Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Bit Of Diabolical Player Guidance

So there I was, running my world in the middle of a year long campaign when I received from Fate & Destiny a new Player with very lofty plans. He wanted to play what we might fairly call 'the ultimate villain'. Oh my goodness! His concept for Character was so grand, so vast, and so diabolical that I had to sit down, and really think this over. Do I want such a diabolical Character in the otherwise humorous campaign? Will this upset the delicate and entertaining balance we've achieved? The new Player's Character's goal was to eviscerate the humanity he so desperately despises, and then go on to destroy the entire Universe itself by igniting a Cosmic War among Elkron (Celestial Deities) themselves! And his Character had the balls to do it as he wanted to play a version of Satan himself. Gosh. Why are Fate and Destiny so outrageous sometimes?!

Well, well, well. Very interesting. So far as Characters go, I was impressed with the scale of his ambition. He had worked up a rather elaborate, though vaguely defined, master-plan that started quite small, and grew and grew and grew until it ripped the Universe to shreds. Fascinating idea. Though somehow I feel it is something of a risk to my otherwise light-hearted fairytale adventure story campaign, for some reason I like the idea of letting him go for it, with the pre-game caveat that his Character may not have the properties he's assigned to him (immortality, and a vast super-intellect), but might instead simply be insane. Either way, he was game to try it, and I'm game to let him. So there we go.

However, I found that my new Player may possibly have bitten off a bit more than he could chew, though I can't really quite tell yet. My feeling after the first two games was that he may may need a little friendly GM Guidance, so to say, as his plans were not completely solid, and seemed to have certain possible flaws that might derail him through simple logical errors and/or conflicting requirements. First off, though his Character was a diabolical Ultra-Genius who thought in Thousand Year sweeps of catastrophic domino-destruction, he himself seems to be a rather nice guy who would never hurt a fly. No problem with that, of course, but it seems that his lack of inner-villainy may hamper his Character's potential since his Character might think in ways that are far more devious than the Player. Possible. Of course what is impossible is for me to know that for sure. Going on impressions here. As it happens, part of his plan, naturally, is to deceive everyone around himself into believing that he's a very decent Lawful Good-Guy, Altruistic, Friendly and Pure. So short term his Character is on 'Best Behavior', all the while looking for opportunities to implement his diabolical Omega-Plot, one slow, ultra-cautious step at a time. Since I start all Player Characters off at 1st Level he understood and accepted that his Character would not have the benefit of anything remotely resembling super-powers, or super-genius, but would have to grow into that over time if he could. As such, he intends to play him with extraordinary discretion. A slow and meticulous Machiavellian is he. I described the Character this way in a previous post:

"He was an unusual man whose very deep and profound mind thought in spans of hundreds of years at a leap. He was a careful planner, a devious plotter, a slow and methodical plodder, the rare type of man who would serenely sacrifice the present for the future of his incredible designs."

So, when in a recent email my new Player explained a his first "plot" that he wanted to hatch as one of his first steps towards universal cataclysm, I read it over and thought to myself... "hmmmm...?" He planned to free the slaves from the salt mine, and help the rest of the members of the party accomplish their good-guy goals, in a situation where the elites of the local region were plotting and conniving themselves over a valuable new resource (salt) and the discovery of an ancient (and rather darkly powerful) artifact, information to which his Character had become recently privy. Nowhere in his plot did I see so much as a hint of diabolical self-interest. No conniving at all. Why there was nothing diabolical about it in the least. Nothing of the sort. In fact, he planned to give up the artifact to the local Adventure Guild, help the miners escape by exposing the secret mine to the entire community, and in so doing relinquish that one thing above all that Machiavellian Super-Dastards strive for the most - 'knowledge of secrets'. With such knowledge he could ingratiate, he could manipulate, he could blackmail, he could bargain, ...he could do any number of cunning things. And who knows what horrendous powers were locked up in the artifact itself, which faintly glows a dingy light-devouring yellow-gray and causes horrendous nightmares. Hmmm... and so, I realized that my Player (not his Character) may need some Special Gamesmasterly Guidance. Maybe.

However, what I don't want to do is railroad my players, giving them the idea that I have any sort of plan that they're supposed to be following, nor do I want to tell them "No, you can't do that - it's against your character," or anything heavy handed like that. So I needed a way to present to the Player some ideas that may or may not pertain to his character's thought process, without being insulting, or suggesting that he *should* do something other than what he thinks is best for his Character... I really don't mind what his character does, so long as he is actually acting "In Character". In this case I was not so sure. Seemed to me that it might be better for him to consider brown-nosing up to the Magistrates and letting the miners go to hell, so to say. Keep the artifact and hold on the the power. Something like that. How to convey that. Hmmm... hmmm...

Not to worry. And so from my bag of sneaky GM techniques I pulled out ...

A dream.

And this is how the GMing went ... by email:

Ibis fields this concept to his hitherto unmentioned friend.

It is often the case that when Ibis goes to sleep he is visited in his dreams by a little red faced man with a pointy black beard.  He stands about two feet tall, and is usually found in a cave in which there is a fire burning above the lip of a hole in the cave floor. Ibis has made a habit of telling his little friend his ideas, and receiving thoughtful commentary. The only thing the little man has asked for is that whenever Ibis likes an idea that he take a feathered doll from a brass bowl that is standing next to the fire, and toss it in to the fire. They watch it burn together, and the little man usually laughs hysterically, finding great pleasure in this event.

This time the little dream-man has this to say:

"Given the extraordinary opportunity you have to use this information to your sole and discrete advantage (which is to say, to curry favor with the elites in the region *wink wink*), I wonder why you would decide to forgo that in exchange for freeing slaves? After all, they have volunteered their services at, as you say, good pay! While your short term goals are Lawful Good, we both agree (hehe) those actions, I would think,would most likely be in order to impress necessary (important) people that you are not the crafty long-thinking villain you really are. This, it seems to me, may be going a little too far, given how much you would be sacrificing in terms of future advantages. I would imagine you would rather derive a completely different plan based on the principal of "secret and exclusive knowledge that can be exploited for personal gain is a good thing for you". In particular, I would think that you would very much prefer to keep his knowledge regarding the nature of the artifacts to yourself in the hopes that such information may prove useful to you at some time in the future. In fact, my guess is that you would prefer to obtain the artifact yourself, and find others of its kind, thereby advancing your personal secret knowledge and power. Such power could come in quite handy given your long term, and I might say, rather fantastic goals."

With this the little man leaps into the hole and Ibis awakens with a start.

And so, fellow Gamesmasters, just a tidbit of technique to encourage you all along your way toward more Literary Quality RPG Story Telling. I do hope you find this useful sometime!

Best wishes, and Game On.

Post-Script: As it turns out, my Player wrote back and said his Character was going to "think about his plans some more", and then came back in a few days with a detailed description as to why his Character would do what he had in mind first of all... and it made a heck of a lot of sense. Yet he said that my sending him the dream caused him to sit down and seriously think over what he was planning and why, and how he wanted to execute that plan, and question it's viability in more detail - all of which he said was tremendously useful. So there you have it. Game well played. :)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Chicken In the Dark

A Bantam Chicken (seriously)
A Day in the Ogres Cave

Lanna stirred the soup with a large bone spoon staring off into the dark corners of the cavern pensively. Bantum was guarding the cave entrance, brooding over his own questions of great magnitude regarding chickens, sword slashes, and butterfly wings. Korfu, having bragged his heart out regarding the amazing role he played in the battle with the ogre, had rolled over and was falling asleep along side Hermel, and the others. Star of Justice, remained awake, performing a ceremony of thanks to the Great Elkron of the Sun for the recent victory. He contemplated the strange and terrifying sigil that Lanna had shown him on the stone she had received from her husband Ben while still down in the salt mine below the Prancing Unicorn Inn. Ben had found it, she had said, in some rubble while digging in the mine.

Star walked over to Ibis, who was still awake, and asked if he might use a piece of his paper to draw a symbol he’d seen, thinking to record it so that it might be delivered to the Adventure Guild in Hobbington upon their return. Ibis, happy to oblige, stood and watched over Star’s shoulder as he drew the symbol from his dream, and indeed it looked remarkably similar to the one he’d seen on the stone that Lanna showed him. Ibis thought that he recognized the design that Star had drawn on the paper. It was reminiscent of the an ancient symbol of the Elder Elkron who had ruled the Universe before being overthrown by Young Celestials, banished to the Realm of Ultimate Darkness, and bound there till the end of time. That such a symbol should appear in a salt mine below the Prancing Unicorn struck him as exceedingly improbable, and therefore equally fascinating. Meanwhile, having drawn the sigil, Star got a very ill feeling, began to sweat profusely and all his muscles began to quiver. He seemed feverish to Ibis. “Fascinating, indeed,” he thought, careful not to show any expression.

“I’ve noticed that you’re a well trained warrior, Star. Since you understand such matters I would like to suggest a few things regarding the organization of your party, if you don’t think that would be overly intrusive,” said Ibis, hoping to shake the gloom that had descended over the hero so that he might use the moment to exert his influence.

“What have you got in mind?” asked Star, folding the paper up and slipping it into an inner pocket with a final shudder. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck with his hand and looked squarely at Ibis.

“First I should admit, I’m not much of a fighter myself, as you can see,” replied Ibis, “however I have made a study of military matters for many years. Although my present work is regarding the fortification and defense of towns, my scholarship has also covered questions regarding tactical arrangements and maneuvers for small squadrons such as yours. I am trained, as it were in the essential governing elements that control the problem of battle. As such, I should like to point out in advance that any party tactics you may adopt will need to allow for the likelihood that Bantum will rush into the fray before there is time for thorough planning. Therefore, if I might be so bold, I would like to offer the following suggestions to you.”

