Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Returning "home"

We are in Hommlet. We have forwarded our report via courier (placed in a magical pouch that only Prince Thrommel himself can open--magic: doing what technology won't). We have reports of snows in Furyondy and north of Verbobonc. Traveling in snow on horse is bad, worse on foot. Our best bet right now is to wait. It's fall and these are pretty early snows. With luck, it will clear before winter approaches.

We are staying at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. It brings back memories. It was a little over two years ago or so that I first found myself outside of Hommlet. That's when I came across Saul and later Marc. I met the girls here in this Inn. Everything kinda snowballed since then.

I can see the weary in my friends' faces. I had been through what they went through, during my capture at the elemental temple. I would not have wished it upon anyone, and yet it happened anyway. The weary in their faces saddens me, but I also see hope. They have hope that they will succeed.

Hope was hard to come by back home. We saw the world as gray. Right and wrong depended on the point of view. No one really believed in good and evil anymore. They were antiquated. I don't know, maybe it's just where I lived. Maybe it was just me.

Coming here changed me. People believe in good and evil. Good and evil are absolute. Some are good and some are evil, and the good must do their part to stop the evil. We did this a year ago, at the elemental temple.

We went by there on our way to Hommlet. I insisted.

At first we thought we were lost. The forest looked well grown and healthy, not like the gnarled trees and dead shrubbery we encountered before. We had to push our way through the overgrowth. The sun shone through the foliage, showing unearthly yet lovely shadows. It was all so beautiful I had to believe we were too far north.

Up ahead I saw a clearing filled with flowers. I stepped into it, and there it was. The surrounding wall had collapsed in places. Vines, living vines, grew all along its length. The temple itself was deep underground, of course, having collapsed when the Golden Orb of Death was destroyed. Where it once stood was a large mound of earth. Wild grass and flowers covered every inch of that hill.

A year ago nothing natural lived here. Now everything lived.

"Oh my," Audry said softly.

All I could do was smile. Good and evil are real here. Evil held sway over this land, and it's warped magic kept anything natural from growing. Now it was gone and the land was restored. You can see that the evil is gone.

I sometimes miss mp3s, the internet, TV, and a host of other things. But I never want to return.

We entered Hommlet the next day (a few days ago). The people remembered us well. They cheered at our presence. I must have shook hands with everyone in town. Ostler the Innkeeper insisted we stay in the Inn for free and we insisted we pay. We settled on half for the rooms. The mayor wanted to throw a celebration for the heroes of the temple.

I didn't have the heart to tell them about Byrne and Rufus.

Yeah, I have to finish that tale, don't I?


We stood on the walkway. One end led to some pits, the other back to the room where we fought the ferrets and what I think was a slave lord. Unfortunately, we couldn't go either way now. Those bug men were crowding either end of the bridge.

"Great," Saul said. "You know, tactically, this is probably the worst situation you can be in."

I thought of Indiana Jones and how he would just slice the rope bridge (after uttering one of my favorite four lettered words). But there was no rope holding up the walkway. All we had were a couple of bug men coming at us. That left us no options but to fight.

Then let's get to it, Kantos said in my mind. Yeah, as a famous fictional sword said in a video game, swords are pretty one dimensional in what they want.

The creature lunged at me, trying to knock me off the walkway. I never was much good with a shield, so I didn't have one. That was okay. I didn't need one.

The thing was a good foot taller than me. I waited for it to get close before dropping low. By the time it saw what I planned it couldn't possibly stop. The shield sailed over me. I rose quickly, driving my sword into its belly. Kantos pierced the things hard exoskeleton like an egg shell. It made no noise as rocked the creature to one side. It slid off my blade and fell off the edge of the walkway.

I turned behind me, just in time to see Saul push the creature toward the edge of one of the slave pits. It fell with a loud crunch. That's the problem with having your skeleton on the outside.

Only then did I notice the crossbow bolts. One bounced off the walkway inches from my feet. Audry had two embedded in her shield. Saul scrambled over to the walk way and hung off the edge. Audrey tried to protect Marc with her shield as he spoke arcane words. Anna crouched behind Marc. She took a shot at one and managed to staple its leg to the ceiling. It made no sound regardless of the wound.

Finally, Marc's spell finished. The ball of fire materialized and flew toward the ceiling. The creatures had no time to react. The fireball burst. Fire spread across the ceiling, engulfing the three creatures that hung there. The wave of heat rushed over us, and then the fire was gone. Two of them fell to the ground while the third hung from the ceiling, its leg still impaled by Anna's arrow. After a few seconds, the arrow worked itself loose. The creature fell into one of the pits.

Saul pulled himself up. "We better hurry in case more of those bugs show up."

"Aspis, I believe," Marc said.

"Whatever they are," Audrey said, "I'm sure more will be coming."

Anna had already crossed the walkway. I joined her, staring at the floor. The floor on the other side wasn't really a floor. It was a series of trap doors leading to smaller pits. Every trap door was open. The pit closest to us held the squirming body of an aspis. It tried to stand, but its legs were broken. Nonetheless, it kept trying. It was as if pain didn't register to it at all.

"Any non-bug occupants?" I asked.

Anna nocked an arrow and proceeded along the wooden beams that divided the cages. She looked in them one by one. Audry, Saul and Marc had climbed down a set of stairs near the walk way. Anna finished her trip around the pits in minutes and returned.

"Empty," she said. "The slaves have to be elsewhere."

"Hey guys, get down here."

Anna and I went down the stairs, following Saul's voice. At the bottom of the stairs was another set of stairs leading further down, but Saul's voice came from the corridor underneath the walkway and behind the stairs we descended. The corridor itself was just a platform. A series of pistons and springs lined the walls. If I had to guess, I would say they operated the the trap doors of the level above, but at that moment that's not what drew my attention.

Audrey knelt over a human. His skin hung from his body. It was as if he had no muscles to speak of. Audrey rested her hand over what looked like a sword wound. The wound closed as she prayed. Cowering against the wall were four other humans. All of the looked equally emaciated.

"They killed this." Saul stepped aside and pointed to the body of an Aspis. The creature had a knife in what would be the back of its skull.

"Brave," I said.

"We want to be free," one of them said. His voice croaked as he spoke, as if he didn't have the energy to speak clearly.

"And you shall be," Audrey said. "Now quickly, where are the others?"

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Moving forward

Well, that didn't go as planned.

We got suckered, bad. We got caught with our pants down. We got rolled hard. We got....

Well, you get the idea.

Here's the 411. That guy we met in the middle of nowhere was a slaver. He masqueraded as the member of a tribe of humans living in the mountains. There were rumors of such tribes, supposedly survivors from when the humanoid tribes sacked the city of Highport. We were talking about it, and this guy must have overheard it. So he played along. We were desperate and we fell for it. We needed help finding the slavers' stockade and we didn't have much choice but to take what help we could get.

We followed the stranger into a small encampment. There were about ten people there. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched us. They looked like a haggard bunch. In retrospect, it was probably an act.

One guy approached us and claimed to be the chieftain of his tribe. He gave us this sob-story about how the women and children of his tribe had been kidnapped by slavers. We agreed to help. He would lead us to the stockade and we would free his people as well as ours. It was a fair bargain. We planned on freeing every slave we could find anyway. Of course, it was too good to be true.

We got within sight of the stockade when it happened. We started getting sleepy. I heard Marc cursing up a storm. His words were slurred as if he were drunk. Everyone sounded like they were underwater or something. Everything got blurry. I tried to stand, but I fell. I don't remember hitting the ground. Magic sleep is like that. Imagine the most tired you've ever been, and then multiply it by ten. You can't resist it.

We went through hell--especially the girls--but we escaped. We succeeded in our rescue mission, for the most part, and we got more information about those behind the war to the south and west. No doubt Thrommel will want to pursue what we know.

Frigging great.

