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Thread: True FRPG story!

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    Default True FRPG story!

    I assume a few of you have heard of Tunnels and Trolls, and maybe a couple of you played it, even though it was shadowed by Dungeons and Dragons. I recently started playing, have a level 5 dwarf wizard (doesn't make much sense in a roleplaying way, but I came up with a little background for him: he's basically an outcast from the dwarven society for casting destructive magic) named Galiot. I found this nifty T&T story, if you want to read it all - it's long!

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    I. The Mistywood

    In the years following the destruction of the Elfin nation by the Armies of Death, Elgring Longtier seeks out self imposed exile and wanders the Dragon Continent searching for some way to redeem himself. At one point in his journeys he stops briefly in Kasar, the City of Ghosts. It is not long until he must flee.

    As he sips the thin, bitter ale of the Bumley village inn, Elgring remembers the fight in the brothel in Kasar where he spilled the guts of the drunken nobleman who insulted and attacked him. A clear-cut case of self defense, and him with his rapier against Elgring's poniard! But little does that matter now. How was the Old Goat to know that this perfumed young rake with the impudent mouth was the only son and heir of Grand Duke Karl Bronzo, the Tyrant of Kasar? Elgring was lucky to escape with his skin intact as the furious noble's servitors turned the city upside down in their efforts to capture him. Fleeing from the heavy fist of noble vengeance, he rode west until fatigue compelled him to stop here in Bumley, on the border of the legend-haunted Mistywood.
    Nothing but weariness would have made you stop here either, in this run-down and ramshackle excuse for a town. Half the shops and houses were empty, boarded-up shells; the other half looked on the verge of following them soon.
    At least the inn was still open, but at the moment you are trying to decide whether it was the greasy stew they served you in lieu of supper, or the awful howling outside at midnight that woke you, sweat-drenched, out of a nightmare in which a hideous, dog-faced demon pursued you through some black and evil forest whose leafless branches clawed and groped and gashed at you.
    As the stout innkeeper brings your breakfast of toast and sausages, he asks if you slept well.
    Elgring rubs the stump of his right hand and says, "No inn keep", looking at the breakfast. "I had this nightmare about being chased by a dog-faced demon. I could practically feel the breath of brimstone radiating from his mouth. I say to you sir, I have this queer feeling about this area, especially the woods. My natural instincts are telling me of trouble. Do you know of any legends or myths regarding this area?"
    Elgring slaps down four extra gold pieces with his left hand. "Another mug of mead. Keep the change."
    When you mention the dog, the innkeeper blanches and makes a local sign of protection over himself. "Alas," he says. "You heard the Barghest." You reply that it does not surprise you that dogs are served at his bar, having tasted the beer here yourself. He ignores your jibe, and continues. "No, no. There are no dogs in Bumley. Not since the coming of the Barghest."
    "Which bar guest?" you reply, irritated. "What are you babbling about?"
    "The Dog of Hell," he whispers. Years ago, he tells you, an old woman lived in a hovel in the Mistywood. When several of the village children fell sick, and some of the local barns burned down under odd circumstances, the old crone was accused of witchcraft by the local priests of Law, and was sentenced to be burned at the stake.
    As the fires were started at her feet, she cried out in a loud voice, silencing the jeering mob in the village square about her. "Fools!" she cried. "You think to slay me with impunity? Never again shall you have peace of mind or freedom from fear. Hear me, ye powers of darkness, who dwell between the worlds, and feast upon the souls of men! I claim the death-boon of Lerotra'hh, Princess of Enmity. Send the Barghest to torment my destroyers!" She began to cackle, coughed, and then was overcome by the smoke and fire. But as she died, as if in answer to her plea, a long, loud, lugubrious howl came from the depths of the Mistywood - a howl that chilled the marrow of all who heard it, a howl that set every dog in Bumley barking and whining in fear.
    That very night, he says, the same howl was heard in the streets of Bumley. On the following morning, the body of the man whose testimony had condemned the crone to death was found in the street. His eyes were wide with terror, and his throat had been torn out. To compound the horror, the grave of the old woman had been dug up. Her charred bones were gone; all about the site, in the soft dirt, were the paw prints of an enormous hound.
    Thus it was that the peaceful and prosperous village became a place of fear and woe. At night, when the fog from the wood flowed into the narrow streets, a shapeless terror accompanied it to stalk its prey. Before long, those who could afford to leave had packed up and departed for other, safer towns. The remaining villagers huddled in their homes by night, doors locked and windows shuttered tight against the nightmare that howled in the streets outside and stalked new victims to slake its dreadful thirst.
    With a start you realize that time is flying. You have been here too long already. Hurriedly, you thank the innkeeper, gather your gear, and leave.
    As you cross the road you see two horses hitched to the road. Looking at the steeds with extreme interest, Elgring ponders if the horses belong to the men following him. Then he spots the Bronzo insignia on the saddlebags. He looks around to see if anyone's near, but decides the riders must be in the stables. His gut feelings tell him to steal one and ride off or give himself time by setting the horses free, forcing the riders to track them down.
    "By Ariendale's fiery breath", Elgring mutters, flinching at the painful memory of losing his hand, and rubing his stump. "Well Fire Goddess of the Elfs, I'm not adjusted to my hand yet so there's a chance of slipping off the horse." He checks one more time to make sure no one else is around, then unties the horses and slaps them hard on the rumps. They whiney and run off into the surrounding fields and brush. Elgring himself then flees into the borders of Mistywood so that the fog can provide him with cover.
    The road through Mistywood is dismal, narrow, and overgrown with weeds. It is also deserted, for few travelers dare to use this gloomy and perilous route. After several hours of this stressful travel, fraught with numerous shapes moving through the fogs and eerie sounds, the path seems to be widening slightly and appears much less ominous. "Ha," Elgring mutters in success. "I'm one step ahead of those bastards!" He looks back for extra reassurance. "I don't like this path; way too quiet," he whispers while taking the time to watch the shadows carefully.
    The more he walks the more confident he feels. Elgring sighs in relief. Up ahead he notices what seems to be a clearing. As he approaches it, however, he hears a loud squealing sound. "No one will surprise me!" he says, raising his left fist. Quickly he plots! He dashes to the side of the road, using the brush as cover, and crouches down waiting for the creature to come. The hand on his dagger is strong and he sees the white of his knuckles.
    In the clearing ahead, a huge ogre is preparing to skin and dress the gnome he captured for the cooking pot. Neither has seen Elgring yet. "By Airwalker's ego!" Elgring whispers to himself. Sheathing his dagger, he sits, resting his old bones. "Lucky bastard; having dinner tonight! Although, I don't prefer gnome myself. My guess is there are probably more ogres around by the looks of the cooking equipment. If I go out they may surprise attack me. By the halls of Nobnar, I'm no spring chicken against this healthy ogre alone! Sorry my gnome friend. If you can hear my thoughts, I must not attempt to rescue you, for the chance of saving a hundred lives in the future."
    Crouching up to his knee, Elgring gets his dagger out again as he waits patiently for the late night to cover the open ground without alerting the ogre. "Hopefully his full belly will make him sleepy." As he waits, Elgring takes every moment to get familiar with the grounds, and to see what equipment the ogre has on him. It appears he has a dagger and a belt pouch.
    The ogre's meal of the gnome isn't pleasant to watch, but after it is finished the ogre moves off into the woods. When he thinks it is safe, Elgring heads off down the trail again. Perhaps an hour later he hears a chorus of howling behind him. Three shaggy gray wolves race down the path, intent on making a meal of Elgring. The Old Goat runs but is quickly overtaken: he must draw his weapons and fight for his life! The three great wolves close in, growling. Stunned and huffing from the short sprint, Elgring turns, knowing that he's forced to fight the four legged foes. Giving them a mock growl, and showing his gritty teeth as well, Elgring grabs his katar like a tall mug of cool mead, ready to swallow the fine compliments of victory!
    Elgring moves into attack, using hit-and-run techniques, but the wolves close in, used to hunting as a pack. Elgring slashes at one, uses his hoof at another, and back hands the third. This wolf tries to bite Elgring's good hand off, but his leather sleeve protects the hand. He realizes that unless he gets very lucky, the wolves are too fast to try to hit-and-run tactics against. The wolves circle, growl in unison, and then launch a new attack!
    This time, however, Elgring is ready for them and fairs much better, landing a very slight blow to each. The wolves rebound, fueled by their pain and tear at Elgring's flesh; fortunately his years of warrior training cause the snapping snouts and cleaving claws to glance harmlessly off of his armor.
    "Curses!" yells Elgring, as a he cradles his good hand and backs up against the tree. Memories of the past are coming to haunt him: the thoughts of failure from the wars, the failure to protect the Elfs from the Death Goddess. Sweating and shaking from the fight against the odds, he mutters, "Where's Klester, or Rils, even Airwalker now?" He knows he's getting too old for this type of thing - there can't be too many years left in his life, and he's used up every magical trick he can to prolong his time amongst the living. His eternal place with the demons of the Seven Hells could come at any time now.
    Being nipped in the leg by a wolf brings him back to reality, pissed. He knows he has to change his strategy. I know what I have to do, he thinks to himself. Attack one wolf using the rest of my body as a shield against the other two, and kill these bastards one at a time. Hopefully I can use my years as a warrior to protect my body just right.
    Feeling an ache in his chest, Elgring yell's out his battle cry and jumps on the nearest foe! The wolves evade his attacks, and tear at him but are unable to penetrate his armor with their own attacks. He starts to have doubts about his ability to overcome his foes. Finally he has the hole he is looking for, and ignoring the other two wolves, Elgring rams his katar deep into the chest of one wolf. He kills it with the force of one mighty thrust. It lets out a howl of pain and then collapses into a heap and shudders in its death throes. The battle rages on around the twitching wolf corpse.
    Elgring continues to elude the snapping jaws of wolf death as he slashes the back of an attacking wolf. He knows he has this fight won now. The wolves seem confused, and Elgring presses his attack, stabbing (and killing) the wounded wolf and slashing the other. It howls in pain and flees into the dark wood, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Elgring collapses to the damp ground, exhausted, but unhurt.
    His rest is short, however, as he knows he must move away from this place of carnage, as the scent of death will soon attract other beasts. After stumbling through the dark woods for an unknown period of time, he emerges abruptly from the woods and finds himself facing the mouth of a large cave. A wild-looking, but attractive, human woman stands in the entrance of the cave. There is more cotton on top of an aspirin bottle than there is in her garments. She gives Elgring a very provocative come-hither wiggle, and slips into the cave.
    Another trick. Elgring's thoughts are much clearer after some time of rest, and now that he's out of danger. He uses his tattered cloak to wipe the sweat and grime of his face and armor, trying make himself presentable. He gives a big sigh. The cave does look cool and inviting…ah what in the Seven Hells. I never could resist a woman, especially a wild one like her. Perhaps I could get a meal and bottle of wine out her. Just in case, Elgring rechecks his katars to make sure that they're accessible, and marches on into the cave cautiously.
    The cave entrance opens into a large chamber with a dirt floor. The woman is standing across from Elgring on the other side. "You want me?" she purrs seductively. "Ah, but first you must defeat my lovers!" She strikes a small gong.
    As the loud summons dies away, Elgring is horrified to see six rotting corpses claw their way up out of the dirt floor. He is surrounded and must fight.
    "Holy crypt!", Elgring gasps while pulling out his weapon. Now I gotta face six of her ex- boyfriends. I must react before they get themselves together and surround me! "I don't like this form of foreplay," Elgring mutters with wit he thinks matches his age.
    Before the undead warriors can close on him, Elgring attempts to break through the circle of death with a shoulder charge and gain the freedom of the cave entrance. He is only partly successful. He does manage to force his way through the line without harming the undead, but finds the cave mouth suddenly filled with flames! One of the woman's spells, more than likely. He hears her laughter retreating deeper into the cavern. He turns to face the nearest two of the zombies, before the others can join in.
    Elgring stabs hard and fast at the advancing nightmare foes, focusing all of his damage into one of the pair, only to realize he has made a bad choice in weapons. The undead have no vital organs to slash or pierce - the putrescent horrors seem to only be take about half of the damage he expects to have dealt them. Before he can do anything else they are upon him again, with a third now joining the attack and the others close behind to join soon.
    Although Elgring brandishes his katar ferociously, the zombies move in with crushing blows that break through his defenses. Fortunately he is well armored and the blows merely glance off his plate protection. However, he is now facing all six of the zombies, with his backside roasting against the flaming wall.
    "Curses! With all my years of experience I should've known better! That bitch with her spells and her mocking laughter is getting me pissed off! Wait 'til I get my callous hands on her!" Elgring mutters. "The old ring of fire resistance would come in handy right now!" Taking his katar and flipping it upside down to use like brass knuckles and punch at the skeletons, Elgring tries to use his shoulder to push out of the circle to place his back against the cool stone of the cave. In this way he hopes to be able to combat the zombies. As he makes his run to break through the group, however, his cloven hoof slips on a loose rock and he loses his momentum. The zombies close in on him and pummel, rend and bite him. For the first time since entering these woods Elgring truly panics as he sustains a great amount of damage that penetrates his plate armor and his magical ring of shielding. About two more attacks like that and the zombies will be recruiting a new member to their group.
    In fear for his life, Elgring crashes through the ring of undead warriors using brute strength and puts his back to the wall, where only three of the zombies can get to him at a time. The ensuing fighting is a stalemate, with Elgring or the zombies being unable to land any blows. The next series of attacks sees the zombies overwhelming the Old Goat, but they are unable to penetrate his armor.
    Elgring fights on, trying to focus on defeating one zombie at a time, but even with his back to the wall four of the zombies attack at once. He is overwhelmed by their blows, but they are unable to penetrate his armor. They continue to pummel him for over five minutes while he can only defend himself and land no blows of his own. Nevertheless, the undead warriors hammer at him with the stinking fists but are unable to wound him further. They do begin to damage his plate armor though, denting and rending it in places. Elgring starts to slow down from exhaustion. Gritting his teeth as each of the foul smelling fists of death pound on his armor, Elgring breathes heavier then ever as he starts to panic- he knows he's lost control of the fight. Imagination or not, he hears the laughter of the cave-wench , and he thinks he'll be damned if he'll die in her lair.
    What I'm thinking may lead me to death, but it must be the only way.
    Channeling his energy he screams out a battle cry, but from fear or inner strength who can say? Elgring yells and pushes through the rancid zombies and into the fire wall itself. Unfortunately he doesn't take any of the zombies with him. Enduring the pain, he pushes himself through the flaming barrier. The heat literally melts his plate armor from his body and only his magical ring saves him from fiery death, but he collapses to the forest floor, alive, outside in Mistywood.
    He lays in the smoldering leaves for an indeterminate amount of time. He knows he is badly wounded, but he will live. Luckily the stench of burned flesh doesn't attract any predators.
    Rising to feet, Elgring activates his hoof ring and intends to head back to the village of Bumley to re-cooperate. However, the forest has become darker now, and nothing looks familiar. He heads off on his conjured horse in what he believes to be a northward direction and the trail becomes a mere forest trail. As he proceeds, the Mistywood becomes progressively darker and more ominous.
    Riding on his magical horse, Elgring shivers from the chilly night, or from the open wounds from the fire! His thoughts are his only companion on this eerie night of darkness. I have to find Bumley to recover. I don't recognize this forest trail, and don't trust it going in the dark. Only the gods know I'll land into another trap.
    Pulling on the reins of the horse he turns around. He digs his hooves into the horse's hips and gallops back to the clearing for a better choice. When he gets there, before entering the clearing, he gets off his horse to inspect for any possible danger. Here the road seems to be slightly better shape than he has seen recently and he feels he can make better progress. Elgring continues down the lane, hoping he is headed back toward Bumley. Instead, he has come to the shore of a large, dark, lake. The deep blue water is icy cold. A tall man in a monk's cowl offers to row you across the lake; his fee is one gold piece.
    "Hmm..." Elgring moans while pondering his choices. I almost died going through the flames and here I could die in a chilly waters! "Ha!" the old satyr bellows out! "I'm not falling for another trap, you demon from the waters of hell!" He tries to look for a reaction on the boatman's face, but it's too dark to tell, so Elgring can only imagine his disappointment.
    "C'mon Bodkin", says Elgring to the horse, which he named after the legendary dagger, the Bronze Bodkin. Taking control of his horse he tries to find another way across the lake.
    Even on horseback it is a long, arduous trip around the lake. One the lake's other side Elgring is pleasantly surprised to find the road wider and more peaceful. Nothing challenges his progress as he rides along. In fact, he realizes that he hasn't seen any sign of insect or animal life since he circumambulated the lake. Suddenly, the utter silence of these glades is ominous.
    As the sky finally opens up, ahead of him, to the west, Elgring sees a high, rounded hill. On its summit painted blood-red by the last rays of the setting sun, stands a circle of ancient stone menhirs, jutting up into the darkening sky like a giant's broken teeth.
    "Whoa, Bodkin." Elgring soaks in the area around him like a sponge in an old bucket. Something is going to happen here and it's too long a journey to travel around the lake again. The horse seems to nod in agreement. Hmm. The old satyr sends the horse away to its magical realm while he stands making his final decisions.
    Aching from riding the horse, he slowly goes to the rounded hills, finding the perfect spot to hide and view the stone ruins from a distance. Some secret ritual is going to happen in the witching hour and I for one will have the upper hand! Too late, as he says those last words he remembers, looking at his right arm.
    In the midst of the menhirs is a rough stone altar that stands before an equally crude obsidian image of the Death Goddess Lerotra'hh, the Princess of Enmity. On top of the altar is the skull of a huge hound with horns. The sensation of an evil presence here is overpowering. Something, potent and invisible, is watching him from the shadows.
    The sight of the altar, especially the sight of Lerotra'hh has vanished all previous thoughts from Elgring's mind, the aches and pain from his body. Now just paranoid thoughts fill his head. Going back time he instantly remembers fighting in the arena, battling foes in his younger age, with courage and lust that seems to be a dream now. But the reward was grand: a fabulous kiss from the Death Goddess herself; the one treasure he would always keep to himself, not to be taken away by his bad luck. From some inside power, perhaps just curiosity he needs to see her again!
    He calls out: "Feelings of an evil presence, ha! You forget, my luscious beauty that I was born in an evil temple. I'm used to the evil creepiness so that won't scare me away!" With a heavy sigh, he adds, "Let's get this game started." Gripping what's left of his dagger, Elgring approaches the altar with the skull, with the intention of smashing it. All the while he tries to detect the presence of the invisible stalker in this place and simultaneously trying to use the menhirs as protection.
    As Elgring begins his assault on the idol and its skull-crowned altar, he sees the statue of the Death Goddess smile and hears a howl of rage. A huge hound takes shape before him and moves to attack!
    Elgring starts to prepare a monologue about strategy and instincts and cold ales waiting at the Diamond Spider, but before he can do more than dig his well-worn hooves into the ground, the hellish hound springs its attack, snapping with envenomed jaws and raking with its encrusted claws. The onslaught catches the Old Goat off guard and drives him back. Although he is now without armor, the charms in his ring of shielding prevent any damage, but just barely. The hound presses its attack, just always unable to land a solid bite due to the ring's protections, until finally, after several minutes of fighting, the hound is able to sink its teeth deep into Elgring's side. Immediately, the burning of venom starts to course through his blood and the pain is tremendous. Elgring realizes, with panic, that the end may be near at long last. He feels weak and feeble, and almost welcomes the sweet release of death. A quick glance at the statue reveals a smirk on the pseudo-Lerotra'hh's lips. It seems she anticipates the doom of the Old Goat.
    Just then, seeing an opportunity, Elgring drops to the ground, using his warrior reflexes to dodge the next venomous bite and then butting the barghest with the his horns on the lower jaw. This attack sends the hound sprawling, giving Elgring the opportunity to rush in and plunge his katar deep into its side. The beast lets lose a horrible wail and then collapses on the ground amid a spreading pool of blood.
    The statue of the Death Goddess begins to chuckle. "Well done. You said before how you wanted to get the game started, and so we have. You have won the first round. Enjoy your victory while you can. Now it is time for round two." Suddenly everything swirls around him and he finds him in a much different location.

    II. The Sunken Graveyard

    Panting with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breathe, and badly wounded in several places, Elgring looks up at the sensual voice of the Death Goddess. It is already too late after her speech - she is already gone, or rather he is, and Elgring only has time to shrug his shoulders and gasp "D'oh!" before swirling into the mystery beyond…
    In stark contrast to the lush greenery of the Mistywood lies a large sunken graveyard, laid out in the shape of a cross. Rather than towering above the ground, the graves have settled into depressions, and the main mausoleum, a building of strange green stone, rests in the deepest depression some 40 feet below the ground on which Elgring now stands. At the other end of the grave-filled hollow stands what appears to be a stone well. There are no gravestones near it. Fetid puddles dot the landscape about its mossy entrance as drizzling rains beat at its door. Inside, he knows, the monsterkin scratch their plans into dark clays with cackling laughter. Faintly, from somewhere below, a pungent odor wafts upward, a sickening familiar odor the Death Goddess calls Roast of Hobbit. The normal sounds of wildlife are gone, and large carrion birds circle overhead. An ominous silence rests about the place. Elgring knows in his heart that he has found the legendary dungeon called The Digs, citadel of Lerotra'hh, the Death Goddess. And though he wouldn't dare speak it, he wonders if he will live to return to the warmth of hearth and home.
    He quickly ties to remember everything he has heard over the years about this dungeon, and because it is legendary in status, Elgring knows quite a bit about its lore…
    Many hundreds of years ago, at the dawn of Lerotra'hh's rise to power, the forces of humankin allied to destroy the main Temple of Lerotra'hh in the ancient city of Tharother. With their temple in ruins, the surviving high priests of the Death Goddess fled the city with an army of enemies on their trail - an army of heroic warriors, priests and paladins led by Zelkor, a powerful wizard. The exact fate of these evil priests was then unknown, for not only did the remnants of the followers of Lerotra'hh disappear from all worldly reckoning, but so did the army of humankin that followed after them. Some said that in the eternal balance, the loss of so many good men and women was a fair price to pay to rid the world of so much evil.
    The evil cult, however, had not been destroyed. The surviving priests and their followers instead settled on a hill near the Forest of Hope, a sylvan woodland near the Old Coast Road, in the windward shadow of the Khargish mountains, below the Cliffs of Dung. They found a vast underground complex of caverns and labyrinths carving out a volcanic intrusion beneath the hill. There, the priests of Lerotra'hh found the perfect lair to continue their vile rituals. Concealed by the greatest of craftsmanship, the Digs represent one of the most horrific achievements of the monsterkin. On the first levels it was delved by industrious captive dwarfinkind, but heat and starvation eventually took its toll on this hapless workforce. The monsterkin sometimes whisper that Lerotra'hh became so infuriated with the progress that she mounted a black Dragon and finished the excavations herself. For many years they carried on in secret, hidden from the light and from the knowledge of the Humankin.
    Possessed of great subtlety, the Digs reflect darkly the cunning mind that reunified the flailing monsterkin. Highly ordered, this palatial complex plummets meters below the surface and is honeycombed with chambers. Lerotra'hh herself is said to live somewhere in its dark shafts, preferring its musty corridors to the well lit halls of Khazan. Whenever she plunders new territory it is here that she comes to store her ill gotten gains. Lerotra'hh has gone to great lengths to protect her underground kingdom from invasion from the threat of the humankin. She has prodded captive dwarves into shaping devious traps and pitfalls to kill their own kin. Elves have been drained, their magics squeezed into strange portals that lead to deadly encounters. Would-be assassins will be hard pressed to endure all of Lerotra'hh's surprises.
    Many years later, their underground delving completed, the evil priests erected a hideous mausoleum and a sunken graveyard atop the hill. It is believed that these graves are in fact the final resting place of the pursuing army of heroes that had been destroyed to the last man. Soon after the mausoleum was erected the peaceful creatures of the wood began to vanish. Though many foresters and druids investigated these happenings, the cause of the creatures' disappearances was not immediately determined. Some years later, a powerful adventuring party led by Bofred, a high priest of Morrow, investigated the evil happenings and found the sunken graveyard leading to a labyrinthine underground complex. Bofred and his companions great hordes of monsterkin in the caverns beneath the graveyard. Though some of his companions returned from their expedition, telling tales of fantastic treasure and ferocious monstrers, Bofred himself was never seen again - presumed lost in the catacombs beneath the cursed mausoleum.
    For the past one hundred years, ranks of adventurers swarmed to the newfound dungeon. Many fell prey to bandits and monsters in the surrounding wilderness. Of those delvers who survived to reach the mausoleum and the sunken graveyard, rumors suggest that most were slain by guardians of green stone before they entered the dungeon or that they perished on the very first level. Those rare few who return from deeper treks speak of horrible undead and of creatures that cannot be slain. All who have explored The Digs offer this one universal piece of advice: "Don't go down the well."
    Elgring also remembers hearing a rumor that inside a great labyrinth lies a strange mushroom that can restore youth to one who eats it. It is blue with red spots and grows under a bridge. Wracking his fading memory, he recalls stories of a great city of goblins lies deep in the complex, made up of followers of Lerotra'hh, perhaps even soldiers in one of her armies.
    Activating his hoof ring, Elgring looks around the graveyard for other possible entrances. From his mount he can see there are two smaller mausoleums, made of the same green stone as the large one at the southern end of the graveyard. Some small holes in the ground, probably made from rodents, may provide a, tight and undignified, but possible entrance to the dungeon proper. Elgring decides to go investigate the well before searching the main mausoleum. As he rides slowly toward it, he notices something else that gets his attention.
    Nine graves lie filled with fresh earth and makeshift markers. Elgring recognizes a few of the names, legends of his own time - a grim foreshadowing of things to come. A tenth grave is present as well, only it is empty and freshly dug. Towering over it, a marble gravestone bears Elgring's own name. His start stops beating for just a second. Just then, a deafening cacophony of the cries of ravens and crows fills the hollow, breaking the silence, as if they await feasting on your corpse. As the raucous noise dies down, it sounds like laughter.
    Trying to regain his composure, Elgring rides to the northern end of the graveyard and finds the infamous well. An ornately carved well is located on the far end of the sunken graveyard, opposite the mausoleum. The finely crafted artwork of the well is diminished only by the horrific images of demons and undead things that form the bas-relief. Runes and scribbling adorn the spaces around these carvings. As he gazes down inside, Elgring sees large, grooved scratches along the interior stones, as if something had tried to claw its way up the sides. The well ends in water some 90 feet below. He believes that the well opens up into a larger cavern at the bottom.
    Letting the wind, smelling of earth and foul stenches, cool his worn leathery face, Elgring ponders his options. He is encouraged to react quicker by the recent mocking laughter of the corvids, and begins, after the initial shock of finding his grave stone, by digging up the other graves to look for unused armor and weapons. After several hours of work he finds only bare-bone skeletons, but no adventuring gear. He is rewarded by a second round of mocking laughter by the carrion birds. The magical steed whinies in fear every now and then, disturbed by something natural or unnatural that the Old Goat seems oblivious to.
    Deciding to heed the warnings of not going into the well if at all possible, Elgring investigates the smaller mausoleums for entrances. They appear to be locked and solid, with no apparent secret doors. They are made of the same green stone as the larger one, but lack any detailed carvings. All the while he is looking around he thinks to himself that if the legends are true about the goblin city below, he could pass himself off as a mercenary, since he does speak the gobble language, after all. I have experience as a warrior and a great general (despite the outcome of the elf wars, of course!). Then I can gain trust and wander around unmolested!
    Just then Elgring hears a noise, and squinting his eyes, he sees three humanoid figures moving toward him. Finally, a meeting with something other than the undead. Climbing up on Bodkin, he moves the horse closer to the three figures, carefully maintaining his distance if he needs to escape. With the way my luck is going it's three wraiths coming for desecrating their graves. Well I'm too old to worry about death! He moves his mount closer to them.
    The first figure is a human male, dressed in lamellar and carrying a staff ordinaire at the ready. A large war hound moves up to crouch at his feet and growls in Elgring's direction. He mutters "Ready, Rex" to the dog. The second figure is a male fairy with dark brown hair, in all about only 7 inches long. It flits around frantically, like a hummingbird, wielding two needle-sized daggers. Its wings buzz in the silent tension. The last figure is a female (although one never really knows) dwarf wearing scale armor and wielding a dagger and a crowbar. Her hair is red and frizzled and her hard hazel eyes pierce his own. It is the dwarf who speaks, "Identify yerself, ya crusty old goat-man. Be ye a servant of the Goddess of Death? Or be ye some pathetic old wretch looking to find a meal to feed your mangy old bones? Do we kill ya fer being a monsterkin, or outta compassion to put ye outta yer stinkin' misery?" The three, and their faithful hound, move closer, all apparently ready to unleash a barrage of attacks by blast, blade and bite.
    Elgring, leaning closer to hear what the dwarf has to say, bellows out laughing! Speaking in Dwarfin, he says, "Aye, my hot-blooded friend. I see the flame of an eager warrior inside you, ready to draw blood to prove yourself worthy to the gods!" Then, code-switching back to common, he adds, "Ah, mage keep ye dog calm", thinking of the hound he recently fought and touching the bite wounds to his ribs. "I mean ye no harm, but I'm not fond of hounds at the moment!" "And you there pixie, stop flying about, you're giving me a headache!" The newcomers eye him warily, but don't yet attack.
    Drawing out his katar, Elgring concludes his diatribe, "We're all here for similar reasons: to find treasure or hope in The Digs! I suggest that we set up camp to discuss our 'arrangements'. Or, if you youngsters want a fight, well…as you can see by these worn but noticeable battle scars, I won't go down easily!" The dwarf snorts, Rex growls yet again, the fairy's wing-buzz sounds angry, but the wizard remains quiet. A cacophony of carrion bird calls breaks the silence. Rex lets loose a lonesome howl in response.
    Although he doesn't get off bodkin, Elgring does move the horse closer to the party. Giving them a stern look he asks, "What shall it be?" None of the group responds, so being old and crotchety, Elgring feels compelled to continue.
    With his mind, Elgring dispels the magical horse. Sheathing his katar he stands next to the fresh unused grave, pointing to it. "I'm Elgring Longtier, warrior, general of the forces of humankin against Lerotra'hh's armies, long, long ago. As you see my grave is prepared for either situation, you or The Digs!" The dwarf, in shock, then gave a suspicious glance at where the horse went, or had there been a horse in the first place?
    Interested, the human male walks up, taking a glimpse at the gravestone. He gasps then jumps back. "What trickery is this?" he says. "That gravestone bears my name, not yours old man." Everyone congregates to look, and through some sorcery of the Death Goddess each person can only see their own name written on the gravestone. Unnerved, everyone moves away from the empty grave.
    The human wizard looks long and hard at the old satyr, the old pathetic wretch, as the dwarf had called him. "I to wish to speak to you; I believe you. The tales about you must be false, as I've heard you died. Turning and bowing down to the dwarf, the man whispers something. In response the dwarf gives a disapproving grunt and puts her weapons in her belt. "At least he knows my native language," she mumbles.
    "I am Corian; my faithful hound Rex," he says, pointing to the hound, which, feeling the mood turn better goes to sniff Elgring's hand in hope of finding a morsel to eat. "My new friends, we met only a day ago, are Avian the pixie minstrel," still buzzing around and doubting Elgring's intentions, "and my grumbling dwarf friend is Ice, known for her politeness." She again gave an disapproving grunt and moved a good distance off towards the campfire they had made earlier. Corian gave a small chuckle, "Come, my ally, there's stew in the pot for you and I'm interested in the plans you have for The Digs."
    "I hope it's not the Roast of Hobbit I smelled earlier," says Elgring.
    "No, I'm sure this is different." Matter of fact, thinks Corian to himself, I wonder what happen to my other companions who sought out The Digs, all those years ago…
    Corian had been hired help on a barely sea-worthy ship, captained by a want-to-be pirate leprechaun with issues, which had sailed from Khazan around the frozen northern wastes, where it had almost been destroyed by a Purple Death Hippo and it picked up a refugee. It had then sailed down the Dragon's Hindbrain to the vicinity of the Forest of Hope, near The Digs. The ship's "adventuring party" had gone off to find Lerotra'hh's lair. The refugee, a pathetic helpless girl, shape-changed into an undead horror which devoured most of the crew before it flew off in pursuit of the party. The surviving crew panicked and decided to sail home. When Corian protested he was thrown overboard. He swam to shore to find a small Cellian-descended village, Karthaki, in which he had lived for the past 29 years. That had all been in Frogsong of 1041 AK, and it was now a chilly Ghostmoon in 1070 AK. Now middle-aged, he was convinced by the dwarf and fairy to leave his village with them for one more glorious adventure and head to the nearby sunken graveyard, gateway to The Digs.
    Later, at camp, the party discusses their options. "There must be another way in," says Ice, keeping in the shadows of the campfire to avoid showing her discomfort.
    "I agree," Elgring quickly replies. "I want to check out the mausoleums for possible entrances," he says, wiping stew off his face with the back of his hand. "We can search in more depth tomorrow morning. I think we'll find some possible means of access."
    Avian, resting on Corian's shoulder, whispers in the mage's ear, then nodding he explains to the others that he wants to adventure down the well to investigate that as a possible way in. Without waiting for a response he flies off to lay on Rex, humming a well known tune from his village. Rex howls in an attempt to keep the beat.
    "As for me," says Corian, giving Ice and Elgring his full attention, "I agree with the monsterkin," while slyly looking at the smirk on Elgring's face. "I am interested in the buildings as well. We'll get started first thing in the morning."
    "Fine," barks Ice. "I'll take first watch," she says while walking to a good vantage point to maintain guard.
    "Sleep, Elgring," Corian says, not waiting for a reply. "The fairy will take the dark watch, for he hardly sleeps, and I'll take last. You need your sleep."
    Elgring, annoyed at not being the one in charge, can't sleep. The events of the day still startle him; especially how everyone in the party saw their names on the gravestone!

    The next morning, as nothing of interest transpired during the night - except for a great deal of noise and movement beyond the range of the camp fire, after a quick breakfast, the group is on their way, going about their various tasks.
    Ice inspects the well - the stonework and depth - but comes up with no other leads than when Elgring had inspected it the day earlier. Meanwhile, Avian discovers that the well descends farther than he's willing to go. After a brief flight down it he stirs up a swarm of bats and quickly decides to retreat to the safety of the sunlight before they decide he is an oversize moth. He did note that there is probably some water quite a ways down below. As he explodes out of the well like a bat out of hell, Ice jumps back with a bellow. "By Gristlegrim's Beard! Don't do that bug, unless you want to be splattered!"
    At the same time Elgring, Corian and Rex head to the main mausoleum and find it quite intriguing. Before the great mausoleum they see a life-size statue of a dwarf on a 4 foot by 4 foot stone block. He looks to have been a great warrior. Dwarfin runes adorn the front of the pedestal, which Elgring translates to mean: "Blessed is he who spares these stones/And cursed be the man who moves my bones." This rather large tombstone, crested with the statue of a dwarf, seems to have been visited frequently. Corian believes something about the statue radiates magic.
    Past the dwarf, they see a huge stone building, its outer side carved in a grisly bas-relief of demons and other creatures of the underworld. Hundreds of skulls have been carved into the stone. The building extends fully 60 feet and is over 40 feet wide. There is a set of carved stairs leading down to a pair of huge iron doors. Ringing the top of the building are numerous demonic statues made of a strange green stone. They seem to stare at the trio. Rex appears disturbed and starts howling again. Corian says that the mausoleum itself radiates great magic, that the walls of the place seem alive. Stairs carved into the outside earth descend 20 feet to the foot of the mausoleum wall. At the terminus of the stairs, set within the mausoleum wall, is a set of ornately worked iron doors.
    Just then, with a horrible shriek, eight of the gargoyles animate and tear themselves free of their perches on the mausoleum. They take to the skies and appear to be circling in preparation for an attack.
    "Interesting," mutters Corian, grabbing his staff and mentally preparing for a Take That You Fiend spell. Reaching for his dagger, Elgring's mind races: Eight gargoyles that are going to kick our asses, and he thinks the situation is nothing but "interesting".
    "We'll stand guard here and wait for the others, then we will all go down the stairwell and through the gates. I doubt they will follow us then," Corian says with confidence.

    Meanwhile, Ice, still cursing at Avian coming out of the well, sees the shocked look on the fairy's face. Following his gaze she also sees the foul creatures flying overhead, and notices that one of the flying beasts is heading straight for them! "By the beard on my father's face!" she curses. Grabbing her crow bar and pumping her small legs as fast as she can to run, she closes the ground toward the mage and warrior. Hearing the buzz of Avian's wings, she knows he's following.
    The green-stoned gargoyle flies in and closes, raking with its claws and snapping with its jaws. One talon clips the fairy, sending him spiraling out of control for a moment, but otherwise unharmed. Ice manages to avoid injury.

    Elgring and Corian decide to make their stand on the mausoleum's threshold, forcing the gargoyles to land and melee on the stairs. As they flee to the safety of the tomb's gates, four of the stony constructs land and then rush the pair. Three others prowl behind, looking for a way to get in some of their own attacks. Elgring stabs ineffectively at the gargoyles with his katar. Corian snaps off a Take That You Fiend, but the blast of arcane energy merely deflects off the thing's stony hide, doing no damage. It is Rex's ferocious attack that allows Elgring to finally land a blow on one of the Gargoyles, chipping its chest and badly damaging it.
    Giving up on the spell casting, Corian joins the melee, and his distracting attacks, along with Rex's, allow Elgring to land several more blows upon the gargoyles: destroying the previously damaged one, shattering a second one, and breaking the wing off a third. Two other gargoyles move in to take their places, leaving just one angry gargoyle awaiting its turn to tear the flesh off these intruders!

    At the same time, Avian and Ice battle their gargoyle. Avian distracts the construct by flittering around its face, allowing Ice to slam her sax into the creature's chest, fragmenting it.

    Sweat pouring down his face, partially blinding his old eyes, Elgring roars with fury at the gargoyles. Continuing to attack with his dagger, he knows his highly developed skills are keeping it from braking against the stone skin of his foes. Battle trained, Elgring can hear the mage muttering blessings to some god.
    Combining magic and paw, although from separate animal worlds, Corian and Rex fight well together. Corian knows that without his loyal friend he probably would be dead right now! Bless the great gods of the humankin that rex wasn't off peeing! Rats and Bats! Corian bashes himself mentally. The spell only works on living creatures with flesh and blood!
    Rex hears his claws and teeth scraping against these gargoyles, attacking with the strength and courage of a thousand knights! Although he isn't able to harm the gargoyles directly, he is able to distract them long enough for Elgring or Corian to land some blows.
    Dropping his magical staff without care, Corian replaces it with his magical dagger; it glows brightly in the presence of evil, but whether from the evil green creatures or something else unseen, he can't be sure. Using his katar as well, he chips away or looks for cracks to hurt his foes. Together, the satyr, human and hound destroy two whole gargoyles and finish off the previously damaged one. Two more of the constructs continue to press the attack.

    "Urgh!" Avian screams, more in fear than pain; although not serious, his body is not used to such physical exertions, or this giant creature. Feeling his little daggers not doing any good, he chooses to land on the dwarf's neck, then begins singing the sweet tune of the spellsong "Heroes".
    "Blasted living stone creatures!" Ice mutters while striking with her crowbar, then chipping away with her dagger. Knowledge in stone has taught her these creatures can't be easily stabbed. Forgetting about the fairy for now, she fights on.
    Just then Avian's voice cracks as he plants his tiny hands on the dwarf's neck for the spellsong "Heroes", which would double the dwarf's offensive power briefly. In the middle of his spell, Avian feels the ripples of magic flowing from his cursed armor, implanting nightmares of his village being burnt. He hears Garnet's voice, dry as kindling wood from the soaring heat, that couldn't warn the children of the danger, and slumping in despair from watching them die horribly as the flames just melt their bodies to liquid pools of flesh. Avian sprawls on the dwarf's shoulders, paralyzed by his memories.
    Ice, distracted by the fairy at her shoulders, is suddenly outmaneuvered by the gargoyle and as a consequence howls in pain as its talons rips through her scale armor and open a wound on her abdomen. Still, she can begin to feel the coursings of magic flow through her and she realizes the fairy must have cast some spellsong upon her. She prepares herself to lay waste to the green-stoned thing before her.

    "Okay pets of the Death Goddess…"; some new-found strength comes through his good hand, and having Rex fighting beside him has given Elgring a few precious seconds of thought about how he and Klester had fought side by side. "You're not invincible at all." He smiles. "How your master will have to go through the trouble of replacing your crumbling stone corpses!" Elgring continues to strike with his dagger.
    "Yahoo!" Corian screams in delight, seeing he's on the winning side, stabbing and chipping away at the grim creatures! He does his best to coordinate with Rex who, he notices, is all over the gargoyles.
    Rex, for his part, growls while pouncing at the creatures, knowing he has one job: to protect his master at all costs! Although frustrated at not being able to bite through for the joy of feeling warm blood when he would tear a foe's skin, he too senses victory! And his instincts are right: together, Elgring, Corian and Rex destroy the last two gargoyles.

    "Confound it!" the dwarf screams at her wound. First Corian abandons me, and now the firefly tries to kill me with her spells. The goat probably left us with the trouble he created. Feeling a sensation she never felt before, which she thinks must be the blood of her dwarfin lineage, she attacks her foe with new strength. Ice continues her attack gripping her closest friends: her dagger and crowbar.
    With a big sigh of relieve, watching the horror before him and knowing these will be new nightmares (not from the cursed armor but from his judgment of his own actions), Avian comes out of his paralyzation from seeing the Ice get hurt with a slash in the belly. Then, blinking his eyes and seeing his spell did go into effect, he continues to fight. Although annoyed at being called a firefly, he swarms in to the attack, attempting to distract the construct long enough for Ice to land a good blow. Unfortunately it is not enough, as the gargoyle fights ferociously, and even with the added power of Avian's spell, Ice is unable to penetrate its stony hide.
    "I'm going to die!" bellows Ice. Ice watches her own strikes, as if in slow motion: the swinging of her crowbar against the breast of the magical green stone gargoyle, and it bouncing off without a scratch…her dagger being blocked by the creature's claw from landing a good blow. What am I thinking? I'm not going to let my clan find out that I died from a piece of rotted, smelly rock!
    Avian, flittering to Ice's assistance, calls out: "You're not going to die today my dwarfin friend." He dives in again to distract the creature from hurting Ice, wincing from the memory of the claw digging into the warrior's chest. Irregardless, Ice's blows are unable to injure the gargoyle.
    "C'mon!" roars Elgring, grabbing Corian's shirt, distracting the wizard from stopping and admiring the green shattered stones.
    "Roar!" Rex gives the satyr an unapproving growl, related to how he's handling Corian. Letting go of him, ignoring the pain in his joints, Elgring runs off to help out Ice and Avian. "If I didn't know any better, Lerotra'hh is letting me live to feel the pain of old age instead the pleasure of a swift death. This another curse of my life!" Elgring mutters as he runs.
    "It's alright," says Corian while giving his canine friend a strong pat on the head. "He's right. We need to help our companions!" Rex snorts in disagreement but leaps with his master to be rid of the last creature.
    Elgring, eager to end this fight with the Death Goddess's constructs jumps into the fray, bumping into Ice in the process. She gets another bump, this time from her left, as Rex pounces with his front paws for an attack. Blinding Ice slightly with a motion of color and speed, Avian flies in again to distract the foe. Hearing a satisfying roar, Avian giggles in glee at his success. "Hey, watch it you door knobs!" snarls Ice as she is pushed around. In truth she is thankful for the fight to hide how grateful she is for the assistance. "Stop blinding me you colorful parrot!" She tries to strike her blows to the gargoyle.
    Running last, and seeing the others engaged in combat, Corian hears Ice cursing at being so close together, he takes an extra turn to go around and attempt to attack from behind. The lone gargoyle doesn't stand a chance against the combined attacks of the party, however, and Corian can get into position the construct is shattered to pieces on the sunken ground. Everyone slumps over in exhaustion, but the group is excited and proud to have survived its first challenge against the minions of the Death Goddess.

    "C'mon," Elgring says, trying to encourage the group to get up and move to the stairwell, while groaning himself from the recent wounds inflicted by the hell hound. "I will need to rest more once we're secured. We can look into the gate and defend ourselves more." Limping, he walks towards the mausoleum.
    "Here," says Corian, offering a hand to Ice to get her up and going. As he does, he watches Rex standing ready and panting heavily. "Once we get to the green, cursed building, we'll rest. We can't stay out in the open like targets. We'll waiting a few more moments, letting Rex rest some more. Let Ice and Avian go first." He smiles at the dwarf who is currently complaining about the fairy getting in the way of her fighting. He overhears Avian stating that until he gets an apology for being called a parrot he won't talk to her; then a moment later he asks her what a parrot is.
    At the entrance Elgring attempts to use his skill in first aid to bring some relief to himself and Ice. Using the best materials he can scrounge up, he cleans his, and Ice's wounds, then wraps them up. Looking around, he notices how still and quiet the cemetery is - almost as if it is holding its breath for something to happen…
    The whole time Rex, as ordered by Corian, stands guard at the top of the stairs. He sniffs for anything that could be trouble. After her treatment with Elgring, Ice checks out the stone structure of the stairs and walls of this entrance way. Avian, for his part, collapses on the cursed, yet cool green stone, getting what little sleep he can get before going on with the adventure.
    Having completed their business for now, and seeking a more defensible position, the party descends the stairs and sees before them a set of huge steel doors. No rust is visible on the metal, as if time itself stands still here. Built into the doors is an intricate lock - craftsmanship worthy of the most legendary dwarfin smith. Corian checks the front doors for traps, assured that there are none. "No traps!" says Corian, believing to be, perhaps, an experienced rogue. Then, waving his magic staff, he casts a Knock-Knock spell. The huge front doors swing open, allowing passage into the darkness beyond….
    "No traps", snorted Ice. "He can't even find a mouse trap unless it traps his finger", she says, just loud enough for the mage to hear. Shoving Corian aside she peers within for an inspection. Finding it too dark she lights a torch.
    Avian is awakened by Elgring after he noticed the fairy's restless body twitching back and fourth as if fighting an unseen foe. The old warrior was going to ask the pixie what the problem was, but then a rush of cool air hits him square in the face.
    Avian takes advantage of this distraction to fly up towards the opening of the door, curious about what's going on, and avoid telling this stranger about his curses! What does he knows of curses anyway! He thinks to himself.
    "Hold!" bellows Elgring, raising his voice, "we need to get some order here." He waits for everyone's attention, and ignores the annoyed expressions. "The marching order should be: Avian, Rex, myself, Corian, and then Ice as rear guard. Elgring looks around and catches Corian smiling, but whether at his taking charge or because he is glad not to be the first one going in blindly to The Digs he doesn't know.
    Ice starts to grumble about wanting to go first, then, remembering the hard time fighting the gargoyle, she says nothing.
    Avian, once again flying around, accepts the assignment, as clearly evidenced by his eager flying maneuvers.
    "I don't know what any of your ambitions are for going in to The Digs - revenge, treasure or glory - but we can't achieve these knowing we can't trust each other or by separating." With these few words of Elgring's wisdom, the party moves into the room beyond the threshold.
    Within, the mausoleum itself is filled with damp, musty air. Dust covers most of the barren room of solid stone. Several broken and rusted weapons lie on the floor, along with the butt ends of several spent torches. The room's sole feature is a large stone sarcophagus, on top of which are two brass candelabras, each holding lit black candles.
    "Weapons out. Expect company," Elgring says, glancing at the lit candles briefly, but more concerned at the discarded weapons on the floor. "Magical ones if you have them." The satyr continues staring at the rusted blades, the markings of the unfortunate warriors who met their doom at the hands of the Death Goddess's minions.
    Corian, oblivious to what Elgring has said, wanders about the room, interested in his surroundings. Concentrating to detect magic from any of the walls, floor or the stone coffin, he can only pick up the radiance of evil magic from the ebon candles.
    Rex, sniffing at the pleasant smells of decay that might offend most people, searches for the possibility of finding his own treasures.
    Avian flies onto Elgring's shoulder, saying "If only our mage could focus on his studies as well as his curiosity, he could be some wizard." With that he leaps off, continuing to fly and observe the room with interest.
    "Curses, " Ice mutters, more to herself then anyone else. "Lit candles; black ones at that! We should find another way, perhaps..."
    "The well?" Elgring interjects with pleasure, knowing most dwarfs dislikes water and the 50 foot drop wouldn't cheer her up either. "Come assist me", he says, continuing to walk to the entrance. The Old Goat intends to keep the doors open by jamming debris of the sacred room under them. To his surprise, when he looks at the doors, they are already closed! "Something's wrong here!" Elgring bellows, drawing everyone's attention.
    "Yeah," says the fairy, "I was just about to tell you there is an indentation in the ceiling of the mausoleum identical in dimension to the stone sarcophagus."
    Just then a hideous shriek and laugh echoes through the vault. It sounds like it is coming from the sarcophagus. It is so terrifying in sound, it sends a chill through everyone.
    "Um…I was also just going to say that there are no skeletons here…" Avian adds.
    "The floor is rising to the ceiling!" Ice screams, a master of stonework. "The front doors are already blocked!"
    Rex lets lose a pitifiul howl and tries to find a way to flee the tomb. The shrieking continues….
    Elgring, momentarily stunned, sweat dripping off his forehead like a waterfall, waits anxiously to see what will happen.
    Ice taking a voluntary step back, clutches her weapons. "You've gotten us killed you oaf!" she blurts out, her voice quivering. "Your leadership matches your wits of old age, Elgring," she adds in a bitter voice.
    Corian jumps back as well, towards Elgring. He can't manage to say a thing, shaken by the shrieking of the voice. He is even more bothered to see Rex cringing at the door, scratching to open it. Rex, for his part, continues to howl in fear.
    Avian, flying onto the dwarf's shoulder, shakes as the voice sounds like the one in his constant nightmares. He looks around for some strong leadership, but there is none to be found. He shrinks back and waits for what is to come.
    It seems there is something eldritch about the screaming and hideous laughter from the sarcophagus. All the delvers must fight and overcome the urge to flee in terror. Ice only barely manages to stand her ground, and the hound, with only a beast's intellect, can't control his instinctual fear and does his best to escape.
    In the mean time, it is obvious the floor has risen about one foot toward the ceiling and seems to be picking up speed. The heroes decide to react instead of just passively waiting for their doom….
    "It's the candles!" Corian yells, figuring the source of the problem. "Extinguish the light and we might have a chance!" He races over to the black colored death sticks.
    "Candles. Of course!" Ice starts to run over, planning on smacking them over with her crowbar.
    Avian, summoning his strength to be ready to cast a spell, in case one is needed soon, swoops in and out for answers about how to stop this evil act from happening. Unfortunately, he is too late in finding out the source of the problem or any real way to help his adventuring companions.
    Rex, of course, continues to whimper and struggle to find a way out.
    The sarcophagus, Elgring thinks. If I can only lift the lid, that might prevent the floor from moving upwards. Replacing his dagger for the magical war spatula, he tries to pry open the lid. Despite is advanced age, the Old Goat is still fairly strong, and the lid to the sarcophagus falls away. To Elgring's surprise, though, inside the stone coffin, shrieking is an ebon-black skeleton, wreathed in black vapors. Before the satyr can react, the undead thing pounces upon him. He tries desperately to defend himself with the spatula, to little avail. Its icy talons rake his flesh, and its snapping fangs bite at his throat, but old instincts and a little protection from his ring of shielding save his life once again and prevent him from suffering any further damage.
    "In the great blazes of Ariendale's fire, I shall strike you further into your unholiest death!" Elgring roars. He doesn't let on that these creatures are deadly, so deadly in fact the holiest of priests can't turn them, or so he believes. Elgring shudders after the touch of its cold touch upon his skin. This time using more evasive tactics to drive his foe back, while thinking to himself, I must show the party that there's a chance, if not by my crippled words, perhaps through my fighting skills.
    Ice, surprised at Elgring's skills at fighting, having missed seeing him fighting the green stone gargoyles. She had also told Corian to shut up when he tried to tell how he and Elgring fought well. Impressed and forgetting about the Old Goat's lousy sense of choices, she is encouraged to strike, with a sax to chop and crowbar to rip open the ribcage.
    Avian, also impressed at Elgring's roar and courage, thinks to himself stop being such a coward! Facing his fear once more, he hovers near Elgring and chants his Hero spellsong, intending to let the warrior to double his attack. As it turns out, the spell is unnecessary and arrives too late.
    Corian charges up, using his glowing dagger to strike and his other dagger to chop at the skeleton. "Rex attack!" he orders.
    Rex, while not wanting to let his master down, can't shake his fear and continues to whine and scramble around for a way out.
    Together, fighting against just one opponent, the delvers easily overwhelm and destroy the black skeleton. Elgring's final blow severs its skull from the spinal column. It clunks to the tomb floor with a hollow thud, bouncing once and landing upright. Its eyes stare right at the victorious delvers, and then it whispers in a harsh voice "Now you die…". Once again it lets out a penetrating shriek of hideous laughter.
    In panic, the party realizes the floor is now about five feet from the ceiling, and is closing fast. Corian, six feet tall, is slammed in the head by the ceiling as the floor rises into it. He had planned on casting an Oh, There It Is spell upon the coffin, but instead he is driven to his hands and knees by the force of the blow. He manages to gather himself and crawls to the sarcophagus and scrambles inside behind Elgring and the fairy.
    "Damn it!" Elgring curses. Standing at four foot eight, he still has a few inches to spare when Corian is crashed in the head. He climbs into the stone coffin, and then hollers for everyone to get into it also. He starts to search for a release lever of some sort to reverse the rising floor. By the time Corian and Avian are also inside he realizes there is no lever.
    Avian, responding quickly to Elgring's words, speeds his way to the inside of the coffin, and also tries to find a way to stop it.
    Rex whimpers and howls, crawling low around the room, futilely trying to find a way out.
    Ice, stunned by the skull's last words which have filled her with anger, forgets about her companions as she rushes over to the black skull. Raising her crowbar high, until it slams into the descending ceiling, she brings it down and crushes the skull, scattering bone fragments all across the floor. Just then, the ceiling crashes into her head as well, forcing to her knees. She looks at her companions inside the sarcophagus. She starts to crawl as fast as she can, slipping on pieces of broken bone.
    Elgring, Corian and Avian look on in horror, screaming for Rex and Ice to hurry to the coffin, all the while knowing they'll never make it. Even worse, even if the hound and dwarf could make it, the trio in the sarcophagus realize that the three of them completely fill the inside of the stone coffin. There's no room for anyone else inside!
    Blinded by the tears, Corian tries to leap out to save his faithful companion, yet a strong hand grips his shoulder, pushing him downwards. Too dizzy and sick from the hit on the head, he doesn't have the strength to struggle.
    Looking into the feverish eyes of Ice, Elgring's face is unemotional. Far too many times has he seen the people he once loved, admired and knew die in tragic ways. All he could do now was to be ready for that last minute impact. Heck they may be the lucky ones. What if we are trapped in this enclosed space until we starve to death? Closing his eyes, he doesn't want to think about it.
    Sinking to the bottom, Avian thinks horrible thoughts about the outcome of his friends he briefly knew. Cursing, he curls up in a fetal position, weeping, knowing there was something he could've done.
    Ice's hand grabs the top of the sarcophagus, too late. "Help me!" she screams. There is a scream and howl of pain, a splattering of blood and tissue into the sarcophagus that sprays the trio inside, and then a loud crash of stone on stone. The echoes and vibrations take a long time to fade away.

