October 10, 5086, Corstref
We are again renting rooms in the Sunny Side Inn. I spent a portion of today browsing the richer vendors near the academy, looking for inspiration for my reward. It seems that I can make the most of Kawg's offer by requesting several minor magical items, whose cumulative power will be greater than that of any single item of the same total value. Most of these will be protective, though a belt that slightly improves my unarmed combat technique seems to be a worthwhile investment. As nearly as I can calculate, I could even procure a valuable pair of boots that will hasten me whenever I require, with enough reward remaining to include the most modest version of each protective item on my list.
I am under the impression that the others have made their decisions more quickly. They already have desires for certain magicks. I have striven to be without desire. This has many benefits, but it does leave me awkwardly lacking an answer when asked, "What do you want?"
October 11, 5086, Corstref
Kawg has found us, as always, without our having planned an exact meeting place. We all submitted our requests; all except Delyra. She refused her reward, drawing startled looks from nearly everybody. Kawg alone remained impassive. I have to wonder whether he practices reacting to surprises as though he had been expecting them all along. Or perhaps the face of a dragon shapeshifted into half-elf form is not as expressive as a natural demihuman's face. Then again, he may truly have been expecting this. N-Guuk choked on his ale, slammed down his tankard, and with foam running through his beard exclaimed, "Bah! What lunacy is -"
He ground to a halt, noticing that he had failed to gain Delyra's attention. She glared unwaveringly at Kawg, who replied, "Very well. And you, Tam? What would you like?" Tam fiddled with his holy symbol and awkwardly stated his own request, though he clearly felt that the conversation should not have gone to him without first resolving the discomfort caused by Delyra's unstated grievance. It is not our place to question Kawg, hence the conversation proceeded exactly as he directed, regardless of social niceties.
"These items are common enough that I believe that I can trade for all of them within..." Kawg trailed off for a second. "Three days. You may do as you please while awaiting my return. Delyra, please accompany me outside." She rankled at the order, clearly understanding that the word "please" was but a formality, and followed him. They turned away from the road, aiming for the quiet sycamore grove beside the inn, to which Delyra had fled when last Kawg had upset her. By the time they reached it, I was, by the merest of coincidences, standing near the same open window that had, last week, allowed me an assuredly unintentional overhearing of her therapeutic conversation with Kawg's associate, Fraelagesh.
"It is not enough," Kawg said as he rounded the corner of the building.
"It's thirty thousand gold! How is that not enough?" Delyra asked in disbelief.
"When you entered my employ, it was on the condition that I would decide when you had paid off your debt. You have not yet done so."
"If all that I've done for you already, plus all that gold, isn't enough, I don't think it'll ever be enough! You might just decide to keep us as your servants forever!"
"Eight hundred lives you owe me. Would you trade those for gold?"
Delyra had no response for that. Nor would I. If ever I find my pride growing too great for my monastic calling, I should remember to argue with a dragon. That will restore my humility with all possible haste.
They had nearly rounded the far corner of the building before Delyra spoke again. "But why does everything have to be for gain? Can't you act just to help people? I mean, I try hard to help out my friends, and I don't need rewards..." They turned the corner, and I decided that I had taken in enough of the east view from the window.
October 11, 5086, Corstref
I have visited the poor quarters on the eastern edge of the city today. The evangelical priests of Unil-Gal and of Faynwan, who are ubiquitous elsewhere in the city that houses both of their grand temples, are nowhere to be found among those who have no silver to tithe. I requested favors of several of the locals, asking them to relieve me of the burden of some of the precious metals that have weighed me down in my travels. They generously obliged.
Of the others, I know only that Pheldran is again studying at the Great Library, and Delyra has flown away on her air elemental familiar, Woosh, to visit her people in the mountains north of Gabil Dûm.
October 13, 5086, Corstref
Delyra returned in the early evening, seemingly driven to distraction by a host of concerns which she kept to herself. Kawg showed up shortly afterward, and handed us sacks full of the items which we had requested as our rewards for indebting the dwarven kingdom of Gabil Dûm to him. He bade us good day, but Delyra asked to speak with him outside again. The rest of us climbed the stairs, returning to our rooms to open our gifts. I had an idea that my room on the west side of the hallway would be less than suitable. I asked Pheldran whether I could join him, so that he might help me test some of my new gear. He agreed, but asked for a few minutes to become acquainted with his own. So I slowly donned my new bracers, amulet, belt, and other miscellany, leaning casually next to his window, which happened to face east. Though quieter than the thumping sounds coming from Dunbarton and N-Guuk's room next door, I could still make out the conversation in the grove.
