Thrice The Brinded Cat

Moon Palms
Moonday, the 10th of Coldeven in the CY 594

Galdar noticed the Dragonsprit’s mast bore the crest of the Taskerhills as they left Sasserine the day before. Now a strange new flag flapped madly in the whipping wind. He asked Tully about it and he replied that it was the crest of The Shar. None of the friends knew of the Shar so Tully told them they were a people not to be trifled with. They had saved Sasserine from the strangling grip of the Sea Princes nine years ago. He also told them that their ambassador can be seen daily strolling through the streets of the city – a friendly man dressed in red robes with a wide smile and a bald head. Galdar knew of this man immediately as he had become somewhat of a fixture along the busstling docks of Sasserine in recent years. Taskerhill Crest
Shar Crest

Later that day, Kate talked to Lady Min and their conversation drifted onto the topic of dragons. People learned fast that when you were around Kate, the conversation usually drifted to the topic of dragons. She was obsessed. Kate thought about them all of the time. Min laughed at her single-minded pursuit and then let it drop that she had seen a dragon once. Kate lit up like the tropical sun at that. Then Min pointed south, to a large bay and then up to the top of the jungle trees and beyond to a massive, smoking volcanic cone. Min told her that was Mt. Hurlon and it was the current home of a terribly mighty red, the scourge known as Hookface.
That night, after her shift, Kate climbed above decks and found her hammock. As she lay there, half awake, she looked up at the nearly full moon, Celene, and was amazed at her splendor, with a blanket of stars strewn out across the night sky. But then she spied another glow. This one about a mile wide that graced the top of the high basalt cliffs to the south. Lady Min was awake and in the hammock nearby and she told Kate it was the glow from the moon palms. A patch of trees that grew upon the cliffs whose long fronds captured the moon’s radiance.
Moon Palms

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Bon Voyage
Sunday, the 9th of Coldeven in the CY 594


Kate watched the backs of her mother and father as they retreated from the dock, never looking back. She watched and watched, waiting…hoping she would see them turn to look at her one last time. There was a crack as the ship’s running jib flipped around to the leeward side of the mainstay and they caught the powerful gusts that were common just beyond the breakwater. She could feel the craft pick up speed and it was at once exhilarating and terribly sad, all at the same time.

She had never left Sasserine before.

She could still see her parents on the Sunrise District’s main dock. They looked like tiny insects from this distance, but just as they left the harbor Kate felt sure she saw her mother glance back over her shoulder.

They had been cross with her. “A fool’s errand,” her father had scolded. “Just as like to get yourself killed before you get yourself paid!”

“I know those friends of yours would finally get you in trouble, Katt,” her mother had said between tears. “You must find a way to get out of this. You must! You’re no bodyguard! You’ve never been in a fight in your life. Ehryl, please! Go find this Moenthal princling and tell him your daughter will not be accompanying him!”

But Kate had refused to let either of her parents change her plans. She was determined to take this job and she was determined to make some honest money for a change. Besides, perhaps this was her calling. How difficult could it be to keep some rich noble’s son out of trouble, anyway? And she would be with both Gorbi and Galdar the whole time. Those two knew how to take care of themselves. She could leave any scuffles or fights up to them, but she didn’t expect there to be any fights. They were just sailing across the bay for a few days and then they would be back in Sasserine before anyone really missed them.

“And besides,” thought Kate, “I am bound to run into a dragon out there. I sure am not going to find one sitting around here all my life.”

And so she had met Gorbi and Galdar at the Sunrise District just before the actual sunrise. Neither of them had family to say goodbye to, but her parents were kind enough to give them each a hug and handshake. Her mother actually made sandwiches and packed them in a sack for each of the boys. She would find out later that the sacks also contained hard tack, cheese and several bottles of ale – clearly a secret gift from her father.

When they had finally said their final goodbyes, Kate’s father had asked her one last time if she would change her mind. When she said she wouldn’t, he calmly took her mother by the shoulders, turned her around and left, the anger clearly present in his eyes.

Her parents had barely walked ten feet when they heard Derg Moenthal from the ship’s deck shouting at them to hurry aboard. And it was a good thing, too, a scrawny boy with a black and white tattooed face hauled up the gangplank the moment they got on board. Within a minute the ship’s crew had cast off from the docks and they slowly made their way out of the harbor.

Kate knew quite a bit about boats from her father. She discovered they had boarded a short and squat mahogany cargo caravel named The Dragonsprit. Kate’s heart raced when she heard the name and she took it for a good omen.

She noticed that her choice of dress seemed to have been a good one. A loose-fitting blouse and light trousers with a leather vest, wide leather belt and soft knee-high doeskin rounded out her ensemble. The crew of the Dragonsprit were dressed in similar fashion, so she blended right in.

She also saw that Gorbi and Galdar took her advice to heart and were wearing similar clothes, but she clearly saw the glint of mail under Galdar’s shirt!

