Fist of the Gods – A D&D Retelling (Draft)

The Fist of the Gods was what my original Dungeons and Dragons group one day called themselves. They’re my oldest running campaign. Though we haven’t ran a new session in a long time, they had a long journey, and I still have some of the notes from those days. I decided to start putting it all together into a narrative, retelling the story of their party from the beginning.

This is just a rough draft, but enjoy!


 

Chapter 1: Come and Go

 

The hamlet of Midbrook welcomed two new figures come morning time—boots crunched down the crudely laid soil paths that twisted between the wooden huts. It was a small place to live, but it saw its share of adventurers passing to and from the Shaar grasslands which stretched miles to the west. This duo was no exception. Though they were travelling northwards, it was adventure they sought, and no particular destination.

A dwarf, middle-aged with a face covered by a tamed brown beard, stood with his head only coming to the other man’s waist. His stocky body easily carried his full suit of chain mail as well as a metal shield bound to his left arm, and on it was the symbol to the Goddess Berronar. This was his deity, and one of protection as well as family. A simple mace hung off his belt and a hefty pack of supplies hung over his shoulders.

But it wasn’t because of his race that he appeared so short. It was because the man next to him was abnormally tall, standing just above six feet in height. His auburn hair would have flowed beyond his shoulders if much of it wasn’t tied back by a dark purple band. This man wore no armour, as his brawny build and powerful endurance was enough to protect him. A strap held a double-bladed greataxe behind his back.

“Zark,” the dwarf spoke up as they entered the hamlet’s land. “Really think we’ll find anything here? It’s really small. Bandit groups probably won’t be wandering about, unless they only want to steal carrots and cabbages.”

“Don’t be rude, Darillin,” he replied. “Quaint folk have their problems too.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“And anyway, we need a couple more to accompany us. Two isn’t much of an adventuring party. Well, I’ve travelled with that many before, but… if we want to be anywhere close to heroes, we probably need to start hiring.”

“I doubt that. You’re tough, and look at me. I’ve ripped a quasit in half you know. With the blessing of my Goddess, neither of us can die, and anything evil better prepare for some kicks to the arse.”

Zark crossed his arms. The thought of tearing a demon in half was exciting, but he looked to the dwarf with uncertainty. The two of them were a force to be reckoned with. But Zark knew his limits, and they both had a long ways to go before they could do something outstanding like slaying a dragon, or battling a balor.

“Let’s just try,” Zark finally said.

“All right. Fine. But it’s going to be hard to find someone who can keep up. I don’t want any new hires dying on us. Berronar won’t be pleased,” Darillin replied.

The two of them entered the local inn—a two story building that looked as old as the land it was built on. Perhaps it was the first building constructed there. But the age didn’t matter. They past by the front sign that read, “The Sloppy Tickler,” as they moved through the doorway and into the inn.

“I’m curious how this place got its name,” Zark said as he looked down at his left.

“Aha!” shouted the man behind the counter.

They both looked to the older gentleman with receding brown hair wiping a mug in his hand with a rag in his other. A few other people populated the room, but none were up at the counter. It seemed like he overheard them, but Zark was also known for his strong voice. It was likely everyone heard them converse.

“It’s actually a very interesting story,” the barkeep continued. “You see, I was with my wife—”

“We don’t need to know!” Darillin interrupted as they both moved up to the counter. “We’re actually travellers.”

“We’re here to see if you’ve heard any rumours, or if the town is in any kind of trouble we can help with. Or maybe there’s other adventurers seeking help too. See, there’s just the two of us so far.”

“Oh!” The barkeep put down his mug. “Actually, I did hear something. Those two, sitting on the other end at that table, were looking into investigating some kind of cavern, but were hoping to have one or two extra hands. Something like that. You’ll have to talk to them if you want to know more. Sorry.”

Darillin nodded and immediately started walking off in that direction. But Zark looked to the barkeep and smiled.

“Thank you, bartender. I’m sure we’ll see each other again. My name is Zark, and I’m a barbarian from the Bear Clan in Dalen. That was Darillin Stronghammer, a cleric of Berronar. He’s from the Great Rift area over east.”

“A pleasure to meet you both,” he responded. “I know the Dwarves of the Great Rift were in higher spirits before the Spellplague. He has my regards.”

With a nod as well, Zark caught up with his companion who was already approaching the table with two figures sitting around it, nursing beverages next to empty plates. Now he was close enough to see what he wasn’t certain of before. There were in fact two, but one was so tiny that he barely noticed her through the back of the chair.

The short girl was no infant, but a halfling. She had ginger hair tied back into pigtails and a light outfit made of leather, hide, and furs. She also had a crossbow on her belt, bolts to supply it, and at least three daggers Zark and Darillin could see, but they both guessed she had more.

Next to her, however, was a man almost as tall as Zark. He had crimson skin and horns protruding from his forehead, as well as short black hair. He wore a brown robe with the hood up, through it did little to conceal his devilish appearance. A tiefling, is what he was, which wasn’t actually that surprising for the two of them. They were sometimes distrusted, but weren’t inherently evil just because of their fiendish blood.

“So, we heard you were looking for more hands,” Darillin said as Zark made his way over. “And so are we. Let’s talk, shall we?”

“Indeed,” Zark said with a grin. “My name is Za—“

“We heard you both before,” said the girl. “You two aren’t exactly quiet or subtle. I’m River, and this is my partner Xabu. Yeah, you heard right. We are looking for more hands. There was word of some dark activities occurring in a cave not far west of here. I’m not really one to jump into something unprepared, especially a mysterious cave, so we’re glad to here you’re available. And for free too. Right? You did say you guys wanted to help people.”

“Well, I don’t think we said that,” Darillin retorted. “Did we?” He looked to Zark.

“I did. Coin is nice, but we are here to help, are we not?”

“I guess, but…”

“Excellent! But my companion isn’t entirely wrong. We would like at least a cut of any treasure we find on this quest.”

Darillin nodded in quick agreement. Finally Xabu spoke up. He spoke in a wispy, deep voice and lowered his hood, fully exposing his tiefling physique if it wasn’t already obvious.

“Like she said, my name is Xabu. I’m a wizard. Admittedly, we’re both pretty new as well.”

“Says you,” River quickly replied. “And I’m a rogue. Quick with my crossbow. Quick with a dagger. Quick with pretty much anything.”

“Quick to anger,” Xabu added.

“Shut the hell up.”

“So, about the cave,” Darillin butted in as he looked between the two of them.

River rolled her eyes and pulled a bound piece of parchment paper from her belt. She untied it and opened it up to a small size for most, but a rather expansive size to a halfling. It was difficult to tell while she sat, but she likely only stood up to even Darillin’s chest. After it was opened, she even needed to stand up on the seat of her chair to properly adjudicate a plan of action using said map, now spread out on the table. She pointed at the crudely drawn picture of a cave entrance.

“It was a mine,” she said, now focused on the mission. “Apparently the villagers have heard strange noises nearby. Nothing notable has been stolen, so I doubt their bandits. No thief of any quality would be stealing here. They’d move at least the town up, or head to a big city around the Great Rift, or… Anyway, it might be some kind of monster, or monsters.”

Xabu nodded and said, “Goblins steal too. Kobolds don’t like the sun much, but no reports were made of any different things happening specifically at night time. We think it could be something fiendish or undead. It could also be something like a manticore. Now that would be a big problem.”

“We can handle a manticore,” Darillin boasted with a snort.

“I wouldn’t mind trying…” Zark muttered.

River barked, “You guys are idiots,” and rolled up the map once more. “Let’s at least check it out, but if it’s a manticore, or a dragon, or something like that, I’m leaving.”

“I can’t exactly promise anything different,” Xabu added as he watched her slide the map back under her belt.

“Well, we might as well get going,” Darillin stated. “With the four of us we should be able to handle anything we find there. We need to at least try. If there’s something dangerous so close to town people could get hurt.”

Zark agreed. The two strangers, though didn’t give any obvious nod of understanding, seemed just as eager to get moving. They all gathered their belongings and decided to make haste towards the abandoned mine to face whatever threat lurked within.

***

The dwarf, the tiefling, the human, and the halfling marched towards the destination marked on their map, and luckily, it wasn’t too far. The sun still remained high in the sky when they arrived. They looked to the gaping entrance within the hills. A mining rail, obviously old and weathered, led inside, and the sun’s light held no power—the cave quickly turned to near perfect darkness.

Darillin, quick to accommodate his companions’ weaker eye sight, called for a blessing upon his mace. It began to glow as brightly as a torch to illuminate their way.

It looked to them like it hadn’t been used for decades, but anything could have been living among the mess of wood debris and rubble all that time. They pushed forward with little hesitation. Darillin and Zark came for this purpose. The two sought adventure, and to help the people, so this mysterious cavern was just a beginning to the story they wanted to write for themselves.

River held the map up to the cleric’s magic light and pointed a finger against it.

