Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quasi-Zombie Jamboree

As we made our way back to Winterhaven in the orange glow of the setting sun, I reviewed our situation.

We had found Bolgar and sent him back home, which was good. We had found a mysterious mirror, which was, ummm, mysterious. We had defeated the kobolds and slain an orc, which was good. We had discovered a plot to eat the inhabitants of Winterhaven, which was good. Well, it was good that we discovered the plot, not so good that people were going to be eaten. I’m firmly against the eating of people, just in case anyone was wondering. Not that I campaign against it, but I would certainly not vote for any elected official where cannibalism was on their platform.

Now the trick was to stop the wanton consumption of Winterhaven’s residents. We didn’t have much to go on other than the vague mention of a spy in Irontooth’s note from Kalarel. Our original consensus was to confront the surly elf, Ninaran, since it seemed impossible that someone that grumpy wasn’t up to SOMETHING. But we needed to look at all of our options. Who else could be involved in this? I ran through the possible suspects in my head.

Sylvana Wrafton? Seemed unlikely. Her business thrived on more patrons visiting her inn, so I imagine that having people get eaten would drive profits down. I crossed her off my list.

Eilian? I don’t know what his motivation would be, other than money, but he did know the town better than anyone else. He could be a valuable informant to anyone attempting an attack on Winterhaven. I kept him on my suspect list.

Valthrun? Based on his scholarly demeanor, he seemed the most inclined to be involved in something arcane, and his interest in the mirror seemed genuine. It was possible he was helping to engineer some crazy magic ritual. I couldn’t eliminate him from suspicion either.

Bairwin? Like Sylvana, it seemed inconsistent that someone who ran a general store would aid in something that resulted in fewer customers. But maybe he was getting business from this Kalarel fellow. It’s possible that he was promised something in return for his cooperation. Couldn’t rule him out.

Mayor/Lord/His Highness Padraig? This had some possibilities. He seemed rather obsessed with power, based on his overwhelming pride in the relatively obscure town that he presided over. If someone (or someTHING) had promised that Winterhaven would be the new epicenter of power in the region, I could see Padraig helping out Kalarel. Another prime suspect.

My brain started careening helplessly through other possibilities. Well, other than Sylvana, who wasn’t on my list? The flower vendor, Delphina? Maybe she was secretly growing poisonous herbs for Kalarel! The guards at Padraig’s manor? They could be disgruntled from working for that blowhard “lord” for so long and now were planning a coup! The town coroner? He would have access to lots of corpses and could be providing the bodies for some huge undead resurrection festival! The town poopsmith?!?! He would...


I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of Lotheryn’s voice.

“What? Huh?” I stammered as I regained my bearings. I had been so wrapped up in my paranoid mental witch hunt that I hadn’t even noticed the druid walking next to me.

“I heard you muttering back here, so I thought I would see if you were well,” she said, a look of concern on her face. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Who, or what, exactly, is a ‘poopsmith’?”

Unable to help myself, I grinned sheepishly. “It’s actually a funny character from a book my mother would read to me and my sister when we were children. The Poopsmith and another character called the King of Town would do silly things. I remember the first time I read that book to my sister; I tried to give the characters funny voices and Aralee just laughed and laughed. She loved those stories…” My grin faded. I quickly looked up at the trees, trying to steel my heart against the flood of emotions that always washed over me when I thought of Aralee. I was silent for a moment, waiting to speak until I knew my voice wouldn’t quaver. Finally I continued, “I don’t know why that name came into my head just now. I was considering candidates for the spy and my mind went a little out of control. I know Ninaran is the prime suspect, but it could be anyone, Lotheryn.”

“I know. We must not be too quick to judge, lest we inflict some injustice on an innocent person. We must also be very cautious,” she warned. That was certainly the truth.

Just before we got back to town, we all agreed that we would not mention the note or anything about our knowledge of a rift or a spy until we were certain we knew who was involved in the plot. That approach would severely limit our ability to get answers, but we couldn’t afford to tip off the infiltrator.

It was early evening by the time we got onto Winterhaven’s main street. The vendors were closing down their shops, but there were a good amount of people just milling about - more than usual. There was something bothering me about the way they were acting. At this time of day, people did not just loiter about on the street; most would be making their way either to their home or to a drinking establishment of some sort. But these people were just aimlessly wandering like confused zombies. Blank, dismal stares greeted us whenever we made eye contact with one of them. The air around me was a heavy, oppressive weight on my shoulders; whether that was a result of moisture in the air or this city-wide funk that had consumed Winterhaven’s populace, I couldn’t say.

“Their eyes are so dead,” whispered Alassë as she looked around nervously. Sariel nodded silently, her lighthearted nature drowned in the sea of lifelessness. There were several people who didn’t appear to have succumbed to this weird phenomenon, but these were mostly hurrying on their way home, keeping their eyes focused squarely on the road in front of them so as to avoid being haunted by the stares of the passersby.

Finally, I pulled one of the quasi-zombies aside. “What’s going on with everyone? Are you alright?”

“I…don’t know. Feel…strange. There’s this fog…”said the man in flat tone. I was unnerved by the way he stared right through me, not seeming to even see my face two feet away from his. Without another word he turned away and meandered off, joining the others.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Alassë asked, continuing to look concerned.

