Moonday, Darkday 27, CY 594
This morning we were supposed to meet Celeste at a place in town called Third Eye. We were to bring our candidates for her special agent squad with us. Unfortunately for me, I had been spending all of my time and energy trying to date Kraghammer instead of trying to steal his band’s bagpipe player to go off on a dangerous adventure somewhere overseas. Bad me. I got up early, dressed, grabbed a banana for breakfast, washed it down with a pint of ale and ran across town to Kraghammers music shop. The Harpy’s were in the middle of practicing their latest number and I found Shorty Catgut Squeezer sitting on a stool blaring away on the pipes. I patiently waited for them to take a break, then moved in for the kill.
“Hey, Shorty. How’re the gigs going these days?”
Shorty glared at me as if I were cracking the world’s worst joke.
“You already know how they’re going, Blackhammer. You’ve been to every single gig the Harpy’s have played for the past two seasons.”
Shorty was the only person in the world who called me by my new clan name. I’m not sure if I like it or not, but since I was about to ask Shorty for a giagantumous favor, i wasn’t about to tell him to call me anything else.
“Yeah. But, you guys are all so good. I’m like your number one fan.”
“And, you’re dating our drummer,” Shorty said, as if I needed reminded of that fact.
“Well, yeah, there’s that, too,” I said, a bit sheepishly. “But, really, Shortstuff, how do you like playing with the band?”
Shorty spent the next fifteen seconds alternately glaring and growling at me. It is amusing to watch amateur intimidators wrestle with things I consider basic skills of the craft. Simultaneous glaring and growling is just so first-year-intimidation school, but Shorty couldn’t seem to pull it off and had to switch back and forth between the two.
I waited for his tantrum to subside.
“I hate it,” the halfling finally said in a hushed tone so that Kraghammer and the others couldn’t hear.
“Oh, that’s really too bad, Shorty,” I said with mock sympathy. “You know I’m sure Krag will eventually decide its okay to have a male harpy in the band.” I looked at him with sad, understanding eyes (well, at least that was the look I was going for.)
Shorty looked at me as if I were crazy.
“Are you crazy?” he asked with all seriousness.
“What? Why would you say that, Shorty?”
“You know Kraghammer has built the success of this band on the name! It’s Kraghammer and the Harpies, not Kraghammer, Two Harpies and a Halfling, and he’ll never agree to having a male harpy in the group. That’s just sick and wrong! I mean, have you ever heard of a male harpy? I wouldn’t even know what one of those would look like!”
He made a real disgusted look before continuing, “Oh thanks, Blackhammer! That’s just great. Now, thanks to you, I now have the image of a male harpy in my head and I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet. Blech!”
I tried not to laugh, but I was finding it very difficult. Kraghammer was serious about the name of his band and he insisted the group portray a level of professional realism. When on stage he made Osira, the lute player, and Juna, their flutist, wear a pair of ratty feathered-wings and tousled their hair with twigs and leaves. He also made them wear dark koal around their eyes to give them a sinister look. Real harpies were half-woman-half-vulture creatures and Shorty was a guy, so the little halfling was required to include a stuffed bra, wig and extra makeup to his concert get-up.
“Well, why don’t you quit?”
“Quit?” he stammered. “But, I love playing the pipes, and how would I pay my rent if I quit? Egad, woman, forget the rent…how would I eat?”
Bait. Set. Hook. Now all I had to do was just reel him in.
“Hmmmm,” I tried to look thoughtful, “what if I told you I could find you a gig where you didn’t have to dress-up as a harpy and you could still play the pipes and you got paid?” I asked him.
Shorty stared at me slack-mouthed for a moment. “What did you say now?” he said (or something like that). Time to reel, Braenna!
A few minutes later I had Shorty by the hand and was leading him out of Kraghammer’s shop. Krag was going to be pretty mad at me because I had probably just cost him a bagpipe player, but I would just have to find him another one. And if I found him a female piper, he might even forgive me for stealing Shorty away.
Third Eye turned out to be a thin, two-story wooden structure on Magma Avenue squeezed between a fur trading house on one side and a flint cutter’s shop on the other. The wooden sign above the door depicted a woman with flowing locks and an extra eyeball set in the middle of her forehead. Delicate crystal bells chimed when Shorty and I entered the shop and a young lady dressed in Rhenee long-skirts and beads sitting behind a wooden counter silently ushered us behind red velvet curtains as if she were expecting us.
