Rise of the Runelords

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.”

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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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