Wulf's Collected Story Hour -- FINAL UPDATE 12/25

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
FORGE OF FURY (Epilogue)

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."
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part I)

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...
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part II)

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."

"RAT!"

Wulf sat up with a start from the back of the room. Everyone was staring at him.

"Hmmph. Nevermind."

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."

"RAT!"

"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?"

"No... no..."

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."
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part III)

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 applause rang in his ears.
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part IV)

There wasn't time for a second curtain call.

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.

Mmm... Bloodshed.

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.
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part V)

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.
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part VI)

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.

"Ach, ferkit."

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.
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part VII)

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.

"Helllllp!"

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.

"WE'RE F..."
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part VIII)

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.

"Uhhh..."

"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.
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part IX)

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..."

"Come on!"

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.
 
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