“What a piece of junk”, I thought to myself. Having spent so much time with my heavily weaponed patrons, my impulse had been to purchase a fine dagger, yet this shiny new toy seemed to have no utility. I gave it another toss at the tree, but the dully jeweled hilt just bounced off the trunk with a thud. At least this time I hit the tree. I cursed myself for giving in to the lust for this thing and spending what now seemed far too much. Still, the fantasy was there and I picked up the dagger and resumed my duel with the tree. Cut to the left, cut to the right, I feigned a stagger backwards for a throw to finish off my foe, but when my arm came forward nothing flew from my hand. Where had it gone?
Erik tapped me on my shoulder, balancing the dagger upon a finger of his left hand. Then with a motion too fast for my eyes, that hand moved to snatch the dagger from the air and flung it at the tree. A bull’s-eye, no less, had there been a mark. He had nearly startled me out of my boots, arriving at our meeting in such fashion, but Erik could also see my amazement and I could almost see a smile in his eyes. He then sat upon the bare earth, leaving a flat rock for me. He had come to tell me more of the tale of the Horned Hold, a fortress deep within the bowels of Thunderspire Mountain. It seems that this place was more of a mystery than just a stronghold for the Grimmerzul.
The five adventurers had traveled far through the minotaur’s labyrinth, passing mindless horrors within its tunnels. Upon reaching the great chasm, they found the Horned Hold and had battled to get within its walls. Having felled several mighty duegar in the first bastion, they moved to the second, crossing the bottomless chasm upon a narrow bridge. Within the second bastion a series of battles took place. Alas, there was no rest for the weary warriors. Upon defeating the ettin, a two-headed giant, they paused only to be interrupted by an alarm from Rift, the wizard. Luckily she had thought to look out across the second bridge to spy four duergar sneaking up…
“Duergar!”, shouted Rift, “One large, two with red cloaks and a standard!”
She then carefully moved the double doors’ bars into place. Would the doors hold against stout dwarven battering? The others moved into position. Erik drew his bow. The paladin and fighter moved up closer, just in case the doors could not hold and the worst would happen. Z’alden stayed back, guarding the rear for possible attack.
Bash! Bash! The creaking doors shook violently upon the frightening duergar blows, yet they held. The five’s spirits lifted. They had endured that long series of battles without a rest and were desperate for recovery. But there was no time to recover. Rift and Erik fired back at the duergar through the arrow slits, each attack dealing crucial damage. If they were going to come through the door, they would first have to pay a toll.
Bash! Bash! Again the duergar slammed upon the now nearly splintering doors. But they held. The five thought that they might actually get a chance to rejoice. More magic and arrows from Rift and Erik stung the duergar. Defeated, the foes ran back across the bridge to safer ground. If only the chasm had been able to claim them to depths unknown.
Perchance to rest? Felsmon and Barrick now joined Erik and Rift. So too Z’alden, ever watchful for the well being of his comrades. After helping Barrick as best as he could Z’alden then moved out to watch the narrow bridge. Erik remained to watch the wide bridge while the others fanned out. Searching then resting.
Half-way through the rest, Rift spied a creature from the rear – bad news since it lay between the five and their best escape. She tried to blast it, but it ducked away. Finally, though, a rest. A time to regain powers lost. A time to renew hope.
The pressure to keep moving was still ever present. Surely the duergar were forming hunting parties. They would never give up so easily. So the five moved on through the hold past a balcony which gave a view out across the chasm to the first bastion. Out of the corner of his eye, Erik thought he could see something up high, either on or over the roof top. No matter, time to move forward, past a door, into the blackness.
Now off the balcony and into the inky black chamber, Rift’s sunrod illuminated what appeared to be a chapel to the demon-god minotaur Baphalmat. The once ornate sanctuary for the minotaur now lay broken, with rubble and oppressive dankness. The adventurers ventured further in.
Out of the blackness stumbled a hideous wraith – a disgusting sight whose boney form loosely held together rotten flesh. As un-sturdy looking as it was, it could still deal out serious damage, with Z’alden feeling it first. Sharp claws bit into him, giving him shivers to the core and weakening his ability to heal.
