From the Journal of Tang Zhen

Session 4

July 4, 5086, middle of nowhere

Yesterday's descent into the rocky passage (beneath the former goblin great hall) led to the strangest events I have yet witnessed.

As we walked down, we heard the ring of a bell. I suspect that we had triggered an alarm spell, for we never found a physical bell. Also indicative of magic was the translucent, shimmering and twisting veil that widened itself from nothingness in an instant. The veil materialized in front of the dark paladin Dunbarton, and he had stepped right through it, seemingly without affecting it, before any of us could react. It pulled itself back into nothingness behind him within a few seconds, but as it did, all of Dunbarton's armor that was visible past the border of the veil (which was shortly all of it) had changed. We gathered round to note that his splint armor had become studded leather. Astonishingly, he disagreed. His armor, according to him, had always been studded leather. The conversation took a more confusing turn when it came out that he considered himself a ranger and had no idea why we knew him as a paladin. With Tam's lantern and mine held close, we noted that his pattern of scars had changed. Again, he insisted otherwise. Oddly, N-Guuk, who was the only person in front of Dunbarton, claims that when he looked back, the armor was already studded leather even as the paladin (or ranger) stepped through, before the veil vanished. The entire conversation was as surreal as one might expect under such circumstances.

We could do nothing about this change, so we continued forward and down until we reached the entrance to a spacious natural chamber, from which we heard a quack. Upon entering, we saw a duck wandering around the cave floor. "Don't pick it up!" warned Pheldran. (When I asked him later to explain this comment, he told me, "You should know better than to pick up a duck in a dungeon.") We advanced far enough to see the layout of the chamber. It was oblong, perhaps thirty feet across and forty feet long. The last ten feet were submerged under slimy water full of algae and small flora. Near the right wall, halfway back, were a wooden plank with shallow holes carved in it, about fifty very small rocks, and a pile of perhaps one hundred gold coins.

We were shortly greeted by a talkative, diminutive creature that rose from the water. It had the head and scales of a fish, but the arms, legs, and posture of a person, and it stood about four feet tall. We engaged it in conversation at great length, and it was happy to have company other than the duck. The duck approached us until N-Guuk roared fiercely at it; it then ran to the water at the far end. (I suspect that N-Guuk was asserting his machismo in order to compensate for his embarrassingly failed attempt to scare a crocodile, back in the swamp.) Oddly, as we questioned our host, the duck would occasionally quack angrily, often interrupting a particularly relevant portion of an answer. The fish creature would not attempt to repeat itself.

We played several rounds of Awari with the stones on the wooden board. The gold pieces were reserved for wagers, but apparently were frequently redistributed because the duck always won against the fish creature. Delyra successively beat our host, Pheldran, and N-Guuk at the game. Pheldran then played and won against the duck (which played well). Eventually, we learned that the fish creature, which had come six years ago from the elemental plane of water (as Delyra had already surmised), could not leave because its friend (the duck) would get angry. When told that this restriction applied to us as well, N-Guuk threatened to leave. The fish creature looked fearful at what was to happen, and rightly so.

The duck vanished before our eyes. N-Guuk hesitated suspiciously. Pheldran suggested that our host could now speak freely, with the duck gone. But the fish creature demurred, saying that it would have to help the duck. Well within the childish persona it had established, it suggested, "I could tell you a joke instead. Here, pull my finger!" So Delyra did. Immediately, the second loudest and most overwhelmingly noxious flatulence we had ever seen engulfed us. A moment later, N-Guuk was attacked by a small, winged creature that otherwise looked not at all like a duck. (We later realized that it closely matched the description of an imp.) The rest of us, who had been caught in the green cloud, scrambled weakly to escape it, but were practically incapacitated by nausea. The imp stung N-Guuk at least twice, appearing at the same moment and vanishing a few seconds later each time, thus giving him precious little time to counterattack. The fish creature, meanwhile, unleashed upon the rest of us a disgusting and seemingly accidental barrage of bodily functions, apologizing profusely as we barely avoided its projectile vomit and were caught within the caustic spray of a stress-induced sneezing fit.

Delyra recovered from her nausea only to suffer from a particularly nasty, acidic sneeze from the fish creature. She approached it and asked, "What do they never have in your world, that they have here?"

"Um, what?" it asked after a moment's unproductive thought.