I looked at Sariel, who just shrugged. Apparently Garl hadn’t been as forthcoming with information recently.

“Well,” I said, “There’s an old saying. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get drunk.’ Or something like that.”

Lotheryn just rolled her eyes as Alassë scowled at me. “That is NOT a solution. What we need is to get some clerics in here, do some serious prayer vigils, obtain some holy water…”

“I’m exaggerating!” I interrupted before the half elf could wax theological about Torm’s cleansing rituals. “But we really should go to the inn and talk to Sylvana Wrafton. Maybe she’ll have some information for us.” I began to move in that direction. Alassë was still frowning but she followed along. Holy water, I thought, shaking my head. What are we going to do, bathe them?

Unfortunately, Sylvana was about as much help as the brain-dead guy we’d talked to earlier. She was clearly suffering less from the illness that affected the others, but she was in no mood to banter. The tavern was empty as we walked in, and Sylvana gave us an angry glance by means of greeting. We got the full brunt of her frustration when we asked what was going on.

“Whaddya mean, ‘what’s goin’ on’? I’m sure I’ve no idea!” she said in an icy tone. “Alls I know is that bis’nis been in the privy since y’all was in here a couple days ago. You wanna know ‘what’s goin’ on’?” This last question was laced with biting sarcasm.

She continued, “Go talk to one of them meatheads walkin’ round outside if y’all want ta know. Now if you’ll ‘scuse me, I’ve some cleanin’ ta do and I ain’t feelin’ quite right myself.”

We left in a hurry. I muttered a comment about it being Sylvana’s “time of the month,” but that was met with more glares, this time from my female companions. Malak would have appreciated that joke.

Our next plan was to check out Bairwin’s Grande Shoppe. We got only slightly more information there than we had at Wrafton’s Inn. When we arrived, we found Eilian and Bairwin talking in hushed tones. Although they were more cordial than the innkeeper, their answers were short and unhelpful. Essentially they told us what we already knew: people were walking around in some weird mental fog and no one could figure it out. Lotheryn asked where Ninaran lived, saying that we desired to call on him, but neither could tell us where his apartment was. Eilian looked pale, as if he might be contracting the Winterhaven disease, but he was still lucid enough to ask how the kobold problem was coming along.

“Great!” I told him. “We took care of those buggers with no problem. Winterhaven won’t need to worry about them any more.”

“Well, that’s some good news,” the man said. “When this little episode passes, the town should be back to normal. Padraig will certainly want word of this.”

We purchased a few more potions from Bairwin and began to leave. Just before we got out the door, I acted on a hunch.

“Say, neither of you has heard the name Kalarel, have you?” I watched closely for their reactions. Both looked confused, but neither gave any indication that the name meant anything to them.

Eilian glanced at Bairwin, who shook his head. “No, we’ve never heard that name. Why? Does that name mean something?” Eilian asked.

I had to tread carefully here. “No, no, it’s probably nothing. Something one of the kobolds growled as he was dying. I probably heard it wrong; they speak in gibberish most of the time anyway.” I was lying through my teeth, but neither seemed in the mental state to read through it. I thanked them for their time and joined the others outside. So much for that hunch.

It was quickly determined that our next visit had to be to Valthrun. The scholar might have found something about our mirror that would help us. I vaguely recalled from one of our previous conversations that he had mentioned an abandoned keep to the north of town that had once been the site of some evil or another. Supposedly it was empty now, but it was probably the best place to start if we were going to look for diabolical rift-opening and people-eating. Maybe ol’ Valthrun could provide more information.

When we got to the scholar’s tower, we noticed light emanating from one of the midlevels of the structure. I knocked loudly on the door and heard rustling and footsteps.

“Coming! Coming!” came Valthrun’s muffled voice from behind the heavy wooden door. When the bespectacled man finally opened it, he looked careworn and a bit disheveled. But he seemed glad enough that the five of us were on his doorstep.

“Oh! You’re back from your adventure with the kobolds. How did that go?” he asked. He seemed to look across the street for a moment as a frown touched his lips. But it was gone so quickly that I may have been mistaken.

“It went well,” I answered. “We took care of them. Winterhaven shouldn’t be bothered any more.” I was tired of this small talk. We’d gotten nothing from anyone in the town and we needed answers. I got right to the point. “So have you found anything out about our mirror? And is there anything you can tell us about this weird fog that seems to have invaded everyone’s brain?”

Valthrun again looked over my shoulder before responding, “Well, I’m not sure about the fog, but I do indeed have some answers about…um, the mirror. Yes.” There was a long moment of silence.

“Well…may we come in to discuss those answers?” I asked impatiently.

“Oh, where are my manners? Of course, you can come up to my parlour,” he said, giving one more glance past us. As he turned and led us into his tower, I glanced in the same general direction. Across the street was Ninaran, and he was in close conversation with an elf woman we had seen around town. It was the flower saleswoman, Delphina. In fact, as I recalled, Lotheryn had purchased some flowers from her when we first got to Winterhaven. She seemed a nice enough woman at the time, even remarking to Lotheryn that she would be happy to give her a tour of some of the area’s flora, if Lotheryn was interested (which of course she was).

