September 18, 5086, Debulys
Once my companions finished rising from their well earned slumber, we had an easy half day's journey to Debulys. It was too late to continue toward Launport, but early enough to throw away time and sobriety in celebration of our survival of the events three nights past.
In the midst of our libation, a stranger requested a seat at our table. "I have a gift for your master," he said. We allowed him to sit. He tucked a valise under his chair.
"You know whom we work for?" Tam asked.
"Kawg, yes. The start of your service was quite a public event," the stranger reminded him.
"What is your name?" Pheldran asked.
"I am Kalit. I was sent by Betanni. You helped one of our members drive away a vampire."
"So you give Kawg a gift? We did the work; why not give us a gift?" Dunbarton complained.
"Because Betanni has sent this for Kawg. I am merely the messenger." Kalit presented an unremarkable silver ring.
"I can hold that for him," Delyra said. She took the ring and moved it toward her outstretched finger.
"I would prefer that you not wear it," Kalit said. "It is for Kawg only."
"I'll just wear it until we have a chance to give it to him," she protested.
"That would be a bad idea. Please do not," Kalit requested, without explanation.
Delyra sighed. "Oh, all right." She put the ring away.
"One quick question," Kalit added. "The friggin' locksmith is closed, and I lost the key to my valise. Does any of you know how to jimmy a lock that's warded against magic, or do you know someone who does? I'll give you a few gold for it."
Jasper offered an attempt. In less than half a minute of fiddling with the valise, he had it unlocked. Kalit looked relieved, and handed him a few coins in gratitude.
September 20, 5086, Systara
Yesterday morning, N-Guuk asked Jasper where he had gone. Jasper replied that he been out on a late-night walk. Two days of travel have since taken us back through Launport, Eli Farez and Zanadyr, and finally to Systara. We arrived too late to secure passage this day; the next ship bound for Hendre Dylan is not due to depart until the 22nd.
September 21, 5086, Systara
The first mate of the Lady Bob has informed us that the ship can take us to Caer Cefn at no extra cost; it is the next stop after Hendre Dylan.
The priests of the Grand Temple of Faynwan (Lord of Death) still owe us a reward for putting four ghosts to rest, back near Tre Glyn. We have not been to Corstref since to claim it. Delyra will fly ahead of us, borne by Woosh, her air elemental. She believes that she can travel to Corstref, and then back to Caer Cefn, within the nine days which we will require to reach the latter. We also wish to have the same priests interview the remains of Erwyn Berlekamp, but she flatly refuses to carry the head.
September 30, 5086, Caer Cefn
The sight of a half-conscious drunkard, sitting in his own vomit, propped against the back of a fish and bait shop, was not, in itself, exquisitely notable. Nor was the sight of a mother restraining her son from approaching the lush with a half-copper in his outstretched hand. The mother's rationale, however, made us attentive: "Not this one. He doesn't need it."
A few of us stepped closer. The bum's garments, underneath the dust, the mud and the dried puke, might once have been of fine tailoring. His hat's bent brim hid his eyes. After a silent and slightly uncomfortable pause, he presumably noticed our feet, and slowly raised his head.
Rank and his own bearing had once given that face nobility. Time and misfortune had since stolen it. We were knees-to-face with Sir Brannigan.
We engaged in awkward social courtesies, which by some mysterious necessity involved him recounting his fate. Perhaps not so much "recounting" as "slurring". The short version is thus: As we expected, the central government at Dinas Mawr authorized Governor N. Skeboyee to seize Pembrey Estate, including Brannigan Manor. (We declined to mention our involvement in that matter.) Lady Brannigan took their daughters to live with her family in Dinas Mawr, but they would have nothing to do with her husband, whose value to them had declined in proportion to his net worth. What few assets he was able to liquidate were insufficient to afford him his lifestyle of choice. They are, by his calculation, sufficient to keep him inebriated for life, however.
We kept to ourselves our thoughts about better uses for his money and time, and bid him good day.
We now await Delyra's arrival at the Don't Drop Inn.
September 30, 5086, Caer Cefn
The priesthood of Faynwan has burdened us with wealth. They have even sent a bonus for our having disposed of the vampire Howard. Delyra received it all after giving them detailed, written accounts of the formerly haunted temple of Daewyr and of the elder vampire Chrysterron's attempt to establish a coven. The priests had magically confirmed her veracity with perhaps an insulting degree of surprise. However, a box of precious gems negates any insult.
