Be gentle, folks. Here's my first attempt.
I came into this campaign about 3/4 of the way through the Sunless Citadel. I stumbled my way through the rest of that adventure with absolutely no concept of why there were vicious kobolds, goblins, and... saplings?... assailing the party-- not that it really mattered much, as it allowed me to quickly establish my character as a vicious thug ready to bare steel with the merest provocation.
I finally really started to come into my character with Forge of Fury, which is where the tale begins...
Wulf Ratbane (dwarven fighter/rogue)-- Wulf is a self-styled "dwarven defender," in open rebellion against the rules and regimen of his clan, exiled into the dark tunnels to protect them on his own terms. Wulf very much adheres to the notion that the ends justify the means; and although his goals are usually good-- at least as far as he understands the term-- his approach leaves much to be desired. Wulf is a newcomer to the group of heroes in the story-- captured by the goblins of the Sunless Citadel, and subsequently freed by the heroes, he has hitched his fortunes to theirs for a while.
Keldas (elven wizard-- transmuter)-- Keldas is the logical, stoic academian of the group, as constant as his magic is varied, and a firm adherent to the rule of law and the pursuit of good. He was one of the first to gain Wulf's respect, for his consistently annoying habit of breaking the elven stereotype and actually proving himself valiant and (gasp!) useful in battle. Keldas has also shown himself to be Wulf's equal in wit-- countering the dwarf's constant sniping comments with straight-faced barbs of his own.
Halma (human barbarian)-- The human boy Halma is a former orc slave, now grown into a strapping young warrior. He speaks only halting common speech-- and though his mastery of the Orcish language is impressive, it is rarely exercised beyond a howl of rage as he charges into battle against his former captors, his mighty greatsword held high. Halma seems to trust Wulf completely; they share a hatred of evil and a love of battle that knows no moral or ethical bounds. So close is their partnership that Wulf has taken to calling the wild warrior, "My own personal Tonto." Just... not to his face.
Tamaloc (halfling rogue)-- No treasure is too small to spark his interest; no plan too convoluted to abandon; no battle too desperate to warrant his attention. Words fail to describe the abject uselessness of Tamaloc. Should he ever manage to prove himself a hero, it will be for nought: even his closest allies can't remember his name, and the bards would forever sing his praises as "the halfling" or simply, "You! Peck!"
Kellick (gnome druid, DM npc)-- The tiny Kellick heals the bodies and minds of the party. His neutrality is constantly put to the test as Wulf tries to lead the party astray, and Kellick is forced to act as counter-balance and lead them back. Despite that, Wulf is careful to stay on Kellick's good side-- he knows where his bread is buttered.
Eager to put the Sunless Citadel behind them, the party's next adventure began in the humble fashion of so many others: hired on as guards to babysit a caravan of goods from one town to the next. The threat was orcs, and the pay was negligible-- but unlike many dwarves, Wulf's thirst is for battle and blood, not goods and gold-- and the party agreed to take the job.
The journey was short, so the action started quickly. The first night the party was ambushed by a pack of Worgs, fearlessly dashing in past the circled wagons to get at the horses inside. A couple of horses were quickly disemboweled before the heroes were even able to raise the call to arms. While the halfling tumbled to and fro beneath the wagons and frightful horses, looking to set up the elusive No-Risk Flank Attack(tm), Wulf leapt down from his watchpost atop a wagon. Axe and dagger sprang to his hands as goblin curses sprang to his lips-- "Come play wi' Wulf, little doggies!" The Worgs were none too eager to rise to his challenge, not even when faced with the equally daunting prospects of Halma's barbarian greatsword or Keldas' magic, and those who were not dead or dying were soon driven off. Dagger in hand and unbloodied, the halfling crept out from under the wagons and hurled some parting insults into the darkness.
The party was wary of another ambush, and as the caravan neared the next town, the caravan master informed them that the last "tricky spot" was a long narrow bridge across a deep chasm. "Yes, gentlemen, it is at this point that I would like to inform you that the wagons will only be able to cross one at a time, and there's little standing room to either side for guards. Sorry I didn't inform you sooner, I guess it didn't seem relevant."
The caravan was brought to a halt on the near side of the bridge, just as the sun was setting, parked on the road between two steep slopes. The keen-eyed halfling spotted some movement on the other side, and the heroes set about forming a plan to keep themselves from getting killed. Wulf suggested scouting across the bridge first, to take out any archers on the other side; Keldas toyed with the idea of a showy Shield spell to draw their fire and make himself nigh invincible to their shots. Halma registered little opinion other than the usual "Smash Orcs! Now!" The halfling got that troublesome glint in his eye and ducked into one of the wagons. He emerged moments later, having used his amazing roguish ability to disguise himself as a terrifying orc... a convincing enough disguise, should you find yourself in need of a child-sized orc.
Suddenly, arrows started raining down onto the caravan from the slopes to the sides-- the ambush was here, on the near side of the bridge! Quick as a flash, Halma was racing up the hill, his furious battlecry winkling out the orcs from their hiding positions behind the rocks and shrubs. Working seamlessly with his ally, Wulf dashed up the opposite slope to prevent the crossfire from getting any worse, while Keldas climbed atop a wagon and cast his Shield spell. The halfling spent a few precious moments berating the party, "You're ruining the plan! You think maybe just ONCE we could try to parlay with them? WHATEVER!"
Halma moved up the slopes and through the orcs effortlessly; Wulf slowly closed the distance while his sling sent half-pound hurtin' hurtling into the enemy. Keldas had drawn his deadly longbow and positioned his Shield against the majority of the orcish archers.
Despite the fact that the jig was clearly up, the battle was engaged, and the orcs were well aware of their presence, the halfling was belting out commands like an Orcish soprano: "Halt! We are your allies! Cease fiiiiiiiiiiiiire!"
With the heroes' warriors now well up on the slopes, the remaining orcs drew their axes and came out of hiding, dashing down the slopes to attack the caravan. A particularly large brute singled out Keldas, who was standing atop the wagon but still well within reach, as his next victim. As Wulf dispatched the last of his foes, he bellowed fighting orders down to the halfling rogue: "Protect the mage and the healer! Fight, damn yer, fight!"
Keldas and Kellick were sorely pressed. A swell of orcs surrounded them, but a well-timed Charm Person brought one of the orc warriors over to the heroes' side for a moment. With one of the orcs charmed, and a strange orcish child tumbling about at his feet, the orcish leader hesitated. The halfling tumbled through his legs and behind him, hoping to set up a flank attack across from the charmed warrior-- only to realize that the situation was rather more complicated, with friends among friends among enemies. The leader turned to face him, and the halfling's tiny dagger (though wielded with impressive finesse) was no match for a great-axe; he was soon tumbling for his life again. The halfling seemed to have found his niche in life as Professional Distraction. Confusion reigned and the infighting lasted long enough for the heroes to triumph-- with two orcish prisoners as the prize of the day.
Wulf immediately busied himself with restraining Halma, his mind already working feverishly with the forms of torture he'd visit upon the orcs to extract the location of their lair-- and the difficulty he would have persuading the elf and the halfling that such unsavory measures were, in the long run, for the greater good. Halma was sent to cool off for a while, trying to wrap his mind around the concept that captives now meant more orcs to kill later.
Wulf paced around outside for a few moments, trying to figure out exactly how he could persuade his new friends to hand over the prisoners. It was always a touchy situation, but he'd been through this before-- back in the Sunless Citadel it took some time to explain that kobold women and children were damned by their nature, incapable of redemption, and that leaving them alive was irresponsible and negligent. Keldas and the halfling responded then with what their gods would likely deem a similarly irresponsible negligence, and turned their backs on the heroic butchery that ensued. Ahhh... Righteousness!
Bolstered by that past success, Wulf ducked into the covered wagon to press his case once again. To his delight and surprise he found the halfling, dagger out, threatening the eye of one of the prisoners. He folded his arms to watch, unable to understand the gutteral Orcish language of the interrogation-- but understanding all too well the implicit language of pain and blood. He could barely suppress his laughter as Keldas fired an Acid Arrow, point blank, onto the leg of the other prisoner. As the orc's leg slowly melted away beneath the acid, the halfling interrogated him with the ruthless efficiency that only a halfling rogue can muster-- like a sweet child's doll gone terribly, terribly wrong. The orc's long, agonizing cry echoed through the canyon. Ahhh... Righteousness!
Wulf was nearly bowled over as Kellick came charging into the wagon. "What in the Nine Hells is going ON in here? What are you DOING!?" Kellick quickly cast a healing spell on the orc before he lost life or limb, then proceeded to explain to Keldas that this was not the way that good and civilized people behaved. Surely the gods work in mysterious ways when a gnome druid is the voice of goodness and reason.
Wulf quickly agreed. "Aye, we're a day out of town, we can hand 'em over to the local priest, and he'll have the truth out of 'em right quick-- an' in a much more peaceful an' understanding way, ta boot. Yer should be ashamed!"
The next morning, the party arrived in town with the two orc prisoners in tow, firmly bound by Wulf's dwarf-scout over-and-under-double-sheepshag escape-proof knots. The local sherriff took charge of the prisoners, promised they'd have a quick death, and suggested that the party move on to talk to the local baron about the growing orc raider problem. A look passed between the sherriff and Wulf that clearly implied that any future orcs would be best dealt with out in the wilds-- frontier justice. Gotcha-- nod and a wink.
The halfling squabbled with himself for a while, demanding that HE be the one to go to the baron and speak on the party's behalf-- despite the fact that Halma had already expressed his intention to go sleep outside in the pastures, and Wulf would rather seek out the local blacksmith than spend time bandying words with the local fop. At Wulf's insistence, Keldas agreed to accompany the halfling-- to make sure he didn't try to cheat the rest of the party out of any reward.
The baron didn't waste any time hiring on the heroes to settle his orc problem. The orcs had made several successful raids, carting off scores of valuable breastplates and weapons, and their raids against the local merchants were becoming more bold and more successful. Their whereabouts were no secret-- they were operating out of the old dwarven forges, just inside that big mountain looming over the town. He offered the heroes salvage rights to anything the orcs might have, as well as the usual paltry sum of a few gold coins per man. The halfling stepped up and shrewdly failed to bargain him into double his rates, until Keldas finally spoke up and secured a simple agreement: a larger bounty for the head of the orc leader, and matching daily rates from the local merchants if we ended their problem. The baron agreed to the bounty and promised that he would speak to the local merchants.
The party settled down for a few days to prepare. Kelik and Halma spent their time lazing about out in the fields. Keldas retired to his room to study many of the items that party had picked up in the Sunless Citadel, and to scribe a few new spells into his spellbook. Wulf marched in to the local blacksmith and offered a strong pair of dwarven arms to man the bellows-- free of charge-- if the smith would agree to show him a few tricks and help him craft a masterwork chain shirt. The smith matched Wulf for tact and brevity, shrugged, and told him he could sleep on the floor with the other apprentices. Wulf dropped off his belongings in a flea-ridden side room filled with sooty-faced urchins. "Any of yer touch my stuff, I'll gut yer."
The halfling got right to work making the acquaintance of the local thieves' guild by striding through town asking random passerby, "Which way to the Thieves' Guild?" and, "What's a fellow got to do to find some POISON in this town? Helloooo? Anybody?"
A turn down a random side street finally answered his prayers. His keen halfling ears picked up the sound of a beetle scuttling out of the way of a footpad's step, and he turned to greet the two rogues who had been shadowing him. "Well it's about TIME. Take me to your leader."
"Ahh... Oh. Yes. Our leader is aware of your presence in town, and sent us to give you his warmest welcome. If you'd be so kind as to keep a low profile in the meantime, he'd like you to return to this spot an hour before sundown to meet him."
"Right. Gotcha. Thanks. Hey! Tell him to bring some poison. Don't worry, I'm in charge of the purse for my whole adventuring company, so I got plenty of money." And with that, the halfling skipped off to rejoin his comrades at the inn.
Several hours later, as the first stars started to peep out in the night sky, the halfling pushed his chair back from the table. He patted his over-ripe belly, puffed out his chest, and announced to the rest of the group that he might be a little late getting in. "Yeah," he said, arching his eyebrow arrogantly, "I have a meeting with the local guildmaster an hour after sundown. Yep, yep. Got a few supplies to pick up, maybe roll a couple of rubes, show the local boys a few tricks. Don't wait up, fellas."
The halfling returned to the appointed meeting place... two hours late.
A local footpad was there to greet him. Despite the halfling's constant protests ("No, no, I distinctly remember he said an hour AFTER sundown. After. This SUCKS! He said AFTER!") the local dutifully explained that, being the guildmaster, and a thief, his boss was understandably A LITTLE PRE-OCCUPIED AFTER SUNDOWN! With better things to do than wait around at the beckon call of some unknown little peck!
Nevertheless, the halfling bowed and scraped and managed to set up a meeting for the next day. An hour before sundown. And not surprisingly, he was at the appointed meeting place well in advance of the scheduled time. The exact details of their conversation may never be known, but here is what the rest of the heroes were able to piece together from his disgruntled ramblings:
1) The local thieves' guildmaster does NOT sell poison to wandering pecks.
2) The local thieves' guildmaster is NOT willing to "loan out" magic daggers to wandering pecks in exchange for a promise of "something much cooler, just as soon as we get back from killing all those orcs."
3) The local thieves' guildmaster IS apparently willing to trust wandering pecks with details of plots against the local baron.
This last bit of info was discovered the next day, when the halfling excitedly told the rest of the group that they all HAD to go back to speak to the baron. The baron admitted the group to his audience chambers, but was only able to inform them that, as yet, he had not had any luck persuading the local merchants to up the reward-- but that perhaps a successful sortie onto the orc hideout would bring them around. To which the halfling replied, "Oh yeah? Well perhaps I have a little bit of information about YOU that you might be willing to pay for? Hmmm?"
The party watched in awed silence, as an ethereal bullseye seemed to appear in the air and hover, just between the halfling's shoulder blades.. "Yeah, you heard me, I know some folks in town and I just might be willing to tell you a few things they told ME. For the right PRICE, of course."
One glance over his shoulder at the stunned and horrified looks on the faces of his compatriots, and the realization slowly sunk in. "Uhh... umm... Just kidding. Nevermind. Crazy halfling talk! Bye!"
The party geared up, eager to leave town. In a week's time, Keldas' spellbook was brimming with cool new spells, and Wulf had completed a masterwork chain shirt-- ahead of schedule and below cost. The halfling bought a few spare torches and a flask or two of greek fire, and the party slush fund was spent on a couple of healing potions for each of the warriors. They rejoined Kellick and Halma outside the city and started up the mountain. Wulf handed the chain shirt to Halma.
"Ey. Put this on, an' don't mention it. Just be there to save my arse, right?"
The journey to the mountain, a trip of just over a day, was mostly uneventful. Kellick's animal companion, a large wolf named Misty, ranged widely and helped to keep the party out of trouble. The party decided to move off the trail and bed down for the night so they could tackle the fortress during the day. As they prepared to pack up camp the next morning, the halfling's keen ears picked up the sound of an orcish raiding party, and he and Wulf crept up into the high grass near the road to observe. A party of about half a dozen orcs were moving up the path towards the mountain. As the orcs marched past their position, the halfling leaned over to whisper to Wulf. "Well, *I* think maybe we should..."
"Die, ye bastards!" Wulf leapt out of hiding and started hurling javelins into the midst of the orcs. Hearing the call to battle, Halma swept up his greatsword and moved with superhuman speed towards the sound of battle. The orcs were already drawing javelins of their own to return fire, but in mere moments the raging barbarian in their midst had them desperately reaching for their axes again. Wulf moved closer, picking off any orcs who shied away from melee with the barbarian. It was over almost before it started, despite the fact that these orcs seemed... tougher... than the ones they'd seen previously. The breastplates they all wore had something to do with it.
While the halfling rifled through their pockets for loose change, Wulf pointed out the real treasure at hand-- six nice breastplates, probably worth about a hundred crowns a piece, brand new. Keldas helped him dig a hole just off the path to bury this unexpected windfall. The only downside was the realization that the mountain was crawling with well-armed, well-armored, well-trained orcs.
The group was none too eager to approach the mountain by the front path. Keldas sent his familiar, an owl, circling high over the mountain to report any sentry posts and other avenues of approach. The good news was that the orcs only had two guards at the front door. The bad news was that the front door seemed to be the only way to approach-- a long path up the mountain that fell away on one side to a nasty ravine. There was onething, though... farther up the mountain there was a hole, a chimney of some sort, with smoke wisping out.
The party crept up in range of Keldas' bow, but didn't dare get any closer. Halma was chomping at the bit to charge the front gate and kill some orcs, and it was everything Wulf could do to persuade him to sit tight. Wulf suggested that he circle around the guard post and climb up the mountain to investigate the chimney. Ever practical, Keldas was ready to help.
"I'll keep a Feather Fall handy in case you slip." It was a long way down to the bottom of that ravine.
"Ye daft fairy... the day a dwarf can't nick up the side of a bloody mountain is the day he deserves to die. Keep summat useful brewing for a change... like a fireball."
Wulf crept up the mountain, skillfully and quietly, and approached the chimney. A quick look confirmed that there was no way they'd get down it-- although it would be amusing to stuff the halfling down headfirst and wedge him about halfway. He returned to the group.
"Looks big enough for the halfling to fit down, if we grease him up good with lard first. I don't think the cookfires are burnin'. We'll just slip him in, an' he can come up the back way an' take out the guards."
"No way! NO WAY!"
"All right, all right, keep yer knickers on, we'll go with plan B then. You an' me, we'll just creep up to the front gate and take the guards out together, quiet like. One orc each. Right?"
Wulf explained the balance of the plan. The front path to the gate actually wound around a bit, so the rest of the party, with a bit of care, could move quietly up the path and still be out of sight of the guards, around the bend. No more than a few seconds mad-dash away from the scouts if they needed help.
It was a tense few minutes as Wulf and the halfling moved stealthily up the path towards the mouth of the cave. The guards lazed about just inside, out of the sunlight. When they were close enough, the two rogues sprang-- Wulf with axe and dagger, the halfling with his own wee dagger dancing from side to side. Wulf dropped one orc with his axe and flipped his dagger over, ready to throw it at the halfling's target if necessary, but his target was already dead. Seemed the halfling had slit a throat or two in his time, after all.
A low whistle from the halfling brought the rest of the group running. They rounded the corner to find Wulf rolling the two corpses over the side of the ravine-- a sensible enough way to hide the evidence, should any more orcs approach-- but it brought a shrill cry from the halfling. "Did you loot those guys first? Aww..." He spent a few moments looking at the battered and broken corpses at the bottom of the ravine, calculating how long it would take to climb down and, as always, how risky it would be. "I'll come back for them later."
Wulf dug another gold crown out of his purse and tossed it over the side. "Make it worth yer while."
Wulf moved into the darkness of the cave, ahead of the group, and surveyed the winding stone steps that led deeper into the cave. The party urged him to hurry as he checked the steps for traps and kept them shambling slowly after him. Halma was especially impatient. Eventually they came to a set of doors, still ajar; beyond that a rope bridge stretched about thirty feet across a deep crevasse. On the opposite side they could see a few thick rock outcroppings, and beyond that, a set of ornate double doors. Wulf set about searching the bridge for traps, and tied off a safety line of his own to the bridgeposts. As he turned to the group, dark shadows moved on the other side of the bridge.
"ORCS!" Before anyone could stop him Halma was racing across the rope bridge. It bobbed wildly up and down and the party prayed that the youth's gangly clumsiness wouldn't send him headfirst into the crevasse-- but much to everyone's surprise, he made it across. The orcs barely had time to miss with their bows before Halma stepped up and killed both in one cleaving blow.
Keldas was ready with the obvious observation. "Well, that's one way to find out if it's safe to cross." He crossed over behind Halma, followed shortly by the halfling who immediately started rifling over the orc's bodies for hidden treasure. Kellick had a little trouble getting Misty to cross, and Wulf crossed over last. He tied off the other end of his safety rope to the bridge supports. His knots would hold, if the supports would. "Keep one hand on that as yer run across... if yer *have* to run, of course."
