“Torben! Come join us!” Barrick shouted in his huge dwarf voice. Barrick held aloft a great tankard of ale, foam splashing over the sides and running down his mailed arm.
The others looked up. Tira, Erik, Rift, and Z’alden spied Torben by the bar. The dour scribe appeared to be talking to the barkeep. Erik the Ranger noticed that the man looked nervous and agitated. Erik saw a flash of gold as Torben pushed a coin over to the bartender, who casually lifted it off the sticky bar, bit into it, and then slipped it into his jerkin.
Torben weaved his way through the crowd, fending off a pair of female half-elf rangers who tried to latch onto his arms. A burly half-orc, obviously blasted out of his wits, tried to block Torben’s path and engage him in a drunken jig. Torben stopped and stared blankly at the large half-wit. Dismayed, the half-orc gave up and staggered off after the two rangers.
As Torben approached the table, Erik noticed that he carried neither drink nor food. What did the coin buy? mused Erik.
“Torben,” Barrick roared. “What brings you to the Greasy Goose at this late hour?”
Torben looked around nervously, then sat down in the closest chair with a thump. “My friends,” he began, “It is good to see you. Unlike me, you all seem quite healthy and contented. That is good.”
Barrick stared at the quill-pusher. The dwarf was not too far gone, and even he noticed that Torben did not look well. His clothes were unkempt, his hair was wild, and perhaps had a touch of gray that was not there before. The dwarf shrugged and thought to himself, What is it with these humans? So much drama, and they age so quickly. Bah, no matter!
Loudly, the dwarf bellowed, “Well, enough of your own troubles Torben. Thanks for sharing. But look, have we got a story for you!” At this, Barrick leaned over and gave Rift a slap on the back, causing her glass of Nentir ‘97 to slosh over the sides of her silver chalice. Torben saw Rift turn bright pink in embarrassment. Despite Torben’s own preoccupations and troubles, the scribe grew interested. An Eladrin, embarrassed? Torben grew excited. Perhaps just this once he could get the full tale, without interruptions. If so, he could finally finish the next volume! Perhaps that would keep the jackals at bay!
Tira grinned as she saw Torben quickly pull his chair up to the table. Whipping out quill and paper, Torben brushed his greasy hair out of his face, then turned to the dwarf. “Well, what happened? What did Rift do?”
Startled, the dwarf turned to the scribe, who was staring at him in eager anticipation. “What? You want your story right now? But I’m only on my second glass of ale…”
Tira saw the look of dismay pass over Torben’s face. The half-elf lay her delicate hand on Torben’s arm. “Torben, I will give you your story, assuming that our dear friend Rift doesn’t mind.” Rift waved a hand dismissively. “No, no,” the wizard declared, “go ahead. I have suffered through the indignity already. Yet another retelling won’t harm me.” Rift smiled weakly at Tira.
As Tira began speaking, Torben’s hand began to fly over the paper. “So, there we were. Stuck in the Order of the Arcane temple with a mad archmage. Illidan Stormrage, you recall, was his name. We had just been talking to a dead skeleton…”
Z’alden spoke, “Wait, I must interrupt you.” Tira stopped, an annoyed look crossing her face. Torben looked up, pen poised above the paper. The cleric’s face split into a wide grin. The rest of the party stared at Z’alden, waiting for the inevitable. “Aren’t all skeletons dead?” After a brief moment of silence, everyone except Torben burst out into gales of laughter. Torben stared at the group. Great peals of laughter were coming out of Barrick, flecks of foamy ale spewing across the table. Torben shook his head. They’re all nuts. Why did I ever hitch my wagon to this bunch? Still, it has brought me fame and fortune. And much trouble.
After the gales had subsided, Tira continued. “We had to somehow find the head of a demon, and bring it back to the skeleton. Then he (the skeleton, not the demon head) would give us a key. The Key to the Depths Below he said. Why we wanted a key to even more horrors, I don’t know. But that was our quest. Also, how were we to get a demon head? Ask politely?”
“Anyhoo, we kept wandering through the twisty ruins beneath the temple. Erik kept hearing running water…” Here, the sorceress gave the ranger a playful jab in the ribs. “Water on the brain, more likely.”
“But indeed, we did eventually come to a fountain, which, thinking it was a Fountain of Youth and Beauty, I immediately drank. But no… instead it just gave us some extra luck.”