The scene behind the curtain was something I was unprepared for. Let me see if I can describe this properly. You know, to do this story justice. I don’t know if I can but i will try.
The room itself was fairly small, maybe thirty feet on a side. A wooden staircase at the back of the room led upstairs. A half dozen short wooden tables with benches were placed in unordered array and four wooden posts rose from a moss covered floor to a series of wooden rafters overhead. About a hundred clay pots of various size and design were clustered along the edges of the walls and near each post. Jungle plants with thick, leafy vines sprouted from each pot. The vines grew up the walls and the posts to wrap around the rafters in thick bunches. Several runner vines dropped from the rafters to the floor in verdant curtains of greenery. Dozens of colorful macaws, parrots and other birds were perched among the rafters and vines, their squawks and chirps and flapping wings provided a choral backdrop to the surreal. A low, blue tiled fountain occupied the middle of the room and cool water gently trickled from a coral-formation in its center.
There were six other people in this room when we entered and they all stared at Shorty as if he had cooties.
Listens to Wind, my odd, pale, jungle-boy companion sat at one of the wooden tables near the stairs to my left. You see a lot of odd characters in Cauldron. Some folks have scales, some have wings, some have green skin, but sitting next to LTW was definitely one of the oddest folks I have laid eyes on. A tall, lithe person in red boiled leather sat next to him. The figure was also dressed in high soft leather boots, green trousers and a colorful cape. A wide leather belt was fastened around his or her middle upon which hung a sheathed short sword and a small crossbow. Long, straight yellow hair covered the head and flowed down the back, nearly to the waist and a sunburst pendant clasped the colorful cape at the neck. But the weirdest thing was that the face was completely covered by a strange masquerade mask. You know, one of those odd dramatic masks with a long, black, curved proboscis making this person look somewhat like a giant mosquito. Only the eyes could be seen from behind the mask and they stared up at me, wet, black and glassy.
“Hi, Braenna. Hi, Shorty!” LTW said, gleefully. Listens had spent many nights as my chaperone when I had gone out to watch The Harpies play their gigs, and he had gotten to know Shorty and the rest of the Harpies pretty well.
“This is my candidate,” he continued. “His name is Ryu and he’s an elven ranger from the northern reaches of Ket and he knows lots of princes and princesses of those faraway lands. Can you believe that? Ryu wants to get back home someday and thinks this mission would be a great start! I feel so lucky that we ran into each other at the Tipped Tankard last season.”
I grimaced at LTW’s exuberance and nodded politely at Ryu, then I turned and looked at the next odd couple sitting one table over. Kenric, my arcane-minded compatriot silently sat on his bench and gave me and Shorty a neutral smile. I’ve seen that smile before on Kenric’s face and its usually one he saves for the times when he’s pretending to be on time when he’s actually late. I looked over at the candidate he had brought with him.
At first I thought I saw a small kid sitting on the bench next to Kenric, but then I did a double-take and realized it was a gnome sitting there! I stared at him for a bit and then shook my head, I didn’t recognize him from Jzadirune. The little guy had sharp features, short cropped black hair and a pointed beard. His blue eyes were sharp and his ears swept back in a slightly pointed, sylvan fashion. He was wearing a dull, steel breastplate. A tiny matching buckler was strapped over his right shoulder and the hilt of a tiny longsword was visible over his left. A wicked curved dagger and a hooked hammer were attached to his leather belt. Sitting quietly on the floor right next to him was a large, red wolf. I did a triple take. The wolf sported a riding saddle on its back and a tiny lance strapped to its side.
I shook my head again.
“This is Togworth,” was all Kenric said. That weird smile was on his face still. I didn’t need Kenric to explain anything to me. That smile told it all. Kenric was late at something and my guess was he didn’t really know this Togworth fellow at all. My guess was he had just met him five minutes before this meeting and had somehow managed to get the poor guy to sign on to this mission.
I nodded to Togworth with a new understanding of his place here in this room and moved on.
Then my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Karina was sitting at a table to my right and the young girl, Seraphina, the very same girl who had just tried to murder her down by the docks, was sitting right next to her.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“Karina!” I started to yell at her. “That girl . . .”
“Is my friend!” Karina said, cutting me off before I could finish. Her face scrunched with a determined look I had not seen on her before. She grabbed Saraphina’s hand in her own and to my astonishment the white-haired attempted-murderess held tightly to Karina’s hand and returned the jubilant smile. What the heck was this world coming to?
