Living Cucumbers

Excerpt from ‘Death Plants: Bizarre Vegetation of the HoX Era,’ Chapter 5: Vegepygmies,’ by Archmage Malenna Dawn, Headmaster of Botany and Alchemy of Ravencraft School of Sorcery and the Dark Arts.

…Vegepygmies aren’t inherently evil, like Gnolls or Drow, but neither are they benevolent in their core communal philosophies. Many might consider them no better than animals, but they are intelligent, with their own unique language and tribal culture. They may even have a religious tradition, though no scholar has yet determined what deity, if any, they worship….

…While Vegepygmies are plants in the technical sense, they are not to be underestimated. Like an erupting volcano or a tremulous tornado, Vegepygmies, in large numbers, are extraordinarily dangerous….

Nolofinwe summoned eight giant lizards that surrounded the giant scorpion and beetle. With the reinforcement, the heroes easily slaughtered the ooze-seeping beasts.

A loud cry echoed in the cavern. The heroes recognized that it must have come from the vegetation-covered humanoid they saw earlier and readied themselves for continued battle. But Craven cast a language spell and understood the strange tongue: “They killed the beasts!”

Craven took a gamble.

“Friends!” Craven shouted, in the language of the vegepygmies. “We come in peace. We do not come to fight. We only want to pass through.”

Silence. The heroes formed a circle, their backs to each other. Flint gave the cleric a sideways glance.

“You speak our language,” Craven heard. The heroes only heard the strange tongue. The lone vegepygmy stepped out of the darkness and into Craven’s light. The heroes’ tensed, ready to charge, but Craven held his hand up to stop them.

“Yes,” Craven responded. “My goddess has allowed me to understand you.”

“You kill the beasts.”

Craven hesitated. He didn’t know what the vegetable humanoid meant by that or how to respond.

“What’re they saying,” Nolo asked. Craven ignored him.

“Um, yes,” Craven stumbled for words. “We killed the monsters. But….”

“Kill beasts, good,” the vegepygmy interrupted. “We thank you.

“Oh, well, you’re welcome,” Craven replied, sighing in relief. “It was our honor.”

“We let you through and then you go.” The vegepygmy turned around and howled more of its bizarre language into the darkness.

“What’s going on?” Nolo asked Craven again.

The cleric smiled ear to ear. “See, Muerath is with us. They’re peaceful. They’re going to escort us through their territory.”

“We could’ve taken ‘em,” Flint said.

“And made ourselves some vegetable soup,” Nolo chuckled.

The heroes decided to mount Nolo’s newly summoned giant lizards and followed the vegepygmy. The little vegetable humanoid led them through the caverns, pointing out various vegetation for the heroes to avoid and not touch.

“See,” Craven said. “They’re so nice they even warn us about the dangerous plants around.”

“Yeah, they’re really friendly,” Flint gruffed. The dwarf noticed the lines of armed vegepygmies hiding in the shadows, following and watching them as they traveled pass.

Arien immediately recognized some of the deadly vegetation the vegepygmy pointed out – russet mold. She vividly remembered its poisonous effects. During one of Roman’s victorious gladiatorial fights, she witnessed a losing opponent’s punishment. The half-living, beaten gladiator was hogtied in chains and placed in a cage in a ten-foot deep hole. A duergar stepped to the edge of the hole. He was dressed in strange protective clothing and carrying a small wooden box. The duergar carefully opened the box and with a thick black gloved hand pulled out a tiny chunk of reddish-colored mold. He threw the mold down at the cage and it exploded in spores all over the chained gladiator. The poor captive screamed as mold quickly sprouted and spread along his flesh. She remembered his words of agony: “It’s eating me!” Fortunately, he didn’t live long, but it must have been the most agonizing last minutes of his life.

Craven noticed a dead body, decomposing in a bed of russet mold. It was the body of a Derro. He dismounted and prayed to his goddess. This forced the others to stop and watch.

“Craven’s a strange one,” Flint said to Nolo. The druid nodded.

The corpse began to twitch and jerk and then slowly moved to rise and stand. Russet mold grew on the rotting flesh.

“Very strange,” Flint repeated.

The vegepygmies emerged from the shadows and surrounded the heroes. Their weapons were drawn. They started howling and whistling.

“What did you do?” Nolo spat at Craven.

“He pissed them off, that’s what” Flint growled. He unbuckled his warhammer. Arien slowly gestured with her fingers, ready to release the magical energies she was conjuring.

The largest of the vegepygmies stepped forward, spear in hand.

Craven held up his hands over his head. “If we have offended you, then we apologize. We meant no harm.”

“You took progeny,” the large vegepygmy hissed, pointing to the shambling undead zombie.

“Progeny? What? Oh.”

“Craven! What’s happening? What did you do?” Arien asked.

“Well, it’d seem that I disturbed their reproductive process,” Craven replied.

“Great work!” Flint yelled. “What? You just cock-blocked ‘em?”

“In a way, I think. Hold on. I can fix this.”

Craven held his arms out in a gesture of peace. “My friends,” he said in the vegepygmy language, “Please, forgive us. We meant no harm. My goddess can raise the dead in-service to help protect my ward.” He pointed to Arien.

Then vegepygmy leader raised his spear.

“We did not know your customs. We did not understand. We do now. Again, we never meant to offend. We mean no harm. We are your friends. If you want, we can return the dead back where it came from and let it continue to be your progeny.”

The leader stared at Craven for a long moment and then lowered his spear. “You go,” he said. “Take progeny. You killed beasts and we thank you. Our gratitude is progeny. But you go now. ” The vegepygmies surrounding the heroes stepped back into the shadows and disappeared.