    Elgring, Corian and Avian, lying in total darkness and silence, have no idea how much time passes. It must be at least days. Their muscles are cramped and sore from lack of movement, but minor wounds have crusted over into scabs. They are parched and ravenous. The smell inside the sarcophagus is ripe with the stench of feces and urine.
    Then, without warning, the floor starts slowly to grind its way back down to its original position. Slowly the trio crawl out on feeble legs, to see the mangled remains of their companion Ice, Rex, and the black skeleton, crushed on the mausoleum floor. Silence pervades, and the smells of death they've all since long gotten used to.
    Elgring, feeling guilty about his bad sense of judgment, as Ice once said, helps out Avian - picking him up gently as egg. Avian feels numb from the awful smell of humanoid waste, and from the dying screams of his friend Ice and Rex.
    Corian, tears coming to his eyes, he would vomit if he could at the mangled corpse of his long best friend Rex. But because of a magical potion discovered on an adventure long ago that able him to live without substance, food or water, he has nothing to purge and only dry heaves. Leaning on his magical staff he attempts to open the vault door. It opens easily.
    The light from outside hurts everyone's eyes. As the survivors leave the graveyard, the carrion birds let loose one more chorus of calls. This time, more than any prior, sounds like mocking laughter. The trio quickly moves on, to the north, toward a small walled village called Karthaki. There, they can resupply and decide what their next course of action is.

    III. Karthaki is so Beautiful in the Autumn

    The weather has been rather more damp and cold than should be normal for this time of year, despite it being early autumn. The oaks the region is famous for have all turned gold and brown, splashed with dark greens from the pines also common in the area. Especially here in the lower latitudes of Rhalph, the Dragon Continent, it should be a "barbarian summer". Nevertheless, Karthaki is renowned for having some of the dampest, dreariest weather anywhere.

    The trip up the old Sea Coast Road is slow and stressful. The party passes beyond the Dragonmarsh Lowlands and the Forest of Hope, fighting off or evading bandits, patrols of the Death Goddess, harpies and wargs. One terrifying afternoon the party spends several gruesome hours hiding from a dragon circling above.
    As the party journeys along the road, across open marshland covered with thick grass and small horny plants, they notice they are approaching a fork in the road which leads off sharply to the left and appears to head straight for a gloomy wood about half a mile away. Beyond this, dark skies cover a hilly area and more woodland. At the junction there is an old wooden signpost which has seen better days and barely manages to stand upright in the sodden earth. The signpost points straight ahead and the fork to the left reads: "KARTHAKI: ONE MILE".
    All present have heard of Karthaki, and for Corian it is "home, sweet home". Elgring and Avian had believed the village to have been deserted for some time, having failed to attract permanent settlers mainly because of its location at the foot of the hills in the boggy ground below, and because of the almost constant poor weather the town seems accursed with. Then again, there is the close proximity of Lerotra'hh's Digs, which may be the deepest, deadliest, and most legendary dungeon on Rhalph.
    However, the supplies could do with topping-off, and to go anywhere else would require many weeks of journey. The weather and terrain are turning more unpleasant by the hour, so it seems like a good idea to take a look at the forgotten village, replenish the supplies if possible, take a little shelter and even perhaps find some adventure.
    The journey takes little time and the gloomy woodland is hardly more than a sparse area offering no excitement nor threat, which is a pleasant respite from recent events. Once through the wood all can see the pathway continues across the rough boggy ground towards a small walled hamlet of houses, and from the numerous chimney stacks you see wisps of smoke rising into the misty air and up into the miserable drizzle-filled sky above. It would indeed seem that there are still people living in this small settlement.
    Finally the sanctuary of the walled village of Karthaki beckons. The outer wall is stone, with several towers manned with armed guards. The towers' tops are red thatched, with white spots, giving the impression of large mushrooms. One wonders how this village can survive in the shadow of The Digs. Perhaps the Death Goddess allows the village to crouch here, for some perverse reason of her own. Surely, it could never survive a direct attack from her forces.
    Pulling on the reigns, Elgring brings Bodkin to a halt before the village, grateful for such a place to rest without fear. A soft chuckle erupts silently inside him. Listen to what an idiot I am. I'm still in the Death Goddess's realm. It's this kind of thinking that got Ice and Rex killed! There will be no more fear until I'm dead.
    "C'mon friend", Corian says, sitting behind Elgring on the horse, feeling the rumbling of the satyr's stomach. "Let's get going. You need food. Avian needs rest. And I need to drink to forget my worries. Besides, the village will probably welcome our gold, if not our company." Rubbing his eyes from lack of sleep, he thinks: How can one sleep with all these monsterkin on the roads? Nonetheless, he is starting to feel better; he even smiled slightly a couple days ago when Avian was mesmerized by seeing the dragon. What a rare treat. Although a terrible creature, they are hardly seen in the world. With a jerk, he notices the horse is in motion again, heading down the road to the village.
    Avian, waking up to the fresh air, flies up from Elgring's hand into the air, ducking back near his friends after the cry of carrion birds nearby. He is also happy to see the village up ahead, but skeptical. He too is feeling better emotionally, having found some recovery through the travel from The Digs. Occupied by seeing new monsters like harpies and wargs, he never imagined in all his life of seeing a dragon! His Grandmama used to say that the gods made two creatures in the world, a balance of a bad nature and one good. The fairies were typically good and beautiful beings, while the dragons were huge and ugly!
    Overhearing Corian saying something about ale, his attention refocuses on the party as they head for the entrance. The path leads on through boggy, grassy ground which squelches beneath the horse's feet. It soon improves and becomes a stony path leading directly into the town, the entrance of which is a rickety wooden archway with the name of the town painted upon it, poorly. The gate appears wide open, guarded by a few sentries. Corian, however, can feel powerful magic barring the way. After stating their business, a wizard of sorts temporarily opens the invisible enchanted gate and the trio heads in.
    Karthaki is a very small village with only about a score and a half buildings. What immediately catches their attention, besides the funny mushroom-topped towers, is a massive red-stoned henge and well occupying the center of the village. It is partially ruined, but still towers over the other structures in town. Druids and geomancers are said to able to drawn earthpower from such henges. Once they reach the town, it soon becomes obvious that it, like the signpost which led them here, has also seen better days.
    Beyond the gate archway can be seen the dirty, muddy streets and the badly maintained houses which make up this miserable settlement. Smoke drifts upwards from many chimneys into the cold air, and sad, depressed-looking people can be seen going about their daily tasks. A few stop what they are doing to look at the party, and some run into houses in excitement. It is clear that adventurers do not stop by here often.
    Well, thinks Elgring, scratching his unshaven face, I let my expectations get the best of me. Scanning around the village, he frowns at the villagers who ran into their houses. That's not a good sign! Looking at Corian, he says: "Why didn't you tell me this place was a dump?"
    Stretching his body, Corian, sore from riding - especially since the horse was intended for one - massages his aching muscles. "Well, you know…this is my home, and besides, bad-mouthing it wouldn't be good for tourism. Anyway, it didn't look this bad when I left a month ago! Something's up. Now, where's the ale house around here again? Oh, yes, the Witch's Teat - over there". Then he notices the stranger approach. He clasps Elgring's shoulder to let him know that they have company. Actually, Corian had seen him around before - an old dwarf.
    "I was hoping for more to this village. Kind of boring, if you ask me!" Avian says, talking to Corian from his shoulder. "If the food and ale are in the same shape we might've stayed in The Digs!" He pouts. Then, interrupted by the upcoming stranger, Avian flies up to hover near his companions.
    Flinching from the word "Digs", which brings back thoughts of Rex, Corian straightens his cloak and turns his attention to the stranger. Hiding all signs of fatigue, hunger, and thoughts of the past, Elgring, too, prepares his face to look grim and prepare for what is to come.
    Limping up to the trio is, as Corian remembers, Silas Hannr - perhaps the town's oddest character. He is a dwarf with a turn in his right eye and a speech defect resulting in a lisp. He has been an inhabitant of Karthaki since it was established and will never leave it. He has apparently made it his duty to welcome personally anyone who visits the town. He leaps over the muddy puddles to greet them and welcome them in - in fact, quite nimble for a gimpy old dwarf. Elgring dispells Bodkin.
    Silas, following a hearty and somewhat over-enthusiastic greeting, leads them to what appears to be the town's only tavern, The Witch's Teat. He orders a round of Darkdale Bogwheat for everyone and smiles, seemingly genuinely. "Welcome once again my friends! This town has been my home for over 300 years, ever since it was built! Unfortunately, it has fallen foul of poverty and bad luck recently, and now sits at the bottom of the hill festering in this boggy earth, enjoying nothing but rain, cold and fog! But we inhabitants of Karthaki remain proud, remembering times past when this was a thriving, happy town!" For a dwarf, he speaks fluent Common. "The hill you saw coming in is Greatbow's Hill, named after one of the founders of Karthaki, Rhys Greatbow. He was the first to climb it and set upon the summit a cairn of stones, which still remains today! Traditionally, anyone who climbs to the top should place another stone onto the cairn; it is said this brings good luck. If the weather clears, I suggest you take a hike up the hill and take in the views and fresh air! I will accompany you if my old bones are up to it! I will tell you more tales of Karthaki during your stay, but enough for the moment, let's celebrate your arrival and drink!"

    IV. The Witch's Teat
    Elgring, Corian and Avian relax and drink. Darkdale Bogwheat turns out to be a dense black ale with a rich earthy flavor. They enjoy it as they eyeball the place. The Witch's Teat is a square, two-story wooden structure that once functioned as a temple, according to Silas. It looks like a big log cabin, with walls, doors, roof, and shingles all cut from the massive pine and oak trees for which the region is famous. Two stone hearths run up the south wall through the second floor and out the roof. The tavern has two ground floor entrances. On the west side, just above the entrance and set in the second floor wall, is a beautiful stained glass window showing a scene of the barbarian Rhys Greatbow killing a snarling, white-furred wolf. Other windows are shuttered, with neither oiled parchment nor glass, and closed to keep out the chill.
    The tavern's inside is just as rustic and charming as the outside, with the pelts and heads of many animals (such as bears, wolves, and moose) and monsterkin (such as demons, ogres, and hobgoblins) adorning the walls and floors. A young adult red dragon's head hangs prominently on the south wall between the fireplaces in the first floor common room, even. The first floor ceiling is 30 feet high, supported by thick wood columns carved with the visages of totem spirits. The wood floors of the Witch's Teat are heavily stained and scuffed, as is the furniture. At the center of the common room, which constitutes the entirety of the first floor, is the Pit, descending 15 feet into the ground and lined with hellishly black stone. Several people stand around it, seemingly waiting.
    "That there's my favorite - it has pride of place," says Silas, pointing to the dragon head. It is crowded and loud here, and the delvers are already itching for a new adventure. Something about the place seems to inspire it. Around the common room are a number of others who may share the same feeling.
    "Here." Elgring tosses down a handful of coins onto the table, gulping down his ale in the first sip. "Not only am I a veteran warrior, but a drinker as well! I've got a lot of catching up to do. Where's the barmaid so I can order more?"
    Corian raises his glass in salute to the veteran drinker, and to a long term, somewhat, friend, Silas! Soon, he too is draining his ale. He loses himself in the inn, trying to remember if he can recognize any other customers. It is odd - although he lived here for quite some time until recently, he has a hard time remembering faces or details about the place.

    * * *

    A blonde-haired, green-eyed female stops outside the tavern and anxiously looks around. The hammering of her high-heeled boots ceases for a moment. Something about the name of the tavern seems very familiar to her. She shrugs it off, runs her hands down her short, tan, suede minidress, pulls her bag on her back, and heads into the tavern. Looking around, feeling very confidant, she notices a pair of black wings fluttering. She thinks to herself Humpf! I think this little boring town just may have some hidden excitements in it, as she winks to one of the men at the "ale altar". She walks towards the mysterious woman with long dark hair and wings, and wonders what it is that she's up to. When she finally reaches her, she speaks to the tavern in a loud, almost yelling, voice saying, "What does a lady have to do around here to get a drink?"

    * * *

    "The Witch's Teat'" giggles Avian. "What a name, and a fascinating place. I'll remember it for the rest of my life!" He tries to get Corian's attention, without success. The mage is busy with the dwarf and sharing some stories - fighting the green gargoyles, the incident involving the mausoleum. He takes a few sips of his ale. "This will be flat in no time. They don't have fairy-sized glasses!" he complains to himself.
    Flying up, feeling a bit cocky, Avian thinks he'll search the tavern a bit further. He inspects the trophies of the monsterkin, but stays far from harm's way from either the beast heads or other patrons. Peeking around for anything else interesting, he looks back at his party. There's old Elgring. The ancient satyr warrior, commander of some Rown and Elfin troops in the failed war against Lerotra'hh. He's approximately 180 years old, but doesn't look a day over 500. A bit short for a semi-legendary warrior, he's 4'8", 175 pounds. His gray eyes still have a bit of a shimmer to them, but then, so does his balding head. Two ram-like horns decorate his skull. His right hand is a stump, and his chest and arms are like worn leather with many scars and grotesque, unrecognizable stains. He appears to have been recently wounded and is in pretty bad shape. The lower half of his goat body is patchy where hair once grew. His skin color is of a blackish nature, but from what, who can tell. Of course, being a satyr, hooves serve as his feet. He has a backpack slung over the chair back, with a variety of weapons around his waist. He wears a ring on his left hand. He's lived a hard life, and the fairy knows he doesn't have much more of it in him.
    Next to Elgring is his companion Corian: a human magic-user, approximately 40-50 years old. To the fairy he is very tall at 6', and weighs 225 pounds. He wears his sandy colored hair in a braid, including his beard. Dark brown eyes penetrate through his facial hair. The mage wears a good cloak and clothes of blue, but these are also very faded and threaten to expose his armor underneath in places where struck in fighting. He holds a magical staff, which some might say is a crutch, as Corian is getting on in years for a human.
    Maybe I'm being a little harsh on them, thinks Avian. I'm not the shiniest spoon in the drawer myself! He hovers near a well-polished shield mounted on the wall and looks at himself. Tired. I always look tired. The fairy's reflection reveals a 7'' tall, one pound fairy - a mere baby of the fair folk at 59 years old! The hair is spiked and the color of strawberry. He sees dark blue eyes and tan skin, still smooth. He's been fortunate not to be scarred yet. His wings move in a blur. He wears black leather armor, which, if seen up close, has soft mists swirling around it. He carries two daggers.
    A distinguished figure below near the ale casks catches his eye - a female leprechaun. Most of the people are townies - just commoners here to drink away the sorrows of their pitiful lives in cursed Karthaki. She, however, is different. She is approximately 2'3" and 55 pounds. She has long (almost to the back of her knees) black hair with a jade-colored strip that goes down the right side. It is pulled back in a braid. Her pale white complexion hides the fact that she has silver eyes. Surprisingly, she has very fine features, with a thin long nose and mouth. She wears leather armor and carries a buckler and sai. She throws back a swig from her tankard.
    Several other figures also catch his eye.
    Nearby, a small ebon-skinned gremlin with smoldering yellow eyes appears to be playing some pranks on a few drunken locals. At only around 1'8", the little monsterkin seems to make up in deviousness what he lacks in height. He wears black leather armor and sports a pair of dirks in addition to his magical staff. Two amulets dangle from around his neck. The locals seem to be getting irritated with him, and one tries to snatch the little ne'er-do-well. He nimbly dodges the groping hand and then bites the man on the finger, drawing forth a spurt of blood and a cry of pain. "No one touches the gremlin!" the miniscule monsterkin shouts. Everyone nearby starts laughing, but then the gremlin waves his hands and mumbles something in a guttural language. There is a flash of light and the table breaks in half, spilling drinks over everyone nearby. Three people fall over backwards out of their chairs and one stuffed bear head falls off the wall and crashes the man with the bleeding finger on the head.
    The leprechaun woman casts a spell on the man who had attempted to grab the gremlin as she walks over. A second later his foot bursts into flames and he screams in pain at the "hot foot". She says, "Yeah, you heard Snag: 'No one touches the gremlin.'" She winks at Snag. "Need any help?"
    The gremlin walks away smirking, looking for new prey. "Nah, thanks. They're amateurs," he whispers, with a feral smile.
    A woman of stunning beauty causes Avian to almost fly into a pillar. He swerves at the last minute. She has long black hair tied behind her neck. Dark blue eyes sit above her slightly pointed teeth. A large tribal tattoo covers her entire back. Several silver rings adorn her fingers. She wears a skimpy leather outfit. She has a katar and misericorde sheathed at her waist. Most noteworthy are her large black leathery batwings, neatly folded behind her back. She glances around the room coolly.
    Nearby is another human woman, who presents herself as very attractive and sexy. She has long, straight blond hair and green eyes. She is 5'8" and around 120 pounds. She wears knee high black boots on her feet and tiger claws on her hands. Avian thinks something is definitely similar about these two women.
    Through the Teat's west door comes walking in an old human male. He goes over to the ale casks and orders a tankard of ale. Hobbling slowly over, he gives the barkeep a gold coin. Turning, gradually he makes his way to the corner table. His movement looks almost painful. He sits with his back to the corner and watches the people around while slowly sipping his ale. He is around 6' 4'' tall and 140 pounds. His long pepper-colored hair is pulled back in a pony tail that is about 8 inches long. There are definite age lines in his face, making him look even older than he really is. His long thin fingers are wrapped around a bow. He walks with a slight limp in his left leg and is kind of hunched over. He has very dark brown eyes and a golden brown hue to his skin. He is wearing a cloak that is almost as old looking as he is himself. He has a gladius hanging from his side and a small belt pouch on the other. He has a piece of cloth that is wrapped around his head as if it should be concealing a wound.
    There's so much to see and do here Avian thinks. Near the stairs to the second floor, as Avian buzzes close to that corner, can be heard giggles and what may be amorous activities. Below, in the tavern's center, is the Pit. It is 15 feet deep and almost as wide. The stones of the walls are black. Heavy, rune-encrusted stones line the rim. Centered perfectly in the open space of the pit is a purplish-blue, crackling eye of eldritch energy.
    And over there! Was that another fairy? Avian flies over to try to see, and catches a glimpse of a tiny, 5" fairy woman in diaphanous white robes, almost see-through. She has dark hair and eyes. She carries a fairy-sized staff. Then, just as quickly, she is gone again. No. It wasn't a fairy maiden - just a trick of light and shadow. It would turn out to be, however, an accurate harbinger of future companion.

    The serving wench finally makes it back over to Elgring, Corian and Silas. She is a typical northern woman: tall (over 6 feet), stocky ("built like a brick icehouse" is a more apt description), and so blond her hair borders on white. With icy blue eyes, ruddy lips and cheeks, and a laugh deeper than most of the tavern's male patrons, she is quite a sight to behold. Corian, after downing his strong ale, finds himself staring at her. She politely informs him to look elsewhere lest he end up in the pit with whatever snarling, drooling creature from Hell pops in for company this week.
    "Now then, what'll it be boys?" the wench asks.

    * * *
    A darkly garbed shape moves silently through the night approaching the village of Karthaki. His cloaked figure seemingly slides through between the rain drops; he walks upon the town as if he enjoys this weather. If one were able to gaze through the darkness and see the deadpan expression on his face, they wouldn't know the excitement he held inside. "Another bleak town" he mutters. "A mere hamlet." His thoughts go to the profit that lies ahead, No doubt the lower class of life dwell here, all sorts of wretched beasts that believe themselves to be intelligent; the poor boorish swags of habit. They're gullible, surely to fall to a higher order. The figure smirks, There is sure to be a small purse made here.

    * * *
    The gremlin, standing on a table near the pit, screams to get everyone's attention. When the place quiets down, he speaks. "I'm no proper bard or minstrel, but I learned a new song while traveling through Tallymark recently. I know you'll just love it - trust me, I'm a gremlin. I dedicate this song to the beautiful woman with long black hair in the black skimpy leather outfit over there." He looks at her and blows a kiss. "Now accompany me with a hearty banging of your tankards, hands or whatnot on the tables, and here we go. Sing along if you know it…"
    Bestiality sure is a fun thing to do
    But I have to say this as a warning to you:
    With almost all animals, you can have a ball
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.
    The spines on his back are too sharp for a man
    They'll give you a pain in the worst place they can
    The result, I think, you'll find will appall:
    The hedgehog can never be buggered at all!
    Mounting a horse can often be fun
    An elephant too; though he weighs half a ton
    Even a mouse (though his hole is quite small)
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.
    The spines on his back are so awful thick
    You'll end up with naught but a painful prick.
    He's an impregnable hole when curled up in a ball,
    Hence the hedgehog can never be buggered at all!
    Screwing a cow while she goes 'moo-moo'
    Will be entertaining to both her, and you
    Or you might try a tiger, if you have enough gall
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.
    So here's to the hedgehog, he's sharp as they come
    You'll never get through his impregnable bum
    With his nose up his arsehole, and rolled in a ball
    The hedgehog can never be buggered at all.
    Seventy-three verses later, and with almost everyone in the Teat well into their cups, the gremlin hops down to a round of drunken applause and with a brief "Next!", walks over to the stacked casks of ale. Lagging strains of "the hedgehog can never be buggered at all" continue in various places throughout the tavern. Eventually the drunken singers realize the song is over.
    Jade follows Snag and says "Hey, have you heard from Luna lately? Think she would be happy if she found out you were singing songs to other women? Last I heard was a rumor from Whitewater. She said that Luna, or I guess you could call her Ariel, is working her way back into power. Well I guess she would not care who you were singing to now that she is all-powerful. Figures she would just leave us behind, huh?" Jade then turns around, spinning on her heel. Her head is held up high in the air as she walks away.
    "Whatever," mumbles Snag. "It's not like Looney Luna was my girlfriend or anything. She wouldn't care what I was doing to whom!"
    Jade calls back, "Well, no one can deny that she had a fondness for you! Or, that you were fond of her."
    "You know, for a jester, you're not very funny. In fact, I can't think of one funny thing you've done since I met you, and that was thirty-six years ago!"
    The old archer watches as the leprechaun seems to have a spat with the little black monsterkin. Then he looks around at the other patrons in the tavern. Something about this place makes him uneasy. He thinks to himself it is all the monsterkin hanging out around here. No, I got over that a long time ago. Not all monsterkin are evil and under the control of the Death Goddess. His mind starts to drift as he remembers his family and the pain they went through when the Army of Peace came into his village so long ago. He wonders how it is that he made it out alive when no one else did….Then the face of the "man" who killed his family pops into his mind and he sees his eyes roll back in his head in pleasure with every drop of his family's blood that falls.
    Jade heads over to the table where the old guy is sitting. Placing herself in the chair next to him, she looks over into his deep brown eyes. "So what brings you to this small little town?"
    Suddenly the man feels someone looking at him and comes out of his daydream. He sees the leprechaun coming to sit next to him. He smiles a little, thinking to himself that not all non-humans are bad. "Well, Sugar," he replies to her question, "the same thing that brings everyone else - adventure."
    "Hey, that's Snag!" says Corian, speaking loudly over the tavern buzz. "We met in a tavern ages ago. He pulled a prank on my friend Galador, a noble paladin! How proud and arrogant of his class that guy was. Anyway this one," pointing his tankard at the gremlin, "cast his spell and Galador's armor fell off!" He chuckles. "Oh, how furious Galador was! Boy, how Snag's changed, grown in power..." Corian drifts off into silence as he ponders what happened to his paladin friend.
    Grown in power, Elgring heard Corian mutter these last words. He sees Corian's face has turned a shade paler, or so thinks the seasoned warrior. But from being worried about being pranked, or something worse?
    "These gremlins", the satyr says while taking a bite of his deermeat and chewing it noisily. He looks at the small creature. "I don't trust the lot!" Halfway through a draft from his tankard, he can't help spitting out a mouthful of ale, annoying the fellow patrons that he hits, as he remembers and starts laughing at the gremlin's words: Nobody touch's the gremlin!
    The dark woman in skimpy black leather with bat wings sits on a bench with a tankard of a light mead in her hand: Silver Cloud, a sour tasting brew that patrons swear becomes urine if left out over night. She looks at all the other patrons in the Witch's Teat. Her black wings twitch and move with excitement to see all the men in the bar. She sips her drink and thinks to herself Mmmmm, it's good to be a Succubus! What I wouldn't give for some action around here in this boring town. As the others move around and mingle, she winks and smiles seductively at the male species as she catches their glance.
    For their part, the men of the place seem torn between lust and fear. They've heard stories, but sometimes stories are just that. But, how can one be sure? The succubus feels a wetness on her hand.
    "Mmmm. Lady fingers." The dark succubus looks down to find the small gremlin licking and nuzzling her fingers. He gazes up into her eyes when he notices her looking at him. "Mistress of Darkness, Accomplice of the Night, Shadow in the Doorway who beckons me inside, I greet you," he says with a flourish, then he flashes her a feral grin. "I always thought you succubi were supposed to be mysterious and dangerous. You're telegraphing your intentions like a schoolgirl at her first dance. I'm sure you want more of a challenge than these common laborers and farmers can give you. First time out of the Nether-regions, huh? Well, stick with me kid, and I'll make sure you're taken care of. Now, I think business calls." He takes one last nip at her finger, not quite drawing blood, and scurries off.
    "A leprechaun", murmurs Avian flying back from his short adventure, not daring to go upstairs yet. Not without "friends" anyway. He flies over to where this leprechaun lady is drinking her ale with pleasure. "Hello. I'm familiar with your kin." An awkward introduction, for sure, he thinks. "My name is Avian. What's yours?"
    "My name is Jade. Now, if you'll excuse me." She gets up and walks to a table near the Pit.
    "So," Elgring turns his attention back to the dwarf almost forgotten in the midst of all the excitement. "Tell me Silas, what's with this pit here in the tavern? There's a similar one, as I recall, in a tavern I once visited called the Diamond Spider, which led to a dungeon of treasure and death. Mostly death!" Smiling, the Old Goat thinks of the time he and Klester, his hobbit companion of old, were there. He remembers seeing a statue of a spider made entirely of diamond. Beautiful.
    "D-d-death," stutters Corian. "Yes, old one, tell us of this pit. You know, refresh my memory," he says, smiling, glad to get his mind off the upcoming mischief of the gremlin.
    "The Pit," says Silas, eyes burning with excitement, "is the remnant of the witch's curse from five years earlier. No one knows what fuels it or how long it will last. All we do know is that at least once a week the portal awakens. It expands outward and, moments later, something comes through it. Usually some monsterkin. Some brave or foolish fellow, or sometimes a whole team, jumps in and tries to kill it before it escapes. It's not the fabled Arena of Khazan, but it's enough for us folk. Once a powerful demon almost destroyed the tavern. Dogface caught Hell that time…." Silas's talk is interrupted by the swift movements of the leprechaun nearby.
    Jade jumps up on the table, surprisingly graceful for someone of her size. Her long braid flies up and hits a carved column with a loud thump as she lands in the center of the table. It wobbles slightly. The tavern is becoming quite, but not fast enough for her. She sticks two fingers in her mouth and lets out a loud, sharp whistle. "Listen up here! The gremlin and I have come to Karthaki to go adventuring in the dungeons which are rumored to be nearby. We are currently looking for others who are interested in doing the same thing. Anyone who would like to sign up please come over to the table I am at. The gremlin and I are conducting interviews at this time. Later, anyone who knows anything about the local dungeons may also see us to provide information."

    "Ah, this is my kind of life," mumbles Elgring, finishing up his meal. He takes a final gulp of his mead. He had been yawning by the end of Silas's story of the pit before being interrupted by the leprechaun and the gremlin. "What were their names again? Blast my hearing! The song, couldn't understand it either, but by the vibrations of the mugs and the stomping of the feet, it must've been good! With a full belly, and the warmness of the tavern, I'll just lay my head down for a second," he adds, already feeling the welcome darkness wash over him.
    "Curses, more curses upon my life!" Avian mutters in his pouting tone as he circles the common room. "First I come across another attractive fairy, a mage in her white robes, who must've gotten scared off by my cursed armor! It's been a long time since I've talked to somebody of my own kin. Then the leprechaun, how insulting she was. Must've gotten her attitude from that awful gremlin; his behavior is atrocious! How he caused those poor patrons to be knocked over and their table broke in half!
    "My head," says Avian, putting his hand up to caress the pain. "I need rest. The excitement is too much. But, at least the excitement here is keeping my nightmares away!" Buzzing over to the table, he notices the leprechaun, her name is Jade, as I remember. He keeps his distance and perches himself on Corian's shoulder, who's still busy staring at the attractive barmaid, chuckling at her threat and listening to Elgring snoring. An empty plate of food. Nothing left except for some chewed up bones and empty tankards. I bet the song was the number to knock him off to sleep.
    Corian, also hearing Elgring's recent loud snore, looks at him. "As the satyr said before his nap: 'At this age, nothing's better than good food, ale, and a warm atmosphere. To me, this is the heavens!'"
    "But you're too old to stay up and enjoy the party. You need your naps," says Avian to Elgring, a silent smile decorating his face.
    "I'm going to sign up," Corian announces in a loud voice. "Give me an excuse to see Snag." He walks over to the table, introducing himself and Avian, who stays quiet. "We'd like to join your quest - the three of us" he adds, nodding at the old satyr at the table.
    "What, all three of you?" asks Snag. "You're sort of monopolizing things a little bit here, aren't you? Hogging the limelight. I mean, everyone else came here by themselves. Then you show up in a group of three…bit unfair, isn't it?
    "Anyway, you might be alright, Corian. But the fruity fruit fly there and the dirty old man passed out at the table don't seem like the sort we were looking for. Although…Ah, what the heck: 'monster fodder' and 'trap tester' it is then! Welcome aboard. I'll leave it up to you to assign the fairy and the satyr which one's fodder and which one's tester. Now then, your first mission is to head over to the 'ale altar' there, as they call it here - great name - and bring me a wee glass of Darkdale burgundy. Jolly good. Chop chop." He winks at Jade. "Oh, and take the lady's order as well."
    Jade looks around at the common room. "Okay then, who's next?"
    * * *
    It has been a hard trip from the nose of the Dragon to the back of its spine. Amazingly, it was quite short, with magical assistance, but still hard nonetheless. The mere whisper of a form appears outside the village of Karthaki. Slowly she comes into full view. For an elf she is extremely small - no more than four-and-a-half feet tall. Like all other elfs, she is overly enchanting. Her long hair, a mix between the pale blue sky of the early morning and the gray sky right before a storm hits, hangs loosely down her back. She thinks if it gets much longer everyone else will be walking on it as well. She pulls it up and loops it several times in the hood of her cloak before putting the hood up.
    If the rumors are true, she is not far from her old friends now. She stops and listens. A bird overhead flies down and lands on her shoulder. She listens to him and then pulls a piece of stale bread out of her bag, thanking him as he flies away. The rain starts to fall again, and with each moment it starts to fall harder. That is odd, she thinks, it seems as if there are others of my kin around, and yet they radiate auras of discontent.
    She moves quickly through the rain to the tavern that she was told lay in the middle of town. Outside of the ale hall, she stops upon hearing a voice from so long ago, yelling at the top of its lungs. Wow, she thinks, how can anyone so small be so loud? Well, let's see how they are, shall we?
    * * *
    "'Fruity, fruit fly'! You slime-skinned, yellow-eyed jackal!" Avian squeaks at the gremlin. He buzzes in front of Corian's face, pointing his little finger at his nose. "We don't need them! We can find other adventurers. The tavern is crawling with them! Plus, he wants you to go fetch drinks for them. The nerve! Tell me you're not going to stand for this!"
    "Take it easy there you overgrown mosquito, unless you want to lose a wing. I hear they're tasty when lightly seared." Snag smiles at him with a mouth full of sharp little teeth. "Besides, I saved Corian's life in the dungeons beneath Khamad over thirty years ago. The cheapskate can at least get me a drink as repayment."
    Corian, stepping back, avoids looking at Avian's crossed eyes. "Look, my friend," he starts, his face full of concern. "Our new friend is on his last adventure," he says, glancing at the satyr, still sleeping. Elgring's head is covered in sweat and he is muttering unintelligible words. "As much as I like him, he's not as strong as he once was. I, nothing more than a minor mage, am not powerful enough to protect our party. You are young and inexperienced in dungeon delving. This alliance will benefit us all." Excusing himself from Avian, he turns to get the gremlin's drink, pauses a second, and asks for Jade's order as well.
    Elgring, waking from an apparently randy dream, grabs the blonde woman in the suede mini-dress as she walks over to the table to meet Jade and Snag. He leaps up and grabs her in an embrace, which he interprets as being welcome. Feeling the womanly curves of her body, it arouses his manly body and mind. He hears her giggle as he strokes her hair with his good, and only, hand! Unable to bear any more, he kisses her passionately, feeling her soft blonde hair on his skin. Moving his good hand, he gropes the lady. In return, she moves her hand to his throat, choking him. Opening his eyes, Elgring realizes this is no ordinary lady, but a succubus! Lust, fear and desire sapping his strength, he can only look up into her deviant eyes in terror!
    Leaning over the table, hand on her chin, the succubus says to Elgring: "You stupid old fool! Don't you know how to act like a gentleman?" She laughs out loud with her head tilted back. "I hope there is someone more exciting here who can tell me a little bit about this hellish little town!" She removes her hand from the Old Goat's throat and flips her long blonde hair down her back. She thinks to herself, What in the Seven Hells have I gotten myself into this time?
    * * *
    The petite elf pulls her cloak up tight around her and the cowl of her hood down low, opening the door only a crack. She slips through with no problem, almost like a gentle breeze coming in. No one seems to notice her there next to the wall. She looks around, and then stops. There, standing in the center of the room on top of a table is Jade the leprechaun. Standing on the table next to her is Snag. That mean, nasty little creature. Just as cute as ever, she thinks to herself, and just as much of a pain in the arse. She slowly makes her away over to the table, being careful not to draw attention to herself, which can sometimes be hard.

    * * *
    The little fairy maiden had been traveling too long. The drizzle and cold had soaked her to the bone, and made it too hard to fly. She was tired: tired of the wet, tired of having to walk , and tired of being bored. Hearing about Karthaki in the last boring village had sparked her interest. Trudging through all the muck to get there was grating on her last frazzled nerve. "Damn wings. Flying sucks in the rain," she growls as she pulls her boot out of the slime and mud with a slurping sound. Leaning against a toadstool to scrape the slop from her boots, she looks up to see the stone walls of Karthaki. "Finally," she whispers wickedly to herself. "I can get dry, get some funds, and (hee-hee) have a whole lot of fun." After entering town she sees the tavern and makes a beeline for the door. She flies in as if she owns the place. "Give me a drink, 'keep," she orders. "And make it a tall, rich dark ale." Dogface, the barkeep, can't help but wonder if a thimble would suffice…. As she waits, the rain rolls off of her in rivulets. Her gauzy white robe is soaked through and clings to her lithe form, revealing all of her fey feminine charms. Karthaki has seen more exciting things in one night than it may have ever seen in all of its prior existence.

    * * *
    Arryan gets up gingerly and walks over to the table at which Jade is standing on. "Sign me up, Sugar," he says. "That is why I am here anyway, as long as one of these young beauties is coming along to keep me company. I may not look like much nowadays, but I can hold my own from time to time."
    Jade looks at him, not knowing whether to laugh from the thought of him trying to act like he was a warrior in his prime, or because the old man has more in him than most of the young fighters these days do. She looks over at Snag saying, "Well my old friend, what do you think? Shall we let the old man join us?" Then, not waiting for an answer, she yells: "Who's next? We don't have the rest of the human's life here to wait for you people to come and sign up. There are a few others that I'm not sure will make it either if we don't get moving soon."
    "And, hey, Snag. I am sorry about being moody earlier. I just miss Luna and I am kind of worried about her. Who knows how much trouble she could be getting herself into now that she has found out what she really is." There is a pause. Then, reaching over she touches his shoulder, saying, "And now she doesn't have the gremlin to come to her aid."
    "True. Well, while you're not funny, I guess you make up for it in sincerity. I'm sure that means something to somebody, but generally us gremlins aren't big on all that. Anyway, sign up grandpa and let's see who's next. Where's that hedge wizard with my burgundy?"
    Just as she had started to approach, the diminutive elf had heard Jade talking about her. Waiting to see whether she should come or go on about her business without making herself known, she had paused. She listened to what Jade had to say, smiling to herself. If they only knew. Then before she can move around the people to talk to her friends she had heard Snag's comment. Well, we will see there, now won't we, how you react to seeing me, she thought to herself. She would wait for the right moment to make herself known. She hung a spell and waited. See how long it takes for you to realize that you should have stayed fond of me. One day not too long from now I would have helped you gain the power little fiends like you want. A small wisp of vapor had come out of the top of her cloak. She watched and listened, waiting for her chance.
    The dark succubus, hearing the invitation to an adventure, finishes the last of her mead. Folding her wings up behind her, she stands up and slowly walks over to the table where the leprechaun and gremlin are at. She approaches the table and puts her hands down, leaning forward toward the gremlin to provide a view of as much of her cleavage as possible. With a wink, she says, "My little friend, I would love to join you in any adventures that you might have. Is there room for one more on your trip?"
    "Well," says Snag, "that's quite the ambiguous statement. I'm sure I could interpret that many different ways, and I will. You know, I didn't realize Karthaki had such a shapely valley and mountains, not to mention such tasty lady fingers. It makes me eager to get at this right now. Don't worry - there's plenty of room for all of you on this trip. I will see to that personally. It's obvious you'll bring some nice assets to the party. What's your name anyway?"
    "Anubis."
    The elf maiden finally feels it is time to step in. Via a spell, Snag hears her angry voice behind his ear whispering: "I see how soon a pretty little finger can turn a fiend's head."
    "Oh, it's going to be like that, huh?" asks Snag out loud, not yet seeing her, but knowing Luna is near. "After all of this time you show up like this, expecting that I wouldn't have found another's fingers tasty? It's been thirty-five years, you twit! A gremlin needs his lady fingers! If you were so fond of it, maybe you should have stuck around."
    The elf moves back to a corner out of sight. Not waiting for him to look around for her, she drops her cloak onto the table next to her, revealing herself - a creature who could take your breath away, not only with her looks, but also with the sword that hangs from her side. She moves well, with speed and grace, considering she is in scale armor. Her fine features look ominous as she approaches the table. She moves by the succubus, pausing long enough to excuse herself. Then, leaning forward towards Snag, she asks: "So did you miss me much, my friendly little fiend?" Shifting her gaze to Jade, with a small smile, she says, "It is nice to see you my friend."
    * * *
    Later that dreary evening, strolling into the tavern comes a short, fat elfin man dressed for travel with a walking stick and backpack. He enters quietly, then sets the pack in a corner with other traveling gear. He takes off a travel-stained cloak and hangs it up, and goes over to a table, back to the wall, not too far from the fires in the twin hearths. When the server comes over, he asks her for an ale, and then adds, "What's for dinner?"
    "Cabbage soup, barley cakes, bread - fresh or day old, and whatever meat someone managed to kill today. You'll take your chances there, but it'll be edible. If you want it all, it'll be five copper farthings. Eight if you want your bread fresh."
    He looks young, and shows a bit of sunburn as one recently out in the sun a lot. Not tan, his fair skin appears to benefit well from the large hat he sets on the side of the table to his right. Red of hair, and for those who notice, green eyes.
    An old farmer at a nearby table leans over to his companion. "More bloody elfs. I thought they were all but extinct after the War of Liberation."
    "Yeah, but they turn up like locusts before the harvest when there's the smell of adventure in the air. Sort of like the fairies and those bus-sucking demonesses. When it rains, it pours."
    "I hear you. Two questions. I've always wondered, what's a bus, and why would you want to suck one ?"
    * * *
    The dark-clad figure walks through the rain looking around the village of Karthaki. The lack of light does not bother him, in fact he enjoys it. Avoiding the gate and bypassing the walls had been easy for him, despite the several manned guard towers. He eyes every structure along his way, making note of the town's layout. He passes the stables, inn, armorer, fletcher, and the temple. "The townsfolk here must be rather skeptical for simpletons. Otherwise they surely would have left something out. Human food isn't that appealing but some nice mushrooms in the garden would be much appreciated," he says to himself. A cat, which is darker than night itself, slinks through the rain, obviously not pleased with this night. It walks up behind the figure and begins to hiss. He smirks slightly as he turns around and then gives the cat a cold stare. "What's the matter kitty? Afraid of the dark?"
    The cat pauses mid-hiss and sprints in the opposite direction, not certain of which is worse - the cold rain or the towering stranger. The stranger, for his part, continues on his path until he looks up at the sign of his destination: "THE WITCH'S TEAT". "If the stories have been true, then I'll certainly find someone here in need of my services. Curse these places with light."
    The dark-garbed stranger pulls the hood of his cloak further around and over his head to cover it completely in shadow. He opens the door and lowers his head under the lintel as he enters. Inside the Witch's Teat, several heads turn, not sure where the shadows end and the lanky figure cloaked in black begins. A local resident in poor health falls unconscious off of his stool, partly due to the amount of ale he has consumed, but mostly because he believes that Death itself has entered the tavern to claim his life.

    * * *
    "Alright!" yells Snag. "Some of you don't take a hint very well. We're not going to sit around here and drink our lives away. If you came to Karthaki looking for excitement, you'll find it here. If your intentions were to get involved in an adventure, and you haven't actually come up here to talk to us yet, I suggest you do it now. This may be your last chance!"

    "So that's how the dragon and the lamb mated!" Corian chuckles at his own joke, then looks at the bar keep, Dogface, who was giving him a 'get the hell out here' sort of look in return. Shrugging, he crosses the room to give Snag his drink. Stumbling on somebody's cloak, he catches himself and the tankard before spilling the gremlin's burgundy onto the floor. Waiting nearby, watching the drama unfold between the female adventurers - the succubus, elf and especially the leprechaun - and the prankster Snag, he unconsciously drinks the gremlin's tankard while enjoying the interaction. Finally realizing what he had done, he quickly returns to the ale altar to retrieve another.

    You senile old bastard! What just happened, Elgring thinks while rubbing his throat and smiling at the sweet kiss, was worth it! He watches the succubus walk over to the table where Corian is with a tankard in his hand. He sees the gremlin flirting with the female adventurers. A breath of fresh air will do me good. He gets up and starts to walk by the table where the farmer had earlier made the comment about 'bloody elfs", and the 'War of Liberation'.
    Whether it's due to too much drink, a contrivance, or just old and addled wits, Elgring angrily slams his dagger into the table, blade digging deep in the wood. "Got a problem with elfs?" snarls Elgring. "By Ariendale's mighty flames, I should've dug that blade into your heart for that comment! Unless you can back up your comment, I suggest you keep quiet!" Leaving the dagger to make his point, he continues out the door, letting the rain cool his emotions.
    The farmer just stares in his wake, slack-jawed. "What's his problem?"
    "Oh. He's just suffering from a guilt complex. He's the man responsible for the near extinction of the elfin race."

    Flying up to the numerous trophy heads hanging all over the walls, Avian chooses to fly over to an interesting moose head. Finding the right spot, he lies down to get a few moments of sleep before the eventual waking in a cold sweat from unpleasant dreams. As he drifts off to sleep, not noticing from his magical daggers, a mist arises. If anyone were watching these mists, they'd see them taking shape as two other fairies. Not ordinary ones, but of the undead - bodies badly decayed, empty eye sockets looking upon their sleeping prey. They appear eager to pounce upon the red-haired fairy and taste warm blood.

    As Kitara takes a seductive sip of her drink, she walks towards the crowd. "Did I hear someone mention something about an adventure? I would love a little excitement," she says with a wink. "How can I get on the list?"