The party carefully moved past the double doors and into the room beyond, an atrium of sorts. Several passages led off into the darkness, and Wulf once again cursed the inconvenience of having to travel with topsiders and their torches. Anybody down one of those passages could see the torches and come running.
A soft cry from the other side of the room got his attention. "Help us! Help us!" The party crossed over and found two halflings locked in a cell, begging for freedom. The party looked to Wulf-- he was handy with locks.
"Could be a trick. Dopplegangers or summat. Let em rot."
The party's halfling stepped up, no slouch with a lockpick himself. "No, *I* got it, I got it." He fumbled with the lock for a moment until Wulf grabbed his shoulder.
"Look, even if they're NOT dangerous, they're a lot better off in there than they are out here when the slaughter starts. We can come back for 'em when it's safe."
The party agreed with this logic-- but the captives didn't. "Nooooooooo! Please, you don't understand, they'll eeeeeeeeeeat us!"
Such sniveling cowardice. If he didn't already know better from their own little peck, Wulf would have been certain that such cowardice was a fiction cooked up by dopplegangers to lure the soft-hearted. The little halflings rattled the cage. "Let us out! Hurry!"
Orcish voices boomed out in broken common, "What's going on in there!? Quiet!" The guard rounded the corner just far enough to see the party standing there in their torchlight, and screamed out an ear-splitting alarm. "Intruders!" The sound of booted feet pounded through the halls.
"Back to the doors, quickly!" Keldas was already back at the rope bridge.
"Stop!" Wulf yelled. "If we fight from over there, we'll have no cover. We'll fight 'em here at the doors, and if we can't hold 'em back, then we cross the bridge and cut it behind us!" Wulf slammed the doors and spiked them shut.
Keldas cast Mage Armor, followed by a Shield, and readied his bow. The halfling strung his little short bow-- but was already eyeing his escape route. The faithful wolf Misty stood guard at the bridge, hackles raised. Wulf stood side by side with Halma, right at the doors. "We'll cut 'em down one at a time as they come through. Ach, Kellick! Yer just stand behind us and prop us up with healing, got it?"
It wasn't long before the pounding started on the doors, and the orcs slowly pushed them open despite the spikes. Wulf's axe sent the first unfortunate bastard howling to the floor, and Halma's sword swept across the doorway like a windmill. (A windmill of DEATH!)
Wulf cackled as orc after orc fell beneath their blades. Occassionally an arrow would sail past them into the throng of orcs at the door-- Keldas and the halfling pitching in. It was when the arrows started to come down thicker-- and much closer to his own ears-- that Wulf realized Misty's howling wasn't simply the excitement of battle.
A second contingent of orcs, led by a huge half-ogre of some kind, had taken a back way and come out through a secret door on the opposite side of the rope bridge.
"How the hell did yer miss THAT?" Wulf howled at the usually keen-eyed Keldas. The orcs were readying a second volley of arrows. Keldas moved to the edge of the bridge and levitated above Misty, who was holding the ground on the heroes' side of the bridge. While Wulf and Halma kept hacking at the first contingent of orcs at the doors, Keldas repositioned his Shield and bent his bow towards the orcs on the far side of the bridge, picking off the smaller ones and making an impressive and irresistable target for their fellows. Unfortunately, his Shield was too effective. Countless volleys bounced off harmlessly, and the mighty half-ogre grew impatient.
An orc drew his axe and tried to cross the bridge, but Misty snapped at him as he approached, tripping him up and sending him plunging to his death. There were no more volunteers for THAT duty, so the half-ogre called forward two wolves of his own. They trotted across the bridge and started in on Misty.
Wulf and Halma were keeping things under control at the doors, but they were slowly being worn down by the orcs. They didn't hit often, but they hit hard, and it was taking its toll. The situation was desperate.
And the halfling? He'd retreated behind the cover of one of the rock columns. ("Fight, damn yer, fight!") He was feverishly trying to tie an inch thick hemp rope into a knot around an arrow shaft. ("FIGHT!") Despite the fact that he obviously knew nothing about knots, ropes, arrows, or physics, he spent several precious moments locked in concentration on this single, monumental task. ("I'll kill yer myself if we live through this!") He had a PLAN.
Oblivious to the fact that his allies were slowly dying around him, the gods took pity, and he finally secured a rope to an arrow. At last! He sent it hurtling towards the huge half-ogre. Missed! ("Blood and bones, fight, dammit!") He reeled in his arrow and took another shot-- this time at an easier, less-nimble orc. Thunk! The arrow buried itself into the orc's breastplate. With a mighty heave the little halfling dragged the orc off his feet and into the crevasse.
The halfling had a brief, shining moment of personal glory before he felt a tug, and realized that he was holding the other end of the rope. He was about to have his 70-pound body disappear into the crevasse right after the 200-pound body of the orc. He slipped towards the edge, unable to understand why he couldn't hold on to the rope (...closer...), why he couldn't simply give the rope a good tug so the arrow would pop out of the breastplate (...closer...). He'd be damned if he was going to go through all the trouble of tying ANOTHER rope onto an arrow. (...closer...) Oh! What if he didn't even HAVE another rope? (...almost!...)
"Ahhhh! Dammit! Noooooooooo..." Right at the edge of the crevasse, he finally let go. He watched sadly as his rope-arrow snaked out of sight into the darkness.
Wulf quickly looked around. Everyone was pretty well occupied. He could probably slip away for just a moment to give the halfling a quick boot over the edge... No one would see... Probably no one would care...
Unfortunately there was no time for such pleasant distractions. Behind the growing pile of orcs at the doors, another orc stepped up. Magical energies flashed in the air and there was a tense moment as Halma and Wulf fought off magical sleep. Trouble, indeed-- the orc witch was standing well behind her warriors. Wulf and Halma couldn't get at her if they wanted to. They bellowed at the useless halfling.
"Shoot the witch!"
"I have a better idea!" The halfing was rummaging in his pack again.
"SHOOT THE WITCH!"
"Let's see how she likes... THIS!" He came up with a vial of the viscous greek fire, heaved back his arm, and prepared to fling it over the swirling melee onto the witch behind. The world slowed to slow motion as the fighters watched the vial tumble end over end...
"Nooooooooo..." They'd been privy to his carelessness before, and bore the scars to prove it. Halma especially-- he'd developed an unnatural fear of fire since he'd started travelling with the halfling. He flinched instinctively as the vial sailed overhead...
...and splashed down perfectly onto the stones at the witch's feet. Her bodyguards fell in smoldering heaps and she ran shrieking back into the darkness, still on fire.
Wulf dispatched the last of the orcs at the doors and Halma was off like a shot, his sword in one hand and a torch in the other. Wulf grabbed for him, but it was too late.
"Ach. Well. No offense, friend, but it was nice knowing yer." Wulf slowly shut the doors and spiked them shut. "Good luck."
Wulf turned to view the battle still raging behind him. Misty was down; Keldas had dropped his bow at his feet and dropped down with his longsword to hold the bridge against the orcs' wolves. Wulf dashed forward and grabbed the elf's longbow, positioned himself behind him and started grabbing arrows out of his quiver, sending deadly shafts into the orcs on the far side. "Pick off the weak ones, peck. Yer better fight now or the next arrow has yer name on it."
Kellick was the next to go down. There was no way for him to stay covered, and still perform the selfless task of keeping the party healed. Wulf and Keldas were running out of stamina; even the halfling was taking his fair share of fire from the other side. Things had never looked so grim... when suddenly...
Halma came smashing through the secret door like a hammer! (A hammer of DEATH!) His greatsword had ample room on the other side of the bridge, and he cleaved through orcs with a skill and glee even Wulf could not match. The great half-ogre stepped up to fight Halma for the briefest of moments, before he took a staggering blow that made him think better of his decision. "Flee! Flee!" Their leader was off and running with some half-dozen orcs at his heels.
Wulf and Keldas worked quickly to dispatch their foes on the bridge, but not quick enough. They watched as the raging barbarian-- battered and bleeding from a dozen wounds-- was off in hot pursuit of his foes. Halma knew they were no match for his savage speed. The first straggler fell to his sword, while his comrades tried to widen the distance. The next straggler, too, went down. They were halfway down the mountain before the barbarian finally came to his senses and realized that, should they orcs turn on him in desperation, they would easily take him down en masse.
Halma turned and sped back up the mountain to rejoin his friends.
Halma returned to find his friends in a sorry state. Nobody was dead-- but they were all hanging on by no more than a thread, Halma included. Their most pressing problem was the fact that Kellick was down, and with him, their healing. There was no way they could go on, and no way they could make it back to town, either. And they needed to move-- fast.
Wulf dashed into the next room and easily sprung the lock holding the halfling prisoners. "Get out." ("Heh heh... Try not to bump into that half-ogre on your way down the mountain...") The halflings took one look at Wulf and the rest of the battered heroes and wisely concluded that a friendly escort back to town was out of the question. They dashed out and headed for town-- and the party's own halfing looked more than ready to join them.
Halma hoisted Kellick under one arm and Misty under the other, and surveyed the carnage.
Over forty dead orcs.
Crom, count the dead, indeed. But if that was just the welcoming party, the depths of the lair were not going to be any picnic.
The party decided to move out into the wilderness, not far from the mountain-- but not on the path home, either. If the orcs were going to send out a revenge party, they were going to have to track them down. Strangely, there was no reprisal, and within a couple of days the party was back to full strength and ready to assault the lair again.
The party was doubly cautious, but there was an eerie silence as they returned to the mountain. No guards waited for them at the mouth of the cave. Once again Wulf checked every step leading into the great mountain, extra thorough-- and this time, no one complained. The party slowly moved on to the rope bridge.
The bridge was cut. The bodies were gone. Wulf moved over to check the secret door for traps, when the halfling let out an agonizing wail. The party turned to see what terrible trap he'd sprung.
"I FORGOT TO LOOT ALL THOSE BODIES!"
Wulf silenced the halfling with a look and returned to his work on the secret door, eventually proclaiming it trap free. Halma stepped forward, well-used to the routine. "Open door now?"
Wulf and Keldas weren't sure. Maybe it would be better to get the bridge back up and go in the front door. Wulf felt certain he could climb across the side walls. Keldas didn't want to risk sending anyone across alone. Back and forth, they argued in hushed whispers, while the halfling paced the edge of the crevasse and wondered how many bodies were down there.
"I kick door now." Before the party "leaders" could dispute his rash decision, Halma booted the door open and surprised a pair of orc guards who were obviously, at that very moment, contemplating doing the exact same thing to the heroes. They didn't last long.
The party moved into the large room beyond. Keldas turned to Halma. "Is this the way you came before?"
"Aye, meant to ask yer about that... How did yer find your way back here?"
"Easy. Follow left hand wall."
"Good on yer, boy. Got a good head on yer shoulders-- keep it there."
"Yes, but do you recognize anything here?" Keldas wanted details. Any more guard rooms? A common room? Where were all the orcs?
"Dunno. Run through in dark. Drop torch to hold sword... kill orcs." Halma shrugged; the unlikely heroism of his solo dash through the orc lair was completely lost on him.
The party moved north through the deserted lair. A side passage led off to the right-- back to the atrium. Halma must have come that way. They continued north to a set of steps leading up into another hallway, where a statue kept solemn watch. The passage headed east, but turned north again rather quickly. A couple of doors branched off on the right, but the passage continued on and disappeared into the darkness ahead. Wulf cleared everyone out of the short hallway, posting Halma at one door, Keldas at another, and sending the halfling trotting up the hallway to keep an ear out to the north. "Just sit tight while I take a peek at this statue..."
"Right then..." Wulf rolled up his sleeves and checked it over. "If I know dwarf traps... an' I do... there ought to be a trigger plate here..." (click) "Bloody hell."
A cloud of poison gas puffed out of the statue and into the hallway. Wulf grit his teeth and waited for the burning to pass. "Now THAT'S how a dwarf finds a trap. (cough) All clear now, right."
Wulf rejoined the party, waiting safely in the northern hallway. He moved to the first door and crouched down to check the lock. Not locked. No traps. No sound. No problem. "Kick the door, Halma."
Next door. Not locked. No traps. No sound. No problem. "Again, Halma."
The orcs were ready and waiting. They loosed a pair of wolves onto the party and opened fire with their bows. A door across the room burst open, and the half-ogre leapt into the fray. "Who dares to challenge Big Ulfe?"
"Me again, ye daft bastard! Wulf Ratbane, back to finish the job!" Wulf took up position just outside the room, as Halma went into a rage and dashed in. Misty jumped past Wulf and crouched menacingly in the doorway to hold the spot that Halma had just vacated. With Wulf hurling javelins with both hands, and Halma already frenzied in their midst, the orcs were quickly put on the defensive. It looked to be an easy fight.
Unfortunately, things were not entirely as they seemed. The witch suddenly appeared in the corner, just as her spell took effect on Halma. Despite the hatred raging through his system, Halma's will faltered. The party watched helplessly as their front-line powerhouse slowly lowered his sword... and ran.
There was a mighty cheer from the orcs. Those with their axes drawn lashed out at the barbarian as he turned his back on them. He took several nasty wounds, stumbled, but kept going. It was all his friends could do to get out of his way as he burst out of the battle line and headed for the exit. They knew there was no way they would catch him.
Keldas was the first to regain his composure and react. He ordered everyone to back up and created a glittering, blinding cloud of dust in the doorway. Wulf and Misty stood just on the edge of the cloud and attacked anything foolish enough to charge through. A couple of wolves went down, but the orcs learned from their pets' mistake. When the cloud finally cleared, it was Big Ulfe who stepped through and dropped Misty in a single blow.
The halfling was maintaining his vigil to the north. ("Yep. All clear up here. Still... all... clear...")
This wasn't Wulf's kind of fight. He preferred a good honest "throttling from behind" to this "toe-to-toe with the enemy leader" business. But, if the party was going to survive, he was going to have to hold the line. Fortunately, he had Keldas at his back to help him. He felt the elf's light-fingered touch and energy infused his whole body. He'd seen this effect before-- Rapid Strikes, but he'd never been the lucky recipient. It was always Halma, the front line warrior, who got Keldas' enhancement spells. But this time, it was Wulf. He liked it. Oh, he liked it very much. His axe lashed out at an orcish-footsolider... then his dagger... and his axe again... He was suddenly the terrifying threshing machine he always fancied himself. ("Look ma! Two hands!")
Wulf fell back on his tried-and-true battle plan: Concentrate on the weakest link. He trusted to his incredible dwarven fortitude (and his rather un-dwarflike nimbleness) to weather the storm of blows that Big Ulfe rained down on him. And it worked. He took down every pissant warrior who dared to step up to the plate-- but was being slowly worn down by Big Ulfe. Every time the big half-ogre's axe came down, Wulf was certain it would be the last. He knew there was a fine line between a glancing blow and a nasty shot to the vitals.
Keldas-- who'd somehow never found the time to learn any flashy offensive spells, what with all his Transmutation studies-- used his trickery to Reduce Big Ulfe to half his size. Granted, a Magic Missile would have been more directly effective, but the Reduce was a lifesaver. It gave Kellick time to drag Misty out of the fight and bind her wounds.
And the halfling maintained his vigil to the north. ("Nothing to worry about up here, guys! Yep... all... clear...")
The orcs were running out of warriors, but Wulf was running out of stamina. Even another glancing blow from Ulfe's axe would take him out.
That axe... that was no orcish axe! At half size, Wulf could now see that Ulfe was wielding a normal battle-axe. Wulf could see the dwarven runes running across the blade, he could read the maker's mark: Durgeddin. So the orcs thought they could just take over a dwarven stronghold and loot their antiquities? Bloody hell they could! "Yer going r-r-right into the Book o' Grudges, ya p-r-rick!" Wulf was overcome with a renewed thirst for vengeance.
It didn't hurt that Wulf could hear Halma's footsteps returning up the hall-- it had a miraculous effect on his morale. Wulf leapt past the half-sized half-ogre and came up in a wide battle-stance behind him, and in mere moments Halma burst back into the fray. Ulfe was flanked-- a crazed barbarian on one side, and a bloodthirsty dwarven rogue on the other. May the Gods have pity on his soul.
Wulf struck first, and his ancestors smiled on the moment. His axe struck a vital spot and clove deep, deep, deep into the half-ogre's hide, dropping him to his knees. Keldas, ever the nimble opportunist, leapt into the room and drove his longsword into Ulfe's chest-- smiling with elven arrogance, as if to claim credit for the kill. Halma didn't have time to squabble over bragging rights-- there were still orcs to kill-- and he stalked across the room to kill the orc witch in a single blow. His greatsword made short work of the few orcs who tried to escape.
The halfling celebrated the sweet victory by returning to the room to go over the bodies and look for chests... and stuff. Wulf was pre-occupied with the battle axe Ulfe had been wielding, turning it over and over in his hands to admire the workmanship. There was no question that he'd lay claim to it. Nobody said a word, in fact.
Always handy with the obvious observation, Keldas stood over Wulf's shoulder, his trained gaze for all manner of the arcane carefully studying the runes covering the blade.
Wulf took the axe and hacked the heads off the half-ogre and the witch, then tucked the bloody souvenirs into his belt. Keldas and the halfling were going over the rest of the haul-- a few sacks of coins, some gems, a spare weapon or two. Halma was already pacing the floor, ready to head out and continue his crusade.
Wulf moved up to the passage to the north, still wary, but a little unsettled by the lack of orc activity. This last fight was nothing compared to the first massive battle, and the lair was mostly empty. Surely, there had to be more orcs-- and a tougher leader-- somewhere. Big Ulfe and this band of riff-raff couldn't possibly account for all the trouble the town was having.
The northern caves were mostly raw, unworked stone, but they eventually wound around to a large dwarven hall. A huge staircase in the center of the floor descended into the darkness, and two huge metal doors stood ominously at the far end.
The party made a wide berth around the staircase and moved up to check out the doors. The carvings on the doors attested to their dwarven craftsmanship. Wulf knelt down and pressed his ear to the door. Nothing. His eyes scanned the surface while his thick fingers sought out any hidden catches. Nothing. The dwarf was stumped.
"Safe? Open door now?" For Halma, every door was like a little birthday present he couldn't wait to open. There was always something interesting inside.
"Errrr... Aye. Safe enough." Wulf usually crouched behind Halma and waited to throw in his support, but something about this one told him to back away. ("Better yer than me...")
Wulf heard the inevitable click as Halma opened the door, and a fountain of alchemist's fire suddenly poured out onto Halma's head and shoulders. This was much worse than anything the halfling had ever done-- this time Halma was at ground zero. He dropped and rolled, and Wulf jumped to help douse the flames, but there wasn't much they could do. Halma howled and sizzled until the alchemist's fire had burned itself out. Kellick moved quickly to cast some healing magic over the young barbarian. He was young and strong. He'd survive.
"Good dwarven trap, that. Not surprised I missed it-- sorry." Wulf caught the doors as they were closing so he could get a better look inside before the trap reset itself. There was a small opening behind the doors-- just a closet, really. Inside were two tanks of liquid, with two tubes that ran up to the top of the door frame. It looked like the two chemicals mixed as they sprayed onto the victim, combining in mid-air to form the volatile alchemist's fire. Wulf didn't know anything about alchemy, but he knew a good trap when he saw one. And he could certainly think of a few good uses for two big vats of flammable chemicals. He just needed a little more careful study before he was willing to risk moving either of those vats.
Wulf cut a small length of rope off his roll and dipped it into the first chemical. Smelled a little funny, but he couldn't quite place the smell. Keldas came up behind him to lend his expertise. "Halma's going to be fine, I think. Kellick has him pretty well patched up. What are you doing with that rope?"
"Just a little test." Wulf was backing away from the door and eyeing the distance to the second vat. Toss a little piece of rope into the other vat, see what happens. Seemed to Wulf, there would have to be a limit to the reaction-- mix just a little bit of one chemical with the other, get just a little bit of fire.
