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The Rusty Dragons (A Jade Regent Journal)


Campaign Journals

Grand Lodge

Serendipity
2nd September 2011

It was near the end of a late-spring workday in the harbor town of Sandpoint, but Davin didn’t know it. He had been enjoying his seemingly never-ending mug of Bertie’s Wheat Ale (new keg!) at the Rusty Dragon with his good friend Calen since around lunchtime. The Rusty Dragon was, as it ever was, a haven for those who found the constraints of labor and industry too heavy a yoke. Plus, they rarely watered down the ale. Praise Cailean for companions and a halfling barkeep!

Bethana Corwin, the referenced barkeep, was charming a new face in the inn, a male elven face. Davin had a thing for elven faces, generally the female kind. He wondered idly if the elven ranger Shalelu would look kindly upon him if he introduced her to this new elven stranger. She probably would run right off to Tickwood with her new beau, he thought ruefully, and then where would the lovelorn priest of Cayden Cailean be?

It was at that point, as if she had read his thoughts, that Bethana nodded and pointed directly at the table where Davin sat. It turns out I’ll find the answer to my question sooner than I thought, thought Davin as the tall elven stranger strided cautiously towards his table. Davin took a swig of courage from his mug and lifted his chin to receive the slim elf.

“Excuse me. Calen? My name is Moric. My sister, Shalelu, told me that I should meet my foster brother here?” The elf, dressed in non-descript browns and blacks, stood in front of Davin, both of his hands wrapped tightly around a wine cup. His discomfort was not lost on Davin, but his words caught him by surprise.

“Calen?” Davin spluttered and choked on the large gulp of ale that he had attempted to swallow. “I’m sorry, but you’ve got the wrong fellow.” Davin gestured helplessly towards his table partner as he choked, coughed, and laughed at the elf’s growing consternation.

The elf’s eyes slipped from the welling redness of the spluttering halfling to the deep green-on-green of his table-mate. The confusion was obvious, for who would assume that a tusky mouth full of chicken belonging to a half-orc would answer to the sylvan name of Calen?

“Who are you again, elf?” The half-orc gobbled another large bite of chicken, bone and gristle snapping in his chomping jaw as he bit off his words.

“I am Moric Andosana, orc.....man,” managed the ruffled elf, “and I was sent by my sister to-”

“What did you call me?” The green eyes narrowed.

“What?”

“I said, what did you call me, elf?” The chicken breast lowered and Calen’s off hand slipped to the scabbard of his sword.

“Orc-man,” repeated Moric with a proud uptick of his chin.

“Oh great,” whispered Davin, readying his furred feet on the table leg lest he need to push back and avoid a flying tackle.

“Hmph.” Calen considered the term with the half-eaten chicken breast, “I’ve never heard that one before.” He belched loudly. “So, dear sister entrusted you to my keeping, did she?”

“Dear sister,” repeated Moric, his eyes glancing back to Davin, who shrugged and cheered the elf with his almost-empty mug, “told me that I should meet my ‘foster’ brother whom she has been training in the ways of the forest.”

“When’s the last time you saw Shalelu?” leered Calen.

“Seven years ago, when she last visited our home of Crying Leaf. She didn’t mention you.”

“She didn’t mention you, either,” grunted Calen.

“Wow, a glorious family reunion.” Davin hopped up from his seat. “Brings a tear to my eye. I need another drink.” He pitched toward the bar, calling for Bethana’s attention. At least he wouldn’t have to fight off the advances of Shalelu’s brother in order to win her heart, unless elves were funny like that. Oh! did that Shalelu just boil his blood. Those eyes! That skin!
Her---

Davin came to a dead-stop in the middle of the bar, head down, sniffing. His nose rarely led him astray, no matter how far into his cups he was. That was Longbottom Leaf, to be sure! A halfling’s nose knows halfling tobacco leaf, and someone had just lit up a fat pipe of Longbottom Leaf here in the Rusty Dragon! But where could it be coming from? Bethana didn’t smoke, and Davin hadn’t seen any other halflings, much less a halfling from Korvosa, where Longbottom Leaf was grown. As he wildly glanced around the bar, his eyes lit upon a small, scrawny-looking human in foppish dress with a drooping hat punctuated by a large purple plume chomping on the end of a thin-necked pipe, puffing away merrily! A human! With Longbottom Leaf! The nerve of some thieves, thought Davin as he stalked up behind the unaware patron, making off with some poor hobbit’s pipe and weed and smoking the spoils of his thievery out in public!

“Excuse me, SIR, but where, exactly, did you get that leaf?” Davin drew himself up to his full three feet in height and gestured at the hatted human at the bar with a glare.

The small human splashed his cup (water! what nerve!, thought Davin) as he turned around in surprise and met the halfling’s eyes. “My father,” replied the pale face in between expert puffs at the pipe. “Do you know of it?”

Davin harrumphed. “I’d have a poor Varisian halfling snout if I couldn’t identify Longbottom Leaf at one hundred paces. But the better question is, what are you---YOUR FATHER?!” The human’s response caught up to Davin’s brain a touch late. Longbottom Leaf was a halfling heritage! Who did this charlatan think he was?

“Celric Longbottom,” the wide-eyed human extended his off-hand to the halfling. “Pleased to meet you....?”

“Davin, you must meet this interesting chap,” Bethana said as she appeared from behind the bar and gracefully exchanged Davin’s empty mug for a full one, “he hails from Korvosa, and he was raised in a halfling household by halfling foster parents! Can you imagine? Davin Greytoes, Celric Longbottom. There, now that I’ve made your acquaintances for you, you can start being friendly to him, Davin.” Bethana flashed a disappointed look at the agape priest and hurried off to the kitchen.

After a brief splutter, Davin asked, “But how did you manage, growing up, quite literally, in a house with 5 foot ceilings?”

“Well, I was sent off to university when I was still small, so I never actually had to deal with it unless I was visiting,” smiled Celric.

“University?” started Davin. “So you’re a wi---”

“Scribe,” Celric stated firmly. “Just a scribe, looking for some scribing work. I’m sort of lousy with poverty right now, and I need to make some coin. Do you know where I could find some?”

“Work? or coin?”

“Both, if it’s not too much trouble,” grinned Celric.

“Who’s the bird with the purple feather, Davin?” crowed Calen.

“He’s a wizard!” Davin yelled back.

“Scribe.” Celric said again.

“Scribe, wizard, whatever. Headmaster Gandethus at the Academy might be able to help you.” Davin trailed off as he noted the figure striding through the front door. Abruptly, his attentions turned. “Lung! Come over! Join our table!” Davin motioned at the table where Calen and Moric were still regarding each other cautiously.

Lung Chang had had a tiring, if not gratifying week. He had had his Irorian Coming of Age rite at last week’s end, and Davin had seen to his Cailelian Coming of Age party, which had ended only two days ago. Lung hadn’t set foot in the Rusty Dragon since embarrassedly leaving his stomach contents, and most of his pride in the privy at the inn. He probably wouldn’t have returned so soon if Koya, his adoptive mother, hadn’t firmly booted him off the front porch of their house and told him to go be a lump somewhere else. Of course, Davin was at the Rusty Dragon. Probably hadn’t left it, thought Lung as he steered toward Calen and the elven stranger seated with him.

Davin met him at the table and clasped his hand warmly with the hand not carrying his always-full beer mug. “Well met, young man!” Davin, yelled over his shoulder, “Bethana! We need another ale here for our Man of Irori!”

“I can hear you fine, Master Greytoes,” Bethana chimed, “there’s no need to holler.”

“Sorry,” hiccuped Davin in a loud whisper. He focused his attention back on Lung and motioned excitedly towards the elf. “You’ll never guess who’s come to visit Calen!”

“Who?” answered Lung.

“His brother! Can’t you see the family resemblance?”

Lung regarded the elf with a long impassive gaze. The look seemed to rub the elf in the wrong way, for after three seconds of returning his gaze, the elf cleared his throat, muttered “Excuse me” to Calen, and pushed back from the table, retreating to the bar as he continued to casually stare down the young human.

Lung followed him with the same impassive gaze to the bar, and when the elf broke the gaze after a long ten-count, the young monk finally replied, “No. But I do see his resemblance to his sister.”

“Well that was odd and uncomfortable,” muttered Davin as he scrambled up to his stool at the table. “Come and join us, Lung, we’re discussing world religion.”

“No, we’re not,” retorted Calen as he pushed his empty plate away from his chest and dipped his greasy hands daintily in the finger bowl he always requested. “How is your weak stomach, Lung?” Calen winked in as close to sympathy as Lung had ever seen him muster.

“Fine,” replied Lung serenely, “and how is your family tree?”

“Needs some trimming,” muttered the half-orc.

It was at this point that the front door slammed open on the largest form to stalk into the inn in some time. Well over seven and a half feet tall, the bulky grey-green half-orc squinted into the bar and scanned the tables. Spying Calen seated at his table, the armed toothy young half-orc stomped over. In front of Calen, he stamped both of his feet together as a means of announcing his presence, which was highly unnecessary given the fact that all eyes in the bar were following him.

He opened his mouth, “Kausk the Guardsman, reporting for duty,” and as an after-thought he added, “sir!”

“One of your branches?” Lung smirked.

To Lung, Calen growled, “Definitely not,” and to Kausk, Calen replied, “You got the wrong fella, bub.”

“Are you not Ursik? Sandru told me to meet you here for more work.” The gray-green brow furrowed in confusion.

“I tell you,” warned Calen, “I am not this Ursik you speak of. Not all of our kind perform manual labor.” The green eyes narrowed again.

“Sandru? Sandru Vhiski?” Lung swooped in to save the conversation with the glowering Kausk, uncharacteristically excited. “Do you work for my brother? Is he in town?” Lung expectantly leaned toward the standing figure.

“No,” spat Kausk, his eyes not leaving Calen’s, “your brother is not in town. I replied to his letter.” At this, his eyes flared open at Calen. “Yes, this common laborer actually reads.” Kausk stomped over to the bar to stand in between the elf and Celric and shouted, “Ale!”

“It looks like everyone wants to be related to you today, Calen,” offered Davin. “I should say I would love for your sister to show up right now.”

“Leave my sister out of this, Greytoes.”

“Hey, you brought her up.” Davin took a swig from his mug.

“I---” Calen’s response was drowned out by a large number of voices calling out, “Ameiko!” as the owner of the Rusty Dragon strode into the bar, battered trail pack over her shoulder, her right arm clutching a leather cord at her side. Ameiko was an attractive Tien woman, and she didn’t skimp with smiles or attention as she confidently paraded into her home, greeting the regulars by name with a touch on the elbow.

“My friends, my family!” Ameiko called out upon reaching the bar. “I have missed you all. Did you miss me?” Ameiko had been out of town for the past three days, and the uproarious response from the now-growing Rusty Dragon crowd told her all she needed to know.

“You know you cannot escape us, dear Ameiko,” spouted Davin, balanced on his tip-toes on top of his chair, saluting the innkeeper with his trusty mug. The halfling priest and Ameiko had been fast friends for years.

“Ah, dear Davin,” Ameiko lowered her eyes., “I seem to remember a raucous party taking place here on the night I left.” Lung’s face colored a dark pink as Ameiko glance up and winked at him. “Did you ever go home?”

“Not as far as you know, my dear!” shouted Davin.

“Then I hope that Bethana has been charging you the appropriate price for your drink and the tiny bit of food that you’ve eaten.”

“He has paid his bills, Madame Kaijitsu,” Bethana purred as she came up to her close friend’s side. “I have seen to that. And did you know that we have an honored guest with us tonite? Calen’s brother is here visiting!”

“He is?” Ameiko turned immediately to her right to the heavily-muscled half-orc Kausk and extended her hand. “Any family member of Calen’s is welcome under this roof, dear....?” Her voice trailed off as she caught Bethana shaking her head and pointing off to Ameiko’s left.

“It’s Kausk, sweetie,” leered Kausk, “and though I ain’t Calen’s brother, I sure am happy to meet you.”

“Right,” Ameiko intoned as she withdrew her hand abruptly from Kausk and turned to her left to greet the elf - the elven brother of the half-orc, Calen. Ameiko decided that she had had enough graceless confusion and took command of the situation.

“Alright, ROUND UP!” And with a flurry of activity, the staff of the Rusty Dragon responded to Ameiko’s overhead hand-clap by moving tables and chairs, often with patrons still in them, in a large semi-circle around the recently-lit stone hearth. ‘Round Up’ was a popular past-time and tradition at the Rusty Dragon, an inn known for its spicy food and spicier innkeeper who literally purred like a kitten if told a good adventure tale. Ameiko was well-known for often waiving quality storytellers’ bar tabs if she was particularly tickled by a good yarn, and ‘Round Up’ was a bi-monthly opportunity for spinning quality yarns. Ameiko usually offered a good prize for the winning story. It seemed tonite would be no different.

“This,” started Ameiko, standing on the ‘Hot Seat’ (a stool placed in front of the hearth and designated as the roost of any storyteller participating in the ‘Round Up’), “is what I’ve been doing with my time off!” And with those words, Ameiko whipped out the leather cord that she had been holding at her side to that point, revealing eight fresh, bloody goblin ears strung along the grisly necklace. “I trust that most of you have heard that good Sheriff Belor has reinstated the traditional Sandpoint bounty on goblin’s ears? I mean, it’s only posted on every wall space in town! Someone’s got to protect us from the goblins with fireworks!” A recent phenomenon, it was rumored that the goblins in Brinestump swamp were making fireworks and attacking merchant caravans with their new weapons.

The crowd murmured amongst themselves. Ten gold pieces per goblin ear meant 80gp to the winner of the storytelling contest - a true jackpot to the average laborer who earned 3gp a day!

Ameiko surveyed the smiles in the crowd and realized that she had her audience hooked. “Do you want to know how I got them?” she asked. The crowd responded in kind. “Well, I wanted to see if I still had the spirit, right? I mean, most of you know that I once was something of a glory-hunter.”

“Thankfully and mercifully retired,” stated Bethana.

“Yes, but it doesn’t mean that a girl doesn’t get curious to see if she still has talent, Bethana, and that’s what this girl did. Into the Brinestump Marsh I went, just a sweet little girl and her sweet little sword!” And here, Ameiko unsheathed her mithral rapier and swung it around for show to the oohs and aahs of the audience. “Well, how was I to find the meanie greenies? I mean, I didn’t have my trusty tracker friend Shalelu to guide me. Any ideas? I’ll tell you what I did - I brought a dog! Now all of you know that goblins aren’t too fond of dogs. And goblins tend to smell a bit, so they’re not too hard to find.” The crowd laughed. “I waited for a skirmisher party of goblins in the northern reaches of Brinestump Marsh, enjoying all the spectacles of my camping trip,” and here Ameiko mimed swatting at black flies and gnats to hoots of laughter from the crowd, “and after two days of nothing, I got tired of trail rations and hunted down a deer near Cougar Creek for some variety in my diet. Well, I should have known that cooking some venison over a fire would attract the little buggers. And boy! did it ever. These five unsuspecting goblins come into my clearing, only smelling roast meat and never even noticing the tree snares that I laid.” Here the crowd reacted with hurrahs. “And wouldn’t you know it - boing! - and now I’ve got 1-2-3-4-5 goblins dangling by their ankles from willow trees. It was not a big thing to kill four of them and take their ears after that, but what about the fifth, you may ask?” The crowd responded again. “Well, I let him go, of course. All of you have to have something to hunt now, don’t you?” And with this, Ameiko gave a faux curtsy to the uproarious crowd and skipped over to Davin’s table.

“So, Calen’s elven brother from another mother, I’ve told you my story. Let’s hear yours.” Ameiko flashed her deep brown eyes at the elf.

Calen cleared his throat. “Um, Ameiko, he’s not, um...”

“No,” Moric stood up and dusted off the front of his cloak, “I am game. It is fine, brother.” The word sounded unnatural coming out of his mouth. Moric clutched his wine cup and strode to the hearth, standing in front of the ‘Hot Seat’. “My name is Moric Andosana,” he began, considering his wine cup, then looking up and scanning the crowd, “and I am Shalelu Andosana’s brother, and, apparently, the foster brother of Calen. And the rest of my business is my business.” Moric finished abruptly by draining his wine cup, walking over to his table and slamming down the cup in front of Ameiko, who ignored his elven rudeness.

“Right,” Ameiko hopped off the table, all business-like, “we still have eight goblin ears up for grabs for the best storyteller here tonite. Hopefully we’ll get some stiffer competition.” Chuckles rolled through the crowd. “What about you then, not brother of Calen?” Ameiko pointedly looked at Kausk standing at the bar, who shook his head and smiled a toothy grin.

“I’m Kausk. I don’t tell stories,” offered the grinning half-orc as he bit into a chicken leg, cracking the bone.

“Well, we’ve got to have some storytellers out there, or I’m just going to cash in these goblin ears with Sheriff Belor myself. Davin?” The halfling rarely failed to spin a humorous yarn that highlighted one of the Drunken God’s more ribald adventures, and he did not disappoint that evening either, weaving a story involving mermaids, cannibals, and a hidden pirate treasure that at one point had the rapidly-drunkening half-orc on the floor in peals of laughter. Three more storytellers followed Davin, including Lung retelling an Irorian allegory about honest simplicity, before an older stranger stood up and marched to the ‘Hot Seat’ without a word and sat down.

“Over the Spine of the World lies the empire of Minkai,” began the old man, “which was ruled over by the wise scions of five royal families for ages untold until evil spirits, also called oni, formed the Five Storms and devoted their considerable power to overthrowing the royal families and claiming the land as their own. Their war with the Minkai royalty was terrible but successful, for all save but one family were obliterated from existence, stomped like insects at a picnic.” Here the old man took a deep breath and a sip from his mug. “That one family realized that the responsibility for the entire Minkai world rest on their shoulders, for the evil oni could not claim anything so long as one of the members of a royal family still drew breath. And so this last royal family went into hiding, and changed their identities, and fled the Minkai empire by ship. They divested themselves of all royal trinkets associated with their previous position, selling them at ports along their perilous journey. Oh, and the wonders that they sold! Talking birds, and jeweled swords, and magic books that could teach you of magic that these lands have never seen! But sold them all they did, and fled. And they disappeared into the mists of time, never to be heard from again. But they say that this vanished royal family still exists, biding their time, and waiting for the evil oni to forget about them so they can come out of their hiding places. Their treasures still exist, too, scattered across the world, so beware of ancient Minkai treasures that you might find, my friends. They may bring upon you the doom of the Five Storms!” And the old man rose to his feet with his hands above his head on the last words to the satisfied applause of the crowd at the Rusty Dragon.

“Thank you, friend, for a truly interesting story.” Ameiko stared off for a moment, a puzzled expression on her face. “It sounds familiar, that tale, as if I’d heard it before in a different way.” She shook her head. “Well, that’s enough stories for tonite’s ‘Round Up’. After considerable discussion with my crack team of lore-judges,” at this, Ameiko whispered furiously in mock discussion with Bethana and immediately whipped her head back to the audience, “we have unanimously decided to award the goblin ear necklace to----our very own Davin!” Ameiko approached Davin with the gruesome necklace in both hands and laid it upon his brow like laurels won in an athletic contest. “Bravo!” Davin leaped up from his seat and gave a low formal bow to Ameiko and then the audience.

“Wow,” Davin slurred as he slid back into his seat, “eight goblin ears at ten gold an ear....that’s like, fifty gold pieces!”

“Your math is as swift as your tongue, it seems,” Calen crowed.

“Who’s up for a game of TwentyBone?” hollered the teetering Kausk from the bar.

“I am!” Davin yelled back.

“I am, too!” Calen yelled in Davin’s face.

Five and twenty silver pieces lighter (Calen and Davin, respectively), five gold pieces richer (Kausk), and one hour later, the gathered band had gone from jovial and drunk, to euphoric and hammered. The scholar Celric had excused himself and gone up to his room in the inn, deciding sagely that the downstairs was swiftly growing into an alcohol-only drinking crowd. His sleep was delayed, however, by the growing din of the celebrations downstairs, spiked frequently by songs provided by the returned Ameiko. At last light, as the bells of town sounded the close of the market day, Calen had a thunderbolt of a thought.

“We’re going to go hunt goblins!”

“What?” Davin sometimes found his god a confusing god to follow, especially after ten or twelve cups.

“Do you know what goblins hate?” Calen asked in a drunken slur.

“Soap?” suggested Davin.

“Other goblins?” suggested Lung.

“You?” answered Moric.

“Smart ass,” sneered Calen at his new-found brother. “No, I’ll tell you what they don’t like---writing! Where’s that writer you met?”

“Who, me?” Davin was finding it hard to focus on the conversation.

“Yes, you!

“I’m pretty sure I saw him retire.”

“Well, let’s go get him! He can write letters on to pieces of paper for us and we can pin them to our chests...”

“Our chests?” shouted Kausk. “I don’t pin things to my chest. You can.”

“Fine, I will,” bellowed Calen. “Davin, go and fetch the scribe.”

Davin peered up from his mug of ale and moved his head around the room. He spied the frail-looking human coming down the steps with his empty dinner plate. “There! I got him!”

“And so you did. Good job!” Calen lurched out of his chair. “Hey, you! Scribe man! D’ya still need some work?”

Celric blinked at the very drunk half-orc. “Yes?” he said hesitantly. “I charge 5 sp a page.”

“Fine, fine. Follow me.” Calen stumbled back to his table, motioning for Celric to join him.

“And I’ll need you to purchase ink and a quill for me.”

Calen spun around and fixed Celric with as steady a glare as he could manage. “What?”

“I’ll need you to purchase ink and a quill for me.”

Davin piped up from his cup. “So, you’ll charge us for the ink, the paper, and the writing, all per page?”

“Yes, when do I start?” Celric looked pleased.

Calen rolled his eyes and sat down heavily. “Well, turds. Hmmm, another plan. Another plan. Hum. I got it!” And with a hoot, Calen bolted from the table and out the door of the Rusty Dragon.

“Where’d he go?” Davin looked up at the front door just as it opened again.

Calen stuck his head in the inn and called “Ten minutes, boys! Be out front with your gear! We’re going to get us some goblin ears!” And with another hoot, the door slammed again.

“I’ll go get my gear,” offered Celric, heading to the bar to get a refund on his room at the inn for that night. It didn’t look like he was going to get a good night’s sleep anyways.

Twenty minutes later, the rag-tag band of merry marauders were on their way, accompanied by the clucking of six surprised-looking chickens in cages.

“Please remind me again why we have these damned birds,” Moric was wondering just what his sister had seen in this dim green loon, and why he had consented to not only follow him, but to carry the smelly chicken cages that Calen had purchased from the last marketplace merchant whose tent was open.

“Because I couldn’t find a horse or a dog to buy,” explained Calen in a frustrated tone, as if the answer was painfully obvious.

“I didn’t know goblins didn’t like chickens,” ventured Lung.

“You don’t know a lot, monk man,” retorted Calen, “Like the fact that you’re supposed to bring a sword to a goblin raid.”

“I don’t use a sword.”

“Well, what if I needed one, did you think of that?” Calen’s mind was clear and his reasoning was righteous. At least, to Calen it was.

Celric, the lone teetotaler in the bunch, felt like a leaf floating downstream in a torrent. “So, what’s the plan again? Am I not getting any scribe work out of this, then?”

“You’ll get plenty of pay out of this, letter man,” shouted Calen from the front of the short parade. “I need you to write a letter on a piece of paper for each chicken. That’ll attract the goblins to them.”

“But what should I write on the paper?” continued Celric.

“I don’t know,” said Calen, “Name them or something.”

“Ooh, we can name the chickens!” slurred Davin.

“No, don’t name the chickens,” warned Kausk. “It’ll just be that much harder when we kill them and eat them.”

“No one’s eating these chickens!” growled Calen. “They’re bait for catching goblins!”

“Unless the goblins start eating them,” offered Lung.

“Right, unless the goblins start eating them, and then we kill the goblins!”

“Alright,” sighed Celric, who marched alongside Moric, identifying and pointing at the chickens one-by-one. “There’s Russell, and Adam, and Justin...”

“You know that they are, by definition, female, right?” Moric was definitely not drunk, but definitely not sober, either.

“Well, sure,” laughed Celric uncomfortably, “I mean, what do you take me for?”

“Mmm-hmm,” murmured Moric.

It was five miles further down the road when the sun started to rise to their left. The Lost Coast road stayed true to its name and hugged the ocean cliffs most of the evening, providing a constant background of noise to cover up the scuffling of the band. They passed no travelers in either direction along their way, and their conversations, animated at first in excitement about their upcoming heroics, faded quickly as the moon traversed the sky. The halfling fell asleep on his feet as the sky lightened in the east, and Lung hoisted him onto his shoulders, though Lung himself was soon bleary-eyed and drowsy. The whole party, save for Kausk (oddly enough), soon were stumbling on their feet, and at the break of dawn, Calen pulled up short as the ground started to turn muddy.

“Let’s turn around everyone!” Like sheep, the tired adventurers followed Calen’s lead. He led them back 500 paces on the road to a dry clearing and promptly fell over. “Time to sleep!”

And with that, Calen abruptly started snoring. Just as he lay his head onto his pack, Celric saw shooting stars fly up out of the swamp into the clear night sky.

“Fireworks,” Celric mumbled as his eyes succumbed to sleep.

The first of the band to awake, Kausk, did so four hours later. The caravan guard was used to getting irregular sleep and waking in shifts to take watch. He was surprised to see that no one had apparently kept watch that night. The familiar jangling of a large caravan wagon attracted Kausk’s attention, and he soon spied it, approaching from the south. The wagon slowed at Kausk’s raised hand signal, and the driver called from his perch, “Fair weather?”

Kausk responded, “No clouds.” This pass phrase notably relaxed the caravan guard’s grip on the heavy crossbow on the seat next to him. ‘No clouds’ meant someone who was familiar with caravan business and meant them no harm. The driver slowed to a halt in front of Kausk.
“Hail, friend.” Kausk greeted the driver. “Where’s your destination?”

The driver looked as if he hadn’t slept through the night. He had the harsh and tense look of vigilance. “Sandpoint. How far?”

Kausk squinted north. “Eh, about an hour’s drive unless you’re carting lead.” He give a mirthless laugh. “Rough night?”

“Fireworks over the swamp again,” replied the driver. “I thought I was going to get jumped by goblins.”

“Oh yeah?” Kausk scratched his head. “When did you see them?”

“Right about dawn, right?” Celric was up on his elbows peering at the driver.

“Yeah, right.” The driver looked uneasy. “You hunting them?”

“Seems that way,” Kausk kicked at a stone in the path. “Do you know an Ursik?”

“Yeah,” the driver said, “what of it?”

“Tell him that Kausk won’t be available for guard duties this week.”

“Alright,” the driver readied the reins and appeared eager to be on his way, “good hunting to you.”

“And a smooth road to you.” Kausk held his hand up in farewell as the cart rumbled north and out of sight. He turned to Celric, who was busy reading a large book that he had unpacked. “So you saw fireworks last night when we stopped?”

Celric glanced up at the half-orc. “Yeah, but they seemed far away.” His nose went back into the book.

“Hmmm.” Kausk yawned and set about starting a fire in order to prepare some breakfast.

The band ate a hasty breakfast and were back on the road and into the northern reaches of the Brinestump Swamp just after mid-day. Somehow Moric was talked into lugging the chickens again. He just hoped none of them decided to lay any eggs.

“Why not?” wondered Kausk as the band reached the first rickety bridge into the Brinestump Marsh proper. “Eggs would make for good grub.”

“Because my brother would want me to sit on the egg and hatch it so he could use it for some other hare-brained scheme,” griped the rumpled-looking elf.

“I heard that, dear brother.” Calen called from the front of the line. “I’m sorry that you didn’t get your beauty rest.” Calen studied the sad-looking but very wide wooden bridge crossing a watery bog. “This bridge is sturdy. She’ll hold our weight.”

“I didn’t know that bridges were female,” grunted Lung.

Calen glared at the monk and stepped out onto the wooden bridge. “Don’t start with me, monk. I still don’t see a sword on your belt.”

“I told you,” explained Lung, “I don’t use a sword.”

They moved across the bridge in single file, hesitant to treat so fragile a bridge to more weight than absolutely necessary. “My head is humming like a hive full of bees,” complained Davin as he traipsed along behind Calen. “Did anyone bring any spirits to sustain us?”

“Absolutely unbelievable. We haven’t been on the road a full hour, yet the halfling is complaining that he needs a drink.” Moric grumbled at the halfling, stopped in the middle of the bridge and set down the chicken cages. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll start uncorking a bottle of vintage elven wine, and you can carry the stupid poultry.”

It was on ‘poultry’ that the giant leech propelled itself from the bog on the right side of the bridge at Moric and the gathered chicken cages. Its large eyeless mouth, filled with slime-coated teeth, rolled and landed hard onto the bridge, knocking Davin and Calen flat on their backs, and bringing Moric to his knees.

Kausk had his great sword out in a flash and took a defensive pose to the side of the large grey beast. Celric strode forward confidently and arrayed his fingers in a fanned pattern in front of his chest. A full-spectrum blast of light flashed and flew into the mouth-end of the leech. It stood up on end and readied for another strike.

“What?” cried Celric. “That was supposed to do something!”

“Try a sword!” yelled Kausk as his sword bit deep into the belly of the writhing creature, spraying warm yellow-green ichor all over Loric as he tried to rise to his feet.

“Oh, great! Just great!” Moric shook excess goo off of his arms as the beast stabbed downwards again, this time successfully crunching into a chicken cage. A hideous sucking sound ensued.

“Russell!” screamed Celric in horror. Kausk shook his head.

“I told you not to name them,” he exhaled.

“Dear Drunken God, please bless our holy efforts to rid the world of this Most Putrifying Creature!” Davin raised his glowing empty mug from a seated position at the edge of the bridge in fervent prayer.

“Again with the empty mug!” Moric spluttered in frustration as he spied the halfling toasting the battle.

“It’s a prayer, you twit!” roared Calen as he rolled to his feet and on to solid land.

“Oh,” Moric mustered. Lung delivered a forceful open-handed blow to the non-bleeding side of the leech just as he exhaled a forceful ‘Ka!’ Moric jumped in surprise, slipped on leech blood, and fell heavily onto a chicken crate.

The reeling leech began shaking violently in death throes and sinking back into the brackish water on the right side of the bridge, weighing down the water-logged planks and tipping the entire bridge dangerously towards the water.

“Everybody run!” Calen called to the band as Celric and Lung attempted to gather up the dropped chicken cages, Kausk helped-slash-pulled Moric to his feet, and Davin rolled toward the end of the bridge. The bridge went violently up on end as the corpse of the now-dead giant leech sunk into the swamp. The adventurers remaining on the bridge leaped toward the bog-bank as the platform, now free of the heavy mass of dead leech, violently pitched in the other direction and landed with a thickening splat in the matted mud and swamp grass.

“That was some fun, wasn’t it?” The cheerful Davin whistled a jaunty tune ten minutes later as he kept pace behind Calen.

“Shut it.” The elf, attempting to scrape slime off of his armor with the edge of a dagger, was making uncomfortable-sounding “shluck”ing noises every time he took a step with his right foot. The remaining five chickens seemed much quieter, though if from shock or from sheer fatigue at the all-too-real fright of being the leech’s mid-day snack, none were too sure. They were now being carried partly by Kausk and Celric, who was again attempting to apologize.

“I swear, I had no idea that you would land like that! I needed to protect my tome, and I couldn’t let it get wet. It just was a fluke that I swung it up out of my pack just as you fell...” He wasn’t doing a very good job of it, either.

The afternoon melted away as the band went deeper into the soggy and oppressively hot Brinestump Marsh. Clouds of stinging flies and no-see-ums appeared out of nowhere. Hideous hisses and gurgles and croaks sounded from the ogre-high cattails on either side of the trail. The sun in the clear sky beat down mercilessly on the lumbering crew, whose minds began to wander through the widely circulating stories of the horrors to be found in the Brinestump Marsh. Stories like those about the Red Bishop, rumored to be a hideous demon who swooped down from the sky to snatch unsuspecting cattle and innocent travelers, draining them of their blood and leaving the desiccated husks to be found along the Lost Coast Road. Stories like those about the Sandpoint Devil, a fell mysterious beast who bewitched the minds of young lovers camping in the wilderness, causing them to celebrate murder and bloodlust upon each other. Stories like those about the Soggy River Monster, a strange pale creature that walked on dog legs and terrorized farmers and river-folk alike, attacking with poisonous fangs and walking on water as if it were solid ground.

The evening crept up on the party slowly. All were lost heavily in fearful thoughts. All save for Davin. “Where are we going, Calen?” the halfling complained.

“To Walthus Proudstump’s house,” replied the ranger. “If any in the Brinestump Marsh can point us in the direction of the goblins, it is he.”

“Who is he?” Moric, now unencumbered by the chicken cages that he flatly refused to carry further, had tried to stick close to his brother, observing the obvious skill with which the green-eyed half-orc picked his trail through the swamp.

Calen glanced at the elf as he hopped lightly over a puddle of mud in the trail. “The self-proclaimed warden of the swamp. He’s lived here more years than I’ve lived in Sandpoint. He’s an odd sort - a halfling. He comes into town once or twice a year and does a pretty brisk business, collects a mess of supplies, and disappears back in the swamp. A hobbit hermit, if you will.”

“What kind of business?” Celric’s voice floated from the rear of the party, interested in commerce as per usual.

“Snakes,” answered Calen grimly. “He breeds them. Big ones, poisonous ones, rare ones. The man loves snakes.”

“Not a bad storefront,” muttered Davin as the party came around the corner of the trail into a swampy lagoon that opened out onto the ocean, the setting sun just kissing the horizon in the distance. A weathered and lichenified two-story beach house stood surrounded by tall mangrove trees, a large fence enclosing an area at the back of the house. A collection of fishing poles and tackle lay in a pile on the front porch, along with a pair of muddy wading boots.