"... told me it would be enough to buy my freedom," came Delyra's soft voice.
"Fraelagesh oversteps his bounds. That had better be some priceless information you are talking about," Kawg replied.
"The location of the Orb of Aine," she said, nervously.
"The Orb of Aine!" Kawg exclaimed. "You know where it is?"
"Well, I know how to get to it."
"Hmm. Tell me, then, and I will decide what it is worth."
"Oh, um, okay." She took a deep breath. "There's a willow grove in the woods east of Iand Talath, forty-five miles east by southeast of Amon Firith."
"I've been there," Kawg said, with a note of dismissive skepticism in his voice.
"There's a magical portal that only opens there during a total lunar eclipse. The Orb is just beyond the portal."
"A lunar eclipse... Then it's true! The goddess did reclaim her Orb."
"It is of no import. If the Orb is where you say it is, then the information will be sufficient to finish paying off your debt. We are two nights from the full moon, and... Yes! There is to be an eclipse." Kawg paused for a few seconds. "I wonder what Fraelagesh is playing at, giving me this information through you. Still, he knows it is valuable enough to mollify me over this breach of our... etiquette. You may go. I will see you three days hence."
October 14, 5086, Corstref
We have received ill news, during supper in the tavern area of the inn. Delyra began unburdening herself by explaining that she had made a deal with Kawg: In exchange for giving up her share of the reward, plus sharing certain valuable information, she would soon no longer be bound in Kawg's service. However, she had agreed to continue to accompany and aid our group, to serve as an example that friendship and loyalty are better and nobler motivations than is the repayment of debt. Tam asked how, then, her situation had effectively changed. Delyra had no response for this. "Sounds like a pretty bad deal for you," observed N-Guuk.
While Dunbarton retrieved a round of drinks from the bar and N-Guuk was away at the little dwarves' room, Delyra burst out, "I can't take it anymore!" We leaned in, and she continued more quietly, "It's Kawg. You know that forest fire that almost wiped out Dinas Felin, that he's been holding over our heads from the beginning? Well, he started it! I'm not supposed to tell anyone, so keep it a secret."
"Even from N-Guuk and Dunbarton?" Jasper asked, while we let this disastrous information sink in.
"Especially from N-Guuk and Dunbarton! Why do you think I waited until they were gone? They couldn't keep their mouths shut." She shook with rage. "I can't believe I didn't know he's been manipulating us the whole time! He made us think he was saving the city. He made the dwarves think that he saved them from civil war and the xill. It's the same -" she cut herself off as Dunbarton returned with the drinks.
We silently processed this new information. I wonder how she found out, and shall ask, if and when I have the opportunity to do so privately.
As N-Guuk returned, Dunbarton asked Delyra about the information she had traded to Kawg.
She replied, "I told him how to find the Orb of Aine. It's behind a magical gate that only shows up during the total lunar eclipse."
"What is it? And who or what is Aine?" asked Jasper.
"It's supposed to be an artifact that lets you see someone else's deepest desire. Of all the things to give to someone who's already the most manipulative person - um, dragon - I've ever met..." She trailed off bitterly. I noticed that her mug was half full of ale, so I caught Pheldran's eye, then indicated the ale with a glance. He reached down and took it from in front of her, as he has had occasion to do at other times during our travels. This time, however, she roughly snatched it back without even looking at him, and continued to sip it. He appeared surprised, then confused, then resigned to letting her have her ale. "I don't know any more than that," she added between sips.
