Rise of the Runelords

Runelord Reflections 10

“I’ve got it,” I exclaimed. “I know exactly what we should do.”

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The room was filled with well dressed people, mostly men but a few women scattered throughout the first level of our recently acquired home. As people made their way in, some recognized me, others recognized stories they’d heard about me, probably regarding my amazing hair and outrageous dress.

Self-consciously, I adjusted the ultratight snakeskin top, looking down at the supple black leather gloves that ran nearly to my elbows and smiling in self admiration. The combination with the matching thigh-high boots was definitely eye-catching, but many of the looks trended more towards shock than amazement.

I watched a man lean up against the immense hearth of the unlit fireplace, then recoil with a look of horror, glancing down at his sleeve. WIth a curse, he rubbed at a stain that marred the white cloth, his expression furious as, if anything, his efforts made it worse.

I must have laughed out loud, because he and his buddy glanced over at me with a look of annoyance. Whoops. Realizing this guy was here for a reason, I approached the pair. “Is there a problem?” I didn’t mean for it to come out so aggressively, but there you have it.

“Your home is filthy,” the man said, holding out his arm as if I were in any way inclined to inspect it.

I casually slapped his wrist away, hard, and shrugged. “To be fair, we only recently acquired it.” Inside, I was seething at the notion of this man walking in here and judging us, but realized that is what nobility did. Plus, I didn’t want him leaving in a huff, and certainly didn’t want to hurt him, cause a scene and panic the other guests.

“Well, you should-”

“Wasn’t this,” the man’s friend interrupted, “ah… who was it. You know the guy.” He poked at the complainer’s shoulder. “The snappy dresser.”

“Aldern Foxglove,” the man with the dirty sleeve confirmed, eyes narrowing suddenly. “Say,” he said, turning to me, “whatever happened to Aldern?” He looked around, a light of sudden recognition in his eyes.

Again, I shrugged. “You’ll have to ask the Lord Mayor for the official story,” I said breezily, glancing around at the other guests with excessive nonchalance.

The man snorted. “Whatever you say,” he challenged derisively. “If you don’t know just say so.”

My armored fist impacted full-on with his mouth, knocking out teeth and crushing the cartilage and shattering the bone of his nose, pressing the mess into the man’s ruined face. Spurting blood and teeth, he staggered backwards, a scream of pain ending abruptly as he stumbled, head connecting with the edge of the mantle. Crumpling to the floor, he sprawled awkwardly, face down in a growing pool of blood. The room was deathly silent, and then a woman screamed-

I sighed, unclenching my hands. Too bad I wasn’t wearing my armor. The man was staring at me, expectantly but also warily. His friend looked nervous, too. “In the spirit of… friendship, I guess, I’ll overlook your rude dismissal of my word.” My voice was low, for his ears only, but my eyes conveyed the deadly earnestness of my words.

“You expect me to believe-” The complainer broke off, his friend whispering something in his ear. For a moment his expression froze, and then slowly he seemed to deflate a little bit. I arched an eyebrow, and he flinched a bit, so I knew our reputation had started to get around. The smugness I felt supplanted any lingering anger at having my word questioned in my own home, and I slapped him, hard, on the shoulder.

“Unfortunate, about your shirt,” I smiled. “Maids must be out of town.” I turned to leave.

“When will they be back?” he asked, unable to contain himself, apparently. I stopped, slowly turned, seeing his wiser friend slowly edging away.

“Uh… They won’t be back,” I sighed. “We had to kill them.”

“You… what-?!”

“Well, they were monsters after all.” I looked up, thoughtful. “Maybe even demons.”

“Demon maids?” the man asked, incredulous again. “But… tonight… I thought the Sandpoint Devil was what you were-”

“Yes yes,” I waved, walking away before having to talk anymore. I refreshed my drink, ready for things to get started.

The manor was filled with several rows of assorted chairs, the best we could do on such short notice. As people began to take their seats, I glanced at the makeshift stage, thanking Foxglove opulence for the vaulted first floor ceilings. Something big was draped with a long sheet.

Everyone knew what it was, of course, but nobody had actually seen it. I rubbed my hands together in anticipation.

I took the stage, glancing to my sisters for support. Sadly, they choose to remain aloof, despite the charity of the deed. I knew that these trophies represented an opportunity that we had to take advantage of, and who better to benefit from it than the community this monster stalked for so long that it was named after them.

“Good citizens of Magnimar,” I began, “noble representatives of all of the families I see here tonight-”

“Excuse me,” a portly man interrupted, standing in the front row with hands across his massive chest. Other people stopped being seated, and those already sitting decided to stand up to see what was going on. The room got quiet, fast. According to Skalmold, who at least stayed for the snacks, the sudden silence was in part due to the expression on my face. “Ma’am, I have a question before you begin.” For long, long seconds I stood open mouthed for a moment. I glanced behind me, catching sight of Rainbow, who shrugged and Zeyara, who looked vaguely amused.

“Uh, okay,” I agreed, trying not to sound too sour about the imbecile’s very existence.

“Where is Aldern Foxglove?” the man asked. “You claim this is your house, but I happen to know it has been in the Foxglove family for-”

“It’s ours,” I snarled, looking around to see if anyone else was daring to accuse us of… something. Stealing a house, I guess. Dozens of people were staring around the room with great interest. “No more questions.”

“That’s not-”

“Are you calling me a liar?” I asked, or maybe yelled. People’s interested looks suddenly took on an uncomfortable expression. I spun as something poked me from behind. “What?” I asked, staring at Zeyara, who was shaking her head.

“You’re losing them,” the fetchling warned. The crowd had begun to mill about.

“Aldern Foxglove is an upstanding citizen of high moral character, a man many of us here call friend.” The large man was looking around, but nobody appeared to be meeting his eye, let alone lending their voice to his proclamation. He paused, clearing his throat.

I didn’t want to talk about Aldern. Tonight was about the trophy. “Who cares about Foxglove?” I asked, addressing the restless crowd. “Or were you here to learn how the Sandpoint Devil met its end… and then try to obtain its unique corpse for yourself?”

Rekindling the bidder’s interest, I tried to move on. “Before I was so rudely interrupted-”

“You still haven’t answered my questions!” the man retorted. I took a deep breath.

“All of you here tonight are about to see legend unveil itself before your eyes. Your generous donation to the reward for the killing of the Sandpoint Devil spurred a group of heroes into finally confronting and taking down the beast. Just last week-”

The standing man interrupted, again. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I as a member of one of the prominent families, I…” Drop dead, asshole. There was an unpleasant murmur rippling through the several dozen other spectators. The pause was excruciating.

“Yes?” I prompted. I could guess what he was getting to, but was annoyed enough to be petty. The man swayed a bit on his feet, staring off into space. I leaned forward over the makeshift podium I’d insisted on, since it made it seem more official.

“Ahh-” he tried, his mouth working once, then hanging open. “Uhhhh.” His eyes rolled up into his head, and he dropped to the floor like a sackful of dead cats.

Someone screamed, eerily similar to my daydream. Holy shit, I thought. Did I just kill that guy with my mind? I thought back. People had alternately gathered around the fallen man or fled some distance away, eager to remove themselves from a potential disease-carrier or assassin’s victim. I watched one man seem to stumble over nothing as he hastily made his way to the refreshment table, glancing around at the empty area in confusion.

“He’s dead,” someone shouted, and I sighed, walking over to the prone man. “Clear aside,” I commanded sternly, using my elbows to enforce the request. I looked at the fallen man, who certainly looked dead.

Reaching out, I touched the man’s forehead with a glowing beam of light that emanated from a black-gloved fingertip, drawing a few gasps from the crowd. The healing had no effect.

“He’s dead,” I confirmed, getting up. Thinking fast, I scanned the room before heading back to the podium, passing the trophy and poking my head through the doorway, seeing Skalmold helping herself to a refill out of a cask of local ale. Zeyara blinked into existence next to the barbarian, pouring herself a generous portion of what looked like elven firewine from a small bottle with an obscene amount of flowery etching. I frowned, not remembering that on the list of items I’d requested her to gather for this evening. She gave me a sly nod, and a wink, glancing back out the door I straddled.

What? Did she…? Shaking my head, I remained focused on dealing with the situation at hand. “Skalmold,” I whispered urgently. “I need your help.”

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The site of the hulking blonde woman carrying out the obese, deceased gentleman over her shoulder caused several seconds of excitement amongst the remaining, living guests.

“Well, that was exciting. Poor man.” I saw several of the audience actually shrug. “A lesson to us all, to cherish the life we have. There are things we can’t fight, like-” Zeyara’s death touch? I wondered, but aloud said “unknowable deaths like what’s-his-name. You know, the guy that died over there,” I stated, pointing. “There are also things out there, enemies who wish you harm.” I saw the numerous nervous glances, people putting hands inside of jackets and overcoats to check for mysterious contents as paranoid glances flitted around the room, always coming back to me. Suspicious bastards. “Monster enemies. Goblins attacked Sandpoint not long ago. But there has been an evil plaguing both your cities. Countless lives and who knows how much gold have been lost to the foul beast you know as the Sandpoint Devil.

“Just last week, the merchant caravan that was utterly destroyed… such terrible suffering and destruction will plague the roads no longer! Not from the Sandpoint Devil, anyway. See for yourselves, the fiend is no more!” I shouted dramatically, motioning Rainbow to pull away the heavy cloth covering the main attraction. More like a rug, actually. Her tiny body strained as she gave several desperate tugs, but then her two-foot tall fairy pitched in and down it came, revealing the reason everyone was here.

There were gasps and even a few screams, and suddenly I was glad there were noblewomen there to make it more dramatic. The beast was hideous, its hoof-claws pawing at the air as it reared up, its elongated head a hideous mixture of equine and draconic. Wings furled out to the sides, leathery and claw-tipped.

“We are thankful to those families who enabled this endeavor,” I acknowledged, listing all of the potential donors, of which the Scarnetti were conspicuously absent. “Your investment reaped great rewards. The horrible truth of the matter is that there was not one Sandpoint Devil, but four, and your families had a hand in killing them all!!” I took a breath, giving a dramatic pause as I sipped from my drink.

“One of the creature’s remains has been gifted to the town, to serve as a monument against evil in one of the city buildings, the names of the families who arranged for the creature’s destruction etched into a plaque. The second went to the Lord Mayor’s private residence. The third was acquired by the generous Kaijitsu family in Sandpoint… speaking of, if you liked the stained glass in the entryway, that was work done at Sandpoint glassworks…” I shook my head. “But I digress.”

“Tonight, we are raising funds and awareness for the people of Sandpoint, who have had a rough time of it recently. The trouble with the goblins and the recent ghoul outbreak have been major blows to the people of the region.

“For the people of Sandpoint, and the honor of obtaining the only privately owned stuffed remains of the legendary monster, the Sandpoint Devil, we will start the bidding at… one hundred gold.”

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Zeyara had been convinced that starting low would net more profit, as people’s competitiveness and impulsiveness would get in the way of their rational reasons for budgeting. I’d been thinking of asking for several thousand and hoping to get more, but had to admit it would be pretty terrible if nobody at all bid on the thing and we ended up just wasting the night.

Luckily, I’d taken the assassin’s advice, because after some exciting bidding that lasted about two minutes, we ended up selling the thing for two thousand gold. I quickly shook hands, and sacks of cash were sent for. Or, as it turned out, a single, modest sized satchel.

Overall, I took the evening as a success. Sandpoint got a couple thousand gold, we got to throw a party in our new vacation home, and undoubtedly made an impression on some of the important families. Being heroes and badasses goes a long way towards seeming impressive.

Rakonia expressed surprise that I was not keeping the money for myself. “Do you know me so little?” I asked, shaming her as best I could. “This is for people who took us in, who we have come to know, if not appreciate in equal measure.” I shook my head sadly, disappointed with her lack of regard for my character. At least I wasn’t disappearing with strange half-elves, leaving my Sisters to go off in the wilderness on their own.

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Runelord Reflections 9

We stood amongst a sea of dead bodies, the hulking men and hideous women of the inbred ogrekin family strewn throughout the building. “Quickly now,” someone called. It had been a breath or so since the fall of our target, one ogrekin matriarch of the Graul clan.

Leaving the bodies of our enemies behind us, the Sisterhood of Steel rushed out of the room, heading for the one area we hadn’t examined. Vega’s time dilation was limited in duration, and the confidence of having one’s speed nearly doubled spurred us on.

I ran down the hallway, my new boots somehow giving me a noticeable assist with each stride, helping me keep pace even in under all the metal plate that encased me. We turned a corner, and I nearly ran into something short and squat, looking down in wary amazement.

“There you are,” Rakonia said in her gutteral voice.

For a moment, my grip tightened on the eight feet of adamantine pole and blade in my hands, but Rainbow and Vega were already welcoming the dwarf even as they continued their sprint towards the final room. I decided the dwarf’s sudden reappearance was less likely due to monstrous impersonation than coincidence. I was impressed that she’d caught up to us, not to mention finding us in one of the small independent homesteads that dotted the wilderness north of Turtlepoint bay.

As I passed her, I’d caught a whiff of dwarf-on-the-road, which dispelled my suspicions immediately.

Zeyara made a shushing motion as we approached the doorway, and Sisterhood of Steel cautiously made our way down the final few yards. As the heavy portal swung out on recently-oiled hinges, we gazed into a strange room filled with piles of refuse and vegetation. The place was cavernous, a shallow pit in the middle stretching across the stone floor, the ceiling arching up above. We waited a moment, noting the mushrooms that seemed to grow in the central pit area.

“You think they’re magical mushrooms?” I asked in a murmur.

“That would be perfect!” Rainbow whispered excitedly, looking into the room with increased interest. I frowned, thinking of released spore clouds that would put us to sleep, or poison us, or start screaming. I’d heard stories of such, but as I opened my mouth Rakonia stepped into the room. Nothing emitted a burst of spores or a piercing shriek. At least not yet.

Instead, as the dwarf shouldered her way into the area the ground below us seemed to shudder. Two immense creatures rose up from what looked like piles of garbage and vegetation. We poured into the room behind the ranger, looking up at the massive, writhing, vine-encrusted creatures that approached us, their gait lurching and inhuman. Twenty feet tall, the pair of plant-monsters lashed out with their coiling vines, one leaning forward to reveal a wide purple maw visible at it’s apex, snapping in what appeared to be unwholesome expectation.

“The one on the left is unnatural,” Rainbow advised us, although how she could tell what constituted normal for such alien creatures was beyond me. It was this one that approached first, rushing at our group as we stood upon the lip of the pit.

Rakonia rushed forward, fighting with a fury I’d not seen before, her muscles bulging under her armor as she laid into the creature with that impressive axe, the shield pulping portions of its lower limbs. Barbed tendrils lashed out, drawing blood from Skalmold as she stepped up to hammer at the creature from below. Zeyara was nowhere to be seen, presumably positioning herself, and I carved a pair of lines in the creature’s chest with a cross-body cut followed by a backhand slash. Sticky, translucent fluid sprayed out of the plant-monster, and after the combined assault it fell heavily. We turned to its partner.

Rainbow was frowning in concentration, looking at the brutish, fanged tree and, apparently, talking to it. The monster lurched forward, and we stepped up to protect the diminutive shaman. Even as the halfing shouted “No, wait!” we’d turned it into so much spongy kindling.

“I was talking to it,” Rainbow explained as we walked around the room, picking up anything that looked valuable and dousing the place with oil. “A man came here, a few days ago. That’s when the evil one appeared,” she pointed at the body of the first dead enemy. “I’m not sure we had to, well, kill it.”

“Where have you been?” I rounded on Rakonia, determined to change the subject. “Have a good time with your elf friend?” The dwarf flushed a deep red, grumbled something about not wanting to talk about it. Ever. I shrugged and exchanged an eye-roll with Zeyara.

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We spent the next half hour catching up with the erstwhile-missing ranger, praising Shelalu for her usefulness, and methodically looting every corpse, container and secret room we could find.

Once we felt finished, it was time for the big finale. I snapped a finger and headed up the stairs as the lower level was engulfed in a whooshing explosion of flames. We rode off, horses laden with our acquisitions, until we met Shalelu and the other two rangers.

Meeting up with the remnants of the Black Arrow rangers, we informed them of the destruction of the ogre-blooded family. During the course of our thorough pillaging the place of valuables, we’d recovered what was no doubt the rangers’ gear. It was some pretty good magical stuff, like a kukri which Rakonia promptly claimed. Luckily, the stuff that she and the barbarian had helped themselves to had belonged to the dead, traitorous ranger who we hadn’t had the honor of killing ourselves.

The men thankfully took back what gear was their own, and they didn’t make a fuss about the other stuff we’d taken. Not that they were in a position to; they were still pitifully weak from their captivity, and we had, after all, saved their lives. They were surprisingly open about acknowledging that, however, and in discussing the fort we were going to visit tomorrow offered to turn over the fort to us once this was over. It didn’t occur to me that, as mere rangers, they had no authority to go around giving away castles. I was too busy thinking about ramparts and crenellated towers bristling with crossbowmen and ballistae.

Traveling a few miles in the direction indicated by the locals, Shelalu managed to take down a good-sized deer, and we ate well that evening. The rangers, after weeks of starvation, ended up retching and puking most of it out after an hour, and spent the rest of the night experiencing terribly loud and embarrassing stomach distress.

Rakonia looked pale and sickly, a side effect of her newness to the art, no doubt. Taking my advice, she’d gotten some training in the technique I’d picked up in my former homeland. Juicing wasn’t cheating; it’s just maximizing your potential. Although that won’t stop the pieces of your fallen opponents from cursing you with their dying breath and crying foul. She explained that she’d been using this type of nasty mushrooms in her concoction, and her violent reaction to the mixture had made me wonder. I was pretty certain I knew what the problem was, and informed her of it.

“What? That makes no sense.”

I chuckled. The dwarf obviously didn’t understand anything about alchemy. “It’s about power, right?”

“Well, it does make me stronger,” the dwarf admitted. “But how does drinking the blood of my dinosaur give me power?”

I shook my head sadly. Poor dwarf, she knew nothing about the ways of magic, either. Such a sheltered upbringing, with her bizarre three-legged rock-parents. “You need something with power in your potion, not some shitty mushrooms,” I explained. “That’s common sense. And,” I continued, seeing her opening her big mouth to get a word in, “your dinosaur is just the kind of powerful thing that will in turn give you power.”

“I’m not certain that is how alchemical processes work-” began Vega, addressing us from her spot near the fire.

“Look,” I said. “Try it, see if it works. But trust me. You need the essence of something powerful.”

“What do you use?” Rakonia asked, looking suspicious instead of interested.

“My own blood.”

“Gross,” Rainbow exclaimed, sharing a glance with her two-foot high fairy friend. Donazata looked at me with a distinct expression of disgust.

“What do you think I’ve been bleeding myself in the morning for?” I asked, exasperated since she’d seen me making my juice in the early hours of the morning a few times.

Zeyara answered. “We just kind of thought you were, well, perhaps a little emo.”

“What?” If anything, it was that pale-faced, purple-haired, glowing-green eyed fetchling that fit the type. Although it was Rakonia who had the real self-loathing, if not self absorption, down to perfection.

We bedded down in the woods, taking a well-deserved rest before heading to our next destination.

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Scanning the site from a distance, we detected a total lack of anything interesting. The fort was smaller, and uglier, than I’d anticipated. Bored, I turned to one of the rangers, who was talking quietly with Zeyara.

“That big building there, that’s the lumberyard, and across the way is the garrison-”

:”Lucrezia,” Zeyara called softly. “What do you think about creating a distraction.” I looked at her, puzzled. “Flammable buildings, lots of wood lying around…”

“Oh,” I said slowly. “Yeah… burn it.” I do love fire. “But,” I blurted, “if we get to keep this place…” I glanced at the ranger, who nodded earnestly.

“We can get someone to rebuild it, I’m sure,” the fetchling assured casually, and I found her argument compelling.

Minutes later, we were approaching the fortress, which was placed adjacent to a steep edge of one of the mountains I’ve failed to mention, but dominated the horizon majestically during our time spent in the Turtleback Ferry area.

In addition to the distracting act of arson, Rakonia and Rainbow had hatched a plan of their own. We were entering through a secret-ish passage through the mountain wall, which was for some reason connected with a series of caves full of some kind of dangerous lizard. Poisonous, or electrified, or something. The rangers knew of a special herb that, when burned, drove off the reptiles, and the dwarf and halfling were determined to drive the lizards before us, hopefully pushing them out into the fortress proper and distracting the ogre population further.

And, hopefully attacking the ogres instead of us, or at least more than they attack us.

We waited an hour for the nature-oriented to gather the required plants, then began our advance. Going into the tunnel, we encountered a trio of the beasts, and took them down efficiently. Navigating our way through the tunnels with the help of the rangers, it became apparent that it would be exceedingly difficult to herd the ill-tempered lizards anywhere without a lot of work, and instead continued onwards.

“Here’s the passage to the lumber yard,” our guide informed, then turned to point down a long, dark tunnel. “Forty strides further and you’ll be at the entrance near the garrison.”

We paused, briefly figuring out our strategy. The final plan went as follows.

We stood, waiting and utterly silent, perched outside a recessed doorway we’d already opened a crack, just to make certain everything was in readiness. Vega, finishing her internal countdown, nodded and raised a hand, and an ethereal wave of magical energy echoed through the enclosed area as spells were woven, one atop another, in the span of seconds.

I drew my decorative flask, tapping it against the bubbling vial Rakonia held in her own hands. Imbibing our respective drinks, we waited for Vega to give the second sign. Her hand dropped, and suppressing a roar I kicked open the door even though Rakonia was in front of me, reaching out to do the same. She looked back with a reproachful grimace and hustled out into the brightly lit courtyard alongside Flippy Three, her latest in a series of reptilian companions, this one a hulking breed nearly as tall as a man, but sharing the same savagely clawed feet and straight-backed tail.

If all had gone according to plan, Shalelu’s step-father Jakardos had set the large building ablaze. The flames were already crackling up the side of the building as we rushed out into the open, exposed but somehow unnoticed in the still-empty fort. For a moment I wondered if the place was actually deserted, and we had gotten all dressed up for a ball that wouldn’t be occurring.

But then, shouts started coming from the burning building, and I grinned, because although I couldn’t speak it, I recognized the language of Giant.

Huge, lumbering brutes burst out of the building, smoke billowing out from the doorway. Coughing, a dozen of the ten-foot tall creatures stared around wildly, blinking tears from their rheumy, bloodshot eyes the color of umber and piss.

“Blood for the Blood God!” The heat of battle overwhelmed me, and I dashed forward with my companions, magically enhanced in proportion so that I was able to look the first in the eye as my blade bit through its neck, jaw slackening as he collapsed like a small building. Zeyara sewed chaos in the tightly bunched cluster of the misshapen giants, and Rakonia screamed on and on as she hewed into the titanic legs, chopping bone apart and severing ankles. The dinosaur was screeching its own warcry, disemboweling an ogre with a leaping slash of its talons. One of the giants staggered back, its chest caved in to the point where spiky bits of yellow-white rib were visible in the massive indentation, spurting out dark red blood. Magic and adamantine cut through the air, and in moments the furious battle was over.

We spent several minutes nervously watching the gate while Rakonia got tapped with a healing wand again and again. After a while I lost count, but seriously, it was at least two solid minutes of this.

Just as I wiped my blade upon a fallen foe’s ragged cloak, the fortified building behind us opened its gate with a rusty creak, another group of the giants rushing out to investigate the commotion we’d caused.

I had one of those moments where everything slows down and I can watch the edge of my blade bite into a neck, focusing on my opponent’s eyes as the line is drawn across the neck, slicing through spine and sinew. Seeing the dismayed widening of the eyes, followed by the empty, glassy unfocused gaze as their souls flee their body and the head tumbles through the air, relishing the sight of the spark of life flicker out and die. Then I’m blinking and seeing my companions whirling and hurtling across the battlefield, the stout dwarf and her deinonychus laying down foes with ferocious anger, nearly matching the blonde barbarian’s feral roar and frenzied smashing, her monstrous hammer shattering whatever it connected with, be it leg, chest, head, or most agonizingly, pelvis.

You didn’t necessarily die from a shattered pelvis. Not right away.

The halfling shaman provided support, summoning elemental creatures and walls of flame that kept enemies from overwhelming us and channeling the soothing life energies that mended our flesh and stopped our bleeding as the enormously strong opponents began to take their toll. Donazata flitted around the battlefield on her butterfly wings, using her connection with Rainbow to act as a conduit for her healing energies, delivering soothing touches to wounded Sisters in a shower of sparkles and rainbows. The dark-skinned arcanist wove spells to our benefit and the enemy’s detriment; speeding up our reactions while blasting foes with her lilac-nimbused explosions of fire and bolts of raw magical energy..

The fetchling was seen only in glimpses, much of her time spent unseen from sight as we rampaged through the fortress. An ogre would suddenly give a pained roar, staggering to its knees as she’d sneakily hamstring it, following it up with a flurry of stabs and slashes from her short, curved blades, and those unfortunate to survive clutched their bellies in an effort to contain their eviscerated intestines. Leaving a trail of dismembered and shattered bodies lying in pools of dark ogre blood, we cleared room after room, no longer any pretense to keep quiet. Coming to another door, we burst into the room to see a relatively well-kept area, a woman and several ogres staring at us, expectant and enraged.

With my battlecry ringing in our ears, the Sisterhood of Steel rushed at our foe as magic spells began to go off around us. The woman, the first regular-sized person we’d encountered in the entire place, was foolishly occupied with the evil-looking dinosaur and raging barbarian to her left that she forgot about me, yards away and beyond her immediate concern. She reached out, a nimbus of terrible radiance crackling from her hand as she touched Rakonia, and the dwarf staggered for a moment, a pained look in her eye.

I spun the naginata straight across and connected just so, and with a satisfying jolt the blade cut true, the spellcaster’s head sliced cleanly in two mid-skull.

The battle ended as the others put down the remaining ogre filth, and we continued on, pacifying the resistance for a number of furious minutes that felt like hours, the tension, excitement, and expectation drawing nerves tight, focused and ready to spring into action instantly. Teamwork, honed to near-perfection in our earlier fights, ensured that our enemy lay dead, with none of the Sisterhood worse for wear. By which I mean dead, or somehow crippled.

Finally convinced we were the sole survivors inside the structure, we set about a great accounting of all its wealth. Which was now our wealth.

Zeyara disappeared to go find Shalelu and the Black Arrow rangers, giving them the all clear to come inside. I looked around, seeing the potential of the place but more conscious of the blood and the lasting damage our battle had created upon the property. Funny how I’d never really even considered that before now.

The fetchling returned quickly. “We’ll get some of the villagers to clean it up,” she assured, reading my expression as I gazed at the aftermath.

Heartened, I nodded in agreement. “Deal’s still on?” I asked as the rangers turned the corner and came into sight. They stared in awe for a long minute, soaking in the sight of the slaughtered ogres in the street. “Just wait until you get inside,” I smiled knowingly.

Revenge is sweet when it’s fresh. Even if it’s obtained vicariously. We took a quick tour of the fort, avoiding the burnt-out lumber area, and ensuring our thorough search of the premises hadn’t missed anything.

We hadn’t.

Upon seeing the body of the regular-sized female, Jakardos made a foul exclamation, especially rude in his present company.

“Watch your language,” I warned, not a stickler for vocabulary but a firm believer that some words should be said.

“‘I can’t believe it,’ is what he said,” clarified Shalelu. Oh. Local dialects and all, I guess. Her step-father was engrossed in the sight of the woman.

“What?” I asked.

“You killed Lucrecia,” he stated, hatred blazing in his eyes.

“That’s Lucrecia?” Lucrecia, the pathetic sister of the snake-woman we slew in Magnimar. Her name was a poor copy of my own, ugly and simple, lacking the style and sophistication of Lucrezia. More importantly, at least to my companions, was the fact that she was our main nemesis in the region, behind the strange sihedron brandings in the town we’d noticed while passing through. I remembered that she owned a pleasure boat of some kind, with gambling and presumably prostitutes.

The others seemed as startled as I. “I guess she didn’t have time to give her speech,” Rakonia stated, philosophizing about the nature of evil and the tendency to expose themselves to people moments before they plan on killing them.

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The following day, we set out for Turtlepoint Beach, hoping to report our progress, unload some of the pile of stuff we’d acquired, and figure out what to do next. Probably something involving recruiting villagers to go and clean up the corpses and blood from our new fort.

Bidding farewell to the Black Arrow rangers and Shalelu for an unknown amount of time, we headed south. Our horses set a placid pace, burdened down with a good deal of oversized equipment we’d liberated from the Graul ogrekin. It was an uneventful, boring journey.

Until we reached Turtleback Cove. From a half-mile off, we could see something was wrong. The geography of the town had changed; the shoreline was somehow much further inland. Straining my ears, I still couldn’t hear the screams that Rakonia and Rainbow insisted they could hear, but it was obvious we were not walking into a good situation.

Tying our horses to a convenient nearby tree, we made our way towards the town on foot. Sure enough, there were sounds, terrified yells and agonized wails, getting louder as we approached. And then, it came into sight.

The town was half-flooded, many of the buildings partially submerged, a few listing badly and looking ready to topple or be swept away. Chaos was everywhere, and I took a moment to soak it in. Screaming children trying to hold a doorway closed as immense serpents tried to push their way in. A home in the distance on fire, people shouting for help. A rowboat filled to the brim with people desperately thrashing at the water with their hands, looking behind them in abject terror.

I followed their vision, and from between two half-submerged buildings, the thing made its appearance. Together, we stopped our headlong run, taking a second to appreciate the proportions of the tentacled beast that closed in on the people in the boat.

Magic was laid down in rapid succession, Rakonia caressing her shield while Vega gave us all the quickening and I focused my anger and expanded my size. Rapid conversation ensured we were of unified purpose, and we rushed down to the beach, trying to intercept the tentacled monster before it overtook the helpless citizens. It swiveled its head at us, thrashing its way on a new course to intercept us.

When I say this thing was immense, or gigantic, those are just words. I could say it was as big as a building, but unless you’ve seen something as big as a building-and I’m talking a government-type building, not some guys house… words don’t do it justice. From a block away, it seemed enormous, but as we got within range it literally blocked out the sky. It stayed in the flooded zone, the aforementioned tentacles lashing down with sickening force, and its hideous, dinosaur-looking head snapped down, closing around Skalmold and ripping away with terrible effect.

We gave as good as we got, my blade cutting into the beast’s thick hide from the shore while the others were nearly wading beneath the thing, hacking and smashing with desperate fury. Rakonia took a tentacle to the face, her face sagging and suddenly looking half-dead. She fought on with shield and kukri, Skalmold at her side doing her best to avoid the flailing appendages. Vega unleashed a massive, glittering explosion, and the sparkles that clung to the creature seemed to blind it, the next tentacle missing me by several feet.