We have restocked many provisions. When Delyra returns from shopping in the upper district, we will all depart for Corstref. The trip takes over two days by foot, so four hours of travel today may have us there before nightfall two days hence.
October 1, 5086, Corstref
Bishop Riandil of the Church of Faynwan agreed, as charity, to magically question Erwyn's head. We agreed to make a charitable donation, commensurate only by the merest chance with the difficulty and skill of the magic performed. I am glad that, in these enlightened days, religion serves the people and the gods, rather than mercenary profit. We specified which questions we wished him to ask, writing them down so that we would not be forced to improvise, or risk forgetting, in the very limited time allotted to the spell.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Bishop Riandil: What was your ultimate goal?
Erwyn's head: Get lost.
Bishop Riandil: That's no way to speak to a priest of the Lord of Death.
Erwyn's head: Fuck off.
Bishop Riandil: Perhaps you prefer the alternative: Full awareness.
(Bishop Riandil gestured, and Erwyn's head became much more animate.)
Erwyn's head: Owwwww! Hey - ow - where the hell - ow - is my body?
Bishop Riandil: You first.
Erwyn's head: Dammit! - ow - Okay.
(The head became mostly inanimate, at another gesture from the Bishop.)
Bishop Riandil: What was your ultimate goal?
Erwyn's head: Locate the Sentient Stone.
Bishop Riandil: Were you trying to unleash an ancient evil?
Erwyn's head: None that I know of.
Bishop Riandil: Why were you seeking the Sentient Stone?
Erwyn's head: Legend tells that it holds great intelligence.
Bishop Riandil: Where was your final destination?
Erwyn's head: Not entirely sure; somewhere on a hillside in the forest.
Bishop Riandil: Were the murders necessary sacrifices to build up to the unleashing of the evil, or were they just for fun?
Erwyn's head: Yes.
Bishop Riandil: I asked you an either/or question, Erwyn. You will respond appropriately.
Erwyn's head: Aaaugh! Always for fun.
Bishop Riandil: How does one decrypt the last code you left?
Erwyn's head: Hardscrabble cipher.
Bishop Riandil: Where was your place of residence?
Erwyn's head: Cuarzo.
Bishop Riandil: Where did you hide your magical items?
Erwyn's head: In a tree.
Bishop Riandil: You can be more specific than that.
Erwyn's head: In an evergreen tree.
The spark of awareness left Erwyn's features after that. Tam expressed the foolishness that we all felt over the uselessness of several of the questions. The Bishop offered to keep the head and try again in another week.
We have rented rooms at the Sunny Side Inn. Pheldran plans to research the "Hardscrabble cipher" at the Great Library. We can think of little else to do at this point.
October 3, 5086, north of 'Gator Swamp
Kawg found us in Lou's Tavern. We told him about our misadventures with Erwyn, and how little useful information we had recovered. If he felt disappointment, he hid it. The story of the vampires intrigued him. Jasper mentioned that the new ring was from Betanni. Kawg pondered the name, then seemed to recall its significance. He asked, with renewed interest, "You were helping vampires kill vampires?" We stuttered, but soon recovered and began stammering instead. N-Guuk produced the first intelligible speech. "Um, yep. That's what we were doing. Knew it the whole time! So, um, what does that ring do?"
After a brief magical inspection, Kawg reported that it detects the life force of nearby creatures.
Delyra observed, "Maybe that's why Kalit didn't want me to wear it!"
"It is a suitable gift," said Kawg. "It allows one to be aware of any nearby creature, except for the undead. As such, it cannot be used against them. This is a gift given with respect, but with neither self-abasement nor the pretension of buying my trust."
"I have something for you too, Kawg," Delyra said. She handed him a six inch tall platinum statue. "It's a heffalump." The figure might have been described as a cyclops with huge ears, a snake for a nose, and pronounced osteoporosis.
Kawg's face remained impassive. "I've never heard of such a thing."
"It's from the gnomish lands," Delyra explained with enthusiasm.
"I see," he said. The statue remained on the table as many of us continued our meal.
As we neared the end of our meal, Delyra asked, "Don't you like my gift, Kawg?"
"Not particularly," he replied casually.
"I, um... What sort of gift would you like?"
"I could not give you a meaningful answer to that."
"Why not?" She looked confused.
"To ask a dragon what sort of gift you should give to them... Hmm. Have you ever heard of Gödel's incompleteness theorem?"
"Then I'm afraid I cannot explain."
"Oh." She sat back meekly.
