and the like.

Binkadink, meanwhile, picked up the crystal ball. "Hey, there's an image in it!" he said. The others crowded around him looking into the small glass sphere. It was mounted on a round, wooden platform and showed a wintry scene of snow-covered trees. As the curious gnome turned the globe in his hand to look at the scene from different angles, snow started swirling in the scene pictured within.

"That isn't a crystal ball," pointed out Finoula. "It's a snow globe!"

Binkadink gave the globe a good shake, and sure enough it caused snow to start cascading onto the forest scene. But in shaking it up, he got a glimpse of lettering on the bottom. (He didn't realize it, but his shaking of the snow globe had activated it, so it was ready to accept the command phrase that would trigger its main power.) Turning it over, he saw a simple design carved into the bottom between its three legs: a triangle superimposed over a circle, with the words "TAIGA FORESTSCAPE" carved in the middle of the triangle.

"Heh," exclaimed Gilbert Fung as realization struck. "Hey Bink, I dare you to say 'taiga forestscape.'"

Immediately after having said the command phrase, Gilbert realized what he'd done. But it was too late: in less than a second, the six heroes from Kordovia, Gilbert's earth elemental familiar Mudpie, Sabra, and her ferret familiar Sleek (still perched upon her shoulder) disappeared from Pentaclus's study. The snow globe fell to the floor, then quickly righted itself and floated back up to the top of Pentaclus's desk.

Had there been anyone still in the study to examine the image inside the glass sphere, they would have seen the sudden addition of seven humanoid figures and a squatty earth elemental in the middle of a clearing between several clumps of trees.

- - -

"What happened?" cried Binkadink, grabbing up his masterwork glaive and looking all around him for enemies. Despite it having been before noon just a moment ago it was now twilight and the group was standing ankle-deep in snow in the middle of a clearing with trees all around them. It felt like the temperature was below freezing, and the strong wind didn't help matters any. Off from the distance came the howling of wolves.

"...I probably shouldn't have said that," admitted Gilbert Fung. "I think we inside globe now."

"Well then, why'd you say it?" demanded Binkadink.

"I think it only go off if you say it. You the one holding it!"

"Inside the globe? H-how?" asked Sabra, her teeth chattering as she hugged herself to try to keep warm. Of the group, she wore the lightest clothing; Finoula, Ingebold, and Darrien all still wore their cold weather gear from the morning when they'd still been in the mountains and most of the others at least wore heavier travel garb, but the young apprentice's gown did little to keep out the cold.

"It some sort of teleport device," mused Gilbert. "It bring us here when I say command phrase. Unless we shrunk down really small and actually inside globe...." Coming to a decision, he ordered Mudpie to pop beneath the ground and check around. The earth elemental complied, returning after a minute or so. "It look normal," he said, his speech patterns based on those of his master even if his voice was a much lower pitch. "Frozen ground, but not magical."

"TAIGA FORESTSCAPE!" yelled Binkadink, hoping a repeat of the command phrase might send them back to Pentaclus's study. When that had no effect, he tried "FORESTSCAPE TAIGA!" and "Epacs...tser...of...agiat," mentally spelling the words backwards and doing his best to pronounce the nonsense words thus formed, with similar results. "Crap!" he sputtered. "We're stuck here."

"I'm going to see what I can see from one of these trees," said Castillan, choosing one of the tallest and scampering up it like a squirrel. Finoula looked up at him as he climbed. "Anything?" she called.

"Just a lot of snow, in all directions," Castillan called back down. "And some trees now and then."

Darrien, in the meantime, had been looking at the ground. "Hey guys, prints!" he said, pointing to footprints in the snow that the wind was doing its best to fill back in. "These are probably Pentaclus's!"

"Let's see where they lead," said Finoula, following the rapidly-fading imprints. They headed in a fairly straight line for about a hundred feet or so, then stopped abruptly in a wide field of snow.

"Uh-oh," said Binkadink. "He may have gotten snatched by some flying monster or something." The gnome turned his gaze skyward, searching for anything that might be flying away with their wayward wizardly weaponsmith.

Darrien closely examined the last set of prints. "Look here," he said, pointing to the snow kicked back from the heels. "It looked like he jumped, or was snagged up into the air." He scanned the skies as well, but saw only an overcast sky.

"It-- it m-might not be as bad as a we th-think," shivered Sabra. "P-Pentaclus knows the overl-land flight spell."

"Let's hope he's okay," said Finoula. "In the meantime, we may as well head in the same direction - maybe we'll run into him." She forged on ahead, the others following.

Gilbert made a mental perusal through the spells he'd prepared that morning. "Pfah!" he scoffed. "Would have been nice to know ahead of time we'd end up in snow! Anybody got endure elements spell handy? Sabra turning blue."

"I-I'll b-be f-f-fine," shivered Sabra, not wanting to let the others down but certainly not accustomed to the life of an adventurer - and if this was the kind of thing they normally dealt with, they could have it!

"Nay," replied Ingebold to the portly wizard's question. "I didnae think I'd be needin' it, this morn."

Gilbert just snorted in disgust and cast an unseen servant spell - not that he needed it at the moment, but it could be handy and the spell, once cast, lingered for a decent amount of time.

The group trudged on for half an hour or so when the ground before them started heaving upwards. They'd seen something similar before, during an encounter with a bulette in the Vesve Forest many months ago, and while nobody expected a bulette to pop out of the frozen ground they figured it would likely be something similar. Castillan ran to the west of the clustered group while Darrien dashed off to the east, each notching an arrow to their respective bows and pointing them towards the buckling ground. Gilbert fired off the words to a haste spell, affecting everyone but the two archers who had just rushed out of range. At the same time, Ingebold cast a magic circle against evil spell centered on her, thinking it likely to be of use. Sabra wisely staggered to the back of the group, away from the source of danger.

Accompanied by the hiss of rapidly-melting snow, an insectoid head popped up out of the ground. A segmented body followed, with a dozen or more centipedelike legs flanking its last half and a red-hot pair of dorsal ridges, flaring out like the hood of a cobra along its head, extending down the length of its upper surface. Multifaceted eyes took in the scene for a brief moment and then the beast struck out at Binkadink.

The gnome managed to dodge its snapping jaws, dropping his masterwork glaive to the ground and whipping out his father's normal glaive, well-weathered after many years of use - and not finely crafted enough to accept magical enhancements, making it the weapon he'd be least likely to hate parting with, for the little gnome had heard tales about metal weapons literally melting at the touch of a polar worm, which he was pretty sure was what they were fighting. He swung the glaive up at the worm's jaws, striking a glancing blow and avoiding the red-hot plates along the remorhaz's back.

Staring at the worm and backing slowly away, but ready to dive to the side if it attacked her, Finoula felt for the potions at her belt and grabbed up what she knew to be one of Winkidew Dundernoggin's potions of resist fire. She gulped it down, noting that it was more slush than liquid - in this temperature, they wouldn't be able to drink down potions for much longer without access to a heat source to melt their contents!

Despite Binkadink's glaive stabbing up at the remorhaz, it struck again at the little gnome, this time grabbing him up in his mouth. Binkadink held his glaive in a death grip, as both ends were sticking out of the sides of the worm's mouth and he thought he might - just might - be able to avoid being swallowed in this fashion. But not too proud to ask for help, he bellowed at his companions to kill the thing, quick!

Darrien responded with a trio of arrows racing from his Arachnibow, each striking the polar worm's side and penetrating deep into its flesh. Finoula grabbed up her own shortbow and followed suit. Gilbert cast a mage armor spell that covered both him and Mudpie, then followed up with a tried-and-true magic missile spell straight at the polar worm.

A glowing field of energy suddenly appeared before the remorhaz, taking on the familiar shape of a dwarven warhammer; Ingebold directed her spiritual weapon to slam into the worm's head. And, fortunately for Binkadink, who had been mere seconds away from becoming literal worm food, the combined attacks slew the remorhaz before it could swallow down its gnomish meal. Its lifeless body crashed into the snow, causing steam to rise as its still red-hot dorsal plates slowly began to cool. Binkadink crawled out from the beast's mouth and carefully retrieved the glaive from its jaws, then the masterwork glaive he'd dropped in the snow. "Thanks, guys," he said, grateful for the assist.

The group huddled around the slain remorhaz, basking in its fleeting warmth as the unnatural heat slowly left its body through its dorsal plates. Sabra's lips were still blue and her skin covered in goosebumps, but she was warmer than she'd been since arriving in this snowy wasteland. Once the heat had mostly left the worm the group moved on, following in the same direction they'd been going and scanning the skies for any signs of Pentaclus.

It was a good thing not everyone had their eyes to the skies, for another ten minutes of trudging through the snow led to another encounter with a local denizen. Darrien pointed to the right, where the blowing snow masked a humanoid figure. As it approached, the heroes could see it was much larger than they'd expected - it was sometimes difficult to judge distances in the white snowfields - and as it approached, the blue-white beard and hair marked it as a frost giant. It called out to them in its own language, half of its words eaten by the blowing wind. But Sabra was of some help here, to her great delight; she cast a tongues spell on Castillan allowing him to be able to understand and respond to the giant in his own language.

"Who are you?" demanded the frost giant, looking the group over and noticing most of them weren't properly dressed for the climate. "Where are you from, and how did you get here?"

"We arrived here by accident," replied Castillan, "Less than an hour ago."

"Do you know the way out of here?" demanded the giant. As he'd approached, they could see his features were gaunt, the bone structure of his face quite visible.

"That we don't," Castillan admitted. "But we're looking for a way home."

"I'll come with you, if you don't mind," the giant said. When Castillan agreed, the frost giant introduced himself as Kunnir Ice-Stalker.

"I was hunting, off by myself," Kunnir said. "I caught my game and was headed home, when I ran into a barrier that wasn't there before. Completely invisible, and impervious to the blows from my axe. I followed it for a bit, and it curved in a broad circle. I've not traced it all the way around, but I reckon it's got to be 5 miles wide or so, maybe bigger." Castillan whistled in surprise - that was a lot of area to search for their missing wizard!

"How long ago was this?" the bounder asked.

"Got to be several years back, now," replied Kunnir.

"Can you tell me anything about who else is trapped inside this globe?"

Kunnir squatted down and drew a circle in the snow with a thick finger. "Here's about where we are now, I figure," he said, poking into the snow with his finger. "There's water along here, and an owlbear lairs in a cave along the shore right about here. Plenty of seals and fish for it to eat. I've been out that way - had to escape on an ice floe once, to avoid a pack of winter wolves. I've killed a few of them since" - and here he pointed to a few skins covering his broad shoulders - "And their numbers aren't what they used to be anymore." He poked his finger to a point opposite the water area. "Stay away from this area," he advised. "There's a great white dragon lairs there. Fortunately, it's been sleeping for a decade or more, but I wouldn't want to be the one who wakes it up."

"You look like you haven't eaten in awhile," pointed out Castillan, noting the hunger in the giant's eyes and the way he was occasionally looking over the members of the group as if deciding which one he'd like to eat first, if he thought he'd have a shot at taking on all eight at once.

"Game's been getting pretty scarce around these parts," admitted Kunnir.

"Well, we killed a polar worm not long ago," said Castillan. "You're welcome to it, if that's something worth eating. As you noticed, we're not from these parts."

"Polar worm?" repeated the frost giant, in the same tone he'd have used as if the elf had offered him up a thick, juicy steak with all the trimmings. "Sure! They're fine eating!" Castillan pointed Kunnir in the direction where he'd find the remorhaz's corpse and indicated they'd be pressing on ahead.

"No problem," advised Kunnir. "I can follow your tracks, catch up to you later." And in a showing of good faith toward his new allies, he pulled a winter wolf pelt from his shoulder and tossed it to Sabra. "Looks like you can use this more'n I need it," he said, and although the wizard didn't understand his words she caught his meaning well enough. She gratefully scooped up the thick, white pelt and wrapped it around her like a blanket. Kunnir stalked back the way the heroes had come, seeking out his slabs of worm steak.

The group pressed on, trudging through the snow.

After a few minutes, Darrien stopped short and started fumbling in one of his belt pouches. "I think I'm going to scout around," he said, pulling out a figurine of wondrous power carved in the shape of a common housefly. Calling out the command word, the fly grew to the size of a horse and stood steady as the half-elf ranger climbed atop its hairy back. "Back in a bit!" he called down to the others.

Flying almost straight up, Darrien looked about him. He saw no other creatures in the sky - certainly not any flying wizards. Below him was an unending carpet of snow, a few scraggly trees - and at the edge of his vision, an enormous, craggy head carved out of a solid block of bluish ice.

Darrien got his bearings and flew down to the group, explaining what he'd seen. They veered off course to the left a bit so they'd meet up with this enormous carving, which they'd likely have missed had they kept going in their original direction. As the only unusual feature in sight from the air, Darrien was hoping that Pentaclus would have investigated it as well, and once they found Pentaclus they could hopefully figure out a way to all get back home.

It was another fifteen or twenty minutes of trudging through the snow before the head rose up from the horizon. It stood about 60 feet tall and had been carved in a primitive fashion, all angles and exaggerated features. The carved head had two rectangular openings for eyes, a nose, and a scowling mouth but no ears or hair. Once it was in view, Darrien rose up to about 30 feet on his ebony fly while the rest of his group followed behind on the ground. As Castillan approached, he thought he saw a bit of movement to the right of the massive carving, but he couldn't be sure. Once he got closer, though, he became absolutely sure he'd been correct, for a hairy, white form popped out from behind the giant head and loped toward him, fang-filled mouth open in a hungry growl.

From his perch in the air Darrien saw the yeti approach Castillan and sent a flurry of arrows racing down at it. He hit with all three, causing the beast to roar in pain. Castillan brought forth his light crossbow and followed suit, burying a bolt deep into the creature's shoulder. Gilbert finished it off with another magic missile spell and it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Castillan was considering skinning the slain yeti, much to Finoula's disgust, but eventually the group jointly decided to explore the interior of the head - for Darrien, peeking through an eye while perched on his magical fly, could see it was hollow. Castillan was willing to try running straight up the exterior of the head - he'd performed similar stunts with solid rock but had yet to try it on an icy surface - but having Darrien shuttle everyone over on the ebony fly made the most sense. After everyone had entered through one of the eye-holes, Darrien released his fly from service and it reverted back to statuette form.

For the most part, the interior surface of the head was empty - a set of stairs carved along the outer edges led down to the ground level, and looking up at the ceiling 10 feet above the "eye level" of the carved head Finoula saw a cluster of icicles hanging down, but that seemed to be about it. There were no light sources within, but Binkadink kept a pair of everburning torches tied to the antlers of his helmet so those not blessed with darkvision could see where they were going. As they traversed the stairs single file, moving slowly on the slippery ice, they made two complete circuits before reaching the floor. And there, at the ground level, they found a figure lying unmoving on the icy floor.

"That's Pentaclus!" called out Sabra once her master's form came into view. She rushed to his side and saw a slight stream of frozen vapor slide from between his lips. "He's alive -- he's breathing!" she called out in relief. Ingebold stepped forward and applied a healing spell to the unconscious wizard. His eyes fluttered and he sat up, looking around at a circle of unfamiliar faces before seeing the worried face of his apprentice. "Sabra!" he said. "You got caught up in the snow globe, too?"

"Well, yeah, kind of," she said.

"We help her look for you," added Gilbert Fung.

"And you are...?"

"Future customers!" chimed in Binkadink, before everyone made their introductions. Pentaclus gave a brief version of his own tale: after having been transported by the snow globe to the arctic wilderness after carelessly reading the command phrase out loud, he had used a bit of fur trim from his cloak and a fabricate spell to create some winter garb for himself, then cast an overland flight spell to try to find a way home. He had spotted the giant head ice carving, entered via an eye-hole...and then slipped on the icy stairs, falling down the central shaft of the hollow structure, knocking himself unconscious. He'd had quite a goose egg on the back of his head, but Ingebold's spells had shrunk it down considerably.

"So, I don't suppose you know how to get back home?" prompted Finoula hesitantly.

Pentaclus shook his head sadly. "No idea. I hadn't had any intention of coming here - I didn't know I could come here when I bought the silly snow globe." He shrugged. "I just thought it looked kind of cool."

While the wizard had been telling his story, Castillan's attention had focused on a set of levers mounted on one of the walls. After checking them for potential traps and finding nothing untoward, he pulled the rightmost lever to the down position. After about 10 seconds, the "mouth" of the statue began lowering into the ground, letting in a blast of cold air from outside. Convinced he now knew the mechanism involved, he flipped the lever back up and saw the mouth close back into place after a moment's pause.

"What's the other lever do, do you think?" asked Sabra.

Darrien pointed to the floor, where Pentaclus had been lying unconscious moments before. "There's a square line in the floor," he observed. "I'll bet you this can be lowered down to a deeper level."

"Climb on, and we'll find out," suggested Castillan. As the entire group wouldn't fit on the square, Ingebold offered up space in her portable hole for Pentaclus and Sabra. Gilbert Fung invited himself and Mudpie to join them, leaving Darrien, Ingebold, Finoula, and Binkadink to stand on the platform while Castillan activated the lever. "Here goes!" he said, then pulled it to the "down" position. Again, after about a 10-second delay (which the elf decided was to allow a sole user to get himself into position), the square sunk into the ground. It lowered itself for about 20 feet before becoming level with the new floor.

The group was now in an octagonal room, with two single doors across from each other on two sides and a pair of double doors on opposing walls on either side of them. In between each wall with one or more doors stood an ice sculpture of a hulking armored warrior wielding a halberd.

"Uh oh," observed Binkadink as the four guardian ice constructs animated and attacked.

The simultaneous attack began with a blast of energy from the statues' eyes, each construct picking one of the four interlopers to strike. Gilbert, head sticking out of the portable hole, observed that these struck as magic missiles, but seemed to channel cold energy. Immediately following the ice-blasts, each construct came to halting life and swung its halberd at its designated foe. Binkadink blocked his foe's halberd strike with his gnomish glaive, then counterattacked, scratching a narrow gash across the ice making up its armored form.

Up on the ledge at the ground level floor, Castillan saw what was going on below him. He leaped down the vertical shaft, fingers slowing his fall during the first 10 feet of his rapid descent, where the vertical tunnel was the width of the square upon which his friends stood, before landing just in front of the door to the south. Thinking he'd rather fight from a doorway, he pushed open the doors and wheeled to face the known enemies, after a quick scan of what appeared to be a barely-furnished library showed no new foes in the larger room beyond the central chamber.

Darrien echoed Castillan's plan with the door to the north. Pushing it open, his half-elven vision made out a simple cot, a bearskin rug, and a crystal skull on a nightstand. Seeing no enemies, he too turned to face the four ice constructs in the central chamber, while behind him the skull scooted forwards to the edge of the nightstand, sent shafts of ice down over the edge, and grew an ice skeleton in a matter of seconds. While the half-elf ranger shot arrows at the nearest ice guardian in the central room, the newly-formed ice skeleton suddenly launched itself at his back, clawlike fingers made of solid ice digging their way into his flesh. Darrien grunted in pain and surprise and turned to fight off his attacker, all thoughts of combating the armored ice warriors temporarily forgotten.

Gilbert Fung and Mudpie leaped heroically from the portable hole...and then scampered off to the double doors to the east. This was a laboratory, and unlike the barely-shelved library and the sparse bedroom, this room was fully stocked with all manner of alchemical and magical equipment. But like the others, once the wizard had determined with a quick glance that there was nothing to bother him in this room, he turned back to the central chamber and blasted one of the ice warriors with another magic missile spell.

Sabra opted to stay in the relative safety of the portable hole, knowing full well her spell repertoire had been selected for ease of use when dealing with customers, not fighting off ice constructs. She did have a false life spell handy and cast it on herself, thinking she'd take any opportunity to try to survive this battle. Her master, however, felt compelled to do what he could to help these strangers who had come as an inadvertent rescue force. He leaped from the portable hole, pulling his flaming longsword from its scabbard with one hand while casting a displacement spell upon Darrien, who looked like he could use it in his battle with the ice skeleton he had activated merely by stepping foot into the bedroom of whoever had created this structure.

Darrien, Arachnibow in hand, put it to use against the ice skeleton despite the cramped quarters - the construct insisted on attacking the ranger with its eye-blasts and its icy claws, and Darrien had no way to back up any further without reentering the central chamber which was still a flurry of fierce combatants. The warrior constructs kept slashing with their frozen halberds while simultaneously sending out pulse after pulse of heat-sapping energy from their eyes. Being constructs, they had each latched onto a particular foe when they had first appeared and each seemed unwilling to change targets.

Not so the heroes: Gilbert, from the laboratory doorway to the east, continued sending magic missiles into the ice warrior across the way from him, the one fighting Binkadink. Once Binkadink had finally slashed his foe to pieces, sending it crumbling into hundreds of ice chunks and shards, he immediately switched targets to attack the one in fierce combat with Finoula. She attacked with her variable energy longsword, Tahlmalaera, and even though her blade and Binkadink's seemed less than optimal weapons to use against the hard, icy shells coating these constructs, slowly they whittled chunks off their shared foe. But then Ingebold used her mace to smash her foe to pieces as quickly by herself as it took the gnome fighter and the elf ranger to deal with their shared foe, and the group belatedly realized that bludgeoning weapons were the way to go with these ice constructs.

Inside the library, Castillan saw that despite rows and rows of bookshelves, only one was partially filled. He scanned the titles, hoping there might be something conveniently titled "How to Return to the Snow Globe" or something, but the tomes seemed to be mostly about the construction of various animated constructs and treatises on various arctic wildlife. Consigning himself to having to help fight their way past these guardians, he snapped his fingers and had his magical light crossbow pop into place, then put it to use against the ice construct attacking Gilbert with its frozen halberd.

Ingebold took the time for a quick prayer spell, then went back to wielding her mace, which had proven to be especially effective against these constructs. She tried channeling a healing spell through her mace across the room to Binkadink, who was looking quite the worse for wear while in battle against these foes, but her ranged spell missed in the rapid ebb and flow of the combat. Cursing, she swung her mace a final time against the nearest ice warrior and waded over to touch Binkadink and ensure no further healing spells were wasted.

Finoula had taken a moment's respite from the battle against the ice warrior she and Binkadink had taken down to cast a protection from cold spell on herself, after noting that it was those damned ice blasts that seemed to be doing the most damage to the heroes. As she did that, Pentaclus attacked the ice skeleton that had been attacking Darrien, his flame-covered blade dealing heavy damage to the construct, enough that it shifted targets to him instead of Darrien. While the wizard was fully proficient in the use of his combat weapon, he was more used to wielding it in front of an appreciative audience as an example of the quality of his wares than in actual combat. Still, he was determined to pull his weight in this fight.

Castillan's crossbow dealt the final damage to the construct attacking Gilbert and it fell over, smashing to a thousand pieces which scattered across the floor. Then the bounder crossed over to the double doors to the west, confident in the rest of the group's ability to deal with the remaining ice skeleton. He pulled the doors open, saw a lone chest of treasure against the far wall guarded by a quartet of ice carvings of skull-headed serpents, and quickly slammed the doors shut. "We'll deal with them later!" he announced to the others.

However, inside the nearly-bare treasure room, one of the ice serpents was undergoing a rapid metamorphosis. It rose up on its serpentine body, which suddenly split such that jagged pieces jutted out and formed rudimentary limbs, the entire creature realigning and taking on a more humanoid form. In mere moments, the crystal skull servitor had switched from an ice serpent to an ice skeleton - and then, with a bony-looking hand of opened the doors that Castillan had so quickly slammed shut.

Looking back at the commotion she'd caught in the corner of her eye, Finoula saw three ice serpents and another ice skeleton lined up in the double-wide doorway to the west. Activating her lightning amulet with the vocal command phrase and a mental image of where she wanted to reincorporate, her body turned into a bolt of lightning which blasted its way through the ice skeleton and the serpent just behind it. Reforming at the back of the treasure room, she saw Castillan was in the way for her to do the same thing from the other direction, so she ran back with her magical longsword in hand, churning with sonic energy. She attacked the ice serpent, which spun around and targeted her with its icicle fangs.

Gilbert was fresh out of magic missile spells, which had proven to be especially handy so far this day. Fortunately, he had come prepared and cast a Rary's mnemonic enhancer spell, restoring the magic missile spell he'd just cast. Stepping through the lab doors now that the central chamber wasn't quite so packed with fighting bodies, he cast his recovered spell at the ice skeleton that had been in combat with Darrien and Pentaclus. It shattered upon impact by five missiles of pure force energy.

Binkadink, meanwhile, had stepped up to the treasury doors. His glaive swung down in an arc, cleaving through the body of the ice serpent Finoula had been fighting. In a single, fluid motion he swung the glaive around in a loop, causing it to crash into another of the ice serpents crowded there in the doorway. This one, too, shattered under the impact, and a wide grin crossed the little gnome's face at his own combat prowess. Just think what I'll be able to do with a magic glaive! he thought to himself.

Finoula took down the last of the ice serpents while Gilbert and Pentaclus brought down the treasure guardian that had reshaped itself into an ice skeleton. Then, finally, with combat complete, the heroes took the time to have Ingebold heal the worst of their injuries before exploring the rooms they'd uncovered. The chest proved to hold both coins and diamonds, and Gilbert's appraisal of the lab equipment was that it was generally top-of-the-line and could be resold for a significant sum. As the other members of the group carefully packed it all away and stored it in Ingebold's portable hole, the portly wizard examined the sparse contents of the library. Since they were in a relative down time - and they had nowhere else to go for the moment - he took the opportunity to absorb the written contents of the library into his Omnibook.

It was Castillan, exploring the nearly-empty bedroom, who discovered the secret door in the wall. What his elven eyesight caught as a tiny crack in the wall proved to be a section of the ice wall that could be pulled out and set aside, revealing another octagonal chamber, lodged between the bedroom and the laboratory. The floor in this empty room had a carving of a familiar triangle-superimposed-on-a-circle design, similar to the one they'd seen on the bottom of the snow globe, only the only word inscribed inside the triangle was "GLOBE."

"Aha!" cried Gilbert in glee when he saw it. "This our way home!"

Everybody rushed into the room, ready to be on their way. "Wait a minute," cautioned Castillan. "Let's not forget about Kunnir."

"Hell with Kunnir!" scoffed Gilbert. "He a frost giant - likely evil to the core."

"We said he could come with us," argued Castillan. "We gave him our word."

"I do feel kind of sorry for him," admitted Finoula. "He's been out there for years, trapped in a circle several miles in size, unable to return to his people."

Gilbert looked around at his companions, amazed they wanted to waste time helping a frost giant - a frost giant, for pity's sake! - when both of the rangers had taken specialized combat training on how to take down giants. But he could tell from their expressions they were serious about it. "Fine!" he capitulated, casting a fly spell on Castillan. "You go get your giant buddy, we wait here."

"Be right back!" the bounder promised, rising up the vertical shaft and out one of the eye-holes. And he was, about 20 minutes later, finding the mouth to the giant head structure wide open to allow Kunnir to enter the structure. He had to "ride" in the portable hole with some of the others to get him to fit through the human-sized secret door, but once everyone was standing inside the triangle-within-a-circle one way or another, Gilbert called out "GLOBE!" in a loud voice and the teleportation room was instantly empty once again.