Without warning, the creature reared back its head, like a snake about to strike, and belched out a great quantity of foul-smelling black smoke. Choking, our assault faltered, and I lashed out, striking something nearby with a gauntleted fist. Ignoring the squawk of protest, I stared around, wondering where I was. And what I was supposed to be doing.

A whipping, tree-trunk thick cord of muscle tore through the air, nearly catching me in the face. I followed the appendage back to its source, and beheld the abomination with gratitude. Now I knew what to do. Still in a stupor, I continued to attack the creature, aiding some of the others who’d kept their wits about them. Certain spots on the creature were glowing with an enticing red, drawing our attention to vulnerable areas of the creature, courtesy of the arcanist’s spellweaving. Blow after blow rained against the thrashing beast, each more telling than the last.

The abomination gave a terrible, wailing roar as it made a lurching attempt to get away, falling to our might before it could make good its retreat. We were ready to collapse, panting ragged breaths of cool autumnal air, but the children cried out for help, and the people in the boat ran it aground, exiting the vessel hastily while giving the water brief, terrified looks.

We ran past them, Vega ensorceling our footwear to allow us to walk atop the water of the flooded zone. Shaking off our fatigue, we ran directly at the snakes, the first of which had just slammed its way into the building. The thought of it swallowing someone whole spurred us on, and then were were among the vicious serpents, blades and hammer making short work of the huge but distracted creatures.

The townfolk that had made it out gathered on the shore, cheering us despite their bleak look as we brought a half-dozen rescued children back with us. Not a one had gotten swallowed. Taking in the dazed expressions, we gave some suggestions of what people should do to weather out this disaster. Talking with the mayor of the town, we were informed that the river had suddenly flooded, not magically as I’d suspected but apparently from upriver. There was a dam to the north of the fortress we’d recovered from the ogres, and he worried it was perhaps held by the same enemies who had destroyed the Black Arrow rangers.

We spent a few hours helping out, healing and talking to some of the townsfolk. Most of the five hundred plus residents had survived unscathed, and as the water slowly receded, there were fewer badly-damaged buildings that expected. We managed to purchase some precious diamond dust, Rakonia being diagnosed as having some of her life-force drained by the tentacled horror’s touch. The thing had been a monster of legend, the dreaded Black Magga.

I had severed the thing’s head as a trophy, while Vega had the dwarf cut away a portion of its thick skin, and then another, fashioning two maps out of magic pointing us towards the creature’s lair. Its treasure-filled lair, we hoped.

But first, we had to go back north to check out this damn dam.

View
How Rainbow met Donna
Daddy issues

In the old days waking up in Magnimar would have been a distressing event fallowed by a hasty retreat away from civilization. Now things have changed. I suddenly have new companions, maybe even friends, perhaps girlfriends.
Father never allowed that. All the different places we traveled too and all the different folk we helped. A person would think they’d have all kinds of friends but not me. Not like I ever had any time to really get to know some kid my age anyhow. We maybe stayed in the same location for a week, 2 weeks tops.
But these girls, I mean ladies or um maybe, she-devils? Well, they’re something special. For some reason they treat little old me as an equal. I wonder what my father would say about that? He’d probably change it to, “But do they treat goblins as equals?”
Not long ago I figured I’d be making it on my own, eating other beings trash and piously giving of myself until I secured a place in some backwater. Acting as the local witch doctor, slapping on leaches and rubbing on toxic smelling paste while I channeled a little energy to kept my patients healthy. I might have found safety in a place like that but nothing like what I’ve found with the Sisterhood of Steel.
Looking around my room it felt good to be in a bed. Father never let us sleep in big comfy beds. Even when they were offered he’d just stamp his foot and make us sleep in the wagon. “Don’t let the taint of comfort cloud your ideals girl!” he’d say. Maybe his ideals aren’t mine. What a strange thought.
With that I jumped out of bed and decided today was the day I’d get something nice for myself.
First thing I decided was to go out and have some of those tasty sounding pastries I over heard some of the tall folk talking about at the tavern last night. I checked my pouch and figured I probably had enough gold to get one for all my sisters. Besides Lucrezia was going to “divvy up the loot today”. Maybe, I’d have enough left over to purchase a drum. I always wanted one of those.
Mom use to play the pan flute and I’d usually find myself taping out a rhythm to her strange hunting melodies. I remember one time I had gotten a tambourine from a gypsy family we traveled with, a simple thing of wood and stretched leather. I must have bothered Father during his meditation cause next thing I know it was forbidden for me to drum, clap or even snap my fingers and the tambourine was in the fire.
“Today I’m getting a drum!” I shouted as I leapt out of bed. Only nobody heard me. The smelly dwarf was gone, and the rest of the girls had their own rooms. No bother, I’ll go make rounds and see what’s what, I thought.
Making my way to the common room I spotted Skalmold finishing up her meal. I asked her what the plan was and she told me “Earth Shaker!” as she got up to leave.
That’s when I noticed Zeyara heading out the door and she responded “wakizashi little one”
“Well I guess that’s what civilized people do, they buy things,” I said to no one in particular as I grabbed a discarded rotten apple off the floor. “Nothing like other’s garbage to start the day” I proclaimed as I purified it.
Biting into the now somewhat crisp apple I headed into the big city.
I walked about 5 blocks and looking around I saw a sad looking group of human children. Father always said, “A decent society takes care of it’s young”. Maybe Magnimar isn’t that nice of a place I thought, “or maybe these kids are just waiting to get into that pastry shop!” I squealed when I finally read the sign.
Well since my sisters were all off getting gear I might as well spend a little gold.
I opened up the door and a dirty old human man stood up to block my way. “Hold on now, you can’t be coming in here,” he said.
“And why not!” I protested. Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers fur went straight up and my cackles started to rise. “Who are you to deny me!? I came her to barter, I have gold, fairly obtained and I will not be denied one of your pastry items this day!” Oh dear spirits I sounded just like my Father.
The Shopkeeper’s disposition suddenly changed as he became apologetic. “Pardon me little miss, I did mistake you for one of those foul waifs the front of my shop is plagued with, do to the fine aroma my pastries do produce. What child could resist? They are such a nuisance. I truly must call the guard and see they are dispersed.” he said while fanning himself as he moved behind the counter.
I looked in my purse and pulled out 5 gold coins, would this be enough to buy each one of those kids a pastry? I thought. “Here, how many for this?” I asked.
He snatched the gold out of my hands and asked if I would be needing assistance.
“No, I just need one, the rest are for the children”
“Now they will never leave my store in peace”, he proclaimed but I noticed a gleam in his eye and soon he went out and gave each child pastries a plenty with a gentle pat on the head. “Spirits watch over you”, he said as I departed his store.
An hour later I found a drum. The shopkeeper proclaimed it was crafted by one of the finest drum makers in Astoria, used exclusively by the great bards of that kingdom and it only would only cost 12 gold. Somehow I ended up paying 15. This whole monetary system doesn’t make much sense to me but I think I got a good deal.
Unfortunately Mr. Fuzzy Whisker did not like the drum. He stayed hidden while the purchase was made but once I started taping it with my fingers on our way back to Foxglove Manor he bit me!
“Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers”, I scolded, “What has gotten into you?”
It happened again later that night. I wasn’t even conscious of playing the drum when I felt a sharp pain in my elbow. Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers was very upset with me and that’s when I suddenly noticed how much he looked like my Father.
“That’s weird, how have I never noticed that?” I asked him.
“I’ve always looked like this, your father was the one who looked like me” he snickered.
We’d only developed this linguistic communication over the last couple of weeks but or empathetic bound let us share feelings and impressions making for deep conversation. Or as deep as you can get with a rat, and I’d started noticing this rat had a very narrowly defined view of things. I guess growing up in a garbage heap didn’t expand his worldly outlook.
I looked hard at him and I just couldn’t shake the lingering image of my Father.
That night I slept n a bed, in a room, all by myself! It might have been the first time, I wasn’t sure.
Ever since my Mother’s death I’ve been having vivid dreams of the incident. The death and destruction my Father bestowed to the goblins that killed her was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. Only this night it wasn’t my father, the great Druid Cottonwood, causing all the damage but right in the middle of all that burning and death was Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers!
I awoke to sounds of chewing and wouldn’t you know it, that little rat was busy gnawing up my brand new drum, “Stop that!” I yelled as I brushed him away. I grabbed the drum and secured it in a dresser,” You leave that be” I scolded.
Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers mumbled “I’m hungry.” and started chewing on the sheets.
The next day we met with the mayor of Magnimar. Right away Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers let me know his residence was much too grandiose for any public servant but I kept those thoughts to myself. It ended up some rangers where in trouble and the Sisterhood of Steel was needed in Turtleback Ferry plus they would pay us in advance, whatever that meant.
Since it was on the way we headed back to Sandpoint and I decided then and there I was going to get my own room in our secret base and put a bed in it. Sleeping under the stars is nice but a bed is a better.
To my surprise the exotic Ranger Shalelu joined us the next morning. She had a vested interest in Turtleback Ferry and I was happy to have her along. Not that I missed Rakonia all that much, well maybe a little. There’s something about that earthy smell I find comforting.
Thankfully we were able to survive our encounters in the wild without her. I’d never seen Swap Giants before and I really don’t care if I ever do again. The ghouls we fought were just the worst.
I hate undead.
From talking with the spirits I’ve learned I could have the power to control the Undead. I could raise them up or take control of those already risen and have them do my bidding. That is if I really wanted too. No thank you. I’ll use my energy to fry the fuckers, every time.
They were pretty tough undead and the next morning I could feel the blessing of the spirits for aiding in their destruction. It made me want to beat my drum but poor little Fuzzy Whiskers was having none of that. I had to trap him in a bag, which he quickly chewed threw, just to practice.
“You know your Father would never let you play that thing,” he sneered.
“My Father would never let me do anything!” I shot back.
That morning I had communed with the Nature Spirit and using it’s newly available spirit magic I was able to conjure a Grove of Respite. “Why not pamper ourselves a little,” I said as the magic took shape. What a wonderful thing I thought and decided tonight I’d play my drum.
I quickly made a little cage and trapped Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers in it. “You’re not stopping me from practicing,” I told him.
Finally I had a chance to really play and I think I sounded pretty good.
I had just noticed the little dragon that was wrapped around Vega’s shoulders when I heard the delicate sound of a Pan Flute. Stopping my drum I tried to find the sound.
“Don’t stop playing” came a sweet voice above my head.
I looked up and suddenly my whole being changed.
“What or a Who are you?” I asked the tiny winged creature hovering in the air.
“Donazata Lyracta Shymoonsa, but all my friends call me Donna.” She said. “Go on, keep tapping that drum and I’ll play the melody”
We played for what seemed like minutes only it must have been hours. Some of the sisters even got up to dance. It was like something straight out of a dream. My heart had never experienced joy like that, my mind was everywhere and nowhere as my body and soul melded with my drum. The musical energy was a living thing and the spirits, oh the blessed spirits, passed in and around us as we played.
When it was over I caught my breath and told Donna there was someone I wanted her to meet. I went over and let Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers out of his cage.
Donna flew down to great him and he attacked her!
“Mr. Fuzzy Whisker!” I yelled.
“It’s okay, he didn’t get me” giggle Donna.
I checked myself; there was a strange feeling. No longer did I feel a connection with the rat. Donna flew up and perched on my shoulder.
“We’re bounded now,” she said.
Sure enough, what ever had passed between Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers and myself was like a faded memory. This new bound was more, much more.
“But Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers,” I stammered, reaching out to hold him one more time.
He wiggled in my hands and suddenly shot off into the woods.
He really did look like my Father.

View
Runelord Reflections 8

Hunting and Camping

Magnimar almost seemed to glow underneath the autumn sun.

With all of the recent unpleasantness behind us, I swaggered out of the merchant’s shop, happy to have once again had an opportunity to throw my weight around. Now, it was not only my connections to the Valdemar family interests that gave me the better negotiating position. I was the self-proclaimed official representative of the Kaijitsu family as well.

Chuckling in satisfaction at the weight slung across my shoulder, I kept one hand on the heavy leather bag as I unhitched Artax and leapt astride the brute with an attention-grabbing jingle of thousands of coins.

Making haste back to the late Aldern Foxglove’s manor where we’d decided to set up shop, I distributed what felt like a hundred plus pounds of gold amongst the crew. We’d already divvied up the reward we’d received from the Lord Mayor, Haldmeer Grobaras. As corrupt as the man was reputed to be, and despite his rotund bulk and foppish mannerisms, I couldn’t help admire his response to the foiled plot against his life.

What he’d done was pay a huge reward for the heroes who uncovered the plot. Which was, of course, us. Gold might not be able to buy friends, but this was a perfect example of it shifting attitudes in favorable directions.

Once the logistics of sharing were worked out, I bolted back to Artax and rode the horse at a gallop down the cobbled street, heedless of the cries of surprise and outrage I may have inspired from pedestrians. Now that I could finally, finally afford them, I was nearly frantic with the thought that someone else would manage to get there before me and rip them from my fingertips-

I pulled up, Artax rearing and whinnying in that frighteningly loud warhorse fashion, hooves cleaving through the air. I hopped off, dashing up to the window below a sign reading “Puss ‘n Boots”, ignoring the look of outraged reproval from my equine companion. Armor clanging, I stopped short of the glass, staring inside fervently. Fearfully.

My heart stopped for a brief moment. There they were! Still here!

I may have sent a window shopper or two sprawling in my haste to get into the store, which was rather dark and smelled of leather and sweat. There were three or four people near the counter inside, none of whom complained when I made my way up to the shopkeeper, who was also one of the cobblers. He looked at me, eyes widening in surprise and alarm.

“It’s alright, I have the money this time,” I began, trying to fend off any foolish notions that might be popping into the man’s head. I made good on my statement by hastily removings handfuls of coins from my purse.

He stared at the money, blinking a few times. “I don’t want any trouble this ti-”

I frowned, and he cut off with a nervous swallow. “There will be none. Just give me the damn boots. Please,” I added, a burst of happiness overcoming my businesslike demeanor.

Drops of sweat had sprung out along his forehead, and a reluctant nod sent them trickling down his face. I made a hurry up motion with my hand, and he spun around and marched over to the “Look but don’t touch” section.

From the display case, he withdrew a gleaming length of leather I’d seen from the window. I bounced up and down with uncontained anticipation. I’d waited so long-

He eyed the pile of coins I’d already laid out, then looked up at me. In each hand hung what appeared to be a long, black tube of leather to which were attached a series of straps and polished metal buckles, terminating in a set of metal-toed boots with the highest heels I’d ever seen. Long and spiky, they would add another two inches to my height. “Shall I bag these for you-” he started.

“I’ll be wearing them,” I stated, already peeling off my trusty but road-worn footwear. I wiped away a sliver of drool with the back of a hand as the other took hold of my fabulous prize.

“It adjusts to fit the shape of your legs and feet. You can raise or lower the heels by tightening or loosening this strap-” His voice faded as I began to play around with my purchase, eager to give them a try.

It took a good ten minutes to work myself into the boots, about half of which was spent getting out of my armor. The form-fitting black leather ran all the way up to mid-thigh, and despite how they clung the leather was as supple as cotton stockings. Taking my first steps in them was a surprise, for they felt agile and quick. I knew it had to do with the magicks woven into the midnight-black leather. The first time I’d seen them, the guy told me they were manticore hide. I fastened the last of the straps and buckles, striding out of the store with a spring in my step, basking in the wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes with finding the perfect functional accessory.

The stares I got seemed even more incredulous than usual, and with a feeling of smug superiority I made my way to the second stop on my to-do list, walking Artax behind me to get a feel for the new footwear. Amazingly soft and supportive, despite the tall heels I could feel myself moving more swiftly, and hopping up and down I sensed a give in the spikes, a springiness that begged to be unleashed. After crashing into a building and hearing the unmistakable sound of shattering glass come from inside, I contented myself with walking and went about my business, turning a few corners to throw off any possible pursuit.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

I returned to Foxglove Manor as the sun was setting, determined to see if anyone was up for partaking of some of the city’s night life. I figured Zeyara could probably be convinced, cosmopolitan that she is, and possibly Rainbow would agree if the activity involved animals or stars. Or abolishing the gold standard. I was unsure of Skalmold and Vega, the humans strangely sharing a lack of appreciation for the finer things in life. Unless, in the barbarian’s case, such things involved dancing and drinking, only one of which I was in the mood for.

Hopping off Artax, I led him to the stable and gave him a half-assed brushdown. Need to hire someone to do that for us, I thought for the twentieth time that week. He gave a nicker of disapproval, but I gave him a double-share of oats with his hay and left him munching contentedly.

The place appeared empty at first; heading back to the beautiful room I’d decided to claim, I took a few minutes to admire myself in the full-length mirror that dominated the wall opposite the fireplace. I turned around about a dozen times, admiring the effect of my new outfit from various angles and utterly unconcerned with the now-miniscule weight of my purse.

The Hook and Hammer had been my second stop, a trading company down by the docks that maintained a well-stocked emporium of foreign goods. Staring in the mirror, I turned my head left and right, up and down. The jingasa was a Tian version of a helmet, a wide, conical hat that sat on your head more like a shield than a true helm. I liked the look, exotic, and had a good feeling about it, especially when one of the three dwarves who ran the place told me it was lucky.

I leaned my naginata into its corner by the well-stuffed bed, admiring the faint glimmering hues of golden opportunity that seemed to sparkle from somewhere inside the elegant, jet-black blade. Getting it magicked up had eaten up the remainder of my funds, but I was excited to own a weapon that was more than just the “basic” enchantment.

Shrugging off my armor, I uncorked a bottle and traipsed around the house in my new undergarment, a tight snakeskin battle brassiere with hypnotizing patterns of dark green and purplish-black scales. It had been acquired from a snake-woman, so it was a conversation starter in more ways than one. It left little to the imagination, and with the boots I made quite a sight, if you don’t mind me saying myself.

I froze mid-pose, craning my neck to see a grey-skinned creature staring at me with blank, alien eyes. “Enjoying yourself?” Zeyara asked, somewhat cruelly in my opinion.

Summoning my last shreds of dignity, I made a show of adjusting the top for a moment. “Very much so.” Suddenly unable to contain myself, I burst out with “Look what I bought today-”

Blank yellowish eyes staring, well, blankly at my prized purchases, the worldly fetchling made a show of looking unimpressed. A few times, though, I caught her staring at my amazing boots, which were so much louder than her own little slippers. And I’m not talking about sound. “_I_ bought this,” she murmured, drawing a sleek, black-metal sword of curved design similar to her others.

“Adamantine,” I admired aloud. “The best metal there is.”

“Did you see Rakonia’s note?” the assassin asked. I had a feeling it was the original reason she’d come into the room.

“Uh, no.”

Zeyara nodded, apparently expecting my response. “Here.”

I read the note. It seemed like the dwarf had run off with a half-elf, possibly in a romantic tryst-type scenario. “Huh. Does it sound to you like she’s hooking up-”

“No,” Zeyara replied without hesitation. “Even half-elves rangers have to have some taste.” She paused. “And sense of smell.”

I chuckled dutifully, grinning at the thought. “Well good for her. Hope she’s getting some.”

“I really don’t think-”

“Rakonia you dirty, repressed dwarf,” I chuckled. Then I frowned. Weren’t elves basically racial enemies to dwarves? I shrugged; even if I knew that was true, Rakonia had proven herself remarkably unlearned in dwarvish ways. Including their prejudices. Zeyara watched my self-interaction in silence. “Well, she says she’ll meet us back in Sandpoint.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” Vega said, entering the room. We turned to look at the bleary-eyed magic user, eyes crinkled with long hours pouring over ancient tomes and manuals. Not exactly my idea of a fun way to spend your day, but to each her own. “Did you see the letter?”

“Yeah, we’ll meet her back home, er, Sandpoint.” I explained, something akin to horror overcoming me as I realized that, at least subconsciously, Sandpoint had somehow become home.

Vega looked between us, all baggy and bloodshot eyes. Humans wear so visibly. “I don’t understand…”

Well that was new. “Rakonia? Chasing in the woods with some half-elf-”

“Rakonia? With a half-elf? A male?” Vega looked as curious as if we’d uncovered one of those musty old books covered in chicken-scratch nonsense writing. I nodded in affirmation. The dark human’s cheeks grew darker, and with a sly look she asked “Do you think they’re, you know-”

“Absolutely not!” Zeyara answered, “And you’re both ridiculous for even thinking it. Disgusting.” She made a sour face. “Ugh!”

“What letter?” I asked, remembering Vega’s initial conversation-starter.

“Oh,” she held up a thick sheet of parchment. “This one.”

It was from the Lord Mayor, requesting an audience at our earliest convenience.

“Perhaps our work here isn’t quite done,” I mused unnecessarily.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We spent the night enjoying ourselves, each in her own individual way. Skalmold no doubt celebrated our victory and subsequent reward by drinking and getting into fights with sailors, Rainbow staring at the stars and possibly remembering the now-starving goblin baby she’d decided to take care of, a hundred miles up the coast. Zeyara probably spent some time skulking in alleyways and hopping over rooftops, and Vega was of course absorbed in what she liked to call her “studies”.

The following day, we headed to the city’s seat of power. The Lord Mayor Grobaras resided in the largest, most posh structure in Magnimar, as befitted his station. We were ushered in immediately upon arrival, and he greeted us warmly. His eyes lingered over several of us, a subtly lecherous glint sweeping across us again and again. I’d never anticipated missing the dwarf’s presence during a negotiation, but having her front-and-center would have alleviated some of the man’s innate male lusts. Can’t blame a guy for looking, though, especially not when he was the ruler of the greatest regional power for hundreds of miles.

After a very brief moment of pleasantries, we got down to business. His request was ultimately simple. “There is a fort north of the city of Turtleback Ferry that houses some of the elite Black Arrow Rangers,” he explained, drawing a series of noncommittal shrugs from the rest of us. The name sounded vaguely familiar. “Fort Rannick. It has recently gone dark. I am hoping to recruit your group to-”

“The Sisterhood of Steel,” I supplied, since names mean power and I didn’t want to get dismissed as that all-female adventuring party.

“Yes, the SIsterhood of Steel, to investigate. I am willing to pay you well for the job, as the area will require some traveling. Say, seven hundred gold each?”

I was ready to nod when Zeyara butted in. “We are certainly interested, but have other obligations as well. You have no doubt heard of Sandpoint’s troubles.” She paused, and he nodded shortly. “With, oh, I don’t know, let’s say an even thousand apiece, I’m sure we could convince the people to let us depart for a matter of state security.”

Frowning, Lord Mayor Grobaras nodded in acquiescence. “Yes, that will be fine. A thousand each-”

“Half up front,” Zeyara pushed, pressing both the advantage and her luck. “It is, after all, an investment, we’ll need to buy supplies-”

The Lord Mayor leaned back and shook his head, smiling. “I have you there. You will receive the entirety up front; I am paying an honorable group of heroes to play a hand in our great city’s security, rather than risk using treacherous mercenary scum.” If his words contained any sarcasm, it was too subtle for me to pick up on. “And that of the region as well.” He called out a name, and a well-dressed man appeared to take instructions. Three minutes later we were each holding a substantial sum of precious metal in soft leather bags the Lord Mayor’s manservant had supplied us with.

“Your Majesty,” I said, hoping to butter him up a bit with an upgraded title. “There is the matter of a certain manor in town belonging to one dead traitor.” He regarded me blankly. “The Foxglove Manor… I was hoping that, since we put the man down, perhaps you could find a way to make our use of it more official…?”

“You were rewarded for bringing to light the plot on my life,” he began reasonably, although his expression conveyed mild annoyance at the very least. “I don’t know much regarding the property rights of-” He looked me over, then caught my eye and broke off, swallowing. Maybe it was the arms crossed angrily underneath my barely-contained snakescale-laminated chest, or the ominous tapping of the thigh-high belt-and-buckle boots that fit my legs like a pair of gloves. Maybe the expectantly raised eyebrow, or the mouth just beginning to twist into my best pouty glower. Hard to know, really. He glanced at the others, lingering on Zeyara for a few extra but obvious seconds, and then sighed with a smile.. “We’ll see. I’ll look into the matter.”

“That’s all we ask,” I stated untruthfully.

“I’m putting my faith in you girls,” he commented, the hint of a warning, or even a threat, deep inside the statement. Something dangerous pierced his veil of joviality.,He made me uneasy, but better to have friends in high positions than make enemies with the same. At least when you have a choice. He’d treated us right so far, but I couldn’t help imagining a point where he decides it’s in his best interests to turn on us.

With that cheery thought, we parted, and rather than spending the rest of the day throwing around coin inside the city, we packed our bags and headed up the coast. Back to Sandpoint.

Along the way we heard a terrible and familiar roar far in the distance. Despite a sudden thirst for vengeance, we redoubled our pace away from the noise, telling ourselves that it would be a shame not to allow Rakonia to participate in our nemesis-beast’s destruction.

With many a backward glance, we trod northeast along the coast. The sun had set by the time we arrived back in the familiar town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.” It was the third time Ameiko had answered, and the amused sparkle in her dark eyes had faded to a look of puzzled annoyance. “Like I said. It’s been quiet. No murders, no new sicknesses, no missing people… everything’s pretty much just, well, back to normal. Almost,” she amended.

The Rusty Dragon seemed to be as quiet as the rest of the town. “People still a bit… unsettled?” I asked, struggling to find a word that didn’t incorporate the idea of outright fear. Ameiko could be touchy about the character of the townsfolk, and got a little testy when they were criticized.

“To say the least. Can hardly blame them,” she commented, sighing wistfully while looking around the empty common room. “Still, I do miss the crowd.”

“Of course you do; you’re a people kind of person. You enjoy putting on a show, giving people what they want. Don’t get defensive,” I explained, holding up my hands as she reached for a nearby pan. Flashbacks of her final confrontation with her father played in my mind. That old, dead fool. I smiled. “That’s why you like running this place so much. Captive audience.”

“Why you-”

“That’s a good thing, Mistress Kajitsu,” I said in mock seriousness, my eyes flicking from hers down to the fingers curling around the handle of a metal skillet. “It’s your talent. A leadership trait. I’m not telling you how to use it, just enjoy the fact that you have it.”

She looked satisfied for a moment, then her brows scrunched in disappointment. “Leadership… I told you, Lucrezia, I just want to-”

“Keep running this place,” I shrugged, encompassing the in with the wave of an arm. “Nobody’s going to take that away from you. But… you’re the sole heiress of the Kaijitsu family. You call the shots now, nobody else. I just think, well, maybe you should try and keep things going. Don’t let what your family built for itself disappear. You alone are the embodiment of that family, now.”

She snorted in derision. “Responsibility. That’s what you’re talking about. Me, spending my life worrying and fretting over the House’s finances, the people it employs-”

She was wrong. I was talking about power. But that wasn’t something she was overtly interested in. “You already employ people here at the Rusty Dragon,” I reminded, trying to keep my patience. “And you know the greatest trick to management; delegating responsibility to your underlings.” She opened her mouth, then closed it, looking thoughtful. I pressed on. “You already have what’s-his-name running the Glassworks pretty much without supervision, right?” After waiting for a nod, I continued. “Working out pretty well, isn’t it?”

Her eyes gleamed with delight. “Yes, the money. I’d never thought… My father kept a lot of things, er…”

“Hidden up his tight ass?” I supplied.

“Something like that.” She smiled, and I was grateful her father had finally stopped inspiring regretful sighs and forlorn gazing into the distance. Nothing worse than a memory intruding on otherwise pleasant conversation. Except, perhaps, during the course of heated… debate. “It’s… substantial. I’ve been thinking of adding on an addition to this place, in fact,” she began, rummaging behind the counter to produce some crumpled parchments covered with inked plans for her super dragon upgrade.

“Oh, wow,” I said, trying to sound admiring. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the scribbled lines or adjective-laced annotations. “Hey,” I said, struck by a thought. “You should make this place into your headquarters!”

“My… what?”

“Like… you run your whole little business empire. From here!” I laughed, smacking the table and startling her. She’d have to see the merits of this. “The Glassworks is in order, thanks to those recruits we grabbed from Magnimar. The guy running it seems competent, and he’s invested in the business, because it means he’ll make money as well. Seems to run a tight ship.” In truth, I’d visited the man several times, and although gruff and lacking what one would call “social graces,” the man knew his work, and was already producing some amazing new glassware.

My only complaint had been his obsession with pipes. He’d made dozens and dozens of the hollow tubes, each intricate and functional, but far more than the population of Sandpoint could demand. He’d taken on the stained glass and windowpane duties that had previously dominated the Glassworks without complaint, and in addition asked for and received permission to set up areas to make an assortment of wares, from goblets and crystalware to bottles and tiny figurines. There was even something he called a glass massager that was all the rage in Cheliax that he guaranteed would sell.

“And here at the Rusty Dragon, you got that… er, other Tian,” I finished lamely. The lady’s name still escapes me. “She knows how to run this place, she can take care of the small stuff while you manage the big picture. Imagine getting to do everything you want to do; talk with customers, schmooze guests, entertain friends… all while someone else does the number crunching and coin exchanging.”

I dropped it there, but she was quiet for a long time, her features thoughtful.

The following morning I took my leave. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?” she asked hesitantly.

“Hard to say,” I admitted. “At least a week to get there, and back. As to how long it takes to clean up whatever needs cleaning, well…” The look of worry on her face and the slight desperate glint of her eyes gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction.

“I’ll bring you back something nice,” I promised. “To decorate your new HQ.”

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Domestic affairs were not quite over with, for after a brief night’s sleep we were informed that Shalelu, the town’s elven ranger, had stopped by the inn and wanted to see us.

We headed to the mayor’s first thing in the morning; it was Deverin who informed us of Shalelu’s presence after listening to the tales of our exploits against the horrors encountered in Magnimar. “And then, we foiled a plot against the Lord Mayor’s life! We saved his life!”

She looked suitably impressed. “You saved the Lord Mayor’s life?” she asked softly, and needlessly, as I’d already stated that fact twice.

“He wants us to go on a secret mission,” I said, bringing my head down close to hers in a conspiratorial manner. Ignoring her look of unease flicking between my blazing eyes and delicate horns and the sudden tensing of her neck muscles, I went on. “We’re heading north…ish,” I stumbled, forgetting exactly. “Some place called Turtle Beach-”

“Turtleback Ferry,” Rainbow corrected for the dozenth time.

The mayor pulled back, her pallor returning to normal with a few feet of distance between us. “That is interesting, since that is where Shalelu is headed as well.”

Zeyara’s thin face looked up, suddenly interested.

