Raw Recruits

Kizzkh's end

Caves of Chaos 11 Vatermont 1000AC

Gwydion stood on the side of the canyon and watched his efforts to instigate combat between the various tribes of humanoids evaporate. Cooler heads or perhaps some native cowardice lead the Kobolds to retreat from the orcs and goblins into a copse of trees behind them. He moved up the slope when he noted the orcs circumnavigating the copse to his, uphill side of the trees.

Across the way, the goblins seemed to be heading south of the trees and forming up to return back to their own cave to the southwest.

There being no more here that he could do he headed south, rounding the goblins as fast as his legs would carry him. Invisible as he was he still made noise and footprints. He just hoped that the large numbers of goblins and movements in the snow and mud would conceal his own steps.

Kart and the others caught their breaths in the minotaur’s cave. The followed their previous chalk marks and the trail of dead hobgoblins, picking belt pouches and arrows off the bodies as they went.

Moving towards the cave entrance they organised themselves again.

“Telanith, Alandros, move up and have a look outside. Tell us what you see.” Directed Kart.

A minute later they summarised. “Movements in the trees 150 feet ahead of us…” Alandros began. “Movement away from us in two large groups more northward and southerly.” Finished Telanith.

They formed into marching order and left the cave, veering so that another grove could be between themselves and the aforementioned trees. They approached the churned mud where the host had stood before.

Nerva looked down at the footprints. “The smallest head for the trees, the next smallest towards the south.”

“Orcs north, towards their caves, goblins south to theirs and the kobolds waiting in the trees then?” Gareth assessed. “Best to attack the kobolds while they’re distracted by the others.”

“We don’t want to alert the others.” Warned Helga.

“True.” Noted Kart. “Lets get through these trees slow and steady and then run across the gap to the next copse. It will give the orcs time to get inside their caves.”
Rest in the caves.

Weapons out, they crossed the mud to the trees and started to spot the small shapes between the trees. Kruggh swooped to pick up the sack of silver from the dead from of Bjorngulf.

The first warnings the tiny humanoid warriors received were arrows hitting trees next to their heads, if they were lucky, comrades dying nearby them if they were luckier.

Dargar and Gareth led the charge, Kart just behind them, towards the king, his guards and the two robed kobolds behind him. Sensing that the most skilled warriors were after him, the king of the Kobolds rushed past them and attacked Kruggh, striking a heavy blow at the lightly armoured bugbear.

Helga moved up and launched an arrow at one of the robed figures, embedding the arrow in its forearm. Dargar’s path was stopped by kobold guards and he started striking at his opponents with a flurry of angry blows. Gareth charged at the remaining robed kobold but before he could strike, the kobold cast a spell and drifted upwards into the leaves of the tree above.

To their left and right kobold groups were exchanging arrows with the elves, the dogs flanked Kruggh and attacked the kobold king. Kart vaulted into the tree near where the floating kobold had disappeared.

The kobold soldiers were quickly succumbing to the more experienced fighters. In retaliation, Khizzk, the kobold king struck Rover down. Max ran to the wolf’s side, dragging him out of the reach of Khizzk’s scimitar and stared staunching her companion’s wounds.

Gareth caught up with the hidden robed kobold, and engaged him so that the shaman could not cast spells.

As the floating kobold raised himself further through the trees, Kart used a supple tree branch to leap up and grab the witchdoctor. The creature rose higher and addressed the sailor in accented Thyatian. “Promise to let me go and I will let you down gently otherwise we will only go higher. The fall would surely kill you.”

Kart looked down. The tree was still only fifteen feet below at this time. He decided that he should get down. Pulling himself up the kobold he pushed a foot off the kobold’s chest.

Two things occurred. Firstly Kart arced gracefully down to the tree below and swung from branch to branch to settle in the upper limbs of the tree. Secondly the witchdoctor started drifting quickly to the east away from the trees, slowly decelerating due to the prevailing wind.

With most of the kobolds dead, the adventurers started regrouping. In the meantime, Khizzk struck down Spot and seemed impervious to the blows of Kruggh. The Kobold King seemed oblivious to the loss of his soldiers.

Gareth drove his mace into the shamans’ chest and watched the little humanoid form crumple before him.

Khizzk fought on. He seemed aware that his tribe would live or die by his hand. Closed in on all sides, he finally succumbed to his wounds.

The elves and Helga emerged to the east of the trees and shot their arrows at the floating but quickly descending witchdoctor.

He attempted to guard himself with a spell but the arrows struck true. Eventually he reached the ground but it was too late, Helga’s final shot found a chink in his chain armour and he died in agony.

Looking around, they noted a single orc at the entrance off a nearby cave watching them, and then quickly run into the cave.

Gwydion reached the entrance to the hobgoblin caves, the entry decorated with clubs, the steel door ajar. He looked inside, noting the darkness he pulled out his lantern, lighting it despite his invisibility.

He entered the cave and found three paths, following small wet footprints. His own steps left no wet marks, presumably due to their minor enchantment. The footprints started down the passage to the right and started to lighten as they progressed.

Due to his caution and diligence, Gwydion noted some drier prints returning down the path he had come from, so he followed them instead. The second set of prints had almost become invisible by the time he reached the junction, and so Gwydion had to guess at which direction to travel.

He started to the leftmost passage from his point of origin, stealthily walking forward before he felt a. Hand tugging on the sleeve which was holding the lantern. Emily’s familiar voice whispered to him. “Shutter that lantern. Stop moving and let me tell you what is up ahead.” Gwydion looked down and saw her form in the shadows next to him.

Gwydion obeyed and knelt down so that Emily could whisper in his ear. “There are prisoners chained in the next room and two hobgoblins. It would have been suicide to attack on my own but if we both attack them I should be able to kill one straight away, whilst you hold the other off.”

Gwydion nodded invisibly. “Well we’d better hurry because I have no idea if we’re about to get trapped in here.”

“Don’t do anything until you see me attack the first hobgoblin.” Emily dictated.“I’ll go for the one to the left.”

Gwydion drew his daggers and stepped next to the second hobgoblin, hoping that he had not made a sound. The other hobgoblin died gurgling as two feet of short-sword was shoved through its back. Gwydion drove his dagger upwards and caught his enemy in the chin with a blade And his invisibility faded. Reversing his hold he slashed the humanoid across the chest.

Emily leaped to his aid and flanked the hobgoblin, driving her bloodstained blade into his thigh. The hobgoblin struck a glancing blow at Gwydion. Distracted, the hobgoblin left himself open to a killing blow, falling to Emily’s shortsword.

The prisoners were a mix of naked humans, three males, and a female, a wild eyed gnoll, and an orc. Grabbing a key from the wall, they released each of the humans, allowing them to grab scraps of clothing to wrap themselves in.

Two of the prisoners, a flabby man and the recently naked woman ran to each other and embraced. The orc and gnoll called out to them to be freed but the rescuers ignored them. “There is not time to waste. Make no sound. We make for the entrance.”

Emily took the lead and Gwydion followed, leading the prisoners with a chain of linked hands.

They reached the entrance to the cave, Gwydion looked out of the cave. The last of the goblins had just filed past the cave. They waited another couple of minutes.

Gwydion addressed Emily. “We need to let the others know we are leaving. I’ll take the prisoners to the Gnoll cave near where I left the chainmail. You go and find the others. Try not to go deep into the minotaur caves on your own though. If you can’t find them meet me back at the gnoll cave entrance and we’ll take these guys back to the Keep.”

Emily readily agreed and sped off to the nearest tree line. It was not long until she saw a kobold in robes attempting to flee by lowering itself from the sky but failing to do so.

She hurried to the copse when the rest of her companions were collecting themselves and anything of value form their opponents.
“Don’t forget the scimitar.” She suggested. “Gwydion and I are ready to leave. We have rescued the other prisoners.”

Max looked down at her two unconscious wolves. “The only way they can come with us is if they walk. I will pray for healing.”

They waited a few more minutes, the elves keeping lookout against the orcs. “They’re coming again.” Telanith announced.

“Quickly as you can.” Helga directed. “Don’t waste time heading into the cave. Gwydion will see us coming.”

They started running headlong, a few arrows streaked in their direction but fell short and they saw a ragged stream of orcs chasing them whilst the main body of orcs gathered outside their caves.

Walking back down the road to the keep, the flabby man addressed the party “Thank you all. I am Heinrich Plasberg, and I am the guildmaster of the Wulfwode trading company. This is my wife and these men were guards we had hired to travel here. I would like to offer free guild membership to you all for a whole year.”

The rest of the journey went as planned and they walked through the cooling afternoon reaching the keep shortly before dusk. They sent an emissary to the keep to get permission to bring Kruggh into the keep.

Entering the keep, the guards gathered around and slapped them on the back as they entered before the corporal and scribe annotated their equipment. Helga and Gwydion headed into the fourth company headquarters to introduce Kruggh to Sergei Malenkov and update him on their progress.

Upon their return, the others reported that they were to be honoured that night at the Guildhouse. They spent the next few hours cleaning up, selling treasures and organising their equipment.

That night, they were presented with a magic kettle and the human warriors they had saved pledged to follow them into battle. During the meal, Lady Ateleia appeared and asked to pull Gwydion and Helga aside. They stood up and Kart followed them without any complaint from the Lieutenant.

Ateleia began: “So, from what we can tell there are no hostages left in the caves and there should only be three intact tribes, or caves, of humanoids.”

The northerner warrior nodded and she continued. “Also from what this bugbear Kruggh says, there are no other shamans or witchdoctors native to the caves.”

Ateleia turned around, slightly pacing in front of them. “The humanoids up the valley are the real threat, but these humanoids work as an effective forward base for any invader. We need to deal with the caves before the inevitable attack comes. Lord Wulf and I have decided that we should attack and disperse the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos in force as soon as possible, collapsing the remaining caves. We can offer two half strength companies of heavy infantry and all of our available cavalry.”

She turned towards them. “We would like you to go back tomorrow with myself and Lieutenant Malenkov, rooting out the caves. Any treasure we find is yours, if that sways our decision.”

She waited for a moment. “Do you agree?”

The celebration was curtailed shortly after. They rose early, surrounded by the soldiery, they left the Keep before dawn.

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Battle of the Minotaur Caves

Mid Morning, Caves of Chaos, Moldain Vatermont 11, 1000AC

Bjorgulf noting Helga’s high cheekbones and plate armour called to her in the Northern toungue “You are not one of my countrywomen are you?”

Helga met his gaze, having faced the challenges of brash northern warriors in the past. “No, brother, I am Helga Fjarlasdottir, from Landersfjord in the Kingdom of Vestland of the house Ottar. I am the king’s neice, and my father is Jarl Eric Gudmundson.”

Bjorgulf looked out of the cell door at the dead bodies of the Bugbears and then at Helga, noting the pegasus medallion of Freyja around her neck. Kart and Gwydion were leading two elves and two humans out of the cell opposite. He grunted, nodded once and slowly walked into the next room with the other demihumans who were pulling on any scrap of clothing they could find.

The elves introduced themselves as Allandros and Telanith of the Vyalia, travellers here on a mission for the elves there to note the build up of humaniods in the central Altan Tepes. One of the humans spoke with a local accent, and had the look of a Thyatian. He introduced himself as Nerva Tullius, a local trapper captured whilst hunting near his homestead.

The last human was tall and bronzed, his long hair tied back and so as mussed as the others. His deep voice was accented and strange “I am called Popate Sunseeker. I am of the horse clan of the Atruaghin peoples. I travel to the east to find meaning from a vision I received.”

“We should interrogate the goblinoids.” Kart suggested.
“Max should use the Howler.” Agreed Gwydion.
“We will try to scrounge some clothing from the bugbears,” announced Allandros.

Kart turned to the Heldanner. “I have some silk trousers if you want to use them.” Kart’s smile was teasing. Bjorgulf grunted and pulled a fur around his groin, hefted a mace from a bugbear, feeling its weight in his grasp.

Whilst Max moved into the room the elves had come from. Lining the walls there remained three kobolds, a goblin and four orcs. Brandishing the Howler she roughly barked questions at the prisoners. “What are your names, where are you from?”

The kobolds fearfully announced each other as Gak, Nog and Pova, of the Grey Rats. They were captured when the bugbears lured them into a trap. The orcs mentioned their names as Hoarg, Nuk, Yakk and Luk-Yakk. They were of the Horned Heads and they were taken captive in a clash witht he bugbears and being kept as hostages to prevent incursions against the Chaos Horde.

The last was a single goblin. He laughed in Max’s face and refused to tell her anything. “I can’t wait until a bugbear sees that weapon!” He jeered.

“None who have seen it have lived to tell the tale.” Max retorted. The goblin quieted.

“Next room.” Gwydion directed, noting the details in a small pocket book.

The second room contained two gnolls, Opis and Frint of the Horned Heads, three hobgoblins Vagloss, Lunkajag and Ogarog from the Vlack-Kag and a single bugbear.

“I am Kruggh, formerly of this tribe.” He met Max’s eyes evenly and spoke in Thyatian.

“He’s not reacting to the morningstar.” Noted Helga.

Gwydion’s mouth opened as breathed in to paused to think. “Why are you chained up?”

Kruggh looked over to the gypsy. “I was marked to die for challenging our chief’s authority one too many times. I did not agree with his barbarity as I have always had a different outlook from my kin. I have never respected Bartziluth either, if you are asking. I care not for a weapon he may or may not have wielded.”

Kart, Gwydion and Helga looked to each other. The dwarves and Emily were looting weapons, armour and coins. Max seemed nonplussed about Kruggh’s announcement.

“Would you be willing to help us?” Gwydion asked Kruggh.

“More than gladly.” Kruggh replied levelly. “The residents of these caves are degenerate raiders, murderers and thieves the lot. I would welcome earning your trust. Do you have a map of the caves? I can show you where there are more slaves, if you are here to rescue them.”

After he had pointed out the Hobgoblin caves on the map, they all agreed to release Kruggh. After another short period of trepidation, the bugbear armed himself and awaited his orders.

“What should we do with the rest?” Kart asked. “I don’t think we should release them. They will alert the others. I also don’t want them to starve to death.”

Any reply was interrupted by a thud and frenzied scurrying from upstairs, followed by the sound of running.

The freed slaves followed their saviours, heading quickly up the stairs.

On heading upstairs it was clear that the body of the chief, named Haggak (as per Kruggh), had been disturbed. There was a trail of bugbear sized foot prints in heavy lamp oil imprinted on the stairs above. Someone had slipped down the stairs, landed on Haggak and then run up the stairs again.

“There’s someone up there.” Noted Helga. She pointed the remaining unarmed escapees to collect the swords and equipment left lying in the room.

“We locked the chest of silver away upstairs, in the side room. Unless there’s a secret passage, there’s only one place the bugbear could be.” Emily reminded them that the only other room was Haggak’s personal quarters which they had ransacked efficiently earlier that morning.

They went up the stairs and followed the trail of oily footprints. They continued through the chief’s quarters to a blank wall. Allandros stepped forward. “We should be able to find the mechanism.” He and Telanith started poring over the wall.

“Well while they are busy the rest of you newcomers grab a sack.” Emily commanded. “Grab what silver you can carry without slowing you down.” She opened the storeroom and then the chest, stepping aside with a flourish.

Whilst the elves worked, Helga and Gwydion decided on a new marching order. The Dwarfs were assigned to the front row, with Bjorgulf and Emily behind them. Kruggh, like the others in his tribe, could use a crossbow and was slated behind Bjorgulf and next to Helga and her bow. Helga would then still be able to sight her targets over the front two rows. Max and the dogs were in the third row followed by Gwydion and Kart, with the lightly armed and armoured elves, Popate and Nerva designated as a rearguard.

Readying themselves the front rows marched forward and were suddenly assailed by the sensation of spinning. “Stop!” cried Dargar, “Go back, there is magic here!”

The back rows made room for a retreat and the front rows stood where they were. Dargar and Gareth were deep in discussion. Dargar announced their findings. “We should be able to tell which direction we are facing, but for some reason every time I move I can’t recall where I came from.”

Unfurling the map Emily noted that they were likely in the region of the Minotaur cave.

“We’ll mark which passages we head down then.” Kart burrowed into his backpack and uncased his large piece of chalk. The party started moving down the passage until the walls started to open out into a cavern. From the darkness an ominous glow appeared from multiple dim red lights and dark scuttling shapes.

The dwarves advanced until they reached the beetles to allow the following rows into the room, managing to get bitten and scratched in the process. Emily moved around and dispatched a beetle as it crawled over Dargar’s shield.

Stepping forward, Bjorgulf swung his mace in an arc through the air and started screaming obscenities. He started beating at the bugs and managed to hit one so hard that it landed on the other side of the room.

Kruggh and Helga launched quarrels and arrows into the insects. Awaiting a lull in their fire, Gwydion and Kart quickly entered the room, skirting the walls.

“The beetles are now outnumbered.” Kart stated. It was true. Apart from an initial flurry the beetles appeared to be no threat. “Lead on. I will mark the passage we take so that the others can follow.”

Gwydion nodded and opened the hoods to his lamp, holding his ruby hilted dagger loosely in his other hand. The footprints were less oily at this point but certainly had collected dust from the floor, and were still easily recognised. Each time the path opened into a chamber, more passages would fan out. Soon the footprints were not discernable.

“We should head back.” Noted Gwydion.

Kart looked around and realised their tactical error. “I only marked the passages that we entered, not the ones that we had left.”

“Okay,” reasoned Gwydion, “well, as the magic is preventing us from recognising the passageways, how about we wait for the others to catch up and we can mark the entrance and exits of each of the passages we take.”

