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Story [Pathfinder] Rise of the Runelords

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by MasterGhandalf, May 20, 2017.

  1. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Title: Rise of the Runelords
    Author: MasterGhandalf
    Fandom: Pathfinder RPG
    Genre: Fantasy, action/adventure, drama, epic
    Characters: OCs, Rise of the Runelords NPCs
    Timeframe: Canonical
    Summary: When a sleepy coastal town comes under attack by goblin raiders, a band of unlikely heroes finds themselves thrown together to get to the bottom of the threat. But ultimately the goblins are only one strand in the plans of an ancient evil rising from its long slumber to extend its dominion over the lands of Varisia once again...



    Rise of the Runelords

    By

    MasterGhandalf

    Adapted from

    Pathfinder Adventure Path #1-6

    By

    Paizo Publishing

    EDIT: I've been working on a glossary of important terms for people unfamiliar with the Golarion setting; I try to make things clear in-story, but it can be helpful to have it all in one place. I'll keep updating it as the story advances, and it may be found here: https://archiveofourown.org/works/10957896/chapters/43243211

    Prologue: The Awakening

    The mountain was called Mhar Massif, and there were few taller or more foreboding upon the face of Golarion. Legend said that it had been the site of a failed incursion from another world, that a strange and terrible being called Mhar had attempted to emerge from the peak that now bore his name and been caught there, frozen in stone for eternity so that no sign of his passage remained save for a face that stared out from the mountainside, reshaped over the millennia by mortal hands and the wear of time, and yet an eternal reminder to any who would gaze upon it that there are things in the cosmos older and stranger than mortal thought can imagine.

    Yet though Mhar was the eldest and most alien of the powers tied to the ancient mountain, he was not the only – far from it. For in elder days when mankind was young, and in a great and terrible empire that legend named Thassilon stretched out across the lands below, a city had been built in the mountain’s lap, a city of wealth and wonder – and terror. For this city had been ruled by wizard-kings given over completely to the cause of avarice, stripping the wealth from conquered peoples to be borne upon the backs of slaves here, to this place upon the very edge of the world. And atop the mountain peak itself there was built a many-spired palace of opulence and magic, home to those whose legacy of power endured long after they themselves had passed into myth and been forgotten.

    It was the lure of that legacy that brought the one who now stood at the heart of a great chamber near the palace’s very pinnacle. Mokmurian was his name, and he had been born to the stone giant clans who inhabited the Storval Plateau in the land that was now called Varisia far below. A runt among his kind – even now, decades into his adulthood, he stood barely more than ten feet tall – his birth had brought joy and honor to his family, for among his kind, those who were born with unusual physical features often had magic in their blood. Yet as Mokmurian grew, he came to understand that no such power lay dormant within him; desperate to prove himself, he had turned in secret to the study of wizardry. Magic was his birthright – this he knew in his heart. If it would not come to him naturally, he would master it with spellbooks and items of power.

    Yet the stone giants had not forgotten the long-ago wizards who had enslaved their ancestors, and when the clan elders had learned of Mokmurian’s pursuits, they had exiled him, cursing him as a fraud and a traitor to his race. For years he had roamed the desolate plateau alone, driven above all by a desire to plumb ever greater depths of arcane power, that he might return one day and make his people regret the day that they had cast him out. He pursued the secrets of the past with a fervor; his power grew vast. His studies lead him at long last to Mhar Massif, to the city of Xin-Shalast that lay below it, and finally to the many-spired palace atop the mountain’s peak. Xin-Shalast was lost, but not abandoned, inhabited by the feral descendants of the creatures that had once served the one who ruled here, but by that time Mokmurian had become no small power in his own right; none of the ruined city’s denizens could withstand him. He penetrated the palace, using his magic to burrow directly through the rock, and so at last he came to stand here, in this chamber which he was increasingly certain was the heart of this strange and forgotten place.

    Even in decay, the palace was opulent, and this chamber was no exception. The roof was upheld by pillars of gold; upon the northern wall was a mural depicting the city of Xin-Shalast as it had been at its height. Yet to Mokmurian’s eyes, these wonders paled in comparison to that which dominated the room – a vast sphere of gold three times the giant’s height which rotated under the influence of some unseen power, as pristine now as it must have been when it was forged, ten millennia and more ago. Flames licked across its surface in an eternal, yet almost sluggish dance. A stone staircase led up the sphere’s side, and from it a ramp lead to a platform that balanced perfectly atop the sphere, from which a shimmering column of golden light rose to the ceiling.

    Mokmurian stood now upon the ramp, regarding the platform with hooded eyes as he rubbed his craggy chin with the fingers of one hand. The giant wizard had seen many strange things in the course of his studies, and many more in his journey through Xin-Shalast, and he was certain that this sphere and its platform represented an artifact of tremendous power – but what was its purpose? Was it a weapon or tool that could be harnessed, perhaps granting dominion over both the palace and the city below? Or was it merely a trap, a lure for the unwary that would consume any who dared to step onto the platform?

    The stone giant was no coward, and he had not come this far to be stymied now. Already he had profited greatly from his time here, and he determined that though the risk of stepping onto the platform was considerable, the potential reward it offered was greater still. The magic of the ancients was almost at his fingers – who would turn such a chance down out of timidity? Not Mokmurian.

    His decision made, he roused himself from his contemplation and stretched out one long leg, lightly touching the tip of his toe to the rotating platform. When nothing untoward occurred, he stepped fully onto it.

    At once, Mokmurian stumbled at fell to his knees. A sense of vertigo overwhelmed him, and as he blinked rapidly to try and clear his eyes, he thought he saw the image of another chamber, yet more lavish than the one in which he stood, overlaid across his vision. This place, he knew somehow, was real, and it was there that he could sense the presence of the mighty power he sought – and of something else, more ephemeral, roused from a long slumber that regarded him with curiosity.

    The giant shook his head slowly, trying to clear his vision and thoughts, but they resisted. His hand slipped to the edge of the platform and then over it, brushing against the slowly writhing flames from the sphere below – the flames that some part of his mind recognized remained in perfect focus.

    At once, the fire raced up onto the platform and wrapped itself around Mokmurian’s body. The giant barely had time to cry out in alarm before his world vanished in a blast of heat and light – and then, just as suddenly, the fire vanished, leaving him standing in an altogether different place.

    Different – but not unfamiliar. For as Mokmurian stood and gazed about himself, and saw the stone floor and the roof upheld by pillars of fire, he knew that he had somehow found himself in the chamber which he had glimpsed when he first set foot upon the platform. At the opposite end of the chamber from where he now stood was a great and empty throne, and before it was a great well, above which was mounted some sort of large lens of green crystal. This, the wizard knew, was the source of the power he had earlier sensed, and that the well and the lens between them represented an almost unthinkable source of magical might – a power he felt drawn to possess, that he desired as he had few things in his life.

    He took one step towards it, but before he could take another he was frozen in place. For as he had realized earlier there was a second power in this chamber, one that was old and vast and cruel beyond measure, and now it had turned the full weight of its attention upon him. Slowly, silhouetted and indistinct, a figure appeared upon the throne – a man who sat and regarded the stone giant over his steepled fingers. Mokmurian was a wizard of no small skill, but the one who dwelt here was far greater still, and now he was pinned by the force of his attention as if by a basilisk’s gaze.

    A voice spoke into his mind then, soft and composed, yet filled with an undercurrent of triumph. At long last, after countless centuries, one has come, the voice said; though the lips of the image on the throne did not move, there could be no doubt as to its source. Not one of those I had intended, perhaps, and yet one that will serve my purposes nonetheless. Tell me, giant – what transpires in the world beyond? Who rules the lands below us now? What has become of my realm across the ages – what has become of Shalast… and Thassilon?
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2019
  2. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Good beginning - I like the sense of Mokmurian knowing his strengths, yet realizing his limitations. Excellent imagery re the flame fire raced up onto the platform and wrapped itself , brrrr. *not the the flame was cold, but, you know.[face_nail_biting]*
     
  3. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Book I

    Burnt Offerings



    Chapter 1: Festival in Sandpoint

    Five years later…

    To the world of Golarion at large, a mention of the land of Varisia would call to mind images of vast wilderness, ancient ruins, and exotic natives. Once the site of an empire vanished so long ago that its name was recalled only by sages and students of history, now a frontier, sparsely populated; a backwater, some said, and a land of adventure, others. Settlers from Cheliax, the great empire to the south, had established the great cities of Magnimar and Korvosa along the coasts, but still far more of the land was unclaimed than not, a lawless realm of secrets that remained buried.

    To the north of Magnimar there lay the region known as the Lost Coast, so called because its foggy environment and thick pine forests promote a sense of vastness and isolation. Though shrines and inns dotted the coastline, there was little in the way of permanent settlement or civilization in this place, save in one location, where a campsite built in the shadow of a ruined tower had grown into a thriving town – Sandpoint.

    It was in Sandpoint, on the day of the Autumnal Equinox, that a crowd gathered in the square before a great cathedral, newly-finished, which now rose above the low wood and stone buildings of the town. Today was the day of the Swallowtail Festival, and more, it was the day of dedication for the new church, built to replace the one which had burned five years ago, taking the life of a beloved priest and his adopted daughter. The air was jubilant and cheerful, as the townsfolk and those travelers who had come for the holiday or the dedication laughed and joked with one another as they waited for the speakers who would officially open the festival.

    Near of the back of the crowd, one young woman stood, holding herself aloof from those who surrounded her; she spoke to none, and none spoke to her, for it seemed that she carried an air of some faint and undefinable gloom about her. She was dressed simply, in shirt and pants of solid black with faint silver trim, though a closer inspection would prove her clothing was well-made; her hands were covered with a pair of light black gloves, and a large black hat was pulled low over her face. From behind, all that could be told of her features was the tightly-wound dark braid that hung to her mid-back; from the front, a handful of townsfolk had glanced under the shadow of her hat and quickly pulled away at the sight of livid crimson skin and a flash of golden, feline eyes. Sandpoint was a mostly-human town, and though a number of dwarves and elves, and even a few half-orcs, called it home, no one like this woman had been seen here in some time.

    The young woman was used to eliciting such reactions from people, and she found it difficult to be offended that no one seemed to want to engage her in conversation – indeed, reaction to one such as she would likely be far worse in her homeland. That thought brought a faint, cold smile to her lips; truly, Sandpoint was nothing beside the great city where she had been born and raised, but perhaps that was for the best. She had arrived the night before seeking a place where she could hide, somewhere out of the way where she could bury her past and disappear – perhaps this little coastal town might be what she was looking for in the first place.

    Folding her arms across her chest, she watched as a middle-aged woman with an authoritative but genial air stepped to the podium in front of the new cathedral and began to speak.

    ///

    In another part of the crowd closer to the front, a handsome young man poked the well-dressed dwarf who stood beside him with his elbow and grinned. “Well, Harann,” he said lightly, “look’s like things are about to start. Still glad you dragged the two of us out here from Magnimar for this?”

    The dwarf, whose beard was short, brown, and impeccably groomed and whose eyes were merry, looked up at his friend and grinned. “Caelum, Caelum,” he said, smiling. “What have I always told you? All I’ve ever wanted from life was the open road before me, a hot meal at the end of the day, and fresh experiences around every corner. How couldn’t I be glad to be here in a place I’ve never been before, especially on a day of celebration?” Harann threw his arm wide as if to take in the entire crowd, and smiled even more broadly.

    “Nothing dampens your spirits, does it?” Caelum said, pausing to take a bite from the piece of festival bread he held in his hand. He chewed for a moment, regarding the cathedral thoughtfully. “Still,” he said after he swallowed, “I’d think today might have deeper meaning for someone of your particular calling. After all, this town has always had a soft spot for the worship of Desna, and that priest who died when the old church burned was one of hers.”

    Harann’s expression grew more serious, and his gaze dropped to the pendant that hung about his neck, which depicted upon a silver disk a stylized butterfly that bore the stars upon its wings – the symbol of Desna, goddess of travelers and luck. “True, the Swallowtail Festival is sacred to my Lady,” he said softly, “and it wasn’t long ago that a man died here who shared my faith. But the people seem happy here today, and the new cathedral is a magnificent one.” Harann smiled again. “Truly, Lady Luck brings forth joy from sorrow, wouldn’t you agree?”

    Caelum laughed. “If you say so, my friend. But the troubles that plagued this town are over and done, and I don’t think it likely they’ll be needing my skills today; not really the place to try and start building my reputation as a great warrior, is it?” He rested a hand lightly on the pommel of the sword at his side. “Wait, is that Mayor Deverin standing up? I think we’re about to get started!”

    Kendra Deverin, mayor of Sandpoint, had been born to one of the four families that had helped to found the town generations ago. Popular with her people, she paused to smile and wave as she stepped up to the podium. “What a fine day we have before us!” she called out. “If you are a traveler who has come from outside our time, it is my happy task as Mayor to welcome you all to Sandpoint on this day of celebration! If you are one of our own, then I can say with certainty that I am glad to see the turnout we have here today – why, I see that even Master Rovanky has managed to tear himself away from his tannery and join us!” Laughter swept through the crowd, save for the notoriously workaholic Rovanky, who crossed his arms and scowled. “Though we gather today in part to remember tragedy,” Kendra continued, “we also look forward to a bright future, and this church we will dedicate today shall stand as a reminder that no matter what may happen, we of Sandpoint shall survive, and we shall prosper!”

    The crowd burst into cheers, and Kendra stepped aside as a dour man stepped forward. “Most of you here today know me,” he said, “but for those who don’t, my name is Belor Hemlock, and it is my honor to be Sandpoint’s sheriff. I would like to thank Mayor Deverin for her kind words, but to extend a reminder to everyone to take care tonight around the bonfire, and I should like to take a moment for us all to remember Father Ezakien Tobyn, his daughter Nualia, and all those who lost their lives in the fire that claimed our previous church.”

    Caelum fell silent and bowed his head, keeping one eye open a crack to see that beside him, Harann was whispering a fervent prayer under his breath, his face uncharacteristically serious as he clutched his pendant of Desna. Finally, he looked up to see that Mayor Deverin had taken the podium once again.

    “It is my regret,” she said, “to announce that our next speaker, Lonjiku Kaijitsu, will be unable to appear before us today, as he has taken suddenly ill.” The crowd laughed quietly at that, and Caelum heard a number of voices muttering that the only thing that made Master Kaijitsu ill was the festival itself; apparently he had a well-known distaste for frivolity, and was not popular in the town.

    Now another man had bounded to the front, introducing himself as Cyrdak Drokkus; Caelum was only half-listening as he gave a number of anecdotes he clearly believed to be humorous and then rambled about the construction of the cathedral in greater detail than anyone actually needed to know, before concluding with an advertisement for his theater, which had apparently secured a famous Magnimaran actress for its performance of “The Harpy’s Curse”. Caelum’s ears pricked up at that one, as the diva Allishandra was as well known for her beauty as for her skill on the stage.

    Finally, after Drokkus finished speaking, a plainer, more humble man with some grey in his hair and short beard stepped to the podium; Harann nodded approvingly, for this man two wore the emblem of Desna about his neck. “I am Father Zantus,” he said, “and as High Priest of Sandpoint, I would like to thank you all for coming today. May the Lady’s blessing be upon you, and I declare this festival to be opened!”

    Caelum’s was only one of many voices that met the announcement with a cheer.

    ///

    Later that day, the black-clad woman who had stood near the back of the crowd sat at a table in the common room of the Rusty Dragon inn, watching calmly as the innkeeper, a pretty woman whose dark hair and golden-tan skin spoke of Tian heritage, set a bowl of soup in front of her. She thanked the innkeeper and watched her leave, then looked down and stared silently into the steaming bowl for what felt like an eternity.

    “Mind if I join you, friend?” a lilting voice asked, and the woman looked up to see a female elf decked in brilliant gold and green scoot a chair aside and drop into it without waiting for permission. Her hair was dyed an even more vivid shade of green than her clothes, and her eyes were a deep, impenetrable black, but a merry smile was on her lips.

    “And who might you be who disturbs the lunches of honest travelers?” the woman asked, glaring at the elf from under the brim of her hat.

    “I,” the elf said, gesturing dramatically at herself, “am Calassara, once of Kyonin, now a wanderer, a singer of songs and teller of tales, drawn to this place by the excitement of celebration, the lure of mystery, and the taste of fine festival food – which, I might add, you do not seem to be enjoying.” She leaned in close and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Correct me if I am wrong, but do I not detect the tones of Cheliax in your voice?”

    The woman sighed. “If you will not leave me in peace until I answer, then yes, you do. I am Errezha, late of Egorian. Do not ask for the story of my life, because you aren’t going to get it, and I trust that your curiosity is satisfied and you will now leave me in peace.” As if to punctuate her point, Errezha grabbed her spoon and began to eat her soup, taking care to open her mouth wide so that Calassara could see the sharp points of her canine teeth – points far sharper than those in any human mouth. Most people took the hint.

    The elf didn’t. “My curiosity is not satisfied, in fact,” she finally said. “For it seems to me that your accent is not only Chelish, but aristocratic, and yet if you are what I believe you to be, then that seems most unlikely.”

    Errezha stopped eating; the glare she shot the elf was murderous. “And what, exactly, do you believe me to be?”

    Calassara’s pale cheeks colored. “Forgive me,” she said, “I do not know the polite term, but much in your appearance points towards a heritage… other than human. I did not mean to cause offense.”

    Errezha laughed darkly. “Well,” she said, “as you’re one of the first people I’ve ever met who is sorry to have offended me, I think I’ll answer your question. The recognized term for… someone like me is ‘tiefling’, the vulgar is ‘hellspawn’, and neither can be considered ‘polite’. And though my heritage is indeed aristocratic on my mother’s side, the nobility of Cheliax pride themselves on their pure blood – their pure human blood. I was a product of what might be politely termed ‘youthful indiscretions’, and let’s merely say that I was never on the guest list of Queen Abrogail’s galas and leave it there.”

    She swept the hat from her head, revealing the two short, sharp horns that protruded from her hair, and giving Calassara a clearer look at her golden, slit-pupiled eyes and crimson skin. After seeing the elf’s eyes widen slightly, she calmly placed the hat back in its original position. “There,” she said. “Now you’ve learned more about me than I’ve told anyone since leaving my homeland. I trust you’re satisfied?”

    Calassara held up her hands in surrender. “I shall ask no more of you, my dear Errezha. Nonetheless, it seems to me that you are alone and in a strange place, and as it happens, so am I. Perhaps we two outsiders might stay together until the day is done and see what this festival has to offer?”

    For a long moment, Errezha considered saying no, or perhaps ignoring the chattering elf until she got the point and went off to bother someone else. But suddenly a great yawning loneliness had opened within her, a desire for friendship that she hadn’t felt since she fled from Egorian in the night all those months ago. The tiefling sighed, wondering what she was getting herself into, and then looked up at Calassara.

    “All right,” she said, “you have a deal. But two conditions. The first, no more badgering me about my past – that stays buried. And second, before we do anything else, you’re going to have to let me finish this soup.

    ///

    Caelum planted his feet firmly and gave a great have on the rope, the handful of people who stood behind him doing the same. On the other end, another group pulled in the opposite direction; the young man scowled and pulled with all his strength, and after a moment’s intense struggle he and his team stumbled back, pulling their opponents to their knees.

    “Victory is ours!” Caelum shouted, throwing up his hands and turning to the other contestants who’d pulled for his side. “Anyone cares for a drink later, it’ll be on me!” The team gave a loud cheer, save for one burly half-orc who crossed his arms and stayed silent. Caelum walked over to him and clapped him on the shoulder – the man might be surly, but he did pull harder than anyone else, after all – and his expression softened. The half-orc nodded, gave a grunt that might have been affirmation, and then turned and walked away.

    Harann came walking up to stand beside his friend. “Congratulations on your victory!” he said. “The Lady’s smiling on you today! I’d have helped out, but,” he glanced down, “I don’t think I quite have the height to be pulling on the same rope as you tall folk.”

    “Not a problem,” Caelum said, wandering away from the tug-of-war to observe some of the other games; he paused near the edge of the square where a balance-beam had been set up, and watched appreciatively as a lithe elf woman with shockingly green hair ran back and forth lightly across it, then suddenly dropped into a handstand and flipped back to her feet in a single fluid motion, drawing gasps from her audience. Grinning, she made a theatrical bow and the crowd applauded – even, Caelum noted, the woman in a hat he’d seen earlier, who’d seemed to be holding herself aloof from everything.

    After the elf jumped lightly off the beam, he turned back to Harann. “This isn’t exactly the kind of glory I’ve dreamed of winning,” he said. “But I suppose there are worse things to be than on the winning team of a Swallowtail Festival tug-of-war match. Still, I wish there were real enemies to test my mettle against.”

    Harann shook his head. “You know I appreciate a good tale, Caelum, and always hoped you’d find yourself in one someday. But… the Lady’s a good god, but a tricky one. She has ways of granting what you want in ways you don’t expect, and won’t always appreciate.”

    Caelum opened his mouth to protest, but before he could speak a young woman in a vividly colored skirt and blouse thrust herself between the two men, a large box of some sort held out before her. By her dark skin and hair, Caelum took her for one of the native Varisians, and she smiled broadly at him. “You,” she said, “look like a bold young warrior to me. Do you find yourself in need of a little extra armament? I assure you, my prices are the best in town!” She lightly flipped the lid of her box open, revealing a row of daggers of eclectic design, ranging from finely-crafted dwarven blades to a crude, broad-bladed affair that could have only been goblin make.

    Caelum opened his mouth to protest that he didn’t need a new dagger, before glancing back up at the woman’s dark eyes and mischievous smile and deciding that, perhaps, he could go for one after all when Harann broke in.

    “Can you lower that down a bit, miss?” the dwarf asked. “The hammer’s my weapon of choice if you must, but you can never be too careful on the roads around here.”

    The woman glanced down at Harann, and her eyes widened when she saw the symbol of Desna on its chain. “My, my,” she said. “My people have always revered the Great Dreamer, but you don’t see many dwarves in her service. There’s a tale there, I’d imagine.”

    Harann bowed. “True enough,” he said. “Always was the odd one of the family, I’ll admit – Da never did know what to make of it.” He frowned, regarding the weapons. “Still, one never forgets the lessons of one’s youth, as they say, and I say that’s quite a collection you have there. How’d you come by them, anyway?”

    The woman shrugged. “Oh, places.” She winked at the dwarf. “But for a fellow Desnan, I’ll even throw in a discount.”

    Harann perused the woman’s wares for what felt like an hour, but was almost certainly a fraction of that, before finally settling on a plain but particularly well-made knife. After handing over his coin, he picked it up, tossed it lightly in one hand, and then thrust it through his belt with a satisfied smile.

    “And if anyone asks where you got it,” the woman said, “tell them that Shaenn is selling –today only, so get them quick!” She waved goodbye, and began to weave her way away from them, seeking someone else who might be interested.

    “Why is it,” Caelum said when she was gone, “that the most attractive woman we’ve met today practically ignored me and spent all her time on you? She must have been foot taller than you!”

    “Must be my charm and good looks – not that you humans seem to appreciate the last part.” He scratched his beard. “Of course, it’s not like you stick to your own kind either – I saw you watching that elf girl earlier. Still, I’ve got to wonder about her wares. That was a pretty variety she had, and I’ve a feeling she didn’t come by them all by entirely honest means.”

    “Well, it’s not like either of us are paladins to go nosing around in other people’s business,” Caelum said. “It’s not as if she was hurting anyone here.”

    “True enough. Still, she was curious about my story, and I wouldn’t mind knowing hers. Maybe we’ll cross paths again later.” Harann glanced up at the sun. “Looks like it’s almost noon. Come on – you had your fun, but I don’t want to miss the swallowtail release!”

    ///

    “So, remind me again why this ritual is so important?” Errezha whispered as she leaned in towards Callasara. “We didn’t talk much about Desna in the house where I grew up – Asmodeus, it seems, is a jealous god.”

    “Keep watching and you’ll see,” the elf whispered back, elbowing her companion in the side. Errezha looked up in time to see the priest, Father Zantus, wheeling a large wagon into the square, its top covered with cloth. As the vehicle came to a halt, the crowd fell silent, and Zantus raised his hands.

    “My children,” he said, “let us take a moment on this day of celebration to remember why it began, and how it came by its name. For in ages past, legend tells us that Desna was cast down to Golarion after a fierce battle with Lamashtu, Mother of Monsters, and she was sorely hurt. A blind child found the goddess where she lay and nursed her back to health, and in gratitude for his kindness, when she was well she transformed him into an immortal swallowtail butterfly, that he might travel and experience all the wonders of the world for eternity. And so therefore in memory of the child and the goddess, we shall set these swallowtails free, that they too might travel and be a reminder of the Lady’s blessing upon all whom they encounter.”

    With a flourish, the priest pulled the covering away from the wagon, and a great swarm of brightly-colored butterflies boiled out, filling the sky above the square. Many of the spectators made appreciative sounds, and children laughed and clapped in delight as the insects swooped around them; one of the lighted on Errezha’s hat, and the tiefling almost swatted it away before restraining herself. After all, if these really were the emissaries of a goddess it wouldn’t do to offend them, she decided. Besides, they actually were rather pretty. Nearby, a young dwarf with a medallion of the goddess around his neck beamed as several of the creatures settled on his head and shoulders, and the handsome human beside him grinned and slapped him on the back affectionately.

    “Desnans believe the butterflies’ attention is a sign of good fortune,” Calassara whispered in Errezha’s ear. “No wonder the short fellow’s so happy. You got one yourself, too.”

    “I’m no Desnan,” the tiefling shot back. “And I realized a long time ago that the gods don’t show their favor to people like me.”

    “Are you sure about that?” Calassara asked; there was a faintly sad note in her voice. Errezha did not reply.

    ///

    After the release, a sumptuous afternoon meal was set out for the festival-goers, courtesy of Sandpoint’s inns and taverns. The proprietor of the Rusty Dragon, whose name, it turned out, was Ameiko, seemed to be a particular favorite of the locals, and the spiced salmon she offered today proved to be no exception, much to the consternation of the other establishments. Following the meal, the festival attractions picked up again, until finally the sun began to sink towards the horizon.

    Errezha, a small mug of Ameiko’s mead in one gloved hand, stood with Calassara near the edge of the square as the crowd began gathering again. A sudden crack like thunder split the air, silencing conversation and startling at least one stray dog who fled into the gathering dark, and everyone turned their attention towards the cathedral, where Father Zantus was once again approaching the central podium.

    “I think this is the consecration,” Calassara said softly. “Don’t bother me; I want to pay attention to this. If everything goes well, I might write a song about it.”

    Errezha said nothing, but the hairs on the back of her neck were prickling. Something seemed wrong; she couldn’t put her finger on what, but growing up as a bastard tiefling in a Chelish noble house, she’d learned long ago to trust her instincts. Was that a trick of the light, or were those tiny shadows moving between the buildings, too short to be adult humans or even dwarves, but proportioned wrongly to be children?

    If so, nobody else seemed to have picked up on it. Father Zantus took the podium; he cleared his throat once, and then opened his mouth to speak.

    Before he could utter a single word, the screaming started.

     
  4. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 2: Goblin Kill!

    The moment the first scream echoed through the square, Caelum spun towards it, one hand on the hilt of his sword; Harann, at his side, was also alert. Another scream joined the first, and then another, and then something low and fast came weaving its way through the crowd. It was a stray dog that Caelum had glimpsed earlier, and as it passed near the young man it collapsed, its throat slit and blood pooling around it. The crowd was scattering now, many of its members shouting in horror, but Caelum only swore. He saw what had been done to the dog, saw the small shapes that were now emerging from between the buildings, and he knew what foe had come to Sandpoint.

    As if in answer to his thoughts a song began, carried by a dozen high, scratchy voices until it echoed throughout the town, gleeful and horrid.

    Goblins chew and goblins bite.

    Goblins cut and goblins fight.

    Stab the dog and cut the horse,

    Goblins eat and take by force!



    Goblins race and goblins jump,

    Goblins slash and goblins bump.

    Burn the skin and bash the head,

    Goblins here and you be dead!



    Chase the baby, catch the pup.

    Bonk the head to shut it up.

    Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed,

    We be goblins! You be food!

    The goblin that had killed the dog now crouched beside a nearby wagon, licking the blood from its crude dagger with a manic grin on its face. The little terror was roughly the size of a human child, but its skin was leathery green; its head was far too wide for its body, split by a great slash of a mouth and topped by two huge bat-like ears. The creature giggled harshly as several more of its kind crept forward to stand beside it, their beady eyes fixed on the few who remained in the square with wicked anticipation.

    In an instant, Caelum’s sword was out of its sheath and levelled at the first goblin. “Are you just here to kill animals and scare townsfolk, or are you brave enough to take on a real warrior?” he challenged; his blood was thundering in his veins, and righteous anger swelled in his heart. He felt more than a match for however many of the beats might be lurking nearby.

    The goblin bared its teeth in what might have been a grin or a snarl and lunged forward, dagger raised. Caelum parried its strikes with ease, but his opponent was two quick to be easily struck, capering around him with manic glee. Raising its blade, it prepared to leap on the human, but stumbled back as Harann smashed his small hammer into the side of its head. Dazed, the goblin looked up just in time to see the stroke from Caelum’s sword that took off its head.

    “Pick on someone your own size,” the dwarf spat at the corpse.

    Caelum grinned. “Anyone else ready for a fight? I’m not even out of breath!” The goblins glanced at one another and began to giggle shrilly, and then as one they charged toward the two companions.

    Suddenly another voice rang out, one that certainly belonged to no goblin and carried a weight of power behind it. “Sleep!” it commanded, and Caelum turned towards its source to see one of the others who’d remained in the square, the woman in the dark clothes and hat, who had raised one hand imperiously and pointed it towards the attackers. The goblins blinked and stumbled; one of them stood still, and then his eyes rolled back in his skull and he fell face-first to the ground, where he began snoring loudly. Now, only three of the creatures remained on their feet.