“Although we hate leaving the town, especially after so much has befallen it recently…” I wasn’t asking permission exactly, but finding a way of letting her know she’s on her own. “We feel it important to figure out what is going on there, deal with that threat before it can build into something that can threaten Magnimar… or Sandpoint.”

“I see,” the mayor said, an odd look of relief in her eyes. “We will persevere, as we always have. Your help has been invaluable, and greatly appreciated.” It almost sounded like a dismissal, if I chose to take it the wrong way.

“Watch out for the Sandpoint Devil,” Rainbow advised good-naturedly, causing the mayor to pale visibly.

“The… you mean…”

“Oh, it’s real, and it’s big and deadly and very mean,” the adorable halfling confirmed cheerfully.

“If the goblins should reassemble,” began Skalmold.

“Or any other ancient evils that wake up in this region, given that it seems to be happening with some frequency,” added Zeyara.

The Mayor Deverin’s eyes darted between us. “Are you certain you, er, must go? Surely, a few more days-”

“You’ll be fine. If you need us, well…”

“Perhaps, if something arises, we… we could communicate by raven?” the mayor asked, grasping at straws.

I shook my head. No way in hell we were carrying a box full of shitting, cawing birds on our trek across country. “Even if we had them, you couldn’t reach us.”

“Oh.” The middle-aged woman sat down heavily, suddenly looking dejected.

“You can send someone to Magnimar, hire a mage to cast a Sending at us,” Vega supplied constructively. The mayor looked up, heartened, and we left to find Zeyara’s elf pillow buddy somewhere in town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

To make a long reunion short, Zeyara and Shelalu stared at each other thinly veiled intensity throughout the conversation, at least when the elf wasn’t lamenting recent events. Shelalu had lost contact with her adopted father, or stepfather, or other kind of not-actual-father figure. Coincidentally, he was one of the Black Arrow rangers, based in the fort above Turtle Base, and our current destination.

“Since you’re heading to Turtleback Ferry, mind if I tag along with you guys?” the elf asked at the end of her tale.

Well, we were down a ranger. Shelalu seemed interesting, as well. “I doubt you ever tag along on anything. We’d love your help, right Zeyara?” I nudged the grey-faced fetchling hard with an armored elbow, ignoring the are-you-flirting-with-my-pillowfriend-and-if-so-prepare-to-be-stabbed glare in her narrowed yellow-green eyes because I wasn’t.

We set out around midday, heading due east, at least according to the expensive compass I had bought long ago with the understanding that, by owning it, I would never be lost again. Through trial and error I found that not to be the case, and only rarely is knowing what direction you’re pointing extremely helpful. In this case, the river we would follow was east, and so east we went.

Shelalu explained that the sun generally rose in the east, and that by knowing the time of day one could usually determine the direction based on its position in the sky. She went on to give other tell-tale signs of direction, various mosses the grew on specific sides of rocks and trees, and other such ranger witchcraft. I listened with half an ear, trusting that looking at the compass would be infinitely easier than remembering all her confusing rules.

The first night passed uneventfully, camped out in some softly rolling hills a dozen miles from the river we would be following throughout the journey.

Riding all day is surprisingly tiring, although less to your feet and calves, and more to your thighs and butt and lower back. Although I hated to admit it, it didn’t help that my legs were spread halfway to kingdom come to get around Artax’s barrel-sized chest. I tried sidesaddle for a bit but after a couple of nasty falls I gave it up as a bad idea.

Zeyara and Shelalu would disappear into the woods, or the tall grasses, or behind a rock after we stopped for the evening. Presumably to apply lotion, or rub out the tension, or some other euphemism. They were suspiciously quiet, either out of thoughtfulness or perhaps not quite the right amount of fun.

Zeyara and I shared the last watch, from before dawn to mid morning, when we’d finally get underway. This was great because sleeping in armor, even beautiful mithril armor, isn’t such a good night’s rest.

The fire burned bright, and we amused ourselves with philosophical conversations.

“So, how do you feel about Shelalu being, you know, like a hundred and fifty years old?” was my opening gambit.

Zeyara shrugged. “Doesn’t concern me much. She’ll keep her looks a good long while.”

Amieko was in her late twenties, near as I could tell. She had maybe a decade or so in her. Callous, perhaps, but true. I was fairly certain I’d have moved on long before then, but one never knew. “Doesn’t it, I don’t know, creep you out?”

“What, that she’s five times my age?” Zeyara asked, her voice betraying a certain familiarity to the thought.

“No, more that she’s going to outlive you. By so long.”

“Not that long,” Zeyara assured. I gave her a disbelieving look.

“You’re around thirty, she’s maybe a hundred and fifty. You’ll be an old crone in sixty years, sister. It’s that far-off human ancestry,” I lamented, shaking my head sadly.

“Crone might be overstating it,” the fetchling whispered dangerously.

“She’s got another hundred, two hundred years before she will even look older. And maybe another two hundred after that until she’s dead! Assuming she lives out her natural life,” I qualified. Assuming any of us live very long at all. It was a rather big assumption, and one many people made erroneously, but there was no way around it without succumbing to crippling, morbid fatalism.

“I guess I’d rather have something that will last, rather than fruit that will wither in my hand.” Ouch. “She’ll remember me long after I’m gone.”

“I see your point. Still though, I’d rather be the one doing the remembering and lamenting.” I leaned closer. “So, when you two, you know…” Zeyara’s face clouded, which seemed to be the fetchling equivalent of blushing, so I hastily continued, my curiosity overflowing. “Is it all delicate and stuff? Like, I just imagine a lot of petting and fingertips tracing along curves and gazing into each others eyes-”

“It is not like that,” Zeyara spat. “You seem to have given this a lot of thought,” she added, whether resentfully or suspiciously I couldn’t quite tell. Possibly both.

“Well… don’t you get curious? You’ve noticed Ameiko’s… pretty intense.” I confessed. “Passionate. Live life to it’s fullest, in true bardic fashion. It’s perfect, the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had, I guess, since she’s kinda into the rough stuff, and I-”

“I do not need to be hearing about this,” the assassin implored, her eyes yellow and glowing as she stared pointedly into the night pretending to look for danger.

My curiosity and concerns hadn’t been quenched. “It’s just, you’re always so quiet when you go off in the bushes. And I never once heard anything back at base…”

“Perhaps some people are more considerate than others. And… stealthy.”

Stealthy. I liked the sound of that. “So… okay, gimme some details!”

“I most certainly will not,” the fetchling sputtered. “What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?” I retorted, trying to turn it around with limited success. Shaking it off, I lowered my voice. “Are you not… having fun? Is that it?"

She turned to regard me with incredulity. “That is not it. There is no it.”

“If the magic’s gone and it’s more of a chore… well, you gotta spice things up. Ameiko’s got an buttload of toys you could borrow. Literally. Probably two or three, easily-”

“Lucrezia!” the assassin hissed dangerously. I stopped rubbing the phantom ropeburn at my wrists, getting my head back in the game in time to notice a rock sailing into camp, smashing feet away from the sleeping form of Vega with a terrible crack. An unmistakable odor of rotting fish began to permeate the camp. We had been resting easy, confident in the magical warding the arcanist had placed around the perimeter of our camp, but said wards had apparently not worked against whatever was happening.

Luckily, since we were on watch I was awake along with Zeyara, and we noticed two immense beings lumber out of the darkness, coming from the area leading to the great river we were following. Hulking, brutish giants stood back from the camp, silhouetted by the false dawn’s faint light against the horizon. WIth a warning cry, I willed myself to energize with the strange power lying dormant inside me, and as Skalmold and Rainbow stood, Vega’s muffled voice finished her chant and time seemed to slow down to the point of standing still.

We rushed at the giants in a blur of speed, into the rancid stench of putrefying fish. Twisted, monstrous faces regarded us with slitted, milky eyes, cracked tusks poking up from their thick lower lips. Their long arms and strange, hooked weapons negated the benefits of my naginata’s reach, but the others were even worse off. One of the things attacked me with magic, but to no noticeable effect. Skalmold slammed into the other, but the ten foot tall monstrosity shouted a curse and lashed out with a filthy hand, sending the barbarian reeling in a flash of terrible energy._ That’s not right._ Concentrating, I watched the giant’s fist connect, but Skalmold shrugged off the curse, whaling away at the creature’s legs with her immense hammer.

From underneath her bedroll, Vega tossed off blasts of amethyst magical energy, striking the giant over and over.

“Stay down and cover us,” I shouted back at Shelalu, focusing on the second giant. Zeyara appeared out of nowhere, giving the creature a vicious stab. The thing bellowed in rage and anger, its beady eyes searching for its opponent, when I felt the singing of the spheres course through my body.

It was like the heavens opened up, a wellspring of rightness as I stepped in and swung my naginata, catching the massive giant in the neck. I felt every cord of muscle sever, every fiber of sinew and sliver of bone and shred of cartilage part before my blade.

The far-off singing faded as the head fell from the creature’s shoulders, spinning and trailing a spiraling stream of blood, showering the ground in wet death.

The other fell soon after. I got ropes and we hitched the bodies to the horses, dragging them back into the water.

Out of sight, out of mind. I ignored the bits and pieces that poked up, not quite making it to deep enough water. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

I cleaned off what I could from the severed giant head. The skull would make an interesting decoration, a real conversation starter. I built up the fire and tossed the mess in the flames, smelling the strangely familiar scent of cooking meat as the flesh seared, blackened and eventually fell off the bone.

“No more talking on watch,” Zeyara proclaimed, taking up a position a safe distance away, upwind of the fire. It was good advice, and I was determined to make an attempt to follow it.

The rest of the night and early morning passed uneventfully.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

The following day, a mere three or four hours after the giant attack, saw us on our way along the river. We’d opted to travel on horseback rather than by boat. Partly because of convenience, partly due to some of our party’s fear of water and drowning.

Late that night, I was kicked awake. I hopped to my feet, feeling oddly light and extremely naked without my armor.

Ahead of us, several beings came into view. Their twisted forms, hidden behind armor and cloaks, were unmistakeable given our recent experiences. The ghouls began to advance, and the Sisterhood of Steel girded themselves to confront the seemingly random undead.

One of the ghouls was clad in magnificent, if desecrated, armor, riding atop a fiendish-eyed dire boar that belched smoke through its wet nose. Another ghoul had a bow which it immediately drew and fired, sending an arrow deep into Skalmold’s shoulder. The blonde barbarian staggered and roared, rushing to engage but obviously smarting.

I slished and slashed at the armored ghoul atop the boar, but was unable to penetrate his defenses. They were tougher than the ghouls we’d fought around Sandpoint; the rider seemed possessed of a keen intellect and hatred for the more pure-hearted members of our group.

Skalmold suffered more under the ghoul archer’s fire, but Rainbow’s healing waves helped keep us going, as well as drawing the undead’s arrows. The undead knight lashed out, targeting his fury upon Skalmold, who reeled briefly from a multitude of terrible-looking wounds. Her immense hammer swung in berserk fury to smash the creature from its mount, Zeyara’s blades slashing opportunistically, my own sweeping cuts and violent thrusts, aided by Rainbow’s positive energy and Vega’s speed inducing spellweaving and offensive magics slew our enemies, the pair of lesser, more typical ghouls falling quickly once the armored warrior and archer were dealt with.

The huge, demonic boar disappeared with the death of its rider.

“Damn it, I wanted some of that infernal bacon.” That was Zeyara.

“It would have been sinfully delicious,” I lamented.

“Arcadia would have paid good money to get their hands on an exotic animal like that,” Skalmold interjected to our surprise, impressively well versed in that nation’s affairs. Perhaps she’d read that pamphlet we found.

“They don’t truck with infernal anything,” I corrected. “But they do have some celestial pigs running around. Descended from huge dire boar, if I remember correctly. Celestial Farms is the brand. GuiltyBacon, it’s called.” When nobody asked, I clarified. “It’s because of the terrible guilt that consumes you after eating it,” I explained, “but it’s so delicious it’s totally worth it.”

“That sounds like an abomination!” Rainbow exclaimed.

“A bacon nation, maybe,” I allowed. My stomach growled.

We took some gear off the now-inanimate corpses, and Vega took out a knife and flensed a wide square of skin from the ghoul with the armor to use in a magic ritual that didn’t seem to go anywhere. Then we set them aflame. We decided to sleep late.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but it was a restless sleep followed by a long, tiring watch.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Upon waking, I felt somehow… different. Stronger. I contemplated the fragments of strange dreams I recalled from the interrupted sleep of the previous night, and was fascinated at the certainty of being able to lay curses upon things, as the swamp giants had nearly done to Skalmold a few days before. Some kind of lifeforce-draining aura beckoned to be used, and impatiently I awaited an opportunity to test it out.

Another day and dozens of miles later found us camping, again. I was glad Shalelu was around; Rainbow was pretty good at spotting good places to set up, but the elf was consistently good. It was ironic; traveling cross-country, camping out in the wild, and the party ranger was nowhere to be found. I hoped she was enjoying her time off with her elf-blooded friend. I was also certain that, out of all of us, Rakonia would be the one able to make the journey solo and catch up to the group once she was ready.

Hopefully she wouldn’t get knocked up by her new elf-blooded friend.

This evening, at the spot of her choosing, Rainbow impressed us all by weaving some powerful nature magic, and we found ourselves bedding down among a small oasis, surrounded by trees bearing fruit and a small, fresh pool of water appearing by magic.

Not long after setting up, we suffered two disturbances. One came in the form of a tiny, butterfly-winged dragon that flew into camp, upsetting some of the horses and Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers, Rainbow’s pet rat. The creature seemed to bond with Vega, of all people, and the two stared at one another, mentally conversing late into the night.

The second came in the form of a small, beautiful pixie-like creature. It settled down on Rainbow’s tiny shoulder like she belonged there, and it became clear that the halfling shaman’s pet rat was now merely a small, furry pet that kept trying to escape from her grasp, no longer obeying her commands. She looked conflicted; sad of her companion’s reversion into simple animal, but delighted at her new fairy companion, who wasn’t a fairy at all but instead some kind of celestial being. The tiny figure began to strum a lute or lyre, introducing herself as “Donna.”

All in all, a rather strange night. But, aside from that, uneventful.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

It was late fall. We had another solid day of boring travel, not encountering anything. The following day, however, it began to storm. The snowy kind. By midmorning, a full-on blizzard was threatening to engulf us, and with no visibility we relied on Shelalu and Rainbow to guide us somewhere we could wait out the storm.

A little time lost due to weather. It was a good thing I’d brought my cards.

Zeyara was unbothered by the cold, her grey skin seeming to shrug off the bitter wind. The rest of us had taken out our cold weather gear. Mine was mostly fox fur.

The following day, the sun returned and much of the snow melted. Another few days saw us to Turtle Town.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Of the entire party, no one was more eager to get to the fort above Turtle Bay than Shelalu. I debated preparing her for the possibility of her father’s death, but decided that was Zeyara’s business and not mine.

I thought it might be a good idea to head straight to the fort, get the low-down from there and keep the majority of the residents unaware of our arrival. I was soundly voted down, the others wanting to scour the town for clues and rumors about what was happening.

Since we had no real idea what was happening, it wasn’t a bad idea.

The townsfolk were nervous. The place was smaller than Sandpoint, maybe a quarter the population, built along a river that we followed but will remain unnamed. We picked up on rumors of the missing rangers, mostly that they were missing. Someone mentioned a strange family name, bringing up a history of ogre-blood in the outlying community, cruel, half-human stock that periodically caused trouble such as this.

Disconcertingly, something else we noticed was a prevalence of a familiar symbol throughout the town: the Sihedron, the symbol of the seven sins. Not everywhere, not even on most people, but a distinct minority bore the sign as a tattoo or stitched into their clothing. We shared a grim look, and I glanced pointedly at the same symbol worn on Vega’s neck.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We made our way toward the fort, but on the way were stopped by a piteous cry from the forest. It sounded like a cat, and a large one. Cautiously, we approached and Rainbow rushed forward, whispering and soothing the magnificent flame-pelted cougar that looked up from where it had been worrying at its front paw, stuck in a rusty steel trap.

As Rainbow continued her animal whispering, I approached carefully and sliced through the trap, freeing the poor beast. As I stood up and respectfully backed away, the sound of a hunting horn could be heard behind us, from deeper within the woods.

Seconds later, the baying of hounds announced the arrival of another party. A thick, deep voice was shouting commands in a harsh language, and suddenly they were upon us, a gigantic man with arms like tree trunks, leading a pack of a dozen slavering hounds. The dogs had a sinister, mangy appearance, and the man’s furious voice contrasted oddly with his misshapen, childlike features.

The dogs were dispatched within moments, the man run down and gutted soon after. He’d been armed with one of those ugly, hook-like weapons the giants had used. Examining the body, we got our first look at the ogre-kin.

Thick, ugly muscles, a barrel-chested torso, and a tiny head. The overall effect was rather disgusting.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

“Over here,” Rainbow urged, leading us through an old-growth forest, it’s floor miraculously free of clinging weed and thorny brush.

Using her shamanic magic, the halfling had somehow communicated with the rust-pelted great cat, and learned that it was the companion to one of the missing druids, as well as the general location they were being held.

The tiny figure leading the party stopped and pointed, the even tinier pixie accompanying her flitting from shoulder to shoulder.

Two structures lay in a clearing in the forest; a large barn and a strangely built home, a haphazard affair seeming constructed in fits and starts, none of it matching or symmetrical. A lone, lumbering figure prowled the grounds between the buildings, its massive bulk unmistakeable as another of the ogre-kin.

“The family we heard about in town,” Vega recalled. “The Grauls.”

“I’ll go ahead and take care of the sentry,” Zeyara confirmed. She dashed silently ahead into the forest. Despite her confidence, I gathered the others and followed closely behind, leaving Shalelu to stay in the trees and “cover us.”

The fetchling dealt the guardian a terrible blow with her blades, but the creature bellowed out in pain and warning before the rest of us got there to finish it off. Thinking quickly, we headed into the barn to get out of sight of the main building.

Inside, the structure was divided in half by a wall, with a wooden catwalk running around the edges, midway to the twenty foot ceiling. Six of the monstrous brutes lay waiting for us.

Their favorite weapons appeared to be those strange, evil-looking hooks mounted on the end of a short, thick pole. Standing seven feet tall or more, the ogre-blooded degenerates were all out of proportion, their arms and legs to thick, shoulders too wide, heads too small. “Blood for the Blood God!” I roared, my voice beautiful and terrible and echoing in the strange language that passed my lips when the spirit burned within me, and one by one the not-quite-men fell to the Sisters’ attacks.

Wiping our blades clean, we investigated the other room, cutting the door open with my adamantine blade. In a chamber similar to the first except for an extraordinary amount of cobwebs, two platforms rose up from the corners. The left appeared empty, but the right…

I rushed back to the staircase leading to the catwalk, the only obvious route to the cage we spotted. The three men inside stared out with wild, haunted eyes that were nevertheless brimming with a sudden, intense hope at our arrival.

Below, the fairy dragon and the celestial pixie flew into the room to scout out the ground level. Instantly, two great shapes darted out from hiding, their huge bodies bristling with legs and flexing mandibles dripping with venom.

Spiders give me the creeps.

The creatures were immense. As one descended, I lashed out with my naginata without thought, cutting deeply and severing an immense, sapling-sized leg. Rainbow’s pixie flew out of the room, but Vega’s dragon got trapped, darting around erratically to keep from being nabbed by the spider.

Skalmold and Zeyara rushed in, the fetchling leaping down from the catwalk behind me, and I lashed out again from my perch on high. The hideous arachnid was nearly the size of a mammoth, although probably not as heavy given it was mostly legs. It was still large enough to be within reach of my pole weapon, and the naginata speared the creature right through its middle part, grey-green ichor spurting out from the creature’s burst exoskeleton. I watched in satisfaction as it jerked, landing on its back with legs curled up as if in submission.

The barbarian and assassin took down the second gigantic spider, and I quickly crossed the distance to the caged men. Adamantine blades make quick work of the strongest locks, and a minute later the three men were freed from their prison, massaging wrists and ankles recently unchained.

After a brief and relieved reunion between Shalelu and her stepfather, we learned that the rangers, all forty-odd elite Black Arrows, had been ambushed in the woods. I shook my head in disbelief at the story of capture and slow attrition as the rangers were hauled away one by one, never to return. Presumably, they had been eaten.

Aside from the stepfather, there were two other surviving rangers, one of whom was joyful to hear that his pet cougar still lived and waited for him in the woods. The rangers were all the worse for wear, and without equipment remained fairly useless. I was all for tasking Shalelu to see them safely back to the fort above Turtletown, but something Vega noticed interrupted the plans.

“You,” she stated, pointing at the third ranger, who’d been pretty quiet. “What is that tattoo under your shirt?”

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he retorted evasively. Skalmold and I stepped in close, boxing him in. “Hey, what’s this all about-”

“He has the mark tattooed on his chest,” the arcanist explained, fingering her own necklace and conveniently hiding the symbol from the rescued rangers.

We ended up forcibly removing his shirt. He protested his innocence. “Lots of people have them!”

That much was true. “Do they all know what it means?”

Shalelu’s stepfather looked perplexed. “What are you getting at?”

What followed was a brief explanation of the events of the past month, from the dangers in Sandpoint to the plot in Magnimar. The non-accused rangers’ faces grew darker with each passing moment, finally turning to glare at their erstwhile companion.

“I have a question for you,” the stepfather asked the heavily-sweating man. “How was it that the ogrekin knew where to ambush us?”

“The penalty for betraying a fellow ranger…” the other added.

I stepped in, seeing the wild look of hopelessness return to the man’s eyes. There was too much we didn’t know. “For gods’ sakes man, you’ve heard about the forces you’re allied with! The terror and misery they spread! You’re a guardian of the people of this nation. We all make mistakes, sure, but now is the time for you to turn it all around, take back your destiny and help us fight against this… this menace.” He looked conflicted. “Protect your people from the evil that is reawakening throughout this land!”

Sullenly, he shook his head. “I can’t, they’ll kill me. I can’t tell you anything about them, or her- er-”

“Her?”

Pale-faced, he bit his lips nervously. “Besides, they’ll kill me no matter what I tell you,” he spat, looking at the former companions who now had nothing but murder in their eyes.

Stupid asshole. “Fine.” I turned to the rangers. “I volunteer to be the one to behead this man.”

Shelalu’s stepfather frowned. “Sorry, young lady, but this is ranger business.”

“Yes, ranger business,” echoed the other ranger.

I glared at the obstinate prisoner, frustrated at his idiocy. “Still, we rescued you, and uncovered his treachery. It seems to me like we should be responsible for meting out his punishment-”

“Let the ranger’s do their thing,” Rainbow urged quietly, and I realized my voice was edging towards a shout. I stomped off, trying to contain a sudden urge to inflict violence.

“Wait,” Vega cried as the two men approached their traitorous brother-in-arms. She explained her plan; a kind of nonconsensual telepathy that would allow her to extract a memory from the man’s mind. About a minute’s worth.” I perked up at the idea, although that was an awfully short time to get something useful.

“Maybe the last time he saw this ‘her?’” I suggested.

The traitor writhed, held firm by the ropes the two rangers had bound his arms and legs with. Vega touched the man’s head, and he grunted, then screamed, blood erupting out of his nose to dribble down his face, spattering crimson droplets on his clothing and his bindings.

Vega stood up, brow wrinkled in concentration. “A woman, very pale.”

We waited. “Anything else?” Skalmold asked.

The other human shrugged. “I’d recognize her if I saw her.”

Good to know; we’d have to do a walk-through of the town. If Vega could perhaps make a drawing…

I walked over to the whimpering man, giving him a kick with a mithril-reinforced toe. “Last chance to contribute something meaningful. Who is she? Who is the pale woman?”

“Did she put the Sihedron mark on you?” asked Vega, her dusky face furrowed with thought.

The man’s silence spoke volumes, at least about his readiness for death. Angered at his refusal to even attempt some kind of redemption, I turned to the rangers, who stood the man up, beginning to drag him away.

My fingers itched to scythe through his neck. I turned to Zeyara. “We rescued them, discovered that fool is a traitor… we should get to dispense justice.”

The fetchling shrugged, looking philosophical. “Let it go. He betrayed his comrades; let those comrades have their revenge.”

I watched, trying not to brood, as the treacherous ranger was forced to kneel. The two standing rangers looked at one another awkwardly. Not a weapon between them, I realized with glee. Unless they planned on choking him to death with their hands or bashing his head open against the flagstones, they were going to need-

“Here, you may use mine,” Zeyara offered, stepping forward to hand Shelalu’s father one of her swords, the black, glistening crescent of magically reinforced obsidian. By now the kneeling traitor’s eyes were wide with terror, and his pitiful attempts to move were pathetically ineffective. With a few words of thanks, the men turned to their former companion and, with scant ceremony, slit his throat practically to the spine. I caught his eye in the last moments, holding his gaze as the light began to fade behind them and the pool of blood crept closer, across the floor. When they let go of his head, it leaned backwards, revealing the gaping red ruin of his throat, eyes staring sightlessly to the rafters.

Stupid bastard, I thought.

A few minutes later, the surviving rangers of the Black Arrows had retreated with Shelalu, heading back to their fort near Turtle Bay Beach. Their final words were cautionary, to beware the “matriarch” who ran the family known as Mammy Graul, a powerful magic user.

“What kind of magic does she use?” Vega had asked. “Arcane, divine?” she supplied.

The men shrugged in unison. “The townsfolk call her a witch,” one offered, which wasn’t very helpful at narrowing it down since that was the catchall phrase most commoners used for anyone who could do anything unusual or supernatural.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

With the men, and Shelalu, safely gone, we rushed towards the house, only to stop several yards away. The place was lousy with traps, Zeyara informed us, and we spent several minutes watching her move around and poke and prod at things. Finally, she waved us forward.

I sliced open the door with my impossibly sharp blade, and we rushed into a house of macabre nightmare.

The building was strangely empty of other living creatures, but there was ample evidence of the formerly-living rangers and the fate that befell them. Room after room revealed sickening sights; flies swarming around corpses, cut up torsos and severed heads adorning the crude furniture along the walls. Hooks and chains from which hung slabs of clearly-human meat, tables slathered in blood, hundreds of fingers and toes scattered over the floor. Another room held a rack from which flensed skin was stretched, curing like leather. A bundle of similar skins lay bundled, ready for their turn. A dining area littered with the gnawed bones of countless femurs and tibias, the ever present stench of blood and buzzing of flies starting to get to me.

As we entered a bedroom, the ambush sprung. The hideously ugly woman, mirrored seven times throughout the corner of the room, appeared and began casting. The five of us lept into action, recognizing the foul creature to be the matriarch we’d been warned about. Vega countered the heavyset woman’s spell, and my blade flicked out, feeling its way into the real target amongst the confusion of illusionary dopplegangers. Zeyara and Skalmold rushed in, pinning her in a corner.

Her ugly face, looking surprised and upset, disappeared as she stepped backwards into nothing and was gone.

“She has transported herself somewhere nearby,” Vega stated confidently. We rushed back out into the strangely-built rooms full of cannibalistic trappings, heading back toward the only place we hadn’t explored, a stairway leading down.

It made sense.

We hurried as much as we could, but given the propensity for this crazed ogre-blooded family to leave set traps lying around everywhere, caution ruled the day. We made it downstairs, Zeyara disabling some kind of floor plate that no doubt triggered a terrible and deadly event.

The basement area was large, with a few tunnels leading into the darkness. We took a moment to recharge our magical protections and enhancements before heading in, picking an arbitrary path.

It was several minutes of wandering later that we came across Mammy Graul’s lair. The woman barked out a harsh command as we entered the room, and a half dozen undead atrocities leapt towards us, zombies driven by hellish speed. Another of her sons, a towering brute even for an ogre-kin, rushed forward with them.

Ignoring the undead minions, we focused our efforts against the matriarch. Rainbow and Vega concentrated their power on negating her spellcasting, and the rest of us moved in to attack. The male fell, pierced and bleeding his guts out through his belly. The leader of the Graul family cursed us and wailed as we sliced and diced and smashed her to pieces, the animated undead falling to our weapons and magic, leaving the room silent except for our steady, unlabored breathing and the soft staccato tapping of the blood dripping from our weapons onto the rough stone floor.

Somehow, it didn’t seem like it was all over quite yet.

View
Runelord Reflections 5 (Day 6)

An End to the Beginning

After a night consisting of unmentionable acts of physical prowess and brief but adequate periods of rest, I was feeling that special kind of invigorated. The others assembled at the Rusty Dragon, and I persuaded them to linger awhile so we could grab some breakfast. Fondling my beautiful new cold iron naginata, which had barely been blooded, I was determined that it would unleash its fair share of gore today.

Artax was a magnificent ride, if only in comparison to the other riding animals. Not that the horses that the Foxglove guy bought us were inferior, exactly… but it felt just right to ride a full head above even Skalmold as we began the brief journey to Thistletop Island. I had to keep an eye on Rainbow, well below my knees on her pony, for fear of trampling right over the poor beast and the shaman astride its back, struggling to keep up with the big boys.

When we arrived at our destination, we tied up our mounts a safe distance from the tangled briar and made our way towards the cliff. Emerging from the short tunnel, we saw that the bridge was gone.

So we stood at the ledge for a while, staring at the island fifty feet away with nothing between it and us except for a forty foot drop into the churning ocean. The crashing waves had carved their way between the island and the mainland, and continued to smash against the rock below us with violent regularity. There were jagged-looking rocks and probably all sorts of aquatic monsters down there. I shivered at the thought of tentacles dragging me into the depths. Definately some terrible monsters down there, I was sure of it.

Studying the scene, we noticed the rope bridge had been withdrawn to the island, and the following quick check of our resources revealed nothing that would enable us to, say, fly across.

Rakonia stepped forward determinedly. “_I’ll_ swim across.” It was immediately agreed upon that the dwarven ranger would descend the nearly sheer cliff face, swim across the dangerous and no doubt monster-filled channel, climb up the opposite cliffside without drawing enemy attention and somehow find a way to reset the bridge. The plank-and-rope device was rolled up, rather neat looking, like a large bale of hay. It didn’t look magical or mechanical, so getting it back across the gap would be an issue.

We tied a rope to Rakonia, helping her down the cliff and into the ocean. “At least if she gets in trouble swimming across, we’ll be able to pull her back,” someone commented. I shook my head, knowing all too well that dragging her backwards through water would most likely result in a drowning. Still, it would help on the descend down, and more importantly we’d need the rope once she got to the other side. Hauling a few stones weight in wet rope behind her as she ascended steep terrain seemed hardly ideal, but nobody brought it up and, like I said, we needed it to get the bridge across.

