This is the record of my days, which circle themselves like the serpent which bites its tail. Therefore, I burn each page before writing the next: thus.
Skelmis is bolder now, confident in his ring and its mastery over me, He studies the maps of Klydessia’s secret shrine.
“How cunning of your sister to hide herself away like this,” he mutters.
She’s not my sister, I want to reply, she’s so much more, but to contradict him is impossible.
“She is insane,” I reply. “She seeks death, but cannot have it.”
Skelmis laughs at that. “Death, you say? A gift your other sister possesses in abundance. We must re-acquaint them. How is silent Achlys these days?”
Nor is she my sister. I think of Achlys’ long vigil in the Temple of Pain. Death must be for her also a suitor too long delayed in arrival. Perhaps my Curse is not the worst of our burdens.
“You should take the map to her,” I suggest.
Skelmis stops laughing.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see your sister’s ghastly hands around my throat? No chance of that. The ogres can go there.”
That pains me a little. Rufus and Tusk are evil brutes but they deserve better than undeath at the cold hands of Achlys.
“I shall call them,” I say.
“Not so fast!” Skelmis’ eyes dart to and fro with suspicion. He paces round the table, cracking his knuckles. “You’re up to something. With those big fools away, are you planning an insurrection, my dear Lachesis? To pull away your veil and show me your snaky face? I’ll not join your statue collection.”
It is typical of a man like Skelmis that he cannot imagine the Curse as anything other than a blessing. Were such power his, the world would grow grey with statues. That it pains me to use it is something he will not believe, because he cannot understand.
“How can I deceive you?” I tell him. “You possess the crystal.”
“I do!” he replies, snapping his fingers. “Fetch it, fetch it. We must catch up with your new friends.”
We set the crystal on the table and Skelmis bends his will to its puzzling facets. Images appear within it, at first fragmented, but slowly cohering.
“They have entered the Hobgoblin Redoubt again, or what remains of it.” He looks up at me with an expression of fierce suspicion, “That was badly-played, Lachesis. The Hobgoblins would have made a fine army for us.”
I shrug. A fine army for him perhaps. Skelmis’ ring could have made a puppet out of the Hobgoblin Commander, but he’s dead now. Trustee Sniv was meant to send those adventurers to their deaths in the Redoubt, yet somehow they prevailed.
Skelmis sighs as he recalls the day, three weeks ago, when the Hobgoblins fell. “How reckless, to scout round the entire Redoubt, then assault the main fortification anyway. Bold perhaps. Or just stupid. Which would you say, Lachesis?”
I think of the Swamp Elf who handed over the maps to me.
“A person can be both,” I reply.
Skelmis is absorbed in the crystal again. “The Danaan is with them again. Gods, those trousers! Don’t they have mirrors in the West?” He grins at me, evilly. “Let’s hope for your sake they don’t!” He returns to the crystal. “There’s the assassin who killed our Hobgoblin Commander. What a woman! I think she might be worth recruiting, even at the cost of one of our ogres. The Street Mage, bah! The Beautiful Ghoul, that was a fine prank your mad sister played. The dreary Ranger. That fool of an Elf. And look, your friend the Druidess is back. That will be a merry meeting.”
I ignore his taunts. Yrsa Jormungandr is coming today. I can feel her approach. I remain impassive but my snakes betray me with their agitation.
“Don’t think you can hide anything from me,” says Skelmis with a sneer. “I know you too well. You told that Druidess something, didn’t you?”
I shrug. “Only what I saw in the cards.”
“And what was that?”
“The serpent bites its tail.”
Skelmis studies me for a long time, then blows out his cheeks in a gesture I find irritating beyond all measure.
“How quaint, those cards of yours. You must tell me some time about the dead world you creatures come from. Your culture and –” he waves his hand “- stuff like that. Fighting the Millennium War. Losing. I can see it eats you up inside. But not today, eh?”
I think of Gorgadia as I saw it first: a world of pillared temples, the fountains, the snow-crowned mountains. It was a paradise, ruined by what followed me there. I think of Balor’s Cauldron and the transformations it wrought. Snakes for hair. The Curse. My last act of defiance before the serpents burst from my brow.
“They will be here soon,” says Skelmis, providing a welcome interruption from my brooding thoughts. “I think it’s time to add them to your statue collection outside.”
“Or send them to Achlys.”
Skelmis doesn’t answer. This is a dangerous moment. If he asks me for my reasons, I will have to tell him. But he won’t ask. He has no curiosity. And he wouldn’t believe me anyway.
He blows out his cheeks again.
“Sending them to Achlys is sending them to their deaths,” he says with self-satisfaction, as if he thought of it himself. “Then the fools can haunt the Temple of Pain as wandering Anguishes for a few years more, till the Nixthisis – praise her devouring hunger – gobbles the whole place up.” He sniggers at the thought, making me wonder, not for the first time, if his weird religion hasn’t driven him quite mad. “Achlys can take the map from their corpses,” he continues, “and send her Handmaidens to give your other sister a long-overdue murdering.”
“Then she comes for us,” I remind him, because I must.
“Then she comes for you,” he corrects me. “But don’t worry. The Nixithis will protect you.” He adds, “Perhaps. If I put in a kind word.”
He considers the crystal again. “They’ve discovered the doors to the Plated Mage’s laboratories. No getting in that way. Down the stairs they go. Nasty surprises on the fourth level.”
He pushes the crystal away.
“Good. If they found the stairs, they will find the caverns that lead to the Temple of Pain. They’ll run all the way to our front door, begging for chores, and you can send them straight back, like good little messengers.”
“They’ve been good messengers before.”
Skelmis narrows his eyes.
“No cards this time,” he says. “No coded messages. Just tell them where to go.”
“What if they want a reward?”
Skelmis almost drops the crystal. He bends over at the waist and laughs until he starts to cough. There’s blood on his phlegm.