    Behind the dark woman was the green-haired elf, who now had a rapier in her hand and carried it with easy familiarity. She regarded the goblins coolly and then threw back her head and began to sing a trilling elvish war song; Caelum couldn’t understand the words, but he didn’t need to in order to feel his courage and strength roused, and the goblin song that still echoed across Sandpoint was swallowed and diminished, a memory of a threat.

    Now the goblins charged again, two of them heading towards Caelum and Harann, the other towards the women. They were met with steel and fury; one fell with Caelum’s sword in its chest, the other to a heavy blow from Harann’s hammer. The final goblin lunged for the dark woman; she attempted another spell, but the creature struck before she completed the casting, scoring a long gash along her arm. The woman stumbled and the goblin cackled, but before it could strike again, the elf’s rapier took it through the throat.

    “Nasty things,” the elf said, her musical accent showing through even when speaking Taldane. She helped her companion to her feet and examined her wounded arm. “This isn’t particularly good,” she murmured, “especially considering how filthy goblin weapons usually are.”

    “I’m all right,” the other woman said, her accent clipped and imperious; she pulled away from the elf, and as she did so Caelum caught a glimpse of the skin under her sleeve, and on her face – bright red, and her eyes were yellow like a cat’s.

    “Is that a hellspawn?” he murmured in surprise.

    “For the moment, I don’t care what she is – what matters is that she’s on our side,” Harann replied, and stepped forward. “Excuse me, milady, but perhaps the Lady’s favor might help with that?”

    The tiefling woman regarded the dwarf darkly, and for a moment Caelum thought she would refuse, but finally she nodded wordlessly. Harann stepped forward, placed his hand on her arm, and murmured a short prayer; there was a flash of light, and then she held her arm up, the gash vanished.

    “My thanks,” she said, seeming almost surprised by the admission.

    “It was nothing more than what was due an ally in the fight,” Harann said, bowing at the waist. “My name is Harann, and my friend is Caelum; who might you be?”

    “I am called Calassara,” said the elf, “and my gloomy companion is Errezha.”

    “Well, perhaps no one else has noticed,” the tiefling said, “but now that we all know each other, why don’t you take a look around and see that this fight is far from over?” Caelum, who had been staring intently at the goblin corpses so as not to be seen focusing overmuch on the exotic elf, quickly raised his gaze, and was struck at once with what she meant. The square was largely empty now, but the rest of Sandpoint was not so lucky. Several buildings were afire, and the sounds of goblins cackling wildly as they raced through the streets and engaged any locals who dared fight back.

    Suddenly a blaze burst into being from the far end of the square. In its light, the shapes of numerous goblins could be seen capering about it, lighting torches and drawing weapons; two taller figures seemed to be surrounded and fighting back, but they couldn’t hold for long.

    “I think that if we want to fight, that would be our best bet!” Caelum said; the other three nodded in agreement and they began to quickly make their way towards the flames, three with weapons raised, and one preparing to cast another spell.

    ///

    Behind the cathedral, and near Sandpoint’s edge, far from the chaos that was enveloping the rest of the town, the night was suddenly split by the sound of nails scrabbling for purchase along stone. A number of goblins scrambled over the town cemetery’s walls and rushed inside, their usually high spirits subdued. Following close behind them came a taller figure, human-high and human featured, but with the pointed ears indicative of elven heritage not far back in his bloodline. The half-elf smiled coolly to himself as he walked among the graves, stopping at last when he came to a large stone structure that stood apart from the rest. Here were housed the remains of Sandpoint’s priests; here, he would find what he sought.

    “This it?” one of the goblins asked beside the man, pulling a hammer from his belt; beside him, the other goblins did likewise.

    The man smiled and placed a hand on the vault door. “Yes,” he said, “this is it. Break it down.”

    The goblins grinned and began to beat the door with their hammers, and the man watched them work with satisfaction. Oh, yes, he thought. She will be pleased…

    ///

    Errezha’s eyes widened as she took in the scene unfolding at the end of the square. A number of the goblins had found a cart filled with fuel that was apparently intended for the bonfire later that evening; the little menaces had seemingly managed to get it alight and now several of them held makeshift torches with which they were threatening a pair of locals they’d backed into a corner. The tiefling recognized the victims as a burly half-orc she’d seen competing in the tug-of-war earlier, and the Varisian woman who’d been hawking an eclectic collection of knives. The woman now had one of those blades in each hand; the half-orc just had his fists, but those looked like they were probably more than sufficient.

    Behind the cart, another goblin crouched; this one looked subtly different from the others – a female, maybe? Yes, that seemed right. Regardless, she had her head thrown back and was croaking out more of the hideous song.

    Caelum scowled and strode forward, sword raised; a foolish gesture, Errezha thought, though she had to admit it looked impressive. “Cowardly beasts!” he shouted. “Come and face a warrior who’s ready for you, why don’t you?”

    Three of the goblins turned towards him, grinning and waving their torches. Errezha smiled darkly; at least in her case, that was unlikely to be as effective as they’d like – her kind didn’t burn easily. But if they liked fire, more could be easily provided. Slowly, she raised her hands before her, watching the goblins approach as she felt the dark power of the Hells, that curse or gift of her infernal heritage, welling in her veins. Just as the goblins closed, but before Caelum could leap into the fray, she spoke the words of power under her breath. The power surged beneath her skin, and flame leapt from her hands; the nearest goblin was wreathed in them and gave a ghastly shriek, falling to the ground and rolling about before finally going still. The other two goblins came up short; their expressions hardened, and they dropped their torches and pulled their heavy knives.

    Caelum met the first goblin hand to hand, quickly trading blows with his smaller adversary. A blow from the goblin’s blade struck his leg, digging in deep; the human grimaced and struck back with a mighty swing, sending the goblin reeling backwards – where it was met by Harann’s mace. The third goblin darted around the man and dwarf and charged straight for Calassara, who held her rapier at the ready and wore an unconcerned smile on her face. Errezha raised her hands to cast again, but the elf beat her to it, darting out of the goblin’s reach and making a quick gesture with her free hand as she muttered an incantation of her own. At once the air around her seemed to ripple; whatever the spell was, it had no effect on Errezha. The goblin was another story. The creature’s eyes widened; it shrieked at the top of its lungs, dropped its weapon, and ran off into the night, howling in terror.

    Elsewhere, the Varisian woman and the half-orc were holding their own against the two remaining goblins who threatened them, a heavy fist or darting blade keeping the little creatures darting backwards. Still, neither of them had managed to land a telling blow, and the goblin female had come forward and now stood immediately beside the wagon, egging her companions on with her song.

    “I think she’s the ringleader,” Caelum grunted as he knelt on the ground, Harann examining his wounded leg. “But I don’t think she’s about to let us get close to her – look how she’s hanging back.”

    “Let me handle that,” Errezha said, and brought her hands through arcane passes as she murmured the words of another spell. The goblin singer froze and stumbled; her song ceased as her eyes lost focus. “Now!” the tiefling shouted, not caring who heard.

    The Varisian woman responded. Raising her eyes from the goblin that threatened her, she lifted a hand and threw her dagger in a single fluid motion. The blade arced through the sky and took the dazed goblin warchanter through the throat; she collapsed to the ground with a faint gurgle of complaint, and as soon as the surviving two goblins saw her fall, they dropped their weapons and fled.

    The Varisian stepped forward and regarded Caelum and Harann with an amused expression. “Well, well,” she said. “Looks like pretty boy’s sword wasn’t just for show after all. My thanks for the assistance.”

    “Shaenn, right?” Caelum asked, wincing as Harann began to mouth another healing prayer. “It looked to me like you were hardly helpless yourself.”

    The woman smiled fiercely. “I know my merchandise,” she said, and turned towards the warchanter’s corpse, presumably to retrieve her dagger. “Not that I’ll ever sell this one – it’ll smell like goblin for months.”

    There was a flare of light and Caelum stood, rubbing his newly healed leg. He looked at the half-orc. “And I think this is the second time today we’ve been on the same team,” he said. “I’m Caelum.”

    The half-orc nodded. “Drall,” he said. Obviously a man of few words, a fact of which Errezha approved, though there was a keen intelligence in his eyes nonetheless. He regarded each of the others in turn, and when his eyes finally rested on her he studied her for a long moment, then gave a brief nod of respect. She returned it, tiefling to half-orc – one not-quite-human outsider to another.

    Looking away from Drall, Errezha turned her gaze back to the rest of Sandpoint. The chaos seemed to be dying down; she saw several dead goblins but no live ones, and with the disruption of these torch-bearers here, it looked like they hadn’t managed to set any more of the town ablaze. Several wounded or terrified citizens clustered near the door of the cathedral; Father Zantus was with them, and currently seemed to be in the process of using his own magic to heal one man who’s suffered a particularly nasty blow. The sounds of battle could be heard in the distance, punctuated by the occasional shout of a watchman or shrilling shriek of a goblin, but it appeared the situation was regaining some measure of order and control.

    Suddenly a scream rang out from the north, accompanied by frantic barking and howling. Errezha felt little desire to engage in more fighting with the invaders, but looking at her newfound companions, she saw their resolve hardening. “Come on!” Caelum shouted, and turned to run towards the sound; the others nodded and sprinted after him.

    Errezha cursed them under her breath for fools, and then herself for the biggest fool of all, and joined them.

    ///



    Near Sandpoint’s north gate, a particularly bold group of goblins had cornered their quarry. A large dog stood with its feet planted firmly before a large rain barrel, behind which cowered a humanoid figure Caelum couldn’t quite make out. Facing the dog were four goblins with blades drawn; three of them were afoot, but the apparent leader was mounted on one of the most hideous creatures the young man had ever seen. Goblins hated dogs, as their actions here aptly demonstrated, and indeed hated canines of all kinds – save for the things they called goblin dogs, which looked more like the oversized rats some scholars said they truly were than any sort of respectable beast. Such creatures served the goblins as guardians, and their most elite warriors as mounts; clearly, such was what Caelum and his companions now faced.

    The true dog lunged forward suddenly, giving a fierce howl, but the goblin warrior was ready; he reared his goblin dog back and then brought his blade down with a gleeful yelp. There was a sickening thud and the dog collapsed, sprawling in the dirt; the goblins gave a riotous cheer at their victory.

    Caelum scowled; he’d always liked dogs. The hound’s sacrifice, however, had not been in vain; the goblins were outnumbered now, and they were too distracted to have realized it.

    Errezha struck first; the tiefling woman brought up her hands and spoke sizzling arcane words, and once more flames burst from her palms, striking the goblin leader and his mount. The goblin dog shrieked and leaped into the air; its rider struggled to maintain control and finally brought his beast around so that they faced their new threat, smoke and sparks still clinging to them.

    “All right, you beast,” Caelum snarled, raising his own blade. “How about you take on someone who can actually fight back instead of that poor creature?”

    The goblin regarded him for a moment, and then a grin split is oversize head grotesquely apart. “Kill!” it shrieked, pointing its blade, and then all four goblins charged.

    Caelum felt Harann’s hand rest on his free arm, and heard his friend murmur a quick prayer to Desna. A faintly shimmering light sprung into being around him, and the young warrior smiled; the Lady’s magic wouldn’t make him invulnerable, but it could certainly provide some protection against those of ill intent. The goblin brought his blade down, but it struck the light and was unable to penetrate deeply; Caelum struck the creature directly in the face with the pommel of his sword, knocking it cleanly from its mount’s back. The goblin dog shied and pulled away.

    Beside him, he could hear Calassara’s voice lifted once more in elven song as she danced lightly around a goblin, striking with her rapier. Drall smashed another of the creatures to the ground with his fist while grumbling under his breath about not having his bow, and as it struggled to rise Shaenn slipped behind it and casually slew it with one of her daggers. The final goblin had corralled his leader’s mount, and now the warrior was pulling himself back onto the goblin dog’s back, snarling imprecations.

    Now the other two surviving goblins, one still bleeding from Calassara’s rapier, crouched defensively before the goblin dog, while the leader sheathed his knife and drew a short bow. The goblin grinned and laughed as he fitted an arrow to the string, but before he could fire Errezha spoke another quick incantation. The goblin’s eyes went slack and his shot went wild; before he could prepare another, Caelum, Harann, and Calassara were charging forward. The standing goblins shrieked at the sight and charged forward; Harann planted his feet and let one of them slam into him, then struck the creature down with his mace as it stumbled back. Calassara, meanwhile, darted back and forth before her opponent, singing a mesmerizing tune as the goblin swayed back and forth, enthralled. Finally, it seemed to shake itself from its stupor, but even as it raised its knife to strike back, the elf’s rapier penetrated its throat. The goblin collapsed, whimpering.

    Now only the goblin leader remained, facing Caelum astride his mount. The human raised his blade in salute. “Shall we go again?” he asked with a mocking smile.

    The goblin dropped his bow and drew his blade once again. “Kill you!” he shrieked, and then the goblin dog was charging. Caelum brought his blade up, a second two slow; the goblin dog tackled him and knocked him to his back. Now the creature crouched atop him, lowering its jaws to his throat; suddenly it started, gave a whimper, and collapsed, Caelum’s sword in its belly.

    The young man forced the creature off him and rolled to his feet, facing the battered, humiliated, but still very much alive goblin warrior. Caelum’s opponent snarled, raised its blade, and prepared to charge, but before it could move was struck by another blast of fire from behind, where Errezha had approached while it was distracted. The tiefling woman’s smile was cool and clinical as the goblin burned; Caelum shivered slightly and decided that this woman was not someone he ever wanted to be on the bad side off.

    The goblin shrieked and rolled to the ground; burned, but his crude leather armor seemed to have absorbed the worst of the flame. Pulling himself back to his feet, he bared his teeth in a snarl and lunged, only to be cut off as his head was sliced neatly from his shoulders by Caelum’s sword.

    “Well, I for one am glad the others died more easily than that one,” Errezha said, poking the goblin’s corpse with her toe while regarding it with an expression of profound distaste.

    “Are they gone?” a man’s voice suddenly asked from behind the water barrel. A head rose into view, followed by the rest of the speaker, a handsome human in fine clothes that were now in a state of utter disarray. “Thank the gods! I thought those beasts would be the end of me! It is fortunate indeed that you came along when you did, friends.”

    “And who, exactly, might you be?” Calassara asked, stepping forward. Her eyes roved over the man’s attire, then to his face. “A man of some consequence, I would guess.”

    “Aldern Foxglove – Lord Aldern Foxglove – at your service,” the man said; his eyes widened as he took in the elf who had addressed him, and he smiled. “My view was limited from behind that barrel, but from what I did see, milady, you wielded your blade most skillfully. Beauty and skill at arms are rare enough by themselves – to see them in a single person, why ‘tis a most extraordinary thing indeed!” Suddenly stooping, he took Calassara’s hand and kissed it gently. Caelum felt a sudden surge of irritation he couldn’t place.

    “My… my thanks,” the elf finally stammered, for once seemingly at a loss for words. Foxglove straightened and let her hand drop.

    “Well,” he said, looking around; the sounds of battle had largely died down, and no live goblins were visible, “it looks like this nightmare is finally dying down. Bloody awful way to end a holiday, isn’t it? Seems to be safe enough now for me to be on my way before any more of the brutes that might show up; I’m staying at the Rusty Dragon for the next few days. I’ll be sure to make the tale of your heroic rescue of myself known, and hopefully before I leave I’ll be able to find some more concrete way to pay back my debt to you all.” Though he stressed the all, his gaze lingered a moment longer on Calassara.

    “I am staying at the Rusty Dragon as well, as is at least one of my friends,” the elf said, nodding at Errezha. “Perhaps we could accompany you?”

    “Of course, of course!” Foxglove said, glancing around nervously. “Now, let’s get going! I don’t know if any of those things had friends, but if so, I’d rather not meet them tonight!”

    ///

    By the time Aldern Foxglove was safely returned to his room, the battle for Sandpoint had been decided. The surviving goblins fled north, some of them tumbling from cliffs in their haste to avoid capture. Several of them, including one that Errezha’s magic had sent to sleep in the square, were taken alive, but when questioned by Sheriff Hemlock, none of them could provide any information on their battle plan or its goal. It seemed, the sheriff thought in disgust, that none of the creatures had actually bothered to learn any details beyond killing and burning; they couldn’t even recall the raid’s ultimate ringleader’s name. What drew the sheriff’s attention, however, was the one goblin who insisted that the leader had not been one of his kind at all, but a human, though he couldn’t give any information on the man’s identity more complex than “one of you longshanks.”

    Thus, it wasn’t until the next morning that the townsfolk discovered that the vault in the graveyard had been broken open, and the body of Father Ezakien Tobyn, late priest of Desna, had been stolen in the night.





     
  5. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 3: Grave Robber

    Errezha awoke to the sound of someone pounding loudly on the door to her rented room. The tiefling groaned, rolled over, and pulled her pillow tightly around her ears, taking care not to puncture it with her horns, and attempted to go back to sleep, but whoever was knocking proved quite insistent. Finally, baring her teeth in a snarl, she leaped to her feet, pulled her sleeping robe more tightly around her and stalked to the door, opening it a crack so that she could see Calassara on the other side. From what little she could make out of her face, the elf seemed damnably happy for this early in the morning.

    “What do you want?” Errezha asked tersely. “I hope it was worth waking me up for.” She – barely – managed to restrain herself from adding for your sake to the end of that sentence.

    “It’s not that early,” Calassara said brightly. “But I think you might want to come down to the common room. Something is going on there that you should probably see.”

    “Fine.” Errezha pulled the door shut and quickly changed into her day clothes, taking a moment to make certain her hat was adjusted properly to cover her horns and shade her eyes. That done, she stepped out to the hallway where Calassara waited, and followed the elf to the Rusty Dragon’s common room.

    The two women were greeted by the sight of a small crowd of locals and guests gathered around none other than Aldern Foxglove, who raised a mug in salutation as they approached. “And here they are, two of the heroes of the hour!” He gave a jaunty bow in Calassara’s direction. “As I was saying, last night this lovely elf and her companions saved me from almost certain goblinning! Must have taken on half the raiding party by themselves! A hand for them, if you please!”

    A round of polite applause followed, and Calassara found herself swept forward to give her own account of the battle; halting at first, but soon being told (and embellished) with fervor as she warmed to the topic. A couple of patrons had made to put a hand on Errezha’s shoulder or shake her hand, but drew back hesitantly when they caught sight of the features beneath the hat’s rim. Most people, she’d found, were wary of her, whether from her overtly fiendish features or some deeper, more inexplicable sense of disquiet that derived from her heritage; the tiefling didn’t mind as much as she might have, because in all honesty she didn’t much care for most other people either.

    One person who did not share this instinctive revulsion was the inn’s proprietor, Ameiko. Threading her way through the crowd, the gold-skinned woman took hold of Errezha’s arm and lightly steered her off to the side. “I’d like to take a moment to extend my own congratulations on your heroism last night,” she said. “Tell your friends that if they want to stay here for the rest of the week, the rooms are free. Least I can do.”

    “You don’t have to do that, really,” Errezha said. “Honestly, it wasn’t as exciting as Foxglove made it out.”

    The innkeeper chuckled. “It never is, is it? But Aldern’s always been too readily distracted by a pretty face and some fancy swordplay, or so the rumors say. That said, it sounds like your group took care of more goblins than anyone else did; even without Aldern talking you up, people were going to notice.”

    They turned back to watch Calassara as she finished her account of the battle with the goblin leader and gave an exaggerated bow; once again, her audience burst into applause. Glancing across the gathered patrons, Errezha noticed Shaenn, who seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, and Drall, who had what seemed to be his customary stoic scowl but seemed to be faintly rolling his eyes, among them. The tiefling frowned.

    “I don’t see Caelum or Harann,” she said. “That’s the human warrior and the dwarf priest. Do you have any idea where they are?”

    Ameiko shrugged. “The consecration of the cathedral got moved to today. I think the dwarf wanted to be there and dragged his friend along.” She paused for a moment, then glanced up and down Errezha’s lean frame. “Mind if I get you something to eat? On the house.”

    Errezha had been going to protest that she wasn’t hungry, but the fact that her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly made that out of the question. Sheepishly, she permitted herself to be led to a nearby table and Ameiko hurried off to fetch some breakfast. No sooner had the innkeeper left than Calassara sat down in a chair beside her, followed shortly by Aldern Foxglove across the table.

    Errezha arched an eyebrow. “Enjoyed that, did you?” she asked.

    Calassara laughed. “I told you I was a teller of tales when we met,” she said. “And I don’t believe I ever said that I wouldn’t tell my own! Pardon, our own, I should say.” She sighed. “A pity no one asked me to sing. I can certainly do better than that ghastly goblin war chant.”

    Foxglove chuckled. “I’ve no doubt about that!” he said. “But if you want a fresh story to tell, I’ve been planning a little boar hunt in the Tickwood for this afternoon, and I was hoping you’d come along. Your friend Drall agreed earlier, but the event simply wouldn’t be complete without the loveliest elf in Sandpoint in attendance,” his gaze slid to Errezha and he dipped his head in acknowledgement, “and your friend of course, as well.”

    “I would be honored,” Calassara said. “I must admit, I find an afternoon in the woods invigorating after having spent the last several days in town.” She glanced to Errezha questioningly.

    The tiefling shrugged. “My family are wealthy,” she said. “It wouldn’t be my first hunting party, and I can think of worse things to do with my time.”

    Foxglove beamed. “It’ll be a grand outing, then!” he said, and then stood up and departed. Shortly thereafter, Ameiko arrived with a pair of bowls of some sort of porridge that tasted surprisingly delicious, and Errezha found herself eating ravenously. Before she could finish, however, the door to the inn opened and three figures entered. The first two were Caelum and Harann, looking decidedly grim; following behind was a man Errezha thought she recognized from the festival as the town sheriff.

    “This,” Calassara said, putting down her spoon, “bodes poorly.”

    ///

    “I trust this doesn’t mean we’re all under arrest, does it?” Calassara asked as she, Errezha, Drall, and Shaenn followed the sheriff and the other two “heroes” from the inn. Around them, Sandpoint seemed to be springing back to life from the previous night’s raid, though many buildings still bore the signs of burning and other battle damage. Carpenters had already begun making repairs to some of them, however, and every so often a passing villager would recognize the group and pause to smile or wave at them.

    “No,” the man – Hemlock, that was his name - said tersely, though his gaze did darken somewhat as it swept past the tiefling. “There’s been a… disturbance at the cathedral. Early this morning, Father Zantus went to the Sandpoint Boneyard and found something that troubled him. His predecessor, Father Tobyn, was buried in a crypt there after he died, and this morning that crypt’s door was ajar. Father Tobyn was popular here, as was his daughter Nualia, whose body was never found after the fire that claimed both their lives, but their memory isn’t the only cause for concern. Father Zanthus fears that the crypt may have been breached during the raid last night, and something might have entered and desecrated the bodies – and might still be there. He came to me for help, and on the way I happened to run across these two young gentlemen being thanked profusely for their efforts last night.” He gestured to Caelum and Harann. “Let’s just say I was curious about all of you, and what you can do.”

    “It’s probably just some goblin that got lost and couldn’t tell a tomb from a doghouse,” Caelum said lightly. “But I didn’t see the harm in coming along, and Harann didn’t like it when he heard a Desnan priest’s grave got ripped open.”

    “I’m sure he didn’t,” the sheriff murmured, eyes lingering of the dwarf’s holy symbol. “Desna is not a typically dwarven deity, I would think. There must be a story behind how you entered her service.”

    “Not as interesting as you’d think,” Harann said. “I grew up in Magnimar, Ma and Da were blacksmiths and wanted me to follow in the family business, but I guess it never seemed right to me. I always wanted to travel, to see new places and meet new people, not be cooped up in a shop in one city for the rest of my life. One day I met a Desnan, and the Lady just seemed to fit; the priestess took me under her wing and taught me, and that was that.” He chuckled. “I told my parents I was leaving and they looked at me like I wanted to fly to Castrovel; Da’s probably still drinking over it, and Ma’s wondering where she went wrong. Ah, well. They’re good folk, they’ll come around.”

    “I’m from Magnimar too, and was training as a swordsman so that I could maybe get into the guard,” Caelum said. “I grew up not that far from Harann’s family forge; we’ve always known each other a bit. I wanted to test myself against real enemies, and he wanted to see the world, so we decided to adventure together. That’s about it.”

    Hemlock stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well, it sounds like you both comported yourself well last night, so I’d say whatever training you had, it paid off.” He turned to regard the other members of the group. “Shaenn and Drall I recognize, though I admit I don’t know either of you well. You’re both from near the town, I believe.”

    Drall grunted, but Shaenn grinned. “Technically, I’m more of a traveler,” she said, “but I’ve always had a bit of affection for this place. Mostly I sell blades, but I can use them too.” She flicked her fingers and a knife seemed to suddenly appear between them. “A girl can’t be too careful.” Another flick and the blade was gone.

    Hemlock nodded, and his gaze came to rest on the final two members of the group. “And I’m afraid you ladies have me at a loss,” he said, “though I saw you both in the crowd yesterday, of course. You’re both rather… distinctive, I must admit.”

    “Calassara of Kyonin, at your service,” the elf said with a flourish. “Though I’m afraid it’s been some time since I’ve seen my homeland. My calling is to tell tales and sing songs, and to seek out new ones when the ones I know have run stale. On occasion, I compose a bit myself. Perhaps I’ll put the events here in song.” She winked. “I’ll put in a good word for you, Sheriff, so long as you were serious about not arresting me.”

    “We’ll see,” Hemlock said neutrally; he didn’t seem to know quite what to make of the elf, a reaction with which Errezha commiserated. Now the sheriff’s gaze turned to her. “And you,” he said slowly, “are a…” his voice trailed off, as if uncertain what term one used in polite company.

    “Tiefling, hellspawn, devilkin, I’ve heard them all,” Errezha said. “Don’t bother asking about where I come from or what my story is; I’m from Cheliax and I’m never going back, and that’s all I’m willing to share.” She snapped her fingers and sparks flicked from them, accompanied by the sourceless sound of roaring flame. “But, if you require magic worked, you may find me reasonable.”

    “Interesting,” Hemlock said; the group was now approaching the cathedral. “So, am I correct in assuming that you never worked together before yesterday?”

    “That is true,” Calassara said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be of help with whatever has invaded your priest’s crypt, of course.”

    “That’s not why I asked,” the sheriff said delicately. “It seems to be that most of you are travelers who lack stable situations or employment, and in some cases,” his gaze slid to Errezha once more, “may not have any homes to return to. But you all comported yourself admirably last night, and I had been hoping to interest you in a lasting contract with the town as a team of allied adventurers.” He smiled thinly. “After last night’s… unpleasantness, I think it might be a relationship that would be advantageous to all concerned.”

    “Well,” Caelum said slowly, “that does sound interesting. Unless anyone objects,” he glanced at the others, none of whom spoke up, “I’d have to say that speaking just for myself, I’d be up for it.”

    “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Hemlock replied; they rounded the cathedral and came to stand in front of the Boneyard gate. “I’d like to see you all in action with my own eyes first.”

    ///

    Father Zantus was waiting by the crypt as the sheriff and his companions approached. “Thank you for coming, friends,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the door to the small stone vault, that now hung slightly askew on its hinges. “I’m not sure if there’s anything dangerous still around, but, well, something clearly happened here last night, and in my experience strange happenings involving graveyards and old bones aren’t something to be taken lightly.”

    “Whatever it is, Father,” Hemlock said reassuringly, “we’ll handle it.” He looked over his shoulder at the adventurers, who nodded; Caelum put his hand on his sword, and he could hear the others behind him taking a hold of their own weapons or, in Errezha’s case, raising her hands. The others, that is, save for Drall, who snorted, stepped forward, and knelt on the ground near the tomb, regarding it intently.

    “In all your excitement,” he finally said, “I guess you didn’t bother looking at what was in front of you. Typical. There’s footprints here, and they can tell us something about whoever was here last night.” He bent even closer, examining the churned earth intently. “Yeah, what I thought. Goblins were here, maybe about a half dozen of them, give or take on or two. Not just goblins, though. Someone bigger, who wore boots. Human by the shape of them, I’d guess, but maybe a half-elf or half-orc, or even a full elf with big feet.” He stood up, brushed himself off, and nodded at the crypt. “That’s the one who’d did that, mark my words.”

    “Drall,” Caelum said slowly, “I think that’s the most words I’ve heard out of you all morning, or even last night. Are you sure about this?”

    The half-orc shrugged. “I live outside of town, hunt a lot. You pick these things up. Yeah, I’m sure about the tracks. As for who broke down that door – well, you’d ever know a goblin who’d bother with old bones when there was houses to burn and dogs to kill? Me neither.”

    “Well, then,” Calassara said, hefting her rapier, “I guess there’s another player here. Let’s be extra careful, shall we?”

    Caelum nodded once, then looked back to Drall and the sheriff. The half orc grunted, stepped forward, and pressed his weight against the broken door, which fell in easily. Drall stumbled forward slightly as it gave way – and then just as suddenly jumped back as a pair of creatures from a nightmare lunged from the crypt’s interior.

    Human skeletons strode into the morning light, two of them, their bones gleaming white in the sun’s rays, their eye sockets open and staring. Clattering dully, they charged towards the companions, but Harann was as fast. The dwarf raised his medallion of Desna in one hand and cried aloud “By the Lady’s light, begone, creatures!” A gleam of light burst from the medallion, and both skeletons halted, quaking, and then fell back to cower against the crypt’s side. Caelum lunged forward and struck with his sword, one blow, two, three. The thing staggered, bits falling from its fleshless form, but it did not fall. Then Calassara was at his side, grinning as she brought her blade up and through the fragile bones of its neck. The skeleton’s head rolled away, and the body collapsed heartbeats later.

