Baerstun

What do you make when life gives you six dead orcs?
In which the bacon zombies' ick factor is topped.

[Game time: Friday – probably about 2pm by now]

The magic circle seemed a safe enough place to rest for a few moments, but the fact remained that they were below sea level in a catacomb full of the undead.  Exploration, then.  The basement's layout offered a variety of interesting options.  Darg pointed out a door that had figured prominently in his none-too-pleasant dreams, so the party elected to explore their other options first.  To the east, a winding hallway revealed a dead end with an iron-grated door on the south wall, a lever on the northwest wall, and gas-lamp on the east wall. Shard started examining the lever and the grated door, and Lenora grabbed Bree's cloak to keep everyone out of trouble.  When Shard pronounced it safe, Lenora let Bree go, and she promptly yanked the lever, popping open the grating.

They followed the curved hallway down a slight incline to the east, and discovered another barred door blocking their way.  Beyond this one there was knee-deep brown water with foul-smelling sludge floating on the surface.  Pacing back and forth along the curved hallway, Darg determined that they were just a bit south of the pit where they had seen the ooze smashed by the dark tentacled horror.  Something unspeakably fast and vile probably lived in the pit.  They decided that it probably needed to die, and so Bree lobbed a sunrod into the water.  The room was bathed in bright white light, and then something unspeakably fast and vile lanced through the water and flailed at the scalding light with a pair of heavy pseudopods.  It managed to swamp the sunrod and shove it to the bottom of the muck, but the glow surrounded it and backlit it.  The entire party opened fire in a deadly volley; it hurled muck at the bars, splashing Thea and Lenora and gluing them in place temporarily, but everyone stood their ground and riddled it with arrows and magic.  In seconds it was dead and dissolving into the water.  Bree moved the lever with her mind, cycling the man-trap of iron bars, and Lenora winced.  They all shuffled into the muck cautiously.  Thea retrieved the throwing hammers she had hurled at it, Terciel grabbed an arrow or two that hadn't gotten its fletching fouled, and Shard headed up the narrow tunnel to the north, where the pit was exposed.  He picked through the bones relieving them of the few trinkets that appeared to have value, and sloshed back to the south to report that it was a dead end.

The party got back out of the dank water, cycled the man-trap to get out, and headed back to the magic circle to recuperate.  It didn't seem to be filling them with white light or odd pencil-thin beams of energy, but at least it was a nice clear spot in the room with good lines of sight to the other doors.

Shard pulled the south doors open carefully, revealing a narrow hallway and a staircase ascending back to the entry level.  The omnipresent clattering of skeletons off in the distance seemed to have stopped.  The silence was broken by a hideous chorus of screeching echoing down the halls, a grim mix of high-pitched keening and grumbling bass notes, as though a half-dozen mouths stuffed with rotten meat were all being made to sing the same words at once.  The noise repeated twice more, perhaps closer this time.  A slow shuffling slurp punctuated with wet splats came from upstairs.  Something very large and moist stomped around the halls up there, pausing every seven or eight steps to unleash another six-voiced howl…and the howls were getting closer.

Bree hollered up the steps "Who's there?" and a voice yelled back "You!  Little girl, I remember you!  Are you all alone down there?" Lenora and Terciel were hurriedly pantomiming silence, and Shard had blanched to a particularly wan shade of terra cotta.  Rache grinned wickedly and shouted "Yes!  We're all alone!"

The voice was raspy and weak but grew full-throated now, eager for the confrontation.  "You girls don’t know what you did… can you even fathom the freedom I have now?  No, of course you can’t!  Are you going to come up here and face me, or do I need to come downstairs and kill you?"  They looked at each other for a moment, puzzled, then shouted back "Yes!"

A ham-handed diabolical giggle rippled down the stairs, and the voice said "Alright… I'm sending someone to come get you now.  I hope you're ready!"  They thought they were ready, but even after all they'd been through, it gave them all a bit of a start.  It was a hulking slab of rotting olive-green flesh, bound together into a massive three-legged mess.  Arms jutted out everywhere, at least two of them wielding ancient bastard swords of eladrin design, likely looted for their size.  A quivering black morass bound the mismatched limbs and organs together and writhed between the body parts, occasionally shaping itself into a pseudopod, tail, tentacle, or foot as the creature's bizarre locomotion required it.  Bones boiled up to the surface, too: ribs sharpened to points, jawbones, and little sprays of teeth all forming false mouths anywhere there was exposed surface.  The whole thing was draped in a makeshift suit of armor comprising long iron chains and sheaves of dry-rotted hide armor pinned together with bone or steel.  It shambled down the stairs towards where Thea and Lenora stood side by side.

Terciel was the first to recover from, or at least act on, his revulsion.  He fired a quick spray of arrows into the monstrosity.  A putrid spray of necrotic goop leaked from the wound and came alive on the floor like mercury, trying to climb back up the creature’s legs. Everywhere the goop touched the marble, an acrid puff of smoke sizzled from around it and the smooth floor was left etched. Thea and Lenora set upon it with axe and flail, and as they scored heavier and heavier blows, something gave way inside the ball of corpses.  The black gooey web snapped, the abomination thrashed, and an orc’s body flopped to the floor.  The corpse was mangled but still recognizable as one of Thurig's men.  They continued to fight against the beast, but were assaulted from their left flank, where a horrid-looking little green person stood, dressed in tattered grave rags.  Most of them recognized the now one-eyed corpse of the witch doctor, now strutting around and cackling as he fired spells at Rache and Bree.  He screeched orders to the abomination in the doorway: "That one has my robe… and that one took my wand.  Kill them both and they will serve our lady in death!"

A thick milky-white bubble sat in his empty eye socket, but other than that the witch doctor's corpse was apparently promising enough to bring back intact.  The other orcs had not been so lucky, and surged mindlessly forward trying to trample Thea to get to Bree and Rache. Thea's axe bit back and knocked another orc off the pile.  The corpse on the floor at her feet swung a lazy claw near her, trying to grapple with her, but she retaliated swiftly with a heavy arcing chop that went right through it and buried her axe in the black and green mess assaulting them.

It swelled up, mouths and pseudo-mouths clenched tight, and with a rippling BRAAAAAAP let loose a throat-burning cloud of stinking grave gases that filled the room.  Nearly everyone within sight of it coughed and gagged, but Shard had sought cover behind a pillar and Bree managed to slip out of the way.  Most of the party were still gagging and choking on the stench when an orcish corpse stood up near Lenora and flopped across her left shoulder, disintegrating into sticky threads of ichor and bile.  As the abomination grabbed Thea in one of its tentacles, Lenora found herself stuck to the floor, screaming for someone to come help before it carried Thea off.  Rache seemed to be among the able-bodied but then the witch doctor quietly offered her terms for surrender.  She spat out a retort too low for the others to hear but he was enraged and laid into her with his mace.  A black fire shot along its handle and washed over her.  She gasped in pain and steeled herself for revenge.  Shard saw the situation beginning to fall apart and assaulted the witch doctor, blades singing as he sliced into the orc's putrid flesh over and over.

Darg and Bree fired salvos of magic at the fleeing flesh golem, and Rache squinted at the witch doctor, lips pinched into a scowl.  She looked away for a moment at Thea, then back at the witch doctor, and bolted.  A brisk sidestep through space, a crunching "pop!" and she was standing next to the thing.  She sprayed the beast with a burning spray of arcane energy, and it staggered to a standstill, dropping Thea.  It howled and tried to bite her, but now it was on the run. Shard continued to press the advantage, and ran out of luck: the witch doctor scored a solid hit, black flames and smoke swirled around Shard, and as he staggered back the orc teed off on him, blasting him with otherworldly power.  Shard went down hard, but help wasn't long in coming.

They began to swarm all over the witch doctor: Darg with bright flashes of radiant magic, and Rache, stepping calmly through the fray with her back to the beast, dealing out crackling bolts of infernal smoke from the orc's own wand.   Another of Terciel's arrows whistled overhead and caught the thing broadside.  So many corpses had fallen off and been slain that there were no longer any recognizable bodies in it, and it fell apart into an oozing puddle of decayed filth and loose bones.  Rache never looked back, firing shot after shot into the witch doctor at range while Lenora stepped in and lowered her shoulder.  Lenora hollered out to Shard, and the orc turned at the same time looking right into her swing.  Her flail caught him between neck and shoulder with plenty of downward momentum, and there was a sickening crack as seven or eight of his bones broke at once.  The orc collapsed for the second and last time.  Rache was almost upon him, still firing eldritch blasts when he fell, and she snatched the mace from his hands before it even hit the ground.  She turned it over once or twice in her hands with an appraising smirk, and nudged the body with the toe of her boot.

Shard stood up and rubbed his temples.  The undead orc's offers of alliance and surrender didn't add up.  He'd offered to make Rache a full partner, to teach Bree control, and to find "a use for" himself and Lenora… but he wasn't the boss.  He said that Kral had saved him and brought him back, but the terms of surrender were allegiance to his lady.  And he had threatened them with Garon's wrath if they refused, so it was only a matter of time before Kral, Garon, or the late late witch doctor's lady friend found them.

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La Cage Aux Feux
Celui Ci N'est Pas Un Chat

Game Time: Friday – early afternoon

Zut alors!  There was no respite – they had barely checked each other over and re-fastened their armor when Darg heard footsteps from the south, where the cloak had come  from.  The party rallied together and ran full-tilt to the eladrin tomb, where they rested unassailed for a few moments.  They patched each other's wounds, drank a few sips of cool water, and then headed back up to finish exploring.  Darg suggested the basement stairs, so they could be sure to not leave any unexplored routes behind them.  A stray memory plucked at his curiosity.

Nobody (not even Bree?) was in any mood to find out what was trampling towards them – at the cloak's behest? – so they agreed that Darg's plan seemed to have the most merit.  Shard scouted ahead to be sure the way was clear, and ducked down the stairs as soon as they could. He found himself in a brightly torchlit room with a white marble bowl perched on a large porcelain hand.  He called the rest of the group down and then ducked into the shadows.  He passed his knife back and forth between his hands, quietly watching the bowl and the door for any signs of hostile activity.

