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Max_Writer

Pathfinder - The Sunless Citadel 6 - An End to It

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Friday, December 8, 2017

(After Jacob Marcus ran his Pathfinder game “The Sunless Citadel” with Justin Moser, Victoria Larson, Katelyn Hogan, and me Monday, November 20 from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m.)

The web I cast caught Durrn and the two large splinter imps. The splinter imps thrashed around wildly while the chief just sat calmly. Fighting erupted all around us as goblin fought goblin and cries of “For Grenl” reverberated through goblin town. Combat had started in the outer chambers as well. The entirely of goblin town was at war.

* * *

Brook had followed some distance behind us that day and around the time the revolution started, she entered the goblin guardroom Gurgle had retreated to. He jumped up when he saw her.

“They said that you had slept in at the inn this morning,” he said.

“I did,” she replied. “Where are they?”

“They’re in goblin town. We must go this way.”

He gestured to the door to the training room. As they headed in, they heard the sounds of combat and Gurgle ran ahead excitedly. Brook followed at a run as well. They ran through the next guard room and the room with the pillars, arriving at the main part of goblin town to find pandemonium. Goblins fought each other everywhere, green fighting red furiously.

She remembered I had told Grenl to put his goblins in green. The fighting was furious.

* * *

A hobgoblin crashed into the room and glared at all of us. A second ran in as well. I pointed at Catarina.

“Stand in front of me now,” I said.

“****, yeah!” she yelled.

I saw Brook through the doorway. She was being attacked by red goblins and gracefully dodged out of the way of one. Then she cut down the goblin with her spear.

The chief and the splinter imps struggled in the webs but were not able to escape. I cast a charm person spell on the chief while acting as if I was casting at one of the twigs. He continued to struggle, still glaring at me. The spell hadn’t worked. The twig creature on the right managed to rip free from the webs but, as it moved through the rest of them, it tripped and fell, crashing into the web once more.

One of the hobgoblins in the room charged Catarina. She cracked her knuckles and shook her shoulders loose. The hobgoblin tripped as he ran, however, and crashed to the floor, his spear sliding across the floor. The other hobgoblin ran to the other and helped him up. He drew a dagger and gave it to the one who’d fallen.

Argie, near me, turned and flung flames at one of the hobgoblins. She missed but the creature cowered in fear. Catarina, behind me, rushed the two hobgoblins and punched one of them. He staggered back.

Another goblin slashed at Brook but she ducked to one side. She stabbed the goblin with her spear, injuring it badly.

The other splinter imp ripped itself from the webs, leapt free, and rushed at me with his twiggy spear. Durrn finally started to try to escape the webs though without success. I stepped back from the imp and cast burning hands, engulfing both twig things and the goblin chief.

“You can burn them now!” I said over my shoulder.

The splinter imp still caught in the webs stopped moving altogether. The other two were injured by the fire.

“You want more?” I asked the splinter imp and Durrn, whose hair was on fire. “If you surrender now, we will find you a wonderful new home that’s much better than this crappy place, and we’ll teach you what to do with the gold that Belak has been stealing from you.”

I looked over my shoulder.

“Any help anybody could give me at this point would be greatly appreciated!” I called to the others.

“I’m working on it,” Argie said.

The cowering hobgoblin rushed Argie, swinging his sword at her but missing completely. She laughed in his face. The other, still-bleeding, hobgoblin who had only a dagger stabbed Catarina. Argie fired a fire bolt at the thing in front of her and burned him. Then Catarina punched both of the hobgoblins with one swing, smashing one of the hobgoblin’s head into the other.

One of the goblins fighting Brook dropped his weapons and surrendered. She punched it in the face and knocked it out before entering the room.

I didn’t notice any of this as the splinter imp came at me and tried to stab me with his twig spear, somehow missing me completely. Durrn grabbed one of the long swords near him. It was obviously not of goblin-make. He leapt from his throne at me, swinging madly at me but somehow missing me. I didn’t even move.

“Oh …” I muttered.

I backed away and cast another burning hands spell on the splinter imp and Durrn. Both of them burned but neither of them fell. His hair gone, it was now chunks of his armor on fire. He looked furious.

“A little help here, ladies,” I said.

Argie, just behind me, turned and flung a bolt of fire at the splinter imp, striking it squarely. The thing collapsed, on fire. Catarina walked by me and punched Durrn. The uppercut knocked his head back but seemed to just anger him even more. He swung his long sword and cut Catarina badly. He swung at her a second time, a nasty backhand that missed her completely.

Brook came into the room, stabbing at the goblin king with her spear. The goblin king ducked to one side. I backed away.

“You are free to surrender at any time if you don’t want to have your face smashed in and your skull crushed for Catarina’s pleasure!” I said. “I might be able to stop her.

“What the ****, mate!?!” Catarina said.

“Okay, perhaps not,” I said.

I peeked down into the pit, fearing something might be coming up, but it was empty. I could still hear fighting in the distance and off to one side a casual skirmish was going on between a hobgoblin and Grenl. I cast a ray of frost spell at the hobgoblin but missed, a little ice forming on the wall.

“All of your allies are dead!” I shouted at him in goblin. “Surrender and you will be spared!”

Then Grenl stabbed the hobgoblin, killing him. The goblin looked at me with a smile and then looked at Durrn, his father. I raised my eyebrows, quietly questioning him, and he glared at his father. Argie flung another fire bolt at Durrn, missing him, the flames blasting at the far wall.

Catarina punched the goblin king again but he still didn’t fall. Then Brook moved to flank the horrible creature and stabbed him with her spear. Durrn let out an otherworldly scream and swung at Brook, missing her completely and putting his back to Catarina.

“Do you want us to try not to kill your father?” I asked.

Grenl held out his fist and put his thumb down. The sounds of combat in the other room had stopped, for the most part.

Argie cast another fire bolt, the blast missing the goblin king completely. Then Catarina punched him twice. The first blow knocked him backward and the second knocked him to his knees, still gripping his sword and shaking in pain, burns, and fury. Brook ran him through with her spear, thrusting so hard, the spear went all the way through him. He coughed, blood coming from his mouth, and collapsed to the floor, dead. Brook stepped forward, grabbed the bloody head of the spear, and pulled it entirely through the creature.

I cast a detect magic spell. There was no magic on the dead goblin chief.

Catarina pouted.

“I wanted t’ kill him, bro,” she said.

“Well, we’re not finished here,” I said.

Grenl sprinted out into the main hall. I urged the others to come with me and followed. In the great hall, only five of Grenl’s people had survived. They were defending three females and a couple of children. Catarina laughed.

“You caused a genocide!” she said to me.

It was a lot bloodier than I thought it would be.

“Bra, I think you caused a genocide,” Catarina said, nudging me.

“You don’t even know what that word means!” I said.

“Yes, I do!” she said. “We did it to the elves a couple years back when we thought they gave us the plague. We don’t talk about that much.”

“Apparently,” I said.

One of the goblins in green hoisted a small figure on his shoulders and began cheering. It was Gurgle. He was covered in goblin blood. All the rest of the goblins began to follow in the cheer. They entered the throne room and one of two of the surviving hobgoblins in green whom I’d never seen before grabbed Grenl and put him on the throne. Gurgle was placed on the steps below, the place of an advisor. Grenl gave one of the nicer swords to Gurgle.

“They’re not magic,” I whispered to Argie.

“There’s a cave directly behind my throne,” Grenl said in goblin. “It leads to the lower catacombs and that is where you will find the great druid who has deceived our people and forced us into slavery for centuries.”

Behind the stone throne was a set of stairs that led down. I translated what he said into the common tongue as he spoke.

“He has subjugated our people for years,” Grenl went on. “Forced us to live here … even though the resources ran dry quite some time ago.”

“And we’re going to help find you a new place to live,” I said to him. “We already have a lead.”

“You agreed to do so.”

“We have a lead. We have caves.”

“And you agreed to teach us what gold does.”

“Oh yeah. Yeah, we can do that too.”