“Karina, that girl…” I started to protest again, but then the curtains behind me parted and a rotund man wearing flamboyant clothes and heavy makeup entered the room.
I stopped speaking when he came in, but then I forgot to close my mouth. I sat down, slack-jawed. Shorty sat down next to me and he seemed genuinely worried about why he was here with me and what all of this meant.
“My friends, I am Thorantos and welcome to my shop,” Thorantos waved his arms in dramatic fashion, his red silk robes made the sound of so much laundry flapping in the wind and his jewelry jangled about his body as he moved. The overwhelming rush of perfume invading my nostrils nearly made me gag.
“For all intents and purposes, let us all agree I have spent the next few hours reading your fortunes,” he smiled an oily smile. “And, I am sure you would agree, they were the most insightful fortunes you have ever had told, correct?”
He then bid us “ado” and left the room they way he had come.
As he departed the room Celeste entered it. The two, Celeste and Thorantos, brushed right past each other and never once even regarded each other. They acted as if the other one wasn’t even there. Celeste smiled and sat down at the one remaining unoccupied table.
“Hello my friends and thanks for…wait a moment,” she said with a look of sudden confusion. “Where’s Braedon? And, where’s McCreedy?”
“They didn’t do their homework and they aren’t coming,” Karina offered up helpfully.
Celeste frowned and looked upon each individual in the room in turn. Then she cleared her throat and began again. “Okay, well, those of you who are here, I want to thank you for coming to this meeting. Four of you in this room have been carefully screened and selected by my trusted companions, the Moonhowlers, to undertake a special mission. You have been selected for your many talents, among which are your keen skill at observation, your ability to protect yourself in a pinch and because you can keep a secret. For what I am about to reveal to you is, most definitely, a secret. One which must not be told to anyone outside this room.”
Oh geesh. I totally didn’t get this far in telling Shorty about the job. I really didn’t even know if little bagpipe player was a good candidate. While I certainly trusted the halfling, I had no idea if he could keep a secret and I really doubted he could protect himself, in a pinch or otherwise. Gulp. If only I had given Celeste’s request more attention, but really, I had to admit, I’d been too damned distracted with my dating life to have given this much thought! I could only imagine what was going through Shorty’s mind just now. He was probably ready to bail and then I was going to be in real trouble with Celeste.
I started to sweat a bit as Celeste continued on and on about the importance of secrets and there was some talk about Mordenkainen and the danger involved. Oh crap. I was going to be in soooo much trouble when she found out Shorty was just a bagpipe player and not some super-trained spy.
I finally got up enough nerve to glance down at Shorty, a bead of sweat slowly trickling down my forehead.
But Shorty wasn’t sweating. Shorty didn’t look scared or worried or angry. In fact, he actually looked…excited. What the crud? I looked over at Togworth, the little gnome, and while his face looked completely serious, I could also see a glint of excitement playing around his startling blue eyes. And then Saraphina, that psychotic wench was nearly jumping out of her skirts with enthusiasm. And, while Ryu’s mask hid his face and expression, it just seemed by the way the odd elf was leaning forward and staring intently at Celeste that even he was eager about what was being presented to him.
Huh. Whoda thunk?
I breathed a little sigh of relief and tried to concentrate on what Celeste was saying.
" . . . the Ebon Triad is a new threat to our civilization and our initial reports seem to indicate it has infiltrated most of the major cities across the Flanaess. This time around we don’t plan to just sit by and let events unfold as they will. We all know what happened with the Scarlet Brotherhood and no one wants to see something like that happen again.
“They seem to operate in a large system of interconnected splinter cells. We know of cells in Greyhawk, Rookroost, Chendyl and Rel Mord. We think each cell is comprised of at least one follower of Hexor, Eurythnul and Vecna. We also think only the leader of each cell is allowed to communicate with cultists outside their cell and that communication is limited to the leader of just one other cell. That way it is unlikely the whole system would be vulnerable if any one cultist or cell was compromised.