So what was she doing talking to that scoundrel, Ninaran? And why was Valthrun so interested in them? Could Valthrun be in league with Ninaran? Maybe they were both spies! I made eye contact with Lotheryn. The druid’s concerned look told me that she had also seen the two elves across the street.

Should I go? She mouthed as she inclined her head slightly toward Ninaran and Delphina. I shook my head no. It was too risky now that Valthrun had invited us in. If Valthrun was involved in this mess, any attempt to confront Ninaran in public could give us away. We would have to get what we could out of the scholar and try to track the elf down later. I followed Lotheryn over the threshold and into Valthrun’s home.

The scholar led us up the stairs. On each floor there was a landing that led to a closed door. There were five floors in Valthrun’s tower, and when we got to the fifth, he opened the door into a large room furnished with couches on one side and a long table on the other. He lit some sconces, invited us to make ourselves comfortable, grabbed our mirror off the table and sat down across from us.

“Alright, doc,” I started, “Let’s hear the secret behind the mirror. Does it talk or anything like that?”

“Oh no no no, nothing that extravagant,” Valthrun chuckled. “It was used for magical purposes, even though there’s no magic inherent in the mirror. But before I get to that, let me ask you, did you discover anything about the kobolds that was interesting? Was there anything odd about the invasion of Winterhaven?”

Lotheryn looked out the window. Alassë frowned and stared at her boots. Anca appeared disinterested in the question. I cleared my throat and focused on some ornate tapestries. Only Sariel made eye contact with Valthrun, smiling that familiar confident smile of hers.

“Well?” Valthrun tried again. “Anything?”

“Of course not!” Sariel said, flashing her smile at the scholar. “Just a bunch of filthy, crazy kobolds that are no longer physically able to do much stealing, or much of anything for that matter. Nothing odd.”

“Hrm, well, I just thought maybe…” he trailed off. “Never mind. Before I tell you exactly what the mirror was used for, let me give you a little background. That keep I told you about earlier, the one to the north of town? Well, that was an old outpost of the Nareth Empire, meant to protect the region from raiders to the north. It did its job for countless years until it was over-run, many centuries ago, by an evil lord. This lord opened a rift in the basement of the keep. This rift was a link, a sort of portal, if you will, that allowed demonic and undead creatures from a different plane to enter this world. These creatures terrorized the local populace until a group of five wizards allied themselves together and set about destroying this danger.

“That’s where your mirror comes in,” Valthrun said, looking at each of us. “The mirror was used by the wizards as a means of scrying the rift in order to best plan their assault on the keep.”

“’Scrying’?” Alassë said, confused. “What is that?”

“It’s a means of using arcane arts to see what is happening at another place. When you use a scrying spell, as long as you know who, what, or where you are trying to scry, you will see all the activity taking place around the target of the spell. It can be done with virtually any reflective surface – a mirror, a crystal ball, a glass of water, even – but you get a much better picture if you use a better surface. This mirror, which appears to be of fine, Valyrian-era craftsmanship, showed about as much detail as you could hope to see. Well, the wizards scried until they obtained enough information about the activity in the keep’s basement to ensure that their assault on the keep was successful. The evil lord was killed and the rift was closed. The wizards then built a series of catacombs around the rift, as a means of hiding it, and left guards to ensure that no one could reopen it.

“Years went by and the Nareth Empire gradually failed. The keep was eventually left unattended, but, peace having descended on the region, the local populace had forgotten why it was there in the first place. And most of them had never known what was underneath,” the scholar said, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he told this last part. He fiddled with his glasses and looked out the window, much as Lotheryn had done moments ago.

“You okay, doc?” I asked, as warning bells went off in my mind. Something was clearly bothering the man.

“Oh nothing, nothing. Just getting a tad hungry,” Valthrun said, laughing nervously. “Anyway, like all ancient, abandoned buildings, it earned a vague reputation as being haunted, but there it sits, empty, no one going near except maybe Delphina on a flower-picking mission. Nice flowers grow up there, though.”

I honestly didn’t give a troll’s crap about the flowers, but his story seemed to make sense. And it certainly jived with what we already knew from Irontooth’s note about someone opening a rift. If this Kalarel was successful in re-opening the portal, we could have all sorts of crazy things running around Winterhaven, making snacks out of the citizens. The process of opening the rift could be the reason why everyone was walking around in a daze. It didn’t seem to be having much effect on Valthrun, but it had already become obvious that some people were stricken more than others.

I was nodding distractedly as Valthrun asked if we wanted to stay and share some roast pheasant with him. I realized the importance now of finding the spy (who I was sure had to be Ninaran, possibly with help from Delphina, but who could have other allies in the town as well), and getting as much information as we could. I caught Lotheryn’s eye. The look she gave me let me know that she understood the same thing. As the rest of us moved to join Valthrun at the table, she hesitated.

“Anca and I will join you shortly, but I am afraid we require a breath of fresh air. Anca becomes restless when he sits indoors for long periods of time. If you will be so kind as to excuse us…” Lotheryn finished, looking expectantly at Valthrun.

“Of course! Before you arrived, I was re-reading my dissertation on applied theories of arcane rituals in isolated halfling societies. There are a few new ideas I had that I would love to run by you,” the scholar said excitedly. Lotheryn smiled as she and Anca left the room. I groaned inwardly. This was going to be the worst pheasant dinner I ever had.

