Wilderlands of High Fantasy

Cat and Mouse

What’s That Smell?

How anyone slept with the horrendous odor from the otyugh pit covering everyone but the gnome, was uncertain. But they did. It was impossible to tell how long they slept, underground in the abandoned drow tunnels that once housed the Octagon slaver group. But it didn’t seem all that long before the Professor was awake and heading for the supply room. He climbed the stack of crates to take another look at the stone globes that gave off the unearthly purple glow. The gnome decided they must be illuminated by a spell. He wondered where the nearest dark elf was that he could ask.

Eventually, the other members of the group stirred. “By the gods, that’s quite the smell,” Wynne said. “I don’t care who’s after us or where they are. We need baths, right now. There’s a bathhouse not too far away.”

Bad Company

At the first major intersection of the narrow streets of the Thieves Quarter, the Professor noticed a fresh handbill tacked on a nearby wall. “What’s this?” he said, reaching up and pulling it down. “Heavens! Looks like I’m famous,” he gasped, looking a little pale.

In the center of the newly-printed parchment was a fairly good likeness of the gnome alchemist, surrounded by the words, “Wanted. Dead or Alive. 10,000 gp. Arson, Murder, Theft. Inquire at the City Jail.”

“Wow, Professor, you’re worth quite a bit of gold. Maybe we could kill you and get the reward.” Wynne smiled.

“Oh, my,” the gnome said, looking again at the poster. “It does say ‘dead’, doesn’t it?”

Wynne pulled off her Hat of Disguise and placed it on the gnome’s head. “There. Now think of someone to look like.”

“How’s this?” the Professor asked. He looked like the mangy dwarf who assaulted Ingrid in the tavern he later burned to the ground.

“It will have to do,” Wynne sighed.

“I don’t understand, I didn’t murder anyone.” The gnome wrung his hands together. “It was self defense!”

“There may have been other people in the tavern when it caught fire.” Wynne considered for a moment. “But why now? And ten thousand gold? Seems a bit excessive. Oh, well. We’ll discuss it further after we get clean.”

It All Comes Out in the Wash

“Madam Belicose’s?” Darius asked, rolling his eyes. “Exactly what kind of bathhouse is this, Wynne?”

“One where you can get clean and something extra, if you like. I’m just getting clean. What you do is between you and whatever vows you took.” Wynne grinned evilly.

The reception area was finely decorated. The hostess looked at the group in disgust. The Professor asked, “Do you have public or private bathing areas?”

“You, sir dwarf (he was still disguised), can go right to the public bath. But hells,” the receptionist replied, holding her nose, “the rest of you will get rinsed off in the rainwater showers first. Then you can enter the public area. I won’t asked what happened. You look like you were shot at and missed, then shit at and hit.”

Later, after much scrubbing, the group sat in the warm water of an elaborate marble pool a good 20 feet on a side. An attractive and well-dressed middle-aged woman with fiery red hair entered, placing towels nearby each of them. “Wynne?” she said. “It is you. Ready to give up all that sneaking around and do some honest, and dare I say, sometimes pleasurable, work?”

“No thanks, Madam Belicose. I like my work just fine.” Wynne replied. Was her face red from the heated water, or some other reason?

“Well, it can’t be helped, I guess,” Madam Belicose replied. “And who are you?” she asked the Professor.

“Oh, just a nobody,” the Professor replied. The high-pitched voice of the gnome didn’t quite match the rough appearance of the dwarf he was disguised as. Madam Belicose gave him a hard look. The gnome made an attempt to lower the pitch of his voice. “Nobody at all.”

“Doesn’t matter to me who you are, or what you look like,” Madam Belicose said. “Just don’t start any trouble. Get clean, then get out.” She turned and walked away.

Darius shook his head. “OK, here’s what I think we should do. The three of you go back to the tunnels and do whatever. I’ll go to the City Jail and find out what I can about this bounty.”

“Great idea,” said the gnome. “I can look more at that lab. We should use that place as our headquarters, you know?”