“Oh good,” Calen started toward the front door on the porch, “it looks like Walthus is home. He sometimes likes going off on fishing trips.” Calen proceeded to knock at the door. “Walthus! It’s Calen! You decent?”

No answer came. “He must be snoozing, the lazy hobbit,” Calen ventured, followed by a renewed pounding on the front door. “Walthus? Wake up!” Again, no response came.
Calen hesitated. “What are you waiting for?”

Kausk wondered. “See if the door is open.”

“He’s a friend,” Calen started, “and I don’t----” The door swung open suddenly on a surprised-looking halfling in rumpled brown clothes. “Oh, Walthus, you are home.”

“Yes!” confirmed the halfling in an odd way. “I am home. I was simply out in my garden. I didn’t hear you.”

“Walthus, it’s Calen. We met once a few months ago in Sandpoint. You said I should stop in to see you if I ever had need...”

“Ah yes,” considered Walthus, “well that is good of you to remember me. What can I help you out with?” The halfling distinctly did not invite the party into his house.

“Um, well, we’re hunting goblins,” started Calen, “and we could use some assistance in trying to find where their encampment is. Any ideas?”

“Oh yes,” nodded the approving halfling, “very good idea. Go after those goblins. Filthy things---they’ve got those nasty fireworks that they like to fire off. It’s fine work for you adventurers to go and attack them. You know, if you go now, you could just reach their encampment by nightfall.”

“Yes, but we’d rather not attack them when they’re at their most active, don’t you think?” suggested Calen. “Besides, we were hoping we might be able to stay here the night.”

“Oh no,” hastily replied Walthus, as he pulled the door defensively closer to being shut, “my house is a wreck right now. I’m afraid it’s not fit for guests at the moment.”

That the halfling was acting off, even for a hermit, had rankled Calen from the start of the conversation, but Calen now noted something else about Walthus that worried him more: Walthus looked terrible. Pasty skin, cracked lips, sunken eyes...the halfling moved gingerly like his skin hurt. Calen filed it away.

“We could just sleep on your beach,” suggested Davin.

“Oh, fine,” conceded Walthus, “but don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you.” The halfling opened the door on a large sitting room with four chairs spread on either side of a door. A few potted ferns lay on their side on the floor, dirt spilling from the pots. “I was transplanting them,” he explained.

“I’ll let the chickens out of their cages,” Calen suddenly announced. “I’ll be in in a bit.” Calen walked off the porch to the cages set in the packed mud at Celric’s feet. He needed to think, and he’d do his best thinking like he always did, alone and surrounded by nature. The chickens clucked happily and strutted out of the cages as the rest of the party gratefully accepted the halfling’s invitation inside.

“Got anything to drink?” Davin ventured, settling himself down on a low wicker seat in the large sitting room.

“I can go brew some tea,” offered Walthus, and he disappeared into the kitchen past the tipped over pots.

“Oh,” Davin trailed off disappointedly.

“I tell you,” Kausk smiled conspiratorially, “the little man’s got a little lady here. I’ll bet you she’s out on the beach!”

“Come on,” clucked Lung, “Calen says he’s a hermit.”

Kausk shrugged, “Everyone has physical needs. Our host looks tired. I’ll bet he hasn’t been getting much sleep,” and with that word, Kausk crudely motioned with his groin exactly what he thought Walthus had been doing.

Some of the group laughed derisively, but Moric didn’t see the humor. “Please, half-orc, a little constraint! Our gracious host does not seem to want us here. Let us not insult him further by acting like animals!”

Kausk growled, “Yes, mother,” and sat down heavily on a wicker stool.

“I, for one, noted that he was limping rather badly,” Celric excitedly offered from a settee in the corner. “I wonder if he could use some help.”

“Help?” echoed Davin, “well, if he needs some healing...” At this, the kitchen door swung open and Walthus entered, carrying a tray bearing a steaming kettle and a number of clay mugs.

“Healing? What type of healing?” Walthus offered mugs to the five adventurers and eyed Davin expectantly.

“Oh,” said Davin in surprise, “I was just saying that if you were hurt...”

“We noticed your limp,” interjected Celric.

“Yes,” continued Davin, “I’d be happy to call upon the favor of Cayden Cailean on your behalf. And much thanks for the tea.”

“Oh,” started Walthus as he poured for Davin from the kettle, “it’s nothing really. Just a mishap with a stupid snake from the swamp.”

Davin stood up and offered the mug of tea upwards in a silent prayer, and pointed his hand towards the other halfling, whose outline glowed blue for a faint second before fading.

“Thanks a lot,” Walthus shook out his neck and breathed deeply. “I was gardening earlier today and it snuck up on me and bit me on the foot. I really hate snakes.”

“Yeah, I hear they can be awful,” Calen stated in a flat voice from the open front door.

Surprised, the gathered group turned to look as one at Calen.

Calen fixed his eyes on Kausk and spoke in the orc tongue: “[This is not the man we think it is.]”

“What?” said Kausk, in Common.

“What did you say?” said Walthus, as he put the tray down on the ground.

“Let me see your ankle,” offered Davin, bending down to the foot Walthus had favored. “I could probably---”

“No!” said Walthus, now a bit perturbed.

“[I said,]” tried Calen again, “[this is not Walthus. Walthus breeds snakes. He likes them. This is not a snake breeder.]”

Kausk’s eyes lit up in comprehension just as Walthus lunged at Davin and instantaneously transformed into a hideous hairless humanoid blob and slammed him up against the wall. Davin slumped to the ground, and the changeling, the surface of its skin roiling underneath the surface, turned to face the gathered group.

With a roar, Kausk’s great sword was free of its scabbard and sliced in a two-handed arc up into the chest of the faceless beast. The sword opened a mighty gash in the beast’s side, and its counter-strike only caught the front of the half-orc’s cloak as he followed through, saliva spraying from his tusks in a continued mighty roar.

Celric stepped in and triggered a word of power, and a concussive blast of energy slammed into the side of the beast, lurching it forward and into the wall just in time to be caught in the side of where its face should have been by the elbow and left palm of the monk. A swift crack echoed throughout the chamber, and the foul humanoid monster slumped to the ground in an unnatural pose, even for its unnatural anatomy. A last weak and hissing breath wheezed from its lungs, and the enemy was still.

“Damnit, why wouldn’t you get out of the way so I could get a shot in?” complained Calen, placing his bow up over his shoulders in disappointment.

“Oh dear Cayden, I need a drink,” muttered the doubled-over halfling, glowing faintly blue with a burst of positively-channeled energy. “No, that’s OK. The halfling is fine. You all just make sure you’re not scratched or anything.” With a groan, the halfling slumped to a seated position.

“What in Rahadoum is that?” Celric peered over the shoulder of Kausk at the thing, its skin still rippling in aftershocks.

“A faceless stalker,” replied Calen. “I have heard of them before. Foul beasts that impersonate others and live only to steal and kill. I wonder what truly happened to Walthus.”

“Hello?” A weak voice called from upstairs in the house. “Hello?”

“It seems you have your answer, Calen.” Lung replied, heading for the stairs. Celric and Calen followed the bounding monk up a skinny flight of stairs to find a pale and sweaty-looking halfling lying half-in and half-out of what appeared to be a secret door at the back of the master bedroom.

“Who are you?” whispered Walthus.

“We are friends,” Lung said.

“We killed that faceless stalker that was pretending to be you,” offered Celric.

“Glory to Desna,” managed Walthus, who quickly faded into unconsciousness again.

“Let’s get him into the bed,” suggested Calen, and yelled down the stairs, “Davin! We need your help! Now!”

Downstairs, the groaning halfling shook his head ruefully, “No rest for the wicked,” and stomped up the stairs.

The gathered band spent the evening tending to their wounds and resting in the snug halfling-sized cottage. Kausk found a cask of Bertie’s Wheat Ale in the pantry, and once Davin’s spirits were restored by the spirit, both adventurers enjoyed a warm boozy nap in the spare bedroom.

Calen and Lung spent the evening tending to the feverish and agitated Walthus, who tossed and turned in his bed despite the halfling’s healing ministrations. “He’s poisoned,” explained Davin. “He needs to ride it out, and may Cayden Cailean show his soul the way back to our company, and if not, escort him peacefully to the Hereafter.”

Celric and Moric spent the remaining evening rustling up food and exploring the rest of the house. “I found the rest of his snakes!” Moric announced hurriedly as he slammed the garden door behind him just after dinner. The crew avoided the garden the remainder of the evening.

It was first light outside when Calen’s eyes opened. He lifted his head and looked at the bed, but it was empty. Concerned, Calen stood up hurriedly and promptly thunked his head into the low halfling-sized ceiling. Then his nose caught the scent of salted pork frying, and he realized that he hadn’t had a decent meal since two nights earlier. Still concerned, but unable to resist, Calen stumbled down the stairs to find the missing halfling standing in the kitchen, sizzling a large side of meat alongside a pot of stewed tomatoes and onions.

“Hungry?” Walthus appeared much better-colored than the night previous, even better than the coloration that the faceless stalker had adopted.

“You’re OK!” sighed Calen. “Thank the Drunk God.”

“Yeah, I guess paying the priest and the warrior back with my last keg of Wheat Ale is a good way to thank him. Have a seat; your chickens laid some eggs last night.”

END

Silver Crusade

Kausk here! You got to love it, we got drunk then decided to go kill some Goblins.. At night.... The chickens sounded like a good idea at the time... They tasted good anyway.


Aye, an' when ya hang oot with a cleric a Cayden Cailean, ya oughta be expectin' t'be traipsin' aboot a wee bit tipsy. ;)

Andoran

Woohoo! Calen's gonna be famous!

Grand Lodge

Headstrong
16th September 2011

“So we’re where again?” Celric squinted at the map a second time and touched the unrolled parchment, noting the moisture that the paper had absorbed and the faint musty smell of age. Celric liked paper, any paper really, but maps were something else. Full of towns and rivers, coast lines and mountain tops, a map represented the unknown, written down for all to see, even if they’d never seen it before. Celric breathed in the musty smell in contentment.

“Seriously, Letter Man?” Calen huffed. “We’ve been over it already. We’re the little circle here-” Calen stabbed the map with his finger “-and the soon-to-be-dead goblin buggers are this ‘X.’ And this other ‘X’ is the witch-lady, who we’re not going to be bothering, and this other ‘X’ are the caverns that we’re going to leave you in if you ask any more questions about this map.”

Celric looked up from the map at Walthus. “Can I take this map with us when we go?”

Calen harrumphed and pushed away from the breakfast table in disgust.

“Well, sure,” Walthus offered, “I was gonna insist that you take it with ya just in case.” He added, “You can always find your way back here if ya need a place to light up for the night. Door’s always open. I don’t keep a lock on the front door; ain’t no one barging in on me save that bastard faceless stalker.” Walthus gave an involuntary shudder.

“Thank you,” Celric said brightly as he rolled up the map, “thank you very kindly for all of your hospitality, my good man. I will take very good care of this map.” Celric placed the map gently in a fold on the side of his pack and hefted it to his shoulders.

“You give them Licktoads hell,” Walthus rose from his seat at the table and walked to the front door of his cottage with Celric in the lead. “Y’all be careful now, too.” The other party members were making last-minute adjustments to their boots or scabbards on the front porch.

Davin looked up from where he sat sadly looking at his empty mug. “Hey, Walthus, would you---?”

“No,” Walthus said with a scowl at Davin, cutting off his question before it began. “The only drink I’ve got left is my emergency pony keg in my panic room, and the only way I’m going to tap that keg is if I’m locked into my panic room, and I’m conscious.” Davin had passed out from pain after locking himself in his panic room when the faceless stalker had attacked him previously.

Davin reacted swiftly and indignantly. “What? No! You’d think that I would take your last drop of alcohol? Fie, no! I was just going to ask would you know of any other monsters that we might encounter out in the swamp?” Davin smiled at himself and hooked his empty mug to his belt surreptitiously.

“Oh, well, uh, yah, I do,” Walthus, taken aback, scratched his head, “you’ve got goblins, of course, and snakes, and wolves and leeches. Hmmmm...oh yeah, spiders! Watch out for them. But, no bunyips or reefclaws or any real nasty things like that.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Davin sighed.

“Bunyips? Reefclaws? What are these things?” Kausk fingered his sword impatiently.

“Nasty things with large teeth that live north of here that we thankfully don’t have to worry about.” Calen offered, setting his feet on the trail. “And with that, Master Proudstump, we’ll be leaving your property. Farewell for now.”

“It’s all my backyard, Calen!” Walthus shouted back. “Good hunting out there!” Walthus stepped back into his house and let the door bang shut in farewell.

“So where are we going again?” piped up Celric.

Calen rolled his eyes and started down the trail, ignoring the scribe’s question.

Less than an hour later, the crew hunkered down at the top of a small hill, peering down into a depressed area of the swamp where a large palisaded compound sat in a clearing. The tall mossy timbers of the walls of the compound formed an irregular shape around a collection of huts on stilts on a muddy green. The huts could be plainly seen through the largest feature of the front wall of the compound: a flat filmy pond wide enough to provide significant strategic advantage to village defenders.

“Where is everyone?” Davin’s question was on everyone’s tongue. Goblin villages were generally not described as ‘quiet’, but this place was that and more. Not a single pair of goblin feet could be seen traipsing through the compound. The main gate had been knocked down - from the inside - and one of the front buildings had been burned and obviously ransacked.

“They got raided,” Kausk slowly said.

“No!” whispered Calen fiercely. “Who would raid goblins? What would they get out of it - fleas?”

“Well, we’re here for goblin ears, aren’t we?” Moric was starting to have fun poking at his new brother.

“The Andosana family could use one less smart-ass,” offered Calen in return.

“How about I go down and take a look around?” suggested Moric off-handedly.

“Yes,” agreed Calen, “how about you go do that?”

Moric’s leather-shod feet could have been made from feathers for the amount of noise he made in descending the hill and entering the deserted-appearing goblin village through the ruined gate. The gate had been battered open from the inside, Moric noted, fingering goblin-height claw marks in the wood on the inside posts. Something had scared the goblins, ventured Moric.

“We’re exactly at the Licktoad Goblin Village,” announced Celric merrily, peering at the map, “Walthus’ map has marked out here the contours of the walls of the village, but I can see that the angles that he drew are not quite---”

Lung interrupted the scribe with a quiet hand on his shoulder and a shake of his head. Lung nodded at Calen, and Celric could see the visible tension in the shoulders of the ranger, who was still intently watching the compound for any signs of activity. Calen’s shoulders relaxed visibly once Celric stopped his didactic lecture.

Back in the village, Moric explored the burnt-down ruins of one of the goblin huts, perched at the front edge of the encampment. The hut seemed to have not been recently destroyed, and the wet and cold charred timbers told Moric that whatever befell the Licktoads came after whatever befell the hut.

Moric made his way gingerly through the deserted village, scanning the 4-foot high walkways between the huts as he crossed the muddy green again. A 20-foot wide circular pit of mud lay recessed central to the village green, and as Moric peered in, he thought he could see charred remains of a few bodies at the bottom. He picked up a branch and probed the charred bones until he was able to identify a goblin skull. Goblins burnt their dead, Moric reasoned, so the presence of these bodies would suggest that some goblins survived at least the initial assault, but what happened after that?

As if tipped off by a whisper from Desna, Moric jerked his eyes over his left shoulder, from the burial pit to a small window in a hut in the center of the village. The top of a small green head shot out of sight below the window, but Moric had spied the spy. He moved at once swiftly and stealthily toward the hut.

“I’m bored; I’m going in,” Kausk announced as he hefted himself to his feet and began lumbering down the hill.

“No, wait!” whispered Calen to the descending half-orc, “Moric hasn’t given us the signal to enter yet!”

Kausk responded by waving his hand to the ground in disgust, but not breaking stride. As if on cue, Moric stopped stock-still, looked to the left of the palisade wall, looked to the band on the hill, and motioned for them to enter.

“NOW we can go in,” breathed Calen.

“Glad that you got that one straightened out, fearless leader,” quipped Davin.

Kausk loosened his great sword from its scabbard and practiced a swing as he entered the ruined gate. “We’ve been told to go kill goblins,” muttered Kausk to himself, “so we should go DO that, and not spend time waiting for grey hairs to grow on our heads.” Kausk ducked under the first 4-foot high walkway he saw, and immediately noted a short ladder leading to a door in a hut set against the back wall of the palisade. “And there’s my entrance.” Kausk pace quickened as he tightened his grip on the great sword.

Moric met Calen at the gate and hurriedly whispered, “Calen, come with me. I heard something on the other side of the wall there.” Moric pointed at a spot just out of sight behind the east wall of the compound.

Calen went all business. “Sure. What did it sound like?” The two brothers went off together discussing trajectories and sound dispersal, leaving Davin, Lung, and Celric standing at the ruined goblin gate, blinking at each other.

“OK then,” Davin reasoned, looking at the husky but unarmed monk, “Lung, you’re our muscle. Let’s go.” Without further discussion, Davin marched to the nearest hut, climbed a short set of steps, and opened the door at the top of it. The long hut made up the northwest corner of the compound, and was spectacularly empty.

“If you insist upon opening random doors, Davin,” spoke Lung from the foot of the steps, “might I suggest that you ready your crossbow?”

“Oh, right.” Davin pulled out his bow and began loading a bolt.

Moric had distinctly heard a branch snap from the east side of the compound beyond the wall. ‘Of course there’s nothing here because I’ve got Calen with me’, thought the elf. Fortunately for him, it looked like Calen had found something.

“I think I found something,” claimed Calen.

It was at that moment that the screaming began.

Kausk prepped himself at the top of the ladder, wrapping his hands around the hilt of his great sword repeatedly. Though he had never killed anything with this particular sword, Kausk had killed before, and he usually went through the same ritual before he was about to kill something. It helped him to focus, to find that wild edge inside that drove his enemies before him. Kausk took one great inhalation and held it, and with the boot of his right foot, kicked in the door.

“But I should really be opening the doors for you,” reasoned Lung to the back of Davin as he crossed from the empty building on the walkway to the door of the next, “because with your bow, you can shoot around me. I am prepared for hand-to-hand battle. You two,” here he motioned to the scribe following close behind, “should take cover behind me.”

“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure that this place is deserted,” Davin said over his shoulder as he opened the door on the platform.

The trio of howling goblins inside the building did little to prove Davin’s hypothesis correct. Cowering and wailing, the obviously-frightened goblins covered their faces, wickedly-sharp dog slicers hanging impotently at their sides.

“What is that racket?” asked Celric from the back.

“Goblins!” Davin shouted. “And they’re really scared, too. I wonder if we could parlay with them...?”

Lung shoved past Davin and landed a heavy fist to the chest of the first goblin, who fell back three paces and toppled over, quite unresponsive. Lung then fell into a defensive posture and squared his shoulders to meet the remaining two squat figures.

“I guess not.” Davin raised his crossbow and fired at the goblin on the left, missing his mark.

Kausk received a similar response as he kicked in the door of the hut, a small trio of goblins huddling in a doorway between that hut and the larger hut to the east. Kausk swung his great sword down and to the left, and the first goblin fell with a screech, green blood spilling from the split down the front of his chest and pooling on the floor of the hut. “”Ah-HAH!” bellowed Kausk as he stood in the doorway, basking in the glow of first blood.

“Damnit, they’re not going to have fun without me,” swore Calen under his breath from outside the compound. “Come on,” he urged Moric as he took off running clockwise along the outer wall toward Kausk’s voice. Moric followed in a silent dash. The wall was rough-shod palisaded wood, and once they reached the spot from which they had heard Kausk’s voice, both men started climbing the wall.

Celric finished a word of power, and held out his hands towards his companions. “I hope this helps!” he shouted.

Lung’s side kick powered into the flank of the goblin to his right, audibly snapping ribs and flinging the goblin into the wall so hard that it rebounded off of it and fell face down, shattering teeth that would have mattered to it had it not been dead.

“Yup,” grunted Davin as he reloaded his crossbow. “I think that helped some there, Celric.”

“You’re welcome,” said the scribe.

Kausk swung an overhand chop at his next foe, who ducked out of the way. Kausk’s sword stuck in the wooden wall of the hut, and he put his foot up against the wall to pull it out. His two opponents took the opportunity to slash at him with their dog-slicers, opening a small gash on his left leg. “Hah!” Kausk grimaced. “A scratch!”

Moric had scampered over the wall like a ladder had been carved into its side, and quickly determined the doorway in which Kausk was standing. He saw the half-orc pulling at something and grunting. He tried to be helpful.

“I’m coming, Kausk!” Moric tried to move in to aid, but the half-orc glanced at him, blocking the doorway and preventing him from entering. A small green hand holding a large razor blade slashed out at Kausk, cutting the large warrior’s left forearm.

“Wha-? Ow!” Kausk responded by waving his hand at Moric. “Wait there!” He resumed trying to free his sword from the wall of the hut.

Calen was not having as easy a time of it getting over the wall. Too many pints of wheat ale, thought the ranger as he hefted and rolled himself over the top of the logs, landing none-too-lightly on his feet. Picking up his sword which he threw ahead of him, Calen looked around to see where the elf went off to. He noted a door at the top of a small ladder on one of the huts ahead of him, deciding it was as good as any. Opening the door, he spied the rear of a party of three goblins exiting the hut that he was entering from the opposite door. The last goblin in line spun around to face him, holding a long red paper tube formed into an arrow shape in one hand and a lit torch in the other. With a curious grin, the goblin held the torch to the back of the paper tube, which started burning and hissing ominously.

The third goblin facing Lung spun 180 degrees into the wall and crumpled in response to a left fist just as a renewed yelling started from the door facing the trio of adventurers.

“More scared goblins?” suggested Celric.

“No, those goblins are angry,” said Davin, “and probably want to join the party.” Davin opened the door and a jet of flame flew into the room and slammed against the back wall, spraying them all with sparks and smoke.

“Oh, that’s right,” Celric stated, “they have fireworks.”

Davin managed to close the door as another firebolt flew from the curious red paper tube that the lead goblin on the other end of the walkway was holding over its shoulder. “Boom!” shouted the trio of goblins merrily, obviously enjoying the response that the firework was provoking in the adventurers. Davin looked at Lung in something close to a panic.

“Open the door,” Lung ordered in a measured and peaceful tone.

“But they’ve got dragon-sticks!” Davin used the term that halfling children gave fireworks, belying his discomfort with the combat development.

“I know,” Lung stated in a calm tone, “and please open the door.”

“Ok....hang on.” Davin used the door as a shield as he opened it into the room. “Dear Drunken God, please bless and protect my allies in this divine fracas.” Celric stood far away and out of sight of the doorway. Lung took a deep breath and rushed through the doorway into hissing smoke.

Kausk was bleeding from three or four different stab sites, and had been pushed further into the cramped room by Moric, who was ineffectively stabbing with his dagger at the jabbering and giggling goblins, who danced around their blows and responded with their wicked dog-slicers, all too often finding the mark in their much bigger opponents. “This is not working!” he yelled at the elf behind him.

“They’re just goblins!” Moric yelled just as a goblin dog-slicer plunged into his stomach, causing Moric to yelp and fall back behind Kausk.

“Moric! Are you OK?” The elf was behind him, to be sure, but Kausk couldn’t tell if he were gasping on the floor, or just taking a breather. The goblins had him pinned in.

Calen had no clue what to make of the goblin with the paper tube, but he did remember the fireworks that the Licktoad goblins had been using, and ducked out of sight of the rear goblin. He heard the goblin yell some orders at its compatriots, and a bolt of fire and smoke flew out of the doorway and into the sky before exploding with a pop.

“Hunh,” Calen said to himself, “not as impressive in person.” A goblin armed with a large razor charged around the corner at him, screaming a war cry. Calen timed the blow with his great sword perfectly, catching the goblin in the face with a vicious slice that ended the war cry with a gurgle.

“Yup,” Calen agreed with himself, “not so impressive.”

Lung charged forward and launched into the smoky air in a flying kick at the rocket-bearing goblin, landing his lead foot into the fleshy nose of the doomed creature. With a sickening crack, the head and neck of the goblin turned violently to the left, and as it fell lifeless, Lung landed his maneuver in a low crouch, balanced atop the corpse. Both of the other goblins stood and ‘Ooooh’ed in appreciation of the grisly demise of their combat companion.

“Ok, you can’t have all the glory!” Davin cried from the doorway, firing his crossbow into the thigh of one of the spectator goblins.

“I’m fine,” managed a struggling Moric from behind Kausk, “but I’m not good.” Moric slashed at the goblin who had stabbed him grievously and scored a hit. The goblin growled and slashed in a counter-attack, missing Moric wildly but successfully scoring yet another hit on Kausk.

“I am sick of this!” Kausk bellowed, and used the butt of his sword to shove the goblin backwards, providing him enough room to wind up for a backhand slice.

“They’re just goblins!” Moric grunted.

“You said that already!” Kausk yelled.

Calen stood in the doorway, waiting for the next hiss and pop to charge into the room at the goblins: what he heard was slightly different. The hiss of the rocket ended in a loud bang and the pained cry of both goblins as it exploded in the room. Calen took the cry as his cue to advance. “Now that was impressive,” Calen said as he quickly dispatched the two blackened goblins with his sword.

Lung stood over another still goblin, breathing slightly heavily. The final goblin standing, sporting an arrow in its left thigh, ran out of the doorway, barely escaping a backhand from the monk. Davin moved between the corpses, removing ears from each green head with his dagger.

“That’s 120 gp!” Davin grinned at the other two as he sawed through the last goblin ear. “And you basically took them all out, Lung!”

“Yes, but we all decided to split the gold equally amongst the party, remember?” Celric had been adamant on this aspect during the short trip from Walthus’ hut to the goblin village.

“Yes we did, friend,” Lung nodded in reassurance to the jumpy scribe. Lung then shout out of the doorway in chase of the fleeing goblin.

“Well where to next?” Davin rose and brushed his bloody hands off on the outside of the sack in which he deposited the goblin ears. “Where’d Lung go?”

Celric pointed at the open doorway.

The goblin compound truly was a marvel, thought Calen. As a child, he would have been enamored of the swamp fortress, but the stench of goblin sullied everything. Rancid food and bed clothes littered with goblin feces made the place foul, but the idea of a goblin tribe living here repulsed Calen to no end. He wasn’t as enraged by goblins as his sister, but his opinions had definitely been colored by her abject hatred. Kicking at the squalid litter on the floor, Calen wondered where his crew was.

As if in answer, a howling goblin ran by the window of the room Calen was in, followed closely by the monk. The goblin disappeared around the corner of the building, as did Lung.
Calen moved to follow and came out onto a wide walkway. He spied the monk, who was racing across the green, still chasing the lone fleeing goblin.

“Calen!” Davin raised his still-bloody hand in greeting as he spied the ranger.

“Davin! Are you OK?” He pointed at the halfling priest’s hand.

“What?” Davin looked at his hand, and his eyes changed from concerned to jovial. “Oh no, that’s just from the goblins. I’m collecting ears!”

“Oh,” Calen responded, “well you’ve got six more charred ears in here to collect.”

“Cool!” Davin hustled over to Calen. Celric followed.

“Where’s Kausk?” the scribe asked to no one in particular.

Kausk at that moment pulled his great sword out of the wall of the goblin hut again. This time, however, a dead goblin fell from in between the two objects. Kausk heaved a sigh of relief as he looked at the fallen goblins, and then Moric.

Moric was a bloodied mess, a large dark circle spreading from his left abdomen. Kausk didn’t look much better with his innumerous cuts, but he wasn’t as severely wounded.

“We should find the priest,” Kausk muttered, and attempted to support the elf with his right hand. The elf shook him off.

“I’m fine,” stated the weakened Moric, “I thought I had made that clear.”

“Yup,” responded Kausk as he moved past Moric and through the west door. He spied Davin and Celric a walkway over, moving to join Calen. “Priest!” Kausk yelled.

Davin heard the call and reacted instinctively. “I’ll be there in a minute!” Davin knelt down at the first goblin and sliced off the ears. His eyes met Calen’s raised eyebrows as he moved to the next set of ears. “What? It’s 60gp!” Davin replied defensively.

Despite the arrow in its leg, the goblin was still fleet. Lung chased it under one of the buildings in the southeast corner of the compound. He bent low and came forward, barely slowing as he padded ahead in a crouching stance. The goblin tried to use the nearest support post for misdirection, but Lung guessed its feint for what it was. His hand shot out, gripped the goblin’s head, and slammed it violently into the post. The goblin fell and did not rise.

“Hmmm.” Lung pondered where the goblin had been running to as he strode out from under the building and moved to join his companions.

As soon as he joined the band in the room where Kausk and Moric leaned dazedly against the walls, Davin’s eyes lit up.

“Oh good,” Davin said. “You’re here. Ok, people.” He raised the small wooden mug on the chain around his neck. “The glory of Cayden Cailean shine upon your wounds and make your weary burden lighter to bear!” In response to the prayer, a light blue glow surrounded the band of adventurers. Moric and Kausk looked appreciably more at ease.

“Thank you,” Moric said emphatically.

Davin blinked at him. “They’re just goblins.”

“Yup,” Kausk grunted, “that’s what he said.”

Moric looked darkly from the half-orc warrior to the cleric and walked into the room to the north, where some battered pieces of furniture denoted a room of importance.

Davin followed excitedly. “Oh, goody! Goblin booty!”

Calen followed at a pace behind with Lung. “We didn’t see a chieftain yet, did we?”

“No, but there are some buildings we have yet to explore. I saw one with a large two-sided door.” Lung explained his chase of the lone goblin into the still-unexplored southeast corner of the compound. “We might find the chieftain there.”

Celric, Davin, and Moric searched through a bed frame, a battered wardrobe, and two chairs in the larger room, uncovering nothing but refuse. A swath of purple cloth pinned to the wall above the bed hid nothing, but was pocketed by Davin.

“Ah-ha.” Moric spied a wooden box resting camouflaged in the corner of the bed frame. He knelt to open the box, his back shielding its contents from the others. A small stash of gold pieces and three red rocket tubes lay undisturbed in the box.

“What’d you find?” Davin stood on his toes and tried to peer over the elf’s shoulder at the box.

“Just this,” Moric shoved a large handful of the gold coins in his pocket, spun around, and showed Davin the fireworks. Moric held his breath and searched Davin’s face for comprehension of his deception. Seeing none, Moric handed the box over.

“Oooh! Dragon-sticks!” the halfling cooed.

“We should find the chief,” Moric stated to the other party members.

Calen responded, “Lung says there’s a larger hut in that back corner.” Calen pointed out.

“That’s probably where we should look next.”

“I’m ready; let’s go.” Moric took out two daggers and weighed them in each hand. He was not about to be carved up by goblins again.

The double door was locked. Moric looked it over, sheathed his daggers, and scratched his chin. “I can open this,” he said.

“Go for it,” cheered Davin.

Moric pulled out a pry-bar and a pick, knelt down, peered at the crack in between the two doors, and shook his head. “No, that’s not going to do it,” he muttered, putting the tools back in his belt pouch. He took out a dagger, wheedled it in between the two doors, and lifted with both hands. Slowly, the board bracketed on the other side of the door rose up and toppled onto the floor. Moric stopped still and listened intently for a moment. Hearing nothing, he nodded at Kausk to open the door.

Inside, a hideous museum of slaughtered and unpreserved swamp critters were displayed on the walls of an entry hall, assaulting the senses of the group as they moved forward into the empty room. A closed door lay on the far wall.

“Oh that’s just gross,” Celric gulped and buried his nose in the front of his tunic.

“They need some decorating advice,” Davin quipped.

“Hey guys,” Moric was peering at the wall in the south corner of the room. “Come look at this.” His fingers traced an unseen line up the wall, and as he reached a corner, Moric pressed inward, releasing the clasp on a hidden door.

“Nice find, bro.” Calen was impressed.

Moric snorted with pride and moved into a cramped five-foot room that had two more doors leading off of it. Moric tried the south door, which opened outside, a short ladder hanging off the back of the hut in a small wedge between the hut and the palisaded wall.

Lung’s eyes recognized the secret entrance for what it was. “So that’s where that other goblin was running to,” he mused.

Moric left the door open and moved to the east door, which opened into another goblin bedroom, this one strewn with more purple cloth, two pillows, and a half-eaten rat. Unknown stains were scattered all over the cloth and blankets.

“I don’t think I’ll take that.” Davin wrinkled his nose in disgust at the thought of the source of the stains.

Moric and Kausk advanced through the bedroom to the two doors on the far side. One door opened to the east, while a larger door opened to the north. Calen and Lung readied themselves behind the two, while Davin and Celric decided to come around through the unexplored door from the museum room that obviously led into the room from the east side.
Moric lifted his ear from the door to the north and nodded at the group, mouthing the word ‘three’. Kausk nodded, gripped his great sword in his hands, and kicked open the door with a yell.

The explosion that ripped into the room was much larger than the pops the band had experienced coming from the red rocket tubes. The much more powerful explosion bounced off the frame of the door, sending a resounding boom through the room as well as a blinding flash of light. Kausk immediately grabbed his face.

“I can’t see!” yelled the panicked warrior, spinning to face the party.

Moric leaned against the wall and saw the half-orc yelling, but could only hear a dull hum and a high-pitched whine deep in his head. He tried to tell Kausk he was going the wrong way, but he didn’t even hear his voice. A crossbow bolt flashed into Kausk’s right shoulder.