    The other skeleton had recovered from Harann’s magic and now charged towards the other adventurers. Shaenn dropped to the ground in front of it, then swept her leg out beneath it; the clumsy creature stumbled and collapsed by her side. Jaw clattering, it turned to the Varisian woman and began to crawl towards her while she fumbled for blade, but then another woman’s voice hissed sibilant words and the skeleton was engulfed in fire. Shaenn turned to see Errezha lower hands that still smoked faintly and nodded in thanks.

    “Undead!” Father Zantus exclaimed as Shaenn scrambled to her feet and Caelum and Calassara sheathed their weapons. “Well, I think that confirms this was no ordinary goblin raid. Hopefully there aren’t any more surprises waiting for us inside.”

    Drall stuck his head in the crypt, Harann close behind and holding up his medallion; the half-orc pulled out after a moment and shook his head. “All empty,” Harann confirmed, “thank Desna!”

    The group stepped inside slowly and warily nonetheless. The interior of the crypt was small and bare, its only notable feature a large sarcophagus in the center. As Caelum approached, he gasped; the sarcophagus’ lid had been pushed off and onto the floor, and the body that had once rested within was gone. “Well,” he said faintly, “I think we know what whoever did this was after, at least.”

    “Are you saying that Father Tobyn’s body is gone?” Zantus asked, pushing his way forward to see for himself. When his eyes fell on the empty sarcophagus, they widened in horror and he mouthed a brief prayer to Desna.

    “Whoever did this is long gone,” Sheriff Hemlock said darkly, “but they got what they came for. I don’t know what anyone would want with a dead priest’s bones, but between that and those skeletons, I don’t like the smell of this at all.”

    “Well, whoever they are, they left something behind,” Shaenn said; stepping to a corner of the crypt, she bent down and held up a plain, dark robe. “Fashionable, no? But unless it belonged to the Father or the good people of Sandpoint like to leave their clothing for the dead, I can only think it must have belonged to our mysterious graverobber.”

    “Let me see that,” Errezha said suddenly. Shaenn raised an eyebrow but tossed the robe over; Caelum watched the tiefling sorceress – or was she a wizard? He wasn’t sure – as she ran her hands along it and then mouthed a quick spell. She studied the robe a moment longer, then shook her head. “It’s magical,” she said, “or at least it was, but the energy is very faint. I think most of its power must have been used up – probably making our friends outside.”

    “Well,” Sheriff Hemlock finally said, “it seems like our raid last night may have just been a cover for what was going on here – someone seems to have put a lot of effort into stealing the Father’s bones My gut says this isn’t over yet. Keep this to yourselves for now,” he said with a noticeable glance in Calassara’s direction; the elf-woman shrugged innocently. “I don’t want to go scaring people until I have more of an idea of what’s going on. But you all impressed me out there, and my offer to recruit you as an adventuring party for the town stands.” He looked down at the empty tomb and then back up at Caelum, who felt the weight of the man’s eyes boring into him. “I have a feeling we’ll be needing you before long.”

    ///

    Several miles to the north and east of Sandpoint, along the coast of the Nettlewood, there lay the old stronghold called Thistletop. For years it had been the site of a goblin lair, and presently was the seat of power for the self-proclaimed Warchief Ripnugget, who was proud to have claimed the strongest position of any goblin chieftain in the region, a place to which his people had long been drawn by a calling they felt only faintly and barely understood; for Thistletop had a history that stretched back into the deeps of time, to older and darker masters than any who dwelt there now.

    The man who now walked through the fortress’s crumbling halls and who had led the raid on Sandpoint knew little of that history, and cared less. He cared only for she who had sent him on his mission and who even now awaited him below – she who was his beloved, the light of his world, the true architect of the raid and other, deeper plans. He had passed through the crude throne room where the goblins and their chieftain had been carousing, celebrating their victory, and now wound his way ever deeper into Thistletop’s ancient depths.

    He passed winding halls lined with bedchambers, cages, and lairs, and came at last to a pair of large stone doors, decorated with vivid descriptions of pregnant women giving birth to horrifying monstrosities of all descriptions. Three people waited for him there; a tall man dressed as a warrior, a dark-skinned, lovely woman (though not so lovely as she who waited within, in the man’s opinion) in a hooded cloak, and a creature who resembled a goblin but towered nearly half again as tall as a human and whose body was thick with muscle. Orik, Lyrie, and Bruthazmus; his allies in this current undertaking.

    “You’re back,” the human, Orik said; he noted the bundle in the man’s arms and nodded. “Looks like you got what you came for, then.”

    “I did,” the man said. “Is she inside?”

    “She awaits,” Lyrie said; the white cat who crouched at her feet mewed loudly. “I’d not keep her waiting if I was you.”

    “I don’t intend to,” the man said; stepping forward, ignoring Bruthazmus’s deep-throated growl, he pushed the doors open and stepped inside.

    Within was a chapel altogether different from the cathedral in Sandpoint, and dedicated to a far darker god. The chamber was lined with dark pillars and fonts from which frothy water poured, and at the far end was an altar of dark stone. Behind the altar was a statue that depicted a humanoid woman with monstrous features, pregnant and with a blade raised in each outstretched hand; the demon goddess Lamashtu, mother of monsters.

    A figure crouched before the altar, head bowed and seemingly deep in prayer. The man cleared his throat loudly and the figure stood and turned, revealing itself to be a tall woman in black armor that left her scarred midriff bare. It was her face, however, that was her most striking feature, for it was lovely, hauntingly so, even inhumanly so – though that wasn’t, in the man’s opinion, a bad thing. Her features were fine, her violet eyes bright and her long hair a shimmering silver. When she saw the man approach, she smiled.

    “I have a gift for you, my love,” he said, kneeling and opening the bundle he carried; a human skeleton rather more lifeless than the ones he’d left at the Sandpoint crypt spilled out. “One full set of old priest’s bones, just as requested.”

    “You’ve done well,” the woman said, “and I know that the Dark Mother is pleased with our work. My father’s bones will be the key to the first step, and soon I’ll shed this form and be reborn as one of her children – as I should have been.”

    She put her hands on the man’s shoulders and drew him towards her, and he planted a firm and passionate kiss on the lips of she who was his leader and his love, the priestess of Lamashtu – Nualia Tobyn, whose father’s bones lay all but forgotten for now on the floor beside them.
     
  6. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Excellent tale weaving here, and for readers like this one who is unfamiliar with Pathfinder or Runelords, nice exposition on each species' differences. The action with the battle of the goblins really sparkled, and now I'll be hearing 'we be goblins, you be food' in my head all day.:cool:
     
  7. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 4: Celebrity and Shame

    I, Errezha thought, tilting her head back so she could glare up balefully at the sun from beneath the brim of her hat, really do hate hunting.

    The tiefling sat astride a horse, which was the first part of the problem. She’d never been much of a horsewoman; something about her presence made the creatures uneasy, and though she’d learned to calm them enough to ride, she’d never been comfortable in the saddle. The present beast belonged to Aldern and was a brown mare who seemed placid enough; horse and rider had reached an unspoken understanding in which they were each aware that neither was enjoying this but would tolerate each other’s company in the name of getting it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.

    The second problem rode several yards ahead on the road through the Tickwood, and his name was Aldern Foxglove. The damnable man never seemed to shut up, and was currently engaging Calassara in some dialogue the two of them seemed enraptured by. On the plus side, that meant Errezha didn’t have to listen to his incessant prattling, but on the minus, he was hogging the company of the closest friend Errezha had to a friend in all of Varisia, and though Calassara could be rather overwhelming herself, at least she was intelligent company.

    The Tickwood itself, thankfully, proved low on the list of annoyances. Despite the rather unpleasant name, it had proven to be a comparatively tame forest, lining the path and the land around with a thick growth of trees but lacking in any overt dangers – and, as Foxglove had assured them, it had no known goblin tribes in residence. Still, she’d been born to the brooding majesty of the Chelish cities, and though she hadn’t lied earlier when she said she’d been on hunts before, she was never as comfortable in the wild as in an urban area, even the comparatively small ones this land had to offer. Aldern himself road at the head of the party, Calassara at his side and three men he’d introduced as his servants ranged behind. Errezha rode behind them, and Drall took up the rear, a boar spear held in one hand with easy familiarity. Every so often, Errezha would glance over her shoulder at the half-orc and then nod in Foxglove’s direction, rolling her eyes; the gesture always brought a slight, amused grin to his face. She found herself heartened slightly that she wasn’t the only one who found the man distasteful.

    The sound of nearby hooves snapped her from her thoughts; Errezha looked up to see Calassara pull her mount up beside her. “Getting bored with the little lordling already?” she asked the elf, arching one brow.

    Calassara laughed. “Don’t poke fun,” she said, “Lord Foxglove is quite the gentleman, really. Although,” she frowned, “I’ll admit there’s something a little bit… odd… about him. He keeps asking me about everywhere I’ve been and the tales I’ve heard, but it mostly just seems like an excuse to compliment every little thing I’ve ever done that seems halfway impressive.”

    Errezha snorted. “Well, it sounds like he’s rather taken with you,” she said. “Don’t come to me for advice about it, anyway. There aren’t a lot of men where I’m from who take an interest in ugly hellspawn, so my experiences have been a bit lacking.”

    Now it was Calassara’s turn to raise a brow. “Ugly?” she said. “I wouldn’t say that about you. Why, if you’d smile a bit and let me get you into some brighter colors, I think we could make you look quite the catch.”

    Errezha barked a laugh. “Clearly you’ve never been to Cheliax. The Hells are stamped across my face and my body,” she said, gesturing at herself. “In my homeland, that makes you ugly. Trust me.”

    The two lapsed into silence for a moment before Calassara spoke again. “Well, in any case, I’d agree with you about Aldern’s intentions, but I think there’s something more that he’s hiding. Almost like I remind him of someone…” she shook her head. “Calistria’s sting, it’s probably nothing. I’m probably just still on edge after the goblins and those skeletons.”

    “Did I hear someone mention skeletons?” Foxglove asked, pulling his mount up beside them; Errezha resisted the urge to scowl at the man. “This wouldn’t have something to do with the ruckus at the Boneyard the other morning, would it? Neither Father Zantus nor the Sheriff would tell me anything about it.”

    Calassara opened her mouth to reply, but Errezha cut in first. “It’s nothing,” she said in a tone that declared this line of conversation over. Foxglove regarded her oddly for a moment, but seemingly decided this line of thought wasn’t worth pursuing. Instead, he opted for another topic.

    “Your friend here is a fascinating as she is lovely,” he said, nodding at Calassara. “She was just telling me of the places she’s seen as she journeyed here from Kyonin. Did you know that in the east, there’s a country that worships their king as a living god? Fascinating! Ridiculous, of course, but fascinating.”

    “I’d heard,” Errezha said neutrally, regarding Foxglove with scrutinizing eyes and trying to make something of his intentions. “Razmiran and its ruler are rather infamous in certain circles.”

    “Ah, yes, of course,” Foxglove said slowly. “Now, Calassara mentioned you were Chelish, and your accent bears that out. From the look on your face, I’m guessing that’s not a topic you’re interested in discussing, so let’s turn from your nationality towards your abilities. I saw you throwing fire at those goblins, and I admit my interest is piqued. You don’t seem like the religious sort, so are you a wizard or a sorcerer?”

    Errezha’s gaze fell to the gloved hands that now tightly clutched her horse’s reins, almost fancying that she could see the red skin and clawed fingers beneath. “Sorcerer,” she finally said. “My mother was… is… a wizard of moderate power, but while she spends half her time poring over old spellbooks, I’ve never needed much study. Magic’s in my blood.” She looked up and met Foxglove’s eyes; a part of her was pleased to see him flinch slightly at her gaze. “You know what I am; you can probably guess where that power comes from. Tell me honestly, Aldern Foxglove – does it bother you to ride with me, knowing I’ve got the Hells in my veins?”

    “No,” he said after a long pause, and Errezha felt a slight surprise to realize that he seemed to be more honest in that word than he’d been all afternoon. “I’ve seen… unpleasant things in my life, enough that your heritage hardly seems like something to worry about. Besides, you helped save my life from those horrors, and that seems the sort of thing a fellow ought to be grateful for.”

    “I suppose so,” Errezha said, feeling certain now more than ever that she would never know quite what to make of this man. She still found herself flinching slightly as he leaned in close to whisper in her ear.

    “So, now that that’s out of the way,” he said, “have you known Calassara long?”

    “We only met this week,” she said, “but it seems like tragedy – and goblins – have a way of bringing people together. I’m not going to help you deliver love notes, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “No, I was just,” he paused, seeming to fumble for words, “well, she’s so beautiful and brave and full of life and I’d been hoping that you might give me some insight into, well… oh, to the hells with it.” Foxglove kicked his horse’s side and road back to his position at the head of the column before Errezha could reply.

    The tiefling watched him go and shook her head. “What,” she said to no one in particular, “a very odd man.”

    ///

    The afternoon was wearing on when Drall suddenly rode to the head of the party and raised his hand for a halt.

    “What are you about?” Foxglove asked, angling his own horse closer. Drall inclined his head and motioned towards a series of scrapes along several nearby trees.

    “See that scraping?” the half-orc said. “Boars do it, and it looks fresh to me. A pig is close, mark my words.”

    “Of course,” Foxglove said in an unusually subdued tone, glancing at the signs. “Everyone, spears ready.” He hefted his weapon and made to move forward again, but Drall grabbed his arm.

    “I’ve been a hunter all my life,” he said quietly, “and if you’ve got sense, you’ll listen to what I’ve got to say. Don’t know how many boars you’ve hunted, but I’ve killed my fair share, and I’ll remind you that they’re fierce, and fearless, and if one’s around now, all our noise has probably attracted its attention.”

    “This is not my first hunt either,” Foxglove said, rather stiffly. “I know how to stick a pig.”

    Drall grunted. “That may be, but keep this in mind. I know that you’re a lord, and you know that you’re a lord, but the pig does not know you’re a lord, and it does not care.”

    The half-orc stopped speaking and the party sat still and silent for a long moment, most fingering their spears nervously while Errezha flexed her fingers and prepared to cast. Then the silence was broken by a loud, unearthly squealing, and a huge, hair form burst onto the path. “Pig”, Errezha thought, did not do the creature justice; it was noticeably larger than its domesticated cousins and far hairier, with large, wickedly curved tusks. The suddenness of its appearance drove Foxglove’s manservants backwards; Aldern himself struggled to hang on as his mount reared in fright.

    Errezha scowled; she didn’t like Foxglove, but she had no desire to see him fall from his horse and break his neck either. Raising a hand from the reins, trying hard to keep her horse steady with the other, and hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, she muttered a quick incantation. A vast roar echoed across the path; the sound of what the tiefling imagined a very large and hungry wyvern might make. Regardless of its accuracy, the effect on the boar was immediate; the pig squealed and turned to flee from the sound. Before it could take more than a few steps, Calassara pulled up by its side and slammed her spear into its shoulder.

    The boar squealed again, this time in pain as much as rage, and spun towards the elf, snorting loudly. Calassara danced her horse back, but before the beast could charge one of Foxgolve’s manservants stuck its flank with his own weapon, followed by the lord himself. The pig stumbled, bloody but still enraged, and made to charge one final time; before it could, Drall was there, spear clutched tightly in both hands. He raised it high and slammed it down with all his strength into the boar’s neck; the creature collapsed to the ground, thrashed for several moments, then lay still.

    Drall leapt from his horse, knelt beside the boar’s body, and then pulled his spear from its neck. “Amateurs,” he muttered under his breath, rising to his feet.

    “Master Drall,” Foxglove said, “you killed it! Incredible!” He nodded in Calassara’s direction, a weary grin flitting across his features. “And of course, you have saved my life once again, my dear! I’m not certain how I may repay you, short of handing over the deed to the family estates! And the sound that startled the beast was Mistress Errezha’s work, no doubt.”

    Errezha inclined her head wordlessly, though under the brim of her hat she glanced sidelong at Drall, who simply snorted and shrugged. Calassara, however, rode up to Foxglove’s side. “You speared the boar yourself, Aldern,” she said. “Don’t let us take all the credit – you deserve some as well.”

    “I suppose I do, don’t I?” Foxglove said, brightening further. “Funny how that worked out. Now, I don’t suppose you’d all be willing to help me get this thing back to Sandpoint? I’m sure we could convince Mistress Ameiko to turn it into the main course of quite a feast! My treat.”

    ///

    The common room of the Rusty Dragon was packed that evening, and as Ameiko Kaijitsu deposited the boar – now transformed into a magnificent roast – on the table before the returned hunting party. Toasts and shouts of appreciation – as much for the innkeeper’s skill with the kitchen as for the hunters themselves – resounded with a number of mugs hoisted high; Ameiko bowed with a dramatic flourish before returning to the back. Foxglove, Drall, and Calassara immediately began cutting their individual portions from the roast, while the tiefling Errezha regarded it rather more cautiously before cutting off a smaller piece and eating it slowly and carefully. Watching, Caelum wondered if the hellspawn actually liked anything; the roast smelled quite wonderful to him.

    He’d not gone on the hunt, though Calassara had extended an invitation; going out of his way to kill an animal that had never wronged him purely for entertainment value had never been his idea of a good time. Caelum had always preferred fights when they actually meant something, against foes that were actually intelligent – though admittedly, he wasn’t entirely sure how much smarter those goblins actually had been compared to the average wild boar. Still, in hindsight, it might have been better for him had he gone on the hunt regardless of his personal feelings. If nothing else, he’d have been saved from certain… entanglements that had occurred in town.

    Now he found himself sitting at his table, slowly nursing a mug of Ameiko’s beer and trying as hard as he could to put the memory of the day’s events from his mind. Not helping was Harann, who sat next to him with a pitying expression and the occasional wordless pat on the back. Helping even less was Shaenn, who had apparently witnessed the last part of the debacle and was even now regarding him from a few tables over, trying and failing to hide her snickering from behind one hand.

    “You know, Caelum,” Harann said for about the fifth time, “these sorts of things happen to everyone.”

    Caelum grunted.

    “Everyone will forget about it sooner or later.”

    Caelum grunted.

    “And really, it was just a little misunderstanding, not something truly terrible like getting chewed on by a goblin hiding under your bed or –“

    Caelum looked up. “Harann,” he said carefully, “you’re my best friend and I know you mean well, but please… you’re not helping.”

    “If you say so,” Harann said, throwing his hands up in defeat. “Anyway, I think I’ll go and see if I can prevail upon our fellow adventurers to share some of that roast – it smells an awful lot like what Ma used to make, and nobody could cook a pig like her side of the family.” The dwarf sniffed the air, smiled, and stood up, leaving Caelum alone with his beer and his shame.

    Glancing over at the other table, he could see now that Drall was eating quietly and Errezha’s usual glare seemed to be somewhat softened by the quality of her meal; Calassara, on the other hand, had gotten to her feet and was regaling the crowd with an account of the hunt while Foxglove hung on her every word in rapt fascination. Considering how interested in it he is, Caelum thought, you could almost forget that he was actually there.

    He returned his attention to his beer and managed to take a few more gulps before looking up just in time to see Calassara, apparently having finished her story, slide into the chair Harann had vacated. “So,” she said brightly, “Harann tells me that you had something of an adventure of your own today. Care to share, or must I ask Shaenn for the details?” She glanced over at the Varisian woman, who winked. Caelum groaned and planted his head in his hands.

    “I’m never going to hear the end of this, am I?” he asked. When Calassara’s expression seemed to agree, his muttered a curse under his breath. “Fine, then. Probably better you hear it from me than someone else, at least. So anyway, you know the owner of the general store around here, Ven Vinder? Well, this afternoon I ran into his daughter Shayliss in town; apparently her sister Katrine has been, er, seeing one of the workers from the lumber mill, and the old man’s a bit put out over it. So Shayliss, she says to me that her pa’s been too distracted to keep pests out of the store’s basement and that she’s sure she’d seen a rat the size of a goblin lurking around down there, and since I was such a brave and dashing warrior, maybe I could help her out.”

    “Oh, Caelum,” Calassara said, expression torn between pity and amusement, “please tell me you didn’t fall for that.”

    Caelum rubbed his forehead. “In my defense, she’s very pretty, and there was this look in her eyes like… well, you can probably imagine. So she leads me off to cellar, and needless to say, there weren’t any rats, goblin sized or otherwise. So before I can point this out to her, she’s got her bodice unlaced, her arms wrapped around my neck, she’s kissing me, and trying to get me over to this little cot that I can only guess she’d set up there for this exact purpose. And me,” he gave an embarrassed cough, “well, like I said, she is pretty and I wasn’t really in a position to think things through. So one thing led to another, and I pretty soon I had my shirt off and was starting on my breeches, and that, of course, was when her father walked in.”

    At her table, Shaenn gave up all pretense and burst out laughing; Calassara winced sympathetically. “I think I recognize this scene from several dozen old dramas,” she said, “and if those are any guide, I doubt this ended well for you.”

    “That’s an understatement,” Caelum said, sighing. “Well, I was mortified, of course. So anyway, Master Vinder roared something at me that I’m pretty sure was a curse, or maybe a bunch of them strung together – he was a bit too incoherent for me to be sure. Next thing I know, I’ve been flung out into the streets, wearing nothing but a breechcloth, in full view of the public, my clothes following shortly after. Well, I grabbed them and ran back to the White Deer, where I’m staying, but… well, everyone got a pretty good look at, er, me in the process. And I’m pretty sure I can’t show my face at the general store any time soon, either.” He hung his head. “Gods, what was I thinking?”

    “You probably weren’t,” Calassara said brightly. “But, if you want, I can wait for things to simmer down a bit and go talk to Master Vender for you, at least get you out of being banned from his shop. It sounds like you were gullible and did something stupid, but in my country those aren’t crimes, and I don’t think they are here either.”

    “Thanks, I think,” Caelum said. He lifted up his beer and prepared to take another drink, but before he could, the door to the Rusty Dragon slammed open.

    Framed there was an older man, his clothing fine but his features haggard, as if he hadn’t gotten much sleep lately, and a scowl was on his face as he scanned the common room for someone. His skin was the same medium tan as Ameiko’s, and though his hair had mostly gone to grey, Caelum guessed that it had once been dark; he looked enough like the innkeeper that he was presumably one her close kin. As he stepped inside, he shouted something in a language Caelum couldn’t follow; Calassara, on the other hand, frowned as she heard it.

    “Can you understand him?” he whispered to her.

    “A little bit,” she said. “But I think the general meaning is something along the line of ‘Where the hell is my daughter?’ He must be Lonjiku Kaijitsu, Ameiko’s father. I think the language is Minkaian, which is spoken in Tian Xia; that must be where their family originates.”

    Lonjiku stalked into the center of the room; his gaze swept the now-stilled crowd as he searched, presumably for his daughter. Caelum could see Aldern Foxglove, among other locals, shrinking from that gaze, but as it lighted upon each of the adventurers in turn, it’s owner’s scowl deepened. Finally he spoke again, in Taldane this time.

    “Well, well,” he said. “It looks like my fool daughter is still taking in strays. Look at the six of you, sitting there so proud of yourselves. What have you accomplished, eh? Endangering the good people of Sandpoint with you ill-conceived antics against the goblins is all I’ve seen, and apparently that’s enough to earn you all this acclaim. Well, I think that if you had any sense at all you’d have left the fighting to those whose profession it actually is and stayed out of the way!”

    Caelum felt hot rage shoot through his body and leapt to his feet. “I happen to be a trained warrior,” he said, “and so are my friends. What kind of people would we be if we could just stand back and let the goblins slaughter anyone who couldn’t fight back?”

    “Ah, I see,” Lonjiku said slowly, “it was all for the greater good of Sandpoint. Well, tell me this, young man – do you think the people of this town actually need another band of filthy vagrants running amok and attracting even more trouble? Because I don’t.”

    Caelum growled under his breath and stepped into the center of the room, facing Lonjiku head on; Calassara and Shaenn came to stand on his left side, and Drall, Harann, and Errezha on his left. Lonjiku’s eyes flitted nervously from one to the next, and it seemed as if rage and contempt warred with fear at being challenged more strongly than he was used to warred inside him. “I think,” Caelum finally said, “that if I were you, I would leave now.”

    “I’m not leaving,” Lonjiku spat, rage lighting up his eyes, “until I do what I came here to do and talk to my damn daughter!”

    “What is going on here?” a voice demanded from behind Caelum. He and his companions stepped aside as Ameiko forced her way through them, a ladle clutched in one hand, and came to stand in front of her father. When she saw who he was, she scowled. “I should have known you’d be involved in this,” she said. “What do you want?”

    Lonjiku responded with a string of rapid Minkaian; Ameiko responded in the same language. Caelum watched in confusion, and as he looked at his other companions, they seemed to be every bit as lost; it appeared only Calassara understood the language. Finally, Lonjiku threw up his hands and spat something with a vicious intensity; when Ameiko shot back with a lengthy stream of loud words, his eyes widened and Calassara whistled.

    “Well,” the elf said softly, “I don’t know what about half of those words mean, but from context I think they’re some choice curses. Our friendly innkeeper apparently has a gift for swearing.”

    Eyes bugging in rage, Lonjiku surged forward and attempted to seize his daughter by the hair. Caelum reached for his sword and several of his companions went for their own weapons, but Ameiko was faster. Dodging her father’s hand, she spun with her ladle and struck him across the head, spraying potatoes and fish meat across his hair and clothing. Lonjiku blinked for a moment in shock, then turned on his heel and marched from the inn. Just as he was about to step through the door, however, he turned back to his daughter and fixed her with a malevolent gaze. “From now on,” he hissed, “you’re as dead to me as your mother.” Then he was gone.

    Ameiko stood still for a moment, blinking, and Caelum thought he could see tears in her eyes. Then she took a deep breath and recovered herself; examining her ladle, she pulled a hair from it and then held it up for everyone in the room to see. “It looks like I’ll need a well cleaned ladle now,” she called, “because jackass stew isn’t on the menu!” The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers, and she was smiling again as she made her way back to the kitchen.

    When she was gone, Caelum motioned the other adventurers over and leaned in close to them, his own travails of earlier in the day all but forgotten. “What,” he whispered to them, “was that all about?”
     
  8. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 5: Burnt Offerings

    Cacophonous chanting echoed through the chapel of Lamashtu that lay deep in the underbelly of Thistletop, born from dozens of goblin throats. Warchief Ripnugget himself stood near the front, struggling to keep his eyes from glazing over and occasionally kicking a nearby minion who faltered on their note. The goblin chieftain cared little for religion, but he had joined his fate and his ambitions to the one who led this ritual, and it wouldn’t do to offend her her now.

    Nualia Tobyn knelt at the front of the chamber, hands raised in supplication before the statue of her goddess; before her on the altar rested a large brazier in which lay a human skeleton. Her companions, from slender Lyrie to hulking Bruthazmus, stood ranged just behind her, focusing intently upon their leader. Slowly, the chanting rose to a fevered pitch, Bruthazmus’s booming voice drowning out the goblins behind, and then Nualia raised her arms straight up, and at once all sound ceased.

    Slowly she stood, brushing silvery hair back from her face with one hand and then pausing for a moment to stare at it in seeming fascination. If today’s ritual went correctly, it might be the last time she would ever look upon that hand… but no. She’d come too far to back out now.

    Nualia turned to face her lover where he stood off to the side and took the torch that he offered her. She turned back towards the altar, but before she could take a step, he was at her side. “For the last time,” he whispered in her ear, “I beg you to reconsider this. Nualia, you are lovely – perfect – as you are. What’s the point in throwing that away?”

    “I’d hoped you of all people would understand,” she hissed back. “Now stand aside and let me finish. This day has been a long time coming.”

    Her lover raised his hands in surrender and stepped back, and Nualia nodded, satisfied. She turned back to face the altar and approached, looking down at the bones that lay in the brazier, waiting for the flame. The bones of her father, whom she had murdered.

    In Sandpoint, they still said that Father Ezakien Tobyn was a good man, and a good priest. Well, Nualia thought bitterly, maybe he was those things, but it hadn’t stopped him from being an abysmal failure as a father. Oh, he wasn’t her birth father, true enough; she’d been a foundling he’d taken in and raised as his own. They called it an act of charity and love on his part, but it had also been where everything had started to go wrong. For Nualia, as her hair, her eyes, and the perfection of her features, was not human, at least not entirely – she was what the sages called aasimar, with the blood of angels in her veins. And Father Tobyn had let that heritage blind him to so much else.

    He told her she was special, called her a child of the gods, and had convinced a good many of the people of Sandpoint to follow him in that belief. From early childhood Nualia had been placed on a pedestal, revered and hounded for blessings; everyone in town seemed to expect great things from her. What none of them realized was that, angelic heritage or no, she was still a child, and their actions led her to be isolated unbearably. People might love her from afar, but no one dared to actually get close or to befriend her. Nualia led a lonely existence, and over time that loneliness had grown twisted into bitterness – and hate.

    When she was in her teens, one bright spot entered her life – a young man named Delek Viskanta. Nualia had fallen for him practically at first sight, and the two met many times in secret places; but their joy ended when she realized she was pregnant. Delek had fled, terrified of facing her father’s wrath; instead, Ezakien had confined Nualia to the church and made her pray for forgiveness nightly – he’d hoped she would join and prestigious convent, and feared that the scandal would ruin her chances. He’d never bothered to ask what she had wanted, of course.

    In time, Nualia’s child had been born – dead and hideously deformed. The shock and the hard birth nearly killed her, and she fell into a deep, deathlike sleep. It was in her dreams that she had first heard the voice of Lamashtu, the goddess promising her vengeance, power, rebirth – and her only price was a handful of lives.

    Nualia awoke, filled with wrath, filled with purpose. It was her father who had ruined her life, and so he would be the first to pay; she had jammed the door to his room shut and then set the church ablaze, fleeing into the night so that Sandpoint would believe she had perished as well. She fled to Magnimar, where she found others who shared her bitterness and ambition, and there, with their aid and the Dark Mother’s guidance, she had nurtured her plans.