“Wait, back up a minute.” Here, Torben lifted his quill, a pained look crossing his face, as a drop of ink pooled on his paper. Tira continued, “Completely forgot about the scrying orb. That was in another room, platinum pieces all over the floor. Our illustrious wizard, using her amazing arcane skills….” Rift’s cheeks turned even pinker. “Our wizard used the scrying orb to spy on Illidan. He was talking to some demon guy who had just come out of a big cloud of energy. Oh yeah, and Illidan was holding the sword and staff of Miraak.”
Torben stared blankly. “Oh for Tiamat’s sake, you don’t know Miraak?!” Tira spluttered. Rift muttered, “Miraak, the sorcerer king, ancient archmage of the Order of the Arcane. He used the staff to summon demons to do his bidding.”
Tira continued. “Thanks Rift! So Illidan says to the demon…” Tira lowered her voice and began to intone in her best evil-sorcerer-who-wants-to-rule-the-world voice, ‘Batarath, lead the armies to the eastern front. The Fire Lord is pleased with our progress, blah blah blah." Tira smiled brightly. "I can’t remember if he said anything else. I got bored and wandered off."
“Then, there were some statues that came alive and we had to defeat. You know, the usual stuff.” Here, Tira lifted her glass and gave a brief whistle. The buxom barmaid came over, winked at Tira, and refilled her glass. “Well, not to embarrass anyone, but I just could not understand why Erik insisted on attacking the statues with his bow. And not with an arrow, mind you. A bit ineffective, if you ask me. But after being stunned, dazed, knocked down, and then body slammed, our dear ranger came to his senses and began to actually shoot his arrows.”
“Well, let me tell you, we showed those statues what we were made of. Um, and it isn’t stone, let me tell you!” At this, Tira looked around expectantly. But either no one was paying attention, or perhaps they hadn’t heard her hilarious jest. She shrugged. “Well, with a few well-placed wizardly mirrors, some expert dwarven axe play, whizzing arrows, our cleric’s divine guidance, and…”, putting her hand over her chest, “…my own modest contributions, we managed to pulverize the statues back to the dust they were made from.”
Z’alden piped up, “I blinded one of the statues! Neat trick, eh? Torben, have I ever mentioned how through the divine guidance of the most powerful god, Bahamut, I am able to bring justice and retribution to our enemies?”
Tira smiled sweetly at Z’alden. “I thought Tiamat was sometimes useful to you, no?” At this, Z’alden shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, and buried his head in his near-empty glass of Nentir. Dark mutterings were heard coming from within the confines of the glass.
Torben looked up from his furious scribblings, a dark smudge of ink on his brow. “Well, then what?”
“As I was saying,” Tira continued, “we continued through the dangerous, scary dungeon, menaced on either side by fearsome foes, our feet tired but our hearts glad with promise of treasure.”
Torben stopped writing and looked up, annoyed. “Please leave the creative writing and character motivations to the scribe, thank you very much!”
Tira stopped, chagrined. Rift muttered, “I didn’t know the stone would actually come out…”
Torben stared at the wizard. “What’s that you’re muttering Rift?”
Rift continued, the wine strengthening her resolve to see the story all the way through. “We came to an odd triangular shaped room, with a slightly-tilted floor. There were stones set into the wall, with runes carved on them. Translating the inscriptions, I found that they were runes of Warding and Observation.” As Rift traced out the runes on the scarred table with her dagger, Barrick shivered. The dwarf spoke, “Yep, those are the runes alright. I’d recognize them in my sleep! Boy, that was a close shave, let me tell you. And I’ve never shaved in my life!”
Rift droned on. “I just thought, well, you know, who would put these runes into the wall, without someone wanting to take one, as a souvenir?” The others in the party just stared at the wizard. “Yes, I’ll admit it, I just wanted to take something home with me, to remember the adventure.” She stared back defiantly.
Z’alden spoke first, spluttering, “But they weighed like, well, like, as much as a block of stone!”
The cleric warmed to his subject. “She took the stone right out of the wall. The rest of us weren’t even paying attention. By Tiamat, some of us weren’t even all the way into the room. And then, you know how, the instant you do something, you realize it was perhaps a mistake? Well, in this case, guess what the giveaway was?”
Torben Eastlander peered at the cleric, stating “I cannot begin to fathom what you are talking about.”
Z’alden continued, “I’ll tell you. It was when the walls slammed together, trapping us in a triangle of doom. And then the water started pouring out of all of the blocks in the wall, after they all fell out. Did I mention that the water was pouring? No, not pouring, gushing!”