“Thank you,” Craven said, as he quickly mounted his lizard.

“What happened,” Arien asked again.

Craven smiled. “Muerath is always with us. We can continue. They’re friends. I told you I can take care of this.”

“Weirdo,” Flint mumbled.

The heroes left the territory of the vegegpyies and continued their quest to Shukalgau.

The giant lizards had returned to the Fey many hours ago and the heroes were back on their own feet. They turned a corner and entered a small opening with several passageways. As they stopped to consider which way to go, a lone half-elf came running toward them from out of one of the tunnels. He looked beaten, frightened, and in a hurry. He noticed the heroes and approached.

“Please, for the love of god, help me. They’re right behind me. They’re coming,” he rasped in haggard breath.

The heroes turned to each other, in silence and uncertainty. But they didn’t have time to debate. From out of the tunnel whence the half-elf came, the Duergar burst forth to reclaim their prisoner.

The fight was quick, fierce, and intense. The duergar focused their attention on the half-elf, nearly killing him in their concentrated effort. But the heroes of Xymor had arrived and the duergar weren’t prepared.

Arien touched Flint and transferred the magic of speed onto him. She then danced around and flung lighting spells with a twisted smirk of glee. Flint bellowed out laughter, disappearing in a spell of invisibility and smashing unsuspecting duergar with his booming warhammer. Nolo raised his arms and summoned forth the power of Nature. The cavern exploded in plant life – giant mold, mushrooms, and weeds. It hampered the duergar attack. Then eight giant wolf spiders leapt out of the shadowy corners and assaulted the duergar. Craven healed the half-elf and ordered his zombie to attack and distract the duergar while he out flanked them. The half-elf took advantage of the cleric’s healing by stepping into a shadow and disappearing. He re-appeared across the opposite side of the cavern from out of another shadow and pummeled several of the dark dwarves to death.

The fight wasn’t easy, but the heroes seemed to enjoy slaughtering their old slave masters.

The heroes came out victorious and the half-elf introduced himself as Samir. He told them that he only recently arrived in Shukalgau and was trained as a Slave Hunter for the duergar. But when the opportunity had presented itself, Samir escaped – only to be relentlessly pursued. The pursuit was over—for now.

A Nice Hot Bath

More Duergar would come. Craven instructed everyone to hide the bodies into one of the cavern’s enclaves. Nolofinwe ordered his summoned wolf spiders to cocoon and hang the bodies to make it look like the duergar were ambushed by the giant arachnids. The only concern Craven had was the mass of vegetation Nolo had conjured. Future duergar patrols would know it was not natural, but there was nothing to be done about it. Fortunately, the heroes’ new companion, Samir, knew a technique to cover and hide their tracks and so they left. Hopefully, Craven thought, it would confuse and detour the coming patrols.

In time, when the heroes felt assured that no one was following, they rested.

“We’re only about an hour away from the entrance,” Nolo said.

“Good,” said Craven. “Now we need to decide how we’re gonna do this. Nolo, is there anything else you can tell us about this secret passage?”

“I don’t know much else,” Nolo confessed. “Zufem just said it was a passage that slaves used to escape.”

“Who’s Zufem?” asked Samir.

“A troll I knew. A friend,” Nolo said. “He’s probably dead now.”

“What do you know of Shukalgau?” Craven asked Samir.

“I could draw you a map,” Samir responded. Using rocks and pebbles as landmarks and dirt lines as borders, he drew a crude illustration on the ground.

“This is the only road to Shukalgau,” explained Smair. “The city is built along a massive rock formation.”

“It looks like half a pie,” Arien commented.

“These are the walls,” Samir continued, “made of iron. And these circles are the guard towers. This, right here, is the Great Gate Ebon. It’s the only known entrance into Shukalgau and is heavily guarded. Past the first walls; you enter the outer section – the homes of the commoners, guilds, inns, bars, markets, slave traders, and to the southern end, the slums which are mostly populated by Derro. Past this wall, further in the city, is the inner section. This is where the nobles, wealthy merchants, and the duergar military reside. It’s also the place of the duergar government. This spot here is the Obsidian Palace – the palace of The Gray King and the central power of Shukalgau. At the northern end, near the barracks, are slave pens. Some I know serve the nobles and others are there in temporary holding until moved into the mines – here. I’ve stayed in that place. In this area, behind the noble section are the forges.”

“But where, exactly in Shukalgau, will this secret passage take us?” Craven asked.

“I don’t know,” Nolo answered.

“I’m curious what kind of secret passage it is,” said Craven, stroking his beard.

“What do you mean?” Nolo asked.

“Well, I have a hard time believing this passage was made by slaves and the duergar never found out,” Craven replied.

“Maybe they did,” Flint said.

“True, but I wonder if it was a secret passage meant for the royal family or one of the noble families. If that is the case, maybe it’ll lead us into the inner section.”

“We haven’t been that lucky so far,” Flint added.

“Again, true,” Craven nodded. “Though my other thought is that it will take us into the forges. Maybe it’s a naturally-made passage or made by indigenous animals and the slave simply discovered it and took advantage. If it does go to the forge, it may be tricky to get from there to the inner area.”

“Wherever it takes us, we’ll need a plan and I’ve got one,” said Flint. “Where ever it takes us, I’ll be disguised as a duergar, maybe as a slave trader or a slave wrangler and you lot will either be my slaves or invisible or something.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Craven said, “but we’ll still need to figure out where the passage takes us before we finalize how exactly we want to orchestrate this operation. The next problem is we need to find where the mechanism is.”

“Mechanism?” Samir inquired.

“Oh, I suppose we never explained why we’re trying to sneak into Shukalgau. You are aware that we are all from different worlds, right?”

