Out of the Device Chamber and Into the Spiders’ Den

The human and I stood there for a a few moments after dispatching the previous round of rats as Graenas gathered up the handful of coins our attackers had left behind. “That was a nice workout, but I’m not sure it got us anywhere,” I said casually.

Danny nodded and said, “Perhaps it’s a timing thing.  What if we were to pull the levers at the exact same time?”

My brother joined us as he slid our latest gains into his bottomless magical pouch. “I think it’s worth a try.”  With that, he reached up to the lever on the left and turned his head to Danny.  “You call it and I’ll match time with you.”

Danny nodded and reached for the other lever before beginning his count. “One. Two.  Three.  Go!”  At that, both men pulled down their levers.  The levers made a clicking sound, then there was a sound like an inrush of wind coming from the ceiling.  I glanced up, but saw no ventilation shafts or any other openings.  We still seemed to be in a completely sealed, perfectly cubic room.  The levers returned to their resting places.

“Try that again,” I said.  “I want to watch the ceiling this time.”  I stilled my mind and put my sight and senses at their fullest alert as the fighter repeated his count.  I heard the sound of the levers once again being pulled and latching into place.  Once again, I heard the sound of in-rushing air, but saw nothing.  No door opened.  No other opening appeared.  No dust or other particle gave any indication of a source of new air entering the room. Despite the complex mechanical nature of the contraption, there appeared to be a highly magical aspect to it as well. I supposed this was to be expected, given the involvement of the fey.

“Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” Graenas said impatiently.  “I say we try the next position on the dial. I silently worried that my brother’s impatience would one day get him into deeper trouble than he already was in.  In this case, however, he was right. It was time to try something different. I nodded and turned the dial back to the previous direction indicator and watched as the numeric display reset to 2.  Graenas and Danny each took a lever and pulled on Danny’s mark.  We instantly heard the same fog horn sound and shuffling sounds behind us.  We turned around to confront five spiders, each the size of an adult rottweiler.  Graenas let out a string of Sylvan profanities. I suspect that he had learned some of them from Auril, as I couldn’t make a few of those words out enough.  But my lessons with our father allowed me to understand enough to know that Mother would be reaching for the soap dish had she heard the things my brother had just sputtered.  He launched a blast of eldritch energy at the southern-most spider.  He just barely grazed it, though it was enough to make it mad.

Danny moved to engage the two spiders in the north and was immediately attacked by both of them and the spider in the middle.  The spider Graenas had attacked launched itself at him and overshot onto the contraption.  That left me to approach and attack the one remaining spider.  I hooked the sickle in my right hand around one of its legs. I heard the leg crack and tear as I used it to pull the creature towards me.  Once its body was in range, I drove the point of my other sickle between the spider’s eyes.  There was a squelching sound as more of the curved blade sunk beneath the surface and the spider screeched and shook violently for a moment then went completely still. I pulled both sickles free.  The one dripped with blood as I joined Danny to take care of whatever spiders had not yet gone still beneath the fighter’s warhammer.

Graenas soon turned the spider he was fighting into dripping bits scattered across the contraption and he began to attack those Danny and I were engaging with his bolts of power as well.  When the final spider had been almost perfectly bisected by the long sword in Danny’s off hand, I wiped the blood off my sickles and said, “I hope we figure out how this damn contraption works soon or we’ll be able to ride a wave of our attackers like they were horses. The human snorted in what I assumed was agreement and we returned to the device.

“Three?” Graenas asked.

“I feel like we’re just doing the same thing and hoping for different results, but I have no better suggestions,” Danny said gruffly. I shrugged.  Graenas reset the dial so the number on the reading was three.  The men executed their choreographed lever-pulling routine once more. We instantly knew by the sounds we heard that it was time for another battle.  This time, we were faced off against five of the largest rats I have ever seen and three iron chests that somehow managed to drool and snarl.  I had heard of mimics before through the tale-swapping that takes place in taverns at Albion City, but I had never seen one.  Their unnatural and surely magical construction unnerved me.

Graenas shot another blast of eldritch energy at one of the mimics, which immediately descended on him.  It bit him hard and my brother shrieked, “That hurt, you diabolical piece of luggage!”  Danny was instantly busy with three of the large rats.  I saw another rat headed my way, but one look at the fighter informed me that he would soon be overwhelmed by his wounds if I didn’t intervene. I silently hoped that my attacker wouldn’t inflict too much harm on me as I extended a hand palm forward toward Danny and intoned a healing incantation Father had taught me.  I smiled in grim satisfaction as the gashes on the fighter’s skin began to close and his bruises began to fade.  The renewed health and strength clearly reinvigorated him as he continued his assault on the rats now surrounding him.

