12th of Davor, 1329 Avard: Ta'Crae Sandrider and Kaisumi Setatoro left the ruins of Tymerell frustrated and defeated. The Deepsmiths -- the only inhabitants that remained of the ancient city of Tymerell -- had walled up most of the sewers that had once given access to the ruins. With the ruins walled up and even trapped by the Deepsmiths, the two Gideon Enterprises special operatives had literally hit a dead end.
Some years before, another group of Gideon Enterprises operatives had been investigating an ogran agent in Rakore known only by the name Rex, and his ogran title of 'doom' (something akin to a baron). Doom Rex had hired a group of workers out of Takanal and disappeared with them somewhere. The operatives discovered that Doom Rex had used the workers as slave labor to open up some ruins no one else had even known existed north of Takanal. By the time the GE operatives had made it through the ruins of Tymerell, and bypassed the troll Grythe at great cost to themselves, they were too late. Doom Rex made off with contents of the entire treasury of Tymerell.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi had been sent back to the ruins. One of the council members of Tymerell had been a silver dragon in elven form, and questions had arisen about the location of the dragon's hoard. The original operatives had managed to decipher the frescoes in the dragon's quarters, still preserved beneath the pyroclastic flow that had buried Tymerell and killed the dragon. The frescoes had indicated that the dragon's hoard was a day's flight away for the dragon, to the west, on Hammer Isle. Hammer Isle had been poured over several times, with no treasure found, and thus Garan Rubynose -- their boss -- had sent them back to Tymerell to examine the frescoes for fresh clues.
Garan Rubynose's worst fear was that Doom Rex had already taken the dragon's treasure hoard. If he had, where had all that money gone, from both the ruins of Tymerell, and the dragon's hoard? Was the doom hiring mercenary armies? Funding the Ogre Nations? Destabilizing the economy?
Ta'Crae -- a tall, lean desert elf with a massive bow -- and Kaisumi -- a half elf with green hair and almost invisible gills -- returned to Takanal unsure of their next step. There, they heard rumors that a tall man in plate mail (in the mid-summer heat!) and a slight elven figure had both asked about the old salt mines that had once supplied Tymerell with its riches.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi both quickly surmised that the ancient salt mines might hold clues to another entrance into Tymerell. Worse, the description of the two characters that had been searching for the salt mines matched the description of the doom and his close-combat aid, a fully aquatic elven cleric and sorceror.
The two set out for the salt mines immediately, hoping that the vague directions to a lost city would be enough.
* * *
Rell was a small, wiry man in his mid twenties with a head already bald with all the knowledge he had soaked up over the years. The priest of a long dead goddess was seeking the ruins of Tymerell, for the remains of the silver dragon that had protected the city were perhaps still there, and Rell wanted the silver scales of the dragon to serve as the cover for a holy book he was constructing to his goddess.
Unfortunately for Rell, he had no idea where the ruins actually were, and neither did the occupants of Takanal. Grythe the troll was still very much alive, and kept any would-be adventurers from finding the ruins. As well, the Deepsmiths hated outsiders intruding on them, and had camouflaged what little remnants of the city could be found. Rumors abounded, but nothing concrete was there in Takanal about Tymerell.
There was talk of two figures that had been through earlier that day. They had made a stop at the quarry on the north side of town, and told the foreman there some wild tale about Grunden having been recently worked. The locals explained that Grunden had been the real source of wealth for Tymerell, and the ancient town's salt mines had been worked on and off for centuries before Tymerell.
Rell hoped that the salt mines -- which should be perfectly preserved -- would give him clues to the location of Tymerell, and thus put him one step closer to a suitable cover for a holy book.
Asking around, he found a guide willing to take him up to the supposed location of the old town, although no one was sure anymore where Grunden had been.
After wandering about for a day or two, Rell and his guide had seen an area of the mountain already cleared of lumber in a fan-shaped pattern that led to a cave into the mountain. Supposing it to be Grunden -- although the work was too recent -- Rell and the guide, a man by the name of Traulis, worked their way down the mountain to the clearing.
The clearing was a war zone. Bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires, inside of crude log cabins. Someone had tried to bury a few of the bodies, and given up on the hard ground of the mountainside. A more recent bonfire had tried to burn the rest of the bodies, but it had failed miserably.
Even as Rell wondered at what had happend but scant weeks ago, Traulis was shot in the back, and then in the head. Rell had only a moment to stare in horror, before instinctively protecting himself by calling up a mountainside fog to hide him from the unseen assailant. He then retreated as best he could, towards the mine entrance around which the town had been based. Unfortunately, the mine's entrance had been collapsed.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi observed this from the cliff-side above, not quite understanding what was going on, but they did understand murder. The two quickly descended into the clearing, hoping to catch some sign of the unseen sniper, and figure out who else had an interest in the old salt mines.
Rell let the winds blow away the mists, and called out to his goddess, Agincoth, to show him all heat signatures within the area. The fires were of course inert, but of the sniper... He saw two, well-camouflaged and hidden, at the base of the cliff, but not quite from the direction of the sniper.
Allies? Or enemies?
After a brief exchange of tense words, the sniper took another shot at Rell with what must have been a longbow, and only his mithril chain saved his life. The other two scrambled to find the sniper, while taking cover at the same time. Ta'Crae sent his falcon up into the air with a flask of alchemists' fire, and had the bird continue circling until he could identify a target.
Several more shots were fired by the unseen sniper, and the three triangulated the position of the sniper. Ta'Crae called for his falcon, Phoenix, to dive-bomb the indicated area. The alchemists' fire exploded against the edge of the clearing even as the falcon pulled up and out, and Kaisumi quickly overtook the position from the flank.
There was a shadow on the tree where the sniper had obviously been, and where his body had shielded the tree from the brief conflaguration of fire -- but of the sniper, there was no sign.
The three pulled back to the collapsed cave entrance, and while wary of one another, agreed that they had a more common foe.
The sniper, though, seemed to have fled. Kaisumi kept watch for the sniper, while Rell, with Ta'Crae's assistance, began dragging all of the bodies together, including that of Rell's guide, and gathering enough deadwood to start a fire. Ta'Crae threw several flasks of oil on the funeral pyre while Rell said appealing words to the gods.
Ta'Crae's falcon dive-bombed the funeral pyre with a flask of alchemists' fire, and the ensuing fireball burned off all of Rell's eyebrows, making him truly bald from the neck up.
Despite the loss of his eyebrows, Rell took a bit of heart from the two silent warriors.
The smoke and the smell of burning flesh, coupled with the sun setting, their unknown sniper, and the possibility of the smoke drawing enemies to them, forced them to withdraw. Rell, an expert in topographical studies, geology, engineering, and history, led Ta'Crae and Kaisumi back up the cliff-side from which they had first observed the young priest. The two Gideon Enterprises operatives had passed within ten feet of a concealed airway into the salt mines without even realizing it, and Rell had surmised their existance.