    A female elf surveys the doings in the tavern as one might observe rivulets of rainwater form from drops, then race to their ends. The harried pace the humans operate at might have been dizzying to her elfin perceptions, were it not for her fine blend of smoking herbs she tends to in her elegant brass pipe.
    "…then the maiden fell gracefully into my arms, having fallen from the clutches of the formorian I slew with a single arrow to his great eye." One man boasted to indifferent listeners at a nearby table. Their gaming was rife with cheating. The wench that served them, a young girl with a pudgy body and long, jet-black hair tied back in a ponytail, had stolen a pouch from one of the company as nimbly as any market-waif. So forth. No one besides the elf maiden seems to notice.
    She had been unnoticed now for several hours as she exuded a non-presence.
    Recently she had watched and listened as a fairy flew about the place, its innate magicks had rippled through the aether in tiny, buzzing waves that sounded to her trained ears like the laugh of mischievous children at play.
    As new patrons wandered over in the din of conversation; the smoke of pipes, the braziers, and steam from hot foods; she would subtly work her anti-monster magicks to make them ill at ease about entering her space. All but the hardiest stayed but no more than a few seconds.
    Finally, after contemplating the empty tankard she had held now for one and one half hours, she stands to her full height, and silently strides to get a refill, pivoting on her heels as she goes. She stops at the "ale altar"- a stack of ale casks and shelves laden with flagons and tankards that serves as the Teat's bar - behind a patron, and reaches over him to hand her tankard to the tender, agape at her height and thin frame. Dogface, as he is called, is ugly as sin and owns a disposition to match. He barely clears five feet in height and epitomizes stocky with a chest and shoulders like an ale barrel, arms and thighs like tree trunks, and a neck that would make a bull proud. He keeps his salt-and-pepper black hair cut so short it makes him look nearly bald.
    The elf maiden wears black silk-covered leather armour, carries a buckler, and has a sheathed dagger at her left hip. Her torc of jade, tiger-eye, and silver gleams in the light. Her long, waterproofed cloak is midnight blue, embroidered in greens, browns, and shot through with clay-red threads forming a mottled pattern of broken shapes.
    "Ma'am?" the tender asks her in a raw, gravelly voice.
    "One pint o' the golden ale, Seur," she replies, staring down at the man.
    "That would be Esturiat Wanderer," he mumbles while rolling his eyes. "'A hearty golden ale possessed of a distinctively musty odor.'"
    "And your freshest bread. I thank ye."
    "Yeah," murmurs Dogface. His tired eyes look up at the elf woman with a jaded knowledge of the adventurer's life. He was rumored to have been a delver himself, in days long past, who'd retired into the tavern business here in Karthaki. He's seen it all before.
    A rat scurries behind him and into a hole in the wall, behind the mop.
    Shortly, with her meal, she returns to her vacant table and begins to partake.
    As she slowly chews the pumpernickel bread, her mystical essence returns to her now that she no longer employs her anti-monster magicks.
    She dips the last of the bread into the bottom of the tankard.
    It is time to find adventuring companions….

    Anubis sees Corian sitting at a bench watching the other patrons signing up for the gremlin's adventure, chugging down another drink that a serving wench just handed him. She moves gracefully toward the human and quietly sits next to him. She tries to tighten her wings up behind her back to look less intimidating. With a velvety voice, Anubis whispers into Corian's ear, "I'm glad that we both are eager for adventure and excitement. I'd be terribly disappointed to go on this trip without someone to accompany me." As she speaks to the man, her hand subconsciously reaches up to play with a curl of his light hair.

    Luna reaches forward, putting her hands on the sides of Snag's face, pulling him towards her as she kisses him. For a moment she looks up and sees the darkly cloaked figure sitting in the corner. She thinks There is that feeling again. I wonder… Then she redirects her attention back to Snag, and says "I thought 'no one touches the gremlin'? ["Well, there's 'good touch' and 'bad touch'," interjects Snag, matter-of-factly.] I may be a twit, but I am a twit who came with gifts."
    "Trying to make up for the guilt of your absence for all of these years?" inquires Snag.
    Ignoring him, Luna continues. "I am willing to offer each one of your party members one small request within my power, whether it be a spell or a monitory item. And after that maybe you and Jade will do me the honor of staying in my room tonight so we can catch up on old times before we are off on our separate ways again. So, what will it be? Name your poison and we will see if I can deal it."
    Jade looks at Luna and says, "I'm sure you could teach me a new spell or two. And I will stay with you tonight. I would love to hear what you have been doing." Then to the room in general, "Okay! Last call to sign up. My list is already getting too long and soon we will need to find out who is going. Personally, I want to get started on this trip before the sun comes up tomorrow."
    "Yeah, fine. I'll be there, too," says Snag to Luna. "I could use a new spell myself, and we'll see if the lady fingers have gotten any better with age."

    Arryn sits down at the table next to the one Jade and her companions are at. He feels uneasy looking at the Pit, thinking I wonder what will pop out next, and how many people have fallen to the Pit already? Coming back into the present time he says, "My dear elfin maiden, whose beauty rivals that of the morning sunrise, did you say you were willing to grant the party members a request?"
    Luna looks at him, smiling, and says "I will grant a request if you have signed on with my friends here."
    "Yes. I was wondering if you have the power to enchant my arrows to fly straight and true to for a shot that never misses. If you can not, or will not, I will understand as well it seems like a lot to ask."
    Luna smiles again "Bring your arrows here, sir. I will do as you request."

    "What we have so far is an over-abundance of wizardly types, many of whom are on their first outing," says Snag to the gathering. "Let's hope the Old Goat and the elderly archer can handle the physical work. On our official list right now we have Jade the leprechaun; me; Elgring the satyr; Corian the human; Fruit Fly, I mean Avian the fairy; Arryn the human; Anubis the succubus; and Kitara the succubus. I've seen a few more anxious eyes in the room - maybe they'll come over. If not, well…we will go on without them.
    "What I would suggest doing now is to mingle with the locals and learn a little of the lore of this place...those locals we haven't scared off anyway. I know there are some nearby 'dungeons', more than one actually, in addition to The Digs a few days from here.
    "As I see it, we have a few options. We're all here to delve into Lerotra'hh's Digs, and for the succubi, that's not an innuendo. We could attempt that. However, looking at some of these faces, I'm not sure we're all ready for that challenge yet. I hear that there is a dungeon below town, and also a manor overrun with monsterkin nearby. There may be more. Considering how many of us there are, I think we should split into two or more sub-groups and try these locations first. Then we can reunite and feel more prepared to tackle the real reason we all came to Karthaki in the first place: to loot the most famous dungeon in the land, The Digs!
    "On the morrow everyone should purchase whatever arms, armor and other gear they need and meet back here. We'll split into groups and get started. Dogface says there are furs to crash on upstairs. You can also sleep here - someone needs to guard the Pit, or you can get a room at the Unicorn nearby. Some of you ask around to these locals and find out what's going on in this village.
    "Now, you heard the ladies talking before," yells Snag. "Sign yer sorry butts up if yer gonna, then petition the 'all-powerful' elfin sorceress here for one boon. Make it a good one, and don't be too greedy! Then get on with your business. Make yourselves useful and learn something or guard this monster-belching hole for the night. I'm off to sleep, perchance to dream. By the way, Anubis, you sure know how to break a poor gremlin's heart."
    Snag starts to head toward the door, but Luna catches his eye. "Is there some reason I should feel guilty for being on my own all these years?" she asks. "If my lady fingers were so bad before why do you think they would have gotten any better with age, my dear?" Luna asks, winking at Snag. "And who said anything about gremlins having hearts?"
    "I just know that some people try to make up for their lack of involvement by buying off others. As for hearts, I use the term loosely. It's what I tend to call the sun-cracked, pitch-black, numb-inside lump I have in my chest."
    "Well Snag, if that is how you feel we can make this the last of my involvement. It is not like I am trying to rebuild a following to an ancient elfin goddess or anything. Really, all I am doing is sitting in the tavern telling tall tales and drinking my sorrows away because my friends all have other things to do." Luna, looking forlorn, turns to see the as-of-yet unknown elfin woman stand.
    She makes her way to the group, and, kneels on one bended knee before Luna. "I am An Shaelyth Yark. I would that ye bless me as ye see fit, fair and radiant one."
    "Let me give you the spells that you require, that way you will be able to help yourself as well as your party members. Meet me at the Unicorn in the morning so that I may teach you the spells that you need to aid you in your travels."

    Clapping his hands in satisfaction, I finally know what's going on, thinks Elgring. But hey, even an old dog gets a bone every now and again. "Pardon my lady," he says, bowing respectively to the elf wizardess. "I, too, beg a favor. Would you heal my past wounds that I've been bearing far too long? As you see, my party wizard," nodding his head over at Corian, "who is busy talking to a succubus, isn't as skilled; probably never will be," he says, muttering the last words under his breath. "I will be awfully grateful, and continue my pledge to protect your kin from whatever danger I can." He bows again, not looking up into her eyes until she replies.
    Luna touches a hand to the satyr's gnarled flesh, and a warm healing yellow glow slowly closes some of the wounds. "You are very badly injured. I can not heal you completely now, but this is a start. Perhaps I can help more tomorrow."

    "Well now," Corian's eyes look into the succubus's unprofessionally. "I think we can arrange something." He flushes for being noticed by this gorgeous lady. "I could possibly be your mentor; teach you things you have never imagined. How to handle situations which might be out of your control! I'm quite an experienced delver." He winks at Anubis.
    "Ouch!" yelps Corian, after being hit with a muffin. Elgring gives him a disapproving look.
    "What," Corian mutters, "do you want? I'm in council." He strokes the lady's arm with his finger.
    "Where's the blacksmith in this gods forsaken town of yours?" Elgring asks, shrugging off his friend's annoying attitude. Corian gives the Old Goat directions and a promise of finding Avian, then returns his attention to Anubis. Elgring leaves the table.
    "He won't be too long. I don't know if he's too drunk or too daft to realize the blacksmith won't be open in the middle of the night! Perhaps, as Snag suggests, we should guard the pit tonight," he says, moving himself closer to Anubis.
    Kitara looks around thinking Well, I better get mingling. As she looks through the smoke-filled, loud room, she catches what went on with Elgring. As she struts that way, she glances out of the corner of her eye, and notices Anubis whispering in Corian's ear. "Hmpf. I definitely will need to keep my eyes on that one." She hastily walks over to the table and snatches Elgring's dagger from it. After his earlier display of psychosis, the farmers hadn't mucked with it. With dagger in hand, she walks outside to where Elgring is tripping around in the darkness. She taps him on the shoulder and says, "Got anything you want to tell me old man? By the way, I know you're no Maclistr the Philosopher, but do you think the smith will still be working this late at night?"
    Noticing that Elgring doesn't want to talk with her, Kitara shrugs her shoulders and says, "Well, that's fine. Go on as you wish."

    "Awake you," hisses the undead spirit, slapping the red haired fairy across the face with her hand. Awakening and pouncing up into a hovering defensive position, Avian rubs his hand over the cold-burning wound. His bank daggers out, ready to fight, he looks closely and gasps.
    "Yessss," whispers the male spirit. "Look closely and you can see that I, and my female counterpart, would have looked if we were alive." Glancing at the daggers, Avian notes each one is designed in the shape of a fairy - one male and the other a female, crafted so fine that the detail is lifelike. The female is holding a staff, and the male wields a long sword. "This is the beginning of your curses…one of many to come." He smiles evilly, then the male fairy continues: "Each time when we appear, we'll be giving you a gift," the female starts laughing, "which could be useful, or painful, but nothing that will kill you. What fun would that be? Each day we appear, we will reappear within a hundred days after that, to give a hundred curses. Then if you survive, we shall reward your ambitions of staying alive! The armor you wear is just a taste of what's to come."
    Recalling this causes Avian to have nightmares, not being able to rest properly, which might be harmful in dangerous situations.
    "Remember this, fruity fruit fly!" the female spirit shrieks, imitating Snag's voice. "You brought this upon yourself!" With that, the two spirits change back into mists and are sucked into the two bank daggers.
    Shaken up by this event, Avian flies over to the elf lady they call Luna. "I beg a favor of you, if you would honor me with my request." Looking tired, eyes misty, he pleads with her with his looks of misery. "Take me to Corian, and cast a magical sleep spell so I can finally get some rest." Before he can hear the elf's reply, Avian slumps down to the table weak from severe exhaustion, spilling Snag's drink that Corian, after several attempts, finally brought the gremlin.
    Luna looks at the fairy with sorrow and places her fingers gently on his head. Muttering something, she picks him up and places him in the hands of the human mage. "He will sleep through out the entire night and with out magic will not wake for several hours. Hopefully it will do him some good."
    The winged succubus, excusing herself from Corian, decides that a granted wish sounds like a great idea. She starts to stand up to approach Luna, but just about trips over a drunken patron lying on the ground. Her large leathery wings expand with a 'wooshhhh', helping to catch her balance. A strong breeze billows through the tavern, attracting everyone's attention. Anubis quickly regains her composure and readjusts her brassiere, acquiring even more attention. She steps toward Luna, puts her hands together and bows deeply before the elfin maiden. "Magical One, I respectfully request a spell. I wish my armour to be impenetrable and my weapons strong. I need my body to be as protected as possible."
    Luna looks at Anubis, smiles ands says, "Although I could grant your request, an enchanted chastity belt is not what I think you are looking for right now. Tomorrow we will go into town and buy you suitable armor. As for your weapons, let me see them."
    Anubis holds up her katar and misericorde. Luna takes them into hand and a yellow glow envelopes them. The light slowly fades, and for most in the room disappears altogether. To the wizards, however, a faint yellow continues to swirl around the blades.
    "Your daggers are now vorpaled to wound for double damage. The spell is but temporary, however, and will not last long after you use them in combat."
    Snag stands up to leave when he is interrupted yet again.
    "CHANCE?! Earlier you spoke of a 'last chance'. Why, you talk about chance as if it had limitations," the darkly-garbed figure growls, as a stillness falls upon the Witch's Teat. He gracefully walks closer to the small band of adventurers.
    "Here we go," mutters Snag. "There's always one. I expect one. One I can handle, but this whole tavern is full of them! Maybe I never should have run away from my life as Arak Noid's apprentice."
    Tankards can be heard resting onto tables as the dark cloaked figure draws attention to himself. Several locals look around, wondering whether it has grown dimmer in the tavern or if they're just more aware of the prevailing darkness in the room. Responding to Snag's previous comment interrupts the evening's festivities. "Why is it that you believe chance is limited? And why is it that you hold those in your presence as futile, yet you apparently are in need of their services? Could it be because you are about to embark into the unknown with a handful of half-breeds, gnats, and those who deny their own brethren their birthright? If that is your plan, then yes, your chances are limited, and you will be sorry."
    Snag starts to interject something, but the speaker continues.
    "Is there a need for you to apologize for the poor inclinations of these lessers? I'm drawn to believe that if this lot had the capacity, they should be the ones to apologize, if only for their existence and the air that they waste on their breaths. May I make a fairer suggestion regarding chance? The unknown does not need to remain hidden to you. It would speak volumes of your vast and gracious wisdom if you were to include in your midst, one who has the ability, or should I say fore-knowledge of what lies ahead of you. I believe a discerning mind such as yours would choose to have such a companion in your midst." The speaker curls his lip and narrows his gaze as he glances at some fairies, elfs, and others that are beneath him. "I, for one, Anemos Nuktos, would graciously put aside my grievances with the lesser kind to assist your party in such a way. And may I add, for a modest price, my services will greatly increase the chances of your survival, none-the-less your opportunity for profit. What do you say? Do you want to take your worrisome odds, or do you want to forget about leaving things to chance and go with a sure bet? You might be sorry if you don't." Anemos pulls back his hood, revealing his face to those gathered. A few humans gasp in fear and shock, while others scowl in anger and hatred, showing their disdain for what he is: a dark elf.
    Luna looks at him, now understanding why the discomfort came to her every time she had seen him before. Her once pale skin turns an unusual shade of red as her eyes fight a look between pity, distrust, and anger. Her voice comes out cold and low: "I have never denied any of my people their birthright." She tries hard to push images of the civil war among her own people back in the Great Wizards' War out of her mind to focus on the here and now. The voice in her head keeps saying He is not one of the elfs who fought against you, but a child in an unknowing life. "I would gladly see all elfs back together, fighting next to each other to regain the power we all once had instead of fighting one another. So, I would advise that unless you were at the war that caused so many of my people to be turned from me not to imply things you have no real knowledge of." Her hands are now shaking and tears run down her checks. Her mind is flooded with all the things she let her people go without and the way things should have been. She feels the power that once was, and never will be again, come and go. With that, she quickly walks outside of the tavern, raises her hands above her and lets out a streak a blue light that goes straight up and disappears into the dark night sky.
    "This just gets better and better," says Snag. "Alright you sun-starved pointy-eared cave rat, you're in. But we don't pay upfront for your services. Any treasure we find delving we split up evenly amongst survivors. Now then, who or what's next? I know there has to be more."

    Still outside, Kitara had looked into the sky and noticed the blue flash of light. Standing a few feet away from her now is Luna. Kitara approaches. She says, "Milady, might I ask you to grant me a spell? And could you direct me as to where I could get some weapons?"
    Luna teaches the succubus Vorpal Blade and tells her to visit Quill's, when she gets a chance, to procure weapons.

    The fairy maiden had been silently observing from across the room, gathering information and opinions about the patrons surrounding her. The quiet rogue at the rickety, gnarled rough hewn table, staring into his tankard, lost in his thoughts while occasionally letting a dreary tune slip from his unguarded lips. The crowd at the far end grabbing the mead wench in hopes of holding something more than her skirt in their dirt-encrusted hands. The most excitement had been going on at the table nearest the center of the common room: a ragged crew of misfits speaking of adventure and riches. The thought of adventure, fun, and a fat purse gave her goose bumps as she wondered how she could approach the motley crew.
    Having a tankard of courage and a belly full of ambition, she chose to take a direct route to the crew and see what she could learn of them and their aspirations of grandeur. Flying across the route in a direct path, she chooses her landing point with little regard for safety. The shoulder of Anubis seemed as good a place as any.
    "May I have your attention please," she says with mead courage. "My name is Rayne, and if you wish to succeed in your endeavors, you will be needing me." Rayne expects sneers and is awestruck at the audacity of the crew as laughter spews forth from them.
    "Lerotra'hh's great bosoms!" laughs Snag, tears rolling down his cheeks. "You know, I thought the dark elf was arrogant, but this is too much. I don't have the strength to keep this up. Fine, fairy girl - you're in, you're in."
    A voice, fine and airy, penetrates everyone's mind. **Well, if that is all, then I am going to find a room at the Unicorn and will meet those of you who still need things here in the morning. Good night to all. Those who I will see later, you can come to the Unicorn and they will send you up to my room.** For many, this is their first experience with elfin telepathy, known as 'sending'.

    Slowly the tavern's common room and its excitement die down. Most of the townies leave to return home. Some head upstairs to meet with local woman of the night; others collapse into puddles of drool and alcohol on the tavern's benches or floor. Others find shelter where they can.
    The braziers fade to faint coals and the tavern falls quiet, but for the snores of the sleeping, the scratching of rats and the impassioned moans from upstairs. The cold, damp wind blows through the windows and stirs the coals, causing the shadows to dance crazily on the tavern walls.
    Elgring, Arryn, Corian and Anubis sit at a knife-scarred table, staring into the pit at the pulsing eye of eldritch energy. They talk little, just listening to the quiet sounds that occasionally break the silence. Avian slumbers in enchanted sleep on the table. The monotony and lack of sleep causes the sentinels to almost overlook the flash of energy from the witch's eye. A second later a swarm of flying frogs, mouths filled with sharp fangs, explodes out of the pit.
    Once, long ago, a wise sage noted that if frogs had wings they wouldn't bump their arses a-hoppin'. At some point after that a wizard with a much lower IQ stat took pity on frogs and decided to help them out by making good on the old adage. Not a bad idea. Doing it by magically crossbreeding them with bloodbats? Not a good idea.
    The pit-watchers have no chance of reacting before the swarm of flying froggies is upon them.
    * * *
    At the Prancing Unicorn, Jade, Luna and Snag catch up on old times, sharing stories and exchanging spells.
    * * *

    After a hard-fought few minutes, the delvers, while bloodied and out of breath, have slain all of the bloodsucking avian-amphibians. Arryn's arrows, and Corian and Anubis's spells, killed not a few, but it was Elgring's blade that slew the most. Despite his age, the Old Goat was still a fierce warrior when he needed to be. All had the unnerving experience of having a frog attach itself near their necks and draw blood before they could kill the thing. Fortunately, no one is seriously injured.
    Relaxing in the tavern amidst the frog carcasses, Anubis watches through the window slats as the sun slowly comes up. After that bout with the flying fly-snatchers, she decides that the first thing to buy would be some better armor. What little she has on now doesn't seem like it will be enough for adventuring. She leans over to Corian and gently licks his neck where he was bitten by a frog. "Would you like to join me in getting some wares and goods for our upcoming quest?"
    Corian abashedly mumbles a reply intended to convey his agreement. Then, "Nice work with the frogs."
    "Huh!" Elgring grumbles, turning around to see Kitara watching. Apparently during the fight she had been observing from the shadows of the common room. His dagger in hand - the one she had returned to him earlier - he looks her over and gives his grunt of approval. "Thanks for getting me my dagger before. First time I had the pleasure of talking to your kin on a non-combat level," he says with a smile. "And you were right: the black-smith was closed that late." He recalls the feeling of the coolness of last night's rain. "I didn't answer you before, too embarrassed I guess, about if I had something to tell you. What would you like to know?" He wipes the smelly blood on his dagger onto a bar rag. No one else notices, but his hands and face are starting to become red and lumpy.
    Kitara looks into Elgring's stern eyes, and says, "No problem returning your dagger." She gives him a wink and adds, "Your heart is that of a lion. What is happening to your hands and face, old one? Why don't you accompany me to Quill's later, and we'll discuss it." With that said she goes.
    "Good job!" says Corian, slapping Elgring on the back. "You, too, Arryn. Not bad for a crew of elders."
    "Thanks, guys. You did pretty good, too, but now I think it is time for me to go and find something to eat and our party leaders," Arryn says before ducking quietly out of the room. He, too, starts to appear red and lumpy.
    "Too bad Snag wasn't here to see this!" Corian looks around at the scene. He strikes up a conversation with Anubis, helping her to retrieve a few "complimentary" drinks from the ale altar. "I can't wait to see the looks on Dogface's face when he sees this mess!"
    "Yikes!" Avian squeaks, waking up to see a decapitated monster lying next to him: a frog with wings, its dead cold eyes staring at the fairy. Flying up to find Corian, he notices how great he feels from the sleep. "I gotta thank Luna when I see her next; but I wish a good elf like her wouldn't hang around with that mischievous gremlin!"
    * * *
    The dawn brings a feeble sun trying to burn away Karthaki's dampness. Most have aching heads and backs as they rise to the day's business.
    Having ducked out early from the fight, after dispatching a frog with her katar, Yark had made her way to the Unicorn. Upon realizing that her five golden crowns would likely not be sufficient to stay the night, Yark had found the most hospitable spot on the grounds, and went to sleep.
    In the morning, she arises, does her best to clean off the caked mud acquired from the soggy ground, draws her cloak closer against the chill, and ambles gangly to the front door to make good on her newly granted magickal training. The Unicorn, Karthaki's only true inn, is remarkably clean and in good shape, compared to the rest of the village.
    As she sits down, Yark thinks of a small loaf of hot bread, and some bean soup. A modest human breakfast, she thinks to herself as she flags down the server, a tiny young hobb girl.
    Luna comes down the stairs and looks around. Seeing Yark she slowly glides over to her. "May I sit with you for breakfast before we start your training?" Yark nods and Luna sits down and orders food as well as having a meal sent up to the room for Snag and Jade.
    "Well, are you ready to learn some new spells? I think these will help the most to get you started." Luna leans forward whispers some words into Yark's ear, magically implanting the spell into earth elf's mind. "That is Poor Baby, any questions?" Then she says, "This spell is called Whammy." She quietly whispers the words to the spell. "Got it? The last two are called "Omni-Eye and Hidey Hole." Closing her eyes, she softly recites the words. "Did you have any questions?"

    At the blacksmith's, Tov Ironhands, Elgring, with Anubis, Avian and Corian in tow, approaches the dwarfin smith, working at his anvil. Sparks fly and a high ringing surrounds the place. Tov's gruff, deep voice echoes out of the forge, muttering something in Dwarfish. "I need armor," Elgring says, sounding confident now, especially after being healed and fed. "Plate, and by tomorrow good sir!" the Old Goat says politely, yet firmly.
    Short and broad, even for a dwarf, Tov's bald head is marred by a number of scars crossing the top of his skull. A long burn mark extends down his left cheek, interrupting even his fiery red beard. A thick leather apron and singed eyebrows only highlight his thick arms and broad shoulders in a firm confirmation of his occupation as a blacksmith.
    "If only you had the intelligence of your age, old one!" is the dwarf's unwelcome reply at being disturbed. He mutters in a low, gravelly voice: "The nerve asking for plate in a few hours. It takes at least weeks, nitwit. Ah." He waves his hand as if to say 'never mind, you're a paying customer.' The dwarf looks over the seasoned warrior. "What are of those hideous warts covering your face and hands? Anyway, tell you what," the blacksmith continues, "over there is a big pile of armor - bits and pieces, all mismatched - but enough to cover your body properly; cover up those mighty scars. Your scars look as bad as mine do, but the warts! They make you look like a walking lump of something even a Karthakian rat wouldn't eat. Ah, never mind." The dwarf accepts the 600 gold crowns offered by the satyr, outfits him with the various components of the armor, and wishes the warrior good delving.
    The group heads next to the aptly named 'Mike's Leather Shop' for Anubis's protective needs. In many villages the tannery is outside of town, but Mike's is placed in town, in spite of the awful stench of the tanning process which has a tendency to turn good neighbors into enemies. Entering, the companions see that the building has two main rooms: one devoted to tanning and drying leather and the other used for making and selling the final products. Vats of foul smelling chemicals fill the tanning room while racks for stretching and drying leather take up all of the walls. The stench is incredible and tear-inspiring. The proprietor, a human named Michael, is found here along with his apprentices, Jen and Kyle, also humans. Mike's sells leather clothing, bags, boots, backpacks, and armor. The armor they sell is masterwork quality. All of the leather goods bear impressions of eagles, hawks, or other birds, as well as Mike's particular symbol.
    At the store Anubis picks out some thick leather arm and leg covers, and a breastplate of leather and chainmail. It's seductively formfitting, yet gives her wings the full movement that she likes. Since she doesn't want to part with her golden crowns, her offer to Michael, after he quickly sends his apprentices out for lunch, is taken up with a quick "Hell, yeah!".
    Minutes later, the storeowner and Anubis emerge from a back area, services rendered. The succubus smiles as she admires her new leathers.
    Afterwards, the group heads to 'Quill's Handy Travel & Adventuring Supplies and General Store' to get provisions. Brandarb Quill, a dour hobb, runs this establishment, which sells everything from food to dungeoneering equipment. Quill gives the wart-faced Old Goat a wide berth, but doesn't refuse him business. A brief search of the premises turns up the desired items. After purchasing them, the provisions are stored in the saddlebags of Elgring's enchanted horse "Bodkin".
    Snag, Jade and Luna, out on their own tour of the hamlet see the group come out of Quill's and summon Elgring's mount. Jade and Luna nod and pleasantly greet them. Snag, seeing Elgring's face, shows a crooked smile and says, "Hey Elgring, finally hitting puberty, huh? You Goat-kin sure are late bloomers."
    Luna, seeing Elgring, says, "Maybe I should heal you some more. You are looking pretty bad all over now. I thought I healed you last night?" Luna, looking for a spot that is not covered in warts to place her hands, finds one. She touches him and starts to see the wounds that are inside of him healing. She stands there for a few minutes focusing on his deep wounds until they are almost fully recovered. The warts, however, remain.
    Then, an old, hunched woman shambles over to the group. She wears a veil over her face and countless layers of black silk and cardigans. The stench of age and death is strong about her. She fixes her hollow gaze upon the Old Goat and points a bony finger at him.
    "You, Elgring Longtier, failed Rown Morian of the Elfin revolution, have been fated to die on the first day of the year 1072! Your aged and decrepit body will finally fail you as the new year is rung in. Unless you can magically extend your life, your soul will be claimed on that day by the demon you gambled it to so long ago, and it will be carried off for eternal torment in the deepest of the Seven Hells! I have seen this is in divine vision, and so it shall be!" With that the old woman turns and heads off the way she came.
    Snag looks at everyone and frowns. Looking at Elgring he says, "Well, frog-face, that's probably not good. Not good at all." Then, raising his voice to the retreating woman, he yells, "Thanks for the good news grandma!"
    The wind carries a faint voice back to him in reply: "Bite me you little twerp!"
    "Looks like grandma still has her kink on," Snag quips.
    Anubis says, "If Kitara was here, I'm sure she'd say 'Hmmm, I'll have to keep my eye on that one'".
    Luna looks around at everyone. "I wish you guys the best of luck. Well, those of you who need it. I hope to see you again when you have become seasoned adventures. Until then…" She leans over to hug Jade and whispers something in her ear. Then she faces Snag, smiling. She kisses him on the top of the head. "Good luck finding those lady fingers my friend." With that, she starts to ripple and slowly disappears. "Fair thee well," she says as her voice fades until she is once again gone.

    Later, back at the Teat, Snag gathers everyone together once again.
    "I don't mind telling you," he says, "that I'm a little disappointed that not one of you made any effort to talk to the locals and gather some intelligence about the two locations we want to explore. It was a small thing I asked. Now we go in unknowing, and while the dark elf assures me that his mere presence will change all of that, it's not the way I like to do things. "Nevertheless, let's get started. I'm itching to kill something and loot its stuff. I'm sure all of you are, too, unless you're itching for some other reason: poor hygiene, warty skin, promiscuity…anyway, you get the picture.
    "Now then, let's break up into two teams. As much as possible, we should try to be balanced groups, varied in experience and skill. One team will go into the tunnels beneath this hamlet, and the other will investigate the curse on Morrick Mansion. If want to test your mettle in the catacombs below, come sit at this table with me. If you prefer the manse, move to the table next to me. If you are a brave and serving soul, and don't mind where you adventure, stand before me and I'll assign you a place in an attempt to balance our powers. Let us do this."
    Arryn looks down at Snag and says, "I guess that I will go in to the catacombs." He slowly walks over and sits at the table behind Snag.
    "Right. Slow down there Speedy. Save some for the monsters. That's one for the Dungeon of Wonder. By the way Arryn, I slipped a potion of speed into your lunch, otherwise we'd be here all day."
    "Parting is such sweet sorrow, shut-up!" Elgring says to Corian, while holding his tankard with a warty hand. "It's been hard enough dealing with one hand, and now this: having warts and lumps all over my body! It's better that we separate. If that old crone is right, I don't want you around for my downfall, and get you guys hurt."
    "If that's true," Corian replies, "Snag will be in your party and he might get hurt!"
    Shrugging, Elgring continues eating his final meal.
    "Don't think I didn't see that, you old frog sucker," Snag adds. "If I go down, I'm taking you with me. 'Finagle's Demons'. Just remember that."
    "So you're going to delve in the catacombs?" Avian asks, levitating near Elgring's ear. "And Corian and I will go to that mansion place, which is more suitable to my liking; being underground to me is too confining." His mouth is now too full to talk more, after stealing bits and crumbs off Elgring's plate.
    "I don't like this," Corian says, "but that's your choice to separate." Fishing around in his pack, he pulls a bottle out and pushes it across the table to the satyr. "Take this. It's a potion of longevity; add some years to your life. For some reason I believe that old crone. She spooks me, if you ask me."
    "No one did," quips Snag.
    Corian continues, oblivious. "Plus, the thought of pissing off the demon by making it await your soul even longer makes it worth it! Let's go Avian." He walks over to sit at the table next to Snag. He stares at Anubis, hoping she will join him.
    Avian, flying close to Corian, has made a pledge to serve the humankin, so he sticks close by the mage.
    Getting up slowly, Elgring moves to the table were the gremlin sits, pondering if his new friends are worth shedding blood for.
    Snag frowns. "Great. I'm on a team of geriatric grapplers. I hope we packed extra prune juice. What's that Elgring? Speak up. I can't hear you. Where's the ear trumpet?"
    Anubis doesn't want to seem overbearing or bossy, so she stays a bit in the shadows and watches the others decide what group to be in. She has a liking for the human Corian and waits until after he decides what small adventure to partake. Unfortunately, his choice is different than hers.
    Anubis walks up to Snag and sits right by his side. She extends her wing to wrap around behind the gremlin as she gently rubs her sleek muscular leg against him. "I would love to go down below with you, my little friend. What better place than a catacomb to find more skulls for my collection!" She then winks at Corian, hoping the mage will get the hint to switch parties and join with Snag's group.
    "You and your skull collection! Can't you ever get enough?" Snag asks.
    Yark, having previously thanked the wizardess Luna with a bow, departed and now joins the gathered adventurers. She has no desire to party with the succubus, and so, when Anubis splits off, Yark makes her way to the group without the demoness: those headed for Morrick mansion.
    Silently, Yark listens and observes all that transpires.
    Without a word, Kitara moves to the table with Snag and sits down.
    Jade steps before Snag. "Where am I going little one?" she asks with a smirk. "Oh, yeah. Luna left some thing for you. Don't let me forget to give it to you before we get going."
    "Well, give me what you've got, because I think I'll send you to the manse, old friend. By the way, who are you calling 'little friend'? You don't exactly live outside of the realm of the vertically-challenged yourself."
    "Black Rayne - you go to the mansion with the other fairy. I think it will be good for both of you. Dark Elf - you come with me. I will hold you to your prideful words that your expertise regarding the Great Dark World Below will see us through safely."

    "Now that we're separated into our respective parties, we should get started. Delvers trying their luck in the Dungeon of Wonder should meet me at the stone henge in the center of town. Those adventurers who are investigating the old Morrick mansion, stay here and formulate a plan of investigation. I hope to see all of you back here soon, rich and more experienced. And, people… let's be careful out there."

    V. Catacombs & Curses
    As Snag is leaving the Witch's Teat, Jade hands him a small black leather bag. He accepts it and walks on.
    "Well, I am ready to go," says Jade. "Does anyone know how to get to Morrick Mansion or the lore around it?"
    "Morrick Mansion it is," Rayne repeats in a steady voice. She thinks the company is interesting and full of variety. It is a huge relief to be paired with another fairy. Avian is a welcome sight, in more ways than one. "We will have a need for plans for our journey!" Rayne orders. "What do all of you think we should do?" Glancing from one member to another, looking each in the eye, she pauses, waiting for an idea. "Being small, I would think that between Avian and I, scouting ahead would be a start of a plan. Are there any problems with this?" she asks the group. There seems to be a quiet rumble from a few gathered with them. "Well," Rayne replies to them, "what do you want to do?"
    Smash! Corian throws tankard after tankard to the floor to gain everyone's attention. "Listen! With Snag gone it's up to me to get order around here! You Jade, get Snag out of your mind and start concentrating on our mission here! Yark, you need to participate more. You will be no good stalking the shadows. We need your input on situations that will arise! Black Rayne, where are you?" he asks, looking around. "You're here one moment, gone the next!" Corian sees the barkeep approach. "Oh, Rats and Bats," he swears at the look Dogface gives him. "Gotta go pay these damages from last night," he says while running off to the ale altar.
    "Corian's right," Avian squeaks, flying around to keep the group's attention. "We need to get organized and find out more about this cursed mansion. I want to hear from everyone. I, for one, would like to suggest we go off and spend the day, wasting no more time, asking questions about Morrick's place. Let's start with the people who run these businesses in town. Adventurers who buy goods and services often tell stories related to such places." Flying above the heads of the party, Avian waits to hear further suggestions. "Let's not disappoint our party leader Snag."
    Yark hovers about the Morrick Mansion party, quietly answering any non-personal questions asked of her, smiling at jokes, and noting the equipment visible on various persons in the group.
    A while after he returns, she walks up to Corian and says, "Seur, a mage thou surely art. What say ye that we face a true ghost in yon manse?" As she converses, Yark eyes Corian's gear, and quietly slips him a smooth, polished stone, green and translucent, imbued with a Take That You Fiend spell left in a dormant state, ready to be used by her or the mage. "Please, Seur. Accept ye this token of my respect."
    "I am going now to poke around the village," Rayne insists. "There are a lot of locals who will be 'happy' to provide us with any information we want. One way or another, we need to know what we may be up against. Let's split up and head out. I will choose the south." Turning her back on the rest of the team, Rayne takes a few small steps away from the group.
    Rayne was waiting for one of the supposed 'strong' men to assist her with the locals... just in case they thought she was a leprechaun and wanted her for a pot of gold! Ignorant farmers she thinks to herself. Damn, it sure is hard to use my 'feminine wiles' on big lumbering jackals! Coming to a halt from her stumbling steps away from the group, she quickly turns around and yells, "Hey, are you all gonna stand there like a bunch of twits?" The anger is showing on her face as she scans the shocked group. "One of you louse get yer arse over here or you will get my staff on your yellow rears!"
    Jade, who has been standing it the corner taking it all in, suddenly, in one quick movement, does a somewhat impressive flip landing on the table with a loud thump. "If anyone was paying attention when you showed up," Jade says, "this was an adventure that Snag and I were recruiting for. Now if I remember right, rules were that you signed up under Snag and myself. So you can ALL JUST SIT DOWN FOR A MINUTE AND SHUT UP! Thank you. Now, I know each of you would like to think you are in charge, but I am. Now I agree that we should find out some information and I think that Rayne had a good idea, that here shortly when we leave, her and the fruit fly should scout ahead. First, however, I think we should find out where the mansion is and what the lore is. Rayne, if you and Avian would like to go out into town and see if you can get some information; Corian, if you would like to go with Yark to a different area to find out information, or stay here to find out something. I will go and pick up the last few things we need and try to gather information as well. We can meet back here in two hours and then leave for the mansion. Does any one have any questions? Good. Then I will see you soon." Jade heads towards the door, not really waiting for anyone else to mouth off. She exits and thinks to herself, Gee, I miss Snag already. Why did he stick me with this bunch of fools?

    * * *
    The dark seductress follows the rest of the small group to the center of town to the encircling stones. There are glyphs carved into the pillars of the henge, but they are an ancient language that she does not recognize. To someone who knows, the glyphs are an ancient Cellian alphabet called 'Ogham'. She traces her fingers along the carvings, wondering what they could possibly mean. Anubis walks over to the well and sits on the edge, drops her pack to the ground, and stretches her legs and wings. Excitement runs through the rest of her comrades as it does through her. What a rush! she thinks to herself. Standing to raise her voice over the chatter, she says, "We should start before the day gets too old and the geriatric members of our group need to go to bed." She then blows a kiss to Elgring as he scowls at her. Kitara comes over and the two succubi reside near each other in silence.
    "Ah.…" Taking in the cool autumn air, Elgring snuggles into his cloak, awaiting Snag to get things started. "Look at these people." Looking around he sees Arryn standing alone, looking into the mystic circle of the stone henge. Anubis and Kitara are near each other, but not conversing. Probably each thinking about how to have a threesome with Snag! thinks Elgring.
    "Gather around everyone," the Old Goat says in his strongest voice. "Yes: you Arryn - no more stalking alone, being all mystic and mysterious! It's time to form a bond because if there's no level of trust there's no reason going. If we can't watch each others' backs we are dead already!"
    "Look at this great beauty, what we call a stone henge. Allow this to be our symbol for our group," continues Elgring, touching the rock formations. "Take this for example, let it represent the strength and building formation of our group. Notice how it's in a circular pattern - let it represent our cycle of life. At one point we will be killed. There will be no avoiding that. With this tragedy we'll need to bring in new life to balance the party to protect each other from the evil forces of the Death Goddess. The center, a type of well full of water; let us see this as unification, coming together, as the mid-size stones represent the bodies of our group. The water is the blood that we all have, to flow thru our bodies, from the heart to our brains and to our limbs!"
    "I don't know why this stone henge has been constructed, but it has a purpose just as our group has. People, let's work together to solve these mysteries and bring hope to the world."
    Bowing, not looking up, Elgring focuses his view on the center well, inside hoping that his group took his words to heart!
    "Elgring, you have such honorable words of wisdom," says Kitara. "Don't you agree, Anubis?"
    Snag finally steps up to the group. "Pretty words for such an ugly beast. I was just going to say 'Let's go kill some people and take their stuff', but if this makes people feel better, who am I to argue."
    Arryn looks at the Old Goat and with a tone of disdain states, "You old fool. I do not remember Snag here dying and leaving you in charge. And just because I do not feel like chatting with the likes of old fools about the weather or which monster has the worst bite, it does not make me 'mystic and mysterious'; just observant and quiet. Now, whenever Snag says we are ready, let's get the show on the road, or I may just fall a sleep from boredom." He looks over at Snag. "Well, my good sir…."
    "Hold on a minute." Snag opens up his recently acquired pouch. Inside there is a small blue gem on a silver chain. On the back in reads to 'My little friend: may you always have a place to hide in cases of danger, and a goddess to ask for help if you ever need it. With my fondest thoughts, Ariel.' Also in the bag is a note that reads: 'This contains 40 hidey-hole charges.'
    "Ah, how sweet," Snag mutters, "and I didn't even get her anything."
    Anemos Nuktos drifts through the shadows of Katharki, cursing the morning as even the thought of sunlight makes his blood boil. Fortunately, the sky is yet again overcast. He manages to keep himself entirely shrouded in his black cloak. One might mistake him as a phantom engulfing the coveted areas of darkness, feeding his soul. As it stands, he has no soul; he's a dark elf and that alone consumes him.
    Anemos approaches the henge that stands in the middle of town. He admires the cold dark stone that ominously looms over those gathered within its confines. For the first time in days he draws a sigh of relief, as the stones remind him of the dark caverns he is native to. He feels a surge of strength, for it is the same dark caverns that devour him that he is able to draw upon. The party of adventurers mull around at the henge; Anemos recognizes them from the night before. They seem not to notice him as he is withdrawn in the shadows.
    "Have you forgotten something?" Anemos calls out to the others.
    "And what would that be?" replies Elgring.
    "Your good luck charm. Your one chance," states Anemos. He receives several disdained glances, as expected. Better to keep them on edge for now, thinks Anemos. "I would say that we are wasting the day, but then again, anytime in this infernal sunlight is a waste. Not that it would bother some of you. So, why don't we get on with things? If I recall it correctly there is a dungeon for us to claim."
    "Now that our 'good luck charm' has graced us with his presence," says Snag, "we can get started. And I hope, dark elf, that you have half the skill you claim. Now then…the Dungeon of Wonder lies below this spot, which means we enter through this shaft of water. Yes, it will be cold, or should I say a little 'nippy', especially for our more scantily clad friends here. I did manage to gather some information while you were all carrying on the past two days." He does his best to look down his nose at everyone, which is nigh impossible when you are less than two feet tall. Nevertheless, he manages to pull it off, if for no other reason than the chaotic magical nature of the world of EarthTree and what the people of the future will call quantum physics and non-Euclidian geometry.
    "That's right, the entrance to the gauntlet is within the village's well. Brief forays into the well over the years by locals and wandering delvers have revealed the existence of two doors. Only the uppermost door has been able to be opened; the lower door has resisted all attempts -magical and mundane - to open it. Likewise, spells that have been used in an attempt to breach the halls below the village (such as Wink-Wing) have failed.
    "The dungeon is rumored to hold the fabled Sword of Wonder, a potent magical blade that would aid us in our future foray into the Death Goddess's citadel. Elgring would say we can use it to bring hope to the world. I say we use it to kick some arse and kill people. So, any ideas on getting below? We'll need a strong swimmer and some light to see what's down there. What does dark elfin wisdom say to do in situations like this?"
    "Well, I for one," says Kitara, "would like to get started. I have some rope I could use to get down in the well. Would someone be willing to help me out? By the way, does anyone have a lantern? It's mighty dark down at the bottom and this water is freezing...."
    "A standard lantern won't work underwater," quips Snag, "but the rope's a good idea. We can create magical light. It'll be dim, especially down there, but it'll be better than nothing."

    * * *
    "Oh, Please!" Avian says, as he sees Corian still fawning over his newly acquired gift from Yark. If that's not enough, he thinks while glancing over to Rayne, she appears to want me in more ways than one. "She's a wild one. If we are to work together, I'll have to protect my virtues!" he squeaks. Flying down, grabbing Rayne's arm and tugging her he says, "C'mon mage. Let's go and seek our information. We don't need any big people. We can take care ourselves! Let's start by asking the town guards at the front gate." As if in a daze, Rayne goes along.
    "What a gift!" Corian gasps, still mesmerized by the magical bauble. Finally, after recomposing himself and waiting through the various tirades, he addresses Yark. "I thank thee for the gift and your words." After she looks away, he scratches his head. How do you use this confounded thing? he thinks. Can't let her think that I'm a minor mage; that will ruin her spirit. Corian concentrates on the stone to cover up for the lack of more words to say to the charming Yark.
    "Huh?" Corian says, looking up, not paying attention to the latest events. He sees Jade's retreating form. "Did I miss something?"
    Avian, while flying away, quickly informs Corian that he needs to go search for information.
    "Oh, yeah" Corian replies. "Yark, let's go get some info, but we'll avoid asking Dogface. He has an attitude problem. I suggest we start by asking the people at the temple here in town." Yark silently follows along.

    The fairy pair finds the gate guards not too talkative, but they do learn, due to the fey awe they inspire in the human guards, that "Lord Morrick was a rich, rich man. His mansion is full of treasure", and that many of the locals believe that "Lord Eldoran, Lord Morrick's next door neighbor and competitor, hired a wizard to curse the wedding party held at the manse."

    Arriving at the Temple of Banistal the Divine after a short time, Corian and Yark find a massive building rising near the road. Inside, rich tapestries decorate the walls depicting numerous battles, usually focusing on individuals protecting innocent children. Statues and tapestries depict Banistal as a tall male human in silver plate mail and holding a large silver shield and a massive sword.
    Sarah Lyrean, a human, is the high priestess of the temple. Sarah has a mysterious beauty and peace that extend to almost everyone around her. An angular face and sharp nose that would not often seem attractive are overcome by her healthy glow, light blue eyes, and the thick braid of light brown hair pinned in a tight bun at the back of her head. Her youth and slight stature give her an almost childlike grace.
    She tells the adventurers that she believes the mansion to be cursed, and that her own studies include a great deal of information on demons and demonic magic. She knows that creating such a curse would require someone willing to let a demon channel its power through him or her. "Perhaps there is an item somewhere on the grounds that acts as a focus point for the curse. Finding and destroying such an item would likely end the curse. You may also find it useful to speak to Leah Redoak and Jasmine Jasmine Welk."

    Jade goes to Quill's store to pick up some other goods. As she walks in she sees a young human sitting in the back next to the fire place. The young female has long black hair that is tied back with just a few strands that hang loosely across her cheek. She is dressed rather well in comparison to the rest of the town people. She looks up at Jade as she walks by; Jade smiles and nods her head.
    Jade heads over to the store owner, the hobb Quill, to pick up 50 feet of rope and flint and steel. Jade pays for the goods and asks: "Sir, do you know how to get to the mansion or any lore around it?"
    Quill says the manse's location is common knowledge and to the east of the village. He also tells her that Lord Morrick's mansion and grounds were either cursed or poisoned on the night of his daughter Larissa's wedding to Lord Byron Beval, son of a powerful merchant family. Surviving witnesses, including Lord Alistair Beval, testified to Byron's death.
    After hearing what he has to say she thanks him, gives him an extra two gold coins, and heads back towards the door. She glances over to the fire place to see the young woman watching her. She seems so familiar, but Jade just can not place her. "Maybe I just need to get some more sleep and pamper myself. After we are done here maybe I will take a vacation to Khazan for a while," Jade mutters to herself.
    Jade leaves to see the young woman standing at the entrance of a small shop nearby: Mistwright's Gems. It is a small, but solid, building. She follows her in but does not see her once inside, although she does see an interesting necklace with a small picture of an elf on it; the elf looks very familiar. Jade goes over to the owner to pay for it, asking if she knows anything about the mansion.
    Furnk Mistwright is a gray-haired gnome of ruddy complexion and jolly nature. He wears a thick leather apron covered with pockets of various shapes and sizes. After collecting Jade's money for the elf necklace, Furnk tells her she is a good person, and that both Lord Morrick and Lord Eldoran are also "wonderful people". "It is said in town, though," says the gnome, "that Lord Morrick cheated a druid council, and everyone knows you don't mess with druids if your livelihood depends on growing things."
    Jade thanks him for the information giving him an extra coin for the information. She then heads back to the Witch's Teat to see if the others got anything they could use before leaving. When she enters she notices that none of the others are back yet so she takes a seat in the corner to wait.
    Shortly, a dashing, handsome human gentleman approaches. Dressed in the highest fashion, he wears a beautiful cloak and elegant shirt. Strapped to his waist are a rapier and dirk. He walks with an awkward gait, holding his frame unnaturally erect as he strides through the Teat.
    "Hail and well met. I am Richard Arien." Penetrating violet eyes draw attention away from the thin scar beneath his left eye and the gray beginning to sprinkle through his black hair.
    She gets up and pulls the chair out next to hers, "I am Jade Greenfield. Please, have a seat and I will buy you a drink while we talk. I have a few minutes before my party gets back."
    "Jolly good," says Richard.
    Jade flags down the bar maid and orders two mugs of ale. Then she sits back down.
    Richard begins: "I have been informed you are one of the leaders of a group of adventurers interested in ridding Morrick Mansion of its curse. I request your services in this regard, as I desire solid evidence proving who is responsible for the curse so I can act within the courts for retribution. There is a reward of 3,000 golden crowns to the person or group of people that finds a way to overcome the curse, and an additional 4,000 gold crowns to the person or group of people that brings hard evidence of who is responsible for it. The evidence must stand up to scrutiny in a court of law." Richard makes it clear that he does not really care about the curse or about eliminating it, but rather who is responsible for it. "What say ye?"
    Jade looks up at him. "Well, I say that I would need to get a bit more information from you in order to agree to take the job. Now," Jade says, "why are you offering a reward to remove the curse if you do not care about it? Also why do you care about the Morrick Mansion to begin with? The last thing I will need to know is who you think had something do to with it, and are you looking for letters, book entries or a witness?"
    "If the curse can be removed, go ahead. I don't know if that is possible. The damage it has caused can not be altered, so now I only seek retribution. As for why I even care, I am an agent for a noble family, the Bevals, who have personal involvement in this regard. As for what will constitute satisfactory evidence, yes - the right combination of documentation and witness testimony will prove the case in court. As for who I believe is responsible, I shall withhold that information so that I do not taint your investigation. Let us see if you come to the same conclusion I have, and that will prove I am justified."
    After Jade finishes getting the details from Richard Arien she nods, stating, "Okay, you have a deal. I will meet you again after we have found out something."