The druid and her warden returned several minutes later. Valthrun was in the midst of a , ahem, “riveting” anecdote about the pattern of familiar use among halfling mages living in the lowlands of Kalorn. The scholar was distracted enough by his own story that I was able to have a whispered exchange with Lotheryn as she sat down beside me.

“Ninaran?” I asked softly.

“Gone,” she whispered back.

Damn. There went that plan. Time to improvise. I still thought there was a chance that Valthrun could be involved in this. He’d certainly given us a lot of information, but that could be a trap. I decided to find out for myself.

“I’m going to need a minute too, doc. One of the spices on the pheasant isn’t sitting well.” I pounded my chest and coughed for emphasis.

Valthrun looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “The only thing on the pheasant is salt.”

“Well, salt doesn’t agree with me,” I snapped. “I’ll be back.”

Valthrun shrugged and went back to his dissertation. Wow that was boring, I thought as I left. Now to find out what this guy was up to. I snuck down to the third floor, where we had seen the light from outside the tower. I couldn’t hear anything behind the door. I tried the handle and noticed it was unlocked. Here goes.

I entered a vast library, dimly lit by several candles on a desk in one corner. I could spend years in here and read only a tiny fraction of these books, I thought as I looked around at shelf after shelf of thick, leather-bound tomes. I knew that it would be useless to look for anything specific on those shelves, so I made my way to the desk. On it I saw an old book, very worn by time and use. I flipped through the pages, skimming here and there. It seemed to be telling the same story that Valthrun had just related to us. I saw a picture of the five wizards, huddled around the very mirror we had found. I had just made up my mind that I was going to find no additional information when I opened to a page that had one large image – it showed a man in fine white armor, standing next to a dark oval that might have been the rift. Flames shot from the eye-slits in the man’s helm.

Valthrun didn’t mention THAT. I knew I didn’t have time to read further or I would be missed upstairs. I left the room as silently as I had come and rejoined the party. Valthrun was still happily chatting away. Alassë was nodding at her place at the table, on the verge of falling asleep. Sariel had plastered a smile on her face, trying to appear interested in the scholar’s words. Lotheryn and Anca both looked anxious to leave.

“Ah, Taran! I was just getting to the end of my dissertation. I trust your foray outside was peaceful,” Valthrun said. “Where did you go?”

“Oh just here and there, down the street a ways,” I lied again. No wonder this guy was a scholar. He had a lot of questions, most of which were an inconvenience.

I had decided it was time to be on our way. Valthrun wasn’t giving us more information, and it was impossible to tell whether or not the man was in the employ of Kalarel. If we couldn’t track Ninaran (doubtful, at this time of night on city streets; that was too much even for MY training), we could go see Padraig, hopefully wring a reward out of him, then head to the inn for a good night’s sleep, and make our assault on the keep in the morning. It was clear that if we really wanted to help these townspeople, keeping the rift from opening was our new mission.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Valthrun,” I said with a bow, “but we really must be going. We have to see Lord Padraig before we retire for the night.”

“A shame, I have a stew that’s almost ready. Are you sure you won’t join me?”

“No,”Lotheryn, Sariel, and Alassë said simultaneously.

“Oh, well, alright. If you must. But before you leave, one last question,” Valthrun said. I swallowed hard. I really hope he didn’t suspect anything… “Would you mind if I purchased that mirror from you? It is quite a regional heirloom, not to mention a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. I could offer you 500 gold for the item?”

I whistled inwardly. That was a lot of cash. I asked Valthrun for a minute and drew my companions aside.

“What do you guys think?” I asked. “I say we sell it.”

“I agree,” said Lotheryn. “As we discovered ourselves, there is nothing magical about the mirror itself, so even if he is involved, I don’t see how he could use it to hurt us.”

Sariel was shaking her head. “There might be things he’s not telling us. What if the mirror has other properties that we don’t know about?”

I threw up my hands in exasperation. “It’s a mirror, for crying out loud! What’s he going to do, scry us to death? He’s about to pay us 500 gold for it! If we refuse him now, he’s going to KNOW we suspect him. So let’s just make our money and get out of here!”

Alassë and Lotheryn voiced their approval. Sariel crossed her arms over her chest, seeming ready to fight the decision, but she finally relented. “Alright, sell it. But when this comes back to bite us, don’t look at me to save you.”

Valthrun had apparently sold enough copies of his dissertation to be a wealthy man. He handed us our gold and we left his tower. I quickly walked across the street to where I had seen the elves conversing. As I suspected, Ninaran and Delphina had left no discernable markings by which to track them. I cursed inwardly at the missed opportunity to interrogate them both. We would just have to make do with the precious little information we had.

We proceeded to Padraig’s manor. This had been a long day and I couldn’t say I was particularly in the mood to talk to the weasel, but I knew two things. One, he might pay us. And two, we certainly weren’t going to have time to talk to him tomorrow, when we were going to have to save the town from becoming all-you-can-eat demon buffet.

When we arrived, the guards gave us the usual spiel about needing an appointment and Padraig being asleep, blah blah blah. When I told them that Padraig would want to hear news of us slaying the kobolds and driving them from the area, they got really excited and began dancing about, giving us cheers. Idiots.

