Making Myth

Book Delivery and Village Tourism
In which the party are essentially Amazon.com

“The Sketches of Lady Nuance” was the name of the book. Within its 20 or 30 pages were a number of charcoal sketches – a few still lifes of a pile of rocks and a patch of grass; an impressionist haze of some distant mountain range; and even a cubist interpretation of a cave entrance, looking out to see light shining in. Basically, it blew Ashana’s mind. Despite her noble background, she’d never seen anything like it, and unsurprisingly too – art, after all, was a gift of one of the sapient races, and that race had yet to be discovered.

Well, not officially at any rate. Apparently, so the archivist and custodian of the book told the paladin, it had been found in the possession of a kender who couldn’t quite remember where they had picked it up. All they knew was that someone must have dropped it, and when they found it, they kept it because they “liked the pretty pictures”. Such a book was a treasured possession, and was quite likely one of the largest art collections known to the civilised world. There was little in the book aside from the pictures – a few comments written in common, and a few in another language as yet unrecognised. There was nothing to indicate the identity of Lady Nuance, nor anything about her race. There was a single scrawled signature on one of the pages that may have been in common, but was too difficult to read.

And now, the temple of Sophia was loaning the book to a scholar in nearby Mae Lin, a human by the name of Soncho Aretz. Normally, the temple would not loan out its rarer books, and would expect those who wished to access them to make the trip to Chan Ma Rai and study them within the protective confines of the temple’s own library. But apparently Soncho was a special case, and in any event you can hardly think the temple hierarchy of Sophia would make an unwise decision.

Which means that it must be equally wise to place this essentially invaluable treasure into the hands of a newly sworn paladin and a collection of newly fast friends ho have turned but a few pages of life’s long book. As Ashana had explained, the book, while hugely valuable, was also unique and essentially uncopyable, so anyone brazen enough to steal it would have very little way of onselling it and obtaining its value – it was too easily recognisable. Furthermore, while there were more accomplished members of the Sophia clergy, their time was better spent in accomplishing feats worthy of their greater skill – couriering was below them. And finally, whilst the book had a high financial value, its value to the church was middling. Yes, it was rare and special, but it was not directly related to the pursuit of wisdom and insight.

And so the book would have a little adventure, and would be accompanied by the paladin and her goblin wizard companion from Ameros, as well as the ogre cleric, the kender ranger, and the human known as Hunter. Well, almost. As it turned out, Hunter had to slip away in the early hours of the first morning, taking the north road out of Chan Ma Rai. He explained his reasons to Ashana, and said he would catch them up on the road as soon as his business was done. This wasn’t an unreasonable plan either, given that the two shorter members of the group moved half as quickly as a human walking pace. Ashana bid Hunter well on his venture, and told him of their travel plans.

There were two options for travelling to Mae Lin from Chan Ma Rai. The most straightforward was to take the south coast road, which followed the coastline and went through a couple of small goblin villages before arriving at their destination. Perhaps a more paranoid person would have opted to leave the road and head for Mae Lin as the crow flies from Chan Ma Rai, but this would have involved cutting through the Sacred Grove – a collection of fruit trees protected by goblin law and Carna’s followers – before navigating the endless network of causeways through the land’s many rice paddies, and then possibly plodding through some swamp before finally getting to their destination. The group were not really expecting trouble, since the book was not travelling with any great fanfare, and so adopted the more leisurely route via the coast road. There was no hurry, after all – it was a six day trip (for short races – a human could walk it in less than three) with ten days’ pay – and it also meant that Ashana would get to keep her horse, Sense, with her.

The first leg of the journey was a 10 mile stretch of road to a little goblin fishing village called Po Nige. Along the road, before noonday, the adventurers ran into a flock of goats – maybe as many as 30 – being herded northward to Chan Ma Rai by a kender goatherd. Of course, the moment Sage saw another kender she went mental with joy, and the two traded family histories about as quickly as their nimble fingers seemed to dip into one another’s pockets. This is a common kender greeting ritual, and it only took a handful of minutes. However, in the meanwhile, the goats started getting a little restless – perhaps due to the hungry eyes of a rather large ogre cleric – and began bleating and rushing about, ramming their heads against the other members of the party in that mixture of play and casual violence so familiar to goats. The kenders were left unmolested – the goats seemed to leave their herder to his business – as was the paladin atop her high horse. She looked rather blissfully unaware of the threat, but only because Sense was so vigilant, sending a clear message with a few stomped hooves and the occasional whinny that any goat coming within range would cop a foot between its beady little eyes.

Sufficed to say, Reichstag and Odate were not quite so lucky. The mage was being toyed with, as one goat feinted before another would give him a ram into the rear, much to his chagrin. Ashana did her best to stifle her giggles behind a polite hand and some well-placed coughing. The ogre seemed to be a goat magnet, with two or three goats butting into each leg, as though trying to topple him own to their level. Thankfully, the kender greetings ended relatively quickly, and as the party continued on, Sage was able to report to the rest of the group that the goatherd had been taking his flock down to the beach as a holiday treat. The rest of the party wisely did not attempt to understand this behaviour, and continued their own journey.

Night was on the far horizon when they reached Po Nige. It was a tiny goblin fishing village, seemingly as far from the rest of society as any place could be. It had but one tavern, whose goblin name translated loosely into The Simple Fish, and Reichstag expressed some small surprise that it did not even have a local tax collector. The party simply bought some food – fish, of course – and the adventurers watched the activities of the village locals, since none but Reichstag could speak goblin. They observed that the people were very quiet, spoke in hushed whispers, and seemed overly cautious in all they did. It was Odate who explained that this was due to the influence of Tiyrya, the god of fear – whose influence was felt in many goblin towns, and encouraged by many because it was felt that fear would keep the goblins in line. As night fell, they were given places to sleep in the tavern/town hall’s small common room. All except Odate, that is: as an ogre, he was given his own private room, one that seemed custom built for ogres, and even had a large straw mattress and a window with a view of the sea.

The next few days passed quite uneventfully as the party took to the south coast road – 40 miles of fairly straight and reasonably well-kept dirt road. They passed a little food stall, where the son of a local farmer sold rice balls, fruit picked from the Sacred Grove, and the woven conical hats the goblins favoured. When they group camped on the roadside, they would occasionally see shadowy figures passing on the road – probably couriers taking messages to and from Mae Lin, given that it was the foremost area for papyrus harvesting and as such had become a communications hub. But the days and nights passed, with steady warm rain starting to fall most days around early afternoon, giving those parts of the trip a general melancholy and making the adventurers feel like they had been trudging through tepid soup. Otherwise, the weather was warm and well, and the party made good time, reaching the borders of Po Kin before nightfall on the fifth day. What they found was possibly what Po Nige could have been had it been built closer to a goblin town. The first obvious difference was that, on arrival at the village’s borders, a shabby looking goblin administrator sought the poll tax from them – a fairly measly sum, but all the same it was there. The next difference was that although this village also had but one tavern/town hall type complex, this one was considerably larger, and would have easily fit 300 people seated at dining tables. When they entered, it was mostly dark except for the area closest to the tavern bar, but many tables could be seen in the shadows.

Reichstag was able to tell them the story behind this – Po Kin was the location of the annual Queen Crab hunt. Ogres from across Manxiga would come seeking to capture the largest crab. The winner’s crab would be served to Dimeh, the queen of the ogres, and its captor would gain a favour from her. The Queen Crab festival would not return for many months, however, and so at the moment the atmosphere was much quieter – though certainly more convivial here than in Po Nige. This may have had something to do with the service of alcohol – sake was available in this village – or perhaps from the influence of a different god. There certainly seemed to be one goblin who had some reason to celebrate, because the others regularly raised cheers to him as the night wore on. It could be that he was shouting the group to the drinks. But although he looked over at the party several times, he never bought them any drinks.

Dinner was once again fish, except for Odate, who was served crab due to his position as an ogre, and again Odate stayed in a separate room – although this time it was a larger version of a common room made for ogres visiting at the time of the festival. The rest of the party settled into the extremely spacious common room, and took their rest, so that the next day they could make what was likely to be the just as uneventful last leg of the journey to Mae Lin.

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Making Myth - The Story Begins
Again

The cobblestone streets of Chan Ma Rai were that day home to the slow clip-clop of a horse’s hooves. Horses are rare in Manxiga, and so while it was certainly not the sharpest sound in amongst the general hubbub of city life, it added a strange and uncommon tone to the street scene, enough that those who heard it would turn their heads in curiosity.

And when they did, they were not disappointed. Ashana Silverlake, daughter of nobleman Peer Silverlake of the house of Silverlake in the Fiiel city of Stoica, rode high atop her groomed white horse, putting her head and shoulders above most who used the city streets. Her armour was so new it glinted brilliantly in the noonday light, as did her shining black hair, which fell across her shoulders as though the sun’s very rays brushed it. She certainly didn’t look as though she had just disembarked from a ship after weeks at sea. Upon the shield at her side was emblazoned a single word – ‘Sophia’ – which, along with the sword on her back, did much to mark her out as a paladin of the goddess of wisdom.

Ashana’s horse kept a slow pace, seemingly to allow a short companion of hers to stay alongside. His body was mostly hidden in an almost iridescent azure robe, whose hood could have kept him totally concealed had he chosen to wear it. But instead, it hung about his shoulders, proudly displaying his features to the world. Sharply pointed ears poking out from flowing champagne hair marked him as a goblin, and the honey colour of his skin suggested he was quite possibly from the Po region of Manxiga. He sported his own easy grin, but the only thing that glinted on him was his beady, golden eyes. The goblin was known as Reichstag, having renounced his goblin name, Uihoe Yeong-Gug, and instead adopting a name given to him by a gnome friend and fellow initiate of the blue dragon school.

Reichstag walked with a measured gait, his small staff tapping lightly on the stones as he and Ashana made their way down the street, talking mostly about what their plans should be now that they had finally made landfall. Ashana’s first port of call would certainly be the temple of Sophia here in Chan Ma Rai, so that she might report her presence to the ecclesial authorities. Reichstag had no such community to contact, and so offered to find them both suitable lodgings, being as he was more familiar with Manxiga than Ashana.

But just because Chan Ma Rai is in Manxiga, and even in the Po region, didn’t mean Reichstag had more than a passing familiarity with the city. Chan Ma Rai was the cultural centre of humanity in Manxiga, and while it was certainly not free of goblins – a number worshipped and served in the temples around the city – he was still very much in the minority. He’d grown up further west, in the goblin port town of Mae Lin, and his dealings with humans had been limited. Travelling abroad had allowed him to see now the similarties that Chan Ma Rai shared with the harbour city of Porta in Fiiel, where he and Ashana had first met. It made a lot of sense to him now why Chan Ma Rai was so different to the other cities in the flood plains, and why it had its ogre name – literally meaning “little hesitation”, or worse yet “little lepers”. There was definitely a Fiieli influence among the humans here.

Reichstag and Ashana came to a large town square, and organised to meet back there in two hours, before going their separate ways: the paladin heading east towards the impressively large and white stone buildings that were surely temples, whilst the wizard continued towards the north gate, where he figured he’d find some inns that were a little classier than those nearer the docks.

Sure enough he was right, and in the hospitality district he found he had his pick of places. Glancing at the names on offer, he stepped past those like the Pike and Spetum, which would more than likely be a haunt for the city’s watch; or the Bitz of Ritz, which seemed as much an antique shop as a tavern; and was considering he might have to settle for the local Dodgy Pig before spying a large plate hanging from a signpost, with the words “The Home Plate” etched into its surface. Taking a few steps closer, he noted the smaller saucer affixed beside that read “Honrui” – an ogre translation – suggesting that not only was this place probably known for its good food, but also for being more welcoming to other gifted races. He ducked his head in, saw a couple of non-human faces, smelled a fine meal, and knew he’d found the right place.

When Reichstag met up with Ashana again, a light tropical rain had just begun to fall, and the two of them repaired to the Home Plate for the evening. As Reichstag, ever the gentleman, opened the door for Ashana, warmth and light poured out from within, along with the noise of dozens of people inside. The dinner service in the tavern was well and truly underway, with plates and pots and cups and bottles traversing from head to toe of the bustling common room under the steam of several harried bus boys and tavern girls.

While it seemed many of the customers were dressed in road-ready garb dusted with the requisite layer of dirt for cloaks and mud for boots to mark them as travellers, the general build and disposition of the majority of those was that of traders. Regardless of race, you could almost always tell a trader by sight: a portly build, stout appetite, good-natured demeanour and willingness for others to do actual work seemed to all be prerequisites for the occupation. So most eyes in the tavern turned to take in the two newest patrons, not only because one of them was a young and comely woman in shiny new armour, but quite possibly also because she called out in the clear commanding crispness of someone who is used to being listened to, “I require a stableboy for my horse.”

Ah, thought Reichstag to himself. Horse. Stable. Yes. Stables were of course common in the taverns back in Fiiel, where every man and his dog rode a horse. But in Chan Ma Rai…

There was a round of chuckles, and the hubbub of the tavern quickly returned to normal. However, after a few moments of awkward standing in the doorway, a young man approached the two and, much to their delight welcomed them, drew them in, found them some empty chairs at a table about as far from the bar as could be, and told them he would surely find a boy to take care milady’s fine mount. He then gave them a quick rundown of the meals available, and asked them what they would like to drink. When orders had been made, he gave a polite nod and made his way briskly back into the crowd.

Reichstag and Ashana took the time to settle into their seats and look about the room. It took scarcely a moment for Ashana to give a tug on Reichstag’s blue sleeve and point with an excited incline of her head towards the huge tower shield which sat beside the table of its equally huge owner – an ogre, the first Ashana had seen. The shield was all the more curious in her mind for sporting the word ‘Qodesh’ in copperplate writing across its boss, marking out its owner as a follower of the god of holiness. She gave a polite nod in his direction, and the ogre, catching the movement across the room, returned it in kind.

Reichstag, from his lack of vantage point at goblin height, bobbed and ducked his head trying to look in the direction Ashana had motioned, and saw at his own level something quite different, and far more disturbing. From behind the shield popped a small head, a broad smile, gleaming eyes and a topknot. Oh gods no.

Both were momentarily distracted by the clatter of cups as their drinks were placed upon the table by the charming and affable young serving man. He distributed the beverages with a practised hand – wine for milady, and sake for sir wizard – and took their meal orders without even a need to write them down. He asked them about their reasons for travelling, and took in their answers with a warm and welcoming smile, but rather than continue the pleasant banter his eyes suddenly noticed something, and he promised to bring them their meals soon. There seemed to be a slight skip in his step, as though he was a little keen to leave, as if he had seen something coming this…

“Hello!” came the voice suddenly, loudly and with an amount of enthusiasm and joy that caused Reichstag to physically shudder. The heads of the two travellers turned to face the direction of the greeting, and the goblin’s worst fears were realised. “My name’s Sage Tindernook. You two look interesting. Nice to meet you! Are you a paladin?” The kender didn’t pause for even the slighest breath as she looked to Ashana. “I’ve never met a paladin before. And of Sophia! Does that mean you defend libraries or something? I bet you know lots of things. You must be really wise. I had an uncle once who was really wise. He used to go to libraries all the time. Did you know that you have to return the books? I mean, it seems a bit strange that they’re all there and you can take as many as you want, but then you have to return them. How do you even remember which ones were the ones that you took from which library? And why can’t you give them to someone else? I mean, the library gives them to you. Isn’t that just like being the library to the next person?”

Leaning one foot carefully out from under his chair, Reichstag tried to extract himself from the conversation while the kender seemed to be focused on the paladin, as though perhaps he was just going to the bathroom a moment. But the kender’s head suddenly snapped about, and her eyes widened as her hand reached out to restrain Reichstag by grabbing onto his belt with a strength uncharacteristic of the small kender. “And you must be a wizard! Oh my gosh, and you’re a gobln. And blue. Not blue like an ogre wizard, but your robes are blue. Are they blue because you want to be an ogre? You’re kind of short to be an ogre. My friend over there’s an ogre, and he’s huuuuuge…”

Sage would probably have gone on like that forever if Reichstag hadn’t slapped at her hand. “Away from my coin purse, you nimble-fingered little rat!” His already high goblin voice squeaked slightly at that, and he stood firmly to his feet to lend himself the authority needed for such a statement. The kender’s hand darted away as quickly as it had reached out, and she rubbed it, giving a wounded look to her attacker, whilst a hush seemed to emanate from the conflict into the neighbouring tables. It was about that time the wizard remembered that while most races found kender to be a pest, humans generally had a soft spot for them.

“Reichstag, be kind,” came the softly spoken words of Ashana, before turning her smile to Sage. “My name is Ashana Silverlake, Sage, and it’s a pleasure to meet you. You are right that I am a servant of Sophia,” and her smile grew as she added, “But no, I am not a here to defend libraries. Like all servants of the gods, I am here to combat evil wherever I find it, and to promote the wisdom of my Lady.” Almost instantly, the hurt in the kender’s eyes disappeared, the hush dissipated, and all was well with the world once more. Sage turned back to Ashana with a look of genuine amazement. “Wow, combatting evil! That’s so great. You sound just like my friend over there.” Sage gestured over towards the Qodeshi cleric and his shield. “He’s an ogre,” she said blithely, as if everyone in the room were blind, “And he fights evil too. You should come and meet him! I’ll go get him.” And before anyone could say anything otherwise, Sage was wending expertly through the crowd as only a diminutive kender could. Ashana’s smile only increased at the thought of how many people would be missing belongings and gaining odd trinkets from the kender’s single pass.

As if summoned by the kender’s leaving, the waiter returned, now with two steaming plates of mutton, melon rice and egg noodles, along with two sets of chopsticks and a fork and knife for the lady. He laid out the cutlery and plates in the same professional manner, revealing a knowledge of table etiquette beyond the realms of a simple tavern, and which clearly impressed the two diners. This time the waiter did produce a little tablet and a piece of chalk, doing a quick tally, and informing them of the final cost. Six gold seemed a little pricey, but the service had been so good, the food was hot and smelled delicious, they were in a major city, stables were rare, and they had already had some of their drinks. So without further ado, they each paid their share, with both adding a little something extra to the total – Ashana in recognition of the fine service, and Reichstag in thanks that the horse had been taken care of, and perhaps also in thankfulness that he still had any coins left after that kender had touched his belt. The waiter thanked them profusely, and informed them that if they sought rooms they could organise that with at the bar with the publican. The two thanked him once more, and set to eating their meals – or trying in Ashana’s case, at least until she gave up on the chopsticks and went with the knife and fork.

