The Savage Frontier

Frost Giant Siege
Ice & Fire

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Winter.

The brutal cold of the Savage North sapped a man’s energy, making him wish for warmer fires and shelter. The winds blew and bit, slicing through to the bone. This was true for all except Nashua, Wolfe, Kazramir, and the women they had saved from the Underdark. Miles beneath the surface of the mountain they trod down from there was no wind. There was no temperature. The was only stagnant air and the dry odor of stone and decay.

They welcomed the winter as they hiked a day to the Long Road, and found shelter in the nearest inn. They handed the innkeeper a handful of coin, to which he became curious.

“Are these duergar coin?”

And this was where tales of their heroics began. The story of how they each had been abducted by the drow, enslaved, and escaped from their captors. Tales from here on were told by Quillathe when she returned to Silverymoon, and by those in the inn who listened to their story on how they had escaped Gracklstugh, and gained favor with the Deepking. As their audience looked upon Wolfe in his duergar-made armor, there was no doubt their tales rang true.

Rihuud had stayed behind in the Sword Mountains, searching for a place to call holy for their god Skoraeus Stonebones, where he might begin work pleasurable to the god of the stone.

To Siva and Moira they promised to help her sister in Port Llast, and avenge her suffering. They traveled the Triboar road west to the coast, riding their horses past smoldering settlements and rotting battlefields where giants and small folk fought. The giants, as Hgraam said, were breaking their truce. Mankind was going to suffer as long as the Ordening was undecided.

Amber Ungart stayed with the heroes through Neverwinter, and found it in her heart to help Moira. It had been a tenday since they left Triboar, and Port Llast was within sight.

Not the Beer!

Port Llast lay enshrouded in fog with the horns of war bellowing eerily. From a hilltop outside of town they could make out a ship from above the fog, and even witnessed the initial invasion.

The horrors of the Underdark were behind them, and as they saw it, demons were to be feared above any giants. Everyone tied their horses up in a copse of trees outside of town and snuck into town. The screams of the assault filled their ears. They saw a group of people running, far ahead, and their silhouettes were cut down by the silhouettes of two giants swinging their axes in deadly unison.

“They are nearly four men tall,” commented Wolfe. He set his teeth. His grip tightened on the maul he had purchased in Triboar from an elderly dwarven smith. He was eager for battle.

The giants’ longboat was beached sixty feet off of the shore. They squinted through the fog, following the boardwalk around to see if any giants remained behind. From here, nobody could be seen. Judging from the sound of war, there had to be at least a dozen frost giants pillaging the town.

A scream pierced their ears. Up ahead a tavern, the “Barley Pot” was caved in by a single giant. He smashed in the roof, and reached through the thatch to steal a cask of ale. The walls of the establishment groaned over his weight.

“No,” said Kaz. “Not a cultural icon, a place of joy an merriment!”

Wolfe shook his head angrily, “Not the beer.”

Wolfe charged, brandishing his maul. His run was timed perfectly with the onslaught of magic heralding his entry into battle. The fog drew together into a tight cylinder above the Barley Pot, and everyone felt the hair raise on the back of their necks.

As Amber and Moira fired bolts into the giant brigand, flashes of lightning and deafening thunder lit up the area. The giant screamed as the lightning channeled through him, and Nashua fired a fireball into him. The air was clouded by fire, ash and smoke, the giant on fire, bellowing as he and the building burned.

Wolfe and Siva leapt through the black smoke and wailed on their foe. The giant was so focused fending off Siva’s blows that Wolfe landed several solid hits. The giant’s axe came down on the stout warrior, knocking him to his knees. The dwarven plate absorbed it all, and he grinned up at the giant. Wolfe didn’t feel the thing.

But he did feel the next blow, the flat of the giant’s axe almost knocking his head from his shoulders.

The giant would have finished off Wolfe if not for another lightning strike and Kaz distracting him. Enraged that the giant dare make him bleed, Wolfe went for his legs with a flurry of blows. He couldn’t keep up with the crushing maul attacks, and one crippled his knee. The giant fell. The hammer landed against his temple, knocking him prone. Wolfe’s last strike crushed the brigand’s skull amidst the flash of Nashua’s magic missiles.

Smoke on the Water

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From ashore they looked upon the ominous shadow of the beached longship. The fog nearly concealed it off of the docks. Nashua looked up at Wolfe from the dead giant.

“I read his thoughts before he died. They’ve been storing their plunder on the ship out there.”

A toothy grin spread across Wolfe’s lips, unmarred by the screams of townsfolk being slaughtered in the fog.

“Let’s grab a boat.”

All six of the party stole into an abandoned boat. Nostalgia of battles at sea swam through Wolfe’s head as he guided them silently through the fog, as he had once time stole silently through the night to defeat the pirate Daskar Vane. The Underdark hadn’t dampened his senses nor his skill in the slightest as he kept downwind, careful not to alert the winter wolves guarding the frost giant vessel.

Their maws were bloody from a recent feast. Their paws were as wide as a man’s chest. Northlanders often made knives from the teeth of these beasts, each animal being the size of a wagon. He’d witnessed the carnage following attacks by packs of these dogs, and Wolfe wanted none of it. He’d settle for nothing but a decisive and swift bone-crushing victory.

They hid below the edge of the vessel, spying on the two wolves as they licked their chops and their thick white coats.

Nashua smiled, breaking from a trance. His clairvoyance had struck gold. Literally.

“The ship’s loaded,” he told them. “There’s enough in there to fund an army.”

“Now what?” asked Moira. Siva shot her a glare that read Stay in the ship. That’s what.

The girl readied her crossbow as Wolfe and Nashua communicated the strategy to take out the wolves before they could yelp.

In a wizard’s whisper, Nashua enlarged Wolfe to be the size of they winter wolves. He leapt onto the deck brandishing his maul with Siva close on his heels. Kaz illuminated the wolves in faerie fire, rendering their concealment in the fog useless as they were outlined in bright hues of green and red.

Wolfe’s maul knocked the teeth out of the beast they concentrated on. The second swing sent its teeth skipping across the deck of the ship. The sword of Siva sunk deep into the winter wolf’s neck, releasing a satisfying spray of blood arcing into the air.

The winter wolf looked up from it’s agony, whining for its mate to help, but it was too late. The ambush was too perfect. Wolfe brought the hammer down in a skull-shattering maneuver, and sideways into the mate’s chops in a whirlwind of crushing blows.

The wolf stumbled backward, ready to howl an alarm to its frost giant masters, but the others were upon it. Crossbow bolts speared its neck, as did a fiery explosion that melted its fur. It reeled from Nashua’s magical attack, craning its neck to howl, when lightning from the sky, courtesy of Kaz, struck the creature dead.

Wolfe signaled everyone to silence. They stood on the edge of the boat, worrying the bard might have alerted their enemies. Nobody approached through the fog.

“Siva and I will stand watch. The rest of you, grab what you can.”

Amber asked, “Why’s that?”

“Because we’re burning this,” Nashua answered with too much enthusiasm.

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The group loaded their boat with all of the plunder they could manage, and ferried it back to shore. From the docks Nashua shot a fireball, screaming into the longship. The battle had ravaged Port Llast, and many townsfolk lay dead in the streets. But, with nowhere to run or to retreat, the frost giants dropped what they couldn’t carry and retreated north toward Luskan.

Now it was time they face the duke.

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Southkrypt
Escape from the Underdark

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The Story of the Duergar

A day’s march to the south of Neverlight Grove and the group felt safe. Rihuud sat in a cavern with his eyes closed and his hands laid flat upon the stone wall before him. He meditated on the words of the stone, on the feelings and emanations of the rock.

A realization came to him. The stone was confused, and had been lying to both he and his mentor, Hgraam.

He grimaced at the thought. These demonic disturbances in the Underdark were getting more worrisome.

Rihuud called to the party and gathered them around. He told them of the duergar, and how their ancient clan had become to be one of the most powerful civilizations within the Underdark.

The duergar were miners once upon a time, and traveled from the land of dreams and into the depths of the world, into a world of darkness where Skoraeus Stonebones made them whole. These dwarves created a great mine so deep that it penetrated the heart of the Underdark. But their ambition to connect the dream world with the center of the world was too ambitious, and they fell victim to the illithid.

Over the centuries that followed the dwarves changed into duergar, absorbing the magic within the faerzress, and forever changing due to the cruel experiments of the illithid. Their brethren never came for them. Nobody ever searched for them to free them from their bondage or save them from the horror. Thus their intense hatred for their brothers of dream was kindled.

This bridge between the dream world and the Underdark was known to the rock. Rihuud promised to guide the party there, and together they would ascend into the land of dream, or as these heroes called it, the surface.

The Final Chase

The edifice of Southkrypt stood before them. Past a broken bridge over a wide chasm, a many tiered wall stood, carved into the side of the cavern. Upon this wall were countless portholes and doors, with ladders and stairs climbing over the surface. This ancient wall was meant to confuse those who would invade the mines, and eventually the city, of Southkrypt.

Nashua looked up into the dark ceiling of the cavern. His eyes, though accustomed to the darkness, could not see far enough.

“Somewhere above us is the forest of Kryptgarden,” he told them. He shuddered to think of it. A mentor of his had once talked of Southkrypt, and the gibbering creatures that infested its halls. Those that entered its mines seldom returned. But who was to say what lived as far beneath the surface as they were?

He peered across the bridge, but a shine down the canyon wall caught his eye. He might have been mistaken, but through a patch of faezress he saw shadows of drow creeping up the trail behind them. If he were a normal man he would have dismissed the possibility, as they hadn’t seen the drow for weeks. But then again, he had dreamt of the fate awaiting them in Southkrypt. He regretted not having the stomach to tell Rihuud.

“Drow,” he whispered to the others, pointing down the trail. Derendil’s furry ears perked up, and he sniffed the air.

Wolfe whispered to Derendil, “What do you smell?”

A gutteral tone escaped the mad prince’s throat, “Drow.

Prince Derendil snarled, “Charge! We will kill them all! Follow me into battle!” and took off running to intercept their foes, but not before Kaz touched him, rendering him invisible.

The others pittied the quaggoth, but none wanted to make a final, suicidal stand against Ilvara and her goons. At least in this manner they wouldn’t have to deal with him when they reached the surface. The quaggoth could die a hero.

