Adventure Date: November10, 2006
Last Updated: January 19, 2009
DAY 76 CIRCA 2PM
A sad, sorry, and fatigued group of heroes arrived at the walls of Greyhawk City. The last encounter with Gwardo's Caravan had gone badly. Not only were they low in spirit and aching in body but also once again they had an addicted halfling to take care of. Their first order of business was to seek out Belgrath at the Mage Tower where they would present him with the two pieces of the Rod.
There was much hustle and bustle at the city walls and gates. They were being reinforced with magically hardening concrete and mortar. Catapults and ballista were being repaired with new ones being added. Military engineers were out taking measuring anything that could be measured, while foremen and sergeants bellowed out instructions to workers and soldiers. Clerics of various churches hied to and fro casting blessings on weapons and munitions as well as curing hammer struck thumbs, crushed toes and more serious cuts and slashes Aloof battle mages sauntered around checking on the magical readiness of the same devices. Amid the noisy din apprentices raised clouds of dust running back and forth seeking tools demanded by the master craftsmen.
The main gates themselves were scenes of chaos. Crowds of people from the surrounding countryside with their household valuables and animals the were pressing to enter in for the safety of the city walls, while at the same time mobs of people were pushing their way out seeking refuge far from the city. There was a sense urgency, fear and trepidation. Chickens squawked, sheep bleated, donkeys brayed and overworked city guardsmen cursed as they attempted to restore order.
Henry, riding upon the proud Henrietta led the companions. The city guards, recognizing the renowned gnome paladin, attempted to clear a path for them. Seeing the commotion, he leaned over and whispered into the dire badger's ear. Deep tone, loud growls began to emanate from her throat. Flanking her, one per side, the massive riding dog, Rhodesia and the powerful white wolf, Deus, also began their growling. The response was almost immediate. Citizens stopped their squabbling as they turned to look and rushed off to the sides to escape the locale of the animals. Very soon a path through the gates had been cleared. The people stood to one side to watch to watch the menagerie pass by.
Riding side by side close behind Henry were the dwarf and elf. Wearing a worg fur jacket over his mail shirt the ranger had slung up his bow and quiver, with his urgosh and battle-axe hanging on either side of his waist. Short and haughty in the saddle, Ebreck looked straight ahead and growled almost as loudly as the animals at all those that stood between him and a strong drink. Beside him, resplendent in her contour fitting bison hide armour rode Xana the druid. The pale-skinned, auburn haired beauty easily reined her horse with one hand while the other led the reins of the pony trailing behind. Strapped on and tied down to this pony was the stoned halfling, Pennyweight. PW had foolishly attempted to engage Gwardo himself who promptly threw handfuls of Dream Mist powder at him to which PW inhaled and became re-addicted. At this point in time, he was busily singing "Rogues just wanna have fun, that's all they really want" and shouting "Call me Sin-Dee Law-Pair" Following closely were the last pair, the two humans of the group. Nuria Darkfire, the red-haired, gold freckled sorceress wore a drab grey robe, with seemly too many pockets, over an eye-colour matching green silk blouse, skin tight red leather slacks with cavalry styled black riding boots. If one looked closely a person could just make out a rat's head peering out from one of the pockets. A scroll case hugged one hip with a dagger on the other. A half spear and a shoulder slung crossbow completed the ensemble.
Agrona Fathabona, war priest of Heironeous blazing in shining plate armour, smiled and waved to the crowds, blissfully unaware that as he passed by; people were snickering and pointing to his back where miraculously there was encoloured a large bull's eye.
Arriving at the Mage Tower, they all dismounted. Nuria demanded an immediate audience with Belgrath as she passed by the Tower guards. With commands of "Sit, Stay, and Wait Here for Me, My Beauty" the elf, dwarf and gnome left the animals and followed Nuria. This left Agrona to unstrap PW and help down the writhing, perspiring halfling and control him despite the struggles against the cleric.
"I could use a little help here" beseeched the priest to the tower guards. The guards looked at each other, shrugged and continued to stare at the animals, which continued to stare back at the guards. Muttering imaginative and anatomically impossible curses regarding reproduction between halflings and jackals and threats to feed PW to Henrietta, Agrona half carried and half dragged PW into the tower. He failed to notice the grins on the faces of the guards and on the animals.
Inside the tower there was much activity as mages, both novices and experts, hustled up and down the hallways and corridors on mysterious errands. Upon nearing Belgrath's office, one of his legates approached, exclaiming breathlessly," Hurry, hurry, the Archmage awaits. Go right in. You are expected." The group passed straight through the huge antechamber and waiting lounge, directly into Belgrath's working office. The long white-haired and bearded man arose from behind his desk as they entered.
"Welcome friends. Accept the hospitality of the Tower as we conduct our affairs."
Upon these words food trays laden with cold cuts, breads cheeses, stews, roasted chickens and fruit platters floated in and set themselves down on large tables upon which were already laid out flasks of wine and casks of ale. The company fell to with a hearty appetite. "What about PW?" Agrona inquired, as at this time PW was standing in one spot swaying back and forth. Nuria tossed him a large napkin stating "Here put this on him and feed him as best you can" "And try not to get your fingers bitten with the chicken" chuckled Henry. As they ate they conversed.
"Did you get the Second Piece?" inquired the archmage?
"Yes Master Belgrath" replied Nuria, taking out the combined pieces out of her saddlebag.
"Finally, some good news! It has not been a good couple of days, I'm afraid. Your respective leaders will explain the latest happenings. You, Nuria, will get the full details from me later tonight when you submit your full report and debrief me. I will personally take these pieces to the magical inquiry lab and as soon as we have any new information you will all be summoned back. Enjoy your meal." With those words he took his leave.
"What a waste of words, but at least the ale is good," blurted Ebreck accompanied with a large belch to show his appreciation. This earned him a friendly cuff from Xana.
"Watch your manners in the presence of ladies", she warned
"Ladies, what ladies? I don't see any lay-deees" Another cuff. Laughter all around
"Alright people, let's head down to my room. I have some potions that need identifying and then we can decide our next course of action," declared Nuria. With those words she headed out the door followed by Xana carrying a bottle of wine, Henry carrying a flagon of ale while munching on a mortadella and cheese sandwich, Ebreck with a cask of ale under each arm and lastly Agrona carrying Pennyweight. Descending down 5 flights of stairs, they entered a long corridor, along which, at short intervals on both sides were stout wooden doors. Nuria approached the 11th door on the right. A magic mouth on the bronze rat headed doorknocker spoke "Say the pass word and enter safely" "Clip on the nip and let me in" responded Nuria. The door swung silently open into a well-furnished and completely decorated 10-room suite.
"By Nature's grace, all this room and tastefully decorated" admired Xana upon entering. "I could not stay long in a place such as this, but I am glad to see that many plants share your quarters. How is it done?"
"Oh, the space dimensions inside the tower are magically all twisted around so that there is much, much more room inside the tower then there appears to be from the outside," replied Nuria, "and I set a new password each time I leave. Rest awhile; my unseen servants will assist us.
"What happens if one tries to enter without using the passwords?" inquired Henry.
"Want to try and find out?"
"Ah, no. I'll leave that for Agrona."
"You have moved up since your novice days, but your little room down below ground was cozy," remarked Ebreck, pouring out ale.
"Much, much larger and fancier than my dorm at the Order manor house, but then again I do not need much," noted Henry.
"Oh, I ache all over," moaned Agrona, walking in and dropping PW head first on the plush rug. "That last encounter really drained me and as far as I can tell was unnecessary and a total waste of time."
"Not a complete waste", chuckled back Henry, "Henrietta and I got to practice some combat tactics in a real battle situation."
"Oh, goodie, goodie, gnomie doo-doo"
"O.K., people," stated Nuria holding up 3 potion bottles, containing red, pale blue and milky white liquids, 'we'll identify these and then decide what to do with PW."
Suddenly without any warning, a familiar voice exclaimed "You must ensure that I am shackled such that I am not mobile when I begin my withdrawals" All turned to look down at PW who had just spoken his first lucid words in awhile. "I must break this addiction. I have matters that need attention." This was stated with grim determination
"No rest for the good-hearted' intoned Agrona, "I'll take him to my temple to determine what can be done for quickly curing him"
"Cured? I myself prefer halfling smoked. Welcome back to reality PW." joked Henry.
"That's because your ideas are all half-baked," snorted back the cleric.
"At least my "armour" is not, pardon the pun, rear targeted" jokingly double-entendred the gnome.
"What are you talking about? Make some sense"
"Enough!" ordered Ebreck, "I want to return to the Dwarf Clan and catch up on any news. Perhaps find out why the city seems to be in an uproar. Besides, I sense that Rhodesia is getting hungry."
"True enough, friend Ebreck," replied Henry, "also my Henrietta is becoming impatient. I'll accompany you as it is on the way to the fish market, where I can pick up some crayfish for her. She loves crayfish."
"I've no place to go to now that the Druid's Grove is gone," sighed Xana.
"You are welcome to stay with me", responded Nuria, "we can also look after Deus '
"Thanks Nuria. You are a good friend. Let me help with those potions."
Using her magic, Nuria determines that two of the potions are Neutralize Poison and Remove Paralysis. Xana with druidical magic finds the last one to be a potion of Levitation. With promises to get together later the heroes go their separate ways.
Agrona escorted PW to the temple of Heironeous. There amidst the entire goings on of clerics, war priests and prelates hurrying about, they headed to Pope Benedict's business office. They were admitted immediately. Benedict welcomes them back. He looked more frail and tired than ever, as if he was overworked and short of sleep. Agrona explains that they have found the Second Piece and that Belgrath is examining it. Benedict exclaims that this is good news indeed concerning the fear running through the city and countryside since the demon attack. He also explains that the war priests Eric and Elzira along with the novices and acolytes that accompanied them to Hell's Furnaces have all been killed. As well, those clerics who set out for the Rakers are long overdue and out of communication. The worse is assumed.
Agrona sighed,"There is more bad news, I'm afraid. Our little halfling friend here has become re-addicted to dream mist and I brought him back here to see what could be done to cure him."
It was Benedict's turn to sigh, "It is possible, but there will be a price to pay. He will have to become more lawful, less chaotic. Also he will have to be sincere about it. If he promises to change and the either willfully or non-willing does not change, there would be divine retribution"
"No, that is a price I cannot and will not pay" grimaced PW. "I thank you but now I must go to my own temple." So saying, he gathered himself and began to sway towards the office door.
"Wait up", responded Agrona, "I'll accompany you".
The two friends soon neared the small quaint but unimposing temple of Olidammara. Agrona turned to his friend and stated,
"I'll leave you now as I have prayers to attend to. When you are done, return and you can stay with me."
"Thank you, Agrona but I'll be returning to Nuria's apartment."
"Huh? Why there?"
"Sometimes I wonder if Henry isn't right about you. I have a choice of lodging with you or with two beautiful women and you ask me why?"
"But I would appreciate it if you would look in on me every day and do what you did before to ease me through this addiction."
"Of course, little friend."
'The two separated. Agrona was off back to his apartment in his temple and PW entered the temple of Olidammara.
Entering into the main worship area, he saw that it was unoccupied and quickly entered into a vestment storage area off to one side. There he closed the door behind him and passing through rows of hung garments, arrived at the opposite wall, where intoning a small prayer, he found a hidden latch, and pulled it down.
A secret door, which, only the special servants of the God of Masks knew thereof, opened in the wall. A staircase led down the way visible thanks to ever-lit torches set in scones along the walls. The staircase ended inside a well-furnished oil lamp lit room with a small door opposite. Seated at a table playing a game of chance with a set of dice were two non-descript dressed people, a human female and a male half-elf. Beside each were a mug of wine and a bottle set close to them. A lyre stood leaning against the wall beside the male's chair. One would have hard pressed to identify either of them as cleric rogue servants of the Lord of Scoundrels, which they in fact were.
PW dropped a silver piece into an offering box stationed at the bottom of the stairs. The two clerics nodded at him and the female indicated the opposite door. PW passed through into a small salon. On the opposite wall was a little raised dais, upon which sat a tiny candleholder. A black and white striped candle burned a dim light. On the wall behind the dais was hung the laughing mask, symbol of Olidammara. A clear aisle led from the doorway to the tiny altar, with 3 rows of pews on either side.
PW entered and sat at the pew closest to the altar. He prayed:
"Rogue Master, I know that the pain of withdrawal to come is my punishment. I accept that for failing to heed your teachings. The dagger in the back is much more effective than one in the chest. Cold vengeance overpowers hot rage. Sightful planning trumps blind impulse. How can I control the shadows if I cannot control my self? I accept my punishment and have come to beg only one boon; that I be allowed time to plot cold and calculated revenge against Gwardo and to carry out such a plot to your satisfaction. All booty to be shared with you of course." PW, by now, was beginning to feel the effects of addiction withdrawal. Thus, it could have been only a hallucination, but he thought he saw one of the eyes on the mask symbol wink at him. It happened so quickly that he was not sure about it.
Leaving, he entered the anteroom and was stopped by the priestess.
"Wait little brother. A blessing for you as requested from our Teacher."
She placed her hand on his perspiring forehead and incanted a prayer to produce a Lesser Restoration spell. PW felt immediate relief.
"That should hold you for a short while. Heed the teachings of the Rogue Master. The rest is up to you and your friends." The halfling nodded his thanks and took his leave for the Mages' Tower. He felt happier than he had been for a while. His god still blessed him and he was going to dine with two beautiful friends.
Rhodesia led the way. The massive dog zigzagged across the path that led from the main part of the city to the Dwarf Clan, sniffing at things of doggie interest. Ebreck and Henry followed behind walking side by side. They made an interesting study in opposites. Whereas the dwarf was stout and short, the gnome was slender and short. The dwarf had a massive beard and balding dark hair; the gnome was clean-shaven with a mane of silvered hair. While Ebreck was scarred, rough faced and strong by muscle, Henry was smooth skinned, comely and strong by divine favour. Henrietta brought up the rear. She was laden with HHH's assorted weapons, equipment and bags of provisions including large numbers of newly acquired casks of strong drink, bags of pastries, breads and wheels of cheeses. These latest additions were the unintentional compliments of the Mage Tower kitchen staff. Unintentional because Ebreck and HHH had not quite obtained explicit permission to take them from the kitchens, but did so anyway under the assumption that they were all partners in helping each other fight evil, and so it was a good deed to keep the dwarf rangers happy and well-fed.
"Rhodesia is a riding dog, is she not?" queried Henry.
"Of course" replied Ebreck
"Well, don't you think we would make better time if you rode on Rhodesia and I was to ride upon Henrietta?"
Ebreck stopped and stared at Henry for a bit before bursting into laughter.
"Good one, Henry. You had me going there for a second" he exclaimed slapping Henry on the back with a blow that knocked the gnome forward a few steps.
"You know, I sometimes think of you as a poor, beardless, starved to bones short dwarf with an abnormal sense of humour"
"What an amazing coincidence, Ebreck" replied Henry, now slapping the dwarf on the back and knocking him forward a few paces, "I sometimes think of you as a too hairy, balding, overfed to obese tall gnome with an abnormal lack of humour."
