Malodorous black smoke hung thick in the air of the expansive cavern, filling the atmosphere with a choking acrid stench. Carefully, the party creeped forward, mindful of the massive rib bones jutting haphazardly from the cave walls and floor. Any light from the mountain peak was quickly smothered out by the stinging cloud plunging the enormous depths into darkness.
Despite this, the cave provided a welcome respite from the incessant rains that had plagued the group for weeks.
Moagh trooped ahead without worry, knowing that any opponent who approached would face pitiful odds against his blade. The others though felt more trepidation, as stone giants by and large were a much more dangerous foe than any ogre could prove to be. Dimitri reached out and grasped Moagh’s shoulder, halting his advance.
“Let Jesail scout ahead.” The cleric whispered to his stout companion.
Jesail’s perceptive ears twitched as he heard the whispered suggestion and nodded his assent. He was one of only two in the party who could traverse without something to light the path. Though his companions still did not know his true identity, they ceased to question why, for example this so called ‘elf’ could navigate the shadows with perfect precision, where his kindred elf Variel could not. Perhaps it was a ranger thing.
Jesail slinked forward, silently hugging the wall and deftly weaving between the protruding bones. Soon he slipped out of sight of his allies and into the foreboding depths of the winding crack in the mountaintop. Everything about the cavern was oversized; openings to tunnels gaped like toothless mouths, ramps dipped at precarious angles, and simple stone steps reached up waist high or higher. Still Jesail creeped onward, craning his neck to peer around corners and cupping his ears to catch even the faintest sounds of stirring. At last he heard life, down a tunnel to the east he could hear voices. Two male, one female. Ogres. A disturbing coquettish giggle and coy intonations revealed that somewhere down the tunnel, ogres were flirting with each other.
Returning quickly, Jesail reported what he had heard, asking the others what their recommended course of action would be. Unfortunately no one seemed able to formulate a plan beyond ‘go shoot at them and lure them back here’. Variel cast a short yet familiar enchantment, and quickly vanished from sight. With the rest of the group following close behind him Jesail crept back toward the ogres and, taking a vantage point on the wall of the cave with the assistance of his magical boots fired a short volley at one of the ogres.
It was a mistake. Immediately the second male ogre who was not injured pulled out a metal gong and struck it furiously with his weapon, sounding the alarm. The other two turned to face his direction. The struck ogre bellowed furiously and charged toward him, but could not see the elf clinging awkwardly high up on the wall. Momentarily confused, his eyes alighted upon a hated sight— the dwarf, Moagh.
The dwarf stood stout against the charge, his wide greatsword poised and ready. A roar, and the singing of metal through the air and the great form crumpled before him.
Down the tunnel to the south where the sounds of pickaxes rung quietly more noise began to stir, soon, a group of ogres charged through in response to the panicked banging of the gong.
One, who lingered slightly behind the others, yelled orders that only one member of the party could understand.
“Don’t stand there, cowards! KILL THE INTRUDERS!”
Picked out as the leader, Variel’s quiet voice whispered to the eldrich energies. That one, he decided, would be the next to perish.
From the great ether a thick, noxious cloud sprang forth into being in front of the ogres crowding and growling in the tunnel. Almost immediately they doubled over, seized with choking gasps and coughing spasms. Thick, calloused fists wiped at eyes and fanned ineffectively to disperse the mephitic gas. When they discovered this would not work, they instead ran, breaking into different directions. A few charged at the awaiting party, before being felled by arrows, mace and sword. Most of the others, their leader included, were routed, disappearing through the tunnels to the north and south. All told, six ogres were slain outright. Of the adventurers, only Geth had sustained any significant injury.
“Shall we follow them north, or south?” Dimitri asked, pausing to tend to his fellow cleric, who stood leaning against a wall, breath ragged from injury. His hands hovered over his companion’s body, and a soothing, white light penetrated his armor to knit his battered flesh back together.
“The cloud will travel opposite wherever I am. If we go north, we will not have to concern ourselves for now with what lies south.” Variel said, crinkling his nose at the faint acerbic scent the cloud left in its wake.