Bree, Darg, and Rache examined the room's furnishings for signs of strange magic, while Terciel looked into the bowl to figure out whether perhaps the forest scene was from the feywild.  As they talked it over, Darg remembered that a porcelain hand inscribed with runes was required for casting Unseen Servant, and he checked the hand for any sign of what this one's servant would do.  A strange thrumming sound emerged from the misty covering over the bowl, as though the portal were stretching or getting ready to open.  In a matter of seconds, the party determined that the brass torchieres were actually some sort of cages; the lantern wicks were some firey creature; and the portal to the feywild was almost certainly intended to release the swarm of buzzing stirges for the bats to feed upon.  The unseen servant would probably be there soon.  Darg looked up at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and turned until he was facing southwest.  "We're underneath the hallway with the drake statues.  Terciel, I think you might be right about them breathing fire."  The party set to work disabling the apparatus as quickly as they could.

Shard practically leaped from the shadows to lock one of the cages – he didn't need to be engulfed in flames any more today, thanks very much.  Bree got the next cage locked, and Thea followed suit.  Her fingers slipped and the bat within rustled and squeaked, its flaming aura surging momentarily.  She shook her head and rubbed her singed fingers together, then moved to guard the western doorway.  Shard moved to the last cage and also fumbled the locking mechanism.  Bree looked at the swarm of insects threatening to burst through the portal and decided that some preparation was called for.  She surveyed the room's dimensions, held her hands up to frame the cages, and grinned wickedly.  "Everyone stand back.  No, further.  Further!"  She wedged a thin glass globe between two of the porcelain fingers, and called over to Terciel to find a safe spot from which he could see – and shoot – the vial.  Shard eyed it, too, and made sure to keep it in sight.

Thea and Lenora stood side by side in the west archway, looking uncertainly into the dark room beyond.  Its strange blue glow reminded them of sorcery, and nothing good could come of it.  A dim glowing outline of a man was walking along the east wall of the room, towards their archway.  Lenora hollered out that whatever everyone else was doing, they'd better do it quickly.  Darg scrambled out of the way, and Rache ducked into the shadows near him.  She opened and closed her hand, watching the oily green sparks twirling between her fingers. The servant moved through Thea and Lenora and stood next to the bowl, and Bree whispered to Shard to get away from the last cage – there wasn't time!  He scrambled back into the shadows, crossbow drawn, and Bree backpedaled clear of the bowl.  Her hands crackled with thick sinuous bolts of arcane magic, and she let loose a ferocious … burst … of soothing … calming air.  The warm and tranquil scents of lavender and chamomile filled the room, and the air seemed to soften all sound for a moment.  The restless firey bats rustled in their cages, then their wingbeats slowed down.

The servant opened the portal, and the bowl rotated an eighth of a turn, dropping down a fraction of an inch with an audible "KERCHUNK". A thick cloud of cave stirges swarmed out to fill the air over the bowl and two of the four cages popped open.  Shard fired his crossbow and smashed the vial, spraying burning fuel everywhere, and dozens of the stirges dropped to the ground.  A huge burning bat flapped lazily out of its cage, half-heartedly attempting to set Thea on fire – she and Lenora laid into it, axe and flail, flail and axe.  The other freed bat made a low pass towards Bree, swiping out at Rache, and then flopped on the ground in a deep sleep.  The caged bats appeared to not even hear the commotion.  Bree sprayed a dazzling array of rainbows into the mix, and placed her foot on the grounded bat's body to make sure it didn't go anywhere.

Shard moved in for the kill, stabbing ferociously at the sleeping bat closest to him.  In moments he had opened so many wounds that it lay smoldering in its cage, dead before it could wake.  He moved to the other cage and just barely managed to slam the door on a bat that had awakened.  The hot metal sizzled against his skin, but he ignored the burns, jabbing and stabbing it repeatedly.  Darg, Bree, and Rache blasted the swarm of insects with potent spells, dropping dozens with each blast, while Terciel helped Thea and Lenora bring down the only bat that was putting up a fight.  They flustered it, driving it through the cloud of bugs over and over again, and stirges fell from the air in its wake like fat leathery fruits at harvest time.  Thea and Lenora gave chase, bashing and slicing its burning body over and over.  If it seemed invulnerable to the violence they visited on it, at least Lenora seemed to shrug off its scalding attacks as well.  She lit into it, scoring a half-dozen blows – forehand, backhand, overhand, rinse, repeat – and now the bat flopped feebly in the air, screeching angrily at her.  It reared back for a broken-winged counterattack and an arrow from Terciel silenced it. The bugs dissipated now, their swarm chased away and scattered by the group's spells.

Darg surveyed the battlefield a little more closely, squinting and shifting his weight from foot to foot, striding from wall to wall to figure out why the view through the archway looked so familiar.  He'd certainly never been down here before.  The flagstone floor was bleached and streaked with white as though scalded or blasted.  That was where – yes, the dream, of course.  This was the spot!  And that door to his left was where he had seen… yes.  Definitely, this was the place, which meant that the glowing place on the floor was a good place to be after all.  He tried to assuage Thea's doubts, and finally stepped into the light.

Immediately his wounds knit together, and he stood straighter.  Bree smelled magic at work and hopped into the light before anyone could stop her – she too noticed a calming and restorative magic working its way through her battered little body.  "Guys, come here – this is great!" she said.  The rest of the group stepped into the circle one by one, looking around at each other and marveling as their bruises faded from black to blue, green, gold, and gone.  They breathed the luminous air and grinned with almost giddy relief.  The feeling of well-being persisted right through the moment when a pencil-thin beam of bright blue light shot out from Darg's forehead, tracing a triangle in the air between himself, Terciel, and Lenora.  On the floor between their feet, a white cloud of mist coalesced into a stack of well-worn battle gear: a coat of mail, a chain belt, a bleached wooden quarterstaff with a crystal finial, and a priest's symbol of office: three quarters of a circle in gold, strung on a short leash of ivory prayer beads with a single sapphire charm in the shape of an evil spirit.

Darg and Bree looked at the gear on the ground with incredulous smiles, and started swapping it in for their dinged and damaged equipment.  Lenora and Terciel exchanged worried looks for a moment, wondering what exactly they'd gotten themselves into.

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Oh, You and THAT Army
In Which Tieflings, Skeletons, and Bree all do What They do Best

A few months after the end of the great war.  An eladrin and a dwarf work feverishly to put the finishing touches into the catacombs before the dedication ceremony and the sealing of the Map Room

"Damn, I'm out of the enchanted rivets."
"I keep telling you: they're not going to short us on the price of the rivets!  Why didn't you bring a full bag?"
"They're heavy!  We can't all be stout travelers of the stony deep.  I brought enough for the job and a handful of spares, but I keep messing up the setting, and I really want to get this just right.  Now I've got a plaque with one rivet in but not the other."
"Well, it's not like anyone's going to be tugging on it.  After it sits for a few centuries it'll probably just rust into place forever. Here – just jam a limestone chip in there.  It'll form a natural mortar."
"A limestone chip?  On its own?  That sounds-"
"-like a closely-guarded piece of dungeoneering lore from a stout traveler of the stony deep.  That's what you were going to say, right?"
"...yeah."
"Good, now hurry up, it's almost quitting time."

Game Time: Friday, still just about lunchtime

They patched themselves up as best they could from the misunderstanding with the ghosts, still nervous about their prospects for finding Ilian's allies alive.  Shard led the way, quietly stepping through the gloom while the rest of the group followed a few yards back.  He came to one of the circular chambers with a central pillar, and saw a pile of ashes and bones near the south wall.  As he stepped in to get a closer look, some movement caught his eye through the east archway.  He froze, but heard the party advancing from the rear, and decided to take cover behind the nearby pillar.

Rache stepped around the bend in the hall carefully, but her elbow brushed a brass plaque commemorating something, which promptly dropped away from the wall with a resounding CLANG, bouncing once, twice, and finally ringing and rattling to a stop like a coin spun on a counter. Lenora and Thea turned to see what it was, and with their attention to the rear missed the movement to their left – a pair of arrows whistled through the archway.  Shard scrambled forward to take cover behind the pillar, shutting his eyes for a second to fix the enemies' positions in his mind.  Behind him, armor clattered; ahead and to the right, four tall black marble statues lined an arched hallway, but the hallway went too far in the wrong direction to be a guaranteed route to sneaking up on them.  He popped out of cover, loosed a crossbow bolt at the first one he could see, and kept moving.  In the same instant the bolt smacked off the skeleton's shoulder, he pushed off his foot and found cover next to the doorway.  It would work against
an enemy with a flinching reflex – he'd have to see if it did any good against an enemy with no eyes or eyelids.

Thea roared and pelted across the floor, swinging her axe like a harvester's scythe.  Bree followed close on her heels.  Terciel and Rache worked an overlapping leapfrog assault, laying down arrows and curses.  Lenora moved more cautiously, but the situation looked good: the enemy didn't appear to have any coherent plan, and the classic
tactic of charging into an ambush seemed to have the desired result of breaking their position, and mopping up a retreat would be far easier than assaulting a prepared defense.  She backed up Thea and within moments the enemy had turned tail, firing haphazardly as they fled. Several of the enemies lay scattered and everyone pressed the attack.

Bree outran their front and found herself behind the enemy skirmishers' retreat, blasting away with spells, when it all went pear-shaped.  A heavily-armed skeletal  commander strode out from the southwest doorway and blocked the routing charge, directing other swordsmen into the fray while the skirmishers reorganized against the
south wall.  Their potshots became a series of concentrated volleys now, ripping into Thea's and Lenora's armor.  Bree found herself behind the infantry front, but ducking and weaving between the archers as they reorganized.  She loosed a brilliant rainbow spray that seared their bones, and then took a brutal retaliatory strike from one of the
infantry – they were moving east to close off the far side of the pillar and it was looking grim.