“Where in the name of Elysium did you get that!” she said in his ear so as not to attract attention to her friend’s suicidal attire.

“It was a gift from the High Priest!” he said, beaming. “Don’t you like it?”

Before she could reply, one of the largest specimen’s of human being she had ever encountered dropped from the mid-boom onto the deck so close that she could smell sweat and rum wafting off the brute.

“If she don’t like it, I know the lobsters will. You’ll have your very own lobster fan-club at the bottom of the sea first time you slip off the deck.”

Galdar glared at the man as he swung back up into the rigging to help hoist the mainsail.

“He’s right, Dar!” Kate hissed. “That armor may look pretty but its going to get you drowned!”

Kate’s admonishment was cut short by a gruff voice. “Gov’nor, glad to see you could make it. But I heard you was just bringing two men aboard. You said nothing about a girl!”

The ship’s captain had emerged from below decks and addressed Derg Moenthal as if he were not at all pleased to see him. The captain was about as gruff of a man as Kate had ever seen. His face was pocked and scarred and one eye looked to be swollen shut. The man was short and muscular and looked to be of an age anywhere between his twenties to his early sixties. Two thick golden rings adorned his ears and Kate could see tattoos peeking out from any bit of exposed skin.

“Don’t you worry about the passenger fares, Captain. I’ve paid up round-trip for myself and two men. There’s one man,” he said, pointing at Gladar, “and the gnome and girl make another.”

Kate frowned and then heard Gorbi suck in his breath. She knew the gnome’s quick temper and put her hand on his shoulder to calm him. The booming laughter that followed from the captain didn’t help matters much.

“Well, grather your men, or whatever you call them, and we’ll find out where you can and cannot go on my ship.”

Kate would later discover the captain’s name was Arganat, and the dobule-masted, lateen-rigged vessel was his pride and joy. He certainly seemed to care more about his ship than he did his passengers, crew, or just about anyone else alive and kicking. The Dragonsprit ran nearly twenty paces from bowsprit to stern and seven full paces at its widest breadth. Kate didn’t think it would be breaking any speed records any time soon, but she had never been on a sturdier vessel. She imagined the thing could weather a storm better than any ship she’d seen.

A high captain’s forecastle dominated the ship’s design and three short wooden doors gave main-deck access to its interior, the ’tween decking and the main cargo holds, below. The captain’s quarters sat just under the forecastle and was accessed by the center door while the two outer doors led down to the ship’s galley, the first-mate’s cabin, guest cabin and the two largest cargo holds. The fore of the ship’s interior held eight small open holds that contained spare sheets, tackle, sails and other necessities.

“The aft-deck is home to me and Mr. Tully,” the captain said while pointing toward the rear of the ship. A gruff looking brawler stood behind the ship’s wheel, looking bored. Kate assumed that was the first mate. “No one, and I mean no one is to be on the aft-deck except me or Mr. Tully unless you have been personally invited by either me or Mr. Tully? Is that clear? Anyone not following this rule, or any of the other rules of this ship, will find themselves shark bait inasmuch time as it takes for one of my crew to toss you over the rails.”

Kate got to meet the rest of the crew during the captain’s little tour. At the top of the mast in the crow’s nest was the black and white faced kid that had stowed the gangplank when they had first come aboard.

“That’s Dogboy,” said the captain, “he’s our cabin boy and crow. There’s not much going on in his head, but he’s got the eyes of an eagle.”

“Why is his face like that?” asked Kate.

The captain grimaced, “Had some no-good parents who belonged to some greasy gang in the city of Cauldron. Called themselves the Jester’s Laugh, or something like that. All of ‘em in the gang put on facepaint before making a hit, ya see? When they had the kid they decided it would be great fun to have his face permanently tattooed black and white like that. Mean thing to do to a kid. But I suppose they got what was coming to them. Some big floating eye-monster thing attacked the city last year – you might of heard ’bout that. Well, his parents got in the way and got dis-in-grated. Heard the whole gang got did for, too. The kid here ended up in an orphanage so I took him on. Me and the crew’s got a soft spot in our hearts for that kid. He don’t have to worry ’bout getting picked on for his looks long as he stays with us. And we keep him well-fed, too.”

Kate also met the ship’s three riggers. The huge man that had laughed at Galdar’s armor was named Zokar. He was six and a half feet of pure muscle. Kate figured he must easily weight three times her own weight, and yet he swung through the ship’s rigging, high above decks, as if he were a monkey. His yellow shirt was drenched in sweat and his grey-brown hair was soaked as if he had just been in a rainstorm, the bandanna tied to his head did little to ebb the flow.

Never far from his side was Zokar’s fiancee, the Lady Min. She was one of the more muscular of women Kate had ever seen, and she was equally agile amongst the rigging.

“Oh she’s a peach, that one,” said the captain. “her Rhennee blood runs deep. She may look like a princess, but cross her and you’ll soon learn the error of your ways, to be sure, and she can use a rapier like the devil uses souls.”