“Even better..” Kart began whilst removing a spool from his pack. It was heavy waxed sail maker’s thread. “We can loop this around a spike and unravel it as well, so no-one can rub off the chalk.”

They waited quietly, longer than they expected. When the creak of armour and quiet chatter of their comrades emerged from one of the passages, some of the combatants were carrying glowing glands cut from the beetles. Kart marked the passage they arrived from.

“I’m glad you’re alright.” Noted Gwydion.

“No thanks to Bjorgulf!” Grizzled Gareth. “He is a loose ballista.”

“The beetle moved. You got in the way.” Bjorgulf summarised.

Helga must have been quiet about the subject until now. “I think he was on the edge of going beserk.” Bjorgulf bristled.

“There’s no point arguing about who trusts who at the moment.” Gwydion mediated, “We’re lost. When we’re out of the cave we can sort this out.”

The conversation died down and people headed down a passage that they hadn’t arrived from.

Now that there was a system, they were confident that they wouldn’t travel in circles here forever.

One cavern opened out and Gwydion took the time to listen down each of the new passages. There were bird or bat noises down one of the passages, and so they veered away from those rooms. Two turns later, they noted a bright light.

“That’s got to be the entrance!” announced Dargar before a large bellow emerged from behind the party.

A large minotaur had torn into the back ranks of the adventurers, goring Nerva on a horn and severely gashing Popate with a charge. The minotaur carried an engraved spear and managed to swipe at Telanith, slicing him along the forearm.

The quickest reactions were from Helga and Bjorgulf. Helga launched an arrow which caught in the thick hide of the shaggy, looming beast. Bjorgulf pushed himself past Kruggh, Max, and Gwydion leaping bodily at the Minotaur with a reckless wildness surprising everybody.

The rest of the group made way for the combat. Max dragged the unconscious trapper to her and applied a poultice to his injury.

The brawny minotaur stabbed viciously at Bjorgulf and caught the Heldanner in the flank with the tip of the sharp spear. The bellow of anger from the northerner was bloodcurdling. His movements became reckless, incoherent and frenzied.

With a pair of blows from Gareth and a large gash from Dargar, the minotaur was starting to bleed freely.

Suddenly Bjorgulf turned his attacks towards Gareth, who had just stepped between himself and the minotaur.

“He is beserk!” warned Helga.

Kruggh launched a quarrel into the minotaur’s throat, the spear clattering to the floor. The sounds of combat continued as Gareth tried to parry the attacks of the frenzied northern barbarian.

Rising with purpose, Max prayed quickly and commanded Bjorgulf “By the power of Halav, calm yourself!”

The effect was instantaneous. The mace clattered to the floor and Bjorgulf wiped the foam and blood from his mouth.

Gareth watched warily, only lowering his weapons when it was clear that the combat haze had left Bjorgulf’s eyes.

“Take the weapon.” Gareth instructed Dargar.

Gwydion faced up to the Heldanner “We are near the cave entrance. We should send you off on your own Bjorgulf. You are a danger to anyone near you.”

The beserker grunted.

The bard continued. “We will not send you to your death and we will let you take the silver and a weapon, but we are not friends and do not wish to cross your path again.”

There was a strange crash echoing down the passage where the light came from.

“I thought that was the minotaur the last I heard it.” Telanith mentioned.

Emily agreed “Something is happening out there. We need to see what it is.”

Kart and Emily moved forwards, marking the path to the entrance. Picking their way through bones and trinkets left strewn down the entry path, they reached the way to the edge of the cave and waited for their eyes to adjust to the light.

In the meantime the others followed behind them.

Looking up the valley there was a large mass, or perhaps three large groups of humanoids. It was difficult to estimate due to their varying sizes but perhaps between one hundred and two hundred Humanoids were gathered around the entrance of the bugbear cave.

Three large ogres had felled a tree which seemed to have collapse the entrance to that cave. Orcs, some gnolls and some hobgoblins were tipping rubble into the spaces around the tree-trunk to close any remaining egress there.

A conclave of important looking humanoids and their personal guards were meeting.

“We need to leave soon, or we shall be trapped.” Kart relayed to the group.

“Okay Bjorgulf, get out of our sight.” Gwydion commanded. “We’ll give you a head start as you will be travelling on your own. You’d be better off turning right at the cave entrance and leaving over the crest of the valley.”

They sent Bjorgulf out and started discussing the tactics for their escape.

“Hey!” Called Emily. “He’s going straight towards them.”

It was true. The barbarian was jogging loosely towards the humanoids, mace carried loosely in his hand, sack jingling over his back.

“That scoundrel. He’s about to sell us out. If they find out we’re here we’ll be surrounded and dead, or worse.”

“Hold on! Let me through!” announced Otto.

The gnome scampered up and rested his crossbow on Emily’s shoulder.

“When I count three take a deep breath and hold onto it as long as you can.” He instructed before making the count.

The Barbarian was almost within parlaying distance of the humanoids and had slowed his run to a trot.

A click and thwip emerged from Otto’s crossbow. “You can breathe.” He updated Emily.

By the time he finished speaking, there was a tiny blossom of blood on the back of Bjorgulf, one hundred yards away.

Echoing across the valley was Bjorgulf’s cry of rage, as he dropped his sack and waved the mace crazily in the air. The blood rage had taken him.

Unfortunately for the berserker this offensive action was noted by the humanoids who took no time in slaying him with volleys of arrows as he approached their ranks.

One of the larger hobgoblins, clearly a chief amongst them, beckoned the three ogres and pointed towards the cave Bjorgulf emerged from.

“That’s Rhuum, the chief of the Chaos Horde.” Kruggh announced.

“They’re going to collapse the tunnel here too.” Gwydion said “I don’t think that we can chance that there are other exits.”

“If we tip our hands, we will fight them en masse.” Gareth assessed. “We would need to kill these four quickly and retreat back into the caves. Perhaps if they followed we could use the magic of the caves to our advantage.”

Gwydion proposed “I’m going to make myself invisible, slip out of the caves and see if I can aid us outside. At least if you get trapped we could go for help and you could head back to the bugbears cave.”

“Good idea. I have that spell as well. We should have more than one of us out there. " Kart agreed. “Emily would you like to be invisible too?”

“I was thinking of going outside too. Magic away darling!” Emily beamed.

Ignoring her flirtations, Kart worked quickly, his words echoing Gwydions sonorous lilt. Soon both Emily and Gwysion had winked from view.

Gwydion’s disembodied voice informed them. “I’m going to head to the trees to the right. For the moment, Emily why don’t you hang onto my cloak and we can separate later if we need to.”

Without further ado the light dust from their movement had filled the cave entrance, marking their egress.

Helga eyed Gareth. “We need you and Dargar to face the ogres. Max- can you heal Nerva and give him a crossbow and a quiver?”

Gareth caught on quickly. “We meet them just outside the cave entrance, taking down the ogres and hopefully the chief. If things go badly, we back down the passage and draw them in, hopefully getting them separated and kill them off at range.”

Otto chimed in “We’ll have tipped our hand. The rest of the humanoids will come to either attack us or seal us in or perhaps both. Between us we have more missiles than enemies. We’ll need to only shoot if we have a good shot. If we run out of missiles we should try to back off as far as possible or we’ll become outnumbered quickly.”

The ogres were about fifty feet away. The dwarves shuffled into the shadows of the cave entrance, ready to charge. The bows and crossbows were drawn.

“Now.” Stated Gareth and he charged out in tandem with Dargar. The ogres were surprised by the attack and their counterattacks were ineffectual. Dargar rolled between one pair of ogres, sweeping his battle axe into the calf of one of the hulks. Gareths mace glanced off an ogres hide before his axe crashed through another’s kneecap.

Above their heads arrows sank into the shoulders and heads of Dargar’s target. The monster brought a club down which was deflected at the last minute by the dwarf’s shield, knocking him backwards.

Another volley of arrows and quarrels streaked above Dargar, finally bringing down his opponent as another club caught him across the chest, lightly denting his armour.

The Rhuum was angrily signalling to his hobgoblin troops to reinforce the ogres when a quiet step came from behind him, beyond his perception.

He felt a fire in his flank lancing up and through his chest as Emily sank her adamantium shortsword through his back. She twisted her blade as she withdrew it and the gush of blood was like wine pouring from a flagon.

The hobgoblin fell to his knees and pitched forward as her invisibility spell finished.

“Run!” Gwydions voice came from the air near her.

“What about the armour!” Emily was pointing at the exquisitely wrought mail, only slightly marred by the single rend in its back.

Gwydion knew that Emily wouldn’t leave if there was a chance that the treasure could be taken. He noted arrows arcing in their direction. “Help me drag him into the trees and then get out of here.”

She was anticipating this and told him to remember any belt pouches. Arrows struck where they had been standing and it appeared that the halfling had hefted the fully armoured hobgoblin above her head and run away on her own.

The last two ogres were being worn down. One was striking his club at Kart who was spending his time jumping clear of the blows at the last minute. As Gareth leapt clear of his assailant he stepped to where Kart had anticipated his next jump.

With a mighty wallop Kart was knocked backwards, already bloodied and blackened by the sheer force of the blow. Arrows felled one ogre and the last was sliced clean through the thigh by Gareth.

Hobgoblins had closed the range for their shortbows and had started landing arrows near the dwarves and Kart and so they retreated into the cave mouth far enough that the arrows could not hit them.

Gwydion had undressed the corpse of Rhuum, dragging the chainmail to some bushed near the Gnoll caves. Emily had disappeared, sneaking through the dark shade in the copse of trees. Looking back, Gwydion could see the kobolds, orcs and goblins milling around behind the hobgoblins who were advancing towards the minotaur cave.

Gwydion noted that if the tribes co-operated, his friends were likely to be captured or killed. He headed straight down towards the tribes, humming thoughts of insults in his head.

The hobgoblins had stumbled across their dead and dying, and started funneling into the cave mouth. The heroes plan was working well enough.

The elves were leading the retreat, winding back the waxed thread. Max with the Tower Shield and Dargar behind his round shield were sheltering their own archers against the hobgoblins. From time to time a charge of the hobgoblins would reach the front line to be rebuffed by Gareth and Dargar.

As the hobgoblins packed in they diverted down side paths and became lost in the maze of twisting passages, diverted into the lairs of beasts or attacked from behind as the party caught up with them.

On the surface Gwydion hurled insults whilst standing between the three humanoid camps. Although he was sowing distrust there was no overt aggression between the humanoids. “This is a trick!” Noted one of the kobold shamen in Thyatian, trying to mollify his troops and their erstwhile allies. Gwydion saw the kobold begin to chant an incantation and he ran as far as he could form the spot he had last spoken. An arrow streaked past the kobold spellcaster from an aggravated orc.

Deep in the hobgoblin caves Emily wandered through the dark halls attempting to locate the remaining slaves. She had pulled the Mask of the Hunter across her face, but despite her heightened senses, quietly cursed herself for breaking the invisibility when she attacked the hobgoblin chief. So far she had been lucky: she had not run into any of the inhabitants. Crossing her fingers behind her back she hurried into the darkness.

View
Slippery slope

Castellan Keep, Tserdain Vatermont 3 1000 AC

Kart paused over breakfast and swore under his breath: he had forgotten to request a wake-up call. The executions, he realised, must have gone ahead without fanfare at dawn.

The others were discussing their plans for the week. Gareth had already offered to modify the Skeleton King’s scimitar into a serviceable sabre, with Kart funding the endeavour. Kart himself was planning on scribing a spell he had seen years before that had previously been beyond his skilling. He chuckled to himself wondering if he could use it on living creatures rather than just objects.

Helga had organised some training in swordplay with Lieutenant Malkovich the 4th company commander, which would also take the best part of a week. Emily planned to liquidate some of their more useless treasures and pay off their accumulated tax debts to date. Gwydion had no specific plans except spent his time reading a text on guerrilla fighting. Dargar wanted to repair some armour and play cards with off duty soldiers.

Later in the day they made the move across to the apartments previously inhabited by the dark priests. Otto set up in an area of the sitting room, laying out drawings, a leather pack, silk rope and silk sheets. He embarked on a complex project. He enlisted Dargar to construct springs and some cogs, and asked if would mind putting his sewing skills to good use later.

The days passed. Emily met up with Helga bringing her a picnic lunch in the parade square. Helga had worked up a sweat during her exertions, despite the wintry weather, and also quite a hunger and thirst. “How goes the training?” Emily asked.

Washing down a mouthful of lunch, Helga answered. “Pretty well I guess. Sergei will come down in an hour or two and we will spar again. I have put some of my spare time into working with some other swords as well.”

Emily arched her eyebrows in feigned interest, ate a handful of oatcake and pondered. She had been unchacteristically quiet for the last few days.

“Helga, you know, I wonder if you could give me some advice?” Emily began, encouraged by Helga’s serious nod to continue. “Well I have been flirting with Kart, making a fool out of myself really…” she trailed off. “He is just such an idiot.”

Helga smiled noncommitally.

Emily continued “Despite all that, I think I might be falling for him. You’re a sensible lass. What should I do?”

Helga’s head dropped in thought. Her hand reached up and touched the pegasus medallion of Freyja. “You know where I come from, the priestesses of Freyja can tell if you are a a good love match with your potential partner.” Emily’s lower-lip popped out in apparent interest. “I am heading north within the next year, to meet my Duke Stephen of Rhoona. Could you wait until we go there? I’m sure that the priestesses of Freyja would be able to advise you too.”

Emily nodded gently at first and then emphatically. “Great Idea!” She slapped Helga on the shoulder and visibly relaxed. “What about you? How are you getting along with Lieutenant Sergei?” The hin’s eyebrows arched suggestively.

Helga laughed. “Professionally.”

Otto also planned an important conversation. Gwydion tip-toed downstairs testing his new guerilla tactics. Otto had almost assembled his new pack. It seemed like a small backpack to be attached to his chest, a small brass handle on the left of the pack. He seemed not to notice Gwydion until the bard was seated next to him on the couch.

“Oh Gwydion, I was meaning to talk to you.” Otto furtively looked around the room. “I have a dilemma, a secret I guess. I owe you the truth.”

Gwydion fiddled nonchalantly with his ruby dagger. Otto continued “Well, I suspect that Gareth has been searching for me. You see I was given a secret project by the King of Highforge, Dorfus Hilltopper, my wife’s uncle. I left before I could finish it. It’s hard to tell because Gareth plays everything so close to his chest but I’m sure he’s been sent to find me and bring me, as well as my project, home.”

Gwydion was used to long stories. He rose and brought some wine and two cups to the table. He poured two cups and handed one to the gnome who drank a little before beginning again. “You see the project was weapons research. There has recently been an invention, a sort of ranged weapon like an arquebus. It was invented on the Savage Coast and projects a metal shot by means of an explosion of an alchemical substance called Red Powder. These weapons represent a significant technological advance.”

Otto quickly took a breath and continued. "You see the arquebus was developed in Ochaela a few centuries ago and uses a substance called Black Powder. The arquebus is a notoriously unreliable weapon, quite dangerous to use. Apparently, these new “Fire-arms” are much safer but they don’t seem to work with the Black Powder and the Red Powder doesn’t seem to work when it is away from the Savage Coast. I presume that there is some form of magic local to that area which makes the Red Powder work." Gwydion sipped at his wine politely.

“Anyway I worked at it for some time but each of my attempts to create a powder failed. Either it wouldn’t ignite, or it was too unstable. I destroyed three of the smaller Wheellock pistols before I decided that it was beyond my power. I need the skills of a chemist.”

“Don’t you mean Alchemist?” Gwydion proffered helpfully.

Otto shook his head “No, not really. You see an alchemist works on magical mixtures. It was my intent to produce a non-magical gunpowder. A chemist is a scientist, like a sage, who works on nonmagical mixtures and substances. I decided to go home to find one.” Otto’s voice was quiet, conspiratorial. “You see I don’t come from Highforge. My home is a secret place of knowledge, science and machines. It is a refuge for my people and their allies. Its a flying city called Serraine.”

Gwydion was uncharacteristically impressed and excited. “You are trying to go home to a flying city?”

Otto confirmed this with emphatic nodding. “Yes and it is the only place this powder could be invented, I’m sure of it. I took the secret weapons from Highforge and am taking them to another nation. I’m sure it’s treasonous but there’s nothing I can do. I came back here to find my Polecat, to see if I could repair it and return home.”

Gwydion leaned forward. “So you ran away the other night so you could find a flying machine and return home to a flying city?”

Otto looked up at the gypsy “I’m telling you this, I’m asking sort of, to try and get you to let me go home.”

“Alone? On your own? Where is this flying machine?” A funny look was crossing Gwydion’s face.

Otto hadn’t really noted “It’s not a big plane, the polecat. I think it is north of here. The priest who found me after my battle with the dragon said I was north of Castellan Keep when he found me. I hope the wreckage is salvageable.”

Gwydion nodded. “I can’t let you go. It is too dangerous out there on your own. But I think I can make you a deal. After we clear the Caves of Chaos we can head north to find this Polecat, as long as you promise to take me to your flying city and teach me to fly.”

Otto agreed. “You couldn’t have a better teacher. You’ll love flying. I miss it so much.”

“There’s one more condition.” Gwydion noted. “We should tell the others. Even Gareth. We can’t be keeping secrets form each other, distrust amongst allies is dangerous.”

The rest of the week passed in preparation for the return to the Caves. The strategy was worked out in advance, proceeding like clockwork.

Caves of Chaos, Molddain Vatermont 11 1000AC
Gwydion scouted the Gnoll caves invisibly, travelled through the secret door and returned after scouting the Shrine of Evil Chaos. Timing their movements to avoid the humanoid patrols, the party moved from copse to copse and headed towards the bugbear’s caves.