Right now we're leaving Dame Gold's home and heading back to Mitrik. We've sent a preliminary report via mages already, but Thrommel will have a million questions. For now, it is quiet, and I'll enjoy it while I can.

You know, this adventure stuff can be the pits sometimes. I think about getting out of it, but it's too late now. I have skills people need in the war against the evil one (I still think that's a silly name). Besides, I've been doing this long enough I can't do anything else. As terrible as it can be, when you are not out on some kind of adventure you start jonesing for adrenalin. You start to get used to it. You hate it and love it all at once.

I suppose I should pick up where I left off. I'm so far behind it ain't funny.


Ferrets. I had a roommate who had these things. They stunk and the chewed up everything. The difference between these ferrets and the ones my old roommate used to have is that these were six feet long. And there were five of them.

Now that is just too much.

We entered the room through the back entrance. One would think it would be guarded or trapped or something, and then I was suddenly reminded of one of the advantages ferrets have over humans.

From our vantage point behind the crates I could see the ferrets. They stopped doing ferret things (sniffing the ground, each other, and their own behinds) and sniffed the air together. There heads turned in our direction.

"Uh, oh," Saul said. Man, he was right.

The ferrets squealed and darted for us. So much for stealth.

Anna had her bow in hand. She released an arrow, burying it in the head of one of the ferets. It fell dead. The other ferrets didn't even stop.

We heard the single man in the room shout something. The smelly ferret that jumped me made so much noise I couldn't hear anything. It jumped over the stack of crates with ease. I've never seen such evil on a ferret's face before.

Kantos Kan jumped into my hand. It seemed to move in my hand, and I let it. I came to trust the magic sword's judgment regarding combat. This was no exception. The ferret landed on top of the point of the sword. It shrieked loud enough to make my ears ring. I managed to step to the side before the creature's dead weight knocked me down. It slumped to the side, the point of Kantos sticking out of its back. It twitched violently, but the ugly creature could do no more than that.

I withdrew Kantos and turned, ready for the next creature. I imagined my old roommates ferets and how they used to chew up shoes and crap on the carpet. It made watching these things die a lot easier.

Audry had dispatched a ferret with ease, as did Saul. A flash of light erupted from Marc's hands. The light turned the ferret into a burning mass of fur that flopped on the floor. Anna fought the last ferret with her short sword. She wounded it severely, but hadn't yet finished it. I nearly cut it in two with Kantos Kan.

"I could of handled it," Anna said. She pulled out her bow.

I was about to say something when Kantos interrupted me. "We're not through yet."

I felt the sword nudge me into turning around. Behind us stood the man who recently had been sitting at a desk. Now he stood behind ten orcs. They knelt on the ground, pointing bows at us. The ferrets managed to knock over a lot of the crates, reducing our cover, making it that much easier for the orcs to hit us.

"Get down!" Audry shouted. She pulled Saul and I to the ground behind the crates. Anna was already there, but Marc still stood. I started to reach for him but Audry stopped me. I saw immediately why he did.

Marc spoke softly, waving his hands in intricate patterns. Soon, a ball of fire appeared in his hands. I didn't think he'd hold on to it for much longer.

"This going to be big," Saul said. And it was.

I'm not sure where the fireball detonated, but from the screams I knew the orcs took the brunt of it. A wave of heat followed the deafening explosion. It was like standing next to an open oven.

When the heat died down I opened my eyes. Anna laid there next to me, her hands covering her head. Slowly, we stood and looked.

The other side of the crates burned, sending black smoke up to the ceiling. On the far side of the crates lay ten bodies, all burning. I felt bile rising up in my throat. You never do get used to the smell of burning flesh.

"Good work," Saul said.

Marc merely nodded grimly. "Thank you, though it appears we have a survivor."

I looked where Marc pointed. On the other side of the desk someone staggered. His clothes were severely burned, and I could only assume his skin was equally as burned. He staggered across the large circular room to a set of stairs leading up.

Anna nocked an arrow and aimed. Audry put her hand on her arm. "No, wait. He will know where the slaves are."

She moved forward and we followed. The room was ringed by sewage and stunk to the seven heavens. The only other furnishings were a single desk and chair, both singed by the effects of Marc's fireball.

We caught up with the man quickly. Audry grabbed him by the shoulder. He turned, ready to attack, but he spun to far. He fell to the floor. I could clearly see the burns on his face and hands. He would have been a goner back on Earth.

Audry touched his face. Some of the wounds closed and healed. Her Paladin laying of hands helped him, but he needed far more help.

"What are you doing?" Anna asked. "Audry, he's a slaver, look at him."

At his belt hung a whip. The parts of his clothes that were not burned looked like they were expensive and unworn. He wore what looked like leather armor and he had a short sword at his side.

"I see that," Audry said. "But we must have information about this place. We can turn him over to the authorities--"

Audry stopped. It just occurred to her, and to me as well. What authorities? Highport was run by the Slavelords. They were the authority. The closest halfway lawful authority was far to the north.

Marc sensed her thoughts. "Yes, you see the dilemma? If we let him go, he will tell his superiors about us. And we can't turn him in."

Audry laid the man on the floor. He didn't resist. "What is your name?"

"You killed my weasels," he muttered. "How could you."

"Your name," Anna asked. "What is it?"

"Blucholtz," he said. "I could have gone to the stockade."

"You deserve it," Saul said wryly.

"I could have been promoted and sent to the stockade in the mountains," Blucholtz said. "You ruined that." He turned and looked around the room. His eyes looked glazed over. "Where are my pets?"

I took a closer look at him. His wounds had healed somewhat, but not enough. Audry had managed to delay the inevitable, but not by much.

"Where are the slaves?" I asked him. "If you want our help, tell us where the slaves are kept."

He looked toward the stairway. "No good ones, sir," he said. "Good ones went to the stockade. Special plans. We have good laborers." He started to shake. "If the price is right."

"Thanks Bob Barker," I said. "How many are guarding him?"

He shook more. His eyes rolled up into his head. Audry stood and stepped away from him. He was dying. In this state he seemed almost innocent, but if we healed him with our potions we'd probably just have to kill him again. I thought about ending his life and sparing him any more pain, but then he stopped shaking. The breath left his body and he lay still.

"Let's go," Saul said. "Let's get those slaves."

And then get out of here, I thought.


We made our way up the stairs...and nearly fell all the way back down. They were trick stairs designed to close flat, creating a ramp to send everyone into the middle of that circular room. Then those orcs could fire upon the disoriented intruders with ease.

Anna saw the mechanism in time for us to jump to the side. The stairs went flat for a few seconds, and then righted again. She took a dagger and jammed into the control mechanism, keeping it locked in place.

We went through the door at the top of the stairs and down a hall. At the other end of the hall we heard them--a strange chittering noise we heard earlier.

"Oh great," I said. "You think they got those things in the cave doing guard duty?"

"Sounds like it," Saul said. "What can we do?"

"Move forward," Audry said. "We have to free the slaves, no matter the cost."

And forward we went.


It is late and we are making camp. I'm so very tired, but I won't be getting much sleep, at least right away.

I'm very quickly getting used to not sleeping alone.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A screwed up situation

We lost the trail. We lost the damn trail.

We've been searching for weeks, trying to find out what happened. For a while, the trail was fairly clear. It looked like Dame or one of the other guests had been dropping things, leaving a trail for us. And then it was gone. They changed course across a field of boulders and we haven't seen any sign since.

We sat around our fire that night. We had it set low in a pit to conceal it, not to mention keep it away from the wind. It was summer, but nights were damn cold up in the higher elevations.

"They must have figured out what their slaves were doing," Anna said.

"Damn," Saul muttered at one point. "Gods, we could be out here for months."

"We don't have months," Audry said. "Dame Gold and her guests do not have months."

"Maybe some of the locals can help us," I said.

"The locals?" Marc shook his head. "Most of the 'locals,' as you put it, are humanoids. Likely they would side with slavers than us."

"Money talks," I said. "The right amount of gold might swing their disposition, if you know what I mean."