Kate spied a young man with very dark skin swinging alongside Min. “Rhemi,” said the captain. “I wasn’t sure about taking on an Olman. The jungle-people don’t take too kindly to us pir…uh, sailors. But, Rhemi there soon proved to be twice the worth of any other able bodied sailor. Quick learner, that one, and priceless in an negotiation. Me and Tully advanced him to Boatswain couple months back, but he still prefers to spend most of his time in the rigging with Zokar and Min.”

Tonsil, the portly cook and Bilge, the ship’s swabby rounded out the crew.

Eventually, Derg was shown his cabin below the foredeck. There was an uncomfortable moment when the dandy made it clear that his bodyguards would not be sharing the cabin with him, but expected one of the three to be posted at his door at all times and the other two were to be at his side whenever he was not in his cabin.

“Suit yerself, Guv’nor. They’re your men. You can do what you want to with ’em,” growled Captain Arganat, “I’ll have Dogboy fetch a couple of hammocks from the hold and you can sleep above deck with the riggers.”

So, for the rest of the day Kate and Gorbi followed Derg about the ship, always standing or walking two steps behind him, while Galdar sat in the tiny hallway belowdecks outside Derg’s cabin and tried not to get too seasick.

The day was beautiful. A bright sun sailed across the bluest of skies and the tropical shores of the Amedio Jungle passed to starboard while the sea-to-sky horizon cut a straight line to port. The wind was fair and blew from the northwest, so the ship was able to keep a beam reach without tacking for most of the day. Kate had never been outside the city and she knew there was nothing but tropical jungle for miles and miles outside the city limits, but she never would have guessed there could be so much jungle with no sign of any civilization at all.

While there were no other inhabitants Kate could see on land, the same could not be said for life on the water. There were tons of boats out of the Bay. Fishing boats made up the bulk of the vessels that Kate could see, but there were also a fair number of merchant ships, trawlers and a few giant schooners plying the waves further out.

An hour before sunset, the captain called Derg to his quarters to discuss the details of the trip. Kate and Gorbi followed dutifully behind as they made their way belowdecks. A small compass room, full of charts and maps and weird nautical instruments sat just outside the captain’s main cabin room. Gorbi climbed on a stool to get a better view of one of the maps that was laid out upon a tall table.

“Hey, is this a map of Jeklea Bay?” he shouted.

The captain halted just before entering his cabin and turned to the little gnome. Kate could see clear signs of agitation on the captain’s face as he did so.

“Gorbi!” she hissed softly at him in hopes Derg and Arganat couldn’t hear her, “get down from there!”

Gorbi replied in a loud voice that clearly meant he didn’t care who hear him or not.

“No! It’s just a simple question. I should be able to ask it and the Captain should be able to answer it.”

Captain Arganat cursed under his breath and pushed past Derg, bearing down on the gnome standing on the stool.

“You heard your mommy, gnome. Now get down off that stool and do the job you were hired to do.”

Gorbi didn’t seem to notice the captain looming over him like a death-knight from the deep seas.

“So, if this is Jeklea Bay, then this is where we should be, right here,” he squeaked while pointing at a spot of coastline in the far southwest corner of the Bay. “i don’t get it. If we’re here, where’s Sasserine? Why isn’t it on the map?”

“You ask too many questions for a bodyguard, elfling. No get down off that stool and be silent!”

“No!” shouted Gorbi, “what is this? Can’t a guy ask ques..” The little gnome never finished his sentence before the captain grabbed Gorbi around his collar with both hands, yanked him off the stool and began to shake him like a dog worrying at a bone.

“You good for nothing, barnacle! Don’t you ever talk back to me on my ship! When I give an order to you, my crew and even the Gov’nor over there, it WILL be obeyed! Do you hear me! I’m going to throw you overboard, now. No, that’s too good a fate for you. You ever heard of keelhauling? Well, that’s what…”

“Captain, please!” Kate said and she stepped up to the captain and gently placed a restraining hand on his arm. “My friend didn’t mean disrespect. He’s just very curious and his curiosity just got the better of him. I’ll talk with him and I promise it’ll never happen again.”

The captain stared daggers at Kate, but he stopped shaking the life out of Gorbi. For a moment, Kate thought her plea wasn’t going to work and she even feared she might have just volunteered to be the next target of Arganat’s wrath. The captain slowly looked down at Kate’s hand where it rested on his arm, the look of fury still present. He squinted his eyes and looked back at Kate.

Slowly, the captain lowered Gorbi to the floor of the compass room. Kate let out her breath.

“Well, okay,” said Arganat. “Just be sure this one knows how to obey orders next time. Understood?”

Kate nodded.

“Gov’nor,” the captain said, turning to Derg, “I expect you can find your own way out of my cabins. My business with you and your….hirelings, is done for now. Perhaps we can talk later.” He pushed past Derg, entered his personal cabin and slammed the door.

Derg regarded Kate and Gorbi, sniffed, then walked past them, waving his hand over his shoulder indicating they should fall in step behind him again.