    All these thoughts flashed through her mind as she regarded her father’s bones, and then defiantly she raised her face to meet Lamashtu’s icon’s eyes. “Dark Mother,” she called out, “I beseech you – accept this offering which I have made, this life taken in your service, the first of many! Accept it that this humble servant may be raised up and reborn, to serve you all the better! Let it be so!”

    “Let it be so!” the goblins and humans cried; Nualia raised her torch high, and dropped it into the brazier. Ezakien Tobyn’s bones had been drenched in oil before being placed on the altar and now they burned with a furious intensity. Nualia knelt before the inferno, and waited.

    All at once, pain lanced through Nualia’s left arm. She screamed a terrible, piercing cry, but it was as much in exaltation as agony; for this pain signified that the goddess had heard, that Nualia’s prayers were being answered. Agony flared brightly until it filled her entire experience and then, at once, it was gone.

    Nualia stood slowly, panting heavily, and then raised her left arm before her. Its flesh was no longer pale and smooth but a bright red that seemed almost to pulse with its own inner, laval light, and her hand now ended not in delicate nails but rending talons. Nualia smiled triumphantly and held the arm before her, and the goblins collapsed to their knees, shouting cheers and war chants.

    Though Nualia’s father’s actions and inactions had brought her so much grief, she had come to realize that it was not he who was the true reason she had suffered. No, it was the blood of angels in her veins, a heritage no mortal was ever meant to bear. And so she had begged to the goddess to remove that taint, to transform her into one of her true children. Nualia wished to become a demon, and this arm she had been granted was the first stage of that ascension.

    Brushing past her other companions, she came to stand before her lover. “You may return to Sandpoint for now, if you wish,” she said. “I know you have business there, and I won’t keep you from it. But return to me soon. For the time is about to come when the beast chained beneath us shall be freed, and then all of Sandpoint shall burn and Lamashtu will complete my rebirth. I want you by my side when that happens.”

    “I’ll be there, my love,” he said, bending to kiss the fingers of her hand – her human hand. Then he turned and marched from the chamber, leaving Nualia to plot her final revenge.

    ///

    In Sandpoint, several days had now passed since the raid and the town seemed to be returning to normal, at least as far as Errezha could tell. She and her new companions – she still couldn’t quite bring herself to think of them as “friends”, though their company was not unpleasant – remained minor local celebrities for their role in fighting the goblins, and that was not a displeasing state of affairs. Unlike Calassara or Harann, who made friends easily and quickly became fixtures in the Rusty Dragon’s common room in the evenings, the tiefling didn’t feel like the townsfolk were welcoming her with open arms, but people still spoke politely to her in the streets when they met her and nobody seemed to be making crude or disparaging remarks about her heritage behind her back; that, Errezha decided, was a situation she could live with.

    Caelum had moved from the White Hart to the Rusty Dragon following his embarrassment in the streets, hoping that fewer people there had directly witnessed the event, but Master Vinder had made it clear in no uncertain terms that he never wanted to see the young man again. It was Calassara who finally managed to smooth things over; Errezha didn’t know what the elf had said to the shopkeeper, but she had returned to the inn happily reporting that Caelum could shop at the General Store if he wished, so long as he made his purchases quickly and didn’t exchange a single word with Shayliss should he meet her. Caelum had turned a brilliant red, but otherwise seemed to find the arrangement acceptable.

    Of their impromptu group, only Drall and Shaenn were local, or close to it; the half-orc lived just outside of town, and the Varisian woman travelled around the region to scavenge and sell her wares, though she too was currently staying at the inn. Nonetheless, none of the others felt like leaving; Caelum cited the lingering questions about the goblin raid and grandly proclaimed that they should remain until the problem had been solved completely, and none of the others had forgotten the sheriff’s interest in chartering them as an official adventuring party. Errezha, for her part, was tired of running; privately, she admitted to herself that she had no other home to return to.

    She was sitting in the Dragon’s common room, watching Calassara perform a comedic ditty with a faint smile on her face (though the rest of the crowd had erupted in rather raucous laughter) when the door opened and Sheriff Hemlock strode inside. He scanned the room slowly, then walked over to where Errezha sat near the back of the crowd.

    “Excuse me,” the sheriff said, “but when your friend is done with her show I’d like all of to come with me, please. The mayor would like to meet with you all, and we have… troubling news.”

    Errezha arched a brow. “All right,” she said. She waited until Calassara had finished her song and then waved her over; Caelum, Harann, Shaenn, and Drall joined them as well, having apparently noticed the Sheriff. He repeated his earlier request to them all; they looked at one another, nodded, and followed him from the inn.

    Sandpoint’s Town Hall was a modest but well-constructed building of two stories; the lower was taken up almost entirely by a meeting room built to hold most of the town’s population, while the upper was given over to offices and storerooms. It was in such an office that Mayor Kendra Deverin awaited them. Errezha hadn’t seen much of the mayor since the Swallowtail Festival, but what she’d seem of the town itself had left her grudgingly impressed with the woman’s leadership and organization, far different though it was from what she was used to in her imperial homeland. When the party entered the office, Kendra stood and smiled, moving from each to each and shaking their hand; she actually managed to meet Errezha’s gold-eyed gaze without flinching, which the tiefling put down as another positive.

    “Thank you all for coming,” she said as she seated herself at a table in the center of the room and gestured for the others to do likewise. “And I would also like to extend my official thanks as mayor for your actions during the raid. Had it not been for your stand in the square, no doubt the casualties and destruction would have been far worse. And,” she added with a slight smile, “you saved the life of a local nobleman, Aldern Foxglove, as he has reminded me no less than five times. A great service indeed.” Kendra paused to allow a brief moment of chuckling before continuing. “Though I believe most of you are not citizens of Sandpoint, know that our town will always be open to you and I hope that some of you may one day call it home.”

    The party nodded and murmured thanks, and then Sheriff Hemlock rose. “That is not,” he said, “why we called you here. There is someone here who I would like to introduce to you, and she has grave news.” He gestured to a figure who had sat quietly against the office’s wall, observing the proceedings; she now stood and stepped forward, revealing herself to be a striking elf woman in leather armor who regarded the newcomers dubiously. Errezha didn’t recognize the woman, and she didn’t think any of her companions did either with the exception of Drall, who sat noticeably straighter in his chair and surreptitiously attempted to smooth his hair back into a somewhat more refined style. “This is Shalelu Andosana, an… unofficial member of the Sandpoint guard.” The elf smirked slightly at this description. “Shalelu, may I present to you our town’s newest crop of goblin-slayers.

    “Shalelu is an accomplished warrior and huntswoman, and she’s been a thorn in the side of the local goblin tribes for years; there are few in these parts who know more about those little menaces than she does. She normally only comes through town once a season, if that, but she has returned to us early because we are not the only place on the Lost Coast to have suffered a recent surge in goblin attacks. Not a day ago, the creatures attacked and burned a farm south of the Mosswood; Shalelu couldn’t save the farm itself, though she rescued the family who lived there and drove off the goblins. The family is safe at a neighboring farm now, but it’s obvious to all of us that this goblin problem is not going away any time soon. I’ll leave it to Shalelu to explain.”

    Hemlock sat and the elf stepped to the head of the table, her gaze raking the room. “Belor’s told me of your work against the goblins,” she said. “Well done. I’ve dedicated the last several years of my life to keeping them from causing too much trouble around these parts, but they’re tenacious and fecund little runts. Like weeds that bite.

    “There are five major goblin tribes in the region, and traditionally, they’re pretty good and keeping each other in line with intertribal squabbles and the like. Yet from what I’ve been able to piece together, members of all five tribes were involved in the raid on Sandpoint. A fair number of the Mosswood goblins I dealt with yesterday were already pretty beat up, and there was lots of chatter about the “longshanks” who killed so many of them. Now that I’ve met you, it seems obvious from their descriptions who they were talking about. Seems like you made an impression.

    “In any event, the fact that all five tribes are working together disturbs me. Goblin tribes don’t usually get along unless they’ve got something big planned, and big plans require big bosses. I’m afraid someone’s moved in on the goblins and organized them. And judging by these recent raids, what they’re organizing seems like bad news for all of us.”

    She seated herself again, and Hemlock stood. “I agree with Shalelu’s assessment of the situation,” he said. “And that’s why I’m going south to Magnimar with some of my guards to see about securing some additional muscle to help keep this place protected until the extent of the threat is made clear. I’ve asked Shalelu to sniff around a bit in the wilderness to see if she can find out anything else about what’s going on. I’d like to ask a favor of you all as well.”

    Errezha tensed – she’d been afraid something like this was coming – but Caelum answered. “Of course,” he said. “Sheriff, we’re all at your disposal.” The tiefling winced –by the Prince, that boy was too enthusiastic for his own good.

    Hemlock seemed pleased, however. “Good. I’d like you and your friends to watch the town while I’m gone, and make sure you stay in view of the public. The goblins seem to know you, and maybe they’ll think twice about striking again if they know you’re here. And besides, the locals seem quite taken with you,” here Caelum flushed red again and sunk down in his chair, “and seeing you around town will do a lot for keeping worries down over the next few days.”

    It made a certain amount of sense, when he put it like that. Still, Errezha found fear twisting a sudden knot in her belly, and a certain knowledge that whatever was happening with the goblins, they were now directly in the path of it.

    ///

    That evening, the adventurers sat for dinner around a table at the Rusty Dragon, accompanied by Shalelu. The elf huntress had expressed curiosity regarding their exploits during the raid, and Calassara was currently relating the tale with relish, with occasional interjections from Caelum, Harann, or Shaenn. When they reached the descriptions of the raided crypt and its skeletal guardians from the next morning, Shalelu frowned at them, chewing her steak thoughtfully.

    “Hmmm,” she said slowly. “That fits with what I’d been suspecting – someone or something else was running this raid. Goblins can get up to all manner of mischief and they sometimes use magic, but stealing a particular human skeleton and leaving undead behind as a trap for anyone who tried to investigate? That’s a little sophisticated. Some goblins might be smart enough to pull it off, but when you start adding in the unusual cooperation between the tribes – it smells off to me. I’m half convinced that the entire raid may have been a diversion for stealing Father Tobyn’s bones, but I don’t have any idea who’d do such a thing, or why.”

    “You mentioned the goblin tribes at the meeting earlier,” Caelum said. “Can you tell us anything more about them? All the goblins pretty much looked the same to me when we were fighting them, but I’d like to have a better idea who we might be up against.”

    “Well,” Shalelu said, “there’s five major tribes in the area. The Birdcruncher tribe are the closest, though they’re usually the least aggressive. The Licktoad tribe live in the Brinestump Marsh, and they’re generally quite the nuisance – and excellent swimmers. The Seven Tooth goblins of the Shank’s Wood have a reputation for stealing junk and reforging it into armor and weapons. The Mosswood tribe is the biggest, but they spend most of their time fighting each other and that makes them less of a problem than they could be. Last are the Thistletop goblins, who have an island fortress off the Nettlewood coast.”

    To Caelum’s surprise, it was Errezha who spoke; the tiefling seemed to choose her words with care. “So,” she said, “if members of all the tribes were involved in the raid, which of them do you think might be in charge? Or has this mysterious mastermind shaken things up too much to tell?”

    Shalelu regarded her with a penetrating expression. “I can’t say for sure,” she said. “Goblin politics- if you can call it that – are a tangled mess based more on who’s won the most fights recently and set the most people on fire than anything logical. But if I had to guess, I’d say the Thistletop tribe is probably the best situated and best organized, relatively speaking. I certainly wouldn’t rule out one or more of the local goblin heroes being involved, either.”

    “Heroes?” Calassara laughed. “Dare I ask what qualities a goblin has to have to be considered a ‘hero?’ Sanity is not among them, surely.”

    Shalelu chuckled. “Well, that part’s usually right. Goblins typically lead short, violent lives, and most of them never manage to accomplish much individually. Those who do, on the other hand, can be real nasty pieces of work. There are six “hero” goblins currently in the area; I don’t think some of them are that likely to be involved, though. Koruvus was a Seven Tooth champion, but I heard he turned paranoid and vanished a few months back, and he may be dead by now. Chief Rendwattle of the Licktoad tribe used to be a fierce warrior, but these days he’s so fat he can barely move from his throne; Vorka is a cannibal even other goblins don’t normally want to associate with. I don’t think any of them are involved, but they might surprise me. Big Gugmut from the Mosswood is a fierce fighter; they say he’s part hobgoblin, and I wouldn’t rule it out. But Warchief Ripnugget leads the Thistletop tribe, and I’d bet on him as the most likely to be behind this – or, at least, in deep. He always was an ambitious one. Oh, and of course, there’s Bruthazmus.” Shalelu’s fist clenched as she spoke the name, and her eyes narrowed.

    “Dare I ask who Bruthazmus is?” Caelum said.

    “He’s a bugbear – you know what that is, right? Like a goblin, but massive. He doesn’t belong to any of the tribes, but he works with all of them, trading them things he’s stolen for news, alcohol, or weapons. But Bruthazmus hates elves.” Shalelu gestured at herself. “I’ve fought him several times now, and neither of us was ever able to get the upper hand. Whatever happens, though, he won’t be killing me; I swear by the gods to that.”

    They finished their meal in silence; when she finished eating, Shalelu stood. “Well, I’d better be off,” she said. “Promised Belor I’d try to get to the bottom of our troubles, and there may not be much time to waste. My thanks for the tale, and good luck to all of you.” Amidst a chorus of “good lucks” from around the table, the elf turned towards the door, exchanged respectful nods with Ameiko, and then left the inn.

    Drall had turned to watch her go, a faintly wistful smile on his face; Shaenn elbowed him in the side. “Somebody’s got it bad, don’t you?” she said in a singsong voice. “You could do a lot worse than a cute elf who hunts goblins for a living, you know. Seems like the two of you have a bit in common, actually. You could swap… hunting tips… or something?”

    “I only respect Shalelu as a fellow warrior,” Drall said; Caelum had to resist rolling his eyes at that. “Besides, before today I don’t think I’d ever spoken as much as five words to her.”

    “Not sure you managed five words today, big man,” Shaenn said. “You were even more silent than usual. But hey, maybe the next time around you can work up the courage to talk to her at least a little bit.”

    “It’s not a question of courage,” Drall muttered, sinking as far down into the chair as his burly frame would allow. Caelum suppressed a chuckle just as Harann put a hand on his arm.

    “Can we talk?” the dwarf asked. Caelum shrugged and stood up, letting his friend lead him to a corner of the room where there were no other patrons.

    “What’s on your mind?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you’re sweet on Shalelu too. Isn’t she a little on the tall side for you?”

    “Very funny,” Harann said, but his expression was uncharacteristically serious. “Look, Caelum, I saw your face when you were asking Shalelu about the goblin tribes.”

    Caelum shrugged. “What about it?”

    “It’s just that I’ve known you since we were children, and I know that look on your face. As long as I can remember, you’ve wanted to be a hero and win glory in battle. I don’t want to deny you that – Desna teaches that we should all seek to follow our dreams – but I think you were trying to figure out if you could solve this problem yourself. I know you’re brave and I know you’re skilled, but I just don’t want my best friend to go charging off blindly to Thistletop and getting himself killed, all right?” Harann’s gaze was intense. “Promise me that, Caelum.”

    “All right,” Caelum said, throwing up his hands. Those thoughts hadn’t been at the forefront of his mind when he’d been talking to Shalelu, but still… Harann knew him too well. There was a part of him that would like nothing more than to be the one who defeated the goblins and saved Sandpoint, and that wasn’t the part of him that did his most rational thinking. “I promise that I won’t go charging off to battle without understanding what I’m getting into or for selfish reasons, and I certainly won’t do it alone.”

    “Thank you,” Harann said, smiling. “Good man!” The dwarf patted his friend on the back, and the two of them went over to rejoin their companions at the table.

    ///

    It wasn’t until the next morning that they learned that Ameiko Kaijitsu had vanished in the night.
     
  9. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    I'm liking the addition of bugbear to the cast - nice, succinct definition given, too. Also good are the politics, personality interactions and growing sense of unease that the goblin battle was simply a prelude to bigger and badder things.

    Drall took up the rear, a boar spear held in one hand with easy familiarity. Every so often, Errezha would glance over her shoulder at the half-orc It's likely I missed a detail in the story, but half-orc and half-what else?:confused:
     
  10. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    ^Hybrids (half-orcs, half-elves, etc.) are generally assumed to be half-human unless otherwise specified (Errezha is in a similar boat - as a tiefling, she's mostly human with a dash of fiendish ancestry). Sorry for the confusion!

    Chapter 6: The Abducted Innkeeper

    Errezha yawned blearily as she regarded herself in her room’s mirror. Even with her hair disheveled and her eyes still gummed by sleep, no one could ever mistake her for anything other than what she was – the fiendish heritage left its mark too strongly on her features, written for all to see in her red skin, catlike golden eyes, and the pair of short, sharp horns poking out of the top of her hair. How different might her life have been had she not carried that heritage, had both her parents been human – but then, if that had been the case, she wouldn’t be who she was and certainly wouldn’t be here. There was no use dwelling on it, she told herself as she washed her face in her bowl of water and prepared to comb out her hair – the same thing she told herself most mornings. It helped a little.

    She was tying her hair back into its braid when a loud knock echoed on the door. “Go away, Calassara,” she snarled irritably. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes, but not if you keep bothering me.”

    “It’s Caelum,” the voice on the other side said, and Errezha’s ears perked. The human warrior hadn’t seemed to particularly want anything to do with her outside of their odd little – whatever they were. What did he want now? “We’ve got a situation downstairs, and I think you’d better come.”

    For a moment, Errezha considered repeating her demand that her visitor go away regardless of their identity, but decided against it. His voice sounded genuinely concerned; if she ignored him, he’d probably never let her hear the end of it. “Fine,” she said. “Just give me a moment, and I swear to the Prince, if goblins are attacking before I’ve had my breakfast I’m going to be very cross.” The tiefling tied off her braid, pulled on her coat, hat, and gloves, and then stepped out into the hallway and followed Caelum to the common room.

    Their fellow adventurers, sans Drall, were gathered around a table facing an elderly Halfling woman Errezha vaguely recognized as one of the Rusty Dragon’s staff. Shaenn was lounging in her chair, wearing a tunic and trousers rather than her usual skirt and toying idly with one of her knives; Calassara sat next to her looking thoughtful, and Harann stood beside her looking concerned. Errezha and Caelum quickly took their own chairs beside them, and the Halfling woman looked relieved.

    “Well, what’s going on?” Errezha demanded. “I hope this is important. Where’s Ameiko?”

    Harann shot her a disapproving look. “That is the problem,” the dwarf said. “It seems our innkeeper is missing. Can you start over from the beginning, Bethana?”

    “Thank you all for hearing me out,” the halfling – Bethana – said with an obvious tone of relief, taking a seat across from them. “Sheriff Hemlock left early this morning with some of his guards, and gods only know where Shalelu is off to – I didn’t know who else to come to. When I woke up earlier and came down to work, I found that Ameiko hadn’t started breakfast yet. In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never known her to be late, and I was afraid she might be ill. When I went to her room to check on her, she didn’t answer, and when I went in, she wasn’t there – but this was.” Bethana placed a sheet of parchment on the table; the group leaned in to get a better look, but to Errezha, at least, the script was foreign.

    “Do you know what is says?” Calassara asked. “The script looks Minkaian; I can understand it a little when it’s spoken, but I wouldn’t trust myself to read it.”

    “There aren’t many around here who can,” Bethana said. “Fortunately, I’m one of them. Ameiko taught me after I came to work here. The person who wrote this must have wanted it to be secret, but he was out of luck. So far as I can make it, this is what it says:

    ’Hello, sis! I hope this letter finds you well, and with some free time on your hands, because we’ve got something of a problem. It’s to do with Father. Seems that he might have something to do with Sandpoint’s recent troubles with the goblins, and I didn’t want to bring the matter up with the authorities because we both know he’d weasel his way out of it. You’ve got some pull here in town, though. If you can meet me at the Glassworks at midnight tonight, maybe we can figure out how to make sure he faces the punishment he deserves. Knock twice, and the three times more, and then one time more at the delivery entrance, and I’ll let you in.

    “’In any case, I don’t have to impress upon you the delicate nature of this request. If news ever got out, you know these local rubes would assume you and I were in on the whole thing too, right? They’ve got no honor at all around these parts. I still don’t understand how you can stand to stay here. Anyway, don’t tell anyone about this. There are other complications as well, ones I’d rather talk to you in person about tonight. Don’t be late.’”

    Bethana looked up from the letter and folded it gently. “It’s signed ‘Tsuto.’”

    “Who’s Tsuto?” Caelum asked. “Ameiko never mentioned she had a brother, at least not that I heard.”

    “I’d heard of him,” Shaenn said, twirling her dagger lightly in one hand. “But I didn’t know much except that he never got along with the rest of the family. It sounds like there’s a lot here that we’re missing out on.”

    “Well, I can fill in some of that,” Bethana said. “Tsuto is a year older than Ameiko, and when he was born there was a terrible scandal. You see, he’s fairly obviously half-elven, but neither Lonjiku nor his wife Atsuii were elves.” She nodded sagely. “A human and a human doesn’t normally make a half-elf, you know.”

    “So he’s a bastard,” Caelum said. “That probably explains a lot.”

    Yes, Errezha thought, feeling her guts squirm, it probably does. She fought to keep her expression neutral, but her fists were clenched so tight she thought she could feel the tips of her claws through the gloves. Bastard. Not human. Old wounds, but deep and still painful, and she had a feeling she knew exactly where this story was going as Bethana continued.

    “Well, old Lonjiku was furious, as one might expect,” the Halfling said. “I was always surprised he and his wife stayed married, but he was probably just too stubborn to give up on it. The boy he did give up, to be raised at the Turandarok Academy without any family connections – well, until little Ameiko turned ten and found out she had a half-brother. She snuck off to visit him a few times a year for several years, until they had some sort of argument and Tsuto hit her. I don’t know why, but Ameiko ran away from home to be an adventurer, which only made her father even angrier with the both of them. She didn’t come back until her mother died, and that’s when she met her brother again.”

    Bethana shook her head. “There was bad business at the funeral. Tsuto was convinced Lonjiku had finally murdered Atsuii, and they had a fight; Lonjiku hit Tsuto so hard with his cane it nearly broke the boy’s jaw, and Tsuto cursed his father and left Sandpoint for good, or so we all thought. Ameiko tried to reestablish contact, but she was never able to find him and gave up – at least until this note arrived.”

    The Halfling looked down at her hands. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it. I don’t like that Ameiko’s missing, and I certainly don’t trust either her father or her brother. Bad sorts, both of them; maybe Lonjiku did help the goblins, or maybe Tsuto made that up because he’s the one whose up to something, but either way is bad for Ameiko. With the sheriff gone, you’re the only ones who might be able to help. Please, go to the Glassworks and find Ameiko, and try to figure out what’s going on here.”

    Caelum glanced at the others; Harann and Calassara both nodded firmly, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Shaenn. Errezha was suddenly conscious of everyone’s eyes on her, for a moment she considered running back up to her room and shutting herself inside. Fighting goblins when they attacked first was one thing, but she had no desire to get involved in anyone else’s business. But she found it hard to say that when faced with everyone’s determined eyes, and a small part of her whispered that whatever was happening at the Glassworks, it certainly sounded like Ameiko needed help. Finally, mentally berating herself for a soft-hearted fool, Errezha nodded.

    Caelum looked back to Bethana. “We’ll do it.”

    ///

    “The Glassworks” turned out to be the source of the Kaijitsu family’s wealth and prominence in Sandpoint; one of the oldest buildings in town, it sat near the shore, a long, low structure topped with chimneys that were currently pumping out heavy smoke. To Errezha’s eyes it didn’t look like much as she regarded it from across the street with her arms crossed, but then factories and workshops seldom did. It was what they produced that mattered, and the Kaijitsu family’s glassmaking was apparently well-regarded indeed in the local area.

    Several passerby made their way along the street in front of the glassworks, giving the tiefling dark looks and scowls as they saw her, though they brightened noticeably upon seeing that Caelum and Calassara were nearby; Harann had gone to fetch Drall, and Shaenn to see if there was anything pointing to what was going on at the Kaijitsu manor. Errezha’s own scowl deepened at their reactions – after all, she’d fought the goblins too – but she had a feeling she could kill a thousand goblins and it still wouldn’t be enough to wipe away the stain of Hellish blood or a childhood spent in the noble houses of wicked Cheliax. Finally the street cleared and the three companions nodded at each other; Caelum approached the Glassworks’ main doors and knocked loudly, then waited a moment and pulled heavily on them; he looked over his shoulder and shook his head. Locked.

    “Well, this isn’t a good sign,” Calassara said when he’d joined them again. “Doesn’t seem likely one of the town’s major businesses would just up and close without warning; especially since it seems like there’s something going on inside.” She gave a short giggle, though the laughter didn’t reach her eyes. “Can you imagine Lonjiku Kaijitsu in there working by himself, without lots of servants and workers to order about? Because I can’t.”

    “Well, I could hear what sounded like furnaces working in there,” Caelum said. “Whatever’s going on, there’s someone in that building. Maybe Lonjiku’s just working on something and doesn’t want to be bothered?”

    Errezha snorted. “Trust me,” she said. “A man like Lonjiku isn’t going to be doing anything without servants; Calassara’s right. I’m not familiar enough with this town to guess what exactly is going on, but I’d bet my horns that something is.”

    Caelum scratched the back of his head. “Tsuto, you think?” he asked.

    “Maybe,” Calassara said. “Or maybe the letter was right and Lonjiku did have something to do with the raid – and bit off more than he could chew. If only we could get inside that building and find out.”

    “Don’t look at me,” Errezha said. “I could burn through the door, but I’d rather not unless we know for sure something is wrong. ‘Hellspawn Burns Down Local Business, Terrifying Citizens’ isn’t a situation I’d like to put myself in the middle of, thank you.”

    Their conversation was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Shaenn, who slipped up quietly and crossed her arms. “Well,” she said, “whatever you’ve found here, I have news that’s probably not good. Lonjiku’s not home, and none of his house servants have seen him since last night. All they could assume was that he was here working, but apparent running off without barking some last-minute orders for while he’s gone isn’t much like him. From the looks on your faces, I’d guess you haven’t got good news either.”

    Caelum shook his head. “Glassworks are locked up tight; nobody’s seen any of the workers going in, but it sounds like something’s going on in there. Ask me, the whole thing smells rotten.”

    Shaenn looked troubled. “I can probably pick that lock, if you like,” she said, “But are we really sure we want to be doing this? Lonjiku’s an ass, everyone knows that, but he’s also one of the most important people in Sandpoint. Goblins I can handle, but no good comes from messing with nobles when you can avoid it.”

    “And sometimes you can’t,” Harann said as he walked up, Drall trailing close behind. “Desna teaches that sometimes you have to take risks if you want the reward, and right now the reward sounds like it could be Ameiko’s life, depending on whether that letter from her brother meant anything. Can we just let that pass?”

    “And the Sheriff did ask us to keep an eye on things while he was away,” Calassara pointed out. “If this is true, and it is all connected, I have a feeling he’d not be pleased with us if we let it go when we could have done something.” Drall nodded approvingly at her words, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

    “Well, I’m with the two of you,” Caelum said. “Shaenn, if you can get us in there, I think we’d better try it.”

    “All right,” she said, but then added under her breath, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

    The companions hurried across the street; Shaenn reached the door first and crouched in front of the latch, pulling a slender piece of metal from a pouch at her waist and inserting it into the lock. The others gathered around her, trying to shield what she was doing from prying eyes – somehow, Errezha doubted that even their fame at fighting goblins would protect them if the townsfolk saw them trying to break into a one of the most important businesses in Sandpoint. Still, as she stood by the door trying to look inconspicuous – not an easy task at the best of times – the tiefling felt a fool. Surely either Lonjiku’s workers or some concerned citizen was going to demand at any moment to know what they were doing, and haul them off to the mayor when they failed to provide an accounting of themselves. Fortunately, there were few passerby, and while the group received some odd looks (including one from a pretty girl who snickered behind her hand at the sight of Caelum, causing the young man to flush bright red), no one accosted them.

    After a several moments, Calassara frowned; leaning over Shaenn, she placed one of her pointed ears firmly against the door and listened intently for what felt like a long while. Her frown deepened, and finally she spoke. “Something’s not right here,” she said. “It sounds like the furnaces are on, but I’m not hearing anybody working. I do hear glass breaking, and what sounds like someone laughing. Surely that can’t be normal for this place?”

    The others looked at the elf and shrugged, and Errezha scowled – did any of them look like experts in making glass? Calassara bent down beside Shaenn. “Can you work any faster?” she asked.

    Now it was Shaenn’s turn to scowl. “Not with you hovering over me,” she muttered. “This isn’t exactly easy, and Lonjiku apparently has good taste in locksmiths. But if you’ll just give me another moment… got it!” The lock clicked and the door swung open slowly, revealing an empty room beyond. Now Errezha too could hear the sounds Calassara had been describing – fires roaring, the high-pitched tinkling of breaking glass, and a burst of high, weird laughter that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.

    “Well, I’d say this isn’t normal, no,” Harann said, frowning. “Shall we, then?”

    “I think we’d best,” said Caelum, stepping inside and drawing his sword, followed by Calassara with her rapier. The other companions followed behind, with Shaenn and Errezha taking up the rear; the Varisian woman had stowed her lockpick and now had a dagger in her hand, and the tiefling flexed her fingers, ready to cast.

    The room in which they stood looked like a plain office with a table parallel with the far wall and several chairs lining the edges. To Errezha’s practiced eye the furniture looked well-made but hardly impressive, and the painting of Sandpoint that hung on one wall was a fine but uninspired piece. “I think this is where Lonjiku meets with customers,” she said out loud, “but not people he particularly wants to impress, or he’d decorate better. There’s probably another office not far from here that’s a bit more lavish; that’s where the important customers do business.”

