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Max_Writer

Pathfinder - The Sunless Citadel 1 - The Many Mysteries of Oakhurst

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Thursday, August 28, 2017

(After Jacob Marcus ran his Pathfinder game “The Sunless Citadel” with Justin Moser, Katelyn Hogan, and me Tuesday from 6 p.m. to midnight.)

Iago’s Memoires

I found myself in the village of Oakhurst, the only place where one could buy the apples of life and death. The enchanted apples were said to be able to cure or kill anyone who ate them. In the summer, they sold the apple of life, which could heal any wound, any disease, or anything wrong, physically, with a person. The apples of death did exactly the opposite: anyone who ate them died. It was said the apples were very distinctive-looking, having an otherworldly aura to them. They were shiny and perfect, without a single blemish. The apples of life were red and the apples of death were white.

It was midwinter when I arrived in the village, two weeks before the winter solstice. I had arrived early in hopes of being able to buy some of the apples. I hoped for the apples of life, but even the others would prove very valuable, potentially.

I, of course, was the wizard Iago of the University of Magic. A tall man, I wore red robes and a wide-brimmed, pointed wizard’s hat. I had a finely trimmed mustache and goatee, and I carried a sack on my shoulder. A backpack, tent, and bedroll were all strapped to the pack saddle of my mule, Hepzidiah. I owned a light crossbow and a dagger to defend myself, but I used my magic almost exclusively. I had even penned several magical scrolls that I kept on my person, just in case.

Oakhurst was a tiny town with the Ol’ Boar Inn prominent in the center, not far from a well and across from the general store. There was a healer, a blacksmith, and a larger house where I soon learned the mayor lived, as well as a small jail and place for the constable of the hamlet. A road ran through it and it had taken me some time to reach it as it was in the middle of nowhere.

I went to the Ol’ Boar Inn, tying my mule up out front.

“Innkeeper!” I called.

I strode into the place and found two gnomes within, one standing on the bar.

“Welcome to the inn, sir!” he said.

The female gnome didn’t say a word but merely waved to me as she worked.

“I need someone to take my mule to the stables,” I said.

“We can see to that sir,” the gnome named Dem said.

I later learned the female was named Nackle.

“Thank you,” I said. “And a room for the night! Your best room.”

Nackle left the inn.

“And a glass of wine,” I said. “The road was dusty.”

“That will be one gold piece for the wine and two for the night,” Dem said.

I paid the gnome and took a seat at a small table in the corner, my back to the wall. The gnome soon came to me with wine and a key for my room.

I noticed another woman in the room who sat at the bar. She had long dark hair, wore armor, and carried two scimitars. There was also a female in a booth with a red cloak over her figure. She was very tall and seemed to have a hunchback or something. She was not human.

One of the gnomes soon returned.

“What do you have to eat around here, my good gnomish fellow?” I said.

“We have lots of meat,” he said. “Any kind of meat you want, really.”

“Dragon meat?”

“You have to go into the bigger cities for that.”

“You said ‘any kind of meat you want.’”

The large woman in red gave me a strange look.

“We have dire bison,” he said. “Is that good enough?”

I frowned.

“Bring me some steak and potatoes then,” I said.

He hurried off.

“Thank you, good sir,” I said. “And another glass, please.”

“Gladly,” he replied.

I lit my pipe, casting a silent image spell at the same time.

I overheard two younger people at the bar who were dressed and smelled like farm hands. They sat near the warrior woman. One of them looked at the other, arms folded. They talked about some kind of goblin monopoly.

I made illusionary but silent sparks come out of my pipe. Then the smoke formed into things above my head.

“How much do they steal from you?” the woman at the bar asked. “The goblins.”

“Oh, they never steal any,” the local said. “They just come by and they sell the apples to us every year. But every time we try to plant the seeds to see if we can grow our own, they’re gone in about a day or two. The saplings come on up within a couple hours and they get to about yay high and … we wake up the next morning and they’re gone.”

I filled the corner up with illusionary smoke filled with strange and mysterious figures.

“We can’t grow our own apples here, so we just pay the goblins a bunch of gold for each one they bring us and then sell them to the people that come by,” the farmer continued. “They only show up twice a year. Bring a bunch of bags. And they leave. We don’t let them into the village. No.”

“All right,” the woman said.

I stood up and walked over to the bar, a smoky, illusionary dragon on each shoulder. My red robes stretched all the way back to the table I had been sitting at and moved strangely of their own accord.

“They come from that chasm, way over yonder,” he went on, pointing vaguely. “You know, legend says there’s supposed to be a great big ol’ fortress over there. But I can’t see how there could be. It’s just a great big old hole in the ground.”

“So, my good, sir, if I might?” I said as I reached the drunken lout.

“Eh?” he said.

He looked at me and seemed intrigued by the spectacle I presented.

“You must be one of them city spell-chuckers,” he said.

I thought on that a moment.

“Sure,” I finally said. “You mean to tell me your village doesn’t produce the apples of life and death, you purchase them from goblins?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not a secret.”

“Well, it was for me.”

“Every time we try to go get ‘em ourselves, we think we know where they come from. There’s goblin writings all over the chasm.”

“And you try to plant your own and they get stolen?”

“Yeah. The saplings grow to about a foot tall overnight. We go to bed and then, the following day, they’re gone. They don’t even look like real saplings. They look like a bush rather than a tree.”

“Have you thought about putting a guard on your saplings?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to the guard?”