"Fire!" she yelled, and flames flew from her fingers, scorching the fish creature.

It screamed in pain, "Aaahh! I don't get it!" and then retreated into the water.

I shortly regained my composure, and sent Chen Lung to fly silently above the imp. As I warned my companions of the imp's location, they were better able to anticipate and react to its attacks. Pheldran and N-Guuk eventually skewered it, and N-Guuk's hearty dwarven blood fought off the effect of the imp's poison. The fish creature returned from the water, its burns looking distinctly less severe, and wailed inconsolably (or so it would seem) at its friend's death. Tam talked to it until it calmed down, and no more attacks (accidental or otherwise) were made.

We encouraged the fish creature to forgive us for defending ourselves, and to follow us to the surface both for a more comfortable discussion and to afford it a view of the surroundings. Tam took the Awari board and stones, and we gathered the gold. On the surface, we introduced both our host and the new, improved Dunbarton to our guide. We used most of the gold to buy back Delyra's bow, though we will have to wait until our return to Eryn Rusc to claim it; Aradel has not brought it with her.

The fish creature told us as much of the story of the goblins as it knew from the imp's bragging accounts over the years. Ten years ago, the imp (whose name we never learned; the fish creature called it "Impy") appeared and spoke to the goblins in the form of a sacred vulture. It convinced them that it was a wise spirit, and eventually pursuaded them to send a huge honor guard of all their warriors to a distant sacred shrine, where their god would grant them immense power. Decked in full battle gear, the procession advanced unwittingly into Iand Talath and straight toward the elven capital, Ost Talath.

The slaughter of the goblin honor guard, easily mistaken for a clumsy strike force, we knew about. The goblins left at home had no chance against the elven counterstrike. Many of them tried to surrender, but could not speak Elvish and did not know any of the gestures of surrender that are common among civilized races. So they, and those who fled, were cut down. When all signs of possible resistance had ended, Commander Flaxenhair (or Farts-In-Hair as our host would have it) dismissed the bulk of the elven force. The next day, he and his elite guard rounded up the surviving goblins and led them away, we know not where. The imp had been promised the cave as its own, for its service. We do not know by whom.

The fish creature has taken its leave, telling us that it intends to wander the waterways beneath the cave until it finds a portal back home. We bid it a grateful farewell.

July 9, 5086, northeast of Corstref

We are less than two days' travel from Corstref. There is some dissatisfaction in our party over both the continuing lack of substantial funds and our ignorance of the whereabouts of the remaining goblins. But we seem to have done all that we can for now.

July 10, 5086, outside of Corstref

Kawg met us today, again startling us from behind. We asked him politely not to do that. We discussed the goblins, and he found our information likely to be sufficient. We also wondered about Commander Flaxenhair. Kawg thinks that someone else might have been operating behind the scenes. Flaxenhair also meddled with planar connections, which might account for his disappearance, if the rumors are true. This gives us insufficient leads to follow further, though.

Kawg asked us to meet him at a tavern in Caer Cefn to discuss payment. But first, he shall fly east to examine the cave himself.

July 11, 5086, Corstref

Today, we entered Corstref proper, rather than skirting it as we did before. A street vendor of many interesting articles caught our attention. He offered us an elven merchant's map, which, when Tam compared it to ours, turned out to be wholly incorrect. He also offered gym memberships, and sold a library card to Dunbarton for a nominal fee. It was a slightly fancy card, with the logo of the great library and the words "Admit one" in a bold hand. After we left, Pheldran convinced Dunbarton that he would need an "Admit one out" library card in order to leave. Pheldran kindly offered to search for such a card. He rejoined us after some time in what he would have us believe was a successful bargain hunt. Dunbarton handed over some extra money for the "Admit one out" card, but later negotiated for a partial refund, claiming to have found it for sale cheaper elsewhere.

Intrigued by tales of the great library, we accompanied Dunbarton there. He got no farther than the entryway, however. Hardly glancing up from her desk, the aged librarian politely but firmly said, "Members only." She was sympathetic but unwavering toward Dunbarton's protests. Membership comes in levels whose costs range from five hundred to fifteen hundred gold; the library card was a scam. Pheldran slyly excused himself from refunding Dunbarton's money, and inquired about the details of membership. We were informed that the basic membership (500gp) grants access to common books. Historian's membership (1000gp) allows access to rare books. Magician's membership (1500gp) allows access to all books, including unique and magical books. We haven't that kind of money, of course, so we left.