“My employer has been keeping pretty close tabs on these cells, but he has recently heard rumors of the presence of a cell located in the tiny town of Diamond Lake, which is out in the middle of nowhere. It is an oddity as the Ebon Triad has only operated in the large cities, until now. We need someone to keep an eye on this splinter cell and to find out just what they are doing way out there. My employer thinks if we can discover the purpose of this cell and why its operating in a tiny, dusty mining town in the Cairn Hills, we might get a better understanding as to what their overall purpose is and if we know that, we might be able to get to the mastermind behind this thing and then end it for good.
“So, we’d like the …er…four of you to travel to Diamond Lake northeast of Greyhawk and find out what you can without being discovered, yourself. I have arranged for your cover stories. You are now the newest employees of Professor Marat’s Traveling Circus. By the looks of the four of you, you should fit in just fine. The circus ringleader goes by the name of Shag Solomon and he, and the rest of the circus, is currently awaiting your arrival in Sasserine where they are just finishing up their engagement there. Shag will give you instructions about the specific parts you will play, but I urge you not to speak to anyone of your true purpose within the circus. Solomon knows nothing of why you are joining his circus, just that it is important you do so and that you get to Diamond Lake safely.
“One you arrive at Diamond Lake, you will need to find my contact there. His name is Allustan and he is the local wizard, but he likes to go by the name Allustan the Great. Don’t ask me why, he just does. Allustan looks over things in the Cairn Hills and reports to my employer of anything strange or out of the ordinary. He keeps contact with my employer through an intermediary, Marzena Brevins, who is currently employed by the Greyhawk constabulary and stationed at nearby Blackwell Keep. If you need to get information to me, you can do so through Marzena.
“Sorry to interrupt, miss,” Shorty suddenly said. “But you haven’t said anything yet about what we are going to get paid.”
Ha! Good ol’ Shorty. The fate of the world might be at stake and he’s just concerned about where he’s getting his next meal. Well, i guess I can’t blame him. Much.
Celeste smiled at his question and then counted out one hundred shiny gold coins to each of the four newcomers. Shorty just about fainted considering this was about two years worth of his current earnings.
“Consider this your operating expenses.”
“You mean…there’s more?” Shorty said, agasp.
Celeste looked very serious when she spoke. “Oh yes. Once you complete your mission and discover what that cult is up to in Diamond Lake, I am authorized to give you each an addition one thousand gold coins.”
There was a loud thunking noise at my feet and I looked down to see that Shorty actually did pass out this time.
LTW, Kenric, Karina and I eventually left the others with Celeste in order to work out the details. Apparently she wanted them to leave for Sasserine on the following day so they had a lot to do in a short period of time to prepare for their trip. I was more interested in lunch, plus we had a meeting with the merchant guild leader, Maavu, a bit later this afternoon and we needed to find Braedon and McCreedy before then.
After a fantastic lunch at a little roasted fish stand down by the docks that Karina told us about, we managed to locate Braedon at the Shrine of Pelor where he was just finishing up his daily meditations. We made him get dressed before leaving the Shrine. Lately our Priest of Pelor was lacking in the modesty department. McCreedy was just walking up to the shrine’s front doors as we were leaving so he joined us for our walk across town and our afternoon meeting with Maavu.
The day was lovely. Sunny and warm and not too humid. The birds and insects competed with the hoots and howls of far off monkeys in the jungle. Throngs of Cauldronites and visitors from afar slowly ambled in the streets as people shopped and ran errands. I took in a deep breath and enjoyed life for about two minutes. Since becoming a Moonhowler I have learned to take what little pleasures life gives you.
We turned onto Magma Avenue and I could see the cluster of warehouses about a block away when suddenly the ground beneath our feet began to shake and rumble. The people on the street all stopped as one and nervously looked about. Earthquakes were not uncommon in Cauldron.
I could see two of Maavu’s warehouses in front of us, and there were a few others in the area, too. One even supposedly belonged to my arch nemesis, Aldrick Garthun. It took me a moment to realize, though, that the nearest of Maavu’s warehouses was actually swaying back and forth. A crowd of people, standing still, were situated on the street right underneath the building. If that thing came down it was going to kill a lot of them. We had to get moving, and fast!
“We’ve got trouble!” I shouted to my Moonhowler companions. But there was really no need for my announcement because everyone else was already in motion. I sprinted as fast as my little legs in full armor could run. I grabbed the metal shield I always wore strapped to my back and unfastened it without losing stride.