Kart pointed to a sign and Max grasped the Howler and read a curious invitation indicating that they were welcome and to come and greet the guards to their left after they went inside.

The entrance was scouted by Gwydion and the others joined him inside. As their eyes adjusted to the light, Emily went on ahead and to the left, past a staircase and spotted three bugbears roasting skewers of meat. She stealthily returned and informed the team of her findings. The others had noted three other exits to the long chamber, other than the entrance.

Whilst Otto cocked his crossbow and Helga drew her bow, Kart walked calmly into the guardroom. The squatting bugbears turned to him in a friendly manner and offered him some of their food. Kart ignored their good manners, drew his Sabre and vaulted their small campfire, ready to attack.

The bugbears were not surprised but equally they were unimpressed that Kart had seen through their subterfuge. They brandished their skewers as the well disguised swords that they were and slashed at the nimble sailor.

A volley of quarrels and arrows struck the front most of the bugbears and almost as quickly, Dargar and Gareth charged to cut down the defenders Rover and Spot leaped and harried at the guards. A deadly flurry of blows ensued and two of the three bugbears were downed but the last banged a large alarm gong with his last dying breath, run through by Kart’s sabre.

Emily scanned the entry hall and skipped a few steps up the stairs. Uncorking a bottle of oil she liberally spilled the contents across two steps hidden deeper in shadows than the others, before vaulting off the side of the steps.

Taking cues from her, Gwydion nudged Max and Otto to face off towards one of the entrances, he took up station with Helga to face the last unguarded entrance. Kart, Dargar and Gwydion turned towards the base of the stairs to hear a large crash at their upper landing, followed by heavy feet charging down at the heroes.

Into the room appeared a fearsome bugbear wielding a two handed maul. Two steps later he had slipped on the oil Emily spread and fallen headlong down the remaining steps. Following him a large female bugbear noted the danger and leaped sideways off the stairs right next to Emily.

Leaping into action, the Dwarves attacked the fallen behemoth, ringing blows against his heavy armour and groans of pain from more accurate blows. Emily attacked his off-balance mate. Kart vaulted up the stairs and, avoiding the oil, flanked her slashing heavily into her shoulder.

Helga and Otto shot at the female bugbear, felling her, whilst the dwarves repositioned themselves around the now erect maul-wielder. One of his heavy blows rung down on Dargar’s shield, drawing a groan of pain from the dwarf. The sound of running feet from both of the remaining side passages alerted the adventurers to the impending arrival of enemies. Three arrived up the stairs from the south, and five emerged from the north, charging at Max, Otto, Helga and Gwydion, raining blows down upon them.

Gareth swung his mace at the leader’s knee and then upon the falling bugbear’s helm, staving in helmet and skull. This free Kart and Dargar to shore up the lines against the new threats, allowing Gwydion and Otto to retreat. Helga dropped her bow and drew Rustproof, lopping off the arm of one of her attackers.

Gwydion launched a pair of daggers into one of the bugbears, and Dargar shouldered into the fray next to Maxalla. As the bugbears noticed Bartziluth’s Howler they became enraged and struck wildly at her. The busied fighting and trading of blows, the growls and howls of the wolves and some skillful work by the seasoned adventurers started turning the tide. One bugbear was felled and gave Emily to opportunity to flank one of the defenders, hamstringing him before a neat coup de grace.

Gwydion noted reinforcements coming from the northeast passage and concentrated on a spell. Suddenly a large pitfall opened beneath their feet, preventing their entry into the room. Kart lobbed flaming oil against the wall behind them and the reinforcing bugbears retreated. The last of the front-line bugbears had its throat torn out and Helga bent to pick up her bow and joined Emily and Otto at felling the last of the remaining reinforcements. The attackers retreated to the stairs and searched the apartments at its upper landing. They found treasures there including an ornate hand axe and quickly moved on. They headed down the passage that the re-inforcements had come down and found a barred sturdy door.

Charging down the last passage, a set of stairs, they came upon two bugbears holding two crossbows apiece, firing from behind a table. Due to the speed of the attack only a few shots were fired at the Adventurers before they surrounded and slew the defenders.

The adventurers turned the table back on its feet and sat on the edge of the table to catch their breaths. They nursed their wounds as Max looked at them in turn, offering encouragement or words of healing prayers. Kart found two cells of prisoners off of this guardroom. Lifting a key from the wall he unlocked a cell and found a pair of elves, a tall bronze skinned human, a paler, thyatian looking man and an assortment of sorry looking humanoids chained to the wall. He unlocked the elves and men after obtaining their names and oaths of peace.

The elves were Vyalia from the borderlands with Thyatis, the tall man an Atruaghin savage warrior, and the thyatian a local logger. The orcs called out in barbaric common and they were temporarily ignored whilst the other cell was opened.

A noble looking bugbear, three hobgoblins, two gnolls and a mighty muscled man were all chained to the wall. “Give us your oath of peace and your name and we will release you.” Kart called to the man.

“I, Bjorgulf Hrodgaeirsson of the Heldann do not beg!” The man bellowed. his face deepening in redness. and strained at the chains, tearing them from the stone.

“Who are you that commands me to?” Bjorgulf demanded.

View
Flight in the Night

Shrine of Evil Chaos, Early afternoon, Vatermont 1 1000AC

The small chambers had a small table and chairs, a wardrobe behind a dressing screen, a large bed in dark coloured velvet. Above the bed was a statue representing Orcus, gems shining in its eye sockets. Despite the sinister setting, the mood was light. Wendl served his new friends a light meal.

“So how can I help?” His eyes scanned the group landing on Gwydion’s.

“Well, as you know we’re here on an important mission for the Dark Triad and Orcus in particular.” Gwydion lied fluently whilst Wendl nodded emphatically. “We need to know more about the caves of Chaos and other agents of the Dark Triad in the area.”

Wendl was keen to help “What do you want to know?”

Helga asked “Well, how about who else lives here in the temple?”

When Wendl frowned, Gwydion talked him around. It seemed the most natural thing for Wendl to tell his new friend Gwydion these important details.

“Oh you mean the Shrine? Well, there’s me, the four acolytes Moris, Uther, Hal and Stann; the four neophytes Ruprect, Nige, Derris and Attar; Zoran the Gaoler, but I guess you’ve met him, Otto who was making traps for us, and the medusa, but she’s not going to be here for long, hey?”

Gwydion nudged him in the ribs “Are you going to use her for a ritual? What were you going to do?”

Wendl was conspiratorial “Well, we were going to try to summon Orcus. Every little bit counts!”

Otto interrupted “Zoran. He let me go to the temple when I finished my traps. Yep, that’s just what happened. Zoran said ‘I deserve a break, I’m going outside for a long walk.’”

Gwydion nodded. “Yes, he said he would be back later. You don’t need to worry about Zoran.” Gwydion took the opportunity to change the subject. “Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the acolytes and novices. I think that they got in a fight. I think they must have killed each other!”

Wendl shook his head in disappointment, accepting every word. “Their unbridled ambition was their downfall. I say a prayer asking for Orcus’ blessing in me dedicating their deaths to him in unlife.” His eyes flashed a smile at Gwyidon. “Get it? Dedicating? As in Dead?”

Gwydion’s smile didn’t skip a beat. “Nice one Wendl!”

Kart interrupted their creepy, if fictitious camaraderie. “Right, right, well, moving along, how many of the unliving are here?”

Wendl reeled off a list, the troll skeleton, his personal guards, the temple guards, a wight downstairs in the crypts. With a quick tally there were still two dozen skeletons or zombies unaccounted for. Wendl mentioned that when he hit the gong, the other undead would be guarding the relics in the chapel, resuming their posts an hour thereafter.

Inhabitants of the shrine

Wendl the high priest (Charmed)
Zoran the gaoler, (dead) recently guarding Otto the gnome
Medusa (dead)
A gelatinous cube (dead)
20 chain-scrap dressed skeletons (dead)
20 chain dressed Zombies (dead)
3 plate armoured Juju zombies (1 dead, 2 guard his quarters)
1 Monster skeleton (troll) – in ripose, summoned by the gong
4 Adepts (Moris, Uther, Hal, Stann)- dead
4 Novices (Ruprect, Nige, Derris, Attar)- dead
12 other skeletons (unaccounted for)
28 other zombies (16 accounted for and dead).
A wight, a previous priest of Orcus (in a barred crypt downstairs)

Dargar looked at the priest, “Tell us how you came to be here. You weren’t born here were you?”

Wendl sat on the bed, readying himself for a long story. “Well, I was a young priest, an adventurer in Thyatis, I worked with a group of adventurers and we were out exploring and we found an ancient but abandoned temple to an Immortal of goodness. I picked up these blood stained bowls and I knew that they were important, knew that I had discovered a secret and important purpose. I left my friends shortly after. I wandered slowly up the river under the direction of the relics. As they lead me to the Temple of Evil Chaos. Here I discovered the worship of Orcus and the Dark Triad, becoming the high priest once the previous high priest died from complications of his madness.”

Kart’s face was clouded with concern. “Where are these artefacts now?” he breathed.

Wendl did not note his concern, his face alight with dark devotion “In the chapel- you would have walked right past it on the way here. When you turned right to come to the temple there is a little chapel to the left.” Kart whistled a sigh of relief, they had not touched these cursed relics to date.

Gwydion caught Wendl’s attention again. He was unsure how long Wendl would remain charmed. All of this information was essential. “Tell us about the inhabitants of the local caves, Wendl. How can they help the Dark Triad’s plans?”

Kart bought out his map. Wendl looked over it and asked for ink and a pen. “I have never been in their caves but I can tell you about the inhabitants.” Over the course of ten minutes, he annotated their crudely drawn map, noting the names of the tribes, their races and naming their leaders.

About the other Caves of Chaos (Clockwise from the southeast)

Goblins of the Chaos Horde (worship Leptar and Dark Triad) lead by sub-chief Pak Faz
Ogres lead by Vagom- not aligned, make money selling themselves to the other tribes
Hobgoblins of the Chaos Horde (worship Leptar and Dark Triad) Lead by Chief Rhuun (keeps slaves)
Gnolls of the Horned Heads (worship Dark Triad/Orcus) under sub-chief Grantz Iceringer and his two sons
Shrine of Evil Chaos
Owlbear cave
Minotaur cave
Bugbears of the Chaos Horde (worship Dark Triad/Leptar) Lead by sub-chief Haggak. (Keeps slaves)
Orcs of the Horned Heads- (worship Dark Triad/Orcus) lead by sub-chief Rallg Cracked-Tusk
Kobolds of the Grey Rats, (worship Kurtlemak) Lead by Chief Khizzk, and his shamen Batak and Gazon
Orcs of the horned heads (worship Dark Triad/Orcus) lead by Chief Fornn Grimclaw

After finishing his notes, Wendl chatted amiably. “Further to the north are the Steelwarriors. They support our cause, but don’t really follow our direction. They are planning to start a war, to make a kingdom for the humanoids in the northeast of Karameikos. Their plan is not our original plan. They have started too early but it still achieves our goals of evil and chaos. Our allies across the land are not ready to support them, but their plan may work anyway.”

“Who are these allies?” queried Gwydion.

“Oh, you know, malcontents, warlords, humanoids, some others. At the keep, there are spies who work to get information to us.” Wendls head nodded in a reassuring rhythm.

Gwydion locked eyes on Wendl, smiling and reassuring. Wendl continued helpfully. “They ingratiate themselves with the populace by baking bread and gossiping with the residents every day. When they can, they pass their information through the slavers and they in turn alert the humanoids here.”

Helga waited quietly until Wendl had finished her brow had furrowed inquisitively. “That powerful feeling of evil – is that from the temple or from the artefacts?”

“Ah good question but your guesses are wrong.” Wendl noted. When pressed he elaborated. “The Temple of Evil Chaos was situated here as entrance into the Caves of the Unknown. The temple of evil chaos was made about 400 years ago but the caves of the unknown were here for thousands of years. They tunnel deep into the world. The evil presence comes from there, not from the artefacts or this temple. An ancient child of Thanatos called Iscranin created the tunnels before the world was sundered. From time to time, pilgrims are sent into the Caves on a quest from the Dark Triad. The pilgrims continued to search for Iscranin, his treasure or his remains to obtain a mighty tool of evil. The Tunnel between the Shrine of Evil Chaos and the Caves of the Unknown is filled with lead glance and stone to stop the the corruption mutating the priests or sending them mad over time. This was what happened to the last High priest, the wight in the crypt. There is a hidden cave entrance to the Caves of the Unknown over the hill from the Caves of Chaos.”

Whilst Wendl related his story, Emily padded into the room, smiled reassuringly and beckoned Max and her dogs into the room. “Did you ask him whether there was anything of value in the shrine?”

Gwydion shook his head. “It would be useful to Orcus, to Leptar and probably to Thanatos, if we had some of the treasures you aren’t using. Would you please help us?”

Like it was the best idea ever, Wendl pulled out a ledger and showed them the inventory it mentioned a in the hands of the skeleton king and personal objects interred with the wight ex-priest.

Items of value in the Shrine:

Miscellaneous magical items of no use to him in the store room. (Horseshoes, Finned Gauntlets)
Gems on the thrones- in the Temple 10 rubies and 10 onyx and the skeleton hall(4 garnets)
The sacred relics in the chapel
Belts x4 on his senior priests
Amulets of Protection vs Goodx5 on his junior priests
Amulets of Protection vs Turningx80 on skeletons and zombies
Magical Scimitarin the skeleton hall
Copper dishes in adept’s room
He remembers that the wight (an ex high priest) was buried with his personal effects
Staff of the Python
Shadow-link Cloak (On his person)
Potion of Gaseous Form (On his person)
Wendl’s Plate-mail + 1 (wearing it)
Wendl’s Shield + 1 (wearing it)
500 gold Krona and 50×10gpv gems (in the secret door behind his cupboard)
Eyes of his demon Idol (sitting above his bed)
Juju Zombie’s mundane plate mail x3
32 sets of scraps of chainmail (probably worthless)
24 sets chainmail (20 on zombies, 4 from novices)
4 sets of platemail on adepts
8 non-magical maces
11 rusty scimitars
12 battered shields

Wendl reassured them “You should be able to just take the skeleton king’s sword. On the other hand, in the crypt I will have to hold the wight at bay so that you could quickly retrieve it’s treasure.”

Talking out loud, Gwydion mused to everyone. “I wonder if we should go to Castellan keep and meet with the spies ourselves or if Wendl should come and introduce us.”

Wendl looked worried. “I couldn’t go like this.. I think I’d need to go disguised.”

“Well, I think we don’t want to draw the attention of the humanoids from the Caves either.” Gwydion muttered, “We have to stay incognito too.”

“If you all dress as priests and leave at twilight, they would see that as normal, especially if we take a skeleton to help carry things.” Wendl’s nods were infectious.

Emily approached the dark cultist. “This secret door in your wardrobe. Does it lead back to that other passage?”
Wendl confirmed this. “I vote that we take the short-cut and start collecting the robes, the wight’s treasure and the sword. No time like the present hey?”

Gwydion slapped Wendl on the back, realising that Emily had probably prised all the gems from the thrones in the temple. She probably wanted the eyes of the statue above the bed. “Don’t worry Emily will stay back a bit to tidy up your room! She’s great at that. Lead the way!”

They visited the acolytes’ and novices’ rooms, Wendl shaking his head. “We’ll need to start again,” he muttered.

Gareth and Dargar were disrobing the dead cultists, the dark blood hidden by the dark wool. Emily approached and put some objects in Kart’s backpack surreptitiously.

Heading downstairs, Wendl suggested they should check and see if Zoran had returned, to tell him the bad news.
“Bad news can always wait.” Gwydion urged sagely. They continued on to the crypt door.

Emily piped up. “This shouldn’t take too long, Kart why don’t you and Otto go and look for those items in the store room?”

Kart looked blandly at Emily and headed off to the store room. When he and Otto arrived, he opened some boxes feebly passing the time for their deception.

In the crypt, Wendl held his symbol of Orcus proudly. “Stay back, I command you, in the name of Orcus and the Dark Triad!”

The Wight hovered near the door, but then drifted back away from the sarcophagi. Wendl nodded to a casket and the dwarves pushed the lid open. Looking inside, Emily grabebd a pair of bracers, a mask and a stone. One by one, they backed out of the room, Wendl last of all, before bolting and spiking the door again.

They headed upstairs with Kart and Otto in tow, headed left at the top of the stairs and again passed another passage to the left. “That’s where you came in, and” Wendl pointed to what looked like a rockfall in the passage ahead, “that’s the passage to the Caves of the Unknown.”moving towards the dead end,he motioned to a third leftward passage. “Again to the left here is the Hall of the Skeleton King.”

Most of the skeletons lining the walls were armed with rusty scimitars, dilapidated shields. On the throne one sat one more skeleton with an unblemished blade. Wendl beckoned the skeleton forward making it present the blade to Gwydion. “We can make this one carry our extra equipment.”

Emily suggested “Let’s go to the entrance and get dressed in those robes and head out,” before she quickly slipped out of sight down the passage towards the entrance.

Emily scouted the entrance whilst the rest of the party dressed in their robes. The humanoids were patrolling but in nowhere near as many numbers as the previous day she noted that the light was starting to dim. “Its as good a time as any.” She reported.

They slipped out of the entrance to the caves, heading to a copse near the lip of the valley, they made a fast pace, leaving behind a curious band of orcs.

They drifted through the woods before heading south towards the old road. Reaching the edge of the woods, they waited and watched. Ten minutes went by before they noted the orc patrol waiting in the bushes near the roadside. Emily waved the group back and they slowly made their way around and emerged safely onto the path.