Wynne started to say something, but thought better of it. No one knew that she intended to use those tunnels as the future home of a Thieves Guild, something the city lacked with all the gangs running crime. “Let’s go, then,” she said.

Back at the underground complex, Wynne and the Professor discussed many things, traps for the complex, expansions to the halls, and creating a hallucinogenic drug to sell for profit. Darius wasn’t around, after all.

Follow the Money

The City Jail was at the southern-most part of the Merchants Quarter, near the tunnel entrance that led to the Skandik settlement beyond the city. It was built of rough stone, with walls that must have been five feet thick. Guards flanked the open entrance doors. The guards nodded at Darius as he entered the building.

Inside was a simple reception room, with an annoyed looking guard behind a desk. “Yes?” he said.

“I’m here to find out about this bounty.” Darius placed a copy of the bounty notice on the desk in front of the guard.

“All I know is the little guy is dangerous. He was last seen with a female dwarf, could be an accomplice.” The guard pushed the poster back across the desk. Darius picked it up.

“It just seems strange, I worked with him not too long ago.” Darius said, tucking the notice in his cloak.

“You’d best be careful, you’ll end up getting pulled in for questioning.” The guard went back to his papers.

A door leading into the reception chamber opened. It was Captain Juran, who always seemed to show up when the gnome was causing trouble. “You, come into my office,” Juran said, motioning to Darius. The captain walked to his office, ushered the paladin in, and closed the door. He sat at the desk, motioning for Darius to sit down.

“Look,” Juran began, “you can cut the crap. I know why you’re here; you’re here to find out about the bounty on your friend. Here’s what I know. Two strangers came into the city yesterday, went straight to Duke Gadelen. Gave him ten thousand gold pieces in diamonds to allow them to post the bounty. That’s in addition to the ten thousand they’re offering for the gnome’s capture. Or demise. Either way, they lay claim to the gnome’s belongings, says he stole something from them.”

Darius furrowed his brow. “What did these two look like?”

“No idea. They’re being treated as VIPs, given rooms in the palace.”

“I see. Thanks for the information.” Juran nodded, and Darius left the jail.

Lest Ye Be Judged

Darius knew he couldn’t head straight back to the tunnels where the others were waiting. Anyone could be following him. So he found an inn in the Merchant’s Quarter called the Black Moon and rented a room for the night.

A couple of hours after sunset, as the paladin sat in thought by the light of a candle, a voice spoke. “Congratulations, Darius. The Octagon is no more.”

Darius tried to keep from jumping out of his skin. Another visit by the Invisible Judge. Perfect timing. “Thanks. It was strange, I didn’t have to talk the others into it very much at all. In fact, Wynne was quite anxious to do it.”

He was sure, even though he couldn’t see, that the Invisible Judge smiled. Her voice rang out again. “Yes, odd, isn’t it?”

Darius drummed his fingers on the table. “I’m sure you’ve heard about our problem?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Quite unsettling for you, I’m sure.”

“Any advice?”

“Sometimes when hunting a bear, you can either enter the bear’s cave, or, if he’s hungry, let him come to you. Or, you could just hope the bear doesn’t chase you when you run away.”

“Nice. So, now what?”

“I promised you that when you took down the Octagon, there would be someone who would take interest in you. That has happened. He wishes to meet you.”

Darius leaned forward towards the sound of her voice. “Very well. When and where?”

“As soon as you can get there. A tavern in the Thieves Quarter called the Blue Raven. He’ll be dressed in fine clothes, a red cloak, and a red scabbarded longsword on his back. He’s expecting you.”

Darius sighed. He was tired from the day’s events. “Should I mention you?” he asked. There was no answer. He strapped on his hammer and headed out into the night.

Friends in High Places

A lantern with blue tinted glass shone next to the painted wooden sculpture of a blue raven hanging over the door to the tavern. Darius went in, noting how calm the atmosphere was. No loud revelry here. A minstrel played a soft tune on a lute. Darius went to the bar and ordered an ale.