The three set a mistrustful watch that summer night, as Maroth's red light began to bathe them all in its red light. Within marks, though, they were all alert.
A huge bird -- with wings each nearly forty feet in length -- fluttered its wings to a stand-still near the funeraly pyre. Powerful, hunched-over figures dropped from lines along its saddle, and all three knew that orcs had arrived. The roc-hawke the orcs used as a mount cried out, once, its powerful voice sending even the small Phoenix cowering.
Rell quickly drew a rope from his pack, and, with a bit of prayer-casting, had one end of the rope leap over the edge and down into the air shaft that would lead them all further into the mines.
Kaisumi went first, and his footsteps found only small bones that crunched underfoot. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he immediately feared the undead. Instead of undead, though, there was only the strange U-shaped bend in the tunnel -- which caught rain-water and creatures, and prevented them from getting much further into the mines.
The other two also went down into the U-shaped catch, and Rell protected them from sight by strengthening the darkness of the tunnel's entrance.
The air-shaft dropped down into the darkness, further than the light from Rell's rod could reach. While there was no light -- sounds reached them.
* * *
The Agent of the Bat was not so strong as he might have wished. A moment later, his eyes rolled up into his head, and he collapsed. The wight's claws had done more damage than either of them could have surmised.
Zap slumped against a wall, exhausted.
It took him several moments to realize, in the dim light of the hooded lantern, that Xennith had fallen unmoving onto the salt-rock floor.
The Wolf of Rahne, with a tremendous effort of will, regained his feet, and stumbled over to his friend. Xennith was breathing, but even the slight pressure of Zap's gauntleted hand on his chest was enough to stop his breathing. The dark elf was weak beyond Zap's comprehension. He thought it might be a combination of the poison, and the wight's attack, but he couldn't be sure.
Unseen by Zap, Ta'Crae crouched in the shadows, observing. Behind him, Rell slid down the rope through the air shaft, and the ranger quickly motioned him out of sight of the big man in plate. The man in plate picked up a dark elf, and slung him over his shoulder, before moving off.
The dark elf didn't fit the description of the Doom's aquatic-elf ally, but Ta'Crae didn't want to take any chances.
Kaisumi brought up the rear, and dropped down into the mines. The half-elf's gills were instantly dry from the dessicated air in the mines, but he judged he would survive.
Zap moved off down the tunnel, Xennith's hooded lantern guiding the way further into the mines, with the dark elf over one shoulder. Behind him, unseen and unheard, the two Gideon Enterprises operatives and the priest of Agincoth walked into the switchyard, and began examining the bodies of the odd zombies.
It was obvious from the way the bodies were positions, what had happened. Ta'Crae reconstructed the battle very easily, but he couldn't be sure whether the figure in armor was the Doom, or not, but he began to have his doubts. Rell examined the bodies with interest, and began making annotations in his books.
Kaisumi explored a side passage, but stopped when he ran out of light. Rell, perhaps sensing he was needed, followed the half-elf, and discovered in a side-passage a small temple to Curiss -- the God of the Lost. The temple could only seat perhaps one-hundred, and there were the bodies of a number of elder members of their species gathered around the base of the broken statue. Rell surmised that the creatures had been drawn to the statue in death, for Curiss had become the God of the Dead but five centuries earlier.
As he walked deeper into the temple, he could feel the desecration of the temple, and see how its pews and statues and frescoes had been raped for their salt. The priest called out to Agincoth, and asked that the temple be re-consecrated, to undo whatever vile rights had been done there. The marks of acid still burned in the broken statue, as though someone had desecrated the temple with an unholy water.
There was little left for the three to do, from there, but follow the armored figure deeper into the tunnels...
* * *
Zap had reached a massive intersection, where no less than three great tunnels, each with five sets of rails, met in a huge switch yard underground. The raw rock-salt of the caves had been hollowed out, and the ceiling was lost in the shadows above.
The warrior saw several empty carts -- some ancient and decrepid beyond history -- and others obviously new and fresh. Hanging the hooded lantern from the front of the cart and ever watchful for more undead, Zap gently placed Xennith in the cart. The dark elf was still breathing, but only just.
Pushing the cart along a fresher set of wooden tracks, Zap went forward through the huge intersection, wondering how he was going to get out of the ancient mines.
* * *
Ta'Crae took the lead, with his desert elven eyes easily piercing the darkness with the aid of Rell's illuminated rod, the rod still in place on the priests pack. Kaisumi took up the rear, watching behind them, as well as remaining available to help Ta'Crae.
The two operatives had said hardly a word to one another, and Rell thought the silence someone eerie -- and also welcome. None of the three of them made much noise as they proceeded through the mines, each on the look-out for more zombies, and each lost within his own thoughts.
Up ahead, though, could be heard the sounds of battle.
* * *
Zap decapitated the last of the four zombies that had attacked him, and then moved to check on Xennith. As he moved out of the light of the hooded lanter, he could see a silvery light from the direction he had come from. He quickly closed the lantern's hood, and knelt down, wondering if it was undead, or if the sniper from outside the caves had found him -- or worse, the Doom was there to kill them both.
He heard an arrow streak through the air, and behind him a flask of alchemists' fire exploded against the wall and floor, gushing into a strangely-colored green flame as it burned with the contents of the salt mine.
"Stop shooting!" someone griped, even as Zap rushed forward to engage his attackers.
A desert elf lined up another shot with his massive longbow, even as a slight and wiry man rushed up out of the shadows, a brief disruption of the silvery ball from a third figure Zap's only warning.
Unsure of anything anymore, Zap quickly battered aside the strange man's weapons, and leapt on top of him, pinning him to the floor. Sure that none had seen Xennith's form in the cart, and with the light from the alchemists' green fire already dying, Zap called for a truce of sorts.
With his dagger against the half-elf's throat, he ordered them to stop following him, even as the one with the light somehow snapped the bowstring of the desert elf. Wasting no time, Zap turned his back on them all after releasing the half-elf, and quickly pushed his cart off into the darkness.
Not waiting for anything, his legs, though weakened from the poison, managed to get the cart up to a considerable speed. Zap carefully leapt in, and rode the cart as it sped ahead and through the tunnels, blind in the darkness.
* * *
Rell, frustrated with his over-protective, over-zealous, and unwanted guardians, lombasted them for their attack. Oddly enough, it served as something of a wake-up call for the two of them, and they began to open up somewhat.
The three of them pressed on, easily following the one rail that Zap had used. Instead of silence, though, they spoke softly with one another, talking, and exchanging information. Two were operatives of Gideon Enterprises, and one was a priest of a dead goddess. The conversation was... interesting.
The rail they were following hit a switch, and then trailed off to the right. The corridor narrowed to such an extent that there was only room for the one rail. Before they had gone fifty feet down the smaller rail, there was a deep rumbling in the earth, and salt-dust drifted down from the ceiling.
Bracing themselves against the wall, they wondered if it was an earthquake -- while Rell wondered if the volcano that destroyed Tymerell was reawakening.