    * * *
    "Humpphh! Bunch of sarcastic bastards," Elgring mutters to himself with good humor as he hears the mockery around him. Dropping his pack on the ground, half-heartedly trying to hit Snag - he nearly misses him. "Eh, sorry about that. Didn't see ye, you know!" He gives the gremlin a sly look, letting him know about his insults.
    "Watch it, Old One. I know the story about your romantic encounters with the Dough Boy, and I don't mind sharing with the group." Snag sneers. "I've warned you: No one touches the gremlin."
    Reaching into his pack, Elgring grabs what he is looking for. "I got a piton hammer and pitons", he says to the group, "to help to secure the line."
    Giving the two succubi a disapproving, yet curious, look, he summons his horse Bodkin. Packing his armor, weapons, and cloak into his pack, Elgring ties it securely to the saddle then dispells the horse. "Don't want the weapons or armor getting rusty, and having a warm cloak when we reach the dungeon will be welcome," he says, talking to whomever is listening.
    "You're such a wanker, you Old Goat!" says Snag. "First you talk all that smack about being a team and watching out for each other, then you neatly pack up all of your stuff so it stays dry, but you don't offer to let anyone else put their own stuff on the horse to keep dry as well. If that's your idea of helping each other out, I'm not impressed. By the way, your warts look worse than ever."
    Elgring frowns, then asks: "Say gremlin, you're a trickster; can't you make this water disappear?"
    "No, but want to see another of my little tricks? It's called 'Finagle's Demons'. When I'm done with it, you'll pray for more warts instead. Besides Elgring, you're a great warrior. Just pretend Lerotr'ahh is coming and I'm sure you'll move through the water at speed, just like in the great wars."
    Elgring stands, stupefied. Then, ignoring the gremlin he turns to the well and watches the succubi with interest. Cursing, he wishes he knew what thoughts were going through their minds. "Now listen Anubis and Kitara: it's going to get rough in the dungeons. I mean, hell, a lot of nasty things are going to happen, so stick by me! Also, here, take a katar dagger, each of you. I fought with these in the War of Liberation; tokens of luck. And, yes," imagining Snag making another sarcastic remark about losing the war, "I lost the war, but I am here alive; that's the main part!" Giving another glance at the well, inside he hopes he could avoid the dark, cold water that will be hard on his old body.
    Kitara, upon consideration, agrees that the lantern won't work. "Well, we need to come up with something else and get started right away. Does anyone else have any ideas?" Kitara pulls the rope out of her pack and starts unraveling it. "Maybe I should get a bite to eat before I go down there. I'm feeling a bit starved at the moment. That will give us some time to think of some other ideas as well."
    Anubis walks up to her kin-folk. "Kitara, I'd be happy to help you. My wings work in water as well as in air, so I can get to the bottom quickly. Since Anemos is a self-proclaimed good luck charm, I wouldn't mind having him go down on, oh! I mean WITH, us. Not to mention that I don't think I want to hear any more philosophical ramblings." She speaks a little louder for Elgrings' benefit, "Not that it was bad or anything."
    Arryn looks at the group. "Well, what order should we go down in?"
    "I say our good luck charm", Elgring nods to the dark elf, "should go first, as he's used to the darkness, and find our way to the door." He feels satisfied with his input.
    "Anemos and the succubi should go first," Snag says. "The dark elf can explore and scout for danger, using his Will-o-Wisp ability if needed to see. Anubis can follow behind and can cast the same spell to assist Kitara in attaching the rope to the well shaft wall by the pitons. They may all have to resurface frequently for breath, especially in attaching the pitons. When it seems all is safe, and they have found the way in, we'll all go down and enter into the dungeon. Anyone have any other ideas or questions?"

    * * *
    "Hey Jade, we're back." Flying over to her table, Avian fills her in on what information he and Rayne got from the town guards. Looking around for Corian, who is not to be found, he decides to go up to Dogface to ask him for information on the cursed mansion. Is it a coincidence, the fairy ponders in his little head, that I'm cursed and I'm also being sent to find out what happen to a cursed wedding party?
    "Hello, barkeep" Avian says, using his charm. "My friends and I would like to know if you know anything about Merrick Mansion?" Buzzing around, avoiding the patrons and wenches from getting their drinks, he waits for a reply.
    Dogface scowls. "I don't know nothing about no 'Merrick' Mansion. If you mean 'Morrick' Mansion, yeah, I know the stories. But I'm working now, so I'm just going to say this: Lord Morrick was a dark mage who used pacts with demons to further his own goals. One of his bargains went wrong, and a demon did this to his family in retribution. At least that's what I heard. I mean, I wasn't there - at least you can't prove I was. Now beat it you annoying little gnat!"

    "You know, my pal Galador would love this temple," Corian says, still with the languorous Yark, glancing around the inside of the temple. "Uh, yes," Corian manages to say after being interrupted by Sarah Lyrean's stare. "I really appreciate your time and information on the matter." He hands her five gold crowns.
    "I'll add these to the community collections," Sarah says. "May Banistal bless you, and make you a blessing."
    "If you are ever in need for my professional services, let me know" Corian says. Sarah gives him a 'Yeah, okay' look in return. With that he bows, and leaves the temple.

    Moments later, after a short walk back to the Teat with Yark, Corian enters. Seeing his group, and the barkeep, he heads over. He says, "Yo, Dog", while looking at Dogface. "Some drinks for my parrrr-ty!" he adds while making strange hand signals across his body.
    "Wow, you grand wizards are really falling out of the program," Dogface says. "Back in the day you never would have adopted slang from outside of your own Kleverly Kultivated Kulture."
    Perplexed, and turning around to his own group, Corian tells what he has learned with Yark. "Also, we should talk to Leah Redoak and Jasmine Welk, like the priestess says. What do you think?" he queries the party leader Jade for her opinion. Then, he glances around wondering where his drink is.
    "Um, yeah, sure. We can stop at Leah's on the way to the mansion. I noticed that Jasmine plays nightly at the Unicorn, but we'll already we on our way by then. We'll catch her when we come back to Karthaki to resupply. I doubt we'll solve this mysterious curse in just one attempt," says Jade. "Let's get going then."

    Outside the village walls, the area spreads out over a series of rolling hills in a lightly forested valley. The trees' leaves are red, gold, brown and green. The party's travel stirs up swirls of leaves in its wake. A number of orchards are nearby, as well as farm fields, but the most significant product of the area is wine. Many of the major local vineyards are known throughout western Rhalph based on their wine and brandy.
    As the party soon discovers, Leah Redoak picked a small area near the village to grow her home. As she explains when they meet her, several weeks of spells and hard work encouraged an oak tree to grow to a massive size. She created a home in the base of the tree through the use of wood shaping spells and possibly other magic as well. Beautiful flowerbeds and small bushes provide an intricate, peaceful garden where she and her dire tiger companion are found resting as the group approaches.
    The tiger, sensing no danger, snarls once at the delvers and closes its eyes again. His stripes include black, orange, and pale orange, with additional patches of white on his face and snout. He is obviously not native to the area.
    "Don't mind him - he's harmless," Leah says with a Cellian accent. With another glance at the tiger, and remembering a recent story of a mauled animal trainer in decadent Khazan, everyone has their doubts. "Have a seat," she says, pointing to some flat rocks. "I have heard of your presence in the village, children, and I'm glad you have come to see me."
    Age is beginning to bend her back and drag down her shoulders, but Leah's blue eyes carry a powerful inner life and determination. Her silver hair is pulled hack into a long braid and decorated with various animal figures carved from a mysterious dark red wood. While her advanced age has made her weak and frail appearing, the group soon learns that her mind is sharp, and her knowledge of the world around her is quite amazing.
    After some small talk, the party learns of Leah's involvement in trying to end the Karthaki curse. She tells them that the druid council that sent her here told her only to observe, but her brief investigation of the outskirts of the cursed property has led her to believe that something must he done. "We," she says, nodding to the dozing tiger, "have actually visited the outskirts of the property and seen the curse's effects. I did not want to risk my faithful companion and I have been strictly ordered to observe without interference. Let me give you two potions of witch hazel and rue tea I have brewed for this purpose. I am not certain the potions can reverse the effects of the curse, but I would like you to take the potions just in case."
    She explains that nature is suffering on the cursed mansion property and she would like to assist, but her help must he indirect. "Please, children, bring me samples of plant leaves, fruits, flowers, and water if you can manage it. I will then have a better idea of what must be done. Be careful, and may the EarthMother bless you brightly."
    * * *
    "Calling me a coward!" the satyr roars at the yellow-eyed gremlin, reaching reflexively towards his dagger. "I'll show you a coward!"
    Snag stands ready, fingers twitching and an aura of magical energy takes form around him. He narrows his eyes and smiles, showing all of his pointy little teeth. The other party members all take a few steps back. "You know, I'm getting tired of this," he whispers. "Either do what you're gonna do, or else stop trying to be the big tough guy."
    Then, suddenly Elgring realizes he gave away his daggers and packed his other weapons away. Slapping his face in embarrassment, he knows the gremlin is right after all. "What a great fool I am. A warrior never leaves himself defenseless." Trying to save face, he operates his magical horse and retrieves a weapon.
    "Our party leader Snag is right. I should've offered you guys the chance to store your supplies on my horse before going down, especially the lantern. Any takers? Let me know." He looks around, except at Snag, and coughs uncomfortably. "I do have a question," Elgring asks to the party in general. "When we open the door to the dungeon below, aren't we going to drown ourselves by flooding the chamber we are going to enter?"
    "The door will already be under water level," says Snag. "So it will allow the water in when opened. From the stories I've heard, there will be a shaft climbing out of the water beyond the door. We'll just have to make sure everyone can hold their breath that long."
    Looking back at Snag he asks, "What in the Seven Hells is this 'Finagle's Demons' you keep bringing up?" Also, in a quieter voice, he says "Let's keep the Doughboy out of this!" He looks away with fondness in his eyes and a long lost sense of yearning.
    Kitara steps up. "With that resolved, let me thank you Anubis. It sounds like a terrific idea. And thanks for the weapon Elgring. I'll just grab something out of my pack to munch on. I think we have wasted enough time here and need to get started right away. Let's get moving. Is everyone ready?"
    "Yep. Sounds good to me. I have no qualms about following the Dark Elf down through the water," Anubis responds. "We can tie one end of the rope to the stones here, as I can not imagine that they might move. I can see in the dark, but I am not sure about seeing in water."

    After everyone packs their unnecessary gear and anything that will be ruined by the water onto Elgring's enchanted horse, the succubi and silent dark elf begin their exploration of the shaft. Ruddy and crimson Will-o-Wisps magically, albeit dimly, illuminate the way. It takes several trips into the dark, chilly well for the trio to locate the door, as they return to the surface frequently for breath. The process of attaching the rope to the shaft wall with pitons is also a rather slow course of action.
    Beyond the untrapped portal is a horizontal passage ending at another door. Through experimentation and magical divination, the party discovers the door can only be opened when the door to the well shaft has been closed. Swimming as quickly as possible, the entire group pulls itself down using the rope, and enters the passageway. Arryn closes the first down, and Anemos opens the next one. Everyone swims to the surface of a second shaft, emerging onto a stone platform and gasping for air. The group pulls itself onto a half circle landing, facing a door. Chests heaving after the long swim, the delvers take in their surroundings aided by the faint eldritch light. Cold, damp stone blocks make up the walls of the chamber. The door is ancient wood, probably oak, banded with bronze.
    "This door radiates magic," says Snag. "Use caution when we open it."
    Elgring summons his horse Bodkin, barely having enough room for everyone on the platform with the enchanted equine there as well. The delvers retrieve their gear, thankful for the warm clothing and something to defend themselves with and protect their goosebumped flesh.
    "You look a bit…cold, Anubis. Then again, maybe you're just happy to see me," Snag says.
    "Well my little friend," Anubis says as she bends over to once again give Snag an eyeful of cleavage, "if you think that I might be cold, then maybe you should warm me up." As she stands back up she notices Elgring starring at her shapely and firm rear end. "Or maybe the fuzzy one would like to keep me warm?"
    Snag chuckles, then laughs out loud as he sees Elgring blush and stammer.
    Anubis walks up to the door and leans slightly toward it. She closes her eyes and focuses her senses on listening to see if she can hear what might be waiting for them. On the other side of the door she hears…nothing.
    "I saw something metallic glittering at the bottom of this shaft as we swam through," says Arryn.
    "Yeah, I saw something," says Kitara.
    "I saw it, too," Snag says. "What did you make of it?"
    "As I said before, I can see in the dark, and I have quite keen vision in any regard," Anubis says, turning around. "It was a key that you saw, lying at the bottom of this shaft. The symbolism of a key and the lock it fits into is not lost on me. Key-shaped objects are for inserting into awaiting holes. Perhaps we should retrieve it."
    Moving to the back of the party (in this case a whole six inches on the small landing), Elgring sits on the floor and huddles into in his cloak. "Damn water," he mutters while shivering. Closing his eyes, he lets the others worry about the key and the magical door. "Probably some wizard put a spell on the door so water won't spill further into the dungeon," he says, adding his input to the matter. He uses the precious few moments to get warm before the party will move on.
    Arryn sheds his cloak, dropping it to the stone floor, and dives once again into the chill water. Without light below, it is near black. Reaching the bottom, he feels around for the key. Just as he feels his lungs nearing their limit to hold his breath, he locates it and turns back to the surface. The shapes of his party members are oddly distorted through the darkened water lens and the faint eldritch light; they grow rapidly. Breaking the surface with a gasp, he hands it to Snag. "Here…you…go."
    "Thank you, aged archer. Hmmm. It appears to be an amethyst gem set into the key. The key radiates magic as well. Perhaps this key fits this door. But I think not - that would be too easy. Now then, since our succulent succubus friend," says Snag as he gives Anubis a knowing glance, "didn't take care of the door while she inspected it before, and since our 'good luck charm' has been anything but so far, I guess I must." The gremlin stares at the dark elf, who appears to be vacationing within his own mind.
    Standing before the door, Snag closes his eyes and a faint aura of energy forms around the gremlin. He touches his enchanted staff to the door and the energy flows into the portal itself. He whispers something in a harsh-sounding language, and then nods. "Ah." He whispers again in the strange language and then there is a swirling of a nauseous green cloud exiting the door. The cloud spins in the air for a moment, and then winks out of existence. Finally, there is a click from the door itself.
    "I think that takes care of everything," Snag states. "The door was magically trapped with a Smog spell, and locked as well. All right people, this is where things start to get interesting. We are now entering the dungeon proper. Be prepared for traps and monster attacks. Wizards should often be detecting for magic and everyone needs to be alert and involved. Anyone zoning out now risks their own lives, and the lives of the rest of us.
    "We need a 'marching order'." As he talks he takes out a torch, ignites it and passes it to the dark elf. "I know this hinders your darksight, but the rest of us need to see as well. Now, I know that if I leave the marching order open to debate we'll be here for a week deciding who will go where. Therefore, I'll tell you your order. We move like this: Elgring, Anemos, Arryn, Anubis, me (I gotta have something to look at), and then Kitara. Old Goat, you and the dark elfin 'good luck charm' scout the front and check for traps. Archer, you provide missile support as needed. Anubis and I will watch our flanks - Anubis to the left and I'll watch the right. We'll also be detecting for magical auras as we move. Kitara will check out the rear, not mine - and I'm already keeping an eye on Anubis', to make sure we're not being ambushed from behind. Anemos and Kitara - the two of you need to be more focused. I shouldn't need to tell you, dark elf, that these realms below will yield us no quarter. You boasted of your skills in this regard, now I expect to see them in use. Any questions?"
    "Yeah," Arryn says. "I have a question. How come you always get the good view and I get stuck with the Old Goat and the dark one?"
    "Trust me, I'm a gremlin," is all Snag replies to Arryn. "Old Goat, open the door and lead the way."
    Arryn heads over to the middle of the line, draws an arrow and notches his bow. "Hey Goat - make sure you do not walk into any traps, and duck with you hear me let go of the bow. You know, I might just miss since I am so old and senile."
    * * *
    Yark, everyone notices, doesn't talk much. When possible, she answers with body language and nods. Within her own mind, however, there is a constant monologue running. I'd love to get a pair of short swords, she thinks to herself during the visit with the druid. Too bad, as a wizard, I was never trained in their use. I probably should have asked about that at some earlier stage. As is her tendency, she silently stands near Corian. Some things we are not meant to know. It
    seems as though she has questions for the druid, but refrains from asking.
    "Whoa, wait a minute," Corian gasps at the druid's recent words. "What did you mean before when you said 'effects of the curse'? I'm no hero, and taking the chance of being cursed - no way!" he blurts out, backing away from the ancient tree and the party to think about this situation for a mere second. Then, walking back over he asks the druid, "What possible curses can happen to us?"
    "I'm not sure my child. That is why I need samples," Leah says, her eyes shining with wisdom.
    "He'll come with us," Avian says as he flies over to the Earth Goddess's servant. A smile crosses his face knowing the old wizard is being overdramatic. Waiting to see if anyone else will ask her questions, he hovers near the druid.
    When no one does, he speaks again. "I like to request some containers for these samples that you've requested," Avian states. "Also, thank you for your assistance in this matter. Your friends are wise to have you to observe rather than to take any chances. I would like to ask if you have knowledge of herbs or otherwise to help with my nightmares, or to possibly help me sleep longer than five minutes at a time?"
    "Do you know what 'druid' means?" Leah asks. "It translates, roughly, into the Common Tongue as 'Oak-wise'. In other words: to have wisdom about the forests and nature. I wouldn't live up to the lofty expectations that title deserves if I were ignorant of wort-cunning. Allow me to harvest some herbs for your next visit after your collection of the cursed plant samples, and we'll see what the results are. I will give you some ceramic vessels to store the samples in."
    Then, Avian briefly explains his story of being cursed.

    The journey to the mansion takes the party west, farther into the foothills of the Khargish Mountains. After a few miles the group passes the Eldoran estates, now the only noble family in the area with the curse wiping out the Morricks.
    After a total of ten miles, the group of adventurers estimate they are about half way to the Morrick estates. Jade says, "Nightfall will be coming soon. We should set up camp and decide who is going to keep watch. Okay, let's set up in groups in the few trees along the road. We should tie a rope around us so that we do not fall out of the trees, but loosely tied so that if we need to get out of it, it will only take a second to do so. Hopefully this will help to keep monsters away somewhat. We are well within the reach of the Death Goddess's clawed arm here." Jade shakes slightly at the mention of the Death Goddess.
    "Okay, it looks like there are two or three trees just a little way down the road. I will take first watch; then Yark and Rayne can take the next watch. The last watch will be to Avian and Corian. Each watch will be two-and-a-half hours. Let's get to work."
    The group makes camp and prepares for the night to come outside of the heavily guarded walls of Karthaki, so near the heart of Lerotra'hh's domain. If all goes well, and the party leaves early enough, they expect to reach the mansion tomorrow afternoon. Rayne produces a length of silk rope the party members use to secure themselves to the trees. Jade's shift passes without notice. Animals howl and move in the night, but nothing disturbs the party.
    Yark and Black Rayne begin their shift. Each is still tired, the middle shift being worst of all.

    Froggflipp and Toad-axe the toad-warriors quietly bound through the night. They have been tracking a group of assorted humanoids moving away from Karthaki toward the noble estates further inland. Froggflipp is the chief of the toad-warriors of the Dragonmarsh Lowlands, a swamp near The Digs. Toad-axe is one of loyal tribesmen. Their tribe is a rogue group, the Swamp Jumpers, opposed to the rule of the Death Goddess. They prowl the night searching for allies to help the tribe resist Lerotra'hh's machinations.
    The toad-warrior chief is short, green and ugly, with black stripes, and heavily muscled. He has reddish-orange eyes that see exceptionally well in the darkness. An emerald-set bronze circlet rests upon his brow. Lamellar armor covers his bumpy skin. In his hand is a man-catcher, and a light crossbow is slung across his back. A quiver of quarrels hangs at his waist.
    His companion, in contrast, is tall and green-skinned, with yellow stripes. If possible, he is even more hideous than his chief. He has yellow and pink eyes. Over his lumpy skin he wears mail armor. In his hands is a massive bullova axe, glowing a faint blue in the darkness. He, too, has a missile weapon slung across his back, attached to his back pack; in this case a bow. A quiver of arrows hangs at his waist.
    On the cool night breeze they pick up the scent of the party they are stalking. The party is not alone.

    "I feel like a freaking monkey," Corian complains to Avian, the only one willing to listen. "But look at Yark - doesn't she look professional!" He glances at her while she is supposed to be doing her watch, only to find that both the elf and the fairy Rayne are sleeping! "No sleep, my crotch is sore from sitting up here on the limb. I tell you - six foot humans aren't meant to be up here!"
    Sitting cross legged, the fairy half-listens, dreaming of the possibility that Leah might discover some herbs to ease his troubles. "Don't get involved with her," Avian says to the old wizard. "I've been watching Yark, and she has this queer look in her eyes. Silent, and always looking at the party members, trying to get to know them all too well, if you take my meaning! Anyway, I can't sleep. I'm going on patrol." Flying up in the air, a safe distance but close to the tree, the fairy tries to see if he can find anything of interest.
    "I'm getting down. Sorry Jade," Corian mumbles in the direction of her sleeping form. As he unties the rope, he says, "I can't stand a second more. Besides, it's my watch next anyway." He awkwardly climbs down. Relieved to be back on the ground, the elderly enchanter stretches his legs, leans on his staff and looks into the stars above.
    Seconds later, with silenced "whoomps", four crossbow quarrels whistle through the night sky, in quick succession, and sink with loud thuds into the branches and trunk of the trees the other party member are sleeping in. Jade awakens with a start to find a quivering quarrel mere inches from her face! No one is struck by one…this time.
    Jade tries to quickly get loose of her ropes and prepares to cast a Take That, You Fiend. Whistling to the others, she hopes to wake them. What the hell. I thought they were supposed to be on watch, not watching their eye lids, Jade thinks to herself.

    Fact: 1983; A party of six 7th-level adventurers is wiped out by crossbow-wielding snipers. All quarrels strike the delvers in the back.
    Fact: 1992; The body of tough guy Rils Longstock, a high-level dwarfin warrior, is discovered peppered with quarrels, his broken axe still clenched in his right hand. Rils was left-handed.
    Fact: 1998; Klester, a high level hobb rogue, is assassinated in such a cheap and sudden manner that his player angrily throws his miniature over his left shoulder. Back and to the left.
    Coincidence?
    Pattern?
    Ask yourself this: Ever hear of grassy gnolls? Some folks think these stout humanoids are monstrous plants. (Note to self: connection to shambling mounds? Investigate.) These people have been lied to, friend.
    Fact: grassy gnolls are simply coated in a thick layer of terra cotta and fertilizing paste. No, they don't bathe often. Why do you ask? What are you looking for? Oh, but the truth goes much deeper than that. Grassy gnolls are hired killers to the last, wiping out whole parties for filthy coin.
    So what's the connection? Follow the GP, friend. It's a blood trail leading right to the military pre-industrial complex. It's simple: Kill the decked-out adventurers, make room for new adventurers that need to buy gear. Now you see. Grassy gnolls are the killing arm of a vast, faceless consortium of weapons manufacturers; tick off the blacksmiths' guild at your own risk. Shh! Quiet; they're watching you read this right now!

    Targeting a grassy gnoll, Froggflipp squeezes off a quarrel and strikes it in the chest. The gnoll lets out a terrible bellow of pain, but doesn't collapse. Toad-axe leaps for cover. The toad-warrior chief then tries to seek cover behind the tree the party of adventurers is perched in. He comes face-to-face with Corian. Both Froggflipp and the old wizard scream in horror at the grotesqueness of the other.
    Regaining his composure, and ignoring the wizard, Froggflipp reloads his crossbow.
    Sounds of crossbows being quickly cranked can be heard behind a nearby, um, grassy knoll.

    * * *

    "Hey!" Elgring mutters in annoyance as Snag's errand boy Arryn splashes him with cold water while shaking out his hair after retrieving the key. He is also upset at Snag for appointing him first in line. "That daft gremlin," he mumbles on his way to the door. "I'm half blind and as much deaf; and they expect me to find traps!" Then, he quickly forgets his anger as he smiles at Anubis while passing her. The image of her! Anubis graces him with a demure look in return. He salutes Snag, a gesture to let him know who's in charge.
    "Yeah, you can stick that where only the Dough Boy's been willing to go," says Snag.
    Elgring frowns at the aged archer as he walks passed him. He has it in for me. "I don't like having my back towards him, especially with his bow cocked!" he whispers to Anemos as he assumes his place at the front of the line. Turning around, he heads through the formerly trapped door into the space beyond. Checking his footing and waving his mighty magical War Spatula, the Old Goat is ready for battle.
    "Hey check that out," says Snag. "Are you going to fight monsterkin with that, Old Goat, or make us breakfast? You were really a cook in wars, weren't you? I bet you weren't a commander at all! I could go for some lady-finger pancakes."
    Elgring snorts in derision and focuses on the task at hand.
    Beyond the door is a murky corridor heading east. Damp stones line the walls, ceiling and floor. There is no sound or movement. His cloven hooves click on the stones with every step, echoing off into the darkness. A boy scout in his youth, Elgring raises the spatula to be prepared.
    Anubis surveys the new corridor with anticipation and caution. Her night vision is good, and she can see the dark walls of the passage, a few cubby holes on one side and a pile of rocks and rubble along the other side. One of the cubby holes has a humanoid skill sitting in it. Unfortunately, with everyone else ahead of her, she can't see much else.
    Kitara stays focused on watching behind the group, wrinkling her nose still from the smell of the smog. She keeps her weapon at hand, ready for any encounter.
    "How are things looking up there? Can't we move along a little faster?" someone impatiently queries from farther back in line. It sounds like Kitara.
    "Yeah. All I can see back here is Anubis' bottom." Everyone seems to know who says this.
    "Hush!" Elgring whispers harshly. "I can't hear or see anything, confound it."
    Anubis gets the sensation that there is something ahead, but she is not sure so she uses her Oh, There It Is spell. The succubus, along with everyone else, notices the purple-limned ten foot square that appears on the floor about twenty feet away, and the upright dark shape near it. The purple radiance slowly fades.
    When the tall dark elf clears the lintel with the torch, and the smoke winds toward the ceiling to twine incestuously with the stench of dampness and decay, the Old Goat, and Anemos over his head, see a glint of light reflected on the shiny surface of metal.
    "Hey you fool, why are you just standing there? If you are not careful my arrow may get stuck in your back," snarls Arryn. "If something is going on we need to know back here!"
    There! Standing in the center of the corridor, perhaps thirty feet away, is an armor clad figure wielding a great sword in its gauntleted hands. Looking closer, they can see the figure's eyes glow with an unearthly, jaundiced light! Unmoving, bereft of any sound, the figure stands barring the way deeper into the catacombs.
    "Easy fellow," the satyr veteran warrior mumbles to himself. "One of Death's minions has come to visit!" he shouts back to let his members know what's going on. Gripping his weapon, a grimaced look of anticipation plays across his face. The satyr eagerly set his sights on the upcoming battle.
    Kitara yells up towards the front: "Maybe it's not such a good idea with Elgring being the point man."
    "Damn!" Anubis mutters under her breath when she notices the creature standing near the center of the hallway. It is hard for her to see it well with three other people in front of her. She finds it unnerving to see such a large obstacle in their way, but even more so that this hideous thing is motionless and not attacking. She stands guard, looking around to see if there are any more that she didn't notice before. If I hadn't been debating about taking that skull, I would have seen that thing, she thinks to herself. She readies herself with a Take That, You Fiend spell, forming the magical matrix in her mind, in case the armored figure decides to move.
    "Alright! This is what we're here for," growls Snag, his yellow eyes narrowed to slits. An aura of enchantment forms around him as he raises his staff and points it in the direction of the armored foe.
    Elgring envisions replacing the skull on this fierce creature with Snag's head. In this way he can finally let loose the frustration he has for the wise-cracking, Doughboy-insulting leader. But before any engagement can begin, the old fighter grabs his chest. A pained visage appears on his face as Elgring collapses to the ground. "Having...a.....heart.......attack," he gasps, then shouts the words: "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" His words echo throughout the hallway.
    With Elgring out of the way, Kitara looks to the front and sees the armored figure more clearly. She sighs under her breath. "Oh, crap."
    A hollow laughter rolls down the corridor. "Feeble mortal. Lie there and die." The skeletal humanoid, wearing antiquated and exquisite armor, and wielding a powerful great sword, looks the party members over. Its eye sockets glow with an unearthly light. "Which of you is the most heroic warrior? Who will face me in single-combat? I challenge the one most worthy to do battle against me." The thing's voice leaves no doubt that it is undead. "Let this one come before me and accept the challenge."
    Kitara swallows deeply. "Oh, crap," she says again as she grabs her katar in one hand and a poniard in the other. Her high-heeled boots hammering on the damp stone floor, Kitara shoulders her way through the others, almost knocking Snag over in the process.
    "Hey! Watch it you daft bugger! I warned you: No one touches the gremlin!"
    Kitara charges towards the front of the group; Anemos and Arryn part ways to allow her through. Without a second glance she bounds over the prone and whimpering satyr and starts to build speed into a sprint at the undead warrior.
    The skeletal humanoid continues to laugh as Kitara nears him. Perhaps it is the enthusiasm to prove herself, or the fact that she couldn't see the purple-limned square filling the corridor's floor from the back of the line, but the succubus runs right onto the ten foot floor section that was just identified as "concealed" by Anubis' magic, and thus likely to be a trap.
    When the ten foot section of floor collapses beneath her feet, Kitara is fortunate in the fact that she had built up enough momentum to carry her forward to the far lip of the pit that opens beneath her sprawling body. Dropping her daggers to clatter on the pit's bottom, she grabs the edge and holds on as she slams in to the wall. She grunts with the impact, but hangs on.
    Not being very strong, Kitara's fingers are already slipping and she knows she will soon fall into the pit. Being able to see well in the dark, she looks down to see the pit's bottom, perhaps forty feet below, lined with spikes. The fall would probably be fatal for her.
    The skeletal warrior never moves, but his laughter grows in volume.
    Kitara's fingers slowly slip off of the pit's lip.
    "Lerotr'ahh's ****!" yells Snag. "Damn all rookies!" With a -BLIP!- he is gone, leaving a foul smelling cloud of brimstone in his wake. He reappears at the skeletal warrior's feet and screams "Fly you!" while hitting Kitara in the head with his staff just as she falls, shrieking. She falls only a few feet and then flies back up, away from the spikes below. She maneuvers back over to the others.
    Simultaneously, Snag nimbly rolls between the armored ankles and comes to his feet behind the skeletal figure. He raises his staff to point at the figure as he slowly backs away. "Alright, that's my good deed for the day. Now the rest of you better do something or else I'm going to be really unimpressed. If I have to whip out Finagle's Demons, we're all going to wish I hadn't."
    Arryn pulls back his bow string to his cheek, and holds it steady. "Okay old man. It is time to prove yourself to this group of amateurs," he whispers to himself. He lets his arrow go and it flies straight at the figure. Enchanted with Luna's magic, it strikes true, impaling the skeletal warrior in the chest. He then grabs another arrow to load it. Looking back at the foe, he sees that the first arrow appears to have done little damage, the figure's armor having absorbed most of the blow.
    The undead warrior bellows, more in rage at the audacity of being attacked than at any pain, and a tangible wave of pure terror radiates from it. Chills and panic run down everyone's spines.
    The urge to flee in terror is strong, but everyone manages to reach deep inside and overcome this force. Anemos, however, stands wide-eyed and unmoving, his face twisted in terror.
    "I didn't want to do this," Snag says, "but I guess it's time for a little 'Lady Luck.'" He reaches into his back pack and withdraws a long metallic object, heavily carved and akin to a wand, and points it at the skeletal warrior. He squints his left eye and sights down the "wand's" shaft. "Hey bone head!" Snag yells. The figure turns to face him.
    With a crack so loud it sends all of the party members in the corridor crouching to their knees, the projectile fired from Snag's "wand" strikes the undead figure in the chest, tearing a fist-sized hole in its armor. The figure staggers back and totters on the edge of the pit. Acrid smoke billows from its chest.
    With the projectile's release Snag is catapulted backwards several feet, flying down the corridor to skid to a halt on the floor stones. The end of his "wand" trails a plume of white-grey smoke. Snag's eyes are as big as saucers. "Whoah!" Seeing that the figure is still standing, he shakes his head. "They just don't make armor like that anymore. Either that, or that's one tough bugger!"

    * * *
    "Great wizard's ghost," Corian swears under his breath, ducking behind the tree. I am imagining things, he thinks, taking a second look. There is a frog creature next to me! Not only that, I'm getting shot at by snipers, and my fellow party members are sleeping. He looks up at Yark and Rayne in disappointment. "Jade! Where are you? I need you!" he yells, at the same time looking for Avian.
    "Curses", Corian mumbles again. "No back up to be had." Not trusting his new companions just yet, he puts his cap on the top of his magic staff to trick the ambushers in to aiming away from his body. He follows this up by casting a Take That, You Fiend spell towards the wounded creature when it makes itself visible to loose another quarrel. The energy discharge explodes in a purplish-white light and arcs toward the grassy gnoll, striking it, but for apparently little damage.

    "Whoa," says Avian, after hearing Jade's whistle and seeing the quarrels thunk into the tree. He dodges into the top branches of the tree for cover. Half covered by the branches, the small guy snaps off an attack of his own, a song-spell called 'Fear'. Concentrating, he finishes up singing the spell that ought to get one or more of these creatures to run away, and releases it when one of the creatures raises its head above its cover to fire another round. The previously wounded gnoll shrieks in magic-induced terror, throws its crossbow into the air, and runs off into the hills. Too bad that guy from the new "Camelot" didn't have these kind of protective services.
    Jade casts her Take That, You Fiend spell at a gnoll raising its head to fire, and then quickly climbs down the tree to ground level. The struck gnoll yelps in pain. "What the hell is going on with our party?" yells Jade.
    Finally able to get off some shots, four more quarrels slice through the night sky. One grounds itself before reaching the tree, two strike the tree, and one pierces the elf maiden Yark in the shoulder. The quarrel lances through her leather armor and pins her to the tree. She awakes with a cry of pain for a mere second and then slumps into unconsciousness.
    Unawares of the incoming quarrels, crossing his arms in satisfaction, Avian smiles with glee as he watches the foul creature run away. "Not a bad spell, I say!" he announces to himself with pride. "Now to be with Corian. He's probably wet his shorts by now!" Preparing to dive down, the last thing he knows before darkness hits is the sound of a branch breaking.
    One of the quarrels that hit the tree strikes a branch right over the head of Avian. It snaps off and falls on the fairy, tumbling him from the tree and then pinning him to the cold ground below. On contact he falls unconscious.
    "There's a second shooter!" screams Jade. "Behind us!"
    Head down, droplets of water under his eyes, Corian dodges back behind the tree after his spell. Relieved to hear the leprechaun's voice, and having watched her pop off her spell, he is still worried about Avian. To make matters worse, he saw Yark take a quarrel, and now she's not moving at all. "This was to suppose to be a fun and simple mission!" he mumbles in a shaken voice.
    Froggflipp looks at Corian and says, "What are you doing here? I'm going to use my man-catcher and go attack the grassy gnolls."
    Breaking up his thoughts, Corian stares at his new friend. He is about to respond but then a moment later the frog creature is gone.
    With a quick decision to make, Corian prays to the gods that Rayne and Avian are with Jade. With that he nods and follows in the toad-warrior's wake as Froggflipp leaps off into the darkness to engage a grassy gnoll on the grassy knoll. When the target presents itself, he unleashes another Take That, You Fiend spell, again for very little damage.
    Toad-axe, brandishing his glowing bullova, jumps toward the second shooter.
    "Ok guys," Jade yells. "It looks like we are down two, maybe three. We need to get our act together." Jade follows after Toad-axe.

    Mr. Sanders looks back and sees his aunt and uncle waving farewell as he begins his journey to the unknown. Leaving the Mistywood, he walks down the trail looking at everything, trying to remember something from his past. However, nothing looks familiar to him yet. Hours, and then days, and finally weeks pass and he starts to wonder once again, as he has done everyday since he left, if he is doing the right thing, while the dark sky begins to overtake the sun. For the first time in his life he feels very alone. He walks further down the slowly narrowing path in a lightly forested pass of the Khargish Mountains. He has already passed an abandoned mansion and is in a cultivated area of vineyards and fields with few trees.
    Mr. Sanders thinks to himself it would be a good idea to find some sort of shelter before the creatures of the night gain the upper hand. He has already had several close encounters since he left home and doesn't want to be caught unawares. Mr. Sanders sees some thick brush off to the left side of the path and decides that it would be a suitable shelter with some slight modifications. As he adds the finishing touches to his shelter, he pulls out his sword for ready use "if need be" and nods off into a deep slumber.
    "Allen…Allen… Hurry up Allen," a mysterious male voice yells. What? Mr. Sanders thinks to himself. He starts to see images of a pristine pond and the shadow of a somehow familiar figure standing on the other side calling the name Allen as he waves him over. Who is Allen? What is this place? Why do I know that name? Mr. Sanders feels unthreatened by the figure and a calming sensation begins to overwhelm him. As he walks towards the pond, a flash of light blinds him and he is instantly enveloped in a scene of chaos. All he can see is fire and destruction all around him. A foggy haze surrounds him. Mr. Sanders begins to choke on the acrid smoke and on the smell of burning flesh. He sees the familiar figure lying on the ground and as he approaches he notices a pool of blood. Then as quickly as it came to him, it is over. Mr. Sanders wakes up with tears and sweat pouring from him. His hand grasps his sword and he leaps to his feet frantically looking around to see if he is in any danger. It felt so real, but he soon realizes it was only a dream. Was this a part of my past? Mr. Sanders then slumps to the ground, overcome with a confusing torrent of emotions. He replays the vision over and over in his mind trying to remember every detail of it.
    As he crouches, all of a sudden he hears people yelling in the distance. He quickly stands up, gathers his gear, and begins to head in the general direction of the noise. I must be crazy to head out in the darkness but I am too restless to sit here. Besides, people may need my assistance, he thinks. Mr. Sanders walks as silently as possible, holding his tower shield ready in his left hand to defend his front, and his gladius in his right hand, ready to inflict damage to any approaching foe.
    Ahead, Mr. Sanders can barely see a frog-like humanoid quickly leaping toward another humanoid who is rapidly reloading and cranking a crossbow.

    * * *

    Kitara, landing back on the firm floor of the corridor, yells down to Snag, thanking him for the gracious save. She sits down on the ground to rest and collect her thoughts for a minute. She tries to come up with an idea as to what the group could do to kill this thing. "I hope one of you have an idea, 'cause mine sure didn't work," she says.
    Anubis kneels down next to Elgring, putting her hand on his forehead. As hairy as he is, the succubus can't feel excessive body heat or sweating. She's not sure if that's normal for his species when having a coronary.
    Elgring coughs nervously. "Wasn't a heart attack after-all," the seasoned warrior comments, feeling a bit foolish for overreacting. He is thankful the pit is now open so he can empty the contents of his stomach into it.
    "Ewww!" says Anubis.
    "Last time I eat Dogface's special stew!" Standing up near the unmoving Anemos, Elgring watches Snag's actions against the skeletal foe. "No time to ponder the contraption he used to fire at the creature, although it was impressive," he whispers. He whips off his cloak after finishing wiping his face, rid of the slime but mystery chunks still stick on his hairy face, next to his warts.
    As the skeletal warrior advances on him, Snag back peddles like a crab to avoid its approach. Soon he finds his back against the wall, with a set of stairs leading down to his left.
    "A little help here," says Snag.
    "Hang on Snag!" Anubis yells as she pushes to the front of the group. She grabs Elgring's coil of silk rope from his belt and makes a lasso of it. She tries to hand it to the dark elf Anemos, but realizes he is paralyzed with fear. She turns to Kitara. "See if you can get the rope around the figure and pull it down into the pit. I'll wrap my arms around you and help pull if need be."
    "I'll try," says Kitara. She starts to swing the rope over her head.
    "Snag needs us more than ever," Elgring says while stretching his hand with a palm open in a symbolic gesture over the open pit. "Snag: I'm on my way to be by your side!" Elgring's expression is serious beyond recognition. Focusing on jumping over the pit, he tucks the war spatula into his belt.
    Kitara casts the lariat out over the pit to ensnare the skeletal foe, but misses. "Oops."
    Arryn releases his arrow again, striking it right in the back, only to watch the arrow ricochet away into the corridor wall, and then clatter to the floor. The creature ignores it.
    "Too bad I can not do a little bit more damage with these things," Arryn notes.
    "It doesn't matter we are different", Elgring says, continuing his oration and studying the foe across the pit. "Snag fighting with his intelligence and magic; and me, with my sword arm! We shall overcome this minion!"
    "For the love of the Death Goddess," Snag yells, "enough with the bloody speeches!"
    Taking a few steps back and then starting to run, Elgring leaps and clears the pit to join the fray. Landing with two loud clacks from his cloven hooves, he draws the war spatula and slows his momentum.
    The armored skeleton turns to look him over and raises its blade. The group notices that although it is heavily armored, it moves in absolute, supernatural silence. A hollow chuckle escapes its fleshless maw. "So quickly returned from the jaws of death, feeble one? Allow me to send you back."

    * * *

    "Wait up!" Corian manages to gasp to Froggflipp, wheezing from the exertion. He drops his staff and unsheathes his katar and magical dagger which glows eerily from the evil it senses from the grassy gnoll. "Ye shall pay…for killing our friends…you cowardly…overgrown…grass… mound!" He prepares to stab and slash at the creature.
    Froggflipp levels his man-catcher at the grassy gnoll as he nears the creature. Coming within range, the toad-warrior bats the gnoll's crossbow away, and then opens the claw at the end of his weapon so it encircles the creature. With the grassy gnoll's bicep ensnared, he lets the claws snaps shut around the grassy monsterkin.
    With its ability to move and defend itself impaired, Corian moves in and plunges his dagger deep into the creature's side.

    Wisps of smoke rise from the Avian's daggers, forming the gruesome shapes of two fairies. Their presence goes unnoticed amongst the battle taking place at this moment.
    "A pity," hisses the male one, "to die so early, before we can torture this young soul!"
    "Yesss," his female counterpart responds. "Perhaps the female fairy will pick up his armor and weapons!" She gives an eerie cackle. "The one they call Rayne."
    "Yessss," the male laughs. "Also," he says, stopping to think for a moment, "perhaps once our friend dies, we can possess the soul of the mage!"
    Both quiet with thought, they suddenly transform back into mists to enter their domain as a quarrel whizzes by, thunking into a tree.

    Jade pulls out her sai and dagger as she jumps over a stone in the path. Darn those fools! And Snag for leaving me with a group of incompetent punks, she thinks as she moves. She looks around to see where the grassy little monster is hiding. Jade spots a figure standing a little ways off observing the group. It appears to have recently reloaded its crossbow and is about to take aim.
    "Great. What is going on now? Be careful frog. There is someone else out here." Jade pauses. "Snag, if you can hear me - you just wait until I see your little pointy-eared self again."

    Mr. Sanders pauses for a millisecond to process what is taking place. He gazes at what appears to be a frog-like creature heading directly towards another creature's cocked crossbow. Not knowing which one is friend or foe, he decides he'll take his chances against what appears to be the aggressor. Without further hesitation, knowing full well that he may become the next target of an unforgiving quarrel, Mr. Sanders raises his shield to his chin and yells at the top of his lungs. He charges toward the creature with the crossbow to his left side, in an attempt to distract him from getting an accurate shot off. Mr. Sanders contemplates to himself as he charges full bore towards potential death: If I can just disrupt this creature's concentration for a moment perhaps it will allow the frog to escape from serious injury.
    As Mr. Sanders yells, the grassy gnoll looks away from his target to see what the noise is. Seizing the moment, Toad-axe executes a mighty leap, closing the distance with his foe.

    Little did the party know, but they had been followed on their journey to the Morrick Mansion. A crafty young wizard was hiding in the bushes, watching the battle. Stepping out, just as Toad-axe moves back after a brief exchange of blows, he throws a Blasting Power on the grassy gnoll, an arc of enchanted flame, which sets it on fire. Between the spell and the toad-warrior's axe, the gnoll is wounded, but not yet defeated.
    As the combatants reorient themselves on the fight, the young wizard steps up, as do Jade and the blonde human with the shield.
    The young wizard is handsome, in an adolescent sort of way. He is a five-foot-eight human with short brown hair and eyes. He wears a purple hat and robes. Sizing up the gnoll, as small embers of flame smolder in its chiaflage hide, he greets his new companions with a smile. "Greetings," he says. "I am Corencio, and I come from the Troll God himself to help you guys out."
    The other person, the one with the shield who yelled to distract the grassy gnoll, is also a human, with long blonde hair. He wields a gladius and carries a knight shield. "I am Mr. Sanders," he says, bowing slightly.
    "I think the four of us can handle this thing," says Jade.
    The four adventurers encircle the gnoll, smoldering and dripping green fluid under the nearly full moon. Although outnumbered, it shows no fear.

    * * *

    "Hey, Snag!" Elgring cries out. Seeing the gremlin retreating, Elgring ponders to himself, From fear, probably. His own feigned heart attack to avoid confronting the skeletal warrior in the first place is apparently already forgotten.
    "Go help the others across. I'll distract Lerotra'hh's death pet here," Elgring says. Snarling at the undead warrior, the satyr ignores its prior taunts. Not waiting for an answer from the party leader, the Old Goat shouts his war cry: "For the love of Anubis's rear! That armor will be mine!" he yells, waiting in anticipation for the protection it will give to him.
    "Actually, that's a bit of a paradox. While she is the Death Goddess, Lerotra'hh isn't terribly fond of the undead. I doubt this thing is her pet," says Snag. "Not every non-humankin is a minion of La Roach Trap, you know." Then, muttering something unintelligible, he disappears from view.
    After squaring off for a moment, the skeletal warrior and Elgring circle each other. Suddenly, the undead warlord feints at the Old Goat's face with a thrust, recoils and then swings a mighty blow meant to cleave the satyr's head from his shoulders. Elgring dodges under the aggressive swing, the great sword shaving a few hairs off the top of his head. An opening presenting itself, Elgring slams head first into the creature's chest, to do damage with the gods-given horns of a satyr. He expects to knock the skeletal foe over unto the floor, but it merely steps back a pace, regaining its balance. A faint hiss escapes its lips. Its eyes flash a pulse and fear runs down Elgring's spine. He almost turns to flee in fear, but chokes down the bile rising in his throat brought about by the undead warlord's ability to cause fear, and stands his ground.
    Down the corridor, near the stairs, Elgring can hear strange mechanical clicking sounds and the odd grunt, but he is unable to see where these sounds are coming from. Then he hears a familiar voice say, "I'll blow a hole right through that bugger! And hopefully I'll hit the skeleton too! Wait 'til they line up…"

    On the pit's far side, Anubis, not being able to think of anything else do to, walks to the edge and yells, "Hey you heathen, look at this! It's too bad the undead cannot enjoy these!" She grabs the leathers of her upper garments and bares her breasts to the creature, trying to distract it long enough for Snag and Elgring to think of something to do, or at least hopefully push it over the edge.
    Elgring, distracted by the pleasant sight of Anubis' breasts, barely manages to avoid a vicious slash from the skeletal foe's great sword. The undead warrior never even looks in the succubus' direction.
    "I guess the bone-head doesn't want any, Anubis," Snag yells from somewhere out of sight, but at the corridor's far end. "All the more for me, I guess."
    Arryn asks: "Who has the silk rope?"
    Kitara and Anubis, while stuffing herself back into her garments, turn to look at him. The dark elf continues to stare down the corridor, his face twisted in fear.
    "This is my plan, guys. Let me tie the rope to an arrow and impale the creature. Then hopefully we can catch him off guard enough to pull him into the pit. All of my arrows have been enchanted to automatically hit. Hopefully the silk rope is light enough, and with the aid of magic, this'll work." Arryn pulls out his arrow and takes the rope from Kitara. Tying them together, he thinks Luna may you be looking out for your little friend now. He fits the arrow and draws the string back, the rope lying loose across his arm. The other end under his foot, Arryn lets the arrow fly. It moves slowly through the air, unnaturally flying. It appears to be weighted down by the rope, but magically compelled to fly forward anyway.
    The arrow's head strikes the skeleton's armor, penetrates, and sinks in. The undead warlord turns his head to look the aged archer in the eyes. Its empty sockets pulse with energy. Arryn feels the urge to flee, but resists. Instead, he yells, "Quick girls! Grab the rope and pull!"

    Elgring, trying to dodge his foe and move in when an opening presents itself for a quick finish to the fight, steps onto a piece of armor blown off of the undead warlord by Snag's blasting "wand". Losing his balance, he stumbles and struggles to regain his footing. He loses concentration for but a moment, but it is enough.
    Looking back at his foe he realizes the warlord's great sword is mere inches from his chest. Unable to stop it, the Old Goat screams in pain as its point pierces his breast plate and plunges deep into his chest. The blade must be poisoned, because already he feels the burn of toxin speeding through his veins. His reflexes begin to feel sluggish and he is not sure he can raise his war spatula in time to ward off another blow.