"Wait a minute... No..." Keldas started backing away. Halma looked up in time to see Wulf readying his pitching arm. He turned on wobbly legs and started running as fast as he could. Wulf was only faintly aware of the chorus of screams behind him. (NO! NO NO NO NO!) He tossed the "fuse."
Sure, Wulf expected a little bit of an explosion, but he certainly wasn't expecting the tiny explosion from the rope to shatter both vats, causing a chain reaction as their contents spilled onto each other, mixed, and sent a huge fireball roaring up the hallway. Wulf's catlike reflexes saved him, and he tumbled out of the way just in time to watch Keldas take the full brunt of the expanding fireball right in the face. He was flung back like a ragdoll and didn't move. He just sort of sat there smoldering, defiantly hovering on death's door as if to say to Wulf, "I told you NOT to do that."
"Ach, for the love of..." Wulf stomped over and fished a healing draught out of his pack. "Drink this, ya big blubberin' girl."
Kellick scowled at Wulf. "I'm out of healing. You'll have to carry him back to town."
Halma was defiant. "No more doors! Fire BAD!"
The halfling raised an eyebrow. "That was COOL."
Wulf felt that Fate had once again dealt him an opportunity. He was, for the moment at least, the only voice of reason in the group. And he couldn't help but notice they were all looking at him, as if to say,
Please. Lead us.
They'd been over every inch of the upper level, and hadn't found any more orcs. The orc menace couldn't possibly be over, but Wulf was in no hurry. They'd just have to head down onto the lower levels to find the rest of the orcs and their leader. Then they could get paid. If there was anything in life sweeter than the righteous butchery of evildoers, it was getting paid for the righteous butchery of evildoers.
"Aye, then. We head back to town. Resupply, get some more healin' potions, come back an' find the leader. Let's go."
Their first stop back in town was with the baron. Wulf had confidently shouldered the burden of leadership, so he decided to head the delegation. He wasn't much on diplomacy, but he felt assured that his usual blunt approach would do just fine. After all, everybody respected honesty.
"Here, we brought yer some heads, " Wulf said, pulling the grim souvenirs from under his belt, "but there's probly more left, so we'll be going back-- just as soon as yer pay us." The dwarf stood with his new axe in one hand and his other hand knotted into a bloody fist in the orcs' topknots. He tossed the heads towards the baron so he could get a better look.
"Now... That big bastard there, gotta admit, not sure he's the leader, so don't feel like yer have to pay us the whole bounty right now. But..." He held up his axe. "I figure yer got some kind of perfumed fop around here what can tell me a little about this axe. I hate to disturb yer lordship's bard from an entire afternoon of the usual buggery, but I figure it's a fair trade. Fair is fair, right." Wulf bowed low, to emphasize his sincerity. This diplomacy business was a snap. ("Easy as goblin pie.")
Frankly, the baron seemed eager to help out. The audience was over almost as soon as it started-- to the party's satisfaction. They had a few more coins in their pockets, and Wulf's axe was being studied by the finest minds that perfumed foppery had to offer.
They stopped off at the inn to divide up the workload. Kellick was going to rest with Keldas, perhaps scribe a scroll or two while Keldas studied a few of the magic items they'd found; Halma was off to the countryside to chase livestock; the halfling was gone, nobody cared where; and Wulf went to visit the local priest to buy some more healing potions. He was well pleased to find an old dwarf in charge.
"Well met, Old Man! Praise Moradin," Wulf held his hand high in the sign of the hammer, "...an' long live the dwarves! Ahh.. Right, well, as yer probly know, we're the heroes the baron hired to rout the orcs out of the mountain up there. So seein' as how we're the hammers of righteousness and the anvils of goodness, or summat like that, yer ought to get handy with the healin' and the cut-rate prices. An' I don't think I even need to mention how pleased the Father would be if yer could help, in yer own feeble, aged, an' peaceful way, to speed up the cleansin' of His people's mountain. Yer gotta do what yer can, right? Ahh... Praise Moradin!" Wulf made the hammer sign again.
The old dwarf stared back at Wulf in that creepy, all-seeing, all-knowing way that only shriveled old priests can manage. He seemed to be weighing the very measure of Wulf's soul, who sat desperately trying to assume the proper look of piety, righteousness, and heroism.
"Regular prices, see the acolyte on the way out." (Blood and bones! Damn priests!)
The party spent a few more days in preparation, feeling completely at their leisure to return to the mountain on their own time. Wulf purchased a fine pair of mules-- ostensibly to haul out all the treasure they were hoping to recover, but more specifically to haul in several flasks of alchemist's fire and lamp oil. Keldas and Halma gave the mules a wide berth, but Wulf had no problem walking right next to them. He was fond of them, but didn't bother naming them, referring to them only as the mules-- a kind of emotional insurance against their inevitable demise. He looked over at the halfling as he pondered this.
But by far his thoughts were preoccupied with the axe he'd recovered from the baron's loremasters. The maker's mark was indeed Durgeddin, and the axe's name was Taranak. They'd told him the axe would burst into flame if it struck just so; and that in fact, the wielder could cause it to flame up on command-- if he only knew the command word. Naturally, they hadn't been able to discover the command word, so the short trip to the mountain was made longer by Wulf's incessant tinkering with command words.
Wulf looked around to make sure his companions weren't listening.
Wulf carefully took the saddlebags off the mules and tied them up in the mouth of the cave with their feed bags. He rounded up the group to pass out alchemist's fire and oil, but everybody seemed a little skittish-- except the halfling, of course. The little pyromaniac grabbed two flasks of each and moved his tinderbox to his belt pouch, right next to a couple of torches he always kept handy. Wulf satisfied himself with just a couple of flasks of oil-- since Halma insisted he wouldn't stand anywhere near Wulf if he was carrying alchemist's fire. It was neat stuff, but nowhere near as useful as having a barbarian at your side.
They were surprised to find the upper caves still empty, but they moved on to the staircase nevertheless. The group crept closer to the gaping stairway and peered into the darkness. Wulf turned to the halfling. "Hear anything?"
"Sounds like... wings flapping. I think they're getting clo..."
A small swarm of leathery-winged creatures came flapping out of the darkness and swarmed over the party. Wulf saw one of the creatures land on Halma and insert a narrow tube-like mouth into his back. Almost immediately the creature flushed red as it sucked the blood out of the barbarian. Halma went white and a bit wobbly in the knees as the halfling jumped up and drew his dagger, trying to skewer the creature off the barbarian's back. "Hold still! I think I can stab it for you if you'd just hold still!"
The party watched with fascination as the halfling danced around the barbarian, trying to stab the creature on his back, when suddenly the air was split by the shrill sound of a woman screaming. Keldas turned quickly, his keen eyes trying to spot the source. "What the...?"
It was Wulf. One of the creatures had settled on his shoulder and was trying to poke its feeder tube through his armor. "Getthisfilthythingoffme! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!" Wulf dropped his axe and grabbed the critter with his bare hand. It struggled, squealed, and sunk its feeder tube into his hand, but Wulf quickly crushed the life out of it. He dropped the feathery abomination onto the ground as the rest of the creatures retreated back into the darkness.
The halfling had taken care of Halma and the whole group was staring at Wulf, who was busy sucking the blood off his wounded hand, mumbling. "...get that back where it belongs..."
Keldas was the first to speak. "Well, that was... different. Didn't know you were scared of anything-- let alone a little stirgy."
"Not scared... I just don't like... Well, look at HIM!" Wulf pointed at Halma, who was looking extremely pale and pekid. "No tellin' what kinds of nasty diseases these filthy vermin are spreadin' around. Just protective of my health, yer know-- don't want to end up all pasty-looking, like a namby elf. Hmph."
Wulf gathered himself and crept down the stairs ahead of the party, his eyes scanning the dark ceiling, his ears straining for the sound of flapping wings-- but it was too hard to hear over the sound of running water nearby. He grabbed the halfling and hauled him close. "Yer hear anything, tell me quick, right?"
"I don't hear anything... but something sure smells funny..."
Reptilian shapes seemed to melt out of the walls. Trogs. Crude javelins sought out the two scouts-- the halfling tumbled away quickly, but Wulf stood his ground and took a shot or two with grim satisfaction. He calmly pulled out his own javelins and returned fire, establishing right away that this was his enemies' surest path to defeat. They got the message and pulled out stone axes to close.
By now Wulf expected Halma to be wading in amongst them, but the big barbarian was looking even worse than before-- doubled over, clutching his stomach in nausea. Keldas looked little better. Wulf quickly drew his axe and dagger and stepped back a bit to protect his allies. Halma rallied as soon as the troglodytes were close enough to threaten him, but there was little enthusiasm behind his blows.
The situation got rapidly worse when a giant lizard was whipped up from the back ranks and sent in to attack the party. Wulf stepped up to intercept it and the halfling tumbled around behind it. The two rogues took it on together, each one stabbing it from behind as it turned to engage the other. Wulf struck a particularly telling blow and Taranak exploded into flame. ("NOW we're cookin!") The lizard slumped to the floor but Wulf was afraid to relax his grip on the burning axe, lest it extinguish itself.
With Keldas and Kellick to help him, Halma had finished off all the trog warriors. He was still looking pale and nauseous when the fight ended. Wulf looked over in disgust. "What's wrong with yer boy?"
"What?" Wulf sniffed. "That? I've ATE worse than that. Pull yerself together. What do yer expect when yer farm yerself out for the local vermin. See? Take care of yerself like I do and yer'll have the fortitude to ignore a lot worse than bad smells. Hmph."
Trog tracks led over to a small stream that disappeared under the wall. After some wrangling, the halfling was persuaded to strip down and wade into the chilly water to explore beyond. The stream cut through the wall into the next cavern-- it wasn't deep, and there was a bit of air at the top. The party crossed through-- Wulf last, holding Taranak safely above the water.
They met very little resistance from troglodytes from that point on. With Wulf's axe adding punishing fire to his already vicious blows, and Halma able to resist any further nausea, they kept their distance and the party was able to explore the criss-crossing caverns full of streams. Wulf kept careful maps and steered the party in the right direction. Eventually they came upon a huge cavern filled with dwarven sarcophagi.
The halfling skipped out into the cavern and twirled around. "Yes! Now we're talking! Let's loot these coffins-- bound to be some more cool weapons buried with these dwarves..."He scanned the nameplates, looking for somebody who sounded important.
"How bout we don't?" Wulf stepped forward and stared the halfling down.
"What?" The halfling honestly couldn't understand what was going on.
"Yer really think I'm going to let yer loot my ancestors?"
"I said, yer not gonna loot these. Let's move on." Wulf pointed to the sloping path that led out the other side of the cavern.
"Now just hold on a minute! I bet you'd loot a HALFLING sarcophagus, wouldn't you?"
"Yer seem to fail to grasp the purpose of a sarcophagus. They're built to honor heroes and warriors. Why would halflings have a sarchophagus? Yer don't build a sarcophagus for farmers and thieves. Just toss 'em on the nearest compost heap and be done with it."
"Well, you didn't seem to have any objection to looting that elven crypt under the Sunless Citadel."
"Ach... It's not my fault Keldas didn't speak up. Yer come from a race where bloody everybody fancies himself a prancin' prince, I guess yer lose respect for yer ancestors. Keldas wants to defile his own dead-- not my problem."
"Well, I say we take a VOTE on it. I say we loot these."
"Suit yerself-- but yer should know, there's a guardian watching over these crypts."
"Oh yeah? What?"
"A bloodthirsty dwarf who's just looking for an excuse."
Keldas stepped in to end the argument. "Let's respect the dead. Come on." He pointed the halfling to the opposite path.
"Fine!" The halfling stomped off down the path. "We're just going to WALK AWAY from probably the best treas-AAAAAH!"
The halfling was halfway down the sloping path when the wall beside him exploded. Some new kind of creature lashed out of the hole and grabbed him with four tentacles, hauling him closer where its beak shredded his armor and tore into his flesh.
The halfling struggled and tried to flick his dagger out of its wrist sheath. Halma dashed forward and slashed at the creature, but his mighty greatsword bounced off its hide. It was unharmed.
The halfling gave up on his dagger and started fishing for his alchemist's fire, but the creature gave another mighty snap and dropped his bleeding, battered body onto the stones. The creature flailed about, looking for more live prey.
Wulf had the only magic weapon in the party. He dashed forward and laid Taranak into the creature, and was rewarded as a gash appeared across its hide-- not much, but it was something. In return the creature focused its attention on Wulf, wounding him badly. Halma saw his friend in jeopardy and dashed forward, hoping to distract the creature; Keldas prepared to cast Rapid Strikes on Wulf. The halfling just lay there, pouring his life's blood out onto the stones. Everybody had something more important to do than drag his body out from underfoot and bind his wounds. In moments, the halfling would be dead.
Yep. Mere... moments. Just a few... seconds... more.
"Oh for the love of..." Kellick moved forward, risking the creature's grasp as he focused all his attention on healing the little halfing's wounds. He pulled the halfling to safety and watched over him while the party finished off the worm creature.
"Yer saved his life, Kellick." Wulf frowned.
"I know." Kellick frowned too. "I just... I just couldn't let him die. Who knows? You'll see. Someday, when I lie at death's door, gasping my last breath, he'll be there to return the favor."
DM: "The crypt is full of statues of elven warriors."
Keldas: "How realistic are the statues?"
Wulf: "Not very. He said they were elven warriors."
A few healing potions later, the party continued down the path, which emptied into a huge cavern with a stout iron door at one end. Wulf took a quick look at the lock-- dwarven craftsmanship-- and decided that it was better to leave a locked door behind them than an open passage. The party moved on through the large cavern and up into the smaller galleries above, where more grick awaited them. Wulf had the only weapon capable of piercing their rubbery hides, so he moved up front and left the party a few paces behind. He wasn't particularly happy about being grick-bait, but then he'd be damned if he'd sully the scout's honor with a lot of peck-like whining and groveling. It was tough work. Despite the fact that they could hear the grick tunneling through the walls, and that they were all wary and traveling with weapons bared, they were constantly surprised by grick bursting from the walls around them. It took its toll on Wulf, but fortunately Kellick was around to keep him healed.
The halfling's brush with death, as well as the constant threat from the grick, put the whole party in a rather sombre mood, and their own mortality was the pre-eminent topic of conversation. Kellick insisted that, should he ever go to that big Grove in the Sky, the party was under no circumstances to disturb his eternal rest by Raising him from the dead-- no, nor even Reincarnating him-- NO, not even as a badger, dire or otherwise. Wulf agreed and promised that he'd personally make sure Kellick was properly "planted" to nourish the earth. Maybe even tip back a brew or two in Kellick's honor and add a little extra fertilizer. Kellick seemed satisfied but the dark mood never left him.
The party spent a while longer cleaning out the caves-- more grick, more trogs, some yellow mold and even a roper-- leaving only the iron door between them and the unknown. Wulf tried his lockpicks on the door but was confounded by the clever craftsmanship. Keldas suggested a return to town for some Knock scrolls as well as more supplies.
The mules were still doing fine, still happily tethered up in the cave entrance-- evidence (as if they still needed it) that the orcs were gone for good. They loaded up the treasure they'd accumulated and returned to town.
While Wulf crafted another masterwork chain shirt for himself, Keldas took a little time out to study Taranak and was able to discover the command word.
DM: Uhh... The command is the dwarven word for ‘the molten rock at the heart of the volcano.’
Wulf: Right. Which is…?
DM: [stares blankly]
Wulf: Uhh… Right. I say ‘the dwarven word for the molten rock at the heart of the volcano.’
DM: Right. The axe bursts into flame.
Wulf: Right. Ok!
Another quick visit with the Old Man and the party was once again off to the mountain, their packs bulging variously with oil, healing potions, and scrolls. They quickly moved through the deserted upper caves and stopped before the stout iron door leading to the unknown. Wulf pulled Halma aside to give Keldas access to the door.
"Right then. Knock 'er open."
"Well, I would... only I don't have a Knock spell ready."
"Yer spent days up in yer room scribblin' away... I thought yer were making a scroll to get past this door. We talked about this on the way back!"
"Well, I didn't get to it. I was busy scribing new spells into my spellbook."
"This is the last door we have to pass to get any further! Ach, for the love of..." Wulf grabbed his locksmith's tools and stepped up to the door to take another look at the lock. Still, no clue. He turned and started back the way they came.
"Where are you going?"
"Well I'm not bloody sleepin' outside the bloody door so who-knows-bloody-what can bust out and beat us-- while yer got yer nose in yer damn books! Back to the top, let's go!"
A few hours later the party was past the door, descending narrow steps into a small room guarded by three large statues: dour dwarven warriors, with wide bronze axes held high. Each ominous statue stood impassively watching a different exit.
Wulf halted the party at the entrance. "Better let a dwarf go first."
"Careful! This could be a trap!" the halfling chimed in. Wulf turned to stare at him for a moment before walking in.
"If there be spirits here, this is Wulf Ra-... ahh... Wulf Kraggson, son of Krag Bladebeard, an' I'm here to reclaim these halls for dwarven kin! Let none defile the works of Durgeddin!" He waited a moment for something to happen. "Hmm... And, praise Moradin!"
Wulf sniffed. "Right. That oughtter do it. Yer can come on in now."
The party remained huddled outside the room.
Wulf moved over to the door to his left and crouched down to check it for traps, his nimble fingers once again crawling expertly over the surface and around the edges, looking for the inevitable trip-wire or latch that would... <click>
There was a screech of metal as the huge bronze statue swung its axe down in a wide arc, slicing through Wulf's armor and gouging into his shoulder. He rolled with the blow as best he could and quickly turned so he could watch the mechanism reset itself. The arm had already returned to its former position but Wulf could see the tell-tale signs of the clockwork where it had disturbed the dust. "Clever work, that..."
Satisfied that the danger in the room wasn't other-worldly, the rest of the party crept in. The halfling, fancying himself something of a scout himself, moved over to check out the other two doors.
"Get back..." Wulf grabbed the halfling and pulled him away.
"Hey, look, just because YOU lack the skill to find a trap doesn't mean I do."
"I found 'er just fine, peck. Now get out of the way while I disable this next one."
"Suit yourself, but I can see from here that the trip wires are very cleverly hidden and it is going to take phenomenal dexterity to get past... Hey... whatcha doing?"
Wulf climbed up onto the shoulders of the second bronze statue and brought Taranak up in a blazing arc, then down onto the shaft of the axe. Whang! Taranak was unharmed, but the statue was scored. Wulf shrugged and finished dis-arming the trap. Clang! Bang! Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bink.
Keldas was scowling up at him. "Well, they know we're here NOW I guess."
"Let 'em know! Let 'em come!" Wulf climbed up onto the shoulders of the last statue to repeat the job. "That's right! (bang) Wulf (clang) Ratbane is here (bang) with fire and axe (whang), to purge any of yer (bang) defilers who fancy a righteous taste o' boot!" (bink bink bink...)
Wulf hopped down and opened both doors, stepping easily out of reach of the weaponless statues. Both doors opened onto a solid wall, but Keldas spotted a secret door behind the third one. Once again, the party moved through and entered a narrow hallway, with barely enough room for one person at a time to pass. Another door awaited them on other side, but as they reached the center of the short passage, a woman's voice cried out, "Intruders! Turn back!"
The voice spoke dwarven, but with a strange accent Wulf could not place. Perhaps it was simply an older dialect, from when Durgeddin still walked his halls. Keldas confirmed that it was some kind of magic message-- it might very well have been around for thousands of years. Wulf shrugged and opened the second door.
It opened onto a grand hall, stretching away into the darkness to a raised platform with a throne. Huge stone pillars reached into the blackness above, arching up to support what Wulf could only imagine was an intricately carved dome. It was dwarven workmanship at its finest-- and very old.
The creepy, old, strangely-accented woman's voice spoke again. "Who are you to intrude into our halls?" Wulf stepped alone into the room. Creepy disembodied voices? No problem. He raised his arms and his eyes to the dark ceiling.
