Campaign of the Month: March 2009

Denizens of the Nentir Vale

Kleptospiders
The tale of Arraxis

Sipping the hot tea his granddaughter Sheila had just handed him, Torben Eastlander relaxed. The seven little ones in front of him, well Sheila at 12 turns was no longer so little, were his delight and his joy. And they sat around his chair in a semi-circle, anxiously awaiting the promised story of the drow priestess Arraxis and how she was tangled up with their beloved adventurers, the Denizens of the Nentir Vale.

Torben could vividly recall the drenched night when he had staggered to the Half Moon Inn to swap tales with the five adventurers, as they called themselves. He had never been sure why he couldn’t come up with these fantasies himself, why he needed to hear their imaginings and then turn them into the books and tales that had sold so well that he had become quite rich. Rich enough to pay for several rounds of drinks and meals, though the dwarf might bankrupt him when several rounds turned into many rounds. No matter, tonight he was a little desperate. The last story about their battle with Sky Pirates had not sold as well as others, and he had outstanding debts that needed payment. Hopefully, this one would do better, though he wished he weren’t in such a rush.

The five adventurers sat around a large wooden table. They were clearly old friends, and a few of the scars that some of them had might even have come from real battles, though he doubted that. They were simply the most imaginative bunch of storytellers he had ever encountered. Much better than the halflings who had relayed a yarn about a magic ring that would rule the world when obtained by its creator, a disembodied evil wizard. Torben remembered that yawner. How the halflings bravely took the ring to a volcano to destroy it. Boring. But, the three volumes he penned, drawing out the story well beyond belief, had sold well enough, particularly among the elves when he made them figure prominently and added some beautiful elven maidens and wizards.

Those fictional women were nothing compared to the half elven sorceress Tira in front of him. Now, better descriptions of her would help among the lords who might buy the next book. He would try to remember that. And, to downplay the earnestness of the nobility of cause the half elven cleric of Bahamut Zenithar always brought to their meetings. Torben stared briefly at the cleric. His eyes were definitely water logged because he would have sworn that he could see the silvery flames that he often put into the stories to describe the magical healing that was necessary to explain why the group didn’t die from what were battles beyond belief. It was a crutch, he knew, but the audience bought it. Or at least had, until that last book.

Torben settled in, ordered ale, wine, and food for all, got out his notebook and quill, and looked at the five. “So, you were in the Astral Sea searching for mountains that would bring you back home. What happened after you returned the Githyanki princeling to his home?”

Zenithar, Z’alden to his friends, cleared his throat. Oh shoot, a sermon, thought Torben. I should have asked the question straight to Tira. Dragon’s fallings.

Z’alden said, “It was most remarkable. Dragon’s claws, the five of us stood on the deck of the Centurion, when in a blink, I found myself in a blackness and in a box.”

The dwarven fighter Barrick, the wizard Rift, and Tira all nodded, as if truly remembering this event. Surprisingly, Erik leaned forward a little. Ah, they were playing a new game. Erik would not be in this story. He had stayed on the ship in their little tale. A clever twist. His readers would not like this. The precise ranger, with arrows blazing and the romantic War Glaives slicing, was a favorite of young lords. Oh well. Maybe he could salvage the story somehow. If only he wasn’t in such a hurry.

Z’alden cleared his throat again. Torben’s mind had wandered, and the cleric who clearly thought too much of himself, probably thinks he is a demigod by now practically, waited until Torben was paying attention to continue.

“Grandpappy, grandpappy. Wake up,” little Miro was shaking Torben’s knee. He had nodded off as he remembered the time of the adventurers telling him the story he was trying to relate to his grandchildren. Bad form.

The old man took another deep sip of tea. “Well, it was an incredible thing. The five were on the deck of the Centurion, and then suddenly, Erik was by himself. Tira, Rift, Barrick, and Z’alden had vanished!”

“Yeah, right,” Mijfox muttered and then ducked before Sheila could wack him. The other five just glared at their petulant sibling.

“Even more amazing,” Torben laughed at Mijfox’s disbelief. This wasn’t history, and it was right to be skeptical, just as Torben had been when the Valers had tried to convince him it was all true.

“Even more amazing,” he continued, “ each of the four heard a voice as they were transported to an utter blackness and saw a vision of a spinning red ball of light with blue lightening.”

As she saw the vision, Rift heard a voice that said “Darkstar burns brighter.”
Tira’s voice said, “Steal the glance of the eight eyes.”
Barrick’s voice said, “Certain death means life.” Though he always said it was “Sergeant death”. Very stubbon that dwarf.
Z’alden’s voice said, “Blood is the answer.”

“As they described it to me, let me tell you from the cleric’s perspective. It was a confusing time. You will have to pay attention. Can you do that?” Seven heads nodded affirmative in unison. “Good,” said Torben.

The cleric awoke lying on his back. He was uncomfortable and in utter blackness. The air was stale and rank. He quickly realized he was probably in a coffin. Pushing on the lid above, it was heavy, but he could move it. He was in a square room, 3 staff lengths on a side.

Lighting an everburning torch, he ventured out a corridor, turned a corner, and there was his beloved dwarven friend and comrade Barrick! Z’alden was overjoyed. Reunited, Barrick and Z’alden traced out corridors in an ancient crypt. The air continued to be stale and still. It was oppressive and heavy.

Finding a door, they listened. Voices behind it caused the cleric to pause. He readied a silencing ritual so that whomever they found behind could not cry out in alarm and bring others. The ritual takes 10 minutes. The dwarf grew impatient as the half-elf chanted on. Finally, Barrick had had it. He shoved open the door and burst into the room on the other side.

“Bout time,” Mijfox muttered, again ducking swiftly. “The cleric takes forever. I prefer the direct approach.” A few others nodded while Sheila glared. Torben looked in askance at Mijfox, “Well I do!” the child said. “Continuing,” Torben said as he slurped more tea. Gella giggled at the slurp.

What Z’alden and Barrick didn’t know is that Tira and Rift had woken up in similar coffins and found each other. While the boys where pussyfooting around, the ladies had discovered a cadre of drow warriors and dispatched them with aplomb. The cleric and fighter encountered their own set of 4 drow warriors in their part of the crypt. Quickly, they dispatched all but one, who fled. Barrick gave chase, caught up with him, leaped over him, and sliced his head off with his powerful axe!

Sheila sucked in her breath at that. She imagined the leaping dwarf, vaulting over a drow warrior. Incredible. Then, she was ready to whack Mijfox for a comment. But, the comment never came. He was enjoying the story now. There would be no more interruptions.

Z’alden gave chase as two drow warriors ran away from him. In a few seconds, they had unfortunately run into Barrick and would have met the same fate as their comrade if Z’alden hadn’t seem the drop to the ground after bolts of force magic light them up. At that instant, from down the corridor, he heard his friend Rift say, “That is how it is done.” Rift! Z’alden rejoiced. And, joining up to Barrick, there was Tira, also. The four were together. No sign of Erik.

Together, the four advanced along the corridors of the tomb. The exploring reminded them of early carefree days when worlds did not hang in the balance of their actions. Rift carefully mapped each turn and door, “what if we have to come back. You will thank me for knowing how many staff lengths we have to go before turning left!” The eladrin could be touchy when mapping.

Eventually, they reached a massive door. Rift touched her staff Darkstar to the door. She could sense that they were deep underground. More than that. They were in the world called the Underdark, home of the drow. And, behind the door, hundreds to thousands of drow waited.

Barrick was through with patience, listening, and waiting. He opened the door to see a massive chasm in a even larger cavern chamber. The chasm was spanned by a web bridge. On the far side of the bridge, a towering cathedral with a webbed entrance awaited. To their right and left, thousands of drow were approaching.

The four ran across the bridge, even as they were spotted by the approaching drow armies. Rift burned the web bridge. To the right of the webbed entrance was a smooth obsidian rock, slightly larger than a hand. It glistened as though some drying liquid covered it. Z’alden recalled the voice he had heard. Before the others knew it, he had sliced open his palm and put his bleeding hand on the rock. The webbed door opened. Barrick’s jaw dropped, “How did you know to do that?” Z’alden just shrugged, “This seemed like a question. The voice had said `blood is the answer.` By the Claws, I guess it was.” As the webbed door opened and the armies converged, the four dove through the door, and Z’alden quickly found a similar rock that with his hand as the key, closed the door.

They were inside a massive temple structure, perhaps 80 staff lengths across. In the center of was a huge obsidian statue of a spider with the torso of a woman.

“The demon goddess Lolth,” little Miro blurted out, “Z’alden must have hated to see that!” His siblings nodded vigorously, knowing the cleric so well. Torben said, “Indeed, he vehemently told me how he could not wait to desecrate it, just as soon as they figured out what to do next.”

The statue had eight jeweled eyes. Tira quickly remembered what her voice had said about “stealing a glance.” She and Barrick climbed up, and Tira began to remove the magical jewels. Z’alden and Rift explored the room. At the far end from the door, Z’alden found a secret door that opened into a small chamber filled with gold, goblets, and 3 scrolls. The cleric opened the magical bag of holding that contained far more than the human eye would suspect. Not unlimited amounts, but an incredible about of space in an ordinary brown sack no bigger than Gella’s head.

“Like that could contain anything,” Mijfox laughed as he rubbed her head playfully and the others chuckled. “Indeed,” said Torben. “But the magical sack contained a king’s ransom of potions, magic items, and gold. Z’alden would normally have taken good care of it to stow it again, but he never got the chance.” Torben paused to take another sip of tea. Still hot. Good. It soothed his sore throat. His grandchildren waited impatiently for him to continue the story.

Just as Tira removed the last jewel, dropping from the ceiling, horrific giant spiders descended like lightening. Two zipped down, webbed Tira and Barrick and disappeared into the darkness above. Another two landed on the ground, one near Z’alden and one near the wizard. The spider closest to Z’alden launched a web at the cleric. He tried to spin away, but the webbing caught on the magical sack. Quick as a wink, the spider then pulled it out of Z’alden’s hands and webbed it to its body. Z’alden had lost the bag of holding to this thieving spider. He was incensed, but there was little he could do. He called out to Rift to root this spider in its place.

Above, Tira and Barrick had an aerial battle in the web of these thieving spiders. Tira lassoed the other spider, teleported free from the restraining web, and swung underneath the spider. If it moved, so would she. With her right hand, she twirled her enchanted dagger and sent a huge ball of light at the spider which burst and burned it. Immediately, the ball collapsed and a wave of cold covered the venomous beast, causing great pain. But, the spider spit out its venom at her, hitting her right arm. The arm went numb. Her magical dagger was no longer in her grasp. It fell to the ground of the temple some many feet below.

Barrick, also trapped in a web well above the temple floor, sharpened his axe and a mad gleam glinted from his eye. He sliced at the webs holding him, and plunged to the ground, maybe 200 feet below. But, the dwarf was not injured. The magical ring on his thumb, a ring of flight, made him float gently to the ground. As he landed, Z’alden pointed to the thieving spider, and Barrick charged it, getting stroke after stroke of his axe into the nightmarish arachnid. It turned to face him, but its fangs were no match for the experienced fighter’s shield.

Hanging from the spider, Tira dodged the venom it tried to spit at her. The poison interacted with the chaos of magic surrounding her. An explosion of light and magic, and the spider had stunned itself. Tira laughed.

The webbed door of the temple opened. In stepped a regal bearing drow priestess carrying an ebony rod in her right hand and a blood red jewel in her left. She crushed the jewel and blue webbed cocoon encapsulated Rift. The wizard was trapped. The priestess intoned, “You will feel the wrath of Arraxis of Lore!”

