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Max_Writer

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition: The Scar Session Three

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Sunday, August 11, 2016

(After playing the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition scenario “The Scar” by Ray Winninger from Dungeon Adventures #80 today from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Katelyn Hogan, James Brown, Ashton LeBlanc, and Collin Townsend.)

Arya Amannodel was a wood elf ranger who had left her homeland in search of someone who had wronged her. She had traveled extensively for years, but had most recently lived with the reclusive wood elves of the Celadon Forest just west of Nyrond. In the last few weeks, she had traveled across Nyrond to the Flinty Hills, a journey of some 500 miles, in search of a lead of the woman she was looking for.

On the evening of the 4th of Fireseek, 592 Common Year, she had set up her tent in the Flinty Hills and wrapped herself in her thick, winter blanket. She had fallen asleep to the cold, light rain that had been coming down all day.

She was awoken not long after she settled in when something started beating on the tent.

“Stop!” she cried.

The tent fell down on top of her and she got angry and crawled out, as she reached the opening, she was roughly grabbed by several orcs. She found herself surrounded by the creatures and counted at least a dozen of them.

“You’re coming with us, elf!” one shouted into her face.

They tied her hands behind her back and scooped up her tent and everything within it. One of them threw it over her shoulder and another put a bag over her head and pulled a drawstring, nearly choking her. She was very irritable as she stumbled through the darkness. She felt like she was going downward at one point and then the sound of the wind and the rain stopped. It felt like she was underground. She was dragged through passageways and she heard orc speak. She didn’t understand it. At one point they stripped her of her armor and roughly searched her.

Then she heard the clanking of chains and the grinding of stone on stone. The bag was jerked off her head and she was flung into a room, crashing to the stone ground. The clanking of chains and grinding of stone came behind her as the door came down and crashed to the ground.

She slid back to the nearby wall and looked around. The room was roughly 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep. In the near corner was a pile of rubble while two of the other corners held large piles of hay. Several men, women, and even a few children were lying in the hay, trying to sleep. In the other corner were two men and a Halfling woman, talking quietly.

* * *

Just before the slaves had been thrown into their room that night, Storr, the orc sub-chief, had taken Arthelion aside. Out of earshot of the others, he had told the mage if he acted out again or did anything to annoy any of the other orcs, his tongue would torn out by the roots and his own cleric friend would be used to see he survived. The orc asked him how well he’d be able to cast his spells then, but told him, by all means, to mouth off again if he so desired. He had some money riding on it.

When they had returned to the room, Arthelion had flopped down on one of the piles of hay, despondent. Kilb was exhausted that night and merely climbed into the hay and went to sleep.

The amazingly handsome Leon Chamberlyn the paladin, the ugly Elriya Warrick the Halfling thief with bad teeth, and Tarmak of the Winding Road, the average-looking priest of Fharlanghn, however, all planned their escape. They had been conferring in the far corner of the room, noting what Leon had learned when he had been “fighting” the Gnasher, when the orcs had brought in the elf girl and flung her to the floor.

Neither Leon nor Tarmak could tell what had happened, it still being pitch-dark in the room. However, Elriya could see the elf, who had darker skin and hair than any elf she had ever seen. The elf girl’s eyes looked lighter-colored.

“Dinner’s here early,” Leon remarked.

Elriya walked over to the elf.

“So, they captured you too?” she said.

“In the middle of the night while I was sleeping,” Arya said. “I’m not happy about that.”

“How long have you been traveling?”

“A few weeks.”

“Are you able to help us free these people?” Leon said from across the room.

“Can we?” Arya said.

They heard the clank of chains and the grinding of stone on stone. A half dozen well-armed orcs entered the room. Some of them gave out bowls of gruel while the others stood by, weapons ready. The gruel was thin but had a little meat and grease within. It was not very good but most of the prisoners ate it voraciously. Arya ate as much as she could stomach. Leon ate in the most polite manner he could while not being able to see his food. After they had mostly finished, the orcs took back the bowls and left, closing the door behind them once more.

A half hour or so after they were fed, they heard the nightly orc revelry begin somewhere else in the underground complex.

Tarmak, Leon, and Elriya all starting working on moving rocks from the pile in the corner. Arya got up and went to them.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Moving rocks,” Leon said.

“Why?”

“There could be something under it.”

“And what if there’s not?”

“Maybe it’s a way to escape,” Elriya said.

“Why would they put a way to escape in a jail cell?” Arya asked.

“Maybe that’s why they covered it up,” Elriya said.

“This looks pretty impromptu,” Leon said.

“I mean the ceiling’s not collapsed or anything,” Tarmak said.

Arya looked over the rock pile. It looked like a portion of the ceiling had collapsed against the wall.

“I think you’re wasting your time,” she said. “I know you probably can’t see this but, the ceiling? It just looks like it’s rubble that fell from it.”

“Doesn’t mean there’s not something behind it,” Elriya said.

“All right then,” Arya said, walking away and watching them.

They worked for an hour or so before the orcs came in to search the prisoners and then again for an hour after that. The three were even more exhausted after they had finished. About three hours after that, the orcs returned to roughly search the prisoners and the room again.

Arya was especially curious about the kobold she’d seen.

* * *

They were all woken on the 5th of Fireseek when the orcs pounded on the door and then opened it and ushered them back out into the stone corridors beyond. Two people didn’t get up that next morning. They had died in the night. One of them was the little girl Rome had made friends with. The other was a woman. Orcs unceremoniously dragged the bodies out.

They passed a few closed doors, each of them eight feet tall with an arch at the top. Rusty chains to hoist the doors were in a slot to the right side of each. They took the slaves down a corridor, through an open door, down another corridor into a room and then opened another door. They passed through a room with rubble on the floor, around a corner and past more rubble, and then past a huge, brass lamp that stood on the floor with a wick the thickness of a fist that gave out a great deal of light. Then they passed through an area of rubble that had been broken through to another room where the slaves were given shovels and told to clear the rubble there.

Several of the slaves were cut out from the rest and taken away, including the nondescript man.

The orcs watched as the slaves worked. Arya noticed each of the orcs carried a spear and had a scourge on his belt. They wore leather armor and black cloaks.

* * *

Tarmak and several other slaves were taken to the library once again and ordered to search for anything of value.

“Skarg wants you to find stuff,” one of the orcs said.

“Find what?” Tarmak said.

“Anything important!” the orc grunted, slapping the priest.

“Fine! Fine! Gods.”

They all set to work sorting through the loose papers and pages in the library. At three points during the day, one of the slaves came with buckets of water for them and then they were put back to work.

* * *

The others worked at moving stones and rubble from the pile. Three times that day, a slave was sent for buckets of water for them. They actually made a great deal of progress on the pile during the day.

During the first water break, Leon approached the subchief, Storr.

“Storr,” he said.

“What?” the orc growled.

“I wish to wager.”

“Huh! What do you want to wager, blue eyes?”

“So, I wish to test my mettle against one of your own.”

“What does that mean? Speak clearly, manling. I’ve had my fill of bargains and bets.”

“Would you like to see a brawl?”

The orc considered for a moment.

“All right,” he said. “How about the Gnasher? Why don’t you go fight the Gnasher?”

“You wouldn’t be able to watch,” Leon said.

“You could lure it out. Or how about that guy?”

He pointed to one of the other slaves.

“Would that be entertaining?” Leon said.

“Then what?” Storr asked.

“One of your men against me.”