"Oh mighty spirits of my ancestors! I am called Wulf, an' I'm here to defend these halls against any who would defile them!"
"Turn back. We guard these halls now."
Wulf turned to look at his companions for help. They all shrugged and pointed back at him, giving him the thumbs up. ("You're doing great!")
"Uhh... Who are yer, again, exactly? Is this the spirit of Durgeddin?"
"Durgeddin was a weak fool, to allow these halls to fall to the orcs! Now we have reclaimed them. You are not needed here. Turn back-- or you will all pay dearly!"
"Oh really?" Wulf hitched his thumbs into his belt and took a step forward. "Now listen to me, yer creepy old bi-- ack!"
A half-dozen crossbow bolts sprouted in Wulf's chest and arms as duergar warriors appeared from thin air. Wulf was instantly knocked to the ground and lay dying. The smug look on the female duergar was the last thing he saw.
The agony! One minute, a proud dwarven warrior in the prime of his life; the next moment, flat on his back, lying there helplessly as his barbarian buddy trampled his battered body in a mad dash to slaughter. Well, come to think of it, that wasn't so bad after all. He could hear the sounds of battle as the duergar were killed or driven off. Kellick propped him up and plied him with healing potions, and Wulf was soon back on his feet.
"Praise... Nature! Or the grass, or... ach, ferkit... Whatever..." He patted Kellick on the head and swept up his axe to follow his comrades.
The duergar had fled to the far end of the hall and out a side door. They posted Misty in the hall to guard their backs and booted the door in hot pursuit.
The door opened onto Durgeddin's forges, and the party was surprised to find them blazing hot, some with blackened blades still lying in the coals. They had little time to gawk at this interesting turn of events, for almost immediately duergar warriors sprang onto them with longswords. Behind the forges and across a narrow stream, the duergar woman was directing her warriors-- and preparing to cast a spell.
Naturally, Halma was the first into the room, desperate to cut a path right to the sorceress, but he was soon surrounded by warriors. Kellick and the halfling moved in and off to the left; Wulf got out his sling and started trying to pelt the sorceress, who was soon protected by multiple glimmering images. Keldas stepped just inside the doorway, with Misty guarding the door at his back, and started trying to conjure up some counter magic.
The party soon found themselves facing bigger problems. Without warning, the duergar doubled or tripled in size. The freakishly huge duergar were suddenly deadly effective, and their swords struck with a force that could fell a bull.
Halma managed to kill a couple of warriors, but they concentrated their attacks on him and soon brought the naive young warrior to his knees. There was a yelp from the doorway, and suddenly more duergar were pouring into the room at their backs. Keldas was quickly surrounded. Wulf watched with admiration as the elf dropped his pouch of spell components and his longsword came whistling out in a flash of silver. The furious elf charged in, catching the duergar off guard for a moment, but soon he, too, lay bleeding on the floor.
Wulf drew axe and dagger and stepped onto the bridge across the stream, trying to keep the enemy from surrounding him. A warrior stood between Wulf and the duergar sorceress. Wulf brought his axe down on the warrior and used his dagger on the sorceress, trying to whittle down her mirrored images.
The halfling was tumbling around the center of the room, dashing in to stab the enemy in the flanks whenever the opportunity presented itself-- and tossing vials of alchemist's fire when they did not. Before long, a large warrior with a double-bladed sword stepped up to engage the halfling, and in mere moments, the peck was sprawled across the floor.
Wulf held his position on the bridge. The sorceress' familiar, a rat, kept nipping at Wulf's flank, delivering shocking bolts of electricity through a magical link. Try as he might, Wulf could not afford to ignore the rat to concentrate on the sorceress. On the other hand, he didn't want to kill the oversized critter and allow the double-sword warrior to step onto the bridge and into his flank.
The warrior summed up the situation and simply jumped across the stream, onto Wulf's other flank. (Didn't think of that.) The little rat seemed to laugh.
"All right yer prick... time ter meet Mr. Ratbane..." Wulf slashed at the rat with the fiery Taranak, but the rat nimbly dashed aside-- to be pinned against the ground the dagger in Wulf's other hand. "Works ever' time."
Little time to celebrate-- Wulf still had to contend with two warriors and the sorceress.
The halfling suddenly sat up-- "Ha! I was faking! Suckers! Ha ha ha!"-- and pulled out his last flask of oil. He was long since out of alchemist's fire, but he tossed the oil across the blazing forges and onto the duergar across the room. Wulf saw that Kellick was backed against the wall there, desperately trying to use a Flaming Sphere to hold off two warriors intent on flanking him. The ball of fire danced from side to side, scorching each of the duergar in turn, but they were able to keep up their attacks on the little gnome until Kellick, too, fell. The angry warriors turned to attack the halfling who had doused them with oil. They charged, chasing the halfling around the forges, until one of them fell over dead from the residue of the burning oil.
Wulf shouted to the halfling. "Quick! Save Kellick! Use yer potion! I got that one for yer!" While the red-hot Taranak kept his opponents at bay, Wulf flipped his dagger over and prepared to hurl it backhanded at the last warrior out on the main floor.
"No way! Too dangerous! He can wait!" The halfling drew his dagger and danced about with the last warrior, looking for an opportunity.
Wulf had no choice but to turn his attention back to his own opponents. The sorceress stepped away and vanished, leaving a furious Wulf to deal with her underlings. In just a few short strokes his axe and dagger had finished off the last of the warriors-- but he could hear the invisible sorceress retreating over a dark cliff at the north end of the forges.
Wulf wasted no time on what could not be helped, and concentrated on what could. He charged back across the bridge and helped the halfling finish off the last warrior.
"Now! Grab a potion for Kellick! Quick!"
The halfling rummaged through Keldas' pack and came up with a healing draft. He raced across the floor to check on Kellick, while Wulf checked Halma and Keldas for vitals. They'd make it. Halma was merely knocked out, and Keldas could be brought back almost to full strength with a single healing draught.
The loyal gnome had gasped his last breath while the halfling was tumbling about with the last warrior. If he'd acted a moment sooner, Kellick would have made it.
The silence on the other side of the room spoke volumes. Wulf looked up from Keldas and locked eyes with the halfling. One pair of eyes, grim and furious. The other pair widened with sudden, frightening realization.
Wulf wrestled with the moral dilemma set before him. By all that was good and right in the universe, the halfling deserved to die. He needed to die; it was a karmic certainty that Wulf felt down to his bones. But the rest of the party was unconscious, and Wulf felt the burden of the responsibility settling uncomfortably onto his shoulders. He could see the peck's beady little eyes flicking towards the exit, measuring the paces to safety. The right thing to do was to finish him off now.
Wulf searched through his backpack for a healing draught. He could drink it now, and even battered as he was, the sneaky little peck was no match for him in a stand-up fight. Wulf didn't like stand-up fights. He itched to throttle the little bastard in his sleep.
The problem was, he needed the halfling right now-- more than the halfling needed to die. Wulf sighed at his lack of moral strength. Like so many times before, what was good and right took a back seat to Wulf's own self-interests. There were more duergar roaming around the halls-- he felt sure he wouldn't make it out alone.
Wulf slowly unknitted his furious brows and put away his weapons to set the halfling at ease. "Get over here and make yerself useful. Get Keldas back on his feet." He eased Halma up and poured the last drops of his healing potion down his friend's throat.
The halfling seemed satisfied that he was in no immediate danger, and he quickly scuttled over to restore Keldas to consciousness as well. Wulf brought his groggy comrades up to speed.
"The halfling let Kellick die. We gotta get out o' here."
Wulf heaved Kellick's tiny, broken body under one arm, and set Taranak ablaze in his other hand. "Let's go."
They nearly tripped over Misty's body on the way out. Keldas stopped them. "We should get Misty too; bury them together."
"Yer wastin' time on a dead wolf?"
"Misty was a valuable ally through many battles. How many times did she come to your aid?"
"Just doin' what she was trained to do, that's all. Yer gonna carry her, fine. Cause we got no time to waste." Wulf kept moving through the great hall. The halfling didn't seem to care, either; he had nothing to say and was already on the way out.
Keldas struggled, trying to heave the big wolf across his back. "I'm not leaving her here." It was easy to forget that, at heart, Keldas was an arrogant, superior, and utterly intolerable elf. Wulf was somewhat grateful for the reminder.
Halma stopped and easily heaved the carcass over one shoulder. "I carry. Now go."
Wulf was in a sour mood. The halfling still walked this world among the quick, an affront to the gods-- and Wulf felt personally responsible. He struggled to find patience with Keldas. "Fine, fine. We'll build the damn wolf a sarcophagus-- ain't that right, peck?"
They set out down the mountain. Wulf led them off the path to the hole where they'd previously buried their cache of breastplates. "Let's bury Kellick right here. It's a good spot. Keep his body near the place where his soul parted ways." He dumped the body into the hole. "Godspeed, Kellick."
Halma slung Misty into the hole as well. There was barely room for the two of them. Wulf started looking around for rocks to build a cairn over the shallow grave.
Keldas sighed. "I don't suppose you could be bothered to dig a fresh grave for each of them?"
The long walk home was grim and silent. Wulf spent his time at the halfling's side. "Some things are gonna change, peck. Yer gonna make up for what yer did. Yer gonna learn to fight if I have to kill yer."
True to his word, Wulf spent his days training with the little peck, who turned out to be a surprisingly apt pupil. Wulf gave up trying to teach him how to put his strength behind his dagger thrusts, since it was obvious the halfling was long on agility and short on strength. He had a natural talent for finding the weakness in his opponent's defenses, weaving his little dagger in and out with finesse.
"Not bad. Now use yer other hand." Wulf forced the halfling to switch hands, and when he'd mastered that, showed him how to fight with a dagger in each hand. It was frighteningly effective.
The training wasn't without its benefits for Wulf, too. The halfing's sparring kept him constantly on his toes, and Wulf soon learned to anticipate the danger, often dodging before the halfling's strike had even begun. It was a useful talent.
But Wulf hadn't forgotten or forgiven. Each night he sat with Halma, learning a few phrases of Giant-kind. Wulf was eager to share a common language with Halma-- one that the rest of the group couldn't understand. Wulf felt that Halma was the only one he could really trust, when the time came to do what must be done.
Wulf made one last trip to the old man to explain their situation and beg for help.
"Well, old man, Durgeddin's halls are full of duergar. Yer a dwarf, I know yer can't like that. Are yer finally willing to help us or not? The damn gnome up and died on us. We need some cheap healin' if yer expect us to go back and do Moradin's work."
"Duergar? This is dire news indeed. Healing potions alone will not suffice; no doubt you'll need a cleric of Moradin to reconsecrate the halls."
"Now yer talking! Pack yer bags and fire up the Flame Strike, old man!"
"Oh no! I won't be going myself! Heavens, no. I can send an acolyte, though, that Moradin's strength and protection may go with you. Diessa!"
The curtains parted and a young female dwarf stepped into the room.
Wulf raised one eyebrow. "How YOU doin'?"
Wulf was in much better spirits when at last they set out for the mountain again, despite the fact that it was pointless trying chat up Diessa. Her only concern was reclaiming the halls for the glory of Moradin-- and Wulf had little luck convincing her of his devotion. He scraped the corners of his mind for the proper words, but he'd paid little attention religion as a child and even less through his adult life.
"Praise Moradin!" He made his fist into the sign of the hammer. He was sure there was something about a hammer. Or a fist.
Diessa was unmoved. Wulf was a little disappointed that he'd had more rapport with Kellick than he could muster with one of his own people-- and a lady at that. He shrugged. In the end, blood and battle were his loves. He had little use for religion and even less for romance-- either or both could be bent to his needs, and he was happy.
"Look... Yer just take care of me, and I'll take care of yer, ok?"
Once again the group made their way down to the Great Hall, once again an alarm called out a warning at their approach, and once again, they poured into the Great Hall to do battle.
This time, the duergar had reinforcements. A dozen warriors, backed up by their sorceress leader. No problem-- the party met them blow for blow. It was when the drow stepped out from behind the dais that the party started to re-assess the situation.
Drow-- one male, one female-- pulling out all the old tricks. Darkness, invisibility, and a bevy of unholy spells made the battle more desperate. Diessa did her best to counter the evil priestess and protect her party. Keldas was livid, eschewing his spells and drawing his sword to do battle face to face. The drow were unimpressed by his headlong charge, hurling insults and striking back with sword and mace, but when Halma joined the battle, and Wulf and the halfling moved into place on their flanks, their resolve crumbled. The duergar chieftain threw warriors into the fray to cover their escape-- invisibly, once again. The heroes were frustrated once more-- eventually victorious over the warriors, but not the leaders, and too wounded to risk tracking down an invisible foe. They retired to the surface caves to rest-- and plan a more successful assault.
It was clear that Diessa would prepare an Invisibility Purge as well as Dispel Magic. Wulf stood over Keldas' shoulder and did his best to understand his spellbook, annoying the wizard with his constant kibitzing and second-guessing of his spell preparation.
"Yer takin' Rapid Strikes, right?"
"Yeah! Rapid strikes!" Halma joined in, lobbying hard for what Wulf called "Fightin' Smack."
"Maybe I'll take one. I want to be ready with Glitterdust, though."
"What!?" In the countless times Keldas had tried to use Glitterdust to reveal invisible foes, he'd always guessed their location wrong and wasted the spell. "That thing is useless! Give us webs and acid arrows! Yer need some real smack if yer want to fight drow!"
Wulf gave up and went to rest against the wall while the spellcasters prepared.
The party crept back down to the Great Hall-- no alarm awaited them in the entry. They crept into the hall, wary of invisible ambushers, but the hall was silent. They could still hear the sound of the forges being worked off to the west, but they opted to enter the door at the end of the hall, behind the dais-- from whence they'd seen the drow arrive before.
The party gathered up quietly and burst suddenly into the small room. The duergar sorceress was there, flanked by the drow and a few duergar warriors. She stood and spoke to the party. "You should not have returned!" Crossbows creaked as the warriors leveled them at the party.
Wulf quickly stepped to the front. "Hold yer fire!" The duergar hesitated just long enough for Wulf to sense an opportunity. They were willing to parlay? The situation was tense, so Wulf proceeded with the utmost diplomacy.
"Right. Look. Yer fight pretty good, and we can fight again if yer want, but yer know we're just gonna keep killing yer boys off and comin' back. And maybe yer might get lucky and kill another one of us. Nobody wants that, right?"
"What do you propose, then?" The warriors eased their aim just a little.
Wulf glanced at the drow and took another bold step forward. He spoke quickly in Undercommon, trying to remember the right words, and addressing the priestess directly. "Aluvé! We make a deal. We can fight. You pay us good, we do not kill you. Kill whoever you want."
The drow priestess spoke up and gestured at Keldas. "You consort with our hated brethren. Why should we trust you?"
Wulf was pretty sure his comrades couldn't understand what was being said, but he glanced back just the same. They looked nervous and confused-- Keldas looked angry, but he wisely held his tongue. Wulf plowed on, speaking comfortably in Undercommon as the old language started to come back to him.
"Who do you think is in charge? An elf, a peck, a boy, and a woman. And then there is me. Do not worry about them."
Halma was fidgeting, his sword quivering. He whispered to Wulf, "What you say to bad elves?"
Wulf quickly spoke to the priestess, switching for a moment to the gutteral Giant tongue. "It help if you speak Giant. You speak?"
The drow male snapped at Wulf. "Stop grunting at her with that gibberish! Show some respect!"
Wulf chuckled to himself and turned to Halma, whispering in their shared language. "It's ok, we not fight them now, come kill later... Good?" Halma nodded.
Wulf turned back to the priestess. "The boy respects your power. We do not want to kill any more of you in pointless battles. We only want to pass by to plunder the deeper halls. You see the value of a truce?"
The drow conferred for a moment with the duergar sorceress. At length she spoke up. "We see the wisdom of a truce at this time. The halls to the west contain many undead, and we do not wish to deal with them at this time. You may try your luck there. If you do not disturb us here or in the forges to the east, you may keep what plunder you may find."
Wulf bowed low.
The drow priestess spoke, almost as an afterthought, "And should you seek out the deeper levels, you will find a young dragon that has taken up residence there. She has some small amount of treasure you may wish to recover."
Wulf nearly fell over in his surprise. A wh-- did she say?-- Wulf composed himself. "Very well. Thank you. Farewell."
Wulf turned and hustled his comrades back out the door and into the Great Hall. Keldas spoke up immediately. "Look, I don't know what that was all about, but I am not making any alliance with drow-- as if we could trust them!"
"Quit yer blubbering! I just bought us some time, that's all. They say there's some undead to the west. It's probably a trap, but we can plunder that first, get stronger, then come back and murder these *****s."
Keldas' rigid morality got the better of him. "I don't like going back on my word!"
"Yer just said yer weren't going to make a deal with drow! So there's no word to go back on, right?"
"Fine!" Once again Wulf had successfully led Keldas through a moral crisis. It was a good feeling to help his friend through his moments of doubt.
"Yer all should know... there's one more thing. Seems there's a dragon down deeper." Wulf didn't wait for their reactions, but headed to the doors to the western crypts. "Right then, let's go get some undead."
The party was ever wary of a duergar double-cross that never materialized. True to their word, the western area was home to quite a few restless dead, though mostly the lesser sort that were easily dispatched with weapons. There was a tense moment with some kind of shadowy form that trapped the party in a narrow hall, draining their will with its eerie wail and icy touch-- but no serious mishaps.
A small room to the north held a beautiful young girl, trapped in a pentagram, who begged the party to save her from a terrible wizard who had entrapped her. Halma was instantly smitten and was near to being forcibly restrained; Keldas refused to leave a damsel in distress; but it was the even-keeled Wulf who pointed out the inconsistencies in her story. "And besides... Even if yer not an evil demon she-bitch," he told the sobbing girl, "there's drow and dragons running about, yer safer tucked away here than hangin' onto my apron strings. We'll come back for yer. Yer got my word on that."
She was soon forgotten and the party continued their explorations...
After a number of twists, turns, and dead-ends, they realized that they'd explored the entirety of the eastern passageways. Wulf checked his map and pointed out a number of likely spots for secret doors, and Keldas' keen eyes soon uncovered just such a portal. The door opened onto a long hall. A short passage branched off to one side and ended in another secret door. The main portion of the hall continued on for several paces then fell away into the darkness. There were slick ladder rungs leading down to the sound of running water. Judging from their map, they had completely circled around the duergar leader's room. Their choice: duergar or dragon.
They chose the duergar.
The party gathered up just outside the Great Hall. The plan was to power up with spells, then burst in as fast and deadly as possible. Diessa put a Silence on a small rock-- Halma would hold this and close with their spellcasters to prevent spellcasting. Several Protection from Evil spells were bestowed. Bless. Rapid Strikes. Displacement for Halma. The works. When it was all set, Wulf opened the door and Halma burst into the Great Hall, expecting his allies to follow right behind him.
The duergar and their dark elf allies were waiting for them.
"Fools! Did you think our gods would fail to warn us of your inevitable treachery?"
Keldas had just entered the room and Halma had made it as far as the throne before a huge billowing web descended on the party. Halma and Keldas were trapped in the room, while the rest of the party was still stuck out in the hall. Fortunately, the drow wizard was rather indiscriminate, and he'd captured a couple of duergar warriors in the web as well.
Wulf started slashing at the webs with Taranak, trying to burn them away. The halfling threw some burning oil out into the room, where it started burning away from the other side. It would take a few precious moments to burn away to the middle. Unfortunately, their enemies were not content to wait for that to happen. Keldas and Halma both were stuck in the webs and pounded mercilessly. It soon became clear to Wulf that by the time the webs burned away to Keldas, the duergar would kill him-- and if not, the flames from the web would probably finish him off! Wulf grit his teeth, dove into the burning web, and started pushing his way through the flaming strands-- at the very least, he hoped to offer their enemies another tempting target.