“I can jump across the gap with one of you,” spoke Rihuud solemnly.

“No,” said Nashua between incantations. He was suddenly hovering above the ground, locking grasp with Wolfe. “You can do more than you think you can. You can carry all of them. I foresaw this!”

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Rihuud gathered up the others, letting them hang off of him like dolls. Amber had her arms around his neck. Kaz held onto the stone giant’s belt, as did Siva who held tight onto Moira. Quillathe was in Rihuud’s arms. Neither the giant nor the group questioned Nashua. The diviner’s predictions always rang true.

With a great bellow, Rihuud was in the air and across the bridge, falling onto one knee. He aided them in ascending the wall, as everyone followed the flying wizard to the door he knew was real. Behind them, and far below, the drow scrambled up the ladders and stairs trying to keep up with their quarry, all of whom had managed to evade capture for the last two months.

Prince Derendil lay dead a few hundred feet behind them, nearly decapitated by Shoor, Ilvara’s lieutenant.

“Go, go, go!” shouted Wolfe, ushering everyone into the door as drow crossbow fire rained down on them. In the doorway, Siva took a poisoned bolt for Moira. The girl screamed out as she was thrown through the door.

Wolfe grabbed Siva by the arm and pulled her through. The door had been busted down. There was no way to close it behind them, and people getting themselves wounded was only going to slow them down.

Ilvara was behind Jorlan and Shoor as they took the lead. From atop the stairs they fired on the fugitives, who was now fleeing across a bridge connecting the wall to the lower mines. Many of the crossbow bolts missed, sizzling as they dissolved in the magma far below.

One bolt zipped past Rihuud’s ear, purposely taking up the rear, and struck Amber as she struggled to catch up. Her short dwarven legs couldn’t carry her as fast as the others. Kaz, limping from a sprained foot, pulled her to her feet. The girl was unconscious.

“Run!” shouted Rihuud to Kaz, as the stone giant scooped up their unconscious comrade.

Kaz darted down to the end of the long bridge, and waited for the stone giant to charge ahead. He had learned an old spell in Oghma’s House of Knowledge, and uttered the incantation when the drow were halfway down the long stretch, quickly bearing down on them. A wall of daggers appeared and fluttered around as a deadly razor blade barrier.

Nashua was suddenly beside him, and unleashed several bolts of magical energy at their foes. One struck Ilvara in the face, knocking the priestess down. Others killed the drow warriors taking the lead. He smiled, wishing he could hear the priestess curse his name.

As the two fled, a disoriented drow warrior ran into the flying daggers, and screamed as he was sliced to ribbons.

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A thin trail led up another cavern wall. There were several more tunnels, like those made by ants, that they ran past. Many of these were collapsed or collapsing and they dared not enter them. A few thousand feet up the trail Nashua found one that smelled of faerzress, a magical tunnel with a deeper secret.

“Here! Everyone come here!”

The drow were far below, and not giving up. They had a league on them, but their lead wouldn’t last forever. A hundred feet into the tunnel, a tunnel low enough that Rihuud had to stoop over, they found several shafts leading thousands of feet into the air. Elevators had been here once, but their shattered remains crumbled into dust with the lightest touch.

Nashua signaled the others. The far shaft was magical, and he could work with it. A teleportation circle existed that they could use to escape Ilvara, Shoor, and Jorlan, plus their minions.

“Defend this room, Wolfe,” he said to his comrade. “I need a few minutes to get this figured out.”

The magic was ancient and nearly beyond him. The runes were archaic at best, as he didn’t understand dwarvish… especially dwarvish that was millennia old. As he played with the magic of the circle it lit.

Confident, he said, “We’ll be out of here in no time!”

“Do you really know what you’re doing?” asked Siva. The others looked to him.

“Yes I know what I’m—,” he said, then the magic in the circle faded. “Uh, I’ll have this figured out.”

Wolfe shouted from the entrance of the room, “Hurry up, wizard!” The drow were getting close.

The magic of the circle lit again, and faded. Nashua was losing face, cursing like his father did when their nobility was revoked in Waterdeep. He hated his father. He never wanted to become his father.

Kaz slapped Nashua in the shoulder before Siva could interfere, “Is something distracting you?”

“No it’s not. I’ve got this!”

Rihuud looked down on the bickering small folk with pity. They had saved him back in Gracklstugh when the derro had cursed him. If not for them he would be dead, or he would be living an unlivable existence as a horror and a pariah among his clan. He walked to the entrance to the tunnel, and placed a large gray hand upon Wolfe.

“I will buy us time. It has been an honor knowing you.”

Hunched over, taking up most of the tunnel, Rihuud moved forward to block the drow whose shadows could now been seen and footsteps be heard down the tunnel. The screams and shouts of battle were heard. The scorching sound of magic, and the demonic shouts and incantations from Lolth’s priestesses deafened their ears.

“Wizard!” Wolfe shouted.

The circle lit. Blue and green fire danced within the stonework, illuminating the room in magical hues. Quillathe was the first one through, followed by Amber and Moira. Siva leapt in last.

Sheepishly, Nashua gulped, “I think I should go to. Maybe it’s dangerous on the other side and you’ll need me to check it out, and save everyone, you know?”

Both Kaz and Wolfe shook their heads as the wizard retreated into the teleportation circle.

“Go. You play better music than you can fight.”

Kaz snorted at Wolfe, “Yea right. We need to save our friend.”

The stone giant let out of thunderous scream that shook the very room. Particulates and dust rained down on their heads as Rihuud backed away from the drow to the much more accommodating chamber with his friends. The stone giant was gripping an empty stump where his hammer wielding hand once was.

Shoor was first through the door, brandishing his weapon.

“I will keep it as a trophy, monster!”

There was a loud insectile buzzing. Wolfe filled with dread as he remembered this foul magic. He remembered the biting and snapping of the swarm’s pincers as the bugs covered him, and his screams that followed. It would not happen to him again, as it had happened in Velkynvelve. Not here. Not ever again.

Wolfe grabbed the iron flask Hgraam had given him. This flask held a new ally, as they stood outnumbered.

POP! POP POP POP!

Down the tunnel screams echoed out. Weapons shattered and crumbled to pieces. Ilvara faltered as her few remaining warriors fell to their knees, atop her sister’s wet remains. Rihuud had smashed her sister into the wall, and that was when Shoor had removed his hand. The insects fell to the ground, dead from the concussive blast let loose by Kaz.

A bright light shot forth out of the flask. Shal stood there, enthralled by her captor, and awaited Wolfe’s command. He himself faltered for a moment. He form had changed from the duergar she posed as to an attractive, yet deadly and fiendish, woman.

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“Take care of them. Permanently,” he ordered her.

The succubus’s hatred ran deep, but this human fed her bloodlust. She clawed the throat out of Shoor, his trachea dripping in her claws. The fiend then pointed at Ilvara, now bleeding out of her ears, and the once powerful priestess obsessed with the group’s capture now stood motionless, under the demon’s control.

Smiling, Shal walked toward Lolth’s servant to kiss her. Wolfe advanced as well, ordering her not to steal the kill when suddenly a gleaming blade emerged out of her chest. Jorlan, her jilted lover and former lieutenant, slew the woman who spurned him.

Jorlan let her writhing body slide off of his black blade. He derived a modicum of pleasure from watched her twitch and choke on the blood bubbling up into her throat. A drow blade was a cruel blade.

Wolfe threw himself at Jorlan. His teeth shown brightly in the green light of his flaming mace. An inch from the drow warrior’s skull he pulled back.

“This… is… over,” with Wolfe’s words came a promise of death, a far from pleasant death.

But with them also came mercy.

Jorlan had nothing left to live for. Months ago he had lost his handsome looks, a few fingers, and was burnt head to toe by the black pudding that nearly devoured him. Ilvara discarded him from her bed, and she demoted him, replacing him with Shoor. He was a laughing stock among his people.

“Mercy is weakness,” he reminded himself.

He would leave here alive, but not stupid. Jorlan nodded and backed away from Wolfe, never losing eye contact with the human until finally Jorlan was down the tunnel and out of sight.

Wolfe, Kaz, and Rihuud entered the wizard’s circle. There was a rush of air and a cold wind. With the others they stood atop a mountain peak with the sun rising in the east.

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It was still winter on the Sword Coast. The cold would have been unbearable if not for the welcome of it.

Towns and cities were visible now. The Long Road connecting them like a long ribbon. Within a day they could find shelter, a shelter where no man nor beast was trying to kill them.

Home at last.

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The Horror of Neverlight Grove
Escape from the Underdark

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The Gullibility of Quaggoths

More than a day had passed without incident, but in the Underdark, what was a day? Wolfe and the others concocted a story where, in Prince Derendil’s slumber, the fierce warrior convinced the others that Kingdom Nelrindivane did indeed exist.

He explained to them that despite Quill being from the High Forest, she was not aware of Derendil’s kingdom due to how secretive and hidden Nelrindivane was. Besides, the High Forest was larger than the Darklake. One could spend a lifetime exploring it and never reveal all of its secrets.

Derendil nodded along. “Of course,” he said. “That is exactly why none of you know of the majesty of Nelrindivane.”

The jury was out on how to deal with the quaggoth once the group got near, or to the surface.

The Story of Moira

A long tunnel barely ten feet wide climbed at an upward slope. It gave hope to the surface dwellers that they might be on the right track. Rihuud led them here, and the beauty of the cavern was an oasis within the horrors of the Underdark.

Their senses were assaulted by a rainbow array of phosphorescent lichen and mushrooms. Zurkwood towered along cliff sides in great palisades, arching toward a blue lagoon in the center of the basin. The smell of earth and decay filled their nostrils, the smell of nature. It was a foreign, but welcome, aroma in these dark lands.

Far ahead, within another cavern was a blurred shape. The awesomeness of a mushroom the size of the largest building in Waterdeep shone brightly in purple hues. Over the sound of the babbling brook seeping into the lagoon they could hear faint music emanating from the grand mushroom’s cave.

As Moira and the others reveled in the beauty, Siva took Nashua and Wolfe aside. As she spoke, she watched over the girl as a mother watched over her cub.