An hour and a half later the keep came into view, and they nominated to camp in the woods nearby, setting a watch through the night.

In the quietest part of the night, Gareth’s voice woke them urgently. “Put your armour on. Otto’s left, he sneaked off when he thought I wasn’t watching. I don’t know what he’s up to. We need to follow him.”

“Didn’t he say that he left some equipment buried West of the keep?”

They skirted the keep and continued on for a half an hour until they could see a small shape moving about at the bottom of a large tree.

Gwydion, Kart and Emily approached him from behind, spreading out and surrounding him from about ten yards away. Otto was heaving a chest from the hole. Gwydion called out to Otto. “Otto, what are you doing there?”

Otto froze and turned to face Gwydion, looking left and right, noting Emily and Kart. “I’m just, ah, getting my stuff.”

“What’s in there?” Gwydion approached, casually tripping the chest open with his new suede boot.

Otto looked evasive. “Another crossbow, some quarrels, my tools, two bags of dust.”

Emily lit a torch and brought it over to the chest. Otto became nervous, incensed. “Not too close. The powder might explode.”

Holding the torch back, she handed it to Gwydion, reached into the chest and folded back a blanket on its floor.

There were two similar devices, one longer than the other. Each device had a hexagonal metal tube ending with a circular hole in the end and at the opposite end the tube joined with a wooden handle. Near the join, there was some sort of trigger, not unlike that on a crossbow. They appeared like a blunderbuss but elegant, precise, alien.

“What is it?” she whispered.

Otto pulled the blanket back, subtly shaking his head. “I’ll come with you. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

They walked back to their camp, carrying the chest between them, they changed clothes, and left the skeleton behind them. The air was crisp and warm for the season the clouds reflecting the light as it crossed the mountains.

Gwydion was exhausted but he reminded Wendl to stay incognito. “Just follow our lead. You met us on the road to the keep, we escorted you here and you offered to pay for our breakfast at the tavern.”

“Good idea but because I gave you my money, you’ll have to pay.” agreed Wendl.

The guards inside the gate this morning were chipper, they introduced themselves as Corny and Appy and chatted amiably as each of the visitors declared their goods and incomes. It was apparent that the adventurers were becoming the talk of the Castle. Slava the scribe worked quickly and expertly. Emily peeked over his work and noted the totals in each of their incomes for the quarter. Her eyebrows arched and then furrowed.

Otto and Wendl were added to the ledger, under the corporal’s watchful gaze and things went smoothly.

Emily suggested to the group “Gwydion, why don’t you go to the Tavern and get that breakfast with Wendl whilst the rest of us drop our equipment off at the Inn.”

Most of the rest of the journey to Fountain Square was Gwydion pointing out the businesses and sights, as they were, in the outer bailey.

On arrival in the inn, Emily informed Marina about Wendl. “Helga, will you come with me to see the Lieutenant at the trader’s road tower.” Helga passed her pack to Emily and left behind Marina. They retraced the road to the tower, requesting an audience with the Lieutenant at once.

The guard called inside the tower and escorted them to the second floor. There they were introduced to Sergeant Phililpa Karendas who was seated behind a large map table. Both Helga and Marina recognised her from the meeting called in the previous week. The Sergeant listened patiently, eyes widening, as Helga reported their charming and capture of the High Priest of Orcus, their sneaking him into the keep. Phillipa sent the guard up to get the Lieutenant, who arrived shortly after.

“Sir, I think you need to hear this and I think that I need to tell this to the Captain immediately, ” she announced.
Lieutenant Sergei Malenkov nodded and she excused herself. The Lieutenant gestured for them to sit “A pleasure to see you ladies again. You seem to be bearers of bad news, I expect to be unpleasantly surprised.”

Helga repeated the story for the Lieutenant. “Where is the Dark Cultist now?” he enquired.

“Breakfasting in the inn with Gwydion who ensorcelled him.” Helga mentioned offhandedly. “He is powerful. We should be careful not to break the enchantment upon him by threatening him. We knew it would be dangerous but we brought him here so that you all could interrogate him first-hand.”

Malenkov’s lips drew a line across his face. “I don’t want to alert his spies to his presence, if they aren’t already aware. I will hold up people leaving the keep for the moment but we will have to act soon. If you can bring him here, we would be able to sneak him into the inner bailey across the curtain wall. Once inside we should be able to get him into the inner keep. Can you get him here without a fuss?”

Marina nodded, Helga agreeing after some thought. The ladies rose and he showed them out. As they walked back Marina quizzed Helga and they hatched a plan.

They stopped at the inn, gathering the party before breezing into the Tavern.

Marina’s entrance was enchanting “Gwydion, is this your new friend? Wonderful! My name is Marina and I just have to show you this keep!”

Wendl looked a bit taken aback, but played along with encouragement.

“Don’t worry about breakfast darling!” Marina continued, “I’ll get them to make you another one when we return.” She took Wendl’s hand and lead him out towards the tower, chatting distractingly. Helga’s tension melted away as she saw Marina put Wendl at ease. Emily caught up to the pair and shared meaningless gossip, tales of their travel up the river and intrigues from her hometown of Threshold.

“You’re about to get a view no one else gets to see!” Marina clucked “These soldiers owe me a favour or two. They’ll let us up on the wall and we can see the whole valley.”

Wendl looked reassuringly towards Gwydion who nodded and smiled enthusiastically. The plan went along swimmingly. First the curtain wall and then through the small tower to the Inner bailey and then into the Keep itself. Marina breezed past the alerted guards and lead him down to the small meeting room.

Gwydion sat down on a couch making room for Wendl. “This is my contact Polibius. You can trust him. Please tell Polibius about the caves, the Steelwarriors and the planned invasion.”

Wendl initally looked suspicious of the patrician Chancellor but haltingly, and then with Gwydion’s encouragement, he related the information he had told the party.

When Polibius noted that there was no more to learn he started incanting a spell. Immediately Gwydion’s hold on Wendl ceased and the dark priest rounded on his new enemy. With the spell cast, silence descended on them all and the warriors tackled the priest, gagging and disarming him. Polibius removed Wendls unholy symbol before dropping the Silence spell. “He shall be arrested and hanged in the morning.” Guards lead Wendl away.

Helga baulked “He didn’t tell us who the spies are.”

“Now he’s unlikely to do so of his own free will.” Noted Emily.

“My mistake,” Polibius apologised, “Is there any way you could figure out who the contacts are from what he said to you?”

Kart thought for a second. “He mentioned them giving away free bread to ingratiate themselves with the people here.”

“That would be Brother Martin and his acolytes.” Polibius concluded. “They are in the apartments near the Guildhouse. Do you know that building?” Emily nodded. “Before this news spreads, the dark cultists must be removed. I will alert the Captain. Will you kill or capture them straight away?”

The adventurers looked around. They were weary, wounded and exhausted. Each nodded in turn and stood up.

Polibius showed them to the entry hall and assigned them a guard to lead them to the outer bailey.
Within minutes they had spotted the apartment. They took seconds to come up with a plan.

“We could go in with a ruse, have a couple more of the unarmoured ones come in ‘accidentally’ and then the dwarves Max and Helga come in and start the battle.” Suggested Emily.

“Your plan, your lead!” suggested Kart, slyly. She hooked her arm through his arm. “Well I need a hand for this to work! Follow my lead.”

Emily lead Kart up to the brother’s apartment and knocked on the door. A quiet acolyte nodded and beckoned them in. “Hello, my name is Emily. We need your help. This here is Kart, my lover and we need some advice.” Kart immediately looked uncomfortable.

In the kitchen a friendly-looking monk greeted them. “Come in and sit down Emily, Kart, I am Brother Martin. Tell me what you need help with. Have some bread.”

Emily dragged Kart into the kitchen. She clasped Brother Martin’s hands and looked him in the eyes earnestly. “The passion has left our love-life, Brother Martin. Kart barely touches me and never tells me that he loves me. We need advice to bring our hearts back together, may the blessings of Halav, Petra and Zirchev save us!”

Brother Martin was calm and measured, smiling at the unhappy couple and pulling some chairs out at the table before another knock at the door interrupted the conference.

Marina breezed in with Gwydion and Otto. “I thought you said you were headed to the gem merchant my dear?” she called to Emily. The monks all looked uncomfortable but not clearly suspicious, at least until the the two dwarves, Max and Helga marched in and closed the door.

With the ambush set, the priests back-pedalled, starting to grab their maces, and usher spells of prayer on their lips. The rooms would have been spacious if eleven combatants had not been crammed in. The cultists were attacked and both novices killed were killed quickly, Martin severely wounded.

Martin threw his mace down and fell to his knees in supplication before being knocked unconscious. Marina left to collect a guard detail, returning shortly with Polibius and some guards.

“We owe you thanks. We will take Brother Martin to the dungeons and he will be hanged with Wendl tomorrow. Feel free to use these apartments for the next month. They are already rented for that duration.” Polibius remarked before leaving.

The bodies were removed, after they were divested of armour and valuables by the victors. The party thoroughly looted the dark priests’ belongings but found no further information.

“Well at least these lovebirds should get the double bed to reignite their love-lives.” Quipped Gwydion, much to Kart’s unease.

View
Friends and Foes

Shrine of Evil Chaos, Vatermont 1, Mid-morning 1000AC

Whilst the adventurer’s discussed the meaning of the augury, Emily piled the necklaces and coin purses together. She laid her finger along-side her nose as she thought, tucked the necklaces inside the acolyte’s quarters, pocketed the coins and rejoined the conversation.

Listening in everyone else seemed to want to head up the incline and pass down the rightward passage. Dargar pointed out the aggregated rock in the wall, likening it to stone formed under a glacier, and noted the floor was made from a different, more recent, crushed stone.

Emily looked around. The walls sure were strange. Smooth and circular, except for the flat floor, the passage widened out to almost 30 feet across at its widest. Surely this was the cause of the booming noise reverberating around them as the armoured-types walked.

She looked back and noted that the team was forming up into their party order.
Gwydion had assigned the sorry looking Otto to the back line and informed Otto of their standard attack tactics.

“Am I up front or down the back?” Asked Emily.

Helga turned her head back to Emily. “Time is of the essence. Dargar and Gareth can lead, you just make sure we aren’t caught unawares from behind”. 

After walking up the slope and turning right, they spread themselves out through the passage until they spotted a door set back into the right wall.

Bringing his finger up across his lips to shush everyone, Gwydion put his ear against the door. He heard two, now three voices, speaking what he thought was Thyatian. Although he strained to hear, he could not hear more than a few words. Emily tried the handle. It turned easily and was unlocked.

When they had finished Dargar tapped him on the shoulder and whispered “There’s another door further up” nodding his chin at the door.

Gwydion pointed at Kart, Emily and Otto. He mimed sneaking and pointed to the door. Lighting two torches he handed waved them simultaneously and handed one to Max and one to Otto. A serious look on Max’s face and a nod confirmed that Otto would signal her and she would confirm when they were about to enter.

Dargar, Gareth, Helga and the dogs readied themselves for battle quietly whilst Gwydion followed the lightly armoured types to the second door. Standing aside, they let Gwydion put his ear against the door again.

The same voices could be heard, confirming Gwydion’s suspicions that the doors connected to the same room. He loosened his daggers, Emily drew her sword and put her left hand on the door handle. Kart’s sabre and Otto’s wrench were already out. Gwydion nodded at Otto: Otto swung his torch ‘ready’. Max’s torch swung in reply and Gwydion waited a three count before touching Otto’s shoulder again. As Otto’s arm descended, Emily and Max opened the doors.

Emily immediately stealing along the wall and finding an unawares acolyte arguing theology with his counterpart. She brought her adamantium short-sword across his throat, assassinating him with a single blow.

Max stepped back from the doors and sent the dogs into combat, followed by Gareth and Dargar before entering the room herself. Helga stepped in and aimed over Spot’s snarling form at a cultist, shooting him in the leg.

The lightning pace of the ambush had the cultists at a disadvantage. having each been wounded, they attempted to defend themselves with weapons instead of spells. With the death of their leader, each priest was surrounded by enemies and only their heavy armour had kept them alive for any period of time.

The invaders noted a heavily scarred priest, a mousey and now severely injured fellow and a disarmingly stupid and fearful looking defender.

In the combat, one of the priests laid a lucky blow on Dargar and another viciously clubbed Spot before being slain themselves. The final blow was Spot furiously tearing out his attacker’s throat in a spray of warm blood.

Taking time to catch their breaths, Kart searched through the priest’s chests and noted clothing and some scrolls. Max and Otto doused their torches for later use. Under Emily’s direction Otto placed some heavy copper dishes in his pack. Emily removed some valuable-looking belts with ivory clasps shaped like skulls from each of the dead adepts. Gareth gathered their belt pouches.

“Can anyone use this armour? Gareth? Max?” prompted Helga.

“It’s not the right size for me,” noted Gareth, “but it would be fine if I resized it back in town.”

Max took a moment to think. “The Tower Shield and the Howler are so heavy that I can barely manage banded mail at the moment. I am worried we may need to run and if I put on the plate I would be too slow.”

“We’ll think about coming back for it.” Ruled Gwydion.

Meanwhile Emily and Kart were arguing. “What are you doing with those scrolls?” Emily asked abruptly.
“I might learn something,” Kart began. “What like? How to become an evil priest? How to raise the undead?” Emily accused.

“No.” Kart was exasperated. “It says something about the Lord of Death, the Lord of Undeath and the Lord of Slavery and Torture.”

“Those were the themes of those tapestries.” Gareth interrupted.

“Do you know who they are Max?” Asked Kart

Max thought about it. “Leptar is the slave lord, like in that other book. The lord of undeath is the Demon Prince Orcus, an immortal of entropy. I’m not sure about the Lord of Death, but if the other two are Immortals of Entropy then it could possibly be Thanatos.” Just saying the name of that forbidden and forgotten deity in this place was eerie.

“Well now you know you don’t need to keep them!” Emily’s tone was maternal bordering on shrill but Kart ignored it, rolling up the scrolls and putting them in a case.

Gwydion announced: “We should move on. We are leaving a lot of clues that we’re here.”

Emily piled the amulets inside the door and closed both of the doors behind them. Forming their marching order, they continued up the passage, lead by the
light of the lantern.

After a bend to the right and then to the left, they came upon a room and a door to their right just before it. Rather than enter it together, they asked Emily to stealthily explore it and they dropped back ten feet to stay out of sight.

Coming up to the entrance, Emily noted the room was large. It extended to her left about eighty feet, and was half as wide to the wall opposite her.

As she crossed the threshold, the room sprang into light, eight braziers in two rows along the room, flashing into flame. Just ahead of her was a large gong on a frame with two strikers. The wall nearest her, to her right was covered entirely by a heavy black velvet curtain, as were the long walls opposite and behind her. The long walls had stone pews between the braziers and in front of the curtains.

Scanning the room, she noted a two tiered dais with a black slab altar surrounded but gem encrusted stone chairs. It was then that the light flooding the far wall drew her attention. It shifted in a hypnotic pattern, almost pulling her involuntarily to face it. She almost felt her knees bend in reverence and in her chest she felt a song beginning to vibrate, coming to her mind like an ancient memory in praise of evil.

It was only her memories of her family, or perhaps an ancient hin resilience which allowed her to desperately avert her gaze and prevent the magically inspired worship of these dark deities.

“Oh shit!” She exclaimed. “Don’t come in here! Don’t look in here!”

She rushed back to the entrance. “This place is cursed. I could feel magic trying to make me worship, to make me sing the praises of their Dark Lords.”

She then quickly detailled the other features of the room.

In a quandary, the group started discussing their near miss. “We could check the side door.” “Should we go forward or head back?” “We know that this is the way to go.” “We should be alright if we don’t look at it.” “Should we cover our eyes or use mirrors?” “We don’t know mirrors would work.” The group was playing to their strength of deduction and brainstorming but in the end it was to no avail as they were attacked on two fronts by undead emerging from behind a curtain and through the door to their right.

Despite being dressed in chain mail and their regimented manner, they managed to get within striking range much too quickly. With her back turned and weapon sheathed, Emily was easy prey. She had been stabbed 4 or five times before she could raise her own blade. Rover and Dargar had also been hit. The undead were so focussed on attacking, on reaching their quarry that they had packed in and blocked any more hands from reaching the heroes.

It could have been thirty or forty of the things pressing up to them. Dargar and Gareth and the dogs bit at the monsters and Emily, discretion the better part of valour, ran for her life, ensuring another sword cut her across the shoulder, drawing a large red gash in blood through her leathers.

Kart dug in his pouch and with a practiced eye waved his hands and chanted. Suddenly the air in front of the party was filled with webbing. Many of the creatures were immobilised but just as many slowly pressed themselves through the webs to reach their opponents.

“Get back while you can,” advised Gwydion “The same tactics as before. Throw the oil into the webs in even spacing. Get those torches lit. Emily and Otto go to the back and protect us from getting surprised from behind.”

With only a swipe at the closest skeletons or two from the dwarves as a deviation from the plan. Kart dribbled a line of oil from the webs back to their defensive line. He fished in his backpack to grab a black candle he had stolen earlier. Lighting it he rolled it towards the oil, but the wick went out. Quickly he took a torch off max and threw it onto the oil which ignited and they watched as a trail of flame rushed towards the webs.

With a ‘whoomph’, the web ignited, followed buy another larger explosion as the oil flasks hit the floor, superheated, spraying their contents amongst the undead. The skeletons had reached the adventurers before the zombies and had all been at the front, now they crumbled, blackened bones, swords, rags of chainmail falling to the ground. Behind them a few of the zombies were immolated completely as well. The smell of charred rotting flesh was almost as overpowering as the wave of heat emanating from the inferno. Two thirds of the zombies remained their blackened skin under chain mail showed cracks, revealing brown-grey flesh.