Halma managed to wiggle his arms and weapon free and started hacking at the priestess, but she quickly stepped back outside the range of the silence spell and managed to hold the young warrior. The duergar warriors started shooting at him, and though every other shot missed the blurry outline of the barbarian, the party could only watch and wait as Halma suffered wound after wound.
Keldas managed to free himself and stagger out of the webs. He rushed towards Halma where he could potentially cast a Dispel onto the area, but was worried about dropping his own Displacement spell. It was the only thing keeping Halma alive at the moment. Wulf changed course and started hacking a path to Halma, beckoning Diessa up behind him so that she could cast healing magic when she got close enough. The circle of silence surrounding the barbarian proved to be a problem, as Diessa would have to cast her spell from outside then hold it long enough to move in and touch his wounds. She wasn't certain he'd live long enough for her to get there.
The party turned their attention to what could be helped. Keldas managed to Sleep the greater number of the warriors, while Wulf harassed the duergar sorceress with his sling. The halfling drank a potion of Invisibility (where did he get that?) and started moving out into the room, angling for a chance to get nasty with the sorceress. Unfortunately, she'd somehow levitated up out of reach. Though he was loathe to go toe-to-toe with anyone remotely able to fight back, the halfling had no choice but to pick on the drow male. As expected, his sneak attack was brutally effective: the drow went down in a heap to the halfling's deadly little daggers-- hamstrung, two perforated kidneys, and a couple of kicks in the kneecaps for good measure.
Keldas turned his attention to the duergar sorceress, sending acid arrows zipping into her compact frame. Visible or no, the continuing agony of the acid dogged her as she sailed around the ceiling. She took several such arrows and fled into the forges.
They'd wittled the resistance down to the drow female, and Wulf moved to the north end of the room, up onto the dais, to back her away from his friend Halma. Wulf charged, swinging Taranak over his head to watch the flames burst across her armor. She was severely wounded-- but once again, able to turn invisible and flee. They saw her leave through the north door.
The party quickly circled their wagons, retreating to the south end of the hall where they restored Halma to activity and healed everybody up as best as they could. Diessa burned spell after spell, beseeching Moradin to grant the healing they desperately needed. They looked up to see the north door open once again.
A sinewy, black, reptilian head poked through.
"Who dares to disturb the rest of Nightscale?"
Wulf had always imagined a dragon's voice to come booming out with authority, but he found the quiet, subtle, feminine hiss of Nightscale to be even more disturbing.
The dragon sat on the dais, watching them imperially. The party could do nothing but stare right back. Several awkward moments passed before something occurred to Wulf. "I'll handle this."
He drew his axe and walked to the north. "Come down off the dais and get me, yer fat toad. I don't think yer got the stones."
The party watched as Wulf walked to certain doom. The dragon merely watched and waited atop the dais.
"Yeah, that's right. Yer dealin' with Wulf Ratbane now. Now be a good girl and come take the ass-whippin' yer got coming to yer."
Wulf was literally within reach of the dragon-- his comrades crossed themselves and wished him well in the afterlife-- when he suddenly darted off toward the forges and slammed the door there.
The dragon winked out of existence.
Wulf had seen the duergar using illusions before, so it had only taken him a moment to figure out that the dragon was probably an illusion too. He'd simply focused his eyes and his mind and sure enough, he'd stared right through it. He enjoyed a good belly laugh at the expense of his companions.
"Yer should have seen yer faces!" He could barely compose himself. "Now let's finish off this tricky duergar bitch once and for all." He grabbed the silence stone from atop the dais-- he'd use it to cancel out the sorceress' spells and finish her off. His comrades were halfway up the hall to join him when he threw wide the door to the forges and stepped inside.
Sure enough, the duergar sorceress was there, wide-eyed and silent...
And so too was the drow priestess! Climbing up the rope ladder into the forge, right on time, as expected.
What was completely unexpected, however, was the long black shadow that rose up out of the darkness behind her and alighted in the forges. Wulf took a blast of acid breath full force in the chest. He staggered back out of the room and yelled to his companions, "It's the REAL dragon! Run, ye poor bastards!"
He was still silenced, of course, so his warning was unheeded. Halma and Keldas kept right on going-- right past Wulf, wallowing into a puddle of black acid, and straight into the jaws of death waiting in the room.
They decided, against all better judgement, to fight for it. "Have at 'em, boys! Yer only live once!"
Halma stepped up and took it to the dragon; Wulf spread out as best he could to take out the drow priestess; and Keldas concentrated on the duergar sorceress.
Keldas finished off the sorceress with one last acid arrow...
Wulf forced the drow to flee into the depths again...
and Halma did bugger-all to the dragon.
Their weapons could barely penetrate its scaly hide, and it seemed to have an insurmountable tolerance for punishment. It drew back and breathed again, drawing a neat line between Halma and Wulf. Overconfidence got the better of Wulf again as his normally nimble reflexes failed to evade the blast. He was very nearly dead now-- another blast like that would kill him. Or Halma. Or Keldas for that matter. What to do?
"Run away! Run away!"
Wulf was the first out the door, catching the halfling lurking outside the door and bundling him off down the hall. Together they crossed the length of the great hall at a flat-out sprint, their stumpy little legs pumping for all they were worth. Keldas passed them a moment later. Finally came Halma, who'd turned on his heel and left the dragon choking on his dust. Diessa was already waiting for them all at the doorway out of Durgeddin's halls.
Nightscale came gliding swiftly and effortlessly into the hall, right into their midst, and settled to the ground, laughing. There was no way they could outrun the dragon. They were all going to die. One at a time, probably, but it was inevitable.
Keldas was the first to decide to fight. He dropped a Glitterdust right onto the dragon's head and urged his comrades into battle. "Quick! While she's blinded by the dust! She can't hit you!" He drew his sword and stepped up, toe to toe with the dragon.
Halma didn't have to be told twice. He knew he could outrun the rest of the party, but that would only mean he'd be the last to die-- alone. He swung his greatsword in a wide arc and turned to charge the beast.
Wulf couldn't decide if he was inspired, or simply resigned to the matter. He dove into position on the dragon's flank.
Diessa stepped up, flanking the dragon with Wulf and slinging her warhammer for all it was worth.
The halfling hesitated for a moment, but, hey, as long as it was blind and helpless... ("It's blind, right?" "YES!") He tumbled over behind the dragon where he could safely attack it from the rear.
And, amazingly, it was just enough. The dragon faltered under the weight of their combined assault, its bulk collapsing amidst the glittering gold motes dancing in the air.
For once, they felt like they could stop, right there on the battlefield, lean against their weapons, and just rest.
Nobody felt harried. The drow was surely long gone. No invisible enemies were around to ambush them. Wulf took his time happily butchering the dragon-- carefully removing its head and most of its hide. He bundled it all up into a sack.
"Right... Yer want to press our luck and go look for her treasure?"
The party retired to the surface caves for a day to rest and recuperate in the soothing company of mules. Despite the fact that the female drow had escaped, there was little concern that the dragon's hoard was in any danger of disappearing along with her. The next day, secure in the feeling that they'd purged the caves of all resistance, they unburdened their packs and pockets, and made their way down to the small underground lake where Nightscale had made her lair. It was a small hoard, but there was a fair amount of gold, some small magical trinkets, and a fine dwarven war-axe. Durgeddin's mark, and according to Keldas, a fair amount of magic laid upon the blade. Wulf quietly laid claim to this and slipped it into his pack.
They returned to town to enjoy at last the fruits of their hard work. With Keldas' help, Wulf and Halma were soon outfitted with magical chain shirts, and Halma's greatsword, his most prized personal possession, was given a bit of a magical boost as well. Wulf spent time in the local smithy crafting some masterwork daggers for himself and, yes, even the halfling. It was nice to return to town with, not just two coppers to rub together, but enough loot to spread around and feel important for a change.
At last, while Halma rested up outside the town, Keldas studied his spellbooks, and the halfling was off on his eternal quest for a street-side poison vendor, Wulf paid a visit to the old man.
"Wanted yer to have this." Wulf laid a cloth-wrapped bundle across the old man's lap. The old man carefully unwrapped it and stared down with admiration: Durgeddin's dwarven war-axe. The old man didn't need to detect magic to see that it was a fine piece of workmanship; in his long forgotten past as an adventurer, he'd seen finer-- but not often. Certainly Wulf had never seen better-- and likely never would again.
"But... You earned this. You don't think it would be better off with a strong arm to wield it?"
"Hmph. Take this too..." Wulf handed him a stack of papers and books bound with a string-- diaries he had recovered from the forges, the woeful tale of Durgeddin's fall. He waved aside the old man's protests. "I got no use for all this tackle."
The old man sat quietly, waiting for Wulf to speak his mind.
"Yer going back up there, right? Clean the place out once and for all?"
"Yes. Diessa and I will head back there eventually. We may even need some help... eventually."
"Hmph. Well, just so yer know, there's still a she-bitch demon trapped up there. Take summat to deal with her if yer decide to go back."
"I will..." He paused for a moment, then raised one eyebrow and grinned. "They say around town say you defeated a dragon. Did you bring back the hide?"
Wulf grinned. "Aye, just a little bugger, though. Not much to it. Wanted to ask yer about that... was hoping... ahh... yer might help me with a little project..."
The old man wrapped up the axe and the diaries. "Let's talk in my workshop."
It was only a few short days later before the money was all spent and the beckon call to adventure rang again in their heads. But mighty battles with orcs, drow, and dragons were hard to come by, and they found themselves once again in their humble but comfortable role as "caravan guards." Their employer was a roly-poly halfling merchant whose name, as usual, was forgotten in a moment. Wulf haggled his price up to a staggering 10 gp each for the trip-- and then, just to add insult to injury, demanded free food as well. After all, if you have to travel with pecks, you might as well enjoy the peck cuisine. That much, at least, you could count that they wouldn't screw up.
"Fine fine fine! Ten crowns for the trip, plus meals... and I expect you'll be wanting halfling ponies to ease the journey?" He smiled broadly and swept his arm across his finest selection of riding animals.
The halfling eagerly agreed, but Halma took one look at the stumpy ponies and declined-- he could probably run faster on foot. Wulf started to open his mouth and weigh in with his own opinion, but Keldas cut him short before further damage was done.
"I'd be honored, sir. Such fine looking ponies!"
Wulf swung up onto the nearest wagon as the group gathered up and the caravan started out for Brindenford. Keldas trotted alongside on his pony, his legs nearly dragging the ground on either side.
"Yer look bloody ridiculous."
An elven noble trotted up next to Keldas. "Greetings, good dwarf! I am Alliane, kin to Keldas from a conclave far away, sworn to the service of Corellon L..."
"Blah blah blah, pleased to meet yer, sir... madam... whatever yer are. Praise Corellon!" Wulf made the fist and set to work inspecting his boots.
Much to Wulf's disappointment, the caravan arrived unmolested into the town of Brindenford. It was a boring trip and Wulf was eager to rid himself of as many halflings as possible. Unfortunately, a merchant's fair was in town, and a good number of the merchants-- and townsfolk-- were halflings, all milling about and trying to enter the city at the same time. It was like something from a nightmare. Wulf held his belt pouch closer. "Tinks, beggars, and bloody thieves!"
The press of the crowd as they neared the gates did nothing to help Wulf's mood, and when the guards at the gate stopped them unexpectedly, things went from bad to worse.
"No weapons in the city." The guard reached out his hand for Taranak.
"Good way to earn yerself a bloody stump!" Halma grunted in agreement.
Keldas put his hand on Wulf's shoulder and gestured at the people around them. "Relax. They'll just peace-bond it, see?"
Wulf was unfamiliar with the practice-- the idea of carrying a weapon that wasn't ready at hand was alien to his entire life's experience. But there they were: Sword hilts tied to their scabbards, and axe-heads tied into bundles. In every case the peace-bond was tied down with an intracately knotted ribbon. Wulf handed over his axe and watched carefully as the guard tied down the axe: Nice knot. He could duplicate that...
Another guard nearby was putting the finishing touches on a knot around the second and third fingers of a man heading into the city. The guards looked at Keldas. "You a spellcaster too?"
"Not I." Keldas pulled back his robes to reveal the longsword hanging at his belt, and waited patiently while it was bonded.
They moved on into the city, Wulf and Halma scowling, Keldas smiling, until the halfling chuckled alound. "Ha! Those idiots! They didn't even see my wrist sheaths."
"Hmph. I just reckon they could tell from lookin' at yer how bloody unlikely you'd be to draw steel. Peck."
The party moved into the city and steadily onward, up the main thoroughfare, looking for a place to stay. Wulf voted for a place in the seedier part of town, where there was sure to be some unexpected but welcome "action," but he was contstantly over-ruled by Keldas and Alliane. Farther into town they went until the cramped slums gave way to wider streets, green parks, and the finest inns. Just off in the distance they could see the manor house of Baron Euphemes, the local ruler.
Eventually they stopped at an establishment that suited the elves-- the Prancing Unicorn or some other gelded forest creature Wulf had never heard of. The innkeeper greeted Keldas and Alliane as "Lord and Lady" and offered them rooms for 10 crowns a night-- his best rate-- while their "retainers" (he cast a disapproving eye over Wulf, Halma, and the halfling) were free to stay in the servant's quarters adjoining the stables. Wulf took one look around the sombre, mostly empty common room and decided they'd got the better part of the deal. Keldas and his cousin were welcome to the company of the innkeeper-- they'd have better luck in the servants quarters.
Still, it wasn't exactly the kind of "action" Wulf was looking for. Once they were all settled in, Wulf gathered them all up in Keldas' room and suggested a quick trip to the south side while it was still daylight. "If it please yer Lordship, of course..."
With their caravan contract out of the way and nothing better to do, they all quickly agreed. Their trip was diverted, however, as they passed the large open-air market where many of the merchants were to set up. A stampede of halflings heading in the opposite direction very nearly bowled them... well, it very nearly inconvenienced them, anyway.
"Run for your lives... Rats... GIANT rats!"
Wulf didn't need to hear more than that, as the old verminslayer in him took over. He waded forward through the fleeing halflings until he could get a good look into the open market.
A half-dozen giant rats were bounding through the market, upsetting the stalls and chasing the merchants. One particularly large rat had one of the town guards pinned and was contentedly chewing his face off.
Wulf readied his sling as Halma dashed in and veered off to a clump of big rats-- where he no doubt hoped to heave his greatsword through several at a time. Keldas and the halfling moved off to the other side
of the market, and Alliane was preparing a healing spell for the guard (though from the looks of things, it was a bit late for that). So Wulf was left staring down the big 'un in the center of the town square.
He took careful aim with his sling and sent a heavy lead pellet rocketing into the creature's skull-- an easy shot, one he'd made countless times before, and always a certain and instant kill. This time, however, it didn't seem to do much of anything; the creature was utterly unfazed. It looked up at Wulf with a malevolent gleam in its eyes. Wulf knew instantly he wasn't dealing with any ordinary rat.
"Oh, yer bloody better not even think it..." Wulf locked gazes with the creature and was already gripping Taranak firmly as red hot flames began blazing through the peace-bonds. The were-rat thought better of the situation and skittered away into the nearest sewer-hole, calling its minions after it. The rats disappeared down hidden entrances to unseen tunnels.
Alliane rushed to the side of the wounded guard-- too late, as Wulf suspected. The party stood about sheepishly, weapons brandished, waiting for the local guard to arrive. The halfling merchants began milling about, reaching up to pat them on the back, thanking them; and their witness was invaluable when the guard finally arrived. Unfortunately, such lawlessness, no matter how timely and beneficial, posed a sticky problem for the rigid thinking of the guards, and the party was asked to accompany them back to their barracks to talk to the captain.
"Aye, let's do that."
The wheels were already spinning in Wulf's head as new diplomatic possibilities stretched out before him...
He'd spent years in the tunnels and warrens around his clan's home, fighting off goblins and their ilk, but it was the rats he really despised. It was the rats-- the countless, ceaseless, ubitquitous rats-- to whom he owed his tunnel-fighting expertise, his survival skills, and even his identity so far from home. Now, leagues from his family's hearth, out of the warrens and under the bright afternoon sun, and Wulf was still contending with bloody rats skipping around town like they bloody owned the place.
If they were allied with wererats-- and they certainly were, he just needed a body to prove it-- then things were only going to get worse. Surely they would already have infiltrated the powerful posts of the government, including the town guard. That's what he would do, anyway. While they walked, Wulf prodded the guards for details.
"This captain of yers... what's his name?"
"Her name is Shella. She's new. The old cap'n was Forren-- he's gone missing, though. Couple weeks ago."
Wulf's grip tightened on his axe-handle. Even through the soot and grime that normally coated his hands, his friends could see him tense to white-knuckled readiness. Keldas urged caution as they were finally brought before the captain.
Captain Shella looked young, tired, and completely unqualified. After the guards gave a brief run-down of the afternoon's events, Wulf moved right in for the kill.
"Yer know yer got a were-rat problem, right?"
"Apparently, yes." Her icy calm was surely a facade.
"And this man Forren-- just up and gone missin?" Wulf arched a curly eyebrow and stared her in the eyes.
"That's right." Captain Shella stared right back, unblinking.
"Yer know anything more about that? Hmm?"
"Not yet. I've got top men looking into it." Shella wasn't even close to cracking under the intense interrogation.
"Ach... Right." Wulf was momentarily dumbfounded, so he switched tactics. "Right... Look, we need some kind of writ or summat so we can keep our weapons ready. Yer will be wantin' us to continue our vigilant protection of yer fine city, right?"
"Oh, yes, absolutely."
Wulf grinned, but Shella quickly added, "Unfortunately, it wouldn't help the stability of the city any for you to be walking about with your weapons brandished all the time." Wulf's smile faltered. "You'll have to keep your weapons peace-bonded, as usual, while you're in the city. But..." and here she winked at Wulf, "We'll be sure to take circumstances into account if you find the need to draw your weapons again."
And that was as good as they were going to get. Wulf retired to the background to sulk while Keldas asked Shella a few more questions. It seemed the rat problem had been growing steadily worse in recent weeks, and the disappearance of the old Captain hadn't helped any. Now, with the merchant's fair ready to begin, there was a lot of pressure on the guard to do something... anything. Unfortunately, the only lead Shella could give them was simply this: For years, the old bell tower in the center of town had had a problem with rats.
"It wouldn't hurt to start there, I suppose. There's an old man who runs the tower-- his family has had that honor for years. You could ask him about it. His name is Turvin."
Wulf sat up with a start from the back of the room. Everyone was staring at him.
Shella continued. "Turvin inherited the job many years ago from... his brother, I think. He's got to be at least 80 years old by now. He knows the town well and could at least point you in the right direction."
Afternoon had already turned to dusk, and night was falling rapidly, but the party decided to move quickly on the slight lead they had. It was a short walk from the barracks to the bell tower, but Wulf's incessant grumbling made it seem like hours.
"I'm tellin' yer, this guy Turvin is a RAT!"
Keldas tried to be the voice of reason. "Wulf, the man is 80 years old. He's been in this town for ages."
"He's a rat."
"Turvin is well known and apparently well-respected."
"How can you possibly say that?"
"Anybody whose name ends with -in is a stinkin' rat. Trust me on this."
"Enough with your paranoid delusions! You can't just go attacking helpless old men on the flimsiest of suspicions-- his name isn't good enough for you?"
They reached the door to the bell tower. Though it was dark, no lights were yet in the windows. The tower stretched up into the darkness until it was silhouetted against the moon, some forty feet above their heads. Wulf looked up at Keldas as if to say "Last chance..."
Keldas reached out and knocked on the door.
At first, there was no reaction, but eventually they saw a flickering light, and heard footsteps approaching the door. A feeble voice called out from the other side of the door. "Who is it?"
Wulf called out before Keldas could respond. "We heard yer got some rat problems in the tower here. Well?"
Keldas took over. "Do you mind if we just come in and have a look around? And ask you for some advice? Captain Shella of the guard sent us."