    Anubis grabs the end of the silk rope, twists her hands around it to ensure a good grip, and digs her heels into the rough stones of the floor. She uses her wings to help pull her backward.
    Kitara looks towards Anubis and says, "Let's give it our all." She grabs the rope in her right hand and twists it around a few times so that it holds tightly. She pulls and pulls using both of her hands, and digs her boots into the floor for more leverage.
    Along with Arryn, the trio pull the silk rope as hard as they can.
    As the undead warlord closes in for another, possibly mortal, strike on the satyr he is yanked hard off of his feet and back over the edge of the pit. He disappears from view into the pit's shaft, followed shortly by a mighty crash of rent metal.
    Silence settles over the corridor, except for the sound of Elgring's pained gaspings. Then, Snag's snickering fills the hall. "Oh, well. I just got this thing loaded, too. When's the encore, Anubis? And you know, you have to strive to outdo what you've done before."
    Wisps of acrid smoke rise from the pit's depths.
    Arryn looks over to Anubis and Kitara. "Good job girls. Thank you. Anubis, do you think you could carry me across, please? Just let pull up the rope and hope that there is nothing stuck to the end."
    He pulls the silken rope up slowly, wrapping it around his arm, testing the weight to make sure that nothing is holding it down. The end has nothing attached except for a broken arrow shaft. "Here you go Kitara. Thank you for the use of the rope. Are we ready to go now and see what else is down there? Hey Elgring, get a grip, you old fool, so we can get moving. Does anyone have anything to help this old fool?"

    * * *

    Froggflipp, twisting his man-catcher to tear open deeper wounds, and Corian using his daggers, deal further damage to the grassy gnoll ensnared by the toad-warrior's weapon. While injured, the gnoll continues to fight on, doing its best to free itself of the metal jaws.

    Mr. Sanders composes himself after his succinct introduction with his new potential companions. He wipes off the sweat that's accumulated on his forehead with his sleeve. He feels the burning adrenaline in his veins from the excitement of potential death. His pupils begin to dilate as he focuses his full attention on the sneering creature that's temporarily standing before him. He takes a deep, soothing breath, channeling his instincts from the years of training to guide his body.
    With a mischievous grin, Corencio gives a small nod to his new companions, signaling to attack the gnoll all at once. He lunges at the gnoll with his quarterstaff, ready to strike.
    Mr. Sanders extends his shield forward as his short sword gracefully dances in the shadows. The wail of steel harmoniously penetrates the whistling wind with an almost mesmerizing melody. He thinks to himself, Let's end this here and now. I won't gain any information about my yesteryears with this bastard in my way. Mr. Sanders ferociously lunges towards the bloodthirsty creature with a swift swipe, aiming for its jugular.
    Jade stabs at the grassy little gnoll with her dirk, and then gracefully moves out of the reach of the blows coming her way from the monster.
    With his massive axe, Toad-axe attacks in great sweeping arcs, driving the gnoll back into the stinging attacks of his companions.
    The gnoll turns out to be more of a challenge than expected, but the four fighting companions finally finish it off. All that is left is a heap of blood and vegetation. Their own skirmish finished, they run to aid Froggflipp and Corian to assist in slaying the other gnoll.
    With all of the fighting completed, and thanks and introductions out of the way, the party returns to the tree. Yark, it is discovered, has died from her quarrel to the chest. Avian is found unconscious, pinned under a branch. Black Rayne is no where to be found.
    Jade frowns. "Looks like we've lost a party member already. Someone get the little fruit fly over here so we can help him. Does anyone else have a healing spell?"
    The leprechaun climbs the tree to the dead elf maiden. "Okay, let's see what Yark has that we can use." A brief search turns up five golden coins, a katar, an elfin sized suit of leather armor, a buckler, a backpack and two feet of silk rope.
    Returning to the others with the items, Jade says, "We need to figure out how we are going to honor our companion. Does anyone have any ideas?"
    Corencio, not having a close acquaintance with Yark, just stands around. "I'm not the one to ask for ideas," he says, putting his hands in the pockets of his robes.
    "What the…!" Corian exclaims, looking at the situation. Picking up Avian, Corian is clearly scared and angry at the serious injury of his traveling companion. "Nice leadership Jade. One of your own is down and you're looting her dead body!'' He stops speaking and looks around. Another frog creature…and who are these two humans? thinks the old wizard. "Yark's dead! I can't take this," mumbles Corian. "I'm taking the fairy to the female druid we met a few hours ago." Turning his back on the others, he starts to walk fast down the trail.
    Mr. Sanders sighs as he looks at the team's fallen friend. It reminds him of the vivid dream he had dreamt that very night. A sharp chill pierces his spine, and he can feel his skin tighten as the goose bumps spread over his body. He leans over to Jade, after what he feels was an insensitive remark from the old wizard, and gently speaks to her: "There's a price to pay for all of our actions in this life; some pay sooner than others. Your friend Yark has paid in full." He then turns away and walks down the path behind the wizard.
    Jade turns to look at Corian walking away. Calling loudly to his retreating backside, she says, "Corian, we know you would like to think you should be leader, so here is your chance to make an important decision. You can leave and your friend could die by the time you get anywhere. If you're lucky you will live to see that happen; or you can get yourself back here with the rest of your party and get your friend healed. Then we can move on."
    Jade turns back around to the rest of the group. "Is everyone else okay?" People nod and shrug. Turning again to face the departing wizard and Mr. Sanders, Jade waits to see if the old wizard will come back.
    Froggflipp says, "I'm going to scout the area and see if there's anything else around we need to be aware of while the rest of you figure this out."
    "Yeah, we'll see if there are any mountain bad guys to fight," adds Toad-axe.
    With that, the two toad-warriors bound off into the lunar-illuminated darkness.

    * * *
    Anubis calls across the pit: "Snag, you can have your encore later. Right now I need to get everyone across this little chasm." Turning around toward the rest of the group she says, "Okay, who wants to be flown over first?"
    Arryn nods. Anubis looks at the dark elf, but he is still lost in a world of enchanted terror. "What do we do with our 'good luck charm'?" she asks.
    "Leave him!" yells Snag from across the rift. "Maybe some 'bolts from the blue' will motivate him at some point."
    The succubus shrugs, then stands behind Arryn and wraps her arms around his chest and whispers, "Hold tight to my arms!"
    "No problem, Sugar."
    With a great gust of air that disturbs the dust around them, Anubis lifts off with Arryn. She glides across the pit with a little bit of a bounce from the wings' downward thrust. She hovers over the floor next to the others and lets the archer down.
    "Nice bounce," quips Snag. "You gotta love a nice bounce."
    Kitara, too, glides over the pit.
    "I guess we're all together again," Snag says. "Well, all of us except for 'foul wind stinking up the night', or whatever he said his name translates as." The gremlin nods at the paralyzed dark elf left on the other side. "Or maybe he said that's what 'Elgring' means in Dark Elfin. I forget."
    "Ah, crap!" Elgring gasps out, lying on the floor. "You'd think a sword thrust to your body would get easier over time, but it doesn't!" He thinks, at the age of 180, about the number of fights and battles he has endured in his life time; usually he had gotten stabbed a couple times in each incident. He turns his head to the direction of the girls who saved his life. "At least I'll die in battle with a worthy opponent, and with a great group of adventurers; Anubis and her tactics of using her body…" A brief smile escapes his lips.
    Kitara, by Elgring's side, quickly looks through her back pack, and realizes she has nothing to help the old one. Still breathing heavily, she says, "Elgring, would you settle for a kiss?" She gives him a wink.
    He grunts in reply and manages a weak smile. Then he raises his head to look around.
    "Snag?" the satyr whispers loudly, feeling pain in his body as he searches for the gremlin. "Oh, there you are," he says with a mischievous look on his face. "I...wanted to…tell you that… I leave this world....bearing you no ill will."
    "For the love of luscious Lerotra'hh's lips, shut up," says Snag in disgust. "I doubt that poison is killing you. It might be painful, but it's not fatal. So stop blathering and get ready to do whatever needs doing."
    "Hey Old Goat," says Arryn, "if you don't shut up, Snag and I may have to help that little knife prick along. I swear your whining alone could kill some of us. I will be back in just a minute guys." Arryn starts to carefully move down the hall looking for traps and listening for noises.
    "Now then," continues Snag. "While the elder archer does that, we might want to check the pit's bottom to see what exactly happened to our fallen friend. Besides, Kit dropped her daggers down there."

    VI. Intrigue and Attrition

    Corencio sees an opportunity where he might be able to do something. "Corian!" he yells. "We can heal Avian here! You'll just be wasting time by going back to the druid!" Hoping Corian will turn around and come back, Corencio prepares a Poor Baby spell.
    Stopping in his tracks, Corian listens carefully to the words of his companions. He feels the weight in his hands; although not great, it is nevertheless very important. "I've lost so many important people in my life: Ice the dwarfin warrior, and my faithful pet Rex!" Looking at Avian laying flat with his eyes closed, a brief chuckle escapes his lips. "Like holding some child's doll. I just don't want to lose another friend," he whispers. Turning around, he starts to walk back.
    Mr. Sanders steps off to the right side of the path to let the wizard pass as he transports his companion to Corencio for assistance.
    "Here, do what you can," Corian says to the young wizard. He puts the fairy down on the ground very gently. "Thank you," he adds, patting Corencio on the shoulder.
    "Glad to be of service," Corencio replies.
    The old mage walks over to the female leprechaun.
    Mr. Sanders continues to watch silently as Corian approaches Jade in a repentant manner.
    "Uh, Jade," Corian mutters, smoothing his tangled hair nervously. "I commented out of anger, and so I apologize." Then speaking more loudly so everyone can hear his words: "You're a fine leader, and my loyalty is to you. I signed up understanding that." Whispering softer now, he also says, "Don't mention this to Snag, alright?"
    "Get a life," Jade responds. "I do not answer to Snag or anyone else right now, thank you. Just remember to think before you go shooting off your mouth." Jade turns to look at the rest of the party again.
    Mr. Sanders listens to the apology as Corian declares the chain of command vociferously for all to hear, and then the leprechaun's curt reply. He pauses for a second to make certain all that needs to be said was said, then he approaches Jade and Corian. He asks, "Where is this party heading, and what exactly is your mission? I am on a quest for information to shed light on my past life that is lost somewhere in the shadows of my memory. Perhaps destiny has intertwined our paths."
    Corian answers. "Let us hope so. Presently we head to Morrick Mansion, a noble house rumored to be cursed. It is intended to be our 'training'. From there we head into The Digs."
    Mr. Sanders nods in reply.
    Corencio kneels down before the unconscious fairy and gently lays his hands upon it. He closes his eyes and mutters under his breath. His hands start to glow with a pale pink light. This energy flows into Avian, suffusing him in the soft glow. The fairy's eyes twitch a few times, he takes a gasping breath, and then his eyes open.
    Avian sits up, and says "Hey, anyone get the number of the wagon that hit me?" while rubbing his aching ribs.
    Kneeling down to talk to the red-haired fairy, Corian sighs with relief. "You got hit by a tree limb, my friend." He also explains what else has transpired so that the minstrel is up to date on what is happening.
    "Also," says Corian, "thanks to you, Corencio, for healing my friend here." The, quieter, to no one in particular, "You know, I could've cast that powerful spell myself if I hadn't cast those Take That You Fiend spells."
    Avian rolls his eyes.

    As the pair of toad-warriors scout the area for other dangers, they note several times when a large winged creature with an oddly shaped head passes before the nearly-full moon, or close over their heads. Its cries are bestial and fill them with trepidation. They return to tell of their findings.
    "Thank you. Hopefully we will not have to fight it right now. It is good to know what we might be up against, though." Jade smiles a weak smile and lets the rest of the party know what is going on.
    Corian, hearing from the humanoid frogs, looks up into the sky and tries to make sense of what creature could be flying overhead.
    Although sore, Avian flies onto Corian's shoulder, and also looks into the starlit sky. "I would look closer, but that tree has it in for me!" Corian hears the mumbling of the fairy as he ponders what spell will be effective against the winged creature.
    "Wonder what that winged thing is," ponders Corencio. "Hope it doesn't attack us; I've had enough fighting today." He yawns, emphasizing the fact he had stated.

    Taking turns on guard after the toad-warriors return and report their observations, the party passes a restless night and awake bleary-eyed and short-tempered the next morning.
    They hope to make it to the mansion by nightfall.

    * * *
    "Thanks Kit," Elgring says, getting up with the assistance of the succubi. "I'll have to remember that seductive offer later!" He grins back, exposing his off-color gums between the missing teeth. Moaning, he walks over to the pit to converse in a plan.
    "Anubis," Elgring says, turning to address her, "I never want you to pull a stunt like that again." He tries to yell at her, but images of her exposing her breasts to the foe cause the warrior to sound unconvincing. "You almost got me killed; now I'm poisoned." Putting his gnarled hand on her, he adds with his voice softening, "Just be more aware of your actions, that's all."
    "Don't blame her for you screwing up," says Snag. "I was there, remember? You tripped over a piece of metal, not her breasts. If she wants to share her naked flesh with the world, she has every right to do so. If you don't like it, don't look. Especially don't look in the middle of a fight, and don't blame other people for your lack of concentration."
    Anubis, ignoring Snag, replies to Elgring: "My Sweet Hairy One, my 'distraction' was not meant for you. But, if you survive this quest, I can distract you to your satisfaction."
    "Uh, uh," the old satyr stammers nervously. "Well, that armor is probably no good now, thanks to that old warrior falling into the chasm," he comments to the party while looking into the depths of the lethal pit. "I suggest that you, Snag, go down and investigate." Elgring takes a step back from the grim expression on the gremlin's face. "I mean, I can easily hold onto you with the rope with one arm with my strength, that's all. And with your size, you're more agile and quick thinking."
    "You don't honestly think I'd trust you do that, do you? I trust you trust in me to mistrust you," Snag says. "Besides, why take chances with the rope breaking or slipping when the succubi can fly down to search the pit's bottom?"
    Anubis offers to hover down into the pit and retrieve the daggers, provided there aren't any tricks or traps. "Would someone be so kind as to make sure that thing is dead, please?"
    "Well, it's already dead," says Snag, "being 'undead', but perhaps it just didn't know that yet. Use your ability to detect for magic to see if there is anything odd down there. We'll all stand guard from the rim. If there is any trouble, just fly out."
    "Okay. Also, what are we going to do with Anemos? We can't just leave him there, can we?" Anubis asks Snag as she starts to fondle the edge of his ear.
    "Hey! I told you - No one touches…ah, what the Hell. As for leaving the dark elf, in truth, I'd prefer not to abandon him. However, none of us can do anything for him, and we don't know what challenges lie before us. Carrying his paralyzed body will be too much of a handicap. The best we can hope for is that he will eventually come to his senses and rejoin us later."
    Apparently satisfied, the succubus nods, then flies down into the pit, using her wings to hover above the sharpened spikes. Detecting for magic, the only thing she discovers radiating a magical aura is a second gem-key lying between the deadly spikes. She also picks up Kit's two dropped daggers. Strangely, there is no trace of the fallen undead warrior - not a scrap of armor or its weapon. All that remains is the acrid stench, circulated by the slow flapping of the succubus' wings.
    Arryn comes back and says there is nothing of note further up the corridor, and that at the end a set of stairs leads down.
    "Yeah, I've already been that far," mutters Snag, rolling his eyes.
    Returning to the others, Anubis returns Kit's daggers and shows the second gem-key. Otherwise similar to the first one, this gem-key is aquamarine instead of amethyst.
    "Hmmmmm," puzzles the gremlin.
    The party sets about readying itself to delve deeper into the dungeon.

    "I suppose," says Snag, "before we go any farther, I should tell you why I came to Karthaki in the first place to gather a party of delvers. I said I wanted to go to Lerotra'hh's fortress The Digs but that we were not yet ready, and that is true. I never told you why I wanted to go there, except to say that it was just to loot the most infamous dungeon in all of the land. There's more to the story than that. There's something specific we need to loot.
    "A long, very long, time ago there was a powerful wizard named Darksmoke. Seldom is his name spoken except in hushed voice, and never within hearing of strangers, for legends say that the phantom of this once supreme lich still roams Rhalph. It is certain that when Darksmoke finally met his doom, one eye and one hand survived. Once the Eye is pressed into an empty eye socket of a living creature, it is instantly and irrevocably grafted to the being. The Arch-lich supposedly imbued both his left hand and eye with wondrous and horrible powers enabling them to persist long after his other remains moldered away into dust. Tales say that the Hand appears to be a mummified extremity, a blackened and shriveled hand, possibly from a burnt body. If touched to a stump of a forearm, it will instantly graft itself to the limb and become a functioning member. Both artifacts grant their new host or hosts tremendous power.
    "Lesser known, but something I recently unearthed in my research, is the artifact known as the Head of Darksmoke. The power it would imbue its new host is nigh inconceivable, but it is known that it would grant immortality and a knowledge of magic beyond the scope of all but the god-wizards. Why, even a warrior who became the new host for the Head of Darksmoke would become one of the most powerful wizards alive, and he would live forever. Not grafted to a host, it is said to cause great disturbances for an entire region as it desires to be reattached to a living being."
    Snag pauses to look at each of his companions in turn. Interest, uncertainty, and yes, fear, play across their faces.
    "When I had traced the Head of Darksmoke to this region, I had assumed it would be held within Lerotra'hh's Digs, guarded by fell traps and beasts. However, when we arrived in Karthaki and I learned of the curse plaguing the area, things became a little more clear. Karthaki is under the effects of a supernatural curse. The Digs are too far from here to cause that, I think, even powerful as the Death Goddess is. That leaves two other options, as I see it. The Head of Darksmoke is either somewhere in the Dungeon of Wonder, or else someone in Morrick Mansion was in possession of it.
    "My first guess was that this dungeon seemed the logical place for it, and maybe it is. However, the more I consider what we learned about the mansion and its curse, I am starting to think the Head may be there. In any case, we need to locate the Head of Darksmoke - it is the key to power far beyond anything any of us have ever known."

    [TnT:Live! session transcript to be inserted here at some point…haha]

    [With the others gone at last, the dark elf could drop the charade. They had fallen for his ruse, thinking him petrified in terror at the undead warrior. Little could they he had dwelt in the Underworld below EarthTree for decades. The warrens of caves and tunnels were his true home, and creature like the undead warlord of little concern to the master rogue. He had traveled every in of Hidden Coast's Underworld. He slunk off into the darkness to further his own plots. He wanted to be long gone before the undead warlord reformed itself. He knew that it hadn't been destroyed in a noble way, so it would reform itself to continuing guarding access into this dungeon complex. He was sure his former companions wouldn't be aware of this, should they return this way.]

    * * *
    The weary delvers all meet in Snag's room at the Prancing Unicorn. As promised, he teaches Anubis and Kit some spells to better the party's chances for survival in the future. Poor Baby is the first, so that everyone can be healed. This is followed by Omnipotent Eye, Charmed, I'm Sure, Blasting Power and Dis-Spell. Arryn goes over to the tavern during the lesson. Elgring stands in a corner, staring at the wall.

    Arryn walks into the tavern door. "Ouch," he says pushing the door open, and enters the Witch's Teat. "Wow. It has been a long something," he mumbles to himself.
    Arryn picks out a table by the wall. A pudgy black-haired girl comes over to take his order. Her silver bangles jingle, and match her silver earrings and necklace. Arryn smiles. "Hey sugar. Can I get some stew, cheese, bread and a pitcher of ale, please my fair? And three orders of stew to go as well."
    The girl pulls her black hair back into a ponytail. She frowns. "Sorry, we're not known for our fancy cuisine. I can get you cabbage soup, fresh bread and ale, but no cheese. Care for either barley cakes or some meat? And what kind of ale do you want?"
    "That's fine, sugar. Why not some barley cakes and meat then? Two orders of each - one for here and one to go, please. The Esturiat Wanderer would be fine if you have that, my dear."
    She says, "A hearty golden ale possessed of a distinctively musty odor," while rolling her eyes. "Meat'll probably be rabbit today. All together that'll be three silvers, two coppers."
    After resolving his order, Arryn looks around to see if there are any lonely women sitting by themselves. He spots one a few tables away. Arryn gets up and walks over to the table. "Would you like to come and join me at my table for some dinner?" The lady, who is not overly beautiful, but not hard on the eyes either, nods. She comes and sits down at the table with Arryn, who buys her dinner. They sit and talk. She gives her name as Melina and asks if wants to meet her again later for a nightcap.
    "Sure. I should be back later tonight for a drink before I retire for the evening. I will be by the fireplace, my dear."
    He wishes her a good evening when they are done eating, gets a couple loaves of day-old bread to go, walks up to Dogface and pays his bill. He then finds his black-haired bar maid, gives her two gold coins, and wishes everyone a good-night. He heads back to Snag's room with victuals for his tired companions.
    "What did I miss? Anything important?" Arryn asks when he comes in. "I brought you all dinner as well."
    Snag takes a whiff. "You brought nasty cabbage soup? Hey, that reminds me," says Snag, looking at the Old Goat still staring at the wall. "What are we gonna do about extra crispy over there? I heard there is a druid nearby who might be of some assistance. Plus, we should check on the others at the mansion - I'm sure the Head of Darksmoke must be there. I've been hearing about this other group of adventurers who were based in Karthaki a few years ago. They're all missing now. Anyway - they were called the 'Birds of Prey'. We need to come up with a catchy name like that for our group. Something other than what the locals have been calling us anyway - 'the Two Old Farts, the Two Sluts and the Midget'. That's too long for an effective battle cry. Give it some thought."
    They agree to meet in the Teat in the morning after getting some rest and conducting their own business.
    Arryn goes to sit by the fire in the Teat for a while and then returns to the Unicorn to his room when Melina never shows up.

    In the damp, mist-shrouded darkness, a burly dwarf with short brown hair plods through the muck towards Karthaki. He has a long goatee down to his chest that is braided into one long strand. His small beady brown eyes buried beneath bushy eyebrows search out every shadow. He wears lamellar armor and carries a target shield and broadaxe. On his feet he wears a worn pairs of black boots.
    He is flanked by two taller companions: humans - based on their appearance; female - based on their walk. To the left is a woman with really long black hair and green eyes. She is tall and solidly built. She wears a red leather harness and black knee- high boots. She carries a quarterstaff in hand and wears a crossbow slung over her shoulder.
    The companion to the other side is garbed in a cowled cloak. Of medium height, she is a lanky woman with mysterious dark eyes peering out from her hood. Beneath her cloak she wears a very loose fitting black dress that hangs to her knees. A jeweled bronze bracelet occasionally glints in the moonlight. "The village is just ahead," she says. "We'll get there and have plenty of time to get situated tonight."
    The dwarf grunts in reply, but the raven-haired woman smiles, her teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

    After a nice long nap, the dark succubus slips out of bed, careful not to wake her sleeping companion - a local human she had picked up in the common room the night before. He would have ecstatic dreams and nightmares forevermore.
    Well rested and pleasantly fatigued, she gets her clothing back on and decides it might be easier to focus her powers if she buys a staff.
    Out in town, she first stops at the blacksmith to get some better, stronger armor, but realizes that unless she wants to cover herself in full plate like a knight, she probably can't do much better than she has right now. Maybe in one of the dungeons she can find some magical armor.
    Anubis then heads to the local Karthaki-mart, Quill's Handy Travel & Adventuring Supplies and General Store, and finds a beautifully carved walking stick whittled from black burl. She buys the rod and goes to the Witch's Teat for some breakfast and to wait for the rest of her friends.
    When she requests a meal at the tavern, Anubis is disappointed to find that Karthaki follows the old tradition of honoring the Fastday, despite its isolation from civilization in general, and that no meals will be sold in the tavern this day.
    While waiting, Anubis performs the Hocus Pocus spell on her new staff, drawing stares from the few people inside. Having heard stories about inferior wood burning up because it couldn't contain the magic to act as a temporary magic staff, Anubis focuses her power carefully. Directing her will into the hard, blackened wood, the enchantment holds and will serve her as a makeshift magical staff.

    Arryn gets up the next morning, not as early as he had hoped, eats some bread and dried meat from the night before, and then heads out to find the rest of his party. He had a good night with restful sleep.
    He walks to a tree and sits down in a rare dry spot for a while before heading to the tavern. The sun is just coming up to burn off some of the mist, but most of it will not go away. Now, Arryn thinks to himself, why is Snag so into finding the Head of Darksmoke? Does he think he will gain some great power with it? Or can it be used against someone that he would like to get ride of? He is a smart little gremlin, but I'm not sure he always tells us everything he knows. I am not sure that I want anything to do with the Head of Darksmoke. Although, maybe we need to take it to be destroyed in order to remove the curse plaguing Karthaki. I had better get over to the tavern before it gets too much later.
    Arryn walk over to the tavern to find Anubis sitting at the table looking forlorn. Arryn sits down next to her. "What's wrong, sugar?"

    Snag takes a brisk morning walk around the village searching for fish, chicken, or - if he can get them - lady fingers. Karthaki might hold with the Fastday tradition, started long ago in the times of war to ration food and since acquiring a quasi-religious status, but after a long day of adventuring yesterday, he was certainly going to eat something, by hook or by crook!

    Later, with a full belly, Snag pops into the Teat. "So, Kit's not here yet? I left the Old Goat up in the room. No reason to scare the locals. I think the best way to get to the mansion is to fly. What do you think?"

    * * *

    After several hours of quiet, trudging walking, the group finally arrives at the edge of the Morrick estate. A cobblestone road turns north, leading to the mansion. This was once well-tended and elite property - now neglected and in the process of being reclaimed by the wild. Another two hours brings the group, finally, to the edge of the mansion proper.
    Along the way, the toad-warriors keep an eye out for foes, but are also curious for the others to tell them about the supposed curse on Morrick mansion.
    Jade tells them what little she knows about the curse and that they are trying to find out more. "That is part of the reason we are headed to the mansion."
    Morrick mansion is set on a low hill near the center of the property. What were once beautiful gardens surround the home. A stone wall separates the gardens from the light forest to the south the group is passing through, and the vast vineyards that surround the mansion on all sides. Soil on the southern edge of the Morrick property is rocky and clearly poor in nutrients.
    The mansion's grounds include the light forest around the road leading up to the mansion, the vineyards, buildings, and the walled gardens. The way heading to the mansion was once obviously a wide cobblestone road fit for carts and horses. Due to lack of maintenance it has fallen into disrepair. The light forest now grows over the road; stones are misplaced by growing tree roots and erosion. Plants are beginning to creep over the surface. A few more years of growth and the road itself will be difficult to find. When the party first enters the path, the twisting branches and mutated trunks of the trees they see easily confirm rumors about the curse. Leaves on the trees vary in color, ranging from a depressing ash gray to bright yellow, and some of the trees bear strange, twisted fruit. Flowers on several bushes look more frightening than beautiful, but the forest seems peaceful and quiet. Traveling through the area is thus an eerie, disconcerting experience.
    Jade detects for magic and senses a faint, yet pervasive, negative and chaotic energy.
    "This place makes me very uncomfortable, guys," says Jade. "Let's keep our eyes open and try to work together to get things done so we can get out of here soon." She looks around to see if she can spot any obvious traps, but just sees the odd, twisted flora.
    The party stands on the overgrown cobblestone path leading up to the mansion which lies about 200 feet to the north, within its walled compound. A sparsely forested area lies to the east and west of the road. The woods are silent, except for the occasional gabble of animals and the wind whispering between the branches.
    "Okay guys," says Jade. "Who wants to check for traps, who wants to make sure that we are not going to be ambushed, and who wants to whine that things are not going their way?"

    Mr. Sanders had walked silently, following the group during their journey towards the mansion. Thoughts of his aunt and uncle often flowed in and out of his mind, entangled with images of the vivid dream that he dreamt the night before. The image of the familiar figure from the dream sticks in his mind like a paradox: so familiar, yet so mysterious. The images from his shrouded past trouble him like an itch that he can't quite reach.
    He had cautiously studied the group, trying to get a sense of who his new companions are and to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses. Can I trust these people with my life when the time comes" he had thought to himself trying not to make it obvious to the rest of the group. After all, they had done him no harm, and the last thing he wanted to do was to cause any unnecessary confrontations.
    As the party walked up the path, Mr. Sanders saw the mansion draw closer and closer every step the group took. When they reached what appeared to be the true edge of the mansion grounds Jade wore, what he considered to be, a look of concern on her face. She had then pulled the group closer to her and set her plan allowing the freedom of choice. Mr. Sanders, deep down inside, felt that she did this because of the loss of the group's former companion, Yark. He thought Jade felt responsible for the unfortunate tragedy, so in return she had placed the destiny of each member on their own shoulders.

    "Perhaps we should polish Jade's pot of gold to make her more likable," Corian whispers to Avian and the others within earshot.
    Giggling, at Corian's lame joke, Avian looks at Toad-axe and Froggflipp with interest. "This adventure is getting really interesting! I've encountered numerous new creatures, especially that creepy gremlin, the succubi, dragon, grassy gnolls, to mention but a few. Wait 'til the fair folk hear of my adventures."
    Flying over, jumping off Corian's back playfully, then hovering at the leprechaun's eye level, Avian says "I'll go up into the sky and watch for any ambushes and such." Squinting his eyes, he adds, "And look for that flying creature that the frog brothers saw!" Waiting for her reply, he hovers in the air. Jade nods to the fairy. With a goofy smile he whisks off into the sky.
    Crouching down, setting his magic staff aside and removing his gauntlets, Corian puts his pack in front of him and reaches in to retrieve the clay jars Leah gave them to collect samples.
    He says, "Jade, I'll go collect some foliage, twisted fruit, and flowers for our druidess friend." Not waiting for her reply he goes off, picking and cutting with his magical dagger, and using his cloak to avoid touching the samples with his bare hands. He also tries to pay attention to his enchanted dagger's ability to detect the radiation of any evil presences. He finds however, that all of the vegetation in the vicinity gives off a faint evil aura, causing his blade to glow dimly. He gathers several different samples.

    Keeping within a safe distance of his friends and staying above the treeline so as to avoid touching all plant life, the fairy flies over the Morrick estate. He observes the vineyards that surround the mansions for acres in every direction except the south where the lightly wooded road lies. The mansion itself is a walled compound with a large house and gardens, now apparently overgrown and wild. Shadows prowl in the bushes there, but nothing definite can be observed. To the west of the wall are four buildings, presumably for maintenance and upkeep purposes. Feeling satisfied that nothing imminent is present, Avian flies back to the group.

    The toad-warriors told the leprechaun that they would scout around in the brush off to the east of the group to ensure they weren't going to be attacked. "Also," says Froggflipp, "I thought we should have a group name to rally under. What do you think of 'The Dragons of Justice'?"
    Toad-axe nods his head vigorously in agreement.
    "Well, that's fine, except we aren't dragons," says Jade.
    "Don't be so literal. 'Dragons' is meant to be taken figuratively. The famous delvers known as the 'Birds of Prey' weren't raptors - they were humankin adventurers."
    "Well, we aren't exactly fierce," she says.
    The toad-warriors appear to be frowning, although it is hard to tell with their anatomy.
    Quietly, the amphibious fighters bound off through the brush. After a brief time they come across an overpowering reek of rot and decay, oily and sickening. A nearby corpse is found to be the source of the stench. The malodorous reek is almost enough to cause nausea, but the toadies swallow their urge to retch and search the lone corpse.
    It is in an advanced stage of decay. Based on its rotten gear, the toad-warriors presume the corpse was an adventurer as well. The only thing salvageable is its belt pouch. Toad-axe retrieves it and the two leap away to an area of fresher air. After checking its contents and doing some counting, they assess the loot as three mithril pieces, thirty-two gold, one-hundred and twenty-three silver pieces, ninety-three coppers, and a small book. It is damp and moldy.
    Hovering above the toad creatures after completing his aerial reconnaissance, Avian watches in disgust as they pick through the corpse for its belongings. He zips off through the treetops.
    "Let's get back to the others," Froggflipp says.
    Toad-axe nods his concurrence, and two leap back to the others.

    Corencio had trudged along, looking for the mansion as the party drew near. He knew they were supposed to be looking for leaves and fruit and such, because he had overheard their conversation with Leah Redoak when he was trailing them before. He had worried the druid's animal companion would sense him, but it hadn't.
    Being a graduate of the Alchemy & Thaumaturgy College, Corencio knew he would be of some use there. When they finally got to the mansion and Jade had asked who wanted to do what, Corencio stepped forward and stated he could search for traps.
    After having searched the road's worked stones and the nearby bushes for a few minutes in a sixty foot stretch, the young wizard is about to concede there is nothing around when he notices a large, twisted tree nearby the road. Its thorny branches conceal an animal or monster burrow. He is unable to get too close due to the tangled mass of barbs, but he thinks he hears heavy breathing from the darkness. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, he walks back to the others.

    After the others had departed, Mr. Sanders approaches Jade and with a slight bow he says, "I offer my services in what ever task you should need." He then stands back to wait for her orders.
    "Well," Jade says, looking at Mr. Sanders, "I am not sure what you are good with, other than coming to our aid. However, why don't you search the forest here for any secret entrances to the mansion hidden in the woods."
    With a bow, Mr. Sanders goes off to do so. He searches the woods on each side for about sixty feet to no avail until he notices Corencio returning to where the group had started from.

    Jade looks around to see if there is anything she should be watching for. She also tries to focus on the strongest source of magic energy. Like Corian, she finds it is faintly present in all of the plants around her. Nothing seems to be stronger than anything else. She carefully walks around the area for a few minutes until she notes the others returning to account of their findings.
    Overall, Jade knew, the party only searched the outer half or so of the woods during the time the wizards, Mr. Sanders, Avian and the toad-warriors were gone and returned to give their reports. There was still another large section of woods to be searched before the group actually arrived at the wall surrounding the mansion.

    * * *

    Kitara awakens, dresses, and walks into the tavern. She heads directly to the fireplace to warm up. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she thinks of Elgring and wonders if everyone cast a Poor Baby spell on him, what the outcome would end up being. She asks.
    "I doubt it would do anything," Snag says. "His problem is spiritual, not physical."
    With a warm smile, the succubus says to Arryn, "I just feel sorry for Elgring. He was truly a great warrior and now he's just a big bumbling imbecile."
    Snag rolls his eyes, but says nothing.
    "What are we going to do with him?" the succubus asks. "Should we take him along on our adventures or find a babysitter?" By habit, Anubis unconsciously lets her hands wander and her fingers end up rubbing against Arryn's thigh.
    "Hey, sugar," Arryn says, smiling and winking, "I think your fingers are trying to talk to me. As much as any man would jump at the idea of playing with you, we do have work to do. We will talk about this later."
    Anubis, sitting next to Snag, offers her fingers for nibbling. He chomps on them with his needle-sharp teeth, nearly drawing blood. "Mmmmm." Anubis yelps at the first sting, but then seems to enjoy the stimulation.
    "I think we need to go for the babysitting option," says Snag, ceasing his gnawing for a minute. "Just like with the dark elf - how are we going to get him around? If we were going to be walking, then I'd say fine - bring him. But I think we should fly. We could get there in a short time and assist the others."
    Kitara hears the idea of flying to the mansion and agrees that it would be a good idea. "But is everyone strong enough and rested enough to be able to do this?" she asks.
    Looking at Snag, Anubis says, "Flying would be a great idea, but I can only carry one other person at a time. If you could extend your spell on Kitara so she could fly too, that would help tremendously. By the way, since you are so intent on finding the Head of Darksmoke, I think we should call our group the 'Head Hunters'. What do you think, my little friend?"
    The gremlin says, "It's nice to see you thinking, Nubie. I do so much admire your mind. Unless anyone else has a better idea, the 'Head Hunters' works for me. And, since we have nothing better to do at the moment: 'hey Nubie, want to show me your -'."
    "Alright, alright," says Arryn. "Save the poetry for the minstrels and bards."
    Snag throws him the finger. "Getting old must suck. So, now that we're all refreshed, let's get on with this thing, shall we?"

    * * *

    Having convinced the guards to let them into Karthaki, Malakai, Savana, and Esmerelda enter the Witch's Teat. Seeing the three darkly garbed figures, the people in the common room fall silent and stare at the new-comers. They sit together and order drinks from the serving wench. The locals have mostly returned to their business, and small chatter once again fills the Teat, so they take their opportunity to look at the room and its inhabitants.
    Malakai the dwarf says in a very loud voice: "Is anything exciting going on in this town, or is it as dead as all of you seem to be?"
    The locals fall silent again. Everyone looks at the dwarf, but no one responds.
    The trio goes back to drinking.
    Some time later another dwarf comes over to them. "If'n ye want something to make yer lives more exciting, I take it yer 'venturers. I heard tell that there've been some strange goings on in the Holden Woods, to the southeast of the village. Ye might take to exploring there on the morrow." With that the dwarf nods to the trio and backs away.

    * * *

    Quietly and quickly through the mist-shrouded night, the figures walk the trail toward Karthaki. The first is a human woman with long red hair and yellow eyes. She wears a long black dress. A jeweled gold ring adorns her right middle finger, and she is carrying a javelin in that hand as well.
    Next to her a tall, scaled reptilian female in lamellar armor plods along. She has yellow eyes with black streaks on her head for hair. In one hand she holds an ankus, and the other carries a buckler.
    The faint lights of Karthaki beckon in the darkness. The females look at each other and smile. Their journey to the village will end this night.

    * * *
    ''Dragons of Justice,'' Avian murmurs. "Interesting name." He flies over to Jade for further instructions while trying to think of a tune to match the name.
    Having lost interest in gathering his samples, Corian walks over to where Avian is and hears him humming a tune while awaiting further instructions from Jade. All of the other party members are returning from their scattered places of exploration in the first half of the forest. The second half of the forest, the part near the mansion itself, still awaits exploration.
    "Got the samples packed and ready. You want us to go back and deliver these?" Corian asks the leprechaun.
    "Yeah, Corian. You and Avian can head back now to get those to the druid," Jade says. "We will see if anything is going on here and then meet you back at the Teat in a week or so."
    Toad-axe, apparently perseverating on his ancestral enemies, asks if anyone saw any mountain bad guys while they were searching the woods. No one has.
    "We found a moldy book on a corpse to the east," says the toad-warrior chieftain. "It was on a dead body - probably human. It had no weapons and all of its gear was ruined except for its belt pouch. I haven't looked through the book yet."
    Froggflipp hands the moldy book to Corencio. "I'll give this book to you. Can you look through it and see it is useful in any way?"
    "I'll see what I can do with this," Corencio responds to Froggflipp.
    Toad-axe asks his chief, "Where are the coins we found with the body?"
    "I have them, and I'll keep them to buy some magical items when we get back into town. Unless someone has something they want to sell me now." Froggflipp looks around at the others.
    Jade looks at the toad-warriors. "Guys…most of the time we split party treasure that is found. Since you just found this out scouting I do not have a problem if you keep it, but if you want to become members of the party the rule is that we split the rest of the treasure equal with everyone who is here."
    "In the future I will share the treasure I find," replies Froggflipp.
    "I will share as well," says Toad-Axe.
    Everyone is quiet as they ponder the toads' words.
    Corencio flips through the pages of the moldy book, trying not to damage it. There appears to be faded writing that Corencio can almost make out. "It seems like a journal and spell book, a grimoire perhaps; but I don't think it is too old," he tells the group. "The guy who had it must have either been a wizard or a close friend of one. Give me a bit more time and I might be able to decipher it."
    The young wizard continues to look through the damp book. It apparently belonged to a person named 'Kraluk'. In addition to the spell Poor Baby, it contains information about places Kraluk traveled to, including Karthaki. While most of the pages are rotting, a few moist pages are legible. One page Corencio finds interesting.
    "Hey guys, listen to this," he says. "'Benrun says it is a curse, not a disease, and whoever placed the curse must live nearby. He says the curse is on the land and everything on it, not just people. I am not sure, but I expect he should know. We were attacked this morning by creatures the likes of which I have never seen. Frenish says they seemed almost demon-like. Whether or not she is right, the beasts had claws as sharp as steel. They ripped right through….' It stops there. The rest is too damaged."
    Jade looks around at the group. "Well, on that note: are we all sure that we want to hang around here? Let's split into groups of two and search the area of woods closer to the mansion. Froggflipp and Corencio search the east half of woods between here and the mansion wall. Toad-Axe and Mr. Sanders can search the west part up to the wall. And I will search the road from here to the main gate."

    * * *
    After Elgring is placed in daycare, Kitara finally shows up and the group is ready to depart. Standing with her hands on her hips, swinging her hair around, Kitara says in a chipper voice that she agrees the name Head Hunters is a good choice. "Have we decided on what to do with Elgring?" she asks. "Is he staying here, or should Anubis and I try to fly him together?"
    "Here's being taken care of in a retirement home for aged adventurers," Snag answers with a wink. "Nah. I locked him in my closet in my room at the Unicorn. We'll deal with his problems after we figure out what is going on at the mansion. Perhaps a powerful wizard or priest could divine the specifics of his problem and inform us what is required to return him to his senses."
    Snag casts flying spells upon Arryn and Kit and Anubis adjusts her gear strapped to her back and offers to carry Snag, as he is the lightest, to the mansion.
    He chalks this up to another exception to the no touching rule, and concedes.
    She wraps her arms around and underneath his arms and with a bit of a jump, she gets off the ground with her wings flapping hard under the extra weight. "Okay, Snag, which way are we going?"
    "West. See that road there? Just follow it, generally, but bearing a little north of it," he yells.
    Kit and Arryn leap off of the ground in Nubie's wake and follow along. Although the autumn air is cold at this speed, and the mists swirl around, frequently obscuring the Hunters' sight of the road, everyone enjoys the exhilaration of flight. When the mists are too thick to see the road below, Snag keeps them on course with the compass set into his 'Kasari Army Knife'. He occupies himself at times playing with the various gadgets built into it and telling Anubis sundry titillating uses he could employ with it, should she be so inclined.
    "Snag, you'll have to show me how you use some of those gadgets later when we rest. Maybe I can show you a few tricks, too."

    It requires several hours of flight, including rests and several recastings of the spells, but the Head Hunters make good time in their journey to the mansion. Fortunately, Snag's wizardly experience permits him to cast the spells with little draining of his magical reserves, and the periods of rest, for him, during the flight allow this to be easily recovered.
    The Hunters fly over the extensive and immaculate vineyards of the Eldoran estate, the only other noble family in the Hidden Coast region since the deposal of the Morricks. Past this lays the great vineyards of the Morrick estate, now overgrown and growing wild. These vineyards stretch on for miles. The party lands between rows of bare vines, the unpicked grapes lying in dark, rotten clumps on the ground.
    "I need to rest for a few moments," says Anubis. "The bunch of you flew with magic, but I had to use muscle, not to mention that I had to carry our little leader. How about we look around a bit while I let my body recharge?" She takes her pack off and digs though it, pulling out some snacks to munch on.
    "So, are you teaching me a few tricks now," Snag asks, "or are you too tired?"
    "I'm never too tired for some tricks. Follow me into the bushes over here and I'll show you..."
    "Sure. Let me see what you have in mind." Snag follows the succubus into the bushes while the others aren't watching. Anubis sits down and Snag crouches next to her, with his Kasari Army Knife in hand.
    "I'll start. This," says Snag, showing a small pair of scissors from the knife, "is useful for, shall we say, personal grooming. It helps to keep oneself fit and trim, so to speak. Or," he closes the scissors and takes out a pair of tweasers, "if you prefer to go one at a time, and don't mind a little pain with your pleasure, you can always pluck before you -"
    "Hey, where did Anubis and Snag go?" asks Arryn.

    * * *
    Esmerelda, the mysterious cloaked woman, Malakai the dwarf, and Savana the human woman try to chat with some of the townspeople and learn some of the lore of the area. They learn that a great adventuring party - the Birds of Prey - lost their lives exploring beneath the Hidden Coast and that the ghost of a dark elfin wizard is said to haunt the Hidden Coast.
    They then decide they better get a room and get a good night's sleep, if they are going to venture off in the morning. They will need to make a few stops in town in the morning and are hoping that the townfolk will be more helpful then. They secure rooms at the Prancing Unicorn.

    * * *
    Selena and Oshean, human and lizardwoman travelers, decide that once they reach town that they will go to the gem store and try and sell their gems for gold. Once they do they will go to an inn to get some rest and meet in the tavern in the morning. After securing entrance to the village, they find that Mistwright's, the jeweler, is closed at this time of night. They head to the Prancing Unicorn to get rooms. As they enter they see another motley crew just leaving the counter after obtaining rooms themselves. The two groups turn to eye each other: dwarf, human and humanoid on one side, and human and lizardwoman on the other. The hobb behind the counter seems concerned and asks everyone conduct themselves civilly.
    After eyeing the newcomers for a moment, Malakai decides with a snort to get some rest and in the morning start his journey of finding people to talk to.
    Savana is overly excited to start exploring for the Birds of Prey, but she restlessly tries to get some sleep for her big day tomorrow.
    Very intrigued by the story that she has learned, Esmerelda thinks it sounds like a great adventure to pursue. Since she can not sleep, she decides to go back to the Witch's Teat tavern and ask the locals if they can give her any more information on the Hidden Coast and how to find it.
    "Well," says an old dwarf named Silas, "this is the Hidden Coast. The literal coast is about ten miles thataway" - he points to the west - "but this whole region is called the Hidden Coast. It's hidden, you see, 'cause no one much comes around this way anymore, thanks to the minions of the Death Goddess. At one point this was a much frequented trade route, but now it's just an old backwater town that few people have even heard about except for our wine exports. 'Karthaki Red' is still a well-known vintage."

    Since Selena and Oshean have no money, they decide to sneak into the stables and sleep there until morning. On the morrow they will go to the jewelers and to the tavern to eat, then set out for adventure.

    * * *

    Kitara looks around while she's resting. She decides to eat a few grapes to boost her energy. While most are dried and withered, a few still appear edible. They taste fine.
    Kit then starts to search around in the bushes and behind the vines to see if she can find anything. "Oh my gods!" she exclaims. "Can't you two find something better to do?" she asks Anubis and Snag. "We need to take care of this business before you get your pleasure."
    "Oh…hi, Kitara," purrs Anubis. "You know, you are more than welcome to join Snag and me if you feel any urges."
    "For such a provocatively dressed succubus, you're quite the prude, huh?" quips Snag.
    As the three of them return to the clearing where they landed, Anubis
    walks up to Arryn and quietly says, "You can join us too, handsome."
    "Nah," Arryn says. "I know enough about knives for right now, and if it were anything else, Snag is just not my type. Now maybe if it were you and Kitara, I would join in on the fun, but not talking about knives."
    As she's walking away to go sit down, Arryn winks at Anubis and looks in the direction that she is motioning towards. She stops suddenly, and tilts her head to better hone in on something she hears. "Snag? Can you hear anything?"
    "Uh? Nah," the gremlin responds, though it is clear he is not paying attention.
    A deformed-looking female hobb emerges from the vines and attempts to speak to the Head Hunters. After making several unintelligible sounds, she flees back into the vines, crying.
    Arryn cries out to her. "Wait! Is something wrong? Can we help you in some way?" He slowly and carefully follows the way she went, checking for traps along the way.

    * * *

    Corian and Avian begin their journey down the trail to see the druidess. Just as they are about to clear the woods and return to old trade road back to Karthaki, a strange weasel charges out of the underbrush and runs straight at Corian. Its fur is patchy and strange bony spurs emerge from it, giving it an odd and menacing appearance. The old wizard and fairy are alert, though, and prepare themselves as the small, but potentially dangerous, beast runs to within six feet of Corian.

    * * *

    Jade says, "Search your areas up to the wall, and then close in toward the main gate. We'll meet there and decide what to do."
    Mr. Sanders bows slightly towards Jade and lifts his right arm aiming towards the general direction of the west portion of the woods. He says, "After you," looking at his new companion Toad-Axe. The toad-warrior nods in reply, and leaps off into the brush in short, quiet bounds.
    They bypass the area of the rotting corpse, having already explored there, and progress closer to the mansion wall. After a period of searching, the two notice a small rough hut about forty feet away. Twisting branches cut from trees in different parts of the forest seem to have been used to construct the hut, making it appear very unstable. They approach cautiously, and when they realize it is empty, they enter.
    Although small, squat, and rather ugly, the hut is surprisingly clean. Twisted branches are split and tied together to create two low cots that are propped up against the walls. Natural peg-like protrusions on the wall hold up various tattered cloaks and an old hobb-sized suit of leather armor.
    Mr. Sanders examines the cloaks and armor on the pegs, and notes that two cloaks bear the same coat of arms. The others are old and ratty. The suit of armor is still of high quality, and made of leather sized for a hobb, gnome, or other small humanoid. Perhaps Jade will want it, he thinks.
    Meanwhile, Toad-axe conducts a careful search beneath the blankets and cots which turns up three useable dirks, a hand-and-a-half sword, and 45 golden coins. He takes these to show the others.
    "I found a lot of money," Toad-axe says to his companion. "Too bad we didn't find any mountain bad guys."
    There doesn't appear to be anything else of value in the hut, so they continue on their way to the wall.

    Corencio and Froggflipp head off to explore their part of the woods. At first they start to think the eastern portion of the forest is devoid of anything worthy of their notice, when they see the bushes, trees, and grasses are cleared away from the sides of an ancient stone well. Twisted trees stretch their winding branches in a canopy cloaking the well in shadow. Fresh footprints mark the soft earth beside the crumbling walls, a clear indication that someone or something was here quite recently. Froggflipp bends to examine the footprints more closely and determines that whatever made them was wearing boots. He moves off along the trail the boots made.
    Corencio sees that the well is very old, and that the stone walls that surround it are only three feet high. The mortar holding the stones together appears to be have seen better days.
    Suddenly, a longhaired human woman, face twisted in a savage snarl, charges out of the underbrush and rushes Corencio standing by the well. As she charges him she screams, "Murderer!" and her eyes betray her madness.
    "Move!" the toad-warrior yells to the young wizard. Froggflipp tries to ensnare her with his man-catcher, but he reacts too slowly and she runs passed him at Corencio. He hops after her.