The corridor condinued around a bend, and as soon as Ta'Crae rounded the bend, there was a *TWANG!* as a heavy crossbow bolt was released.
The bolt glanced off of the desert elf's dwarven-crafted, mithril chainmail, and embedded itself into the solid salt rock midway down its shaft.
The armored warrior sat on the floor with his back against a wall, and the remains of his cart tipped over, its belly to the three. Rell quickly stepped forward, arms out, trying to mediate some sort of peace.
He and Kaisumi noticed the lone boot almost trapped under the remains of the cart, from where it had flung itself off the rail. The boot was small, and...
Words were exchanged. Zap was not the Doom. Rell rendered what aid he could to the fallen individual, despite Zap's protests, even as Zap wondered if the three were Marksmen, or agents of the Doom.
They eventually sorted things out enough for a cease-fire, much to Rell's relief.
The priest of Agincoth was genuinely puzzled by the dark elf's condition, and wanted to get him out of the salt mines immediately.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi convinced the warrior to come with them back the way they had come, for they could easily climb up out of the salt mines through the air vents -- vents that Zap had not even noticed in his time underground.
'No one every looks up.'
Going back the way they came, they realized that they were trapped. It had not been an earthquake or a volcano coming to life, but a cave-in. They were being corralled, and trapped.
With not other direction to go, but back, they proceeded down the tunnel. Zap carried Xennith in both his arms, afraid then to put him over his shoulder for fear the pressure would kill the dark elf.
They arrived at an intersection, where the rails split. Zap always went left -- while Ta'Crae and Kaisumi always went right -- when faced with an unknown passage. While they debated left versus right, Rell noticed something glowing red in the darkness.
The odd redness was glowing from within one of the support beams along the wall, at roughly head-height. The glow intensified enough to give the priest of Agincoth a bad supposition, and a moment later, as the glow burned through the wood in the form of a rune, he yelled at the others to run. They ran off to the right, understanding that something terrible was about to happen.
Rell muttered to himself about 'acid' as he ran, as behind them acid sprayed into the corridor, burning through the supports, and collapsing that portion of the tunnel.
Someone wanted any who entered the salt mines, dead.
Unfortunately, they came to a dead end.
The rock salt had run out, and a mixture of granite and limestone met in the hollowed cave. They were trapped.
Rell knelt down, asking his goddess if there was a secret door hidden away. His prayer was answered by one of her lesser minions: there was no hidden doorway. They were truly trapped.
It was then that Rell realized he had asked the wrong question. Ta'Crae and Kaisumi were exploring the end of the tunnel with their hands, starting from opposite ends, but Rell went straight ahead, to where the rails almost ended in rock.
There, his questing fingers brushed aside rocks small and medium. Zap, perhaps sensing something, put Xennith down gently, and helped the small priest.
Together, they exposed a partially blocked, four-foot-tall brace. The brace held up the weight of the rock above it, and opened up into a natural-looking tunnel. The original miners had run out of rock salt, even as they had found a natural cave. Rather than let the humidity of the cave harm the rock salt, they had sealed up the cave -- but not so well that they could not escape, if there was a cave-in. Rell had discovered one of the miners' many bolt-holes.
Kiasumi was over-joyed, for his gills had dried so much that they had turned brittle and bloody.
The tunnel was too small for Zap to carry Xennith, so he let the others go ahead, even as he fashioned a rope around Xennith's shoulders, and then tied the rope to his own neck. He would pull Xennith down the tunnel by that rope, even if it choked him.
Kaisumi, just ahead of Zap in the tunnel, turned back around to make sure the fighter was following him. He saw the beam of the escape tunnel slide down beneath the weight of the rock above, falling down on the middle of the rope. Xennith was on the other side of the massive beam, separated from Zap by that beam, and the rock above it.
The trap had been silent, and well-prepared. Kaisumi cut Zap free from the rope even as a rune on the beam began to glow through. Zap was almost carried out of the tunnel, calling out after Xennith. It was all Kaisumi could do to keep the big warrior from trying to use his sword and eating dagger to try cutting through the rock or the beam to get at the dark elf.
Never had either operative of Gideon Enterprises seen anyone exhibit such loyalty to a dark elf, and their respect for the big warrior, whomever he was, went up a notch.
Rell mulled things over, in his mind, even as his nose and throat enjoyed the sudden humidity. The cave was somewhat chilly, but the priest of Agincoth didn't even noticed, lost in thought as he was. Something else had to be elsewhere in the salt mines, for someone to booby-trap them so. The glyphs and runes were clerical in nature, and he thought he recognized the type of writing as that of Olorin's. It was Olorin's acid that had destroyed the mines, and thus a priest of Olorin had done the damage. He immediately put the information in one of his books, thinking things over, even as Kaisumi and Ta'Crae moved forward to investigate their cave.
It was a dead end, with the way into the salt mines collapsed completely due to the acid. The two operatives decided that there was a good a place to rest, as any.
Zap, heavy of heart, exhausted, and out of options, fell into a fitful sleep.
* * *
Rell's keen mind analyzed the make of the clothing Zap wore, determined the origin of the leathers Kaisumi used for his boots, and even knew the wood used in Ta'Crae's greatbow. His insatiable apetite for knowledge sifted through the information at his disposal, and through the words of the conversations he had overheard.
His spellbook was written in eighteen languages, and his mind changed from language to language, depending on which was needed for whatever concept and whichever challenge. And yet, despite his vast intellect, he keenly felt the emotions of wisdom, hunger, longs hours without sleep, and fleeting fear.
The priest of Agincoth curled up, finally, and went to sleep thinking of his goddess, and all the knowledge he gained for her, before obvlivion took him.
* * *
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi, with the experience of long months working together, alternated the watch. The soft silver light from the priest's rod provided them with plenty of illumination, and let them watch the entrance into their dead-end of a cave.
Zap and Rell slept for a considerable time, before waking.
The party had devolved into three groups -- Rell by himself, Zap by himself, and Ta'Crae and Kaisumi working together in unison, as a team. Despite the devolvement, the four were bound together by chance and circumstances, and they needed to find a way out of the caves.
While they explored passages, dead ends, and crawl-spaces in an attempt to escape the caves, they also talked.
They learned from Zap that the Doom wanted him killed, for killing the Doom's wife. They learned that the Doom was responsible for reopening the salt mines, for the orcs on roc-hawkes, and for several other crimes. The Wolf of Rahne very carefully never mentioned the Bat, or that man's involvement in the current crisis.
Rell briefly described his background, and his origins in the Empire of Vridara -- and how when he began to question the forbidden arts of the arcane, he was sent in exile to the distant Star's End monastery. The priest also described how he sought scales from the silver dragon of Tymerell to complete his holy book to Agincoth -- who, obviously, was not a dead goddess.