“Promise them anything,” he says at last when the choking passes. “Promise them eternal life!” That sets him off again.
“What if they don’t want eternal life?” I say. I tell him my thoughts, because I must, “What if they prefer a good death?”
Skelmis dabs at his lips with a cloth and studies the blood flecks with a sort of dazed surprise. He shoves the rag away.
“Then tell them to jump off the bridge,” he says with grim relish.
For the first time in a long time, I smile.
“I shall do that.”
This is me, Ferdia Mac Osteir, late of the Paradise of the Seven Yews, late of the living lands and soon to fasten hands with my only pal Dearg. Drink with me.
Althion the Dwarf is practically a stiff and Morgan’s merry ravens are croaking his name, as my aunt used to say. I sit at his bedside in a hostel full of Gnolls, waiting for help that will surely not come. Dearg stands at the door, holding a lamp. He wants me to join him. But I have not yet finished this drink.
This is how it happened.
I have been a grave-digger seven years, which is long enough to see strange things but not long enough to forget them. Sometimes in these graveyards, bodies are lifted by a certain hag or a gentleman necromancer and they are put in a cauldron. Later, I pass them in the streets, my former clients, and their eyes and lips are sewn shut with black cords. It is very disconcerting to see them like this. Dearg used to say, When I die, cremate me.
Dearg was a guy that we Danaan call a filidh, but everyone else calls a crazy person. He would talk to the tomb stones and shout in his sleep, yet he was my pal. We worked the graves together, digging them deep then guarding them while we sit under an iron lantern. It is so cold on certain nights that my teeth clatter like hammers, but Dearg sits in his rags, making love to his doll, who is the crescent moon, with his songs and riddles.
Then he up and died. The Rat Pox twisted his fingers and frothed his lips. They cremated him, just as he wanted, and his ashes went up to the moon, his doll.
But his soul, well that is another story.
When Dearg turned up at the graveyard one moon-randy night, I quit my job at once. I took myself to a cousin who is a surgeon for the Brotherhood of Fingers and asked for a job as a look-out man and bribe-collector. There is a dignified career in the Fingers if you do not need your lips sewn shut, if you take my meaning. But then Dearg is there too, looking up from a storm drain or down from a balcony, or following me down twisting alleys, pad-pad-pad his bare feet slapping.
All of which discourages me greatly and makes me re-think my career again.
Ferdy, you ask me, why do you not go to the Clerics of the Tuatha or the Priests of St Charn? For a small consideration, they will return the dead to their proper place. This is very true, but I do not want my friend Dearg to lie bound in an iron cauldron or be taken by hell-hounds to the Hall of Shades. I merely wish him to stop following me with that insistent expression on his kisser.
So I am sitting one day in Mindy’s where they serve a cheese cake which is greatly to my taste, and a Swampy the Elf is there, recruiting guys for a dungeon proposition. This I am very reluctant to do, for only a sucker goes into a dungeon looking to get rich when the Cracked Mirror will offer seven to four on the turn of a Shibolbo card. But Dearg is sitting across the table from me looking at my cheese cake, which was also greatly to his own taste, and suddenly I am not hungry any more.
“What do you know about the Hobgoblin Occupational Army?” Swampy the Elf asks me in the interview.
I tell him that the Hobgoblins are gentlemen that you do not want to get sore at you for any little thing, because they have come from the Dark and loathe and despise the Light, as everyone in Merkabar knows, and want to march up to the city walls, which they will do one day, if the gods do not order things differently.
“We are going to recon-oyter the Hobgoblin Occupational Army in Stonehell,” Swampy the Elf tells me.
If a was a wiser guy I would leave the table at once and never come back to Mindy’s, even though the cheese cake in Lucky’s is less to my taste, being too dry. But I guess I am not a wise guy, because I say to Swampy the Elf, “OK Boss!” so there you are.
There are three of us, Swampy the Elf and Al the Dwarf and myself, and we travel to the Stonehell Dungeon where everything is arranged very nicely. The Orcs are polite to us and the Kobolds smile their crooked smiles and shows us to some stairs going down to the second level and Swampy the Elf says to me, “There you are.”
There you are, indeed.
Swampy the Elf gives me a lantern with shutters and I creep ahead down the steps, because of course and Elf and a Dwarf can see in the dark like cats but my peepers do not see anything unless I un-shutter the lamp. But Luck is a lady, because there are torches downstairs and Hobgoblins guarding more stairs, which must be to the third level.
Swampy the Elf thinks about this proposition and decides we will ambush the Hobgoblin sentries, which we do. Swampy the Elf is a killing gentleman and makes the last Hobgoblin sing like a canary about the pass words and the fortifications to the north. Then he ices him in a very firm way. I am told to hide the stiffs down below in a room with a big pool of water.
I am feeling now like a Citizen in the Brotherhood of Knives, who can walk into Mindy’s and take any table they like, making guys get up and give them their seats, even though they have not yet finished their cheese cake.
Because this is a recon-oyter and not a raid, we go to the south and search many empty rooms. But always we find that the Hobgoblins have been there first and taken all the figs and dates, if you take my meaning.
Then Swampy the Elf decides that we will go west and then north, so as to go around the Hobgoblin Occupational Army in a way that comes at them from the side where they are perhaps not watching out so carefully and with such fierce attitudes.
And I say, “Good idea, Boss!” because since I am working for Swampy the Elf I do not see Dearg following me or hear the slap-slap of his bare feet, no not even once.
It is my experience in life that when things are going good, they keep on going good until they start to go bad and then they go very bad indeed. So bad that a guy winds up wishing he had never had the good stuff, if only the bad stuff would go away.