The two friends laughed together and continued on their way.
"How far do you want to travel today, Ebreck?"
"We'll continue until sunset and when it gets too dark, we'll stop, have supper and with a good sleep, we'll rise early and arrive at the Clan in time for breakfast Not too much to worry about in these woods anyway."
The foursome continued on the well-trodden path to the Dwarf Clan location.
While HHH snuggled against Henrietta's furry coat and Rhodesia snuggled against Ebreck's hairy beard, back in Greyhawk, Xana found herself restless, unable to sleep and hemmed in. She arose ghostlike, dressing quickly. As quiet as she was, Deus was immediately aware and waiting for her. She knelt beside him, arms around his neck, face pressed into thick fur breathing in the smell of male virile wolf.
"Time for some fresh air and a good run"
Opening the bedroom door, all was quiet in the apartment. Across the way, the door to PW's guest chamber was open and by the light from the moon-lit window, she was clearly able to see the young halfling he was turning and tossing in his bed, caught up in the delirium of dream mist sleep.
Only a few short hours ago, after supper, he had tried to persuade both herself and Nuria that he would recover sooner if they would simultaneously apply "cuddle therapy". Both women had quickly squelched that idea and had sent him packing off to his own bed by himself. Still she wondered if the stories told about the powers of halfling men were true, that they took what little nature had given them and turned it into an immense pleasure giving art form. She shook her head. No time for such thoughts now!
Stepping into the hallway, she proceeded to the apartment entry door. As she was about to open the door out into the Tower Hall a voice whispered' "Wait!" Turing she spied Nuria approaching. Nuria was wearing a translucent white nightgown, mostly unbuttoned, exposing freckled skin everywhere. With long red hair unbound, the young lass could have been mistaken for an avatar of a love goddess. The gold ankle bracelet and the navel emerald only enhanced the image. Xana could only stare. It suddenly occurred to her how beautiful her friend really was. She had just not noticed before because other issues had always been foremost in her mind. Here was a glorious vision. Erotic Innocence Personified! She found herself resisting an urge to reach out and touch the emerald.
"Deus and I both have to ", she started to say but was silenced by Nuria's finger placed on her lips. The contact sent a shiver down her back.
"Yes, I know, I understand", whispered Nuria, standing so close now, that Xana felt intoxicated by the vanilla scent waffling in from Nuria's recently bathed skin and hair.
"I have a key for you. Come". Taking Xana by the hand, she led the young elfess, Deus trailing, into her study. There, Nuria opened a small chest and took out a coin size metal disk. Pressing it into Xana's palm, she softly incanted a few magical words.
"There. This key is now coded for you. When you return, use it to open the small side door of the Tower. It will save you having to be accosted by the guards and it will bypass the magical wards. It is only good for one use, so I'll have to recharge it everyday."
"Thank you, Nuria. You're such a good friend". Xana found her arms hugging Nuria. As if with a will of their own, they began to rub up and down Nuria's back. Xana gave an involuntary gasp, as she felt warm, soft fingers gently massaging her ears, neck and throat. For a few heartbeats there was no sound except laboured breath. Emerald green eyes stared into sea green eyes. Clearing her throat, Xana whispered "Not the time"
"I know", Nuria whispered back, "soon, I hope, soon." Reluctantly they released each other. "Come Deus." So saying, the druid and the wolf turned and exited the apartment.
Once outside, she quickly shape changed into a large grey wolf. The two wolfs raced rapidly through the dark quiet abandoned streets of Greyhawk City. The only noise was faint laughter and music from taverns. With all the dangerous activities, there was no longer much night traffic. Not for honest citizens at least. Avoiding patrols of the City watch, ducking in and out of alleyways, the two soon reached the remains of the Druid's Gate. Seeing the burned out ruins and the stone grave markers, each bearing the name of her druidical friends filled Xana with fresh grief and rage. She howled out to the sky. Her howls promised to do honour to their memory and vengeance upon their murderers. Soon, Deus joined her. The baying of two wolfs late at night was the sound that the residents of Greyhawk were to hear for several nights running.
"Rhodesia feels uneasy and so do I", Ebreck remarked to HHH. The two stood on a low rise, looking down at the ranger Dwarf Clan settlement. The two had risen early and had eaten only trail rations to make good time arriving. They had intended to enjoy a long, cheery brunch with their ranger friends. But the settlement appeared deserted. The usual sounds of dwarf banter and the smells of cook fires were absent. There were no animal companions adding to the din. Only the largest cabin had some smoke rising through a cooking roof vent. There was no one even trying their luck to catch some fish for breakfast from the fresh, crystal stream that ran by the settlement. They started down towards the encampment. Without warning, from around one of the log cabins, a large, old scarred wolf appeared. It appeared to be limping. It sniffed the air and bounded slowly towards them. Rhodesia gave a yelp and raced towards the wolf. The two animals sniffed and greeted each other.
"That's Old Fureye, Thork's wolf!" exclaimed Ebreck. "Yes, and those look like new scars', declared HHH. It was easy to see where the wolf got his name, as a patch of fur grew where an eye should have been. But Henry was referring to missing fur strips along the wolf's back exposing what seemed to be sword slash marks. As well, one ear tip seemed to have been cut off. The limp was due to a ripped rear paw. By now the two friends were stroking the wolf who returned the favour by licking at their hands. Just as Old Oneye and Henrietta touched noses, the door to a largest log cabin opened up and a brass voice bellowed out, "Well, are ye going to play with me wolf all morning or are ye going to open up an ale keg or two and join me for eats? There's lots of eggs, sausages and 'shrooms on the grill here."
Standing in the doorway was an old, grizzled dwarf. A shaggy, unkempt mane of head hair, grey, streaked with white, fell to his shoulders. A huge full beard that fell to the belt buckle holding up deerskin pants matched this. A short sleeve vest, open at the front, exposed a massive white haired chest, brimming with muscle and scars, some very old but others more fresh and recent. One eye was covered with a leather patch.
"Thork! Thork Orkcrusher!" yelled Ebreck, recognizing the ranger clan leader, and started to race down the slope, followed closely by HHH. Reaching the doorway, they both came to an abrupt stop. Their jaws dropped with surprise while their eyebrows rose up. One of Thork's legs was missing. In its place, from knee down stood a wooden peg, wrapped with straps around the thigh to hold it in place.
"I keen tell by ye looks that no one has told ye the story," stated the old dwarf as he embraced both friends in a crushing bear hug. "So good to see ye once again! Sad times, me friends, sad times! "Where is everyone?" "What happened?" both Ebeck and Henry exclaimed at the same time. "First take care of the animals, and then come in for breakfast and I'll tell all," replied the veteran ranger. In a short time, the animals had been given food and water, Henrietta's packs had been unloaded and stored away and the three friends were sitting around a large log table, eating their breakfast while sipping on light morning ale, Thork began to relate his tale.
"After the demonic assault on the city and the Druid's grove, the Greyhawk Council requested that we's track 'em down, gather what knowledge we's could and destroy 'em. The House of Heironeous sent two war clerics along, Elizina Truehand and Eric the Healer, gods bless 'em both, while yer Order, 'enry, sent four senior paladins, Desmond Blackstone, Sir Markus, Sir Edmond and that elfie, Loran Shieldstar. May they be with their gods now? We's tracked 'em bastards for days as they headed for 'ell's Furnance. Clovis' eagle scouted ahead for us. No way we's was going to loose 'em." Suddenly his cracked and his eyes reddened with brimming tears. "If only we's went slower, things might be different". A sob escaped his throat as he wiped at his eyes. "Theys caught us as we's was finding theys entry into the mountains. It was like theys just popped in. not just the demons but red-bearded giants. Scores of them. Theys just overwhelmed us! Theys kept hitting us with balls of fire and streams of flame even as they engaged us Theys seemed immune to these effects. We's didn't have time to set up a good defense as theys was so many on each one of us. We's fought well. Oh yes, my, but the laddies gave a good account. Makes me proud! That lassie, Elizina, calling out 'er god's name took down two demons and a giant 'erself before a flying demon landed on 'er back and bore 'er down. Me and Fureye, we's were by a little ledge and we's just killed a giant but we's still had two bastard fiends and two other bastard giants of our own. One was the giant leader; Crimson methinks 'e was called. It was 'e who took off me leg. It would be me head if ole Fureye 'adn't hung on to 'is wrist to deflect that blow.
Me's would bleed to death except that Eric broke off fighting to come to 'eal me. That cost him two mortal hits. 'e died just as 'e ended the 'eal." More sobs erupted from his throat. Glancing at Ebreck Henry saw tears running down his friend's eyes while shameless tears streamed down his own face, all thoughts of food forgotten. " 'Enry, t'was your good friend Edmond already bleeding and cut up who stood over Eric and me holding off the bastards so that Eric could finish me 'ealing. I watched 'im take out those two demons. When Eric died, 'e turned to me and said 'One of us must report', and 'e pushed me off the ledge. That's when Crimson got 'im through the back. As I slid down that cliff side me could see that the remaining laddies, Clovis, Butcha, and Morrack along with Desmond, Markus, and that elfie had linked up to make a last stand circle using bodies of giants and demons as partial cover. I must have slid down what seemed forever and hit me head on a rock.
"I hope you did not hurt the rock too much," sobbed Henry, his gnomish nature attempting to lessen the grief that threatened to overwhelm him.
"When I came to, it was starting to get dark" contined Thork. "Fureye was licking at me face. 'E must have followed me down. I took a sip of cure to stop me head from pounding. It was all quiet. There were no bodies, no equipment, nothing. Just lots of blood on the rocks. Fureye and me, we's made our way back and reported in."
"So they're all dead?" whispered Ebreck.
"Afraid so, laddie, afraid so. Dead but not forgotten. They will be avenged. I swear it. Oh also 'Enry the rest of the senior paladins went to the Rakers area and no word from them yet."
Henry looked up, his face full of tears. "What? What? That means that Troy is by himself since Gareth is on a quest. He'll need my help with the squires and the junior paladins. I have to return."
Thork arose and limped around to Henry. Putting a hand on his shoulder, he said "ye do as ye must 'Enry and the blessings of all the gods go with ye. Just remember, to come and get me when we's go after 'em bastards." Ebreck arose and put his hand on Henry's other shoulder." I'll be staying here awhile, so I won't be going back with you. I'll return in a few days. Tell the others."
Henry nodded, rising from his chair and stepped out into the yard.
Henrietta, who had been lying under a shady tree, sensed his distress. She moved up to him, and leaning down pressed her head against him, while making throat noises. The gnome, wrapping his arms around her neck answered her back in the same animal language.
"Yes, yes, I'll be fine in a moment. Thank you, dear one.
More patterned throat noises sounded from Henrietta.
"No, we cannot rest a day", replied the Henry, "We must return to the Order House. Duty calls. We will prepare now and be on our way."
He turned to face the two dwarfs. "Henrietta and I will be leaving soon. I'm going to give her a good brushing and then pack up. Is there anything either of you want me to take to Greyhawk?
"Not me" replied Thork. "I'll ready both ye and 'er food for the trail". So saying he turned back into the cabin.
"I'll help out with the packing", responded Ebreck, as he and Henry led the dire badger to the barn. "You know, Henry, still, after, all this time, it amazes me how you two can actually talk and understand each other. All I hear is you and her making throaty badger noises at each other." The paladin turned his head towards the dwarf. He knew that Ebreck was trying to distract him from his grief and so felt a rush of gratitude for his friend. He knew that the dwarf ranger was suffering as much as he was but dwarfs were so much more stoic than gnomes.
Henry explained. "Our legends state that when our race was first created, each of the gnome gods presented the first gnomes with a gift. Each gift was designed to help us survive in a world we had to share with creatures and monsters that were much larger, more ferocious and less civilized than us. Excluding our good friends the dwarfs of course!" giving Ebreck a friendly tap.
Using the gnome custom of referring to their gods by their main name, he continued.
"From the CloakShadow, we received the gifts of illusion, stealth and deception. The EarthCaller presented us with an affinity for Nature and for alchemy. The gifts of mining and stone working came from the SmoothHands; smithing, metalworking, metallurgy and engineering from the SteelSkin. My own patron, the IronHand granted us continual vigilance as well as skills in combat and warfare. The great GlitterGold himself bestowed us with his divine protection along with trickery magic and then to make our long lives more enjoyable, granted us an affinity to gems, song and music and a sense of humour."
"Too much song and dance and really too much humour. It stunts your brains," replied the dwarf. Henry continued as if the dwarf had not spoken.
"But the two most interesting gifts came from the WildWanderer. So that the gnome races would never become stagnant, he instilled a great sense of curiosity and adventure. We want to wander around just to learn what there is to learn."
"Yes, and next thing you know, there are colonies everywhere of singing and dancing gnomes with stunted brains sticking their unstunted gnomish noses into other people's affairs." "This curiosity has also allowed certain groups of us to become skilled experimenters and to develop ways of doing things that magic does but without involving magic. We call it the Gnome Method of Hypothesizing and Experimenting For the Development of Scientific Technology. Our great hero, Nebelun the Tinker, who actually achieved demigod hood was the first to establish the method for tinkering."
"Ah yes. I heard a bit about that. Waste of time. Magic works just fine. What need for farseeing glasses, air ships, underwater boats, exploding cans and vertical motion cages? It's what one would expect from stunted brain people."
Henry went on. "His second gift was to give gnomes the ability to live not only in on the surface like many other races or deep underground like you dwarfs, but also halfway between the two, in comfortable burrows. He made agreements with all burrowing mammals to help to show us how it was done. For this to happen, he gifted us with the innate ability to speak to and understand them. All of them, from aardvarks to wolverines and everything in-between. A bond was formed between the gnomes and the burrowing mammals. They enjoyed each other's company and found that by living together, each group helped the other increase their survival chances. And so gnome children always grow up with chipmunks or raccoon kits as play companions; gnome mages tend to use weasel or mink familiars and gnome warriors ride large sized wolverines or martins."
"And some gnome paladins use dire badgers as holy mounts, responded Ebreck,
So which god was responsible for the feature that gnomes do best, the Gift of Gab?"
"What do you mean, friend Ebreck?"
"The fact that you gnomes so love to hear yourselves talk, that speech is almost endless for you". Ebreck continued, "Is this not true Mr. Horsethistlelaurenflower Redskycloudalonghorizonemmadancer ClanBadger, please all you non-gnomes just call me Henry? All I said was how amazing it is that you two can talk to each other and suddenly I am exposed to a long winded explanation using early legends, as well as a listing of most of your gods. You have been talking so long that our work here is done."
It was true. By now Henrietta had been brushed down and saddled. Ebreck had loaded on Henry's belongings. As they exited the barn, Thork met them holding two very large saddlebags. "'Ere's some road rations for ye two, enough to see ye to Greyhawk."