“We didn’t find Clarence again. So, rather than risk another person - there’s only about 50 people here - rather than risk another person, we thought it’d be best if we didn’t put another guard and we haven’t planted since.”

“Do you have more seeds?”

“Yeah!”

“Oh.”

“Got a little bag in the back. Want one?”

“Perhaps … perhaps you need …”

“Two gold pieces I’ll give you one.”

“… adventurers to guard your saplings for you when you grow them. People who have some skill in … I don’t know … knowing how to use a scimitar or … cast magical spells might be able to help you with your situation.”

“Five gold pieces for one seed.”

“You’re upping the price when I’m offering to guard your apples while they grow?”

“Two gold pieces and you can guard the apples as they grow.”

I laughed at the simple man’s audacity.

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”

“My name is Terry,” he said. “I’m the local farmer.”

“There’s only one farmer in this town?”

“There’s five of us. We share the same fields.”

“I see.”

“Ain’t no lord around here.”

“Not yet. Thank you for your information, Terry. I might take you up on your offer.”

I returned to my table. Terry got up and waddled out.

I kept my magical illusion going with smoke and light. I created a tiny battlefield on my table. Several people showed up just to look at the magical display.

Terry returned some 30 minutes later with a tiny bag. He walked over to me and placed a single, large apple seed on the table. It was black and the size of an almond. He pushed it towards me.

“Oh, Terry,” I said. “Have a seat. Have a drink with me. As you can see, no one’s here.”

He looked down at the strange illusion on the table and saw his drink at another table, went over, drank it down, and left.

“Good talking to you, too, my friend,” I said.

I examined the seed, allowing the illusion to fade away. The seed looked like an apple seed though it was immensely large. Though I had heard about the apples of life and death, I had never heard one described in detail. I wondered how large they were and if they were as large as a pumpkin. I cast a detect magic spell on the seed next and saw that it had been touched by druidic magic. It was some of the most powerful druidic magic I had ever come in contact with.

I lit my pipe again and thought about what I wanted to do with the seed.

The giant of a woman got up and walked over to my table and sat down.

“Ah,” I said. “Greetings.”

“Hello,” she said.

I now got a better look at her. She was solid. She had dark hair and wore an armored coat. She had green eyes and tan skin and two scimitars on her belt.

“I saw you pocket that seed,” she said.

“Yes, the apple seed,” I said. “I’m trying to determine what to do with it. I’m ruminating.”

“Well, if the rumors are true, we should probably plant it and see what grows.”

“Well, I understand that. But, at the same time, if we plant it this time of year, we’ll get an apple of death. That’s not why I came.”

“Well, if your goal is money …”

“Magic is my goal. You might not have a noticed, but I am a magician.”

“I noticed.”

“I’m a wizard.”

“I noticed, sir. You had a small battle going on the table just a few minutes ago.”

“Oh yes, it was quaint. My name is Iago. I am trying to determine the best course of action. The locals, I heard them mention a ravine where the goblins are from. They apparently despise the goblins but I’ve never been one to hold something against a race of creatures, even one as reputably evil as the goblins. So, I’m trying to make a decision what to do.”

I thought on it a moment.

“I wasn’t planning on spending the night alone watching over apples growing,” I said. “I suppose it’s possible for the two of us to watch it. Do you think that would be a good course of action.”

“I think it’s the logical course of action,” she said.

“I’m curious as to whether the seed would grow elsewhere, such as away from the ravine and the goblins.”

“I don’t know if you heard but a group of people, a group of adventurers came through here. They were looking for the Sunless Citadel.”

“The Sunless Citadel! The Sunless Citadel!”

I had heard of the Sunless Citadel though very little of it. It was a fabled place filled with vast riches.

I looked around the room and noted four men sitting at a table talking and mulling over papers.

“You, there, gentlemen!” I said to them. “You know where the Sunless Citadel is?”

“The three adventurers who came through here two or three months back seemed to know exactly where it was,” one of them said.

“Where?”

“It’s the goblin ravine.”

He gestured vaguely in the direction of the old road. It was the same direction Terry had gestured before.

“The old road used to be the major highway that all the people of the empire would come through on,” the man went on. “But ever since the ravine formed, nobody comes through there anymore because the road just ends. You can’t get through there anymore.”

“What are you … ever since the ravine came, is that what you just said?”

“Yeah. Since the cataclysm.”

“What cataclysm?”

“About 200 years ago, the earth shook like a mother****er and we noticed that traffic had completely stopped coming from the capitol. So, we went to investigate and discovered that about half a day’s walk up the old road there was a great big ravine that was about 60 feet across.”

“How far long is it? Why not just build the road around it?”

“The ravine is about 20 miles in either direction.”

“Well, that would be why.”

“There is a new road. It’s a much longer road but it skirts the ravine and comes from a whole other direction.”

“How big is this ravine?”

“It’s about 60 feet across at its thickest. It never gets less than 40 feet until you get to the end of it.”

“You never … you don’t have any …?”

“We tried to build a bridge across it if that’s what you’re asking. As soon as we built a bridge across it, it was destroyed. So we built another one and it was destroyed and by that point we’d run out of money.”

“Destroyed by?”

“Yes,” the warrior woman said. “Did anyone see who destroyed it.”

The man scratched his head.

“Our local ranger said that it was goblins,” the man said. “On account of the fact that, all over this thing, there’s goblin warning signs. You know how goblins don’t have writing? Goblins just put shapes on signs to tell their kinfolk─?”