There is another Hobgoblin Guard Post and Al the Dwarf shoots one dead with his bow but the others come at us in a very determined manner. Swampy the Elf has thought about all the angles, because he is a person who has fought in the Warden Rangers and knows red work from blue, if you take my meaning. But sometimes Luck is not a Lady, like when the Cracked Mirror offer you seven to four on the turn of a Shibolbo card and you have counted the cards very carefully, but to yourself and without moving your lips, and you figure that the Aces are not in the deck and you put all your scratch on the table, but then the card turns over and there is an Ace where an Ace should not be. On occasions like this, it is best to kiss goodbye to your cucumbers and leave quietly and promise yourself that you will not play cards again, but instead read holy scriptures and live an upright life.
Which is to say, Al the Dwarf’s arm is broken and it is his fighting arm, so that now he cannot swing his sword or fire his bow. We are more than somewhat concerned about this. But Al the Dwarf is in high spirits and says he can fight with his other arm. Swampy the Elf thinks about this and decides we will keep going, one and all, which in my opinion is not a very wise decision but, because I am not very wise either, I say, “Good idea, Boss!”
There are two times when it is best not to be putting chips on the table and one is when you cannot afford to and the other is when you can. Now we are searching in many strange rooms and finding many curious things, but what we are not finding is any scratch. What is more, my ears are hearing a slap-slap-slapping sound of bare feet following us. All of which makes me more than somewhat discouraged.
Soon Swampy the Elf is discouraged too, for a big pile of Green Slime has dropped on his precious cloak and eaten it and I throw our lantern on the slime to burn it. So now Swampy the Elf has no magic cloak and Al the Dwarf has a broken arm and for light we must use my torches, which are smoky and cause me to cough.
Then in a big room of pillars we meet with Giant Hound Spiders and these monsters are like dogs and they attack the weakest guy, which is Al the Dwarf on account of his broken arm. Poor Al gets his noggin cracked and falls down like a stiff. It is only five to four that he will live.
So we decide to take back our chips and kiss the dolls good night and quit this place, like good citizens, and there you are.
There you are, indeed.
All of this time, the Hobgoblins have not been sitting in Mindy’s eating cheese cake, if you take my meaning. Perhaps they have found the stiffs that I stowed down on the third level or perhaps the Kobolds have tittle-tattled to them, even though they said they would not.
So I am carrying Broken-Bones Al and Swampy the Elf goes ahead with his cats-peepers and discovers that the Hobgoblins have blocked the way back. Now Swampy the Elf takes this news very hard, indeed I have never seen a guy so sore about any piece of news that did not involve the turn of a Shibolbo card or a promise from a beautiful doll. Swampy the Elf thinks to himself and decides that we will not say ‘How do you do?’ to the Hobgoblins, but we will go to a new area of the dungeon and look for a staircase up to the first level that he found once, that might be to the north and to the east of here, if his map is right. And there you are.
I am not liking these odds very much but I say “Good idea, Boss!” because there are no other ideas.
We head north, one and all, into the old Asylum and let me tell you that the mood is not congenial. I am carrying Al on my back and he is growing heavier all the time. The inmates have written messages on the walls with disturbing points of view. When we arrive in a big room with painted murals, I have to rest a moment and set Al on the floor. The wall paintings show a vast crowd and I have to rub my peepers because there in the crowd is Dearg, grinning back at me with his particular expression. Swampy the Elf can see someone in the crowd too and he is particularly discouraged by it.
Now I can hear my old pal’s footsteps hurrying behind us and I am too weary to carry Al, so Swampy the Elf takes up the burden and I carry the torch. I feel sure that, if we do not discover this staircase soon, we will all have to find another world in which to live.
But find the stairs we do and even rattlebone skeletons do not cause us to take one step backwards nor out of our way. We arrive back in Kobold’s Korner, just as Swampy the Elf predicted.
Anyway, this is about all there is to the story, except that Al the Dwarf is still stiff and still, with a dent in his noggin the size of soup bowl and no way to get him out of here safely, what with Swampy the Elf and myself being exhausted.
“Listen to this, Ferdy,” says Swampy the Elf, “I’ll go fetch help and you stay and nurse the Dwarf.”
He gives me fifty Gees to bribe the Kobolds and promises he’ll be back in 24 hours with a rescue team and I say, “Good idea, Boss!” because my thoughts don’t come out straight no more.
This dungeon hostel is more than somewhat filthy and the only other guests are Gnolls, who I figure intend to creep over and eat Al and myself both, once I fall asleep. So I sit through the night with my teeth clattering like hammers and Dearg sits next to me in his rags, singing his riddles and making love-songs to this new doll of his.
Dearg says she’s not up in the sky, like his last doll the Moon, but down in the ground, deep down underneath us.
Dearg says there’s a wound in the world down there that’s growing all the time and she sits in the middle of it, smiling.
Dearg says we’re going to go together, soon, down the staircase to the second level, then the third, then deeper down, to take a peek at his new doll.
I tell Dearg it’s a good idea. We will go together and soon. But first let me finish this drink.
It is I, Martinette Kratovic. I write this for myself only. Know, O Reader, that I shall find you and kill you for your prying.
I sit in a hostel in the Nether Courts of Merkabar. My agent, Yuri, has many jobs in his file.
“See,” he says, “a wife whose husband betrays her with his gardener. Such rage!”
“Alright, then this. A clerk passed over for promotion. His boss is –“ he reads on to himself and his eyes pop “- a real bitch!”
“Boring,” I tell him.
“A handmaiden in the Stainless Spire who loves her sister’s husband. Wait, listen, her identical sister, and –“
I am not listening. I am reading a fly poster pinned to the wall. ADVENTURERS WANTED! EQUAL SHARES! NO TIME-WASTERS!
Yuri is explaining something about two sisters.
“I am going down a dungeon,” I tell him.
He stops talking and examines me. He suspects a joke. But I do not joke.