I found myself splitting my attention over the next several seconds between fending off the rat attacking me and applying my knowledge of field medicine to keep both Graenas — who seemed to be getting worn down by the rat and mimic that were tag-teaming him — and Danny from succumbing.  I finally managed to kill my attacker when one of the two as-yet uninvolved mimics caught my scent and moved forward to attack me.  I quickly tucked away my sickles and drew my wooden shield and mace, figuring that a blunt weapon might do more damage to the wood and iron that made up the strange creature than a pair of small curved blades.

Danny manged to turn the small group of rats attacking him into  piles of goo and sliced meat as the third mimic attacked him.  Somehow, he managed to get the rat attacking my brother as well as the mimic engaging me to redirect their attention to him.  This allowed Graenas to focus on his mimic.  My brother shouted, “Enough!  Let’s try fire!” Then he  blasted a whole through the top of the chest that served as the mimic’s body with a firebolt.”

“Nice shot!” Danny called out as he smashed the mimic we were both attacking, sending a few more splinters into the air.  The mimic finally went still and he turned his attention to the final chest.  I came around beside him to help, smashing dents into the creature with my mace.  Graenas began attacking it with frosty rays of magic.  Soon, the final enemy quit moving.  Graenas took out his medical kit and tossed it to me, saying, “Thanks for keeping us alive, Uri.  This will make sure you can keep doing it.

Danny reached into his own pack and began to pull out another such kit, but I held up my hand to stop him.  “Hold onto it for now.  This will allow me to keep attending to all of us for the time being. And if something happens to me, one of you might need to be able to quickly stabilize me. You’ll need the means to do that if it becomes necessary.”  Danny thought for a moment, then nodded as he repacked his own kit. I continued, “At any rate, after that intense battle, I think we should rest for a bit.” With that, I undid my pack and set it on the floor, sitting down beside it.

“Sounds good to me,” Danny said as he followed suit.  “And maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what exactly is going on here.”

I glanced at Graenas, who had just finished gathering up the coins left by that last wave of attackers as well as three pieces of parchment he apparently found in the remains of one of the chests..  He shrugged as he sat a few feet from us and pulled out his sewing kit and some sort of needlework project.  I paused, then said, “Graenas’s power comes from an evil fey deity he made a pact with four years ago.  She’s the one who sent us here. We’re trying to destroy an unknown number of statues erected by her sister.”

“What?!” Danny said, his face twisting with anger as he glared at Graenas. “Why on earth would you do such a foolish thing?!”

Graenas’s needle stopped moving as he looked up. I could see the frustration and embarrassment on his face as he spoke.  “I was young and foolish at the time.  Plus I thought I was in love and my heart was breaking.  When Auril appeared, she told me that if I just agreed to do some favors every now and then, she’d make it so William….” His voice cracked as he spoke the name of one of our few childhood friends, the one Graenas had so desperately wished would see him as more than a friend.  My brother fell silent, staring at the piece of cloth in his hand.

After a few moments, I spoke.  “He made a mistake.  A foolish and costly one, but one that’s easy to make when you’re a teenager struggling with emotions and hormones.” I willed myself to accept that defense, myself.  I also hoped I was speaking the truth as I continued. “I think he’s learned his lesson.  Now he’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation until he can find a way to fix it completely. I’m trying to help him.

The fighter huffed.  “I guess I get it.  I still say it was a stupid thing to do!” I inwardly bristled. While part of me agreed with our human companion, I felt very protective and defensive of my brother. I knew what that moment of desperate folly cost him, and not just in terms of being bound to the fey Ice Queen. Graenas really had cared deeply for William, and I suspect their friendship had been ruined forever. I knew the pain of that reality weighed on my brother, along with the knowledge of how deeply he had wronged and hurt William.  I hoped his regret and anguish would remind him to make better choices in the future.

We fell silent after that and I closed my eyes, leading my mind through the exercises that would draw me closer to the natural world around me.  I briefly wondered how well that would work while we were sealed in this chamber that I suspected was separated from the rest of our world by strange magics.  Assuming it had ever been a part of our world in the first place. It must have worked to some degree, however, as I felt much more refreshed when I stretched and opened my eyes.  A glance at the rows of new stitches Graenas had made suggested that two or three hours had passed. He had a slight smile on his face.  I guessed his needlework had brought up memories of helping our mother with various sewing projects.  It was the one thing that would always soothe his troubled spirits after he had a negative encounter with other residents of Shadeville while growing up.  Granted, he also tended to cause a lot of those encounters and exacerbate even more of them. But Mother would always get him calmed down, then gently reprimand him for his own actions a few hours later. He always took her criticisms far better than he reacted to the times I would scold him.  Then again, I had neither Mother’s patience nor her compassion.  At least not when it came to childish antics.

