Earthday, Rainyday 16, CY 594
It is raining this morning. Well, so what’s new? Oh I know, this morning the lake is not threatening to flood our city and kill us all. Yeah, thanks to us . . . The Moonhowlers.
The day started quiet and grey. Atop the shrine of Pelor, the giant Crystal of Sun’s Splendor let in a pale, misty dawn light that accentuated the stillness within its sanctified hall. We were dead-to-the-world tired after the events of the past few days and the gentle sounds of rain pattering on the open patios of our acquired apartments coaxed us into an even deeper slumber. The Moonhowlers had somehow moved into the Shrine of Pelor a few seasons ago, taking over the three spare open-air apartments left behind by the church’s three high priests. All three priests had passed away the previous year and they didn’t need the rooms any more.
While Kristoff, the acting (and only) High Priest of Pelor in Cauldron, occupied the fourth apartment, the same one he had occupied since accepting the cloth of Pelor many years ago, Braedon and Listens to Wind had taken over two of the other spare apartments while the third was generally used as a supply and treasury depot for our adventuring group. We weren’t nervous about the fact that the apartments only had three walls because our treasury was always guarded by Ixi.
On this morning, Ixi, our pet mimic and resident mascot, was the first to wake and had padded over on his many feet to Karina’s bedside. He was in his favorite treasure-chest form, complete with an aged-wood “skin” and tarnished brass braces. The only thing setting him apart from a normal treasure chest were the dozens of tiny human feet protruding from his underside propelling him along the floor.
Karina, one of our newest members, was sound asleep on her spartan wooden cot inside the treasury. We had “found” Karina just a few weeks ago when Kenric and Sasha had accidentally opened a magical gate to the demi-plane of Mors Frigus. Karina (well, that’s the name she has chosen) fell out of the gate along with about ten tons of trash. She was locked in a giant birdcage and had absolutely no memory of who she was. In my opinion its probably good she doesn’t remember anything.
Karina is a tiefling, which means she’s half-human and half-demon. In my experience, demons, whether half-blooded, full-blooded or anything in between, are generally nasty to deal with. Karina, on the other hand, is all kinds of sweet and charming, which, I will hazard a guess, has something to do with her lack of memory. Anyway, I like her and she’s my friend. Don’t call her a demon and we’ll get along just fine. It hurts her feelings when people call her that, and that makes me angry. Trust me, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
So Karina had been sleeping in our treasure room the past few weeks which is why Ixi decided this morning to waddle over to her cot. He had risen up on about five-hundred tippy-toes, stretching out and above her sleeping form as far as he could reach. Then, the lock on his treasure chest clicked and the lid creaked open, revealing rows of razor-sharp, shiny white teeth.
Ixi leaned in closer and opened his monstrous maw even wider. Then, a giant pink tongue slurped out from somewhere inside him and he gave Karina a big, sloppy, wet, lick, covering her face in monster drool.
“Hey! Ixi!” Karina admonished the exuberant mimic, “cut it out! I was just dreaming this amazing dream where I was back home and . . . and . . . ugh! I don’t remember anymore.”
Karina sat up and put her head in her hands, the tiny horns protruding from her forehead poked through her fingers. The frustration of not being able to remember anything about her past was beginning to wear on her.
Ixi leaned in and gave her another huge sluppry kiss.
Karina laughed at that and then threw her arms around the treasure chest, giving Ixi a big hug which he seemed to like.
“Oh, I know what you want,” Karina said to the mimic with a sly grin on her face. She reached up to the small wooden shelf holding the few belongings she owned and found a small leather pouch from which she produced a hunk of dried meat. Ixi loved treats.
She tossed the morsel into the open chest and immediately the lid slammed shut with an audible snap and the lock clicked back into place. Ixi began to jump up and down in excitement on his tiny feet and began bumping into Karina’s legs as she swung them over the cot and onto the warm, flagstone flooring.
The overly excited mimic then half waddled, half jumped over to the door and began to spin in tight circles.
“Ok, ok. Take it easy, Ixi. I’ll let you out.”
Karina walked to the door and grabbed the handle. Ixi squeezed through the opening the instant she had the door open wide enough to allow him through. Karina giggled again.
Ixi was a mimic. A strange aberration usually found in dark places underground. The monster had the unusual ability to mimic the shape of anything it could perceive, much like how the Sasserine feathered macaw could change the color of its plumage to match its background or attract a mate. Karina had seen Ixi turn into a parasol and a grandfather clock. She wondered why Ixi always waited for her to get up to let him out when she figured he could easily just turn himself into a rug and slide out under the door or turn himself into a ladder and just go out the open patio of the room as it was only about a twenty foot drop to the courtyard below.
“Oh well,” she thought, “Ixi doesn’t think like us humans. Maybe he can’t think beyond whatever shape he’s in at the moment.”
Then Karina stopped and looked down at her own pinkish-purple mottled skin. She remembered the feel on her fingers of the small horns protruding from her forehead.
“We humans,” she mumbled to herself. “What am I?”
Ixi had trundled down the hallway and was in the nave of the Shrine of Pelor before Karina shook off her melancholy and quietly padded on bare pink feet after the walking chest. She saw that Kristoff was already up and was silently lighting yellow tallow candles around the shrine’s tiny altar. He looked up when she entered the nave and he smiled at her. Karina tried to return the smile but found she could not. The other day Kristoff had bluntly referred to Karina as a demon and she was still struggling with what that meant.
Instead, Karina quickly looked away and followed after Ixi.
Ixi bypassed the seven rows of pews, dodged the ornate stand holding the church’s meager offering plate and then stood up on about ten of his hind feet while using about forty of his front ones to paw at the wide double-doors leading outside.