I told him I knew where there were caves the kobolds had vacated and mines there as well. I also asked him if they were the goblins who would go into the village and trade with the apples and he said they were. When I asked when they were next supposed to go, he was unsure as time was confusing. However, he said the strongest goblins and hobgoblins would suddenly close their eyes and then go down into the lower tunnels and come back with bags of apples. Then they would come back with bags of gold.

I urged Grenl to get his people out of the caves as soon as possible as, if they didn’t, it was going to happen to the rest of the goblins. I urged him to let us move his people that night. Grenl looked through the door with the destruction and nodded. I advised them to get anything of theirs of value, gather it, and we’d talk to the kobolds and find out where the caves were.

I asked Grenl if they wanted us to escort them to the old kobold caves and he said he did. As it was 50 miles away, that was at least a two-day journey, possibly more with goblins as they were smaller. I noted we would have to travel at night. Brook pointed out we could leave them with the kobolds but I didn’t know if that would put them outside the influence of Belak. I guessed if we could get them outside of the citadel, they would be safe.

I told Grenl I would talk to the kobolds and return post haste.

Catarina and I went to talk to the kobolds while Argie and Brook waited with the goblins as they gathered all of their possessions.

I talked to Yusdrayl while Catarina played with Gleep. I asked her if there were any local caves where the goblins could spend the night before moving on as they were leaving the Sunless Citadel. I also warned her the goblins had been under the spell of the druid and if they moved into that part of the complex, it could happen to them. I told her we planned on dealing with him as well.

Yusdrayl was surprised we had dealt with the goblins so handily. She pointed out a room off the throne room and noted the kobolds had come from a cave that led from an old, abandoned dwarven mine. It was 50 miles of underground caves that led them to the Citadel. I noted the goblins wanted us to escort them to the cave and pointed out there were very few left. She was willing to equip them and let them use the caves to get to their old home and, when I asked if they could escort them, she pointed out there was naught but rats in the caves.

I took that news back to Grenl and found them ready to go with backpacks of equipment, weapons, supplies and, on the two hobgoblins, bags of gold. There was a pile of gold remaining. I told them how valuable the gold was and advised they find a way to take it with them.

“Is it more valuable than weapons?” Grenl said.

“Yes,” I said. “Potentially. I would say make sure you have weapons, but that’s valuable.”

He understood and tasked one of the stronger goblins to take more gold. That left about half of the pile.

“What is left can be yours for securing a good life,” Grenl said to us.

There was probably about 1,500 gold coins left in the pile.

I told them of the caves, that the underground path there was safe and they didn’t need an escort. I also promised that, once they were safely living in the caves, I would come find them and visit them to help teach them more about the ways of the world.

“I trust that you will come soon and that you are staying to take care of the druid,” Grenl said.

“That’s the plan,” I said. “I’ll be there in a month at the latest but probably within a week.”

I told them if they could find ways to get to the surface, that would be great. We then escorted them to kobold town and they went through the room and the caves where the kobolds had originally come. I told Yusdrayl everything of what had happened and that I would be visiting the goblins someday as well. I told her the Sunless Citadel was now the kobolds and asked merely to be given passage to deal with the druid. She agreed wholeheartedly with that and asked us to expedite the process. I told her we’d go the next day and asked her not to send any kobolds to goblin town yet.

We returned to Oakhurst and divided up the gold, giving us over 500 gold pieces each. I locked my share in my room. I also appraised the amulet Argie had and found it was worth 30 gold coins. I appraised the alexandrite from the strange room that had taken over the minds of our party. The shards were worth about 100 gold coins to the right dealer. The four gems Brook had were worth 40 gold pieces each. The obsidian box was probably worth about 20 gold coins. The two bracelets Brook had were worth 30 gold pieces each and the ring was worth 15 gold coins.

I suggested we not tell anyone what had happened in the ravine, noting we might all get hung if they found out there were no more apples coming. I asked Catarina especially not to mention it to her new friends. I pointed out people would be very angry if they found out we have ended the apple trade.

“Did the airship people meet with the mayor?” Brook asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But she’s their friend.”

I pointed at Catarina.

“You’re their friend?” Brook said.

Catarina nodded.

“I thought they beat your ass?” Brook said.

“And then they became best of friends,” I said.

Catarina told the story.

I asked the gnomes if they knew what happened to the other visitors to the village.

“Oh yeah,” Dem said. “The party left out the northern road of town and they haven’t come back since.”

“On foot?” I said.

“Uh-huh,” Dem said.

“The northern road?” Brook said. “Where does that go again?”

“That’s one of the long roads,” I said.

“It goes far north into the mountains,” Dem said.

“Ah, they’re long gone,” Brook said. “Probably dead.”

“Maybe they weren’t here for the apples,” I said. “Maybe they’re just passing through.”

“I wonder why they’re in the mountains,” Brook said.

It was pointed out the goblins were heading north to the mountains as well. I was worried the adventurers were going to massacre the goblins we had just befriended. We figured the mountains were closer and hoped they were not off to kill the goblins.

I asked the gnomes how the trade with the goblins went and learned that originally the goblins came to town and the townsfolk all put their money together and bought all the apples they had. Then the goblins went away and the town sold them to whoever came through for a profit. Brook found it strange the town would act that way. Dem said the goblins had initially made their claim about the magical apples and they didn’t believe it so they had someone in town eat one of the apples.

“Is that how you do it now?” I asked.

“Now we don’t have to pool the money together,” Dem said. “It’s been going on for about 20 years.”

“Because you’re all rich.”

“Yeah.”

“How rich are you? You got enough to retire? If you’re so rich, why do you keep doing it?”

“Why not?”

“Fair enough. But you don’t really need the money, do you?”

I looked at him.

“Who’s this airship belong to?” I asked. “Does it belong to this party?”

“The airship comes … not every year but every five or six,” Dem said. “‘Bout every five or six years that airship comes up. They march north for about a week and then they come back.”

“Sounds about right,” Catarina said.

“Sounds like we just got an airship,” Brook said.

“What they doing up there?” Argie said.

“No,” I said to Brook. “That’s immoral.”

“We ain’t taking the ship!” Catarina said.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” Dem said.

“Out of curiosity, why not?” Brook asked.

“I don’t know if you know what Marcus is,” Dem said.

“Who’s Marcus?” I said.

“I know he’s a rich ****,” Catarina said.

Brook looked at her, intrigued.

“He’s the captain of the ship,” Dem said. “He owns it.”

“What is he?” I said.

“He’s the big fancy ****er that I didn’t fight,” Catarina said.

“Oh,” I said.

“The one that said he ****ed goats,” Argie said.

“He’s the one we talked into admitting he was a goat ****er,” Catarina said.

Brook had looked intrigued about the man ever since Catarina had said he was rich.

“My gods, Brook,” I said. “That’s right, he’s rich and so you’re all turned on. Okay.”

“He’s a captain,” she said. “He’s got a cane. He spells it with a ‘k.’”

“You ever heard the word ‘gold digger’ Brooke?” I asked. “You would probably enjoy it.”

“Have you ever heard of the term ‘arrogant *******?’”

“Only from the ignorant.”

“He seems like a nice gentleman.”

“Perhaps it will be love at first … biting of a gold piece.”

“Don’t you assume anything!”

“He knows a lot of magic,” Dem said. “There was a bloke that tried to take that ship and, as soon as he climbed the ladder, he burst into flames.”

“Brook, go try to get the ship!” I said. “I want to see this.”

Catarina slammed her money pouch on the table.

“Fifty gold you don’t climb the rope!” she said.

“The strange thing is that Marcus has been coming here nigh-on fifty years,” Dem said.

The short man with the cane didn’t look that big. He wasn’t wearing a wizard’s hat either.

“He’s not a wizard,” I said. “If you’re not wearing the hat, why be a wizard? If people don’t know you’re a wizard, what’s the point?”

We learned that Marcus didn’t buy the apples and he and his companions didn’t usually come to Oakhurst around apple time. Their being in Oakhurst was simply a coincidence. Argie laughed at the term “apple time.”