The ground was still shaking badly and the warehouse was still swaying as we covered the block in no time at all. “Move, you idiots!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. In my experience, nothing gets people moving better than a well-placed insult. A few knots of people in front of us looked at us in startled bewilderment before running in the general direction away from the buckling warehouse. But still, many more people either had not heard my shouts or else were frozen in fear because they remained dangerously close to the dangerous building.
Listens to Wind was way out in front of the rest of us. He’s pretty darn fast. I saw Karina dart off to my right where she simply ran up the walls of Maavu’s office and onto the roof. Her magical slippers that we found were a wonder to behold.
Kenric stopped in the middle of the street and began to cast a spell while Braedon, Gramps and I kept running toward the people and trying our darndest to get them to move. One section of the warehouse wall at the corner closest to our position suddenly caved in and that’s when I saw the creature.
It was huge! Like a giant bug with just two massive legs and two, clawed arms, the thing stood about eight feet in height and as broad as I was tall. Its head looked like a bug, with two massive jeweled eyes on either side of its head, but it also had two human-like eyes set in between the larger ones. A massive set of mandibles, coupled with rows of shark-like teeth comprised its mouth and a set of antennae sprouted from its armored, domed head. Plates of chitin covered the creature’s body like finely fit mail.
It was an Umberhulk.
I had heard tales of these creatures of the Underdark. Terrible to behold and even more terrible to battle. The stories told of its stunning gaze, that to look the thing in the eyes would cause a man to stand, stock-still and to lose his sense of time and place as the creature would move in for the kill.
“Umber hulk, there!” I shouted while pointing to where the creature stood just inside the corner of the warehouse. “Don’t look it in the eyes! Watch its feet or knees or something! And you people, get the hell out of here! Geesh!”
Just then, several of the stupid people in the street looked where I was pointing and did exactly what I had told them not to do. They looked the creature in the eyes and then they just went slack and began shuffling in tight circles like zombies with an inner-ear infection.
This was not going to be an easy fight.
Gramps spied a young girl who was throwing rocks at the creature. He sprinted to her side and scooped her up in his arms. She fought against his efforts to rescue her, but I could hear him trying to calm her down as he moved her to safety. “But, my mama’s just standing there! I need to help her! I need to fight that big bug!” the girl shouted and then their voices were lost in the roar of sound around me.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kenric abandon whatever spell he was trying to cast and sprint toward the warehouse. Crazy wizard. The guy had no armor and even less sense, sometimes. But, then I saw his goal. The little halfling grocer, Beppo, who operated a vegetable stand was parked just under the warehouse wall about twenty feet from where the umber hulk was raging. Beppo’s stand was full of cabbages today and the cart was probably extremely heavy. The little guy was working at the cart wheels and handles but was making no progress; he also didn’t appear interested in leaving the cart where it stood, more concerned he was with the cart and his vegetables than for his own safety.
Kenric shouted at Beppo to leave the cart, but the stubborn grocer simply refused. He was going to get squashed in a few seconds unless Kenric figured something out and fast.
About that same time I could see the City Patrol, number seven, I think, come rushing around the corner. Sergent Ingast Nash was in the lead and four half-orcs in Cauldron livery were with him. I only knew one of the half-orcs by name, Crolish, I think, but I recognized two of the other three. Nash was a good guy. All business and no time for smiles. I was glad to see he and his men on the scene.
I kept shouting at the people to move away, but I quickly realized just how hopeless my efforts were. A lot of them had run down toward the lake and to safety, but so many more had come under the mesmerizing power of the big giant ape-bug that was currently ripping another section of wall away from the warehouse.
A middle-aged shop owner was standing right in front of me and just staring up at the giant beast. Debris from the demolition was raining down upon him and any second one of the bigger pieces was going to crush him, but he didn’t seem to notice. I grabbed him around the waist and threw him over my shoulder and just started running downhill. The guy didn’t protest at all, but his legs kept blocking the view in front of me so I just hoped and prayed to Moradin I was not going to run into a solid object.
After a few quick moments I saw the wall of another building in front of me and I dumped the man gracelessly onto the street. Listens to Wind was just a step behind me and he had two people slung over his shoulder! Crap, I didn’t feel like letting the big, barbaric ranger outdo me in this, so I ran back and grabbed three people – one over a shoulder and one under each arm. Listens saw me and grabbed four!
“That one doesn’t count,” I yelled at him, “I could carry a dozen halfling kids in just one hand.”