The commander's black leather cloak rippled as though he stood on an open windy battlefield.  He traded ferocious blows with Thea while directing a vicious counterattack up along the west side of the pillar.  Terciel set his feet and started firing from a safe position, but only got one or two arrows away when he saw a flaming skeleton
stagger through the same archway they'd charged through moments earlier.  Lenora heard Terciel's shout and cringed – a flanker! – but stuck to the eastern side of the pillar, holding one of the two fronts to relieve pressure on Bree, who was tumbling and swirling past blades as fast as she could.

More infantry marched into the room, and the southern front looked pretty grim.  The blazing skeleton stalked after Terciel and finally wrapped him in a burning bear hug, lighting his clothing on fire and singing his hair.  Terciel managed to get clear.  Shard listened on the far side of the pillar, counting Terciel's leather-padded steps and the clattering steps of the blazing skeleton.  He took a deep breath and got ready to charge in when another blazing skeleton lurched through the door and attacked him with a blazing fireball.  He shrugged it off and grinned.  He and Terciel pivoted around each other's positions, Terciel still batting the flames on his armor, as Shard pounced from behind the pillar.  He landed a wicked series of stabs and slices on the closer skeleton, raising a cloud of blazing embers and spraying chipped bone on the floor around him; when he finished, both skeletons were missing a few ribs and fingers.  One scowled and tried to scream – its flames surged around him – but Shard smirked and settled into a knife-fighting stance, ignoring the fire.

Lenora noticed the commotion and realized that her talents were called for elsewhere.  Rache had been moving forward dispatching enemies left and right, and so far had been unblooded, so Lenora headed to the rear to help put out the fires.

Bree was in deep trouble: bleeding from a dozen wounds now, she bravely gave as good as she got, blinding and dazzling the enemies around her, forcing them to swing and miss nearly as often as they hit… but the infantry were implacable and they had the advantage of numbers.  With Thea pinned down fighting their commander and Darg
stuck behind the bottleneck, things looked grim.  Darg asked Moradin's blessing and for a moment glowed with a piercing white light which drove the enemies back and bought Bree some breathing room.  Just as Lenora's flail finished the job Shard had started, Bree's luck ran out, and she passed out – whether from exhaustion or blood loss, Darg couldn't tell.  Terciel was still fighting bravely, but his armor continued to burn and flicker, and every time he fired a shot he barked a curse in Elvish and shook his bowstring-hand.  Oh, for a divine rainstorm right about now…!  Darg looked through the crowd and saw little he could do for Bree, but as he ran past Terciel summoned a reserve of divine energy to cool the flames.  An icy breeze seemed to leap from his hands and extinguish the flames, swirling around Terciel as though it had a life of its own, and Darg pressed ahead to the eastern pinchpoint to try to bull his way through before it got too ugly.

Rache was backed against a wall, cursing eagerly and spraying infernal energy in all directions.  Just as it appeared she was cornered, she ducked under her cloak and reappeared a dozen steps away – a crackling nova of black light shot out from around her feet where she landed and shattered a pair of skeletons – and she finished the
ducking motion and reappeared where she had started.  They turned their backs on Bree's prone body and charged Rache, who grinned a little despite herself.

Without Darg to keep her healthy, Thea looked as though things might turn against her too… but then she struck a ferocious blow and the commander's skeleton crumbled.  The cloak fluttered to the ground, and Thea heaved a sigh and began stalking forward to press the advantage. Before she could engage the next enemy, the cloak flew up off the ground and wrapped itself around her head as though to smother her. Blinded and wrapped up, she couldn't press the attack, but had to instead claw at its corners until she could peel it away from her face.  A quick struggle was all it took – a moment later she flung it to the ground, where instead of coming to rest, it rippled away on a
thin cushion of air.  "Dammit to the nine hells, another one!" hollered Darg, while Lenora breathed a sigh of relief that at least Bree was unconscious and wouldn't be chasing after this one.  She chastised herself quietly and smashed through another skeleton's skull with her flail as she pressed the attack and tried to come to Bree's
aid.

Bree shook off the worst of it and pressed herself off the floor as Darg hooked a hand under her armpit and helped her up.  With the commander beaten, it really was a mop-up operation now, and the team rallied through the pain and exhaustion.  Whomever had sent the pincer maneuver knew their team's strengths and weaknesses… to an extent. Shard's racial gifts – doubling the team's ability to stand knee deep in fire and still deal out punishing amounts of damage – had broken the flanking press that threatened to take Terciel out of the fight and roll up the entire team.  Terciel was singed, but had still laid down a withering volume of arrows that had dropped the commander early.  Bree had fallen and might have been lost if Rache hadn't been able to wade in.  Lenora pondered the tactical and strategic implications of their attack: why hadn't they sent anyone up the stairs to the west if they really wanted to break the group?  Perhaps this Kral was a better strategic planner than the ghosts gave him
credit for.

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You Shall Not Pass...Unless You Ask Very Politely
In which Enemies are Treated to a Skittles Commerical, and Terciel Does His Impression of a Dramatic Rodent

Game Time: Friday, mid-day – with apologies for a very belated and almost certainly muddled version of the events as they transpired!

Illian's messenger met them in the tunnels while they searched for any sign of Katya's squad.  A few sling bullets and crossbow bolts strewn around the Map Room were enough to worry the entire party, but most especially Shard: if Katya's squad were defeated, what chance did his new allies have?  How hard must Illian come down on him for letting them all down?  Damned if it would happen on his watch.  His mouth was opening to send the messenger back to Illian with the news when Lenora gave the same command.  The messenger eyed Shard for a moment, saw assent, and nodded back before turning to sprint down the walkway through the sewer.

They opened the Map Room mural again and headed down into the Lower Ocean Catacombs once more.  Stopping for the Feymoss had been simple and uneventful, which was a relief to everyone – Terciel was glad to visit his ancestors' tomb again, and Rache was glad to have insurance against Gutar's threats, as little as they swayed her.  When the party suggested heading back to the surface to ensure Rache was free and clear, she blushed for a moment and then explained just how little Gutar worried her, and how much Zlata and Illian must be counting on them to rescue Katya's squad.  Shard smiled grimly and asked which hallways they'd already ruled out.  He looked down each doorway, opening and closing his mouth to get a taste of the air and listen for anything that might be lurking there, and then headed south along the path they had chosen.

As soon as he saw the graves, Shard couldn't shake the feeling that something horrible had happened to the people buried here.  He stepped into a shadow and felt a chill deep in his bones.  For a moment his breath caught as though he'd been thrown off a cliff towards water, and his body was straining to buy him an extra second of life.

 

Stepping into the oddly-shaped chamber he saw angled pillars of black stone everywhere.  As he crept closer, a handprint appeared and began to drip blood down the face of the tomb.  He turned back and reported what he had seen, worried that his new allies would think him crazy or a coward, but they took it in stride and began to compose a plan.

Bree suggested a probing strike to draw the spirits out where they could be seen, and then a follow-up assault to pull her bacon out of the fire.  After a brief discussion of the alternatives, she ran in, but a few steps later was assailed by the same doubts and terrors that seized Shard, and a moment later, found herself rooted to the spot as blood wept from the walls.  Summoning as much arcane energy as she could muster, Bree clapped her tiny hands once fiercely and spread them apart in a swift semicircle: a blast of rainbow lights sprayed through the murky tomb, making the blood flash different colors, and from behind several pillars came unholy shrieks of agony.  The radiant
light in her spell had burned them badly, and it looked for a moment that she had struck a decisive blow.

"Who is it that dares disturb our tomb?  Show them we mean business, and are not to be trifled with."  An authoritative voice rang out, salty with the cadence of the sea, and at his command spectral figures dressed in tattered sea rags floated through the walls and surrounded Bree.  She was still rooted to the spot when they began to howl and
wail, intimidating more than injuring Bree — but their spectral fingers sunk into her flesh and did plenty of injury as well.  The party surged forward to come to her aid, lashing out at the bloody handprints on the walls and the looming sailors' ghosts.  Darg and Rache were stuck behind their comrades in the rear when they noticed ghosts beginning to seep through the walls at them as well.

Bree gamely socked it to the ghosts, outnumbered and loving it; Shard shook off his fear and waded in with his knives flashing; Lenora and Thea shouldered their way into the room swinging heavy steel.  As Terciel fired arrow after arrow through the ghosts, Rache mentioned to him off-handedly that she'd seen something that Terciel might be
interested in when she had been at Gutar's the previous evening: the scrying ritual indicated that Narmo Mornamarya is here on the mortal plane, and is running some kind of slaving operation.  It's unclear for now whether he knows that Liante is dead.  Terciel was taken aback briefly but kept his game face on, unsure if Rache was trying to spoil
his aim, or to guarantee that he heard the news before they all died together here in this forsaken place.

Darg's attentions were divided as well, torn between trying to turn the undead on the spot and rushing forward to where it would be more effective.  As more and more of the party became mired in the paralyzing shrieks, the Captain's bloodlust seemed to peak, and he ordered "a double dose of what we gave the others," which brought the
party up short.  A few seconds of brief truce stretched out into minutes, but the walls kept weeping blood and the drowned sailors' ghosts hovered.  In the parlay that followed, the party learned that the Captain and his crew were immune to the rituals Kral had used to raise the rest of the zombies.  The Captain at first attributed it to
his crew's high spirits, but eventually admitted that an old mariners' superstition had saved them: those wise to the superstitions removed a particular fingerbone and a particular tooth from each corpse, and the crew's bodies had all been rendered irresurrectible.  The Captain was right about their spirit though: they had plenty of it.  Long before this latest rash of living dead, Kral and his champion Garon had come to the catacombs to raise the undead, and they had resisted.  They had also resisted helping the "other" champions – and here the captain asked them directly whether they were the latest champions sent down, and had their temples sent them with the equipment they'd need? Garon, the captain said, had killed the last champions in the catacombs' basement, and there was no reason to think his powers had waned since then.

