The Morning After
Nashua awoke and stretched. Gracklstugh was exhausting. Oppressive as leaking kiln, with the glow of the forge fire illuminating the city in hues of red and orange, and the taste of soot hanging heavy in the air, the politics and turmoil from the demon lords was only making the city less bearable than it already was.
Demon lords. Now it was plural. If there was any truth to the notes they found, Graz’zt was seeking to arrest control of Gracklstugh from Demogorgon. This was a fight any sane person would stay out of.
In the night his pack had tumbled over. It lay slouched on the floor, spilling its contents out. His book of spells lay on the floor in a less than sacred manner. Someone had been here in the night, and that someone had robbed him.
Nashua opened his book, and a sliver of paper fell out. A note.
Droki wants his magicky hat back, bitch.
“No, no, no,” Nashua said as he searched through the bag. The book of rituals he had recovered from Narrak’s desk in the Whorlstone Tunnels was missing.
“Give them back to me!” Nitsuj’s voice was shrill, like that of a child who had lost his favorite toy.
Nashua opened his door, as did Wolfe and several of the women they had freed. Nitsuj had Westra by the hair, holding her head against the wall with his crossbow to her temple. Like a feral animal, his eyes were watering and wide, and his teeth were bared.
“I know it was you. Give them back!”
Westra cried out, “I don’t know what you’re talking about! I don’t have it!”
Wolfe interjected, “You’re scaring the ladies, Nitsuj. Calm down. What’s this nonsense you’re talking about?”
“My dolls. She stole my dolls!” His finger was coaxing the trigger.
Creepy as it was, most everyone in the group had, at some point, given Nitsuj hair to make a doll of them. Though polite about making the doll, he was obsessive about never losing his disturbing yet prized possessions. He even had dolls of those, like Hemeth, who hadn’t been with them for too long. It was simply a matter of time before he would make dolls of each of the women they had freed.
Nashua took a few steps forward, palms out, attempting to calm his long time comrade.
“We’ll find them,” he said. “We can find your dolls.”
Nitsuj whipped around, with his crossbow now in Nashua’s face. Several of the women gasped.
“Stand down,” Wolfe boomed, slapping the crossbow to the side. The bolt flew into the wall. “Stop with this damn doll nonsense! What are you? Insane? You’re scaring people and I’m getting fed up, you addled sod.”
Nitsuj’s knees gave out from the emotional stress. He collapsed, sobbing incoherently, wanting nothing more than his dolls returned to him. The dolls he had made of his friends.
Y spoke from down the far end of the hall, “Did I catch you surfacers at a bad time?”
The list of names. Right.
Nashua approached Y, and handed him the list of cultist names. The derro’s white eyes lit up.
“Now we can see about talking to these misguided savants,” he said, looking over the list. “The Society of Brilliance is in your debt. Maybe we can negotiate a deal before the Deepking destroys the city.”
“What?” said the collective intelligence of the group. It was impossible to discern who was more surprised by the statement.
“Wait, what about our reward?” asked Wolfe.
Y huffed a laugh, “Altruism is its own reward,” and popped out of existence. Nashua found himself wishing, not to be the first time that day, that he knew how to teleport.
“Arg! My neck!” screamed out Nitsuj, grasping a bulge forming below his left jaw. Before their very eyes, making not only the ladies in the room sick, but Jimjar and Prince Derendil as well as those who wouldn’t admit it, a second head formed out of Nitsuj, a screaming mockery of his original.
Jimjar and Nashua were on top of the matter, and hogtied their friend as he screamed and sobbed and cursed them. They tossed him in his room.
Another door in the hall opened. Kaz, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, asked, “What did I miss?”
A City Under Siege
Droki had slipped into their rooms in the night and stolen not only the ritual book, but also the hair dolls. This meant the cultists had skin and hair samplings from each of them, and they were on a timer. At any time any one of them could sprout a second head, just like Nitsuj, and the stone giants before him.
There was only one person they knew who could cure them. Hgraam had cured Rihuud when they brought the ritual artifact, the deformed head from an obsidian statue of the cursed giant, to the Stonespeaker.
Flashing their dragon badges, courtesy of the Keepers of the Flame, the group stepped on the other side off the wall cordoning off the Darklake District. A terrifying sight greeted them. The kavalrachni, the spider mounted calvary of Gracklstugh, crawling down the walls of Laduguer’s Furrow with their lances ignited in flame. Deep inside the chasm they saw the gray dwarf military assembled and ready to invade both derro districts.
Topside, all fifty giants from Clan Cairngorm were surrounding the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. This was a far cry from their memories of last night.
Siva Redmoon and Jimjar joined the group when the crossed over. With Rin and Mama Cray gone the group of women had become closer than before. Siva felt safe leaving Moira behind with them as they watched over two-headed Nitsuj. Together, everyone approached the giants. Stonespeaker Hgraam spotted them at the same time they made him out.