Sheila nodded, “so this is Arraxis. And, she trapped Rift. Now I get it.” The others murmured their understanding. They had gotten to the story of Arraxis. “The webbing of Arraxis was worse than the four would have believed,” Torben’s voice became animated. “The webbing was not so thick that Rift could not see, but her spells could not penetrate it. And, Arraxis could control Rift.”

At Arraxis’s command, the wizard moved next to the priestess. Arraxis’s hand easily passed through the webbing. “Give me your staff,” the priestess demanded. And, Rift complied.

“No!” shouted Liam. “Rift handed over Darkstar! How could she!” The other children were equally appalled. Torben had them now. “The drow bytch was powerful and controlled the great wizard’s mind.”

But, Rift’s friends were not so helpless. Tira remembered a potion that Z’alden had made for her. A potion that, once consumed, would let her fly. Pulling a spare magic dagger from her boot, she quickly drank and flew down from the web nest, launching her powerful Chaos Orbs while on the trajectory.

Barrick engaged the spider holding their valuable magic sack. He used the moves he knew so well to fight with a giant of beast like this and slay them. Back, around, forward, under, the arachnid could barely withstand the dwarf’s rapid, cutting blows. But, the thief did not fall.

Close to the door, Arraxis ordered Rift to give her the amulet protecting the wizard. Then, Arraxis opened her mouth, and an inky blackness of poison gas and dark magic enveloped the nearby Tira, nearly killing the sorceress in one breath. Z’alden felt helpless. Tira was too far away for his healing to reach her.

Rift shook her head vigorously and banished the bytch of a priestess from her mind. And realized that she could destroy the webbing encasing her. Then, the powerful wizard made time stop. Yes, stop. With all others frozen in time, the eladrin, calmly walked to Arraxis, took back her staff and amulet, slaps her in the face, and moves away to ready her next attack spell as time moves forward again.

Imagine what happens as it occurs. From her dagger, Tira launches a chaotic ray of energy at Arraxis. The priestess is not immune, but venom shoots forth from her, and both Tira’s arms go numb. The priestess approaches, and almost for the first time, the adventurers can see a cloud of small spiders surrounds her. Just being in this cloud, one will get bitten and stuck on the unnatural webs that surround her.

Even as his friends engage these enemies, to Z’alden’s horror, the thieving spider jumps up in the air 16 staff lengths, shoots a web into the nest in the blackness above and disappears, with their magical sack still attached to itself. Not rooted in place, Z’alden quickly moves closer to the remaining battle, still numb at the loss of powerful magic and goods in the bag.

Arraxis aims her rod at the wizard. A black necrotic bolt of powerful energy, clearly enough to slay the wizard comes barreling down on the Eladrin. Rift grasps Darkstar as if to absorb the powerful spell. And, it does! Darkstar crackles as though charged with the necrotic power. Rift twirls the staff over her head and then points it at the drow priestess, sending her spell back from whence it came, slaying the priestess. But, the spiders had no such problem. Their vicious fangs bite into Tira and Barrick, sending both to the floor unconscious. They are dying of poison.

“No!” shouted little Gella. The others looked equally horrified. Torben held out his hand, as if to signal not to interrupt.

This time, the cleric of Bahamut was not so far away. Silver and purple flames instantly bathed both of his friends at once. Their eyes fluttered, even as their wounds mended. Blasts of radiant light from the cleric slew one of the spiders. The other fled to the nest far above.

The adventurers worried not about the goods that had vanished above. Instead, they opened the door and peered into the massive cavern. Thousands of drow surrounded the entrance. Rift moved the others to the side and behind her. The eladrin rolled up her sleeves, grabbed Darkstar, and slammed it to the ground. “I have had enough!” Brilliant light burst forth from the staff with a sound like a lute smashing into the ground. Wave after wave of drow were obliterated. “Darkstar burns brighter, indeed,” Barrick muttered.

Barrick called out, “Follow me. Jump into the chasm itself.” Tira looked quizzically, “But that seems like certain death.” “Exactly,” said the smirking dwarf as he dove off into the chasm and the others, perplexed, exhausted, followed.

They vanished and, each saw the vision again. And, each reported hearing a little chuckling. They recognized the sound this time. The lich wizard Ur Feyn, with whom they had a made a pact just a few weeks earlier. He had sent them to the Underdark somehow.

As they reappeared back on the Centurion to the relief of a startled Erik, Tira swore, “Damn. That lich took the eight jeweled eyes from my pocket. Steal a glance. Ha!”

The seven children laughed, too. It was the only story that they could recall where the heroes won, but lost much of value. The tale of Arraxis was one to remember.

View
The Future of the Future

Torben Eastlander could not breathe. The seven little monsters called his grandchildren covered his torso and legs. Their fingers wriggled ceaselessly, as their giggling grew louder and louder. He had long stopped laughing, and now was just trying to catch a breath. A younger man could have held out longer. He was no longer a young man. He roared out, “You are a greater trap than Arraxis’s web!”

Immediately, 14 hands pulled away from him. “Grandpappy, tell us a story! Who is Arraxis?” Torben could see little Miro’s eyes widen as he awaited the answer. The other six were silent, their eyes just as wide, holding their breath for the answer.

Torben could finally draw a deep one himself. The flush on his face subsided. He rose up on an elbow. In a secretive tone, “Who is Arraxis? Now there is a question to frighten little snapping drakes like yourselves!” They all sucked in their breath in one bright-eyed, “Oooh”.

The old story-teller made his way slowly to the great comfortable chair next to the crackling fire. He took out the poker. “Sheila, put on another log. This story could take a while.” His eldest granddaughter, now 12 turns old and full of her self importance, fetched a log that soon blaze brightly.

“Ah, yes, much better. Who is Arraxis? Well, that will take some telling.” Torben eyes misted for a moment. These chapters of his stories had not sold as well to the bards, and his books had not done as well with the lordly class. Something about the whole time-travelling premise; well he hadn’t really bought it himself when those wild-tongued adventurers had told these yarns to him. Didn’t translate into compelling stories at the time. It was almost like he hadn’t written them.

But, here was a group of ears that didn’t have such jaded views of the world as an old scrivener who had made, and then lost, a fortune off of the tales of these Denizens of the Nentir Vale. He could see the five of them now around the table at the Half-Moon Inn as though it had been yesterday. Well, most were around the table. The dwarf Barrick was under the table snoring, quite drunk by the time the cleric Z’alden had finished his first glass of Nentir ’97. The fiery sorceress, Tira, had popped in and out while the half-elven cleric of Bahamut had told the stories surrounding Arraxis almost like sermon. That guy really did need to lighten up. Torben hoped the son of Denithar was happy serving the Great Dragon wherever he was at this moment. And, he thought of the wizard Rift. He remembered how she had listened intently to Z’alden’s telling, at least when he got the part about the Arraxis. It was as though she actually had lived out the infuriating web that had encased her. Oh, and in the corner, that the quiet ranger, Erik, whose intense gaze carried with it such clear understanding; Torben remembered how on the night of the story of Arraxis, Erik had listened intently. It was as if, for this one impossible tale, Erik hadn’t been there. As though any of them had really been there. But, Erik’s intense attention hadn’t made sense, either. How could Erik not have been in the story? They always included him. Well, not always, I suppose. Torben was getting muddled in his old age, he was.

And, he remembered how the story of Arraxis, to the extent it made sense at all, really didn’t make sense without the story of Tassedar sending the Valers out of the Castle and directing them to return to their true time. Yes, it was all coming back to him. Including why the whole set of books never sold well on this one. It was just too complicated.

“Grandpappy! You said you would tell us the story about Arraxis,” young Liam intoned with a higher version of the voice of his own daughter. Torben was torn out of his reverie. “Yes, Liam, I did. But, stories must have their place, and to understand how the mighty wizard Rift ended up trapped in the enchantment of a drow priestess named Arraxis, well, I can’t just jump to that. All things in their place. And the place to start is at Wizard Castle.”

A high-pitched Gella shouted out with delight, “That’s the home of the adventurers! Where they fought the wicked Beholder!” All the children clapped at that. They loved the story of the wicked Beholder and the deceptive Green Dragon. He had told them that one many times. But, this was not the story Torben was telling today.

“Yes, true. But this adventure at Wizard’s Castle was many years earlier. The Valers had found a way to stop the evil of the demon Illidan Stormrage by taking him back in time to when he was a boy and preventing him from ever becoming a demon, and…” Torben could see their eyes starting to glaze over. No, it was not a time for the metaphysics that he didn’t understand, even if it was fanciful, and even if Rift had tried to explain it to him five times. After the fifth glass of Nentir ’97, he still didn’t understand it, he would never understand it, and Rift had fallen asleep.

No, what mattered to these youngsters was the exciting bits. Skip to that.

He cleared his throat, took a deep sip of his now much-too-cool tea to really enjoy but he didn’t tell them that. He caught the eye of each child as they settled in on the cue, and began to speak.

The cleric Zenithar al Denithar, Z’alden to his friends, had walked down from the Castle to the island’s stony beach. The Chosen of Bahamut reflected on their recent battle to save the dwarfs from an orcish horde, he thought of his mission to serve the Great Dragon, serve Justice, bring Hope, and destroy the demons that plagued the worlds. The half-elf was startled by the sudden appearance of the ancient archmage Tassedar. Z’alden could not help but recall how the Valers had brought the archmage back to life from a mere skeleton by throwing him into the waters where magic began. And now, as then, it was unclear if Tassedar stood before Z’alden as friend or foe. There was no time to reflect. In haste, the archmage told Z’alden how reality itself was unraveling. The Valers must hurry off of this world, leave their Castle as they had it at that moment, and venture to the Astral Plane! A realm of mystery, a realm of flying ships. The realm of the gods, but also of great dangers, like the dreaded Githyanki pirates.

“Oh, pirates!” little Miro squealed. “Shush,” said his sister Sheila. Miro settled down under her withering stare. Just because she’s the oldest, she thinks she rules everything, Miro thought for a moment, before returning his attention to Grandpappy.

“Yes, Miro,” Torben said gently. “Pirates. And, they will enter the story soon enough. But not before the five have made some poor bets that almost cost them all their life!”

The children were silent at that.

Tassedar told Z’alden that the Valers must venture to the mountains of Celestia and find the Crystal Cavern there. The Cavern exists in many planes and places, it touches them all. It is the place where magic was born. In the Wizard’s Castle, you will find a gate to other planes. Find it, and go quickly, before your very presence here rips apart reality. You must save the future of the future!

Little Mijfox sniggered, “Yeah, right. When does the fighting start?” Sheila cuffed him on the ear. Miro stared at his twin brother in triumph. At least she isn’t lording it over me.

Torben remembered not exactly following this story well, either, when Z’alden had tried to tell it to him so many years ago. It didn’t matter now. It was the good parts he needed for this audience. Not the mysticism and earth-rattling that the Chosen of Bahamut had emphasized at such length. Not the celestial implications, or the righteousness of their work. Moving to the practical part of the story, Torben remembered how Rift had patiently explained, after another bottle had been opened at Torben’s expense, how the gate of which Tassedar spoke was nothing more than the Iris that had mystified the group when they had defeated the Beholder on the same floor of the Castle so many years before (or was it later. Very confusing). Z’alden had only shaken his head, and Barrick had snored more loudly, as Rift related that Erik had found a lever that they had never noticed before. The quiet ranger had smiled at that. What a good group of storytellers they were. Better than he was doing now. Most of the time they could keep a straight face when telling their fanciful tales to him.