Kaisumi and Ta'Crae explained how they worked for Gideon Enterprises, and had been agents together for close to a year. Though Kaisumi came from the deep oceans, and Ta'Crae came from the high desert, the two worked well together as a team. Both were capeable of close-in fighting, both were capeable of distance shots, and both were skilled in their respective environments.
Neither were skilled at caving.
At one point, Zap, the thickest-bodied of the four, had to remove his armor and exhale, with Ta'Crae pulling on a rope, and Kaisumi pushing from behind, in order to squeeze him through one section of cave. Barely a mark later, they had to do it again to come back, having done all that only to find the cave dove into an underground river. Kaisumi explored it, and indicated there was no discernable air pocket the others could have used before passing out from oxygen deprivation.
They climbed several near-vertical 'chimneys', and had to use their ropes a number of times to lower themselves through holes in the limestone upthrust, or through massive cracks in the granite of the old mountain.
A sort of general trust developed, but Zap, having been burned once too often by the conspiracies, stoicly kept his distance.
Ta'Crae, Kaisumi, and Rell all three noticed that for all Zap's supposed size and apparent power, he was a relatively weak man, and little stronger than Kaisumi or Rell. Zap sweated through the work, though, determined to see things through to the end.
Several times, they passed by underground falls that roared in their ears, or heard underground rivers burbling past.
At one large cavern, complete with a large column where a stalagmite and a stalagtite had grown together, they paused. Ta'Crae, in the lead, had spotted a cave mantle -- sometimes called dark mantles, for the thick, black aerosol they could throw out that was as thick as a spell of darkness.
Ta'Crae indicated the creature, hanging from the ceiling some forty feet away in the cavern. "Where there is one, there may be many."
Rell took a deep breath, and began mumbling a prayer in nine languages, calling to Agincoth. The theories he had seen indicated that the Void was cold -- as cold as anything could possibly be -- and that only the boundaries were hot. Rell called to Agincoth, asked her to part the boundary. He used the floor of the cave as a medium for a transplanery link, bridging the gap between evocation and conjuration, drawing up from the very floor itself cold.
It formed slowly, at first, and then more and more rapidly. A mist appeared, and then frost, and then a thick, black ice began to rise as Rell's hands motioned, drawing it up from the Void, and somewhere in between. Twin columns of ice, each perhaps as thick as a man's forearms, rose, building, until each was perhaps two feet tall. Then the gap between them formed more ice, and as the cold spread, the ice grew arms and the general features of some humanoid-like thing, only two feet in height.
In the dim light from Rell's silvery rod, the creature was made of the clearest ice, reflecting the light of the rod very oddly. It turned its head to look up at Rell.
Ta'Crae shivered from more than the cold. The creature the priest had summoned was not natural.
Rell motioned the creature out into the cave, and it broke its icy seal with the cavern's floor, and slowly ambled off, half walking, and half using its abnormally long arms to shuffle it along in a chimp-like gate.
The ice creature move out into the darkness of the cavern, its clear-ice carapace barely reflecting the light. Ta'Crae guided Rell's directions. "A little left. More left. Back to the right just a hair. Forward."
The cave mantle, reacting to the movement, dropped from its ceiling perch. The octopus-like creature spread its arms wide, the leathery skin between its arms letting it glide perfectly onto its target in a hard hit. There was a crunch as the ice creature was encapsulated completely by the cave mantle's arms and skin, and then the cave mantle sprang back.
The ice creature was destroyed, but its cold had been so dangerous and so deep from the Void that the cave mantle was frost-bitten and damaged.
Ta'Crae fired an arrow from his greatbow, pinning the cave mantle to the column of rock, and ending its half-frozen memory.
Kaisumi asked, "Did you learn that at the mages' academy?"
"No, actually, I learned that in a book of prophecies..." Something about the Gahle liSear... Rell shook off the memory, wondering at its portents. A feeling of icy dread had come over the young priest, as though he had almost shared a secret of the Goddess of Knowledge that no mortal man was meant to know.
They continued on through the cavern, into another cave. The going was, again, long and arduous, as they dropped down through two more chimneys, and had to climb through a long tunnel of cold water before getting lost once more.
Only their continual marks with chalk on the walls ensured they did not get completely lost.
In one cavern, a small beach surrounded a pool of water perhaps a hundred feet across. A waterfall roared into the pool, drowning out all noise. The beach ended at a spot where it was possible to travel along the water path up above. As the four moved out along that beach, Kaisumi, water-lover that he was, couldn't resist the opportunity to explore the pool.
Rell, stopped the half-elf from jumping in, and pulled a copper piece from his purse. With a quick prayer to Agincoth for light, the coin glowed with silver radiance, and the priest offered it to the half-elf.
Kaisumi grinned his thanks, and leapt into the pool to explore it, the coin in his hand illuminating the depths.
The three of them watched for a moment, as the half-elf gracefully swam half-way down to the bottom of the pool, and stopped.
Ta'Crae noticed in the dim light from Rell's rod something floating on the surface of the water, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
He relaxed, and then chuckled, as he saw that it was a turd, floating on the surface of the water. As the turd floated closer, though, he realized that it was huge -- fully two feet in length, and as thick as his biceps. The desert elf grimaced, and then grinned lopsidedly, seeing that there were corns in the turd.
Shaking his head, he wondered how he could tell his friend, even as the turd floated away.
Kaisumi surfaced, and shook off some of the water on him. He said that there was a whirlpool down at the bottom of the pool that was very dangerous. The water also tasted odd; when he had breathed it in and through his flexing gills, it had tasted strongly of ammonia.
Rell grinned from ear to ear, and was about to comment, when something caught his eye.
Ta'Crae stared out into the water. Barely ten feet from them on the surface of the water, five eyeballs on a slimy, feces-looking stalk. The brown eyeballs glances left and right, each tracking a different member of the party, even as the rest of the party looked at the eyeballs in horror.
Rell recognized it for what it was. "Shit monster!" They lived in the sewers, sometimes, consuming rats and the filth of the cities above. The priest of Agincoth realized that they had to exist in nature somewhere -- and here one was.
Before they could react, Kaisumi was ripped off his feet as the thing drug him into the water. The light from Rell's rod broke up in the shimmering pool, but the coin still clutched tightly in Kaisumi's hand illuminated the gaping maw with dagger-like teeth all too clearly.
Zap was frozen in place. Images of the night he died kept flashing through his mind. Images of the troll that killed him. Images of the troll that killed Ethos. Seeing the ballista bolt appear through his shoulder. Dying under the water. Zap could not go into the water with the creature.
Three of the shit-colored eyes watched the big warrior. Waiting.
Ta'Crae was not frozen in place. His bow was out, strung, and slinging arrows within seconds. The desert elf aimed with his greatbow -- not for the creature's eyes -- but for its body. The arrows slammed into it with enough force, even through the water, to begin tinging the water with a black ichor that swirled away with each too-long heartbeat.