Samir was silent.

Craven continued: “We’re all from different worlds, dimensions, or realities, or whatever mystics like to call them. That’s why when you told us of your kingdom and your title, none of us showed any recognition. It’s the same for all of us.”

“I heard mention of something like that, but wasn’t exactly clear,” said Samir.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

“Yes,” Samir answered.

“You do? You remember the duergar taking you to Xymor?" Craven was shocked.

“Well, no, not that part,” Samir confessed. “I remember… I was sentenced to death but ended up here.” Samir’s thoughts went back to that night and Asim. Was it Asim who gave him to the duergar? Did Asim disobey the sultan’s orders and actually spare his life? Was it Asim that told the duergar that Samir would be an excellent slave hunter? He remembered Asim signaling ‘survive.’ Did Asim have a plan to get him out of Xymor? How?

These questions rolled in his head. It wasn’t the first time he wondered about these and it wouldn’t be the last time. But one thing was certain – Samir wanted answers and these new people might be able to help.

Craven smiled. “Yes, it’s the same with all of us. The duergar have some sort of mechanism, a portal or magic spell, that allows them to travel to different worlds where they buy or capture poor souls to be slaves.”

“To gather magmium to help the Contraptions in their wars,” Samir added.

The four heroes looked at each other in silence.

“How do you mean?” Arien inquired.

“The machines the duergar work with – you know.”

“Who had those drawings?” asked Craven. “The ones you showed me of those machines.”

Nolo took out the pieces of parchment and showed them to Samir.

“Yes,” Samir nodded. “The ones I saw were different looking, but they were similar in design.”

“So the duergar are serving or helping these machines in some war effort?” asked Craven.

Samir nodded again.

“That is good information to know.”

Craven began to contemplate the words his goddess said over five years ago. She mentioned a war between the gods and something…. He couldn’t remember. Who were the gods fighting against? Who were the Contraptions and who were their enemies? Was there a connection?

“At any rate,” Craven continued, “we’re going into the mouth of the lion. As far as we can tell, it’s our only way out of Xymor.”

“I’d like to come and help,” said Samir. “I know Shukalgau better than any of you and I want to go home too.”

The four heroes agreed.

“With all this planning,” Craven said, “there is still one problem we have yet to deal with – Vermelda.”

The heroes knew Vermelda would interfere somewhere, somehow, but they didn’t know when.

Night fell, and once more, Vermelda came to assault Arien in her sleep, but it was Artemis who noticed Arien’s distress and brought it to Nolo’s attention. Nolo woke Craven who stopped Vermelda.

“The witch must be getting frustrated,” Craven said as he went back to sleep.

The next day, the heroes traveled to the entrance of the secret passage. They sent Artemis to scout ahead. She saw a giant snail to the side of the entrance and further in, she spied several animated skeletons engulfed in flame, but their cream-colored bones did not burn.

The plan was to sneak by the giant snail and engage the skeletons, but as the heroes tried to sneak past the snail, its giant shell began to glow.

Samir and Nolo tried to quicken their pace into the passage and away from the glow, but Samir triggered a floor plate that forced him to stop. Spheres of molten lava fell from the ceiling and down onto Samir and Nolo.

Flint and Craven rushed to attack the snail. They covered their eyes with their shields, knowing the continual glow would cause harm. But Nolo wasn’t so lucky; he was in the direct line-of-sight with the snail and the glow burst into colored lights – the pretty lights. Nolo was stunned.

Arien had rushed past Nolo and Samir. She noticed the passage had pockets of steaming, slightly boiling water and streams with geysers scattered around the area. Then she saw the burning skeletons. They had heard the commotion and were coming. But the skeletons weren’t the only things the heroes were fighting. Further back into the caverns, two stout dwarf-life humanoids ran towards them, wielding warhammers and their beards and hair ablaze. They were Azer.

Craven and Flint eventually killed the giant snail, breaking Nolo’s hypnotic trance. The three of them sprinted into the passage. Samir, who was still recovering from the trap, followed.

Many of the skeletons had created a blockade in front of Arien; pools of hot water at both sides of her.

Craven held out his arms and his eyes glowed.

“Muerath rules over the dead and undead alike. You are her servants and I am her avatar. Hear my words and fear them – be gone and return to the shadows of death.”

The burning skeletons stopped moving; their eyes flared and their bones shivered. If it were possible, Arien sensed fear amongst the animated bones. The skeletons turned around and retreated, gathering around their masters, the Azer. Arien cast a lightning bolt. It blast through a couple skeletons with little effect, but it did hit one of the fiery dwarves, nearly killing him.

Nolo pointed at the two Azer and skeletons, whispering. An icy chill blew through the caverns. The fiery hair and beards of the Azer diminished and they, for the first time in their life, felt the icy cold bite of frost. The ground around them turned to snow, slush, and ice, and thick, dark clouds formed above them. A snow blizzard swarmed around them and out of the clouds fell fist-sized shards of ice. They pierced the flesh of the flaming-beard dwarves and broke the joints of the skeletons. A shard struck one of the Azer through the jugular, killing him. All the skeletons in the blizzard fell apart and died their final death under the onslaught of the giant icicles.

With Samir’s deadly darts, Flint’s booming warhammer, and Craven’s touch of death, the rest of the skeletons crumbled to pieces.

The surviving Azer rushed forward with a roar and grabbed Flint, forcing both of them into a pool of boiling water. The two struggled and pounded on each other. Arien tried to focus a deadly spell on the Azer, but because of the splashing and close proximity, she couldn’t get a clear sight without hitting Flint. But Flint didn’t need help. With a single, powerful blow, he bashed the Azer’s skull open.

