- The Next Step
- 1. Flights of Angels
- 2. A Glimmer of Hope
- 3. A Desperate Gamble
- A. Into the Abyss
- i. A Puzzling Perplexity
- ii. Ambush!
- iii. The Shores of the Forbidden Lake
- B. Khern Moldur
- i. A Counterfeit Ritual
- ii. At the Gates
- iii. Enemy in the Water
- iv. Errand Boys
- C. Plumbing the Dark
- i. A Searing Sauna
- ii. An Atypical Associate
The Next Step
Well, word of our last mission has certainly passed among the officers at the Shining Blade. They’re trying to keep news of what happened under wraps, but rumors will spread. You may find yourself a bit more ostracized by other agents, who are afraid you might “turn” at any moment.
Try not to let it bother you too much. As I’ve heard it said, “The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
For now, we must operate under the assumption that Umeren spoke truthfully about your condition in the temple. And that is enough to frighten even the most stoic of us.
We’ve been assigned two new party members; you may have met them already. I suspect our higher-ups are hoping to keep an eye on us. If we go rogue, at least this way the Order will learn of it. Please welcome these new compatriots as you would any other fellow agent; they deserve this much.
You’ve noticed we’ve been quartered at our Order’s offices in Hlammach; while nothing has been said officially, unofficially we’ve been barred from reentering Lyrabar. Essentially, we’re on “permanent deployment” until such time our loyalties can be resolved. To that end, I’ve been working with command (via long-range communication), and there are three options available to us. Please look them over and inform me which you feel has the best chance of success.
To Light and Truth!
–Chief Inspector Felkar “The Flummoxer”
1. Flights of Angels
“Rescue the soul.“
Umeren claimed that “not even the gods might discern” whether you were your original or a copy. That is not entirely true. Research at the Order confirmed that your patron deity will, in fact, know your original has died, the moment that your departed soul seeks entry into their realm.
Apparently this has not happened (yet).
Why have none of you yet been contacted by your deity or cut off from divine benefits? Put simply, bureaucracy. It takes time for the millions of sentient (and non-sentient) creatures that die each day to be sorted to their appropriate outer planes. We make use of red tape in the Order, and we’ve used it to our favor in hell; now might be the time to bend it to our will once again.
Find some way to travel to the Fugue Plane, where the recently-deceased await judgment by Kelemvor. Search for (and locate) your souls, should they be there. Prevent them from being judged and spirited away to their final destinations. Bind them with Order-provided Soul Cages and bring them back to the Shining Blade, where we can research how to re-incorporate them into your new corporeal forms.
Once your old souls have been affixed to your new bodies, experts believe this will override the activation phrase Umeren may have coded into each of your psyches–or, at least, give you a fighting chance at resisting its effects.
2. A Glimmer of Hope
“Command the mind.“
The most unsettling truth about being a potential sleeper agent for Juiblex is not what happens if one of us dies. Instead, it’s the knowledge at anywhere, at any time, a string of carefully-chosen words might turn us irrevocably against those we care for the most. Perhaps we should excise that power before it could be used against us.
The realm of the mind is a strange and foreign land to those who live in the sunlit lands of Faerûn. For those beneath the surface, however, it is a different story entirely. Civilizations of “psionic” creatures were once bred by tyrant foes, before they purchased their freedom through blood and violence. Others developed their powers naturally from the environment, or from their worship of specific gods. If anyone might know how to undo the trigger that lies deep within our conscience, it would be one of these.
Enter the Underdark and explore the nearby Glimmersea (directly underneath our Sea of Fallen Stars). Seek out and negotiate successfully with a civilization of psionic beings: the duergar, kuo-toa, quaggoth, or even drow would be sound choices. Let them dig through your thoughts and remove the code words that Umeren saw placed there.
Return with your minds still intact.
~ MISSION ACCEPTED ~
3. A Desperate Gamble
“Reclaim the body.“
I won’t lie; the concept behind this mission terrifies me the most.
Our study of Umeren’s ceremonial book revealed much of the power behind his rituals. One point in our favor is that Umeren drew his power from the worship of Juiblex, an aspect of the greater deity Ghaunadaur. To use a stage metaphor, Juiblex is the mannequin’s doll, while Ghaunadaur is the master magician.