Listens to Wind dropped the halfling kid, threw an elderly half-orc over his shoulder to make an even four and then he saw the poor kid he just dropped sitting in the street. LTW is a bit of a softy, especially when it comes to kids, so he scooped the little tyke up onto the top of his foot and then hopped all the way across the street.
Damn! That was good.
Kenric had finally managed to get Beppo and his cart to safety, and had turned right around and was in the process of casting a massive sheet of magical spider’s web on the monster. The umber hulk thrashed and spun within a cocoon of sticky webbing, but it didn’t look to me as if the stuff was going to slow it down much – let alone stop the thing. I could see Karina standing on the roof of Maavu’s office and sending these icy bolts of …something or other across the street at the creature – well, those were new. But they mostly seemed to just bounce off the chitinous plates that covered the hulk.
Nash had his men spread out in a semi-circle around the ruined corner of the warehouse, their wicked looking pikes were all pointed at the creature still struggling under the heap of webs. That was smart, Nash, and very brave, I thought. Placing themselves between the monster and us would, hopefully, buy us enough time to get the mesmerized people to safety.
It took us about thirty more seconds, but Braedon, Gramps, LTW and I finally got the last of the people to safety. The creature had broken free of Kenric’s webbing and then turned its attention to the little people pointing weapons at it. The creature roared and lunged at Nash’s men. Its massive claws swept back and forth and sent the half-orc guards crashing in all directions.
The four of us then drew our weapons and raced in to take the thing on up front and personal – just the way I like my bug-fights!
But suddenly I noticed in a second story window of a nearby tavern a confused woman with a baby! She held the child out of the window as if she were hanging out the laundry to dry! She suddenly calmly set the baby in the widow sill and walked away. What a freak!
We watched in horror as the baby rolled right off the sill, but its diaper snagged on a loose nail and the baby dangled precariously. Braden ran to catch the baby while I changed course and sprinted into the tavern. There were still a dozen people in the tap room and I yelled at them to leave. I found the stairs and darted up them. On the second stair landing I found the mother standing in front of a painting and talking to it as if she were having a quaint chat with her dearest friend.
Like I said. Freak.
I reached the second floor, ran down a hall to the first open door, looked in and saw an open window. I made it to the sill in about half a heartbeat and scooped my arm out the window, grabbing the baby just as it managed to squirm out of its diaper. I saw the worried face of Braedon right below me, waiting to catch the poor thing.
I held the baby out at arm’s length, partly for the things safety as my armor is pretty sharp, but also I’ve seen what babies can do without their diapers on and wanted to stay as far away from any baby business as I possibly could.
From my vantage point, however, I was able to look down upon the chaos below me. About half of Maavu’s warehouse was completely destroyed, and the umber hulk was just about to grab one of Nash’s stunned guards when a magical bolt, probably from Karina, appeared to blast away a segment of the thing’s thick armor. The creature suddenly stopped its attack and “dove” into the ground, sending plumes of dirt and debris fountaining into the air.
“It just burrowed under the ground!” I shouted down to my team.
We all stopped and stood in a crouch, ready for it to reappear. But where would it?
We could hear a deep rumbling sound as the creature moved tons of earth below us, and just then I saw movement behind the wrecked warehouse. Reflexively, I pointed in the direction of the movement and Braedon spun to look. But, then I realized it wasn’t the umber hulk but a teen-aged girl, and she was running INTO the warehouse!
“I got this,” Braedon yelled up at me. Sure you do, cowboy. Braedon seemed to always be ready for action whenever girls were involved.
I shook my head in disgust and then ran back down the stairs. I grabbed the woman by the wrist as I hit the landing and drug her along behind me.
“But, Mildred,” she protested, “we haven’t even finished our tea!”
Whatevs, crazy mama.
“I said, ‘leave’!” I yelled into the taproom when we got down there and noticed there were still three or four patrons trying to finish off the dregs in their mugs. I was starting to get a little angry and I think it showed in my voice or something, because this time they all dropped their steins and bolted for the door.
When I got outside, Sergeant Nash was just pulling the last of his patrol to the relative safety of the inn’s covered porch. I handed him the baby.
“Here, be careful with this,” I said to him before running back to the ruined warehouse.
That’s when I saw two gnomes flying down the street toward us. I kid you not! Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Cauldron throws you another curve ball. The pair were dressed in robes of red and black and their feet were a couple feet off the ground. They soared through the air like wheeling birds and came to a stop just before me. I noticed their robes were emblazoned with the crest of Cauldron livery and the letters MTA were stitched below it. I recognized the two gnomes as Ros and Hampton from Jzadirune.