Nolo helped drag Flint out of the pool.

“Gods, that’s hot,” Flint said. “Don’t think I’m gonna need a bath for a week.”

Fight! Fight! Fight!

A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

After defeating several fiery skeletons and Azers, Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven, Flint, and Samir looted their enemies’ remains and scoured the area. Bright orange light illuminated the cavern ahead and as Flint walked to the stone steps leading into the chamber, an armored human shot a flaming arrow at him. The arrow missed, but the guard was not alone. Three magmin advanced to also repel the intruders.

Flint moved to block the creatures from advancing past him up the stairs but his eager companions rushed down to fight the creatures. Nolofinwe doused the enemy in a purple glow to make them easier to hit as Arien used her magic to boost Samir’s speed and agility for battle. A bulbous flying creature with a stinging tail erupted from a side chamber, screeched loudly to frighten the heroes and then began swallowing Arien whole. Flint tried to pry the creature off Arien as Craven summoned the blessings of Muerath to create a spiritual scythe to strike down his foes. The guard scrambled away from the battle, but Samir followed and unwittingly triggered a green flaming skull to rise and announce the intruders.

Meanwhile, Arien used her powers to teleport away from the water leaper’s jaws. The creature was eventually destroyed, along with the remaining magmin. But the unholy skull created a flaming sphere to burn Samir and then blasted the group with a giant fireball and magic missiles. Arien cast lighting bolt to char the skull and with the help from her companions, it too was destroyed. Samir managed to reach the guard and used his quick attacks to render him unconscious.

However, their attention was drawn to a woman, sheathed in flames, that flew to a landing that jutted from a pool of magma that covered the eastern part of the cavern. She called out, “Pyrumothexius it is time to defend the flames!” before taking cover behind a pillar of rock. But Samir quickly made his way across the magma to attack the fiery sorceress. Then a loud roar filled the cavern as a flaming dragon flew into the fray. Flint also quickly ran to the sorceress, leaving Arien, Nolo and Craven back in the main chamber.

As he passed his new companions he shouted in encouragement, “Have fun with the dragon!”

Dragon Magma Battle

A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven, Flint and Samir faced a dangerous flame dragon summoned by a fiery sorceress in the secret caverns to Shukalgau. The sorceress called for the dragon to aid her in her battle against Flint and Samir. Arien noticed the dragon’s irritation at the command and tried to convince the beast it did not have to abide by the sorceress. The dragon agreed and then proceeded to blast Arien and Craven with fire. The two managed to survive the attack, but both were gravely wounded.

Meanwhile, Flint and Samir did their best to face the sorceress, but her magic allowed her to blind Samir and fly from Flint’s attempt to shove her into the surrounding magma. Nolofinwe conjured a colony of giant bats to surround the dragon. The flying mammals were able to wound the dragon as it flew by on its way to help the sorceress.

As Arien gathered herself from the dragon attack, Vermelda appeared. The hag urged Arien to follow her to safety. Instead of following, Arien immediately blasted Vermelda with lighting while Craven and Nolofinwe also turned their attacks on the witch. Enraged and sputtering curses, Vermelda again slipped from their grasp and entered the ethereal plane.

On the other side of the cavern, the fire sorceress conjured a fireball to blast her enemies, severely wounding Samir. The dragon soon appeared to attack them, but Flint used his magic to teleport onto its back as Samir ran to safety. The dragon dove into the magma, but Flint dropped from the creature just in time to avoid being charred.

Both enemies then turned their sights on Arien, Nolo and Craven. Nolofinwe used the red glow of his magic bear carving to fully heal Craven and Arien blasted the sorceress with arcane magic, knocking her to the ground. Craven and the conjured bats quickly went to work killing the fiery woman. But the dragon still remained in battle and again Craven bore the brunt of its fiery breath. This time, the cleric of Muerath fell, nearly dead. The dragon then turned to flee, but the giant bats again attacked, finally causing the dragon to splash into the magma… dead.

Meanwhile, as Samir ran toward the safety of unexplored caverns, he startled two ragged derro hiding in the shadows. He ran past them and created an illusion of a rock to hide inside. With the battle done, Flint managed to spot the derro and expected them to be angry at the dragon’s death. Instead, they seemed uncaring and actually pointed him in the direction of the dragon’s horde. Flint gleefully followed their directions to the treasure. Craven was quickly patched up after the battle and all the companions began searching the caverns and the bodies of their foes…

Basking in Glory

A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven, Flint and Samir basked in the glory of their recent victory. While traversing the supposedly secret tunnels to Shukalgau, they defeated a flame dragon and the fiery sorceress that tried to end their journey.

The heroes questioned a captured guard, Benran, who explained that the sorceress was looking for a way into Shukalgau through the magma. Ountess had trained the dragon, Pyrumothexius, to traverse the magma with instructions to find an entrance into the city and then seize control from the Duergar. However, the dragon had grown ever more lazy and impertinent.

Craven forced Benran to open the complex lock that led into Ountess’s chambers. Inside, a strange green lamp illuminated the room which had a journal on the desk and a chest in the corner. Ountess’s journal confirmed Benran’s story and for his cooperation, he was allowed to leave to fend for himself in the treacherous caverns of Xymor with nothing but Flint’s handaxe at his side. Nolofinwe and Samir opened the chest, triggering a Glyph of Warding. They survived the trap and the treasures inside proved worthwhile.

The companions decided to rest for the night inside the room and woke the next morning without noticing any sign of Vermelda during their slumber…

An Old Enemy and a New Ally

My son, you have done well and are blessed. Speak truth and tell of your accounting.