They took the captain's warning about Garon seriously, but pulled doggedly on the thread of "the others," and learned that a group of the living had been brought this way by some undead only to be turned back by the captain's crew, who delight in frustrating Kral's works ever since his failure to resurrect them pulled their spirits back to this spot.  The Captain had heard of another group of spirits, similarly trapped and even more ferociously territorial, and swore that the undead – if they had passed to the south at all – had done so by a passage east of his tomb.

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I Never Could Get the Hang of Thursdays
Wherein Osmund thinks Rache robbed him, Shard's age is a problem, and Garlosk identifies an emblem.

[Thursday, around lunchtime]

After a late brunch with Lord Wossname, the party decided to head back to the Golden Goose Inn, settle in for some lunch, and divide the spoils while they discussed their situation.  There was plenty of petty cash to go around, and after setting aside an eighth share for the ritual casters, there was just about 100 gold pieces for each party member.  After lunch, Shard and Lenora and Thea set out, haggled over the value of the last few mundane goods, and the total for everyone came nearer 120 gold.

Shard ran into Terciel and Darg down at a fletcher's shop, and they were both of a mind to hunt down someone who could make arrows or bolts from the cockatrice feathers.  After a short shopping trip with Darg, they managed to find a fletcher and an enchanter who thought they'd be able to make something with their ample supply of feathers. He promised them he'd get to work on the enchantments, and he thinks he can have four bolts and four arrows by Market Day.  

Thea came back with word of some likely tanners and leatherworkers who had agreed to help sew up the fantastically large alligator hide they had stripped from the sewer gator.  Darg suggested that he and Bree ought to hit the books, and Bree said that while it sounded entertaining, she thought maybe reading the text would be a surer path towards learning the rituals.  Darg grudgingly agreed, and they began gathering up their books for a long afternoon of study together: Bree learning to conceal writing using the Secret Page ritual ("Dear Secret Page, today everyone went off and had fun while I was stuck studying a bunch of boring stuff.") and Darg learning how to command an Unseen Servant.  Before he settled in, Darg took another look at the old coins and helpfully identified several of them as coming from the reign of King Devon IX, and the others as possibly foreign.  That gave Shard an idea: if anyone could figure out the origins of foreign coin, it would be the dockmaster's moneychanger.

Most of the party headed down to the Ocean Quarter, with Rache begging off to take care of some personal errands and Darg and Bree stuck studying.  They entered the moneychanger's offices utterly unprepared for his (hmmm! haghhhh!) dedication to his job.  Garlosk turned out to be an enthusiastic and mildly obsessive dragonborn with a fanatical sense of detail but not much in the way of social graces.  Taken aback and a little creeped out, the party members were nonetheless able to conduct their business and learn some interesting facts about the money they'd found on the dead traveler in the eladrin tombs.  Fifteen gold pieces and 39 silver were distributed as follows:

* 13g, 35s from Galena, from the reign of Devon IX
* 2g, 3s from the Caliphate, from the reign of Anand (Ralan's youngest brother), probably contemporary with Devon IIX
* 1g from the reign of of Devon IIX
* 1g and 1s Coronation piece, from the marriage of Rebecca to Ralan al'Mahsood; the gold features Ralan (King Roland I to you) and the silver features Rebecca.  The pieces were minted at the time of their marriage and would have been souvenirs for anyone lucky enough to attend the wedding.

...and the strange key and chain turned out to be the key to a guest's strongbox at the Bear's Crown (formerly the Barrows Crown) Inn. Garlosk offered the party 217 gold for the entire collection, or 200 gold for the Coronation pieces alone, and offered to put the party in touch with his brother in Bel Ashard if they found anything of historical significance.  In his professional capacity, Garlosk is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the value of coins, but it seems that he has developed a passion for the topic that extends to a lucrative hobby on the side as well.

After much frivolity, the party took their leave of Garlosk and headed for the Bear's Crown in the Royal Quarter.  They popped in to the Temples of Avandra (where they came across Rache) and Melora (where a sailor tugged at Terciel's sleeve with an odd request) and then headed across town.  They decided that, the Bear's Crown being an upper-crust sort of place, that they should pose as two well-to-do travelers – Rache and Terciel – and their retinue of assistants and servants. While Shard impressed the barmaid with his deft social skills and impeccable hand-eye coordination, Rache and Terciel talked the innkeeper into helping them search for the lockboxes in the upper rooms.  In the process they signed themselves up for a short stay at one of the nicer inns in town, but it turns out to have been well worth the rent: in one of the upper rooms, they found a magically-concealed strongbox which contained a thick green book and a short letter.  The letter read:

"Darion,

I compiled this volume after my first journey to Axtamectal as a favor to Silvia, who attended Rebecca on her travels to meet and wed Roland.  On their return from the desert, I received a letter from Silvia thanking me for saving Her Highness' life. I hope that it arrives and finds you safe in Baerstun on the errand you have undertaken. Once I finish my work for the Prince I will make greatest haste to find you.

Tarpin"

...the book was a copy of Tovenaar's Tenderfoot Tourists' Tome, which was interesting enough to the assembled folks downstairs.  When they made their way back to meet up with Bree and Darg, Bree just about fell out of her chair.  Tarpin Tovenaar – THE Tarpin Tovenaar, famous wizard and infamous free-traveler, mysterious and daring, always showing up wherever he was needed – had actually made a copy of his travelogue with all of the rituals he had learned and used on the way, and now she was going to have the opportunity to see it, read it, study it, and learn his rituals!  "A Brief Lesson In the Creation of an Explorer's Fire" sounded especially promising.  Rache had also noticed some interesting recipes therein: a different recipe for Clearwater Solution, an antivenom that looked particularly potent. Terciel just wanted to read the account of Tovenaar's travels – he was eager to get a head start on understanding the perils of travel between cities in this bizarre mortal realm.

Darg and Terciel headed down to the Ocean Quarter to grab some beers at the Flying Firkin for Darg's study break, debating whether Darg should resume his studies with Aladar's books, or if perhaps one of the rituals in Tovenaar's Tome might be a better use of his time: Banish Vermin?  Fastidiousness?

Rache went with Bree to drop by Osmund's shop to ask for a look at his rituals, and Osmund called them inside, his voice nervous and sharp. As they stepped through the door, Bree noticed a chalk line drawn across the doorway, and a small copper homunculus  on Osmund's desk chimed and rattled.  He yelped and demanded to know what kind of sick joke they were playing, what they wanted to steal now, and hadn't his payment been enough?  After a few more moments in this vein he calmed down enough for them to get the story out of him: someone had shown up just after he closed up shop, gotten into his store despite the barred door, snatched the violet feymoss from his shelf, and disappeared from view before he could lay hands on them.  The copper homunculus is one of Drawmidge's rituals intended to identify a traitor or thief; the weakness of the spell is that it can be triggered by a blood relative of the guilty party, but Osmund wasn't buying it.  He reasoned that:

(1) It had only been a scant few hours since they dropped the feymoss off at his shop, and he hadn't told anyone else that he had received the moss,
(2) It was extraordinarily unlikely that Rache or Bree's siblings would just happen to know that he had come into a supply of the stuff, and target him for burglary
(3) ...therefore it must be Rache or Bree who had done it.

After a quick trial of walking in and out of the door, Osmund narrowed it down to Rache, who managed to not betray too much emotion at his accusation.  Osmund demanded his gems back as collateral against them returning his feymoss, and suggested that he might be able to divine the thief's true identity if he had a sample of Rache's hair and blood.  Bree suggested that granting a request like that from a man so obviously angry with them would be foolish if they didn't have some sort of insurance against abuse, and collected samples in kind. Osmund told them he'd start setting up a divination that very evening and might have more leads for them in the morning.  He was willing to give them 24 hours beyond that before he reported the theft to the city watch and named Rache as his prime suspect – "for all the good
it will do me, with you lot so close to Wossname."  By sunup on market day, Rache will be a marked woman, unless the party can manage to scrape together some more feymoss.  Osmund kicked them out of his shop so he could start the ritual, and Bree and Rache started the long walk back from the docks to let everyone else know what had happened.

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Into the Stoat's Den
Note: this summary begins in media res. During the section of combat skipped, there was lots of fighting and one group of bandits covered their retreat by starting a fire in the warehouse, consuming barrels of whiskey in a line across the floor.
[Tuesday, late afternoon]

Lenora sized up the wreckage around them between deep breaths as she stepped back towards the horrid noises in the galley.  The bandits and thugs had no leadership to speak of, and had fallen back in disarray almost as soon as the fight started.  Lt Grennec and Sgt Melia chose a good fighting position and fought fiercely, but had been outflanked by Shard.  Lenora's team had been outflanked, too – twice – but Terciel had spun on his heel and dropped the flankers before they could drive a wedge between the two halves of the group.  Darg had stayed close and kept them patched up when it got hairy, and now came Lenora's favorite part of battle: cleanup.  Shard was slipping from crate to crate with his crossbow out, and the few bandits left in this room had no idea he was there… he had this locked down; time to help the others.  She nudged Darg and they jogged back towards the stairs, weapons at the ready, and found the source of the horrid noise: it was Rache.

She was standing there, hands out in a gesture of… peace?  And making the most horrid noises Lenora had ever heard.  But the ogre appeared to be listening, and then growl-howl-grunting some sort of reply.  It sounded like a conversation between two rabid bears being crushed in a landslide, but it was definitely conversation.  Rache pursed her lips, looked over her shoulder, and said "Thea, everyone, wait.  He's… he's going to stop fighting."

There was some smoke coming from the training room, and just as things started to quiet down, the door that the sentry had been guarding opened up.  A voice called out "hey, did you kill them a-" and then Tarin stumbled into the light, mouth working open and shut like a trout.  Dagog's club was hanging limp at his side, and they were trying to talk to it, and… Tarin cursed loudly and profusely and set out at a dead run towards the kitchen.  He hollered to the remaining survivors to get the warehouse door open and slipped out towards the kitchen like a weasel on fire.