“Thank you,” she grumbled. It was rare to hear such niceties leaving the lips of the tribeswoman. “I promised to protect this girl and I feel like in the past weeks you have been doing more than I have.”

“You’re welcome,” said Nashua.

“I’ve looked after her for two months. Can you believe she found me drinking myself to death? I had no reason or purpose after I avenged my sister, until she came along asking me to help her sister. She asked me to kill her, of all things.”

Siva imparted how she and Moira had met. Nobody had taken pity on the young girl with the missing eye and the scar. No one except Siva, who could look past her wounds.

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“The Duke of Port Llast took a shine to her sister a year or so ago. Once he had permission to marry her, Moira and her family had lost all contact. They reached out to Port Llast but would get no reply. She may be but a girl, but she’s headstrong. She went to Port Llast and discovered the evil behind the duke, and how he had performed a ritual to burn her sister for eternity as an offering to his dark lord.”

Wolfe interjected, “And she just left her there?”

“She tried to kill him. She tried to kill Duke Barlow in broad daylight.” Siva spit, thinking of mad duke. “He’s the one that struck her, scarring the girl and knocking her blind in that eye. How can any of use let a man like that live? When others couldn’t do the job, she found me.”

It was clear that once she reached the surface, Siva was going to kill Duke Barlow and damn the consequences.

Just then, through the tall fungus strode a man-sized myconid. The purple fungal creature approached, and leaned toward them timidly, then loosed an explosion of yellow spore. The cloud filled their mouths with yeast, and their minds with euphoria.

“I… would exercise caution…” it said motioning toward the edge of the lagoon. A decaying mound rose up from the shore, and with tendrils teeming with vines and bones of absorbed dead, reached out for Moira.

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Amber was knocked backward by it as it tried to envelop Wolfe and Siva who were upon it like whirling dervishes. Kaz barked orders and warning to everyone as Nashua tried his best to spot weaknesses for them to strike, and provided cover fire in the form of magic.

Magic missiles shot out of his fingertips, striking with the percussion of Wolfe’s gleaming silver sword. Derendil leapt atop it, ripping at the animated mound’s exterior. It writhed underneath, taken aback by the resistance. Another zurkhwood tendril shot out, and slammed Amber into the mud at her feet.

“Damn it,” she cursed, peeling herself back up out of the mud. Her crossbow was jammed, unable to fire. By the time she looked up, the creature slammed her back into the ground again with a sickening crunch.

Siva screamed out, batting a piece of plant debris dislodged by Wolfe’s hammering blade. “Amber!”

The mycond was pushing it further back into the lagoon as the size of the monster was reduced to a slithering pile of rot. It whipped out, seeking to absorb Amber, but was stopped by the myconid. The living mushroom towered above the creature, and ripped out its core.

“Humph,” it said. “I thank you. Please, help me bring the dead to Basidia?”

It reached down and grabbed Amber. The dwarf screamed out when she was pulled out of the water, and backed away in a panic.

“Humph,” it said again. “Just the rest then.”

“No,” said Wolfe. He was refusing based on principle. He never met a myconid he liked. “We’ll stay here and you can keep your Basidia to yourself.”

The others agreed, except for Kaz and Derendil, who were intrigued to meet a leader of these strange people. To them it was only proper that they introduce themselves to Basidia.

“Have it your way,” it said. “I am Loobamub, and this is Neverlight Grove. Stay as long as you like. Eat what you must. We rarely get visitors.”

And Loobamub left, carrying handfuls of the shambling mound with him to be converted into nutrients for his people.

Unwelcome Invitations

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An hour had passed, and Nashua became eager to see the rest of the grove. If the Underdark had taught him anything, it was better to stay safe than sorry. Instead of exploring too far, he muttered an incantation and flew vertically into the air.

High above near the ceiling of the glowing cavern he could hear the sweet music emanating from the cave of the great purple mushroom. It was too large to be believable. Watching it put him in a state of dream.

Far below, around the entire cavern, he could make out the shapes of the myconids in their natural habitat. They were assembling in circles around mounds. They were beginning to commune, to meld their minds with one another as Stool had explained to him before.

One on a high ridge was peering over the zurkhwood palisades nervously. It peeked, then paced back and forth, fidgeting. This place was strange. Nashua lowered himself back to the cavern floor.

“Friends!” said a very tall, very old, and very wise myconid as Nashua entered his spore cloud. The cheerfulness of the large myconid’s voice echoed in their heads through spore telepathy. “I am Phylo, and this is Neverlight Grove. I am the sovereign here, and this one here is Basidia. My co-sovereign.”

Wolfe rolled his eyes. He dusted what he could of the sticky dust from his armor.

Basidia stayed behind Phylo, exercising a caution that put the group on edge.

“How long do you plan on staying in our garden?”

Nashua shrugged, as did Siva. “We come seeking an escape to the surface.”

“Oh, you’ll not find one here. But you are fortunate! You have come in time for our grand celebration. The Great Seeder is upon us! And she will soon be married.”

Nashua shuddered, “I hope he means Great Cedar. C-E-D-A-R, or these are nasty folk.”

Phylo continued as if he didn’t overheard the wizard’s lament.

“Soon the Garden of Welcome will be ready to receive you. Please stay, and partake of the celebration. There is no danger here in the grove. We myconids live in peace. Now, I have some duties to attend. Remember! Visit the Garden of Welcome.”

The other soveriegn, Basidia, stayed behind. He sprayed the party in another disgusting, euphoric cloud of telepathy spores.

“Please,” it pleaded. “I know not what Phylo has become. The other softies have not returned from the Garden of Welcome, and I fear for my other myconids to go because I believe it means death. I do not know what is going on, so I must implore you. Can you see what is up there? I only wish to see if those still loyal to me must flee.”

A pit was felt in each of their stomachs. The music from the next cavern grew louder, and eerily quiet again. Myconids were talking of celebrations and using gender-related pronouns. Back in the Whorlstone Tunnels they had come across the other myconids, dancing to unheard song.

“More demons,” Nashua snapped. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”

Rihuud interjected, “But the stone says one here knows how to get to the dream world.”

Suddenly, a familiar sprout jogged up to them. Wolfe recognized Stool from the familiar Wolfe-sized fist indentation in the mushroom’s head.

“Friends! Have you come to meet the Great Seeder?” it asked after another spurt of myconid spore.

The two looked up at Rihuud, and shouted, “I don’t care!”

Wolfe grabbed his sword. “We’re done. Let’s move out.”

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It Takes an Elf
Escape from the Underdark

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Delusions of Grandeur

Gracklstugh was but a memory after nine days. Jimjar had been left in Gracklstugh to look after the party’s holdings, namely the Halls of Sacred Scrolls.

Plans had been made to fashion the old den of the derro savants into a casino. The prospect excited the deep gnome, and negotiations were had. Jimjar, as the warden of the estate, would keep twenty percent of the profits, and was only allowed to gamble with what money was his… not money of the house.

Rihuud felt honored, leading the party to the garden Hgraam spoke of. These people had lifted a curse from him. They had saved his life.

Over the course of nine days they crossed many caverns, pausing every so often for Rihuud to commune with the stone. He would place his hand upon the rock, close his eyes and meditate. These pauses would be followed by long moments of silence as he led them in the direction dictated by the very rock of the Underdark.

Behind the lumbering stone giant, the party and the freed slaves followed, mounted on steeders. The giant spiders were eerily quiet, except for the occasional clacking of their mandibles, and unsettling sound at its best.

Derendil had grown fond of Quillathe, often speaking with her and offering her a seat by his side in his kingdom of Nelrindivane, in the High Forest. To others it was obvious that this elven prince was completely unaware that Quillathe, and especially her now friend Lia, were completely turned off by his grisly visage.

“Derendil?” Nashua asked one day as they foraged a grove of mushrooms. “How are things going with Quillathe?”

He placed his hand upon Derendil, hiding the stonespeaker crystal beneath his cloak. The crystal lit up slightly, but the dull luminescence was hidden by the phosphorescent fungi. Recent events had made the wizard curious if Derendil was indeed a cursed elven prince.

“Quillathe will be my queen when we reach my homeland,” the quaggoth said, looking to a sky that was nonexistent. “And you my friend? You will be our court wizard.”

Nashua frowned. Magic revealed that no enchantment, no curse, and no magic at all coursed through this quaggoth’s body. Like many such creatures in the Underdark, Derendil was nothing more than a beast given in to demonic delusions. The wizard thought it best to keep this information to himself.

A Quaggoth Broken

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“There is no kingdom of Nelrindivane!” shouted Lia.

The party was resting in a fungal grove where the zurkhwoods towered to Rihuud‘s shoulders. Derendil was invading Quillathe’s space again, and the moon elf was too kind to brush him away. Lia, trying to be a friend, decided to finally burst the quaggoth’s bubble.

Derendil turned to her with a sudden snarl. The bestial rage within his chest was rising into his throat.

“Yes there is. And we will free it from the made wizard Terrestor!”

“There is no Nelrindivane,” she reiterated. “Can’t you see how uncomfortable you are making her? Leave Quillathe alone.”

Derendil was to his feet. He could feel the ache of his claws. White foam gathered in the corners of his mouth.

“Watch what you say, peasant. This beautiful elf will be my queen.”

“She will never be your queen because your kingdom doesn’t exist. Quillathe… tell him!”

Quillathe had taken the opportunity to scoot a few feet away from the quaggoth. Everyone was to their feet, having seen such a display before when the twins had accused Derendil of lying.

“Woman, watch your words,” said Wolfe in a feeble attempt to diffuse the situation. “I have been there. It does, too, exist.”

Lia rolled her eyes, “I am from the High Forest. Quillathe is from the High Forest. Neither of us has ever heard of Nelrindivane. You are nothing more than a disgusting, deranged creature of this hell we walk through. Admit it, beast.”

Wolfe paused at the buzzing noise in the air. As disconcerting as it was, he dismissed caution in favor of keeping Derendil off of the woman. When the quaggoth leapt at her, raking his claws across her face, Wolfe grabbed him by his white mane and pulled him back.

As everyone scrambled away from the scuffle, Moira pulling the hood of her piwafwi over her head, Lia took the opportunity to stab Derendil in the stomach with her sword.

“Are you insane?” barked Wolfe. This woman was escalating the conflict.