- - -

Kunnir turned his eyes to the sky, shielding them with a massive hand from the sun that was so much brighter than he was accustomed to. He had no idea where his homeland might be, other than it would be north of their present location. After determining which way was north, he gave a grateful nod to those who might, under other circumstances, have been his mortal enemies, and began his long trek home.

"I cannot thank you enough for rescuing me - and saving Sabra's life as well," gushed Pentaclus. "I insist - allow me to upgrade a weapon for each of you, on the house."

"On th' house?" sputtered Nuldurn Bladesmith, horrified at the very suggestion.

"They saved our lives," repeated Pentaclus. In the end, he had his way; it was, after all, his weaponsmith shop and if he wished to give away valuable merchandise there was little his senior dwarven employee could do about it. Plus, Nuldurn immediately got into an argument with Sturgar Ironbeard over who would be personally upgrading Ingebold's light mace. Ingebold seemed embarrassed at having two burly dwarves fuss over her; it brought a smile to Finoula's lips to see her rough, tough "Battle-Sister" acting all shy around the attention.

Binkadink happily turned over his masterwork glaive; Darrien, his Arachnibow; Finoula, her trusty Tahlmalaera (which brought a whistle of appreciation from the weaponsmiths over its fine crafting); and Ingebold her light mace of healing. For their parts, Castillan was given a stonepiercing dagger and Gilbert a vampire's fang dagger that Pentaclus happened to have on hand, the results of recent experimentation on his part. The former allowed the bounder to deal extra damage to creatures composed of living stone, while Gilbert's dagger allowed him to channel a vampiric touch spell through it three times a day.

After being told the various different "levels" of enchantment a given weapon could attain, Finoula and Binkadink both opted to plunk down enough coin to give their weapons twice the offered "freebie" upgrade. This seemed to pacify Nuldurn - at least the smiths would be getting some actual business from these heroes.

"It'll be a week or more before we can have these ready for you," Pentaclus advised. "But feel free to explore the lands around here in the meantime. There a massive lake to the north, Lake Quag, and most of the lands to north here are filled with warring tribes of barbarians, some orc and some human. You won't find much in the way of large cities, though: it's mostly small villages and temporary encampments." Norbert Gasperwillock also gave them rough directions to a gnome potion-maker he knew of not too far away, and the group decided they'd probably give him a visit first thing the next day.

On a whim, the group asked the weaponsmiths if they'd heard any stories about a red dragon shaking down villagers for tribute - Gilbert was curious if the story the lamias had told them while in centaur form was all hogwash or if it had been legitimate. Sure enough, the smiths had heard a version of the tale, only they had heard the dragon was fiendish and threatened to drag any villagers foolish enough not to give it tribute down to its lair in the Nine Hells for an eternity of torment. "Cripes - I hope that version not true," muttered the portly wizard.

"See you in a week!" called Pentaclus as the Kordovian heroes pulled away from the weaponsmith shop in their carts and on their mounts.

"It'll be weird adventuring for a week without my Arachnibow," commented Darrien.

"Aye," agreed Ingebold, holding the reins to Franco and Tantrum as they pulled the open wagon along. "But this seems a peaceable land - p'r'aps ye'll not be missin' it as much as ye fear."

She was quite wrong, as time would quickly tell.

- - -

For the giant ice head structure, I built a massive, blocky head out of white posterboard. I had pretty much intended for it to look like an Easter Island head, only without any ears. (I don't recall if the stone heads of Easter Island have ears, now that I think about it.) But as Jacob and Joey informed me, I had ended up building a passable representation of Squidward's house from the "Spongebob Squarepants" cartoon, which is apparently a big Tiki head.

Also, Dan informed me after the adventure was over that he was glad they had made it out of the snow globe, because having Gilbert trapped in there was giving him claustrophobia! I thought that was a bit unexpected considering Dan, like me, had started his Air Force career as a missileer, pulling alerts 24 hours at a time in underground capsules about half the size of a standard living room. I had no idea this adventure would mess with him the way it apparently did. (Although I have to confess to knowing ahead of time the leeches from the previous adventure would "squick" Vicki out - which they did, but fortunately not to an intolerable level.)

Since this adventure involved extra NPCs, I had Vicki run Sabra as well as her own PC Finoula, and when the time came to meet up with Pentaclus I gave Logan his character sheet to run in addition to Binkadink. Ingebold was run by Joey this time, as it was his turn. (We generally pass her NPC folder one player clockwise around the table with each adventure, which means Jacob will be running her as well as Castillan next time we play.)

And speaking of "next time," this was our last scheduled adventure of 2016. Our next game day will be on New Year's Day at our house, followed by a two-family dinner and a week-late Christmas gift exchange.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Not actually a T-shirt this time, but rather a long-sleeved pullover shirt. There's no image on it - it's just a white shirt. I explained to my players that they weren't going to get any hints about the adventure from my shirt this time, but as is often the case I was lying my butt off. The whiteness represented the snow of the taiga wilderness in which the PCs spent the majority of the adventure.



Game Session Date: 1 January 2017

- - -

Norbert Gasperwillock's directions had been spot on: after breaking camp that morning, the group had followed the roads the gnome blacksmith had told them about and several hours before noon the two wagons trundled up a narrow path leading to a small cottage. Directly in front of the cottage was a small pond, crossed along its middle by a slightly curved stone bridge. Cobblestones lined the path up to the cottage's porch, which looked to be some distance away from the pond.

That proved to be an optical illusion, as the adventurers climbed off their mounts, leaped down from the mule wagon, or exited in a stately manner from the back of the Vistani wagon as appropriate. Once they approached the stone bridge on foot, they could see the cottage was much nearer than it had appeared, but only because the gnomish structure was only about five feet tall at its highest point.

"Well, isn't that cute?" remarked Finoula. "It's like a big old doll house."

"Looks rather cozy," commented Binkadink as he strolled across the stone bridge. He was eager to meet this Urithiah Stibblepock for several reasons: not only had Norbert assured him his potions were of top quality, he'd also said that Stibblepock didn't overcharge his customers. Having spent many years helping out his Uncle Winkidew in his potion shop, Binkadink was well aware of the many shortcuts his uncle took in the potionmaking process and was eager to see a gnomish potionmaker who followed the various processes by the book. Also, he had to admit, he was curious to see if there might not be a family history here; despite the differing last names, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that this Stibblepock might be a distant relation. Norbert had also warned the group that Urithiah was a bit on the grumpy side, but that proved nothing: Uncle Winkidew was frequently on the grumpy side as well - especially when directed by King Galrich to supply the Kordovian Adventurers Guild with free potions!

"Check out the pond," said Darrien, stopping before stepping foot on the bridge. Binkadink looked over the edge and saw greenish algae covering the entire surface of the water. Castillan, just behind Darrien, heard the croak of a toad and a splash into the water, then nothing. A few bubbles rose to the surface where the toad had leaped in, popping almost instantly.

"It's very quiet," commented Finoula. Her ranger's senses alerted, she cast around, looking for danger but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then she realized she hadn't been alerted by the presence of something but rather by its lack: there were no insects buzzing about, as one might expect to see around a small body of water like this: no dragonflies darting about, no mosquitoes, no butterflies.

"This kind of creepy," admitted Gilbert. "I going around the pond this way." He and his earth elemental familiar skirted to the south of the pond, walking in their peculiar way: with Mudpie gliding just underneath the surface, upside-down, only his feet emerging above the ground, and Gilbert stepping on the bottoms of Mudpie's feet. To an observer capable of seeing through the solid earth, it would have looked as if the heavyset wizard were walking on a mirror, only casting the reflection of a small earth elemental other than his own image.

"I'm going this way," replied Finoula, skirting the pond in the opposite direction, her hand dropping to the grip of the whip of thorns coiled at her belt. She already missed her longsword, Tahlmalaera, left behind at Pentaclus's shop for an upgrade. Scanning for danger the whole way, she rounded the pool and met back up with the others at the far end of the bridge. As she'd passed the pond she'd noted not all of the algae was green; there were swirling patches of brown, red, and a muddy yellow in there as well. Despite her misgivings, though, nothing had attacked them. She kept her hand on her whip in any case, ready for anything.

"I'm heading up," announced Binkadink, walking up the two small steps to the front porch. The roof hung over the porch, leaving a mere four feet of height just before the front door; plenty of room for Binkadink with his gnomish stilt-boots retracted. He gave the wooden door a loud triple-tap with his knuckles.

"Who's there? What do you want?" griped a high-pitched voice from the left, as what had at first looked like a simple knot in the wood on the wall revealed itself as a hole in the side porch wall, with an angry eye staring out at the gnome fighter from the cottage's interior. "I'm very busy at the moment!" the voice continued. "The timing is absolutely crucial!"

"We were told--" began Binkadink before being cut off by the sound of a sudden whoosh of flame and gnomish cursing from the other side of the peek-hole.

The eye had left the peek-hole, leaving the opening in relative darkness. From inside, the voice continued its rant. "I take my eyes off of it for one lousy minute, and this is what happens! Well, it’s ruined!" The eye returned, the voice focused on Binkadink once again. "Well, I hope you’re happy! That was hours of time wasted in an instant! Stay right there, while I deal with this, then I'll come to the door." The peek-hole slammed shut with a bang. Then, while continued mutterings and grumblings could be heard from the other side of the cottage wall, they were joined by the sound of metal gears clanking and a metal tube - which had first looked to be a narrow chimney flue - lowered from the left front side of the cottage, extending itself over the pond. This protrusion proved to be a channel for a rather vile-smelling liquid, which ran down the channel and into the pond with a tinkling sound. Bubbles erupted from the area where the new liquid was added to the algae-covered pond water.

Standing on the porch, Binkadink looked back at the others and shrugged.

Suddenly, the door swung out and Urithiah Stibblepock stood before Binkadink. He was even shorter than the fighter, standing barely an inch over three feet tall, although the pointed cap he wore gave the appearance of added height. A soot-stained apron covered his wizard robes. "Well?" he demanded. "What do you want?"

"We were told you sell potions--" began Binkadink before getting cut off again.

"Oh, you're customers!" beamed Stibblepock, his churlish demeanor changing in an instant. "Why didn’t you say so? Come in, come in – no wait, stay out there a moment, while I set things up for your comfort!" He turned to a wooden box mounted on the wall behind him. Opening it, he revealed a large lever, which he pulled from its "up" position and slammed to the "down" position. With a jolt of grinding gears, the floor of the foyer began to sink. "Just one moment!" assured Stibblepock, as he sunk down with the floor. Once it reached about four feet below its original level it stopped with a noisy thud. "Have your friends come in!" called the potionmaker from below, turning to open a door off to the side.

"You stay here, keep look out," commanded Gilbert before ducking his head and stepping onto the cramped porch. Mudpie obediently righted himself, rose up from the ground, and stood watch at the side of the porch. Over on the other side of the pond, he could see Aithanar tending to Castor and Pollux, brushing them down and patting them on their necks.

Gilbert poked his head through the open doorway and spotted a ladder mounted just below the door. The foyer was now eight feet high, but required a four-foot climb down the ladder to reach the floor. As Gilbert stepped off the ladder, he could still be seen from the chest up by those still outside. "Weird," commented Castillan, climbing down after the wizard.

Once the heroes had entered the cottage, they were ushered into a side room - a study, by the looks of it, which had also been lowered by the lever mechanism to a depth that made for more comfortable inhabitation for those of the taller races. Stibblepock sat in a comfortable-looking, gnome-sized armchair and beckoned the others to sit, pointing at four footstools scattered around the room. These were more comfortable than they looked at first, for they raised themselves up - in the same manner as Binkadink's boots - to a convenient height for whoever sat on them.

"Now then," said Stibblepock, "Here is my current inventory." He passed over a sheet of parchment, upon which had been inscribed the 18 types of potions he had on hand; next to each was noted their price and the quantities currently available.

Gilbert scanned the contents of the parchment. "You have any...nonstandard wares?" he asked, passing the list over to Castillan.

Stibblepock smiled. "As a matter of fact, I do," he confirmed. "Besides the normal stuff, I do upon occasion tinker around with new concoctions. I have three experimental potions upstairs in my lab: potions of horniness, rapid hair growth, and yellow-belliedness."

Finoula's eyes narrowed. "What does a potion of horniness do?" she asked warily.

"Why, exactly as you'd expect!" beamed Stibblepock. "It grows a horn, right here, in the middle of your forehead. Temporarily, of course," he added.

"And the potion of yellow-belliedness" asked Darrien.

"Well, it turns the imbiber's belly yellow," admitted Stibblepock. "But it also makes him more susceptible to cause fear spells and the like."

"Why would anyone want to drink that?" asked the ranger, puzzled.

"You wouldn't buy it to drink yourself," answered Castillan, immediately grasping the potion's intended use. "You slip it into the drink of the person you want to have the effects." The gnome wizard smiled at the bounder, glad to see somebody recognizing his experimental potion's usefulness.

"I think we all decided," announced Gilbert, handing the parchment back to the potionmaker. The group had marked their initials in the margins denoting how many of each potion they wanted to purchase. With a practised eye, Stibblepock tallied up the total, gave the figure to the group, and got up from his chair. "You gather up your funds and I'll go fetch your potions," he said, pulling a snuff box from the pocket of his robes. Opening it, he pulled out not a quantity of snuff as expected but a live spider, which he popped into his mouth and chewed absently. All but Gilbert winced at the display; the heavyset wizard recognized it as a material component to the spider climb spell. And sure enough, rather than raise the floor level and squash his customers, Stibblepock climbed up the far wall of the foyer to reach the door to his potion lab, now four feet above the floor. While the heroes gathered their money together, they could hear the gnomish wizard humming happily to himself, pleased with the morning's impending sales.

And then the mood broke. "Uh oh," announced Gilbert suddenly.

"What?" demanded Finoula, her sense of impending danger perhaps having not been so unfounded after. Outside, Mudpie stood just off the front porch, looking out at the pond. Over on the other side, Aithanar was watching in increasing amazement as well. The algae-covered waters of the pond rose up on one side of the stone bridge, the brackish waters congealed into a sticky mass. It rose up like a column, then started splitting off appendages: two arms, their ends sprouting open to form misshapen fingers; two legs; a blobby head with an approximation of eyes made up of oddly-colored swirls and streaks. Wordlessly, Aithanar leaped back up onto the seat of the Vistani wagon and steered Castor and Pollux into a U-turn, sending them back down the path for a few score feat. Then he halted them, leaped out of the seat, and raced over to the mule wagon where he began doing the same with Franco and Tantrum. Daisy and Wrath had the good sense (and maneuverability) to back down the path on their own.

In the meantime, the Stibblepock cottage burst forth with sounds of pain. In the potion lab, the gnomish potionmaker cried out aloud at the sudden agony inside his head, as the magical energy of one of his most powerful spells was released prematurely. Back in the study, Gilbert yelled in pain as the same process repeated itself inside his own head, before he'd been able to pass on the warning his familiar had passed on to him through the telepathic link they shared. Darrien and Finoula gasped in pain as two of their own spells were ripped from their heads; Ingebold merely grunted as she felt the mental assault but was able to turn it away - this time, at least. For all of the spellcasting heroes recognized this particular attack, having been through it before in the Magekiller dungeon. This was undoubtedly the work of an arcane ooze - and Gilbert quickly filled the others in on what Mudpie was seeing, while mentally instructing his familiar to join him inside the gnome's cottage so he'd be in range of Gilbert's spells.

Binkadink sighed; his last encounter with an arcane ooze had been particularly unpleasant and he dreaded what was no doubt to follow. "Can somebody give me some protection from acid?" he called out. Ingebold complied with a protection from energy spell geared to ward off acidic attacks; Finoula took the opportunity to shield herself in a like fashion with a resist energy spell. "Use up powerful spells now, while we have them!" called out Gilbert, herding everyone together to cast an extended haste spell that would cover all of the heroes. Darrien had a magic fang readied that he had planned on casting on Obvious or Fang if the opportunity presented itself; with both animals out of range he hurriedly cast it upon Mudpie instead.

Urithiah Stibblepock, alone up in his potion lab, did not share the heroes' experience with arcane oozes, nor did he believe the old wives' tales about arcane mixtures merging together into unpleasant monsters. Surely such talk was the work of fantasy, if not outright lies discouraging enterprising young wizards - he was, after all, only 92 years old - from exploring the fringes of known magic. More than likely, this conjured beast was the work of these strangers, putting him off guard with talk of a large purchase and them summoning some blob-monster to take him out so they could raid his workshop for free potions. The gnome squinted suspiciously at the creature, moving back and forth between the knothole window aimed at the front door and the opening where he had drained his recently failed potion admixture down into the pond, as he had been doing for years without any prior complications.

The humanoid arcane ooze took a tentative step towards the cottage, where it sensed a concentration of spell energy. Binkadink was just now scrambling up the ladder and stepping onto the porch, a gnomish glaive held defensively before him. Behind the massive ooze, Obvious sat motionless on the front lawn, playing the "if-I-don't-move-you-can't-see-me" game and hoping fervently that it would work.

Another roar of shared pain from the spellcasters told of the ooze's second mental assault. Binkadink rushed forward, his blade ripping a tear through the humanoid ooze's torso, although the amorphous fluid composing its body quickly filled in the gap thus formed. In retaliation, the ooze lashed out with a pseudopod that erupted from its body, headed straight for the little gnome. Binkadink ducked, and the thick tentacle went through the open doorway behind the gnome and crashing against the foyer wall, splashing the heroes assembled there with its acidic contents. Castillan took the opportunity of having a portion of the arcane ooze nearby to stab at it repeatedly with his new stonepiercer dagger.

Darrien responded to the ooze's attack with a barrage of arrows fired off from his composite longbow, mentally wishing he still had his Arachnibow at hand. Gilbert cast a fire shield spell on Mudpie, not necessarily because it would be useful but to get it out of his head - no use giving the arcane ooze spell energy that prior experience had taught the wizard the ooze would use to cure itself of damage.

Out on the porch, Binkadink was doing his level best to do as much damage to the ooze as he could, in the shortest amount of time. He swung his glaive with as much power as his muscles could bear, giving up potential accuracy for a greater blow if he hit. He figured this was the best time to employ such a strategy, as it was pretty difficult to miss an opponent this size - the ooze must stand at least 30 feet tall!

Finoula made her way to the foyer, directly before the door. Looking up through the open doorway she could see the dripping body of the humanoid figure. She didn't have her longsword Tahlmalaera with her, but she still had her lightning amulet. Holding it in one hand and calling out the command word, she visualized herself standing in the middle of the stone bridge over the pond. Her body disappeared, in an instant transforming into a bolt of lightning that crackled through the arcane ooze's body and then reforming her own elven body on the bridge. The elven ranger spun around to face the ooze, hoping to see she had damaged it severely with her attack.

No such luck. In fact, even worse, as the electrical attack seemed to have hasted the ooze just as surely as Gilbert's haste spell had earlier given a slight advantage to the heroes. Now, they and their arcane ooze foe were once again on an equal footing. Finoula's delicate, elven facial features formed into a scowl and she spat out a few choice elven phrases that even Castillan and Darrien had never heard before. Ingebold, climbing up out of the cottage to apply a healing spell to Binkadink, wished she spoke the Elven language because some of her Battle-Sister's curses sounded rather interesting!

By then, Mudpie had climbed back out of the cottage as well and was punching at the ooze with his stony fists. Binkadink continued slicing into the creature with the blade of his glaive, dealing enormous amounts of damage that might have been critical against a foe with a more standard, living body; the gnome fighter was dispirited as the damage he dealt to the arcane ooze was almost immediately healed up by the stolen spell energy it was taking directly from the minds of the spellcasters.

However, as the spellcasters' most powerful spells were used up - either through actual spellcasting or through the siphoning off of their power by the arcane ooze - there was less spell energy at a time to be applied to healing the ooze's wounds. Binkadink started seeing a lag time between him slicing into the thing's body and the wounds healing up. Encouraged, he redoubled his efforts. The arcane ooze, in the meantime, had retracted its pseudopod from the cottage interior and struck out at Mudpie with another, newly-formed from its amorphous body. The blow hit the earth elemental and the fire shield spell flared, but it didn't seem as if the defensive magic had affected the ooze at all.

Stibblepock, meanwhile, had been peeking through his two spy-holes and seen the new customers battling the ooze for all they were worth. Satisfied that they weren't behind the attack after all, he gathered up the potions they had ordered and then cast a gaseous form spell upon himself. Drifting through the opening by the extended rainspout, he floated across the lawn a safe distance before reforming his normal body next to a large jackalope. Obvious called out to this stranger who reminded him of his rider Binkadink, using the language of burrowing mammals that the two shared in common, but this new gnome didn't respond. In fact, it didn't even look as if this new gnome even realized he was being spoken to! A pity, thought Obvious, hoping to have had somebody new to talk to.

It looked like if the arcane ooze was going to be brought down anytime soon, the assembled group was going to have to deal as much damage to it as they could, all at once. Gilbert chugged down the contents of a potion of resist acid and then climbed up the ladder to go take the battle to the ooze. Darrien, who had been keeping a steady string of arrows thunking into the ooze's body (where they seemed to be dissolved by the acidic contents of the ooze's form), pressed on his assault as Castillan and Finoula climbed out as well. Only when everyone else was out did the half-elf ranger let up with his assault to climb out of the cottage himself.

Desperately siphoning off spell energy to repair its wounds, the arcane ooze never gave a moment's thought of retreat: it was a creature of pure instinct, incapable of actual cognition. It continued striking out at those around it with pseudopods extruded from its basic form, even as Finoula dug gashes from the back of its body with her thorned whip and Binkadink did likewise at the creature's front with his glaive. The ooze struck true several times, slamming into Binkadink, Mudpie, and even Ingebold with its acidic tentacle-protrusions, but in most cases its target was magically protected against the worst of its acidic attacks. It took many strikes, many slams, numerous arrows, but eventually the congealed mass of magical fluids and pond water lost its cohesion, splashing back to the ground and draining slowly back into the natural depression in the lawn where the pond had been. Which was all for the best, thought Urithiah Stibblepock, for the stone bridge looked rather silly without a pond to span.

The potionmaker walked across the bridge, crossing to his own front porch where stood six sweaty heroes and a small earth elemental that still towered over Stibblepock. "Here are your potions," he said nonchalantly, as if nothing particularly out of the ordinary had occurred. "Did you wish to pay with coins or gems?"

- - -

This was the first game we hosted in our new house. We moved last summer (nothing major, just across town), and while we normally play at Dan and Vicki's house, we've traditionally had a New Year's Day game session at our place, followed by a two-family dinner and a Christmas gift exchange. I got to "field test" my new man-cave, which is big enough to hold a kitchen table and six chairs in the middle of the room, surrounded by my normal bookcases, computer table, stereo, and such. It worked out well, although there were some learning curves: the table isn't as big as Dan and Vicki's (it's probably about as long, but not as wide), so we had some reshuffling of where we put things. (Note to self for the future: it might help to have some TV trays at hand to place our snacks and folders on if the battle-map we're using is particularly big.)

This having been a short adventure, we ran through it in less than three hours, then the players leveled up to 10th level, and we got a good start into the adventure that followed. When we had a good, natural stopping point at about ten to five we took it, as my wife Mary had said we'd be eating dinner about 5:30. Dinner went well, and we'll finish off the next adventure next session for sure.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I wore a "Duck Dynasty" T-shirt with Phil, Si, Willie, and Jase Robertson's faces and beards, as Uncle Si was the closest I had to a crazy, bearded gnome in my T-shirt collection.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 10
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 10
Darrien, half-elf ranger 10
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 10
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 10​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 2
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 9 (Moradin)​

Game Session Dates: 1 January and 4 February 2017

- - -

With nothing to do but kill time north of the Clatspur Mountains while their various weapons were upgraded, the Kordovian Adventurers Guild members opted to do a bit of exploring. With two rather large wagons, one a flatbed pulled by two mules and the other a covered Vistani wagon pulled by two black draft horses, they opted to stick to the roads - which, in this part of the world, were more often than not simple dirt tracks. As usual, Finoula rode ahead of the wagons on her pony Daisy and with her trained timber wolf Wrath loping along at her side, and Binkadink did the same on his jackalope mount, Obvious. While they were beyond the true mountains of the Clatspur range, the area was still filled with rocky hills.

As the wagon train crested one such hill and followed the dirt road around another, a strange sight became visible: just up ahead, one of the rocky hills had been carved into the semblance of an enormous skull; the open cave forming its mouth had four hanging stalactites in a fortunate placement to suggest demonic fangs. The visiting heroes from Kordovia weren't the only ones looking at the carved skull, either, as a line of orcs and goblins were headed directly toward the skull, escorted by a quartet of burly human men dressed in simple furs and skins.

Riding on his favorite perch on the top of the Vistani wagon, Castillan's keen elven eyes picked up some details about this other group. The orcs were all either women or children - what had originally looked like goblins were actually orcish young. Castillan's initial feelings warred with themselves, his disdain for the orcish race as a whole (with a few notable exceptions, like Lord Cavelthorne's former bodyguard Jorg Battleborn and Kordovia's own King Galrich, although they were both technically half-breeds) conflicting with his own notions of chivalry. It was an orderly line, helped along no doubt by the chains connecting to the collars around each orc's neck. But the orcs didn't seem to be fighting against their captors - quite the opposite, in fact: they shuffled along as if in a daze, oblivious to all around them.

The barbarians escorting them weren't oblivious to their surroundings, however. One spotted the group of newcomers and stepped away from his position at the back of the slave train to head over to greet them. A greataxe jutted above his broad shoulder but it stayed in place. He stopped several paces away from Finoula, at the head of the traveling assembly, as the wagons came to a halt behind her. The barbarian held up an open hand in greeting and smiled at the elven ranger. She gave him a brief nod and likewise kept her own weapons sheathed. Like Castillan, she was no friend to orcs, but the sight of orc children in chains didn't sit well with her.

"You are strangers," announced the barbarian, looking over the group. He gave special attention to Obvious; it was apparent he'd never seen a jackalope before.

"We are from south of the mountains," answered Finoula, providing no further details. "What are you doing with the orc prisoners?" She indicated the slave train, which had not slowed its shuffling progress toward the carved skull, with a nod of her head.

Before the barbarian could answer, another voice interrupted. Castillan had seen a glow arise in the eye sockets of the skull while Finoula and the barbarian had exchanged greetings, and another of the nomads escorting the orc slaves called out, "The devils approach!"

A new voice boomed from the direction of the skull; from the top of the Vistani wagon, Castillan could see the top half of a red-skinned devil stepping forward from the back of the eye-hole, his body sheathed in an aura of dancing flames.