“Oh crap.” Calen saw a bloated blob of a goblin sitting in a tall chair at the back of what obviously was a throne room, holding a short and wide light-blue cylinder. Three goblin warriors, all armed with large dog-slicers, faced the party in front of him. With a cruel smile, the goblin chief called a flame into existence in the palm of its hand and screeched in Common, “Death to the humansies!” It touched its hand to the back of the cylinder, which immediately flew straight at the party and exploded in the ceiling of their room, showering them with sparks. Calen ducked as Moric shoved an unseeing Kausk at him.

“Ged him oud off herr!” Moric wasn’t speaking clearly for some reason. A trickle of blood escaped out of both of his ears. He threw a dagger at an advancing goblin warrior, connecting with a shoulder, but not dropping it.

Calen didn’t bother to respond, spinning the grunting Kausk to Lung, who gripped him by both shoulders and said, in a calming voice: “You are safe, my friend. Do not struggle.” And with that, Lung put him in the small five-foot room and closed the door behind him.

“Where in Lamasthu’s kennel am I?” Kausk’s sword tip caught the open door leading to the outside and shut it, leaving him trapped blind in a small room. He could hear his companion’s voices, but he kept slamming his face into walls.

Calen advanced into the throne room and swung his great sword at one of the warriors. The goblin dodged his attack and thrust its dog-slicer into Calen’s backswing, opening a gash in his left flank. Lung punched his first goblin in the chest, knocking it backwards and to the ground. Davin stabbed around Moric with his halberd, scoring a glancing blow to the calf of the goblin that Moric had hit.

The goblin chief picked up a prized-looking crossbow from the seat of its chair and fired expertly and swiftly, two bolts flying through the room into Calen’s chest. Calen gasped. The goblin warriors, including Lung’s opponent who had struggled to his feet, cheered their chief.

A crazed line of obscenities poured from the small room where Kausk was trapped.

Moric threw another dagger ineffectively as he fell back defensively, allowing Davin a more direct line to the melee. Celric stepped into his place unexpectedly, his fingers spread wide and his hands held out and arching down, index fingers and thumbs touching. A rainbow blast of light shot from the scribe, dropping two of the goblins unconscious. The third goblin shook its head and refocused its attack on Calen.

Two more crossbow bolts delayed Lung’s advance on the goblin chief through the fallen warriors. He grunted as he pulled the bolts from his chest. Calen stabbed through his goblin opponent, but with a sharp crack, his great sword broke apart in two pieces, the majority of the blade remaining impaled in the goblin on the floor. “You bastard!” Calen yelled at the now-dead goblin, shaking a hilt and two inches of jagged sword at it.

Kausk vowed sexual revenge on everyone’s mother from his small room. As if that hideous curse held some magical power, Kausk’s vision suddenly returned. He opened the first door he saw and pushed ahead of Celric, sprinting toward the goblin chief.

Surrounded on all sides by hacking blades, the still-seated goblin chief Rendwattle Gutwad had achieved much with its Licktoad tribe, culminating in the glory of attacking the Lost Coast caravans with the glorious fireworks that they had liberated from that cow of a cannibal, Vorka. The Licktoad glory was not long-lived, as the skeleton warriors swept through their village not long after their second expedition for fireworks. That expedition brought much more treasure to the Licktoad coffers, but that treasure was the start of their doom, for the rampaging skeletons killed more than half of the Licktoads before Chief Gutwad realized that they just wanted their treasure back. They had been in hiding since then, mistakenly thinking that the skeletons had returned when the adventurers invaded their village. If they had mounted a true defense, reasoned Chief Gutwad, they probably could have driven off these stupid humans.

It was that last thought that went through its mind as the monk drove his hand into the goblin chief’s chin, causing its head to violently slam against the wall behind the rickety throne. His head lolled forward and the goblin stilled, still seated in its throne.
“About damned time,” Calen cursed as he used his broken sword to remove the goblin chief’s head, “That bastard was slippery, even sitting in this chair.” As the head came free, Calen pulled the chair over in disgust, tumbling the bloody body to the floor. A red-lacquered chest lay under the base of the chair on the floor.

Lung stepped around the fallen chair and peered curiously at the chest. It was covered in grime, but obviously didn’t belong in the goblin village. The strange patterns of lizards, birds, and flowers on the top of the chest tickled the memory of the monk, but he wasn’t able to grasp the thread.

“This thing is filthy,” Kausk knelt to brush his hand across the chest. “It looks like it’s been dragged through the swamp.”

“It probably has,” offered Calen.

“I can fix that!” announced the scribe, and Celric stepped forward, his right hand pointed at the chest with four fingers drawn tightly together. A small breeze blew the dirt and crust from the surface of the chest, revealing distinctly more expertly-crafted beauty carved into all sides of the chest.

“Ooooh...” Davin had always liked sparkly things.

Even Moric commented, his voice apparently returned to normal, “It’s not elven, but it is beautifully made.”

“It looks familiar,” Lung seemed lost in thought.

“It’s treasure,” Kausk said brightly as he opened the lid, “of course it’s familiar!”

The inside of the chest was a purple, velvet-lined collection of small compartments, each apparently designed to hold fireworks and other items. Besides a handful of blue and red paper tubes, the chest also contained a beautiful hat pin, a gold-flecked fan with more flowers painted on it, and a small tower of shiny shuriken. Celric peered at the fan, scrutinizing the material from which it was made.

“I don’t know what this is,” he trailed off as he turned the fan over. On the other side, a crude-looking map had been scrawled in charcoal. A light bulb went off inside Celric’s head - he’s seen that map before! It was a map of Brinestump Marsh! Celric hurriedly fished into his pack for the map that Walthus had given him.

“What’s up, Letter Man?” Calen looked curiously at the scribe, who was more excited than he had ever seen him.

“The Marsh!....it’s on the fan!” managed Celric as he tore Walthus’ map free from his pack and unrolled it on the floor, squatting down with the fan in his hand and comparing the two.

“Look!” Celric pointed at one of the three ‘X’s on the map. “That’s those caverns that Walthus told us about!”

“What are those?” Davin pointed over Celric’s left shoulder at two other ‘X’s on the map.
“It’s obviously where we are, and the other is witch-lady,” stated Calen.

“No,” managed Celric breathlessly, “they’re not! See?” Celric pointed at Walthus’ unrolled map on the floor of the throne room. “The witch-lady is there, and we’re here. Those two ‘X’s aren’t even close to where we are or where she is! They must be something else!”

“Walthus would know what they are,” suggested Lung, regarding the group huddled around the map. “We should seek his counsel.”

“Agreed,” Kausk decided. He closed the large, lacquered chest and attempted to heft it onto his shoulder. It banged up against the ceiling of the goblin hut, leaving a dent in the wood.

“Hey! Careful with our booty!” Calen yelled. “We could sell that to someone for a pretty penny. Alright, Lung, you win. My sword is broken. I’m tired. Back to Walthus’ place. Celric, can you lead us back there with the map?”

“Sure thing,” the scribe offered the fan to Davin, picked up the paper map with both hands and stood up. “I think I even have a short cut worked out.”

Forty-five minutes later the band was still trudging along an unmarked muddy trail due north, Celric and Calen arguing with each other in the front.

“Short cut?” asked Calen. “It didn’t take us this long to get to the Licktoads from Walthus’ place last time.”

“It should be right up around this bend,” doggedly responded Celric. “Right.....HERE.”

Around the bend was most assuredly not Walthus’ hut, but an unnatural heaped-up mound of branches, moss, and mud. The air seemed silent around the clearing, and the cloudy sky of the mid-summer afternoon provided unsettling light and poor contrast.

“Well, I’m not carrying this thing in there.” Kausk set the trunk down heavily on the muddy path. “What is that thing?”

Calen had already started circling the mound warily, looking for an entrance. Celric peered around the clearing suspiciously, noticing the lack of birds chirping or insects buzzing. “I don’t like this,” he whined.

Calen saw a thin vertical opening in the wall of swamp detritus. Inside, all was dark. Moric appeared at Calen’s right shoulder. “I can fix that,” he said as he imbued his dagger with light and tossed it inside the mound.

“Cayden’s vomit on my shoes!” cursed Calen, “Could you avoid sneaking up on me? It bothers me!”brother?”

"Why so jumpy, brother?" Moric said as his eyes took in the interior of the mound. His voice trailed off as he and Calen both saw bloody pieces of clothing pinned to the inside walls of the mound. A few of the pieces of clothing could have been from goblins, but most were definitely larger than that, and one pair of pants looked to be either hobbit- or child-sized.

“Ok, let’s get out of here.” Moric had been brought low by the goblins, had been deafened by the goblin chief, and had a pocketful of coins that he could make good use of as soon as he made it back to civilization. He was in no mood for more trouble.

“Might not be a bad idea,” suggested Calen as he turned around to the others, “and we can always come back later if we can figure out where we are, right, Letter Man?”

Where was Celric?

“Letter-Man?” Calen glanced around. “Celric!?”

“Hey, guys?” Celric’s voice sounded deathly calm from the other side of the mound. His eyes were locked on the periphery of the clearing, where a tall, gaunt, pale figure stood in the shadows of the trees, glaring at Celric. “We’ve got a friend.” Celric weakly laughed, turned to run toward them, and promptly fell as he tripped over his own feet.

The slobbering figure, its legs bending backwards like a dog, rushed forward at Celric, hands extended in sharp three-fingered claws. Its pale, mottled skin and reddened eyes were ominous-appearing, but the oddly open mouth, its sides zippered in four folds with sharp teeth like a flower, was a thing of nightmares. Celric wailed and covered his face with his arm.
Just as the thing was about to set upon him, Kausk swooped in from the left with a mighty roar and delivered a mighty blow to the thing’s flank. The monster veered away from Celric and turned to face Kausk, squealing like a boar.

“Stay down, Celric!” Calen’s commanding voice bellowed out. Celric followed the advice and covered his head as Moric’s dagger flew true and into the chest of the pale beast. Calen drew his sword, forgetting that all he had was two inches of broken metal below his hilt. “Crap,” he muttered, and flung the hilt to the ground.

He need not have worried. Davin approached from the other side of the beast, receiving a glancing blow on the forehead that left a curious red welt, but successfully landing his halberd into the thing’s chest. With a screech, the beast fell over and started twitching. Davin sunk to his knees and released his hold on his halberd, his right hand going to his now-pale forehead.

“Are you OK, Davin?” Kausk looked concernedly at the dazed and green-looking hobbit.

“Yeah,” Davin shook his head slightly. “I just got this wave of....I don’t know......nausea? It’s gone now, but....”

Kausk prodded the still-twitching body with his sword. “This creature is not natural,” he pronounced. “It could be poison. Are you sure you’re OK?”

Davin stood up, color coming to his face convincingly. “Yes,” he said as he rose to his feet, “yes, I am OK, all praise to the Drunken God.”

Kausk grunted, “You can stand up now, Celric.” The scribe looked around and embarrassedly rose to his feet, dusting off his clothes.

“Holy crap!” shouted Calen from his vantage point. Everyone’s eyes shot in alarm to Calen.

“Do you know what that is?” Calen pointed excitedly at the fallen creature.

“Ugly?” Kausk answered.

“Dead?” Davin offered.

“You all are smart-asses,” replied Calen. “That is the Soggy Bottom Monster. I’m sure of it. Let’s get its head! Where’s my sword?” Calen started looking around for his broken sword that he had flung aside earlier.

Later that afternoon, once the band found Walthus’ hut again, Davin recounted the battle to the snake-handler. “We found a lot of dead body parts inside his hut,” Davin said ruefully. “Calen felt it best to burn the thing down, so we used one of the cool dragon-sticks that the Licktoads had. It lit up pretty easily.” Davin finished the story and settled back in his chair with a hearty sip of the mug of ale from the emergency keg that Walthus had deigned to open in celebration of the Licktoads’ demise.

Walthus was more interested in the map on the back of the fan. “I don’t know what those two locations are,” he said, his natural halfling curiosity piqued, “but I’ll be damned if I ain’t gonna find out!” That settled, the halfling stood up and raced upstairs.

“What’s he talking about?” puzzled Celric. “We’re going back to Sandpoint, right?”

“Yeah, we need a chance to rest before we do any more exploring,” agreed Moric.

The halfling came back down in a flash, his gear hanging from his back and sides, his longbow in hand. “Let’s go!” he said cheerfully. “That first ‘X’ is just southwest of here!”

“You sure this is a good idea, Walthus?” Calen stood up cautiously and faced the halfling.

“Two of our guys want to go back before nightfall, and I don’t have a sword.” He added, “We got pretty beat up.”

“Bah!” spit Walthus. “It’ll be six hours before it’s dark! Don’t be a wilting violet, Calen. You can have one of my spare axes!” Walthus headed back upstairs to fetch a make-shift weapon for him.

“What do you say, guys?” Calen opened the question to the party.

“As long as we’re on our way to Sandpoint by nightfall,” said Celric. “I need to do some work in town.”

“What work?” Calen said.

“Scribe work.”

“With the lack of paper or ink that you have, right?” Davin pointed out.

“I have lots of work to do.” countered Celric.

“We’ll be on our way by tonite,” Calen conceded. Walthus ran back down the stairs and handed the half-orc ranger a hand axe. “Lead on, Walthus, we’re with you.”

“Good,” said the halfling, “we’ll take the water route. It’s faster.”

“Oh!” said Davin. “We’re going on a boat!”

“No,” replied Walthus, “we’re walking through shallow water.”

“Oh,” said Davin, considerably less excited.

A few short minutes later, the band came up on a small ruined ship, run aground a hundred yards into the swamp, but remarkably intact otherwise. Its make was foreign; none of the locals had seen a ship in Sandpoint like that before. A brief search of the vine-strewn deck and hull revealed only three dogs and a goblin.

“They’ve been dead three weeks, it looks it,” estimated Walthus.

“This place looks like it’s been looted,” Calen muttered.

“Not completely!” Moric called down from the crow’s nest.

“How’d you get up there?” asked Calen.

“I climb things,” answered Moric. “Here, catch!” Moric hefted down a full keg to Kausk, who was almost tall enough to snatch it from Moric’s hand. Kausk handed the keg to the excited Davin, who immediately opened it and smelled. The priest started coughing and gagging violently, spitting on the deck.

“Oh, yuck!” Davin turned the empty keg over and poured the foul liquid out. “Goblin-brewed ale!”

Lung regarded his friend curiously. “Davin, I am impressed.”

“Hey!” Davin managed, “Cayden’s got his standards. Goblins might be able to make ale, but they know bugger-all about brewing!”

Moric had unearthed a few fireworks and potions which he handed down gingerly to Kausk, as well as a sling and some sling bullets. “Can I have this?” he asked as he descended from the crow’s nest. “I don’t have a missile weapon outside of my daggers, and I don’t want to lose them.”

“Sure,” Calen said. “What now, Walthus?”

“I’ll bet ya that other ‘X’ is another ship,” Walthus looked excited. “Whaddaya say?”

“How far?” sighed Calen as he glanced at the rapidly-aging afternoon sky.

“Maybe an hour,” Walthus announced happily and set off from the ship, whistling.

Calen offered a helpless shrug to the party and made to follow. Lung was the last to leave the ruined ship, staring at the intricate carvings and delicate decorations on the side of the boat. He spied a small name-plate on the prow of the ship as he descended the old gang-plank, and rubbed off years of grime to reveal the name of the ship: Kaijitsu Star.

“Hmmm,” Lung pondered in silent musing. He rejoined the tail-end of the party.

The second ‘X’ indeed represented another ship, but this one was not in nearly as good a condition. The hull had split in two, the ribs of the ship exposed to the elements had rotted, and all the masts had fallen into the clinging vines of the swamp. The corpse of a ship, though bigger than its partner, lay on its side in shallow water, looking much less impressive.

“Hmmm, wonder what kind of a storm would drive ships this far inland?” Walthus scratched his chin.

Davin peered at a moss-obscured name-plate right at water level. “The Kaijitsu’s Blossom,” he read. He recognized the last name of his best friend almost immediately. “Hey guys!” Davin called, trying to pry free the name-plate. “This ship is called the Kaijitsu’s Blossom! This ship belongs to Ameiko! Or her family!”

“Or maybe these guys,” Lung replied calmly from the other side of the ship’s skeleton, where four skeletal figures had risen silently from the shallow water, drawing short, wickedly-sharp blades from their empty rib-cages. He stood in a defensive stance.

Davin glanced over to where Lung stood, his eyes flaring bright. Without a delay, Davin hoisted his mug over his head and screamed out “Cayden Cailean has sounded Last Call for all you damned souls!!!” With a blast of divine energy, two of the skeletal warriors crumbled to dust and sank back into the swamp.

The remaining two skeletons advanced on the monk, who dodged both short blades and fell back defensively. Kausk drew his sword and charged over to his aid, smashing through the right skeleton effortlessly with an upper-cut of his great sword. Lung’s spinning kick dislodged the head from the remaining skeleton, and the last of the skeletal warriors fell still.

Walthus hadn’t even drawn his bow. He applauded heartily, laughing merrily. “Well done, boys! My backyard’s looking nicer all the time!”

Calen slogged over to one of the fallen skeletons and picked up the rusty, but still effective-looking short blade it had wielded. “This might be useful,” he mused.

A short search later revealed nothing other than the four blades that the skeletons had shoved in their ribcages. Walthus looked expectantly at Calen.

Celric answered the question before it was answered. “If both of these ships carried treasure the likes of which we found at the Licktoad village,” he reasoned, “then that last ‘X’ on the fan, which we know represents the Brinestump Caverns, is where it rests.”

Walthus gave a shiver. “I always thought those caverns were haunted.”

“Yup,” Kausk grunted as he kicked one of the skulls free from a skeleton, “it probably is.” He smiled a wicked grin, “Who’s afraid of a few bone-heads?”

END

Grand Lodge

Awakening
23rd September 2011

“...and furthermore, you don’t even have an intact sword, and so, for all of the reasons that I just enumerated, I think it is in our best interests to turn around, head back to Walthus’ house and then Sandpoint to recuperate and restore our provisions before pushing forward into what could potentially be our undoing!” Celric finished with a flourish and a quick nod of his head, assured that his sparkling rhetoric would obviously lead to the logical decision.

Calen rubbed his eye sockets between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The scribe was right; pushing forward without his favored weapon was foolhardy at best. He had a spear, and one of those weird, curved short swords that he picked up off of the skeletons back at the ruin of the Kaijitsu’s Blossom. ‘Not that I can use it in any appreciable way,’ thought the ranger ruefully. Still, they had come this far, and the promise of treasure and glory beckoned.

Calen looked over the gathered faces of the band of adventurers that he had led, drunkenly, into the swamps of Brinestump on a wild-goose (chicken?) chase for goblins. And goblins they had found alright: Davin was carrying more than a score of goblin ears in a bloody sack tied to the pack on his back, along with two larger lumpy masses that represented the heads of goblin chief Rendwattle Gutwad and the Soggy Bottom monster. The halfling gave him an encouraging smirk.

“I endorse Celric’s opinion,” Lung offered, spreading his hands wide as he made his appeal, “for Irori states that only through perfect balance can we surmount our obstacles. I am for journeying back to Sandpoint to seek stability before venturing forth again into the unknown.”

“Thank you,” nodded Celric with satisfaction to the monk.

“Look,” piped up Moric suddenly in a conspiratorial tone, “we go back to Sandpoint now, word gets out that we found two ships in the swamp and traced the cargo of the ships to these caverns, and how many wannabe adventurers are going to come out here and snatch what might just be sitting there in the caverns?” Moric pointed at the nettle-covered rock face forcefully. “I say we scout out what’s in there and then determine if we need to go back to Sandpoint.”

Calen regarded his brother with a cautious eye. Though not actually related to the elf, the half-orc had been adopted as a brother by Shalelu Andosana, the resident ranger of Sandpoint, and Moric was her true brother, recently surfaced in town. He had been charged with showing his new brother around and seeing to his needs until Shalelu returned from wherever Shalelu was. The irony did not escape Calen that though elves were generally known for making decisions in a detached fashion with an eye for the long-term, his ‘little’ brother (who was probably 100 years older than him) often seemed rash and mercenary in his ways and words. Was not this the same Moric who, a few hours prior at the wreck of the Kaijitsu’s Blossom, wanted to return to Sandpoint along with Celric?

“I have my sword,” Kausk rattled it in its scabbard, “and I do not want to turn back.” The half-orc was blunt, but Calen did not doubt his resolve.

“Thanks, cuz,” Calen replied, sarcastically joking about the apparent familial nature of his relationship with Kausk, to whom he was not related. Who would think that half-orcs could be related, when the majority of the unions between humans and orcs that birthed their kind were borne of violence and chance? Calen knew no other half-orcs personally, and he had not thought that he needed to know others; he was already ashamed enough of his kind when he glanced at his own face in a mirror.

“We could just look around,” suggested Davin, “and I’m all for high-tailing it out of there if we run into any meanie beasties. I just don’t want to be trying to find my way back to Walthus’ place in the dark.”

Walthus, the other halfling in the band, and a fellow tracker as well, piped up his gruff voice, “We’ve got about three hours of light left, and it’s an hour from these caverns on foot to my front door.” He spit on the ground to punctuate his point.

“I think it’s not smart, no matter how much light is left,” Celric reiterated. “We all know that there are going to be more of those skeletons in there.”

“I guess we have to put it to a vote,” Calen sighed, “and while it pains me to say that Letter Man is right, he does make good sense.”

“Well, I’m glad someone else has good sense,” Celric interjected. “What are we voting on then?”

“Whether we turn back now, or we go into the caverns and explore for one hour.”

“But that’s still going into the cave!” Celric flustered easily.

“So your vote is ‘no’ then, Letter Man?” smoothly countered Calen.

“Yes!” Celric shook his head. “I mean, No! My vote is no!”

Calen looked to Kausk. “Cuz, your vote is ‘yes’, I take it?”

“Does a bear s#*@ in the woods?” Kausk replied.

“I don’t know; we’re in the swamp.” Calen felt the need to get his band moving, whatever the decision was. “So that’s two ‘yes’s and one ‘no’.”

“Two?” Celric challenged, “Who’s the second ‘yes’?”

“Me,” Calen answered simply. “Walthus?”

“It’s all my backyard, fellas. If it’s all the same, I’m gonna sit out this vote. I got no inclining one way or the other.”

“One abstain,” Calen went on, “Moric?”

“Cave,” Moric replied.

“Three for scouting the caverns. Davin?”

“As long as we can get in and out before dark, I’m for taking a peek inside.”

“One hour.” Lung intoned suddenly, before Calen could ask his opinion.

“I’m sorry?” Calen said, “Are you voting, Lung?”

“It is an acceptable compromise to explore the cavern for one hour.” Lung expounded. “But I will not stay longer.”

“Ok, that’s five ‘yes’s, one ‘no’, and one ‘abstain’. The ‘aye’s have it. Let’s prepare to go in.” Calen turned business-like. “Kausk, can you hack down those nettles for us so we don’t touch them on the way in? They look like the stinging variety. Davin, could you make certain we have a source of light?”

“I can provide some light, too,” Moric volunteered.

“We don’t want a torch in there,” reasoned Calen.

“No torches,” Moric explained, “just light.” The elf walked over to Kausk, who was preparing to hack down the hanging nettles, picked up his great sword from where it lay against the bare rock face of the cliff, and imbued it with light. He handed it back to the puzzled-looking warrior, who shrugged at Calen, gave the blade a few test swings, and started swiping at the vines. Moric walked back to Calen.

“Neat trick, little brother. You’ll have to show me how to do that someday.” Calen turned back to the halfling priest. “Davin, could you make certain we have a source of light?”

Moric scowled at Calen and stomped off. Davin watched him go, and then looked concernedly at Calen. “I think your ‘little brother’, as you call him, might be trying to impress you.”

“Well, color me all impressed then.” His nonchalant tone suggested how he felt. Davin shrugged, closed his eyes, and with a murmur to Cayden Cailean, blessed his own sword with a softly-glowing aura of light.

“Can I speak to you, Calen?” Celric tapped on his left shoulder.

“Yeah?”

“I think you’re making a big error,” Celric started.

“Oh really?” Calen squared his shoulders to the wizard and put his hands on his hips.

“I do hope that in the future, you take more account of the safety and security of those that you pretend to lead.” Celric stuck his chin out with those words, his eyes fiery under his traveling hat.

“Ok, number one,” Calen counted on his fingers, “I am not leading anyone-”

“We are following you,” countered Celric.

“-that’s different,” Calen continued, “and number two, you’re more than welcome to stay out here and wait for us, or go ahead and go back to Walthus’ hut or Sandpoint right now.” Calen finished and held out his hand in an invitational gesture towards the open swamp and the trail that they had followed.

“Of course I’m coming in there with everyone,” Celric explained irritatedly, “it’d be REALLY stupid to go on alone.” And with that, the wizard turned away from the half-orc ranger, who shook his head and clucked his tongue in disbelief.

The Brinestump Caverns were a small and isolated subset of caverns that extended under Bleaklow Moor west towards Foxglove Manor in the far southwest corner of Varisia. Somewhat smaller than other Bleaklow Moor caverns, the ceilings topped out at six feet, though they were generally less than that, averaging five feet in height at most places. “Kinda cozy,” mused Davin as he moved into the entrance cavern. Kausk, who neared seven feet in height, grunted in disagreement, his displeasure notable from his stooped posture in the low caverns.

The floors of the cavern were smooth and uneven. Moisture that could be seen on the walls, felt on the floor, and heard all around kept the party quiet and focused on not losing their footing as they made their way past the now-cleared tangle of nettles and vines at the entrance. They almost immediately came to a divide in the cave, one larger cave leading to the east, and a smaller passage leading to the west. From the larger passage, the distinct dripping of water on water could be heard.

“Shall we split up?” asked Calen in a low voice.

“No!” came a hissed response from Celric, near the middle of the pack.

“I was kidding; I’ll scout ahead on the right,” soothed Calen. The half-orc moved out of the circle of light provided by Kausk’s glowing great sword, and into the drier rocky passage on the right. He drew his spear and moved slowly as the passage started to curve toward the south.

A faint, low sucking noise came from the larger chamber ahead of him. Calen’s darkvision saw no figures in the chamber, but he could identify the noise of something feeding in the chamber ahead. He halted and reversed course back to the waiting party. “I don’t like the sound of what’s ahead; it sounds like dinner-time for something.”

“Do you think it wants dinner guests?” The eager, toothy smile Kausk flashed Calen impressed the ranger.

“Come on,” directed Calen, motioning the party to follow. Kausk followed closely, just in front of Moric and the rest of the party.

The larger chamber ahead was dry and had a much higher ceiling than the previous caverns. Perched on the southwest wall of the cavern, a man-sized hairy brown spider with red splotches on its back gripped the half-eaten and web-wrapped corpse of a giant gecko in two of its eight legs. Its eyes glittered off the light as the party entered the cavern, and the spider skittered down from the wall, set its dinner down, and moved forward to engage Calen and Kausk.

The fight did not last long. Kausk, guileless in his combat, walked straight up to the large spider and slashed with his great sword, too swift for the spider to back away. His sword opened a large gash along the right side of the bulbous creature’s body, hobbling the front leg on that side. A crossbow bolt from Moric pierced the thorax of the reeling beast, right before Calen thrust his spear into the eyes of the spider. The spider twitched once and then went still. Calen twisted his spear and withdrew it fiercely.

“Right,” he breathed, “what’s next?”

Celric excused himself as he pushed forward through the party members and went straight to the wrapped husk of the gecko laying behind the spider. “Interesting,” he said from his knees in front of the lizard, “but these giant lizards can only be found in Varisian swamps, I’m told.” He took out a dagger from his belt.

“What are you doing?” asked Calen.

The scribe looked over his shoulder at Calen. “Spider web silk! I can harvest this and braid it to make rope!” He started cutting the silk from the gecko.

Calen took out a coil of silken rope from his pack. “You mean, like this?” He dropped the rope to the left of the scribe.

“Well, yes,” Celric said, “but I’m interested in making my own, too. Can I have this?” His hands went from cutting the spider silk around the gecko to Calen’s rope.

Calen snatched it from the ground. “No! Make your own!”

Celric, rebuffed, returned to the gecko. “Fine. That’s what I was going to do anyway.”

Moric poked around at the spider corpse, checking for any venom glands around the wet fangs of the creature. Walthus scooted up behind the elf. “Whatcha looking for?”

Moric glanced at the halfling ranger. “Nothing,” he lied.

Walthus winked at the elf. “That’s a cave spider. Kinda like a wolf spider.” Moric’s blank stare told Walthus to explain more. “It don’t use webs nor poisons; it just hunts.” He shrugged.

“Not very dangerous, really.”

“Oh,” said Moric, wiping off his hands on his pants as he rose from the spider corpse.

“Gotcha.”

Kausk had ventured into the southeast corner of the cavern. A passageway led out of the chamber. “There’s a way through here,” he called to the party.

“There’s nothing else in here,” Davin announced after completing a brief prayer and surveying the room.

“Ok, Kausk, let’s move forward,” Calen directed. The party set off through a narrower passage with only six-foot ceilings in a southeast direction. After ten feet, they came to another fork, with similar-looking passages leading due east and due west. “Let’s keep on taking right turns,” suggested Calen, directing Kausk to take the western passageway. That passageway also divided a scant twenty feet further along into a southwest passage and a northerly passage. “Right,” Calen said.

The passageway emptied into a closed, water-filled twenty foot chamber, a small island of land noted in the back west corner of the room. On the island, the front half of the party could see sparkling crystal formations growing from the ground.

“Sparkly,” muttered Kausk.

“I like sparkles,” offered Davin, trying to crane his neck around his larger companions for a glimpse.

Moric put away his crossbow and drew his sword, using it to measure the water’s depth and wiping it off on his cloak. “About three feet deep,” he pronounced.

“I’ll go and see,” Kausk suggested, sloshing out into the water. Moric followed behind him. Davin and Celric came to the water’s edge, joining Calen in observing the advance party.

Kausk made straight for the crystals, which were slightly translucent and had a light-pink hue in the light of his glowing sword. They appeared to grow from the rocky surface of the island. He was about to reach ahead to grab one of them when he heard Moric clear his throat behind him.

Kausk turned towards his right and said “Yeah?” just as a large pseudopod of clear slime slammed down in the water right in front of him, splashing him but causing no damage.

“What the hell is that?” Moric stood and pointed at the blob-like creature, already readying another large pseudopod to slam down onto the spluttering warrior.

“I don’t know!” yelled Kausk. “Just kill it!” And with that, the second pseudopod slammed into Kausk’s left forearm. Besides being propelled with a lot more force than what he was expecting based on its appearance and speed, the blob’s blow started to sting and burn immediately after it touched him. “Ow ow ow ow!” Kausk screeched, thrusting his left arm into the water.

Moric waded forward and slashed at the creature with his sword, but did not strike it.

“I’ll help!” Celric called from the water’s edge, and uttered a brief incantation. A small bubble of green flew from the scribe’s hand and into the bulk of the creature, hissing and burning into its flesh.

Calen heaved his spear at the creature and also hit it, the haft of his weapon stuck one-third of the way inside the creature, moving with it as it floated over to Kausk again. Kausk, for his part, had had enough, and pulled his still-tingling arm from the water, gripped his sword with both hands, and gave a mighty overhand blow straight down into the blob, chopping it in half. The blob stopped moving toward him and began sinking into the three-foot deep water. “Stupid thing bit me,” Kausk managed, shaking his left arm in irritation as he waded back to the shore.

“Aren’t you going to get the crystals?” Davin asked him. Kausk looked at the halfling, frowned, and turned back to the island, where Moric was already picking through the rock crystals.

“They’re sort-of valuable,” Moric offered as Kausk waded up. Kausk hacked and pulled at the crystals until he harvested the two handfuls on the island. Moric walked over and plucked Calen’s spear from one of the halves of the creature. He noted what appeared to be a brown nexus in the center of the slime of the creature, and brought it over to the water’s edge for the spectators.

“Anything fun?” Calen called.

“Take a look,” Moric said as he dropped the spear and the creature on the ground.

Calen recognized it at once. “Oh, it’s an amoeba. A pretty big one, too,” he said interestedly as he yanked his spear loose from the dead creature. “Anything else?”

Kausk sloshed over to the shore, a small sack in his hand. He gave the sack to Celric. “Yeah, there’s some pink crystals in there. They were growing on the island.”

Davin looked at the burned splotch on the half-orc warrior’s arm. “You OK?” He peered at the face of Kausk.

“Yeah,” responded Kausk, exiting the chamber.

Retracing their footsteps, the band took the northern passage from the last fork that they had passed, which curved toward the east and promptly became severely cramped, forcing the seven-foot Kausk to turn sideways and hug the wall in a squat as he prepared to push through.

“Wait, wait, wait,” called Calen from behind Moric, halting Kausk. “Davin, would you check ahead, please?”

“By myself?” responded Davin.

“You’re just scouting,” Calen replied.

“I’ll go with him,” offered Walthus from the back. The halfling ranger pushed forward behind the priest.

“Me, too,” announced the short scribe. “I can fit.”

“OK, fine,” Calen said, “all us big lugs will wait here for you guys, OK?” Calen put up his hands in a self-mocking gesture.

“Yeah,” Davin replied as he made off through the narrow passage, “sounds good.” The two halflings and the scribe started shimmying down the passage. The elf made to follow.

“Where do you think you’re going? You’re six feet tall, too!” challenged Calen.

Moric responded confidently, “Oh, I can fit down there. Don’t you worry, big brother.” And with a wink, the tall elf seemed to fold himself into the passage, following the disappearing smaller-statured party members.

“The younger generation doesn’t have much respect for their elders sometimes,” Lung spoke with a hint of a tease in his voice.

“Shut up.” Calen growled.

Davin pushed forward, his crossbow held sideways in front of him due to the skinny passage. The halfling had no illusions about his role in the party; he was a healer, not a warrior. He was nervous about being at the front line of the advance, but it did make sense. He was smaller. “Cayden Cailean save my ass,” he muttered as he emerged into a much larger cavern.