The three got used to life on deck, as they were quartered there along with the rest of the crew while the captain, first mate and Derg all had rooms below decks. During the warm evenings, the ship anchored just offshore and away from the pounding surf. That night, Kate took first watch outside Derg’s door, making sure he was safe while he slept inside. Gorbi took second watch, taking over for Kate somewhere around midnight and Galdar took third watch just as the eastern horizons began to lighten.

As Kate lay in her hammock in the early morning hours, she stared up at the night sky. She had never seen so many stars before. She had a hard time falling to sleep as she thought about where she was and about the exciting journey she and her friends had embarked upon.

As her eyes finally got heavy and began to close she wondered if dragons flew at night.

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Just A Simple Job
Starday, the 8th of Coldeven in the CY 594

The show was good. Gorbi thought It was maybe the best entertainment since last season’s showdown in the Arena when Meldrav’s Menagerie was beaten soundly by The Adder and his Bully Boys.

“Was it really worth a silver each?” he thought. “Especially since it was our last silver!”

“Surely, the stretchable boy was something you don’t see everyday. What was his name? Mr. Shingle? The strong lady lifted Galdar and Kate completely over her head!” the little gnome had to chuckle to himself remembering the look on their faces as the gargantuan woman easily pressed his two friends in the air. “Saffron and Sage, the dancing girls? Wow, my face still burns red with the memory! And then there was Basrol, the one-armed juggler, he was truly amazing – and those sabers were sharp! It’s surprising he still has an arm to spare. And that finale, with the pyromancer, Klint; it was as if the flames were enslaved and he their master.”

It was an enchanting hour of their lives, to be sure. But now that hour was over and their pockets were completely empty. Gorbi wasn’t sure what he was going to do now. Kate still had her parents to lean on, and perhaps, the gnome thought, he could scrape a little coin from her parents, too. At least Kate’s mother seemed to like him well enough, but he wasn’t too sure about her father. The elf always seemed a little too high and mighty to Gorbachev, and he got the feeling he wasn’t always welcome when he was around.

Galdar was going to be okay, too. He had the church to fall back on, and to some extent, Gorbi could always find food at the temple, but it wasn’t a sound long-term solution. It had been years, but maybe he could look up his old friends in the Salt Daggers. Galdar would hate him for that, but what choice would he have. It was either that or eventually starve.

Gorbi stared down at the last of the suds floating around at the bottom of his mug and the suds just stared back at him, lonely and sad. The crushing weight of his empty pockets made his legs itch. "Why did I let them talk me into this? he thought.

When Shag Solomon’s Traveling Circus came to town last season, the show was an instant hit in Sasserine and sold out every hour. Everyone was talking about it. And at a silver per ticket it wasn’t something Gorbi could easily afford.

So, Gorbi, Galdar and Kate had waited. Waited for the crowds to die down, waited for the chance to maybe win a ticket over at Fishlips, or if all else failed, waited for the price to come down. But it didn’t.

Kate was probably the most excited of the three of them. Somewhere she had dreamt up the notion that the circus had a dragon and if she could only go see the show she would somehow come face to face with this imaginary dragon and they would become fast friends. Drinking buddies, perhaps, thought Gorbi as he sat on the bar stool at the Strumpet, swinging his legs to and fro and giggling into his mug of beer. Maybe his last mug. Ever.

The show was great, but there wasn’t a dragon. Gorbi looked over to Kate who was sitting between he and Galdar at the bar, her red-golden tresses and sparkling green eyes reflecting the crowded tavern’s lantern light. She was laughing with Galdar and her cheeks were extra flushed from the beer she was drinking. Neither the lack of dragon nor the lack of coin in her pockets seemed to bother her. But, that was Kate. Always cheerful. Always seeing the bright side of any situation. Always with her head in the clouds. Gorbi sighed.

Galdar had also been extremely excited about the Circus. Shag Solomon and his traveling show had, purportedly, traveled the world. According to some, they had performed for the Wayward Sons of faraway Sterich and was so well received, Shag was actually knighted by the Marchioness of the Great Western Gate, herself. If you could believe the rumors, some said the Circus had recently been to the Iron Gate where they played a month straight under the patronage of the Iron League and only escaped by disguising themselves as Pale Riders in the service of Wee Jas. Others claimed the Circus had been to the grassy steppes of the Tiger and Wolf nomads, had played in the ruins of Redspan for the Duke 0f Tenh and wowed the womanizing Sultan of Zeif. The stories only fueled Galdar’s obsession with getting out of town to see the world. Gorbi had heard of little else from the young acolyte since Shag’s Circus had come to town.

Finally, just as it was likely the Circus had played itself out, Gorbi relented and the three of them gave up their last silver sails for the tickets. They had met earlier in the afternoon at the Strumpet’s Excuse, the seedy bar where the Circus had played for the past month.