“Dungeons,” he says, “are risky. But missions,” he goes on, “are profitable.”
“Profitable and dull,” I tell him. “Kill the sister yourself.”
The adventurers are interviewing hirelings at a gambling hell called the Crack’d Mirror. One of them is a Danaan with absurd trousers and a pet pig.
“I used to be a temple-dancer in Varang,” I tell him when he asks about my background.
“Why did you give that up?”
“I don’t believe in God.”
He thinks about that. Or about my breasts. Then he asks, “What skills would you bring to the party?”
I shrug. “I kill people. If you like, I poison. That costs more.”
“How much more?”
I think of a number. It seems to satisfy him.
“What happened to the last dungeon party you adventured with?”
I think of the startled look on Iskandar’s face, before he fell backwards into the pit leaving the knife in my hand. No, he was not startled. What is the word? Disappointed.
“They all died,” I tell him because that is the truth.
“We’ll let you know.”
I sit in the bar and let a fat Northron buy me drinks and put his meaty hand on my knee. I wonder about the two sisters in the Stainless Spire. Would it not be better to kill the husband instead? Then the Pig-man returns.
“You’re hired," he says." We leave for Stonehell tomorrow. Bring your – your – what we talked about –“
“I know what to bring,” I tell him.
Our party is not large. There is Pig-man. With him is an Elf with a painted body and a toad familiar. There is a woman, a Vinlander who smells of bears. There is a pretty boy whose name is Gore and who carries no weapons. I am curious about him. They have a mission, which is to destroy a tribe of Orcs who inconvenience them. This is good. There is focus. That means less talk.
The Orc guard post is well-defended with a barricade and archers. We split into two groups. Pig-man shows me a junk room full of giant rats. He sets fire to them and drives them down the tunnels towards the Orcs. When I arrive, the rats are eating fallen Orcs and the Vinlander woman really is a bear, which explains her smell. More Orcs arrive, including a captain, and the fighting is hard. The Swamp Elf is a mighty swordsman. Gore kills with his bare hands. I am wounded and restless.
Gore drags the Orc bodies to another room and I go to watch him eat them. I understand now. His beauty is only show. Beneath, he is monster.
“We are the same,” I tell him.
He watches me undress while he licks his bloody fingers.
Sex, it is better when there is danger. Dead things stumble into the room while we couple. The excitement, it is fantastic. The Pretty Boy-Monster is injured but the Swamp Elf arrives and then the Pig-man and his Silver Hand. He holds up his symbol and his god chases the dead from the room. I study the Pig-man, bathed in his god’s pure light. For the first time, I am curious about him.
We search the Orcs’ lair. There is a mighty axe. There is much gold. I watch the Pig-man as he loots the Orc captain’s room.
“I’m not Pig-man,” he says. “I have a name. Dian.”
There’s no glory to him now. His god has gone. But I am restless.
“Bring your god back, Dian Pig-man,” I tell him. “I want to feel his brightness.”
But he puts aside his holy symbol while he watches me undress.
After that, there are traps to get through, but they are old sorceries and mean nothing to me. We stand at a crossroads while the others talk about the Orcs and how the Elf once hexed the Great Orc Chieftain. The Vinlander woman is no longer a bear. I am so bored. I think about the sisters in the Stainless Spire. Perhaps Yuri was right about that mission.
“Let me kill Orc-Chieftain,” I interrupt them. “This is job for me.”
They look at one another and nod. We will surrender to the Orcs. They will take us to the Chieftain. The Elf will hex the door shut. He must dance to work his hex, but that will be a show to amuse our captors. Then I will kill the Chieftain.
There are many Orcs. They crowd around us as we are escorted to the Chieftain, and peer through the doorway after us. We stand before the Chieftain and his mate and his bodyguard, whose name is Ka-Plott. The Pretty Boy-Monster knows this Ka-Plott. The Chieftain and his Mate are delighted with their prisoners. They think they have us at their mercy. Their smiles remind me of the Temple in Varang where the men press in between the pillars and the incense sticks to the sweat on my thighs.
The Swamp Elf begins to dance his hexing-dance. He too is a Temple-Dancer. I realise, we are the same, he and I. My feet remember their old steps. My hips remember their arcs. My face is the gorgon’s mask. The roar of men grows louder. In truth, I never left Varang. I straddle the bloated priest with his grinning mask. His hands touch my sacred body, though it is forbidden. I draw my knife across his throat as I have in dreams, so many times. His neck smiles a second smile, a smile of blood.
But he does not die. It is the same as all the dreams. He will not die, though I stab and stab. The old priest is the Orc Chieftain now and he does not die, though my blade cuts deep. He calls for help. He draws his sword.
The Elf-Dancer steps up and chops off his head. We stare at one another, the Elf-Dancer and I, standing over this corpse. I am grinning.
There is fighting. The Vinlander throws down her staff and it becomes a serpent. I approach the Chieftain’s Mate where she cowers against the wall.
“Turn your face away,” I tell her. “Close your eyes. This will pass.”
Afterwards, I take a large sapphire from her body.
There is commotion. Only one Orc, Ka-Plott, lives and he worships the Pretty Boy-Monster as a living god. This is foolishness. There are no real gods. Only men and their desires.
“So, we are leaving?” I ask.
“We have made Ka-Plott the new chieftain. The Orcs have a new chief now who is our friend,” they explain to me, like I am a small child.
“What about the plan?” I say. “The plan to kill all the Orcs?”
But plans change.
The Orcs-who-are-now-our-friends escort us out of the dungeon. At the Inn, the treasure is divided. It is a great amount, the loot of a tribe. We are rich. The blood of all the sisters in the Stainless Spire would hardly purchase such treasure.
I am restless. I walk away from the noisy inn, under the cold, uncaring stars. I tell myself, I am no longer in Varang. I see the Elf-Dancer’s sword chopping off the old priest’s head, over and over. I am grinning. It makes my lips hurt. I am curious about him.