A brief wince crossed the barbarian's face at the devil's words, but he didn't allow more than a moment of hesitation and regret before he pulled the greataxe from his back in a single fluid motion. Then he started racing forward towards Finoula, another of his companions leaving the slave train and racing behind him. He didn't anticipate Finoula's rapid response, possibly not having seen the whip she wore coiled on her right hip, as he had been standing to her left. But she pulled out her whip, mentally commanded it to extend its thorns, and sent it cracking over Daisy's head at the first barbarian before he had crossed half of the distance between them.

She didn't expect him to react so quickly, though, for as it came striking and winding around his left leg he reached out and grabbed it, gripping it in his meaty left hand and giving the whip a painful tug - for the section he had grabbed was covered in thorns, just as was the rest of its length. Blood pooled in his left palm, but Finoula was jerked forward from her saddle. She released her grip on her whip of thorns rather than allow herself to be yanked to the ground in a heap, but then swung her right leg over Daisy's back and leaped to the pony's left on her own volition. Sitting in the driver's seat of the Vistani wagon, Aithanar couldn't help but be impressed by Finoula's grace in battle.

Binkadink gave his jackalope an encouraging kick with his legs and Obvious sprang forward. The gnome swung his glaive - his father's battle-worn one, not the masterwork glaive he was having upgraded back at Pentaclus's workshop - at the second barbarian as Obvious bounded past him, en route to the nomad still back at the end of the line of chained orcs. The gnome had figured he'd use his mount's speed to take the battle to those farthest away, confident that his friends could handle those closest at hand. The barbarian he approached left his greataxe on his back, pulling up what the gnome at first glance thought was some sort of flute - before his foe used it to fire a dart at his head. Binkadink ducked in time and felt the dart bounce off the antlers of his helmet, then swung his glaive to point at his new target as Obvious rapidly closed the gap between them.

Now there were three barbarians in active combat against the heroes, while the fourth continued on with his primary mission: getting the slaves into the cave's mouth. As Castillan leapt down from the top of the Vistani wagon, he saw the light diminish from the eyes of the carved skull as the orcs vanished inside. But then his attention was on the second barbarian who had raced at them. Wrath, having been closer to the target than the elf, beat him to the attack, biting down on the nomad's leg and wrenching him to the ground. As the bounder headed toward him he heard Ingebold leading the mules that way as well, no doubt reasoning Franco and Tantrum could take her to the fray faster than her own dwarven legs could carry her. Standing in the back of the mule wagon, Darrien let loose arrows at the barbarians apparently in league with devils.

Finoula grabbed up the end of her dropped whip of thorns, and, on one knee, stared down the barbarian she'd hit with it earlier. He brought a blowgun up to his lips and shot a dart at her that hit her in the side of the neck. She could feel the poison starting to work, making her feel slightly woozy and light-headed, but she shook her head to focus her concentration and activated her amulet of lightning. Her body was, in an instant, transferred into a bolt of electricity that blasted through the barbarian's frame and then reformed on the other side of him. She spun back to face her foe, but he fell face-first to the ground, unmoving.

Gilbert and Mudpie exited from the back of the Vistani wagon, Aithanar having decided the best way to keep the draft horses from harm was to let them stay where they were, for any attempts to turn them around would take them within striking distance of the barbarians and their greataxes. The elf leaped down and drew his longsword, but remained in a defensive stance near the horses knowing his brother Castillan and his friends didn't need his help in a fight with four barbarians - for the one who had brought the slave train into the cave now emerged ready to aid his brothers in battle. The newcomer shot a dart at Binkadink, but it too missed its foe.

Castillan, seeing Ingebold's approach to the barbarian Wrath had pinned to the ground, ran past him and headed around to flank the one Binkadink was battling from the back of his jackalope. While the gnome distracted the nomad with strikes from his glaive, Castillan got in close and brought his new stonepiercer dagger sinking all the way to its hilt in the barbarian's side. The stabbed nomad gave a grunt of surprise and pain, then pitched forward in a heap.

The fallen barbarian looked up at his slayer. "You''ve killed us all," he whispered with his final breath, blood dripping from his mouth. "Without our weekly sacrifices...the devils will spring forth from Hell...slay everyone. We were...keeping area safe. Now?" He gave a small laugh that included a bubble of blood and looked up at Castillan. "You're all just as dead as me." And with that final thought, the life left his body.

Over by the mule wagon, the barbarian on the ground being chewed on by a timber wolf grabbed up his greataxe and swung it into Wrath's side. The wolf let out a howl of pain, blood staining his fur as it poured from a deep gash along his ribs. Ingebold's warhammer finished off the barbarian, then she applied one of her most powerful healing spells to the wounded wolf, causing the sides of his wound to seal back up together and his cracked ribs to mend themselves.

"Leave one alive for questioning!" called out Gilbert, approaching at a slow walk and casting an extended mage armor spell upon himself and his earth elemental familiar. But Darrien had already activated his amber amulet of vermin, summoning forth his giant praying mantis, who had snatched up the fourth and final barbarian in his claws. Unfortunately, the mantis could be mentally directed toward a particular enemy by its master but once unleashed against a foe didn't quite understand the concept of not killing its prey. The fourth barbarian was crushed between the insect's powerful claws and had his throat ripped out, the insect gorging itself while it could as if knew its time outside the imprisoning amber of Darrien's necklace was limited. It did get in quite a few bites of tasty flesh before it vanished, the duration of its time outside the amulet having been used up.

"Well, that just lovely," griped Gilbert. "Now we not get any info from them."

"I got some info from them," pointed out Castillan, explaining the last dying words of the barbarian he'd stabbed in the back with his enchanted dagger.

"Pfffh!" snorted Gilbert. "Those devils playing you, stupid!" he chastised the nearest corpse. "They probably not even devils--anybody get good look at them?" Castillan reported what he'd seen standing in the eye-hole of the carved skull. "How big?" demanded Gilbert.

"I dunno," replied the bounder. "How big's the eye-hole?"

The group approached the cave opening. Off to the left of the gaping mouth, the words "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER" had been inscribed in blocky, runic letters. Heading into the cave, Binkadink stood in one of the empty eye-holes of the carved skull, observing that it was a good watch-point from which to see when anyone was approaching. But the ceiling wasn't all that much taller than he was, and he stood just over three feet tall with his gnomish stilt-boots retracted.

"They not even devils!" scoffed Gilbert. "I bet you anything this just a bunch of mephits playing games. I think we move on from here."

"Wait a minute--why would mephits want orc women and children delivered to them weekly?" asked the gnome. "Do they even eat?"

Gilbert stroked his beard in thought over that, when Darrien added another point to consider. "Dragons eat," he said quietly.

Everybody looked his way expectantly. "We've heard from a couple different sources now about a red dragon demanding tribute somewhere around here," the half-elf ranger said. "We could discount it had we only heard it from those centaurs, since they were really lamias out to trick us. But the smiths had heard the stories as well."

"Norbert even said the dragon was fiendish," pointed out Binkadink.

"We cannae let the dragon continue t' extort th' folks around here," pointed out Ingebold. "We need t' put a stop to 'im."

Gilbert let out a great sigh, realizing he wasn't likely to be able to talk the others out of it. Binkadink had a battle-ready grin plastered on his face at the thought of finally getting to fight a dragon, although it faltered a bit at the realization that his good glaive was back with Pentaclus. The gleam in Castillan's eyes bespoke of thoughts of a dragon's treasure hoard, while Ingebold's stubborn expression said without a word that the dwarven cleric wouldn't allow the dragon's predations to continue. Finoula's worried expression told of her thinking about the orcish children who had been sent in no doubt as dragon morsels. Darrien's face was blank and impassive; he had always been a bit standoffish and frequently kept his thoughts to himself unless prompted. "Guess we better ward off fire attacks," said Gilbert, casting a resist energy on himself. Finoula and Ingebold followed suit with similar spells, and Binkadink, who knew he'd be running into the front of the combat with the dragon, drank down a "Winkidew's special" potion that offered him considerable resistance against fire, even though its immediate side effect was to dry out the gnome enough he made an immediate grab for his waterskin, guzzling its contents down in an instant. Darrien had not prepared any fire-protection spells that morning, but took the opportunity to cast a barkskin spell on himself. After all, he reasoned, even without his Arachnibow he still had a normal composite longbow that he'd be putting to good use from a distance; hopefully he'd be able to avoid being in the path of the dragon's fiery breath weapon.

Once everyone was ready, they delved deeper into the cave network. Wrath and Obvious had been sent back to the wagons with Aithanar; neither Binkadink nor Finoula wanted to risk their beloved animal friends in a battle with a red dragon. The gnomish fighter took the lead, extending his stilt-boots so he'd have a longer stride as he led the group down the only tunnel leading down from the skull cavern. After several hundred feet of winding passageways, a reddish glow from ahead warned them of a change to the scenery they'd encountered thus far.

The tunnel opened up into a vast cavern with streams of magma crisscrossing the stone floor, leaving little stone "islands" of rock peeking between them. Scattered along this cavern were four small, devil-shaped forms wreathed in flames; it looked like Gilbert had been correct, for these were fire mephits, not devils of any type. Standing among them was a quartet of similarly sized and shaped beings, these somewhat insubstantial, as if their bodies were made of nothing more sturdy than smoke and vapor. Before combat even began, Gilbert cast a haste spell covering the entire group of heroes.

The closest of the steam mephits called out a warning as the adventurers approached, the tell-tale yellow glow from Binkadink's everburning torches tied to the antlers of his battle-helmet giving them away as the dark tunnel entrance lit up immediately before their arrival. Two of the steam mephits flew close and activated their innate abilities to cause scalding water to rain down upon their foes; upon the sudden drenching, Castillan split off from the group and danced over to the side, just as two fire mephits approached and covered the rest of the group in overlapping flames belched forth from their mouths. Fortunately, most of the group had been protected from such attacks, and the mephits were surprised at how ineffectual their flame-belches had been.

Binkadink leapt forward and cut the nearest steam mephit in twain, the two halves of its body dissipating harmlessly into the air. Finoula lined herself up and activated her lightning amulet for a second time that day, blasting through two fire mephits and two steam mephits, slaying all four of them in one fell swoop. She regained her physical form standing on one of the islands in the midst of the river of magma.

Suddenly, four more heads popped up from the magma. These were four more mephits of a different type, whose bodies seemed composed of natural lava - or else just covered in it after their recent submersion. Two of them smirked as they spat magma at Finoula, their wicked grins failing as the magma dripped off her, leaving her completely unscathed. One of them suddenly fell forward, dead, a pair of arrows sticking out of its back; Darrien, still standing in the entryway of the cavern, nodded quietly to himself at his accuracy and turned slightly to line up a new target. Mudpie stepped forward and clobbered a steam mephit into insubstantial mist, while his master cast an Evard's black tentacles spell that caught up four disparate mephits in their ebon embrace. It didn't take the heroes much longer to take the remaining mephits out.

"Heh," scoffed Gilbert. "Dragon be surprised when he find out his dozen guards no good stopping us." There was only one exit from the cavern besides the way they'd come in; the group moved on.

Eventually, the wide tunnel emptied out to a larger cavern once again; this one looked like a stone island rising up from a roughly circular pool of magma. There were four natural stone "bridges" across the magma, breaking the larger pool up into four smaller pools of roughly the same shape and size. A large boulder stood at the end of the bridge directly across from the heroes, whereas the two on either side seemed to lead into separate caves.

Binkadink was the first to cross the narrow stone bridge to the upthrust island of rock. As he crossed its length, a furious bubbling began at the pool of magma at his right; layers upon layers spurted up, taking on a vaguely humanoid form some 10 feet tall or more. This barely-human shape started wading over to towards the gnome, arms raised menacingly. However, the magma brute wasn't the only thing Binkadink had noticed: most of the rock island's upper surface was covered in a crude circle carved into the stone floor, with an uneven star shape carved into the circle. Binkadink knew little of magic, but he knew a magic circle when he saw one. He feared stepping into it, afraid that it might be trapped in some way he wouldn't be able to detect until too late - but then he realized the magma brute was bearing down on his with unnerving speed. Opting to deal with the threat he knew was real, and not wanting to try to jump from the edge of the narrow bridge to solid rock outside the circle - with a misstep sending him hurtling into the magma pool - he boldly stepped across the magic circle, swinging his glaive to meet the lava-dripping monster approaching him. The blade sank into the creature's chest, then the gnome pulled it out, fearful the creature's internal heat might damage the metal blade.

At the back of the line of heroes, Gilbert cast a fly spell upon himself, then directed Mudpie to swim through the solid rock overhead and check out the other side of the bridge blocked by the boulder. The earth elemental obligingly stepped into the stone wall of the cavern and began making his way through the solid stone, climbing upwards until he was above the cavern's ceiling.

Finoula gulped down the contents of a potion of spider climb - one she had purchased from Urithiah Stibblepock, and which was thus pleasingly free of arachnid legs. She took a single step onto the narrow stone bridge, then scampered up the wall towards the sloping ceiling some 30 feet above the level of the magma in the four oval pools surrounding the rock with the four bridges. Behind her, Castillan and Darrien raised their light crossbow and composite longbow, respectively, aiming at the magma brute that Binkadink had stabbed. But as they fired their weapons, another magma brute rose up from the pool at the northeast section of the cavern. Finoula gave it a quick snap of her whip of thorns as it formed, scoring a gash along its front.

Not wanting to get caught between two of these hulking lava-beasts on a narrow stone bridge, Castillan scampered across to the rock island as quickly as he could. Ingebold followed, casting a quick detect magic as she did so, to give the magic circle carved into the island floor a good look. The reddish glow of the magma flickered around the room, but she saw no emanations coming from the circle itself.

A sudden motion caught Castillan's eye; looking to his right, a reptilian head rose up out of the southwestern magma pool. "The dragon's over here!" he called to the others as he let fly with the bolt he'd just loaded into his crossbow. It hit the creature just above the eye, lodging between a pair of reddish scales. With a hiss of anger, the creature let loose a blast of fire from its mouth, catching not only the bounder who had just shot it but also Binkadink and Ingebold as well. Then it submerged back beneath the surface of the bubbling magma.

The gnome instinctively winced in pain as his body was engulfed in flames, before realizing he'd felt no actual discomfort - the potion of resist fire he'd imbibed earlier had protected him from any damage. Grinning, he continued his attacks on the magma brute he'd been fighting, keeping it focused on him long enough for Darrien's arrows to put an end to it. The creature lost its shape as it fell back into the pool of magma, never to rise again. The gnome wasn't out of danger yet, though, for the magma brute from the northeastern pool moved over to better attack the gnome.

Gilbert flew into the cavern, taking time as he passed Binkadink to release an enlarge person spell upon the gnome. Binkadink increased to the size of a normal human, gave the wizard a broad smile, and stabbed at his new magma brute foe. However, the dragon's head popped up from the magma again - this time from the northwestern one, alerting the heroes that at least those two pools were connected beneath the bridge - catching Gilbert, Binkadink, and Ingebold in its fiery blast. The arrow was no longer lodged in between the scales on its head, perhaps having been burned away by its submersion in liquid magma.

Fierce bubbling in the southeastern pool of magma heralded the appearance of yet another magma brute. Finoula raced along the ceiling, lining herself up to be midway between the two easternmost magma brutes, then slashed out with her whip of thorns at the northernmost one, slaying it outright before spinning to face the one to the south or her.

Just beyond the stone wall behind that magma brute, Mudpie popped his head down from the ceiling into a dismal cavern. Eight orcs - five women and three children - were huddled together, clinging to each other in fear as the will-sapping drugs they'd been injected with via the barbarians' blowgun darts began wearing off and they became aware of their predicament...and of the two of their number that hadn't been herded into this cave with them, but rather redirected as an immediate meal upon their arrival. Dutifully, Mudpie revealed his discovery to his master through their link and was sent to go check out the cavern to the east.

"What the Hell's going on?" roared a voice from the west, as a massive fire giant stepped through the cave opening and looked about him. Unbelievably, the area was swarming with adventurers - which meant they'd already had to have made it past the dozen mephits Skraine and his allies had placed as lair guardians. He roared again in anger, then raced across the narrow stone bridge with a massive greatsword in hand, heading for Binkadink - his closest enemy.

Before he got across the bridge, Gilbert pivoted in midair and cast a cone of cold spell that managed to catch the fire giant and the dragon's head - so far all it had allowed of itself to come into view. Both victims roared in pain, and the portly wizard smiled broadly, mentally congratulating himself for attacking with a cold-based spell; as he had surmised, these fiery creatures were particularly vulnerable to cold.

Castillan ran over to attack the magma brute rising up from the southeastern magma pool. He hit it with a glancing blow, but in return the magma brute slammed at him with its massive, clublike arms, crushing the bounder between them and setting him ablaze. The elf staggered back, and rather than roll on the ground to try to douse the flames - his initial instinct, but one he realized would make him a vulnerable target for more such attacks - he forced himself to reach down and grab up a potion from his belt. Popping off its cork and guzzling down the contents, the bounder's body dissipated into a fine mist, which maintained a roughly humanoid shape as it drifted to the northern cave opening - the way back to the surface. Castillan's body had been greatly damaged by the magma brute, and he knew he was out of the fight until he could get some significant magical healing, but this approach not only put out the fire but made him virtually untouchable in the meantime.

"Quit screwing around, you stupid beast!" Skraine called out as he swung his blade at Binkadink, catching the gnome across the chest and scoring a deep groove in his armor. In response, the "dragon" raised its head high up out of the magma pool - followed by another, and another, and another, until a full nine reptilian heads were writhing up out of the magma on slender necks. Seven of the heads belched forth flames, three of them focused on Gilbert, flying up near the ceiling, the other four engulfing Binkadink and Ingebold. Their magical fire protection absorbed most of the damage and Binkadink's glaive swung into the fire giant's right bicep, cutting deep.

Sudden furiously-bubbling magma in the southwestern pool heralded the imminent arrival of a fourth magma brute. As it rose, Finoula ran sideways along the stone wall of the cavern, lining herself up for her third lightning strike of the day, this time blasting through the fire giant and the pyrohydra. She enjoyed their screams of pain as her body zapped through them, only to reform safely on the wall over in the northwestern section of the cavern at the end of her arc.

Across the cavern from her, Mudpie was exploring the easternmost cave by dropping his head down through the ceiling and looking around. Below him the large cave was empty but for the scores - if not hundreds - of bones scattered along the stone floor. Another cavern connected to this lower cave, attached by a sheer, 30-foot-tall cliff. Another passageway led south from this upper cave - and Mudpie could hear the unmistakable sound of claws on stone as something walked towards the earth elemental from around the corner.

Gilbert heard his familiar's descriptions over the link they shared, but he focused his attention on lining up another cone of cold spell, catching both Skraine and the pyrohydra in its areas of effect. The nine-headed beast gave a final hiss of pain as it died, its body sinking back into the magma.

"Dammit, Nurang, get yer scaly butt out here -- we need you!" called out Skraine, before leaping backwards into the southwestern pool of magma - where, he knew, the adventurers were unlikely to be able to follow him. The intense heat of the liquid rock didn't bother him in the least, but he couldn't see through the magma and certainly couldn't breathe it; still, he knew there was an air pocket underneath the rock island, where the pyrohydra laired. If he could find it, he could hide out there until these damned intruders were driven off. About time that damn dragon started pulling his weight around here....

Upon on the higher cavern of his lair, the juvenile red dragon, Nurangkarthraxaeros, passed by Mudpie's extended head without noticing him, then leapt off the edge of the cliff and flapped down to his lower cavern. Sticking his head out of the cave opening, he immediately took in the scene and gave forth a blast of fire from deep within his lungs. Binkadink, Ingebold, and Gilbert were all encompassed within its range, and it managed to burn its way past the magical protection of all three.

Seemingly unperturbed by the arrival of a dragon larger than a horse, Darrien continued on with the job at hand: peppering the magma brute in the southwestern pool of magma with arrows, until it too lost cohesion of its form and collapsed back into the pool, dead. Only then did he pay attention to Gilbert's frantic cries to run back the way they'd come. For the wizard had used up his most powerful spells dealing with the other creatures the group had encountered thus far; Castillan was sorely wounded; most of the group's fire protection had been breached - now was not the time to take on a large red dragon at the peak of its power. "Run!" Gilbert cried, flying to the northern cave opening as he did so, telling his familiar over the link to meet him in the passageway to the north. Just ahead of him, Castillan dropped back into solid form, realizing he could travel much faster as flesh and blood than he could in gaseous form.

Ingebold, standing roughly in the middle of the fake magic circle, looked around her. There was still one magma brute left alive, in the southeastern pool and heading her way. The red dragon was approaching from the easternmost cave opening; squinting at the beast, the dwarven cleric could see no definitive sign that this red dragon had any fiendish blood in it, not that she was any sort of expert on such matters. Finoula was crouched on the wall over by the northwestern magma pool, but was circling in a counter-clockwise direction, heading over to the cave entrance sealed up by the boulder, as if to line up another lightning strike that would leave her by the northern entrance - but if so, forgetting that she'd already used her lightning amulet three times that day. The men - and Mudpie, she noticed - were already exiting via the northern passageway; only Gilbert seemed to tarry, as if hesitant to take off at full speed until he knew the women were fleeing as well.

The cleric wanted to run to follow the others, but she knew if she did so the dragon could swoop over by where she now stood and would be perfectly aligned to catch everyone in another blast of its fiery breath weapon. Such an attack would surely be fatal for several of her friends. She came to an instant decision, gripped her dwarven warhammer, and gave the dragon a look of fierce determination. "Ye won't be gettin' past me," she told it.

The magma brute climbed up out of the pool and stepped onto the stone surface of the central island, swinging a massive fist at the cleric. Ingebold easily ducked beneath its blow, but this gave the dragon time to fly over to line itself up for another blast of its breath weapon - fortunately for the wounded men, aimed solely at Ingebold and Finoula. The women cried out in pain at the furnace-blast of its breath, but then Finoula raced across the domed ceiling, dropping down to the floor when she got to the northern bridge. She looked back to make sure Ingebold could follow - she certainly wasn't going to leave her Battle-Sister behind! - and was pleased to see her duck beneath its body, her short dwarven stature helping her evade its snapping jaws, and race over the bridge as fast as she could move.

Gilbert had indeed hung back from the rush to escape, but the decision to do so was tactical in nature. As Nurangkarthraxaeros spun around, the wizard cast a solid fog spell at the base of the bridge, blocking the cave opening. (He'd have preferred a wall of stone, but sometimes you just had to make do with the tools at hand!) "Ingebold!" he yelled. "Open up hole!"

The dwarf complied, pulling out the portable hole she kept rolled up in her belt. "Everybody in!" commanded Gilbert, and the rest, seeing the wisdom of his idea, did just that, Ingebold included. Once everyone was in, Gilbert grabbed up the hole and, fly spell still intact, flew down the winding corridors as fast as he could. He knew the dragon could fly much faster than the speed his spell granted him, but he was counting on several factors to work to his advantage: first, the corridors were somewhat narrow in places, not compatible for a dragon's outstretched wings; second, the solid fog spell would give them a bit of a head start; and finally, with only a magma brute (and maybe the giant; Gilbert wasn't sure if he was dead beneath the magma or merely hiding) left as an ally, there was a good chance the dragon wouldn't want to leave his treasure hoard unguarded in a chase after them out in the open air, where there weren't convenient magma pools at hand to aid the dragon and hinder the heroes.

Up topside, Aithanar was surprised to see Gilbert come flying out of the skull cave like a fired sling stone, yelling that they had to go, now! "Shindilly frumpage!" he called back to the wizard as he climbed into the seat of the Vistani wagon and led the draft horses into a U-turn. Gilbert dropped into the seat of the mule wagon, flipped the portable hole open in the back, and let everybody start climbing out as he goaded the mules to their fastest speed.

"He isn't following," announced Darrien as he kept a keen eye on the skull-cave opening, half-expecting to see a furious red dragon explode out of it at any moment. But minutes passed, the wagons got further away, and the skull cave was lost from view as they turned a corner around a rocky hill.

Gilbert let out a loud sigh of relief. "We safe," he said. Nonetheless, they group put a few miles behind them before making camp under a grove of trees, and they doubled their normal guard shifts for the night, not wanting to be caught unawares.

- - -

"We have t' go back," Ingebold announced the next morning. "Th' prisoners are still locked away in th' cave, and if'n we just leave things as they are, th' dragon'll continue on with its demands fer tribute. We've gotta put a stop t' it."

"Agreed," said Gilbert. "But this time we go in smart. We already know what in there, so we only choose spells that help." Everyone would have a protection from energy spell guarding them from fire-based attacks, he decided, although he personally opted for a fire shield spell - the cold shield version - that he wanted to try out in combat. The rangers would both have longstrider spells active to increase their mobility besides the normal barkskins and mage armors the group usually cast upon themselves before battle. Binkadink would not only be enlarged, as he was yesterday, but his glaive would have a greater magic weapon spell cast upon it, and he, Gilbert, and Ingebold would each have a magic circle against evil spell centered upon themselves, so even if the group spread out a bit there would be three circles of relative protection available. Darrien's composite longbow would have a magic weapon spell cast upon it, increasing it to the same level of enhancement as the ranger's favored Arachnibow. And all of these preparatory spells would be cast in the magma caverns where the group had fought the mephits, so they'd all be active by the time the group entered the cavern network with the four magma pools where the dragon laired.

That part of the plan went off without a hitch. Spells cast, the group raced down the winding corridors leading to the dragon's lair, a human-sized Binkadink in the lead, loping along at greater speeds on his similarly-enlarged gnomish stilt-boots. As he turned the last corner, he saw a magma brute - presumably the only one left - standing in the middle of the cave entrance to the greater lair, as if ready to block the way with its life. But instead, once the light from the gnome's everburning torch-adorned helmet came into view, the magma brute dived off to the side, vanishing into the northwestern magma pool.

Binkadink stepped cautiously onto the bridge, magically-enhanced glaive in hand, looking about for signs of the dragon's location. But the magma brute hadn't leapt away in fright; it had informed the rest of the lair's inhabitants, all currently submerged beneath the concealing magma, of the return of the adventurers. With a splash of lava, Skraine - still wounded from the previous day's battle, with naught but a night's rest in the way of healing - jumped up from the northeastern magma pool and tried to catch Binkadink in a tight embrace, after which the gnome would be pulled into the pool and held down until his protective fire-magics were burned away from the total submersion.

Unfortunately, things didn't turn out that way. At the first hint of motion from his left, Binkadink spun his glaive in that direction, and Skraine's leap up at the gnome only managed to pierce his own neck upon Binkadink's blade. Bleeding profusely, Skraine had only time for a muttered giantish curse before falling backwards into the magma for the last time.

Castillan raced up behind the gnome and dashed all the way to the boulder blocking the entrance to the slaves' pen. "Everybody okay in there?" he asked, and took the cries of surprise within as a good enough answer. "We'll be with you in a minute!" he promised, unsure if the orcs within could even understand his words, and stepped back to the middle of the central rock platform. The elven bounder didn't like close proximity to pools of magma - not even his most desperate physical maneuvers could help him if he ever fell into such a pool.

Ingebold cast an air walk spell upon herself and stepped into the air, walking across the cavern at a safe 25-foot height until she stood above the southwestern pool. Behind her, Finoula scampered up the northern wall, having just consumed another potion of spider climb. Her whip was in hand, ready for the dragon's appearance.