A stirge, a mutant mosquito of the Underdark, dropped out of the darkness above and impaled Lia through the eye. Its proboscis penetrated her brain, killing her instantly. Two more latched onto her corpse and drank her blood.

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Kaz and Nashua gave a yell as they dodged the flock of stirges. Westra took off down the cavern screaming… but only made it twenty feet before one bore its snout into her back and sucked the blood out of her still beating heart.

“Moira!” Siva shouted as she batted a stirge out of the sky. Two more were buzzing around the girl, unable to hone in on her position as she concealed herself with the piwafwi.

Last night Nashua dreamed of this moment. Prophecy was the blessing and the curse of the diviner, but in wakefulness he could keep Moira alive.

“Moira!” he shouted to get her attention. Unlike in his dreams, the young girl lurched in his direction, and the stirge that would have taken her life found its way into Wolfe‘s weapon: Eldeth’s warhammer. The stirge splattered into pieces.

Following an incantation, several beads of white light zipped through the air. The stirges unable to penetrate Wolfe’s new dwarven plate exploded from the impact, as did the last one pursuing Moira.

Kaz was busy stabbing those that were feasting on Lia’s corpse when Derendil, frothing mad, charged at Quillathe. His rage was pure, uncontrollable. He leapt at her, only to miss when Wolfe threw her to the ground.

Wolfe pled with Derendil to get his act together as he batted another stirge out of the air. He used the warhammer to choke Derendil from behind. Neither Nashua nor Kaz nor Wolfe wanted their long time ally dead. Derendil had been with them from the beginning.

“Good night, sweet prince,” said Nashua as he unleashed another volley of magic missiles that beat Derendil nearly unconscious. Siva was quick to clock the beast with the flat of her blade.

It was Kaz who put Derendil down with magic, leaving him slumbering on the floor.

“You cannot spare the beast,” the others told him. Rihuud excluded. The giant did not want to be involved in the affairs of small folk. “We must kill him.”

“We’ll leave him behind,” Nashua said. He thought they owed him at least that much.

Wolf countered, “He’s a friend and we will do no such thing.”

Not to be trifled with, Nashua threw himself into a rage. He took a punch at Wolfe, but was knocked unconscious. These fits were pathetic, thought Wolfe, but Nashua had never been the same since Sloobludop.

The Underdark was a dangerous place. Wolfe and Kaz looked at each other in agreement. Nobody could argue about the sheer power and ferocity of this quaggoth.

“No,” they both said. “Nelrindivane exists. We all will pretend that it exists until we reach the surface. Then we’ll figure out how to deal with Derendil.”

View
Throne of the Deepking
Cutting the heart of madness out of Gracklstugh

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Xalith

Clapping echoed out behind the party. Wolfe, Nashua, and Siva gathered at the edge of the rise, staring down the stairs where Xalith stood. Behind the drow warrior were five underlings with Nitsuj and Moira bound and forced on their knees. Each drow brandished poison-tipped crossbows and spider-hilted swords.

“Congratulations. You have manuevered yourselves into a situation where I can deliver you to my mistress,” she sneered. “Without interference from the dwarves.”

Flumphy was bobbing in the air above them. Tactics were discussed as well as many colorful four letter words from these tiresome drow, under the cover of a shared telepathy courtesy of their flumph ally. The last thing they wished to do was be returned to Ilvara, and sacrificed to their spider queen.

Siva’s face cracked with a smile of blood expected.

The woman warrior leapt from the top of the stairs with Wolfe on her heels. A volley of magic missiles streaked above them, and the percussion of the beads of light could be heard as they downed the drow standing behind Nitsuj. Chaos ensued as Siva hacked at the two standing above Siva, and Wolfe stabbed Xalith through the chest.

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Nitsuj broke free of his bonds. A crossbow as at his feet. He loaded it and put a bolt into Xalith’s back as his second head screeched like a feral primate. Wolfe and Siva were as a hurricane of blades as they hacked down the dark elves, leaving no man left standing, and no man left breathing.

“Uh, guys? We’re not alone,” said Flumphy.

Nashua looked down the cavern, muttering an incantation. He spotted three invisible duergar stoneguard approaching.

The stoneguard had been scouring the tunnels eliminating all resistance. Their leader popped into vision. It didn’t take much explanation from Kazramir. The bodies of the derro cultists, their savants, and the hacked up drow brought a smile to the commander’s face. In his eyes, these surfacers were heroes.

Hgraam’s Plan

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Only one believed them that a fiend was behind Steelshadow‘s genocidal madness, and only that same person knew how to cure one of Demogorgon’s influence. They delivered Nitsuj to the stonespeaker to cure. Nashua, Wolfe, and Kaz waited in the main chamber of Clan Cairngorm as the magical assault in the next room tortured Nitsuj to a cure.

The were used to the duergar architecture… pragmatic and simple in form. The stone giants were much more beautiful in their designs, as smooth pillars stretched a hundred feet above them with intricate mosaics and designs shined in the yellow light of the torches.

Hgraam reentered the room, sullen but with respect for them. He handed them what little was left of Narrak.

“Bring this to the Deepking when you have your audience. He will not see me.”

“Three savants,” said Kaz. “That’s much better than two. Thank you, stonespeaker.”

“It is you who I should be thanking,” said the stonespeaker. He leaned down from above them, producing a small metal flask with a rubber stopper. He placed it in Nashua‘s hands, "Open this vessel in Shal’s presence. If she is what you say she it, then she will be taken care of."

Nashua had read of these containers. Similar to a genie’s lamp, these magical flasks would imprison any extraplanar creature it was aimed at, if it were empty. He shook it once. The container was empty enough. Now it was time to face Shal.

Horgar’s Madness

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Never in any of his travels, his research, or all of the time spent observing adventure’s who had possessed Oghma’s Tome had Kazramir seen anything as intimidating as the Hold of the Deepking. It was difficult to pinpoint what upset him more about this menacing structure.

Was it that he could hear only a fraction of the Deepking’s bodyguards who surrounded them invisibly? The percussion of their stomping boots was almost as frightening as the silences, where you could feel the eyes of the countless stoneguard upon you.

Was it the oppressive heat wafting off of the fortress? The magma flowed in a glowing stream through the dark smog, running down the sides of the fortress as a moat of immolation.

Or was it that Hgraam, their friend and escort, supposedly a close friend of Deepking Horgar Steelshadow V was forced to wait outside? The stonespeaker was was a tower of strength above them, yet must obey and protect this god forsaken City of Blades no matter the cost to his own people. The stonespeaker’s integrity was that of legend.

Each of them that had been found in the Whorlstone Tunnels was escorted to the throne of the Deepking. A malevolent glint danced across his eyes, an insanity that was becoming all too frequent in not only Gracklstugh, but pervasive throughout the Underdark. Horgar was outfitted in the finest of red and gold dwarven plate. A massive steel warhammer emblazoned with Clan Steelshadow’s insignia leaned upon his wrought iron throne. A glowing pendant of enchanted faerzress hung around his neck.

“You know where to toss their heads!” smiled the Deepking so broadly that his gums retreated from his teeth. Wolfe tossed the three heads into the pile. Nashua counted thirty-five heads, and not a single one of them was Y. Thank Tymora for small favors.

Siva kept Moira close as they watched the royal consort enter from the shadow behind the throne. Shal was wearing naught but a dress knit of gold coins. Glimpses of her gray, naked skin could be seen through the gaps. The sight of her was mesmerizing. None of them duergar, the group, even Jimjar, found it difficult to tear their eyes away from her as she gracefully crossed the dais to be with her king.

She whispered something in the Deepking’s ear.

“Why were you in the tunnels?” demanded Horgar Steelshadow.

Kazramir spoke up for the group, “We were eliminating cultists who have been poisoning your city. Followers of Demogorgon.”

The Deepking‘s face twisted in disgust at the Prince of Demon’s name.

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“Prince of Demons!” he spit. “Such nonsense. Such small small nonsense.”

Graceful as a cat, Shal walked behind the Deepking, tracing his collar with the tip of her finger. She almost purred in his ear. “I think they should be rewarded for their services.”

“Rewards?” he asked. “Oh yes. Rewards. With the derro gone, I will give you the Halls of Sacred Scrolls under one condition. You keep the door you made. Hgraam spoke well of your exploits.”

“Deal!” said Kazramir, excited to own a keep, no matter the location. “Thank you Deepking.”

The others were excited as well, mustering to speak, or to ask for more when Shal had the Deepking kissing the length of her arm.

“You’re still here?” he asked the group. “You’re dismissed. Get out of my sight.”

Nashua interrupted, “We came here for something else, actually.” And looked toward Wolfe.

Wolfe twisted the cap off of the bottle. A bright beam of light leapt out of it, snagging Shal. She burned, smoked and was yanked forward through the air, smashing against an invisible wall like a bug on a windshield. The fiend’s screams echoed throughout the chamber.

“Crap,” cursed Nashua, muttering an incantation that was quickly becoming his favorite. His eyes took on a bright blue sheen as worlds beyond their own became obvious to him. He could see not only the protective barrier separating them from the throne, but the scores of duergar in the buttresses high above them ready to fire.

“The wall is about twenty feet high!” he shouted to Kaz. The bard was on it, and summoned an invisible servant to carry the iron flask over the wall. Before the flask could reach the top and suck Shal into its pocket dimension, the fiend disappeared.

“Cease fire!” shouted Horgar, enraged that they would dare attack his concubine. He brandished his warhammer in the air. “Dismiss the wall! I will deal with these surfacers personally!”

The wall disappeared and Nashua had his eyes on her again. The fiend was in the ethereal plane, snarling.

Siva ordered Moira to take cover. She bounded up the dais and pulled the cursed pendant from Steelshadow’s neck. The gold links of the chain scattered and bounced across the throne.

Back in the tunnels Nitsuj had found a handful of magical bolts on Xalith. These bolts were enchanted by Lolth, with a spider on each tip. He fired a single bolt at the Deepking, lodging it in his armor, and trapping the fierce duergar where he was. Horgar struggled, but the sticky strands only grew tighter. Siva barely pulled herself out of the webbing.

“Where the hell is she?” asked Jimjar, backing up defensively with his crossbows drawn. Wolfe, Siva, and Nitsuj were doing the same, wary of their unseen foe. Wolfe regained the iron flask.