The lever had obscure markings that only Erik could feel and describe. Rift had deciphered them. Pulling the lever to the correct setting would open the Iris and make it a portal to another plane. Incredible! But, the ancient mechanism behind the lever had jammed as Rift tried to move it. It took all of the dwarf’s strength and the ranger’s together to get it to move.

Torben gaze turned to little Miro, “and the Iris opened into a well 5 staff lengths across. The well had no bottom, at least as far as they could see. Nothing made a sound when they let a coin drop. Fall into that pit, and you fall forever.” Torben let that sink in. Miro’s little hand covered his mouth in surprise, “What did they do? How did they make the gate work?” The poor little one was getting worried.

Erik and Barrick found buttons hidden near the lever. Erik pushed one closest to the markings of what seemed to be the Astral Plane, where the lever had already been moved to. Another Iris, 10 staff lengths down in the pit appeared and closed below them.

Ladders were on the side of the pit. Bravely, all descended. When all were below the level of the open Iris, it closed. They were trapped!

Torben let that sink for a minute and took another sip. His story telling was warming his grandchildren but not his tea.

A ring of blue arcane energy formed on the walls, but nothing happened. Rift realized that the gate was broken. They were no longer in the Castle, but they had not moved to the Astral plane. They were nowhere, caught in an arcane portal that was neither here nor there.

Rift’s swift mind reached out for a solution. From her staff’s black jewel,
“Darkstar!” Liam cried out before Sheila cuffed his ears, “Shush you, too. Quit interrupting.”

“Yes, from Darkstar,” the old man smiled, “the wizard drew upon its power, and made a connection to the spirit of the ancient wizard who built the castle.”

The ancient one guided Rift’s mind to the breach in the gate, a void. With Darkstar focused, Rift could control the void. The others could feel themselves beginning to spin. A million million stars surrounded them. They were hurtling through space, hurtling through time itself. They were being ripped apart as the stuff of existence was beginning to come undone. Despite Tassedar’s warning, they had tarried too long. Tira felt herself thinning as the chaos that she binds together, that makes up her being, her very essence, started to come undone. Each clung to what was most important. Z’alden’s mind held tight to the image of his master and god, the great Platinum Dragon Bahamut. Barrick concentrated on a large mug of beer.

In a flash, Rift could see the stars separate, wane, and peaks of mountains appear. Then, she was on a floor. Erik could smell blood, sweat and the stink of stale steins. He could see a large tavern room made of iron and wood. The other four were close by. Behind him, Erik could hear Barrick’s nose sniffing at the smells the dwarf found pleasing.

Hundreds of different kinds of creatures and beings were in the largest tavern hall any of the adventurers had ever seen. Treasure hunters, explorers, lore seekers, all manner of folks. Githyanki

“Ow! I wasn’t even going to say Pirates,” Miro complained as he rubbed where Sheila had whacked his left ear. She just glared at him until her grandfather’s eyes met hers with a less than pleased look. She sat back. All the others stuck out their tongues at her.

Torben smirked, took a sip of the cold tea, and continued,”Githyanki, with their noses missing and just air holes in their shriveled, desperate green-grey faces. Sharp swords at their sides; Duegar, the dwarves of fire; humans, too; elves and Eladrin. Behind the massive bar, was a red-chested Efreet, an elemental being, almost kin to a demon.”

The old scrivener could still remember the fire in Z’alden’s eyes as the righteous demon hunter had described the Efreet. The wine glass had shattered in the cleric’s clenched hand. That guy really, really did need to lighten up. The Efreet was much too close a cousin to a demon for the priest, it was clear. The adventurers sometimes seem as if they really believed their own stories and were not telling him a second rate tale for a meal and a few drinks. Z’alden relayed this part of the story with such fervor, Torben almost believed this part of the yarn as though the cleric had really been to this enchanted tavern in the Astral Sea and kept his loathing of demons in check at great expense and self-control.

“Welcome to the Abdul Azeem Inn,” the Efreet barkeep had bellowed out to the five as they picked themselves off of the floor. Their sudden arrival was clearly no surprise in this place out of legend. With Tira’s charm, in a short time she had quickly learned all there was to know in the gossip of the place. The activity of the Nine Hells was a constant theme at the tables, stories of mercenaries moving into the home of demons: the Elemental Chaos, had perked up the cleric’s ears and distracted him from the pseudo-demon of a barkeep; stories of war between the Gith had interested the dwarven fighter only slightly, as the quality of the beer was excellent and these gossips were a distraction from the hoppy aroma and the flavorful experience. Rift and Tira were only mildly surprised to hear of a coup in the City of Brass. Somehow the good mayor had fallen. Tira had almost spit out her wine on a dandy explorer as he told her the tale. Little could the dandy have guessed it was the handiwork of the sorceress and the others that had caused the good man to fall so far.

While the five searched for some way out of the Inn and for a ship and pilot to get them from wherever they were to the mountains of Celestia, the sound of gaming caught the sharp ears of the ranger. One telling motion from Erik, and the dwarf and his ale were soon followed by the others. Games galore. It was a welcome distraction from the world-shattering implications of their actions. A stacking game entertained them for a time, but it was a three ball roulette and dice game that really sucked in the wizard.

Rift realized that she could control the balls as they rolled around. She could cheat. Z’alden had been against any cheating, until he became appalled, and his righteous anger was roused by the unfairness of the game. The bets required to play were completely unbalanced by the paltry payouts. The more Tira explained, the more Z’alden was sure – Rift, make us win the impossible: three 20’s on three dodecahedron dice at the same time would pay out a million gold on a hundred bet. The dice rolled. Rift gently tapped her staff and three 20s were in front of the house. The tableman eyed the adventurers, but said nothing. He only nodded politely and said that they could collect their incredible winnings through a curtained door, to which he pointed.

Advancing through the curtain, the five were confronted by two huge Cyclops flanking a well-dressed Efreet. Torzak, as the pseudo-demon called himself, accused them of magically tampering with a game. The sweet talking Tira tried to schmooze the Efreet, but Torzak would have none of it. And, when Z’alden could contain himself no more, and railed against the gambling and the righteousness of their actions against an unlawful game, lightening and thunder leapt from Torzak’s swords and rained down on the Valers. Not a small amount of damage either, and some were seriously burned, especially the magic wielders.

But, Torzak could also see that a prolonged combat with these five might not be the lopsided odds he was used to when enforcing the rules of Abdul Azeem. He told them of a captain, Hallasol, in another part of the Inn. If they left the gaming area quietly, and went straight to Hallasol and left the Inn, he would forget the matter. Z’alden had thought long and hard of all of the good a million gold could do. His right leg, cut off by demons and restored from dragon bones by the Kengi, itched like crazy. He thought about how good the Efreet’s head would look as a wall-hanging in a Bahamut temple, but Barrick’s strong arm on one side, and Erik’s on the other were more persuasive than the demon hunter’s hatred of the elemental kind.

Hallasol was a rough character who told them of his astral ship, the Centurion, and its first mate, Yeti. The ship wouldn’t attract unwanted attention and could avoid the Gith war zones. It would take four days to reach the mountains. And, it would cost them. A little persuasive gold from the Valers, three times the original amount, and the time shrank down to two days. The Centurion was fast when Hallasol put his mind to it, apparently.

What Hallasol didn’t explain after the first day of astral sailing across the open air between the worlds in the Astral Sea, was that a Githyanki astral skiff was even faster. And, that to make the two days that the party had wanted, he was crossing the war zone of the Gith.

And, the war came to the Valers. A pair of swift Astral Skiffs appeared almost out of nowhere in the wide open space of the Astral Sea. Githyanki Raiders! Pirates!

Torben kept his smile in check as the eyes of Liam, Miro, Gella, and even Sheila got wide and all seven children leaned in. He let the moment sink in.

The wizard knows many things, many languages including the Deep Speech of the Githyanki. The leader, a fine charismatic fellow cutting a dashing swath, Val Kath, replied to her inquiries, “The matter is very simple. We have a war effort that needs additional funding. Which you are keeping from us.”

Tira could not keep her mouth shut in this little exchange, and the Githyanki attacked! In a blink, magical force shot out from the Githyanki raiders, hitting the sorceress. Z’alden was horrified to see the effect. Tira was cut off from her own internal energy. He could not heal her with his Word. Only his touch could restore her, as he would draw directly on the Dragon’s power alone, and on none of Tira’s. Then, the energy enveloped Rift in the same manner. The cleric cringed. No one does that to my friends, and to attack us unprovoked, unjustified was such behavior. It was time to teach these pirates a lesson that would live in stories for years to come.

Before the cleric could formulate his plan, though, several raiders and Val Kath vanished from their skiff and appeared on the Centurion next to Rift. From Val Kath’s mind, bands appeared and surrounded the wizard. She was rooted in place. The ranger quickly drew both of his impressive War Glaives, sharpened them with a whetstone, and Val Kath felt the twin strike of both blades. Z’alden was troubled to see that psychic energy radiated from the pirate leader even as Erik struck. Erik was now dazed. His dwarven comrade sharpened his axe and tore into some of the other raiders. Barrick spit on his blade, focused his blow, and ripped wide, deep wounds in two raiders that would bleed Githyanki green for some time. For his work, seemingly bouncing out of their silver swords, a greyish psychic glow encased his legs and weighed them down. Barrick’s deft moves were limited. It was as though he were moving through a swamp, he was so slow. Another raider’s silver sword got past the dwarf’s shield. In addition to the pain of the blow, he too was cut-off from his internal energy. Raiders continued their offensive, spurred on by their leader. Tira and Z’alden both took blow after blow.

Z’alden realized that more than their normal attacks were needed. He called for a blessing from the Great Dragon. Holy sigils covered the Centurion as the cleric consecrated the ground to Bahamut. In the battle, he and his comrades could call upon the Great Dragon’s blessing to focus their own powers. It was a powerful aid.

Finding herself surrounded by enemies, the wizard was clearly ticked. She would put Z’alden’s blessing to good use. Darkstar took all light from the area and then the nearby raiders were encased in flames. The jewel glowed. One of the raiders screamed in pain as Rift’s magic tore into him with all of its impressive power of flame. But, the wizard was troubled. Her spell was at full of power and nearly its most accuracy. It was well-formulated, nearly perfect combustion. Val Kath had simply sloughed it off, dodging the arcane fire with a speed that was unbelievable. The adventurers had never seen an enemy avoid Rift’s spells with such aplomb. This leader was not to be taken lightly.

A battle raged as the dwarven axe, the ranger’s glaives, the spells of wizard, sorceress, and cleric parried and wounded the raiders. The ranger’s glaives were like thorns in the raiders, ripping and tearing them apart. The dexterous human whirled and struck. His adept fighting had none of problems of Rift’s spell. The ranger could make Val Kath bleed. Another raider was nearly defeated in a single blow from human.

To his right, the dwarf taunted the raiders mercilessly. Enraged, 5 raiders rushed at him, including Val Kath. The skilled figher’s axe twirled in front, behind, around. Green blood covered the Githyanki leader. The tide was turning, and not towards the beach of the pirates.

A raider with his silver sword shining engaged the sorceress. His poorly placed strokes became entangled in the chaotic magic that surrounds her. In a flash, the Githyanki was stunned. He could do nothing and move nowhere. She then reached into the chaos and slid him over the deck and off of the Centurion. He was falling in the Astral Sea. Into the air in which they were flying. No ground in sight. Tira then reached into the air and formed balls of magical energy. Nearly all the raiders were hit by this potent spell. Few still stood, but not all had fallen.