    “Well, there’s no one here now,” Drall rumbled. “Guess no one comes by to do business when the building’s locked up.”

    “More to the point, this isn’t where our strange sounds are coming from,” said Calassara, who crept to a door on the far wall and opened it carefully. “I think it’s stronger over here. Come on!”

    The companions emerged into a plain hallway; Calassara, with her keen elven hearing, now took the lead, with Caelum hovering protectively beside her with his sword out. The elven singer led them towards another door, which opened into a small storeroom where a wheelbarrow and an open safe stood against the wall. Errezha frowned at that; there were still a handful of vials and papers inside it, but they were strewn about haphazardly, as though the safe had been ransacked for whatever valuables it might once have held.

    The sounds were louder now, and seemed to be clearly emanating from the door on the far side of the storeroom’s wall. Calassara raised a finger to her lips for quiet and then crept towards the door, opening it slowly once she reached it.

    A scene of horror greeted them on the other side.

    The room that was revealed could only have been the main workroom of the Glassworks. Along the one wall the great furnace rumbled, while across from it were windowed alcoves that let sunlight stream in to better inspect the Glassworks’ products. It was what lay in the middle of the floor, however, that drew Errezha’s attention. A number of bodies were strewn across it, obviously dead, obviously in savaged conditions. Once, she assumed, they had been Lonjiku’s workers; now they were corpses that had been beaten and burned, some of them missing limbs and others having had multicolored glass poured on them, where it had melted in bizarre and surreal shapes.

    Calassara’s hand flew to her mouth in horror, while Caelum looked like he was going to be sick; the other adventurers had similar expressions on their faces. Errezha herself felt her gorge rise, but forced it down; she was the daughter of a Chelaxian diabolist, and these were hardly the first mutilated corpses she’d ever seen. Worse was the feeling that she knew exactly what had created such a macabre seen, and she felt that her companions would work it out themselves shortly enough.

    She was torn from her thoughts by Harann’s sudden shout. “Desna have mercy!” the dwarf said, pointing towards one of the alcoves. Errezha’s eyes widened as she took in the figure propped up there, as if it was the centerpiece of this macabre display. Lonjiku Kaijitsu, very obviously dead, was perched in a throne-like chair, his expression fixed in horror and his body encased in a thick layer of glass up to his neck.

    “Gods above,” Caelum muttered in shock. “Who would do such a thing?”

    “Whoever it was, they had help,” Drall said. “Look!” He pointed towards the far end of the work room, where the sounds of high-pitched laughter emanated, growing steadily louder. A handful of small creatures rounded the corner, lugging the body of another workman with them. The goblins hurled it onto the floor with the others and then began to stamp on it with savage glee, cutting it with their knives while another lit a torch from the furnace; if they noticed the intruders, they gave no sign.

    “To the Abyss with it,” Shaenn hissed, “this ends now.” Balancing her dagger, she took careful aim and then let fly; the blade spun through the air and buried itself in one of the goblins’ backs; the creature gave a high-pitched shriek like steam escaping from a kettle and fell forward on top of its victim.

    The others turned slowly to face the adventurers, looking down at their comrade’s body and then back up at the six who now stood in the doorway. They were silent and still for a long moment, and then their faces split wide in hideous, sharp-toothed grins. Then they charged.

    “All right, then,” said Caelum as he angled his sword in front of him. “Let’s get to work.”
     
    pronker likes this.
  11. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    ‘Hellspawn Burns Down Local Business, Terrifying Citizens’ First a laugh, then a grimace of horror at the ending image ... good stuff here!

    Thanks for clarifying the genetic issues involved - they make for a most interesting tale.[face_alien]
     
  12. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 7: Tsuto’s Tale

    Caelum didn’t have the chance to count the goblins before the battle was joined, but one thing that he knew for certain was that any number of the foul creatures was too many. He held his sword before him carefully, falling into a practiced stance and sizing up the closest goblins as they approached, teeth bared and crude blades raised. Then they were on him.

    The first goblin dove for Caelum’s knees with a serrated dagger smeared with some grime that was probably poisonous, or at least unpleasant. He lashed out with a sharp kick, sending the creature sprawling back with a shriek, but it was back on its feet in a moment and began circling him warily, holding its blade in a mockery of his own while it gave high-pitched, cruel giggles. Then it charged again, blade swinging, and this time Caelum met it with his own sword, trading blows and forcing the goblin back against the wall using his superior size and strength. Seeming to realize it was being boxed in, the goblin shrieked a vicious string of expletives and then jumped surprisingly high, its wide mouth opened and aiming directly for Caelum’s face. The young swordsman shouted in surprise and stumbled back, but his sword came up with a single heavy swipe through the goblin’s thin neck. The creature’s head tumbled free and hit the ground with a disgusting noise; its body followed a moment later.

    Taking a moment to catch his breath, Caelum turned and saw his companions also engaged in battle. Fire flashed from Errezha’s hands as she stood in the rear, arcing above the heads of the other adventurers and striking the middle of the goblin mob, causing the creatures to scatter. Shaenn crouched beside her, knives glinting in either hand as she scoured the room for a fresh target, a cold look in her eyes. In front of them stood Drall with a short sword and Calassara with her rapier, the burly half-orc and slender elf making an unusual but effective pair as they warded goblins away with their blades, and beside them Harann’s hammer glinted silver as he called down Desna’s blessing. None of the other goblins seemed to be eager to make a move, lacking the boldness of the one who had attacked Caelum – maybe Errezha’s fire had frightened them, or maybe it was something else…

    “Look out!” Caelum called as a flicker of movement atop the furnace caught his eye, and then something hit his head and shattered, drawing blood and sending stabbing pain through his face. He barely had time to register what had happened – goblins had scaled the outside of the furnace and were now pelting their foes with glass detritus from the workshop – when more projectiles struck. He tried to knock them aside with his sword, but to no avail; Caelum found himself forced to his knees, one arm raised to protect himself from the blows. He could barely make out the forms of the others forced to do likewise.

    Mad laughter echoed from nearby, and suddenly small but disturbingly strong hands seized his sword arm and leg and began to pull. The goblins on the floor had taken advantage of Caelum’s seeming incapacitation to grab ahold of him; he gave a shout as his arm was wrenched back and his sword clattered to the ground, and then he was being dragged across the floor, towards… his eyes widened with horror. The open gate of the furnace. The goblins intended to avenge their fellow’s death by burning his killer alive.

    “Not if I have anything to say about it!” he growled, and put as much force as he could into kicking the goblin who held his leg; he felt a satisfying impact as his foot made contact with the creature’s chin. The goblin shrieked and fell to the floor, grabbing its face and wailing; Caelum twisted as he grappled with the one that held his arm, but the little monster refused to let go; baring its teeth, it sank them deep into his shoulder in a powerful bight. Caelum’s leathers stopped the worst of it, but he still couldn’t help but scream in surprise and pain.

    Suddenly another voice broke in with a trilling war cry. The goblin stiffened as the sharp point of a blade emerged from its back and let go of Caelum’s arm before falling dead to the floor. Then Calassara was there, a concerned look on her face as she pulled him back to his feet. “Thanks for the help,” he said, catching his breath.

    “I would say that’s what you get for charging away from everyone else to fight goblins by yourself,” Calassara said with a mischievous look in her eyes, “but considering you warned us about the glass-throwers, that would be crass. Now, what to do about them?”

    She glanced up at the top of the furnace, where several goblins still clung, paused for the moment as they took in the death of another of their kind, but still holding large bags that could contain an unpleasant amount of broken glass; it wouldn’t take long for them to start throwing again.

    “Drall!” Caelum called. “Can you shoot them down from where you are?”

    “Some,” he said, sheathing his sword and taking his bow from where it hung on his back. “But I can’t get them all before they hit me!”

    “Leave that to me,” Errezha replied, raising her hand and making a sharp gesture. There was a flicker of light between her fingers and one of the goblins stumbled as if confused, its gaze and limbs slack; she repeated the gesture twice more and the other two succumbed to the same condition, one dropping a piece of glass in mind throw; it clattered harmlessly to the floor. “Now!”

    Drall drew back his bow and let fly two arrows in quick succession; goblins fell with points protruding from their backs. The third goblin shook off the effects of Errezha’s spell just as the arrows hit and pulled back a hand to hurl a shard of glass; before it could release it fell forward, a knife protruding from its eye.

    “Huh,” Shaenn said. “Never figured I’d make that throw.”

    On the floor, the remaining goblins stared at the companions, seemingly uncertain as to how the tables could have turned against them so quickly. Then one of them pointed and shouted a stream of words in the goblin language that Caelum couldn’t follow; at once, the three surviving creatures turned and fled down the workroom, shrieking at the top of their lungs.

    “Well,” said Harann, “it seems we made an impression.”

    “Are we just going to let them get away, then?” Calassara asked. “I, for one, would like to know how they got in here.”

    “So would I,” said Caelum. “Come on. Let’s go after them.”

    ///

    Tsuto Kaijitsu lay in a dim space between dream and waking, his empty wineglass lying just out of reach of his hand. He was sprawled in the chair that had once been his father’s – Lonjiku may not have been his blood, not really, but he still couldn’t think of the old man without that name, and the shiver of hatred that passed up his spine – in the private office that lay underneath the main workroom. He’d drunk himself to a stupor there the night before, whether out of relief or guilt he couldn’t have said. Lonjiku Kaijitsu was dead – dead! – and never again would he be a blight on his family’s lives. For now, Tsuto only felt drained, but he was certain he would appreciate that fact more once it’d had time to sink in. If only Ameiko could have seen it the same way…

    But Nualia would, he knew. Nualia would be very pleased with what he’d accomplished here today, and that would make everything feel better.

    A sudden pounding split his head, and it took a moment for Tsuto to realize that it wasn’t the aftereffect of the drink. Sitting up, he blinked blearily and regarded the office door in front of him, hearing the sound of tiny fists pounding on the other side and high-pitched voices shrieking. His loyal allies, he realized slowly, having apparently found a problem they couldn’t fix and run to their master with tails between their legs like the dogs they despised.

    “What the hells is going on out there?” Tsuto demanded, trying to keep his voice from slurring too badly. By the gods, if one of the little pests had managed to set himself on fire when he should have known better, Tsuto was not getting out of his chair to help him…

    The door swung open and several goblins – several fewer than what he’d brought, Tsuto noticed even in his half-conscious state – tumbled inside. “Longshanks come!” the first goblin panted. “Longshanks come! Longshanks kill!”

    “Longshanks?” Tsuto ask, his mind taking a moment to catch up with what his ears had just heard, and then he scowled. “It’s probably just more of my father’s workers who got fed up with the building being locked and found a way in to figure out what was happening. Surely that wouldn’t give you trouble? You handled the ones last night well enough.”

    “No!” another goblin shrieked. “Different longshanks. We remember, from the festival. Stopped the raid, now they’ve come for us too! What do we do?”

    Finally, Tsuto managed to wrap his mind around the situation. Damn, damn and damn. This was not what he needed right now. For a brief moment he considered fleeing with his wretched compatriots in tow, but then he shook his head. Nualia still had use for this place, and she wouldn’t be happy with him if he ran like a coward. Nualia Tobyn was perhaps the one bright spot in his life these past few years; he couldn’t face her as a failure.

    “Got to do everything myself,” he muttered under his breath as he seized his bow and quiver from where he’d left them on a nearby desk and hurriedly slung them over his shoulder. “All right then, boys,” he said, smiling. “Time to kill.”

    ///

    The companions had followed the goblins as they left the main workroom and found themselves at the top of a narrow staircase leading down towards the basement. They glanced at each other and nodded, and then Caelum and Drall moved to the front, putting their greater strength and bulk first in line to face whatever might be waiting below. Errezha muttered a quick spell under her breath and snapped her fingers; a tiny flame appeared in the palm of her hand and she held it up to cast some illumination into the darkened room. She didn’t need the light – her fiend’s eyes could see in darkness as well as they did in the day – but the others might benefit from it. As she did so, she heard Harann whisper a prayer and then the symbol of Desna that hung at his neck began to glow with a faintly silver light, no doubt for the same purpose. Then they began their descent.

    Nothing accosted them on the stairs, and they soon found themselves emerging into a long hallway with several doors that seemed to lead to side rooms; the area was empty, so far as Errezha could tell. Caelum began to make his way forward, sword levelled, but as he did so Drall paused and frowned – and then suddenly shoved the human to the floor before falling to his knees beside him. A moment later, an arrow shot past where their heads and been and struck the wall.

    A tall man stood at the opposite end of the hall, expression annoyed as he nocked another arrow to his bow; a handful of goblins clustered close behind him. The man’s features resembled Ameiko’s enough that there was little doubt they shared a mother, save that his ears bore the slightly pointed tips that indicated elven heritage not far back in his family history. This, then, must be Tsuto.

    Tsuto drew back his bow and fired again; this time, the arrow grazed Calassara’s shoulder and the elf hissed in pain as it drew blood. But as he prepared a third shot, Caelum was already on his feet and charging directly at him, sword raised. Before Tsuto could fire, the young warrior had closed with him and struck a sweeping blow with his sword – a blow that never landed. Tsuto dropped his bow and darted backwards lightly, moving with practiced ease just out of reach as Caelum’s scowl deepened. The he struck with a series of quick barehanded jabs, striking Caelum on the wrist and neck. The young warrior’s sword clattered from his nerveless hand as he stumbled back, choking. Behind Tsuto, the goblins cheered.

    “I recognize that fighting style,” Calassara whispered. “Some monasteries teach it as a tool for self-discipline, but our friend here – it must be Tsuo – is no monk. Where did he learn it?”

    “Bethana said he’d been shipped off to some boarding school by his father,” Errezha returned. “Want to bet that school happened to be run by monks?”

    “That would explain a lot,” the elf said, frowning. “In any case, it’s a problem for us. Can you cover me?”

    Errezha nodded, and then Calassara was darting forward, standing face to face with Tsuto almost before the tiefling’s eyes could register it. He lashed out with his lightning-quick strikes, but now he had a foe to match him; Calassara was every bit as quick and nimble on her feet as he. The elf laughed merrily as she darted around him, carefully evading his attacks and feinting with her rapier; finally she struck and Tsuto stumbled back with a surprised cry, trailing blood from a cut on his cheek.

    “You little-“ he snarled, and Calassara grinned, only to stumble as her leg was seized from behind by one of the goblins, who seemed to have regained his courage. She cried out and collapsed to one knee as the little creature sunk its teeth into her boot – and then it was thrown back with a cry as flame lanced from Errezha’s fingers and struck it clear in the face. The goblin howled and fled down the hallway, flames trailing from atop its head.

    Tsuto grinned and raised a hand with stiffened fingers to strike Calassara, but before he could Drall slammed into him with one heavy shoulder, driving the half-elf back. Tsuto swore and stumbled back to his feet, the dove lightly under the half-orc’s arm to come to rest on his other side – where Shaenn caught him with a knifepoint held to his throat; she winked mischievously. Tsuto stumbled back, only to find himself blocked now by Harann, who held his silver hammer lightly and had a sorrowful look on his face.

    “End this now,” the dwarf priest said. “You know you can’t win this.”

    Tsuto suddenly grinned, fiercely, manically. “I’m not planning on giving up today,” he hissed, and Errezha was stunned to hear a slight slurring in his voice. The man was drunk! If this was how he fought while intoxicated, she whispered a silent prayer of thanks that they weren’t facing him sober – and that gave her an idea.

    Bringing her hand up again, the tiefling levelled it at Tsuto and cast the same spell she’d placed on the goblins upstairs. A minor thing, and of limited use against an alert opponent, but one whose mind was already dulled by drink? There was a chance…

    Tsuto spun and struck towards Drall with a sudden strike, but as he did so he stumbled, his eyes suddenly glazed. Harann’s hammer struck him in the side and he fell to the ground, wheezing as the breath was knocked from him. He tried to scramble to his feet but Shaenn kicked him, hard, knocking him back towards Drall, who hefted him into the air and punched him in the face. Tsuto’s head rolled back and he went limp in the half-orc’s arms.

    The remaining goblins, seeing their leader defeated, gave shrieks of dismay and fled down the hallway, none of the companions bothered to follow. Errezha, for one, thought they’d bagged a greater prize.

    Harann hurried to Caelum’s side and helped his friend to his feet. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Looked like he got you pretty good.”

    “I’ll be fine,” the human replied in a raspy voice; she shook his sword hand and then rubbed his throat. “But you might want to take a look a Calassara; that goblin looked like it bit her pretty hard.”

    “It mostly got my boot,” the elf said, cradling her foot in her lap. “But I think some of the teeth were sharp enough to pierce the skin, and I certainly don’t want to know what it was eating before it started on me.”

    Harann knelt in front of her. “Here,” he said. “It doesn’t looke too bad, but I’d rather you not wait and let it get infected. But the Lady’s magic should help.” He held his hands over the bite and whispered a prayer; there was a faint glow of silver light and Calassara sighed as the teeth marks in her skin vanished.

    “Too bad it only works on living things,” she said, standing and balancing experimentally on the healed foot. “Now I’ll have to buy a new boot, but it’s better than being the limping minstrel. My thanks.”

    “Now that that’s settled,” said Shaenn, “what do we do with him?” She gestured towards Tsuto, who was still hanging limp in Drall’s grip, the half-orc looking less than pleased by the situation. “Kill him? After that display upstairs, I’d say he deserves it.”

    “Out of the question,” said Harann, surprisingly forcefully. “I’ll kill in battle if I have to, but I won’t be party to the murder of someone who can’t fight back.”

    Errezha spread her hands. “I don’t care whether he lives or dies,” she said, “but I’d like some answers about what the Hell is going on here, and I doubt I’m the only one.” She glanced around at the others, and saw Calassara, Caelum and Shaenn all nodding.

    “All right,” Caelum said. “Drall, could you wake him up?”

    The half-orc shrugged and dropped Tsuto unceremoniously on the ground before slapping him hard across the face. The man spluttered and shook his head as he slowly pulled himself into a half-sitting position, and then his eyes widened as he saw who was surrounding him.

    “Apparently,” he said, “I haven’t suffered enough yet. I guess the gods still have it in for me.” He looked around at his captors and grinned. “I suppose you all want some information? Well, do your worst – threats, torture, the works – it won’t work. I’ll die before I betray her.”

    “Her?” Caelum asked, bending down and grabbing Tsuto by his collar. “So there’s a ‘her’ involved, is there? Care to do any better than that, friend?”

    Tsuto only smirked. “You’ll have to do better than that,” he said. “And I don’t think you’ve got the nerve, pretty boy. So how about you just toddle me back up to Sheriff Hemlock’s jail cells, and I can get in some rest there before my love reduces this whole filthy town to rubble? Then I’ll be free, and she and I can dance on all your graves.”

    Caelum snarled, but Errezha put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s right,” she said quietly. “You don’t have what it takes to break him. Maybe I do.” The young warrior looked dubious for a moment, then he shrugged and let Tsuto go. Errezha took his place kneeling before their captive, regarding him carefully.

    “What in Aroden’s name are you supposed to be?” he asked, regarding her fiendish features curiously. “Your daddy get frisky with a succubus or something?”

    That struck rather close to home, even if Tsuto had gotten the genders of her mortal and fiendish forebears wrong, but Errezha gritted her teeth and raised a hand in front of his face. “I,” she said simply, “am the one who is going to make you spill your every dirty secret.” Drawing a deep breath, she closed her eyes and whispered an incantation.

    She could feel the power flow from her, and when she opened her eyes again, she saw that Tsuto’s smirk had faded; instead, he was regarding her with a blearily benevolent expression. Errezha leaned in closely, wrinkling her nose at the smell of alcohol on his breath. “Tsuto,” she said softly, “can you hear me?”

    “Of course I can,” he replied in a light, dreamy tone. “Why wouldn’t I? What’s going on here, anyway?”

    “What,” Caelum said slowly, “did you do to him?”

    “It’s a simple charm,” Errezha said, noting out of the corner of her eye that Calassara was nodding along in understanding. “I’ve made him believe that we’re old friends. He’s not under my complete control, but until the spell wears off, he’ll trust anything I say or do, so I think he’ll be rather more cooperative.” She turned back to Tsuto. “Now, can you tell me what all is going on here?”

    “I guess it all started after Mother died a few years ago,” he said, the words seeming to spill from him. “I knew Father had finally murdered her, but I had no proof. He knew as soon as he saw me that I wasn’t his son by blood, and he’d always hated how she’d been unfaithful to him. We fought at the funeral, and that’s when I fled. I knew it was a cowardly thing to do, but it was all I could think of. I went south, to Magnimar. That’s where I met Nualia.”

    “Nualia?” Shaenn asked, her eyes wide and shocked. “You mean Nualia Tobyn, the priest’s daughter? She’s dead!”

    Tsuto shook his head. “She’s not,” he said. “I recognized her the moment I saw her, of course. Who couldn’t, having seen her before? There’s no one like her in all Varisia, maybe in all the world. They say there’s angel blood in her – Father Tobyn wasn’t her real father, you know – and I believe it. I’d seen her before, in town, but never had the courage to speak to her. But in the city we were two from Sandpoint in a sea of strangers, so I guess it was natural we’d fall in together.

    “Finally, she trusted me enough to let me in on her secret – she killed her father. She was the one who set the fire when the old church burned and she locked him in his room before escaping. I was shocked, at first, but when she told me how he’d treated her, how she was never good enough for him, I understood. We both had overbearing, cruel fathers who weren’t our blood – she a foundling and I, a bastard. But she had courage to do what I had not.

    “She told me she’d found a new goddess, one who wouldn’t balk at the blood on her hands – not Desna, but her enemy, Lamashtu the Mother of Monsters. And she’d found friends in Magnimar, powerful friends who would help her complete her revenge. She introduced me to them, and they told me secrets that explained so much. As it turned out, my mother died the same night that the church burned, and that around the same time there was a spate of murders all around Sandpoint. It wasn’t a coincidence. Nualia’s friends said that there were powers buried in this land, powers from an older age, and that five years ago they began to awaken. One of them was buried under Sandpoint and it spoke to those with buried anger in their hearts. Nualia, Lonjiku, the other murderers – they were all ones this power had called to action. When I first heard this I was afraid, but Nualia calmed me, she said that weren’t we kindred spirits? Hadn’t I too been ostracized and shut away for nothing but the accident of my birth? Shouldn’t I, too, want revenge? Of course, she was right. I understood. And together, there in Magnimar, we laid our plans.

    “Then, not long ago, we came to Thistletop – me, Nualia, and a couple of others. There are old powers buried there, too, which have drawn the goblins, though they barely understand them. We talked to the goblin chieftain, Ripnugget and that hulking beast Bruthazmus, got them on our side by promising to help them wipe out the ‘longshanks’. Nualia didn’t care about helping the goblins, though – all she wants, all either of us want, is to see Sandpoint burn for how it treated us. We gathered goblins from various tribes, and then I snuck quietly into town one night. I found my father and convinced him that the I knew secrets about his illicit business deals and that I’d tell the sheriff if he didn’t do exactly as I said. I told him to leave the gate open on festival night, so the goblins could sneak in. But the first raid was just a cover for me to steal Father Tobyn’s bones. Nualia wanted them for a ritual for her new goddess, you see.

    “I don’t claim to understand it all, but she’s come to hate the angelic part of herself; she blames it for all her troubles. She wants to be reborn as one of Lamashut’s children, a demon of some sort; I tried to talk her out of it, but, well, she’s a stubborn woman, sometimes. The sacrifice of the bones was the first step; the sacrifice of Sandpoint itself will finish the job. There’s another raid coming, much bigger than the first, and when the dust settles this place will be wiped off the map. Good riddance, I say.”

    “You really think a mob of goblins, no matter how big, is capable of something like that?” Errezha asked dubiously. “I don’t buy it.”

    Tsuto grinned. “That’s what I said, but Nualia’s got plans. Seems there’s some monster under Thistletop – Nualia calls it Malfeshnekor, but I’ve got no idea what it is. She seems to think she can release it and control it, and that it’ll fight for her. But there’s more. There’s tunnels under this town, buried deep, where the ancients left their tools and their pets. Nualia found an entrance outside of town; the other entrance comes up just under the basement here. She’s scouted out the ways, and she’s going to lead the raid through it. Sandpoint’ll never know what hit it, believe me!

    “She sent me to prepare the way, and I had some unfinished business of my own. I sent letters to my father and my sister, to get them both to meet me here. I thought maybe I could get Ameiko on my side; there was a time she liked me. But she wasn’t interested; my goblins managed to get the drop on her, and I whacked her pretty good over the head. She’s tied up in one of the storage rooms in the basement, probably still out cold or we could hear her cursing at me from here. As for my father… well, I finally did what I hadn’t the courage to do before. The great Lonjiku Kaijitsu, brought down by the son he hated. There’s some poetry in that. But more importantly, the path is clear. The raid will come up through the catacombs before long, and Sandpoint will burn, Nualia will be reborn, and my love and I will be together forever, as we were meant to be.”

    Tsuto grinned sleepily, and then he fell backwards to the floor, his eyes closing as some combination of the drink and the spell took him and he lay asleep and still, six horrified adventurers surrounding him.

     
  13. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Fascinating backstory and sense of dread - good job with the spell![face_good_luck]
     
  14. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 8: Into the Catacombs

    They found Ameiko in one of the nearby storerooms, awake but bound hand and foot and with a gag wrapped tightly around her mouth. The innkeeper looked like she’d been thrashing about trying to free herself, but when she saw the companions step inside, her eyes widened and she nodded vigorously. Calassara knelt in front of her and pulled the gag out, then quickly undid the other bindings.

    “It was Tsuto!” Ameiko said, as she got to her feet, a look of fury in her eyes. “He lured me here with a letter, and when I got here he started rambling about some plan to burn down Sandpoint with the goblins. When I told him there was no way in the Hells I’d help him, something dropped on top of me- a goblin probably, from the smell. Next thing I remember was waking up here.” She looked around angrily. “Anyone got a spare blade I could borrow? I think I need to have a little talk with my brother.”

    “I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Caelum, and Drall shoved the unconscious Tsuto into the room, where he collapsed in a heap on the floor. “Consider it a present from all of us for all those wonderful meals you’ve cooked for us.”

    Ameiko’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she said. “Looks like you all really did do it properly, didn’t you?” Suddenly, she drew a sharp breath. “Wait – my father. Tsuto mentioned him last night when he was rambling; I think he might be in danger. Someone needs to warn him.”

    An uncomfortable silence fell across the room, and finally Calassara put a hand on Ameiko’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s too late. Your father is dead; Tsuto killed him last night, before we got here. Don’t go up into the main workroom until someone’s had a chance to clean it out. What he did… it’s not pleasant.”

    Ameiko looked as stunned as if she’d been hit in the face with a wooden plank, and then she stumbled back and leaned against the wall for support. “Damn,” she muttered under her breath. “Father was a mean old bastard, but somehow it always seemed like he’d be there, ready to come bursting into the inn and yell at me for not living up to the family name. I always knew there was something nasty in Tsuto, but I never thought… damn.” She turned her face away from the companions, but Caelum thought he saw the shimmer of tears in the corner of her eye. Calassara seemed to consider reaching out a hand to comfort her, but then thought better of it. From the elf, Caelum’s gaze slid past the others and finally landed on Errezha, who was staring at the innkeeper’s grief with an intense but unreadable expression on her face.

    Finally, Ameiko raised her head and looked back towards the others, the streaks of tears still visible on her cheeks. “Tell me everything,” she said. “I think I’ve got a right to know. What the hell is going on here?”

    The words spilled out of Caelum, with the occasional interjection or correction from Calassara or Harann; when he had finished recounting what Tsuto had revealed, Ameiko’s gaze had hardened.

    “So, that’s what he was a part of?” she asked, and shook her head. “Gods. I’d never have thought Tsuto had it in him. And Nualia’s alive? And she’s at the bottom of all this?” She shook her head again, then her gaze passed over each of the companions in turn before finally settling on Caelum. “I want to help you stop it. My family helped make this mess; the least I can do is try and see it cleaned up.”

    “Are you sure you’re up to that?” Harann asked. “I mean, after all, this has been a rather trying day for you…”

    “Dead sure,” said Ameiko; her tone brooked no argument.

    “Tsuto said something about catacombs under the glassworks,” Caelum said, stroking his chin. “So long as we’re here, that might be a place to start – at the very least we could try and make sure Nualia can’t get her raiders through there.”

    “And from what Tsuto said, there may be other things there as well,” added Calassara, but the elf’s expression was guarded as if she was wary of expressing the true reason for her interest. “I, for one, would sleep easier knowing that there isn’t some ancient horror buried beneath this town that could rise at any time and devour us all in our sleep.”

    Errezha rolled her eyes at that, but no one else made further comment. “All right then,” Caelum said. “Let’s get to it.”

    ///

    Ameiko managed to scrounge a pair of long, heavy-bladed knives off the bodies of the goblins (“Not exactly my preferred weapon,” she said, giving them a dubious look, “but they’ll do”) and stuck them through her belt with an easy confidence; Errezha remembered what Bethana had said about the innkeeper having spent time as an adventurer. Calassara and Shaenn went poking through the small office where Tsuto had apparently been sleeping before they had disturbed him and returned after a few minutes with an old tattered journal that the elf was carrying in one hand.

    “Anything interesting in that?” Caelum asked, eyeing the book appraisingly.

    “Aside from more information than I ever wanted to know about Tsuto’s sexual fantasies?” Calassara asked, a disgusted expression on her face. “Not much; mostly just confirming what Errezha got out of him with that charm spell. Nualia’s coming back to Sandpoint with a monster and a lot more goblins, and she’s planning on getting here through the catacombs.”