Danny looked at both of us and said, “I can’t sit here any longer.  Let’s get back to it.”  I think he just wanted to get away from the weirdness of this place and back to something simple and straightforward, like chasing after orcs and splitting their skulls. I nodded, stood, and returned to the contraption along the east wall. I reached out and turned the dial so that the numeric display would reset and turn to 4.  As it did, I noticed a slot that opened on the front of the machine. “Wait,” I said as I pointed to the narrow opening that must have been just a couple inches long. “Did anyone notice this before?” I feared I would have to apologize to Graenas for criticizing his failure to notice the dial earlier.

“No, can’t say as I have,” Danny said, running his finger along the slot.

“I think I did briefly, but thought nothing of it at the time,” Graenas said.  But now that we have four pieces of parchment….”  He shuffled through the four square pieces of parchment and attempted to slide the one marked with the number four on it inside.  Some unseen mechanism whirred as he got the edge of the parchment started just inside.  That mechanism pulled the entire square inside.  The slot then closed and the button on the contraption began to flash.  I tried pressing it, but it woouldn’t budge.

“Perhaps the levers unlock the button,” Danny suggested.  Graenas nodded in approval at the suggestion, then reached for his lever.  The two men pulled the levers in unison and I pushed the button as the levers clicked into place.  We heard a rumbling sound behind us.  We turned to see a large set of double doors now filling most of the western wall.

Graenas walked over and examined the doors.  “There appears to be a four keyholes.  Two embedded in each door,” he said.  Danny and I were investigating the dial, which now had a piece of metalsticking out of it.  It was thin and roughly a couple inches long.

“Do you think it’s broken?” Danny asked.

“I don’t this so,” I said as I leaned over to get a better look.  “It looks like the other end is actually sticking in a socket in the dial. Let me just,” I said as I pulled on it.  I stopped mid-sentence as the piece of metal came free.  Now free of the contraption, four small teeth popped along one end of it.  “Well, there’s one key,” I said.

“We need three more and there are three more major marks on the dial,” Graenas said as he rejoined us by the contraption. “There’s an obvious hypothesis there, I think.”  Danny grunted his assent. Together, the three of us worked through the process of turning the dial, inserting the proper piece of parchment, and working the device to retrieve all four keys.  Once we retrieved the final key, the contraption pulled all of its controls inside of itself and then folded itself back into the wall.  In seconds, we were facing a blank stone wall.

Once they were in hand, Graenas took the keys over to the door and examined both them and the keyholes. He said, “There’s a face-plate containing each keyhole.  They’re all different colors: yellow, green, blue, and orange.  The thing is, each key has four teeth, each tooth being one of those colors.”

“So it’s not going to be obvious,” I said, a bit annoyed.  “Why couldn’t each key be all one color?”

Danny thought for a moment then said, “Is the first tooth on each key a different color when compared against the other keys?”

Graenas looked each key over.  “As  matter of fact, yes.”

“So let’s line the keys up so that we put them in the keyhole whose color is the same color as the key’s first tooth,” Danny suggested. I nodded, appreciating the fact that our new companion had more brains than many weapon experts I had met in the past.  While I was thankful for his skill in battle, I was also glad he had other ways he could contribute to our collective efforts.  Plus I hoped it was a sign that I wouldn’t have to worry about him leaping headlong into an unwinnable battle without any thought.

We got all the keys lined up as proposed.  Graenas said, “I think we should try turning them all at once.  Danny can you manage two keys at once?”  Danny nodded and placed his hands on the two keys nearest him. Graenas and I each grabbed the key in front of us and turned to Danny.  He counted us down and we turned all four keys in unison.  We were rewarded with a resounding and promising click.  I pulled on the doors and they swung out and open, only to reveal another set of doors behind them.  They were identical to the previous one.

Graenas grinned.  “I can see where this is going.  Sort them according to the colors of their second teeth.  We did so and repeated the process to open this door and the two behind it.  As the final door swung open we found ourselves looking into a giant chamber.  As we entered we saw a dreadful sight.  There were three more spiders the same size as the last wave we had fought scurrying toward us. The thing that caused the blood to briefly drain from my face, however, was the red spider that was approximately the size of a small hovel that stood behind them.

The three of us began to attack the middle spider of the three smaller ones, who had all descended on Danny.  Graenas, who had moved thirty feet away so he could attack from a distance, managed to strike the same spider with a blast of energy before the giant red spider managed to hit him with a stream of webbing.  My brother cursed as all his limbs became entangled and he fell to the floor. I redoubled my attack efforts with Danny, hoping I’d be able to get free to help Graenas in time.

The giant spider ambled over and was just about to attack my defenseless brother when Danny brought his warhammer down on the badly bleeding spider we had been wearing down.  The giant spider heard the crunching sound its diminutive companion’s body made and turned its attention and anger toward the fighter.  It began to shoot streams of webbing at Danny but missed, covering the wall behinds us with a white sticky mess.