Karina used her hip to push Ixi off the massive bronze door handles and then put all her weight into shoving down on one of them until the door cracked open. The she pulled back with all of her might to swing the heavy door back. Ixi shot outside as soon as he was able and Karina was splattered by fat raindrops as the sky outside continued to dispense its heavy burden onto the jungle and its inhabitants.
A brawny and incredibly handsome young man stood in the rain before her, his large, calloused hand in mid-reach as he was just about to grab the door handle from the other side.
The man didn’t jump. He had nerves of steel, afterall. But, Karina was sure she saw a look of surprise in his piercing blue eyes as the door opened without his assistance.
Karina was once again struck by how beautiful a specimen this handsome man was. She had seen him before but never this close and certainly she had never before experienced his direct gaze upon her. I know what she felt like at that moment. Sir Alec Tercival is simply dreamy. He even makes my knees quiver whenever I’m near him.
Then he saw Karina standing there in the doorway and his eyes fell upon her pink and purple skin, upon the small horns and upon her other-worldly appearance, and his eyes turned cold. She could see it in his eyes. Something not good. It was more than the uncomfortable look that those in the city gave her when they first saw her. It was more than a look of discomfort or even shock. Her memories might be toast, but Karina knew how to read people – ether a holdover ability from her lost past or else she was a fast learner. Tercival looked at her with hatred in his eyes.
Suddenly the noble paladin of St. Cuthbert didn’t look so dreamy to her.
“Is this where I can find Gerran and the Moonhowlers?” he asked her in an officious voice. She noted the haughty air to his words.
Karina nodded mutely.
“Can you fetch them?”
She gave the paladin a wry look and then turned on her heels to go find Braedon, leaving Tercival to stand in the rain. Karina does not have a mean bone in her body. She has the odd ability to fling some kind of smoldering brimstone energy from her fingertips whenever she’s in danger. The first time I saw her do it, she blasted an Alleybasher thug in the face with the foul stuff as the thug was about to stick Kenric through the middle with a rapier. She may have saved Kenric’s life that day. But when she found out how badly she had hurt the thug, she had cried. The girl couldn’t hurt a fly without remorse, but I get the feeling she felt a smug sense of justice as she left poor Sir Alec Tercival on the stoop that morning. I think he deserved more, even though I still think he’s dreamy.
Karina returned a minute later with a sleepy eyed Braedon and a stumbling Listens To Wind in tow. Tercival thanked Karina for getting them up and then handed her a shiny copper coin. Apparently he mistook her for a servant.
“Merciful Morning to you, Deacon Braedon and Master Listens To Wind,” the paladin said to the pair as they wiped their eyes and patted down their wild hair.
“Uh, same to you, Alec…uh, Master, holy, Paladin of St. Cuthbert, sir,” Braedon managed to mutter while Listens To Wind performed his best bow from the waist. Listens had been watching and practicing his bows for sometime now and he hadn’t quite learned to make it look not-awkward, yet.
Listens To Wind, or Listens or just LTW, as we like to call him, is our own personal jungle-boy. He’s a big kid, standing at around six and a half feet tall and a body built with lean, rippling muscles all covered with a pale, white skin, he is an imposing sight. Then, add in the fact that he grew up in a Suel tribe out in the wild jungle and the picture starts to really come into focus.
The Suel are not terribly liked in these parts. They often roam the jungles outside Cauldron and cause all kinds of mayhem. The local tribes don’t seem to want to recognize that the rest of us live here. The tribes are ruthless and often cruel and more often than not when encounters with Cauldronites occur, it usually ends in bloodshed.
Well, apparently not all Suel are bloodthirsty killers. LTW hails from a tribe far to the west of Cauldron. He tells us things are different there and while they are all tough as nails, they are also beholden to a strict set of rules of conduct. He told us the tribes of the mountain (that’s Cauldron where we live) are their enemies and are little more than savages.
All I know is that we were first introduced to Listens in a rather unusual way. The Moonhowlers were on one of our earlier missions when our path took us outside the city walls. We were trying to track a group of orcs that had wandered too close to Cauldron’s walls when all of a sudden the orcs we were trailing came rushing at us from out of the jungle. We prepared for battle. The orcs looked scared. We smiled because we knew we looked tough. The orcs ran right past us. Screaming. We didn’t think we looked THAT tough, and we were right, because hot on their heels was a patrol of those mean and nasty Suel tribesmen. They were hunting orcs with the help of two chained baboons and a chained….man.
We ended up in a tough battle with the Suel and were being pressed badly. In the middle of battle, on a whim, I cut the baboons and the man free. It was a good tactic. Man nor beast likes to be chained and the monkeys all turned on their captors and helped us defeat them.
Well, the baboons took off once the battle was done, but the man stuck around. Yep. You guessed it. That guy was our own lovable and cuddly Listens To Wind. He had been captured by his enemy and brought to the land of the mountain tribes where he was treated no differently than their trained beasts.
Listens was so grateful that we freed him from the clutches of his mortal enemy that he ended up teaming up with us (or we teamed up with him, I’m not sure which) and we chased down those orcs and defeated them, too!
At first, Listens wasn’t really liked much in Cauldron. He was Suel and he couldn’t hide it. His albino features were hard to deny. Cauldronites, as a rule, are very accepting of others and their differences. But there was no other group around that caused Cauldronites as much trouble as the Suel. Pariahs, all of them, or so we Cauldronites thought.
Cauldron has four major festivals each year and they are very special to us and are seeped in centuries of tradition. LTW’s first was the Harvest Festival last year where he entered the Elparg wrestling contest. He won the entire contest, flat out. I kid you not.