Now it was over. For two coppers they bought themselves a round of beer after the show. Why not, thought Gorbi. What else was he going to do with his last two coppers.

The Strumpet was full tonight. Dozens of happy patrons, most who had also just watched the show, sat in heavy wooden chairs around the bar’s heavy wooden tables and laughed and shouted with their friends, family and even complete strangers about their favorite daring act by the circus performers.

Gorbi just watched like an outsider looking in. All of these people would go about their lives after this evening. They would all go home tonight. Many of them would eat a great dinner. All of them would leave the Strumpet with their pockets still jingling. All of them except Gorbi.

And then his jaw dropped open.

From behind a red curtain near the back of the bar, stepped none other than Shag Solomon. The man was of average height and build. He was dressed in a ratty military coat with gold and red epaulets and several gold and silver medals pinned to the breast of his jacket. His tall, black leather boots were scuffed and unpolished and the white gloves he wore had turned a dull yellow with age. If that were all there was to see of Gentleman Shag Solomon, he wouldn’t leave much of an impression. It just so happened that few ever even noticed his clothes at all, for it was the rest of him that really caused a stir. Every inch of Shag’s face and neck was covered in a thick pelt of grey hair, and many wondered if the same held true for the rest of him. His ears were large and pointed, but sat near the top of his head like those of a bear. His nose was black and wet like a dog and his long whiskers stuck out from his upper lip like those of a cat. Bestial as his appearance was, his carriage and demeanor defied all of that.

Shag strode through the curtain and into the Strumpet’s common room as if he were a king. One gloved hand rested upon a short, black cane while the other rested, just so, under the lapel of his coat. A monocle upon a golden chain was in place before his right eye while he puffed casually on a long, curved pipe. The din of so many drunken patrons quieted considerably as all eyes were drawn to the magnificent circus master.

“Is that….is that…” Galdar stammered. Gorbi never answered him as all of his attention was drawn to the celebrity in the room.

“Yes, it is, Galdar. And, shut your trap, Gorbi, you look like a land-bound sea bass gasping for air.” Kate replied with a roll of her bright eyes.

“Hey. Show a little respect, girl. That’s Shag…that’s Shag…,” snarled Galdar

“Yea, I know. Shag Solomon.”

“What’s got into you? One of the greatest people to ever walk the planet just walked into the room and you act as if Leprous Lhare from the Shadow Dock just walked in.”

“I’m not happy with him, that’s all,” Kate said with a pout.

Both Galdar and Gorbi looked scandalized. “What? Why?” they said in unison.

Kate frowned. “Well, he didn’t bring his dragon, I spent my last silver on that ticket because I knew he was going to bring his dragon to the show, and he didn’t. So, I’m not very happy.”

Gorbi just shook his head and grinned. “Well, I for one, wish I had thought to bring some parchment and ink with me. I want to get his autograph.”

Shag hadn’t made it very far across the common room before he was surrounded by semi-drunk admirers. Gorbi noticed, however, that despite the modest crowd of people gathering in a knot about him, Shag seemed to be in a deep conversation with a finely dressed young gentleman who was holding a rather large glass of deep red wine. The conversation looked congenial enough, at first, but then Gorbi began to notice a look of what he took to be agitation play across Shag’s furry face. The younger man, whom Gorbi imagined was probably the son of one of the local nobles, began gesturing frantically with his hands, as if pleaded a desperate case.

The pair was too far away and the tavern crowd was just loud enough that Gorbi couldn’t make out any words exchanged between them. He thought about the lip-reading training he got years ago in his stint with the Salt Knives, but wasn’t able to decipher but a few syllables.

He was still concentrating on the lip reading when suddenly Shag Solomon looked his way and held his gaze. Gorbi thought he was mistaken and looked over his shoulder to see who Shag was really looking at, but saw no one in particular. When he turned around, Shag was still looking at him, and smiling in a feline sort of way.

Gorbi was stunned. He pointed at his chest and mouthed the word, “Me?”.

From across the room Shag nodded and then held up three fingers, pointing at Gorbi and his friends.

Galdar saw the exchange and elbowed Kate in the ribs, “Hey! Shag Solomon is pointing at us!” he said, excitedly/

Shag waved his gloved hand, motioning for the three of them to approach.

“Whoa!”, Galdar intoned, “he wants to talk with us! No way!”

Kate turned in her bar stool and regarded the circus master suspiciously. “Um, why would he want to talk to us?”

“I don’t have a clue, Kate, but I intend to find out!” Gorbi said, leaping off his stool, Galdar and Kate following closely as they weaved their way through the crowd.

Gorbi stopped several feet away from the pair as he heard the hairy-faced circus ringleader admonishing the dandy chap in nice clothes. “This delay is unreasonable. If you cannot depart upon the morrow, I will find another to contract with.” Shag’s voice was a deep rumble. Gorbi was amazed at the sense of authority behind it.

The three friends stood back just a pace from the two men, unsure if the invitation also meant they were allowed to hear this apparent argument.