Z’alden grew more agitated, as Tira suppressed a snigger. “We were trapped, like rats. By the gods, I hate getting wet, almost as much as the dwarf! The room was filling rapidly. We tried everything we could think of. Smashing the stones back into the holes seemed to help a bit, like bailing out a lake with a bucket!”
“Luckily, we did have a sorcerer and a wizard, and a strong warrior, and a perceptive ranger, and of course a cleric to keep everyone alive.” Nodding at Erik, Z’alden continued, “the ranger noticed the secret panel first. It contained the mechanism, at least I think it did. Made my head hurt just looking at all that machinery. Never could understand that stuff.”
“By this point, the room was nearly full. It must have softened the wizard’s brain a bit, because her arcane skills seemed to fail her at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, we managed to help each other and defeat the malicious trap. Our doom had been averted.” Here, Z’alden glared at the wizard, but Rift took no notice, her face buried in her cup. She, too, began to mutter dark oaths into her chalice.
Tira then spoke. “So, that was a close call. But it all ended well, although my hair hasn’t been the same since.” Here, Tira flicked her reddish locks back and smiled prettily at the scribe, who stared at her, a blank look on his face.
Tira shrugged. “Well, you won’t believe what happened next.” Torben very much thought that was quite likely.
“We came to another room, with candles all around the inside. This time, it wasn’t Rift who triggered the trap that caused poison gas to start filling the room.” Tira paused, looking around the table at her companions. “I cannot remember. Who was it that tried to remove a candle?”
At that moment, a loud pounding sounded on the heavy door to the inn. All of the patrons stopped drinking and stared at the oaken door. All except Barrick, who was loudly humming a dwarven love song to himself, his beer swishing back and forth in his mug in time to the tune.
Erik saw the barkeep stride over to the door, nervously fingering the pocket where he had put Torben’s coin. Just as the bartender put his eye up to the peephole, the door burst open. Standing in the shattered door were at least five creatures. Four were huge warriors with hideous hyena faces, their teeth bared, laughing wickedly. Each held a long dirk, the points gleaming in the lamplight. The fifth creature appeared to be human, although a black hood made it difficult to catch but a glimpse of the face inside. Erik the Ranger stared. He swore to the nameless gods that he recognized the figure, but he could not remember how or why.
At that instant, the figure raised a hand and all light was extinguished. A blast of heat followed as screams filled the inn. The air was suddenly filled with blinding motes of dancing lights, which confounded the senses. A loud voice commanded, “Ignore the others. Take him only.” Erik felt the table being flung away from him, even as he leapt up, his swords sliding smoothly from their scabbards. He thought to himself, they will not take me without a fight.
Suddenly, Erik felt a foul creature’s hot fetid breath on the back of his neck. A high-pitched laugh filled his ear. Fighting back the wave of nausea, Erik lashed out, felt his sword grate against bone, as an agonizing roar of pain rang out. Erik swung again madly, but his swords whistled harmlessly through the air. He stopped, fearful of striking friend instead of foe.
The loud voice near the door rang out again. “Do not forget the papers.”
Erik felt a scuffle nearby, but he could neither see nor hear clearly enough to act. A struggle, then a strangled cry and a loud thump as something heavy hit the floor. The rustle of papers, and a dragging sound, as if a heavy bag were being pulled away.
Gradually, the motes of light faded away. Someone lit a lamp, the sudden brightness making everyone blink in confusion. The inn was a shambles. Broken glass and shattered mugs lay on the floor, pools of ale flowing freely. The barkeep lay facedown near the door, unmoving, his arms and legs bent at an unnatural angle.
Erik stared at his sword. Thick dark blood ran down its length. Not human blood. A pool of blood lay at his feet, with a thin trail leading off in the direction of the door.
Next to the overturned table lay one of the hideous creatures, facedown. Erik put a boot to the body and heaved the corpse over. A long dirk protruded from the chest. The ranger’s analytic side took over. A lucky strike, clumsy, done in haste and by an unskilled hand.
Barrick stared blankly. “What happened?” The dwarf looked around. “Where’s that blasted scribe? I was just getting to the good part!”
The others looked around. Torben Eastlander, along with his sheaf of papers, and his bag, was gone. His quill lay on the floor, the ink flowing from the tip, mingling with the streams of ale and blood.