Since then, LTW always wears his championship belt in public and never misses an opportunity to display his celebrity. He even kisses grandmas and gives horssey rides to small children. Geesh.
LTW didn’t disappoint during the Flood Festival last week. He may not have won the Kord Games or the placed very high at the Demonskar Ball, but he was bigger than life and believe me when I tell you the people of Cauldronites took notice. They love him.
“You have pulled court room two this morning at ten bells,” the Paladin of St. Cuthbert intoned. “Please make sure all of the Moonhowlers are present and do not be late.”
“You have a few hours time to prepare your prosecution and I hope you are ready. Master Gerran is good. One of the best prosecutors I have witnessed in many years, but today he must be at his best. We cannot lose Triel, again.”
For the past week the Moonhowlers had been in full-on action mode as we tracked down and captured the infamous Triel Eldurast. Triel had most recently led a fanatical religious cult in a plot to steal the eight sacred water wands used to lower the water level of Cauldron Lake each year during the rainy season before it could flood out and drown the town. She had planned to ransom the wands off to the city in order to put some coin in the empty pockets of her followers. Luckily we got to her before the ransom could be paid.
In the process of stealing the wands, Triel had murdered the High Priest of St. Cuthbert. I could only imagine the unrelenting anger that must be boiling inside Sir Alec Tercival of the Cudgel. In a few hours time it was going to be up to the Moonhowler’s to prove Triel’s guilt. If we failed, she could go free. I doubt nothing in the world mattered more to Tercival at that moment than to see her put permanently behind the bars of Cauldron’s jail.
Cauldron had an interesting legal system. No capital punishment. Criminals were assumed innocent until prosecuted and proven guilty in front of one of the town’s three judges. In rare cases where the judge was not provided with enough evidence to prove guilt or innocence, the Ordeal of Fire would be invoked. Those found guilty were locked up in the massive Cauldron jail which jutted some thirteen stories underground, each story holding nearly fifty cells. The cells had been constructed centuries ago by the city’s founders during their battle with the area’s occupying demon horde. The cells were built for bear. The bars and walls of the entire system were built with powerful magics and were indestructible. Furthermore, magic didn’t work inside the cells.
Years ago, Triel, a former member of the town guard, had inexplicably tried to murder the city mayor. Two of his bodyguards took the brunt of the attack and later died from her poisoned blade. She was prosecuted and sentenced to life in Cauldron’s prison.
Two years later she escaped and to this day no one knew how she did it.
“Well, we’ve got a bit of a problem with that plan, Hoss,” Braedon said. “You see, Gerran was with us when we recovered Sarcerem’s body at the Lucky Monkey a few days ago, but he didn’t come back with us.”
Sir Alec Tercival looked shocked and then saddened. He made the sign of the Cudgel in the air in front of his heart and then bowed his head.
“I am so sorry.”
“No. I think you misunderstand. He didn’t die.”
Tercival looked up at that and his face brightened and then his brows knotted together and a curious look played across his features.
“You see there was this drow chick who had survived the attack by Triel,” Braedon continued. “And Gerran just kind of shacked up with her.”
“What!” Tercival’s face turned a shade of crimson. “He did what?” Tercival stammered as if he didn’t quite understand the concept.
“Yeah, she’s hot. Gerran decided to ditch us and stayed with her back at the Lucky Monkey. He’s probably up there right now knocking boo…”
“Stop! I don’t need to know the details. Thank you very much, Deacon,” Tercival spluttered. “So, you are going to have to take his place, Braedon. I’ve seen you take the stand before and you are quite good. Do you have your arguments in order?”
“Well, about that . . . "
“What now?” Tercival looked as if he had just swallowed a toad.
Braedon looked down at his bare, hairy feet. “Well, we hired someone to come along with us to capture Triel – a former gaurd. He’s got a bit of a silver tongue, so I think we’re going to let him handle the prosecution today.”
Tercival blinked. Hard.
“My good sir. Do you realize this is Triel Eldurast we are talking about here. She murdered my High Priest! She threatened our entire city! And you are going to trust the prosecution to some washed-up, ex-city guard who you…hired!?”
“Well, uh..yeah,” Braedon said quietly.
Alec stared hard at the trio standing inside the church, turned on his heel and strode off into the rain.
Braedon closed the doors and looked at his two companions. Karina just shrugged and dropped the copper coin Tercival had handed her into the copper offering bowl with a tiny clink.
Within the hour Braedon had dispatched messengers from the Town Crier’s Guild to find Kenric at the Bluecrater Academy and McCreedy, who could be just about anywhere.
- * *
Listens To Wind came down to the Malachite Hold to get me in person.
I had been spending all of my free time at the Hold in recent weeks. I’ve never truly had a home, unless you call the orphanage one. For the first time in my life I had something more than fleeting hopes and dreams. The Hold meant something to me. It was solid. It held secret memories. It held potential.
A few seasons ago the Moonhowlers had traced a string of kidnappings to this abandoned dwarven stronghold deep under the city of Cauldron. The Malachite Hold was the very first settlement of Cauldron, constructed by the dwarven masons who built the city above. But it had been abandoned twice in its storied history and a crooked monstrosity by the name of Kazmodjen had recently taken up residence here in order to operate a slaving ring.
We busted him. Permanently.
After the kidnapping victims were rescued, we came back to the Hold because leaving it unguarded presented a potential threat to the city of Cauldron below. You see, the underground stronghold sat before a huge tunnel which apparently led far, far below to the land of the Underdark, a mysterious place of foul beasts and evil civilizations. The Hold seemed to crouch before that tunnel like a cat before a mouse hole and leaving the place vacant seemed to us like we were leaving a toothless cat.