It was not too long after that a shadow descended over the table, causing paladin and mage alike to look up from their meals. The eclipse was caused by the bulk of an ogre, and not less by the small wall he was carrying at his side. At his flank was a mighty hammer, about as large as the kender who stood beside it. “Odate, this is my friends Ashana and Reichstag. They’re a wizard and a paladin and a human and a goblin.” And then he leaned a little closer, as pointed at Reichstag and added a little more quietly and completely unnecessarily, “He’s the goblin.”

Odate gave a stiff and formal bow, his demeanour as unforgiving as the mountain his body resembled. “Odate. Of Qodesh. Miss Tindernook requested we meet.” With a sweeping hand he indicated to a place at the table where he might barely fit, and after a polite nod from Ashana, he settled onto a large, low chair he had brought with him (which looked suspiciously like the stump of a tree trunk), before giving another nod. Reichstag, in spite of himself, offered a low bow in reply to the ogre. He was a goblin, after all, and this was an ogre. And old habits die hard.

Sage whipped around the table and slid into a chair beside Reichstag, snuggling into it as though it were the most comfortable place on Elwarne, and began to help herself to the rice noodles with the chopsticks that were free. “Thr wnt tr frt rvl!” she said towards Odate whilst enthusiastically inhaling egg noodles with practised skill, using the chopsticks to alternately stuff her face and point to the wizard and paladin. “Wr rlsr gng tr frt rvl. Mmm, Hntr!” The chopsticks started waving frantically, and pointing to a place at the table where there really wasn’t room for yet another empty chair.

Out of the crowds emerged a young man, clean and sharp looking, who carried several drinks with ease, and gave a familiar looking smile to the kender. “I wondered where you two had gone.” Giving an elbow bump into the ogre’s back as he went past, the man added, “Not that it’s hard to keep track of you, big man.” He sat the drinks down on the table, and nuzzled into the half-spot at the table, absently drawing an empty chair from another table with his ankle to come under him as he sat. He had barely looked over Ashana before he politely greeted her, “Good morrow. Lady Silverlake of Stoica, I can only presume.”

“Charmed,” she replied, as one who was accustomed to people knowing who she was, before the foreign surroundings (and in no small part the large, ogre acquaintance) reminded her that she actually wasn’t still in Fiiel. “Do I know you, sir?”

A smile played easily across the young man’s face, “Stories of your beauty travel far, milady. Also your accent gives you away as a Fiieli noble, and to my understanding the daughter of Peer Silverlake was the only daughter of a noble house who took orders as a paladin of Sophia in Stoica in the last year. There are not many paladins.” He then inclined his head deeply, “I am Hunter, milady, and at your service.” He turned his smile to the goblin, and continued, “And you are…” his eyes looked up and down the goblin’s frame, and he chuckled and shrugged, “a wizard. No idea. But well met to you all the same.” He charged his glass towards the mage, who responded in kind, “Reichstag, and well met to you, Hunter.” The two of them then took a long draught from their drinks, and made sounds of refreshed satisfaction as their cups returned to the table.

The five of them spent some time in friendly banter, as any group of young people might: what had brought them to where they were, where had they been, and most importantly, where they were going. Odate was here to report to the Qodesh temple, situated on a cliff just outside the city. Reichstag had come home to garner some life experience before he could return to the desert caves for further tuition. Sage had simply seen Odate and Hunter, figured something exciting would happen around them and decided to tag along. Hunter seemed to have grown a little quiet, and so the lady Ashana said, “Actually, the head of my order at the temple of Sophia has asked me to take on an important mission on behalf of the temple. In fact, it might be to our mutual benefit to join together in completing this task together. After all, it may be dangerous.”

Sage’s ears pricked up even more, if that were possible. “Oooh, a mission! How exciting. What do you have to do?” Ashana looked just a touch sheepish at this innocent question, “Well, um, actually… protect a book.” Sage’s eyes grew so wide there was a general fear they might pop out and roll across the table into the melon rice. “I KNEW IT!” she said entirely too excitedly. “I knew that’s what Sophia paladins did!” Ashana rolled her eyes, but with a friendly smile at the kender, replied, “It is not all we do, Sage. But yes, Sophia values knowledge almost as highly as she does wisdom. And this book” – her voice lowered somewhat at this point – “is incredibly rare. It is a book that contains… art.”

At this, Hunter sat back in his seat and whistled, Reichstag’s eyes shone, and both Odate and Sage looked them and then each other with confusion. “What’s an art?” they both asked, more or less at the same time. Assuming Ashana would explain, Reichstag looked about, before picking up his glass and beginning to wave it rather ineffectually. “I wonder where that waiter’s gone. It’s about time for another drink, and he’s long past coming.” Odate’s brow furrowed, and his mind turned from the novel to the mundane. He tilted his head at the goblin before saying slowly, “The Home Plate does not offer table service, friend. You must order your drinks from the bar.”

It was at that moment that Hunter let out a sudden burst of laughter that was more than a little loud and uncharacteristically inappropriate. It wasn’t the sort of haughty, controlled chuckle that his companions were used to, but a more a fit of silly giggling that either meant he was a school girl and his crush just said hello, or he’d had taken a bit too much wine. Odate was all the more puzzled, looking at his friend and saying, “I am certain he had but one drink.” Then Sage bit her lip and interrupted him with a quieter but more poignant, “Whoops.”

Hunter tried to say something a couple of times, but the giggling took its toll, much to the awkwardness of everyone at the table, until Hunter lifted his head and said suddenly, “It was me the whole time!” He brushed his hair quickly into a shabby kind of centre part with his fingers, put his arm in front of him as though miming the role of a waiter, and said in an overly exaggerated way, “That will be six gold pieces, Sir wizard, milady.” Then just as suddenly, he burst into tears. “I’m a terrible person!” he cried, before more or less flopping his head onto the shoulder of the rather surprised paladin and sobbing uncontrollably.

Reichstag took a double take, and then recognised Hunter – he had served them ever since they had entered the tavern. “But, but, but…” he began, before he blinked and turned to the kender. “What do you mean, whoops?” Sage’s face blushed all kinds of pink as she replied rather embarrassedly, “Well, Hunter’s always complaining about how the wine he drinks these days is nowhere near as nice as the more expensive stuff he’s had before, and I found this little pouch, someone must have dropped it” – at this, Reichstag’s hand went to his waist as he exclaimed, “My pouch!” but was ignored as Sage continued – “and I smelled the herbs in there and they smelled really expensive, and so I thought maybe if I put some expensive herbs in the cheap wine, that would make it expensive wine, and then Hunter would be happy and now he’s… not so happy.”

Now it was Reichstag’s turn to look a little abashed, and he quickly waved a hand to dismiss any concern. “Oh, it’s, ah, just ma huang. It’s a herb. It can cause a state not unlike drunkenness. It gets used for… medicinal purposes. And spell components. And yes,” his beady eyes locked on the kender, “It is expensive.”

Sage responded almost instantly and unashamedly, “Well, perhaps you should take more care of it, Mr Wizard,” before promptly, and no doubt unconsciously, slipping the pouch into one of her many pockets. “Besides, no time for that. We’re going on an adventure!”

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Scattered, then scatter-brained

As the lightning peeled over the invisible form of the huge dragon, the adventurers braced for the inevitable impact of its angered assault. This apparently meant, in the wisdom of the party’s previous battles with dragons, scattering apart so as to be less vulnerable to the dragon’s inevitable breath weapon. So it was that Mellvin fled in one direction, leaving the muddy shoreline of the harbour to shelter against the wooded border of the jungle, while Veri and Jethro sped off in the other direction so as to be about as far away from Ajax as possible, who stood alone and brave in the face of the coming tide of draconic wrath. It is hard to fight an enemy you can’t see, so Mellvin called for Carna to light up the area in front of Ajax with a faerie fire, hoping to catch the shape of the dragon once more. However, when the dragon reappeared, it did so in its full glory – emerging like a rocket from the waters, an ocean spraying down off its majestic wings, its body curling as it hovered there like a beautiful and deadly beast directly before the dwarfed minotaur.

At that moment, Veri called out – they were sorry, the lightning bolt was a mistake, and moreover, they knew where Somnerfector’s son was, and were going to rescue him – that is why they were trying to contact the dragon. But the dragon was not so easily convinced – all it heard were empty words, and the echo of the thunder of a lightning bolt impacting over its emerald hide. It demanded proof of these claims, to which the little kender stepped forward, holding up a lone mud brick which he must have somehow found somewhere, suggesting the location of a distant mud brick fort in the mesa steppes. Tarphan, the Dream Haunter, eyed the brick carefully from upon his winged perch in the sky, and let out his voice in a loud command – they would bring back his son, and they would take his revenge on the fort, killing all its inhabitants. Only then would they receive the dragon’s forgiveness. Ajax, the one looking down the dragon’s throat, tried to add to the bargain that the dragon would leave the elven villages alone, but it was not prepared to discuss terms. Once it had made its demands known, the dragon’s body spun and folded in on itself like a wisp of smoke, and then in a brilliant flash, it was gone. Somnerfector really had a penchant for dramatic exits.

With the dragon safely away – or so they thought, for Tarphan’s trick had ever been to render himself invisible and pretend to leave, only to listen to what would be said in his absence. And he was not disappointed, for Jethro was the first to make a suggestion – burn down the jungle, or at least those portions including these villages, teach the dragon exploration, and get it to shove off somewhere else. Unsurprisingly, with Mellvin there, this idea did not seem like it would gain much traction. So instead, now that they had promised to save Somnerfector’s son, they had better get to doing it. Would they also kill all the hill giants for the sake of the dragon’s wrath? The thought made them uncomfortable, and so after some brief discussions one way or the other, they just decided not to think too much about it, and instead to focus on the rescue effort.

Their first step was to get in contact with Ajax’s ship, the Dragon Wrangler. Veri was able to scry its progress, although she could not see precisely where in the world’s waters it was, and was then able to perform the cunning magical trick of teleporting onto its deck. The crew were barely startled, the first mate announcing her to the captain upon her arrival. Captain Ginger ‘Old Stoney’ Kirks was a gruff and sombre man, and he had seen his fair share of strange things on the high seas, so a mage appearing on his quarterdeck was not going to faze him. She came with a message from the captain’s boss, Ajax – sail forth to the Mesa Steppes. Kirks was a little non-plussed – that journey could take anywhere up to a month or longer, given that they were not far from making berth in the harbour city of Porta on the coast of Fiiel, and he had cargo to unload there. Surely if they needed a boat in the scorpion’s tail they could get a fast ship from Winter Pines? That journey would only be a week to ten days at most. Veri replied that unless he heard otherwise, he was to make sail once unloading the cargo, and he was further to load the ship with enough provisions to feed a small dragon. This Captain Kirks baldy refused to do – that sort of expenditure of Ajax’s money was not his prerogative, and he would require an order directly from the boss before laying out that sort of gold.

When Veri returned to the elven jungle with the news, the party decided that if it was just going to take them a week on a boat from Winter Pines, somewhere they had never been before, why not just cut out the middle man and teleport directly to the fort, somewhere else they had never been before? So Veri went about attempting to scry the fort, failing that night, but succeeding in the morning when she followed Jethro’s advice of rubbing the mud brick against her face, leaving a small smudge but making the scrying attempt that much clearer. They saw the fort – a walled courtyard, the walls fortified on the outside, and all the rooms and buildings making up the inner walls, surrounding an open air courtyard which contained a small green dragon. It was shackled around its neck, and chained to a large pole in the centre of the yard, and two people were seen in the yard sitting near to it. Upon closer inspection, however, it became clear that the perspective on the fort was all wrong. These were not men, they were hill giants. The walls of the fort were not 20 feet high, they were closer to 50. And the dragon was not the size of a large dog, but probably double or triple the size of a horse.

And so the party began making a battle plan for how to rescue Somnerfector’s son – a dragon to which they had put no name. Which was rather fitting, because they put scarcely a battle plan together either. It was the spell casters who did the most work – they talked about who would memorise the enlarges, and who would memorise the shrinks, and essentially they would do enough to ensure they could get Ajax in, and Ajax and the dragon out. Anything else could surely be dealt with by memorising more lightning bolts. When all the “planning” was said and done, Ajax was reduced down to mini-Ajax, and they all held hands, surfing the tides of magic to the Mesa Steppes, and onto the southern roof of the interior wall of the hill giant fort, over the enormous stone door that allowed entrance and exit to the structure. The fort itself overlooked a cliff face that fell away down into the sea. In the far distance you could just make out the curling green jungles of the scorpion’s tail. But of far more interest was the green of the captured dragon, which lay sleeping inside the courtyard, where two hill giants sat, backs to the party, discussing something or other in their strange giant tongue.

The fort was large for humans, but for hill giants it probably only fit a small tribe – no more than 15 of the beings could have lived here in amongst the handful of buildings that would make up the inside of the structure. The walls were large and thick on the outside, to protect it from assault by the creatures of the dangerous steppes, but there was no walkway leading up onto the roof level, so they were more or less safe up there for now. Well, the plan was to get in, get the dragon, and get out, right? And that’s exactly what they moved forward to do. With the shrink spell on Ajax being cancelled, Jethro replaced it with an enlarge spell, and the minotaur quickly grew in stature, becoming about as large as one of the hill giants! Moreover, with a featherfall spell cast on the party (just in case Veri’s teleport was a little off) Ajax was able to draw his swords and leap down onto the heads of one of the giants without a sound and with perfect grace. The swishes of his scimitars were accurate and, in the case of Pagos the flametongue, deadly, the hill giant slumping to the ground, his head not knowing the dirt that hit it when it rolled over to the foot of its recent conversation partner. If only Ajax’s other sword, Fotia the Frostbitten, had been as accurate, the battle may have been over as soon as it had begun – but though it left a severe frozen scar down the chest of the second giant, it was not a deadly blow. The giant let out a bellowing roar, no doubt shouting out the alarm for the fort, and there was the sound of much rustling, bumping and commotion coming from the buildings.

From there, the battle escalated quickly. giants began to appear from all directions, but the rest of the party were somewhat loathe to go toe to toe with the enormous brutes, leaving Ajax to fend for himself in the courtyard. And fend he did – his blades were drinking in buckets of giant blood, spinning and whirling death in all directions, while Mellvin gave fire support with his bow from the roof, and Jethro blocked up one of the oncoming passages with a stinking cloud, catching one giant in the centre of the awful stench, who seemed to have a violent reaction to the odour as large as he was, the sounds of tears and sorrow and vomit and other bodily fluids leaving the poor giant in a hurry echoed out through the small window. But something else was beginning to exit the internal windows of the fort – boulders, seemingly hand-shaped by the giants for throwing, larger than bowling balls, and incredibly painful to suffer when they struck over and again with dead-eye accuracy. Veri was calling out loudly in draconic for the dragon to wake up, telling it they were here to rescue it, before flaming arrows shot out from her fingers to follow those that Mellvin was letting fly into the bodies of the hill giants that just seem to keep coming. The dragon began to stir, it’s eyes began to flutter open, but as all dragons do when waking, it took its sweet time.

When another hill giant appeared at the entrance to the courtyard from the south, almost directly in front of the wrath of Ajax, it quickly lifted its large wooden club – really more of an uprooted tree – and did its best to parry the rain of deadly blows that the minotaur flurried against its makeshift shield, the thrill of battle spurring him on to wider and more powerful swings… but unfortunately, Ajax was not used to his new mammoth size, and so when Pagos and Fotia swung out, they began to connect not just with the giant’s club, but also with the wooden beams that held up the roofing of the interior buildings – the ones that the rest of his party were standing on above him! At first, he was blissfully unaware, the flying splinters and chips of mud brick not in his focus, until there was a creaking sound, a crumbling sound, and he quickly threw himself back towards the courtyard just in time to prevent himself being the victim of a landslide of stone, brick and wood as the large foyer room of the fort came crashing down above him, and below the feet of his companions. Mellvin, Jethro and Veri came tumbling down, thankfully the last vestiges of the featherfall spell allowing them to soften the fall and preventing them from being caught up in the churning rubble. Well, they hadn’t planned on destroying the whole fort while they were here, but hey, Tarphan wouldn’t mind.

Veri rushed up to the dragon and gave it another shout in draconic. When the green dragon’s eye opened to face her, though, it was clear that Belfer, son of Tarphan, was not particularly amenable to being awoken. All this noise and shouting, and the smell of blood and the sight of his handlers, who had raised him and brought him food for 20 years, brought to him a sudden bout of anger and rage, which Veri quickly caught in her own sight, and so without another moment’s hesitation called out the shrink spell on the dragon, transforming it from a 25 foot long beast into a tiny little 2 foot toy, suddenly free of the chain around its neck, and also free to cause whatever tiny havoc it might be able to wreak.

Boulders kept flying, and too often hitting their mark. Jethro copped one to the side of his head, causing him to spin like a top, and fall in amongst the rubble. Ajax now had not one giant against him – one he had buried on the other side of the broken walls – but three, who had orchestrated a charge at his back. He was not taken by surprise, but he was still alarmed – he could not fend off their blows forever. He slipped his hand into his belt to drink a potion, but this would only delay the inevitable – they had to get moving, and fast. Mellvin, meanwhile, was having to cope with wrestling a now tiny but very angry dragon, whose breath was as potent as ever, if a lot smaller in radius, but with a gouge to its eyes and a bop on its head, he knocked the little bugger unconscious, and quickly bound up its wings, feet and snout, turning it into a living, sleeping handbag.

At the same time, however, two more giants emerged from the east door of the fort, making their way into combat range with Mellvin and Veri. Over their shoulders, they heard a blood-curdling scream from Ajax – a battle cry as he swung his scimitars heroically, gloriously, but for the last time. Dodging to the side, he stepped out of the path of one club, only to find himself in the path of another. It brought him to his knee, only to find himself meeting there another blow, and then another. Mercifully, he was not aware of the rest, for they just kept coming, over and over, turning from hard thumps to sickening squelches. Veri and Mellvin were suddenly feeling very alone, and could not help but thinking if this had been such a good idea.