It didn't take long for Nurangkarthraxaeros to put in an appearance. Mirroring the pyrohydra's tactics, he popped his head up out of the southeastern magma pool and let loose a blast of his fiery breath, catching Castillan, Ingebold, Finoula, and Binkadink within its area of effect. However, the heroes' protective fire shielding held - for the moment.

At the same time, magma brutes emerged from the three other pools, surprising the heroes who had been certain there had only been a lone survivor when they had fled the day before. "Crap! They got reinforcements!" called out Gilbert.

Seeing the magma brute in the pool below her, Ingebold cast a wall of stone spell, covering a horizontal span from the westernmost stone bridge to the south wall of the cavern. The magma brute was forced to duck below it, taking it momentarily out of the fight but also giving the heroes - those not flying or clinging to walls like a spider - a bigger area on which to stand.

Already refreshed after its first such attack, the dragon climbed up onto the stone platform, magma dripping from its body, and caught the same four heroes in another breath weapon blast, all but stripping most of them of their fire protection. Nurangkarthraxaeros had the sense that several of them would be unable to withstand another such attack, but the reptilian beast was winded - it would be a bit before he could attack in such a way again.

However, he had made himself an easier target in climbing out of the magma pool. Finoula activated her lightning amulet for the first time that day, sending her streaking through the red dragon and the magma brute in the northeastern pool. She reformed her physical body sticking to the wall along the southeastern part of the cavern, between the cave openings to the slave pits and the dragon's lair.

In the meantime, the magma brute beneath Ingebold's new stone floor popped up out from underneath it, only to be stabbed by an enlarged Binkadink. The lava-beast swung at the gnome in retaliation with a massive, flaming fist, but missed.

And then Gilbert Fung brought out the big guns.

Still standing in the entry passageway to the larger cavern with Mudpie at his side, the portly wizard pointed a chubby finger at the dragon and fired out a magical phrase. A black ray of energy flashed across the chamber to strike the dragon in the side. "Eat enervation spell, overgrown lizard!" Gilbert taunted.

Nurangkarthraxaeros was furious. Immediately after having been blasted, he felt weaker in all sorts of ways: physical strength diminished, life energy drained - it even felt as if his capacity for breathing forth belches of flame had been nearly halved. He roared in fury, the sounds reverberating across the chamber.

With two charges remaining in her amulet for the day, Finoula saw no reason not to put them to immediate use. She blasted across the dragon's form in lightning bolt form once again, catching the magma brute in the northwest pool as well. That put the stunned magma brute flanked between the elven ranger poised on the side of the cavern wall and the elven bounder standing on the island. Castillan stabbed out with his stonepiercer dagger, its magic vibrating deep within the creature's molten stone form, causing it to lose cohesion and sink back into the pool from which it came.

Binkadink whirled around and gave Nurangkarthraxaeros the sudden attention of his blade, stabbing deep into the dragon's flank, as Darrien's flurry of arrows took down the magma brute the gnome had just been fighting. Castillan bounded behind the dragon and gnome and positioned himself to strike out at the magma brute in the northeastern pool, just as a second blast of crackling energy came racing across the cavern to strike the dragon. "Ha! You like that, lizard?" cackled Gilbert as his second - and, sadly, last for the day - enervation spell hit its target. The dragon roared its frustration, eyes blazing with hatred for the human wizard but now too weak to make it across the chamber to get to his foe without doubtlessly being slain by the wizard's companions. He briefly contemplated diving into the magma pool, swimming beneath the eastern stone bridge and popping up out of the northeastern pool to get closer to his foe, but even that was too risky. So Nurangkarthraxaeros only did the first part of his plan, diving into the southeastern magma pool, taking a scrape of oversized gnomish glaive across the back as he fled to the safety of the liquid rock.

As Castillan's enhanced dagger blade made short work of the last remaining magma brute, Nurangkarthraxaeros fumed beneath the magma. These adventurers were too powerful for him, he realized - they'd likely clear out his treasure hoard, and there was nothing he could to about it. He chafed at the realization, wanting nothing more than to rise up and attack these intruding thieves, but despite his rage he realized to do so would be to spell his own death. No, it was better to stay safe, even at the cost of his treasure hoard - he had hundreds of years before him yet, plenty of time to amass more treasures. And he'd track these adventurers down, no doubt about it! They'd pay for their impudence with their very lives!

But later. For now, Nurangkarthraxaeros swam through the liquid stone, along the submerged tunnel that led to the planar gate opening to the Elemental Plane of Fire. He'd rest there, and return again the next day, when the adventurers were gone and it was once more safe to appear in his old lair.

"When it was once again safe" - the very thought that he, a mighty red dragon, was forced to hide from these two-legged vermin, galled him to no end. Oh, how he'd make them pay!

- - -

After a day spent moping and wallowing in self-pity on the Elemental Plane of Fire, mighty Nurangkarthraxaeros deemed it safe to return. These lesser beings, with their shortened lifespans, had no patience; they'd surely have left as soon as they'd cleared out his hoard. Passing through the planar gate, the red dragon swam through the molten rock down through the familiar passageway, until he sensed the open pool above him and surfaced his head above the magma. He looked around, seeing no sign of the intruders' continued presence. Lurching himself up onto the central stone slab, he shook off the molten lava and paced over to his old lair to see if the thieves had completely cleaned him out, or if anything had been left behind.

He didn't see the alarm spell trigger that had been placed on the center of the cavern's ceiling, which sent a silent signal to the hero who had cast it there. But over in the westernmost cavern - which had up until yesterday been Skraine's personal area, the heroes readied themselves for their final fight with the red dragon.

Nurangkarthraxaeros traipsed into his old cavern, kicking the bones of his previous meals aside as he passed. He leaped up and stretched his wings, flapping up to the higher level where his basking ledge and the treasure chamber to the south lay awaiting him. But there was something different about the area...what was this rune scrawled here on the wall?

Gilbert's symbol of pain triggered as soon as the dragon's vision focused upon it. He roared in agony, the sudden searing pain causing him to lose control of his wings, forcing him painfully to the stone floor below. He landed with a crash, impaling several rib bones from previous meals between his scales. It took him a moment to clear his head of the agony caused by the magical symbol...and when he was able to right himself once more, he found himself surrounded by a ring of adventurers, weapons and spells ready to fire.

"Time to go to Hell for real," Gilbert Fung said, before the heroes unleashed their fury on the red dragon. Those were the last words Nurangkarthraxaeros heard before his world went black.

- - -

I hadn't really expected to get very far into this adventure during the first session, but it was one of those times when the first adventure ("Wastewater") was a short one - one encounter, really - and even with taking the time afterward to level up all of the PCs to 10th, there was still plenty of time left to not want to get some more gaming in. After all, we sometimes go 5-6 weeks or more between sessions, so game time is a precious commodity. I wasn't sure if the rest of this adventure would fill up the whole second gaming session, but one of the advantages of holding the sessions in my new man-cave is that I have everything on hand; had we finished this adventure up early, I would have been able to start us on the beginning of the next adventure. As it turned out, with the group having to flee and come back later, this played out to just about a full session all by itself. For the record, the PCs made it through the mephit cavern - which was one side of Paizo's "Wasteland" game map accessory - during the first gaming session, and we picked up at the entrance to the final cavern for the second session.

Incidentally, this second session was the first one we did in this campaign without our full complement of gamers. Jacob had come home from college for the weekend but he was running a fever and generally felt like crap, so he stayed home and Dan ran Castillan as well as Gilbert Fung for this second half. (Since Jacob had also been running Ingebold for the first session, we moved her over to Logan's control for the second session.) Vicki did call him on her phone and Skyped him in, in case he wanted to be a virtual telepresence for the game, but he merely had her show him the layout of the magma pool caverns and what the group was fighting at the time, before dropping off and napping on the sofa at home.

By the way, my original intention was for the PCs to go through one more adventure after this before picking up their enhanced weapons from Pentaclus. My son Logan pointed out that the group had spent three days in-game on this adventure rather than the intended one, so he was pushing for them to pick up their weapons at the beginning of the next adventure instead of after it was over. I countered that there would be no need for them to go explore Lake Quag (the next adventure) if they had already picked up their weapons; Logan countered that he wanted to turn the red dragon's corpse over to the weaponsmiths and have a suit of dragonmail armor built for Binkadink, which would cause the PCs to have to wait around for that to be made (and thus go explore Lake Quag in the meantime). Even though Pentaclus and his group are strictly weaponsmiths, not armorers, I imagine they know somebody capable of making armor out of dragonhide, so I relented. It looks like the group will be getting their magic weapon enhancements a bit earlier than originally anticipated.

I'm not sure when we'll be playing next, but my wife Mary has decided we should follow it up with another two-family dinner. I think it's a little aggravating for her to have Dan, Vicki and the boys over but not get to spend much time with them herself.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: For the first session, I was still wearing my "Duck Dynasty" T-shirt since it was thematically appropriate to the adventure we played before this one. On the second session, though, I opted to wear one of my dragon T-shirts, since it was now apparent to the group that the "fiendish red dragon" the PCs had heard about several times before was going to be a focal point of this adventure. Lacking a red dragon T-shirt, I arbitrarily went with the blue dragon one.
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Game Session Date: 25 February 2017

- - -

The group picked up their enhanced weapons from Pentaclus and his crew of weaponsmiths. Binkadink was overjoyed to say the least; his masterwork glaive had been given a magical augmentation that would not only guide his strikes but also cut deeper into his foes. It practically glowed with power and the little gnome could hardly wait to put it to good use. Nuldurn and Sturgar, the two dwarven smiths, each pointed out the features they had personally worked on with Ingebold's light mace of healing; the cleric blushed once again by the attention.

"You forget something, Bink?" asked Gilbert.

"Oh! Right!" said the gnome, asking Ingebold for the portable hole she kept at her belt. She passed it over to him and Binkadink started unfolding it. Rather than open it up on the ground like they usually did, he - with the help of his gnomish stilt-boots - spread it out against one of the shop's outer walls. He entered the vertical hole and returned with several pull-ropes, which the others helped him hook up to Castor and Pollux, their black draft horses. Aithanar led the pair as they strained to pull out the preserved corpse of the juvenile red dragon the group had slain days before.

"You guys make armor, by any chance?" the gnome asked hopefully. They didn't, as it turned out - but they had contacts with several good armorers who would be able to craft the gnome a suit of dragonhide plate mail. Pentaclus agreed to set everything up for the price of the dragon's head - he figured mounting the head of the red dragon that had been terrorizing the local area on a pole outside his shop could only be good for business.

"I'll see to it myself," Pentaclus promised, and the group hitched the draft horses back up to the Vistani wagon and were on their way.

- - -

The group opted to head north to go check out Lake Quag. It connected to the Velverdyva River, a familiar landmark as its waters south of the Clatspur Mountains acted as the western border to the kingdom of Kordovia. As they ambled along north, they met an elderly fisherman standing on a rickety old pier, his line in the water. "G'mornin’ to ya," he nodded in way of greeting. "As y'look t'be strangers t'these here parts, I'll give ya a warnin' ya'd best be told 'bout: don'tcha be strayin' too close t'the lake, lest Li'l Nick be a-grabbin' ya!"

"Thank you for the warning," smiled Finoula at the old man. "But are you not in such danger yourself?"

"Pshaw!" scoffed the fisherman. "I'm in no danger from Li'l Nick! He prefers strong folks in the bloom of their youth, not a wizened old codger like meself!"

"Well good luck with your fishing, sir," said Finoula, setting her pony Daisy back to the road.

"Name's Samuel Fisher the Second," replied the old man with a tip of his battered cap. "But you kin call me 'Junior' - everybody roundabout here does." The elf gave him a friendly wave as she caught back up to the others, who had continued on down the hard-packed dirt road during her brief chat with the fisherman.

They didn't see anyone else for the next half hour or so, when Binkadink and Finoula, at the head of the wagon train, saw two figures off to the side of the road. It was a sad sight: the body of a woman lying motionless on the ground, while a girl who could be no more than 10 or 12 years old cried forlornly over her body. Both figures wore matching tan hooded cloaks - mother and daughter, likely.

Finoula spurred Daisy over to the crying girl, her wolf Wrath following as customary. The ranger dismounted as she approached, the better to comfort the girl. However, she also scanned the vicinity for danger, for at this point she had no idea how the woman had come to be killed - if she were in fact dead, although her immobility didn't give the ranger much hope on that front. Finoula unsheathed her sword Tahlmalaera just in case, but kept it at her side. She noted that Wrath wasn't snarling in warning but his fur was raised, as if he sensed something wasn't quite right.

"Honey?" she called to the girl. "Are you all right?" Behind her, Obvious trotted up and Binkadink dismounted, leaving his glaives in their harness on his jackalope mount.

The girl ignored the heroes' approach, her small frame wracking with sobs. Finoula approached closer, her left hand reaching out to comfort the girl. And then she noticed something strange about the woman's body: it was unusually lumpy in odd places. Behind them, Ingebold brought the mule wagon to a halt; Aithanar did likewise with the Vistani wagon just behind her. Darrien jumped down from the back of the open mule wagon and trotted over; from his angle of approach, he could see a strand of what looked like seaweed sticking out from the woman's pants leg.

Before Darrien could voice any concern, a dozen forms popped their heads up from the waters of the lake. They saw six potential targets: Finoula, Binkadink, Darrien, Ingebold, Aithanar, and Castillan (the latter sitting on his usual perch on the roof of the Vistani wagon, and just now catching sight of the twelve newcomers to the scene). With silent hand signals, each selected their target and let loose with their magic. Judging by the sudden shock and jerk of their heads, it looked like Binkadink, Darrien, and Aithanar each succumbed to whatever magic had just been released.

The twelve continued walking to the shore, more of their bodies revealed with each step. They stood about four feet tall, with blue skin and hair of various shades of blue or green. One of their number had a skull painted over his face; it was this one who called out to the group in the Common tongue.

"Friends!" he called. "We mean you no harm! Set your weapons aside and approach, that we may talk!"

Binkadink responded immediately by meandering over towards the edge of the water. Obvious, curious about what was going on (and not understanding anything that had been said), dutifully followed his master. Darrien dropped his Arachnibow to the ground and followed suit; having brought the Vistani wagon to a halt, Aithanar dropped the reins and leaped down from his perch in the driver's seat, then headed over that way himself.

The door in the back of the Vistani wagon opened up, and Gilbert Fung stepped down to the ground. "What going on?" he asked irritably. The wizard had heard the commotion from the open windows at the front of the wagon, had noticed they had stopped, and now saw a dozen blue-skinned halflings leading half of his friends over to the lake's edge.

"Oh no you don't!" he cried, following this pronouncement with the words to an Evard's black tentacles spell. He centered his spell in the midst of the dozen lake-dwellers, who had lined up in two loose rows. Scores of oily, black tentacles rose up among their ranks, entwining around limbs and torsos. Yelps of surprise turned to howls of pain as the tentacles began constricting along their targets' bodies.

At the screams from her tribe members, the "little girl" crying over her mother whipped off her robes and faced Finoula. "Stop!" she cried out, and the ranger saw this was no human girl but another being from the lake, with the same webbed fingers and the bluish skin as the small men who had raced up from the water. "Let there be no bloodshed – we cannot afford the lost lives!" added Amilonna.

Gilbert looked at Finoula, and she shrugged at him in return. The portly wizard didn't dismiss his spell - he didn't want to shut it off and then find out it had been a mistake to do so - but he did use the power of his will to prevent the tentacles from crushing their victims to death; instead, they continued to hold their writhing captives just tight enough to prevent their escape. "Get talking," he advised the blue-skinned girl.

"Please, forgive our attempts at subterfuge," Amilonna continued. "We are nixies, and that is our way. But I see now that you are no common people of your respective races, but adventurers. We sought to charm you into temporary servitude, to help us find and destroy our enemies, but some of us – myself included – believe you would be more effective if fighting voluntarily, of your own volition. Will you listen to our story, and then decide whether you'll help us?"

Reluctantly, Gilbert dismissed his spell. The black tentacles shrank down to nothing, releasing the dozen nixies to fall to their hands and knees as they gasped for breath. "There more where that came from," warned Gilbert, although that was actually the only such spell he currently had prepared - but they didn't need to know that. At the direction of the skull-faced nixie, the three adventurers who had been ensnared in charm person effects were released from their involuntary servitude.

Amilonna spoke for her group - the "dead woman," the group could now see, was nothing more than a human woman's clothes and boots stuffed with seaweed as a lure. "Some years ago," she began, "our tribe charmed an adventurer much like yourselves, a human wizard. He carried an unusual stone with him, which allowed him to communicate with others in the vicinity of its sister stone, which was away on a distant plane.

"The wizard was unfortunately slain defending us against an attack by a freshwater chuul, and the gatestone was kept by our tribe." If Amilonna noticed any grimaces on the faces of the adventurers at the mention of a chuul - a creature that had almost killed two of their number in previous months - she didn't comment on it. "The gatestone was silent for years, but recently a malevolent voice entered the minds of anyone nearby. This voice demanded we nixies join him in activating the gatestone, opening up a gate between his world and ours, that he and his minions could swim into our own waters here." She visibly shivered at the thought of the voice coming from the stone.

The skull-faced nixie, a necromancer named Maidreth, picked up the tale. "Fearing this voice - it felt ancient, and undeniably evil - we buried the gatestone in a hidden location. We continue to guard it to this day, but do so in an inconspicuous manner."

"In recent months," continued Amilonna, "we have seen scrags and merrows actively scouring the lake bottom, in search of something – possibly the gatestone. They are occasionally accompanied by small, winged demons made of water. These forces have slain any nixie they've been able to get their hands on, but so far nobody who knows the gatestone's location has been captured, so its whereabouts are still unknown by our enemies."

"What measures have you taken to counter this threat?" asked Finoula.

"We've searched for the home base of the scrags and merrows, to no avail," replied Maidreth. "I know a limited number of spells, but no divination spells capable of finding the lair of our enemies. We're hoping you might be able to assist us on that front." Here he looked up at Gilbert, who had already demonstrated his considerable spellpower. But the wizard merely rubbed his chin and looked over to Ingebold. "You got anything like that on hand?" he asked.

"Nay," replied Ingebold. "But I could pray for such spells t'morrow, if'n ye like." That was ultimately agreed upon, and the group made their camp there at the side of the dirt road. The nixies, for their part, said their goodbyes and promised to return the following morning. Amilonna gave the group a smile and thanked them for not hurting her tribesfolk; the other nixies, embarrassed at their humiliating defeat, were more than eager to return to the lake's waters.

"Tomorrow, then," Finoula said as the last of the nixies disappeared beneath the water's surface.

- - -

Ingebold had prepared three divination prayers, the maximum amount she could hold in her head at one time at this stage of her training.

"How long this take?" demanded Gilbert, unfamiliar with the specifics of cleric magic.

"Ten minutes or so of castin', per spell," replied Ingebold, "and then the askin' of the question itself. An' there be no guarantee that th' spell'll work, in any case. That's why I've got three of 'em at th' ready."

It turned out that having prepared three divination spells had been a good precaution, as two of them had no effect. "It happens," shrugged Ingebold. "These questions're being offered up t'th' greater forces of th' cosmos. Sometimes they've got better things t'do than answer ev'ry question what gets sent their way. I'll give it one more shot, but that'll be it fer the day, I'm afraid."

The third time, though, seemed to be the charm. After ten minutes of chanting and supplication, a voice boomed through the air, startling even Gilbert, who had not actually expected a response this third time around.

"ASK YOUR QUESTION," the voice declared.

"What be th' best approach to find the merrows and scrags seeking the gatestone th' nixies've hidden away?" asked Ingebold.

"SEEK YE ALONG THE CLIFFS TO THE EAST," the voice boomed, then was silent.

The nixies were able to direct the adventuring band to the cliffs to the east of Lake Quag: they were a mere few miles north of their present location. The group broke camp and the wagon train headed further north, where the nixies greeted them upon their arrival, having traveled the same distance underwater.

"Are you ready?" asked Maidreth.

"Actually, no," answered Finoula. "If you don't mind, we'd like to wait until tomorrow morning, so we have a full complement of spells available to us. Ingebold burned through her most powerful spells in finding the location of your enemies." The nixie necromancer was disappointed by the delay, but Amilonna helped convince him that they had had no success on their own after months of searching and that it made sense for the adventurers to have every advantage in taking on those who would do the nixies harm. Eventually, Maidreth had to bow to the logic. "Until tomorrow, then," he said, and led his people back below the water.

"He a grumpy fellow," declared Gilbert, returning to the back of the Vistani wagon to continue studying his Omnibook.

- - -

The following morning all was finally in readiness. The nixies bestowed water breathing upon those who would be seeking out the tribe's foes underwater, it having been decided that Aithanar would remain with the wagons and draft animals as usual, and that Wrath and Obvious would likewise remain on land. Gilbert's familiar, Mudpie, also opted to stay behind, the earth elemental not relishing a visit to the underwater realm. "I stay here, Master," he informed Gilbert, and the portly wizard agreed.

"Before we go, though, Ingebold cast freedom of movement spells on you four," Gilbert declared. The dwarven cleric cast the designated spells on the others, opting to forego herself and Gilbert, the latter because he could always cast a fly spell to propel himself through the water, and the former because she'd be primarily performing a healing role, which she could now do at a distance since regaining her light mace of healing. It was more important that the others, the likely front-line combatants, be able to move about without restraint. (Besides, as Binkadink and Castillan passed on from personal experience, a chuul relied upon its ability to get a good grip on its foes before paralyzing them with its tentacles, and a freedom of movement spell should make it all but impossible for them to pin down one of the heroes in such a fashion.)

"Okay, we ready now," announced Gilbert, stepping down into the waters of Lake Quag. The others followed. The nixies offered to accompany the heroes, but Gilbert waved them off. "Too many, we get seen. We sneak in better with smaller numbers." The fact that Maidreth was so easily convinced demonstrated his race's predisposition to allow others to do their heavy lifting for them. As they left, Binkadink used his innate gnomish powers of prestidigitation to turn his own skin color blue; now he looked like a nixie himself - albeit one with a yellow beard and similar-colored hair, striding along the lake floor in gnomish stilt-boots instead of swimming like a true nixie would. Still, thought the gnome to himself, you never know.

Lighting was not a problem underwater, for enough sunlight filtered down from above to make it a non-issue. The two everburning torches tied to the antlers of Binkadink's helmet gave off their normal light, although it seemed somewhat incongruous to see apparently flickering flames burning unhindered underwater. The gnome, elves, and half-elf had better-than-human vision and Ingebold could see perfectly in absolute darkness; Gilbert opted to temporarily upgrade his vision to dwarven levels with a quick casting of a darkvision spell on himself. It wasn't his only recent vision upgrade in the past two days, either; he'd just spent part of the previous day casting a permanent detect undead spell upon himself. Now he could see the auras of undead creatures simply by concentrating; having been raised by his mother to revere the spirits of his ancestors, he hated the idea of one's remains being animated after death to pursue the goals of the animator and was quick to mistrust those who painted skulls on their faces. Gilbert was eager to find out more about this Maidreth fellow after they had dealt with the nixies' foes.

Approaching the cliff from beneath the water, the group saw it was shielded from view by a row of kelp beds, the tall, leafy fronds waving slowly in the currents. Whether they had grown there naturally or had been placed there deliberatively as camouflage was immaterial; peeking his head through the kelp, Castillan saw three caves at floor level of the cliff side, the two outer ones significantly smaller than the central one. Squinting through the shadows of the smaller caves, the bounder thought he could make out a familiar silhouette. "Chuuls!" he said to the others, as they poked their own heads through the fronds to get a look for themselves.

"Let's go!" Binkadink said enthusiastically, his newly-enhanced glaive pointed directly ahead of him as he charged the chuul to his right. Behind him, Darrien, Castillan, Finoula, and Ingebold followed, while Gilbert remained hidden behind the shielding row of kelp and cast a stoneskin spell upon himself.

The chuul scuttled forth to meet its attacker, and Binkadink's magic glaive made its first stab into a foe. The chuul snapped out with a claw in response, catching the gnome between its sharp, inner edges but unable to get a good hold on him due to the freedom of movement spell. As he was concentrating on the puzzling, hard-to-grab gnome he was struck on the side by a series of thorns; Finoula had approached to within striking distance with her magical whip and had put it to good use, her own freedom of movement spell preventing her weapons from being impeded by the water's resistance. With her other hand she struck out with Tahlmalaera, her blade still attuned to dealing sonic energy, which vibrated cracks into the chuul's carapace. While the chuul wheeled around to deal with this new threat, Darrien stepped out and stabbed at the beast with his scimitar; it wasn't a powerful magic weapon like his fellow ranger's, but it got the job done in a pinch - and he knew that his Arachnibow's power was greatly reduced underwater.

The chuul was obviously frustrated at its inability to gather either of these three foes in its claws, and its irritation factor rose even higher when Ingebold cast a spiritual weapon in the form of Moradin's warhammer to crash down upon its shell. Castillan bounded up to the side of the beast and stabbed at it with his short sword; despite its home advantage, the chuul was overpowered by such numbers and quickly slain.

Having missed out on the action thus far, Gilbert stepped through the kelp bed, casting a mage armor spell upon himself as he did so. Then, satisfied with his current level of protection, he sauntered over in the direction of the others. They, however, were already in motion, heading over to the second chuul crawling out from his cave to the west. Darrien headed over to meet it and saw motion from the central cave. Turning, he saw a massive, humanoid creature swimming his way, an oversized spear in one hand. It had green skin and webbed fingers; Darrien wasn't sure if it was a merrow or a scrag - never having seen either creature before - but he was certain it was one of the two. Scimitar held at the ready, he readied his weapon and awaited its approach.

Ingebold, meanwhile, had repositioned her spiritual warhammer to attack the second chuul and was making her way in that direction as well. The green-skinned giant stabbed at Darrien with its spear and caught the half-elf ranger in the side. Darrien swung his scimitar at the beast in retaliation, cutting a gash along its arm. Seeing this, Binkadink charged across the lakebed floor, skewering the merrow with his magic glaive. Darrien, wounded, stepped back out of the way as the dead merrow drifted to the ground - and found himself the preferred target of the remaining chuul.

Finoula, in the meantime, had passed Ingebold and struck out with her whip at the second chuul as it cut at her friend's body with its serrated claws - and finding itself just as frustrated as its counterpart at these intruders' strange ability to avoid being caught in its embrace. Ingebold pointed her light mace of healing in the half-elf ranger's direction and fired off a cure serious wounds spell. The beam hit Darrien and sealed up the worst of his wounds, allowing him to concentrate on stabbing the chuul with his scimitar. Castillan did likewise with his own short sword, and the two - aided by Ingebold's spiritual warhammer - brought the second chuul down.

"These things just guard beasts," announced Gilbert. "Real enemies probably inside big cave." Together, the group entered the central cave from where the merrow had emerged. As they got a couple dozen feet inside the cave - where the sunlight from above failed to reach, as the group noticed quickly - another merrow stepped into view. Behind him, two other green-skinned creatures stepped into the radius of Binkadink's illumination; these were taller and lankier than the merrows, and thus likely scrags.