During our assault on Kazmodjen’s operation, we had befriended his forward scout, a self-referencing dark stalker by the name of Yathaub. Afterward, we let Yathaub and his tiny shadow-like dark creeper minions move into the place as long as they promised to let us know if any trouble came through the tunnel from down below. Yathaub was joined by Terraphax, an ancient stone guardian set in place by the original dwarves and a bevy of gnomes had also recently moved into the ancient ruins of Jzadirune, just above the Hold.
But even with all of these layers of protection we still felt uneasy about that massive tunnel and the foul breath that seemed to seep up through it from the earth’s bowels.
So I started spending my spare time down there.
At first I was just there to hang out with Yathaub and to tidy up the place. Yathuab is weird, though. He likes to refer to himself as, “Yathaub” and he tends to bend toward outdated modes of chivalry and talks in retired anachronisms. His creeper minions don’t talk at all. Now that’s creepy.
Furthermore, it seems as if Yathuab’s wife, a woman by the name of Laila d’Aub was apparently murdered by the youngest son of Davked Splintershield, head of Clan Splintershield, one of our town’s nobles and member of the Town Council Circle of Twelve, and my patron. Life is complicated.
At any rate, Yathaub sometimes slips into a deep depression and then he’s no fun to hang around at all.
That’s when I truly discovered the Forge. Well, I had always known it was there, but one day I started to use the Forge – I am an aspiring blacksmith, afterall. And that was when my life truly changed. There was something about the Forge. Something mystical…and warming…and safe….and, well…for lack of a better word…right.
I had been working on my masterpiece work at my master’s forge for quite some time now. It was a long and grueling process to create a masterpiece. Making matters worse was the endless work orders Master Gurnezarn heaped on my plate.
But when I started working at the Forge in the Hold, I got lost in my work and I loved it. I hammered out the work orders in no time at all and Master Gurnezarn was impressed by the level of skill I had suddenly brought to each piece.
My master is gruff. He doesn’t say much. Well, unless you count grunts, which I have learned to interpret over the years. I can read his gutteral mutterings much like a completely new language.
Suddenly I had more time to spend on my masterpiece work. What is more is I was suddenly inspired. I knew exactly how the hammer, Blackhammer, as I had realized was its name, was going to come together. And I knew that a piece of the very walls of the Malachite Hold would become the base ingredient of the mighty weapon.
Weeks later the Moonhowlers busted another crazy case – the case of the mysterious graffiti artist! During this case we had found more hidden and forgotten tunnels under Cauldron. Some of the tunnels held misplaced structures from both the gnomish ruins of Jzadirune and from the Malachite Hold! But even more amazing is that we found the long lost Shrine of Moradin within those damp tunnels! The Shrine was a massive stone statue depicting the dwarven god, Moradin. It had been lost twice in the past and now we had found it. Unfortunately, the goblin graffiti artists that inhabited the tunnels had broken the statue in half.
I hired a dwarven stone mason from faraway Sasserine to come to Cauldron and transport the Shrine back to its proper place in the Forge at the Hold. He ended up repairing the statue, as well, and that’s when things started getting real freaky around here.
First of all, Master Gurnezarn presented me with two dwarven apprentices of my own. Business had been hopping, what with all the new guards the city was hiring, and Gurnezarn needed more forges. The apprentices were put under my care in the Hold, but after only a few days the two dwarves moved their families in with them, too!
We all worked the Forge of the Hold like hellspawn blacksmiths. Sparks flew and the pieces of war sailed off the forge as the three of us fell into a rhythm of blissful work. On a whim, I chipped off a small piece of the Shrine of Moradin and embedded it into the workings of Blackhammer.
Then one day the Shrine, or the statue of Moradin, gave me and Yathaub some presents. I kid you not. One moment Yathaub and I were having a nice little chat in the Forge and the next moment the statue was “holding” three very potent artifacts, the Apron of the Hold, the Bracers of the Hold and the mystical rapier, Sentinel.
At that moment, I knew this place, the Hold, was my home. I had finally come home.
When Listens to Wind came to fetch me that morning to attend the Trial of Triel, I was disappointed and I left my work with a great longing in my heart. Crestfallen at being torn from my passion, I waved a sullen goodbye to my apprentices and saluted Yathaub. My apprentices barely looked up from their own work, so busy were they in their hammering and pounding and shaping of metal, but Yathaub looked right through me and he knew my heart.
“The best of luck today, M’Lady. Yathaub knows you will win the day in a great haste and you will be back to share in the midmorning tea with Yathaub and his faithful companions,” he said to me. I tried to smile back but I fear I probably only shot him an awkward grimace. One of his “faithful companions”, one of his dark creepers which resembled nothing more than a smudge of black shadows, disengaged from a dark corner and escorted LTW and me out of the Hold.
Just outside the wooden elevator that led to Jzadirune above we ran into Teraphax, the Hold’s stone guardian.
“Moradin’s Blessing on you today, My Lady,” the creature rumbled at me in the terran language. I bowed and thanked him for his kind thoughts in the same gutteral language. And then we were out of the Hold and its magical grasp on me lessened. My mind refocussed. We had work to do. Serious work. And we could not fail today. I took one look back at the stonework staircase that lead from the city streets of Cauldron down underground to the Hold and sighed.
“Don’t worry,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be back soon.”
- * *
Kenric was in his apartment at the Bluecrater Academy when the notice arrived via a page that he would be required at the Church of Pelor to go over our strategy in court this morning.