With that he sat down on a log by the fire and invited Star to do the same. As they sat down, they did not notice that on the other side of the cauldron a certain chicken had quietly flipped a wing from the inside, over the lip of the steaming pot, and with a heave hefted himself over top and fluttered down into a shadow between two rocks.  He shook the steaming water from his wings, and sighed with relief.  The chicken had timed this action at a moment when Lanna had her back turned to get more ingredients and no one else happen to be looking. The chicken had amazingly suffered no great injuries while in the pot, having protected himself against the boiling water by his artful use of 'Iron Feather' Chickenmancy, which had been handed down in his family from rooster to cockeral over many generations. One might wonder how it was that he landed in the pot to begin with.

It’s a long story, but the short version is that Dr. Chickenhiemer, which is his name, had been working on a spell that he anticipated would turn the appetite of humans more towards beef  than chicken. It required impeccable timing, ingredients such as fire, water, salt, parsley, onion and garlic, and the clucking of an incantation so powerful as to warp reality itself.  The spell was ten years in preparation. When he discovered that the woman captor called Lanna had in fact arranged exactly the needed ingredients in the pot, and that the stars were aligned with Mount Zatok in the right configurations, he ascertained that it was finally his time.  This spell would have effected the course of Chicken-kind forever, perhaps leading to a glorious emancipation, and eventually, dare he dream it, the foundation of a Great Chicken Empire some day, perhaps.  And so during the battle of of the humans and the ogre, Dr. Chickenhiemer had been trying to collect the ingredients from the pot while clucking the Great Incantation, but during one of his swoops he slipped and fell in. This was an utterly humiliating defeat! The spell was ruined!  Cows the world over nevertheless had good reason to sigh with relief, had they only known what had transpired just then, and how close Dr. Chickenhiemer had come to executing the Great Spell of Chicken De-Delectability. No one knew, or was likely ever to know, however, and Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked his miserable complaints to the Elkron as he waddled toward the back of the cave, keeping carefully to the shadows and glancing over his shoulder nervously least anyone should notice him. 

Meanwhile Ibis was saying, “So in that case it might be a good idea to assign roles for each member of the party, including myself. Perhaps a primary and secondary role in case things get mixed up during battle.”

“Interesting thought,” answered Star, now fully engaged in the conversation.

“I would say that Bantum’s primary responsibility,” Ibis went on with a smile, “should be to wait for instructions from one of the other party members, either Arik or yourself. He secondary responsibility should also be to wait for instructions, by the way.”

“I don’t know if he will understand that concept, to be honest,” replied Star thinking about how Bantum’s tiny brain worked.

“Well, yes, that could be problematic. But desirable in any event, if possible. At any rate, to move on, Korfu could be positioned in the second rank of the battle order to cast his blinding flash, against one or two opponents, and provide covering fire with his bow, provided we can retrieve it from the Prancing Unicorn, or obtain a new one for him. Additionally, he should be a capable scout, especially at night as he has the power of Night-Vision.”

The two of them sat and supped soup from their bone bowls. The after effects of the failed Chickenmancy had given them an unusually strong craving for chicken soup, as it so happens, but they noticed that the chicken flavoring in this batch was a bit weak. They didn’t complain to Lanna however, but instead continued their conversation.

“Arik does not have the speed for pursuit, as we should note from his inability to catch the kobold just now. Instead his best role may be to attach himself as wingman to Bantum, who should probably stand on the front line as he’s by far the largest and strongest of everyone in the party,” added Ibis over sups.

“Good points,” replied Star thinking it over and supping.

“As for myself, I’m capable of stalling an opponent who is wiling to talk before a fight, which could give the rest of the group time to prepare. Sadly, however, from a combat perspective, I’m more or less useless, being a scholar, not a fighter. Nevertheless, I’m a friendly sort and am reasonably well skilled at acquiring information about such things as might effect a tactical situation, and drawing up plans, which I consider to be my chief asset to the group. Ah well in any case, each member of the group should think about what combat skills they bring to the battle and we can begin to map out these kinds of primary and secondary roles for everyone. I suggest that we map out these kinds of tactics, and create a marching order that we will assemble into upon engaging in a battle situation. It would help, I think, considerably to increase our chances of success. Good organization in combat is one of the principal factors leading to victory,” concluded Ibis enthusiastically. Star nodded his agreement.

“I also think it would be helpful for the group to review battles and adventures afterwards looking for what we do right, and what we fail at, in order to increase our proficiency with better organization as we go forward… and finally, I suggest we consider that the group itself could be divided into two teams. There should be a “front line” team, and a “support team”. The support team would be assigned such tasks as going after escaping enemies, first aid and healing, and pulling people off the front line, or re-arming friends when they’ve fallen. Had we taken this approach we might have captured that kobold, and gotten some answers,” said Ibis finishing up his soup.

“I think these are all good ideas. We should discuss them with the group in the morning,” replied Star, also finishing the last dregs of soup from his bowl. He had come back to himself and was no longer under the cloud of dread that the image of the stone had emanated.

Meanwhile Arik was too frustrated that the kobold had escaped to fall asleep. Having listened quite enough to Korfu’s bragging about his blinding flashes, as compared to his own failed spells, he stomped out of the cave into the snow with a huff. He remained near the entrance practicing hurling his hatchet at the ogres head, which he had placed on the dead monster’s chest, having chopped it off earlier. Boring of that he practiced sprinting, in case he should happen to need to chase down another kobold in the future, but that quickly proved to be less than satisfying. Arik, being a Dwarve, had thick stubby legs, and was simply not cut out for running, alas.

After a while Arik returned to the cave and went over to the cauldron, took a bowl of soup which he quaffed down in huge gulps, and rolled over to go to sleep. Ibis spent some time talking with Korfu about his habit of bragging, advising him that others might not respond as well to a braggadocio as they might to a more reserved gentleman. Korfu nodded his ascent to Ibis’ thoughts, and after a brief meditation he went to sleep.

Ibis, thoroughly absorbed in his machinations, considered the idea of going back to the Prancing Unicorn to retrieve his Town Defenses manuscript, a treasure trove of knowledge he had been loath to leave behind. He also thought there might be some chance that he could convince the magistrate that Korfu should not be sent to the mine, as he was coerced into signing the contract by the application of a drug. This would, of course, be difficult to prove. He considered his options further, and eventually fell asleep… his last thoughts regarding the ancient artifact and what its appearance might portend. Dark clouds seem to gather on the horizons of his mind as he began to fall long and deep into dreamland.

Sudden Attack

Just as Ibis was about to fall asleep, however, Lanna whispered “Wake up! Wake up!”

Hermel who was only half asleep anyway, turned over, and leaning on one arm gazed at her and asked “Ok, what haven’t you told us about now?”

She scowled at him and whispered harshly, “Shhhh… I heard something outside!”

“I will go look,” said Bantum who had been awake watching the mouth of the cave. Hermel, however, thinking about it, suggested that Bantum stay where he was, and allow him to go and investigate instead. He crept to the entrance and peered out. It was gray on the horizon, and silhouettes showed starkly against the snow. Off on the other side of the flat snow bound riverbed he saw something moving against the gray rocks. It was a wolf. There were two of them. Then another. Three.  Maybe four.

“Is the body of the ogre still there?” asked Star softly, swiftly throwing his blanket off and moving forward.

“Yes, its there,” replied Hermel over his shoulder. He picked up two handfuls of snow and formed a ball, and threw it outside toward the gray rocks, thinking he might get a reaction from the wolves as they stalked forward. Suddenly there was a blur of motion at the mouth of the cave. A wolf with a savage snarl turned the corner and leaped inside directly at Hermel. On the wolf’s back was the kobold, his red cap and hair singed from fire and his little arms waving in the air with wiggling fingers and an invocation on his lips. The wolf sprang onto Hermel and tore a chunk out of his left arm. As this happened the Kobold finished his incantation and a blast of bitterly freezing wind knocked Hermel back, and frosting over the top of his head and left side of his face.  Fortunately his shield had blunted the force of the blow.

Everyone sprang into action! Bantum made a tremendous leap toward the wolf and landed directly next to it. Hermel staggered back and crouching behind his shield took out his healing stone. Arik took up his shield and ran forward. Star leaped forward. Korfu, who was exhausted from the last battle, staggered a bit near the fire and took out his dagger with help from Ibis.

Bantum swung his mace at the Kobold, connecting with a resounding thud, splattering the pulp of its brains in a wide area, and shouted “You bad little thing!” The wolf bit into Bantum’s chain armor, breaking several of his own teeth. “Poor little doggie!” cried Bantum who was trying to hug it.

Meanwhile, Hermel felt the healing stone warm in his hand as his bones filled with the strength and power of Minvar, and he was healed. He looked over the edge of his shield and noted that all of the inexperienced fighters were winning the battle without him. He smiled to himself. “I like to lead from behind, I think. Seems to be working out pretty well, really.”

Since Bantum’s smashing blow also happen to have crippled the wolf, he decided to put the poor doggie out of its misery. With a single blow he crushed the creature’s head, and so it perished from the world. The other three wolves, bereft of their leader, fled into the distance howling.

Everyone gathered back inside the cave, and brushing off they sat down and discussed why the Kobold would have returned. Hermel conjectured that perhaps there was more to the cave than met the eye, but no one commented on this, least of all Lanna who stood next to the cauldron stirring silently while gazing toward the shadows at the back of the cave.

Arik inspected the Kobold’s leather jacket and found a small pouch. Inside he found five iron ingots, and a brass key. He showed them to the party. As there was nothing else to do with it at the moment, he put the pouch in his pocket.

“Lanna,” said Hermel suddenly, “Why do you keep staring to the back of the cave? What are you not telling us?”

“Nothing,” she said turning toward him fiercely. “It’s just that we haven’t gone back there, and I don’t know what’s there… and it frightens me.”

“But you told us that we should stay away from the back of the cave,” he said.

“Yes, that’s right. Because I don’t know what’s back there… all I know is that there are some tunnels, and other than that …”

“Ok well why don’t you trot back there and check it out, and let us know, ok?” asked Hermel, now gazing back toward the shadows himself. He was wondering if whatever it was that might be back there might also explain why the Kobold had returned.