As the merrow was the closest to the group, Binkadink struck out at him first with his glaive, giving it every ounce of strength he had. The merrow was skewered like his partner had been moments earlier, and he too died at the end of the gnome's blade. Castillan ducked into the shadows of the small side cavern from which the merrow had emerged, waiting for the approach of the oncoming scrags. He used his stonepiercer dagger to help him climb the stone walls of the cavern, then leaped down upon the head of the nearest scrag as the creature ran past. He had intended to impale the scrag through the skull with his dagger, but the creature dodged at the last minute, causing the bounder to slide down the scrag's back and onto the stone cavern floor; only his innate training prevented him from falling prone in a heap. But the scrag, now alerted to this enemy, spun around and gave Castillan its undivided attention. This attention came in the form of slashing claws and snapping teeth, and streamers of red elven blood started seeping from numerous wounds on the bounder's body.

The other scrag slashed out at both Binkadink and Ingebold, calling out as he did so in a burbling language, "Slitherscale, wake up and get out here! We got intruders!" From the back of the assembled heroes, Gilbert cast a magic missile at the scrag who had just spoken, and was disappointed to see the missiles do a minimal amount of damage to the water-troll's hide. Ingebold, having been caught by a rake of the scrag's claws, smashed at his form with her own warhammer and then stepped back, sending her spiritual weapon spell forward in her place.

While the rest were concentrating on this scrag, Finoula skipped up to combat the one attacking her fellow elf, Castillan. She brought the creature down with her whip and her magic longsword - and down it went, its dead body toppling onto Castillan before he could get out of the way. But as the bounder crawled out from underneath the fallen scrag, Finoula was disappointed to see the wounds she had just inflicted already starting to heal up. "It's dead - but it's healing!" she called out to the others.

"It a troll - they do that!" replied Gilbert, stepping up and channeling a burning hands spell into his right hand, causing it to glow. Touching Tahlmalaera with his glowing hand, the energy of his spell was siphoned into the variable-energy blade. "Stab it in head now," he advised, and the ranger did just that - and was pleased to see the head-wound she'd just inflicted failed to heal up as the scrag's other wounds had been beginning to do; the creature apparently stopped regenerating once it had been irrevocably slain.

Binkadink was facing off with the sole remaining scrag when the water naga swam onto the scene from a ledge above. It bit at the hapless bounder, injecting its venom into the elf's wound, but Castillan fought off the poison's effects with a sheer act of will. As Binkadink's glaive found yet another victim and Finoula hurried to finish it off with her fire-attuned blade, Gilbert killed Slitherscale with another magic missile spell - this one, he was happy to note, dealing a significantly higher level of damage than the one that had practically fizzled away on the first scrag. Finoula, still not trusting the scrags not to regenerate, used Tahlmalaera to decapitate the water-trolls, before looking up and seeing that combat had apparently been finished while she'd been attending to this detail. Ingebold's spiritual weapon spell silently vanished.

With no enemies currently facing them, Castillan scrambled up to the higher ledge from where the water naga had swum. "Chests!" he called out, seeing a pair of closed metal treasure chests sitting along the back wall of the ledge, which was otherwise empty of all but some small boulders. After determining the chests were neither trapped nor locked, the bounder opened the first of them, saddened to see its empty contents. The second chest was similarly empty; after a moment's thought, the elf realized this wasn't a treasure hoard after all but a makeshift jail - potential captives could be placed in the trunks and the boulders piled on top of the lids to prevent the captives from escaping on their own.

The caves off to the sides provided better results: while the small merrow cave contained only a pair of meager nests made of kelp and seaweed, each of the two scrag caves provided a chest of coins or jewels and a large fisherman's net used as an impromptu hammock. The group opted to leave the chests where they were for now - Ingebold not wanting to open up her portable hole underwater and have it fill up with lake water - and moved on.

There was only one other tunnel leading from this central cavern, so Ingebold headed straight to it. It narrowed as it rose in elevation, but the stone floor formed a set of natural, if irregular, steps. After curving to the right, it opened into a small chamber with another chamber 10 feet higher at the top of a stone cliff. The higher chamber was empty but for a large rock back a bit from the opening to the chamber below. As everyone scrambled up to the higher cave, a figure stepped out from the back shadows of the higher chamber.

This was a figure unlike anything any of the heroes had seen. Binkadink, the self-appointed "meat-shield" of the group. took a step protectively in front of the others and lowered his glaive to point at this unknown enemy, the flickering light from his everburning torches illuminating the figure as she stepped into full view. An uncharacteristic whimper of fear slipped from the doughty gnome's lips as he looked full upon Jarmoa the sea hag and all of his muscles locked up. Jarmoa pointed at the gnome fighter and hissed a curse at him, the power of her evil eye causing the gnome's mind to lock up as tight as his body, as a horrifying paralysis coursed through his system, leaving him standing as motionless as a statue.

"Return to me, my pretties!" called out Jarmoa, and Finoula, to Binkadink's left, was close enough to see an amulet around the sea hag's neck glow as she said the words aloud. The elven ranger's horror at the hag's appearance prevented her from attacking immediately, but Darrien stepped up, swinging at her with his scimitar. She was just about the ugliest thing the half-elf had ever seen, but he shunted the horrified thoughts away and concentrated at the business at hand. Perhaps seeing her friend attack despite the horror of their foe, Finoula mentally shrugged off her disgust and stepped up to attack the sea hag with Tahlmalaera, still fire-attuned as a result of Gilbert's spell.

Gilbert realized he had a perfect opportunity in front of him: with Binkadink out of the fight and both Darrien and Finoula protected by their freedom of movement spells, the portly wizard had no compunctions against casting an Evard's black tentacles spell right in front of Jarmoa. Once again, writhing, ebon tentacles sprang up from the ground, entwining tightly around Jarmoa and sliding around both Finoula and Darrien but never quite managing to get a grasp on them.

Unseen by the heroes, just outside the entrance to the cliff side cave system, four water mephits were swimming at full speed, answering the spoken summons by their horrid mistress. Behind them were the other two merrows and an equal number of scrags, those who shared the living spaces with their slain compatriots on alternating shifts. They had been searching the lake floor for the hidden gatestone until Jarmoa's amulet sent her words to the ears of her summoned mephits, and they in turn rounded up the rest of the search team. The heroes were under the impression that they were fighting their last foe in this underwater cavern, unaware of the reinforcements rushing up behind them.

Despite the tentacles binding her into relative immobility, Jarmoa was far from helpless. With Finoula standing immediately before her, trying to hack at the hag through the ebon tentacles, Jarmoa made the obvious choice of second target. Focusing a curse through her horrifying body, Jarmoa focused the full force of her evil eye at the elven ranger. A scream broke off from Finoula's lips, her body instantly paralyzed to the point she couldn't even finish the cry of absolute horror that had escaped upon the application of Jarmoa's curse. Trapped within her unmoving body, Finoula's mind underwent a torrent of images, each more horrific than the last, overwhelming her senses as Binkadink's had been similarly overwhelmed just moments before.

"I think it time for fly," Gilbert announced to himself, casting the spell that allowed him to glide through the waters unimpeded. He picked up Ingebold - the only other hero without a freedom of movement spell preventing the reaching tentacles from engulfing her - and flew above their reach, over to the small side cavern from which Jarmoa had emerged. As expected, this was her sleeping quarters, with a crude bed of woven kelp and seaweed sitting upon the floor in the back, and scattered fish bones apparently the remains of recent meals. Of further interest was the small chest along a back wall; not wanting to set off any traps, Gilbert called Castillan to the room and the bounder slipped past the grasping tentacles. The chest was untrapped and inside was a bunch of black, oily-looking pearls. Seeing no further exits from the room - the last one they'd seen in the whole complex - Gilbert was satisfied that the whole place had been cleaned out. "We kill hag, we done!" he announced with great relish.

Darrien was moving around to attack the hag from the back with his scimitar; he'd seen what a mere look from her could do and didn't want it happening to him as well. Gilbert, off to the side in the hag's bedroom, was irritated by the delay and fired off another magic missile spell he had prepared that morning, striking Jarmoa unerringly. The sea hag cried out in pain, perhaps from the darts of energy he had just sent her way or perhaps from the crushing tentacles; regardless, with a final snap of breaking bones, her body was crushed by the constricting appendages and Jarmoa was no more.

However, from his position behind Jarmoa's body and thus facing the way the heroes had entered this part of the complex, Darrien was able to see the first of the water mephits rise up over the ledge into these two back chambers. They called out for their mistress at the same time Darrien called to his friends that there were reinforcements arriving. Then, seeing that Binkadink's paralyzed body was just outside the range of the ebon tentacles, the ranger dashed forward and grabbed the stricken gnome, pulling him back inside the radius of the Evard's black tentacles spell's effect. Despite his general immobility, the freedom of movement spell still protected him from being grappled by the writhing, black tendrils. Watching over from the hag's bedchambers, Gilbert approved at this unorthodox use of his spell; he'd never have considered Evard's black tentacles to be a defensive spell, but magic was what you made of it, and this made for a great defense!

The four water mephits approached as close to the tentacles as they dared; the appendages were only 10 feet long and the ceiling height of the chamber was 15 feet or more, but the mephits were unsure if the tentacles could reach any farther than they could at the moment. Behind them came the two scrags, who swam straight up to the edge of the tentacles' reach and peered between them. They could see Binkadink, Darrien, and Finoula between the waving, rubbery limbs, but were likewise hesitant to enter the spell's area of effect.

Castillan, Ingebold, and Gilbert were all in the doorway to the hag's bedchamber, and could see the newcomers to this fray. Ingebold cast a holy smite on the scrags and mephits lined up on the far side of the tentacles, blinding the aquatic trolls and causing all six of the enemies a bit of physical harm. Gilbert flew up to the cavern's ceiling, over his writhing tentacles, and cast a cone of cold spell down at the six, killing the mephits outright and further damaging the blinded scrags - although not, he realized, in a manner from which they could not regenerate the damage done over time. Darrien and Castillan, using the writhing tentacles as protection, stabbed out at the scrags with their blades, catching them completely unawares and slaying them both, even if only temporarily. But by then, the slower-swimming merrows had risen up from the ledge. They took in the scene - dead mephits and scrags, writhing, black tentacles, no sign of Jarmoa - with fearful looks.

As one, Darrien and Castillan leaped out from the tentacles, each focusing his blade on a different merrow. From his position along the cavern's ceiling, Gilbert cast a magic missile spell down at Darrien's foe, slaying the merrow. "Go get Finoula's sword, deal with scrags!" commanded Gilbert, and the ranger dashed back in amongst the tentacles to comply. By the time he had grabbed Tahlmalaera from Finoula's hands and returned back to the scrags' regenerating bodies, Castillan had already dealt with the last merrow. Darrien used the fire-enhanced sword to decapitate the healing scrags, and then that was the end of any threat the two of them might pose.

Gilbert deactivated his Evard's black tentacles spell, then cautiously approached Jarmoa's body. He took the amulet from her neck - it appeared to allow a spellcaster to talk to any personally-summoned creatures over great distances, and Gilbert was eager to find out whether it would allow him to send such messages to Mudpie - as well as an evil-looking, twisted, black wand from her belt. This he passed on to Ingebold; she examined it briefly, saw that it was a wand of inflict wounds, and with a look of distaste snapped it in half and tossed it aside.

Treasure movement was going to be a problem, Gilbert realized. Usually they would just toss everything into the portable hole, but Ingebold was reluctant to open it underwater and let it fill up with water. Plus, both Binkadink and Finoula were still immobilized with looks of horror on their faces. Ingebold knew the break enchantment spell and was fairly certain it would return the two to their normal awareness and mobility, but she'd have to wait until the next morning to prepare those spells. That not only meant two less people to lug treasure, but two that would need to be lugged away themselves.

"We do this old-fashioned way!" Gilbert declared. He had Castillan and Darrien gather up the fishing net hammocks from the scrags' caves, then piled the assorted chests onto them. On a whim, he sent the two out to go check the chuul caves, and they each returned with a handful of loose coins and gems to add to one of the chests. With a bull's strength spell to increase his physical prowess, Gilbert was the designated treasure-dragger, flying through the water pulling the nets of accumulated valuables behind him. Darrien carried Binkadink's immobilized form, while Castillan grabbed up his fellow elf and hoisted a frozen Finoula over his shoulder. With Ingebold trailing behind to ensure nothing got dropped along the way, the group made their way back across the lakebed floor to their camp along the shore, where their treasures were stored away safely in the portable hole and Aithanar was put in charge of watching over the two immobilized heroes. (Upon seeing Finoula's frozen grimace of horror, he gently placed his fingers on the side of her face and quietly said, "Bindocky cremidulong," which of course nobody could understand.)

The nixies approached the camp, a scout having seen them return. Maidreth regretted he had no spells to restore the frozen heroes, so they parted ways again until the morning.

- - -

The first thing after preparing her prayers for the morning, Ingebold used two break enchantment spells to restore Finoula and Binkadink to normal. "By the Goddess!" exclaimed Finoula, the look of absolute horror fading from her face. "What was that hideous thing?" Without a word, Aithanar passed over a cup of hot tea he'd prepared over the campfire and the ranger gladly drank it down.

"Sea hag," replied Gilbert, eager to meet up with the nixies again now that they'd finished half of the job.

"This is a lake, not a sea," argued Binkadink, looking around and seeing nobody had prepared a cup of warm tea for him upon his restoration. Bugger.

"Lake hag, then," amended Gilbert distractedly, looking out along the waters of the lake. "Ah, here they come!" Following his glance, the others saw a dozen nixies rise up from Lake Quag and approach the heroes' camp. "I see your friends have been restored," said Maidreth.

"Yes, they fine," agreed Gilbert. "We take care of foes looking for gatestone. But whoever on other side of stone, he can always get others to start looking. You need to give us stone so we destroy it."

Maidreth had come to a similar conclusion. "Very well," he agreed. "We will fetch it." He turned to his two most powerful warriors and began to give them orders to gather the gatestone and bring it here.

"We come with you," interrupted Gilbert.

Maidreth turned to look up at the wizard. "That won't be necessary," he said.

"We want to see where you hide it all this time," countered Gilbert. "Plus, we be able to guard it from anyone try to steal it during transport."

The nixie necromancer again tried to convince Gilbert that his men could handle the retrieval, but the wizard was adamant that the heroes would be coming along, with or without the nixies' approval. "We can cast our own water breathing spells," pointed out Gilbert. Eventually, Maidreth had no option but to concede. "You may come with, but my men will be the ones to take the gatestone from its hiding place," he said. Gilbert agreed with a nod.

Once again, the six adventurers were granted the ability to breathe the fresh water of the lake by the nixies. They followed the trio of blue-skinned humanoids, for Maidreth had all but him and his two top warriors stay behind. This seemed somewhat suspicious to the adventurers, for if the tribe was going to pass the gatestone over to them for safekeeping, what difference did it make where it had been kept thus far? Why couldn't the rest of the tribe learn of its location?

Gilbert got his answer when they approached a mass of waving kelp fronds. Maidreth ordered his men to go fetch the stone, but Gilbert's gaze didn't fail to notice three human skulls standing on spears that had been embedded into the lake floor nearby. "And why these here?" he asked Maidreth.

"They're just a warning, to keep people away from the dangers of the area."

Realizing he'd not likely get a straight answer to his next questions, Gilbert simply cast a fly spell on himself and jutted up from the lakebed floor. Soaring faster through the water than Maidreth could keep up, he glided up past the tops of the kelp fronds and over what he could see from above was a virtual maze - either the kelp had grown that way naturally or it had been helped into its current form, but there was a maze of twisting passageways and dead ends formed by closely-growing strands of kelp, forming barriers as thick as any hedge maze - and much taller! Looking down over the maze before him, he could see the two nixie warriors approach a sunken canoe turned over on its side. They tipped it out of the way, dug beneath it, and pulled out a rune-carved stone before heading back the way they'd come.

Gilbert also saw the hunched figures approaching the nixes from a side passageway of the maze. He recognized their ghoulish natures, and realized these were lacedons - underwater ghouls. The lacedons snarled at the nixes as they approached, but backed off and let the warriors swim past. Having seen enough, Gilbert rejoined the skull-faced Maidreth and his own adventuring companions.

"Why there lacedons guarding your maze?" demanded Gilbert.

"They're merely an additional level of protection," insisted Maidreth. "I didn't create them, I merely...repurposed them to my own ends."

Gilbert turned to Ingebold. "You have zone of truth spell ready?" he asked her. Before she could even reply, Maidreth panicked. "Okay," he admitted, "I may have fed the odd victim or two to the lacedons to boost their numbers, but it was for a good cause!" He looked back and forth at the other heroes, hoping to find an expression of understanding and support, but the heroes all looked at him in horror.

"So, rather than charm innocent people into doing your work for you for a mere 24 hours..." began Finoula.

"...he turn them into undead," finished Gilbert. "Then he control them forever." He turned to Maidreth, who was beginning to understand just how dangerous a position he was in. "Where these victims come from?" demanded Gilbert. "Local villages? Travelers?"

"It...doesn't really matter," responded Maidreth. "Their lives on land were nothing compared to the service they're providing now...." The necromancer looked desperately at the kelp maze, hoping his warriors would return. Three-to-six odds weren't great, but they certainly beat the one-to-six odds he feared he'd be facing any moment now.

"I think you know what happen now," said Gilbert, flying up above the nixie necromancer and motioning for the other heroes to back up out of the way. With a few spoken arcane syllables, Gilbert once again caused writhing, ebon tentacles to rise up from the lakebed floor and encompass a foe. "No!" cried Maidreth, trying to escape the tentacles' crushing embrace.

When the two nixie warriors emerged from the kelp maze, unharmed by the lacedons who had been trained not to attack nixies (but had been fed enough humans at a sufficient rate to keep them sated and compliant), they saw their leader being crushed to death. Weapons sheathed, Finoula stepped up and held out a hand for the gatestone. Realizing they had nothing to gain but a swift death by resisting, the nixie warrior silently handed it over.

After Maidreth had been crushed to death and Gilbert dismissed his spell, he turned to the nixies. "We going inside kelp maze now. We kill every lacedon we find. You follow us in there, we kill you, too. Now you go back to tribe, tell them no more dealing with undead!" Mumbling assurances, the two nixie warriors swam off, glad to have survived with their lives. Then, after they had left, the six adventurers turned as one and entered the kelp maze, eager to slay every undead creature in there they saw.

There were only six lacedons, and they didn't take long to find and kill.

- - -

"So what're we gonna do with th' silly stone?" asked Ingebold, once they were back at their camp.

"I tempted to go to Kozakura, open up gate there. Let stupid new Emperor see how he like ruling country under water."

"If the other gatestone's underwater, but on an infinite outer plane," pointed out Castillan, "then opening it up on land here would dump an infinite amount of water onto our world. Probably not your best idea."

"I just thinking out loud, elf boy."

Darrien started chuckling to himself. "Hey, here's an idea," he said. "What if we went inside the snow globe and opened it up in there? Then the water would fill up the interior of that spherical section of the arctic and possibly freeze it solid." That thought brought a smile to the others' faces.

"Ah," decided Binkadink, "it's probably best to just destroy it. King Galrich's undoubtedly got a few ideas about how we could do that."

"Me father says th' kings got a vorpal axe," pointed out Ingebold.

"THAT WOULD BE FOOLISH," boomed a sudden voice in everyone's head. "OPEN THE GATEWAY TO YOUR WORLD, AND YOU WILL BE HANDSOMELY REWARDED. I WILL TELL YOU WHAT YOU NEED TO DO." Along with the telepathic voice came an unwanted image, of a multiple-limbed beast, much like a vast octopus, with horns and ridges along its body and eyes that blazed like underwater suns.


"We think about it!" promised Gilbert, gesturing for Ingebold to open up the portable hole now that they were safe on dry land. He dropped the gatestone into the hole and Ingebold folded it back up. As soon as the stone entered the extradimensional space, the telepathic voice broke off.

Gilbert made a face. "That about enough of him!" he said, and nobody argued otherwise.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: Lacking anything more thematically appropriate, I wore a simple blue T-shirt, to reflect the blue waters of Lake Quag.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 10
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 10
Darrien, half-elf ranger 10
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 10
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 10​

NPC Roster:
Aithanar Ivenheart, elf fighter 2
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 10 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 18 March 2017

- - -

After weeks of traveling through the Clatspur Mountains, spending time in the lands above, and then passing south through the mountain range again, it was good to be back home! Therefore, after stopping by the castle and dropping off the kingdom's half of the amassed treasure, the group unanimously opted to split up and visit their respective families.

Binkadink finally got back at his cousin Jinkadoodle for his "fart in front of the king" gag. All it took was setting down the puzzle box they'd found in the gynosphinx Spiral's lair with a reluctant admission that he hadn't been able to figure out how to open it yet, and Jinkadoodle immediately fell for the trap. Grabbing it up, he experimented with it for a few minutes before triumphantly exclaiming success as it popped open. However, Castillan had helped Binkadink booby-trap the mechanism, and opening it caused the glass vial holding sovereign glue to shatter, gluing the gnome's hands to the now-open box. "What the-- Hey!" sputtered Jinkadoodle, desperately trying to free his hands while Binkadink quickly made himself scarce.

Castillan and Aithanar opted not to visit their family, given their (mutual) feelings towards their father. They went with Ingebold to Battershield Keep, to hang out in the room assigned to Castillan until the group was ready to head out to seek adventure once more.

Gilbert, Finoula, and Darrien all went to visit their respective mothers. In Gilbert's case it was merely because his father, Verdant Gristwold, was out exploring the forest again, as he often did. As long as Gilbert could remember, his father would be away for weeks or sometimes months at a time. But he was glad to see his mother - even if she now wore the body of an orc woman. She reported the lessons in the Orcish language with King Galrich himself were coming along fine. "Orc language pretty simple," Harriet explained. "It not all tricky, like language we speak here."

Finoula's father, Daythen Cloudshadow, had passed away several years back. It sometimes saddened Finoula to think that he'd never lived to see his daughter rise up to become an adventurer for the kingdom, but she knew they'd meet again in Ehlonna's Realm, after her own passing. But such thoughts inevitably led to the realization that her sister, Feron, was now a Sister of Ehlonna, and would doubtlessly manage to outshine her even in the afterlife....

Darrien had never known his father; for all of his life it had just been him and his mother, Marta, living in the small cabin at the edge of the Vesve Forest. She'd taught him the basics of woodcraft and he'd taken it from there, learning on his own the various aspects of being a ranger. He knew his mother was overjoyed that her son had been hand-selected - by the King! - to be one of Kordovia's official adventurers; that was one of her most poorly-guarded secrets. But it seemed she did have a secret or two that Darrien had never heard about....

"You know, I was once an adventurer too, for a brief time," Marta said, looking down at the floor.

She smiled back up at her astounded son. "Oh, nothing too serious," she said, "Nothing like you and your friends have accomplished. But I didn’t always live here, you know. In my younger years, I went out to find my own fortune. I signed on with an adventuring team, and we actually took a ship out to sea to seek out lost pirate treasure, if you can believe that." She chuckled quietly to herself. "Nothing ever came of it, though. Well, I shouldn't say 'nothing' – we never found the treasure, just the island it's supposed to be buried on – but that's where I ended up with you."

Darrien notice his mother was back to looking down at the floor and her hands kneaded her apron, as if talking about this made her nervous. "There was this terrible storm," she finally continued. "The ship we were on started taking on water, and we only just made it to the island – had to abandon ship and everything. I got separated from the others in the storm, and I ended up on this beach quite a ways away from where the rest of the group made it to land. Only-- only I wouldn't have made it to land on my own. I'm not that good of a swimmer, you see. I was nearly to the shore, but I kept going under, and I ended up swallowing water more than once. It was the most frustrating thing: when I surfaced I could see the beach ahead, but my limbs didn’t have the strength to make it there.

"I would have drowned then and there, Darrien, if it hadn’t been for your father." She smiled at the recollection. "I don't know how he saw me on that dark night – elven vision, I guess. But he swam out to me and dragged me to shore. We spent the night there, huddled on the beach during the worst storm I'd ever seen in my life. Eventually, the storm subsided, and as weary as I was, I fell asleep. In the morning, he was gone. And nine months later, you were born."

She put her hand into the pocket of her apron. "But I'm getting ahead of myself," she said, returning to her story. "The day after our shipwreck, I met up with the rest of my group and we made ourselves a little base camp. We ended up living there for about two months before we were able to signal to a passing ship and they came and rescued us. And we searched for that silly treasure the whole time we were there, but we never did find it. None of the pirates' instructions seemed to make any sense! By the time we had been rescued, none of us wanted to spend any more time on a treasure hunt, we were just glad to get back to civilization."

Pulling her hand out of her apron pocket, she held out a crumpled sheet of parchment and passed it to Darrien. "I never learned your father's name," she said, "but I still have the treasure map we followed. I'm willing to bet your father lives somewhere on that island, or at least in the general vicinity. But here: my adventuring days, such as they were, are long over. You, on the other hand, are a professional adventurer! I don't know if there's anything behind this pirate treasure, but if there is, I’m sure you and your group will be much more capable of finding it than my group ever was!"

Darrien carefully unfolded the map, which, he saw, was labeled "SKUNKBEARD'S TREASURE." It was a simple drawing of an island, with several features highlighted: Keyhole Bay, the Sord and Aro Rivers, Whale Carcass Beach, the Cliffs of Peril, a bear cave and a cave of statues, temple ruins, and a damaged statue. There was no indication as to where the island was located.

"There's more on the back," Marta said to her son. Darrien flipped the parchment over, and read the following, written in a careful hand:








"I'll take this to the others in the morning," Darrien promised his mother.

- - -

The other adventurers were as intrigued by the map - and by Darrien's story - as he was. "The Cave of the Not-Blooded - that's got to be the Cave of Statues," Castillan offered.

"Yeah, but what about all this other stuff?" asked Binkadink.

"It don't matter if he can't find island," pointed out Gilbert. "Come on - we go to castle, take it to historian."

The castle historian was an elf named Zalian Darisath. He looked at the hand-drawn map of the island disdainfully. "There's no sense of scale," he complained. "This could be a small continent or half a mile wide, or anywhere in between!" Still, he pulled out his atlases and started poring over their contents. After half an hour of scrutiny, he found an island that looked very much like the drawing on the map, judging by its shape.

"La Isla Zorrillo," said Zalian, stabbing down with a slender finger onto a page of his atlas. "'The Island of Skunks,' in the Oljatt Sea, far to the east of Hepmonaland." That sounded about right to the group, hoping the skunks of the island offered a tie to Skunkbeard the pirate. Now, it was just a matter of getting to Hepmonaland, the continent to the south. Recalling that her father had been to Hepmonaland as part of his adventuring career, Ingebold suggested dropping in on Aerik.