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Getting the low down

It wasn’t long after the dragon had left the village that Mellvin, hero of the elven lands and shunner of dragons, came to Itinere Pagum, to find his retinue bumbling about. They told him what had happened, and that they were about to head out to Itinere Marinos, one of the other villages out here that was harassed by the dragon, to find more clues. A thought flashed through Veri’s mind, and a quite disturbing one at that – wasn’t one of the baby dragon zombies they had fought in the Bitto a green dragon? Could that have been Somnerfector’s son? That would not be good news at all. They spent some time memorising some spells for the trip, in case something nasty popped out of the jungle, and then took the lead of one of the elves, picking their way through the claustrophobic, cloying jungle until they get to the simple elven fishing village.

Itinere Marinos was an interesting place to visit, though – its architecture was quite different from Pagum, with half of the village’s buildings seemingly well built, and up on stilts in amongst the mangrove swamp. At least now the party had a native elven speaker, and the pointy ears didn’t hurt for a bit of warmth from the locals either. Mellvin sought out the leader of the village, and was a little shocked to meet someone that was more or less his age – an elf by the name of Perate. Mellvin quizzed him on the presence of the green dragon, and Perate seemed fairly lacklustre in his response – the dragon tended to leave their village alone, given they left it regular tribute on the wharf. Although he was a little cagey towards Mellvin’s circular questions, he answered more directly when Jethro asked a direct question, “So what happened to the baby green dragon?” Trust a kender to get to the bottom of things. The story came out, about the kidnapping of the baby dragon whilst Somnefector slept – at first, it was planned by the elves to to try and get Somnefector to leave them alone, to show that they were not defenceless. But then the humans had spoken about selling the baby dragon in trade, and how much better life could be with the extra wealth, and how this would only make the point to the dragon that much stronger. The dragon was loaded onto a raft made of several fishing boats, and was floated over the waters to somewhere in the west, but Perate did not know where exactly. They returned both with some trinkets and some gold, and also started the building of this village, on its stilted legs.

And things were good – until the dragon awoke, and its wrath was brought to bear on the people. All those who had been involved from Marinos are now dead, so far as Perate knows – certainly no humans live in the village any more. Jethro asked if there was possibly any of the trinkets left behind, or had the dragon taken them all, and Perate was able to remember that yes, there was a mud brick they had brought back, that the dragon apparently must have thought valueless. He sent one of the villagers to go retrieve it – it was a simple mud brick, similar in make to those used by the hill giants in constructing buildings in Ken Ta Ral, but much smaller. It had a few little notes and sketches on it – the notes seeming to be instructions on building, and the sketch showing a fort of some sort. Jethro had seen a fort like that – out in the Mesa Steppes the hill giants built them to keep themselves safe from enslavement by ogres, and the various other deadly denizens of the wastelands. Could it be that the humans traded the baby dragon to the giants? What would they want it for? Nobody knew for sure, but then, who wouldn’t want a dragon?

All this talk about the baby dragon being enslaved was upsetting Veri. Everyone knew she had a soft spot for dragons, but the direction of this conversation, about Somnefector attacking the villages before the baby was kidnapped, and about the little dragon now being sold as if to punish the green dragon, and Ajax’s comments about how it seemed that rescuing the baby dragon wouldn’t stop the big green dragon from terrorising the elves, was just getting too much for her. She spat out at Jethro that the only reason Somnefector killed that villager at all was because of him. The kender was a little affronted at this, responding curtly that she could talk about being at fault. Veri said she had no idea what he meant, and so in reply Jethro summoned a spectral force of Veri lording her power over her own mother and making her cry. That was too much for Veri – she threw her hands up in the air, and stalked off into the jungle, quickly getting lost and all the more upset in the thickly wooded area. Mellvin was already commenting about how Jethro and Veri were like an old married couple, and they head into the jungle, with Mellvin following Veri’s trail right up to a tree, where it seemed she tried to climb to find out where she was. Thankfully, she tumbled out of the tree fairly soon after they arrived, and so was easily found, and they could continue on to their next destination – Itinere Ductus. But that would mean heading back to Marinos to stay the night, and get directions. When they were back there, Veri asked Perate if the elves had any spare tribute they could give the dragon, to make it more amicable to conversation. But Perate was not impressed by this logic – to stop the dragon from taking tribute, they should give it more tribute? No thank you, their lives were hard enough as is.

That night, the party were up late discussing the many different facets of this strange situation. Mellvin wondered how this village could be so content with their misery and servitude to the dragon – of course, Veri didn’t say anything, but she could well understand serving a dragon. Jethro thought it was because Pagum was even poorer than Marinos, and that could well be correct. But then, perhaps it was also because there were people at Pagum that still might be marked for death. In any case, the next morning they were loaded onto a fishing boat, and taken over water to a wharf, where they were pointed east into the jungle along an actual cleared path – the first they had seen in the jungles – until they reached Itinere Ductus. This was the main trading post of the villages out here to the town of Urbanis Aquatos, and was in fact led by a woman from the water caste by the name of Quaret. Quaret was not overly concerned with the business of this dragon – her work was to get the supplies to and from the villages, especially food products. She hadn’t noticed any particular attacks on her caravans between Ductus and Aquatos, and had no reports of any dragon activity. When Ajax said he thought the dragon might strike here next, Quaret was ambivalent – apparently the pagums were always complaining about how difficult it was to keep up with their quota of goods, especially the higher quality trade goods like the suckling flowers or pearls.

Veri had had about enough of the attitude of these elves, and so with a flash of lightning transformed herself into Khaharas’s emissary, and asked some more direct questions. The answers were about as direct as could be expected from this older woman – she didn’t remember much, but she did have a faint memory of some expedition to capture a baby dragon. They had eaten eggs that morning – no, not dragon eggs, jungle chicken eggs. Mellvin meanwhile was talking to the villagers themselves, who had not experienced dragon attacks per se, but merely were told in their dreams to carry goods out to the wharf in the middle of the night.

After all this, three days had passed and they still had nothing more to offer the dragon as tribute when it would return to Itinere Pagum in four days’ time. But Veri was sure that if they told the dragon they would save its son, then it would stop haranguing the villages. Not everyone was as sure as Veri was – Ajax reminded her that elves live a long time, and dragons longer, so what was to stop it from continuing its reign of terror in a decade, or a century? But it was at least something to try. However, once again as they made their way back through the villages towards Itinere Pagum, their natural impatience seemed to win over – they were going to have to wait days to see this dragon again – why not do what the elves did, and hunt down its lair and confront it directly? Well, mainly because they couldn’t find it, it seemed – Mellvin did his best, but even a star ranger in his home territory couldn’t track a green dragon that didn’t want its lair to be found a second time. So Veri decided she would try and get the dragon’s attention out at the harbour. After all, it seemed to spend a lot of time in and around the water. Giving herself another little spark jolt, she called out in her best emissary voice, but after a few minutes there was no reply, so she tried something a little more lateral – throwing lightning bolts into the water. She’d never done it before, so why not kill two birds with one stone and see what it would do, as well as try and get the dragon’s attention?

Maybe because Somnefector was well known for travelling around invisibly, and you might accidentally toss a lightning bolt into the water and hit his large, powerful frame? But what would the chances of that be, seriously?

As her second lightning bolt suddenly burst on an unseen chest, and crackled through the invisible frame of the dragon, outlining its body in blue electricity as though it were made of the very lightning itself. And as the current washed over its form and left it to disappear back into magical nothingness, the last thing they saw was the large, angry frame of a dragon heading towards them, and quickly.

Uh oh.

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While Mellvin's away, the magic users also play

It’s already getting late – the natural light that filters through the towering jungle canopy above them is little enough that it is practically night-time already in the squat little village, and if Veri and Jethro wanted to get a full night’s rest to be able to use their magic, then they needed to get this plan of theirs underway in the next four hours. That meant they were going to need to teleport to Vahassa, and find a treasure worthy to be a gift to the hedonistic dragon. Ajax said he would stay at the village as collateral – he didn’t want the villagers thinking they had been abandoned, nor did he want the dragon to think the adventurers were welching on their deal, and to take out his anger on the innocent village. The minotaur would stand guard over the settlement, whilst the wizard and bard settled the gift.

Veri had a pretty good idea of what she would get for the dragon – a herd of cattle. After all, the dragon probably ate mostly fish here, and it was unlikely it had ever even seen a cow in the middle of the jungle. Some good sides of beef would be an exotic luxury, and the difficulty in getting them there would add to the gift’s splendour. Of course, she could just shrink the beasts before teleporting them, but it’s the thought that counts. Where were they going to buy a few head of cattle? Why not Bazaar, the hub of trade in her homeland. That’s not to say that the villagers weren’t a little apprehensive at Veri’s style of dragon diplomacy – their attitude was ‘give the dragon what it wants’ was not exactly solving their problems. Veri responded a little curtly, asking which of them was the emissary to Khaharas, and which of them lived in a crappy village in the middle of nowhere? That point sorted out, she and Jethro were whisked away by the winds of magic, to appear in the courtyard of the Gold Tower – regrettably the only place she knew in Bazaar well enough to teleport there.

It was dark when they got to Bazaar, but a different sort of darkness – the sky was open and bright, although the light of the stars was fading, and the blackness of the sky was transforming into the dark blues of early morning. It was probably around 4 o’clock in the morning. Great. Still, they had an idea that Veri’s sister Lylee had set up the ranch’s stable somewhere in Bazaar, in order to sell the horses from the farm, so they set out for the livestock yards in hope of finding Lylee. What they in fact found was the horse section of the yards, which seemed to house horses from a number of ranches, one of which had a sign advertising the Pell & Saispas Ranch stables. This did not impress Veri greatly, nor did not finding her sister. However, what they did find was one of the ranch’s employees, a fairly gormless man by the name of Thir, who was probably meant to be keeping an eye on the horses, but was in fact taking a cozy kip in a hammock. When he was awoken by Veri, he jumped up with a start, and apologised for his sleeping. Veri took the soothing approach with him, while Jethro decided to fill a little more the role of ‘bad cop’, which confused the rancher, as he was sure that the Pell family did not include any kender. In any case, Veri asked Thir for some help in buying cows because it had only just come to the realisation of Veri and Jethro that they did not actually have that much in the way of liquid assets, and purchasing a bunch of cows might be a little cost prohibitive. Thir didn’t have any money to give – he was a stable boy, after all – but he could point them in the direction of the livestock traders.

When Thir mentioned in warning to Veri that she should keep her wits about her, because the traders were well known for charging extra to mages – because mages are made of money, after all – this whole idea of buying livestock soured in Veri’s mouth. Why should she be paying for cows at all, when her family owns horses? Surely she could just take a handful of horses, the dragon would likely consider them just as much a delicacy, and it wouldn’t cost her a cent. And as her anger continued to rise, she added to Jethro as much as to herself, while they were there at the ranch, they would pick up Rogan too, and force him to face the dragon, or at least take the sword back to the village. Yes, that was a good plan. Yes, let’s teleport to Nubton. Yes, I shouldn’t have to pay, I’m a wizard damn it. Jethro wasn’t really keen on this idea… especially the feeding of cute baby horse foals to the hungry, slavering dragon. He asked Veri to promise that she would only take older, used up horses to feed to Somnerfector, but she did not seem to respond to that request.

Upon arriving at the Pell family house, they discovered the door was locked with a fairly high quality lock. Jethro was intrigued by it, but Veri did not allow him the satisfaction of tinkering – her knock spell was already at her lips, and the lock clicked and the door opened without a moment’s hesitation, much to Jethro’s dismay. Striding into the house as though she owned it, Veri found her mother and Rogan still getting dressed, ready to meet the rigours of the working morning that come with living on a farm. Thankfully, they were just tightening their boots, because Veri did not want to get caught off her stride. Deciding to cut to the chase, Veri’s mother Aether’s question as to how they were and why were they here was greeted with a half-serious, half cheery reply from the kender, “Where is the sword?” Apparently he was still enjoying the thought of being bad cop. Rogan replied in a nonplussed fashion that it was hanging in the bedroom where it always was, and Veri thanked him and stepped past him into the bedroom so as to retrieve it.

Rogan was not so keen on this form of action, and so positioned himself between the wizard and the sword. An argument ensued, with Veri saying that Rogan had stolen the sword from the village, and Rogan rejoinding with the reply that the village did not deserve the sword, not after it kidnapped the dragon’s child. This caused Jethro to ask Rogan if he had possibly been charmed by the dragon – because after all, it did seem to be able to get people to do what it wanted, but Rogan assured him he never even met the dragon. He had taken the sword, yes, but he never faced the dragon – he marched off into the jungle and became a mercenary, and a damn fine one, he added, given where he had ended up. He told them the story of the dragon kidnapping, which had happened in his youth, at least 15 years or so ago, but he didn’t know much more than that. Veri seemed unrepulsed by this obviously fabricated tale, and was adamant that if she was not going to get the sword, she was at least going to take one of the gold cubes from Rogan’s reward. Rogand disagreed with this too, because he had already given her a sizeable amount of gold, and she had not completed her job. He said this would give them good training as mercenaries – you can’t get too deeply involved in the story of things, you just need to go in, do the job, get out and get paid. Being called a mercenary did not flatter Veri in the slightest.

In an attempt to test his charm theory, and also to try and calm the mood a little, Jethro sang the same song he did when the dragon was trying to get Ajax to give over one of his magic swords. Whether it had any effect on Rogan or not was undetectable, but it at least gave a moment’s pause. In the end, Veri and Jethro left the house empty-handed – no gold, no sword, no Rogan. But they weren’t done yet. Jethro’s next stop was at the mayoral household, to awaken NubNub. He might be mayor of Nubton, but he was still a cleric of Hesed, and while Veri went to the blue tower to memorise another teleport, Jethro was asking NubNub to come back to the Pell and Saispas ranch to call on Hesed and see if Rogan had been charmed by the green dragon. And so the two diminutive friends wandered down into the paddocks of the ranch, to find Rogan shovelling hay into a cart to be carried out to the horse fields. They explained why they were there, and Rogan, whilst doubtful about the need for some god-botherer to be involved, allowed the kobold to do his thing if it would shut Jethro up. The results were confusing – Rogan was not charmed, and neither, for that matter, was Jethro. His job done, NubNub bid them good day and went to get possibly the last hour of sleep he would manage before other people started knocking on his door.

Jethro still had the better part of an hour though, so he decided to spend it staring at Rogan, in the hope of unsettling him into talking or changing his mind. Rogan, however, offered for the kender to help him feed the horses, and such an offer was too good to pass up, and the kender’s resolve dissolved. He asked Rogan why he didn’t care about what happened at the village, but Rogan explained he did care – that’s why he sent them to deal with the problem in the first place! At the very least, he asked, could Rogan make sure Veri didn’t take any cute horses to feed to the dragon? The barbarian cum farmer smiled, and gave a nod, saying he would do his best. With that settled at least, Jethro went back to the tower, finding Veri having completed memorising her teleport, and the two were offered breakfast by the seneschal of the tower. Jethro pocketed a sausage to give to the dragon, thinking perhaps it would be more satisfying than a horse. After breakfast, Veri was adamant about going back to the ranch and getting the horses required for her gift to the dragon. Time was running out for them, after all – they had less than an hour to get back to the jungle before they had to rest. Rogan tried to stand in Veri’s way, stating that she can’t have any of the yearlings, because she should go and do the job properly.

But Veri’s already limited patience had more or less completely run out now. Lightning flowed from her hands into her own body, and her presence seemed to swell with the power and energy, and in her beautiful, deadly looking form of Khaharas’s emissary, she told Rogan in no uncertain terms that she was taking the horses, that this was a complex situation he wouldn’t understand, and that it was not as easy as just killing the dragon. Rogan was clearly shocked at the raging power of Veri’s form, but he still responded bravely, observing wryly that Veri solved all her other problems with killing. Her response was, “Yes, but not dragons.” She then threatened Rogan if he would not get out of her way, but he knew she would not kill him, and he called her bluff. Veri was sure she needed the horses. Veri went and shrank the horses, leaving Jethro and Rogan behind her. Rogan called out that Veri’s sister Lylee wouldn’t be happy with her coming in and talking away her stock without even asking, but Veri’s response was that without Rogan’s help, she was probably going to die now at the hands of a dragon anyway, and what would Lylee think of that? If that was the case, Rogan said, she should go and say goodbye to her mother – Rogan was a barbarian and a mercenary, he could accept that sometimes people were going to die, that truth did not faze him. But Veri was now very upset, and it was showing in the raging brilliance of her form. She screamed at Rogan that her mother didn’t need her any more, she had Rogan, and after having shrunk the horses down and secreted them away in her robe, she stormed off… towards the house.

Aether was shocked, to say the least, when her daughter came like a rolling thunder crashing towards the house. Rogan was a grizzled and experienced adventurer after all, but Aether was just a ranching woman, and the sight of her daughter lit up in blue flame, raging with anger and sadness, was a surprise. Veri shouted that Rogan was sending her to her death, that her mother didn’t care, that he wasn’t doing anything to help and neither was her mother! and Aether, faced with this barrage from the enchanted visage of Veri could do nothing more than wail, weep, and fall to her knees. Jethro didn’t know what was going on, but he knew he could help by adding in a loud voice, “And you’re not even my real mother!” Veri stood there, tall and proud over the shivering, weeping wreck of her mother curled up at her feet, and felt the pain of knowing she had done the wrong thing. But it was too late to fix it now. She stepped over her mother’s quivering form, strode into the bedroom, and magically itemised one of the blocks of gold she found under Aether and Rogan’s bed – that thought only fuelled her anger more – and then stepped back out into the grasslands, to clear the way for her and Jethro to teleport back to the jungle and get this mess over and done with. Just before they left though, Jethro asked if he could hold one of the little ponies – they were so cute, after all, so small and young and playful, galloping up and down one’s arm, or prancing on your shoulder. And Veri relented, only to find that in the moment before she teleported, not one but all three of the little ponies had been liberated by the kender’s nimble fingers, and were skipping off into the long grass at the moment the magic pulled then violently back to Manxiga, to the jungle, and to Itenere Pagum.