Everyone bolted for the door after him pretty much in the same instant.  The tales of his previous escapes had a galvanizing effect on Bree, who leaped through the door heedless of the danger.  Thea came after him with her axe out; Lenora waded in with her flail at the ready.  Rache gurgled something hideous and throat-mangling at Dagog, and he roared and shouldered his club, stomping into the room behind the faster, smaller combatants.  Pinned against one wall of the kitchen, Tarin stomped on insteps, gouged eyes, and kicked shins to get an opening.  Stumbling over a painful blow to the shoulder from Thea's axe, he staggered to the south wall of the kitchen, hopped up on a pair of small crates, and grabbed a crane hanging from a long iron rail bolted to the ceiling.  "The door, get the door," he hollered, and two of his thugs headed that way to try to make an escape of it.  Dagog swung his greatclub, throwing timbers and wreckage from the dining table everywhere, and knocking the only other brigand down in a daze.  Bree made a scooping gesture and then a strange pinching motion, and splinters assembled themselves into a fist, tightly gripping the rail next to the crane.  For good measure, she flung a hissing mote of energy through the air, trying to blast apart the wheels and bearings holding it together.
map overview
 
figurines 
 
Terciel looked into the kitchen and flinched when he saw the table smashed to splinters.  He looked over his left shoulder and saw the top of a stack of crates through the tiny slit window, then looked back at Tarin getting ready to take the crane-rail-express into that very same room.  How convenient!  Terciel stepped through space and appeared atop the crates, pulled a pair of arrows out, and went after the two bandits, one who had already begun opening the long barn door, and the other coming up behind Shard.  A kill!  ...and a miss.  Rats. He reached for more arrows blindly, keeping his eyes on Shard.  The tiefling slithered in close, slicing the spooked villain's throat as he gaped around looking for the archer.  Terciel noticed Rache flanking around the stairway – with Terciel on the high ground and Rache in his way, Tarin would not be leaving through that exit – and so he hollered to Shard: "The door, get the door!"  Shard pulled the warehouse door back closed and began working on the chains and locks. Rache's last words to Dagog had been quite convincing – he tugged and strained trying to pull the iron crane rail off the ceiling.

Tarin's crane awkwardly trundled through the room, and he yanked his knees up dodging blasts of radiant light ("damned dwarf!"), sizzling black energy ("she's pretty ka-HEY!") and thick great-axe blades whistling past ("Yeeeesh!").  The splinters fell away over his hands,the crane made an unpleasant groaning noise, and Tarin the Stoat left the room far more slowly than he'd intended to.  His only remaining companion counted the party's weapons, saw Tarin retreating, and did some quick mental arithmetic before leaping after Tarin to secure a ride on his legs.  He missed and flopped awkwardly on the ground next to the flaming whiskey barrels.

Lenora shouted "cut him off!" and Thea put her head down and charged, hurtling past Tarin with her axe out, throwing herself off the ledge and setting herself directly in his path.  She spun on her heel to see him slowly rumbling along the track, dropped her axe, and tried to leap up and grab his ankles to slow him down.  He pulled away just in time, and Thea landed face-to-face with Steve, who had also been trying to grab Tarin's legs.  An opportunity to curry favor with the boss!  Steve swooped in and picked up Thea's opportunistic greataxe,took a big heavy swing, and buried the head in her scale armor. He westled with it for a moment, got it loose, and raised it to defend himself.  Thea sized him up calmly and pulled out her backup axe,switched up her grip to be sure of the weight, and took him apart – the forehand swing took his wrists off, she snatched her own axe out of the air (letting the hands drop away on their own) and took his head and legs off with the backswings.

Tarin continued to roll further down the line, hands stinging from the repeated blasts of magical energy throwing steel shavings into his knuckles… this crane was not going to last much longer.  Shard waited in the shadows behind the crates; Lenora and Darg headed for the ledge to give chase; Terciel pulled the arrow back to his cheek, then he turned his head and whispered a word to the bowstring.  He sighted down the arrow again, relaxed, and let a pair of arrows sail towards Tarin.  The first whistled past, but the second hit him in the shoulder with a thunderclap, and as Thea glanced up to get a bearing on him, she saw him tumbling head over heels.  Tarin barely landed on his feet and staggered into a half-assed fighting stance.  "Ten shares of treasure," he offered, "I'll take three and you can each have one. I owe you that much for getting rid of my buyers before they got to be a pain in the ass!"

Shard and Lenora moved in to surround him in a pincer movement.  In a panic, he jabbed his fingers into Lenora's eyes and spun to sweep Shard's legs out from under him.  Ordinarily this would be a great opportunity to bury the knife and finish someone, but Tarin had become quite a savvy businessman recently, and he knew that 7 minus 2 still left him Way Outnumbered with no nearby doorway.  He fled.

Thea looked across the room, up at Terciel, and over the flames at Rache and decided her best bet was to cut off his escape – or anything else she could get her axe into.  She sailed over the whiskey barrels, turned the corner, and waited for Tarin in the narrow space between the crates and the wall.  Bree looked around at the chaos, shouted "I love you guys!" and leaped over the flames herself to join the fray.

Everything began to collapse into chaos – Shard stood up and took a shot at Tarin as Lenora weaved blindly across his line of fire. Terciel clambered across the crates to get to a better position and ended up firing two arrows nearly straight down at Tarin, both plunging deep into his flesh.  He staggered back, coughing blood, and offered fifteen shares of the treasure – two to each party member and one for himself.  Thea edged closer and swung her axe – another vicious hit, and he reeled, begging them to let him take his letters and flee before his employer found him out.  Shard closed in and struck him in the neck, plunging the dagger deep before he could sweeten his offer any further, and the party set about the unglamorous work of cleanup.

Putting out the whiskey-barrel fires was simple enough for a pair of tieflings; extinguishing the fire in the training room was a little harder.  Rache kept Dagog placated and had something resembling a conversation with him, at which point the party set about tallying up the spoils in the warehouse.  The most interesting items were Tarin's papers, which seemed to indicate that not everything was quite what it had seemed.  The party set about discussing what to do with the warehouse, the loot, the piles of iron, and the spare ogre.
 
Tarin "the Stoat"
Tarin "the Stoat." Rest in Pieces.  
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So a farmer tries to cross a river with an ogre, an orcish platoon, and seven adventurers...
In which the party wonders why they even have that lever.

[Game Time: Tuesday, later in the afternoon]

The sound of the trap banging against the stone walls echoed down the vaulted ceilings of the sewer, and in the brief silence, Shard heard the sound of seagulls coming from further down the tunnel.  Stepping past the dangerously sharp ironwork, he noticed a rowboat in a little nook on the far side of the water.  He clambered across the fence that was blocking up the tunnel, hopped down on the other side, and discovered the Surly Mermaid, a five-man rowboat in poor (but recent) repair.  Packed in with it were all the things you'd need to maintain such a boat: oars, rope, an anchor, materials for patching, and even some sailcloth.  Laying in the bottom of the boat was an oilskin pouch with a note written on it:

ALARM
BOAT
CORN
DOG
FARMER
GOOSE
HELLFIRE

Shard looked it over, left the rest of the items for later, and began clambering clumsily back across the grating.  Meanwhile, Bree was running her hand over the stone wall and checking to see where her Rat-In-The-Box was pointing.  As she moved along the wall her hand plunged right through the bricks as though they weren't there.  Bree played at disappearing through the bricks while the rest of the party split their attention between the illusory wall and the strange words on Shard's note.  Bree found another door inside the false wall, and after Shard delicately shoved it open with a wayward elbow while checking for traps.  Through that door was yet another door, this one
made of thick steel.  Mounted in the wall next to it was a brass panel with two rows of four levers labeled alphabetically: ABCD and EFGH, with the B and F levers connected with a tie rod.  Strange…!

The party decided that the letters on the levers corresponded to the words on the crib-sheet they'd found in the boat.  The only lever that didn't have a label was the "E" lever, so Bree offered to pull that one first.  Everyone held their breath and Bree pushed it upwards.  It made a quiet ka-chunking sound and some faint noises like a chain-pull
or machinery grinding, but otherwise, nothing appeared to happen. Bree pulled the lever back down, and this time there were no noises whatsoever.  Curioser and curioser.  Thea kept going over the words in her head: farmer, corn, goose, dog, boat… she asked Bree if maybe it had anything to do with that old puzzle.  Terciel and Rache stood
close to Bree in case their ability to teleport was called for; Shard and Lenora stood nearby (but not TOO nearby) while Darg and Thea stood back by the wooden doors in case it was a trap.  The three ladies up front debated and counted on their fingers… corn, then goose?  Could this be something to do with that old riddle?  If that was the case, Lenora asked, where was the Hellfire?  Rache offered to provide some, if they came up short.

Finally, they agreed that it must be the old riddle about the farmer. They puzzled out how the farmer could get everything across the river safely, and pulled the levers, each time wincing in case some horrific trap should be sprung.  The farmer and his goose, the return trip, the grain, return with the goose, the dog, return empty-handed to pick up
the goose, and… voila.  With a series of ever-more-complex noises, the latch gurgled, clanked, and finally clicked. The door swung slightly ajar and the party peeked inside.

There was a prominent alarm bell, a spear and sword rack, a large animal-skin rug dyed a lurid maroon color, and a lantern lighting the small foyer.  Rache snuck out and looked around, and noticed an orcish officer sitting in a chair next to a reinforced wooden door.  He was polishing a pair of boots while his spear, longsword, and shield sat next to him.  Rache headed back and informed the party, who spent a few moments whispering in hushed tones.  The plan was simple: fill him with arrows, nail him with spells, and charge him quickly with swords and knives to finish him off.  Terciel tested the tension on his bow and pulled out a pair of arrows; Rache crept up as close as she dared; Bree passed a fizzing white bolt of energy from hand to hand; the rest stood by, weapons drawn, ready to rush the lone guard.

Terciel and Rache unloaded almost at the same moment, Bree fired a magic missile, and the guard jumped from his chair, bleeding and confused.  He snatched up his  weapons hollering "Intruders! To arms! To arms!" and ran through a door to his right.

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Despite All My Rage, I'm Still Just an Enchanted Inertial Guidance System
Wherein the party earns their rodent navigation merit badge, and decides to pursue cobblery next.