“I’ve already had my orcs fighting amongst themselves. I don’t need to lose any more. Not to mention one who beat up one of his fellows and then claimed that some handsome man, a woman, and the Mouth came in. Wait a minute …”

“Would the Mouth be able to do anything?”

“He was lying anyway. They’d been having a feud for some time.”

“I could lure the Gnasher out to where we could see him. I am curious.”

“I suppose you’ll want a sword or something.”

“Uh, it would be preferred.”

“You’re asking a lot of favors. What am I going to win from this wager … from you?”

“You get to see─”

“No. That’s the wager. That’s not the prize.”

“True.”

“Gambling requires a prize.”

Leon thought on it.

“What do you propose?” Storr said.

“Well, if I’m dead, I’m no more use to you,” Leon said.

“That’s why you’re going to put a wager up before you do this thing. You think about it. Get back to work.”

The orc walked away from the paladin, who was ordered back to work by the other orcs.

Leon later approached Arya as they worked.

“You look capable,” he said to her.

“Thank you?” she replied.

“Would you be willing to help us in our escape? Once it’s figured out, of course.”

“Uh-huh. So … you don’t know how to escape? But you want me to help with your escape?”

“When we can. We already have some things … planned. Just waiting for a better opening.”

The wood elf looked around carefully.

“Uh … sure?” she finally said. “As soon as you figure out what it is you’re going to be doing. Otherwise …”

She went back to work.

Later in the day, after the third water break, Elriya struck loose rubble as she was digging. It caused a minor cave in as the wall collapsed. The daring Halfling thief did a double back flip out of the way, landing perfectly, her shovel at ready. A few small stones bounced her way and she batted them away with the tool. Arya stopped and watched, amazed. The peasants also stopped their work to merely stare, open-mouthed at the Halfling.

“Stop showing off!” one of the orcs yelled at the Halfling. “Get back to work!”

“Quick causing cave-ins!” another orc yelled at the Halfling, cuffing her in the head. “Stupid Halfling!”

Not long after that, they broke through to the next chamber. Storr ordered the orcs to move the slaves back and sent off another guard. Within a few minutes, a larger orc that those who had been present longer recognized as Skarg arrived with a tall, gaunt man in black chainmail with a two-handed sword in his hand. The latter wore a black helmet that completely covered his face except for a y-shaped slit. Only his red, glowing eyes were visible. The helmet had strange, bat-like wings on the sides. Leon felt a wave of nausea as he saw the horrible thing.

Skarg ordered some of the slaves to clear away more of the rubble and debris and then he and the horrible knight went into the darkness. A few moments later, angry cursing and shouts came from within. The two stomped back out and Skarg gave orders in orc to Storr and other guards. Then the slaves were ordered to continue clearing rubble. They looked into the next area and saw more rubble behind the second pile.

The orcs brought in an additional brass lantern and set it into the new room so exposed. Everyone could see a frieze running around the top of the room. It depicted the construction of a small parlor, its fireplace, and a chimney. There was a caption around it in Flan, which, though none of them could read, Elriya was able to make out. It read: “A second hearth exists in the northwest wing of the complex.”

Not long after that, they were taken back to the slave quarters, as were the slaves taken to the library. The door was closed again and about a half hour later they were brought gruel with some kind of pork. The bowls were taken away once again and the orcs began their revelry an hour or so after that.

They discussed what had happened to them that day, Elriya telling Tarmak about the frieze she’d seen and what the writing had read. Arya had sat apart from everyone else in the place, mostly watching.

“Come, sit with us … if you’re not already,” Leon called into the darkness.

He was not looking in her direction. She looked around, unsure who he was talking to.

“Elf, I think he’s talking about you,” Elriya said.

“Um … sure,” she said, getting up and joining the other three.

“What is your name?” Leon asked.

“Arya,” she said.

“Arya?” he said. “I am Leon Chamberlyn.”

“You look like one.”

“Thank you!”

“So, how’d you end up in here?”

“Same way you did,” Elriya said. “Orcs captured us.”

“Getting kidnapped in the night?”

“Yes.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“The bard over there and I were camping out and they attacked us,” Leon said. “I wasn’t in my armor.”

Arya looked to where he’d pointed but there was just a wall there.

“Bard?” she said. “Where?”

“Are you going to help us escape?” Elriya asked.

“Depends on how,” Arya said. “He asked and he said you didn’t know how to escape.”

“Not quite yet,” Leon said. “Not fully done.”

“So, what do you have?” she asked.

“Well, I won that bet with Storr and he’s going to let me walk around the complex for an hour tomorrow,” Tarmak said. “So I can scout out a little bit more.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Possibly find an exit.”

“And we’ve already explored several areas,” Elriya said.

She explained the areas of the complex she had seen and the others had explored and shared with them. That included the area where the Gnasher lived and where they thought their gear was being stored. They also described to her where they thought the exit lay.

“We may have some weapons,” Leon said.

He told her of the shield, two spears, two halberds, long sword, suit of leather armor, and suit of studded leather armor they’d found and secured in a nearby room.

“How’d you get this?” she asked.

“I found it while we were exploring,” Leon said. “Then we killed a few … well, mortally wounded a few orcs and stole their weapons.”

“Is it all in this room?” she asked.

“No no, not in this room,” Leon said. “They’re stored in a safe place.”

He turned to Elriya.

“If you could get the magical sword of greatness from Cameron …” he said.

He was referring to the frieze they had found that showed the room with statues and noted a great weapon had been put in Cameron’s hands.

“Hopefully, it means the statue,” Leon said.

“It could also mean his body,” Elriya said.

“If we put that with our stores, we should have enough weapons.”

“Unless Cameron’s entombed with his weapon.”

“I could always give it a check,” Tarmak said.

They decided to work on the rubble pile once again. Leon and Elriya helped but they only worked an hour that night.

As they finished, a half-dozen orcs came in again and searched everyone and the room for contraband. No one woke them three hours later, but a group came in some six hours after they bedded down.

* * *

It was only three hours after the orcs searched them that they returned to the room on the 6th of Fireseek to take the slaves out once again. On the way to the work area, Tarmak noticed a hole in the wall in the hallway. Some of the slaves were taken to the library once again while the rest worked on the new pile of rubble. Tarmak was able to get a good look at the frieze and then almost immediately asked Storr for the hour to look around.

“Okay,” Storr said, obviously unhappy. “It’s a deal. Go. If you’re caught, you’ll be brought back here. And we might beat you.”

“Fair enough,” Tarmak said.

“Fair enough,” Storr said. “Good luck, you …”

He had been trying to think of some insult but the man was so average, he couldn’t make up anything. Tarmak merely threw the orc a salute and walked away.

Tarmak walked around through the wide tunnel and remembered where two orcs stood guard towards their quarters. Instead, he headed towards what the friezes called the Hall of Honor. He found it very, very dark in most of the room. In addition to the piles of rubble and debris, four nine-foot-tall statues dominated the room. A long, thin pool of smelly, stagnant water ran the length of the hall, just east of the statues. Each statue had an engraving.

He looked at the first statue which was of a woman dressed in flowing robes with a dove perched on her fingertips. He skipped it entirely. The second statue, he could barely make out, was a man wearing some kind of mail and holding a long sword in his hand. He felt the engraving, trying to figure out the name and, after some five minutes work, realized it was “Cameron.”

“Oh!” he said.

He climbed up the side of the statue and grabbed the metal sword. It had been set there and he easily pulled out, though it let loose a good deal of dust into the air. He climbed back down with the sword, which felt very light in his hands.

“If only I could use bladed weapons,” he mused.