“Yeah, I’ll be doing that,” she said, sitting down.

Arik was thinking to himself that Lanna had still not turned herself into a bear… he was convinced that she was secretly a bear-woman of some kind. “She hasn’t shaved her legs lately,” he was thinking, “and if you ask me she’s looking more bear-like every day.” Still though, Lanna did not turn herself into a bear, but instead continued to stir the cauldron with her bone spoon.

Bantum Goes for a Pee

With this, Bantum realized that he needed to take a pee. Having heard mention of the back of the cave, he stood up and headed off that way into the shadows looking for a place where Lanna would not see him. Dr. Chickenhiemer quietly tip toed into a crevice and hid. Having taken a pee on one of the cave's two massive stalagmites, Bantum noticed something glinting on the stone by the torchlight. It was, he realized, a round plate of brass about five feet above the ground attached to the column. He pressed his finger on it, and it felt cold to the touch. Being a bit frightened by something he did not understand he quickly went back to the fire and announced that he found something at the back of the cave.

Lanna turned pale, and recommended that they don’t investigate further and leave the area alone. With this Hermel’s suspicions peaked.

“What, Lanna, are you NOT telling us?!” he demanded.

Finally, she admitted the truth. There had been a party of adventurers with her when they cleared out the cave of the first ogre, whom they tracked there because he’d been attacking villagers. When they began exploring the cave one of them announced that he’d discovered a secret passageway that he’d opened by some means he didn’t explain. While Lanna was busy tending the wounded, and some others were outside hunting down several of the escaped Kobolds the adventurers decided to enter through the secret door. Unfortunately it slid shut behind them. They never returned. Since none of the rest of them had any idea how to open the door, they were stymied, and decided to bring others back to the cave to help. This was the point at which Lanna was sent to the Prancing Unicorn to retrieve Ben.

Hermel asked Bantum to show them the metal plate and so they all went back there to look. Meanwhile, Dr. Chickenhiemer picked his way through some tall stones quietly as he could and hid in the shadows nearby watching over the top of a rock as they investigated the object. He’d already done an extensive analysis of the circular plate on his own, but the results were inconclusive as yet. He was curious to see what might happen next. However he was to be disappointed because the next thing that happened was that Ibis recommended everyone to go back to the front of the cave and rest and recover their energies before investigating further. This they did and eight hours later everyone felt much better. Dr. Chickenhiemer, however, was a very patient Chickenmancer, waited in the shadows on the expectation that they would return to the plate eventually.

When they woke up they were all hungry. Hermel suggested that Hornmel go out and hunt for food. Hornmel looked at one of the chickens clucking and pecking at the ground.

“Uh… why do I need to hunt?” he asked.

“Because of him,” replied Hermel pointing at Bantum who was watching over his chickens trying his best to count them, and failing as usual.

“oh,” replied Hornmel. He went over to Bantum and asked him, “Say Bantum do you like to eat chicken?”

“Not any more,” replied Bantum as he cradled a chicken in his giant hand.

“But we like to eat chicken, though,” said Hornmel hopefully.

“That’s bad,” said Bantum looking a little cross at Hornmel.

“But you used to like to eat chicken!” protested Hornmel.

“I don’t now, though,” answered Bantum, “They’re friends!  They helped you lots of times, didn’t they?”

“Ok ok,” said Hornmel realizing that he was not going to even come close to winning that argument. He went outside and hunted for a bear, but seeing a chicken had wandered outside, came back shortly there after with “bear” meat and threw it hastily into the cauldron before anyone could take a careful look. Lanna stirred the pot with a wry smile, but said nothing.

Over breakfast Lanna revealed another unexpected detail.  She had expected to find the rest of her friends in the cave when they arrived, and was alarmed by the fact that no one was there. This was another reason why she feared the back shadows of the cave.

“I worry for what may have become of them, but then again, perhaps they went back to the farms for supplies,” she said pensively. No one was particularly happy to hear this, and everyone looked toward the shadows with a certain amount of anxiety. After a while they decided to go back to their investigation.

Ibis Takes A Turn for the Worse

Upon returning to the column Ibis was the first to actually attempt to manipulate the metal plate, but that did not turn out so well. He put his hand to the platen and attempted to spin it to the right, but it would not budge. He then turned it to the left and suddenly a blue light flashed out from the top of the pillar, and a frosty blue beam shot down and hit his arm, freezing it nearly solid from his left hand to just above the elbow. He staggered back and fell down. Hermel quickly ran to his side and taking out his healing stone called upon the mercy of Minvar.  The mighty Elkron of the Earth was once again very merciful, though she had good reason in this case not to be.   Ibis’ arm was healed. He expressed enormous gratitude and decided to stay as far from the brass plate as he could get.

Star decided to wake Arik from his snoring slumber and ask him if he’d take a look around. And so Arik pulled himself up by the boot straps and took his hand to the walls around about the cave.  After a diligent search he located a very fine seam in a wall at the very rear-most point in the cave. It was, he announced, a secret door, the construction of which, while not in the Dwarven style by any means, was at least as well crafted. He could find no flaw in it at all, and had he not been a Dwarf with special knowledge of geology he would never have noticed it at all.

“Finely crafted indeed,” he said with an unusually thick drawl.

While he had been searching the others examined the plate more carefully and Star noticed that there were barely discernible script letters along the rim of the circle. It was written in a very old dialect that he had studied a long while ago while at the Temple Academy, but he was unfamiliar with the lettering. Nevertheless he struggled to translate it, and eventually derived that it read something like “Gray Serpent Cavern”. There were another older looking scripted letters but he could not make it out at all.

Ibis had heard of the Gray Serpent tribe of ancient days. It was indigenous to the Glendale region, and had been a legendary race of powerful mystics. There were also legends of the Gray Serpent, the details of which were hazy, but the tales conveyed that a dreadful monster by that name once roamed the darkness. In addition there had been an Elkron who ruled over the Gray Serpent people, and resided in a cave called Gray Serpent Cave, but little did he remember of that story. He could not recall any further details at the moment, but explained the ones he could to the group.

They spent a good deal of time trying various methods to cause the secret door to open, including banging on the plate with Bantum’s mace. However, the plate made a loud clang and the secret door did not budge. Arik, frustrated by their lack of progress, said “This is ridiculous! Step aside Bantum!” and went to the plate and tried giving it a sharp turn to the left. However, nothing happened. Arik grunted and stepped away. He was unwilling to press his luck further.

“This is where I’ve been the whole time,” said Lanna. “I don’t know how to even go about finding my friends. When I hit this point last time, I told my friends to wait here for me and that I would return with Ben, who would have known what to do.”

A Ray of Sunlight

They went to the front of the cave to refresh themselves with fresh "bear" soup, it being about five o’clock on the seventh day after Hermel had drawn the Dragon Card from the Tarot Deck of the old man that he had helped back in Hobbington. It seemed like a very, very long time ago. They noticed then that that storm had broken and sun poked a ray of golden light through a hole in the clouds near the western horizon. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

“I think that Ben may be in more trouble down in the mines than he thought,” Lanna was saying. “I’m inclined to return to the Prancing Unicorn and get Ben out of there. I’m hoping you folks will be willing to help me.”

“We do need to return there anyway to retrieve our items, equipment, and for myself I should like to get my manuscript back,” said Ibis. He went on to explain that he planned to argue on Korfu’s behalf to the magistrate, though everyone thought that the chances of success at that were next to nil.

Hermel had his own reason to return that way, as he had decided that his secret gift was due to become far more valuable the following day, which was the eighth since he'd received it – but only if he could bring it to someone to whom its value would be apparent, and who could afford to pay the price it commanded. And that lead him back to Ischandar. Or, he thought slyly, Ishcandar’s father perhaps.

“If we do return to the Prancing Unicorn, Korfu,” Ibis was saying, “we should try to find a way to help the miners who were abducted to escape there. If the magistrate will not side with us, then I think you will be in the best position to do so from within the mine. You can send messages to me in the Prancing Unicorn as things develop, while do planning from above, and work on making connections with the magistrates.”

Korfu frowned however as he had an objection to the plan. As it happened Korfu thought that once he entered the mine, he would scarcely have any way to get any messages out. And the prospects of being stuck in the mine for a year did not please him overly.

“Well we have to work from the other direction, then. We must convince the magistrates to agree that the minors should not be held completely without contact with their family members,” said Ibis.  "I will work on that angle while you are inside."   This made Korfu feel a little bit better about the plan, but Korfu still objected.

“The exact conditions for the miners is specified in the contract, which explicitly states that they are to be interred in isolation for one year, Ibis,” said Korfu. “Other than this, your plan makes some sense.”

“Actually,” said Hermel, “I know of a magical way for you two to stay in contact. But it requires a sojourn back to Hobbington where we would need to convince the Guild Lord there to allow you to use it.”

Star, for his part, was also anxious to bring back word of the dreadful stone to his masters at the Temple of Eldrik. Lanna was hopeful that Korfu would prove instrumental in helping Ben to escape the mine. To this point, Ibis suggested to Korfu that he would have a trustworthy contact on the inside of the mine, should he return there, and this was at least something Korfu considered helpful.  He'd been down in the mine, and he knew just how difficult any uprising would be to kick off. Yet, he was game to try it just the same.

“In this case,” said Ibis, “to recap, it seems that Korfu and I should return to the Prancing Unicorn and appeal to the magistrates. If they find that the contract is invalid for Korfu we will argue that this must mean that all of the contracts are invalid, and so attempt to free the miners though legal means. Of course we don’t expect things to go that way. In which case we will allow Korfu to return to the mine, and he will make contact with Ben there and will attempt to bring about a rebellion within the mine. Meanwhile I will return to Hobbington and attempt to obtain the means of communications from the Guild that you mentioned.”