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Before Nashua could chip in, Shal was whispering in his ear from the ethereal. The man flipped and took several shots at Nashua, all of which were barely deflected by his magic shields.

Shal appeared beside Nitsuj as he opened fire on the others. Her mind control was working to keep them back as she went in to kiss him.

Jimjar fired on her, his bolts barely scratching her. Siva charged, and took a swing that would have decapitated a mortal man, but her neck withstood the assault. A small trickle of blood ran down her neck as she hissed, knocking Siva to the side.

The throne room illuminated in bright light again. Before her lips could touch Nitsuj‘s, a loving gesture perverted by the abyssal nature of the fiend, she was torn away screeching. Wolfe attempted to rip her dress off (it’s worth a lot of money) as she was sucked into her prison, but was too slow. Maybe when he got desperate he’d let her out and get it back from her.

Deepking Horgar Steelshadow V was freed from the webs, and shouted at them to stand back. He paced back and forth, irritable, piecing together what he had done and what he had gained and lost under the succubus’ mind control. Several minutes later he grudgingly thanked the surfacers for their help.

“What you have done here I cannot fathom. No surfacer has ever served my clan as you have, and I owe you my rulership and my life. Fiends! It must be those drow.”

The group stood awkwardly listening to him curse the drow of Menzoberranzan. He ordered his bodyguards to bring in Hgraam.

“I will make each of you a laird of Clan Steelshadow,” he said. “Keep the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. You are landowners, but you have no power. If anyone has a problem with you in my city or without, they will have a problem with me.”

As Hgraam entered, the Deepking pointed at the group, “The drow who are responsible will pay. All drow must pay. By the end of the week I will have our military ready to march on Menzoberranzan with you in the lead. Will you do this for Gracklstugh? Will you destroy our enemies?”

Hgraam said, “Deepking. I have better use of them. You, my liege, must rest.”

For a moment it looked as if the Deepking was going to snarl back at Hgraam, but he backed down. The stonepeaker was wise and often Horgar had sought council from him. He was being brash. But the drow must be punished.

The Stonespeaker’s Proposal

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Nobody from the surface, nor from the Underdark, had ever been deep enough inside of Clan Cairngorm’s caverns to see what the group beheld now. Around them were centuries of beautiful marble and stone carved out from the earth, with statues representing pieces of the clan’s history. The Stonespeaker’s Refuge was too tall to see the ceiling. Torches spiraled up around the stonework, casting long shadows down the walls and across the floor. Never in their life had any of them seen such beauty.

Hgraam led them to an empty wall, and outstretched his hand toward its surface. The rock appeared to respond to his presence, pulsating back toward him. Or it could have been their imagination.

“Never before has a surfacer been permitted here. Dream people rarely leave us breathless. They never leave a historical impact. Therefore, I will immortalize you three forever in these caverns.”

The group could hardly find the right words.

“I have a final request,” said Hgraam , searching for the right words. “Small folk are not familiar with our ways. We have a caste system. The ordening. The ordening has been broken, shattered like so much brittle rock,” he said, emphasizing by crushing a small stone into dust.

Kaz asked, “Is there a way for us to fix this?”

Hgraam grunted.

“Fix? No. Change? Perhaps. We met before you laid eyes on me the first time, and you gave me the flask, saying that you would be back to claim it and help my people keep their word to Clan Steelshadow. This came true. I prayed to ”/characters/skoraeus_stonebones" class=“wiki-content-link”>Skoraeus Stonebones, our god, and he advised me that I should trust you. So I did. And Stonebones never trusts one who is not of my people."

Hgraam reached high above his head, removing three stones with glowing runes. He ran his fingers down them, feeling the magic within.

“My people are near the bottom of the ordening. If you believe me to be a good leader, and believe that I may be wise enough to lead all giants, I ask that you journey to the dream world and help to move my people to the top of the ordening. Will you do this for us? For me?”

Their friendship with Hgraam had been such that nobody second-guessed the stone giant. If there were a better giant to lead all giants, as grand a vision as it sounded, they knew of no other.

Wolfe stepped forward, “Consider it done.” The others nodded along.

The old giant smiled. It wasn’t often such an expression broke a stone giant’s contemplative face.

“I will send Rihuud with you, to lead you to the garden I spoke of not long ago. When you reach the surface beware. Another clan has been poisoned by evil posing as our wise and benevolent god. Find a way to cure them, or destroy them. That is all I ask.”

As further gifts, Hgraam handed the runes to his new friends. No one had any clue how small folk could affect something as big as the ordening, but with the gods willing, they would find a way. If all went well, Hgraam would join them on the surface soon, for a calling that outweighed his promise to Clan Steelshadow.

A Creature of Darkness

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The ritual wasn’t strong enough.

Nitsuj clawed at the walls of the Whorlstone Tunnels. The faerzress parted like glowing dust between his fingers. He drew his piwafwi about him, concealing the hideousness of his true nature. His limbs shook. His eyes twitched. The madness had overtaken him and he debated now whether to spare the live of the duergar stoneguard standing watch up ahead.

He held onto the sliver of black metal stolen from Droki. Like a magnet it pulled at him. It tugged within his hand. The Keepers of the Flame were here, and they spoke of an obelisk found during the scouring.

“Let us kill him!” his second head hissed, and Nitsuj threw a hand over its mouth. The fiend’s influence on his mind had reactivated the curse placed upon him by the derro cultists. He couldn’t bear to face his comrades again.

Nitsuj gulped a pygmywart and shrunk enough to squeeze through a small crevasse. It led to the chamber with the obelisk. The duergar studying the black obelisk responded to his presence. These psionic priests were too perceptive, and too dangerous. Besides, he wasn’t a big fan of the Keepers.

A well-placed crossbow bolt rammed through the priest’s eye socket, killing the dwarf outright. In a mad scramble Nitsuj was atop the priest, holding a length of his hair in one hand and a dagger in the other.

“Scalp him!”

He cast his gaze aside. He wasn’t here to make another hair doll, not a hair doll of an enemy.

The black obelisk hummed with power. Nitsuj took two step toward it. The black sliver of metal in his hand jumped and danced. Fine cracks were obvious within the magical stone, and as if directed, Nitsuj placed the tiny sliver into the obelisk. The metal was absorbed like it had been water condensing on the surface.

The faerzress above him was bright like sunlight. Nitsuj looked up into the ceiling, imagining the warmth of the sun he would never see. Ignoring the screams of his evil twin, Nitsuj reached forward and touched the smooth surface of the obelisk.

His arm tingled. Breath was violently sucked out of his lungs. He found himself suddenly in a long dark corridor buried in the ruins of a civilization consumed by the Underdark. He ran down the corridor. All that was left was him. The creature.

View
A Tale of Two Heads
The fight is taken to the cultists

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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?”

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“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

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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.”

Hunters Hunted

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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.

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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.

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Everyone pressed their backs against the wall. Kaz took a deep breath.

Kaz knocked.

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.

Then pain.

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

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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.

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“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.

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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.

View
The Sordid Soiree
Investigating corruption in the Council of Savants

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Getting the Women Onboard

While Kaz was away, penning an hour’s worth of ballad to entertain the derro savants, Nashua and Wolfe had a sit down with the surface women they had purchased from Ylsa. With Wolfe’s help, he outlined for them the seriousness of their situation.

Fact was, they didn’t want to own them, nor did they view it that way. In their eyes they had purchased the freedom of these women, but then, freedom had a price.

“It’s not just you that cannot leave Gracklstugh,” Nashua told them, “It’s us as well. And the only way the duergar will let us leave is if we destroy these cultists. That’s where you come in.”

It took some convincing, but between the two of them they managed to get each of the ten women on board with being part of their masquerade, a party for the derro savants. For one hour they needed to act as eye candy, and after that they could all join them in their journey to the surface.

“We need weapons,” chimed in Rin, in an almost incomprehensible accent. She sat in the back of the room next to her friend, Mama Cray.

Wolfe told her, “You aren’t getting them. Not until after the party, if at all.”

What Rin didn’t realize was a month an a half ago, before any of them had ended up in the bowels of the Underdark, Wolfe had been tracking the Rin and Mama Cray through deserts and mountains, following the trail of wonton destruction in their wake. These two were cold blooded sociopaths, make no mistake about it.

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Perched upon a cliff in the High Forest he had been watching them through a spyglass, dreaming of what he’d buy with the bounty he’d collect, once he found a weakness in their partnership. That was when Himmick and his drow retinue got the jump on him, clubbing him into unconsciousness and landing him in Velkynvelve. What irony, he thought, that his quarry ended up captured by duergar slavers not long after. Given the circumstances, he cared not for the bounty any longer. In the last month Wolfe cared only for survival, and escaping the horrors of the Underdark.

A tribeswoman with her eyes painted in a mask of foundry soot, Siva Redmoon, sat on the other side of the room, with a sixteen year old girl at her hip. This was Moira, a young woman she swore to protect before they had been enslaved.

“I hate to admit it,” she said sternly, “But Rin is right. We need weapons.”

Nashua raised a hand to Wolfe gently, staying him. “You perform well, and you get weapons when we depart this city.”

Lia, a minor league con artist from the High Forest, raised an eyebrow as she laid eyes on Nashua’s boots.

“Aren’t those women’s boots?” she asked.

“Unisex!” snapped Nashua, angling his hands at his boots. “They are unisex!”

Wolfe grunted, “He took them from a woman.”

The humor in the room was in full swing, full of women laughing and giggling. This exchange calmed everyone’s nerves, and they all agreed that these men who purchased them were true to their word about freeing them.

When the room was empty, Nashua, Wolfe, and Nitsuj spoke of the events for the last couple days. They had conflicting alliances, new friendships, and more than their share of hardships to come.

“There’s a split in these group of women,” said Nitsuj. “Half of them are behind that Rin character and the other other half appear to be behind Siva’s idea of morality.”

“Personally, I’m more worried about Themberchaud,” said Nashua. “The more I think about it, the more I think the dragon wants to take over Gracklstugh. Can’t live with that one. Wolfe?”

Wolfe was pounding his fist into his hand. “Let’s stick with the Keepers. I trust dragons less than I trust gray dwarves, and the paranoid freak, Gartokkar, holds the keys to the city.”