"Thank you friend Thork. Take care. See you in a few days, Ebreck. I will remember what you said about too much humour." So saying, he urged Henrietta up the slope leading away from the ranger camp. At the top of the rise, he turned to face the two dwarves and seemly waved a long good-bye. Then at a canter he rode off, disappearing into the woods.
Back at the camp, Thork suddenly burst into laughter. Ebreck turned from watching Henry ride away to face the laughing dwarf. The sudden motion caused him to realize what had happened.
"Pink, he used his gnome magic to turn my magnificent beard pink! he growled. Why are you laughing so hard? It cannot be that funny.'
Thork did not want to tell him that also on his very wide and bald forehead was imprinted a large, bright yellow happy face. It would be so much more enjoyable to let Ebreck discover this for himself.
"Ah, Ebreck, a 'nome 'ithout humour is like sugar 'ithout sweet. Most impossible to find. The magic will be gone in a wee bit. Come. Ere's strong spirits inside that need tasting to and dear gone friends that need toasting to". The two headed back to the log house.
Henry snuggled deeper into Henrietta's thick warm fur as he sat leaning against her. A short time ago he had decided to encamp and enter Greyhawk City in the daylight, especially since they had found a small cozy cave to shelter in. A little fire had been lit and they had eaten a small meal. The fire had since been allowed to burn itself out. Henrietta was lying down, dozing on and off. Henry now found himself in total darkness staring out the mouth of the cave. The sky was full of stars, each sparkling like sharp edged crystals on black velvet clothe. Most were ice white but scattered across the infinite darkness were a few bright reds, blues and oranges. The brilliant green Verda was just now rising above the horizon. He knew that some of these stars were sister worlds to his, while most were suns with realms of their own. He also knew that there were even other planes of existence far beyond even the furthest stars where gods, fiends even other stranger denizens made their homes.
Henry's thoughts were on his paladin friends, both those dead and those missing. He hoped with all his heart that their spirits and souls were in the halls of their patron gods He was remembering happy moments with them; he and Frizzle laughing together after an alchemical mixing had gone awry and the ensuing explosion had sent them both reeling with singed eyebrows and blackened faces; Lance showing him that special jousting trick to help unseat opponents and then having to buy Lance a mug of ale every time Lance unhorsed him until he got the gist of the trick. It cost him ten mugs, a much-dented shield and a very sore body that day. It was over mugs of ale that Lance confessed to using the counter trick on him with promises to show it to him the next day. And then there was handsome, brave Markus illustrating his techniques for wowing the ladies and then insisting that they go to an upper class tavern, where Henry could put them into practice. How was he to know that Markus purposefully chose for him, ladies whose escorts were old enough to be their fathers but were really their husbands? The ensuing embarrassments and commotions as later related by Markus back at the lodge always sent the paladins into gales of laughter. But most of all, he remembered the camaraderie and the sense of family back at the Lodge, in the practice field, testing his mettle and combat expertise against those of the other senior paladins, the stories and experiences both humourous and serious, exchanged around the common room fireplace, as well as the shared quieter moments in the chapel.
As the fond memories chased one another and tears slid down his cheeks, Henry prayed. "Father IronHand, I beseech you, when this quest for the Rod Artifact is done and gnomekind once again safe, that you grant me the power to seek out my friends so that I may grant them holy interment, restore their belongings to their families and to their churches and bring their murderers to justice."
As he finished his prayer, a shooting star flashed across the sky and for an instant the ground he sat on vibrated. Feeling at peace, he quietly fell into a calming slumber. Two wolves howled in the night.
Agrona was troubled. He felt restlessness within his soul. Walking the corridors of the Mage Tower towards Nuria's apartments, his mind was on his faith in his god. It seemed to him that Heironeous was answering his prayers a little bit more slowly than in the past. He could not fathom why this would be. Did the war god know that something was going to happen to him? Had he unknowingly already failed some test of faith? So engrossed was he in his thoughts that a voice exclaiming,"Say the pass word and enter safely", caused him to jump backwards and reach for his sword. He found himself standing in front of Nuria's door, staring at the rat head doorknocker, whose magic mouth had just startled him out of his introspection.
"Nuria, it's I, Agrona", he shouted at the door. After a very short pause, the door opened itself. "Come on in, Agrona." he heard Nuria call out.
Upon entering, he noted Nuria and Xana seated at a small table in what was called a 'breakfast nook'. Deus lay at Xana's feet, eating his way through several long links of smoked sausages. On the table were various jams, jellies, and breads, as well as pots of tea, carafes of milk and plates stacked high with omelets .The two women were just ending their meal. They seemed ready to depart. Nuria had just finished laughing at something Xana had said. It was apparent to him that they both seemed to be in a good and lively mood.
"Good morning Agrona" greeted Xana, without taking her eyes off Nuria. "PW is taking a bath. He has already received a nature restoration spell from me at daybreak. I think one more of your divine restorations should be enough to finally break his dream mist addiction."
"Share some breakfast with PW" added Nuria, also without looking up. "Don't worry about cleaning up. The invisible servants will take care of all that. Xana and I are going to do some shopping… at the underwear boutiques." Giggling from them both followed this last statement. At this point, Xana leaned over towards Nuria.
"Wait, young one. There is some jam under your lower lip." So saying, she slid her finger slowly across Nuria's lip, removing the jam and while staring directly at the young mage, proceeded to lick and suck the jam off "Ummm, gooseberry jam! Just delicious!"
"Tell me Xana", prompted Nuria, a mischievous grin spreading across her face," can you really get berries from a goose?"
With an answering grin of her own, Xana replied, "No, little silly, you 'get down' from a goose."
"Oh yes my elfheart, I love both getting down and going down."
"As you so expertly have demonstrated these past nights, giving us both delightful shivers and 'goose bumps', my young sweet taster. Now let us be off." Giggling, both women rose from the table.
Agrona was in deep shock!! Unable to close his sudden dropped jaw and certain that both women had been possessed he had taken a step back. Frantically he attempted to choose a suitable spell to cast. Just as he began the incantation, a voice clamored from the bathroom, "Is that you, Agrona?" Startled by PW's shout, he lost his concentration, allowing both the women and Deus to pass by him. A grinning Nuria even patted his cheek as she departed into the hallway. For a second all was quiet. Then the bathroom door opened slightly and PW's head appeared around it.
"Are they finally gone," he inquired? "And close your mouth. I can see your tonsils flapping away. They look repulsive."
So saying, he stepped out. He was wearing one of Nuria's fur lined pink bathrobes with the stylized N on the left breast. Of course it being human sized, it looked as if he was inside a sack and as he approached Agrona, it trailed behind him like an imperial cloak. Seeing the food on the table, he gave a snort and bellowed out "Servants, prepare a real breakfast. Sausages, cheeses, bacons, hams, all manner of eggs, some pies or two and lots of morning brandy." Instantly, drawers began to open, pots and pans seemly moved through the air towards cooking fires, which promptly burst into flames.
"Alright Agrona, do your spell stuff while we wait for breakfast. I'm feeling great; my appetite is back and I have not had any dream mist cravings for some time now. One more restoration should fix me all up" "Huh, PW is everything here normal? Are Nuria and Xana not acting unusual or out of character?"
"Oh, them! Why do you think I waited for them to leave, before coming out? Agrona, you've got to help me," pleaded PW. "Ever since those two 'discovered' each other, it's been a torture for me. You have no idea what it's like staying here! At first, they wore out a path in the carpet, traipsing back and forth between their rooms, but lately have given up all pretence and now share the same bed. Oh, the food and drink are great, but at night, listening to those two ravishing each other and not able to participate is driving me insane. I sometimes get the impression that Xana is curious about male halflings and would not be so adverse to the idea. But then she is an elf and old enough to as you humans say, 'been around the block a few times'. But Nuria only has desires for Xana. So I am out and I want out. Is your offer to stay at your temple still open? Otherwise I'll have to check with Henry at the paladin lodge. I just can't stay here and be tortured any longer."
"You mean that they ……" Agrona trailed off unable to finish. "Huh, of course, you are welcome at the House of Heironeous."
"Great! Do your spell, we'll eat a good breakfast and then I'll pack up my few belongings and we can leave," thinking to himself that just might be a few of Nuria's little knick-knacks that would not be missed should they be packed up as well. "We'll leave the ladies a note good-bye. Here have a tumbler of brandy. You look like you need a good jolt."
As Agrona and PW were leaving the Mage Tower, in the Upper City district, Henry and Henrietta were passing through the gates that led into the lodge yards of the Order of the Phoenix. Henry could detect a sense of urgency and gloom. He also sensed relief and resolution in the greetings he received. "Welcome back Sir Henry. Lead us to the rescue!" were the two common salutations. In the practice fields, he spotted squires and junior paladins sparing with melee arms. In a nearby field, two of his protégés, the half elf, Jen the BardWell, and the human, Roland Roe-Tone-Doe were practicing with their hook hammers. Both young paladins were showing excellent almost gnome like proficiencies in the use of that uncommon weapon.
Dismounting at the door of the main lodge house, he addressed the two young squires who came running to gather Henrietta. "Give her a good brush down. Feed her lots of fruit and vegetables with her crayfish. Is Sir Trueheart within?"
"Yes sir!" replied one. "The Decider is in the main council chamber with Sir Dragonbane"
"Ah, Sir Gareth has returned from his quest. Excellent news!"
So saying Henry entered the main Lodge house. Following the main corridor, he finally arrived at the entrance to the main council chamber. It was a huge room, the center of which held a huge dark wood triangular table. Filling the huge wall directly behind the table's apex hung a large tapestry of the Order. It depicted a giant golden flaming phoenix, outstretched wings filling the sky as it rose from its ashes. Streams of golden light radiated out from the phoenix as from a sun. Below, in green stitching, was embroidered the Order's motto; the reason for both the paladin's fearlessness and the endurance of the Order, "Per Mortis Regenero Gloria" The words in Lawful Celestial meant "Through Death, a Glorious Rebirth." The other three walls were covered with banners illustrating the symbols of all the deities who contribute paladins to the Order. The crossed short swords of Avoreen, Frizzle's patron, hung next to the cudgel of St. Cuthbert, patron of Sir Edmond, Matthew Dragonhunter and Erik of the North. The simple iron band of his own deity, Gaerdal IronHand offset the elaborate symbols of well-known gods such as Heironeous, Pelor, Kord, Tyr, and Mielikki. Even the symbols of the lesser well known gods Celestian, Fharlangh and the obscure Paladine were all in prominent display, producing a riot of colour and shapes along the walls.
At the grand table, seated beside each other, two men looked up and stood as Henry entered. Sir Troy Trueheart, the current Decider of the Order, was the older of the two. His long hair was all grey, while his grey full beard still showed patches of brown. His stature was firm, and unbent. His body still maintained the strength of his youth. His many years showed only in the multitude of age wrinkles around his eyes, which at the moment showed gladness at the sight of Henry.
The second person was one Henry had not seen in several months.
Sir Gareth Dragonbane was a huge man. Tall and extremely strong, he radiated power and awe. But his demeanour and behaviour showed gentleness while his eyes always showed a great sorrow. His full head of hair was a colour that could only be described as bronze. His skin was a light bronzed-tan. Many red scars marked his face, chest, back and legs. He claimed Paladine as his patron deity.
Although Sir Gareth had help train the gnome paladin in the use of the long sword, Henry did not know him all that well. Sir Gareth did not partake in the evening social gatherings and had the tendency to remain at the lodges for only a short time, two weeks at the most, and then be off again on some quest for months at a time. There were many rumors and suggestions for this. One said that his mount was a dragon, another that he was under a geas to find a certain sword. Sill a third suggested he was from a different world and attempting to find his way back home. Regardless, Henry found him to be pious, kind, a friend and excellent teacher. More importantly, he treated Henry's antics with a surprisingly good sense of humour.
"Welcome back Henry' Troy greeted him.
"Glad to see you again Henry" intoned Gareth at the same time.
Words began to speed out of Henry's mouth, as quickly as the flapping of a hummingbird's wings. ". Decider Troy, I returned from the dwarf rangers as soon as heard the news. Is it all true? When will we be mounting an expedition of rescue? Any word yet from the Rakers? How large an expedition do you think will be appropriate? For how long do you……"
Troy Trueheart held up one hand to forestall any further outbursts.
"Henry, your zeal is commendable. Gareth and I have been discussing these very issues with the latest information we have available. But for now, come sit, and we will explain the latest events."
As the young gnome did as bided, Troy began to explain. "In agreement with the Elders of the Good churches, as well as those of the Mage Tower, we decided that the best course of action is to keep acquiring and assembling the parts of The Rod. This it seems is fundamental to our world's survival. You, Henry will be the Order's representative in this. At this point in time, being short staffed in senior paladins there is not much we can do regarding our fallen brethren at the Hell's Furnaces. But I promise you that one day, the Order will go there to recover their remains for proper blessings and to impose justice! There is still no news from the Rakers' group. The business of the Order must continue and the juniors and the squires must be trained." He broke off and Gareth began to speak.
"Yes, as to that it is my intention to help out. I will remain at the Lodge long enough to help train those juniors who are almost ready themselves to take on some teaching duties. Hopefully, in this manner, the flow of training will be least disrupted. Two that come to mind immediately are Jen and Roland."
Troy continued, "We all have lost good friends, Henry, and we all feel a great loss. But remember our motto. We owe it to the Order and to the younger members to continue on. Why do you not go and clean up, get some rest and join us for lunch. We can discuss possible teacher candidates and determine training schedules. I have a feeling you will be leaving again shortly."
Henry nodded. "You are correct of course. I will do as you say. I just wish there was something more we could do."
"We will do more soon. But for now, hope and prayer, Henry, hope and prayer."
Sometime in the night, Henry woke to the forlorn baying of two wolves.
“What an interesting development between Xana and Nuria, wouldn’t you say? And so, Henry, moving out of the Mage Tower and into the House of Heironeous was a very smart move on my part. A very large number of those warrior priestesses, all they do all morning is pray, then sword practice, then study, then more sword practice. Then the cycle repeats in the afternoon. Then after evening meal it is more prayer and study. By early evening, they are more than ready for a different kind of action. What is it about weapon practice and perspiration that makes females desirous of loving? They all want to test out the truth about halfling males for themselves. Not that I am complaining mind you. Now I’m the one hopping bed to bed. It’s exhausting work but every morning I leave a donation in the offering box to thank Heironeous that he is not a deity who insists on celibacy. Now it occurred to me that your Order also has large numbers of weapon practicing females. From what I can recall, many saucy squire-ettes and perky, pre-licentious paladinas. Perhaps when I out live my welcome at the temple of the God of Righteousness, I could stay with you for awhile and ….hey, are you listening to me?” Henry had stopped so abruptly that PW had walked ahead a few steps before realizing that HHH was no longer beside him.
Yesterday afternoon, the paladin had sent out word to his adventuring companions of his return. He also stated that he would be off to buy some new armor and invited those who wished to accompany him to join him for breakfast. Only PW had shown up. He had brought his prized rapier, which he wanted to exchange. He stated a better price would be had if he tagged along with HHH to Gnome-town.