    Alone, Jade heads up the road toward the mansion gates. Other than places where roots and strong shoots have pushed up through the road's stones, the path is clear. Besides, Jade thinks, Corencio has already searched the road at least part way to the gate.
    The leprechaun doesn't notice when a short, squat and foul-looking wolverine, patchy fur intermixed with hard-looking scales, races out of its hiding place amongst a thorny thicket and quickly speeds right at her flank. She hears it as the last second and spins around to defend herself. Jade mutters the words to a Take That, You Fiend, and the bright purplish-white energy flies from her finger tip. As the beam shoots out of her right hand pointer finger, her left hand grabs her axe. As the spell moves away from her body, she raises her axe to engage in combat.
    The eldritch blast tears through the wolverine; it growls in pain, but doesn't stop. Its momentum is barely slowed by the blast and it tears into Jade with tooth and nail before she can even bring her axe into play. The leprechaun screams in pain and fear. In but a second, she collapses to the ground and the world fades into blackness.

    From different areas of the forest, the two toad-warriors hear Jade's scream echo through the boughs. Having a good idea where she would be, both leap in her direction as fast as they can.
    "I'm going to go check on Jade," Froggflipp yells back to Corencio.

    Corencio gathers his wits and casts a Fly Me, trying to fly out of the way before the woman reaches him.
    "Murderer? What's that suppose to mean?" Corencio asks, hoping the woman can't jump very high. Unfortunately, she is quicker than the young wizard expects and she leaps and snatches hold of his ankle before he flies out of her reach. She growls in triumph.
    Corencio calls to the quickly vanishing Froggflipp: "Don't worry, I can handle her. Go help Jade!"
    Looking down into her crazed eyes, he sees she is a thin human woman, almost frail in appearance , but she possesses incredible strength. Try as he might, he cannot break her grasp. She appears to be fumbling with her other hand to draw a sword sheathed at her waist.
    Corencio had been caught off guard by the quickness of the woman, but he has one last idea. He knows he could blast her to little pieces with a Take That, You Fiend, but he wants answers. A simple Rock-a-Bye should work, he thinks. He whispers the words with his hand out, praying to the Trollgod she doesn't have some sort of magic resistance as fairy dust covers her face.
    The crazed woman appears to be ready to fall into enchanted slumber, her eyelids drooping, her grip slackening. Then, she shakes her head as if to shrug off the effects of the spell and finally manages to pull her sword from its scabbard.

    Mr. Sanders takes a deep breath and slowly exhales as he pulls out his sword. He carefully brushes the tip against the surface of the grass and leaves, scanning the ground for anything suspicious as he follows Toad-axe towards the west wall. I hope my friend and I don't run into any overwhelming, outnumbering situations on our search, Mr. Sanders thinks to himself. I don't think my Toad friend and I could handle any creatures like we have already encountered as a group. Let fate choose our destiny, but if we're attacked again, I'm not going down without drawing blood - even if it's the last thing I ever do.
    Mr. Sanders pauses for a second to look at what his sword has uncovered on the ground: a few deformed beetle carcasses lying in the leaf litter. They appear to have died from chewing on the vegetation. "This place is poison and filled with pure evil," Mr. Sanders says out loud to Toad-axe. "Let us beware of touching anything that's in this place."
    Just then a voice - perhaps Jade's - screams in pain from the center of the forest. Toad-axe looks briefly at Mr. Sanders, and then leaps off as fast as he can in the direction of the scream. Mr. Sanders follows in his wake.

    Corian's bearded face is twisted in fear, looking upon the horrid creature charging at him. Stumbling backwards, he relies on his magical staff to balance him from going over on his back.
    In the meantime Avian looks back in time to see his friend's actions, and also at the mammal attacking. The fairy puts his hands on his cheeks and screams: "No!" His tiny voice carries a short distance.
    The wizard's mind is reacting to past memories of his childhood, of having a pet weasel, soft and cuddly; only to have it buried because he left it out in an awful storm with tremendous rain, thunder and lightning. Now this cursed animal has come to seek its revenge. The human magic-user turns to run away, hoping to escape its sharp teeth, to avoid its foul quest to kill him.
    The strawberry-haired fairy, recovering from the shock of such a fierce creature, flies toward the weasel mumbling the words to a spellsong which will cause the foe to panic and flee.
    Just as the weasel is about to sink its sharp incisors into Corian's backside, the fairy's spellsong takes effect and the cursed mammal flees off into the underbrush.

    The scaly wolverine was just about to eat the leprechaun it had wounded when it heard the sounds of several pursuers crashing through the woods toward it. The meal could wait until after this new threat was dealt with. Perhaps then there would be an even larger meal….

    The toad-warriors arrive simultaneously, and while the fierce wolverine does its best to defend itself, the amphibious combatants assault the cursed mammal with such savagery that it is hewed into bloody chunks and pieces in mere seconds.
    Just as the two toadies finish off the wolverine, Mr. Sanders arrives and begins to perform first aid on Jade, ripping off strips of cloth to staunch her flowing blood and hopefully stabilize her until further help can arrive.

    * * *

    Kitara nastily glares at Snag and says, "Well, calling me a prude is a compliment coming from you, little one. I also have standards, and you just don't - oh how shall I put it? - measure up." She chuckles to herself and turns to walk away. She starts to feel a little lightheaded and wobbly. Her vision starts to get fuzzy. She wonders what is
    happening to her as she slumps to the ground.
    Snag looks at the others. "See what happens when you draw the wrath of a gremlin?"
    "Arryn, you go after that hobb and find out what she's whining about. I'll take care of Kitara." Anubis kneels down next to her kindred friend and feels her forehead. "Those grapes she ate must have been poisonous. Snag dearest, do you have any suggestions or should I cast Poor Baby on her?"
    "Give it a try, but keep an eye on her. I'll keep an eye on our surroundings."
    Arryn notches an arrow and heads off after the hobb.

    * * *

    After rejoining with her group, Esmerelda and Malakai decide to go to the store before starting their adventure. Savana had wanted to go as well, but then remembered she would have to wait until after dusk to venture out.
    Esmie and Mal first go to the jewelers, Mistwright's Gems, so Esmie can sell her bronze bracelet set with the rubies. The gnome jeweler must be in a good mood today, because he agrees to give her what she considers the item's true value.
    The two then go to Quill's store where Esmerelda buys a suit of leather armor, two days' provisions, a delver's pack, and fifty feet of hemp rope. For Savana she buys leather armor, and two days' provisions. Malakai gets one more day's worth of provisions.
    While exiting the store, Malakai notices a lizardwoman looking around the town, as if she not sure where to go. Being the gentleman that he is, an exception to most dwarfs, he asks the lady if she would like to join him and Esmie for some breakfast at the Witch's Teat.
    Oshean had just left Mistwright's where she sold Selena's enamel and her own enamel and opal. Upon encountering Esmie and Mal, she agreed to meet them at the Teat after a stop in Quill's for some armor for Selena who had also stayed back at the tavern, where she had gone before day break.
    * * *
    Man…this woman is tough! Corencio thinks. Figuring there is nothing he can do, he casts an advanced Take That, You Fiend on the insane woman. If that doesn't kill her, or at least knock her out, he doesn't know what will.
    The woman brings her sword back to strike and starts forward with her blow. Corencio, heart pounding, releases his arcane energy in an arc of disruptive power, blasting her in the face and throwing her body back away from him. Released from her grip, he rises into the air. Looking down at her supine, crumpled body, he sees that her skull has been mostly blown away from his spell.

    Jade lies unconscious, breathing shallowly. Mr. Sanders is continuing to try to stabilize her and staunch her blood flow when Corencio arrives after having dealt with his own challenge.
    "Maybe we should move her off the road into the woods," says Froggflipp. "It'll be cooler for her and we'd be less likely to have anything chance upon us while we rest and decide what to do. Who will carry Jade? Toad-axe and I could."
    More concerned with her wounds, no one notices that Jade's ears have withered to dried flaps of skin and have all but sealed up.

    * * *
    Anubis kneels next to Kitara, closes her eyes and focuses on the healing spell with staff in hand. The healing energy doesn't seem to have any effect, but her wizardly intuition tells her there is something else magically wrong with Kit.
    The dark succubus also notices something in Kitara's hand. Anubis pries her hand open and two dark purple grapes fall to the ground. Her palm is stained by the dark juice. She picks one up and smells it. The grape has a sweet, yet unusual odor to it. As she flicks it away, she says to the others, "Kitara was eating the little purple grapes, so don't eat those ones."
    Kitara feels strangely still. Her vision is not clear and she is fading in and out of consciousness. She hears voices, but can't understand what they're saying or who it is.
    After searching for a few moments, and finding no trace of the hobb, Arryn returns to the others. "Sorry guys - I lost her in the underbrush some where," Arryn says walking back into view. "How is Kitara? Was she poisoned by the grapes that she ate?"
    "I think there is more to this," says Snag.

    * * *
    Once she gets leather armor for Selena, Oshean heads to the Witch's Teat to meet back up with her companion. When she sees the red-headed woman she tells her that a dwarf had asked them to join them here. When they notice the dwarf in the common room, both of them get up from their table and go to join the dwarf at his table. After a brief discussion, they agree to meet again that night.

    After dusk, Savana goes to the tavern to join the other members for some wine. They all sit at a table and order drinks. Each of the adventurers is disappointed to discover that on Fastday, no food is sold, as per ancient tradition. Everyone introduces themselves and discusses the adventure they're about to take. Malakai asks the two new women if they'd like to join the group. Savana gives a little sneer, sensing rivalry, but agrees.

    * * *
    Avian flies to Corian's ear to make sure that the human hears him. ''You dork! Made me think we were in great danger! It was a weasel for crying out loud!'' The fairy is quite upset over the recent matter.
    "Although, the spellsong I used was effective!" Avian lets his mood lighten up.
    "See how that wretched creature fled back into the brush-" He stops talking after he senses his partner wasn't listening; Corian appears lost in his inner turmoil. Sighing, Avian flies up, keeping an eye out for danger out of concern for the old human below.
    Composing himself, Corian walks back on the trail after the emotional experience of having to deal with the weasel, being too shocked and afraid to fight back. Ashamed of his lack of reaction - letting his friend fight alone - he has nothing to say.
    Leaning heavily onto his magic staff, keeping his other hand free to cast a spell if necessary, Corian continues his journey down the trail. The walk is long.

    That night the two begin to settle for the night. The sky is unusually clear for Karthaki, and the moon is large and full. Something can be seen flying overhead, an oddly-shaped monster with wings and talons, but instead of a bird's head as they'd expect, there is a bestial head with antlers. Its eyes glow a dull red-orange. Its cries are a collection of roars and screeches, and it sounds as if it is either injured or enraged. At one point it flies directly across the moon, becoming a silhouette; however, the shadow that is cast on the ground near the fairy and the wizard is not that of a flying creature. Avian and Corian are disturbed to see that its shadow is that of a human man.

    VII. Shadows and Substance

    "By Dogface's good humor," Corian mutters, shaking nervously at the screeching of the bird-like creature above. "Honestly, how could the druidess live with filthy flying creatures around?"
    Avian gives him a quick look of disapproval.
    Seeing that the thing hasn't reacted yet, Corian pulls out his magical dagger to see if it radiates magic to let him know he faces evil. As it swoops overhead one time, getting progressively closer, he sees that his blade does indeed glow. He readies himself to fight this creature so that he can finish his mission. "Why does every other party member have it easier than us?" he asks Avian, knowing he's around but not exactly where. The fairy doesn't reply.
    "How is everybody else?" queries the old wizard, thinking of the mighty warrior, Elgring, the succubi, and also the old man. What's his name…Arryn? His last thought is of the gremlin. "Snag gives me the same feeling as that creature above us. They both give me a queer feeling and the fear of knowing there's nothing I can do to protect the two of us from the power they posses."
    "I thought I would give you the queerest feelings," says the pink-haired fairy with a wink as he flitters nearby. As Corian turns to look at him he blows a kiss and zips off.
    Shaking his head at his own silliness, the fairy thinks, Gotta focus on the problem now. Flitting and dodging in the shadows, he hopes he will keep the beast guessing where he is. Taking out both of his daggers he watches carefully and prepares to attack if need be, doing his hit-and-run technique.
    "What are you?" Corian bellows out. A minute later he pours forth the words of a spell, like blood out of an open wound, to cast a Will-o-wisp spell. The tip of his staff glows with all the intensity of a single candle in the dark.
    "With all that brilliance, you'll probably blind the thing," Avian calls out, rolling his eyes.
    A screech from overhead tells them that the thing has seen the light, and based on the increase in volume it is getting closer. They look up to see the flying thing diving toward them and they prepare themselves for its strike.

    * * *
    Anubis casts the Omnipotent Eye on one of the grapes Kit had been holding, to get a better idea of what is happening to her. She discovers that the grape is tainted with a curse, and that anyone eating it will become tainted as well.
    "Snag, these grapes have a curse on them, not that they are poisonous. Can you tell what the curse might be?"
    "It is the Morrick curse," Snag replies. "It taints everything associated with their estate. Anyone infected with it will change. I am not sure if it can be dispelled, but we can try."
    Arryn winces. "Does that mean we might have to kill her? And what do you mean she will change?" He walks over and looks at Kit. "Maybe we should do whatever we need to before she gets out of control."

    * * *
    The toad-warriors carry the fallen leprechaun off the road and into the woods. Corencio kneels to check her vital signs. She is close to death and fading fast.
    Mr. Sanders looks at each of his companions and nods. "There is something I must do. Look after Jade. I will return as soon as I can." The human warrior, with blade drawn, turns and heads off into the forest.
    "Corencio," Froggflipp asks, "can you use your magic to heal Jade?"
    Toad-axe stands guard, looking for attackers, presumably mountain bad guys, should they ever arrive.

    * * *
    Avian's face grins at the upcoming fight, frightened at the sight of this fierce creature yet he cannot help to be fascinated at a new foe - especially the features. Later he'll be able to tell his tales to his buddies at his local tavern called the Dirty Duck.
    Using his hit-and-run techniques, the minstrel flies up to engage attacking the foe's wings; like on himself, it is one the most vulnerable places on the body.
    Avian flutters closer to the foul smelling winged creature. "My uncle, a great warrior among my kin, once said battles are chancy things. One man's bravery may save the day; one man's cowardice may spoil it!" Avian's smile turns skeptical thinking of the person this might imply.
    "Rabbit droppings!" Corian mutters to himself, having made the mistake of casting the Will-o-wisp spell. He glances up to see the winged beast coming right at him. ''It's a good thing I can live without sustenance or else I'd be plotzing my pants!'' He hopes the creature would think twice about attacking good people of Karthaki.
    With a horrid screech, the antlered beast dives out of the sky straight at the old wizard. Avian harries it with needling, distracting attacks as it plummets, disrupting its focus. Spotting the talons ready to rip his flesh, Corian swings his glowing dagger, swiping at the creature to fend it off. It crashes into his chest nevertheless, talons first, and sends him crashing backwards several feet to slam into the base of a shrub. His lamellar, and Avian's distractions, save him from suffering any damage worse than abrasions and the wind knocked out of his lungs.
    The winged creature lands about ten feet from the breathless supine wizard, shrieks, and begins hopping toward him, beating its wings for balance. It lowers its head to aim its antlers at him as it approaches. Spittle runs from its cruelly fanged maw, and its hot, stinking breath smells of decaying flesh.
    As it advances, Corian can see it more clearly in the bright light of the full moon. It resembles a giant, dark green eagle, except that its head is that of a blue-black stag, its antlers glitter as ebon as obsidian. Its eyes glow a dull red-orange. The chest feathers are light blue. Most oddly of all, Corian notes, still gasping for breath, as its shadow falls near him is that it appears in the shape of a human.

    * * *
    "The curse, from the little I know," says Snag, "brings about physical and mental changes - mutations, deformities, and insanity. Kit will become an aberration if we can not do something to heal her. In that case, Arryn, we may have to kill her to save her."
    Anubis looks worried for her kindred and tries to figure out what to do. "Snag, maybe if the two of us cast Curses Foiled on Kitara that might help her. What else should we be wary about with this Morrick curse? I fancy how I look and certainly don't want anything to happen to me."
    "Okay Miss Fancypants," the gremlin says, "take it easy." Snag looks at Anubis' bare legs and the scanty leather covering. "Not exactly pants, I guess," he says, raising an eyebrow. "I've told you about all I know. Don't eat or drink anything infected, and don't let anything or anyone infected bite or scratch you. If you do become infected, seek magical healing as soon as possible. Now let's see what we can do."
    Anubis and the gremlin kneel next to the fallen succubus, one on either side. In unison, they chant a spell to remove the curse, energy building between them. At its peak they direct it into Kitara and it washes over her. Kitara twitches a few times and then opens her eyes, apparently fine. She rises to her feet sheepishly, and asks what happened. The others explain what transpired and then take back to the skies to continue to their journey to the mansion.
    From where they rested, the trip is short to the mansion proper. Circling overhead, the Head Hunters learn the lay of the land. Below, they can see others - perhaps the adventurers who met with them back in the Witch's Teat not so long ago?

    * * *
    Corencio nods to the chieftain of the toad-warriors and sits next to Jade. Over the course of the next hour, so that he may rest between castings, the young wizard heals the injured leprechaun. The two toad-warriors stand guard to ensure the group is not ambushed. Their luck holds, though, and nothing disturbs them.
    Jade regains consciousness, but complains of a head ache and that she has a hard time hearing. She is still too weak to do anything other than lay there, however. Corencio investigates Jade's ears and finds the deformities. Her ears have withered into dry flaps of skin. The young wizard tries to mask his disgust as he ponders what could have caused such misshapenness.
    Froggflipp says, "Maybe we should carry Jade a little closer to the mansion."
    Toad-axe bends down in preparation to move the leprechaun.
    Everyone is startled when several flying figures drop through the trees to land on the forest floor next to the Dragons of Justice. Snag leaps out of Anubis' arms to land near the reclining Jade.
    "Hey, Jade," says the gremlin. "What's with the froggies and teenage thaumaturge?"
    "What?" yells Jade.
    "I said - WHAT'S WITH THE FROGGIES AND TEENAGE THAUMATURGE? And where's Corian and the Fruitfly?"
    "What?" the leprechaun yells again.
    "What are ya, deaf?" asks Snag.
    "I CAN NOT HEAR YOU. THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY EARS. I WAS ATTACKED BY A WEREWOLF. SEE…MY EARS ARE WEIRD NOW, AND I AM GETTING CRABBIER BY THE MINUTE HERE." Jade looks at Snag and scowls.
    "HAVE YOU MET OUR NEW PARTY MEMBERS? THE WIZARD AND THE FLY DECIDED THAT IT WAS MORE IMPORTANT TO RUN OUT OF HERE LIKE LITTLE PUNKS AND TAKE THE SAMPLES BACK TO THE DRUID. I CAN NOT BELIEVE YOU GAVE ME THOSE TWO DAFT FOOLS."
    Jade rubs her head, thinking that it really hurts more than it should and why are all these fools looking at me like I am turning into a werewolf myself.
    "Does that mean we are going to have to shoot her, too?" Arryn asks. "I am really getting tired of thinking I have to kill off my party members to protect myself." Arryn looks at Snag. "It is a good thing that she can not hear me, huh?"

    * * *
    Backing off immediately, Avian hovers up into the dark sky, very annoyed at not being able to hurt the beast in the first exchange. He is insulted more for it not even noticing him at all. "Corian," the fairy squeaks worriedly, watching his friend being stalked by the antlered flying beast.
    Relieved that nothing serious came out of the attack, the fairy releases a soft chuckle at seeing the old wizard falling down, and Corian's favorite hat tumbling away. The thing's attack reminds him of a dog jumping on its master after not seeing him for several days. Before casting one of his spellsongs, he watches the action below while catching his breath.
    "Well," Corian mutters, his breath heavy. He stands up leaning on his staff for support. "A mighty blow from a mighty creature!" Corian makes a low bow. "I see from your shadow that you are a human like me; perhaps cursed from the horrible mansion?"
    The creature glares at him with malice in its eyes as they circle one another.
    Corian doesn't expect an answer, knowing fearfully that this might be his last fight, dieing under the strong and deadly talons. But perhaps trying to reason with this creature to live another day would be a story to tell Dogface.
    "You're after this, aren't you?" The human wizard takes off his pack. "The samples from the mansion, heh?" While waiting for an answer, the mage prepares to cast his deadly spells to defend himself, if need be.
    Having completed a full circle while Corian spoke, the creature shrieks and launches a new attack. Corian brings his daggers up to defend himself, not having time to cast a spell before it closes with him in a sudden rush. Avian flies as fast as he can to join the fray.
    His dagger glowing in the presence of evil, the aged wizard frantically jabs with the enchanted blade as the thing tries to gore him with its antlers, or slash him with talons. Its wings beating to keep balance, it hops up to attack with pointed bone or grab and slash with its talons. Corian does his best to fend off it attacks.
    Avian, with a wide open flank to attack, dives in and buries both of his banks deep into the thing's haunches. The tang of blood fills the night air and the fanged mouth emits a brief below of rage. It shrugs its pinions, flapping its wings to brush the fairy away, but it gives no more notice of him than that.

    * * *
    "Oh, so Corian's not here?" Anubis asks after she lands. She's a little disappointed, but a big grin spreads across her face as she thinks about the human wizard and how he intrigues her.
    Snag roles his eyes. "All right then. It seems Jade has been infected, too." He looks at her deformed ears. "I can't leave you guys unattended for a minute, can I? What happened here?"
    Jade looks at Snag. "WHAT DID YOU SAY, SNAG?"
    Corencio introduces himself and explains that she was attacked by a wolverine, which was slain by the two toad-warriors. The amphibians nod at the little gremlin.
    "Were you two bitten or slashed by the wolverine when you slew it?"
    "No, we were not," answers the toad-warrior chieftain.
    Snag eyes the frog-like bipeds warily as he crouches by Jade's side. At least they can speak, he thinks. He looks at the leprechaun's eyes, then her ears and shakes his head. He mutters cabalistic syllables and a wash of energy flows from his hand into Jade. Her misshapen ears flow like melted wax back into their natural form.
    "Let me just say now - everything here is cursed." Jade rises to her feet as Snag speaks. "Eat and drink nothing, and don't get scratched or bitten by anything on the Morrick grounds. If you do, you, too, will be infected." Snag looks each person in the eye, trying to judge their mettle. The goggle-eyed toadmen are impossible to read, so the gremlin gives up. "Enough standing around. Let's head to the mansion."
    As the group starts walking toward the mansion, Jade turns to Snag. "Well it is nice to see you little one! So how was your trip here? Did anything happen that we should know about? Did you happen to see the fly and his friend anywhere?"
    "Nothing relevant right now. I'll fill you in later." Snag doesn't appear in the mood for chit chat.
    Jade then looks at the others. "Hello Arryn. How are you doing?"
    Arryn looks at Jade with a little bit of suspicion left in his eyes. "Are you sure you are okay now Jade?"
    "Oh, I think that I am fine now."
    Jade then turns to the succubi. "How have you been? Staying out of trouble and not causing too much either, I hope."
    The two seducers bat their eyelashes at Jade and purse their lips. "You know us," says Anubis.
    Ahead the mansion's gate looms, beckoning egress into the courtyard about 25 feet beyond. Just then two humanoid monsterkin leap from the trees flanking the trail. They are some sort of goblinoid, with gray fur and yellow eyes. One is badly deformed with bone spurs breaking the skin all over its body. The other has grown an extra set of arms. Each of the monsterkin is armed with a mace, and the four-armed one also has a spear which it throws at the party before anyone can react. The spear slams straight into Froggflipp's chest, but is deflected by his thick armor.

    * * *
    Darkbane the Skull King and Blackfang the goblin wizard had met exploring the tunnels that make up the Underworld, the vast subterranean realm below Trollworld. The undead wouldn't have normally suffered such a lowlife to live, but thought the goblin's spells would be more useful to him than if he had just slew the cretin and reanimated its bones. It was rumored that there was a great treasure held in a trapped vault in the Hidden Coast's Underworld, stashed there by a dark elfin rogue. Darkbane meant to have it. Blackfang would be a useful pawn in obtaining the treasure. The village of Karthaki was well known for attracting adventurers due to its proximity to The Digs, the most famous dungeon in all of Rhalph. Surely, there would be other pawns to manipulate here.
    Enshrouded within their cloaks, the pair had entered the hamlet and sought shelter. The guards hadn't questioned them over much - there was just something unnerving about the taller cloaked figure: the hollowness of his voice, the underlying commands in his comments - that compelled them to let the two pass.

    * * *
    As night falls Nightsong rises. Just outside of the hamlet of Karthaki, she has only a short walk but she knows she must make it quickly before the guards close the gates for the evening.
    Her movements make the soft sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the trees. She reaches the gate just as the guards are getting ready to close it.
    "Halt," the guard yells out to her. "State your business."
    Nightsong looks at him and says, "I am just stopping by for a couple of days while I am out adventuring." She feels her will flow into him. He nods.
    She nods in turn and then walks in through the gate as the guards close it behind her for the night. The chill, damp air does not bother her. Her dress flows around her, as black as the night sky, and her cloak waves as she moves. The moonlight glitters off of her green-black hair. The few people who are still out stop to look at her as she walks in a manner that seems to flow across the ground. She asks one of them if they can tell her were the local tavern is. They point her in the right direction.

    It had been relatively easy for Melina to sneak into the room of the inn and lead the invalid satyr away with her. The villagers had grown comfortable to seeing her around now, and didn't question the presence of the human woman as she entered the Prancing Unicorn and left with the grizzled Old Goat in tow. She had figured she'd need to magically charm the veteran warrior, but he agreed to anything she said and followed her without ensorcelment.
    Melina and the satyr pass another woman in the streets, an emerald-ebon haired beauty. The two humans eye each other, knowing that neither is what she seems, but as neither has any reason to confront the other, Melina hurries off with the satyr. The other woman raises an eyebrow, and then heads on her way.

    Once Nightsong finds the tavern - The Witch's Teat - she enters slowly. Making sure that her damp dress clings to all the right areas, she removes her cloak. "Anyone here want to buy a girl a warm drink and dinner?"
    Nightsong smiles and looks at the men sitting around. She finds a table with a nice looking human sitting near the fireplace by himself. "May I join you sir?" she asks as she lowers her head and blushes slightly. She sits down facing the fire place moving her chair closer to his.
    Nearby was another group of adventurers bickering amongst themselves about where to go and what to do. A dwarf, a lizard woman, a cowled figure and two female humans sat there, voices raised in frustration. The women both looked directly at Nightsong as she sat. As their eyes met, all three knew that they were spirit-sisters. Nightsong wondered why so many of her kin would be drawn to the same tiny village on this night.

    * * *
    The mutated monsterkin charge the party. Corencio, the young wizard, is the first person in line for four armed humanoid. He raises his staff to ward off the mace swinging toward his head, but too late. The metal, while rusted and blood encrusted, does its job effectively. The mace's spikes smash into the young mage's skull, piercing and then crushing the left temporal bone. Blood and gray matter splatter across the monsterkin's face. Corencio let's out a cry of pain and shock as his body collapses to the ground. The humanoid leaves the fallen wizard where he crumples, moving on to run straight at Jade.
    Jade pulls out her axe and gets ready to attack. "Oh no, not again. Come on guys we can not let these things kill us off."
    Arryn pulls out an arrow, loads it and pulls back the string to hit his target. He releases the string and hears the twang and whistle as the arrow flies straight to its target. The four-armed mutant's charge at the leprechaun is brought to an abrupt halt as it falls to the ground clutching its throat. A feathered shaft protrudes from under its chin as it writhes on the ground for a moment before growing still.
    Froggflipp pulls two quarrels out and prepares to drive them into the humanoid covered in bone spurs.
    Toad-axe moves in with his massive bullova, ready to cleave the humanoid. The two toad-warriors step to flank the bone-spurred humanoid.
    The amphibious chieftain plunges the two quarrels deep into the humanoid's chest, and as it lets out a scream of pain Toad-axe hacks it in the back with his bullova, shattering its spine and nearly slicing it in two.
    "Hmmm," Snag says lowering his eyebrows, pursing his lips and nodding his head slightly. "Not bad toadies. I guess we'll keep you are around. Someone check on the wizard."

    * * *
    Within the Witch's Teat lies the pit, much rumored and feared. It is fifteen feet deep and almost as wide. The stones of the walls are black. Heavy, rune-encrusted stones line the rim. Centered perfectly in the open space of the pit is a purplish-blue, crackling eye of eldritch energy. The eye belches once and a massive creature, a twenty foot tall thing, explodes out of the pit, nearly hitting the thirty foot high ceiling. Its two heads quickly scan the common room. Its hide is thick, stony, and mottled green and gray, and the facial features resemble that of a troll. It is dressed in rags and tattered clothes, and even a few battered and rusted pieces of armor. A sort of horned helmet covers its right head. The legs end in three-toed feet, and the powerful arms end in sharpened claws. It holds a greatsword in one hand and a club fashioned from a large tree bough in the other.
    The thing moves in a slow gait as it heads toward the nearest table, that where the dwarf, cloaked person, lizard woman and the two human women had been arguing just a second before. They stare up at the monsterkin in fear and awe as others in the tavern's common room start to scream in terror. The thing lets loose a bellow that rattles the timbers and raises its weapons over its head to crash into the ceiling above.
    "Shalpa's Balls," curses Dogface from the Ale Altar. "The authorities'll have my head over this one. Kill that thing before it can escape from the Teat!" he yells.
    The dwarf leaps to his feet and draws his broad axe back to assault the monster. Before he can strike it however, the thing brings its greatsword down on the dwarf's helmeted head in a mighty blow. The helm does little good, however, as the massive greatsword cleaves the dwarf in twain, each half flopping to the Teat's floor with wet, messy thumps.
    Dogface scrambles to find his old adventuring equipment so that he can join the fray to defend the Teat. He's a bit rusty since his retirement, but confident his skills are still able to assist with this threat if needs be.
    The tall scaled female in lamellar armor raises her arms and mutters the syllables of slaughter of the apocalyptic alphabet used for spellcasting, the creed of tempered diction. Her yellow eyes stare at the monster, and then a bolt of pure energy shoots from her outstretched hand. The lizard woman intends for the spell to cut with calm precision, but it sinks into the thing, doing little apparent damage. Its club, though, slams into the lizardkin, sending her flying across the common room to crash into a visage-carved support pillar. She impacts the column perpendicularly with a loud crack, her back arched to an unnatural degree before sliding to the floor below.
    Nightsong gets up and moves to the shadows. She looks for a good spot to land on the massive humanoid. After searching for a few seconds she decided that there are no good spots to sink her teeth into it.
    Both of the human women who were sitting at the table with the slain dwarf and lizard woman bare their long canines and hiss at the thing. The first woman has long red hair and yellow eyes. She wears a long black dress with a jeweled gold ring on her right middle finger. She brings her javelin up in an attempt to parry a sword thrust by the monstrous humanoid, but reacts too slow. The greatsword punctures her chest and lifts her off the ground. The sword point pierces a carved column and the flame haired woman wails in pain, her feet kicking in empty space.
    The other woman, with long black hair, green eyes, wearing a leather harness and black knee high boots takes aim with her crossbow. With a twang the quarrel flies at the beast, but a piece of rusted armor sends the projectile ricocheting into the rafters. Before she can turn to flee, the thing's massive hand snatches her up and raises her to one of its maws. She has but one second to realize what's about to happen before it bites her head off. Blood spurts from the raw wound between her shoulders like a geyser, splattering down onto the tables below.
    The red-headed woman still struggles feebly to free herself from the impaling sword. The giant creature's left head turns to see her struggles and bellows its displeasure. With tremendous force, it throws its club at the flame-haired woman, end first from close range. The club's end strikes her square in the face, shattering her skull against the column.
    The cloaked figure had waited to position itself appropriately so that it could use its special ability to best effect. The figure screams out in a female voice, drawing the two-headed monster's attention. Both heads turn to look at her and she throw back the cowl of her cloak, revealing a feminine head covered with writhing serpents instead of hair. Her eyes flash and she expects to petrify the foe.
    However, nothing happens. Maybe the thing is immune because of its very nature, maybe it is more intelligent than expected and it willfully resists the petrification attempt, or maybe it is just lucky. Regardless, the only thing that results from her attempt is to further enrage the thing.
    "Hmmm…medusa," says Nightsong to herself.
    The medusa turns to flee, but she is caught up in both of the monsterkin's clawed hands. With no more effort than it would take a human to pull a link of sausage in half, the thing rips the medusa into two halves; she emits a brief shriek of pain.
    While most of the other patrons are fleeing, two figures enter the tavern. One is a goblin, the other a cowled humanoid.
    Nightsong watches for a few more seconds as the people around her continue to panic and rush for anywhere they think is a good place to hide. "I guess I can see if he is a fool." She mutters the words to an "Oh, Go Away" spell, then pulls out her Kukri.
    The twenty foot humanoid roars in rage, not fear, and charges straight at Nightsong, magically compelled to destroy her as a result of her failed spell.
    She dodges its attempt to grab her and plunges her kukri deep into its arm. The stony skin resists the blade at first, but it penetrates and wounds the thing. It cries out in pain.
    The cowled figure grabs an empty table, picking it up with ease. His cowl falls back in the process, revealing a bare human skull. Hoisting the table overhead, Darkbane prepares to throw the table at the two-headed fiend, but he slips in a spreading pool of blood and falls to the tavern floor.
    The goblin who had entered with Darkbane stands near the doorway, unsure of what to do.
    Scrambling to avoid the thing's grasping claws, Nightsong dives under a table and then slashes the thing's calf with her blade. To her satisfaction, it howls in pain once again.
    Blackfang the goblin runs over to Darkbane, telling him of a plan to combine their magical power to increase the amount of damage they could do to the monster. As Nightsong continues to elude the creature, the pair of wizards chant the words to the disrupting bolt of energy commonly known as a "Take That, You Fiend!" The arcane energy lances across the common room and strikes the thing in the chest, exploding in a shower of sparks and rock-like fragments. The thing staggers back a few steps and appears to be seriously injured from the spell.
    While it is distracted by the smoldering wound in its chest, Nightsong moves in to stab the thing in the thigh, black blood dripping to the floor. Once more it roars out in distress.
    Darkbane lifts another table and throws it at the thing. The table smashes to pieces against the thing's stony hide, doing no apparent damage. Blackfang's thrown chair suffers the same fate.
    Nevertheless, the table and chair serve to distract the creature as Nightsong's kukri deals it further damage. The creature is now staggering on its feet, black blood running from several wounds.
    Darkbane and Blackfang draw their dirks and rush to Nightsong's side to help her fight the creature. While they avoid its clumsy attacks, none of them are able to land any blows capable of penetrating its stony hide.
    While the other two continue to distract it, Nightsong slashes it again, until it appears nearly dead on its feet. Then, sensing victory, the trio all fall upon the thing, slashing and hewing with their blades until the thing collapses to the tavern floor, the force rocking the entire building.
    "Good thing those barbarians knew how to build a sturdy structure, or else I'd be out of business now," says Dogface. He stands nearby with sword and axe in hand. "I'd have jumped in if you really needed help, but you had it all under control. Thanks." He eyes the ruined common room.
    Darkbane searches the thing's belt pouches and finds ten silver coins. Then, searching the bodies of the slain adventurers, the trio discover a huge amount of treasure. Dogface starts to raise his eyebrows and seems ready to dispute their plundering, but then he says, "Ah, well. Go ahead. I guess you earned it, although I'm not real happy about the broken chairs and tables."

    * * *
    "This is going to get creepy!" Avian comments quickly between attacks. "I need to strike harder to get this flying deer from making scraps of my friend!" Keeping his sweaty hands tight on the daggers, he intends to attack the genital area of the beast - hit the winged foe where it really hurts! Due to the thing's frantic wing flapping and hopping around, however, the fairy minstrel never gets a chance to land a blow.
    "Ouch!" The old human wizard looks at the beast. Feeling the antlers thrusting at his body, he keeps both daggers poised to strike. He is thankful that the creature isn't doing aerial attacks. "Hey Avian! I'm wearing this winged dung heap down!" He tries to rouse himself with small humor to keep from giving up. Although he has lost sight and sound of his small flying friend, he watches the beast's expression, trying to figure out what Avian might be doing in the battle.
    The creature continues to ignore the fairy and focuses its attack on the aged wizard. Although Corian does his best to defend himself, and Avian tries to wound it in its vitals, the winged beast is more ferocious than the pair planned for. Deflecting Corian's blades with its antlers, the creature sinks its long fangs deep into the old wizard's shoulder. Corian cries out in pain, seriously wounded, and stumbles away from his foe trailing blood.

    * * *
    Melina leads the old satyr out of Karthaki and into the wilderness outside of the relative safety of the hamlet's walls.

    * * *
    Dazed, yet still having some fighting spirit in his old body, Corian steps up to defend himself once more. Intending to conserve his energy this time around, he fights on the defensive, attempting to block his opponent's attacks. Over the next thirty seconds or so, the creature manages to score several more minor wounds on Corian with its teeth, antlers and talons. The old wizard totters on his feet, close to unconsciousness.
    "We need the old warrior now, more than ever!" Corian sputters out between heavy breaths, dazed vision trying to focus on his nemesis.
    "I agree," mutters the young pink-haired fairy, hearing Corian's comment. "Elgring is much needed here." Flying over to his wounded wizard friend, Avian simultaneously sings his SpellSong of Fear, hoping to cause the monstrous beast to fly off and leave them alone. Choking down his emotions, of the concern over what may happen to his human companion, Avian fights on with the determination of winning.
    The fairy minstrel's spellsong takes effect just then, and the creature leaves off its attacks on the old wizard to turn its baleful gaze to Avian. It emits a hideous cry of rage and leaps at the fairy, ignoring the wounded wizard.
    The spell, when lacking the power to enchant the foe with fear and causing it to flee, inspires the foe instead with an ensorcelled fury to destroy the one who attempted the spell.

    * * *
    Anubis takes one look at young Corencio and groans. "Damn, that doesn't look very good." She can see the whole one side of his head caved in, tangled with hair. The blood is everywhere and slowly starting to coagulate. "I can't see how a few little Poor Baby spells are going to help him. How terrible." The succubus sighs with despair at the thought of losing such a young and noble adventurer.
    "Yeah," says Snag. "It's not good when it happens like that, but sometimes things happen which are beyond our control…almost like our fate is determined by some cunning mind using us as pawns in a game."
    Froggflipp bends over the fallen wizard. "I'm quite sure he's dead," he says quietly, but emphatically. Snag rolls his eyes.
    "Why don't you search the body," suggests Jade.
    "I'll see if there is anything we can use." The toad-warrior commences his search of the wizard's belongings. After a minute's time he presents two gold coins, a quarter staff, a katar, a suit of scale armor, an amulet set with a moonstone, a pair of calf-high boots and two days' provisions. Froggflipp frog-flips one of the gold coins to the leprechaun.
    "Gee, thanks. What's this for?" she asks.
    "I just felt like giving the second coin to somebody."
    "The staff and the amulet radiate magic," comments Jade. "Should we burn the body or just bury it? We really need to be more on the look out, that should not have killed our party member so easily."
    "At this rate we'll be out of adventuring companions before we even find the Head of Darksmoke," says Snag. "Let's bury the body, and I'll check out the properties of the moonstone amulet."

    The unpleasant task complete, the survivors finally approach the gates of Morrick Mansion. Well-worn granite flagstones line the ground beneath the imposing walls that extend to the east and west. The grand archway beneath the wall is tranquil, but ominous. Although many visitors once passed through these grand gates, there is no sign that anyone has visited this place for many months.
    Dwarfin handiwork is evident in both the walls and the heavy stone gates. Openings in the gates themselves reveal a large mansion towering over an overgrown garden. The walls surrounding the mansion and its gardens are made of stone and stand a full twelve feet tall.
    "This is it, at long last," says Snag while looking at each of his companions. He pushes the gate open, and despite its long neglect, due to the dwarfin craftsmen who constructed it, it effortlessly, and silently, swings open.
    Though not as overgrown and dark as the light copse to the south the party recently traversed, the plants here have a twisted aspect to them that matches the forest, and perhaps even magnifies its strangeness. Time, the curse, and neglect have allowed the plants to become overgrown to the point that they fight each other for light and food. The curse seems to have festered and grown in strength here.
    The mansion itself has a twisted façade, with broken window and gargoyles that dangle over its entryway. Thin gravel paths circle through the overgrown gardens, passing half-hidden benches guests once rested on while viewing the gardens.
    "Ah…home sweet home," comments the gremlin.
    A grand fountain lies straight ahead, between the party and the mansion's entrance.

    * * *
    For most of his 75 years Jules Fennel had avoided the henge which sat seemingly dormant in the center of Karthaki. He knew whatever lay beneath it could not be too good, as he'd seen too many souls brave the Dungeon of Wonder to ne'er return. It was only on rare occasion that he would visit the henge. Jules was a local worker in the vineyards who spent what little time he could tinkering with tin. The menial income generated by his rough hewn lamps and wares provided a minimal amount, but it was still more than his earnings from the vineyard, just not quite as frequent. On rare occasion, Jules would be given a rare coin by a traveler from some far off land. Such coins were worth little in trade for Jules; he bartered for most things. Jules was not necessarily a suspicious person, but he'd always figured throwing a rare coin down the well at the henge may appease the evil or sordid wretches that lie beneath to show favor on Jules, hopefully sparing him further injustice than a life spent in Karthaki.
    Tonight marked seven years and three months since Jules' last close-up encounter with the henge, and he was beginning to wish he'd waited seven more. Very little moonlight broke through the clouds, only enough to keep him from walking directly into large objects. Karthaki is not well known for being a highly illuminated place in any sense, and the bad weather plaguing the hamlet now only exacerbated the problem. The small things were still obstructed from his vision, which accounted for his continual shuffling, lest he lift his feet and trip into the night. The wind was enough to bring a chill about him but not enough to be heard.
    Jules slowly approached the well, giving himself a little distance, but close enough that when he tossed the coin he knew it had gone in. He waited for the hollow kerplunk, but it never came. He stood for a moment staring at the well, knowing he made the throw, but surprised he hadn't heard a thing.
    Curiosity killed the cat, caused Dwilight the Dwarf to forever be known as Dwilight the four fingered dwarf, and curiosity gave Jules Fennel the venerable gift of incontinence that night. Jules couldn't let it go that the coin made no noise as it went down the well. His jesting friend Curiosity led him to wander closer to the well than he ever had before.
    As Jules leaned over the edge of the well a tall dark figure leapt out from inside the well. Jules fell backwards, staring at where he had just stood. Looking up Jules saw the figure standing over him. It was too dark to see any distinguishing features. In fact, Jules believed this figure may be even darker than the night, except for the wet matted hair which shimmered as it dripped across the figure's brow.
    The figure twirled what appeared to be Jules' coin between his thumb and forefinger. Jules looked at the coin and then turned to the figure as he began to speak. "Pardon me old man, I don't try to make it a habit to leap out of wells at the surprise of others; but on the other hand, it is much more convenient than tunneling through the dirt. My thanks for the coin. It will go nicely with the others. Word of advice however - don't go throwing your earnings down a well for 'luck'. There really is no such thing as luck y'know. Make your own, be luck."
    With that the stranger from the well walks into the night and towards the tavern.

    As he approaches the Witch's Teat, the figure sees several people quickly fleeing the tavern. From within it he can hear screams of pain, fear and fury. And then, the Teat falls silent.

    Inside the Teat, Nightsong looks to Dogface. "What do you want to do with the dead bodies?"
    The alekeep is about to respond when he looks over and notices the skull-headed figure is already dragging two of the bodies outside. Seeing what he is doing, the goblin pulls one of the remaining corpses outside as well.
    "Hmmm," Dogface grunts. "That'll take care of the normal sized ones, but we'll have to carve up the big'un to get it out of here." He kneels by the dead monsterkin and starts to work on the grisly task.
    Nightsong looks at Dogface and starts to help him hack away at the monster. "Too bad there was not more meat on this - you could use it to make a large stew - but this would be like eating stones in your soup." The sight of what little blood, black and thick, there is in the monster starts to make her thirsty. Hopefully I can get through this without attacking someone, Nightsong thinks to herself. "Dogface, have you heard of a female elf wizard in these parts lately?" Nightsong goes back to work hacking the creature into pieces.
    "Nah," says Dogface.
    "Hey do you have a cart, Dogface? We can put this into it so that the others can take it out."
    "Nah," says Dogface.
    After spending about an hour cutting, Nightsong stops and looks around. A few people have returned to the Teat, including a very tall, lithe figure in a dark cloak. The figure appears to be wet. They are all sitting around looking at what is going on and talking to one another.
    "Hey Dogface, I am going to run over to the inn and get a couple of rooms before it gets too much earlier," says Nightsong. "I will be back in just a couple minutes to help clean the rest of the mess up. Oh yeah - here are 15 gold for your tables and chairs that got broken."
    Dogface nods.
    Nightsong goes to the Prancing Unicorn Inn and asks the hobb innkeeper for "three rooms that are nice, please." She pays the innkeeper and tells him that they will be back in a while.
    Nightsong heads back to the tavern to let Darkbane and Blackfang know that she got rooms for them at the inn. Once she gets back to the tavern she helps to finish getting things back to order.
    "So Dogface, can you sit down and talk awhile or do you have to run back to the counter?"
    "Well, you can sit near the ale altar and we can talk there."
    Nightsong waves one of the bar wenches over to the table that she chooses. "Hi, dear. Can you get me a bottle of your darkest red wine please, lovely, and bring it back?" Smiling she looks at the wench, slightly pudgy with black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Not overly pretty, but cute in a homely sense, she thinks.
    Nightsong settles back for a little rest before she has to head over to the room at the inn for the day. "Hmm, I wonder what they are doing back home? Not too much of a night life here."
    The wench returns shortly with a bottle of Darkdale Burgundy. "This is the best wine we have here," she comments. "Bright garnet-red in color with delicate vegetal aromas swirling from the glass. On the palate this wine is round, full and powerful with smoky, vegetal notes and rich spices. The finish is incredible and will get even better as this wine opens with age." As she speaks she stares off into space, rolling her eyes upon completion.

    Nightsong notices the new face. In this place they are all new to me, but this one looks intriguing, Nightsong thinks to herself. She gets up from her table and walks over to the dark elf. She looks at him and smiles. "Would you like you join me for wine and dinner, my treat?" she says in elfin.
    Anemos looks up from beneath his hood. His silver and white hair is still matted to his face as the dim light in the room gleans from the symbolic scarring that protrudes from his damp ebony face. A familiar smirk returns to his face. "Such finer things are appreciated with great merit," he responds in his native elfin tongue. He then switches to the common tongue, "And as such, it would be entirely foolish if I were not to acquiesce to such an offer. My name is Anemos Nuktos and I would be obliged. I am gracious for the fair company; not that I'm one for brighter days, but I've been in a foul mood of late and this place was beginning to smell like a Dwarfin perfumery, although it appears to be twice as clean."
    "I am not much for anything light and happy myself." Nightsong heads back to her table to sit down with the dark elf. On the way she stops to talk to the serving girl.
    "Please bring over another glass and we will place an order as well soon. Thank you, my dear." Nightsong hands her a gold piece. She then heads to sit down at her table with her new acquaintance.
    Once at the table she pours two glasses of wine, giving one to Anemos. "My name is Nightsong. What brings someone of your unique abilities to these parts? Dark elfs are not common in very many parts, except the Forest of Shindyr, since the ancient wars."
    Just then the serving girl comes back. Nightsong looks up. "I would just like some bread and meat as raw as you can bring in please."
    "Raw stagflesh," says the wench, "and fresh unleavened bread."
    Nightsong looks over to Anemos. "And you would like what, my good sir?" As Nightsong smiles, the tips of her pointed canines show at he corners of her mouth.
    "You'll have to pardon my appetite but I'm a bit famished. It's been a bit since my last decent meal." Anemos turns toward the serving girl, "Much obliged for the Darkdale Burgundy. I always say the darker the better, it's good for the complexion. Also some bread, fresh game, and if you have any edible mushrooms my palette would be satisfied, and in turn I would be most gracious."
    "Cooked stagflesh, fresh unleavened bread, and…mushrooms. Don't know about the fungi, but I'll see what I can do."
    Anemos turns back towards Nightsong. "You would be correct. I'm not too common to these parts, but once again, thanks to the wars, I'm not too common in my own parts. Someday I'll make it home, but that's a long way off. The only thing worse than family squabbles for a dark elf is the reputation of a misjudged character. Although, that's the daily lot for us above ground. However, unlike most from within my House, I find my heritage much too noble to encumber my fortune in life.
    "Now what is it that draws me here? I have a partiality towards fine stones, pretty little things that can bring me wealth. That's the start of it at least, and truth be told, although there may not be too much other than some exquisite vintages in the area's vineyards, there ends up being a whole lot more underground; but these gems don't grow on the vine. I intend to harvest some soon. Needless to say, I would find the harvest much easier if I could find some others who share at least in my ethos."
    Anemos draws a long satisfying sip of wine, and smirks. "Now that is good wine. I would like to venture and say that you, Nightsong, are much more than just a local maiden who frequents this tavern. I would dare go further and say that you reflect the nature of someone well cultured, which says to me you are from parts elsewhere as well. Your smile tells me that by nature we may share in a common ethos, although our pathos may only run parallel, again strictly by nature. Which tells me, all in all, we most likely share some common ground. Tell me if I'm wrong because my intention is not to offend, after all I'm simply intrigued and honored by your company and gracious for the meal. So if you may, I would enjoy hearing what it is that brings you here?"
    "I have not always had a love for the dark," Nightsong begins. "I was once the eldest of four daughters to a wealthy merchant in Knor. I was to be wedded the following day and was making the final arrangements for my wedding. Although I was not overly fond of my husband-to-be, I was sure that I would grow in fondness for him.
    "That evening on the way home from picking up the flowers an elfin man came up to me. He was very similar in appearance to you, my sir, except that he was a Vendrinite, an elf of the earth tribe. He stated that my soon-to-be-husband sent him out to escort me back home. We walked and he was very pleasant to talk with. Once we reached the gate he turned and walked away. I went in to the estate and got ready for bed since it was already very late.
    "Once I had fallen asleep I had a dream that the elf came back into my room and drained me of my blood and life. I not sure what happened since when I awoke my mother was preparing for my funeral. She was sitting at my bedside that night trying to decide which dress would be most fitting for me to wear. When I got up she started to scream. Well let's just say that she was not very happy, and neither was I that night when I got up. It was the last time that I saw my mother or any of my family.
    "I left the estate and went looking for the elf who had changed me. There are several caves in the hills near the town of Knor. I started there and each night searched the networks of caves. After about two weeks I did find him. He told me how he had already bitten me twice before, but that he had removed these memories. It only took me 25 years to understand why he had changed me and forgive him for it. We have actually become good friends, among other things.
    "After about 60 years he released me from his harem, or 'crypt' as he called it, for reasons I am unaware, and a small group of us moved to the underground city of Onyx. For the last 47 years I have lived there in peace and comfort in the city. The owner of the city has gone missing and her only daughter wanted a scout to go out and look for her. So, to make my really long story only a small tale, that is what I am doing here as of right now." Nightsong smiles and looks down shyly at her glass that is now empty.
    Reaching for the bottle of wine, which is now almost empty, she fills her glass and flags down the serving girl. "Could you please bring another bottle of wine, my dear girl?" Nightsong winks. "Tell me about something. I have a while to kill before I need to be retiring to the inn for the day. The night life here leaves a lot to be desired. Speaking of the day, do you have somewhere to stay? My room has an extra bed."
    Nightsong looks around again. "Do you think any of them have ever gamble? Maybe we should start a gambling table, and then we could turn the inn into a brothel. We could do wonders for this town."
    The goblin mage, Blackfang, approaches the table and sits down without saying anything. Anemos looks confused for a moment, as goblins and dark elfs have a long history of hatred in the Underworld.
    "This is Blackfang, who helped me slay the monsterkin before," says Nightsong.
    The dark elf nods sagely.
    "The Skull King retired for the night," he tells Nightsong and Anemos, "as he doesn't require sustenance." When the serving wench passes by, the goblin orders a cup of water and attempts to order a concoction he calls 'pizza'. Everyone looks at him strangely as he describes a baked dough crust covered in tomato sauce, cheese and sundry toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms and fish heads. When she has no clue as to what he is talking about, he storms off to the cook in frustration to explain what he wants.