“Are you going to climb the rope to see if you burst into flame?” I asked Brook.

“I’m not going to climb the rope,” she said.

“If you’re waiting in his bedroom when he gets back … that’s a turn-on from my understanding,” I said.

“Maybe you could catch a rat and throw it on board,” Argie said.

I pointed out there were still men on the ship. We’d seen them on board.

We discussed Dolf, the dwarf who’d lost his tongue and Brook wondered aloud if the apples of life might not grow it back. I called over Dem and asked him if there were any apples of life left in the village. There were not. I asked if they lasted and stayed fresh forever. He noted they lasted a long time but the villagers sold them all. That was no answer to that question. I pointed out to my companions that if we found an apple of life, we could save it for Dolf.

“Do we want to go talk to our druid friend?” I asked.

“Belak?” Brook said.

“No, the mayor.”

“The mayor’s a druid?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah,” Argie said.

“Oh, that’s right,” Brook said.

“The mayor’s a druid too,” I said. “Interesting coincidence, isn’t it?”

“Not evil,” Argie noted.

“I’d love to talk to the mayor,” Brook said.

“Good, I want you to talk to him,” I said. “Because I don’t know what to say.”

“You already tried,” Argie said to Brook. “You fell on your face.”

“Hey,” Brook said. “Hey.”

“What?” Catarina said.

We decided to go talk to the mayor. We went to his great hall and Argie stopped outside the door and sat down. The rest of us went in.

The mayor, the elf Vernor Leng, was playing chess with himself on a poorly carved marble chess set. The board was on a lazy susan and he would make a move and then spin it around to move a piece in order to play himself.

“I knew a guy who used to play like that,” Catarina bellowed. “Then he told me he could outthink me in a fight. I broke his nose.”

Brook went to the man and sat opposite to him. He didn’t seem fazed.

“Oh, they actually teach how to play this anymore?” Leng said.

“My father taught me,” Brook said.

The two began the game and though Brook made some very clever moves, Leng did better, taking several of her pieces. I lost interest and wandered around the room, looking at the tapestries.

“So, Mayor Leng, tell me about your past with being a druid,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “How did you find out I was a druid?”

“I have an intuition about these things,” she said.

He sighed.

“I’m sure you have an intuition,” Leng said.

They continued playing the game. Brook started to pull ahead at that point, taking several of his pieces.

“I’m outta ale,” Catarina said. “Could we speed this up?”

“There’s ale in the back,” Leng said.

“Imma double check. I can go into your kitchen and find ale?”

“I believe I just gave you permission. Yes.”

“**** yeah!”

Catarina ran to the back of the hall and through the door Leng pointed out. I heard her ran down a set of stairs.

“You’d be surprised what I know,” Brook said to Leng.

I noticed her cross her legs under the table and rub her foot against his leg. Leng merely seemed amused. I walked out of the room and sat next to Argie in the sun next to the door. I tipped my hat forward over my eyes and listened as best I could.

“What are you looking for?” Mayor Leng said. “What do you want to know?”

“I just want to know about you,” Brook said. “I just want to know how you came to be mayor of this small town, such a … dignified druid as yourself.”

“I’ve been here all my life,” Leng said. “My father was mayor.”

“Was your father a druid?”

“No, he was not.”

“How did you learn your druid ways? Where did you go?”

“I took a trip.”

“Where?”

“Well, when my father turned 16, he, too, was kicked out and told to go learn something. So …”

“Kicked out of the house?”

“Yes. Came back about … whenever we become good at something, was the rule. Bring something back to the village.”

“Okay. Did you make any friends? Was there more than you there?”

“Of course there was.”

“There was?”

* * *

While Brook continued her pointless conversation, I turned to Argie.

“Do you think I should go in and name drop Belak?” I asked her.

“That’s a bad idea,” she said.

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’re wiser than me.”

“I imagine that going downhill rather than helping.”

“That’s why I asked.”

* * *

The conversation continued inside, I could hear.

“Druids work in clans,” Leng said.

“Anyone of notable strengths or … prestige?” Brook asked. “Certainly not better than yourself, I’m sure.”

“There are many druids better than me.”

I could hear the click of chess pieces moving around.

“Checkmate,” I heard her say.

It sounded like someone stood up and took a few steps. Then someone else stood up.

“What exactly are you looking for?” Leng said. “I’ll ask again.”

Argie slowly stood up.

I later learned Brook kissed the man at that point.

“What are you doing!?!” Leng said.

“Fine, you caught me,” Brook said. “Do you know the name Belak?”

Argie’s head hit the wall behind her. I shushed her and listened very carefully.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Leng said.

There was a mumbling and suddenly vines and roots lifted up out of the ground and wood around Argie and myself and grabbed both of us.

“The druid is attacking!” I yelled. “The druid is attacking! The mayor is a traitor! The mayor is a traitor!”

“Iago, I’m fine!” Brook yelled from within. “I cast it!”

“False alarm!” I yelled.

It was too late. People were coming out of their homes and gathered. They stayed away from the house and the insane vines and roots that were growing up and reaching for anyone nearby. I broke free of the vines and moved towards the edge of the area. Argie did as well, moving just behind me and then getting caught again. I moved to the edge of the field as Argie broke free and got out as well.

“Go get Hercule,” I said to Argie. “He likes you. Go get him.”

“What?” Argie said. “Why does he like me?”

“Just go get him! He doesn’t like me, okay?”

“Okay! Okay!”

“Just tell him that the mayor has attacked Brook. Why else would she cast entangle?”

Argie ran to the blacksmith shop. I looked around the street.

“Where is Catarina?” I said.

Argie, Hercule, and Dolf soon returned. I warned them not to go near the entangling vines and we waited.

“Brook, are you all right in there?” I called.

“For the moment,” she called back. “Once the vines drop, we’ll see. I’m currently interrogating the mayor for all he’s done wrong to the town. Belak’s his master.”

I exchanged a look with Argie.

“Of course he is,” Argie muttered. “They’re both druids.”

The entangling magic finally ended and the roots and vines pulled back into the ground and the wood. Argie and I ran in with Hercule and Dolf. We found Brook and Catarina there with the mayor. The latter was tied up on the floor. Argie stopped in the doorway and spread her wings to keep any more of the villagers from entering.

“Hey Dolf,” Catarina said. “Hercule. He’s the reason you ain’t got a tongue no more.”

Dolf glared at the mayor.

“What happened?” I said. “What happened? Did he attack you?”

“No,” Brook said. “If anything, I was more forceful than he was.”

“Ew and what happened?”

Dolf lunged at the mayor and flung him to the ground, straddling him. He started punching the mayor repeatedly in the face. Brook and I rushed the dwarf, trying to stop him.

“Dolf, Dolf, Dolf,” Brook said. “Honey!”

“Grab his arm!” I said. “Just grab his arm!”

“Dolf!” she said.

She dragged Dolf off the mayor. Catarina just watched.

“Justice will be served,” she said to him.

Dolf gasped angrily and glared at the mayor.

“What happened?” I said.

Catarina said something, her mouth full of apple. We ignored her. I watched the druid carefully. Then she went over to the mayor and sat on top of him, holding him down. He coughed and sputtered.

“You’re going to kill him if you don’t get off of him,” I said. “You will kill him if you don’t get off of him.”

“Fine,” she said.

She stood up and looked at the cask of ale on one shoulder and the apple in the other. Then she looked at me questioningly.

“Just sit on the ground and use him to rest your back,” I said.

“Put a foot on him, I don’t care!” Brook said.

She held him down with one foot.

“After the chess game, which I won by the way, I asked him where he learned to be a druid,” Brook said.

“Yes,” I said.

“He told me he went off somewhere. Uh … in a convent of some sort. Not really the correct word, but you know what I mean.”

“Important information is really what I’d really like to have right now.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t want the full story? With the details?”

“Just tell me what’s important.”

“I kissed him.”

“Okay …”

“Wait, you kissed him?” Catarina bellowed. “This guy is shit. He has a room of pretty men upstairs.”