Thus decided, the party turned north, heading up in elevation. The winding passageway twisted and broke into several forks. Two turned west, one east.
“Which way do we go?” Asked Geth, turning to his fellows.
Jesail held up a finger indicating silence. Holding perfectly still, he turned his perceptive ears down the tunnel they stood before. He could hear his companion’s breathing, the soft shifting of their fabrics, the tinny clanks of armored pieces rubbing against one another. But beyond that, in front, the susurration of incantations. He could pick out three distinct female voices, haggard with age, though the words were lost in the echoes of the cavern. Also, the stench of the smoke grew intensely down this tunnel. He turned around,
“This is where the smoke emerges, and where we are likely to find our friend Lamatar.” He said.
“Let’s waste no time.” Geth said, striding into the lead down the tunnel.
This passage was shorter and narrower than the others. Trying to hide their presence, the adventurers crept forward. Soon a wide but short room opened up. There, just like the mirror had revealed, the room with the hags. A large enchanting circle was drawn, and the runes glowed with profane magics. Around a great bubbling cauldron, the three living inhabitants stood, jointly casting their magic on the putrid mixture within. So engrossed were they in their ritual, they did not notice the party creeping closer behind them.
Off to the side, organizing the bottles on the shelf, stood the withered and desiccated body of the former black arrow known as Lamatar. He had undergone a horrid transformation into an undead creature, and though his face bore resemblance, his body was twisted into a new form, most noticeably in his right hand, where the flesh had extended and frozen into long icicle claws.
Variel’s malicious smile went unseen by his companions as he quickly broke into a routine much familiar. Web.
Thick ropy sticky strands of spider webbing erupted from the floors and walls, tangling everything in the room into a white sticky trap. The hags shrieked in surprise, but were unable to react in time to avoid the magic strands. They were caught, as Lamatar, immobilized.
The next incantation was almost interrupted as Variel could hardly contain his malevolent laughter for his second most favorite spell. Fireball.
The room was enveloped in bright yellow light. The eldrich fireball expanded, though there was no sound, nor wind. Only heat brushed the faces of the adventurers as the hags were consumed in the flames. The panicked shrieking grew in volume and fervor as the webs that bound them were set alight, searing patterned wounds into their deformed hides. Still the hags could not move, as though the strands were burning, they were not completely vaporized.
Moagh was next to act, charging headlong into the room. One slash, and the first hag’s body was cleft in half, though it was held suspended in the burning webbing. It would be a few seconds longer before the webs could no longer hold her weight and dropped her lifeless and charred body to the floor.
Arrows and a mace downed the second hag without much fuss. Lamatar unfortunately could not withstand the flames and crumpled to the floor without being able to act.
Seeing her two sisters slain, and her pet reduced to cinders, the last hag collapsed to her knees.
“Please! Spare my life!” She crowed, sliding closer to one of the humans,
“I will tell you whatever you want to know.” She slid between the adventurers. Frantic eyes darting back and forth between impassive faces.
“L-lord, the Lord Barl Breakbones has come and he enslaved the ogres of this mountain.”
“What spell is this circle for?” Variel queried, stepping forward from the back of the ranks toward the boundary of the runes.
“Well,” The hag began, standing shakily under the watchful eyes of the adventurers. She sidled up to the wizard elf and batted her eyelashes at him. It took a herculean effort not to retch at this broken, blistered hag attempting to put the moves on him. The smell of singed skin and pus was hardly more than he could stand, and he shot the hag a withering look. “This is where he ordered us to control the rains.”
Variel twitched noticeably, “It’s time for the rain to stop.” He glowered at the hag and shifted away from her, pointing a long, thin finger toward the circle.
“Yes yes, if I stop the rain, will you let me leave?” She asked, folding her twisted hands together in a pleading manner.
“We will also need more information on Barl Breakbones.” Dimitri piped up, “But please, stop the rain.”