A man at the other end of the bar looked his way. The man wore a red cloak, and the strap of a red scabbard crossed his fine clothing. He beckoned to Darius, then disappeared behind a curtain at the back of the tavern. Darius followed.

The two sat down across from each other at a small table. The man in the red cloak pulled his hood back, revealing his face in the candlelight. “Do you know who I am?”

Darius kept his poker face. “You’re Serson, younger brother of Duke Gadelen.”

“That’s right.” Serson sat back in his chair. “And I recognize you, as well. Darius, right? Rommir run you out of town after you took down his bread-and-butter gang, the Ravens?”

“Yes,” the paladin replied. “I’m back, but still keeping a low profile.”

“Not to worry, your secret’s safe with me. That was impressive, taking out the Octagon. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Information,” Darius replied. “There’s a bounty of ten thousand gold on a friend of mine. A gnome. Who put it out?”

“Ah, yes.” Serson placed his hands together in front of him, resting his chin on the fingertips. “A strange pair. They were wearing dark red. Exactly the same shade, from head to toe. One was female, with form-fitting leather armor, the other in robes. Both wore deep hoods. No one I know got a look at their faces. Clothes and armor were of fantastic craftsmanship. The woman never spoke. The man had an almost musical voice, with a strange accent, as if Common was not his native tongue.”

Darius again kept his reactions in check. It sounded like the Lunari the Professor had a run-in with, but in red instead of brown. “Did they have any weapons?”

“No. Now, I have a task for someone who is effective and ruthless.”

“I wouldn’t say I was ruthless. I do what is necessary, following the precepts of my god.”

“Of course. Do you want to know what I have in mind for you and your group?”

“Sure.”

“There’s someone I want dead. Or at least taken out of play on a permanent basis. The captain over the Warwik City Guard, Garsen. I want him out of the way, so I can put my own man in his place.”

Darius sat up straight. “I’m not a murderer.”

“Of course not. This man greatly deserves to die, I assure you. His crimes are so numerous, we don’t have time to list them all.” Serson smiled.

“Why do you want someone you know as captain of the guard?” Darius asked.

“Simple, really. I want to undermine the Guard’s support for the Duke. And have that support transferred to me.” Serson paused. “I’m going to dispose of my brother and take the throne.”

Darius considered. The Duke of Warwik was a corrupt man, raking in money and power from the gangs and from a fleet of pirate ships that terrorized the Winedark Sea. But Darius was a holy warrior of Odin. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you with this.”

Serson sighed. “Very well. Let me know, through our mutual friend, if you change your mind. I have great things planned for this city, and could use someone like you. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a reputation to maintain. After all, I’m not drunk, and you aren’t a woman.” He smiled broadly. Serson was known to all as a drunken womanizer. Perhaps that was just a ruse.

Darius nodded, rose from his chair, and left.

Day of the Dead

Darius arrived back at the drow tunnels early in the morning. He had a lot to think about along the way.

“Darius, glad you could join us,” Wynne said. “What are we going to do about this bounty? What did you find out?”

Darius told the group of the mysterious pair that placed the bounty.

“They have to be Lunari,” the gnome exclaimed. But they were wearing red, not brown?"

“That’s right,” Darius replied. “I don’t think it’s the same people.”

“Maybe they’re a different faction, the same society, I would think, but…” The Professor’s mind raced.

“Well, perhaps we could… Wait a minute.” Wynne paused, and lowered her voice. “Stay here. Keep talking.” Wynne quietly got up from her chair. The others continued to talk about various things. They knew she must have heard something.

The rogue moved so quiet she could have surprised a mouse. She headed down the hall from the sleeping chambers they were meeting in, and peered around a corner at the main hall. Instead of the wide hallway being bathed in purplish light, it was completely and utterly dark. She listened intently. She heard the faint sound of a weapon being drawn. Wynne hurried back to the group.

The others looked her way, never stopping their fake conversation. Wynne whispered, “We are something that starts with an ‘F’, and ends in ‘ED’.”