So now they were returning not empty-handed, for they at least had the block of gold, but without the horses, and with a troubled and traumatised Veri. They were returning to get the best sleep they could in the hot, humid, wet village, sleeping on vine hammocks under large leaves, and they realised perhaps they should have slept in Nubton and teleported in the morning. But it was too late for that now. Veri was exhausted from her ordeal, and she slept deeply, though not without trouble in her dreams. Jethro could barely sleep at all, not with the buzzing of mosquitoes, the sadness of everything that had happened in his newly adopted family, and the knowledge that he could have had a tiny little horse to play with. The dawn came far too quickly for them both, and with it came the sound of rumbling thunder, a flash of glorious light, and from amongst them the presence of the large, emerald dragon, Somnerfector, Haunter of Dreams, was clear. The adventurers approached and bowed with respect, allowing Veri to use her flattering tongue to greet the dragon in the manner she knew to be respectful from her childhood. Presenting the block of gold before the beast, Somnerfector seemed at least marginally pleased, and informed them that their tribute would see their duty done for at least a week. Veri now asked if they could continue their discussions, but the dragon was somewhat more cagey in this respect – in a voice that could be considered a perfect mimic were the dragon not seeking to parody the party, it repeated back almost verbatim the words they had spoken – of tricking and trapping the dragon, of giving into its majesty, of seeking to raise the villagers against it – a rather embarrassing revelation.

But Veri would not be sidetracked by such things. She said she had in fact brought information for the dragon, information of great value – did it know, for instance, of the war between the elves and the illithids? The dragon pretended knowledge, but asked that Veri continue anyway. Veri explained that the gift of the gold was a gesture in friendship, but the information about the war was the knowledge she had spoken about before. When the dragon asked why she had not simply mentioned it the first time, Jethro chimed in on cue that they were stunned by the dragon’s magnificence – and you can always flatter a dragon. Veri said that the illithid magic was very similar to the green dragon magic, and that Somnerfector was lucky so far that the warrior elves did not know about him, or else they might seek to bring the fight to him – Jethro explained that since the war against the illithid had been stymied so far, they were spoiling for some action. Veri told Somnerfector that she had seen dragons fall in the past, despite their power and might, and it would be foolish to think that this great green dragon would be any different.

The solemnity and severity of the conversation was grating on Jethro – not to mention the fact that most of it was in Draconic, so he couldn’t understand it. He interrupted the talks to ask if the dragon could do something cool, and then summoned a illusion of little ponies, prancing and frolicking on the forest floor. A grin bared the dragon’s teeth, and Jethro stood amazed as his own illusion seemed to begin to dance to the beat of the dragon’s drum. The little ponies sprouted wings, and began to fly about the area. The beating of their wings seemed to cause little feathers to fall from them, but the feathers turned to streamers, of all different colours, which were wrapped and woven together by the twisting and turning flight of the winged horses. As they ducked and turned left and right, up and down, it was clear that the streamers were being woven into a shape, until finally it became clear – they had woven together a perfect replica of the dragon, standing proudly in a kingly pose. Jethro was so awed, so overcome with the display, that he actually reached out to touch the paper statue – only for it to burst into millions of pieces of coloured confetti. It was only an illusion, after all. Jethro was amazed, and in that typical way of a kender, instantly asked for something else, something even better, something even more amazing.

But now the grin of the dragon turned to a smirk, and with a little nod, he pointed his large eyes towards one of the gathered villagers. A woman, one of the elves, suddenly turned pale, and her eyes grew wide as dinner plates, darting left and right. She screamed, the scream of utter, complete terror, and she backed herself away, as though being pursued, lowering to the ground as though the morning sun was bearing down upon her like a predator. She thrust her arms up to protect her, but nothing could be done. She flailed and screamed and scratched at her own skin, flaying the flesh from her bones as her terrified howls echoed through the jungle. Finally, she lay there pale, dead and bleeding. That was the dragon’s next show. One week, it announced, and it would return. With that, it once again disappeared from the eye, and the sound of its departure rushed through the branches of the trees, stirring up the leaf litter in its wake. Jethro was not impressed any more – that wasn’t amazing, it was just mean. But it did make Jethro ask the villagers, what had they done to make the dragon so angry? Their reply was simple and honest – they had done nothing. But Jethro was more canny than that – he asked if they knew if anyone had done anything to anger the dragon. To this they prevaricated – oh, someone might have, but they didn’t do it. It was other people, not them. So was it true that the dragon’s child had been taken? They didn’t do it, really they didn’t – those who had were dead now, and it was really the other villages that were responsible, not them.

Now things were becoming a little clearer. No wonder this dragon was punishing the villages. Jethro asked if they could be taken to another village, to find out more about this situation, but the villagers responded tersely – whose side were they on, anyway, theirs or the dragon’s? Veri and Jethro responded in kind – they were on the side of fairness.

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While Mellvin's away, the dragons play

As always, the adventurers had their eyes squeezed shut so as to avoid the swirling maelstrom of magic that always accompanies you when travelling via teleportation. When they opened them again after that telltale momentary lurch, they were greeted with all the sights and sounds of a city – but this city was suspended within the branches of enormous, healthy jungle trees. Mordeo introduced them to the elven capital of Citium Deus – a series of large platforms, interconnected branch roads, and spiralling wood and leaf constructions, all of which seemed to have been created by clerics of Carna akin to Granlin and his magic and faith melding sect. Indeed, the more they looked around, the more it became clear that these works must all be relatively new – many of these branches were recently bent and shaped, so that the canopy cover had yet to regrow into a cover over the city, leaving it still exposed to the open light of the morning sky.

At the centre of the endless sprawling branches that seemed to reach up, down and around the city was an enormous, hollow tree, which had been encouraged to grow in certain ways, its knot holes moved, its growth carefully shaped, to allow for the chamber of the high council to reside within, forming a hub of this city, and surrounded with a spiralling walkway up its trunk, which disappeared down into the lower canopy of underbrush below. Behind where they stood was a smaller but still impressive towering structure seemingly constructed of leaves knit together – Mordeo informed them that this was the elven mage’s guild, the home of the Order of Magus. And coming down a gangway was a detachment of efficient and official looking elven warriors, city guards by their bearing, who came to a grim salute and informed Mellvin that he was required immediately within the high council chamber, and was asked who these others were with him. He informed the elven guards that this was his retinue, and the guards replied that they were to remain behind. Mordeo offered to be their guide, and since he seemed to hold some sway within the council, this was agreed to, and Mellvin was marched off towards the central tree, leaving the human, the kender and the minotaur behind in this strangely foreign place.

Now, although Mordeo had offered to guide the party in their time in Citium Deus, he informed them that he also had some things to attend to whilst here, and was sure they would be safe on their own. Besides, didn’t they say they had some tasks of their own to attend to here in the jungle? Given that Mellvin’s interviews with the council might take days (elves are not exactly known for their brevity) it might be wise to seek to accomplish a few things in his absence, and then return with them complete. So now the party simply had to find their way to Rogan’s village, a place Veri had learned was called Itinere Pagum, and that it was somewhere to the northwest of the city. But where were they going to find out more? This place was so strange, and none of them really knew where to begin. None of them, that is, until Jethro spied something utterly amazing – a squadron of elven eagle riders were just coming in to land at a roosting place across the other side of the city. These princely looking elves were riding kings of the sky, giant, majestic eagles, and the kender had never wanted anything more than to go and investigate that place and ride one of those eagles. He was off in a flash before the other two could say a word, and by the time they had made their way up, down and around the complex winding roads to where the eagles were now at roost, Jethro was standing far more still and cautious than was usual for him, and it was clear why – all six eagles had stopped their chirping, ruffling and preening and were staring with absolute intent upon the diminutive little person. It was as though Jethro were a doe stuck in a bullseye lantern – and slowly, oh so slowly, the eagles were leaning forward, eyes unblinking, intent on this interesting little morsel.

In a sudden break of tension, Ajax reached over his large, muscly hand and grabbed the kender firmly, seeming to break the hypnotic spell he had over the eagles, and causing them to break out in brief shrieks of upset, before returning to their avian preening activities. Veri asked the elven eagle riders, who had watched this entire scene with quiet bemusement, for directions to the village called Itinere Pagum, and received a fairly terse reply in common – they were skyriders, not tourist agents, and the whereabouts of some hillbilly redneck elf settlement out in the jungle was of little concern to them. But Jethro followed up almost immediately with a question in elven that seemed to warm the soldiers’ hearts a little – despite the hungry intent they had shown in desiring to taste the kender, he was still wickedly keen to get a ride on one. This caused the captain of the skyriders to laugh, and he asked first for an explanation of who these people were, and why they were here. When it was explained that they were the retinue of Mellvin, saviour of the elven slaves, and they were seeking out this village because Mellvin had some business there, and they were going to reconnoitre for him to ensure everything was ready for him to swoop in and solve the problem, that brought some further warmth to the conversation. So it was that the enthusiastic friendliness of the bard once again won out over racial stigmatism, and secured them all a ride on eagleback to the remote village of Itinere Pagum.

A brief discussion about the illegal use of magic in the city later (it was explained that since large parts of the city were constructed magically, the elves were wary of magic use within the city’s limits that may disrupt the shaping of their tree homes) and soon Ajax was shrunk to fit on the back of an eagle, and three hours of the delightful rushing of wings and screeching of eagles was enjoyed by all (or at the very least, the kender), soaring over the canopy of the jungle, seeing from above the developing infrastructure of suspended roads between the city and its satellite towns being superceded by the more natural roadways of the Magus Carnites, which eventually gave way to no structure at all, before the party were dropped off on the wide boughs of a tall oak tree, and told that the village they were looking for was still on the ground here, and could be found somewhere west of this tree. The skyriders said their farewells, and with a shriek the eagles took once again to the skies, and the party were left hundreds of feet in the air, suspended by the impressive branches of this large tree. Veri was quick to bound from its branch, using her magic to slow her fall, but Jethro was not quite as prepared, and so he and Ajax had to sit up in the tree branches for ten minutes until he had worked on a song to send them drifting like feathers to the jungle’s surface, and scaring off the cassowary that had been curiously eyeing the wizard in the meantime.

It was clear almost as soon as they had landed why flying on eagle back was preferential to travelling any other way in the jungle – for it was thick, absolutely bustling with life, dark, hot, moist, oppressive and not quite impossible to walk through. Oftentimes Ajax’s mighty scimitars had the lowly job of machetes, cutting a swathing path through the endless vines, leaves, ferns and hanging bracken that made up the jungle floor, but even then the going was slow. They took well over an hour to cover perhaps a mile of ground – it was so difficult to tell in this endless maze of trees – before finally an elf approached them via their usual method of traversing the jungle – via the tree branches. Upon greeting them in a wary but overall friendly manner (after all, who brings a kender if they’re doing ill?) they were led towards the village camp, where a far more simple vision awaited them. The homes here were nothing special – essentially tents woven of the leaves of the low-hanging shrubbery, rocks carefully shaped into fire pits, large bowls formed from yet more leaves and filled with dried smoked fish, or freshly picked berries, or lovely scented flowers. This was Itinere Pagum – an outlying village which harvested a few rare products of the jungle floor, which were then distributed amongst the elven lands to be shared, as were all things.

When the party mention that they are here at the behest of Rogan, the entire mood of the situation seemed to change – it was clear their elven guide was surprised at hearing this name, to the point of requesting it be repeated as to ensure their pointy little ears had heard it correctly. When it was duly repeated, the party were quickly introduced to the only human they could seem to identify from the dirty and poor faces of the elves here – an older woman who went by the name of Brihany, who explained her family were originally from the third migration, and she had elected to remain in one of these smaller villages because she was attracted to the simple life, and she had been visited earlier in her time in the jungle by the coatl, and had been one who learned philosophy, and as such felt that this simple life in the remote jungle allowed her to focus more on thinking.

Brihany was able to tell them the story of Rogan – oh yes, they knew his name well here. It was, up until a few minutes ago, a name of a fallen hero, one whom had sought to strike down an enemy of the village but had never been seen again, and was presumed dead. But this story started with an elf by the name of Vindicos, who had come from this village, but then travelled to Urbanis Incineratum to study the ways of the warrior. However, when the village had come under attack from a group of strange, winged cat creatures that had been aggressive and seemed to have a taste for elf flesh, Vindicos returned, and drove the creatures away using his strength, his courage, and his sword. This sword was left behind in the village as a reminder that anyone could protect their fellows if they had but strength and courage. It was Rogan who had taken up this blessed blade, and who with strength and courage had marched into the forest to confront a green dragon that had been causing their village so much trouble – Somnerfector, the dream haunter. But Rogan had never returned, the sword was lost, and now for years they had lived under the shadow of the dragon’s wing – it rarely killed anyone, but it would regularly lead them astray, steal from them their valuables, and kept them in the grinding poverty the village faced.

The heroes looked to each other with a new understanding of their situation and their past, and began to ask questions. When did the dragon appear? The villagers were unsure, but it did seem to come whenever something new or interesting came to the village – so with their visit, it would likely come soon. How did it come? One of the elderly fishermen was able to give an answer to that – Somnerfector was not one to trample through the jungle like a mad elephant seeking his way by force. He much preferred to prey on the mind, to hide in the shadows, or under the water. If one kept their eyes open, they could often see that subtle shift in the wind, or the movement of branches where there was none, or the bending of light that indicated the mighty creature’s presence, or sometimes the simple absence of anything in an area that just seemed too empty. It was hard to explain, but Jethro particularly, with his knowledge of illusion, recognised the magic of a green dragon. The party joined one of the fishing groups, heading to the shore of the harbour where they would head out for hours to fish with their nets in simple hollowed out canoes. Ajax did his best to try and find evidence of the dragon’s whereabouts, but he was no tracker – without Mellvin or Vargas, the party was sadly underskilled.

That was when one of the fishermen clapped his hands and pointed out into the sea. At first they could see nothing, but then realised that was precisely what he was pointing at – a bulge in the water, a rising of the swell that was just a little to perfect in its normalcy. This was surely Somnerfector. Sparking herself with a cantrip, Veri suddenly burst into radiant blue flame, and called to the dragon in her imposing voice, introducing herself as emissary to Khaharas, and seeking an audience with the dragon… but nothing happened. It was time to head back to the village, then, and given Ajax was well and truly lost in the endless spread of trees, they followed Jethro back towards the village. But something was amiss. True, there aren’t a great deal of landmarks in a thick jungle, but Jethro was sure that they would have noticed this perfectly shaped canopy of trees that formed a large corridor through the jungle last time they came this way. It seemed to head off into the depths of the jungle, and assuming that this was the work of the dragon, the party followed the path set out for them, slowly and carefully, its perfect straightness leading them easily far off their course. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had started, and when they turned about they found that it was gone, and they were in the middle of dense forest, but they were certainly not alone.

A voice, and nothing more, came to them from the trees – had they come on behalf of the village to seek out Somnerfector? Indeed not, Veri replied, they had come because the dragon’s reputation was awesome. Well, if that was the case, then surely they had come bearing some kind of tribute for its majesty? Veri nodded, and indicated they came bearing a great treasure in knowledge. What was this knowledge exactly, asked the dragon? And that’s about the time Veri was stumped. So Veri changed tack and said they were here to offer the dragon assistance, but again could not name what in fact it needed their help with. The dragon made a simple and elegant counter-offer – one of Ajax’s fine swords would be a fitting prize for his greatness. And the more the dragon spoke of the minotaur giving over one of his scimitars, the more reasonable a suggestion it seemed to be. But luckily, Jethro was aware of the mystical nature of well-placed words – he was a bard, after all – and so he began quoting verses back at the dragon, singing a song of praise for it, such that it would not need any simple sword. The countersong seemed sufficient for Ajax to keep a hold of his blades, at least for now. Veri once again tried her luck, offering to teleport away and get something worthy of the dragon’s horde, and to this it agreed, saying it would visit the village of Pagum at dawn, where it would await the official tendering of this valuable prize. With that, there was a whoosh of air, a fluttering of leaves, and silence – apparently the invisible dragon had departed.

So, what exactly was their plan? Veri outlined her thoughts – keep the dragon talking, convince it to stop haranguing the village, and then… okay, maybe they needed a better plan. Tricking it with fake gold was out – first of all, it would likely know it was fake or magical, and second of all when it did discover, the village would be in the same peril, if not more. They spoke of trapping the dragon with fishing nets, or returning to Vahassa to get the sword back from Rogan to inspire the villagers against the dragon, or perhaps even bringing Rogan himself. Could they get assistance from other villages close to here? Apparently they all had to deal with the dragon, after all. Could they get a Carnite from the next village? There was so many questions, and not only were the answers not forthcoming (they hadn’t returned to the village yet, after all) but the big question that hung over their heads remained – would any of that actually make a difference? Veri gave a sigh – maybe the villagers should just keep giving tribute to the dragon. Was it so bad to live under the service of a dragon? She’d done it her whole life, after all. It was during this conversation that the fishermen were found to be returning to the camp, bringing with them their catch, and at hearing their discussion, the elderly fisherman gave them a stern reprimand – what did they think they were doing, hosting such seditious talk in the middle of the forest? The dragon had ears all over the jungle, didn’t they think of that?

Oh well, it looks like they were back to square one. Either these villagers just knuckle down and continue giving tribute to the dragon, or the party do what they were originally here to do, and take the side of the villagers against their oppressor. Jethro wrote down a message, and asked if it could be fast-tracked back to Citium Deus and placed into the hands of Mellvin to tell him that this was a pretty bad situation, and that the dragon was going to be appearing at the village at dawn, expecting a gift, but likely receiving a threat. Turns out that they really were preparing the way for Mellvin to come and save the day… now if only he could get there in time.

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Making friends and plans

Lots of things had happened in the months since Cherrock’s execution. Xin Hao was now the leader of a human city, which had ended up thawing the relationship between humans and ogres considerably in Coratka – a welcome result for many, given that Queen Dimeh had large forces ready for an imminent facing off against Cherrock’s war machine. With the return of myconids to the roads and city stalls of Manxiga, and with the flourishing of the gift of artistic ability (although Van Benten has once again disappeared), trade has blossomed in Coratka, and although Xin Hao has taken much of the credit, really most of the growth could be shelved back to the return of the mushroom men. Some naga had pointed this out early on, and most of their services have been discontinued in Coratka.

