The sun was already quite high in the late morning hour, and clouds were nowhere to be seen as the party came through the Kron Hills. The air was warm and, as they reached the southern edge of the hills, the distant scents of civilization trickled between them. Could there be a city willing to house them for the day, to help them stock up on the food and drink they had lost back in the Iron Woods, they wondered? His eyes fixing on the surrounding sights with much keener vision, Thom casually rode atop his steed with journal and quill in hand, quickly sketching the wonders of the Kron Hills as he saw them. Down a beaten path through the hills, Thom’s attention turned ahead of the party. Nearly a mile down, his half-elven eyes began to make clear structures: ornate spires of brick, bronze, root, and crystal spiraled up towards the clear blue sky, surrounded by an equally impressive structure. A wall covered in the greenest ivy and similar bronze and root filigree contained the impressive spires. As Thom sketched, and remembered where at the foot of the Mountains they were, his wonder turned to worry.
“Friends, there’s a city up ahead,” Thom began, his voice low with concern.
“Oh?” Grum muttered.
“Yes, brother. And if I remember father’s tales as true as they were told, it looks like we’re heading towards the kingdom of Celene.”
“What troubles you then?” Moira asked.
“Celene is Elven land. Land all of us are forbidden to enter.”
Through the playful sound of Springtime finches chirping, Moira could faintly hear hooves riding against the earth. The party slowed their pace and altogether halted as the sound of the hooves grew more apparent to all. Moira watched in the distance as dust kicked up into the air, and through it, the glare of brilliant armor and iridescent silk banners shone through. As the horsemen rode closer, the party could more clearly make out the banners; upon the rich, iridescent silks, the banners bore the sigil of Celene’s capital: Enstad. Moira ordered the party to step down off the horses in a show of good faith, but warned them to be ready for anything and to have their story straight. She turned a special attention to the spellcaster, Lyssa:
“Lyssa, I beseech you. Steel yourself!”
Moira quickly turned back to see the oncoming party of elves as they neared their stop on the path. As the horsemen approached, the party were almost collectively in awe. Banners of beetle-like hues of green, blue, and gold billowed in the wind high above the elves. Together, the horsemen were a shimmering pack, outfitted in delicate-yet-durable bronzed platemail, featherweight chainmail, velvets, and the finest elven blades and bows crafted in the realm. Truly, they were a sight to behold, an ornate cut above anything most of the party had ever seen.
The leader of the pack — a typical elven male of delicate features and refined build — stepped down off his horse (his lightweight armor barely making a rattle) and he approached Moira with hand across his hip, ready to draw his blade.
“What is your business here, scum?”
Stunned by his brash language, Moira replied, “Hold your word, sir. I am a Paladin and my companion, Vetnik, is a— "
“I don’t care who or what you are,” interrupted the elven guardsman. “On this road, you humans and halfblood trespassers!”
“I can assure you, sir, we are not!” Vetnik declared. “We are merely trying to get through—”
“You’re not allowed on these lands!” the guardsman barked as he quickly unsheathed his blade. “Do you know what we do with invaders, like you and your mouthy human sow?!”
A strong, sure voice called out from the back of the elven pack, “Stand down, Ser!” The huff of a steed and the sound of heavy feet landing on the earth below signaled the arrival of another figure. The blade-wielding guardsman’s sneer quickly morphed to obedience as the figure behind him called out again, the patience in his voice missing. “I said: stand down!” The guardsman immediately returned his blade back into his filigreed sheath and stood to attention. From behind him, a tall, broadly-built elf emerged. Less adorned in ornate armor, the cloak and quiver fixed to his back giving him more of a Raider’s appearance, he stood a foot above the boorish guardsman and his elven cohorts.
“My apologies, Captain Ash’a’na!” the guardsman replied, bowing his head and returning to his horse at the front of the pack.
The genteel captain stood before the party of humans and half-elves, bow in hand but relaxed. “I apologize for the hostility,” he began, his voice now a mix of soft sincerity and aged weariness. “I am Captain Cortellius Ash’a’na. I am old enough to recall better times, times where my city’s gates were open to all. Alas, those times have long since passed, and in these times I am duty-bound to bring you in.”
“Bring us in where?!” asked Thom.
“Before our court, where they shall decide what to do with you.”
Thom slowly approached the guard Captain, stepping around Moira and Vetnik. “Good sir, we beg of you. We do not wish to do harm, we were on our way to Orlane—”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I know of no such land. I’m sorry, lad, but you and your companions are trespassers.”
With that, Captain Ash’a’na motioned to his men to step down off their horses and bind the party and their supplies. While the elves rounded up the party’s horses, Thom was the first to lay down his arms as a show of good will.
“We do not wish to fight, my lord,” Thom said as he and his brother handed over what seemed to be blade after blade, much to the amazement of the Captain’s elven crew. Moira and Vetnik were next, followed by Trisoll. Lyssa was last to disarm, locking eyes with the elf that approached her as she slowly slipped the dagger holsters from her body. A second wave of elves baring finely woven ropes moved through the party. They followed through the crowd, binding one by one: first Moira, followed by Vetnik. Grum, however, was not so willing.
“If we come willingly, then there should be no need to bind us.”
“It is for your safety, young halfblood,” Captain Ash’a’na began to tell Grum. “We have enough men to cut you down should you decide to strike, though I would prefer that not play out today.”
Grum shrugged in compliance while Thom held out his own hands, wrists together in such a way to sneakily keep the knots from becoming too tight. Grum watched his brother’s slight of hand and fixed his hands outwards in a similar position, but much to his dismay, felt the constricting of the ropes bind him all the same. Trisoll submitted, but Lyssa kept her arms at her side. Her eyes continued to fix their gaze with the elven captors as they approached with ropes in hands.
“Bind the human and let’s be on our way,” ordered the Captain in his direct tone.
An elf quickly took Lyssa’s wrists and with a bit of tension, was able to bind her as well. Bound together, the party were now at the mercy of the Enstadian elves with their horses, weapons, and remaining supplies in the hands of captors. The Captain motioned for his men to return to their mounts and slowly the caravan of captors made their way towards the ancient gates of Enstad with the party marching along behind.
The elves led the bound party through the Naseloth, the northern gates of the city, its structure comprised of both stone and wooden masonry that felt almost out of place amongst the majesty of the city within. Almost crude by comparison. On both sides of the gate, elven gatekeepers stood to attention at the sight of Captain Ash’a’na and his returning men; while their eyes stayed focused on the incoming trespassers, their nimble hands were alert, ready to draw their longspears and longbows at a moment’s notice. Beyond the gate, the party were momentarily lost in the majesty of Enstad’s supernatural architecture. Even the hardened human mage Lyssa had a hard time hiding her fascination with the city’s splendor. Pillars of living wood, crystal, marble, and metal dazzled in the sunlight, while the buildings of the city seemed to have a fluid quality to them, as if they were currents made of ivory, wood, and brilliantly colored stained glass fixtures swirling through the city rather than standing isolated. At the city’s center, a grand hall of domes and spires shot towards the heavens. Its exterior sprawling with even more delicate and ancient elven sculpture and natural ornamentation forged from stone, crystal, vines, and even unmelting ice, with its archways and thresholds of marble carved to mimic the natural and flowing forms of the surrounding forest!
Their wonderment was short lived however, as the hypnotic beauty of the city was quickly shattered by boos and hisses from its occupants. Crowds of slender, delicate-looking elves (peppered with the occasional gnome) gathered at both sides of the party. As the party shuffled behind Ash’a’na and his men, the elves launched insults in their native tongue as well as produce at them! Most of the party kept their eyes forward and bared the contempt; Trisoll did his best to plead peace to them in his common tongue while Lyssa seethed, her jaw clenched and her scowl unyielding.