The Professor looked puzzled. “Fed? No, I’m a bit hungry, actually.” Wynne gave him an angry stare. “Oh, I see. Take me there.” The gnome prepared a stink bomb, and when he and Wynne reached the corner, he threw it into what he hoped would be the center of the darkened hall. It exploded, and they heard the hiss of noxious gas filling the hallway. There was no sound of choking or even a cough. They crept back to the sleeping room.

“No reaction to the bomb,” the Professor said. “Ingrid, you can see in the dark, creep up there and see if you can see anything.”

Ingrid did her best to step quietly to the corner. She looked in horror at the main hallway. Even with her darkvision, she saw nothing but blackness. She made her way back to the others. “It must be a ‘deeper darkness’ spell. I’m not powerful enough to counter it.”

“OK, Darius said. “I’m going to go through it, and see if there’s a way past it.” He moved quickly to the hall and into the darkness.

Darius ran his left hand down the wall as he went. He heard two arrows go whizzing past his head and clatter onto the floor. After about 20 feet, he was struck in the side by a sharp blade that dug into his armor. It was a deep strike, and he felt his strength being drained away. Running on, he heard a clacking sound as something moved around.

Just before he exited the darkness at about 60 feet, he was attacked again by something wielding a sword. He was able to somehow deflect it. When he came out of the darkness, he was facing a skeleton wielding a scimitar. Definitely not the blade that had drained his strength, and not a black skeleton like the Professor had described. He fought back against the attacking skeleton as a second one flanked him. Their blows did not land.

Wynne heard a gravelly voice in the darkness of the hall. “The holy one is out of the way. Let’s go get the scroll.” And out of that magical darkness stepped four skeletons, completely black, with angry red points of light for eyes. All four held a short sword in each hand. One of them practically cut Wynne in half. Ingrid channeled the power of Odin, burning them, but it didn’t seem to affect them very much.

Wynne and Ingrid began to lose strength to the skeleton’s relentless attacks. “STOP!” the Professor yelled. “I’ll give you the scroll, just stop attacking my friends. We can’t win this, my friends. I’m sorry.” Wynne and Ingrid looked at the gnome, eyes wide.

“Tell them to drop their weapons,” one of the black skeletons demanded.

“Fine, all of you, stop fighting.” The Professor took out the shiny steel scroll case and handed it to the skeleton who spoke. The black-boned figure nodded, took the scroll and tucked it into this belt.

“You,” the skeleton pointed to one of his comrades. “Come with me.” The darkness in the hall faded, replaced by the strange purple light. The skeletons Darius were fighting turned to ash. The black skeleton with the scroll and another began to walk up the main hall, towards the exit. And Darius. The other two black skeletons moved to kill the gnome, the dwarf, and the rogue.

Darius could now see the two black skeletons coming his way, and that one of them had the Professor’s scroll tucked into its belt. “Oh, hell no. Yaghhhhh!” The paladin activated his ring of Thor’s might, and his hammer shone brightly with a holy glow. He charged forward, slamming his hammer into the leader of the skeletons. It howled in anger.

The other two heared their leader being attacked, and rushed to his aid. Darius laid into them, raining holy might on them, cracking their bones. The rest of Darius’ companions attacked the skeletons from the rear, and in the end, all four of the dark servants of Lord Amaroth lay in pieces on the floor.

Darius reached down and picked up the scroll tube. He handed it to the gnome. “I think you dropped this,” Darius said, grinning.

The Professor took the scroll. “You’re crazy. All of you. Crazier than me. We should all be dead, but we’re not. Just crazy.”

“This place has been compromised,” Wynne said, as Ingrid healed her wounds. “We can’t stay here right now. Let’s go.”

Desperate Times

“So what do we do?” the Professor asked.

“You, that’s sick!” a raggedy dwarf woman accosted the Professor. “I can’t believe you’d stoop so low, trying to look like that poor man. He lost both legs in that fire!” The gnome was still using the Hat of Disguise to look like the lecherous dwarf.

“Well,” the gnome replied, “he should have kept his hands to himself.”

“So, it IS you!” The dwarf woman ran off, likely looking for someone to collect the bounty.

