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

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (Part X, FINALE)

Though they'd ended up with less than they started with, and though three of them had endured an unpleasant journey to the afterlife, they finally felt that they'd accomplished something. And for a change, the next stop on their agenda wasn't another stab in the dark: There was a huge column of fire emanating from the ruined dome of the Temple of Pelor-- an open gate to the Nine Hells.

It's good for a hero to have his path laid out so clearly.

Once again they prepared themselves for battle. Magic Circle of Protection was a must, of course, and not knowing what spellcasting foes they'd face, Wulf advised Alliane not to skimp on them, either. "Best thing yer can pray for now, if yer want my advice. Well, that an' Bull's Strength."

This time, though knowing full well it would make little difference, they headed out during the daytime. It wasn't so much that they expected the fiends' powers to be at all lessened in the sunlight, just that no one particularly relished the thought of meeting them in the dark.

They approached through the narrow, twisting alleys and were pleased to find that the blue abishai was not patrolling the skies, as usual. Wulf and the halfling crept up in advance of the party and looked out onto the courtyard where the temple stood. Two city guards were standing on the steps leading into the temple, looking frightened, anxious, and as if they'd rather be anyplace else at the moment.

Without warning, the front doors of the temple opened up and the abishai came flying out. A disembodied voice nearby ordered the two guards to move out and attack. Wulf crept back a couple of buildings and pulled his cloak tight.

The abishai flew over the two scouts and went right for Keldas, Halma, and Alliane. The two guards came running on, past the halfling, who was hiding and unwilling to give up his cover. Wulf let the first guard run past him, then sprung out of the shadows. His thick woolen sock, the end full of pennies, came rolling out of his belt and whistling down on the guard's cap, knocking him out instantly. The other guard skidded to a stop and turned to face Wulf. Wulf dropped his makeshift sap and advanced, drawing his axes.

"Anybody don't want to get killed, better clear on out the back..."

The guard didn't need to be told twice. Wulf was more than he'd be willing to handle even if he hadn't been forcibly pressed into service by infernal forces. He disappeared around the corner and Wulf didn't give him a second thought.

Wulf turned his attention to the skies and the abishai hovering there. "Come on down, yer bastard, an' play a while." The abishai seemed to laugh, then screeched loudly. A rip opened in the sky and soon a green abishai hovered in the sky at the rooftops. "Ach, that's not good..."

Halma wasn't wasting any time. He'd already hauled himself up a drainpipe and was racing across the rooftops to slam into the abishai, sword swinging, while Keldas zipped a Melf's Acid Arrow as well. The blue abishai retreated to the sky while Alliane moved forward to bring her magic circle around her allies. Soon the halfling came pit-patting back to the party, wondering what they were supposed to do next. Wulf was still out ahead of the party, and got out his sling, though he had little hope of a simple stone having any effect on a fiend. He was surprised to find just the opposite, and the abishai moved further out of reach.

Suddenly, a huge wall of ice sprang up across the narrow alley, cutting Wulf off from the rest of the party-- and the protection of Alliane's magic circle. The blue abishai swooped in for the kill, and Wulf drew his axes to defend himself. The walls of ice were just about level with the rooftops, so Keldas flew to the top of a building and secured a rope for his allies, dropping it down to the street below. Halma easily leapt from building to building, crossed the wall of ice, and jumped down to help Wulf, smashing into the blue abishai as he dropped. His longsword drove deep into the creature from the force of his fall, and though Halma was wounded in the heroic attack, the abishai crumpled beneath him.

The green abishai retreated for a moment, then screeched, summoning a black abishai. That's something, thought Wulf. At least they're getting weaker each time...

More and more walls of ice sprang out of nowhere, and Wulf looked around desperately for the invisible sorceror who was casting them-- for certainly, only a sorceror could cast so many of the same spell repeatedly. Alliane had managed to climb to the rooftops as well and stood on the roof above Wulf and Halma, but her magic circle was too high above them to be of any help. The green abishai waited for another wall of ice to seperate Wulf and Halma, then swooped down to attack Halma. Its attacks seemed to drain the strength out of the barbarian, despite his rage.

The black abishai flew off to have a little fun with the halfling, who was desperately trying to climb the rope. As soon as Alliane was out of range, the abishai attacked, catching the halfling halfway up the rope, clawing and stinging him repeatedly. The rope swung back and forth while the abishai batted him around like a kitten playing with a piece of string. The little rogue managed to hold onto the rope, but couldn't seem to decide whether to keep climbing, or drop off and run for it. He held on with one hand and feebly waved his dagger at the abishai; unimpressed, the fiend swept in to attack him again. From atop the building Keldas shouted down, "Climb, you idiot! Get back inside the circle!"

The halfling climbed as fast as he could and made it to the roof, just in time for another wall of ice to spring up across the roof, blocking the halfling's approach to the other side of the building, where Alliane-- and safety-- waited. Wulf cursed the invisible sorceror, "Show yerself and fight, yer coward!" His taunts were rewarded shortly when the bone devil finally appeared. The fiend had sectioned Wulf off in a tiny arena of ice. Hovering over him, it began to sting him with its poisoned tail. "Ha! Bring it, yer prick! I can drink hemlock fer tea!"

Well, that much was certainly true, the poison didn't do much-- but poison or no, the damn thing was still putting holes in him like a miner's pick. He wasn't going to last long at that rate, and the fiends weren't pulling any punches, no matter how much they appeared to be toying with the group. The black abishai let out a shriek, but instead of the expected white abishai, another blue one appeared. So much for that theory...

Up on the roof, the halfling was scrambling back and forth looking for a way through the ice wall. He went fishing for greek fire, as usual, but Halma shouted up at him, "Jump, peck! Jump!" The halfling eyed the distance across the rooftops and balked, but the repeated cries from his comrades (and the black abishai closing in) finally got him moving. He started tumbling and cartwheeling across the rooftops, making it across two different gaps in a rambling "run" that brought him all the way around the wall of ice to stand on the roof across from Alliane, looking down at his companions in the street below.

Wulf knew he couldn't handle any more of the bone devil, so he took his chances and made a run for it, too, springing up to catch a drainpipe and start scrambling up a wall-- the same building where Alliane waited on the roof. The bone devil swiped at him as he moved away, but missed; but in his haste Wulf slipped and fell when he was halfway up the wall. He tumbled back to the street below and cracked his head, knocking himself out. Better than getting stung again, I suppose...

Keldas grabbed Alliane and flew her down to the street before the bone devil could move. Inching up close to the wall of ice, she could just overlap Wulf without pressing her barrier against any devils. Halma moved towards the bone devil to keep him away from Wulf. The halfling jumped down into the circle and waited to see what would happen next.

Wulf slowly sat up, still staggered from the fall. He could make out the dim shadows of his allies on the other side of the wall, but could clearly hear them hollering for him to cut through the wall to safety. With Taranak blazing in his hand, it was a simple effort to cut through the wall of ice, but even that light activity sent him reeling and he collapsed to the floor again, dying. Here's hoping he doesn't just make a new wall in the same spot...

Halma scurried through the hole in the wall and winced as the icy chill cut through him. "Drag Wulf through that-- he'll die." On the other hand, Alliane couldn't step close enough to heal him without shattering her circle of protection against the devils. The heroes fished around in their packs and forced a healing potion down Wulf's throat, then hauled him through the icy barrier.

They were standing now almost in the courtyard of the temple. The bone devil and two abishai swooped down and waited outside the circle of protection. Wulf thought to himself: It would only take three of them to pin them down so that they couldn't move. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the circle of protection to fall. Wulf looked up at his companions, all huddled close to Alliane for protection. "Been a good run, right?"

Keldas spoke sternly. "We're not done yet."

"Do the math, genius. We can't move." Wulf drew a little circle in the ground, punctuating it with three evenly spaced dots. "We're pinned down, see? We're gonna die." Sure enough the devils were capering happily outside the circle.

Keldas sighed and started to transform again. "Never got past planar geometry, huh?" The umber hulk appeared, flexed its huge claws, and started digging... straight down.

"Uhhh... well, right. Yer got me on that one."

The umber hulk clawed their way down a good distance. Alliane cast another circle of protection on Halma. "Wait right here, keep them corked out, then follow us as soon as you can!"

They kept digging until they splashed down into the sewers, then started running. Halma caught up to them soon enough. "Not following..."

Keldas took charge. "Very good. Let's get out of here..."

-----

They healed up, regrouped, and came up with a better plan. They were liking this Umber Hulk business very much indeed.

"We'll dig our way right up into the temple... Surprise them from below."

"Aye... right. But that bone devil's gonna be a pain again. Somebody's got to take him out. Yer give me Displacement and Improved Invisibility, I'll handle it for yer."

The halfling liked the sound of that. "Hey hey hey, if we're talking invisible, I'm a better rogue than you." He brandished his little daggers. "It should be me."

"But yer not a better man than me, peck, an' yer never will be. Yer willin' to stick to the devil one way or another, an' take the fight to him without stoppin', without runnin', without whinin', till one or both of yer is dead? Will yer swear to that? Cause yer know I will."

The halfling puffed out his chest. "Yeah, I'll do it. No big deal. You can trust me."

Keldas spoke up. "Wulf can do it."

They'd gotten another powerful scroll from the very old man-- more ancient knowledge from the followers of Pelor. Alliane could read the scroll, re-consecrating the temple, but the spellcasting process would take nearly a full day.

"We'll just have to clear the place out first, then."

They started digging for the temple, trusting on Wulf's innate sense of direction to get them on target. "Right. Here." They started digging upwards and came out in a small storage room. Wulf and the halfling peeked out of the door. "Looks like the temple, all right. Let's have that Invisibility."

They were in a short hallway with two doors. They heard nothing at the first door, so they moved on down to the second one. They could hear priests talking inside. Wulf nodded to the halfling and they rushed into the room. They caught the priests flat-footed-- and with the expert tactics only a couple of ambidextrous two-weapon rogues could dream up ("Stab 'em real quick, about a dozen times each...")-- well, that's pretty much all there was to that. Halma burst into the room and couldn't find much of a trace of what they'd been fighting.

But they'd made quite a ruckus. The first door opened and a priest crushed poor Alliane with his flail. Keldas shoved her out of the way and started snapping with his claws, forcing the priest back until Halma came dashing in to finish him off. Alliane was caught off guard, but she'd survive. She got her Magic Circle ready without further hesitation.

They moved on and entered the dome. The blast of fire was quite a sight to see-- emanating from a pit in the center of the dome that was at least 10 feet deep, though it was hard to tell from blast. Wulf moved cautiously into the empty room, confident in his invisibility, and was quite surprised when a wall of ice sprang up from behind him, cutting him off from the rest of the party. He kept moving, just in case they were using Detect Magic to try to pinpoint him.

The rest of the group sprang into action, running back down the hall they'd come down, and taking a door that they'd correctly surmised led to the outside. They were doing an end run around the dome, intending to come in the front doors. Halma was the first one on the scene, and burst into the dome only to take some minor (but painful) magic from a little goblin-like imp. Keldas and Alliane were the next two to enter the dome, but before they could get fully into the room, another wall of ice sprang up across the dome, cutting them off, too. Keldas started to transform again so that he could cast spells or fly over the wall.

Halma started fighting the imp, backed up by Wulf, but it was not long before the bone devil appeared and began attacking. Apparently satisfied that he had seperated the party, he started in on Halma. Keldas, hasted, flew over the wall to cast Displacement on Wulf. The little imp had retreated, flying and invisible, and Wulf dove into the bone devil with gusto, wounding it badly and driving it off, where it hid invisibly again.

The halfling had burned his way through the wall of ice and moved up to join Wulf by the column of fire. Suddenly, the bone devil swooped at him from the sky, trying to knock the peck into the column of fire. The halfling's uncanny senses warned him just in time, and the devil missed by inches.

Wulf turned to face the devil, who was hovering in front of him in the column of fire. The bone devil was smug, sticking to the protection of the column of flame. Wulf could already feel the intense heat coming off it.