The inn is silent. Everyone sleeps. I go to his room and hammer on his door.
“What is your name?” I say when he opens the door.
But the Elf-Dancer shakes his head.
“Tell me your name,” I say.
But he will not share it.
I curse him in the Varang tongue. I weep tears of frustration. I beat my fists on his chest. I press my lips against his. I snuff out the candle, so he will not watch me undress.
It is I, Willem of Melcott, these are my words and today I triumphed over my enemies.
A cursed angel must guide my steps, because look, I am back in the Quiet Halls with Horatio the Street Mage (since that's his name with this party), the Elf who calls himself Swampy, Yrsa the Druidess and a trousered Danaan Cleric named Dian.
We are not alone here. There's a band of Stygians - cultists in those mad animal masks they wear - standing in the columned hall and squabbling in that language of their's that sounds like belching. I'm up for a ruck with flesh-and-blood enemies, but the party prefers stealth. That's wise. Horatio's newt Nelson follows the cultists to a new corridor of crypts, which they start breaking into. They're looking for something. Or someone.
Oil is the way. Chuck it on the floor and call the Stygians to walk over it. In goes one of Horatio's flashbombs and WHUMPF! It's grizzly, people burning like that. The Hobgoblin Occupational Army used to burn its prisoners. It doesn't sit well with me. But then I remember what it felt like being beaten by these thugs. I make peace with myself.
Then the madness begins. The air smells of incense and a mist fill the tunnels. There's a boat sails into view, a high-prowed funeral skiff like the ones the Stygians paint on their pointy tombs. It's crewed by the dead and piloted by a robed figure who's either Sutekh or Saint Charn or the Crow Queen's grisly grandfather. How am I feeling? My bowels are in my socks, make no mistake.
The undead crew start harvesting the corpses of the dead Stygians and the skeletons advance on us. This is why you bring a Cleric! They say that Danaan Priests can't turn away beggars, never mind the Undead, but Dian does a solid job, waving that silver hand he carries. I'm not spiritual, but I resolve to drop a few coins in Nuada's collection plate when I'm back in Merkabar. Thinking there might be Danaan gods watching, I take a swing at the remaining zombies. It feels good, the way they squelch. The funeral skiff sails off and fades like a dream.
This place is crazy.
No time to get all philosophical. We're here for the tomb robbing. There's a nasty statue of Tsathoggua peering down on us the whole time. Cheerful. The crypts are empty or full of slavering ghouls. While we're dealing with one of these beasts, another crypt opens behind us and a hex comes down on Dian the Cleric, turning him stiff as a gallows-pole and dropping him to the floor. It's that evil hermit, Malfrecas Null. He's been living among the dead things, like a crazy person. He reeks of leprosy but he's grinning like a Danaan with a bacon sandwich. I reckon that's who the Stygians were looking for.
Swampy shows his style now, grabbing the mad mystic's arm and chopping it off at the elbow. Then we jump on his remaining fingers. No more spell-casting for him.
There's a bit of a discussion. Horatio's promised to deliver Malfrecas to the Stygian priest in Merkabar. That's a terrible idea and we will all regret it. But a promise is a promise. A couple of people offer to carry Malfrecas, but he's so vile they end up gagging or vomiting over the walls. We end up putting a leash round him, like a dog, and shoving a sock in his mouth to stop him whimpering.
Despite all the weirdness and an insane hermit for company, I'm feeling cheerful. There's a room with a giant dead snake in it and Dian shows his god in a good light once again by turning skeletons away, so obviously that stereotype of Danann Clerics being only good for turning pixies is just not true. Sharp-eyed Swampy finds a secret crypt but even Crypt Shades don't bother us these days. A fine golden crown is in there. We've already earned more than my last descent into the Quiet Halls.
Dian leaves us now. He's taking Malfrecas Null out of the dungeon before the nutter finds some way of calling trouble down on us. These Quiet Halls suddenly get a lot darker and colder without a Cleric. Since I'm a spiritual person now, I call on one of my nan's favourite saints, old Nine-Leagues Jack, to guide our feet.
My nan was a bloody daft old woman. We walk into a pit trap that drops us down a chute and into a heap of filth somewhere on the second level.
The second level. A bad place to be. What did my nan used to say? "Nine-leagues Jack, Pack your sack, Guide my feet to Hell and Back!" Well, they're half-deaf, the Saints of the Old North, because we've been dropped into hell with no way back.
Swampy has the map and calculates that stairwell we discovered last time must be a distance to the south-west from here. There's a passage south, but it leads to deserted guard rooms and tunnels heading off to the north and east, exactly where we don't want to go.
We head north and find ourselves in the worst place. It's an arena where people have been fed to big beasts. There's a viewing platform 15' overhead, for sick weirdos to enjoy prisoners being eaten. There's something up there, watching us. Meanwhile, down here, there's a swarm of flesh-eating bugs and they're not listening to our Druidess' sweet words.
We light torches to drive away the bugs, but the viewers upstairs turn out to be hobgoblin scouts with crossbows. Swampy gets drilled, once in the ribs then again straight through the neck. He's down, our best fighter. The hobgoblins are reloading.
Yrsa has a plan. She turns into a snake, a little stripy snake no longer than a bootlace, and wraps herself around a crossbow bolt. I throw it - and her - up to the balcony. Horatio's doing something with the Sentinel Staff, creating a magical barrier, while I drag Swampy out of the way. He's in a stupor.
Up on the balcony, Yrsa turns back into human form and rushes the unsuspecting hobgoblins. She knocks one over into the arena and he lands on his noggin: stone dead. Horatio shoots out his extendable hand and grabs the dead monster's crossbow for me.