Truth be told, maybe they would let the problem half of these women strike out on their own once Gartokkar let them leave. It would make the journey bearable, and as Nashua often put it, less mouths to feed.

The Halls of Sacred Scrolls

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Nested inside of a stalagmite that connects the ceiling of the enormous cavern housing Gracklstugh to its floor, just fifty strides outside of the Darklake District, is the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. This structure, once a temple to a long forgotten god now houses meager worship chambers for the derro, and more importantly, their governing body, the Council of Savants.

Each savant, a member of a conspiracy to better themselves over their brethren, lives a secret life of luxury behind its walls. Nobody but they have seen the inside, and given the size of the structure, there’s more than enough housing for the occasional sorcerer derro, born as a blessing from Diirinka, their evil patron deity.

Duergar never saw the inside of the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. Though intricately carved on the outside, a structure displaying more artistic bent than the usual pragmatism and function of the typical duergar structure, the outer doors are nothing but show. Solid stone, convincing in appearance, these doors are nonfunctional and no windows exist in the entirety of the Halls of Sacred Scrolls. Even if the duergar could find a way inside, Y assure the group that there were wards in place that would blare an alarm so loud every derro present would be onto their presence.

Shackled, again, the group proceeded with instruments in hand and at the behest of Y. He waved his hand through the air, and touched his hand upon the stone doors. The granite swirled as if liquid and parted like drawn curtains. The small portal through the stone brought them into a pillared hall leading into the main chamber.

The savants were a greedy lot, representing symbols of both decadence and corruption. The inside looked to be falling apart, cracks spider webbing up the walls and pillars, rubble from abuse of the walls and ceilings, and mildewed and scorched red satin carpet leading to a worship chamber. Nashua could only shake his head. His family, the Goldvaynes of Waterdeep, would be disappointed to see such an expensive carpet ill-cared for as this.

The decay was pasted over by luxury. Random paintings from unknown yet talented artists dotted the walls. Expensive sconces held torches lighting the way. A golden chandelier hung heavy with singing crystals above the main chamber, a shining expensive beacon above a feast for which they were the entertainment.

Before snapping his fingers and closing the entrance, Y made sure Nitsuj and Jimjar made it through. They were tailing the group in secret, using the cover afforded them by the two drow piwafwis confiscated from the foes they had slain over the last month. The alarms would only go off if they were invisible, and the cloaks merely rendered Jimjar and Nitsuj difficult to see.

Aliinka approached Y, “Those are the surfacers you stopped me from killing.” It was difficult to tell if she was jealous, disgusted, or impressed.

Y cracked a thin smile, “I told you I had better use for them.”

As the women warmed up for their parts, dancing as Kaz recited his musical ballad, and he and Wolfe tuning their instruments, they took measure of the derro savants. It was hideous to think of them as more than the degenerates they were. Some of these savants were standing in corners talking to themselves. Others talked to fruit. Others cackled maniacally at what the others were saying, and some were simply drooling over the troupe.

In what horrid reality could such a horrendous display of inhumanity be a governing body?

With all 34 derro savants congregated in the worship-chamber-now-festhall, Nitsuj and Jimjar slipped up the stairs and into the upper floors where these perverse creatures lived. Each savant had his own chamber, and each chamber was along a balcony. These circular balconies ribbed the ceiling of the worship chamber, making silence a virtue for the duo.

“If the others can’t keep up their side of this, we’re screwed,” whispered Jimjar to his comrade.

Almost instantly, they found themselves mesmerized by the opening performance two stories below. Kaz began the ballad with his flute, the women were quickly into it, dancing around the little mutant sorcerers flaunting the best of what they had. Magical sparks, conjured by Nashua, glittered the air in a rainbow of color and arcs of light.

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Immediately one of the savants decided he could do better. He whipped out his out flute and blasted a cocophany imitating Kazramir with much worse material. The others began laughing, each derro more entertained by their obnoxious brother than with the troupe. It was Rin, of all people, who moved in silkily, and in one motion tickled the savant’s chin, and removed the flute from his grubby hands. She played a few notes, dragging the attention to her, and to Kaz’s opening lines.

“She’s good,” Nitsuj commented. Jimjar was busy with the lock on Narrak’s door. He cursed in gnomish, unable to open it up.

Kaz had foresight for this situation.

In all of his many years in the Underdark, Nitsuj never found use for a set of lock picks. Traversing the Underdark, exploring vast winding caverns and tunnels and ruined civilizations rarely required such mundane tools, and survival sometimes wasn’t skill, it was luck.

However, Kaz handed Nitsuj his own set of lock picks, trusting that the ranger could handle the situation. Nitsuj fiddled with the lock, pressing a tumbler up, and the lock sprang open. It was definitely luck, or at most, divine intervention.

Meanwhile, down below, the situation was taking a turn for the worse. A perverted derro grabbed Moira by the wrist, yanking her to his table. The creature began feeling her up, and out of the corner of his eye, Kaz saw Siva going in for the kill, or at least to maim. With a glance from Nashua, the young girl was enveloped in beads of white light and surrounded by glowing orbs. The display mesmerized the deranged derro long enough for Nashua to whisk her away without offense.

In a far corner stood Y, who smiled at the display before him. These surfacers weren’t half bad. He strummed the corked metal bottle in his hands, his distraction planned for the time when these surfacers would need to escape.

“Letters on the floor,” Nitsuj whispered to his comrade. He lifted his boot and read them, hastily written parchment with dwarven script.

My sister and I found the listening cave south of our laboratory. You were right. Our master’s enemy has infected the mind of the Deepking. We fear Graz’zt will work against our plans. Shal must be dealt with. -Aliinka

HISSS!

The duo looked up. The room was painted, half in red and half in black. A profane yet familiar run was scratched into the far wall. The desk was a mess and the bed badly kept, with a sheet hanging clear off of the edge. None of these things could have made the reptilian hiss that startled them.

The flap of leather wings. The scrape of small talons along granite.

“There!” shouted Jimjar, unleashing a crossbow shot that shattered against the corner of the ceiling.

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The fiendish imp jumped from that corner of darkness to another corner and set its red eyed sights on Nitsuj. Talons splayed, flexed to kill, the tiny demon leapt at Nitsuj. He took three shots, two of which flew wild, and the third thumping the imp in the chest. The tiny red creature’s momentum carried it to its prey and it latched to his face. It ripped at his face and stuck him several times in the forehead with its scorpion tail.

Jimjar was quick to defend his friend, grabbing it by the tail and slamming it into the floor. He held it down while Nitsuj brought down his book, attempting to crush the evil thing’s skull. It proved hardier than his boot, so it was Jimjar who thrust his dagger into the fiend’s hide and eviscerated the creature.

Downstairs, the performance was beginning to take over the minds of the drunken derro. The party animals were swaying to the music, enthralled by the dancers, the music, and a show of which they had never experienced in their lives. But all careful plans…

Aliinka and her twin sister Zubriska were sharing a mountain of gravy and fungus when one of them dropped their slimy hock of death dog into the bowl of gravy. It splashed their neighbor, who in turn threw his food at them, splashing a neighboring table, and the entire incident cascaded into a free for all.

Braving the flying food, drink, and waste, Kaz cast a minor illusion of a red dragon in the middle of the chamber. Wolfe caught on quickly, and lacking both mace and sword, attacked the beast with his lute. He strummed at the monster in a wave of violence accented by the scattering of light of flame, echoing from his strings, beating the foul beast backward toward the wall. The effects Nashua applied made this almost bearable enough that Wolfe felt he didn’t need actual combat for that adrenaline rush.

Panicked or simply for show, one of the savants shot a lightning bolt at the dragon, and took a chunk out of the wall behind the illusion. A man for show, Kaz made the illusionary dragon rear backward, feigning a death to the percussion of drums and the sharp notes of his flute.

The show was met with outstanding applause.

Agony, pain like being stabbed over and over again wracked Nitsuj. Blood trickled from his lips. He spat upon the floor. The imp’s poison didn’t immediately effect him, but only after its death did it feel like acid on his innards. He eyed the profane symbol carved into the wall.

“Son of a bitch,” he said, and drew a knife.

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He slashed at the symbol, only to be transported to what felt like another world. He was suddenly knee deep in the Darklake, Demogorgon towering above him. Flames fell from the demon prince’s gaping maws as the ixitchitl circled Nitsuj like sharks. One of the demo manta rays leapt out of the water to devour him, only to be batted aside by its demonic master. As Sloobludop tumbled around him, Nitsuj looked up at the horror before him. The two-headed Prince of Demons looked down upon him with gleeful savagery, and lunged down at him to devour him in one razor-mawed bite.

Nitsuj awoke on the ground, Jimjar on top of him with his slate gray hand slapped across his mouth.

“Are you insane? Yelling out like that? What are you thinking?”

“Pfft,” spat Nitsuj. “As if I should care. What in the nine hells are we doing here anyway.”

Jimjar looked upon him like he was a stranger, “Looking for more clues. More notes. These derro are sloppy.”

“You do it.”

As if problems downstairs couldn’t get any worse, the women were working out all too well. When Wolfe looked around he realized that two of the savants had leapt upon Cora, and as she danced they were licking the poor halfling woman. It was digusting. It turned his stomach. They were saying things that not even he would dare say to a woman.

He gave a cue to Kaz to ramp it up, and the ballad became that of a battle for a woman. Wolfe kept his side of the performance believable, and other women began dancing around him as a cover for when the inevitable happened. He snatched Cora away from them, knocking the two derro to the ground and nearly getting them stomped by the dancers in the process.

The audience cheered before the derro sorcerer’s could conjure a single magic missile, so embarassed, they slinked back outside of the circle of dancers. One of them was exclaiming, “How dare a surfacer touch me!!”

Wolfe commented under his breath, barely audible and out of earshot, “That piece of garbage was just licking a surfacer. Hmph.”

Upstairs, again, Jimjar was rifling through Narrack‘s desk. Nitsuj was in cold sweats from his bestial vision, and sitting on the savant’s bed cupping his hands over his face.

“Some help you are,” grumbled Jimjar. “Get your act together! Are you mad?”

“It doesn’t matter, Jimjar. None of it does.”