Tam spoke. "Aine is an ancient Elven name for Shaan, the moon goddess. Legend has it that the Orb was once stolen by the Church of Purificationism, and made its way to their Grand Temple at the Elven capital, Ost Talath. There, the priesthood used the Orb to recruit a large number of the nobility. That's one of the reasons that the elves nearer the capital harbor so much xenophobia: The church fostered it. Anyway, this recruitment program suddenly stopped, just over three hundred years ago, amid reports of the Orb's disappearance. The church's power has been waning ever since. Speculation about who took the Orb from the priesthood ranges from a common burglar, to a renegade priest, to a shapeshifter, and to the avatar of Shaan herself. Whoever it is, they had the sense to be less public about it than the Purificationists were. And now, it seems that either whoever stole the Orb from them was on Shaan's side, or Shaan had it taken from them in turn. Shaan's own power likely hides the gate except during the total eclipse."
Jasper asked, "How do you know all this?"
"Oh, anyone who has studied Shaan, the Purificationist cult or Elven history knows about the Orb. And I've studied all three," added Tam.
"Here's a better question," said Dunbarton. "Why would anyone bother to learn all that?"
He received no reply.
October 16, 5086, Corstref
Late last night, we awoke to the sounds of inhuman battle cries and weapons smashing against furniture and bodies. The din began at full intensity, with no precursor, as if we had suddenly unplugged our ears in the midst of a battlefield. One floor up from a battlefield, to be precise. We ran down the hall and crowded the stairway. Peering past the railing, I saw five fearsome, clearly infernal creatures gathered in a semicircle near the back wall of the dining area. Their horns gouged furrows in the ceiling as they moved. With tails, teeth and long, spiked chains, they were viciously attacking something that lay prone and blocked from our view by the tables. It let out a cry, and I barely recognized the tortured voice as belonging to Kawg!
Our misgivings about Kawg were no match for our revulsion toward the devils. We hopped the railing and ran to the fray, except for Pheldran and Delyra, who remained back to cast spells. I could not imagine how I would approach within striking range without first being gutted by the barbed chains which the horned devils hurled with incredible force. Luckily, they barely deigned to notice us; they paused just long enough to summon half a dozen lesser devils to keep us busy. That single moment of distraction, though, was all that Kawg needed to regain his footing, tear himself loose from their chains (in sickening sprays of blood), and dive straight through a shuttered window. The horned devils disappeared from the inn, and we could hear the battle beginning again outside.
We were left to face the lesser devils, who menaced us with saw-toothed glaives. I admit that I was perfectly happy to enter into combat with these bearded devils, rather than face certain dismemberment at the hands of the horned devils. Three of the devils were suddenly stuck in a web spell. We took on the other three. A flaming sphere rolled around, igniting the web, brushing up against the devils (which were seemingly unaffected) and setting one table aflame. We had barely killed one devil as the others were freed from the burning web. They seemed highly resistant to physical damage. N-Guuk was losing blood quickly through two jagged wounds by the time we finished off the sixth bearded devil. Part of the back wall was on fire, and the shutters had dropped from the other window on that wall, revealing the battle beyond.
Delyra was already outside, having left through a window. The rest of us followed her, through the door, the windows, or (in N-Guuk's case) the burning wall itself. There, we saw a truly ferocious battle. Kawg had returned to his natural form, as a huge red dragon. A large patch of incinerated grass and shrubbery lay smoking, though none of the combatants appeared to be burned. As we watched, the devils hurled their chains and bit with such force that they broke straight through some of Kawg's scales. He, in turn, took huge gouges from their midsections with his teeth. He took another one between his foreclaws and ripped its right arm off. This gruesome spectacle turned surreal as the latter devil, quickly thrown clear of the battle, got up and ran to its arm. In one swift motion, it picked up and reattached the arm, which immediately became functional; the devil returned to the fray. The others' wounds closed quickly. Several flashes of light streaked from Delyra and struck one of the devils, but her magic missiles had no discernable effect. N-Guuk and Dunbarton flanked another devil while it attacked Kawg, but their weapons either glanced off of its scaly hide or missed altogether as it darted around looking for an opening in Kawg's defenses. It did not spare even one swipe of its tail for them.
While dodging faster than any creature of his size should conceivably be able to move (but still being struck occasionally), Kawg cast a spell, and one of the devils vanished. A few seconds later, he sent a second horned devil into a rigid paralysis that somehow included even its barbed chain, poised in mid-swing. Now defending himself from only three devils, he cast a spell that I recognized from my textbooks as a prismatic wall. It appeared some fifty feet behind him, away from the inn. He snatched a devil in one claw and wound up to throw it at the shimmering wall, but it teleported from his claw to the ground and resumed its attack. Kawg spun around, smacking another devil with his tail and sending it hurtling into the prismatic wall with such speed that it had no time to react. It hit the wall with a crackling noise, and vanished instantly. Dunbarton and N-Guuk backed off as Kawg repeated this feat against the other two devils.