"Ferkit." He swung his axes through the fire to connect with the bone devil. Sure enough, the blazing column burned like fire, too. His hands were singed, and the bone devil ignored him, assuming the lesson was learned. But Wulf grit his teeth and kept right on, hacking away at his enemy despite the fact that the burns and blisters on his arms worsened each time. The devil had decided to make a stand, but eventually he screeched and collapsed into the pit. Nobody was in any hurry to follow him down and "make sure."

The imp had taken the better part of valor and disappeared.

-----

They crossed the dome to the opposite side, where the architecture mirrored the side they'd entered from. Finding all the rooms empty, they climbed the stairs to the next floor. A single door awaited them, and when Wulf suddenly winked into existence again, heralding an Invisibility Purge, they surmised they'd found another enclave of priests.

They rushed the door en masse, Wulf, Halma, and the halfling, but they found the priests ready for them, with their backs to the wall and their spells ready. Wulf was stopped in his tracks, his willpower unable to shake off the effects of their spells. Keldas moved into the room to lend support, and Alliane hung near the back, just close enough to overlap her magic circle.

Halma and the halfling hacked away at one of the priests, felling him together, though he was clearly still alive when he dropped. Good, thought Wulf, a prisoner. The other priest stepped away from his assailants, reached down with a glowing hand, and grimly sucked the life force out of his own fallen ally-- swelling his own powers considerably. While the heroes stood open-mouthed at this turn of events, the priest stepped forward and laid his hand on the halfling's head. "Hextor, SLAY your enemies!"

The halfling dropped dead.

Moments later, Halma sent the priest to join him, but the deed was done.

Wulf stepped up and looked down on the body. "Oh, that's too bad." He bent down and hacked the ears off the halfling before Keldas could stop him.

"Why did you do that?"

"Well, yer need some flesh if yer want the priest to help him, right?"

"Well, yes, but the temple is empty now, we could have just carried his body back intact."

"Oh. Right." Wulf tucked the ears into his pouch. "Sorry 'bout that."

-----

They checked the rest of the temple and found it empty. Moving downstairs, they set Alliane up at the back of the dome to begin the casting. The rest of them staked out the three entrances to the dome. Wulf and Keldas each guarded a side door. Halma guarded the front doors. "Anybody come through, I kill him!"
Unfurling the scroll, Alliane began the long casting process to reconsecrate the temple.

She was not far into the casting when there was a knock on the front doors. Halma readied his long sword. The old rat-man, Turvin, stuck his twitching nose through the doors, and Halma let him have it.

Picked a bad time to come back, yer rat bastard.

The old man was sent staggering back out of the temple. "Well, I was going to suggest you surrender, but you've changed my mind." He gestured to his rat-men. "Kill them all."

Halma stood his ground at the door. Wulf desperately wanted to rush up and help him, but didn't dare leave his own post. The greasy rat-men slipped by Halma easily and moved into the room. Keldas was forced to move back to protect Alliane, just in case, but still Wulf held his post.

It was the next wave of attackers that finally moved him. An ogre waded into the fray, crossing the front steps of the temple in a single pace. He battered at Halma until the young barbarian was forced to fall back. Severely wounded, Halma staggered back towards Wulf, who came forward to intercept the ogre. Wulf moved out just in time to see two of the little goblin imps appear and start casting spells. The evil foes gathered up into a wedge and drove the two fighters back. At the front of their wedge, the ogre-- or rather, as they were about to discover, the ogre-mage-- let loose a cone of cold that nearly killed Halma, and severely wounded Wulf, who was caught off-guard and unable to dodge.

They strongly considered running, but Alliane kept right on reading, and Keldas shouted, "We're not going ANYWHERE!" Though he was wounded just enough that, in all likelihood, he'd be instantly killed by a single swat from the ogre, Keldas rushed up toe-to-toe with the creature and let fly with a Burning Hands spell. The ogre-mage liked that none too well, and the arc of flame caught and killed Turvin and one of his rat-men. Bonus!

Wulf took the opportunity to weave his way through the remaining enemies to the ogre's back, slashing at him with Taranak held in both hands. It proved just enough to drop the mighty foe, and Halma was able to stride forward and take out the last rat-man. Keldas let fly with Acid Arrows for the imps. They fled invisibly, but the acid stuck with them, eating away at them through the initial wound. The group was satisfied to see both of them drop dead moments later.

Alliane was still reading the scroll. The rite went on.

Alliane had no healing left, and they couldn't even afford to interrupt her even if she had. They were all within arm's reach of Death.

Wulf helped Halma over to the side door. "I'm better off'n yer are, I'll take the front. Keldas, get back to yer spot."

More time passed, when there came a polite knock on the front doors. Wulf shrugged and answered from within. "Aye?"

"I am sent with this message: The Baron requests a meeting with you!"

Wulf thought fast. This called for... diplomacy.

"Tell his Grace that we humbly accept his invitation, and will call upon him on the morrow!"

There was a long pause on the other side of the door. "Uhhhh... Okay."

Wulf turned to smile at his friends and give them the thumbs-up. "That settles that. Keep readin', lady!"

-----

They returned victorious to the old priest. His temple reconsecrated, he was more than willing to raise the halfling back to life. "Do you vouch for your friend, the halfling?"

Alliane, Keldas, and Halma nodded.

Wulf frowned. "Trust me. Yer makin' a big mistake."

In the end, over Wulf's objections, the halfling was brought back-- a little the worse for wear. Unlike Halma, who had nothing but fond memories of his time in the afterlife, the halfling seemed none too eager to discuss his soul's journey.

True to their word, on the morrow, they went to visit the Baron. Once again, the plan was to tunnel their way into his manor house, enter through the floor of a storeroom, then take their time finding the Baron-- and, hopefully, the Speaker in Dreams who had yet to reveal himself.

The tunnelling didn't go as smoothly as before. They criss-crossed themselves so often that Wulf half-suspected they'd collapse the whole city on top of themselves. Finally, trusting to his instincts, Wulf advised Keldas to start tunnelling up. "Should be the store-room right there."

In fact, they tunnelled up rather un-ceremoniously into the Baron's throne room-- and they were obviously waiting for them.

The Baron stood proudly, flanked on either side by a burly warrior. Nearby was a beautiful young girl, not a day over sixteen, smiling coyly and re-arranging her hair under her red beret. Lurking in the back was a stooped figure in a cowl. Wulf's mind was racing a mile a minute.

Wulf had also noticed that one of the Baron's guards had Halma's greatsword. Halma's father's greatsword. Halma's treasured beyond all belief greatsword. The hilt was clearly visible, though, and Wulf knew that if Halma saw it, there'd be no stopping him. Wulf wanted very much to start this fight on his own terms, when he was ready.

"Ahhh... We're here! Good morning!" He was desperate for a diversion, to keep Halma occupied, but he found himself unexpectedly blather-less. "Ummm...."

The Baron smiled at them. "Very pleased to meet you, dwarf. You've caused me a lot of trouble, you know." He nodded to Keldas. "And you, too, wizard."

He let his gaze fall on the halfling. "Good to see you again, Tomaloc."

What?

"I'm rather disappointed to note that, as of now, Shuma is still among the living. Have you decided against our bargain?"

"WHAT!?" Wulf fixed the halfling square in his gaze. Halma, Keldas, and Alliane were standing around the hole, looking dumbfounded.

"Oh, calm down. It's no big deal. I asked them if they could train me as an assassin, and they told me ok, but I had to kill Shuma, but I decided not to do it, so let's just move on, ok?"

"YER CAME HERE WITHOUT TELLIN' US AND STARTED MAKIN' DEALS WITH THESE EVIL PRICKS?!" Wulf's hands were balled into fists of rage-- and yet, well away from his weapons.

Still, the halfling backed up a step. He'd seen how fast the dwarf could draw a weapon. "Look, I decided against it, ok? So I don't see why you have to get all worked up over it."

Wulf took a step towards the halfling, ready to throttle him. The Baron simply looked bemused-- until the last moment. Wulf suddenly turned, two socks full of pennies unrolling from his fists and slamming down onto Wulf's chosen target.

Not the halfling. Not the Baron. Not the guards.

Wulf knocked the living crap out of the beautiful sixteen year old girl.

His two makeshift saps split wide open, sending pennies flying all over, but before the first coin had hit the ground he'd already drawn his hand-axe and given her a solid chop across the shoulder with that, too-- just for good measure. He dropped her like an ox. (Like a shapely, squeezable, sixteen-year-old ox!)

"Halma! That bastard's got yer sword!"

That had the desired effect. Everybody started grabbing for weapons, but Halma had already flown into a rage and rushed the guards. The Baron staggered back out of the way.
Never one to be outdone, the halfling watched the young girl collapse then sought out his own apparently helpless foe. He cartwheeled his way through the combatants and stopped next to the stooped, cowled figure. He caught the old man completely off guard, and drove his daggers home to devastating effect.

But the... thing... didn't drop.

The stooped figure straightened up and dropped his cowl. Wulf looked into a tentacled visage he'd only heard tales of as a youth-- and none of them pleasant. Its bulbous eyes flashed with ire just before it unleashed a mind blast onto the tightly packed group.

"Kill it! Kill it, kill it, kill it or we're all going to dieeeeeeeeeeeeeee......." The mind blast washed over them and Wulf stood drooling. Halma was out, too. And Alliane.

The halfling drank in the realization that he was facing a mind flayer, and looked more than half ready to dive back into the hole. The guards were already hacking at the two stunned warriors, and now that the mind flayer was ready for him, he didn't relish the thought of trying to take it down with his daggers. He hesitated...

Keldas waded through the combat, trusting in the hulk's carapace to deflect any blows, and clawed at the illithid. With its attention now diverted, the halfling found the spine to strike once again, wounding it deeply.

The illithid stepped away, activating some arcane power. Reality seemed to split in half, and Wulf gazed through a portal onto stars he'd never seen before-- and never hoped to see again.

Just like that, the illithid was gone.

Keldas and the halfling worked together to finish off the two guards. The Baron stood dumbfounded at the back of the room and was still standing there when Wulf regained his senses.
The Baron dropped his sword and sat down heavily into his chair. "Wha-- where am I?"

"Sit down an' shut up, yer bastard. I'll deal with yer in a second. But for now, let's see about lassie he---YAAAAAA!" Wulf had whisked the beret off the young girl's head, and when he did so, a tangle of snakes fell out from under it. The medusa's head was hacked off before most of the others had even come to the same realization.

Keldas nodded. "Nice work. How did you know she was a medusa?"

"Didn't! Figured she was just a sorceror or summat... Take somebody out quick, yer know? Establish my authority." Wulf wiped his blade off. "Got lucky, basically."

Wulf picked up the Baron's sword and inspected the masterwork blade as he approached the throne.

"First," he looked at the Baron. "We'll talk reward. And then," he tapped the blade in his hand...

"We'll talk to the halfling."
 
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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE SPEAKER IN DREAMS (EPILOGUE)

While Halma was busy prying his greatsword out of the death grip of the bodyguard, and Keldas was already scouting out the room with Detect Magic, the halfling tapped Wulf on the shoulder.

"I'd like that Hat, please."

"What hat?"

"The Hat of Disguise, the beret from the medusa. I can use that." He pointed to the beret, already stuffed under Wulf's belt.

"No. It's mine." Yer get into enough trouble as it is, peck, we don't need yer running around in disguise on top of all that.

"Oh, you think you can just claim it, just like that?" The halfling was going red in the face. "No discussion?"

"Aye." Wulf loosened Taranak in his belt and took a step towards the halfling. The halfling skipped back and held up his hands.

"Ok, ok, whatever." He sulked off to fish through the pockets of the dead.

"It's here!" Keldas shouted from across the room. He'd recovered his Ring of Wizardry.

The Baron spoke up. "I guess we should talk about your reward..."

Keldas and the halfling began haggling with the Baron over "salvage rights." It was no small sum: Counting the crystals they'd recovered from the bookstore, and the magic weapons and armor from the Hextorians in the temple, it was nearly sixty-thousand gold crowns.

Keldas could barely contain his excitement. "I can finally afford to scribe all these scrolls I've been collecting!"