    “Sheriff’s out of town,” Ameiko said, “but someone needs to warn the mayor of what’s going on. I can handle that part, if you like. And I’ll take my brother,” she shot a dark look at Tsuto’s prone, loudly snoring body, “so that the bastard can face the consequences of his actions.” She looked down at her hands and sighed before continuing in a quiet voice. “And I’d better see to my father’s body, too. He was an *******, but he deserves a decent funeral anyway.”

    “I can help you, if you like,” Calassara said, her expression sympathetic. “You don’t have to handle it alone if you don’t want to.”

    Ameiko shook her head. “Thanks, but no. Like I said, this part’s family business; I can take care of it alone. I need to. What about the rest of you? Going to head into those catacombs right away?”

    “Think we’d better,” Caelum said; if the situation had been less serious, Errezha might have rolled her eyes and how predictable he was. “This thing doesn’t seem like it’s going to improve with age.”

    Harann and Drall both nodded in response, and Shaenn shrugged. “Can’t be worse than what we saw up here,” she said, then glanced at Ameiko and winced. “Sorry,” she said quietly.

    Ameiko didn’t respond; she bent down and grabbed Tsuto’s body and, grunting with exertion, swung him up over her shoulders. “Well,” she said, “Desna’s luck go with you all, then. Sounds like you’ll need it – and maybe before long we all will.” She turned and began to head towards the stairs, walking slowly with her burder, but before she got there Errezha caught up with her and surprised herself by resting a hand on the other woman’s arm.

    “I won’t pretend I know what you’re going through,” she said, “and I’m not exactly Golarion’s greatest expert on feelings, but… well, I didn’t have the best family situation growing up either, and I know how hard it must be for you. What I’m trying to say is… if you need to talk to someone later who isn’t a chattering elf or a youth who thinks he can solve all his problems by hitting them with a sword, I’ll be there for you.”

    Ameiko looked surprised for a long moment, and then gave a weary, knowing smile. “I may take you up on that,” she said. “You know, you’re not as nasty and bitter as you act, are you?”

    Errezha sniffed. “Maybe, but don’t tell anyone. I have a reputation to maintain, after all.”

    ///

    The entrance to the catacombs under the glassworks lay behind a door that looked as though it would have been very clever and secret had the goblins not left it partially ajar. Shaenn waved the others back and spent several moments studying the door and surrounding hallway – looking for traps, Caelum assumed – and then nodded and waved them through. He drew his sword and went through first, Calassara following with her rapier and Harann with his hammer; Errezha and Drall took up the rear, the half-orc with an arrow nocked on his bow. The corridor was dark, but Harann set his holy symbol aglow once again, while Errezha conjured another small flame in the palm of her hand, creating enough light to see by as they made their way down.

    “This tunnel’s old, but not ancient,” Shaenn said suddenly, breaking the silence. She paused and ran her hand along the wall. “It matches the rest of the basement. I bet Lonjiku had business dealings that weren’t quite legal, and this is where he shipped out illicit goods. But I don’t think we’re in the catacombs yet, not really.”

    “What’s that up ahead?” Harann asked, raising his holy symbol for a better look. Caelum hurried forward in the direction his friend was pointing and found himself at a place where the tunnel diverged; one half went off straight, in a direction he was pretty sure would take it out towards the coast; the other looked like it had been bricked off at some point in the past, but enough of the bricks had been torn down to allow someone to slip through, if they were careful. The tunnel on the other side looked rough and descended downwards into darkness.

    “Well, that certainly has an ominous feel,” Harann said. “What do you think? These the old tunnels our friend Tsuto was talking about?”

    “Well, I’ve never seen them before,” Shaenn said. “And I’ve lived around here my whole life. Then again, I don’t normally go sneaking around rich people’s basements, so who knows? Maybe this sort of thing comes standard. But I doubt it. But I’d wager Lonjiku’s men found something they didn’t like when they were digging this tunnel, so they sealed off that part of it and pretended it wasn’t there. And based on the way those bricks are laying, I’d guess someone unblocked it fairly recently.”

    “Well, don’t look at me,” Errezha said. “Just because I’m a hellspawn doesn’t make me an expert in all things sinister. But I would wager decent money that Harann is right. We’ve found our catacombs.”

    “Then I guess it’s time to see why Mistress Nualia was so interested in them,” Caelum said. Turning, he managed to squeeze through the entrance and set off down the dark tunnel, the others following behind.

    ///

    At first, the tunnel past the fallen barrier seemed little different than the one which the companions had left, a simple blank passage that wound its way deeper and deeper beneath the ground. Still, something in the air seemed to shift as they descended, and Errezha could almost fancy she felt a faint tingling on her skin. This place had known magic, she thought – very old magic from a very long time ago, and yet uncomfortably close to the surface nonetheless. These catacombs were here long before Nualia – Tsuto had said she’d found them, not created them. Now Errezha found herself wondering who had. Not goblins, surely. Modern Varisia was a backwater, a land of wilderness and isolated cities, but it hadn’t always been that way – the ruins that littered the landscape were a testament to that. But Errezha didn’t know enough about the history of this land to say for sure who might have made them; maybe, once this business was through, she’d find someone who did and ask them.

    Finally, the passageway levelled out, and one side of it opened up in the entrance to what looked like a larger chamber. Caelum paused and raised his sword before stepping forward, Harann at his side with his light and the others following close behind. Errezha raised her own flame higher as she stepped inside, and bit back a gasp at what it revealed.

    The chamber itself was largely bare, but the walls and floor had clearly been carved and smoothed by hands far more skilled than those who had made the rough tunnel they’d just left. No goblin made this, Errezha knew, and even in Cheliax a stonemason skilled enough to carve such a chamber would have their skills in high demand. But the craftsmanship paled compared to the statue of red marble that dominated the room. Exquisitely crafted, it depicted a woman clad in flowing robes, crowned like a queen; her face was breathtakingly beautiful, or would have been had it not been twisted into an expression of monstrous fury captured so realistically it seemed almost that the statue might come alive and attack at a moment’s notice. The elaborate spear she held in one hand, point jammed into the earth, merely reinforced that nation.

    “Damn,” Drall swore, his rough voice breaking the silence. “Wouldn’t want to meet her on a dark night, and no mistake.”

    “You can say that again,” Shaenn said, gesturing to the statue. In the woman’s free hand was the sculpted image of a large book, and Errezha now noticed the strange symbol carved on its cover, a sort of seven-pointed star. It was to that symbol Shaenn was pointing. “That’s a very old, very wicked symbol,” she said. “You see it sometimes on old ruins in this land. I don’t know what it’s called, but my people know well enough that if you see that symbol, you stay the hells away from it.”

    “So, who’s the statue supposed to be, then?” Caelum asked, holding his sword warily as if expecting an attack at any moment. “Lamashtu, you think?”

    “Maybe, but it doesn’t match any depiction of her I’ve ever seen,” Harann said, stroking his beard. “And there’s no altar or place for rituals; I don’t think this is a shrine to anybody. So why bury the statue down here and not put it out where people could see it?”

    “I don’t know,” Calassara said, uncharacteristically subdued; she was staring at the seven-pointed star and though her black elven eyes were hard to read, Errezha thought she seemed troubled. “I think it might be…” the elf’s voice trailed off, leaving whatever suspicions she had unsaid.

    “Well, it gives me the creeps, whoever she is,” Caelum said. “Let’s keep moving. I don’t think we’re going to find anything else here.” Privately, Errezha agreed with him, though she didn’t say so aloud.

    To the left of the statue was another door that led down a corridor; worked like the chamber and not rough like the tunnel. The companions followed it slowly, their way lit by Harann’s steady silver light and Errezha’s flickering orange flame, and before long they emerged into a larger room. They found themselves standing on a wooden walkway that overlooked a wide, sunken pit, its walls lined with small alcoves with barred gates. Errezha felt a chill when she realized what they must be. “Cells,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

    “This was a prison,” Caelum agreed, his expression dark. “But who built it? And who did they build it for?

    “They’re long gone, whoever they were,” Harann said. “May the Lady go with them, whatever their fate. I have a feeling they needed someone’s grace, whoever they were.”

    Shaenn knelt and ran a finger along the walkway, then held it up in front of her face. “Dust,” she said. “I think layer of it. But not everywhere.” Moving forward in a crouch, she ran her finger along the wood, expression darkening as she examined it, and then finally she stood and faced the others, face stony. “There’s tracks here. They don’t look human, and they’re too big to be goblin. And they’re fresh. We’re not alone down here.”

    “Why am I not surprised?” Errezha muttered.

    “Then we’ll keep our wits about us and our eyes sharp,” Drall said. “It’s harder to ambush someone who’s expecting trouble. And there’s six of us. We’re not exactly helpless.”

    “And we’ll show them that, whoever they are, if they think we’re easy pickings,” Caelum said. The companions continued along the walkway until it rounded a corner and gave way to another stone corridor. This one was longer than the last, and they walked along it in silence until they came at last to another chamber, smaller than the last, but its walls lined with strange metal implements of archaic design but unmistakable purpose. Errezha’s breath hissed between her teeth at the sight.

    “Torture devices,” she spat. “This wasn’t just a prison. This was an interrogation room – and maybe even a laboratory. Someone amused themselves here, at least.” She balled her hands into fists and could feel smoke rising around them; it was all she could do to keep from summoning fire and burning the whole foul room to ashes, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be wise to waste the magic. She’d need it for more important things before long, of that she was certain.

    The tiefling drew a deep breath and released it, then opened her eyes to see the others staring at her with expressions of open concern; Calassara looked like she’d been about ready to put a hand on Errezha’s shoulder but thought better of it when she saw the look in her eyes. “Are you all right?” the elf finally asked.

    “I’m fine,” Errezha said. “Bad memories. I’ve seen devices like this before. Never been in one, thank the Prince, but I’ve… seen them used. Not pleasant. Also, neither here nor now, so stop worrying about it. What now?”

    “There’s two doors here,” Harann said. “One looks like it goes on ahead to another corridor; the other looks like a smaller room of some kind.”

    “I see it,” Errezha said, glancing over at the right wall in the direction Harann had nodded his head; determined to clear her thoughts by doing something, however, irrelevant, she walked over to it and stuck her head through. “There’s nothing here,” she called back, summoning her little flame back and holding it up. “Just some old broken furniture. Maybe this was someone’s office.”

    “Not quite nothing,” Calassara said, sticking her head up beside Errezha’s. “Look,” she said, gesturing towards the far wall and what was written on it. “I know you can see in the dark as well as I can. You can see what’s written on the wall. It’s the symbol on the statue again. The seven-pointed star.” Her voice lowered. “The sihedron.”

    “Shaenn said it was a wicked sign,” Errezha said, voice pitched too low for anyone but the elf woman to hear. “I thought I was reasonably familiar with that sort of thing, but I’ve never seen that symbol before today, not even in my mother’s grimoires. But I think you have. Don’t try to lie to me. You know what it is.”

    “I told you I was a teller of tales,” Calassara said, equally softly. “And some tales are much older and darker than others. I pray to all the gods it’s just a coincidence that we’ve seen the sihedron in these catacombs and that this business isn’t what I fear it is, but I don’t think so. This isn’t a place for storytelling, but when we get out of here, I’ll tell you what I know. That, I promise you. But I can’t promise you’ll like it.”

    “I think we’re all made of sterner stuff than that,” Errezha said, “and I’ll hold you to that promise. I think we need to know what’s going on here. I sure as the hells do.”

    ///

    The tunnel beyond the torture chamber proved to contain a long staircase that descended further into the earth. Caelum took the lead once again, sword out, with Harann following close behind with his light. By the time they reached the bottom, the young swordsman could feel the ominous air of the place pressing down on him ever harder; it seemed difficult to imagine that they were still somewhere underneath Sandpoint and hadn’t somehow wandered into the realm of the ancient, terrifying past. Finally, they emerged into another large, rounded chamber, bare save for the fact that the floor seemed lined with boarded over pits.

    “What do we have here?” Caelum asked, a feeling of dread rising in his belly. Walking over to the nearest pit, he bent down and peered between the wooden slats; within, chained to the wall, he saw what appeared to be an ancient, mummified human corpse. Some poor prisoner who’d been forgotten here when the complex was abandoned by its builders and left to die? He bent for a closer look, but as he did so the corpse suddenly turned its head and looked up at him, chains rattling. Caelum gave a shout and jumped back.

    “Zombies!” Harann said from where he’d been looking into one of the other pits. “Chained up where they can’t hurt anyone, but still – who put them there? And why in the Lady’s name would they?”

    “Worry about it later, boys,” Shaenn said. “We’ve got bigger problems. Look!” She pointed towards the chamber’s right wall, where another door was now open – and at the creature that stood there, grinning maliciously at them.

    “Lady’s grace!” Harann swore, and Caelum thought he heard Errezha muttering a similar curse in the name of the Prince of Law. The young swordsman bit back an exclamation of his own, but he couldn’t blame either of them. The thing that stood in the doorway was something out of a nightmare. It looked like a goblin, vaguely, but something had gone horribly, horribly wrong with it. The creature’s body was hunched and corded with muscle, its face distorted into a permanent manic grin that made an ordinary goblin look downright reasonable in comparison. But the worst part was the third arm that had erupted from the center of the creature’s back and now waved an axe high above its head; its other two hands held long knives.

    “Longshanks!” the creature spat, its voice guttural and foul. “Longshanks not s’posed to be here! Longshanks not bother the Queen! Koruvus kill! Kill, kill!”

    The goblin-thing opened its mouth and suddenly spat a long stream of foul-smelling liquid. Caelum shouted and jumped to the side in time to evade it, and the stuff splattered across the floor, where it hissed and steamed, leaving scarring in the stone floor. Then the monster – Koruvus – was charging forward, all weapons raised, directly at Caelum. He managed to raise his sword in a warding position, but the goblin-thing plowed straight into him, knocking him to the floor and causing the sword to fall from his hands. They rolled across the ground, tightly locked, the monster’s foul breath in his face.

    From the corner of his eyes, Caelum could see that the others were having their own troubles. Two other creatures had emerged, following Koruvus – emaciated things roughly humanoid in shape, but with fierce talons and spindly, backward-bending legs. Their faces were hideous, with bulging red eyes and slit noses, and gaping maws framed by razor-edged tentacles. One of the creatures was facing Harann, who was warding it off with his hammer in one hand and a long knife in the other, both weapons gleaming with divine power; the other was circling Calassara, who held her rapier before her in a defensive posture.

    Caelum had no time to spare for the others for now; he had his own plight to worry about. The goblin creature’s jaws were snapping as it leaned closer to his head, and it was all he could do to keep from having his face torn off. He held the creature’s two main arms with his hands, keeping it from stabbing him with its daggers, but it raised its axe above its head with its third arm, preparing to come swinging down and cleave Caelum’s head in two. That, he thought, won’t be much fun. Time to end this! As the goblin raised its axe, Caelum headbutted forward, slamming into the monster’s face and knocking it back. As Koruvus stumbled back to its feet and raised its weapons, Caelum scrambled over to his sword and grabbed it, holding it in front of him with blade levelled at the goblin’s heart.

    “That all you’ve got, monster?” he said. “If so, not impressed. Care to go another round?”

    “Koruvus kill!” the goblin-thing shrieked, lunging forward again. Caelum parried its attack and forced it back, using his superior size and strength to try and keep the creature on the defensive. Koruvus seemed to realize it was on the defensive because it leaped backwards and opened its mouth wide; Caelum suddenly realized it was about to spit acid again, but before it could an arrow took it through the chest. The goblin-thing looked down at the wooden shaft in disbelief, then fell backwards to the ground.

    “You’re welcome,” Drall rumbled, stepping up to stand beside Caelum. “I’d have shot it sooner, but you were in my way.”

    “Honestly, I’m just glad you did it when you did,” Caelum replied, not taking his eyes off the goblin creature that was still tugging at the arrow, glaring murderously at the two men. “What are you, anyway?”

    “Koruvus the Queen’s chosen, Queen’s champion,” the creature gurgled.

    “Queen?” Caelum asked. “You mean Nualia?”

    Koruvus only laughed. “Queen of tunnels. Queen kill you. Queen kill you all! Die Longshanks!” Koruvus stumbled back to its feet and prepared to lunge forward again, but before it could Drall let another arrow fly. This one took the goblin-thing through the throat; it toppled back to the floor and lay still.

    Across the room, Harann was forcing one of the monsters back with sweeps from his glowing hammer when Shaenn let fly a pair of knives; one took it through the shoulder, another through the eye. The thing yowled and stumbled forward, but Harann’s hammer struck it in the face; the monster fell back and twitched a few times before going still. Calassara had maneuvered the other monster around so that Errezha had a clear line to it, and she let a torrent of flame loose from her hands; the monster ignited and leaped about, howling, until Classara skewered it through the throat.

    “Okay,” Shaenn finally said, panting. “That was… different. Anyone care to tell me what in the Abyss just happened here?”

    Errezha knelt beside the body of one of the dead monsters. “I’ve never seen anything like these things before,” she said. “If they’re fiends, they’re not any kind I’ve heard of. But look here on their flesh, these markings. They look like some sort of… runes.”

    “Runes,” Caelum said slowly. “Is that implying what I thjnk it does?”

    “It means these things aren’t natural,” Errezha said. “Someone made them, or maybe altered them.”

    “And if I were a betting dwarf,” Harann said, “I’d wager that whoever did it, they’re still down here with us. I think we’re starting to see just what Nualia was interested in.”
     
    pronker likes this.
  15. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Now I'm spooked![face_hypnotized]

    [face_hypnotized][face_hypnotized]

    =D= Really good and unusual ability!

    :(

    Enjoying the byplay and plotting - embellished from its source, I take it? Whatever, it takes fleshing out to make a good tale. *settles in for a long haul*
     
  16. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Depends on what part you're talking about. The overarching storyline comes from Paizo Publishing, as does the worldbuilding. The six main heroes (Errezha, Caelum, Calassara, Harann, Drall, and Shaenn) are mine, as is almost all of the dialogue and the specifics of how events play out. So it's a collaborative effort. ;) Speaking of the worldbuilding, I'm adding a link in the first post to a glossary of important terms I've been putting together, which will update as the fic does.

    In that vein, new chapter!



    Chapter 9: The Underground Queen

    The Queen of the Catacombs of Wrath stared into the waters of the pool that stood at the center of the chamber that was the heart of her domain and reflected on how all was not as it appeared.

    She had not always been a queen, of course; once she had been merely the servant of a master greater than she, who had in turn bowed before a mistress greater still. In those days these lands that were now called Varisia had been the heartland of the great empire of Thassilon and its rulers had built many strongholds of their power, some hidden, and others overt. These were the citadels of their power, the laboratories of their experiments, the dungeons of their prisoners and many other things besides, and the Catacombs of Wrath had been designed as both laboratory and dungeon. They had served those purposes well indeed, until they day when fire rained from the skies and the shape of the land was changed, when cities fell and seas rushed in to fill the empty places and Thassilon, greatest of all the empires of humankind, had perished in a single night. The great mistress, though her statue remained standing in the Catacombs’ antechamber, had fallen silent; the master had gone mad and vanished deep underground, blocking the lower levels behind him, and she who would be queen had been left alone.

    Erylium was her name, though she seldom bothered to remember that fact any longer – “I” was only a relevant concept when there was a “you” or “they” to contrast it with, and Erylium’s only company for countless millennia had been the mindless zombies in their cells and the handful of sinspawn remaining to her, who were only marginally more articulate. Still, the passage of years did not trouble her – she had been called from the Abyss to serve the master, and time did not wear on her kind as it did on mortals. In the realm of her birth she’d been a weak creature, of minor account, but after the master had vanished and she had assured himself he wouldn’t return she had stolen his notes and spellbooks and slowly tutored herself in magical arts beyond what she naturally would have been capable of. In time she attracted the attention, distant though it was, of a being far greater than even she whom the master had once served – Lamashtu, Mother of Monsters and of madness. A goddess, yes, but a demon too, and that meant she and Erylium were, however, distantly, akin. In time Erylium had taken Lamashtu for her patron, and her power had grown yet more.

    So had Erylium lived for uncounted centuries, queen of her own small world, until, not so long ago as she reckoned time, a group of humans had dug a tunnel that had breached their domain. Criminals trying to hide their illicit dealings was what they’d been; Erylium didn’t know any more, nor did she care. She’d frightened them off and they’d barricaded the passage behind them, but from that day forward the Queen of the Catacombs’ interest in the world above had reawakened. She had petitioned Lamashtu, requesting the goddess to advise her in how she should proceed, and had been told to wait for Lamashtu’s chosen one, whom she was to serve and guide on the path to glory.

    And so Erylium had waited, until not long ago the runewell left by the master in ages past and long since fallen dormant had reawakened, stirred to life among other such powers rising across all of what had once been Thassilon; not Lamashtu’s doing, but something the demon goddess was certainly willing to profit from. Then, shortly afterwards, other interlopers had found the Catacombs. But these were different than the smugglers; their leader was a not-quite-human woman with silver hair and the marks of Lamashtu upon her body. She said her name was Nualia, and Erylium knew that this was the one the goddess had promised her.

    The time of waiting was over; the time of preparation had begun. From the master’s reawakened well she learned to call forth more sinspawn to serve her and prepared them for the assault on the town that had grown up above like an infestation. Erylium had no desire to leave her domain herself – after so many years beneath the ground, the very thought of the open sky terrified her – but she could provide aid with her magic and send her minions to act in her stead. She’d even found a use for that goblin who’d stumbled in not long ago and foolishly drunk from waters that had been consecrated to Lamashu, warping his form into something monstrous. He’d decided Erylium was a goddess of some sort, but his constant groveling quickly grew tiresome and she set him to watch over her prisons, a task he took too with relish. She’d send him, too, to attack the human town when the time came. Maybe he’d die there and Erylium would at last be free of his yammering.

    But now Erylium had the feeling that something was amiss, a shifting in the air of her tiny kingdom that led her to think that intruders had once again opened the Catacombs and invaded them. The ancient demon was filled with rage at the intrusion and she burned with the urge to hunt them down and slay them for their folly, but she had learned patience in her long years beneath the ground, and patience trumped bloodlust. She’d let them come to her, whoever they were, and then she’d have them trapped, to do with as she pleased.

    It had been too long since she’d added a new zombie to her menagerie.

    Her mind made up, the demon stood beside the reflecting pool and stretched her leathery wings before leaping into the air. She threw back her head and let out a piercing howl, calling the sinspawn to her side, and bared her fangs in a smile as she heard the scuffling of their clawed feet approaching. Oh, yes, Erylium thought. This would be diverting indeed.

    ///

    The mutant goblin and the strange creatures that had accompanied him continued to weigh on Errezha’s mind as the companions left the prison and its pits of zombies behind and continued down the passageway. The runes on the monsters’ bodies weren’t natural symbols – someone had made those things, or summoned them, and this was a form of magic with which the tiefling had no experience. Whatever those things were, they weren’t any sort of fiends she’d ever encountered before or seen described in any bestiary. As for the goblin, now that Errezha thought she recalled where she’d heard the name Koruvus before – he had been one of the goblin “heroes” Shalelu had mentioned as living near Sandpoint, one who, if she recalled correctly, had vanished not long ago. What had happened to turn him into the twisted thing they’d fought? Was it Lamashtu’s doing, or something else, something darker still?

    Errezha suspected that Calassara knew more, but she doubted she’d have any luck getting the elf to talk until after they returned to the surface. But when they did, she wanted answers.

    Finally, the corridor ended, and they emerged into what looked like a descending stairwell, blocked by fallen rubble. Drall stepped forward and ran his hands along it. “Looks like a dead end to me,” he said. “I don’t think these stones have been disturbed for years – maybe a lot longer than that. I know I sure couldn’t move them. We’re not getting through here.”

    “Agreed,” Shaenn said, walking up and lightly rapping her knuckles on one of the fallen rocks. “A damned mouse couldn’t get through these, and all of us are a sight bigger than that. So were those things. Unless they can walk through walls, they didn’t come from here.”

    Harann stroked his beard. “There’s got to be more of this place we haven’t explored,” he said. “I think we’d be best off doubling back and trying to find another passageway we missed earlier.”

    “If you say so, I trust you,” Caelum said, scowling at the blocked passage. “I don’t like the look of this place, though. I feel like there’s something down there; nobody builds a stairway to nothing. But if it’s been blocked off for as long as you say, I guess it’s not our problem. Let’s go.”

    The swordsman turned around and headed back up the passage, the others following behind him. Errezha, however, found herself drawn inexorably towards the fallen stones. There was something here, she thought, something hidden. A power like that which had coursed through the monsters that had attacked them. She rested her hands on the stones and listened. She could almost hear it calling her – and could almost see the runes that gleamed along the stairwell’s walls from the corner of her eyes. If she waited a moment longer, she could make them out…

    “Are you all right?” a voice asked, and a hand brushed her arm. Errezha whirled, then relaxed when she saw that it was just Calassara, dark eyes wide and concerned.

    “I’m fine,” she said. “Something just… came over me, though. There’s magic down there somewhere, old magic, but I don’t know how to get to it.”

    “I think we’re better off getting you away from it,” Calassara said, taking Errezha gently but firmly by the arm and leading her up the passageway after the others. After a long, silent moment she spoke. “What did you see, anyway? Or sense?”

    “Runes,” Errezha said. “I thought I saw runes on the wall, but I don’t think anyone else did.”

    “I didn’t see any runes,” Calassara said, her voice unusually subdued. “I thought I heard something, though. Elf ears don’t miss much, and down in the depths, I could have sworn I heard something howling.”

    Errezha didn’t consider herself to be someone easily shaken. Nonetheless, despite herself, she felt her blood run cold.

    ///

    They caught up with the others in the antechamber with the statue of the mysterious, fearsome woman, and found that there was indeed another passage there that they’d previously missed. It was directly behind the statue and went off in a direction perpendicular to the corridor to the prison, heading straight on without rising or descending.

    “Well, if this doesn’t feel ominous, I’m not sure what does,” Caelum muttered. “Shall we?”

    “The sooner we figure out what’s going on here, the sooner we can leave,” Shaenn said with a sardonic salute. “Lead on.”

    Once again, Caelum took the lead as the companions made their way down the corridor. This one felt longer than the others they’d traversed, at least to Errezha, and was plain and dark, something she found increasingly unsettling after the disturbing events elsewhere in the tunnels. Finally they emerged into a somewhat larger chamber, featureless save for a raised platform against one wall and the bowl that rested on top of it.

    Drall stepped forward, bent of the bowl, and sniffed. “It’s full of water,” he said, “but foul. Not here for drinking, I’d say. At least I wouldn’t touch it; maybe a goblin would think different.”

    “Maybe it has a ritual purpose?” Harann said, sounding intrigued. “This could be a shrine of some sort. Waters sanctified to Lamashtu, maybe? I don’t know enough about her worship to say for sure.”

    Intrigued in spite of herself, Errezha pushed forward and walked up to the bowl; up close, it did look something like an altar, one made of rough-hewn black marble. The water itself was filthy and foul-smelling, as Drall had noted; the tiefling wrinkled her nose but raised a hand over the bowl and made a quick arcane gesture. “I wouldn’t drink from this even if it was clean,” she said as she felt the magical energies stir around her. “Definitely enchanted, probably with some sort of transformative properties. I’ll wager a guess that’s what happened to our friend the goblin; he wandered in here and had the bright idea to drink from this basin, and that’s why…”

    “Why he sprouted an extra arm?” Caelum asked. “Yeah, I think I’ll be leaving that alone, thank you. But if the goblin drank the water…”

    “Someone else refilled it,” Errezha finished. “Someone who knows some magic.”

    “As fascinating as this all is,” Shaenn said suddenly, drawing their attention. Errezha turned to see the Varisian woman was standing near the chamber’s far end, where a pair of large double doors were located; she had one ear pressed against the stone. “I think I hear people moving around in there. And I’d wager they can hear us. You want to know who replaced that water? I think we’re about to find out.”

    Caelum drew his sword and turned to face the door. “Let’s not disappoint them, then,” he said. Errezha rolled her eyes but took up her position near the back, letting flames play along her fingers in anticipation.

    ///

    The chamber Caelum stepped into was larger than anything that he’d seen so far in the tunnel complex. The ceiling soared high above them, vaulted almost like a cathedral, but the walls were lined with strange, spiky runes that hurt his eyes when he tried to focus on them. Maybe Errezha or Calassara could make sense of them, but he couldn’t. The center of the room was dominated by a large fountain, its edges lined with what were either human skulls or disturbingly accurate representations of them; he could hear Harann hissing in dismay at the sight. The far end of the room was a raised platform which was dominated by what looked like a well, but whatever was in it – water or some other liquid – bubbled and hissed, and a strange golden light was emanating from it.

    So far as Caelum could tell, the room was completely deserted.

    “Well,” Harann said as he and the others filed in behind. “Where is everyone?”

    “I’d suggest that our fearsome reputation proceeded us,” Calassara said lightly, “and they decided to take upon themselves the better part of valor and escape, but, well… that doesn’t seem so likely to me.” Errezha snorted quietly at her words.

    “This feels wrong,” Drall said, nocking an arrow and holding his bow at the ready, his eyes seeming to search the room for a target. “Why do I get the feeling we just walked into an ambush?”

    A ghastly, inhuman cackle echoed through the chamber at those words, and Caelum felt the hair on the back of his head stand on end. The sudden scraping of stone echoed behind him, and he spun to see the great doors being swung shut by more of the monstrous creatures that had accompanied Koruvus, two for each side. Cursing, he raised his blade and prepared to charge, but before he could a sudden cold feeling swept through him and he found himself unable to move.

    The air above the companions shimmered then and a creature materialized there, its invisibility spell failing as whatever magic it had used on Caelum took hold. It was a small thing, even shorter than Harann if it had been standing, and its shape was vaguely humanoid and, Caelum thought though it was hard to tell from this distance, vaguely female. There, however, its resemblance to a human ended – its skin was leathery and grey, its hands and feet clawed, and a pair of leathery wings held it in the air. Worse was its face, which looked like a fanged skull and was crowned with a pair of curling horns.