“Yes, they’re called hieroglyphics,” I said.

“Uh-huh. The posts we stuck in the ground to make the rope bridge across are covered in those.”

“Did you try to talk to these goblins? Don’t they come here regularly and trade apples with you?”

“Mayor’s the only one that can talk to them. The mayor actually speaks goblin. And kobold. The mayor comes out. He meets them on the edge of town, does the business, and then brings the money in and shares it with the whole town and we all make a profit.”

“What’s his name?”

“Mayor Vurnor Leng. He lives over at the big house.”

The strange, large female in red got up from her place and left the back of the inn, probably for the privy.

“So, if I understand you, sir, the Mayor controls the apple business that goes on in town?” the woman asked.

“No,” the man said.

“No?”

“We give him a bunch of money to pay the goblins. He comes back with the apples and then we all divide the money.”

“You sell the apples to passers-through?” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “About twice a year. The first merchants to come. It’s a first come, first serve. As soon as they get here they buy as many as they can afford. The goblins … the goblins don’t really understand money … and it’s better for us that way.”

“They don’t understand money but they have a monopoly?” the woman said.

I realized goblins have a vague enough grasp of money but no real use for it in their culture which begged the question: Why did they need money?

“I don’t think we should do the seed tonight,” I said.

“Agreed,” the woman replied. “We need to wait until tomorrow and ask the mayor a couple questions.”

The large woman came back from the privy and sat back in her booth.

I learned the woman I was with was called Brook.

I also learned where Hepzidiah was lodged and made sure to retrieve my pack saddle with backpack, tent, and bedroll, which all went into my room. It was a small room with a feather bed and a bolt on the door. The inn was set up with an ingenious system of bronze vents and pipes that drew heat but not smoke from the main fireplace in the taproom. It kept the room warm most of the night.

* * *

I woke up when I heard the gnomes clattering in the kitchen below me. I studied my spellbook before heading down for breakfast. I found Brook and the other woman with scales there already. They were the only ones present. Brook sat at a table while the strange creature sat in a booth in the corner. I waved at Brook and then walked over to the stranger.

“Good morningtide!” I said. “I am Iago, a magician, a wizard of some renown.”

“I was … very much aware of you last night,” she said.

“Ah, my plan worked! That’s my friend Brook over there. We couldn’t help but notice you’re obviously not a local.”

“You are correct.”

Brook got up and walked over.

“I’m a cleric of Sarenrae,” the dragon-looking woman said. “I’m visiting the healer here and volunteering for a little while before I move on.”

“Oh,” I said. “I am a mage.”

“Clearly,” she said.

“Brook is a … Brooke, speak for yourself,” I said.

“I’m a ranger,” she said.

“Brook is a ranger,” I said.

“That’s nice,” the dragon-woman said.

“And we have this!” I said, producing the apple seed.

“I know,” the dragon woman said.

“I meant you to!” I said. “And now it’s gone!”

I had quickly cast a prestidigitation spell and made the seed vanish from my hand.

“Could we join you for breakfast?” I asked.

“I suppose,” she said. “So long as I do not put you off. There’s a reason I stay in the corner.”

“You’re a … wyvaran?” I said.

“How … do you know that?” she said. “There’s not many of us.”

“I know many things.”

“Of course you do.”

“If you haven’t noticed yet, he’s a bit full of himself,” Brook said.

“Since he came in with two smoke dragons─” the wyvaran said.

“I’m a wizard!” I protested. “Of course I’m full of myself!”

“─and asked for dragon meat, if I recall?”

“I asked if they had dragon meat.”

“Hm.”

“I didn’t ask for dragon meat.”

“Right. Right.”

“I didn’t. It’s called basic Common.”

“Well, did you need prayer? Is that why you’re here?”

“Probably. I also know that wyvarans are a fusion of kobold and wyvern and often found in leading kobold tribes, serving wyverns, or even dwelling with true dragons. Like wyverns, they are territorial creatures, but also have an acute sense of honor. Many civilized races dismiss wyvarans as fast, dumb, selfish brutes. However, they can make steadfast and loyal allies.”

“He’s educating me about myself,” the wyvaran said to Brook.

“May we join you?” I asked again. “As the only ones present, why should someone sit alone?”

She gestured at the table and Brook and I took our seats for breakfast and a sweet breakfast wine.

“We plan on investigating these apples and their seeds,” I said as we ate.

“Apparently the mayor has some kind of control over the economy,” Brook said.

I learned the wyvaran’s name was Argie.

We proceeded to tell the wyvaran what we had learned of the strange seeds and the apples of life. We related the mayor seemed suspicious as he, alone, dealt with the goblins.

“And why would goblins want money?” I asked. “They have no use for it. At least not in a hole in the ground.”

Argie just looked at me.

“It’s a rhetorical question, you see,” I said. “None of us can answer it. Not even me.”

“Right, right,” she said. “The smartest man in the world, I’m sure.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

We told her we were going to talk to the mayor and explore the town. I told her she could join us if she wanted. She declined, saying she was going to the healer and we should get her when we went by there. Brook wanted to go to the general store and so we parted from the wyvaran.

* * *

The owner of the general store was a half-orc named Lutgehr. The store was mostly filled with farm equipment, nets, snares, a few fishing poles, hunting equipment, and the like. There was nothing that would really be valuable to us except for maybe camping supplies and a few rugged knives. He told us if we were looking for metal works, the blacksmith next door did most of that work, though he pointed out he sold much of what the blacksmith made.