The cavern was expansive, with a ceiling that soared over ten feet in height. The entire eastern third of the cavern was covered in dark water that looked deep, and a fine sandy beach covered the middle third of the floor adjacent to the water. Stalagmites rose from the floor in the corner of the cave that they entered, providing some cover to Davin as he peered out at the room.

Laying in various states of collapse on the beach were four skeletons, their bodies intact. They were strewn about, and did not sport clothes, armor, or weapons nearby. Davin held his breath and moved further into the room, within ten feet of the nearest skeleton. Completely poised to loose a righteous blast of energy from Cayden Cailean to send the skeletons back to the underworld, Davin was surprised when the skeleton’s eyes did not light up with pinpoints of red fire. He exhaled.

The other three companions - Walthus, then Celric, then Moric - pushed their way into the chamber. From the tight opening, they could hear the echoes of their larger party members as they attempted to squeeze their way through the opening, now that they knew there was a chamber beyond. Davin got a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he looked around the room at Moric and Walthus examining the unmoving skeletons.

“Hey guys,” Davin said as he picked up the nearest skeleton by its spinal column and held it in front of his body like a puppet, “follow my lead.” Davin turned toward the tight opening where Celric still stood, unsure about the skeletons, and not particularly interested in coming closer.
Moric caught wind of Davin’s scheme first, picking up his skeleton with enthusiasm and holding it in front of him, thinking of the shock that he was about to give his ‘big brother’. Walthus’ chuckle behind him told him that the halfling ranger was in on the prank as well.

Davin motioned towards Celric. “Come on, Celric,” he implored, “there’s one more skeleton for you, too.”

Celric shook his head stubbornly. “That’s OK. I don’t want to pick up those things, thank you very much.”

Moric growled, “Well, at least get out of the way so they don’t see you standing there.” Celric silently moved to the right of the opening, out of sight of the emerging Calen.

Calen, huffing and puffing as he twisted his body through the insanely-tight passage, grumbled that he was swearing off ale once he made it back to town. With what felt like a pop, Calen fell on his hands and knees into the chamber. He could hear Kausk behind him grunting even harder. His ‘cousin’ was almost seven feet tall; he could imagine the type of trouble he was having. Calen dusted off his hands and rose to his feet.

And screamed like a banshee as three skeletons rattled their bones at him. The skeletons then laughed uproariously in curiously-familiar voices.

Kausk was laying on his left side, pushing himself inchworm-style through the tight chamber. His shoulders collapsed into the open room, and he shoved himself upright heavily. The rattling skeletons caught his breath in his chest, and he was on his feet with his sword half out of its scabbard before Calen stopped him with a silent hand and a smile. Kausk then saw the familiar figures standing behind and holding up the skeletons.

Lung was not having too hard of a time of it, using some of his monastic training to ease his way slowly through the cramped passage. He slid out into the chamber and immediately was confronted by three of his companions rattling the bones of three skeletons at him in mock attack. Lung blinked at his companions, but did not laugh.

“What?” called Davin from behind his skeleton, “Irori doesn’t laugh at things?”

Lung replied, “Your skeleton has red pin-points for eyes.”

Davin shrieked and dropped the not-lifeless-anymore skeleton from his hands. Moric tossed his stiffening-skeleton into the water. Davin clasped his mug in his hands and bellowed, “Cayden Cailean sounds Last Call for all you damned souls!” As before, a blast of divine energy buffeted the skeletal figures, but none fell. Two more skeletons rose up from the water next to the skeleton that Moric had tossed, which was now standing.

“That’s not supposed to create MORE skeletons!” cried Davin.

These skeletons, unlike the ones the band had fought at the ruin of the Kaijitsu’s Blossom, did not wield swords. Instead, they advanced upon the party with sharpened claws and leapt to attack with both claws at once.

Kausk charged straight ahead from the stalagmites to a skeleton in the center of the room that was threatening Davin from behind. With a bellow, he burst through the skeleton, scattering bones into dust as he obliterated the undead monster. He was rewarded for his effort when he came to a halt, taking a bony rake across the face from the skeleton that Walthus had thrown to the ground. He gripped his left cheek in pain.

Calen had a slight scratch on his left arm, but he was more worried about the fact that he had no decent weapon to use to fight these creatures. He stepped backwards to avoid a skeletal claw as Lung’s fist connected with the skull of the same skeleton, sending it flying away from the collapsing heap of bones that its body became. “Thanks,” breathed Calen.

“Alright, Cayden, one more for the road,” Davin spoke directly to his wooden holy symbol of a mug before he thrust it into the air again. “I SAID, Cayden Cailean called Last Call for undead! You don’t have to be dead, but you can’t be undead here!” A second and more powerful blast of divine energy swirled through the chamber. Three skeletons flew into pieces and crumbled at Davin’s exhortation. “Thank you,” the priest saluted his god with the mug.

A roundhouse kick from Lung brought down the last remaining skeleton. Celric laughed raucously from where he was still standing, over by the stalagmites. “Oh, that was rich!” He clapped mock applause. “Let’s pick up the skeletons and trick our friends! Real smart, guys. Now can we go back to Sandpoint?”

Calen had had enough taunting. He advanced threateningly on the scribe. “We will go back to Sandpoint when the party decides to go back, Letter Man. In the meantime, how about you find something useful to do to help us out the next time we get into a fight, hunh?”

Davin decided that a diversion was in order. True, the scribe had questioned Calen’s decisions one too many times this afternoon, but he was a party member, and Davin had seen all too often the results when Calen got his temper up. “Healing time, people!” he shouted, holding his holy mug up. “Come on in close so you all can taste some of Cayden’s goodness!”

Calen glared at the scribe before turning his back on him, joining Davin along with the rest of the party, save for Celric. The priest said a brief prayer resulting in the familiar blue flare of healing magic around the group. Celric simply folded his arms and watched from where he stood.

A brief canvass of the large cavern revealed nothing of interest. “No treasure chests,” sighed Davin sadly.

“There’s a passage over here,” called Kausk from the water’s edge. By the light of Kausk’s great sword (rekindled by Moric’s ‘trick’ just as combat ended), a tunnel entrance could be seen leading due east out of the chamber, water-filled like the eastern third of the room. The tunnel curved out of sight to the south just past the entrance.

“I don’t swim,” announced Celric to no one in particular.

Moric shoved his sword down into the water from the sandy beach. “It’s only about five feet deep here,” he reported.

“Yeah,” Davin laughed, “I don’t swim either, and five feet is plenty to make me think twice!” The priest held his hand about two feet above his head to signify where a five foot water mark would leave him. “Oh wait! I’ve got a great idea! Walthus, follow me!” The excited halfling ran back out of the chamber, followed closely by the ranger.

“It has been one hour,” Lung stated, “I am going to leave now and go back to Walthus’ house, as per our previous agreement.” The monk turned to leave, walking back towards the stalagmites and the still echoing-voices of the two halflings.

“Wait! Lung...” Calen implored the monk to stay, but he knew that once a decision had been made by the monk, not even a gale force wind could blow the stubborn Tian from his chosen path. Calen growled in frustration and stared up at the ceiling.

Kausk grunted, “I’ll just go look at what’s in the chamber ahead.” The warrior held his great sword aloft and stepped down into the water. At five feet, Kausk was able to hold his elbows up out of the water without trouble. Unfortunately, he got three feet across when he suddenly lost his footing and went under.

“Kausk!” yelled Calen from the shore. He started to peel off his scale mail armor piece by piece. He could swim, but he wasn’t going to be able to while wearing his heavy metal armor. The half-orc ranger had a third of his armor off when the spluttering Kausk resurfaced a few feet closer to the far tunnel entrance.

Kausk coughed, then yelled, “The bottom drops to about nine feet there in the center!” With his grey skin and his hair matted down with water, he looked like a muscular and toothy drowned rat.

“Screw this, then,” Calen swore determinedly, returning to stripping off his armor. Once in his underclothes, Calen grabbed his spear, placed the exotic short blade in his teeth, and dove into the water, swimming across.

“This is insanity!” yelled Celric from where he stood on the beach. “We should be going back!”

“Just keep the kettle on for us, grandma,” growled Calen, though with the sword in his mouth it sounded more like, “Jus kee the kettle on or us, Grannah.”

Moric didn’t bother to take off his armor, and simply dove in and started swimming. Celric screeched in frustration, now left alone and without a light source. An angrily-uttered word of power from Celric blinked on a magic light in the palm of his right hand, and he sat down heavily on a nearby rock and waited.

Davin’s brilliant idea involved hacking down a tree from the swamp and using it to float through the passage. “If we get one big enough, we could float you, me, and Celric,” he said excitedly to Walthus.

Walthus shouldered his hand axe and cocked an eyebrow at the halfling. “And just who is going to be carrying a log that big back into the caverns? You and me, fellow hobbit?”

Davin furrowed his brow in thought, his plan stymied for the moment. Just then, Lung padded out of the cavern and turned toward the halflings. Davin smiled a broad smile and turned back to Walthus, finger pointed at the monk. “Him!”

Calen swam better than Kausk treaded water, and the ranger was the first ashore in the medium-sized chamber. The ground rose steeply out of the water, the shore a mixture of gravel and sand leading into a round, rough-hewn chamber about forty feet in diameter. Sitting at the back of the chamber on top of a large and ornately-carved chest was another skeleton, but this one appeared different than the rest. For one, it was seated, not laying haphazardly. Secondly, it was wearing strange separated plates of armor and a horned helmet. And finally, it moved to attack almost immediately when Calen touched dry ground.
Calen knew he was in trouble at once. The skeleton drew one of those strange short blades from a worn scabbard at its side, and before it advanced, pointed its skeletal index finger directly at Calen, its red pinpoint eyes flashing menacingly. Calen immediately threw his spear at the advancing form, but it clattered off its armor and flew harmlessly behind the chest. Calen readied the strange short blade and prepared to use it for the first time.

Lung was still planning on walking right back out of the cavern after he helped the halflings carry their makeshift flotation device back to the main chamber. He meant what he had said: one hour. He just was not going to deny the two, who obviously could not effectively carry the large log, even together. Lung huffed as he shoved the log vertically through the final tight squeeze around the stalagmites. He then picked it up and walked it to the shore’s edge, followed closely by Walthus and the eager Davin, who had not given up his scheme to try to talk Lung into staying “a few more minutes.”

“It could be something that we could bring back to Ameiko,” tried Davin, using his “let’s do it for other people” approach to no avail.

The clang of steel on steel rang out from the unseen chamber. Lung looked to Celric. “How long has that been going on?”

Celric looked as surprised as Lung. “That just started,” he managed.

“Ok, I’m going to steady the log in the water,” Lung explained as he waded into the shallower edge of the underground pond. “You all climb on and I’ll float it over. Please hurry.”

The halflings and Celric scrambled either on top (the halflings) or to the side (Celric) of the log. Lung started wading forward, pulling the log behind him. The going was slow, even though Davin and Walthus laid prone on the log and attempted to paddle. The grunts and clangs became louder as the group rounded the corner of the tunnel.

A bloodbath greeted them as Lung pulled the log to the rough shore. Calen lay face down and bleeding at the center of the melee. A formidable skeleton, decked out in what Lung thought was old Tien armor, was wielding a short blade and slashing its off-hand claw at Kausk, who was already bleeding heavily from a chest wound. Moric was attempting to flank the skeleton on the right, but was having difficulty getting around the fallen half-orc.

Just as Lung pulled himself from the water, the skeletal warrior drove its sword deep into Kausk’s abdomen, and the grey half-orc staggered back against the wall of the cavern, mouth agape.

“Kausk!” screamed Davin. “Hang on!”

Lung leaped to action, landing a few quick blows to the skeleton’s form, shaking dust loose, but doing little to deter it from carving into the largely-defenseless half-orc. Kausk managed to throw his right arm up in front of his face, and the wickedly-sharp sword bit deep into his forearm, spraying the half-orc’s lifeblood into the air. Kausk moaned weakly, but still remained on his feet.

Moric landed a jarring blow with his sword from behind. Lung quickly unfolded his three-part staff, a gift from his sensei, Master Wu, and hit the skeleton hard in the head with a mighty backhand blow.

The skeleton never wavered his attention from the struggling and pale Kausk, whose blood was making the floor of the cavern slick. The undead monster slashed once more at Kausk with its unarmed hand, the claw raking Kausk across the side of his head, sending the half-orc crashing to the ground, still.

A pale globe of green fluid floated from the wizard’s outstretched hand and hissed as it burned into the skeleton’s breastbone. The skeleton lunged at Lung with its sword, but the monk was the faster, flashing the far end of his three-part staff up and into the skeleton’s jaw. A reverberating crack sounded through the chamber, and the two fine points of red light in the skeleton’s eyes dimmed and faded. As if it still could will itself upright, the skeleton stood for a beat before abruptly breaking into pieces and falling to the cavern floor.

Davin rushed to Kausk, unsure where to start with all of his injuries and blood still pouring out of him. As he collapsed to his knees at the half-orc’s side, he thought he saw a brief spark of pink light around the half-orc’s form, but when he shook his head, it was gone. The warrior was still breathing - barely - and Davin tore through his pack, looking for cloth to use for bandages and herbs to stem the bleeding.

“Here,” Lung tossed Davin a pack that he plucked from Calen’s prone form. Davin blinked at what appeared to be a healer’s kit, looked at Lung, and then looked at Calen in alarm. “He’s stable,” Lung reassured the frightened halfling, “and Kausk needs it more right now.”

While Davin tended to his most serious wounds, Kausk tried to speak but failed, gagging with the effort as he simply tried to draw breath into his body. Davin was unsure the half-orc was going to make it, and his ability to call upon Cayden Cailean for aid was severely limited at this point in their all-too-long day.

“Bring Calen here,” requested Davin hurriedly, motioning to Lung to drag the other half-orc closer so that he could get both of the grievously wounded affected by the same burst of positive energy. A flare of blue light around both forms signaled that divine aid had not eluded them. Kausk breathed much more easily.

“Make sure it’s totally dead,” breathed Kausk weakly, resting up against the cavern wall.

“I will, my friend,” Lung stated, looming over the fallen and broken form of the skeleton with his three-part staff still at the ready. “You can rest easily now.”

Kausk responded by closing his eyes and falling asleep.

When he awoke, he noted the small fire that had been lit, with the smoke wafting through apparent cracks in the rocky ceiling of the chamber. He also noted the large pile of gold, silver, and jewels that had been taken from the now-open chest. Moric was searching it still, occasionally pulling out more coins.

“It’s good to see you moving,” a tired voice said over Kausk’s left shoulder. He craned his neck and saw Calen in a very similar convalescent position up against the adjoining wall.

“Did we win?” Kausk managed, wincing as he felt the wounds on his chest and abdomen alight with pain.

“For now,” Calen replied. “Whatever that thing was, it sure was guarding a pile of treasure - gold and jewels and more. It seems as if Letter Man might have found something of interest.” He nodded to where Celric was hunched over the sword of the skeletal warrior in the odd armor, tracing his finger along the flat of the blade. A bluish glow faded from his eyes, as the scribe used his magics to tell him more about the sword that so easily hacked down the two warriors.

“It is a samurai’s sword - a wakizashi of keen and deadly beauty.” Lung had padded up silently to Kausk’s right, also regarding Celric’s silent investigation. “Our enemy was samurai.”

Kausk squinted at the monk. “Speak plain; what is a samurai?”

Lung twisted his mouth in thought for a pause, and then answered. “I know not much save for shreds of old memories, but a samurai is an honorable warrior sworn to defend a noble or a noble family. It likely had served with honor; twas a shame for it to be perverted as it was in undeath.”

Excited by the idea, Calen tried to sit up, winced sharply, and slowly eased back down to a reclined position. He took a sharp breath, and exhaled slowly. “Both of those ships were named for Ameiko’s family. Is it possible that this samurai served her family?”

“Hey guys.....guys.....GUYS!” Celric came running over excitedly, wakizashi blade held in his right hand, and in his left, a curiously shiny small tube. “It’s....I mean, I think it’s a scroll case!” Celric giggled nervously and showed it to his audience of three.

“Where’d it come from?” Kausk asked.

“I found it in the hilt of this sword,” explained Celric. “I was fiddling with the blue fabric on the hilt - it looks like it could use a little mending - and I noticed a hidden compartment built into the hilt! This was inside it!”

“Well?” Calen said impatiently. “What are you waiting for? Open it!”

“Oh you don’t understand,” Celric responded, “this scroll might be magically trapped, or rigged to disintegrate upon opening, or it might hold trapped the spirit of....”

“Did you use your ‘See All Magic’ spell on the scroll?” Calen interrupted.

“Um, well...no,” Celric muttered. “I guess that’s a good idea.” The wizard uttered two words of power, and his eyes glowed blue for a brief minute as he twirled the scroll case in his hand.

“Yeah, no magic.” Celric sounded deflated.

“So open it!” Calen urged.

“This scroll could be hundreds of years...” Celric tried again.

“OPEN IT!” both Kausk and Calen yelled.

“Ok, guys. I’m right here, you know. Yelling would be a great way to tell our enemies where we are.” Celric squatted down with his back to the fire and untwisted one end of the tube. When he tilted the tube into his hand, a tightly rolled scroll of paper fell silently into his hand.

“...and that’s why we knew we had to get it back to you, Ameiko,” finished Davin with a swig of his ale later at the Rusty Dragon.

The tightly (re)wrapped coil of paper lay in front of Ameiko on the table. She had been surprised when the band had arrived this morning, disheveled, bruised, and boisterous, in the company of Sandru Vhiski, her close friend and captain of his own trading caravan. Now, with the story of their adventure unfolded before her, she was speechless.

“I think it’s Tien on the scroll,” interjected Celric.

“Shhhh!” shushed Calen hurriedly, his eyes watching the face of Ameiko as she reached for and unfurled the scroll. Tears sprung to her eyes almost immediately, and her lips started forming the shapes of the foreign syllables as she read. Her hand went to her mouth twice as she choked back sobs, and to their credit, the band of adventurers remained respectfully still and silent in their semi-circle around Ameiko in the largely-empty common room, lost in their own thoughts.

Calen considered their luck in returning from the swamp in as good a condition as they did, considering all the rash decisions that they had made throughout their journey. Most of those decisions fell squarely upon his shoulders, and he regretted both those decisions and the responsibility thrust upon him to make them. Who did he think he was?

Kausk wondered about his life, and whether he was doing what he needed to do with it. His sword and muscle had rarely failed him, but he felt as if something else called to him, something that he had heard the echo of in the fight with that last skeletal warrior, something not of this world. Kausk rarely had had time to self-reflect previously, and he wasn’t sure that he liked the experience.

Moric’s mind raced around his options, which seemed few and far between. Though he had taken all precautions in leaving Riddleport undetected, he was not naive enough to think that his pursuers would give up as simply as that, and he knew that he was going to have to move on soon. He just hoped his sister surfaced before then, so he could at least see her once more.

Celric considered his research into Ameiko’s scroll and the skeleton’s sword. Though they were not Thassilonian in origin, the recurrent images and patterns in the chests and ships that they had found, as well as the jewelry, armor, and weapons, spoke of a complex and ancient culture that had lay heretofore unnoticed by the scholar. The fire of academics, as well as the desire to unlock unrealized power, raged inside the scribe.

Lung’s mind attempted to sort through hidden memories inside himself about his Tien roots. How a samurai could come to foreign shores in undeath eluded the monk’s mind. And then there was his itinerant brother, Sandru, returned in glory to Sandpoint. Sandru irritated him, to be sure, but he was not certain if it was due to his unruly and unchecked methods, or the simple fact that he had often abandoned his little brother.

Davin, for his part, remained focused on his close friend Ameiko, attempting to will some of his emotional strength to her in this trying time. Whatever she was reading was affecting her greatly. Cayden Cailean willing, the halfling would aid her in her trials. His home was Sandpoint, and Davin made certain to look after his home and its inhabitants.

With a ragged breath, Ameiko spoke, and began interpreting the scroll into Common, tears flashing down her face as she blinked, no self-consciousness evident in her face.

“My son, my heir,” Ameiko read, “you know now that I have kept secrets from you. You were always a perceptive son, and while you may not understand my reasons for secrecy, I hope that you realize it was necessary. Know that I was not angry with you for opening the warding box - I was angry with myself for withholding the truth from you and forcing you to seek out that which I should have given to you. The words I spoke to you were from anger with myself, and it shames me to think of them now. I write this note as an apology, and to beg you to leave these secrets to history.”

“The next few days will be the most important that I have faced in many years. If our family’s enemies have, as I hope, truly forgotten us, I shall reunite with you and your wife, and your mother and I shall reveal the truth to you. But if they still seek the contents of the warding box, I fear that I may not speak to you again. The box holds our family’s greatest treasure, and I have returned it to Kortun’s care, and it shall remain hidden in the secret third vault under Brinewall Castle - obscured from our enemies. I hope and pray, I will not grant our foes the satisfaction of killing me themselves - if it comes to it, let my death, by my own hands, be my final act to protect you; so that our enemies may believe our line ended.”

“I have instructed Tsutamu to keep this letter from you, delivering it to you only should I fail to return as I hope to. If I can, I will reveal all to you myself. If I cannot, this final missive from a father to a son must suffice as an apology in place of an explanation, and you must destroy this letter, flee to the south and never return to Brinewall. If our enemies find what I have hidden, there will be nothing here for you. If they do not, they will lie forever in wait for your return.”

“I hope to see you again soon, my son. But my heart tells me I will not. I am sorry to have failed you. But I am proud of you, and I know you will survive this old man’s shame. You are strong, and you must remain so. For if you are reading this and I am gone, know that our enemies will never stop searching for us, and that is why I cannot reveal the truth to you until I know there is no chance of them finding us again. Signed, Rokuru Kaijitsu.”

With a soft sob, Ameiko curled her head onto the table. Davin laid his hand on her shoulder, patting it reassuringly.

“Do you think that’s the guy who owned those ships?” Celric asked.

“Yes, you boob,” responded Calen, “that was also Ameiko’s grandfather. That letter was meant for Ameiko’s dad.”

“Ohhhhh.” Celric nodded.

“You know, he only passed away four years ago,” Ameiko had raised her head as she hiccuped through the words. “We never had a really close relationship, but he never saw this. He probably didn’t know any of this.”

“Your Dad was a great guy,” Davin said placatingly.

“Oh, he was an ass,” Ameiko retorted, a spark of fire in her eye, “but even he deserved to know the truth about his family.”

“And what, exactly, is that truth, ‘Iko?” Sandru had been silent for longer than he normally did, holding his tongue in check.

“I don’t know,” said Ameiko, her eyes unfocused at the door to the inn, “but I know what I need to do.” She stood with firm resolve. “Calen, do you know where your sister is?”

“I can find her,” countered Calen.

“Good,” Ameiko nodded, “do that. I need her here this evening for Round Up. Lung, can you speak to your mother for me?”

“Of course, Ameiko,” Lung inclined his head, “what would you have me say to her?”

“Tell her to be here this evening. I need her.”

“Of course. I shall be on my way.” The young monk shouldered his small pack, nodded at his friends, and made to leave.

“You coming back?” Calen called to the monk.

“The wind blows where it will,” Lung responded, not turning around to face the group. “I can only follow it.” And with that, Lung closed the door behind him.

“He’ll be back,” Calen muttered in false bravado.

“Sandru, are you staying this evening?” Ameiko looked askance at the Varisian trader.

“And risk missing the Round Up of the year lest I go? I would not miss this for the seed of a sun orchid!” Sandru laughed and clanked his mug with Davin.

That evening, a solemn Ameiko stood in front of the packed crowd at the Rusty Dragon and proclaimed the last Round Up that she would preside over. She explained that her time as an innkeeper had passed, the adventuring road had called to her again, and she could nor would not turn it down. Bethana Corwin blew her nose very loudly from behind the bar in response to this.

Then, Ameiko Kaijitsu asked each of her close personal friends in turn - Shalelu Andosana, Koya Mvashti, and Sandru Vhiski - to travel with her on the long winding trail that she must follow. Each pledged their unfailing aid to the charismatic Tien bard and innkeeper.

“And you won’t need to be asking me to join you, Ameiko!” Davin yelled tipsily from his table near the front of the action. “I’m coming along whether you want me or not!”

“I would not dream of traveling without you, dear friend,” Ameiko said graciously. “And what of your band of merry travelers? What of you road warriors?”

“We call ourselves the Rusty Dragons.” Calen stood and spoke for the group, as they had agreed upon in the interim before the Round Up. “And if Ameiko is going to leave the Rusty Dragon, well, by damn, the Rusty Dragons are going to have to leave with her!” A cheer from the gathered group followed.

“Well, boys,” Ameiko’s eyes flashed with sincere joy, “if that’s the way the Rusty Dragon’s going to spend its final night in Sandpoint, then I don’t see any reason to charge for the drink! Drinks are on the house tonight! Drink up! I don’t want to take any of this ale on the road with me!” Someone started up a tin whistle jig for the appreciative crowd, and the party of the season was in full swing.

Ameiko need not have worried. The casks of Bertie’s Wheat Ale never stood a chance.

END

Grand Lodge

Marked
7th October 2011
“Why did you think this was a good idea, again?” Shalelu chewed up another piece of willow bark and placed it not-too-gently on the angry red color shining through the deep green of Calen’s skin. The half-orc ranger groaned, partly in pain from the fresh tattoo that covered his chest, a mighty dragon with its wings unfurled, and partly in pain from the effect of Shalelu’s voice on his quickly-developing hangover.

The elven ranger Shalelu Andosana had watched over the town of Sandpoint for the past twenty-five years, known by few and appreciated by even fewer. She purposefully sought out little from the people of the town, preferring the hinterlands of Sandpoint and the personal satisfaction of stewardship to fellowship and town life. The lone exception to this aloofness was Ameiko Kaijitsu, the young businesswoman and scion of the Kaijitsu family. Shalelu had been drawn to the craftmanship executed in the Kaijistu family glassworks, and a natural friendship had sprung up between Ameiko the girl and the elf. As Ameiko matured that friendship only grew stronger, such that the two often thought of each other as spiritual sisters.

Calen was not an exception to Shalelu’s standoffish attitude towards townfolk: in her mind, he was no more a Sandpoint citizen than she. Shalelu had raised Calen as her own kin when she found him abandoned, a mewling infant, deep within the reaches of Nettlewood over fifteen years ago. The half-orc had been trained well in the ways of the wilderness by Shalelu, and she was proud of him like nothing else, though his violent and impulsive ways still confused her. It was ironically fitting, Shalelu often thought, that she who enigmatically guarded herself from all others should raise someone equally enigmatic to herself.

“We’re the....mmmmm.....the Rusty Dragons, sis.” Calen belched, then hiccuped. “We’re Ameiko’s personal guard. Or something.” Calen grimaced and swallowed whatever spontaneously had appeared in his mouth. “A guard’s got to have a uniromm, a unifromm. Yup, that. Blecch. Got some water?” Calen exhaled.

“Who else got tattoos from the Pixie’s Kitten?” Shalelu scowled.

“What?!” Calen managed in poorly-faked indignance. “Who told you we went to the...what’d you call that place again?”

“The Sandpoint brothel. The. Pixie’s. Kitten.” Shalelu said firmly, slapping a moistened wad of willow bark down onto the supine half-orc’s fresh tattoo.

Calen howled. “Ahhhhh, Shay!” He grabbed his chest. “And not so loud, would ya?”

Shalelu had a reputation, even amongst her elven brethren, for her high-pitched and squeaky voice that cut through background noise like her short sword cut through goblins. There were some who referred to the ranger as ‘Sha-yoo-hoo’ in reference to the sing-songy quality of her voice, but they made sure to do so when she was safely out of earshot. “Who else?” she repeated.

“Well, uh, Kausk did,” started the half-orc, quickly realizing the dangerous turn this conversation was about to take, “and Davin! He got this amazing neck tattoo that starts here and goes all the way around---” Calen attempted to show his adoptive sister the outline of the ink that the halfling had received as a dare.

Shalelu cut him off as she slapped down another moistened wad of the poultice onto raw flesh. Calen screeched. “Who else?” she repeated without raising her voice. At least higher than it already was.

“Urgathoa’s belt buckle, that hurts! Moric, alright! Your little brother got one, too! Down the front of his arm!” Calen gestured toward his right arm and closed his eyes, awaiting the forthcoming punishment from Moric’s true older sister. Calen had been asked by Shalelu to watch over her brother once he arrived in Sandpoint and make sure no harm befell him. Getting the young elf trashed on hobbit brandy, introducing him to the ladies at the Pixie’s Kitten, and having the resident tattoo artist stencil a rust-colored dragon down the length of his arm probably didn’t fit into Shalelu’s definition of “watch over”.

“Good,” said Shalelu, “I’m glad you’re including Moric in your fun.” She wrapped the cloth dressing around Calen’s still-oozing dragon tattoo and stood up, punishment withheld.

“Good?” Calen ventured, “I didn’t think you’d approve.”

“Approve of your choice of entertainment?” Shalelu cocked an eyebrow at her foster brother. “Hardly. But boys need to have fun - some more than others. My brother has never known camaraderie. I fear experiences may pass him by, or worse, swallow him whole. Unless there is someone responsible about, that is.” Shalelu gathered the materials from her healer’s kit and shoved them in her pack. Swinging her pack upon her right shoulder, she started off down the forest trail that led back to Sandpoint. “Sleep for a few hours; I need to make preparations to leave town. And take this.” Here Shalelu spun and tossed her full waterskin at Calen. It thunked into his too-slow hands and fell to the ground. “Calen, if you let those trollops at the Pixie’s Kitten have their way with my brother again, I’ll have my way with you. My way hurts.” Shalelu’s blue eyes flashed at the half-orc ranger, and then she was gone.

“Right,” Calen said under his breath as he bent over to pick up the waterskin, “point understood.” As he uncapped and took a long and much-needed pull from the waterskin, the half-orc thought about what Shalelu had said. “Unless there is someone responsible about.”

She means me, Calen thought. Since when have I ever been someone responsible? He did feel a point of pride at the sideways compliment - Shalelu trusted three people, to Calen’s knowledge: Ameiko, herself, and, it would seem, him. Still, he thought, the added weight of being the responsible one isn’t exactly all candies and kisses.

“Candies and Kisses!” pronounced Celric triumphantly with a flourish of his hands. Kausk peered at Moric with a puzzled look. The elf frowned and shrugged.

Davin walked up to the three, gathered in the common room of the Rusty Dragon, from where he had been snoring the afternoon away. Bethana had thrown a bar rag over his face to muffle the noise; the ingenious halfling had lightly tucked the rag under the leather cord of the holy symbol around his neck, obscuring the slightly bloody dragon newly-tattooed there.

“What’s news?” winced the halfling, realizing that speaking was going to be an effort until he had an opportunity to replenish his healing magic.

Kausk glanced at Davin. “We were just comparing what we’ve bought to prepare for our journey. Moric there got himself a new bow; I picked up a quality piece of steel.” Kausk tapped the pommel of a new sword at his side. “Celric here didn’t get nothing.”

“A gross simplification, my grey friend,” replied Celric. “I did indeed get paper and quills and ink---”

“You ARE a scribe,” interjected Moric.

“And,” continued Celric irritably, “I considered purchasing an alchemical kit so as to make silvering for arrows, and tindertwigs and sunrods for our journey whilst on the road.”

“That’s a great idea!” beamed Davin. “You said ‘considered’?”

“Yes, considered,” Celric responded. “I decided against it when I realized that I needed my share of the money to invest in my latest spell that I am in the midst of creating.”

“Which is?” Davin prompted.

“Candies and Kisses!” answered the scribe triumphantly again with a flourish of his hands.

There was an odd pause.

“Um...” offered Moric.

“I’m sorry,” Davin began diplomatically, “I am not familiar with that spell.”

“Oh, it’s a fine spell!” nodded Celric. “A fine and wondrous spell. Pleasing to the lads. Charming to the ladies. Just what our caravan needs for morale and respite!”

“Morale?” Kausk questioned.

“Respite?” Moric seconded.

“Fine,” Davin conceded, “can we see this ‘Candies and Kisses’?”

“Oh, tosh, you. It’s not ready yet.”

“Oh,” Davin scratched his head. “How far along are you?”

Celric’s eyes looked up, as if they were counting on an abacus in his head. “I need about 400 more gold pieces to start on it.”

Kausk’s mouth dropped open with a “What?” Moric slapped his own head, shaking it side to side.

Davin licked his lips and tried once more. “So how much of your take of the treasure we recovered have you spent?”

Celric replied, self-satisfied, “None.”

“But wait a minute,” Kausk started, wagging his finger at the scribe, “you told me that you bought paper and quills and ink---”

Celric interrupted the half-orc guard. “I did not say that I had BOUGHT anything. I GOT those items from the room that I stayed in last night. They were just laying on the desk.”

Moric stifled a giggle. Davin squinted at Celric. “You TOOK them?”

“I paid for the room,” Celric explained.

Davin opened and closed his mouth a few times as he tried to come up with a response to the scribe. None coming, the priest frowned and walked away from the group, calling to Bethana as he came to the bar. “Bethana, can I get a meal?”

“Sure, Dav,” replied the ready barmaid, “do you want mid-day leftovers or tonite’s cold plate?”

“Well, that tells me what time it is,” sighed Davin.

Celric ignored the elf and the half-orc and went back to what he had been doing before they had arisen and asked their ham-fisted questions: carefully packing his rucksack for the upcoming journey. He needed to be especially careful about where he placed that most precious of all of his possessions: his spellbook. He pulled it out from the pack and set about repositioning his equipment around it in the most safely insulated arrangement possible.
The scribe knew that only another arcane magic user would understand his thirst for knowledge. But still fewer amongst the ordinary arcane artists would understand his desire to make an indelible mark on their field of study, the consummate art of magic, and perhaps, the world. He was not concerned that the unenlightened did not get it, just that they did not get in his way. “Hmm hmm hmm,” Celric hummed merrily to himself, “candies and kisses...”