Saul shrugged. "It might. The problem is can we talk to them before they try and kill us."

"Perhaps there are those here who are not humanoids," Audry said. "Marc, you mentioned something of this once."

"That's true," Marc said. "But it is only myth. Any men who lived here surrounded by humanoids have no doubt been killed off."

"Think again," a voice said.

We all stood, weapons in hand. Whoever it was, they didn't get close enough to set off the magic mouth Marc cast in our area. That meant a lot of things. It meant he knew about the magic mouth and didn't want to set it off. It also meant he didn't want to alarm us, which he did anyway. It also meant he had been listening for a while and had a good set of ears because we kept our voices low.

"I mean you know harm," the man said. I could not see him in the darkness. No doubt Saul and Anna could not see him either with the heat from the campfire messing up their heat sight.

"We'll be the judge of that," Saul said.

"Please step forward," Audry said. "Keep your hands in sight, if you would."

"I do not wish to set off your magical alarm," the man said.

"I knew it," I said. "Marc?"

Marc mumbled something and then nodded at me, indicating his spell was down. I was about to say something to our stranger but he proceeded forward.

"Thank you," he said. "You have chosen a strange place to go exploring."

"Well, we're not exactly Marco Polo," I said. Realizing no one would get the reference--and that I'd have a lot of explaining to do later--I changed the subject. "How long have you been following us."

"A while," the man said. The man looked completely out of place. He wore nothing but a long, flowing robe embroidered with runes. It was achingly cold, but the man did not flinch even as the wind kicked up. His face had lines and looked hard. His skin was deeply tanned. He looked human, but with his hood up it was difficult to tell.

The man stopped about ten feet away, close enough for us to see him and far enough way to make us feel safe. "Who is it you are tracking."

"That's our business, friend," Anna said.

Audry put a hand on Anna's shoulder to silence her. Anna lowered her bow. I hadn't realized that she had nocked an arrow and was actually aiming at the man. Her hands shook has she released the draw on her arrow. The man remained remarkably calm.

"We are seeking slavers," Marc said. "They have captured some friends."

The man grimaced. "You have my condolences. It makes my mission both easier and harder."

"Mission?" Saul asked.

"We need your help." He took another step forward. "I thought you might be able to help us, but I was unsure how. Now, though, it seems I have information you will need."

"You know where the slavers are," I said. He nodded. "And you'll tell us if we help you." He nodded again.

"Lucky break," Saul said. Depending on what we had to do, it might not be.

As for the Slaver's Temple....


The chittering got louder until we couldn't tell where it came from anymore. Whatever it sounded like, I knew that it was probably some animal making that noise, something big and probably not very friendly.

"What do we do?" Anna asked.

"No choice," Saul said. He drew his sword. "Emril mentioned the slaves were west."

"He didn't seem very sure," Audry said, "but I imagine one direction is good as the other."

We all drew our weapons and proceeded west. Marc seemed to ready a spell component, though for what kind of spell I didn't know. I knew him well enough that I should stay out of the way when he gives the word.

The cavern turned south almost immediately. Every now and then dirt fell from the ceiling. Water pooled up in places on the floor. The ground seemed to be covered with tracks of some kind. Saul bent down to look and them and frowned. I raised my eyebrows, a silent question as to what he found. He only shrugged.

The pooled water stunk of mildew. There was something else in the air as well. A sweet sort of smell, but somehow sour as well. The first thing that came to mine was weedkiller.

Saul pointed at a pile of dirt on the floor. "Spoor," he whispered. I barely heard him over the chattering.

"Spoor?" Anna asked.

"Animal dung," Marc said. "The question is what animal?"

Saul shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it."

That wasn't what I wanted to hear. Kantos Kahn, my sword, hummed in my hand. There is something ahead.

"What?" I asked. Everyone looked at me.

I do not know. Something potentially dangerous

"Kantos?" Audry asked.

I nodded. "He says there is something potentially dangerous ahead."

"Not very helpful," Anna said. She patted the hilt of my sword. "No offense buddy."

"Hrmph," Kantos said out loud. "If I knew more I would certainly share it."

"I know that," I said. "Let's keep going."

The cavern corridor twisted and turned. It seemed like we were still going south, but it was hard to tell. We could get lost here easily.

The tunnel opened up. The stench grew stronger. It was like being drowned in cheap lilac perfume. Marc held up one of his continual light pebbles. The tunnel opened up along the edge of the cavern, only about ten feet away from another tunnel that led...well, by this point I'd lost my sense of direction.

"Hear that?" Anna asked.

I shook my head. "What?"

"Oh hells," Audry said. When she swore, you knew things were serious. At first I didn't know what she meant, and then it occurred to me. The chittering we had heard earlier had quieted. It was getting quieter and quieter, and after half a minute or so it stopped altogether.

"Perhaps we should leave," Marc said.

Saul and I led the way, or at least we started to. We didn't get very far. Directly in front of the second tunnel the ground rose. A small mound, almost like a grave, swelled. It elongated, growing until it was about waist high.

We backed away from it, for all the good it did. All around us, all around the cavern within range of the light from Marc's pebble, there were similar mounds of dirt rising from the cavern floor. The dirt fell away from each pile of earth, and from the center of each pile rose something really ugly.

It had the head of a mosquito and the body of an ant. It's black body shined in the magical light. Tiny little hairs protruded from different parts of its body. Tiny antennae quivered on its misshapen head as it regarded us.

All of this was bad enough, but it got worse.

In one hand it held a sword. I could see spots of rust along the blade, but it still looked plenty sharp. In the other hand it held a shield made of wood, bound with iron. The fact this thing was smart enough to use weapons was bad. What was worse was that there were dozens more behind it.

All of them lined up in formation. Their precision would have made Veluna troops blush. They stood in some sort of reverse wedge formation. Their intent seemed to be to keep us from going any further into the cave. What they didn't do was block the one exit out of the cave. The sweet, lemony smell was stronger than ever.

Anna had her bow in hand but didn't have an arrow ready. "Uh, are we in trouble?"

"I don't think we are," Marc said. "Look."

Two of the creatures stepped forward. Their mis-jointed legs marched in a unison that would have made every drill sergeant on Oerth jealous. They stopped some five paces in front of the column and pointed their weapons at the exit.

"Maybe we should do what they say," I said.

We piled out of the room. We poured out of the room quickly. Our sudden actions didn't disturb the locals. They just regarded us with a mixture of calmness and readiness. It seemed as if they would willingly gut us if need be, but they wouldn't feel anything about it.

The sickly odor of lemon and weed killer filtered part way down the cavern corridor, and soon it dissipated somewhat. The cavern turned out of sight of the larger cavern. Once out of sight, the chittering started up once more.

"Why'd they let us go?" Anna asked.

"It seems they believed we were with the slavers," Audry said. "Perhaps the slavers have made arrangements with them, whatever they are."

"Aspis, as I recall," Kantos said. "A sort of ant-man, I suppose you could call them. One of my previous owners encountered them once. On occasion, they can be reasonable."

"So if they're smart maybe we should talk to them about the slavers," Anna said. "Maybe they'd help us out if they knew what the slavers really were."

"It is unlikely they would care," Kantos said. "They seem to care little for the ways of men or what men do to each other."

"Well, whatever the are, we've got bigger problems," Saul said. "Like where are we?"

That was a very good question. That's the problem with finding your way underground. There's no sun to guide the way. I tried to think of which we were heading, but it didn't really matter in the end. It was either continue ahead or head back.

We continued on through the cave tunnel, stepping over pools of stagnant water. Some of it smelled awful, like sewer water left in the open. We kept going, following the twisting tunnel. In places, it was barely wide enough to pass. After half an hour or so, I wondered if we had made a wrong turn. We encountered a stairway going up, but the escaped slaves under the city explained that the slavers lived under the temple. Finally, the tunnel ended at a stone wall.

"Oh no," I said. "Please tell me we don't have to go back."