Val Kath, reflecting on the better part of valor, seeing that this was not his day, left his comrades, and teleported back to a skiff. In an instant, its sails were full and he was rapidly distancing himself from the battle. Erik was having none of this. He raced to the wheel of the Centurion and filled its sails as well. The chase was on.

Rift’s fingers twirled in the air. Lightening flew from them to the silver sword of Val Kath. Even at their distance of 11 staff lengths, all could hear his cry. The githyanki leader was in great pain.

For the others, the battle with the remaining raiders still raged. The sharpened vorpal dagger of the cleric severed a raider’s limb, while Tira, seeing Rift’s lightening, called her own down on a raider to equal effect. A raider’s sword pierced Rift deeply and a red badge covered her torso. The wizard could not be bothered. “It is only a flesh wound!” she yelled the cleric to leave her alone and concentrate on the remaining pirates.

In seconds, the Centurion had caught up to the skiff. Erik called out, “Surrender!” to the Githyanki leader. And, what had never happened before in the history of the adventurers happened. Val Kath surrendered!

The children leaped to their feet. They hugged and clapped. Maybe Torben should try again with this story. By leaving out the complicated parts, it wasn’t so bad. And, it had definitely spared him further torture from his grandchildren.

“But, what happened next?” Liam earnestly asked. They all settled down.

Torben continued.

Val Kath bowed his head. He knew he was beaten. His surviving raiders gave their swords to the cleric, as the others adventurers put the skiffs in tow. Stowing the swords, Z’alden hands sparkled with silver and purple flames as he healed Rift. The dwarf pointed his axe at Val Kath, “now what was that all about?”

“I am the Githyanki prince Val Kath, one hundred and fifty seventh of that name,” the githyanki captain intoned quietly but with pride in his eyes. His defeated pirates nodded their heads. They knew the noble identity of their captain hidden beneath ordinary armor and weapons. Barrick was not appeased, “Why would you lead pirates?” Val Kath’s eyes twinkled, “For the sheer adventure of it. Now, what will become of me and my men?”

The adventurers conferred just as Captain Hallasol, hearing the melee die down, came up. Hallasol was clearly a craven and pleased that none of his blood was glistening on the deck on the Centurion.

Z’alden and Rift both agreed, and convinced the others. The cleric’s hands again glowed with the silver and purple flames. He healed Val Kath and the surviving pirates even as he spoke, “We will return you to your home unharmed. Though in the wrong, you and your men fought bravely. You swallowed your pride and surrendered. To where should Captain Hallasol set sail?”

“At least we should get some pirate booty,” muttered Barrick more to himself than anything else. He had been just about to lop off the head of one of the pirates when the melee had been halted. He missed that satisfying thoosh of a well-placed blow to the neck that sends a head skyward to arch down many staff lengths away. He was sure that he could have made it drop into the portal hole about 10 staff lengths away. Would have been nice. Not as good as an ale, but satisfying none the less. When all of this adventuring was done, maybe he could make a game that was almost as good. Maybe with a morningstar instead of an axe. Something to think about it. In between beers.

“And then, Hallasol set sail to the Githyanki capital,” Torben said.

Torben looked around at his seven grandchildren. He was pleased with himself. Not only had he gotten a respite from their merciless tickling, which he loved more than life itself, if only this old body could last longer, but they were spellbound for a few moments from his own magic. He doubted any of the merry tales of the Denizens had even a shred of truth, but they were fun, and he loved to share that joy with others, especially this most precious audience.

Sheila hugged her siblings and then warmly embraced Torben. “Grandpappy, that was a really good story. But, I have a question. Who was Arraxis?”

“Ah, yes, that does still need telling. First, some hot tea, and some cookies, and then the story of Arraxis and how the adventurers tried to steal a glance,” the scrivener’s eyes twinkled brightly with mischief as he spoke. He wasn’t supposed to have cookies, but these were excellent accomplices in disobeying his daughter who worried about his growing girth. Six children rushed out to grab the cookies from their hiding place, while Sheila smiled brightly and prepared the tea.

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Down the Kraken Hole
The Dark Side Beckons

Some would suppose that descending into the dark, pitiless depths of the airless sea, to the crushing limits of a dented, leaky vessel, led by a frothing madman to face an enormous creature renowned for its cunning and murderous intensity – the Kraken, no less! – would give pause to 5 mortals even if they were not to be fully dependent on twisted hoses for their life-giving air, while the beast would be at home in its very lair. But our band had frankly faced poor odds many times, and by now we had the confidence of immortals. We just shrugged our shoulders and went forwards as usual.

The Captain was mad all right, obsessed as he was with Wizard Island, and with the great sea beast that frequented the waters nearby. He swore – and as a sailor, he knew well how to swear! – that the kraken must shelter in an underwater cave near the cliff side of the island, probably more than 100 feet deep, since he and his men had already searched every crevice shallower than that. So we set out, the first voyage in a submersible for each of us, and we gazed in wonder at the inventiveness and audacity of the ship, since it seemed mostly engineered, not brought into existence through a spell.

After evading a storm, which only disturbed the surface of the water, we arrived at the cliffs, which we of course premembered. (Long story, told elsewhere) The crazy old salt started descending past his previous limit of 100 feet even before we had been given the breathing helmets and puny spearguns with which he imagined we would fell our giant quarry. Everybody held their breath, for if the ship were to break apart, it would take us with it, nowhere but down.

At 130 feet the ship began to creak.
At 150 feet the portholes showed debris floating by, which we swore were bones, but who knows what sea life looks like down here?
At 180 feet the first rivet popped, and ricocheted past our heads.
At 190 feet we feared the worst.
At 200 feet watery hell broke loose as water began to pour in through multiple openings!

The Captain blew out ballast to stop the descent, Barrick dwarfed the pumps, and Z’alden and Rift cast spells at the ship, until soon we had steadied the craft.

Luckily we had no need to descend further. A cave loomed nearby in the murk, and the Captain, sensing the creature that he had hunted for so long, bade us don the breathing helmets and investigate. Varis, who seemed as at home in the water as he did everywhere, which is to say proficient and efficient but somehow distant, swam a line to the cave and connected it so that the rest of us could pull ourselves over.

This cave was actually a tunnel-like entrance, and after a short distance, down a little then up again, we came to a much larger cave, and there we saw it, lazing in the center of the cave, the hideous Kraken, pulsing red under a blue-green light, all ten arms wiggling, two much thicker and longer than the others.

With grim faces under our helmets, we lost no time attacking, and for a while it seemed like no contest. A wallop of a punch from Varis, a lightning blast from Barrick’s new axe, a weakening spell from Z’alden, a poisonous spell from Tira, lightning bolts from Rift, and soon the goliath was thrashing in its inky pain. It grabbed everyone within reach, but we all know ways to escape from the clutches of monsters: a spell here; an axe strike there; teleporting as a last resort.

The Kraken’s attacks had little effect on our hardy band, until it realized that our tethers were important to us. It pulled out Z’alden’s and Barrick’s air hoses, and had it been able to do the same for all of us, our bones would have joined those floating about outside. Yet clever as this denizen of the deep was, Rift was more clever, and she cast a spell to stop time for everyone but her, so that she could float over and reattach the hoses. Then, she displayed her signature power by banishing the beast briefly to a parallel universe, giving us time to gather ourselves for a last flurry of attacks.

No sooner had the Kraken reappeared in the cave, but each of us attacked it with full determination, Z’alden and Tira with particular viciousness, and the beast expired!


After the mighty Kraken had been put down, Varis showed the others that the light coming from above actually led to a grotto. We left behind our helmets, sure that the Captain would give up on us eventually, and leave us for dead. Above, we found enough air, but also four Kobolds with clown faces. These attacked us immediately, then disappeared! Following corridors, we encountered them again and again, taking damage but dealing out more of it, killing them one by one – until two more popped up! Tiring of this painful game, Varis dispensed quickly with these last two. We were left in a hall than contained 6 rows of three consecutively numbered floorstones in what felt like a second trap, after the Kobolds, which had certainly been enchanted.

A trap it turned out to be; step on the wrong stones, and an attack would be triggered. Varis tried teleporting past, but was dealt a colossal blow for his efforts. Tara took multiple hits and was left stunned in the middle of the grid.

Each of us being tough enough to survive these attacks, we experimented in turn until we had a safe path going through numbers 2-5-7-11. But, the attacks were gaining in intensity with each new row, and two rows were left. Z’alden healed us as only he can, but who knew whether the last row would deal a fatal blow?

Luckily Barrick remembered the sequence of numbers from his days learning dwarven building traditions. Every young dwarf memorizes the first 10 “Dwarven Friends” in the number sequence 2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19,23,29, as handed down from the great dwarven builders of old. The dwarves believe that, when using repetition in a building project, only these numbers should be used, and each of them should be used for no more than one purpose in a structure. If you repeat an archway five stones wide somewhere in a building, it is OK to then repeat an archway on a higher level seven stones wide, but never four, or six, or 12.

Barrick always thought this to be an ancient superstition, but seeing the same pattern playing out now, he wondered whether there could be some reason behind the sequence. See how 2 was the only number in the sequence that described the world of dwarves, with their two hands and two eyes and two feet? And 3 was the only one that described the number of options a dwarf always had (stay here, go forwards, or go backwards). And 5 was the only one that counted the number of fingers on a hand or foot. No other number in the sequence (and Barrick, who had worked on large buildings, actually knew more than the 10 taught to every dwarf) counted the number of fingers on any number of hands! In fact, no number in the sequence counted the number of any other number in the sequence, no matter how many! There was something there all right – but what it was, Barrick couldn’t quite grasp.

“Thirteen” he announced, though his insight did not come before he had stepped on #14, and suffered 3 poison darts. Sure enough, the adventurers got out on 13, followed by 17. Salving their wounds and gritting their teeth for the next trap, they came to a door saying “Home Sweet Home”. They knocked … and a voice said simply, “Come In”.

To be continued …

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Ending with a Bang

Post to come…

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A Dragon's Pawn
Reasoning with a dragon... hmm...

Post to come…

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Massacre at Coradra Gap

Slaver ran down the fangs of Ur Alak Nabog and wetted the matted fur at the mouth of the young orc warrior. He listened raptly as the chieftain’s voice grew to a frenzy describing the feast of dwarf flesh the tribe would soon be relishing. As the bonfire crackled with each word of the glorious chief, Ur fantasized about the tender kid meat he would get if he made a mark for himself in the upcoming slaughter. Calling it a battle was an abuse of the word.

Their great chieftain, Narak dana Belvanog, Destroyer of forests, Smasher of chests, Eater of Brains had already told them what the Shaman had foreseen in the bones of the raven and the entrails of the pig for many days. Each day was the same. A few centogs of dwarf miners were all that guarded a host of dwarven kids and shes and rich treasures beneath a poor fortress. The dwarves were stupid to be there and easy pickings. The destiny of the tens of centogs worth of orcs was to massacre the dwarfs, eat the she-dwarfs and the kid-dwarfs in a great celebration as the power of the tribe of the Brain Eater continued to grow.

Ur longed to serve closer to the mighty chieftain that he too might have a taste of the brains of the conquered, like the lieutenants of the great Brain Eater. Dwarf brain straight from the skull was said to be like a gritty bread, like the dried ale from yesterday’s mug. Ur stood little chance of making a great name for himself in this massacre, though. His centog was to be near the back, catching any dwarfs that tried to escape their way. Shes work, really.