Right about dinner-time, Calen came through the door of the Rusty Dragon. “Food and ale, please, Bethana!” he called with a wave to the halfling at her post. Calen spotted the remaining gathered party members at their same table in the corner near the fire.

As Calen approached, Lung finished a brief presentation. “...and so we have some more options lest we come across more undead.” Lung began placing the small vials of clear water back in a sack slung around his waist.

“Holy water, eh?” Calen said, glancing around the table and nodding, “a good idea to make those available, Lung. Are we all gathered?”

Celric spoke without looking up from a piece of parchment that he was working on, “We’re not leaving until tomorrow.”

“Right, right.” Calen nodded. “I just thought it’d be nice to have a final meal together. As a team.”

“Ameiko’s making arrangements for her glassworks to be tended to in her absence,” Davin replied.

“My mother is packing up her house, it would seem,” stated Lung.

“Sandru is hiring more drivers for the new wagons,” Kausk answered.

“Those Venken brothers are in the caravan wagons. Sour as sober dwarves, they are,” responded Moric.

“OK, ok!” Calen growled, holding his hands up. “I just wanted to talk to you guys, anyways. About unfinished business before we leave town.”

Celric stopped his scribbles and looked up at Calen. “What unfinished business?”

“I thought you’d never ask, Letter Man,” Calen began. “Bethana! Could I please have a meal? Do you still have that map of the Brinestump Swamp that Walthus gave you?”

“Yeah,” replied Celric, who promptly started rummaging in his rucksack for it, “I’ve got it right here.” The scribe produced the worn oiled parchment and unrolled it on the table.

“Ok,” Calen began, leaning over the map, “right here is where the goblins are, and here are those caverns, but do you all remember what Walthus said was here?” Calen pointed at a small ‘x’ smudged on the map.

“The witch’s hut,” answered Moric.

“Right,” Calen said. “Now I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve not heard much about this witch in town recently.”

“I haven’t seen her in a few years,” offered Davin.

“You’ve seen her?” Calen asked incredulously.

“Oh yeah,” replied the halfling, “she’d come into town and buy a few things and growl at passers-by. Oh, she wasn’t well-loved, by any means. Most people would cross themselves and spit after they saw her.”

“Why would they do that?” asked Moric.

“It’s a superstitious practice,” Lung answered for Moric’s benefit.

“She didn’t buy things that inspired confidence, I’ll tell you that,” continued Davin. “Dead lizards and rotten food and old bee’s hives. I remember one time, Sheriff Hemlock had to be called to keep Old Lady Sraelani from physically attacking the old crone. She had offered to buy her husband’s corpse from her on the day after he died.” Davin shivered.

“I just heard today that someone said she made herself into a zombie and that she was roaming around the swamp, looking for food.” Kausk stared into his tankard, then looked up at his companions. He hurriedly crossed himself and spit on the ground beside the table.

“Ewww.” Celric moved his chair further away from the half-orc guard.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving Sandpoint, taking all of the talent with us, and having this zombie witch running around the swamp, looking for food that’s not there anymore because we killed all of the goblins and that Sandpoint Devil thing.” Calen finished his entreaty with his hands on his hips.

“Maybe that Sandpoint Devil thing was the witch,” Moric suggested. “Sure as the Worldwound grows, I don’t know what that thing was.”

“It was definitely NOT undead,” pronounced Davin.

“Here’s your food, Calen.” Bethana appeared at the table and handed Calen a bowl of steaming stew and a large tankard of ale. She swept away empty bowls and tankards and left, saying. “I’ll bring you a finger bowl in a short second.”

“A finger bowl?” Kausk muttered.

“Shut up, cousin,” Calen snapped, sitting down at an empty seat at the table. “I want to leave my town safe. We need to go back and at least find out what happened to the witch.”

“What? Now?” Moric questioned. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning, and it’s already dinner-time! There’s at least a four-hour walk and back to the swamp, not to mention however long it takes us to find the witch’s hut and deal with whatever she’s become!”

“What? Scared, little brother?” teased Calen.

“No, I just have a good grasp on time management,” retorted the elf.

“We did just get a cart,” offered the scribe, who had returned to scribbling on his parchment and seemingly ignoring the conversation.

“Right!” Calen said excitedly. “And some horses! You heard Letter Man! We could ride to the swamp in an hour!”

“Who’s gonna drive?” Davin asked.

“Not me,” replied Kausk in answer to Calen’s wild-eyed unspoken question, “I just guard the carts; I was never taught how to drive them.”

“We’ll......hire a driver for the caravan trip and make him audition for the job by taking us to the swamp and back!” Calen said hurriedly after a long sip of ale from his tankard.

“Have you been drinking today?” Davin admonished the half-orc.

“No!” retorted Calen, hoisting the half-empty mug back to his lips and emptying it. He then stood up from the table and ran out the front door of the Rusty Dragon. “I’ll be back!” he called out through the closing front door.

“We get into more trouble when he does that,” Lung clucked his tongue and took a sip from his glass of water.

“Why did you think this was a good idea, again?” Davin’s question gave Calen the sneaking sense of deja vu as they traveled along the Lost Coast Road by the last light of the day. The Brinestump Marsh swung into view. The wagon rumbled and jumped, jostling all of the passengers sitting in the back as the driver struggled to keep the cart running in the cart path, not in the ditch beside it. Calen rode alongside the wagon on his own horse, scouting ahead at times, but largely providing feedback to the spooked and distractible youth.

“Steady there, Rennet!” Calen called to the driver, purposefully avoiding the halfling’s question. To be sure, Davin was referring to Rennet when he had asked his question. Rennet was a good kid - one of the stablehands at the Rusty Dragon, and the son of one of Davin’s old drinking buddies - but he was just a kid. He hadn’t even grown peach fuzz on his chin yet, and his voice had this unfortunate habit of cracking whenever he spoke more than three words in a row. Calen had known immediately that he was perfect for the itinerant life: his father was a drunken mess who wished little to do with his son, his job was low-skill and low-potential for the obviously bright lad, and his all-too-human ambition was clear - Rennet wanted to see the world.

“Sorry, sir,” Rennet squeaked, “I was picking my nose when I thought I saw a goblin in the woods and I accidentally started steering the horses that way.”

Calen just wasn’t sure that Rennet was going to survive this trip, much less that long.

The band had set out a short ten minutes after they had finished dinner, their plans set. They would go straight into the swamp where the map marked out the witch’s hut. They would investigate, find out what happened to the witch, and take care of whatever problems they found. They would then ride back to Sandpoint before dawn, and sleep in the caravan as they pushed out of town. Calen hadn’t shared the fact that he was supposed to ride scout on the way out of town, but the half-orc ranger figured that he would burn that bridge while he crossed it.

“It’s the third right off the road once we cross into the swamp,” called Celric, his nose buried in the map that he had obtained from Walthus. The scribe seemed happy to be contributing to the group. Calen was relieved; the scribe occasionally ruffled his feathers, but he was truly a valued team member with numerous skills to offer. Calen sometimes worried that ‘Letter Man’ didn’t believe it.

The slick noise of mud kicking up from the wheels of the wagon along with the abrupt onset of the drone of insects greeted the party as they re-entered Brinestump Swamp. They had routed the goblins of Brinestump Marsh only 48 hours prior.

“This place still smells bad,” Davin quipped. He had been less-than-enthusiastic to head back into the swamp again, so close to their scheduled departure date with the caravan. He trusted Calen’s intentions completely, but he felt that the half-orc often gave in to his more reckless and destructive nature in making key decisions. “What better place for me to be,” Davin said out loud to no one with grim sarcasm, reflecting on the inuring role that he played in the group.

The evening light faded quickly once the flat-bed cart entered the swamp; it was hard to pick out their chosen turn-off from the road by the time they reached it due to darkness.

“So, you want me to just wait here?” Rennet squeaked, looking around the foreboding swamp and jumping at every hoot, croak, and hiss that emanated out to them. “Aren’t there goblins in there?”

“No,” said Calen, “we already killed them all; now we’ve just got to go in and kill that zombie witch.” His answer didn’t seem to comfort the boy much. “You just pull your cart over to the side of the trail opposite the swamp and wait there for us. We’ll be right back.” Calen hopped off the cart and re-tightened his scabbard belt around his waist before pulling his bow off of his shoulders and knocking an arrow.

“But it’s dark!” complained Rennet.

“Yeah, so light a fire,” Kausk grunted.

“No,” said Lung, “that may attract unwanted attention to the youth. It would be best if we left a source of light for him. A shielded source.” Lung looked pointedly at Celric.

“What? A spell? I don’t know any shielded spells.”

“No, Letter Man,” Calen started, picking up on Lung’s subtlety, “he means that new lantern you got in town today.”

“But I just got it,” whined Celric.

“And it’ll come in perfectly handy for the boy,” Calen reasoned. “Thank you for being so thoughtful. Now hand it over.”

Celric unhooked his new lantern from his rucksack and held it out to the half-orc ranger, sour-faced.

Once the lantern was lit and the cart was off the road, the band took up a marching order and headed off into the swamp. Moric lit his sword, using his elven “trick,” to provide some needed illumination. Lung and Davin waved cheery good-byes as they passed out of sight into the high reeds of Brinestump.

None of them noticed the three darkly-shrouded figures crouching under a large willow tree a few yards to the right of where Rennet sat anxiously in the cart, his hand raised in farewell. And none of them noticed how they broke from the cover of the tree and ran towards the unsuspecting youth, daggers unsheathed, as soon as the band disappeared into the reeds. Darkness and the buzz of insects settled fully around them all.

Later, with the group deep in the swamp, Lung finished a religious explanation to Davin. “...and by Irori’s will, we should concentrate on the simplicity of Being in order to deal with any hard task, including those left to us by previous generations,”

“But, the Drunk God teaches---” Davin began.

“The Drunk God teaches?” Kausk interrupted, “I must have missed that.”

“The Drunk God gives his opinion, and the wise amongst his followers considers it a taught blessing,” continued Davin, irked, “but as I was saying, Cayden Cailean is of the opinion that---”

“I think teaching has to be something that you do on purpose,” Moric argued, “because if you’re not teaching, you’re just running your mouth without reason.”

“Like now,” Calen offered from the front of the party.

Moric made a rude gesture at Calen’s back.

“ANYHOW, the God of Freedom and Bravery---” Davin started again.

“The God of Wine and Ale, too,” interjected Kausk, “don’t forget that.”

“Also known as the Accidental God,” Celric said.

“Don’t forget the Lucky Drunk,” called Calen.

“You know,” Lung indicated to the rapidly-angering Davin, “it is quite obvious that many more people follow the interests of your patron deity with interest. I now see your and Cayden Cailean’s point of view with respect to the issue. Thank you, Davin, for the enlightenment.”

Davin blinked in surprise, his anger quite deflated. “You do? I mean, um.....yes, well I’m glad that you do.” Davin scratched his head, trying to figure out what wisdom he had just dispensed.

“We’re here,” Calen called the party to a halt in the swamp.

By the light of Moric’s sword, the band could see a low and disused-looking house that appeared to be sinking into the muck. Motes of dust, insects, and plant debris floated through the air, brilliantly lit by Moric’s eldritch light. The unending drone of insects seemed to intensify in this relative clearing, as if the swamp was doing its best to reclaim the area and succeeding, much the same as it had succeeded in obscuring the largely overgrown trail that Calen had followed to the site.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s home,” Calen muttered, “or has been home for a number of months.”

“Is that another house over there?” Kausk asked, pointing past the bungalow to another smaller structure on the other side of the clearing.

“It’s not a house now,” corrected Calen, “it’s collapsed, whatever it was.” To the elf, Calen said, “Little brother, come with me.” To the rest, Calen said, “Moric and I will scout the periphery. You all be ready for action; we’ll be back.” And with that, the two step-brothers set off around the perimeter of the property.

“You think Calen’s warming to his little brother?” Davin uttered under his breath to Lung, nodding at the shadowy figures moving toward the collapsed structure.

“Either that, or he wants to keep an eye on him. There’s a hardness about the elf that seems brittle at times.” Lung sat on the ground and folded his legs under him, entering a meditative trance.

Calen loosed his bow from around his shoulders and nocked an arrow as he and Moric silently padded their way closer to the far building, which appeared to have been a storage shed in better days. As Moric’s light started to illuminate the features of the shed, Calen irritably snapped, “Sheathe your sword or put out that light! We’re scouting, not homecoming.”
Moric muttered under his breath as he sheathed his sword, “You wouldn’t know it from all the noise you’re making.” Though the difference was slight, Moric was distinctly more skilled at moving without sound than the larger half-orc ranger.

The two approached the still-erect door to the shed. Calen held his hand up to halt the elf. The interior of the ruined building appeared dark and mainly overgrown with swamp reeds and weeds. Calen stepped into the structure and turned to the west, scanning the floor.

Immediately, a dog-sized rat charged Calen from a tangle of debris in the southwest corner of the building. Calen yelped and fired an arrow at the beast, missing it high. Another rat charged the ranger’s right shoulder, biting into his boot. A third rat moved into view directly behind Calen, but Moric was quick to intercept it, unsheathing his sword and fighting back-to-back with his step-brother.

“You hear something?” Kausk cocked his head in the direction of the ruined shed.

“No,” Celric muttered, not looking up from his spellbook.

“I swear, that sounds like---” Kausk loosened his sword from its scabbard.

“It is, but hold yourself,” cautioned Lung from his seated meditation. “They have encountered some vermin, and are putting them down.” And after a pause, Lung continued, “There. Done.”
Calen panted and checked the bite in his heel. A small amount of blood colored his hand from where he had touched his foot in the boot. “Erastil’s bowstrings,” Calen cursed.

“You, OK, bro?” Moric poked at one of the three dead dire rats with his sword. “It’s just a flesh wound.”

Calen glared at the elf. “Yeah, but those things carry filth fever. I won’t know if I’m diseased or not for a few days.”

“Oh,” managed Moric. Nodding to Calen, he said. “Maybe I should keep the light on, then?”

And with that, Moric renewed his lighted sword, which had gone dim during the melee. “You want to continue our reconnaissance?”

“I shouldn’t have wondered if I’d get along with Shalelu’s brother,” Calen regarded Moric with a grin and a shake of the head, then turned and pushed through the remains of the ruined building.

A short time later, the two approached the waiting band from the west, having circled wide around the main house. Kausk called to them, “What’d you kill?”

“We encountered some vermin and put them down,” Calen replied.

Kausk raised his eyebrows, impressed, and turned to look at the seated monk. Lung just winked at him.

Davin shouldered his pack and stared into the sky. “We’ve got about five hours until sunrise,” he said ruefully, “and I think we should get a move-on if we’re going to do this.”

“Well, there is some magic in that building,” Celric broke his silence and pointed at the dilapidated house. “It’s in one of the back rooms.”

“Wha--?” Davin jerked his head to stare intently at the building, late to the idea of using his sacred powers of detection much in the same way that the scribe had already done. Five small items grouped together, likely in a container of some sort, indeed rested in a chamber in the far northeast corner of the house, per his sacred vision.

“Looks like we’re not here on a wild goose chase,” Moric said.

“Chicken chase,” corrected Kausk, referring to the chicken cages that Calen had famously insisted on them bringing the first time they entered the swamp.

“Shaddup, you,” Calen growled, walking up the overgrown trail to the front door of the house. “Davin, you should be up front here in case there really is a zombie witch in there.”

Davin shot up to the front and mounted the sagging porch of the building. He reached for the door knob and looked back at the rest of the group. “We ready?”

The group nodded, weapons and spells readied. Davin pushed and threw his shoulder up against the wall, heroically failing to open the door in anti-climactic fashion. “Door’s stuck,” Davin managed sheepishly.

“It’s OK, little man,” Kausk moved Davin to the side as he stepped up to the door. “I’ll get it for you.” The half-orc fighter threw his weighty shoulder into the door, grunting as he did so. The porch creaked ominously, but the door held.

“Hmph,” Davin huffed from the left of the door.

“Oh, she’s not gonna hold out on me,” stated Kausk, psyching himself up and throwing his shoulder into the door more violently. The entire frame broke free of the wall, crashing into the front room with a shower of dust, loosing a cloud of rancid foulness that caused the majority of the party to hack in disgust. Kausk covered his nose, holding tight to the doorknob and a sliver of wood that he had ripped from the swamp-swollen door and pulling out of the front room. “Yuck.”

“That’s the smell of undeath!” Davin lit up and presented Cayden Cailean’s holy symbol high in the air as he jumped into the now-gaping doorway. “Cayden Cailean sounds Last Call for all you tortured souls!” Davin called out in his familiar fashion, a flash of blue light emanating out into the house.

And nothing moved.

“Maybe that’s the smell of just plain old death,” Moric suggested, moving past Davin into the odd front room. Hundreds of bits of bone and feather hung from the ceiling via sinew and tendon, tinkling together in the slight breeze from the cleric’s channeled positive energy. Scattered low and moldy wicker settees and tables completed the spartan appearance of the room. An open doorway sat to the north. A closed door rested in each of the west and east walls. No other sounds came from the house.

“The items are ahead and to the right,” Davin directed, somewhat disappointedly. Kausk joined the two, clunking and clomping into the open doorway off of the front room. As he passed through the doorway, his foot broke through the rotting floorboards of the room.

“Careful in there!” Celric shouted to the three from the front porch as he entered the house cautiously. “This place is really unstable.”

“You don’t say,” Kausk called to the scribe as he tried to extract his foot from the hole in the flare. Just as he freed it, a flash of fur streaked by his ankle. “Hey!”

“What is it?” Moric turned from where he had been picking at a decomposing mattress in the middle of what he surmised was the bedroom. The illumination from Moric’s sword lit up a series of holes that appeared to have been chewed into the base of the walls.

“Something just tried to bite me,” Kausk peered into the hole from which he had pulled his foot. As he straightened, a brown flash, the size of a medium dog, darted from a hole in the wall behind Kausk, and successfully bit him on the calf. “Ow!” Kausk straightened up, spun around, and hacked into the wall into which the creature disappeared. The wall groaned dangerously and the entire structure tilted to the left.

“What part of ‘unstable’ didn’t you understand?” Celric called angrily from the doorway to the bedroom.

“It bit me!” Kausk yelled back, noting that his wound was bleeding freer than normal. “And I’m bleeding!”

“I’ll take care of that in just a minute, guy,” Davin said, his entire attention focused on an open doorway leading from the bedroom to the room in the northeast corner of the house. That room was filled with pots, barrels, bones, and a long tall table and workbench - obviously the witch’s laboratory. The most striking feature of the room was the robed and deformed skeleton stretched across the tabletop. “I found the witch!” Davin called out to no one in particular just as a rat-like creature with human hands and a snarling old man’s face clambered up on to the table and jumped at the halfling priest. “Get it off me!” Davin screamed out, spinning in circles as the rat-like thing bit into his shoulder. Moric moved cautiously toward the spinning priest, sword out, looking for an opportunity to strike at the strange creature that had made a howling and whirling dervish out of the halfling.

“What are they doing in there?” Calen shook his head from his ready position in front of the house, sword out.

Lung opened his eyes briefly from his seated meditative pose. “There is a craven beast attacking them from different concealed positions within the walls,” the monk stated simply.

Celric moved at the halfling, arms extended in the rite of casting a spell. The rat spied the scribe advancing and cast quicker than Celric with its oddly-human hands, a grey mist settling on the scribe’s face.

Celric screeched in abject terror, turned and ran out the front door of the house to where Lung and Calen stood.

“How do you know that?” the ranger asked Lung, eyeing the terrified wizard dubiously.

“What else could it be?” responded Lung, as another loud crunch came from the house, causing the entire structure to tremble again.

“It-it-it-it...” started a shaken Celric.

Another loud crash came from the now-pitching-to-the-left house. “I almost had him!” yelled Kausk.

“Calm down, wizard,” Lung intoned.

“I’m a scribe,” Celric shot back irritably, his terror temporarily dispelled. “That thing in there cast a spell on me, though - cause fear, if I’m not mistaken.”

The monk stood wordlessly and strode into the house.

Meanwhile, Davin lost his balance and pitched into the south wall of the laboratory, breaking through as the rat-creature dove from his shoulder into another hole at the base of the north wall. Davin landed face-down in what had apparently been the latrine of the house. He managed to screech louder than he had when he had been bitten. “S%%%!” Davin yelled.
Lung heard the halfling’s prouncement and opened the door off of the front room from whence it came. A bleeding, brown-stained, and belligerent halfling marched from the small room and back into the bedroom, making a straight path to the laboratory.

“That’s it!” Davin yelled. “We’re getting the magic, we’re getting out of here, and we’re bringing this house down!” Davin squatted under the lab table, searching for the source of the magical emanations that he had detected. He found a small box under the table, shielded from the elements. Opening it, the halfling discovered a small cache of coins, an ornate dagger-sized scabbard, and a collection of five scrolls - the source of the magical energy. Gathering the treasure in his hands, the halfling announced, “Got it! Let’s go!”

As if in response to the halfling’s call, a loud crash sounded from where the monk stood at the northwest door in the back bedroom. “The way out is right here,” announced the monk calmly, motioning at the back door that he had recently freed from the wall.

Kausk ran to the front door, bleeding from another bite in his left thigh, as Davin and Moric escaped through the door that Lung guarded. Just as the two cleared his post, the rat-like thing appeared in front of Lung, who had been waiting for just such an opportunity. With a quick jab, Lung connected solidly with the face of the creature. A crunching sensation told the monk that he had broken the nose of the strange rat, but after it backed, squealing, into the hole in the wall from where it had emerged, Lung noted the blood dripping from his knuckles and ruefully wrapped the sleeve of his garment around his wound.

It was at that point that a frightful squeaking noise started coming from inside the shuddering house. A large tangled mass of rats bubbled up from the floorboards, emerged from the front room, and headed directly for Kausk, flashing teeth and beady eyes intent upon the injured half-orc.

“Bring the house down NOW!” yelled Kausk, furiously swinging his sword at one side of the front door of the house.

The combined blows of Kausk, Lung, Moric, and Calen (late to draw his sword) succeeded in sending the already-listing house crashing to the ground, crushing the revolting mass of rats beneath softened-yet-still-heavy timbers. A cloud of dust and mold spores floated outward from the destroyed structure, causing the majority of the party to cough and wheeze.

“Are we all OK?” called Calen, still coughing intermittently.

“Yes,” sounded Lung from the other side of the fallen house, seemingly unaffected by the airborne debris.

“What was that thing?” Kausk wondered aloud.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” stammered Celric. Abruptly, the scribe looked around and said, “Did Davin get those scrolls from the house before it collapsed?”

“Yes, I did,” Davin announced, coming around the side of the house and shaking his full hands at Celric. “Did you all see that strange rat in there?”

“What did it look like?” Calen, intrigued by the fascination with a simple rat, began to sheathe his sword.

“It looked just like that!” Kausk pointed to the shed, where he spied the rat-like creature with the face of an old man galloping towards them, fangs bared in attack. Kausk stepped in front of Calen, who fumbled to attempt to draw his sword again, and braced for the charge.

Skitterfoot had lived a decent life, but had distinctly enjoyed the freedom that the death of his witch mistress, Old Megus, had afforded him in the past year. Acting as the “man of the house”, the witch’s familiar had lorded over the rats inhabiting the shack happily, studying his magic, coming and going as he pleased, and not having to fulfill the unending orders of his mistress. He was not about to give up his newly found Eden for anyone, and the destruction of his house enraged him to the point of irrational thought. After using a dimensional door to escape the structure’s collapse, Skitterfoot charged the interlopers in a blind rage, aiming for Calen, the first figure he saw.

Unfortunately for Skitterfoot, Kausk’s sword was quicker than his blind death charge. The half-orc fighter caught the ratling in mid-leap with a mighty swing of his blade, cleaving into his abdomen and extinguishing the freed familiar’s existence. It did not, however, alter the arc of the ratling’s jump, and the dead corpse of the heavy creature flew into Calen, knocking the ranger over, sword still half-drawn from its scabbard.

“I didn’t think that I wanted such a close-up,” Calen growled from underneath the bloodied corpse of the ratling. “Could someone get this ugly thing off of me?”

After a brief review of what Davin had found, and a determination that Old Megus was dead and not undead (by Davin), the Rusty Dragons set off back to the Lost Coast Road and where they had left Rennet with the cart. As they traveled, Davin and Celric attempted to discern what they had found.

“So, this dagger, pretty though it is, is of minimal value?” Davin asked.

“Well, it’s not magical, so I don’t think it has much worth,” Celric responded. “I’m more interested in these scrolls, anyhow. This one,” here he held out one of the tightly rolled tubes, “is a lesser restoration spell.”

Davin’s eyebrows raised at this news. “You’re sure?”

“Yup,” Celric said, self-satisfied, “but I don’t know much about these others.

“Well,” reported Davin, “I’ve detected necromantic magic from---”

“Guys,” Calen interrupted the banter from the point position, “trouble.”

The party emerged around the last cover of reeds provided by swamp road to view a curious scene at their cart. Rennet stood on his tip-toes, a dagger thrust up under his throat, the blade impressing a crimson line on his pale skin. The owner of the dagger, a large half-orc figure, was dressed mainly in black leather, with a curious eye mask over his eyes. Two companion half-orcs also dressed similarly, stood off to the right of the cart, loaded light crossbows trained on Calen and Kausk. All three wore black leather gloves.

“Find anything fun?” spoke the half-orc who was holding Rennet on his toes.

“Yeah,” breathed Calen, his eyes a flat mask of calm as he stared down the brigand, “more reason to dislike my own kind.”

“Hey, easy there, puppy,” the lead half-orc mockingly cooed, thrusting his dagger further under Rennet’s neck, drawing a red drop of blood that dripped down the front of the petrified boy’s neck. Rennet hissed a sharp intake of breath. “You’d better get a leash on your temper, Calen Andosana. It could cost you dearly someday.”

“What do you want?” Calen spoke flatly.

“So direct. No play, eh? Fine. We propose a business transaction. Your whelp here for Moric Andosana.”

A rustle at the back of the party caused Lung to turn around sharply, only to see Moric dive into the reeds to the right of the path. Whipping back around, Lung didn’t see that the brigand had noticed his companion’s disappearance.

“You’ll find that Rennet here is no worse for wear, outside of maybe some soiled pants,” the masked half-orc continued.

“You will release our driver, excuse your intrusion, and leave quietly lest you rile my anger further, dirty highwaymen!” Kausk’s eyes flared angrily, his tusks protruding more prominently from his underbite and his shoulders hunching forward as his fingers incessantly wrapped and unwrapped themselves around the hilt of his bared sword. Calen’s eyes flashed at his surprising companion, caught off-guard by the vehemence of his words and the violence with which he bristled.

The masked half-orcs noticed as well. The lead half-orc’s hold on Rennet relaxed slightly, and he spluttered. “Look, we’re just here to take Moric back to Riddleport to answer some questions. We’ll leave as soon as---” That was all he managed before one of his masked companions, obviously rattled by Kausk’s display of violent dominance, fired his light crossbow at the group, missing Davin by a hair.

“Hey!” protested the halfling.

Three things happened almost simultaneously: 1) Rennet drove his elbow into the back-pedaling half-orc gaining a few inches of separation from his captor, 2) Moric fired his bow from his covered position in the reeds along the road at the masked half-orc who had fired on Davin, driving an arrow deep into the half-orc’s right chest, and 3) Calen and Kausk rushed forward with a roar, charging at the other two assailants. Calen drew his blade as he attacked, managing to slash through the throat and face of the lead brigand, dropping him in one fell blow. Kausk bowled over his assailant, driving his sword directly into the weapon of the remaining half-orc, ruining the bolt and bowstring. The brigand dropped his crossbow and reached for a short spear leaning up against the cart behind him.

Lung charged from his position, landing a flying kick into Kausk’s opponent and knocking him prone. Kausk screamed a battle cry and drove his great sword into the back of the half-orc, ending his struggles with a throaty yell.

Dhalek, the lone standing HushMan, looked at the carnage, dropped his bow, and ran. He had been sent by Boss Croat to escort Moric Andosana back to Riddleport. When he and his compatriots had discovered that Moric had joined up with a band of thrill-seekers, they had realized that their job had all of a sudden become much more complex. The HushMen were Boss Croat’s finesse agents; they specialized in extraction, extermination, and excision. They were not designed for full frontal assault.

It had been Jongk (the face-down orc) who had suggested setting up the hostage situation with the frail boy that they had left alone prior to entering the swamp. His reasoning was sound: they knew the group was going into the swamp on a combat mission, and they were likely to come out tired and possibly injured. It would be more likely to go well for their negotiations, Jongk had surmised, plus, they could use Rennet and the cart to escape the swamp and any pursuit of the so-called Rusty Dragons. Their honor (and financial bonus) when they arrived back in Riddleport would be handsome.

But now Jongk was dead, and likely Dhalek too if he could not outrun the blasted Tian who was pursuing him. And for what? He’d likely be punished severely for failing Boss Croat’s directive if he made it back to Riddleport. The arrow lodged in his chest didn’t help matters either, but though it hurt like Lamashtu’s bloody talons, it wasn’t affecting his ability to breathe, which he was doing heavily as he attempted to lose his pursuer.

Lung focused on his footfalls, but it was obvious that the half-orc had the upper hand. It seemed as if he knew the terrain off of the Lost Coast Road well. Before long, the wounded half-orc was out of sight to the Tian’s all-too-human eyes. Lung knew better than to charge into the wilderness in the dark, and turned back to the Lost Coast Road, jogging easily back to his party in a few short minutes.

“He was able to elude my pursuit,” the monk reported to his party’s askance.

“Right,” chimed Calen. “OK people, probably an hour left until dawn. All injured parties up onto the wagon!”

“A suggestion, Calen?” Davin called.

“Yeah?”

“Let Moric and I take your horse. I can ride with the elf and we can have a nice long talk. Besides, you’ll need to be with those bastards in the cart if they decide to wake up.” The group had stabilized the wounds of the two would-be kidnappers, and were planning on dumping them off at Sheriff Hemlock’s before joining the caravan.

“Right...” Calen said, thinking aloud, “...and that’ll give me some ‘quality time’ with our black-gloved boys. Maybe they can tell me what this insignia means.” Calen showed one of the gloves that he had taken from their captives, a pair of lips with a finger pointing up held in front of them.

“They’re HushMen,” spilled Moric.

“Oh?” Calen feigned surprise. “I figured you might know something about it. You should go with Davin and tell him everything.” Here Calen cracked his knuckles loudly as he dismounted his horse. “Looks like I just get to have ‘quality time’ with my new friends then.”

Davin looked pointedly at Calen. “They are not to be harmed, my friend.”

“They won’t be harmed,” protested Calen, “just softened a bit.”

“No,” demanded the halfling priest. “Mercy is a blessing that few can truly give. Cayden gives you the opportunity. Take it.”

“Hmmph,” Calen managed as he climbed onto the cart, sulking.

“Shall we?” Davin turned his attention to Moric, who sheepishly climbed down from the cart, mounted the horse, and pulled Davin up to sit in front of him. “We will see everyone in Sandpoint!” And with a slap on its front haunches, the halfling launched the horse ahead onto the Lost Coast Road, setting a pace that guaranteed the two companions some privacy for their conversation.

The cart rolled back into Sandpoint that morning, just as the sun cleared the horizon. Calen had sat with the shaken Rennet during the ride, talking him down from his level of panic, and, more importantly, keeping him awake. The rest of the party slept soundly during the journey back. Ameiko and Shalelu greeted the cart with cocked eyebrows and folded arms as the cart rumbled into town.

Ameiko fixed the grinning Calen with a hard stare. “Where?” was her one-worded question.

“Just finishing up some last-minute business,” offered Calen with a shrug. “We wouldn’t want to leave a zombie swamp witch running around if we’re taking all the firepower out of Sandpoint, right?”

Ameiko’s expression didn’t change. “And was there a zombie swamp witch?”

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” Calen cheerfully spouted as he hopped down from his seat beside Rennet. Shalelu glided up to Calen, gripped the top lip of his armored breastplate in her delicate hand, and pulled his six-foot frame down to her five-foot height.

“Where is your brother, brother?” Shalelu said pointedly in Calen’s face.

“Um, he went back with the halfling on a separate horse?” Calen said an octave higher than he normally did.

“We’re here,” called Moric, guiding his horse from the center of town, Davin sitting in front of him. “We took a different way back.”

“So we could get a hot breakfast,” Davin added with a yawn.

“In. The. Cart.” Shalelu pronounced each word distinctly, still holding Calen’s face to hers, but looking at Moric. Moric and Davin scrambled off the horse, handing the reins to Ameiko as they climbed onto the cart. Roderick Rhemereck, a gnarled husk of a dwarf whom Sandru had hired at the last moment, replaced the drowsy Rennet, who climbed into the final cart and curled up for a nap.

Calen cleared his throat.

“What?” Shalelu brought her blue eyes back to Calen’s green ones.

“Um, we have brigands that need to be taken to the Sheriff.”

“So, go do it, then,” Shalelu said cheerfully. “But use that horse, and catch up with us once you’re done. We’re leaving now.” She released the front of his armor.

Calen hurried to the cart and unloaded the two unconscious and bound half-orcs. He then laid them roughly across the horse, and gingerly led the mount down the main street of Sandpoint while the caravan pulled out.

“You’re welcome,” Calen said under his breath to the dust cloud trailing behind the carts. “You’re welcome....you’re welcome...you’re welcome...”

“Calen, wake up!” A stinging slap landed on the half-orc ranger’s face. His eyes flew wide and his hand flew for his sword, causing him to pitch off-balance and off the saddle of his horse onto the hard dirt path.