“I took the liberty of writing some things down based on rumours I’ve heard. Apparently this room here is empty, but this final room probably has all the treasure.”

“And maybe the evil that’s lurking here,” Darillin added.

“Oh… Yeah. That too.” River gave him a strange wide smile.

Xabu remained mostly quiet, but he gestured forward as the group began approaching a door on a crudely built wooden wall spanning a small opening in the cave wall. His eyes moved to River’s map, and then back to the wall as he scratched his chin.

“This is the room that apparently has nothing.”

“Then why would it be closed away?” River pondered. “Though that might have had more relevance when this mine was actually in-use.”

“We might as well keep going then,” Zark said with a movement of his thumb down the path.

“Well, wait a minute,” Darillin muttered as he tapped the door lightly with his knuckle. “We might as well look inside, right? There could be something in there. No reason not to check.”

“And then the ceiling comes down on us…” mumbled the halfling.

Darillin looked around momentarily and then shook his head. “No. These walls are surprisingly solid. They won’t come down. Not today, anyway. Give them another decade or so.”

“Yeah? How do you know so much about that?”

“Dwarf. Remember? I know rocks.” He chuckles as he turns the knob but it doesn’t budge. It’s locked.

“You know locks?” River retorted.

Then Zark stepped up. He let out a boisterous laugh as Darillin stepped aside. He spat on the palms of his hands and rubbed them together, staring intently at the door in question. His muscular chest inflated as he took in a large inhale, and then sighed before finally making his move.

Zark lunged forward and kicked his boot directly into the middle of the door. With a booming crack, the door flew half-way into the room.

Everyone flinched, though mostly the newcomers. It seemed that the dwarf had seen this before. Xabu looked frantically down the way they came and the way they were going.

“If something’s here, it definitely knows we’re here now,” he said with a grumble.

River covered her ears. “What’s wrong with you?! I can pick locks, you know!”

The room lit up as Darillin shone his glowing mace inside. Zark shrugged. It was a mostly collapsed room. None of them were sure what it was used for back in its prime, as it was almost entirely fallen rocks and piles of dirt. It was quiet—the party greeted now only by the trickling sounds of disturbed dirt coming down from the walls. It was Darillin that was quick to investigate, giving a brief look beneath rocks and generally around the room.

“Find anything?” Zark asked as he looked inside, though it was difficult without the dwarf’s, or even the tiefling’s, natural ability to see in the dark.

“Not yet. Here, take this, Zark,” the dwarf said as he handed him his glowing mace. The two systematically pulled the room apart looking for treasure.

Finally, from beneath a pile of rocks, Darillin grabbed hold of a weapon’s shaft. He tugged and tugged, and he finally yanked whatever it was free. Not only was it a mace, but once he held it up, it burst into a glow that lit up the entire room. It was pale silver and decorated in gold.

River widened her eyes. “That thing’s gorgeous. Score! Maybe you guys aren’t so bad after all.”

When the the two returned to the doorway, Darillin held it up with two hands to allow his companions to gaze upon it. But he looked especially to Xabu, their wizard. He responded with a great interest in his eyes. His crimson fingers dragged over the fine craftsmanship of the weapon.

“Yes,” Xabu said quietly. “This item is definitely magic. It has a strong potential… It feels like it has an adverse effect on both fiends and undead. Perhaps it’s celestial in nature. I’m not sure. I can give it a more proper identification later if you’d like.”

“Thanks,” Darillin responded but his eyes didn’t leave the weapon. “You can keep that other mace for now, Zark. I think I’m happy carrying this.”

Guiding the way with his ornate mace like a beacon, the cleric led his barbarian, rogue, and wizard allies down the mine’s tunnel and towards the map-marked large room at the end. It opened up, but as they approached, they saw figures lurking in the darkness. And they were definitely seen in return. Zark dropped the mundane glowing mace to the ground and readied his axe.

Four men stood in the room. They all wore pitch black robes, and the farthest was decorated with a sparkling silver necklace and a ring on his finger to match. There was no talking. Immediately, one of the men conjured up a crackling ball of purple and black, and he hurled the strike of necrotic power towards the front-line Darillin. He raised his shield just in time—the magic bursting over the iron of his armour.

The fight began. Darillin, the only one of the four wearing heavy armour, hustled in the middle of the expanse and slammed his brand new mace right into the ribs of the closest robed figure, causing blood to spill from his lips as he nearly crumbled to the ground. But he stood. Not for long however, as the first of the four figures died to a crossbow bolt to the head. River locked in the next bolt and smirked.

Zark was the next to run in, and he was wearing no armour to be seen. But he didn’t need it. He roared out so loudly that the robed men cringed as rage overtook him. His muscles bulged and his eyes widened. It was difficult to tell, but it almost seemed like his teeth grew sharper as well. Like a wild animal, he jumped the next figure and swung his greataxe straight into his spine. There wasn’t enough time to react. The man was cleaved entirely in half, dropping to the ground in two bleeding pieces.

As Darillin was about to charge the next one, he froze in place. An invisible force enveloped his body. They all looked desperately around to see the farthest figure holding out his hand—face showing a putrid grin. He was casting some kind of holding spell on the dwarf.

The target was able to step back, and he cast a ball of necrotic power at Zark. It directly hit his chest, causing him to growl out in agony as he stumbled backwards. A bloody cut made itself present down his torso, surrounded by burned flesh. He held it with one hand as he tried to keep himself focused on the fight.

They started to worry, but then a beam of pale blue fired from Xabu’s finger. The blast of cold energy hit the farthest figure directly in the head, breaking the concentration on the spell. Just as quickly as things became bad, the fight entered its final moments.

In one swift motion, Darillin turned and called for a healing spell to fall over Zark. The wound closed itself and nearly disappeared. Meanwhile, a bolt fired over Darillin’s head and into the chest of the attacking figure. Then, now freed, Zark sprinted past all of them and rammed the supposed leader against the wall with his shoulder.

The movement shattered his ribs. With blood dripping from his lips, life began to fade from his eyes, but he managed to muster up the strength for a final threat.

“You’ll all… fall into the… cold void…” he muttered as he coughed a few more times before finally passing.

It became silent. The combat was over, but not the chaos.

Zark blinked. His rage faded, but everything was black. He started to panic as he looked for Darillin’s light, and… he saw it. His party was still there, but they were all standing surrounded by black. There was no lack of light, but there was a lack of anything.

It wasn’t just him. They all looked confused towards one another as they stood in a room of nothing but blackness. There was no exit. Darillin walked back to where it once was, but slammed his head on an unseen wall. It was cold, hard like marble, but nothing was there.

“Where are we?” River whispered. It echoed several times over.

“I don’t know…” Darillin said through clenched teeth. “Is this another spell?”

“No,” Xabu answered quickly. “Nobody cast a spell. But look.” He pointed behind them.

A path of stone sat out of place stretching forward like a tunnel, but it curved to the side through walls the same blackness as both the ceiling and the floor. And the followed it. There was nothing else to do, and they needed to get out.

As the turned the corner, Zark broke the uneasy silence. “Cultists?”

“Probably,” answered Darillin.

“Cultists of what?”

The path ended, but the tunnel continued to a single glowing white door at the end. As they approached they noticed a frog croaking about half-way towards the end—periodically hopping around. This was all so strange.

“A frog?” River asked, perplexed. “Well, a frog’s no problem… Let’s just get out of here. I’m getting seriously creeped out by all of this.”

They nodded and walked past the animal.

Suddenly, Darillin cried out in pain. Something cut deep into the back of his neck, and a hot venom started seeping through his vein. His dwarven blood managed to keep at bay much of the damage, but he still dropped to his knees as the pain rattled his mind.

The frog was a frog no more. Now it was a tiny, leaping creature with claws and horns.

“A quasit!” Xabu announced. “It’s a demon! Be careful. Use magic weapons if you have them, or it’s barely going to feel a thing.”

“Where did it go?” River shouted as she drew her crossbow.

Silence. There was nothing. But it quickly came to an end as the halfling screamed. The quasit’s demonic claws dug into her back, and she was no dwarf. She crumbled to her knees and then to the ground as the poison surged through her body.

Xabu gasped. “River!” He readied a spell.

The demon showed itself, and he fired a blast of frost. It collided directly into its face, but it looked to have little to no effect. Xabu cursed in a fiendish tongue.

“Cold does nothing to them…”

Darillin, frantically looking towards both the quasit and the bleeding River, raised his shield and spoke a prayer to Berronar. A healing energy fell upon the fallen halfling and her wounds started closing.

“Cultists for demons?” Zark asked. He entered another frenzied rage as he kicked the quasit with all his might, sending it flying against an unseen wall of the black void.

“Looks like it. Well, Xabu said something about this mace hurting fiends, right? Time to try it out,” Darillin said as he stood back up.