“What has bred such hatred in them?” Moira pondered.
“Fear.” Vetnik answered before being pelted with spoiled fruit.
“Yeah, you said it!” Trisoll supported, his tunic flaking with wilted greens.
The Captain led the party beyond the main entrance of the Royal Palace and to a separate common, a lock up for those awaiting trial at the royal court. The setting was a stark, cold contrast to all that had awed the party outside. The Captain’s men circled the party inside the cell, undoing their restraints quickly and silently before exiting the cell. Captain Ash’a’na’s guard watched with weapons ready as exited the cell. Before closing the old steel door, Vetnik spoke up.
“Captain, I hope when this is all over you will have some regret for how my companions and I were received on this day.”
“I regret my actions now, cavalier,” Captain Ash’a’na sighed, “but this is my duty.”
The Captain slowly closed the steel door to the cell behind him and left the party in isolated silence (only the muffled sound of footsteps trailing away from them could be heard.) Sunlight beamed through the sole window, covered by an ornate metal security grate. In the patterns of light, little was revealed to the party beyond what was already known: they were alone in a barren cell awaiting their fate.
Hours passed and the sunlight began to dull in the cell. The group stewed in silence, unsure of what to do next. Lyssa kept to herself, while Thom and Grum huddled together (Thom rapping against the cold stone floor, doing his best to keep a rhythm); Moira and Vetnik stood alert while Trisoll surveyed the faces of those in his party, ready to ease the burden of capture at a notice. At the third hour, the silence of their capture was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. Keys rattled and the steel door swung open to reveal a Captain Ash’a’na and his cadre of elven guardsmen.
“Come,” he motioned to the party. “Follow us, her majesty commands an audience.”
Moira and Vetnik lead their companions out of the cell, hands at their sides (the guards flanking both sides of the door brandishing their weapons.) In pairs, the party marched surrounded by the royal guard through the opulent halls of the palace and into the Grand Court. Elven gentry surrounded the perimeter of the grand hall, keeping their distance in alcoves lit with a kaleidoscope of brilliantly colored stained glass fixtures. Amber light poured in through the large windows above the alcoves as the party made their way to the center of the court, it’s cool alabaster floor almost glowing under the sunlight. Censers and flowers filled the room with a deceptively calming blend of fragrances. The sound of horns filled the silent space, followed by an announcement. “Presenting Her Fey Majesty, Yolande, Queen of Celene, Lady Rhalta of All Elvenkind, and her royal Advocate, Lord Tyvollus Stilmust.”
Captain Ash’a’na moved forward and kneeled before bringing forth his captors before the most grand of audiences. Atop a raised center stage sat her Majesty on a grand throne of ornate bronze upholstered by fine, plush silks and velvets; strong, ancient roots covered in jasmine flowers of every variety, twisting together to meet the large bronze sigil of Enstad surrounded the stage. At her Majesty’s side, Tyvollus stood, a sinewy elven man in flowing black brocade. In his alabaster hand, a thin wooden staffed topped with a rough, violet crystal.
Tyvollus spoke, his voice cold and aloof, “You may rise, Captain. Tell us, who stands behind you… unbound?”
Captain Ash’a’na stood to attention and did as was ordered, “My Lord, my men and I found these trespassers outside the northern gates. They came with us of their own will and good faith, and have surrendered all weapons and possessions to us—”
“That is all, Captain,” Tyvollus interrupted, shooing the soldier away. “Bring them forth.”
Captain Ash’a’na stepped aside as was ordered of him and waved at his men to present his captives. The sinewy elven lord tapped his fingers against his staff and scanned the motley company in cold silence. The Queen herself kept her head down, her seemingly endless locks of silver hair falling beside her face down her bust.
“Cretins. Do you not know to bow before your betters? You stand before her Fey Majesty!” Tyvollus hissed. While most in the party did their immediate best to comply out of respect, Lyssa stood defiant, head cocked staring the nobleman down. The elven lord pursed his lips and as quickly as he could bat an eye, a guard stepped forth, butting her in the back of the leg with his longspear. As Lyssa fell to her knee, Trisoll quickly glanced at her, his eyes wide with concern (for both Lyssa and everyone else.) Much to the cleric’s surprise, Lyssa stayed on her knee in silence, her expression tense with rage, but obedient nonetheless.
“Now, humans and halfbloods, you may rise,” commanded Tyvollus after a few moments of silence, “rise and speak.”
The party rose mostly in unison, Lyssa staggering a bit as she did so. Thom moved slightly forward, hands in front of him as a sign of peace. “My Lord… your Majesty, we have come all this way from the Free City of Greyhawk on a quest. A mission of mercy, to aid the city of Orlane, a city in dire need of our help. We are not invaders nor trespassers, my company and I merely wish to pass so that we may continue on our way.”
The Queen was silent and barely responsive. The Grand Court was eerily quiet as well, everyone on the edge anticipating the regent’s response. Instead, of a verbal acknowledgement, the gem fixed atop Tyvollus’s staff begins to glow from within. Tyvollus looked into his gem, took a moment to interpret the flickering violet light within, and nodded to the Queen. “How does her Majesty know that you are not spies?” he asked, returning his attention to Thom and his companions.
“With all due respect to her Majesty, if we were spies we wouldn’t be terribly good ones to be caught so easily.” Thom quipped.
“Incompetence. It would not be the first time human or halfblood spies have been captured.” Tyvollus fired back.
“Your majesty, with all due regard," Moira began as she stepped forward, bypassing Thom and Tyvollus’s exchange, “I am Moira Steelshaper, Paladin of Cortox. As a Paladin, I am sworn to follow a code of good and law. In your wisdom, you must know, we are no invaders!”
“You dare to address her Majesty directly? Speak again, human, and incur her wrath further!” Tyvollus warned.
Vetnik was next, the sound of his heavy coal black armor echoing through the Grand Court as he stepped forward, helmet cradled under his arm. He bowed his head before addressing her: “My Lord… your Grace, I am Vetnik Talthraudii, Earl of Granrud. The Paladin and the Bard speak the truth. Your suspicion in us is misplaced. Your Majesty, these brothers, the half elves that have traveled with us, they are your own. They are your flesh and blood!”
A hushed awe blanketed the room. Tyvollus’s eyes widened at the notion while the gem of his staff shot from a benign violet flickering to burning with a fiery red glow. Queen Yolande’s head slowly began to tilt upwards. Her expression was tense as she did so. Her lips smashed together to form a rage-filled grimace. Her eyes twitched with frenzy at the accusation, the sweat of strain forming against her temple. “Heresy!” Tyvollus whispered between gritted teeth. He gripped his staff tightly and pointed it at Vetnik. “Cuff him! Cuff them all, at once! Take them to the dungeon hall!”
The clanging of iron cuffs echoed throughout the Grand Court as guardsmen swarmed around the party, swords and longspears drawn. The party looked to each other for some kind of clarity and to the gentry for compassion (of which they had none.) A lone guard bludgeoned Vetnik’s unarmored head with the butt of his longsword, sending the cavalier to his knees. In the commotion, Thom and Grum decided to pull their slight of hand tricks again, and while they appeared to be cuffed, they were secretly free of the bondage that befell the rest of the party. While the elven gentry riotously cheered the royal guard as they drug the captive party to the royal dungeons, Tyvollus and Yolande remained silent.