This however was, Korfu pointed out, not entirely a valid plan either, as once he returned to the mine he would have no way to make the connection again with Ibis, which was apparently necessary in order for them to use the method of communications that Hermel had alluded to. In fact, Hermel replied, that was quite right. They would all have to go to Hobbington first, because there were two items involved with the communications, and both Ibis and Korfu had to have one for the communications device to work.

“You will need to offer the Guild Lords something in exchange… you will need to make it worth their while.  The are an odd bunch, but you can likely bargain with them for knowledge, which they seem to crave above all else,” said Hermel.

“Well,” said Ibis, “we can bring them information about the sigil of the Elder Elkron that is on the stone…”

“What sigil of the Elder Ekron is that?” asked Lanna incredulously. “What are you talking about?!” She demanded, looking at Star with a fierce expression.

“Oh… …” Star began to say but his words trailed off.

“Ah… oh… um…,” Ibis stammered as Lanna’s fierce gaze met his.

“You didn’t tell him about my secret?” asked Lanna of Star harshly.

“I… I…” Star stammered.

“Well, in that case, now that it is out in the open,” said Ibis firmly, “we need to adjust and deal with matters as they are. We are all potentially affected by the stone, you realize. It is not something you can simply handle on your own, Lanna.”

The Dark Stone Revealed

Everyone at that point insisted on seeing the stone so she took it out and unwrapped the cloth and put it down next to the fire. The half broken stone witht the odd design seemed to be shrouded in a dark yellowish shadow. Everyone shivered as they beheld it, and Star once again broke out in a cold sweat as the terrifying memory of his dream struck him with full force. It looked to him as though the fire light near the stone was dimming perceptibly. He quivered and his flesh began to crawl.

“This stone’s symbol appears to be that of the Elder Elkron who were overthrown at the end of the Dawn Age and cast into the a place known as 'The Depths Darkness Forever' by the Young Elkron, lead by Eldrik. It is something that you can not be expected to bare alone, Lanna,” said Star, his voice shaking slightly. With this Lanna seemed almost relieved, though she still cast a malevolent eye at Star, and determined not to trust him so easily again.  She quietly wrapped the stone up in the cloth again, and hid it in her vest pocket.

“We should go to Hobbington first, then,” said Ibis, “and when we get to there I will need to convince the Guild Lord of the importance of our mission in the salt mine. Do you have any advice on how we should go about doing that, Hermel?”

“Carefully?” replied Hermel with a thoughtful nod.

“Thank you for that advice,” said Ibis dryly.

“Be sure to day ‘Hi’ to my friend who carves doggies,” said Bantum.

“Who is that?” asked Ibis.

“He’s a very nice man named Wulkarva,” replied Bantum cheerfully.

“Ayee, and he does carve the most wonderful hounds you’ve ever laid yer eyes on,” added Arik zestfully.

“Ok, I’ll look for Wuldkarva, thank you,” said Ibis. “However, I’m hoping you will advise me further on whatever I may need to know in order to convince the Guild,” said Ibis to Hermel.

“Well, to be honest, Lanna and I should go with you. They won’t be easy to convince, and can be difficult. Lanna I'm guessing you would prefer to have them take a look at that ... artifact. If it is as powerful as it seems, then they would probably know what to do with it.”

“Yes,” said Lanna, her mind still reeling from the recent revelations. “On the assumption they are trustworthy, this is the first bit of advice you’ve offered that I agree with. We should go there first, and as soon as possible,” she said, feeling the dark weight of the stone pressing against on her breast. Her heart felt heavy, and her mind was shrouded in gloom.

“When we get to the Guild, I am hoping we can find the good Priest Johan there. He is a member of my Temple Order, and would be the most knowledgeable person at the Guild to discern the nature of the stone, and know how to handle it,” added Star of Justice.   Lanna did not look at him directly, but nodded her ascent instead.

“Will you come with us, Bantum, and help me?” asked Lanna coyly.

“Of course,” said Bantum cheerily “I will help you!”

“Hey,” growled Hermel, “Bantum you said you would come to help us at Yellow Clay Village, not her!” to which Lanna just smiled and stepped to where she could hide behind Star.

“I did?” asked Bantum.

“Yes, you did. But Bantum, if you want to be a liar, that’s ok… we can go to Yellow Clay and help the innocent people there without you if you insist on following after Lanna,” making a dog-paws gesture with his hands.

“I’m not a liar,” said Bantum.

“Well, you would be if you don’t go with me, which is what you promised, remember?”

“Oh. I’m confused,” said Bantum looking awkwardly at the ground.

“Well, don’t worry Bantum. We’re all going to go together to Hobbington anyway after all. But just remember… you’re with me, not Lanna, ok?”

“Ok,” said Bantum looking relieved. Hermel smiled at Lanna. She scowled back at him and turned to go back to stirring the pot.

“And what of you, Hornmel?” asked Star of the young hunter. 

"I am concerned most of all with rescuing Yellow Clay village and have no interest in the stone, or returning to the Prancing Unicorn, or Hobbington," he said bluntly. “I will go ahead to Bear Claw Village and seek help from the Kung Fu Master there,” he said, “while you return to Hobbington with Hermel. We can meet up again at Yellow Clay after you finish your business in the city.”

Despite Hermel’s objections due to the danger of traveling through the provinces alone, Hornmel was determined to do what he felt was right, and that their best chance was to get help from the Sifu as quickly as possible.

“By the way,” said Ibis, “some of the writings I have been working on at the Inn may help you with the defense of your village. I happen to have been working on a treatise that covers tactics and strategies of defending mountain Townships. If it is possible to slip into the Prancing Unicorn and retrieve my belongings, I would be happy to provide you with a secondary draft of it to help you folks, Hermel." While glad to hear that, Hermel reflected on the fact that he could not read, and so would have a hard time with such a work of scholarship, and thought it far better if Ibis would come with them to Yellow Clay in any event.  He seemed a shrewd and diplomatic man, and his knowledge could be very helpful indeed.

And with this, everyone sat down with bowls of soup and began to settle in for the night. It was getting dark outside, the sky had cleared and stars could be seen twinkling through gaps in the clouds in the black and indigo heavens high above.

Meanwhile at the stone pillar there was a certain chicken who was studying the metal plate very diligently.

Previous Episode:  The Salt Mine Mystery
Next Episode: The Great Salt Mine Disaster of 151 NK

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Salt Mine Mystery

An Angry Game of Chicken

As our heroes were entering the long dark tunnel behind Bantum, they did not know it, but there was a man who had taken an interest in them and followed along behind. He stood watching them from a shadowy corner in the barn. This man’s name was Ibis. He was an unusual man whose very deep and profound mind thought in spans of hundreds of years at a leap. He was a careful planner, a devious plotter, a slow and methodical plodder, the rare type of man who would serenely sacrifice the present for the future of his incredible designs. He’d been working on a book at the Prancing Unicorn Inn, and training his disciple Korfu in the art of Emotional Self-Control. Korfu needed that art more than most men, and he felt he was lucky to have found a teacher such as Ibis to guide him. And guided he most surely was.

As it happened, the previous two nights Ibis had been playing fiddle among the musicians at the Prancing Unicorn as he was often wont to do as it was one of the means by which he ingratiated himself with the local bobkins. He’d been privy to the fact that a number of men had vanished in the wee hours of the morning, as his disciple Korfu had been among them. During the night of festivities he noted that his disciple had been missing for some time, yet being the very cautious sort, Ibis decided to wait before investigating further. So in the morning he decided to poke around a bit. He quietly and unobtrusively looked high and low at the Inn, and then made his way around the property until he came to the chicken barn, and at the door he found a guard standing in armor looking rather bored. He engaged him in friendly morning conversation, saying he was out for a stroll through the snow to stretch his legs, and one thing led to another and Ibis found himself drinking grog and playing a gambling game while none was the wiser.

“The Prancing Unicorn is in one of the most defensible locations in the provinces,” the guard was saying.

“What about Hobbington, up on the side of the mountain?” replied Ibis.

“Well, Hobbington, of course! That’s the most impregnable town in the entire region, naturally. Can't get more well positioned than Hobbington,” he said with a chuckle.

“So I noticed,” said Ibis. “But some of the villages round about seem pretty weakly defended. Why aren’t they better fortified, I wonder?”

“No need, really. There’s no armies to ward off, just a few bandits now and then, hehe. All in all, travel between the villages is rough business too, with the roads almost as bad as mountain passes, jagged with rocks, waterfalls, and steep drop offs. Armies wouldn’t want to spend much time trying to besiege this old place. So what need of heavy defenses at the villages? Not much, really.”

“Well what’s the biggest threat the villager face, would you say then?”

“Other than the occasional bandit, I’d say bears. And wolves. And some say there’re monsters lurking around in those dark old woods round about, but I ain’t never seen none. Other than that, though, there ain’t too much in the way of danger. But look out for them bears, though. They’ll sneak up on ya and go right for yer hide. And the wolves are even worse. Aggressive, they are.”

“I see,” said Ibis, thinking about this in relation to the treatise he was currently writing on the defense of Villages and Townships.

“So how do the villages deal with these threats, then?” asked Ibis thoughtfully.

“Well, each village kind of takes care of their own, so to say,” said the guard, whose name Ibis discovered was Tom Muleborn. He took a long swig of grog, and went on. “And now there’s some villages that have started training up warriors for this kind of work. I myself trained for a time in Bear Claw village under a great martial arts master who moved there recently. He’s teaching Iron Bear style, and I learned up on it quite a bit before I, er… decided I’d learned enough and left there,” he ended abruptly.

“Oh the Bear Claw Village? I been meaning to head out that way sometime. I heard about the school there and want to see for myself, when I get a chance,” said Ibis. He then struck on a new tack and asked Tom if he liked to play games. Tom was curious enough, and thought he might gain something by it, and so they played a game called “Stacks” that had fairly simple rules, and a little trick to it that allowed Ibis to win when he wanted. He didn’t want to. He wanted to get Tom to feel good, instead. And so he deliberately lost the first and second rounds. A few iron pieces were handed over, and with a laugh they got more grog and played some more. Eventually, Ibis wound his way around to asking about his young wayward disciple Korfu. As it happened Tom knew something about what had happened the night before.