The door opened just a crack and they could see the old man peering out at them from behind his candle. "Oh! Adventurers! Ahh... have pity on an old man, it's well past my bedtime..."
"Yer got no rats in there? No rats of any kind? Bigguns, littl'uns... Nothing? Hmm?"
"No, we don't have any trouble with rats. But I'd share what wisdom I have, if you'd like to speak to me. Perhaps you could come back in the morning." It was an order, not a request, and the heavy door was shut tight in their faces.
The party stood dejectedly in the street. The old man seemed harmless enough-- but his story was at odds with Shella. Only Wulf gave voice to their frustration-- loudly, impolitely, and incessantly. A curious crowd gathered while Wulf berated Keldas for his lack of action, until the halfling broke them up.
"Uh, guys?" He pointed at the gathering townsfolk.
A lesser man-- a skulking, thieving, no-good layabout, whose deeds were best performed under cover of darkness-- would have been put off by the gathering witnesses, but not so Wulf Ratbane. He was, after all, a hero. Heroic deeds, in fact, demanded an audience. He stalked over to a startled-looking man and asked, "Who does this tower belong to?"
"Uh... uhh... to the town, I suppose..."
"Yer know of any law what says we can't go up on this tower at night?"
The townsman looked around for support. "Well, not exactly, no..."
Halma got the idea and broke in.
"Ok. Climb tower." He took a mighty leap, grasping at the tower walls with hard fingers and soft-toed boots. Keldas and the halfling were soon scampering up behind him. Wulf stood in the street, marvelling at the sudden decisiveness of his companions.
The tower had a short outer curtain wall, some ten feet high, that encircled the whole tower and prevented access to the staircase that wound around the outside of the tower all the way to the top. Wulf started climbing just as Halma was completing his mad dash to the top. His run was almost cut short as an explosive trap of some kind went off on the uppermost steps. He was hurt, but not badly. More importantly, the trail was starting to look a little more "hot."
Wulf carefully picked his way up to the top of the tower. The tower top was like a well, open to the elements except for the wooden roof, and only a narrow ledge of stone to stand on. Wulf peered into the darkness below. He could see shapes moving down below. Rat-shaped. And big.
Before they had time to ponder the discovery, there was a mighty rush of air and flap of heavy wings. Wulf was knocked backward and felt himself falling off the tower, arms and legs flailing as he tried to land easily-- with no success. There was a bright light as he crunched into the ground, and when he came to, he was lying flat on his back, staring up at his companions and the gargoyle that was swooping around them at the top of the tower. Moments later, the halfling joined him at the bottom of the tower.
Now, Wulf was mad, and he'd lost all reason. He got to his feet and stumped over to the door, pounding on it. "Open up, old man! Yer got rats in the top of yer tower!" He was beaten, bruised, and shamed, but still hanging on to the irrational hope that the old man was somehow innocent.
"No! No rats here!"
That clinched it. Wulf and the halfling started climbing again, but this time, Wulf jumped down inside the curtain wall while the halfling kept going up. When the halfling was out of sight, Wulf stepped up next to the door to the inner tower. He pulled his dragonskin cloak tighter about him, pulling the skull helm down over his eyes. In a blink, he disappeared into the darkness, swathed in black scales. He chuckled to himself.
"Next one out of this door will be one sorry bastard..."
Atop the tower, Halma and Keldas had driven off the gargoyle. Halma jumped down into the darkness of the inner tower and set to work butchering the rats inside. Wulf could hear the stomp of Halma's feet on the floorboards, and the terrified squeaking of the giant rats. Soon, the squeaks were intermingled with the sounds of men-- or something in between. Down and down Halma went, with the others cruising confidently in his wake, as the greatsword swept clean floor after floor. Escape past the barbarian was impossible; the only way out was the front door... where Wulf waited eagerly.
Eventually, the door opened. Wulf prepared to draw steel... but nothing happened. Only when the outer door opened did Wulf realize that someone invisible had skittered past him! Still, he held his ground, and was paid off shortly as two scruffy-looking ratmen tried to bolt past him. Wulf let the first man go, but dropped the second from behind like a sack of flour, very nearly splitting him in two. Wulf leapt over the corpse to pursue the other-- and realized he was standing outside the tower, surrounded by townsfolk. Blood dripped down his axe and trickled down his arm. There were bits of... something... clogging his beard.
"Which way did he go?" Wulf tossed back the dragonskull helm so his voice was not quite so muffled. "You! The ratman? Did yer see which way he went?"
The crowd looked on silent and wide-eyed. Someone started shouting for the guards.
"Oh, calm yerself! It's just a stinkin' rat-man!" Wulf stalked over towards the outer door and rougly tossed over the corpse with the toe of his boot. Only now, of course, the corpse was just a scruffy looking rogue. True enough, nobody recognized him-- it wasn't as if Wulf had felled somebody's uncle or grandpa-- but still...
The guard came running about the time Wulf's comrades joined him. They put away their weapons and tried to calm the crowd ("Nothing to see here folks... Just yer local heroes, hard at work... No thanks necessary...") and waited as more guards arrived-- including Captain Shella. Wulf wasted no time setting the situation straight.
"Yer got yerself a rat-man problem. This fella is one of 'em."
"The priests at the temple will ascertain that." She directed two of her men to gather up the corpse, but Wulf stepped in. A man lay dead in the street by his hand-- not to mention the tower full of bodies-- and it would require considerable guile to get them out of this one.
"Well, seein' as how this bag o' guts is our only tie to the truth, and the only thing standing between us and the gallows, we'll just carry him over for yer. Lead the way."
Shella was indignant, but caught off guard by Wulf's wily and unusual diplomacy. "Sir, I'm not sure-- are you trying to tell me that my men are too incompetent to carry a body, or are you insinuating something more sinister?"
Wulf bowed his head and bent his knee. "Oh, begging yer pardon... yes ma'am."
Captain Shella stood aside as Wulf grabbed the body and started following her men to the Temple of Pelor. It was a short walk from the bell tower in the center of town, but the distance stretched out with the silence. With rat-men about, Wulf trusted no one. Surely they'd try to pin a murder on him. He gave himself 50/50 odds of swinging from a gallows before the next nightfall.
Finally they reached the Temple, where acolytes came out to greet them, eyeing the body and casting a sympathetic eye over the party. Wulf quickly cut them off, "No, he's beyond healing, and no friend of ours even if he wasn't. Need yer to work some spells over this corpse, get him to fess up to being a rat." Wulf wrapped his hands around the dead man and gave him a squeeze across the ribs. A pathetic gurgle bubbled from his lips.
"Got a little life left in yer, aye?" Wulf grinned and dropped the body in a heap. He took a seat on a low bench and propped his boots on the corpse. "We'll just wait here for yer high priest."
The acolytes glanced at Captain Shella. "We must apologize... our high priest is a very old man... and he needs his rest. We'll take the bodies from you now, and prepare them for the rituals tomorrow." Captain Shella nodded.
Wulf thought it over. By all accounts this Pelor was a pretty upstanding fellow. If his own priests were turned by the rats, and his temple infiltrated, they were all in bigger trouble than worrying about a little tussle with a local rogue. He looked up at Keldas, who seemed to be thinking the very same thing, and nodded. "Right. Right, then. We'll see yer in the morning."
It was a rough night. Even in their relatively upscale accomodations, Wulf slept lightly, Taranak at the ready, listening for the sound of vengeful rat-men. It was difficult to hear over the sound of the halfling droning away blissfully. He certainly was a good little sleeper-- as if he didn't have an enemy in the world.
Morning came eventually, and Wulf, bleary-eyed, led the company back to the temple. The high priest-- a very old man indeed-- was there to greet them. Wulf straigtened his back respectfully, and gave the priest the symbol of the blazing sun-- though to the uneducated, it might perhaps have looked suspiciously like the usual upraised fist. "Praise Pelor! Up the Sun!"
The priest smiled back and welcomed them into the temple once again. Wulf smiled back to show his sincerity, and hid his nervousness with some light hearted banter. "Well, they say prayin' to the sun every day ages a man... but, ahh, yer look mighty well preserved if you ask me-- tough, yer know... like a nice piece o' goblin jerky." The very old man merely smiled back and led them under the huge golden dome of Pelor.
"Nice temple yer got here... much better during the day. Been thinking about converting to Pelor myself, lately. Love the Sun! And yer know what they say about worshippers of Pelor, right?"
"No, what's that?"
" 'Show me a man who greets each sunrise with a big smile, and I'll show yer a man with tan gums.' " Wulf smiled and made the fist again. He could tell: he was doing very well indeed.
"Well, I'm sure you're here about those men you brought in last night..."
"Aye... and we could use some healin' too, while yer at it." Wulf jerked a thumb at Halma. "He got nicked up pretty bad by were-rats, need some belly-donner or summat, right?"
"Of course, of course." The very old man motioned to some of his acolytes, who began quietly and unobtrusively laying hands on their wounds. "And you probably want to know what information we have for you?"
They all nodded, so the priest went on. "Well, you were right: they were rat-men; unfortunately their corpses were less than forthcoming about any other knowledge they may have had. We had no luck in winkling out their leader or their headquarters."
"Don't be daft, it was that rat Turvin, holed up in the bell tower. We'll just head back and fix him proper, right?" Wulf looked around at his companions. They seemed ready enough.
"Right then. Keep the fires burnin', priest, we'll be back for more, soon enough." Wulf stalked out, his back already to the priests, raising his fist at the last minute as he passed through the doors. "Up the Sun!"
Wulf was in bright spirits, refreshed in body and mind from his visit to the temple, and there was a spring in his step as the party headed back to find the old ratman. Sure, it was possible he was simply relieved that they wouldn't be arrested, or perhaps he was merely looking forward to the righteous slaughter of Turvin and his henchmen; but he preferred to think that, just maybe, Pelor had put a little sunshine in his heart. He gazed up at the sun shining down on the bell tower. There were no gargoyles or other imposing edifices leering down at them, now, under the blessed sunlight. (Praise Pelor!)
Wulf casually pushed the door open, his grin vanishing as he stepped into the shadows of the old man's abode. It was abandoned-- nobody home to meet sweet justice. The rest of the party came in and started looking around. There was an old desk-- now stripped bare of any diary or incriminating notes. Wulf muttered low curses to himself as he ignited Taranak and hacked the desk into tiny, glowing embers.
Keldas looked up from across the room, taking his gaze off the floor, where his keen eyes sought out a hidden trapdoor. "If there's a secret compartment in there, you'll destroy any evidence we might find."
"To Hell with evidence! I had my evidence last night, but yer got in the way!"
"Be patient!" Keldas continued meticulously searching for secret doors, backed up by the halfling. After a minute of watching their silent and pointless search, Wulf could stand no more. He stomped outside to find the sun gone-- and the skies clouding over.
They wandered aimlessly through the streets, utterly clueless as to their "next step," or even if there was another step. It was possible, perhaps likely, that they'd driven off Turvin and his band of ratmen for good. So they turned their efforts towards drumming up some more business.
Wulf put together a short flyer ("For Hire: Three valiant adventurers, and one peck...") which they distributed around the various pubs in town, followed by a visit to the Baron's manor house. They were greeted by the major domo, who as usual managed to be obsequious and yet completely unflappable and impassible. He informed them that the Baron was already aware of their presence in town, was thankful for their help with the ratmen, but was unfortunately too busy preparing for his big speech to welcome the merchants and kick off the fair... buh-bye.
Wulf added the major domo to his growing list of likely villains in desperate need of the taste of boot leather, blood, and their own teeth.
He left the manor house in an even fouler mood. As they passed through the market square again, the halfling skipped ahead, jumping and pointing. "Ooh! Street performers!"
A small stage was set up against an old building. Some half-dozen men and women, dressed in ridiculous outfits, were regaling a growing crowd with a tale of star-crossed lovers, or some other such nonsense. Wulf grinned and made a beeline for the nearest fruit stand, looking for anything rotten or over-ripe. "Now yer talkin'."
Keldas frowned. "Not a patron of the arts, are you? What, you don't care for the fine art of the thespian?"
"Hey, hey now. Speak for yerself! I like watchin' a couple of thespians goin' at it as much as the next guy, but I ain't passin' up an opportunity like this." He hefted an apple and judged the distance to the stage. Keldas frowned and took Alliane's arm, steering her closer for a better look. Halma hesitantly padded after them, unsure exactly what was going on.
Wulf waited for the dramatically appropriate moment to pelt the performers with rotten fruit. The star-crossed lovers had moved to the front of the stage, leaving their bickering families behind them, when suddenly there was a hideous cry from one of the women near the back of the stage. Blood came gushing from her neck, spraying the actors in front, and she toppled over, revealing a disgusting creature on her back. It had disgusting grey skin, wild wiry hair, and the white eyes of the cave-blind. Its mouth and claws were covered in her blood. It began feasting, tearing at her flesh, heedless of the crowd around it.
Wulf dropped his apple, his jaw hanging open, and began to applaud wildly. "Huzzah! Now THAT'S a play!"
Another half-dozen of the creatures came bounding onto the stage from some hidden bolt-hole, swinging axes from side to side and cleaving through the remaining actors. Wulf continued to applaud, but Keldas and Alianne had already begun casting spells, and Halma had leapt up onto the stage at their urging, his greatsword sweeping back and forth with precision, trying to save the remaining actors from the ravenous assault.
Wulf hesitated a moment longer, wondering if he could possibly convince himself that this was all just part of the show. Far be it from him to disturb an actor in pursuit of his "craft." Farther still to give a rat's ass about the worthless life of another actor. His mind was rather quickly made up, however, when he spotted the leader of the creatures at the edge of the stage, a battle-axe in one hand and a rather interesting hand-axe in the other. Wulf didn't have Keldas' eye for the arcane, but he could spot masterwork when he saw it. And he wanted it.
Wulf rushed the stage, bringing out Taranak in both hands as he charged. He crashed into the leader from the side at full tilt, slashing his axe in a blazing arc. His foe staggered and Wulf took advantage of that brief moment to draw a dagger into his off-hand. The two of them fought toe-to-toe for several moments. Wulf noted that his opponent fought two-weapon style, as he did, but in the unskilled, uneducated, and ultimately ineffective style of the so-called "Rangers." Before long Wulf had his boot on his foe's wrist and was prying the hand-axe from his death grip. "Lazy prick. That'll teach yer to try to fake it against a real pro."
Wulf looked up and was pleased to see that all of the creatures had been slain-- as had nearly all of the actors. The stage was slick and black with blood, and the crowd before them stood agape at the carnage. Some unlucky few in the front row were splattered with gore.
Wulf stomped to the edge of the stage, his arms spread wide, an axe in either hand. The crowd instinctively backed away, until Wulf stopped-- and bowed deeply.
The halfling had jumped down behind the stage and was beckoning the party to a dark hole in the wall. "Uh, guys, come take a look at this..."
"Pretty small hole. Yer better check it out first, peck. Quiet, like only yer can do it." Wulf winked.
The halfling just sighed, accepted the inevitable conclusion, and wiggled through the hole. Moments passed and the halfling's little curly-haired head came popping back out out of the hole—to Wulf’s great disappointment, it was still attached the rest of the filthy little bugger. The halfling held his fingers to his lips, then contorted his fingers into an impressive-looking signal. Wulf could only suppose it was some kind of silent rogues' language, though he half suspected the peck had simply dreamed it up in his spare time. Nevertheless, he assumed it meant trouble. He pulled his blackscale cloak tight and was wrapped in shadow as he crept into the hole as well.
Wulf could see the halfling sitting wide-eyed in the dark, straining to listen. Wulf cupped his own ear and he, too, could make out the sound of a low whisper-- speaking Undercommon. "When the rest arrive..."
The halfling looked towards him for confirmation, but Wulf merely shrugged-- though he grinned to himself and reflexively tightened his grip on Taranak. He longed to put his new hand-axe to the test as well.
Wulf motioned for the halfling to bring the others in, and shortly all five of them were sitting there in the darkness. Only Wulf could see-- so he had big plans of being the hero. Any moment now...
The silence was broken by the sound of Draconic speech and a veil of pitch blackness fell over the entire group of them, huddled near the door.
"Ach, yer sons o'... aah!" Something was stabbing at him, and as shouts went up from his comrades he knew he wasn't the only one. Wulf grimaced and cursed his luck, and made a mad dash forward, hoping to come out from the area of magical darkness. Sharp metal and filthy claws sought him out as he ran, but he ignored the pain, plowed through, and turned to assess the situation.
Almost a dozen of the cave-dwellers had appeared, as if from nowhere, and were moving in and out of the magical darkness with ease. From the sound of things the halfling and Alliane were taking the worst of it, though he could also make out the sound of Keldas’ spellcasting, and the unmistakable sound of Halma’s greatsword shearing through flesh and bone. Wulf thanked Durgeddin as he once again set his battleaxe ablaze and waded into the thick of the fighting, near where he guessed Alliane to be.
These creatures, whatever they were, were no fools: they concentrated their attacks on the party’s healer and used the darkness to befuddle their foes. But ultimately, Wulf and Keldas maneuvered Alliane into safety, where she called on Corellan for Daylight to banish the darkness; the cave-dwellers fell quickly, once revealed. The last few stragglers fled, easily escaping Wulf and the halfling, though at least one was pursued by the fleet-footed barbarian and cut down in the street. (So much they surmised when Halma came trotting back moments later, a big grin on his face. They’d pretty much learned to accept that when Halma ran off alone after some poor bastard, sword in hand, sooner or later he’d come trotting back, looking deeply satisfied.)
While the halfling checked the filthy, nearly naked bodies for hidden coins, Keldas took note of the real treasure they’d gained—a convenient bolt-hole of their own, should they need it. The building appeared to be some sort of abandoned warehouse, and if creatures such as these could take up residence here, right in the middle of a populated area, and remain unnoticed— well, it was a good bet they could use it themselves, too.
Wulf’s mind was occupied with trying to figure out who was next on his “To Do” list. Ratmen and morlocks? That made little sense. Surely somebody else was calling the shots. Wulf felt the gods calling to him, in a very real and personal sense; and the voices that called the loudest, in the least divine and dignified terms, were telling Wulf quite clearly to find that “somebody” and put his boot in their ass. And the longer it took to deliver that steel-toed, hob-nailed justice, the more foul Wulf’s mood was sure to become.
Unfortunately, there were no clues to lead them to their next “appointment.” They wandered the streets back to their inn, though the tale of yet another daring battle raced ahead of them. By the time they returned to their rooms, the grateful populace, led by Captain Shella and the dwarven smith Shuma, had organized a celebration party for them, and they were shuffled off in the midst of a drunken throng.
They celebrated long into the night, though Wulf drank little, brooded petulantly, and took out his frustrations on his companions. Halma was plied with dwarven ale that was far too strong for a human boy unused to spirits of any kind, and Keldas was subject to more race-baiting than usual. Wulf whiled away the remaining time making furtive gestures towards the halfling’s drink—forcing the paranoid peck to throw out several perfectly good drinks in favor of yet another “fresh” one.
Just as Wulf felt that he could stand no more, the party finally ended, and the companions spilled out onto the street to find their way home. Wulf was miserable— more time wasted, and no closer to the heroic conclusion. He prayed to the gods to direct him to the object of their righteous wrath. Something. Anything.
A raspy voice called to them from the alleyway. It was a ragged old man— no, a woman, though it made little difference— a beggar of some sort. She rocked back and forth, muttering and mumbling, though between babbling and begging she seemed to have moments of cryptic insight.
“Seek... the Speaker in Dreams!”
At last!, Wulf thought; his heart swelled with emotion as he realized his prayers had once again been answered: A bum to kick around.
Oh, the gods were wise. It was as if Moradin had draped his arm across Wulf’s shoulders and said, “Here, boy. Kick around this worthless bum for a bit, get it out of yer system, right? In the mornin’ yer’ll feel better and know just what to do.”