She did as she was told, shuffling toward the center of the circle of runes. Lifting her hands, she spoke a few soft words in an old tongue. Briefly, the runes shone brighter, then were snuffed out. Inside the room, any change could not be felt, but Variel quickly noted that the magic had ceased.
“Tell us of the leader.” Geth commanded.
“Yes yes. I do not know much about him, other than the fact that this mountain top used to be an ogre den, when Barl and his tribe came and enslaved them. He wields powerful dark magic, and forced the ogres to mine under this cavern for ores to smith weapons and armor for himself and his clan members. Now please, let me leave.” She pleaded, turning to Geth.
“So he’s a necromancer?” Variel asked, to which she nodded.
“Do you swear not to warn Barl of our presence here?” Geth asked, she nodded again.
“I never wish to set foot in here again, I will leave and never return.” She stated earnestly.
The adventurers parted to each side and allowed her egress through the tunnel. Variel strode toward the devastated figure of Lamatar.
“Someone help me put this into my bag.” He said. Moagh strode forward to lift the singed corpse off the ground. Variel opened the lip of his bag and cinched it closed when the body had been placed inside. Somewhere under his breath, Jesail heard the muttering of having to wash it out later.
After a quick discussion, the party decided to head on forward to confront Barl himself.
Unfortunately any attempt at stealth was quickly thwarted as Barl’s booming voice echoed down the tunnel.
“Welcome adventurers. I see you have caused me a good deal of trouble.”
The scale of this room put all of the others to shame. The high ceiling vaulted at a steep angle and at the pinnacle, a skylight broke through, revealing for the first time in weeks, a blue sky. The stone on the floor was slick with rainwater, though no new rain emerged to reveal that the hag had kept her word. Connecting to the tunnel was a wide pathway leading upward, where on either side of a six foot high ledge great stone heads glowered down at the path menacingly. At the end of the path the floor and the ledge evened out, though about thirty feet beyond that, another ledge broke the room in half. Atop this, and surrounded by two giant bodyguards sat Barl himself.
The throne on which Barl sat seemed to be part of the mountain itself, having the rock face around it carved away but without separating it from the wall or floor. Still, it was a simple throne, though huge. The leader reclined lazily against an armrest, himself as cold and grey as the mountain in which he reigned. Still, the most distinct feature about Barl was that, for a giant, he was quite overweight. Still, even his bulging gut seemed firm and stiff, much like the rest of his body. His two guards stood before piles of great boulders, with arms crossed, standing perfectly still. Two ogres stood beside these guards as well, but they shifted about nervously.
“Still,” He continued as the party came into line of sight, “I could use more with your strength and abilities. Join me, and you will be rewarded handsomely, I can make you the lords of the states after we usher in a new age of darkness under Mokmurian.” He said, “If you refuse, you will face either death, or slavery.” This last bit twisted his gravely countenance into a sinister smile.
The adventurers all looked at each other in bewilderment momentarily. Jesail was the one to speak up first,
“Lords of state? Can you sweeten the deal at all?” He asked, catching astonished looks from his companions. Barl smiled at him,
“Well, we also have donuts.” He said, smiling.
“Really?” Asked Moagh, incredulous.
“No.” Barl answered, his face downturning.
“Whaat? Screw this you donut-lying asshole!” Variel shrieked, immediately diving into an incantation. From the ether another poisonous cloud broke forth into the room.
Immediately the poisoned atmosphere broke into a flurry of activity. The ogres, as before, coughed and retched miserably, though unfortunately the stone giants seemed less affected. Barl rose his ponderous mass from the throne and began casting an incantation of his own. Instantly, he vanished.
When the ogres recovered enough to run through the cloud toward the party, Moagh leapt forward to counter them, charging headlong into the center of the great room. Jesail nimbly scrambled up the ledge to his left to take cover behind one of the great stone faces, and Variel backed up slightly.
Dimitri grasped hold of his holy symbol of Serenrae, and called forth her blessing of fervor to aid his companions, though Moagh had just run out of range of her holy grace.