“Mr. Solomon. I can understand your distress,” the gentleman responded nervously, “but the assistance I need is either already employed or require expenses beyond my means.”

“Ridiculous. There must be hundreds within these city walls who would accompany you. Take these three here,” Shag said while waving his hand at Kate, Gorbi and Galdar. “They seem quite capable, I am sure. You there! Might I have a polite word with you?”

“Us, sir?” Gorbi said, nervously, while inching forward.

Shag looked down and spoke kindly, “Are you currently employed or would you happen to be looking for work?”

Gorbi sputtered something unintelligible while Kate stammered, “Sir, are you speaking to us?”

“Yes, of course I am,” Shag said, matter-of-factly, “My companion here requires an armed escort for a short sea voyage. I am sure he would pay you quite handsomely should you agree."

“Armed? Us?” asked Kate.

“Yes, you. I consider myself a good judge of character, uh…miss,,,,?”

“Kate,” said Kate. “You may call me Kate. And this is Galdar and Gorbachev.”

“Gorbi!” corrected Gorbi, “You can call me Gorbi!” he squeaked.

“Good to make your acquaintance, Miss Kate, Galdar and Sir Gorbi. My name is Shag Solomon and this is Derg Moenthal,” said Shag as he gestured toward the dapper young dandy.

“Master Moenthal and I have a business agreement, of sorts and he has contracted with me to make a very important delivery to the far side of Jeklea Bay. But, due to a lack of ‘qualified’ personal, Master Moenthal is still here in Sasserine, along with my very important delivery! And, as you can see, I am a very busy man. I have little patience for ineptitude.”

The dandy, Moenthal, visibly bristled at that last bit.

“Which brings us back round to pasture, as they say in the Ketian Highlands. Would the three of you happen to be available for hire?” Shag asked through a toothy grin.

Gorbi could hear the words but his normally sharp mind did not seem to grasp what was being asked of him. Kate and Galdar stood, equally quiet and dumbfounded.

“Oh, how rude of me,” Shag said while shaking his head. “I forgot to mention the terms. The three of you would be hired on as bodyguards for Master Moenthal, here, and he will pay you twenty gold admirals.”

Gorbi’s mind spun. Twenty gold split three ways would be more coin than he would normally earn in a year. His mind suddenly lurched forward and he was about to say, ’Yes!", when Shag spoke first.

“Each.”

Gorbi’s mind stalled once again as he imagined twenty golden Sasserine coins clattering around in his pocket.

“Isn’t that correct, Master Moenthal?” Shag asked the dandy.

The young man grimaced and then slowly nodded.

“And, if that is not incentive enough, my dear young mercenaries,” Shag continued, “I will match that pay upon your successful return to Sasserine. Its as simple as that. Accompany Moenthal here on a trip across the Bay, make sure his body is safely guarded from all manner evil dolphins and cold breezes, make sure he makes my delivery, then return here and you will each be forty golden coins richer. What do you say? Do we have ourselves a deal?”

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Prelude

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The world of Greyhawk, the fantasy milieu first envisioned by the late Gary Gygax in the 1970’s and 80’s, might be considered the birthplace of the Dungeons and Dragons game. Originally developed as the mysterious and unexplored lands encapsulating the infamous Castle Greyhawk, the world itself has hardly grown beyond its first scribbled notes. A chaotic patchwork of fantastical kingdoms, fledgling empires and cosmic struggles frozen in place and time. It was the original gamer’s sandbox, the prototype world, so to speak. The granddaddy of them all.

To explore this never-finished, static landscape can be a daunting undertaking. Today’s gaming worlds, by comparison, are by-in-large tamed beasts whose inhabitants are often tightly developed by teams of seasoned game designers operating with singular vision and within the framework of a single rule system. Greyhawk has not been so fortunate. It is a wild land, pieced together in dribs and drabs over forty year streatch of time and penned by hundreds of gamers with varying degrees of both talent and vision. Commercial ownership of the world has fallen to many masters with publications developed under a half-dozen rule sets.

Despite all of this, today we willingly delve into this grumpy monstrosity of a gaming world in order to experience and study the classics, to immerse ourselves in the original genesis of tabletop role playing. We will visit the lands, the nations and the events that shaped the World of Greyhawk. We will look into the canonical history of what was published and experience the stories and adventures as they were sewn together to form this quilt-work setting. We will take it even further than most and look beyond the DM screen and pay tribute to the authors, the designers and the artists who created these works. As we tell the tale of our brave explorers in the following pages, look for sidebars — treasure chests, if you will — containing materials about the development, design and history of each place or notable personality or other such creation.

We won’t be doing this completely old-school. We’ll be using the Pathfinder ruleset (depending on how you count them, the seventh or eighth ruleset utilized in the canonical Greyhawk works), and we will be conducting gameplay not with the traditional paper and pencil sessions from which the game was conceived, but with virtual tabletop software and digital dice. Our characters aren’t old-school, either, for they are defined by more modern character classes and even their speech will take on more modern flair.