In a drawer, Jimjar found another note to Narrak.

“See this?” Jimjar said, shaking it in Nitsuj’s face. I can’t read dwarven. You read it!"

“Pfft, really? Fine,” said Nitsuj as he unrolled the note.

Droki is useful, but getting greedy. He demanded twice his dues for the piece of the obelisk he found! Pliinki was ready to kill the wretch, the nonbeliever. An Empty-Scabbard is willing to take his life. All you need to do is say the word. -Uskvil

“There, can we go now?” Nitsuj begged as Jimjar began pulling the small desk away from the wall. His instincts were right, and a note had fallen between it and the wall. He handed it over for translation.

Narrak, we must talk. Shal has nearly convinced the Deepking to attack the Halls of the Sacred Scrolls. Meet me at the entrance by the docks. -Uskvil

“Okay, now we can go,” Jimjar told him, leading Nitsuj back downstairs by his cloak. The slunk along, down the stairwell and into the first floor where he put Nitsuj behind a pillar. “Stay here and don’t screw this up.”

Jimjar crept as close as he could, utilizing illusion to look as much like a derro as possible in case his piwafwi wasn’t doing its trick. He whispered in Y’s ear that they were ready to leave.

“About time too,” Y muttered back. “I’m not sure how much longer you friends can keep this up.”

He uncorked his wine bottle, revealing that it wasn’t wine. Magical gray smoke began spilling out of the container, filling the room in a matter of seconds. Not a single person could see their hand in front of their face.

The girls, Wolfe, Kaz, and Nashua took off blindly through the smoke and crowd. Nashua and Wolfe burst through the wall of smoke and found themselves dashing down the temple’s pillared hall. Meanwhile, it was Kaz who lost his footing when a savant grabbed his ankle. He looked back in horror to see the savant’s grin, and milky white pupiless eyes light up in glee. A painful shock traveled from the derro’s hand, up Kaz’s leg, exploding in his brain.

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In the confusion of flying magic, lightning and firebolts and explosions, Kaz used his unique and practiced vocal range to imitate Y ordering him to let go. The derro, confused for but an instant was kicked in the face and let go. Kaz was to his feet, tripping over the body of one of the women, and tumbling out of the smoke.

A patch from Sloop’s robe, Nashua pressed the window image against the false door. Suddenly, a glass window was there as if it always been. Wolfe lifted the lute above his head, about to break the glass, when he thought better of breaking an instrument loaned to him by Kaz. Instead, Wolfe punched and kicked the glass until everyone could get through.

Outside of the Halls of Sacred Scrolls, a lone stone giant stood, as requested from Stonespeaker Hgraam. He smiled down at them, entertained by these small ones rushing out of the building. He ordered them to run, and he’d keep the derro occupied. Assaulting a stone giant was a capital offense in Gracklstugh, and no one doubted the giant could hold his own against the savants.

Kaz and a few others took inventory of who was still inside. He peeked around the corner, back inside the building, in time to see Torgga’s head explode from a barrage of magic missiles. Cora was also missing.

“Orc’s teeth,” cursed Rin. Abandoned to face the power of the savants along, Mama Cray had fallen behind and was fighting for her own survival within the cloud of smoke obscuring their escape. She grabbed Nitsuj by his cloak ties. “Give me your weapon. Now.”

Nitsuj didn’t put up any resistance. He gave her the weapon and a quiver of bolts. There was honor in what this brutal woman was planning. Before she could dive in, Kaz touched her lightly on the shoulder rendering her invisible. He also cast a few other spells inside the building to give her an advantage, no matter how slight.

With the attention being of the duergar growing, the group took off leaving those not with them, behind. The duergar were so focused on the open temple that they didn’t notice anyone fleeing the scene.

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Party Planning
And who doesn't like a good party?

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The Deal

As Kaz played music, entertaining the folk within Gholbrorn’s Lair and keeping it loud enough to mask their scheming, Y had an offer for the group of surfacers.

“Listen, these other savants? I don’t care much for them. They are a bunch of self-indulgent megalomaniacs,” he told them in all honesty. He only cared for the Underdark, and protecting it. “Sure, I got a seat on the Council of Savants, but if my own kin are ripping apart the Underdark I’m all for blowing the lid off of it. Right Sloop?”

Sloopidoop sat next to Wolfe, staring. He massaged his quilted robe nervously. The vision of his home destroyed had ripped all feeling out of the fish man.

“Cultists,” said Y. “We must identity the cultists.”

Wolfe asked, “And why should we help you?”

“Because I’m helping you! You’re a bunch of flunkies for the Keepers of the Flame.”

“Fine,” rescinded Wolfe. “We’re helping each other.”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Nashua. “Why don’t we just sneak into the Halls of the Sacred Scrolls and search Narrak’s things?”

Y blew a hot breath up in the air.

“Nobody gets in or out unless they are a derro or a slave doomed to spend the rest of their lives trapped inside. The front doors look real, but they are stone. Only secret tunnels from West Cleft lead inside, from below. The duergar can’t get in, they’d set off the alarms. But I’ve got an idea.”

The group listened patiently. Catching more cultists would put them in Gartokkar’s good graces. Especially since, as they learned from Y, the Keepers of the Flame and the Council of Savants were bitter rivals.

“Like I said, the only people that get in are slaves for punishment and entertainment,” he said.

“Entertainment,” said Kaz as he sat down beside them. “I can do that.”

Y continued like he hadn’t heard him.

“You,” he said pointing to Nitsuj, “have a piwafwi, a drow cloak. Invisibility will set off the alarms, but the cover a piwafwi lends won’t. You follow us as we go inside. I’ll arrange a party for the savants, risque entertainment for all thirty six of us to enjoy. Slaves… entertaining slaves!”

“Can’t we stop being slaves?” growled Wolfe.

“It’s just an act, big guy. See, while a distraction is going on and we have all my fellows concentrated in the celebration, someone, like you Nitsuj, sneaks around and gets into Narrak’s quarters. In there you might find something to incriminate the others in his cult.”

The plan sounded fine. There was none better.

“Oh,” added Y. “No violence. I’ve seen the other savants vaporize a violent slave before.”

Maybe there was a better plan, but they didn’t know one.

“Way I see it,” said Kaz. “I’ve got the entertainment covered. Nashua has the special effects covered. But if things go south what do we do?”

Y tore a patch out of Sloop’s jacket. The startled fish jumped.

“This! If you place this on the front door, it’ll make a window. I say the front door because I’m sure its the most shallow wall. If things go south, make a run for it.”

“Okaaay,” said Nashua, “We could still use something to defend ourselves with. Slaves don’t carry weapons.”

Y tore two more patches out of his friend’s robe. On each of these magical patches was a picture of a dagger.

“These will turn into daggers when you need them. Simply unfold them.”

“Stop ruining my clothes!” blubbered Sloop. “Stop! Stop! Stop it!”

“Sloop, my friend. This is for the Underdark!” he said sympathetically. “Last, I doubt a small troupe of all male slaves will entertain the other savants.”

Kaz nodded in agreement. “Judging from previous parties I’ve thrown, one woman to three men is usually a good ratio.”

“Wait,” Nitsuj said. “Why won’t it work?”

“Dude, sausage fest,” Kaz thought the phrase would be all Nitsuj needed to understand.

Nitsuj retorted, “What are you talking about? I love sausage!”

“No, no, no. Too much beef, and the party’s done. Over before it’s begun. You need more than sausage to throw a good party.”

As this continued, Nashua and Wolfe sat back, biting their lips, trying not to get involved in such a discussion. At least Nitsuj was quick to turn his opinion around.

“I know someone we can buy slave girls from,” Nashua interjected. “But given our recent history, I’m for freeing them after this party.”

The rest of the group nodded. After what the drow were putting them through, shackles were too heavy for them to let anyone bear.

“Alright, Y. We’ll prepare today, and set the party for tomorrow evening.”

Y tore another patch from his friend’s jacket. Sloop, if he wasn’t a fish, would have broken down into tears. He tossed the patch to Nashua, which turned into a bag of gold.

“Use that for the slave women. I’ll meet you here tomorrow night.”

Curing Rihuud

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Wolfe and Nashua dragged Narrak to Cairngorm Cavern for Stonespeaker Hgraam to sentence. Hgraam agreed to see them, and looked down at them as he contemplated over a statue he had been working on for months, an artistic pursuit he seldom finished.

“Stonespeaker, I found something of interest,” said Nashua, producing a cursed obsidian stone used to curse Rihuud.

Hgraam crushed the item with little though, and caught the dust in his hand. This was exactly what he needed to cure his clansman.

“And another gift,” said Nashua, letting blind Wolfe dump Narrak at the stone giant’s feet. Immediately, all those present surrounded the savant like trees of stone. The cultist had a neck growth, a tumorous disgusting blob of a head protruding out of his neck, a gift of a curse from his abyssal master.

Hgraam looked to them and asked, “What can we do to repay you?” Even though a stone giant was already in the process of giving them a bag of gold for their loyalty.

“I’d like my eyes back,” said Wolfe. The cavern, though dim, swam as incomprehensible color before his eyes.

Hgraam spit in the floor and mixed the mud. Wolfe, disgusted, let the giant priest rub the mud in his eyes and within minutes he could see the world again.

“If there is any other help you desire, Clan Cairngorm is at your service. We will never forget your loyalty, nor your friendship.”

“One thing, Stonespeaker,” asked Nashua. “Tomorrow night we may run into trouble from the Council of Savants. We would appreciate one of the your clansmen outside of the Halls of Sacred Scrolls.”

“It is done, surfacer,” said Hgraam. “About the Wyrmwrithings… when you are there, look for the garden.”

Slave Women

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Ylsa’s slaves were in horrid condition. Kaz looked upon them, knowing he could only help a handful of women, and not all of the wretches in the cages.

“I’ll take them all,” he told Ysla, collecting money from the rest of the group. The decision was expensive, but none argued about the morality of it. “All ten. How much?”

“Even the sickly ones?” she asked, as her men began to unshackle the elves, humans, and dwarven women for sale, each kidnapped from the surface to serve a life sentence within the caverns of Gracklstugh.

“When you’re building an entourage, you gotta have everything from the basic bitches to the bottom bitches,” he said, matching her tone.