I believe that some of my companions appreciated the distraction when a dwarf at a nearby table called over to N-Guuk. "Hey you! Are you from Gabil Dûm?" he asked in the Dwarven tongue. N-Guuk denied it monosyllabically. "Damn," said the other dwarf. "I need to find help!"
"What's going on?" asked Tam, in the common tongue.
The dwarf switched to common. "High Priestess Monaque has gone stark mad. Can you imagine this? She's trying to make peace with the fargin' kobolds!" He paused to let that sink in. It didn't. "Oh yeah, I'm Belser."
Tam asked him for more context. We knew little about Gabil Dûm, save that it was a dwarven empire in the mountains north of Corstref, and nothing at all about the kobolds. Belser approached.
"All right, here's the story. There's a band of kobolds living just off our southwestern border, in the mountains. Thieving, cannibalistic scum!" He spat on the floor. "Every once in a while, someone out on patrol gets hurt or killed in one of their traps, and then we send a squad to go kill some of them. Recently, some of our patrols haven't returned. We reckon the kobolds are deliberately ambushing them now. Frankly, I wouldn't complain - they're just itching to give us an excuse to go in and wipe them out entirely. But Monaque - she forbade it. She started spouting all this hippy crap about "getting along". She started sending peace delegations! [exasperated grunt] The last straw was when she brought some kobold bigwig and his cronies right into Gabil Dûm! It caused a riot. And I'll tell you, I was right there, screaming for them to be sent back home - in small pieces. So were most of us. Monaque had the emerald guard protecting them. And there were others - other dwarves that is, though I'm ashamed to say it - who were shouting back at us, a whole lot of ignorant, juvenile crap about how those walking maggots deserved a chance. My blood is going to fargin' boil again just thinking about it. Barkeep! Another bubbly piss!"
Tam was trying hard not to smile during Belser's rant. He mostly succeeded; I hope I did as well.
The bartender approached with a stout. "That's five so far, sir," he reminded the dwarf.
Belser replied, "Yeah, don't get your panties in a bunch." He pulled a fistful of gold coins out of a bag, examined and hefted them for a moment, then slammed them onto the table. "Is that enough?"
The bartender kept a poker face. "Yes, sir." He scooped them into his apron and shuffled back to the bar.
Kawg finally entered the conversation. "With what currency do you normally pay for beer?"
"Tin, or garnets if it's good," Belser replied. Then after a pause, "I heard you guys use gold up here, so I picked some up before I left. Can't fathom using gold for money, though. It's like using. . . sticks." He accepted his new mug from the bartender.
"Would you mind if I discussed your situation back home with my associates here? Perhaps we can help you." Belser looked us over, his eyes pausing on N-Guuk. I suspect that he was displeased to see a dwarf subordinate to a half-elf (for so Kawg appeared). He gave us our privacy, returning to his table.
Dunbarton aside, we could all see that gold is devalued in Gabil Dûm. Kawg took interest in correcting this imbalance, with an eye toward profit. His plan is open-ended. We are to accompany Belser to Gabil Dûm to fully examine the situation. We will then ally ourselves with whichever side we choose (so long as that side wins), making sure that they feel indebted to us and, by extension, to Kawg. He will handle the business dealings afterward.
"I almost wish I could come with you to make sure this goes smoothly," Kawg said. When questioned on this, he explained, "Nobody lives as long as I have without collecting some enemies. I have ensured that nobody can locate me magically. However, if it were known or even guessed that I was accompanying you at length, anyone who wished to find me could just look for you. Admittedly, this could make my life more exciting, but I wouldn't have lived this long by letting my enemies meet me on their terms."
In a moment of near non sequitur, Delyra suddenly piped up. She asked, almost yelling, "Why don't you like me? And who is this Godel bitch anyway? Is she prettier than me?"
Kawg's eyes narrowed.
"How about now?" Her form blurred momentarily. She stood transfigured into the visage of what I can only assume to be a lake nymph.
Kawg remained silent, with a patient but condescending gaze. After a few awkward moments, while the rest of the bar patrons stared at her, she changed back to herself as a pixie, and stormed out.
Kawg snorted, then summoned Belser back to our table. We tried to follow Kawg's lead, resuming a businesslike state of mind. He generously offered to send us to Gabil Dûm to help, if Belser would be so kind as to show us the way. Belser gladly accepted.
As we finished our meal, a conversation began outside. A stranger's voice said, "He's a bit much to handle sometimes, isn't he?"