We won’t be starting at the beginning, either. The beginning of the World of Greyhawk was, undoubtedly, the infamous 50-level Castle Greyhawk, plunging deep into the earth within the walls of the city bearing the same name. Instead, we’ll be starting at the end – the very last of the lands that were officially created for this gaming world – the city of Sasserine, the secret civilization hidden within the savage folds of the faraway Amedio Jungle.

Well, enough of that. Let’s get started, shall we . . .

Sasserine. Emerald jewel of the Amedio Jungle. A bustling city with little knowledge of the world beyond its verdant jungles and sun-kissed seas. Despite its isolation, the city is old, with origins stretching back seven centuries. Several of the city’s seven districts hug the coastline of its natural harbor, while the remaining districts float within the harbor itself.

The three friends who start this story call this city their home.

Kate was born here. Her father, an elven fisherman by trade and her human mother, a gondola owner from the Cudgel District, raised Kate as an only child. Her education consisted of splitting time between helping her father mend the nets and helping her mother ferry passengers down the narrow watery avenues that crisscrossed the city’s massive harbor.

As a younger child, Kate had no desire to attend the finishing schools found in Sasserine. While the other girls her age sat in stuffy halls all day, listening to equally stuffy tutors and teachers, Kate used her spare time swimming in the canals, climbing across the rooftops of floating houses and listening to her father’s stories of high adventure from a time long before he met her mother.

Kate loved her father’s stories. But it was the story about how he once befriended a dragon that she loved the most. Kate would spend hours upon hours in secluded spots throughout the city studying the skies and the jungle treetops searching for a dragon that she could befriend, just like her father had.

It was during one such daydreaming excursion, while sitting under the cool gables of Fast Vera’s rooftop, that she first saw Galdar and Gorbachev. She had originally thought the pair were a mother and her baby out for a morning stroll on the docks, but some altercation had ensued between them and Vera in which Galdar’s wig fell off his head and Gorbi had jumped out of the baby carriage. The guards had arrived and arrested the two young boys, and she thought that would be the last she would ever see of the troublemakers. But, Kate saw the pair again several weeks later and introduced herself to them. She never found out exactly what had happened to them that day at Fast Vera’s, but the three of them soon became inseparable friends.

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Unlike Kate, Galdar grew up in Sasserine without loving parents. The Red Death had claimed his mother and father when Galdar was merely a few months old. As an orphan raised by priestesses in the Temple of St. Cuthbert, Galdar was indoctrinated into the absolute virtues of law and order from a very young age. Galdar was a pious boy and excelled at his lessons.

The temple clergy were surprised when, at the ripe age of ten, the young lad was caught by the constabulary aiding and abetting a local gang of hoodlums during a failed attempt to rob a local tavern owner of several kegs of beer. Galdar was bailed out of jail by the High Priest Rufus Laro, himself. Galdar was so ashamed of his actions, he re-doubled his efforts to study the religious rites of his sect, becoming an acolyte of the temple by the age of thirteen.

From that day on, Galdar made sure to steer clear of the many gangs and ruffians that haunted the docks and piers of Sasserine. However, the youth took a liking to one of the local gangsters, a young gnome named Gorbachev, and he set about with unwavering resolution to save the gnome from a life of crime. It was as if the reformation of Gorbi had become Galdar’s own path to redemption.

At first, Galdar’s words didn’t seem to have impact at all on the misguided gnome. But, during their first session, he realized the gnome was greedily eyeing the lunch Galdur had packed for himself earlier that morning from the Temple’s larders. After offering to share his lunch, Gorbi seemed to take to the lessons much better. So emboldened by his initial success, Galdar returned the next day with more lessons and a much larger sack of food.

Gorbi was smart and picked up on the many teaching of The Cudgel in a quick manner, but Galdar discovered that gnomes age much slower than humans do, and while the gnome was (in human years) relatively the same age as he was, Gorbi had actually been alive a lot longer, and, in Galdur’s eyes, those years had exposed the gnome to a lifetime of bad habits. He soon came to realize the redemption he sought may well take years to achieve! But Galdur was nothing if not determined.

Shortly after the beer-keg incident, Gladar and Gorbi met a strange elven girl on the docks named Kate. Kate wasn’t a law-breaker by nature, but she had an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge of several hundred isolated and cool spots throughout the city where the three of them could sit in peace, giving Galdar ample opportunity to “work on” his friend Gorbi.Af

About the time Galdur passed his final tests of communion and entered into the Cuthbertian clergy as an accolyte, he was struck by a vision while kneeling at the altar during morning prayers. In his vision, Galdur saw a laughing man in a strange hat who stood before him, supported by a gnarled staff of oak. The man pointed over Galdur’s head with the staff and laughed even more as he told him to leave the city and discover the world.

After the vision there were no more lessons concerning law and order for Gorbi. Galdur had a new obsession and he talked about it constantly, asking everyone he met the same question, “What lies beyond the city? What lies beyond the sea?”

