Roman stepped out of the taxidermist establishment, clenching the patch of red leather in his fist. His emotions ran wild and confused. It had been so long since he last saw the image of the gauntlet fist with tentacles. His blood felt like it was boiling, his muscles twitched, and his eyes burned with the intense hatred of a demon. He wanted to kill everyone and scorch the world around him until he found his true enemies. For a brief moment, nothing else mattered to him but to seek the masked man and the tall fellow. Then he looked up and saw the face of Arien and his heart wept. The tiger within him soothed.
“You find what you wanted?” Nolofinwe asked, breaking Roman’s emotional thoughts.
Roman responded with a grunt.
“Well then, back to the orphanage. It’s not terribly far from here. We should probably…” Nolo started to walk.
“No,” Roman interrupted.
“No?” Nolo was perplexed, as were Arien and Maggie.
“I will not jump down an unknown hole and chase an enemy that I do not know. I have learned my lesson from my past and I will not do that again.” Roman stashed the leather skin in his sack. “Nolo, you said you knew a witch.”
“A witch?” Nolo thought for a moment, puzzled by the question. “Oh, you mean the troll sage, Zufem.”
“He’s far deeper in Burran,” Nolo explained, “in the Dark Corner.”
“Then we go to the Dark Corner first,” Roman ordered.
“Very well, but I must warn you that it’s not the most pleasant of places in Burran.”
“It matters not to me,” Roman responded, “Lead the way.”
The four heroes, led by Nolo, traveled further into the giant mushroom. After an hour of walking, they arrived to the Dark Corner. The buildings were crowded and dilapidated. Trash and refuse littered the streets. There was a stale, unmoving stench of bodily waste, smoke, and death that the heroes could almost taste. The place was eerily silent, other than the occasional rat scampering underneath the trash or the stealthy cat giving chase. Arien noticed, buried under a pile of trash, an old, emaciated man whose skin had turned gray due to age and malnutrition. He watched Arien with a toothless grin and chuckled as she walked past. Further down, Maggie, in the rear of the group, stopped. For a brief moment, she swore she thought she heard a woman’s scream in the distance. It sounded like someone being attacked. She stood there for a moment, but heard nothing else. She hurried along to catch up to her friends.
Finally, Nolo led his comrades to a dark alley.
“He’s down this alley,” Nolo instructed. “But there’s no light here, so maybe I should hold your hand and lead you, Roman?”
Roman envisioned a fist in Nolo’s face. He snorted and snarled at his druid friend. “Arien, light my pole,” Roman said, holding out his glaive in front of his lover.
“Why, of course, love,” Arien cast her light magic on the tip of the bladed shaft. Bright light illuminated 20 feet around them.
Roman grunted again and gestured for Nolo to continue onward.
Nolo smirked. “Just offering.”
The alley was narrow and slimy, and led to a small courtyard full of garbage and waste. There were flies and gnats almost as thick as smoke and the smell almost made Arien throw up her breakfast. Maggie thought she saw a large pile of trash move. She stared at it for a second and concluded that it must have been her imagination.
Nolo walked up to a door to the left of the courtyard and gently knocked.
“Zufem,” Nolo whispered. “It’s Nolofinwe.”
There was no response. Nolo knocked again, a little harder.
“I need to talk to you about what you told me before.”
The heroes heard moans and grunts behind the door. Nolo turned to his friends and tried to give them a reassuring smile.
The door opened. Standing in the doorway was a large, old, green troll with huge tusks. He looked tired and worn, holding a clay jug. He took a drink from his jug and asked what Nolo wanted.
“These are my friends,” Nolo gestured, “and they would like to know more about your theories.”
Roman had suddenly realized that this troll may not be who he was looking for and that Nolofinwe had misinterpreted what Roman wanted. He wanted a wizard, a magic-user, or someone who dabbled in the dark arts. But Roman played along, and allowed his friend to lead the conversation.
Zufem invited the heroes into his home. It was a small and cramped room full of trash and it smelled of body order and waste. Arien had had enough of the smell and cast a spell that deodorized the room and made it smell like fresh flowers and perfume. The troll didn’t seem to notice, but Nolo and Maggie appeared relieved.
“Now, what is it you wanted?” Zufem asked as he sat on a pile of his own garbage.
Roman spoke up before Nolo could respond. “We are looking for a way deeper into Burran, and I had hoped you could tell us what you know.”