For the first time in many months, the party quickly found themselves facing an enemy that actually halted their destructive advances. Despite being peppered with arrows and slashed brutally, even the lowly ogre stood his ground for several tense seconds. Time seemed to run in slow motion as spells were fired off back and forth, and the giants charged forward to intercept the closest threat.
Dimitri’s heart grew colder as he saw first one ogre, who fell, than a second, and a stone giant, and finally Barl himself close in and surround Moagh. Despite the dwarf’s stoutness and supernatural seeming deftness when facing Giants, hit after hit struck him true. Blood poured from Moagh like a torn water skin until his entire body seemed to be one reddened, slick mass. His life dripped down from his own armor to mingle with the water on the damp floor, making the area a slippery mess. Still Moagh fought on like a cornered animal, snarling incomprehensibly as his rage caused him to linger where lesser men would have been killed outright.
A last great swing from Barl’s club finally was what brought the mighty barbarian down. The party’s eyes grew wide as the club cracked down on his skull, rending it with a sickening crunch that resembled a melon being split apart. Moagh staggered, his eyes rolled back as he first collapsed to his knees, then dropped to his face in the growing pool of blood beneath him.
“Goddess,” Dimitri whispered under his breath, witnessing for the first time Moagh the unstoppable being brought down by the great stone tower known as Barl Breakbones. His heart skipped as he wondered whether this may be a fight they would not be able to win. Marshaling the courage that once inspired him to be a paladin, Dimitri broke into a run. He had to reach Moagh, he had to save him, lest his friend’s fire be snuffed forever.
“WAIT!” Variel commanded in an uncharacteristically loud shout from behind him. Dimitri immediately stopped dead in his tracks, halted from his fevered task to yield to someone smarter than himself.
“Geth, grab Moagh and pull him away, NOW!”
Geth, who stood close enough to Moagh to be standing in his blood puddle sprung into action. He was caught once by Barl’s backhanded swing and knew exactly how that club felt. He deftly ducked under Barl’s lumbering form and grabbed the dwarf’s unconscious body, heaving it with all his strength away from certain destruction.
Variel’s hands and mouth was a flurry of action, weaving unknown symbols and ancient incantations he had never cast before in a last ditch effort to save the others. It was not immediately apparent what he had cast, but as Barl turned around, and brought down his club to try to end Geth’s life as well he stopped just a few inches short, bouncing off an invisible force.
“What?” He growled, astonished, a second swing proved just as ineffective. He reached out a thick hand to touch his obstacle as his two retainers chucked boulders past him. They cracked and shattered but went no farther forward than Barl’s club had.
“You idiots! This is a wall of force. Do not waste your strength on this, you cannot break it.” He commanded.
Dimitri ran forward toward Moagh’s body, as Geth laid him on the floor, revealing himself to now be stained thoroughly with Moagh’s blood. He looked down at himself in horror.
“Do something! For the love of Abadar, save him!” He cried. Dimitri stood tall and raised his arms toward the beam of light streaming in from the roof.
“Serenrae help this man, help my friends. Help us!” He pleaded. Immediately his body began to glow with a pure, white light. It radiated out from himself, and upon touching Geth and Moagh, began to stitch together their wounds and repair their bruises.
Moagh groaned miserably as the light ripped his mind back from the bliss of unconsciousness and into painful reality. He became at once aware of the cold, wet floor, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth, the stabbing agony of his broken ribs, the fire of his protesting muscles, and the intolerable pounding of his rising blood pressure on his battered brain. Gods, he was tired, but with the returning of his mind brought the awareness that the fight was not over. He heard his companions voices and panicked yells though they wavered with the pulsing rush of blood in his ears. Slowly, he pushed himself back up and staggered to his feet.
Once again, the pure waves of white light embraced his body, and each respective pain lessened, his mind cleared as it wiped way the fogginess of concussion, and he became aware again of his great sword dropped to the side.