"We don't have to go back," Anna said. She stepped forward, running her fingers along the stone wall. It looked artificial, not dug out like the rest of the walls.

"Look." She dug her fingers on one side of the wall and pulled. The wall didn't budge.

"Ah, I see," Saul said. He stepped forward and reached for the edge of the wall. It appeared to be set forward a little from the rest of the stone. "You just need to put your back into it."

Anna glared at a smiling Saul as he pulled on the edge of the wall. It swung inward, making very little noise.

"It appears to be the back side of a hidden door," Marc said. Audry whirled around and held her finger to her mouth. She gestured inside the room on the other side.

I only saw stacks of barrels and crates. I saw nothing else.

I started to say something but Anna held up her hand. She gestured at her pointed ears. I might have only seen barrels and crates, but I could hear plenty.

"We go on break?" The voice sounded like the man had been gargling silverware. That meant it was an orc.

"No, fool," another voice said, definitely human or demi-human. "Wait until your relief arrives. Not for another...another hour. Now, back to your damn post!"

The orc grumbled something. I heard his footsteps fade away as he, presumably, went back to his damn post.

Anna stepped into the room. I followed, and the others followed me. The room was lit by torches and lanterns, with most of the light coming from the other end of the room. I wanted to ask Anna to look over the boxes, but a strange noise stopped me.

It sounded like coffee beans in a grinder. The rhythmic grinding would start, fade, and then start again with a loud crunch. Anna looked over the crates. She dropped down, her face ashen.

"We might have a problem," she said in a very low voice. I glanced around the crates. I only saw one, but it was enough to know that we did indeed have a big problem.


We're just now arriving in some small encampment. Humans are watching us very carefully as we approach. Someone who looks important is approaching us, which means I have to stop for now.

I hope whatever they want us to do is quick.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Looking for slaves

We've been weaving through the Drachensgrab Mountains for some time. For weeks we have been following the trail of the remaining slaves brought here from the Highport Temple. It's been tricky. We've managed to avoid the myriad of humanoid tribes throughout the mountains. This means climbing across some treacherous terrain.

Saul was gone when I awoke this morning. I was about to awaken the others when he returned.

"My bad," he said. He's developed a fondness for Earth idioms. "Perhaps I should have left a gooey?"

"Sticky," I said. "Sticky note. It doesn't matter. Did you find the trail?"

He nodded. "Yep." He held up a a strip of cloth. It was the same color of Dame's dress when we left her home long ago. It was one of several we found.

"Hope she doesn't run out of clothes before we find her," I said.

"Oh, like that'd bother you," Anna said. She stood and stretched. "Any signs of uglies?"

"None," Saul said.

Audry sat in her bedroll, listening. "Odd," she said at length. "One would think they weren't paying attention."

"Suits me," Anna said.

"As I," Marc said. He, too, sat in his bedroll. "However, this behavior is uncharacteristic of humanoid behavior."

"They're morons," Anna said. She spat in disgust, something that made Audry grimace. "Children know more than they do and have a better grasp of right and wrong to boot."

"Agreed," Marc said, "but they are not ignorant of their surroundings. An understanding of their surroundings is vital to their survival. The fact they are ignorant of us means either they are busy elsewhere or...."

"Or they know we are here and are doing nothing," Saul said.

"Which begs the question: why?" Marc said.

"They're reporting our whereabouts to the Slavelords," I said. "If so, when will they stop us?"

"Maybe they are waiting for us to show up at this stockade," Aura said. "Better to let us approach on our own and enslave us there then waste the manpower bringing us in."

Anna chuckled. "They want us to deliver ourselves into slavery. Great."

"That's assuming they're following us," Saul said. "I haven't seen any sign of that. They may just not know we're here."

Marc stood. "Perhaps." He started packing. "Shall we?"

"Yeah," Saul said. "You know, I spotted something odd when I was out scouting."

"What's that?" I asked, packing my own gear.

"Signs of humans," he said. "They seem to be heading along the path toward this stockade, but I don't think they are part of the slave caravan that came this way."

"Who are they then?" Audry asked. She started packing.

"I only saw a few tracks," Saul said. "They actually cover their tracks pretty well. The slavers don't seem to care about their own tracks. If I had to guess, I'd say they were locals."

"Locals?" Marc stopped packing and rubbed his chin. "When Highport fell to the orcs years ago, most survivors fled north. But it is said that a few--mostly hunters, rangers, and their families--fled into the mountains."

"Maybe this is them," Saul said. "The only way to know for sure is to check them out."

"We've got other priorities," I said. "I mean, I'm curious as all the nine hells as to who these guys are, but we gotta find Dame and the others."

"I agree," Audry said. She pulled out the portable hole and opened up. "We should continue our mission."

We put our camping gear in the portable hole and then closed it up. The sun was low in the sky. I could feel the heat on my face, but the thin air wouldn't hold the heat. It was like a Denver day in December--sunny, but cold.

We went back on the trail.

I'm writing this as we hike. For a while, we did a lot of climbing. We know the caravan left the Highport Temple a few weeks ago. We had maps of the pass that went through these mountains, and so we took a shortcut across the mountain peaks in the hopes of cutting them off. We'd hump it all day, then crash hard at night. Marc was barely able to get his perimeter warning spells up. Instead, we missed them by a few days. Better being a few days behind than a few weeks, but I still wish we had caught up with them.

I couldn't exactly update my journal while climbing, but now I can. The magic of the journal allows me to write legibly while walking or riding a horse. I have no idea how long it will be until we reach this stockade, so I better update while I have the chance.


On Earth, most medieval cities didn't have sewers. With the aid of magic, such places can be built here. Highport used to be a civilized city, which meant they disposed of...waste in an appropriate manner. Orcs are brutish, but they are practical. They're not about to oppose the use of sewers, especially when they are being controlled by humans who would like to keep a city relatively clean so they can sell their slaves. So, in addition to human waste we get to deal with humanoid waste.

"Vile," Anna said. She tried to throw up again but she had the dry heaves.

"She'll be hungry when this is all over," Saul said.

"Not funny," Anna said. "How much further?"

"Just up ahead," Marc said. He tried to make a show of breathing easier, but even he was showing signs of stress. I hadn't puked yet, but I was damn close.

Finally, we came to the ladder. Anna went up first, more out of her desire to get out of the sewer than anything else. She climbed quickly, and then I heard a slight creak as she opened the door. Ahead I saw one of Oerth's moons shining through (I think it was Celene). After a moment she called back down. "It's clear."

We climbed up quickly. It gets dark on Oerth, even in the moonlight. Back on Earth, I never thought much about the dark. I was a city boy through and through. When it got dark, the street lights came up. I never really understood what dark was until I came here. I could see some lights along the walls of Highport, but not much else. The good news was that no one in the city could see much either. The orcs could see out to a few dozen yards with their heat-sensing sight, but we were a good couple hundred yards from city. As for the temple itself...well, Saul and Anna would have to guide us.

"It's suppose to be just south of here, isn't it?" I asked.

Anna took me by the arm. "Let's find out."

Saul and Anna guided us through the brush and around the small hills. It wasn't long before we found the abandoned temple.

Temples. Man, I'd had enough of temples after dealing with the elemental temple. At least this one was smaller. As we approached, I wondered what in the hells could be here. It looked like a collection of burned out structures.

"A big pile of trash," I said.

"Look at the walls," Audry said. "They appear intact. I wager they would withstand a siege."

"Looks like it," Saul said. He pointed at the base of the walls. I'm not sure what his elven eyes saw, but I believed him. "It looks like this was reinforced recently."

"They've rebuilt it," Marc said, "but in a manner to make it appear as nothing more than burned out ruins. Clever."

"No one comes here because they believe there is nothing here," Audry said. "Well, perhaps we should make the illusion real."

We skirted around the back with Saul and Anna's help. We stayed maybe a hundred feet from the structure itself--far enough away to keep out of anyone's infravision if they had it. There were no signs of habitation, but we'd expected that. From the back, we made our way around to the west side.