Kaisumi swung his saber as best he could in the cold water, his other hand holding painfully onto the copper coin. The beast had him grasped by the ankle with one tentacle, and the other tentacle beat at him, even as the creature stood up from the mud and muck on four hound-like legs. It coloration was that of the walls, the half-elf noted, even as he saw the debris and slime inside the creature's maw.
Only his chainmail saved him. The dwarven-crafted mithril was strong enough to prevent its dagger-like teeth from puncturing him, even as the pressure threatened to pop him like a beetle when stepped upon.
The shit monster drew him out of its mouth to peer at him curiously, as its eyed tentacle flung in for a closer look.
Rell summoned up a bolt of blackest energy from the borders of reality, and slammed it through the water into the creature's thick, pebbled hide. The priest summoned up another bit of blackest energy, and slammed it once again into the creature, even as another arrow from Ta'Crae punctured its skin.
Kaisumi, the pain in his ankle frightening him to distraction, and giving him rabid haste, plunged his saber up, and into the creature's brain. He yanked his sword free, even as the shit monster slowly fell into the depths below.
Rell gave Kaisumi a hand up out of the water, and the half-elf shivered with fear. He resisted looking at his ankle, while Rell bandaged him up, and then called to Agincoth for the knowledge of healing.
Kaisumi felt a warm, silver light suffuse him, and when he looked down, even his boot was mended -- although stiff, as though it were of new leather.
Ta'Crae looked critically at Zap, who had finally blinked away his panic. The Wolf of Rahne walked on, as though nothing had happened.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi shared a glance, and then turned to follow the big human with their eyes. There was far more going on than met the eye.
They climbed up the wall by the waterfall, and followed the underground stream as far as they could, but had to double back and go a different way after one fork led them astray. The other fork, though, gave them a fright.
A man-sized thing hung from the ceiling just ahead of them. Ta'Crae, fearing a vampire, quickly drew one of his arrows with a flask of alchemists' fire already attached, and fired at the dim figure in the shadows.
A man hung upside-down from the ceiling, his arms up over his head -- and hanging down -- for one brief moment, before the alchemists' fire exploded over everything.
The figure dropped to the floor in a dozen pieces, and his head came to a stop against the wall.
Moving forward cautiously, all of the party suddenly at the ready for war, Ta'Crae stepped over one of the man's skeletal arms, and then over the dessicated torso. He stood directly under the boots, with the skeletal legs still in them from the knee to the toes. "What the..?"
Rell said, "Magic."
The armor the figure had worn was magical, as were the boots that had held him to the ceiling in death, and some other odds and ends. He had died upside down, though whether it was from the boots, or from something else, no one knew.
Rell said that he would have to have a mark's time to analyze the boots, to figure out how to get them down, and Ta'Crae was more than happy to oblige. The other three kept a watch out down the corridors for anything else odd, as Rell studied the scene, and prayed to Agincoth for the wisdom to understand his teachings, and get the boots down from the ceiling.
When he finally had it, he motioned Ta'Crae over, and the desert elf easily held him up to the boots. Pulling out the skeletal feet and tossing them aside with a grimace, the priest then reached into the boots, and found the hidden studs that activated and deactivated them.
"That's cool," he said to himself. "Someone made a pair of sandals of spider-climbing into boots..."
He got a blank, confused stare from Zap. "Hunh?"
"Never mind. The boots could be cursed. They probably wouldn't fit you, either."
Zap examined the hilt of the broken sword. The hilt was of exquisite marksmanship, and the Wolf of Rahne recognized the snake-motif as being that of Elinthar -- the God of the Hunt. Looking closer, Zap was surprised. The stamp on the base of the blade that remained, was that of Elkar Stormblade. Elkar was Zap's father's master. There was something special about the blade, even though Rell insisted it was unremarkable, for no god had blessed it, and no mage had enchanted it.
Rell threw all of the man's magical items, and some other odds and ends -- such as the hilt of the broken sword -- into his enchanted pack.
Thinking on it, Rell took off his own pack and laid it down right next to the hanging man's pack. The two had identical stitching, although the hanging man's equipment and leathers were all dyed an ultra-dark green that was almost black.
Rell knew who had made the man's pack! The same elven transmutation specialist that had made his pack at Lok Magius, Kiriel Tindree, had made this man's pack. The priest stared in wonder for a moment, and then shouldered his own pack. He thought it possible that Kiriel could have booby-trapped the magical pack, or done something else to it -- perhaps intentionally, or perhaps upon special payment.
Rell indicated that he was done, and Ta'Crae easily shouldered the pack from the hanging man with the broken sword. Together, the four travelled on, thinking that if they had found a dead man hanging from the ceiling, then at least they were closer to something other than just more caves.
They continued on. Not long later, though, they dropped into a cavern littered with the corpses of cave mantles. The creatures had died from stab wounds, and Ta'Crae decided that the wounds were consistent with wounds that the broken hilt might have delivered. The corpses were old, and little more than bones and tough leather. Nothing had eaten of them or disturbed them, save for the bacteria in their gut.
Untold marks later, Ta'Crae stood with his back to the soft light from Rell's light. Ahead lay another source of light.
Moving cautiously, the desert elf advanced through the short cave, crouching over to fit. Within fifteen feet of the supposed exit of the cave, the cave opened up to a more comfortable eight feet in height, but there were thick vines of some sort covering the entrance such that little light came in.
The smell, too, was horrendous.
None of the four of them liked the look of the vines. They were all vertical, their leaves stripped, and many braided -- and all under tension. Kaisumi knelt before it, and sliced through several of the vined ropes. "Trap."
But set by who? Or what?
Ta'Crae, perhaps impatient to escape the caves, said, "The heck with this," and strode into the trap.
Almost immediately, the vined ropes collapsed around Ta'Crae. The net hurled him into the air so hard that he bounced off of the ceiling, and the tall desert elf was stunned for a moment.
The source of the smell was obvious. Two hill giants -- each nearly ten feet in height, with hunched backs and grossly ugly faces and bodies, each sat up in their bed rolls.
A pile of bones nearly ten feet tall littered one corner of the cave. The other side of the cave had a pool of water that was fed by an underground spring. The pool, unfortunately, was littered with turds and smelled strongly of urine. A huge turd, nearly three feet in length and a food in diameter, had partially blocked the natural drain for the pool. Flies buzzed around the carcasses and bones and the cesspool, and around the giants themselves.
The larger of the two giants was on his feet first, swooping up a huge greatclub in one meaty hand, and picking up a shield made of the long trunks of trees lashed together with vines and hides. The enormous shield was scaled up to be a tower shield for the hideous giant, and it grinned up at spinning net almost twenty feet off the floor.
Zap strode into the room, his stance one of grim, fierce determination. His shield was at the ready, and his hand-and-a-half sword carved easy practice arcs through the air.
The giant seemed surprised to see a second victim, but grinned in anticipation of the 'meal in a can'. It strode forward, eager to beat the human to a pulp.