Kenric is our resident wizard-in-training. He likes to blow things up and he’s pretty smart, too. I’ve known Kenric since he was a tiny tot. I was sort of a grown-up youth at the time we met, but since I’m a dwarf and will probably outlive him by a century or two he’s only just recently caught up to me in maturity. He jokes about how he’s going to pass me up soon and be the mature one for once. I don’t find it all that funny. Kenric’s a good friend and I don’t look forward to being a young dwarven maiden while I watch my good buddy turn into an old man. I’ve known Braeden and Gerran just as long as I have Kenric and it seems a great injustice that they are aging so fast. We’re the Moonhowlers, for crying out loud, and we’re really coming together as a cohesive group. Can you imagine what we could accomplish given another hundred and fifty years? I can. But it’s not going to happen.
While I grew up parent-less in the Lantern Street Orphanage, Kenric grew up with two loving parents who were also pretty darn rich. Ok, not nearly as rich as the noble families in Cauldron, but still, they owned the city’s only jewelry shop, for Moradin’s sake.
But you know, looking back over all the years we’ve been such good friends, I realize Kenric never tried to take advantage of his parent’s wealth, and he never flaunted it in our faces either. Kenric has always been his own person and has always wanted to accomplish things by his own doing and not by the graces of others. I think that’s why I like him so much.
We used to watch the spoiled offspring of Cauldron’s filthy rich and how they behaved in public or even around us. Entitled. Arrogant. Above the law and above us – far above us. Well, in their minds, at least. Kenric was never like that and I guess he could have been.
Dwarves know all about family and are loyal to the end, but they are also bloody independent cusses when it comes to traveling life’s long road. Kenric would have made a good dwarf.
Kenric decided long ago he wanted to be a practitioner of the magic arts. His parents didn’t think much of his dream, but then again, he never asked them for any help in making those dreams come true, so they didn’t have much room to complain.
Kenric studied hard as a youth and he learned a lot. The Bluecrater Academy has an afternoon program sponsored by a couple of the noble houses in which aspiring young wizards can try to learn a few useful magic tricks. Many of those kids study hard at the ‘backyard’ program for many years and happily graduate with a couple utility spells mastered and under their belt. Creating sparks from nothing, chilling a glass and sending whispered words upon the wind are all cantrips graduates aspire to and are totally proud of their accomplishments once mastered. Occasionally, a child protege is discovered and ushered into the grand halls of the Academy where she might be seen years later as a full-blown wizard. She’s usually changed, too. Cold. Unsocial and maybe a little bit geeky.
Kenric was neither of these.
He was smart and after a few years he had mastered all of the cantrips the other students learned and he even picked up a couple of the more advanced spells. I remember the first time he killed a cellar rat with a magical glob of energy. He had been so excited to show us the new trick and we had snuck down into the basement of Gerran’s house while his mother was at work at the leather shop. Braeden found the rat and we corralled it into a corner where it couldn’t escape. Kenric then spent the next five minutes concentrating and muttering. I started to giggle when a saw the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Looking back now I suppose it was kind of rude of me, but at the time I just thought he looked really silly, staring down that rat from about fifteen feet away, mumbling and wiggling his fingers around in the air. Then all of a sudden there was this crackling sound coming from his hands as if he were crushing a pile of dried leaves, and then a blob of green, glowing energy shot from his fingers, twirled around a very startled Braeden and then slammed into the rat. It squeaked once and leapt about two feet in the air. When it hit the ground it only lay on the floor twitching.
Unfortunately for Kenric, he didn’t catch the eye of the wizard’s academy and after he graduated from the backyard program they informed him he could get a membership at the Academy just like ‘everyone else’ by forking out two thousand bits of gold.
We were all pretty disappointed and more than a little bit miffed at those oily wizards for not seeing the talent that our friend surely possessed. Well, three of us were disappointed. Kenric was pretty happy and told us he wouldn’t have it any other way. He told us he would earn those two-thousand gold pieces and then would join the Academy fair and square . . . just like everyone else. No hand-outs.
One night when the moon was full and it was too hot to sleep, we had all stayed out late, hanging low outside our favorite watering hole, the Tipped Tankard, and begging for beers. Braedon, Gerran and I asked him how on Oerth he planned to get the money. That’s when Kenric hit us with his plan. We would form an adventuring group, just like the dozens that come through Cauldron every year. We could hang out near the city and take on any jobs that looked promising. In time, he told us, we would all earn enough gold to do whatever we wanted.
We were amazed at his brilliance. It was perfect. Plus we were all a little bit drunk. We got so excited and we all started talking big about how we would be an unstoppable group. Kenric had his magic, Braedon was just discovering the power of his diety, Pelor, Gerran was a smooth operator and I had my axe. I don’t know who started it, but at one point we were all so elated about the prospect we were howling at the moon in total joy.
Later Gerran came up with our name. The Moonhowlers.
Now its a few years later and Kenric is, indeed, a member of the Bluecrater Academy. And you know what? He earned those two-thousand gold. But he didn’t do it alone. We all helped out a little.
- * *
It was still pretty early in the morning when we met up at the Shrine of Pelor. The overcast sky had lightened just a bit and the interior of the spartan shrine was bathed in the blue-grey light of a rainy, tropical dawn.
McCreedy showed up a bit late, but once we were all there we put our heads together to come up with a plan to put Triel away forever.
We headed over to the courthouse as a group and once there we immediately saw Edith in her office to the left and to the right we saw Bob and Doug guarding the entrance to the courtrooms and the prison cells below. A lot of other people were milling about but they stood aside, eyes wide, when they saw us. A few people even cheered. We looked stern and serious and played the part. The Moonhowlers were in the house.