Blessed Mother, you honor me and I humble myself to your glory. I shall tell the truth that I know and subject myself to your mercy for any error I speak.

It was the morning after and we had had made our decision to infiltrate Shukalgau; or so I thought. There were still some who had doubts.

I had prayed and the blessed mother gifted us with her bounty of food and drink. I had hoped that breakfast would bind us together to foster a sense of camaraderie and trust that we would need to succeed in our current endeavor. But my heart sank when Arien whispered into my ear: “I need to speak with you in private. I don’t trust Samir.” I knew then was not the time to cultivate discontent or harbor distrust among ourselves. I believed any such misgivings should be aired out publicly and be open for discussion. I expressed that thought in not so many words. But Arien ignored my rebuff and, instead, spoke with Nolofinwe in private.

What words they spoke, I do not know, but it appeared Nolo convinced Arien to speak freely and honestly about her concerns with the rest of us. Nolo is a good elf and perhaps, of softer tongue than me.

Arien confessed that she had been visited by the vampire, Morgath, not in physical form, but through the channels of mind and spirit. She received this ‘waking dream,’ as she described it, as she awoke that morning. The vampire Morgath asked about her and her lover, Roman Khan, and when he should expect them to arrive in Massar. The vampire said he had a way to rid her of Vermelda once and for all.

This waking dream disturbed me on many accounts. It confused Arien’s convictions and brought doubt to our current objective. She began to wonder whether we should listen to the message and instead turn around and go to Massar. Flint, of course, rejected the idea. ‘Massar is a hell of a place. I ain’t going there,’ he huffed.

The message itself was not what disturbed me. What made me pause in concern were three points: how did the message come; from whom did it come; and why did it come now?

A vampire? It was then Arien and Nolo relayed their relations with the vampire Morgath; and in their telling I began to wonder if this vampire had bitten Arien or placed a spell on her. If it had been a spell, I believed Flint or Nolo would have noticed that already. So my suspicion fell on the darker notion – she had been bitten and was slowly turning into a vampire’s thrall. The idea truly distressed my heart. Not only had I been sent on a holy quest to rescue Arien out of the maleficent darkness of Xymor and contend with the continual pursuit of a half-crazed, but deadly witch, who I had learned how to keep at bay for the time being, but now I had to be concerned about a vampire that may have enraptured my sanctified ward. It always feels the darkest before the dawn.

I expressed my thoughts, but Arien was adamant that the vampire Morgath had not touched her. I noticed Flint eyeing Arien’s neck. I was about to inform the dwarf that vampires rarely practiced contrived behaviors of biting necks as they typically bite their thralls in places the public cannot usually see. But I thought better of it. Knowing Flint, he may have wanted to strip Arien and inspect her whole body.

Arien refused to believe she was influenced by the vampire Morgath. I let it go, for the time being, and brought up the last point: why now? Why did Arien receive the message right before we were about to enter Shukalgau? It was too coincidental. Of course there was no immediate answer. We discussed and explored the issue more and finally, Arien was convinced to ignore the message and continue our quest to sneak into Shukalgau and find the portal out of Xymor.

During our conversation, Flint had wandered off to scout our path without telling any of us. When I had noticed his absence, it was then we heard the booming voice: “Samir! Give yourself up and your companions will be allowed to leave unharmed.”

While Samir, Arien, and Nolo rushed out of our safe quarters through the east passage, Artemis and I hurried out the north. I heard Flint roar in the distance: “And you call yourself a dwarf!”

I turned a corner and saw a tall, menacing-looking tiefling in arms against a duergar. Across the way, I saw Flint and Samir fighting a couple more duergar. I couldn’t see Arien or Nolo.

I ran to fight alongside the stranger and before I knew it, the fight was over. The tiefling and I stood in silence, measuring each other and wondering who would make the first move, be it words or blades. Samir, Arien, and Nolo had quickly arrived and Samir introduced us to his tiefling friend, Truneseeg.

The tiefling told us his story of how Vermelda had come to Shukalgau; of how she informed the duergar of our location; and of how Truenseeg was assigned to investigate the passage and bring Samir back. Truenseeg did not say it at the time, but I wondered if Vermelda had told them of our intentions. The tiefling said he knew nothing about the secret passage. The hunting party was surprised of its discovery.

Samir vouched for Truneseeg. It was apparent to the rest of us that the two of them were allies, if not friends. Samir explained our situation and Truneseeg offered to help, if it offered a way out of Xymor.

I then noticed Flint was gone again. And again, we heard a booming cry, but this one was Flint. We hurried through the caverns toward his voice and found him standing in a narrow passageway, battle ready.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked.

‘Giant flaming lizards,’ Flint responded. Several large snake-like beasts with scales the color of fire came at the dwarf. Arien rushed to his back and touched him, bestowing a spell of speed upon the sorcerer-warrior. He released a spell on himself and shape-shifted into a large bear, but it was like no bear I had ever seen before. It had quills on its back like a porcupine. The beast roared and savaged the lizard creatures. It seemed we were in for yet more obstacles along our path to Shukalgau.

Interrogation Transcript of Bopko

Interrogator: Bopko, you are here to give testimony of your eye witness account on the day the Scourges of Xymor came to your escaped Derro settlement.

Bopko: 4, 5, 6, 7! I was there! I saw it all because I was there!

Interrogator: Then give us your testimony. But be aware that if you lie, your execution will be painful.

Bopko: No, no. I was there. I was. I saw it all. I won’t lie. 4, 5, 6, 7. I saw the Scourges of Xymor. I first saw them kill the great and powerful red dragon and slay the mistress of flame.

Interrogator: Yes, we are aware of what happened before. But what happened the next day?