He thought about what to do with the blade, knowing he could probably not get to where the rest of the weapons and gear was hidden on the other side of the complex. He decided to see if he could make it and so slipped past the nearby lit lantern and peeked around the corner to where they thought the entrance of the place was. Two orcs stood on guard duty there. He didn’t think he could get by them to the hiding place without being seen.

He went back to the Honor Hall and carefully opened the door in the hallway outside of the room. It seemed horribly loud to him but he persisted and slipped inside. He could just make out, in the dim light, a few splintered sticks of furniture and scraps of carpets. He could just make out the opposite wall of the room had collapsed, leaving a crack wide enough to squeeze through though he could see nothing but darkness beyond it. He saw the frieze in the room, which depicted a starscape in the night sky. There was no caption.

He guessed the room had already been searched and tucked the sword in a corner.

He headed out of the room and went down the hallway connected to the Honor Hall, creeping down the other side and looking for more orc guards. He stopped when he spotted a couple around the corner near the library.

* * *

While Tarmak was gone, Leon approached Storr again.

“What?” the orc growled. “What do you want now, blue eyes?”

“I figured out a way to compete with you with easier gains for you,” Leon said.

“What?”

“Of course, it’s less interesting.”

“Oh Gruumsh! You never shut up! Just say it.”

“I’m better than the Mouth.”

“Not by much. What do you want!?!”

“If we have a contest of strength. An arm wrestling match. Surely, you can’t turn me down. That would look bad.”

Storr looked at the man.

“You’re like a damned brick shithouse,” he muttered.

“But you’re an orc!” Leon said.

“Yes, and if I lose to you, I lose more face in front of my men.”

“True, but then how about one of your men? They can use both hands.”

“Two against one!” Storr said.

“Well, what would you want if I lost?”

“If you lose, I’ll give you what I gave him. You get to look around the complex for an hour. But you have to bring me something that’s worth at least 10 gold pieces. If you don’t, I’ll throw one of you in the hole. Either you or one of your friends can go in the hole for the day.”

“Wait, but if I win, that makes you win as well.”

“If you win, what do you want?”

“The exploration could be nice. Get out on my feet.”

“I can give you a day off. You can rest for a whole day.”

“How about this. I explore. If I can’t find you something of value.”

“You better. Or you’re going in the hole.”

“Then I go in the hole.”

“That’s what you get if you lose, dumbass.”

“A day off then. Or would I be able to meander?”

“Not for a whole day. And I’m not giving you any permission with any of the orcs to be out, either. If you get caught and brought back, you get caught and brought back.”

“Fair enough. And then in the hole.”

“Depends on if you find my stuff.”

“Let’s do it. But I get to give that day off to someone else of my choosing if I win.”

“Fair enough.”

Storr called over two of the larger orcs. Neither of them was as big as Leon but they were both fairly large. They grabbed the man’s hand and, though he struggled valiantly, they quickly pulled his arm down. It was, after all, two against one. Storr laughed at his victory.

“Once your friend gets back, you can go look for my stuff,” he said. “Don’t fail me. Get back to work until then. That was only mildly entertaining.”

* * *

Tarmak crept back to the Honor Hall and towards the back of the room where he knew there was a door. He pulled it open but it was pitch black beyond. He could see nothing and would have to feel his way. Then he got an idea.

He went back to the room where he’d stashed the sword. He got an intact stick and wrapped some carpet around it. He went to the nearest lantern and lit the makeshift torch on it. He knew it wouldn’t last very long as he had no access to pitch or oil. The great brass lanterns had the caps on the fonts, where the oil was kept, tightly closed. Each cap was a foot across and had a ring on it the orcs passed a bar through so two of them could tighten or loosen it. It would be impossible for him to open himself.

He quickly made his way back to the door he’d opened to find a small antechamber with another door directly across from him. He opened the door and peered into the room in the failing light of his makeshift torch.

Two huge, empty, rusted iron vats occupied the center of the chamber, and a number of rusted iron racks stood against the south wall. An old pile of frayed linens rested on the bottom shelf of the easternmost rack. A hole was in the north wall and two other doors were in the room. A frieze ran around the top of the wall depicting the construction of a large table and a surrounding council room. The caption read, in Flan, “The Answer Stone is set in the council chamber in the southwest wing of the complex.”

He guessed that was near the library somewhere, perhaps. He figured the door in the angled wall of the strange-shaped room led back to where they were working. His torch was quickly burning out and he grabbed a bit of the old linens and ran back out to the Honor Hall. The linen, though old, was sound and he wondered if he could make a rope out of it. He wrapped some of the linen over the piece of wood again and then lit it on the lantern and headed back to the room where he’d put his sword.

He crossed the room to the hole in the wall and crept through, finding a long chamber with a single door to the left he guessed led back to the hallway where they were working. The room was, for the most part empty. The frieze that ran around the ceiling depicted a number of tall trees in a dense forest. There was no caption.

He quickly crossed to the room with the vats and opened the door on the far side of it, revealing another long room with nothing in it. The frieze depicted a number of tall trees in a dense forest. The other door to the room probably led out into the hallway where they were working.

He crossed through the antechamber into the Honor Hall and went to the door directly across from the one he’d already opened. Another antechamber lay beyond that door. He crossed it and opened the door on the other side.

The floor of the large room was covered in broken glass, smashed bits of glassware everywhere, though a few pieces of pristine glassware, wine flutes of some kind, survived, sitting atop an old workbench. Alone one wall were shelves that housed various curiosities including a human skull, a candle, a silver dagger, and a rack of test tubes. The test tubes contained three measures each, according to the marks on them, of five colored powders: black, green, yellow, blue, and orange. A broken area of wall was to the right, a door not far beyond it. Another broken area of wall lay directly ahead of him. The frieze depicted two moons orbiting the planet, presumably Oerth and the moons of Luna and Celene. The caption read “The sisters.”

Tarmak quickly lit the candle. It was about three inches tall and he guessed he had about a half hour of candlelight but it was still better than the makeshift torches he had been using. He picked up the candleholder and looked around more carefully. Then he went back to the room with the linens and grabbed a larger piece. He returned to the room and used the linen as a makeshift sack, wherein he put the glassware and the three test tubes of powder. Each was sealed tightly with a cork. He also tucked the dagger in.

He left the bag next to the door and went through the hole in the far wall.

The room beyond was an L-shape with a northern and western section. A single door stood on the north wall of the western area, a moldy carpet resting on the floor near it. A tattered, canopied bed sat against the north wall of the north section. The remains of a writing desk stood against the south wall and a tall brazier stood in the southeast corner. The frieze depicted a torrent of flames and rubble shooting skyward from the ground, presumably from the temple. The caption read “Once the holy endeavor is complete, a great cataclysm will bury the temple forever.”

He guessed the door led back out into the corridor near the library.

He went to the writing desk first but there was nothing upon it and there were no drawers. He picked up the moldy carpet next but found nothing under it. It fell apart in his hands. He looked under the bed and found an iron box that was open. The lock had been smashed and it was empty.

He crept out of the room, going back to the room with the broken glass and then through the other hole in the wall. He found himself in a relatively small chamber with another door that he guessed led out into the hall. The room was mostly empty except for some broken trash on the floor. He searched the room for 10 minutes but found nothing.

Feeling like he was running out of time, he returned to the room with the broken glass, got his makeshift bag and put it with the sword in the first room he’d examined. He blew out the candle, only about a third of which was left, and left it with the bag. Then he crept out of the room, closing the door behind him as he’d closed all the others.