Halma spoke up. "Ahh... You... you can make father's sword better? With magic?"

"Yes! Yes, of course! Your armor, too!"

The halfling bounced up. "Ooh, I gotta make a list!"

Alliane weighed in. "With me to help Keldas, you can all make a list. There's little we can't craft, together."

And just like that, the halfling's transgression was forgotten.

But not by Wulf. He was still keeping score-- and the game wasn't over yet.
 

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Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE STANDING STONE

Wulf caught up to the rest of the group just as they were heading into Ossington. They were travelling with two bedraggled farmers and the carcass of a dead plowhorse. Wulf raised an eyebrow and Keldas quickly tried to catch him up to speed on the goings on of the area.

"We stopped by a druid grove on the way into town, where we received a bit more information of this part of the Baron's fiefdom, and their recent troubles. The druids had previously maintained communication with the wild elves in the area, but their emissaries had stopped coming early in the summer--without explanation. The druids considered this odd, but not particularly worthy of investigation.

"A more pressing problem for the druids, however, was the sudden lack of wildlife in the area. It was as if a circle had been drawn, with Ossington in the center, and nothing more well-developed than a mosquito remained in the area. The druids had been debating for the past several weeks what they might do about the situation, but expressed hope that, since we were heading that way anyway, perhaps we would investigate.

"We first sought out the wild elves, who had become unremittingly hostile to outsiders--especially humans--for some time. My presence, and especially that of Alliane, a priestess of Corellan, did much to allay their hostility, and they spoke with us of their troubles. In years past they had been accustomed to dealing with the townsfolk of Ossington, but the relations had become more and more strained with the disappearance of all the wildlife. The elves were starving, and grew hostile towards the town. The town leader, Dyson, set up a meeting with the elves to discuss a peaceful settlement."

Keldas droned on and on, and Wulf was very nearly asleep by this time.

"Apparently, at this meeting, the humans turned on the elves, slaughtered them, and began feasting on the fallen bodies."

Now he enjoyed Wulf's undivided attention.

"The wild elves are planning to wipe out the town. We've asked them to try to find a peaceful settlement, and they've agreed to give us two days to find a compromise."

Wulf noticed that Halma looked as if he'd been in a recent battle. "What's that all about?"

"Killed a ghost."

Keldas interrupted before Wulf could give voice to his surprise. "Ahh, yes. To add to the troubles, apparently the town is under siege by a ghostly horseman, who rides down and slays anyone who tries to leave the town. These two," he said, gesturing at the farmers, "were lucky that we happened to be passing by when the horseman attacked them."

"Why would yer leave town if yer knew there was a ghost about?"

"We have no choice. We have to look oustide for food."

"And that carcass?"

"The horseman killed it. We're taking it back home for food."

"Yer WHAT? Whoa whoa whoa there! Yer can't eat a HORSE!"

"Of course we can. Horse is good eatin." Halma nodded in agreement.

"Yer eat that horse, the gods'll curse yer. Yer don't eat 'friends to man!'"

Keldas took the farmers' side. "What does that even mean?"

"Horses an' dogs--gifts from the gods, an' pillars of civilization. Not for eatin'. Yer on the fast track to a good buggerin' from Fate herself. Trust me on this one."

The halfling decided to enter the fray. "I bet you'd eat me if you were starving though, huh?"

"I can't tell if yer tryin' to flatter yerself or insult me. I can barely stomach yer when yer up and among the quick, peck."

They had drawn near to the farmers' dwelling, just outside town, and they agreed to stay the night. Halma went off with the farmers to help butcher the horse, and it was with great trepidation that Wulf sat down to dinner with them later. He took a sniff of his stew, and the little cutlets of meat that floated in it. His eyes lit up and he looked over at Halma, who was already digging into it with gusto. Keldas, for all his talk, put on a brave face but obviously had no idea what he was eating. Wulf grinned and tucked into one of his favorite meals.

Rat stew.

----------------------------

They left the farmers the next day and continued towards town. Just outside town they found a small shrine dedicated to all the primary gods of Greyhawk. Wulf stuck his head inside and was greeted by an oracle who tended the shrine. Wulf would have guessed her a druid, though her presence in such a shrine confused that assessment somewhat.

"Mornin, woman! May we enter?"

"Of course." She smiled sweetly. "All are welcome here." Wulf noticed for the first time the small monkey-like pet on her shoulder. It hopped off and ran circles around the room, stopping at various donation boxes.

The party moved inside, and while Keldas grilled the druid, Henwen, about the goings on of the area and the town, Wulf made the rounds of the donation boxes. He was thankful he'd kept some travelling money in his purse.

Pelor! Wulf made the fist. Like brothers still, right? Sun's up again today-- nice work. Wulf dropped a few gold coins into Pelor's donation box.

Heironeous! Ahh... Keep an eye on me today, got a feelin' I'm gonna be valorously whippin' evil arse. For justice! A few more gold coins tinkled into the collection box.

Kord! Oh mighty, mighty Kord! Right. Ach... ferkit... Here. Wulf made another contribution, equal to the others, and moved on to the next shrine.

It seemed that all philosophies were present, from law to chaos, good to evil. Wulf contributed to each in turn-- growing a bit nervous when he reached Nerull, but taking a guilty pleasure in his contribution to Hextor. Sorry about that business back in Brindinford. Pals? He made the fist, just in case.

Keldas' conversation with Henwen hadn't netted them any information, save to repeat the townsfolk's charge that it was the wild elves, not they, who had started the fighting at their last meeting. As for the "eating of the dead" charge, that was preposterous.

They moved into town. Ossington had been built right into the center of a huge ring of standing stones. There were actually several concentric rings of stones, and one large stone in the center of town. The mayor's house abutted right up against this ancient, rune-covered stone. Oh, that's wise, thought Wulf.

On their way into town they met a bard, who was standing and watching the townsfolk who were trying to harvest their crops. The wild elves, it seemed, had taken to firing pot-shots at the townsfolk who ventured out into the fields, so gathering the crops was risky business.

Keldas spoke to the bard, who informed them that he went by the name of The Cuckoo, and tried to find out more about the town. The Cuckoo repeated the same old story-- the elves were the aggressors, the townsfolk were starving, there was no eating of the dead.

"An' here I thought yer were supposed to be chock full o' rumors, knowledge, and useful information. So what is it yer doing here, exactly?" Wulf gestured to the fields.

"I'm watching over those men who are trying to gather some food."

"Right. Ahh... and if the elves attack, yer gonna... what? Sing them away? Pfft." Wulf couldn't hide his disdain for the bard. Worthless parasites! The day he caught some lazy bard making coin singing the praises of his bravery and hard work, there was going to be trouble.

The Cuckoo just smirked. "Are you going to stand here and insult me, or are you going to help these poor people?"

"Yer just watch yerself, bard. Yer at the top of my ass-kickin' list." Wulf pointed the others to the mayor's house. "Let's go talk to Dyson."

They were met at the door by Dyson's assistant, Tully. She was lithe and wiry, and Wulf could tell she knew her way around the weapon at her side.

"We need to talk to Dyson."

"Can't do that. He's busy now. Who are you?"

"Wulf Ratbane. The Baron sent us here to... solve problems."

Tully didn't blink. "Great. Go wipe out the wild elves."

Keldas stared back at her.

"Ok, I guess not. Well, then, you can do something to get rid of the horseman so our people can leave town to look for food."

"Aye, we can do that."

"Fine. There's a barrow mound a few miles from here. We know the horseman rides from there. Come back when you're done-- Dyson should be free to talk to you by then. Good luck."

----------------------------

The party took a quick trip to the nearby countryside, where they found the barrow without difficulty. Wulf was the first to enter the mound, scouting ahead quietly in the shadows. Off to the side he heard a noise, and turning, saw the two bright flames burning in a wight's skull. Before he could even warn the rest of the party he charged off down the hall, slamming his blazing battle-axe two-handed into the creature. His charged knocked it off guard and he hacked at it again before it had time to paw at him. The wight dropped dead-- truly dead-- at last.

Wulf turned to rejoin his companions, and realized for the first time that he was trapped at the end of the hall. In the tussle he'd neither seen nor heard the stone block sealing off his exit behind him. He was sealed in, completely trapped in a five-foot cube. It was only moments until Keldas, as an umber hulk once again, came smashing through the wall to save him, but Wulf couldn't help but be reminded how useful it was to have friends you could rely on. No doubt about it, if he'd been alone, he'd have died a slow, lingering death-- buried alive.

Wulf gestured to the halfling. "Come up front with me and help me look for traps. Get on out ahead of me; I'll be right behind yer."

Together they slowly moved through the maze-like tunnels of the barrow, following a simple "Always Turn Left" procedure so they wouldn't get lost. Sure enough, every thirty feet or so there would be another sliding wall trap-- the halfling would spot it, Wulf would concur, and move up to disable it.

They were about halfway through the maze, moving down a long hall, when the halfling missed a trap. Wulf noticed it, but the halfling kept right on moving. In a split-second, several thoughts ran through Wulf's mind. Oh, this should be good. Probably another sliding wall. But what if it's lightning, or something that will kill Keldas? Or a gas trap? Ach, ferkit. If it's a gas trap, I can take it. Huzzah!

Wulf remained silent, and the halfling triggered the trap.

Sure enough, a sliding wall slid across the passage. They could hear the halfling turn and start pounding on the stone, then they heard him start shrieking. Whaddaya know? A wight? Wulf shouted through the stone. "What's wrong? Yer need help? Knock like this if yer need help!" Tap tappity tap tap. "Like that! Hello?"

The halfling, of course, was too busy with the wight. The creature clawed at him twice, sucking the life force right out of him, but the halfling fought back. He doused the creature with greek fire, then tumbled around out of reach while the fire did its work. Eventually Wulf stepped aside in the narrow corridor to let Keldas tunnel past, but by then the halfing had taken care of the wight on his own.

Wulf clapped him on the back. "Well done!"

"Screw you! You deliberately let me set off that trap!"

Wulf blinked. "What are yer talking about? I didn't see it either!"

"Oh, please! Give me a break. So much for watching my back."

"Well if yer couldn't see it yerself," Wulf's voice was rising with anger, "then what in hell makes yer think I could see it!?"

"Well you didn't have to stand around and F'in let me get mauled by an F'in wight! You didn't even try to help!"

"Yer too damned ferocious, peck. It was dead before we even had a chance. Let's move on, right? No sense cryin' over spilt milk."

"Well you can take point then."

"Right yer are." Wulf moved off.

The halfling grimaced at Alliane. "I'm all drained to hell. Help me out here."

Alliane could only frown. "Such magic is beyond me. Perhaps it will pass. Perhaps tomorrow."

----------------------------

Much to the halfling's dismay, Wulf didn't miss a single trap, and let them expertly to the center of the maze. Steps led down to an arched chamber holding a sarcophagus. Wulf held up his hand to halt the party. Obvious trap.

"Don't like the looks of..."

"TURN BACK, MORTALS, OR MEET YOUR DOOM!"

"Ach, well, ok. Right. Ahh..." Diplomacy. "Ah! We're looking for the Horseman, actually... My comrades here killed him once already, and we just want to have a bit of a chat and see if we can avoid having to do that again... in a more permanent fashion."

"TURN BACK!"

Wulf was losing patience. Booming, disembodied voices were awfully hard to put the boot to. He turned to the rest of the group for advice, and found Keldas pointing discreetly at the wall beside him. Aha! Secret door, right? Wulf moved next to Keldas, gestured for the party to make ready, and threw wide the secret door.

The figure standing behind it was obviously the owner of the voice, and as pleased as Wulf was to find a physical body prime for a valorous and judicious dismemberment, something stayed his hand. For starters, the creature was obviously undead-- little left but the armored shell of a warrior long dead. Ordinarily Wulf wouldn't hesitate to hack such a creature to bits, but it was the fact that the creature bothered to hide itself behind a secret door and throw its voice in order to scare off intruders-- well, to put it simply, he found it oddly endearing. He turned to the rest of the group.