"We used to have some contacts in Hepmonaland," offered Aerik, stroking his beard. "Back when King Galrich an' I were adventurers, there was another entire Adventurers Guild stationed there. They got wiped out by lizardfolk, but you never know – they might've rebuilt, like Thunderwolf did at Greyhawk City. It'd be worth checking out, in any case."

Then a sudden smile lit up his face. "An' come t' think of it, there's somebody here at the castle what could give ye a lift!"

Aerik brought the group directly to the officials in charge of the king's schedule. After a short discussion with them, the dwarven guard returned, beaming. "Right this way," he said, leading them into one of the castle's meeting halls. The heroes entered and saw King Galrich seated at a table with a middle-aged woman wearing a black gown and cloak. Her hair was mostly dark, but for two streaks of white framing her face. She and the king were sharing a glass of wine.

Aerik beamed with obvious pride. "Miss Delphyne," he said, "May I introduce to you the Adventurers Guild of Kordovia?"

Introductions were made all around, with King Galrich explaining that Delphyne Babelberi had been an adventurer in his and Aerik's group. Now she wandered the world in her awakened oak tree, Coventry, occasionally popping in to see her now-regal friend when she was in the area.

"Certainly, I can give you a lift to Hepmonaland," Delphyne said, smiling over her glass of wine. "Coventry can get you there in half a day. Shall we make it first thing in the morning?" That sounded good to the group, giving them enough time to wrap things up with their respective families. Delphyne also handed them a pair of thin metal hoops, each about 18 inches in diameter. "You're welcome to borrow these," she said. They're ring gates; whatever you put through one ring comes out the other one." She further explained that these offered a one-way transit only, so if they left one in the castle treasury, they could put any pirate treasure they unearthed through the ring gate and send it halfway across the world in the blink of an eye. "The command word's 'Delphyne' - so every time you use them you'll think of me!" the witch explained with a twinkle in her eye.

"Thank ye," said Ingebold, taking the proffered items and handing one to her father.

"We meet back here in morning, then," Gilbert said.

- - -

The next morning, all was in readiness. Delphyne led the group to the side of the castle, were an oak tree that hadn't been there the last time any of the heroes had been around this way stood. There was what looked like an elaborate tree fort in its upper branches. Gilbert frowned at Percival, the animated skull imbedded in the bark on the left of the front door, even after it greeted him a hearty hello. He looked back over at King Galrich, who took it in without concern, so the portly mage kept his mouth shut on the subject despite his fervent hatred of undead. His recently-enhanced vision, which allowed him to detect undead creatures, didn't trigger when he stared at Percival, so he decided it was likely just a skull that had been animated like you would any other object, not a part of an animated, undead skeleton. Thus assured, he mounted the steps inside the hollow trunk and climbed up to the main level, where he took a proffered seat at Delphyne's dining room table.

"Are we all ready?" asked Delphyne as the group took their seats.

"Wait a minute -- my raisins!" cried Darrien in sudden alarm. He pulled a cloth handkerchief from his pocket, untying it to reveal a small clump of three raisins. "I'll need to go see the healer woman before we leave," he apologized.

"What this all about?" demanded Gilbert.

"May I see them?" asked Delphyne. Darrien opted to ignore Gilbert and handed his handkerchief over to the witch. "Hmm," Delphyne murmured to herself. "Babbit, be a dear and fetch me my birch wand, would you?" In reply, a stuffed bunny walked from a bedroom over to a shelf of books, then levitated up three shelves to fetch a wand lying there. It adhered to the front of its stuffed-animal paw, and the rag-bunny lowered itself to the floor and walked the wand over to its mistress.

Delphyne waved the wand over the three raisins, then dropped it to touch one of them. The target raisin shriveled away to nothingness. Then Delphyne held out her other hand, and her bunny-homunculus, having anticipated her desires, dropped a cluster of fresh green grapes into her hand. Delphyne touched the wand to the stem of the grape cluster and the grapes all withered away to raisins. "Here you go," Delphyne smiled to Darrien. The ranger started pulling the withered grapes off the stem, adding them to the two left in his handkerchief.

"You want to explain this?" asked Gilbert.

"It's medicine," said Darrien, not eager to elaborate until he saw the expectant look on Gilbert's face. "A half-elf malady I've had since I was little," he added. "I eat a raisin a week. No big deal."

"If we're all ready, then?" asked Delphyne. "We're off to Thunder Bay!" she called to her tree.

With a lurch, the oak tree pulled up its massive roots and started to slowly walk forward. "At your best speed," commanded the witch.

"As you command, Mistress," replied Coventry, taking a single step. Finoula gave a gasp of surprise; she'd been looking out the window and saw a blur of motion and a sudden change of the scenery. It happened again with the next step, and the next.

"You'll get used to it," advised Delphyne, looking out the window. "You've heard of seven league boots? I've given Coventry seven league roots!"

Traveling at such a speed, it only took several hours to traverse down one continent and across half of another, and with only a few seconds spent in any one place the travelers had no trouble during their expedition. As they jumped forward seven leagues with each step, Darrien showed Delphyne the treasure map his mother had given to him. The witch looked it over, frowned, and handed it back. "I'm sorry," she said. "Figuring out puzzles was always Feron's forte," she said. "I'll tell you this, though – if that's a valid treasure map, there probably isn't a word on the back of the map that's not there for a reason."

Coventry walked the last few miles at a normal pace so they wouldn't overshoot their mark. He dropped the group off at the edge of Thunder Bay - a hub of activity as this was the launching point for a great number of merchant vessels. "Just send a note through the ring gate when you're ready to be picked up," advised Delphyne. "King Galrich has a means to reach me, and we'll be by the next day to come get you!" Then, with a round of thanks and goodbyes, the Kordovians stepped out of the Stick Palace among Coventry's branches and into Thunder Bay.

"We go find this Balama Theron," said Gilbert, heading toward the docks. But Balama, the ship's captain recommended to them by Aerik, was nowhere to be found. Many of the people they asked had never heard of her; some were familiar with her but hadn't seen her in many years. Finally, an old sailor gave them the information they had been seeking: "Balama Theron? No, both she and her vessel was lost at sea some six, seven years back now. But one of her old partners is still around. Head on over to dock 7 – the Celestial Avatar, captain's name is Theodore McGraff."

Captain McGraff was an interesting sort: a former pirate, he'd been set adrift in a rowboat to die by his crew for a distinct lack of bloodthirstiness; he'd been rescued by Balama and Galrich's band of adventurers, only to be slain during an adventure involving merfolk and sahuagin. Fortunately, he'd been resurrected shortly thereafter and the experience had burned away any lingering thirst for adventure in the days since. Now he was a simple merchant, although he was willing to take on passengers if the price was right. Upon learning these adventurers were linked to Galrich and Aerik, he was willing to give them passage - for 100 pieces of gold up front and a clean 10% of any pirate treasure the group unearthed.

"You planning on helping us find the treasure?" asked Gilbert.

"Oh no! I'll take you to the island and I'll take you back, but any delving on the island is strictly your job!" argued Captain McGraff.

"You no dealing with dangers, you no getting a cut!" argued Gilbert.

"Fine!" agreed the captain. "Then in that case, the cost of passage is a solid thousand, in advance!"

"Fine!" agreed Gilbert, thinking the captain would expect him to try to haggle the price down. "Elf boy, pay the man!" Castillan opened up his belt pouch, counted out a thousand gold coins' value in gemstones and passed them over to Captain McGraff, who examined them with a critical eye. "It'll be two days to get the ship stocked for the voyage," stated Captain McGraff. "I expect we can make La Isla Zorrillo in a month of sailing." Darrien did a quick mental count of the number of raisins in his handkerchief and nodded to himself - he had plenty on hand.

The group found decent lodging for two nights and hit the shops. They stocked up on potions of both water walking and water breathing, thinking either one would likely be handy in the months to follow. Darrien also purchased two wooden buckets and some fishing gear, thinking he might catch some fish during the voyage - or at least occupy himself during the attempt. To save room, he stashed them in the portable hole - where Mudpie would be staying for the duration of the voyage. Gilbert wanted his earth elemental familiar to come along, but earth elementals are not fond of leaving solid ground; this seemed like a good compromise, especially since, as an elemental, Mudpie didn't need to breathe and thus wouldn't suffocate in the extradimensional hole's confines.

"I hope Obvious is okay," Binkadink worried. He'd left his jackalope back at Battershield Keep with Aerik and Helga, not wanting to expose him to the dangers of a month-long ship voyage. For the same reason, Finoula had left her timber Wrath there as well, and Aithanar had promised - through pantomime, as his vocal deficiencies had yet to be fixed - to take care of the animals.

- - -

Three days later, the Celestial Avatar headed out west of Thunder Bay. McGraff had a dozen crewmen with him; the heroes were provided hammocks in the lower deck along with the rest of his men. During that first day, Captain McGraff told them what he knew of the infamous pirate, Captain Skunkbeard. He had gotten his name because of the streak of white in his hair, which he continued on down through the middle of his moustache and beard with a bleaching agent. In addition, word was that early in Skunkbeard's career he had suffered a head injury which permanently deprived him of his sense of smell. Realizing what an advantage this gave him, he immediately stopped bathing until he positively reeked, then took to keeping a pair of captive skunks on board his vessel, with which he would douse himself in skunk spray immediately before battle. In time, his crew either became accustomed to the stench or learned to fight while wearing nose plugs; the men crewing the vessels Skunkbeard selected for plunder were not so acclimated and their combat skills suffered the worse for it. But some two decades or more, Captain Skunkbeard, and his infamous vessel - the Sea Skunk - suddenly disappeared, never to have been seen since.

The heroes also puzzled over the map of La Isla Zorrillo that Darrien's mother had provided, especially the clues inscribed on the back. It was Binkadink, surprisingly, who caught the first "trick" of the clues. "Let me see that!" he cried suddenly, snatching the map from Darrien's grasp.

"Hey!" complained the half-elf ranger. "Careful with that!"

But Binkadink had spread it out flat upon the deck. "Got a pen?" asked the gnome, and Gilbert reached into a pocket of his robes and produced an ink bottle and a writing stick. In careful letters, Binkadink wrote out the word "NOT" underneath every instance of the letters "R-E-D" as they appeared in the clues.

"What you thinking, gnome?" asked Gilbert.

"Remember what Delphyne said," replied Binkadink. "There's probably a good reason for every word to be here. So here, where it says "NOT INTO RED," that means all the places where it says 'NOT' should really say 'RED'."

"Hmm, so it's 'CAVE OF THE RED-BLOODED', not 'CAVE OF THE NOT-BLOODED'," observed Castillan. "So we want to go to the bear cave, not the cave of statues! That's pretty tricky!"

"Yeah, but look at this," said Binkadink, continuing his editing. "'YOU MIGHT THINK THE SAFE DOOR IS THE RED ONE - IT IS RED!'"

"So what about this 'CHANGE INTO ORANGE'?" asked Gilbert. "The word "CHANGE' not in clues except for that first line."

"No," agreed Finoula, looking over the others' shoulders. "But if you change 'CHANGE' into 'ORANGE', you're really just changing 'C-H' into 'O-R'."

"Do it!" commanded Gilbert, and Binkadink, dipping his quill into the ink bottle, hurried to comply. Once he had finished (leaving the first line as written as he considered it to be instructions), and leaving spaces as appropriate to separate words, he had altered the set of clues to read as follows:







"Well, that plenty clear," scoffed Gilbert. "What the Hell an armor air?"

"And how do you "redify" a mirror pool?" asked Darrien.

"Add blood to it?" suggested Finoula.

"It's apparent that some of these clues won't be evident until we get there and see for ourselves," pointed out Castillan. "But good work, everyone! I think we've got the tricks figured out!"

The heroes opted to take watch-shifts during the night, just as they would had they been traveling with their wagons, instead of depending solely on the sailors for their safety. Thus, around midnight, Finoula found herself on watch duty. To avoid the stares of leering sailors (she could tell a whole month at sea was going to be all kinds of fun!), she had scampered up to the crossbeam across the main mast and tied herself to it. She had a potion of spider climb at her belt, but realizing its limited duration opted to use it only if necessary. In the meantime, she enjoyed the fresh air, the clear night full of stars, and the sounds of the waves crashing against the ship's hull. Her elven vision allowed her to scan the sea before her, alert for danger.

But danger that night came from the sides of the Celestial Avatar. Finoula heard a splash of water and a thunk! of something hitting the railing on the starboard side of the ship, followed almost immediately by a similar set of sounds from the port side. Scooting around the mast to which she was loosely bound, she looked down and saw what looked like a gargoyle climbing up over the railing. Another quartet of thunks gave evidence that there were even more of these beasts climbing aboard.

Finoula raised the alarm, calling out to the rest of the men on the deck; as they were all human, with their inferior night-vision, those not in the immediate vicinity of these intruders hadn't noticed them on their own. But as the kapoacinths climbed on board the vessel and struck out at the nearest targets, the screams of the crewmen started waking those asleep belowdecks.

Castillan and Darrien were the first to respond. Each grabbed up a weapon and made it up the stairs at the front of the vessel to see what was going on. By then, the sailors on the top deck had grabbed up whatever weapons they had at hand to try to fight off the sea-gargoyles, and Finoula's whip of thorns was lashing down at one of the first kapoacinths to have boarded. Darrien called down to the others to wake up as he loaded an arrow to his Arachnibow and let fly, shooting a kapoacinth in the back as he threatened a crewman with his claws and teeth. Ingebold stomped up the stairs behind Darrien, dressed in her night shift and wielding her warhammer, but the narrow passageway didn't allow her access to the deck with the half-elf in the way. So she cast a spiritual weapon in the form of a warhammer and sent it floating past Darrien's head to start striking at their enemies.

Castillan was having little effect with the bolts from his light crossbow, while Finoula and Darrien seemed to be dealing all kinds of damage with their magical weapons. That's the difference! realized the bounder, snapping his fingers and calling his stonepiercer dagger to hand. Together, the magic-enhanced weapons and spells (especially a cone of cold from a grumpy and sleep-deprived Gilbert, who came to the fight late demanding what all the fuss was about) started to take their toll on the kapoacinth boarding party. With half of their number slain, three of the remaining four opted to flee, while their leader - who had gone to the back of the ship to menace the steersman on duty, and thus had missed out on the desertion of his fellows - attacked alone. Once he saw that he was the only one of his force still attacking, he too opted to flee, but Binkadink's glaive cut him down before he could follow through with the thought.

"Just in time!" gasped the gnome. "I thought I wasn't going to get one!"

Two of the sailors had been slain in the attack, and half a dozen more wounded. Ingebold used her healing spells to tend to the wounded, making her an immediately popular passenger. As for those slain, Capt McGraff said a few words over their bodies and dumped them overboard; they had known what to expect when they signed on as crew, and most sailors assumed they'd eventually go to a watery grave when their time came. The ship pressed on, cutting through the waves as it headed east.

And it continued on its course for the better part of a month, during which the passengers and crew saw plenty of interest but no further danger. A pod of friendly dolphins danced alongside the vessel for awhile, amusing both themselves and the heroes who watched with wonder at their antics. Castillan made a very small fortune - no point in making deadly enemies on a boat this small - playing cards with the sailors; they played for copper pieces, and the bounder enjoyed winning the hands more so than the winnings themselves. But eventually, a few days short of a month since the Celestial Avatar left port at Thunder Bay, one of McGraff's mates called out "Land ho!" and La Isla Zorrillo came into view.

"I assume you want to head ashore at Keyhole Bay?" asked Captain McGraff. It was the most logical place to head for land, judging from the map. Upon their agreement, he headed for the lighter waters of the bay, and the heroes dropped the ship's two rowboats into the water. One boat held Darrien, Castillan, and Ingebold, with the half-elf at the oars; the other held Gilbert, Binkadink, Finoula, and a crewman, as once the heroes were ashore the rest of the crew would need shuttled over to resupply the ship with fresh water and fruit, and maybe even some game, if any could be found. Not knowing what dangers lay before them, the adventurers were all decked out in their armor, with endure elements spells keeping the jungle heat from causing any difficulties.

The island's first difficulties started before the heroes had even gotten on firm ground; before, even, the rowboats had made half the distance to shore. In a meticulously-synchronized attack, both sets of oars were snatched from the rowers at the same time as a pair of hands grabbed onto one side of each rowboat, tugging that side down. Simultaneously, the other side of the boats were pushed upright from unseen hands below the water. The end result was the same for both rowboats: seven people unceremoniously dunked overboard, with those in heavy armor regretting their decision not to wait until they got to shore to don their protection.

Binkadink was glad he was in his red dragon plate mail instead of his previous set of armor, which was solid metal, but kicking his way back to the surface (while still holding his glaive in a death-grip to prevent it from being lost) took all of his concentration and effort - and more time than he would have preferred. Castillan, Finoula, and Gilbert each managed to swim back up to the surface on their own - Gilbert casting a fly spell as soon as he could breathe and speak aloud - while Ingebold sank like a stone. Darrien, seeing this, dove down to grab her and try to drag her to the surface, all the while aware that his entire body felt...funny. His neck was suddenly itchy, as were his fingers and toes, and despite this being the first time actually trying to swim in the ocean (his only other aquatic excursions had been in the Velverdyva River as a child and his recent immersion in Lake Quag), he managed to maneuver as if he'd been born to the task. Grabbing Ingebold's armor by the back of the neck, he spun in place and started kicking back up to the surface - and almost bumped into one of the foes responsible for their sudden dunking.

"Oh, crap!" said one of the aquatic elves that had capsized the boats and were moving in for battle with their submerged victims. He lowered his trident from its attack position and called in the Elven tongue to his allies to do likewise. "Quick--somebody go get Alvarath!" he commanded and an aquatic elf swam off to do so. Darrien took the opportunity to get Ingebold's head above water, and she gulped in air gratefully. Seeing that battle had apparently broken off, the ranger helped Ingebold climb back into the rowboat, and then froze, staring at his hands.

Darrien's hands had suddenly grown much thicker webbing between his fingers than he was used to and his skin coloration was now a bit on the greenish side. He involuntarily gasped in surprise - and got an even bigger surprise as the gill-slits opened along the sides of his neck and cool ocean water was sucked in.

A small contingent of aquatic elves surfaced alongside the heroes as they struggled back into their rowboats. Sheepishly, those who had grabbed the oars from the rowers handed them back as a burly sea elf's head popped up alongside the boat near Darrien. The half-elf ranger turned to look at this newcomer and both froze in shock, for the two men might as well have been looking in a mirror: they each had the same facial features, the same quizzical scowl - granted, Alvarath had a darker shade of green hair (although Darrien's once-brown hair now had green streaks and highlights) and a greener tone to his skin, and as a full-blooded aquatic elf his ears were longer than his half-elven son, but there was no denying Darrien's heritage.

"I am Alvarath," the sea elf said by way of introduction, speaking the language of elves.

"I am Darrien," replied his son in the same language. "My mother is Marta." The name didn't seem to mean anything to Alvarath; just as she had never learned the name of Darrien's father, it seemed as if he had never learned her name, either.

"This a bit awkward," stage-whispered Gilbert, earning himself an elbow in the ribs from Finoula.

Given the fact that his son was one of the sea elves' intended victims, Alvarath begrudgingly allowed them to continue on to the island. Another group of elves had begun chopping through the bottom of the Celestial Avatar in order to sink it - this being the way the elves gained new weapons and various treasures; now, the attack having ceased, Alvarath granted the group a week's time to deal with whatever business they had on the island and to effect repairs on their ship. Then, with a final nod to his son, he led his troop back below the waves.

Back on the rowboat with the others, Darrien felt his gill-slits sealing back up in the warm sun. His mind was awash with feelings and sudden realizations: those raisins he'd been taking all of his life weren't for a "half-elf ailment" as his mother had claimed - they were to hide the aquatic elf half of his heritage! His initial thoughts were of betrayal for having had this secret kept from himself, but upon further reflection he realized his mother had just wanted to shield him from further ostracizing - half-elves were often shunned by both of their parent races; Marta had likely just wanted him to be no more of an outcast than he might have been, otherwise.

"Ye okay, Darrien?" asked Ingebold.

"Yeah," said Darrien. "But hey! I just realized what my mirror prophecy means!"

"What was yours again?" asked Castillan.

"I don't remember the words exactly, but it was something along the lines of 'You can run a race along different paths, but you're not on the path you think you're on' - or something like that."

"I don't get it," admitted the bounder, frowning.

"It's not a race like a foot race - it's a race like the elven race," explained Darrien.

"So, are ye gonna continue eatin' them raisins?" asked Ingebold as Darrien started rowing the boat to shore.

"I haven't decided yet," he admitted.

Once at the shore, they pulled one boat up onto the sand while the Celestial Avatar crewman who had accompanied them started rowing the other boat back to the ship, to pick up a group of sailors for a resupply mission. "I'll fly on ahead to check things out," said Gilbert before doing just that, flying low over the Aro River to make sure the way was clear. He returned in a few minutes, warning the group of a pair of oversized rheas wading in the waters of the river - which didn't look to be very deep or very wide; more like a large stream, thought Gilbert. The dire rheas were easily avoided, and presently the group stood outside what had been marked as "BEAR CAVE" on the map.

Landing on the ground, Gilbert asked for and was handed the portable hole, which he spread on the ground to let out his familiar. Mudpie, as an earth elemental, did not like ocean travel, and had happily waited for a month inside the airless, extradimensional space rather than be subjected to the constant knowledge of how far he was separated from solid earth. Now on an island, he took his place at his master's side. "Go check out cave," commanded Gilbert, and his familiar sunk into the ground to go exploring as only he could. He returned with a report of two adult dire bears and one cub in a large chamber, with two side passages leading down to a lower chamber holding a pool of water. "That our mirror pool!" chuckled Gilbert. "Let's go!"

The first chamber inside the cave mouth was empty but for the remains of previous meals; the portly wizard saw bones belonging to various animals and a few human bones here and there as well. But the dire bears were one chamber deeper into the cave complex. Gilbert called out a cheery "Hello!" to announce their presence and get the bears to approach; then, once they were in position, he cast a fireball spell that nearly killed the cub outright and singed the adults. The largest dire bear roared in pain and rage and charged forward; as Gilbert dropped back Darrien shot three arrows into its shoulder in rapid succession. At his side, Binkadink stepped forward and stabbed at the male with his magic glaive, just as Ingebold brought a flame strike falling down on the two adults. The male, wobbling on weak legs and barely remaining upright, was brought down by another pair of arrows from Darrien's Arachnibow. As its body crashed to the ground, the ranger switched targets in an instant and sent another arrow flying into the female's neck. Castillan finished her off with a bolt from his crossbow. He threw another bolt into his weapon and cranked it back, targeting the cub, but Darrien forced him to stay his hand.

"It's just a baby," pointed out Darrien.

"Yeah, a baby as big as one of us!" argued the bounder. But Darrien's compassion won the day; while the others skirted past it to head down to the pool of water, the half-elf ranger fed the wounded dire bear cub one of the healing potions from his belt. "You stay here," he said, rubbing the side of its furry head. "We've got some stuff to do, but then we'll be back for you." The ranger had some thoughts of taking the bear home with them, although how they were going to deal with a man-sized bear cub on a month-long sea voyage was a plan with some kinks still needing work. But he left the cub and joined his friends, who had verified the pool chamber was empty.

"We need to 'redify' the 'mirror pool'," said Finoula.

"Good thing I brought a bucket," said Darrien, fetching one of his new purchases from the portable hole. He dragged it back up to the slain dire bears, filling it with blood and lugging it back down to the water of the pool. "Here goes!" he said, tipping the bucket's contents into the clear waters of the subterranean pool.

"Now what?" asked Finoula.

"Let's find out," offered Binkadink, stepping into the pool of water where the blood had "redified" it. Feeling for the ground with his feet, he felt a set of stairs leading down. Despite the clear parts of the water showing a depth of maybe three feet, the gnome's body sunk lower and lower as he progressed towards the middle of the pool, finally submerging completely. The others followed in a single-file line.

Binkadink was not surprised to see a completely different chamber awaiting him at the bottom of the stairs; after all, he'd surmised this was probably a teleport gate of some type, and he was likely now somewhere else entirely on the island. He was surprised that having completely submerged under the pool's waters and continuing on down the stairs had somehow excised his armor and clothes of water - he was bone dry! Magic, the gnome scoffed.

This first underground room held three doors. On two were the images of pirates, while the third held a carving of a chicken. After confirming that the chicken carving was taller than either of the pirates, they opted to go through the door with the biggest "hen or man" - so the chicken door it was. Binkadink led them down a corridor that opened into another small room with three doors, this time each painted a different color: red, green, and blue. The blue and green doors each had a skull painted on them.

Again consulting their map, they went with the red door, which should be the "safe one." The door was surprisingly heavy, for despite being a sturdy-looking wooden door, once the gnome pulled it open he saw the other side of the door contained a solid slab of stone. The reason for this was obvious: the short corridor beyond was filled with flames! The gnome could feel the heat on his skin and could see another stone door at the end of the corridor. "It's got to be an illusion," he said to himself, then, after taking a breath, closed his eyes and walked forward into the flames. Finoula gasped, but the flames didn't seem to be doing him any harm. "It's safe!" he called back to the others, before opening the door at the far side and advancing into the next room. One at a time the others followed, their wills buoyed by the fact they'd just seen the gnome fighter pass through the flames unscathed. Neither of them was bothered by the illusory flames, and they all entered the next room with Binkadink.

This room was shaped like an elongated gem: basically, a rectangle with its corners cut off to form an octagon. Another door stood in the middle of the far wall, but it was the floor that had caught everyone's attention. Carved into the stone floor at irregular intervals were the following words:

"Look down center of words!" announced Gilbert. "It spell, 'HONCHORDEATH' - but map says passwords are 'honor' and 'death'!" Unfortunately, in speaking both command words aloud, he activated both the positive effect and the negative one. With a loud "click," the door at the far side of the room unlocked. At the same time, the diagonal sections in the corners of the room slid down into recesses below them, revealing some sort of automaton stationed behind each hidden door. "Uh oh," added the wizard.

Binkadink raced over to the far door, pulled it open, and stood beside it, his glaive at the ready. "Hurry!" he called. "Maybe they won't chase us past this room!" Gilbert, Castillan, and Darrien, being the closest to the now open door, rushed to follow the gnome's advice, with Mudpie following after his master. Finoula spun around to see how Ingebold, the furthest back in the room and one of their slowest runners, would fare - would she make it out of this room on her own, or if Finoula dashed out would she be leaving her Battle-Sister behind to a possible grisly death?

The look on the dwarven cleric's face showed she didn't think much for her chances of making it out of the room before the automatons could get to her, so she cast a sanctuary spell on herself as she ran the length of the room. Before she could get the spell finished two of the constructs smashed down at her with their hammer hands, but she was able to finish the spell despite the painful distraction. Binkadink stepped forward with his glaive, trusting in his golembane scarab to aid his damage potential against these heavily-armored constructs, slashing at the nearest with his glaive. He grinned when he saw he had done at least some damage to the device.