He crept back where the slaves were working and started to open one of the doors nearby. It sounded like the orcs were rolling dice and gambling. He pulled on the chains but then thought he heard the orcs asking what that noise was so he quickly closed the door and walked into the room where the others labored. He had noticed light in the room, however.

“What was that noise?” one of the orcs said.

He cuffed Tarmak on the head.

“Was that you?” the orc said.

He cuffed the man again.

“I had to get─” Tarmak said.

“Answer my question!” the orc said.

He cuffed the man on the head again.

“I had to get back here on time!” Tarmak blurted out. “Apparently I’m a little early.”

“Get back to work!” the orc told him.

He did so.

“So, were you able to do it?” Leon asked him as they worked.

“Yes, I was able to find Cameron,” Tarmak said. “Found a long sword in his hands and took it back.”

He told them everything he had found and described the rooms he’d explored. He also told them about the powders and the silver dagger and the expensive-looking glassware. He described the strange friezes about the Answer Stone and the destruction of the whole place. He told them of orc guards he’d seen as well. They talked about Kilb and wondered if he might be able to determine the value of the glassware but the kobold seemed very uncooperative. Leon used his divine powers on the kobold but detected no evil from him. None of the other slaves were evil either.

Leon asked if the glassware would be worth more than 10 gold coins and Tarmak thought it would.

“It’s more ‘Would Storr think it’s 10 gold?’” Elriya said.

“Good question,” Leon said.

“Yeah, if you have to take him something back, grab one of them,” Tarmak said. “There’s six.”

Storr walked over to them.

“We’re even,” the orc said. “But if you can think of some other amusing bets, I’ll be around.”

“Oh, you’ll be the first to know,” Tarmak said.

“I better be,” Storr said.

He cuffed the priest in the back of the head.

* * *

Between the first and second water break, Leon approached Storr to go find his treasure. The orc sent him off an hour after the first water break, ordering him to bring him treasure or suffer.

Leon headed in generally the same direction Tarmak had gone. He made his way to the room where Tarmak had hidden the gear and picked up one of the pieces of glassware. He tried to determine the value of the thing but was unable to tell how much it might be worth. Unsure, he put it back with the others.

He picked up the sword. It had a very good balance. He put it down and looked at the powders in the test tubes. He thought about tasting them but then discarded that very bad idea. He put the powders back down but held onto the sword.

He carefully headed down the hallway, through the Honor Hall, past a door no one had examined yet, and around the corner towards the library. There was a large lantern in the empty hallway and he knew, from what Tarmak had told him, there were orcs just around the corner. He went to the door around the corner that had not been explored and opened it.

“Who dat?” an orc voice came from within.

He quickly pulled it closed.

“Hey!” the orc yelled. “Who’s out there!?!”

He ran as the door opened behind him, fleeing back down to the room where they’d hidden their things and closing the door there. He waited several minutes but heard nothing so crept back out.

He went back down the corridor to the other door he didn’t think, from his mental map, anyone had looked into. It stood on the hallway between the Honor Hall and the wider halls outside of the library. He pulled the chains and loudly opened the door. In the light spilling in from the hallway, he could barely make out another door in the opposite wall of the room. The splintered ruins of a number of bunks and a rickety writing desk were all that remained in the room. He could just make out frieze, which depicted a group of workers moving delicate steel cages into what appeared to be an aviary. He couldn’t read the caption.

He knew he’d not be able to see anything in the next room but opened the door to it anyway. He went out and lit the candle, returning to enter the room. He felt a sensation of cold and evil. The frieze depicted a starscape in the night sky and had no caption. There were a few splintered sticks of furniture and scraps of carpet. Another door probably led out into the corridor near the library. The feeling of evil was palpable but only seemed to be a residue of what he’d felt when the horrible knight had passed by him on two separate occasions.

He left the room and closed the door, blowing out the candle.

He returned to the hallway and thought about where to go and what to do. Then he crept back to the lantern and north, heading to the place where the others thought the exit might lie. He crept by the two orcs on guard there, making his way to the wide corridor to the north without being seen. He could see the other orcs at the far end of the hallway but crept through and to the room where the keys were. He lit his candle on the nearby lantern and opened the door.

The room was exactly as Elriya had described it. Hundreds of keys of all descriptions were hung by hooks on the walls of the small chamber. The frieze around the top of the wall depicted two moons orbiting the world. After a moment’s thought, he closed the door and, instead, went to the room where they’d hidden all of the gear they had collected thus far. That was the room with the frieze of the Honor Hall.

He picked up the other longsword and compared them. The balance on the sword from the Honor Hall was much better. Then he donned the studded leather armor and picked up the small shield. He crossed through the hallway to the other part of the room and opened the door that led to the hallway to the slave quarters. The door to their quarters was open but he knew no one else was in there. He went to the door on the south wall and opened it. He found a room that had a frieze around it that showed the construction of a hearth and chimney and a caption he couldn’t read.

In the wall adjacent to their own cell, he found a breach with some rubble blocking it. He realized if they cleared the rubble from the other side, they could get into the room from their cell. He also noticed another breach in the wall that led out to the corridor on the opposite side, meaning they could creep out without having to open any doors. There was nothing to hide things with, however. It looked like it had been searched already.

He quickly transferred all of the weapons and armor from the other room, as well as the citrine gem. He closed the door and headed back out into the hallways near the key room once again. He blew out the candle and headed back to where the other cache of goods had been hidden by Tarmak. However, the orcs on guard near the entrance spotted him.

“Hey, whatta you doing, slave?” one of them yelled.

The orcs came over.

“Storr asked me to go find him something, which I did,” Leon said.

The orc cuffed him in the head.

“Liar!” the orc screamed.

The orc grabbed him by the arms.

“I say, sir, I do not lie!” Leon said.

The orc punched him in the face, not even hurting the paladin. The other poked him in the back with the spear and they dragged him back to the working area.

“Storr, this one of yours?” the orc asked.

“I don’t know how he got away,” Storr said.

He slapped Leon in the face.

“All right,” he said. “Sorry.”

Once the other orcs left, he glared at the man.

“Well?” he said.

Leon held out the piece of citrine he’d gotten. Storr snatched it out of the man’s hand and looked at it.

“All right, that’ll do,” he said. “Get back to work.”

Leon got back to work and told them everything he’d seen and done.

“And guess what, that pile of rubble isn’t a waste of time,” he said.

Arya just shrugged. When he told them about the weapons, Elriya was disappointed.

“The dagger isn’t though,” she said.

She was not happy about that and a little peeved about it.

“But, if I was caught, we would have lost the dagger,” Leon said. “I wanted to take minimal risk. And I know how to use the sword. I don’t know how to use a dagger.”

They worked the rest of the day and were given their water breaks. After a grueling day of work, they were sent back to the slave quarters. While they waited for the orcs to bring them food, Leon used his divine power to lay on hands to aid Elriya and Tarmak, both of whom were still injured. The orcs brought them their gruel, which still seemed to have some kind of pork in it.

As soon as the orcs took away the bowls, the four of them got to work on moving the pile of rubble in the corner. Elriya asked some of the stronger peasants if they would help.

“It’s a way out?” one man asked. “Really?”

“You’re just going to get us all killed,” another said.

“We’ve already lost two,” Leon said.

“That’s that ugly girl,” another peasant said.

Still, four of them agreed to help them move rubble as much as they could, though they were already exhausted. The four only worked for an hour before they had to fall into one of the piles of hay and sleep. The heroes all worked for about three hours between the orc searches. They had made an appreciable dent in the rubble but did not yet reach the other room before they had to stop from exhaustion.