“Yup, sure, they hired a bunch of riff raff for work in the mine last night,” said Tom amiably swilling down another pint grog. He was a tad bit drunk by then, and feeling good.

“Oh? They have metals here?” asked Ibis.

“Salt,” replied Tom.

“Salt?” asked Ibis, somewhat incredulously.

“Yup. They found an old abandoned salt mine under the Inn, and they need some men to work it, see? That’s what I heard, anyway. I’m just a guard, so no one tells me much of anything, but they went down into the mine as far as I know,” he said. “The guy who owns the Inn, was digging a cellar under the barn, when he ran into some soft dirt, and then, rumor has it, he found something strange down there. Some kind of old stone tablet I heard. Dunno. But anyway it made all kinds of fuss in the area, and some of the richest men in the province wound up making their way here. That’s why I was hired, see? I’m supposed to keep an eye on things around barn, while the big wigs talk things out. Hush hush, stuff, ya know. So naturally, I send word to my boss, and he showed up with some more of the gang, see? Now we’re all guards here. I reckon the boss wants to get in on this action, cause he even came all the way here himself. Go figure. I guess I done good this time,” he said chuckling to himself.

At that moment they heard a sound by the barn door. It was another guard. Tom got up and went over to the door to talk with him, as Ibis slipped out the back and went back to the Inn. He had plenty to think about. He spent the night quietly tucked away in his room, taking notes, and working till the wee hours, planning and thinking.

In the morning he quietly made his way down stairs and saw the AAA Group’s confrontation with the man in the corner, and their exit from the Inn. He decided to follow. After waiting for a few minutes over a cup of hot cider, he had a brief conversation with the cowled man who seemed to be in charge of the rough neck men, a man with a grizzled look who revealed little, but played along skilfully with Ibis' inquisitive banter. Ibis gave him his own name, and asked for his.

“My mates call me 'Patch',” he said, and looked up enough for Ibis to notice that the pepper haired man was wearing a black patch over his left eye. Taking his leave, Ibis made his way outside and found their tracks clearly visible plowing through the deep rifts of snow toward the barn where he’d played Stacks with Tom the day before. He made his way through the rifts along their path, and about half way to the barn he ran into Tom, and a pretty young woman who was holding his hand and laughing as they made their way to the Inn. Tom winked at Ibis as they passed, and nothing was said. When Ibis got to the barn he found the front door was locked, so he made his way around the side to the back door, which though closed was unlocked, and so he entered the barn and took a look around. Just as he turned the corner he saw a trap door in the middle of the barn floor closing as Hornmel lowered himself into the tunnel. He remained unseen. He sat down at the table where he and Tom had played Stacks and thought he would just bide his time for a bit, and then follow along down the tunnel at a distance. Ibis was nothing if not a cautious operator. He even went to far as to leave a note for Tom Muleborn on the table, in case the Guard should return while he was down stairs, saying he'd seen suspicious men enter there and decided to investigate. Tom, however, did not return, nor would have have had the skill to read it even if he had come back from his morning frolic with the maid in time. Ibis sat there for a about minutes pondering before heading down.

Down to the Salt Mine

Meanwhile, as Ibis pondered, down the tunnel Bantum was pursuing the killer of his poor little chicken into the darkness ahead. Star of Justice, seeing as it was pitch black, lit a torch and the rest of the group followed behind, curious to see where the secret tunnel under the barn led to. Lanna walked next to Hermel, and the others formed a circle around them. Hermel tried to make polite conversation with the woman as they walked.

"You know, I see that you have no intention of being the damsel in distress, and I the hero who comes to help you. You're too headstrong for that. So if it comes to fighting, you're on your own, ok?" he said in a whisper.

"Fine. I can fight for myself, thanks," she replied with a self-confidence that annoyed Hermel considerably.

“Who killed my chicken?!” shouted Bantum into the darkness, but only the echoes of his voice returned. The tunnel itself was ten foot square with piles of dirt along its edges. It seemed to have been recently dug out, though Arik noted to himself that the walls were made of smoothed M-Type Granite... hardly ordinary for a cellar. After a while they could see light reflecting on a wall ahead and he heard the sound of voices coming from that direction.

“Hello!” shouted Bantum, “Did you hurt my chicken?! I’m coming to talk to you right now!”

He came to a flight of stone stairs going downward, and followed them toward the source of the light. At the bottom of the stairs he came to another corridor perpendicular to the first one. There were stairs going up to the left into darkness as well, but he ignored that and charged down the right hand tunnel. Further up the corridor he saw two men in the glow of a gas lantern that hung from the ceiling. One man sat at a desk stacked with piles of papers, and was looking up with an expression of alarm. The other man was heavily armored in chain and stood before a wooden door set in a rough wooden wall that ended the corridor.

An argument ensued in which Bantum accused the men of hurting his chicken, a charge which both men, fearful of Bantum’s enormous girth, and the swarthy look of his friends, nervously denied.

“No! I didn’t hurt your chicken!” insisted the man at the table.

“I put my chicken down the tunnel and he was hurt, and you’re the only one here!” yelled Bantum.

“He’s here, too!” shouted the man pointing to the armored fellow by the door.

“So YOU hurt my chicken!” shouted Bantum turning on the man in chain.

“No I never saw your damned chicken in my life!” shouted the man gripping his sword nervously as he stared wide-eyed up at Bantum.

Bantum pulled his mace out from his thick black belt. Star of Justice, wise in the ways of Bantum, reasoned with the giant boob that they were not sure if these men had hurt the chicken or not at that point. Bantum, not convinced, cast a glowering eye at the man in the armor and grimaced at him fiercely. The man shrunk back.

“We should talk with them, Bantum, before deciding anything,” concluded Star with a calm voice.

“I don’t like them!” shouted Bantum, but put his mace down just the same. The men showed visible signs of relief.

“Gentlemen, we are trying to find information here. As well as the villain who hurt this poor innocent foul here," he said pointing to the limpid chicken in Bantum's hand. "We’re also looking for this woman’s husband,” he said gesturing toward Lanna.

“Ben. My husband, Ben,” she said firmly. “Where is he?”

Hermel recognized the armored man as one of the rugged men who had been so rude to him at the pub, the other night. Arik, who also recognized him, went directly up to the man and said, “You there. You look like the sort who’d know where this woman’s husband is!”

“Did he hurt my chicken?!” shouted Bantum waving his mace in the air.

“Maybe he did!” said Arik. “Now I suggest you tell us, where is her husband?! And be quick about it!”

When the man didn't immediately answer Bantum went over and grabbed him by the throat. Star, at that, interceded putting his hand on Bantum’s arm, calming him for the moment. The man at the desk took the opportunity to press a button on a small box brown sitting on his desk.

“Herman! We have trouble up here. You better get up here, and I don’t mean later!” With that everyone turned on the man.

“Hey hey hey… what are you people doing down here, anyway! Don’t you know this is private property?” he demanded, trying to defray the situation.

“Who hurt my chicken!?” shouted Bantum.

“Um, excuse me,” said Hermel calmly. “But this is the part where things get very violent very fast, unless you tell us what we want to know – and I mean before Herman gets here. Get it?”

The man, suitably alarmed, fumbled with his papers… “Yeah yeah yeah! Ok ok! Ben? Ben! Hold on… yeah! Ok here he is,” he said holding up a piece of paper. “Look, see? He signed a worker’s contract! He’s working in the mine!”

“What? He signed a what?” asked Hermel looking dumbfounded at the paper with the funny scrawls on it. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means he signed an agreement to work in the mine for a year, see? It says so right here,” replied the man condescendingly pointing at Ben’s signature.

“My chicken didn’t sign it!” cried Bantum.

“Listen, lady,” said the man, “That’s your husband’s signature, isn’t it?” holding the paper aloft for her to read.

“Well,” she admitted, “that ‘X’ does look like his, I suppose.”

“Is your husband a miner?” asked Star.

“No, he’s a farmer,” she said. “He’s never mined anything in his life.”

“What are you mining?” asked Arik abruptly, now interested in the operations below the earth. He'd already noted that the crystalline metamorphosis of the M-Type Granite walls implied a local magma chamber not far off.

“That’s none of your business, sir. This is a private mine. Now, do you folks have any reason to be down here?”

“We’re here looking for this woman’s husband,” said Star.

“Well he’s in the mine, and it’s all legal as can be, so I think you haven’t any more business here, do you?”

“Why would he sign a contract like that without telling his wife?” asked Star insistently.

“How should I know,” said the man gruffly. “I just work here. And so does he.”

“Well we want to speak with him,” answered Star firmly.

“What about my chicken!?” yelled Bantum.

The man glared at him.

“Just wait a minute, the foreman is coming up, and he’ll be here in a minute. He can answer your questions,” said the man, trying to placate Bantum as best he could. Finding this answer unsatisfactory, Bantum banged his mace on the man’s desk, with a loud thud. Two of the table’s legs cracked, and papers went flying.

The Miners Return

At that moment they all heard a rumbling sound from behind the wooden wall, and then a loud clang. A few moments later the door opened and out stepped a big man covered in dust with a short curly brown beard wearing heavy workman’s cloths and a steel cap. He looked to be about forty perhaps, and not in the most pleasant mood. Behind him followed two fighting men in chain armor. They entered the room. The man in the in the lead looked around the room and seeing Bantum let out a slight gasp. He appraised him highly. Without a further pause he said, “You want a job, son?”

“Who me?” asked Bantum looking behind him trying to understand who the man was talking to.

“Yeah you! You want to make a large sum of money?”

“How much is large?” asked the simpleton sincerely.

“A LOT,” said the foreman. “If you want a job, you got one.”