Yrsa is facing off against two hobgoblins. She brains one with her staff but the other has her at swordpoint. I'm no shot with any sort of bow, but I fire the crossbow as best I can. Either my old nan or Saint Jack or Nuada Silverhand was watching at that moment! The bolt goes straight into the hobgoblin's back, dropping him dead.
The second dungeon level might be dangerous, but there's treasure down here. The jewellery on the corpses in the arena is amazing and I don't even mind the gruesome business of getting it off old cadavers.
Now we have to be swiftly-swift. Swampy is only half-sensible and I'm feeling the fatigue, carrying him along. The next big monster could be the end of us. The tunnels take us west then south, then further south. We starting finding familiar architecture. We ignore the puzzles and tunnels left and right. We press on, all the way to the stairwell up to the Quiet Halls that Gore explored last week.
A nasty blade trap nearly takes off Yrsa's head, but we get back to the first level and some stone doors through to the Kobold Korner. Kobolds like us, it seems, since Swampy saved them from this Giant Shrew. But whatever reception this party got from kobolds before, it's a bit different this time. The little runts can see we're wounded and their attitudes changes really fast. It's weapons out and "Back you scaly bastards, get back!" Yrsa's staff turns into a snake and grabs one of their bosses and Swampy's familar puts a doting-hex on the other one. That changes things! Now we're welcome guests once more - we're the famous Shrew-Tamers and we can breathe easy.
Except we have to wait upon the kobold boss, who calls himself Trustee Sniv. Nasty creature, with teeth as bad as Malfrecas Null's fingers. Of course he wants a bribe and takes that big gold crown off us. Good job he didn't see the jewellery from the second level.
Then Yrsa starts shooting her mouth off about hobgoblins and what's rightly coming to them. Don't get me wrong: I've fought the Hobgoblin Occupational Army and I wouldn't stir milk to save any of them from a good massacre. But monsters tend to stick together. Except, Sniv gets this sly look on his face and offers to show us a stairwell down to the Hobgoblin Redoubt on the second level. It wouldn't cost him sleep to see the Hobgoblins routed, apparently. Treacherous bunch, monsters are.
The Kobold Tavern serves terrible beer, which is just the way I like my beer. The party are looking for a witch called Lachesis, who doesn't seem to be about, but they get pointed towards another woman called Esmalia. Esmalia is up from 'deep downstairs' with a gang of villains in tow. They're a foul bunch, not just filthy-dirty but, I don't know how to put it, they're dirty inside too. I won't sit with them. Esmalia has these teeth filed to sharp points. Her breath is awful, worse than Malfrecas, worse than Sniv. She'll take our message to Lachesis about this shrine the party have discovered. In return she wants us to take one of her companions, a scratching, twitching bedlam-girl named Gretchen. Gretchen has to be smuggled into Merkabar and I don't think it's because she wants to use the public baths. Gretchen doesn't speak. She just scratches herself. Nasty.
Esmalia's gang offer us safe escort out of the dungeon, which would be good if it didn't involve spending time in the company of Esmalia's gang. They remind me of Gore, that way they look at you. A hungry look.
All of which would make me sad and inclined to re-evaluate my life choices. But not today. He might be on his sick bed, but Swampy calls in a favour to sell that dungeon jewellery to a big-shot collector. We're rich: rich like big heroes, Elyon-rich, richer than I've been since the last time I danced on a gallows.
Money like this puts me in the mood to make really unwise decisions. And one of them will be going back to Stonehell again.
It is I, Willem of Melcott, these are my words and today I did not die.
I was hired by a fellow I know named Wickham Winmore. Strange chap. Street Mage. Crested newt for a familiar. He seemed careless with his money and he stuck up for his friend in a gambling hell we were both drinking in, so when he said, "Do you fancy risking your life to get rich?" I said, "Yeah!" After all, it's not like I'm busy or anything.
We went up country to an inn called the Leaky Bucket and met up with his friends. There was a good-looking chap called Gore who always had this hungry look about him and a Swamp Elf who must be straight out of the Warden Rangers because he introduced himself as 'Swampy', the way they do. Wickham's friends all called him Horatio, which was my first clue that this was all a bad idea. Then they said we were going to Stonehell, which proved it.
Stonehell is an old prison from the Bad Times when the Sterling Potentate was big in these parts. Some crazy vizier built the place to experiment on prisoners. Then it filled up with monsters, as big underground mazes do. Adventurers used to go in there and come out rich. Then they started coming out poor. Then they started coming out dead. But Wickham or Horatio or whoever he is said his party had made a fortune in a big tomb complex in Stonehell called the Quiet Halls, so I thought, maybe my luck is changing? I really shouldn't listen to myself.
We hiked out to the canyon and it reeks of hidden Goblins, but Wickham's lot didn't seem too bothered. We found the stairwell into the prison underneath this inscription saying "Beware All Who Enter" Wickham's lot didn't seem bothered by that either. They'd been here before. I started to cheer up. They seemed to know their business.
The corridors were all empty. We stopped off at this Rock Oracle that Swampy seemed to set great store by, but it was just tommyrot, if you ask me. The doors to the Quiet Halls were a bit unnerving, with their dancing skeletons and suchlike, but the rooms were all, well, 'quiet'. Nothing in the crypts except a screeching Crypt Shade that Swampy cut clean in half. Even a staircase down to the second level doesn't offer any threats, just a terrible smell, like lizards. Maybe this was going to be one of those Stonehell raids where everyone comes out healthy and rich.
Well, I said that too soon, didn't I? I got pounced on by a spider the size of my nan and then blood-sucking stirges had me at their mercy. I was rattled, I can tell you. The others shrugged it off like nothing, but I was planning how to cut and run. That Swampy calmed me down. He's been in the Wardens. He knows how to make light while being serious. I stuck around. The others found a big diamond, proper valuable. Maybe sticking around is best, right?