The webs finally dispersed, smoke trailing from them and some slightly aflame, the zombies advanced again. Helga released her arrows, felling two but a dozen continued onwards. The dwarves hacked at the oncoming undead but, like as not, their blows were turned away by the chain mail.

Kart remarked “Who puts chain mail on their zombies?” Before resorting to casting Magic Missiles at two of them.
The front row were being battered. Spot and Rover each had been hit hard, Dargar’s lip was bloodied and he seemed to be favouring his left side, Gareth’s flurry of blows was slowing.

The bodies of the zombies were piling in front of them. Only a handful remained when a dark shape streaked across the well lit room ahead of them and struck the gong. The passageway reverberated with the sound and as the last zombies fell, from deeper within the temple there followed a deep grating noise, which paused and then grated for a few more seconds.

Gwydion slipped into the side room the undead had emerged from and made himself Invisible. The room was completely empty and he slipped through the far door to the space behind the velvet curtain.

Kart ran into the temple, head down until he could stop behind the gong. Ducking down, keeping the wall out of view, he glanced towards the dais. He called out what he saw. Three zombies in plate armour, a large humanoid skeleton, probably a troll and a priest, pointing in the group’s direction. The troll skeleton lurched at the group and attacked its closest opponent. Each claw and its bite rent deep slashes into Rover and the dog lay dying on the floor.

The priest then started casting a long spell, which Kart responded to by interrupting them with his last spell, another Volley of magic missiles, causing the spell to fail. The Priest uttered a vile curse and sent the zombies to attack.

Maxalla dragged Rover to her by the tail before binding the bleeding wounds. Gareth clanged the shins of the troll with his axe and shot an arrow which ricocheted off the priest. Emily came forwards and launched a bullet from her sling, chipping one of its teeth.

Surprisingly there was no delay or lurch tot he zombies gait and they caught Kart flat-footed, one coming around each side of the gong and trapping him between the wall and the gong. Their rapid attacks pierced his silk and soon he was covered in his own blood.

The last zombie sped towards Helga who was forced to drop her bow and draw Rustproof to defend herself. Otto ran forward to attack with his wrench and chipped the feet of the skeleton.

Quietly parting the curtains, Gwydion slipped through the room, looking at the floor, noting the priest’s position out of the corner of his eye. He circled the priest and ended just a few feet behind his foe. The cleric released his staff after saying the word “encircle” and as it fell to the floor it transformed into a giant python.

Whilst Gareth, Dargar and Otto toiled, only slightly damaging the large humanoid, the awful beast tore at Gareth, claws raking him and drawing a grunt of pain. In desperation Maxalla brought out her symbol of Halav- a small gilded shield raising it above her head, eyes raised. She called out to Halav and Petra and Zirchev to fill her with righteousness and send away these monstrosities. Looking back down, she heard the same sounds of combat without effecting the undead.

Gwydion whispered the quietest incantation and released his desperate spell at the man in front of him. As a consequence Gwydion reappeared. The spell seemed not to fizzle as he had expected, and his foe seemed to stop his preparations to assault Gwydion’s friends.

Meanwhile, Kart decided to evade his attackers and neatly swung himself up onto the cross beam of the gong, dancing along the beam and facing down on the two zombies. Their swords snaked up at him and his feet leapt free of their reach but unexectedly, one of the blades reversed, gashed him in the hamstrings and the second sword pinned him through the abdomen, emerging from his back. Kart’s body fell backwards, over the gong and to the floor, his sabre clattered away and his eyes closed as his life’s blood ebbed.

Emily gasped and tried to push past her allies and the troll but was held back by Max.

Gwydion tapped the priest on the shoulder “Hello friend!, I’m Gwydion. I think that you’ve made a mistake in attacking these people!”

The robed figure half turned and beamed at Gwydion. “Oh hello Gwydion, I’m Wendl, I didn’t see you there! I am so sorry, how can I help?”

Gwydion’s lips pursed he pointed to Kart’s near lifeless body. “Would you mind healing my friend? He’s had a bit of a fall. It’s a bit of a hurry I’m afraid. Oh can you send your snake to tie up the skeleton?”

Eagerly Wendl agreed and then bustled over to Kart and touched the bloodied form. Life flowed into Kart as the abdominal wounds closed. Despite re-awakening Kart lay on the floor, eyes closed, knowing that if he moved he could be stabbed again by the zombies. “Thanks Wendl, you’re a real life saver!” Gwydion wrapped his arm around his thrall’s shoulders to convey to his fellows not to attack the high priest.

Helga sliced heavily into the zombie in front of her, felling the creature. Seeing their opponent downed, the two remaining zombies headed to attack the dwarves.

“Wendl, you seem to be in charge around here. I’m wondering if you could send the zombies and skeleton back to sleep?” Gwydion flashed his most winning smile. “Could you do that for me. Best friend?”

Wendl also threw a hand over Gwydion’s shoulder. He seemed reassuring, magnanimous he raised a symbol of horned skull. “Enough. Return to your posts.” He hissed at the python “Come back my friend.” The python uncoiled and slid near him, before re-forming into a staff.

The undead left their opponents mid combat and the two zombies parted some curtains near the dais and disappeared from view. The mighty troll skeleton, barely damaged, loped towards the stone altar, slid back its lid balled itself into the receptacle and slid the lid back over itself.

“Welcome to the Temple of Evil Chaos everybody, sorry for the inconvenience! I’m Wendl Ioldaner, the high priest of Orcus. What are your names?” Wendl wondered up with his hand out to meet each of them.

Gwydion noted how his companions continued to look to the floor. “Oh, ah Wendl, would you mind turning the lights off from the hypnotic wall? It’s a bit of a distraction!”

Nodding Wendl agreed. “No need for you all to prostrate yourself to the Dark Triad now, hey! That would interrupt our introductions.” The wall darkened with a wave of his unholy symbol.

He looked down at Otto, standing at the back of the group. “What are you doing here? I thought we had you chained up downstairs making traps.”

“Ah, finished! All done. Zoran thought I should get a bit of a break, undid the chains.” Otto lied in a flap.

Gwydion took up the story smoothly. “Zoran did it as a favour to us. We thought the little guy was cute and asked if he could come with us. He said yes.”

“I’m glad he did.” Wendl beamed. “He is rather cute isn’t he. He can be my present to you!”. Gwydion made a very pleased face, encouraging Wendl. “Who wants to come back to my room for some food? I fear there aren’t enough chairs for everyone.”

Emily reassured the ensorcelled priest. “Oh that’s alright! I’ll stay with Max here while she heals her dogs. I’ll catch up with you in a little while.” Emily started to open her pack but then turned back to the now upright Kart. “Oh, Kart, why don’t you give those scrolls to our new friend. You know, the ones about the Dark Triad!”

Kart blanched. Wendl looked incredibly excited. “Really? For me? Dark scriptures! You shouldn’t have!” Kart handed over the scroll to the priest’s delight.
“I think I’ve read these but I do love a surprise. Thank you.”

He lead the way between the curtains to a small ante-chamber in front of his quarters where the two remaining zombies stood guard.

Remaining in the temple, Max healed Rover and then turned to consecrate the alter with holiness to spoil its dark power. Emily pulled out a crowbar and started jimmying the precious stones out into an open sack.

View
On Second Thoughts...

Caves of Chaos, early morning, Lunadain, 1 Vatermont 1000 AC

Emily awoke between Maxalla and Helga. The large sable cloak was warm, comfortable and it would have been wonderful to snuggle in with Kart.

He had demurred citing that they had to be quiet in the passage overnight. She was starting to get frustrated. It had been fun to flirt with him to begin with but now he just seemed like a wet blanket.

“Ugh, I can’t believe we’re missing Tax Day.” She noted, although she already carried a note confirming that she was up to date for the quarter.

They ate quietly and donned their armour. Gwydion pulle don the mystery boots before half hooding the lantern. He listened at the secret door to the store room and then opened it out.

Systematically they opened crates, Helga and Emily guarding the passage out of the room.

Helga held her bow knocked but was still curious about the contents of the boxes. “Is there any evil temple stuff here? Red or black candles and the like.”

Kart found stoppered vials of what appeared to be water. “I suspect this isn’t holy water.”

“Can you sense if they are evil, Max?” Prompted Gwydion.

Max shook her head. “I didn’t pray for that spell. I didn’t think that it would be useful when there was such an evil feeling around.”

Dargar grunted and smirked. “The most evil store-room in the world!”

As they all chuckled, Emily let out a shriek of alarm. Despite looking down the passage, she had suddenly been attacked by a near-invisible creature. A large cube of Jelly had tried to whack her and engulf her. Only her lightning reflexes prevented her being paralysed by its toxin.

Arrows sailed over her head an buried themselves in the cube. Gwydion launched his silver dagger at the cube, perhaps hoping that the silver would not be dissolved inside of the creature.

Max called sharply and brought Spot and Rover to heel. She was not sure that their contacting the cube would be safe. She moved forward shield forward to slug the Jelly with her morningstar- it quivered with the impact.

The cube was so large that each of the adventurers could attack it- either marching up to one of its faces or launching a missile above one of their companions.

It attempted to strike Emily again but she avoided its blow, finally retaliating with her adamantium blade.

With a few more wet thuds the jelly melted into a wet pile on the floor.

In the aftermath of battle, Gwydion noted that he did not leave wet footprints after stepping in the ooze. Kart theorised “No footprints: maybe they’re boots of water walking.”

“Someone give me a hand.” Gwydion gestured to one of the barrels of water. Max steadied him as he popped up onto a crate and tried to stand on the surface of the water.

There was a loud splash as he was immediately wait deep in the water. The gypsy pulled himself out, pulled off the boots and his hose and started to wring out the hose.

Dargar lifted one of the boots and poured out the remaining water. “These things are bone dry! At least they won’t get covered in mud.” Gwydion thankfully pulled the boots on, sans the stockings, which he threaded over his pack to dry.

Max finished binding Emily’s wounds, turned to the group and declared: “There’s no point in waiting around here now.”

Emily slipped down the passage and came to a set of stairs leading down to the right. She padded back and brought the team up to that point before slipping down another passage to the left. Minutes passed and Emily slipped back into the lantern light.

“There’s three passages up there- left, right and straight ahead. There’s no movement about otherwise.” She lead them to the junction. When she turned around for direction, Kart and Gwydion both pointed right.

She slipped down the rightward passage and quickly returned, leading them on. They passed an alcove to the left and stopped at a door also on the left hand side of the passage. Facing the door were stairs down into darkness.

Whilst Gwydion listened at the door and Emily checked the handle, Dargar and Kart checked the alcove for a secret door. Neither pair found anything of note, so Emily pushed the door open quietly.

The room was odd. It was clearly opulent, with a luxurious bed, beautiful set of wooden table and chairs surrounded by tapestries on three walls. It wasn’t the artful tapestries either, despite their depictions of strife, undeath and inhuman torture. The bed was unmade, messy. There was a cheap box of cheap clothing on the floor. It seemed that someone had moved in here on short notice.

Emily moved a piece of velvet on the table, revealing a polished silver mirror and quickly moved on to slitting the pillows and mattress. Taking her lead Gwydion poked a sword into the wooden box. “I win.” He teased as the sword clanked against a bag of coins.

Kart lifted the bag out and popped it in his pack. “Are you noting that in your ledger?” Emily snarkily challenged. Kart looked affronted and was surprised by Gwydion making a note on a slip of paper. They returned to the intersection initially forsaking the stairs.

Straight on from where they had originated, Emily found a set of stairs up to a door. After a quick parley, she headed down the last passage, leading to another door.

There was a small hooded window in the door but Gwydion ignored it in lieu of another minute of concentrated listening. “Someone’s sleeping.. but there is something else.” He listened again. His voice came up in a question “Snakes?”.

Kart was on guard. “Step back.” He urged as he prepared to cast his spell. His hands finished their movements and ended up on either side of his forehead, eyes closed in concentration.

“Oh no. Just as I thought. There’s only one creature in there.” He took his time. I think that it’s standing up.

“A snakey person who is asleep standing up?” Gwydion’s brow furrowed. “I’m worried it’s a medusa but no-one sleeps standing up if they don’t have to. Maybe it’s a prisoner.”

Helga pulled a small mirror from her pack, Gwydion removed the velvet covered mirror. Kart lifted the hat off his head and placed not one but two sacks over his head. Even more cautiously he pulled his hat down as well.

Emiy checked the door, unlocking it and stepped back. The door was pushed open by Kart who stepped into the room, using his ESP to guide him. In the mirror, Gwydion saw the shapely legs of a woman chained to the wall, shadows hiding her face.

Dargar took Helgas mirror in his left hand and followed them in awkwardly.

Kart approached, he was just over a sword’s length from the woman.

Gwydions voice woke the medusa. The snakes came to life, whipping into a frenzy.
“Free me!” She screamed in fury.

“That sounds a bit dangerous to me.” Gwydion mused. “Why do they have you prisoner?”

She looked up directly into his face. Gwydion kept his eyes on the mirror. “They will kill me. They plan to sacrifice me to the demon-lord of undeath!”

Kart subtly nodded to Gwydion, confirming the truth of her statement.

“You must let me go! The gaoler promised to put out my eyes, cut off my hair and rape me before the ceremony. Please!”

Kart’s nod confirmed this.

“I promise to leave you safe if you free me. I have something to trade… They didn’t find a small salve I have to bring people back from being turned to stone.”

Kart finally spoke. “I don’t know how they missed it but she has the salve. The rest is a lie.”

“She’s dangerous and evil. She has to die here.” Determined Dargar.

She wailed in fury, trying to meet their gazes in turn. They each tried to attack, clumsily, getting in each other’s way but eventually brutally killed the monstorus woman.

“Should we destroy her heart?” Suggested Kart, fumbling whilst he averted his gaze but eventually finding the ointment tucked in the medusa’s belt.

Max’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know much about demonic sacrifices.” She waited until she found the right way to say the next few words. “I am pretty sure that with such a dangerous creature, they would have killed her if the sacrifice could have gone ahead with her corpse.”

Kart put one of the sacks over the medusa’s head and leaving, the room returned the other to Emily. After they had all left, Emily closed and locked the door.

They returned to the messed bedroom, preparing for battle with the presumed Jailer. Emily disappeared stealthily down the stairs opposite. The room below was large and well lit, Emily shifted her position in the stairwell to be in the shadows cast by the torches. The room was an odd mix: opulent couches what seemed to be torture equpiment, some of which had been moved to become an impromptu workshop.

At the bench was an energetic gnome, chained to the bench, puttering about on a project of some sort with the energy only a gnome could muster. To her left an ugly man moved into view. It was a half orc, clearly massive, brutal and bored. Emily imagined him less as a gaoler and more a frustrated torturer. She remembered the stories about the Black Eagle’s gaols

She shifted her position but just when she reached the last step, Emily slipped and banged her pack against a wall. The brute’s head snapped to the stairwell, eyes seekign and finding Emily in the half light there. “Oh, guys! I’m coming back in a hurry!” Emily warned as she turned to run. She had seen the Gaoler grasp a great two handed axe, twice her height.

Upstairs, Helga and Gwydion had opened the bedroom door and launched daggers and arrows over Emily and the dwarves at the half orc. Brushing off the inconvenient arrows, the Gaoler struck a ringing blow across Gareth’s hammer and shoulder, almost dropping the weapon from the grouchy dwarf’s grasp.

Kart leapt in from the Half-orc’s left side and slashed at his foe’s thigh, leaving a red slash through the thug’s leathers. Emily squeezed past Kart and caught her breath in the alcove before drawing her shortsword. She shivered. It had been a close call, out there on her own. She hoped that her friends would remain between herself and the axe.

Standing on the sturdy table in the guest’s bedroom, Helga took aim and launched a final arrow just above the gaoler’s studded armour and through his unguarded neck. The brute stumbled, dropping his axe and was brutally decapitated by Dargar, who immediately looked sheepish.

Sheathing her adamantium shortsword, Emily halted Kart’s cursory looting by notifying them of the prisoner downstairs.

" A gnome?" asked Gareth. Gwydion studied the slender dwarf he had not noted any curiosity in Gareth before this, only hatred tempered by discipline. Heading down stairs, they surprised the gnome at work. His workbench was indeed two torture devices pulled together, partly dismantled and covered in crude tools, tubes, springs, cogs and oilpots.

A wary smile found its way onto the prisoner’s middle aged face. With a clank he held out his chained hand and introduced himself as “Otto but everyone calls me ‘Red’”, whilst simultaneously rubbing his bald scalp.

Kart shook the gnome’s hand. It was true that Otto’s pate was surrounded by a rim of long wild red hair with long similarly coloured sideburns. He also had a longish chin-beard, also ruddy.

Despite his chains the gnome looked like he was in his enviroment. He was still dressed in a leather jerkin with a front flap, displaying two parallel rows of bright brass buttons running down each side. There was a pair of goggles framing his forehead, on a strap, almost his functional version of a crown. He had a large gnomish adjustable wrench on the bench, which he quickly brought up and used it like a pointer.

“You seem familiar.” Red pointed to Gareth with the wrench. “You’re from Highforge? Training as a smith, yes?”

Gareth nodded. “I’m a master now.” Gwydion noted Gareth’s neutral expression. Gareth would be good at card games.

Absently Otto noted Gareth’s forge hammer. “I’ve got a use for that!” He suddenly beamed, wrapping the manacle chains around the small anvil on his bench. To get into position, gareth dragged over a step and climbed onto the bench. With a flick the large hammerhead struck the chains with a clang and deformed the links, breaking Otto free from the bench.