Zufem wasn’t able to help the heroes in learning anything about the Burran Orphanage, the thieves’ guild of children, or the satyr. But he was so interested in learning what the heroes knew, that he even took out quill and parchment to take notes. “Tell me what you found,” he inquired.
Roman silently sighed in frustration while Arien began to tell their recent adventure at the orphanage and their battle with Rylos Goan. Zufem seemed very interested at the mention of the undead satyr. He commented that satyrs were not themselves masters, but typically servants to a master. But yet, since this was a satyr that possibly had come back from the dead, he could not say for sure whether the satyr at the orphanage was truly a master or not. He had never heard of an undead satyr until now. He also commented that the greenish lightning that attacked them may have come from a Will-O’-Wisp – a nasty little creature of undead nature.
“Do you think any of this is connected to your theories,” Nolo asked.
“All of this appears to give me more evidence to the idea,” Zufem said with excitement as he continued writing. “Blast it! I ran out of parchment.”
“I have some here,” Nolo said as he reached into his sack and grab the parchment he had taken from the orphanage. He started to hand them to Zufem when Roman noticed something.
“Nolo, where did you get those?”
“At the orphanage,” Nolo relpied. “They’re just blanks.”
“No, they’re not,” Roman exclaimed. “Did you even look at them?”
“What?” Nolo turned the parchments around and noticed the writing. “Oh.” He said meekly.
“What are they?” Arien asked.
Nolo quickly studied the writings and deduced them to be scrolls of magic. One of them could open any lock, magical or otherwise. The other scroll contained a spell that protected the user against plants.
Roman laughed at the spell of protection. “Plants? Ha! What a worthless spell.”
“Oh honey,” Arien interjected, “you’ve never been to the Calerian Forest, have you?”
“Calerian Forest?” Roman snorted.
“Oh yes. There’re giant man-eating Calerian Fly Traps as tall as buildings. Some even mimic food and water to trick wary travels into their death trap. I’ve even heard of some using illusionary magic to lure weak men into thinking that there is a willing nymph to be had, and then snap, they’re plant food.”
Roman looked bewildered. “I’ve never heard of this Calerian Forest you speak of, nor heard of anything like these giant plants. They sound like children’s stories.”
“What do you mean you’ve never heard of them before?” Arien asked with a hint of annoyance. “Everyone knows of the Calerian Forest and the dangers within.”
Zufem’s laugher interrupted the two. “This is exactly my point! You’ve been traveling together but you now notice how different you are from each other?”
“What do you mean?” Arien asked.
“Each of you comes from a different world, or different plane of existence, or perhaps a different reality altogether,” Zufem began. He told the heroes his theory of how the Duergar were able to cross over to other worlds and realities in order to capture slaves. He explained that everyone in Xymor came here as slaves and that almost no one here was a native of these lands. These slaves were brought to Xymor to mine the caverns for magmium.
“Well, if all of this is true,” Arien began to ask, “Then how come we all speak the same language? If we’re all from different realities, as you say, then surely then each of us would have different tongues and we wouldn’t be able to understand one another.”
Zufem shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a theory after all.”
“And what do they do with the magmium,” Roman asked.
“They use it as a fuel source to power their portals and travel to different worlds.”
“I don’t know,” Zufem answerd.
“Are there many of these portals or just one?”
“Again I don’t know, but I do know there has to be one in Shukalgau.”
“Shaka-wha?” Roman tried saying.
“Shak-a-laka?” Maggie tried to pronounce.
“Shakakhan,” Arien said.
“Shakalalagaga,” Nolo added.
“It’s Shukalgau, you fools!” Zufem shouted. “It’s where the Obsidian Palace and The Gray King resides, the seed of the duergars’ power. There must be one there.”
“And why do all of this?” Roman asked. “What is their plan?”
“To rule all realities.”
There was silence in the room.
Zufem started writing again, mumbling to himself. “All of these pieces are starting to come together. Yes, yes. It’s making more sense now. With this undead satyr adding to the fact of Gargen Stonefellow’s children being halflings and the sickness spreading in town….”
“Halfling children?” Arien interrupted.
“Yes, the mayor of Burran, a dwarf, has halfling children,” Zufem replied. “And the sickness started right as Stonefellow announced his halfling children.”
“A dwarf having halfling children?” Roman was confused.