We entered the courtroom and saw Judge Legorin Tannin sitting at the bench. We had pulled him once before. Old guy. An elf and had probably been around town for at least the past few forevers. And he was a bit odd, too, as Cauldron judges go. On the one hand, he seemed to favor the accused, often claiming not enough evidence to convict was brought to bear. But then if you watch the guy over any number of cases you start to realize he is not so much in favor of the accused as he is in favor of indecision. Yep. It’s weird. Until you realize that hung juries in Cauldron usually results in a Trial by Fire!
On either side of the courtroom right in front of the judges bench sat two fiercely glowing braziers with spheres of white-hot metal resting in them like eggs in a nest. If the judge can’t decide on a case he will order a Trial by Fire in which case the accused and the accuser each stand at opposite sides of the room and grab a flaming ball from the brazier and take the thing across the room to the other brazier. The theory goes that if you drop the white-hot molten testicle of hell then the gods must not have been with you and you lose the case. Tannin liked Trials by Fire. Sadistic bastard.
The courtroom was absolutely packed. Everyone wanted to see the Moonhowlers in all of their glory! Well, on second thought, they were probably here to see the notorious Triel. Her story had been used for years to scare kids into doing what was right. All the good little mammas and papas told their wee ones that if they screwed up the evil demon-witch-thing called Triel that used to work for the Town Guard would come by to arrest them . . . and Triel never took bad little kids to jail. Parents…bah! Sick bastards.
Well, Triel wasn’t there just then so all eyes were on us – the way it should be, afterall. Then we got a look at our defense lawyer, our true opponent in the minutes, or hours, to come. It was Smarmy Smarmlemouth, again.
Why does it always have to be Smarmy?
I hate Smarmy.
I think we knew his real name once, but we’re so much the not-fans of Smarmy that his nic-name we gave him stuck over the ones that his poor parents gave him. Did I tell you my views on parents? I did? Ok – I won’t repeat myself.
Tannin called the court to order and asked who would be bringing charges today. Everyone knows the judges are totally aware of who is bringing the charges and who is being accused before each trial began. It was written down right there in front of him with quill, ink and parchment, but they always asked that question anyway. Hrmmph.
Braedon stood up and then announced to the court that McCreedy would be bringing the charges this morning.
There was a shocked hush that fell upon the courtroom as McCreedy stood up on the prosecutor’s dais. Even Tannin had to do a double-take and everyone standing near him could hear Skellerang mutter about this being highly unusal. Sir Dreamy Tercival scowled and responded back, “No, this is the Moonhowlers.”
Ha!!! Bet they didn’t see that one coming.
McCreeds looked absolutely resplendent in the magical blue cloak Braedon had won last week at the Demonskar Ball. He looked confident and ready to take ‘em all on. You see, McCreedy was our newest member of the Moonhowlers and he had a bit of a score to settle with the city. He had served as a loyal and very capable member of the city guard for most of his fifty years of life. Sure, sure, he was getting on in years, but I’ve seen him in action and the guy’s good. Real good.
Let me put it to you this way. If the grand old city of Greyhawk coughed up its most sneakiest of cat burglers and set him loose in Cauldron and the City Guard could just pick one of its many loyal guardspersons to track down the criminal, my money would be on McCreedy, all the way. Even blind, deaf and legless I would still let it all ride on McCreedy.
But somehow, with all the immaculate and amassed wisdom of Cauldron’s inner-workings, they decided to sack the guy. Yep. Cut him loose. Fired. No warning, no notice. Just his lieutenant thanking him for all his years of service and good luck out there, bucky-boy.
We found him that very same day – about to get deep into his cups – and rescued him from a future of drunkeness and thievery. Well…I guess the jury is still out on the drunkeness and thievery. We’ll see what time tells us. But if he goes that route we, The Moonhowlers, feel as if we will have allowed him to be a happy and rich drunken thief.
But now, McCreedy was about to give the city a serious show. The city that turned its back on him. For McCreedy was about to describe how he helped to capture and then to put away Cauldrons most notorious criminal. Triel Eldurast. Go Gramps, go!!
As the proceeding got under way, we began the second phase of our plan. The lovely Karina focused hard on the room, doing what she does very well – sensing the presence of magic. Karina knew to ignore the Moonhowlers in her extra-perceptory scan of the room, but she quietly cataloged any other sources of magic in range. In particular, she would focus on the defense team and then on any of the prisoners. Triel was NOT getting away this time. Not if the Moonhowlers had anything to say about it.
Tanin began the trial by reading the rules of the court and all the other legal mumbo-jumbo those judgey types like to orate upon in front of a crowd. Then he finally took a long dramatic pause before announcing the case of “The Moonhowlers vs Triel Eldurast.”
You could hear and feel the tension in the room.
The Judge then called for the defendant to enter the courtroom. All eyes turned to face the dark doorway in the room’s eastern wall. The dim torchlight beyond revealed a set of narrow basalt steps that led down, connecting to each of the prison levels far below us. The torchlight flickered for a bit and then grew lighter as a full patrol of city guard appeared followed closely by a small, guy that I think might have been a man with really messy hair. He was dressed in red robes and holding what appeared to be a rod in either of his diminutive hands.
We recognized him as the rather boisterous Cannon Mipswitch of the School of Evocation at the Bluecrater Academy. A large, translucent golden sphere of glowing energy appeared right behind the cannon and the courtroom let out a gasp as everyone recognized the figure of Triel walking slowly within the bubble.
Triel’s fiery red hair was cut short and appeared spiky and wild. She was dressed in sackcloth garments given to all Cauldron prisoners and her hands and feet were bare but a thick chain collared all four of her limbs. She held her head high and jutted her chin toward the crowd in defiance, clearly showing the many tatoos that covered her skin. The gold and silver jewelry that had adorned her many body piercings the day before were now gone.