I admit my hands sweated profusely as the dwarf slowly swam across the violent channel, scanning the water for the tell-tale shadowy appearance of some immense monster rising from the depths-

Making it safely to the other side, the ranger climbed her way up the island’s not-quite-sheer cliffs. She bare-handedly made her way up the side of the island, which was thankfully less challenging than her descent. The rope was more hindrance than help at this point, but the dwarf stoically carried on, excruciatingly slow at times but getting the job done.

I think we all gave a little sigh in unison as she reached the top, impressed and relieved that it hadn’t been any of us. Rakonia approached the rope bridge, and began fiddling with it. I watched with amazement as she took out a grappling hook and began the process of tying it to the end of the bridge. She was going to try and throw the thing over to us!

While Rakonia was both strong and stubborn, I doubted her ability to throw a wood-bottom rope bridge across a fifty foot gap. “Use the rope!” I whispered to Vega, who in turn communicated the message to the dwarf through her magicks.

Untying the rope around her waist, the squat figure turned back to the bridge, and soon enough whispered something to Vega, who gave us the go ahead. I was liking this long-range communication, it was so quiet that stealth had yet to be broken. Or so I hoped. The bridge didn’t clatter too loudly as Skalmold and I quickly pulled it across, allowing Zeyara to secure the ends to their proper positions, which in turn let us join the dwarf waiting on the other side..

Teamwork is a powerful advantage, and can accomplish amazing things. Especially when you’re not the one who has to swim with the sea monsters.

Waltzing casually into the lair of the beast, we confidently made our way to the stairs leading down. It was around then we heard it.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

Freezing, everyone glanced around, back out into the throne room. From behind one of the doors issued a wailing cry, high-pitched and wavering. We looked at each other, a strange mix of surprise and horror.

“Is that…”

“Sounds like a baby,” Rainbow noted, her voice absent of the disgust I expected to hear from everyone at the thought of it.

The dwarf frowned, hand on her axe. “A stinking goblin baby.” There was the disgust I’d been looking for.

“Maybe we should help it,” the undersized star shaman began, inching her way back towards the door.

“Uh-” I stated firmly, trying to express my own disgust.

“Are you mad?” frothed Rakonia, distaste creeping towards outrage.

“It’s just a baby!” Rainbow chastised, frowning at us every bit as hard as the dwarf frowned at her.

“Also, a goblin,” Zeyara observed.

“It’s not born bad! Nature and nurture, that’s what my dad always said!” the halfling half-shouted, a deep passion written clearly across her almost childlike face. “With the right upbringing, he knew that even a goblin could find a place for itself in this world.”

“Your dad?” the fetchling prompted.

“Yes, my dad. We traveled the world, him, my mom and me. We lived off of people’s goodwill, trading our services and skills for food and clothing. He was a visionary, and a revolutionary. Or at least some people thought so, like many of the lords and ladies of territories we’d pass through. They just didn’t get him, he was too ahead of his time. They thought he was trying to cause trouble and disruption, but his goal was to abolish the very thing that makes them so prevalent in our society. Our family would travel around the continent, speaking to everyone who’d listen about the true path, and how to avoid the root of all evil. He was right, but people weren’t ready to hear the truth.” She paused dramatically. “The gold standard must be abolished before-”

“Back to the matter at hand,” I nudged, interrupting the waist-high shaman before she could get too far into her diatribe. “Your dad was some kind of goblin expert?”

“He knew everyone deserved a chance. Even goblins do, and believe me they listened to him. Mostly, anyway. He was sure that we could coexist, and that without the violent and traumatic upbringing, they could be reasonable, and even converted to our beliefs.” The small head nodded, her point proven.

“Whatever happened to him?” Zeyara interjected, catching the halfling off-guard. As Rainbow blinked, the grey-skinned woman waited as patiently as the rest of us.

“Oh. He… was killed by goblins,” she explained softly, face falling with sadness.

Rakonia burst out in an explosion of laughter, and most of the rest of us joined in. Perhaps the obvious emotional scarring from the halfling shaman’s formative years deserved a more sympathetic response. We were not the most tender group of females I’d ever known, but that of course is what made us work.

And by ‘work’ I mean band together to kill things that needed killing.

“Let’s just leave it,” I said reasonably. Hopefully it would die on its own, and carrying around a screaming goblin baby while on the way to confront our current nemesis was beyond absurd. I was more tempted to let Rakonia go ‘check it out’ and take care of the noise. Kids are fine, but babies… the crying, the smell, those creepy little faces… it all got on my nerves. And those were the regular ones.

Goblin babies were probably even worse.

Fortunately, the issue was dropped and Rainbow quickly recovered her spirits. Zeyara led us into the tunnel leading into the depths to confront our nemesis, the corrupt, celestial-blooded traitor and terrorist, Nualia.

The place was a huge maze. At least to me. We headed down tunnel after tunnel, coming to areas decorated with carvings and graven images celebrating Lamashtu, the Mother of Monsters, in all her unholy magnificence. At one point we passed a shrine, the ancient statue at its center gripping a wicked-looking kukri in his hand.

A small cavern held a disturbing room filled with images of all manner of crude, smudged artwork, goblin painting at its most primitive. Amongst the childlike depictions of strange beings, however, there was a larger and more elaborate painting of an immense, horned goblin-like creature. The goblins worshipping at his feet provided scale; if accurate, the thing would have been something like thirty feet tall. “Malfeshnakor,” Rakonia stated confidently, examining the crude-looking letters scrawled nearby. Rainbow walked up to the painting to examine it, and I watched her get real close to the wall.

“Careful,” Rakonia cautioned, pulling the halfling back. “The paint they use is made mostly of their own shit.”

“I was trying to look behind it,” the shaman murmured. It was painted on to the wall.

“That’s a pretty big looking demon,” I commented doubtfully, knowing the green-skinned creatures’ propensity towards exaggeration. Still…

Further ahead, we found what must have been some kind of planning room. Looking around the well-appointed area, stocked with paper and maps and all sorts of paraphernalia that go hand in hand with planning, I latched onto the idea that we absolutely must have one in our own Secret Base. But somehow even better.

We quickly ransacked the room, taking with us numerous books and correspondence in hopes the information would prove either useful or profitable. With a little sifting, it became clear that a northern tribe of goblins were preparing to assault Sandpoint, along with more of those sideways-hinge-jawed abominations we’d encountered below Sandpoint, in our new secret base. They were apparently known as Sinspawn to whoever was writing the notes and letters.

Presumably Nualia or one of her most trusted minions. Speaking of which…

We continued on, weighed with information but, depressingly, not much by way of treasure. As we entered a long room, Zeyara held up a hand, and across the chamber we saw that two large tables lay upturned, the opening small enough to force us through one at a time.

A trap, obviously, which became more apparent when spells started going off and things went horribly, horribly wrong.

We rushed in, the dwarf’s new velociraptor companion leaping into the fray while she and Skalmold leapt ahead of us, charging with a dancer’s gait at a plate-armored warrior and a badass looking goblinoid that had to be the largest non-giant I’ve seen. The bugbear’s stooped posture and jutting chin gave it a distinctly feral appearance, and a dark mane bristled from its head. It opened its mouth in a roar met by Rakonia’s own battlecry, and I rushed in to help, stymied by the bottleneck between the tables. I briefly focused myself, tuning into the roaring energy that swirled just below the surface of my consciousness. Behind the makeshift wall a new figure appeared.

A wizard, suddenly visible and pointing at me. Gritting my teeth, I prepared myself for whatever punishment was about to be meted out. There was a flash as the mage cast his spell, and I was surprised when nothing happened to me.

Surprise turned to sorrow and despair as I watched my beautiful new weapon crumble in my hands, the length shattering apart and dispersing throughout the room.

The battle raged on around me, Skalmold moving to smash the mage while the dwarf fought against the armored swordsman and the bugbear. Zeyara backstabbed the mage and, furious, I rushed in, laying into the armored warrior with the blades jutting from my gauntlet. He blocked my assault effortlessly with the large shield in his left hand, and I reeled back as his blade bit into me, piercing my chain armor easily.

Frustrated and shocked by my new, beautiful weapon’s abrupt and utter destruction, I’ll admit I wasn’t at my best. Rakonia and Skalmold, along with the flanking ninja’s precise stabs, laid first the mage down, then the towering bugbear. At this, the armored man dropped his weapon and held up his hands. Backing up, he took off his helmet and threw it to the ground, revealing a rugged but not displeasing face. His eyes darting about in desperation, trying to keep us all in sight. “I surrender! I surrender!” His armor glinted enticingly.

Rakonia snarled, hurling herself toward the potential prisoner. The wheels had already begun turning in my head. Something about the look in his eye…

“_Wait._”

-————————————-SoS——————————————

I adjusted my newly-acquired armor for the dozenth time, more than slightly uncomfortable but extremely reassured at the feel of the heavy metal plates that covered the entirety of my body. The large sword I held felt awkward despite its superior craftsmanship, my hands feeling unnaturally confined on the much smaller handle.

It could kill. That’s all that really mattered, I told myself.

Descending the stairway we’d uncovered during our previous visit, we continued along, finding an opulent bedroom nearby, where we found little of interest except for a magnificent bed and some furniture. We made our way into a large chamber flanked by glaive-wielding statues placed along the walls. Iron bars ran along portions of the room, almost like a jail cell, and ahead of us stood a statue of a man with a twisted grin and crazed eyes.

My own eyes were glued to the statues, or more specifically the obviously-real weapons the statues held. Unlike the ivory-hafted piece of art we’d found in the Catacombs of Wrath, held by the statue of the angry woman who was now the mascot for our secret base, these weapons appeared fully functional. Eager to get my hands on one, I rushed forward and reached out to grab the weapon-

The floor lurched below me, swinging down, and I found myself hitting the ground almost before I realized I’d been falling, the scream of terror dying on my lips. With a soft grinding, the world seemed to disappear as the trapdoor slid shut, locking me inside a small pit.

Carefully, I stood up, thankful nothing was broken or dented. “I’m trapped down here!” I shouted, feeling obvious but also slightly worried they’d assume I was dead and continue on, leaving me to slowly starve to death in this pit. The sides were sheer, and cut out of the rock. If only I’d had a way to carve myself free…

It was only a few minutes before the trapdoor opened again, the shadowy form of Zeyara shoving something into the mechanism fifteen feet above my head. “You hurt?” she called down.

“Mostly my pride,” I admitted. Stupid traps.

They threw a rope down, and I climbed out. As I reached the top, for some reason I was unable to think about anything except the heavy stone slamming shut, crushing my pelvis to paste as I clung half-way out of the pit.

It didn’t happen, but I emerged somewhat out of breath. My hair had come undone, and angrily I tied the sweaty, tangled mess up out of my face before donning the helmet again. “Thanks.” Carefully, I grabbed one of the polearms displayed by the statues, examining it for damage or flaws. I was feeling better once I’d found it perfectly serviceable, and we continued on.

A statue of an evil looking man with a covetous expression gave Vega pause. The human spellcaster examined the work. “This is Krzoud, the Runelord of Greed.”

“Runelord?”

“Something I came across in my recent research in town,” the woman began, not taking her eyes off the stature. “An ancient sect of powerful wizards.” She paused, looking around.

“Okay…” I prompted, not quite getting what she was talking about.

She pointed to an inscription on the statue. The familiar seven-pointed star adorned the chiseled stone. “Like the woman in our base,” I realized. “Who I guess must be the Runelord of Wrath.” I snapped my fingers, such was my excitement at a sudden revelation. “Inside our base! That’s why there are those words playing across the walls calling for attacking and maiming and killing and revenge…”

“Why else would they be there?” Zeyara wondered. Maybe she’d caught on quicker.

I shrugged. “Inspirational messages?” Personally, I’d rather liked the sayings’ angry tone.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

“I sense something,” Rainbow whispered, stopping. “Evil. Undeath,” she whispered. “Over there. Several of them.”

“Powerful?”

Rainbow shrugged. “They’re not weak, but it’s not overwhelming either.”

As one, we made our way in the direction of the doorway the halfling had pointed to, cut into the latest of the seemingly endless warren of tunnels we’d trudged down. The door was shut tight, but with a quick mutual glance it was decided to open it. Zeyara took a moment to look it over before nodding and pushing it open, swords in hand.

A moderately large cavern lay before us, a pillar or stalagmite jutting from deeper inside the room, and something strange about the patterning on the walls.

It was empty. “They’re gone.”

Puzzled, straining to see our apparently invisible opponents, we carefully stepped into the room. The tip of my newly-acquired glave poked out into the empty air, darting and thrusting but never contacting anything more substantial than the motes of dust choking the room.

“No footprints,” Rakonia muttered, squinting down at the floor

“What-” someone began, but at that moment four blurred, black shadows seemed to melt up from the stone beneath our feet.

Things happened all at once. The evil-feeling creatures, featureless black shadows with long, claw-like fingers, struck as the rose, and I watched the needle-thin wisps of midnight slice through Vega. No wound appeared, but the arcanist staggered, barely keeping on her feet as another struck her mid-stumble, its claws seeming to penetrate right through her body.

I was shocked by the ghastly pallor of the human spellcaster’s skin; she’d gone from average to brittle in the span of a second. My brain kicked in and I realized the things were, indeed, shadows, an undead, life-draining abomination. Incorporeal, they existed more in the Ethereal realm than our own world, and were immune to any kind of physical attack.

Magic could work, though. My hand flexed, and I dropped the glaive which clattered away, pulling out the oversized sword our erstwhile armor-clad opponent had wielded. It had glowed with the faint traces of enchantment, and I hoped it would be enough to affect the creatures.

I watched as a third shadow struck out at the helpless Vega, the last of her life absorbed into the terrible figure’s cruel talons. Her eyes went wide and her body seemed to writhe, pulsing with an inky blackness as she burst apart into motes of shadow-

No! I demanded, and saw the midnight talons descend only to miss the human by inches. I didn’t have time to sigh in relief as my blade sang through the air, accompanied by the attacks of my companions.

Lashing around with the magic blade, I felt the essence of the first creature to come under my assault begin to tear, a silent, psychic scream setting my teeth on edge. As the dwarf and barbarian tried to fend off the nearest undead, Zeyara’s enchanted obsidian blade sliced into another of the creatures. A blast of magical energy slammed into yet another, three glowing missiles shooting out from Vega’s shakily-held wand, destroying a creature utterly. A burst of brilliant light from the halfling’s position shook the undead visibly, flecks of shadow torn off them like a blizzard of black snow.

Enraged and in pain, the creatures turned their attention away from the reeling arcanist, focusing instead on the others of the group. I felt the cold grasp of a monster slide through my arm, burning with icy death. Shaking off the weakness, I slashed through the shadow and watched it fragment into nothingness.

Moments later, the room was silent aside from some panting and gasping. Vega swayed, looking dead on her feet. But even more than half-dead, she expressed interest in our surroundings as Rakonia began to look around the cavern.

The walls had some strange markings on them, and there was a pillar of what appeared to be… gold coins?

“That seems strange,” I remarked.

Vega cast a spell, examining it more closely. “It’s an illusion.”

“Hmm.” Nobody was too interested in touching it, so after another brief search which turned up nothing of interest, we proceeded on, eager to put the place of shadowy horrors behind us.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We passed through another tunnel, coming out into a small, boulder-strewn underground lake. Possibly connected with the ocean outside, for all I knew. After a brief search that turned up no lurking tentacle-monsters in the ceiling above us, we noticed the telltale glint of something shiny below the surface.

Coins, various pieces of equipment, and a large and apparently solid-gold helmet lay in the waist deep water, and when another brief scan revealed no danger we began to collect everything we could lay our hands on.

Of course, it was around then that what we’d taken for a boulder shifted and an immense crab stood up, scuttling toward us with its enormous pincers clacking menacingly.

“Back up, back up!” We made our way out of the water, waiting for the creature to approach us. As the thing drew itself up onto solid ground, an immense hammer cracked down on the beast’s back, the force of Skalmold’s blow shattering its exoskeleton apart. Whitish goo oozed out of the creature, and within moments the creature was dead and safely pulled away from the lake.

“Dinner,” Rakonia fairly drooled. Crab was supposed to be good, so I reserved judgement despite the hideous, spider-like appearance of the thing.

-————————————-SoS——————————————

We found Nualia in a chamber deep within the lowest level of the strange island fortress. Upon opening the ornate, reinforced door with brute force, I felt the blood pumping hard in my veins as the beautiful, angelic woman appeared in the chamber before us, raising a terribly mutated hand scaled with hideous, pulsating demonflesh. Two ghostly, evil-looking dogs stood at her side, their postures indicating a readiness to rush forward and attack.

Already overcome with the need for battle, I nevertheless shouted at our nemesis. “Stop attacking us, we’re just here to talk!” I realized my words again had that wondrously strange beauty to them.

The corrupted aasimar looked at me with mild confusion, clearly understanding the words my companions could not but unsure of their merit. Skalmold stepped into the room with her immense hammer ready in her hands, and Nualia’s face pinched into a scowl of rage. She hurled a few obscenities at us before unleashing the pair of creepy flying hounds that had given us so much trouble before.

The dogs howled, the sound cutting through my brain like an ice-cold nail. I weathered their assault, thought springing back like clockwork once the terrible baying had ceased. I watched, something inside me shriveling as the blonde barbarian turned tail and ran, pushing her way back out the door and followed by Rakonia, Zeyara and Vega.

I looked at Rainbow with an Oh shit glance, and the halfling turned to head down a side passage, trying to put some distance between herself and the dogs and our enemy.

Probably a good idea, that.

I made an orderly retreat down the tunnel the halfling had disappeared into, not wanting to leave the little one alone to the dogs. Sure enough, one of the yeth hounds hurled down the hallway. I cut at it as it approached, then dealt another wicked blow that sent the infernal creature into its own retreat back toward the main hall.

There was no pursuit after that; a moment later Rainbow poked her head around a corner.

I readied myself. “Time to head back, I think she’s going after the others.”

-————————————-SoS——————————————

The defeat of our nemesis was somewhat anticlimactic. Hustling down the long carven hallway, we caught up to Nualia just as she was being brought down by our other four companions, who’d outdistanced us with the power of fear compelling their legs. Luckily, they’d recovered from the supernatural panic, and upon approaching we watched as Skalmold’s hammer and Rakonia’s shield battered the woman right into Zeyara’s blade. The aasimar fell to her knees, then to the ground.

The demonic fist twitched once, and then was still. I cut her head from her shoulders, taking care to gather up the long, luxurious mane of hair so as not to damage it. It seemed a shame to destroy such a beautiful, recognizable feature.

We spent the rest of the day scouring the island fortress for treasure, hidden areas, and any lingering danger. With Vega’s levitational assistance, I was able to get what must have been the late Nualia’s bed across the rope bridge, Artax whinnying in derision as the magnificent, feather stuffed thing was doubled over and strapped to his back.

As the sun waned through the late afternoon sky, we headed back to Sandpoint, triumphant against the terror that had threatened our adopted home, and eager to let the town know it.

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Runelord Reflections 4 (Day 6)

Day 6 (3.27.15)

Thistletop

Yawning, I stretched as I headed into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind me. Not that I was trying to be sneaky about anything, but more like… discreet. That was it. My eyes opened looking right at Zeyara, who was staring at me from down the hallway as I came out of the room. Shrugging nonchalantly but unable to entirely mask the self-satisfied smirk on my face, I gave her a nod and headed out to the bathhouse.

“Late night?” she inquired innocently, one eyebrow cocked annoyingly high.

I just smiled, continuing on my way down the hallway. Zeyara murmured something, and I stopped, looking back. “What?”

“It sounded like it.”

“Sounded-” I froze, thinking back. Things were a little blurry, but… it had gotten rather frenzied. I remembered that much. “Hmm.”

“Yes, well, the walls aren’t as thick as you’d expect.” She seemed matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but her blank eyes made it hard to read any undercurrent. She cocked an inquiring eyebrow. “So, you and…?”

“Might as well make some friends,” I explained. “No reason not to enjoy ourselves,” I justified.

“Ah, yes. Friends. Well, I’ll make sure to find someone else to befriend.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” I agreed. That way you won’t wake up on fire in the middle of the night. I thought it, but didn’t say it. Or, maybe I did; Zeyara was giving me an odd look. “Just kidding, we’re all adults here.” I assured good-naturedly. A thought struck, as they are prone to do. “Hey, you seemed interested in… what was her name. Shalaylee-”

“Shalelu,” the fetchling corrected instantly, confirming my suspicions.

“Yeah, the blonde elf.” A bit too outdoorsy for me, and from what I remembered not the most interesting conversationalist, but to each their own. I could see her giving it thought, remembering that look of interest back when we’d met the scout on her return to town. “It’d be perfect. Both all willowy and waifish and delicate; I don’t think you could break each other even if you tried.” Her flat stare hadn’t changed, but I detected a note of disapproval in the way she suddenly squared up her shoulders, so I moved on. “The more friends we can make in this town, the better. We might be here for a while.”

In the back of my mind, I was already contemplating spending the winter here. It was the least enjoyable time to travel, and having a solid base to wait it out was high on my list of priorities. It was still early autumn, but autumn had a way of turning into winter all too quickly.

With the right friends, you could get away with quite a bit in a small town. Not wicked, evil things, but just… special privileges that weren’t afforded to people who hadn’t slain dozens of enemies while protecting the town. If the people who mattered didn’t like you, though, they’d use those rules to run you out of town.

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Heaving a great sigh, I sank back, getting far too used to the luxurious feeling of being clean.

My head was lolling back along the rim of the tub, completely relaxed and soaking in the warmth, when someone stuck their head in the door. “You ready yet?” Rakonia asked. My smile faded, remembering the journey ahead.

“Shit, that’s today?” I muttered sarcastically. Shaking my head at the dwarf’s uncomprehending look, I eased myself out of the water and reached for a towel.

Back to our room, Vega and Zeyara were assembling their gear. The bookish human was leafing through a large tome while making the final adjustments to the hooded robe she tended to wear. The fetchling was sitting in what she referred to as a lotus position, slim greyish fingers playing along the obsidian blade in her lap. The snug black leather fit her like a glove. She should totally paint her nails black, I realized. A little charcoal eyeliner wouldn’t hurt, either. Except, of course, for the stinging. Grabbing my backpack, I froze, glancing at the table where I left my armor at night. It was gone!

“Has anyone seen-” I began, before realizing exactly where the tightly-woven mesh of chain was, bringing back a flood of distracting memories that tugged irresistibly at the corners of my lips.

“Most mornings, I find my armor wherever I undressed the night before,” Zeyara commented, carefully not looking in my direction. I rolled my eyes at her innocent expression, shot a quick look at Vega’s snort of amusement, and sauntered out of the room.

Slipping back into the larger, nicer room that was Ameiko’s living quarters, I grabbed my armor off the floor where it lay in a heap. The metal clinked and rattled as I gave it a little snap of the wrists, the crumpled mess of chain falling out into a long shirt of woven steel. I lay it on the rumpled bed, reaching down for the surprisingly heavy pair of boots. Thigh high, I put them on first, cinching up the thick black leather with straps and buckles all the way up the side, strategically woven metal plates in the shin, knee and thigh region.

Lifting up the long shirt of mail, I proceeded with the daily ritual of wiggling into the thing, careful as always not to get my hair snagged. Pulling the hem of the chain nearly down to my knees, I adjusted the armpits to avoid any excessive pinching. It was a tight squeeze. Time for some new armor, I thought, or maybe lay off on the breakfasts. My stomach grumbled in protest, but I ignored it. The gauntlets lay on her dresser, wicked-looking leather gloves bristling with razor-sharp spikes along the knuckles, deadly and threatening but not something you wanted to run through your hair when the wind was whipping it about. Hence the ponytail. I probably should have waited for it to dry first, but patience was never my strongest virtue.

The helmet, a rather boring metal cap, I strapped to my backpack. Retrieving my naginata from the doorway, I headed into the common room, thinking of the armor I dreamed about. I’d seen it back in Magnimar, gleaming and beautifully angular suit of heavy plate armor, covered in wicked spikes in all the right places. Strategic, not like some of that decorative armor, with its elaborate textures and blade-channeling ornamentation like dragons wings or metal boobs that seemed designed to catch and guide attacks towards the wearer than deflect them safely away. Those were the worst. No, this had spikes along the forearm and gauntlet, and the front and back of the armored boot, which is called a sabaton if you are interested in that kind of thing.

The others, waiting with varying degrees of patience, readied to leave, and with a wave we left the Rusty Dragon, riding out from Sandpoint and into the great unknown.

Or, more specifically, to Thistletop. A known unknown, if you will.

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“Stop it.”

I looked over. “Huh?”

“Stop. It,” Rainbow squeaked from below, her pony trotting fast to keep up with the horses.

“Stop what?”

The dwarf half turned in her saddle ahead of us. “You’ve been whistling ever since we left town,” Rakonia frowned, possibly from the concentration required for the dwarf to stay atop her horse. Swaying alarmingly in her saddle, she leaned toward me. “It’s annoying. And,” she added, as an afterthought, “it gives away our position.”

“Well,” I stated, “alright then.” I could hardly disagree. Whistling was annoying, after all… but not when I was the one whistling.

It was a shorter journey than I’d expected. Less than an hour’s ride from town, the dwarven ranger informed us we were getting close.

A vast wall of thorny brambles rose up to block our approach to the island. We hopped off our horses, patting them down as Rakonia and Zeyara ranged ahead, scouting along the overgrown barricade. They returned, and we followed them to a small pathway through the incredibly thick undergrowth, a shadowy tunnel underneath yards of unsightly vegetation.

No more than a few steps into the claustrophobic nightmare of twisted briars and stinging nettles and we found ourselves engulfed in violence. Two goblins lay dead before I even got my blade into position, Zeyara and Skalmold making quick work of the first of the ambushers. A fur-clad goblin began chanting something, and from the brambles a large animal attacked. Rakonia slew it before I got a good look, and as the last remnants of the ill-conceived ambush were laid low, I thrust out at the one clad in furs as the fetchling ninja moved to flank it, and the green-skinned creature beat a swift retreat, running right into the tangled mess of branches and thorns like nothing was there.

“It’s getting away,” I stated regretfully, and somewhat obviously, yanking my naginata back from its futile attempt to connect with anything. It was impossible to see beyond the passage we stood, so thick was the tangle of vegetation.

“That last one was a druid,” Rakonia noted, kicking the dead carcass of what must have been the goblin’s special animal friend. Probably better off dead, poor thing.

With no hope of following the goblin that had eluded us through the overgrown area, we made our way down the path. One couldn’t help but be on edge and ready for another ambush at every step, now that the element of surprise, of stealth, no longer was an option.

Some people liked to play it sneaky. Zeyara was definitely in favor of stealth, but she’s an admitted assassin, so that’s a given. Oops, forget I said that. Anyway, the problem with being sneaky is if you get caught, you’re often caught with your proverbial pants down… just what you were hoping would happen to your target.

It was simpler, going all in. No reason to play it quiet when you’re aiming for extermination.

Instead of an ambush, however, we found ourselves leaving the wildly overgrown area and approaching a cavern. “Not another tunnel,” someone complained. Possibly me. But as we approached, we could see light coming in from the other side, so it couldn’t have been a very long one.

And it wasn’t. The tunnel came out along the side of a cliff facing the sea, and the island of Thistletop lay before it, separated by fifty feet or more of water. A rickety-looking wooden bridge, the kind held up by ropes, swung alarmingly in the wind coming off the gulf. The water churned below us, a drop of at least thirty feet into the seething spray as waves crashed against rock and cliff.

“Wait,” Rakonia whispered as she tilted her head back and began sniffing loudly, holding up a hand. “Goblins.” The dwarf fondled her axe menacingly.

Sure enough, across the bridge there was a structure with double doors built out on the island, and between the building and the bridge, a small courtyard was filled with goblins, several of them riding mean-looking dogs uglier than any I’d ever seen.

Zeyara noticed something disturbing. “The bridge is rigged to fall,” she informed us. “That rope there, when cut, will bring the whole thing down.”

“Doesn’t sound very secure,” I contributed. A thirty foot drop into water that looked pretty deep, with goblins shooting arrows down from above and whatever horrible monster no doubt lurked beneath the waves ready to gobble you up-

“I can try to get over on the other side,” the fetchling offered, flexing her arms like she was getting ready for a fight. Which, I guess, she was. I took a cue from her and started preparing myself.

“Try to keep them from cutting the bridge down,” Rakonia advised. Zeyara nodded patiently and disappeared in an instant. Her favorite trick. What would it be like to walk around invisible? I wondered. You could get into so much trouble…

Afterwards, I replayed our plan over in my head. What would we have done if Zeyara had been spotted? What if the bridge collapsed when one of us crossed it? What, for that matter, would we do if we had gotten across and the bridge was somehow destroyed in the fight? There were no convenient beaches we could swim to along this stretch of coast, just forbidding looking cliffs as far as the eye could see.

“Now!” Rakonia whispered loudly, and, one by one, we began rushing across the bridge.

The goblins, somewhat predictably, began to react, but not until Rakonia, Skalmold and myself were safely on the other side. In the open, my naginata wove a deadly pattern of looping cuts and lightning-fast stabs. A large goblin atop a larger dog suddenly crumpled to the ground, Zeyara appearing behind the ugly-faced dog holding her pair of bloodied blades, the curved obsidian wakazashi glittering black in the midday sun as it flicked and took the animal’s leg off in a spurt of blood..

Skalmold and Rakonia lay waste with their weapons, unelegant but effective, leaving behind a path of mashed goblin gristle and broken bone and a trail of gaping red axe wounds that glistened wetly in the afternoon sun. Here and there, a feathered shaft stuck out of one of the creatures, testament to the efforts of Rainbow and Vega, prudently remaining on the opposite end of the bridge and shooting their crossbows.

I looked around, impressed at the carnage. Zeyara was already stripping the shattered green bodies of their effects, and I did a quick head count. Nearly a dozen that time. The nearby crash of waves upon the base of the island seemed close to silence after the furious clatter and cries of the past minute. Good thing we weren’t worried about being sneaky. As usual, the blonde barbarian woman was bleeding from numerous cuts and scratches, and we took a moment for Rainbow to heal her and whoever else had taken a hit. Zeyara and Rakonia investigated the doorway, determining that it was locked.

Vega started talking to herself, and something small and feathered took off from her shoulder.

“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed. It looked like a bird.

“Sophie, my familiar,” Vega explained. “She’s a thrush.”

“When did you get that?” I asked.

“A while back,” she conceded, looking a little hurt that I hadn’t noticed. “She was with us in the Catacombs of Wrath,” she prompted.

“Huh.” Nothing. Then something occurred to me. “She better not shit all over our secret base.”