* * *

They were woken only a few hours later on the 7th of Fireseek and dragged out to work on the pile of rubble at the work area. A few of the slaves were taken to the library again that day. Elriya was chosen again to fetch the water. But the orcs remembered how slow she’d been before.

“Get it faster this time,” the orc said.

He cuffed her in the head.

The orc took her to the cistern the first time and brought her back.

“I remember how long that took,” he growled at her, glaring at the Halfling girl.

He sent her to get more water.

She walked to the lantern that led to the entrance, but then ran to the room where Tarmak had stashed the dagger and the strange powder. She grabbed everything he’d hidden there and tucked it into the bucket, then walked calmly by the guards at the entrance. Once she was out of sight of them, she ran to the room where they had initially hidden their things, crossed to the room where the weapons and armor were now hidden and tucked the dagger with the rest, then ran all the way back, got the water, and returned.

“*****!” the orc said, slapping her. “Better hurry up!”

She ended up fetching the water for the rest of the day, making nearly good enough time not to get slapped repeatedly, though she was told she could have done it faster. She related to her allies everything she had seen and done.

A couple of hours after the last water break, they heard thunder. Every once in a while they heard the rumble coming from above. Leon, who worshiped Hieroneous, took it as a good omen. A lightning bolt was his god’s holy symbol. About an hour after that, they were returned to the slave quarters. They could still hear the occasional rumble of thunder.

The orcs brought their gruel and fed them before leaving them alone once again. The gruel seemed to have some hardtack in it that night. One of the villagers was doing very badly and so Leon used his divine power of healing to help that man and Elriya, who was also injured.

“This is a sign from Hieroneous,” Leon said of the thunder.

He tried to convince the other slaves to help them dig at the rubble and, in the end, six of the villagers said they would help. They worked for an hour before everyone feigned sleep again. Orcs came in to search them and they got back to work after that. After only about 20 minutes of the second hour they worked, they broke through to the next room and could squeeze through one at a time. They asked the peasants to put the rubble back once they left. By then, the sound of thunder had stopped.

“Stay here,” Leon said. “It’s safer here. We will come for you.”

“Find my spellbook,” Arthelion said.

The peasants were unsure but complied. As soon as the four were through, they set to work covering the hole back up.

The heroes geared up. Leon took the studded leather armor and the shield, as well as the well-balanced sword. Elriya picked up the silver dagger, content with that. Arya was disappointed at the selection of weapons. Tarmak broke the end off a spear to use it as a quarterstaff.

“I can’t use edged weapons,” he told Leon. “My god forbids it.”

They talked about using Arya as a diversion. Leon noted they needed to get into the room with their equipment.

“If we can get in there, we can get your bow,” he said.

“Do you know where this room is?” she asked.

“Yes,” Tarmak said.

“We know where the room used to be,” Leon said, “and we’re hoping the orcs, of questionable intelligence, wouldn’t have moved it.”

“They still keep my holy symbol in that room, so …” Tarmak said. “Possibly, they would have kept everything else too.”

“If nothing else, we’ll have our healer,” Leon said.

“Now how to do you think I could be a diversion?” Arya asked.

“Honestly, just run through screaming,” Leon said.

Tarmak suggested giving her the other suit of armor and she donned the nasty orc leather. She broke the end off one of the halberds and turned it into a makeshift club.

“If all else fails, hopefully we can dispatch many of them so they’ll route,” Leon said.

They left the room, opening the slave quarters enough so someone could crawl under if they wanted. Then they made their way through the room where they had earlier hidden their things. Arya and Elriya guided them through the dark room where they found the gold and gems still hidden. They went out through the north door of the room and then through the area near Skarg’s chambers. They opened the door to the central room where some of them had hidden during their earlier escape attempt and which Leon had passed through after being in the gnasher’s area. Then they crept down the hallway to the wide hall.

Leon peered around the corner and saw two orcs by the bonfire near the gnasher area. He told the rest and Arya asked if they could open the door just a little to slip in. Leon suggested trying to sneak and if the orcs saw them, they would try to deal with them. Arya told them if they got her bow, she would hurt the orcs. Elriya said she could sneak into the room.

Elriya moved out into the corridor, sneaking to the door. She pulled on the chains, only raising the door about three feet, and then peeked in. She didn’t see any orcs in the dim room so slipped in and found her things. She also noticed a hole in the wall that opened to another room, which was dark. She quickly put on her armor and got her gear and weapons. She also saw numerous other items. There were more spears, orc-sized leather armor, the black cloaks the orcs wore, a shield, a broadsword, another sling and bullets, as well as gear that probably belonged to the rest of the party.

She saw there were two short bows, one black and the other looking pretty typical. There were two quivers of arrows as well, one black and the other a rustic brown. She took the non-black items and the holy symbol that she recognized as belonging to Tarmak. She also saw a thick book and guessed it was Arthelion’s spellbook. She took it. She slipped back to the others, startling them a little.

“Hey,” she said.

Arya got her bow and arrows while Tarmak took his holy symbol.

“If you can, I have splint mail, a shield, and a bastard sword,” Leon said. “And a heavy lance but I don’t need it.”

Elriya remembered seeing the items. Tarmak mentioned studded leather armor and a staff. She snuck back into the room, retrieved the splint mail and the bastard sword. She noticed another suit of leather armor obviously made for a female and guessed it was Arya’s. She also got leather armor and the morning star. She crept back to the rest completely quietly.

They went back down the hallway to the central room and put on their own armor, equipping themselves with their own weapons once again. Leon opened the door to the gnasher’s lair a little and shoved in the gear they were not using. There was a growl from behind the door and a huge claw came out under it after Leon had pushed the things through. It looked like the arm of a bear. Leon quickly lowered the door, first pinning the claw, which was withdrawn, and then closing it all the way. The door rattled in its frame but held firm.

Arya slipped down the passage and peeked around the corner at the orcs on guard duty. They looked back towards the gnasher’s area with some concern.

They discussed what to do next. Leon suggested they could free the gnasher to create a distraction. Or they could go back to where they were and try to kill their way out with the peasants. There was some discussion about the wisdom of that second plan and the efficiency of their trying it the first time. It was pointed out numerous shouts of alarm had been raised already when they tried to escape before. Leon was adamant to rescue the peasants. He also noted they could possibly kill off enough of the orcs to completely rout them, if not make future attempts, at least, much easier. They talked about sending Elriya back into the storage room. Leon said his top priority was the peasants so they should get them out and come back if necessary. He thought they should get the peasants before retrieving any more gear. Tarmak was fine with that.

They headed back through the back corridors and to the room where they’d hidden their stuff when they heard orc voices from around the corner. Then they heard someone walking towards them. Arya and Elriya ducked into the room while Leon and Tarmak ducked behind the pile of rubble. They heard orc speak for a few moments. There was silence for a half minute and then the slap of orc feet going away.

Leon took a long time to sneak back to the room where they had hidden their things, creepy slowly to be quiet. When he arrived, they decided to leave the door open. Elriya retrieved the gold and silver coins as well as the gems and other valuables they had stashed in the room. Leon pointed out he was coming back later because the orcs had to be purged. Tarmak took Odila’s notes.

They crept back to the slave quarters and opened up the door. When they told Arthelion about guiding the peasants with his magical light he said he could when the time was right. He was very happy when Elriya begrudgingly gave him his spellbook back. He snatched it out of her hands and gave her a dirty look.

“Thank you,” he said insincerely.