"I guess it's too much to hope for a back way in," Saul said.

"It'd be heavily guarded," Anna said.

"So would the stables," Audry said. She lowered her voice. "Look."

A set of large doors set in the side of the wall, just as Emril described. They looked like big barn doors, but they were set into the side of the temple itself. It looked like they built the stables into the main structure, which is probably smart in terms of defense.

We approached quietly, but frankly I doubt they would have heard us. From the sounds of it, they were gambling...and drinking and carrying on and basically partying like it's 1999.

"Makes our job easier," Anna said.

We moved toward the doors. Light spilled forward, light that didn't flicker. That meant lanterns instead of torches, which made sense given most stables have hay. Anna peered through a small gap in the doors, looking back at us after a few seconds. "I see four of them. They're toward the back of the stables. They're not paying attention."

"That's good on a lot of levels," I said. "They're not on guard, which means the slavelords aren't ready for us."

"Or it's a trap," Saul said.

"Let's think good thoughts, shall we?" Marc said. "Give us the sign, Anna."

She nodded and slipped through the small opening. The men inside continued their game unabated. Saul kept an eye out around us for anyone approaching. When I looked at him he shook his head. All clear.

I looked back toward the doors. The door was opened just enough for me to see one of stalls for horses. Instead of a horse, it contained Anna. I could see her clearly, but from that angle I doubted the men gambling could have seen her. She motioned for us to enter.

We entered as quickly and quietly as we could. I glanced toward the loud voices of the gambling men. They were some forty feet away from us. They were huddled in a corner, surrounded by lanterns. It looked like they pulled all the lanterns in the stall around them so they could see their dice better. Foolish, but serendipitous for us.

That's what worried me.

We entered the stall with Anna. There was easily enough room for all of us.

"Ideas?" Saul said.

"Allow me," Marc said. He stood at the edge of the stall and uttered words of enchantment. It was quiet enough that I doubt the guards could hear. His arms moved in the patterns of a spell. It was over quickly, and as soon as it was over the little Las Vegas reenactment ended as well. Marc nodded with approval.

I leaned outside the stall. The men lay on the ground.

Anna put her hands on my back and leaned outside to look. "What'd you do?"

"Sleep spell?" Saul asked. Marc nodded.

"Good," Audry said. She stood. "Spares us some unnecessary bloodshed."

"Not that they don't deserve it," Anna said. She grabbed a coil of rope hanging on a peg. "Maybe we better take care of them before they wake?"


We tied them, gagged them, and stashed them in a stall. They were still snoozing when we left.

We shut the barn doors and barred them, then left through the only other door in the stables. Emril remembered pretty well. The hall twisted north and split. We took the right fork in the hall and continued on, passing all doors. We followed the hall until we reached the stairs. We followed quickly. God only knew how long it would be before our friends were found.

The stairs went down for some ways. When they finally ended, we found ourselves in a tunnel. The ceiling looked unstable. Wooden beams supported it in places, but I wondered how often these tunnels collapsed and had to be dug out again. I wondered how many slaves died down here. The tunnel went east and west.

"Which way?" Saul asked.

"Emril said the slaves were west," Audry said. "But he knew little more."

"He didn't say anything about caves," Anna asked.

"Not caves," Marc said. He ran his finger along the wall. Dirt came away from the wall. "These were tunneled. And it doesn't appear to have been done with shovels. Or magic."

"If it wasn't people," Saul said, "then what did this?"

A strange chittering started, as if on cue. It sounded like a room full of people hammering away on computer keyboards, and it came from both directions.

"I think we're going to find out," Anna said.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

In hiding

You know all those smoking buildings in Highport? We managed to add to it.

The Temple of Highport is sacked and Highport is in Chaos. We got sidetracked big time, but I honestly think it was for the better. I think we may have put a severe cramp in the Slavelords' lifestyles.

Right now, we are on our way deeper into the mountains. We're tracking these Slavelords to their source. After the information we've gathered at the temple, we're starting to think maybe these Slavelords have something in common with the invaders to the east.

At some point, I think I'm going to have to summarize everything that's happened up to this point. I mean from my sudden appearance outside of Hommlet to the here and now. For now, though, I'll continue from where I left off.


We just stared at each other for a while. To be honest, I felt a little disappointed. My first drow and he was albino. I wanted to see what the pitch black skin looked like in real life.

"Drow, huh?" I said. "Did you leave because...?" I gestured at my face.

"Yes," he said. "It happens more often than my people care to admit. My mother did not worship...the Spider Queen. Shar cared little for how drow looked."

I noticed how he didn't say the Spider Queen's name: Lolth.

"What'd other drow think of you worshiping Shar?" Anna asked.

"They didn't," Emril said (I still laugh at the thought of the name). "My family hid within the city."

"The Vault?" Marc asked. "Is that where you lived."

Emril nodded. "That is what surfacers call it, yes. It is one of many."

"A vault?" I asked. "What kind of vault."

"I have heard of it," Audry said. "It is a legendary place."

"It is no legend, lady," Emril said. "I should know."

"Yeah, but what is it?" I asked.

"A city," Emril said. "We drow refer to them as vaults."

"So where is this city?" I asked.

Anna pointed at the ground. "Far, far underground."

"It is what you humans call a cavern," Emril said. "Go far enough beneath the ground and there is a vast network of caves, some large enough to hold entire cities."

"Like the Vault," Marc said. "This is all very interesting, but there are more pressing issues. Such as, where is the girl?"

"Indeed," Saul said. "I assume with these others?"

"Yes," Emril said. "But we must be cautious. They are looking for us."

"Who?" Audry said. "The Slavelords?"

"The temple guards," Emril said. "They want to know where their cargo is going, and I fear it is only a matter of time before they find out."


The smell of burning wood was everywhere. There was so much of the city that had been destroyed. If this were a human city it would take years to repair everything, even with the use of magic. This once human city is now under the control of orc tribes. Even with the Slavelords commanding them, it'd be unlikely that the orcs would ever completely rebuild the city.

We followed Emril through the burned out sections of the city. He knew every part of it. We must have dodged five patrols on the way. After two hours of moving from hiding spot to hiding spot, we finally arrived.

The building in question was still largely intact. Some floors had collapsed, but the basic structure was still intact. Every window and door had been bricked up or covered in stone. Some of the stone looked too perfect to have been fashioned by human hands. Given that dwarves probably wouldn't have helped them, it meant that the stone was created by magic.

"How do we get in?" Audry asked.

"There." Emril pointed to a pile of debris. It looked like a pile of trash. Emril reached underneath it and lifted. The "trash" was and elaborately designed sculpture of debris designed to look like a pile of junk, but was really one piece. The six foot diameter sculpture must have weighed a few hundred pounds. Emril lifted one side of it with one hand.

"A counter balance," he said. "Designed by one of us."

"Us," Anna said. "So how many of 'us' are there anyway?"

"You will see," Emril said. Beneath the debris sculpture was a hole. He gestured for us to follow.

I took a quick look around and went down after him. The others followed. The hole had a set of rungs in the side made of various pieces of junk. They creaked as I followed Emril down into darkness.

After some fifteen feet the ladder ended. The only light was that from above. Emril pulled me aside so everyone else could enter safely. "Oh my," I heard Anna say, but not being blessed with heat-sensing vision I couldn't see what she saw.

"You can say that again," Saul said. I wished someone would light a torch or something so I could join in on the sentiment. Finally, a light appeared from one of Marc's continual light pebbles. He held it high. "Oh my is right."

And, yeah, I had to agree.

The subterranean room extended well beyond the fifty foot range of the light. It looked like it might have been a basement storeroom at one point. But that's not what caught my eye. From wall to wall I saw nothing but people. Men, women...they all had two things in common--a set of big eyes and pointed ears.