“Wha? Where am I?” Calen rubbed the back of his head and looked around. The carts were stopped up ahead along the trail, and standing over him was Shalelu on her horse, Dewdrop. The city of Sandpoint was nowhere to be seen. Had he dropped off the prisoners?

“You’re obviously not fit to ride scout right now,” Shalelu pronounced, dismounting and picking her foster brother up. “Go sleep in the cart. I’ll lead your horse.” She looked back at Ameiko who was peering out at them from the front seat of one of the wagons and threw her hands up in disgust. Calen stumbled to the nearest cart, pulled himself up, and collapsed in exhaustion.

Calen managed to wake up briefly that evening when the carts stopped to make camp, ate a bowl of mutton stew, and found a comfortable spot where he promptly fell asleep again. He awoke the next morning to a frowned expression on Davin’s face as he peered at the ranger under one the wagons.

“Good morning?” asked Calen.

“It depends if you’re still one of the undead,” Davin replied.

“Uh....no?”

“You were a bit of a zombie yesterday,” Davin explained, his face relaxing in its normal semi-jovial state.

“I don’t remember much,” Calen said. He then sat upright with a start and banged his head on the underside of Koya’s cart. “Ow! Did I try to kiss my sister yesterday?”

“Who? Shalelu?” Davin laughed. “It looks like you still have your face, so I’m assuming the answer is no.” The priest grew lecherous. “Did you have a naughty dream about her? Tell me all about it.” Davin’s crush on Shalelu was not something he was shy of professing.

“No!” Calen barked.

“Are her lips soft?” Davin was persistent.

“She’s my sister.” His steely tone let the halfling know that playtime was over. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere north of Sandpoint. Three days out of Galduria, I guess. You need some healing?”

“Naw, I’m just hungry, that’s all.”

“Well, you’re in luck. Rennet’s got cooking duties this morning. He’s cooked up some of his now-famous ‘fish scramble’.”

“Now-famous?” Calen crawled from underneath the cart.

“It’s...distinctive,” Davin managed.

“So our little Rennet’s a cook as well, eh? Makes your life easier, hunh?”

Davin gave Calen a look of disbelief. The half-orc snorted in laughter.

One semi-tolerable meal later, the party was rolling along the hills north of Sandpoint, when suddenly Shalelu rode back to the carts from her position ahead as the scout. “Ogres! North-east! Now!!”

“Which way is northeast?” Celric managed from the back of Koya’s cart. Two ogres came crashing through the trees ahead to their left, wielding small trees as clubs.

“Ohhhh....” Celric said in comprehension as he firmly shut the door to Koya’s cart.

The ogres lumbered forward, roaring in their guttural tongue and whipping the small trees around their heads in war-whoops. The larger of the two lowered its left shoulder and charged Sandru’s wagon, crashing into the side of the wagon and crushing the wheel on the front left side of the cart, effectively halting the caravan on the road. The other ogre whipped its tree into one of the supply wagons, destroying the gated panels on the side of the cart.

Shalelu rode her horse fiercely at the larger ogre, timing her attack with her short sword perfectly. The blade found a soft spot in the ogre’s groin, and Shalelu drove it in deep and left it. She then jumped from her horse, tumbled as she landed, and came up in a crouch, drawing her long bow from her shoulders.

A hail of arrows and bolts showered from the caravan, with Calen, Moric, Kausk, both Venken brothers, and even Rennet firing upon the two ogres. A flash of blue light emanated from Davin’s hands as he called for Cayden Cailean’s aid, and a song emanated from the open door of Ameiko’s cart as she inspired her companions with her bardic lore.

The wounded ogre with the sword in its groin thrashed in agony, ripping at a covered wagon with its free hand, tearing the roof partly from the frame. The other ogre gripped the underside of the same supply wagon that had been struck previously and flipped the wagon onto its side, its contents and Roderick, its driver, falling heavily to the earth.

Shalelu’s full attention lay with the smaller ogre, and she sped two arrows straight and true into the back of the neck of the rampaging beast. More missiles rained down on the ogres from the caravan and Sandru, gliding gracefully in a dance-like attack, opened a mortal wound in the neck of the larger ogre with his scimitar with a “Hah!”

The larger ogre sunk to its knees and dropped its club, its hands clenched over the hideous wound, wheezing as it tried to suck in breath and stem the tide of blood spewing from its throat. Its prodigious strength fading, the ogre swung a massive right fist one last time, breaking through the bed of Sandru’s cart. It collapsed in that position, arm thrust through the center of the cart, life blood pooling under.

The smaller ogre knew that it was time to disengage the more powerful enemy. Another stinging arrow from behind as it spun around to flee made it aware of Shalelu, crouched at the edge of the trees, the only barrier to swift escape. The ogre raised its club and charged straight at the elf, meaning to run her down.

“Shalelu!” Calen cried out in alarm, recognizing the ogre’s charge for what it was.

Moric acted in a different fashion, jumping from his wagon and steadying his new composite bow by laying his left hand across his bent left knee and aiming with the bow horizontally. He let fly a single arrow that hummed as it exploded into the back of the head of the ogre.
The remaining ogre only knew rage as it aimed to trample and sweep the elf from this plane, and then its vision went dark as a searing pain, like all-encompassing flame, burned through it. The ogre’s legs went lifeless and it fell like a sack of potatoes, its head coming to rest a few short feet from where Shalelu crouched, unmoving.

The Rusty Dragons cautiously climbed down from the wagons, inspecting the damage to the caravan. Roderick got up from a pile of crates and barrels, a trickle of blood spilling from his forehead, but seemingly not injured more.

“Are we all OK?” Davin called.

“Yes,” Sandru said sadly as he crouched by the front left axle of his wagon, “but the wagons are not. We will need a few hours to be made road-ready again, and even then, we will need serious long-term repairs once we reach Galduria.”

“Ogres, hunh?” Calen chuckled as he watched his foster sister collect the reins of Dewdrop.

Lung winked at the half-orc ranger. “We are supposed to be heroes. You got that mark on your chest for some reason, I surmise?”

Calen smiled broadly. The tattoo barely stung at all anymore.

END

Grand Lodge

Disoriented
28th October 2011

“Farewell.” Celric pinched the brim of his large hat and bended at the waist slightly. The attendant at the door of the Twilight Academy stepped aside as the scribe turned and walked inside, and then shut the door in the face of Calen, Lung, and Davin.

“Well there’s a bastard son of Zon-Kuthon!” exclaimed Calen, turning away from the Galdurian magic college in anger.

“Some composure would be advised,” intoned Lung.

“Composure?” Calen spat, wheeling on the monk. “For someone who shoves all of their emotions into a little box that they call ‘Irori’, that’s REAL easy to ask for, isn’t it?”

The monk narrowed his eyes slightly. Lung had studied for years at the side of Master Wu, controlling the flow of ki through his body, controlling his emotions, controlling his world. It had become second nature to the relatively young Tian, but even still, there were times when emotions roiled and self-control escaped him. “It is good to call on someone when you need assistance,” the monk growled. “It would be good for you to learn that lesson; it would allow you to lead, instead of pretending to know what you are doing!”

Fortunately for the two of them, there was the halfling. “Gentlemen,” began Davin, stepping in between the two angry compatriots, “think of this not as a door closing in our faces--”

“They closed the door in our faces,” retorted Calen.

“Let him speak.” Lung warned.

The halfling continued with a smile and without a pause, “--but a career opportunity for Celric, and a new direction for the Rusty Dragons!”

The half-orc ranger looked scornfully down at Davin. “What new direction? One without a spellcaster?”

“I can cast spells,” Davin returned gracefully.

“You can heal; that’s different.” Calen fired back.

“Is that all you think of me? As a medic?” the halfling replied, stung.

“No,” spluttered Calen, “that’s not what I--” He held his hands to his temples and closed his eyes. “I’m.....He....” Words escaped his grasp as the ranger, the default leader of the Rusty Dragons sunk into a low crouch, his back against the door to the Twilight Academy. He took a few deep breaths, both of his companions peering quizzically at him.

‘Leaders were supposed to be gallant’, thought the ranger. ‘They were supposed to have all the answers, face all challenges with firm resolve, and inspire confidence.’ Calen grimaced. “I don’t do any of those things,” he said aloud.

“What?” Davin asked.

“It’s my fault,” Calen looked up at Lung. The monk’s visage softened. “I was too hard on him; I never asked his advice; I mocked him!” Calen stood up. “And so he’s chosen his studies instead of the road. And if I were following me, I think I’d make the same decision.”

The monk clasped his friend’s shoulder. “You have a good heart, Calen. It is often hard to watch over your comrades when you are forced to walk in front of them. I am sorry for what I said.”

“But it’s true!” Calen kept his eyes to the ground, fearing his friends would see the sudden brightness to the green of his eyes. “I do not know what I am doing, yet I keep making decisions. I did not ask to be a leader, yet people follow my path. I almost got myself killed fighting that skeletal samurai; what will I do when I do get someone killed?”

Davin replied gently, “No one knows where the tide sweeps us. But bravery and free will give good counsel. You have shone those qualities time and again, good friend. Do not blame your own boots for the steps that others take. I know I choose to match my steps to yours.” The priest glanced at Lung.

“As do I,” nodded the young Tian.

“But why?” Calen asked in quiet frustration.

“Who else would I follow?” Davin answered.

Calen looked at Lung.

“It is the will of Irori,” replied the monk.

Calen shook his head in disbelief.

“Besides,” winked the halfling, “with your ugly kisser going in first, it makes us look all the more handsome in comparison!”

Galduria, a town similar in size to Sandpoint, had housed the Rusty Dragon contingent for the past day and a half. They had limped into town the evening after their encounter with the ogres, desperately needing repairs to wagons savaged by the attack. Sandru had taken over coordinating those repairs using the Venken brothers and a Galdurian wainswright to complete the work more expeditiously. Calen had stayed behind to lend a hand as well, while the rest of the adventurers wandered idly through the town that evening.

All but one, that is. Celric knew that Galduria housed the Twilight Academy, the most liberal of all the magic universities in all of Varisia. He had made a straight bee-line for the university upon hopping off the wagon once inside Galduria, and he had not come out until the evening of the following day. That evening, around the Rusty Dragon campfire, Calen had laid into Celric about not being available to help with repairs or improvements as Calen had been doing, painting Varisian colors on the wagon train to boost morale. Calen had colorfully made allusions to the real reason why Celric spent so much time in Koya’s cart while on the road.

Lung had taken offense to the words, as had Sandru. Celric, for his part, had hummed merrily while finishing dinner, stood up, and announced to the gathered band that he needed to move on. The scribe had then packed his gear, left the campsite, and taken up residence at the Twilight Academy that same night. The next morning, Davin, Lung, and a remorseful Calen had come to plead for Celric to rethink his decision at the doors of the college. Rebuffed, the three old friends made their way sadly back to the Rusty Dragon campsite.

“Any luck with Celric?” Moric asked as he spied the three coming towards the parked wagons.

Davin sadly shook his head to the elf while Calen simply managed a gruff “hrrmmph”.

“Well, you know what they say,” Moric continued, oddly sunny, “when a door closes in Magnimar, it opens in Riddleport!”

“For the last time,” Calen growled, “we’re not going to Riddleport. And a second thing--” Calen was cut off by Davin’s raised hand. “What?”

“I don’t think that’s what he means,” said Davin, peering beyond Moric to Koya and a dark stranger standing beside her.

“Who’s that?” Calen grunted.

“You learn more when you ask the right person the right question,” Lung answered, calmly walking past the gruff half-orc towards his adoptive mother. Calen remained where he was, seething inwardly.

“Lung, Lung,” Koya stepped forward, holding the stranger’s hand up towards the advancing monk. “Come and meet your kin. My blood nephew, son of my mother’s brother’s only daughter, Magister Flameus D’inferno!” Here Koya paused and looked at the mage. “And this is my adopted son, joy of my soul, Lung Chang. Be known to each other!” Koya, with a surprising strength for a woman of her age, pushed the black-and-red robed Varisian into Lung, forcing the two into an awkward and unintentional embrace.

“Ahem,” managed the wizard. “You can call me Scorch. Most people tend to, anyway.” He looked at the monk with dark eyes. “A pleasure.”

“Scorch?” enthusiastically echoed Davin, extending his hand at the man. “I’m Davin Greytoes, blessed of Cayden Cailean. I’m pleased to meet your acquaintance!”

The wizard didn’t respond or even look at the halfling, intently studying the face of his newly-found relative. As his voice trailed off, Davin studied Scorch.

The wizard was dressed in dark black robes that were embroidered in dark red accents at the hems and the sleeves. He carried a small leather backpack and had a small metal kettle tied on to his belt. His coloring placed him as a Varisian with dark hair and eyes on an olive complexion speckled with dark facial hair that screamed to be trimmed daily. His long and well-manicured hands spoke of an artist’s existence, though the smudges of ink on the fingers spoke of a scholar as well. Most distinctive was the fat, large, unlit cigar clenched in his left hand.

Lung’s almond-shaped eyes took in all that Scorch was, and in a gracious and graceful way, smiled a welcome look at the mage. “Welcome, brother,” the monk said warmly, “I am honored to meet true kin to the wonderful woman that I am privileged to call ‘mother’.”
Koya blushed. Scorch smiled. Calen cleared his throat.

“Davin?” Scorch asked as he looked down and shook hands with the halfling. “I have always been an admirer of Cayden Cailean and his awesome...potential,” he finished enigmatically.

“Ahhh....so you call it ‘potential’, then?” Davin smiled with a mischievous wink. “I once had an amazing bottle of ‘potential’ in Magnimar. Have you ever been there?”

“I’ve spent most of my time in the north after studying in Korvosa,” Scorch responded, warming to the conversation.

“Korvosa?” queried Davin, looking at Lung, “Didn’t Celric go to school in Korvosa?”

“Oh yes,” Scorch replied, “he was a classmate of mine. He’s also the one who sent me news of the passing of great-aunt Niska.”

“Once a scribe, always a scribe,” huffed Calen.

“And you are?” interjected Scorch, peering around Lung at the sulking half-orc.

“Calen,” the ranger nodded at Scorch, “and, I, uh....I’m happy to meet you.” He extended his hand awkwardly.

Lung turned and raised an eyebrow at Calen.

“What?” he replied irritably.

Lung smiled and walked toward the wagon as Calen’s arm was pumped up and down by the grinning mage.

Later, on the road to Wolf’s Ear, Scorch shared a story with Moric. “...and so the volcano was dormant, but I intend to go back to it once I hear news that it has erupted once again. For now, I am here.”

Moric asked, “So does that mean you’re joining up with the Rusty Dragons?”

Scorch looked down at his boots as he replied. “To be honest--Moric is it?--I haven’t yet been asked to join your band, nor have I been told what your ultimate goal is. I received less than a warm welcome from your leader--”

“You mean Calen?” Moric inserted. “You don’t need to worry about him. He’s more ‘rusty’ than ‘dragon’, believe me.”

“Your band’s name, it intrigues me,” continued Scorch. “Which came first? The tattoo on the halfling’s neck or the name of your band?”

“Well,” Moric rolled up his right sleeve with pride to show off his own dragon tattoo, “we ALL got our tattoos at about the same time. After we named our party.”

“Do I need to get a tattoo to join your band?” asked Scorch.

“Only you can determine that. It’d probably not be necessary if you haven’t decided yet if you’re truly traveling with us.”

“Well, good,” confirmed the wizard. “I think I’d rather get a brand, anyway.”

“What’s a brand?” the young elf asked eagerly.

“Hey, spellcaster!” Calen rode up on his horse and interrupted the conversation. “Can I have a word with you?”

Scorch winked at the elf and stepped to the side of the trail to speak to Calen.

“Alone,” Calen spoke, glaring at the elf who was moving to follow Scorch. The elf rolled his eyes and continued walking alongside the caravan.

“So, mage...,” Calen began, picking at his horse’s mane as he spoke to Scorch.

“Scorch,” the wizard replied.

“Um, Scorch,” the ranger corrected himself, “I want to get off on the right foot with you. I don’t know if Celric shared anything about me with you--”

“He didn’t.”

“Well, EVEN if he had, I just wanted to tell you that I was hard on him. And, I, uh, probably am not going to get a gift from him on FeastDay...”

“What?” the wizard cocked an eyebrow at the half-orc.

“Look, I just want to let you know that I’m a big believer in destiny, and I’m pretty sure Cayden Cailean placed you here for us to come across, and I’m, um...thankful.”

“Are you a priest of the Drunken God as well?” Scorch asked.

“No, just an avid admirer.”

“Well, I have to say I’m pleased.”

“About what?” Calen asked.

“This all fits nicely together,” answered Scorch. “My aunt Koya, she did a fortune-telling for me today in her wagon. I tend to listen intently to the portents of my heritage. They rarely lead me astray.”

“I’ve only seen those cards used for gambling,” offered the half-orc.

The wizard clucked his tongue unhappily at the ranger. “Don’t blaspheme.” He continued, “Aunt Koya saw in the cards that I was to aid you and your band, especially the halfling, in battling tormented souls in the near future. I take her visions seriously.”

“I’m sorry for the unintended disrespect,” Calen managed. “Are you a priest as well as a wizard?”

“You can make it up to me at the next inn down the road,” smiled Scorch, “and no, in answer to your question, but I have no love for the undead, be assured.”

“OK, You got it,” stated Calen, as he moved his horse off the path and into the woods, “and welcome to the Rusty Dragons!”

Later that evening, at the Ink Blot Inn in Wolf’s Ear, after an unlucky go at Bounder, a gambling game that seemed less skill than stupid, Calen buzzedly clasped Scorch on the back of the neck and spouted, “I said ‘Welcome to the Rusty Dragons’, Scorch, not ‘Drain all of the gold out of my belt pouch’!” The ranger gestured his empty mug at the bottle of fine Varisian wine that he had bought for Scorch. “Give us another nip, then!”

As a grinning Scorch complied with Calen’s request, a rumbling low voice came from over his shoulder. “We don’t take kindly to his kind here!”

Calen turned around to peer at a large and bold man standing behind him. “Who? Wine drinkers are people, too!” Calen protested.

“No! Him.” The accuser pointed his hand directly at the monk.

“What?” Calen responded. “Why?”

“We just all know what kind of trouble their kind tends to bring.”

Davin piped up, “What, glasses of water?”

Calen fired back, “Loose-fitting clothing?”

The burly townsman got agitated. “No, Lamashu take you both! All know that the Tian bring demons and ruins. I will not drink alongside one in my town!”

Lung stood from the table, “I will go back to the wagons,” he said quietly.

“No!” bellowed Kausk, putting a hand on Lung’s shoulder as he stood from his chair. His next words were directed at all. “I have seen my share of bigotry. I know what small-mindedness drives it. And I refuse to let it go unchecked.” The grey half-orc warrior fixed his eyes on the burly townsman. “My companion is honorable and decent. He is no more deserving of your scorn than I am. And though he may leave quietly from a bar when asked,” Kausk narrowed his eyes, “I will not. So either he stays, and I’ll leave quietly. Or he goes, and I won’t leave quietly.” The seven-foot tall frame of the half-orc tensed as he poured the remnants of his mug down his throat.

The inn came to a halt. Both sides stared down one another.

A soft male voice broke the tension. “I, for one, say that he stays.” An angular-looking merchant with red hair stood from his chair and strode to the middle of the room. “And I will sponsor this goodwill with a mug of ale on my tab for each who will drink with me to the health of all here!” A distinct majority of the inn-goers, including Davin, cheered this announcement.

The burly townsman grunted and sat down at his table. Kausk sniffed and followed, still glaring in his direction.

“May I join you, gentlemen?” The red haired merchant came over to the table to grins from Davin and Calen. “I am Ben Galley, Riddleport merchant and tinker of the Lost Coast. I am sorry for the lack of vision of these poor townsfolk. They have seen little but pain in recent years, in their defense.”

“I’m Davin Greytoes, friend!” the halfling spouted. “And do you mean demons, like that doofus mentioned?”

“Pleased to meet you, Davin,” Ben assented, “and no, the troubles of Wolf’s Ear have not been exactly demon-borne, but lycanthropic in nature.”

Davin sucked air in quickly. Kausk glanced confusedly at him. Davin managed, “Werewolves!” in a high-pitched squeak.

“Yes, too true,” Ben shook his head sadly, “Wolf’s Ear was named for its status as a haven for shapechangers, but recent tragedies have marred that status, and now none know truly where they stand.”

“Werewolves,” Davin repeated faintly.

Calen glanced at the halfling and then back at the merchant. “I am Calen Andosana, good merchant, and I thank you for your gracious support of the good name of my friend, Lung Chang.” Calen motioned to the monk, who bowed his head in thanks towards Ben.

“Well, I may trade your thanks for something that I have a pressing need for,” smoothly replied Ben. “I have been stranded here in town since my surly driver left town without me this morning. I am making my way north of here, to Riddleport. I am a poor tinker in need of transportation.”

Kausk’s mind raced to a quick conclusion, and he asked a question to confirm his idea. “Tinkers work with metal and fix things, do they not?” said the half-orc, thinking about the heirloom wakizashi that he had liberated from the skeletal samurai but had not yet been able to use due to the damage to its hilt.

The tinker blinked. “Well, yes. I do metal work, of course.” He cocked his head at the warrior. “Are you suggesting a trade?”

Kausk looked at Calen. The ranger frowned. “If you’re a tinker, then where’s your equipment?” he countered.

“In a small cart that is easily towed behind a larger wagon,” Ben said excitedly. “Do we have an agreement?” He extended his hand at the ranger.

“Show me your cart, tinker,” consented Calen, allowing the red-haired man to direct him out of the inn.

The grey half-orc smiled and raised his mug to salute the two of them in contentment, imagining the hilt of his sword soon fixed.

Three days later on the road to Roderic’s Cove, on the evening before their last ford across the Velashu River, the red-haired merchant came to Kausk with a sad look on his face. “I am sorry, brave warrior, but I am unable to mend this curious weapon. May I ask? Where did it come from?”

Kausk took the weapon from Ben with a sad expression on his face. “A far, far away place, it seems. Thank you for your efforts nonetheless.”

The tinker bowed his head, “No thanks are needed for a job not finished. But still, I may be able to finish the job yet.”

“Hmm?” the warrior cocked his head.

“Nothing,” the merchant waved his hand in dismissal. Looking around at the trail, Ben changed the subject. “This area is more heavily forested, is it not?”

“The journey has been too quiet so far,” said the half-orc in tacit agreement.

As if on cue, a monstrous insect head broke through the canopy of trees under which the wagons rumbled, looked sideways at the caravan and clicked twice. Before any of the party could react, two large limbs lanced out from the underbrush and stabbed into the side of the fortune-teller’s wagon, piercing through the wood siding.

“Attack!” bellowed Calen, riding his horse into challenge the large insect. Muffled yells of alarm came from Koya’s cart as the giant mantis pulled the wagon a few feet off the path and into the bushes. Calen threw a short spear at the mantis, piercing its carapace on the side of its head.

The giant mantis reacted by removing one of its piercing forearms from the wagon, revealing a jagged hole in the side of Koya’s cart, and taking an impotent swipe at Calen. A line of flame shot from the top of the adjacent cart and into the insect’s face, causing the insect to withdraw into its cover in a flash.

“Nice one!” yelled Davin in encouragement as he readied his crossbow.

Suddenly the large green form of the giant mantis leapt through the foliage and landed on the previously damaged wagon, hacking into its roof while clicking angrily.

“Koya must have something that smells good in her cart!” reasoned Kausk as he ran at the insect, sword raised in mid-swing.

Davin popped a bolt into the chest of the insect as Kausk’s sword connected in a mighty crack alongside the back leg of the reeling insect. The mantis fell off the side of the wagon and started crawling for the protective tree cover, dragging its shattered leg behind it. Moric was too fast for it, and his well-placed arrow drove into the insect’s head, triggering a serious of violent twitches on the forest floor before the beast came to rest.

“Well done, everyone!” Calen shouted in encouragement. “Are we all in one piece in there?” Calen thumped on the door of the damaged wagon with the butt of another of his short spears.

“We are well and not injured, just startled,” came the response from Lung from inside the wagon. “What attacked us?”

Shalelu rode up alongside her brother and answered the question in a curiously pedantic fashion. “It was a giant praying mantis, native to the Churlwoods through which we are passing now.” The elf continued as her foster brother blinked in surprise at her response. “They often wait in ambush position, sometimes for hours, until a choice bit of prey crosses their path. They have been known to grow to the size of a dragon, per legends. This one, in comparison, seems to be a scrawny representation of an often-vicious beast. Still,” she continued in begrudging praise, “you neutralized it well.”

Kausk looked up from where he knelt at the beast’s slightly twitching side, eyeing the armored carapace that his sword had hacked into. “Too brittle for good armor,” he grunted.

A muffled cry of “Help!” came from the underbrush to the left of the halted caravan.

Calen wheeled his horse in a tight circle and eyed the forest. “Did anyone else hear that?”
In response, Davin jumped from his perch next to Rennet, and raced into the forest, crossbow held at the ready. Lung opened the door to his caravan. “Who is not accounted for?” the monk yelled.

“I’m here!” yelled Kausk.

“Great,” replied Calen, “but who’s not?”

Davin came out from the underbrush at that point, bellowing, “It’s the tinker! Something big has him and is dragging him into the forest!” And with that, the halfling again ran into the forest, this time followed by Kausk, Calen, and Shalelu, with Lung, Moric, and Scorch following.

The Churlwoods were named for some of the more odious beings that called it their home, including bandits, kobolds, and the already-encountered mantis. Rarer to the forest were large beasts, including bears, drakes, and the occasional tiger, which Davin could see struggling with the tinker as they traipsed deeper into the forest. “A tiger?” Davin puzzled to himself. “That’s odd.” One second the two figures were struggling just outside of his line of fire, and the next, they were gone.

The halfling slowed his run to a jog. The rest of the party quickly caught up to him, and the Rusty Dragons came upon a large opening somewhere within the forest. The light was failing as evening set in, and Moric muttered a word of power, causing his bared sword to light with the intensity of a lantern as he came up behind the other adventurers.

“Where’d they go?” Calen breathed heavily.

“I just saw them,” muttered Davin, scanning the trees near where he saw the forms disappear. “There!” The halfling pointed at a dark form on the forest floor as he moved cautiously forward.

The prone form of the tinker, or rather, the lower half of him, protruded from behind a large tree. As the halfling padded up slowly towards it, something pulled the legs of the tinker out of sight. Davin and Kausk reached the spot at the same time, swinging around the side of the tree.

There was nothing to be found behind the tree. Davin circled the tree while Kausk whirled around, finding Moric right behind him. “What?” said the elf.

“There’s nothing there,” replied the warrior.

Moric instinctively looked up in the leaf-cover and spied a dark form moving through the branches. “Up in the trees!” he whispered to Kausk.

In response, a familiar soft voice rang out from the trees. “Are you ready to finish the job, half-orc?”

“What?” said Calen irritably.

“No,” said Kausk, “I think he means me. Show yourself, tinker!”

The soft voice continued, unseen in the tree tops. “Not yet, Kausk. And please, call me Ben. Ben Galley.” A pair of cat’s eyes appeared straight ahead in the dark, just out of the circle of Moric’s sword’s light.

“I don’t understand,” managed Kausk.

“Werewolves,” breathed Davin.

“Not only werewolves, priest of Cayden Cailean,” the voice corrected, “but all shape shifters. We accept all kinds. Even Tian,” the voice added with a touch of scornful humor.

“What do you want?” Calen bellowed.

“I want to introduce my friend,” the tinker said, his voice emanating from a different portion of the leaf-cover, “and to strike a deal with you gambling folk.”

“A deal?” Kausk asked.

“Yes,” Ben spoke slowly, “my friend and I will let you leave unmolested in exchange for the elf. I have some friends in Riddleport that want a word with Master Moric.”

Moric’s heart sank. He had hoped that the HushMen were the last of the agents that Boss Croat would send for his hide, but ever since one of them had escaped the attempt to kidnap him outside of Brinestump Marsh, he had been waiting for the next attempt, especially as they drew nearer to Riddleport.

Calen responded. “I speak for the group, tinker! What friends of yours do you speak of?” The half-orc ranger slowly padded from tree to tree, his bow out and drawn, awaiting the response that he knew would come.

“Lower your weapon and parley, ranger”, the voice commanded from outside the circle of light, near the ground. Calen responded by lowering his bow slightly, puzzled at the new position of the voice. His pause, however, was construed differently by his foster sister.

“We will not, parley, foul creature!” she snarled angrily, loosing an arrow in the direction of the voice.

“Too bad you can’t keep your elves under control, Kausk” mocked the voice, apparently untouched by the arrow. “Fine, we will do this the hard way.” And with that, the former tinker stepped lightly into the circle of light, revealing his half-transformation into a lycanthropic tiger, and hurling a dagger at the warrior. A roar from behind Ben Galley came from his tiger companion that had acted as a decoy to draw the party into the woods. The large cat raced toward Calen as the weretiger charged Kausk.

Scorch was faster than all of them. Stepping out from the far side of the clearing to the weretiger’s left, the wizard uttered an eldritch syllable, triggering a colored blast of light directly into the weretiger’s surprised face. With a gurgled scream, the monstrous lycanthrope collapsed in a heap on the ground.

Lung ran up to the fallen foe and quickly put the stunned Ben Galley in a forearm hold, pinning his upper body to the ground. Even partly unconscious, the sheer force of the rippling muscle in the monster’s body was evident to the monk. “Excellent spell choice, Scorch!” Lung exhaled in gratitude. The wizard beamed.

Calen, facing the charging tiger, was less lucky. He successfully dodged the first claw, but caught the second swipe from the preternaturally fast animal across his left shoulder, and narrowly missed the gaping jaws of the big predator. He could feel the blood running hot down his forearm as he fired his bow point-blank into the tiger. Kausk diverted his attention from the dagger that had grazed his shoulder to the large rampaging tiger, attempting desperately to prevent Calen from being torn to shreds. He hacked at the tiger with his sword, garnering a protesting growl, but no more attention than the two arrows that Shalelu landed in its back haunches.

Moric dropped back from the combat and chose his shots carefully at the weretiger, but it seemed that his regular arrows did no damage to the stunned and prone creature. The elf chose a silver-tipped arrow for his next shot, and this one found its mark well, causing Ben Galley to buck slightly under Lung’s tightening grip.

The monk, for his part, was attempting to secure the were-creature’s back legs in a full pin, all well securing his pin on Ben’s upper arms. The wizard attempted a shot from his bow, but was unable to land an arrow in his target.

The tiger reared back again and caught Calen with a back claw and a glancing bite, proving too much for the ranger to handle, and his eyes rolled back as he fell to the ground. Davin appeared right at his side to stabilize him as Kausk stepped into the lead in the melee, landing a mighty backhand blow with his sword to the tiger’s flank. Two more arrows drilled into the tiger’s neck, which gave a low growl of displeasure as it focused its attention on its new target.

Lung had secured both of his legs around Ben Galley’s hips at this point, and was in the process of rolling the weretiger onto its back when the effects of Scorch’s spell wore off. With a ripple of sinew and the discomforting sensation of bones sliding in place, the hybrid weretiger shifted form into a full tiger, Lung attempting barely to hang on to its new shape. As it flipped onto its padded four feet, the great cat gave a kick and tossed the monk off of its back, and raised its head to face Moric.

The weretiger charged at the elf, who fired another silver arrow at the creature in a panic. He missed, but Ben Galley did not, bringing the elf down with two well-placed claws, picking him up in his mouth, and racing away from the party.

Ben Galley was a well-known assassin and strong-arm for hire in Riddleport. He had been paid well by Boss Croat to bring ‘home’ this troublesome elf that had sullied the half-orc crimelord’s reputation. And in Riddleport, where your reputation was tied almost directly to your pecking order in the ever-shifting political sands, that was a sin neither forgivable nor forgettable.

Moric Andosana would answer to his crimes, sure as Boss Croat lived. And Boss Croat did not make the same mistake twice in underestimating these Rusty Dragons: after disposing of the surviving HushMan, Dhalek, he had hired the best agent his coin could buy.

Or at least, that’s what Ben Galley believed. Ben Galley would not fail Boss Croat and return empty-handed, so while the tiger companion that he had charmed into aiding him was being put down by the grey half-orc, the weretiger did something rare: he fled with his prey in tow.

“He only can be harmed by silver, Lung!” Davin yelled as he raced alongside the monk in pursuit. Lung looked in surprise at the halfling: how was he keeping pace? Focusing instead on the task at hand, Lung launched his lean muscled form at the tiger, aiming to tackle the beast on four legs much as he had tackled the man when he walked on two.

“...and he literally tackled the tiger!” Davin’s story reached a climax around the table of Plump Mama’s Inn in Roderic’s Cove the next evening. The gathered townspeople (Plump Mama herself attending) sat around and clapped in appreciation of the fantastic story. “As he pulled the tiger to the ground,” the halfling continued, “out popped Moric and Lung and Ben grappled together, the monk trying to avoid the vicious claws, and the tiger desperately trying to escape. In the end, sadly, the tiger sprang free and disappeared into the wilderness.” The crowd ‘awwed’ in disappointment at this point. “Of course, when he came back to the campfire,” Davin added with a wink at the Tian, sitting placidly in front of his glass of water as he listened, “Calen insisted upon calling Lung ‘Tiger-Tackler’, and is in the process of making a cape for him from the hide of the other tiger that we slayed!” ‘Hurrah!’s rang out from the gathered crowd. The Rusty Dragons, only Calen, Davin, Moric, and Lung in attendance, were clapped on the back in congratulations and toasted for their heroic feats.

“I am thinking we should return to the wagon.” Lung cautioned as the crowd thinned. “I received a glare from Mother when I said I would accompany you into town.”