The peasants were afraid but followed after them all in the dark as they made their way through the nearby corridor that usually took them to the work site. They hesitated in the larger room, knowing there were two orc guards outside during the daytime shift. They didn’t remember there being any guards there when they last tried to escape so opened the door.

The wide corridor outside was empty, lit by the nearby great lantern.

“What about the box?” Arthelion said.

“I feel like they’re going to be hindered if we take the box,” Leon said.

“What is the box?” Arya asked.

Arthelion opened the door to the room where they’d found the box and they retrieved it. The red, metal box was 12 inches long, six inches wide, and four inches deep. It was made of a strange, red metal and was surprisingly well-preserved. The top of the box was marked with two Flan signs and on the bottom there were four dials with Flan lettering on them. Tarmak examined it and noted he could read it. He could see that each of the four dials had five letters upon them. He also noted the letters “JC” on the top in Flan runes. When he shook it, something rattled and something soft moved around inside.

They continued moving through the place towards the north, Leon closing the door behind them. They arrived at another of the giant lanterns and realized it would cast their shadows once they passed it. Arthelion quietly chanted a short spell and a flame appeared in his hands. He closed his hand again and it was gone. He nodded at them, ready.

“I’ll find my own way,” Kilb said.

He took Odila with him and they crept into the dark tunnels and disappeared.

“Are you good at fighting?” Leon asked Elriya.

The Halfling looked very small to him and he had little experience with the folk. Elriya gave the man a look and then took the silver dagger by the blade, flipped it up into the air, and caught it again by the blade. She spun it with a single hand so that she was holding it by the handle. She didn’t say a word.

“Perfect,” Leon said. “So, as soon as we round the corner … can you use that mace?”

“Can I use that mace?” Tarmak asked sarcastically.

“I’m just making sure.”

“Last time we tried to escape I killed three or four orcs with it.”

“Well, then, excellent. We should just rush up and try to kill these orcs before they can sound an alarm. We can have her peek out and not get caught. We can have her shoot at them.”

“Maybe our thief friend should be the one to go peek. Since she could sneak into that room and get our gear back for us, she can do that.”

“If I hear someone scream, an orc do anything. I’m going to charge it.”

“Fair enough,” Arya said.

Elriya crept up by the wall and peeked around the corner. There were three orcs watching in her general direction.

“Somebody’s coming,” one of them said.

Tarmak rushed forward and slammed his morning star into one of the orcs, striking the creature in the side of the head. Elriya ran forward as well, rushing by the orcs and stabbing the same one in the kidney. The orc fell without a sound, bleeding profusely. Then Leon ran forward and stabbed with the sword he’d found, which seemed to move in his hand as if seeking out the orc’s heart. The swing was bad, however, and even with the magical sword, Leon only stabbed into the orc’s armor, not injuring it. Finally, Arya moved into the room and aimed and fired into the fray. The arrow flew over their heads and disappeared into the darkness beyond.

The orcs, though surprised, rallied quickly.

Leon swung wildly at one of the orcs, missing. Arya fired another arrow into the fray but missed completely. Behind the orcs, Elriya slipped around and stabbed at another, but didn’t pierce his armor. Arya shot another orc, striking him in the chest, and the creature fell backwards. Tarmak circled around and swung at the final orc, who yelled something in orcish and stabbed Leon.

Elriya and Leon both tried to stab the last standing orc but he deftly dodged the man’s attacks while his armor turned aside the Halfling’s silver dagger. Arya moved to one side and fired into the melee again, the arrow narrowly missing Leon and disappearing into the darkness. The orc shouted something in orcish and swung at Leon again, the spear bouncing off the man’s armor. Tarmak, behind the orc, swung away and struck the orc in the back of the head. The creature’s eyes crossed and he went down.

More orc feet slapped against the stone in the direction they were heading. They saw three more orcs running their way.

“I need healed!” Leon said.

“Hey you!” one orc shouted.

“What are you doing!?!” another orc cried.

Arthelion moved forward with his charges, getting into the room but trying to stay behind the others. Arya headed towards the exit and spotted the orcs coming. She fired into their ranks but the arrow went low and struck the ground, sliding out of sight. Tarmak started chanting. Then the orcs rushed them, spears flailing. One of them charged at Arya and stabbed her in the side. Another tried to stab Tarmak but he was able to parry the spear with his staff. The third tried to stab Elriya but she leapt out of the way and then stabbed at the orc’s knee with her silver dagger.

Tarmak moved to Leon and cast a healing spell on the paladin. Leon pushed past Tarmak and swung his magical long sword, missing completely once again. He stabbed at the orc again but the blow bounced off the orc’s leather armor. Elriya stabbed at another orc but didn’t penetrate it’s armor.

One of the orcs stabbed Arya in her left eye. There was a sickening pop and she felt warm fluid pour down her face as she was almost overwhelmed with a horrible, sickening pain. Another of the orcs futilely beat on Leon’s shield but was unable to hurt the man. The last one stabbed Elriya in the gut and she stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. Arthelion let out a shriek.

Tarmak rushed the orcs and his morning star merely struck one of the orc’s shoulders. Arya fired at the orcs again but missed completely. Arthelion moved around the battle, leading the peasants towards the exit. Leon finally managed to stab an orc, who went down with a cry. Then Leon moved forward to get closer to the nearest two orcs. One of the remaining ones tried to stab Tarmak unsuccessfully. The other pivoted towards Leon and stabbed the man, who stumbled but did not fall. Arya, who had fallen back, shot the orc who had stabbed her in the left eye. He went down with a shriek.

Tarmak chanted and then cast a healing spell on Elriya. The Halfling thief blinked her eyes and awoke.

Arthelion activated his cantrip and moved into the corridor where the orcs had come from. The peasants followed him.

“It’s a way out!” he cried.

He led the other slaves out of the terrible place.

Leon swung wildly at the last orc, who turned to the man and stabbed him in the side. Leon fell to the ground. Tarmak started to chant again as Elriya stood up and rushed the last orc, who had turned his back to her. The orc was pulled his spear from Leon when she stabbed it in the back.

“Ow!” the orc cried. “Quit it!”

Tarmak cast another healing spell on Leon. Unfortunately, the paladin did not awaken. Then Arya fired two arrows at the orc. The second one hit it in the chest and it fell to the ground.

“My duodenum!” the orc cried out as the elf cursed him.

They heard the slapping of orc feet from the other side of where they thought the entrance lay.

“Grab him!” Elriya called to Tarmak. “I’ll lead you to the exit.”

Tarmak grabbed Leon, throwing him over his shoulder. With the adrenaline running through him, he was able to pick up the heavy man. They raced through a vestibule. Those with infravision could see that it was some 30 feet by 30 feet with the side walls decorated with faded murals depicting sylvan landscapes. Beyond the room was a sloping passage leading up to the cold. The walls of the passage, like the rest of the place, were hewn from limestone.

They found themselves on the bottom of a ravine. They could see Arthelion ahead, a light in his hand, leading the other slaves up a path in the side of the ravine. It was very dark and cold but at least it wasn’t snowing. Those in the rear could hear the slapping of orc feet behind them and those with infravision could see three more orcs running after them.

Arya ran to grab Elriya and pick her up but found the Halfling weighed more than she first assumed. She nocked another arrow and then turned and ran up the path up the ravine. Elriya raced up the path, running past them all. The orcs jogged after them.

Tarmak, trying to run, dropped Leon’s prone form into the mud up the path. He simply couldn’t carry the man any more. The other two women had outrun him. He pulled the morning star from his belt and turned. As the orcs came up the path, Tarmak leapt at the lead orc, hoping to use the high ground to his advantage. He tripped and crashed to the path, striking his head on a rock. He lay still on the ground, stunned.