“So does that mean we can see Padraig?” I asked irritably. Not only had it been a long day, but Sylvana had been so crabby that I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy some of her fine ale. I could have used a couple pints right about then.

The guards happily let us through the gates and sent word to Padraig. We were ushered into his study. The “lord” himself appeared shortly after, tying a robe around his waste and rubbing sleep from his eyes. As with Valthrun, he exhibited few symptoms of the city-wide malady.

“Well, what news?” he demanded. I liked this man less every time I encountered him.

We gave Padraig the same story we had given the others, explaining how we dispatched the kobolds, but leaving out the part about Irontooth and Kalarel. Padraig seemed genuinely pleased.

“Splendid! Before long this town will be back to normal. I’ll tell you what, since you did such fine work, I’ll pay for dinner at Wrafton’s!” The small man held out his hands as if he was giving us the keys to the city.

Dinner!?!? Was he &$^*#*& serious? I had no desire to blackmail anyone or hold the town hostage, but after all we’d endured, he was going to buy us soup and salad? Unbelievable.

I could tell that Lotheryn and Sariel felt the same way. Alassë didn’t look quite as angry, but the cleric didn’t look happy about it either. I was just about to raise my objection when the fifth member of our party stepped forward.

Anca growled menacingly as he moved his face inches from Padraig’s. The shifter held up his money pouch and shook it with unmistakable meaning. Lord Padraig was no longer quite so pleased.

“What is this thing doing?” he protested. “Get it out of my face!”

“Anca pretty much does what he wants,” I interjected. “He travels with us and fights valiantly at our side, but we don’t really have any control over him. In fact, this one time, I saw him rip the arms off of this gnoll who had already surrendered his weapon. And then there was the time he bit through the neck…”

“Enough!” Padraig shouted, his face beading with sweat. “Tell your friend that I do not mean to be cheap. I am merely trying to do what is right for my people.” Anca moved away slightly but continued to bare his teeth in a snarl. Padraig composed himself as best he could and then continued, “I will make you this deal. I will give you 100 gold pieces, as much as the town can afford, and I will pay your bill at Wrafton’s for as long as you stay in town,” he concluded. There was a brief pause as his inner businessman kicked into gear. “As long as that’s less than a week,” he added suddenly.

I looked at Anca, who retreated to Lotheryn’s side and stopped growling. “Deal,” I said.

Padraig went to his desk and counted out the gold, grumbling the whole time. He got one last pointed remark in as he handed us the bag, “I hope you appreciate it. With this sickness going around, the town may be quite poor for awhile, despite the absence of the kobolds.”

“We might be able to take care of the sickness, too,” I said casually. I regretted the statement immediately. We still didn’t know who was involved in the opening of the rift. For all we knew, it could be Padraig. The man looked at me sharply.

“How is that?” he asked. “Our scholars and physicians have been unable to diagnose anything. What is it that you know?”

I hesitated. Should I give this man any indication of what the note said? Or should I lie again? Before I could answer, Sariel pulled me aside.

“If we’re going to help him again, he needs to promise us more money,” she whispered. “This is going to be dangerous. Even Garl can’t give me a full sense of the evil that we’ll be fighting. We are going to need more than a lousy 100 gold pieces from this man, even if it comes from his own overstuffed coffers.”

The eladrin had a point. I made up my mind to go for it.

I cleared my throat. “We have reason to believe that we can end the fog that has been plaguing your people the last few days – for a price, of course.”

Padraig narrowed his eyes, “I’m listening.”

“We found evidence that someone may be opening some sort of portal to the underworld, and we thought it might be related to that keep north of town…”

“That keep has been abandoned for centuries!” he exclaimed.

I continued, “Well, that’s what we were told at first too, but then when Valthrun told us about…”

“WAIT! Valthrun knows about this?” the lord was shouting now, spittle flying furiously from his lips. “THAT’S IT! Guards! Bring me Valthrun, immediately! We’re going to get to the bottom of this.” He stared at us coldly. “No more secrets from you. I’m going to dress, but when I get back, you WILL tell me everything.” He stormed off in a fit.

I tried to ignore the incredulous stares from my companions, but I couldn’t for very long.

“What?” I shouted. “What do you guys want from me?”

“I thought we were trying to avoid revealing that information,” Alassë said, gesturing angrily in my direction. “Against my deepest inclinations, we have been lying to ensure our safety. And now that has all been thrown away.”

I looked at Lotheryn for help, but she just turned away. I was going to get no reliefe there.

“Well, what if Padraig’s the spy? What if he made up that whole kobold thing just to get us out of the way?” I was desparate now. “Let’s make a run for it. We can probably overpower the guards…”

Sariel laughed bitterly. “And have the entire town turned against us? Garl is good to me, but if I got in a mess like that, I’m not sure he would stick around to bail me out.”

Now it was my turn to be angry, “This was YOUR idea, avenger. You were the one who said I should ask for more money!”

“Don’t put this on me, ranger,” she shot right back. “You put your foot in your mouth when you mentioned that we could help cure the town in the first place. I was just trying to redeem your mistake.”