Bopko: 4, 5, 6, 7. We ran and hid. We ran and returned. We ran and made wall for kingdom. If they came, they would not find magic wall we built.

Interrogator: Magic wall?

Bopko: Magic wall. Poopycock had pet – Peepee, a gigantic spider. Peepee was Poopycock’s pet. Peepee guarded wall. But we thought the fire lizards would get them. We did! We did!

Interrogator: But if these murderers killed a red dragon, what chance did salamanders have?

Bopko: 4, 5, 6, 7. Fire lizards are more powerful than dragons. Dragon weak. Fire lizards mate. Dragon no mate.

Interrogator: Whatever. Now, before we continue, you must stop repeating those numbers. If you say those numbers again, I will personally have you flayed and keep you alive for a week. Understand? Good. Now, continue.

Bopko: Killers killed fire lizards. The big bear ate them all.

Interrogator: Big bear?

Bopko: There was a big bear. He ate all the fire lizards and their eggs. I got mad. Fire lizard eggs are tasty and big bear didn’t care to share. Sharing is caring and big bear not a care bear.

Interrogator: So this bear savaged a group of salamanders and ate their eggs. Scribe, please note that the Scourges of Xymor have a pet bear. So, Bopko, what happened after they killed the salamanders?

Bopko: They found wall. They destroyed wall.

Interrogator: But you said it was magic.

Bopko: It was. Magic made rocks fall on intruders; bury them and kill them.

Interrogator: So how did they destroy it?

Bopko: Magic stick. Dark Lady Devil Tongue Witch used magic stick and destroyed wall with sorcery missiles.

Interrogator: I see. Dark Lady? Scribe, please annotate all references of Dark Lady as Arien-gil Bihari. Continue.

Bopko: Poopycock’s gigantic spider held them at bay. Peepee scared them. But they did not want to fight. Dark Lady Devil Tongue Witch says they want to talk. She says they killed great red dragon for us. She says they want to serve us. She says they want to help us conquer Shukalgau. But they had to get permission from Baby Graki Nanny.

Interrogator: This Baby Graki Nanny was your king?

Bopko: Not king, but nanny – Baby Graki Nanny.

Interrogator: Okay, fine. Nanny. Scribe, please note the leadership role of Baby Graki Nanny. So, this Baby Graki Nanny believed them and allowed them entrance?

Bopko: No. Baby Graki Nanny had to do test first.

Interrogator: Test?

Bopko: Test Scourges of Xymor; test if they were worthy. They were not worthy. They murdered…

Interrogator: Bopko, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Tell us what happened before the murders.

Bopko: Baby Graki Nanny let them in. Maybe Baby Graki Nanny was not worthy. But he let them in. But big bear couldn’t fit in. Big Bear, not a care bear, had a big butt. He couldn’t fit.

Interrogator: What happened to this big bear?

Bopko: Big Bear with big butt who ate all the fire lizard eggs and not care to share, turned back into little big man with big butt.

Interrogator: Wait. So that bear wasn’t a pet. It was a shape shifter. And by your description, it sounds like it was Flint Ironfist, the stone dwarf. Scribe, please note that Flint can polymorph. And please make sure General Commander Ragnor Cane knows of this. He would be very interested in learning that Flint Ironfist is now able to polymorph. Anyway, continue.

Bopko: Who is General Commander Ragnor Pain?

Interrogator: Ragnor Cane. And that is not your concern. Now, as you were saying, Flint changed back into his dwarf form…

Bopko: Yes, Fisty of big bear, big butt turned into little big man with big butt. But Fisty was able to squeeze through wall even with big butt.

Interrogator: Yes, yes. What happened next? They approached Baby Graki Nanny, correct? Then what?

Bopko: Baby Graki test.

Interrogator: Baby Graki test? What was this test?

Bopko: Baby Graki Nanny carries Baby Graki and gives test.

Interrogator: Wait. Baby Graki was an actual baby?

Bopko: Baby Graki – big baby, but not have big butt like…

Interrogator: Enough with the big butt! Who or what was Baby Graki?

Bopko: Baby Graki Nanny carries Baby Graki in baby crib.

Interrogator: Crib? He carried a baby around in a baby crib?

Bopko: Yes. Doesn’t everyone? Baby Graki in tiny cage on a stick – crib.

Interrogator: Wait. What?

Bopko: Baby Graki lived in tiny cage – plays, eats, and poops in cage on stick. Baby Graki in crib.

Interrogator: But that’s not a… Okay, whatever. So they approach Baby Graki Nanny and Baby Graki who’s in a cage.

Bopko: Crib.

Interrogator: Crib. What happened next?

Bopko: Scourges of Xymor stood before Baby Graki Nany and he shakes Baby Graki.

Interrogator: He shakes the baby?

Bopko: Baby shake and Baby Graki does test.

Interrogator: How?

Bopko: Baby Graki reads head. Test.

Interrogator: But it’s just a baby. How can it read minds?

Bopko: Because Baby Graki is Baby Graki.

Interrogator: Okay, okay. The baby reads minds. What then?

Bopko: Dark Lady Devil Tongue Witch passes test. She had a devil’s tongue and cheats test.

Interrogator: What happened to the others when Baby Graki read their minds?

Bopko: The Great Evil One…

Interrogator: Who?

Bopko: You know – The Great Evil one.

Interrogator: Describe him.

Bopko: Human. Balding. Beard. Holy man.

Interrogator: Scribe, please note the identity of Craven.

Bopko: The Great Evil One tricks Baby Graki and passes test.

Interrogator: And the others?

Bopko: Fisty, the big butt, fails. I saw it. He was not worthy. No, no. He passed. Big butt passes. He saw the evil of The Great Evil One. He tried to kill The Great Evil One. He kills The Great Evil One’s bird.