Gnome-town was located in the northeast section of Greyhawk. There the majority of Greyhawk’s gnomes lived crowded together, as they appreciated. It had an official name, but everyone called it Gnome-town. In Gnome-town, one could shop for all manner of gnomish items. There were shops for foodstuffs, magic shops, clothing and cloths shops, charm stores, shops of alchemy, and all manner of armories. In between the shops huddled restaurants, pubs and taverns, all of which specialized in gnomish styled meals, home brewed ales and spirits. The streets of Gnome-town were boisterous and colourful, filled with shoppers, cart vendors and hawkers. It was one such busy street that the two friends now found themselves.
“Ah, PW, look around you and tell me what you see.”
Startled by the unusual request, the halfling did as requested.
“What exactly am I looking for, Henry? We seem to be in Gnome-town and I just see what one usually sees there.’
“The people. Look at the people.”
“Ah, O.K.” Now PW worried that something was amiss. He used his rogue skills to attempt to spot if they were being followed or anything out of the ordinary. Noting nothing, he answered “Just the usual assortment Henry, except for a heck of a lot more gnomes all over the place.”
“Yes, now take a closer look at those gnomes.”
Again, PW scanned all around. “They appear to be and behaving as normal gnomes to me, Henry. That is to say, the elders are quaffing ales, spirits and smoking those long stem pipes of theirs, the lads are strutting around, trying to impress the lasses who are pretending not to pay attention. Lots of family matrons scurrying around to finish their shopping for the day. Everyone wearing mismatched bright clothes. What do think is odd? Not enough singing and dancing?”
“How many children and young ones with their families do you see?
“Ah, not too many. Wait, there’s one way down the street being dragged along by the mother.”
“Yes, one! There should be scores of them, running and jumping around laughing and squealing, getting underfoot, getting into mischief. Something is not right!”
“Henry, what could be wrong? Do you not suppose that if there were a problem with missing gnome children, the authorities would not have been notified? And that you, of all of us, would not know about it? Look around you. No gnome seems to be upset. Besides, is not The Festival of Freedom celebration tonight? Perhaps they are all getting ready for that.” PW was referring to the day that gnomes everywhere celebrated ages ago their liberation as slaves of the Netherese Empire. It was now said that on Freedom Day, everyone who celebrated was a gnome.
“Come on then! It’s getting close to lunchtime. Let’s finish our business and then we can have lunch in Gnome-town. You can ask about the children then. Besides I suddenly have a craving for thick, spicy capicollo ham, layered goat cheese bread and gnome Golden ale.”
“All right. Let’s do that”
The two friends continued on. Soon they arrived at a building whose heavy door bore the sign, Weapons and Armors- Smithing and Tailoring Arranged- All Types All Sizes Bought and Sold. Old Luddum Prop.
A large showcase window displayed a huge variation of weapons and armor parts. Opening the door caused a bell to jingle. They stepped into a spacious showroom. On each wall hung weapons, shields and armor. Orc double axes hung beside whips hanging beside half spears. Hook hammers blended in with pikes, stilettos with cutlasses; scimitars with longbows. Weapons of northern tribes mingled with shields from the southern climes. Unusual weapons abounded. There were long counters of display cases full of all manner of bolts, bullets and arrows. There were open doorways in the room, which led to small fitting rooms, and large workrooms in which more weapons and armor could be glimpsed The sound of gnome armor smiths and weapon smiths at work echoed out. The furniture in the main room consisted of a large, sturdy, wooden desk with four wooden chairs strewn around it. Aligned along one wall were three well-used sofa chairs with a plaid covering. On the desk, a dozing raccoon opened its eyes at the sound of the bell. At the same time, a wrinkled faced, gnome whose balding head held only a few wisps of white hair rose from behind the desk. He was dressed in black boots, red trousers, a white, buttoned down shirt and a green jacket. Removing a long stem pipe from his mouth he spoke “Welcome good people to my establishment. How may I be of service?
“Old Luddum, its I, Henry, and I’ve come with PW.”
“Well, so it is. Welcome lads. Come in, come in. Sit a spell. It has been too long since you last visited. Keep an old gnome company.” So saying, he put an arm around each of them to lead them to the sofa chairs. “Happy Freedom Day. Sit, I’ll put on some tea.” He scurried to where a kettle and a teapot sat on a metal stovetop. Opening the stove door he placed in three oil soaked logs. Striking a tinder twig he tossed it into the stove. There was a whoosh as the logs caught fire. “Isn’t gnome technology wonderful” he stated, closing the door.
“We have business, also” added PW.
“Business and pleasure together. An excellent combination” responded Luddum. “How may I help?”
PW unsheathed his rapier and presented it to Luddum. “I wish to trade in this rapier for one of cold iron. It is enchanted” Luddum took it and began to examine the weapon.
“It is not one of mine. Shame on you! You went elsewhere for weapons. Now let me see.” Placing the rapier on a counter, he waved his hands along it while mumbling an incantation. His busy white eyebrows shot up. “This blade is doubly enchanted. Are you certain you want to trade it in?”
“Yes, for one of cold iron and as much enchantment as the blade and this bag of gold can get for me.” Luddum nodded. “I will show you some cold iron ones already in stock and if you like one, then we can discuss price of enchantment. And you, good Henry, what may I do for you?”
Instead of answering, HHH turned from where he stood staring at the raccoon. It had just finished licking its hand like paws and waving them around in the air as if to dry them off. It now was grinning at the young paladin, showing many sharp teeth.
“A new friend, Old Luddum” he inquired?
“What? Who, Rocky Raccoon? No, he came with my granddaughter. She arrived from the Southlands and is staying for a few weeks. He sort of decided to make the shop his home. He keeps me company when I’m here.”
Turing back to the animal, Henry used his innate ability and spoke to it. “Hello Rocky. Nice to meet you.” The raccoon made a loud squeaking sound. “Ah yes, I’m not surprised that I smell like a badger to you. I spend a lot of time every day with a badger.”
Rocky emitted a long yipping sound. “No, I’m sorry. I did not bring anything good for you to eat. But I will next time I visit.” The raccoon gave a hiss and turned away.
“Rocky, don’t be rude!” exclaimed Luddum. “Apologize immediately. Henry is a friend!” The raccoon looked at Henry and made a short deep throaty hum. Henry laughed and scratched under Rocky’s chin. “Apology accepted” Henry turned to the older gnome and took out a mail shirt from its bag and unraveled it. Holding it out he stated “This is my business reason for coming here today. I want to upgrade this shirt to full plate armor, enchanted as much as I can afford.”
Luddum took the shirt. “Ah, I remember this. You only bought it from me a short time ago. Full plate, hey? I’ve got some gnome sized molds in stock. Full plate has to be sized properly or it will hinder rather than aid you. Also you will need a proper sized under cloth for it. Tell you what boys, since the tea is almost done, let me call in my granddaughter. She can take the needed measurements while PW and I examine the rapiers. While we wait we can have some tea and do a little visit. What do you say?”
PW and HHH both agreed. Luddum turned to the raccoon and said “Rocky, please find my granddaughter and tell her that there is a small errand for her here.” The raccoon quickly scampered up the wall and disappeared into a ceiling hole.
“Climbs like a monkey. Digs like a badger. No use fixing any bolt holes until he’s gone” explained the old gnome. “Well boys, what are we doing for Freedom day? Will I be seeing you tonight at the festivities? Lots of eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Ah, if only I was younger. Lots of mothers will be parading marriageable daughters tonight. Lots of marriageable daughters will be attempting to escape from their mothers in order to have a more enjoyable evening. They would most likely be appreciative if strapping, handsome young lads like you would aid their escape. So, shall we meet up somewhere? What are your plans?” This was said as he handed out mugs of hot tea.
PW spoke up first. “I’ll have to pass, I’m afraid. I have already arranged plans with a certain young novice. We will be dining at the festival and then she is most anxious that we practice new positions for ..,…ah…, nightly devotions.”
With a knowing smile, Luddum turned to Henry. The paladin was examining battle picks hung on the wall and wondering whether he should see about getting one silvered.
“And you Henry, surely you will be attending the Freedom Day festivities?
Before Henry could turn around to respond, the first of three miracles occurred. The door opened, the bell jingled and the voice of an angel spoke.
“Grandfather, you sent for me?”
As Henry turned to face the door, the second miracle occurred. He inhaled the fresh fragrance of an angel, a mixture of lavender and rose. The third miracle occurred when he fully turned to face the door He saw the angel! The angel had the appearance of a beautiful young lady gnome. Her skin, the deep tan of the southern gnome clans, complemented her red lips. Uncovered, her straight red-brown hair, short by gnome standards, reached only to the jaw line. Her pale grey eyes matched the grey aventurine stone set in the center of her headband. Small pieces of jade were inset around the headband. This marked her as a disciple of the CloakShadow. Matching bracers graced both her wrists. Over a reddish blouse and skirt was wrapped a hooded black cloak, through which patterns of embossed grey and silver thread created a surreal effect. The cloak was pinned at her throat with a clasp in the shape of the infinity dagger symbol of the CloakShadow.
It was all Henry could do to stand and stare. The jolt of a thunderbolt ran through his body as the angel matched him stare for stare. The lavender and rose scent filled his head making him lighter than air. He felt as if he could float to the clouds. He and the angel were all that existed. He could barely hear Luddum’s next words.
“Yes dear, I could use your help. First meet Penny Weight and his friend HorsethistlelaurenflowerRedskycloudalonghorizonemmadancer ClanBadger. Called Henry. Lads, my granddaughter, SveltdownshadehideGreenseasmoothmirasinger ClanRaccoon. Called Miranda.”
“Well, well, hell-ohh” PW whistled out appreciatively. Barely nodding at him, and never taking her eyes off the paladin, Miranda walked up to HHH. The two gnomes stood silently, eyes only for each other. Reaching out a hand she ran her fingers once through his silver hair. “Clanbadger” she mouthed. Henry felt the jolt of chained lightning racing across his brain.
Luddum cleared his throat and continued. “Henry needs to be fitted for full plate and so we need to take precise measurements for a comfortable and proper sizing. Since PW and I will be busy, I was hoping you could do that for me.”
“Of course, grandfather.” Miranda’s eyes suddenly twinkled and a mischievous grin crossed her full lips. Taking hold of his hand in hers, she led him to a fitting room.
“Come, Chosen of the IronHand. Let’s measure just how big your size can be.” As a zombie would follow its master, silently and unquestionably, so Henry followed Miranda.
In the change room, the wall opposite the door was almost entirely covered in a flat mirror. The other two walls each contained plane mirrors as well, facing each other. The net result was a seemly endless number of fronts, back and side reflections in each mirror. A wood bench ran around the three walls. Hooks were hung at various heights around all the walls. Entering, Miranda steered Henry towards the center, unclasped and hung her cloak. From a deep pocket in her skirt she pulled out a hand notepad, a gnome stylus (a thin cylinder of graphite used to leave marks on paper) and a tailor’s measuring tape. Tapping the stylus against her mouth, she slowly scanned Henry up and down.
“Ah yes. I think we will start with the head, neck, shoulders, arms and chest. Then work our way down to the more interesting parts. Off with your shirt and undershirt, please.” Like an automaton moving in slow motion, Henry, still focused on Miranda began to fumble at the top shirt button. “Oh my, this will never do. We’ll be here most of the day at this rate. Here, let me.” So saying, she stepped up to the paladin and deftly began to undo the shirt buttons. Looking down at her, with her pink tongue peeking out the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on each button, the mirrors showed an infinity of Henrys. They were using all of their paladin training and abilities to control themselves. They wanted to put their faces in her hair and breathe her in. They wanted to wrap their arms around her and squeeze her inside them. Her neck and throat were inviting their tongues to lick and taste.
As Miranda helped pull off his upper clothing, it seemed that her hands constantly touched and lightly stroked his back, chest and shoulders. Smiling up at him, she began to slowly trace an outline of the Iron Band deity symbol across the center of his chest. “For a few more gold pieces, we could inset the symbol here in the breast plate section and fill it in with a silver-steel alloy. I think it would look so fine on you, Henry. Interested?” Henry could only nod. She made a notation on the pad and took up the measuring tape. “All right, now let’s see exactly what we got here.” So saying, she stepped up to him and began taking his upper body measurements, noting the results on her pad, all the while humming to herself. Her lavender and rose aroma was intoxicating to Henry. Moving behind Henry, Miranda stepped up close to lay out the tape across the back of his shoulders. The feel of her breasts pressing on his back sent waves of heat racing towards his groin. So intent was he on self-control, it took him a while to realize that she had stopped talking and was standing still behind him. Regaining his composure, he heard her say, “Are you a mute, Henry? You have yet to speak one word to me.”
Henry turned around to face her. Tilting her head, she was regarding him intently. Her hands were on her hips. The stylus was behind an ear and the measuring tape was draped around her neck. Her look of innocence intensified her sultriness.
“Ah no, I’m so sorry. Do not take offence. My mind was on other matters. Please, please repeat what you said.” At the sound of his voice, a large grin broke across her face. In an instant it vanished, to be replaced by a deep frown.
“You do not find me attractive?” she asked softly, looking down to the floor.
“What? What? No, no, just the opposite. Your beauty leaves me speechless.”
Hearing these words, with a smile, she returned her gaze to him.
“Ah, a sweet talker! Then why is it, Henry ClanBadger, that here you are, half disrobed in a private room, with a, what you claim, is a beautiful lady but your….how did you say it….mind is on other matters?” Suddenly her eyes grew round and large. “Are you one of those men who prefer other me..? Before she could finish, Henry, already blushing red, was quick to interject. “No, no, not at all”
Miranda chuckled and cupped his cheek. “You badgers! Only a human’s sense of humour and so easy to embarrass. I knew that by the way your body reacts to me. Then in a more serious tone, she whispered. “I like the way your body reacts to me, Henry.” Before the young paladin’s mind could fully ingest this information, Miranda pressed on.
“All right, let’s finish this up.” Time for some chest measurements.” As she worked, she continued, “So, what plans do you have for tonight’s Day of Freedom festivities?
“Uh, I hadn’t given much thought to the matter as there is so much to be done at the Order. What about yourself?”
“Oh, grandfather will be with some of his friends and I do not want to be escorted by elders who will likely be out all night drinking and carousing and reminiscing about the good old days.. Since I do not know anyone well, and I do not want to be out by myself, I will have an early evening.”
“That is a shame. The Gnome-town festivities are legendary and everyone should partake in them at least once. Since Freedom Day is only once a year, now is your only chance. If it is alright with you, I could escort you for a short time.”
In a mock gesture of astonishment, Miranda put her hand to her chest and let out a gasp.” “Good Sir Knight, are you requesting to be the protector of this fair young maiden as she wanders the haunts of Gnome-town seeking enjoyment and adventure?”
Henry chuckled. “Well, yes, I suppose I am.”