Graenas struggles paid off as he finally broke free of his sticky bonds.  “That’s enough!” he snarled and I glanced at him just long enough to see the icy hatred in his eyes. I cringed at how much he seemed like Auril at that moment and longed for the day that we could free him from her influence.  Hopefully it wouldn’t be too late.  He uttered an incantation I had only heard him use a couple times before and I once again cringed as I began to smell the now-dead, rotting flesh that hung from parts of the giant spider’s body.

Graenas continued to use his power to instantly destroy the giant spider’s cells as Danny and I each killed one of the two remaining smaller spiders.  We finished our work and turned to help my brother put an end to the red monster. At that moment, the creature finally managed to hit Danny with a spray of webbing.  The fighter went down.  I stepped forward, hoping Graenas and I could hold our own with the creature long enough for the fighter to free himself.


Behind the Scenes: Role-Playing and Storytelling

Hello, readers.  This is Jarred, your loyal blogger and the person who gives voice to the beloved (or at least I hope they’re beloved) Graenas and Urizenya.  The next D&D session, which will then move the main story on this blog forward, is only a few days away.   In the meantime, I wanted to reach out and share my thoughts on this writing project.  As a matter of fact, I’m hoping to establish a pattern where every Wednesday or Thursday, I add some sort of extra “goodie” to the blog that complements the main story, whose installments will be posted on Sundays or Mondays (depending on how much time I need to write and edit).  They might be a peek behind the scenes at my own creative process.  They might be a short story involving one or more of the characters. (For example, I will probably post a short story in which sixteen year old Graenas first meets and makes his deal with his patron, Auril.) I’ve even toyed with posting audio or video of me reading one of the installments.  (I read the first installment to my husband and dungeon master, Joe, while I was editing it and he loved the way I read it.)

These posts will be put in a special category according to their content type (Behind the Scenes, Short Extras, etc).  That same content type will also be part of the post title to make it easy to recognize.  Main story installments, on the other hand, will just have a title.  They will also be placed into the main story category, so you can easily find them if you don’t want to sort through the extra goodies.

Anyway, on to today’s topic.  I wanted to talk about my decision to turn our D&D campaign into a work of fiction and my thoughts and feelings about it.  I actually decided to do it at the recommendation of Joe.  He and I were originally planning to play a different campaign when he made the suggestion.  That campaign never got off the ground, and I think it might be interesting to explore the reasons for that and compare them to why I think things went differently this time in a future post.  Of course, I had heard of using role-playing for story-telling purposes before.  Most famously, I remember Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the Dragonlance Chronicles (and many of the books that came after the trilogy), wrote in an appendix (or was it an introduction?) of one their books a brief comment about how the character Raistlin Majere developed his identifying raspy voice because a friend (actually, as I looked up information for this post, I learned the man was actually a coworker at TSR) roleplaying him used the voice in a D&D session. I no longer have my copy of those books, so I don’t remember the full details.  But I was able to find an online post in which Hickman once again talked about it:

The first was Terry Phillip’s portrayal of Raistlin. Whenever Terry spoke ‘in character’ as Raistlin, he did so in a raspy, whispering voice. It was menacing and not just a little creepy to hear but what Margaret observed was that whenever Terry spoke in that voice, the rest of the room went silent in order to hear what he had to say. Margaret realized not only was this a quality that would have come from Raistlin’s background but it was also a manipulative technique of getting everyone’ attention and having them pay careful attention to him when he spoke. This, Margaret realized, was something which Raistlin would pick up on and use for his own gain. From Terry’s voice characterization that night, the essence of Raistlin drew life’s breath.

I recommend reading the whole post.  Anyway, as I created the twins, I thought back to both Joe’s suggestion and my recollection of the above anecdote.  I immediately became fascinated with the idea, and also saw it as a way of getting back into writing. It had been a few years since I worked on anything other than the rare writing exercise. Plus it already gave me an instant audience of two, as I was certain both Joe and my fellow player, Deb, would love to read how I narrate and interpret our adventures that we playe  at our (virtual) D&D table.

Since writing the first installment, I’ve been pondering (and impatiently waiting for Saturday to roll around so we can have our next session), and it occurs to me that for me, this approach to a fiction project works nicely for me because of my own strengths and weaknesses.  I’m great at character development.  I can generate enough backstory to understand how my character’s would act.  I can give them quirks and personality traits. My dialogue is pretty good, too, so if two (or more) of my characters get in a room together, I can make them talk with one another in engaging and interesting ways. I can even come up with some pretty cool “big picture” concepts.

The one thing I tend to struggle with is actual plot. My answer to the question “where are these fascinating characters headed and what’s going to happen to them along the way” is often “I’m not really sure.  It’s happened to a couple of my previous writing projects.  In one project, my main character went through countless scenes that were themselves pretty good, but I felt like it was going to meander forever and never really reach a conclusion.