She asked Lutgehr for maps and the half-orc sold her a map of the area for a couple of gold coins. It showed Oakhurst, a place called the Ashen Plain to the west, and the ravine to the southwest. A few pillars drawn on the ravine and the words “Sunless Citadel” had been added to the map as well.

Brook asked the half-orc about the mayor.

“The mayor’s a good man,” Lutgehr said. “It was his idea.”

“His idea to … what?” Brook said.

“Ever since he started talking to the goblins, we’ve been able to make a ton of money. None of us ever really want for anything. We only grow our own crops to feed ourselves. We got a hefty bit of cash.”

I remembered no one claimed Oakhurst. Two hundred years before, there was a lord of the area. However, the area had been affected the most during the cataclysm of 200 years before. Other small provinces and the like were nearby, but none of them claimed Oakhurst for some reason.

“Lutgehr, we’re practically strangers,” I said to the half-orc. “You shouldn’t brag about how much gold you have. Some who are not as moral and just and upright as us might take advantage.”

Lutgehr hung his head in shame.

“No no!” I said. “My good friend, my good man, my half-orc. You must not feel bad. I can understand your being flustered by Brook’s beautimous looks, muscular toned body, perfect legs, and flowing black hair. You must understand. Don’t be embarrassed. Anyone would do that same. I just want you to careful, for future reference. I just met Brook and she seems to be of upright character. I could be mistaken. I know I am of upright character.”

I gave the half-orc and approving look.

“Do you know anything about the Sunless Citadel, Lutgehr?” I asked.

“I see you noticed I added that to the map,” he said. “About two months ago, three adventurers came into town, shanghaied one of our town guards to go on an adventure, because they’d claimed they found the Sunless Citadel. So, I asked them where it is. They told me so I added it to the map.”

“This wouldn’t be that same place as that castle that used to be here, would it?”

He looked at me.

“Wasn’t there a castle in the area where the place was ruled until the cataclysm?” I said.

“Never thought of that,” he said. “But yeah. That’d be right where it should be.”

“Hm. And now it is the Sunless Citadel.”

I accidently dropped the map and used prestidigitation to pick it back up. Twice.

We left the man to look for the wyvaran.

* * *

Argie had been in the healer’s house, dealing with an old man and a person sick with a cold. The healer was a Halfling named Kerowyn, a priestess of Pelor.

* * *

The blacksmith was hammering away at a forge that was built just for dwarves. Argie came out of the healer’s house and I called to her, waving her over as she covered her head with her hooded cloak. We told her we were going to talk to the dwarf and saw the name “Hercule” over the shop. We told her of talking to the half-orc in the general store.

We walked over to the smith and I stood there and watched him work. The dwarf looked very busy. Two farmer’s scythes were heating up in the forge. He was sharpening two pitchforks on the anvil. To one side was a crucible melting steel. He looked very busy and very distracted.

He quickly noticed me watching him and he went into a frenzy of movement, probably trying to impress me. He worked on the pitchfork robustly, grunting and sweating as he did so. He dunked the heated pitchfork into water and then stuck it back in the fire. He got to work on one of the scythes, but his fury of work and possibly pride got into the way. He missed the anvil and bent the blade of the scythe. He had too many irons in the fire.

“Damn it!” he yelled angrily.

He tried frantically to hammer it back into shape but it was not the way it was supposed to be. He glared at me.

“How can I help you?” she growled.

“My good dwarf, I’m here to help you,” I purred. “Might I?”

I gestured towards the damaged scythe. One of his eyes twitched.

“I am a wizard, sir,” I said. “And I am only here to help. But not without your permission, of course.”

I bowed deeply to him in dwarven fashion.

“It is a pleasure to meet such a skilled craftsman,” I said in dwarvish.

He seemed flattered at that. He didn’t say anything but he backed away from the scythe and gestured at it. I cast a mending spell on the blade of the scythe, pulling it back into perfect shape. I stood away from it. The dwarf looked at it and seemed to calm down.

“I can’t help but feel it was partially my fault this happened,” I said.

He put the scythe off to the side.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“We’re investigating,” I said. “We have a few questions about the apples and your beautiful village, here.”

He rolled his eyes at the word “beautiful.”

“We are traveling adventurers,” I went on. “We are thinking about going to the ravine, but … but … and this is important. We understand the ravine is important to the economic welfare of your village and we don’t want to cause any trouble with that either.”

“My business is good,” he said. “It doesn’t come from the apples either.”

He looked me up and down.

“I understand one of your own is missing,” I said.

He tensed.

“How did you find that out?” he said.

“Someone at the inn last night mentioned it,” I said. “As well as Lutgehr said one of the town guards had gone away with some adventurers a few months ago and had not yet returned. None of them returned, I suppose.”

“That’s right. My son didn’t come back.”

“He was your son. My condolences. The goblins─”

“I don’t need your damned condolences.”

“Then I rescind them. The goblins might still have him as a prisoner. The possibility is there.”

“Goblins, especially these kinds, love their pit fighting. And I know my son. The little pansy-ass shit probably didn’t survive two rounds in one of their rings.”

“Not much faith in your son, I see,” Brook said.

“He couldn’t cut a ****ing tree down,” Hercule said. “Let alone swing a sword properly. I tried to train him. He thought he was good. That was the funny part. He thought he was good. So, when that damned wizard and the stupid, stupid paladin … I ****ing hate paladins. They always think they’re so good.”