    “Invaders! Interlopers!” the creature shrieked – yes, her voice sounded feminine, Caelum thought – “you dare defile Mother’s sanctum? Lamashtu will feast upon your souls! Kill them! Kill them all!”

    The monstrous creatures growled and stalked forward, monstrous mouths open and fangs bared. Caelum remained trapped, unable to move and cursing himself for his weakness; Harann stood beside him, his gaze sliding from his friend to their opponents and back again as if making up his mind. Finally, he sighed and raised his hand. “I want you to know I’m really sorry about this,” the dwarf said, and then he backhanded Caelum across the face. Hard.

    The young warrior stumbled back, cursing. “What was that for?” he demanded, and then he realized what those words meant – he could move freely again. “How?” he asked.

    “I figured you could snap out of it with enough of a jolt,” Harann said, shrugging. “I guess it worked.” He hefted his hammer. “Now, let’s kill those things.”

    Raising his sword, Caelum raced towards the others. Calassara was singing in Elvish, a weird haunting tune that sent a chill up Caelum’s spine and was having a worse effect on her opponents; the monsters had seized up and were glancing at each other, and if it was possible for those hideous faces to seem uncertain, these were. Errezha was spraying fire from her hands, forcing the creatures back further against the doors, while Drall and Shaenn had their weapons ready, looking for a target.

    Finally, one of the monsters shrieked and charged headlong through the flames, heading directly for Errezha. Caelum reacted without thinking; he gave a shout and slammed into its shoulder, knocking it to the ground. They both jumped back to their feet and the creature snarled, but before it could strike one of Shaenn’s daggers struck its side. The beast shrieked again, in agony rather than rage, and then Caelum’s sword took its head off.

    “Caelum, we’ve got this,” Harann called as he raised his holy symbol in his free hand, calling up a shimmering light in the air from which the monsters seemed to recoil. “That demon is the one controlling these things. Kill her!”

    “Got it,” Caelum shouted back; looking around at his companions, he saw that Drall wasn’t currently engaged and still had arrows in his quiver. “Come on!” he shouted to him. “That thing flies; let’s bring her to the ground!” The half-orc nodded and smiled grimly, then turned and hurried after him.

    The demon was hovering above the fountain, looing cruelly satisfied, but when she saw two of her enemies break off and head directly towards her, she shrieked and beat her wings frantically, flying in the other direction as quickly as they could take her. She quickly mounted the dais at the chamber’s far end and hovered above the glowing pit. Its presence seemed to restore her confidence.

    “You fools!” she shouted. “Lamashtu’s day has come, and soon her chosen one shall lay waste to your pathetic little town and everything in it! But you shall not live to see it. I command powers the likes of which you have never seen. Behold the might of the runelords of Thassilon, as passed down to me by Lamashtu’s grace!”

    The demon drew a knife from her belt and made a quick gash along her arm. Blood oozed from the wound and she held it out over the will, careful to let droplets fall into the churning waters below. The well spat and hissed, and then its contents surged as a twisted shape hauled itself out into the chamber. Another of the monsters rose to its feet and shrieked to the ceiling, the rune symbols on its flesh seeming to pulse with newfound power.

    “By all the gods,” Caelum murmured in horror, beside him, he could hear Drall swearing under his breath. But as the monster stepped forward, the strange well pulsed again and its glow dimmed; the hovering demon glanced down and seemed troubled by this, for she didn’t gloat or cackle this time, but merely pointed towards the two intruders with one crooked claw.

    The monster roared and charged forward, but before it reached them Drall put an arrow through its shoulder. The thing howled and swept up its claws, but Caelum caught them on his sword, forcing them back and trying his hardest to ignore the foul breath in his face. The monster leaned close, jaws snapping, but Caelum brought up his free hand and punched it hard in the face. It howled and stumbled back, Caelum circling it warily as he tried to find an opening. Finally, the monster lunged again, raking forward with its claws and catching its opponent along the shoulder, scoring several long scratches in his arm.

    Caelum’s next blow took its head off.

    The young swordsman stepped over its body and regarded the demon, who now seemed on the verge of panic. “What was that you were saying about us dying?” he asked, blade raised.

    Behind him he heard the sound of several bodies hitting the ground and he glanced over his shoulder to see his companions stepping over their fallen foes, surrounding the demon in a semicircle, their expressions cold. “You can’t win this,” Calassara said, raising her rapier. “Stand down.”

    “Or not,” Errezha added, raising her hands. “Either way works.”

    The demon’s gaze slid to each of them in turn, and then she spread her wings and launched herself higher into the air, seeking a way out. Two of Shaenn’s daggers flashed through the air but the demon circled quickly and evaded them, then turned once again to make a break for freedom. Drall’s arrow took her clean at the joint where her right wing met her body; she gave a ghastly shriek and crumpled to the ground in front of the glowing well.

    “No running, coward,” Drall rumbled. “Not today.”

    “But we want some answers,” Caelum said, levelling his blade at her. “Who are you? What is this place?”

    “Fools,” the demon spat. “You think you’ve won anything? Lamashtu is eternal, and all living things are but her playthings. Her chosen one will kill you all – you all! And I will watch from the Abyss and laugh as you fall.”

    “Chosen one?” Shaenn asked. “You mean Nualia? Nualia Tobyn?”

    The demon waved a hand as if names didn’t matter. “Silver hair, black armor,” she said. “Marked by Mother Lamashtu to carry out her work. This is only the beginning. Old powers are rising in this land once again, strong powers, and by Lamashtu’s grace I have been given a part to play in it all. I will fight by the Chosen One’s side and guide her to glory.”

    “Oh really?” Errezha asked. “I don’t think that’s going to work so well for you.”

    “Isn’t it?” the demon asked, giving a toothy grin; then she hissed something in a language Caelum didn’t understand. A burst of light erupted in front of his eyes, nearly blinding him, followed by a sudden feeling of weakness that sapped his strength and drove him to his knees. Then the demon was charging towards him, knife raised, and he realized suddenly that she meant to kill him and escape over his corpse. He tried to raise his sword to block.

    Suddenly Calassara’s voice raised in another song, harsh and discordant. A flash of light burst in front of the demon’s face and she stumbled, blinking and dazed. Caelum was too weak to raise his sword properly to meet her, but he didn’t have to; she stumbled almost directly onto the blade.

    The demon gave an ear-splitting scream, far more ghastly than any sound she’d made before; she pulled herself off the sword and stumbled back, staring down at the wound in her chest. “Lamashtu?” she muttered quietly. “Mother? This isn’t what you promised. It isn’t…” The demon’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she stumbled back into the well.

    The yellow light burst with sudden brightness and the fumes roiled. The demon’s body exploded into flame and then vanished, leaving nothing but smoke that mingled with the rising steam from the well. Caelum felt a weight lift from his shoulders and rose to his feet, the spell of weakness lifting with its caster’s death. The well pulsed brighter, and he could see shapes rising from it, forming into more of the monsters they’d fought, but he didn’t wait for them to fully emerge. He charged forward and took the head off the nearest one, while Drall shot another with his arrows and Calassara stabbed a third with her rapier. The half-formed bodies slumped to the floor.

    Up close, the well was cold, rather than hot as Caelum might have assumed. He raised a hand to ward against the icy air as the glowing liquid roiled, but finally it subsided and the light died, leaving the well empty save for the scorch-marks that had once been the demon servant of Lamashtu.

    The companions were silent for a long moment, then Caelum raised a hand and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What was that thing?” he asked.

    “Quasit, I’m pretty sure,” Errezha said. “A minor demon, though this one seemed to have acquired a bit more magic than they usually have. To say nothing of the delusions of grandeur.”

    “Sounds like more of the same story we got from Tsuto, though,” Shaenn said. “Sounds like Nualia really is planning on killing everyone in Sandpoint.” She shook her head. “Who knew the girl had it in her?”

    “I was wondering more about this whole place, and that well,” Caelum said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

    “I have,” Calassara said quietly. “I don’t want to stay another minute in these tunnels. Let’s get out of here, and then I have a tale that I think is very important I share with all of you.” She drew a deep breath and let it out. “I think I know who made these tunnels, and why Nualia is so interested in them. And may Calistria and all the gods help us if I’m right.”
     
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  17. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 10: The Shadow of Thassilon

    Errezha sat at a table in the Rusty Dragon’s common room, staring down at her gloved hands for a long moment before looking up at her companions. Caelum’s sleeve was still torn from where the monster had clawed him, but Harann had said a prayer over the injuries themselves and healed them with his goddess’s magic. The dwarf looked thoughtful; his human friend, determined. Shaenn still looked disturbed by what they’d seen in the catacombs, and though Drall was hard to read, Errezha thought he seemed thoughtful. Calassara, though, was staring down into the mug she’d set in front of her, looking uncharacteristically subdued.

    After the fight with the demon they’d searched through the tunnels again and found no other monsters, nor any passages that lead further down other than the blocked staircase. The newer tunnel, the one they’d figured Lonjiku had been using for his under-the-table dealings, came out near the coast but was otherwise unremarkable; it was a far newer construction, bearing none of the strange signs or beings that marked the catacombs themselves. Still, the companions had been happy to be able to return to Sandpoint, leaving the darkness underground behind.

    “Calassara,” Caelum finally said, “if you’re ready to talk, I think we’d all like to hear what you think about what that all was about down there?”

    The elf drew a deep sigh and took a drink from her mug before she began. “I’ve told you all that I’m a singer of songs and a teller of tales,” she said. “That’s true, so far as it goes. But I’m also a student of history – especially ancient history. My people are much longer lived than any of yours, and so the past is often closer for us than it is for you – something that is ten or more generations ago for humans may yet be in living memory for elves, and our cultural memory is longer still. I’ve always been interested in the history and legends of the ancient world and I’ve spent my life studying them.” She noticed Caelum’s surprised expression and winked. “I’m an elf, remember? I’m older than I look, though still fairly young as my kind count such things.

    “It was that interest that drew me here, to Varisia. This land is dotted by remnants of a time so old it has passed almost entirely from memory. I’d learned some of what there is to know – which isn’t much – and came here hoping to learn more. I… didn’t expect it to experience that history firsthand. But it seems to me that there is something stirring in this land, reaching its hand out from the dim mists of the world’s youth, and someone – Nualia, perhaps – is interested in meeting it halfway.”

    Calassara looked around the table again before continuing. “Our tale begins,” she said, “as so many such tales do – with Azlant. Azlant! The word itself is steeped in legends. The first great empire of man, where humankind rose from barbarism on an island continent in the Arcadian Ocean and built a nation of magic and wonders that even we, more than ten millennia after, can scarcely imagine them! Azlant, from which empires from Cheliax to Taldor claim descent and consider themselves its heirs, when they are naught but the faintest shadow of its greatness.”

    “Many of the noble houses of Cheliax claim Azlanti blood,” Errezha said. “I can attest to that. Not sure how much I believe it – and I certainly didn’t qualify as anyone’s idea of an Azlanti – but it’s what they say. Azlant casts a long shadow still.”

    “Indeed,” said Calassara. “But there were other realms that cast shadows nearly as long. It is said that during the height of Azlant’s power, a wizard named Xin quarreled with the island’s rulers. He disagreed with their leadership and proposed a theory of governance based on what he called the seven virtues of just rule, which he felt Azlant, for all its glory, didn’t embody. Furthermore, he was a student of magic as well as political theory, and he became a master of a new form of magic distinct from that which other Azlanti practiced – rune magic. In time, Xin and the ruling council had a falling out and he was exiled from Azlant. He and his followers came to the land that we now call Varisia, and there he founded a new nation, which he called Thassilon, and took for himself the title of First King.

    “But whatever First King Xin’s dream of a perfect society, it was not to be. Xin shared his magical knowledge with his seven lieutenants, whom he called runelords, but they chafed under his dominion. In time, the runelords betrayed Xin; they rose against the First King and overthrew him, claiming Thassilon for themselves. The sages teach that great good and great evil are but two sides of the same coin, and so the runelords, twisted by ambition, perverted Xin’s seven virtues of rule into the seven great sins. Each runelord claimed one of Thassilon’s seven provinces as their domain and ruled it as an absolute tyrant. The peoples of their lands, human or giant, they enslaved and worked brutally, expanding their power, building monuments to themselves, and warring with each other for dominion over all of Thassilon. For a thousand years they reigned – for the runelords were wizards of such power that time couldn’t touch them – and the land groaned beneath them. Above all their works there flew the banner of the Sihedron, the seven-pointed star – seven points for the seven runelords, seven domains, and seven sins of Thassilon.

    “The runelords feared each other, it is said, and they feared the wrath of Azlant or the other nations that were rising in the young world. But in the end, their doom didn’t come from within or from without. It came from above.”

    “Earthfall,” Errezha breathed, and around the table she saw the others nodding in understanding.

    “Earthfall,” Calassara agreed. “At the height of Thassilon’s power, a star fell from the sky and struck Azlant, smashing the island asunder and striking the empire and all its people down to the depths of the sea. But the desolation didn’t end there; the whole world trembled at the Starstone’s fall. The skies burned and the seas boiled; the earth cracked, and the coastlines were changed. The lands of Avistan and Garund were torn asunder and the waters poured in, forming the Inner Sea. The ancestors of my people fled to another realm through magical gateways to escape the destruction; humanity was scattered to the corners of Golarion, and the survivors prayed for death. And Thassilon – ah, half of Thassilon broke from the mainland and fell into the sea, and in the half which survived the earth shook and towers fell and the empire of the runelords perished. The runelords themselves vanished in the cataclysm, presumed to be dead, their final fates lost to history. In time, earth and sea stilled and the remnants of the world’s people were able to emerge and rebuild from the rubble – in those places where even rubble remained. But Azlant and Thassilon, and other empires whose names were lost to memory, they were no more and never rose again. All that remains of those first flowerings of humankind are their ruins – and knowledge that fools might use to gain power, at the peril of themselves and everyone else.”

    “So, you’re saying those catacombs were some leftover from ancient Thassilon?” Caelum asked after a long silence; Calassara nodded. “And that woman in the statue, she was…?”

    “A runelord, I assume,” the elf replied. “But I couldn’t tell you which one. Little is known of the individual runelords, and that hasn’t been my area of study. It… isn’t pleasant reading.”

    Shaenn whistled loudly. “My people have long memories too,” she said, “but a lot can get garbled over ten thousand years. The lorekeepers say we used to be slaves to an empire of devils, and I still remember my mother telling me not to wander off into the woods when I was a little kid or the runelords would get me, but, well, I never thought it was real. But after what we saw earlier – well, I guess it puts a new perspective on things.”

    “So you think Nualia is trying to wake up some power from Thassilon and these catacombs were part of that?” Harann asked. “And I guess Lamashtu is too, though who knows why a demon goddess does anything. Do you have any idea what she might be after?”

    “I don’t,” Calassara said. “Thassilon isn’t my area of expertise – I’ve told you almost all I know, and I came here hoping to be able to learn more. But from what I do know, I think that yes, Nualia is somehow involved with something from Thassilon, though I couldn’t say to what degree. I do know this – if that is true, then she must be stopped. If she isn’t, I fear she may unearth things so terrible that they should never again see the light of day.”

    ///

    “Well,” Caelum finally said after a long silence. “I guess that settles it. The sheriff’s still gone and none of us knows when he’ll be back, and we do know that Nualia plans to come back and burn this whole town to the ground. I for one don’t intend to let that happen. Right now, it looks like the six of us are the only real defense Sandpoint has. I say we don’t let Nualia dig up whatever power it is she’s looking for; we’ll take the fight to her. We’ll go to Thistletop and put a stop to whatever it is she’s planning. Who’s with me?”

    “I’ll always have your back,” Harann said. “Even if you weren’t my best friend, I don’t think Desna would forgive me if I stood aside and let a town full of innocents get massacred. I’m in.”

    “Me too,” Calassara said. “It’d be worth a song, at least. And there’s mysteries here I still want to get to the bottom of.”

    “Sandpoint’s my home, and I’m not abandoning it,” Drall rumbled. “Besides, I know the land around here better than any of you, and I know how to get to Thistletop. You’ll need my help.”

    “What he said,” Shaenn said, pointing at Drall. “Besides, goblins always have lots of junk lying around – bet there’s some good salvage at Thistletop I could get some pretty coin for.”

    A cold, mocking laugh echoed around the table; Caelum turned to see Errezha, who had a mirthless grin on her face. “Are the five of you completely insane?” she asked. “Does a pretty speech by a boy desperate to play hero keep you from thinking about what you’re walking into? This isn’t going to be like fighting a handful of disorganized goblin raiders, a drunken man or a senile quasit. This is walking into the beast’s lair and giving yourself up to be eaten. You’re all going to die, you realize that? Maybe none of you have enough sense of self-preservation to recognize that fact, but I do, and Asmodeus damn me before I let you get me killed too. Go to Thistletop if you want. You’ll be doing it without me.” The tiefling stood, shoved her chair under the table, and stormed from the in, her black coat swirling behind her.

    Shaenn sighed. “Well, now it looks like we’ve just lost our mage. Not that she was exactly pleasant company but fighting a fortress full of goblins isn’t going to be any easier without her throwing fire at them.”

    “She’s my friend,” Calassara said. “I’ll talk to her.” She started to rise, but Harann put his hand on her arm.

    “I’ll do it,” he said. “I don’t know her as well as you do, but I know someone caught in a bad place when I see them. I think she needs a priest as much as a friend.”

    “Good luck with that,” Caelum said, his tone dubious. As far as he could tell, it sounded like Errezha had meant every word she said.

    Harann smiled. “Thankfully,” he said, “Desna is the goddess of good luck.”

    ///

    The sky was dark out as Errezha left the Rusty Dragon; they’d spent most of the day in the catacombs and it was now late in the evening. Rather than walking far, she found a bench near the inn and sat down on it, staring down at her gloved hands. Fools, all of them. They were going to get themselves killed, and she was going to have no part of it. And she’d barely known them for more than a couple of weeks, in any case. She owed them nothing.

    She owed Sandpoint nothing.

    Footsteps sounded nearby, and then someone sat on the bench beside her; looking up, she saw it was Harann. “Come to change my mind?” she asked. “Don’t bother. It’s not going to work. I’m not going.”

    The dwarf shrugged. “I just thought you might enjoy some company,” he said. The two of them sat silently for a long moment, staring up at the stars that were slowly twinkling into existence in the sky above. Finally, Harann sighed. “You know what the first thing people almost always ask when they meet me is?”

    Errezha shrugged; she honestly had no idea.

    Harann smiled. “They ask how exactly it is that a dwarf ends up as a priest of Desna. It’s not that my people aren’t religious, because we are, on the whole. But most dwarves prefer to worship a god like Torag – a good, strong, practical god. That’s who my parents pray to most often. They’re both metalsmiths over in Magnimar. Me, though, I spent most of my childhood daydreaming when I should have been working. Always wondering what lay beyond the horizon and wanting to travel there, to see new places and meet new people rather than spending my whole life wedged away in Ma and Pa’s blacksmith shop. And then one day I heard a priestess of Desna preaching, and something just fit. I knew even then that I’d found my calling. My parents never understood it, of course. They keep wondering when I’ll come back, settle down, and take up a practical trade and have never been quite able to accept that it’ll never happen.”

    Errezha glanced over at him from the corner of her eye. “Is that how you ended up traveling with Caelum? You two always seem to get along; you must know each other well.”

    “We grew up in the same neighborhood,” Harann said. “He was a dreamer too; his parents taught him to fight, but he had some notion of wanting to be a great hero rather than being stuck in the city guard. We both wanted to go traveling and decided to do it together. I ended up convincing him to come down here to the cathedral dedication, and, well, you know how that turned out.”

    “So a dwarf who never fit in and a boy with his head filled with chivalric nonsense,” Errezha said, snorting quietly. “No wonder you two ended up falling in together – and no wonder you’re both so hells-bent on getting yourselves nobly killed fighting goblins at Thistletop. All I have to wonder is, how does any of this have anything to do with me.”

    “Because,” Harann said slowly, “I know enough about tieflings and Cheliax to take a guess that you never quite fit in where you come from either. And from the way you always try to hold yourself aloof and push people away, I’d guess you’re afraid of getting close to people. Am I near the mark?”

    Errezha clenched her fists. “You are,” he whispered. “Damn you, but you are. As you can clearly tell, I’m a tiefling. And, as you may have guessed, I’m a bastard. Where I come from, those aren’t good things to be. Especially not as the illegitimate hellspawn daughter of Lady Mediana Leroung.”

    “So, your name is Errezha Leroung?” Harann asked; she nodded silently in response. “Isn’t that one of the Great Houses of Cheliax?”

    “It is, though I’m not from a very important branch,” Errezha said. “Mother was – is – a diabolist of moderate power and greater ambition. The House of Thrune that rules Cheliax gained its throne by bargaining with devils for power, and other noble houses have followed suit. But one thing that the rulers of Cheliax always make clear on is that they are partners with the hells, not its servants. And they don’t take kindly to any insinuation otherwise. In any case Mother, in her youth, was not quite as discrete as could be hoped – from what I’ve been able to piece together, she summoned a devil she became rather taken with, and the predictable happed and a short time afterwards I was born, a child of obvious mixed mortal and diabolical blood. Mother’s maternal instincts extended just far enough she didn’t have me drowned at birth, and not an inch farther.”

    “By the gods,” Harann said. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry for bringing it up; I didn’t mean to cause you pain. You don’t have to tell me more if you don’t want to.”

    But having started, Errezha thought it best to get it all out. She’d been holding it in for too long. “You might think tieflings would be respected in Cheliax,” she continued. “Living proof of the pacts with the hells and all. But that’s not how it works. Like I said, the nobility are proud and like to pretend the devils aren’t the ones really pulling their strings, and one way they do that is by making sure no one with a drop of devil blood in their veins gets anywhere near real power or respect. I grew up little better than a servant in my own home. Eventually Mother married; my stepfather is as decent a man as can be expected from the Chelish aristocracy, but he never knew what to make of me and we were more like distant acquaintances than family. I have three younger half-siblings, two sisters and a brother. They treated me as one part curiosity, one part embarrassment, and one part rival.

    “Eventually I got old enough that Mother started using me to run her errands, the kind she didn’t want publicly known. Finally, I had enough. If she was going to use me to do her dirty work, I was going to get something out of it; I went to her and demanded she publicly acknowledge me as her daughter and a lady of House Leroung. She said she’d consider it, in a tone that said it would never happen. A few days later my half-siblings tried to have me assassinated for the first time. It wasn’t the last.”

    Harann stared in mute horror; Errezha continued, her story almost done. “After a few months of dodging knives in the dark, I had enough. I knew I’d never win in Cheliax, not with the whole empire against people like me. So I snuck into Mother’s office one night, stole some money from her desk, and bought passage on a ship out of the city. I wanted to find somewhere I could disappear, and no one would ever think to find me. Eventually, I ended up here.” She let her voice fall silent, remembering the night she’d fled, remembering her youngest sister – the only one of the three who’d ever treated her as something approaching a person, the only one she was sure had nothing to do with the attempts on her life – begging her not to go. But she didn’t mention any of that to Harann. She needed some secrets to keep, after all.

    “So that’s my story,” she finally said. “And the moral of this happy little tale is that if you’re a hellspawn you have no one you can rely on but yourself. Varisia isn’t as bad as Cheliax, but you’ve still seen the looks people give me in the street. Everyone thinks I’m a monster, they’re just too well-mannered to actually say it. But I’m not like the rest of you. No matter what I do nobody will ever really think I’m a hero or mourn me when I’m gone. So why should I bother looking out for anyone but myself?”

    “I’m sorry I made you relive all of that, Errezha,” Harann said. “I can’t pretend to know how much your life has hurt you. But I do have to wonder – if you’re really as selfish and cynical as you claim, why did you fight the goblins during the raid? And why did you help us at the glassworks and the catacombs?”

    “Because sometimes I’m a fool too,” she said. And because I know what it’s like to be alone and afraid and I don’t like watching people be victimized when they can’t fight back. Because some part of me wants to prove I’m not a monster, no matter what anyone else says. Because I’ve spent my whole life alone in my own family and even I feel a need for companionship, even if its an elf who talks too much or a human with an over-inflated sense of his swordsmanship. Or a dwarf who sees more than his pleasant demeanor suggests. But she said none of that. “But I’m not a fool today,” were the words that actually came out.

    “Well, I’m not going to make you do anything,” Harann said, “though I do wish you’d reconsider. But I want you to know that what you told me is absolutely confidential – I won’t share it with anyone without your permission. You have my word, and I appreciate your trust.” The dwarf stood, gave a polite bow, and went back into the inn.

    Errezha sat in the darkness for a long time, staring at her lap. She owed Sandpoint nothing, she told herself. She owed Varisia nothing. She certainly owed the fools inside nothing. Not even Calassara, who had befriended her when she first came here. Not even Harann, who’d listened to her story and not judged her. None of them…

    An angry hiss of breath escaped her. “Damn you,” she muttered angrily. “I’ve spent my whole life learning not to care. Damn you all for making me forget that.”

    ///

    Nualia knelt in prayer in Thistletop’s chapel of Lamashtu when she heard the sound of footsteps echoing behind her. Quickly ending her devotions with a quiet blessing, she stood and turned to face the person who had disturbed her and saw that it was Lyrie. The wizard’s cat familiar seated itself by her side and began indifferently grooming its paw, but Lyrie herself looked troubled.

    “What is it?” Nualia asked. “Any word from Tsuto? He should have been back by now.”

    “Nothing,” Lyrie said, a look of concern crossing her face. “We have no word from Tsuto, or from any of the goblins he took with him. I’m worried something has gone wrong. The goblins are growing restless, too. Bruthazmus is convinced we’re holding him back from the attack on Sandpoint, and I think he’s not far from marching off by himself regardless of your orders. Ripnugget is trying to keep him under control, but I think he’s starting to get impatient as well. He only agreed to work with us because you promised to release Malfeshnekor; I think he’s starting to wonder when you’re going to deliver.”

    Nualia stood silent for a long moment, flexing the claws of her new fiendish hand and watching the lava-like glow move beneath the skin. A stab of fear for Tsuto was working its way into her soul; a part of her wanted to run to Sandpoint now, alone if need be, to make certain her lover was safe – or to avenge him if he wasn’t. But that wasn’t the will of Lamashtu. Nualia had sacrificed everything in the name of her new goddess. She couldn’t back out now, not for anything – or anyone.

    “Nualia?” Lyrie asked, her voice breaking Nualia from her reverie.

    “It may be nothing,” she said, allowing herself a smile that she hoped Lyrie would think was genuine. “You know Tsuto; he probably couldn’t resist celebrating after finally defeating his jackass of a father. He’s probably just late. But in case he’s not… tell Ripnugget to put his troops on the alert. If someone captured Tsuto, they may know where we are. But if they think to take us unawares, we’ll have a surprise for them. Lamashtu’s work here won’t be stopped.”

    “And Tsuto?” Lyrie asked.

    Nualia put her hand – her original, human hand – on the other woman’s shoulders. “If a hair on Tsuto’s head has been harmed, then once I’ve come into my own, whoever did it will wish they were dead. I promise you that. Now go. I have preparations to make.”

    Lyrie looked somewhat dubious, but sketched a salute, nonetheless. “Of course,” she said, and then turned and left the sanctuary, her familiar padding alone silently behind her.

    Nualia watched her go, and then started back down at her transformed hand. Soon her whole body would be changed like this – the taint of both mortal and angelic blood would be cast out and she would be a demon, a true daughter of Lamashtu. And she would have a powerful ally by her side – the goblins thought the creature called Malfeshnekor, bound deep beneath Thistletop, was some kind of god, but Nualia thought she knew better. Malfeshnekor was nothing less than a remnant of fallen Thassilon, a mighty servant of its dark lords, and when he was freed, he would fight by her side.

    Nualia had avenged herself on her father for his cruelty and neglect; soon all of Sandpoint would burn for how she had been ostracized and scorned. And if anyone dared oppose her – if they had harmed Tsuto and now sought to thwart her plans – they would pay too. She’d come too far to be stopped now.

    Reaching up with her fiendish hand, she fingered the necklace at her throat, from which hung the symbol of a seven-pointed star. It had been a gift from the powerful friends she’d made in Magnimar, friends who’d shown her a new path after she’d been scorned and cast out. Now the end of that path was in sight, and Nualia didn’t intend to fail in the final stretch.

    ///

    Drall had unrolled a long parchment across the table and had sketched out a rough map of the Lost Coast, chiefly depicting Sandpoint, Thistletop, and the lands between. “As you can see, it’s not far,” he said. “Just a couple of hours on foot, assuming the goblins haven’t set up traps to delay anyone on the way. What’s inside, though, I couldn’t tell you.”

    “We’ll need supplies, though,” Caelum said, drawing his finger from the town to the goblin stronghold. “Who knows what’s waiting for us in there? I don’t want to be going in unprepared.”

    “I’ll go to the mayor,” Calassara said. “Tell her what we’re doing – and warn her what might happen if we fail. Maybe she can get the town some warning, at least. Maybe I can get Ameiko to help too, if she’s not… otherwise occupied.” The companions shared a quiet, sad look around the table. None of them had seen Ameiko since they’d come up from the catacombs; as far as they knew, she was still tending to her father’s body and what was left of the glassworks. Bethana had been running the inn in her absence.

    “I’ll ask around a bit, see if anyone else knows anything more about Thistletop,” Shaenn said. “A pity Shalelu’s not here; bet she’d be handy to have around for this sort of thing…”

    Her words were interrupted as the common room door opened; it wasn’t Shalelu who stepped through, however, but Errezha, looking somewhat haggard but determined. “I hope it’s not too late to change my mind,” the tiefling said, taking a seat at the table. “I still think you’re all fools for doing this, but maybe if you have one person with you who has some intelligence, you’ll have better odds of getting out in one piece.”