Through winding corridors and steps, the party were led into the dungeon halls beneath Yolande’s royal palace. With little regard for their pace or safety, the party were yanked into the cells: a long hallway black as pitch (fit only for those with keen, elven eyes.) Closer to the cells, the walls were decorated with the occasional lit torch, and in the faint flickering of torch light rod iron bars could be seen lining both sides, with individual cells separated by thick, stone walls. The funk of molding hay and captors’ waste made the already oppressive hall that much more rank. A pair of guards unlocked a single cell and the rest of them forced the shackled party inside, quickly sealing the cell door shut behind them. The guards marched back to the great steel door that sealed the hall shut, exiting without a word. Thom and Grum quickly unfastened their hands and worked their lock picking skills on the rest of the shackles, freeing the rest of their party. Together they stood in near darkness, wondering what was to become of them.
Vetnik massaged his cheek and rested by the rod iron entrance, still face still quite tender from the blow delivered in court. Lyssa wandered around the cell and finally settled against the front bars, her arms dangling out as if to reach for any passersby. Thom and Grum sat side by side, both keeping to themselves at first (unhappy the secret of their lineage had been spoiled before their Great Grandmother, who had seemingly doomed them to imprisonment.) Together, they argued the virtue of staying versus the risks of fleeing. The party waited, the sounds of other prisoners’ hacking and groaning keeping them company.
What felt like a couple hours passed before the party could hear the great door at the end of the dungeons begin to slowly open and close again. They focused their ears on what was coming: a soft pair of footsteps along with the sound of metal rolling against the cold stone floor. The party recognized a pattern repeating: footsteps, rolling, the sound of metal rustling and sliding against stone. (A purveyor of the day’s meals, perhaps?) As the pattern of sound neared their cell, the party gathered around the rod iron opening. In the dim of the torchlight, they could barely make the figure out at first. As it approached, the figure’s features materialized in the dull dungeon light. It was a custodian, pushing a cart with trays of food; she was young, an elven maiden of fair beauty, with flaxen hair tucked under a linen bonnet that revealed floppy, pointed ears. As the maiden parked up to the cell, she withdrew several trays of food (stale bread, mashed root vegetables, and gristle.) As she stepped towards the cell, Lyssa struggled to reach for the girl, grabbing at her ears but failing to make it. The maiden, while shaken, was no stranger to this kind of cheap apprehension, and quickly pushed the remaining trays under the bars before returning to the rest of the cells. Lyssa’s head sunk in defeat while Moira shook her own head in disapproval, taking the trays and dispersing them among the party.
“Calm yourself,” ordered Vetnik to Lyssa as he took the tray nearest to him. Lyssa rolled her eyes in silence and returned to hanging against the bars, ignoring her portion of the meal. Hoping to find something among the slop to fashion into a key or a weapon, Vetnik removed his gauntlet and began to poke around and pull apart his meal. Nothing but slop, he thought, holding the tray in his hands. As his fingers traced the perimeter of the crude metal tray, he could feel something on the bottom of it. Fixed to the back of the tray with honey, he found a folded up piece of paper. Carefully he pulled the paper off as not to rip it, and just as carefully unfolded it — tossing aside the metal tray. Upon the paper, a note was written:
“Strangers, I seek your help. My sister Azariah is held here for helping humans to escape the city to return to safety. In return I can help you escape as well. If you agree, leave a morsel of food on the tray and I will return to collect it."
Moira and Thom, finicking with their slop, both took notice of Vetnik has he struggled to read the note in the dim light, his eyesight very much human. Vetnik passed the note along to the pair as he took one last bite of his bread and placed a piece upon his tray, as instructed. Thom, being of better sight, read the note softly to Moira, who in turn passed the message along to her fellow companions. Vetnik pushed the tray out just as the custodian returned to make her final rounds. Vetnik and the maiden’s eyes met for a moment, and though it was too dark to tell if she acknowledged his stare, she hurriedly stuffed the tray into her cart and scurried back into the darkness, out of the dungeon halls. Vetnik sighed to himself and turned to the rest of the party. All were on edge, but far too tired to stay as alert as they would’ve liked. Grum, uncomfortable by the lack of action in his comrades, slid next to Vetnik and, using pieces of cartilage and bone found in his meal, began to twist and turn inside the lock. Finally, after a minute or two, the faint sound of old metal clicked. Grum backed away and slowly opened the gate.
“For being so much better than us, they sure are shoddy steel workers,” Thom joked at his brother.
The party was astonished by Grum’s inventiveness, even his own brother conceded to his twin’s skillful handiwork! The party could barely contain their volume as they discussed the pool of possible outcomes staying or going could have.
Moira asked, “Do we make the escape ourselves or chance our stay a little longer and help this girl?”
“If we leave, and are caught, we fail any way,” Thom reasoned. “If we stay and wait, perhaps the maiden who left us this note will bring further instruction on how she plans on getting us all out of here!”
“Then your brother has given us a chance to flee for nothing!” Vetnik grumbled. “Why not the both of you use your elven eyes to scout these halls, see if there’s another way out?”
“She means to free her sister, I’m sure she has a plan of some sort for us,” Thom replied.
Vetnik snapped, “I’m sure she does!”
“Whoa,” Trisoll interjected. “No need to be a stoggy bummer! We’re all in this together—”
Lyssa, unable to bite her tongue any longer, pushed away from the bars to quell their squabbling. “How about less bickering and more action, even if that action is sleep. And while I’m at it, Trisoll, stop trying to play peacemaker and start praying to Trithereon to help get us all out of here alive?”
The men stilled their tongues as Lyssa stomped off to find a place to rest; Trisoll conceded and made his way to a corner of the cell to meditate while the remainder of the party circled the cell, fashioning bedding from hay and extra bits of clothing. Thom and Grum agreed to keep watch while the others slept, with Vetnik promising to return the favor when he awoke.
The faint cawing of cocks from far outside the palace signaled the approach of dawn. Thom and Grum (who had already nodded off against his brother’s shoulder) sat in the center of the almost lightless room, as Vetnik woke with a large yawn, stretching out his armored limbs. Vetnik slowly rose to excuse the brothers of their duties. “Go now, your turn to rest,” he said, patting Grum on his shoulder (startling him awake in the process!) Suddenly, Vetnik could hear the main door opening again. He quickly darted back to the iron door and clung to the rods in anticipation (deciding whether or not to swing the door open or keep the door barred shut.) The familiar pattern of footsteps and metal wheels marked the return of the elven maiden from the night before. As she drove her cart closer to their cell, the party one by one began to wake. Moira adjusted her armor and rose to attention while Trisoll, still in Lotus Pose as he had been during his meditation, woke himself up by the sound of his own snore. The maiden returned and quickly slid several bowls of morning potage through the bars, though she was careful when giving Vetnik his bowl by hand. She nodded and resumed her custodial duties. The party all had similar reactions of disdain as they smelled and sipped on the questionable potage served to them: a thin, stinking brew of boiled spoiled corn, carrots, and cabbage. Vetnik kept a watchful eye on the hall, making sure the maiden exited the hall before inspecting the bowl for further communication. As the great door creaked open, Vetnik tossed the broth aside and found another piece of paper fixed to the bottom of the bowl just as the other note had been. He carefully peeled it and handed it off to Thom to read.
“I will return to you after dark, alone.”
The long hours passed, the wait feeling almost unbearable in the dank squalor of the dungeons. Trisoll continued to meditate, though his willpower was only so much. Lyssa made attempt after attempt to sharpen her dull wooden spoon into a shiv against the stone floor, but the floor itself was too caked in ages of dirt and grime to provide traction. Moira stayed close to Vetnik, and continued to pray to Cortox for their safe exile out of the dreaded city of elves. While Thom and Grum traded rhythms against the ground and iron bars, Vetnik waited with an eerie patience, waited for the maiden’s return. The distant sounds of life beyond the dungeons had calmed to near silence, marking the day’s end. Still, they waited, the cell door unlocked, praying their faith would see a return. Alas, it seemed as though they had been had as the silence outside seemed to sprawl from minutes to hours.