Arya pulled the arrow back in her bow and let fly. The lead orc raised his spear to murder Tarmak but the arrow struck him in the neck and he fell back, crashing to the ground on his back. She pulled back her bow and fired a second shot. This one struck the next orc in the chest and he fell backwards as well. The last orc looked at the two, turned, and ran away, heading back into the temple. Elriya moved down the path to Tarmak’s fallen form, her sling swinging over her head, and fired a bullet at the retreating orc. It flew off into the darkness and the orc ran away.

Arya ran down and she and Elriya helped Tarmak up.

“Hey!” Elriya yelled up the ravine. “Help the paladin!”

Four of the men and women broke from the other group.

“The paladin!” one yelled. “He’s in trouble!?!”

As the peasants arrived and picked up Leon, Arya pushed the two unconscious and bleeding orcs off the edge of the path. They flopped down the side of hill to crash at the bottom of the ravine some 20 feet below. Then she headed up the path after Elriya and Tarmak, helping with the priest, who was barefoot.

“Lead Tarmak,” Elriya told her. “I’m going to lead these peasants out.”

“Okay,” Arya said.

Tarmak shook his head. He had a terrible headache and but was able to walk on his own. It was very cold and his bare feet were very, very cold. As they reached the top of the ravine, they thought they could hear someone rushing up from the bottom, far below. The ravine ran in a roughly east and west direction but they had no idea which way to go. They were surrounded by hills with only a few small copses of trees anywhere near. They were unsure where they were though Tarmak knew which direction was north.

They could see flashes in the sky miles away to the east where a thunderstorm played. It seemed to be heading their way though it would probably be hours before it got to them.

Tarmak chose a northeasterly direction to get them away from the ravine and the orcs, at least. Arya knew that Nyrond lay to the south of the place she camped when the orcs ambushed her. Northeast would take them further into the Flinty Hills. She tapped his shoulder.

“Nyrond is south, though,” she said.

“South?” he replied.

“We’re going north,” she said. “Just further in the hills. I think.”

Tarmak continued them moving to the northeast, telling them they would start in that direction and then circle around to make a southerly course once they escaped the orcs. However, they soon heard the sound of barking dogs behind them as well. Tarmak’s feet soon stopped hurting, which was also a bad sign.

They traveled about a mile to the northeast and then Tarmak started them curving towards the south, hoping they would go around the ravine. They didn’t see the fissure again and Tarmak led them south through the cold and the darkness. They had lost sight of Arthelion and were not sure what happened to the mage.

Arya suggested they make camp at some point and so they continued walking south for another hour. By then, they no longer heard the shouts of orcs or the dogs and they found a deep place in the hills not far from a small copse of trees. The peasants collected debris, kindling, and branches from the nearby trees and Elriya had flint and steel. Tarmak soon had a cozy fire burning in the spot, though it continued to get colder, already below freezing.

Arya went hunting in the cold despite having no cloak or anything to keep herself warm.

Tarmak’s feet hurt even worse once they warmed up and he feared he had frostbite. The peasants put Leon close to the fire as was safe and some of them warmed his unconscious form with their own bodies. Some of the peasants gave strips of cloth from their sparse clothing to wrap Tarmak’s injured feet.

* * *

Arya found deer tracks and, after following them for two hours, found her prey. However, she spooked the deer and it ran off. She tracked it again and after only another half hour, she was able to creep up on it. She got to within 130 yards and could just make it out. The thunderstorm continued to approach in the distance.

She shot the deer, striking it in the neck. The animal was not killed but was spooked and ran away. She set to tracking it once again and soon found it. She was able to get within 160 yards. She shot at it again but missed it and the deer was spooked once more. She tracked the animal again and then got within about 150 yards. She shot at the deer again but missed once more. The deer didn’t seem to notice. She crept closer and was able to get within about 130 yards. She crept closer and shot at the deer again. The animal bolted and ran and she lost the animal’s trail.

Snow started to come down and she looked for another animal. She found cleft hoof prints and so followed them. She soon found the wild boar almost 200 yards away in the darkness. There were some trees within about 100 yards of the boar. She crept closer but the animal spooked and took off. She tried to track the animal but soon lost him in the rough barrens.

It was getting colder and colder and she was unsure what direction the camp lay. She had a choice of trying to find some cover and just wandering aimlessly. She wandered for some time but soon felt the cold cutting into her terribly. She eventually found shelter in some trees and covered herself as best she could with the pine straw for the night and keep somewhat warm.

* * *

Dawn of the 8th of Fireseek was partly cloudy. The snow had stopped after only an hour in the early morning and the small fire in the hollow kept the peasants and other adventurers warm. They had seen no sign of Arya. Tarmak prayed to his god and cast healing spells on Elriya and Leon.

However, they found three of the villagers had succumbed to the cold and died during the night. One of the villagers had lain down by the fire and was dead by the next morning. Another had not come back when he’d gone to get more sticks and wood for the fire. The third came back and sat by the fire and watched it. He was dead by morning.

After building up the fire, they put the two dead bodies on it and headed east, in the direction Arya had gone.

* * *

Arya woke that morning, happy to still be alive. She felt terrible. She was cold and stiff and uncomfortable. She made her way to the top of a hill and spotted smoke. She made for it, guessing it was the fire the others had talked about making the night before. She ran into them coming her way roughly an hour later and realized she had wandered some four miles from the original camp during the night.

Tarmak cast a healing spell on Arya.

“Thanks,” she said.

It was still very cold but it was warming up somewhat and it looked like it might get above freezing that day. The snow was melting all around them.

They headed south. Towards the end of the day, they moved out of the hills into a wooded area. It was almost dark as, traveling through the woods, they came across a track and soon saw a village ahead. Dark clouds loomed menacingly over the grim, rain-drenched hamlet a sign marked as Luskwald. The settlement was little more than a cluster of weather-worn cottages surrounded on all sides by solemn, densely wooded hills. Rivers of mud flowed between the wood-frame houses. The houses seemed unfriendly, as if they were unwilling to relinquish some dreadful secret. They also shared one other odd similarity. Flickering in the window of each tenement was a scowling pumpkin, its innards carved out and filled with candlelight.

Leon, looking for a town hall, went to the first building on the left, which was larger than the others. The walls of the building were in desperate need of paint, yet the structure itself seemed to have weathered the passage of time. Above the main door hung a sign that read “Luskwald Traders’ Guild,” according to Tarmak. The guild actually seemed to consist of two buildings: the trade-hall to the south and an adjoining stable sealed by a pair of heavy wooden doors.

They continued down the dirt track past three smaller buildings that appeared to be homes. All of the windows were tightly shuttered and the doors closed against the night. The peasants were cold and tired, some complaining about stopping. Leon told them they were trying to find someplace to stay.

The next large building was on the left, just past near where another road left the village to the east. The large building was a rain-drenched, single-story structure with few windows, adjoining stables, and a large, weather-worn crest painted on the front wall. The crest depicted a green dragon, its wings unfolded, clutching an ale tankard with two fearsome claws.

“Well, this says food and drink and possibly rooms,” Leon said.

“And possibly dragons,” Elriya quipped.

“Dragons?” one of the peasants whined. “I don’t like dragons. We shouldn’t go in there if there’s dragons!”

“Let us find warmth and food,” Leon said.

“And information,” Arya said.

“Information is secondary to safety,” Leon said.

He walked up to the door of the inn and knocked.