"Ach, I don't want to hack up this old geezer." He spoke loudly and plainly, to clearly announce his intent. The essence of diplomacy, he'd learned, was complete honesty. "Well, we were sent down here to kill yer. Understand from the folks in town, yer behind the horseman, an' we just want that to stop."

The figure spoke. "You'd find me a formidable opponent, dwarf-- though such a contest would be for naught. I am not the horseman, nor do I know what is behind the phenomenon."

"Well, beggin' yer pardon, but yer still a creepy old undead bastard. So... ahh... who are yer, then?"

"I am Saithnar. Many years ago, when I walked among the living, I was a protector of this town. Now, in this eternal state, I protect it still."

"So yer not the horseman?"

"No."

"And yer don't know who is?"

"No."

"Then why would Tully send us here to destroy yer?"

"Perhaps she sent you here that I might destroy YOU."

Little by little Saithnar was earning Wulf's respect. He turned to Alliane. "Not all undead are evil, right?"

Alliane shrugged. "It seems odd to justify it so, but if he protects the town..."

It was good enough for Wulf. "Right. Right, then, Saithnar. Yer off the hook. We'll go back to town, tell Tully we killed yer, see what shakes out. Might be back later. Might have to kill yer. No offense." Wulf turned to go.

"Leave with my blessing, then. My men will not hinder you on the way out."

The halfling winced at the memory of the wight's cold touch. "Yeah, bit late now-- thanks for nothing."

----------------------------

The returned to the inn that night, and sat down in the common room to discuss matters and have a drink or two. Wulf was already in a foul mood. Once again, he didn't have a clue what to do next, and he hated it. Oh, he knew somebody was ripe for an ass-kicking, but who? They were acutely aware that they'd lost a day already. By the end of the next day, barring their intervention, the wood elves would come to slaughter the town. Wulf didn't know who to believe, but strangely enough he found himself siding with the wood elves.

"Ach, Keldas, I know I give yer guff all the time, but I've never known yer people to be liars. I'm inclined to trust the elves on this one. Summat up here in town-- just don't know what." Wulf tugged at his beard. It was a difficult problem. "I say we start by kickin' the tar out o' the Cuckoo."

"I sincerely doubt that will solve the town's problems."

The halfling got up from the table. "I'm tired, I'm heading to bed."

Alliane stood as well. "Keldas and I need our sleep, so who's taking the first watch?"

The halfling spoke up. "What do we need a watch for? We're safe here. And I don't feel like sleeping on the floor, either, while the elves get their beauty rest. I'm getting a second room."

"I don't know how yer do it, peck... This town is crawlin' with evil, I can feel it. We should stick together. Get yer own room if yer like, but don't expect me to come runnin' if I hear trouble on my watch."

The halfling shrugged. "Fine, fine, whatever."

They settled down to sleep. Wulf and Halma split two long shifts between them, both expecting treachery, but the night passed peacefully.

----------------------------

They went the next day to visit Dyson. When Tully came to greet them at the door, Wulf tried to guage her reaction at their presence; but if she was surprised or disappointed to see them return "victorious," she gave no indication of it.

"Right. We killed yer horseman. Let's have that chat with Dyson now."

Tully sighed and stepped aside, gesturing them in. "Very well."

They climbed the winding stairs to Dyson's study at the top of his tower, and finally met the man who had assumed the burden of leadership for the beleaguered town. Dyson was dark haired, goateed, with a ruddy complexion A look passed among the party members. All he's missing is the cloven hooves and a forked tail...

After introductions Dyson got right to the point. "The wild elves are lying. They turned on us for no reason, killing our townspeople. If you don't ally with us against them, they'll wipe out the town for sure."

Keldas took charge. "We have spoken with the elves, and they have given us until tomorrow to arrange a peaceful settlement. It would help if you would come with us and meet with their leaders. Surely we can negotiate peace."

Dyson shook his head. "I'm sure they'd love nothing better than to get their hands on me." Tully nodded in agreement.

"Nobody will touch yer with us around. Count on that."

Tully clucked and Dyson spoke up. "Unfortunately I don't share your confidence-- and apparently neither does my protector."

Wulf raised an eyebrow. "What-- her? A woman?"

"Tully is a talented strategist, an excellent swordsman, and a dangerous foe. I find that women make fine bodyguards."

Wulf scoffed and tugged at his beard. "Aye, but they make better scullery maids."

Tully ignored the insult. "Will you help us or not?"

"Send Tully with us as your representative, to speak with the elves," said Keldas.

"Very well. Let's go."

----------------------------

As they walked, Halma matched stride with Tully and spoke amiably with her, while the rest of the group fell a few paces behind. Wulf spoke quietly with Keldas as the halfling trotted beside them.

"Keldas, I don't see how yer folks can be lyin'. An' I don't like the looks of that Dyson fellow. Let's just pick a side, strike now."

The halfling squeaked out a protest. "No! We can't double cross them. It's a bad idea."

"Why?"

"Just trust me, we don't want to do that. Besides, it's not right."

"Don't know about right, but it's damned well smart. Going to cross blades with Dyson eventually, let's take Tully now and save us the trouble later."

"No! Swear to me you won't harm her!"

"Why?"

"I... I can't tell you. Let's just say things aren't always what they appear."

"Such as?"

"Well, like this..." The halfling donned a magic hat and was suddenly cloaked in an illusion-- he looked just like Wulf.

Wulf check his own magic hat-- still there. The halfling had gone to the trouble of buying his own. Wulf was not happy-- moreso because he didn't like the thought of the peck assuming his identity and getting into trouble.

"Yer keep that up, yer gonna end up like Dyson and Tully."

"Look. Just this once, just once, trust me. Swear you won't kill her."

Wulf indulged the halfling, but his grin belied his intentions. "All right, I swear."

The haflling knew it was the best he could hope for-- but betting on Wulf's conscience didn't ease his worries any.

After a long walk out to meet the wild elves, the meeting was woefully short. As expected, both sides accused the other of lying. No peace was reached, and from the party's standpoint, no new evidence was revealed. They were simply going to have to pick a side. They elves still planned to attack the next day.

As they headed home, Wulf, Keldas, and the halfling fell behind again. Wulf spoke up. "We got no choice, peck. Let's just knock her out, get her out of the way until we can deal with Dyson."

The halfling looked ready to dive into the nearest rabbit hole, but he knew the truth of the matter as well. "All right. All right, I'm with you. I'll strike when you do." He trotted up to join the others and get into position.

Wulf looked to Keldas. "Give me what yer got."

In short order Wulf was Hasted, with Improved Invisibility on top of that. He grabbed hold of his sock-penny saps and cruised up silently behind Tully, smashing her solidly. He expected her to drop as easily as the last slip of a girl he'd laid into. Oh, were they all in for a surprise.

Though he'd crept up as silently as possible, she was somehow warned at the last moment, twisting aside from Wulf's treacherous blows. Her sword was out in an instant, and she snarled at the halfling. "You're a dead man, Tamaloc!" She ran her sword through his shoulder to punctuate her remark. The halfling struck back with deadly precision, abandoning their plans of taking her alive.

But Tully wasn't waiting around to cross swords with the halfling, or Wulf. She tumbled away-- and vanished.

"What the-- ?"

"I got her..." Halma was running low to the ground, following her trail. He dashed off into the trees. Wulf and Alliane did their best to catch up. Before long Keldas, having cast a Fly spell on himself, sailed off after Halma.

And then came the halfling. He spoke a command word, and a huge pair of bat wings sprouted from his back. He flew off in hot pursuit as well. Was there no end to his new bag of tricks?

Every time Halma tracked Tully down, she would dash out, sneak attack him, and disappear into thin air again. Wulf had never seen anything like it. What the hell was she?

The halfling was screaming. "You better kill her or we're all going to die! Probably going to die anyway!"

Halma did his best, swinging wildly into the bushes, and occasionally striking true. Tully was certainly capable of taking a lot of punishment.

"Enough of this! Time for you to die!" Dyson's voice boomed out into the forest and a cloud of darkness fell over Halma, Wulf, and Alliane, who had surrounded Tully. Wulf quickly backpedaled out of the darkness and saw Dyson, the Cuckoo, and Henwen, lined up in attack formation. They were all casting spells. Those backstabbing pr*cks! They ambushed us!

Henwen's little monkey familiar started screeching, a high-pitched wail that grew louder and louder, threatening to overwhelm Wulf's senses. He wasn't sure what effect it would have had on him, for he somehow managed to shake it off. One thing was for certain-- he knew he didn't like it.

"Right. That's about enough of that." Wulf ignited Taranak and charged up to the demon-monkey, cutting it down in a single blow. Henwen cried out in pain, and though Wulf stood nearby, she could not see him to retaliate.

Tully took advantage of her friends' timely arrival, striking out at the halfling. Even with his supernatural reflexes he was no match for her. Another swift sword stroke pierced him through, wounding him terribly. The halfling leapt into the sky while Halma swung around in the darkness, trying to defend himself.

Wulf took a deep breath, drew his hand-axe, and stepped up between Henwen and Dyson-- still invisible, still moving with supernatural haste. His hand-axe rose and fell two times on Henwen, striking where she could not see to defend herself, staggering her; and one swift, final stroke from Taranak put her down. Wulf never stopped moving, whirling the flaming axe around and into Dyson.

Taranak struck Dyson with incredible force, straight down the center of his forehead, exploding into flame as it did so. Wulf had rarely seen the full volcanic force of the axe, but it blasted Dyson's skull (and a good portion of the rest of him) into tiny smoking chunks-- in a single blow.

Wulf had dropped two of their foes in less than six seconds. Keep moving while it lasts!

The Cuckoo suddenly let out an ear-splitting shriek that ripped the fabric of reality. A hazy form materialized in the air before them, a hideous vulture-like demon. "A little help, brother," spoke the Cuckoo, as he assumed his own true demonic form.

The only thing better than kicking a bard's ass is kicking a demonic bard's ass, thought Wulf. This just keeps getting better.

Wulf charged over to the Cuckoo and hacked away with Taranak, but the demon hardly seemed to notice. This could be more trouble than I thought...

Fortunately, Keldas retained his composure. He casually pulled a scroll from his pack, unfurled it, and began to unleash a spell. Completing the incantation, he pointed his finger at the newly summoned Vrock and simply Dismissed it back to the Abyss. If the creature was capable of resisting such magic, it didn't choose this particular time and place to do so. The Cuckoo was on his own again.

Wulf switched strategies, changed his footing and began fighting sinister so that he could lead with his hand-axe. Striking with blinding speed from the cover of invisibility, he dismembered the demon in a few quick strokes.

And not a moment too soon, as the Haste spell drained from his limbs.

Suddenly there was a piercing cry from the edge of the darkness. Tully had emerged and turned on Alliane, striking her clean through the heart, killing her instantly. Halma had been biding his time, and struck her down with his greatsword, but it was too late for Alliane.

Tully had fallen, but a great deal of the wounds she'd sustained were from Wulf's saps. She was still breathing shallowly. Wulf shouted over to Halma, "Tie her up! Quickly!"

"No!" shouted the halfling. "Kill her! She's a ninja!"

Wulf had been invisibly looting Henwen and Dyson, quickly pulling rings from their fingers and stuffing them in his pockets, but he slowly turned, his mind now at full attention to the halfling.

"How do you know this?" Keldas hovered nearby, also curious.

"She was going to train me."

Halma still wasn't quite sure what was going on. "Rope or sword?"

"Sword!" shouted the halfling. "No wait! Rope... Yeah... Rope! Maybe I can talk my way out of this!"

"Out of what, peck?"

"Well, she passed my name on to her superiors, and said if anything happened to her, they would come looking for me. So you guys may have to fight off some ninja assassins with me."

Once again, Wulf was filled with the urgent need to kill the halfling. He was glad he was invisible, for he was literally shaking with rage. And, perhaps, a bit of anticipation.

But he calmly let the moment pass.

"Well, let's get Tully back to Dyson's tower, right? I'll carry her, just in case she wakes up. Halma, yer can grab Alliane. And somebody should get the head off that demon so we can show the townspeople."