Suddenly, a series of muffled thuds against the great door could be heard at the end of the hall. The party collectively shot to their feet while a new sound could be heard coming down the hall. Footsteps raced towards their cell. Other prisoners shuffled to the front of their cells, moaning and groaning for release (or even just hoping to get a glimpse of the excitement.) Finally she had returned; the maiden stood, less a custodian and ready for battle in an outfit more befitting an adventurer. Across her torso she carried a leather satchel, with scrolls peering out from beneath the hefty flap. Her crystalline eyes glistened in the torchlight, meeting Vetnik’s own. Before she was able to reach for the cell door, Vetnik slowly opened it.
“The door, but how?” the maiden asked Vetnik in astonishment.
“We knew you’d come!” Thom replied, stepping out from behind the cavalier (while Grum shrugged with a hint of pride at his technique.)
“I see I chose wisely. Come, quickly!” the maiden hastened, taking down a torch from its sconce as she lead the party deeper down the hall, where torches no longer burned for the prisoners who dwelled deeper inside. The party kept pace behind the maiden, avoiding the gnarled hands of malnourished prisoners as they grabbed at them for hope. Finally, the maiden stopped and placed her torch into an empty sconce. She fumbled through her satchel of scrolls in search of keys.
“A name, milady?” Vetnik whispered to her as she pulled the keys from her satchel.
“Talindra.” she responded, distracted as she struggled to find the right key.
Lyssa, fearing the delay might get them found out, broke off from the party and moved back down the hall. In the darkness, she began to intone a spell to hold the main entrance door shut while Talindra hastily tried key after key upon the mystery cell. As Lyssa finished her incantation, Talindra finally happened upon the right key. She quickly threw the cell door open, grabbed the burning torch, and together the party slipped into the quiet cell. From out of the darkness, a soft, toneless voice spoke up.
“Are these the ones you spoke of? The ones I’ve heard whispering?” it asked from the shadows. Talindra moved closer, torch in hand, to reveal a ravaged elven woman. Her once-long tresses now shredded to an androgynous length; her delicate elven features encrusted with the muck of the dungeon. Vetnik stepped forward, extending his hand to help, but the mysterious elven women rose to her feet of her own will.
“Yes, sister!” Talindra whispered.
“I am Azariah Obrilyn,” the elven woman said, gently bowing her head before the party, “thank you for coming to aid us in our time of need.”
“No, thank you. For the mercy you’ve bestowed upon the innocents in this mad city, who I’m sure have suffered tremendously!” Moira encouraged.
“Then you understand what we’re dealing with," confirmed Azariah. She then turned to Talindra, “Sister, we need weapons.”
“The scroll of Sleep I burned on the guards will only hold for so long," Talindra replied, rifling through her bag once more. “A-ha! Come, sister… friends, I’ve hidden uniforms in a nearby cell. Come quickly!”
With a bundle of scrolls and dungeon keys in hand, Talindra rushed the party back out of her sister’s cell and into another cell, empty of bodies and only filled with spoiled hay. Talindra set down the scrolls and keys and she dug with her hands through the hay, kicking up dust and dirt. After a few moments, she tossed back out of the shadows a moth-bitten elven guard’s uniform. Then another. More followed, enough for all except herself.
“What are we to do with these?” Moira asked, picking up the uniforms and inspecting their slim fit.
“You’re going to wear them…” Talindra began, distracted as she unfurled the first of many scrolls. Moira and the rest of the party’s brows rose and furrowed, confused as to how they’d accomplish such a task. Talindra unrolled the first scroll from her bundle and as she recited the elven text, the paper itself began to break away and float through the air like flakes of ash caught in an updraft. The pieces of paper rapidly spiraled around Moira, fixing themselves against her body, creating not only a shell, but a new body. She began to polymorph right before the party’s very eyes! Her features bent and shifted with every word, changing and becoming more angular. Her ears began to extend out from under her golden hair while the pristine silver of her armor was covered in mystical pieces of paper that seemed to not only change her entire wardrobe, but also slimmed down her frame. As the last of the scroll drifted from Talindra’s fingertips, the last lingering pieces of scroll danced around Moira’s ears and finished them to a point. With that, her transformation into a full-blooded elf was complete. “Put the rest of the armor on, quickly! Who’s next?” Lacking any other visible options, the party stepped up and one by one and Talindra intoned the rest of the series of scrolls, transforming the human and halfblood members of the party into full-fledged elves!
“Am I more attractive now?” Vetnik joked, sliding the elven armor over his magically slimmed frame.
“The ears don’t suit you.” Thom jokingly critiqued.
Talindra saved her sister for last, who though already of high elf descent, was a known criminal. The next scroll she read was a different kind of polymorphing spell, one that rapidly shrunk her breasts and broadened her features. Talindra now, by all accounts, had a new brother! Azariah wasted no time in marveling at her newly acquired male form and instead quickly sheathed herself in the last uniform.
“Come, the exit’s this way!” Talindra said, digging through another pile of hay. The party huddled around her, wary of how much longer they might have before being found out. After a few moments, Talindra had cleared the way of a long, forgotten tunnel (once used by Azariah to help emancipate prisoners like herself!) Talindra ushered the party through as fast as she could, led by Azariah, who was already quite familiar with the passage. After minutes of squirming on their bellies, Azariah squeezed her way out. She was first to make her exit back onto the city streets, and with a watchful eye, guided the rest of the party out one by one until the last person (Talindra) cleared the tunnel: an old drainage fixture now concealed by thriving shrubs and ivy.
“The only way out of the city for you now is through the Sixth Gate.” informed Talindra. “The Gate to the Underworld.”
Panicked, the company huddled together as they moved away from the passage. “Wait, what kind of underworld?!” Trisoll anxiously asked.
“There is a gate that leads to a system of tunnels under the city that will take you to the foot of the mountains," Talindra began, “there is peril underneath the city. The quicker you escort my sister out safely, the quicker we can hopefully begin to start change. Come!”
Outfitted in new elven bodies, Talindra quickly escorted the party through the now quiet (but still dazzling) city, making sure they kept to the shadows as much as they could. Before long, Talindra brought them to a halt, just outside the officers’ barracks.
“Sister, how did you find the gate?” Azariah asked. “It’s been hidden for ages! Not even I—”
“I did many things that I am not proud of while you were locked away, sister,” admitted Talindra, “all that matters now is getting you out safely through the gate, which is hidden deep within the barracks. Stay here and stay quiet, I’ll go scout ahead and return as soon…”
As Talindra sneaked away to investigate the barracks, a lone elven commander on his way back to his post made sight of the party.
“Hark!” he greeted them. Whether by instinct or by training, the party stood to attention as to not uncover any suspicions. The members of the party pantomimed Azariah’s strict elven salute, which seemed to appease the commander. That is, until he caught wind of one less than enthused member of the party (Lyssa, her posture and greeting insufficient for a soldier of her apparent rank.) Slowly, he walked down the line and approached her.
“I see we have a slouch in our company. Stand to attention, girl!” the commander ordered. Lyssa did so, in her ill-mannered way, rolling her eyes as she aped the posture of her party. “I said, stand to attention!” the commander yelled, visibly annoying the young mage in disguise. “Drop, and give me 50!” the commander yelled once more. Lyssa looked to her companions for some semblance of guidance. Not a moment too soon, Azariah quickly intervened and pushed the ignorant mage to the ground with all of her might.