After that, another long stretch of boredom: a big room with a bridge across a pit and more crypts. The young lad Gore had a conversation with some sort of monster trapped inside one of them. That's when I realised the lad wasn't human. I tried not to think about it. The party spent ages debating what do do with this weird closet with a rune on the wall. Wickham cast some spell and told us the place was a transporter. Transporter to where? For one horrible moment I thought they were actually going to climb in there and zap off to Heaven knows where. But no, thank Goodness.
Well, don't thank Goodness for things because she takes it badly. The next room had a band of vicious Stygian cultists in it, like the fellows back in Merkabar that were shopping for human sacrifices. This bunch were ready for us and I took a proper beating from their maces. Swampy dragged me out and Wickham put a hex on the door to hold it shut and we all took a moment to catch ourselves and bind wounds. That was our first mistake.
Gore turns up and he's in a mess. He's been eating - and I mean, eating the bodies! He's some sort of cannibal. He says there are zombies on the way and I can feel my knees going but Swampy and Wickham drag me round a corner to hide. They've got this plan. When the zombies roll up, Wickham will cancel his hex and those Cultists will tumble out, straight into the zombies. I could've told them it wouldn't work, but my tongue was cleaved to my mouth and dry as a well in Ashkhan. So that was our second mistake.
The Cultists tumbled out alright, but they called on their god Sutekh and the Zombies get given the right-about. Nothing for it now but to pile in, swinging Doris and Derech, my flails. It's brutal and when the Stygians are down, I'm gasping for air like a fish in a skillet. My ears are ringing with the noise and the last Cultist is screaming and surely the whole dungeon must hear this going on! So that was our third mistake.
Next moment, we're running. They're all after us. Skeletons and Zombies and Boojums and Boggarts and all the merry gang of Hell. We turn around and trade a few blows back in the temple but they are way too many and the Skeletons are too fast.
There's a plan. Hold the line in the doorway, beat them back, keep the door closed and wait for Swampy to stick a hex on it, Elf-style. Wickham's up for it. He can't do it alone. I volunteer. That was my mistake and mine alone.
The dead come at us in a wall of bones and chattering teeth. We smash them back, get the door closed. They push it open, I slam it shut - but not before one of their hatchets has cut clean into my arm. My flail's gone. My arm's useless. Wickham's bleeding and passed out with pain. Gore appears at my side and kicks the dead things back out the door and closes it and Swampy's hex goes off. We're in the clear.
I don't remember getting out. There was an ambush I think, but they ran away. Swampy hauled me out, and I was raving like druid in the moonlight. I recall Wickham passed out. Gore picking bits of meat from his teeth. Only Swampy looked fresh, like he just had a bath.
It's a bath for me. Hot water and suds in a big tin pail at the Leaky Bucket. Fifty gold crowns each that diamond turned out to be worth. That's not nothing. It's not riches, but it's not nothing. Wickham's paying for a proper Physicke to look at my arm. That's decent of him . They're planning on going back for a re-match with those Undead. That's a terrible, terrible idea.
But it's not like I'm busy or anything, is it?
Horatio the Street Mage adopts his persona of Wickham Winmore the Northron knight and goes Carousing in Merkabar the City of Paradises with Halwen the Lucky, fellow Northron William of Melcott and "Scratchy" Bonfilh (three NPCs). Halwen, a keen gambler, gets drawn to the House of the Cracked Mirror and a high stakes game of Shibolbo with some robed Stygians. She confides to Horatio/Wickham that she's in over her head and is staking her life as an illicit human sacrifice for some Stygian cult. The game is set to resume at midnight.
Horatio sends his familiar to fetch friends. Dian of the Danaan has been doing the 'Water Tour' of the city, blessing fountains and wells and aquaducts - but really an excuse to attack and harass the Eunuchs of St Jezriel over an escalating property dispute between their religions. Horatio and Dian meet in the Paradise of Seven Yews (a walled cemetery) to discuss their options.
They considering delving into the Nether Courts to find a slave market to buy an alternative sacrifice, but this doesn't sit well with them. They decide instead to visit the Church of Ahrumon to see if the city's established evil religion knows what these Stygians are up to.
Since the temple-ziggurats are massive abattoirs, Dian leaves his hearth-companion Rasher the Boar with another cleric, Wicwyn Yorne.
The pair arrive at the Ziggurat of Smiling Shadows just after evening services and watch the (animal) blood being cleaned away by acolytes. Patriarch Zabulon is in prayer, so they are asked to wait on the Patriarch's balcony, sipping sherbet and eating figs while enjoying a spectacular view of the city.
A young woman joins them and her beauty entrances Horatio. Before she can lead him away, Dian exposes her for a Succubus and curses her. She leaves in a fury but they are reproved by Patriarch Zabulon: "Please don't insult my secretary."
Zabulon is silky sophisticated and deeply corrupt. He reveals that the Stygians worship Ahrumon in the aspect of Sutekh of the Tombs, but their paperwork is up to date and they have observed all the rituals. Zabulon will not take action against them but observes that the Stygians are very interested in the Stonehell dungeon so perhaps a deal might be struck. He gives Horatio a diptych, a hinged tablet granting him some authority from the Church of Ahrumon.
Back at the House of the Cracked Mirror, Horatio and Dian interrupt the Shibolbo Game and approach the Stygian priest to negotiate for Halwen to be released from her debts. Thotmosis the High Priest in return instructs them to return to the Quiet Halls of Stonehell and track down an ancient, evil mystic hiding there who must be made, whether he wishes it or no, to assist the Cult of Sutekh of the Tombs in their Great Work...
All of which explains how a night of Carousing for Horatio turned into an extended evening, with great expense, but resulted in him acquiring a good reputation and a favour from someone influential.