The myconids continued to buy slaves, the difference being that everyone now knew that some of these unfortunate souls might get fed to the illithids… and yet their trade continues. It is a lottery, after all, who will end up headed for the swamp caves – unless the slave is an elf, but then they never make good slaves anyway. When money is coming in, it is surprising to the lengths of disturbing how blind the eye that gets turned is. The illithid, having enslaved the myconids and the ‘stonemovers’, and moreover eating other races, hangs like a weight on the shoulders of the civilised world, but the world has a way of shrugging its shoulders to such weights, and continuing on. There were whispers of some heroic efforts made to try and free the slaves, but these have ended in total silence – there was no other news from those groups, and no-one will likely sing to their bravery.

Moreover, months have gone past, without even a whisper of information about Granlin or his boat-wife. Mellvin has been talking with Utuk about getting rid of the abomination menace. The high cleric murmured that he would appreciate if the party could investigate rumours about a mage in Winter Pines who has been meddling with creating abominations – if they are going in that direction, that is. While Utuk’s passion for the destruction of all that is abominable had seemed to turn from a white hot scalding to a simmering hatred, nonetheless he had not given up on seeing them wiped from the land. Instead, he had shifted his focus from the immediate to the long-term.

Meanwhile, Ajax had invested his share of the black dragon’s wealth into commissioning a fine new dromond, with two masts, two decks, and fifty oars, which he had named the Dragon Wrangler. He had run many successful trade missions, and made a comfortable amount of money. He mainly worked the seas to the east of Vahassa, patrolling the shipping lanes between Manxiga and the Bitto and Fiiel. However, he has occasionally rubbed shoulders with John Paul Jones, sharing a little info here and there on easy mark ships, or where sunken treasure might be. But the overheads of a crew and a ship were many, and after these months were done, he had cleared a measly thousand gold pieces in pure profit. Moreover, while this was his dream fulfilled to a degree, he had learned the excitement of a new stock in trade – that of adventuring, contributing to a greater good.

Veri had visited her dragon master to inform her of the news that Cherrock would face execution, and she had been pleased to watch the death of the one responsible for her young child’s death via her scrying mirror. Veri and Jethro had spent much of the rest of their time cloistered in the blue tower in Nubton, poring over spell books, making copies, teaching apprentices, and researching new magical principles that had been shared with Veri by Kl’kayt. Well, Veri spent her time doing this, anyway. Jethro kept popping in and out, being an annoyance as much as a student, traipsing between Nubton, Sanctuary, Serendipity and Stoppin, penning and playing new songs about his latest adventures (‘The Desolation of Miasma’ was popular in Sanctuary, and ‘The Shrunken Kender and the Vault Key’ was his biggest hit ever in kender lands). Little wonder he didn’t actually learn any spells throughout the whole winter.

When the winter thaw began to melt, and Mellvin received a letter from the pony express that he was required to attend a meeting with the high council of the elves in Citium Deus, but without saying anything as to why, it seemed about time for the party to draw together once more, and discuss what the spring would bring them. So when the party heard that the Dragon Wrangler had pulled into port in Sanctuary, they went to meet up with him and think collectively about where they might go next together.

It is in this manner that our party found themselves gathered together in a tavern, much like any group of young hopefuls, keen to see the world and dip their blades into the blood of adventure, might do. The tavern chosen was, of course, the Wizard’s Warmth, given that Veri had a room to teleport to there (whether or not she rented it). As the party settled in to discuss their winters and enjoy the fire, the food and the warmth of companionship, Veri telling them all she had received paperwork informing her that she was pardoned for her crimes in Manxiga, two people approached them – one a human they all recognised well enough as high cleric Utuk, and another that only Mellvin seemed to recollect from some dark memory – an elven wizard, dressed in simple white robes: his wizard friend Mordeo. They had just arrived back in Vahassa together – one from giving the bones of dead slaves a better burial in the swamps of Manxiga, the other having completed his research of the spellbooks of the black dragon.

Mordeo had returned with a collection of spells from the black dragon’s spellbook that were not considered dangerously necromantic, and had thought it only fair to share them with Jethro and Veri. Furthermore, he told them there were notes about conjuring elementals, but no actual spells to that effect. This discussion about Miasma’s spellbook raised now the spectre of the heretofore unopenable chest they had fished out of the ex-dragon’s underground midden. Mordeo had not had an opportunity to investigate this chest, and while Utuk explained he had high cleric duties to take care of in Vahassa, he would trust Mordeo to ensure that anything discovered that should be brought to his attention would be – not that Utuk mistrusted Mellvin, but he did think he might be distracted or tricked by Veri.

So it was that the party invited Mordeo to come and investigate this chest. Veri teleported them all to the blue tower, but misses the mark by 10 feet. Thankfully, the tower’s teleportation chamber had been designed with a drop into a large body of water beneath its floor, so they were all fine, if drenched. Mordeo couldn’t tell them much about the box, but that it was magically locked somehow. That’s when a brainwave hit Jethro – could they get Mordeo to buy a knock scroll from the Blue Tower? He wasn’t known to be a compatriot of the party, and so they would have no problem serving him. Mordeo thought this was a trifle comical, but was happily prepared to do so. That’s when Mellvin suggested half-jokingly that perhaps the wizard should go undercover and buy black magic off Xin Hao. The elf mage’s eyebrows raised, but he indicated that he was not against that idea either.

Suddenly, having a new wizard friend was turning out to provide a good deal of hereto untold opportunity. Jethro suggests that perhaps Mordeo could offer a necromantic spell for trade, like hold undead or detect dead – a spell that would not be destructive, but would show that Mordeo meant business. The only problem then was that Mordeo didn’t have a few thousand spare gold pieces to purchase the knock spell they needed to try and open the dragon’s chest. Veri informed the party she could ask Rogan for a loan – he still had five or six cubes of gold, after all – and after what turned out to be quite an awkward conversation with her stepfather, she found herself in the position of agreeing to go and help his barbarian tribe deal with a problem involving a green dragon. Not Vashte – at least, not so far as he knew – just a nameless dragon pest. Since she agreed to this task, and it showed her willingness to earn the money, and not just beg for it, Rogan gave her the 2,000 gold, and they were able to send Mordeo on his way.

Mordeo headed for Bazaar and the gold tower to buy the Knock spell, and to make a suggestion that he was interested in black dragon magic as well. He left it at that, and returned successful with the scroll in hand. Jethro meanwhile used the time to learn a little about the box, looking it over and discovering that it is in fact linked to the lifeforce of the dragon. Moreover, the chest was actually very artistically carved, and contains her draconic name in runic lettering contained amongst the bordering of the box – Garreck’nar, despoiler.

Well, instead of falling prey to instant curiosity, Veri took the time to actually learn and scribe the spell into her spellbook, waiting until the next day to cast it upon the box. Mordeo remained with them, since it was their plan to go from here to Citium Deus afterwards, and he would have a much better chance of teleporting them safely to the place that was essentially his home. But now they had the spell, they had a wizard with the magic at their fingertips. What might it contain? Why was it so big? Unfortunately, the spell fizzled – combatting a dragon’s lifeforce magic is difficult, and Veri could not overcome it with her own magical will. Oh well, they could leave this for now, and head off to Truncatis, the elven jungle, and to the city of their high council, Citium Deus.

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No clerics does not mean no gods

Things were looking grim for our heroes. Their warriors were fighting boldly and bravely, but were outnumbered and it seemed overpowered. The powers of Tu’Eva and Ba’ya were strong, and for every blow they landed, it seemed there was hellfire or wracking pains or wounding strikes or swarms of deadly spiders in reply from the high clerics. Vargas was blind, and Cherrock’s strength and confidence seemed to only have grown since their last toe-to-toe battle. The spellcasters, meanwhile, had been stripped of all but their skins, and even they were scarred and burning from the dragon’s deadly acid breath. Then there was the skeletons, which seemed to fall endlessly ,but always be replaced. Hope was wavering, and without a cleric, seemed to be fading fast.

But all was not lost, and they were not, in fact, alone. Even blind, Vargas was still a force to be reckoned with, and as he tightened his grip on his short sword’s hilt, he felt a tingling surge run through his veins. It was not the lightning that flowed through his arms and gave him strength. Oh no, it was something much better. It was the power of Paliyl, the power of justice. With a wide swing of his long sword, the centaur managed to catch the orc warboss’s axe against the blade, while bringing up from below the short sword, right into Cherrock’s gut. There was a thunderous boom, and suddenly a surprised and alarmed Cherrock went flying upward, catching an equally surprised dragon under the chin, into which he was lodged by the long spikes on his armour. Vargas couldn’t see how perfect the strike had been, but he didn’t have to – when his short sword went boom, it was always good. Justice was on their side after all.

Their joy at seeing Cherrock flying through the air and sticking under the black dragon’s maw was short-lived, however, when the goblin cleric of Ba’ya, Ku Tam Ne, called up a baleful flare of hellfire, which consumed Mellvin, charring his armour, his clothing and his skin, singeing his hair and his eyebrows, and draining from his body its energy to continue on with the fight. As the flames died and shrank back into the depths, his knees buckled, and he slumped down into the mud, smoke still pouring from his armour.

And as his head fell back into the sludge of the swampy plateau, the moist ground extinguishing the fire in his hair, images flashed before his eyes – he could see himself releasing into the air a little swallow, a servant of the creation goddess, with a little note tied to his foot. He could see himself growing smaller and smaller as the swallow flitted about carefree on the winds, leaving leagues behind it, the mountains growing small, becoming but a memory to it as it ducked and weaved through the air, playful and cheery. Suddenly, though, there was a shriek in his ears, and before he knew it, the little swallow’s body was crushed in the powerful grip of an osprey. Mellvin recognised the osprey – not the particular bird, but its breed – the elves called them haliaetum piscavenator, and they usually lived in the shoreline jungles of his homeland. This one was a long way from home, to be feasting on the now twitching corpse of this little swallow, his little doomed messenger. As it snacked on the wing, the osprey seemed to hear a whistle, and banked into a long, slow spiral, drawing it gently back down to earth, back to where it could land, on one powerful claw, on the wrist of a slender and wise looking elfin arm. The osprey’s master sported a staff, and wore the fine silk robes of his people, sketched with detailed runes of magical protection. Upon seeing the tiny message that was tied to the leg of the morsel his familiar was enjoying, he gave the bird of prey a tap on the beak to pause, muttering its name, Mordeo, before snatching away the little note and nodding for it to continue its feast.

The note was written simply, hurriedly, and had an elven slant to its letters. Its contents were clearly dire, if true. Votios clicked his tongue, and new what he should do – a brief sigil in the air, a spoken word, and in a flash he was carried to within the walls of a fortress style monastery, that sat high and lonely in the Singing Mountains, where men and women from all walks of life had gathered to live separate from the world, and seek holiness through ascetic practice. Votios took the proper ablutions upon entering the large, beautifully simple temple structure, only to be told that Cloden, the dwarf high cleric of holiness, was apparently not in residence – matters had called him back to his homeland, and so his second in command had to take up the urgent message the elven wizard had – a goblin cleric by the name of Ganeungseong Guseju. The Guseju received the note and, upon reading it, was alarmed at the news of an undead army being raised in the swamps. His first instinct was to attempt to scry the note’s author – he did not know this Mellvin from a bar of soap, but he had a scrap of his writing, which would provide the necessary connection – but then something seemed to stop him. Though he did not recognise the name of the author, he knew its recipient – Utuk, once a lowly adopted human from the elflands, now high cleric of Vahassa. It was possible the elf Mellvin knew Utuk, and hence was trying to get the message to him somehow. But what to do? Scrying might take hours, and may not even succeed. Besides, he was no watcherwoman, no cleric of Sophia, addicted to their reflecting pools. He was a proud cleric of Qodesh, and a goblin of action. But what action could he take? The swamps were hundreds of miles away. If this note had come from the swamps, it could already be days old. If Guseju was to do anything, it would need to be a powerful, immediate, and able to cross the distance without delay. He knew what he must do.

Thus, at the moment Mellvin succumbed to the burning wounds of his enemy’s making, the sky seemed to split apart above the battlefield, where upon wings of light, and wielding a sword of faith, the fury and purity of Wrath, Qodesh’s angel of holy indignation, poured out her bowl of righteousness upon the evil of the scene below. The dragon and Cherrock, both so close to the heavenly being as they circled in the air, were instantly struck blind by the incredible sight, as was the goblin cleric who had fried Mellvin. Beams of light strobed and gleamed from the angel’s luminous wings, like feathers that shot from her, striking down each and every undead blasphemy. It was like a meteor storm of light, which washed across the battlefield and brought with it cleansing, and it raised the spirits of the adventurers. They felt their energy returning, the pain of their wounds was fleeting, and Mellvin, as though lifted on those very wings of the angel, rose to his feet once more. This battle was not over.

The angel was gone as suddenly as she had appeared, as though a cloud had briefly moved to let the sun shine in on their situation, before once again being covered up by a storm. But things were different now. They had a new energy, they had the blessing of the gods, and they would win this battle because they needed to overcome the darkness. But the forces of evil were not going to lay down without a fight. True, the skeleton army had been washed aside, but these clerics remained, the dragon remained, and the warlord of the orcs remained – though several were now blinded by the light. Moreover, the dragon’s obsidian scales had been cast away by the angel’s fury, and it was now left with the painful lump of orc and armour lodged under its throat. Cherrock and Miasma were calling out to each other, the blind leading the blind, with the warlord telling the dragon to retreat, she responding that she would not leave these puny adventurers to trespass in her home. Though she could not see, she had heard the sound of thousands of skeletons collapsing to the ground, and knew that she could make something more of this situation despite her visual disability. Swooping down to within about 50 feet of the ground, she spread her great wings, flapping them rhythmically to keep herself hovering stably in the air, stirring up the discarded bones into a great whirling cloud – and as her claws began to twist and shape the magic of her blood into her command, the whirlwind of bones started to click and clack together, forming to take the slow shape of a massive, grotseque, brutish bone golem.

And Ajax was ready for that. Leaving his ranger friends to deal with the clerics, the minotaur had bigger fish to fry. Sheathing his scimitars and breaking into a running charge towards the golem, he took a mighty leap, arms outstretched to grab at the bones, and began climbing the disgusting statue’s endless ribcage in the same brisk pace, as naturally as if it were the ropes of a ship’s rigging, before making a daredevil bound from the construct’s shoulder, and grabbing for dear life onto the dragon’s leg. He reached for pagos, his trusty frozen scimitar, but now his lucked seemed to be against him, and the weapon’s hilt slipped from his fingers, tumbling through the air until with a crackling shatter it struck blade-first into the ground, freezing the mud around it, trapping it there. Switching arms between grabbing the dragon’s leg and reaching for a weapon, he now went for fotia, his sure flaming blade… only to fumble it again, and watch with horror as it likewise arced through the air and slipped into the mud, drying it into clay around the blade. But Ajax is a warrior born, and was not going to let a simple lack of swords deprive him of victory. Besides, Carna had blessed him with natural weapons, which, with a few well placed headbutts, he put to good use, ramming his horns into Miasma’s ankle. This rankled the dragon to some degree, and she was forced to pause in her forging of the bone golem to take a bite out of Ajax’s hide, but he still remained resolutely clutched to her clawed leg.

While Cherrock was madly quaffing healing potions in the hope that they might cure him of his vision loss, the naked Jethro still had a torrent of angry spiders to deal with, and he had to get creative. Nooconari was the only cleric that could see, it seemed, and the kender would use this to his advantage, by calling forth a powerful illusory wave of flame crawling across the mud, burning and crackling and sizzling and belching out mystical heat. But one does not get to be the high priest of a dark god without knowing a thing or two, and Nooconari knew that this moving all of flame was a highly unlikely circumstance. Unfortunately, he did not pass this information onto his spiders who, though tenacious and thoroughly evil, are not known for wisdom. As the spectral flames licked over their little arachnid bodies, they reacted precisely as they would have to real flames – they squealed and curled up their legs, quivering and laying there as though dead.

That stood the hairy eight-legged army in good stead for what came next, when Veri summoned from her mind a shadowy fireball, weaving the flames from the realms of the possible into the fabric of reality. This one the clerics could not ignore, scorching over their flesh as it burned as true as real flame, burning away Jethro’s stinking cloud and replacing the hypnotised screams of the spider legion with the real, piercing shrieks of their blue-green blood boiling inside their bodies and bursting forth from their skins. She followed that up with a devastating charge of lightning, forking its bolt between the two orc clerics, letting them taste the savagery of pure blue dragon magic. Vargas was eager to follow up, charging into the now spiderless Nooconari, only to find that the stinking cloud was not so much dissipated as now focused solely on the personage of the high cleric of desolation. His centaur knees buckled, and he found himself at the mercy of the foul orc shaman. Nooconari reached out his bony green hand, grabbing Vargas by his helpless neck, and called down a curse upon him, and all at once the centaur’s body began to go limp, his eyes crossed, and a goofy, vacant grin took over his features. His mind was gone. However, the swift rushing sound of wind was quickly followed by two arrows flying from Mellvin’s bow, striking into Nooconari’s heart, making the words of his cursing Vargas the last he would ever utter.

His fellow orc, Ranarathreooa of Ba’ya, took a moment to close his own wounds, before stalking up to the naked kender and swinging out his staff – but kender are wily, even when naked, and it takes a bit of practice to remember that your enemy is three feet shorter than you. The blow swished over Jethro’s head, and gained for the orc some taunting and jeers from the bard. Mellvin meanwhile had been doing his best to ignore both the mighty dragon above, and the dirty goblin cleric that lurked behind the safety of the wall of blades – but when that goblin had called down fiery death on the elf, enough was enough. Rushing around the edge of the whirling knives, Mellvin shot off an arrow towards the blinded goblin, striking him in the shoulder with grim satisfaction.