"Please put out the light," Emril said. "It is unlikely anyone above will see it in broad daylight, but we don't wish to take the chance." The elves parted as Emril approached. "Follow me, please."

Marc put out the light. Everything went into pitch black again. "You know, some of us are blind as a bat right now."

"I'll be your eyes," Anna said. I felt her hand on mine. She put my hand on her shoulder and moved forward. I stayed close behind.

"Bats are not blind, by the way," she said as we moved forward.

"It's just an expression," I said. "And how do you know?"

"I'm more than a pretty face," Anna said.

"Yet another expression," Saul said. I heard a distinct slap on his arm followed by a yelp.


We went to a staircase leading down. Out boots clunked loudly on the wooden stairs as they spiraled down, but not for long. Suddenly, the wooden sound was replaced with the sound of hard leather boots on rock. The stairs continued on.

To my credit, I only stumbled once. Anna caught me and mumbled something about being big and clumsy. Yeah, so all of us aren't graceful like gazelles.

A light appeared ahead. As we spiraled down it grew brighter and brighter. I could see the walls around me. The "stairs" were cut into the surrounding rock. The light from ahead came into view. A light of some kind sat in an empty torch scone. It looked like one of Marc's continual light spells.

We moved down for maybe about ten minutes or so, which mean we moved pretty far down.

Finally, the stairs ended. We went through a small opening and into a large cavern. Lighting was sparse, consisting of a combination of torches and magical light. I saw pin points off in the distance. The floor was mostly even, with some stalagmites here and there. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, sometimes connecting with stalagmites on the ground to form columns. The walls were smooth in place, rough in others. It looked like people had smoothed out areas for their own use as opposed to an overall attempt to make the natural cavern more livable. And it looked like this had been done over a long period of time.

When we entered we heard whispering. It sounded like an auditorium just before a play started. As we entered, the whispering quieted down. All around us, all along the walls and surrounding stalagmites and columns, were makeshift camps. People of all races stood and watched us. Mostly they were human, but there were elves, dwarves, and halflings there as well. I even saw a couple of gnomes.

"Escaped slaves," Marc said.

"How many slaves are here?" Audry said.

"Many," Emril said. "This cavern was discovered during the Orc invasion and used as a refuge. When the orcs took the city, it became a refuge for escaped slaves. There was another such cavern, but it was collapsed by orcs when they discovered it." His voice cracked when he said this.

"Dear Gods," Audry said. "There were slaves there?"

Emril merely nodded. I thought of the size of this cavern. If the other was of a similar size then quite a few must of died.

The area felt chilly, but I felt no breeze. Surprisingly, the place didn't smell. I would expect with this many people--it looked like hundreds of them--it would start to smell pretty bad. Considering it didn't, that meant they had a means to dispose of their waste and to wash themselves.

I looked up, trying to make out the ceiling more. From what I could tell, there were sentries stationed at various points. I pointed it out to the others.

"They are too obvious," Saul said. "If the orcs came here they would see."

"Is there another way out?" Audry asked. "Do you have plans to escape if need be?"

Emril merely sighed. "Most of us are laborers or merchants. We don't have any soldiers or warriors among us."

"Hard to enslave someone who can fight back," Saul said.

"Indeed." Emril led us down a set of wooden stairs to a lower section of the cavern. The "stairs" appeared to have been cobbled together from junk, but it seemed stable enough. As we descended I heard a rushing sound, like applause heard at a great distance. At the bottom of the stairs we dodged around a set of stalagmites. Among them were several young men and women tending a garden of mushrooms. They looked at us, startled. They relaxed when they saw Emril.

As we passed the garden, the applause sound grew louder and more distinct. It wasn't applause, I realized, but water.

"An underground river," Marc said. "I assume you have more gardens."

"Certainly," Emril said. "We manage to steal supplies from time to time, but Orcs have...interesting appetites. We also manage to do some hunting and gathering in the wilderness at night." He seemed to beam with pride. "I've been told I'm a very fine cook, at that."

A smiled. Yeah, with a name like that I figured as much.

The roaring water got louder. Off to the side of the main cave was a smaller cave. Inside of it, lit by magical light, was a waterfall. People played in the pool at the base of the waterfall. The magical lighting (which looks vaguely like fluorescent lighting) made it look like an indoor swimming pool. Or a public bath, which explained why no one smelled bad.

"How many exits out of this area?" Saul asked. He almost had to yell to be heard.

"Three," Emril said. "Including the one we came through."

"Are they guarded?" I asked.

"We have people watching," Emril said. "And we have an alarm system consisting of bells."

"Armed guards?" Saul asked.

"We are not warriors," Emril said. "We'd just as likely as stab ourselves in the foot as stab the enemy."

Audry frowned, looking at the numerous people who had gathered around us. "Emril, I am immensely pleased that there is a place to go for escaped slaves." I couldn't hear her sigh over the roaring waterfall, but I could see it in her face. "However, I fear that all of this will come crashing down. It is only a matter of time."

Emril looked at each of us. We all agreed with Audry. As wonderful as this place was, it couldn't last.

"We have little choice," Emril said.

"You have many choices," Marc said. "Why not leave altogether? You said you hunt outside the city. That means you have a way to escape."

"Where would we go?" Emril said. "Who would take us in?"

When he said "we" I think he meant himself. He was an albino drow, but I think he could have passed for an elf easily. I looked at him as he stared at us helplessly.

"You're a good man, Emril," I said, "but you are making excuses. These people came from somewhere and had lives before they were slaves. You said it yourself. They are merchants, laborers, and what not. They could go back home and make a living if they wanted."

"But they stay here," Saul said. "For the love of the Gods, why? You risk capture once more?"

Emril only stared at us. I could see what he wished to say. Kantos echoed it for me.

Their minds are broken.

Thankfully, my sword spoke in my mind instead of out loud. I didn't need to explain him to everyone here (it gets old, frankly--yeah, my sword talks, but not often). But he was right. Slavery broke these people.

"You're so used to being slaves you don't know what else to be, do you?" Anna said. Anna is a girl who is normally full of joy, but right now she looked as if her heart would break. "I see it in their faces," Anna said. "They've abused so much they don't know what to do with themselves any longer."

"What do you know about it," Emril said.

"A lot," Anna said. She stood right in front of Emril, looking him in the eye. "I was a whore in Mitrik. There was a time if you gave me enough gold I would be your toy."

That surprised me. I knew she was a thief for a while, but a prostitute?

"I took some abuse for a while," she said. "I took it because I didn't know what else to do. I had been abused by people for so long I thought it was my lot in life. It was a long time before I realized I could have pulled myself out of it on my own."

We just stared at her. I knew that she worked for the thieves' guild in Greyhawk City for a while, but she never went into details.

"I've been there," she said. "I was free to do what I wanted but I chose to enslave myself, first as a whore and then as a no good thief." She pointed at Emril. "You were made a slave against your will, but now you are free. Yet you stay very close to your former masters, like a child clinging to her mother's apron."

Audry put a hand on Anna's shoulder. "Emril, you have to understand that the longer you stay here the greater the chance you will get caught."

Emril continued to stare at Anna. "It's not like that."

"You can say that if it makes you feel better," Anna said. She nodded toward Audry. "You should listen to her. You will get caught. It's just a matter of time."

We moved away from the waterfall to a deeper part of the cave. Many of the elves we traveled here with had dispersed among the other ex-slaves, no doubt filling them in on the skinny of who and what we were. We were alone now in the cave, but being that it was a cave I'm sure anyone could hear what we were saying.

Finally, Marc broke the silence. "Let's assume everyone actually does decide to leave. How do we get all of these people away from the city without the Highport militia finding out?"

"There are about three hundred slaves here at last count," Emril said. "It is a long way to walk north to civilization. We would have to travel by sea."

"Not necessarily," I said. "For the sake of argument, let's say we shipped these three hundred people out by boat. How many would we need?"

Saul shrugged. "Depended on the ship. Four to eight ships, I would think. That's assuming we could get provisions and a reliable crew. I wouldn't count on the latter in these parts."