Outside the glowing sphere, two more wizards followed behind her. We recognized one as Ayleth of Kingfisher, Canon of Conjuration. Jenya Urikas, the new High Priestess of St. Cuthbert and Embril Aloustani, High Priestess of Wee Jas followed behind the two wizards, and then another city patrol finished up the procession.
The city wasn’t taking any chances.
We all smiled because we know she’s not as tough as they think she is.
The priests, wizards and guards all surrounded Triel as they stood before Judge Tanin.
McCreedy began to present our case, but before he could get very far Smarmy shouted out to the court that this woman’s name was actually Bernice Fenton and was definitely not the infamous Triel Eldurast who broke out of Cauldron Prison years earlier.
Tanin looked confused.
Ugh! Of all the sneaky tricks! Now we had to prove to the court that Triel was actually Treil.
McCreedy called Skellerang and Jenya to identify the prisoner and they point right at her and declare to the court that she is actually, Triel Eldurast. Whew! That was quick thinking on McCreedy’s part. I knew there was a reason we let him prosecute the case today.
Tanin looked mollified and turned back to McCreedy, and asked him to proceed with his case.
Gramps then listed all of the crimes we were accusing her of: escape from prison, murder, extortion, conspiracy to commit treason, banditry, raising an illegal militia, consorting with demons, property damage, attempted murder, and tax evasion.
The judge is slightly amused at this long list, but then thinks a minute about the militia charge.
“And where is this militia now?” he asked us.
“Well, your Honor, the ones that are still alive after we sacked their headquarters are sitting peacefully in the Moonhowler’s jail.”
“What!?” Tanin shouted while nearly jumping out of his seat. “Did you say The Moonhowlers jail? Are you trying to tell me you have your own jail? This cannot be! No one in Cauldron can operate their own jail!”
Oops! Now we were in trouble.
McCreedy immediately launched into an argument that the prisoners were being held at the Malachite Hold and as the Hold was an advanced outpost for Cauldron that it was important to have its own holding cells.
The judge isn’t convinced completely, and he ordered two town patrols to go immediately to the Malachite Hold and to bring our prisoners to the trial where they could be properly “handled”. He also ordered Lieutenant Sondask, the commanding leader of the Town Units, to travel to the Kopru ruins in order to verify our amazing claims that a militia/cult had its operating headquarters just under the city.
It was about that time when the court took a recess. By chance Justin’s patrol was one of the Units that accompanied me to gather the Suel and Alleybasher prisoners from the Hold. The other town Unit was comprised entirely of gruff looking half-orcs.
When we reached Keygan’s Lock Shoppe, I asked Justin if she could keep both patrols here up top. She gave me a weird look, but finally she sighed and barked the order out to the patrols to halt.
Thanks, Justin. I owe you one.
Then, I quickly ran down the new staircase at the side of the lock shop and sprinted into Jzadirune until I found Belterton Hamstock, the gnomish ambassador and current leader of the gnomish conclave in Cauldron.
I begged Belterton to help me by bringing his armed men down to the Hold with me so we could deliver my prisoners to the Town Guard waiting above.
“Why on Oerth do you need me and the Jzadirune guard for this?” he asked, slightly exasperated.
“Yathaub,” was my only reply and the little gnome nodded gravely before running off shouting for the guard to follow him.
I didn’t want them to see what was going on in the Hold at this time.
Luckily the gnomes offered to help bring the prisoners to the surface and together we got them delivered to Justin. It was really cool to see a few squadrons of tiny gnomes in their new Jzadirune livery, wielding spears and battle hammers along with my dwarven apprentices and the creepers hauling twenty-one prisoners up to the surface. I had to smile.
Just before we reached the top of the stairs I spied Blair, the Alleybasher thug we had intimidated so badly into giving us the scoop on Triel. I pulled her aside and looked at her seriously.
“Look. Everyone you are with are going to jail. I’ve seen the Cauldron jail. You don’t want to go there.”
Blair looked at me blankly, but I could see a nervous twitch in her eyes as she adjusted her stare to a spot above my head.
“You’ve helped us out, so far, and if word of that gets back to your comrades who are also going to be in jail with you, well…” I looked at her grimly, “it could get very bad in there.”
Blair gave me some pouty attitude, but I could tell I was getting to her. I’m pretty good at making people feel uncomfortable.
“I’m going to offer you a chance,” I continued. “that no one else here is gonna get. And I’m only offering it once and you have to give me an answer right now.”
I paused for half a second.
“You answer all of our questions with the complete truth in front of the judge and I won’t be pressing any charges against you.”
I looked at her hard.
“Do we have a deal?”
Blair bit her lip and then she collapsed like all the air had left her lungs all at once. She put a hand up on the wall to steady herself and then nodded.
- * *
The rest of the group went with Sir Alec Tercival and other guards back to the kopru ruins. Lt. Isaac Sondask, Justin’s boss, went with them, as well. The guards are amazed by what they saw there and then they came back to court to bear witness in front of the judge.
- * *
The trial went on all day long as we prosecuted Triel’s Suel and Alleybasher guards, one at a time.
McCreedy was amazing. With Blair’s help, he put away all of the guards we captured. Three of the trials initially ended up with the judge being unsure for one reason or another and in each case he ordered a trail by fire. Karina offered herself up as our representative in those tests. When the judge ordered the trial by fire to begin, Karina and the defending guard each grabbed a sphere of white-hot metal from the coals of a burning coal brazier on either side of the room and then carried it across the room to the other brazier.
Karina won one of those test but two of them ended up in a tie.