    “It’ll be good to have you,” Calassara said, smiling and leaning over to wrap an arm around Errezha’s shoulders. The tiefling stiffened but, surprising Caelum, didn’t pull away.

    “I had a feeling she was a better person than she lets or – or than she thinks she is,” Harann said quietly, leaning in to Caelum’s side. “She just needed to work things out in her own time, in her own way.”

    “If you say so,” Caelum murmured back; Errezha had surprised him, but he trusted his friend’s judgment. “Now that we’re all here together,” he said louder, “let’s get down to work. Maybe Errezha’s right and going to Thistletop is foolish. Honestly, she probably is. But we’re the only defense Sandpoint has, so let’s not go in without a plan.”
     
  18. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Now that's good motivation for getting rid of someone whose help you despise needing!

    Nice tie in to the overall goings on.

    He's so thoughtful, for all our preconceived notions about gruff dwarves.

    I hope she realizes she's so like her father here ... does she?

    Onward to the cunning plan!
     
  19. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Introspection, alas, is not Nualia's strong point. :( But good news is, new chapter!


    Chapter 11: The Goblins’ Lair

    Gogmurt settled himself down at the entrance to the thorny overhang that was, at present, his home, wringing his hands and muttering to himself about the sheer unfairness of existence.

    He was a druid, a servant of the natural world and wielder of its magics – a rare calling for a goblin, and one which had won him a position of high standing in the Thistletop tribe as spiritual leader and personal counselor to the warchief. It had been a good life, and an easy one, until a few months ago when those damned longshanks had showed up with plans for a big raid on the human town to the south. Gogmurt had argued against the plan, certain it would accomplish nothing but bring down retribution against the entire tribe, but Warchief Ripnugget had let himself be swayed to the longshanks’ side and the promises their leader, the silver-haired woman, had made to free the power that dwelt beneath Thistletop. Eventually, warchief and druid had quarreled and Gogmurt had left the fortress, settling himself nearby and absolutely refusing to return until Ripnugget apologized and personally invited him back.

    So far, that hadn’t happened.

    A few weeks ago, the raid had been launched as planned, and now Gogmurt had heard another, even bigger one was in the works. So far the reprisal he’d feared hadn’t materialized, but the druid was certain it was on its way. He’d been using his magic to keep himself awake ever since the raid, so that when the longshanks’ came he would be in position to give the first warning and prove to everyone else just how right he’d been, but as the days passed without incident, that practice was beginning to take its toll.

    Suddenly a crunching sound echoed from somewhere nearby. Gogmurt’s large ears stiffened and he rose silently to his feet, listening – yes, that could be the sound of someone moving through the briars. Too loud to be a goblin – the longshanks? Here at last? It had to be! Gogmurt’s vindication couldn’t come soon enough!

    The goblin leaned over to the creature by his side – his companion, Tangletooth, a large wild cat – and whispered into its ear. Tangletooth crouched, fangs bared, as Gogmurt conjured a flaming blade into his hand and crept forward stealthily, following the sound. There it was – yes! He charged forward into an open clearing, Tangletooth by his side, only to find it completely empty. The goblin looked around himself in befuddlement, wondering how exactly it was he’d been tricked – and then suddenly Tangletooth gave a great yawn and collapsed to his side, fast asleep. Gogmurt had just enough time to realize the answer to both the sleeping cat and the phantom sounds – magic! – before a quiet figure slipped up behind him and crossed a pair of daggers over his throat.

    “Move a muscle, goblin,” his captor said; it sounded like a human woman’s voice, “and you’re dead. Got it?”

    Gogmurt gulped and resisted the urge to nod, fearing he’d accidentally impale himself if he did so. Living to fight another day was, in his estimation, far better than dying pointlessly – the fact that the daggers currently at his throat looked very, very sharp only reinforced that opinion.

    The briars rustled and several more longshanks emerged into the clearing. An elf with green hair and a rapier at her waist, a young human with a sword and an equally young dwarf wearing what looked like the sign of Desna around his neck, a lean woman in black who wore a hat pulled low over her face, and a big man with green-tinged skin and sharp teeth that pointed towards orcish ancestry. That last one looked vaguely familiar to Gogmurt; he was someone who’d hunted in these woods before.

    The half-orc bent down in front of the druid and gave a thin smile. “Well, well,” he said. “If it isn’t the warchief’s favorite pet. Word was you and your boss had a falling out a while back. Guess it was true. Now then, you’re going to answer some questions, little man. I know the land around here well enough, but I’ve never been into Thistletop itself. You’re going to tell us how to get in, and we’ll let you go. Deal?”

    “I’ll never talk, longshanks scum!” Gogmurt declared grandly.

    The woman holding him tightened her blades ever so slightly, just enough to draw a speck of blood from Gogmurt’s throat. “You so sure about that?” she whispered in his ear.

    “All right, all right, I get it!” he shrieked. “If you’re here about the raid, it wasn’t even my fault! It was the longshanks who talked Ripnugget into it, I swear.” He paused, realizing what he’d just said. “Not you lot. The other longshanks.”

    “Well, that sounds very interesting,” the swordsman said, bending down beside the half-orc. “Care to explain more?”

    “They showed up a while ago,” Gogmurt said. “Four of them, plus that big brute Bruthazmus. A man in armor, a mean lady with a cat who burns goblins with fire when they annoy her, and a half-elf who has it bad for the leader, a very angry silver-haired woman with weird eyes and scars on her belly. Haven’t seen the half-elf around in a while, though.”

    The longshanks glanced at each other, expressions dark. “Sounds like Nualia and Tsuto,” the half-orc finally said. “And friends.”

    “Yes, yes, that’s the names!” Gogmurt said, aware he was babbling but determined to get out of this conversation with his throat un-slit. “I think Ripnugget’s got it bad for silver-hair, couldn’t tell you why. Maybe you longshanks like that sort of thing. Told him I’d run across half-elf and silver-hair going at it like donkey rats, thought it might make him get rid of them, but he just laughed. Wouldn’t hear a word against her! Worse than a harpy, that one.” The druid paused. “Er, silver-hair is. Not Chief Ripnugget. Don’t tell him I called her a harpy.

    “But she’s the real ring-leader, she is! She talked the warchief into it, it was her idea! She’s the one you want. Not the goblins, and definitely not a poor, helpless old druid!” The half-orc snorted quietly at that, but none of the longshanks made a move to take Gogmurt’s head off, so he counted it as a win.

    “We’re here to put a stop to whatever Nualia is planning, not kill every goblin in Thistletop,” the woman in black said. “But I think you still haven’t answered our questions. How do we get in?”

    Gogmurt gave a short, bitter laugh. “You’re already in,” he said. “This is Thistletop territory, don’t think its not! But the big fortress is on a little island, just off the coast north of here. You can hear the waves if you listen! To get to it you need to cross a rope bridge over the waters. The entrance is on the other side, can’t miss it, but there’ll be guards!”

    “Got it,” the half-orc said. “Now, is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the bridge? I’d think real carefully if I were you.”

    “Okay, okay!” Gogmurt said. “The bridge is trapped. Can’t carry too much weight at a time or it’ll break. You lot are big and heavy, so you’d better cross one at a time. That’s all, I swear it! Chief’s probably in his throne room on the main level; longshanks are probably downstairs, always messing around with the old demon shrines and things that were there before the tribe moved in. I haven’t been in there for days, I don’t know any more!”

    The longshanks shared a look, then the half-orc and the swordsman nodded. Gogmurt’s captor uncrossed her blades and shoved the druid forward onto his knees. “You’ve earned your life,” she said. “But I’d recommend getting out of here. We’d better not see you at Thistletop.”

    “Your cat will probably sleep a while longer, but it’ll be fine once it wakes up,” the thin woman said. “Now do as we suggested and get out of here. We’ve got work to do.”

    The longshanks gave Gogmurt a final shared, threatening glare and then turned to make their way up towards the coast. The druid remained crouched by the prone form of Tangletooth, wishing for once that he’d chosen a smaller cat and remembering an old human saying regarding discretion being the better part of valor.

    Gogmurt wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but in any case, it seemed like the sort of thing worth taking to heart.

    ///

    The rope bridge proved to be much as the old goblin had described it, in Errezha’s estimation – a long, rickety construction of ropes and vines that stretched out from the cliff at the edge of the briars and across a narrow straight to connect to the small island that stood a short distance out in the bay. The island itself was curiously rounded, almost resembling the top of a human head, and atop it was built a small, ramshackle wooden stockade. This, then, was Thistletop, or at least the visible parts of it – rumor and Gogmurt’s own words indicated there was more of the structure hidden within the island itself.

    And, as the druid had indicated, it was guarded. At the base of the stockade, a short distance from the bridge, was a pair of wooden double-doors that currently stood open; just in front of them were a number of armed goblins and an equal number of the foul, doglike creatures they’d brought with them to Sandpoint. Fortunately, the guards hadn’t noticed the interlopers yet, as they were occupied with a sport of their own. One of the guards was holding what looked to be a seabird by a long rope wound around its foot and swinging the creature about, while the others were throwing stones, apparently trying to knock it out of the sky. Engrossed in their sport, they had eyes for little else.

    By Errezha’s side, Calassara hissed angrily. “Barbaric,” the elf muttered under her breath, her dark eyes hard. Privately, Errezha agreed with her.

    “What do we do?” Caelum asked. “They haven’t seen us yet, but if we try to cross that bridge I don’t think our luck will last. Then all they’ll have to do is cut the bridge – or charge down it and end up killing us all when it breaks.”

    “This lot don’t seem to be the most observant bunch,” Shaenn said. “Whoever ordered them out here may have been expecting trouble, but I don’t think they were. I’ll bet we could work up something to keep their minds off us.”

    Calassara grinned. “Allow me,” she said. Murmuring under her breath, the elf made a quick arcane gesture with one hand and then pointed towards the guards. At once an unearthly wailing arose from nearby; the guards leapt to their feet in a panic and stumbled into each other, before the sound shifted at Calassara’s direction and began to move around the stockade, away from the bridge. Finally managing some semblance of order, they mounted their beasts and charged after it, leaving the front gate defenseless.

    “Well done,” Caelum said, shooting Calassara a grin, which she returned; Errezha felt a brief spasm of irritation, which quickly passed. She had to focus on the matter at hand.

    “I may not be as adept as our Chelish friend,” the elf said, “but I know a few tricks. Now, we’d better hurry. Sooner or later they’ll get bored and realize they’re chasing something that isn’t actually there. I’ll go first.”

    “I’d better do it,” Drall said. “I’m the heaviest; if it breaks for any of us, it’ll break for me. If it doesn’t, it should be safe for the rest of us.”

    “Are you sure about that?” Harann asked, concern in his voice. “That’s a rather long way down.”

    “I’ve got a good grip,” Drall said. “I can climb back up if I have to.” Stepping forward, he walked over to the bridge and began to carefully make his way across. Errezha watched his passage with bated breath, her ears catching every rasp and her eyes following every sway, but at last the half-orc made it to solid ground on the other side, with the bridge still intact behind him. Turning, he gestured for the others to follow.

    Caelum went first, then Harann. Then Calassara crossed the bridge, running as lightly as if it had been a broad thoroughfare in some prosperous city rather than a rickety construction suspended high above the waves. Now, only Shaenn and Errezha were left. “After you,” the Varisian woman said, gesturing towards the bridge.

    Errezha scowled and walked forward; she’d just set her first foot on the bridge, mentally reminding herself to not, under any circumstances, look down, when movement on the island caught her eye. One of the goblins had just rounded the stockade, leading his goblin dog; he’s apparently gotten bored of the chase and decided to return to his post, and when he saw the “longshanks” waiting for him, he started and gave a high-pitched screech before drawing his long knife and charging.

    “Watch out!” Errezha called, unnecessarily because of how much noise the goblin had already made. The companions who’d made it to the other side spun to face the threat and drew their weapons, but before they could do so Calassara sang a sudden, piercing note. The only effect it had on Errezha was a burning desire to cover her ears – not recommended in her current situation – but the effect on the goblin was much more dramatic. The creature gave a howl of absolute terror and turned to flee, heedless of where he was going. Errezha knew what was going to happen a moment before it did; the goblin plowed headlong over the cliff and fell, shrieking, into the waters below.

    “That… wasn’t supposed to kill him,” Calassara said, putting her hand to her mouth in horror. The goblin dog turned and bolted after witnessing its mater’s demise, but the damage had been done – Errezha knew that someone must have heard the shrieking. She picked up her pace as much as she could, carefully picking her way across the bridge and feeling it start to sway as Shaenn joined her, having apparently decided that getting across now trumped caution. The bridge sagged under their weight, but apparently two relatively light humanoids weren’t quite enough to break it. Errezha made it to the other side and resisted the urge to drop to her knees in relief; a moment later, Shaenn also reached the island.

    From within Thistletop the sound of running feet could now be heard; the two women hurried up beside their companions, Shaenn drawing a blade while Errezha raised her hands to cast, just as two heavily armed and armored goblins burst out of the door, swords at the ready. “Longshanks here?” one of them demanded incredulously, then pointed his blade at them. “Kill them all!”

    The two goblins charged; the first didn’t make it far, as Harann’s hammer struck him square in the face and sent him reeling. The second was luckier; he managed to duck under Drall’s legs and come face-to-face with Errezha, having apparently decided that whoever was standing in the back would be an easier target. He waved his blade at the tiefling’s face, grinning maliciously as he forced her back, before finally scoring a gash on her arm. Cursing angrily under her breath, Errezha shot out her hand and seized the goblin’s wrist, letting the power of the hells that always lurked beneath her skin bubble to the surface. Tendrils of shadow formed around her hand and wrapped around her opponent’s arm; the goblin gave a howl of fright and dropped his weapon before turning and fleeing back into Thistletop. His companion, having just been struck another blow from Harann’s hammer that erupted in a burst of light, stumbled back in a daze before Caelum’ sword decapitated him.

    “Damn,” the swordsman said. “Well, they definitely know we’re here now. So much for getting in and getting out quietly.”

    “We won’t get another chance at this,” Calassara told him. “We need to keep moving, keep them off balance. Remember, we don’t need to fight an entire tribe of goblins; just find Nualia and stop her.”

    “Right,” Caelum said. “Then let’s get to it.”

    The companions turned and strode through the open doors and into Thistletop; Errezha trailing behind, becoming ever more convinced of her initial assessment – this was a terrible idea.

    ///

    Warchief Ripnugget was not a stupid goblin.

    He knew that some of his tribe had questioned him behind his back about his alliance with the woman Nualia and her companions, muttering that he had allowed the lure of glory and riches to override his common sense – not that they would ever dare say as much to his face. Gogmurt had been more direct, accusing him of being infatuated with Nualia and toadying for her in pursuit of her favor. The truth was that Ripnugget already had more wealth and glory from a lifetime of successful battles and raids than he could ever possibly need, and as for Nualia herself, he didn’t find her attractive in the slightest – how could she be, when she was far too tall and had a head far too small for its body? Not to mention all that silver hair, and those tiny ears. No goblin could possibly be tempted by such a person.

    No, Ripnugget had known exactly what he was doing when he accepted the alliance – he had long known, as had his predecessors in the chieftain’s chair, that some ancient power slumbered under Thistletop. Legend said it was a goblin demigon; Ripnugget wasn’t sure on that part. Gods and their various forms weren’t something he’d ever given much thought to. But what was sure was that it was power, having walked in the dreams of goblin shamans and priests since the tribe came to Thistletop, speaking in confused sensations and macabre visions. And Nualia claimed to know how this creature might be awakened and march to battle at the goblins’ side. If Ripnugget agreed, then he wouldn’t just be Warchief anymore – he’d be the chief who waked a god and fought with it against the tribe’s enemies until all were vanquished. Immortality, of a sort, would be his.

    Ripnugget was willing to pay quite a lot for that.

    For now, of course, that day was still in the future – though not far, if Nualia was to be believed. She had warned him that enemies might be coming and that he should set a watch on the fortress, but so far none had reported any sign of trouble. So for now the warchief relaxed on his throne in Thistletop’s main hall, idly scratching the head of his giant gecko, Stickfoot, as he watched his personal warchanter put on a performance reenacting the most recent raid on Sandpoint with the aid of minor illusion magic.

    This happy pastime was interrupted as the doors banged open and one of the Thistletop tribe’s elite guards stumbled in, hastily slamming the doors shut behind him before hurrying over to bow before his chieftain. In the process he disrupted the illusion just as Ripnugget was rather enjoying the sight of a rotund human being chased by a torch-wielding goblin, and that put the warchief in a decidedly foul mood. By his side, Stickfoot raised his head and hissed angrily.

    “Who dares interrupted the warchief’s entertainments?” he demanded angrily.

    The guard cringed. “Warchief,” he said. “Longshanks have come. Longshanks are here! They made it past the bridge and the guards and are in the compound!”

    Ripnugget snarled and slammed his fist down on the arm of his throne, sending his large mug of grog toppling to its side and spilling to the floor. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen! How dare his guards be so incompetent as to let the longshanks in now? Slowly, however, the warchief managed to master himself, and the beginnings of a plan began to form in the back of his mind.

    “What do we do, warchief?” the guard asked, his tone hesitant.

    Ripnugget’s wide mouth split in a toothy grin. “Lonshanks will come here, yes?” he said. “So we’ll get ready for them.” He gestured to his warchanter to take up her position behind his throne, and then motioned the guard and his soldiers forward. “This is what you must do…”

    ///

    The hall just beyond Thistletop’s main gates was roofed and walled with wooden planks of varying designs and origins; Caelum wondered if they hadn’t been salvaged from ships that had crashed nearby. The floor was simple hard-packed dirt, though, and the walls were lined with what appeared to be trophies commemorating various hunts and raids. Caelum noted with disgust that most of these seemed to be the heads of horses or hunting dogs, but on the far wall was something altogether different – a pair of immense, feathered black wings that looked large enough to carry a person through the air.

    “Can’t say much for the décor,” Errezha said, regarding the trophies with a sniff of disdain. “In Cheliax we may be perhaps too fond of red and black, but at least we have taste.”

    “What do you think those came from?” Caelum asked, gesturing at the wings.

    Drall frowned and rubbed his chin. “Harpy, maybe?” he said. “Definitely too big for your average bird, even an eagle. If so, I’m impressed that the goblins managed to bring her down.”

    Shaenn walked over to admire the wings for a moment, then reached up to one of the daggers that was pinning them in place and yanked it out before turning it over in her hands. “This is a nice blade,” she said, sticking it through her belt. “I think I’m keeping it.”

    Caelum cleared his throat. “We’d better keep moving,” he said, and the others nodded in agreement. The door at the far end of the trophy room lead them into a short hallway, which opened into an altogether different chamber.

    This room was far larger, and its walls were decorated in countless pelts taken from a wide variety of creatures. The ceiling was held up by four wooden pillars studded with metal spikes from which hung more grisly trophies – these ears and even hands that appeared to have been taken from humanoid victims. Harann, by Caelum’s side, bit back a curse at the sight. At the far end of the room was a raised platform on which sat a large chair that was covered in furs, and on that chair reclined a goblin, taller than most and with a disconcertingly crafty gleam in his eyes, clad in full armor and wearing a spiky crown on his head. A gigantic lizard lay by the throne’s side, its great eyes flat and unreadable and only the occasional flicker of its long tongue giving a sign that it was a living creature. So far as Caelum could see, there were no other beings in the throne room.

    Hand on his sword, he stepped forward warily, the others following close behind. Suddenly, the armored goblin raised his hand. “Stop!” he declared. “Know that you longshanks are in the presence of Ripnugget, Warchief of Thistletop Tribe and greatest warrior of all the goblins of Varisia. What makes you think you’re worthy to approach me, eh?”

    “Warchief Ripnugget,” Calassara said. “We are here on behalf of the people of Sandpoint, in response to the raid your followers undertook not so long ago, and to prevent such a raid from occurring again in the future. However, we have been given to understand that the true architect of this raid is not a goblin, but a woman named Nualia Tobyn who is somewhere in this compound. We do not seek a quarrel with the Thistletop Tribe, and if you tell us where Nualia may be found and promise to never again attack the town of Sandpoint, this need not end in violence.”

    “You seem like a reasonable elf,” Ripnugget said, adjusting himself on his throne. “Come forward. We can barter, me and you.” The chieftain raised his hand and beckoned her forward.

    Calassara approached warily, hand resting on her rapier but leaving the blade in its sheath for now. “You look familiar,” the warchief said. “Green-haired elf, devil-girl, sword boy, dwarf priest – you fought at Sandpoint. My warriors remember you. Warchief Ripnugget respects courage. But why’d you kill my guards?” Caelum bristled at that description of himself but Harann put a restraining hand on his arm and he stayed silent.

    Calassara spread her hands. “My friends and I were only acting in self-defense,” she said. “We seek justice for Sandpoint, but our goal is Nualia, not you. Do you know where she’s hiding?”

    “Nualia is below,” Ripnugget said, seeming to consider. “Always poking around old stuff in the tunnels, she is. Maybe I could send you down to her, let you fight it out.” A toothy grin suddenly split his face. “Or maybe I could kill you all now and take your heads with me on pikes when I go back to Sandpoint with Nualia at my side!”

    As if this was a signal, several small shapes leapt down from the rafters, revealing themselves to be goblin warriors in crude armor and carrying jagged blades. Several of them converged on Calassara while the others charged towards the others; Ripnugget, still seated on his throne gave a great cackling laugh.

    With a great cry, Caelum drew his sword and charged forward, running to Calassara’s aid. By his side he saw a goblin fall, one of Drall’s arrows in his eye, but he paid it little mind. Calassara herself was standing with her blade out, cornered by three goblins and looking warily from one to the other. With a shout Caelum brought his sword down, forcing one of the assailants back and taking his place by the elf’s side. Now they stood back to back, the goblins circling them with nasty grins on their faces. By the door he could see the other companions fanning out; Harann keeping a goblin at bay with his hammer and Shaenn fending off another with her knives, while Drall nocked another arrow and Errezha raised her hands to cast.

    One of the circling goblins lunged, but Caelum brought his sword up too quick for the creature to change course and let it skewer itself on the blade. Shaking the goblin free, he turned to face his next quarry and was suddenly forced to his knees, uncontrollable laughter tearing itself from his lips. Looking up, he saw another goblin, a female, had taken up a position beside the warchief’s throne and was staring at him intently with her hand raised, intent on whatever magic now had hold of him.

    Suddenly another sound filled the room – a trilling elven war song that stirred the heart and lifted the spirits, as if recalling memories of battles long ago and far away, when the elves were young and battled strange beasts and demons in the morning of the world. Calassara was signing, and her enemies drew back from her voice in sudden fear, but Caelum found new strength in the song. The cursed laughter stilled, and he forced himself back to his feet, shooting the two surviving goblin assailants a grim smile. On the dais the goblin spellcaster looked afraid, and the warchief frowned over his folded hands.

    “Is that all you’ve got?” Caelum taunted them. “Do your worst, then!”

    One of the two goblin warriors howled in rage and charged, but Caelum stepped aside and struck down with his sword, leaving the goblin’s corpse to collapse to the ground. That gave Calassara the opening she needed – with a sprint she reached the dais and leaped upon it with a tumble, coming out of her crouch directly before the spellcaster. The female goblin screeched and stumbled backwards, filling the air about her with illusions, but Calassara wasn’t fooled; she stalked forward with rapier in hand, forcing the goblin back, the haunting war song still on her lips.

    “You and me then?” Caelum called out to the warchief. “Come on!”

    Ripnugget howled in rage and leaped onto the back of the lizard, which roused itself to its feet in a fluid motion and then charged forward, darting along the ground with a surprising swiftness. Caelum realized in a flash that perhaps this wasn’t his smartest move and dove to the side to avoid the charge. Looking up, he saw the warchief cackling again from atop his mount and then urging the lizard forward. This time it struck before Caelum could react, leaping on him and pinning him to the ground. Its long tongue and stinking breath pressed down onto his face.

    “Good, Stickfoot, good!” Ripnugget cackled. “Eat him. Eat him!”

    Caelum’s eyes widened in horror and he managed to reach up and grab the lizard’s gnashing jaws before they closed on him, holding them back away from his face. Still the creature pressed forward, egged on by its rider, and Caelum knew that his strength would give out before its did. He struggled beneath the scaly bulk, trying to break free, but Ripnugget only laughed above him – the lizard was too strong.

    Suddenly the creature reared back, emitting a terrible shriek of pain. One of Drall’s arrows had stuck deep in its shoulder and now it reared up on its hind legs, snapping its jaws to try it get the projectile out and ignoring the orders and curses of its rider. Another arrow struck the lizard’s side, and then finally a third struck its eye. The reptile rolled onto its side, muffling the outraged and panicked shout of the warchief, and lay still.

    Caelum pulled himself to his feet and grabbed his sword where it lay, just in time to see Ripnugget pull free from his mount’s carcass and charge him, a heavy jagged blade in hand. Caelum had just enough time to parry the blow, and at once he realized that this goblin was no foolish brute. He fought with aggression but also with purpose, keeping Caelum on edge and forcing him back, and the swordsman knew that even the slightest mistake would result in the warchief’s sword being buried in his gut.

    “Not so tough now, are you, longshanks?” Ripnugget spat, looking up at Caelum with malice. “I kill you, then Nualia and Malfeshnekor kill your town. How’s that sound?”

    It was at that moment that Caelum realized that Calassara was still singing, but now the song was different, though he didn’t know enough Elvish to quite say how. Now it was an aggressive song, a song of struggle and loss, but ultimately of victory, and he found himself smiling thinly. “You’ll have to kill me first,” he said. “And that’s not going to happen. Not today, not ever.” With a surge of strength he forced the warchief back, using his strength to knock the goblin off balance. A heavy blow sent Ripnugget reeling; another knocked the sword from his hands and sent the goblin to his knees.

    “Enough, enough!” Ripnugget called, raising his hands. “I’ll tell you what I know! I know what Nualia’s up to! Spare me!”

    “Oh really?” Caelum asked, leaning in. “And what might that be?”

    “Nualia is going to kill you all!” Ripnugget screamed, drawing a dagger from his belt and leaping straight for Caelum’s face. The young swordsman stumbled back but brought his blade up just in time. The world seemed to slow as the warchief descended, knife in hand and teeth bared, but Caelum’s sword struck true. Ripnugget’s head was severed neatly from his shoulders, it and his body both landing separately on the floor and leaving Caelum panting, stunned but alive, on the floor. The warchief’s crown landed with a clang nearby and rolled away.

    A terrible wail suddenly rose from the dais. “The warchief is dead!” the spellcaster cried from where she now clung to the wall, still trying to evade Calassara’s blade. “The warchief is dead!”

    At once the other surviving goblin warriors took up the cry and then they turned and bolted from the room, leaving the companions alone so suddenly that it seemed almost like a dream. Only the panicked cries echoing from elsewhere in Thistletop, and the goblin bodies on the floor, indicated that they’d ever been there at all.

    “Well,” Harann said, stunned. “I guess that’s it for the diplomatic solution.”

    “The goblins probably won’t be in any position for much organization now, though,” Errezha observed, carefully stepping over a goblin Shaenn had skewered. “But that warchief clearly wasn’t interested in talking. Did you really fall for that, Calassara?”

    Drall helped Caelum to his feet and he turned to face the dais, where the elf was sheathing her rapier. “Diplomacy was at least worth a try,” she said. “And whoever replaces Ripnugget may be of a more cautious nature. Still, I was right when I said the goblins aren’t our real enemy here. Ripnugget said Nualia was ‘down below.’ We haven’t won yet. Not until we find her and finish this.”

    Caelum looked around at the others and back to Calassara, and as one they all nodded in agreement. “Then let’s do it,” he said. “No more time to waste.”

    ///

    Nualia stood in the chapel below Thistletop, tapping her foot idly while Lyrie and Bruthazmus eyed each other warily across the room, when the door opened and Orik stepped in, looking concerned. “Just got a message from the chief,” the mercenary said. “It sounds like a group of adventurers from Sandpoint is here. Ripnugget thinks he can hold them off, but I’m not sure. Sounds like it may be the same group who fought against the first raid.”

    “And maybe the same group who kept Tsuto from coming back,” Lyrie said, narrowing her eyes. “I’ll find out what they did to him, and if he’s dead, they’ll be too.”

    Nualia clenched her fists in anger. “Damn them!” she snarled. “Not now! I was so close!” Taking a deep breath and rubbing her forehead with her human hand, she managed to force herself into some semblance of calm. “We have to speed things up, then. I’ll go and prepare the ritual. If I can unleash Malfeshnekor on them, he’ll finish them off for us. You three, hold them off. Kill them if you can. But they can’t be allowed to interfere, you understand me? Not when revenge is almost in my grasp!”

    Bruthazmus chuckled in his deep, rumbling voice. “Finally, some action,” the bugbear growled. “Told you that you should have sent me to Sandpoint to start with. There’d not be anyone left in that town to bother us now if you had.”

    “Thank you for your keen tactical insights,” Lyrie snapped, then turned to Nualia. “Are you sure you want to do this? Let Ripnugget deal with the intruders; we can get out of here, go somewhere else, and start over. Fight another day, when we’re ready for it. You don’t have to do this.”

    “’Somewhere else’ doesn’t have a buried Thassilonian demon,” Nualia said. “And I can’t stop now. I’ve too much blood on my hands already. There’s nothing for me to do but see this through.” She looked around at her three companions, eyes cold. “Now go! We have no time to waste. But today, I promise you – victory is ours.”
     
  20. pronker

    pronker Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 28, 2007
    Evocative phrasing!

    I can picture the flashing, a sense that the battle is more than just physical weapon against others, but otherworldly forces in play.

    All important in a fantasy world, to be sure. :)

    We'll just see about that, lady.