We have booked a set of rooms at an inn just north of the center of town, and N-Guuk has wandered off to a tavern for some well-earned brew.

July 12, 5086, Alapon Farm

I will relate the events of last night in chronological order, though N-Guuk did not fully describe his part in this to me until this afternoon.

At the tavern where N-Guuk drank, he spied a priest of Faynwan in serious, quiet discussion with a student. He walked over and interrupted. "Do your paladins ever. . . change?" The priest was understandably confused. N-Guuk's attempt to explain the situation was at first taken for an unfortunate change of occupation on Dunbarton's part. But he soon impressed upon the priest the radical and instantaneous nature of the change. The priest was alarmed, and asked where the party was staying. N-Guuk answered him without thinking twice. Perhaps not even once. The priest hurried off.

A few hours later came an exchange that I am pleased to have witnessed. Four cloaked priests of Faynwan knocked on Dunbarton's door. His straight-faced answers to their questions led them to such a state of dismay and confusion that the rest of us were hard-pressed to stifle our laughter. As a more serious consequence, his mention of being an undead slayer (which was news to us) provided them with a hook for continued interaction. They asked him whether he would be willing to go on a paid quest in the interest of eliminating undead, and he accepted. They arranged to meet at the Grand Temple of Faynwan in the morning.

We arrived at the temple, and waited briefly to see a priest of some authority. He told us of old legends of hauntings along the road from Caer Cefn to Dinas Felin. (The priesthood of the god of death is dedicated in part to eliminating all forms of undead, which are seen as stolen from Faynwan either in body or in soul.) Most tales of hauntings, he explained, are the result of overactive imagination, or of seeing what you expect to see in a "haunted" location. But stories collected from several sources involved accounts of people on that road having flashbacks or lucid visions of horrifying things including their own deaths. Deaths by impaling and decapitation were seen repeatedly, so this is likely beyond the realm of either coincidence or reinforced fiction. There are no recent stories, so it may take quite a while to track down the phenomenon precisely. The church is willing to pay reasonable fees to all participants for the solution of the matter, and to pay compensation to the families of any party members who are killed in the process. We accepted, but are no hurry to solve this mystery; it has been around for a long time and can wait a few more weeks or months if need be.

On the way out of town, a few of us searched for the vendor who had sold Dunbarton the fake library card. There was no success in this; he and his cart had moved. I offhandedly asked Dunbarton whether there might have been a foreseeable connection between selling fake Elven maps and selling fake library cards. He didn't think so; I let the matter drop.

On the way past the fork for 'Gator Swamp, Tam posted a warning about the crocodiles.

We are now staying at Alapon Farm (for the second time), and should reach Caer Cefn in two days.

July 14, 5086, Caer Cefn

Our plan was to turn north after a comfortable night here in Caer Cefn, but we have been diverted by our meeting with Kawg. He met us at the designated tavern, again in his half-elven form, shortly after our arrival. He considerately approached from the front this time. We discussed business over dinner, and he informed us that our information was indeed sufficient to qualify for a reward. The fish creature, he had learned, was likely a water mephit. This meant nothing to us. Dunbarton's warning about the library card scam led Kawg to mention that the great library of Corstref is an ideal place in which to conduct research, and that the Wizards' Guild gets a group rate. He then told us that we could claim our rewards at a shop in Dinas Mawr named Wickhelm's Rare Items and Household Furnishings Emporium. At a mention of the minor loot we had found in the cave, Tam remembered the game he had taken, and placed it and the stones on the table. Kawg's eyes lit up; he cleaned off three of the stones with a wet napkin, and told us (at our request) their respective names and values, and where we could sell them locally. One was a particularly valuable aquamarine.

Kawg left after concluding our dinner conversation. We paid a visit to a jeweler in the upper district, who convincingly offered us a far too low price until we made it clear that we knew the value of our gems. He then performed a few tests involving calibrated beakers and balance scales before agreeing to pay us the actual worth of the gems in platinum. He seemed more than usually knowledgable about his procedures; I suppose an ancient dragon would know which jewelers are the best.

Traveling to Dinas Mawr might involve a challenge: Getting N-Guuk onto a ship. The only convenient way past the crags of Y Mynyddau Gwawr is to sail around to the south. I would not wish to travel all the way north to the ill-maintained pass, only to have to backtrack south to the capitol.