"We can't go by ship, then," Anna said. "Not enough horses, so it looks like we're walking."

"Hundreds of people milling around in the forest," Saul said. "You'd spot them easy."

"I could try casting some illusion spells," Marc said. "They'd work in the short term."

"We need something long term," Saul said. "We've got to get these people leagues away before anyone in town notices there's a problem. Leaving at night with illusion spells would help, but patrols would spot such a large crowd from far away."

Marc nodded reluctantly. "Even if we could eliminate said patrols, they would eventually be missed. No doubt wizards would be sent to divine as to a cause and then we would be discovered."

"We need a week's start at least," Anna said. "Two would be better. We need a miracle."

"Or a diversion." Audry rubbed her chin, staring at the ground. "We need more information, but I have an idea."

There was no way Audry was just going to leave these people. Yeah, they should have taken off when they had the chance. I couldn't completely blame them. They were scared and were afraid they'd be captured. They made a bad choice. Regardless, Audry wouldn't leave them there. And to be honest, I didn't want to leave them there either.

So we sat and talked with Emril. He gave us details about how the slaves were processed and where. As we talked, a plan started to form. It was a damn near impossible plan, one that required a set of brass big ones to pull off. I felt like we were the A-Team or something.

The more we talked, the more insane it got. But no matter how crazy our plan sounded, we had to go through with it. We couldn't leave these people to the tender mercies of the Slavelords.

I pitty the fool who stands in our way.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

From the shadows

"So, what exactly did you tell her?" I asked.

We looked around the basement of the burned out building, making sure she wasn't hiding somewhere. Nothing. We couldn't even find evidence that she had been there.

"We just said we're here to help," Anna said. "I don't think we even mentioned our names."

"We didn't," Saul said. "We were careful. We thought that she might be working for the Slavelords and they set that up to catch us."

"One would think that she would at least wait until she had more information before running to the authorities," Marc said. "She doesn't even have names."

"But she has descriptions," Audry said. "In a city like this, anyone who would go out of their way to help a slave in distress is subject to suspicion."

"I think we're over analyzing," I said. "She might have gotten recaptured."

"If so," Marc said, "then she will likely reveal everything about how she escaped."

"What do you think they'll do to her?" Anna asked.

That was one thing I didn't want to think about. Having been tortured to the point of losing my mind, I had a basic idea. Far worse could be done to a teenage girl.

"Do we look for her?" I asked.

"Where?" Saul said. "We don't even know what happened."

"I do," a voice said.

I had Kantos out his sheath in a second, holding the weapon at the individual who had somehow climbed down into the basement without any of us hearing him. The "man" was really an elf. He stood around five foot and had long, unkempt hair. He held up his hands in surrender, locking his eyes with mine.

"I mean you know harm," he said.

"Good for you," I said. Kantos hummed in my hand, ready to fight. My sword, Kantos, was not an ordinary sword.

"Put it down, John," Audry said. "He is fine."

Paladins have a way of knowing your intentions. If she said he was cool, then he was cool.

"Indeed," Kantos said. My sword talks, but rarely. "I would not wish to be responsible for this one's death. Look at his wrists."

The elf stared at me sword, not believing that what he heard came from a sword of all things. He reached up to touch the blade, and as he did I saw the scars on his wrists. They were the same scars I had on my wrists, but far more severe. The elf served on a slave barge, probably for a long time.

I lowered my sword. "Sorry. We're a bit on edge."

"I understand," he said. "Forgive me, I did not wish to startle you, but after you've been sneaking around as long as I have it becomes a habit."

"You've had a lot of practice, apparently," Marc said.

"I was not always a slave," he said. "My name is Emril."

I suppressed a smile. That and the desire to yell out Bam!

"Yes, he's had a lot of practice," Anna said. "But he's too good. He's been trained."

Emril nodded. "I was a burglar in Nyrond. I was captured after stealing from the wrong merchant. It turned out this merchant's business in dealing in jewelry was merely a front. He dealt in people."

"Then you found yourself on a barge," I said, pointing at his wrists. I finally sheathed Kantos. "I'd love to hear the story, but right now I'd like to know where the young lady went."

"She is with us," Emril said.

"Us?" Saul said.

"Escaped slaves," Emril said. "We had been looking for Lady Elsia for sometime."

"Lady?" Audry said. "She is royalty?"

Emril nodded. "A princess from Nyrond."

"Oh my," Audry said. "It seems the Slavelords care little for whom they enslave."

"They do not," Emril said. "Yet, some of us have found our freedom."

"How many?" Saul asked.

"Many," Emril said, and his tone suggested he didn't care to elaborate. "I escaped six months ago, and I've been helping others escape."

"Why stick around?" Anna asked. "Why didn't you leave when you could?"

"I wish to help others escape," he said. "I know that it might mean I will be recaptured, but...but I must help those who cannot help themselves. It is Eilistraee's will."

"Eilistraee?" Marc said. "Her followers are some what rare."

"On the surface of this world, yes," Emril said. He stepped forward. Only then did I get a good look at his eyes. They shone a brilliant pink. His skin was deathly pale. I didn't earlier because of the dirt covering him.

"I was born as such," he said, gesturing at his face. "Pale of skin and eye. My people's skin is much darker."

Everyone got very uncomfortable at that point, even though both Audry and Kantos vouched for him. Our reaction didn't disturb him. He seemed to expect it.

"Yes, it is true. I am drow."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

City of slaves'll not find a more wretched hive of scum that refuse to say a fricking word! Seriously, you'd think in a town full of scumbags at least one or two of them would sing like a bird, once you check their hearing with the rattle of some jink. Our gold's the same as anyone else's.

(That's the cool thing about gold as money. No matter which government stamps it, it's generally accepted, 'cause it's gold. Well, with some exceptions.)

This disturbs me, greatly. If so few people are talking, then that means the Slavelords have a solid grip on the city.

First, let's start from the beginning.

We stormed the gates a few days ago. That means we sneaked in just before dawn and climbed over the wall. There were few guards, and the ones that were there were snoozing (orcs snore like you can't imagine). Highport, it turns out, never fully recovered from battles with orc tribes back in the day. About half the city is composed of burned out husks of buildings. Orcs and humanoids are not exactly known for being industrious, so they haven't made that much of an effort to rebuild the city, and what they have rebuilt would make any 21st century building inspector laugh himself silly. My God, I'm afraid to stand next to any of these bloody things. If one of them tips over, it'll be like dominoes for blocks and blocks.

We found a place to hole up somewhere not to far from the populated areas. It was a basement of what looked like a burned out tavern. From here, we could wander down an alley and out into the street without being too obvious. We had to hide ourselves in an abandoned basement. It seems that many of the ruined parts of the cities are also the homes of escaped slaves. The local militia (orcs led by humans) scour the area looking for escaped slaves, and enslaving anyone who just plain shouldn't be there in the first place. We barely evaded a couple of these patrols.

"We can't stay here too long," Audry said.

"You know," Anna said. "Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight."

She grabbed some of our community gold and disappeared into the city as planned. She would return shortly, though we wondered if she would actually buy clothes or steal them. Whatever we bought in this city is probably stolen from elsewhere at any rate.

We waited as patiently as we could. Audry and I played our usual game.

"A new game?" I said.

"By all means," Audry said.

"Can you handle it?"

"Do you think I can't?"

"Evidently you can."

"Fortunately for me." She smiled. "Good game so far?"

"Hey, I'm supposed to do that one."

"I jumped ahead, I'm afraid," Audry said.

I grinned. "Just knife me in the back, why don't you."

"Knifing you would be bad form."

For a second I thought I had her. "Lovely choice, that one."

"My skills are improving," she said.

"Not as much as mine."

"Oh, really?"

"Please, I taught you this game."

She gave a short laugh. "Quiet yourself, that does not mean you are the best at it."

"Really helps though."

"So you think you can win?"