“You heard him, 50 pushups!” She turned her attention to the commander, “My apologies, knight commander. If it pleases you, Sir, I will see to it personally that she is reprimanded for her insubordination, and she’ll return just as disciplined as the rest of my company!”_
The commander, satisfied with Azariah’s intervention, scoffed one last time at Lyssa’s impudence, and nods to the gender swapped elf. “At ease then, and see to it she isn’t on my streets in this shape again!”
As the knight commander sauntered off towards the barracks, he passed Talindra who greeted her with a gentleman’s salute. Making sure the coast was clear of any more soldiers, Talindra returned to the party as Lyssa rose to her feet. “I can’t wait to burn this city to the ground,” she seethed under her breathe as she stood, dusting herself off.
“That knight commander is on his way to relieve the current officers of their watch. After that, we only have a short amount of time before the shift changes. Stay close behind me, but once inside, look away until I send for you. There is one last guard for me to handle.”
Before Talindra could leave the party again, Vetnik gently took the elven maiden by the bicep. “Here, take this with you,” he said, handing her a small pouch bound by a leather cord. “The finest dust in all of Granrud, crafted by my own father.”
Talindra paused for a moment, both confused and strangely grateful. “Thank you,” she responded as she undid the leather cord. The party waited, gathered together just outside the entrance to the barracks as the first wave of soldiers emptied out. Talindra slipped inside as they marched out and headed down the hall towards the stables. There, the lone stable guard kept watch for the rest of the evening. Seeing her slink forward, he relaxed his stance.
“Hullo, girlie.” the watchman greeted in his now sleazy tone. “We have about 15 minutes until the next watch comes through, let’s make this quick, what d’ya say, girlie?”
Behind her back, Talindra emptied the contents of the pouch into the palm of her hand as she approached. “I won’t need that long!” Quickly, she brought her palm to her mouth, closed her eyes, and unleashed a mighty blow which sent sparkling slate-colored dust billowing around the watchman. The dust swirled around his, filling his nose and mouth, his eyelids batting with irritation. Before he could step forward, his eyes rolled back into his head and his body sunk to the ground like a sack of sand. Talindra stared at her conquest, wiping the rest of the dust against the watchman’s face before returning to the entrance of the barracks. “Come! We must hurry!”
Vetnik sighed, quietly thanking his father for blessing what in reality was a risky move to make against any elf. Talindra led the party to the office of the stable watch, wherein they dragged his body and hid it inside an empty stable. “Your horses and supplies are in here, Azariah and I will fetch them for you,” she promised. “At the other end of the barracks is a great stone wall. Take off your armor there and we will meet you with your mounts. Hurry!”
With a prowess for direction sensing, Grum took the lead and charged through the hallways, navigating them with an ease and agility that seemed almost clairvoyant. After a minute or so of running, Grum and the company were halted at a dead end: a wide stone wall, undecorated and with no exit in sight. The party looked around, and quickly turned back towards the hall they had just arrived from. The slow clutter of hooves could be heard against the ground around the bend. The party backed against the wall, weaponless but ready to defend themselves if necessary. Closer and closer came the clopping of several sets of hooves, followed by the sound of ill-greased wheels squeaking and spinning. Turning the corner, Grum spotted the pair of elven sisters leading a procession of horses and a cart. The company collectively sighed a sigh of relief, if only for a moment before realizing that they themselves were altogether trapped in the barracks. Azariah and Talindra brought the horses to a standstill.
“Quickly, take off your armor!” Talindra whispered with great urgency as she drew another scroll from her satchel. The members of the party did as was told of them, removing and tossing aside the used elven armor and retrieved their weapons from blanketed bundles resting in the back of their last remaining cart. Talindra pulled one of her last remaining scrolls out of her satchel, unfurled it, and began to read aloud the arcane text. Upon reciting the scroll’s final word, the parchment evaporated into a burst of unseen force. As the radius of the force quickly spread through the room, the first effect to take shape was the immediate return of the party’s true forms. As the party marveled at the return of their original bodies, their wonder soon intensified as they turned around to see that the wall that was once a dead end had now vanished. The scroll had dispelled the magic of not only their polymorphed forms, but did away with the illusionary door that blocked the Sixth Gate from view.
The party hastily began their exit by taking back their arms and hopping atop their once-confiscated steeds. Grum once again took it upon himself to lead, and manned the front of the party through the gate. One by one they filed out of the barracks, leaving the carted horse for Azariah and Talindra.
“Take care of yourself, sister,” Talindra said, as the party began to depart. “Be safe, ride swiftly, and gather allies.”
“Wait, you aren’t coming with me?!” Azariah asked, shocked and saddened.
“My place is here. This city is not as it should be, but if I keep trying to help as you did, maybe I can begin to set the city on the right path for your return.”
“I will return! Soon,” Azariah promised as Talindra quickly helped her elder sister onto her horse, “I swear it.”
“I know you will. Now go!”
Moira and Vetnik turned around to see the last of their party at a stop. So too did Thom, who whistled to the elven women to pick up their pace. Azariah squeezed her sisters hand tenderly and faced the depths of the gate. She snapped the straps of her bitless bridle and, with one final look back, left her sister Talindra behind in the barracks. Azariah and the rest of the party began their journey into the depths of the elven underworld.
Only a few yards in, after clearing the last bit of light from the barracks, Talindra’s voice shouted down to them from the entrance of the gate: “RUNNNN!!!”
Azariah jerked at her bridle and brought her horse to a sudden halt. She leapt down off the saddle and began to run back to the gate’s entrance. “TALINDRA!!!” she cried out as she ran. Those ahead of her brought their horses to full stops; Moira and Vetnik were the first to dismount and they followed as fast as they could after the panicked elf. “TALINDRA, WAIIITTT!!!!” Azariah howled, running towards the entrance. For a brief moment, Azariah could see the silhouette of her sister, reading off another scroll, while forces of elven officers rushed behind her with weapons in hand. Suddenly before Azariah could return to the barracks, the scroll in Talindra’s hand began to unravel into threads that filled the tunnel in a cluster of massive webs. Light faded as the webs filled the entrance, the last bit of torchlight flickering off of Azariah’s tear-soaked cheeks. “TALINDRA, I’M COMING! TALINNDRRAAA!!!!” Azariah called out as she wildly and hopelessly thrashed at the webs. She could hear the sounds of rattling armor and weapons under her defenseless sister’s screams. Moira and Vetnik soon emerged behind her, pulling her back to her horse. Azariah struggled to keep her hold on the web but the combined strength of the Paladin and the Cavalier were too much. Azariah pleaded as the pair drug her away, “We can’t just leave her! There is NO honor in running! STOP!!!”
“We can’t fight an entire army!” Moira reasoned.
Thom turned around, while casting a strength spell over his brother, “We won’t force you to come with us, but we cannot stay!”
“Then swear you will avenge the life of the woman who saved yours! Swear it by whichever gods you hold dear!”
“Tritheron strike me down, I swear it,” promised Trisoll.
Moira followed, “In Cortox’s name, I swear to you!”
“Do you know what a cavalier is my lady? I pledge it on my life!” Vetnik vowed. “Come, those webs won’t hold their numbers for long!”
Azariah wiped the tears from her dirty cheek and Vetnik quickly lifted her back onto her mount. As he did so, the hacking sounds of bladed weapons could be heard from behind the webs. Moira and Vetnik rushed back to their horses and Grum, imbued with both his natural sense of direction as well as his enhanced elven eyesight, quickly dug his spurs into the belly of his steed and led his teammates through the thick blackness of the tunnels.