Joe, on the other hand, is a plot-generating fiend (or maybe he’s an arch-fey).  It’s a skill that I think is one part natural for him and another part developed over two decades of creating and running D&D campaigns. The man has taken Deb’s and my character ideas and backstories and woven them into the campaign as personal story-lines in addition to the shared story-line.  That’s kind of cool, as it’s neat to know that the creation of my own characters have in turn shaped the story we’re going to end up telling.

But most importantly, it means that someone else is providing me the plot outline that I so often seen to struggle to figure out myself. I don’t have to come up with all the  situations and can focus on how my characters respond to each one, then turn the whole thing into a narrative someone might enjoy reading.  That’s something that has me very excited.

So that gives you, my readers, a brief glimpse into my own thoughts as I kick off the project.  I’d love to hear from you.  Maybe you’re a writer or a roleplayer who has an experience you share.  Maybe you’re a writer who has used roleplaying to help develop your stories (I get the impression it’s a rather common practice) and can share how that’s worked for you.  Maybe you can share you how make allowances for and/or overcome your own weaknesses in the writing and/or roleplaying experiences. I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!

Happy adventuring, whether it’s with dice, pen and paper, or a book and your own imagination!

— Jarred.


Getting pulled into a family feud

I sat with my back against a fallen tree in the small, secluded glade at the Falls of Serenity. My eyes were closed as I tried to still my mind as I waited for my patron to make her presence known to me.  It was not long before I felt the familiar icy chill on my skin.  I heard her cold yet seductive voice a few feet from me.  “Hello there, my sweet child.”  Did she call me a child just to annoy me?  I am an adult of twenty years, after all.  And I’ve certainly grown up a lot since I foolishly bound myself to her four years ago.  Being forced to work for an arch-fey goddess who wants to plunge the world into cold and darkness tends to have that effect on you.

I kept my eyes closed for a few more moments before saying, “Greetings my mistress.”  I reluctantly opened my eyes and looked upon her lithe, elegant, and almost featureless form. She was wearing her usual armor, made of some strange metal that I do not recognize.  All I know is that it seems more rare than even mythril and exudes power.  Everything about Auril exudes power.

“I have a task for you,” she said.

I sighed. “Am I going to have to kill someone?” So far, she has spared me from doing so, though she has made it clear in the past that I cannot expect that to remain true if I am going to continue to serve her and benefit from her blessings. I pray that I find my freedom from her before that days comes. I’m not sure my relationship with Uri would survive if I turn murderer for this ice queen.

“Not this time.  You may have to kill things. Nothing you’d likely consider a person, though.  Will you do as I ask?”

“Like I have a choice,” I muttered quietly, momentarily forgetting about Auril’s keen hearing.

“You can walk away any time you want, young one. You can simply break your contract whenever you’re willing to give up the power I have granted you.”

Therein lies the trap, I groaned inwardly.  “No, Mistress. I am yours to command,” I said, trying to sound subservient.

“That’s more like it,” she replied.  “My sister has started to gain a foothold in this region.  I can sense where her followers have erected her statues in the mine in the mountains northwest of the capital region.”

“And you want me to travel to the mine and destroy Titania’s statues, breaking her foothold.”

“You understand me clearly.  Fortunately, Titania’s followers just recently finished their construction, so their power is rather weak.  The guardians that shield and protect them should still be relatively easy for you to overcome.  Enter the spatial rifts that contains each statue and defeat the guardians you find there.”

I frowned.  “Spatial rifts.  Aren’t those usually deadly for mere mortals to pass through?”

Auril smiled as she held out  a frost amulet in her hand.  The amulet floated out of her hand and moved to hover near me. “This will enable you and anyone physically touching to pass through these rifts unharmed.”  I reached out and took hold of the amulet.  I felt a jolt of energy, as cold as anything that comes from Auril.  I brought the chain holding the amulet around my neck and, after a moment’s hesitation, engaged the clasp.  As the amulet now hung from my neck, I could feel the boost of power it gave me, both chilling and delighting me.  Auril smiled her dark approval, then continued, “You may take anyone you wish with you to complete this task.  Even that annoying sister of yours.”  She sneered as she mentioned Uri.  Those two have hated each other since the day Auril came into my life.  Not that I blame Uri.  This woman wants to turn our world into a ball of ice shrouded in darkness.  Any Druid would take issue with that, though Uri’s dislike of Auril seems to be a bit more personal than that, if you ask me.

“Not like you could stop her from coming along anyway,” I said.  Don’t poke the polar bear too much, I mentally warned myself.  You don’t to end up a ball of ice yourself. But I was right and Auril knew it. Uri and I were inseparable and the only way the frosty goddess could change that was if she actually killed my sister. And I think she knows I’d likely abandon her for sure if she did that.

“Just one more thing,” she said.  “Before you head to the mine, you should return to Albion City and pay a visit to my servant there.  He should have something you might find useful.”