Interrogator: So Baby Graki entered Flint’s mind and Flint attacked Craven?

Bopko: Yes, but The Great Evil One fools Fisty and Baby Graki can’t show truth anymore. Fisty goes back to what he was before and becomes slave to The Great Evil One.

Interrogator: And Nolofinwe Tasartir?

Bopko: Woody? He fails. He dumb. He drools.

Interrogator: Scribe, note that name. And Samir bin Mu’adh al-Talib?

Bopko: Who?

Interrogator: Samir, the shadow warrior.

Bopko: Oh, the forgettable one. I don’t remember. I forget if he passed or failed. He was forgettable.

Interrogator: So Baby Graki was manipulating their minds.

Bopko: Yes, yes. And the Dark Lady Devil Tongue Witch stakes a banner flag in the ground. A wave of magic everywhere. The Great Evil One…

Interrogator: Yes? And?

Bopko: The Great Evil One killed Baby Graki!!

Interrogator: So it was Craven?

Bopko: The Great Evil one cast spell – death spell. Baby Graki melts.

Interrogator: Melts? Like a fire spell?

Bopko: No. Shrivels. Crumbles. Folds. Blighted. The Great Evil One killed Baby Graki!

Interrogator: So Craven, The Great Evil One, murdered Baby Graki. It was Craven who started the fight?

Bopko: The Great Evil One murdered Baby Graki!

Interrogator: And then what happened?

Bopko: Long Horny kills Poopycock.

Interrogator: Wait. Long Horny?

Bopko: Yes, Long Horny – a demon man.

Interrogator: A demon man. We don’t have any records on a sixth member. Who was this demon man?

Bopko: Long Horny. He was with them when they came. He said we crazy. He said not to trust us. He was a demon man.

Interrogator: Scribe, make sure you note that. So this demon man, Long Horny, attacks. But Craven attacked first, correct?

Bopko: And Fisty attacked too. He jumped in front of Baby Graki Nanny. Fisty was fast as lightning. Fisty came a-fisting, fisting his flaming sword in his fist and fisted right into Baby Graki Nanny.

Interrogator: So the fight commenced. Continue.

Bopko: 4, 5, 6, 7…

Reporting to Cane

Secret recording within General Commander Ragnor Cane’s personal office.

Darkmore: General Commander, I have the report you requested.

Cane: Very good, Lieutenant. And the witnesses?

Darkmore: They have been executed per your order.

Cane: Good. Summarize your thoughts.

Darkmore: The Derro, Bopko, the one you instructed to be resurrected for interrogation, gave valuable information on our quarry.

Cane: Yes. I can see that. Interesting. Polymorph abilities. Magical banner. Summoning angels of death?

Darkmore: Correct, sir. Bopko testified that the derro surrounded them with no way out. But Craven apparently prayed and the ‘gates of Tuphet’ opened with a swarm of spectral demons coming forth, melting the vast majority of them. Physical evidence confirms this as our investigators found traces of divine necromancy on the bodies.

Cane: Divine necromancy – such a strange contradiction. Yet, it is most definitely Craven. This is certainly proof that he has somehow broken through the barrier. This does not bode well.

Darkmore: Yes, sir. Bopko said he tried to flee but Flint Ironfist was able to chase him down and kill him.

Cane: This derro, he said nothing of Arien’s jewel?

Darkmore: No, sir. Either she had it covered or they were too preoccupied in their own crazy hysteria to notice or care.

Cane: I see. Good. So, they killed all the derro.

Darkmore: Except for the one we found.

Cane: Yes, yes. The one with the dead baby. This derro said Craven brought the baby, Baby Graki, back from the dead?

Darkmore: Yes, sir. As the report states, after they killed everyone, including the spiders, they captured this single derro and questioned him.

Cane: The report says this derro’s name was Meme?

Darkmore: Yes, sir. They wanted information on the secret passage into Shukalgau. Supposedly, it was only Craven, Arien, and Nolofinwe that questioned him. Meme said Flint, Samir and the sixth member…

Cane: Whom we still have no information on?

Darkmore: I’m sorry, but that is correct. We’re trying to gather more information on that.

Cane: So, Flint and Samir weren’t interested in questioning this Meme?

Darkmore: They went to find the secret passage and it appeared Flint got himself lost in the tunnels.

Cane: Interesting.

Darkmore: Sir?

Cane: It’s nothing right now. Continue.

Darkmore: From Meme’s account, it would seem Arien tried to use sorcery to persuade it to give them the information they wanted.

Cane: Something with Baby Graki?

Darkmore: Yes, sir. I’m not sure what Arien was trying to do with the dead baby but it failed. The derro said it made her a ‘very maddy lady.’ But it was Craven…

Cane: He reanimated the baby?

Darkmore: Yes, sir. Baby Graki zombie.

Cane: But couldn’t the derro tell it was a zombie?

Darkmore: Craven reanimated the baby still in its cage but had a blanket over it. So no one could see the undead baby. They could only hear it. And apparently, Craven told a story about how no one was allowed to see the baby or it’d die, or worse, not being completely resurrected. Something about how the grace and mercy of his goddess must not be interrupted for 24 hours. The derro was confused in his telling of the story.

Cane: Whatever we say about these people, one thing is for certain – they are tenaciously malicious in their pursuits.

Darkmore: Craven’s trick convinced Meme to help them through the secret tunnels and to Shukalgau.

Cane: Flint or Samir were able to find their way through the tunnels on their own?

Darkmore: No. As I mentioned before, Flint got lost. Samir waited for the others before entering the tunnels but Flint went ahead on his own.