He ran—the sounds of metal chains echoing and filling the tunnel as he moved—and swung back his glowing white mace. He brought it down onto the demon’s head from the side. On contact, he felt the weapon surge with power and shock the quasit with a radiant energy. It screeched, and it fell immediately to the ground with a caved-in skull. It started to disintegrate back to the Abyss, as demons tend to do.

“I really like this mace,” Darillin said with a grin. “Let’s get the hell out of here before more of those show up… as much as I’d like to test this weapon out again. We need to escape from wherever we are.”

“The Abyss, maybe?” River guessed.

“I don’t think so,” Darillin said with a shake of his head. “At least, I’ve never heard stories of the Abyss looking like this. I could be wrong. Anyway, let’s go through that door and hope for the best.”

They walked through the glowing white door.

On the other side, they were standing outside the cave. It was still daytime. The warmth was something they embraced on their skin after the time within the cold nothingness. But they were puzzled.

“It could have been some sort of pocket dimension,” Xabu spoke up as they started heading back to town. “Maybe they had some kind of powerful magic item. It’s too bad that we didn’t get to look over the lead cultist’s body.”

“This look magic at all, Xabu?” River asked as she held up the silver necklace.

“How did you get that?” Darillin looked to her with a raised brow.

“Ah… Hm. It doesn’t seem to be emitting any kind of magic, no.” Xabu shook his head.

River smiled wide. “Perfect! Then it was a job well done.” She slid the valuable away into her pocket.

The four of them got back into town. They ate, told the barkeep what happened, but ultimately didn’t find anything new. They eliminated the evil that stirred in the cave and successfully protected the hamlet, got a brand new weapon, but also got more questions than answers. But it was soon time to sleep. They could find more work tomorrow, and for the time being, River and Xabu seemed to be staying with them. Perhaps they found strength in numbers. Night set as they drifted off in the upstairs common room of the inn.

River, however, was quick and quiet. Nobody knew she snuck away that night. She moved swiftly down the empty streets, and she was hardly taller than a mastiff. It was easy.

She met down an alley with a dark figure.

“River. It’s good to see you again. How did things go?”

“Things went well, Leon. I could have done without the quasit tearing up my spine, but I’m alive, and I got this,” River boasted as she held up the necklace. “And the night’s young. I think I could go for a couple hours. This place doesn’t have much, but it’ll soon have a lot less.”

Leon snickered quietly. “Have fun. You know where I’m staying in Oliveburgh. Come visit me soon and we’ll fence all the stuff. Sound good?”

“Sounds good to me. See you there.”

“Wait. One more thing. There’s a house next to the inn here. I don’t know much, but I heard there were some shady people coming and going from it. Could have some goods inside. I wouldn’t recommend going tonight, but your group likes adventuring, hm?”

“They do.” She winked. “We’ll save the people again tomorrow. Then we’ll move on to the next town and go from there.”

The valuables of many commoners went missing mysteriously that night without a trace to be followed. And come the next morning, the party’s halfling was happy and motivated. It was a brand new day, after all.

***

Darillin was usually the first to awaken, but both Xabu and River were already eating breakfast downstairs. He whispered prayers to his Goddess while he waited for his companion to wake up. Zark always took quite a bit longer. Eventually they both readied themselves and headed downstairs to meet up with the other half of their party. They saw River gesture her tiefling friend towards the two of them. He stood up with a nod and approached them with a solemn expression.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I have to part ways from you all for the time being.”

Darillin looked surprised. “Yeah? That’s all right, Xabu. May Berronar guide you through your journey. Thanks again for helping us back in the mines.”

He nodded in response. “Of course.” The tiefling looked to Zark and nodded.

“I’m sorry to see you go already,” replied Zark as he took a seat with the others at a corner table. “Spirits watch over you.”

Without dragging out the goodbyes to a lengthy extent, Xabu bowed and walked out through the exit, leaving the three to sit at the table and discuss their next plan of action. River, the halfling, was the first to break the silence.

“All right. Cheer up, boys. People leave all the time. Look, I even grabbed you guys some eggs. Eat up.”

“It’s just difficult to find a solid party, you know?” Zark said with a sigh.

“Well, you’ve still got me right now, and I heard some tasty gossip about a job you all might be interested in. We might not have out wizard, but this investigation actually takes place in-town. Convenient, right? If you guys can fight off cultists and demons in a mine out in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure you could handle some thugs.”

Darillin nodded with a smug face. “Fair enough.”

The human and dwarf continued to devour their breakfast, and finished rather quickly.

“Good. Well, it’s actually the building neighbouring this one. Apparently shady people have been coming and going in the middle of the night. The windows are boarded up too. Think we should check it out?”

“I don’t see why not,” Zark responded as he stood back up.

“Let’s go then. Grab your axe, get your shiny new mace. My crossbow’s ready.”

Before they could leave, they stopped to the sound of a woman sobbing. They looked over to the opposite corner and saw lady on her own, quietly crying into her hands. The three exchanged glances. Zark didn’t think long about it before walking over to see what the issue was. River rolled her eyes.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

She looked up from her hands—face drenched with tears—and sniffed as she struggled to steady her breathing long enough to speak.

“N-No… My daughter. She’s gone. I don’t know where she went.”

“You lost your daughter? When was the last time you saw her?”

Zark, with a look of concern, sat down opposite of the woman. It was a gesture of genuine interest in her struggle. She looked to him and pursed her lips, shaking her head back and forth.

“She was playing around the streets. I told her not to go out once the sun starts to set but she… Sh-She went out, and disappeared!”

“I swear to you, ma’am, that my friends and I will find your daughter.”

Darillin spoke up. “Shady house next-door?”

“Let’s go,” Zark replied intently as he stood up from the seat. The three hustled outside and towards their destination.

Zark’s large fist rattled against the door of the boarded-up building. No answer.

“Allow me,” River spoke up as she pulled a lockpick from her pocket.

She strutted up to the door and slid the pick into the lock. It clicked almost immediately. With a bow, she turned the knob and walked to the side as she pulled it open for her companions. Darillin held his mace up, and the light illuminated the entirety of the shack’s interior.

They peered inside. It was empty.

“I want to help that woman, but I hope we’re not just breaking into someone’s house. There doesn’t seem to be anything in here,” Zark muttered.

But as he spoke, his halfling friend had a chance to look around. She lifted up the corner of a rug and grinned at the sight of a trapdoor, and she waved her two friends over to see. They moved the rug aside and together they lifted the door open. It led down a ladder into a cave.

Darillin started making his way down, lighting the path with his magic weapon. It soon reached floor as he gazed down a slim tunnel leading straight forwards. Planks of wood and crudely constructed doors were set up both at the far end as well as on their right. As they listened they heard a sound—crying. It sounded like it was from a very young girl. Darillin perked up his ear and pressed it near the closest door, looked to Zark and River, and nodded. It was coming from inside.

He turned the knob and pushed it open.

Inside was a small room carved into the dirt and stone. A filth-covered girl, likely not over the age of twelve, was curled up against the farthest wall sobbing into her knees. Zark moved up slowly to approach.

“Hey… We’re here to save you,” he whispered.

As he got close, she started rising up to her feet. Her eyes looked into his. He thought to see the innocent eyes of youth, but instead, they were solid black. She smiled, showing her grin to consist of razor sharp teeth. Horns grew from her head, and she was no longer little. She was nearly the size of Zark, and had a mature and beautifully feminine form. In fact, her allure was dangerously captivating. Zark felt his mind become no longer his own as he fell into the trap of a magical charm.

She dragged a clawed finger-tip down his chin. “Take care of these pests, won’t you? For me?”

Zark turned to his companions, gripping his great-axe tight.

“Uh… Zark?” Darillin steadily lifted his shield.

River looked to the dwarf as she loaded her crossbow. “This is bad. Right?”

“Very bad.”

“What just happened?”

“A succubus just happened…”

Zark roared out as he entered a rage. He threw himself forwards like a ferocious bear and swung down his axe towards the dwarf. Luckily, the shield was brought up just in time to block the incredible force of his weapon. Darillin’s arms trembled.

River looked away from the succubus for a moment too long. She was now beside her, and she drive her claws across the poor halfling’s torso. She dropped the crossbow onto the ground and unsheathed two daggers, trying to use her tiny physique to her advantage. With ease she ran straight between the demon’s legs.

Darillin’s shield glowed brightly before firing a bolt of radiant energy directly into the succubus’ throat. She gagged as she gripped her neck, but her whole body started sparkling as well. She stuck out as if she’d become a magical target to be struck.

But Zark took this moment to drive his axe horizontally into Darillin’s back. He cried out, falling to his hands and knees with the sound of clanking metal.

River was clever enough to recognize the guiding spell placed upon the succubus’ body. She rolled back to the crossbow she left on the floor, and she hurled quickly both of her daggers to stick into her stomach. The demon screeched like a banshee, but it only gave River time to lift her crossbow and take aim. The bolt fired straight through her throat.