“Did you start this?” he asked, leaning down like a gray tower taking interest.
Nashua and Wolfe had gained enough rapport with him that it didn’t take too much convincing when defending their innocence.
“Our plans had nothing to do with starting a war.”
“Hmph,” humphed Hgraam. “My people are a peaceable people with a debt. We believe in art and beauty, and those who do not are banished to the dreamworld. We are sworn to defend Gracklstugh as long as Clan Steelshadow is in power, but this… this is madness. I do not see what good can come of removing the derro, no matter how vile the tiny creatures are.”
“About that,” said Nashua. “We have it on good authority demons are behind this.”
The Stonepeaker lifted an eyebrow.
Nashua waved his arms in emphasis, “Demons!”
Kaz and Wolfe cringed at Nashua’s melodrama. Kaz was so taken he followed up with, “Pleased to meet you, Stonespeaker. It is a true honor.”
“Who are these?”
Wolfe interjected, “Friends and allies.”
“We found a note inside of that building,” Nashua pointed at the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. “There are Demogorgon cultists, and they have evidence that an agent of Graz’zt is trying to prevent them from gaining power.”
“And take it for his own,” added Kaz.
The Stonespeaker considered their words for several moments, and asked, “The word of a derro?”
Nashua shrugged, “Since you put it that way? Not convincing. I know. But yea, we believe them.”
Hgraam considered their words. These two had spared Rihuud during his madness. They even delivered the demon worshipper responsible and secured what was needed to cure Rihuud without the Stonespeaker even asking. In his wisdom, he decided their words were worth considerable weight.
“As I have said, our duty is to Steelshadow. If a fiend is indeed seducing him into this madness then we will instead surround his fortress. But as long as the siege is happening, he will not allow audience, not even with me.”
Wolfe smiled, “I suppose we’ll simply need to bring him the heads of these demon worshipers.”
Half a tenday ago, Wolfe and Nitsuj had stopped an assassination attempt on Werz Saltbaron’s life at the docks. According to one of the notes they found, there was an entrance to the Whorlstone Tunnels at the docks. It was too late to wonder why the Gray Ghosts wanted the merchant dead, but it was never too late to not believe in coincidence.
The Darklake Docks were a well kept section of the city. Very little was out of place, and there was very few places the group decided could hide a hidden entrance into the Whorlstone Tunnels. In their haste to stop these rituals, the group decided to skip including anyone else in the search, leaving them to worry and wait back at Gholbrorn’s Lair.
Wolfe wrinkled his nose, “Nitsuj picked up a scent in that refuse over there. Buppido’s scent. Not the crap in there.”
He pointed at a section of the docks where the tide had deposited all of the trash and filth dumped into the underground lake. The stench was so strong it overpowered the burning metal and embers hanging heavy in the air.
“Are you serious?” asked Jimjar. “Do you seriously expect me to jump in there? I’d rather die of Grackl-lung than drown in such filth.”
To everyone’s surprise, Nashua slid down the short cliff and into the rubbish. Almost immediately he began to wretch, which in no way improved the situation.
Siva looked to Wolfe, “After you?”
They likewise dove into the trash and flotsam. Somewhere here there had to be an entrance and they would find it. Siva lasted a few more minutes than Nashua, sifting through the garbage, clearing pile by pile in search of a door or a grate or something. It was when she lifted a discarded, torn and frayed tarp and uncovered a nest of maggots that she, normally a stronger person, lost what little she had for lunch.
Finally, Jimjar leapt into the dump with everyone else, including Kaz who scanned the area around them.
The bard only saw a few merchants and few others who took disgust at this behavior, watching them digging in their refuse. What Kaz failed to notice was a forgotten foe, Xalith, and five other drow hiding out of sight, looking for the opportune moment to recapture the ex-slaves for Ilvara Mizzrym.
Kicking in the Door
“Found it!” shouted Jimjar to the rest.
Behind a slat of wood there was a large grate. He tested the bars, as did Wolfe, and they were loose. There was definite wear and tear, telling them that countless others had used this grate as well. The tunnel beyond curved around to the right, disappearing.
Kaz posited, “Maybe we should go get the others. Prince Derendil would want in on this.”
“No,” said Nashua. “We don’t know when the next one of us will sprout a second head. We’re going in.”
Wolfe yanked on the bars, and almost had one yanked back out of his hand by a thin wire threaded through it. The wire, nearly invisible, stretched ahead into the darkness. They waited for a sound, but heard none.
Siva exhaled, “Probably an alarm. Now they know we’re coming. How long did you say you’ve been doing this?”
Wolfe drew a drow shortsword, an extra weapon stashed that he’d never found use for. He handed it to Siva.