I heard Delyra's voice ask, "Huh? You know him?"
While my companions talked around the table, I walked to the side window for some fresh air. Leaning against the wall happened to afford me a view of a tree outside, into the branches of which Delyra had flown. She appeared to have just stopped crying. Below her, his back to the trunk, was a well dressed, orange-haired human. He talked without looking up, as though to avoid giving away Delyra's presence to those within line of sight but out of earshot.
"Yes, I often work with him," said the stranger.
"Who are you?"
"We've met before, when I was in my native form. I am Fraelagesh, one of the dragons who helped save the city of Dinas Felin."
"It's hard to give gifts to dragons, especially old ones. It's not just a matter of what the gift is, it's the mentality of the giving."
"What do you mean?"
"No gift is freely given. There are always expectations attached to the gift."
"I didn't have any expectations. I just wanted to give him something nice." She sniffed.
"No doubt you believe that. But even when you give a gift to a friend or acquaintance, you still expect to receive their good favor. This is a very small thing, because it's not very significant, and in many cases you already have it. An expectation that is always trivially fulfilled is one that you do not recognize as an expectation at all. You are not conscious of the expectation that, whenever you draw a breath or take a step, there will be air to breathe, or ground under your feet. But the good favor of a powerful dragon is priceless, and not so easily earned. You were not emotionally prepared for the possibility of rejection, so it hurt."
"He wasn't exactly nice about it," Delyra observed petulantly.
"Yes, Kawg could certainly use a bit more tact."
After a contemplative pause, Delyra added, "He mentioned something about 'Godel's completeness theorem'. What's that?"
"Oh, Gödel's incompleteness theorem. He was probably trying to draw an analogy. A powerful dragon like Kawg already has everything that he wants, or at least, everything that he is aware that he wants. So, while it would be possible to surprise him with something that he likes, he would not be able to tell you in advance what that thing might be."
"Well, what sort of things does he like?"
"We all have things we like to collect. He collects magic: Trinkets with all sorts of powers and uses. Rings, wands, crystal balls, you name it. The more powerful the better."
"What do you collect?"
"I deal in information. This conversation was a freebie."
"Oh. I think I get it."
"The great thing about information is that you can sell it and still keep it. Remember when Kawg sent you to find out what happened to the goblins? He brought back to me a fact that I resold to someone who can take advantage of it."
"What was it?"
"I'll be able to tell you a little later, when my client has established himself."
"Oh. Okay. You seem a lot nicer than Kawg."
"Could I work for you instead?"
"It is forbidden. In fact, I am overstepping my bounds a bit just by talking with you now. But I am flattered by the request."
"Why is it forbidden?"
"Kawg and I have an arrangement. I may only make use of you and your group through him as an intermediary, or middleman if you prefer."
"I don't like this deal. I don't want to work for him, or belong to him, or anything of the sort."
"I cannot help you there. You are under a heavy debt, which you agreed to when you started your employment."
"Hmph. You're right. But I don't have to like it."
"Just remember all the lives that were saved by your agreement to work for him... And by giving away Dinas Felin's treasury."
"Yeah. I guess. Hey, thanks for coming and talking to me. I feel a lot better."
"It is my pleasure to help."
"Could I contact you in the future? Or is that *forbidden* too?"
"Well, we should not speak too frequently, but it is not a great infraction. I propose this: When you wish to speak with me, wear a green flower in your hair for a day."
"That's all it'll take?"
"Okay. Thank you so much!"
Delyra flew back toward the front of Lou's Tavern. I tired of the fresh air, and resumed my seat. A moment later, she appeared in the doorway, looking stable, if still slightly miffed at Kawg. We informed her of our impending journey, paid for our meal in silver, and left with Belser.
An afternoon's hike has brought us past the western edge of 'Gator Swamp, and into the foothills southwest of our destination. As we made camp, Belser told us that we must swear by our gods and our souls to not reveal the location of the entrance to Gabil Dûm. The firelight has dimmed enough that my eyes strain as I write these last few paragraphs. I have another hour on watch before I wake Pheldran.
October 4, 5086, Gabil Dûm
This has been a long, grueling, and horrifying day. I am already exhausted, and may have to wait until morning to finish the account.
Belser brought us into the heart of Gabil Dûm. He promised the guards at the lower end of the access tunnel that his guests would behave themselves, and they made it clear that he would be personally accountable for our actions.