That Moradin. Wulf grinned. He’s one wise old geezer. Praise Moradin! Feeling a religious epiphany upon him, Wulf instinctively made the fist and stepped closer to the old beggar woman.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” Keldas’ shrill and ever-annoying voice roused Wulf from his divine reverie. Keldas stepped between them and pressed a coin into the beggar’s hand “What did you just say?”
“Yer in my way...” Wulf stomped about impatiently.
Keldas stood up while the old woman continued her babbling. “This woman is an oracle of some kind. If you pay attention, you might find out who’s behind all this.”
“Aye, and if yer pay her another coin, she’ll tickle yer palm and tell yer fortune. I’ve seen this scam before.”
Keldas ignored him and spoke softly to the old woman. “Who is the Speaker? Where can we find him?”
“He is the Master. He is the Speaker.”
“Yeah, yer said that already. Now how about that WHERE part?”
“He is the Speaker. Seek Those Who Hear Him.”
Wulf tugged hard on his beard, trying to control his frustration. “Now look, I got no patience for yer creepy old crone act. If yer got summat to say, say it!”
The old woman cackled and started to shuffle away.
“All right then. If yer not gonna direct this beatin’ where it rightly belongs...” Wulf hitched up his belt, but the old woman had already moved off into the darkness.
Wulf raised his eyes to the gods and bellowed in frustration. "If yer got summat to say, say it!"
Another voice spoke to them from the doorway of the tavern. "Well, if you just need something to do, there's the haunted bookstore..."
A wild-eyed, red-haired dwarf stepped into the street with them. "People say it's haunted, always hearing weird noises and talkin' about the whispering ghost."
The halfling chimed in. "A ghost, we don't need."
The dwarf kept on. "I got my own suspicions about the place. Go with me, and we can check it out."
"Who are you?" Keldas looked suspiciously at the dwarf.
"They call me..." his eyes darted up and down the street, "...the Roach."
Wulf nodded. Now this was a sign he could appreciate. Didn't really matter if he could trust this Roach fellow or not-- one way or another, there was sure to be a good ruckus at the end of it. "Sounds good to me. Lead the way."
It was nearing midnight, but the dwarf led them away to another part of town. The streets started to slope sharply upwards and they realized they were trudging to the top of a hill. Perched at the apex was the old bookstore.
The building was unlike anything they'd ever seen. Everywhere your eyes came to rest, there was some new piece of unsettling architecture- impossible angles, arches, and colors, unusual metals and stones that even Wulf could not identify, and seemingly infinite additions. Overall the house seemed not so much designed and built by human hands, as something grown organically from a fever dream.
Keldas looked over at Wulf. "Oh, THAT'S inconspicuous."
Wulf just grinned and pulled his cloak tighter around him.
Wulf crept through the shadows, under a ground floor window where a lamp was burning, and carefully peeked in. An old man sat at a desk, writing into a book.
Wulf returned to his companions. "Old geezer in there. Yer want me to take him out?"
Keldas sighed. "He's probably just a harmless librarian. Let's just knock."
"Ach... That plan worked great last time, right?"
"Well, I'm just saying, maybe a more subtle approach is in order. Why don't we make a distraction so we can get in and read that book."
Their new companion, the Roach, stepped forward. "Leave that to me." With Halma, Alliane, and the halfing behind him, he moved to the front of the house and boldly knocked on the door. Wulf and Keldas watched from the window as the old man got up and left the room.
Keldas acted quickly, using his magic to transform himself into a small mouse. Wulf lifted the window and set him on the sill. The little mouse hopped onto the desk, whiskers twitching, and began reading the book.
Wulf half hoped the old man kept a cat.
Back at the front door, the Roach took the lead as soon as the old man opened the door-- proving himself to be remarkably eloquent and silver-tongued.
"Good evening sir. We-- that is to say, my companions and I-- we are taking up a collection for the orphans."
"Isn't it a little late to be out for that?"
"Ahh, well, yes, but you see, it's for the orphans, and we've found that people appreciate an opportunity to ease their conscience, especially at this late hour, you see, so that they can sleep easily and not lie awake worrying about the orphans." He produced a can from somewhere on his person and jiggled it invitingly under the old man's nose.
"What are you talking about? What orphans?"
"Ahh, umm, the orphans of the great Illithid wars. The mind flayers, sir, they prey terribly on us dwarves, and it's for the orphans, as I told you, so you see."
Inside the room, the mouse was having difficulty with the book. He couldn't manage to turn the pages, and there was but a short fragment of a sentence scrawled onto the top of the next page. It seemed nothing more than the ramblings of a madman.
Back at the front door, the old librarian's manner suddenly seemed to turn around. "Very well, come in, come in. The Illithid Wars! For such a noble cause, of course I can find something." The dwarf followed the old man into the house, with the halfling and Halma right on his heels-- they seemed unwilling to let either the librarian or this Roach fellow out of sight. Alliane was left waiting on the doorstep, gazing up and down the street.
Keldas had little time to leap down off the table and scurry over to a nearby bookshelf, before the librarian parted the curtains and stepped into the back office. Keldas transformed himself into a bookworm and burrowed deeper into hiding. The Roach and the halfling followed the old man into the back room, but Halma stayed out front.
"Let's see..." the old man thought aloud, "Where did I keep my purse?" His eyes scanned the room for a moment before settling on a small closet door adjacent to the bookshelf where Keldas was hiding. "Ahh, yes. In here." And with that, he flung wide the door to the closet.
Of all the treacheries the party could have suspected, they were not ready for the one they were met with. A huge blob came fallumphing out of the closet, all eyes and mouths; and, once setting those countless eyes on the party, began a crazed gibbering, slobbering, and wailing that likened to wake the whole neighborhood. The old man laughed maniacally as the blob oozed into the room.
The effect of the gibbering creature was impressive. The halfing stood shock still, even as the creature attached numerous mouths to his flesh and started sucking the life right out of him. Halma, too, seemed dazed, and wandered about in the front room. From his position outside the window Wulf was also affected, and stood watching in silent horror, unable to move and unsure what to do.
Only the Roach seemed to have control over his senses. Wulf watched as his fellow dwarf went wild-eyed, his hair standing on end-- it was a sight to match the old librarian himself. The two engaged in a war of wills, slamming each other about with concussive mental forces that Wulf could not comprehend-- although, it must be noted, he appreciated greatly.
Halma suddenly seemed to regain his senses, drawing his sword and rushing into the room, but at the last moment he struck out instead at the halfling, wounding him deeply. It seemed suddenly like a very good idea to Wulf, and he dashed to the front of the building, looking to kill Alliane-- who, fortunately for her, had wandered off into the dark streets. Thwarted, Wulf ran inside and came to blows with the first opponent he could find: Halma-- though fortunately for Wulf, the young barbarian barely seemed to notice.
The halfling regained his senses long enough to start struggling against the blob creature, fending off its disgusting mouths and detaching the ones that were already feasting. But he was fading fast. Hope seemed to come for a moment when a lion suddenly erupted from the bookshelf-- only for Keldas to hear for the first time (now that he had taken a shape with ears) the gibbering wail, and he too stood dumbfounded.
The Roach was looking beaten and bedraggled, as was the old librarian. Each time the dwarf pounded the old man with some inner concussive force, the old man would respond with a larger concussion that rocked the whole room. Everyone in the jam packed back room was bleeding from places that ordinarily shouldn't-- eyes, ears, noses-- and the hungry blob was there to lap it all up.
Wulf summoned all his strength of will and tried to concentrate on the situation before they were all dead. In his brief moment of clarity, it seemed to him that killing the old wizard would do them little good if the blob's wailing continued, as they'd soon kill each other in the confusion. He brought Taranak to hand and charged the blob, cleaving it in two in one expert stroke. The wailing stopped and they all regained their senses.
Keldas the lion made short, grisly work of the librarian.
Wulf sent Halma running into the night to bring Alliane back to heal their wounds. It took every bit of her skill and magic, and even so they were none of them feeling better than about half strength.
Thus weakened, and without any further magic to support them, they did the only thing that adventurers in their situation could do:
Wulf headed down the back stairs, alone, to check out the darkened basement, while Halma trooped up the same narrow flight to see what hell he could unleash on the next floor.
Wulf got about halfway down the stairs, took one look at the eerily dark and silent basement, and decided Halma could probably use his help upstairs. He grabbed the rest of the group on his way past the main floor.
The second floor of the creepy bookstore was the first place they found any bookstacks. A narrow passage down the right hand side of the building, with open windows to the street, gave way on the left to bookshelves that jutted out into the room, dividing it up into neat cubicles. Curtains were strung across adjacent bookshelves, thus hiding at least half the room from view. What little space was not packed with musty books was cramped. Wulf jostled Halma out of the way.
Wulf crept into the room, past another closet or wardrobe that had been built into the room. Leaving the unopened door at his back, he crept a little farther into the room, straining his eyes and ears for any sign of an enemy hiding in the bookstacks behind the curtains. He heard footsteps behind him, and assumed it was Halma, falling into fighting formation.
Unfortunately, it was the Roach. "Hey, what's wrong with checking out this door?" So saying, he flung wide the closet door.
Not unexpectedly-- to Wulf, at least-- another gibbering blob flopped out and began wailing. And feasting.
The creature latched on to the Roach, whose stocky dwarven frame blocked the doorway. Wulf and Halma could only watch and hope that the dwarf knew how to use the axe he drew from his side.
From across the room behind them, there was the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. Turning, Wulf found himself facing down a huge, otherworldly guardian. It towered over him-- indeed, over Halma-- and looked rather like an alien gorilla. A very large, very angry alien gorilla.
While Wulf pondered the abrupt appearance of this creature, and attempted to size it up, looking for strengths (enormous muscles and razor sharp claws and teeth) and weaknesses (ahh, none, really), Halma leapt past him to engage it, his greatsword hissing as he drew it out for battle.
The halfling had just entered the room through the narrow stairs, followed closely by Keldas, but there wasn't room for everyone to engage the enemy. Wulf thanked the gods for Halma, put his back to the gorilla, and turned his attention to the blob, who had drained the Roach near unto death. Wulf hurled javelins, past the weakened, flailing body of his fellow dwarf, but the creature seemed to care little. The halfling stepped nearer and pulled a flask of alchemist's fire out of his pack.
Normally, having been splashed and burned too often to count, Halma would protest such an action. So too would Wulf, who had realized long ago that the fire was just an excuse to keep the halfling out of real combat. But this time, before either of them could protest, it was Keldas who slapped the halfling hard from behind:
"We're in a library, you damned fool!"
The halfling groused and grumbled, but put away his fire and surveyed the room. What with Wulf and the Roach at the closet at the front, and Halma going toe-to-toe with a giant gorilla in the hallway, there was nothing he could do.
"Fine, I'll watch..."
"Like hell yer will!" Wulf drew another javelin and pointed it at the halfling. "Just tumble yer happy arse over there behind that gorilla and get crackin' with yer daggers."
As if in response, the gorilla slammed Halma hard, nearly pounding him flat. It was the first time the creature had hit him, and it had nearly killed him in one blow. One look at that, and the halfling balked again.
"At least get out of my way!" shouted Keldas, who had prepared a <iDisplacement</i> spell for Halma. The halfling smugly stepped back to let Keldas pass.
Keldas' intervention was not a moment too soon. Just as he laid the protective spell on Halma, another wild-eyed villain stepped out of the curtains at the far end of the room. A mental blast shot from his forehead and struck Halma, freezing him in his tracks. The gorilla struck at the paralyzed barbarian, but was foiled by the displacement.
Alliane stepped into the room and pulled the Roach free of the blob. Wulf took a quick step forward, drawing Taranak and slicing into the blob. His javelins must have had some effect, after all: the creature collapsed in one hit. Before it had hit the ground Wulf had turned, drawn a dagger, and hurled it at the sorceror at the end of the room.
Wulf jerked his thumb at the halfling. "Move it, peck. Yer got work to do..."
The halfling sighed and tumbled into the room: bouncing, springing, and cartwheeling past Wulf, past Halma, past the gorilla, to face the sorceror. It was an effective, if wholly unmanly, method of locomotion. He drew his little daggers and menaced the sorceror in a way that only half-crazed, knife-wielding circus acrobats can do. The surreality of the assault was lost on the mad sorceror, whose twisted mind was no doubt filled daily with scenes even more bizarre.
Keldas dragged Halma to safety so that Wulf could step up to flank the gorilla across from his fellow rogue. He struck hard, his twin axes seeking its vitals, but he was shocked to find that, being constructed of aether, the gorilla had no vitals.
"Uh oh." Though he had done considerable damage, the gorilla hardly seemed fazed.
"What? What?" The halfling looked worried, and Wulf couldn't have that. If the halfling found out that his daggers would be useless against the gorilla-- more useless than normal, that is-- then he'd bolt in a second.
"Never yer mind. Just keep stickin' that old geezer!"
And stick he did, turning his back just in time to miss the gorilla go trampling over Wulf to get to Halma. As he lay flat on his back, wincing at broken ribs, Wulf couldn't help but notice that he'd never heard of a gorilla trampling anyone before. But then, most gorillas were not nine-foot tall constructs of unadulterated aetherial muscle. Wulf slowly got to his feet and looked at Keldas from beneath the arch of the gorilla's legs.
"Another hit like that and I'm a dead man."
The halfling was doing his best against the madman-- though it must be noted, against an undistracted foe aware of his approach, the halfling's best was rather short of nothing much. He toyed again with his pack, no doubt looking for a flask of fire, but was once again shouted down by the group. He pulled his hand back like a kid caught reaching for the cookie jar.
Keldas stepped to a window at the back of the room and began to change shape again-- this time, a very small gold dragon. He darted out the window and disappeared into the sky. Wulf knew better than to think that Keldas had abandoned them (apart from his arrogant attitude, fragile constitution, fancy-boy clothes, unmanly choice of armaments and spells, and laughably androgynous features, he was rather atypical for an elf), but it was little consolation to Wulf when the gorilla turned to face him.
Wulf moved desperately to avoid the creature's blows, but he was not fast enough. Another crushing hit left him staggered and as near to death as he could ever recall. He half wished the blow had knocked him unconscious, so he wouldn't be alive when the next one splattered him across the non-fiction section.
Keldas the dragon entered the fray again from the opposite end of the room, hovering right behind the madman, his sinewy neck striking through the open window. Wulf saw the man stagger, and looked wistfully over. If he had to go, he'd at least like to take one of these bastards with him. Wulf desperately wanted to finish him off. Perhaps, if the sorceror fell, the gorilla creature would go, too.
As if reading his mind, Keldas warned him away. "Kill that gorilla, or more are going to die."
Well, to hell with that... There was another open window just to his left. He could dive out. Probably he wouldn't even break his neck doing it-- it was only the second floor. He could dive out. He could get away.
More are going to die. Halma was still frozen motionless, just staring at Wulf.
Wulf summoned all his strength to take out the gorilla creature. He'd seen Halma hit it several times, several good shots, and he hit it himself as well. Another couple of hits and it would drop. Surely, it would drop.
He dug into the deepest recesses of hidden dwarven strength. "For my dwarven ancestors!"
He called on the power of the One Father himself. "For Moradin!"
He hit it a couple more times. "For Halma! And Keldas!"
It didn't drop.
What did happen was that Halma finally managed to summon the will to throw off his mental paralysis. He slowly swung into action and slashed at the creature twice more himself, opening up huge gashes across its chest. Still it didn't drop. Wulf just laughed-- to think, he actually thought he could finish it off. He'd never seen any creature take so much punishment before-- and he'd fought a bloody dragon, right?
Fortunately, the gorilla turned its attention back to Halma, despite the haze of Displacement that surrounded him, and its mighty fists found nothing but air. Between the two of them, Wulf and Halma finally managed to finish it off. The creature shattered into a thousand shards of light and disappeared. Its master didn't last much longer.
Alliane spoke up from the back of the room. "Well, boys, let's call it a night, shall we?"
Her words were punctuated by the staccato stamp of booted feet retreating into the night. They were already way ahead of her.
A good night's rest and the dawning of a new day dispelled the nightmares of their last outing, but Wulf's gloominess was as strong (and prophetic) as ever.
Their newfound ally the Roach was gone as mysteriously as he'd appeared-- taking with him several crystal rods they'd recovered from the corpses, but which Keldas was unable to fathom.
Instead, Keldas had spent the night going over the mad librarian's journal, as well as a handwritten note recovered from one of the others. Both documents hinted that something eeeevil was brewing, and the note itself spoke openly of sinister plans. "Continue your disruptions until the day of the Baron's speech. The plan moves forward!"
It was the day of the Baron's speech, and they still had not been granted audience to speak with him. Once again they trooped off to the Baron's manor house, this time with evidence in hand; and once again they were stymied at the door by the inimitable major domo, Cadricus.
"Good morning, good morning!"
"We're here to see the Baron."
"Yessss... and you would be...?"
"Yer know damn well who we be!" Wulf grabbed the note from Keldas and shoved it under Cadricus' nose. "We found this. The Baron is in trouble, and we need to speak to him NOW."
"Ahh, yes." His eyes flickered across the note, barely registering it. "I will be happy to bring this to his attention..."
"No, we need to speak with him." Even Keldas was angry now.
"Yes, but as you know, the Baron is busy preparing for a big speech today, and has no time to accept strange visitors with outlandish tales of treason."
It was quite enough for Wulf. In an instant, the preeminent thought in his mind flicked from finding a way to protect the Baron, to finding even the flimsiest excuse to kick Cadricus' teeth down his throat. In the appropriately heroic fashion, and at the appropriately heroic time, of course.
"Right. Right then, no problem." He smiled cheerfully. "Just so long as yer know that if anything happens to the Baron, I'm going to personally hang yer by yer own gutstrings. Have a nice day!"
Cadricus was not one to be put off by threats-- nor even by a usurped and premature dismissal. "We hope you'll be joining us at noon for the Baron's speech!" He turned and walked away, nonchalantly stuffing the note into a pocket to be forgotten.
On their way back to the inn, as they twisted their way through the narrow streets and alleys, they were surprised to find a sudden fog descending upon them. They paused, and shortly heard a high-pitched cry from somewhere ahead.
Halma found his greatsword leaping to his hand. "Lady needs help!" He looked to Wulf for support, but the dwarf just shrugged.
"Knock yerself out." He stepped aside to let Halma past, and the barbarian surged forward, dragging tendrils of mist after him. Keldas and Alliane were not far behind. The halfing decided he'd rather follow them than stand in the mist with Wulf; and Wulf decided he'd rather follow them all than stand in the mist alone, watching his beard grow damp.
The narrow alley gave way to a small opening where a tiny shrine to Heironeous was erected. In the mist, to Wulf's untrained eye, it looked more like a crypt than a shrine, but he had little time to notice details. He'd no sooner stepped into the clearing than he noticed Halma standing dumbfounded yet again, and he found himself the target of an unpleasant and unfamiliar spell. Small sparks of electricity arced from a sorceror crouched atop the shrine, struck him, then resonated between him and Halma. He grit his teeth for the worst, but it was over almost as soon as it started. He was barely singed.
"Oh, if that's the best yer got, yer in for a bad day!" Wulf hurled a brace of daggers at the sorceror, who grunted and dropped out of sight. Wulf was sure he'd found his mark, but certain he couldn't have killed the man with so little effort. The sound of footsteps bouding across the rooftops confirmed his suspicions.
Keldas moved into the shrine and found a young woman bound there. He stooped to free her, but she waved him away. "They took Elaine! You have to go after them!"
"Who is Elaine?"
"Too late." Halma stood in the doorway and ducked to enter. "They run-- no tracks."
Keldas sighed and continued working on the ropes. Wulf entered the small shrine to join the crowd, elbowing the elf out of the way and deftly unknotting the ropes with practiced fingers.
"And who might yer be, then?"
"My name is Toria. I am an acolyte to Elaine. We are paladins of Heironeous, maintaining this simple shrine in honor of the Lord of Valor."
Wulf rolled his eyes. "Ohhh, aye, a valorous callin' if ever I heard one. Paladins! Pfah."