Rell gasped, realizing what the giants were. During the War of the Undead, the Nabrolians had invaded the fledgling Rakore. The Nabrolian heavy cavalry archers were something to be feared, but the mounts of the Nabrolian priests were specially-bred giants. The two brutes in the cave were left-over mounts from the invasion.
The priest of Agincoth quickly assessed the stench and his glimpse of the cave. It was obvious no Nabrolians remained, and no priests still used the mounts. The hill giants had gone wild, but they thought of themselves still as Nabrolian mounts. Stupid as they were, they tried to live out an existence similar to the one they had known before, even if they were lazy and dirty beasts.
Zap and the larger hill giant engaged in melee. The hill giant had fashioned together a suit of half-plate, using whole breast-plates hammered under a boulder, and fasted to the giant's auroch-hide vest with leather and straps. The giant had even fashioned primative greaves of a sort, to protect his legs and his arms.
Instead of using the shield to defend himself agianst Zap, though, the hill giant blocked the light coming from the tunnel -- splitting the team into two groups of two.
To Rell, it was as though a huge door had dropped down in front of him. Kaisumi barely pulled himself back from the door in time, and put his bow away in favor of his saber and his kukri.
Ta'Crae, faintly nauseous and spinning above the battle, fumbled out one of his alchemists' fires while Phoenix circled him, calling piteously to her master. The alchemists' fire dropped, its wax stopper already broken, and the liquid fire poured out over the ropes of the net, and dripped down next to the unnoticing giants.
The net immediately caught on fire, and Ta'Crae climbed the ropes to escape the conflaguration that was smoking up the ceiling of the cave.
Zap hammered at the beast's legs and armor and any other gap he could find, trying at the same time to angle his body and his shield to deflect the tree-trunk blows from the giant's greatclub.
The giant, though, merely kicked at Zap, and distracted by the flaming net above him, took a wild swing at it with his great club -- turning Ta'Crae into a pinata.
Rell used the giant's enormous shield against it, and laid his hands upon the temporary 'door'. The shield became a conduit for more of the chilled and souless energy from beyond the boundary of the Void. Cold flowed into the shield, and into the giant, establishing a conduit that began to suck the giant's life energy away.
The beast suddenly went into hypothermic shock, its teeth chattering and its entire body desperately trying to make up for the continuing lack of heat.
The door that had blocked Kaisumi from entering the fray began to rise and lower with the giant's chattering, and he leapt forward. The giant's shield caught his knees as he went through, but the half-elf just grimaced and rolled free as soon as he could.
The second giant was finally awake, and threw back its coverlet. It wore thick, untreated hides, and had a dozen shortswords tucked into its belt and hides. On the giant, the two-foot-long blades looked more like daggers.
Kaisumi had a bad feeling, even as the second giant grasped a short-sword from its belt, and flung it end-over-end at the half-elf. Only his magnificant chain mail saved his life, as the blade slammed him into the stone wall of the cave behind him, and bounced away. The half-elf knew that at least three ribs were broken.
The second giant flung another blade, and this one clattered harmlessly off of the big Zap's enchanted plate-mail.
Rell increased the flow of the giant's heat energy into the cold of the souless Void, and then watched as the door before him gave way. The giant tottered back against the heavy swings of Zap and the chill of the spell, and collapsed into the pile of bones as though it were some sort of obscene throne to death.
The giant's lips were blue, and the savage slashes that Zap had made through the leather-and-plate armor barely bled, so cold was the giant's blood.
Ta'Crae, running out of rope and being smoked out and burned out, dropped to the floor of the cave. He landed badly, and one leg gave out as he tried to stand up. He had put stress fractures into both bones in one of his lower legs.
The second giant, realizing that things had just gotten desperate, leapt forward with a shortsword-dagger in each hand.
Rell met the charge with a film of black ice over the floor of the cave, such that the giant slipped and went sprawling. The beast recovered well enough to slide along on the ice, and used one shortsword to pin a startled Kaisumi against the cave wall.
The half-elf almost passed out from the pain, as the huge dagger narrowly missed a lung, and held him three feet off the floor.
The giant let go of the shortsword-dagger pinning Kaisumi, trying to lever himself up, even as he used his other dagger to stab the hurting Ta'Crae from behind. The desert elf saw several inches of steel punch through his chest, and then suddenly withdraw. His last thoughts as he passed out were of disbelief at how dark his blood had been, and at the strange, silver motes of light he had seen in his lung's blood. The last image he saw, though, was the skeletal head of a camel, its unseeing eyes seeming to accuse him of something...
Zap recovered quickly enough to leap at the sprawled hill giant, and with Rell's chill touch, they quickly finished the second giant off.
Rell rushed to aid Ta'Crae, while Zap did what he could for Kaisumi. Both Gideon Enterprises operatives were unconscious. Zap, well-trained at the War College, saw that Kaisumi's wounds were critical, but not life-threatening. The wound had sealed behind itself, and the half-elf would survive.
Ta'Crae, though, lay in a pool of his own blood that spread with each heart beat as though someone had punched a hole in the bottom of a keg with a hammer.
Rell turned all of his vast knowledge of anatomy and physiology, elves and humanoids, healing and medicine, to the task of saving Ta'Crae. Agincoth's silvery glow suffused his hands, as bright red blood bathed the floor and the priest's probing fingers.
Long marks went by, before the two GE men were stabilized. The power of Agincoth was strong, though, and within moments of regaining consciousness, both operatives were able to stand, although with a wobble.
Flies continued to buzz about them all, even landing in the drying blood Ta'Crae and Kaisumi had spilled, and flying all about the giants.
Zap finished off the hypothermic giant, literally sawing the beast's head off with his hand-and-a-half sword.
Rell, unable to wash his hands in the cesspool, began to back out of the cave, almost stumbling from the stench and the smell.
Outside, it was late evening on a partly-cloudy day, and they all breathed in fresher air. The giants had cleared out the area from around their cave entrance, and there piles of bones here and there about the landscape. For the most part, scavengers had already cleaned up most of the carcasses, although a few were still 'fresh', and smelled of rot and decay -- but it was infinitely better than the stench inside the cave.
Rell shuddered, and said, "We must cleanse that cave."
Zap glanced back into the cave, and silently agreed for much the same reasons. "Not today, though. We need to rest."
There was no argument from the others.
Ta'Crae seemed shaken, and the three let him work through his near-death experience. The desert elf let himself be lost in 'the hunt', and moved out to scour the countryside for fresh food and game.
Zap itched beneath his armor, and he soon realized that he had caught fleas from the den of the giants. He growled at the inanity of all, and stripped out of his enchanted armor. Even as he was thankful the armor was still intact and wouldn't need burnishing or rehammering, he wished that the enchantment was more against bugs and fleas than against blows and damage.
They alternated wary watches during the night, as the clouds gave them a midnight bath. Zap used the opportunity to soap up and get rid of the fleas.
In the morning, they felt somewhat refreshed, though their dreams had been haunted by the giants, and by overtones of the Mad God, Nabrol.