Kart was taken aback by their alacrity “I, ah, got a key form the gaoler’s body.” He ventured.

Otto looked down to his still shackled wrists and the lengths of chain dangling from them. He patted Gareth absentmindedly on the back and declared “I like the symbolism of the hammer, but you are right, the key is still required.”

After he was released he introduced himself to each of them in turn.

“Do you need to collect anything?” asked Helga.

“The wrench is the only thing here I need. I left a chest buried near the Castellan Keep when I started into the humanoid tribes’ lands. If you have a spare crossbow, or if we find one, I wouldn’t refuse it.”

They headed up stairs to the intersection. Emily left down the remaining passage which lead to a rising set of stairs. Gwydion was summoned by to the landing above and he listened intently. There was a shuffling march leading away: the door opened onto a passage. Heading back they decided to make sure that they wouldn’t be attacked form the rear, backtracking to the stairs near the storeroom.

These lead down to a door barred from their side. The stillness, cobwebs and eerie groans from inside the room persuaded them to spike the door closed and head back to the ‘shuffling’ landing.

Gwydion listened again. There were no sounds and Emily opened the door a crack. The corridor turned a corner just outside, and in the passage ahead. “About fifteen, twenty zombies. Standing facing us.”

They returned to their companions, quickly running Otto through their standard tactics, varying the plan for their precarious position on the stair’s landing and getting themselves into their allotted places.

As planned, Emily opened the door and Kart, standing next to her, quickly chanted and released a web spell encompassing the zombies. Helga lead the way out, Gwydion, Dargar and Gareth streaming out to the left of the doorway and lobbing bottles of oil to be caught in the sticky webbing. Max held the dogs at bay and threw a burning brand into the flammable mess they had just created, setting the zombies aflame, culling all but a handful. Helga then released her first arrows, dropping another of the smoking corpses.

Next to where they had emerged, another door was flung open. Four black robed acolytes emerged, cursing and brandishing flails. One died with one of Gwysion’s daggers in his chest, and another ran to strike at Dargar. The third eyed the group at the top of the stairs. He hissed a dark curse, pointing to Otto and uttered a word imbued with entropic power “Stumble!”.

Emily watched as, perched at the top of the stairs, Otto overbalanced, tangled his feet and fell down the stairs into darkness.

Max released Rover and Spot, and the dogs growled and bit at the cultist’s robes, revealing sturdy armour underneath. The remaining zombies ambled forwards and bludgeoned at the heroes, their cracked blackened smouldering skin and smell of decay wrenching at Helga’s stomach. As they closed she drew a sword and hacked another back to oblivion.

Next to Helga, Gwydion stepped into the dying zombie’s slippery ichor. Steeling himself, he was surprised when his foot did not slide out from under him. Filled with confidence, he stabbed his ruby dagger at another of the undead.

Our heroes, in a numerical advantage, methodically decimated their foes. The last enemy, a zombie smashed to awful shreds by Gareth. The zombies’ robes had been burned off but evil looking amulets graced each of their forms. Similar necklaces adorned each of the acolytes, but their robes were essentially intact, the blood barely noticable as darker patches against black of the robes.

Emily brought the battered and bruised gnome up the stairs. He limped and had a crack in his goggles, wincing at every step.

In turn, they each looked at the grim scene about them.

“We need to decide which way to go.” announced Dargar. “We’re a bit below where we started, deeper into the end of the valley but I don’t know where an exit might be.”

Gwydion cleared a space on the floor and hunkered down. He reached into a pouch and drew out some small animal bones, casting them on the ground.

He looked up at his companions, the feel of evil still pervading their senses. “The bones tell us what we want to know. All paths away from here lead to great danger, but going down the rightward passage increases our chances of great rewards.”

He glanced at Emily. She was looping amulets over her sword, unconsciously, slowly, walking in the direction the bones suggested.

View
The Rock and the Hard Place

Caves of Chaos, Numont 28th, 1000 AC, Morning
Steam emerged from the bodies of the four gnoll guards as the heroes formed into their marching order. Max half-hooded the lantern whilst Emily quietly advanced down the passage ahead. Dargar and Gareth waited for a minute’s count before they slowly advanced.

Even the humans could tell that the passage slped downwards. Dargar whispered to the group “About a one in four grade, very steep.” The passage was tall and they saw Emily’s outline about fifty feet ahead of them, slowly sliding down the wall, her adamantium shortsword blacked and drawn behind her back. It was clear from her position that the floor she was walking on had levelled out.

A short time later Emily seemed to slip behind a wall and the dwarves signalled a stop at the bottom of the slope as a passage intersected their position from the right. The discussion turned to whether to wait, advance or to take the side passage. Discipline seemed to be the watchword and they waited in a newfound silence. “She’s coming back.” Soon they could hear her running footsteps.

“There’s about eight of them around the corner, they’re getting ready for battle.”

“Back up a bit, onto the slope,” suggested Helga. “Max, shut the lantern.”

Kart started incanting the words to a spell of protection.

Emily stepped into the darkness. “I’ll check the side passage.” A second passed before they heard her trip and quietly swear to herself.

Dargar’s voice came low and clear. “They’re coming. Max I’ll let you know when to open the lantern.”

Helga’s bow creaked as she held her draw. Gwydion prepared a bullet for his sling.

“Now.”

As the light spilled out across the intersection, the faces of the lead gnolls started to be reflected. Immediately there was a thrum of the bow and whistle of a sling, killing the first gnoll. Just after that, Kart raised his voice in incantation.

Suddenly the passage was filled with strong adherant webbing, excepting the lowest five feet of the corridor. The gnolls, averagiing seven and a half feet tall, were mostly trapped from mid torso up, feet flailing. The lead pair were clearly inextricable, the five at the rear were a little shorter and slowly started using their weight to tear through the strands. The lead gnoll started calling out at the top of his lungs- it was clearly an alarm.

“Attack” Max commanded the wolves. The beasts launched across the twenty feet to the gnolls, followed quickly by the dwarves. Their heights were advantageous, allowing them under the webs, quickly dispatching their foes.

Kart dove past them, rolling along the passage after the escaping gnolls. These seemed to be females, armed with clubs. Drawing his sabre, he cut down his closest opponant from behind.

Gareth and Dargar trailled after Kart, almost reaching the battle again.

Emily’s voice approached rapidly from the side passage. “A door is opening down here. We’re about to be attacked on two sides.”

She wasn’t wrong, six gnolls emerged from the doorway, five heading up the passage in their direction, the last heading quickly away from them.

Max slid in next to Emily and Rover, to face the oncoming attack, Helga and Gwydion formed a line behind them. The gnolls’ ferocity pressed Emily back, slamming her with a large club. Max’s large shield protected her from the barrage of blows. She brought Bartziluth’s Howler around in an arc and caught the gnoll in the hip, drawing a yelp of pain.

Rover swiped at one of the gnolls, spraying saliva across his armour, but otherwise not harming the beast. Helga and Gwydion launched their missiles over Emily’s head, with varying success at striking her attacker.

Around the same time, the female gnoll guards were attacked whilst retreating and killed by Kart, Dargar, Gareth and Spot. Kart dashed back to the new combat, determined to bury his sabre in one of the gnolls.

Killing the front two gnolls, the adventurers became aware of a rhythmic noise ‘whoosh-whack’ echoing down the long passage ahead of them. As this continued, the rear row of gnoll guards backed up and re-entered the room they had emerged from, leaving only one gnoll facing the remaining heroes.

The final gnoll valiantly attacked, catching Emily flatfooted again, but was ravaged by Rover and clubbed down by Max.

The beating noise continued slowly approaching and Kart elbowed his way to the front of the group and advanced boldly down the passage. He saw shadows moving on the wall, at a slight bend in the corridor.

Suddenly, the beating stopped and was replaced by the sound of jangling chainmail and pounding feet. Two smallish gnoll-like humanoids with shields and chained metal barsrushed at Kart, followed by a giant, muscled gnoll brandishing a great-axe and two burly followers.

“Are they flinds?” Kart speculated. His knowledge of monsters was purely book-learning. Dancing from foot to foot Kart looked as if he would meet the charge with his sabre and silk but rapidly ran up the wall and somersaulted over the heads of the attacking flinds.

The giant gnoll swept his great axe at Kart. The giant blade swept past ans clipped the tunnel wall.

The flind’s charge was met by Dargar and Gareth. Waving his wicked battle axe at his closest opponant, Dargar was surprised to have his weapon knocked from his grasp.

Slipping Vintar’s hand-axe from his belt he struck back at the warrior, drawing blood. Gareth swung his forge-hammer and then his hand axe failing to land any blows.

The large gnoll, presumably the chief and his bodyguards found it difficult to hit Kart. Some of the hits should have landed but were turned away at the last minute by a shield of force. Meanwhile Kart was concentrating on side stepping all of their strikes.

In a bout of frustration, the Chief clicked his boots together before he leapt into the air and seemed to levitate over Kart, drifting gently down to the floor behind the mage. Rather than attack Kart from behind, he leapt forward and attacked Gareth with his long axe, drawing sparks from his plate and a cry of pain from his otherwise hate-filled visage.

After they had clubbed the front row of defenders a few times with their metal rods, the flinds were cut down. Helga stepped back and launched two arrows at the chief, one of them finding a mark in a chink between plates of his armour. Kart remained fleet footed and avoided his attacker’s blows.

The Chief lashed out at Spot and struck a heavy blow against the wolf, causing him to disengage form the fight. The tide of battle seemed to be turning when with another stroke of luck, Helga managed to lodge an arrow in the eye of the Chief.

With a howl of grief and fury, the two bodyguards abandoned their attacks on Kart, fleeing back down the passage. Without hesitation, the heroes charged after the remaining gnolls, and cut one of them down before the last made it through a door far down the passage.

Gareth was missing. “I think he stayed to guard the door where the other gnolls had returned to.” Noted Max.

Noises inside the room ahead sounded like furniture was barricading the closed door.

“We need to bash down this door” assessed Kart, after first trying the handle, “he’s the strongest here with those Gauntlets of the Ogrillon.”

Emily and Gwydion volunteered to relieve Gareth from his watch and left whilst Dargar and Max lined up to charge the door simultaneously.

As they rounded the bend, Emily spotted Gareth braced against the lintel holding the door closed.

“They need your strength there to open a door.” Emily called.

Grunting, Gareth nodded to the portal in fromt of him. “Unless you want to be trapped in a dead end, you need my strength to close this door.”

“We have rope and pitons, we should be able to tie it shut.” Suggested Gwydion, haanding a hammer and spikes to Emily.

Gareth eased his hands off the handle of the door as Gwydion slipped in to replace him. The ringing of the hammer against the piton rang out and Emily quickly threw a loop of silk rope over the spike. She quickly threw another loop over the handle and attempted to cinch a knot to hold the door closed.

Whilst attempting this, a large pull on the door handle pulled Gwydion off his feet and yanked the rope so hard that Emily fell onto him with a yell.

Gareth had only just arrived when Kart heard Emily’s cry. Useless at opening doors, Kart ran back to help the rogue and the bard. Standing in the open doorway were two gnolls, the closest had grabbed the struggling halfling woman and was dragging her into the room.

Inside the room, a circle of female gnolls brandished clubs and awaited an intruder.

“Help, Kart!” Emily looked tiny in the hands of the gnoll.

Vaulting ahead Kart stuck his sabre through one of the arms of the Abductor. Gwydion regained his feet and swung a dagger at the other arm and Emily fell heavily to the floor.
The second gnoll pulled his comrade backwards in an attempt to close the door, but Kart planted his foot in in the way.

Gwydion encouraged Kart “Keep the door open, I can try and put them to sleep.” The spell sounded like a song from Gwydion’s beautiful tenor.

Within the room, many of the remaining gnolls fell to the floor, asleep, where they had been standing.

Cutting down one of the remaining male gnoll guards, the most senior of the female gnolls called out in thickly accented Thyatian for mercy.

In the mean time, Gareth had splintered the door and was helped in knocking down the barricade by the other warriors. Looking into the room they noted a gnoll preparing to climb up the fire-place and a last flash of a foot climbing ahead of him. Savagely cutting down the terrified gnoll, they looked up the chimney, blinking and spitting out the falling soot, and noted their quarry was escaping.

“I’m going to grab the chief’s Boots of Levitation”. Dargar announced as he ran back down the passage.

He passed a strange scene where Kart and Gwydion were negotiating with the remaining gnolls.

Kart and Gwydion sttod in the door with weapons drawn, surrounded by the unconscious and the dead, speaking to an unarmed warrior and four unarmed female gnolls. The females were shepherding a number of gnoll pups.

“I don’t think it ethical to kill the women and children, especially now that they’re surrendering.” Judged Kart. Except for the passing Dargar, his audience was in agreement. Unable to add anything to the conversation, Emily left to join Dargar in looting the already fallen Gnolls.

“You have to promise to leave and not come back.” Demanded Kart. “We need your promise.”

“We need a safe cave for the little ones, our warriors are dead,” the old gnolless countered. “We need supplies travel or you force us to starve in the snow.”

“We are going to clear these Caves. You must promise to leave.” The argument circled for a minute or two.

“We promise. Lead us to our supplies.” Capitulated the warrior. Kart lead them past the magical webs and watched as the gnolls took food, blankets and other provisions.

He followed them out to the cave mouth.

At that time Dargar was floating up the chimney and found himself in a small bush looking out upon the valley. He saw the chimney escapee gnolls arriving across the valley and being joined by a half dozen, and later another dozen orcs.

To Dargar’s right he noted the refugee gnolls and Kart at the gnoll-cave. They marched down the valley, quietly, in an orderly fashion. It became apparent to Kart that the gnoll warrior had lied and they were marching directly to the orc caves across the valley. Once it appeared thatr they were not being chased, the refugees started running at a pace.

Inside the chimney room, systematic searching had revealed a pot of coins and an ancient secret door.

Across the valley, the orcs and the chimney gnolls started massing and began to charge back towards Kart. Kart retreated into the caves. Dargar yelled to those below him. “There’s a counter attack. We’re about to be over-run.”

“Leave or stay?” Emily prompted the others in the chimney room.

“Our horses are gone and there’s no guarantee we could out-run them in the snow.” Gareth posited.

“I agree, we have to make a stand.” Nodded Max.

Emily prompted “Guys, there is dust and a skeleton in the secret passage.”

“Is it alive, an undead skeleton, I mean?” Asked Helga.

Shaking her head Emily clarified. “No it looks like an elf, he’s got a broken leg. He probably broke his leg and got trapped in there and starved to death. He’s clearly been there years, almost everything is rotted and there is dust everywhere. I don’t think the gnolls knew about it.” She showed Gwydion the passage, steppig over the corpse and its surprisingly preserved boots. At the far end of the. Passage she pointed to a wall “This wall is likely the way out. Once we’re safe inside we should be able to find the mechanism.”

“Right, let’s get in there.” Decided Gwydion. “Emily clean up our footprints so they can’t tell where we went. Dargar, go tell Kart so that we don’t leave him behind.”

Ushering everyone into the passage, they left the gnoll’s cave and shut the secret door behind them.

The room was quiet and they kept their movements to a minimum. Kart took the boots off the skeleton, reasoning that as the skeleton was elf-sized that these would be elven boots.

Max stood behind Gwydion and Emily until they found a small stone they twisted to reveal another room.

Stepping out of the passage, they saw a large store room.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Kart whispered.

Everyone agreed. There was a pervasive feeling of evil about.

Disappointed, Kart realised, “Oh, we’ve found our way into that Evil Cave.”

“Maybe we should go back into the passage and tend to our wounds.” Suggested Helga.

Dread filling them, they retreated to spend an uneasy night in that cold and dusty passage.

View
Thoughts about taxes

Loshdain 27th Numont 1000AC Evening

After the meeting with the Keep’s command, the adventurers were escorted back to the outer bailey.

“There’s supposed to be a gem merchant in the appartments.” Emily indicated. “I’d like to swap some gold.”

“I’ll take you there and we can meet the others at the tavern for dinner afterwards.” Offered Marina.

Emily quickly nodded, hefted the backpack full of coins and followed Marina, noting that Marina no longer cared to lift the hem of her travel stained skirts from the mud.

Kart, Gwydion and Helga hurried back through the alleys to the Inn and quickly changed into some warm clothing. Their host Calpurnio, who asked to be called “Ernie” took their wet and dirty clothing to wash, wrapping them in blankets for the short trip across the square to the Tavern.

The food was hearty and hot if a little overdone. Stew, bread, mulled wine and warm cider were scoffed and then the group left quietly, aiming to ease their aching muscles with a soft bed.

Rising later than usual, they came down for breakfast to the common room. Ernie and his wife Ellie were making breakfast for two young men. These gents looked brash and serious, and were talking quietly amongst themselves when Helga sat down.

“You came in last night.” One nodded towards Helga.

Helga reached for some bread and honey. “Up the road, yes.” Helga was used to talking to warriors. She had an economy of words, born of a habit of letting others show their intentions before she did.

“I’m Bronin Stann, and this is my friend Vanyali Iohannes. We got here a couple of days ago” introduced the second man. Moments passed as her friends shuffled in around the table. “Are you the ones from Veseya? The ones who killed the hobgoblin king of Leptar’s Fist?”

“Horrack Elfslayer, his name was. Yes, we’re, well, most of them,” Maxalla confirmed before she was momentarily distracted by Ellie. Max turned to Ellie and accepted a bowl of hot porridge.

“We’re looking for work, if you need some help,” announced Vanyali. “We’ll be here a few days, let us know if you need us or we’ll have to head back south.”

Kart took up the last threads of the conversation, engaging them about their pasts and exploits. He seemed to be fishing for their talents and caveats.