“Yeah,” Calen agreed, “and Ameiko informed me that my sister is peeved about something. Our discretion is probably wise as well. If Ben Galley is still around, he’s likely got people looking for us.”

“Hey,” Davin said defensively, “it’s a great story! Besides, I asked around and no one’s seen a tinker in these parts.”

“Do you think he’s going to use the same cover story twice?” Moric scoffed. “He wasn’t really a tinker - his little cart was filled with rocks and junk. An agent like that...he’s got a hundred different back stories, a hundred different faces. We’ll see him again,” Moric trailed off hauntedly into his cup.

“Why did we see him in the first place, eh?” Calen asked sharply of Moric. “Why, exactly, does this Boss Croat character want you back in Riddleport so badly?”

Moric rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “Because I double-crossed him, OK?”

“My little brother,” Calen cheered the elf in a semi-mocking salute, “is full of surprises.”

Lung rose from the table. “Come. Let us be gone from here before another tinker offers to join our caravan.”

As the Rusty Dragons filed out of the bar, Davin asked jovially: “Lung, was that sarcasm?”

The six-day journey from Roderic’s Cove to the ruins of Brinewall was largely uneventful. The Velashu Uplands were a mix of rolling hills and arid rocky outcroppings. The weather was good, not too warm for the beginning of summer, and not too cool in the evening. Calen and Shalelu spent their days hunting efficiently for game to augment the food stores for the caravan. Lung and Koya spent their days in Koya’s wagon in quiet contemplation. Davin and Kausk took their turns in instructing the young lad Rennet on the rough aspects of crossbows and swords (and drinking once the sun went down). Moric spent a good deal of his time fletching arrows, oiling bowstrings, and avoiding his sister. Scorch amiably chatted with his fellow travelers during the day, but mainly disappeared in the evening, taking his meals inside Koya’s cart as he toiled away at making scrolls.

On the sixth day out of Roderic’s Cove, Ameiko and Davin spent the day in quiet conversation in the back of one of the supply wagons.

“Davin, I’m not superstitious, you know. I just think....something....important is waiting me in Brinewall. And what’s more,” she continued, “I think it awaits you, too. Is that weird? I’ve had some strange dreams in the past few nights: black feathers, snow, swords that talk...It all seems so odd, but it fits together.” Ameiko trailed off and wrinkled her brow for an instant.

“What is it?” Davin was particularly sensitive to his good friend, and seemed to know when she was feeling poorly. This was one of those times.

“It’s nothing; just a headache,” she added.

“There’s a sign here up ahead!” called out Sandru from the front of the wagon train. “I believe it is for Brinewall!”

“Well, this looks like our stop,” Davin said cheerfully, hopping down off the wagon.

“Yeah...” Ameiko trailed off.

“Can we take the wagons down that trail?” Calen rode up to the front, asking Sandru a question that his eyes easily answered.

The overgrown trail leading off the remnants of their path was barely wide enough for Kausk to walk with his shoulders outstretched. There was no way to fit a wagon, much less a horse down the path.

“It looks like we go on foot,” Kausk murmured, adjusting his gear as he peered down the trail.

“Sounds good,” Scorch added. “I’d like to stretch my legs, anyway.”

“Ameiko, what is it?” The alarm in Davin’s voice was notable.

Ameiko Kaijitsu was a proud woman from a proud family. She had been raised to need not depend on anyone for assistance. All who knew her admired her fierce independence. So as she descended from the wagon, shaking and pale, the last thing anyone expected from her lips was what exited: “Help.”

Ameiko pitched face-forward into the dirt beside the cart path. Davin was the first to her side, rolling her limp form onto her back. “She’s unconscious!” he yelled. He raised his wooden mug over his head and uttered a brief word of prayer to the Drunk God, a familiar blue glow flowing from his hands into the Tian woman’s form. Though her eyelids fluttered, they did not open.

“What’s wrong with her?” Calen asked from over Davin’s shoulder.

“I don’t know!” managed Davin. “She mentioned that she had a headache a little earlier, and now this...” The halfling seemed to be in a state of near-panic. Koya glided over to Ameiko’s side, laying her hand on her clammy forehead.

“She is alive. Stable as well,” Koya stated, eyes closed in concentration.

“Strange that she’d collapse just as we made it to Brinewall,” Moric noticed.
A deep voice unknown to the Rusty Dragons emanated from Ameiko’s mouth just then, interrupting their train of thought. “One treasure beyond two seals in the third vault awaits.” Her mouth closed, and no further sounds came from her.

“What in the skirts of Calistria was that?” Calen cursed.

Lung glanced at his friend. “You are truly equally fluent in cursing all of the deities, aren’t you?”

Koya replied, “She is possessed. There is some spirit residing in her. It likely wants something.”

“She was just saying that she dreamed a lot about what was waiting her in Brinewall.” Davin explained. “Could it be something in Brinewall that’s possessing her?”

“Only one way to find out,” Calen said. The other Rusty Dragons looked at him, nodding in resolved silence. “The drivers should stay here with the carts,” he added in a business-like tone. “Keep one of the large fireworks to fire off in case of emergency. We will do the same.”

“And what of Ameiko?” asked Davin.

“I will stay by her side,” Shalelu stepped up from where she stood at the periphery of the group. “I will protect her if need be.”

“And I will stay and do what I can for to heal her,” Koya added.

“Are we resolved then?” Calen asked. The others nodded and scurried to their feet, grabbing their equipment from the wagons. Shalelu came forward to the half-orc ranger. Calen grimaced.

“As a leader, it is your job to bring all of your friends back.” Shalelu locked her gaze on the green eyes of her beloved foster brother. “Be sure you do so.”

Calen nodded in response. The Rusty Dragons - Calen, Davin, Lung, Kausk, Moric, and Scorch - set off down the path marked by the old wooden sign that simply said ‘Brinewall’. The wind blew suddenly in a gust through the old-growth forest.

“It’s kinda chilly for the first of summer, ain’t it?” Kausk mentioned to no one in particular, hitching his cloak over his shoulders as he turned away from the caravan and onto the trail.

END

Grand Lodge

Entreaties
4 November 2011

A wind blew swiftly across Bunyip Bay, its warm, early summer touch caressing black feathers as the bird banked south towards its roost. It spied the train of creatures below, unique in their shiny metallic coats, strange to this area of the Brinewall Forest.

It had been watching for them.

Alighting on its roost, the bird focused its beady black eyes on the party of six, drawing into keen focus the distinguishing characteristics that it had been told to watch for: two half-orcs - one green, one grey, a tall Tian male, a Varisian wizard, a halfling priest, and an elf. They were all there.

And now his master knew, too.

The bird took a brief second to pick a mite from his underfeathers before taking to wing, heading north and away from the warmth of Bunyip Bay, into the grey mists and back to its master, who called it home now, called it back to prepare...

“It’s a temple of Desna, and I’m four foot tall if it’s not!” the excited halfling announced, peering into the ruined frontage and rotting timbers of the largest building in the town once known as Brinewall. The priest of Caydean Cailean had been quite subdued on the trip through the wilderness to the site of the abandoned town, largely lost in thought and worry about his friend, Ameiko Kaijitsu. Ameiko lay in a magical coma with the caravan that the group had taken to get here. The Rusty Dragons, for that was what they called themselves, hoped to find some answer or reason for her current state within the remains of Brinewall and its impressive castle.

“Looks like a mess to me,” scoffed Calen, the half-orc ranger of the group. Sarcastic to the last, the ranger was often looked to as the leader of the bunch, a position that he often felt at odds with. “What do you say, Lung? Your mother worships her.”

Lung Chang peered in through a broken window frame, immediately recognizing the sigils of butterflies as belonging to the good goddess of nature and travels. “Our halfling friend is three foot seven, if his oaths are to be believed,” replied Lung evenly in confirmation. Lung smiled warmly, his thoughts turning to his foster mother, Koya Mvashti, who currently tended to the comatose Ameiko at the caravan. Lung was happy that she was finally getting a chance to travel, and with her son Sandru, Lung, and her cousin as well.

Scorch gave the building a glance. “I wouldn’t venture too far in there, if I were you,” he offered. “That place likely will come down around your ears, if you’re not careful.” The darkly-robed wizard glanced suddenly to the north, as if someone had called his name.

“What?” Calen’s approach often was direct.

Scorch stood still for a moment, then give a short shake of his head. “Nothing,” he replied. “I thought I heard something.”

“Not much around here to hear,” piped up Moric, the elven sister of Shalelu Andosana, and foster brother to Calen the half-orc. “Strange how the wildlife around here seems quiet.”

“Yeah, I noticed that, too.” Calen had apprenticed to Shalelu to learn the skills of nature-walking. He was not about to let Shalelu’s vagabond brother, newly turned-up from Asmodeus-knows-what in Riddleport, to show up his tracker abilities. “So we going in this old Desnan temple or what?” he asked impatiently.

“I’m used to buildings coming down around me since that fight with that man-rat thing.” Kausk, the grey half-orc warrior, grunted as he hefted a fallen timber to the side and made his way into the interior of the ruined temple. “Plus, we’re supposed to be playing the part of heroes, right? This place looks pretty heroic.” He lumbered into the dusty interior of the old temple, ducking under collapsed half-walls and scattering rubble ahead with his boots.

“Good thing we’re not sneaking around,” Moric rolled his eyes at Calen as he followed the grey warrior into the building, picking his way sensitively through the debris in stark comparison to Kausk’s entry.

Davin opened his eyes after a brief prayer. “There’s no magic or sacred emanations coming from inside,” he said somewhat sadly. “The dilapidation has resulted in desecration.” The halfling priest opened his eyes widely a moment later and turned 180 degrees to face the cemetery across from the old church. “There is something coming from here, however,” he said, and approached the closed and rusted cemetery gates.

“Ok, hold that thought, Davin,” Calen directed. “Guys! We got anything in there?” The ranger called into the old temple.

“No,” called Kausk, echoed a second later by the elf.

“Alright, so we’re going into the cemetery. Davin, you--” the green half-orc turned back to the now-open cemetery gates and the spot where Davin had stood a moment before. “Davin?” Calen called, moving hurriedly into the cemetery.

Lung stood apart from the other adventurers, absorbing the aura of time and decay from this place. It was obvious that this once had been a growing town, and not too long ago, based on the appearance of partly-collapsed storefronts and merchant carts that they had encountered within the first few buildings. There was also strong evidence of a connection to Ameiko and her family; they had come across the remnants of glass blowings similar to those produced currently by Ameiko in Sandpoint in one of the ruined storefronts. Ancestry was not something Lung knew much of personally, having been raised as an orphan, but he knew it ran hot and proud in most Tian. ‘It might not be such a bad thing for Ameiko to be where she is,’ thought the monk.

Suddenly, a flash of green and blue flitted through his visual fields and was gone. It had appeared to have been flying - four feet off the ground and moving into the cemetery grounds. Lung moved swiftly in the direction that he had seen the flash go, unfolding his three-part staff from under his cloak as he went.

Davin respected the gods of all divinities in the heavens of Golarion. This had been instilled deeply in him during his family’s dark time in Cheliax, as well as his family’s exodus to Varisia. He worshiped Cayden Cailean, however, so he was pleased to find a small shrine to Desna, a god with whom the Drunk God was friendly, resting in a quiet corner of the cemetery. Candles, alit with an unwavering flame, stood around a stone pedestal that held a copper bowl aloft. Climbing a nearby stone bench, Davin peered into the bowl to find a smooth surface of water and his reflection flickering back at him.

“Why’d you go off on your own?” So entranced was Davin with the hidden shrine, the entrance of Calen startled him, causing him to lose his balance and pitch forward off of the stone bench.

“Someone’s here!” Davin said as he struggled to a seated position on the well-tended grass.

“That’s obvious,” Calen replied, “but it doesn’t answer my question.”

“What is that?” the halfling pointed at a spot over the half-orc’s left shoulder. Calen whipped around to see nothing, and turned back to the now-standing halfling with a scowl.

“Don’t try to distract me,” the half-orc grumbled.

“No, really!” pleaded the halfling, “I saw something fly by your shoulder.

“I know you haven’t been drinking or you would’ve offered me some,” Calen said.

“Did anyone see something green and blue fly through here?” Lung made his way towards them, his eyes fixed on a far point four feet off the ground.

“Yes!” jumped the halfling excitedly. “It was right above Calen’s shoulder!”

“Have you been drinking?” suggested Calen to the monk.

“Don’t be silly,” the monk scoffed. “Which way did it go?”

“I think it went towards that crypt,” Davin pointed at the lone crypt in the cemetery, a small stone building a few feet away from the Desnan shrine.

“Hmmm,” hummed the monk, moving to the crypt door.

The crypt door opened easily, but not before Lung read the inscription on a small metal plaque on the door: ‘Admiral Mercatio Kiameleu, Brinewall founder’. Inside was a large raised stone coffin in the center of a well-tended and recently swept chamber, just large enough for the monk to get into and turn around.

“Any nasty dead things?” Davin called.

“No,” Lung replied, “and no spiderwebs or dust, either. Something has been tending this place.”

“Hello?” called Calen into the afternoon air. “It’d be really nice if you’d come out so we can talk to you!”

“Ok,” shouted a response from the entry to the cemetery. Moric, followed by Scorch and Kausk, tramped up to join the rest of the party. “Did you lose someone?” asked the elf.

“No,” barked Calen. “Both Lung and Davin swear they saw something fly by a few minutes ago.”

“Do you mean the azata?” Kausk off-handedly mentioned.

“The what?” Calen replied incredulously.

“Azata,” confirmed the grey half-orc. “Blue-green wings, about the size of a sparrow, flies really fast?”

Calen and Moric were both staring at the warrior with their mouths open. Davin broke the silence. “Did you see it, too?”

“Oh no,” Kausk answered, “I can sense that it’s here. It won’t come out until it wants to talk to us.”

“How....what....?” Calen shook his head, to clear the avalanche of thoughts tumbling through it. “Is it going to attack us?”

“Not unless you attack it or do something heinous,” the grey half-orc explained. “It’s probably been keeping this shrine tidy. Maybe even this whole graveyard,” he said, looking around approvingly.

Lung came out from the crypt, and peered at the rest of the group, who were all staring at the grey half-orc. “Is something wrong?” the monk asked.

Scorch finished his cantrip and his eyes flashed with a silvery light. He turned his gaze on the grey half-orc and said aloud, “He’s not carrying any magic, nor is he under any enchantment.”

“What? Guys,” Kausk laughed, “it’s still me. Kausk.”

“But you can sense azata,” Calen cautiously put forward.

“Yes,” confirmed Kausk.

“Because....?” led Calen.

“Because I was raised by an outsider, ok?”

Davin gasped and gripped his holy symbol tightly.

“I guess some of us were born to be heroes more than others, hunh?” asked Calen, his hand over the hilt of his sword in its scabbard.

“Look,” started Kausk, “it never came up, so I never offered it. I figured it didn’t make much of a difference. So I can detect outsiders. So what?”

“All outsiders?” Scorch asked cautiously, his mind preparing the words of power for an incapacitating spell to use if needed.

“No, just good-aligned ones, like azata!” Kausk growled.

“Could someone please tell me what the hell are azata?” Moric threw up his hands in frustration.

A small lilting voice sang out from behind the crypt. “Not what the hell, but what the heavens.” A small female form, resplendent in green glassy armor, flew up from the far-side of the crypt, approaching shyly and cautiously, a starknife held at her side. “I am called Spivey, fair elf,” she replied to Moric’s question. “I hail from the lands of Elysium, a different plane of existence than mortal Golarion. I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, but it has been so long since I felt I could trust an intruder within my sanctum. I am ashamed for not being more house-warming.” The azata flew to Kausk’s side, her delicate hand touching lightly the grey face of the half-orc. “You are indeed Heaven-bred, orc-man, but your soul belongs to Golarion. Do tell me, how can this be?”

The entire party felt suddenly at peace, a warm touch pulsing within their beings. Calen relaxed his grip on his sword, Scorch let slip away the words of power on his tongue, and Kausk told his tale.

“I was born outside of Belkzen,” began the grey half-orc, “the unwanted spawn of a raped human warrior. My mother was a standard bearer for a knight of Iomedae, fighting alongside brave humans and dwarves in the stand against the hordes of orcs that spill from that fell place. She had been separated from her squad in a raid one evening and taken prisoner by my father and his foul brethren. My father, as leader of the brutes, got to take first privilege on my mother, but for some reason, let my mother escape back to her encampment. It would spell his doom. My mother made it back to her squad’s tents, and kept her shame a secret while I grew inside her womb, continuing to go out with the squads and fight day-by-day, as if nothing had happened to her.”

“On the day that it was obvious she could no longer hide her state, she went to Helene, her liege knight of Iomedae, and confessed her fate. Helene prayed to Iomedae, and in a vision, the goddess herself directed Helene on a mission deep into orc-held territory on which to take my mother. They left without delay: their faith was unshakable.”

“Once at the spot seen in the vision, it was obvious why Iomedae had guided them there: it was the den of my father and his nefarious brethren. The knight of Iomedae slew my father’s brethren just as my mother’s water broke and she started laboring. At my mother’s behest, Helene kept my father alive long enough to see me born, and then dispatched him to the Hells of Zon-Kuthon for his hideous act.”

“My mother died in that childbirth. It is often difficult, the birth of a half-orc to a human woman. I, apparently, was more than a little difficult. Helene told me that my mother never even held me - she lost consciousness from blood loss just as I was born, and never regained it.”

“Helene took me as her adopted son, and raised me on the borders of the Hold of Belkzen, training me in martial rites and rituals. She taught me to read and to revere the gods, and then one night, soon after I was first starting to grow tall, she disappeared. The camp squadron searched for her for six days before they bundled me up and shipped me off to Ustalav to an orphanage. On my way there, Helene came to me - a celestial herald of Iomedae.”

“She had been Called,” whispered Spivey.

“Yes, I think that’s what she called it,” responded Kausk. “She led me away from the cart I was traveling on one evening, and she has been with me ever since.”

“You mean she’s here right now?” Moric looked around in a panic.

“No,” scoffed Kausk, “she shows up from month to month. I haven’t seen her since last Ascendant’s Day. She only comes to me in private, though.”

“How do you know you just didn’t drink too much?” joked Calen.

Kausk turned a stern eye on the green half-orc. Calen cleared his throat.

“So Spivey,” Davin started up diplomatically, “tell us what you’re doing here.”

“I am stranded here, sad though it is,” sang the diminuitive azata. “I came here to spread the glory of Desna with my mistress, but she came to a grisly end at the tongue of a bullfrog, and I have kept myself busy with my worship of Desna here ever since.” The azata spun around with her arms extended, flashing her blue-green wings as she presented the cemetery to her visitors. “It’s just too bad that those nasty creatures in the castle have to be here, too.”

“What are they?” Scorch perked up with the mention of what they were here to do.

“I’m not sure,” shrugged Spivey, “because I usually hide from them when they come out, but they look like large walking birds.”

“Black feathers!” Davin beat his fist into his open hand. “Ameiko said she was having a dream about black feathers!”

“What else can you tell us?” pressed Calen.

“I don’t know much else,” sighed the azata. “I only came here a few years ago, and they were here before me. I think they leave me alone because I’ve pulled enough tricks on them to make them think that I’m a ghost.” Spivey giggled.

“Do you know of anything else in the town?” Calen asked.

“There was a drake that lived in the bay, but I haven’t seen or heard it in a few weeks.”

“Drake?” asked Moric.

“Smaller and less mean version of a dragon,” Calen answered.

“Still mean enough!” shot back Spivey. “That thing tried to eat me once or twice.”

“Will you come with us, good azata?” Lung’s straight-forward question startled everyone.

“Um, I can’t,” Spivey.

“Can’t or won’t?” Calen asked with an eyebrow cocked.

Kausk intervened. “If Spivey came here with her mistress, she was likely charged with a task that she must complete before she’s allowed to do anything else.” The grey half-orc looked at the azata. “Did I get that right?”

Spivey beamed and nodded vigorously.

“What is that task?” Calen asked.

Spivey’s smile fell. “To wait for my mistress to bring the Desnan artifact in that castle here to the shrine so that we can consecrate the temple again.”

“No wiggle room, eh?” smirked Davin.

Spivey shook her head.

“Well,” Calen started, “it just so happens that we’ll be going into that castle there. We’ve got to find some things of our own. Do you want to tell us what we’re looking for for you?”

Spivey’s smile extended completely across her tiny face. “Oh, you would really go in there for me? Oh, you are all too wonderful! Thank you, thank you. Please feel free to come back here as often as you need for rest; I can provide holy water from my shrine for you as you need it.” The azata flitted around excitedly.

“Spivey,” Calen held up his hand.

“Yes?”

“What artifact of Desna are we looking for?”

“It’s a thimble.”

“A what?”

“Well, really, it’s a holy drinking vessel - a grail - forged in Elysium by azatas for Desnan spiritual ceremonies. But in your world, it was being used as a thimble.”

Calen closed his eyes in disbelief.

“You said, ‘was’?” Davin asked.

“Yes, by the priests of Brinewall that lived in the castle. I’m sure it’s still in there; my mistress could sense it.”

“Why didn’t you go get it?” asked Moric.

“She was charged with waiting here for her mistress to return. But she got killed, right, Spivey?” Davin intervened.

“Eaten by a frog,” Spivey nodded.

“How could you know that?” asked Moric.

“It happened right here!” Spivey exclaimed.

“Ok, ok, ok!” Calen held his hands up. “Let’s just go to the castle and find this thimble, and kill whatever nasty birdmen are in there.”

“I suggest we wait until it is dark so we can use the cover of night,” Lung suggested.

“Good plan,” Calen said. “Let’s search the remainder of the town until dusk, and then we’ll meet back here for dinner and a short nap until mid-night.”

Later on, after midnight, the party crept across the open ground in front of Brinewall Castle, searching for entrances apart from the barred, gated, and very closed-appearing front entrance. Calen was searching the rocky outcroppings facing Bunyip Bay, nervously watching for any drakes or reefclaws in the waters when he spied a heavy wooden door partially uncovered by the neap tide.

“Over here!” Calen’s harsh whisper signaled to the rest of the band, who quickly scrambled down the banks to the door. With a few good pushes, they dislodged the silt caking the door shut, uncovering a pitch black cavern passage. Once inside, Moric lit up his sword.

The cavern, hewn naturally by the water from the rock of the shore, evidently was largely flooded most of the time, based on the water marks on the walls. At low tide, however, it appeared to be a passage from the shore underneath the castle, and to a locked oaken door.

“I got it,” Moric pushed up to the front.

“Whatever do you mean, little brother?” Calen said in a false question. Moric shot him a look, and then picked the lock on the door.

“Ok, people,” Calen turned and counseled the party. “Weapons out, but try to keep quiet. We’ve got the drop on them; let’s make the most of this.” He pushed the door open on rusty hinges, gritting his teeth as it did so.

They were in an empty chamber, stalagmites rising up from the ground down the length of the room. The air was stale and heavy. The ceiling of the cavern soared thirty feet above their heads.

“There’s too much quiet in here,” muttered Kausk.

“Just keep your eyes and ears open,” reminded Calen, his sword out as he stalked quietly through the open chamber. It appeared to Calen’s eyes that little more than vermin had crossed through this chamber recently, but the half-orc knew better than to completely trust first appearances.

The chamber connected to a cavern facing due south that ended in another stout wooden door. This door was unlocked, and with a ‘shhh’ glance behind at the rest of the Rusty Dragons, Calen pushed the door open onto an expansively-large cavern chamber.
The chamber appeared to be the kitchen for the keep, but it appeared unkept and dusty, as the years since the downfall of Brinewall had seen it unused. A huge stone furnace rose up forty feet to the ceiling from a large oven with multiple chambers for roasting large cuts of meat. Metal cooking implements hung from hooks over the stove, where a grime-crusted grill sat cold and silent. A huge heavy wooden table sat opposite the oven and furnace, heavily stained with grease from years of use as a workbench, and now coated with a light powder of dust. Two partly-destroyed wooden chairs sat on either ends of the large table, and a few scattered wooden racks completed the ranks of unused furniture in the otherwise empty room.

“Where is everyone?” mused Davin aloud.

“It is night time,” mentioned Lung from the rear of the party. “They may sleep regular hours and only be active during the day. I have heard of walking bird-men before, known as tengu, and they keep regular hours.”

“Aren’t you a wealth of information?” shot Calen.

The monk grimaced and resumed scanning the room.

Multiple doors led out of the large room. After discovering little of interest, the party gathered together at the door leading from the northwest corner of the room.

“Keep to the right; you’ll never go wrong,” quipped Calen.

The carved stone hallway behind the open door stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the natural stone chambers that they had passed through. The musty smell emanating from the far end of the hallway also stood out.

Kausk wrinkled his nose. “Smells like halfling foot.”

“Hey!” protested Davin. “I keep my dogs clean. You could eat off of them.”

“Thanks for that image,” Calen said from the front of the party. “Could we please focus on whatever we’re coming up on?” The party stood in front of a dark wooden door that was firmly shut.

There was no evidence of a lock.

“Kausk?” Calen swept aside to allow the grey half-orc access. “Wanna use your heavenly might to give this door a shove?”

Kausk rolled his eyes and slammed his right shoulder into the door. The door groaned in reply but held fast.

“Hmmm,” said Calen. “Tough little bugger. Let me give it a shot; maybe you loosened it up for me.” The green half-orc took the spot of Kausk and threw his right shoulder into the door.
The door exploded in splinters and Calen caught himself before pitching into the foul miasma of rot that escaped from the room. What once had been a laundry room was now a launching pad for fungus, as moisture and standing water had combined with spores and plenty of time to grow sheets of mushrooms over all surfaces in this small work space, coating old basins and heaps of once-cleaned laundry. In the middle of the room grew a curious detached cluster of red-lined fungal stalks on a bloated, purple base. As Calen brushed the remains of the door from his shoulders, the stalks swung towards him, firing a green pellet of goo at him. The goo struck the remains of the door frame, dissolving the wood in a hiss and a puff of noxious gas.

“Ahh!” cried Calen in alarm. “Back up! Back up! Back up!”

The party shuffled backwards quickly as the plant lurched forward towards the open doorway. Calen and company retreated through the original door off of the kitchen, and slammed it shut behind them.

“What was that thing?” Moric asked.

“A walking plant,” Calen surmised, “is never a good thing, whatever it is.”

“Treants are good walking plants,” Davin suggested.

Calen glared at the priest. “You wanna tell that to the overgrown mushroom?” He jerked his thumb at the closed door that he was currently leaning against.

“Do you hear anything?” asked Lung.

Calen held up a hand for silence and put his ear to the door. He looked at Kausk, who shrugged and wiggled his sword at him. The wizard whistled a shrill short note.

Calen grunted irritably, “What?”

Scorch replied, “If you’d like, I could burn that thing up for you. You’d just have to be out of the way.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” a relieved Calen said as he moved to the side of the doorway and prepared to open the door.

As suspected, the shambling phycomid patiently awaited the opening of this new door, curious to explore its new surroundings after years of being locked into the laundry. It only existed to grow and reproduce, and it saw the walking meat as a means to do so. It was not expecting fire.

Scorch always was hoping to use fire, and therefore always expected fire. The flaming blast from his hands enveloped the phycomid with a whoosh as the door opened. Kausk rushed in to slash at the aflame creature, and received a pellet of acid in his left arm in return. As flames engulfed the burning and doomed creature, Calen swung from his position at the door’s edge to drive his sword deep into the quivering purple base of the creature. The fungal stalks shook violently and then fell limp as the fire burned all around, a hideous stench wafting off of the dead fungal creature.

“Close that door,” Moric begged, covering his nose with his cloak. Calen acquiesced and pulled the door quickly shut, stemming the stench from pouring into the kitchen.

“Well that was fun,” Davin cheerfully said. “Kausk, you ok?” The grey half-orc was tenderly flexing his left hand and poking at the circle of raw burned flesh in his shoulder.

“I could use a little tending to, I think,” the warrior asked.

“Happy to oblige,” Davin replied, moving to the warrior’s side and placing his hand on his wooden holy symbol. “Oh Drunken God, please wash the scars of battle off of your servant’s companion with the sweetest mead flowing from the Heavens.” A blue glow pulsed from Davin’s hand to Kausk’s wound, and the raw flesh scarred over and turned a normal grey color once again.

“Thanks,” Kausk grunted. “Next door?” He looked at Calen.

The second door, unlocked as the first one was off of the kitchen, opened onto a large carved stone hall that was obviously a mess hall, numerous tables and chairs set up in a rough order. The smell in this room was equally foul to the rot from the laundry room, but not as musty in nature.

Calen grinned as he saw the backs of four lizard-like figures at the far end of the room, unaware that their lair was about to be intruded upon. “Troglodytes,” Calen whispered to his companions. “The stench is unmistakable.” He nodded at Kausk, and the two swordsmen silently moved into the room, relishing the poor observation skills of the doomed and smelly lizard people.

With a thunderous war reminiscent of the less human side of their lineage, both Calen and Kausk hacked into the first two surprised troglodyte guards, Kausk’s going down in a spurt of green ichor, while Calen’s opponent whirled around, club in hand, but bleeding freely from its side. The remaining two troglodytes whooped in their throaty language and charged forward, clubs bared.

Scorch stepped into the chamber, his hands two balls of flame. He underhandedly threw both globes of flame at the remaining two unharmed troglodytes, who immediately screeched and halted, trying to put out the fires on their tattered jerkins. Kausk’s second swing plunged his sword deep into the neck of one of the flaming troglodytes, cutting its extinguishing attempts short as it fell dead. Calen parried the club from the guard he faced, and the remaining burning troglodyte collapsed to the ground, gibbering hideously as flames consumed his flesh and ended his existence.

A crossbow bolt from the wizard punctuated the end of Calen’s melee with the last troglodyte. Lung, Moric, and Davin, uninvolved in the melee, looked on with impressed expressions from the doorway. “You three are death on wheels,” remarked Davin.

“Heh,” Calen laughed, “we already have a nickname.”

Moric crossed the chamber to the door on the other side, peeked in, and reported, “It’s stairs leading up.”

Calen sighed, “We should really clear out the basement first before we go upstairs.” He cleaned his sword off on the dirty jerkin from the dead (and not on fire) troglodyte. “Besides, they might be able to raise some sort of alarm from upstairs. I’m betting they don’t have that capability down here.”

“Good point,” Scorch nodded. “Where to?”

The next room, leading south from the kitchen, led to another chamber of three troglodytes. Though they put up more of a fight than the original, they still went down quickly. The Rusty Dragons’ confidence was growing as the returned to the kitchen.
“Bring on another ogre like we faced on the caravan,” Calen growled. “We can take it down.”

“I’d caution you to not give Irori reason to test us, good friend,” Lung warned.

As if on cue, the final unexplored door off of the kitchen burst open, and a huge ogre stepped through, a small tree in his right hand. He was well over eight feet tall, covered in metal plates, and sported a wicked underbite. The ogre looked dimly at the gathered warriors, wrinkled his brow and said, “Youse not supposed to be here! Youse supposed to be in cages. Unless youse wanting to be put in cages?” The ogre raised his scraggly eyebrows at this.

Davin recognized good fortune when he came across it, and glided forward, hand extended to shake the ogre’s hand, saying, “Yes! Of course we’re coming to be put in cages! We were told to ask for you, good sir....” The halfling trailed off with a smile.

“Slugwort,” the creature replied, unsure whether or not to shake the priest’s hand.

“Ah! Slugwort!” Davin looked over his shoulder and waved the Rusty Dragons into the chamber behind him. “We’ve heard so much about your skill as a jailor. It truly is an honor; I am Davin Greytoes, and I am proud to be your prisoner.”

Slugwort did not seem impressed. “Youse get in the cage?” he asked.

“Why, yes!” answered Davin, trying to buy enough time for Moric to get behind Slugwort and prepare a sneak attack. “I’m simply waiting for all of my friends to GET BY ME,” he said with emphasis, waving the stragglers into the room, “because I’m always the last one in the cage.”

The room from which Slugwort came was a grim place. Three separate cages of iron bars from floor to ceiling were in place in three corners of the room; the fourth corner appeared to be the sleeping quarters of Slugwort, strewn with dirty blankets and leftover gnawed meat bones. One of the cages in the dimly-lit room had an occupant: a tall sturdy-looking Ulfen woman who stood staring at the Rusty Dragons stoically as they entered. It appeared that her gear was in one of the other cages. A small rock fire pit was constructed in the middle of the room, providing mainly smoke, but a little illumination and warmth to the otherwise squalid room.

“It has been a pleasure talking with you, Slugwort,” said Davin with a wink and nod to his companions, “and now I’ll--” And with that, Davin jumped backwards and to the left as Moric plunged his sword into the back of the hefty ogre. Slugwort roared a second time when the two half-orcs slashed at him, opening large gashes in the rolls of ogre flesh that made up his flanks.

Slugwort had never been too bright. He had accidentally killed his parents in a “wrestling match” and had gone to live with his half-sister here in this “new house”. He had been given the job of “cage-guarder” by the bird guy whom he referred to as “Bird Face”, and he took his job very seriously, especially once he had a prisoner, like he did now. The idea of having more prisoners appealed to Slugwort, but he didn’t think until now that the prisoners weren’t going to be prisoners quietly. After all, the yellow-haired lady went into the cage quietly, even after Slugwort took all her stuff. Still, reasoned Slugwort as he slammed his sapling club into the green half-orc, it was the little guy who caused this problem to begin with. He should’ve been squished before he even started talking - ogres squished little people; that’s what he should have done.

Scorch stepped forward and unloaded a fiery bolt from his fingertips at the ogre. The missile blasted into the ogre’s chest, and grunting in pain while trying to bat out the flames on its shirt, Slugwort fell over dead.