Argie smirked.

“When he came through and he looked at my son and said …” Hercule went on. “You know what? I think he thought of my son as a pack mule because a big muscular boy he was.”

He found a chair and sat, leaning back, his foot up on the anvil.

“That ravine … that ravine …” he went on. “They came through claiming that the damned Sunless Citadel was at the bottom of it. And … I don’t think it is. Because if it were, I think there’d be a hell of a lot more people coming through to see it. The merchants and the mapmakers in town have already started adding it to the map as if it’s ****ing there. But I don’t think it is. At the same time, my son never came back. And … I do have hope that he is still alive. But I’d more like to see that damned paladin alive so that I can put my boot through his head myself.”

“What is your son’s name?” I asked.

“My son’s name is Dolf,” Hercule said. “His name is Dolf.”

He looked into the fire.

“And your name, good sir?” I asked.

“My name’s Hercule,” he said.

“Well, if we go to the ravine, we will look for him.”

“If you plan on going, take none of our people and you’ll do way better than those adventuring *******s did.”

“No no no. I don’t put others into danger. I put myself into danger for others.”

He got up and got to work and I thanked him and we left as he grunted an appropriate good-bye.

We went to the mayor’s house next. A wooden plaque over the door read “Mayor Vurnor Leng.” He was obviously not a local. He was sitting at a grant table and eating a meal. He had black hair, piercing green eyes, and slightly pointed ears that seemed to indicate he was half-elven. He dressed as the rest of the people in the village but was very clean. He was very lean.

“Okay, go talk to him,” I said to Brook. “This is weird.”

The massive building proved to be more a great hall than anything else. There were trophies all over the walls, as well as banners of the various other provinces and kingdoms adjacent to Oakhurst. Many of the trophies were made of animal heads. A tapestry covered a wall that told the story of the Sunless Citadel. It started with a picture of a black, multi-spired castle. Then there was a picture of a huge dragon that covered the sun. The dragon breathed fire on the keep and then the castle was gone and there was nothing but a chasm or ravine. Argie, once she saw it, went over to admire it.

Brook went to the mayor and pulled up a seat. The man leaned forward and looked at her, a near constant smirk on his face.

“Another adventurer?” he said, a lilt to his voice. “Wow. That’s a lot more than were used to seeing. What can I help you with?”

Brook leaned forward to show off her ample cleavage, taking a deep bow. He seemed unphased.

“Thank you for noticing, Mr. Mayor,” she said.

“Yeah!” he said.

Once they were talking, I quietly cast detect magic and looked around. Argie gave off a little glow, unsurprising as she was a strange draconic experiment. Vurnor Leng gave off a strange nature glow. Nothing else glowed in the place, however. Leng’s glow was the earthy green of the druids. It didn’t seem like he had used any of his druidic abilities in a long time.

“Can we talk about the apple trade in town?” Brook said.

“Sure!” Leng said. “You came at just the right time, man! In about a week, we get a whole other shipment. You get to buy them before the merchants show up.”

“Well I appreciate that, sir,” Brook said. “How does it work when the goblins come to town? Do they just come into town and sell to the merchants directly or … how does it work?”

Leng leaned forward.

“Yeah,” he said with a smirk. “About 50-odd years ago, they just started coming to the village and they would bring these apples. And we knew they weren’t normal. These apples are about the size of a pumpkin. One of them could feed a whole village. But then we ate one of ‘em and we realized we felt better than we’ve ever felt before. And … so we bought ‘em from ‘em and we started to sell ‘em. Do it about twice a year.”

“Well, Mr. Mayor,” Brook said. “It’s strange behavior that I’ve heard of for goblins to come into contact with people through trade.”

“You know, goblin tribes are weird.”

“That seems like a very simple explanation, Mr. Mayor.”

“I’m about 80 years old. Back when I was a practicing druid, in my village, we had had six goblin tribes that lived all around us. All of ‘em could speak three to four languages. Some of them had complicated rituals. Others used money. Others would even barter and trade. So the idea of a goblin tribe circumventing or usurping expectations is not alien to me, while it might be to you.”

“Well, Mr. Mayor, from where do these goblins come?”

“They come from that crevice.”

“Crevice?”

“The crevice on the old road.”

“I figured.”

“They moved in, according to the locals ledgers, they moved in about 50 years after the cataclysm. They’ve been there ever since. We don’t know where they live in that trench. We know the old fortress is down there. We assume they live in that.”

“The Sunless Citadel? The old fortress.”

“That’s what those adventurers called it. Never heard it called that before. Although I have heard of the Sunless Citadel.”

“What do you know of the Sunless Citadel?”

“It’s one of those legends they tell kids to stop ‘em from going into the woods.”

“Have anything to do with this large tapestry you have on the wall?”

“That’s just what happened when the cataclysm happened. Dragon came through and he ripped great big holes in the land. The local castle, where the lord lived who ruled this area, sank right to the bottom of it. Then the chasm closed up slightly again. I assume the castle’s crushed under there somewhere.

“But that’s just a legend. Nobody’s seen that dragon or any dragons in about 200 years. The cataclysm was the even what ended it all.”

He went quiet and took a bite off the turkey leg on the table.

“Well, Mr. Mayor, I know some people from the village, including a group of adventurers like me and my friends over there, had gone into the chasm prior to our arrival and have been missing some two months?” Brook said.

“Yeah,” Leng said.