[Game time: Tuesday, a little bit after lunch]

Ilian held the two bottles of alchemical silver as if weighing them, then looked up and addressed the players:

"Whoever caused this chest to be packed seems to be extraordinarily well-informed about the conditions down here.  This silver liquid in particular is hard to come by – there are probably only one or two alchemists in the city who could make it.  I wonder if I might impose on you – some sort of – neh.  Let me speak plainly first. You have a stoat loose in the sewers, and I have rat-catchers.  My own hidden enemy is proving difficult to uncover as well.  We are united in our desire to see the undead wiped from the sewers which is perhaps just a convenience.  So far, both of our rodents have remained hidden, but my patrols are covering more and more ground each day.  Now that I have heard about this map room's secret door, I wonder if perhaps that ocean quarter catacomb might be a more defensible position than this one… it bears some consideration.  My people guard all three sets of stairs from the upper catacombs, so I can tell you for certain that Tarin and the orcs did not come from there.  That leaves only a few other possibilities – if you suspect smuggling, the sewer outflow seems like a logical place to look. You are as formidable as any patrol that I have sent out, but you do not know the sewers like we do.  So, if you do not find his help  objectionable, I will be happy to assign Shard to you for as long as you need a guide down here.  If you find Grigory, please do not draw him into a fight… he is ferocious and refuses fair combat, and I would worry for your safety.  Also, I have promised that I will look into his eyes one last time before I gouge them out and kill him, so… hm.  You can help me keep that promise, I hope? In the same vein, if my patrols find Tarin, we will do our best to capture him rather than kill him… it sounds like there are many questions you would like to ask him.

So how can I tell you the latest news?  Is simple.  I offer you my hospitality here, and you may come by the sentries to get the latest information whenever it suits you.  I must warn you that Shard's last patrol found some evidence that our location is known, so the risk that Grigory will strike before we can find him grows with every sunset.  But until we find somewhere better, this is our home and you're welcome here.  I would urge you to stay out of sight after sundown for your own sake and for Shard's, but if you must move at night, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have scouting for me.  What do you say?"

The party assented quickly, and the new allies began to talk strategy.  Bree asked if there were other animals in the sewers – animals that don't get killed on sight – and Ilian scratched his beard and thought… no, not really.  He allowed as how pretty much anything with legs and protein gets eaten as soon as it scampers, slithers, or squirms past a trap.  But how would the messenger animals find Ilian? Simply because Bree knows him?  Bree opened her mouth to answer, paused, and buried her nose in her ritual book for a moment.  Scanning the words, she noted several ambiguous phrases.  "A location."  Well that could be Baerstun, or the kingdom of Galena, or even the mortal realm!  Strange.  Bree asked if Ilian happened to know anyone who could help with the ritual, and he mentioned Zlata and led the players up the stairs and through a concealed door.

The wing of the catacombs was packed with poor starving refugees from the Stone Quarter who looked up briefly at Ilian's new guests.  He stopped to ask one woman about her hurt ankle, tousled the hair of a little boy, and then took the players over to the campfire where everyone was eating.  Zlata sat comfortably on a pile of rat hides and straw, stirring the stew, and introduced herself.  She handed out stew to everybody – a big bowl for Rache, so the poor dear wouldn't waste away, and a normal serving for Thea, who took it in the spirit it was offered and politely ate up.  Zlata and Bree got down to business very quickly, talking about which of her spell components might be useful for the animal messenger ritual.  She took out some peppercorns and a dimly-glowing crystal, sniffed the peppercorns, and handed them to Terciel for the stew.  She held the crystal out to Bree, and then snatched it back into her fist for a moment, a little uncertain.  She mumbled something in another language to Ilian, and he answered back… and she mentioned that such crystals are quite dear, and that this was her last one, and perhaps those silver bottles would be a fair trade?  Bree paused (that's strange!) and considered the offer, and admitted that she couldn't really negotiate with the party's loot in good faith because it wasn't hers.  Everyone put their heads together and discussed it; Shard mentioned to Lenora that it seemed like two bottles of silver was a cheap price to pay for finding Tarin, and Ilian's folks needed the bottles pretty badly.  The party's hesitation was evident, though, and Zlata clarified her offer – one bottle for the crystal, surely that would be fair!  Relieved smiles all around, and everyone agreed to the trade happily.  Zlata reached into the fire and cleared a space in the coals to begin working the spell.

A short debate about exactly what to do with the rat followed, with everyone suggesting variations on following the rat without allowing it to escape. Terciel hit upon the idea of putting the rat in a small mahogany box and only checking on it when the party was unsure about how to proceed.  Everyone agreed that this seemed worth a shot, and so Bree sat down with Zlata, Terciel, Darg, and Lenora to mutter the incantations over the rat that Ilian had brought them from the pantry.  Inspiration and Avandra's own luck were with Bree as she whispered the party's message to the rat:

"The Doctor wants to meet you in the Map Room at midnight."

...and the rat climbed over her hands and settled into the box, apparently eager to be ferried to its destination if that was the plan.  Darg dusted off his knees and stood up from his prayers, walked over to the group, and smiled at their ingenious contraption.  The rat pointed the way, and the party headed out past the warm clear waters of the Artisans' catacombs, past the gaslights that the dwarven architects installed here centuries ago, and down to the T-Joint where the filthy Ocean Quarter outflow met the Artisans' Quarter runoff.

 

 

The rat indicated that they should move downstream.  Shard cautioned the party to stick to the right, and pointed out the ragged hole in the wall that leads up to the rats' nest he had cleared out earlier that morning.  They walked along the rocky path to one side, and came to a shallow slow-moving pool that looked out over a spillway.  The face of the spillway was steep and slick with algae and moss; a thin current of murky water ran down it to a deep and mostly still runoff pond below.  Even with the murkiness of the water, it was clear that the water was too deep to wade through.  Shard considered rappelling down the slope on the boulders at the top, but faced the unpleasant prospect of sliding down into the unknown one at a time.  He noticed a small tunnel leading off to one side, and scouted ahead – success!  It opened up at the bottom of the spillway.

The way ahead made everyone a little nervous – a narrow ledge where they would only be able to walk single file, a large wrought-iron grating covering the entire diameter of the sewer pipe, and the filthy murky water on their left.  Thea approached the grating, eyed it for a moment, and then stepped aside to let Bree take a look.  Bree considered the door.  On the one hand, it was an iron fence.  It was locked from this side, but it might yield to a hand reached through the bars.  Bree considered the large barrel springs by the wall, the ornamental ironwork that protruded dangerously and asymmetrically… those were wicked big springs.  And why does a door need springs that big anyway?  The hinges are perfectly balanced.  Why, if you prodded the handle ever so slightly, the whole thing would snap open like a … like some kind of a… well, okay, EXACTLY like a trap.

Bree turned to tell the party that there was a trap, and that they needed to back up, and noticed a shadow on the water, moving faster than a charging horse.  She opened her mouth to shout a warning just as the shadow punched through the scum and opened its mouth.  Bree hadn't seen this many teeth in one place since the Smiling Triplets came to her village when she was a girl.  The mouth was broad, long, gaping, full of teeth, and very very big, and… like that, it had grabbed Darg and snapped back into the water.  The box with the rat in it slipped from Darg's hands and bounced once, twice on the ledge, and Bree stooped down calmly, tucked it under her arm, and said "There's a THING.  In the WATER!  It has Darg."  Bree had the advantage of having seen its whole body for a split second, and while the others tried to wrap their minds around the fact that they were only looking at part of its head, Bree fired off a magic missile indicating its true position.  Terciel fumbled with his arrows, staring at the huge beast,
trying to reconcile its shape – which he recognized – with its size, which was far larger than any feymire crocodile she'd ever seen.  Darg writhed and pushed, trying to spread the jaws apart, but this thing was tough.

 

Thea's mouth spread into a broad smile.  She was not burdened by any curiosity about where it had come from; it had bitten Darg, and it was something very big and clearly hostile, and she knew exactly how to fix that.  She leaped through the air and hit the water swimming full out, did a double scissor kick to bring her body up out of the water, and brought her axe down fiercely on its head.  The impact from its thick skull rattled her arms.  A lesser warrior might have reconsidered the odds, but she pressed on.  Rache reached a hand towards the beast, clenching her fist and trying to pull it away from Darg by force of will; she could feel her mind clenched around the gator but it simply wouldn't move, and finally the infernal magic began to burn her eyes and mouth… she let go, exasperated, shaking her head.  Lenora watched in horror and followed Thea's lead, jumping in while shouting to Darg and trying to take stock of everyone's position.  She got close enough that he could hear her over the thrashing, and suggested that he twist away instead of trying to open the jaws.  He finally got free and splashed clear of the gator.

Shard took cover in the maintenance stairwell and assessed the situation coldly: Ilian had put him in charge of their safe conduct through the sewers, but Ilian had not mentioned giant lizards trying to devour them, or any of them attempting to get devoured.  What was Thea doing?  It was one thing to stand up to a bully… quite another to take on something four times your size on its own turf.  Well, she'd need all the help she could get!  He drew his hand crossbow, steadied his arm, and looked for anything that resembled a soft spot. He loosed a bolt in its direction and hit it near the throat, and was rewarded with a strange belching noise.  He had either wounded it,
angered it, or tickled it.

Terciel saw the bolt go in and smiled – of course they were softer at the waterline.  He wondered briefly how many arrows it would take to convince it not to bite Thea.  As he fired – one! – he shouted a warning to Thea – two! – that the bite is only the prelude – three! – and that once they grab you they – four! – like to drag you off and try to drown you.  His fifth arrow stuck in the thick armored ridges along the top of its head, protruding at a jaunty angle but not damaging it.  Everyone on the ledge glanced over at Terciel for a moment… they saw all five arrows sticking out, but had only heard a sound like a knife slipped under a lute's strings: five twangs and a little whistling.