Cane: That sounds like Flint.

Darkmore: Yes, sir. Meme, as you can read in his account, he was very descriptive in his opinion of Flint.

Cane: A dwarf getting lost underground is a bit embarrassing. But they were able to find him.

Darkmore: Yes, sir. Craven called out to him. This allowed Flint to follow the sound and exit the tunnels. With the group together, Meme guided them towards Shukalgau. Meme told them they were heading towards the Central Market.

Cane: Of course the little derro would think that.

Darkmore: As they approached the sewage dump, Meme mentioned the loud tremors, booms and vibrations.

Cane: That makes sense.

Darkmore: Yes, sir. They found the garbage heap and Flint was the first to climb it. He was the one to hack the door shoot to Shukalgau and…

Cane: Interesting. Very interesting.

Darkmore: I’m not sure I understand.

Cane: By all accounts, this group does not work very well together. They each have their own agenda and interests. They aren’t loyal to the group. They act as if they care very little for one another. From the accounts, they fight for themselves, individually; not as a group. They are not a fighting unit. They are severely flawed.

Darkmore: I’m still not following.

Cane: They move as a group, sure, but they don’t move as one. I wonder…

Darkmore: Sir?

Cane: If we discovered the correct lynchpin, we could splinter this group, perhaps even getting them to kill each other…

The Fetters are Broken

Long into the future in a land far, far away…
Arien-gil Bihari, Nolofinwe Tasartir, Craven Witchborn, Flint Ironfist and Samir bin Mu’adh al-Talib continued their long trek through the secret tunnels to Shukalgau. Flint managed to climb out of the tunnel and found himself in a Derro garbage dump. He immediately came under attack from a hidden metallic claw. He jumped back down the hole and told the others of the attack. Meme, their Derro guide, mentioned that it was the guardian and would attack any non-Derro that emerged from the tunnel.

Craven convinced Meme to take Baby Graki to His Excellency Captain Major Emperor Dongle Judd. The cleric of Muerath told Meme that the Derro should begin their takeover of the Duergar because Baby Graki demanded it. Meme fled as Samir put pass without trace on them all to try and sneak past the guard. They decided Flint would go up first to distract the creature then the others would follow Truneseeg.

Flint was easily discovered by two nearby humans once he emerged. The humans announced “dibs” on the dwarf and shifted into hybrid rat creatures. Everybody quickly climbed into the garbage dump, but the machine-like guardian breathed fire onto Arien and Nolofinwe. It continued its attacks against Nolo as the rest of the companions tried to flee from the machine. The heroes managed to kill the wererats and get away before the guardian could do more damage.

They scurried silently toward the Central Market to find Takgar, breathing hard against the choking heat and putrid air. As the ground trembled violently, they ran into a Duergar patrol. The Duergar where no match for the companions, especially after Nolo conjured a swarm of giant bats, but then an earthquake hit, knocking most of them to the ground. Vermelda suddenly appeared, claiming the fetters of Xymor were broken and hoping the wretched piles of pig shit suffered long before they died in the chaos to come. She then disappeared again.

The back wall of Shukalgau exploded. What looked like a large ship pummeled through the wall, a ring of fire around it. But wrapped around the bow of the ship was a huge squid. However, where a squid would normally have fin lobes, this creature had large wings that resembled a dragon’s. Geometric objects tumbled from the ship, resembling the spheres and cubes of the Machines or Contraptions. The ship and the octopod crashed into Shukalgau in a great explosion. The fiery ring around the ship exploded.

Blasts of lighting and fire in the opening of the back wall thundered as rocks crumbled to the city below. Through the opening came several more flying ships, but these had sails and no ring of fire. Painted on the sails were a symbol only Arien had ever seen before: a left-handed gauntlet held upright and four octopus-like, black tentacles wrapped around the palm…

Shukalgau Falling

Long into the future in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven, Flint and Samir, along with Truneseeg defeated several Duergar in Shukalgau as the chaos of invasion and battle erupted around them. Before the companions could decide their next move, an invisible Duergar snuck up behind Nolofinwe. Two blades burst through the druid’s chest, ripping him in half.

More Duergar appeared poised to deal with the rest of the heroes. The dark dwarves proved unprepared to deal with Craven’s spirit guardians and Truneseeg’s lethal poison, but one fled the battle with Flint giving chase. The dwarf quickly caught up with his prey and put an end to the creature. With the ground of Shukalgau trembling and airships launching alchemist fire into the city, Arien had little time to mourn the death of her friend. She gathered a few of Nolofinwe’s belongings and set him afire.

They hurried toward the market and saw one ship head toward the wreckage of an elemental airship and the other head toward the Obsidian Palace with both firing their weapons. Flying Machines and insect-like creatures that produced an ominous drone poured through the opening against the cavern’s back wall. Through the opening, they could see flashes of more battle. A booming voice echoed through the chamber, “Shukalgau is liberated! Destroy your chain masters! To arms! To Arms for Freedom!”

The party entered the Central Market where they spotted Takgar under attack. The group managed to surprise his attackers and take them down. Takgar was pleased to see Truneseeg but revealed that he had no knowledge about the attack on Shukalgau. He did explain that with the fetters broken, the companions could now exit Xymor trough the massive tunnel beyond the back wall of the cavern. Several docking bays for unloading slaves and supplies were housed there. The treasonous Duergar knew of a way through the Obsidian Palace to the forges, where they could access the bays.

The group decided that Takgar’s plan seemed most reasonable. Unfortunately, several Machines landed to attack, killing Takgar and badly wounding Arien. The heroes fled the area, with Craven staying behind to provide cover for Arien, his sworn ward…


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