“Uh, okay. I think this deserves a bit of an explanation, don’t you think?”
Ros spoke first and fast, " Yeah, the quick of it is Hamstock worked out a deal with Navalant. Jzadirune gets a break on taxes if we provide the city with magical protection."
“Huh. And the letters, what do they stand for?”
“Magical Threat Agency, of course!” Hampton squeaked. “Now what kind of threat do we have here today? Another temporal zone of wild magic? Wandering manticore? Another spiritually possessed carpet merchant?”
Just then the umber hulk exploded up from the ground at the furthest corner of Maavu’s warehouse. The noise of collapsing wall and roof was deafening and dust billowed out into the street.
“That kind of threat,” I said, and ran toward the beast.
I reached down to my belt and unfastened the clasp that held my new virgin warhammer, Blackhammer. I could feel the perfect weight in my hand and I yearned to use this new creation for its true purpose, to smash things. I could tell this was going to be a fantastic moment.
The dust was beginning to clear and I saw the hulking bug-thing step out onto the street. I spun my hammer twice upon its bulette leather thong – just for show, then threw all of my strength and weight into strike as I brought my hammer down in a tremendous blow just at the creature’s kneecap.
It was like striking a giant block of adamantine.
My hammer bounced of the monster’s exoskeleton and reverberation shot back through my arm, down my body and all the way into my toes. My arm was instantly numb and I hadn’t even made a scratch or a divot on the thing.
I fought the urge to look up at the creature. I was pretty sure it was laughing at me in only the way a bug can laugh. I could see the creature raise it claws and I knew this was going to hurt real bad.
Then I heard the sound of sizzling magic over my head. Icy blasts and magical bolts came streaking in from at least four points behind me and they struck the beast with a dangerous staccato rhythm. I watched in what appeared to be slow motion as each bolt landed. Karina, Kenric, Ros and Hampton were focusing their attacks all on the spot of damaged chitin Karina had managed to knock loose in her earlier attack. The beast now had a vulnerable spot and the arcane casters were taking advantage of it. Bits and pieces of bug rained down on top of me as the wizards and warlocks did their thing. Chunks of plate chitin crashed to the ground and greenish ichor followed.
“Look out!” I heard Ros yell and I leaped backwards just as the umber hulk’s corpse tumbled to the earth, nearly crushing me in the process.
Braedon arrived a moment later leading a young street urchin by the scruff of the neck. I saw him hand the girl over to Sergeant Nash before he walked over to the rest of us.
“I’ve got my doubts that an umber hulk would just suddenly appear in the middle of town and start wreaking havoc,” Kenric said to us as we performed a team huddle in the middle of the street. Several more patrols of guards had arrived and a very large crowd of onlookers were tentatively drawling closer to the ruined warehouse. The guards began fanning out, pushing the crowd back while others began poking at the corpse of the umber hulk.
“That’s one of Maavu’s warehouses. What do you think, he was keeping that creature in there for storage or something and it got loose?” asked Braedon.
“Not likely,” I said, “but maybe we should go have a word with Maavu. I believe he still has an appointment with us.” I nodded toward his office.
We entered the glass doors of the small office and found the same clerk behind the counter as the last time we were here.
“Hi!” Listens to Wind shouted and the young lady, who winced at the ranger’s loud, booming voice. “Is Maavu here? We have an appointment!”
The clerk looked to be gathering things into her handbag. “No, he’s not here,” she said a little too curtly for my liking.
“You going someplace?” I asked. “Is it quitting time already?”
“Look,” she snapped at me, “a monster just appeared across the street and destroyed one of our warehouses and my boss is no where to be found. Its been a rough day. I’m going home.”
She looked about to cry, but I had no sympathy for her.
“Where’s your boss?” I returned with just the right amount of gruff in my voice.
She looked at me, maybe a little scared. That was good. “Uh,” she stammered, “I don’t know, I really don’t know! Sometimes he does this. He just leaves. Come back tomorrow and maybe someone here will be able to help you.”
Huh. That was a bit odd.
We walked back out into the street and the crowd was getting a bit boisterous. The city guard was having a little trouble calming everyone down and several people in the crowd seemed a little panicked. I heard one old crone near me caw out something about this all being Maavu’s fault. A dock worker standing next to her shouted out for all to hear “Couldn’t be him, I saw him leave town earlier today!”