The gator roared in pain, clamped its jaws around Thea, and plunged under the water to escape the bite of the arrows.  Darg paddled back to the ledge, trying to gauge  whether Thea was going to make it. Lenora closed in, trying to get down to where Thea was and help her out.  Bree set a light in the water near Thea, illuminating the murky dark green water into a slightly-less-murky bright green water.  The gator was conveniently backlit, and Shard, Terciel, and Rache continued to punish it with ranged attacks.  Rache's and Bree's spells seemed to have trouble penetrating the water, and so Bree resorted to trickery – strange noises behind and around the gator, echoing in the
water.  The gator was nonplussed: anything that noisy would make a delicious dessert, but it had a real live wriggling bleeding meal. Lenora got closer, still holding her breath, scored one ferocious hit on the snout, and then the world was bubbles and claws and scales. The gator angrily thrashed into a barrel roll, churning the water, rolling Thea, and washing Lenora back away.  Thea recovered from the attack and broke loose, swimming around and planting a foot at the base of its neck so she wouldn't lose track of where the head was. She wound up and dealt it another stunning blow, and the blood flowed freely.

Terciel, Rache, Shard, and Bree all continued peppering it with attacks, but in the deep water their spells and arrows seemed to have lost their sting.  Darg was a little closer, and had a clear look into its eyes.  It had grabbed Thea again and was trying to keep her on the bottom.  Darg called on Moradin to help him save Thea, and he channeled a bolt of white light that seared the crocodile's eyes.  It spasmed and thrashed, bit down hard, but it was dead.  The party held their breath.  Lenora surfaced first, looking around for Thea… a long moment passed, and everyone feared the worst.  Then Thea's head broke the surface, she took a big gulp of air, shook the water out of her hair, and gestured to the giant corpse that she was carrying in a headlock – "you guys mind helping me get this thing out of the water? I've been through a lot here… and I want some new boots."

Shard's knife was by far the best suited for skinning, and after a few jabs that were more passionate than effective, Thea grudgingly handed Terciel the knife and let him skin it.  As the skin peeled back, Bree and Darg both recognized body parts that could be useful in some of their rituals.  Once they were done flaying the corpse, Thea had a twenty-pound gator hide, and Bree and Darg had some extraordinarily potent – or at least pungent – reagents for their spells.  Bree cautioned everyone to step away from the spring-loaded door and gingerly probed at the mechanism with an invisible hand, and it snapped open with a terribly loud CLANG that echoed up and down the tunnel.  Their victorious chatter stopped for a moment as they listened to hear if anything else had heard them.

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Well this is orcward.
Wherein nunsmeetorcs and mainsmeetalts, and little lambs eat daisies.

Game Time: Tuesday, just before midday

As soon as Katya saw the orcs lugging the steamer trunk, she had her scouts stop the party.  Katya rubbed her temples and tried to figure out how she was going to send their new allies to Ilian without taking responsibility for a pair of captured orcs.  Zoran's decision to show them the bolt-hole was unorthodox and broke most of Ilian's security rules, but it had been the right call.  Bringing captured orcs in was a completely different matter.  She sent Shard down to make introductions and learn whatever he could from them.

Shard has always learned a lot about people from looking over what they had in their pockets, so he was naturally eager to look in their steamer trunk.  What could bring a pair of orcs to carry an unwieldy box two days' march into hostile territory, where they could be killed on sight?  The box turned out to have more questions than answers.  A moneybag containing the balance of the orcs' pay, which seemed to make sense.  Two bottles of alchemical silver – good for temporarily silvering edged weapons when fighting lycanthropes.  Two bottles of clearwater solution: enough to purify two weeks' water supply for an individual, or several days' water for a small group.  Two bottles of ghoststrike oil, proof against the insubstantial undead.  Three sets of fine clothes in a leather pack.  A large crystal jar, sealed with an arcane lock and gobs of black wax, full of two or three gallons of thick black liquid that radiated some deeply evil and necrotic energy.  And then ten bars of iron, five from the McGuffin Creek mines, more solidly linking Tarin's smuggling efforts back to Thurig's orcs. While the party discussed what to do about the orcs, Shard checked out Nilgor, gave him a sip of water, and tried to talk to him.

The more Nilgor listened to the debate, the more convinced he was that he and Kreb were not long for this earth, but he kept up a brave face.  As the discussion whip-sawed back and forth from the good alternatives (let them go) to the bad ones (kill them here) to the extraordinarily bad ones (hand them over to acolytes of Moradin for a short life of servitude to the dwarves followed by an almost certainly gruesome death), Nilgor decided that he might be able to influence the debate by giving them as much useful information as his orders permitted.  He spun a yarn that seemed plausible enough:

"...I'm pretty confused about what was going on too, honestly.  We showed up to help out with the rescue op once the smugglers came back with word that Tarin had been taken alive from McGuffin Creek.  Of course Tarin wasn't where he was supposed to be, but there was plenty of room for us to crash on the floor.  While we were getting ready to spring Tarin, this witch doctor shows up demanding that we drop everything and help him instead.  Says we're not even allowed to know his name, we should just call him 'the doctor'.  Man, he was a pain in the ass – all the time referring to his higher-ups mysteriously, implying that he had General Bonewhite's direct permission to be interfering in Thurig's work and that Thurig was not permitted to gainsay those orders.  Lt. Grennec was pissed!  Then he goes off to the side, talks to the guy for a few minutes, and they walked around the warehouse looking at stacks of iron and pointing, grabbing some from the big pile and some from the little pile to put in our trunk. The L.T. came back with that look on his face.  He said things might be up in the air, and he was assigning us to escort the doctor to the Lower Ocean Catacombs, but he wasn't happy about it.

After we got underway, Sgt. Suggs told me he didn't understand the mission either, but he was going to carry out the lieutenant's orders as best he could.  He was a little scared, because he was supposed to meet with the doctor's boss down there in the tombs, and get an answer to bring back – 'clean' or 'dirty' – and the L.T. was going to watch Tarin like a hawk until word came back.  Sgt. Suggs thought it might go badly for Tarin if the wrong word came back, what with the L.T. and the doctor both ganging up on him about whatever was going on with the iron.  Whoever the doctor's boss was, the doctor seemed to think knowing who it was would put the fear of Gruumsh in us, and that we'd change our tune once we met the guy we were going to see: "He'll show you the depth of his power – her power is bigger than anything you can imagine – he's a master of the darkest magic – Bonewhite himself would bow if he met my true master – blah blah blah."  ...if it was that big a deal, he should have just said their names.  He acted like our Generals were hired help, barely competent… it wasn't easy to listen to.  Like I said, Lt Grennec was pissed, but what could he do, you know?  Then he had that weird talk with the doctor, looked at the iron bars with him, and sent us upstream to get the answer.  Told us it didn't change our standing orders one bit.  Now, as far as I'm concerned, it's good riddance to that spooky asshole and his "deep magic" and "scary dark powers".  Tarin, though… I'm of two minds, but you have me in a bad spot.  It's not like I can stop you, but as long as Thurig needs him alive, I'm honor-bound to protect that weasel-faced prick.  Those are my orders, and if you have to kill me, well, I knew it might come to that when I signed up.  So I can't tell you where he's hiding, and if that's my death warrant, then so be it. Shame to die for such a waste of skin and bones though; I'd just as soon you left me out of it."

The argument had settled down as Nilgor got into his story.  Thea continued to grumble that killing them now would save everyone a lot of trouble, but Shard and Darg talked over the different ways to give these seemingly-honorable soldiers a fair shot at survival.  Handing them to Lord Wossname was out of the question – it would put him in a bad position, and it would be morally no better than killing them outright.  Handing them to the dwarves seemed reasonable until they got a look at Nilgor's face.  Finally Shard recalled that there had been a priestess in the temple of Melora with a reputation for bucking conventions.  As soon as he mentioned her name, the party's faces lit up: Sister Marina, of course!

They asked Katya to hold down the fort, and given that her orders from Ilian said basically the same thing, she was happy to oblige.  Shard was technically under her command but she allowed him to follow the party up, to see how the prisoner situation was resolved so that he could report first-hand knowledge to Ilian.  She kept the steamer trunk safe while they hiked up the three flights of stairs and knocked on the catacomb doors.  Bree knocked loudly, and whoever was on duty ran away as though they'd seen or heard a ghost.  A few moments later Marina opened the door carrying a massive harpoon that had clearly seen some use.

"Melora's Tide, you people!  What are you doing?  Jevrem has been worried sick about you, and so have I.  Wossname's people have been coming by every six hours to ask if I've seen you!"

They filed out of the stairwell and her eyes bugged out when she saw the prisoners.  She gasped and shooed them into the acolyte's office. The party talked over each other, but Marina got the basics, and realized that her usual solution – sending them through the sewers to one of Ilian's contacts – did not really apply in this case.  She hurried out of the room, came back a few minutes later, and proposed a new solution.  A captain of her acquaintance who owed her a favor would be bringing his ship into Baerstun Harbor in the next day or two ahead of Market Day.  She would arrange with Dockmaster Moryuk to have his ship placed in the slip closest to the sewer outflow; the prisoners would be smuggled out in large casks and thrown overboard on the way out of the Bay, most likely at Buckle's Ferry.  He would be told only that Marina needed two barrels tossed overboard for Buckle, and would be paid his going rate.  The party promised to help Marina get the prisoners to the rendezvous, and Marina guaranteed the prisoners' safety for the next two days.

Some of the party were intoxicated by the scent of fresh air, and the hints of afternoon sunlight visible at the top of the basement steps, and after a brief discussion, Lenora assented to Rache, Terciel, and Thea's requests for a quick bath and a nap.  Shard pointed out that he couldn't explicitly tell them how long the trip to see Ilian might take without giving away the location, and recommended a break no longer than an hour.  What with one thing and another, the hour passed uneventfully; there were one or two close calls, but the days of filth and fighting had made most of the party unrecognizable.  They reassembled in Marina's basement office quickly and quietly, and headed back down.  Shard gave Katya the rundown; her relief at not having to involve Ilian in the war was visible.  She ordered Shard to escort the party back to the sentry point and if possible, to introduce them to Ilian.