I fought the urge to knock the eladrin’s smug little grin into next week. Not only would that not help us, but I wasn’t sure that I was quite her match in close combat. Still, it took all my restraint to keep silent as I fumed.

Thankfully, Lotheryn stepped in to smooth things over. “What is done is done. The earth holds memories of many wrongs and yet still produces for one when she asks. If the earth can forgive eons of torture, we can forgive these small misdeeds,” said the druid calmly. “We still have every reason to suspect that Ninaran is the spy. I think we should tell Padraig and Valthrun the entire truth and be on our way.”

Lotheryn was right. We would need to tell everything. It was only a minute or two of uncomfortable silence before Valthrun was unceremoniously tossed into the study. Padraig followed close behind.

“Alright, I don’t know what it is you “heroes” have been hiding from me, but you’d better come out with it,” he said the word heroes derisively, as more of an insult than anything else. It seemed like every time this guy opened his mouth I was getting more irritated.

I looked at Valthrun, who still seemed shocked to even be there. “Well, doc, you better start. Tell him what you told us about the keep.”

“I don’t see why…” the scholar started.

“Just tell him.”

Valthrun related his story. When he finished, everyone turned expectantly to me. I unveiled our secret about Irontooth and his note from Kalarel. I told them that we were certain whatever activity was going on to open the rift was causing Winterhaven’s residents to walk around in a stupor. The only thing I declined to mention was the spy. If there was one card I could keep from playing, I would do it. If one of them was the spy, better that they think their involvement still secret.

Padraig paced back and forth, agitated. He didn’t appear angry any more, but he was definitely concerned by this new information. Valthrun looked like he was about to throw up.

Finally, Padraig spoke, “I can’t believe this was kept from me. This is something the lord of a great city like Winterhaven should know!” I barely kept myself from snickering at that last remark. He stopped pacing and looked directly at me. “So are you through? Is that all? Anything ELSE I might need to know?”

I kept silent, but Valthrun couldn’t any longer.

“I’m sorry, my lord, but there is one more thing I declined to reveal earlier. You see, there is something else beneath the keep…” the scholar wrung his hands as he began.

“Is this something else dressed in white armor and have flame shooting from its eyes?” I asked casually.

“H-how did you…? B-but…?” Valthrun stammered as he and everyone else looked at me.

“Lucky guess. Just tell us what you know.” I wasn’t about to admit my earlier snooping. I had gotten in enough trouble for one night.

Valthrun began another tale. Apparently, when the wizards had sealed the rift, they left a knight and his household to keep watch. This responsibility was passed down through several generations. Finally, it passed to an incredibly strong knight named Sir Keegan. One black night, without warning, Sir Keegan woke from his slumber. He donned his armor, unsheathed his greatsword, and went to his wife. Without a word, he slew her. He proceeded to do the same to his children, his captain of the guard, his steward, and every other living thing in the keep. He was a machine of war and he had gone mad, possibly driven to insanity by the whisperings of the rift itself. Finally, the local garrison was warned of Keegan’s madness, and they stormed the keep en masse, wounding the mad knight and driving him into the catacombs. The garrison reported later that he seemed possessed and flame appeared to burst forth from his helm.

The soldiers that subdued him did not pursue him into the basement. They had lost a number of men already and felt a sense of dread just being down there. They sealed off the lower portions of the keep to ensure that Keegan could not escape. If whatever demon entered him caused him to become immortal, it was entirely possible that Sir Keegan was still wandering the catacombs.

“I did not tell you earlier,” the scholar said apologetically, “Because I suspected that the sickness might be emanating from the tower. I also suspected that you adventurers meant to go there to end it. I was afraid that revealing this to you might deter you from your mission.”

“Bah, a flaming knight doesn’t scare us. We’ll handle him,” I said with false bravado. What was one more stretched truth in a day full of lies?

Padraig looked at us seriously. “This is a tall task that you have volunteered to perform, and I know you put yourselves at great peril for the sake of Winterhaven’s people. Given that, I think we can manage to take a collection and, upon your safe return, pay you 200 more gold pieces for ridding us of this evil. Will that suffice?” It wasn’t a TON, but maybe this Padraig guy was a bit better than I gave him credit for.

I looked at my fellow “heroes,” to gauge their reaction. They all nodded silently.

“It’s a deal,” I said, shaking the lord’s hand. “We’ll rest tonight at Wrafton’s and begin first thing in the morning.”

“Thank you Taran, Sariel, Alassë, and, ahem, Anca,” he hesitated slightly before saying the shifter’s name. That gave me some measure of satisfaction. As we turned to leave, Padraig asked one more question. “By the way, does your adventuring party have a name? What should I call your group?”

I said the first thing that popped into my head.

“The Final Five.”

“The Final Five, huh? I like that,” Lord Padraig nodded in approval. “Good luck to you all.”

We left the manor and walked Valthrun back to his tower before turning for the inn. As we walked away from the scholar’s home, Lotheryn turned to me.

“The Final Five?” she said, questioning.

I just shrugged. “Pretty catchy, isn’t it? Maybe Garl put it in my head.”

Sariel laughed, “Garl would have thought of something better than that, my friend.”