A risky but intriguing proposition would be to cut out the middleman and direct source of Umeren’s power. For this very dangerous quest, we would seek out a high priest of Ghaunadaur himself and negotiate for (or force out) information needed to parlay with the Ancient One directly. Could such a deal be struck, the authority of the greater deity would override Juiblex’s power. It might even give us sway over Umeren directly.
It might also damn our souls.
The Sealed Vaults of the Order were unlocked for our benefit. There was word recorded in 1491 DR of a “Cult of Elemental Evil” in the Dessarin Valley, in northwest Faerun. A band of plucky adventurers were able to deal a final blow to what they described as the “Princes of the Apocalypse,” before assaulting a “Fane of the Eye.”
We suspect something still remains. Seek it out. And never let your guard fall.
Character Level: 7
Stated Mission: Explore the Underdark and negotiate with an entity capable of removing the activation phrases from each of your minds.
Equipment: Standard rules for a Requisition Note: 7,500 gp worth of gear (as per “Sane Magical Prices” list), including up to 1/3 value in consumables (2,500 gp).
Special: Each of these missions may require any or all skill sets available to the party, depending on how the objectives are approached.
A. Into the Abyss
i. A Puzzling Perplexity
[Editor’s note: The following section was penned by Alexis’s player.]
The sounds of the city started to pick up in the distance. Dawn would come soon. Streets awoke in grey mists and the sound of a thousand menial tasks being carried out.
Alexis growled in frustration as he threw the coils of wire through the room, causing a stack of book to topple over. Surely, someone was going to complain about the noise this time.
Tomes of knowledge and lore laid open everywhere the eye could land. He had been assigned a personal room – spacious by the standards of Candlekeep – and he quickly filled it with lecterns, pulpits, and shelves. It had even started to remind him of his Waterdhavian attic cache, back at the college.
The voiced echoed inward has his gaze fell on the closest book. “The spell doesn’t work like this. You should know that by now.”
It sounded as regal as it always had. As if “golden” were a sound. The tone was the same as ever, but had Alexis imagined the disappointment in this reminder? He answered aloud. “I’m aware. I just…I thought trying wouldn’t hurt, impossible as it may be.”
The spent scroll laid on the ground, drained of all magic. It had stopped glowing to the eyes of Alexis. By now, he was so accustomed to looking at the weave directly that he found himself forgetting to look at the matter behind it from time to time. There was an allure to the raw energies of creation binding the universe together.
His gaze wandered to the content of the scroll, only to find his master’s voice inscribed on the formerly enchanted vellum. “It would appear that it does. Not only are you attracting attention to yourself, you are quite literally killing yourself. I will have words with you when you awake.”
Alexis felt lightheaded. He had acquired four scrolls of sending from the order’s quartermaster, pre-texting the need to contact “family” about a “personal issue”. Not truly a lie…
What he did with said scrolls, however, was unusual. One tends to consider sending a message to oneself a waste of resources at best. Only, he did receive a message that he never wrote, penned by a hand that was his – and at the same time not – firmly stuck in a door, at the apex of an adventure of madness and slime.
The reasoning was sound. For Sending to work, one needs to be familiar with the recipient. Who else could claim to be more familiar with Alexis, if not for Alexis himself? The words of philosophers long past echoed in his brain – Know thyself. Can one truly know themselves?
The first spell had fizzled like a spark on wet powder. The approach was flawed; it was never going to work. Yet he persevered.
The second spell, well. Best not to dwell on that. Alexis had gone blind and deaf, and he swore he could taste purple.
The third one was concerning. He had heard his own voice, amplified, repeated…booming through his mind with the speed of a gale, and the might of a storm. He had felt himself drown in the noise, being carried away like a ragdoll in the tempest that had shook his self.
Blood was now soaking the parchment, dripping from his chin. His sight was lost in a drench of red. He suppressed a choke, as drawing breath only served to pull blood from his nose to his throat. His mouth tasted of copper and failure. Soon, he would collapse.
With a little remainder of clarity, he willed himself forward toward the bed, dripping crimson over the carpets. He lay down. Dawn, crueler than it had ever been, forced its way through the window’s shutters.
Alexis drifted in a dream of lost ego.
Something was not right.
He tried to run; something was staring at him from behind his mind.
“WAKE! UP!” The cold water hit him like a wave. Alexis startled awake. By the look of it, dawn had gone merrily away, and the sun of midday shone on the streets below.