“Yeah,” reiterated Calen, “like I said. Bring on another ogre!”

“Hello there,” cooed Moric at the Ulfen woman in the cage, “come here often, beautiful?” The woman glared at Moric, but otherwise did not make a sound.

Davin came over, joined by Calen. “What do you think?” Davin said after looking over the muscular woman locked in the cage.

“I say she talks first, or we let her sit here,” Calen said coldly.

“What?” Davin said in surprise. “She’s a prisoner here, Calen!”

“I don’t know what to think anymore since we let that Ben Galley goon join our caravan. Someone’s watching for us and I don’t trust anyone who just ‘happens along’, prisoner or not!” And with that, Calen spit on the ground and tramped away.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” Davin explained with a frown at Calen as he left. “He’s dealing with some personal issues. But I’d be happy to help you....?”

“....”

“I could get your things for you--?” Davin tried a different tactic.

“You get my stuff; I then tell you everything,” said the lady in a deep and lilting Ulfen accent.

Davin nodded and went over to the unlocked cage with her possessions, dragging them back over to her for her to grab from inside the cage.

“I am Kelda Oxgutter. I came here for spoils with my shield-brothers. We battled drake; it slew them. I slew it. I came here and was captured by the ten-armed one. He put me in here with this pig. You killed him; now I am free.” She hefted her pack and tried to wedge it between the bars with little success. “I am free, yes?”

“Yes, yes you are.” Moric cooed, opening the lock for Kelda with a wink. “It is a pleasure; I am Moric Andosana.”

“And I am Davin Greytoes, priest of Cayden Cailean, and I--”

“I am not so sure that this is a good idea, eh, Davin Greytoes?” Calen stalked over behind the halfling, glaring at the Ulfen woman as she put on her armor. “We don’t know anything about her.”

“I owe you weregild,” Kelda said.

“Were what?” Calen said, drawing his sword menacingly from his scabbard. “We’ve had quite enough were everything, thank you very much.”

“I am with you, friend,” a measured voice came from behind Calen. Lung stood with a stony glare on his face and his hands held in a martial pose. “Explain yourself, woman.” Calen had never heard that tone in Lung’s voice before. Well, at least, he had never heard that tone before when Lung addressed anyone other than him.

“Weregild is payment to you for the value of my life. It would be dishonorable to not offer it.” Kelda explained, her sword held low at her side, eyeing the green half-orc carefully.

“It’s not what you think,” Davin explained hurriedly to Calen.

“Right,” Calen said, angrily putting his sword back in its scabbard with a clunk. “What I think is that she is your problem, Davin.” He eyed his foster brother. “You, too, elf. Keep her away from me. Alright, people!” Calen called, wincing as the broken ribs he suffered in the fight with the ogre pricked his insides. “We leave now and make camp before they find this mess down here. Out the way we came in!” And Calen stomped off, expecting the others to follow.

Davin and Moric took up on both sides of Kelda, chatting animatedly with the attractive woman. The rest of the Rusty Dragons made their way out of the caverns. Lung was the last to leave, staring ahead at the Ulfen warrior and replaying what she had said when she was let out of the cage.

“I was captured by the ten-armed one,” said Lung aloud to himself. The monk only knew of one type of being that that could describe. The Rusty Dragons might be ready for ogres, but Lung had serious reservations whether they were ready for a demon yet. He just hoped he could talk some sense into the others after a decent night’s sleep.

END

Grand Lodge

Discrimination
18th November 2011

Davin lay on the ground, the breath blasted out of him. He could smell himself, singed, in the air, and the thought made even his tried-and-true stomach turn dangerously. Standing near him, arms raised in worship, the elf cried out, “Pharasma, give me your blessing, too!” as another searing bolt of energy shot past, lighting into the rough stone of the cavern, blasting strangely-painted rock to smithereens and spraying them with rubble. Scorch, the wizard, stood just behind them, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes in disbelief. The rest of the party was clambering up the stony wall below the chamber, eager to discover the source of the ruckus coming from the large chamber.

Davin didn’t think he was destined to end this way.

“Burn, puny man-flesh! Suffer, wither, and die!!!” The hideously bloated ten-tentacled squid-like creature floated ten feet above the floor of the cavern, a wand gripped tightly in a red claw-tipped limb. Its strange voice, similar to the sound of a bolt being drawn in a door lock, blasted from its tooth-filled mouth, much different than it was five minutes ago, when a mellifluous call urged the party to throw down their weapons in the name of Pharasma and advance forward for the goddess’ blessing.

The blow to Davin’s skull from the stone floor shook his vision, threatening all that he thought he knew. He had heard the voice of Pharasma, promising divine glory and treasure. He had seen a peaceful temple to the Goddess of Final Judgment, draped in grey linens and wreathed in incense. The Greytoes blood boiled in his veins: why the Goddess of Quiet Death? Why not the Lucky God, whom he had spent his life venerating?

“Feel the kiss of Pazuzu, mortal vermin!” The raging beast’s eyes bulged as it flitted between stalactites hanging from the ceiling, firing bolts from its wand at the party. With a second of its many tentacles, the monster traced an arcane rune that extended from its claw at the elf, enveloping Moric in a shadowy black cloud that pulsed a few brief seconds before dissipating in a puff.

With a shake of his head, Moric slowly lowered his arms. “I..... where.....,” and in sudden alarm, “what is that?” The elf crouched in a defensive posture and reached for the bow strapped to his back.

“It’s the demon of which the Ulfen woman spoke!” Lung rushed past the confused elf, brandishing his three-part bo staff as he moved with a fleetness borne of necessity. The tall Tian leapt in stride along the cavern floor and flew into the air, swinging his bo over his head as he rose. With a loud ‘Ka!’, the monk cracked his staff into the gaping maw of the fiend and seemed to bounce sideways in the air, his full might deflected by some unseen shield. Ever graceful, Lung adjusted his trajectory and landed lightly on his feet, spinning swiftly again to face the squid-like blob who sported an angry red welt where at least part of Lung’s blow had landed.

As if to punctuate the thing’s power, an arrow flew from Calen’s bow near the back of the cavern and plinked harmlessly off of the space that the demon occupied. “Gozreh in the City,” cursed the half-orc ranger, reaching back into his quiver again.

The other half-orc, Kausk, chose a less-quaint epithet as he charged forward, his great sword held at his side. At close to seven feet, it took little more than a quick hop to bring the grey warrior within striking distance of the purple-and-red mass that screeched and spit at him. “Kiss my shiny orc ass, demon!” His bounding leap ended with a vicious slice across three of the demon’s tentacles, severing two and spraying a black ichor across Kausk’s visage. The half-orc’s eyes glowed with an unearthly bluish light.

“It IS a demon,” Davin said slowly from his elbows, putting the pieces together as the illusion completely faded. The azata had said the grey half-orc was Heaven-bred, reasoned the priest. It would make sense that his ability to fight this particular beast would be especially potent if it were a demon. Davin stared at Kausk in awe, his heart beating loudly in his head as he attempted to steady his gaze. “Use silver!” shouted Davin from the ground to the others.

The half-fiend decapus known as Nindinzego was no fool. It knew that its purpose in this world was closely tied to the aims of the demon from Minkai. Its father lord, Pazuzu, had directed it to contact the foreign demon, knowing in his infernal wisdom the plan to which Nindinzego was not privy. He also had scared the demon with a threat, a threat of doom for it personally from the hands of Heaven - the hands of this grey half-orc. Nindinzego had no recourse to question its master - it was no fool - but the fruition of its master’s doomed vision shook Nindinzego to the core.

With a howl of terror, the wounded demon floated away from the fell sword of the man-orc, screaming, “Pazuzu! Pazuzu! Protect me!!” as it fled behind a stalactite. Another of Calen’s arrows plinked harmlessly off the tough hide of the beast.

“Slake our thirst so that we may fight on, oh Cayden Cailean!” the priest spoke from his post on the floor. A flash of blue enrobed all the companions in range, providing much-needed succor to Davin especially.

The Ulfen warrior was silent but dogged in her assault on her enemy. With a vicious upward thrust, Kelda speared the fiend on the tip of her long sword, attempting to pry it down from the cover of the stony growths on the ceiling long enough to provide a target to the others.
While Nindinzego was afeared of the grey half-orc, it held no such view of this frail human woman. Two clawed tentacles lashed out at Kelda, opening gashes in her right shoulder and hand. With a sour grunt, the warrior woman lost hold of her sword and fell back. The decapus pressed its advantage, pointing the wand of scorching ray straight at Kelda’s face.

But Kelda’s stratagem had worked. A magical missile shot from Scorch’s hand into the creature, blasting the wand to the side before a bolt harmlessly flew into the floor wide to the proud Ulfen warrior. Following that, a silvered arrow thunked into the face of the foul creature, changing its expression from one of snarling vehemence to surprised disbelief and freezing it that way as its life-force ebbed away. The sagging reddish-purple beast abruptly obeyed gravity and fell with a wet squish to the stone floor as it moaned softly, “Fatherrrr...” and then was still.

The party turned to look at the half-orc ranger, who lowered his bow slowly in reply to the unasked question and pointed to Moric, who stood in the middle of the cavern with a gleeful expression on his face and his bow in his hand. “I bagged another one!” shouted the elf, enjoying his growing notoriety as a dead-shot.

“Your shiny orc ass?” asked Davin of Kausk as he rose from the floor of the cavern.

“It felt right at the time,” grunted the warrior as he surveyed the demon corpse. He glanced at the wincing halfling. “Are you OK?”

“Nothing a little Cayden won’t help,” muttered the priest, swallowing a gulp from his flask. “And I’ll probably heal myself again in a bit, too!”

“You’re going to need more than Cayden and booze to keep you safe if you keep rushing ahead like a moron!” Calen scolded harshly, stomping forward to meet the rest of the party. “Didn’t we have this very same problem yesterday, Professor Greytoes? You’re going to get yourself killed, if not the rest of us.”

“It was an illusion,” Scorch came to the aid of the scowling priest. “I was sadly affected in much the same way as our friend, Davin. He cannot be held responsible for the effects of powerful mind-melding magic.” The darkly-complected wizard nodded to the priest in acknowledgment.

“Spellcasters,” muttered the ranger, “are always covering each other’s asses.”

“You fought well,” grunted Kelda to the monk. “Do you not believe in the power of blades, monk?”

Lung regarded the Ulfen woman with a cool stare, then turned wordlessly and joined the others. Kelda grunted.

“Hey guys,” called Moric from the far front of the closed cavern, “this thing kept some booty.” The elf rifled through a stiff, split, leathery sac-like structure filled with coins and other treasures. “Looks like some good stuff here.”

“Could we possibly have killed the leader of this castle?” asked Davin off-handedly.

“Where are the rest of his followers?” countered Calen.

“He’s a loner?” suggested Davin.

“Why is he not more protected?” asked Lung.

“He’s a fool?” offered Davin.

“No,” surmised the ranger, “this guy was not the big baddie we came to kill. Besides, I don’t see anything there that ties him to Ameiko’s family.” Calen motioned to the treasure pile that the elf was sorting through excitedly.

“Well,” Moric piped up, “there’s a few things here that tie him to the castle.” The elven archer held up a metal shield with the etched outline of Brinewall castle emblazoned upon it in one hand, and a dark wooden disc wrought in silver in the other hand.

“Cute shield,” dismissed the green half-orc. “What’s that?” he pointed at the disc.

“Beats me,” shrugged Moric, “but it’s got a picture of this castle, I think, and a moon.” He flipped the disc at his foster brother.

The wooden disc, about the size of a round dinner plate, bounced off the ranger’s outstretched fingers and fell to the ground heavily with a muffled clang. As it fell, the strange fluorescent light emanating from the weird paint on the chamber walls reflected off the silvered outline of Brinewall Castle inlaid on one side of the disc.

“That’s darkwood,” the ranger said, squinting at the curious object.

“Is that why you dropped it?” winked the halfling.

The ranger chuckled and wordlessly picked up the disc. “It’s not a shield - too small,” his fingers traced the silver lines as he said, “but it’s made of durable material. Darkwood doesn’t suffer much decay from time or the damp. This thing was meant to endure.” He handed the disc to the outstretched hand of Scorch. “Magic?”

“Faint,” answered the wizard after a moment when his eyes flashed with light and faded again, “and that inlay was not done by hand, but by magic.” He flipped over the disc and wrinkled his brow. “A key, maybe? I’ve read of such things before that unlock portals.”

“Yeah, well not down here,” grunted the ranger. “Let’s finish canvassing the rooms down here and get up into the keep itself.” He focused on his foster brother, who was greedily holding a small pearl up for a better look. “Anything else of interest?”

The elf startled as if caught red-handed. “What?” he said, putting the jewel down. “I mean, um, yeah,” Moric recovered, “there’s a ring here, and this knife thing.” He held up a medium-sized four-bladed throwing knife in the shape of a star. “Oh, and there’s this ugly thing, too.” He gestured at a small rough-hewn statue of a bird-headed figure with four wings.

“That’s Pazuzu,” answered the monk to the unspoken question, “a minor demon worshiped by few, but still too many. That thing, “he nodded at the dead red-and-purple blob, “has painted pictures of it all over the walls down here.” The Rusty Dragons looked around the chamber, recognizing the same four-winged figure in different positions throughout the chamber.

“So he’s a god, eh?” Davin had always been respectful of all deities, a respect passed down through the Greytoes line since he could trace his family. “We should probably take this to someone who could study it,” the halfling offered, righting the statue on its base before placing it in a sack. “Oof,” Davin grunted as he lifted the statue by the sack and placed it in his backpack, “this thing is a lot heavier than I thought.”

“This beast wears some jewelry,” Kelda called from the side of the corpse, as she and Kausk gingerly folded back its flaccid tentacles with their boots, revealing a golden circlet around one if its limbs. “You want?” She brandished her sword and prepared to hack into one of the tentacles, looking at Calen in question.

Calen glanced at Scorch. “It’s magical,” confirmed the wizard. The green half-orc gave a short nod to the Ulfen woman, who swiftly detached the limb with a downward slice, and then eased the circlet off of the oozing amputated tentacle.

“Any idea what it is?” Calen asked Scorch, who took the golden piece of jewelry gingerly from the end of Kelda’s sword.

The wizard furrowed his brow in quiet concentration briefly, and then pronounced, “It augments a silver-tongue.”

The halfling squealed in delight. “Oh, really?” Davin looked excitedly between Scorch and Calen. “I really could put that to good use for the glory of Cayden. May I use it?”

“Yeah, Dav, sure,” Calen agreed absently. “Let’s just make sure those people who can use things get to use them. We’ll divvy up loot when we get somewhere safe.”

“I would like to make use of that pearl, if I may?” Scorch walked over to the elf and extended his hand. “It’s a powerful spell-casting focus, if I’m not mistaken.”

The elf grimaced, handing over the luminous jewel. “Alright,” he relented after a moment, “but I want that knife-thing.”

“A starknife,” corrected Scorch, “and a powerful weapon at that. Throw it as far away from you as you want: that weapon’s dweomer causes it to return instantly to your grasp once it’s reached its target.”

“Wow, really?” Moric was excited again.

“Alright, people, let’s go!” Calen impatiently called from the lone door leading out of the chamber. “We’re not going to have the cover of night forever, and our Sleeping Beauties might figure out we’re here soon. Let’s move!”

The band of adventurers soon finished their inventory of the cellar, making their way upstairs into matching chambers inhabited by more troglodytes. The distracted and sleeping humanoids were dispatched, along with their pet cave lizard, without much of a fight. None of the group suffered even the slightest wound.

Moric scouted ahead of the group, opening the door off of the lizard’s chamber onto the courtyard of the keep. Fresh night air wafted in. The elf glanced back at the remaining party, busy searching the scattered papers and detritus lining the rooms, and slipped out of the door, closing it gently behind him.

The castle had been impressive at one time, surmised the elf as he padded across the open courtyard, eyes to the ramparts above. Nothing moved on the castle walls twenty feet up, and the elf made his way in the shadows along the wall to a door at the base of one of the castle towers. If he was going to find some gold that wouldn’t automatically be split up amongst the party equally, he reasoned, he was going to have to survey some of the rooms alone. The elf slipped through the door into the tower of the castle and started to climb the spiral stairs therein.

“Alright,” Calen said in a hushed voice after completing a once-over of the troglodytes’ chambers, “let’s check those doors.” He motioned at the numerous doors leading out of the chambers. ‘What do we have?”

“Stairs going up,” answered Lung from an open door.

“A large throne room,” Kausk called from the southeast corner of the room. “Empty,” he added after a second glance.

“This one goes outside,” Davin mentioned, peering through the door to the west.

“Outside the castle?” Calen asked.

“No, just the courtyard---”

“Wait a second.” Calen stopped and looked around furtively.

“What?” Davin asked.

“Where’s Moric?” Calen responded.

“Ummm...” Davin trailed off with a shrug.

The Ulfen woman answered flatly. “He went through door to courtyard.”

“When?” Calen asked sharply, pushing past Davin and peering out the door into the courtyard. “By Rovagug’s trough...” The ranger trailed off and clamped his jaw shut in frustration. “Fine, he can go off and get lost on his own.”

Davin cocked an eyebrow. “You know that Shalelu would kill you.”

“Grrrrrr-aahhhhhhhh!” the green half-orc growled dangerously loudly, drawing his sword and attempting to sneak out into the courtyard. Immediately noting the ajar door in the tower, the ranger made for it.

Inside the tower, Calen attempted to call for his brother. “Moric!” Calen yelled in a hushed voice. He noted the scattered broken arrows on the stone stairs and old dried bloodstains on the tower walls: a great battle had taken place here once upon a time, thought the ranger. “Moric!” No answer came.

Calen leaped the spiral stairs two at a time, emerging through a trapdoor set in the ceiling. A cool night breeze blew across Bunyip Bay, bearing briny air to the ranger’s nose, and something else: the stale scent of birds. The ranger instinctively looked over his left shoulder and saw, across the courtyard on the ramparts facing the entrance to the keep, a large black bird walking on two feet, lazily patrolling the front face of the keep. The ranger ducked behind the stone crenellations, confident that the bird-man hadn’t seen him, but not wanting to take any chances.

He then spied the dark and slighter form of his foster brother skulking across the castle walls halfway toward the guard. “Shalelu would kill me, Shalelu would kill me, Shalelu would kill me,” muttered Calen to himself as he scampered, hunched over, towards the elf. Thankfully, Moric was intent on taking his time to mask any noise he might make. The ranger caught up to him fleetly.

“What are you doing?” Calen whispered through clenched teeth as he approached.

Moric whirled in surprise, blade out. He relaxed and grinned as he saw his brother. “Scouting ahead,” he answered. “What’s it look like?”

“We’re all still downstairs!” Calen whispered viciously, looking alarmedly in the direction of the oblivious guard. “Why do I have to convince people that going it alone is going to end badly?”

“Ok, ok,” Moric relented, “let’s go back down.” He moved back in the direction from which they had come.

“Besides,” Calen muttered as he shoved the elf jovially, “you’re not allowed to kill everything before we have a fair chance to split the kills evenly.”

Back in the recently-deceased lizard’s room, the ranger laid out what he saw as the plan. “Ok, we don’t go upstairs until we’ve cleared out the ground floor.” He turned to Moric and Davin. “And we don’t ‘scout ahead’ without at least telling someone else where we’re going.”

The elf rolled his eyes. Davin raised his hand. “Does this gold headband make me look fierce?” the halfling asked with a wink.

“Any questions?” Calen continued, ignoring the priest.

The throne room was curiously empty, a long and formerly illustrious hall held up by large marble pillars running the length of the chamber. An empty throne indeed rested at the far end of the chamber from the courtyard entrance. The rest of the hall was threadbare glory and grey stone. Numerous doors led from the room. The elf snuck up to each door, listening intently for signs of occupation.

Moric withdrew his head from a door off a short hallway heading to the south off of the chamber. “There’s something eating something in there,” the elf gestured back to the door he had withdrawn from. “I didn’t hear anything else at any other door.”

“Alright, let’s go,” Calen said loosing his sword. “I’m first in. Kausk, you’re second. Moric, cover us with your bow.”

The halfling muttered to the elf, “It looks like he’s gotten the swing of this leading thing. We can work on personality later, I guess.”

“I heard that, Furfoot,” muttered the ranger. “You might want to check to see if that silver-tongued crown of yours is working before I decide to throw you in the room head-first to check it out.”

“Violence is never the answer,” chided the priest.

“Except when it is,” responded Calen as he kicked in the door.

Muthildah was enjoying a midnight repast of giant frog and bunyip calf when the green orc-man ran into her room with a sword raised. The ogrekin recognized a fellow wilderness strider immediately, and for a moment, the fleeting thought ran through her dim head that he was coming to join her ranks. Then he swung his weapon into her arm. The milky-eyed ranger grew angry, threw down the frog carcass she had been eating, and picked up her favorite flail from the table. Just as she rose from the table, the monk launched himself across the table, landing a strong kick into the firm mid-section of Muthildah. Lying spread on the table, Lung made an unfortunate target, and the milky-eyes squinted in an angry grin as she raised her flail to strike the defenseless monk.

And then the elf swung into view in the doorway.

“ELF!!!” screeched the monstrous tracker, attempting to push her way past the rude half-orc to get to her favorite meal. Another half-orc stepped in her way, a great sword in its hands, and thrust it deep into her belly, halting her forward progress. Muthildah screamed in frustration and rage as she furiously punched the grey half-orc with her spiky metal glove, further skewering herself on its large sword.

Moric, for his part, calmly plunked two arrows into the howling monster and stepped aside of the doorway as he pulled out another pair of arrows. Calen adjusted his stance and brought down his sword into the neck of the charging ogrekin, a loud crack sounding out as his blade broke through Muthildah’s spinal column. The rampaging figure slumped abruptly to the floor, her mouth making feeble movements as the light faded from her eyes.

Davin peered at the creature from the doorway. “Is that another ogre?” he asked.

“Ogrekin,” explained Calen as he pried his sword loose of the fallen creature. “Mating of an ogre and a hobgoblin, or an orc, or sometimes a human, even. Nasty things. Not natural.”

“It liked elves, though,” offered Moric sarcastically, “so it can’t be all that bad.”

“Nice weapons,” Kausk rubbed his jaw while surveying the flail still clutched in the ogrekin’s hand. “She caught me good with her spiked gauntlet, but I’m glad she didn’t hit me with that.”

Davin squinted briefly at the flail after taking a swig from his flask. “It’s enchanted,” he confirmed, “but nothing else here is.” Kausk grunted in contentment, picking the flail up from the floor.

“This door leads out into courtyard,” Kelda offered from the far side of the room, after glancing through it.

Calen ignored the Ulfen. “Moric, go check that door.” He motioned towards the door identified by Kelda.

“She just told you what was there,” responded Moric bluntly.

Calen looked flatly at the elf. “I don’t trust her.”

“I stand right here,” Kelda challenged. “You may address me, tracker.”

“Calen,” Davin approached gingerly, “she has bled alongside us and proven herself in combat...”

“Then YOU can trust her word!” Calen shoved past Moric and Kelda and opened the door to the courtyard himself. “But in the meantime, I will decide who will be scouting ahead. If she wishes to wave her sword at things we’re trying to kill,” Calen growled as he confirmed the courtyard’s presence and slammed the door in anger, “then let her. Now let’s go back to the throne room - we only have two, maybe three hours of night remaining.” The ranger stomped out of the room the way they came in, the party looking blankly at each other in his wake.

Davin smiled at Kelda. “I think he’s coming around to you,” he said brightly.

The party soon found themselves standing in front of a heavy metal door in the far north corner of the throne room. The door was locked, seemingly disused and dusty.

“You still got that key, Moric?” Calen asked of his foster brother.

“Yeah,” Moric came forward with the old key found in a locked box in the rubble of one of the buildings in the remains of the town. With a rusty grinding of metal and a click, the lock turned and the door popped open, releasing a small puff of dust as further proof of its disregarded state. The elf triggered the light effect on his bow, nocking an arrow to the bowstring and proceeding in, finding a set of spiral stairs leading both up and down.

“Down,” confirmed Calen at Moric’s look of askance.

The dusty spiral stairs ended ten feet down in a rough wooden door. Scratch marks, dust-limned and deep-seated, covered the wood. Numerous brown-red stains were splashed over the door and the surrounding walls. As Moric, followed by Kausk, peered around the somber chamber, a trickle of movement from the wall caught their eyes. A slow trickle of fluid dripped down the wall to their left. Kausk extended a hand to catch the drop, which appeared red on his grey fingertip.

“It’s blood,” he whispered.

The last of the Rusty Dragons came through the upper door just as a strange whirling of dust funneled down from the upper staircase. Moric blinked in surprise as more red trickles ran down the walls and door, growing in strength until small rivulets were pouring off of the walls.

“What the---?” The elf’s question was cut short as the upper door slammed shut behind Lung and Moric’s light spell went dim for a brief second. Then, with a fierce yelp accompanied by a ghostly wail, spectral forms of long-dead warriors plummeted down on the party from above, made up of red mist and reaching out for the warm, living bodies. As they crashed into the adventurers, their spectral forms blew apart, flying into sprays of blood and gore that covered the party.

Kausk and Kelda immediately screeched and dashed back up the stairs, forcing the original door open and running headlong back into the throne room. Scorch followed immediately behind them, trailed by Lung, an uncharacteristic pallor on the monk’s face.

Moric and Calen blinked at each other as they incredulously wiped droplets of blood from their face. The stream of bloody lines had faded and disappeared from the wall. “Umm...” Calen murmured.

Davin rolled up his sleeves and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “I got this,” the priest said animatedly, pulling his flask from under his cloak. Just then, droplets of blood started rolling down the walls again. “Hold on!” The priest called out.

Just as the spectral warriors advanced down upon the remaining Rusty Dragons again, Davin held up his holy symbol, and called out: “The might of Cayden Cailean cuts you off from further imbibing of the spirits of this world!” His hands flashed, and the spectral warriors parted slightly as they advanced around Davin, spraying Moric and Calen again as they crashed into them.

“I am out of here!” Calen stammered, racing up the steps and through the original doorway.

“What was that?” Moric asked of Davin, blinking more residual blood drops out of his eyes.

“It’s a haunt,” Davin said with a flash in his eyes. “The restless spirits attached to this place get set off, sort of like a trap, when living things come near. I just need to channel enough of the might of the Drunk God to convince them to go away. Hang on, here they come again!”
As if on cue, the bloody droplets again began flowing down the wall. Davin repeated his sacred oath as the ghostly apparitions returned, but this time, they flew apart with a sigh as they came towards the remaining two figures. Both Moric and Davin held their breath for a full minute before exhaling.

“They’re gone,” Davin looked around curiously, “but not forever. For a period of time. Most of these haunts need something done for them before they go away for good. Maybe we’ll find out what down here at the bottom of the stairs.”

“I’ll go try to convince the others to come back,” smirked Moric.

Minutes later, after Moric’s exhortations and explanations, the Rusty Dragons headed back down the stairs. Calen looked nervously around as they opened the door at the bottom of the stairs. “And those spirits...they’re gone, right?”

“For now,” Davin agreed brightly, “but they’ll come back until we find out what they’re angry about.”

The green half-orc nodded absently to himself. Ahead, a short corridor led to two doors opposite one another. The door on the right was open; the door on the left, closed. “Ok, um, Scorch, Kelda, and I will take the right. Lung, you, Davin and Kausk take the left. Moric, be prepared to use your bow for support.” Calen took a deep breath, pulled his sword from its scabbard, and advanced down the hallway.

The open doorway on the right led into a large office, its furniture largely smashed and gutted. Scorch and Kelda hunted around the debris on the floor while Calen stood at the door and nervously gripped his sword.

As the other adventurers moved up to the closed door, the priest held up a hand. “Halt,” the priest commanded in a quiet but firm voice. He moved up to the front of the party and advanced quietly on the door, holy symbol in hand. “I have a hunch,” offered Davin as he pushed open the closed door.

A hungry shriek followed by a guttural panting came from a hulking armor-clad figure standing in the middle of a ruined bedroom. In one of its charred and blackened hands, it held a large and impressive sword, but it led its attack with its other empty blackened hand.
Davin didn’t delay. “The wrath of Cayden Cailean send you to sleep to lose the unholy hangover of your foul existence!” His holy symbol flared brightly, and the skeletal figure covered its face briefly, long enough to give Kausk time to step in with his sword.

“I’ll carve my initials in your filthy forehead!” the half-orc yelled, swinging his great sword into the undead creature’s ribs.

“It’s a wight!” yelled Davin in warning. “Don’t let it touch you!”

“Now you tell me!” yelled the grey half-orc, twisting out of the way of the grunting creature as it swung its grasping hand.

Lung leaped forward, his three-part staff a blur as he connected twice with the wight’s head, knocking the helmet from its ruined suit of armor free from its head. A line of black drool dripped from the wight’s gaping mouth.

Davin reacted with the same devout righteousness, this time only yelling, “Last call!” as his holy symbol again flared with a bright light. The creature paused briefly, allowing the monk an opportunity to bring his staff down squarely on its bared shriveled head. With a shudder, the skull broke in two and toppled from the wight’s neck. The rest of the wight followed immediately after.

“Did you find anything in there?” Calen’s voice floated across the hallway to them from the empty office.

Davin and Lung looked at each other and started laughing uproariously. Kausk simply shook his head and drove his sword through the remains of the wight to ensure its death.

Calen hurried through the door, his sword out. “Are you guys OK?” he said in alarm, looking wildly at the three of them. Lung and Davin laughed only harder. Kausk even began to chuckle as he sheathed his sword. “Ok, I can tell we’ve been here a little too long - you guys are punch-drunk. Time to go back to camp.”

After picking up items of value from the room, the band started back down the hallway to the stairs. Moric, previously positioned at the far end of the hall, was nowhere to be seen.

“Ok, honestly. It’s like I’m talking to deaf people---” Calen’s complaint got cut off abruptly as Moric swung back down the stairs excitedly.

“Hey guys,” Moric started.

“NO scouting ahead without telling anyone---” Calen continued.

“Yeah, yeah,” Moric interrupted impatiently, “you’ll thank me for this one. Come on!” And with that, the elf raced up the stairs silently. At the top of the stairs, Moric led them through the throne room to an empty former ballroom, and up a circular staircase along the outer wall. “Shhh,” he urged as they got to the top, but it was obvious where he was leading them, as the sounds of harsh snores became apparent.

Lying on three large beds pushed together in the middle of the room, eight muscled black bird-men creatures lie sleeping peacefully. As the rest of the party came up the stairs, Calen tapped Moric lightly on the shoulder and silently gave him a thumbs up sign followed by a less kind gesture. The elf grinned.

The party retreated halfway back down the stairs to discuss strategy for a moment.

“What are those things?” Moric asked.

“They are called corbies,” Kelda offered. “Thuggish weak-minded bird-men they are. Fearsome fighters at times, though.”

“Hunh,” responded Calen. “I thought they might be tengu.”

“No,” Lung replied. “The tengu are more lithe, and their wings are longer. I have read much of the tengu in my studies of my native culture,” he added in response to Calen’s raised eyebrows.

When they snuck back into the room, Calen, Lung, and Moric advanced to the bedsides of the corbies, prepared to deliver death-blows to one doomed warrior a-piece. Scorch took a position at the head of the beds, a fiery spell readied to blast any who awoke.

The first three sleeping corbies died silently. As the group readied their blades at the throats of the next three slumbering beasts, Lung began blinking furiously.

“Ahhhh-choo!” The monk sneezed viciously.

Calen and Moric continued their work, cutting down two more corby warriors as the remaining three opened their eyes in surprise, a guttural croak beginning to emanate from one of their voices.

Calen reacted quickly, spinning toward Lung and plunging his sword through the chest of the bird-man that had tickled Lung’s nose. That bird began thrashing hideously about, gripping Calen’s sword in its claws where it emerged from its body and holding it there.

Just then, Scorch triggered an arcane word and a spray of fire shot from his hands into the two remaining unwounded corbies, blasting one completely off the bed onto the floor, and lighting the other on fire. The latter corby ran around the room, screeching hoarsely. Scorch shot an arcane bolt from his hand at the engulfed corby, knocking it down to burn merrily on the floor.

Calen wrenched his sword violently out of the expiring corby in front of the still-sneezing Lung and drove it down into it again as the corby fell, twitching, to the ground.

“Nice job, everyone,” conceded Calen. He looked at Lung with mock concern. “Can I get you a handkerchief, my pretty?”

Lung chuckled. “I know now not to have a bird as a pet. I blame you for forcing those chickens on us a few weeks ago.”

“Don’t remind me about those chickens. You.” Calen pointed at Moric. “Our sister is going to be proud of you. Let’s just make sure she’s not posthumously proud, Ok?”

The elf flashed a grin and returned Calen’s rude gesture from earlier.

“Alright, everyone,” Calen announced in a subdued voice as the adventurers not involved in the guerilla assault rejoined the band. “We’ve done well here tonite. It’s time to head back to camp. Likely when we return, the remainder of the guard here will be prepared for us, but we need sleep, and they need time to muse over their doom.” The green half-orc smiled. “The Rusty Dragons never leave a job half-done.”

“Just half-assed,” replied Davin.

“Correct,” Calen answered, his spirits high as the result of the successful campaign. “Back the way we came in, men....and, um, Ulfen woman.”

“Kelda,” Davin suggested.

“Yes, Kelda, fine.” Calen growled.

As the band exited the keep through the cellar caverns again, the first glow of the sun lit the eastern borders of Bunyip Bay. Flying in with the winds of the morning, a dark-winged bird spied the band leaving the keep, sneaking across the keep-yard and back through the ruined city far below. It had been watching for them. It had been watching for one of them in particular.

And now its master knew, too.

END

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