“Maybe they were adopted,” Arien guessed.
“That’s not what he said,” Zufem pointed out. He continued scribbling in his notes.
“Perhaps, it’s time for us to go,” Nolo said.
“Yes,” Arien added, “I’m still confused. Let’s just kill the thing living under the orphanage.”
The heroes thanked Zufem for his time and left.
“So, now off to the orphanage, right?” Nolo asked, as they walked out of the alleyway and back onto the street.
“No. There is a halfling I want to speak with,” Roman said.
The other three companions sighed.
The heroes traveled back to the Chain Ward to look for Paff, the halfing that tried to sell Roman maps the day before. Roman grabbed and picked up the halfling and carried him back to the Night Glow. Back at their room, Roman tried to convince the halfling to give up his maps, particularly the map to an old temple that Paff said might have a hidden portal that could take people back home. The connection between what Paff said about the map and Zufem’s theory was too coincidental for the heroes to pass up.
During the course of the negotiations, Roman let it slip that Goan was dead. The news greatly saddened Paff. He said that Goan was a pillar of the community and took care of the forgotten children. The heroes knew otherwise. Paff then told the story of how Goan used to travel through Xymor and one day faced a black dragon. During the battle, the black dragon used its acid breath and melted Goan’s face.
By this time, Arien’s patience wore thin and she agreed to buy the temple map for 10 gold pieces, thus sparing Paff the hell of adventuring with them at Roman’s insistence. Roman thought she may have been upset at the thought of Goan killing a black dragon.
As Paff began to leave, he mentioned that he used to be an adventurer like the heroes and that’s how he lost his one leg. He told a story about how he faced a mummy to protect his village and became a hero afterwards, but at the high price of losing his leg. The heroes didn’t seem very interested and shoved him out of their rented room.
“So now, we have a map,” Nolo said. “Are we going back to the orphanage now, or are we going to follow this map and find this portal?”
Roman grunted. “Let’s go back to Inner Ward Gate.”
Once at the gate, Roman sought out Shora Craghammer. He wanted more information.
Craghammer told the heroes more about the mayor, Stonefellow and his children, Krik and Carsa. Several months back, the mayor introduced the city to his children that he had supposedly kept secret for many years. Or course, the community was surprised, not only that he had kept them secret but that they were also Halflings. But the people really didn’t think too much about it. Perhaps, the people thought, they were adopted or it was magic. In either case, the majority of the community accepted the children without much question. But Craghammer pointed out to Roman that ever since the children became known, Mayor Stonefellow’s presence in the city had been dwindling and that his halfling children had starting taking on the responsibility of the mayor’s duties. Craghammer admitted that she had not seen the mayor in over a month now. She also added that there was a new sickness spreading in Burran.
Roman thanked Craghammer for her time and led the heroes to the other side of the gate.
“Maybe there’s a Halfling conspiracy,” Arien wondered. “There was that little antagonistic interrogator back at the orphanage.”
Nolofinwe seemed a bit flustered. “So, what are we doing? Are we going to the orphanage? Are we following the halfling’s map to that temple? Or maybe to Shakalakagala and to the Obsidian Palace?”
“Roman, honey?” Arien touched his arm, expecting an answer.
Roman stood in the middle of the street, silent and in deep thought. Pieces of a great and complex puzzle were in front of him, and he did not know how they fit together, if at all: the undead Satyr; the Obsidien Palace; the ruined temple with a portal; the curious case of Stonefellow; the sickness of Burran. The heroes stood at crossroads and their next choice was crucial.
Finally, Roman had decided.
“We break into the mayor’s palace, learn who these Halfling imposters are, and rescue Stonefellow,” Roman said.
He started walking.
Nolofinwe, Arien, and Maggie looked at each other, bewildered and shocked by Roman’s response. They stood there in silence. Then Maggie smirked with a glint in her eyes and ran up to walk alongside Roman. Arien smiled to Nolo and rushed up to her lover and held his arm. Nolo watched Roman, Arien, and Maggie walk away and wondered to himself what he gotten himself into. If he wanted to leave them, now would be the time. He knew next to nothing about these three people, yet something drew him to them. Would they be able to give him the strength to find peace and balance over his wife’s death? Would they help him find a way home and back to his clan? And more importantly, would these crazy people be able to help him find his daughter?
Nolofinwe shrugged to himself and hurried to catch up to his newfound friends.