The expansive tunnel network beneath the surface was spacious enough to easily accommodate the passage of our group. We passed many hastily produced signs which read, in Dwarven, "Give peace a chance". There were clearly places where other signs had been pasted to the walls and torn down. One which remained stated, "Dwarves are food, not friends. Sincerely, the kobolds". Another, laying on the floor, read, "Make peace with kobolds. Or eat iron filings. Either way, it won't work, and you'll regret every second of trying." Pheldran added "Or take a bath" to the list.
The dwarves whom we interviewed, thanks to Belser, reported disturbing news. Several militant opposition leaders had disappeared from their homes. Nobody had seen them leave. Scouting parties to the south were still, on occasion, failing to return. We were interested in speaking with representatives of the pacifist/loyalist group, but that would have been more difficult to arrange. Meanwhile, Tam hit upon the idea of examining for ourselves the area from which patrols had been disappearing. So we registered with the local guard as a scouting party, and returned to the surface.
Our expedition took us south, between the mountains. Dunbarton occasionally found dwarf tracks leading to or from the tunnel. Past noon, he spied a group of kobold prints leading east. We started following them. At a few points, another set of tracks accompanied them. They were made by some heavy creature with very narrow lower appendages. They left more a short, two- part furrow than a footprint. As if that were not odd enough, these tracks were not continuous. They would proceed for a few yards, then disappear, only to reappear fifty or a hundred yards later. Dunbarton followed the kobold trails, which were joined by others (leading in both directions) as we progressed. The kobolds would have avoided walking through their own traps, so we were in no danger from those.
We arrived at last in a wide, rocky, bowl-shaped depression in the lee of some small cliffs. Every patch of earth within this area showed tracks, so we hunted for some time among the boulders before Jasper discovered a narrow, concealed passage leading underground. Delyra used a hunk of chalk to draw a huge arrow atop the covering boulder, indicating the location of the entrance. She added a rude comment about Kawg. I lit my lantern, and we proceeded again into the earth.
We hunched over slightly and walked single file, for there was no room to do otherwise. We saw no kobolds. Likely, they shied away from our light and noise. If they had ambushes prepared, as they are reputed to do, we took fortunate turns. Delyra marked the way we had come, continuing to add rude thoughts about Kawg. After only two splits in the passage (both of which we followed to the right), we emerged into a large, oval chamber with an eight-foot ceiling. (The floor, ceiling and walls were cut smoothly and flat - not the work of kobolds, in retrospect.) Our lanterns displayed a grizzly scene. Shackled to the wall were roughly one hundred dwarves. Half of them were dead, with portions of their stomachs or intestines torn out. Some of the others were softly groaning. They started crying out pitifully, "Help us!" We moved to examine their manacles, which were welded shut. Not a single one had been freed before we were attacked.
Eight large, red, vaguely insectoid creatures appeared out of nowhere, and instantly attacked us. Several of us were wounded by sharp claws in that first moment before we could react. Dunbarton and N-Guuk dispatched their attackers while the rest of us barely managed to hold our own. The monsters fought with four claws at once. Belser, Pheldran and I were held and bitten by the creatures. I suspect that I fought off a poison from that bite; my limbs seemed heavy to move afterward. While I was held, Jasper approached from behind and placed a hand on my shoulder. The pain from my wounds immediately eased. My lingering suspicion of his harboring divinely granted powers is confirmed. I wonder which god he serves, or whether he is apostate, for he wears no visible holy symbol.
Dunbarton and his dire rat finished off the last of the abominations. Belser's cursing ceased as paralysis took hold of him. He went limp, though his breathing and heartbeat remained steady. We broke the bonds of all of the living captives, while they explained what they had experienced. All had been ambushed, either at home or on patrol, by the same creatures which we had just fought. (We surmised that they can plane shift.) Each had been implanted with something, probably an egg or an embryo. After a month of incubation, a small red monster would eat and claw its way out, killing its host. Most of them had witnessed many such deaths, and were terrified of the moment when it would happen to them.
At our direction, the freed dwarves staggered through the passage to the surface. They are a sturdy and proud race; very few requested help, though they had been chained immobile for up to a month.
Delyra followed another passage, found some kobolds, and magically charmed them into speaking with her. She discovered that their leader directs everything dealing with the monsters and the dwarves. The leader was currently visiting the dwarves; the remaining kobolds understood little of what was happening.
We marched our makeshift platoon toward the tunnels to Gabil Dûm as quickly as we could.
Despite the unchanging days down here, I must sleep, and resume this story later.