The succubus gagged a dark blood as she fell to the ground. She began to disintegrate—her soul returning from whence it came.

Zark, moments away from removing Darillin’s head from his shoulders, stopped in his tracks. His breathing slowed as his rage faded away, and he started looking around confused. Then, his face turned to that of embarrassment.

“Friends… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—“

“It’s fine,” Darillin said as he pulled himself up from the ground. “It was a charm spell. You didn’t have a choice.”

The dwarf said a prayer and the symbol of his shield sparked to life. Healing magic fell upon both him and River, sealing their wounds.

“But I can only heal us all so many times a day,” he added with a snicker.

River tilted her head out the door. “But if she was here, that might mean the actual girl is being kept down here somewhere… Do you hear that?”

“What?” Darillin asked as they all stepped back into the hall.

It was crying, sounding the same as before, and it was coming from the door at the end.

They marched towards it. Darillin took the knob and opened it, but he wasn’t happy at what he saw. The room inside was no room at all. There were no walls, no ceiling, and no floor. It was nothingness—just black. However, the little girl was crying a distance away. They had little choice but to proceed.

The three of them entered the room void of anything, similar to before. Now they saw a man with a black hood and robe. He cackled. A disgusting smile drew across his face covered in spindly strands of oily hair.

“Not this again,” Darillin muttered.

“Damn straight no this again,” River shouted as she immediately fired a bolt a the cultist’s chest.

He rose his hand up as a magical ward manifested itself just in time, taking the full force of the shot. The bolt dropped to the ground. This cultist didn’t hesitate to counter-attack. He spoke words of magic as he pointed his hand back towards her, and she screamed. Necrotic energy enveloped her as surges of pain shot through her system. She dropped to her knees as the magic faded.

Darillin rose his shield into the air, calling down a sacred flame upon the cultist. It burned his body with a radiant energy, causing him to snarl in agony, but he shrugged it off as quickly as it came.

The barbarian, Zark, was already sprinting forward in a rage.

He shouted, “Your creatures will not control me again!”

The large axe swung for the cultist. He leapt backwards, but not quite enough. The blade cut open his throat and he fell to the ground with a gurgling of blood from his lips. He tried to speak, but his life quickly faded and his body went limp.

As Zark tried to calm the young girl, Darillin was healing River’s injured body.

The three of them started escorting the young girl away. They started making their way back through the tunnel. It was then that they noticed the door behind them now led to a tiny vacant opening in the cavern. Whatever the room of black really was, it was there no longer. But they continued on and brought the child back to her mother at long last.

***

The mother was extremely grateful, as was the child. She had no reward to give, and Zark and Darillin didn’t ask for one. River was mildly upset. But the day was still young, and the party needed to decide what to do next. They stood outside the inn and discussed.

“I say we move on to the next hamlet,” River suggested.

“You think there’s nothing left to do here?” asked Darillin.

“This place has less houses than a farm has cattle. I think we’ve been lucky enough to find the amount of work that we did. And nobody knows about all that spooky black stuff we ran into. I think we should head to Oliveburgh. I heard that place has been having troubles ever since the owner of the famous Oliveburgh Manor passed away.”

Zark looked to her with a shrug. “Who?”

She sighed. “Oliveburgh was a hamlet owned by a lord who was incredibly wealthy. His family was also famous for the salads they made… but when they passed away one-by-one, the place shrunk and faded from people’s interests. Now the manor’s there, empty, and some people say it’s haunted.”

“And maybe we’ll find a fourth party member that’ll stay with us,” Darillin added.

Since it was hardly noon, they decided to depart north to the neighbouring hamlet. They knew it would only take about a day to arrive, so they began out towards another adventure. There was a road to follow, and even though it wasn’t one of the main roads so it wasn’t properly maintained, it provided a somewhat comfortable journey to Oliveburgh.

But about halfway there, when the sun was getting close to the horizon, they saw a hooded figure dressed in blue walking back from the opposite direction. He had a harp tied and hanging from his back.

“Hail!” Zark was the first to greet the other.

As the figure came closer, he pulled down his hood to reveal pointed ears and blonde hair. He was an elf.

“Hello,” he said in response, and bowed politely.

“I’m Zark, and this is Darillin and River. Pleased to meet you, stranger. We were just on our way to Oliveburgh. Did you come from there?”

“Yes.” He nodded. “I’m Ebrithil. I was coming this way because I heard of an orc camp in the hills nearby. I was hoping to find people to… Well, group up with to eliminate them. I really dislike orcs.”

Darillin looked to Zark, and then he spoke up. “We’re looking for ways to help. It’s why we were heading north in the first place. It only makes sense to help this elf, right?”

Zark nodded. “What did these orcs do?”

Ebrithil shrugged. “They’re orcs. Orcs are always evil.”

“Woah! I mean, they’re usually evil, but that’s a broad statement to make.”

“Almost always,” River added. “But incredibly dangerous. Orcs usually fight in large numbers, and are incredibly strong.”

“We can handle it,” Darillin scoffed. “Which way, Ebrithil?”

“The hills to the west, I heard. If we can take out at least their main forces, or their warchief, the rest will crumble anyway. And you three look capable.”

“So what do you bring?” Zark asked. “Darillin here is sturdy and has powerful healing magic. I don’t like to brag, but I’m incredibly strong… River here is quick on her feet and with a crossbow.”

“I do magic. And I play a harp.”

With that, he withdrew his instrument and began to play. The melody was gentle and beautiful. It felt almost magic in its majesty, and the group began to feel motivated—rejuvenated. It was as if their bodies were made partly stronger, or at the very least, their minds thought it was true, and that was enough.

Ebrithil, Zark, Darillin, and River started their way up into the hills west of the road. It wasn’t long before they saw a stone door build into the mountain guarded by four orcish guards.

“We see you!” shouted one of them, thankfully in Common. “But don’t flee… Come closer, if you’re strong. If you’re weak, than either run home with your tails between your legs or meet your death here and now.”

Confused, the four hesitantly came closer to the guarding orcs. The speaking one continued while his companions remained stoic—grunting occasionally as they squeezed their axe handles.

“Our warchief has been looking for new meat.”

“New meat?” Darillin repeated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Competitors for our,” he started to speak, but began to think. “What’s the word in your tongue? Arena.”

Zark’s eyes lit up as he looked to Darillin as a child would look to a parent in a candy store. Darillin, though trying to hide it, smiled excitedly as well. Ebrithil found it odd, but was ultimately interested, as it might lead to the killing of orcs.

River dragged her hand down her forehead.

The orcs escorted them to a set of stairs. They moved down a descending spiral until it led through a door and into a cold, grey box.

All they could hear from the room of stone was the roaring of an excited crowd of orcs. They were waiting on hard benches until further instruction was given. A single orc stood in front of a set of double doors that, by the sound of things, led directly into the arena itself.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” River groaned.

“It’ll be fine,” Zark assured her with a pat on her shoulder.

“No! We’re surrounded, and basically imprisoned, by a bunch of orcs!”

“Well, like our new friend Ebrithil said, if we kill the warchief, they’ll scramble. Maybe we can challenge him to a fight.”

The guard snorted.

Ebrithil agreed with a nod of his head. “And then we can kill the rest of them.”

It was time. The orc pushed the doors open and jerked his thumb through the doorway. He said something in Orc. It sounded guttural and angry, but that’s what any word in their language likely would have sounded like.

The four walked down a path into a stone-tile arena. A couple dozen orcs lined the seats around them, and a balcony overlooked them from the far end. The tiles of the floor consisted of three shades of grey. As they looked up to the balcony, they saw the largest of all the orcs staring daggers down at them.

“Welcome to bloodshed!” he shouted out in Common. “If you’re able to best two of my strongest challengers, you’ll face me, and then you’ll fall to my axe! But if you somehow defeat me…”

He looked to the crowd and repeated his words in Orc. They erupted into a fit of laughter.

“Let the fighting begin!”

The warchief yanked down on a lever and a gate opposite of their own entrance lifted. A large monstrosity came bursting free. It had large spiked claws and pincers protruding from its face like a gigantic insect. The gate closed behind it.

“That’s an ankheg!” shouted Ebrithil, and he was the first to react.

He strummed a note across the strings of his harp, and a ball of fire materialized in front of him. It hurled itself into the face of the creature, scorching a mark across its chitinous shell. Zark bolted past him, shouting a cry of battle as he entered a rage. The greataxe swung but just barely missed the creature, and in return, it attacked. A spray of acid came out like a beam and covered the barbarian. He screamed out as his flesh started to melt around his torso and neck. It then slammed its claw across his face, causing him to tumble to the side.

“I’ve got Zark!” shouted Ebrithil and played a song on his harp.

Darillin, trusting the elf, started running towards the ankheg. He passed Zark and saw his wounds starting to disappear. He breathed a sigh of relief. As quickly as his short dwarven legs could hustle, he came up to the creature and smashed his glowing mace across its head with a sharp cracking sound—the shell on its head nearly shattering.