The bird flew over the island, getting what’s known as a bird’s eye view. There was some kind of open-aired room ahead of where we stood, and various parts of the building that the creature could identify no more precisely than that they were, well, part of the building. No helpful sighting of an evil temple or decadent throne room or wherever else an evil, demon-wannabe former-celestial might be found. Maybe a fountain filled with the blood of virgins.

An open-aired room, though, offered a possibility. “Could we climb over?” I wondered aloud.

The building rose up fifteen to twenty feet, and the wall was surprisingly sheer. Rakonia’s expert conclusion was: it would be difficult. I’m pretty sure I saw her eying Vega’s weak, skinny arms as she said it. I noticed Zeyara and Rainbow didn’t look very excited at the prospect, either.

“Maybe, with a rope-” Skalmold began.

“Let’s bash the door down,” I suggested. “They already know we’re here, so there’s no need to go climbing and sneaking around ninja-style.” I glanced at the fetchling in her black leather armor and face mask, shuriken strapped bandolier-fashion across her chest. “No offense, Zeyara.”

“None taken. We can’t all be ninja.” I could appreciate her smugness; I felt the same way about myself. Whatever it is I was, other than awesome.

With a silent count to three, we beat down the door, once, then twice as it burst inward, stumbling into a room that was shockingly empty of immediate threats.

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The place was basically a bunch of rooms. The first one was, of course empty. The others were not. I’ll do my best to relay what happened, but where it happened is another matter.

A door in front of us lead to a courtyard, where Zeyara heard the growling of animals. Presumably more of those goblin dogs. We readied ourselves, opening the door and lunging forward to slay the brutish animals. Skalmold received a nasty bite, and immediately developed a blotchy rash near the wound. Once the four things lay dead on the floor, I got a look at their ears.

“Hey, those look just like-”

“Twenty-eight steps ahead of you,” Zeyara grinned, holding up her latest eight trophies before stringing them onto the long cord filled with ears, freshly harvested for the bounty. I smiled myself, unphased by the mutilation. If it had been living, or maybe a person, it would have been different. But, seeing as how they were dead and each pair of ears was worth at least a couple of good meals…

Even after Rainbow tapped her with the wand a few times, the blonde barbarian continued to scratch at the redness. Hopefully not some kind of infection or disease. Or at least anything communicable.

“Hey guys,” Rainbow called from the corner. “Over here.” Approaching, I saw what the halfling was looking at; a kind of pen built into the corner of the room, but instead of more dogs this one contained a horse. A large horse.

“Whoa, that’s a big boy,” Skalmold commented. And she was right. Another two hands higher than our riding horses, and twice as massive. The poor thing looked ill-used; its ribs visible along the sides. Or maybe that was normal in horses. I’m a decent rider, but taking care of animals has never been a strength of mine.

“His feet glow!” Vega proclaimed.

Looking down, Skalmold blinked in confusion. “No they don’t.”

“They do if you’re looking for magic,” the arcanist answered.

Rainbow ran back outside to gather up some tufts of grass, feeding it through the pen’s bars. Zeyara fiddled with the lock, assuring us it had been opened.

“We can’t just leave him here!” Rainbow wailed as we made ready to continue on.

“We have stuff we need to do here first,” Zeyara noted.

“We can’t just turn him loose; there’s a rickety bridge and a thirty foot drop between here and freedom.”

“Right here is probably the safest place for him,” I added. The last thing I wanted to do was have to deal with a half-crazed horse in a confined area. Especially one that otherwise could have been put to good use.

“After we clear this place out-”

“We’ll sell those horseshoes-”

The halfling stomped her feet, exactly like a small child. “All you guys care about is money! And getting famous!” Rainbow nearly shouted, her voice rising an octave.

“And power,” I couldn’t help amending. “Don’t forget power.”

“Why am I even with you?” the halfling asked the heavens, or perhaps her friends the stars, looking up in exasperation and marching out of the room.

We shared a glance, some of us carefully stifling giggles, then headed out after her. Even upset, it was hard to take the little woman completely seriously with that ridiculous voice, but I knew showing amusement at her anger wouldn’t help the situation. Something I’d learned the hard way.

The horse whickered. “We’ll be back,” I promised softly.

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Searching around a little more, we opened up a door leading in a large room, this one enclosed, it’s roof supported by four columns rising up in the middle. A couple more doorways could be seen along the wall, and at the opposite end was a raised dais, at the top of which was something that looked suspiciously like a throne.

No demon-fisted angelic woman lounged arrogantly on the seat. Even so, the room was not unoccupied.

The lurking figures leapt into action as soon as the doors opened, and we were confronted by another dozen of the creatures. Barreling into the room, Rakonia and I lashed out at the nearest of the short monsters, and I caught a glimpse of the fur-clad goblin from outside pointing a stick at us. A blast of fire shot out across the room, singing the dwarf’s close-cropped new hairdo, but I was able to get out of the way.

An evil-looking beast was skittering along the wall, a giant lizard that came at Vega from high above, the goblin on its back screaming in that indecipherable language they speak. Skalmold stepped in front of Vega, grinding a spear-wielding goblin into the wall with her hammer, where it remained for the rest of the fight, haloed in a splash of internal fluids.

Rakonia dropped to the floor, laughing hysterically, distracting the three goblins surrounding her, so I took the opportunity to leap across the room towards a pair of goblins casting spells. I recognized the magic that had the dwarf in its grip, and I felt the arcane energies wash over me, luckily not sticking. I sliced down with my cold iron blade, opening up a nice, long, red wound. Zeyara appeared behind the chanting goblin druid, and her razor sharp obsidian blade tore a great furrow through its chest, spraying a liberal spatter of gore. I was beginning to anticipate those moments where she pops out of nowhere. She followed it up with a devastating stab with her left-handed sword, the short, straight edge bursting out of the creature’s kidney region.

Skalmold let out a cry as the lizard-riding goblin charged her, it’s blade piercing right through the middle of her chest for a moment before once again that feeling took over and I watched the blade waver on its path and slide in just below her shoulder, instead. She returned the blow with one of her own, bringing that great hammer around and landing a hit that caused chips of rock to fly from the wall.

Rakonia had gotten up, and was hewing about with gleeful abandon, her eyes blazing furiously between the trio of goblins surrounding her. Her axe spun low, catching one of the creatures in the legs, and even as it dropped to the ground her shield was extended into the face of another, the metal rim smashing deep into the nose of a second goblin, ruining its already terrible looks. Seeing things were well in hand, my attention flicked by to Zeyara as I spun the naginata through the air to get some of the blood off.

The fur-clad goblin had gone silent, an outpouring of blood all that now passed its writhing lips. The fetchling withdrew both of her blades from the creature’s ribcage, giving them a flick to get off the blood before turning to the leader.

The lizard mount kept climbing up and down the wall, the goblin on its back clinging to life after the mauling dealt out by the barbarian woman. A short figure stepped out from the doorway, and Rainbow loosed a bolt from her crossbow into the lizard, prompting it to fall to the ground, dead. Someone, or possibly several someones, hastened to gut and behead and smash the former rider as it lay on the ground, stunned.

Rainbow Stargaze did a little halfling jig, celebrating her first kill as we clapped her on the back.

On edge, I waited for my breath to return as Zeyara and Rakonia made the rounds, collecting the proof required for the bounty on dead goblins. The strung-together-ears disappeared into the fetchling’s backpack, and we quickly stripped the small green bodies of valuables.

After a minute, when no counterattack materialized, we started checking doors.

Behind the first, we saw what once must have been a well-appointed bedroom, the floor thick with moldy old carpets, and a surprisingly nice bed. The sheets were torn, the headboard cracked, and feathers lay in disarray throughout the room. “Looks like someone had a great night,” I muttered.

We searched around, but there seemed little of interest. Except for the bed, which maybe, possibly-

“Think we could fix this bed?” I asked. It was big, and I’d always preferred acquiring furniture to purchasing it. Zeyara looked at it in mild disgust, Rainbow in confusion, Vega appraisingly, and Skalmold with her usual blank stare. “You know, for our secret base.”

“It’s probably filthy,” Zeyara noted. I had to agree, but for once had a solution.

“Vega, you said you can clean stuff magically, right?” She nodded. “Well, if you’d be so kind…”

“Tell me you’re not turning the secret base into some kind of… violent sex pit!”

“Please explain to me what a violent-”

“Might be a better idea to worry about all that later,” Rainbow stated, the look on her face showing a hint of annoyance that I’d spent as much time considering what to do with the bed than I had with the horse.

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The place was swimming in blood. We chopped and sliced our way through the few remaining goblins that we came across before finding a stairway that led down. We readied ourselves to descend, which basically amounted to checking the straps on armor, wiping sweaty palms onto breeches, and then gripping a weapon tightly, dangerous end pointed toward the potential bad guys.

But not if your friends were in front of you. Then, you have to be careful to point it either up or down.

The underground level was unfinished and unfurnished, roughly chipped out of the rock or altogether natural. A small cavern led to, predictably, a tunnel. From further in, softly echoing through the cavern, a faint sound of moving water could be heard. Following the sound, we arrived in another natural-looking cavern nearly fifteen feet high. The rock of the tunnel turned into sand, almost like a beach, and half of of the room was filled with water.

“Maybe a secret entrance, when the tide is out,” said Rakonia.

“And when would that be?”

“Hours. Five or more,” the dwarf nodded to herself.

“No use now then.”

Above us, something moved.

It was one of those sinking-feeling moments, the wild startlement that comes from being suddenly attacked in an unexpected direction. The Sisterhood of Steel was no more immune to this feeling than anyone.

Long, thrashing tentacles lashed down from the ceiling, and I saw Rakonia stagger back as one of the appendages dealt her a blow. Looking up, there appeared to be two lumps or maybe shadowy stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and from here the tentacles had extended.

A bunch of girls, and a swarm of tentacles. There were so many ways this could go badly.

Have I mentioned how much I love my weapon? The tentacles’ reach was long, and so was my naginata’s. I slashed out, cutting a swath of flesh and gristle out of the thing above us. Rakonia stumbled, moaning in pain as the monster’s venom coursed through her body. Even the dwarvish heartiness wasn’t enough, and I saw her eyes narrow in furious determination.

The others hung back, out of tentacle reach, the creatures being perched too high in the cavern for them to reach. In a fit of bravery, Rakonia gave a sickly grunt and stumbled further into the cave, trying to get behind the things. Tactically sound, except for the fact that the creatures were high above us, and unreachable to nearly everyone, including herself. I heard my companions voices, shouting gibberish at the dwarf as she charged ahead through the gauntlet of flailing tentacles.

“Wait-” I tried to caution, but the dwarf was smacked by one tentacle, and then another, each drawing blood with the sharp barbs that dripped poison slime. At least that’s what I assumed they dripped, watching Rakonia’s face go pale, and then white, before the dwarf keeled over, twitching in the sand.

Bolts of magical energy hurled out of Vega’s fingers, Zeyara tossed shuriken, and Rainbow shot off a crossbow bolt before turning to heal the fallen dwarf. The dark-bladed naginata cut through the creatures slice by slice, each hit like an axe chopping a tree, a steady progression that eventually ended in the creatures dropping from the ceiling, hacked apart and twitching in their death throes.

After a careful scan of the room for any other lurking surprises, Rakonia was helped back to her feet, her color still a ghastly shade of pale. “I’m fine,” she mumbled, staggering forward on her own. “I can keep going.”

She was most certainly not fine; in fact, I think she’d stopped breathing for a few moments before Rainbow had helped her back up. I looked at her sorry state, and that of my companions, and realized that today was not a day for ultimate victory. It was a day for escaping by the skin of our teeth. Zeyara looked worn, Rainbow tired, Vega exhausted, Skalmold red and itchy.

“I think we should get the hell out of here,” I commented reasonably.

“We can’t let Nualia-”

“I, for one, don’t want to die. Sandpoint is nice and all, and I’d like to keep it safe, some of it, anyway,” I amended. “But that’s not going to happen if we’re dead.”

“But-”

“Nualia is, apparently, quite dangerous. And she’s not alone. Remember her friends?” Zeyara asked.

“A wizard, some freaky bugbear… we’ll deal with them later.” The dwarf still looked ready to argue, so I kept talking. “I realize that you may place a different value on your life than I do mine, but I’m not dying so you can prove how tough you are.” I shook my head. “That’s how I’d expect a man to think. You’re brave, we get it. What’s the worst that happens if we go back? They launch an attack on the town? Well good, we’ll be there, ready to fight. Readier than we are now, at least.”

“Worst case scenario is she summons her demon-friend,” Rakonia countered. She had a point, but I thought mine was better.

“Who thinks we should keep going?” I asked, looking around.

“I’m out of spells,” stated Vega, ready to leave.

“Most of my healing energy has been exhausted,” Rainbow informed.

Zeyara closed her eyes. “I could use a break.” I’d noticed she hadn’t gone invisible that last fight, and wondered if she was out of juice, too.

“Tomorrow, then.”

And so, with several relieved sighs and a grumbling dwarf who, secretly, was probably happy to be retreating even if she couldn’t admit it to herself, we quickly got back to the stairs, heading back the way we came. To say we ran with our tails between our legs would be unfair, although running did come into the picture. Stopping only to pick up the bundle of weapons and armor we’d stripped from our opponents, as well as releasing the warhorse we’d found earlier from its pen, we made our way back out with a great sense of urgency.

Luckily, the horse managed its way across the rope bridge just fine. The other horses remained where we’d left them, unmolested by goblin or predator. Under the assumption I was the most skilled rider, I took the huge warhorse for my own. Riding back to town, I was disappointed to discover that the magical horseshoes did not give it incredible speed or the ability to fly.

“I’ll call you Artax,” I told the beast, patting its great muscle-y neck.

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We made it back to Sandpoint with a few hours of daylight left. Coming in from the north, you passed under the wall first, the spot where old man Kaijitsu supposedly let the goblins in. Or maybe it had been Tsuto, the crazy bastard of a half-elf. We nodded at the pair of volunteer guards that now flanked the gateway, recruits from the town that we’d convinced to take turns keeping a lookout. They got to dress up in armor and hold weapons… I think they liked it. And so far, nobody had been accidentally stabbed or shot, so it seemed to be working out.

Might have made people feel a little safer. Not me, but that wasn’t the point. Made the volunteers seem brave, as well. They certainly felt a little pride, mixed in with the annoyance and boredom and stiffness that came with standing in one place for an extended period of time.

Whether that air of confidence held up when the little monsters came calling remained to be seen.

But maybe they wouldn’t come. Maybe, if we dealt with their leader, Nualia…

“Extra sharp eye out, tonight,” I called to the volunteers. I saw one of them swallow nervously.

“W-why?” he asked.

“There might be trouble,” I explained, narrowing my eyes. “Best be ready.”

I left them, slightly shaken but no doubt more focused on their task.

We made our way past the church, down the slope to the town hall. I let the others explain the situation to the mayor, and recommend steps to get the town prepared for a worst case scenario. In this case, five goblin tribes attacking the town in the middle of the night with a corrupted celestial accompanied by what might be a demon.

It sounded grimmer than it actually was.

Instead, I headed across the street, to my second favorite store in town.

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Savah’s Armory was exactly as advertised. Grunting with my burden, I pushed the door open with my rear, and entered a room lined with racks and racks of weapons and armor. I looked around, dropping the weight up onto the countertop. As was often the case, the owner was nowhere to be seen, most likely in the back room.

“Savah!” I called. Counted to three. “SAAAAVAAAAH!”

His head poked out from a doorway, thin and angular. “Must you-”

“Look what I got,” I said excitedly, pointing to a huge bundle of what appeared to be cured animal hide. A dozen wooden poles stuck out from the stack.

Frowning, he stepped into the room, unfolding the bundle and examining the goods intently. “Lots of studded leather. A bit small,” he murmured, hands sifting through the rest. “What manner of… a horsechopper?” That was the name of the goblin spear-thingy. “Where did you…” His voice trailed off.

“I can’t say where, but you know who we got them from,” I replied.

“Lots of blood on these,” he continued, sighing regretfully. “And… what’s this?” His voice rose in dismay. “More of these damned blades! Lucrezia, I’ve taken these off your hands for the past three days-”

“What can I say? Goblins keep coming at us and getting killed. It’s weird.” I shrugged, then pointed. “They’re well-made, not the usual cheap goblin crap.” I rapped one sharply against the counter to prove my point.

“Not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing for the town, but… I’m afraid the market is, well, oversaturated at the moment.” He gave me a long look. If his eyes had wandered down from my own, I resolved to give him a nice tap on the chin. Fortunately for him, they stared right into mine. Shrewdly, if I had to describe it.

I looked back, eyes heavily-lidded. It’s different from narrowed, more sultry and less antagonistic.

“I couldn’t offer you more than,” he took a breath, “half what I offered last time.”

“You mean yesterday?” I asked, with just a touch of acid. “You are going to give me what you gave me yesterday,” I predicted. And smile doing it.

“I couldn’t possibly… the demand just isn’t-”

“Of course not. Not here, anyway.” I took a step forward. Now my eyes were narrowed dangerously. He detected the difference. “But you don’t even have any of others displayed in here,” I gestured around to the racks and shelves and cases that filled the store. “Who wants a reminder of those foul creatures around here, so soon after being attacked? But, in the cities, people have all kinds of tastes. You know displaying dangerous-looking weaponry is all the rage in Magnimar. You’ve got them in the back room, and you’re waiting to sell them next Market day, when the ships pull in. Aren’t you?” I asked.

He looked a little taken aback, having the grace to flush a little. “How… I mean…”

“Got a buyer all lined up, don’t you?” Now I was real close, and smiling to give him a great view of my very pointy canines. “And now you’re trying to squeeze me and my friends.” I made a tsk-ing sound, one of my favorites.

“I… ah, squeeze? Now, that is not… not exactly-”

“Someone tries to squeeze me without permission, they’re liable to lose a hand. Someone tries to squeeze one of my friends, and… well.” Matter-of-fact, I made the finger-drawn-across-the-throat gesture. “Dead fucking meat,” I whispered, eyes slightly widened for that crazy look.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve gotten your point across. Othertimes, people are easier to read than a two page book. I could see the message had been received. Now, it was time for a little sweet to counteract the sour. It’s just a slight change from baring your teeth in a menacing way and grinning with open friendliness, and as I did so Savah’s nervousness changed to confusion. “But I know you’re not like that, Savah, you’re one of the good guys!” I gave him a hearty pat on the back, whole body twitching at my touch.

“Ah, ha ha, yes, no, it was all… all a misunderstanding.”

“Of course it was! You’re not about to cheat people who saved your shop, maybe even your family, from those rampaging goblins the other night!”

“No, certainly not-”

“And you’ll honor our arrangement, and we’ll make sure people know what a fair and honest merchant you are.” I dropped my voice conspiratorially. “We’re getting to be kind of a big deal, you know.”

He nodded, looking more enthusiastic. And still a little confused, no doubt wondering back to our earlier conversation. Had he imagined the undercurrent of anger? Had there been a threat? Or were we friends?

“I’ll go get the rest,” I stated, heading back outside to relieve my new steed of its remaining burden, and my previous steed of its two bundles.

“By the gods… How… how many did you k-kill?” he asked, staring at the heaps of cruel blades and wicked spear-things and fingering at the dried patches of blood on just about everything.

We’d had a conversation about that during our first encounter. He got everything as is.

Since he was turning a nice profit on everything, I didn’t feel too bad messing with his head a bit. Keeping your opponent off balance works both on and off the battlefield. And if you don’t think of whatever merchant you’re dealing with as an opponent, you’re getting ripped off.

“Let’s see, twenty-six goblin swords-”

“_High quality_ goblin swords,” I corrected. It felt like… one of those combination of words that are self-contradictory.

“Yes, and an equal number of spears, high quality spears, that is, a crude goblin shortbow, and, what’s this?” He held up a small whip.

I snatched it out of his hand, giving it an experimental crack. With a satisfied nod, I grabbed the other as well. “Whoops, we’ll be keeping those.” I reached over, and he looked up at the sound of clanking chains as I stuffed a pair of manacles under my arm. “These too.”

There were a few other things we’d picked up that I kept. A golden holy symbol of Sarenrae, a nice-looking jade necklace, an elaborate and amazingly intact blue silk gown complete with silver thread trim, and a cheap-looking dented gold crown that wasn’t nearly heavy enough to be solid.. Any of which might make a good present.

In the end, he’d opened up his special safe and dug out roll after roll of beautiful, shiny yellow coins. So many I had to commandeer a sturdy bag to carry them in.

We parted, both of us smiling, best of buddies after our mutually beneficial exchange. Immediately upon exiting the store, I looked around, filled with a sudden paranoia. The immensely heavy sack of gold I cradled under an arm may have had something to do with it. Hastily, I hopped on Artax and made my way back to the Rusty dragon, my former mount following behind.

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I ran my hands over Ameiko’s chest, fingers tracing across the smooth surface. “Pretty solid,” I commented.

She gave me a grin. “Just give it a little squeeze, right there. No, firmer-”

“I got it.” I looked at her, feeling a little nervous. “Are you sure this is safe?”

“Is anything really safe? Ever?” she asked. It was rhetorical, but I shook my head to acknowledge her point anyway.

I stared down at her box, laying there on the bed, open and inviting. “It’s so small. I’m not sure it’s going to fit-”

“It will fit,” Ameiko glared at me.

“If you say so,” I replied doubtfully.

Ameiko whistled, hefting the weighty bag off the floor with both arms. “Adventuring seems to have gotten more profitable since I gave it up,” she said, placing the bag on the bed next to the second most interesting chest in her room. The scrollwork and etched metal corners outshone the other containers that held shoes and clothes and who knows what else. Third most interesting chest, I guess, if you counted mine. The secret catch you had to press to get it to open made it even more interesting.

I was holding more cash than I’d ever seen in one place before, and the Sisterhood of Steel had big plans for it. I dumped the rolls of coin out into the small, cunningly worked metal box that was the closest thing she had to a safe. They didn’t fit, spilling over the sides. “See, I told you-”

Her hands went to work aligning the money into orderly rows. “You were saying?” she asked, putting the last one in place and closing the lid with room to spare.

“Your money should be safe here; its the most secure spot in the inn,” she assured me, and as if to prove her point, she locked the iron box with a click and stuffed it back into the chest, wiggling the key between her fingers before slipping it into a pocket of her flashy-yet-sensible pants.

“Good. So…” I asked with casual smoothness, “what are you doing for the next few hours?”

She eyed me levelly, then quickly stood up. “Running this inn, most likely.” Stupid, I thought to myself. Should have known. “After that…” She sauntered across the room, stopping at the door as if struck by a thought. “You know, I do know of a safer spot,” she murmured.

“If it’s not a bother…”

“My father’s house. The family house. He had a safe, for my mother’s jewelry and things…” she broke off, looking reluctant.

“Big house full of old memories,” I guessed, and congratulated myself as she nodded. I could pay attention when I needed to. “Might not feel quite so… haunted, if you brought along some company.”

Her eyes narrowed, focusing in on me. Then she gave a little half smile. “You might be right. Who should I ask to come, though?”

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Next time: goblin baby, ironic lessons from dead fathers, and maybe, hopefully… Nualia?

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Runelord Reflections 3 (Day 5)
The Catacombs of Wrath

Day 5 (3.13.15)

The Catacombs of Wrath.

After an uneventful and uncomfortable night spent sleeping in the Glassworks, then keeping watch over our prisoner and the secret tunnel that led who-knew-where, I finally was able to get out and do a little shopping.

Rakonia had come back late in the evening with a shiny new shield, and after some quick discussion Skalmold had gone out to pick up something of her own. When she got back, I couldn’t help but notice the gleaming new hammer she cradled in her arms, it’s three-foot shaft topped by a wicked-looking and beautifully inscribed head that must have weighed ten pounds. She informed me that the smith, something of a grouch, had closed up shop for the night.

So I waited. Impatiently.

Now that it was my turn, I could barely contain my excitement. I hadn’t bought anything in days. Straight ahead of the Glassworks ran Sand Alley, leading to Main Street, which in turn ran north to south from the town hall all the way down to the docks. The low hanging sun shone painfully in my eyes. I was roughly familiar with the town’s layout at this point. The northern portion rose up from the bay, culminating in a twenty foot cliff above which the magnificent new cathedral looked down upon the town. There were more things up there, like a fancy inn and an old, broken light tower, but you couldn’t see them from down where I was. The new cathedral, however, was impossible not to see, and it hovered helpfully above town and, more specifically, my destination.

Using the obvious landmark as a target, I started walking past Sandpoint Savories, the local bakery, and found myself unable to resist stopping in for a half-dozen sugary buns. I gulped them down as I walked, wishing I’d brought something to wipe my hands on.

I stopped as I turned on to Main Street, spinning around as something caught my eye. Across the road, a word leapt out across the intervening distance. Goblin?! Squinting as I moved forward, I slowly deciphered the curious script of the placard that hung above the building. “The Curious Goblin,” I muttered. Approaching, I looked through the window and saw shelves upon shelves, filled up with books. “What the hell?” I wondered, continuing on my trek across town.

I must have been a bit preoccupied by my wondering, because I made a wrong turn at the appropriately named Bent Street and found myself forced to head back south, away from my target. A grim-faced man with hairy arms stepped out from a doorway, tossing a pail of rubbish into a waiting cart. He gave me a dour look before returning to his task, and the wafting scent of vomit and stale beer filled my nose. Cracktooth’s Tavern, I read above the doorway. No need to ever visit there.

Pausing, I looked around, and saw the majestic Sandpoint Theater looming at the end of the block. The building was beautiful, on par with some of the things I’d seen back in Hyperborea. Even Magnimar, although much larger and more cosmopolitan, had no more impressive theater than this. I determined to take in a story, at some point. Ideally one that encouraged the throwing of over-ripe vegetables at the cast.

I took a little alley to the left, finding my bearings again on Raven Street and turning southeast to follow the side of the theater. Taking a left once I hit Festival Street, now I was heading northeast with my target in sight. I wondered at the name, since every other road was called something that directly related to it. Water Street ran along the waterfront, while the road along the river was called, you guessed it, River Street. I’ll give you one shot at figuring out what building Church Street runs past. Festival Street, though… must be where they held festivals, I guess. Across the way sat the impressive Carpenters’ Guild, fit men ranging from young apprentices to aging masters toiled in the early morning light, getting the tools of their trade ready for the day’s labor.

A break in the buildings gave me a glimpse of Mill Pond, and I pondered the nature of quiet, small town life and the inherent disinclination for imaginative naming it seemed to produce. But, I suppose, when there’s only one of any thing, there was no need to differentiate. Or titillate, as some names seemed designed to do. Admittedly, as an outsider, I’d benefited from this literalistic tradition. It was much easier to figure out, and remember, than names or, gods forbid, numbers.

The Pixie’s Kitten did not conform to my observations, but that was an obvious exception.

The Red Dog Smithy was already billowing smoke, the forge-fires tended to by a pair of sweaty, well-muscled youths. With a disarming smile, I asked where their master was. With seeming reluctance, one of the young men walked into a nearby building, followed soon after by an eruption of cursing.

After several long moments of this, I looked at the other boy, but he refused to meet my eye, feeding more wood into the furnace-type thing next to the forge. Quickly getting impatient, I headed over to the sound of the yelling.

A man with the largest arms I’d ever seen paused mid-shout, and I caught fleck of spittle hurling through the air in a ray of sunlight just before landing upon the wincing face of the lad I’d sent in. The man’s eyes bulged, and he took in a deep breath, turning to me.

I interrupted whatever he’d been about to say with a quick “I’m here to buy something.” I made sure the coinpurse at my belt jingled nicely as I said it. He paused, mid-way into an undoubtedly disrespectful introduction. “If I have to come back later, I won’t be coming back.” The pouch of gold coins clinked together noisily as I bounced it in my palm. It was early, and I was in no mood for either niceties or disrespect.

The man frowned, the craggy face pinched in thought. He rubbed a few days worth of stubble with a large, dirty hand covered in tiny scars, bright against the deep tan. Drooping, bloodshot eyes regarded me with both curiosity and annoyance. “You shouldn’t enter a man’s home without permission,” he stated, and I glanced around, realizing that I was standing in a small room that functioned as both sleeping quarters and kitchen.

“Fair enough,” I acknowledged, stepping back out beyond the threshold. Honestly, the place was kind of a dump.I looked at the pale-faced boy, waiting loyally for the man to continue his outburst. “That kid just made you a heap of money. You should be thanking him instead of yelling at him.”

Sometimes, you should just shut up and get on with things, rather than being pulled into drama. But sometimes, drama just begged for your attention. Standing up, the man shot me a disgusted glance. “You shouldn’t getting into business between master and apprentice,” he stated haughtily.

“You shouldn’t conduct your business while bellowing like some kind of animal,” I commented lightly, looking to see if I’d won a chuckle from the apprentice. Nothing. “It’s early, people are still sleeping.”

He made a scoffing sound. “Miserable laggards,” he muttered, leaving his dirty dishes on the counter with a clatter. “I’m surprised an adventurer such as yourself is up before noon,” he fairly sneered, striding outside and heading over to the forge area.

He stopped, cross-eyed at the gleaming steel leveled right between his eyes. “Look,” I demanded, watching him swallow, and I held the blade up for him to inspect. “This is what I want.” Eyeing me warily, he glanced at the weapon for a moment before striding off abruptly.

“Well?” I asked, feeling impatient and a little pissed off. Turn your back on me, will you? I contemplated hooking his feet out from underneath him as he strode off, but luckily the moment passed.

“I think I got just what you’re looking for,” he replied gruffly, heading toward a larger, windowless building.

Intrigued, wondering if I were supposed to wait there in the yard or follow, I decided on follow and hurried after, a spring of excitement in my step.

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“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked rhetorically, admiring the dark finish of the new naginata. The smith’s inventory had many fine weapons in it, but nothing that approached the beauty of what he’d had for me. The razor-sharp blade was beautifully wrought, and faint lines and bands of grey radiated across the dark metal in a pattern like nothing I’d ever seen. The metal alloy shaft was surprisingly light but undeniably solid, with a nice little counterweight at the opposite end, giving it a wonderful balance. I’d played with my new toy the whole way back from the Red Dog Smithy, spinning and twirling and slashing.

Skalmold nodded absently, clearly preoccupied with something else, and Zeyara went so far as to sigh loudly, so I took the hint. Still, though, it was a weapon that deserved to be admired.

Rainbow approached the chained and gagged man who hung suspended in his sister’s place, struggling futilely at his bonds.

Chanting in her soft, high-pitched voice, the halfing shaman did something that made the fight go right out of the man, his eyes suddenly glistening with friendly intent. Tsuto began speaking, muffled by the gag, and carefully we released him. He massaged his wrists appreciatively.