Satisfied that Ingebold was relatively safe, Finoula ran past Binkadink into the assumed safety of the next room. All four hammerer automatons approached Ingebold, she being the nearest target, but only one was able to overcome the spell and send its hammer-appendage crashing down on the cleric. But Ingebold survived the attack, dashed past it and the gnome and into the next room, leaving Binkadink to follow her and slam the door shut behind him. Then he stepped back, aiming at the shut door with his glaive, ready if the constructs opted to follow.

They did not; following their programming, they saw no enemies in the room and each returned to its station. The hidden doors made a grinding sound as they rose back up to seal the constructs off until the next intrusion into the room.

"Remember this for the way back," suggested Gilbert.

While all this was happening, Castillan was busy examining the new room. There was another door along the far wall, but what interested him more was the chessboard carved into the floor with alternating white and black marble. Carefully traversing the area, he noted a slight change in the sound as he walked over a section of the chessboard. Dropping to his knees, he found a seam along four tiles, and, prying them up with a knife, found a trap door with a set of steps leading down into darkness. "Guys!" he called. "I found a way down!"

"That makes sense," commented Finoula, consulting the map. "The last door is a trap, and we need to be sunk - sunk under the floor, I assume."

Gilbert looked over at the far door. "I wonder what that 'armor air' all about?" he mused aloud.

"Do you really want to find out?" asked the elven ranger.

"Nah, not really," replied the wizard, following an eager Castillan down the stairs. Finoula remained in the chess room while everybody else, eager to get to the treasure, filed down the stairs. Although not seeing any danger, Gilbert wanted to be ready for anything, so he cast a haste spell on all those assembled around him - leaving Finoula without such an enhancement, as she didn't go down the stairs until after she was satisfied there was nobody coming up behind them.

The lower level consisted of a short tunnel ending in a cross at the end - basically, five 15-foot cubes lined up like a plus sign. Just past an open doorway, along the side walls of the closest of the 15-foot sections, stood six treasure chests. Each had its lid closed and latched, but there were no locks in place. Castillan approached cautiously, concerned that the lack of padlocks seemed a tad mysterious. After checking the first chest meticulously for traps and finding nothing untoward, he opened the chest's lid and found it to be filled nearly to the top with gold coins. Doing a quick appraisal based on the sizes of the coins and the shape of the chest, he estimated there were likely about 2,000 coins in the chest overall - a fact that the others were glad to hear.

Castillan opened the next chest after a less thorough investigation and saw it too was filled with gold coins. Darrien eagerly got into the action by flipping open the next chest and finding it filled with gold bars, and the one next to it filled with platinum coins. "Look at all this!" he exclaimed.

But Gilbert was uneasy. Why were these chests untrapped and unlocked? It was as if whoever had put them here were asking for them to be looted. Surely they didn't think the traps in the chambers before these would have taken care of any would-be plunderers? He sent Mudpie out to the center of the "plus sign" to check it out; the earth elemental dutifully did so and reported back only that there were paintings on each of the side walls, and another three chests along the back wall.

By then, Binkadink and Finoula had gotten caught up in the gold fever and had opened the last of the six closest chests. Gilbert strode forward and looked at the paintings along the side walls - murals, actually, with sea monsters depicted on one wall and a pirate ship sailing the waves on the other. The wizard headed over to the pirate ship, and was intrigued by the hint of movement from the corner of his eye. Was is his imagination, or did the waves seem to move? He stepped back for a better look, thinking it may have been a trick of the light from the everburning torches tied to Binkadink's helmet, but no - the waves were actually starting to move, and the ship bobbed up and down as it rode the waves. Gilbert spun around, and was half-convinced he had seen a tentacle move on the mural across the way.

But by then, Ingebold had rushed over to the first of the three chests across the way and opened it up. Inside were gemstones of numerous dazzling colors and various sizes; despite her dwarven heritage, she could only guess at their accumulated value, but judging by Castillan's bulging-eyed expression, it was a considerable sum. "Should we be sendin' some o' this through th' ring gates back t'th' kingdom?" she asked.

"Let's see what all we got first," said Gilbert. "We divvy up later."

Thus it was that Castillan flipped open the lid of the eighth chest, expecting more riches. Unfortunately, all that was inside was a light-sensitive trap that was instantly activated by the flickering illumination from Binkadink's antler-torches. Immediately, the four outer sections of floor making up the "plus sign" shape hinged upwards, spilling their occupants into the middle section as it formed a 15-foot cube. The six chests closest to the stairs and the chest of gems along the back wall had been left open, so their contents spilled out as the chests themselves - bolted or otherwise attached to the floor - attained a vertical orientation. The heroes, thrown in a heap in the central section of the floor were all pelted by coins, gems, and gold bars falling painfully down onto them.

"Where Mudpie?" demanded Gilbert frantically, looking around for his familiar. But Mudpie, once he felt the stone floor rising up, used his earth gliding ability to sink through the rising floor so that once it became a new vertical wall penning in his master and his other companions, Mudpie was safely on the other side of the floor-wall. He felt the mental link he shared with his master suddenly sever, and then the wall started lowering itself again. Mudpie earth glided through the wall as it resumed its original position as a floor.

The earth elemental walked into the center of the plus sign shape. The chests were still in place, but their contents - which had so excited his master and the others - were missing. And worse yet, so were the heroes he traveled with: of Gilbert Fung, Binkadink Dundernoggin, Finoula Cloudshadow, Castillan Ivenheart, Darrien, and Ingebold Battershield, there was no sign.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I wore my "Moore-Hanes 125th Family Reunion" T-shirt, for a multitude of reasons. For one, it's green, and we played the day after St. Patrick's Day. For another, it features the silhouette of a tree, and I thought that was appropriate for representing not only Coventry, Delphyne's awakened oak tree companion, but also Darrien's family tree, which became a bit clearer during the course of the adventure.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 10
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 10
Darrien, half-elf ranger 10
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 10
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 10​

NPC Roster:
Chik'tak, rastipede sorcerer 2/expert 4
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 10 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 25 March 2017

- - -

There was a blinding flash of light, causing each of the heroes to instinctively close his or her eyes. Then the only illumination was once again the two everburning torches tied to Binkadink's helmet-antlers. It revealed a 15-foot cube occupied by six heroes and piles of coins, gold bars, and gems, but the nine chests that had been mounted to the rising floors had somehow vanished. A grinding noise, similar to the one made as the four floor sections had risen to form the cube, alerted the Kordovians to a change in architecture: the wall that had contained the three chests of which the middle had been trapped was slowly being lowered to a horizontal configuration again.

"We teleported somewhere else," surmised Gilbert Fung.

As the wall once again became a floor, the heroes could see a doorway being exposed by the lowering platform, beyond which seemed to be a short corridor opening into a round chamber. But before checking these new sections out, Gilbert insisted they deal with an issue they should have taken care of previously: namely, stuffing all of the treasure that had been teleported along with them into their portable hole. This was more treasure than any of the assembled heroes had ever seen before in one place, and Gilbert Fung for one didn't want to be parted from it.

While the others started tossing gems, coins, and gold bars into the portable hole, Gilbert tried contacting his familiar, using the necklace he'd taken from the sea hag living in Lake Quag. "Mudpie!" he called. "Remain where you are - we try to get back to you!" Having never actually used the necklace before he wasn't sure if it would work on a summoned familiar or not, but the fact that he got no response, coupled with the fact he could no longer sense his familiar through the empathic link he and Mudpie shared, led him to guess they might have been transported to another plane - or at the very least, further than a mile away from each other.

Castillan supervised the collection of every last piece of treasure that had been transported with the group. Only when he was satisfied they had left nothing behind did the heroes move on to the next chamber. This had four hallways jutting out from it, one of which the group had just traversed to enter the chamber. In the middle of the room - which was lit by four everburning torches in sconces between the open doorways - sat a podium with a large, leather-bound book sitting upon it. There was a single word embossed upon the book's cover: "WELCOME."

After a quick perusal by Castillan suggested the book wasn't trapped, Gilbert hesitantly opened the front cover. On the first page was printed the following:

If you are reading these words, you have undoubtedly traveled to this location by means of a magical trap while searching for my buried treasure – which, more than likely, you finally found, only to be separated from it at the last minute. I bear you no grudge in attempting to take my treasure for your own; I hope you will likewise take no offense if I find your current predicament somewhat amusing. But I, too, once followed the path you just took, and found myself in a strange world far away from all that I had known before.

Let it be known that I am not responsible for the trap that sent you to this place – I merely repurposed it for my own reasons after having been caught up in it myself. But there are some difficult truths you must now face, which I will kindly lay out for you here.

First of all, you are far, far away from the world you once knew. The good news is that it isn't impossible to get back there – I myself have made the trip on two separate occasions in the past years – but it will take some time to do so. Patience is key.

And speaking of patience, let us speak of your current predicament. Upon arriving in the first chamber of this facility, a signal was sent to alert me to your intrusion. I, or others in my employ, will immediately begin the trip to fetch you from your current whereabouts. But the distance is great, and it will likely be many weeks before our arrival.

In the meantime, make yourselves comfortable. This facility has a simple dining hall, a series of bunkrooms, and a crude toilet that's at least better than you'll find on most pirate vessels. And you have this book to study, for in the pages that follow I will do my best to describe for you the world just outside your facility. You can go to the gardens and see the outer world for yourself, but there are things you must know about survival in this wildspace, things best learned beforehand through the experiences of one who learned them the hard way.

I wish you the best, and hope to make your acquaintance in the weeks to follow.


Captain Horatio Skunkbeard
The group found the bunkrooms and toilet to the left and the dining facility, such as it was (it contained only some hardbread, jerky, and barrels of fresh water; Ingebold would undoubtedly need to prepare the create food and water spell daily in the weeks to follow!), to the right. There were two long tables in the dining hall, each with a pair of benches; the deck of playing cards and the chessboard on one of the tables indicated the room doubled as a meager entertainment hall. But it was the corridor straight ahead that took the heroes' breath away: the short passageway opened into a small garden, filled with fruit trees and berry bushes the likes of which none of the heroes had ever seen before. And the view! Where they had expected to see sky and land (or possibly sea), there was instead a vast blackness scattered with swirls of various colors – vibrant purples, deep reds, light pinks and blues – and an abundance of stars. A lengthy wooden dock jutted out from one side of this garden terrace, although no vessels were moored there at present.

"Where the Hell are we?" asked Binkadink.

The answer was found in the pages of Captain Skunkbeard's book, which the group pored over after confirming that this whole facility was uninhabited save by themselves. They were in something called a "Wildspace Receiving Station" carved out of an "asteroid" - whatever that was. The pages explained about "spelljamming vessels" - some of them normal sailing ships, some of them exotic vehicles built to look like various creatures - that could fly through the air or through this "wildspace" due to a special helm that drained spell energy from a spellcaster piloting the vessel. The book explained that entire solar systems (a world and its sun, plus other worlds and moons in the same general vicinity) were covered in invisible, unbreakable "crystal spheres" and that these crystal spheres floated upon a vast (possibly infinite) rainbow ocean of something called "phlogiston." Trying to make sense of these strange concepts hurt even Gilbert's head, but the first thing he did was to copy its pages over into his Omnibook, giving them two copies to examine.

And reading over the "WELCOME" book was a popular pastime in the weeks to follow. Those who had never learned how to play chess were taught to play by those already familiar with the game and they took to it out of sheer boredom. Castillan taught the group every card game he knew - and he knew quite a few! But the Wildspace Receiving Station was a small place to be cooped up in for weeks at a time, and cabin fever hit the group hard.

Therefore, experimentation became the order of the day. They tested the concept of "air envelopes" - anyone entering wildspace took along a bubble of air, or an air envelope, with them; the station had a bubble of air all around it, three times it own diameter. Gilbert tethered himself with every bit of rope the collective group owned, tying one end around his ample waist and the other at the far edge of the dock, and then, casting a fly spell on himself, departed the station out past its air envelope. Sure enough, he generated his own air envelope once he left the confines of the station's air envelope (or took a tiny bit of it with him - theories varied), and he confirmed that the air envelope traveled with him, even if he made sharp banking movements. He also cast a gaseous form spell on himself while in his own air envelope and confirmed it would follow him wherever he might float in a mistlike body. Finoula shunted herself from the edge of the dock to the garden terrace with her lightning amulet, confirming it worked just fine under these unusual conditions. At Gilbert's urging, Ingebold prepared two plane shift spells one morning; the wizard had hoped she could send everyone from their present location to the Elemental Plane of Air and then back to Oerth in that fashion, but the first casting had no effect. The cleric described feeling as if there were a strange interference preventing her spell from working - or at least working in the manner she wished; in any case, she feared to try to force the spell and have the group end up somewhere unknown or in some damaged condition.

Not wanting to have to set a guard shift every night (although the terms "day" and "night" started to lose their meaning, as the sun was far, far behind them; according to Captain Skunkbeard's book, the asteroid they inhabited was nearly at the edge of the crystal sphere - maybe that was the cause of the interference to Ingebold's plane shift spell?), the rangers took turns casting an alarm spell on the dock and the gardens, as those were the only ways into the Receiving Station besides the teleportation method the group had accidentally employed.

And one day, about three weeks into their habitation, the alarm spell was triggered.

It was what felt like early in the morning, for most of the group were still asleep in their bunks when the silent alarm spell triggered, waking Darrien instantly. He quickly rounded up the others - save for Finoula, who was already in the gardens and stood watching the approaching visitor with awe - and they gathered up their weapons to go see who was entering the facility from wildspace.

It was one of those oddly-built spelljamming vessels Captain Skunkbeard's book had mentioned. This one looked like a giant scarab beetle, although the triangular sail rising up from a mast along its back gave it away as some sort of sailing vessel and there was shadowy movement behind the large, oval panes of glass standing in as the beetle's eyes that hinted at a pilot. The beetleship did an about-face movement as it approached, making the last hundred feet or so backwards. As it slowed to a halt, the beetle's back legs reached out and grabbed the end of the dock. Then a part of the rear deck lowered, and in a few moments a strange creature exited the vehicle and walked down the dock.

This was a creature unlike anything the heroes had seen before. They had met up with aspis drones, but those either crawled about on all six legs or stood upright on two. This creature - undoubtedly a giant bug of some type - walked about on six insectoid legs, while its upper half contained an insectoid torso, a pair of arms, and a bug's head with two lengthy, waving antennae. Unhurriedly, it walked down the length of the dock and stood at the threshold of the garden terrace, where the heroes were spread out, weapons at the ready, just in case.

Suddenly, the bug-man started making strange, clicking sounds with its mandibles. After a lengthy string of such clicks, it tilted its head in a quizzical fashion.

"Ah," it suddenly said, realization finally dawning. "Forgiving me. I am forgetting you are not of the knowing the click-language of the tradespeoples. I am being Chik'tak. Captain Skunkbeard, he is resupplying his vessel and is sending me to be picking you up, to be taking you to his vessel. You are to be gathering your possessions now to be traveling on the Star Beetle?"

"Aye," agreed Ingebold, giving her companions a thumbs-up signal signifying the negative findings of her detect evil spell. The group gathered up their belongings from their bunkrooms, checked in the dining hall that nothing was being left behind, returned the "WELCOME" book to its place on the dais (you never knew, somebody else could end up following the path they'd taken some day), and were ready to go.

Chik'tak explained that Captain Skunkbeard had been in the middle of repairing his spelljamming vessel, the Star Skunk, when the Receiving Station alarm had gone off. Therefore, he had sent one of his trusted lieutenants to fetch the intruders and bring them to him. "Not to be of the worrying," reassured the rastipede in his broken Common, "Captain Skunkbeard is only wishing to be meeting you and offering you positions as part of his crew. You are not of the obligated to be accepting of his offer, merely to be of the listening to it. If you are wishing to return to your homes, we will be taking you there. But the Star Beetle is not being of the ready for such a journey. If you are of the wishing to return home, it will be on the Star Skunk."

Not having much in the way of better options, the Kordovians boarded the beetleship and allowed Chik'tak to give them the tour. The spelljamming helm - which in this case was a long bench with a helmet that extended down from the ceiling, and which could only be piloted by insectoids of centaurian build - was in the "head" of the beetle, and two wing-cases that covered the back of the ship could be raised, releasing two side-sails in the shape of beetle wings. Chik'tak could move the ship's bug-legs while sitting at the helm; they served as landing gear, grappling claws with limited mobility, and were generally tucked tightly underneath the hull for water landings. A wooden mast rose up some 40 feet from the middle of the beetle's back; this held the main sail - triangular in cut, like on a sailboat - and the wing cases had notches on them so they could be shut around the mast and provide protection to those in the back of the vessel. Even with the wing cases closed, the ceiling height was tall enough that not even Gilbert had to duck or slouch except at the very outer edges.

There was a crow's nest at the top of the mast. "Which of you is of the willing to be the climbing up there?" Chik'tak asked and Castillan immediately rose to the challenge. The rastipede was so impressed with the bounder's ability to quickly ascend the mast and rigging that he designated Castillan as his official First Mate for the voyage to Skunkbeard's vessel. (Later that day, Castillan would start laughing in sudden relief, once he realized his mirror prophecy from the Manor of the Purple Mage - "One day soon, you will mate with an insect" - had been fulfilled in a less grotesque manner than he had originally envisioned.)

The beetleship had not been more than 20 minutes out from the Receiving Station when they had their first encounter. "Be of the looking to the starboard side," commanded Chik'tak from the spelljamming helm. "That is being a kindori. They are normally of the traveling in pods. It does not seem to be of the living." Indeed, the six-eyed space whale was unmoving, although as the Star Beetle approached, Castillan and Finoula detected movement around the carcass. This turned out to be a trio of oily-feathered birds, built very much like ravens but larger than a human, closer in size to Chik'tak. The skullbirds had been feasting on the carrion meal before them, but apparently the fresh meat aboard the beetleship was too tempting to pass up.

As the hungry skullbirds approached, Castillan, Darrien, and Ingebold raised their bow or crossbow and took aim, each hitting a different target. The birds squawked evilly in pain and one started to fly erratically - straight into the range of Binkadink's glaive. The gnome skewered it on his blade and slammed it down to the deck, dead. "They are not of the bad for the eating," commented Chik'tak, not leaving his station at the spelljamming helm.

Finoula managed to kill another of the skullbirds with her whip of thorns. Gilbert slew the third with a scorching ray spell, surprised by the way the avian practically exploded in a ball of fire - no doubt the result of its flammable, oily feathers. The Star Beetle passed by the kindori carcass, and the sharp-eyed elves in the group said they saw what looked to be one-eyed sharks swimming around the space whale. "Yes, those are being scavvers," replied Chik'tak. "They are not for the attacking us when they have meat on which to already be eating."

Several hours later, the stars ahead started fading out, as did the blackness of wildspace, to be replaced by a cloudy whiteness that seemed to just sort of coalesce from nothingness. "We are approaching the inner edge of the crystal sphere," said the rastipede. The Kordovians stared at the marvels before them. Forming immediately before them was a vast, vertical whirlpool in the field of milky whiteness all around. "You are not to be concerning yourselves," advised Chik'tak. "This is only being the opening into the phlogiston." He effortlessly steered the vessel through the eye of the whirlpool, which seemed very much like entering a long, white tunnel of spinning matter. About halfway through the tunnel the whiteness changed colors, until the tunnel became a wild rainbow of competing hues. Finally, they exited the tunnel and the beetleship floated on an immensely wide ocean of rainbow colors, as far as could be seen.

"We are being in the phlogiston now," advised Chik'tak. "From this point on, there will be no making of the fire."

Traveling through the phlogiston was quite an experience. When one looked over the side of the beetleship, it seemed just like being in the Celestial Avatar, only with multihued waves. There were still stars overhead, making it seem like a normal ocean voyage. But then Chik'tak concentrated on one particular star, and the Star Beetle pivoted in place, its front end raising as its back half lowered, pointing itself at the new star. Amazingly, the phlogiston seemed to pivot right along with the ship, so that even in its new orientation it still seemed to the passengers as if they were on the same level as they had been before the maneuver.

"How this possible?" demanded Gilbert Fung.

"The phlogiston is being all around us, not just below," replied Chik'tak. "We are seeing the colors of the phlogiston level with our gravity plane and below us, while the phlogiston above us is being transparent, like the crystal spheres until you are getting close to them. But we are being submerged in the phlogiston, beneath the phlogiston, phlogiston is being all around us. When we are moving orientation, the phlogiston we are seeing and the phlogiston we are not seeing is of the moving orientation, as well." The concept was a difficult one for the terrestrial heroes to comprehend, and Gilbert still wasn't sure that their ship's captain knew exactly what he was talking about.

Three hours later, though, he had something else to wrap his brain around. Phlogiston was apparently not only omnidirectional and breathable, but it could also apparently take on a ghost form and try to kill you! Or at least that's what it seemed like, when a multicolored shape manifested on the deck and headed toward Castillan. The bounder wasn't sure what this thing was but anything ghostly coming his way was going to get stabbed, even if it was made up of bright, happy, rainbow colors. As he stabbed his short sword into the shimmering shape, the blade went in with hardly any resistance, as if the creature were only partially substantial. Binkadink stabbed it with his glaive and got the same reaction, but the creature visibly flinched, seemingly frightened by the little gnome. (Afterwards, Chik'tak would hypothesize the creature he called a "phlog-crawler" was fearful of the illusory flames of the everburning torches attached to the gnome's helmet-antlers, as fire did incredible damage to a being made up of phlogiston itself.)

The phlog-crawler backed away from Binkadink, moving that much faster towards Castillan, engulfing the bounder within its own nebulous form. The bounder felt a cold chill run through his body as a portion of his strength was drained away. But Darrien and his Arachnibow came to the rescue; not wanting to hit his elven friend, Darrien shot three arrows in rapid succession into the very top of the phlog-crawler, well above where the bounder's head would be. Partially substantial or not, that was enough for the phlog-crawler to dissipate away into nothing, although whether the half-elf had slain the creature or just driven it off was never known. Regardless, the Star Beetle traveled onwards, heading toward its target star.

Two weeks later, the Star Beetle was noticeably closer to the target star but the voyage across the phlogiston was still undergoing. "This boring!" complained Gilbert Fung, forgetting that boredom was often preferable to terror.

Chik'tak, his own senses enhanced via the spelljamming helm, was the first to notice the other ship. It was built like a jet-black spider and seemed to be crawling along laterally ahead of them, just at the edge of vision. "There is being another vessel out there," he said. "First Mate, be climbing to the nest-top and describing the vessel that is of the approaching!"

Castillan hurried to comply, confirming that it looked like a big spider - and that it had turned to face them.

Chik'tak relayed a question as to whether the spider's legs were all facing forward, or four forward and four to the rear. Upon confirmation from Castillan that the latter was the configuration, the rastipede warned, "That vessel is being a neogi deathspider! They are being slavers! Be preparing to defend yourselves against a boarding party!"

Gilbert responded by casting a stoneskin upon himself. Finoula cast a barkskin spell on herself, and then Ingebold and Gilbert each cast a magic circle against evil centered upon themselves. Everyone was already wearing their armor and had weapons at hand; it seemed a safe precaution, especially since there was no "weather" in the phlogiston ocean - no capsizing waves to wash people overboard.

Gilbert made a face as the deathspider approached. "Who makes ship that look like spider?" he asked to nobody in particular.

"The neogi, apparently," responded Binkadink. "Any idea what a neogi is?" But despite Gilbert's vaunted knowledge of extraplanar creatures, he'd never heard of them. "I think we about to find out, though," he commented. Chik'tak had tried taking evasive maneuvers, but the neogi deathspider was much larger and faster than the Star Beetle. An entire section of the spider's curved abdomen pulled back, revealing a pair of ballistae aimed at the beetleship. As one, they fired, sending metal bolts stabbing into the wooden hull of the beetleship, tethering the two vessels together by metal chains trailing back from the ballista bolts. At the same time, nine creatures poured over the front of the deathspider, leaping across the span between the ships and using the twin chains to pull themselves forward.

"Those umber hulks!" Gilbert cried out, watching the massive beasts cross the distance between them. And then he got his first look at a neogi, for perched on the shoulder of each umber hulk was a spidery creature with an eel's head and neck. The neogi were armed with crossbows, but they used their umber hulk slaves as living shields during the boarding action.

Castillan and Darrien each started shooting at the oncoming hoard, burying arrows and crossbow bolts into the hulks' thick, chitinous bodies. Binkadink, meanwhile, sent his glaive crashing down on the starboard chain, severing the metal links anchoring the two ships together on that side.

By then, the closest umber hulks had tried causing a confusion effect upon the visible heroes but were having no effect. Not realizing the heroes were all standing within the range of one of the two active magic circle against evil spells - which blocked enchantments like the confusion gaze of the umber hulks' mismatched sets of eyes - the hulks were themselves a bit confused for a moment.

While Binkadink had been severing the starboard chain, Finoula positioned herself by the port chain. However, rather than attacking the lone remaining chain binding the ships together, she instead targeted all four of the umber hulks lined up along the chain - as well as the four neogi perched upon their shoulders. Using the power of her amulet, Finoula transformed her body into a bolt of lightning which went crashing through all eight bodies lined up. She spun about after reforming atop the cephalothorax of the deathspider vessel to see the effects her attack had had upon the boarders, and couldn't resist a wicked smirk as she saw all four neogi drop down from their slaves' shoulders, their spidery legs twitching in instant death. None of the umber hulks had been slain, but she could see she had hurt each of them to some extent.

"Yeah!" called Darrien in between shots of his Arachnibow, cheering on the fact that his fellow ranger had just single-handedly taken out nearly a quarter of the boarding party.

The neogi in range along the starboard side tried dominating the heroes aboard the deck of the beetleship, but they too were warded off by the magic circle spells. Hissing curses, they raised their crossbows and started shooting. Once the first umber hulks reached the deck, Ingebold and Binkadink backed up to the entrance to the "head" of the beetleship, to protect Chik'tak at the helm. The rastipede was trying to pull backwards against the deathspider, to no avail - the neogi vessel was too powerful.

Binkadink crossed the deck and sliced through the port-side chain with his magic glaive, but by then it was too late - the neogi pilot had maneuvered two of the deathspider's front legs to grip the beetleship. Like it or not, the Star Beetle wasn't going anywhere unless they could defeat the entire neogi crew!

Suddenly, Castillan cried out in pain from the crow's nest and fell to his knees. He'd been hit with a neogi crossbow bolt, but that wasn't the worst of it - the bolt had contained a passenger of some sort, some spidery thing which immediately started crawling up the bounder's body with remarkable agility. Castillan had tried swatting it away with his hand, but it was quicker than a cockroach - and once it reached the elf's forehead, it caused an agonizing pain that sent all of the bounder's nerve endings firing at once. Darrien was hit with another of these "passenger bolts," and he likewise cried out in pain - but he was able to steel himself against the agony and remain on his feet.

Up on the deathspider's outer hull, Finoula ran across the top of the ship and lined herself up behind the five umber hulks and their wicked masters. The rearmost hulk spun and swiped at her with a massive set of claws, but the nimble ranger ducked beneath its paw and activated her amulet for a second time that day, lightning-blasting herself through the five umber hulks and their neogi masters. Once again, all of the neogi were slain, while the umber hulks were wounded but each stayed in the fight. Finoula resumed her elven form back on the Star Beetle, facing the wrath of the nearest umber hulk.