River readied a bolt, but then she saw the warchief yank another lever.

All of the light grey tiles burst into an electric shock, which included River, Ebrithil, and the ankheg. The three cried out as lightning damage surged through their bodies for a moment before the power receded.

It recovered from the shock quickly and wrapped its giant pincers around Darillin’s body, grappling him as the dwarf neared the sharp teeth within its hidden mouth. Zark was still invigorated by the elf’s playing, and he sprinted up to the side of the beast to drive a vertical slash of his axe down to the already weakened head.

The skull of the ankheg splinted under the weight of his weapon. It screeched and collapsed lifelessly onto the cold stone tiles beneath them. The crowd went wild.

They were given little time to recuperate. Once again the warchief pulled the lever that opened the gate. Now a six-legged creature resembling a crocodile scurried out through the gate before it closed.

“Wait. That’s a—“ Ebrithil started speaking but Darillin had already began running forwards.

He wound up for a swing of his mace, but his expression froze as he stared into the hypnotizing eyes of the creature. His body became paralysed, but it was much worse than that. His friends looked in terror as his feet and legs started turning to stone.

“It’s a basilisk!” shouted Ebrithil. “It turns people to stone if they look at it. Shield your eyes. I’ve got a plan.”

“How do we fight it if we can’t see it?” River asked with a curse under her breath.

“Uh… Luck?” he answered. River cursed again.

All of them covered their eyes, besides the dwarf in the center that was slowly turning further into solid rock. Zark tried swinging, but missed completely as the steel of his axe met with the ground. Then the orc above pulled another lever.

Everybody on a dark grey tile, which at that moment, was Zark and River, shouted out as their bodies shook with necrotic might in a manner exactly as before. Though instead of shocks of white light, they were hit with a purple magic that targeted their life force itself.

Things were looking poor, but Ebrithil dug out what he was seeking from his bag.

“Look over here!” he shouted.

“Ebrithil!” Zark yelled back. “No!”

But it was too late. The basilisk met a gaze, but it wasn’t with the elf. It was with his own reflection via the mirror in Ebrithil’s hand. The creature trembled and snarled as it turned into a statue of itself. The effect on Darillin lifted just as it reached his thighs, allowing him to freely move yet again.

“Oh… Good job, Ebrithil. That was clever,” Darillin said with a chuckle and a rub of his own feet.

“No problem.” The elf looked up to the balcony. “That was two! Fight us, you coward, unless you’re too afraid after we slew both of your champions.”

“Yeah! Is an arena not a place of honour?” Zark added.

The largest orc clenched his teeth, but then he grinned. He leapt from the balcony and landed with a thug in front of the group with a decorated great-axe in his hands. The crowd, even more than the other times, went absolutely crazy with a series of orcish cheers.

“You’ll all be torn apart,” he boasted. “You think this is an arena of honourable combat? This is a slaughterhouse, and you’re all next to be slain!”

“An arena is a sacred place, and I honour that tradition,” Zark stated. “But not all my friends think that way.” His eyes moved to a place beyond the warchief’s position.

Darillin looked around. “Where’s River?”

A bolt suddenly stuck into the orc’s back. His eyes widened as he roared like a furious animal, turning around to see a sprinting halfling making her way quickly between his legs. He couldn’t react fast enough to stop a beam of cold coming from Ebrithil’s harp to collide with his shoulder. He cursed in Orc.

“We got this guy!” shouted Zark as he entered a rage, running up to swing his axe towards him, but the chief parried it away with his own weapon.

Darillin was suddenly beside him, raising his shield to stop an oncoming blow. The orc swung down his weapon to meet directly with the center of the piece of iron. It cracked, and then it shattered into three shards of metal landing around the dwarf’s feet.

“My shield!” Darillin grabbed his mace with two hands and stepped back. “That was my holy symbol, too. This is bad.”

Zark and the chief began trading blows. The first drew blood on the orc, but the rest of Zark’s strikes couldn’t get past his defenses. He felt a strange resistance that he didn’t expect, as if something magical was at play.

Darillin kept his distance and healed his companions, though his powers were greatly weakened by the sundering of his symbol to Berronar. River also stayed back, firing bolt after bolt in the orc’s direction. A few collided with his flesh but the rampaging chief cared little for such annoyances.

“Hold on a moment,” muttered Zark. His fight continued for long enough to notice a pattern. “His offense and defense keep switching somehow. He’s using some kind of magic!”

He was right. The warchief switched the enchantment—whatever it may be coming from—to offensive as he brought a devastating blow towards Zark’s shoulder, but it bounced off a magical ward. The chief turned to see Ebrithil chanting a spell as he played his harp.

The effect wasn’t able to switch back fast enough. Zark used the opening to drive his own axe into the stomach of the chief, causing him to reel back in pain as blood came through his teeth. A sacred flame covered him in radiant scars from Darillin’s spell, and after a couple more bolts to his head, he fell to the ground with a thud.

Zark lifted the axe, both out of interest and of triumph. His glare spanned the crowd which now was silent. With the greataxe in his hands, he swung it into the air and made an announcement to the orcish audience.

“Your warchief has fallen! Now, we take our leave. If we return here and find anybody left behind, we will be the ones running the slaughterhouse.”

With that, they made their way to his throne, and they figured that clan of orcs wouldn’t be causing people trouble again. There was a supply of coins and food to be had, as well as a supply of adamantium ore. Darillin almost squealed with joy. That was one of the rarest metals on the planet. The took all they could and left back the way they came knowing that not only did they defeat a clan of orcs but also received a nice treasure as well.

They were soon back on the road when they had a decision to make. Zark already made his—the new axe already having replaced his old one—but they needed to speak with Ebrithil about what to do next.

“We do only have three people,” Darillin stated.

“Why not?” Ebrithil replied. “Let’s go to Oliveburgh together. I know my way around there a little bit anyway. And maybe we’ll find more orcs to slay.”

Four adventurers continued down the road, stopped to rest over night, and then moved once more. They finally came to the slightly larger but still incredibly small hamlet of Oliveburgh. What made it unique was the mansion that looked over the town from a hill at the opposite end. It seemed like no matter where you were, you could see the manor lurking. They wondered if it was really haunted, and there was only one way to find out. Their thought was broken quickly by a voice.

The voice was high pitched, but that’s because it was coming from a gnome. He had a bushy white beard, a purple robe, and a pointed hat to match. He sounded as if he was announcing to a crowd, but in reality, he was surrounded by nobody.

“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and witness the greatest magic show you’ve ever seen! The magnificent Wizzlebottom is here to amaze and surprise you all with his outstanding skills in the arcane arts! Come see the most wondrous tricks! Yes, you!” He looked to the four adventurers just entering town.

“A magic show? Let’s see it,” Ebrithil replied.

“Ah yes. You look like a group that wants to be absolutely blown away by the outstanding Wizzlebottom!”

Upon closer inspection, he looked rather raggedy, and something strange was wiggling around in his robe as if it was housing something alive within. With a gesture of his arms up in the air, the movement inside freed itself from his sleeve—a dove.

“Ta da! Don’t be too amazed yet, for that was only the first of my tricks. Next, I’ll pull a rabbit from my hat.”

He proudly pulled off his hat, being careful not to show the rabbit stuffed inside. His head was mostly bald, though white hair still grew around the sides. His little hand reached into the hat and pulled the rabbit out and placed it on the ground.

“Ta da! Amazing, isn’t it?” The gnome held his hat out towards the party and stared quietly at them.

They looked at each other. After a moment Zark dropped a gold coin into the hat and the gnome continued.

“Thank you, thank you! That was another show given by the mysterious Wizzlebottom! Now, I need to catch my rabbit… Come here, girl. Come on. No, don’t run away!”

“How long do you think it took him to catch that bird?” asked Ebrithil.

“Let’s just head inside the closest inn before he gets back,” Darillin said in return.

The inn was labelled as the Smelly Rag. The four of them opened the door and headed inside while the scurrying gnome continued to try to catch his pet. Zark sniffed.

“I can tell why it got this name,” he mumbled quietly.

The room itself was mostly empty, but a dwarf with a wild black beard and no hair on his head was sitting on a wooden chair behind the counter reading a book. His eyes turned up to the group entering his inn.

“Ah. Welcome, lads. Come in. I can see you’re travellers.”

“Hello,” Darillin greeted as they all approached. “I heard the manor here was haunted. I’m a cleric of Berronar, so I’m interested. If there really are undead inside I’d like to know so that I can eliminate them.”

“Mm. The manor. Nobody’s seen any ghosts. Well, not with proof. People say they hear sounds, and any who’ve gone inside haven’t come back out. There’s definitely something in there. Gotta be.”

“Well, there’s four of us. We just killed the chief of an orc tribe. I think we can take out whatever’s living in there.”

“Make that five!” announced a voice from behind. It was high pitched.