Miranda grinned back. “In that case, I will expect you at 18 bells. Appropriately dressed, of course for a lady’s escort. Now let us finish up here before grandfather and your friend suspect more is happening than measurements. Sir Knight, by order of your Lady, off with those breeches! Time for some crotch measuring. Oh Henry, I just love it when you blush!”
PW and Henry had just left the armory. The door had barely closed behind them when the raccoon spoke gnomish to Luddum.
"Rocky Raccoon? What kind of a name is that? Where did that come from?”
“I do not know. I could not very well call you by your true name,” replied Luddum, blowing out green smoke rings. “When Henry began to show an interest in you, the name just popped into my head as from a song,”
The raccoon chuckled.” Here am I, avatar of the Animal Lord, Chiktikka Fastpaws, companion and friend to the WildWander, send to this world at this time to aid in the gnome evacuation, and you name me after a song? Well I must say, there are new things to learn, even for celestials such as myself. Rocky Raccoon. Actually, I like the sound of it. Yes, I think I will use it. Now, on a more serious note, I think we were successful in diverting our young paladin’s mind from the happenings’ in Gnome-town. I read their minds when they first arrived. That halfling, the Chosen of Mask, did not seem concerned, but young Henry was suspicious enough that he might have began inquires which would have distracted him from the Rod Quest and drawn attention to our affairs here. Neither of which would be welcome at this time.”
“I quite agree,” answered back the old illusionist. “He is still grieving for his friends and does not need further distractions. He must be focused on recovering the Rod parts because only then will there be a good chance of stopping He Who Is Coming. Think of him and his companions as plan A. Several deities have taken a direct interest in this and are using their chosen representatives to assemble the Rod and hopefully block He Who Is Coming. But even they do not know the final outcome. So we are Plan B.
“Yes, in case Plan A fails”, finished Rocky. “The Gnome Gods have ordered the movement of gnomes from all around the world to safe areas where planar gates will be readied. These will transport the clans to new suitable worlds, as needed. In this way, they hope to preserve the gnomish cultures of this world. The Greyhawk gnomes are being taken by ship to the Southlands.”
Luddum blew out two concentric smoke rings; the inner one blue and the outer one golden and spoke. “This explains the lack of the gnome youngsters and their families. Most have already been taken away. The last boat leaves in a few days with Miranda supervising.”
“Ah, our fair and beauteous maid. It is because of her that I did not have to attempt magics on Henry. The result of magic failing on Henry would have been disastrous. Too many questions would have been asked with not enough answers. The whole affair would have erupted into the open; our plans exposed. Luckily, Henry has become smitten with her. Hopefully this will preoccupy him until he leaves Greyhawk once again.”
“I think my granddaughter has also become smitten with him. This tears at me. I do not want to see her hurt. I am fond of Henry and I am glad they appeal so much to each other. They make a fine couple. But should Henry not succeed or even if they are successful but Henry fail to return, I hate to think how distressed that will make Miranda.”
Rocky who had been chewing on a paw held sweetened tea biscuit took a loud swallow and spoke: “Old friend, Miranda is of your blood. Give her the same credit that you give yourself. She, as we, is a full member in the Order of The Gnome Shadows.”
[ EDITOR’S NOTE: The Gnome Shadows are a secret society guided by the dictates of the gnome deity Baravar Cloakshadow, god of deception, trickery, stealth and protection. Their sole purpose is to protect gnome kind from possible threats through thefts of powerful, dangerous items and through assassinations. Think of them as a group of 007’s.]
“She has proven herself to be loyal, constant intelligent and extremely tough! She is one of our expert Tomb Raiders and Assassins. She knows her duty and how to carry it out. Just as Henry defends gnome kind overtly, so she defends covertly. Should Henry not return, she will do as she must; helping gnomes claim back this world or defending them in the other worlds. In this manner, she is as Henry. Neither of them will allow personal feelings to interfere with their duty to the gnome race. Remember the CloakShadow does not choose foolishly.”
“Old friend, you shame me. I should have more faith in her and in our gods. But to me she is still the little girl who would beg to be tossed up and down and snuggle against me as I recounted stories using illusion magic. I promised my daughter, her mother, and her father as they lay dying in my arms that I would watch over her. It is hard to realize that she is now quite capable of taking care of herself. She…”
“I hope you are saying nice things about me” Miranda’s voice interrupted as she walked into the office area from the back workrooms.” I gave Henry’s armor top priority so that it will be ready late tomorrow.”
“That’s fine dear. Rocky and I were discussing Henry and…”
“Oh, grandfather, isn’t he just wonderful! And who is Rocky?”
“That would be me. It is now my name.” said Rocky.
Miranda laughed. “An avatar named Rocky? Now that is funny. About Henry, we will be seeing each other tonight and…”
“Yes dear. I am pleased about that. Henry is a good lad. But he must not become aware of our work here,” continued Luddum.
Miranda gave a wide grin. “Ease you mind about that matter, grandfather. I plan on having Henry totally focused on me.” Her face suddenly grew more serious. “I had thought that it would require some playacting, but now I find I have these strong feelings for him. I really want that he enjoy himself with me. I am excited that we will be together tonight. Excited and happy. I am so looking forward to it.”
Rocky spoke up. “I saw what passed when you two first met, even if I was acting as a normal raccoon. It was as if a deity of love had finally entwined you. Miranda child, until this matter of He Who Is Coming is resolved, you and Henry will have only a short time together. Enjoy him as much as you can. Give in to your feelings and follow your heart in this case. Now, I’m hungry. What’s for lunch?”
“And so PW, I just don’t know what to do. I got all flustered around her and acted like a simpleton. I truly wanted to make a good impression but I am afraid that now she will think of me as an uncouth idiot. I do not know how I should be acting. When I think of all those disastrous events with Markus…” Henry paused. He and PW were seated in a pub having their lunch.
PW sighed. “Henry, I only tell you this because you are a good friend and realize that you would not compete against me. The last thing I need is for you to be like me. With your looks and charisma, all the hotties of Greyhawk, both maids and matrons would be lining up at your dorm with mattresses strapped to their backs. My advice to you is Do Not Think! Let your gnome ness take over. You are a gnome. She is a gnome, a most beautiful one at that. If I didn’t know that she had desires only for you, I would be in her line of sight at all times. Anyway, just be a gnome. Sing and dance Tell stories. Do funny things. Don’t think. Just do what feels right. Now are you going to finish that?” PW pointed to the mostly untouched ball of mozzarella di bufalo covered with arugula leaves.”
“Ah, no. You can finish it if you want. And thanks PW. You are a good friend. I am a lucky fellow.” “ So buy me another ale to wash this down with” sputtered PW, mouth full of mozzarella.
With his pain replaced with contentment, Henry was having the time of his life. He was kicking up his heels and leaping back and forth in time to the music of The Dance of Joy. Attired in earth brown slacks, dark brown boots, a yellow body shirt with high collar and a silver jacket, he spun a striking figure on the crowded dance floor. Across from him, Miranda counter leaped to him. Her white pullover shirt with an open laced stringed bodice and short grey cloak offset her knee high black-laced boots, and dark red skirt. She was swaying the sides of her skirt back and forth as she leaped and jumped, exposing shins and thighs to many appreciative onlookers. All night, Henry had followed PW’s advice. He did not think of what to do next, he did as felt right. And so once he used his innate gnome magic to make Miranda’s pre-dinner sherry taste like cider, she just raised one eyebrow at him and said nothing. But at dinner all his vegetables regardless what they were tasted as onions. And so it started as they each magiced each other, laughing as they tried to outdo each other, growing more at ease and comfortable with each other. They acted as would gnome lovers
Finally the music came to an end and many thirsty patrons headed to the bar or shouted for flagons of drink. Miranda collapsed laughing into Henry’s arms, who also laughing promptly lifted her up and gave her a spin. She placed her arms around his neck to hold him still. Lifting her face up close to his, she said: “Henry, we’ve had a wonderful dinner and we’ve been dancing and drinking for awhile now. I’m feeling a little tired, so would you please escort me home.”
“Yes, of course, Miranda”
They both turned and began to push their way through the crowded tavern to the door. The festivities would go on the rest of the night without them. As they were nearing the door, it suddenly opened. In walked, Xana and Nuria, arm in arm. Henry’s face broke into a grin at the sight of his two friends. “Happy Freedom Day. Xana, Nuria,” he greeted them. “I want you to meet Miranda. Miranda, these are two of the companions that I told you about, Xana and Nuria”, he pointed them out as he made the introductions.
“Hello Henry. Hello Miranda” responded Nuria. “My, don’t you look so handsome tonight. Oh, before I forget, Ebreck is back and staying at the Mage Tower. Master Belgrath wants us all to meet there tomorrow for lunch. I think they have some news for us and that we will be leaving soon. You’re not leaving are you? The night is still young. We heard that the dancing is the best here so elfheart and I are going to try it out.”
“Yes, we were just on our way out. We have been here most of the evening and Miranda is tired, so I’m taking her home.”
“Well perhaps you can return once you see her home”
Miranda, who had all this time been staring at Xana who in return, was staring at Miranda, spoke. “No, sorry. We will not be returning.” Before Henry or Nuria could respond, Xana spoke in elvish. Miranda replied in the same language. Then Xana spoke for a longer time. Miranda again replied for a time. Then Nuria joined in. For the next several minutes the three of them carried on a lengthy discussion in elvish. Near the end, there was some giggling from Nuria and a laugh from Xana. All three of the women fell into a group hug. Henry, not understanding elvish was at a loss, especially when Nuria and Xana unexpectedly hugged him. Not that he minded. He just didn’t know why.
His two friends made to move towards the bar, Nuria spoke, still full of giggles.
“Well have a very good night you two. It was so nice to meet you Miranda. I hope that we will see each other more often and become good friends.”
Miranda hooked her arm into his and led him outside. They headed to where she was staying; the small cottage beside the armory.
“So what was that all about, back there?” asked Henry.
“Oh, they just wanted to ensure that you got enough rest for your meeting tomorrow and so that I would not keep you ‘up’ too long”, she lied innocently, stifling a laugh.
What had actually been said during the elvish conversation was that Xana had told Miranda that she and Nuria did not want to see Henry being hurt by having his emotions toyed with. Miranda had replied that she had no such intention and that she had very strong feelings for him. She emphasized that they had to take good care of him and if they did not, then they would have to answer to her. Once the women realized that they were all on the same side and how genuine Miranda felt about Henry and how she planned to please him tonight, the tension broke and they all gushed into each other’s arms.
“I like your two friends, Henry. They are both fond and protective of you. The elfess treats you as a younger brother and the young human sees you as an inexperienced brother. That pleases me.” This was not a lie.
As she said this, her arm went around his waist and drew him closer. Unconsciously, his arm went around her waist. He found that he enjoyed the feel of the movement of her hip and thigh under his hand as she walked. He breathed in her aroma of lavender and rose.
“I enjoyed myself tonight, Henry. Thank you for a lovely dinner and fine entertainment. With such a dashing escort and such a fine dancer, I was the envy of all the ladies.” He blushed in the dark.
“It was my pleasure, Miranda. I have not felt this comfortable in some time. For that I want to thank you. I find myself more at ease now in your company. As all the men wanted to dance with you tonight, I consider myself most lucky that such a beautiful woman chose to be with me.”
“Why, what a sweet compliment. Henry, you are becoming a charmer.” She hugged him closer so that their sides rubbed together as they walked along. They walked in silence, each in their own thoughts until in a short time they arrived at the cottage door.
“I find myself not as tired now, Henry. I suppose the brisk walk refreshed me. Would you join me in a cup of tea? There is also a bit of dwarf brandy.”
“I would love to. Thank you.”
Unlocking the door, the two gnomes stepped into the darkened cottage. Just as if she could see clearly in the darkness, Miranda walked to a hooded lantern and opened it. To a human it would seem that a tiny candle had been lit. To the gnomes, the cottage became as bright as in the day.
“Have a seat Henry. I’ll go put on the tea. Take your jacket off. Relax.” Humming to herself she hung her cloak on a peg and entered the kitchen area. By the time Henry had removed his jacket, Miranda returned bearing a small tray upon which was a brandy bottle and two small glasses. As she bent down to place the tray on the side table Henry enjoyed the view of her breasts through the laces. Pouring the liquor, she said, “With dwarf brandy one must be careful to drink only a little at a time. Too much at once and you end up with a pounding headache the next day.” As she gave Henry his glass, she came around the table and sat beside him on the small sofa.
“A toast, Henry. To Freedom Day!”
“To Freedom Day!” repeated the paladin as they clinked glasses and downed the drink.
Replacing the glasses on the tray, Silently, with unspoken permission, they turned to each other and fell into each other’s arms. Lips met lips. As mouths opened, tongues danced against each other and explored mouths. Henry felt as if his blood was beginning to boil. His hands stroked her back, arms and sides, just as hers were doing to him. Her skin felt good and hot to him. He broke off the kiss to move his tongue up her neck, chin, and cheeks. The taste and smell of her was intoxicating. His body quickly responded to her breath in his ears and to the little nips on his lobes.
“Unlace me”, she demanded into his ear as her fingers worked to undo the buttons on his shirt. Needing no further encouragement, he undid the lace bows and opened up her bodice. He put his face into her breasts. Her skin burned at him. Miranda gripped tightly the hair at the back of his head and pushed his face even closer. Her erect nipples, hard as diamond, pressed into his cheeks. He feasted on her. Tasting, biting, licking and sucking. Her moans filled his ears. Lying down on the sofa, she pulled him down on top of her while at the same time pulled off his shirt. The feel of her chest on his excited him even more.
“Now Henry, it must be now!” She locked her legs around his as she started to unbuckle his slacks. He pushed up on her skirt. They were both now writhing in a frenzy. In a short time he trust into her! It was as if he had plunged into molten lava; wet and super hot. She arched up to meet him as he arched down into her. Her inner muscles gripped him hard and milked him inside her. They bit and scratched at each other. Finally the pleasure became too intense and with groan released into her. This was matched by a loud groan from Miranda as she also released at the same time. They lay exhausted in each other’s arms, bodies awash in perspiration.
“I wanted to do this since I first saw you Henry”, Miranda said looking into his eyes. “It was so much better than I imagined. Such a lover! Thank you for pleasing me so much.” Henry’s heart soared. “But I am glad that it is now over.” Henry felt as if a spear had deflated him. “Oh, dear one, don’t look so dejected”, she laughed. “What I mean is since we now have got the itch out of the way, we can concentrate on each other, take our time and go slowly. I want to know your body as intimately as I know my own. I wish to extend the pleasure as long as possible. I want to play with all parts of you, know how they taste and feel. Now, as much as I do not mind you lying on me and feeling all sticky, should you let me up, we can freshen up and get started. This was followed by a quick kiss. With a grin, Henry rose from the sofa. Their clothes that remained were all disheveled, so they removed them. Henry found that it felt perfectly natural to be nude with Miranda. You are beautiful’, he said simply. She grinned and winked at him, then turned slowly around so he could see all her profiles.