“Thank you Mistress, I will. I bid you farewell.”

“Be careful, my young servant.  Return to me when you can.”

“Yes Mistress,” I said as I turned to leave our meeting spot.

It only took a few minutes to reach the tree where Uri was waiting for me.  She sat cross-legged with her back against it, her eyes closed and her sickles resting on her knees.  I suspected she had been listening in on my meeting through our telepathic bond.  She confirmed it as she said, “Taking on Titania’s forces, huh?”

“You make it sound like we’re going up against a grand army, Sis,” I said, slightly exasperated.

“I don’t trust that frosty wench,” she snapped.  “For all we know, that’s exactly what she’s sending you up against.”

I rolled my eyes. “She knows that would be a death sentence to me. She doesn’t want me dead, Uri.  She wants me to succeed.”

“That in itself should make you worry, you know.”

“What do you expect me to do, Uri?  Walk away?  You and I both know that’s probably a death sentence.  Yeah, she says she’d merely strip me of my powers and let me walk away.  But, as you just pointed out, she’s not exactly one to be trusted.”

“I know. But I wonder if you’d actually give up those powers even if she really would leave you otherwise unharmed.”

I clenched my fists for a moment, then forced myself to relax.  The truth is, I’m not sure she’s wrong to wonder.  “Can we not have this argument again right now?” I said, my eyes pleading.

Uri sighed as she stood up, “Okay. You know I just worry about you because I love you.”

“I know.  So shall we make our way to Albion City?” I said, hoping to change the subject.

“Oh right. First I have to deal with Auril’s crap and now I get to spend time in that oppressively crowded city. Could my day get any better?” I tried hard not to laugh at Uri, who would much rather spend her day running with the creatures in the forest than put up with the hustle and bustle — not to mention schemes — of civilization. I made a mental note to do something extra sweet for her in the future.

We made good time hiking to the city.  I looked over at Uri as we wound through the streets toward Twinkletoes’s Bazaar.  Every muscle in her body must have been tensed as she constantly scanned our surroundings. Neither of her hands were ever more than five inches from her weapons. By the looks of her, one would have assumed that a band of assassins would descend on her at any second.

Unfortunately, her hyper-alert state meant that she didn’t miss it when I checked out a couple of traveling merchants we passed by.  She glared at me and I shrugged.  It had been a while since I had enjoyed the company of another man. It only seemed natural to look around and consider the possibilities.

When we got to his shop, I saw the gnome, Oswald Twinkletoes, deep in conversation with a human wearing the uniform of the city night watch. He looked to be a decade or two older than my sister and I.  I’m not normally into the daddy type, but I have to admit that I found something about his rugged good looks appealing.

“You will most likely want to hire someone who can guide you through the mountains,” Oswald said to the man just before he glanced our way.  “Like a pair of half-elves who’ve spent many years wandering around these parts.  Hello there Graenas, Urizenya.”

Sis nodded curtly to Oswald, “Master gnome. How’s business?”

“Profitable,” the gnome smiled. “Is there something I can help you two with?”

I nodded. “I’m on an assignment from my benefactor.  She mentioned that you might have something for me.”

The gnome’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed I do!  Excuse me, Danny. I need to take care of this matter.”

“Indeed.  Thank you for your help, Master Twinkletoes,” the human said, then turned to nod politely to Uri and me.

“Please hold up,” I said to the man. “I hear you’re headed to the mountains.  As it happens, we are headed in that direction as well and would like to discuss the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

The man paused. “Indeed.  Conclude your business with our merchant friend here and then we can talk.”

“Thank you,” I said before turning my attention back to Oswald. “Okay, what do you have for me?”

Oswald pulled out one of his most secure trunks and began to work at the complicated locking mechanism.  I suspect that it’s of magical construction, but can never tell.  Finally, the gnome opened the trunk and retrieved a small bag from the inside and presented it to me. “This pouch has no limit to how much it can hold, nor does it ever gain any weight.  If you can fit something through the opening at the top, the bag will hold it without expanding.”

Uri muttered. “How unusual, the icy wench actually gave us something useful.”

Oswald grinned.  “Actually, this gift was my idea.  I figure it will help you keep all the wonderful treasures you are likely to find on your journeys. And hopefully sell some of them to me.  I’m always looking for new merchandise, you know.”

“I suspect that will be a relationship that will be beneficial to both of us, Oswald,” I said as I took the bag from the gnome.  I no more than grasped the bag when I felt a sudden jolt of power.  The bag was gone.

“And that would be your benefector’s contribution to your gift,” Oswald said as he reached out and tapped the bag, which had reappeared hanging from my belt.  “It’s now bound to you.”

“And there’s the catch,” Uri said, grimacing with disgust. She then turned to address the fighter.  “So tell me, stranger, what takes you into the mountains?”