Thinking about shes made the young orc breathe deeply. A she-orc, Miraka, had caught his scent at home, and he had caught hers. He wondered if he could wrap stewed dwarf arms under his armor and take them back to her. How she would breathe deeply for him then! Yes, that is what he would do. But only if the meat held up better than the puny dwarfs would fare against the coming orc onslaught.

A crack in the fire turned him back to the speech of the Brain Eater. The shadows of the Gloomwood forest ran thick as the light wrapped the huge orc chieftan, “We are an Army of orcs against two centogs of dwarfs. We march at first light to take what is ours. Eat little tonight. For soon, we will be feasting on the marrow of miners and the flesh of their shes and kids!” All of the warriors roared in approval, slapping their spears against their shields. “Brain Eater, Brain Eater!” they chanted in unison. The Chief reveled in the chant.

That night, as the embers faded, Ur stood guard. He was proud to have been selected to be a sentry near his Centogak’s tent, not so far from the Chief and the shaman. The still night boded a good, clear morning for killing. In the quiet, he could hear the loud breathing of the hoard, the baying of the great dogs, the snoring of the giants that served Belvanog. He stared at his claws and wondered if dwarf fingers crunched when you bit them like a snail, or were just chewy like a slug? His fightmate Bu said that the best part was the calf of a she with a side of pickled Umber hulk. He was so hungry, he almost bit his own finger. Then, he heard a gravely, quiet voice. It could be the snoring giants. No, it was an orc speaking. An old orc. The voice was coming from the Shaman’s tent.

“Narak, the entrails have changed I tell you. Look. See here. These many blood curves are dragons. Half a centog of dragons. The pig does not lie. The seeing has become not the same as on the other nights.”

The snarling response of the Chief was unmistakable, especially at the closer distance that Ur had crept. “Old one, you have smoked too much hashog tonight. Your sight is clouded. For weeks, the coming victory has been clear to you. It will be recorded in the scrolls forever you said. The Massacre at Coradra Gap. Why should it change now?”

The Shaman’s voice did not cower like Ur expected. It was a deep voice, one that spoke with conviction knowing a truth, “I wiped your bottom when you were a squealing babe, Narak dana Belvanog. Do not presume to tell me when I have smoked too much. I know what the signs are saying. This break here in the raven wing bone speaks of two wielders of magic, but one is uncontrolled, wild, and one is focused. Both are powerful. And, these hard lumps where the bone should be soft, they mean a dwarf with axe and shield and the will, strength and knowledge to wield them well. This is no dwarf miner but a battle-hardened son of stone. This curve in the wing bone is another dragon, but strange, it was broken and then healed. And, see to the pig here. This charring from my flames in the porcine brain down to the foot – a great power from the mind to the hand and feet. See how the chars fan out. This great power is an elf,“ he sucked in, “that flies and kills.”

Ur heard the Shaman draw his breath deeply. “And look here. The loop in the gut pipe. The large green blood curve pooled there. That is a green dragon.”

Belvanog chuckled through his ale. “Next you will be telling me that the gods themselves will arrive with this bi-centog of dragons to save the hides of our dwarven feast.”

His eyes rose as Ur heard a mug shatter. The Shaman’s voice rose. If it got any louder, the next sentry would hear it too. “You fool. Here, in the heart, not the gods but one of their Chosen, yes, another blood curve – the Chosen of a dragon god. I cannot tell which. It matters not. This comes against you, too. Be not a fool. The signs do not lie. Your victory is no longer assured. Something has changed in all that I can see. Beyond the Gloomwood, there be much more than weak dwarves. Call off the attack. There will be easier prey another day.”

What followed came quickly. A muffled grunt. A thud. Silence. Ur hid behind a tree as he peered to see the Chief leaving the tent. His claws holding a torch glistened wet. A pool of blood soon ran out below the tent flap. A shudder ran through the young orc warrior. He would not sleep well when his duty ended later that night.

As the light slowly rose behind them, ten centogs of the orc army gathered, Ur stood straight and tall, proud to be part of such a hoard. He looked to his right, his left, behind, in front, and saw the press of orc warriors. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.” Again he counted to eight. And again and again and again, until his head hurt. Yes, a centog is many orcs, and we have many centogs against the puny two of the dwarves. Dwarf toes roasted at the end of a knife over a fire made a good afterfeast snack his fightmate Bu had told him. The slaver ran thickly in his mouth just thinking about it. He looked to his left at Bu, then to all the others nearby. They all were hungry. This should be quick.

The arrayed hoard rallied to the swelling chant of their Chief. “Brain Eater, Brain Eater” a thousand orcs cried out in unison. It was a fearsome sound. It swelled their hearts with bloodlust.

Ur surveyed the ground ahead. Off in the distance, as he was up a small slope, he could see the ruined fortress that was the goal. Loaded with dwarf shes and kids to eat and treasure to make them rich. His centog was heading around a small hill to the right of the main hoard. Just over the hill was a river. Another centog would go over the hill and be part of a high ground attack on any foolish resistance. Ur’s centog formed the “rear guard”, such that it was in a slaughter like this. Ur saw the Chief and his three giants going up a hill to the left. Surely some great tactic was planned from there by the Destroyer of Forests and Smasher of chests. The many, many orcs of the hoard were before him. They advanced.

A soft, steady, cold rain began to fall. No matter. Orcs care not for the weather. They marched on. Far ahead to his left, Ur saw something that made his heart pause. In the distance, many young-sized dragons rising up from the ground. More than his squad of Eight. More than two squads. He counted quickly. Not quite 6 squads of dragons. Maybe seven. Maybe eight. What comes next? Who cares. It was many. These dragons had small humanoids on their backs. He could see through the raining mist and through the dragons. They were not real. But the dwarfs, some she-people, and a he-people were flying on them. And then, he saw other he-person that was flying in nothing but people furs. Thin they are, too. It was just as the Shaman had spoken. Ur sucked his breath in. He watched what he never expected.

The dwarves on the dragons had crossbows and rained down bolts on the centogs. One of the shes had a staff. The stafflight burned like some darkstar from a scare telling for kids. Brilliant brightness flew from the dagger of the other she and jumped from warrior to warrior in a few heart beats. These wild lights dropped many without spear or cudgel. The staffed she landed on the ground in the middle of centog. Ur could no longer see her. There was a sound like a fighter makes when hit hard in the gut. A dark force exploded out from where the she landed. An entire centog was gone and the staffed she remained, her robes swirling around her.

More bolts rain down from the dwarfs and the he covered in scale armor riding on their dragons. The battle is not going well, thought the young orc.

The flying elf lands in the middle of a centog of orcs. Many squads in a centog. The elf will die quickly, Ur thinks. A few heartbeats. A few more. Ur shudders. The entire centog is down on the ground, and the elf in his robes is still standing. The centogs of orcs behind know nothing else but to continue on. The elf has nothing but a small throwing star that glints in the sun. With his hands and his feet, and a flick of the star, in more heartbeats, another centog is down. Too many for Ur to count. In the confusion, Ur hears an order roared. “To the fortress. Get the feast food and the treasure!” Many centogs of orcs move quickly to follow the order passed throughout the hoard.

Ur turns his head to see that the Chief and his giants wait at the top of their hill. A centog has ascended the hill to his right and found some dwarfs there. Ah, some real slaughter now, he thinks to himself. Don’t chop off the good eating.

Most of the flying dragons bearing dwarfs start heading to the fortress also. Oh, the little bugs have run out of stingers, Ur thinks to himself. Maybe the Shaman was wrong. And, I have seen no green dragon or any sign of a Chosen or a real dwarf warrior. Yes, the rout is on.

Well, no. A cloud of gas appears centered on the staff she. A half of centog falls. Bright lights flare there. The remainder stand no more.

Ur has gotten closer to the fortress. He sees one little dragon that has the sturdiest looking dwarf that Ur has ever heard tell of. This one gives chase to the centogs heading for the dwarf feast food. Ur cannot see what happens to him. Could this be the dwarven warrior that the Shaman foretold? The many dwarf dragons land closer to the fortress. What are they doing? Do they think they can hold off the many centogs coming toward them. Could the dwarf warrior be trying to get the dwarf feast for himself. Why else would he get so close to the she-dwarfs and kids so soon to be slaughtered and eaten? Ur is puzzled.

Then, he hears a sound like an army of drums beating at once. Coming down the river. Ur can see the ripples of a giant green snake in the sky. Then he can see the wings that beat the mighty drums reflecting the morning sun. “Jadracogfrack!*” he thinks to himself. The ancient dragon clears the hill next to the river. Neither the orcs nor the dwarfs survive its blast.

As the elements of the battle come more and more to resemble the Shaman’s last telling, Ur begins to feel fear for the first time in his life. The smell from the remains of the orcs and dwarfs that fell before the ancient green dragon sting his eyes. Tears form. He looks to his fightmate next to him. He can no longer keep the secret. “Fightmate Bu, this is all coming to pass as the Shaman told to the Chief last night. This is no easy feast fight. We will fail and fall.” Blindingly fast, Bu turns on Ur, smashing his brains. “Coward,” the orc savage snarled. Ur would never smell Miraka again.

  • translated from orcish: Green dragon, oh shit.
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Through the Looking Glass