The trip through the sewers was difficult and dirty until they reached the T-Joint, where the outflow from the Ocean Quarter met the outflow from the Artisans' and Royal Quarters and headed to the harbor.  After the T-Joint they continued upstream towards the Artisans' Catacombs. The water appeared cleaner, and the one time the party had to wade in to get around an obstacle, they noticed that it was warmer – not hot by any stretch, but not the frigid and sludgy goop that passed for water in the Ocean Catacomb sewers.

Compared to some of their other excursions, the hike through the sewers was uneventful: nobody got hurt, nobody caught any weird sewer diseases, and as far as they could tell, nothing followed them back to Ilian's location.  When they got there, they met Ilian's sentries: Ryken and Salek were on duty.  Shard greeted them, and Lenora immediately began telling the sentries everything that had happened to them over the last week; Shard was beginning to understand how the tale hung together, but he saw Salek getting impatient.  After a few abortive attempts to establish their credibility, Shard headed up to get Ilian. Ilian returned in a moment, and greeted the newcomers
suspiciously.

They sparred for a few awkward moments, feeling out each other's trustworthiness, with Shard doing his best to explain to Ilian why Katya thought these folks would make good allies.  Lenora began to tell the tale again and Ilian shook his head, lost in the winding narrative.  Eventually he understood that they had been the ones who
destroyed Grigory's nesting site in the Ocean Catacombs – well before the wererats could arrive to set traps, and even before Katya's squad was sent out.  He was delighted at the strategic surprise they had visited upon his enemy, and relieved that his people were safe.  He explained the party that the undead and the wererats continued to make life difficult for him and his people, and that he was beginning to doubt his ability to keep his family safe against the myriad threats. When the party explained to him the magnitude of the undead problem in the Ocean Catacombs, and showed him what the orcs had carried, his eyes grew wide… the witch doctor, for all he had irritated Nilgor, clearly understood much of what was going on in the sewers.  He had been bringing supplies to fortify someone or something against both wererats and ghosts – but he had also been bringing iron and fancy clothes and a jar of something unspeakably evil.  Nobody could offer a coherent explanation for all of these things being in one place.

Ilian held the bottles of silver in his hands and stared at them while his pride and his duty to his family wrestled for control of his next words.  The party looked on, wondering if something in the trunk had finally convinced him to bring them into his circle.

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I Smell a Rat
Meanwhile: in which Orsik's terms are not acceptable, the rats make a piggy bank, and the party blows stuff up real good.

Game Time: Tuesday, early morning

Salek caught his breath and tried not to show how lightheaded he felt. The bite on his thigh stung fiercely and he felt a sick dizzy tingle all along his leg, sapping his strength.  He noticed that Lichna also looked lightheaded, and so he called a short halt.  Shard slipped into the shadows and set two lines of flagstone traps to the north and south.  He was less familiar with the flagstone traps, but managed to get most of them set and fairly well concealed.  It was tougher on the south edge – not as much loose gravel.  One of them stuck out like a sore thumb, but there wasn't much he could do about that.  The team checked each other's gear, and Shard paced along the north trap-line looking into the darkness, eager to get out of the bright light.

Lichna stared glassy-eyed into the shadows, distracted by the pain from her wounds… and if she hadn't been staring right at the shadow she wouldn't have believed that she saw it move.  There it went again – behind the pillar – slithering back past the gap to the southeast. She let the rest of the team know; it looked just like the swirling
black fog that the wererat had summoned around itself just before disappearing.  Whatever it was, it had decided against attacking them when they were gathered in force.  They finished resting uneventfully, and Salek and Shard began planning a more cautious reconnaissance of the tunnels to the north.

Salek quietly ordered a careful tactical positioning – leaving the southern trap-line in place – while Shard skirted the bright lights and scouted ahead.  There was a large room to the north, dimly lit with a red glow like burning coals… a bigger cavern to the south lit by a smoky campfire… and a tiny archway dug into the rock, from
which Shard could hear quiet breathing and hissing noises.  Ryken and Irina took up flanking positions by the south doorway, and Helena readied her bow to provide covering fire.  Orsik lurked in the center, ready to set fire, thorns, or claws on anything that moved.  Shard took a silent breath and disappeared from view as he slunk into the shadows and hid around the corner so he wouldn't be backlit.  When Salek's sunrod finally illuminated the room, it took every ounce of discipline for Shard to not curse.  Avandra's own luck – he had managed to step on the three or four foot-sized spots in the straw that weren't covered in sleeping rats.  They ranged from normal-sized up through spaniel-, retriever-, and hog-sized, and every last one was sleeping.  Shard looked at the straw around his feet and reached slowly for one of the grenade traps.  He tried to remember the right order: pull back the spring, set the jaws, place the grenade, release the j- wait, that wasn't-

The springs and counterweights whistled and snapped, and the grenade shattered in his hands, spraying boiling green acid everywhere.  The straw and rats caught fire instantly as he staggered back out of the doorway, knife at the ready.  None of the rats managed to escape the flames, but as Shard hissed and swatted at the flames, he heard something moving to his left.  Two of the larger wererats stormed towards the doorway and were brought up short by the hissing SNAP of the flagstone traps.  Ryken and Irina turned on them while they tried to regain their footing and began thrashing them mercilessly.  The rest of the team waded in, blades and bows at the ready.

The clumsiest of the rats staggered back from a hail of blows, infuriated by the affront of being trapped like a common rat.  His beady eyes focused briefly on Ryken but before he could complete the thought he fell, his wounds closing magically – but too late.  The other one stood bravely, shaking his wounded ankle as he warded off arrows, blades, thorn whips, and countless punishing blows, but he eventually succumbed to the tide and fell, bleeding from a dozen wounds.

A white rat with blood-red eyes emerged from behind a pillar, hissing and cursing as he brandished a fistful of bones and a sickle at the invaders.  With a pair of vicious gestures he shoved Irina back from the fray and yanked Shard closer, eyeing the silvered knife and muttering.  At the same time a horde of rats surged around the corner, writhing and squeaking.  In seconds they were everywhere around Shard, nipping and biting viciously.  Shard took a few swings with his knife and Ryken waded in, grinning and huffing, building up a huge lungful of air for a ferocious puff of wispy smoke… not exactly his usual fierce blast of flame!  Shard cringed for a moment and briefly considered using a grenade, but Orsik beat him to it, laying down a blast of searing flames that consumed dozens of the rats.  They crawled up the heroes' legs in vain attempts to escape.  Irina waded in cursing left and right, enjoining them to cause no more harm on pain of their own swift deaths.  They acted as though they had not
heard her, but the punishing violet flashes of the Raven Queen's disfavor combined with the flames to wipe out the last of them.

Meanwhile at the flanks, Salek and Helena were each attacked by more of the wispy shadows they had seen earlier.  Like living smoke they appeared, slipped around any attempt to strike, and blinded their targets before slinking away invisibly.  Salek was struck immediately by the realization that engaging the rats would keep them in a known place, and endeavored to corner the one attacking him – he forgot, briefly, why the expression "to fight like a cornered rat" was coined.  One of them offered Salek great power – he urged Salek to surrender, claiming that Grigory would bring him "more power than Ilian could ever grant you".  The other made a similar offer to Orsik, but was so incensed at the insulting reply that he struck back more furiously than before.  Helena swatted at the ghostly smoke in her eyes and fired her arrows wherever she could still hear their scrabbling claws, and was twice rewarded with the angry hissing of a rat speared with an arrow.  As the shaman in the southern chamber staggered away from the fight and started a retreat, the shadowy rat near Helena made a break for Salek, hoping to at least help its partner to flank him and bring him down.  They smelled death and blood on him, and knew that he was the only one they had a chance against.  Helena loosed another pair of arrows, and the rat fell to the floor dead, its body sliding to a stop.  By the time the shadows cleared from the corpse, it was no longer a rat but Mika laying in the gravel.

Salek continued dodging and parrying, shedding his close-quarters gear for a longspear and catching his breath before stepping into the dead end where he knew the rat was hiding.  With the rat cornered, Salek waded in, jabbing ferociously and watching his footwork.  It leaped and dodged and swirled to no avail – Salek jabbed it viciously and Lichna finally caught up and helped bottle up the escape route. Outnumbered and cornered, it made one furtive escape attempt, but as soon as it was in sight, Helena dropped it with a pair of arrows in the throat, and it fell right on top of Mika's body.  By the time it hit the ground, its body had also transformed, revealing Arkady, the same scout who had come with them, and whose report had prompted Ilian to make the attack.

Dusting themselves off and checking for more bite-wounds, the party regrouped and searched the area.  The map they found in the makeshift prison confirmed their worst fears: either Mika or Arkady had drawn up the location of Ilian's secret base for the rest of the rats.  The coins in the common room were separated, gold and copper stored openly but silver coins segregated and out of reach.  The discovery of the map struck them all as grave news, and they headed southeast to lay another trap line to cover their retreat.  As he set the traps, Shard noticed another nesting site.  After some brief discussion, they agreed that eliminating all of the rats was crucial, and so Shard and Helena headed around the bend to set the grenade traps and exterminate every trace of rat-kind from the caves.  A series of sharp cracks and pops, a flash of green-and-orange flames, and Orsik's helpful flame seed all combined to obliterate the sleeping rats before they could strike back.  Shard buried his silver dagger in the eye of a particularly hardy rat that tried to flee the flames, and all was quiet.

They hurried back to meet Ilian and tell him the grave news.  Irina patched up Salek and Lichna, and Ilian considered the news for only a moment before he had made his decision: Shard would head to the Ocean Quarter to inform Katya's team that they should be extremely cautious about rooting out any more nesting sites.  The evidence that this site had been at least partially a trap was alarming, and the fact that Grigory's rats were trying to infiltrate his organization and learn of his location was particularly troubling.    Shard headed to the dorms to swap out his gear before departing, making sure to take a fistful of silver coins for his sling; the rest of the team paused briefly around the cook-pot to grab a warm meal.  They ate silently and quickly, then trudged to their beds, hearts heavy with the betrayal and death they'd seen.

Next Week: Shard warns Katya's team and meets our intrepid heroes on the way.

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