The party raced through the dark tunnels as fast as they could, the hooves of their horses echoing through the dark chambers as they raced against the earth. While most of the horses kept their pace with Grum’s, Lyssa’s mount struggled, the darkness of the tunnels spooking it. Lyssa jammed her boot heels into the horses belly, attempting to stress the urgency of their ride to the beast, but to no avail. Moira, seeing her companion lagging behind, slowed her mount and chose to ride at the mage’s side. Behind them, the faint warcry of the elven army sounded at the tunnel’s entrance. Vetnik (being the most experienced rider of the bunch) brought himself to a halt and waited for Lyssa and Moira. While Moira rode on, Vetnik used his way with horses and soothed the terrified beast. As the gap between themselves and the elven army began to shrink, Vetnik waved Lyssa and Azariah ahead. He rushed back to his own stallion and climbed back onto his saddle with a quickness, and together the party rode as a whole deeper into the tunnels until the sounds of angered elves could be heard no more.
Deeper into the tunnels, Grum slowed the party to an even pace. The chamber was humid and the darkness showed no signs of ending. The occasional sound of water trickling against ageless rocks echoed around them. The humans of the party stayed close to one another, riding between the elf and halfbloods, who did their best to guide the party through the ancient veins of the underworld. While he rode, Vetnik could feel a warmth emanating from above, like small fans of warm air hung above him. He lifted his heat, straining to see its source, and even in the pitch black of the tunnel he could make out that the tunnel’s ceiling was… fluttering. Without warning, a loud crash came from behind the party: the equipment still carried by the cart begin to bang into each other as it passed over rockier terrain. Before the party could adjust their equipment, the collective screeching of large bats rung through the tunnels. The bats swarmed violently around the party, their horses neighing and kicking up onto their hind legs. Realizing their newest companion almost defenseless against the swarm, Moira jerked her horse around and rode to shield the elf; while Grum looked back at the elf, called out to her (“Catch!”) and tossed his handaxe to her. After catching it, Grum put his gloved fingers to his mouth and let out a high-pitched whistle! His whistling seemed to calm the aggravated colony, and in a matter of moments the bats flew down the tunnels in search of more quiet place to rest.
Some time later as the party continued to ride in apparent peace, Grum led them down another cavern, the dim reflection of trickling water bounced off of what appeared to be a ceiling now covered in stalactites of varying lengths. While most of the party carried on through the cavern undisturbed, Lyssa felt what seemed to be water trickle onto her chest. As she began to lift her head, the crumbling of rock sounded above. Not a second later, one of the stalactites fell from the ceiling and before she could move, the rock speared her in her unarmored chest. Lyssa winced in pain and held tight to the stalactite tightly with both hands as she steadied herself on her horse. As she attempted to pull it out, she felt something wiggle beneath her palm: an eye ball! Lyssa screamed in shock and all of a sudden, more and more stalactites began to descend from the ceiling onto the party. Once more, their horses galloped in panic as the craggy vermin fell to the ground around them. Thom, Grum, and Moira jumped off their horses and drew their blades and noticed that, as the stalactites hit the ground, they seemed to move on their own. Slowly, they began to squirm against the cavern floor towards the walls. Their fascination only outweighed by their desire to return above ground, the twins hacked away at the mysterious creatures, their blades cracking through their rock-like shells into gooey, soft insides. As the twins dispatched the critters, Lyssa managed to pull out and tossed it at the approaching Paladin’s feet. Moira held the piercer beneath her boot and jammed her longsword into it’s rocky shell, killing off the last of the beasts. Lyssa clutched her chest as blood seeped onto the off-white linen of her skirt and into the mane of her mount. Moira quickly approached Lyssa, reached up to her, and placed her hands over the wound. Moira shut her eyes and muttered a Cortoxian prayer, and Lyssa felt under the warmth of the paladin’s hand, her skin begin to tighten and pain begin to dissipate. Moira removed her hand and Lyssa inspected her chest with her fingers to find her chest sealed whole. Before Moira returned to her horse, scolded Lyssa once more: “You know, next time we’re faced with peril, do be so kind as to step to attention!” Lyssa sneered in the darkness and adjusted herself, and together the party resumed their ride.
The group continued on in relative peace for quite some time. As time passed, their pace collectively began to lessen. At first, the party assumed it to be from sheer exhaustion, their mounts having experienced far too much excitement for one ride. However, they began to notice the horses’ trot slow to a slumping gait, as if walking through molasses. Vetnik clicked into his stallion’s here, and while the horse seemed responsive, his movement still seemed hindered. Vetnik pressed his heels into the horse, snapped his bridle, and shifted his weight forward. The horse responded in turn by pulling itself together and charging down the tunnel. While he rode he could hear the rumbling of the earth above him, the sound of something scraping quickly against the cave walls. Charging through the darkness, he drew his longsword for any more bats or would-be piercers that might attempt an ambush. Instead, Vetnik was greeted by something far more imposing: a giant spider! Blade already in hand and his heart racing, Vetnik continued to bolt forward and with a hearty swing of his sword, he sliced through the spider’s neck. Its legs thrashed around and kicked at the walls of the cavern as Vetnik pulled his sword back and backed his horse away. The rest of the party gathered behind him and, as they drew their own weapons, the cavern began to filled with three other spiders of equally horrifying size. Trisoll reached into a pouch of his, pinching off a bit of powdered silver, and with a grand wave of his hand, scattered the powder around his allies while intoning the rites to a protection from evil ward. Peering through the darkness, Grum took his throwing axe and reached as far back as he could to launch it. As he flung it from his hand, the spiders proved too swift and scuttled out of the way. One spider crawled up the side of the caverb, crept above Azariah, and swung at her with its mighty front claws. Thom drew his Wakazashi blade, slicing in the darkness, but the spiders proved too swift. Meanwhile, Lyssa stayed further away and held her hands close together, concentrating the chaotic energy between them until suddenly, a burst of flame emerged in the shape of an orb. As her hands parted, the orb’s surface spread and she soon launched into through the cavern, the light of the flame illuminating parts of the spiders as it rolled around them. Drawing his longsword, Grum engaged a spider in combat and the pair viciously swung at each other in the darkness. Azariah continued to fend off an attacking spider, while Thom struggled to land his blade into it. Lyssa focused on maintaining the direction and intensity of the flaming sphere until she could hold it no longer; she balled her fists up and summoned the flaming sphere back towards her. As the orb rolled back up to her, it passed through the back end of one of the giant spiders, engulfing it in magical fire. Amidst the chaos in the cavern, Moira failed to notice a third spider creep behind her. As she whipped her head around, she saw the massive, grotesque head of the spider rise. She could barely see herself reflected in the spider’s glassy eyes (the flaming body of its brethren barely keeping the cavern aglow) as she swung with her mighty longsword. Moira missed though, and in return the spider drew its fangs and sink them deep into her shoulder, piercing through her armor. Trisoll turned around as he heard the paladin cry out and fall from her horse. The clergyman raised his staff to bash the spider in the head but his aim was hindered by the darkness. Vetnik steered his horse around to Moira and Trisoll’s aid and before the spider could drive its venomous fangs into Trisoll, Vetnik rushed beside it and drove his sword straight through the top of the spider’s head, pinning it in place. While the spider struggled in vain to free itself, Thom fell the final spider with a fatal swing of his Wakazashi blade.