The white-bearded gnome stood proudly at the entrance. He marched up to the group.

“Did you catch your rabbit?” asked Ebrithil curiously.

“No… but I overheard your quest, and I want to help! I think you need the help of a wizard.”

“Well, I’m actually a wi—“

“Yes!” he interrupted Ebrithil. “A wizard! You’ll need my magical magnificence if you want to survive the manor’s tragedies. Who knows what’ll be in there?”

“You don’t have to do that,” assured Darillin. “Really. We’re fine.”

“I insist! Come on, heroes. Let’s go save Oliveburgh together!”

With too much enthusiasm, Wizzlebottom made his way outside. Darillin groaned and held his head. River, sore from palming her face, opted to bask in her misery silently.

The three thanked the barkeep for the information and headed towards the manor. They decided they’d explore the mansion in a few hours, as Darillin had something that needed doing. He found the local smith along with Zark and brought with him a sack filled with adamantium ore.

“Hello, smithy! I have a request,” he said.

The man behind the counter was middle-aged. He has a short brown beard and a messy haircut. But he was tall and strong, and currently sliding a whetstone along a short blade.

“Yeah?” he spoke. His articulation was crude, as was the norm for a simple man of the working class. “What can I get for ya?”

“I have some ore here and I was wondering if I could use your forge. I’d like to craft something. I can pay.’

“Crafting a new shield, eh?” Zark asked. Darillin nodded.

The blacksmith smiled. “Of course! Craft anything ya want, for uh… one hundred silver pieces.”

Zark nodded. “So, ten gold.”

“No. One hundred silver.”

“Ten gold is one hundred silver. There’s ten silver in a gold.”

“Ten gold makes ten silver?”

“No. Ten silver makes one gold.”

“So what is ten gold worth?”

“One hundred silver.”

“So, yeah. Pay me one hundred silver and ya can use my forge and anvil all ya want.”

“That’s ten gold, like I said. That’s not a problem.”

“What you’re saying is, if I have one gold, I have one hundred silver.”

“No!”

From the backroom came a voice. It sounded strangely masculine, but they could tell it was a woman shouting from elsewhere.

“What’s all the noise about?” it yelled.

“Nothing, wife!” the smith replied. “Just with a customer!”

“What’s he yelling about?” she asked back.

“He’s trying to give me ten silver instead of a hundred silver to use my forge!”

Zark pulled at his own hair. “No I’m not!” He took a deep breath. “Okay. Look. This is ten gold coins. Each gold coin is worth ten silver coins, so this is the same as one hundred silver. Do you understand?”

“Hm… I think so. All right. I’ll trust you this time, but you better not be trying to pull a fast one on me.”

Zark groaned and retreated after paying.

Darillin was quick to begin working. He used up all the ore, and after a lot of effort and time, he put together a finely crafted shield with his holy symbol carved onto the front—painted yellow. It wasn’t perfect adamantine, as the alloy was not only difficult to create but the other metals involved were unknown to him, but it was sturdy nonetheless. The colour was a mix of black and green.

It wasn’t long before they met back up with their gnome companion and neared the front door. The windows were boarded up. They swore they could hear whispers, but it was likely the wind blowing through the trees around it, and the rustling of the window’s shutters. But it made them incredibly uneasy.

Darillin, with this glowing mace at the ready, opened the front door. It creaked loudly as he pushed it open and the party stepped inside.

They were in a small hallway with a door on both the left and the right side. The forward wall was covered in paintings of beautiful scenery, and in the center, a large portrait of a male tiefling. An uncomfortable feeling washed over them.

“Well, which way do we go?” Zark asked.

Darillin made a choice and went right, pushing open the door. A curving hall continues to the right while another door was near their face. He pushed the next one open and the party continued. Now they were in a room with two new exits. But strangely of all, two skeletons were laying on the ground.

“Bodies.” Wizzlebottom announced as he hustled towards them.

“No!” Darillin cried out but it was too late.

The skeletons got up and struck out at the gnome, but he fortunately stumbled backwards just in time. Then he counterattacked with a spell. He reached into his pocket, and thew a handful of confetti at the skeleton’s leg bones.

“Fireball!” the gnome shouted. The confetti did nothing.

Darillin hustled past him and shattered both of the skeletons easily with his divine mace.

“Be careful, Wizzlebottom,” he said with a glare. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Sorry…”

They opened the farthest door to reveal a closet. The group dug around inside and found a few loose coins but not much else. It seemed to be filled with mostly buckets and brooms and scraps of cloth. However, as they started moving on, Wizzlebottom picked up an odd looking rod and carried it with him.

Darillin opened the door at their right and they gazed into the main foyer of the mansion. An upper level was accessible by a staircase on both the left and right side of the room. Above was a single door.

Two statues of creatures overlooked them from above.

They started moving towards the left staircase when both statues burst up from their platforms and flew through the air towards the group. A stone claw battered Zark’s face before he could make it to the first step and the other landed beside them.

“Gargoyles…” uttered Darillin. “Great.”

Zark swung his axe back at the one that struck him, and it practically bounced off. The other jumped at Wizzlebottom, and in a panic, he pointed the rod up at him like a magic wand. He screamed.

“Stop!”

It stopped. The gargoyle stood like an obedient dog. Wizzlebottom looked puzzled and frozen with fear.

Ebrithil looked to the item in the gnomes hand and then to the creature. He gasped. “That’s the control rod!”

“Wh-What?” Wizzlebottom stuttered.

“It’s the rod that controls the gargoyle! Use it!”

“Uhm. Okay. Well, uh… Attack the other one!”

He pointed the rod at the gargoyle again, and it turned its head immediately to the other. He pounced like a cat onto the other and began to shed it apart stone by stone, though it attacked ferociously back. Their fight moved through the manor, breaking apart bits of the railing as they made their way to the center.

Meanwhile, the group snuck up the stairs and through the door. They breathed a sigh of relief.

“Phew… Good job,” Zark said with a nod to the gnome. “Let’s keep moving.

The room they stepped into was large. A carpet took up most of the center, and at the far end was a few comfortable looking seats in front of a polished wood table. The far wall was one expansive window that they definitely didn’t see from the outside. It overlooked the scenery leading out of Oliveburgh.

On the middle of the carpet was a greatsword.

Zark scratched his beard. “Well, I just got a new axe, and it seems to have a kind of magical ability even if I don’t fully understand it yet, but… I could always use a couple more weapons. Right?”

He chuckled and stepped on the rug, and then he fell.

The carpet was covering a giant pit spanning much of the room. He fell into a black abyss with a thud—his back aching as it collided with the stone floor. The only light was from Darillin’s mace above, so he saw almost nothing until his eyes slowly adjusted.

His heart sank as he saw a series of cages holding sleeping wolves. At the end was a tall abomination of a man that looked to be twice the size of even Zark, and stitched together. Nobody had noticed him.

“What do you see down there?” shouted River.

Zark began making various gestures trying to communicate with his companions not to make any noise. He started scanning his surroundings. Behind him was a door, so he quickly ran up and tried the knob but it was locked. Beside it were two levers.

He pulled one. The door didn’t open, but all the cages did. He saw one of the wolves stand up, and he immediately ran back beneath the hole in the ceiling. The barking started right before he shouted up towards his friends.

“Rope! Rope, right now!”

He looked to the giant man, now turning slowly to look at Zark with a horrifying face.

“Like, right now!”

Frantically, Darillin began feeding a rope from his backpack down the hole as the group held onto the other end. Zark felt teeth bite down onto his ankle just as the rope came into range of his arm. He swore and kicked violently until it let go, and he started to climb.

Zark looked back as he hustled up. Wolves started leaping up to bite with sharp fangs. But he made it to the top, and they frantically started tugging the rope back to the surface. Zark fell to his rear as he looked back down, and the giant peered back at him—vacant expression on its face.

He panted. “At least… I got the sword,” he stated as he held up the weapon.

They looked over what may have been the most worn-looking, rusted, old piece of metal they’ve ever seen. Zark groaned, but he slipped it over his back where his axe was normally held.

“I’m still keeping it.”

“What was down there?” Wizzlebottom asked.

“Nothing good. This place is freaky.”

“Too bad I wasn’t down there with you. I haven’t even shown you my lightning bolt spell!”

“Please don’t.”

The four continued through the manor. Most rooms were, although decorated, filled with mundane things such as utensils, plates, and furniture. There was nothing to lead them closer to the mystery of why threats lurked within. They eventually found their way to the hall left of the entrance, and it was incredibly long. It finally ended at a spiralling staircase, and a door directly to the left of it’s base.

Darillin, deciding to try the door first, opened it up and the group entered a room with a grassy floor. It was filled with trees, and the ceiling nearly perfectly emulated the outdoors. It was as bright as a summer afternoon.

They scoped the room and heard a rustling.

From behind the trees came a few beautiful women clothed in only leaves and grass. They seemed as timid as wild animals, but not hostile. At least, they didn’t seem hostile.