“Bad choice of disguise, I guess. Here, how’s this?” The gnome now looked like a halfling woman in beggar’s rags. “So again, what do we do now? I mean, we could fake my death.”

“Yes,” Wynne added, “and we could get the reward!”

“Too dangerous. Even if the Professor could come up with a concoction to make him appear dead, when they don’t find the scroll on him, they’re liable to just kill him anyway,” Darius said.

“OK, what about this,” Wynne said. “I’ll ‘steal’ the scroll, and shop it around to some fences. That might draw them out, wanting to buy it.”

“Or kill you for it,” Darius added. “OK, where will you start?”

“I know of a wizard named Zamul. A fixer, if you will. He matches up wants with those who can fulfill them. A good place to start.”

As they were walking to the entrance to Zamul’s hideout, Darius spoke. “I know of someone who could probably help us, but he wants me to do something I can’t, in good conscious, do.”

“What’s that?” Wynne asked.

“He wants me to kill someone in cold blood.”

“Is it a bad person, an evil person?” the Professor asked. “I don’t see the problem, if it is.”

“Look,” Darius replied, angry, “the world is not that black and white. I wish it were, it would make things a lot simpler. I just don’t see everything in black and white.”

“I could probably come up with a potion to let you see that way,” the Professor chirped.

Darius sighed. “It’s a philosophical thing, Professor. Not literal.”

Wynne entered the tunnels underneath the Thieves Quarter, and sought out Zamul. She held back the flap across his doorway and went inside the cramped room. She was wearing the Hat of Disguise, attempting to look like a former member of the Ravens she remembered.

“Yes, my dear, what can I do for you?” the wizard asked.

“I’ve got a scroll I’m looking to sell. Here, take a look.” Wynne handed the corpulent man the scroll case.

“Unusual. Metal, fine quality.” He unscrewed one end. “And the threading here, so precise. Never even seen dwarven craftsmanship this good.” He cast a spell. “Not magical, at all.” He looked at Wynne. “You, however, are radiating Illusion magic quite fiercely. Not to worry, I don’t care who you really are.”

He reached inside the case and took out the scroll. He frowned. “This, however, is gibberish. What language is this? The drawings make no sense, and the lettering doesn’t even look like a real language. Code, maybe? Either way, you’re not going to get very much out of this through normal channels. I wouldn’t give you two coppers for it. Sorry.”

Wynne thanked the wizard, and left.

“No go,” Wynne said, after she met up with the others. “Guy says it is worthless.”

Darius thought. “We’ve got to lure them out. Meet them on our terms. Professor, take off the protection amulet Tiberius gave you, and maybe they’ll start tracking you again. We’ll set up an ambush in that abandoned warehouse we met Aterus in, and wait for whoever to show up.”

“Oh, very well.” The Professor removed the amulet, and looked around nervously.

“I’m sure they won’t show up that quickly. They have to be actively looking for you. As far as we know, anyway.” Darius was not completely convinced.

Come Into My Parlor

It was the wee hours of the morning when the enemy showed up at the warehouse. Darius had loosened some boards on one wall to make a third door they could escape out of. He was not expecting the enemy to show up hovering thirty feet above the roof of the abandoned warehouse.

A young man’s voice boomed through one of the large holes in the roof. A full moon shined silverly light through the holes, bathing swaths of the floor in a shimmering glow. “Come out with the scroll, or we’ll burn this place to the ground.”

“Go ahead,” the Professor yelled. He then downed a potion that made him even smaller, making him harder to hit.

Wynne climbed up a stack of crates and clambered out onto the roof. There she saw two figures hovering in the air. One was a man, but she couldn’t make out any details. The other was female, but with the head of a cat.

The humanoid cat swooped into the warehouse through one of the holes in the roof. Now that she was closer, they could see that she was wearing form-fitting red leather armor, had gray fur, orange cat-eyes, and an onyx gem the shape of a points-down crescent moon embedded in her forehead. She pointed her clawed hands at Darius and yelled, “Kasai-sen!” A long gout of flame shot from her claws and blasted Darius in the chest. He staggered back.