"'Tis only a matter of time." I smiled.

"Unreal," Marc said.

"Very sure of yourself, aren't you?" Audry said, picking up where Marc left off.

I shrugged. "What do you expect?"

"Expect? You're stealing from me now."

That didn't count, but I realized I couldn't come up with anything better so I let it slide. And she took my turn again! "Zoos exist in your world, don't they?"

"You both belong in one," Saul said.

"Exactly," Marc said.

"Why would you say that?" Audry asked.

"Very strange, going backwards," I said.

"Unless you changed the rules."

"That wasn't one of the rules, to my knowledge," I said.

"Saul started it," Audry said.

A voice from above startled me. "Still playing that silly game?"

We looked up. Anna climbed down into the building basement. She carried a large leather sack over her shoulder.

"We already did that one," I said. "The next one is--"

"I know," Anna said. "Look, I got our disguises."

"Ah, good," Marc said. "Perhaps we can get down to business."


We got dressed. The clothes were actually pretty nice. Say what you will about Anna, she does have a sense of style.

Saul and I both had matching tunics. We were to play the muscle, guards for Marc and Audry who would masquerade as husband and wife. That left Anna. For a while, we thought have having her play a slave. We then decided she would simply play the role of servant, a sort of lady in waiting for Audry. The reason was because most people who own slaves in this town don't take the best care of them. Anna, frankly, just looked too good to be a slave.

Audry looked incredible. She a long flowing dress that made screamed nobility. She wore earings and gobs of jewelry (some of which was left over from previous adventurers). Marc looked like an upper class stud. He did not at all look like a wizard, which was the point.

Anna dressed in the most plain clothes you can think of. "I ran them through some dirt," she said. She rubbed them across a stone in the basement floor, trying to make them look as worn as possible. "May need some time here."

We spent the rest of the day refining our costumes. The next morning, we climbed out of our basement just before dawn and dressed. We wandered in between buildings and easily wandered out into the street. We easily mingled with the early morning crowds.

The town is dirty. Trash littered every corner and swept around our feet. The stench of human waste and filth was inescapable. Guards consisted of mostly orcs with human commanders. The orcs generally left everyone alone, though they would harass slaves from time to time. One group of orcs started to pull a female elf into an alley. The human guard barked orders at them. The orcs growled, but they obeyed, letting the woman go.

"You see that?" I whispered to Saul.

He nodded. "But I don't think they did it for her benefit. Did you see her wrists? She had bindings on. She probably belonged to someone."

"No way to tell if she belonged to someone important or not," I said. "Rape the wrong slave and you tick off the wrong people."

"I hate this place," Anna said. She stayed behind Audry as we walked down the street. "When can we leave?"

"When we get we came after," Audry said. "However long it takes."

Crowds in Highport are a mixture of extremes. Very poor wander around with the very rich. The very rich, being wary of the very poor, have guards. That doesn't stop the very poor from trying to take from the very rich, of course. That's why everyone who can afford them has armed guards.

Usually the guards give the thieves a warning to steer clear. If the thief doesn't take the hint, they get clobbered. In an hour we had maybe ten try the same thing. I'm not a big fan of bottom feeders, but in a place like this you can't help but feel sorry for these people. This place is the 667th layer of the Abyss. You screw who you have to.

Audry started to give someone a coin, but Saul stopped her. I nodded reluctantly. If you give one a coin then they will come from everywhere. This wasn't Mitrik or Greyhawk City. Here, people who aren't bad get weeded out quick. Beggars in these parts might be legit people down on their luck, but they are more likely con artists looking for a sap.

Damn, I can't wait to leave this godforsaken town.

We spent most of the first day wandering town. We threw some money around, buying some frivilous stuff, but we essentially wanted to get a feel for the place. At the end of the day we spent the night in a tavern. The sign had fallen or been stolen long ago. Whatever it had previously been called, it was now just called "the Highport tavern." Good name, as there was no other tavern in town (none that were standing, anyway).

We got the biggest room available, which had an adjoining room for Audry's "servant." Saul and I got our own room, Audry and Marc shared a common room, and Anna got the servant's room. Once it became clear that Saul and I were not about to let anyone hassle our "employers" (Marc and Audry) or fool around with the servant girl (Anna), they generally left us alone.

At night that Anna and Saul went to work. They both went out into the streets, dressed as general low lives and miscreants (something they used to do in Greyhawk City back in the day). You want to know the 411 about the bad side of town, you go to the streets. Unfortunately, Highport is nothing but a bad side. The good side of town somewhere in the burned out part of town were no one goes. Asking about the bad and the ugly of this town is like asking someone if they've memorized the phone book. Still, it's an angle we have to try.

I went into the tavern downstairs and bought drinks for people (getting people drunk is one way to loosen lips). Audry and Marc had to stay in their rooms for appearances sake, though Marc did a little eavesdropping (something called a Wizard's Eye that allows him to see and hear others at a distance).

During the day, Marc and Audry would inquire with the innkeeper and with shop owners around town as to where the best place would be to acquire "servants" (that's a euphemism for slaves).

"Laborers," Marc said. "We have specific needs and need specific people."

Most people just shrugged and asked us to go to the auctions.

We attended auctions all around town, hoping to see anyone we knew from the party (possibly even Dame Gold herself). A lot of slaves go through this town. We wanted to buy them all, but we couldn't afford it. And that itself would look suspicious.

It's a rotten deal if you ask me. You know if you help these people you'll expose yourself to the Slavelords. They will in turn enslave you and re-enslave all the people you just freed. Damn.

This went on for days. Not once did we see anyone we knew at auctions. Not once did anyone get drunk enough in the tavern to spill the beans about slavers and slaves. And not once did anyone in the street talk about the Slavelords.

Basically, we were stuck. This cover of a rich couple looking for cheap labor wasn't going to last long. The longer we did this, the greater the chance someone would recognize us.

Then about five days into our gig, we caught a break.

Anna and Saul were out doing their nightly scouring of the city. No one talked to them that night either (they said this is normal, it can take weeks or longer before you get on the good side of the under side of a city). While on their way back to the tavern, they saw her.

"Who was she?" I asked.

"Escaped slave, I assume," Saul said. "She ran like hell. She didn't have any shoes on and her clothes were torn."

A group of some five orcs lead by a human chased her through the street. Those who didn't get out of their way were tossed aside. One guy was stabbed with a short sword. They wanted this girl bad.

"So we stepped in," Anna said.

They caught her as she turned down an alley. They managed to hide her from the guards and/or slavers chasing her. "Find her!" the human yelled. "Find her or all of you will take her place!"

"I take it they didn't find her," Audry asked.

Saul nodded. "I wonder if we'll see them on the auction tomorrow."

The girl was frantic, not knowing who to trust. Anna made the point that she didn't have to trust them and could always turn herself over to the tender mercies of the orcs chasing her.

The girl, a human of maybe sixteen years, quickly grasped Anna's logic. Saul and Anna took her into the burned out ruins of the city. They stashed her in the basement of the burned out building we holed up in for a little while. They left her some food and told her not to go wandering.

"For her sake, I hope she stays put," Marc said. "We should question her tomorrow."

"We should have done something like this sooner," I said. "The slaves probably go through some central area for processing. Any one of them would probably know who it is."

"I suppose we could have just bought a slave," Saul said. "But then what? We wouldn't have anywhere to put them? And if we let them go it would raise suspicions."

I shrugged. That was a good point.

The next morning we left before the sun came up. We kept to our costumes, keeping our gear in the portable hole that we kept with us at all times (anything not nailed down has a tendency to grow legs and wander away, never to be seen again). We kept large cloaks on to help disguise us to some degree. We made our way into the burned out section of town just as the sun came up. We dodged a couple of patrols and then entered the abandoned building. We watched from within for several minutes to see if we were followed and then we proceeded to the basement.

It was empty.

"Oh boy," Saul said. It was the best anyone could come up with.

More later.