The young man nervously walked into the darkened room. “Come, sit, sit,” a kindly voice beckoned. Pushing his way through the curtain of hanging beads, his eyes adjusting to the dim light, the lad saw the lady, dressed in the garb typical of the wandering gypsies, sitting at the other side of a small plain wooden table. A single stool was on his side of the table, and it was here that he sat. The lady smiled; it was hard to tell her age in the soft light, she could be as old as the ladies that quilt the blankets back near home, or as young as the farm girls that delivered the milk. For what felt like a long time, neither of them spoke. The gypsy first broke the silence, “You wish to know your future, yes?”
“Um, yes, that’s right,” stammered the lad, far from being a full man. He dropped a handful of coppers on the table, “How much can I know for this?”
The gypsy frowned, “That is not a lot, I can give you one series of connected events, but nothing before or after. Is that OK?”
The boy nodded, “Can I get a series that involves me dying, well almost dying, so I might know what to do when it happens?”
This time it was the lady who nodded. “Be warned, I have no control over what the cards tell me, I only read them. If you do not like what the cards say, it is not my fault. Do you understand?”
“Yes’m”
“Fine, let’s begin.” The lady pulled a worn deck of Tarot cards from a small drawer beside the table. She shuffled the cards exactly three times, then had the lad shuffle the cards another three, telling him to think of his death whilst doing so. Then she had the boy cut the deck once. “All is in place, let’s see what your future holds.”
She began by flipping over three cards, placing them in an even row, the first, the 10 of Cups, the second, the 10 of Swords, and the third, Death. The fortuneteller looked confused as she stared at the cards. “Strange, it would appear you lay dying at the beginning of this, but the really odd part is that the cards are saying that the wind and the water are also wounded. I am not sure how wind could be hurt, but the cards do not lie. I wish I could be there to see how these events come to pass.”
“How did I get there? What tried to kill me?” the boy gasped.
“That the cards do not say yet. You might have to discover that on your own, I am afraid.”
The lad sighed, “Ok, go on. Do I survive, and how?”
The seeress dealt two more cards, one at each end of the original row of three; the Sun and the Star. “Still strange,” she muttered, and then speaking louder, “A friend of your either gives you something of vitality, or,” she pauses and stares at the cards, “Or this person sings you to health.” Both people look at each other, then at the cards, then back at each other, confused. Two more cards at dealt, the Ace of Cups and the 4 of Pentacles. “This is becoming stranger with every card. Now they say that Air and Water are hurting your friends, Air turns invisible, as if it were already not, then is forced back into visibility.” Shaking her head, she warily turns over two more cards, the six of Wands, “Ok, now this means attacking with fire,” then the five of Cups, “And the fire kills, no that is not quite right, evaporates the damaged Water. At least that kind of makes sense.”
The boy leans far forward, over the table, “What about me? Am I still lying almost dead?”
“Careful young Zenithar, do not disrupt the energy of the table and the cards.” She waits for him to sit back in his chair, aware that he did not notice her recognition of him. She adds another card to the tableau below Death, the Hermit. “Not only do you recover, but you go on to make an example for your friends, damaging the very wind around you. And this signifies knowing a name, an important name.” The gypsy then places a stack of three cards down, face up; the only one the boy can see is the top card, the seven of Swords. “Someone, not you, is crawling, although I cannot tell if they are hurt or doing it on purpose. Regardless, from prone this person destroys the Air, whilst you somehow heal your friend in much the same way you were just healed.”
“I have to sing?”
“No, one of the gods helps you, no singing required.”
“Good!” then sheepishly he adds, “My singing voice has not yet come in.”
The next card, placed above the Death card, is the Tower. “Not good, not good at all,” the gypsy shakes her head. “You are dying again, some evil being is doing terrible damage to you.”
The card that is dealt to the left of the Tower is the Moon. “You are healed by the crawling one, but in the process, that person vanishes.”
“How do I know these other people? Are they my friends?”
“Yes, very much so, you will have shared much with these companions at this time. If you fall a third time, I fear you will die for good, but will at least die amongst those you count most dear.”
“Do I know any of them know, is Jordy there?” he asks eargerly.
“I do not think so, but that is vague.” She stops for a long drink of a clear liquid from a blue bottle. “Let’s continue,” she says placing the Knight of Pentacles. “There is a rift, but the relation of this card to the others says the rift is alive, and is moving into a dark pool of magic.”
“You can tell all of that from one card?”
“Not from just the one card, but from where it lies and its position relative to all the cards previously laid.” Another stack of three cards is set down, this time with the King of Wands showing on top. “Oh my. You are fully healed now, but one of your friends, with a significance to the colour red, is now laying dying. There is a lot of dying happening here, it is no wonder this series of events came forth when you queried on death. Your god also heals your red comrade.”
The next card down is the Fool, “Uh oh,” the young man squirms, “Is that me?”
The gypsy laughs, “Not this time, but there will be other times for you. No this time the evil being you are all fighting makes a mistake, thinking that dragging your party to a different location will help him.” The Judgment card is next placed above the Fool. “The evil being ends up in the very spot he is trying to put all of you, not only getting hurt but healing all of you instead.”
“Is he dead? This, this thing?” the boy sputters.
The Nine of Wands is revealed, “No, not only is he alive, but he knocks one of your friends into, I am not sure, into a well?” Another card is turned up, the Ace of Pentacles, “A human friend is empowered, by walking on or activating something.”
A two-card stack this time, with the five of Pentacles on top, “The human saves another, a smaller, or at least shorter, companion, lifting it by part of the short one’s hair.” She chuckles and shakes her head, “This has to be the oddest reading I have ever done.”
“Not many cards left, I wonder if anyone will survive?” The three of Pentacles is placed next to the five. “The one that vanished, maybe into the rift, suddenly returns. Maybe you and your friends will survive after all.”
Above the five, the next card turned up is the World.
“That looks promising,” they boy more asks than states.
“Indeed,” the gypsy replies. “Working together, you and your companions finally defeat the evil being. Its place above the five states that the human was the one to give the killing blow.”
“Wooh, I live!”
“Yes,” she smiles, “this time. But be careful, this does not mean you can do anything you want before these events come to pass and assume you will always cheat death. Stupidity can easily override the will of the cards.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me? Does anything happen after we kill that thing?”
“There are four cards left in this reading, so something must happen.”
The Ace of Swords, “Weapons of great power, but I cannot tell if you, or one of your friends get to wield these.”
The Page of Pentacles, “Now see the three discs in the picture on the card? Those signify three magic rings.”
“Ooh, magic, I like magic!”
“Magic is nice, but remember, all magic comes with a price. Only two cards left.” The penultimate card is the Magician. “Aptly enough, in this case this really does mean a magician. Someone appears and either conveys you to safety or makes your surroundings safe again. Either way, this story is over.”
“But there is one more card, you said there were four more!”
“Ah yes,” The fortuneteller lifts one more card off the top of the deck. She looks at it, pauses yet again, and then reveals, the Hanged Man.
“Oh no! More death? Am I dead this time?” the lad wails.
“Fear not, this is an abstract card. All it means is that everyone in your party is experiencing something different, something important to each of them. You will find out what your experience is when you reach this adventure. That is all for now.”
The young man nods, exhales, then stands up and leaves lost in thought.
The gypsy turns over one more card, “Very very strange. It appears there are two ages given for your final death, 20 some years apart. Very strange indeed.”

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Dirty Deeds

Dirty Deeds

Tira hid her thoughts well behind long lashes and lushous red lips. All were subject to her charms, even her compatriots. They knew nothing of her inner thoughts that had been plaguing her mind for over one year now. It had been her chaotic nature that had made her draw the card. The Deck of Manny Things had tempted her and she had succumbed, not only then, but now as well. Twisted she was, wrapped up in obsessive thoughts of doing dirty deeds…

Many found their fortunes in the City of Brass. Many too had lost them, most likely, or so Tira thought to justify her schemes. The city’s magistrate was a good man, admired by most for having brought prosperity through freer trade and more equitable policies. He performed his duties with all the seriousness required of a true servant of the people. The magistrate was strong and capable, respected and even revered.

So began Tira’s campaign to bring the magistrate to ruin. And why not? A perfect target. Tira knew that she must first convince her companions to join her, but they would need to be swayed to a new logic. Power corrupts, does it not? How could a man of wealth and importance not be corrupt? Z’alden was convinced most easily. “Crony capitalist!”, decried Z’alden, “Surely his gains are ill-gotten! Justice must prevail!” Rift was next to fall to Tira’s persuasion, after all, the guy lived in a mansion, inhabited by no one else but himself. Something must be wrong with him. Magical constructs guard his estate. What possible need could he have for that level of security… unless he was hiding something! Barrick and Erik were last to be convinced. Did they agree to join in on the plans out of loyalty? Or the need for adventure? Perhaps it was Tira’s feminine wiles…

All this scheming had a secondary purpose, which also aided Tira in convincing the others to partake in her nefarious plans. They had an opportunity to recover the “astral” painting, stolen back in Nerrakus from its premiere bank. Word on the street was that it was here, in the City of Brass. In a seedy bar, the adventurers found a djinn that offered information on where to recover the painting, but for a price. That price was the magistrate’s astrillium ring – a family heirloom and symbol of his power. Without that ring, the magistrate would crumble.

Back in their rented lodging, Rift set to weaving the powers of a mighty ritual where she would be able to consult the mystic sages, gaining insight on where the ring slept and how it could be taken:

Rift: “Oh mystic sages, where is the magistrate’s astrillium ring?”
Sages: “In the crystal case, in the center of the floor, in the gem room.”
Rift: “How do I get past the magical constructs that guard the magistrate’s mansion?”
Sages: “He without power is powerless. Disable the central conduit of power.”

This was enough for the adventurers to form a plan. They would disguise themselves as city workers sent to repair the power conduit leading up to the magistrate’s estate. They would then sever the line, slip into the house and steal the ring. Simple.

Late that afternoon, the adventurers headed to the magistrate’s mansion, to reconnoiter and get a sense of just what they’d be up against. To their surprise, a knock on the door brought the magistrate before them. He was of a serious demeanor, stern and direct. As with most efreets, there was a pall of arrogance that surrounded him, and this only emboldened Z’alden in this quest.

“Begone. City business is to be done during business hours”, bellowed the magistrate. Z’alden and Barrick reeled at the perceived lack of hospitality. Still, the adventurers entreated him to grant them time now, for they had travelled far and were weary. “No. I do not have time now. Perhaps you would like to schedule time tomorrow? I have a free slot at the lunch hour. Decide quickly.”

The adventurers agreed to lunch and left, but not empty handed. They had seen the defensive constructs and the adamantium door and shutters. Yes, the powerful would need to be rendered powerless.

The next day the adventurers returned to the estate which sat outside the walls of the city. A long road lead up to the mansion, and under it lay a conduit that supplied magical energy to the estate, just as it did with other buildings within the city. Its success was one of the magistrate’s hallmark achievements. Dressed as a repair crew, the five began to dig. Barrick’s skill with a pick made the work look legitimate, but Rift’s disintegrate spell make it go quickly. Soon they were down to the exposed conduit. The energy running through the system was frighteningly powerful. High voltage!

To their horror, the magistrate walked past the construction zone on his way to work. Barrick began to hum a little tune: “If you’re having trouble with your city magistrate, he’s givin’ you the blues…”

“What now?”, snorted the magistrate, clearly frustrated, “This was working fine for over a year now. What changed? This is where the city’s money is going!”. Not to be late for the first of his endless meetings, the magistrate quickly continued on his way. The adventurers breathed a collective sigh of relief as he passed beyond the walls and into the city.

Now Rift could work the magic of her arcane gate. With one portal placed in the conduit and one directly in front of the mansion’s adamantium door, the power not only bypassed the remaining section of conduit but began blasting away at the door. This gave Barrick and Erik and opportunity to safely break the conduit, which they quickly did with mighty blows. Soon too was the door blown clean open. Within the walls, the constructs were lifeless. Tira hid a wicked grin – her schemes were going according to plan.

The adventurers quickly fled into the house as Rift prepared bring down the portal. That much untamed energy would deliver a mighty blast, and so it did. Shockwaves from the collapsed conduit blasted the house and its concussive force rattled the adventurers. Still, they were in. Tira and Rift quickly found the crystal box, which was said to contain the ring. They had their prize and so they raced out the back of the house, which now had a clean hole poked all the way through it from the initial blast of energy.

As the adventurers made their way back into the City of Brass, they could hear the city folk tell their version of what had happened. People were distraught and pointed to the black smoke that came from the direction of the magistrate’s house. Some said that the magistrate’s house had been destroyed by an accident with the power system. Others thought it had been attacked and that the magistrate was dead. There were cries of “villainy!”. There was sadness. There was fear of further attacks. The magistrate had done such a good job at making the city safer, and so what an ironic pity for this to befall him.

Back in their lodgings, Rift worked past the crystal box’s wardings to be able to open it. Sure enough, as promised, it held the magistrate’s ring. Success!

Barrick and Erik turned a suspicious eye to Tira. No better than common thieves they were. Dirty deeds, indeed.

Sympathy for the Devil

Wasting no time, Tira returned to the shady bar where she had met the unscrupulous efreet just a day before. She had been promised information about the painting in exchange for the ring. Now she wanted more. It was time to change the particulars of the deal. Location was not enough! After some hard bargaining, the djinn relented and offered not just the location of the painting, but help getting into the building. Tira was pleased. Her masterful plan to bring the magistrate to ruin was a success, and as a bonus she managed to secure the location of the painting. Not a bad couple of days. Or was it?

The next day the adventurers met the shady djinn and he them through the city, past shops, row houses, banks and foundries. Soon they stood before a warehouse and the djinn motioned for them to enter. The air was still and most strikingly, the street was bare.

“Enter! The painting is on the second floor, in the back”, said the djinn with smile that was difficult to read. How did he know just exactly where the painting was? The adventurers did not trust him, but what choice did they have? So they entered.