A spiritual weapon in the form of a dwarven warhammer started slamming the umber hulk attacking Finoula, letting the ranger know her Battle-Sister was looking out for her. Binkadink's glaive managed to pierce the chitinous armor of one from the port line, skewering it. One at a time, the umber hulks were getting slain as they landed on the deck of the Star Beetle.

But then another wave of neogi came screaming across the deck of the deathspider. They were likewise armed with crossbows but had learned their lessons from the first wave of boarders, and were scattered across the width of the ship's top and sides, so they wouldn't present a convenient line for the elf to blast through with her strange lightning attacks. Gilbert and Binkadink were hit by "passenger bolts" by this second wave of neogi, and they too had little cockroach-things skittering across their faces. They were close enough to each other to each see the other's attacker: the things making their way to the heroes' foreheads were oval gemstones flanked by spidery legs. Sudden agony fled through the gnomish fighter and the human wizard, causing each to scream aloud in pain.

Castillan managed to overcome his own agony long enough to pitch himself over the edge of the crow's nest, slowing his fall with a hand along the mast enough to land on his feet on the deck, and if it wasn't his most graceful landing at least he didn't end up in a heap. He stabbed out at an umber hulk with his sword's blade, cutting a deep hole in its armored chest.

Darrien cast a wind wall spell centered across the front of the deathspider, preventing any more of these "agony gems" from being shot by the neogi at least until they'd crossed over to the beetleship. Unfortunately, those agony gems already deployed were taking their toll; Binkadink, Castillan, Darrien, and Gilbert were pain-crazed into almost total uselessness; the wizard's constant screams were preventing him from casting any spells, and as Castillan dropped unconscious to the deck Ingebold was hit with an agony gem of her own. It skittered to her forehead as Darrien lost consciousness, his willpower finally broken by the constant pain. His final thought was At least we killed all the umber hulks! before passing out.

The remaining neogi swarmed onto the beetleship, past Darrien's wind wall spell and thus able to target Finoula. The elf gulped down a spider climb spell as Binkadink, screaming in agony, cut down one, then two, then three, then four neogi menacing his elven friend.

Gilbert pulled out not a potion but a wand, striking himself with it and yelling out the command word with a throat hoarse and raw from screaming. His body transformed into a seeping pile of mist that started losing its cohesiveness - and the constant pain, as the agony gem turned to mist as well. (He had hoped it might fall off him during the change in state, but no such luck.)

But by then, the helmsman of the neogi deathspider had seen that the little beetleship's defensive force was much more than they had bargained for. As it was, they had already lost their only nine umber hulk slaves, as well as a dozen neogi! He released the ship's forward claws from the Star Beetle, but before Chik'tak could pull away in time the neogi helmsman tipped his own ship nose down, diving before the smaller vessel. The effects were almost instantaneous: as the larger ship's gravity plane tipped down before the beetleship, those aboard the smaller vessel started sliding forward as if their ship were tipping forward. Binkadink and Ingebold both went spilling into the beetleship's head, coming to a stop alongside the bench Chik'tak straddled. The unconscious forms of Castillan and Darrien likewise slid forward, but got caught up in the area where the port wing case hinged up at the front of the vessel. Gaseous Gilbert took the opportunity to fly across the back of the Star Beetle and hide on the other side, opting to remain in his gaseous form for as long as he could.

But Finoula was still under the effects of her potion of spider climb, so she had no problem with the beetleship suddenly seeming to balance on its head. Of course, neither did any of the neogi aboard the beetleship, their spidery legs perfectly adequate in clinging to the deck of the vessel, now oriented as a vertical wall. Two of the deathspider's forward limbs were holding the Star Beetle in place, preventing it from toppling over.

With a massive effort, Binkadink managed to strike out one last time at a neogi who had wandered within the reach of his glaive, but that sent the others skittering up out of range. And one of the neogi managed to hit Finoula with a "passenger bolt," resulting in the elf ranger gaining an agony gem of her own. Her screams as the semi-sentient item adhered to the skin of her forehead was part frustration and the rest agony.

Since Binkadink was still inside the range of Ingebold's magic circle against evil spell, the neogi were unable to target either of them with their domination effects. Thus, they shot at the two with their crossbow bolts until the agony gems took full effect. Chik'tak was similarly targeted with an agony gem, and the fierce-looking rastipede didn't last long after that. Finoula was out of the range of both Gilbert and Ingebold's spells, so she had no such protection; even though she was willing herself not to collapse under the excrutiating pain of the agony gem planted on her forehead, a cruel neogi skittered up to her and dominated her overtaxed mind. "Pass over your weapons," it hissed - and Finoula complied.

After that it was simply a matter of cleanup. The deathspider lowered its aft end so the two ships once again shared a single gravity plane, then spun around so it could grab up the beetleship in its lower limbs. The unconscious heroes were lugged over to the deathspider vessel by neogi crewmen who grumbled at the indignity of manual labor now that their umber hulk slaves had been slain. "This lot had better be worth it!" one grumbled to his partner.

"Wait, wasn't there another slave?" asked his partner. "A human?"

"Was there? I can't tell these damned two-leggers apart. Well, if there was, he must have escaped overboard. Now give me a hand with this damn rastipede - he weighs a ton!"

As his friends were dragged over to the neogi deathspider for slave processing, Gilbert Fung - still in gaseous form - clung to the bottom of the beetleship, out of sight, various plans racing across his mind.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: My Einstein T-shirt, specifically because it has the smoke from his pipe forming galaxies in the background. Logan has a T-shirt just like it (they were both gifts from Harry's dad several years ago) - and he opted to wear his for the very same reason, neither of us having informed the other of our decision.
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PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 10
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 10
Darrien, half-elf ranger 10
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 10
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 10​

NPC Roster:
Chik'tak, rastipede sorcerer 2/expert 4
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 10 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 25 March 2017

- - -

I wasn't going to break up the adventure write-ups for this campaign, but we started the first part of this adventure during our last gaming session and now it looks like we'll be heading into May before we get around to finishing it. (Jacob, now in college, has finals to prepare for.) So here's as far as we got, and I'll write up the rest of the adventure after we actually finish going through it.

- - -

The heroes were taken over to the Apex Predator either under their own power for those who had been dominated or dragged over by others for those who had been knocked unconscious by the power of the agony gems embedded in their foreheads. Those who had lost unconsciousness were roughly slapped awake. The captured prisoners then crawled through a hole on the floor in which a strange thing occurred: the gravity plane "flipped over" on the other side, such that they were now walking on the ceiling of the lower deck although from their vantage point it seemed as if they were still right-side up.

Regardless, the heroes were stripped of all armor, weapons, and personal possessions save their clothes; a pair of neogi gathered up their cast-off possessions and stored them away in a cargo hold, save for the everburning torches from Binkadink's helmet - these, a pair of neogi held onto for the benefit of the slaves, as the deathspider vessel had no internal illumination at all. Apparently neogi and umber hulks had darkvision and could see as well in perfect darkness as could Ingebold. Then another, older-looking neogi approached. This one had a sour expression on its eel-like face; it was apparently used to sitting perched upon the shoulder of an umber hulk slave and seemed put out that it now had to do its own walking.

"You are now slaves of the neogi," the spider-eel hissed. "I am Slavemaster Skrotish. Let me explain how your new life will work. You will obey the commands of any neogi, instantly and without fail. You will not remove the agony gems on your foreheads, nor will you remove the agony gems from any of the other slaves, nor will you ask anyone else to remove them. You will not attempt to escape from this vessel, nor will you attempt to communicate with anyone outside this vessel. You will dedicate yourselves to the protection of the neogi, sacrificing your lives if necessary to save the life of a neogi. If you can cast spells, you will refrain from doing so unless directed to cast them by one of your neogi masters. Failure to obey these strictures will result in immediate punishment."

As if to demonstrate, Slavemaster Skrotish called out a few words in the neogi language, and Castillan screamed aloud and fell to his knees, his hands instinctively covering the agony gem on his forehead, the source of his sudden, excruciating pain.

"Line up!" commanded Slavemaster Skrotish, and the new slaves hurried to comply.

"You all no doubt have names," said the neogi slavemaster. "I do not care what they are. Each of your agony gems has a number, carved in the neogi numeral system. I will tell you each your numbers - it's in your best interests to memorize them immediately." He then went down the line, giving each slave a number in the neogi language. The corresponding numbers were as follows:

  • Slave 2: Finoula Cloudshadow
  • Slave 3: Darrien
  • Slave 4: Ingebold Battershield
  • Slave 5: Chik'tak
  • Slave 6: Binkadink Dundernoggin
  • Slave 7: Castillan Ivenheart

The numbers meant nothing to the heroes, as they'd never heard the neogi language spoken before today. But upon Slavemaster Skrotish's orders, they lined up in numerical sequence and marched off down a curving corridor, into the prison ward. This was a series of 10 cells and the personal quarters of the slavemaster. Each of the heroes was placed in a separate cell; due to his larger size, Chik'tak was given one of the end cells, which was a bit bigger than the others. Each cell had a narrow wooden bed-board folding down from the wall and a waste bucket beneath it. Once each slave had been locked up in his or her cell - Slavemaster Skrotish carried the keys around his eel-like neck - the everburning torches were taken away and stored back in the slave hold with their other gear, leaving the slaves in pitch blackness.

Once Slavemaster Skrotish had returned to his own chamber and closed the door, the heroes dared to whisper among themselves. "Did anyone see what happened to...G.F.?" asked Binkadink, afraid to draw attention to Gilbert Fung's absence when the neogi seemed not to have noticed that they were one slave short.

"I am thinking there was being a cloud of gas on deck before the ship was of the tipping," advised Chik'tak. "That could have been being that of which you are the speaking."

"Gas: that sounds like G.F.," remarked Castillan, eliciting a snort of dark humor from Finoula. The group was in desperate straits - they could probably use any humor they could get in the days to follow.

In the meantime, Gilbert Fung was still in his gaseous form beneath the beetleship, now held in a four-legged grip on the underside of the Apex Predator. As the spell finally expired and the wizard returned to his human form, he was amazed to see that from his point of view - standing upside-down on the bottom of a spelljamming ship shaped like a scarab beetle - it appeared as if the ship were sailing upside-down along a multicolored sea, with the stars that had previously been blocked by the rainbow-hued phlogiston when they had been standing on deck now visible. There was no way around it: phlogiston was weird!

Cautiously, Gilbert crawled over the side of the Star Beetle, experiencing a dizzying sensation as he crossed the gravity plane and once again the phlogiston sea seemed to switch sides - it was now in its original orientation, still "below" the beetleship and the neogi deathspider above it. Getting back on deck - after ensuring he was alone there - Gilbert noted that all of the ship's provisions had been removed, no doubt taken aboard the deathspider as spoils of war. This was disturbing to Gilbert; he might have to remain hidden on board the Star Beetle for some time, and there was nothing to eat!

Well then, thought the wizard, I'll have to try a different tactic. He spoke the words to a polymorph spell, taking on the form of a neogi. Having noted they had manipulative appendages up front that served as arms and hands, neogi-Gilbert tried casting an inconsequential spell, one of his weakest and one not likely to be actually needed, and was pleased to see it spring into being as easily as it would have had he been in his true form.

Okay then, thought Gilbert. Now we're getting somewhere! Opting to use his neogi disguise as a last resort, he cast a darkvision spell followed by a gaseous form spell upon himself - and now he looked like a vaguely neogi-shaped cloud of nebulous gas. In this new form - one he hoped wouldn't be noticed by the crew of the deathspider - he drifted over to the monstrous-looking ship. He approached the ship from the top surface, the battle deck that sported the ballistae and a backward-facing catapult. There were no neogi at the weapons stations; apparently they had other duties to attend to when they weren't actively attacking other spelljamming vessels. Pleased with his success thus far, Gilbert slid his amorphous body down a ramp to the middle deck and looked around.

Several neogi were skittering around at the front of the vessel, heading from one room to another off a long central corridor. Not wanting to have to deal with the bulk of the ship's crew at first, Gilbert glided back to the bottom of the ramp and deactivated his gaseous form spell. Now wearing the shape of a neogi, he could cast spells - and he cast a simple ghost sound at the top of the ramp, making a cacophonous racket that sounded like pots and pans falling off a shelf. Four neogi skittered out of an upper level room to investigate, and Gilbert caught them up in an Evard's black tentacles spell which quickly squeezed the life out of them.

Gilbert moved on. Still opting to stay away from the front of the vessel - where, undoubtedly, there would be a greater concentration of enemies, and possibly tougher foes like the ship's captain and bodyguards - he found a hexagonal hole in the floor at the back of the ship and decided to check it out. Passing through the hole caused him to flip over to the other side of the gravity plane - always a disturbing experience! - but then he was on the lower deck. He found a cargo hold containing, among other things, his friends' equipment and the foodstock taken from the Star Beetle. Although tempted to take a quick snack break, Gilbert realized he had a time limit running on his polymorph spell and he'd be better served in helping free his friends.

Passing down a curving passageway, Gilbert opened a door at the end and found the slave quarters: five jails on either side of a short corridor going crosswise along the ship's width. The side walls of the cells were solid, with only the barred fronts allowing him to see who was inside each cell. Fortunately, there was no sign of any guards (Slavemaster Skrotish was inside his room with the door closed), so Gilbert strolled boldly down the corridor. Of the captives, only Ingebold had darkvision, so she saw the neogi enter the corridor, but Binkadink and Castillan had heard the slight squeak of the door being opened in the pitch blackness. They strained their ears to listen who might be there.

"Hey gnome," said a familiar voice from the darkness, "you ever hear neogi speak with Kozakuran accent?"

"Gilbert?" asked Binkadink, voice raised in surprise. "Is that you?"

"That me all right. How about we leave here?"

Unfortunately, Slavemaster Skrotish had heard the commotion and popped his head out of his quarters, before slamming the door shut again and activating some kind of alarm. Warning sirens started blaring in the ship, with some kind of hissing message that the group assumed was neogi for "Intruder alert!" Above the sounds of the alarms they group could hear the sounds of doors being swung open and the skittering of spidery legs running down the corridor leading to the slave pen.

Gilbert popped open the door to the corridor and cast a quick ghost sound spell of running feet further down the corridor, hoping to trick any security forces into thinking the slaves had already escaped and were heading further back to the aft section of the ship. Then he shut the door to the slave pen, raced back over to Binkadink (having already assessed the little gnome as their best bet when it came to dealing damage to enemies with makeshift weapons), and cast his only prepared knock spell to open the door to his cell. The wizard then deactivated his polymorph spell, regaining his normal form but more importantly all of the gear he'd been holding when he had first assumed the shape of a neogi. Gilbert then cast a light spell on the tip of his quarterstaff and passed it over to the gnome. "You take this," said Gilbert. "We need to find guy with keys!"

Suddenly, the door opened from the curving corridor outside and several neogi threw glass bottles inside the slave quarters before slamming the door shut again. The bottles broke upon hitting the floor, sending noxious-smelling gas billowing up in large, green clouds.

Holding his breath as best he could to avoid breathing in the fumes, Gilbert cast a solid fog spell in the short slave corridor between the cells, expecting neogi to come rushing in as soon as the gas had a chance to take effect - maybe that would slow them down, but it should at least hamper their darkvision. But then Gilbert heard several thunks from inside the cells; Chik'tak had already been overcome by the fumes and fallen to the floor, and Finoula, Castillan, and Darrien soon followed suit. From their coughing, Gilbert could tell that Binkadink and Ingebold were still up and on their feet.

But now Gilbert himself was feeling woozy and about to pass out. He briefly contemplated casting his last gaseous form spell upon himself in an effort to escape and try again later, but then unforeseen events took over. Slavemaster Skrotish popped his head out of his room, holding a cloth over his nostrils and mouth. "Slave!" he hissed, not bothering even to address the gnome by the neogi number carved into his agony gem. "Attack that intruder!"

Gilbert, coughing and sputtering, turned behind him - just in time to see his own quarterstaff come crashing down onto his head.

The world went black for awhile, and when Gilbert awoke he was without any of his possessions, sitting alone in a cell. Binkadink had likewise been returned to his own cell and Gilbert's glowing staff removed and placed in the cargo hold with their other equipment.

Out of the blackness came a voice. "It was being of the noble attempt," reassured Chik'tak.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: I was still wearing my Einstein/galaxy shirt from the last adventure, since this took place immediately afterward.



PC Roster:
Binkadink Dundernoggin, gnome fighter 10
Castillan Ivenheart, elf bounder 10
Darrien, half-elf ranger 10
Finoula Cloudshadow, elf ranger 10
Gilbert Fung, human wizard 10​

NPC Roster:
Chik'tak, rastipede sorcerer 2/expert 4
Ingebold Battershield, dwarven cleric 10 (Moradin)​

Game Session Date: 13 May 2017

- - -

"You are being given your armor, weapons, and assorted gear," Slavemaster Scrotish said to the assembled slaves on the cargo deck, where all of the gear had been dumped. "Those of you capable of casting spells are hereby permitted to do so, but only under the restrictions as already explained. Your agony gems have had a week to attune to your individual thoughts and will be much quicker to react in any efforts at insubordination."

Well, that sucks, thought Gilbert as he grabbed up his beloved Omnibook and once again flipped through its pages, conscripting particular spells into memory. About him, the others gathered up their weapons and strapped on their armor; he could hear Ingebold quietly mouthing prayers to Moradin for her spells.

"What are we going up against?" asked Binkadink, hoping to gather up important intelligence about the enemy.

"We have spotted a dohwar vessel and are in pursuit," replied Slavemaster Scrotish. "The Apex Predator is a faster and more maneuverable vessel; we will catch up to our prey shortly."

"What's a dohwar?" Binkadink asked Chik'tak, the only one of the slaves likely to know the answer.

"A dohwar is being a merchant race," explained the insectoid rastipede. "They are flightless birds, with the having of flippers instead of wings."

"Are they evil?" asked Ingebold, hoping against hope that if they were being forced to go slaughter a crew of intelligent beings they'd at least be ridding the world of a group of evil marauders.

No such luck. "No more so than are being individuals of any other race," replied Chik'tak. "Most dohwar are of the seeking of the maximum money they can be of the getting their flippers on. Most are of the honest, if greedy, but most are not of the being pure evil."

The heroes thought that over as the neogi deathspider overtook its prey, a dohwar vessel shaped like a giant penguin lying on its stomach. Dohwar writing along its flanks announced the ship's name as the Fishgulper, a ship of the Uspo class, although neither of the slaves could read the markings themselves. But as the top of the deathspider's upper carapace rolled back, the group could see the neogi ship had overtaken the dohwar vessel, turned around, and the two ships were now in the same gravity plane, face-to-face, penguin staring at spider.

"Attack!" cried one of the five neogi who had been assigned as part of the strike force. Twin ballistae fired anchoring lines at the merchant ship, digging into the wood at either side of the penguin's head. The neogi skittered along the chains, crossbows at the ready. The reluctant slave force followed behind, each member doing what they could to dawdle without angering their neogi masters or setting off their agony gems. Gilbert took the time to cast a mage armor spell on himself; he couldn't be blamed for taking the time to protect a valuable neogi resource, now, could he? Likewise, instead of leaping into the front lines, Finoula spent a moment to cast a barkskin spell upon herself. Castillan and Darrien advanced to the edge of the deathspider's open-air upper level, but held off making the leap into battle. Binkadink didn't hesitate, but he knew his best bet of keeping alive was to close on the enemy as quickly as possible, where he could put his enchanted glaive to best advantage.

With a sudden creak, the top of the penguin-ship's beak hinged open and out popped the first of the dohwar defensive forces. These were a trio of human-sized penguins, each with a sword blade strapped to its beak. But the dohwar were not alone: each rode a pig the size of a small pony, and each pig came equipped with feathered wings beating at its side. This was no helpless dohwar ship after all - the Fishgulper was equipped with a defensive force of the fabled "Deathsquealers" mounted cavalry!

Behind the first trio of Deathsquealers riding their space swine mounts - all of whom immediately spread out once leaving the penguin-mouth exit - came the second wave of Deathsquealers, another trio mounted and armed the same. The neogi and their slave-pirates were up against a full half dozen Deathsquealers and space swine, each armed (or "beaked") with their sharp weegas.

Binkadink was within range of one of the initial wave and sent his glaive crashing into the feathered body of the Deathsquealer bearing down upon him on his winged space swine. The little gnome was surprised to see the dohwar shrug off the worst of the attack, even though the glaive had struck true. These were apparently hardened warriors, capable of taking the worst the heroes had to offer. Binkadink concentrated on the Deathsquealer's return stab with his beak-mounted weega, easily dodging out of the way - only to be surprised when the space swine swiveled its ugly head and ripped a gash along the gnome's thigh with a set of twisted tusks as it flew by.

The twang of multiple crossbows sounded as the neogi fired at their various targets. Some struck true while others missed, but neither took down any of the enemy. Behind the neogi, Darrien shot at a dohwar with his Arachnibow, opting to fire just the once instead of sending off a barrage as he was perfectly capable of doing; the half-elf had little stomach for killing off those defending their own ship from attack.

At his side, Gilbert cast a deep slumber spell at a mounted dohwar. It was a spell known to him but rarely used; this time, Gilbert had prepared it specifically because it was nonlethal. The dohwar he had targeted managed to shrug off its spell effects with little effort, but his space swine fell under the spell's sway, toppling the Deathsquealer from its saddle as it collapsed into a deep sleep.

Ingebold cast a bless spell upon her allies, not wanting to hurt the dohwar directly. Beside her, Chik'tak leaped into the fray with his rastipede longspear, stabbing a Deathsquealer in the shoulder and eliciting a shriek of pain.

Over at the front of the Fishgulper, three of the Deathsquealers had identified Binkadink as a particularly dangerous threat and surrounded him with their flying mounts. They stabbed out with their weegas, but again it was the space swine that managed to hit most often and deal more damage; Binkadink mentally opted to switch his future targets to the mounts instead of their riders. The others, seeing the gnome fighter concentrate on taking out the space swine did likewise and they found it easier to take down the winged pigs than the tough dohwar fighters.

One Deathsquealer - the one whose space swine mount had been taken down by Gilbert's deep slumber spell - raced back along the chain tethering the two vessels together, crying out in his own squawking language. "What's he saying?" called out Castillan, who had advanced and had his short sword out and ready.

One of the neogi wielding a crossbow translated. "He said, 'Open the crate!'"

While Castillan puzzled as to what that might portend, Ingebold cast a magic circle against evil spell centered upon herself and moved forward, the better to capture as many of her friends inside the spell's effect. But by this time, the battle's eventual outcome seemed to have already been decided: the Deathsquealers and their space swine mounts were not only outnumbered but also outclassed; while they likely could have held their own against a strictly neogi force, the addition on seasoned adventurers tipped the scales too far against them. Already half of their number had been slain, which no doubt caused the frenzied cry for the opening of the crate.

With a sudden, soundless explosion, a hole appeared in the side of the Fishgulper and out floated a familiar form: a spheroid some eight feet or so in diameter, ringed with ten eyestalks along its upper surface. The beholder's eleven eyes scanned back and forth for enemies, in this case not only the neogi and their slave-pirates but also the dohwar who had captured it for an exotic zoo on their frozen homeworld.

But the heroes knew none of this; they only saw that the dohwar they'd been fighting were aligned with a beholder, and that lessened the guilt they had been experiencing fighting a bunch of intelligent emperor penguins of possibly good or at least neutral alignment. Hoping these particular dohwar were of an evil bent, they tore into their forces with renewed fervor. Darrien sent a barrage of arrows into a space swine that killed it from underneath its rider, while 20 feet away Binkadink's glaive severed the life of a Deathsquealer, leaving its space swine riderless.

Gilbert, however, did not relish the thought of going up against a beholder, so his first action was defensive in nature: he cast a mirror image spell and suddenly there were eight of him scattered across the space between the two ships.

But by then the beholder was within range of the group. Keeping its central eye closed, it shot several rays out against the group. Binkadink was hit by a charm monster ray which would have turned him against his friends had he not been within the sheltering range of Ingebold's magic circle against evil. Finoula was not so lucky; the inflict moderate wounds ray did just that, while one of the neogi was blasted to nothingness by a disintegrate ray, the same ray the beholder had used to blast a hole in the side of the Fishgulper and see to its immediate exit from the merchant vessel once it had been released from the stasis effect of the crate in which it had been originally captured.

Binkadink was unfazed by the loss of one of their neogi captors, but seeing Finoula hurt caused him to leap into the open space between the dohwar vessel and the beholder, his glaive's blade held in front of him like an arrowhead. He cut deep into the beholder's body with his weapon, causing a roar of pain to erupt from a mouth full of crooked teeth, a mouth large enough to swallow the little gnome whole.

Castillan raced into the mouth of the dohwar ship, in part to avoid the beholder's rays but also because the unmounted Deathsquealer had run that way and he wanted to stop him from gathering up a group of reinforcements if possible. In doing so, he ran into a dohwar seated in what he assumed to be the ship's helm, and only at the last second stopped from striking the dohwar down; if this was the helmsman, the neogi wanted him alive. He did force him away from the helm, causing the Fishgulper to remain motionless as it no longer had any motive force. (Not that the helmsman had been successful in escaping from the twin grapples from the neogi deathspider in any case.)

Outside the ship, Gilbert cast a scorching ray at the beholder, causing all of his seven mirror images to do likewise; a total of 16 streaks of fiery energy came streaking in to hit the beholder, and it wasn't until the pain of impact hit that the eye tyrant could tell which of the fat human wizards was the real one. But before the beholder could react to that information it was attacked from all sides: from a rastipede longspear on its left to a gnomish glaive at the right, while arrows came flying in to pepper its spheroid body like a pincushion. Before it had a chance to retaliate with its multiple rays, the creature was slain.

There wasn't much battle left in the dohwar force after that. The few remaining Deathsquealers and space swine were dealt with, and the neogi force slaughtered the crew with three exceptions: the ship's captain, Dorpp; the helmsman, Pip, and the head administrator, Chit. Each of these three were shot with an agony gem and became an unwilling slave of the neogi, joining the adventurers in their captivity. They were forced to help carry the treasures the Fishgulper had been carrying over to the neogi deathspider and load them into her own hold, before being taken to their cells.

On the plus side, dinner that night - and for several nights thereafter - included space swine (called "spaham" by the dohwar), a welcome upgrade from the dry biscuits and water on which the slaves had been subsisting. Fortunately, nothing tasting like chicken (or penguin) passed the slaves' lips; the slain dohwar were reserved for the neogi, who found them a particularly tasty treat.

And life as slave-pirates of the neogi continued.

- - -

T-Shirt Worn: For the second session where we finished off this adventure, I wore my TSR Silver Anniversary T-shirt, for the express reason that among the various other D&D creatures it contained an umber hulk, which was the plot hook of the adventure that followed this one, but which we played during the same game session.
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