“Hello?” Darillin asked, confused. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

They quickly ducked back behind the trees.

“Good going, Dari,” Zark said down to the dwarf with a snicker.

“I’m not dairy.”

“What?”

“I’m not milk!”

“Guys. Focus,” River barked. “Your pet is getting away.”

“Our pet?” Darillin asked, but then he noticed Wizzlebottom moving forwards. “Crap.”

“Hello, ladies!” Wizzlebottom shouted confidently. “Would you like to see a magic trick? The great Wizzlebottom is here to perform, for the first time, a brand new spell! Watch and be amazed.”

Curiously the women peaked out from behind the foliage.

The gnome placed a finger over his thumb and tucked back the thumb of his other hand. He moved one hand back and forth in front of the other, making it look as if he was removing his own thumb over and over.

“Ta da!”

The timid girls gasped, and they actually smiled. One by one they approached the group and looked over Wizzlebottom’s trick with interest. While that happened Darillin spoke up.

“If you’re captives here, you’re free to go. We cleared out the mansion on the way here, and we’re going to find whoever owns this place. I swear it.”

They nodded and started shuffling back to the door. Eventually the sounds of their feet pattering disappeared into silence.

“All right. You did help us again,” admitted Darillin reluctantly. “But be careful. Still. This place is dangerous.”

“Okay, okay! I’ll be more careful. Boo. Those girls didn’t even tip me… How rude.”

They looked around but found nothing but a beautiful place to lounge within that room, so they started up the stairs. It was a long, tedious ascension, but they finally reached a hall with a doorway at the end. Darillin opened the door.

This room was another foyer with an upper level, but this time, there was only a ladder to climb to the top, strangely enough. And up there was a robed tiefling wielding an arcane staff. In the center of the room was a square hole about fifteen feet wide.

The man laughed boisterously. “You think you can come into my home, and slay my servants, and free my slaves? I know why you’re here. You think you can take the key from me? I’ll protect it with my life!”

He waved his hand and the noise of metal grinding against stone was heard.

“What key?” asked River loudly. “We’re just here to kick you out of your house!”

“And probably kill you,” added Darillin.

The man furled his brow. “Lies. All lies. You’ll die here!”

A platform filled the hole from below, bringing along with it a monstrous creature. It was brown with four legs, and a maw filled with thousands of needle-like teeth. From its back came three tentacles, each covered in spikes. Its roar filled the room with a horrible stench.

Darillin moved in front of his allies with his shield ready. The creature slammed a tendril down against it, but the metal held. The dwarf smiled with pride at his handiwork.

Zark used this opportunity to enter a rage and flank the beast, but before he could lung a strike with his new axe, a tendril whipped behind the creature and struck a needle-covered blow to his side. It left a huge bleeding wound on his torso. Their elf grabbed Wizzlebottom before he could charge in and began to play a melody on his harp. His friend Zark started feeling restored as the wound gradually faded. Ebrithil looked down at Wizzlebottom with a shake of his head.

River was making her way up the ladder. She neared the top, but the tiefling glared down at her from above. He hurled a bolt of fire into her face, causing her to yelp as he fell back to the bottom on her back.

Zark focused on his axe. He felt something, as if he could control the magic within it. It was certain to him but it seemed as if it held a magical essence that could be shifting between an offensive power or a defensive one, but only one at a time. He used the power to boost the precision and stength of the axe and hacked one of the tendrils clean off.

Their cleric bashed it in the face, and quickly spun to conjure a spell upon River to heal the charring of her face and the pain in her back. The creature was furious. It brought two tendrils down towards Zark, but it gave him enough time to shift the effect to the defense. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to assist in his dodge—creating a brief and weak magical ward to thrust off the striking tentacle.

River fired a direct shot into the tiefling’s shoulder. Right after, Darillin conjured a sacred flame to singe his face with radiant magic.

He swore, and retreated back out a door after seeing the party starting to deal with his pet.

“Kill this thing fast and go after him!” she shouted to her party.

They managed to slice it, stab it, and burn it enough so that the abomination finally stopped moving. It slammed against the ground and a final breath escaped its terrifying maw. They hustled over its corpse and up the ladder, through the door, and into a curving tunnel. It led them in a strange series of directions before ending with a door left open in a panic. When they hopped through it, they were entering from a secret door back in the grassy tree-filled room lit as if it was outside.

The tiefling was there, backed up against a tree with his staff pointed at them.

“You’ll never get it,” he snarled. “Burn in—“

He was interrupted by Wizzlebottom leaping at his legs. This gave enough time for River to fire a crossbow bolt straight through his neck, nailing him to the tree trunk.

“Wizzlebottom!” Darillin scolded. “I said be careful!”

“But I’m a hero! Look what I, your amazing wizard, has done! I have bested the… What was that sound?”

The tree stood up on two legs. One huge branch came down on Wizzlebottom like a fist from a god and crushed him onto the grassy floor. It then stepped right over him and began walking towards the party. It looked to be roughly thirty feet tall, and its trunk body was about ten feet thick.

“Quick, Dari! Heal him!” Zark shouted, but was quickly lifted from his feet.

A branch took him by surprise and slammed him down. A foot crushed him into the grass, and the tree monster was now cornering River, Darillin, and Ebrithil.

The latter fired a bolt of flame into the leaves of the tree. He burst into flames, and the fire started to spread down his trunk. Seeing this, River pulled a vial of alchemist’s fire from her pouch and hurled it into the legs of the monster. It started to burn more quickly.

Darillin looked around. Both Wizzlebottom and Zark looked to be in awful shape. He had to do something. Quickly, he maneuvers around and brought a healing spell onto Zark’s bleeding body. He groaned and slowly came back to consciousness.

He raised his shield to use the last bits of his energy to heal the distance Wizzlebottom, but he was too struck by a branch. Darillin flew like a ragdoll into one of the other trees. He remained conscious, but barely, as his vision blurred. Zark stood and drove his axe into the side of its trunk like a lumberjack. River shot it, and Ebrithil continued to bathe it in flames.

It started to fall to ash. Piece by piece, it collapsed onto the ground until it finally timbered over with a final blow by an empowered swing by Zark’s magic greataxe.

Darillin didn’t hesitate to make his way over to Wizzlebottom’s body. He brought a healing spell over it, but nothing happened. He checked for breathing—for a pulse—but nothing was there. He was too late. The gnome had bled out.

The group was somber for awhile.

Ebrithil lifted the tieflings staff and looked him over, and found one more possible valuable on his person. He held a black, unmarked rod. Darillin finally broke the moment of prayer to gesture the strange rod into his hand. The dwarf looked it over. It made him feel uneasy, but he had no idea why.

“This must be the key,” Darillin mumbled.

“It doesn’t look like a key,” River said.

Ebrithil spoke up. “It definitely feels magical. It could be a key to some kind of magical construct or ritual. You should keep it anyway, just in case.”

Zark lifted the gnome’s lifeless body into his arms.

“Let’s get out of here… He deserves a proper burial. Come. I’ll make one.”

The group was uncomfortably silent as they made their way out of the manor. They walked up the hill, and Zark began digging a small hole for him to rest peacefully within. He carved a stone to mark his name, but he realised he never know more than Wizzlebottom.

“He has a necklace,” River said as they moved him to the hole.

“You aren’t taking it,” Zark snapped.

“No. It looks like it says something.”

Zark looked it over. “Reelo Wizzlebottom… Then that’s what I’ll carve. May the spirits guide you to your eternal rest, brave Reelo.”

They buried him there and said their prayers.

When they slept that night, Zark remained to meditate on top of the hill beside the grave. It was peaceful, but somber. He prayed to the spirits of the wild—the hawk, the wolf, the cougar, and the one he embraced the closest, the bear.

The night was dark and cool. He sat there, thinking upon things such as his purpose, his family, and the memories he’s already had on such a short adventure. Suddenly something began moving closer to him, but he didn’t feel threatened. He didn’t grab his axe and he didn’t even stand. The figure that came close was a spectral bear.

It didn’t speak but he heard. It told him that a darkness was coming. It told him that with them they had a deadly key that would unlock the darkness. It told him that his father was watching over him.

***

The next morning, they gathered around a table in the inn of Oliveburgh, but River was nowhere to be seen. Ebrithil also held a solemn face. The elf stood in order to bow politely towards both Zark and Darillin.

“I’m sorry, but something important has some up. It’s been a pleasure to travel with you both. I must be going off on my own now, however. I hope you understand.”

“Of course,” Zark said. “Friends come and go sometimes. You need to do what’s important to you. It was fun, especially the orcs, hm?”

“Definitely.” He smiled. “Goodbye. Maybe we’ll meet again.”

He pulled his hood back over his head and departed. It was just the two of them once more, sitting around a table, wondering what to do next. They had lost all their party members, though River could still be around. They weren’t certain. But they perked up at the sound of cursing from various people at tables around them.