The warehouse stood nearly empty, being sparsely populated with only a smattering of old crates and open boxes. The floor was dusty. What kind of warehouse was this? Yet true to the efreet’s words, there was a steep staircase in the back. Erik lead the way ever so carefully. Did the wooden step creak as one would expect? Was the air as stale as expected? What of the quality of the light? Was all the world an illusion? The others followed, slowly, up the stairs to the second floor.

Reaching the top of the stairs, the adventurers found themselves in a small room of red oak – a deeper and bloodier red than normal, but perhaps it was just the lighting. No, before them stood a devil! Z’alden’s mind raced. He recoiled. He had to keep himself from lurching forward. Restraint.

“Pleased to meet you. Nicely done deed!”, said the devil, his wings perking up almost imperceptibly, “but this is not why you are here, now is it?”

The adventurer’s looked at each other, knowing that a dangerous game was now underfoot. “Please allow me to introduce myself”, continued the devil with a grin and penetrating eyes. “I am man of wealth and taste; you need not worry now. Our interests may, shall we say, coincide?”

The devil paused to examine the adventurer’s perplexed expressions. He kindly smiled. “You see, the demons will soon be on on the march.”

“Demons, you know I despise demons with a holy passion”, boldly stated Z’alden, “but why would ever even consider doing the devil’s work? Perhaps you should be the one to go to battle with the demons!”

The devil just smiled and bowed his head with eyes still on the adventurers, “I am but your humble servant. Here. Have some sympathy, and do me the courtesy of taking on this quest, won’t you? For devils cannot go forth into the Abyss. I surely would not bargain if I could do this myself.” He paused to study their response. “I can tell that you are puzzled by the nature of my game, but there is nothing to fear, nothing. To fear, at all. Let me help you. You and I, we are not so dissimilar. Just ask the magistrate.” The devil’s eyes lit up with that last barb, which he clearly could not resist, for it was his nature. The adventurer’s turned shades of red – for embarrassment or anger – but the effect was to make their color match the devil’s color more closely.

“What can you do for us?”, asked Rift, “Weapons? Majicks? What is in it for us?”

“I can expedite. Expedite your travels to the Abyss”, calmly replied the devil. “For I… have you guessed my name? Destabilize the demons. Kill Mal…” The devil softened his face and smiled. “Mal’Ganis. Mal’Ganis must be stopped. Yes. Stopped from his plans. And then there is the issue of the glaives. Yes, I know about your interest in them with respect to the one known as Illidan. You see, we really are on the same side. I can help you. What I offer is more for you than for me. Do we have a deal?”

With that, the devil waved his left hand in a circular motion and a portal appeared before the adventurers. With his other hand, he motioned for them to enter. He put on his best yet least convincing smile.

Z’alden was the first to enter, followed by Barrick. As the last of the five entered, they could feel the Cheshire grin of the devil behind, with echoes of the question, “Tell me, what’s my name?”

In My Time of Dying

Ripped from the Elemental Plane of Fire, the five adventurers found themselves even further from the Nentir Vale. Memories of home were hard to conjure in this barren, darkened and hostile landscape. No quarter for lost souls. The devil had delivered upon his half of the bargain by conveniently placing the adventurers at the footstep of Mal’Ganis’ fortress. Upon its flanks paced an assortment of demons, who seemed to bicker amongst each other, surely fueled by feudal status and an unyielding impulse to torment.

“To beat them, we must join them”, Z’alden concluded. “Put me in chains!” The others looked at each other and soon caught on. The potions of mimicry did the trick, making Rift, Tira, Barrick and Erik look like nyca-demons. Erik noticed that Tira was strangely fetching, for a demon. The chains on Z’alden looked quite convincing as the “demons” brought him forth, before the head demon who guarded the gates to Mal’Ganis’ palace.

“What you want?”, shouted the ultro-demon schemer to the four.

“We have a prisoner. Servant of Bahamut. For the slaughter!”, replied nyca-demon Tira.

“So slaughter him already!”, replied the ultro-demon, with his blood-seep demons soldiers slavishly snickering behind.

“But this one is special. One for Mal’Ganis’ direct pleasure.”

“No, kill him now. If you won’t, I will. Step aside!”, demanded the ultro-demon.

Z’alden winked at Rift and that’s all it took to convey the plan. “Mal’Ganis will be very displeased, you fool” shouted Rift, turning her attention to all the soldiers and pointing at each one of them. “Mal’Ganis will vanish all those who defy his wishes. Do not doubt this word!”

The ultro-demon gutturally chuckled and so too followed the blood-seep demons in an insane cackle, mocking Rift.

“You were warned!”, scowled Rift. And with all eyes on her, Z’alden was able to surreptitiously cast his magic, sending the ultro-demon into another plane. The other demons were stunned in disbelief.

“You have doubted the menacing power of our great leader”, taunted Rift, “perhaps you to would like to defy his wishes too?”

“No, of course we do not question”, mumbled the remaining demons as they cowered, “Proceed. Pass forth. Be glorious the slaughter most pleasantly for our master’s pleasure, that is, by his will, always. Go!”

With that the adventurers, still in their magical disguises, opened the great doors to the fortress of Mal’Ganis. So many times before on countless adventures lay chamber after chamber to protect the leader, but to the adventurer’s surprise, Mal’Ganis now sat before them on the far side of a great hall. So soon to see Mal’Ganis. A good thing?

Mal’Ganis’ throne was backed by a wall, with the glaives mounted below a large stained glass window that depicted an army of demons. The light making its way through seemed to be of a dark power. The great demon then stood, revealing fine scale mail armor and a war spear in hand. “Leave the prisoner and begone”, commanded Mal’Ganis.

“Uh, no. Let’s do things our way”, shouted Rift as she created a portal, enabling Barrick to rush through to the far side of the great hall and stand beneath the towering figure of Mal’Ganis. The dwarf was pushed aside, with Mal’Ganis mighty reach. Z’alden cast off his chains and was next through the portal, to cast a powerful spell, but the demons of the stained glass glowed and Mal’Ganis laughed as he shrugged off the attack. Erik’s turn was next and as he raised his bow, he took aim for his quarry’s exposed flesh. Three arrows let loose and three met their target, but the ranger could tell that the demon resisted much of the damage. Finally, from Tira’s hand sprung a prismatic beam, but to no avail.

Now it was Mal’Ganis’ turn and he brought forth a fire and earth elemental to combat the other adventurers as he personally went after the dwarf. Even after being able to dodge the attack, Barrick felt the force of fear and stood stunned in the shadow of Mal’Ganis.

As battle continued, the demon and his elementals focused on the servant of Bahamut, the cleric, Zenithar al Denithar. Attack after attack was laid down upon the cleric. It was a wise strategy, but so too did the adventurers have a similar strategy of their own, concentrating their attacks on the elementals, and soon the earth elemental was dispatched. With that, Mal’Ganis chanted, “Feel the maelstrom: wind and water.” And so an air and water elemental were conjured to join the battle. The demon’s massive spear swung a wide arc, hitting many of the adventurers in a single sweep. Erik’s arrows continued to fly and from Rift’s fingers sprung prismatic beams, poisoning, burning and dazing the elementals. The fire elemental would quickly fall, but all the while Z’alden took blow after blow. Such was the price for being a servant of Bahamut in the realm of demons.

A final blow set Z’alden’s thoughts afar. The room spun. The clangs of weapons upon armor rang out as distant bells. Swirls of bright colors and a cacophony of sound filled his head as confusion overtook his rational mind. The stone floor moved upward in slow motion to greet his weakening body – comfortable as a down pillow for flesh that has no feeling. Thoughts of a song drifted through… “If my wings should fail me, Bahamut, please meet me with another pair. Well, well, well, so I can die easy.”

Cough.

To be continued…

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The Perfect Heist
or, The Perfect Jest

“Late one night a passing human saw a dwarf stooped over in front of a tavern. Seeing no trace of vomit, the human asked the dwarf if he had lost something. ‘Aye’, the dwarf replied, ‘the keys to me room at the inn’. So the human looked around a bit as well. The area was well lit by torches on either side of the tavern’s doors, but he saw nothing looking like keys. ‘Maybe you left them inside’, he said. ‘Nae’, said the dwarf, ‘I was drinking over there tonight’ – and he pointed at the closed, shuttered, darkened tavern across the street. Perplexed, the human asked, ‘Why aren’t you looking for your keys over there?’ Shaking his head as if speaking to an imbecile, the dwarf replied “Ain’t it obvious? It’s too dark over there, never find nuthin over there’.

Barrick, who had lately taken to retelling bar jokes as purported pearls of wisdom, shook with laughter, but Rift remained skeptical. “All three are just rumors – under the King’s Throne Room, says a scummy thief. Under a bank vault, says a strange dwarf. Under three feet of rubble at the Royal Armory, says a Bishop. None is likelier than the others. The obvious thing to do is none of the above.” But Barrick won the day. There was no easy way to scope out the King’s Throne room or the Royal Armory today, but the bank would be open for business. Search where the light is. Sometimes quests are like that.

An art theft having just taken place at the bank, the group pulled out the old reliable WeAreImportantPeopleWhoAreSupposedToBeHere act, which got them past the guards and clerks. The bank functionaries, in fine silk of green and gold, needed more convincing. Playing the conductor now, Barrick joined his thumb to his middle finger on each hand, with the two circles interlocked. This was an oft-used sign in the group, based on the ease with which drunkards and fools can be impressed, then confused. (One holds one’s hands like that without interlocking the fingers, turns one’s shoulders away, then shows one’s hands again, interlocked., repeating to unlock them. A drunkard, fool, or young child will inevitably try to mimic this by putting their hands behind their back from opposite directions, so they they will be unable to produce the effect.) Erik the Perceptive pointed out marks on the floor indicating something heavy had been moved, as well as a pile of clerks’ robes hidden from view. Suitably impressed, the functionaries gave the group free rein upstairs, and the bank director agreed to take them below – 8 levels below, where dozens of vaults lay along a corridor.

The theft was a fascinating problem. Three keys are needed for entry to a vault, two banker keys and one patron key. The robbed vault belongs to the King’s Nephew, an heir to the throne who is without debts, and who was given the painting by his uncle the King. Nothing else was taken from the vault. Vault doors do not close well, and one must wait some minutes after closing a vault door before being confident that it will not spontaneously reopen. This door was found ajar by passing clerks, which implies that it was not an inside job.

Curiouser and curiouser the case became. The bankers’ keys are kept in a keystore that can only be opened by the Director. They all look the same, but have different magical signatures. Importantly, they cannot be verified without first closing the door, and if they do not work, the door can never be reopened. This fact led to the adventurers’ next big break.

When the director tried to close the vault door to see whether the keys worked, several of the party stopped him vigorously. Barrick shouted out “Spit on the bar”, and everyone knew what he meant. A guy in a tavern asks the tough bartender whether he would like to bet 10 gold pieces that he can spit his beer the length of the bar into a spittoon at the far end. Seeing that the guy is drunk and weak-looking, the bartender agrees. The guy fails utterly, but raises the bet to 20 gold pieces, asking for three chances. Never coming close, he raises to 30, with 5 chances. The bartender agrees each time. The guy proceeds to spit vast quantities of ale down the bar, missing badly and at one point even hitting the bartender full in the face, producing howls of laughter from the bartender as he wipes down the bar. After paying up, the guy is thanked profusely with a warm handshake – but smiles broadly at the winner, who asked him,. “Why are you smiling, you’re out 60 gold pieces, and you never came close.” “True, but I bet those guys on the other side of the room 200 gold pieces that I could spit ale all over your bar for 20 minutes, as well as in your face, and you would clean it up and thank me afterwards.”