“Have you sent anyone after them or … made any sort of inquiries into that issue? Have the goblin brought them up during trade or has it been too long since you traded previously.”

“Outside of the trade, we never see them. And we don’t interfere with them. And as long as we make sure … I don’t worry about those adventurers hurting the trade, I worry about their lives. Because we haven’t seen them. And we do not have enough people or enough knowledge or power to be able to go in after them.”

I asked Argie if she could detect evil quietly. She said she could and we talked about it.

Brook tried to sit on the table and fell to the floor with a crash. Argie and I looked over, wondering what happened.

“Brook, are you all right?” I asked. “What just happened?”

Brook jumped to her feet and brushed herself off.

“Aren’t you afraid, Mr. Mayor, that if adventurers go and exterminate the goblins, the money-making venture of your apple selling might … dry up?” I asked.

“The thought has occurred to me,” he said.

“You didn’t try to stop the adventurers?”

“Do I have a military?”

“Asking politely could do just as much, dependent upon what kind of people they are.”

“The man that came through and started it all was a paladin of the sun. A paladin of the sun wanting to visit one of the darkest places in this entire realm. Do you think I can stop someone like that?”

“The land is under your domain, isn’t it? Lawfully, you are the law of this land. Then yes, sir, I think if you tell a paladin that he is breaking the law by going into a place where you have told him not to, that he will not go.”

“His laws were not of this land.”

“Ah. Typical hypocrisy of paladins.”

“His first law of existence told him that he has to expunge darkness and evil wherever he found it, even if that goes against other laws. And it seems he had two shanghaied with him. He had a wizard and he had a ranger.”

“What did these people look like?”

“Well, the paladin’s name was Sir Braford. Braford … the only thing … he always had his helmet on. He never took that off. He was about … he was huge.”

“What kind of helmet? Cover his whole face?”

“Visor, yes. Full plate.”

“A paladin of the sun that won’t let it touch him. Interesting. What about the others? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Sir Braford, before I continue, little interesting detail. He had a sword around his waist that I’ve never seen the likes of before. Very, very, very unique. It had a jagged edge on one side and a smooth, razor edge on the other. And it had this … gem on the hilt.”

“Hm.”

“It was also inordinately long. To me or you, it would have been a full-sized, two-handed broadsword.”

“But he was immense?”

“He was immense.”

I recognized the description of the sword. It sounded like one of the Seven Great Swords, one of them being Shatterspike. It matched the description exactly. The weapon was evil and intelligent. The swords also commanded they could not be concealed. Thus the reason for his wearing it where all could see.

I asked for descriptions of the other two.

“The other two were pretty bland,” he said. “There was the wizard. I think her name was Sharwyn.”

“A bland wizard,” Brook said. “That must be comforting.”

“She just wore a gray cloak, had a wide-brimmed hat and she didn’t do much magic,” Leng said. “I could tell that she was rather powerful. Potentially even gifted. She didn’t like being looked-at directly. She was a drow.”

That was disquieting.

“Then there was the ranger,” Leng went on. “The ranger came through, and he was just an average human. There was nothing really special about him. He just … I couldn’t even tell you his name.”

“Name?” I asked.

“His name was Karakas,” Leng said.

I asked if the man had a bow but Leng said the only thing notable about him was that he kept his hood up and it was so dark under the hood, you couldn’t see his face. He said the man had a massive bow, the type used by people who lie on their backs and fire it using their feet.

“They seemed all right to me,” Leng said. “They came through, they said they wanted to find the Sunless Citadel. I told them they could go right ahead and look, that it’s not here. And they went off and never came back.”

“And you had no worries they might destroy the goblins and end your apple trade,” I said.

“No.”

“How did you initiate this apple trade with these goblins? I remain curious.”

“They really just showed up.”

“Goblins just showed up?”

“At first we thought they were going to try to raid our village. But they were carrying all these sacks.”

“Full of the apples.”

“Full of the apples. And when … I can speak goblin.”

“Oh!”

“So, of course, I went and I met them. And … they said they wanted to trade. So, I told them they couldn’t come into the village. They were fine with that. They sold us the apples and then they left. We thought it was over. And then, six months later, they came back, this time with white apples.”

“The death apples.”

“Yes. They don’t sell as well as the red ones but at the same time, it’s a different market for those.”

“I understand.”

“Wizards love to study them.”

“I can imagine.”

“That’s mainly who comes to buy them. Those and a bunch of shady people. But that’s about it.”

“How much do you pay the goblins for these apples?”

“Sixty gold each.”

“How much do you sell your apples for?”

“That depends on how many we have. Sometimes we get hundreds.”

“And that brings the price down.”

“Sometimes we get hundreds. Sometimes … last year’s crop only had 50 apples in it. And those, of course, were about a thousand gold apiece.”

“And I understand that the apples won’t grow around here.”

“They will, but we don’t know why─”

“They just disappear.”

“Yes.”

“Along with anyone guarding them.”

“I didn’t tell them to put a guard on it. I told them not to.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything. You’re looking out for your people. You’re in a precarious position here. You have so many countries around you and you’re still independent.”

“Terry came by yesterday, said he sold you a seed. Have you checked on it?”

“No. No.”

“Have you actually checked it? You’re a wizard. You know actual magic.”

“Yes yes yes. It’s magical, yes.”

“That’s all you know.”

“That’s all I know. What else should I know.”

“It doesn’t matter what color apple the seed comes from, it’s always evil.”