The party took a few moments to catch their breath and gathered their composure. Trisoll immediately ran to Moira, who staggered as she rose to her feet. “Shh, easy now,” Trisoll consoled as she collapsed into his arms. With one arm placed around her shoulders and the other reaching around her head, he buried his cheek against hers and whispered in her ear a blessing of Trithereon. As they embraced, a faint glow enveloped them and Moira’s posture began to return to normal; his hug was a healing hug, one that purged the venom that polluted her body. Trisoll backed away, patting her on the shoulder to ensure her return to better health. As the party gathered their bearings, Grum noticed that the cavern they occupied split off into several new paths. The halfblood took a deep breath and, began to concentrate, focusing on his tracker’s instinct. He closed his eyes and focused on his senses, concentrating on which path had the most attractive smell, which path he could hear or feel a bit of breeze flowing inward. After taking the time to gather his assessment, Grum turned his horse and began to lead the party down the chosen path. Towards the back, Thom rode alongside the distraught Azariah, who held tight to Grum’s hand axe as she drove the party’s cart. To soothe her, Thom untied a small drum that dangled from the side of his saddle and began to rhythmically tap against its skin, while chanting an impromptu verse based on their journey so far. He continues to entertain them for another half hour until Grum called out, “Light!” In the distance, Grum could make out a pinhole of light. His heightened senses gave way to the scent of forest air flourishing just beyond the end of the tunnel. “Come on!” he urged his companions, and together they kicked up their pace and soon found themselves back above ground.
Dawn was on the rise as the party exited the elven underworld. Once more, they were greeted by the sound of early morning birds chirping in the forest surrounding. High above them, the Lortmill Mountains stood in plain sight. Exhausted from the night’s getaway, Lyssa suddenly stopped. “We should set up camp before going further.”
“Why? Just because we left the first wave of elves in the dust doesn’t mean they aren’t still after us!” Thom countered.
_"It would take any army days to accomplish above ground what we accomplished in an evening underground. I’m tired… we’re all tired. We need to rest." Lyssa turned and glared at Azariah, her grip still tight on Grum’s axe. “What say you, elf?”
“While what we faced in those tunnels was horrible, what waits for us in the mountains could be just as dreadful. Even moreso. We should wait… wait until we’ve had some time to rest.” Azariah responded.
Grum interjected, “Why don’t we compromise? We’ll take the horses and set up camp at the base of the mountain and continue on once we’ve all had a bit of rest.”
“Fine.” Lyssa conceded, too exhausted to argue.
The amber of dawn bled into the dull blue of morning and the party continued lightly on the beaten path at the foot of the mountains. In the distance, out of plain sight, the shadow of a figure moved through the adjacent forest. As the party rode closer, the figure crept behind the safety of lone tree and stayed there, peeking out from behind it. The slender figure stepped out from behind the tree as the party closed in. “Morning!” Grum and the others jerked their horses and stopped as the figure revealed itself to be an elf. “Yer on the run from the elves too then, yea?”
Vetnik, confused and wary, spoke on behalf of his party, “Yes, and you are?”
The elf stepped onto the road and towards the party, and as he approached his height began to shrink while sparkling orbs of light swirled around him, blanketing him in a strange argent glow. When the lights drifted away, they revealed not a tall, lean elf but a stout, mohawked dwarf.
“Orvak Dwinig” he replied, extending his hand up to Vetnik’s and greeting him with a hearty dwarven handshake. “How’d you run afoul the pointy-eared arses?”
“Running our mouths.” Thom jested.
“Ahh, a coupla halfbloods. They’re none too fond of your kind either, eh?” Orvak said, taking his bota bag from his side and popping off the cork with his teeth. “Where are ya headin’?”
“We’re going to the Lortmill Mountains” Grum answered.
“Yeah,” Orvak replied, finishing a gulp of wine, “and judging by the direction you’re all comin’ from, you need this a bit more than I do!” Orvak wiped the spigot and handed his canteen to Grum. Grum shrugged and sipped, then passed it back through the party beginning with his brother. Thom sniffed, took a sip, and recoiled at its potency; Lyssa stayed dry, as did Azariah, the latter of whom replied, “I prefer to stay alert on this expedition.”
“Yer a true elf! What’re ya doin’ with this lot?” Orvak noted with a hint of suspicion in his voice.
“I’m an ally, I too am hunted by my own people. My sister and I, we helped people like you escape Enstad. My sister gave her life so that I could continue to help your kind.”
“Fair enough, lass! I believe I’ll have an extra taste for yer sister later, then.”
Vetnik took his swig, and then another. “Tastes like the stuff back home!”
Trisoll was last to drink; he took a drink and coughed as he swallowed. “That’s dwarven alright!”
Orvak took canteen back and fixed it to his belt. _"Come, ya must be tired. There’s a trail through the rocks just down the path. I’ll take ya!"
The party complied with Orvak, who remained on foot, and together they continued down the path through the forest.
“If ya run into any more of those fuckin’ elves, tell ‘em Orvak says he wishes beards on the whole lot of ’em!” Orvak blustered as he took another deep chug of wine. “Gods help them if I ever get my mitts on a Wish spell!”
The dwarf began to lead the party off of the beaten trail towards a gathering rocks leading up to the mountain. He motioned to the party to follow him through a break in the scree. Unable to fit themselves as well as their horses through, the party agreed to leave their horses and cart hitched, taking their supplies on foot while they journeyed forth for the day.
“Orvak, are you sure there are any caves here for us to rest down this path?” Vetnik asked. Though Orvak was visibly intoxicated while leading them up through the jagged path, he still somehow managed to come upon a cave, whose entrance was slim but wide. “Therrre ya are,” Orvak slurred as he took refuge against a pile of rocks, the wine now taking full effect over him.
With little other options around and both sleepiness and wine taking their hold, the party stopped and began to set up a small camp. Grum took it upon himself to take a peer inside the cave first. “I smell decay!” he cried out.
Hearing this, Lyssa quickly stomped up to the now-sleeping dwarf. “Wake up!” she barked impatiently. Orvak’s only response was a barely coherent mumbling; Lyssa knelt down and rapidly tapped him against the cheek. “Wake up! What do you about this cave?”
Drunkenly, he mumbled in reply, “Iunno…there’s a lot of mountains…”
Fearing for the safety of his companions, Thom began to intone a spell to summon an unseen servant. He concentrated and could suddenly feel the presence of another hovering around him. “Go, fetch whatever is decaying in there,” Thom ordered. He waited at the mouth of the cave alongside his brother. Louder and louder, the sound of something scraping against the earth approached the cave’s exit. Thom and his brother stood back, their blades at the ready; suddenly, the source of the sound revealed itself. Slowly, armor-clad skeletal remains emerged, as if being lifted by its shoulders.
“Do you wanna go back in?” Thom turned to his brother and asked
“Ugh, fine.” Grum sighed.
Thom put his hand upon his brother’s shoulder, closed his eyes and began to chant. The party watched as Grum’s body faded into nothingness, becoming completely invisible. Together they all watched as his unseen boots kicked up dirt while he crawled his way back down into the cave. Inside, Grum scoured the cave floor for anything of alarm. Inside, he found only two things of notice: a pile of corpses in various staged of decay and on the opposite side, a cluster of what appeared to be spiny seed pods reaching out from vines and thistle-like leaves. Alarmed by the unknown plantlife, Grum slowly backed out of the cave and returned to the gathering outside.
“Find anything?” Thom asked, returning his brother to visibility.
“Dead bodies, lots of them.” Grum informed. His tone turned more concerned with his next observation, “There was also something else, some kind of plant. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“Lyssa,” Thom began, turning his attention to the spellcaster, “you seem to be able create fire itself. Perhaps you can send another one of those flaming spheres inside to burn it away? Y’know, like the magic you used on the spiders back in the tunnel?”
Lyssa stood and crossed the camp to the mouth of the cave alongside the twins. “That will take too long for me to learn again. Maybe I can just go inside and set fire to whatever this plant is.”