Magical friendship is a powerful thing. The slightly-crazed half-elf began a long, rambling conversation with the inquisitive Rainbow, giving a roundabout version of his life story. More importantly, he started talking about his master, a woman by known as Nualia.

The secret tunnel below the Glassworks had been used as an old smuggling route, and led to the ocean, as well as to something he called the Catacombs. It was here that Nualia’s ally resided, waiting to aid the goblins in their attack on the town. Worrying, the creature was some kind of demon that Vega recognized as a being called a quasit.

“Is it… big?” I asked, disgusted and more than a little worried that something like that could be hiding out right beneath this town’s feet. I wasn’t sure I was up for fighting a big demon.

“Tiny, in relation to other demons,” Vega assured, eyes staring up at the stone ceiling as she showed off some of her knowledge on the topic. “They’re less than two feet high,” she began, “physically weak but they fly, and their claws are lethally sharp and poisonous.” She paused. “Resistant to most elements, and like most demonic entities, they are partly… not here.” She frowned. “Their supernatural connection with their plane of origin, the Abyss, makes it difficult to hurt such creatures with physical means.”

“Meaning…”

She eyed our assorted arsenal. “It’s hard to hurt them with mundane weaponry.”

“Magic works on them, though?”

Vega frowned. “Sometimes. Physically attacking the creature will be difficult, unless we secure the properly forged weapons. Cold iron would be what we need.”

“My naginata is cold iron!” I exclaimed happily. It had looked so cool; much darker and less shiny than steel, but the smith had assured me it was at least as strong. Rakonia and Skalmold eyed their new weapons with an expression that may have been worry.

Tsuto was going on and on, explaining that Nualia was a beautiful female aasimar with silver hair and the features of an angel. In fact, we’d already heard about her. She was the adopted daughter of Sandpoint’s previous high priest, Tobryn. She mysteriously disappeared years ago and, shortly after, Sandpoint entered into its time of troubles, culminating with a blaze that destroyed the town’s temple and killed the high priest.

Being an outsider has its advantages. Sometimes, you learn something that the locals have dismissed as coincidence.

It was Nualia that controlled the goblin tribes surrounding Sandpoint. In fact, their recent attack on the town was, as we’d suspected, merely a ruse that allowed the corrupt aasimar to abscond with her adopted father’s remains. According to Tsuto’s ravings, the old man’s bones were subsequently used in a heretical ritual devoted to Lamashtu in which the Mother of Monsters gifted the otherwise beautiful aasimar with a hideously appendage: her left hand has been “blessed” by the evil goddess and was now a deformed thing that reveals the aasimar’s true, corrupt nature.

Lamashtu. The Demon Queen. Mother of Monsters, and also Demon Mother. Now that was worrying. The “good” gods were tricky enough; when it came to the profoundly evil ones…

And that wasn’t all. In addition to her goblin lackeys, Nualia had a number of allies, like the crazed goblin and foul quasit that laired underneath the town in the catacombs. Other followers included a wizard and a bugbear, which was something like a goblin but much bigger and scarier. Most disturbing, though, was a shadowy figure known to Tsuto as Malfeshnekor. Malfeshnekor’s true identity was unknown but Nualia expected to become even more powerful once she made contact with this being.

The name sounded demonic, so I assumed for the moment it was a demon. And probably a big one.

Tsuto’s raving revealed that, should Nualia and Malfeshnekor be united, there would be no need for subtlety, implying an all out assault against the town lay in the immediate future. It was possible her only interest in Sandpoint was stealing the old priest’s bones, but that bit of wishful thinking was not something I was willing to bet my life on.

Despite his servitude to the woman, Tsuto was unaware of her current location. He’d spent years living with the goblins, and it had a profound effect on his mind. As trusting as a babe, he followed Rainbow back into his former holding cell, allowing her to quickly snap the manacles shut once again once his usefulness had come to an end.

He blinked, the nice-looking, elf-boned face gradually screwing up in anger, and I contemplated the difficulties this poor bastard had been forced to face throughout his ill-fated life. A stain upon the honor of the very family he’d been born into. Hated and despised by his so-called father, a source of shame for his mother. Knowing that, quite possibly, she had been killed by the man for the crime of which Tsuto himself was proof. Exiled, alone in the wild… It was hard not to empathize with his plight.

Rakonia took a step forward, drawing the man’s attention. “When you see Lamashtu, tell her who sent you.” A chill ran down my spine; that was badass.

The gleaming edge of my blade new blade pierced clean through his chest, pinning the man to the wall. Zeyara stepped forward and finished off Ameiko’s half-brother and only surviving family member, neatly severing his head.

Hard not to empathize, but not that hard.

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We hauled the corpse upstairs, dumping it into one of the furnaces Rakonia had kept burning for just such a purpose. The burning smell of human meat began to permeate the building, and we quickly fled, locking the door behind us.

Rakonia, Skalmold and Zeyara excused themselves, heading off to the Red Dog Smithy to procure some of the other cold iron cutlery I’d noticed in the store room. I convinced Vega and Rainbow to get some breakfast at the hot bun shop I’d discovered.

Twenty minutes later, we were ready to start with the exploration.

Descending once again into the secret staircase inside the Glassworks, the SIsterhood of Steel finally entered the tunnel that stretched away into the darkness.

We trudged through the smuggler’s secret passage, Zeyara creeping a dozen yards ahead, moving stealthily out of the radius of Vega’s magical floating ball of light. How could a race lacking the ability to see in the dark even continue to exist? Let alone thrive? Such a terrible weakness…

After a minute of uncomfortable tip-toeing, the passage branched off to the left. With some quick hand gestures that consisted mainly of finger pointing, we continued down the original tunnel.

Long minutes of walking passed. Long, long minutes. Being fully encased in stone was disorienting, and the silence aside from our scuffing boots quickly grew tiresome. Just when I’d started to get an itchy feeling between my shoulderblades, the tunnel’s walls began to echo with a soft, repetitious sound. A gentle, whispering roar far in the distance.

It was oddly comforting, after the silence. Listening to people breath is no fun.

A few hundred steps later the tunnel made a final curve and bright light appeared ahead of us. The gentle lashing of waves was now clearly recognizable, and we hurried onto the beach once Zeyara slipped out ahead and gave an “All clear!”

We were on a beach below the ever-present steep cliffsides that ran along so much of this part of the Varisian coast. The Varisian Gulf stretched out before us, a beautiful azure under the midday sun. Perplexed, I looked around, trying to get my bearings.

“We came too far to be along the cliffs below the Glassworks. Right?” I asked, suddenly confused. The Glassworks building sat along the edge of town’s western cliff, facing the sea. No more than a hundred feet or so from the water. We must have traveled thousands.

Rakonia gave me a disappointed look. “Tunnel ran northeast,” she explained, as if to a slow person. “Not west. So no, this isn’t near the glassworks.”

“A ways from town, certainly,” Zeyara added, staring at the vast gulf of water with what may have been a measure of unease. A slender hand pulled at a lock of her purple hair, the color extra vivid in the bright sunshine. “Which makes sense, given that it was used for illicit activity.”

“Smuggling,” I recalled, somewhat needlessly. I wondered if they’d been smuggling something into the city, or out of it. And, in either case, just what was being smuggled?

“These don’t appear to be the catacombs,” Skalmold stated, walking up to join the cluster. Vega began to make her way across the beach as well.

She had a point. “You have a point,” I nodded, getting back to the mission at hand.

“Back to where the other tunnel branched off?” Rainbow asked Rakonia, who nodded in affirmation.

Back into the tunnel we went.

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The secondary tunnel quickly narrowed, no more than five feet across, making us walk single file. It wasn’t long before Zeyara held up a hand for us to stop. With minimal clinking and shuffling, the five of us waited tensely as she slowly made her way ahead, just out of sight. Reappearing, she waved us forward, but very, very slowly.

Creeping onward, I saw the wall along the right side of the tunnel disappear, opening into a good-sized chamber. And another dark gap beyond the first. I tried not to feel dismayed while considering the prospect of more tunnels. A whole maze of tunnels.

Another step, and something shifted ahead of us, a scuffling sound followed by Zeyara’s cry of warning that came from nowhere as the fetchling disappeared from sight.

I rushed forward, keeping the point of my naginata between me and whatever was inside the room, careful not to stick the blonde barbarian and armored dwarf nearby. Getting around the corner, I got a glimpse inside the small cavern, seeing the two abominations charging right toward us.

They were truly horrific. Man-sized, loping forward on all fours in a simian rush, their thick, clawed fingers scraping loudly across the stone. Their feral eyes glinted with subhuman, primal intelligence, but worst of all was their mouths.

As the things approached, they opened their fanged maws, sideways-hinged, like an insect. Each side had two clawed, finger-like mandibles, and revealed a wet, toothed hole that gnashed disturbingly.

Skalmold rushed forward, swinging wildly with her great hammer. The rest of us moved to surround the alien creatures but by then, the blonde warrior had laid them low with a series of smashing blows, ichor dripping off the head of her hammer.

A search of the room revealed nothing, while Vega’s study of the monsters revealed little other than that they were living and not undead. Rakonia felt certain they were abominations, twisted creatures warped by foul magics. It made as much sense as anything else.

Aware the fight had possibly given away our position, we moved onward. The second opening turned out to be another small tunnel that ended in a pile of collapsed rubble. Hours, if not days of labor to remove it. No sense wasting our time there. Continuing on, the tunnel came to an abrupt end twenty feet ahead, but in a small alcove was carved in the rock to our right, a doorway beckoned us.

“Wait a moment,” Rakonia muttered, advancing to the end of the tunnel. We watched her approach the dead end, stopping and looking around. “Sometimes I get a feeling…” She stopped, frowning. “Nothing.”

“What’s that up there?” Rainbow asked, pointing at a small recess in the ceiling at the tunnel’s termination point.

“Wooden slats?” Skalmold wondered, investigating for herself.

“Maybe a floor?”

Maybe a trap, I thought, envisioning a stream of acid pouring down from above, flooding the tunnel-

“Let’s see what’s behind the door, first,” Rakonia suggested, and I nodded at the dwarf’s idea. Zeyara ninja’d the door open with a few dabs of oil and her shiny, spiky door-opening tools.

Inside was a statue of a beautiful but enraged-looking woman. As the dwarf and fetchling secured the room, which looked empty enough to me, the rest of us examined the strange work of art. In one hand she held a gleaming weapon, an ivory and gold ranseur, basically a spear with two pointed hooks curving up and out from the blade’s base. Or a trident, if the side prongs were filed way down. Her other arm clutched a large book to her chest, a depiction of a seven-pointed star on the cover. Unlike the weapon, this was actually part of the statue, and Vega sighed in frustration as she realized this.

We examined the statue, the floor, the ceiling, slightly paranoid that something valuable was just sitting there, apparently unguarded. Rakoni made as if to grab the ranseur, and with amazing speed the rest of us had exited the room, backing out into the hallway.

“Just in case,” I explained to the bewildered-looking dwarf.

Turns out, it was fine. No trap, no alarm.

A door to our left, and two passageways, one ahead, the other to the right. After a moment, we exited the room, investigating the strange niche with its wooden “ceiling”. I hoisted the dwarf up, grunting with effort and ready to leap backwards as she prodded at the obstruction. Acid, boiling oil, sewage…. none of those things flooded out as she pushed back the barrier and clambered up. “You should see this,” she called, sounding moderately impressed.

Intrigued, I jumped up and pulled myself through the trapdoor. In an uncomfortably cramped stone cell, I looked at Rakonia, who pointed beyond the metal bars that turned the stone alcove into a cage.

“Some kind of prison,” she assessed. She examined the metal bars, frowning. “An old one, at that. But still solid. No lock. Must be some sort of mechanism,” the dwarf muttered.

From what I could see, the room consisted of eight or ten similar cells, disappearing behind a wall that blocked our view of the rest of the area. I squirmed uncomfortably as Rainbow squeezed into the cell, looking around with interest. “Mister Whiskers smells those bad things around,” she whispered.

I didn’t see any in the vicinity, but no doubt the place was lousy with them. “Any ideas on how to get through?” I gasped through gritted teeth, quivering as I strained to lift the metal bars. Brute strength was not sufficient to budge the ancient, but solid, iron barrier.

Rainbow reached a hand out through the bars, and her little rat ran down her arm, disappearing around the corner. “Stairs,” Rainbow commented. “And… a lever.”

“Yes!” Rakonia whispered in excitement. “We need to pull it. How far away is it? What direction?”

Rainbow had a look of concentration on her face. “It’s near the floor. Mister Whiskers is going to try and move it.”

I crouched down, holding out the non-sharp end of my naginata for Zeyara to grab on to. “Get ready.”

The rat was apparently successful; I resolved to reward him with some cheese. Or maybe new bedsheets. The doors rose with a brief clatter, some unseen mechanism drawing them upward. Quickly, the rest of the group climbed up into the cell, making their way out into the room. Glancing around, we noticed a pair of wooden staircase that led to a long platform which ran across the room at a height of about ten feet. The platform led to another tunnel carved into the rock, high in the wall from our current position.

Cautiously, we began to ascend the stairs, trying to keep as quiet as possible. As we reached the fifteen by fifteen foot platform at the top of the stairs, the horrors dropped down from above.

The creatures must have been biding their time, no doubt amazed at their luck that we hadn’t bothered to glance up and catch sight of them. The Sisterhood of Steel found itself in an awkward position, attacked halfway up the stairs.

Zeyara disappeared as one of the abominations landed on the platform which led to the next tunnel, but Rainbow and Vega were caught from behind by two of the hideous creatures. I lashed out with the new naginata, stabbing over the heads of my companions and drawing blood from one before turning to slash another across its ugly face. Skalmold stood precariously at the edge, swinging that great hammer with reckless abandon. WIth a furious battle cry, the dwarven ranger took on two of the beasts who had dropped onto the platform behind us, claws scraping against her shield, her axe inflicting bloody damage to the creatures’ unprotected legs.

Zeyara appeared behind one of the creatures, blade exiting through it’s abdomen in a seemingly vital spot. Furious hammer blows, axe hacking, and blade slashing punctuated the brief eternity before first one, and then the next of the beasts fell.

Vega wiped away at blood while Rainbow went to work healing our cuts and gashes, something I was getting used to. A dangerous habit, having someone always around to bring you back to good-as-new. It could make one grow careless. Continuing on, we crossed the platform and entered what I’d assumed was a tunnel but was in fact more of a hallway.

The room we came upon was in littered with ancient and terrible devices of torture, bits and pieces of detritus scattered everywhere. I thought I recognized parts of smashed furniture, and broken glass was definitely present in abundance.

“What happened here?” Rakonia wondered, walking up to one of the two doors and examining it. “Locked. Scratches on the door here. I don’t think they got it open. But this one…” She crouched down, examining the floor, or perhaps the bottom of the door. “It’s been used.”

“By those monster things?” They didn’t look like the door-opening type, but I’ve been mistaken before.

The ranger shook her head. “Goblins.”

“Maybe they were looking for something important that’s on the other side of this door,” Zeyara hypothesized, eyes alight with possibilities while her tools were already at work upon the lock. “Something valuable…”

We were sadly disappointed.

Inside was a strange, triangular room with three more doors, each of which was easily opened, revealing the skeletal remains of some twisted, degenerate species. One set of bones had a third arm sprouting out of its chest, another a ribcage that extended all the way to its feet.

“Well, that’s unsettling.”

“Mutant freaks,” I muttered, unable to keep the loathing out of my voice. Something about the unnatural beings was deeply disgusting.

“They were human,” Rakonia commented.

They looked anything but. “How can you tell?”

“Certain bone structures,” Vega explained, pointing to various places on the skeleton. “It was, at one time, exactly as the dwarf says.”

“Disgusting,” I commented. As if humans weren’t gross enough already, someone had made them even more hideous.

“Tsuto mentioned a crazy goblin leader with three arms,” Rainbow recalled.

Perfect. “Time to purge some mutants.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Continuing on through the unopened and apparently used door that led further into the complex, we came to a much larger room, easily fifty feet long and half as wide. Halfway down the wall, another passage went off to our right. The floor was laid out in a strange checkerboard pattern, what appeared to be wooden pallets laid out in regular intervals.

“Shh,” Zeyara cautioned. “Hear that?”

Faint moaning could be heard, as if at a great distance. Faint, but unmistakable.

“Zombies,” cautioned Rainbow, peering into the room from under our legs.

“You probably shouldn’t step on the wooden spots,” the fetchling advised wisely, cautiously entering the room and pressing herself against the wall. As we entered, there was a startling cry and a trio of misshapen goblins burst out from the hallway ahead of us.

Shouting in their strange, guttural tongue, the creatures rushed at us. Rakonia fearlessly stepped forward to confront the larger, three-armed goblin that held a trio of wicked looking weapons, grunting as the creature attacked her with a flurry of strikes, leaving the dwarf reeling. Another monster was more goblin-headed snake than anything else, its body winding across the floor to attack us, practically inviting me to jab it in the guts. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to stop it, and it threw itself forward at my companions. Another monstrosity circled around, going for the embattled dwarf but intercepted by the sudden appearance of Zeyara’s blade in its back.

Careful to avoid the pallets, I positioned myself and slashed at the snake-goblin that was biting and hissing at Skalmold and Vega, poison dripping from its oversized fangs. The barbarian woman dashed past the thing, moving to assist Zeyara or Rakonia, I couldn’t tell which. As the dwarf staggered from the three-armed goblin’s latest assault, I rushed over to help as well, the snake-fangs missing me by inches. I moved up behind the bleeding ranger, her bloody axe swinging out at her opponent, distracting it enough where I was able to get a good stab in over her shoulder.

Screeching, the thing renewed its attack as Skalmold and Zeyara brought down their opponent and joined the fray. Hopelessly surrounded, the goblin’s eyes failed to widen with the panic one normally sees in the eyes of the doomed, and with a series of killing blows the mutated creature slumped to the ground, dead.

The remaining snake-like goblin had been slain by Vega’s magic, and Rainbow rushed in to heal the group, first with a wave of channeled energy, and then pulling out the wand for our battered dwarf.

We congratulated each other while looting the bodies, the prize being one of the creature’s blades. A wicked, black-glass sword, short and slightly curved. Zeyara fondled it greedily, running a thumb down the blade.

“It’s magical,” Vega commented. Our first magic weapon! I hoped to get one myself, someday.

“Is it supernaturally sharp? Does it flame on command?” asked the fetchling excitedly.

“Uh, no. Just… magical.”

“Oh. Still, pretty cool…” I agreed.

“What about the them?” Rainbow asked, peering over the edge of a pit into the darkness below. The zombies staggered around the bottom of a twenty foot square shaft cut into the rock, a deadly surprise for anyone who would have been foolish enough to step on the wooden pallets. If the fall didn’t kill you, the undead surely would.

“Get out the rope.” I spent the next minute securing myself in a makeshift harness. “Okay, so Rakonia and Skalmold, you’ll hold the rope, and slowly lower me in. Just a few feet,” I cautioned, “so I can get at them with my blade.” They nodded. “And, of course, don’t drop me.”

The plan went off without a hitch, and amazingly I was extracted from the eleventh and final pit within a quarter hour, nine less zombies in the world.

The hallway that the mutant goblins had come from had a spiraling staircase that had once led down but now was covered in rubble, effectively blocked. To our amazement, strange letters began to play across the area, an effect that delighted me all the more once Vega began to translate some of the inspirational and wrathful sayings. It was written in Thassalonian, an ancient language once used in this part of the world. At the end of the hallway, another door opened up into a perfectly spherical chamber.

“Whoa,” I whispered, or something like it. The sphere shape was interestingly novel, but most interesting were six objects that appeared to hover in midair in the center of the chamber. Upon inspection, there were five items, along with a crow crawling in maggots. Fairly fresh, then. “Might be a trap,” I said, unwilling to enter it myself.

A thought occurred to me, and reaching out with my mind, I channel my mental force from intention into action, pulling at one of the objects with the power of my will. I grabbed it once it was close, handing it to Vega before starting at the next one. Very fulfilling.

The crow and the maggots, I left. I could only hope they weren’t vital to solving this underground labyrinth. We ended up getting an interesting-looking book with scary pictures, and a written missive of some kind, confirming some of our suspicions about Nualia’s plans.

The place dead-ended there. We made our way back to the prison area, remembering a door that Rakonia now felt certain led to the room with the statue. From there, we headed down another passage, ascending a series of stairs leading up to another door.

Zeyara listened at the doorway, then waved us in. As Rakonia and I entered, three bat-winged things flew out of nowhere, and I nearly screeched in surprise. Worse than bats. The things looked like severed heads, skinned and blackened and raw, a pair of clawed, evil-looking wings. Their mouths worked, their large fangs gnashing in terrible anticipation.

As Skalmold entered, the dwarf was taking a swing at one of the creatures that darted about. I lashed out, the extended reach of the naginata letting me smack one out of the air. Rakonia dealt it a solid blow, sending it crashing into the wall, and from the doorway a burst of magic bolts shot out, hitting one of the others. The remaining two let out an awful shriek, the hideous noise bringing Zeyara to her knees in the hallway.

The bat-winged heads flew past us, fluttering out into the passage. I gave one a decent cut as the creatures seemed to abandon the fight, but it continued on. I watched, helpless, as the thing descended upon Zeyara, latching on to the fetchling’s face with its clawed, devilish wings, pressing its mouth to hers. Blackened veins began trickling across the stunned ninja’s face, some kind of horrible, horrible curse-

Something happened, a strange flicker, as I railed against what I was seeing, dreading the result. The moment played itself out again, but this time Zeyara resisted the monster’s attack. The creature pulled off, flying a short distance further before dropping to the ground, felled by bolts of magical energy.

The third had turned on Rainbow. The halfling shaman tried to fend the thing off, keeping it at arms distance while it fluttered around her head. I descended the stairs, using my weapon to hook the smaller woman and hoist her back to me.

Unfortunately, this left Zeyara as its next-closest target, and once again the fetchling suffered through that horrible kiss.

This time, I was unable wishfully think the outcome away. The blackened veins appeared again, foully staining her pale grey flesh.

The creature didn’t last long, but the victory felt hollow as Zeyara recovered, feeling at her face.

It was Vega who broke the bad news. “Vargouilles are created by infecting humanoids with their kiss,” she began bluntly. “The effects are rapid, but the end result is always the same. The victim’s head begins to change,” she continued, unaware of our horrified stares. “Within hours, the hair begins to fall out. Hours after that, the ears elongate, growing into leathery wings, and tentacles will sprout along their chin and scalp. Teeth elongate and sharpen into fangs. Eventually, they begin to lose their minds, and at the culmination the head detaches from the body and leaves it behind to rot, beginning its new life as a vargouille.”

Rakonia was looking into the room beyond. “Stairs in here, leading up. I think I may know where we are inside of town,” she stated. I gave her a look that clearly said Now Was Not The Time.

There was a minute of dead silence as we contemplated this horrific fate. “Is there any way to cure her?” I choked.

“Yes, a powerful spell designed to remove diseases should to it,” Vega confirmed. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the priest of this town is capable of such magic.”

“Are you?” asked Zeyara hopefully.

“I’m arcane, not divine,” Vega explained shortly. She looked at Rainbow.

“I don’t have that kind of power yet,” the little shaman admitted.

“Well, we’ll figure something out,” I said reassuringly, hoping that would prove the case. “Maybe Magnimar-”

“Let’s get moving,” the fetchling requested.

“Back out? Or further in?” It seemed a callous question, but…

“The quasit may know we’re here, and if not it will figure it out when it finds all these dead minions. We can’t risk it getting word to Nualia. Besides,” she stated flatly, “Magnimar is too far away.”

She was right, of course. Sixty miles, even on horseback, was a lot to ask. We had to find something in town. It was our only hope.

Somewhat fatalistically, Zeyara took up point again and we turned back into the catacombs.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The final unexplored hallway led off the room with the forbidding statue of the angry woman, and a minute later we’d come to another set of doors. Something about the inscriptions that lined it, as well as the double-door construction, hinted at the importance of this room. I carefully reached into my belt, feeling the tug of unseen fingers pulling away whatever I reached for with fey-like mischief. Except it wasn’t mischief, it was the damned souls of my stupid, whispering family, their petty revenge against my decision.

Downing my special fiery blood elixir, I felt the reassuring and moderately addicting rush of power, and spent a moment calling upon the intuitive connection I felt with a power that seemed polar opposite to what we were about to confront. The others finished their preparations, and we readied ourselves.

Cue the boss music.

We burst in, expecting just about anything that included a small flying demon… but the impressive room looked empty. The largest chamber yet, this one stretched ahead and above, the ceiling at least 30 feet above our heads. At the far end, a pair of stairways led to a large balcony, a dull red glow against the wall the only natural illumination in the room. Directly ahead of us, a fifteen foot wide pool of water lay dark and still, at the center of which a smaller ring of spikes topped with skulls were arranged in a circle. The walls were decorated with frescoes and inscriptions of an unfathomable language, but one obviously steeped in evil and violence, given many of the pictures I saw.

Cautiously, we entered, and suddenly the floor rumbled as a monstrously blank figure made of rock and earth abruptly appeared, lurching toward us.

Spells were being cast and Skalmold’s blonde hair was whipping around behind her as she ran towards the stairway, Rakonia heading toward the other side. I watched the earth elemental rush forward, battering the barbarian woman with a powerful fist. Cursing, I rushed to her aid, and cursing, I watched my blade bounce harmlessly off the creature’s rocky armor.

Bolts were flying and magical orbs shot across the room, Skalmold brought her hammer down and pounded a large portion of the creature into the floor, the elemental dissolving into nothingness upon destruction. She roared, bloody and furious, rushing towards the stairs. Above us, our expected nemesis appeared, the wicked-looking, toddler-sized demon flapping away, high above us as it chanted a string of cruel-sounding words.

Skalmold reached the base of the stairway and instantly keeled over.

Zeyara appeared on the balcony overhead, hurling a dark-bladed dagger at the hovering quasit, her throw striking true and causing the creature to scream. It disappeared again just as Rakonia reached the balcony.

I rushed over to the unconscious barbarian, glad that the blonde was at least breathing. I gave her a firm poke in the ribs, readying myself to unleash my ancestral power. Skalmold got to her feet, running upstairs while I hulked out at the bottom, the room suddenly seeming twice as small due to an efreet-sized perspective.

Rushing upstairs, I was in time to see one of the horrible abominations we’d first encountered appear in a burst of smoke, a cruel voice laughing from above us. Rakonia caught a glimpse of the quasit before it disappeared, hurling her cold iron axe against the ceiling in an impressive spray of sparks.

Vega cried out as the monstrosity clawed and bit her, and the quasit appeared above her, it’s body spinning wildly as it let fly a throwing axe that seemed to possess a faint radiance all its own. The axe bit into Vega’s back, and she fell to the ground, bleeding and lifeless.

Skalmold smashed the abomination over the side of the balcony, the thing landing a solid fifteen feet from the base.

The quasit remained frustratingly out of reach for the others. Rakonia scrambled to recover her axe, while Zeyara tossed another cold iron dagger, scanning the area impatiently. As I reached the top of the stairs, I had grown nearly twice as tall, and with a roar I rushed across the balcony, the equally enlarged naginata whistling through the air, biting deeply into the creature overhead. I shouted insults at it, and I’m saw its beady eyes widened in understanding and fury.

The creature hovered near the ceiling, twenty feet above us. As my companions watched in frustration, the axe buried in Vega reappeared in its hand, and quick as lightning it hurled it once again… at the prone form of the human. The arcanist’s body gave a twitch, and nervously I attacked the demon again, failing to bring it down. The axe reappeared, and as it threw the weapon Rakonia stepped forward, trying to shield the fallen human’s body with her own. The axe spun past her, though, and once again Vega was struck.

There was an awful lot of blood pooled around her.

Focusing everything upon my opponent, I blocked out the panicked voices and the fumbling for potions as my companions tried to save Vega’s life. Spinning my whole body to get some extra force, I brought my weapon in a great arc, grinning maniacally as I felt the blade bit into resistance… resistance that suddenly stopped resisting. The pieces of the quasit fell down to the floor below, and Rainbow clamored up the stairs, fretting over the state of Vega’s ravaged body before she went about making things right.

The red glow had come from an altar placed near the wall on the balcony; Rakonia and Skalmold smashed the thing to pieces, quickly backstepping as a vile fluid leaked from the shattered wreck. We looted the quasit’s possessions, the body having disappeared back to its demonic plane of origin.

Aware that time was passing, we hastened back to the Glassworks, emerging from the depths and heading into town to search for the needed magic.

Zeyara was constantly fiddling with her jawline, rubbing her hands over her neck as if to make sure it was still attached. I’ll save you the suspense; we were able to find the right kind of healing magic at the Feathered Serpent, the local enchanted item store, in the form of a barely-affordable scroll, which Rainbow successfully used to great effect.

With a collective sigh of relief, we headed back to the Rusty Dragon for some long-overdue lunch, taking account of the spoils of war and checking in on a seemingly-recovered Ameiko, who informed us that she’d finished preparing the food we’d ordered.

Which was good, because travel lay in our future. One of the things we’d recovered had been a document detailing part of Nualia’s plan, and informed us where she was most likely to be found. An island off the coast called Thistletop.

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Runelord Reflections 2 (Day 4)

Day 4 (3.6.15)

Broken Glass

I laid in bed late into the night, exhausted beyond measure. I lay there, staring. Staring at the ceiling, for gods know how long. It was like every muscle in my body had turned to water. Bone-weary, I couldn’t quite find the oblivion of sleep I so desperately sought.

My mind spun with plans and observations and hunches, the strengths and weaknesses of my freshly-formed group’s members, the names and faces of the people in this town I found myself in. People who owed us, or didn’t like us. Important people, and people who just seemed cool. Thoughts of winter, and something that had been in the back of my head, something familiar as Rainbow’s healing energies had washed over me that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Itching at my thoughts but frustratingly impossible to grasp, I found myself coming back to that feeling again and again.

I don’t exactly know what it was, or when it happened. Not exactly. Maybe it was laying there for so long, finally realizing that one of the other five women should have turned in by now. Maybe it was that faint, annoying sound that kept pulling me back from the brink of consciousness. Whispering. Or maybe a crackling flame. Maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever the case, I found myself getting up out of bed, creeping toward the doorway with an overabundance of nervous tension.

What am I scared of? I wondered that myself, but couldn’t deny the terrified pounding of my heart, pulse throbbing in my ears as I reached out towards the door knob. I looked down, and saw a strange glow from beneath the door, a sliver of light that seemed to flicker.

I remember gritting my teeth as I flung open the door, preparing myself for whatever had my danger senses tingling. Another goblin raid, or an angry mob of villagers, or Zeyara’s secret mission turning out to be murdering us all, or maybe even giants…

Everything was in flames.