Ku Tam Ne screamed in pain, and calling upon Ba’ya, pushed the blindness from his eyes, the holy light being replaced with the dizzying pain of an arrow lodged in his arm. He could feel his blood leaving him. He could have healed himself further, but that would only leave him open to more of these stinging arrows, and the ranger seemed to know precisely where to lodge one in a goblin’s body to cause the most pain. No, if this was going to be the end for Ku Tam Ne, dark cleric of vengeance, then he was going to take this damned elf with him! Licking his lips, the goblin began a high pitched, keening chant, and with his staff began to draw a large arc in front of him. The edge of the staff crackled and spat blue sparks, as though he were grinding a hole in the very fabric of the plane – for so he was, creating a gate to another, darker realm, where the trees were made of bone, the sky was an oppressive, semi-lit grey, the mud was bubbling, foetid sewage, and the wails of the lost could be heard keening as the only wind. Veri and Jethro paused in fear – they knew this place all too well. Then there was a shuddering thump, and another, and another, as through the gate lumbered a massive, hulking demon, grotesque in its girth, bulging with muscle and fat, sporting sharp, wicked spikes, and dragging behind it a cleaver made for severing hope from life.

This was Bane, Loather of Life. He let out a blood-curdling roar, a deep, throaty gurgle that caused skin to shiver and quake, before loping into a charge towards Mellvin. It swung the beastly cleaver towards the elf’s head, before tossing it easily to its free hand and drawing it back in a reverse slash meant to end his life in two places – but neither struck home. In fact, it was as though there was an invisible barrier between the two – a barrier of protection which had been placed on them at the beginning of the combat. Mellvin showed no fear – he did not even flinch at the swinging blade inches from his face, but rather stoically lifted his bow, notched an arrow, and let it fly, shooting under the massive demon’s arm, and striking true through the left eye of the goblin cleric, right into his brain. There would be no healing from that. Ku did half a spin, before his body went limp and his face pitched forward into the mud, ramming the arrow through his head to pierce the back of his skull.

Veri had little more in the way of magic without her components at the ready, but she was quick on her feet, rushing to the aid of her centaur companion, rummaging through his belt and unstoppering the potion she had bought especially for such an emergency. She poured it into his slack-jawed mouth, and as Hesed’s power worked its way through his veins, his senses returned, and he blinked his eyes, shaking off the snow of foolishness, regaining his fighting form. Now it was his turn to strike back at these damned clerics. Turning, he saw Rana swinging his gnarled staff at Jethro, who was ducking, dodging, and taunting the now enraged orc, and with a sturdy grip on his weapons, charged at full centaur speed into the back of the unwitting orc priest. His blessed short sword of Paliyl plunged into the cleric’s back, and before Vargas could speak a heroic quip at the orc’s expense, he was flung by the thunderous power of justice through his own blade barrier, spraying a fine mist of blood and bone over Mellvin and the demon Bane.

The dragon’s bone golem atrocity was taking more shape, now having a head and seeming ready to have unlife poured into its joints. But not only had the clerics all been vanquished, but not a single member of the party had been felled. She could not see, but she could sense the carnage that had taken place, as well as the sense of victory that was coming from the companions. Now, she thought, she would take the advice of Cherrock, and make haste away from this place, to recoup and regroup, and return with power and revenge. Let these attackers waste their time on this bone golem as she made good her escape. But there was a problem – Ajax had other plans for this mighty dragon. His weapons gone, he had been busying himself with the only other thing left to him – a large, long, sturdy length of rope, the type any true sailor would always have at hand. Having looped it around the magically formed bone golem’s neck, Ajax was waiting for just the right moment to tighten its final loop around the dragon’s leg. That moment came when she dug her wings into the air and made her attempt to shoot herself into the sky. The timing was just right, the angle was perfect, and the tension in the rope was just so – turning Miasma’s rocketing exit into a centrifugal swing, catching her off-guard and causing her to catapult gracelessly into the muddy plateau she called home. Ajax, of course, had been prepared, and ensured that he left by the forward exit, sliding down the rope and landing perfectly on his hooves, the sight of crashing dragon at his back. Miasma flinched in a sudden panic, and knowing she needed to buy herself time, concentrated on calling back her obsidian plating, protecting herself while she was prone and blind.

Bane was confused and enraged. He was summoned here to kill, and killing was what he was good at. But the elf he was here to kill was protected behind some sort of magical shield, and he was growing impatient waiting for it to dissipate. Moreover, the cleric who had foolishly summoned him could not face his wrath, because he was already dead – no matter about that, he would have his way with that goblin upon his return to hell. In the meantime though, he was here on this cursed material plane, and he needed someone to vent his frustrations upon. It was at this precise point that a kender appeared before him, sporting a muddy, dirty yet still oddly colourful string of handkerchiefs, performing woeful street magic (it’s hard to pull a string of handkerchiefs out of your sleeve when you’re not wearing and clothes – brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘nothing up my sleeve’) and if he was attempting to further provoke the demon, he was doing a fine job of it. But Jethro did in fact have something up his (non-existent) sleeve – a spellsong he had been working on that would send a planar outsider back to its home, dismissing it from the material plane. It was the sort of thing that seemed might be useful, given the terrible dreams he’d been having lately. Unfortunately, these things never seem to work the first time, and though he drew upon all the magical know-how he had, along with all the charismatic suggestion he could muster to encourage the demon to just go home, it seemed that Bane was unmoved.

Unmoved, that is, until the glimmering, glowing, radiant form of Veri, emissary of the dread Khararas, appeared behind Jethro and gave a slightly different perspective. That dragon over there, she explained, was the dark dragon Miasma, and she was responsible for the kidnapping and enslaving of Bane’s battle brothers, binding them into the bodies of the undead – oh yes, she knew full well about this, because it was she that protected the demon city that sits upon this very site from the black dragon’s foul magics. If the demon really wanted someone on which to pour out its hate, perhaps it should start there. Bane’s eyes looked uncaring over the scantly clad, blue-flaming demigod personage before him. Then he looked over at the mighty dragon, stumbling and slipping in its attempt to rise back up to its full height and glory, and then probably to run for the hills, and with it the two rangers, striking as many blows as they could, trying to break through her magical protections, their backs to the demon as though it were of no danger.

Bane gave a toothy, joyless grin, and lifting his cleaver, began a slow starting, but steadily growing stride towards the magnificent dragon. As each stalking step brought him closer to his prey, he threw forward his massive cleaver, sending it spinning through the air, its long arcs seeming to whistle with an unearthly keenness as it sliced through the air, and it seemed through gravity, for it did not fall or falter on its course, but instead rent a savage slash through the fabric of space. Bane was preparing himself a passage home – one big enough that he could take back a prize worthy of his princedom. While his cleaver soared, he reached forth and grabbed the dragon’s tail, giving it a stern, unforgiving yank, pulling the tail over his shoulder and dragging dragon mercilessly through the makeshift gateway to hell. No matter how much the dragon screamed, bellowed or clawed at the mud, it seemed it was taken truly by surprise, and the last thing the party saw before the gate shut once again was an arm extending through it to catch the cleaver that fell perfectly into the demon’s fleshy grasp.

Cherrock had pried himself loose of the dragon’s scales once he knew he had but a short fall to the ground. Though he was still blind, he heard the pleading, screaming cries of Garrek’nar, and then the cold silence of her disappearance, and he knew that he was completely and utterly alone. Raising his hands in surrender, he said in his most diplomatic tone, “Let’s talk about this,” before Ajax and Vargas, in unison, brought down blows from the pommels of their weapons onto the back of the orc’s head, sending him into a violently immediate unconsciousness. The warlord of the Bitto was captured once more. His dragon allies were no more. The war was surely over. After Jethro appropriated for himself a cloak from the fallen goblin cleric, and Mellvin loaned Veri his travelling cloak, they decided to bury Cherrock’s armour and weapons in the mud, knowing they could return to them if needed, and he could not.

There was just one last question – was the dragon’s home really possibly close to this plateau, as she had said? Searching together, Mellvin and Vargas discovered a deep trench in the watery moat around the plateau – it was large enough that it could possibly be an entrance into an underwater midden. Mellvin tried to explore it, but it was Ajax who was the king of the water, sinking into the muddy, murky depths, his armour protecting his lungs from burning up with a lack of oxygen. After ten minutes of searching, he found his way into the open, underground lair of the dragon, which contained a large, eight foot square wooden chest, heavy and locked, along with a smaller collection of gems and Manxigan coins, as well as two possible spellbooks, and a case of what appeared to be powdered diamond. Clearly this would be something to come back for. But Ajax grabbed a handful of coins and gems, stuffing them into his pack so that at least the party would have something for provisions on their return to Sanctuary.

Because Sanctuary would clearly be where the party would return, with Cherrock in chains (or at least tied securely in ropes), and hopefully, Veri thought, as heroes, or at least vindicated and freed from their ostracism from the continent. Their first stop, of course, would be to the memorial mausoleum in Sanctuary, home of their friend and companion Utuk, high cleric of Qodesh in Vahassa. Veri was concerned that all the bones of these dead Vahassan slaves be given a proper interrment, and she knew this would concern Utuk as well. Furthermore, there was the matter of these black books that had been left behind in the dragon’s underground midden, which could contain necromantic magic, and would therefore be of great interest to Utuk, who would wish to see them destroyed. On this point, however, the magic-users of the party were a little more ambivalent. Yes, both of them agreed that necromancy was bad, mmmkay, and they definitely didn’t want to use it themselves (they’d been to hell once, they weren’t keen on returning in a hurry). But last time, the simple destruction of the books without first exploring their secrets created a huge difficulty in defeating Sanila in her dragon form, and required the sacrifice of NubNub’s soul being placed into a gem in a ring. Moreover, it was only by luck that Veri and Jethro had been able to stem the tide of demon souls flowing into the undead before the ritual of Garrek’nar in the swamps. This time, should they not at least learn the weaknesses of this magic before destroying the books? After all, Xin Hao already had a copy of some of these spells. If the enemy has them, shouldn’t the good guys at least know how to fight it?

Utuk was unsurprised that Veri would want to get her grubby hands on the black magic spellbooks, but after her reasoning was explained, and it was assured that Mellvin and Vargas would be keeping an eye on her the whole time – and plus, she was the only one that would be able to teleport anyone back there in a hurry to get the books – he agreed to a compromise. The books should be kept intact, so that their secrets could be learned and the destruction of abominations created with them could be more efficiently promoted. But they would not remain in the charge of Veri Pell. She was an outsider to the faith, and untrustworthy. Her life was devoted to her magic, and to her dragon overlords. These books would need to be kept in the safe hands of a mage who had sworn his life to Qodesh. And it just so happened that such a mage was known – Mordeo, sorceror of light, an elf from the jungles who had devoted himself to Qodesh in the far-flung monastery in the Singing Mountains under the tutelage of the high cleric Cloden. Veri was angry at this result, and at the continued distrust she felt was levelled at her, and unfairly, but how could she argue against a plan that fulfilled the goals of her own idea, whose only difference was not to concentrate the power of this magic in her own grasp? That would surely make her look precisely as Utuk was painting her, and she would not give the cleric that satisfaction.

The handing over of Cherrock to the Paliylites was similarly anti-climactic. The servants of Justice themselves were overjoyed at this fine performance of duty by the party in bringing Cherrock back to face his crimes, and Barwick called upon them a blessing from Paliyl himself, sharpening their wits and their reflexes in pursuit of future justice. But when the news was received at the Sanctuary Council, Zeen Coodgee was not nearly so impressed. In the weeks that followed, he publicly called on High Cleric Barwick to hand Cherrock over for a civil trial before the council, where his service to humanity in raising an army against the illithids could be tempered against his crimes, and he could be released with a punishment less severe than death. But Sarkon Karrad returned atop his faithful lizard steed, in the centre of the Sanctuary courtyard and in the middle of the public debate, informing his people that following the slaughter of the innocent Vahassan slaves in an attempt to raise a foul undead army, Sarkon had lead an expeditionary force over the mountains, and claimed the whole land of the Bitto under human control. Bote was now a human city, and the leftover orcs and gnolls in the land who had not marched on Manxiga (which almost every capable fighting orc had) were subjected to human rule. This sudden news of unexpected victory brought cheers and rousing applause for Sarkon, but he dismissed it, calling instead on the people to remember their dead, their loved ones and friends who had lost their lives in the bloodthirsty, cannibalistic atrocity that was perpetuated by the orcs under Cherrock’s leadership.

This was a sobering thought. Cherrock sought to speak in his own defence, claiming that he was only trying to fight back against a greater evil, against another race that feasted on the brains of the living – on elves, dwarves and even humans – and that he was forced to fight fire with fire. But Utuk stood proudly and counselled the people that what Cherrock had done was unholy – it was never right to meet evil with evil, and the ends do not justify the means. Furthermore, the party themselves spoke up, informing the people that the Manxigan humans who had sought to start this war in the first place were servants of the dark goddess Tu’Eva, who sought desolation and despoiling for her own purposes. Would they really want to throw their lot in with the dark gods? This news was completely new to Vahassan ears, and caused a stir – but the clergy of the good gods could attest to it as truth. Coodgo tried briefly to argue that perhaps Cherrock was unwittingly in the control of the illithids, but no-one would accept that the illithids would force the orcs to attack them with undead – that seemed to be folly. He knew when he was pushing an unpopular barrow, it seems, and soon gave in to Barwick, mumbling something about letting justice do what justice does. Cherrock was publicly executed that very day – the death was by stoning of the populace, and was well attended. Some particularly large chunks of silver were thrown, as if by magic – probably by the collected mages of the Argent Tower, who were happy to see the last of this orc. Though Kl’kayt could not be there in person, Veri had ensured that she knew it would take place, and she was able to watch approvingly via a magic mirror. Afterwards, Utuk ensured that Cherrock received proper funerary rites – if for no other reason than to ensure the body was not raised as some undead servant of the abominable Tu’Eva.

Though Coodgo did not officially relinquish the banishment of the party from Vahassa, apparently it was not being enforced, because for some days to come everybody wanted to be the friend of the adventurers. They were given a hero’s welcome by the common man, and were celebrated as victors alongside Sarkon, who seemed uncomfortable at being the focus of all this revelry. Utuk of course did not participate, except on the last day of festivities, where he turned up much to the surprise of all in attendance. He was not there to eat, drink and be merry though – it seemed that in fact, he knew something that the rest of the party were yet to learn. At this last night of feasting, Vargas raised a glass high and toasted his fellow party members, and bid them a fine farewell. He longed for the rolling grasslands of his home, he missed his family, and he had much to catch up on in his life. He was not turning his back on his pledges and quests, nor was he surrendering his swords, but he was following a call that had long been on his heart, to return to Fiiel. He had hoped that their actions would have led them there, but seeing as they never seemed to, and seeing as he was on the right continent now, he could see no better time to make good his promise to his parents than now. And he promised that, when the time was right, he would return – and there was no power on this planet that would stop him.

Following the celebrations and farewells, the adventurers took a long, well-deserved rest to relax themselves, recuperate from the months of non-stop adventure, and plan for their next course of action. Veri and Jethro had a great deal of work ahead of them in rebuilding their lost magical grimoires, Ajax had plans for the commissioning of a ship of his own, and Mellvin was keen to check up on the postal service that bore his name. But the one thing that had not materialised with their fame and hero status was a financial reward. Oh, yes, they were always given free drinks at any pub they might wish to wander into, and fruit stalls and bakers would happily give them a free meal, but actual coin was scarce on the ground. Thankfully, Ajax had that little handful of coins and black pearls he had liberated from the dragon’s treasure, but that would not replace their lost goods, or help to equip them for the future.

This is why after making only the barest of preparations in scribing important spells like teleport and lightning bolt, to keep them safe in the blue tower in Nubton (which had progressed along well, and was now over half built!), the party made their way back to the swamps via Veri’s teleportation. Using an item spell, they were able to shrink down the massive solid chest, and the other things they found there (much of the coinage and gems, it seemed, had been pressed into the muddy floor of the midden by the enormous girth of the dragon), and returned it to Vahassa for identification, tallying and sale if necessary, or destruction if it were found to be evil. Along with these items came the spellbooks, which were organised to be handed to the elf mage Mordeo, a man who Mellvin was very surprised to recognise from his spinning visions in the swamp, and very pleased to meet as the man who ensured Mellvin’s message found its way to Qodesh’s temple. Mordeo took custody of the books, promised they would be studied and weaknesses in the black magic would be found and shared, and bestowing upon the party a simple, polished quartz stone as a reward to them from Qodesh for their tireless service, before spiriting himself away.

The next question, of course, was what was in this fantastically large chest? Unfortunately for their curiosities, the thing seemed absolutely unopenable. The best they could figure is that the locking mechanism was magically bound to the dragon herself, and only her touch could open it. Whatever was inside there must be pretty valuable. And heavy. And big. In any case, the chest was safe enough in the confines of the blue disciple tower, and they could spend more time figuring out what to do with it once they had regained a little more of their adventuring potential. Veri had a lot of spell research to do, having regained contact with her dragon mentor, and relearning many of the spells that were lost to her, and also leaving behind a copy of those spells at the blue tower, so that her own initiates could study and learn more and grow in power.

She also fulfilled her promise of allowing Jethro to be able to learn some of her spells, to replace those that he had lost. Jethro gratefully accepted this assistance, and apart from replacing his flute (the flute seller in Sanctuary knew his name now), he decided to stop in at Stoppin and Serendipity to touch base with his kender brethren once more, to sing the songs of his most recent adventures for their pleasure, and to help with the continuing rebuilding efforts after the orc invasion. Word is that he did try to go to the gold tower of merchant mages in Bazaar, but funnily enough he was turned away at the door without explanation – apparently his explanation that he didn’t bear a grudge against Xin Hao for dragging him into court fell on deaf ears.

As it turns out, there was a rather plentiful supply of gold and platinum in Miasma’s underground lair, and this allowed for Ajax to have built a sizeable and seaworthy vessel, that would be the pride of any captain. And because of his well-known exploits in bringing Cherrock to justice, there were plenty of young, able-bodied Vahassan lads who jumped at the opportunity to cut their teeth on the high seas with Ajax Charge’em.

Life for the orcs, meanwhile, was nowhere near as pleasant. Left stranded in a fleet of hulks, partly owned by the now disgraced Manxigan merchant families, and partly owned by the minotaurs of Winter Pines, when it became clear that the orcish host was not going to be invading the Swamp Mountains, the ships turned sail and headed for the Bitto. Their arrival was not greeted with great fanfare, however – the Vahassan humans greeted them with ships of their own, complete with seaborn silver wizards who were more than willing to sink every single boat that tried to land on the Vahassan shore. With nowhere else to go (the minotaurs were certainly not bringing thousands of armed orcs to Winter Pines, and the merchant navy of Manxiga were not willing to land them in the flood plains) the orcs were rather unceremoniously dumped back in the swamps, to eke out a living as best they could in that harsh environment.