“We don’t work independent, mind,” mentioned Bronin. “We ain’t here to be heroes, just hired muscle. We won’t guard things in the middle of nowhere while you’re off exploring, but we can keep watch and protect your flanks in a tight spot.”

“I have a sort of different idea.” Kart mused. “We sort of need information, odd jobs, that sort of thing. What would you say if I put you on the payroll for a week or two. You could hang around the tavern. Make friends. Chat. Have a couple of drinks. If we need you to ride out with us maybe you could take the horses back. That sort of thing.”

Emily shrugged. It seemed a waste of money but Gareth, of all people seemed in support.

“It’s the first time you’ve made sense Kart. If you want the privilege of information you have to pay for it.” For all of the intent of the compliment, Gareth’s comments sounded like a critique.

Not to be distracted, Kart and the sell swords had hammered out a deal. They would hang out and drink with people at the tavern for a fortnight, unless required for a chore and report back on anything of note.

Max announced her intent to get armour for the two wolves, and headed out to the tanner’s to see if they also worked leather, Dargar and Gareth expressed interest in visiting Orell’s Smithy which they had passed on the way into the keep.

“I, for one, would like to investigate the bank and see if the pawn shop would sell us more portable treasure.” Emily posited. Gwydion was less interested in portability of their gold than what sort of items would end up in a pawn shop. He volunteered to lug down Emily’s chest.

“I’ll come along, on the way to the stables.” Helga rose to follow them.

Kart hustled after the other three as they left the inn. “Do you think they would have spellbooks?”

Gwydion shrugged his hood up against the wind and rain. “I don’t know anyone who would leave a spellbook behind, let alone in a pawn shop.”

The bank was overlooked by the Fountain Square Tower. At the base of the tower stood a private of the first company, dressed in leather armour and riding boots, a hauberd resting lightly in her hands.

Kart doffed his hat in an elegant sweep, and the pretty young soldier blushed and stared past him with determination. Emily snorted and lightly tripped Kart so that he would stumble just a mite.

Helga started reading the sign on the door, written in Thyatian. It was the first time most of them had hear her read aloud. She was clearly proficient in reading the language although her inflection was not typical of a native speaker. “Bank and Moneylender. Secured and guaranteed by the order of the Castellan. Disturbances to the Duke’s Peace will be dealt with severely. Lord Karl-Heinrich Wolf.”

A smaller sign underneath mentioned that the bank was a member of the Money Lender’s Guild.

The door opened into a small warm shop and a round and pleasant man introduced himself as Hubertus and asked their names, describing that there were items for sale and describing in broad terms the lending practices of the premises. Near the entrance on a stiff chair waited a guard in plate-mail and nursing a cocked crossbow. The clerk was a scrawny, wizened lady, a small lamp next to a large tome on her small desk, rugged up near to the fireplace.

In a display case behind Hubertus were various items of wealth, crystal, silver, gold ivory and jewels glistening, and a neat placard nearby each displaying the price. Bringing each down in turn he described and embellished the items, each a stunning bargain.

Locking the last away he rolled across to Tertia, the desk clerk. Despite her age, Tertia’s eyes were bright, clear and quick. At Hubertus’ insistence Tertia neatly summarised the bank’s goods for sale, which were essentially gems of varying quality.

Emily asked to see the gems, and beautiful stones were laid out. She haggled at a price and pulled her friends aside. “This is as good a deal as we can get on these gems. I was about to conclude the deal when I remembered that we will be assessed for taxes shortly. We should try to keep some of our money in gold.”

The tax concept seemed foreign to all three of her companions, as if they had never had to pay taxes. Emily realised that this group could clearly lead her into “hot water” if she did not take the lead. Thieves do not need to run afoul of the bureaucracy, and prison time for not paying tax was no glamorous achievement.

She only converted a reasonable amount of gold into gems.

“Can I take some of my share of the remaining gold?” asked Kart. “There is a sable trimmed cape here and some blank vellum books I would like to buy.” Emily rolled her eyes but the cloak looked worth the price. She shrugged and handed over the coin.

Gwydion looked at a dagger in a jeweled scabbard. “Overpriced!” she whispered into his ear. Whilst Gwydion hummed and harred over the item her eyes returned to the jade ring in the display case.

The ring was simple, jade and well crafted. On first glance, the ring was well priced but realisation faintly dawned on her. This ring held an Ochalean symbol, and as such probably represented a signet ring of a senior member of their “Jade Temple”. As such it was worth twice as much as the stated price.

Despite her previous decision she purchased the ring, carefully pocketing the receipt. “Let’s go.” She rushed the rest of them out of the shop before Hubertus realised he’d made a mistake.

They finished their shopping, dropping past the provisioner and buying rations and arrows, repairing their armour and sharpening their blades at the smithy. Gathering their travelling companions at lunch they chewed over the pieces of trivia they had gathered. Dargar’s was the most interesting “That gate corporal we met last evening is the smith’s daughter.”

The topic turned to discuss what to do with the rest of the day.

“We could go scouting, find these goblin caves or whatever,” suggested Kart.

The group mounted up, Gwydion wistfully mounting the horse he was given by Marina when the giant had slain his previous mount. Helga at the lead they rode out of the keep and cut cross country through the wet ground, the wind whipping at their cloaks.

Most of the snow had been melted by the insistent rain and the pace was slowed by their following the line of the dense woods nearby. Eventually the woods met the old road, still passable despite the weeds pushing through the cobblestones.

“The road to Ludas. The Duke paved the road between the keep and the lakeside town, but not long after the town was destroyed by giants and humanoids.” Max looked down at the weeds. “Marina’s mission must be linked to that setback.”

“We can’t be far from those caves.” Dargar noted. “Strategically better to kill the inhabitants and collapse the caves if you were going to re-colonise further up the valley.”

They pulled their horses into the woods and allocated the scouts. “Its far enough to need horses to get here quickly but having horses ties us to guarding them” noted Gareth.

Kart chirped in “I talked to the mercenaries I have on retainer. They won’t guard horses in the wilderness alone.”

“That doesn’t sound very useful then” Helga scowled.

Kart shrugged. “I don’t know, they said that they’d be comfortable coming with us or taking the horses home. They have no intention of being ambushed far from help, which is fair.”

Kart, Emily and Gwydion walked from tree to tree, entering the valley reputedly pocked with caves inhabited by humanoid raiders.

After half an hour of watching the valley they saw no movement. “I’m going to use my Invisibility spell for a closer look,” volunteered Kart.

“Before you do that, how long does it last?” queried Emily.

Kart nodded in quick understanding “As long as I want it to providing I take no offensive actions.” He looked at them both. “Bring everyone closer. I’ll report in each half an hour. If I don’t return, you can come looking for me.”

Gwydion looked philosophical. “I didn’t know you had that spell. Would you mind if I copied it?”

“Hold onto my spellbook in case I don’t make it back.” Kart joked dismissively. His cavalier attitude seemed designed to annoy Emily.

With a quiet incantation Kart’s form disappeared, leaving behind a trail of muddy footprints, lightly squelching in the rain and mist.

The wait was intense. Half an hour later some footprints squelched up and Kart’s musical Makai accent drifted towards them. “If you give me paper and charcoal I’ll sketch a quick map.”

This occurred three or four more times. Annotations “Gnolls”, “Stench- Maybe an owlbear”, “Evil Place”, “Skull Door”, “Business Bugbear”, “Straight” (written on two cave entrances), “Sour Cave” “Not viewed- opened entry”.

Only once did Kart feel like he was being watched. He had stopped but he could not see what gave him that feeling. Eventually he returned safely.

“Tell us about the gnolls” suggested Dargar.

“I just looked into the cave, on that western aspect of the valley” Kart began. “There were two gnoll guards just inside, both sides of a tunnel. There’s probably enough cover to get there unobserved if we come across the ridge.”

“I like a known quantity.” Gareth’s voice was a flat monotone. Kart surmised that Gareth would be a competitive card player and decided not to invite him to play next time the cards came out.

Max offered “If we leave now we can return to the keep and come back in the morning. Bronin and Vanyali could take the horses back to keep them safe.”

They all seemed in agreement and backtracked to the keep making it in before the gates closed again.

They all found purpose and cleaned and prepared their equipment that evening, going to bed early, and rose to breakfast before dawn.

Soladain 28th Numont 1000AC, Dawn

They were mounted inside the gate chatting to the night corporal and his escort. Snow was falling quickly around them, gently swirling in the corners of the walls with a gentle breeze. Helga had quietly asked the somewhat shifty private they were talking to why he had called Corporal Livius “Admiral”. The private who called himself “Sly Ivan” invited her to buy him a pint to find out, but was cut off when the day gate staff arrived.

Corporal Valerira and blue eyed soldier Miri and the tassled, diligent Appeleia approached them. “Another cold one Admiral.” Valerira smiled. “Corporal Valerira Lucianus reporting for gate duty.” The three women saluted the night corporal. “You are relieved.”

“Corporal Livius Batatzes.” The ‘admiral’ saluted crisply “The gate is yours, Corporal,” before marching to the square-walled tower to the south.

As they left Ivan winked. “I’m on leave from tomorrow morning,” he oozed before making a “drinky drinky” sign to Helga. Helga held herself erect in the saddle making no response.

The day soldiers retrieved the scribe Stas’ desk and they they were signed out of “The Rock” as the guards called it. They gathered in the freezing cold entry tunnel whilst the drawbridge was lowered and the portcullis raised before trotting into the cold dawn.

Making good time they reached the grove they had found the afternoon before. The adventurers gathered their equipment and sent the mercenaries back with the horses. Quietly sneaking through the snow, they crested the ridge, spreading out on both sides of the cave entrance.

Enacting a plan they had discussed in the way, Gwydion sang a spell and created an illusory mist around the cave entrance. In a rush, they entered the cave and started firing arrows, throwing daggers and lobbing stones at the two surprised gnolls within. Whilst the two guards prepared to counterattack, they were reinforced by two more bow wielding gnolls from further back in the cavern.

The wolves’ savagely lunged for the gnolls, and bites, and blows were traded. One of the gnolls dropped his bow to run back deeper into the cavern but before he made it to the exit he was felled by a magic missile launched by Kart.

In the silence, their breathing left clouds in the lantern light. Quickly and wordlessly they all set to work. Max bound the wounds of her wounded compatriots. Gareth dragged the corpses into a dark corner whilst Dargar covered the bloody floor with dirt. Emily searched the corpses for useful items. Gwydion drifted outside to cover their footprints in the growing snow and Helga and Kart each guarded an entrance, sword drawn.

“That was too easy.” Kart whispered to himself. He caught the sailor within him wondering if he had caused bad luck by saying those words aloud. He shrugged and pulled the sable collar up to warm his ears.

View
The Road to the Keep

Lunadain, 22nd of Numont to Tserdain 24th Numont 1000AC
A procession of horses set off before daylight, Helga at the lead on a riding horse, leading her charger behind them.

Under a heavy sky, the snow blew steadily from their left. Visibility was low, and the landscape was mostly whites and greys.

Conversations were sparse, and the time the travellers would ususally be taken to stop for a hot meal was spent unwrapping rations, eating briskly and warming hands against the skin of their horses.

Max said her prayers on horseback, taking a diversion from time to time when she saw an evergreen herb bush or a frozen spray of berries. Marina huddled in her fur lined cloak and boots, intermittantly shrugging the snow from her shoulders.

After lunch on the first day Gwydion spotted a deer up ahead. He alerted Emily who tossed a pebble into the snow ahead of Helga to signal a stop. Helga brought up her nocked bow in an easy draw and breathed out. “We have no time to stop.” Whispered Marina. Helga nodded and relaxed the hold, she looked around and geed her horse back to a trot.

Despite the haste, the snow and and the winds slowed their progress. They had barely made six miles before they pitched tents made a small fire just for dinner and huddled together to keep warm.

The next morning there was no wind but the day was more miserable because the rains came just as the tents were being loaded onto the horses. The slush under their hooves caused a few gentle slips on the path.

Concentrating on their progress, moving steadily, they continued on their dreary journey.
The rain drowned out bird song or sight of any other travellers. Reaching Bergoi at lunch they ate some bread and roast mutton they bought from the in but continued to eat miserably in the saddle, continuing on up the road to the surprise of the gate guards.

The rest of Gromdain was a slow wet mess. They forewent a fire and pitched their tents, set a rudimentary watch and caught what sleep they could. By morning the rain had stopped, but the snow had returned.

They barely spoke as they rushed the horses in through the mud to reach the gates of Novaci by nightfall.

In the last hour of light, rounding a hill as the path diverged from the river, the weary travellers reached the palisade of Novaci.

It was clear that businesses were closing for the night. Light spilled from the building ahead, Marina started leading them in towards the inn. Drenched, her dress ruined, she announced her intention of having a bath.

Helga, Gwydion and Kart had different ideas. " Did you tell anyone in Bergoi about the hobgoblins?" Asked Gwydion.

Halting in her tracks Marina looked puzzled. “No, I told someone in Specularum. Come out of the cold.”

Gwydion turned to Helga and Kart. “We have to tell the townspeople, so they can prepare. Maybe they can send word to Bergoi.”

Setting off around the town they located the blacksmith by the few remaining hammefalls of the day.

“You the smith?” Asked Kart.

“I’m the ’prentice, Vovich.” A grubby tradesman mentioned. Cocking his head behind him he added “Smith’s name’s Timon.”

Helga approached. “Master Timon we have matters of the safety if the village to discuss. Should we discuss them here?”

The smith looked up. “Hmmph. You need to talk to the mayor, Fabio.” He shook his gloves off. “Vovich will take you to his house and I’ll be up shortly.”

They followed the serious young man to a hose near the inn. Vovich knocked and the door was opened, with the wet adventurers being shown in to the front room. The young woman opening the door returned to a table set for dinner and seating about nine people. The patriarch rose and approached the three of them.

“You are here because you know something which endangers the town?” He asked.

Timon opened the door nodding to the owner. “Fabio” he acknowledged and came to stand at the mayors side.

Kart took the lead. “We have been made aware of definite plans for the hobgoblins, these Steelwarriors, to come rading down past the Castellan Keep. They seem to be allying with the tribes further down the river. We don’t know how long you have but you might need to prepare for a battle, maybe flee whilst you can.”

“We have faced off raids before. We can prepare for a battle. Almost every person in this town can wield a bow or an axe, or at least bring arrows but thank you. We will consider moving those few left to the silver mines in the hills.” He looked at Timon “We will have a meeting in an hour. Someone from every family in the hall. I’m sorry lady and gentlemen, I cannot invite you to dinner, we only have enough for ourselves tonight.”

“No problems, we will be eating at the inn tonight. could you organise a messenger to send word to Bergoi. We Were in too much of a hurry to alert them.” Gwydion asked. With Fabio’s curt nod, they left back out into the cold.

“I feel good about that.” Announced Kart as they rushed insode to get warm.

The rest of the group had changes into dry clothing and were sitting in the barroom in bare feet, drinking beer and eating a hearty soup.

The mayor came in and thanked them and offered to pay for their meals, which they kindly accepted. A quick meal and two mugs of beer each and they headed upstairs to sleep in a dry bed.

Moldain 25th to Loshdain 27th Nuwmont 1000AC
The inn’s satff had saddled their horses before dawn and after a warm bowl of porridge and mug of warm mulled wine, they headed out into the dark snowy morning.

Two miles up the road, they were concentrating on the slippery path just ahead of them. Suddenly a spray of mud and rock exploded near them. Many of the horses started to panic. Only Helga and Gwydion had the skill to calm their monts and assess the threat. Another boulder smashed near them, almost hitting Kart’s surprised form.

“Over there!” Identified Helga as she saw a hulking humanoid shape atop a nearby hill. “A hill giant I think.”

Gwydion and Helga whipped their horses into a gallop to close the hundred yards to the giant. Gwydion’s mount was faster, and he rounded the hill first. As he closed the last 20 yards, the giant lobbed another boulder which struck Gwydions horse a mortal blow, flinging the rider face forward into the mud.

In retaliation Helga pulled up her horse and Launced two arrows through the giant’s hide armour. Gwydion stood up and threw a dagger at the giant burying it in the giant’s shoulder.

The towering brute laughed evilly until the rest of the group rounded the bend. Gareth and Dargar bellowed in rage and launched at the Giant’s kneecaps with axe and hammer. Dargar took a heavy blow but rose again. Marina even launched an arrow at the giant, although she missed mightily.

Eventually the giant fell, leavig Gwydion to mourn his mount. Marina offered him one of the pack horses which he saddled and Kart and Emily located some sacks full of gold and jewellery. Maxalla healed Dargar and sympathised with Gwydion before they collected their equipment and left.

Despite their continuing vigilance, there were no more attacks and they spent the next day and a half on the steady trail up to the rapidly approaching Castellan Keep.

Hampered again by snow, sleet and mud they only reached the gates of the keep at dusk again.

The gate corporal, Valerira, was a tough soldierly woman was flanked by two proud looking female soldiers. After a few curt questions, a scribe seated at a small table and chair logged them and their belongings. Marina pulled the coproral aside and had an urgent and insistent, but hushed, conversation. After a quick word from the officer, one of the privates with a tassel on her sword abruptly marched deeper into the inner bailey.

After stabling the horses, they dropped their belongings at the Green Man Inn. They headed downstairs and across the fountain square to order a hot meal and a warm drink.

As the food arrived they were summoned to the inner bailey Keep. Marina selected Kart, Gwydion and Helga to accompany her to the keep.

They were lead past the chapel and in through the secure inner gate. The sandy parade ground inside the inner bailey was lit by torches on the walls and they approached the keep with it’s towers looming above them.