“First, allow me to cease being a stranger,” the man said.  “My name is Danny Thorsson. I have reasonably reliable intelligence indicating that members of the orc clan that destroyed my village have been spotted in that area. I’m hoping to find them and find out more about their clan so I can repay them for the atrocities they committed against my people.”

“A personal vendetta, then,” Uri said, nodding.  “I can certainly appreciate it.  Though if you’re going up against orcs, I hope you know how to use those weapons at your side.”

“Are you looking to find out first-hand?” Danny said as he narrowed his eyes.

“Maybe you shouldn’t antagonize someone who could have us thrown in prison, Uri,” I said, exasperation creeping into my voice.  Normally, she’s worried about me getting us into trouble when we come to the city. “My apologies, Danny.  My sister here spends too much time among her beloved animals to get much practice in her manners.  Her name is Urizenya, by the way.  And I am Graenas.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Danny responded.  I smirked at the word “pleasure.”

“At any rate, I have a benefactor who has asked me to pay a visit to the same mountainous region you are headed to.  I need to…destroy some statues and whatever nuisances near them.”  I ignored Uri’s snort.  Surely she thought I should be a bit more forthright about what we were doing and why. I didn’t want to scare the guy off right away, though. “Perhaps we can travel together and help each other out.”

Danny rubbed his chin for a few seconds as if he was considering the offer.  I began to suspect he would refuse my proposal when he finally spoke. “I could certainly use the help. I accept your proposal. I just need to return to the guard barracks, return my uniform, and collect my personal equipment and belongings.

Uri spoke, “Very well. When you are done, you can meet us outside the northern city gate. I’ve endured this place as long as I can stand it for one day.”

I pouted.  “Dammit.  I was hoping to swing by one of the taverns for a couple pints of ale.”

Uri scowled.  “Absolutely not.  We have miles to travel and no time for you to have a couple drinks.  And we certainly don’t have time for what you usually get up to after you’ve had a couple of drinks.  The stable hands will simply have to survive without your carnal talents today.”  I stuck out my tongue at her.  I knew she was right, but a guy has needs, dammit.

We had been waiting beyond the city walls for only twenty minutes when Danny approached.  Uri was looking much more relaxed.  She was still on constant alert, but her muscles did not appear to be as taut.  I stood there, casually stroking my new amulet and enjoying the feel of the strange metal against my fingertips. Uri straightened her studded leather armor as our new companion reached us.  “Shall we get going, then?  It’s a long hike to the mountains, and further still to the mine.  Don’t worry, human, we’ll keep an eye out for your quarry. While I do not share your desire for revenge, I have no love for most orcs either.”

“Yes, let’s go,” Danny said as he checked that his equipment was secured. I straightened my own posture and fell in line.  The walk to the mountain was rather uneventful.  I spent most of the time running through the incantations that I had learned.  I wanted to make sure i didn’t forget a single syllable at a critical moment, so I practiced frequently.  Uri occasionally stopped to check out some sort track or marking.  At least I assume that’s what her interest in broken branches and — gross — piles of scat were about.  Occasionally, she would make some comment about nearby wildlife that she gleaned from these investigations. Personally, I found her revelations rather boring.

Danny was fairly silent. Like Uri, he seemed to be constantly alert, looking around.  Occasionally, he’d ask about some landmark.  Uri or I would fill in what we had learned from growing up in this region.  Our companion clearly was not from here originally.

When we made it to the mountains, traveling got slightly more difficult, though not insurmountable. We took our time, trying not to dislodge a shower of stones to fall on the others. Uri guided us around some of the more treacherous areas and found places where the climb would be easier.  Still, I worked up more of a sweat than I would have preferred.  I hoped one of those stable hands might help me find a nice bath when we returned to the city.

After several hours of climbing, we came to the entrance of the mine.  As we approached, we noticed what looked like the remnants of a campfire near the entrance.  Uri approached it and began poking at it. “I can’t tell what kind of creatures were here or how long ago, but it’s clear that they were sentient.  For all we know, they could still be in the area.”

“Right,” said Danny.  “Don’t let our guard down. I’m right there with you. I have no desire to fall into an ambush unprepared.”

“Well, since no one’s attacking us out here right this minute, shall we go inside?” I said.  “Those statues aren’t going to destroy themselves and I’d really like to get this over with.”

Uri nodded. “Danny, I suggest that you and I take the lead together.  Graenas can bring up the rear.”

“Works for me.”  With that, we crept into the mine.  The entrance was a single long tunnel which we followed for several hundred feet.  I placed my hand on one of the timbers that held up the roof.  It was old and the surface was splintered in places, but it still seemed to be secure.