A great boulder landed beside him with a great crash as the giants tried to lob the massive stones over the invisible wall to crush the people on the other side. Fortunately, their aim was off, and several stones bounced off when they aimed too low, others went wide over and missed entirely.
Barl continued to cast spells, magic missiles leaped over the wall and unerringly found their targets on the other side. Frustrated, he even cast fly on himself, implausibly lifting his great bulk up and over, to land on the side with the adventurers to continue his warpath.
This was a mistake, his enemies regrouped and refreshed met him with a barrage of attacks. From Dimitri, a searing bolt of divine fire melted his toughened skin. Arrows found chinks in his armor and pierced the places where he was softest, heavy mace swings cracked his stony exterior, a coruscating ray sapped his energy, leaving him weakened, and Moagh, revived, grabbed his vicious war fork and attacked with renewed vigor, though each of his swings also caused grunts of pain from himself. And through all his, he was alone, as his loyal guards could not bypass the wall as he had.
In desperation, Barl took off vertically, reaching for that opening in his chamber to freedom. In the end, he could not reach it before a final few shots from those who could reach snuffed his own perilous grasp on life and brought him down like an avalanche, crashing into a lifeless heap on the floor.
Almost immediately, the remaining ogre threw aside his weapon and surrendered, pleading for clemency because he had no choice in obeying Barl. Barl’s stone giant guard was suddenly recalcitrant toward the heroes.
“I thought stone giants were usually neutral, why did you follow Barl?” Variel asked the giant.
“Barl offered us glory, a chance to retake our lands from you disgusting humans.” He said bitterly, staring at the fallen form of his leader. Jesail and Variel both resisted the urge to remind him that they were not all humans.
“But you have a chance at redeeming your image before the minds and hearts of people, if you behave that way, you can reclaim your honor without others resisting you.” Dimitri offered helpfully,
“There is no honor in acquiescing to thieves!” The giant shot back. “Even though Barl is dead, and I have failed we will succeed.”
“How? We just cleared out your tribe.” Jesail asked, incredulously. A deep rumble emerged from the giant as he chuckled bitterly,
“You think our whole tribe is here? You have no idea.”
“How many?” Geth asked. The giant shot him a cold glare,
“We are armies.” He straightened up, “But I am disgraced, I could not protect Breakbones, and cannot return. Kill me, as my life no longer has worth.”
Moagh shrugged, and before anyone could stop him thrust his military fork straight into the giant’s eye sockets, letting him crumple to the floor beside his leader.
“Why did you do that? We could have asked him more.” Geth snapped at the dwarf.
“He asked for it.”
Variel spent some time picking over Barl’s corpse for magic items.
“You.” Jesail said, pointing to the ogre, “Tell your buddies what’s up. And know this, we have slain Barl, and those who attacked Fort Rannoch and those who beset Skull’s Crossing. If you attempt to betray us, you will find no mercy.”
The ogre nodded enthusiastically “Yes I will tell them, you will never have trouble from us again, saviors!” He said, scurrying out the tunnel and down to the south.
The party followed behind, catching up with him as he addressed his clan. All around there were looks of relief mixed with sadness as those who worked through the battle down in the mines saw the corpses littered on the floor of the barracks.
“One more thing you can do to repay us for saving you.” Variel said, admiring the craftsmanship of the weapons on the wall, “Make armor and weapons for human size, to equal in number those here and deliver them to Fort Rannoch. Then your debt will be repaid. Though you do not have to kill yourselves with labor.”
The ogres agreed.
After resting for a night in the fort, the party made their way back through the fey lands toward where Miriana had sent them on their search for Lamatar. They found her incorporial form still weeping bitterly in the glen where she resided. When the form of her lover was presented to her, she cried out in joy.
“My love! Come forth and join me.” She said, resting his corpse in the center of her glen. A light shimmered around his body as a shadowy, ethereal figure of a handsome young man emerged from the battered remains. They entwined around each other. She gazed thankfully upon the group who had returned him.
“I promise, for hereafter, you shall always be welcome in my domain in the fey wilds.”
And with that, they vanished.