Ylsa snorted. These surfacers made her a very rich woman.

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The Society of Brilliance
Defenders of the Underdark

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Enter Flumphy

The group packed up everything from camp, including stuffing Narrak‘s corpse, bound and gagged, into a burlap sack to be slung over Prince Derendil’s shoulder. Wolfe, meanwhile, cursed about his eyesight and patiently awaited the opportunity to break someone’s hand if they dared take advantage of his misfortune and pickpocket him.

Floomph
Floomph

A green glow from above approached, a floating jellyfish-like entity that had been hiding in the glow of the faerzress.

“Hey guys!” a whimsical telepathic voice filled their minds. A flumph.

Nitsuj and Nashua exchanged glances, a flumph was considered good luck to adventurers.

“Hey guys! You came! You came to kill the evil? I’m so tired of feasting on the demon worshipers!”

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“Yes,” lied Nashua, but his sarcasm couldn’t be contained. “We came here to kill evil.”

The flumph stopped.

“What are you really here for?”

Kaz, wanting to be more sincere with the seemingly harmless creature told the truth.

“We want out of Gracklstugh. Heck, I want to actually see Gracklstugh, but apparently we can’t leave until we kill the evil down here, so yes, we’ve come to kill the evil.”

The flumph began to change glows from blue to green to blue to green. It danced around happily.

“I will accompany you then, if I can come with you? I can help. I know these tunnels.”

Nashua looked up at the creature and asked, “What is your name?”

“Flumphs don’t have names,” it answered.

“Okay. You’re named Flumphy then, a name! A gift from a human!”

“Yay! But if we’re leaving here you may want to deal with that,” Flumphy made jerky motions toward the front of the cavern.

The shriekers began to shriek. The shrill noise hurt their ears. They crept toward the entrance. A carrion crawler had wandered into the cavern, attracted by the corpses. Everyone loaded their crossbows. Derendil readied his claws. The carrion crawler didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in the Abyss.

Unlikely Allies

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With Wolfe in tow, holding onto Nashua’s staff as a guide, the party squeezed through the narrow last hundred feet of the Whorlstone Tunnels entry only to find that they were surrounded by a hundred angry derro. Each little dwarven mutant held a crossbow on them, stacked up on top of each other and the surrounded cliffside. Those without crossbows held hooked spears, mumbling to themselves, eager for the bloodshed.

A single female derro stood ahead of the angry mob, with magic burning around her eyes.

“I, Aliinka of the Council of Savants, hold you surfacers responsible for the deaths of a dozen of our number!”

As much as they would have liked to grab weapons, the derro had the group. By the time they touched the hilts of their blades they’d be full of crossbow bolts.

The derro savant stepped forward, pointing at Droki, still trussed up in ropes and nets.

“Release this one, and you will be allowed to leave this district, never to return.”

Kaz stepped forward to defend the group when another derro with crazy white hair and a slightly more noble air to him pushed walked through the mob like he was parting the waters. All of the derro began to whisper, “Why? Why?”

“Aliinka,” the derro tutted. “You know that won’t happen. These surfacers would never reach the end of the district alive.”

“Why? Why?” the derro chanted. Aliinka looked around, seeing her support becoming less and less.

“They will pay for their crimes.”

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“Droki is a criminal and you know it,” he retorted, looking over the derro courier, currently gnashing his teeth. The savant said, “You know, I have better use for these surfacers. And I think they can take Droki with them. I don’t care much for him.”

“Why? Why?” whispered the mob.

“No!” Kaz interrupted, his smile sparkling for all to see. He pulled Droki from Prince Derendil‘s grasp, nodding to his comrades. "We would like to offer Droki to his people, release him, as long as we’re allowed to return. We truly don’t want bloodshed."

He was persuasive, despite so many dying at their hands. Aliinka raised an eyebrow at the prospect, and exchanged glances with the savant speaking on their behalf.

“See? No violence and they are cooperative,” he said to her. “Now I will take them away.”

“Wait!” she said. The crossbows raised on all of them. “They still need to answer for their crimes!”

The savant shook his head, and patronized his equal, “Oh please. Do you really want this mob to know what it is we savants do at the temple? How we… are?”

Aliinka lost all color. It was the first time the group had seen a derro pale. “You wouldn’t.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

And the derro led the group away from the mob, and left the district.

Of the Faerzress

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“Okay, okay, okay,” said the derro. “My name is Y, and I am a charter member of the Society of Brilliance. I’m sure you have heard of me?”

The group looked at Y, and at each other and shrugged.

“Oh… not why… Y!” said Nashua, smacking his head. It was a very Who’s on First moment. “We’re all from the surface,” said Nashua. “We haven’t been in the Underdark long, but I’m sure you’re brilliant.”

After all, he thought, they are called the Society of Brilliance.

“Yes I am! Me and my colleagues defend the Underdark from all dangers. Now, tell me, did you notice anything strange about the faerzress?”

Nashua coughed, “Yea. My magic’s all crazy around it. And this guy?” he pointed at Wolfe. “He was seeing devils and demons in it.”

“Ah! Precisely!” said Y. “My friend Grazilaxx and I, we believe the faerzress is tainted by demonic energies. Yes, yes. That’s right!”

“Well, if you’ve seen one Demogorgon, you’ve seen them all.”

They had reached outside of the district, and Y looked at him strangely.

“You’ve seen Demogorgon?” he obviously didn’t believe them.

“It’s true, sadly,” said Kaz, though he only knew the truth from his time watching the group through the book.

The bag slung over Derendil’s shoulder had never been searched by the derro. If it had been, not even Y could not have saved them. Suddenly, it kicked and yelped. Startled, the elven-prince-now-quaggoth dropped the bag with a thud.

Y looked over it, “Curious, very curious. What is this?”

“A Demogorgon worshiper,” said Wolfe. “Got what was coming to him.”

“But we killed him,” said Nashua. They pulled the bag to an out of the way nook and opened it. Narrak, alive and angry, was alive and kicking.

Y exclaimed, “You are in so much trouble!” He proceeded to explain to them the Council of Savants, a governing body representing the derro before the Deepking, and that both he and Narrak were members.

“I care much more about the faerzress than Gracklstugh, but still. You must release him, and when you release him, there are going to be thirty-six angry savants after you.”

“But he’s a demon worshiper!”

Y looked at them incredulously, “Are you sure?”

A loud POP about shattered their eardrums, and there was a kuo-toa next to them. Panicked, the fish pushed past them and grabbed Y by the shoulders, shaking him.

“My home! Gone! Demogorgon!” was all the fish said. Y, sympathetic to his friend and Society of Brilliance colleague, listened to the story. Sloopidoop had returned to his home after much studying of the faerzress, only to find that it had been leveled by the Prince of Demons.

Y looked down at Narrak, an accused cultist and who had apparently been brought back to life by unknown means.

There was much to discuss. Demonic corruption had wormed its way into the Council of Savants.

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Revelations of the Mad
A rightful retreat

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To the Victor

Nashua and Wolfe awoke, staring into one-another’s eyes, heads on the cavern floor. The first instinct was to punch Kaz, but Kaz was busy on his flute, playing the saddest “I’m Sorry” song of friendship they had ever heard.

Nashua smacked his lips, “Tastes like a sleep spell.”

“Demogorgon! My master I call on you to destroy these pitiful beings!” screamed Narrak. Nitsuj had tied him up in a net, trussed up like Droki, and held the leash.

Wolfe was to his feet, and began punching the mad warlock in the face until the evil bastard passed out. He lifted their newest hostage in the air and eyed the bard.

“You’re forgiven, but since it’s your mess… you carry him!” and threw the unconscious derro on top of Kaz.

A key had been found around Narrak‘s neck. Nitsuj handed it to Nashua and pointed to the chest across the platform. Greedily, Nashua trotted over and examined the chest, seeing off to the side a discarded statue labeled with Rihuud’s name.

“Son of a… these guys are the ones that cursed the stone giant?”

Upon closer examination, he determined that the second head on the statue was the conduit from which the curse emanated. Chances were, with the power wielded by Hgraam, the curse could be lifted from Rihuud if he brought it to him. Nashua chipped off the head and stuffed it in his pack. Who knew what else could become of helping out the Stonespeaker?

Inside the chest, which thankfully wasn’t trapped, was a pouch of gold and a bottle of ointment. He pocketed these and began rifling through the desk. What he found was mad scribblings on rituals to curse beings into growing a second head, and also rituals on grafting a second head onto beings. According to a note stuffed inside, Droki was working with the cultists and assembling a hit list for them to perform these vile rituals.

The derro camp appeared secure, so the group bedded down for a long rest. The dangers of these tunnels weren’t to be faced without proper preparation.

Ensuing Madness

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“Agu barda!” shouted Wolfe when he woke from a nightmare.

The entire group was awake now, having been startled by Narrak’s chanting. Almost immediately the derro began choking not only on the gag, but on the froth from him foaming at the mouth. Nitsuj hurried to remove the gag, but it was too late and the little sucker had drowned on his own bile. His eyes retreated into the back of his skull.

“Trabu-tala mogu!” cursed Wolfe. Everyone looked at him strangely as he struggled to be understood. Only gibberish spewed forth from his lips.

By the time they were done with breakfast, a feast of mushrooms and unidentifiable fungus, he was speaking normally again.

“Remember Buppido’s shrine?” asked Nashua, gettingWolfe‘s attention. "How about you go over to that glowing circle and destroy it as well? We can’t have anyone else hurting the giants."

Wolfe looked at him incredulously, “Are you helping?”

Nashua held up his thin arms, “Do I look like I can destroy chiseled stone with my bare hands?”

Wolfe, Derendil, and Kaz walked to the ritual circle with their weapons drawn. They exchanged glances before wailing on the glowing blue circle. Wolfe dropped his weapon, clutching his face.

“I’m blind!” he shouted, and again just to be sure people heard, “I’m blind!”

At that moment, Nashua was glad he wasn’t the one who struck the cursed circle.

They still hadn’t found the dragon egg, but with their strongest member now disabled they felt they needed to return to town. All packed up, with Droki slung over Derendil‘s shoulder, they helped lead Wolfe out of the tunnel in retreat. As soon as they were a hundred percent, they’d return, and get Gartokkar his red dragon egg.

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