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Gorbachev Mushroomnose was born in a cave. His mother and father; good, nature-loving, industrious members of the greater gnomish communities on the outskirts of Sasserine, could not imagine ever leaving the complex of tunnels they lived in. But, Gorbi could. Being at the latter end of a fourteen-gnome brood, Gorbachev was never satisfied with the divided attention he received from his folks. To make matters worse, he soon came to the understanding that his thirteen siblings were all just bat-guano-crazy for wanting to live there, too.

So, without so much as a wave good-bye, at the tender age of thirty-two, Gorbachev gathered up his meager possessions and left the caves and tunnels behind.

Sasserine was a huge metropolis, by gnomish standards, and was chock-full of people. Mostly humans, but elves and dwarves and halflings and half-orcs and even a few gnomes were crammed into the vast network of buildings around the bay. The place was noisy and messy and the people who lived there generally lacked a proper reverence for all things of nature – and Gorbi loved it!

It took little time for the wily gnome to figure out how to use his ‘talents’ to his advantage. His gnomish bloodline had equipped him with an innate talent for conjuring up small feats of magical illusions. From tiny sounds, to imaginary smells and the occasional glamor or two, Gorbi found way to entertain the locals and he was rewarded with coppers aplenty.

Soon his magic show caught the eye of a local gang known as the Salt Daggers and Gorbi found himself assisting the group with the occasional pickpocket, shell-game sham or minor burglary. During his tenure with the Salt Daggers, Gorbi saw his fortunes skyrocket.

One day, the Salt Daggers enlisted Gorbi for a major heist. They had tricked a young patsy, an innocent altar-boy from one of the temples, to put on a wig and push a baby carriage past the tavern front entrance. Gorbi, hiding in the carriage, used his magic to create a distraction while the rest of the gang snuck in the back in order to make off with several kegs of beer. The plan didn’t go off as outlined and Gorbi ended up in the local jail with the altar-boy. For some strange reason an uppity-up priest stopped by the jail and bailed him out

The altar boy sought him out the very next day, bearing a sack of food and honeyed words castigating a life of crime. Gorbi didn’t care much for the lectures, but the food was good – and free, so he put up with the kid. Inexplicably, the kid appeared the following day, and every day after that, with more lectures and more food.

One day, in between bites of kippered snails and sugary Urgothian Delight, a strange young elven girl approached them. She offered to show them a cool place in the shade for a bite of pastry. And every day after that, Gorbi found himself surround by either Kate or Galdar – usually both.

Eventually the lectures stopped. Kate taught Gorbi how to swim. Galdur began talking about faraway places. Kate obsessed over dragons. And the years rolled on. Until one day . . .

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Umber Hulk Smash

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.

I shivered.

“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.

Oh, crap.

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.

Gulp.

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!”

Double, huh.

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.

Triple huh.

“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.

Quadruple huh.

I think we all will sleep with troubled dreams tonight.

~Fin

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A Much Needed Rest

Waterday, Rainyday 22 – Sunday, Darkday 26, CY 594

Ah, Diary. How I have missed you.

The Moonhowlers have taken a long-overdue break. The rainy season has passed and the plantations have all begun their third harvest of the year. I’ve never actually seen frost on the ground, but I’ve heard its quite common in the lands to the north. Even so, the season of Frostday has come and gone and we are deep into the season of Darkday. Twelve and a half weeks have passed since my last entry.

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The Jaunt to Mors Frigus

Godsday, Rainyday 21, CY 594

The first wave of bodies crawled, scraped and scrambled over the cliff side and begun tumbling down rocks and ledges toward our position. Their naked bodies, slick with greenish mud and grime, bounced off the terrain, oblivious to the damage

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Beholden Defenders

Moonday, Rainyday 20, CY 594

This was to be the most exciting day of my life. The day I truly begin as leader of my clan and regent of the Malachite Hold. Today, a delegation from the nearby clan of Duvek’s Mine was coming to town to meet with me. This was supposed to be my day. Oh, how wrong I was, Dear Diary. Please keep reading . . .

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Avian Immure

Sunday, Rainyday 19, CY 594

At the Bluecrater Academy Kenric awoke early and got right to work compiling a massive inventory of scroll, potions, books, parchment, quills, ink and all manner of gadgets and gizmos he would need on his investigation into the mysterious demi-plane, Mors Frigus. One of the magical incantations to help avoid planar effects was going to cost him 300 gold pieces alone! Yikes! Kenric also began a long morning of tracking down hopeful candidates to take with him on the journey. He was pretty sure the Seekers would join him, but he was also going to ask a couple of the canons, and he wasn’t so sure about them.

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Loot, Lessons and Drinking

Starday, Rainyday 18, CY 594

This morning the Moonhowlers all met up at the Shrine of Pelor for breakfast. Well, everyone except McCreedy, who had been eerily absent since we put the smack-down on the Ebon Triad a few days ago.

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