“This is why I just want the important stuff,” I said. “She won’t understand it.”

“I know,” Brook said. “Belak is also a druid and Belak is druid mayor’s master.”

“Master.”

“They’re both in cahoots with the apple deal.”

“Why?”

“Apparently only for money? That’s all I could get out of him. Or at the very least, all he knows is that Belak is doing this for money. Which does not seem to be the whole story.”

“Does he know that Belak had Dolf’s tongue removed?”

“Hoodly doodly ****!” Catarina bellowed. “I found this downstairs!”

She pointed at a crude drawing on her arm.

“I dunno if it means anything but he’s got a bunch of banners of it downstairs,” she said. “There’s cool shit down there.”

I recognized the symbol, crude though it was, as an uncommon druidic order. It was a small order of some kind and not one that wielded much power at all.

“A lot of cool stuff downstairs,” Catarina said.

Vernor Leng looked very angry and surprised.

“You ain’t real good at this shit, are you?” Catarina said.

“Belak could have just used him for what money he had,” Brook said. “His father was the mayor before him.”

“He was?” I said. “All right.”

I took Brook aside.

“He hasn’t actually done anything illegal, per se,” I said. “It’s immoral …”

“Conspiracy to commit …” Brook said.

“Commit what? Sell apples?”

“Right.”

“I’m saying, he’s a corrupt, awful person.”

“He doesn’t deserve to die.”

“Well, I don’t even know if we have any right to actually arrest him for what he’s done. Of course there’s Dolf too.”

“Brass knuckles says you move your foot,” Hercule said to Catarina.

Catarina looked at him.

“He’s complicit with the goblins,” I said.

“One second,” Catarina said to Hercule. “So, do you know how to get Dolf’s tongue back?”

“So, what do we do?” I asked Brook.

“No,” Leng said to her.

“What about the apples?” I called. “Will the apples bring his tongue back? The good ones!”

“I’ve never seen any apple try to regrow a limb,” the mayor said.

“All right, good enough for me,” Catarina said.

“So, maybe,” I muttered to myself.

Catarina took her foot off the mayor and Hercule leaned down, grabbed the mayor by the ropes and started dragging him towards the front door. I cast a sleep spell on Hercule and he collapsed to the ground.

“Hey!” Catarina said.

“We’re in charge of the situation, not him,” I said.

“Okay …” Brook said.

“What the ****, man?” Catarina said.

“I’m not going to say I didn’t approve of that,” Brook said. “But I’m just going to say he is our only current supporter.”

“What the ****, man!?!” Catarina said.

She said something about getting her knuckles but was unintelligible.

“Other than Dolf, he’s our only supporter on this,” Brook said again.

“Understood,” I said, loud enough for the mayor to hear. “But I’m not going to let him just throw the mayor to the villagers, who are just going to murder him for what he’s done to a fellow villager. They’ll tear him apart. They’ll probably rip his arms and legs off. They’ll probably hang him and burn him!”

“If we’re lucky,” Brook said.

We can decide to do that, if he doesn’t cooperate,” I said.

“I’ll take half of what you got in the chest and everything in the shiny, sparkly one if we lie to the villagers and all this goes away,” Catarina said to the mayor.

“Shiny, sparkly one?” Argie said over her shoulder.

“What?” I said.

“You talking about me?” Argie said.

“We’re not lying to the villagers!” I said. “This is not going away! That money belongs to the villagers. More than it does to the mayor.”

“Yeah, and we’ll get the other half of it!” Catarina said as if she’d won the argument.

“He’s not getting anything,” I said.

I looked down at the bloody mayor.

“You realize you’ve been working with an evil person who’s been manipulating other races, mind controlling them, and causing them to war with each other on your very doorstep?” I said.

He seemed stunned by the news.

“You realize that those twig-monsters are a direct result of this?” I said.

I pulled out the bag of apple seeds and held one up for him to see.

“Those things are down there!” I said. “There could be an army of those things down there for all we know!”

“There was an army of goblins,” Catarina said. “There’s an army of kobolds. There’s that weird thing that made me want to touch the shiny soul thingy.”

“We can probably leave it there, Catarina,” Brook said. “It’s fine.”

“Do you know what Belak is really after?” I said to the mayor. “What is he really doing?”

“I … I thought it was money!” Vernor Leng said.

“Of course you did! You’re a greedy, small, little man who claims to be a druid who probably can’t even cast any spells anymore because you’re so out of touch with nature!”

“I … I … I deny that! I love nature.”

“But not as much as you love money, apparently.”

“I mean, it’s some nice money,” Catarina interjected.

“We’re going to allow the villagers to decide what to do with you,” I said. “Unless they get violent. But we’re going to advise them that their best bet is to banish you or imprison you. There’s a jail here.”

“Uh … the jail’s in his house,” Catarina said. “It’s downstairs. I found that too. You got a big house, man.”

Vernor Leng looked at her, goggle-eyed.

“How …” he said. “How much did you see?”

“Yes,” she replied smugly.

She put down the cask on her shoulder and pulled a key out of her shirt. Vernor Leng whimpered.

“That’s right!” I said. “She knows everything!”

“Including your room full of pretty men!” Catarina said.

“Including your room full of …what!?!”

“You really would have had a better time seducing him that she would. He like’s ‘em tall and elfy.”

“That explains everything,” Brook said.

“In the name of all that’s holy,” Vernor Leng said. “In the name of all that’s holy!”

“So, you decided we can’t lie to the villagers?” Brook said to me.

“That’s immoral,” I said. “You don’t lie. Lying’s wrong.”

“Can we lie to them about how much money ‘cause he’s got about eight casks filled with these,” Catarina said.

She pulled out a gold coin.

“And one filled with these,” she said.

She pulled out a fist-sized piece of topaz.

“We should tell the villagers the truth,” I said. “I don’t think they’re going to want the money. They’re all rich already.”

“I’m going to keep this,” Catarina said.

“Keep it, I don’t care,” I said. “Many of them are not … why do you want that? Many of them are not … as greedy as I think he is.”

“He’s always the one that goes and meets the goblins, right?” Brook said.

“Dem told me earlier the goblins come to the edge of town and then all the villagers take their money out─”

“To the goblins.”

“─to individually buy apples.”

“I told ‘em to do it,” Vernor Leng said. “I told ‘em not to attack the goblins and they were bringing it for trade.”

“So, that’s one good thing that you’ve done,” I said.

“He’s got much more money than the rest of these people,” Brook said.

“He probably started with more and so was able to purchase more apples and he’s probably smarter as far as selling them,” I said. “He was a druid after all.”

“Okay.”

“So he’s probably been cornering the market. So the other villagers are probably wealthy but he has the bulk of the wealth.”

“I thought he also might have been stealing money.”

“I don’t think he would have to steal.”

“Wait a minute,” Catarina said. “Has he basically done nothing wrong?”

“Not really,” I said. “Well, he works with Belak, who did have Dolf’s tongue ripped out, or at least his goblins did.”

“True.”

“That’s complicity. That’s illegal. It’s a conspiracy kind of thing.”

“True. I dunno.”

“Especially if Belak proves to be evil.”

“I’ve worked with some people before who’ve done some ****ed up shit and I didn’t know they were doing the ****ed up shit.”

“You’re still complicit.”

“Well ****.”

“If you’re allied with somebody who murders somebody and you didn’t know that they murdered somebody but you helped them murder somebody …”

“Dolf, was it a goblin that cut out your tongue?” Brook asked the dwarf.

He shook his head.

“Was it a man?” I asked. “A human?”

He nodded his head.

“Was he doin’ hoodly doodly bullshit?” Catarina asked.

Dolf looked confused.

“Did you see him?” I asked. “Did you get a good look at him?”

Dolf shook his head. He put his hands over his head.

“A mask?” I said. “A helmet!”

Dolf nodded.

“He wasn’t the paladin that was with you, was he?”

Dolf nodded.

“The paladin,” I said. “The paladin took his tongue.”

“The paladin,” Brook said.