I gasped at the beauty of it, but even as I did it became clear that something was not right. There was no hallway, no staircase to go downstairs. There was nothing but fire. A whole world of it.

Glimmering from above pulled at my attention, and I looked up to finally noticed the brilliant constellations that hung above me, startling in their clarity. Spellbound at the awesome sight, I wondered where the roof had gotten to, but looking back into the room I realized that it was no longer there.

Unsettled by this development, I peered around carefully. I was within a sea of fire, a burning expanse that flickered and churned, a sound not unlike deep bass rattling my bones. A world of fire, and its flames made even the sky seem to burn. But, far above, I could see the constellations so clearly, I knew they, at least, would be separate from the raging inferno that engulfed me. Shooting up towards the bright stars, I found myself hurtling into an infinite gulf of blackness as the fiery area was left behind.

The stars were brilliant; I could easily pick out the most familiar ones. They were beautiful, but they made the place in between all the darker in contrast, and I found myself facing a vast chasm between the stars, so dark it gave me a serious case of the nerves.

Suddenly terrified, I realized that something was out there. Out in that nothingness. Waiting. Biding its time. I began to hear whispers, hissing whispers both familiar and unknown. My caravan-family, gone and dead all these years. A dark, harsh whisper of something alien and deep, reminiscent of fire and bronze.

They were telling me to go, to embrace the darkness, give myself over to it. The lessons my mother had tried to instill came flooding back, and every last part of me railed against the fate that lay yawning before me like a bottomless pit, ravenous and ready to swallow up the flickering light inside me.

Sensing my hesitation, the voices got louder, more insistent. Demanding. Now I was getting angry. Black, shadowy tendrils lashed out from beyond time and space, infinitely cold with the limitless nothingness through which they’d traveled. WIth a roar, I felt myself beating powerfully against the pulling grasp, great wings thrashing through the void, the incredible power I unleashed allowing me to tear away from the clutching tentacles as if through cobwebs, wheeling and diving back down into the fiery depths below, rippling with strength and bellowing with rage.

I turned my head, strange and sinewy, getting a look at myself.

A dragon, with scales of deep, dark red-

“Rusty Dragon-”

Something twitched.

“”The Rusty Dragon Inn-”

Gradually I opened an eye. The bed twitched again. I looked down, seeing the small form of Rainbow curled up in one corner of the bed.

My heart froze as the whispers began.

I lay there, listening for a good minute, before blowing the hair out of my eyes. Screw that noise. Blearily, I sat up, disturbing the halfling enough to cause her to roll over, nearly crushing her pet rat in the process. Mister Whiskers, however, deftly scurried away, pausing before continuing to nibble on the bedsheets.

I was yawning, halfway to the door, when it sunk in, and I turned to get another look. Sure enough, numerous holes dotted the now-ragged end of Ameiko’s sheets. I shook my head. Not good. Maybe I should check in with her, break the bad news. Possibly catching her in the bath. Humming to myself, pleasantly distracted, I decided a bath of my own was in order.

A short while later I opened the door to the common room, surprised at the lack of noise and customers, vaguely disappointed that I’d ended up bathing alone. The place was so dead, the only people I saw were the Tian woman who worked for Ameiko and an elderly man. “I’m sorry, but the Rusty Dragon Inn is temporarily closed, please come back tomorrow. I apologize for the inconvenience.” The man, somewhat grumpily, turned and left with a grunt, and the woman turned to me, looking more than slightly flustered. Something strange happened with her eyes, then, possibly a gleam of hope. With hurried steps, she approached.

I’d never caught her name, and without a proper introduction I couldn’t remember much about her at all. Now was not the time to start trying, though.

“Something wrong?” Zeyara appeared from the hallway, rubbing her prominent mantis-eyes, the solid orbs distinctly yellowish in the morning light that shone through the window front.

“Where’s Ameiko?” I asked, more pointedly.

The woman, who I’ll call the Tian manager for lack of a name, informed us that her employer had disappeared earlier that morning, following the delivery of a strange letter. Her expression practically begged us to ask and see it, and after some half-hearted deliberation about Ameiko’s privacy, she hastily produced the document in question.

“Chicken-scratch nonsense,” I muttered, louder than I should have, apparently, as the manager woman gave me a startled and slightly offended look.

“It’s Tian, clearly” stated Vega.

“What’s it say?” Rainbow asked, peering over the table upon which the letter had been placed, straining on her tiptoes.

“Ah,” Vega stalled, “I can’t… that is, I don’t know how to read it-”

“Well what good does that do us?” Rakonia asked in a gravelly voice.

“SInce there’s only a few Tian-born people in town-”

“Hey,” Zeyara snapped her fingers. “One of them’s right here.”

Skalmold had caught on, mostly, at least. “Did you write this note?” the blonde asked threateningly, looming over the now-shaking Tian woman.

“N-no!” she denied. Skalmold put her down, turning to look at us rather quizzically, clearly out of ideas.

“But you could read it?” Zeyara suggested, getting a frightened nod for her trouble. “To us.” I grinned; the way she asked it as a question at first, but then demanded it at the end.

The woman took us into the back room, behind the kitchen, where various dry goods and sundries were stored. As I glanced around at all the stuff, she began to read.

Ameiko’s long-lost brother, the half-elven bastard Suto, was the supposed author. He beseeched his sister to meet him at the Glassworks, the Kaijitsu family’s claim to fame in Sandpoint. There, they would confront the old bastard Lonjiku about his role in the crisis with the goblins. He went on to accuse his father of being the one who’d opened the gates along the north wall, allowing the goblins access to the town, and that together, brother and sister would make it right.

I couldn’t help passing judgement then and there. I didn’t know anything about this Suto character other than that, as a stranger, he was untrustworthy. But her annoying father had seemed stuck up and cold; it was impossible not to believe the worst about him.

Some people save give people a chance. Or multiple chances. I prefer the snap judgements. Don’t second-guess yourself, and act accordingly. And, if you should be wrong about them, at least you’ll be alive, even if they wind up otherwise. Live and learn, that’s what it’s all about. That, and better them than you, at least when it comes to dying.

I gave the Tian manager-woman a long, hard stare. “Don’t talk to anyone about this.” I took the letter from the table, intending to throw it into the fire, but found to my amazement the pages already crackling as a current of energy tingled its way down my arm.

That was new.

Nobody else seemed to notice, everyone busy grabbing their gear or using the privy if they hadn’t already. Making haste as best I could, I slid into the chain armor, wiggling until it felt comfortable. Zeyara was hopping around the room, trying to fit into her skin-tight leathers. Moments later we were out the door, casually rushing across town towards the western cliff overlooking the ocean.

The Street of Glass, as were so many of the town’s imaginatively named streets, gave a good indication of what could be found along it. The Glassworks loomed large, stone and imposing, along most of the street.

As we approached, an old man called out to us. “Eh, yeh won’t be getting in today, sonny. They done shut down the place!” He looked like he’d just told us the most important and amazing fact that had ever been discovered, nodding vigorously to affirm his own story. “Ain’t nobody come or gone all morning.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Intensity crackled off of me

He swallowed, surrounded as he was by three imposing female figures carrying weapons and staring at Zeyara’s creepy pupil-less eyes. “What are yeh?” he gasped, suddenly much more frightened than gregarious.

“We’re the people who saved the town from the goblin raid, night before last,” I announced importantly before turning the question around, putting him on the defensive. “Who are you?”

The old man sputtered, squinting around at each of us in turn. “Eh? What’re yeh about?”

In all fairness, he may have given a name, but I’ll be damned if I can remember it.

Zeyara caught my eye and quietly disappeared, heading across the street towards the building.

“What is happening in the Glassworks?” Rainbow asked reasonably. Looking down in surprise, the old man caught sight of the halfling looking up with those wide, earnest eyes of hers. “You said something about it being shut down…” She paused politely, giving him a ‘go ahead’ kind of look and held out a hand to signal he should continue.

He crouched down, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Yeh see, little un, the Glassworks is always up and running at the crack o’ dawn.” He nodded importantly. “I live across yonder, and its always the same. Smoke billowing out the chimneys and people hustlin’ and bustlin’ all over the place. Get’s so’s a man can’t get his beauty sleep!” He chuckled at his own joke, fingers rasping across the stubble lining his withered face as he pulled at his jowls. “Why, back in ‘87-”

“This morning,” Rakonia prodded, looking disgruntled. The man glanced at her, eyes narrowing before shaking his head.

“That’s what I’m gettin’ to,” he whined. “Nobody’s out and about. They only got but one furnace running. The place is locked up tighter than a maid’s… er-”

“Careful,” I warned.

He stuttered for a moment, then turned to point at the building. “Yeh see,” he began, the did a double take. I followed his gaze and saw the emaciated figure of Zeyara across the street, bent over and fiddling around with the door. “What’s going on here?” he exclaimed, looking concerned.

Deftly, I stepped in front of his gaze, the gleaming mail rings catching the light of the newly-risen sun quite dazzlingly. “You are right to be concerned, citizen,” I said pompously. He looked up at me in surprise. “Your help is appreciated. As we investigate, make sure to steer people clear of the building.” He stared at me blankly. “Tell them what you told us, that it’s closed.”

“Er… alright…” We left the old-timer gaping in his spot along the street, heading to the building as Zeyara gave us a subtle hand-wave.

“It’s open,” Zeyara stated, sliding something into her belt pouch.

“It was open?” Skalmold asked, looking puzzled. “But the old man said-”

“It is open now,” clarified the fetchling, turning the handle and opening the heavy, ornate door. It swung backwards into the building, revealing a silent, dim interior.

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Making glass was apparently more complicated than I’d imagined. Not that I’ve ever spent time thinking about it, really, but between all the chemical smells and heat and smoke, it seemed not completely different than a forge. Minus the anvils.

It was eerily quiet. With a shared glance, the Sisterhood of Steel crept its way through the building. The majority was stone, with hallways and small, specialized rooms holding strange devices or mundane-looking barrels.

The stink of the place began to get worse, and there was something underlying it that gave me a feeling of foreboding. Almost like cooked meat…

We opened a set of massive doors, and looked upon a scene of slaughter.

The room was long, with numerous individual furnaces and kilns arrayed in neat rows. A series of workbenches and tool racks ran along the perimeter. But it was the blood that drew my attention. Blood spattered the floor, the walls, in some spots even the ceiling. Mangled corpses lay scattered about, their ruined flesh red and wet in the flickering light of the furnace. Sightless eyes gazed into oblivion from around the room. And there, in the corner, a human-sized shape caught my eye. Thick, dripping glass had cooled solid, but within I could just barely make out the shape of a humanoid figure.

Ameiko! was my first panicked thought. The intensity of my worry was surprising.

And then, the living occupants of the room turned on us.

From their hiding spots around the room, a small tide of familiar, wicked-looking goblins rushed out, beady black eyes glinting with malice and mouths opened in high-pitched battle-screams, fanged maws dripping spittle and blood as they raised their strangely curved swords and attacked.

I felt something turn on inside of me, stepping forward around to the left side of the kilns that separated one side of the room from the other even as Rakonia and Skalmold made for the other. The goblins rushed forward and my naginata lashed out, severing the legs out from under one of the beasts before spinning up and thrusting its way through the chest of another. Through the glassmaking devices, I could see Skalmold laying waste with her humongus hammer roaring incoherently, and heard Rakonia’s furious shouting, no doubt insulting her hated enemy in their native tongue.

I was shouting too, the words feeling utterly right and beautiful; I’d never felt so eloquent about insulting the parentage of an opponent. Zeyara appeared to flow behind one of the goblins that had held back, her blade flicking out in a fluid motion and exiting its throat in a spray of dark blood. I watched the degenerate creature fall to its knees, gurgling before keeling over, and heard the fetchling shouting something at me but I couldn’t understand the language she was speaking in.

I clove the last goblin on my side of the room, the green-skinned monstrosity falling to the floor in a heap of split bone and glistening muscle. I hooked its limp, child-sized body on the end of my naginata and hurled it across the room into a wall where it collided with a satisfying crunch.

I looked around for more, but the last of the creatures was being bound with rope by Rakonia, the dwarf’s eyes slightly crazed with the prospect of her captive. Things began to slow down, and as I caught my breath I heard her say, “Always save one for questioning.”

“That’s what I was telling you,” Zeyara frowned at me.

“I couldn’t understand the language you were speaking in,” I explained.

She rolled her eyes. Or at least, I think she did; it’s hard to tell when the things are a uniform yellowish-green color. “You seem to understand me fine right now.”

That was true. Puzzled, I shrugged helplessly, feeling like I was missing something.

Rakonia had already begun to question the captive in the goblin tongue, Rainbow occasionally inserting a sentence or two of the guttural, primitive-sounding language. Wiping her bloodstained hands on her thighs, the dwarf stood up from her gristly work. Vega looked a bit ill, paler even than usual, but Skalmold had watched the scene with interest. It was hard to read Zeyara’s blank, luminous eyes, but she hadn’t blinked during the torture at all.

“They came in from somewhere below,” the squat ranger began, giving the creature’s corpse a kick for good measure. “A tunnel. And below is where their master is. Crazy, it thought.”

“Their master?”

“A human, by the sounds of it. The one who led them here.”

I walked over to the glass statue, unable to get a thought out of my mind. As I peered at it closely, seeing the horribly burned features of an old man, I fairly danced with delight. “Hey, it’s that old bastard!” I shouted with relief. The others turned to look.

“Lonjiku Kaijitsu,” Vega confirmed, peering at it closely.

“Let’s keep going,” I said, eager to find our still-missing-and-possibly-alive friend, as well as this so-called ‘master’. I had some questions of my own for him.

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A secret door in the floor was hidden cunningly in the stonework. We would never have found it if it hadn’t been left open. But there it was, and cautiously we descended the stone staircase.

“These stairs are old,” Rakonia whispered.

“How can you tell?” I asked. It seemed like stone was stone. Ageless.

“I’m a dwarf,” she muttered, as if that explained everything. Which perhaps it did. After all, I seem to have an innate ability to find the place on a building where, if a fire were to be lit, it results in an all-consuming inferno.

At the base of the stairs, a stone chamber opened up, three doors along its walls and a dark tunnel that curved away in the distance. Zeyara held up a hand, creeping her way through the room silently and listening at the doors. Her eyes glowed a dim green, the angular face pinched in concentration.

“Sounds from those two doors,” she breathed, barely a whisper. “Someone sleeping in the first, crying in the second.”

Crying. “Ameiko.” I nodded at the first door. “Sleeper first.” Zeyara shot me a questioning glance, thinking to rescue our friend first.

We’d do that once the ‘master’ had been dealt with.

Slowly, quietly, carefully, the fetchling ninja opened the heavy, ancient-looking door, quick dabs of oil to the hinges allowing for a silent entry. Not that it turned out to be necessary; the slumbering figure on a pile of bedding snorted and turned, reeking of potent spirits.

We surrounded the figure, a strangely-dressed half-elven man. Presumably Suto, Ameiko’s brother, bastard child of her mother and some unknown elven lover. The alleged inspiration for Lonjiku’s rumored murder of his wife. The ultimate cause of Ameiko’s estrangement from her family. All that, just by being born.

In unison, we raised our weapons, bringing them down upon the helpless, sleeping opponent. As the butt of Rakonia’s axe collided with his stomach, the staff-end of my naginata was cracking him across the head. After a brief burst of pummeling, someone raised a hand to stop. Grinning, the others quickly tied up the man good and tight, blindfolding him, gagging him, and then putting a burlap sack over his head for good measure.

I burst into the room next door, envisioning a heroic rescue scene where Ameiko would be sobbing her gratitude and rushing to embrace me, but the sight that confronted me brought the taste of bile rushing up my throat. Chained to the wall, Ameiko Kaijitsu hung limply, her arms held above her awkwardly as she sagged on her knees. Her face was a mass of bruises, and numerous cuts and scrapes had bled and dried all over her body.

I rushed forward, feeling a burning need to get close to her, somehow make it right. A flood of vitality rushed through me, and without knowing exactly how I imagined the power flowing through my hands, into her, giving her strength. She gave a gasp, jerking and sending the chains rattling. “Zeyara!” I called, watching the cuts and bruises fade away, leaving behind patterns of dried blood. The fetchling appeared at the doorway. “Can you unlock her?” I eyed the heavy, solid-looking manacles. Zeyara made a scoffing sound, and a few seconds later I was catching the limp form of the newly-freed Ameiko.

I tossed her over a shoulder and headed out. “I’m going to get her back to the Rusty Dragon. Be right back.” I headed to the stairs. “Don’t start the questioning without me. Maybe get him set up in the other room,” I added, and Zeyara at least nodded in understanding.

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Once the unconscious woman had been safely and stealthily deposited in her room, I made my way back to the Glassworks. The lack of commotion outside was promising. Casually, I walked up to the building and entered, studiously avoiding the inquiring gaze of the old man who still lingered outside.

The questioning proved difficult. Suto was apparently quite mad, and silent on all topics that we brought up.

While Rakonia and Skalmold tried working the man over, the rest of us were contemplating our next move.

“Lonjiku was a traitor. His son-”

“Not his son,” Rainbow clarified.

“True. Well, this guy, Suto, was working with the goblins as well.”

“And?”

“Well, it paints a rather grim portrait of the Kaijitsu family.” Only one of which will be alive to suffer the consequences. And she was innocent. Probably. “All I’m saying is that we have to be careful to get our stories straight.”

“Stories?”

“Several workers, townspeople who live here in Sandpoint, are lying dead on the floor upstairs,” I began. The others nodded, some looking uncomfortable. Maybe even a little sad. “Soon, their families will begin to wonder, people will investigate… if they find us, or this Suto asshole, who knows what conclusions they’ll jump to.”

“We should get out ahead of this,” Vega commented, picking up on the idea. “Inform the mayor of the attack, and that we investigated and dealt with it.”

“Yes, goblins attacking the town again. Somehow they got inside-”

“Through the tunnel, most likely,” Rainbow commented, eyeing the dark chasm through the rock that stretched off as far as we could see.

“Yes, but… maybe best to keep that to ourselves, too. Incriminating, having a secret tunnel out of your business, and one that goblins know about…” There was something romantic about the notion of knowing about a secret passage nobody else did. Also, I had plans for this business, plans that wouldn’t work if the place was taken over by the town as restitution for the traitorous actions of the family, whether past or present.

“So, what do we say?”

“Just keep it vague. They must have snuck in under cover of darkness. We got inside, saw the goblins murdering people, Lonjiku and the rest having battled them valiantly but falling to the overwhelming numbers. Then we came and killed their attackers.”

Rakonia approached, shaking her head. “Won’t talk,” she muttered.

“Maybe magic would succeed where conventional tactics have failed,” Vega offered, laying out the possibility for mental compulsion. Rainbow quickly agreed, but the power she required to accomplish such a thing apparently couldn’t be unleashed until the following day.

It was midafternoon. We looked around at one another, and then decided to set a watch over our prisoner while the rest of the group met with the mayor and took care of other business.

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After closing the secret stairway and locking the door behind us, Rainbow, Zeyara and I sauntered uphill toward the town hall. Laying out the situation to Mayor Deverin, who looked shocked at the event and relieved that we’d dealt with it, we made arrangements for the collection of the corpses, minus Lonjiku’s glass statue, which we had decided to keep for the moment.

I spent the rest of the day meeting with soldiers and walking the rounds, making visible appearances to show that we were taking our duty as semi-legitimate protectors seriously. The men, more town militia than military veterans, responded well, and as I chatted them up I made sure to ask their opinions of the town’s defenses, and what areas needed to be shored up in case of imminent goblin attack. I made a point to insert requests for this or that, for help building a wall or digging a trench or showing volunteers how to wield a spear or a crossbow. All very reasonable and obvious, and for the most part they were compliant, slowly getting used to doing what I asked. It was a habit I intended to cultivate.

Late afternoon, I walked across the bridge spanning the Turandarok river that framed the eastern edge of town, heading up into the cliffs that rose south of the city proper across the cozy harbor. Only a few ships were at dock. Crossing over a stream that fed into the harbor’s placid bay, the trek became more strenuous as the land rose dramatically. The road made its way into a small wooded hill, at the top of which rose the residences of the town elite. The large, elaborate mansions that greeted my eyes were magnificent; the homes of the four founding families of Sandpoint.

I knocked politely at the Valdemar residence, hoping for an audience with the local patriarch, but nobody answered..Annoyingly, I noticed the family crest of the Scarnetti adorning another of the manors, opposite of the Valdemar, in fact. But where the Valdemar estate faced the harbor and Sandpoint, the Scarnetti home faced out into the sea, back towards Magnimar.

Heading further up the clifftop, I snuck a look across the area to get a look at the Kaijitsu manor gleaming proudly along the cliffside, facing the sea and the gradually-setting sun.

As I made my way back to the Rusty Dragon, I smiled to myself. Someone was about to come into a nice little inheritance…

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“So… how you holding up?” It was stupid, but the silence had grown first uncomfortable, and eventually tedious.

Ameiko stared across the room with red-rimmed eyes. “I’ve been better,” she sighed.

Time to put a positive note on the ordeal. “I can only imagine.” I paused, pretending to consider my thoughts. “Think of it this way. We caught the traitor who had opened the gates for the goblins, which unfortunately was your father. Kind of struck me as an asshole,” I commented, realizing too late that it was a bit soon for that. Luckily, the woman was nodding her head, fingers playing with the streak of white that ran through her black hair, framing her face. “As for Suto’s mad alliance with the goblins-”

“Tsuto,” she said.

“Huh?”

“My brother’s name. Tsuto.”

“Ah,” I said agreeably. Sounded the same to me. “Tsuto was a traitor, too, working for the goblins. They called him ‘master’.” I shook my head. Stupid goblins.

“You’ve been right about them all along. Your father, murderous, trecherous bastard that he was, got less than he deserved as reward for his traitorous actions. Every injury and death that occurred that night the goblins attacked Sandpoint is entirely his fault.”

“You’re right,” she murmured, looking tired. I pressed on.

“Your father, patriarch of the family. Your brother. It’s like you said, since your mother died, the Kaijitsu family went to shit. Except for you.” I ticked of a point or two on my fingers. “You’re respected here, people like your place and seem to like you. There’s no need for you to suffer the taint of association that knowledge of your family’s crimes would bring. Let the town think your father died a hero; they need inspiration during this time of need, not more things to be fearful of. Traitors in their midst… It’d be a witch hunt. Your brother should be kept out of it entirely.”

“But it was him,” she murmured, her voice dripping with the pain of betrayal. “Tsuto was the one behind it.” They’d been close, apparently, before the boy had gone off the deep end. She looked like she was willing herself to ask a question. I nodded encouragingly. “What happened to him? Did he… is he-”

“My condolences,” I said, with perhaps too strong a dose of irony. “Let’s just say he will not be returning to town. Permanently.” I let it sink in for a moment. Grief and relief seemed to war across her features. Struggling, I came to a decision. “I’ll be honest with you. He’s dead.” Which of course wasn’t true, not yet at least. But, for all intents and purposes… “For all intents and purposes, he disappeared last time he left and never returned. Sandpoint needs you more than they need to know the truth about your family.”

“But all those people, the workers who were killed… they deserve to know the truth. Their families deserve justice.” Ameiko had a hard glint in her eyes, like she was about to do something meaningless and self-sacrificing.

“They have a measure already,” I assured her. “The goblins are dead. The ones responsible for their murder are dead, too.” I shook my head. “Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.”

She shot me a quizzical look. “What bigger picture? My family is a bunch of traitors-”

“In the grand scheme,” I interrupted, “the goblin attack was only a ruse, your family pawns of whoever is behind all of this. And that person is still out there. And,” I couldn’t help adding, “it was two members of your family that were traitors; the Kaijitsu family is now represented by only one person, and I happen to know she’s pretty loyal and, basically a decent person.”

“Who do you think it is?” she asked, glossing over my revelatory statement.

Fine. I shrugged. “Who knows? Could be that Chopper everyone talks about so much around here.”

Ameiko shook her head. “He was caught years ago, by Sheriff Belor.”

“Well, whoever it is, they’re out there. Making deals with goblins, of all things. Maybe, if you can find the will to carry on, you’d be willing to lend a hand in the defense of the town? Come on, you were a badass adventurer, and your talents speak for themselves. Singing or performing would be great,” I continued, pushing through the hesitation I saw in her eyes, “but it’d be even better if you were seen helping to man the walls or patrol the river, and maybe you could work out something with free refreshments for the sentries. It would help to lift morale and increase the participation rate of the volunteer militia, if only to get a taste of your cooking!”

“But… what do I know about battle, about defending a city?”

I rolled my eyes. “More than just about anyone else in Sandpoint. At least you’ve wielded a weapon in anger before. And it’s not what you know, it’s the attitude you bring to the task. You’re not going to run away at the sight of the enemy, and seeing you stand firm will give others the courage to stand as well. But you’re also smart enough to know what you don’t know, and won’t make stupid mistakes from arrogance or ignorance.”

Finally, she looked a little impressed by my assessment of her character. “You really think they’re going to hit us again?” As if it were the most unthinkable thing in the world.

Patiently, I shrugged. “I’m not sure. But a wise man once said, better safe than sorry.” She looked amused for a moment, lips twitching in a brief smile. “You can have your revenge against both the goblins and the spectre of your father and brother. Do it by protecting the people they wanted to destroy and taking your place as a leader among the town in a way your father could have never thought possible.”

And, just to lay it on thick, I brought up another spectre. “Your mother would be proud of you, Ameiko.” If only she were still here, if only your father hadn’t killed her. Tears glistened in her eyes, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty bringing up someone I knew nothing about to give my point an extra emotional punch.

Finally, she agreed. “It will be like you said. Goblins snuck in, attacked my father and the workers. I’ll have to find out the names of the victims, arrange for compensation for their familiies…”

“And what about-”

“Yes, I’ll help with the defenses as best I can.” She smiled, stretching her arms out above her. “Maybe I can teach some of the local girls how to stick someone with a blade.”

“It comes in handy more often than you’d think,” I agreed.

“I do like the idea of giving out some food to the sentries. Good marketing, if nothing else.” She nodded appreciatively at my suggestion.

I had another. “You look like you could use a bath,” I commented. “Nothing like a long, hot soak to wash away your worries. Take the night off, get your manager friend to run things for a night. People will understand.”

She gave me a frank look. “You look like you could use one as well.” Looking down, I noticed the dried goblin ichor that had encrusted the sleeves of the outfit I wore below my chainmail. Shit, has that been there all day!? It wasn’t just a little spot here or there; great big splotches of rusty-colored blood covered much of my clothing. Damnit!

That explained some of the looks I’d been getting.

The thought gave me an idea. “I guess so. Wanna go together?” I asked innocently.

“Go? Where-”

“Bathe.”

Her look became guarded. “Ah…”

“I thought I heard that girls take baths together all the time in Tian,” I explained. In fact it was the only thing that stuck out in my memory about the place. “Just two girls, no big deal, soaping each oth-”

“No, well, I suppose yes,” she sputtered. Hopefully flustered rather than shocked. “Public baths are a thing there. I’m more Varissian than Tian,” she admitted. “I’ve lived my whole life here, so…”

“Ah, I see. Well, another time then?” I got up to go.

“Definitely,” she said automatically. I flashed her a smile and left.

The Sisterhood of Steel was gathered around what was quickly becoming “the usual” table. I leaned back, feeling smug. We’d slain a fair number of goblins, found that Ameiko’s asshole father had been taken care of, captured her traitorous brother who now awaited further interrogation the following day. We’d discovered a secret passage underneath the Glassworks that practically begged to be explored, and rescued Ameiko, who was suddenly the beneficiary of a large inheritance… most notably the Glassworks and the Kaijitsu Manor outside of town along the cliffs.

It had been an interesting day.

And tomorrow promised to be interesting as well.

View
Runelord Reflections 2 (Day 3)
Hunting, Feasting, Undead Slaying

Day 3 (3.6.15)

The Sisterhood of Steel

The day broke magnificently, the cool autumn breeze giving the town a fresh, invigorating feel. Which was fortunate, since coming up with a name everyone could agree upon had taken long into the night, and I’d consumed perhaps too much of Ameiko’s excellent spirits. After breaking our fast on biscuits and bacon, the Sisterhood of Steel was ready for action.

Coming up with a name, something to symbolize the ad-hoc unit of guardians we were suddenly in the position to represent… it was important. I knew that from my time in Hyperborea, and to a lesser extent Magnimar. A name to catch the interest of those who might be in a position to offer us something. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but the future lay ripe with possibilities after our fortuitously witnessed performance the previous evening. I adamantly refused anything incorporating “flowers” or other girly shit, and Rakonia made it clear the name needed to be pronounceable after some of Vega’s more outlandish suggestions. She had a point; try saying Antianeirai.

The nuances were important; it was, after all, the informal title that people would use to identify us. The Sisterhood of Steel… the name rang with a certain strength, as well as the inherent feeling of camaraderie evoked by the implied nearly-familial relationship between its members. I had become fixated on using mercy in the name, but I had to agree that hearing the Mercykillers were arriving in town might not have the intended awe-inspiring effect.

I’d expected to start the day with a sense of purpose, but yawned and blinked blearily as we stepped out into the streets, feeling uncomfortably full. Damn it, these free breakfasts were starting to get to me. Aside from the full belly, everything felt pretty normal. The sun, well above the rooftops of the flat little city, promised another day of comfortable warmth. But as the cool breeze washed over us, I couldn’t help remembering that winter was coming.

After standing around in the street for a moment, the six of us shrugged shoulders and went off in different directions. As the town awoke and went about its business, I took the opportunity to meet the people as I walked through the streets, exchanging pleasantries and wishing them health after the assault the night before, and hinted at future vengence to those who looked more angry than shocked.. I knew full well that everyone recognized us, it being a small town and us being strangers, armed and sometimes armored. They reacted with the expected gratitude, and I found my spirits rising at the prospects of a friendly populace.

Suddenly, something was whispering in my ear. I jerked my head around, my long hair whipping a man walking nearby right in the eyes. He let out a startled cry I pretended to ignore, searching for the invisible whisperer.

Then I heard it again.

I turned to the man who had a palm pressed to his right eye, looking at me warily. “Did you hear that?” I paused, he looked at me in confusion. The whispering started again. “There! That!”

With one wide, frightful eye, he nodded slowly, his face suddenly pale. So I’m not going crazy, I thought with relief. That hadn’t been the first time I’d heard voices.

“-disturbed the burial ground. Meet us at the cemetery behind the church, I’ll keep Abstalar from going in.” I frowned, taking a minute to remember Abstalar Zantus was the High Priest of Sandpoint, and had led the dedication ceremonies the the day before.