Toria cast a reproachful eye at Wulf, whose utter disdain was painted in broad strokes across his face. He stepped out of the shrine and away from her gaze.
Keldas joined him shortly. "I told Toria we would take her to stay with Shuma."
"I guessed yer might..."
"She needs a safe place to stay."
Toria brushed past Wulf, talking quietly with Halma-- who was, as usual, smitten at the mere sight of a pretty young human. Wulf frowned, recalling that Halma's orcish enslavement hadn't afforded him much peaceful contact with his own kind.
"As long as she's not coming with us after that. Last thing I need is a paladin muckin' up the works." Or a pretty little chit.
By the time they'd gotten back to Shuma, and recounted their adventures since the previous night, it was time to return to the market square to hear the Baron's great speech.
A huge crowd was gathered for the occasion, milling about until so many people had packed into the square, there was barely room to move. Nevertheless, they seemed to make way for Wulf and his friends, who moved blithely through the crowd with their weapons on proud display. They were, after all, the heroes of Brindenford. The crowd made a small space around them as the Baron came out to give his speech.
He stepped forward onto a huge stage erected for the occasion. On his right stood Cadricus, the major domo; on his left, there stood a woman they had not seen before; and close at hand stood two burly bodyguards. The Baron stepped to the front of the stage, and as he began to speak, the crowd roared their approval-- such that even Wulf himself was caught up in the excitement.
"My fellow citizens... I want to welcome you to Brindenford!" "Huzzah!"
"It is my sincerest wish that this year's Merchant Festival be the most enjoyable, memorable, and profitable ever!" "Aye! Good man! Good man!"
"As you know, we have had some... disturbances... in the city over the past few days..." Wulf raised an eyebrow and prepared to humbly soak up the adulation of the crowd.
"And they have been dealt with quickly..." Wulf shook Taranak over his head. "Yer damn right!"
The Baron grew serious. "But they continue unabated. This cannot be permitted." "Aye, an' it won't! I, Wulf Ratbane, swear it!"
"Effective immediately, the possession of weapons within the city is prohibited..." "EH?"
"Captain Shella has been relieved of her post and has fled into hiding along with other rebellious officers of the guard." Wulf looked over at Halma, who was already backing out of the murmuring crowd.
"No one shall be permitted to leave the city." "Oh, yer just watch me!"
The Baron continued. "The worship of Pelor..." Wulf saw a chance to turn their fortunes around, so he happily pumped his fist in the air. "Up Pelor! Love the sun!"
"...is hereby prohibited. Pelor has failed us!" Wulf kept his fist in the air. "Yah! F--- the sun!"
"The temple has been reconsecrated to our new protector, HEXTOR!" Wulf pumped his fist wildly. "Up the Fist! Go Hextor!"
There was a thundering roar as across the city, a column of fire sliced through the heavens and shattered the golden dome of Pelor's temple. Wulf looked back to the stage when the smell of brimstone overpowered his nostrils.
"And I am happy to announce that I have made certain agreements to extend the proper protection over our fair city!"
Two demons hovered above the stage-- one, a scaly, blue, dragonlike creature; the other, a giant skeletal warrior with a scorpion's whip tail.
As the crowd broke into a full-fledged panic around him, Wulf slowly lowered his fist.
With their eyes on the column of everlasting fire emanating from the defiled temple of Pelor, they stumbled back to Shuma's shop to regroup and try to figure out what was going on-- and what they'd do next. Shuma informed them that Shella was missing, and that the Very Old Man had gone into hiding. Shuma's apprentices were busy carrying weapons downstairs into a secret chamber before the guard came to confiscate them.
Wulf brandished Taranak. "Let's see 'em try to take this away. I'll split 'em from stem to stern."
Keldas clucked disapprovingly. "You can't just kill the guards. I'm sure they're no more happy about their new 'masters' than we are. They have families. Wives. Children. What are they supposed to do? This town is their home."
"This town is screwed. They should leave. Quit. Hide. Or better yet," he said, as Taranak burst into flame, "get pissed and kick some arse."
"You can't kill the guards. They're victims of circumstance."
"Right. I'm the circumstance."
Keldas sighed. "Do your best."
"Not makin' any promises."
Halma and the halfling set to work trying to find a way to disguise his greatsword, finally settling on tying it up inside a bundle of long sticks. Wulf nodded; from time to time, the halfling's craftiness came in handy. Halma seemed satisfied, but ready for action as always. "What now?"
Wulf looked to Keldas. "Well, we can't stay here. They'll be scryin' us, I'd reckon, an' we can't afford to give up Shuma and this hidey-hole."
"We'll move over to the old warehouse we cleared out. That should do for a while, at least. And we'll keep it dark, so they won't know what they're scrying."
"Right. An' then what? I can't shake this feelin' that somewhere, somebody needs killin'."
"I suppose we should just go back to that weird house, and see if we can find some clue as to who 'The Master' is."
That night, after moving some of their things to the old warehouse, they prepared to assault the house again. Wulf had reasoned out that the summoned creatures could be kept at bay with a Magic Circle, and Alliane and Keldas confirmed as much (though not without insisting they'd already thought of it...) Keldas changed form again, and together with his owl familiar, they scouted the way to the house and helped the rest of the part avoid a few guard patrols on the ground. (The halfing wondered to himself who'd be warning them if any of the demons happened to be patrolling the skies...)
They reached the house, noting that there were still lights in the windows, and more creepy madmen working at desks or wandering through the bookstacks. Alliane stopped a couple of houses away and prepared her protection spell. Halma crept up as best he could two houses farther down. In the center stood the converted library, where Wulf, Keldas, and the halfling lay in wait.
On the ground floor, they found one of the old men working at the desk, protected by a couple of the town guardsmen. The guards were clearly in cooperation with the villains, now-- though Keldas' words came back to Wulf and he wondered whether it was voluntary or not.
The halfing stepped up and offered to scout the house, pulling a potion of Invisibility from his pack.
"Where'd you get that, peck?"
"None of your business." He downed the potion and disappeared. It was eerily silent as he crept off into the back room.
The halfing crept into the house and looked around the back room for anything useful. He opened the closet door as quietly as he could, but it was also empty. Just as he turned to creep back to the stairs at the rear of the room, the old man came through the curtain that separated the two rooms of the ground floor. He noticed the open closet door and stopped, calling quietly to his two guardsmen. "Hello... we have a visitor..."
The halfling moved before the first guardsman had even cleared the curtain. He tumbled past the old man and between the two guards, drew his two daggers, and completely eviscerated the first unwitting guard. He blinked into existence as his other dagger drove into the vitals of the second guard-- another bloody kill.
Wulf was up and running, dashing into the house to deal with the sorceror, killing him dead before he had a chance to act.
With a look of both anger and pity on his face, Wulf was staring at the grisly remains of the halfling's victims when Halma and Alliane joined them. There was little time to discuss the matter. Keldas had cast Detect Evil and was staring worriedly at the floor. "There's a lot more of them in the cellar... half dozen or so..."
Wulf and Halma moved towards the stairs, but Keldas stopped them. "I have a better idea," he said, already shifting shape once again. Before long Wulf was staring at a creature he'd only heard tales of in his youth: a huge, hulking humanoid, with grinding mandibles and a pair of grotesquely muscled arms tipped with rock-hard claws. It had two sets of multi-faceted eyes, and Wulf seemed to grow dizzy staring into them. He quickly looked away.
Keldas gestured to the warriors to gather round, then suddenly hunched over and ripped a huge hole clear through the floorboards. Halma jumped through the hole and started hacking around in the darkness. The halfling and Wulf dove through right behind him, quickly seeking out their flat-footed opponents and making mincemeat of them. The screams of the dying sorcerors were cut off in mere seconds, and the house was silent-- for a moment.
Upstairs, they heard that sound again-- a tinkling like breaking glass. And again.
There were at least two of them, now. Two summoned creatures, and likely two sorcerors.
Halma dashed up the stairs to the second floor, and finding it empty, readied his sword to dash up the next flight. Wulf caught him just in time and grabbed his arm. He gestured Alliane to climb the stairs and grinned. "Just sit right there for a bit, m'lady. We'll wait 'em out, right?"
They waited a few moments until Alliane could sense that the summoned creatures had vanished. She took another step up the stairs. Again, the sound of breaking glass, and Alliane stopped to avoid forcing the barrier against the outsider.
Wulf shouted up the stairs. "We can go on like this forever, yer know!" Sure enough, before long, the way was clear-- the summoned creatures had disappeared back to where they had come from, and the sorcerors seemed to have given up summoning any more. The house was quiet again, and remained so for several moments.
"What are they doing?"
Keldas checked in with his familiar, who was still patrolling outside the house. The two sorcerors were clearly visible through the windows on the third floor. They were seated at a small table, blithely playing a game of chess.
Keldas the Umber Hulk clicked his mandibles-- an eerie sound that might pass for chuckling. He walked over under the table and prepared to rip the floor out from under them. Wulf, Halma, and the halfling readied their blades and nodded.
Keldas struck, rending through the crossbeams and collapsing the floor under the two sorcerors. Down came the woodwork, down came the desk, the chessboard, and the chairs-- but the sorcerors hung suspended in the air! They looked none too happy to have their game interrupted.
"Look out!" shouted the halfing, diving for cover as sheets of whitefire rained down onto them. Wulf dodged out of the way, Keldas and Alliane were hurt badly, and Halma-- ever leery of being burned-- flew into a rage. Wulf started hurling daggers while Halma left the protection of the magic circle and raced off up the stairs. Alliane shook her head and tried to move into position on the floor below to keep him safe, but she could tell it was pointless. The sound of breaking glass once again heralded the arrival of more other-worldly bodyguards. This time a wolf-headed creature and another elephant stopped Halma in his tracks. His friends saw his greatsword come whistling around, then he was pushed out of sight by the swirling melee.
Wulf and the halfling had both already thrown what daggers they had. Wulf switched to his trusty sling while the halfling once again started rummaging about for something useful. Another blast of whitefire rocked them, but Keldas held his concentration and returned fire with Melf's Acid Arrow.
Suddenly, a bloody corpse came tumbling down the hole. It was Halma-- or rather, what little was left of him. The sorcerors above laughed maniacally.
"I'll kill yer, yer bastards!" Wulf found Taranak blazing in his hand. For the moment, his fiery rage held back the genuine loss and sorrow that beat at him like a hammer. He scarcely noticed when another blast of whitefire came whistling down, sending the halfling tumbling for cover and knocking the two elves off their feet. Neither Keldas nor Alliane would be getting up again.
Wulf screamed, the taste of blood rising into his mouth, but the halfling was pulling him away. Above, the sorcerors continued to laugh, asking one another, "Why don't they run?"
The halfling didn't need to be told twice. He used his dagger to nick a piece of flesh from Halma, and he was gone-- diving right out the second story window.
Wulf pushed his rage into that stony, secret place where dwarven grudges go to simmer. His eyes never left the sorcerors as he cut the ears off Keldas and Alliane and chased off after the halfling through the dark streets.
On seperate paths, Wulf and the halfling both managed to make it back to the only safe place they could think of: Shuma's smithy. Wulf cornered the smith as soon as he got in the door. "If yer know where the old man is, get him over here." He pressed two elven ears into Shuma's palm. "The peck's got what's left of Halma."
The old man arrived shortly, already aware of the situation. He was bearing an ornate scroll case in one hand, and his holy symbol in the other. "Pelor be willing, I may be able to help your friends. I understand you took the trouble to bring back some token of their flesh; this act speaks well of them, but Pelor may require more. Get some rest, we'll begin in the morning."
Wulf and the halfling went upstairs to a small room. The halfling immediately lay claim to the single bed, flinging himself on it with abandon. Wulf crouched on the floor, pulling off his boots and socks while the halfling curled up, watching him. "You're just gonna sleep right there on the floor, huh? Okay."
"No, I'm not sleepin' at all. I'll keep watch for yer, right?" Wulf was already mulling over the many possible ways to off the halfling in his sleep-- slit his throat, set the bed on fire, smother him with a pillow... Problem was, he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the goodwill of the priest downstairs-- not until they'd done everything possible to bring Halma back. If he killed the halfing now, there'd be no way to cover up the deed, and he didn't relish trying to lie to a priest.
And though he never thought he'd admit it, he'd seen enough killing for one night. The halfling's brutal slaying of the guardsmen echoed in his mind. Wulf started filling his socks full of pennies; he dropped each coin in one at a time, in pace with the halfing's blissful breathing.
Wulf didn't sleep all night, and was bleary-eyed and beaten when Toria came to fetch them at dawn. "His Radiant Holiness is ready for you now."
Wulf roused the halfling and the two of them went downstairs, where Shuma's shop had been converted into a small shrine. The old man was dressed in shining raiments, his hands on the golden travelling altar before him. His eyes were closed as he faced the dawn, smiling thankfully before opening his eyes.
"I have made my prayers to Pelor. As the sun dies and rises again each day, he may craft new vessels of flesh for their souls, returning them to us once again.
"The soul's journey back to the realm of the living is a painful one, and your friends will not be exactly as they were before."
The old man picked up the scroll that Wulf had seen the night before. "This scroll contains ancient magic that has been with our temple long before even I had entered the service of Pelor. It is beyond my power to craft such magic of my own accord, though I can release the power of this scroll to cast True Ressurrection. This will ease the journey for one of your friends, bringing that one back safe and whole as ever they were when they were alive.
"My only question is... which of your friends shall receive this blessing, and which two shall suffer?"
Wulf spoke up immediately. "Halma. Bring him back safe."
The halfling chimed in. "Well, now wait a minute. If they lose memories and stuff, maybe it would be better to bring back Keldas, cause you know he's done a lot more studying than Halma, arcane arts and all-- and what does Halma have to lose, really?"
"Bring back Halma." Wulf glowered at the halfling, silencing his protests.
"Very well. I will begin with your elven friends, then. Understand, they are worshippers of their own god, and though there is friendship between all powers of goodwill, Pelor may yet request some service of them. Understand?"
"Aye, right. I hear yer loud an' clear. We'll get to your temple just as soon as we off those pricks that did this to 'em."
The old man smiled and began casting his spells. A shining brilliance filled the room, and when it had passed, Keldas and Alliane stood safe and whole before them. Toria quickly moved to drape some clothing around them.
The old man unrolled the ancient scroll. "Now for your young barbarian friend."
The old man began unleashing the spell from the scroll, but this time, instead of a flash of light, a look of consternation flashed across the old man's face. "Your friend... in the halls of great warriors... his soul resists..."
"Yer tell him Wulf says to come on back! I'll take care of him this time!"
"He says, 'Here in these happy halls, my mornings are spent hunting, with tests of valor and strength!'"
"Tell him to come back, an' ol' Wulf will take him hunting!"
"He says, 'Here in these happy halls, my afternoons are spent feasting on the finest food and drink!'"
"Tell him to come back, and Wulf will buy him endless flasks of the best dwarven ale!"
"He says, 'In these happy halls, his evenings are spent in the company of buxom barbarian women, who ease him to sleep with their tender caresses!'"
"Errr... Right... Keldas?"
Keldas spoke without looking up. "Tell him to return for vengeance, to set things right, and to finish what we've started."
There was a long pause, then the flash of light. Halma stood before them, grinning. Toria quickly covered him up.
Wulf pounded his fist into his hand. "Right! Get yer gear and let's go get those bastards!"
Keldas scowled at Wulf and rolled his eyes. "My gear is either still lying on the floor, or divvied up amongst the enemy by now. Including my spellbook and my Ring of Wizardry, which I'm sure you didn't think to claim before leaving."
Halma frowned, realizing he was in the same boat. "They get my sword, too?"
"Right, look, I know yer attached to that thing and all, but yer know damn well yer can use something else if yer have to. And yer just gonna have to right now. Shuma?"
"I have some masterwork things here-- a chain shirt, a longsword or two. Obviously I cannot help your wizard friend."
"A longsword will do just fine. And a stout bow, too, if you have one." Keldas stood up and helped Alliane to stand. "We'll need to rest through the day; I have some power left, but Alliane must pray to Corellan for aid. We'll go back tonight."
The party returned that night, a bit worse for wear, a bit less prepared-- but for once, Wulf didn't feel like he was the only one looking forward to the trip. Wulf let Keldas do the planning, and it was simple: he'd cast another Polymorph spell from memory, fly everyone up to the roof, and they'd work their way through from the top down. It was a variant on "boot the door" and Wulf approved heartily.
Halma stalked along at the back of the group, his borrowed longsword looking like a toy in his hands. His downcast eyes stared at his feet as they headed step-by-step to the site of his demise. It was only when he felt Wulf's rough hands guiding him aside did he realize that they had arrived. He brushed Wulf aside gruffly. "What do you want?"
"Don't look, boy."
Their three bodies were impaled outside the house, stripped naked and left to rot.
Halma and Keldas alike flew into a rage, dashing forward to pull down the bodies. Wulf tried his best to lighten the mood, to no avail.
"Ach... Keldas, I see two elves, but I can't tell which one is yer cousin and which one is yer..."
"Can't say I appreciate what they done with the decor, right, Halma?"
"Ach, right. Well, let's get to the killin' then, yer humorless bastards."
Keldas transformed himself into a small dragon again and flew them all to the top of the roof. They didn't even bother being particularly quiet about it, and by the time the last of them was standing on the roof, they'd already heard that familiar sound heralding the summoned guardians. Soon, griffon-like creatures dove at them from the night sky, but Alliane's circle kept them at bay. She prepared personal Protection from Evil spells for Wulf and Halma so that they could move outside the circle. Keldas Hasted himself then cast more combat spells on Halma-- Rapid Strikes, Displacement, the usual. Finally, Keldas shifted shapes once more, and soon the umber hulk was tearing huge gouges out of the roof.
They looked in on the top floor: more bookstacks, of course, but this time there was a sorceror there they did not recognize. Wulf marked him as unfamiliar and thus, obviously the leader. Wulf was the first through the hole, only noticing afterwards that there were more rhino-headed guardians inside, but it was too late to warn the halfling and Halma before they dropped down as well. Wulf moved up face to face with the leader, drawing Taranak as he stalked resolutely forward. Before he could take the first swing, the sorceror unleashed a massive mental blast. The halfling seemed to shrug it off but Wulf and Halma stood stunned.
The rhino creatures could not attack, but there was nothing stopping the sorcerors. An ectoplasmic wall sprang up, isolating Wulf from the rest of the party. The sorcerors calmly drew their shortswords and approached Wulf, stabbing at him repeatedly while he defended himself feebly. He'd taken up a position between the bookstacks to keep them away from his friends behind him, but they seemed content to hack through him first. He cursed at them through gritted teeth.
"Give me yer best shot, yer pricks!"
"Ach... Right, one more..."
Wulf was bleeding from countless wounds when Keldas came crashing through the roof. His huge claws ripped clean through one of the lesser sorcerors, forcing the leader and his last henchman to move away and throw up another wall of mental force. Now, it was the two of them sequestered with the halfling.
He tumbled back and forth, trying to threaten both of them while at the same time keeping them from flanking him. They took turns stepping out his reach and pummeling him with concussive force-- or simply slashing at him with their swords. He was losing fast, and without his allies to set up his own devious sneak attacks, it was hopeless.
But Keldas wasn't resting. He smashed through the bookstacks, clearing a path, then he and Alliane set to work trying to dispel the transparent wall. They finally succeeded, and Keldas began clawing at the other henchman. This only served to draw the ire of both remaining sorcerors, who joined forces smashing Keldas with concussive force, nearly killing him again. Wulf finally shook off his stupor and rushed forward to haul Keldas out of the way.
"One o' these days yer gonna learn to leave the fightin' to the fighters!"
Halma was also up and moving, and soon enough they had the henchman killed and the leader cornered in the back of the room. He let out a defiant scream before he was cut to pieces by Wulf, Halma, and the halfling.
At last, the house was quiet.
Keldas wasted no time searching the house, and was pleased to find his backpack, including his spellbook and most of his scrolls. His ring, and Halma's greatsword, were still missing.