Well, maybe so, but the Final Five was what we would be. I just hoped we were around long enough that someone besides Padraig could call us that. Tomorrow was going to be another tough day.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls (cause there's a crapload of kobolds back there)

As we made our way around the side of the waterfall and into the cavern, we began to hear activity inside. Anca led us forward, cautiously inching along the damp wall until we could see dim lighting at the end of the tunnel. Sounds of many creatures growling and yelping reached our ears and confirmed our suspicions – we’d found the kobold lair.

I put a finger to my lips to quiet everyone as we crept to end of the tunnel. We saw a rough cavern in front of us, with several open rooms. Near the back of the cavern, the hewn rock floors and walls gave way to impressive stonework, indicating that at one time this was more than just a simple kobold hideout. There were dozens of kobolds scurrying chaotically about just at the edge of our sightline.

I took this all in in a second, but what grabbed my immediate attention were the ten kobold minions and three larger kobolds facing the entryway that provided our current hiding place. They had weapons drawn and although they seemed to be glancing back and forth nervously, they were clearly ready for us. That last kobold had apparently done its job: the screaming and yelling about something called Irontooth had alerted its friends. And now it was going to be a lot harder for us to do OUR job.

I looked around at my companions. Sariel wore that same little smirk on her face and had her falchion gripped casually in both hands. Alassë was alternating between glancing nervously into the cavern and looking upward as she muttered prayers. Anca’s lips were parted in a wolfish grin, and he had a glitter in his yellow eyes that told me he was ready for blood. Lotheryn was calm and collected, working out in her mind the best way to survive this assault. I shared my thoughts with them.

“They know we're here, but they don’t realize what they’re in for,” I said, trying to sound encouraging. “We can handle them. Here’s my basic plan. I’m going to creep to the edge of the tunnel and take a quick shot or two at the big ugly one across from us. Anca, try to keep those little guys from overwhelming us. Alassë and Lotheryn, focus on taking down the big ones, but be careful for the minions. They’re quick and there are a lot of them. Sariel, you do whatever it is Gary Glitter tells you to do." (This brought an eye roll from the eladrin.) "I’ll be taking shots at anything that tries to get to close to us.” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. There were A LOT of kobolds in there. And we still had no idea what Irontooth was.

Everyone seemed comfortable with the plan, which was good, because I didn’t have a plan B. Heck, my plan A wasn’t even all that impressive. I inched forward to the edge of the shadows. The light inside the cavern was dim; several sputtering torches gave off the only illumination. I silently thanked my mother for my heritage, my half-elven eyes allowing me to see things much clearer than others could. I knelt down just at the edge of the tunnel, nocked two arrows to my bow, took aim at the nearest large kobold, the one that was staring right at me and snarling…

Uh oh.

With a shriek, it and the other creatures rushed towards us. I loosed the arrows, striking it with both, but without the careful aim I was hoping to take. He kept coming at me. With a howl, Anca leaped over my head and moved left, intercepting the kobold I had hit and keeping the onrushing minions at bay. In less than 10 seconds, he was completely surrounded. Sariel headed right, singling out another of the large kobolds as her target. Alassë moved past and was headed to the fray when I heard Lotheryn cry out.

“Anca, no!!!” she yelled. The druid’s face was wrenched in anguish as she watched the kobolds swarm onto Anca, prodding him with their spears. She begin to chant, calling on Nature’s power to save the shifter. Before she could complete her spell, Anca roared savagely and exploded up from out of the middle of the pile of kobolds, swinging his hammer mightily. When he stopped swinging, none of the kobolds surrounding him remained alive, and bodies of the creatures lay crumpled about him.

Unfortunately, kobolds are dumb animals, and while the display of fury made them hesitate, it didn’t stop them. Several more came to replace the dead. Alassë and Lotheryn went to help Anca, who had retreated several steps into a better defensive position. I looked over and saw Sariel trapped between the other two larger kobolds. I drew my flail and short sword and went to help her.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something odd. Where once there had been chaos in the back of the cavern, there was now none. All of the kobolds that had been scampering about had either joined the battle or had escaped into hidden tunnels somewhere.

Strange, I thought as I took a swing at one of the beasts with my flail. Where did those suckers get off to?

That thought was pushed out my head by the faint sound of ominous, rhythmic drumbeats emanating from somewhere deep in the cavern.

I didn’t really have time to consider this new development as the kobold in front of me narrowly missed my arm with a thrust of his spear. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t seem to get these guys off of Sariel, who was no longer smiling, I noticed. She was struggling to deal with her sworn foe, and she was bleeding from numerous places. This is what happened when you trusted a crazy gnome god to help you fight your battles.

“Is Garl playing a joke on YOU now?” I asked snidely as I watched a kobold parry her blow.

“Garl’s jokes are actually funny – not that you would know,” she shot back. It was pretty clear that the avenger wasn’t happy with the way things were going. But I had to admit, if we couldn’t finish these things off soon, there wouldn’t be anything funny about this at all.

The drumbeats grew louder. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I noticed the sound again as I drew blood with a jab of my short sword. I was still too busy to pay it much attention. At the same time, Anca, Lotheryn and Alassë finished off the kobolds they had been fighting, leaving Anca free to lend us a hand with the three that Sariel and I were grappling with: two of the bigger ones and a minion that kept jumping around and making a pest of himself. The shifter still had that “look” in his eye, and his snarling charge toward us distracted my foe enough that I got in a shot with my flail, knocking the kobold to its knees. I raised my weapon, ready to finish the job, when I realized that the drumbeats were loud enough to be reverberating in my ears. I glanced to my left and saw something emerge from the darkness at the back of the cavern.