“Try this on for size,” the Professor shouted. He lobbed a stink bomb at the cat, and it exploded, causing her to cough and choke. She could do little else but move. So she did, racing back up into the sky. As she passed by the edge of the hole, Wynne leaped out, attempting to grab her. The cat dodged out of the way, and Wynne went crashing to the floor. She made a good attempt to break her fall, but it still knocked the wind out of her.

Ingrid called upon the might of Odin to allow her to rain down lightning on her foes. She hit the cat before she dodged out of sight over the roof. Darius hefted a javelin at the hovering man. It bounced off some invisible shield. The red-headed man laughed.

“Professor,” Darius said, moving towards the gnome, “give me the scroll.” Darius put the silver case in his pack.

The Professor climbed up another set of crates to the roof. He had to see who they were fighting. He could see Serin clearly with his low-light vision. The man was no longer wearing robes. He wore a red sleeveless shirt, red baggy pants, and had a black crescent moon, points down, on his forehead. The Professor couldn’t tell if it was a gem like the cat’s, or a tattoo.

“Who are you?” the Professor yelled.

“I am Serin,” the man replied, laughing.

“Are you here for the scroll?” the gnome shouted back. “If so, why don’t you ask for it?”

“You didn’t give it to anyone else who asked, right?”

“Well, yes.” The Professor didn’t know how to reply.

“Then I shall take it off your corpse.”

Ingrid called down another lightning bolt, this time on Serin. The lightning washed over him, revealing a globe that surrounded him. A pendant around Serin’s neck flashed when the spell hit it. The lightning didn’t get through. Serin laughed again.

Once the humanoid cat recovered from her nausea, she swooped down at the Professor. He activated another stink bomb and dropped down into the warehouse. The cat was not affected this time. She flew down into the warehouse once again. She shouted, “Hinoiki!” and breathed a cone of fire from her mouth, engulfing Ingrid and Wynne in the flames. The Professor tried to analyze the “spells” she cast with her shouts. While he was convinced it was arcane magic, it was being produced in a way he was totally unfamiliar with.

Darius roared, making his hammer glow with holy light. He charged the cat, and slammed the hammer into her, breaking bones and bruising flesh. She staggered, almost dead. Serin then yelled out, “Kuro-hi, retreat!” Kuro-hi launched herself skyward. But not fast enough. Darius landed another solid blow. The cat collapsed to the floor, barely breathing.

Serin frowned. A black hole in the sky, darker than darkest night, appeared behind him. He flew backwards into the darkness. The hole collapsed. He was gone.

Epilogue

They tied up and gagged Kuro-hi, the strange cat-like humanoid, and stripped her of her armor. The Professor analyzed it. “Neat! It’s magical, should protect quite well, and it is fairly fireproof! Even protects the wearer somewhat from fire!”

Wynne immediately peeled off her armor and put the dark red, form fitting suit on. She looked quite attractive in it, she thought.

Ingrid healed Kuro-hi’s wounds to the point she was conscious. Darius looked her in her cat’s eyes and said, “Do you understand me?” Kuro-hi merely stared back. He asked various questions, but it appeared that she could not understand him. Perhaps when Serin said, “Retreat,” that it was more like a trained command, rather than a word she understood.

The next morning, Ingrid went to a temple in the Priests Quarter and purchased a scroll that would allow someone to speak and understand any language. Wynne put a dagger to Kuro-hi’s throat. “Try any spells, and I’ll bleed you out.” The cat may not have understood common, but violence is a universal language.

Darius read the scroll, and nodded to Ingrid to remove the gag. “Now,” he said, “who are you, and why are you after the scroll?”

Kuro-hi licked her lips. “Eat s@#$, you rat-f@#% son of a b#@%&!” she shouted.

This was not going to be easy.

Comments

Scroll, scroll, who wants the scroll? Everybody, it would seem. I was surprised when they captured Kuro-hi, but it will certainly make things interesting!

Alas, we will not be playing this coming week-end, but should after that. Stay tuned!

Cat and Mouse
Blackskull

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