    * * *
    Avian's smile of triumph turns to terror quickly as he realizes his spellsong that was successful several times before has now turned for the worse! "I can out fly him, get him far from Corian," he says, speaking loudly of his options. "What a foolish thought. My cursed body would get tired easily and make me a tasty morsel."
    Diving into the fight with his blades, the fairy attempts hit-and-run techniques against the opponent twenty times his size!
    The human wizard drops his daggers at the sight of his foe leaving, not considering why. He tries to wipe the blood from his lips, only to smear it across his face. "As I quote my favorite minstrel, Jostlejavelin: 'Where art thou death, hiding in the shadows of the night? Why wait for thee to die, just come and take me like a bee with pollen.'"

    The Grey Monks, mysterious observers of the world of EarthTree's affairs from their Macrodome, all look at each other in confusion.
    "What the bloody…."
    "Of all the daft…."
    "Oh, that guy's a real…."

    After a few more breathes, causing his lungs to hurt, Corian manages to mumble: "I haven't gotten my arse kicked in years!" Reaching out for his staff, aiming it as best as he can through his blurry eyes, he casts a Take That, You Fiend! spell at the creature before he collapses into darkness, temporarily numbing all feelings.
    Avian fights well, and does his best to elude the creature's attack. Just as it seems the fight is to turn against him, the old wizard's spell blasts the creature and it screeches in pain. It now appears to be badly wounded, but it fights on, compelled to devour the fairy who dared to drive it off.

    * * *
    The carriage path splits into a large circle passing in front of the decrepit-looking mansion. Twisted plants surround a grand fountain standing in the center of the circle. The group approaches and notices the thin coat of green algae covering the water in the fountain. Still, the plants and algae cannot hide the grand splendor the fountain once possessed. Sitting on a large rock are statues of five mermaids playing instruments. When water was pumped through the fountain, it must have spilled out of holes in the instruments to fall over the mermaids' delicate naked bodies before splashing into the wide basin. Roots and tendrils from some of the thick flowering bushes surrounding the fountain reach into the stagnant water pooled in the basin.
    "Look at this place…must have been something until the curse befell the Morricks," says Snag.
    Anubis takes a look around the old twisted gardens. She casts a Detect Magic spell on the fountain as she approaches the stone structure. The water seems to radiate some kind of dweomer.
    Just then, from the thick bushes near the fountain, comes a large alligator, charging the party with a great burst of speed.
    Jade, Snag, Arryn and the toad-warriors are ready for such an event, and leap to the attack. The succubi, however, are surprised by the alligator's swift strike and stand there watching the fight.
    The leprechaun and gremlin attack with axe and dirks, respectively, while the archer sinks an arrow into its thick hide. Then, Toad-axe, before Froggflipp can close on it with his man-catcher, leaps in and sinks his mighty axe deep into reptile's skull, killing it.
    "Good work Toadie," says the gremlin. "We made short work of that." Snag looks down at the animal, noting its extra thick mud-brown scales and longer-than-normal claws. With its mouth hanging open, he can see its teeth, a seemingly venomous yellow-brown color. "Good thing, too, because it looks like it was infected. I wonder how such an animal would get to this place….Anyway, let's search the area." He moves off to the bushes that recently hide the reptilian monster.
    As Anubis wanders through the pathways near the fountain, she checks out the various plants, trees, statues and benches, looking for items or maybe clues to what to expect inside the mansion. "Snag, dear, do you think we could take some of these cursed vines and carefully save them until later and use them as weapons?"
    "What do you mean 'weapons'?" asks Snag. "The druid might want to see them if Corian and Avian didn't manage to reach her, but the only way I could see them being weapons is to infect others. I don't think we want more infected foes around here." He pauses. "I'm having this déj_ vu experience like I've already said all of this before. Hmmm."
    The toad-warrior chieftain searches a nearby shade tree in the front yard to see if there are other creatures hiding there. The tree is empty.
    Toad-axe moves into the fountain's water, sending swirls of algae floating on the top of the brackish water. He searches briefly and discovering several things, perhaps from past victims of the alligator. He comes out of the fountain with an obsidian necklace, silver and gold rings, a golden chain bracelet, a copper bracer, and several coins of each denomination - copper, silver, gold, and the much coveted mithril!
    The toad-warrior brings the items to Snag, but the gremlin wizard says nothing is magical.
    "Can I have this stuff?" asks Toad-axe.
    Snag looks at the others with eyebrows raised. No one complains, so he says, "Sure, Toadie, go ahead. Maybe it will help pretty you up a little." Just quiet enough that the toad-warrior can't hear him, he says, "Gods, but that is one ugly thing. Almost makes the Fruit Fly look normal.
    "Now, then," asks Snag, "do we want to head for the mansion itself, or explore the grounds a little more?"
    "I think we should head to the mansion," says Anubis, "and we can check out anything we see here in the gardens if something catches our attention. I'm quite anxious to get inside and see what's in store for us!"
    "As you will," says Snag, and the group moves towards the mansion's front steps. Gardens surrounding the area were once a place of wonder, bearing the elegance that the wealthy use to impress each other. That time is long past, however, and now the gardens are so overgrown and twisted that not even the finest gardener could rescue them. The plants are intertwined and appear to be in some sort of struggle, slowly strangling each other out of existence.
    With a roar, a mangy leopard leaps from bushes next to the steps and attacks the party. It is weak with hunger, however, and the toad-warriors make short work of it.
    The threat nullified, the group heads up elegant white marble steps leading up to the doorway into the mansion. The sturdy marble shows the wear of many feet, but broken windows along the front of the mansion and the lack of lanterns suggest the area hasn't seen use for quite some time.
    The mansion itself seems to have suffered a great deal of damage. Despite this, the party can see the high quality of the workmanship that went into the mansion's construction, and it must have cost a fortune to build and maintain. The outer walls appear to be made from granite. Most of the windows are now broken.
    The elegant, though understated, marble stairs lead up to a set of magnificent double doors made of black marble. Carved deep into the doors is an intricate coat of arms and the words: 'Peace and Prosperity to All Visitors.'
    Flanking the doors are two stone gargoyles, and large windows - now broken - are evenly spaced along the wall as they stretch away from the doors. A layer of dirt and dust coats the landing before the doors, but the doors themselves look recently polished.
    "Well, then," says the gremlin, "this is finally it. Let's check for traps and magic before we try to enter."

    * * *
    "No!" The fragile old wizard gets up on his hand and knees, rousing himself from the darkness. "Can't give up on Avian!" He sputters out the words slowly. Now on his hands and knees, he crawls over to the daggers he threw down. Finding them, he waves his hands and casts a spell - Vorpal Blade, speaking the words out loud.
    After several rounds of a brutal beating, in the ring of darkness, he slowly rises as his time is almost up. He stands with the assistance of a tree. Corian raises his arms and shakes his hands with the enchanted daggers in his fists.
    With a shaken but defiant voice, coming against tremendous odds, the wizard screams for his partner, "AVIAN! AVIAN!"
    "I'm here Rocky, I mean Corian. I'm here!" He dives toward the wizard, at the same time casting a SpellSong: Heroes. The spell cast on the mage could double his attack if cast correctly.
    Profoundly grateful that Corian's spell had damaged his foe, Avian decides to use that as a distraction and use a hit-and-run technique, not to attack, but to get away from the beast so he can cast a spell on his friend. This will better the odds in killing the creature.
    "I can't hurt him!" Avian realizes. "Not without help." With regret he dives down so Corian can strike the beast. "Sorry Old One, I can't fight him alone," the strawberry-haired fairy peeps out.
    Staggering on his feet, the mage strikes out at the dangerous winged creature as it comes into range, following the eluding fairy. The old mage sinks both daggers into the creature's chest. The thing's momentum carries it forward, ripping the daggers out of Corian's hands. It crashes to the ground, shuddering and shrieking.

    * * *
    "I would find the extra bed most gracious and certainly preferable to the sunlight I've managed to avoid it for some time now and see no reason to become acclimated once again." Anemos takes a sip of his wine and looks off towards the goblin who is well on his way to the tavern's galley. "Interesting fellow." Anemos surveys the remains of the earlier battle, "I would say it is a safe estimation that his handiwork in such pugilistic and martial matters makes him a resourceful traveling companion."
    Anemos again glances across the room as he draws the remaining dregs within his goblet, this time eyeing the local crowd. "I do hope that serving girl returns soon. I find this wine to be a treasure; I doubt the majority of the local residents realize what they have here." Anemos turns back to Nightsong. "And I have to agree with you - the night life here leaves much to be desired. A gambling establishment would be most entertaining for the wee hours of the night. I would say that the local lot may not bring us in a great amount of wealth, but the entertainment value would be splendid. In fact, a simple grift for the mere pleasure of passing time would do as well. You'll have to pardon me, but the routine of these farming communities is not for me. 'Early to bed, early to rise, makes Anemos rather irritable from prolonged exposure to sunlight.'"
    The serving girl returns with another bottle of wine, Anemos pours a glass for Nightsong and another for himself. "Now tell me more about this scouting mission that you are on and your traveling companions. I have an interest in hearing; you see, I've done a bit of scouting myself and in all honestly I'm not welcome in too many of the cities underground anymore, partly due to my family problems and partly to do with my adversity to dwarves. It could serve to find a peaceful place underground, and falling within the good graces of the one who owns the city. It sits well with me."

    VIII. To the Manor Born

    Avian had done a fancy loop around his friend's body as the winged creature followed behind him. He swooped upward as Corian plunged his daggers into the beast, causing it to shriek and driving the beast into the ground. He now gently floats downward to land on the broad shoulders of his friend.
    After the last shriek of the fallen foe, the air is left with the foul stink of blood from the creature's body. Corian slumps down to the ground exhausted, both physically and mentally. His body shudders from his weeping.
    "There, there," the fairy says to Corian while stroking his hair to show his affection toward his friend. Avian's facial expression turns to exhaustion, then to sympathy for the wizard's sobbing. "I know that you're crying because of the fight." Avian's voice breaks into emotional tones. "The reason is that these evil creatures bring out the evil in us, a dark side that we don't want people to see!"
    Looking up, Avian sees Corian ripping a piece of his robe off. He uses it as a handkerchief to wipe his face and blow his nose. He then holds it up for Avian to use. Finding a clean place, fortunately not needing much, he does the same.
    After a while Corian gets up to retrieve his daggers and the magical staff. He turns to face Avian. "Let's get out of here, find Leah, and finish our mission. Jade is depending on us." His voice sounds stronger, although his body is still just as weak.
    Avian smiles weakly but looks into Corian's eyes in mutual understanding. "Yes let's find this druidess. Perhaps she'll feed us with a warm meal and fine drink. Also, we should consider a name of our party!" Avian lets Corian give him a ride for a while.
    "How about, 'The Grand Wizards'?" Corian suggests, feeling better and knowing that changes have been made and things will be different.
    Humming a tune to Corian suggestion, Avian crosses his arms in front of him with a straight face, "'We're the Grand Wizards, yo!' I like it." He nods in approval.

    Both continue walking into the night, not daring to stop until they reach the druidess.

    Off in the distance can be heard the faint clucking of chickens and somehow the pair know they have escaped some horrible fate.

    As the sun breaks the horizon and dawn comes at last, the tired duo can see Leah Redoak's tree-house looming ahead.

    * * *
    "First, let's finish our wine and then head over to the inn. I need to get cleaned up before resting for the day, and then I will tell you about the city and my mission." Nightsong finishes her drink and the two get up.
    Nightsong hangs her wet cloak by the fire to dry, along with her dress, leaving her white cotton underdress on. She lets her hair down, putting hair pins in the trunk at the foot of her bed. Long, shiny green-black hair falls softly down to the middle of her back.
    After Nightsong gets cleaned up she turns around to Anemos. "Are you ready to go down stairs?"
    The dark elf nods his reply.
    The two head to the inn's sitting room and find seats. "As far as my company goes, I just meet them and really do not know too much about them yet. Hopefully they can be trustworthy, or as least as much as anyone is. They seem to be looking for gold and treasure mostly.
    "Now the city you asked about…The city is rather unique and beautiful. There are many different kindreds that you would not normally see living together and interacting peacefully. It is like a safe haven of sorts. It has many other intriguing qualities about it. The city leader is very just and fair, and has gained many friends on all different sides. I think that is part of the reason that her daughter is worried about her, since with each friend comes two enemies. I am not sure what else you want to know. The city itself is kind of a secret, known only to a specific few."
    The dark elfin rogue takes in the woman's tale, contemplating how it fits in with his own plans.

    Later, while his companions sleep, Darkbane cloaks himself from the revealing light of the cloud-shrouded sun, and visits several of the village shoppes. At Mistwright's he exchanges a few gems and rings, and he sells a magical wand to a wizard-alchemist named Thyran Whiteoak. Finally, at the armorer he sells several weapons and other items of adventuring gear. In return he purchases a suit of scale armor for himself and an open-faced helm, crowned with spikes and a red feather. Apparently even the undead are fashion-conscious.

    * * *
    Anubis shivers with excitement as she casts Detect Magic on the door and on the gargoyle statues. Her wings gently flutter behind her. She also looks around the beautifully carved statues to see if she can find anything unusual about them or near them.
    Snag focuses his energies on the area. "Yeah," he nods to Anubis, "the gargoyles are magical. Be wary of them."
    Meanwhile, Jade starts looking around the landing to see if she can find any traps, being careful not to disturb anything. She discovers nothing unusual.
    Believing the gargoyle statues to be dangerous, Froggflipp bounds the steps and fires his crossbow at one. The quarrel passes over the gargoyle's head and clatters against the mansion wall. He begins to reload the weapon. He appears frustrated that he missed.
    Kitara, still preoccupied, searches the bushes at the base of the stairs, while Toad-axe rests on the wide stone stair's handrail.
    Snag looks at everyone. "I think we've seen all there is to see here. The gargoyles probably guard the door here. Let's be prepared for them to animate as we enter."
    "Not to sound stupid or anything, Snag, but I have not had much experience with fighting gargoyles," says Arryn. "My guess is that with them being made out of stone it will be hard for us to destroy them with normal weapons. So what do you suggest that we use? I am not sure if the arrows, even with the metal tips, will work."
    "Their stony hide will protect them as armor does for us," begins the gremlin mage. "It will be harder to injure them than most other foes, but it can be done. Just be cautious and patient in your tactics."
    "Thank you, my little friend, for that foresight and wisdom," purrs the dark succubus as she touches the edge of Snag's ear.
    "Hey! Whatever happened to 'no one touches the bloody gremlin'?" Snag sputters.
    Anubis raises her eyebrows and shrugs slightly, coquettishly. "I'll be ready with my staff to cast Take That, or maybe even Freeze Pleeze. Oohhh, yeah, I like the sound of that!"
    "Yeah, sounds neat," Snag begins slowly, "but…I…NEVERTAUGHTYOU-
    THATSPELL!" His eyes smolder like embers. "So, if you are going to be prepared to cast a spell, please make it one you know. Thanks. Thanks a lot."
    Pouting, Anubis tries the door to see if it's open, keeping an eye on the gargoyles and preparing to pull her wings tight to her body to walk across the threshold of the door.
    As the succubus opens the door, both statues shrug off flecks of stone and dust, and stand to their full stature.
    "I knew it!" yells Snag.
    Froggflipp levels his crossbow at one of the gargoyles and squeezes the trigger, but again he misses the stony thing, and the quarrel flitters away.
    In the same way, Toad-axe releases an arrow at the other gargoyle, and like his chief, the arrow misses its mark.
    "No battle nerves, I guess," comments Snag Bane-eye.
    Anubis turns and blasts the nearest gargoyle with a Take That, You Fiend, while giving Snag a dirty look. The creature's chest explodes and it collapses to the ground.
    "At least you know that spell," quips the gremlin.
    Jade looks at Snag and Anubis bickering in their playful way and rolls her eyes. She thinks to herself, It was bad enough when it was Luna and Snag, but really, gag me. She casts a Take That, You Fiend, for minimal damage to the gargoyle, and then draws her axe.
    Arryn pulls back his bow and lets the arrow fly at the slightly wounded gargoyle, doing slightly more damage. Grabbing another arrow, he takes aim again, but before he releases it, Snag focuses his arcane energies into a blast of his own, striking the rising gargoyle in the chest. The stony beast shatters into scores of pieces, covering the front steps.
    "Now, then…shall we enter?"

    * * *
    "Ah, a sweet sight, my friend," Corian says, looking at the tree house. "Tonight we'll be entertained by sharing stories, and we'll fill our bellies with chicken meat!" The mage stops suddenly, causing Avian to grab the mage's white mangled hair to avoid falling off.
    "Why did we stop?" Avian asks loudly in the Corian's ear.
    Cross eyed from looking at Avian so close up, the human playfully pushes the fairy off his shoulder so he can see normally. "What if Leah was the creature that we fought back there? It had a human shaped shadow and maybe the tree house was her lair."
    The fairy gives an annoying glance to Corian. "I doubt it. Looking at this environment doesn't suggest any hint that it might be her."
    "Y'know, like those werewolf creatures," Corian says while putting his pack down to rest a little before waking Leah in the early morning. "All normal during the day, then changing during the night!"
    "You dork!" Avian comments as he flutters down on Corian's staff, which the human had placed across his lap. "From the short time I've known you, I can say you've always had a active imagination!" Finishing his statement, he gives a brief thought to this theory of Corian's.
    "Also," the small humanoid continues, "we should think of a more appropriate name for our small group. The more I think about it, the Grand Wizards is a foolish name." The fairy swings his legs off the staff, enjoying the cool morning air.
    "Perhaps you're right." Corian looks down at his friend amused, soaking in the memory of the fairy on his staff. Peaceful times, thinks the old mage. "There's no hurry anyway. It's just the two of us; group names are for more powerful groups who can handle themselves, not get their asses kicked!"
    After an hour more, the pair gets up and heads to the tree house to see the druidess. Corian calls out Leah's name to announce their arrival and Avian takes to the air to check for any possible danger. He keeps close to the mage and actively watches the sky for any more surprises.
    The flowerbeds still radiate their beauty, despite the lateness of the year, perhaps aided by the druid's magic. The garden is intricate, yet peaceful. Peaceful that is, until Corian feels a blast of hot breath on his neck and turns to find himself face-to-face with a tiger. He leaps back in surprise and prepares to defend himself when he sees Leah seemingly walk literally right out of the bushes, as a ghost passing through a wall.
    "Good morning. If I were to approach the home of a powerful druid I didn't know well," Leah says, "I would announce my presence at the edge of the property and then wait to be invited in." Her face is rather stern, and the tiger snarls once to emphasis her point. "You are fortunate that I recognized your patterns as you approached, and that Shriluc minds well, or else…. Ah, well, what to you have for me?"

    * * *
    In the room at the Prancing Unicorn, curtains tightly drawn and reinforced with blankets, Anemos quietly ponders what he had previously heard from Nightsong. He mulls over his wine and leans forward, "This city sounds most intriguing; a safe haven of sorts is always intriguing to the malcontent. Not that I'm a deviant of any sort, but as noble as my brethren may be, we happen to at odds for the moment. And given my nature, I don't find myself welcome or privy to most cultured environments, which is most disheartening considering I find myself, by nature, to enjoy said culture.
    "Which places me in a precarious situation: do I flee my blood-rite altogether or do I bide my time and return eventually once I've amassed a grander stature and make good upon my heritage? I would prefer to return of course, but that places me in the meantime, which for a dark-elf could be an eternity, which I'm sure you understand. This places me in the midst of being without a home, a safe haven.
    "What I mean to say is - I would be willing to forego and be of assistance in locating your missing maiden. It would appear to be a noble cause, but I'll be honest - I'm not as altruistic as I might seem. I have to admit my selfish intent. I would be generously willing to provide what assistance I may for the opportunity to see the city of Onyx and win favor with its citizens."
    Anemos leans back into his chair and smirks. "I'm just being honest, but I believe I could help your cause greatly. After all, it's in my nature."
    Nightsong laughs. "If I did not hear the part about your intentions being based on selfish reasons, I would think you were lying to me. I am sure your help would be a great help.
    "I totally understand that life can become boring and make a person become jaded over the years. And with those of us whose life span is longer than the average species, it does not take long for that to happen. The one good thing about the city is that it is always changing with new things to do and learn about coming in all the time."

    Darkbane, trolling for information about the prospects for adventuring on the Hidden Coast, hears that an unspeakably horrible undead creature haunts the graveyard near Karthaki. Of course, his interest is piqued.

    Meanwhile, Blackfang sips eyeball tea in his room, waiting for the cursed sun to go down.

    * * *
    Inside the mansion itself, the destruction of the interior is immediately seen to be worse than anything noted outside. Couches that once lined the grand entryway into the mansion are shredded, their stuffing strewn about the ten-foot wide foyer. Dead, dried husks of plants that once decorated the small niches in the walls droop down from their heavy stone planters. The destruction is appalling, but rather old.
    The hallway to the west is only five-foot in width, leading off into darkness.
    While the foyer itself heads north, to the east is a pair of thick double doors decorated with a coat of arms.
    Froggflipp searches the doors, finding them to be locked. Upon further inspection he says there appears to be a needle hidden in the lock.
    Toad-axe looks around the foyer for secret doors, but finds nothing.
    Anubis walks nonchalantly over to the eastern doors, waits for the toad creature to stop fidgeting with the lock, and kneels down to get a closer look. She digs through her backpack to find a wax stick. The succubus whittles a shaving off the stick with one of her daggers and carefully sticks the shaving into the lock, hoping the needle will embed itself into the wax so it can be retrieved. The needle, however, seems to be affixed to the locking mechanism itself, and Anubis is unable to pull it out.
    Jade walks over to the doors. "Let me see if I can disarm the trap. Why don't you two move out of the way in case it goes off?"
    They do so.
    Snag looks at Arryn, and then at the trio of delvers trying to open the door. "How many dingdongs does it take to open a door?"
    Arryn shrugs, then looks around to make sure that nothing is coming to attack. He keeps an eye on the north area of the foyer. "Maybe we should head this way instead of going through the doors."
    "Let's see what they come up with," says Snag. "Keep an eye out though, archer. I can hear movement, and whatever it is, it is coming closer.
    "I got it," says Jade, holding up the needle she removed from the lock. "The trap should be disarmed, but the door is still locked."
    "Someone over there cast a Knock Knock," the gremlin says. "We're going to have company any second."

    * * *
    Watching the arrival of the druid and her guardian tiger, Avian swoops down with his back against Corian's face. He wants to avoid any chance of the mage saying something wrong. Meanwhile, the old wizard fumbles with his pack trying to retrieve the sample jars.
    "We apologize for trespassing upon your home." The fairy gives a slight bow in mid-air. Leah nods in return. The tiger emits a low growl.
    "After many sleepless nights and a very long walk, we give you these samples," Corian says. Hearing the wizard talk, Avian curses silently.
    "I was unaware that two days now qualifies as 'many sleepless nights,'" says Leah with a wry smile. "Nonetheless, I'm sure your challenges were great, and I see that you have suffered mighty injuries. I thank you for bringing the samples to me."
    "And our latest battle," interjects the fairy, "with a creature with the talons of a dragon, antlers like a mature buck, and a body of some bird, has sent our manners gone, leaving us hungry and in need for rest." Once again, he gives a slight bow.
    "There," the human mumbles. Setting the jars on a nearby stump for inspection, he wipes the access gunk on his cloak. "After our business is concluded, 'O Nature One', I beg you to allow us to rest here for a couple days to get our strength back and provide us a meal," he says with a look of weariness. He prays he doesn't have to say more at this moment, all the while avoiding the gaze of the over-protective striped beast!
    "Ah," sighs the druid. "I understand your need for succor, and I will certainly feed you if that is what you truly want. However, I have some information you might like to know.
    "I am aware that the two of you originally came into Karthaki with an elderly satyr warrior. He then joined another group of delvers to explore the Dungeon of Wonder, while you two traveled with others to Morrick Mansion. I was told by a little bird that he was led off by a strange human woman who was not a human woman, and that he seemed ensorcelled or in some other way out of sorts.
    "If he is indeed your friend, as he initially appeared, you might want to investigate his disappearance. I will provide you with some healing, but I think you should leave as soon as possible. Several other people have gone missing the past few weeks. None have been found."
    Approaching the wounded wizard, Leah holds out a handful of herbs. "Chew these." As Corian begins to do so, the druid lays her hands upon him, and a warm radiance infuses his body. "Not perfect, but I hope it will hold you for now. The woman led your friend south-south-east, in the direction of either Holden's Wood, or the Old Stone Tower. May the Earthmother smile upon your journey. I will analyze the samples you brought me."

    * * *
    Darkbane returns to the Unicorn and tells the others about his idea to head for the graveyard. "Do you want to go there to go adventuring?"
    The goblin curtly replies: "That's fine."
    Nightsong thinks about it for a while and then nods. "I think that it would be a good place to start. Last time we had heard, the elfin maiden was headed out this way and since no one has heard of her around here, maybe she headed that way. We can leave as soon as the sun sets." Nightsong starts to get her things together. She carefully puts her gold in the belt pouch and secures it behind her under her heavy cloak.

    * * *
    Anubis stands next to the large doors, places her staff in front of her and concentrates, trying to block out Snag's nagging. She casts her Knock Knock spell upon the doors, hoping there aren't any surprises beyond.
    Jade puts the needle into some wax and places in her belt pouch, then pulls out her axe to be ready for battle. She listens to hear if there are any noises from the other side of the door, and watches to see what is coming down the hall. "Are we ready to go yet?"
    Arryn just shakes his head. "Once those women get an idea in their heads, they just don't stop, do they?"
    Snag snorts, twisting his upper lip into a snarl.
    Arryn notches his arrow, pointing it down the hall where the noise is coming from. He waits to see if the women get the doors open before the creature, or whatever it is, appears.
    From out of the shadows of the narrow hallway comes a horde of pallid, slavering beings, armed with makeshift weapons. Perhaps once they were human, but now they are little more than bipedal beasts, swarming toward the party like crazed animals. Their stench arrives before they do, rolling over the adventurers in a wave of nausea.
    Jade, already wounded and weak of constitution, retches at the stink, regurgitating a puddle of traveling provisions onto the foyer floor.
    The succubus, completing her spell, throws both doors wide open. "Come on!" screams Anubis.
    The adventurers flee before the snarling mass, attempting to pass the threshold before they are attacked.
    Nearly everyone proves fleet o' foot and makes it into the chamber beyond the doors before the group is assaulted. Arryn, however, slips in Jade pool of vomit and falls to the ground. He looks up at the others, all yelling for him to get up from the safety of the chamber. A quick glance over his shoulder lets him know the throng of attackers will fall upon him in but a second or two.

    * * *
    Anemos slides his cloak over his thin form and draws his hood forward so his face is covered in shadow. He checks to make sure his ankus and katar are both securely fastened. He needs not check his bola as he senses the presence of its aura.
    Normally rogues are less adept at tracing the matrices of magic than properly trained wizards, but the dark elf's familiarity with this enchanted weapon now allows him to perceive its energy fluxes as he would the beating of his own heart. Magic is so much more pleasing than steel; even better still is the merging of the two.
    Anemos thinks to himself how he longs for an exquisite elfin blade like those he knew before. The song of such a sword makes him thirsty to find such a treasure.
    "So it's off to a graveyard, then? Considering the territory of this hamlet I'm sure it's quite the charming place," the wry curt of his sarcasm remains passive as Anemos joins the party to head off into the night.
    Nightsong, with her companions, walks out into the cool night air. "We should get moving. We want to resolve this before dawn. Keep a sharp look out. Even though we are creatures of the dark, I am sure that there are others around who do not want us here. How far is it to the grave yard, Darkbane? Did you find out?"
    "It's close: only a mile and a half northwest, across the Cutter River. There is a bridge over the river," says the Skull King. "However, I am of the understanding that those infected with vampirism cannot cross running water of their own volition. Am I correct?"
    Nightsong nods.
    "Someone will have to aid you then."
    The group walks out the gate. "You fellows have a good night and keep your eyes open up there," Nightsong says. "Maybe I will see you around sometime." Nightsong winks at the guards as the group leaves the little village.
    The moon, when it manages to briefly break free of its bondage of clouds, is so beautiful, Nightsong thinks. She feels it fill her with power and lust. She listens only partly to her party members, instead trying to listen for any background noise that may signal someone or something moving towards them.

    The gray moon, the Nameless Orb associated with the Death Goddess, when it can be seen at all, smiles down upon the children of darkness, and they are unmolested as they skulk across the blackened landscape. The nearer red moon of the elf Khazan, is nowhere to be seen with the typical thick cloud cover of Karthaki's environs.
    The Cutter navigated in a delicate matter with Darkbane's assistance, the little graveyard sits on a squat hill ahead. It is surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. Being just a collection of short stone slabs, the cemetery is unremarkable except for the presence of a ten foot by ten foot mausoleum standing in its center.
    A quick scan of the graveyard makes the group feels relatively secure that they are alone. Approaching the mausoleum, which appears very old, they notice the door is ajar.

    * * *
    Corian looks into Avian's eyes as the fairy stares back. Both too shocked and stunned to do anything after hearing the news that their comrade has been taken hostage.
    Fluttering closer to the wizard, the fairy snaps out of his shock. "I can't believe this!"
    "Me either," responds Corian. "When I got in trouble as a kid my mom always said a little bird…."
    "No-No-No!" the small flying creature mutters back in annoyance. "What do we do: rescue our adventuring partner or fulfill our contract with Jade?"
    "At the Teat, when we agreed to separate, Elgring said that he didn't want us to go down with him in case...y'know." The human starts to get his act together, especially after the healing Leah provided.
    "A long time ago I made a solemn vow to serve the human race," Avian says, turning to watch the druidess and the tiger walking away. "As I see it, we go and investigate this matter. Elgring is more human than a leprechaun."
    "Even though leprechauns are fellow kin of the Good Folk? Fine by me." Corian shrugs his shoulders. "But I say we go to Karthaki first, hire a warrior, pick up supplies and head to the stone...stone…whatever she said that place is called." Taking one last glance, especially at the tiger, he says, mildly offended, "Her guardian didn't like me much!"
    "Well, duh!" Avian comments back. "You tried to play the 'throw the stick' game with him like a common dog!"
    Ignoring the last statement, Corian starts walking back to the hamlet, Avian ready to fly off into the sky. Corian says, "Avian, tonight at camp will you finally tell me about your life story? I'm getting curious!"
    Giving a heavy sigh, knowing telling his story will bring back terrible memories - not that his accursed armor doesn't do that already - the fairy minstrel replies: "Yeah, perhaps it'll help talking about it." With that, he flies up to watch for danger in this terrible land of the Death Goddess.

    * * *
    Nightsong looks up at the sound of the party talking in hushed tones. She says quietly: "I will go and check for traps." She looks at the steps carefully and then goes to the door listening to see if she can hear anything inside. It is deathly still.
    "No blatant traps," says Nightsong. "Maybe we should look elsewhere before we take the obvious entrance? Then if we do not find anything else we will come back here."
    The goblin mage Blackfang searches the gravestones for other hidden entrances, to no avail.
    Heedless of Nightsong's idea, Darkbane enters the mausoleum anyway. Inside, the Skull King finds nothing of note. The walls and floor are bare, and there is no indication of whom, if anyone, may have been interred here.

    * * *
    Arryn tries to crawl to the door as quickly as he can. Getting up would just waste time at this point.
    Jade, feeling bad because she puked and because Arryn slipped in it, moves to pull him in the door. "Be ready to close the door behind us, and make sure there is nothing coming up behind us." Kit nods.
    "Too late for that," says Snag. "On guard at our rear, I'll seal the doors if the archer makes it in."
    Turning, the adventurers see this room, a library, is guarded by a pair of wooden statues carved in the form of massive human warriors wearing plate armor and holding maces in each hand. Now animated, the towering constructs lumber toward the party, their heavy footsteps thudding on the stone floor.
    Froggflipp prepares his man-catcher for engaging the animated wooden men, while his tribesman Toad-axe raises the mighty weapon he was named after likewise.
    Arryn crawls past the threshold just ahead of the gibbering horde. Jade and Kitara slam the doors closed and the gremlin raps his staff against them.
    "Lock Tight!" yells Snag, and a swirling of flickering motes rapidly traces the doors' outline.
    The things outside slam into the door, pounding upon it and screaming in rage at being foiled.
    Turning to stand with the others, including the rising Arryn, the group sees the two statues quickly approaching, now only about six feet away. With no time for missile attacks, the group prepares itself for melee.

    * * *
    "There, that's done," says the old wizard. "I've cast the Vorpal Blade spell on our daggers. I would ration out the dried fruit and water which the kind druidess would have graciously provided, but we left before she had time to give us anything."
    Corian sits down against the tree in a secluded area to rest. Eyebrows in a concerned position, he stares at the fairy. "Elgring's tough. He's probably at the tavern drinking half the customers under the table. I'll tell Dogface some new jokes and you can rest in the private spaces of the stuffed animal heads that decorate the walls." Corian thinks that these statements will cheer his friend out of his dark mood that he's been displaying, especially since he asked Avian to tell him more about himself.
    "Yeah," Avian says unconvincingly. While he likes Corian, he would take Leah's word over the wizard's any day. Looking glumly at his tiny traveling mug, he mutters: "What a mug." Avian holds it up, letting the last ray of the sun sparkle on the decorated pure silver cup. A carving shows two humans, a naked man and woman, doing a mating ritual dance under the full moon. Fully detailed, it shows the masculine chest of the man and the delicate curves of the woman's breasts. It was made by the best smith in the fairy's community.
    Unfortunately, like his armor and two daggers, the cup was cursed. Even if fresh water was poured straight into the cup, once it touched the cup's bottom it turned sour, like the taste of milk left out in the sun for days. The need to drink, to nourish his little body has compelled him to use it anyway. Plus, the magic of the curse forces him to do so in any case.
    "That's what I get for stealing this item. I can't throw it away or destroy it, and worst of all, when I took it back to the owner, he refused to take it back," the fairy says, mostly to himself.
    Sitting comfortably on the soft moss growing on a large rock, Avian looks at Corian. To his surprise the human is actually paying attention. "So you want to hear my life story? Well here it is: It was the best of times, and the worst of times...."

    Later, after the fairy's scintillating story, Corian says they should get into Karthaki to pick up some supplies and get provisions for Avian before going in search of the satyr.

    * * *
    Anubis gasps as she snaps out of her fright. She turns to see the wooden statues closing in on her and the rest of the group. She quickly focuses her power through her staff and casts Oh, Go Away toward the creatures. The succubus readies herself with her katar to attack should the spell fail.
    The magic energy plays across the statues, but being mindless automatons, the spell has no effect. She brings her punch dagger into play.
    Jade pulls out her axe and hews into a lumbering automaton which stiffly swings its maces at her.
    Snag, wielding a pair of pointy dirks, moves low to flank an animated statue, and does his evil-hearted best chisel it down to a toothpick.
    Arryn pulls out his gladius and engages a wooden statue when it is close enough.
    The teeth of Froggflipp's man-catcher bite deep into a timber foe, gouging deep into it.
    Doing his best imitation of a lumberjack, Toad-Axe cleaves mightily into the construct in front of him.
    Kitara, still in a seeming daze, draws the Sword of Wonder, but stands rear guard, watching to be sure the doors hold against the pounding horde outside.
    Wood chips only, and no flesh or blood, litter the floor as the fighting rages on.
    "Uh oh," says Jade. Stepping back out of the fray to draw another weapon, the leprechaun looks at her axe deeply lodged in the thigh of one of the wooden statues. Fortunately for the others, no one else must abandon their weapon to the wood skin of the constructs.
    "Uh, yeah," quips Snag, seeing Jade's plight. "Just put that anywhere."

    * * *
    Anemos wanders amongst the gravestones, watching for anything that may lead to another opening, all the while keeping an eye out to see if the party is being watched. "I admire the undead's courage and forthrightness. I, too, am tempted to move forward with the mausoleum. But if I may make a suggestion, let us check the fringe of this sight, especially any depressions in the outlying areas. After all, if we are going to go underground there is no better place to look than what lies beneath."
    Nightsong, having watched as Darkbane entered the building, nod to the dark elf. She then sighs and goes in the tomb herself. Looking into the Skull King's hollow eye sockets she says, "You may want to wait for the rest of us to finish looking around. Why don't you come and search outside for a few minutes before we come in here." She turns around and heads for the door, waiting for Darkbane to follow.
    Blackfang, having searched around the yard, returns to the mausoleum's steps with Nightsong and Darkbane. He shrugs his shoulders. "Nothing."
    Anemos the dark elf, after but a minute, approaches the others, shaking his head.
    "Should we dig up any of the graves?" asks the Skull King. "Or, maybe one of the trees has a secret entrance built into it."

    * * *
    After a period of flying, Avian hovers down like a feather onto the strong shoulders of Corian. "So, what kind of warrior are we looking for at the Witch's Teat?"
    "Someone strong and competent. Someone who can follow orders with no questions asked." Corian talks while keeping a good pace.
    "Yeah, right," Avian snorts. "With the amount of gold we have, we'll be lucky to hire a drunken goblin."
    "Well," Corian chuckles, "no one that bad, I hope. Besides, there are plenty of warriors. I lived in Karthaki long enough to know. Most likely your typical human; we humans are expandable enough."
    "At least you humans last longer out in the world of adventuring," replies Avian. "Personally, I'm really impressed that Elgring has lasted as long as he did."
    "Probably some interventions from a lot of gods! But remember: he's scared, too. Some demon has his soul trapped. Remember him telling us over the campfire, the first night we spent together?"
    Nodding yes, Avian responds, "Sad. I also remember him telling us how he'll turn to stone if he doesn't tell the truth."
    Corian doesn't comment, nor does Avian say anything else. Both think of their quest of rescuing their satyr warrior friend as the gates of cursed Karthaki beckon them.

    * * *
    Despite his diminutive size, Snag continues to stab and slash away at the wooden statues, gouging and whittling them into oblivion. As the gremlin dodges between legs and avoids a messy demise at the end of a wooden mace, he yips and snarls at the automatons.
    With his toothed man-catcher, the chief of the Swamp Jumpers manages to encircle the waist of one of the statues and lock the device in position. Although it takes all of the toad-warrior's strength to hold onto the lumbering construct, Froggflipp severely limits its movement, and thus its ability to attack and defend itself.
    Toad-axe continues to cleave with his massive bullova axe, showering the floor with wood dust.
    Arryn again attacks with his gladius, adding his might to the party's offense.
    Jade, after drawing new weapons, attacks with her dagger and sai. Misfortune plagues her, however, as both of these weapons lodge in one of the constructs as well.
    Snag, seeing the statue now with three of Jade's weapons stuck in it, looks at the leprechaun and says, "Ha! That's better than I could have planned for!"
    Anubis continues to hack at a statue, focusing on the limbs in an effort to stop it, or at least slow it down. Suddenly, she comes up with an idea. She quickly backs off and digs through her backpack of the lantern oil and matches. "Step back everyone!" she yells to her friends as she sprays some oil on the statues. She then lights a match and throws it onto the foes. The match hits, and the statues erupt into flame.
    Kitara raises an eyebrow in interest as the pounding on the door just then ceases.
    Arryn moves back away as the fire ignites, and Jade watches as the flame rises up, then turns to the door to see if something has happened.
    Between the fighting and the flames, the wooden statues have taken all they can, their animating magic fails, and they collapse into smoldering heaps on the floor.
    "Let's hope we don't burn down the mansion," mutters Snag. "The Head of Darksmoke won't do us much good charbroiled."

    * * *
    Using his dagger blade for a trowel, Darkbane begins scooping up the soil of the nearest grave to get at the body buried within. Everyone else stares at him with cocked eyebrows.
    The goblin mage, Blackfang, enters the mausoleum and searches the place again. After poking around in the back corner of the empty tomb, he discovers a large stone in the floor that appears to be movable.
    Nightsong wanders around the graves looking at the different names. No one I know that I see, she thinks and walks back to the door.
    Exiting the empty mausoleum, Blackfang tells the others about his discovery.
    "Go in and check it for traps," Nightsong tells the Skull King.
    "I'm not checking for traps. Besides," says Darkbane, "I've already searched in there, and there were no traps."
    "Fine, I'll check myself," says Nightsong.
    Going in with the goblin so that he can show which stone he is referring to, Nightsong searches the stone and decides there are no traps. Grabbing the stone, she lifts it up from where it rests and sets it down with a resounding thud.
    Where the stone once was is now a chute descending into stygian darkness. The stink of dampness and decay waft up out of the opening. Handholds appear to be carved into the eastern wall of the chute to aid in the descent.
    Nightsong reports her discovery to the others, and Darkbane volunteers to climb down first.

    * * *
    As Kanara walks around Karthaki's walled interior, she shuffles her high heels. A vampire, she thinks, should not be here. Her hair flows in the wind as it flutters at her tightly closed wings. Her dress moves with the wind. Seeing the tavern, quickly she unfolds her wings. Unexpected, the wind knocks her to the ground. She gets off the ground and dusts off the dirt and flies instead.
    On the ground safely in front of the tavern, she opens the door and walks in. A darkly lit room does not surprise her. Webs in the corners, however, make her shiver. She looks towards the chairs before the ale altar and finds an empty seat, so she sits down.
    Suddenly she sees a drunken person at one of the benches. She quickly looks around making sure no one is looking, and jumps off the chair. She walks over, trying to act normal, wakes him up and asks for a drink. He gives her all his gold (not thinking) - all of two pieces. She walks over to the barkeep, gets a drink and pays for it. Finished, she flies out the tavern.
    Now on the ground, she says to herself as she walks to the well, "Boy, this is a boring place." She throws in a coin for luck. With a 'plunk' it descends into the well.
    "If it is excitement you want," says a voice from out of the shadows, "you should head to the cemetery. You will find it less boring than this village, and you can congregate there with others of your kind." The last two words are spat with a venom that disturbs Kanara.
    She believes the voice to be that of a man, but she still cannot discern the speaker's location.
    Kanara turns around and stares straight into the darkness with her red angry eyes, in the direction of her best guess as to the speaker's location. "It's not like I bite…a lot!" She turns and runs. As she does, she spreads her wings and jumps up.
    She flies a short distance and searches for the grave site. She sees the running water of the Cutter River and panics. Diving, she lands on the ground and calls out to see if any one is there to help her. She waits impatiently for a minute. "Is it possible to get help around here?"
    Soon she hears a silky voice from some distance: "Is there a problem I am able to be of some assistance with?"
    "I can't cross running water!" For a while there is no response, but then, as she is about to call out again, a dark figure approaches the river's far bank. She backs away slowly and gets ready to fly, scared.

    * * *
    The Skull King descends into the dank darkness, climbing down the chute using the carved handholds. Twenty feet below, the shaft ends in a corridor with a ten foot ceiling. Walking the corridor forty feet and then making a left hand turn brings Darkbane to a rusted portcullis. The dull ends of the grates descend to within two feet of the floor.
    Darkbane considers climbing under the grate to push on and explore by himself, but then he decides to head back and inform the others of what he has discovered.
    Climbing halfway back up the shaft, the undead wizard whispers to his companions waiting above what he has found.
    Nightsong turns to ask Blackfang and Anemos who should go next, and notices that the dark elf is not there.
    Just then, Anemos enters the mausoleum, joining Nightsong and Blackfang. They turn and look at him; the look on their faces tells him that he has obviously missed something.
    "Beg pardon," the dark elf says. "You'll have to excuse my delay. Even an elf needs to relieve himself from time to time, and there was a shrub on the fringe that looked absolutely parched. Although it is more typical of my weaker woodland kin, I decided it was my duty to aid nature."
    Anemos now notices the hole in the floor in which the goblin is about to descend, Darkbane having already done so. "I see we've found our entrance. Splendid, I was just about to suggest that we look in here once more.
    "Oh, yes, one more thing. While I was outside I found a lost child of the night in need of assistance. I thought she would make a nice addition to our little group. Kanara, come join us." Anemos prepares himself to join the others in the climb below.
    Entering the mausoleum is a pale skinned woman in a long black dress. Black wings, like a bat, sprout from her back. She is tall and thin, and she has long straight dark hair. Her eyes are red with slit pupils.
    Kanara and Nightsong lock eyes, testing each others' will.
    The goblin mage simply shrugs, and then follows Darkbane down into the chute.
    At the bottom of the shaft, the goblin and the Skull King await the others' descent.

    * * *
    "Snag, if you're concerned about the mansion burning down, maybe you can urinate around the burning pile here to make sure the fire stays put." The succubus winks and smiles at their short leader.
    "Yeah. Your hair is on fire, by the way. Come here," says the diminutive gremlin. "I'll put that out for you."
    Anubis wrinkles her nose at Snag. "Do we dare open that door to see what was making all that noise? I think I'd prefer to stay here for a bit longer and look around."
    "Of course. The door says locked, and before we do anything else, let us check out our immediate surroundings," replies Snag.

    Carefully organized sets of wooden bookcases line the walls between the windows and bracket a large desk in the middle of the room. Books line the shelves in neat, even rows and are organized by subject. Wooden plaques on the shelves identify subjects ranging from farming to warfare, and even collections of poetry. Most are devoted to trade, mercantile exchange, and the making of fine wines.
    The toad-warriors move off to search for secret doors or anything else hidden amongst the book shelves, while the others consider the fire. Froggflipp finds a safe hidden behind the bookshelf on the northern wall. It is stoutly built and impossible to remove from the wall mounting, without major effort. A dial in the middle of the safe door has six symbols on it - a circle, a vertical line, a diamond, a triangle, a square and an 'X'. He sets about the task of opening the safe.
    Kitara maintains her guard of the door, while the remainder of the party ensure that the fire will not spread to the building itself.
    In his explorations Toad-Axe literally stumbles across a tiny, desiccated corpse the size of a small fairy spread-eagled on the floor behind the desk. Despite the corpse's awkward position, he notices it is clothed in an ornate, formal suit perfectly fit to its tiny form. He lifts it up unto the desk to better search it. A miniature signet ring bearing the Morrick family seal adorns its finger. The age and advanced state of decay make it difficult to determine the cause of death.
    The chief of the Swamp Jumpers turns the safe's dial to the 'X', and there is a faint click. He next turns the dial to the circle symbol, and there is a crackle of eldritch energy that staggers Froggflipp backward. Hands smoking with the burns, he stares in disbelief.
    Hearing the energy dispersal, the others run over to Froggflipp's side. "Wait!" yells Snag.
    Heedless, the toad-warrior turns the dial again, this time to the diamond. He is rewarded for his impertinence with another blast of energy. This time he is thrown to the floor, his entire body smoldering. He lies looking up at the others with half-closed eyes, hovering on the verge of incapacitation.