The judge nearly drooled on himself. No one had ever tied in a trial by fire. One reason, I think, is the consequence of a tie is terrifying. Thus began Cauldron’s first ever trial by Air.
In the first Trial by Air, it was a Suel Tribesman and since the Moonhowlers, as a team, was bringing the charges against him, anyone of us could volunteer to take him on. Karina volunteered again.
At first Karina thought it would be easy as she would just wear Kenric’s spider slippers that we found after defeating the mud slaad, Scrud. But Smarmy Smarmelmouth pointed out that no magic was allowed during any court proceedings and she was asked to take them off.
Then, the judge, the defense, the Moonhowlers, the Suel prisoner and a couple of witnesses took the stairwell up from the courtroom to the top of the tower, about fifty feet above the ground. When we all got to the top and the beefy Suel warrior looked down to the ground, he blanched and gave up, opting for a lean prison sentence instead.
A crowd had gathered below and both the crowd and the judge were a little disappointed at the outcome.
But they didn’t have to be disappointed for long because a short time later the second case to end in a tie trial by fire occurred and we all went back up to the top of the tower again. This time a swaggering Alleybasher thug is the defendant and he wasn’t about to back down. So, Karina jumped. The crowd gasped. She hit the ground hard, and turned an ankle and then stood up, wobbling a bit. The crowd cheered!
Then the Alleybasher jumped. The crowd gasped. He hit the ground hard with a crunch and didn’t get back up again. The crowd cheered!
Braedon, who was at the bottom of the tower was mortified and he ran to the Alleybasher’s side. He looked up at the elderly judge at the top of the tower and yelled up to him.
“He’s nearly dead, your Honor. May I heal him?”
The elderly elven judge nodded gravely back down to the crowd and Braedon grabbed his holy symbol of Pelor with one hand and laid the other hand across the forehead of the dying Alleybasher. There was a visible pulse of light and then the Alleybasher began to stir.
The crowd cheered! And then the guards hauled the Alleybasher away to jail.
In the end we put twenty of the twenty prisoners away.
It was late in the afternoon when Skaven was put on trial. Smarmy and two other defense lawyers worked the judge over proclaiming their client’s innocence. McCreedy listed the crimes: aiding and abetting a known fugitive, murder, extortion, conspiracy to commit treason, banditry, consorting with demons, property damage, attempted murder, and tax evasion.
I don’t know how it happened but in the end Skaven is set free.
And then, to our horror, Skaven and Smarmy turn right around and brought charges against us! Can you believe that little turd!!!
He charged us with trespassing, kidnapping and illegal imprisonment. The Judge ordered us to be shackled and then forced all of us into the bubble with Triel!
McCreedy moved immediately to dismiss all charges and was denied. Crap!
Alec then stepped up and offered to check out the conditions at the Malachite Hold in order to bring testimony back to the court about the state of my home. I knew he had been down there before and he had seen, even helped, Yathaub, so I felt some bit of confidence that he would not cause trouble when he was down there.
The waiting in the force cage bubble with Triel was pure and utter torture. Finally the paladin returned and said he was welcomed at the Hold by my staff and that it was his estimation that the Hold was operational and served a vital purpose in the service of Cauldron. Edith piped in that I am also properly listed on the city tax roll and that I did not owe any back taxes. Alec went on to say that the new steward of the hold is Braenna. That’s me! and that I had a staff who were professional. He was given a tour of the holding cells and that they were legal. They were humane conditions and the prisoners were given adequate food and water during their stay there.
Alec went on to compare what he had seen earlier of the Kopru ruins and said just the opposite was true there. It was only an illegal hideout for hooligans and terrorists, therefore, no trespassing occurred, Skaven was arrested by the Moonhowlers operating under the purview of the city of Cauldron (that was a stretch), and the prisoners were held lawfully at the Hold until they could be brought to trial.
Edith stood up and yelled out, “And they didn’t pay any taxes!”
The judge said it was highly unusual, but he found us innocent and we were then allowed to step out of the bubble.
Then McCreedy brought a charge of defamation of character against Skaven. We won that and Skaven was ordered to pay us each 10 gold pieces in recompense. He told the court he was now broke as the Moonhowlers (or the city) had confiscated all of his belongings.
The judge gave him two weeks to pay up or go to jail.
Finally we had the trial of Triel. It went fast. She went to jail.
The crowd cheered.
- * *
The rest of the night went by in a bit of a blur. I remember we asked Embril if we could borrow her body-carts for the night. I gave her a donation of 10 gold to go to the Wee Jas coffers and then I ran to the Hold to get the apprentices. I paid them as this was not going to be a smithing job and they agreed to help.
Listens to Wind went down to the lakeshore harbor to find a small boat to rent.
We then all took the carts and the boat and traveled by lantern light to the kopru ruins.
We then spent the next few hours gathering up all of the bodies and the loot.
With the help of the dwarves we managed to take the loot to Pelor to divide it up and we took the twenty, or so, bodies to Wee Jas.
Then we went back to the ruins and continued to explore it well into the wee hours of the night.
Kenric and Listens rowed the boat out to where the Kopru body was at using the boat. Listens used his mighty jungle skills to swim and explore the lake with a rope that was tied to the boat. He swam down around fifty feet and could not find the bottom.
They explored the beach where we had found the skulvyn demon and discovered that the body was gone. They then rowed over to the unexplored tunnel from which we thought the kopru had made its lair. I went with them. I was not happy to be there. The lair was gross and smelled bad. We hauled everything out that we found there and then, somehow, blissfully, I found myself back in by bed in the Malachite Hold. My Malachite Hold. I smiled and dreamt sweet dreams.