On the ground floor they were taken to a small meeting room where they met Lady Ateleia Greymouril. Helga related their exploits, presenting the letter and the annotated map to Lady Ateleia.

The elven woman perused the evidence and quietly looked at each of the visitors.

“Ecaterina is convinced about this and I usually trust her instincts. Please wait here.”

Moving to the doorway Lady Ateleia gave the guard there an order. He saluted smartly and left. Shortly after another guard came and asked for more instructions before leaving again.

Turning to them, she gestured for them all to follow her and she lead them into a larger room.

Half an hour later, they were joined by a dozen officers in a larger meeting room. Last to arrive was the Castellan and his chancellor.

“I am Karl-Heinrich Wulf, the captain of the “Mountain Storm” and castellan of this Keep.
Leaning forward in his chair he continued “Please tell us again what you know.”

View
The Deal

Previously

Loshdain, 20th Numont 1000AC, Evening

The door opened, casting the lantern light ahead of the party. Unlike the room they had just emerged from, this barracks was filled with hobgoblins, now promptly rising from their bunks.

Loosing arrows into the furthest bunks, Jocasta and Helga stepped aside and allowed their companions to barge into the room. Surprisingly Dargar ignored his battle axe and pushed over one of the bunks, tipping its two occupants out onto the floor. Despite an extra heave, the remaining bunks remained where they were.

“Kill!” Max commanded Spot and Rover, who instantly crossed the room and leaped and bit at one of the hobgoblins.

Herris and Max launched into the room behind the wolves, veering to the left to try to kill the goblinoids before they rose.

Gwydion threw a dagger at another rising enemy, sinking the blade in its throat. Kart lobbed a blazing oil flask at another bunk but it skipped off the mattress, shattering on the wall behind and enveloped two rising hobgoblins.

Emily rushed in to kill a prone hobgoblin trapped under the fallen bunk, sliding her shortsword into its armpit when it reached for its mace.

Finally, the hobgoblins started retaliating, swinging their maces at their attackers. Mostly these were glancing blows or deflected off armour. Two of the hobgoblins avenged their fallen comrade by denting in Herris’ platemail causing him to gasp in pain. Two more managed to knock Rover down in a flurry of blows.

“No!” yelled Max. Her heart going out to these courageous creatures.

Kart vaulted past the archers and leapt in to guard the body of Rover using his fancy footwork to confuse his attackers. Exploiting the opportunity, Max ran up and placed a poultice on the wounded wolf, hoping to ameliorate the harm of the injury.

Spot turned on the closest hobgoblin and savagely tore its throat out. Dargar swept his axe and lopped off the arm of another of their assailants. Within minutes they had eliminated the guard’s resistance.

Herris had his hands on his knees, sword resting across the nearest bed.

“I wouldn’t sit on that bunk, if I were you,” advised Dargar, “never know what you’ll catch.”

This sort of dark humour was the nadir of their levity for the while.

Max whispered a prayer to Zirchev, imparting healing to Rover, and shortly after to Herris.

“About a hundred gold pieces.” Summarised Emily, seemingly ignoring the pathos of the near death of the wolf. “These are the guards. We have to be near the chief now.”

Dargar’s eyes focussed. “We have to clear them out. We are so close now.”

Kart nodded, everyone else seemed to agree.

Emily ventured: “I’ll take the lead”.

Kart’s head imperceptibly shook. “I’ll bring a torch and come up with you, so you can look for traps.”

Emily shrugged. She was too focused to be pleased.

Cautiously they moved down the wide passage, neither meeting resistance or finding traps. The rest of the party waited with their lantern half-shuttered. Upon reaching the door, Emily and then Kart noted the buzz of voices behind the large oaken wooden doors.

Kart waved his torch at the trailing group to signal them to come forwards. Handing off the torch to Emily he quietly intoned an incantation. Keeping his eyes closed and concentrating he turned his head in an arc.

He whispered his findings to Emily. “There are about nine of them in there.. They are in good spirits, celebrating.. There is also some suspicion.. Directly ahead, about 50 feet is one flanked by two others, clearly the leader, but now my spell fades.”

“Was that looking through the door?” Emily whispered.

Kart shook his head again. “More seeing minds with my mind. Reading thoughts.”

“It has worn off now though?” Emily felt suddenly uncomfortable, foolish. If he had been able to read her thoughts all this time…

Kart smiled gently. The others approached and Emily concisely related Karts findings.

“I should try sneak in and attack the boss from behind. Surprise him.” Emily suggested.

“I have an invisibility potion.” Kart looked theatrically pained, he had hoped to keep the potion for himself.

“Okay, well if I’m using that, I’ll slip in as soon as someone opens the door.”

“I can do that too.” Stated Kart. “That was my best spell, just before. I’ll push open both doors and then head to the right, outside the door.”

They finalised the variant of their standard plan, readied themselves and began.

Emily disappeared after drinking the potion. They heard a quietly drawn blade. “Ready.” Her bodiless voice announced.

When Kart opened the doors, Jocasta and Helga quickly surveyed the scene before loosing the bows.

Directly across the room was a throne and two guards for the mighty hobgoblin king. The King sat dressed in chain mail, with a white pelt across his shoulders and an ancient bronze morningstar across his lap. Above him stretched a banner of a curled arm, similar to the symbol on the flanking guards’ shields.

Between the throne and the doors was a large pot over a fire and to the party’s side of the fire, stood a semicircle of chairs. Each chair was occupied with another hobgoblin, two more were standing off to the right carrying a pair of mugs in each hand. Each of these was dressed similarly to their king except armoured in hides, all carrying a mace or a hammer at their sides, having a whitish pelt on their shoulders.

In the leftmost chair, away from the others was a distinctive figure. He was still a hobgoblin but clearly older and balding with shoulder length hair. Over all of his visible skin was a fine network of scars and nicks, giving the impression of years of combat service. The most impressive feature was his incredibly shiny armour and the similarly shiny short-sword at his side.

In the moments they took to view the room, the leftmost hobgoblin was already launching himself from his chair, blade drawn.

Noting the threat of the unknown quantity, both archers launched arrows into the rising hobgoblin warrior. Quickly after the wolves ran forward and savaged one of the seated hobgoblins.

Whilst the room was filled with commotion and the preparation of the hobgoblins for battle, Herris and Dargar again charged forward, Dargar turning left towards the armoured fellow and Herris sweeping forward and hacking down a rising hobgoblin to the right.

“This is not my fight!” declared the shortsword wielder, who started to retreat, with two arrows sunk to the feathers in his chest and abdomen. The warrior made a rapid retreat from Dargar and slipped out through a door.

“Where did you get that armour?” Dargar challenged behind him and rammed a shoulder against the recently closed portal.

Maxalla charged in and attacked one of the hobgoblins dropping their mugs, bringing her morningstar down on its leg, dropping it to the floor.

Flanked by his guards, the king marched forwards. “My name is Horrack Elfslayer and you will rue this day!”

Horrack responded by striking his morningstar on the floor. A deafening howl emanated from the ancient bronze weapon. Max’s ears began ringing and the wolves whimpered in the aftermath.

Horrack followed through with a strike again against poor Rover, knocking the beast’s now bloodied body to the floor again.

Gwydion’s voice sang a lullaby and the flanking guards fell to the floor, asleep, as do the two other visible remaining hobgoblins, excepting Horrack.

Suddenly Emily magically appeared, her shortsword protruding from Horrack’s back.

Noting the sleeping hobgoblins, Max turned to the wolves. It was only then that she noted Rover’s form, not having heard the yelp of his injury. “Spot, Stop!” She commanded before cradling Rover and chanting a prayer for healing on the beast.

Not hearing her, Spot bit the fallen hobgoblin before him and roused it.

Herris swung forward and attacked the hobgoblin king, missing his agile form. Dargar attempted to force the door, which held for a moment, but shortly after he succeeded bowling over the scarred hobgoblin.

“I surrender, I request parlay! My sword and hand axe are there, on the floor!” The fallen warrior called in accented Thyatian.

“Swear it! Swear it on your name hobgoblin!” Dargar spat, barely holding his fury in check.

“I am Vintar Swiftblade of the Steelwarriors tribe and I swear I have no fight with you. If you take my weapons I will sit on my hands here.”

Dargar quickly assessed the room. It was a dead end, and had two small chests at the end of two cots. There did not seem to be any threat if he left the hobgoblin unarmed in this room. He took a chance, picked up the hand axe, kicked the sword out of the room and returned to the throne room closing the door behind him.

A volley of arrows from Jocasta and Helga launch at the king, striking his mighty form and drawing a snarl. In retaliation, he swiped at Herris, knocking Herris down into unconsciousness.

Emily and Gwydion slipped around the fighting forms, rapidly and viciously started slitting the throats of their remaining sleeping enemies.

Dargar moved forward and slew the hobgoblin awoken by Spot, allowing the wolf to launch itself at the last standing enemy- the king.

Max moved from Rover’s fallen form and bound Herris’ wounds. Kart vaulted the dead bodies and flanked the hobgoblin king but failed to land a blow with his sabre.

Shortly thereafter, Dargar moved forward and encircled Horrack. Despite the hobgoblin king’s martial prowess, there was clearly no hope. He bashed Maxalla with his morningstar twice before succumbing to Dargar’s axe.

“Herris and Rover will live.” Max reported after a quick check, “I’m out of spells. We won’t be able to carry him and his sword and armour.”

“We have a prisoner, who I am about to interrogate.”

Opening the door, Dargar was surprised and impressed that Vintar had not moved. “Who made these?” Dargar pointed the shortsword at the Vintar’s chainmail.

Vintar looked up. He met Dargar’s gaze. “I will tell you nothing if you don’t promise that I walk free afterwards.”

“Fair enough, but all of your possessions are forfeit.” Vintar looked witsfully at his weapons and armour and then nodded to Dargar. Kart approached and listened to their parlay.

“Tell me where you got that chainmail.” Dargar turned to Kart. “Both the chainmail and the shortsword are adamantium.”

Kart arched his eyebrow. “What about the hand axe?”

Dargar spun the axe in his hand. “Steel but good quality. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem human or dwarven. Well, potentially Ylari, I guess.”

Vintar took a few minutes to take off the chainmail. “My people the Steelwarriors have been making weapons like that for four hundred years.” He continued despite their obvious looks of disbelief. “The armour is made by the smiths of our tribe, as was the sword and the axe.”

Dargar was lost in thought. He brought the hand axe to Kart’s light, studying it intently.

He pulled Kart aside. “I had no idea that there were hobgoblins with this skill and discipline, let alone the adamantium. To have so much of that ore available to make armour… It’s incredible!”

Emily came into the room after her customary rapid looting.

“Dwarf, I have more to trade, but for this I require a price. I will need my armour and my sword. I will not survive if I leave without them.”

“What could be worth more than, oh, two and a half thousand gold pieces.” Emily piped in.

Vintar gestured at the leather sack covered in a map. “I could interpret that treasure map and the message I brought with me. The latter is more useful than valuable, I would think.”

Gwydion came in and they updated him. “I’m more interested in the note.” He decided.

Eventually they decided to trade the armour back to Vintar but, with Vintar’s permission, Emily swapped the adamantium blade for a magical shortsword she had found. She said that she preferred a weapon that “did not glow in the dark”.

Taking a quill and ink from Kart, Vintar annotated the letter he carried and the map as well.

The map located the Steelwarriors tribe some outposts and the adamantium mine they inhabited. This seemed to be north of the Castellan Keep.

The letter from the Steelwarriors chief Khorgul discussed the terms of an alliance with the Horrack and preparations of his tribe to arm the “Jagged Rocks”, asking if Golthar had paid Horrack well".

“Let him go.” Announced Dargar, surprised by the hobgoblin’s candour and honour. Vintar slipped away out of the double doors they had come through.

The remaining heroes gathered around Herris and Rover’s fallen forms.

Emily mused “Some of this stuff I gathered is valuable but most is not. There must be a secret treasure room.”

They set about looking for secret doors. Finally they found one near the throne and Emily set about searching that and the room behind it for traps, disarming a few. There were two small chests unlocked by a key Emily had found on Horrack.

“Rings, a necklace, a backpack, some other stuff. Most likely magical if they were locked away like that.”

They camped in the small treasure room until Max could invoke her Immortals for more prayers of healing. During that time, Gwydion and Emily came up with a plan to return to the crypts upstairs, and safely eliminate the undead there. The treasure room was close around them with all of their bodies, the air stale over time but when they awoke the throne room outside was cold dark and safe.

About two hours after midnight, they set off again, with the wounded Herris and Rover taking up the rear.

Rounding the corner form the long passage, they noted that the pit trap had opened.

“I wonder if Vintar fell foul of the trap?” asked Gwydion.

It took a long while to explore, they gathered as much rope as they could and lowered Emily down the chute.

Half an hour later they pulled up the form of Vintar with Emily. Leaving his corpse behind, they took his weapons and armour and methodicallynstarted dragging their treasues upstairs.

In the moonlight of the monastery’s courtyard, Emily climbed the crypt’s roof, removed the bar they had left on the inside of its handles and let the others into the crypt.

Carefully barring each door but one, they prepared to open the door.

“Hold on. I have one more idea.” Stated Kart. Kart asked Gwydion to detect undead and simultaneously he sent his mind sensing for thoughts behind the door.

“There’s still undead in there.” Gwydion whispered.

“Ah, but it is of the mindless variety.” Kart winked at the group.

They set to opening the door and quickly killed its skeleton occupant, and all but one of the bolsters held true. They made quick work of the second skeleton.

Repeating this ten more times they emptied the crypt of unlife.

“A ruby hilted dagger.” Emily flipped the jewelled blade to Gwydion, who looked at it appreciatively, and tucked the blade into his belt.

Soladain 21 Numont 1000 AC- Dawn
As it neared dawn they struggled down to their rendevous point and ate a cold breakfast.

About an hour after dawn Rudi and his boat appeared.

“I’m glad you are here.” He called. “You owe me another twenty gold!”

“We’ll pay it gladly.” yelled Helga as Rudi tied up along the bank.

They sent the treasures and wounded comrades first and then settled in for dice and cards and the 3 hours before the boat’s return. Helga seemed to be accumulating silver from the group as the day went on, and she was the only one who didn’t view Rudi’s return with relief.

They finally pulled in to the dock just after lunchtime to the cheers of the towns folk and also by Marina, Melissa and Chad.

Returning to the Inn, they sat down and debriefed.

Marina was concerned about the notes and the maps. She told them it heralded a concerted war against the grand duchy. She wished to copy the details and alert some “Friends”, before quickly heading upriver to Castellan Keep to continue their mission.

It took some negotiation but Gwydion and Kart decided to allow it. Marina left to take the papers to Ecaterina and returned shortly after.

Chad announced that they had found out further information about the Vlack Kag hobgoblins east of the town and had decided to tackle that threat. Herris and Jocasta had agreed to join “Chad’s Champions”, as they had been dubbed on their trek there.

Helga and Marina sat down and planned the journey. They decided that horseback was the fastest way from here to Castellan Keep, despite the mud and snow. Realising that time was of the essence, the group made to head out into the town to replenish supplies, purchase additional mounts and prepare for the ride ahead.

A young man loomed near the group.

“Sister Maxalla, may I beg your favour?”

Gwydion and Kart identified Rotislav the Castle guard.

Whilst the others left to run their errands, Max sat the man down and addressed him.

“You may ask, Rotislav but I fear I may not be here to guarantee a favour.”

“Well,” he began, “that is what I am here about. You see, There’s talk of war and raiding from the north.”

He waited for Maxalla to nod her confirmation and then continued.

“Vesna, my fiance and I were waiting for the Spring to get married, when the monks form the Monastery of St Yakov come to town to preach and collect supplies.”

Max knew where this was headed but she let Rotislav finish.

“So now it looks like the monks wont be able to come and I may be called away. PLease if you don’t mind would you marry us before you leave?”

Maxalla used the grave look that she had learned from Friar Kasimir.

“So you are both serious about this? In love?” The words hung there and then Rotislav nodded furiously.

“Hmph, well then! Go now, fetch Vesna and as many family and friends as you can find! I will marry you in front of the Blacksmith’s shop in honour of Halav in half an hour.”

Smiling to herself she headed out into the snowy day.

Note from Khorghul to Horrak.
(The note is written in a careful hand spelt in both Thyatian script and repeated in heiroglyphics).

Hail Horrack,
known as the Elfslayer, enemy of the Vyalia elves, Lord and King of the Leptar’s Fist Tribe.

I, Khorghul Wyvernsbane, Kan of the Steelwarriors greet you in the name of Yagrai, of Bartziluth, of Orcus and Leptar the slave lord.

I have sent you Vintar Swiftblade, the younger brother of Kavkan Vinek the Howler, as my emissary. He is a warrior of exceptional skill, strength and regard in the Steelwarriors.

He speaks with my voice in these negotiations. He brings these trinkets to seal our agreement.

We seek to confirm the terms of our alliance and assurance that Steelwarriors and Leptar’s Fist are now friends. In this I seek to confirm that those professing to be Steelwarriors and those displaying the Leptar’s Fist are able to travel freely in each other’s lands.

As friends, neither tribe will be regarded as superior and will work in co-operation, in specific, the Leptar’s Fist will arm the Jagged Rocks when they come to you.

I wish to ask in confidence, has Golthar provided steel and money enough to pay for the weapons we require?

I ask if you have had contact with the Crowers, the Leghorns, the kobolds or the dragon and the details of these contacts.

If you are aware of the movements of the humans, including those of note please convey these to Vintar and we shall plan to eliminate this resistance before we proceed.

My thanks to your magnificence.

Kan Khorghul the wyvernsbane of the Steelwarriors.

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