“Are you sure about that?” Thom asked with concern.
“Your brother didn’t see anything else inside, did he?” Lyssa replied impatiently, turning to Grum for a quick answer.
Grum shrugged his shoulders, “No, but—”
Lyssa squatted down and ducked her down headed into the cave. “Light!” she demanded, from anyone with access to it.
Trisoll rushed to cave mouth with his staff in hand and placed the head of it inside. He furrowed his brow and whispered “In Trithereon’s name,” and suddenly, the tip of staff glowed a brilliant golden light.
As Lyssa slowly began to journey deeper in, light faded. Swatting away the buzzing carrion flies, she called out to Trisoll, “Come down here!”
“I don’t think that’s wise!” he shouted back, straining to balance his staff deeper into the cave while still remaining outside of it.
“The sooner you come down, the sooner I can do this, and the sooner I can rest!”
Trisoll sighed in compliance, held his staff tight, and slid down into the cave to meet her. As he approached Lyssa, his staff revealed the true massiveness of the plant: a large vertical-climbing mass of shades of green and ochre, its twisting vines sprawled up towards the cave’s ceiling. Behind them, a pile of bodies festered, some clad in pieces of decayed flesh and armor, some nothing more than lingering bones. Lyssa’s eyes shifted into their eerie blackened signature as she stretched out her arms and she released with all of her might a large wave of fire from her hands. As the flames consumed the plant, its leaves and vines began to collapse like burning paper. As the plant continued to burn though, Trisoll noticed in the flame’s glow something squirming inside the semi-translucent pods. The heat of the flames caused whatever was inside to writhe rapidly and suddenly, as the flames began to lick the pods, they burst open. Lyssa was too involved in concentrating her flames, but Trisoll could see thick clouds of tiny, fungal spores fill the cave. Soon they began to descend, lighter than air. Without saying a word, Trisoll dropped his staff and quickly tackled Lyssa to the ground, covering her face with his hands. “Get us out of here!!!” he cried out. While he tried to bury his face in Lyssa’s auburn tresses, it was too late; Trisoll kept his hand over her mouth while he himself struggled to breath, his eyes tearing up with every hacking cough. Together, they stretched out their arms towards the cave mouth, where Moira, Vetnik, and the twins were quick to respond, doing their best to shield their faces as they reached for their companions. Together, they drug the pair up out of the cave and back into the safety of the fresh open air. Lyssa rose to her hands and knees and turned to find Trisoll struggling to breathe, his face red and veins tensing through his neck. Moira knelt above his choking priest and bowed her head. She laid her hands upon his head and chest and begin to chant. Lyssa crouched and watched as Moira purged Trisoll of the spores; Moira lifted her hands and head, and with a violent thrust, Trisoll rolled onto his belly. From out of mouth, the spores flowed in a river of putrid bile. His heavy breath slowly returning to normal, Trisoll’s watery red eyes gazed into Lyssa’s own and he smiled, a thread of vomit reaching from his mouth down his beard. For a moment, Lyssa almost smiled back, but the calm of knowing they’d escaped was soon broken by the loud snores of the passed out dwarf in their keep.
Lyssa’s expression returned to her usual scowl and she quickly shot back up. She stomped over to the slumbering dwarf and with all her might, delivered a heavy slap across his face. “What was in those cave?!” she demanded to know.
Orvak awoke, flinching and cupping his cheek. “I… I dunno what you’re talking about…“ he slurred.
Dissatisfied, Lyssa quickly drew a dagger from her holster and without warning, buried it into the dwarf’s shoulder. The once-groggy Orvak yelped in great pain, “AGHHH!!!”
Gritting her teeth, she snarled in dwarf’s face, “LIAR!”
“Stop!” Moira cried out and ran to the dwarf’s aid, swiftly pulling the mage away from him. Moira tackled Lyssa, pressing her back against a nearby rock surface. Keeping her at bay, Moira turned around and expressed her sincerest apologies to the dwarf. “Please, forgive her! She didn’t know—”
_"She knew exactly what she was doin’!" Orvak cried out, pulling the dagger from his shoulder. He tossed it to the ground and began to make his way back to the road. “There’s a path that continues up ahead past the cave, it’ll take you up through the mountains if ya follow it.” Orvak drew his bota bag and tore the cork out with his teeth, taking an even larger gulp to ease his pain. As he staggered away, his free hand clutching his bloodied shoulder, he remarked one final thing: “By the Gods, that one’ll get you killed!” The party was left stunned, and now left without a guide, gathered to figure out what to do.
Moira backed away from Lyssa, turned to face her, and whispered, “I’m beginning to think there is evil in you.”
“And you really must be as foolish as you look,” Lyssa hissed with offense!
“My father trusted a dwarf of great honor—” Moira began to reason. Before she could finish, Lyssa quickly fired back.
“Your father is dead, and besides, this isn’t about dwarves. It’s about A dwarf, one who could’ve been leading us to our very ends!”
Moira slowly backed away, her jaw clinched and her eyes buzzing with tension. She turned her back to the mage and slowly began to follow the clearing out from the camp. As she did so, she hammered her fist into the side of a rock, shattering any illusion of poise.
“You should take a walk,” Vetnik said to Lyssa with a sneer. The mage sneered back just as pointedly and, instead of leaving the camp, planted herself down onto the dirt. She glanced up at Vetnik with a bitter glare before turning her attention to her spell book.
Thom broke away from his brother to follow after the enraged paladin. In the seclusion of the rocky path leading back to the main road, he found her there, head hanging low.
“Don’t let her words get to you.” Thom said as he approached her, trying to calm her.
“I thought it was just her being her, but there’s something else, Thom. Back there, I detected evil!” Moira exclaimed.
“In what way? The dwarf? In one of our companions?” Thom asked, pulling up beside her.
“The one I just walked away from," Moira replied with concern. “As a paladin, Cortox gifted me the ability to detect evil wherever it dwells. In her tone, heard it. I could hear evil.”
“Does your god allow you to divinate—?”
“No. I don’t know… it’s not clear though. Not black and white. It’s just a feeling.”
“Maybe Trisoll can help? There are tales of demons who invade the helpless. Perhaps she’s possessed? I mean, it would explain her disposition. Perhaps you’d better seek counsel with the cleric.”
“Thank you, Thom. I will. For now though, I suggest we keep an eye on her.”_
Thom and Moira soon returned to the encampment together, just as Lyssa finished memorizing another spell to summon a flaming sphere. Lyssa, ignoring the return of her companions, sat at the base of the cave mouth. Once more, she clasped her hands together and concentrated on the surging of energy between them. She opened them up and sent the flaming sphere rolling violently throughout the cave, guiding it with her open hands. Outside, the party could hear faint popping sounds, the heat from the fiery orb torching the last remaining spores in the cave. With the last of the popping sounds, Lyssa quickly clapped her hands together and the flaming sphere was extinguished.
“I think it’s done," Lyssa boasted. “Paladin, would you do the honor?” she goaded as Moira and Thom approached from behind.
“What, don’t you trust in the effectiveness of your own spells?” Moira jeered back as she stepped beside Lyssa and headed down into the cave.
One by one, they trickled down after the Paladin. Trisoll once more illuminated the cave with his staff, and together they found the scorched remains of not only the deadly plant but the huddled mass of corpses as well. As the once blue morning had now shifted to a grey afternoon, Thom and Lyssa rummaged through the pile of the blackened dead. Among the remains, Thom found a sword, while Lyssa snagged herself a vile of viscous liquid. Together in the apparent safety of the stinking cave, the party unfurled their bedrolls and laid their heads to rest as best they could.