Kawg calmed his heavy breathing and dismissed his magical wall. Tam tended to N-Guuk's wounds. We had many questions, but Kawg silenced us with a gesture. "I must take this cornugon to someplace safe," he said, picking up the paralyzed devil. His huge beak and eyes turned toward Delyra. "You had better have a damn good explanation. If not, you have fifteen minutes to fly as far as you can before I find and kill you." He launched himself into the air and sped northward, leaving us in shock at his words.
We returned to the dining area of the inn to wait, magically smothering the fires on our way through the new hole in the wall. Dunbarton turned over an mug of flat ale atop the burning table.
Delyra served herself a large mug of ale, downed it as quickly as she could, and poured another to take back to the table. We waited there, nearly as impressed by her simmering anger as by Kawg's. Nobody bothered us; the patrons and employees had all fled the vicinity of the battle. Delyra had downed three mugs, and seemed even more furious by the time Kawg landed outside the inn. He shifted into his half-elven form to join us. His face looked just a bit more stern than usual.
Delyra immediately burst out, "I have to know! Did you start the fire?"
Kawg frowned. "I don't see why I should answer that. You clearly won't believe me."
"Try it. I might believe you."
"All right," he said, with no softening of his voice. "No, I did not."
Delyra made no indication one way or the other about believing him, even in her body language.
"Your turn," Kawg said. "Explain."
Her story was thus: She had, two weeks ago, spoken with the dragon Fraelagesh, at which time he had taught her a way to signal him if she wished to speak again. Three days ago, during her flight back to Corstref from her homeland, she did so. Fraelagesh was unable to attend to her personally, but sent his raven familiar, through whom he spoke. They discussed her options for buying her way out of Kawg's service. He told her about the Orb of Aine, and suggested that the information would be valuable enough for Kawg to release her from her debt. He also told her that Kawg had started the forest fire, and had made Fraelagesh, and probably Lluorlialle (the third dragon whom we had met on the day of the fire), into unwilling accomplices in his scheme.
By the time she finished, Kawg's features had softened. Dunbarton asked, "So what happened to you?"
Kawg related his story. He had flown to the grove in advance of the eclipse, and waited until totality, at which point a gate appeared. It was too small to admit his draconic form, so he shifted into his half-elven form and entered invisibly. A trap awaited him on the other side: He had stepped from the gate directly into a strong anti-magic zone, where he lost his invisibility. Scores of deadly horned devils (the "cornugons" which we had seen), surrounded by hundreds of lesser infernal creatures, immediately set upon him. They were commanded by a huge, fiendish monstrosity. Kawg's magical abilities did not aid him; he could not even shift into his natural form. He was sorely wounded in the battle, but managed to wrest his way through the horde until he was outside of the anti-magic zone. He then immediately used the black amulet to plane shift back to our world, bringing along several of his attackers, their claws and chains still sunk into him. He knew that one instant free of their attention was all that he wound need to gain the upper hand. And he knew that we were valiant (I suspect he meant "foolish") enough to attack the devils, giving him that moment of reprieve. He could not answer our questions about why a greater fiend and its horde would try to kill him.
We sat in silence for a minute. Kawg then spoke to Delyra. "Did Fraelagesh change the means of contacting him?"
Delyra was confused. "Well, yes, he did."
"Return to your room and contact him by the new method. When the raven shows up, ask its name," Kawg instructed.
"Um, okay. Why?"
"Call it a hunch. We'll see where it goes from there. I will be waiting nearby."
We moved upstairs. With a mutter, Kawg vanished. Delyra took a flower from her hair and passed her hand over it, leaving it an unnatural tint of bright purple. She then placed it back in her hair, and waited near the window. We stood around for about fifteen minutes before a large raven fluttered to a landing on the windowsill.
"You rang?" it croaked.
"Yes, I wanted to speak with you again," Delyra said nervously.
"You know the information you gave me, about the Orb of Aine? Well, it was wrong."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought that was the best information I had."