“Lady, don’t ever say I never did anything for you.”
With eyes better in the dark than the rest of the surfacers, Jimjar led the way down the thin spiraling tunnel, traveling deeper and deeper below the city. At the end of the tunnel, nearly a hundred feet down, a trapdoor was found. The wire from before was threaded through it.
Siva lifted the trapdoor an inch, careful in case there was another trap, and spotted it connected to a series of bells hanging along a sixty foot ladder stretching down to a stone floor. The only light was that of the faerzress, the white and yellow glow carving spirals of light and magic into the cavern walls.
Confident that the trap door wasn’t trapped, they descended the ladder, and found themselves outside of a sturdy wooden door reinforced with iron bands. A locked peephole was about duergar height.
“I thought all derro were short,” remarked Kaz as he considered the implication.
“The assassins several days ago were duergar. The cultists must be working with them,” said Wolfe. Behind him, Kaz was applying gray paint and pressing white lenses in his eyes to hide his pupils. They stung like heck. “What are you doing?”
“What I’m good at,” he said in a practiced duergar accent, “is this.” Kaz revealed that he was not only a master of the flute, but a master of disguise. For this act, he needed only his face done, and he looked close enough to a duergar that he’d be able to fool them from the other side of the door.
Everyone pressed their backs against the wall. Kaz took a deep breath.
Kaz knocked again.
Kaz knocked again… and was interrupted by the peephole opening. Nothing was on the other side. The best assumption was that a duergar was there under invisibility.
“Who are you?” a raspy voice demanded.
“I was sent by the others,” said Kaz, not really knowing who these others were. Nashua closed his eyes, massaging them with his fingers and a small incantation. He stuck his head out far enough to see one eye of the duergar, now rendered visible to only him.
And the duergar was obviously not buying the act.
Before he could warn Kaz, the duergar threw a vial of acid in the bard’s face. Kaz reeled backward, screaming in agony.
Wolfe, Siva, and Nashua were breaching the door. Nashua fired a firebolt at a hinge, while Siva struck the other. This was enough to weaken it so that Wolfe could batter down the door with his flaming demonic mace.
The cloaked duergar alchemist who attacked Kaz was already running up a ramp where three other duergar appeared. They opened fire from the top of a rise, but it wasn’t enough to distract Jimjar who fired his crossbow into the fleeing alchemist’s back.
Wolfe and Siva were out of the door and charged up the ramp dodging a volley of crossbow fire. Wolfe took the right, smashing the alchemist in the head with his mace. As the dwarf spun drunkenly, it was Siva’s blade he ran into, and his head to the floor before his knees even buckled.
Jimjar and Nashua laid down some cover fire from the doorway as Kaz tended to his own wounds with magic, and rendered himself invisible.
“Eat this!” Wolfe shouted and tossed Siva a bigwig mushroom. The gray dwarves had already dropped their crossbows, drew warpicks and grew to the size of ogres, proving why the duergar were so fearsome in hand to hand combat.
Bigwigs eaten, Siva and Wolfe grew to the size of ogres as well, and for Wolfe, just in time to slap away the first assault by the two he was taking on alone. With a shove and a shout, he was in one’s face, and burst the dwarf’s skull. The lifeless dwarf tumbled over the small cliff as he shrunk back to normal size. His friend wasn’t far behind, a victim of Wolfe‘s momentum, Wolfe’s murderous mace obliterating the duergar’s leg, sending the dwarf over the cliff as well, his neck breaking upon impact.
Siva was right behind him, fending off a vicious assault from the final combatant. The dwarf struck a lucky shot, sinking his pick in her leg. A volley of magic missiles raced through the air, peppering the dwarf in a concussive force. Dazed for but a second, a second that Siva needed, the amazon warrior struck home with her sword, slicing open the dwarf’s neck as he faltered in his dodge.
After battle, there was always the feeling like you could breath for the first time in a week. It was a rush of adrenaline, the feeling that danger had passed, and now you could move onto the next step. From the top of the ramp, Kaz appeared and yelled down to Nashua that it appeared to be a laboratory.
“Really?” the word laboratory was always of interest to the wizard.
A single crossbow bolt was fired into him from the trapdoor overhead. A crossbow bolt of drow make that adhered both he and Jimjar to the floor and in the doorway. Nashua’s hand was close enough to the frame that he got a solid grip and pulled himself free, and Jimjar right after. They took off up the ramp.
“Drow incoming!” they yelled.
Lucky for the group the magical webs had blocked the doorway and gave them time to flee. Above, in the streets of the Darklake District, the fear of the duergar city watch was enough to disuade the drow from openly attacking them. In the depths of the Whorlstone Tunnels they were open season.
They fled out of the lab, and into the caverns. To the left was another room, and to the right was a hallway with a door. The door appeared to be the better option. They took it.