“Ok,” said Bantum with a big dumb smile, pleased to know that he was wanted and was about to get a lot of money.

“This man may be the one who hurt your chicken,” said Hermel from behind.

“What?! He did?! HEY! Did you hurt my chicken!?!” yelled Bantum furiously.

“What?! A chicken?? No! I didn’t hurt anyone's chicken!” shouted Herman back, alarmed and frightened by Bantum’s sudden and wild mood swing.

“We’re looking for a miner, this lady’s husband,” said Star to the foreman, taking him by the arm. “If you can see your way to having him come up for a few minutes to speak with his wife, I think I can calm down our friend here, and we’d be very obliged.”

The foreman thought that over for a moment, looked at Bantum, the chicken, at Star, and then back at the chicken before deciding what to do.

“That chicken is not hurt,” said the foreman. “He’s sleeping.”

“He’s not sleeping!” shouted Bantum, “He’s hurt! I know my chicken! Who hurt him!? Was it you!?” he yelled waving his mace around again.

The foreman, deciding that his skill at handling the angry giant was not as good as he'd hoped, thought better about it after all, said, “Ok! Ok! …Ben, Ben, Ben… let me see…”, he said looking at the contract. He then he noticed Lanna standing there scowling at him.

“Oh that Ben,” he said. “Hi Lanna. What brings you down to the salt mines?”

“Where’s Ben, Herman!?” she demanded.

“Uh, yeah… well, he’s down in the mine, of course. We hired him, don’t ya know,” he said somewhat sheepishly.

“What MINE?! There’s never been a mine here!” said Lanna emphatically.

“Well, no… there was no mine down here. But there is now. The Inn keeper found an old salt mine when he was digging out a cellar in his barn, as it happens. ...Just do me a favor and keep it to yerself will ya? We’re trying to keep this, um, under wraps, until we have all the arrangements worked out, you see.”

“You know this man?” asked Star incredulously.

“Yes, we’ve met him on occasion at the Inn. He’s a mine foreman from the Western Hills. He's come to the Inn on occasion. But I never thought you’d do something low down and dirty like steal my husband out from under my nose! You better go fetch him, or I think my friends here are going to get pretty riled up!” she said with a clenched fist.

“Alright, alright,” said Herman. “Ok, just because it’s you, Lanna, I’ll go and fetch him. But I can only give you five minutes. He’s under contract, and I’m not even supposed to do that much. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone about the mine!”

With that Herman left went out through the wooden door, leaving the guards behind. They stood along the wall and stared at the interlopers, and particularly Bantum, nervously. The members of the party continued conversing about chickens, salt mines, and contracts until Herman returned with a dust covered young man in gray burlap, leather thong shoes and a hardened leather cap.

“Ben!” shouted Lanna, and they embraced passionately.

At that moment Ibis came stumbling down the stairs in the darkness. When he arrived at the lower corridor he followed the light ahead and saw the entire crowd of adventurers, foremen and guards. Closest to him were Lanna and Ben, who happen to still be embracing. As he was still far in the shadows no one noticed him.

Finally, Lanna pushed her husband back, and said “Ben! What are you doing down here?”

“Well, you know, we owe so much money on the farm… I signed up to do some mining down here for a while, I guess", he said sheepishly. "I’m sorry not to have told you, but we had to decide right then, and was a little drunk I suppose, and I didn’t have time to send word. I’d planned to send you word today somehow.”

“So you were not threatened or coerced in any way?” asked Star.

“No, no… not me,” said Ben. “I need the money, and it’s a good paying job, actually. And I need the money,” he concluded and kissed Lanna on the forehead. She seemed bewildered but tried to smile.

Ibis came forward at this time, introduced himself briefly as another concerned party, and asked about Korfu. He mentioned that his friend was likely in the mine with the others, as he’d last seen his friend was in the pub with Ben and the others. The foreman looked through the contracts and sure enough Korfu was among them.

“My friend Korfu is my student. He would not have signed any contract without telling me,” said Ibis.

“Not my problem, buddy. He signed the contract and that’s that, see?" stated the foreman while waving the contract in the air. "Anyway, I don’t know who you people think you are, but you’re all trespassing. I'm gonna have to ask you all to leave now. Our business is concluded.”

At this Bantum let out loud bellowing shout, and demanded to know once and for all who hurt his chicken. Ibis managed to use the possibility of Bantum’s overweening anger to convince the foreman that Korfu should be allowed to come up and talk with his teacher for just a few minutes. The foreman, highly annoyed, behind schedule, and yet rather scared of that hulking behemoth with the mace, decided that keeping everyone calm was probably a good idea. And so he agreed to that, albeit reluctantly.

The Chicken Killer

As he was about to leave, Ben asked him if he might have a few moments of privacy with his wife, and the foreman waved his concent, sending one of the guards with a nod to follow not too far behind. And with that he went through the wooden door and down into the mine again, saying he’s return with Korfu soon.

When he returned little while later, he brought Korfu. And with him another four guards, also wearing chain armor and carrying swords. Korfu, greatly relieved to see Ibis, went directly to him and they shook hands as Ibis eyed him intently for any signs of odd behavior. He deeply suspected that all of the new miners from the pub had been drugged, and forced to sign the contracts under suspicious influence.

“Ok,” said Herman firmly. “You’ve seen your miners. Now I’m going to have to ask you folks to clear on out of here. This is private property and you’re all trespassing. Let's go”

“Not until I find out who hurt my chicken!” roared Bantum, entirely enraged at having been ignored for far too long.

Herman looked momentarily as though he were about to burst his top, but then calmed himself, thought for a second, and said, “Did anyone here hurt this man’s chicken?!”

There was no answer.

“Sorry, son, but no one here hurt your chicken.” he said authoritatively.

“I sent my chicken down by himself and when I got to the bottom he was hurt. So someone down here hurt my chicken!” insisted Bantum stamping his foot.

“Wait a second,” said Herman. “Let me try to understand. So you were at the top of the trap door in the barn?”

“Yeah!” said Bantum.

“And you dropped a chicken down twenty feet?”


“And you heard a ‘Thwap’ sound?”


“Ok. I know who hurt your chicken,” concluded Herman folding his arms across his chest.

“Who!?” demanded Bantum looking around at everyone.

“You did!”, said Herman.

“Never!!!” cried Bantum incredulously.

“Yes, you did. Listen, son, you dropped a poor defenseless chicken twenty feet onto a hard stone floor. That’s what hurt your chicken!”

Bantum held the limp chicken up to his ear. “No! He says I would never hurt my chicken!”

“Ok ok, let me show you,” said Herman suddenly taking the chicken from Bantum’s hand. He held it up by one foot, and then dropped it so that it landed with a dull thwap on it’s head, making a crunching noise.

"See? That is what hurt your chicken!" said Herman conclusively, staring down at the dead chicken with satisfaction.

“Oh now you’ve done it,” said Arik grimly. Bantum was staring at the poor defenseless and quite stone dead chicken in abject horror. A look of unusual ferocity began to grow across his broad face.

“Nooooooooooo!!” shouted Bantum wildly.

With this Arik turned to Ibis and Korfu, and said under his breath, “Follow me!” and began to run back down the corridor toward the stairs, which led back to barn. Ibis, Korfu, Ben and Lanna ran after him. Meanwhile Bantum was about to heave into the foreman with his mace when Hermel put his sword across Bantum’s chest and said, “Bantum, stop!”

“He hurt my chicken again!” he said pointing to the dead chicken on the ground.

“Bantum, I’m sorry to tell you, but the foreman was right.”

“But I can’t have hurt my chicken! I love him!” cried Bantum.

“It was an accident, Bantum. You didn’t mean it," replied Hermel in a soothing voice.

“Oh… I’m sad now,” Bantum said, looking down at the chicken. Tears began to roll down his cheeks.

“Your chicken is ok, he’s ok,” said Star to Bantum. “Eldrik has received dear chicken to a better world. ‘Not a chicken shall fall, but He shall see it’”, he quoted.

Herman was looking very relieved. “Are you looking for a job, son?” he asked Hermel with admiration.

“I’ve got things to do, sorry,” replied Hermel. “Maybe in a few months.”

“Sure sure, we’re always looking for good men. You seem to know how to handle people. Come back if you want to make some good money later,” he said.

“I might take you up on that,” said Hermel.

“Guards, you better go and fetch Korfu and Ben. Looks like they’re trying to get out of their contract,” he said looking down the corridor at the receding group. The guards looking that way drew their swords and marched off into the darkness. Meanwhile Ben had stopped in the corridor. He was holding Lanna’s hand, and said, “Don’t worry darling, I’ll be home soon enough.” And then he turned back toward Herman and walked over to him. Only Star of Justice noticed that Ben had handed Lanna a small bundle wrapped in cloth that she slipped into the folds of her cloths as they had been talking.

“You sure you want to do that?” asked Star of Ben as he walked past him.

“Yup. I need the money. And ya never know what you might find in an old abandoned mine, now do ya?” he said quietly, half to himself.

As this was happening Korfu was making his way up the ladder and into the barn with Ibis, followed by Arik, who was holding the guards at bay with his shield. From behind came Hermel, Hormel, Bantum and Star of Justice, along with Lanna who was looking rather forlorn.

“Leave my friends alone!” said Bantum as they came up the corridor, and the guards, not eager to be the objects of Bantum’s displeasure, or take on the adventurers, decided to step out of the way and let the adventurer’s pass. Everyone climbed up into the barn, the guards following behind.

“Don’t worry,” said Ibis to Korfu. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

“You are absolutely right,” said Star. “There was something very strange about the entire arrangement down there. I also believe the miners signed those contracts under the influence of some kind of drug based on what I saw while I was observing them that night.”

Lanna quietly made her way to the door of the barn and went out into the dark snowstorm.

“We have to take this man back to the mine,” said one of the guards, pointing to Korfu.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Ibis. “He was abducted, and we intend to get to the bottom of this.”