“Pour us another brandy, if you please. I’ll be right back. So saying, she walked off to a small alcove containing a dresser. Opening a drawer she took out two fluffy towels. Beside the dresser was a capped urn almost as large as she was. Miranda unscrewed the cap and dipped a towel into the urn. The towel became soaked with water. She wrung out most of the water back into the urn, flung it over a shoulder and repeated the process with the second towel. Recapping the urn, she walked back to Henry.
He only then remembered to pour the brandy as he had become too engaged in watching the motion of her body as she performed her tasks. As he handed her a glass, she said, “As I sip this good Sir Knight, please be kind enough to towel rub your Lady.”
“Most gladly, Lady Miranda,” replied Henry reaching for a wet towel. He was pleasantly surprised. “Why, its quite warm. A magic urn to keep water warm?” he inquired as he began to rub her front, removing dried perspiration and other fluids.
“Ah, that feels fine.” she sighed. She moved her legs apart. “Don’t forget the lower parts and my back parts. No, not a magic urn. It’s a gnome invention that I brought with me. Better than magic because it works without magic.
It is called a keeperofhotthingshotandcoldthingscoldoratanytemperatureinbetween. Non gnomes call it a thermos. Oh, Sir Knight, who is that knocking at the Lady’s back door?” she chuckled.
Henry had moved to her back and had pressed himself against her as he toweled her. His body had once again begun to respond to hers.
“My turn”, she declared. She handed him his glass and began to rub him down. She was right. The warm wet towel felt wonderful and invigorating on his skin. He began to feel very good as she worked her way around him.
“Oh good Sir knight, your huge silver mane charger has become rampant. Methinks he needs a good rubbing and then exercised by a good riding. I suggest a sidesaddle ride to start. What sayest thou?” she asked laughingly as her fingers flicked back and forth against said charger making it even more rampant.
“Ah, fair lady,” joined in Henry, “To an honorable knight, a lady’s suggestion is an order. Let us proceed then to exercise my charger.”
She led him into a small bedroom. They lay for hours on the bed, becoming familiar with each other’s bodies, examining tasting and feeling each other. They made love often, at times slowly and softly, at times hard and passionately. Finally after one last bout, both seemed exhausted by the outpouring of emotion. They held each other close. Henry rested his head on her breast while she absently stroked his hair. Very quietly she spoke in a serious tone. “Henry ClanBadger, I most definitely have fallen in love with you. I think I fell in love the first time I saw you.”
Henry lifted his head and moved up so that they were face to face. “Miranda ClanRaccoon, I love you. I have since I first saw you.” he replied just as serious. A smile lit up her face. She rained little kisses all over his face.
“Time to sleep now my fearless paladin. We both have long days tomorrow. But first….” Reaching down, she began to stroke him.
“Miranda love, I thought you wanted to sleep now.”
“Oh, I do. But I want to fall asleep with you inside me. You respond so quickly to me, Henry. So full and firm. Just a bit more…there!” She pulled him in and wrapped one leg over his hip as they on their sides facing each other. Henry could again feel inner muscles locking him in place. With a sigh of contentment, he snuggled in against her. “Goodnight my love.”
Sometime late into the night, Henry thought he heard the sound of wolves.
Breathless, Henry rushed into Belgrath’s large conference room. He had been late leaving Miranda’s. As there was no time to return to his dorm at the lodge house, he had rushed to the Mage Tower still dressed in last night’s formal attire. “Please excuse my lateness, Lord Belgrath. I deeply apologize for any inconvenience. Hello everyone”, he managed to gasp out. They all turned to face Henry as he entered. Belgrath was behind his desk, examining reports. There was a buffet lunch set out on a long table. Nuria and Xana were quietly eating together off to one side.
At the sight of Henry catching his breath at the doorway, Nuria laughed, waved and gave him an ‘I know why you’re late grin’. Xana smiled and nodded reassurely at him. PW, mouth full and putting more food on his plate, raised one eyebrow and gave him the thumb’s up. Agrona grinned and raised his flagon in salute. Ebreck put down his and went to greet him. Putting one arm around Henry, he pulled him towards the lunch table and shouted loud enough that anyone present in the Tower would be able to hear him “Friend Henry your shirt is untucked at the back, the buttons are in the wrong button holes, the rest look wrinkled and you smell of perspiration with a dash of lavender and rose. Are you ill? Henry winced at each word. Ebreck whispered “I owe you for that pink beard and happy face.”
Belgrath rose from behind his desk. “Well, now that the Phoenix Order representative has finally finished celebrating his Freedom Day and decided to grace us with his presence, then perhaps we should start.” He indicated the chairs arranged in front of his desk. “Please be seated,” he stated as Henry became red with embarrassment.
Once they had all arranged themselves, he continued.
“The City Council is aware that some of you wish to interrupt the search for the Rod parts in order to head to the Rakers to determine the fate of your friends or to go to Hells’ Furnace to seek vengeance.” His voice became softer. “We understand this and can sympathize with you. We also mourn the loss of our friends and gallant comrades. But at this point in time, the need of the greater good is paramount. Our first priority is to assemble the Rod. The rest will have to wait. I say this now because we have located the third piece.” There were cries of “good news” and “where?”
Belgrath went on. “We have divined it to be located in a cave, a naga’s lair actually, somewhere near the mouth of the Nesser River.”
“The Nesser River?” repeated Ebreck, “why that’s about a three week’s journey.”
“What is a naga?” inquired PW.
Nuria responded. “It is a creature with the body of a long large snake but the head is humanoid, usually female. They bite or spit with deadly fast acting venom with immense accuracy.”
“Oh, just wonderfulll!”
Nuria carried on her explanation with her eyes twinkling. “They are experts in the use of high magic and have a tendency to kill intruders”
PW rolled his eyes. “Oh, this is getting better and better.”
“And they usually have a large collection of dangerous and powerful creatures, enchanted and enslaved to them to help guard the lair and destroy intruders along with many deadly traps.”
“O.K., that does it! I’m going to find myself a replacement.”
“Their lairs are said to contain many magical and exotic treasures,” Nuria finished, a large grin on her face.
PW rubbed his hands together. “All right! When do we leave?”
“You leave, hopefully, tomorrow morning. You have the rest of the day to discuss plans and to provision yourselves”, spoke up Belgrath. “We understand that does not leave you much time but time is becoming of the essence. Stay and finish lunch. There is no rush for that. Now I must leave you for other matters.” So saying he headed to the door. At the doorway he stopped and turned to face them. “Just so you are aware, The Council and people of Greyhawk are grateful to you all for what you are doing. Thank you.” With that, he turned and left.
Xana was the first to speak. “Well I suggest we begin to prepare for the expedition, but before we all depart, does anyone know offhand for how long we should be provisioning ourselves? Ebreck, you mentioned about a three week journey?”
“That’s only one way”, replied the dwarf, but I know of a shortcut game trail through the woods that would decrease the trip by a week. But it goes through rough and uninhabited country.”
“No matter. As Belgrath said time is becoming important. We’ll take the short cut.” No one argued against Xana’s woodland knowledge and experience. “So we should provision for five weeks to be on the safe side. We can all meet up at the North Gate at early sunrise.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “I am finished here and I think Nuria is also” Nuria nodded again “Well then, we will go and prepare ourselves”
Both women stopped by Henry before moving out. Xana looked him up and down. Smiling, she put an arm around his shoulders. “Are you all right? Don’t look so sad. You will be with her again soon. I got good feelings about her”, she whispered to him. Henry smiled up at her. Before he could speak, Nuria wrapped both arms about him and hugged him close. “I’m so happy for you Henry! I know that I am so much more lucky because I get to be with my elfheart at all times, but soon this will all be over and you and Miranda can be together too. You’ll see! See you all tomorrow.” Both women exited.
Henry was left with his male companions. PW had returned to the buffet, while Ebreck filled flagons for them all.
“So Henry, when do Ebreck and I get to meet this new, ah, friend of yours? The one that PW was telling us about. The one that apparently seems to make you dress in a hurry.” Chuckles all around.
“I think that sometimes PW talks too much”, retorted the paladin. “HookHammer, come on, be nice”, replied the halfling handing Henry a chicken sandwich. “Have some lunch. You haven’t eaten anything yet. Now more than ever, you need to keep up your strength.” More chuckles all around.
“Since we are all leaving early tomorrow you won’t get to meet her until after our return, I’m afraid”, sighed the gnome. “I really wanted you to meet her so you could see for yourselves just how wonderful she is.”
“You have been truly struck by the thunderbolt of love, my friend”, spoke Ebreck, handing him a flagon of ale. “Here, drink up.”
Agrona stood up. “Well, on that note, time for me to get ready as well. I’m off to the temple. Coming PW?”
“No, you go ahead. I’ll catch up in a bit. It won’t take me as long to get ready.” “O.K. then. See you later. Bye all.” With that Agrona took his leave. Only the three ‘shorts’ of the group were left.
“I’m worried about him”, PW told the others. “Lately he’s been moody and he’s given me the impression that he thinks he is somehow not worthy and that his god is about to desert him. He is suffering from a lack of faith and this is galling to him as he cannot understand why this should be so.”
“Bah”, snorted Ebreck. “As long as his prayers are being answered, all is well. Agrona is tough. Once we get out on the trail he’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“We can only hope you are right, friend Ebreck.” PW quaffed the rest of his ale. “I’m going. I want to be all prepared before supper. There is a senior priestess that later tonight I have to, uhm, demonstrate, uhm, the connections between the peace of the spirit and the pleasure of the physical body.”
‘I have to get Henrietta ready as well. So I am going to take my leave as well”, joined in Henry.
“Well since I’m staying here, I don’t have far to go and how long does it take to count arrows, string a bow and sharpen an urgosh?” added the ranger. I’ll wait here a bit and so as to not insult the hospitality of our hosts, eat and drink a bit more. Well drink anyway. Take care. See you all later.” The three friends went their own way.
Henry had finally finished his packing and had eaten a quick supper. He was about to visit Henrietta and get her ready for tomorrow’s departure. He was planning to pack her up and then dismiss her to her celestial plane so that when he summoned her in the morning she would be totally refreshed and instantly ready for departure. He was also wondering if there would be any time to visit Miranda or at least send her a message. There was a knock on his dorm door. “Yes? Come in.” Sir Roland’s head popped in around the door.
“Please excuse me, Sir Henry, but there are some gnomes just arrived who say they have brought some armor for you. They are waiting in the courtyard”. Henry felt a rush of happiness. Could she be here? Rushing, without appearing to be rushing, Henry arrived at the courtyard. There on a pony-pulled cart sat two older gnomes. Henry recognized them as armor smiths from Luddum’s. His disappointment must have shown on his face because they grinned and elbowed each other.
“Sir Henry, called out the driver, we have your new armor. Where would you like us to put it?” “In my dorm, I suppose. That way it will be ready for the morning. Here, let me give you a hand.” The armor parts were wrapped into three large sections. Each gnome took a section and Henry led them to his dorm. After placing the parts in his room, the driver gnome said with a grin, “Oh, we also have two messages for you. First your armor has been enchanted, compliments of Rocky.” Henry was puzzled. The only Rocky he knew was a raccoon. It did not seem to make any sense. “The second message is”, .the two gnomes turned and grinned at each other and bobbed their heads at each other, “Tell my love that I am waiting for him at the den of his mount.”
“Thank you. Thank you!” shouted Henry as he ran out, this time with no pretense.
Once outside he headed straight for the stable that contained Henrietta. As he was about to enter, he heard Miranda’s voice saying, “………Please take good care of him.” Entering he saw Miranda standing in front of his mount, dwarfed by the size of the dire badger, hands pulling down on Henrietta’s head, so that they stood cheek to cheek. At the sound of his entrance, she turned to face him. With a glad cry she released the thick fur and ran to meet him. He picked her up and spun her. They kissed each other again and again. So engrossed were they that Henrietta’s head butt caught them off guard. She made throat noises at him.
“Oh, I am sorry my beauty,” replied Henry. “I really did mean to tell you about her sooner. Please forgive me” Henrietta gave forth some growls and high-pitched sounds. “I am glad you introduced each other without my help. Yes, yes, I should have told you about her as much as I told her about you.” More sounds from Henrietta.
Miranda left Henry’s arms in order to embrace the dire badger.
“Thank you sweet sister”, she mouthed into the thick fur. “Your approval means much to me. Henrietta rubbed her head against Miranda’s. “Now that he has two women in his life and that should make him….”
Henry stepped up and with one arm embracing each of them, finished for her. “Lucky. Very lucky.” They stood together for a moment. The paladin broke off first. “Now my beauty, time to saddle up. Get some rest so you will be fresh when I summon you tomorrow.” “Let me help”, added Miranda.
Together the two gnomes prepared the mount. They dressed her in her barding armor, her saddle, saddlebags, Henry’s weapons and provisions. Henry stroked her forehead. “Take care. See you soon”, he whispered.
Miranda buried her face against the powerful neck. A sob escaped her throat. “Good-bye sweet sister, remember what we talked about.” Another sob escaped her. Henrietta nuzzled Miranda. Eyes red-rimmed, Miranda let go. Using his divine powers, the gnome paladin dismissed her. As the badger faded away, Miranda sniffed away her tears and took Henry’s arm.
“Come good Sir Knight, introduce me to your fellow paladins and show your lady the wonders of your castle home, she attempted to make light.” Leaving the stable, Henry noticed that the pony and cart were gone. “Miranda, I think your ride has left.” “Henry, she replied softly, I want to stay with you tonight.”
They had just finished making love. Miranda had been fanatical. It was as if she did not want it to stop. She lay now on him, her face into his chest. As his hand stroked up and down her back, over her head, he could see his new armor suit standing against the wall. They had put it there after he had modeled it for her. He suddenly felt a wetness against his chest. Lifting up her chin, he gazed into her tear-streaked face.
“Love, what is the matter?” he asked voice full of concern.
She took a deep breath in an attempt to regain her composure. “You are leaving in the morning. You will be gone for a month. I may not see you again.”
“I must do my duty, love”
“Duty. Duty. Yes, duty.” She inhaled sharply and her demeanor changed to one of determination. “We must all do our duty. Make love to me Henry. Let’s make love over and over. Let us be so exhausted that we fall asleep in the middle of making love.” And so they did.
At the same time that HHH and Miranda lay entwined as they slept, Nuria and Xana slept cuddled together in Nuria’s large bed. The elfess held the young lass protectively to her breast as a mother would a child. Nuria’s head lay across the elven breasts, as would have a suckling babe.
Much lower down in the Tower, Ebreck quietly snored on, two large and empty ale casks beside his bed. Across the city at the Temple of Heironeous, Agrona prayed alone in a private chapel, beseeching his deity to bolster his faith. In the cleric quarters of the same temple, in a large apartment of a most senior priestess, PW and a priestess elder lay, glued together by perspiration; PW having proven his point to both their satisfaction that indeed spiritual peace did follow intense body pleasure.
That night the wolves were silent.