"May I know your name? You, the raven, that is."
"Why, yes. My name is Duriel."
A second later, the raven's neck feathers squeezed tightly about it. Kawg appeared, his fist tightly grasping the raven by the throat. "Fraelagesh's familiar's name is Rakanishu," he stated. N-Guuk cheered. Kawg slammed the raven against the wall.
"You might not want to kill it," Tam suggested in an unassuming voice.
Kawg muttered a dispelling charm. At once, the raven grew, changed color, and shifted its form. What we saw, still grasped by the throat, was an imp.
Exclamations of astonishment echoed in the room.
"I think that we shall be in for a long question-and-answer session," said Kawg, while the imp trembled. "I may require Lluorlialle's help in this. She has skill at working with strange creatures. I will be back later."
"I think I should be there," said Delyra.
Kawg paused for a moment. "Yes, I can arrange that. Any of you who wish to join us are welcome to. Give me a bit of time to clean up my cave, turn down the heat... And disable a few traps." He and the imp vanished. They were gone perhaps five minutes before Kawg reappeared to teleport us to his cave.
"For your sake and mine, please do not touch anything," Kawg advised. We found ourselves in a study. Three wrought iron bookshelves surrounded a red crate that appeared to be made from shed dragon scales. Embedded within the top of this crate was a copper ball about a foot in diameter, which was connected to the shelves by a network of rods. Frost covered the surface of the ball and extended halfway up the rods. The cool bookshelves held unfamiliar titles in many languages, not all of which could be identified. The stifling heat at the perimeter of the room encouraged us to continue our academic perusal of the titles, in comfortable coolness which we found only in proximity to the bookshelves.
Kawg summoned us to the vast, adjoining chamber, the center of which was unfurnished. He was again in his draconic form, and accompanied by two other dragons, who reintroduced themselves as Fraelagesh and Lluorlialle, just in case we had gotten our dragons mixed up. Between them, embedded into the floor past its abdomen, was the terrified imp.
The interrogation involved a mixture of enchantment, fear and pain. The dragon Lluorlialle showed an extraordinary ability to manipulate the imp's will. I shall not relate the details here. We learned the following: The imp had been given its information and commands by a pit fiend (a powerful arch devil) named Vorath, whose motives were unknown. The bone amulet, which Delyra took from the dead kobold sorcerer, allows Vorath to spy on the wearer. Kawg insisted that Delyra surrender the amulet to him for further study; she reluctantly obeyed.
Kawg later speculated that our encounters with imps in the past may have had connections to Vorath; the fiend might have been displeased with our interference at the goblin cave and in Gabil Dûm, so he had targeted Kawg for elimination. Having a disguised imp craftily manipulate others toward self-destructive acts was a common theme throughout these situations.
The dragons plan to interrogate the horned devil, which is frozen in what Kawg calls "temporal stasis". But this will require more preparation, due to the devil's ability to teleport at will.
October 16, 5086, Corstref (night)
Pheldran returned to the Great Library to research past wars that might have been caused by infernal influence. Tam, N-Guuk, Delyra and I visited the Grand Temple of Unil-Gal, the sun god. The high priest was away on business, or so we were told, but we had an audience with one of the cardinals. We explained about the pit fiend, the imps, the averted dwarven civil war, and the destruction of the goblins. We also told him about the vampires. The cardinal magically confirmed our veracity. He had no means of helping us, but promised to look into the matter.
October 17, 5086, Corstref
Kawg has returned with new information obtained at length from the cornugon. The bone amulet which Delyra had worn is not only a scrying device. Vorath had carved it from his own bone. It enables him to open a gate between himself and the location of the amulet. It also affects the mind of the wearer: When they try to contact an extraplanar being, Vorath can intercept the communication. The wearer then perceives Vorath as the creature they were trying to contact.
Out of all of this, her distaste at hearing the source of the bone is what reconciled Delyra with the idea of giving up the amulet.
Kawg plans to take much time to gather information and prepare a counterstrike. We are free to do as we please for the next few weeks. Tam and Pheldran spend their time at the Great Library, hence I foresee a vacation in and around Corstref, enjoying the colorful company of the pie-eyed students and gregarious evangelists. With luck, I may develop a tolerance for this town before the time of my death.