“The paladin with the evil sword,” I said.

I looked at Vernor Leng.

“Do you know about that, there, mayor?” I asked. “About the horribly evil sword?”

“Those guys I have no idea about,” Vernor Leng said. “If they knew Belak then they didn’t tell me.”

“Well, they’re probably with Belak now,” I said. “Dammit, we should have asked the goblins about those people.”

“I’m sorry, Dolf, I don’t think he was the one who cut out … I don’t think he was the reason your tongue got cut out,” Catarina said. “But he’s definitely working for the guy who did that.”

“The mayor might not be guilty of anything except being greedy,” I said to Brook. “And petty.”

“And a moron,” Catarina bellowed. “Don’t forget he’s definitely a moron.”

Brook pointed out if we let Vernor Leng go, he’d go straight back to Belak. She felt like that was good enough reason to lock him up.

“Not really,” Vernor Leng said. “I have absolutely no interest in going into that shithole he lives in.”

I woke Hercule up, apologizing to the dwarf for putting him to sleep but noting we needed to discuss the situation and decide what to do with the mayor.

“Rather than just grabbing him and throwing him to the villagers, I would like your input please,” I said.

“He was lying to us all,” Hercule said. “He’s lied from the beginning.”

“I can show you what he’s lying about,” Catarina said.

“But he hasn’t actually broken the law,” I said.

“What?” Hercule said.

“He hasn’t actually broken any laws,” I said.

I tried to explain to Hercule that, though the mayor was a terrible person, he hadn’t actually done anything wrong and didn’t even know anything about Dolf’s tongue being cut out. It was apparently the “paladin” that went down with him who did it. Catarina added he wasn’t evil, just greedy.

“How greedy?” Hercule said.

“I can show you,” Catarina said. “Everyone, if you’ll follow me.”

She swung the mayor over her shoulder and took us. I ran to the doorway and asked Argie to keep the villagers out as we sorted all of it all out. She told me to tell her what happened and not to do anything stupid. I nodded and then caught up to the others going into the basement. Catarina opened up a secret room and we found numerous chests full of gold coins. There was also a chest of gems. It was so much money. We were all shocked. Hercule noted each of the other villagers each had about half of one of the chests for their own, which was still an amazing amount of money.

“Is all this money from apple trading?” I asked.

“Aye,” Vernor Leng said.

“We don’t have taxes,” Hercule said. “It’s just the apple trade. So, I imagine …”

I asked if the money could have been bribes from Belak or payment to help him or if he could possibly have made all his money legally trading the apples shrewdly.

“Why do you need all this money?” I asked Vernor Leng. “And you’re not even buying anything with it. You’re no better than the goblins. They horde it but don’t do anything with it.”

“Oh, I do things with it,” Vernor Leng said.

“You mispronounced ‘boys,’” Catarina said.

She looked around at us.

“Oh!” she said. “You want to see the pretty boy room? It’s upstairs. It’s hilarious!”

“The what?” I said.

“You don’t know that’s what that means!” Vernor Leng said.

“He has a room full of pretty men upstairs,” Catarina said.

“He has slaves?” I said.

“No! He … like, pretty men. On the walls.”

“They’re attached to the walls!?!”

“No! I think they’re attached to the walls. There’s some human boys. Elf boys. Barely any clothes on any of ‘em.”

Well, that’s slavery. That’s wrong.”

“No no. They ain’t alive.”

“He has dead people attached to his walls?”

She just looked at me.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “How drunk are you?”

“Hey!” she said. “Shut up!”

I held up three fingers.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” I asked.

“Shut up!” she said.

Hercule headed upstairs. We followed him.

“We have to set these people free,” I said.

The others followed as well. The room upstairs had numerous paintings of young boys and men of all races and species, scantily dressed and always smiling.

“Oh,” I said. “Now I understand.”

“Yeah, this is the pretty men room,” Catarina said.

Hercule started laughing.

“I know what he uses his money for now!” he said. “Is that what those carriages are always bringing into town?”

Vernor Leng was red in the face.

“So, Vernor, buddy,” I said

“What what what!?!” Vernor Leng said.

“If this got out, attached to your name, I mean rumors really spread, don’t they, Hercule?” I said. “They’re fast.”

“Oh, they’ll spread,” Hercule said with a grin.

“They’ll spread just like you, bro!” Catarina said.

“There might be a way of silencing people, Vernor,” I said. “But it’s probably going to be very expensive.”

“It’s going to take a lot to silence me,” Hercule said.

I gestured towards Hercule.

“So, here’s the plan,” I said. “We’re going to throw you in jail, mayor.”

“What for?” Vernor Leng said.

“Suspicion,” I said. “Complicity. Possible conspiracy. And for your own protection.”

“I agree with the protection part.”

“And then we’ll figure out what to do with everything else.”

I turned to the dwarf.

“I don’t think, Hercule, that we need to spread word of what the mayor has done yet,” I said. “But if the mayor does disappear from out of the jail, then we’ll have no choice but to tell everyone everything.”

“I’ll just keep the secret right here in me belt, and when it’s time …” Hercule said.

“Exactly,” I said.

“You don’t have to worry about Dolf though,” Hercule said. “You have to worry about Dolf making lewd gestures.”

“Well, we’re still going to try to find some of the red apples to help Dolf,” I said.

“I don’t have any apples!” Vernor Leng said. “I wait until I have the last apples in town and then I sell all of them.”

“That’s how he’s got so much cash,” I said. “Because he increases the price. He lets everyone else sell theirs to the first people to show up and then he sells his last and makes his fortune, which he then spends, apparently, a penny at a time, considering how much cash was in that room.”

Catarina suggested Leng just move away but that seemed to disturb the man in a way that was almost overwhelming, which was illogical.

“Why wouldn’t you want to leave?” I asked.

He stuttered but couldn’t answer the question.

“Maybe it’s more hoodly doodly bullshit,” Catarina said.

I cast a detect magic on the man and peered at him closely. He had the same magic upon him as before, the kind that was natural for elves and druids.

“Why can’t you leave town?” I asked him again, watching him closely.

An aura flashed around his head and he stuttered and sputtered but couldn’t answer the question.

“So, when did Belak cast the spell on you?” I asked.

“Belak never cast any spells on me,” Vernor Leng said.

“Someone cast a spell on you. There’s a spell on you right now, not allowing you to leave town, apparently.”

“I … I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Tell me about leaving town. Wouldn’t it be nice to go outside of town? Why won’t you leave town?”

He lit up with some kind of enchantment every time he was asked or thought about leaving town. It turned out that every time he was asked the question, he stumbled in his speech and then couldn’t even remember me asking.

“We’ve got to lock him up,” I said to Brook. “He’s being controlled.”

Brook asked if I could dispel the magic on him but I told her I couldn’t. I’d not learned that spell yet. She wondered if the resident cleric of the town might have it and I told her we’d ask.

Telling Vernor Leng he was enchanted was met with shock but belief from the man. But as soon as he tried to think about it, his eyes crossed and he moved on to another topic. Though he understood he was being controlled, he couldn’t seem to focus on it or think about it.

“He’s no more in control than the goblins,” I said.

Brook guessed the spell was along the same as the spell cast on the goblins. I told Hercule we needed to lock the man up as he was being controlled enough for him to become massively rich yet continue living in the village.

“Why haven’t you ever left, Hercule?” I asked, scanning him while the detect magic spell was still active.

“This was just where I came to after I left my home in the mountains to the north,” Hercule said.

He seemed clean.

We all went back downstairs and told Argie everything that had happened, including the magic controlling the mayor. We told both the villagers and the mayor of the magical influence over him and that he needed to be locked up for the time being. The villagers seemed to understand, especially Terry. I pointed out we were going to lock up the mayor in case the magical influence became more powerful.

We locked up the mayor’s house and locked the mayor up in the jail. I asked Terry to take care of him and Terry gladly agreed. We made sure Hercule had the keys to the jail and the mayor’s house. Catarina handed over the letters and other writings she’d found in Vernor Leng’s office.