Henry suddenly woke. Despite the little amount of sleep, he felt totally invigorated. His first thought was someone had used magic on him. His second was that he was alone. Sitting up in the bed, he saw a letter where Miranda should have been. Opening it, he read:
“My darling. My sweet knight. You look so gentle as you sleep. I magiced you so that you would be refreshed upon awakening. I am sorry that I did not ask your permission but I am selfish. I wanted you to be both physically and mentally alert as you begin your journey. I care for you so much. Oh, my love, as you love me do your duty. As I love you I will do mine. When you return, do not look for me. I will have returned to the Southlands with the last refugee ships. There we will wait. If the gods are kind, we will be together again when gnome kind is safe. Know that I will always love you and you will be forever in my heart. I will always have the memory us together. The gods of our fathers keep you safe Henry ClanBadger. Come back safely for me.
Love you forever
There were dried tearstains on the letter. Attached to the letter was entwined several strands of her hair. They smelled of lavender and rose.
Henry felt his own tears beginning to well up. Just then, there came a knock and Roland’s voice exclaimed through the door, “Breakfast Sir Henry.”
“On my way”, he replied. Dressing quickly in his armor’s under suit he pocked the letter. Entering the dining area, only Sir Roland was present.
“Decider Troy, Sir Gareth and Lady Jen have already broken their fast, he responded to Henry’s question. They will see us later.’ Henry ate a simple quick breakfast of hot porridge sweetened with honey and raisins, hot rye bread smeared with butter and warm milk. Only one word resounded through his mind as it would for many months to come; “Duty! Duty! Duty!” Returning to his room, Roland helped him don his armor.
“I still think of myself as one of your squires, Sir Henry. I sent the others away so that I may serve you myself”, he responded when the gnome paladin protested his aid. “I must say that you look resplendent in your new armor, sir. Fine workmanship. Light but strong. Gnomish made? Must see about getting one for myself.” Leaving the Lodge house, they found other senior paladins waiting for them.
Decider Troy clasped him on the shoulder. “Gods’ speed, Henry. The Order needs you, so return safely.” Jen the BardWell embraced him. “Take care most favorite teacher,’ she whispered.
Henry summoned Henrietta. She manifested completely equipped and provisioned. Saddling himself, he strapped his enchanted blade over his back and placed his lance in its rest. Sir Gareth approached. They clasped arms. “Always remember that stab-slash maneuver I showed you. Take care little friend.”
“Good-bye all and thank you. Take care of the Order while I am gone”, Henry addressed them. With that he urged Henrietta forward and off they went through the main gates to the rendezvous point.
Approaching the North Gate of Greyhawk, Henry spotted Nuria and Xana waiting as they sat on their horses. Ebreck sat aside a pony. The dwarf appeared to be a bit blurry-eyed. Deus and Rhodesia ran to meet and greet the dire badger. As the three animals nosed each other, Henry hailed his friends. “Morning all. Have you been waiting long?”
Nuria replied. “No friend Henry. We only just arrived ourselves. I must say, you look fine in your new armor and you look well rested also.” Nuria interrupted; “We were hoping that Miranda would be coming to see you off. That way she could have met Ebreck and Agrona, not that Ebreck would have made a good impression this morning, hung over as he is. Then we could all have said good bye to her.”
“Ah, no. I’m afraid that she will not be here this morning. But she did want me to give you all her warm regards”, he deadpanned.
Xana looked closely at him. “Are you feeling all right Henry?’
“What? Yes yes. Do not worry about me. I can still carry out my duty. I will be fine.”
Oh look. Here come Agrona and PW”, spoke out Nuria. “ Please! Will you stop shouting, groaned Ebreck? You have been shouting all morning.’
“Serves you right, retorted Nuria, for drinking so much last night. Besides are not dwarves able to drink all night and laugh at death the next day without flinching?”
“The only reason they do not flinch is that they have had too much to drink and so are incapable of any kind of motion”, laughed PW as he and Agrona arrived. “Hello all. Been waiting for us long? Hey HookHammer, nice armor. Luddum’s gnomes did a fine job. He looked around. They were a study of contrasts. Astride his pony, PW looked refreshed and content; ready for a day’s work. Mounted on his warhorse, Agrona looked exhausted and unhappy. Dark rings encircling his eyes indicated a great lack of sleep. Xana peered closely at him. “Are you feeling up to par?” she questioned. “Yes, I will be fine. Please do not worry.” She continued; “You and Henry both. What are we to….’ She got no farther as there sounded a large horn. It was the signal that the gates of Greyhawk were about to be opened for the day.
“Places everyone”, she shouted as the guards at the gate were winching it opened. As the gate finally opened, they waited for the few farmers and travelers who were entering to be questioned and examined by the guards. As they were doing this, Xana gave the riding order. “Ebreck, you lead. Henry, you stay close behind. Nuria and I will follow while PW and Agrona will guard the rear. All right then, to the Nesser River. Let’s do it!” As they filed out passed the gates, the guards saluted them and gave out cries of good fortune and good hunting. Pass the gates, Ebreck shouted to Rhodesia “Point” and the massive dog raced ahead of the mounts, sniffing and scanning as she loped. Xana shouted to Deus ”Patrol” and the huge wolf ran off the road into the surrounding terrain scouting for any dangers. Their journey had begun.
The day went well. They encountered no one on the road except a few farmers and peddlers heading to the city to sell their wares. Near noon, Ebreck found the game trail short cut. After a quick lunch, they moved off the main road. The trail was rough as Ebreck had promised and many times they had to single file through the woods but they made good progress.
The woods became sparser and the ground leveled out. They were able to see for a much longer distance down the trail. Suddenly the dog and wolf stopped and began to growl. Henry sensed Henrietta’s muscles tensing and could her eagerness for battle. A large figure appeared ahead of them. It was huge easily towering over the horses and easily crashed through the trees and brushes as it began to lumber towards them. It looked like a giant except for the fact that it had two heads on its shoulders. Each hand carried a massive man sized club. As each mouth gave out a loud bellow, the creature loped towards them, its huge strides quickly decreasing the distance between them. Henry loosened and prepared his lance for a charge, knowing he would not be fast enough before the creature was on him. As he did so he heard Nuria and Xana begin incantations. Ebreck by now had already loosed an arrow. It struck the monster squarely in the shoulder. It did not slow down as it gave a bellow of pain and rage. It ignored the wolf and dog nipping at its heels and kept advancing. Henry felt a wave of magic sweep over him and it seemed that the monster had slowed down. Nuria must have cast a Hasten spell. Taking advantage of this he managed to ready the lance as the monster neared the party. He noticed PW quickly dismounting, cross bow in hand and moving into bushy cover. Suddenly streams of flame materialized, streaming down from the sky and striking the beast. Again great bellows of pain and rage issued from its throats as large amounts of its flesh charred and blackened. Ebreck’s second arrow struck true and deep close to his first. Two cross bow bolts flew from the bushes, each striking behind the necks of the creature. PW’s bolts hit home. The creature staggered into range of the lance. Ordering Henrietta to hold, the paladin leaned forward and lunged the lance deep into the monster’s chest. It staggered a few steps back, wilding flailing its war clubs at the gnome. Henry ducked but Agrona was not so fortunate. A wild swing caught him on his shied. The force of the blow was enough to knock him out of his saddle to crash onto the ground. He lay still. The two women had started their second incantations. Two more arrows and bolts struck the monster, keeping it off balance but missing vital organs. “Now” yelled Henry and Henrietta charged the giant creature. Her claws slashed down its legs, drawing large furrows of greenish blood. At the same time, Henry’s lance stabbed deep into its chest and passed out its back, narrowly missing its heart. The beast roared and brought up both his clubs to come crashing down on its tormentors. But before it could do so, black tentacles spiraled rapidly out of the ground all around the creature wrapping themselves around its legs and arms. It was held fast. Over Henry’s head, flew missiles of force, unerringly striking both faces of the creature. With a moan, it slumped dead, held up only by the tentacles. Another crossbow bolt slammed into the creature but it did not respond.
By now Ebreck had removed Agrona’s helmet and was checking him for damage. “He’s still alive, just had the wind knocked out of him. He should be fine in a bit, reported the ranger. Thus assured, they turned their attention to the creature they had slain. The dog and wolf were walking in circles around it, still issuing growls.
“What is it?” queried Henry as he finally removed his lance.
“A giant-kin called an ettin”, replied Xana. “Powerful and brutish. Luckily also not too intelligent.” PW and Ebreck had by now, gotten Agrona to sit up.
“He could probably use a touch of the Rod to bolster him up”, piped in PW. “A couple of whacks with it would be in order as well. It might knock some sense into him. Then we can be on our way.” Nuria dismounted to apply the first piece of the Rod to Agrona. As it removed his pain and healed his bruises, he asked, “What happened?”
“What happened”, replied PW, “is that you were taught a lesson. Leave the up close fighting to those who know what they are doing, like yours’ truly. You got a good whomp on the head because of that. Next time just boost up the front liners, O.K?”
“Can you ride?” asked Nuria more gently, rubbing at his forehead.
“Yes. I think so. I feel fine now.”
“All right then”, broke in Xana. “Let’s mount up and be on our way”
“What about that?” inquired Ebreck nodding his head at the dead monster.
“Just leave it. In a short time my magic will dissipate and it will come crashing down. The scavengers can feast on it then. That way it can pay back the forest for all the abuse it gave.” Off they rode.
They made good progress. As it started to get dark, they found a good spot to bunk down for the night. They had built a small fire and eaten trail rations. Ebreck had produced a small brandy flask and they each enjoyed a nip. Then as the stars brighten up in the sky, they planned out a watch order. Ebreck volunteered to take the first one. He even set a magic alarm around the campsite. Agrona was totally fatigued from lack of sleep. He bade all a good night, got into his bedroll and promptly fell asleep. Nuria and Xana took their bedrolls, enjoined them to make one large one away from the campfire went to sleep together with Deus lying at the edge of their bedroll. PW made his up near the edge of the camp light. Henry had dismissed Henrietta and did his up near the fire. As it burned out, he lay on his back, looking up at the stars. His thoughts were on Miranda as he put his hand on her letter. Slowly he fell asleep.
Miranda bent over Henry as they lay in his warm bed. As she gave him the little kisses he liked so much he heard her whisper to him: “Help save us, my love. Save us. We are depending on you. Awaken and save us from the evil to come.”
Henry awoke with a start! Something was not right! Then he realized what it was. It was too quiet. There were no night forest sounds. Suddenly sitting up, to his horror, he spied Ebreck outside the range of his alarm. The dwarf was on rolling on the ground, struggling silently with what appeared to be a shadowy humanoid shape. Rhodesia lay motionless nearby. The ranger was getting the worst of it. The shadow had its hands around the dwarf’s throat and Ebreck’s struggles were getting weaker and weaker. Henry shouted but no sound emerged. He nudged PW who quickly awakened and using well-honed instincts and skills rolled out into the shadows of the forest. The paladin realized there was no time to wake the others. There was also no time to run to the rescue. There was only one thing to be done and he prayed it would work. Calling upon the power of his god, he intoned silently: “Foul spirit, through the goodness and righteousness of the IronHand, I command you to be gone! Leave this world. Foul it no longer!” As he intoned a brilliant silvery light surrounded him, his eyes shone with silver energy and flashed brightly.
The shadowy creature underwent violet spasms. Releasing Ebreck, it ran quickly off into the dark woods. As it ran off, a crossbow bolt passed through its body without apparent harm. Sound returned as PW emerged from the woods crossbow in hand. By now the others woke due to the commotion and Deus’ growls.
Henry raced to where Ebreck lay. His friend was still breathing but barely. Hands still glowing with the silver power, he laid them on the ranger’s chest. The ranger felt colder than ice. His throat looked frost bitten. “Accept the healing strength of the IronHand”, Henry prayed. He could feel energy entering and warming up the ranger. Ebreck opened his eyes and took deep breaths. “Rhodesia?” he asked. Leaving Ebreck for the others, the gnome ran to where the dog lay. She was unconscious but not yet dead. Laying his hands on her, she also felt frozen. The paladin repeated his healing prayer. He felt her warm up. Her eyes opened and she weakly licked at his hands. Henry patted her head. “You will be fine now old girl. Just a little rest and you will good as new.” Silently he offered thanks to his patron deity.
Followed by the others Ebreck approached and knelt by the dog. He lifted her head and cradled it in his lap. Tears ran down his face. “Thank you for saving me”, he whispered to her. Rhodesia licked at the old dwarf’s face. Deus came and licked at the dog’s neck as if to say “Well come on then. Get up. We have places to go and things to do”. Rhodesia wagged her tail and stood up.
“So Ebreck, tell us what happened” inquired Agrona, handing him the brandy flask. Nuria wrapped a warm blanket around him. Taking a stiff drink and wiping at his face, the dwarf related the past events.
“It was a little after you all fell asleep. I noticed this, what looked like a person’s shadow moving around. Thinking there was someone out there trying to sneak into the camp, I sent Rhodesia to circle one way, while I went the opposite direction. This way I intended to entrap whomever it was. Little did I know that the shadow itself was the intruder. I realized soon that I could not hear any sound at all. Luckily Rhodesia could rely on her scent and so track me. Otherwise I am sure it would have killed me. As I approached the location of what I thought was the intruder, the shadow catching me by surprise suddenly stood upright and jumped at me. That’s when Rhodesia leaped between us and took the killing blow meant for me. As she fell, she gave me time enough to strike out with my enchanted axe. I hurt it but it grabbed me by the throat. The shock of a frigid cold forced me drop the axe. I guess what saved me is that I am such a piece of tough meat that I need a lot of chewing. O.K., why is no one laughing? We grappled but I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker. The last I remember is thinking that it would be so wonderful to fall asleep in my mother’s arms again. Then it grew warm, and instead of my mother’s beautiful visage, Henry’s ugly puss was staring down at me. For that I thank you friend Henry.”
“So,” PW interjected in a loud, angry voice. “Let me know if I understand this properly. You were the one on guard. You saw something strange which might have been a danger to us. Instead of waking us, so that we could all be together, you decided to be a hero and face it yourself. Thereby, not only putting yourself in danger, but the rest of us as well.” His voice grew louder and angrier. “Why would you do such a stupid thing? Get yourself killed if you want, but do not endanger the rest of us. That does it! No more watches for you! I will take the next one and believe you me, if even so much as a cutesy baby bunny rabbit shows up. I will be yelling and screaming and kicking at your butt to get you up!” With that he turned and walked off back to the bedrolls. Everyone one knew his anger was covering his fear that his friend may have been seriously hurt or worse.
“What do you think it was?” asked Nuria.
“According to what Ebreck told us and some of its abilities, most likely some kind of unclean spirit”, replied Agrona. “What exactly, I do not know.”
“Well its gone now. Lets return to the campsite”, added Xana. “It is a good thing that you woke when you did Henry. Had Ebreck succumbed it may have hurt us all in our sleep. What woke you?”