July 15, 5086, Hendre Dylan

N-Guuk assented to the boat ride. He hid below deck the whole time. According to all of us except for him, the ride wasn't very long. The view of the cliffs from the sea was impressive; they must be spectacular up close, but according to the crew, the submerged rocks prevent safe travel by any but the lightest of crafts.

We are spending the night in Hendre Dylan.

July 16, south of Dinas Mawr

The entire highway along Prenwy between Hendre Dylan and Dinas Mawr is populated. One can find any service within an hour's walk of anywhere, and inns and taverns are found at practically every mile.

With an easy day's travel in store today, we afforded ourselves time to browse at Hollingsworth Specialty Breeders and Ranch. Delyra was particularly interested in buying a trained riding dog. She played with several dogs before picking out a friendly black Labrador retriever that she named Nightshade. She is particularly proud of what she thinks of as her clever choice of a name, given that nightshade, as an alchemical component, is vaguely associated with sorcery. We have agreed to humor her. The ranch featured an amazing assortment of animals. I had been aware that mages from the Hoggelrynth Academy shop there for familiars, but this far surpassed any of my expectations. They had for example songbirds, ostriches, stud bulls, great cats, bison and snakes. Saltwater ponds toward the back held manatees, stingrays, a few sharks, a huge assortment of fish, and even a small whale! This was just the tip of the iceberg. The managers must have a supernatural understanding of animals, or some strong druidic magic, to be able to safely and effectively raise all of those.

I suppose, however, that the biggest thrill on this trip for most of us will be a shopping spree.

July 17, Dinas Mawr

We arrived at Wickhelm's, and discomforted the proprietor (Wickhelm, presumably) by closely examining the most valuable wares and talking about getting free stuff. When we noticed his not precisely generous glances, we realized that he had not been notified to expect us. We assured him that we were expecting someone who would explain everything, then milled about until Kawg arrived.

"So you're the one who will tell me why I should be giving stuff to these people?" Wickhelm challenged.

"That I am." Kawg leaned closer, speaking clearly and softly. "I know where you got the black amulet. You will give each of my acquaintances here one item, and you will give me the amulet. Or I can go to the authorities and have this place closed in an instant." (Watching a half-elf speak with the force of personality of a dragon was quite a sight to behold; I suspect that he did not even need to add the threat.)

Wickhelm clenched his teeth and shook with either rage or fear; perhaps both. But he assented.

We picked over Wickhelm's inventory while he retrieved the amulet for Kawg.

Tam took a set of four magical horseshoes that allow a horse to run just above the ground. Jasper took a pair of magical slippers that make climbing easier. N-Guuk and Dunbarton each took masterwork quality weapons - a great axe and a battleaxe, respectively. Pheldran and I had little use for what was left, so we took a fair amount of platinum in exchange for not taking the two most expensive items. Delyra took a collection of magical dust that reveals invisible things, but then changed her mind and traded it for a cheaper healing potion and some platinum.

(I find it ironic that I, who have the least use for money of anyone in the party, now have the largest share of it. I shall be happy to distribute it as needed, of course.)

Once outside and safely away from Wickhelm's, we asked Kawg about the black amulet. His response was cagey, but he hinted that we might learn about it later. He did at least tell us that he had traded our information about the missing goblins to Fraelagesh in exchange for the information about the amulet.

It only occurs to me now to wonder how Kawg knew to tell us where to claim our reward before he had a chance to bring our information back to Fraelagesh; were they in magical contact? Any alternative scheme that I can think of involves one trusting the other a great deal in advance. This is not unthinkable; I in fact know nothing about the trust between dragons.

Regardless, we again parted ways with Kawg, and booked several rooms at a nice inn that serves breakfast, here in the southwestern, largely commercial district of the city, just a few blocks south of the bazaar. With no particular plans, we will likely enjoy Dinas Mawr for a day or two before we head east to investigate the reportedly haunted road.

[Out-of-game note: Dunbarton the paladin and Dunbarton the ranger come from nearly identical parallel universes. A very unlikely wild surge from the alarm spell in each universe caused a rift to be formed between them. The Dunbartons stepped through and exchanged places. The two worlds are so similar that they will likely never notice the difference.]

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