We discussed dealing with the mayor and returning to the ravine. Catarina gave the magical cloak that obscured features to Brook.

* * *

Our tenth day in Oakhurst started atypically. We awoke that morning and met in the taproom. We talked about whether or not the mayor could physically leave town and Brook suggested we test that. I got the key to the cell from Hercule and, after he had his breakfast, we took the mayor out onto the road and walked down the road with him. Fifty feet past the last building, he passed out. Brook picked him up and carried him back. He awoke when we entered town again, wondering aloud why she was carrying him.

“You passed out,” I told him. “The magic upon you holds you to this place completely.”

“That is awful!” he said.

His eyes went blank and he looked around, confused again. We locked him back in his cell. I told the others that hopefully the effect would end once we dealt with Belak. I also learned from the mayor that the apples were due to come in two days. Then we headed back to the ravine. I wondered, on the way, as there were no goblins to bring the apples, what or who would show up at the village.

“A very upset Belak, I would imagine,” Brook said.

“Or more of those twig things,” I said.

“Or more of those twig things,” she echoed.

We climbed down into the ravine and made our way to goblin town. The smell was starting to get bad there, but nothing had changed in the place. Corpses were everywhere.

“By the way,” Catarina said. “Can I get some healing?”

“You’re hurt?” Argie said.

Catarina had been covered with blood but none of us had really paid attention to her injuries, assuming the blood was not her own. Argie cast several healing spells on her to heal her wounds.

“Catarina, please, tell us before we go to bed at night,” I said.

“I forgot!” she said.

“Fair enough,” I said. “Fair enough.”

“I was kinda drunk,” she said.

“Just try to remember,” I said.

“She was very drunk,” Brook said.

“Fine,” Catarina said.

We discussed how much magic Argie could yet cast that day.

“Do you have anything non-spelly you could use?” Catarina said.

“What?” Argie said. “Do you realize who I am?”

“She doesn’t even carry bandages,” I said.

“I … don’t need to,” Argie said. “Let me try something else.”

She cast another healing spell of more power on her, completely healing her wounds. I again asked Catarina to remember to heal up at night. She said we’d try.

We returned to the goblin throne room. Nothing had changed and we made our way back to the door hidden behind the throne.

“Lead on, Catarina,” I said.

“All right,” she said.

Then I remembered Catarina only had one way of opening doors: smashing them.

“Lead on, Brook,” I said.

A long spiral staircase went downward for a long time. Lit torches with blue flames, obviously magical, lit the entire way. They were permanently affixed to the wall. Catarina looked at them, contemplating, and I bid her not to damage them as the kobolds would want them. It took us 10 minutes to get to the bottom, being careful and looking for traps the entire way. There were none.

We got to the bottom of the stairs. A long hallway led away from it. A door stood at the end of it, the hallway otherwise featureless. The stone of the hall was hewn from the solid rock.

Brook led us down the corridor to the door. She examined it for traps but found none. She found a few tracks due to the moss being slightly more worn towards the center of the corridor than near the edges. Someone had been there before us.

Brook carefully opened the door. The area beyond was surprisingly well-lit but cold. The light was cold and steady, unnatural, and blue. It emanated from the hole in the ceiling from the goblin throne room. The ceiling of the great chamber was domed and obviously nearly a hundred feet high. A single beam of light came down the center, casting its light on a tree in the middle of the room. It was 100 yards to the other side of the room.

The tree was full and beautiful, having been groomed and pruned with the hands of an artist. At the end of every branch were massive, beautiful, alabaster white apples. The thing should not have been able to survive in the place with the lack of light and warmth. The tree was unlike any tree I’d ever seen or read about in my life.

Brook, staring ahead with hawk eyes, saw three shapes crouching near the tree, relaying that to us.

“This is too scary,” I said loudly.

I pulled the door closed.

We discussed what to do, Brook suggesting a silence spell while I pointed out I could light up the area around the tree with magic. Catarina said she had a bad idea: she would go in and punch things while the rest of us snuck. Argie pointed out they could be stronger than her and she could die. She seemed perplexed by that sentence. We decided to head and I warned them not to get too close to the tree as it was not natural. We doused our lights.

When we opened the door again, the three huddled figures were standing by the tree. We all approached and then I cast dancing lights, forming four lights all around them once I was within about 90 feet. The four lights appeared near the tree.

The figure in the middle wore a brown cloak, his face obscured by the shadows of the hood. The one on the right wore nothing on her head and was a female elf with purple skin. She held a staff in her hand and wore black robes. The one on the left had black armor and a helmet. He had a nasty-looking sword.

“Who has intruded on the Sunless Citadel?” a booming voice echoed across the room.

“How you doing!” Catarina said. “I’m Catarina.”

I moved off to the right away from her.

The man with the brown cloak turned from us and faced the tree.

“Silence!” I yelled to Argie.

Brook had disappeared into the darkness to the our left and I heard Argie casting her silence spell. I cast a pair of magic missiles at the drow wizardress and then continued moving around to the right, flanking as best I could. Catarina came out of the darkness, rushing the drow, and punched her in the face. I thought I saw Brook near the edge of the darkness.

The drow swung her staff and aimed it at Brook. Three magic missiles flew out of the staff, swirling around each other and then striking the ranger. Then the armored knight moved at Catarina and swung that evil sword.

“Bring it!” Catarina yelled.

He slashed at her but it didn’t injure her very much.

Argie finished her silence spell and the combat near the tree suddenly went dead silent as it took effect. I cast another pair of magic missiles, this time firing them at the man in the cloak standing next to the tree and touching it with both hands. It looked like the missiles went through the man but then hit the tree. He flinched when they actually struck. I continued to flank around the side of the tree, moving closer to about 60 feet away.

Catarina punched the drow wizardress in the face again, continuing the blow into the paladin, but only struck his armor. The drow fell backwards and crashed to the ground in a crumpled heap. Catarina turned and focused on the paladin. Brook rushed the paladin and tried to slash him with her sword, the blade turned aside by his armor. The paladin looked down at Catarina and then stabbed her again.

Argie moved to the edge of the light from my spell as I cast detect magic, looking for the man I assumed was moving around, as I thought, at the time, it was an illusion of him was standing by the tree. The tree glowed in a strange magic and I saw no one else around me. It felt like something was coming.

“Argie!” I called. “Is the tree evil?”

I moved to within 30 feet of the tree but made sure to stay in its shadow from my dancing lights.

Catarina rushed the paladin and grappled him, knocking him down. Brook stood over them and, after being indecisive for a moment, stabbed the tree. The man near the tree, who I assumed was Belak, looked at her. The paladin tried to break free. Then I heard Argie cast a hold person spell and the paladin stopped moving altogether.

I moved up to about 15 feet from the tree and cast a burning hands spell on it. The tree caught fire and I found myself exposed in the light of the flames. I saw Belak wailing and screaming as he fled out of the silenced area and ran in circles nearby.

Catarina tied up the paladin. Brook stabbed the tree again. Belak screamed again. Argie cast a spell to detect evil. I later learned she had seen the tree was evil but the paladin had evil on the surface, but there was a faint glow, not of evil, within. The drow woman wasn’t evil either, except on the surface. Belak was evil.

“Tree, Belak: evil,” she said. “The others are not.”

I noticed a strange magical tether, invisible were it not for my spell, connecting Belak and the tree.

I moved around the tree about 90 degrees and cast another burning hands spell, blasting that side of the tree. Belak stopped, gasped, and fell over with a crash. Catarina grabbed the man in armor and the drow wizardress, pulling them away from the tree, whistling without making any noise.

“See if he’s alive!” I called, pointing at Belak.

Brook kicked the sword into the burning flames and flinched. I cast another burning hands on the tree. The tree was blazing and the smoke was being drawn up the hole in the ceiling. I went to check on Belak and found him dead. I asked Brook to drag him towards the door as well. Then I sent the dancing lights around the room to find everyone. I got the staff as well.