Henry thought about this. What had woken him just then…luck? Premonition? Fortuitous coincidence? He remembered the dream.” It was love Xana. My love woke me.”
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. The next day was spent following the trail until it met up with the main road again. There were no new encounters.
The company was traveling along the main road when suddenly the wolf and the dog who had been scouting ahead, came racing back with yips and growls.
“Travellers coming along”, reported Xana who had listened to what the animals had to say using her druidical abilities. “It’s also something that they don’t like. Everyone off the road, and into the woods. Ebreck, Nuria and I will take the horses calm them and hide them. The rest of you, off to the opposite side. No one does anything until I do. Understood?”
They sprang into action. Agrona, PW and Henry hid themselves in the woods but close enough to the road bank to watch the events. Henrietta crouched down all but invisible in the deep bush. They could now hear the sounds of wagons and men shouting to harnessed animals. The dire badger sniffed at the air and began to growl. Henry could sense her rage beginning to swell. “Hush my beauty”, he whispered in gnomish. She quieted down. Around the bend came the first wagon. Their eyes widen as they recognized it. No wonder the animals felt a dislike. It was Gwardo’s caravan. The same caravan that they had all fought against recently. Henry felt PW tense up. He gripped the halfling’s arm. He could feel Agrona do the same on the other arm. “Easy”, he whispered to the rogue. They waited in silence as the wagons rolled by. Finally the last wagon came into view. It was larger and more elaborate than the rest. They all knew that in the wagon resided Gwardo the drug dealer, PW’s nemesis. Henry tightened his grip. As the wagons rumbled out of sight down the road, Henry released his breath that he did not realize he had been holding.
PW spoke up. “Promise me something you two. Leave Gwardo to me. Should we ever be in combat with him and his group again, I will be the one to finally slice off that smirk from his pig face. Promise me that.” They both promised, but it was a promise that Henry would not be able to keep.
Xana and the others appeared leading the horses. They mounted and continued the journey. Two weeks later they reached the mouth of the Nesser.
They could hear it before they saw it. The sound of rapids and a waterfall. As they topped the rise, they could look upon the panorama. They were on top of a cliff. Down below then, the Nesser flowed through rapids and then fell several tens of feet. White water foamed and thundered. Below the falls the water slowly calmed and turned green-blue. Then it flowed gently as the mouth of the river emptied into the bay. Beyond, all the way to the horizon was the ocean. There the blue of the ocean met the blue of the sky. Henry looked out across the sea. Beyond the horizon lay the Southlands and Miranda. “The gods watch over you my love” he spoke quietly.
At about the same time that Henry was looking out over the ocean, Miranda stood at the stern of a ship, part of a fleet of five. She was gazing toward the direction of Greyhawk. All around her gnome children laughed and raced around as they played, plaguing the sailors. Young gnome couples strolled the deck. Expectant mothers walked together for exercise, discussing plans for the birthing.
“Return to us Henry”, she thought. “I need you and your daughter will need you.” She rubbed her hand up and down across her stomach. A little girl seed had started to grow inside her. She would always have a part of Henry with her. “Yes, little Myra”, she muttered to the child inside her, “My darling daughter, if the gods bless us, then your father will know you and you will know him. The gods watch over you my love” she spoke quietly.
“Over there”, Ebreck explained, pointing to the cliffs in the distance banking the mouth of the river. “Those cliffs are riddled with caves. We can start our search there.” “Once we get there we can have a quick lunch and then begin our search,” Nuria observed. “Let us be off then.”
“We should check this one out”, reported Ebreck. “I have a feeling about this one.” “Why should this one be any different than the others we have already checked out?” inquired Agrona.
The ranger explained. “The opening is large and the animals are excited around it, sniffing around and pacing.”
“We’ll do it”, said Henry as he and Henrietta entered the opening. The wolf and the dog followed The opening was the beginning of a wide passage way. They walked down a ways with the dire badger sniffing as it went. Abruptly she stopped tensed up and gave a warning throat sound. The paladin could not sense any evil emanations but his empathic link with his mount allowed him to sense the odour of a creature freshly dead. “Deus, stay. Rhodesia, go Ebreck.” He commanded as he drew his blade. The dog, at the sound of her master’s name, turned and ran up the tunnel. The wolf stood his place beside the badger. In a short time the others arrived. After Henry explained the situation, they all moved forward in battle order. The tunnel branched with a much wider one continuing off to one side and one continuing in the same direction but opening up into a large chamber. The smell of death was stronger in the chamber. They approached cautiously. Two large vaguely humanoid shapes lay near the center of the chamber. They appeared to be motionless. They did not respond as the party drew closer and closer.
“What in the Nine Hells are they?” questioned PW with amazement. They looked like a cross between a gorilla and a beetle gone wrong. The creatures had massive chitin plate armored torsos, two powerful arms ended in huge claws, as did the toes on both legs. The head was low and rounded with two antennas emerging from either side. Their large compound eyes were topped with two normal appearing eyes. The mouth was dominated by a row of triangular teeth from which extended a pair of massive mandibles. Their bodies looked burned and many deep slashed openings leaked fluids and internal organs.
“Umberhulks”, responded Nuria. “Magical creatures of the underground. Most likely acting as naga guards. Whatever destroyed them must be powerful and I assume still close by.”
“Oh goody,” spoke PW sarcastically. “We are closer to the treasure we came to seek. Who wants to lead the way?”
“Whatever destroyed them, must be searching for the Rod piece as are we”, interjected Xana.” We must hurry.”
“Wait, Did you hear that? Henry asked. “It sounded like a scream.” They all quieted down to listen. After a short time, hearing nothing else, they quickly headed back towards the unexplored tunnel. It too opened up into a large chamber. The tunnel continued on the other side. Near the center of this chamber, they spied three very large forms. But these did not look humanoid. Upon closer approach, there was no doubt, three very large monstrous spiders. They do looked recently slain with their bodies burned, and deep slashes leaking putrid entrails.
It was at this point that Ebreck found a series of tracks. “Six different boot tracks”, he explained. “At least two in heavy armor and no more than half a hour old. They all are headed out the other tunnel. There is also a small trail of dried blood.” He sniffed at it. “Human blood.”
“It must be another group after the Rod”, Nuria exclaimed with some urgency in her voice. “Quickly, follow the tracks!” They rushed through to the new corridor. As the corridor made a large arc to go in the direction they had come from, the stone floor became increasingly wet and was soon under several inches of water. Again the tunnel widened and they were almost gagged by the odor of rotting fish. Lying dead in the water were seven bodies. Signs of a recent battle were everywhere. The walls were blackened with fire. The smell of ozone could still be noticed through the stench. The bodies were covered in sword and axe slash marks through which leaked entrails. All were humanoid in shape but one was taller and more massive than the others. Six of the bodies looked like humanoid fish. They had bullet shaped piscine heads in which their dead fish eyes bulged out. Their feet resembled flippers. The mouths opened in grimaces of pain held needle sharp teeth. Broken spears and bone swords surrounded the bodies. The odd corpse was different It resembled a large ogre except that it wore a dark blue robe to match its skin colour. Tiny horns protruded from its forehead. Its claws and teeth were black. A fractured wand was still grasped in its hand. Xana identified them.
“Kuo-toa and an ogre mage. More guardians for the naga.” Hardly had the words passed her lips when the sound of faint shrieks echoed from down the corridor. This time they all heard it. “Hurry” Mounted on Henrietta, Henry was the fastest. He and the animals soon arrived at another chamber. In the center of this one seemed to be a rather large eyeball. One side of the eyeball held a gigantic eye, now closed. Below the eye was a large gash of a mouth from which lolled out a pale tongue between many canine teeth. The top of the eyeball grew out ten tentacles each of which ended in a closed eye. A murky fluid leaked out from the many slashes and stab openings that covered the eyeball. Henry prodded the thing with his lance but there was no reaction. By now the others had caught up.
“An eye tyrant! A beholder!” shouted Xana. “Another dead guardian. Keep going” They went down the tunnel as it continued out of the chamber. In a short time Henry reached a T-junction. Henrietta sniffed at the air. Henry could sense her confusion. The scent she had been following went both to the left and right. Wait for Ebreck he thought. When they arrived, just a wee bit later the ranger looked around. They went first left but the returned and went right”, he judged.
“To the right then”, ordered Xana. Off they went. After a short distance the corridor was filled with what appeared to be giant mushrooms. Their heads had been cut in half or sliced up. They were black with red stripes and at the base of their stems were what appeared to be stubs form locomotion.
“Shriekers”, roared Ebreck in recognition. Now they realized where the shrieks had come from. “Keep going!” A little way past the shriekers the tunnel kept going but another large tunnel branched away from it. “The tracks keep going ahead but we cannot leave our backs unprotected in case of a trap, but we have no time to go down the branch passage”, reported Ebreck. “Leave the animals here at the junction”, suggested Agrona. “ They can warn us in case something comes from this side passage.”
This was done. Leaving the animals behind they proceeded on until finally the tunnel emptied out into a huge oval shaped chamber. The center of this chamber was filled with a pond of fetid brownish water from which emitted a decaying odor. On the opposite side the floor sloped up. There the party could easily discern six people who had arranged themselves in a semi-circle. A giant snake like creature with several Kuo-toa bodies lay motionless to one side. The two parties faced each other across the pond. A plain-faced human woman with brown non-descript hair studied them with a categorizing stare. She wore leather armor. Her arms were hugging her sides, exposing a rapier and long dagger strapped to her sides.
Beside her was another woman, a half-elf this time. She was disheveled. Dressed in hide armor with a sickle hung on her hip her hair was leave covered and matted. Staring hatred at the companions, she spat into the water. Next was a tall attractive human male. Decked out in black and red plate mail he seemed to shine in a blue-black glow. He seemed to focus only on Henry. Henry recognized him to be a fallen paladin. A blackguard! Here was a paladin who had succumbed to the temptations of evil. Henry’s recourse and duty were clear. There were no options here. It was part of the paladin code. To free his fallen brother’s tortured soul, he must physically destroy the body. Henry lowered his lance in preparation for a charge. Standing next to the blackguard was an easily recognizable drow elf. He wore a midnight black robe, which blended with his flawless ebony skin. It had red stars scattered throughout. His pure white hair hung long to his shoulders. Staring at Xana and Nuria, he gave a magically enhanced laugh that easily carried across the chamber. “Come my pretties. Come and search for me. Then I can turn you both into slaves. I will put you both to work in a drow brothel. Many will pay a good price to abuse two fine exotics as you. But first I will break you’re your only desire will be to please me however I wish it. You, elf, I will do personally. The young human I will give as a toy to my friend Bugger here.” He indicated the huge half-orc standing beside him. Bugger was unkempt with his breastplate was dirty and dented in many places. He held an orc double axe with both hands. As he squinted at Nuria through porcine eyes he commenced undulating humping motions with his hips. Drool began to escape his mouth and flow down his extended jaws. “Guess how he got his name”, finished the drow. In sharp contrast to Bugger, the last person in the arc was an attractive blonde haired woman. Her plate armor was clean and polished. A red cloak immaculately clean, hung down from her shoulders. A glowing mace hung from a black crisp black leather belt. There appeared to be a symbol of a two horned goat head shape on the chest of her armor. By now Henry was about to begin his charge. Ebreck had loaded his bow and getting ready to aim it. Agrona was just about to finish a divine incantation. PW had drawn his rapier and began to ease his way into the shadows. The red-cloaked woman raised a hand. In it she clutched the Rod piece! She then raised her other hand. In it she held a sign, which read: “Lady Valeria sends her regards.” At that moment the drow blew into a unicorn horn and they all disappeared abruptly. There was a little popping sound as the air rushed in to fill the space where they had stood.
Nuria gasped out loud and stood shock still. “No, it can’t be!” The others turned to look at her. “Not mother, not my mother!” Sudden realization struck the others. Nuria’s now evil mother was Lady Valeria.
“Your mother”, spoke Agrona. “That gang belonged to your mother and now possess the Rod piece? God of Righteousness aid us.” Xana moved to Nuria and embraced her tightly. “Hush, little one. Be strong. We will salvage this together.”
“A teleport”, continued the priest “They used a teleport to escape. High-level magic. Well we might as well see what they left for us.” Henry was the across the pond. He recognized the kuo-toa from before and the naga fit her description. There was also another strange looking creature with a goat’s hindquarters and a lion’s fore quarters. Dragon like wings extended out from its body. It had three heads, a lion a horned goat and a small dragon. It too was very dead. The others waded across. “A chimera”, said Xana after examining it. “Very rare. A pity it had to be killed.”
“Over here”, shouted PW. He had begun to search the nooks and crannies of the chamber. “I think I found the naga’s lair. Jackpot! Come and see this!” The others went to see. PW stood in a small chamber whose entrance from the much larger chamber was cleverly disguised as a slab of rock. In the light of his lantern, there gleamed, mounds of coins, shiny gold ones, brilliant silver and platinum pieces and lots of red copper. A scattering of jewels and gems refracted the light brilliantly. There were all other sorts of treasures, chalices, potions, helms, and rings.
“What good is all this treasure if we have lost the Rod piece”, asked Nuria?
A look of annoyance crossed the halfling’s face. “Be pragmatic here, Nuria. We cannot do anything about the third piece right now. We have to return to Greyhawk and report what happened. So why not load up on treasure? Especially if it can help us equip ourselves better for when we have to retrieve the third piece as we will most likely have to do.” Finding no fault with this argument, they packed up as many coins and gems as possible. Included were all the items that were detected as being magical. Having Henrietta meant that they retrieve almost all of it. They retraced their path and were soon on the road back.
The return journey was uneventful. They did pass by the large skeleton of the ettin, which had picked clean and several bones had been scattered. They showed teeth and chew marks. They also managed to identify some of the magical items. These included a pair of bracers for better protection, a scroll case that could hold fifty scrolls as easily as one, gloves with the power to snatch arrows out the air, a rope of climbing, a hat that could enable its wearer to be disguised as any type of humanoid; a ring with the ability to emit a bolt of energy upon command. Of the potions, only one was identified. An elixir of love. For some mysterious reason, Agrona claimed this as part of his share.
A sad, sorry, and fatigued group of heroes arrived at the walls of Greyhawk. They headed directly to the Mage Tower to report the bad news. They found both Belgrath and Joshua waiting for them. They described the events that occurred. When they reached the part regarding Nuria’s mother, the two archmages, glanced apprehensively at each other. Belgrath especially appeared agitated. Joshua spoke.
“We did not anticipate your mother’s involvement in this, Nuria. This is not good. For her to possess the piece implies that she is planning to either prevent us from having a fully assembled Rod or trying to assemble the Rod herself. Either way it means a confrontation with us. Your mother is a powerful mage. I knew her when we were both young students of Belgrath. Something strange happened to her. One day she abruptly left and turned to evil. We must think on this. I suggest you refresh yourselves and we will summon you when we have decided a course of action”
“Well then”, said Ebreck. “I am thirsty. Let us find a good tavern to remove the taste of trail rations and eat some real food. Who is with me?” They all were.
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