----------------------------

By the time they reached town, Wulf was visible again, and the people fell back trembling from his angry countenance as he marched into town with Tully draped over his shoulder.

They climbed the stairs to the top of the tower, to Dyson's cramped study. He dumped Tully on the floor.

"Well... here we are. Guess we better wake her up and ask a few questions. I'm not taking any chances though, I'm going to have a potion first." Wulf dug in his pack for a potion.

It was a Ghouls' Touch potion he'd picked up somewhere. He finally found a use for it.

The halfling took the bait. "Got one for me?"

"Sure." Wulf drank his potion and advanced to the halfling with another potion in his other hand. Water Breathing, perhaps, or something equally useless.

As the halfling reached for the potion, Wulf grabbed his wrist. His eyes widened in shock and surprise. "Hey, what are you... Ow...." The ghoul's touch flooded up his arm, threatening to paralyze him.

The halfling fought off the effects and skipped back a step. Wulf advanced. "Wulf, what are you doing?"

"I'm knockin' yer out so we can figure out why yer betrayed us... again."

"What are you talking about?"

"Yer went behind our backs AGAIN, peck, cuttin' deals with the forces of evil."

"I did it for the good of the party! I was trying to make myself useful for you guys!"

"By turning assassin? By studying with evil ninja mercenaries?"

Wulf tried to grapple the halfling, but he wriggled free.

"What, just because Wulf doesn't like me, I'm not allowed to broaden my horizons?"

"I warned yer before." Wulf tried to tackle the halfling again.

"This is silly, I'm just going to fly away."

Wulf laughed. The halfing spoke the command word and his Wings of Flying unfurled to their full twenty-foot wingspan. Or rather, they attempted to: There simply wasn't room for such a large wingspan to fly in the top of Dyson's cramped tower.

"That'll teach yer to buy out o' the bargain bin. Next time invest yer money in a nice pair o' winged boots, jackass."

Wulf opened his hands and his saps unrolled. He started pounding away at the halfling, who tumbled away, trying to defend himself. Halma watched from the top of the stairs. Keldas watched from near the window.

"Fine! I'm not even going to resist, then." The halfling stood still.

Wulf knocked his lights out.

----------------------------

"Think back. How many times has he stood around watchin' us get pounded on? Watching us die? What about Kellick? And now we've lost Alliane. Yer have to ask yerself-- whose side is he on, anyway?"

Keldas and Halma were unsure. "It doesn't seem right..."

"Yer know, the most dangerous evil is the kind that's right there next to yer. The one yer trust. The one yer travel with. But yer can't go soft now. We should kill him."

Halma disagreed. "No! Take all his things, set him free..."

"So he can come back for vengeance later? I don't think so."

"Then give him to Tully-- for justice."

"So they can train him as a ninja and then he can come back for vengeance? Yeah, we need a pissed-off halfling ninja pr*ck dogging our heels. This is ridiculous. Yer had no trouble killin' Dyson, what's the difference? Evil is evil."

"Maybe he's not evil."

"Well, all the priests within a hundred miles of here are now dead. Awfully convenient if yer ask me. Trust yer instincts, boy, and if yer can't trust them, trust me. He's evil."

Halma turned to go downstairs. "I need some air."

Keldas spoke up. "Let's wake Tully, get her side of the story."

She was still tightly bound, so Wulf brought her around.

"What's yer relationship with the peck?"

"He came to Dyson and I last night..."

"Ach! No wonder he wanted his own room! The little weasel..."

"And I offered to take him in and train him."

"An' what was his part of the bargain?"

"He agreed not to interfere with Dyson's plans at all."

This caught Keldas' interest. "And those plans?"

"Dyson has been turning the animals in the area into humans..."

"He WAS..."

"... in order to raise an army so that he could take control over the whole countryside here."

Keldas blanched. "Well..."

Wulf gave him time to work through it.

"It seems pretty clear to me-- notwithstanding his other transgressions-- that if he agreed not to interfere with Dyson's plans, he was directly aiding an evil enterprise... and..."

"All right, yer talked me into it."

Wulf drew his axe and, in one smooth motion, hacked the halfling's head off.

Taranak exploded into flame again, as if taking pleasure in a deed long overdue.

Halma came running into the room at the sound of the flame burst. "What!? What did you do?"

"We decided what had to be done." What are yer worried about? Yer left the room-- clear conscience, boy. Did yer do it on purpose, I wonder?

Keldas pointed to Tully. "What about her?"

Wulf spoke first. "I say we let her go. Send her home, no hard feelin's."

Halma shook his head. "If Tamaloc deserved to die, so does she."

"Right." Wulf lopped Tully's head off.

They all sat quietly for a long time. Halma was the first to speak.

"I don't know if I want to travel with you guys anymore."
 


Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE WICKED AND THE WEARY

The Wicked and the Weary details the second half of our adventuring careers.

It picks up where the last story ended, having seen the characters through the stock WOTC modules from Sunless Citadel to Standing Stone, and now continuing on with The Heart of Nightfang Spire.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Wulf Ratbane-- dwarf Ftr6/Rog3/Devoted Defender 1

Halma-- human Bbn9/Drd1

Keldas Ilnion-- elf transmuter Wiz9

Alliane Ilnion-- elf Clr7 (cohort)

Dorn-- dwarf Clr9 (Haela Brightaxe)

Korak-- aasimar Pal9

Grr-- black bear cub (animal companion)
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE HEART OF NIGHTFANG SPIRE (Part I)

Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it;
let a cloud dwell upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.


For the first time in a long time, and the last time for a long time, Wulf slept easy.

Wulf, Halma, Keldas, and Alliane had returned to the Forge of Fury, and the halfling-- well, the halfing's black soul no doubt shared the same fate as Dyson, Tully, and the Cuckoo. The Old Man had welcomed them back, and the halfling's fate was quickly and almost casually swept aside. Such validation from Moradin's mortal representative was a welcome-- if unnecessary-- compliment to Wulf's growing wisdom and leadership.

Wulf was even more pleased to find his generous contribution well spent. The Old Man had recruited scores of dwarves back to the forges-- warriors and smiths alike. Even Keldas was happy to throw himself into the revitalization of the Forge, taking on several dwarven wizards as apprentices. Keldas' skill with magic combined with the expertise of even the fledling artificers boosted their armaments considerably. Wulf and Halma's chain shirts, and most especially Halma's greatsword, were re-forged to several times their previous strength and sharpness.

Most pleasing of all, they split up the peck's goods with nary a word of protest. Wulf laid claim to his little magic daggers, Keldas took his Ring of Dexterity, and they passed around his Wings of Flying like a drunken cousin at a halfling wedding.

Thus it was with some disappointment that Wulf woke at last from that peaceful sleep onto a grey and dreary winter day of ill portent: The Old Man had summoned them for a new "quest."

Both incoming and outgoing trade had been disrupted recently by attacks, and he wanted Wulf to put a stop to it. So far, so good. Unfortunately, word had gotten back that the perpetrator was a white dragon named Calcryx; one glance at Keldas' guilty face and Wulf correctly surmised that Calcryx was the hatchling they'd unleashed beneath the Sunless Citadel, before they'd rescued him from the goblins.

The thought of tangling with another dragon-- aye, even a white, even a hatchling, at that-- didn't sit well with Wulf, and things didn't get any better when the Old Man introduced their new traveling companions: Dorn Ironshield, a dwarven priest whose double-handed holy great-axe belied his name; and Karak, a golden-haired, violet-eyed outsider-- an aasimar, and a paladin, to boot.

A priest and a paladin.

Moradin's judgement had come down at last.

-------------------------

They set off in the direction of the last attack. Wulf and Halma traded turns with the peck's Wings of Flying, scouting ahead. Eventually, as the trees fell away and the winter landscape took hold, they spotted a deep canyon, with a single towering black spire jutting up in the center.

"All she's missin' is a sign that says, "Evil: This Way."

The tower's location in the center of the valley, in such a position that the sunlight rarely, if ever, fell across her battlements, should have been a warning to them.

Alas, they didn't turn back.

The tower seemed empty, but Wulf volunteered to scout ahead while the party stood close at hand. The tower was huge, at least 140 feet tall and 60 feet across the base. Still, Wulf could find no doors or windows; there was, however, a small vine covered shack attached to the side of the tower. There was a door inside, perhaps. Still cautious, Wulf pulled his shadow cloak tighter and crept up to the shack, so stealthily, so silently...

As he approached the cracked and rotten door, Wulf strained his ears. He heard... music. Faint, but nevertheless there it was. Faint music emanating from a shack jutting from the base of a creepy tower in the middle of a desolate valley in the midst of winter could only mean one thing to Wulf: there was a grand struggle of Will in his near future.

Did he falter? No!

Did he retreat? No!

Did he beckon his companions to come closer and back him up? Hell no!

He opened the door, took one superbly stealthy step inside, and, like clockwork, promptly failed that struggle of will. He just had time to cry out before he unstealthily fell asleep and dropped like a sack onto the floor of the shack.

He could drink the contents of a mummy's chamber pot and not feel ill. He could dodge the strike of an angry serpent with nary a scratch. But give the man a test of will and the best he could do was yell out, "Ach, lads, I'm f-----" and hope they arrived in time to bail him out.

As they did, of course. Halma, with his natural speed enhanced by his boots, was the first on the scene-- though the best he could do was to fall asleep across Wulf's already prone form. A creature dropped stealthily from the shadows on the ceiling and began to slowly feast on the life-force of the two warriors.

Keldas was the next to arrive, though when he spotted the creature crouched over his comrades, he realized there was little he could do against vampire spawn. The creature stood and pointed at Keldas, saying, "I remember you..."

Unfortunately, no more information was forthcoming. Dorn and Karak burst onto the scene, and between Dorn's holy axe and Karak's eagerness to smite all things evil, the creature was soon dispersed into a cloud of mist. They watched as it seeped through a crack into the tower.

There was another victim in the shack, and a recent one at that. Never ones to waste time on the dead, they pried the bastard sword from its grip and moved on.

-------------------------

They decided next to assault the tower from the top.

"Aye, go to the top, an' just work our way down. Get 'em all that way."

Halma grabbed Dorn and flew to the top of the tower. A pair of wings sprouted from Karak's back and Wulf was not so much surprised to see wings on the aasimar as to recognize that they were not real-- just another pair of Wings of Flying.

Wulf took one look at the cumbersome twenty-foot wingspan and chuckled, remembering the halfling. "Nice wings, ass-mar. Why do these idiots keep investing in bargain-basement goods?"

Wulf and Alliane waited at the base of the tower with Keldas, who cast Spider Climb on Halma's little bear cub. Cute. Wulf watched the little ball of fur climbing happily up the side of the tower when the dragon struck.

Calcryx came out of nowhere, breathing at the group at the base of the tower. Wulf dodged the blast of cold with ease and hoped that Keldas and Alliane fared as well. Taranak leapt to his hand and he spoke the words to set it ablaze, taking up a wide stance in front of Keldas.

"Come on, then!"

Wulf heard Keldas and his cousin casting spells behind him, and the cool, calm touch of elven hands on his shoulders. He could Fly. And Alliane had cast Resist Elements.

"You're all set. Go get him, Wulf."

Wulf gripped his battle axe in both hands and flew straight into the dragon, cutting a deep gash across its belly. It was only when Calcryx hovered back in the air, bringing all four claws up in defense, that Wulf realized he'd made a tactical error. He'd have been far better off to let the dragon come to him, into two axes instead of one; when he was ready for a full attack instead of a single stroke.

Unfortunately there was no time for retreat. Wulf heard a tremendous thunderclap and felt the electricity in the air. Something had called down a blast directly onto the top of the tower, completely enveloping Halma, Dorn, and Karak. The creature-- a huge monster that seemed all brain, beak, and tentacle, like a huge grell, only worse-- slowly levitated up from just inside the crumbled top of the tower. Its tentacles lashed out, enveloping Halma and Karak and lifting them even higher into the air. Dorn, the only one of the three who could not fly, thanked Haela Brightaxe for his luck and started casting.

Flame Strike.

Halma and Karak struggled to break free.

Another Flame Strike.