I turned on the dockworker. “Where and when did you see Maavu? Do you know where he was going?”
The dockworker instantly recognized me as one of the Moonhowlers and I thought he was about to pee himself with excitement.
“I don’t know where he was going but I saw him leave through the north gate this morning just after sunup. He was riding that black stallion of his! You know, that really scary one with clouds where its hooves should be!”
The crowd began shouting out their agreement. It seemed everyone in this lot had seen Maavu leave this morning and everyone seemed to know all about his devil-horse.
“Alright everyone, alright!” I shouted above the din. “There’s nothing more to see here. Everyone go home and let the good town guards do their job! Yes, there was a big creature running around in that warehouse over there, but the Moonhowlers took care of it and it won’t be bothering anyone ever again.”
There was a cheer or two from the crowd and then it slowly began to disperse. The half-orc guards near me turned and nodded their thanks. Nash strode up to us and thanked us, as well.
“Hey, Sergeant, mind if we take a look around inside that warehouse?” Kenric asked as Nash was turning to leave.
“Well, I expect its pretty dangerous in there,” he said thoughtfully while regarding the teetering structure across the street from where we stood. “But, seeing you all are the Moonhowlers, and if you promise not to sue the city if you get hurt in there, I suppose it will be alright.”
We spent the next half an hour or so poking around inside the warehouse. The structure squealed and moaned as if it were about to tumble down upon our heads, but we were pretty intent on searching the place out. Eventually Karina began to do her little magic-sensing thing and discovered the traces of a recently cast arcane spell near one of the destroyed corners of the building.
“Definitely a summoning spell,” Kenric said after a close examination of the enscribed circle, the smoking blue runes were still visible in the dirt floor. We all huddled around and contemplated this news.
“So, the thing didn’t just haphazardly burrowed up from the Underdark?” Braedon mused, halfway between a statement and a question.
“Nope. I’d say someone planned this and they summoned that thing,” Kenric concluded.
“But why would someone do that?” I asked the group. “Did Maavu summon it? And why would he do something like that in his own warehouse? Or, does Maavu have enemies?”
We all just stood around and stared down at the fading runes and shook our heads and shrugged our shoulders and then just filed the events of the past hour into the “unsolved mysteries” drawer of our mental offices.
When we emerged from the warehouse and back onto Magma Avenue, we saw several of the Town Patrols still keeping the peace and clearing the rubble from the street. There were still about a hundred townsfolk just calmly standing about and watching. Cheap entertainment. Nash stopped by our little group and told us we would probably be summoned to Town Hall tomorrow to answer some questions about the events, but otherwise we were free to go about our business. Gee, thanks.
As Nash turned to leave I spotted Celeste in the crowd, her blonde hair and elegant white leather stood out in the crowd as if she were the target of a bullseye lantern. She looked me square in the eye and walked straight towards us, the crowd parting before her like sharp shears through silk.
I was confused. This wasn’t right. Meerthan had asked us never to actually meet in public. That our relationship should be no more than the casual greetings between two celebrity personalities and nothing more. We didn’t want people to suspect the Moonhowlers, the Pathwardens and Mordenkainen’s agents were working together. So what was she doing!?
“Hello, you are the Moonhowlers I presume,” she said in way of an introduction. Her voice was loud and clear and carried across the crowd. People stared and quieted down, somehow sensing something big and important was happening in front of them, as if they were witnessing the collision of two separate worlds.
“Yes,” Braedon said while smiling and holding out his hand. Celested offered her dainty mit to him and he bowed low over it and gently brushed his lips to that back of her pale hand. Wow, what a showoff.
“And I believe you are the lovely, Celeste, a visitor from lands far to the north, am I correct?”
“Yes, you are, good sir,” she said smoothly. “And I would invite you to share dinner with me tomorrow eve. The Cusp of Sunrise is my favored place to take a meal. I would be honored if you, the Moonhowlers, would join me.” She drew a wax sealed envelope from the folds of her garment and handed it to Braedon who gracefully took it and gave another slight bow.
“You will find the details in here. Thank you, Moonhowlers, and I look forward to our dinner together. Good night,” she said quite smoothly and then turned on a dainty heel and retreated back into the crowd.
I think we all will sleep with troubled dreams tonight.