The Twin Savants
Kaz slammed the door behind everyone. They stood for a second, taking in the menacing beauty of the Whorlstone Tunnels. The combat had been so intense they hadn’t realized the spell it held on people. Many of them felt uneasy, it was Kaz who felt even more disturbed.
Shadows and glimpses of demons filled the glow of the faerzress. He held up a hand, mouthing wordlessly his question he could find no words for.
Jimjar pointed at the wall, at an unseen serpentine creature swimming through the dim glow.
“What in the nine hells is that?” he asked.
Kaz blew a sigh of relief, “So I’m not going crazy.”
“These tunnels play the devil on your mind,” Wolfe muttered, remembering his previous experience. He thanked the gods that watched over him for not letting it play tricks this time.
The tunnel branched to the right and also continued forward. They were unfamiliar with this section.
“We’re going forward,” said Nashua with some authority. He viewed himself as the leader of this group as much as Wolfe, only Nashua tended to refer to them as the Understorm. Wolfe hated that name.
Kaz objected, and narrowly dodged Nashua’s quarterstaff.
“You dare to question me? To question me, a man who knows what you may never?”
Daring not to bruise Nashua’s ego any further, Kaz and the rest of the group shrugged and took off jogging down the tunnel Nashua chose. In the end, they realized that it was wise to listen to their diviner.
“Stop,” said Kaz, pointing at a narrow fissure. The wall of the cavern was cracked and mottled. “Who is for eating another of those mushrooms and squeezing through here? We’ll dodge the drow for good.”
Wolfe and Siva were still under the effects of the bigwigs, and stood five heads taller than the tallest of them. Hulking in size, they objected, “We’d have to eat two to get small enough for that.”
Jimjar squinted, something looked familiar up ahead.
“Guys, remember that intersection where we picked up Droki’s route? It’s right up ahead.”
What luck! They could easily get back to the ritual circle now. That was exactly what they did.
The group ran all of the way to the cultist lair where they had captured Narrak two days before. Sure enough, as expected, a demonic ritual was taking place. Remembering the shrieking plants, Nashua held out his stonespeaker crystal, and commanded the noisy mushrooms to not to reveal their presence.
The group sneaked past, quiet as mice. They ran across the familiar cavern, and crouched low below the rise where a dozen derro were dancing and chanting to their lord, Demogorgon. In the center of the circle was an obsidian statue of Prince Derendil, soon to be their next victim.
The savants were easy and familiar. Aliinka and her twin sister Zubriska led the ritual from the center of the circle. Their faces were twisted in an eerie blue light that responded to each heretical syllable. Derendil’s statue was beginning to form a familiar bulge in the neck.
Wolfe gave the signal. Jimjar, Kaz, and Nashua opened fire on the twins in a deadly volley nearly knocking her off of her feet.
“Them!” she screeched as Wolfe and Siva charged at the derro cultists as a deadly duo, cleaving the evil little mutants into bloody sushi. The cultists were completely off guard, and slow to respond as their numbers quickly dwindled.
From the center of the ritual, Aliinka and her sister’s hair stood on end as arcane energy crackled about them. Wolfe was quick to throw up his shield, deflecting what little he could of the lightning flying from their fingertips. The blistering shock was enough that his bit his lip and bled. Every muscle spasmed, wanting to tear themselves from his bones. His skull pounded with the boom of thunder.
When he looked over, Siva had been knocked unconscious. She was smoldering, her body a blanket of burns.
The last time Wolfe dared touch this ritual circle he went blind. He stood for a second, weighing his options. There were none. If he gave these freaky twins anymore time to prepare, he’d be dead, and everyone around him would be dead.
The power he felt surge through him as his heel struck the outline of the magic circle could never be described in words, it could only be described in the tingling of his spine and in his loins. There was no one more powerful than Wolfe. A man wasn’t born that was faster than Wolfe and there never would be. And he was god-damned handsome to boot.
The next few seconds were a blur of blood and ichor.
Electricity crackled around the twins once again, and Wolfe dived into ground zero. His prized longsword led thecharge, burying itself in Aliinka‘s chest a split second before she would have burnt him to a cinder. Pulling his sword out of her chest, the blood from her dying heart spurting high into the air, he slapped Zubriska in the side of the head, jarring her eye loose and bouncing across the floor. The agony was short lived, as Wolfe sidestepped in a show of superiority and swung his blade, slick with blood, in an upward strike that sliced her dislodged eyeball in two, up and between the savant’s legs, splitting the tiny sorcerer in twain.
He spit on her corpse. Prince Derendil was safe.
“Hey,” Nashua called out from a discarded obsidian statue of Hemeth. “Looks like they gave Hemeth two heads!”
“Yea. Never cared for that guy,” said Wolfe.