Wulf could hardly believe his eyes. He'd never seen destructive power like that-- at least, never from anything other than the receiving end. This priest was no pasty elven wizard! Here was a power to be reckoned with!

Another Flame Strike!

Karak managed to twist free, but Halma disappeared as he fell with the crumpled monster onto the tower below.

Wulf knew his friend would be all right, and he didn't have time to worry about him anyway. Calcryx's claws scraped against his newly forged chain shirt, and though most of the damage was deflected, Wulf felt a claw scrape against him. The chill that sapped his bones wasn't simply cold-- it was the bitter cold of undeath.

Calcryx was vampire spawn.

"Ach, right, that's about enough o' that, then."

Wulf drew his hand axe and unleashed a flurry of blows into the dragon's hide. It was mere seconds until the dragon was dispersed into a cloud of mist that floated back to the tower.

The party quickly ascended the tower in pursuit. The cloud coalesced under the lee edge of the tower, in a spot that Wulf reckoned would be hidden in shadow at all times. Halma slashed his greatsword into the beast's body over and over, but each time, the wounds closed immediately.

Wulf looked around for anyone who knew how to finish off a vampire.

Permanently.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE HEART OF NIGHTFANG SPIRE (Part II)

Lo, let that night be solitary;
let no joyful voice come therein.
Let them curse it that curse the day,
who are ready to raise up their mourning.


Slowly the realization set in that, should one of them even have an inkling as to the proper gear to dispense of vampires, they were nevertheless unequipped for the task. Wulf checked his pack. No wooden stakes. He had a couple of vials of holy water, though for the life of him he couldn't remember when, where, or why he'd have laden his pack with such useless tackle.

Though, at the moment, he thanked the gods for it. Holy water was definitely involved somehow.

Wulf cast his gaze across the bleak landscape, looking for anything that might serve as a stake large enough to drive through the heart of a dragon. Nothing but frozen prairie as far as he could see. "We need a stake..." he muttered.

Dorn, the priest, spoke up. "I have... uhh... I have these torches."

Wulf blinked in amazement. "Yer carryin' torches?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"

"Cause yer a dwarf, and yer can see in the dark?"

Dorn was getting indignant. "It's standard adventuring gear. Everyone carries torches. What if you have to light a fire, hmm? What if your allies can't see? I believe in being helpful and prepared."

Wulf waved his hand. "Fine, fine. Yer prepared." Wulf looked down through the hole in the roof, into the dark recesses of the tower. Two vampire spawn dispatched already, and countless more inside. "Praise Moradin, yer prepared. How many yer got?"

"Ahh... three."

Wulf snatched a torch from Dorn and pounded through the dragon's heart. "That should do it."

Nothing happened.

Wulf emptied a vial of holy water onto the corpse and grinned. "Right. Forgot that part."

Still nothing happened.

"Try this again." Halma stepped up and cut the head off the dragon. It worked. Wulf picked up the head, tucked it into a bag, and tied it over his shoulder. "Just in case."

They all stood silently staring at the hole leading into the tower. Eventually, Halma shrugged and leapt into the hole. Wulf was not far behind. They beckoned their allies to join them and the party spread out into the gloom. Wulf noted that a healthy sense of paranoia had descended on the group, and he himself was not at all surprised when a half-dozen vampire spawn came shrieking out of the darkness to repel them. Unfortunately for the group, he'd not had a chance to organize them into their usual fighting wedge, and Alliane was quickly cut off and surrounded. Wulf sidled up to Keldas and cautioned Halma to stick close as well. Wulf was doubly concerned with the new priest and the paladin-- he didn't quite know what to make of them, yet.

Expecting the priest to call feebly upon the gods for protection, he was instead amazed to see Dorn wade forward with his immense axe, its edge gleaming with a holy light that made short work of the vampires facing him, blasting them into a fading mist. And it was the aasimar who sheathed his weapon and called up his celestial might, causing the surviving two vampires to turn to mist and slink away.

Wulf led the way into the next room, where they found six empty sarcophagi. Wulf sprinkled each coffin with holy water. "I think that'll keep em from comin' back. Seems right, anyhow."

Alliane and Dorn had each been drained by the sudden ambush, yet the group wanted to continue on.

"Are yer out of yer bleedin' minds? Six vampires in the first room and yer want to go looking for more?" Wulf himself was still drained from his encounter in the shed below. "Hell no. Mystery of the caravans: solved. Time to go back to the Forge."

Halma shrugged. "The Old Man is just going to send us right back."

Dorn spoke up next. "We can't just leave a pit of stinkin' eeeevil laying about."

"Yer just watch me. There's plenty more evil in the world I can stick a boot to, without muckin' about with vampires."

In the end, the best Wulf could do was to persuade them to retreat for the night. They fled as quickly as their wings could carry them, across the blighted landscape for several miles, until at last they came to the edge of a wood. Wulf immediately started chopping up saplings to make wooden stakes.

Halma was scanning the sky. "Winter time. We have at least 12 hours of night. Maybe more."

Wulf looked over at Keldas. "Well, that certainly puts a damper on yer Rope Trick. What yer good for, maybe nine hours?"

"About that, yes. We'll just have to spend some time camped out, the old fashioned way."

Wulf sighed. "We're screwed."

------------------------

Sure enough, it was on Wulf's watch, while they were all outside, that a trio of vampires came for them.

Wulf was becoming more observant-- or at least, more gainfully paranoid-- and he easily spotted the vampires. He stepped up to meet them, rousing his comrades with a simple cry of "VAMPIRES!" Taranak was ready and blazing in his hand, before they had even coalesced from mist into their human form. He eagerly swung his axe and hand axe in short quick strokes. "Taste... a little... of this!"

But the vampires were not alone. A dozen glowing red eyes appeared in the woods, and hungry wolves descended on the rear of the party. As they emerged from the woods, it seemed that the wood itself came alive and moved with them. Dozens upon dozens of twig blights came clacking and creaking out of the woods as well. Keldas, Alliane, and Dorn were surrounded.

Halma leapt up and charged to Dorn's defense, though the sturdy dwarf hardly seemed to need it. His most devastating spells were already cast, or forgotten as a result of the vampires' draining touch, but his great-axe was always ready. Unfortunately, though his axe easily cleft through the twig-blights, it was slow and seemingly endless work, even with Halma nearby cleaving through them in great numbers.

Wulf was too busy with the vampires to worry about the others. "Give me a hand here, ass-mar!" The paladin jumped up to help Wulf, his holy symbol at the ready.

"Not that," Wulf grunted. "Just hack 'em, the pricks..." Another vampire turned to mist as the paladin caught the drift and drew his glowing longsword, eagerly joining the fight.

The wolves had dragged Alliane to the ground and were threatening to finish her off. In a rare moment of aptitude, Keldas fended off the wolves around him, casting defensively, and conjured forth a blistering belch of acid that covered nearly all the wolves and twigs-- and neatly missed every last one of his own allies. Wulf and the paladin finished off the vampires just as the stench of bubbling wolf-and-twig goo wafted in their direction. Wulf turned in time to see Alliane regain her feet, defiantly pull out her mace, and crush the life out of the last surviving wolves.

"Good to see yer finally learned some useful tricks, elf."

Keldas ignored him, watching the vampires' misty forms float away towards the tower. "We're still not making any progress."

Wulf grinned. "Aye, but it can't be any fun gettin' yer ass blasted into a fine mist ever' night. They'll get the hint."

Wulf was still feeling confident when they returned to the tower the next day, fully rested and restored.

It wouldn't last long.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE HEART OF NIGHTFANG SPIRE (Part III)

Why died I not from the womb?
Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?
For now should I have lain still and been quiet,
I should have slept: then had I been at rest.


Wulf was feeling confident. He'd overseen the daily prayers and advised both Dorn and Alliane to keep a strong supply of Restoration and Protection spells of all kinds. Kheldas had apparently learned a few spells of fighting usefulness, and for the most part Wulf trusted the elf to himself as far as his own arcane preparations went. Better still, Keldas had identified the bastard sword they'd found on the dead body in the shack below: Ghost Touch.

Wulf handed the blade to the paladin. "Take this sword, ass-mar. Yer see any vampires going misty, take a couple of whacks at 'em with this." The paladin nodded, taking up the bastard sword and making room for it on his belt, beside his own trusty longsword.

They returned to the top of the tower and once again looked down into the darkness below. Wulf stopped Halma just as he was about to jump through the hole. "Hang on... Let me take a look."

Sure enough, Wulf's trained eyes could faintly see the runes of a Glyph protecting the entrance. His comrades stood impatiently behind him, waiting for him to disarm the glyph, but it quickly became apparent to Wulf that the magical glyph was beyond his skill.

"Safe yet?" Halma had his greatsword in his hands and was eager to jump into the hole and hew into some evil-doers.

"Ahh... Just a second." Wulf stood up and backed away from the hole. He stared at it for a moment. There was only one way he knew for sure to make the way safe for the rest of them. With a shrug, he bolted towards the hole, tucked himself into a tumble that would make the peck proud, and just flopped right through the glyph. He felt a crackle of electricity as he went through, but escaped any serious harm.

He dusted himself off and called up through the hole. "All clear!"

The party joined him and they began to systematically clear out the rest of the the tower. Each time they reached a new door, Wulf would check it for traps, they'd all have a listen (though they quickly tired of straining for the sounds of the restless dead), and Halma would boot the door. Each intersection was handled in similar logical fashion. "Lefts... all lefts," Keldas decided. They found themselves working their way around the rooms of the tower, from the center to the outside wall, in an orderly clockwise direction.

The stairs to the next level down, of course, were in the last place they looked. They all felt a happy elation at having cleared the first level of the tower, but were nonetheless concerned that they couldn't find any additional sarcophagi where the two escaped vampires might have headed. "Must be downstairs then."

They headed down to the next level, which they found to be largely unoccupied and sparsely arranged. In a long room that occupied most of the outer wall, they found their first interesting and unfathomable obstacle: a large pool of oozing black liquid. From time to time, small bubbles of what they surmised to be pure, unconcentrated evil bubbled up to the surface.

"What's that?"

Halma quietly whispered his profound assessment: "It's... it's his mojo, baby."

It certainly didn't look like anything they could simply attack. Wulf turned to the group. "Well, I'm stumped. Ideas?"

Only the paladin spoke up. "I suppose I could use the Bless Water spell you asked me to pray for."

Wulf clapped him on the back. "Good plan! We'll wait over here while yer try it."

The paladin spread his hands over the bubbling pool and called on his celestial powers. A broad patch of the black liquid cleared to crystal purity-- then immediately began to hiss and sizzle as the blackness quickly regained dominance.

Wulf shrugged. "Right. Next room."

The hallway out of the goo-room turned and headed off to the south, but Wulf stopped the group at a door on his left. Room after empty room, door after untrapped door, and yet they were taking no chances. Wulf carefully checked the door for traps-- nothing there. Halma booted the door open onto an empty room full of broken furniture and shattered bits of pottery. The party turned to follow the hallway to the next room, but Wulf stopped them.

"Let's just search through this mess real quick, right?" He stepped into the room.

Wulf was caught completely flat-footed as the floor just inside the doorway gave way beneath him. His reflexes were uncharacteristically slow, and he found himself sliding down a steep slope. He put his hands out to slow his fall, but was rewarded with the stinging pain of several razorblades that had been sadistically arrayed along the inside of the chute. He pulled his hands tight and tried to lift his feet, leaving his arse and his chain shirt to bear the brunt of the razor action.

"Well, this couldn't get any wor--wha-- what the f--aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!" The chute had ended-- at the outside of the tower. Wulf scrabbled at the walls as he fell a colossal one-hundred forty feet to land solidly on his back.

He blinked up at the sky, just thinking and resting for a moment. The fall hadn't killed him-- at least, not instantly. Sure, he felt like he'd been laid across the anvil and pounded by the All-Father himself-- but this... this was the stuff heroes were made of.

He raised his fist and shouted-- to the sky, to Moradin, to the tower itself, he didn't care. "IS THAT THE BEST YER GOT?"