“It was the damn Blackscar Syndicate!” shouted one person. “They’re back, I tell you, and they’ve been robbing us blind.”

“Yeah!” shouted another patron. “First everyone’s belongings went missing in Midbrook, and now here in Oliveburgh. They’re prowling the streets at night. We thought they were gone, but people are bringing them back.”

“The guards caught one!” shouted the first. “Had the trademark black scar on his back. All members have it somewhere on them.”

Zark looked to his friend. “Sounds like a mystery.”

Darillin furled his brow. “Wait a minute… River’s gone, and Midbrook was just robbed, and over night…”

“Well, she can steal, sure, but you think she’s with the Blackscar Syndicate?”

“We need to find out. But we really need more people with us.”

Zark sighed. “Yeah. Let’s get some air. Maybe we’ll find River out there anyway.”

The two headed outside. The streets were filled with several people walking to and from the market, but there was no sign of their halfling. They took a minute to search, but it was only humans and the odd dwarf populating this place. River had disappeared.

“Do you think we can find more party members here?” asked Darillin.

“It’s bigger than Midbrook. We’ll try.”

“Any help finding River would be great.”

The sound of an, “Uh,” coming from behind them caught their attention. It was a deep voice, heavy with a dwarven accent, and hardened likely by years of smoking a pipe. And it was a dwarf—one with blonde hair and covered in weapons. He had two handaxes, a greataxe, and a backpack of supplies. Pinched between his lips was a long billowing pipe. He took a long draw and sighed a cloud of smoke.

“I’m sort of looking for party members too. I’m on my own, trying to find a place. I thought maybe I could be some kind of adventurer. Nothing’s worked out yet,” the dwarf said.

“Another dwarf!” Darillin announced with a chuckle. “That’s a plus.”

“What’s your name?” asked Zark as they approached him. The dwarf sat on a box just outside the door of the inn.

“Ah,” he muttered, clearing his throat of the smoke. “I’m Mezbeth.”

The group make their introductions. They spoke briefly of one another, but never into detail. They learned that Mezbeth came all the way from Citadel Adbar to the north west. In return, the dwarf was told of Zark’s homeland—a spiritual tribe in the mountains north of the Great Rift, the latter being the area Darillin was born.

“So you heard about this town’s plight too, huh? The Blackscar Syndicate, or whatever they call themselves?” Mezbeth was down from his box now, and had his pipe stashed away into a pouch. “I’ll come if you’ll have me. I wouldn’t mind axing these thieves a question or two. Heh heh.”

Darillin groaned. “As long as you never make jokes. So what can you do?”

“You see, I’m skilled in one thing, and only one thing. I can cut people down. I have training in all sorts of weapons. My favourite though is the axe. I’m a devout follower of Clangeddin’s teachings.”

“That’s our deity of war,” Darillin said quickly to Zark, and then continued with the newcomer. “And I’m a cleric of Berronar, goddess of family and protection. We’d be happy to have another skilled warrior on the team.”

Zark spoke up. “About that… We should probably find someone with ranged abilities again at some point.”

“Hey. I can throw my axes!” Mezbeth announced with a snort. “So where do we start looking? This town ain’t big. There has to be someone who knows something, right? And a criminal gang has to operate from somewhere.”

“Mhm.” Darillin nodded. “We’ve grown stronger since Midbrook. Zark, near the end of our fight in the manor, I saw a power beyond that new axe of yours.”

“The spirit of the bear has been speaking to me. I feel its endurance—its stamina—resinate inside my bones.”

Zark pulled from beneath the collar of his shirt a carved wooden totem on the end of a string. It was shaped like a small bear. His fingers squeezed against it. Darillin offered a reassuring nod before tapping a hand to the symbol on his shield.

“And I’ve grown stronger too. I have the perfect spell to help us find the Syndicate’s hideout. But first we need to catch one of them in the act. Let’s find a place to hide tonight. We’re catching a criminal.”

***

River walked through the tunnel dug out through the earth, which was thankfully braced with archways of wood. It was lit only by a few flickering lanterns until the ending expanse. She made her way inside, looking around at the furnishings placed about. It almost made the room look presentable.

“Ah. You found the place,” Leon said.

Next to the man was a young woman, shirtless. He gripped a blackened dagger and slashed a thin wound down her back. Blood trickled down the buldges of her spine as she groaned in pain, but Leon dug around for some bandages. The cut itself almost immediately turned jet black. It was soon covered up by linen, and the woman hustled off to dress herself.

“Even more new members?” River queried.

“Yes. Our numbers have been growing with no small part from you. You’re one of our best thieves. And the more people hear about us, the more people seek to join. I’ll rise the Blackscar Syndicate to what it once was years ago… Before we fell to pieces.”

“Well, I’ve got a lot of things to fence. Let’s make some coin. Belongings from Midbrook, though it wasn’t much. I did swipe a few things from the manor here, thanks to a helpful escort. These might prove to be valuable.”

The halfling dropped a couple burlap sacks down to the floor beside him. He bent down and started shuffling through them with a grin on his face.

“Nice, River. Very nice. I bet we could make a couple dozen platinum off these if we play our cards right. We need more though. These small towns are dry.”

“Should we move onto the Great Rift? It’s been a mess since the Spellplague. With their current king, they’ve barely recovered.”

“No. They have their own criminal syndicate and the leader’s no joke. And it’s a goblin if you can believe it. We need to build up before we wipe them out. Our numers are still too small.”

“How many do we have?”

“With her, and including us, we have about thirty-one members. That pales in comparison to the hundreds we used to have. We had power over far more than these shitty villages.”

“So what do we do? Move south?”

“No… Ah. It isn’t in these bags. Did you find anything in the manor that was like a key?”

“A key?”

“Yes. That damned tiefling kept safe a powerful key, supposedly. It was one of the many places they said it might be. Why do you think we’re in Oliveburgh, River?”

“Leon… What are you talking about? I thought we were bringing the Syndicate back and starting small. Who’s they?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just know that the key is also our key to reclaiming our past. No matter what, I’ll make sure that happens, even if I have to bring upon the void.”

“You’re not making any sense.” River looked to him—a look of genuine concern. “You’re acting strange. Are you sure you’ll all right?”

“Of course I’m all right. So where’s the key?”

River looked to him. She could steal from right under somebody’s nose. Without being seen, she could get in and out of anywhere. But she could also read people, and the man she swore allegiance to was not himself. Something was different. For one reason or another, she cringed at his mention of the void.

“No,” she lied. “There was no key.”

“Damnit.” He smacked a hand onto the table, causing the dressing girl beside them to jump. A long sigh escaped his lips. He didn’t speak for a long moment, but he was made to when a young man scurried down the tunnel to speak to him.

“Mister Shultz, sir,” the boy said. Leon turned to him, and the boy continued. “One of our thieves were caught.”

“Everybody here knows what the Syndicate means. When you’re a thief, sometimes you get caught, and you live with that. You do your time in prison.”

“Yeah, but he was caught by adventurers, and they cast some kind of spell on him. I think he’s telling them where we are.”

“What? That traitor!”

“The dwarf that was with them cast some sort of spell, sir. I don’t think it was his fault. And he was with two other guys, and they all looked really strong.”

Leon cringed, and thought for a moment. “Zone of Truth… It was a paladin, or a cleric, most likely. Damnit. Why would somebody like that care about us? And now?”

River widened her eyes. “We should get out of here, Leon.”

“Agreed. You three, come with me. We’re escaping before they get here. Grab what you can and follow me through the escape door. Go, now! What are you waiting for, River?”

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll carry these last bags. Don’t worry. Nobody ever catches me, remember?”

“I do remember.” Leon snickered. “All right. Through the tunnel and up the ladder. They won’t catch up.”

The boy, girl, and her old friend disappeared from the room. It was left quiet. Darillin, Zark, and the new hire, Mezbeth, would be there shortly. She grabbed a quill and ink and wrote on a bit of parchment. She heaved the bags over her shoulders and scurried away along with the Syndicate.

Bursting into the room was a blonde-haired dwarf gripping an axe in his hands. He was ready for a fight, but there was nobody to be seen. Darillin’s glowing mace came next, beside the incredibly tall Zark.

“Damnit. I was hoping to take out some thieves!” Mezbeth barked.

“Me too, but let’s look around. There’s papers all over the place. It looks like they left in a hurry,” Darillin replied. “Spread out and investigate.”

They began looking around. A few valuables and coins were found, as well as various unimportant bits of literature. It was a crudely made hideout. There were only a few beds and it looked to have been manually dug quite a long time ago.

“I found something,” Darillin finally said as he looked over a slip of paper. “It’s a note… from River.”

“So she did have something to do with this. What does it say?” Zark softly replied. He let out a sigh. They circled around their cleric as he started to read.

“Friends come and go sometimes. Sorry.”

Chapter 2: The Great Rift

( To be continued… )

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