Rell, after making his morning prayers to Agincoth, led the way resolutely into the cave.
Kaisumi and Zap assisted Rell in clearing out the cave, a little at a time. The shoulder-blade of a moose was used to clear away the debris in the cesspool, and they even found several human skulls down at the bottom of the muck. The water began to clear somewhat, but stirring up the muck forced them outside again until it abated somewhat.
Even for all his faith in Agincoth, Rell had to struggle with all his power and thought to find ways to cleanse the stench and filth of evil from the cave. The hill giants, in their imitation of their old lives with the Nabrolians, had even drawn crude designs to Nabrol on the walls in blood and bits of flesh.
The animal bones were drug outside and dumped in a small wash out. Zap and Kaisumi together, straining and struggling, managed to drag the bodies of the giants out to the wash out. More bones and bodies followed.
Ever mindful of the results of the War of the Undead, they all feared the possibility of the giants returning as undead. There was little they could do, though, save pile the bones and the bodies up.
Rell crafted a huge symbol of Agincoth out of stones from inside and outside the cave, and then helped Zap and Kaisumi pile the bones of the humanoids upon the holy symbol of magic and knowledge. The three made a circle of stones around the bones that buried the symbol, and Rell consecrated the shrine to those that had fallen at the hands of the Nabrolian giants.
They took a break for a mid-morning brunch, prepared by a subdued Ta'Crae. The desert elf had managed to catch two rabbits, and find a variety of edible plants that the giants had been ignorant of. With no plant-eaters anywhere near the giants' cave, the plant-life had actually become rather plentiful, and there was plenty to eat. Their apetites were somewhat subdued, but Zap made sure they ate, his earlier freeze with the shit-monster unspoken in the grim silence.
Rell blessed the spring water that bled into the pool from the rocks, and had burning branches brushed all over the walls where they could reach, to help cleanse the cave of its stench and evil.
Despite initial protests, Zap helped fill in the back entrance to the cave, where the trap had nearly killed Ta'Crae.
When they were done, the cave was significantly improved. The flies had been forced out by the smoke and Rell's orisons to Agincoth. They left the cave open to the outside, and Rell left his personal sigil emblazed into the wall by strange magics. The sigil faded from view after a moment, but to Rell's experienced eye, any who would follow with any kind of faith, the sigil would be visible to tell all who had cleansed the evil from the place -- and who to ask if there were questions.
Essentially, it was a mark between priests. If the clerics of those that had fallen ever needed to know the circumstances of the death, they could call upon Rell to extoll the evil that had claimed those in the circle.
Outside the cave, was a small pile of items and artifacts that had been found in the pile of bones, and scattered about the cave. Some of the items were clearly arcane in nature, and others had blessings bestowed upon them by the gods. Rell, refusing to do more with the items for the moment, used his arcane powers to summon a disc of blackest energy. The disc was perhaps a yard in diameter, and floated several feet off of the ground.
The others looked on in awe, as Rell threw the first item up onto the disc, which had a slight curve in it, such that could probably even hold water.
Zap asked, "How long will that last?"
"Plenty long enough. I can replenish it, too, when it runs out. It follows me, so if something happens to me... Well, carry me, and it will follow."
Ta'Crae shook his head in disbelief. His elven ancestors had given up the arcane long ago, and the disc of black magic insulted his sensibilities -- but there was no denying its usefulness, or where Rell's heart lay.
As they moved out, Ta'Crae examined the broken blade in his hand.
They had found the broken blade that matched that of the hilt from the strange body that had hung upside-down in the cave, what seemed like a lifetime ago. They kept the blade, and also had the hilt, hoping to make some sense of the man's story sometime later.
Rell vowed that if they found the blade's history to be good, and the man's history to be good, they would return to properly inter the figure. If he had been evil, then his remains would lay scattered about that cave for all time.
The four of them brought a rock shower down upon the bodies of the giants. They wanted to burn them, but the prospect of roc-hawkes dropping in on them disabused them of that notion.
Satisfied that they had done the best they could, they set out after a light lunch.
The giant's cave lay on the northeastern side of Mount Tessel. The salt mines and the lost city of Grunden lay on the southeastern side of Mount Tessel. They estimated that perhaps three days had passed since they entered the mountain. Getting back to civilization would be a trip, as well.
To get back down the mountain would require that they go a bit north and west, first, before going around a spur of the mountain and back south. Zap worried about making Rilan in time for his meeting with the Doom and the Marksmen. It left him but two days to make it to the Blue Tyven in Rilan, if his message had been delivered.
He kept that worry to himself, and just hurried the others along as best he could.
Zap took the lead, with Rell behind him, and Kaisumi behind. Ta'Crae ranged well out ahead, finding the best paths and also scouting for game.
The desert elven ranger noted that game was scarce. The giants could account for some of that, but not for all. There were other hints that something else was afoot.
The bigger of the two giants had had only one eye. That could be coincidence, but they had partially built up the entrance to their lair, and put in other defensive procedures. They had cleared the land around the lair, as well, to give them fair warning of something.
Something else hunted the sparse woods on the north side of the mountain.
Ta'Crae kept a watchful and wary eye out, despite the distraction of his healing leg and the itching deep inside the already-healed wound through his lung.
At first, he thought he was seeing spots before his eyes, but a blue ball of light truly did streak through the trees for a moment, far off through the sparse woods.
Hoping to catch the ball of light without getting caught by surprise, Ta'Crae quickly headed up a wall of the curving little valley until he could see better.
Across a distant clearing, the ball of light streaked straight for another like it. The second ball of light bobbed in the air beside an oddly-shaped rock. The distance fooled him for a moment, and then Ta'Crae realized that the rock was moving.
It was a behir -- a great, scaled beast something like a snake with six legs on either side of its body. The creature slithered through the clearing with its legs curled up under it, ignoring the balls of light.
Ta'Crae stared in wonderment. He had seen behir hides before, but never a living behir. The one he saw was enormous -- fully fifty feet in length, and perhaps four feet high when slithering. Seeing the will-o'-wisps moving along with the deadly creature made things even worse.
The desert elf knew little about will-o'-wisps, but knew they fed off of pain and fear and the energies of death. They could also generate small bolts of lightning. The behir could generate enormous bolts of lightning -- more than enough to kill many men -- and was immune to the bolts the will-o'-wisps could generate.
The three creatures were moving away from the party's line of travel, and were perhaps half a mile away. The desert elf thanked his patron god, Xynosalionisis, and returned quickly to the party.
He advised them of the creature's path, and then ranged ahead again to track the creature, and ensure that it wouldn't backtrack and hunt the party.
As stealthy as Ta'Crae was, he was nothing compared to the will-o'-wisps. When he caught up with the over-sized behir, there was only one of the will-o'-wisps. The desert elf began to have a bad feeling about the situation, and rapidly withdrew. The will-o'-wisps scouted for the behir, and fed off of the deaths of the creatures the behir killed. The behir, in turn, got two scouts out of the deal. One of the scouts was ranging well aways from the behir, and might find the party any moment.