-----------------------

Minutes (and a great many charges from their healing wands) later, Wulf was back in the tower and looking for vengeance. They continued to clear out the second layer of the tower, which although deserted did turn up another interesting item. In another dusty room, they found a section of the floor that was swept clean. A large rune was carved into the floor-- an iconic representation of a tree.

Wulf was in the mood for another of Moradin's hammer-blows, so he nonchalantly stepped onto the rune. As far as he could tell, nothing happened-- but elsewhere in the tower, unbeknownst to them all, things were set in motion. They found the stairs to the next level, checked it for traps, and were prepared to head down, when the flickering shadows on the walls suddenly seemed to come alive. Dozens of shadows, moving ethereally through the tower walls, came at them from all sides, rendering their carefully planned "fighting wedge" useless. To make matters worse, a trio of vampires materialized around Keldas and Alliane.

The shadows caught them by surprise, and in the span of just a few seconds, the paladin was completely drained of strength and collapsed on the floor. Wulf and Halma flailed away almost uselessly with their weapons, blocked off by shadows and unable to get to grips with the vampires. Alliane tried to cast Holy Smite but her spellcasting was constantly interrupted by the vampires. Keldas fared no better-- neither elf could seem to maintain their concentration.

Wulf watched with alarm as the paladin's prone and pallid form grew more and more shadowy. Alliane shouted with alarm-- her own Restoration spell was gone with the first touch of the vampire spawn. Dorn knew instinctively that that he lacked the charisma and willpower to convincingly call on his goddess to turn the shadows, but he also knew that it was folly to Restore the paladin while they were still surrounded by shadows.

Naturally, Wulf did his part to take command of the situation. Knowing Dorn's affinity for Haela Brightaxe, Wulf did his best to scream like a dwarven woman. "Turn! Turn! Turn 'em, dammit, or we're all going to dieeee!"

Dorn held his great-axe high and called on Haela. For a brief moment nothing happened, then slowly the shadows began to slink away. Dorn wasted no time, casting Restoration on the shadowy form of the paladin. Just as his soul was fading out of existence, the paladin was saved. He returned to the land of the living at the last possible moment.

Wulf panted and dragged his drained and weary arse over to Dorn. "Well done. Now... let's save these stairs for tomorrow, aye?"

The two dwarves led the way out.

-----------------------

While they camped that night, Wulf laid out his alternate plan.

"Right, I've had about enough o' this." He looked at Dorn and started counting off on his fingers. "Move earth, soften stone, summon an earth elemental if yer have to. Just tip the bloody thing over. Use yer priestly hoo-hah to control the weather, push back the walls of the valley, get some sunshine in here, and let's be done with it."

"What about the treasure inside?"

Wulf flexed his hand around Taranak. "I got everything I need already. Going back time after time... This is asinine!"

Dorn shook his head. "Well, I can't do any of the things you suggested anyway. I don't have access to such magic."

"Well what CAN yer do?" Wulf's face reddened with frustration.

"I throw a mean Flame Strike."

Slowly, Wulf grinned. "Right yer are. Right. Let's give 'em some more, then."

In the morning, they headed back in.

-----------------------

Noticing from their crude, hand-drawn maps that there were some inaccessible areas, they stopped short of the next unexplored level. Wulf suggested to Keldas that it might be time for the Umber Hulk to make an appearance. Keldas agreed and made the transformation, but they quickly discovered that the large unmapped areas were solid stone-- supports for the tower. Keldas was happy to continue burrowing through the other areas, but Wulf thought better of potentially collapsing the top two levels of the tower onto their heads.

Just before Keldas was ready to transform back into elven form, Halma spoke up with one of his rare, but insightful, ideas. "Smash a hole in the outside wall and throw all the coffins out."

The party grinned and cheerfully went about the vandalism of the vampires' home. It was a simple matter for the umber hulk to smash a huge hole in the outer wall, then heave out all of the stone sarcophagi they'd found so far. The party cheered each time a sarcophagus shattered on the stones below. Just as the last sarcophagus was unceremoniously added to the pile of rubble, Wulf noted a glint in the rocks below. Quite a few gemstones were shattered and useless, but an evil-looking bone-handled dagger had miraculously survived the fall. Intrigued, Wulf retrieved the odd-looking dagger and put it safely in his pack.

Satisfied that the way above them was secured for their retreat, they headed down. The next level of the tower was empty, and eerily quiet. Eventually they found their way to a long room that, by Wulf's estimation, spanned the length of entire tower. All down the long hallway, there were darkened alcoves cut into the walls, and a large decorative sarcophagus stood suspiciously at the far end.

Wulf cursed his luck. Wish we had the peck right about now... "I suppose yer all want me to scout it out, eh?"

Wrapping his cloak about him (and trying desperately to persuade himself that it wasn't pointless) Wulf moved stealthily down the hallway, searching for traps, scanning for enemies. The alcoves, thankfully, were empty. Slowly but surely he advanced until he was standing just before the sarcophagus. His allies were a long way from him. He turned, expecting to see them still cowering in the doorway-- but god bless 'em, they were moving right along behind him, not more than thirty feet or so.

Little good it did him when the sarcophagus sprang open and a mummy leapt out at him and assumed a fighting stance, a kama in one hand and its open palm facing him in the other. Wulf couldn't help but notice it was unusually spry for a member of the walking dead. He was both surprised and amused when the mummy struck him with its open hand. He's trying to infect me with mummy rot. It was more than that. The mummy had struck him a solid blow on the solar plexus. Wulf chuckled. He's... he's trying to stun me with a monk's strike!

Wulf was nearly incapacitated with laughter, knowing he had the fortitude to keep that up all day. The mummy wasn't about to stun him or infect him, and it wasn't about to nickle and dime him to death with a kama, either. Taranak flared up in his hand and he chuckled at the thought of a mummy facing his flaming axe.

When the spectres and shadows came drifting out of the walls, Wulf stopped laughing. Three spectres surrounded him and before he knew it, he'd felt as if he'd lost about half his lifeforce.

Now, the mummy was a bit of a problem. Drained as he was, Wulf couldn't lay a hand on it. It was too quick, and in his weakened state, too tough for even Taranak to bite through. Wulf quickly assessed the situation. He could retreat back to the protection of the party, but they were strung out along the hall, and he'd leave Halma a sitting duck for the spectres' next target. And frankly, he didn't know if his numb and lifeless legs were quick enough to tumble away from three spectres without them striking him down from behind.

Ferkit! Wulf sidestepped into the shallow alcove beside the sarcophagus, fully prepared to die, but intent on taking a few of them with him and still trying to make the best use of the options available. He hoped the alcove would keep at least some of his enemies at bay. He turned his attention to the nearest spectre and was lucky enough to land a series of solid blows, dispersing it. One down, two to go... Wulf feebly fended off another round of attacks from the spectres, but one still struck true. Wulf felt more of his lifeforce drain away.

The paladin was rapidly becoming Wulf's new favorite ally when he stepped up and turned the remaining two spectres. He had a radiance and a force of will that neither Alliane nor Dorn could match-- and which the undead could not withstand. Alliane and Dorn turned the shadows, and Halma's greatsword soon brought the mummy crashing to the floor.

They pulled a brilliant (obviously magical) helm from the mummy's treasure. Keldas put it away for later study and pointed to a door he spotted at the end of the hallway. Dorn had already restored Wulf's lifeforce so he stepped up to search for traps. Wulf didn't spot anything, but he heard a low moaning from within-- and couldn't help but notice the awful stench.

Foul-smelling, moaning entities were almost universally good for a rumble, so he readied his axe and booted the door.

The room opened onto a grisly scene of dismembered, rottting corpses-- but not so grisly that Wulf didn't start kicking through the remains to find the source of the moaning. Sure enough, he turned up a pale and scrawny human woman, who somehow mustered the strength to stay his arm and beg for help.

"Please... they've been feeding off me... I... I don't think I can take anymore."

Wulf turned his back in disgust and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Right then. In yer go, ass-mar... yer show."
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE HEART OF NIGHTFANG SPIRE (Part IV)

For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,
and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither had I rest,
neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.


Wulf waited patiently while the paladin and the pragmatic elf argued over the young girl's fate. The ass-mar wanted to bring her along, "for her own protection," and when the folly of that was pointed out to him, he instead lobbied strongly to call the entire expedition to a halt so they could return her to town. Keldas suggestion was simply to leave her locked up in the abbatoir until they could safely retrieve her.

Wulf's solution was simpler still. "Look at 'er, she's a blood doll. Probably vampire spawn already. Just put her out of our misery, right?"

The woman protested. "Please... no! I'm just a scholar, I came here to study more about Gulthias and they captured me..."

"Who's Gulthias?" Wulf looked to Keldas, who was once again getting that guilty look in his eyes.

"You remember. The vampire from the Sunless Citadel."

"No, I don't remember. I remember choppin' up some goblins and kobolds, some twig things and a bugbear or two. I think I would remember a vampire."

"I remember..." said Halma, though clearly he was struggling with it. "That big tree at the end, grabbed me and started draining me..."

"Gulthias is a TREE?"

"No, no," Keldas explained, assuming his usual air of condescension. "The tree grew out of the stake that was driven through Gulthias' heart. But if Gulthias is up and active again, someone must have removed the stake."

"What?" Wulf shouted. "I didn't remove any stake! I would definitely remember jerkin' a stake out of a bloody dead vampire! Did you remove the stake? How about you?" He removed his thick finger from Keldas' chest and rounded on Halma. Halma just spread his hands.

"GODDAMN PECK!"

The woman interjected. "I don't think so. I believe Gulthias has been active for a while now. He has many allies, any one of them could have come to his rescue, to assist him in his mad scheme."

Keldas raised an eyebrow. "Which is?"

"To bring an ancient red dragon back to life and spread his infinite power and evil influence across the entire land."

"Oh, right, of course." Keldas seemed satisfied.

Wulf was still trying to cope with the idea of going up against a vampire, he didn't need a dragon added to the brew. "Don't believe a word of it. Yer can't trust the word of a stinkin' blood doll." He sniffed. "I mean, get a whiff of her, she smells like death."

Amazingly, Dorn seemed close to agreement with Wulf. "I don't trust her either... Here, drink this." He handed the girl a flask of holy water. She downed it without hesitation or discomfort.

Wulf grudgingly conceded. "Still doesn't solve the problem of what to do with her."

It was Halma who came up with the only reasonable solution. "Put her outside and let her head for town. I'll send Grrr with her to protect her." Wulf nodded; it wasn't as if Halma's little bear was going to be of any use in the tower.

The girl thanked them profusely, and off she went. Wulf called to her as they parted ways. "What kind of spellcaster was this Gulthias, priest or wizard?"

The answer came floating back through the cold air. "Wizard!"

They found that strangely reassuring.

---------------------------

Deeper still they headed into the tower, working their way around every room of the tower, looking for the next staircase down. Again and again they were assaulted by shadows, and again and again the paladin and the priests would turn them away. Alliane was the first to voice her concern.

"This isn't doing us any good. We've got to kill these shadows once and for all, otherwise they just keep coming back."

Keldas agreed. "I don't think it's a good idea to keep retreating, either. Seems like there are more of them every time we come back. Something is creating these shadows."

The group nodded in agreement. "All right, it's agreed. Next time we see shadows, we fight."

Wulf nodded and turned his attention back to the door in front of him. As usual: no traps, no sounds. He slowly opened the door, revealing a small, clean room decorated with marble. A fancy altar stood at one end, a statuette of a dragon upon the altar.

Dorn spoke up from the doorjamb, peering past Wulf's shoulder. "It appears to be... some sort of... shrine."

"Aye, right, thank yer very much, professor." Wulf strode into the room. He'd seen little dragon statuettes like that before-- they sold a few from the Sunless Citadel, and they were worth a pretty penny. "I'll just take that, thank yer very muh...mah... mutter-ferkin--"

A sixth sense warned Wulf. Before he even heard the click of the trapdoor beneath him, he was somehow aware of the trap. All his varied skills, all his phenomenal dexterity, every last shred of his reflexes forced his muscles into motion. He was diving to the side before he really even knew what was happening. He'd never reacted so fast in his life. He doubted if there was a rogue in all the Realms who could have acted much faster.