Argie told us Belak was evil, as was the tree, but both auras were fading as the tree burned and Belak was dead. We moved back to the door to the place and, after some five minutes, the tree was destroyed. Argie told us the evil auras on the drow and the paladin were overwhelmed and disappeared.

“So, I was right,” she said. “They were being possessed the entire time.”

I cast a detect magic on each of them but found no magic upon either of the two prisoners.

“I’m glad we didn’t actually kill them,” Argie said.

I pulled off the paladin’s helmet and found his face blue. Katarina was sitting on him.

“Get off of him!” I said to Catarina. “If it weren’t for the armor, he would be dead!”

“I ain’t that … okay, I am that heavy,” she said.

The man gasped and the color came back into his face.

“In the name of all that is holy, where am I?” he shouted.

“In the most unholy place you don’t want to be, sir,” Argie said.

“You ever heard of a sword called ‘Unfettered’, sometimes known as ‘Shatterspike?’” I asked.

“No, I have no memory of that sword,” the man said. “The last thing I remember is eating an apple.”

“What color was it?”

“It was red.”

“So, the apples of life aren’t the ‘of life,’” Brook said. “They put them under control of Belak.”

“Oh,” Argie said.

“What is your name?” I asked the man.

“I am the great Sir Braford,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

“Want some pear?” Catarina asked him.

She cut off a hunk with her dagger and held it out to him.

“I don’t think he wants a pear,” Brook said. “It’s fine.”

“Who gave you this apple?” I asked.

Argie had moved to me.

“We better keep him away from the kobolds,” she whispered in my ear. “He’s a paladin.”

“Well, in the capital city of all humanity, far to the south, there came a trader,” he said. “He was a grand cleric and he was bringing these apples that could cure anything. At the time, I had just returned from fighting a dragon and my leg was missing. It had been eaten off. The apple seller said that this would heal it. I said ‘I’ve tried everything else and our clerics couldn’t do anything and all of the paladin order couldn’t.’”

“Would you happen to have an extra apple?” Argie interrupted.

“No,” Sir Braford said. “And so I ate it and that’s all I remember. It worked but … where in all hell’s am I?”

“Wake her up,” I said to Argie.

I pointed at the drow.

“Wake this woman up,” I said. “You say she’s not evil?”

“Who is this?” Sir Braford said.

“The drow?”

“And why am I wearing this!?!”

“Wearing what?”

“This … cursed-looking armor! This doesn’t go with the gold of my order!”

“All right, calm down. We’ve rescued you from being ensorcelled from some kind of druid for … what was the last date that you remember? What was the date that this happened?”

The last date he remembered was two years before. I told him the present day and year. He believed me and I told him where we were located.

“That far north?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “You can probably untie him.”

We untied Sir Braford. Argie cast a cure minor wounds spell on the girl. She coughed and woke up.

“‘Ello love,” Catarina said.

“When did you eat the apple?” I asked the girl.

“Apple?” she said. “Apple. Oh! The white ones!”

“White?” Catarina said.

“You ate a white apple?” Argie said.

“You ate a white apple?” I said.

“Uh-huh,” the drow said.

“Did somebody give that to her?” Argie asked.

“Why?” I asked.

“Yes, I ate a white apple,” the drow said.

“Why?” I asked.

“It was … what is the year?” she said.

I told her the day and year.

“Five years ago,” she said.

“Five years ago,” I said. “So, all these apples ensorcell people,” I said.

I explained to her how the apples took people’s minds and made them the slaves of Belak. She looked herself over and noted a bracelet on her wrist.

“That’s my mother’s,” she said. “They only would have given me that if I’d died.”

“Wait …” I said.

“So the apple gives the appearance of death,” Brook said.

“But then you go back and dig up the corpse which isn’t really dead and, now, you’re mind controlled,” I said.

“Yes,” Brook said.

“Zombie!” Catarina cried out.

“Now now,” Argie said.

I asked the drow where she was from and she told me she was from the capital of the drow. Not as far away where Sir Braford was from but far away to the west nonetheless. I explained to her what happened. She leapt up from the floor and paced angrily back and forth spouting the names of the people who probably wanted her dead. I handed her the staff.

“Why are you giving me this?” she said. “This isn’t mine.”

“Oh, you’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry. My mistake.”

“Want a bit o’ pear?” Catarina said.

“Yes!” the drow said.

She got a slice of pear and ate it.

“Do you have your spell book?” I asked. “Are you a wizard?”

“I am a sorceress,” she said.

I frowned in disappointment. She would be no good to trade spells with. She seemed very flustered.

“Where am I?” I said.

I told her where we were located.

“Where the hell is that?” she said.

I told her the relative location, noting other geographical features, countries, and cities.

“You are kidding!” she said.

“Yeah, it’s been five years,” I said. “These apples are apparently … why did you eat a white apple? What did they tell you?”

“They told me it would finally help me sleep,” she said.

“Well, it did,” Catarina quipped.

“Technically,” Brook said.

“Yeah,” Argie said.

“Bet you don’t fell well-rested,” I said. “Well, there’s the tree they come from.”

I pointed out the door at the blazing trees.

“So, it controlled me?” the drow said.

“Yes,” Brook said.

“For five years,” Argie said.

“Technically, it half-killed ya and then a druid controlled ya,” Catarina said.

“We think they made you─” I started to say.

“But don’t worry. He’s that little pile of fire right there.”

“No, he’s not. His body’s right here.”

“Don’t worry, he’s dead.”

“We think that the white apples─”

“I mean, it doesn’t help that you’re kind of just a bunch of xenophobic spider-worshipping nutbags.”

“We think that the white apples made you look dead and that the person who gave it to you dug you up afterwards because, at some point, the death wore off and you became controlled by them or at least became very evil.”

“I’m going home,” the drow said. “How do I get out of here?”

“We’ll take you home,” Brook said.

“We’ll escort you out and we’ll take you back to Oakhurst and we will─” I said.

“I don’t want to but you’re the only option I have,” she said.

“─get you some money,” I pressed on, more and more annoyed at being constantly interrupted. “So that you will─”

“We’ll take you to the road and point you south,” Catarina interrupted.

“We’re going to give you some money so that you can find your way home,” I said.

“Very gracious of you,” the drow said.

“Well, there’s someone who actually … owes you,” I said.

“You screamed less than this one,” Catarina said, indicating Sir Braford.

“Oh, please don’t tell me I was a prostitute while I was away,” the drow said.

“Not as far as we know,” Catarina said.

“I don’t believe that was the case,” Argie said.

“I’m not sure what you were doing,” I said.

“In Oakhurst you weren’t,” Brook said.

“Well, you said somebody owed me money!” the drow said.

“No no no no no,” I said. “It’s just that there’s another person complicit with these crimes and … he will be heavily fined. I can’t believe no one has complained about the apples not working like they’re supposed to.”

“It seems like they do,” Brook said.

We discussed the fact. At first I was surprised no one had returned to complain about the apples of death not killing people but then realized, those who “died” by the apple were probably buried and then woke up later, buried alive. I noted I wanted to look around down there and look for red apples in the hopes of giving one to Dolf.

Sir Braford asked if there was an armor smith nearby and we assured him there was. I told him I would make sure the new armor would be financed. We had him keep on the armor he wore in the hopes of using it to help pay for his new armor.

We made a quick search of the room for any stored apples and found a small bag. Within were both white and red apples. As soon as we touched any of them, they turned to ash. Catarina picked up the bag, just in case. She wondered if they would stay apples if they were not touched. I checked the seeds and found they were still there.

We left the Sunless Citadel and the ravine, leaving the chain down this time. Catarina found that she could touch the apples outside of the citadel. She chucked the white apples into the ravine, where they turned to ash, and found she had three red apples still.

We returned to Oakhurst. There, we talked to the mayor in the jail. He was pounding on the door and remembered only that he was the mayor. He had been influenced and controlled by the apples as well. All he remembered was selling apples and little else. I told him everything but he remembered nothing of Belak. He was horrified by what he heard. When Catarina brought up the many male prostitutes he had been involved with, he wasn’t fazed by it and even seemed somewhat happy he at least lived it up while he was controlled.