Eventually, we came to a small chamber with what looked like entrances to five different tunnels.  However, each tunnel was blocked by a boulder with a glowing symbol on it.  As I moved closer I realized that the symbols were runes of fey power.  The one on the boulder to the far right seemed particularly familiar, so I moved to get a closer look.  I realized it was extremely similar to Auril’s own sigil, a rune of ice.  I reached out my hand and moved my palms so it was much a couple of inches from the symbol.  I felt its power, which manifested primarily as heat.  I figured it must be Titania’s personal symbol — or one of them.  That would makes sense, since she’s the complete opposite of her sister.

I placed my palm directly on the rune and it seemed as if the whole boulder started vibrating.  As I applied a bit more pressure, the vibrations intensified and it seemed as though the whole boulder might shatter.  “Um, guys?  You might want to hold on to me.  I think we’re about to go somewhere and I’m your ride.”

Both of my companions came up to stand behind me. Uri placed her hand on my left shoulder and Danny followed suit, grasping my right shoulder with his well-calloused hand.  I kept pushing.  Eventually the vibrations became so great that the boulder shattered and the fragments disappeared as they fell.  Behind it, the tunnel continued for just a few feet before it seemed to disappear in a shimmering field.  I said, “keep holding on,” took a deep breath, and moved forward into the shimmering space.

True to Auril’s word, the rift did not harm me, but it was quite disorienting.  As we moved forward, I felt as if reality twisted and swam around me.  The sense of dizziness and vertigo built for several seconds before I pushed through.  Suddenly, it felt as if reality had returned and I found myself in a room that appeared to be a roughly 25 foot cube.  The floor, walls, and ceiling were all stone. I turned to verify that my companions were still with me.  Uri stood there, rubbing her stomach with a grimace.  Danny stood there stoically.  He looked at me for a moment before saying, “Remind me to question you about just what I signed up for later.” I smiled apologetically and nodded.

There was some sort of mechanical contraption along the east wall — assuming my sense of direction in this place was accurate — and I walked over to investigate it.  It looked almost gnomish in invention.  There was a button in the center and a lever on each side.  “Hey guys, would you help me operate this thing?” I asked.  Uri and Danny came over.

Uri pulled the lever to my left.  Danny pulled to one to my right. I pressed the button. The contraption let out a sound like a fog horn and we heard rumbling behind us.  We all turned around to find six rats and three spiders approaching us.  Uri drew her sickles and approached the rats in the southeast corner while Danny wielded his warhammer to deal with the rats in the southwest corner.  I got back-to-back with Uri as I began to cast eldritch blasts to dispatch the spiders along the northern wall.  My first shot completely missed the spider closest to me and exploded against the northern wall of the room.  a few stone chips went flying, but nothing more.

Most of the rats converged on Danny, though most of them could not get through his chain mail.  The two spiders had a little more luck though and Danny swore as they pierced his skin with their mandibles.  The fighter was too tough to be stopped by a couple insect bites, no matter how severe.

The third spider jumped at me.  I was able to dodge and it landed on the eastern wall.  Spinning, I hit it square with an eldritch blast, turning it into little more than a smear on the wall.  Meanwhile, Uri sliced up the rat that was closest to her and moved over to help Danny with the rest of our attackers, though many of the rats had already met their doom between the stone floor and the fighter’s warhammer.  I kept picking off spiders and rats with bolts of power.  Soon all the creatures had been destroyed and I searched for anything useful.  I manged to find a handful of coins, a parchment with the number one written on one said, and a healing potion.

“Do you have a problem if I hold onto whatever we find for now?” I asked Danny.

“Not at all, since you have the means to carry a dragon’s hoard.  Just don’t try to swindle me.”

“I promise,” I said.

Uri, who had taken the time to inspect the contraption further, spoke up.  “Brother dearest?  Did you notice this dial around the outside of the button?”

“Um, no.” I said sheepishly.  Danny and I joined her.  Sure enough, there was a dial with tick marks. As well as arrows pointing in each of the cardinal directions.  The dial currently appeared to be set between two of these arrows. “There’s a shutter at the top of the dial,” I said.  “Does it open if you press the button?”  Uri pressed the button. Sure enough, the shutter opened showing a reading that seemed to be halfway between two numbers.

Uri turned the dial clockwise so the arrow pointing north was selected.  The numbers behind the shutter spun briefly, then counted up from one to four.  Uri turned the dial clockwise again and the numbers repeated their performance, this time stopping at three.  She turned the dial again.  The numbers stopped at two.  Turning the dial to the final position gave us a reading of one.  “Well, that’s the number on the parchment I found, so let’s give it a try,” I said as I reached up for the lever on the left and pulled.  Danny was about to pull the other lever when we heard the same fog horn and rumbling sounds.

This time when we turned, we found ourselves facing much larger rats.  Fortunately there were only three of them and no spiders.  Again we sliced, smashed, and blasted them until they were dead.  It only took a few seconds and we were able find a few more coins for our effort.  But we still didn’t know what to do with the contraption.  We would have to think and possibly experiment a bit more.