“Awe, but just one!”, thought Barrick only to reconsider as another wraith teetered forth across the rubble. The ensuing battle quickly saw Barrick surrounded. Draining blows of necrotic damage eliminated his ability to heal. Felsmon, the proud dragonborn paladin, strode into the fray, his mighty sword cleaving into the foul flesh of the wraith. Just as the battle reached a plateau, Z’alden turned the tide. With silver and purple light emanating from him, the cleric disintegrated two of the wraith outright. The others noticeably shriveled in the light. Quick blows from Barrick and Felsmon finished the rest. The battle had been won, but at a cost that was only to be revealed later.
The best way out of the cursed chapel was forward, deeper into the now more mysterious Horned Hold. Rift’s deft lock picking abilities were laid upon the exit, only to not budge the rusted door. With violent yank, Felsmon rectified the situation, nearly tearing the door from its hinges. Beyond was a minotaur burial chamber. Grizzly corpses lay resting within shallow niches in the wall. From nearby, Erik could hear sounds… sadistic taunting… of prisoners? Could the team’s quest be just behind a single iron door?
Now Rift’s thievery skills ever so softly charmed the iron door. Peeking through, a large chamber could be seen, with pits, a pool, prisoners and unholy creatures. Two red spiny devils and three duergar. Five on five – a fair fight! With that, the adventurers burst in, taking evil by surprise. Flank left. Flank right. Erik down the middle engages the first of three duergar with spiny red devils much farther away.
Oh to have the first blow and not to be the recipient! Erik was struck by the duergar war hammer. Rift silenced the far side of the room to prevent the fight to become unfair. Rays of frost. Flaming spines shooting from the red devils. Burrowing. Poisoning. The chaos. The confusion. The battle was not turning to the favor of the adventurers! The duergar spell caster stood tall for someone so diminutive, dealing blindness, slowness and still more poison.
Soon the adventurers began to feel as the the five-on-five fight was not so fair. As if by some curse from above, after holding on for so long on the brink, Barrick was felled. His ability to heal had been robbed by the wraith. He lay unconscious. Meanwhile, the paladin raged on, giving something back to the wicked. One red devil would surely not forget one particularly fierce blow of Felsmon! And so the battle continued – the adventurers reeling from the blindness and poison, unable to shake the spellcaster’s evil magic. Every bit of healing was immediately taken away. There was not much left, yet inspired by healing from Felsmon, Barrick stood once again!
Back and forth the battle drew on. The adventurers walked on the very edge of defeat yet endured, trading blow for blow. Was the end near? Powerful waves of despair from that spell casting duegar seemed to continually shout, “Yes!” With poison coursing through their veins and blindness filling their eyes, the adventurers refused to hear that answer. Now and never.
From the depths of his remaining powers, the pillar of the team’s hope, Z’alden spent his final healing force. Aiding his friends in both body and spirit, Z’alden laid the first of the duergar to a watery grave. Its slow-motion soft splash into the pool was noticed only momentarily for the battle was still being fiercely waged even as it gently sank, muscles now relaxed.
Barrick was still gravely wounded and at the limits of his endurance. Surely he would soon succumb, but there was more to come from the humble priest, who then laid a second duergar to a final, restful repose. Cleared of surrounding duegar, Erik was now able to draw his bow and he employed it upon the spell caster. Still no luck as the spellcaster blinded Erik and the hapless Barrick. Felsmon now turned his javelin’s attention upon the spell caster – the devils floating out of reach over a pit and the pool.
Flaming rocks of brimstone hail rained down on Z’alden and Erik. It would be one of his last successes, for Felsmon, Erik and even Barrick laid into him with javelin, bow and axe. Felsmon’s throw killed the spellcasting duergar. Erik’s arrow killed a red devil but the other devil had no mercy, attacking Barrick from behind to take him beyond his endurance. In truth, a last gasp from the evil as Erik’s final shot ended the battle once and for all. Alas, too late for poor Barrick.
With the battle over, the adventurers stood silently within the prison chamber. Cries of help from the captives rose up from the pits but the adventurers might have well still been blind to the caterwauling. They knew that this was a defining moment. They knew that even with all their energies depleted, their endurance must somehow continue.
Barrick was soon stabilized and returned to something of akin to the walking dead. In all, ten inhabitants of the Harkenwold were pulled from the pits along with four adventurers and, curiously, one goblin.