“The seed is always evil.”

Argie looked at me and then stepped back.

“Destroy it,” she said under her breath.

“So, the seeds are evil,” I said.

“Destroy it,” she said more loudly.

“No matter what apple they come from,” Leng said. “Even the apples that cure diseases.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“There must be a catch,” Argie said.

“Well, thank you mayor,” I said. “Unless you had something else. I’m sorry.”

“No,” Brook said. “But, you’ve been a valuable source of information, Mr. Mayor, but I think we’re going to try to go do something on our own?”

We left the place. I told them what I knew about Shatterspike and the Seven Great Swords. I told them it had not been a paladin. I warned them drow were not to be trusted. We also talked about the trees.

“You’re not thinking of planting this thing, are you?” Argie said.

“Well, the apples themselves are not good or evil, just the seeds,” I said. “You did look at it and it’s evil?”

“Yes.”

“I guessed as much. Very evil?”

“It looked like fire in your pocket.”

“Maybe I should get a little box for this or something.”

I pointed out there was no real hurry to get to the Sunless Citadel as we had nearly a week before the goblins came to the village. I suggested getting Hercule to build a little cage to use to grow the seed and see what happened.

“Does it get up and walk away?” I asked. “Does it attack those around it? Does something come and get it?”

“I don’t like this,” Argie said.

We discussed it and I told them I didn’t trust the mayor. Brook agreed that we should plant the seed and put the cage. I voiced that if it did turn into something horrific, we’d destroy it. Argie thought I’d want to let it run free but neither Brook nor I wanted that. I also noted someone was in charge of the goblins. The species did not traditionally trade with mankind.

We found Hercule, working less frantically than he had been before.

“Ah, Hercule,” I said. “We might have a commission for you.”

“Aye,” he said. “What do you want me to make?”

“We need a cage.”

“How big?”

“I would guess perhaps four feet tall. No, three feet tall. Two and a half to three feet wide. Narrow bars.”

“How thick do you want the bars?”

“What?”

“How thick do you want the bars? A ****ing birdcage or human cage?”

“A birdcage that a human would have trouble getting out of.”

“Aye. It’ll be 20 gold pieces and I’ll have it done in a day or two.”

“Thirty gold pieces to have it done tomorrow morning.”

“Done.”

* * *

Hercule was waiting in the taproom for us on our third day in Oakhurst. He had circles under his eyes but he had a cage that was perfect. It was iron and heavy with thick bars. I paid him and told him it was perfect and then complimented him in dwarven as well.

I had purchased a little box for the seed the day before. If it was as evil as Argie said, I didn’t want it against my skin.

We headed out of town and found a copse of woods on the other side of the village from the ravine. I took my backpack with my tent and bedroll. I pitched the tent in the trees and then planted the seed, putting a little water from my water skin on it and quickly manhandling the iron cage over it.

The plant grew almost immediately, beginning to sprout before the water could even touch the soil. Argie cast a spell but could detect no evil from the sapling. I guessed there was powerful druidic magic at work. Within 12 hours, it went from a small sapling to what looked like a bramble bush. It just fit in the cage by the end of the day and wasn’t touching the cage. I pulled one branch out so it touched the iron.

Night was falling by then and Brook said she’d take the first watch. I went to sleep in my tent while Argie chose to sleep under the cold stars in her bedroll.

* * *

I was awoken by Brook an hour or two after sunset.

“The cage is making noise,” she said. “I don’t know if you want to hear it.”

I climbed out of the tent and cast a dancing lights spell, creating four flaming lights in a square around the cage. I heard Argie chanting and realized she was casting detect evil again.

The horrible little bush was now shaped like some kind of humanoid creature that was small enough to comfortably fit in the cage. It’s hands, for lack of a better word, were grasping the bars of the cage while the thing made a terrible noise and shook the bars.

“Hm,” I said. “Intelligent?”

Argie cast a spell to create fire in her hand.

“Wait!” I said. “It can’t get out. It’s trapped.”

The sapling was gone and there was a hole in the ground. I ran over to the thing and stared at it. I tried speaking several different languages to it but it didn’t seem to understand any.

“Fascinating,” I said.

I cast a spell to detect magic upon the thing and found it was magic and held together by druidic magic. Argie cast a spell to detect evil and then raised her hand to fling the fire at it.

“Wait!” I said. “It’s trapped for the moment. It’s evil, I take it.”

“Yes!” she nodded. “Yes!”

I didn’t figure a charm spell would work on the thing.

“Don’t do anything reckless,” Argie said. “If this thing gets away …”

“No no no,” I said.

“Because it would have to go right through town to get where it wants to go.”

“No no no. We’re not letting it go. We’re not letting it go at all.”

Brook was making noises at the thing. It seemed to look at her and then curled up in a little ball and started to shiver, watching her with pure hatred in its glowing leaf-eyes.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I just wanted it to calm down,” Brook said. “But look at it now.”

Brook leaned down by the cage and I warned that my spell was going to fail shortly. Then it did so, throwing us into darkness.

“Oh, that’s just the spell going out,” I said. “Hold on.”

I took out flint and steel and lit a candle.

“Better than cursing the darkness!” I said with a laugh.

The thing saw the flame and cowered even more. It seemed terrified of the fire of my candle.

“I don’t think that my charm spell will work on this thing,” I said. “Too bad we don’t have a piece of metal we can slide under it or something.”