“Who is without?” a voice came from within.

“What?” Arya said.

“Who is within?” Leon asked.

He heard someone on the other side of the door gasp.

“I think it’s people!” a voice said. “I think there’s a person out there.”

They heard the bolt pulled and the door was opened by a portly fellow with short hair and a well-trimmed beard.

“Our village is cursed!” he exclaimed loudly.

“Uh …” Arya said.

“Is … this not a good stop?” Leon said.

“Quickly!” the man said. “Come inside. Before it gets in. Quickly! Quickly!”

“Everyone in!” Leon said.

They got everyone into a warm and cozy chamber lit by lanterns suspended from the rafters. Four circular tables occupied the floor space and a large ale barrel stood in the corner. A toasty fire was in the hearth between two shuttered windows on one wall. Several doors led off the room and they could smell stew and hay. A dwarf stood by the ale barrel and a woman stood near the door that obviously led to the kitchen. Two golden brown dogs sat near the hearth, watching the newcomers. A black cat lay on one of the tables.

It was quite crowded in the room with the four adventurers and the 15 peasants, many of whom sat down at the tables, exhausted. The man at the door quickly bolted it again. He seemed very nervous. Arya went over and petted the cat, which rubbed up against her hand, enjoying it every much. In her mind, she beat herself up over the deer she’d wounded.

“Do you have enough food for everyone?” Leon asked.

“We’ll make do,” the dwarf said. “This is my place.”

Elriya greeted him in dwarven and he smiled and spoke his own language back to her.

“I haven’t heard my tongue in many and many a year,” he said to the Halfling. Then in the common tongue: “Who wants stew?”

Tarmak laughed nearly maniacally.

“Everyone,” Leon said.

“Penelope!” the dwarf said. “Stew! Let’s get stew for everyone.”

The adventurers took a table while the peasants all sat down. Some of them put their heads down on the table, exhausted. The four adventurers took out the sacks of coins and Arya said she was carrying some that wasn’t hers.

“That is very forthright of you,” Leon said with genuine respect.

“It’s not mine,” she said again.

“Arya is not a thief,” the paladin exclaimed.

They found they had a total of 150 silver pieces of mixed denominations. There were 131 gold coins as well as the three gemstones. Tarmak pulled out the strange red box he’d found and put it on the table. The dwarf and the woman came out of the kitchen with trays covered in bowls of a thick, hearty stew with plenty of meat and vegetables. The dwarf innkeeper told them the stew was a silver coin a bowl, and came with a piece of bread, which the woman went to fetch. He noted ale cost three copper coins, or two tankards for five copper coins. A bed for the night was two silver coins though he noted most of them would have to stay in the common room as he only had two rooms, the village never getting a great amount of traffic.

They made sure to give all of the villagers food and a mug of ale. The final tally to feed them was about 20 silver coins and the dwarf was not in any hurry to charge the group, making sure all of the people got food and drink first. It was the most delicious food they’d tasted in days.

Unbeknownst to any of them, Elriya had squirreled away 20 gold coins from their loot, mostly as she didn’t want the paladin to give away all of their gold. Leon tucked the three gems away and held onto the other coins.

It was only after they had eaten and drank and put the coin away that the portly man who opened the door approached their table.

“My name is Yanek,” he said. “Donovan Yanek. I’m the laird of this town. Luskwald is beset by a menace … a terrible and mysterious menace. Ezner Mourne, the village glazier, was found dead in his cottage two mornings past, lying in a pool of blood and broken glass. Two others have died since: a pair of local woodsmen named Karn Ironstar and Bryn Bellowforge. Both were murdered in their sleep, and all three victims had their throats slit. Words were scrawled in blood in each of the victims’ homes, but we could not decipher their meaning. I believe the message warns of more deaths to come. Only you can help us stop the evil ─ before it is too late. Adventurers, please, help us!”

“Of course, sir,” Leon said.

“Is the writing still there?” Elriya asked.

“It is,” Yanek said. “One of them, it was … I couldn’t read it … and the others.”

“We’ll investigate it on the morrow,” Leon said.

“Very well,” Yanek said. “Very well. What happened to you folks?”

“We just escaped an orc encampment.”

The man gasped.

“Orcs?” he said. “Are they invading?”

“No, they were trying to uncover some sort of treasure,” Leon said.

“Oh. Well, there was supposed to be some kind of goblin invasion some time ago. That’s why we were repairing … repairing the keep. I-I think the murders are somehow related to the peculiar events that happened in the old keep, a couple miles north of the village. We’ve been fraught with ill-luck ever since repairs began. If you’re willing to help …”

He told them six months ago, the residents of Luskwald heard rumors from passing merchants of a possible goblin incursion into the region. News from the nearest city confirmed speculations that goblin tribes were massing in the Flinty Hills. Worried about the future of his small community, Yanek commissioned a stonemason and several carpenters to rebuild a damaged keep two miles north of the village. The old keep, neglected since the last goblin invasion 10 years before, could be rebuilt and defended at minimal expense. When the villagers got news of a goblin advance, they could retreat to the security of the keep’s thick stone walls.

The repair crews worked for weeks restoring the keep’s fallen walls, while waiting nervously for the first goblin to show its ugly head. For the first several days, the restoration proceeded according to schedule, but in the weeks that followed, several “accidents” led many to believe the keep was cursed or haunted. The first incident was dismissed as a mere mishap: a section of floor collapsed beneath the stonemason, seriously injuring him. Unable to continue his work, the mason left an apprentice in charge of restoring the outer walls. Most of the workers blamed the accident on rotten floorboards, while a handful believed something more sinister was responsible.

But the collapsed floor was just the first of many unfortunate incidents. Over a period of several days, falling blocks of stone struck crewmen, nails pierced their boots, and unsteady scaffolding sent more than one worker tumbling to the ground. At the same time, rumors that the keep was haunted began circulating among the crew. The keep’s restoration was terminated altogether when, just four weeks into the repair schedule, an entire section of the scaffold collapsed, killing one workman and injuring three others. A study of the wreckage revealed that the scaffold had been sabotaged; someone or something had deliberately sawed through three support beams.

Yanek said he tried to convince the workers that the keep was an important bastion against the goblin hordes, but the crewmen were adamant about staying away from the haunted ruins, claiming the site had “a life of its own.” Fortunately, several bands of brave adventurers sent from distant cities put a quick end to the growing goblin threat, and with the village of Luskwald spared, Yanek abandoned his effort to rebuild the fallen keep.

However, the haunting did not end.

In the past week, three villagers had died, each the victim of a grisly assassin whose identity remains a mystery. Several villagers had heard or seen peculiar things over the last several days, leading them to believe that Luskwald has been cursed , or worse, ravaged by angry spirits - perhaps sent by a greater evil that dwells within the ruined keep! Yanek didn’t believe such nonsense, though he told them he wasn’t getting much sleep at night. Beyond any doubt, something was stalking the people of Luskwald … and everyone was afraid.

He suggested they start in the village itself and maybe the nature of the curse would be revealed by exploring the victims’ homes. He also said some of the villagers actually worked on the keep.

“So we can talk to them,” Elriya said.

“Yes,” Yanek said.

He told them the villagers who had worked in the keep included Hans Bellinek, Gustav and Justin Orlesky, Erne and Homm Shyndle, Karn Ironstar and Bryn Bellowforge (who were now both dead), Ezekiel Devek, and Doland Mirklar and his two apprentices. When asked, he noted that the glazier Ezner Mourne, the first to die, had not worked at the keep.

Outside, a light rain began to fall.

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