The party return to Stonehell: Swampy the Swamp Elf, Wheezy the Dwarf, Horatio the Street Mage and Yrsa Jormungandr the Druidess. In the box canyon they encounter nothing worse than wild goats and learn about a big cat stalking the hills. They descend into Stonehell.
Their first visit is to the Rock Head Oracle, which warns them about Crypt Shades and Bone Things. The party explores an old barracks and finds a corpse locker full of rats. Arriving at the portals to the Quiet Halls, they lose their nerve and retreat. They wipe out cannibal berserkers and finally track down 'Da Dragon' (a giant gecko lizard). Unfortunately, the rewards for these dangers are scant, since the area around the entrance has been cleared out by previous adventurers.
Joined by Dian the Cleric, the party enter the Quiet Halls at last. The columned chamber is lit by demonic light, which turns out to be an infestation of fire beetles. These creatures have chitinous shells that make them hard to damage and they take a toll on the party: Yrsa is concussed.
The party decide to explore a corridor lined with crypts. Naturally the undead are active inside and some unquiet crypts explode upon, the undead spilling out. The party fights a fierce battle with zombies and a crypt shade, both find holy water valuable.
Further down, Dian is able to turn skeletons and Swampy holds the door to another crypt closed, delaying the bone thing from breaking out. Yrsa's Sentinel Staff keeps it at bay while the party bombards it with holy water.
Rich in treasure but with many injured and Trauma levels rising, the party decide to retreat rather than press on. They are ambushed by skeletons while leaving and Wheezy's weapon-arm is broken.
Despite this setback, the party escapes from Stonehell without further incident, with Yrsa in bear-form dragging a sled full of treasure. They decamp to the Inn and take a carriage into Merkabar to rest in luxury. Wheezy, Horatio and Dian train to reach 2nd level and Horatio has an interesting experience while carousing: he gains a deserved good reputation and earns a powerful favour.
The party camped at the shrine of St Raz and entered Stonehell in force, joined by new allies.
The party entered the caverns to the north, following the sign directing them to 'Da Dragon', and met with a Kobold clean-up crew led by a kobold named Towser. The kobolds were collecting guano from the bat caves. The party went to explore the caves, but were approached from behind by a team of Ghost Beggar bandits. Yrsa brought down a swarm of bats on the bandits and they mostly cut each other apart in confusion. Before executing the lone survivor for his crimes, Swampy ascertained that the bandits were selling their services as mercenaries to the Open Sore Orcs to wipe out the last of the goblins to the south.
While Swampy went off to investigate, the party explored the caves, finding a well down to the second level and the apparently-unoccupied lair of 'Da Dragon'. Re-entering dungeon corridors, they fell afoul of a poison gas trap that killed Mercador the Mage. The party tipped his body into the well.
Discovering an old tomb, the party began opening crypt doors and disposing of the undead inside. In one crypt they found Gore the Half-Ghoul, struggling to raise himself to humanity, and recruited him. The Grinning Skull Shrine cursed the party with demented laughter, summoning more monsters.
Rejoined by Swampy, the party followed the route taken by the kobolds to an Orc guard post. Representing themselves as Ghost Bandit mercenaries, the party were guided by the troubled Orc Ka-Plot to the lair of the Open Sore tribe and the chief, Thothity, who commissioned the party to wipe out the Goblins in return for "thapphireth and thtaveth!"
The party explored the Contested Corridors, encountering a Doom Lure spirit of fear and a violent war band of Orcs, before coming across the Goblin lair. Attacking with surprise, the party wiped out the Goblins and Yrsa freed their wolves.
After settling the Goblins' debts to the Kobolds, the party returned to the Orcs, only to be betrayed by Thothity. In the battle, Horatio was crippled. Fortunately, Swampy was able to place Charm Person on the Chief and negotiate their freedom, with rewards, to the chagrin of the Chief's lieutenants, who swore to be revenged on the adventurers.
In Kobolds Korner, the party sampled the delights of 'Da Markit' and Horatio's spinal injuries were made worse by bungling kobold barber-surgeons. In 'Da Tavern', the party encounter a mysterious green-skinned woman named Lachesis who promised them a reward if they could locate a hidden Shrine to Law beneath the Contested Corridors. She offered the escort of her Ogre, Tusk, to get the party past the hostile Orcs.
While searching for the shrine, the party found and released the remain Goblins hiding from the Orcs, discovered a magic sword and rescued Kobolds being mauled by a Giant Shrew. They discovered an old temple, now a dining room for Berserker Cannibals, and a shaft down beneath the altar stone.
The sub-level proved to be an ancient Shrine to Chthonia Trimorphia, the Three-Faced Goddess in her Lawful aspect. The Shrine was built by the Sisterhood of the Argent Moon, of whom only Klydessia remains: the priestess is now an Abide (a Lawful Lich), assisted by her mysterious Ephemeric (Lawful Shadow) named Tis.
The party enjoyed Klydessia's hospitality and cured Horatio's injuries after cleansing her infirmary of Giant Spiders. They then discovered her insane plan, to recruit them as her pacifistic apostles to go out and convert the dungeon denizens. When Gore agreed to this, she polymorphed him into the ideal Apollonian form of her perfect apostle and soon-to-be lover.
Behind Klydessia's back, the party discovered the Sisterhood's treasure chamber and robbed it, using Hold Portal spells to keep the undead priestess at bay while they narrowly escaped.
Now in possession of a veritable treasure hoard, the party decided to flee the dungeon. The Dwarvish chamber studied by Snorri Broadshoulders proved no escape, since the door into it from the north was a one-way door. Instead, the party burst into the Orc guard post and scattered treasure to distract the Orcs while they fled. The Orcs summoned reinforcements and gave chase, catching up with the party on the stairwell. A battle ensued, in which the party made good use of their tactical advantage to keep the Orcs at bay until the monsters' morale broke and the party could depart safely.