The point of this joke is to keep the opponent thinking that the quarry is different from what the quarry actually is. The adventurers explained patiently to the director that, to avoid the King’s Nephew’s wrath, and maybe the wrath of the King, they should first move the Nephew’s remaining things to another vault, in case the keys do not work. The door to the robbed vault, now empty, was closed, the keys tried, and – they did not work! The vault would likely be an empty tomb forever. But the group had saved the Director from a treasonable offense, and now had free run of the vaults – to go after their actual quarry.

As for the robbery, the solution was simple. Barrick told the joke: A banker, a customer, and a bank director are caught riding on the back of a dragon that had just destroyed and looted their bank. Hanging from a scale behind the dragon’s head are two Rings of Featherfall. The three discuss who should use the rings. The customer says that he should use one, because the customer is always right. The banker says he should use one, because he is the future of the bank when it is rebuilt. The bank director says he not only should use one because he is the most intelligent of the three, he is going to use one because he is in charge. He grabs a ring and jumps. The banker looks at the customer, who smiles and says, “The most intelligent of us just jumped off with my wedding band in his hand!”

Realizing that the people at the top of a hierarchy are probably the most useless, the group questions the director more directly. There had been only one guest all day whom the Director had not recognized, and his memory was fuzzy about that guy too, a possible sign of magic, which was soon dispelled by Z’alden and Rift. The bearded man had in fact been the King’s Nephew, and the clerks who escorted him had been dismissed some months before; they no doubt had stolen the keys to this vault. Why the King’s Nephew had done this in such a mysterious fashion was unknown, but also not really what interested the adventurers.

With the blessing of the grateful Director, the five examined the corridor, “checking things out”, and identified which vault should be closest to the cave. They managed access to it by asking to open their own vault, and stealing the bankers’ keys to their target – really, how can such a useless bank stay in business?

Without the patron key though, magic was required. Warding runes guarded the door, spelling out “Light. Theft. Origin.” Rift remembered the solution to an old childhood riddle:

“Follows You in the Light
Hides thieves in the Night
Starts where you start
Never comes apart”

While Tira distracted the hapless Director, the others worked to produce shadows on the door, matching markings found there, and the doors opened!

Inside were found about two gold millions’ worth of diamonds, walls made of platinum, and a tunnel going down. After grabbing all the loot, the party descended the tunnel, then a pit about 150 feet deep, which ultimately led to a huge cave with a lake. Briefly questioning the wisdom of reanimating such a powerful being as Tassadar, the group nevertheless threw his bones into the lake. “How many dead adventurers does it take to mop a floor?” Asked Barrick. “Five. One to hold the mop, four to walk him up and down the floor.” The group waited as the powerful being emerged whole from the lake; was it to be death or promotion?

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Disturbing the Peace

The bed was made of rough-hewn logs. It had clearly been crafted by someone who was not an expert woodworker, yet there was still an elegance to it. Each log had been carefully chosen to be the exact right size, and the bark and branches had been hacked off with a sharp blade that removed only what was necessary but not a single ounce more. The rest of the room reflected the bed’s construction. The floor was lightly sanded oak, rough but even. The walls were pale birch, directing the sunlight cleverly around the room so that the entire space seemed to glow with a pale yellow. In the corner of the room a huge tree trunk came through the floor and went out through the ceiling.

A small table stood near the bed. On the table were two items – a decanter filled with a pale red fluid, and a large grimoire, blackened around the edges with age and perhaps traces of a fire.

There were only two decorations in the room. Hanging above the bed was a tiny bow made of ash and a beech quiver, containing a few small arrows. The bow was even more crudely made than the bed, yet on closer examination, the same spartan economy had been used in crafting the bow – it was clearly a child’s toy, yet had been constructed to be fully functional. It seemed easily capable of delivering one of its arrows with deadly force and precision.

On the other side of the room, directly visible from the bed, was the other decoration. It was a large scroll, held in place by four daggers driven deep into the wall. The scroll was covered with writing, written in a sharp hand in black ink. The language was unfamiliar, gutteral, with sharp lines. In the center of the scroll was a name, set apart from the rest of the text: "Illidan eth Stormrage”. The only other recognizable word was near the bottom, written this time in red ink, “Excommunicado”. At the bottom were the signatures of numerous people, perhaps twenty in all. All were written in black ink except one in red: “Malfurian”.

Illidan’s eyes flicked open. His transition from asleep to awake was instantaneous. He scanned the room, quickly assessing what had disturbed his peace. A bird perched on the windowsill, it’s eyes adjusting to the light. Just as the bird opened its beak to let out a warble, Illidan fixed it with his gaze. His left hand made the tiniest pinching gesture. The bird seemed to shimmer for an instant and then faded from sight, leaving only a trace of dust motes floating in the disturbed air.

Illidan sighed. Either his defenses were growing weaker, or the forest was again closing in on his haven. He would have to patrol the grounds carefully today, checking all of his traps and wards.

He sighed again, taking a sip from the red liquid in the decanter. He had had another disturbing dream. This time it seemed to take place in the future. His future? He could not tell. There had been a Archmage, who seemed to perhaps be himself. Sometimes he had been in the Archmage’s body, and other times, he had floated above. The Archmage was older and dressed in flowing robes covered with silver and red sigils.

The Archmage was in a huge room, divided into five areas, separated from each other by voids on unknown depth. The main area had strange markings on the floor and a large dais, raised a few steps above the remainder. The other areas had similar strange markings. The name “The Room of Creation” floated unbidden into Illidan’s dreaming mind.

The Archmage was clearly fighting a desperate battle against seemingly impossible odds. Five heroes were arrayed against him: A half-elf Cleric, an eladrin Wizard, a half-elf Sorcerer, a human Ranger, and a stout dwarf Fighter.

Illidan sensed another presence in the room, perhaps aiding the Archmage, or perhaps there to further its own ends. Again, a name floated into Illidan’s mind: “Jaraxxus”. Illidan shuddered in his sleep.

Illidan saw the Archmage raise his robed arms. Tendrils of force and acid shot forth, striking against the Cleric and the Wizard. “Good!” though the dreaming Illidan, target the spellcasters first, especially the Wizard. Illidan could sense that the Archmage recognized the threat of another magic user, a rival, a pretender to the true power! The Wizard must be eliminated first, obliterated. Then the others could be dealt with piecemeal. The Sorcerer was a threat, true enough, but her own chaotic nature would give the Archmage time to deal with her later. The Ranger was a pesky annoyance. His arrows could sting surely enough, and given enough time could cause serious damage, but he was weak to a full frontal assault of magic. The Fighter was easy enough. He could wield mighty blows, but in the end, what could might do against magic? Ha! The Cleric complicated things. He would have to be carefully watched. He could delay the battle indefinitely, with his meddling gods.

In the dream, Illidan peered more closely at the Cleric. Which god did this one pretend to follow? Bahamut? Ha! No wait, there was another. Tiamat? Ah, now that was more interesting. Perhaps this one could be made to change allegiance. Illidan urged the Archmage to notice, willing him to follow his dream advice, but the Archmage ignored him.

The Ranger loosed an arrow which struck a glancing blow off the Archmage. The Cleric quickly followed with a curse that made the Archmage reel. His defenses were down. Illidan cursed against his own impotence, wanting to join the battle and help his brother Archmage. Strange how much kinship he felt towards the nameless necromancer. Suddenly the Archmage lifted his arms and dropped them. The entire room shifted, and a new realm was entered. All magical effects ended. Illidan was stunned. This was what he had been looking for. He must find out who this Archmage was, and where he had gained such power.

The Archmage blasted the Wizard again and again. The Wizard raised her arms feebly, trying spell after spell, only to see them fizzle and fail. Her arms fell limply to her sides, she sighed, then collapsed in a heap of robes, her staff clattering to the ground. The other heroes stood, shocked. Apparently, Illidan thought wryly, they were not used to defeat. Illidan saw satisfaction gleaming in the eyes of the Archmage, echoing his own satisfaction. That had been a well-fought battle, with little wasted power and only minor inconvenience to the spell caster.

But of course, as heroes must, they continued to fight on, oblivious to their impending, obvious, defeat. The Sorcerer spun a whirlwind of dust and debris, a thunderclap pushing the Archmage away from the fallen Wizard. The Ranger ran to the eladrin’s aid, administering a potion of life. The Cleric added his own ministrations, and the Wizard’s eyes flickered open. Too bad. At least, thought Illidan, if she somehow survives the battle, she will have some scars to show for it and to teach her some humility.

The dwarf fighter now added his strength, with a blinding flash of steel blades that struck the Archmage. Illidan saw the Archmage grow angry. His arms were raised in a mighty incantation that would sweep all away. Illidan saw his lips muttering the spell, and even though it was a dream, Illidan realized that he recognized the words. Shocked, he stared at the Archmage. Was this indeed the same spell, the spell that he himself had created, years ago, and had been perfecting? If only he could see more clearly in his dream. Yes, he could almost make it out. Just a few more moments and he would be sure.

Suddenly, there was a flash of red, as a wing shot in front of Illidan’s face. Illidan caught a glimpse of the Sorcerer, her red hair flying in the breeze, whooping with chaotic joy as she swept by on a red dragon. Annoyed, both Illidan and the Archmage glared at the Sorcerer as she flew over to one of the glowing sigils etched on the floor. Illidan’s gaze swept back to the Archmage. “Finish the spell!” he shouted frantically in his dream. The Archmage lifted his hands, poised to shout the final Word of Power that would confirm Illidan’s suspicions.

The dream ended.

It was morning. The bird had been dismissed whence it came. Illidan sighed again. Was he never to discover the answer? Illidan put on his finest pale blue robes and strode outside, blinking in the warm sunlight as he climbed down from his tree abode. Something wasn’t right. Another wild animal to disturb his peace and order? He stared across the stream that divided his small clearing in the forest. There were several humanoid creatures standing on the other side, waving their arms in confusion and gesticulating wildly to each other. Well, this at least was more interesting, he though to himself. They might still need to be destroyed, but at least he could perhaps learn something useful from other “intelligent” beings, even if they could never hope to reach his level.

“Greetings!” called Illidan across the water. “Well met!” called back one of the people, a tall half-elf wearing clerical robes. Strange, thought Illidan, why do these people seem familiar to me? A half-elf Cleric, an eladrin Wizard, a half-elf Sorcerer, a human Ranger, and a stout dwarf Fighter. Yes, somehow that seemed correct. Had he had dealings with this party in the past? They did not seem threatening, but seemed somehow wary of him, as if they somehow knew something about him that even he didn’t know. Disturbing, indeed. He would need to be very careful, only revealing what was truly necessary.

Somehow Illidan sensed that in this meeting, his life was going to change. He strongly believed in the currents of time. You followed a current down one tributary or another, and events shaped themselves accordingly. This was a new current that he had never sensed before.

Two months later…

Good friends? No, but neither were they enemies. Illidan had indeed learned much from the travellers. Z’alden, Rift, Tira, Erik, and Barrick were strong warriors. They had travelled together for many years and had formed bonds that Illidan envied. Yet that was also their weakness. Now, at last, they had brought Illidan to the Temple of the Arcane. Here, they promised, the Archmage Calizar would instruct Illidan in the deeper mysteries of the arcane. He yearned for the knowledge. With it, he could finally put an end to his life of excommunication and punish those who had thought so little of him. Yes, the time was fast approaching when all would know the name of Illidan Stormrage, and, love him? Illidan smiled for the first time in many years.

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