The thing stood back up, looking around with hatred. While Argie and I discussed the possibility of her using a comprehend languages spell on it, Brook tapped the cage with her sword, which seemed to enrage the strange little thing.

“What are you … why …?” I said. “Just stop!”

“I just wanted to see how it reacts,” she said.

“Can you speak with animals?”

“No.”

The growling sounded like dozens if not hundreds of tiny tree branches rubbing together.

“How are they getting the apples?” I wondered aloud. “The seeds come from the apples. The villagers gather them before they sell the apples. Probably they don’t want to sell the apple seeds or send them out of the village, because that could potentially end their trade.”

I looked at the little thing, growling so strangely. I put the candle a little closer and it quieted for a moment.

“So, it’s not completely unintelligent,” I said.

“It just doesn’t have a language of its own,” Argie said.

“How do the goblins grow the apples from this?” I said.

“That’s assuming this is what actually grows the apples,” Brook said.

“But these seeds came out of the apples.”

“They did?”

“I’m assuming Denny didn’t tell me he was selling me an apple seed and handed me a monster seed in its place.”

“Well, if Terry didn’t know.”

“Terry was his name? I don’t remember his name.”

“Or he believes he sold us an apple seed.”

“Remind me,” Argie said. “This is a new experience for these farmers?”

“No, no,” I said. “They’ve been trading with the goblins for years.”

“Yes, but they were complaining about trees going away.”

“They did not say if it was a new experience.”

“But they did start complaining about it.”

“We need to ask Terry.”

A little comparing of stories made us think the last experiments with planting the seeds had been years before.

“So, perhaps the goblins know the way to plant the apple seeds to grow the apples without creating … that,” I said.

The horrible little thing shook the bars again but made no progress in escaping.

“Dwarven craftsmanship,” I said. “You can never ever pay too much for dwarven craftsmanship.”

“So, what do you plan, Mr. Mage?” Argie said.

“Well, this needs to be shown to … someone,” I said.

“Not the mayor,” Brook said.

“I don’t trust the mayor,” I said. “We need to at least trust Hercule.”

“I’ll stay here,” Argie said.

“He lost his son. The gnomes perhaps? The half-orc?”

“If the mayor is a druid and this is druidic magic─” Argie started to say.

The creature suddenly stopped. It looked off to the west, towards the village, and began to push the cage in that direction. Argie moved towards the cage.

“Hold on,” I said. “Let’s see where this goes.”

The thing couldn’t move the heavy, iron cage, but it continued to try to push towards the village and the ravine. It desperately clawed in that direction.

“We need a leash and a muzzle,” I quipped.

“No,” Argie said. “You got get your mayor.”

“I don’t want to get the mayor,” I said. “I don’t trust him. I think he has something to do with this. I honestly do. In my opinion, he made a deal with the goblins to do some terrible thing like, I don’t know, use the blood of innocents to fertilize their seeds so that they’ll grow wonderful apples so that he can make money in the town.”

“I say we let it go,” Brook said.

I watched the thing carefully. I didn’t want it to escape.

“I say we let it go and follow it,” Brook said again. “We know at least it’s going to the ravine.”

“We don’t know how fast it is,” I said. “It could zip away leaving us with no chance of catching it.”

“I’m a fairly avid tracker,” Brook said.

The horrible creature suddenly pulled itself apart and phased through the cage. I tried to run around the other side with the candle but it was too fast for me and sprinted away towards the village. We gave chase.

“Don’t kill it!” I called. “Don’t kill it!”

We couldn’t catch it and it ran all the way through the village and out the other side, the three of us in close pursuit.

“Hold on!” I said, out of breath, as we ran. “I can stop it! I can stop it! Hold on! Oh Gods.”

We chased it, sprinting, for over an hour. The pain of keeping up with the thing was terrible. Once I could see the ravine, I stopped long enough to cast a web spell. Unfortunately, the thing leapt free of the 20-foot radius of webs and was gone, took a few more steps forward and flung itself off the cliff.

We all ran to the edge of the ravine.

Only Argie could see in the dark. She told us she saw it land on a very small platform, shattering as it struck the stone and flying into a million pieces. It was obviously dead. She watched it for a little while just to make sure.

“Why?” she said.

She cast a spell to detect evil. Then she grabbed both of us and stumbled back.

“Wait!” I said. “Wait! Did you see anything?”

“This whole ravine is evil,” she said.

We noticed a couple of wooden pillars nearby, probably the pillars or stakes used by the villagers to make their rope bridge. A sturdy rope was tied to it, going down into the pit. She told us there was a platform with steps going down into the darkness beyond even where she could see. She also told us the cliff faces were as smooth as glass.

“I’m wondering if there really was a dragon,” she muttered. “And if that dragon fire …”

“Well, it wanted to get to the ravine,” I said. “After it tried to kill us.”

“I’m exhausted,” Brook said.

We walked back to the town while we talked.

“So, at first it’s feral,” I said. “Then it tries to get back home to destroy itself. That doesn’t explain why the man disappeared who was on guard before. If it attacked and killed him, his body would still be there. Did it take him? Did it kill him and drag him? Hm. Interesting.”

“I swear that dragon was evil and the left behind some weird-ass shit,” Argie said.

“Goblins and evil little imps?” Brook said.

We returned to town. I went back to the campsite, collected everything and trudged back to the inn to sleep the rest of the night.

* * *

I slept in until noon on the fourth day we were in Oakhurst. We ate together and then discussed exploring the ravine that day.

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