Life in Manxiga had likewise taken a turn. The news that the merchant families had been in cahoots with Tu’Eva, and stirring up a war purely for her pleasure, had come out in blazing and powerful terms – Tu’Evan assassins had killed great swathes of the merchant families for their failure, and there had been a grassroots revolt in Coratka, overturning the merchant rulers. But who would take their place? Who else had the mercantile know-how to run not just their businesses, but their entire trade-based government? Who had the funds and facilities to take over these ventures, and bring back stability to humanity? Who else, of course, but the magnate of magical mercantile, Xin Hao. The people of Coratka were hesitant at first, but when the fiery mountains began to be capped with snow, and when the trading life of Coratka was looking bleak at best, not to mention the fact that the ogres and goblins had large, armed military forces that had stood unopposed, and were now looking for something to do, suddenly an ogre overlord who promised prosperity and freedom, as well as adding yet more efficiency with a streamlined arcane administration, it was an offer that was too good to refuse. All too quickly there was a gold tower in place in the centre of Coratka – the third to be built in Elwarne.

Days came and weeks passed, turning to months as the seasons changed, and winter came over the land. Ajax spent the colder months breaking in his crew, working as an unofficial privateer, both guarding merchant shipping lanes and plundering the occasional boat that bore the flags of Tu’Evan merchant families. Mellvin spent much time with Utuk, discussing the everpresent undead and abomination threat, dealt a cruel blow by the dispatching of the black dragon, but still needing to be wiped from Elwarne. Veri and Jethro spent much of their time with their noses pressed into spellbooks, researching what they could, knowing that a time would come when the first spring shoots grew green and new from the ground, and the desire for adventure would once again blossom in the hearts of their compatriots. And where would it take them? Only time would tell.

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You think Granlin had girl troubles!

Granlin said his farewells to the party, wishing them well in their quest to stop this senseless war – a quest he had pressed them into on Carna’s behalf – while he mounted his giant dragonfly, preparing to take to the skies and fly back to his beloved tree-wife’s side, and to face up against the green dragon and high cleric Vashte of the eastern jungle. Vargas pointed out that they could do fine without the willow-whipped elf, but it did leave the party somewhat at a loss, not only in manpower, but direction. However, just as the Carnite cleric’s silhouette was disappearing into the clearing sky, the faintest of a popping sound, followed by a squelch and some groaning, was heard behind the party, coming from inside Vargas’s mud-spattered cave. It was none other than Veri and Jethro, returned to their compatriots from their hellish interplanar adventures. Where had they been? Veri was quick to say they had been in hell, but Jethro was adamant they had been in the cave the whole time, and it must have been a dream. In any case, it was clear they had work to do.

Veri wanted to scry Cherrock, and gave a witheringly baleful look at Mellvin when he remarked off the cuff, “Oh, that’ something new.” It angered and upset her that, after all she’d been through, after trying single handedly (apparently help from a kender didn’t count) to stave off Cherrock’s plans for world domination and undead raising, there were still jokes being made at her expense. She definitely wasn’t getting upset because she was being defensive about her strange, buried feelings for Cherrock… especially after he had looked so full of vim and vigour when she scried him from hell. No, that couldn’t be it, certainly not. Anyway, she wanted to find out if they had been successful in stopping this undead army from being raised. And in the meantime, she wanted Jethro to make full use of her imbuing ring, and do as much as he could with it, since they were more than likely going into battle soon.

When Veri did finally get a bead on Cherrock in her silver mirror, she was a little alarmed at the closeness that she suddenly felt with the orc warlord. It was as though she could read his very thoughts, as though she were in his head. In fact, she could do more than that, as she discovered when she found her thoughts were transmitted to him. This alarmed the warrior, and when he asked what this strange, feminine, human-like voice was in his mind, Veri responded the way anyone would – she masqueraded as Cherrock’s lost lover, Sanila. This was disturbing to Cherrock, as Veri then proceeded to ask questions that Cherrock seemed to think she should know the answers to, and he calmed down and called for one of the clerics that was near to him, an orc by the name Noocanari. Veri knew she might not have much time, and so sought to pass her vision about the area where, lo and behold, there were numbers of other orcs and a goblin, and legion upon legion of skeletons, standing in silent witness to the deaths of so many of Veri’s fellow Vahassans. There was a momentary glimpse of that enormous, sleek, glistening black dragon before Noocanari called upon Tu’Eva to collapse the mindlink and the scrying vision, bringing a dark, sickly black bloody ichor to dribble down over Veri’s mirror. Veri decided, rather unwisely, to dip her finger into this goo to taste it, discovering that it was, in fact, old, stale blood.

So the party was looking at teleporting into an army of skeletons, a group of dark clerics, Cherrock the orc warlord, and the gruesome visage of a mighty black dragon – and they were going to do all this without a healer on their side. Even Vargas thought this was a little too far off the deep end for this party, and suggested that, with the Hesed temple only a few hours away, they could go to Coratka and obtain some healing potions. It would be better than nothing. Veri, being able to teleport and not stir up the already highly motivated and enthusiastic merchant guards of the city, travelled through the corridors of magic to the temple of Hesed, where she was able to bargain for the purchase of a number of healing potions, turning on her feminine waterworks and giving a sob story about her time in hell, and their mission to destroy evil, to get a 50gp discount from the befuddled Hesedi cleric.

However, this turned out to be a bit premature, because when she then sought refuge in the Hesedi temple so that she could memorise a teleport to get back to the cave, the cleric informed her that the beds were for the sick, and that having no friends to stay with in the city was not an illness, but possibly self-inflicted. So Veri, in a huff, decided she would just walk home to the cave instead. This may not have been the wisest action, but she was upset, and in a bit of a huff. She didn’t really care what might happen if the town guard came to apprehend her, since even from a gaol cell she could just sit and memorise teleport in relative quiet. What she did not take account of, however, was the story that Mellvin and Jethro told of the assassination attempt on their lives whilst they were last in Coratka themselves. (That might have something to do with both of them being pretty cool and collected about it, and not taking it too seriously, despite the fact Jethro got poisoned and very nearly died.)

It was only when a small poisoned dart slammed into the wall beside Veri’s head as she walked down the main street away from the Hesedi temple that she recalled this discussion. When she whipped around to face her attacker, there was only the normal crowds of people in the bustling city – but there was certainly a sinister looking yuan-ti slouching casually against the far wall on the opposite side of the road. (In fairness, all yuan-ti look a little shifty.) Well, the blue disciple had had about enough of this day. She’d been laughed at, she’d been evicted from scrying, evicted from the temple of mercy, she had these strange feelings for Cherrock she couldn’t explain, she had terrible memories of hell, and now this snake-man was trying to kill her? She welcomed a problem she could solve easily – with a flick of her wrist, magical lightning flew from her fingers and turned the would-be assassin first into a glittering X-ray of a snake-person skeleton, followed quickly by reducing the body to cinders and ash, which brought a collective gasp from the crowded street, followed by screaming and shouting about a mad mage, about murder, and calling for the guards.

About that moment, Veri decided she really didn’t want to be arrested any more, and, taking a draft from one of the healing potions, shrank herself down to fit into one of the gaps in the stone wall, and proceeded to sit calmly whilst the guards rushed past and memorised her teleport spell. Moments before she would once again find herself at normal size, and wedged tightly into a crack in the city wall, she was back in Vargas’s cave, with healing potions and very little patience. They divided up the potions between themselves, in a way they thought was the most strategically viable, and spent the rest of the night memorising spells, discussing tactics, and working out their schedule for the next day’s work.

When the next morning came, they did everything they could to prepare for the oncoming battle – magical shields and echantments were summoned upon people’s person or items, with Vargas and Veri swapping a barkskin blessing for the underprotected mage with a zap of electrical current to cause the centaur’s muscles to swell and bulge. Mellvin sent off a last ditch message to get to his brother Utuk in Vahassa. It read simply, “For Utuk. Location: Lendle’s cemetery. Undead army raised. Mellvin.” The two big party members, centaur and minotaur, were shrunk down so that they could be magically transported. The last thing Veri did was imbue a lightning bolt into her dagger, figuring that if things got so bad she needed to use her dagger, they were all screwed anyway. When all was said and done, they linked hands and made their way to the swamp – ready, almost eager to see this battle come to fruition.

They appeared all too suddenly, as was always the case it seemed, but they were as ready as they could ever be. Knowing that the imbues of the previous night would all go off at the same time as any other imbued spell, Veri did not wait to talk to her sworn enemy, and simply pointed her dagger at Cherrock and launched the first electrical salvo of the battle. It was almost expected that, when he raised his axe to block it, she would see it coming back towards her. But as the electricity coursed through her veins, yes, it burned at her blood, but it also awakened the magical power of her soul, committed to the might of the Rider of Lightning himself, and her whole body began to flare with the intimidating blue flames that set her apart as an emissary of Khaharas.

And with that, the battle truly began. The goblin cleric of Ba-ya called out a piercing warcry, and with that Cherrock threw himself towards the nearest enemy – which, since Ajax and Vargas were still shrunk at this stage, was the wily elfin ranger, Mellvin. His axe was as painful and sharp as Mellvin remembered from the battle of Nubton Fields, but then Mellvin also remembered that they had won that fight, so he fought back with gusto and vigour, shrugging off the burning pain that came from the scratching spikes of the orc’s wicked armour. Jethro called down a pungent cloud of stench over the gathered evil clergy, but they seemed immune to its festering stink – in fact, the Tu-Eva cleric seemed right at home within the foul-smelling cloud. Veri finally cancelled the shrink spells, seeming to call into being the two large warriors as if from nothing, and attempted to put the fear of Khaharas into the clergy, but they were made of too stern a stuff to be scared off by simple magics – they had just summoned an undead horde, they were in no mood for trifling plays.

Behind them there was a deep, gutteral sound of chanted words, and a crackling noise of dragon’s scales turning into gleaming, sharp shards of obsidian, but out of sight, out of mind, as they say, because in front of them the orc cleric of Tu’Eva was calling out a dark, sickly chant, one that seemed to crawl up and out of his vocal chords and into the air – a noise that seemed to call out into being hordes of large, hairy, evil looking spiders from the ground, crawling out of the muck that formed the large plateau, the mud sluicing from their arachnid forms as they writhed and seethed in the direction of the heroes. As if seeing what his fellow cleric was doing, the other orc cleric gave a wicked grin, and Ba’ya granted him a shimmering, whistling wall of whirling blades, blocking off any escape the party might try and take.

As if reacting slowly but surely to the call to battle by the goblin, the skeletons began to lurch into activity, lumbering and almost robotically extending their dead, bony hands to grasp at the adventurers. They were now well and truly surrounded. But thankfully, at least, the skeletons seemed relatively harmless. These were not the powerful and possessed dead that they had come across before. They were simple, animated corpses, as dangerous as a magically living chair. Well, perhaps slightly more dangerous as they began to maul and besiege the glowing wizardess – her imposing features seemed to have little effect on their eyeless sockets.

Ku Tam Ne, the goblin cleric, now boldly approached the recently enlarged minotaur, and reaching out a bony finger, filled him with pain and suffering. It was as though pure hate had been injected into his veins by the light touch. But Ajax had a touch of his own prepared – reaching down for the goblin and picking him up as easily as if he were a stick of firewood, he gave a grunting heave, and lobbed the cleric right through the whirling blade barrier! There was the grinding sound of a tree stump going through a wood chipper, and a rather badly injured and grimacing, bloody goblin was left stumbling on the other side of the semi-impenetrable wall of pain. That’d teach him to pick on someone his own size.

Cherrock now found himself between two raging rangers, and decided that he should pick his battles carefully. Lifting his shimmering shield, he blinded Vargas with it, and slashed out at Mellvin, his axe once again biting deeply. Jethro thought he better do something about that oncoming horde of nasty looking spiders (not to mention the nasty looking orc that was pushing them forward) and cast an ice storm upon them, striking a bunch of skeletons (since the bloody things were everywhere) but it seemed like no matter how many of the damn spiders were crushed by hunks of ice and hail, more surfaced to take their place. Damn. Veri, meanwhile, was calling on yet more lightning to cut a path through some more skeletons, and strike pain and wounds into the spider-calling orc cleric, Noonconari.

Scant minutes had passed, but in the heat of battle, it was so easy to forget to look behind you. After all, there was a large blade barrier back there, which the skeletons were either throwing themselves into and getting bone-minced, or swarming around to take their vengence on the living and hopeful. But there was also the dragon. The immense, colossal, gleaming black dragon. She was Garrek’nar in the dragon tongue, or known as Miasma to other mortals, and she was known simply as Queen of Death. Here were these five would-be heroes, come uninvited into her home, and two of them even had the temerity to use magic – and not that of her own blood, but that of bastard blue dragons, or singing rocks? Taking to wing, the creaking crackling sound of her stony skin grinding against itself with every flap, she turned her sharded neck to face these pitiful assailants. She could not strike out against Vargas and Mellvin, for that would risk hitting Cherrock, and she had just made a deal with him that he had not yet paid out on. But the minotaur, and these two magical amateurs she had no qualms about – there were plenty of skeletons that could fall.

The stream of acid that left her obsidian lips seemed to burn the very air as it spewed out from her mouth, and Ajax was quick enough on his hooves to get himself mostly out of the way. But as it cut its deadly path along the mud, sending skeletons into slush, Jethro and Veri had no escape. They were completely surrounded, and there was nowhere else they could go. Jethro ducked behind the magic shield he had summoned, but it could not be expected to bare up under the massive pressure it was about to take… only it did. The acid sprayed against the unseen barrier, and shot up into the air, to spill down upon the two magic users like a rain of tiny, but highly potent acid droplets. It tore on their clothing, it bit through their belongings, it scored against their skin, and it left them in a pile of hissing, sizzling wreckage. Their clothing was in bare tatters, their equipment ruined, their contents of their spell component pouches burst about on the mud, being stamped into the ground by skeletons. This was bad.

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Meanwhile, Veri and Jethro...

The massive, horned demon bear let out a bellowing breath of flame, and it was right at that moment that Gorat Cantripper, kender mage, had loosed his hold on the bear’s wing, grabbing Veri in replacement, and retaining his firm grip on Jethro, before speaking a word and disappearing from the sight of the party. For them, however, it was not so much a disappearance, as a sideways kind of lurching, a stretching of the fabric of reality that seemed to turn them inside out, before dumping them unceremoniously back on the cave floor. Except… this was not the cave they just left. It had very similar dimensions, but the ground was warm to the touch, uncomfortably warm, and it was a dark, foreboding grey, a hard colour, as hard as the flint that seemed to shape the walls, but thankfully at least not as sharp as the jutting spires that came like teeth from the ceiling. In the back of the cave, there lay a sight that made Jethro’s eyes widen in curious kender delight – a huge pile of coins, and with them some other little trinkets and knick-knacks, but it seemed that Gorat did not seem keen to let Jethro go to explore at his heart’s content this sudden treasure.

In fact, Gorat too had changed. He still had a suggestion of kender around the face, but his skin seemed darker, his arms seemed thinner, his nails longer, and his teeth pointier. Also, he had wings and a tail now, and that was certainly not an improvement. His grip was as strong as ever, though, and with barely a run-up, he launched himself from the cave mouth with Veri and Jethro still held fast, and stretching out his wings, he made almost immediately for the bland, grey sky, twisting about so as to shoot up and over the mountains. It was a familiar yet different sight to the adventurers. These were the same mountains, but they looked that much more harsh and pointed, caricatured as they might be in a drawing of them by Van Benten. Smoke and lava poured from the fiery tops of the mountains to the north-east, seeming to feed the darkness of the sky, swirling into a maelstrom of angry cloud. Coratka, that fine city of men, was nowhere to be seen – there was merely a dark crater of ashen stone where it should stand. One landmark that did remain visible, now that they were high in the air, was the lush, verdant greens of the sacred grove in the distance. The same could not be said for the vast flood plains for which Manxiga was known, however – it seemed a vast stretch of sodden, muddy clay, and the whole land looked desolate and unforgiving, and barren of life. The occasional skeleton could be seen growing from the ground, twisted to mock the shape of a tree, but life, it seemed, was forgotten here. This was surely hell.

Higher and higher they flew, soaring over the jagged mountain peaks, where stretching out before them was the endless foetid bog of the Manxigan swamps. Or at least, that is what Veri and Jethro could suspect, having never been to the swamps themselves. They had heard that it would be impenetrable on foot, and that it would be uncomfortable to face, but they could not have been prepared for the endless, seething mass of bubbling brown nightsoil, the gagging stench of open sewage, and the tightly packed forests of bones, some still with scraps of skin or muscle, pulsating and swaying, as if to simulate a breeze that was surely not real, for the staleness of the disgusting foul air was as impenetrable a wall as those sharp shale cliffs. And yet, there were rivulets that broke through the thorny bone forests, trickles of waste that seemed to form little roads, and clearings that seemed to be more solid piles, giant bowel movements joined together by trails of foulness. As they got closer, they saw that these were alive with movement – the souls of the damned, locked in what must be a perpetual task of building and rebuilding these sloppy roads, these stinky plateaus, these excrement-baked brick buildings, whilst their demon tormentors took to wing around them, acting in ways that seemed so utterly cruel and despotic that must be the only way to make such a hellish eternity worse. It was a sight that would be burned into the adventurers’ minds, and a smell they might never feel they could truly be rid of again. And they were afraid.

So afraid, in fact, that when Gorat headed for what looked to be the largest and most important of these islands of stool, alighting rather surprisingly gently, perhaps in an effort to not get his feet too wet. Jethro and Veri at this point were hand in hand, silently sharing their fear and anticipation of what might come next. But they could not have been prepared for what Gorat would say next – he needed their help. Oh, of course, he did not put it that way. He made demands, told them they owed him, and this was how they would work it off. He required their expertise in black dragon magic – which surely they had, after having the spellbooks of Sanila for so many months – to protect this demon city from the ravages of black dragon magic. He was very curt, and refused to give much more information than that. But Veri and Jethro knew all they needed to know for this situation – they knew of somewhere else they could teleport to. She might have only seen the sacred grove once, and from a distance, but anywhere was better than here, and so with a quickly spoken word and a tight grip on her kender friend, Veri got them the hell out of that swampy mess.