“I’m sorry, but we have our orders,” said the guard.

“He said NO!” shouted Bantum loudly stomping his foot such that all the chickens who had been pecking at the dirt in the barn began clucking frantically and scrambling around. The guards grew pale.

“We are going to take this up with the magistrate, but I promise if he rules against us we won’t stand in your way,” added Ibis.

“Well, … ok then,” said the guard, looking at Bantum anxiously. “We’ll just be going now.” And turning they climbed back down the ladder into the tunnel. As they did they could be heard chuckling to one another, saying, “They’re going to tell the magistrate, heh heh.” as they closed the trap door.

Star took notice that Lanna had left the Barn. As Bantum began collecting up his remaining chickens to tie to his bandoleer, and the others to varying degrees helped him, Star departed swiftly from the barn and caught up with Lanna about half way to the Inn.

A Mysterious Stone Tablet

“Listen, I don’t mean to bother you, but I happened to notice that your husband handed you something down there in the mine. I’m not interested in taking it or anything like that, but I should like to know what is going on down there. Matters here are very strange, and I feel this must be a piece of the puzzle. Would you mind showing me what he gave you?” asked Star.

She wiped tears away from her eyes, and said, “Its none of your business. It’s a gift for me. He said to keep it and not show it to anyone.”

“Its very important that we find out what is going on down there. Your husband’s well being, and everyone elses down there, may well depend on it,” said Star. Lanna stared at him for a few moments thinking.

“Ok. I’ll show it to you,” she said taking the bundle of cloth out from the fold in her cloths. She opened it and inside they found a smooth round stone that had been broken in half. On the surface was engraved a round symbol that formed what looked like a series of jagged ‘z’ shaped lightning bolts from a central black circle. Star got a very bad feeling. He suddenly remembered the dream he had the other night, and realized that this was the same symbol he’d seen in the dark depths of his nightmare. He became suddenly very cold, and sweat suddenly covered his entire body.

The Stone

“By the great beard of Eldrik,” he said under his breath. Along one side of the stone were unknown glyphs that had been carved along the edge of the outer circle forming what appeared to be two words that almost seem to dimly glow with a dark yellow light. As they were speaking the rest of the party members were coming along through the snow. Lanna bundled up the stone and hid it away again.

“For the sake of my husband, promise not to tell anyone about it,” she said as she wrapped herself in her scarf and pulled the deep cowl over her head. Star didn’t answer as she trudged away through the snow into the darkness.

“You’re welcome,” called Hermel after her.

“Thank you for helping me,” she called back on the wind, and turned away to vanish into the darkness.

The heroes then stood and discussed matters. Hermel was aware that salt in the region was very valuable. In fact so much so that in some cases people used it for money. He suggested that whomever the actual owner of the mine was probably would be pretty keen on keeping it a secure secret. Herman had said as much. He suspected that none of them were in a very safe position now. He questioned how far such a person might go to ensure that the secret did not get out of the Prancing Unicorn vale. They conferred about all of the events recently, and the strange persons who had shown up at the Prancing Unicorn, and the mysterious meetings that they’d become aware of. It all began to come clear to them that there was much more to the picture than met the eye. Star considered that the salt mine was only part of the picture. Arik had the same feeling, but for different reasons.

Despite the feeling that they had a moral obligation to help the abducted miners, it was decided after much discussion standing in the snow that they should not return to the Inn, or even stay in the area at all. Ibis was the most displeased about this has he had all of his work, a great treatise he had been writing for several years on the subject of ‘Village Defensive Works on Mountainous Terrain’. However, he too realized that there was little chance after all that magistrates who happen to be at the Inn would turn out to favor their case, as it was more likely that everyone there was somehow in collusion regarding the mine. Deals were probably being struck, legal frameworks detailed, and contracts signed all the while. Going back to the Inn, and announcing impropriety they decided, might well turn out to be their death warrant, if the existence of the mine was seriously meant to be kept a secret.

And so the young heroes decided that there was nothing left to do but to follow after Lanna and hope that she would be willing to put them up at her farm until the snowstorm abated. Thus they trudged along after her leaving all behind, across the wooden bridge and through the narrow gap in the hill that lead out of the Prancing Unicorn vale. It was terribly dark and windy, and snowing, so they had a devil of a time following Lanna’s trail, but eventually, by good luck or the will of the Elkron, they managed to catch up with her. Or so they thought at first.

There was a dark shape on what they believed was the road south that they could make out dimly as a silhouette in the snow ahead. But Hermel thought it seemed to be lumbering along, rather than walking. He thought, and others conferred, that it seemed too large to be a woman, and after a moment’s reflection he decided it looked more like a shambling bear than anything like a person. Everyone stopped.The wind howled.

“Lady!” called out Bantum in a booming voice. Hermel slapped his forehead with his hand and looked down at the ground. The shadow stopped and it seemed to turn around.

“Hey Lady! It’s your friends!” shouted Bantum. The dark shape moved toward them. But as it came closer it seemed to not loom so large after all, and by the time they could see details and features they realized that it was Lanna after all. Hermel, along with everyone else, was deeply relieved.

The Flight Southward

“We’re of the opinion that we might never leave the Inn if we went back there, seeing as how there seems to be a strong interest in keeping the mine a great secret,” said Hermel, “and we were hoping you would find it in your heart to take us to your farm with you, seeing as how we helped you to find your husband, Ben.”

“You’re very pessimistic,” observed Lanna dryly.

“Yes I am,” confided Hermel. “That’s how I have managed to live to the ripe old age of fifteen.”

And with this, Lanna was persuaded to bring them along with her. However, she too had her concerns, and had decided not to return to her farm either.

“I know of a safe place in the hills,” she said. “There is a cave that was cleared out which only I and my friends have knowledge of. I am on my way there. It is large enough for all of us, and warm, and we have wood and equipment there, and food,” she said.

It was a long freezing trek through the snow. Eventually, they came to a place where there were two large standing stones. Lanna turned from the road and headed between them westward toward a line of jagged hills barely discernible as darker ribbon in the otherwise coal gray landscape. The wind was howling still, but the snow had temporarily ceased falling. The light of dawn was still a long way off from graying the horizon. A hawk screed from out of the darkness in the distance.

“Seriously?” thought Hormel to himself when he recognized the standing stones. “This way leads to the Black Hills of Ashkorah! It is an ill destiny, then, that brings us this way." He'd heard the rumors of a race of cannibal-ogres that lived in those hills, but he cast those thoughts behind him. Whatever may come of it, they'd no choice but to follow Lanna as she lead the way down the narrow path along a steep slope into a long thin valley holding a lone flickering torch above her head. The wind howled through the dead branches of the trees that lined the jagged hills about them. They crested a tall narrow hill with a sheer drop into a dark crevasse below. For a while they passed through a black pine forest tinkling with ice that lined the bottom of a vale following a frozen brook. They crested another rocky hill, and wound their way between huge boulders capped in drifts of snow like the hoary heads of long dead giants. Several times various members of the tiny group nearly slipped on the ice and plunged headlong into yawning black rifts. The going was slow and treacherous.

Finally, frozen, hungry, and exhausted they came to a steep defile at the bottom of which was a flat snow bound ridge backed by a tall gray cliff. At the center of the ridge they came a wide cave opening through which a large bear might easily enter. Lanna passed into the darkness of the cave and the adventurers followed. Once inside they found a broad and deep cavern. Lanna lit a torch and placed it in a nook along the wall. She lit two more, and so the cave took on a comfortable glow. She lit a fire in a pit where wood had been stacked up. There were pots and pans hanging from pegs that had been hammered into the wall. Toward the back of the cave there were two large columns that gave the appearance of holding the ceiling up. Beyond them was only darkness leading hither to where none knew. Lanna warned them against passing beyond the columns.

“I’ve no idea where those tunnels lead, and it were easier to get lost in them than not,” she commented as she began to boil water in a large pot. Everyone sat around the fire warming their hands and feet, and drying their cloths. Lanna brought out a stack of heavy blankets from a large wooden chest and laid them on a flat stone for them to pick from. The cave was an ideal hiding spot they all thought.

As they sat Korfu explained as much of what he knew about the salt mine as he could. They’d found an ancient set of metal tracks on which well crafted metal wagons had been placed. There was a mechanical shaft that lifted the wagons between the two levels of the mine, and he guessed that when they descended it was about one hundred feet downward. The mine itself was a series of large rectangular rooms, interconnected by long square corridors. They’d been sent to chip away in one of the chambers. Several cave ins had occurred recently, but none while he was there. He also told of a Master Miner who was a Dwarve much like Arik with a braided red beard and thick limbs and the disposition of an ogre. He also mentioned that there had been a group of three men picking away in one of the galleries with small metal tools and brushes, and seemed to be very intent on whatever it was they were working on. No one was allowed to go near them, and a metal gate cordoned off that area, but Korfu had snuck over to take a peek surreptitiously. After that, Korfu was too exhausted to speak any more and so wrapped himself in a blanket and fell fast asleep. Others desired to follow him.

“Bantum, why don’t you keep watch on the cave entrance for us? Can you do that?” asked Star.

“Ok,” replied Bantum looking over at the cave entrance. His chicken bandoleer had been placed down next to the fire and he pet one of the sleeping hens, and then covered them all with a nice warm blanket.

“Now, Bantum, don’t go out of the cave. Even if you see a pretty kitty, stay in the cave, ok?”

“Um… why don’t you, uh, take watch with him?" asked Hermel. "He shouldn’t be doing it all alone. He really shouldn’t be doing it all alone.”

“Well, yes, I do suppose you’re making sense,” said Star who was looking doubtfully at Bantum as the big fellow lumbered toward the cave entrance.

“Well,” spoke Ibis, “if no one wishes to play a game, I think I’ll turn in and get some sleep.”

“I happen to have a set of fourth edition manuals for a game called ‘Pencils and Paychecks’,” said Star hopefully.