Ta'Crae headed back towards the party as rapidly as he could. It was only as he burst into a clearing through which Zap was leading them, that the desert elf realized he had probably led the will-o'-wisp right back to the party.
Though a will-o'-wisp might appear as blue ball of glowing light, when it extinguished its light, it was practically invisible. The creature had probably seen him, and followed him, right back to the others.
Ta'Crae yelled, "Run! It's coming!"
Behind him, distant in the forest, the top of a tree suddenly shuddered, and swayed from side to side. It was, indeed, coming.
Ta'Crae caught up with the rest as they retreated back across the clearing, but it was too late.
The creature paused for a split second on the edge of the clearing, and the one will-o'-wisp bobbed lazily in the air near 'its' behir.
Zap planted himself for the creature's imminent charge, and Ta'Crae flanked out, with Kaisumi and Rell behind Zap.
The behir roared, and charged faster than any of them could have imagined possible for such a large creature. As it got closer and closer, the blue glowing of the will-o'-wisp was being matched by a glow that grew stronger and stronger form the spines along the behir's body. The glow grew and grew, and then cycled as the creature charged.
There was a bolt of blinding light, and a crack of thunder that deafened them, as a blast of lightning cycled out of the behir's snout and along its jaw like jagged edges of raw power.
Then it was on them.
It wrapped itself around Zap and began to squeeze him, like some great constrictor snake, but its many, many legs were finding purchases where they could in Zap's enchanted armor, along its edges, and along the points of the mail.
Ta'Crae fired at it as best he could with arrow after arrow covered in flasks of alchemists' fire, doing his best to keep the shots away from Zap. Kaisumi switched to his saber and his kukri, and moved in to hit the beast from the other side, he and Ta'Crae working together as a team, keeping eye contact and able to anticipate one another's moves and actions.
Rell blasted the creature with a bolt of blackest magic, but the creature merely rolled, squashing Zap in its grasp, and almost rolling over Kaisumi. The alchemists' fires were put out rather quickly that away, and it hissed at Rell as the priest prepared another bolt of arcane energies.
There was a rending screach of metal being torn, rivets popping, and something like the claws of many dogs on a smooth marble floor... And then the creature released Zap, the front of his enchanted armor completely torn away, and his ribs bruised and blackening from where the creature had broken half his ribs and fractured the other half.
Rell, desperate for a way to send the great predator away, drew upon his knowledge of the darker arts. He prayed to Agincoth for the Gnashing Blade -- a blade made of the gnashing teeth of the souls of those damned by the Goddess of Knowledge and Magic. The Gnashing Blade was partly something of steel and teeth, and partly something from the realm of the condemned. The wailing of their souls could be heard over the mouths that formed form the continually moving and rearranging teeth of the blade.
The priest rushed forward with the Gnashing Blade in his hands, and struck true, driving the blade into the huge beast. The blad wailed, gurgling in the blood of the behir, even as the behir wailed, and thrashed away from the blade. The Gnashing Blade was nearly pulled from Rell's hands as the behir rolled away, and yet some of the teeth remained in the behir, the souls of the damned wailing still within the beast.
The behir's repitlian pupils dilated wildly, and then it bolted.
The will-o'-wisp bobbed in momentary confusion for a moment, and then flew off after the behir, feeding off of its fear, even as the huge behir bolted off as quickly as it could.
The remaining will-o'-wisp appeared suddenly behind Rell, and blasted him with a small bolt of lightning, before flying off to chase its behir.
Rell -- caught earlier in the blast of lightning from the behir -- had no strength left to stand up. He slumped to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut.
The Gnashing Blade faded out in a silver glow, and was gone.
Ta'Crae and Kaisumi exchanged a near-panicked look.
Remembering Rell's words, they quickly picked up Zap and the scraps of his armor, and threw him on top of the floating disc that also had much of their other gear. The black disc crackled somewhat around its edges, and sank an inch or so, but otherwise held.
They put Rell on the disc, too, after performing what first-aid they could -- but the disc wouldn't move!
Ta'Crae slung all his weapons, and picked up the unconscious form of the priest. Carrying him in his arms like a babe, he moved off at a quick jog. The disc hesitated for just a moment, and then followed its master.
Kaisumi, keeping a watchful eye behind them, jogged off after the disc and Ta'Crae.
Before he had gone more than a few yards, though, he almost stumbled. Catching himself, he soldiered on -- though his ankle burned painfully. It was the same ankle that had been hurt and then healed in the encounter with the shit monster.
The half-elf resigned himself to the pain, and caught up quickly with Ta'Crae.
So is the 17th of Davor, 1329.
Ryan (Ta'Crae) is our baby of the bunch, now that Sam (Xennith) isn't playing with us. Sam decided to get a job on Saturdays, when we tend to play, and that knocked him out of our story. We hope he can rejoin us, as we desperately needed that rogue -- and also would have enjoyed the company! Ryan, though a few years older than Sam, is still somewhat younger than the rest of us older fogies who are closer to 30. Ryan's impatience got the better of him with the trap the giants had set, and he came within 1 point of losing his character. I think he learned his lesson, though, and now has a character with an impatient streak that peaks out, now and again.
Ron (Kaisumi) did a good job with his background, strange as it was. At first, I was a bit leary of this weirdo half sea-going human, half aquatic elf, but after I saw him work it, I realized he would work just fine.
Instead of meeting in my room, we met in one of the Day Rooms at the barracks, and that worked out very well. I had a DM screen for the first time this campaign (yay!), although I didn't have ready access to my obscure notes. There were a few times when I had to struggle to remember names (like Elkar Stormblade's). But, it all worked out, despite a few interruptions, and Brent (Zap) having to leave early for a special patrol duty.
My guys have realized that I don't use the Encounter Tables. I use a story line, and if the story line calls for something more powerful than they are, then tough luck. They survived, although Rell seemed a bit over-powered in several instances, but it goes back to the old saw about, 'Fighters have low will saves.' That's what got the behir off their backs, and we'll call it something of a draw, there. The victory over the hill giants was due more to some rules-thinkings and a failed Fortitude save -- yet they did survive!
Zap is a 6th-level character. The rest were only 4th-level characters, though at the end of the session, I gave them enough experience to just make 5th-level. Each hill giant was a Challenge Rating of 12. The behir was a CR 12, and each will-o'-wisp was a CR 6. It's not about the challenge ratings! They mean jack! It's all about the story, guys.
Brent, Ian, Ron, Ryan -- I may put the words to paper, but you guys wrote the story. When people ask me why the characters and NPCs are so alive in my stories, it's because of your work, not mine. I just give y'all the stage upon which to perform. This performance was all you.
And Ryan pointed out something odd. In the hill giant encounter, both GE operatives went down, perhaps because they were separated. In the behir encounter, they both were the only ones remaining. Interesting, isn't it?