When I asked if he was willing to give up all the money, he told me all he desired was enough to leave without being shamed. In the end, knowing he’d been controlled for 20 years, we gave him gold and gems enough to make him wealthy for life or at least see him on his way to wherever he might want to go. We told the townsfolk what was going on and they were saddened by what had happened to him, waving good-bye to him as he went on his way.

We also gave the drow gold and gemstones enough to make her rich and certainly get her back home. She was overjoyed and surprised by that. I learned her name was Sharwyn. She seemed unable to believe that we were helping her at all. She surprised me by, rather than asking for the direction to the drow capitol, she wanted to know the direction to the nearest large city. I told her the way to Starfall, noting I had lived there and mentioning the Magical University to her. She headed in that direction. I waved her off and told her I hoped to see her again. Argie had made sure the heal her completely.

We took Sir Braford to Hercule to make armor. Sir Braford gave the dwarf the black plate he was wearing. Hercule loved it and added it to his collection in the back. Then Hercule got to work making him some new armor, fit for a paladin. He also gave Catarina two brass knuckles, some kind of deal they had made before.

Dolf was given one of the red apples and he bit it. His tongue grew back and we checked him for magic and evil. The remaining apples apparently were exactly what they had originally been advertised as.

Once he was ready to leave town, some days later, we gave Sir Braford money and gems to get him home. He asked how long it would be able to take him to walk back to his home. It was some two months but I pointed out the airship, which might help him on his way. We discussed his getting passage from the airship, at least to Starfall, and then possibly getting passage on other ships back to his home in the far south. He decided to wait in town for the owners of the airship to return.

Brook was of the opinion of taking two chests for the party and we discussed distributing the wealth. I searched the gemstones for rubies as I needed ruby dust. I noted I could make continual flames with ruby dust and the others were fine with that.

We elected to give the bulk of the gold and gems to the villagers. Some of them wanted to leave but I talked to them and noted they could trade with the kobolds in the Sunless Citadel to make repairs on the place. Some of them left, but they headed north to the mountains there. Apparently there was an ancient dwarven citadel in that direction.

Hercule was staying and they started to cast lots to see who was to be the next mayor. Hercule was running for the seat and Brook campaigned for him. Catarina campaigned for someone running against him. He won, of course.

I returned to the rift and told the kobolds all that happened.

Merchants started to show up to buy the apples and were turned away, incredibly angry. Some of them had apparently built their lives on the apple trade. I made sure to tell each of them their lives had been a lie and their apples cursed, everyone who ate them and died having come back to life, probably in their graves, and the mind control that applied to everyone who ate an apple. I told them to spread the word to destroy the white apples. The merchants were astounded and all left in turn.

It was a week before the airship adventurers returned from the north. They were surprised by the changes in the town. They had a new member, a very short and well-dressed goblin. It was Gurgle. He looked very happy.

I asked Gurgle what happened and learned the goblins had moved into the ancient dwarven stronghold. I asked him for a map so that I could go visit them and educate them. I told him I would go as soon as I could get away from Oakhurst.

“You know, those goblins told pretty amazing stories about you,” Marcus said.

“How amazing?” Brook said with a smile at the man.

“They said you helped them get a new home,” Marcus said.

“Yes, I’m going up to see them about economics and trading with nearby villages,” I said.

“That is phenomenal. We’ll wait here and, when you come back, we’ll take you back to Starfall.”

“There’s a gentleman who needs a ride to Starfall.”

“Really?”

“I think he’s in the inn right now. Yes. It’s a paladin.”

“Yeah, it’s a long story,” Catarina said. “Lost two years of his life, from the human capitol, paladin, ate an apple.”

The undine cleric in the party looked at Marcus.

“I told you those apples were bad!” she said.

“You were right,” Catarina said.

“Some of them,” Argie said.

I asked them about a box that could negate magic. When Marcus asked me what kind, I held out my arms, indicating a box about four feet long by two feet wide by a foot deep or so. I wanted something that would hide and contain the magic of whatever was placed within it. He told me there were things like that in Starfall and I commissioned him to bring one back to Oakhurst, telling him I’d pay him a fair price.

I left for the new goblin town in the mountains to the north and advised them for a week or so on how money worked, how economics worked, and how they could possibly thrive. I also contacted a few nearby villages and arranged for them to meet the goblins to begin trade with them. I later learned that Brook had seduced Marcus before he had left on my little errand. When I returned to Oakhurst, I took the magical box Marcus had brought back and then borrowed pincers from Hercule.

I returned to the Sunless Citadel and talked to the kobolds. They had cleaned most of the citadel already and were hard at work restoring the citadel to its former glory. Then I went down to where the tree had once stood and sifted through the ashes with the pincers. I found the sword, used the pincers to put it in the box, and then closed it up. I returned to Oakhurst to get the opinion of the airship adventurers. Brook had convinced them to stay a little while in Oakhurst, mostly convincing Marcus.

“Where did you get this?” Marcus asked.

“The paladin that you took back to Starfall,” I said. “It was given to him, apparently.”

“And he doesn’t have any memory of it, does he?”

“No. The apples don’t allow you to remember anything.”

“How convenient.”

“Why?”

“There’s only nine swords like this.”

“Eight others.”

“Good math,” Brook quipped.

“Give me your hand,” I said.

“No,” Brook said.

Argie shook her head. Catarina smacked Brook in the back of the head.

“These things are incredibly powerful,” Marcus said.

“And this one is evil, apparently,” I said.

“Are you sure about that?” Catarina asked Marcus. “Cause it only tickled a little bit when it hit me.”

I asked Argie to detect evil on the thing and she said it was very evil.

“There’s only nine swords like this,” Marcus said again. “They say that if you actually touch this, it talks to you and it makes you like it.”

I laughed nervously.

“That’s why I haven’t touched it,” I said.

Catarina’s fingers crawled slowly towards the sword. I closed and latched the box.

“This is … this needs to be very … this needs to be hidden,” Marcus said.

“Okay, we’ll do that,” Brook said.

“Not that the other swords need to be, but this definitely does,” Marcus said.

“We’ll take it to Starfall,” Brook said. “That’s the biggest city.”

“Can it be destroyed?” I asked.

“No,” Marcus said. “No. The Nine cannot be destroyed.”

“Well, that’s why I wanted this box, so I guess it’s mine now,” I said.

“For now,” Argie said.

“All right,” Brook said.

“What are you going to do with it?” Catarina said.

“What are you going to do with it?” Marcus asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I don’t like the tone of voice you just used with that,” Brook said.

“Probably donate it to the University of Magic,” I said.

“I would recommend donating to whatever university of magic you dislike the most,” Marcus said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I know the professors. They’ll probably put it in the museum. There’s all kinds of weird magic item in the museum. Don’t touch.”

“That’s worse,” Marcus said. “Because whoever owns this will eventually be attacked and lose it to someone.”

“Not of no one knows about it.”

“Wars have been fought over things like this.”

“The only ones that know about it are the five of us right now. So, don’t tell anyone.”

“Why the **** do you look at me when you say that!?!” Catarina said. “I mean, you’re right, but still!”

“These things can’t even be taken to other dimensions,” Marcus said. “They refuse to go through doors. Or I’d offer to take it somewhere else.”

“Through dimensions?” I said. “What?”

“Other worlds,” he said. “Other planes.”

“Oh,” I said. “I will keep it safe. As safe as I can. That’s why I commissioned this box. It can’t be detected because of the anti-magic around it.”

We made plans to talk to some of my former professors about hiding it away, possibly. Catarina was for hiding it in the Sunless Citadel but I noted it would be found by someone. I figured the University was a better option.

“It’s will will be done eventually,” Marcus said.

“Yes,” I said.

“The most you can do by putting it in the biggest vault is delay it by a couple hundred years. Eventually it will call to someone to come get it.”

“But not in this box.”

I figured it was safe enough for the moment, muted and hidden for the time being.

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