“What kind of game is it?” asked Ibis, interested in all forms of gaming, even if they did not necessarily involve gambling.

“It’s a fascinating game played with dice and paper. You play characters in another World… where people live in tall glass towers and work on miraculous glowing machines all day and go shopping…”

“Hmm… well,” said Ibis, “... *ahem*... I was thinking more of a gambling game, to be honest.”

“I’m not much into gambling,” said Hermel as he rolled himself up in a blanket.

“Me neither,” said Star as he followed Bantum toward the cave entrance. With that Ibis shrugged and decided to get some sleep, too. Hornmel and Arik were both already sound asleep and snoring. Only Lanna remained awake by the fire stirring the pot with a large bone spoon. She had a troubled look as she watched Star heading off. He happen to turn around and notice it, and so came over to her.

“Is everything alright, Lady Lanna?” he asked politely.

“I get a strange feeling from the stone. It’s been weighing heavily on me the whole time,” she whispered to him.

“It may not mean anything, but the night of our journey to the Inn I had a very peculiar dream in which I saw an engraving on a stone that looked very similar to the one on the stone your husband gave you. The dream disturbed me greatly.”

“I don’t want the stone,” she said. “It scares me.”

“I would be willing to take it from you, if you wish for me to hold on to it for the time being. Of course I would return it to you, unless we discovered for a certainty that it were evil and needed to be destroyed,” offered Star of Justice. When he said this he thought he heard a distant voice very faintly from some far off place in the cave echoing the words “…my precious…” and it gave him a sudden chill to the bones and stood the hair of his neck up on end.

“I promised my husband I would hold on to it for him,” she replied after thinking it over.

“I understand. But please be careful. I sense that the stone has some dark power. If you decide you need help with it at any time, you may rely on me to help you if I can,” he said reassuringly. Then, turning around, he looked to see what Bantum was doing. The huge young man had unwrapped his chickens and freed them so that they were now clucking and scratching away at the dirt near the fire. One of the chickens wandered just a little bit too close to the soup, and somehow managed to find it’s way into the cauldron. Lanna smiled innocently, and took a taste with her spoon.

The Belligerent Visitors

It was the very wee hours of the morning. There was a roar that echoed through the cave. Hermel, who was on watch at that time, woke up the rest of the group. Arik, rising quickly, grabbed his axe and made his way to the entrance of the cave. Ibis was not much of a fighter, but withdrew his dagger and stood near the fire. Hornmel, Star, Korfu and Bantum got into positions around the entrance. Lanna stayed near the fire and kept a watchful eye on the rear shadows of the cave which were dancing in the flickering firelight.

“There is some kind of monster outside,” whispered Hermel.

A bellicose gravel voice boomed into the cave from outside, “Whose in my cave?”

Lanna, turning to peer out through the cave entrance uttered, “Uh oh.”

“Something to tell us?” asked Hermel.

She bat her eyelashes.

“If I die, I’m going to be very peeved with you,” said Hermel.

“Not for long, at least,” she replied. “Well… there used to be an Ogre who lived in this cave, … but we killed it.”

“Maybe it’s his brother?” suggested Star.

“Whose in my cave?!” demanded the enormous voice.

“Who wants to know?” yelled back Bantum through the entrance. Everyone stared at him, and then looked at the entrance again.

“It is my cave! I am Broknok!” came the booming answer.

“I am Bantum!” yelled Bantum in return.

“Come out and fight!” boomed the challenger.

“Ok,” said Bantum and began to move to the entrance.

“Come IN and fight!” yelled Ibis as Star positioned himself between Bantum and the cave entrance and stopped him with his outstretched arm.

“Bantum, let him come in and fight,” said Star.

“Ok,” said Bantum and stopped.

“Aye, that’s right! Come in and we’ll all fight ya!” yelled Arik.

In the entrance of the cave they could see a huge head, the size of Arik’s broad barreled chest. Korfu immediately began a chant and threw his hands up in the direction of the head. A dazzling flash shined from his palms and a bright blue light beamed forth. The Ogre however, having seen enough, had leaped backwards and vanished from view with a tremendous laugh. "Huh huh huh huh!"

They heard a voice outside but could not make out what was said. Then another low laugh, “Huh huh huh.”

“Perhaps we can negotiate with the creature,” suggested Ibis.

No one objected to trying.

“Sir Broknok, my name is Ibis. Can I ask a question?”

“Huh huh huh! Go ahead and ask!” came the voice.

“Can we make a deal?” asked Ibis.

“What kind of deal?” came the booming voice.

“Well, we give you something you want, and you give us something we want. Like that. So first, lets find out… what is it that you want?”

“I want human flesh for dinner!” thundered the voice with a tremendous bout of laughter.

“I’m not so sure we are going to be able to negotiate,” said Star.

Ibis considered sending Korfu forward as an offering, briefly, but realized that this act, while tempting to him under the circumstances, was not something that he calculated the people in the group would remotely accept. He quickly put the thought aside and tried another tack instead.

“Why don’t we play a gambling game for it instead?” called Ibis out the door.

“Don’t like games!” said the Ogre. “Now send somebody out so I can eat ‘em! I’m hungry!” thundered the monster.

“Look Broknok, you don’t have the upper hand,” called Ibis out the cave. “If you come in here we’ll kill you. If we go out there you’ll kill us. It’s a stalemate. We can only negotiate,” he said.

“Huh huh huh!” laughed Broknok.

Bantum took one of his chickens and said, “Go see what is happening,” and threw it out the entrance of the cave. They heard frantic squawking, and then a sudden crunching noise and a final squawk.

“What did you do to my chicken?!” yelled Bantum infuriated.

“I ate him!” came the booming voice. “Send another! Huh huh huh huh!”

Bantum, enraged, waved his mace in the air and said, “You hurt my chicken! I will beat you!” as he charged forward intending to have it out with the monster in the snow shrouded darkness.

“Well,” thought Hermel, “Bantum would make an all day meal for the monster… on the other hand… I kind of like the big guy…” He grabbed a chicken by the throat and held his sword to its throat. The poor chicken was clucking frantically.

“Bantum!” yelled Hermel to get his friend's attention before he leaped out of the cave. Bantum turned around and seeing this he shouted, “You’re a bad man!”

“Bantum! Come here and take your chicken!” shouted Hermel. “I’m doing this for your own good. You need to gather up all your chickens, or the Ogre may step on them when we battle him in the cave.” Bantum looked bewildered. He looked around at the remaining chickens and suddenly felt that they were all in danger of being stomped by the Ogre and realized that he had to protect them. So he ran back into the cave and began collecting the chickens, which were scattered about squawking throughout the cave. One by one he caught them and attached them carefully to his bandoleer.

Meanwhile, Arik yelled out, “Hey ugly boy, why don’t you come in here and get some?!”

A four foot tall, fur covered humanish looking creature in a red cap and brown vest appeared at the entrance of the cave and looked inside.

“Who are you?!” shouted Arik. The creature lifted his hands, wiggled his fingers and began to chant in a low sing-song voice. Arik, however, was a bit faster, and chanting his own spell, blazed out a Lightning Bolt from his fingers. At the same moment Korfu, who was also chanting, beamed forth another blinding flash from his palms. The lightning blasted the creature backwards, and the blinding flash caught it directly in it’s eyes. It vanished from view.

“I’m blind!” shrieked the little creature from outside the cave. Suddenly the Ogre’s head appeared again, and glancing inside for a quick moment, swung his arm and hurled a large rock into the cave. The rock slammed with a thud into Star of Justice, staggering him five feet backwards. His right shoulder was crushed.

“Huh huh huh huh!” the Ogre laughed.

Korfu, alarmed at the turn of events, summoned his last reserve of power and chanted his Blinding Spell again. Arik, also low on power, but still capable of chanting, tried to cast his Lightning Bolt, but it failed him, and only sparks shot forth from his fingers. He grumbled at the ineffective sputtering. Nevertheless, the Ogre was caught by the Blinding Spell, which flashed a blaze of dazzling blue-white lights across his eyes from Korfu’s palms.

“Arrrgggghhh!!” roared the Ogre and staggered backwards from the cave entrance.

“Oh Great Minvar, Ancient and Powerful, Mother of the Earth, may thy Mercy infuse through thy Holy Stone, to bring healing to our Just and Brave companion,” he intoned deeply. After a few seconds Star felt no further pain. A few second later he stood up, and moved his arm around, trying it this way, and that. Amazingly, it was completely healed. He gave thanks to Hermel, and to Minvar, and to Eldrik, for this good fortune, recommitted himself to the work of Justice, and with that blessed his Morning Star and turned toward the entrance of the cave with resolve engraved across his noble face.

With both the Ogre and the Kobold blinded the party surged outside after them and gave chase. Bantum, Star and Hornmel surrounding the Ogre bashed it, hacked it, and bludgeoned it to death against the stone ridge. Meanwhile, Hermel hung back, not caring to do harm to the monster after all, as is was his nature not to want to do more harm than absolutely necessary to anyone. Arik, for is part, had run after the Kobold, but even though he managed to zap the wily creature with a glancing bolt of lightning, and even though it had been blinded, it still managed to scamper away across the snow in the opposite direction, the hairs of its backside smouldering with embers of lightning. Arik weighted down by his own bulk, and the girth of his shield, could only follow after it so far before he found himself waste deep in snow, shrouded darkness, a little too far from the cave for his comfort. He begrudgingly returned, cursing under his breath, and so for good measure vented his great frustration by hacking at the Ogre’s head with his axe until it was fully separated from its shoulders. Inside the cave, meanwhile, everyone had gathered around the fire. Lanna, with praise for their heroism on her lips, and an eye fixed toward the shadows of the rear region of the cavern, served them chicken soup, and suggested everyone warm themselves and rest. Outside the horizon was beginning to gray with the coming dawn.

Previous Episode: Intrigues at the Prancing Unicorn
Next Episode: A Chicken in the Dark