Two extremely large kobolds stepped out, brandishing their spears and holding thick shields with the image of a dragon inlaid in the wood. Another much smaller kobold slunk behind them. Then out of their midst stomped a huge orc, a ram’s head tattooed on his face – the same ram’s head we had seen on the medallion. It was obviously a follower of Orcus, the god of undeath. It held a massive warhammer in both fists. This must be Irontooth.

“DEATH!” he shouted in his hideous language. It was certainly not the first time I had heard that word uttered in the orc tongue. The brute glared at us as he motioned his dragonshield warriors forward and followed close behind. The smaller kobold stayed in the shadows and began casting a spell.

My blood boiled. I KNEW I smelled something extra foul when I entered the cavern. I should have suspected there was orc-work behind this whole thing. It was all too organized for kobolds. And now I knew why.

The kobold in front of me breathed its last as I buried my sword in its chest. I quickly drew my bow. If it was death he wanted, he’d get it. Everything else left my mind as anger flooded hot through my veins. This orc may not have been responsible for the emptiness I felt in my heart, but he would pay for it anyway. Without a second thought, I loosed an arrow that struck the orc in the shoulder. That couldn’t feel good for the orc, although it gave me a grim pleasure.

The next few minutes were a blur. I noticed fire flare up around the dragonshield warriors, probably summoned by Lotheryn. Alassë got involved, swinging her morningstar at these new enemies. I had a vague sense that Sariel was badly wounded, and actually fell at one point, but none of that mattered as I loosed arrow after arrow at the orc. The kobold caster was raining fireballs on me, but I didn’t even turn in his direction. My fury consumed me until I noticed that Anca, who was occupying Irontooth’s attention, took a near lethal blow that knocked him unconscious. Seeing the shifter fall was the shock I needed to shake myself free of the enraged trance I had entered.

“Lotheryn!” I shouted to the druid. “Help Anca! I’ll distract the orc!” I put my bow away and took out my flail and short sword once again. Sariel was back on her feet and Alassë was praying for Torm’s favor as she fought. Lotheryn’s healing power enabled Anca to stand again. The druid tried to pull him away from the intensity of the battle, but he could not be drawn from the prospect of more blood. With Anca rejoining us, we had the orc surrounded.

Finally, the cleric found a gap in Irontooth’s defenses and slammed her weapon into the side of its skull. The orc fell, dead before it hit the ground. Lotheryn and I turned on the kobold caster, which looked around and realized that it was alone. The poor, stupid beast didn’t make it three steps before Lotheryn summoned a blast of cold to freeze it and I brought it down with a couple of well-placed arrows.

We were all too tired to say anything for a couple minutes afterwards. The battle had taken all of our strength. I looked at Lotheryn, who gave me a smile. Before I knew it, I was grinning. Then Sariel started giggling and, in our extreme exhaustion, we all joined her in a long laugh. It was good to be alive. Much better than the alternative, I thought as I looked at the piles of bloody kobold corpses.

We made a cursory search of the cavern. All of the other kobolds we had seen had escaped through a crack in the back of the cavern. Given that their leader was dead, I doubted they would be back. Sariel and I soon found the chamber that the orc had used as its living space. I hoped nothing else was planning to move in there any time soon. The best thing I could say about the place was that it smelled like the inside of a troll carcass. That’s the BEST thing I could say. The décor was…well, I won’t go into it. “Excretory” is the adjective that comes to mind.

We managed to withstand the stench long enough to unearth a sealed chest. I pulled it out of the chamber and Sariel went to work unlocking it. Without much trouble, she sprung the latch and opened the lid.

“Nice,” I said, as the avenger admired the dwarven-made chainmail she pulled out of the chest. “That gnomish education sure comes in handy sometimes, huh?”

“It has its uses,” she laughed. Just then we heard Lotheryn call out to us.

“Come, look. I have found a note in the orc’s pocket,” she said. She handed the crumpled, bloody piece of paper to me. The handwriting was sprawling and thin, and it was penned in the Common tongue. I read it aloud:


My spy in Winterhave suggests we keep an eye out for visitors to the area. It probably does not matter; in just a few more days, I’ll completely open the rift. Then Winterhaven’t people will serve as food for all those Lord Orcus sends to do my bidding..


“Serve as food!?!?” Alassë exclaimed. “What kind of terrible person would do this?”

“The kind who knows the proper use of a semicolon. Pretty impressive,” I said. The cleric looked at me with horror. “Cmon, I’m just kidding.”

Sariel interjected, “Whoever this is, he’s been getting information from someone in Winterhaven. That’s who we need to find.”

Lotheryn caught my eye. She said what I was thinking, “Ninaran. I have never met an elf as disagreeable as he. If he is involved in some sort of evil, that would explain his actions toward us.”

“That’s where I would start,” I said in agreement. “But we’ll talk about our next move on the way back to town.”

As we left, I looked around one last time at the carnage. If I never saw this place again, it would be too soon.

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