Fat lot of good it did him. It was as if the hands of the gods had a hold of him, and forcibly shoved him down that infernal chute for the second goddamn time.

More razors. Wulf thought. Oh, yeah, more of the bloody blasted completely superflous razorblades. Wulf was more concerned about the half-mile drop to the ground. Well, at least we're a level or two down from the last trap. That'll knock a good ten, twenty feet off the...

Wulf landed with a thump. Once again, nothing broken. Nothing serious. He began laughing maniacally. "I TOLD YER BEFORE, YER PRICK, THAT AIN'T GONNA DO IT!"

About a dozen shadows came wafting out of the walls to surround Wulf at the base of the tower.

"Um, ok, that should do it." The shadows moved in, and Wulf could feel his strength being sapped away. This was deadly serious. "SHADOWS! DORN! HELP!"

Dorn heard Wulf's cries and didn't think twice. Halma and the paladin heard as well, and came to help, but after all, they had wings. Now Dorn... Dorn didn't think twice. He just waddled up and flopped into the hole: chute, razorblades, deadly fall-- didn't matter to Dorn.

Wulf looked up and saw Dorn falling, his holy symbol held out in front of him as he rocketed into the midst of the swirling mass of shadows. Naturally, Dorn managed to land directly on Wulf's head, like an anvil plummeting out of the sky. Wulf was too impressed to be angry. The shadows were equally impressed, cowering back into the tower, out of sight of Dorn's stern visage-- though truth be told, it was more likely the aasimar, beaming down from above them with his celestial light.

Dorn helped Wulf to his feet. "I thought we were going to fight the shadows?"

"Oh. Aye... next time."

---------------------------

After some healing and Restoration, Wulf cut a short piece of rope about five feet long, tied it around his waist, and handed the other end to Dorn. "Yer just hang on to that, in case of any more chutes."

"Like a dog on a leash?"

"Har har. Twice is enough for me-- I ain't proud."

They resumed their sweep of the tower. Just as Wulf was about to grow weary of their diligence-- never finding a trap or hearing any signs of life-- he was rewarded with the sounds of bestial grunting from beyond the latest door. At last, something flesh and blood to hack on. Wulf could only rant and rail at the sky, or swing his axe through shadows, for so long. He wanted the satisfying thunk of mortal combat.

The group readied themselves and Halma booted the door. Wulf didn't have time to really register what he was looking at-- about a dozen four-armed albino gorillas-- he just started slinging daggers out of his bandolier as fast as he could throw them. Cherry-blossoms sprouted across the chest of the first gorilla in all the vital spots Wulf had aimed for.

Damn, if it's not nice to surprise summat every once in a while... summat with some kidneys to pulverize.

The gorillas' surprise didn't last long, however. A familiar form stepped up from the back of the room-- it was the mummy they'd already fought upstairs.

Halma stepped forward, his greatsword at the ready. "I thought we killed that mummy?"

Apparently not. At the mummy's urging the gorillas surged forward, each crowding around, trying to use their impressive reach to grab at the party outside the door. The first pair of them got a hold of Wulf and nearly pounded him into paste. A couple more grabbed hold of Halma and just started... ripping him in half. His chain shirt would hold but Wulf could see Halma's blood gushing out of multiple wounds.

Wulf staggered back out of the doorway. "This is bad! This is very very bad!"

They couldn't back up. Keldas had come forward so that he could see into the room, and was already casting. As he finished his spell dozens of black tendrils sprang up inside the gorillas' room, flailing, grabbing, and smashing at anything they could reach.

Wulf noticed that Dorn was shouting, "Shut the door!" There was no way. The black tentacles were flailing around through the doorway and Wulf wasn't about to get any closer to that either.

Halma stepped up, flailing away with his greatsword, oblivious of the tentacles, beating back the closest gorilla. Wulf saw it drop just as the mummy led the gorillas to retreat into an adjacent room. Dorn managed to get the door shut and they listened to the sound of the tendrils smashing the room to pieces.

"That's going to go on for hours," Keldas assured them. "We need to find another way."

Wulf looked as his rough map. "Well, we saw them flee north... that door had to open onto a room right about here."

They all looked at the map. The critters were just on the opposite side of the hallway wall.

"Right! Let's do this right!" Dorn and Alliane were already plying their healing wands across the hideous wounds that Wulf and Halma had suffered. The paladin listened to Keldas, Wulf, and Halma as they huddled together, discussing plans they'd clearly used before. "Rapid Strikes... Haste... Displacement... Improved Invisibility... Magic Circle Against Evil... Oh, and don't forget the Umber Hulk!"

When it was all said and done, Keldas was hasted and polymorphed, Halma was displaced, and Wulf was the invisible, rapid striking avatar of death incarnate. Alliane stood in the back with her magic circle to protect them all.

Dorn licked his thumb and tested the edge of his great axe, just in case, but he was all about the Flame Strike.

When they were ready, they quietly snuck to a new location in the hallway and Keldas ripped a hole through the wall.

The gorillas were ready for them, and the party didn't have to wait long to figure out how. Three vampires coalesced out of the mist at their feet, attacking their rear, while the gorillas, who were already ringed around the open hole, started reaching through to beat them senseless.

Keldas, Alliane, and the paladin had to turn their attention to the vampires. Keldas couldn't cast spells in his umber hulk form so he started shredding the undead with his powerful claws. Alliane did the best she could and the paladin cast Divine Sacrifice, draining his own lifeforce to add power to his blows.

Up front, things were ugly. Halma was taking incredible punishment, despite his displacement. Yet neither he nor Wulf was close enough to launch any attacks of their own-- the gorillas had reach, and the only open space near them was a single spot just inside the hole-- surrounded on all sides by gorillas.

"Someone's got to get in there!" shouted Halma.

Wulf took a look at the wide, flat noses of the gorillas and the flaw in his invisibility plan became apparent. The things could detect his scent. "No!" Wulf shouted. "Move out, back up the hallway and draw them out one at a time!"

They heard a Flame Strike erupt in the room. Dorn was doing his part.

"I'm going in!" yelled Halma.

"No yer not! Back up!"

"I'm going in!" Halma readied his greatsword to leap through the hole.

"God damn yer, Halma! I'm not bloody well going to let yer get killed!"

Wulf dived through the hole and started hacking away. As the gorillas fell away from him he noticed several mohrgg shuffle up from the back, their pestilent tongues wagging towards him, trying to infect him with God-knows-what. "Get away from me, yer filthy bastards!"

Wulf lost track of the number of blows he landed, or the number of times he himself was struck, but when it was all over, there was a big pile of dead bad guys at their feet.

And Halma, the brave young fool, was still alive.

---------------------------

They decided to rest for the night, digest what they'd learned, and return stronger. For starters, Alliane was taking more Holy Smite spells to deal with the shadows, and both Keldas and Dorn were adding different spells to their repertoire in case of more gorillas.

Despite the fear that their resting time would only give the tower's inhabitants time to recover, they met they new day enthusiastically, and were pleased to find the tower mostly inactive. Their long trip back to the site of their previous battle was uneventful, and they easily found the staircase down to the next level.

The stairs opened out onto another long hallway. Shadows and spectres assaulted them again, but they were easily overcome. Wulf's new bone dagger, it seemed, had the ghost touch as well, and Taranak lingered long on Wulf's belt while the bone dagger went to work. Now, the party was not just driving these evil spirits off-- they were putting them to rest, for good.

Wulf was the first to cross through the archway into the next room, moving stealthily, and he froze at the sight of the three figures at the end of the hall. Gorillas, again, only this time they were the stitched-up remnants of bodies long dead. Flesh golems, thought Wulf. He failed to notice the red, scaly skin of the third and largest golem.

The creatures hadn't moved yet, and acting on his limited knowledge of such things, Wulf assumed they were programmed to attack in response to a certain action. Entering the room had not brought them to life, so he gestured the others to enter behind him and form a fighting wedge. Keldas would start the show with an acid breath spell, and Dorn's flame strike could probably do the rest.

As soon as the entire party was assembled into a tight group at the end of the hall, the golems suddenly came alive, as if they had been waiting or planning the whole time. The scaly one took a short step past its fellows and breathed a cone of punishing flame across the entire party. Wulf's reflexes spared him any injury, of course, but the rest of the group was severely burned. The other two golems stood, waiting.

Before Wulf could really assess the situation, Halma had already drawn his greatsword and was looking towards him for permission to charge. Wulf thought back to the previous day and decided there was no harm in letting Halma have a little fun. "Take 'em!"

Halma sprinted across the hall, his sword held high. As he passed into the reach of each of the golems, they swung their leathery fists at him, nearly knocking him to his knees. Halma struggled to continue his charge and brought his sword down onto the scaly golem. Whether it was some foul magic or Halma's weakened state, Wulf could not tell, but the blow hardly fazed the creature.

Before his comrades even had a chance to act, the two gorilla-golems stepped to either side of Halma, pounding away with four arms each. The scaly one then stepped up, mercilessly, relentlessly, swinging its gnarled fists like sledgehammers.

Halma was gone.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
THE HEART OF NIGHTFANG SPIRE: Interlude in the Afterlife

WRITTEN BY DM-DINKELDOG:

It wasn't how he remembered it. Last time there were the feasts, tournaments, matches, and easy comaraderie between old, long lost friends.

This time, there was the forest, and the large Oak that he awakened under. The warmth was easy, but diffuse. There was no harsh summer sun beating down when he woke. There was a soft fog and warmth. The mossy bed was perhaps the most comfortable thing he'd ever slept on, so he lay back a while longer. Kheldas or Wulf would wake him when it was time to continue on...

And so the first few days went, with the soft light turning to a soft darkness, and Halma's soul pulled nourishment from the Oak he sheltered under. Gradually, some thoughts came to him on the edge of wakefulness. Surely, Wulf should have gotten him up for his watch, or breakfast, or something. A tapping on his shoulder roused him. Maybe the gruff dwarf would have a joke to tell, or the smart elf would run a thought by him, or the gentle priest would laugh and flirt with him for spending so much time a-bed. He was only slightly surprised to see the old man.

Dressed in grey and white, with a long flowing white beard, he stood above the young barbarian, tapping him with his long staff.

"Ah, yes," the old man snorted, "you've finally awakened. You've been sleeping like the dead. Hah! Only fitting, s'pose."

Halma wasn't sure what the old man was doing there, and he looked around for the dwarf, Kheldas, or even Tomaloc.

"Oh, no, boy. They're not here, but they're calling for you, if you listen."

Halma could hear the voice of Alliana most strongly, with Kheldas and Wulf calling to him as well. His most recent companions, Korak and Dorn were there, as well, if much more distant.

"You could go to them, if you want. There is much work to do there, as there is here. I suppose the choice is up to you."

Halma's mind filled with smells of the Wood, peaceful and earthy smelling, as if a light rain had just finished. Over that, he could smell a burning smell, as of someone assaulting the Wood. But his friends would need him. The image of 4-armed and red-scaled flesh golems appeared before him, as well as a quick flash of a living disembodied heart beating dully, sending out tendrils of hate toward all living creatures. But there was also need here, as an image of him-- together with new companions, standing in the face of demons acting on behalf of dark gods, intent to rend the Heart of the Wood-- came to him.

"As I said, boy. It's your choice. I could use your help here, of course. One like you comes by, but rarely. There is also much that needs to be done in the Other Place."

But many more that could do it there.

"Yes. I have a much smaller orchard than some."

Halma thought of his father's sword.

"Of course, you wouldn't go unarmed."

His father's sword coalesced in his hands--whole and pulsing with purpose.

Perhaps he could make one other visit before getting to work here?

"I should be able to arrange that, my boy. I am on very good terms with the Lady of Plenty, after all. And perhaps your aid would further one of her pet projects. Yes," the old man nodded, "that one.

"But there is much to do. Make sure that you don't tarry over long. You have many new brothers and sisters to meet here. And don't worry. I'll let you know if any others arrive."
 


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