I looked around, seeing the church rise up just down the road a few hundred feet. The town wasn’t that big. I made my way there, striding purposefully as I saw a couple other figures approach the area.

The whispering voice turned out to have been Vega, who waved at us through the wrought iron gate. Her arcane magics had been mainly expressed with bolts of force she’d hurled unerringly at her foes, and although she called herself an arcanist rather than a wizard or sorcerer, the distinction, I confess, was lost on me. “Over here,” she called out in her real voice, and we entered the church grounds, heading towards the rows of stone marking the town’s dead.

At the edge of the graveyard, a small stone building stood, worn but looking well-made. Moss clung to the rough stonework, and a pair of double doors lay slightly ajar, a black slice of the room’s shadowed interior revealed.

“What-” I started, but Rainbow made a shushing noise, holding up her hand as she chanted under her breath. Her eyes narrowed in recognition.

“I can sense the taint of undeath in there,” she confirmed. I stared, then nodded in appreciation. Undead creatures, within a tomb, inside a cemetery… who would have thought?

“It was the former High Priest’s tomb,” Vega explained quietly, “and Abstalar found it open this morning. I thought I should get in touch with you, first.”

“How did he die?” Zeyara asked suddenly.

Vega appeared to think about it for a moment. “He was slain when the church burned down.”

“Five years ago, during the time of trouble,” I added unnecessarily, feeling the urge to contribute and wanting to prove I was following along..

“Do we know how the church burned down?” the fetchling inquired, glancing around. I shrugged, not remembering.

“Maybe we could continue this discussion later,” Rainbow chided, stepping up to the doorway she’d not taken her eyes off. Vega spoke a few words and with a gesture the doors parted fully. Eerily, six yellow-white skeletons stood, the hollow pits of their eyes seeming to stare at us with evil intent. I’d never seen true necromancy before, and the early afternoon suddenly felt quite cold, sending a shiver down my back. Rainbow stepped forward into the darkness towards them until I grabbed her shoulder, holding her back. “Wait-” I cautioned, worried about the diminutive woman being cut down by a swarm of undead.

“It’s fine,” the waist-high shaman assured, and unleashed a wave of energy, pulsing into the room. I watched as the coruscating light washed over the creatures inside the dim crypt, the skeletal bodies falling apart before my eyes. Zeyara, Skalmold and Rakonia entered to the sound of crushing bone, ending with the unmistakable crunching sound of axe sinking into bone. From the scattered remains that greeted us, the physical method was no less effective.

So much for the undead menace.

“It can’t be!” a familiar voice shouted from the doorway, reminding me of long-winded speeches and boring, incessant droning.

We turned to the priest, explaining that these were animated dead and that we were most certainly not desecrating the hallowed dead of the town, but he was staring at the central sarcophagus in shock and horror. I turned, noting how its heavy stone lid had been pulled back, and looking within was greeted by the sight of nothing.

“He’s gone! Ezakien Tobyn is gone!”

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I half listened as the more inquisitive members of the group grilled Abstalar. Ezakien had been the former High Priest who’d died five years back. He’d adopted a young aasimar, some girl who’d had celestial blood somewhere in her ancestry. Demanding efreeti in one’s bloodline could be annoying enough; I can’t imagine what having a nosy angel as a relative must be like.

The five-year-dead High Priest was nowhere to be found; his skeleton either taken or turned into one of the monstrosities that had waited within the tomb. Abstalar suspected it was the former, some kind of unholy desecration of the good man’s final resting place.

Shaken, the current HIgh Priest of Sandpoint took his leave, heading back towards the newly consecrated church, bidding us to inform the sheriff of what we’d found.

I frowned as the others quickly picked up on the idea, and soon we were making our way towards the constabulary. Law enforcement could be a pain in the ass, but at the moment we were on the up and up, with the added bonus of the previous evening’s heroics to bolster his opinion of us. If unable to avoid such figures, I preferred to befriend them, as friendship went a long way towards turning a blind eye to lesser offenses.

Sheriff Belor Hemlock was an imposing man, his towering frame clad in well-worn boiled leather armor, a mark of office displayed from a cord hanging around his neck. He watched us with what looked like unfriendly suspicion, but what I soon realized was his only expression, a kind of intense sternness. “You’re saying that the goblin assault was in fact a diversion, distracting us from the mysterious desecration of a prominent citizen’s grave?”

“Pretty much. And don’t forget the use of necromancy amongst the crimes,” Rakonia reminded helpfully. If possible, the sheriff’s eyes grew even grimmer. At the news, not the dwarf’s odd, closely-shorn hair. The unkempt ranger had spent some time in the area, and the two had a working relationship from her days scouting the countryside.

A brief discussion led to the conclusion to bring the news further up the social ladder, this time to the mayor herself.

“What’s her name again?” I asked.

I got a dirty look from the otherwise stern-faced lawman. “Mayor Deverin. Mayor Kendra Deverin.”

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“Your town is a lot more exciting that I had been led to believe. It’s been an interesting visit so far.”

The mayor looked slightly uncomfortable. “Yes, usually, it’s a very quiet place.”

I nodded. “That’s what we keep hearing…” Smiling at her slightly flustered expression, I continued, trying to get to the point without sounding too mercenary. “As it happens, the Sisterhood of Steel,” I paused, waving an arm to encompass my companions, “is looking for a place to make themselves useful.” Make ourselves useful: my favorite euphemism for mercenary work, fighting for payment.

“Ah. Well. We’ll have to see what the future holds. For the time being…” and she launched into her pitch about helping out and getting on friendly terms with the townsfolk as prerequisites for any future association.

Rakonia ticked off several points regarding the goblins, spicing it up with speculation based on her previous encounters with the foe. Her passionate hatred of the things was a selling point.

As I watched Mayor Deverin’s eyes widen incredulously at the frothing dwarf’s ever-more-violent descriptions of what she wanted to do to the green-skinned monsters, Sheriff Belor interrupted with an uncomfortably fake cough. “Yes, well, seeing as how the little brutes are working together, this represents a direct threat to the city. With the numbers of those tribes, united, Sandpoint is in serious danger.” He stared at the mayor grimly. “I need to get to Magnimar, get a detachment of guards to help secure the city. Until this menace is dealt with…” He shook his head slowly.

“What happened last night could happen again,” the mayor finished, brow creased with worry.

“Probably worse,” I mentioned, drawing everyone’s gaze. “Since this attack was clearly just a diversion.” I knew that because others had pointed that out earlier. “And whoever was behind it, well, they got what they wanted,” I continued, drawing a baleful look from the sheriff, “so at least part of their nefarious plan is well on its way to fruition.”

In the silence that followed, Zeyara stepped in. “It is clear that the goblin tribes need to be dealt with, as well as their human or humanoid ally,” she proclaimed cooly, the most obvious thing in the world.

“Yes, we would offer a sizeable reward for the destruction of the enemy goblin tribes-”

“What about individual goblins? Can we work out some, I don’t know, bounty or something?” I asked, struck by the extreme justice of my idea.

Kendra Dreven’s crafty eyes narrowed in surprise. “Why yes, now that you mention it, there is a bounty on goblins. Belor-” she began, shooting the sheriff an inquiring glance.

“Five gold for a pair of ears.”

“Ears?” Rainbow asked, mildly shocked.

“Pair?” I asked, disheartened. Each would have been better.

Zeyara causally withdrew a long string from underneath her shirt, dozens of small, pointy ears sewn into a rather disturbing necklace. But instead of seeing savage war trophies, I was looking at pure, gleaming gold, and that changes one’s perspective on the sight of severed body parts. When she held it out to the mayor, Kendra gave her a queasy shake of her head, pointing instead at the sheriff. Dutifully, the powerful man accepted the grisly trophies with admirable stoicism.

Mayor Deverin seemed to come to a decision, her face resuming its mildly friendly expression. “With Belor gone-” It took me a second to remember Belor was Sheriff Hemlock, “-the town will be without its strongest protector.” The sheriff’s frown, if anything, increased in its seriousness at the praise, his apparent equivalent to blushing. “Sandpoint would be most grateful to you if you’d lend us your talents while the sheriff brings back the soldiers.”

I frowned at the mention of lend, but the others were quick to assure the mayor that of course we’d help the town out. Belor Hemlock left immediately for the metropolis of Magnimar, the largest city in hundreds of miles, along the coastline sixty miles south of Sandpoint.

Where I’d just come from, actually.

There were advantages, I thought to myself, as the mayor called for certain documents to be drawn up, affixing her seal to orders giving us temporary entry into the Sandpoint milita. Someone started to ask about obtaining some official sanction to give orders and command the local troops, but I hastily waved the idea away. That wasn’t how we were going to get people to do what we wanted.

But we would get them to do what we want. Of that, I had little doubt.

With an objective that kept us in town for the near future, we left Mayor Deverin’s office with a modest sack of gold for our performance the day before, along with a sizeable bounty collected on goblin ears.

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Hitting the streets again, I set to work convincing everyone we should take Aldern Foxglove up on his offer of a boar hunt in the Tickwood Forest, seeing as how we were about to become confined to town for the foreseeable future on guard duty.

It was easier than I’d anticipated. Even Vega decided to come along, a large point in favor of the idea being the promise of riding horses Aldern had mentioned the group of us. Horses that I fully intended for us to keep. Travel was much more pleasant atop a horse than trudging along the road. Once your thighs get use to it, anyway. They do need a good deal of food, but seeing as how the horse carries its food, your food, and you yourself… overall its a pretty good deal.

Finding ourselves near the Feathered Serpent, a shop specializing in magical items, we picked up a wand that promised healing properties. After the deadly melee of the goblin assault, we’d pooled our money to purchase something to keep us alive. Rainbow held on to the wand, looking more like a miniature walking stick in her tiny hands.

We made our way back to the Rusty Dragon Inn, where Aldern was staying while in town. Ameiko would be getting the place ready for the afternoon crowds when we arrived, and I was determined to sidled up to her with a proposition.

However, we were greeted with the sounds of raised voices. Shouting, even. It was in a strange, sing-song language nobody understood but Vega recognizes as Tian.

The place that Ameiko Kijitsu’s family was supposedly from.

We burst through the front doors into a full on family fight. An aging man shook his fist at a furious-looking Ameiko, shouting incomprehensibly. Ameiko, shaking her head angrily to clear it of the white-streaked bangs, set aside the food she’d been preparing and very carefully laid down the knife she’d been using to chop vegetables.

The old man said something else, his voice cutting even across the language boundary. I saw Ameiko’s face go pale, and her assistant bowed her head in apparent shock. The man stood his ground, a look that almost dared her to do something in response.

With a shout of fury, Ameiko lashed out, the skillet in her hand ringing a glancing blow off her father’s skull. The man staggered backwards, dazed, and I saw the look of regret enter the woman’s expression, and couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit disappointed.

“Is there a problem here, Ameiko?” I asked sweetly, letting my fierce grin directed at the man speak for itself. “Is this guy bothering you?” I knew who he was, but sometimes it makes sense to play dumb.

“I-” she began, stopping to collect her thoughts.

The old man used the silence to address us. “Not your business!” he roared. “You go back, where you come from, stay out of our town. This trouble come with you!”

“Now wait a sec,” I said, annoyed. “We helped save your butts from the goblin raiders that were otherwise rampaging through your town last night.”

“I go now.” Frowning, the old man turned to leave, muttering to himself. I looked inquiringly at Ameiko, a raised eyebrow as if to say “Should we stop him?”

Vega followed the man into the street, calling out something along the lines of “And don’t come back!”

Ameiko disappeared into the kitchen, shoulders shaking with emotion, and I waited a minute before heading back to comfort her in the best way I could think of.

“We’d like you to make us some food for the road,” I explained, ticking off the compliments one by one. “You’re cooking is the best in town. You’re an adventurer yourself so you know what it’s like out there, what to make and how to make it last on the journey…” I could see her warming up to the idea, and let the thought marinate over some early autumn cider.

“I can make you a couple weeks worth of trail rations, and only for, say, half price…” she paused, perhaps seeing the wounded look in my eye. “Screw it, free of charge,” she stated, and I grinned widely at her generosity. I started to thank her, but she was already planning out the meals in her head, and disappeared into the kitchen without another word.

The others had found Aldern Foxglove, and the dandy, a term I don’t use lightly, was positively beaming at the attention. His grin got even wider as I sat down at the table beside him. “So, Aldern, we’ve decided to take you up on your generous offer.”

“You have?” he asked, slightly breathless and utterly delighted. I almost winced at his eagerness.

“Yes, it sounds like it would be a great time. I haven’t been hunting around here.”

“I have-” Rakonia began, no doubt ready to burst into another one of her how-I-killed-a-certain-animal-then-ate-it stories.

“There was mention of horses,” Zeyara interrupted slyly.

“For boar hunting,” I added helpfully.

“Oh, yes, of course!” the man agreed, adjusting his ridiculously frilled collar. “One simply cannot hunt boar without the proper equipment, a horse being an essential part.” He nodded, trying to look knowledgeable.

I smiled, but inwardly I’d begun to have my doubts. These doubts were amplified into concerns upon really listening to the name of the forest that we were entering: the Tickwood.

As we left, I glanced back at Ameiko. Daddy issues. Hmm.

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A short shopping spree followed. Six riding horses were acquired, or rather five and a pony for Rainbow. Aldern went out of his way to be generous, and others were quick to take him up on his offer to equip us for the hunt.

“I’d like a bow,” Rakonia said.

“Er, well, yes, that could be arranged…”

“A composite bow?”

“Er, I suppose-”

“Masterwork?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a great deal of, um, funds on hand. This was more of a clear-my-head trip; most of what I had was given in donation to the new church. The rest, to you, and to pay for the horses. Perhaps, if you were to visit me in Magnimar…”

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Two hours later and we had to abandon the horses.

The animals were sound of body and hoof, but aside from that little could be said of their merits. They were certainly not the pristine and beautifully muscled creatures I’d seen on occasion during my years in Hyperborea, when the knights would ride through on the way to one of their joint exercises with the centaur cavalry.

The problem was the forest. Tickwood sounded disturbingly specific about its menace, and as we approached Aldern gave us the details. It was, indeed, host to an infestation of giant, blood-sucking ticks. “But not to worry, they haven’t been a problem for years,” he assured us offhandedly. Even hundreds of yards away I was already scanning the treetops for signs of humungous bugs, my flesh crawling at the thought.

The forest was old, the trees large and spaced well apart from one another, but between them undergrowth made the way difficult for horses. After a few minutes blustering through the woods, we turned back and hobbled our mounts well beyond the edge of the trees. Silently, I hoped that when we returned they wouldn’t have become a meal for giant ticks. Or wolves. Or goblins…

The forest was dim, light dappling across the soft loam of its floor as we crept through, snaking our way past brambles and especially dense thickets of plantlife. I quickly felt lost, and concentrated solely on keeping an eye on at least one of the others at all times, wishing I’d brought my precious compass along. Until I remembered the ticks with a burst of fear and glanced up, expecting the worst.

Nothing dropped down on my face.

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An hour that felt more like four later, Rakonia paused ahead of us. Rainbow, hesitant to partake in the taking of an animal life, had nevertheless been caught up in the thrill of the hunt, and waved us on excitedly. Ahead, rooting through an exposed patch of muddy earth, a pair of large, bristly pigs snuffled and grunted.

Vega’s voice whispered in our ears. “They’re eating truffles!”

Listening to their contented grunting, I noticed, first, the size of the creatures. Quite large; pigs were large, too, but pigs didn’t have the second thing I noticed. The short, curved tusks that sprouted from their mouths, curling up and away out of their lower jaws, looked deadly even at this distance.

I had the stupid goblin bow in my hand, thinking of taking down one of the pigs at a distance. A hundred feet away, the grunting suddenly stopped, and I drew as my companions took aim, loosing a ragged volley of bolts and arrows at the beasts, none of which landed on target.

Enraged, the boars stood up and faced us as I dropped my bow and picked up the naginata, seeing others continue to shoot, except for Skalmold, who advanced further than me but kept her temper and resisted the urge to rush headlong at the beasts.

The first of the pigs rushed forward, straight at the blonde barbarian. Skalmold swung the great hammer that was her weapon of choice, dubbed an Earthbreaker. The beast avoided the blow, and lashed out violently with its razor-sharp tusks, and I watched with horror as the hardened warrior fell backwards, holding the ruins of her stomach in with one arm.

Moving forward, I speared the boar that had felled Skalmold, allowing Zeyara the opportunity to stab it from behind. Rakonia fended off the other beast that lashed out at the dwarf in a frenzy, Vega unleashing bolts into the creature at close range. Rainbow rushed in, healing the wounded with a wave of life-giving energy, and the remaining boar died abruptly from a terminal case of axe-through-the-skull.

With varying degrees of shakiness, we let out sighs of relief, using the new wand we’d purchased with our profits from the goblin assault to heal the paler-than-usual Skalmold. “Boars put up quite a fight,” someone commented.

“If that’s the worst these woods have to throw at us-” I began cockily, before an icy chill of dread ran down my spine. I looked up, into the canopy above.

Immense, chitinous monstrosities scrabbled in the treetops, gathering themselves as if to leap.

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“Above us!”

“Ticks!”

“They’re huge!”

“Disgusting!”

Everyone reacted instantly to the warning, each in a distinctly different way as the five horrific creatures began to move. Vega had been off on her own investigating the site for truffles, but after seeing one of the enormous monsters directly above her, hastened back to the group.

One of the ticks scuttled down a tree directly above the Aldern, the gawping nobleman standing there uselessly as the monstrosities advanced. As large as a good-sized dog, the creature’s movement was alien and unnerving, its spindly limbs and terrible . “Stay behind me!” I warned, slicing into the approaching creature as it came around the thick trunk, shifting back to interpose myself between him and the next closest.

Vega was hurtling magical energy bolts, Rakonia was slashing viciously with her axe, but it was Skalmold who was making the best of things, laying about with her hammer and smashing the hard-shelled creatures as if swatting flies.

I lashed out at the tick closest to me and the nobleman, the blade turned aside by the creature’s hard exoskeleton. Panicking, I felt the creature latch on, digging in to my shoulder with its horrid mouth, all serrations and barbs. I wrestled against its clamboring limbs, feeling it beginning to drain the blood from my limb with a rising sense of panic. Blasts of magical energy slammed into the monstrosity, and with gasping breaths I hurled the inert corpse away from me with disgust, examining my arm only for an instant before looking away.

Skalmold was cleaning the last of the creatures’ ichor off of the face of her great hammer, and Rainbow once again used her connections to the spirit world to rejuvenate the flesh of her allies. The flesh of my arm reknit, but the memory remained.

Scanning the canopy above us revealed no more imminent threats, and we looked at one another for a moment before Aldern broke the silence.

“That was amazing…” he breathed. He looked at me with unmistakable adoration. “You saved me.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Now, what to do about these boar?”

His eyes widened in surprise, recalling the purpose of our being here in the first place. “Of course! Well, I suppose we… hmm. I’ve always had serv-, er, experts, to do this kind of thing for me.” I studied him carefully, hoping for his sake he hadn’t been implying we were his servants. More like babysitters. Or bodyguards-

“First thing is to bleed ‘em,” stated Rakonia bluntly, and went about putting word into deed. The rest of us watched, some sickly fascinated, others merely sickened or fascinated. I watched with amazement as the fluid gushed out of the creature’s slit throat, dangling from the ropes that suspended it head-down from an immense branch overhead. Mostly, though, I was curious about the skinning. Vega recruited Zeyara to hunt for truffles, and with some friendly help the group soon had a large quantity of the sought-after mushrooms.

Luckily, nothing was drawn to the smell of all the blood, or if it was it stayed out of sight. Before the creatures were fully drained, it was decided we should make haste out of the forest as soon as the creatures’ guts had been carefully ripped out and tossed aside. Nobody was eager to encounter any more giant insectile blood-suckers. I still felt drained, and the image of those terrible jaws was something I feared would haunt my nightmares for days to come.

We dragged the carcasses back to the edge of the wood, finding our horses right where we’d left them, unharmed and unstolen. Skinning the boars was messier than I’d thought, and required lots of patience and effort: apparently skin didn’t just rip off nicely like the rind of an orange. More like an apple; you have to cut it out.

Aldern Foxglove kept the two boar-heads as trophies, particularly enamored with the one split open by Rakonia’s waraxe.

“So, Lord Foxglove, now seems the right time to discuss the bodyguard duties we’ve been performing for you all afternoon.” Zeyara’s alien yellow-green eyes stared at the nobleman craftily.

He looked at her, again with that startled expression, before turning to me for some reason. I shrugged. “It was more like dangerous work than the leisurely hunting trip you made it out to be.”

“Oh… If I in any way misled you,” he began with an earnest expression, pausing to look at the others. “Any of you, you have my utmost apologies. I was told the ticks were no longer a problem-”

“Who told you that?” demanded Zeyara.

“Uh, a man, at the tavern. He was telling me… told me about… hmm. He was rather into his cups, come to think of it-”

“We appreciate your generosity,” I interrupted. “The horses and the food are most welcome.” I paused, making it clear I was waiting for him to acknowledge my graciousness.

“The pleasure is-” he began belatedly, but I had already started talking again.

“The Sisterhood of Steel is there for their friends. I hope you’ll remember us, in the future. We’re on the lookout now for an organization, or possibly a family, to partner with. If you happen to know of anyone willing to risk a small investment for a potentially great reward, I’d be very, very grateful if you’d let us know.”

I eyed the others, particularly Rakonia, and shook my head once. Aldern stuttered for a few moments. “I, that is, it is possible that I could be of some service to you ladies,” he stated in a rush, eyes locked on me. It was starting to get uncomfortable.

It was time to get back to Sandpoint. “We’ll work something out. I’m sure we’ll be in touch “ He gave me a lopsided grin when I said that. “You sure you don’t need an escort?” I asked for the third time, not quite trusting his judgement.

Aldern Foxglove turned in his saddle, viewing the road that stretched out along the coast ahead of him. “Positive. Thanks for all the help. For saving me and Puddles last night.” He grinned, pulling his small dog out from its riding sack where it has spent most of the day. The dog was surprisingly well-behaved and above all silent, and therefore its presence was ignorable and unnecessary to mention. Until now. “And the trophies!” he exclaimed, patting the sacks hanging from his steed.

We bid farewell to the strange, seemingly inept and possibly enamored nobleman, turning our newly acquired horses back to town.

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As the sun set, the Rusty Dragon sprang into life. Guests from across the town of Sandpoint began to arrive, some looking eager, others apprehensive until their eyes fell upon what awaited inside.

A fire blazed merrily in the large hearth that lay to our backs, the windows thrown open to the refreshing evening winds off the ocean. The hundreds of pounds of wild pork that we’d provided had incited a frenzy of preparation once we informed Ameiko of our intention.

Invitations were sent out to all of the people of the city who’d lost relatives or loved ones in the goblin attack, as well as those injured or the rare few who had acted with mention-worthy valor. Once everyone had arrived and the heaping plates of various slices of pig were placed upon the tables, we took turns addressing the crowd.

“To friends!”

“To the fallen!”

“To REVENGE against those who have wronged us!”

By the third toast, everyone had loosened up and I spent the next hour flitting from table to table and group to group, sharing a few moments with each. You never knew who’d turn out to be important at some point in the future.

Early on, we received a message that the town’s premier scout had returned to town.

“Shelay-who?” I asked.

“Shelalu Andosana. The sheriff mentioned her, said she might-”

The pleasant buzzing in my ears droned out the rest, and we excused ourselves to meet with the illustrious ranger. Other than the fact she was an elf, I remember little else about her, mostly information that Sheriff Belor had already given us. There was some strange eye contact between the elven scout and Zeyara, but aside from that the trip was wasted.

Getting back to the inn, I began making up for lost time. Two hours after the dinner began, half of the room emptied, but the volume and drinking had not diminished significantly, at least from what I could tell. I was playing a game that involved throwing small knives at a series of concentric circles on the wall, and was finally confident I’d made the perfect toss when something rudely jerked at my arm.

“The Iss woman is here,” Zeyara mentioned. I regarded her blankly, mid-chew. “She’s the one we visited last night. With the husband who angrily called her away.” Now I remembered. Carefully, I swallowed.

“Whose son kept staring at you like he’s in love with you,” Rakonia added helpfully.

“He’s in love with Rainbow, if anyone. More his size, anyway.” I ignored Rainbow’s offended look. “Where is she?” I asked pointlessly, realizing that the sobbing sound that I’d become aware of had drawn everyone else’s attention. I followed their eyes to Megan Iss who was looking around the room with equal measures of despair and panic, if you can imagine such a thing.

As we approached, her eyes lit up with manic intensity, begging us between excruciatingly frequent sobs and gasps. Her story was garbled, but involved some kind of bad girl that her husband had disappeared with. Not her son, who we’d met, nor her young daughter, both of whom were presumably still in the house. Which, according to her, meant danger.

It sounded like rambling, honestly, but we decided to check it out in an abundance of caution.

Approaching her house, the woman stopped. “No further, I can’t… can’t go back-”

“Alright, alright,” I said patronizingly, hands raised and palms out in the universal ‘calm down!’ signal. Frustratingly, the woman edged backward and fled, leaving me suspicious.

“Uh, the door’s locked.”

I groaned. Glancing around, people were beginning to stare, mostly thanks to Megan’s overly-dramatic exit. Not the ideal time for Zeyara to whip out her lockpicking tools. Rakonia headed back towards the inn, trailing after the matriarch of the Iss family. One who, we hoped, had a key.

Several awkward and unpleasant minutes of waiting later, the dwarf returned bearing the only thing that made the delay worth it. The door clicked open, and we tiptoed inside, not silent but trying not to be too obvious, at least.

Legs poked out from underneath a table; approaching, we discovered the unmoving form of her son, whose name escapes me to this day. A quick examination by Rainbow revealed the boy to be near death, an apparent victim of multiple bites across his legs and thighs. Rakonia identified the wounds, apparently, because she said “Those were made by a fox.”

“Werefox!” Skalmold whispered with superstitious dread, her long blond hair seeming to bristle at the notion of moon-touched beasts. I myself contemplated an old story I’d heard regarding something called a kitsune, and idly wondered if there was a connection between such a creature and the exotic Kaijitsu family from a far away land…

Rakonia and Rainbow contemplated what to do with the boy, but time was of the essence so I tossed a tablecloth on top of him and beckoned the others onward.

In a bedroom upstairs, we found the patriarch of the Iss family. Dead. His body looked to have been bitten hundreds of times, great chunks of flesh missing from the corpse, some of which lay scattered about the bed on which he lay.

A soft voice, possibly a giggle, penetrated the thin walls of the room. Carefully, we crept back into the hallway and up a steep flight of stairs that no doubt led to the attic. My fiery gaze can see even in complete darkness, so I confidently ascended the stairs with Zeyara, Rakonia and Skalmold into the blackness above.

What I saw was a little girl, talking quietly to herself, sitting beside some small objects, possibly toys. Alone, in the dark. It was eerie. The others barely had time to clear the stairs when a horrific feeling of misery swept across me, a sorrow and loss so profound that I’d not felt its like since my family-caravan’s untimely demise.

The others, too, registered shock, especially the blonde barbarian who, unlike the fetchling or dwarf, couldn’t see in the dark. A small, childlike shape seemed for form out of the deepest recesses of the room, it’s hideous shape seen only for a moment before it was hurtling toward us.

Wrestling the sadness that gripped me into something more like anger, with slashing fury my blade cut sweeping arcs through the air. Backed up by the hammering blows of Skalmold, Zeyara’s darting sword and the chopping axe of Rakonia, we assaulted the foul creature. Once it was within reach, the unnaturalness of the creature became even more evident; it’s head appeared to be nothing more than the skull of a fox.

A large fox, but still. I sighed, wondering what it would be like to meet a kitsune. Maybe some day…

Our blows were deftly avoided or simply rang of the creature’s undead form harmlessly. Vega and Rainbow appeared at the stairs, and the arcanist unleashed some kind of magical attack on the creature. “Attack it now!” she encouraged, and the battle turned as a few solid blows finally connected. Snarling, if a creature without lips or the ability to breath can be said to snarl, the thing which we later identified as an Attic Whisperer took off running, straight towards the human and halfling at the rear by the stairs.

Three separate weapons intercepted them, near-simultaneous hits from a massive axe, a huge hammer, and my razor-edged naginata cut and smashed the thing to pieces. Literally.

The Attic Whisperer’s painful wandering and eternal torment were ended. Unfortunately, the little Iss girl seemed to wake up out of her fugue and began screaming hysterically.

I’ve heard it’s bad to violently shake kids, so instead I picked her up and we left the house, Rakonia and Skalmold retrieving the girl’s unconscious and possibly dead brother on the way. Luckily for him, he had survived thanks to Rainbow’s tender mercies, and we brought both kids back to their mother, Megan.

After assuring the Iss family that the menace was dead, we informed them of the demise of their father, or husband in Megan’s case. They took it surprisingly hard. The man hadn’t made much of an impression, honestly.

I quickly grew weary of the tears and thankful sobbing. Bidding everyone a more peaceful evening, I headed off to bed.

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Rememberances (Days 1-3)
Rainbow's reflections

Rainbow, Halfling Shaman.

During the first battle I remember casting a sleep spell and watching as the rest of the group deftly handled the five remaining goblins. I healed our wounded party members and some townsfolk after that one, and suddenly there were more of the nasty creatures coming at us.

This time I cast an entanglement spell that worked on most of the creatures but did nothing to stop the leaders, who appeared to be bards or something. Those guys had some sort of magical ability, I can’t recall just what it was but we managed to take them out fairly quickly. With the aid of the town priest, I healed the party and more injured towns folk.

By the time the healing was dealt, we were set upon by more goblins… but this time they had goblin dogs. I was all out of spells and watched as some of you went down. I managed to hit a couple of the creatures with some crossbow bolts but knew my real worth was in keeping the party healthy. So I got as close as I could and did some channel healing. Thankfully we managed to take the rest of the little fuckers out and helped save Sandpoint.

That night we rested up and decided that on the following day we would go goblin hunting. The next morning Vega got up early and while Rakonia finally gulped down the slime water for a gold piece, Vega met with the priest who told her he heard noises coming from inside a crypt. We decided to hold off on the goblin hunting and investigated the sounds in the burial site.
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The Spirit of life flows through me, allowing me to spontaneously detect the presence of undead, which I did outside the crypt. Sure enough I could sense some weak undead auras just behind the door. I think it was Rakonia (but it might have been Skalmold) who opened the door. Either way, once the small stone chamber was exposed, I channeled the holy energy and a bunch of the previously deceased went down. The fighters quickly dispatched the remaining skeletons and once again we proved that a woman can do twice what any man can hope to accomplish.

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