    * * *
    Corian straightens up, dusting the rusty colored dust from his clothes as he prepares to answer to the guards' usual questions before entering the hamlet.
    Avian meanwhile hovers down near his adventuring partner, thinking that flying over the walls in plain sight might cause alarm.
    After answering the questions and some small talk with the guards, the two carry on straight to the Witch's Teat. They will make the most of it before heading out the next day on their new mission.
    Welcoming the sour odors upon opening the door, Corian smiles and nods at ol' Dogface. The barkeep gives a nod in return, or so Corian imagines. The bleary-eyed man is going through his morning chores of preparing the Teat for another day of business.
    Avian, flying in, remembers first seeing the gorgeous fairy with the magical staff and the white see-through gown, half hoping to find her within. The company of another fairy-kin will be well rewarded by him.
    Wasting no time, the old wizard finds an empty table. Gathering the bottom of his robes, he climbs onto a chair to stand on the table.
    "Oh Crap," mutters the strawberry-haired fairy as he watches the magic-user make a spectacle of himself. [He remembers the time they toured the guildhall of glassmakers and Corian almost fell into one of the machines used to make eyeglasses, nearly making a spectacle out of himself that day as well.] "What is he up to, and why didn't he inform me?" he asks, pouting. With a sigh he flies up to a position near the tavern's ceiling, watching for anything of importance.
    "Hear ye, hear ye," Corian tries to get the attention of the imagined crowd, swiftly ignoring Dogface's annoyed glance. "I've got 5 pieces of gold for anyone who can tell me any information about the great warrior Elgring, the satyr who was here a few days ago.
    "It has to come to our attention that he has been kidnapped and someone must have seen something. I shall be here until tomorrow morning. In the meantime, be welcome at this table and I'll buy a drink for each individual who can give any information about the stone tower to the southeast from here." Satisfied with his speech, Corian climbs down to the floor and looks around for possible takers on his offer.
    The place is empty except himself, Avian, Dogface and one old man passed out on a bench. Corian frowns.
    "What did you expect?" asks Dogface. "It isn't even ten of the clock yet this morning. Most people don't come here until evening. I've got a mop here that'll tell you everything you want to know, though." He walks away shaking his head.
    Avian, perched on a mounted moose snout, covers his eyes in embarrassment.
    Scratching the back of his neck, Corian mumbles that it was a practice speech. The unconscious man on the bench belches a pathetic response to the wizard's excuse.
    Walking up to the ale altar Corian asks Dogface for supplies for his trip. "Hey Dog! I need some dried meat, water for my canteens and a tankard of ale." He plunks down some gold on the counter.
    Dogface gives the aged wizard the gimlet eye. "You'll have to wait until Qaddiq is on duty for supplies."
    "Who can I talk to around here about the stone tower?" continues Corian.
    "Just about anyone. What do you want to know?" asks the barkeep.

    Finding an open window, Avian flies out into the warm morning to investigate. Swooping past an infant, he makes the young female baby giggle as he flutters, tickling her cheek. He decides the best place to check is with the captain of the guard to ask for information about seeing any strangers leaving the city, specifically a warrior of the name of Elgring. Also, the captain may recall any stories of this stone tower the druidess has mentioned.
    After asking around a bit, to which he gets varied reactions from the people he meets - some people are fascinated by the pink-faired fairy, and others consider him to be, well, a fairy! - Avian learns that the captain of the guard has an office in the village meeting hall.
    Arriving at the hall, the fairy finds the right office. Entering, he sees a severe-looking human woman walking toward him. She wears plate armor, a great sword slung across one shoulder, a short bow across the other, and a quiver of arrows at her hip. Three matching scars trail from her right temple down her face to end at her jaw line. Gray streaks run through her black hair, which is pulled back into a tight bun behind her head.
    Appraising the hovering fairy, the woman speaks. "May I help you with something?" she asks sternly.

    * * *
    Anubis turns around from what she was checking out and quickly runs over to Froggflipp. She can literally see the smoke rising from the swamp creature's body. She opens her water container and lightly sprinkles the water on her companion to help cool his singed body.
    Snag kneels at the prone toad-warrior's side, "Silly frog, magic tricks are for wizards." Mumbling under his breath, Snag places a tiny hand on the worst of Froggflipp's wounds. A gentle pink glow suffuses the injury, slowly closing it part way.
    The gremlin shakes his head. "That's all the power I can spare right now. You're still in pretty bad shape, so don't do anything else foolish or it might be the last thing you do. But, you're functional now, at least. We'll have to rest here for a while before we leave from this room."
    "I won't mess with the safe again," croaks Froggflipp. "Does anyone else want to try to open it?"
    "We'll deal with the safe," Snag responds. "But let's see what else we can learn about the contents of this room before we try that."
    "Okay, but when you try the safe, the 'X' is the first one, but then don't try the other two symbols that I did!"
    While his chief rises to his feet, Toad-axe continues to search for hidden items.
    Jade looks at the warrior. "Will he be okay, Snag?"
    "Assuming he doesn't try anything else like that, he'll be fine."
    She looks back at the smoldering pile of wood. "I hope that goes out soon so that I can get my weapons out of there."
    Snag snorts.
    Jade walks over to the book case, wondering if there are any good books on magic. She looks carefully at them and tries to see if there are any traps around the bookcases themselves. She finds nothing else of interest.
    Arryn looks at the door where the succubus stands guard and then goes to look at the desk to see if there is anything of any use in the drawers. In addition to the shrunken body placed on the desk by Toad-axe, the archer sees a scattering of papers on the desktop, and the same in the drawers. Some of the papers may be important and worthy of further inspection. Two secret compartments in the desk hold three glass vials, and a small leather bag.

    * * *
    "After you," Kanara motions to Nightsong to go down the stairs first.
    Having finished the descent, completed introductions and welcomed Kanara, the group walks down the corridor to the rusty portcullis. There is a gap of two feet between the bottom of the grate and the damp floor.
    Dropping to the floor, Darkbane crawls under the portcullis' bottom spikes and stands up on the other side. Anemos the dark elf follows, and then the others.
    From there the Skull King can see a corridor extending well off into the darkness. About sixty feet down, on the left side, is a set of double doors, but the corridor seems to continue past this.
    Walking down to the doors, Darkbane tries to open them, and finds they are locked. Sensing the presence of magic on the doors, he realizes baneful magic guards them. Calling to the others, he tells them the doors are protected by evil magic. "Do any of you have any ideas?"
    Anemos eyes the doors and senses the evil magic surrounding them, using his innate elfin ability to do so. "I believe we will eventually want to know what is behind these doors, but at this juncture if none of us possess to the ability to open them then it is probably best that we see what lies ahead in this corridor."
    Walking down the corridor Kanara notices the big stone blocks that look very old. Halfway down the corridor, near the goblin searching the walls, she sees a large crack. Using her Detect Magic ability reveals nothing. She looks at the goblin who bares his blackened fangs. A grimace, or a smile; she is unsure.
    Blackfang, the goblin mage - a rarity amongst his kindred - locates the secret door opposite the double doors. Opening it reveals a thirty by forty foot rectangular chamber. Against the southern wall is an unopened stone sarcophagus, the lid of which is carved with the image of a bearded man in plate armor, a long sword beneath his crossed hands. Two life-sized bronze statues of warriors holding longspears on two-foot high pedestals flank the sarcophagus.
    Nightsong says, "Look around but be careful of the statues and the sarcophagus, or we may have unfriendly company. Not all undead are as laid back as the three of us." Nightsong looks around the walls to see if there are any secret doors. She finds one behind the eastern statue, but cannot figure out how to open it. She lets the others know what she has found.
    Darkbane lifts the sarcophagus' lid, revealing a skeleton wearing rotting armor. There is nothing of value.

    The Skull King then moves on to search the statues themselves. The eastern statue reveals that its arms are hinged, and that there is a key hole in the rear of the pedestal upon which the statue stands. He attempts to pull on the arms, but they refuse to move. Addressing the group, Darkbane says, "I found a keyhole in this statue's base. Do you want to help me find the key?"
    Nightsong looks around. "Sure. Hey, where's the new one? Does anyone see her?" Nightsong starts looking around behind the statues to see if she can find any clues. "Did anyone look inside the bottom of the sarcophagus to see if there was any trap door or secret compartment?"
    As Nightsong turns to the others, Kanara leaps towards her. "What are you doing?" asks Nightsong as she blocks the incoming blow for her party member.
    "My job, you little bat!" responds Kanara as she keeps the attacks coming. "You do not think I would join a party of losers for the fun of it, do you? Vampires are better than the rest of these fools. We should, and soon will, rule the entire plane, but you are too busy trying to bring back elf maidens who have gotten themselves into their own trouble. Instead, you should be back at the city helping to plan the take over of the interdimensional portals so that after we control this world we can move to the next."
    "You are a fool. We have too many other enemies to have to worry about fighting among ourselves," replies Nightsong.
    As the two exchange blows, the rest of the party moves to observe what is happening. They look at each other, wondering if they should be helping one or the other.
    "Darkbane, if I promise to buy you another one, can I have your quarterstaff?" asks Nightsong.
    Darkbane replies, "Why?"
    "Because I am getting beaten up here!" Looking at Nightsong, he can see that she is starting to show signs of fighting where marks from the other vampire are taking effect.
    The Skull King tosses her the staff. Catching it, Nightsong smacks it against the stone sarcophagus, splitting it in half and sending splinters flying everywhere. She leaps toward her foe, who moves out of the way as Nightsong lands were she was.
    The Skull King and the goblin mage try to hem in Kanara's attacks, but don't want to get too close to her fangs and claws. Anemos just stands where he is, a look of interest on his face.
    Kanara moves around behind Nightsong, pinning her to the wall. Just as she attempts to pull the stick out of Nightsong's hand, she loses her grip and Nightsong spins around, planting the stake into her chest where the vampire's once-beating heart was.
    Kanara slowly moves backwards and then falls to the ground.
    Nightsong pushes the stake in even farther. She then pulls out her chakram and throws it down with all her strength, hoping that it hits the vampire's neck and removes her head. When it fails to decapitate the paralyzed vampire in one blow, she falls upon her foe with her kukri dagger, hewing until the head is severed from the spinal column. It rolls away, landing upon its neck stump to stare at Nightsong with malice-filled eyes that slowly glaze over.
    "Are you sure there's no dark elfin blood in you?" asks Anemos. "Slaughtering one's own kin is a most dark elfin quality."

    * * *
    After Avian's and Corian's duties are done, they both meet and decide to take off. Once again finished with the formalities with the guards, both head out into the dangerous countryside to rescue Elgring Longtier: off to the stone tower, following the instructions of Leah Redoak.
    A mile southeast of Karthaki is a small forest called Holden's Wood. Paralleling its border, the pair travels another mile or two. As they come out of a small copse of trees, Corian and Avian get a good view of the old stone building. They see a two-story round stone tower, its battlements deteriorating with age. No activity is visible anywhere in the vicinity, and the tower's second-floor windows are boarded up. The Crumbling Tower does not look promising, but this is where the ancient satyr was said to have been taken.

    * * *
    "I'll pass on trying the safe. I don't want to electrocute myself," say Anubis. She sees Arryn shuffling through some papers on the desk and walks over to him. "We should take all those papers for now and figure out what they might be when we get a break. Never know what you may find." She winks at the human, hoping to get a response from him.
    "Or, we could look at them now while we have a break and see what they say here. Maybe there is a clue to the lock on the safe or a map with secret passages on it so that we can find our way around some of these undead creatures, Sugar," replies Arryn. He sets the papers aside for a moment to check the drawers to make sure that he did not miss anything. Arryn then pulls up a chair, making sure that there are no needles or other objects in or on it that could cause pain, and sits down to start reading the papers.
    "Let me see those vials," Snag says to the archer. "Potions, I'd say, as they radiate magic." Focusing his energies, he learns of the potions' uses. "Boo-boo Juice. Here Frog - drink one of these, it will make you feel a little better. You, too, Jade."
    Swallowing one of the vials, the burns on the toad-warrior's body heal themselves further. Likewise, the leprechaun's wounds close.
    Jade goes over to find a way to retrieve her lost weapons from the smoldering remains. After several different attempts and a couple of minutes, she finally figures out how to get her weapons back out of the wooden statue. Weapons reclaimed, she walks over to a bookcase, tripping over a pile of books that the other people in the party had thrown on the floor.
    She carefully picks up two books that she had tripped over - Which Grapes Make the Best Wine? and You, too, Can be a Man of Great Taste. Who knows: maybe I will be a tavern owner someday and these will come in handy, she thinks. Jade flips through some of the other books, looking to see if there are any odd pieces of paper stuck in them with something that may be use useful. "Did anyone find anything of interest yet?" asks the leprechaun.
    The two toad-warriors seem to be scraping away at the wall, presumably searching for something hidden behind it, and do not reply.
    "Yeah, look to this," says Arryn, handing Snag seven pieces of parchment.
    "Magic scrolls," replies the gremlin. "Some kind of spell to change stone to flesh."
    The old archer nods. "Now listen to some of these papers I found here on the desk: 'After the second toast, everyone began to go crazy. People started screaming about scales and scratching at their skin while others began to pull out their hair or scream that they were suddenly blind. I took Larissa, Alandra, and the boys upstairs, and not a moment too soon. I turned them into statues with some of my scrolls and came here to figure out what is going on.'
    "'Everyone is going insane out there. Thank the gods I have the doors and golems to protect me. I shudder to think of what might happen to the family if the crowd outside the doors finds their statues. They are breaking everything out there. I can't understand it. Is this some sort of poison?'
    "A second piece of paper reads: 'What is this? I thought it was poison, poison in the food or wine, but I have used every potion and antidote I have and scales are still appearing on my arms. They look like silvery fish scales, hut they are a bit thicker and flake off when I scratch them. My arms itch like crazy. The scales are spreading. It has to be the food, maybe the wine. Everybody went crazy after the second toast. If it isn't poison, what is it? A curse? Nothing in my books describes a curse anything like this. This is madness. I haven't eaten for two days; I have to eat soon or try to escape. I still hear screams and pounding beyond the doors. I am afraid to risk it.'
    "There's also some papers dealing with the harvesting of grapes, the making of wine, and delivery schedules," says Arryn.
    "The bag here has a hundred gold in it, and a piece of paper with an 'X', a triangle and a square on it," says Jade.
    "That's the code!" yells Froggflipp. Leaping back to the safe, he spins the dial again to the right symbols and it opens. It contains several ledgers listing some of Lord Morrick's holdings. In addition, it contains a wand with no identifying marks, but the word 'krasit' is engraved on the stem and it radiates magic. Finally, there are two flasks of a clear liquid (which do not radiate magic), three sax daggers, a small bag with 200 mithril pieces in it, and a sheet of paper with some kind of coded message on it.
    "Well, that's sixteen gold each, and thirty-three mithril - a nice find," says Snag. "We'll give the odd coins to the Frog, as it was his stupidity, I mean tenacity, that got the safe open. Now let's rest here a bit to regain our power."

    IX. Onward for the Head

    Corian the wizard stands under the tree, sharing its shade and studying the once-mighty structure. Avian lands on a nearby branch, scaring a bird which gives the fairy a hateful glance before flying off. Shrugging off the insult, the minstrel looks to the crumbling tower.
    "This should be easy," Corian says with a chuckle in his voice. "Not much here. The search will take an hour, maybe even shorter." He glances up at Avian.
    "Yeah, like anything in this cursed countryside is easy," snaps Avian. "Alright old human, you know what to do!" the fairy says to Corian. He watches the wizard nod his head in affirmation. "And I know what I have to do," he adds, more to himself.
    Hovering up in the air, concentrating on his Spellsong, he chants the lyrics to detect life within fifty feet. Besides insects and a few birds, there is nothing else within range. Afterward he flies high, using his observation skill to notice any creatures and passageways into this tower. Attached to the tower is a rectangular building added on, with doors on its north and south sides.
    "Now," mumbles Corian, cracking his knuckles. Using his tracking skills, he searches for foot prints or other signs of life around. A set of large canine tracks leads off across the plain to the north of the tower.
    By coincidence both take out their weapons at the same time. Corian hefts his staff and his magical dagger, taking a glance to see if it radiates magic to let the owner know evil is around, but it isn't glowing.
    The small flying creature now wields his two magical, yet cursed, banks, prepared for any filth he'll have to face.
    Okay, El…where are you pal? thinks Avian. We'll get you out quickly and then we'll rejoin our other comrades-in-arms!

    * * *
    Anubis sits cross-legged on the floor with several of the papers that were found on the desk, looking for hints and clues as to what may have transpired here at the mansion. "Do you suppose that all the wine papers and books have anything to do with the curse that's here? The journal mentioned that it was after the second toast that nasty things started to happen." Anubis wonders to out loud to herself, not really talking to anyone in particular.
    "Yes, you might be on to something there," says the gremlin. "Although, Lord Morrick wrote that he didn't think it was a poison in the wine. Perhaps someone placed a magical curse upon the wine…which means Morrick's enemy was probably a wizard."
    Arryn stays sitting at the desk keeping an eye on the doors to make sure nothing tries to sneak in and listening for any sound that might lead to a possible attack on them.
    "Good job guys. I agree we should rest for a little while here." Jade looks around for somewhere comfortable to sit down. Finding a clear spot in the corner next to a pile of books, she climbs over and lies down in a ball to take a quick nap.
    "If no one else minds, I'll take the wand," says Froggflipp. "That way I can cast some magic with it, since I'm a warrior."
    "Fine with me," says the gremlin. "I believe the power word is inscribed on the stem of the wand."
    Pointing it at a bookshelf, the toad-warrior yells "Krasit!" The bookshelf disappears. "Maybe it's a wand of disappearing," he says excitedly.
    "Perhaps," says Snag. "But be careful with it, and use it sparingly. Most wands have limited charges. When I've rested enough, later I'll tell you exactly what its powers are."
    "Okay."
    Toad-axe walks over to relieve Kitara to stand guard at the library doors.
    Jade starts to doze off and pictures of people sitting at a long table enter her mind. They are celebrating something and having a good time. Although there is someone or something in the background that has an evil presence, no one seems to notice it. Then people start screaming and the host stands up grabbing his family and runs towards the stairs. Guests try to follow him as they transform and become possessed. Running into the room he shuts the door behind him while his family looks on in terror, but the presence is still there with them as well. Jade looks around trying to find what it is that is causing all the pain. She can feel it closing in on her. Jade screams, but no one looks at her. It is like she is not even there. Why does no one come to help me? she thinks.

    After resting for a half hour, Snag rises to his feet. "Wake up Sleeping Bootie; her snoring and screaming is starting to get on my nerves. Besides, we should get going if we want to get the Head of Darksmoke."

    With everyone in place, the library's doors are opened to a quiet hallway. "Looks like the coast is clear," says Snag Bane-Eye. "Which way: north or west?"

    * * *
    Nightsong looks at Anemos. "No, no dark elf blood in me, but I also do not believe in traitors, either." She walks over and picks up Kanara's head and sets it on the stone sarcophagus then walks over to the body. "I wonder if she has anything good on her?" Nightsong says as she starts taking the items off of her kinsmen and putting them in a pile.
    "Nasty lil' rodent, wasn't she?" states Anemos as he looks at the remains of Kanara. Being impressed with Nightsong's fighting he looks up at her, "I like your style, though I have to admit, the entire display was splendid. Just a guess here, but she wouldn't have anything to do with the aforementioned missing matron, would she? Because if she is, that either means we're headed in the right direction or we most likely will encounter some other nuisances. Now I like the idea that we keep looking."
    Nightsong flashes a feral smile and nods sagely.
    There is not too much to pick through in Kanara's gear, but she hands each of her companions a gem: a piece of ivory each for Darkbane and Blackfang, and a piece of quartz for the dark elf. There are a few odd weapons - a javelin and a hunting bola. "Does someone want to carry them?" Nodding, Darkbane takes the javelin, and the hunting bola is picked up by the goblin.
    Anemos goes over to the sarcophagus, checking to see if there is the possibility that it may have hidden compartments or conceal a passageway. As he moves the corpse its pungent smell wafts alive causing him to wince. "Horrible thing; much too tall to have been a dwarf, but it certainly reeks of one." After a moment of searching, he decides there is nothing of value or use regarding the sarcophagus.
    Nightsong picks up the back pack and walks over to the head. Placing it inside, she turns to the others. "Does someone want to start a fire for that," she asks, pointing to the body, "before we leave here?"

    After a minute of gathering fuel and starting the fire, the stench of burning flesh fills the chamber. "Let's get out of here and search another room," says Blackfang.

    * * *

    "Avian?" Corian calls out, looking around for his partner. "Oh, there you are." The human watches his bird-like friend hover down from the sky.
    "Everything's clear at my findings of the area," says the fairy, landing at his usual post on Corian's shoulder. "Shall we go in?"
    Nodding his head in agreement Corian and the fairy head off for the tower. They climb up a pair of low rising terraces and arrive at the northern door.
    "I'll check the door for traps," says the wizard. He searches, but doesn't find anything. "Clear," he says, sounding positive.
    As the human prepares to open the door, Avian flies up above the door, his back against the wall in case of any surprises that might jump out to surprise them.
    Corian reaches for the door handle and tries to open it, but discovers it is locked.
    Just then the wizard and the minstrel hear a horrid baying sound. Turning, they see a massive black mastiff bounding toward them, approaching widdershins from around the Crumbling Tower. Its eyes gleam with feral hunger, its large teeth stand out - alabaster - against its ebon coat, and it will reach them in a matter of seconds.

    * * *
    "I don't think it really matters which way we go," says the dark succubus. "This whole place gives me the creeps. Do we know which way those things came from earlier? I say we head in the opposite direction." Anubis casts Detect Magic to the west and again to the north, trying to get a feel for what might be happening around them, but there are no unfamiliar magical radiations around.
    "'Those things' came at us from the west, but we have no way of knowing which way they went while we were in the library," says the gremlin mage, Snag. "Nevertheless, I think we should head north, deeper into the mansion. As for this place being creepy, I would think that a seductress from the foulest pits of the Inferno would find this place boring. Hmmm."

    The foyer empty, the group walks thirty feet north into a great room. Beautiful parquet flooring extends throughout this vast room, fifty feet north to south, by eighty feet east to west. Long dining tables fill the room. Most of the chairs are damaged, but the sturdy dining tables withstood the abuse they received. Broken dishes and shattered glasses cover the floor, and the once elegant table linens are torn beyond recognition. Enchanted crystal chandeliers still shed a dim magical light, and a vast wall of windows in the north wall looks out over a marble terrace into the gardens behind the mansion, although they are all broken, the glass littering the floor. The floor-length openings make it easy to leave for the terrace overlooking the gardens. Before the devastation, this room would have been a truly magnificent piece of work. The destruction and overpowering stench of decaying flesh now give it an odd, ominous feel.
    Plain wood panel doors in the east wall lead to another part of the mansion. Thirty feet to the west, in the south wall, is a five-foot opening.
    Wind, rain, and sunshine have started to damage some of the exposed woodwork, and a number of horrible scratches mar the beautifully paneled inner walls. A large, open spiral staircase in the northwest corner leads up to the second floor. A collection of torn sofas and chairs close to the staircase marks the location of a small sitting area. Several rotting corpses and a number of skeletons and bones lay beneath one of the tables.
    A low moaning comes from the opening in the south wall, followed by a scratching and shuffling sound. "I think we've discovered where the things went," says Snag.
    Bursting into the room come seven shambling once-humans. They appear mad and twisted, pallid and grotesque as they scan the room for the intrusion. Seeing the assembled adventurers they unleash a dreadful din and charge the party. In their clawed hands they wield chair legs and other makeshift weapons, but dangerous implements nonetheless.
    "Ah well, Anubis…it seems fate demands we confront our fears in this case," says the gremlin matter-of-factly. "It is always so on the path of the hero. Be ready for the onslaught, my boon companions!" he calls to everyone. "One for each of us, it seems. Now tell me, Anubis, is this not the hand of fate, testing our mettle before granting us the Head of Darksmoke?"
    With that, the diminutive wizard draws forth a dagger and sights in on an approaching foe. "The Seven Hells take ye, ye fiend most foul!" he squeaks as he lets the dirk fly.
    The dirk, pinwheeling end over end, impales itself in the cursed one's chest with a sickening thunk. The once-man staggers and bellows in pain, but resumes its charge, albeit at a much slower pace.
    "Cheap-ass pig pokers," mutters Snag. "Couldn't kill a rat with these lousy daggers." Preparing for the foe to engage him, the gremlin draws another dirk.
    Drawing forth his rod, Froggflipp aims at one of the rushing figures. "Krasit!"
    With a yelp of surprise, the chief of the Swamp Jumpers rises off the floor, levitating ten feet above the others.
    Looking up, Snag says: "Ah, definitely a Rod of Randomness. And I warned you about wasting charges!"
    Seemingly pouting, the bachtrian warrior stows the rod and tries to aim on one of the cursed ones with his crossbow as he hovers overhead.
    Taking aim with his bow, Toad-axe releases an arrow which strikes its target in the throat. With a gurgle and clutching claws, the cursed one falls to the floor, its cursed existence finally over.
    Kitara, the withdrawn succubus, draws forth the Sword of Wonder, and stands against the approaching foes. Still, her demeanor remains one of detachment, and little of her spirit shines forth.
    Like Toad-axe, Arryn also pulls out his bow and notches an arrow. He pulls the bow string back to his cheek and lets the arrow fly. It strikes a cursed one in the shoulder, but it shuffles on. Looking around to make sure that everyone is still doing alright, he draws forth his gladius for close-quarter fighting.
    Jade pulls out her sai and dagger, ready for combat.

    * * *
    Elgring, lost though he is, mind trapped elsewhere, shivers in the darkness as he can feel the very essence of his soul being slowly drained away.

    * * *
    Back out in the dank corridor, with secret door closed behind them, the Nightwalkers are again faced with the magicked double doors. Additionally, the corridor continues east, arriving at another lowered portcullis by the looks of it in the darkness.
    Blackfang searches the corridor for any other hidden doors or items, but he discovers nothing new. Turning to the magicked doors, the goblin mage can feel the strong binding sorcery that seals them, festering with evil energy. He tries to open them with a spell of his own, Knock Knock, but the magic locking them is more powerful than his own, and the doors stay sealed.
    Darkbane says he will explore the corridor to the east, and sets off. Again he ducks under the partially lowered portcullis and then follows the corridor as it turns north. After thirty feet it arrives in a cul de sac. He searches the area, but finds nothing. Then, after chanting arcane words, a purple light limns the outline of a secret door. "Oh, there it is," mutters the Skull King.
    After a minute of trying, Darkbane figures out how to open the door, and then finds himself hunched over in a small, four foot high cave. He walks about forty feet in the darkness, stooped over, and stops, standing on a ledge that overlooks a dropoff into utter darkness.
    Nightsong follows behind him, listening for any noise, but detects nothing.
    The dark elf, as he is wont to do, skulks up in the darkness.
    The goblin mage, left alone to contemplate the ensorcelled doors, decides there is strength in numbers, and joins the others.

    "I'd like to volunteer to climb down the dark descent that lies ahead," says Anemos, "seeing as I have darksight and a fondness for scaling surfaces. Although, if anyone in the party has rope, it would be much appreciated."
    His companions consent to the dark elf's plan.
    Getting two fifty foot lengths of rope from the goblin and the Skull King, Anemos ties the ropes together, giving him one hundred feet to work with. Blackfang and Darkbane agree to hold the rope while the dark elf descends. Nightsong will stand guard to help diminish the chance of being attacked.
    With everyone in position, Anemos Nuktos begins his descent. Fifty feet passes without incident. Nearing one hundred feet the dark elf is literally at the end of his rope and is still not near the bottom of the cliff. It is hard to judge under the circumstances, even with darksight, but he estimates perhaps another fifty feet to the cliff's bottom. Anemos contemplates free climbing the rest of the way down, as it seems there are ample handholds and he is a skilled climber.
    It is then that a series of events commences to divert everyone's attention anyway from the dark elf dangling on the end of a rope.
    Nightsong is alerted to movement in the darkness. Coming from well above the party's position, two humanoid forms are gliding past the trio on the ledge and swooping straight for the dark elf on the rope.
    Reacting quickly, Nightsong blasts one of the creatures with a Take That, You Fiend. The illumination of the destructive ray lights up the entire cavern for a brief second, like a bolt of lightning in the night sky.
    In the brief strobe of light, everyone can see a pair of stony, winged humanoids diving toward Anemos suspended on the rope.
    Thoughts race through the dark elf's mind - how should he best react in this precarious position?

    * * *
    Kitara, still in her lethargy, thrusts the Sword of Wonder, barely slicing the cursed one's arm. It doesn't even grimace; instead it backhands her across the jaw with a broken-off table leg. Her mandible breaks under the blow, and she grunts in pain as she spits blood.
    Regaining her balance she attempts a riposte slash, which is blocked by the foe's table leg. A counterattack of its own with its crusty claws slices across her throat.
    Gasping for breath, Kitara drops her sword and clutches at her throat. Blood spills down over her bodice. She looks up just in time to see the thrusted table leg's sharp point slam her right in the forehead, penetrating her skull and killing her upon scrambling the brain tissue. With a wet smack, she collapses to the floor.
    While the fair succubus battles her cursed one, Snag is engaged with his own foeman. Seeing Kitara fall, Snag bellows his rage and dodges the once-man's crude attacks; the gremlin zips between his legs. Spinning around quickly, he deeply cuts his dirk into his enemy's hamstrings. After an attempt to turn around, the cursed one falls to its knees, flailing at the gremlin wizard. Snag leaps onto its back, grabs its hair with one hand, and pulls back hard. Now, with the face completely exposed, Snag Bane-eye jams his dagger forcibly into its eye. With the cursed one crumpling into its death throes, the gremlin leaps clear, looking for new prey.
    Anubis draws her katars, and readies herself by firmly planting her feet on the floor and hunkers down a little bit to defend herself. She casts a quick glance at Kitara's fallen form and steels herself. She smiles as a humanoid comes toward her. "You're right Snag, as much as I would prefer not to engage in battle, I have to admit that once I'm in it, I actually kinda like it!"
    "That's the spirit," hisses Snag with a feral smile. "Now get some revenge for your fallen sister-kin."
    The cursed one attacks the dark succubus with tooth and nail, and she defends herself with her pair of punch daggers. Her foe proves to be quicker than she anticipated, however, and Anubis is unable to injure it. At one point, however, the cursed one rakes its grime-infested claws across her midsection. Looking down in concern Anubis sees, to her relief, that her breastplate is undamaged, as is her tender flesh beneath it.
    Using his man-catcher, Froggflipp fights his opponent, who avoids his ensnaring tines and strikes him with a chair leg. Fortunately, the toad-warrior's lamellar armor protects him from any damage. He continues to bob in the air from the rod's enchantment.
    Having already felled his opponent with missile fire, Toad-axe comes to Jade's assistance wielding his mighty bullova axe. The leprechaun and the toad-warrior, with sai and dirk, and mighty axe, grievously injure the cursed-one, but it fights on heedless of its wounds.
    Arryn takes a swing with his gladius, but his foe dodges and returns a blow to the aged archer. The blow isn't particularly forceful, however, and Arryn's lamellar easily absorbs its harmful effects.

    * * *
    Jugra had been warned about the dangers of portals by his kin, but being a warrior he didn't have a clear understanding of what exactly a portal entailed. Curiosity can get the better of anyone, even a taciturn dwarf, and so it was with Jugra when he prodded the swirling pool of mercury and then was inexorably drawn into it. One moment he was exploring a familiar, worked mine system - familiar, that is, except for the oddly glowing mercury pool - and the next he was somewhere else.
    This "somewhere else" turned out to be narrow, pitch black tunnel of natural creation. Fortunately his darksight allowed him to make his way, although nothing radiated the red warmth of life. Ahead, Jugra can hear whispered voices. He isn't sure at this distance, but the voices seem to be speaking in common. A minute later he hears the odd grunt and the occasional small rock falling into the tunnel somewhere ahead. Then there is a flash of light and a groan of pain.

    * * *
    "Who freakin' locks a door in the middle of nowhere?" Corian swears.
    Avian, positioning himself above the door way, shrugs.
    Hearing the noise behind him, the old human takes action immediately. Saving his magical strength for later in case he needs to cast spells, Corian drops the old magical staff that he bought as a teenager in exchange for his second dagger. "Yarggg!" he cries out and charges to defend himself and his companion.
    "You daft bastard," Avian mutters at Corian after hearing the magic-user's battle cry. "At least he did a smart thing by casting spells on our daggers!"
    The massive mastiff's dark coat shines in the sunlight, momentarily distracting the pair. Simultaneously, the effects of the hounds baying hit the wizard and minstrel. Panic courses through Corian's veins, and he looks around with darting eyes to find someplace to escape. Let the fairy die, he must save himself!
    Expecting trouble, Avian is fighting three battles now: his tiredness from the curse, the magical panic from the hound, and the beast itself. He flies in to do hit-and-run attacks, not wanting to give the dog a chance to bite him. Through force of will, he shrugs off the mastiff's attempt to cause dread in him.
    "This is what I like most: the blood pumping, adrenaline kicking in, not knowing that this might be the final breath of my life!" Smiling like a fruity fool and adding a scream of his own, the little one yells in excitement as the air rushes against his face and the anticipated satisfaction of plunging a magical dagger into the beast's hide!
    Fortunately for the fairy, Corian is pressed with his back against the door, with no place to escape, when the mastiff engages them. The old wizard fights to save himself, but hardly at his best ability.
    Avian does manage to drive his dagger into the hound's hide, but it proves hardier than anticipated and the beast escapes without any real damage. It is then that the fairy realizes the wizard's dweomer cast upon the pair's daggers has now expired - the blades are no longer enchanted to deal greater damage.

    * * *
    Moving to the cursed one who slew Kitara, Snag swings his staff at its knee caps. It parries with the table leg, but doing so leaves it upper body exposed. Snag slashes it across the abdomen with his dirk. A trail of red follows in the dirk's wake. This line wells up and then spills over to flow down the cursed one's belly. Snag and the once-man lock eyes for a second. Its hollow orbs bore into the gremlin conveying its hatred, but he smiles in return, the tiny ends of his needle teeth poking into his lips. He raises his eyebrows and looks at the flowing cut on the cursed one's abdomen, nods once slowly and smiles wider.
    The enchantment levitating him ended, Froggflipp drops to the ground, partially surprising his foe. He thrusts out with his man-catcher, almost ensnaring the foe, but leaving several bleeding slices across its arm and midsection.
    With Jade distracting the cursed one, Toad-axe cleaves it in twain with a great swing of his bullova. The two halves flop to the ground, twitching in nervous fits as the brain tries to figure out what has happened to the body.
    Anubis is sad to see the other succubus fall, but at least she died nobly - in battle! With a sense of revenge, she feels stronger, like Kitara was there with her, in her, to give her more power. Anubis lets out a yell, steps forward and attacks the creature with fury.
    At times, however, such blunt attacks are easily anticipated by one's foe, and this was one of those times. As Anubis steps forward to cut down her opponent, the cursed one dodges under her katar strikes and slashes her across the abdomen with its fouled claws, just under her breastplate. The wound nearly eviscerates her, and she collapses to the floor in shock, gushing blood.
    Arryn, with his gladius, manages a slight wound upon his foeman.
    Although the gremlin managed to avoid most of his cursed one's attacks, one connected with his chest, but was deflected by his leather armor. He was not, however, able to injure his own foe further.
    Seeing the succubus' opponent prepared to slay her, Toad-axe leaps to her defense. Perhaps overconfident, the toad-warrior receives a blow to the ribs - absorbed by his chainmail - instead of his anticipated killing of the cursed one.
    Froggflipp, however, finally manages to ensnare his enemy within his man-catcher, its tines tearing into the cursed one's abdomen.
    Jade moves to fight alongside Arryn against his wounded foe, hoping to eliminate another cursed one quickly. The opponent, however, fights with renewed strength and avoids all of their combined attacks, but is unable to penetrate either of their armor.
    Anubis, in an ever-spreading pool of her own blood, lies helpless as the fight rages around her, the light in her eyes slowly fading.
    "We must to do something fast," says Snag. "Anubis needs magical healing, and if she doesn't receive it fast she'll die along with her sword sister!"
    The individual or paired fighting breaks down into a general melee, where everyone on one side makes attacks of opportunity against members of the other side. The united Dragons of Justice and Head Hunters, especially with one cursed one trapped in Froggflipp's man-catcher, lay into their foes, gravely wounding each while avoiding harm themselves.
    And after another minute the fighting is over. The delvers collapse against each other, breathing heavily and tired, yet proud of their accomplishment. Snag runs to Anubis and kneels at her side. He lays his tiny hands upon the angry wound covering her lower midsection. The gremlin closes his eyes and mutters the words to the healing spell, and then warm pink energy washes out over the wounded succubus. The gash mostly closes and Anubis looks up at him with alert eyes.
    "That's all I can do right now. Can you heal yourself further? The rest of you," he says to the others, "check the bodies for anything of value, and let's figure out what to do with our fallen comrade-in-arms."

    * * *
    Despite the heat in body temperature from the exertion of defending himself against the black beast, Corian the veteran magic-user feels cold and shivers in fear as he tries to shake off the creature's compelling affect to run away. He continues to use both daggers to defend himself, backed against the doorway.
    "Buggers!" cries out Avian, showing his frustration at doing little damage to the furry hound. "A new plan is in order," he mutters as he swoops up and around. He thinks of what his father said when he became a minstrel: "'With great power, comes great responsibility.'"
    Upon uttering that quote, the fairy floats proud, closing his eyes and concentrating on a spellsong that will cause this creature to leave them alone! Chiming the lyrics, the word 'Fear' rings out. With the last word said, he feels the magical power flow from his small body. He opens his eyes to watch its effect.
    The old wizard, having defended himself to the best of his ability, is unable to counter all of the foe's attack and the mastiff finally latches onto its prey. It savagely bites into Corian's arm, shredding the flesh to the bone down the entire length. Without the fairy to help him fight, the old wizard was no match for the beast. One of the mastiff's claws, while slicing at the wizard, nicks the fairy. What would just be a scratch for anyone else is a near fatal wound to the tiny minstrel.
    To make matters worse, the fairy's spell has now taken effect, but in an unwanted way. Rather than driving off the mastiff, because the fairy was too weak, it is now magically compelled to kill the minuscule minstrel. With a deep throated growl, the hound leaps for the fairy.
    Corian, nearly passing out from shock and blood loss, stares at the beast in terror.

    * * *
    Jugra stops dead in his tracks, keenly listening to the noises, trying to ascertain whether they are indeed voices speaking the Common Tongue. After a moment, he checks behind him, and seeing nothing, presses forth towards the flash of light and the noises. If this is another part of the mine workings, he fears an explosion. Possibly goblins, or worse - dark elfs - could be trying to steal the mine's rich pickings by blasting their way into them! Mind you, this tunnel is of natural construction? Odd indeed, thinks the dwarf.
    Gripping his war hammer with both rough hands, Jugra gathers his wits and moves quickly forward, ready for what may lie ahead. His sax dagger hangs at the ready in his belt loop. Should combat await him, he will be prepared. If aid is required, he will give it, unless he finds dark kindred or goblinfolk, in which case, his war hammer will readily provide all the aid required.
    So, gathering all his strength and speed, Jugra heads for the action ahead.

    * * *
    The familiar cold draft of the cavern stills Anemos's thoughts for a moment as he realizes he is at the end of the rope, but he is suddenly stirred as realizes the draft carries with it something more than a slight breeze. ZZZCHOTTT! A quick flash of a magical attack comes from above as Anemos catches the glimpse of two creatures descending through the air towards him.
    Anemos angers over the fact that he cannot draw a weapon at this point, but smirks with a glint in his eye knowing that the shadows and the walls he clings to upon this rope are to his advantage. There's no place like home, Anemos thinks to himself as he uses his dark elfin ability of mirage to mask himself as part of the stone wall he hugs to. Anemos figures that if he can't be seen then the better off he is. After all, if this illusion doesn't hold up there's always the possibility that things can become a bit darker still.

    The flying humanoids pull off their dive, confused. One moment the isolated figure was alone on the cliff wall, ripe for the picking, and the next second it was gone. No matter, three other figures await at the top of the cliff who will serve just as well as food. And one of the figures, she who had injured one of them with cursed light, would pay dearly for her attack.

    The Skull King and goblin, seeing the rising foes, drop the rope and grab weapons to defend themselves.
    The heavy rope, coiling and looping as it falls, crashes down upon the dark elf, and then continues past him to the cavern's floor below. Anemos, clutching at the cliff face, nearly loses his grip on the stony surface when the rope hits him, but holds on. Beneath him there is a loud din as the hundred feet of rope falls to the floor.
    Nightsong pulls out her chakram and her kukri. Looking quickly to see if she can locate the one she had injured, she throws her chakram. Not waiting to see if it hits she jumps towards the nearest one, ready to attack with her kukri.
    The chakram, missing its mark, clatters against the far wall of the cavern, and then falls to the floor far below.
    The winged stone-like humanoids close with the three adventurers on the cliff top, attacking with tooth and nail, albeit tooth and nail made of rock. Darkbane fights with dirk and javelin, while the goblin mage defends with dirk alone. Nightsong battles with her kukri.
    I wonder how the dark elf is doing. Hopefully he is okay, but I had better wait until the fight is over to see if he is still hanging around, Nightsong thinks to herself. These creatures seem like I should know what they are. I wonder if they were sent by the same people who sent Kanara, or if these are just native to the caves. She ducks as one of the creatures flies at her, bringing her back to the here and now.
    Neither the stony beasts, not the three Nightwalkers are able to wound each other. The battle rages on.

    * * *
    Just as Jugra emerges into the cavern, an object falls from above to hit the cavern floor mere feet from him. A quick glimpse shows it is a rope. He can almost see a commotion at the cliff top, far above, followed by the sound of fighting there. Perhaps only fifty feet overhead, a third of the cliff's height, he notes some sort of anomaly in the heat pattern of the cliff face, but he is unsure what it is. While the cliff face shows cool blue to his darksight, something in one section indicates flickers of red heat around its edges.
    Just then, something metallic clangs to the ground near his as well - a chakram. The dwarf raises an eyebrow in thought.

    * * *

    "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" Avian curses at himself, hovering quickly to avoid the black beast's attack. He moves very wobbly, like a drunken goblin leaving a tavern. Think, you pink-haired flying minstrel, he chastises himself. Pondering the current situation, he ignores the pain of his recent injury. When this doesn't work he focuses his attention over at his companion. Looking down at the snarling hound, he gets some satisfaction at the mastiff's anger of not being able to touch him as he leads it away from the wizard.
    Tears streaming out of his eyes from the rip of flesh and muscle, this is the worst damage ever done to Corian in his long life. With his good hand he raises the ancient magical staff at the dog, as it viciously tries to attack the fairy. Feebly gibbering the words of an advanced Take That, You Fiend, the spell fires, leaving him as weak in mind as body.
    The mastiff howls in pain and fury at the spell's sting, but continues to do everything possible to leap up at the fairy just out of reach.
    Avian watches closely at Corian casting the spell. "Magic! I must use what magic I have as well!" Concentrating hard, he mumbles out the spellsong Heroes. He cries out loud, feeling the hot sensation of magic flowing into his small frame of a body. Hopefully this will give him the power he needs to defeat his foe and return to Karthaki, (sigh) a failure.
    Taking a risk, he plunges at the mastiff, while trying to dodge its own attacks at him. He intends to aim for the softest part of the animal's features: eyes, nose and the hind legs. With a look of uncertainty, he raises his toy-sized daggers and flies in to attack!
    Avoiding the mastiff's initial snap, he buries one bank in the hound's flank. It turns quickly to bite at him again, and he stabs for its face. Missing, his thrust glides off of its thick, hairy coat doing no damage.
    Flittering around the mastiff's savagely snarling maw, he slices ineffectively at it, until, with surprise he sees the hound collapse to the ground, thrashing about in its death throes. Behind the mastiff stands Corian, bloody dirk in hand, its magical glow of detecting evil fading away. The wizard falls to his knees, exhausted and grievously wounded.

    * * *
    Darkbane, with dirk and javelin, continues to fight against the stony foemen.
    Taking aim, the goblin mage Blackfang speaks the words of power and unleashes a bolt of psychic energy - "Take that, you fiend!" The blast flashes through the darkness, once again illuminating the cavern in a lightning-like strobe, and strikes the creature, nearly killing it.
    Nightsong looks around and decides that they are not going to succeed if they just fight straight up. She attempts to dodge the creatures' attacks and injure them in a 'hit and run' strike. "We need to get this over with quickly, so we can see if the dark elf is alright," she says.
    She dodges another attack from the flying creatures, rolling on the ground to stand up behind one of the creatures. Now facing the other way she thinks she sees something beyond the creatures, but is not sure what it is yet. She slashes at her foe, hoping that she will do more damage to it this time, but the blade glances off of the stony hide. "Hold on Anemos. Hopefully we will be down to get you soon," whispers Nightsong over the edge.

    * * *
    The foe vanquished, the surviving adventurers turn their attention to the fallen succubus Kitara.
    "Let's attend to our fallen comrade, and also search this room," says the diminutive gremlin sorcerer. "I'll stand guard here to make sure we aren't surprised while we do this."
    The two toad-warriors, to no one's surprise move to Kitara's body to see if she bears anything of note. Searching her body for items that may assist the rest of them in completing their mission, the following items are turned up: 20 gold pieces, 33 mithril pieces, the Sword of Wonder, a katar, a pair of bagh nakh (tiger claws), a backpack, four torches, thirty feet of hemp rope, a small pearl worth 140 gold pieces, and a small piece of turquoise valued at 50 gold pieces. The two bachtrian tribesmen move the items into a pile on the floor of the great room.

    The succubus' body begins to smolder, oily smoke rising off of it. The thickness of the smoke waxes, and as it does so, the smell of brimstone pervades the area. Then, in a brilliant flash, Kitara's body is gone, with nothing left behind but the stench of lingering sulfur and a putrid smear on the floor.
    "Yes, well that reminds us, that despite her good nature, Kitara was a creature of the Seven Hells," says Snag.
    Briefly, everyone eyes Anubis, but uncomfortable viewing her in this light, they return to their tasks.
    Arryn looks at Snag. "Good nature? I thought she was kind of an uptight, snobby, prude who wanted to be something else."
    "I wouldn't have taken you for someone to speak ill of the dead," replies the gremlin. "Jolly good. There's hope for you yet, old man."

    On the floor, near Snag as he keeps watch, Anubis places her hands upon her body, touching herself in the places that need attention, suffusing her with a warm pink glow which makes her feel better. "All healed," she purrs.

    Jade and Arryn search the chamber for anything noteworthy. They observe the grand spiral stair leading up to the second story, the now-open egress onto the mansion's back porch, and the set of plain wood panel double doors leading out of the room.
    The odd, makeshift home that the cursed pack had created for itself contains a few items that did not get destroyed. The only fragile item surviving is a small porcelain statue of a naked woman (30 gold pieces). The more sturdy items include three uncut rubies (100 gold pieces each), an ornate gold necklace (100 gold pieces), an obsidian bracer (20 gold pieces), six silver goblets (10 gold pieces each), a silver bracelet (10 gold pieces), a gold ring (5 gold pieces), a silver ring (3 gold pieces), an obsidian ring (3 gold pieces), a set of blue wool robes trimmed in gold, a damaged chain shirt, a suit of studded leather armor, and loose coins totaling 22 mithril pieces, 168 gold pieces, 1,243 silver pieces, and 842 copper pieces.

    "Let's regroup," says Snag, "sort through all of this stuff to see if anything is worth taking, and then make for either the stairs or the doors."
    "Well, you guys do that. I will watch the doors to make sure that nothing comes through," Arryn says to the party. Hoping he can wedge the doors closed somehow, looking at them closer he decides that he can not block them in any way.
    Jade walks over to the bottom of the stairs and looks up. "I am going to start looking for traps or secret doors on the staircase." Searching the low level of the stairs reveals naught.

    * * *
    Peering up into the darkness above, Jugra sees another spell blast light up the cavern. He is sure that combat is occurring up amongst the dark reaches of the cavern, and is very cautious. Picking up the chakram, he hides it in his pack, and begins to wind his cranequin. He then applies a dose of curare poison onto as many quarrels as he can. Judging the heat defect to be around fifty feet above him, he is confident that the range of his cranequin is sufficient to be able to get a shot off if necessary.
    Jugra then quickly gathers-up the rope, roughly noting how much length there is, and throws it across his broad shoulders along with his own rope, checking both ends for signs of cutting, knots, fraying or hooks. He looks above again to consider the best plan, stroking the hairs on his chin in thought, a wry smile on his ruddy face. He takes a swig from his hip flask and hides it beneath his furs.
    Being unable to fly or work magic, he cannot get up there to join-in, but he is keen to discover what is actually occurring, and what the heat pattern anomaly is. Assuming combat is in full swing, he decides that sooner or later, someone, or something, will come crashing to the cavern floor. So, wishing to learn more before rushing into a potentially deadly situation, he decides to wait in the shadows for a few minutes more to see what occurs, making sure he cannot be seen from above.
    Finally, he wonders to himself, Where the hell am I?!

    No, this is not copyrighted, I checked
    Cyolos Beyblade, Holy Hunter of Evil, and a Blessed Healer of Brell

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2003
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    700

    Default Re: True FRPG story!

    i think you proved that posts do not have a word limit

    i'll read in the mornign while i wait for servers to come up *laughs*
    Anerak: 69 Cleric
    Lynnara Starspinner: 70 Bard
    Rainyn Menn: 59 Necro
    Lilmanya Lotzagutz: 58 Magi
    Shirokishi Al'Rhianan: 54 Paladin

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Dec 2003
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    1,231

    Default Re: True FRPG story!

    first question is... do you ACTUALLY expect me to read that?

    and...

    second question is... WTF is a FRPG?
    With this post..I am one post closer to Jarvis's post count!
    The Gnome's Gear


  4. #4
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    Jun 2003
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    372

    Default Re: True FRPG story!

    Tuggles said in post #3 :
    first question is... do you ACTUALLY expect me to read that?

    and...

    second question is... WTF is a FRPG?
    I don't expect anyone to really read it unless they've played D&D or T&T, really. And an FRPG is a Fantasy Role Playing Game.
    Cyolos Beyblade, Holy Hunter of Evil, and a Blessed Healer of Brell

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2004
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    772

    Default Re: True FRPG story!

    *gasp* There are other kinds?

    /em faints
    Faeryln V'Ruuktaal
    Former Regent Cleric of Innoruuk
    69th Circle of Hate
    (Retired)



  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jun 2005
    Posts
    40

    Default Re: True FRPG story!

    Rofl, I read war & peace faster than I read that. ;-) please try indent.....it helps .
    Lender Adverto
    ~Starting fresh~

    *I am nobody*
    >Nobody is perfect<
    Therefore....
    -I am perfect-

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