The world skewed and bent wildly to the right, and when it straightened again, they were faced with a stark duality. Before them was the lush, verdant forest of the sacred grove, looking every bit as lovely and alive as it ever did (at least to Jethro, who had been there before). Had they perhaps teleported not just through space, but across the planes and were back on Elwarne? No, the slopping of damp clay behind them was a stark and sudden reminder not only that this was not Manxiga, but also an alarm to tell them that they were not alone. Spinning around, they could see large, amorphous blobs of clay rising out of the wet ground, slowly taking shape, terribly dripping with soil that became soggy arms, their legs seeming to ooze down from their torsos, shambling towards them with a slow but seemingly inevitable pace. It was too much for the wizard and bard, and without another thought, they plunged themselves into the safety of the trees. And once within the borders of that verdant grove, everything was so different. The air was fresh, there was a breeze, and the faint sound of wind in leaves seemed soft and gentle to their ears, far more relaxing than the harsh silence of the wicked world outside. There was the soft fragrance of fruit, and the lovely colours of cherry, mulberry and peach growing upon the branches. After their momentary fleeing, they turned to see if they were being pursued, but it seemed that they had lost not only their followers, but also any sense of where they were – they were now totally and thoroughly surrounded by the trees. They were lovely, but repetitive, and they wandered for quite a long time, or at least it seemed, without making any headway, or recognising any particular landmarks within the forest. In the hopes of finding someone that might answer them and welcome them to this refuge, Jethro pulled out his flute and started to play a soft, natural melody, reminiscent of a birdsong, and sure enough, when they rounded what must have been the same tree’s trunk for the hundredth time, there before them stood a vision of beauty – a woman clothed in white, her hair a brilliant, platinum blonde.

She too had wings, as it seemed people did on these planes, but they were soft and feathered, with a gentle down again in lovely white. She smiled and welcomed them, explaining that her name was May, and that she had heard the music and come to see from whence it came, since it was so rare that any such sounds would come from this grove. She explained that she had come from the other place, heaven was the name Jethro and Veri seemed to put to it, and that this place was not often visited, since it seemed that her presence was only a pain to the souls that found themselves here. She was sorry she could not help them further, being as they are not followers of Carna, though they had been allowed to enter the grove seeking temporary succor. She could lead them to the edge of the grove again, so they could continue on their way, and at their request she did so. Upon their re-arrival at the edge of the grove, they saw a rather disturbing sight – some humans had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and the mudmen had taken an interest in them, tossing parts of their own mirey muck at these unfortunate souls, coating them and seemingly herding them off the hard road and into the sludge from whence they had come. Of course, the heroic instincts kicked in, and Veri and Jethro leapt forward to try and save these unfortunate and seemingly injured people from their grizzly fate. But it’s not as easy as they might have thought. These mudmen use their own bodies as living missiles, hurling themselves at their prey, coating them in mud and slowly dragging them into the quagmire of clay below.

Jethro was able to summon up a circle of protection against evil, which seemed effective at keeping the monsters at bay, and that gave Veri enough time to at least teleport one of the screaming men to safety – headed for a large, bright pillar of light that could be seen perched upon the cliffs in the distance. They left to the sound of strangled, drowning screams from the other men, left behind because there was nothing else they could do. When they arrived at their destination, they saw this formidable and outstanding pillar of pure, white light – and were bathed in complete light, which seemed to shred and disintegrate any shadow of darkness, not even allowing them to cast a shadow behind them. It was painful, and beautiful, and in Jethro’s case, blinding. Veri refused to even glance at it. Their tag-along survivor turned out to be not quite so much a survivor. The wound he was sporting on his side was not bleeding, but had bled. It was from a sword plunging, seemingly, directly into his guts. He told them that he and his companions were running a caravan to Chan Ma Rai, when they were beset by thieves, and… it seemed that they had all died, and ended up in hell. He couldn’t believe it. Veri and Jethro tried to comfort him, but what can you say to someone who realises that their life has led to them coming to this terrible place forever? It was to him that the strong, banishing light of this pillar seemed so inviting. Perhaps it had been a mistake, perhaps he was meant to go to heaven, and this was the stairway to get there. Jethro didn’t discourage him… why not just reach out and touch it? There was a scream, a flash, and then nothing. Well, perhaps he would be better that way, thought the two otherlanders, without really noticing the faint wisp of smoke that rose forlornly to join the greyness of hell’s dank and lifeless skies, churned into the forever burning firestorm above the fiery mountains.

At least they figured they would be safe, if lonely, here in the cold light of this pillar. In fact, there was a distinct lack of life or danger anywhere near here. But it was instead replaced by a monotonous and unending boredom. There was no sunsets, there was no feeling of time passing, and though they knew they had to rest, they did not feel tired – exhausted, but not able to rest. Still, Veri suggested that Jethro should get some rest, so that she could do so afterwards, and rememorise some spells that might help them, somehow. It was the longest eight hours of Veri’s life, with nothing to do, no-one to talk to, and a 20 foot circle of light to remain within. Though it was cold, it seemed to faintly burn her skin, as though she were in the radiance of a perpetual summer day, but instead of giving her a tan, it seemed to bleach her hair and her skin just faintly. She could do nothing but pass the time by counting out second upon second, minute upon minote, hour upon hour, until at last, finally the eighth hour crawled past like a sloth, and she was eagerly waking her kender companion so that she could feel the sweet release of sleep. Jethro, of course, was instantly bored. Scarcely two minutes went past that he could contain himself, before feeling a need to meddle. Veri was dead to the world, so she wouldn’t mind if he borrowed her imbuing ring. After all, he was only going to give her gifts with it – imbuing her hat with ice storm, for instance, surely that would be helpful! But after doing that, and imbuing his own top hat with jump, he began to twitch and fiddle with his fingers. He couldn’t even see – this was so unfair! He couldn’t cope, he couldn’t handle it – he just had to wake Veri up again. Surely it had been hours and hours now… but it in fact had been less than even one hour, and already Jethro was beginning to go a little stir crazy.

After her eight hours of torturous wakefulness while Jethro slept, Veri was in no mood to put up with his kenderesque shenanigans. She lost her cool, and lashed out at Jethro, thinking that if she could perhaps knock him unconscious, she could at least then get some sleep. She had been injured by the fiery breath of the demon bear after all (or was it her own fire arrow?) and she really needed to recuperate. Jethro, of course, could never believe that Veri would be attacking him, and so he called out to her, “Veri, Veri, we’re under attack!” He could hear her grunting, so she must likewise be wrestling and fighting against this beast. He fought back with vigour, and in the ensuing scuffle, it was in fact Veri who was knocked unconscious. Jethro felt he had protected himself, and possibly Veri, from the assault, but when he found her again, she was apparently asleep. Oh well, that was the plan after all. But now he had no-one to talk to, no-one to interact with in his blind state, unless… a quick rifle around in his pockets, and yes, was that movement? Was that a squeak? It was! Jethro had found a rat inside his pockets! Oh, joyous day to be a kender! He named it Perry Winkle, and began the process of bonding with him in the way only a bard can – through writing a song about his newfound friend.

Nine hours later, Veri awoke from her enforced nap. She did not feel even remotely refreshed – even the painful bruising from her wrestling with Jethro had not healed – but her mind was at least ready to take on more magical learning. After poring over her spellbook and reminding herself of what spells she thought would be of use, Veri heard some movement and activity coming from over the cliff, just south of where this mighty pillar of light resided. Carefully crawling up to look over the edge, she saw what was another gruesome sight of this terrible place. A goblin with a large cleaver seemed to be happily chopping a person into their component parts – but the person was not dying, despite how many limbs and bits were removed. The goblin butcher carelessly catalogued the body bits into large wire cage bins, which were full of various arms, legs, and other pieces, which writhed and moved with a continued, awful life. She called out in a half cry, which drew the goblin’s interested attention, but quickly made her way back to Jethro – who she found with a shriek, because he was blindly playing and talking with a gruesome, disgustingly mutated rat-beast, with a row of almost human-like bucked teeth protruding from its gums. She was horrified, but he couldn’t see, and it had gotten him through this difficult time. It occurred to Veri that they had been in hell for possibly less than 24 hours, and already they had fought, gone slightly crazy, and were at their collective wits’ end. They had to get out of here. But it seemed they were stuck here. How were they going to get home? There was only one person they really knew here in hell…

In Veri’s mirror, she could see Gorat – he looked far less like a kender now, and more fully in his demonic guise of bat wings, leathery skin, and angry teeth and claws. He was talking to another of his kind, who had that same dirt black sooty colouring, along with a sickly green demon who seemed to be quite angry at Gorat for losing those who were supposed to be protecting their town from the black dragon’s dark magics. Well, what other option did Veri and Jethro have but to turn up, and act as if they had always planned to return and help out? Grabbing a handful of the verdant, grassy soil that seemed to survive only in the light of Qodesh, they made their way on the winds of magic back to the vile, disgusting swamp, into the surprised presence of Gorat and his other demon allies, to state that they were ready to help. Of course, Jethro was now blind, and they would need him to be able to see to help properly to protect the city from the magic, but the demons were not seemingly interested in giving out free assistance to their indebted otherworlders. After all, they had returned, so it was clear that they needed the demons as least as much as the demons needed them.

This was going to be difficult. Jethro was sightless, Veri had never really looked over Sanila’s spellbooks, and now they had to work out how to protect an entire town from black dragon magic, without even knowing why. So Veri’s first idea was that she could scry that gnomish wizard Vargas and Mellvin had spoken of in their visit to the Sprech-Einfach – Lendle would surely be in hell somewhere, after all. And so, pulling out her mirror, she sought out the gnome. It was a long shot – she didn’t know anything about the man, after all – but she had to try and learn something more about this magic which he had a hand in creating. Gorat warned her that she wouldn’t want to find him, if that was the case, but she tried anyway. What confronted her vision in the mirror was a writhing, seething mess of flesh, a melting, burning, pustulent mass of screams, agony, and pain. Teeth made of fingernails, eyes bursting, maggots the size of nightcrawlers festering through the morass of living beings. For a moment there could be seen a screaming face, beard matted with blood and other liquids… and with that, Veri dropped the mirror into the filth, fell to her knees, and dry retched.

They could only assume that these damned souls, the slaves who shovelled manure every hour of all eternity to keep these cities standing, would be sucked away by the necromancy to power the creation of undead beings. But Gorat merely scoffed at this idea – why would they care what happened to damned souls? That is when the two realised: it was not to protect the souls that they were here, but to protect the demons! Which gave Jethro an idea – he mentioned quietly to Gorat that he in fact had a scroll of protection against the magics of Tu’Eva that could protect Gorat, if no-one else, from the black dragon’s dark arts, and Gorat gave a wicked grin – to him, this was 80% of the job done, since it meant he was safe. Of course, they should still try to save the rest of the town, but this at least won enough favour for Gorat to heal Jethro’s eyes… by rubbing some of the stinky waste into his eyes, making them sting and burn, but soon providing him dim vision once more. Which was a start. This was the first time that Jethro had been able to lay eyes on the grotesque features of Perry Winkle, but now that he had bonded with the rat creature, he could only see a cute little companion that had seen him through thick and thin.

So what did they have to actually try and combat black dragon shadow necromancy? They had a scroll of protection; a working knowledge of two black dragon spells, and a third which had undead as a material component; a cube of force; a handful of dirt from within the Qodeshi light; and a bag of magic beans. Well, they were nothing if not constructive, and all the more eager to get themselves home and away from this crazy place. Jethro decides they should try and look for a weakness that is common to the black dragon magic. After a little investigation, along with Veri’s veritble magical research skills, together they discover that the spells always seem to have a limitation, and it is linked to their spell component. Could that be a key? It could, but it would involve them knowing what the components of the creating undead spell were, and that they could only guess at – blood or bone, at least. Well, there was a whole ocean of blood, and it couldn’t hurt the demons to go and dip themselves in it as a protective measure. Moreover, there was the commonality of a raised altar type plinth which both the black dragon and Sanila in her dragon form had created – if they perhaps got the damned souls to dig out the foundations of this raised area, and bury it into the swamp, perhaps that would also break a link between the prime material and this hellish realm.

Finally, in a typical leaky bucket theory, they threw together everything else they had to try and cobble together a solution that held some water – using Veri’s ring, Jethro could imbue protection from evil spells together onto playing cards, which could be suspended by a twine thread between large, boney columns around the town, which might build an igloo of magical protection against the magic (with the hope that the swampy ground beneath them would block out any magic from slipping around the sides). Veri could make the thread using her creation spell, and a small loose thread from her robe. Furthermore, Veri could create webs using shadow magic that followed those suspended threads, in the hope that a shadow thread might be able to hold fast the spiritual bodies of these demons, preventing them from being sucked into Elwarne. Finally, they could place one of the magic beans at each of the seven anchor points, planted inside a little of the Qodeshi light soil they had taken, and hope that whatever grew out of them would be beneficial. Hours seemed to slurp past with painful slowness, along with the handfuls of dirty mud that the tortured souls were moving at the painful behest of angry and panicking demons. Massive spinal columns of giants, along with ribcages of mighty dragons, were erected to form the stability of pillars to suspend the threads and webs that would be needed. When Veri tried out the shadowy web spell, it was unlike any magic web she had ever seen – instead of broad, sticky threads casting about for purchase, it seemed as though a million little spiders crawled out of the air itself to spin these delicate and beautiful web creations, skittering about in a mad rush, waiting to catch for themselves whatever deadly prey the hellscape might provide them. But the webs would not last on their own either – Veri would need to prepare at least ten webs, imbued into yet more playing cards, to finish the job.

Veri had one more curiosity she needed to sate – retrieving her mirror from Jethro, who had taken custody of it after her last scrying of Lendle, she called forth a picture of another evil man. The visage of Cherrock appeared in her mirror, and all of a sudden she was again overcome with emotion – but unlike the revulsion she had felt at seeing what had become of Lendle, she was overawed with the beauty and life that she could see through her mirror of the land she felt so far away from – the land of the living, the land of Elwarne. She could see the swamps before her – and they were not sick and filthy, made of bones, but lush and lively, with mudskippers, clouds of mosquitoes, and a soft breeze blowing through the glorious mangroves. Even Cherrock’s face looked so full of vim and vigour, so full of colour, so unlike the gaunt faces of the walking damned here. She could see before him the mighty, glistening and sleek black of the marvellous dragon that Cherrock was visiting with, and discussing the raising of an undead army with. The dragon was saying it could create from the bony corpses an army of powerful undead warriors. It was all so beautiful, and Veri hated them for it, feeling for a moment that pang of anger that a demon must forever feel. Things were moving along, and they had but a few scant hours to ensure that the protections they had put in place would have the best opportunity to take effect.

For hours they tirelessly worked, resting when they needed to rememorise, and trying to concentrate on their work, and on the albeit hollow promise of the demon Gorat that he would take them back to Elwarne once this was all done. Jethro did not have enough powdered silver to create all these protections from evil, but Gorat was able to plane shift the next day back to Elwarne, and gain a large bag of it from somewhere – they felt it was better not to ask where. Later, planting one of the magic beans in the centre of the town inside a little pile of the soil from the Qodeshi tower of light, the demons were in for a surprise – a little, but powerful, finger-width beam of light shot up into the sky, burning and scaring the demons even more. But as each seed was planted, more and more beams of light were created, until they had created six strategic points of light, with a seventh in the middle of the town. The demons were going to be completely hemmed in, by holy light, magical protection from evil, and a roof of webs to catch them if they were sucked away.

Now, everything was in place – the cards, the threads, the beams of light – and it was just a matter of setting off the imbued spells at the right moment, to counteract the ritual of the black dragon and all of Cherrock’s evil clerics. In a strange quirk of fate, the damage which had been done to the imbuing ring was going to help them here – after being hit by the lightning breath of Sanila/Kl’kayt, it had been warped so that all the imbued objects would be set off at the same time if only one of them was activated. Jethro was holding on to one last card imbued with protection from evil – so as to protect him and Veri in case everything else went bad. And when he set it off, everything they were expecting happened – the spiders appeared, and began weaving their wondrous web around the town, creating a canopy of strong, beautiful web, whilst the thirty cards containing protection from evil disintegrated, and gave way to the almost visible shimmering silver in the air, holding the demons in and the dark magic out. There was a dull roar, a sound of unholy chanting, as if the acidity of the black dragon’s harsh draconic mixed with the droning of the evil clerics on the prime material, and pierced through into the hellish landscape, its resonating sound so different from the deadly silence of the realm, that it was scary.

But two things happened that were not quite expected, and both had to do with Jethro’s previous boredom. In an effort to keep himself sane, he had imbued an ice storm in Veri’s hat, and a jump spell in his own. When they set off all the imbues, it included these ones – causing an ice storm to burst out from Veri’s hat, coating the demons in a sudden wave of icy sleet. Jethro was not covered in sleet, however, because he was thrown up into the sky, only to be caught in the sticky webs of the shadow spiders. Ahh, they had finally caught themselves some prey, and the spiders began to descend on the struggling kender. Perry Winkle rushed from side to side, chattering his teeth and hissing at the spiders, but he was quickly overcome by their hairy legs and deadly fangs. And now they were creeping, crawling, slipping into Jethro’s clothing. Veri was reaching up, trying to reach out to Jethro as he wriggled and screamed at the sensation of being slowly covered in the deadly arachnids. But she couldn’t do anything – the sleet blinded her, it made her slip and fall into the half-frozen feces, and after a few moments, her tears stung her eyes, and she could not keep herself conscious. The last thing she saw was Jethro’s wriggling form, and the last thing he could see was Veri being surrounded, helpless, by the winged demons…

When they next opened their eyes, they were in a cave. But it was not sharpened shale. It was smooth granite, soft by comparison. There was a smell in the air – smoke from a cooking fire. And there were quiet voices, recognised voices, the voices of their fellows, who seemed to have survived the attack from the demon bear, and who were now saying their goodbyes to Granlin, who was apparently off to see Vashte, apparently to get his wife back, and to stand up to the green dragon about the will of Carna.

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