Felkar stood there, holding a now empty pitcher. “What happened there? Did you give them a black eye at least?”
“The thugs who beat you down and turned this place inside out, of course!”
Alexis suddenly became aware of the sorry state of his shirt. The blood had caked over his clothes and face, and a piercing headache was promising hell in the near future.
The room was a mess. Scrawled sheets were scattered through and through. Ritual signs scribbled in charcoal covered half the furniture. A full vertical third of his cupboard had mysteriously vanished, cleanly cut from existence.
Alexis turned his eyes to Felkar. He must be concerned – he thought – even if he does not let it show. Better make up for it with at least a modicum of honesty.
“I…” He exhaled. “Sorry Felkar, that would be my own fault. I had a bright idea last evening, and well, I tried to apply it.”
“The Sending scrolls?”
“You signed a requisition form, Alexis. Wasn’t hard to track down, you know?”
“Ha,” Alexis muttered in what sounded like a laugh, “it must look silly, doesn’t it?”
The gnome sighed. “It’s not silly if it works. Any results?”
Alexis finished wiping his face on the defiled remnants of his shirt, before replying. “Well. I can provide the order with some pertinent insights on why trying to bend the universe into contacting yourself could be considered a self-defeating endeavor. Certainly, the librarians would get a chuckle out of that one.”
“I’m sorry to say that you are not to abuse magic – or yourself – in such a manner inside of the compound. You’ve been warned.” Felkar shook his head. “If you feel the compulsion to do something so incredibly stupid again, you’ll get it approved by me, and supervised by a healer.”
The small figure spoke without turning as he moved toward the door. “There’s a platter of soup, bread and cold cuts outside your door. You’ve missed lunch.”
Alexis was alone again. Not alone though. “You will be soon be sent under the glimmering sea. You should go prepared. Let me teach you the secret of breath, and why it is not always required.”
The earth beneath the feet of all who lived in Faerûn was far from solid ground. Instead, thousands upon thousands of miles’ worth of caves and caverns twisted through the rock. Entire civilizations lived their lives in these dark recesses, many of whom would go to their graves with no knowledge of the surface world. The “Underdark” was the name given to these treacherous depths by those of the overworld, and the “Glimmersea” the ocean that awaited at its furthest depths.
With little light to rely on, many native species had turned to other methods of sight and communication. One of these was psionics–the study and mystical use of the mind. Who else, indeed, would be better equipped to sift through the agents’ brains.
Luckily, the agents would not need to make the full twenty-mile-journey straight down to where the true Glimmersea awaited. Waters from the Sea of Fallen Stars spilled through cracks in the rock, spilling their way down through subterranean streams. In the end, all waters emptied into the Glimmersea, but at times they rested in lakes and pools along the way.
Thanks to information gathered from the Order’s divination network, the agents were aware of one such unnamed underground lake roughly six miles under the earth. A concentrated number of psionic beings were sensed there; and the agents (now “Operatives”) had reequipped and readied themselves for the venture.
There existed no simple staircase for the party to take advantage of. Instead, they made their way to a well-known entrance to the Underdark somewhat north of Lyrabar and Hlammach, via the Hill of Tombs. Felkar estimated it would take perhaps three days of arduous up, down, and sideways travel before they reached their goal.
The first day went without major incident, and the agents were able to either avoid or scare off any predators they encountered. It was on the second day, however, when they’d officially crossed the three-mile-boundary into the “Middledark,” that things took a turn for the worse.
The party of adventurers were making their way through a system of narrow, winding corridors when the attack began. Gorodash and Rock were leading the way, while Felkar and Finric (a newly-assigned halfling agent) brought up the rear. Charli and Alexis were in the middle, carrying on light conversation, when the ceiling above them suddenly collapsed.
Supremely adept on his feet, Charli dodged out of the way of even the fastest rock. Alexis was not as lucky, and he was pummeled before he managed to escape.
Shouts in Undercommon alerted the party to nearing marauders. With the ceiling trap sprung, the party was now effectively cut in two, their backs against the wall. It was an ambush!
Thanks to a Helm of Comprehend Languages, Alexis understood what was being spoken. Orders were being given to take them alive; these were likely slavers! He called out this vital information to the party, but there were more vile surprises in store.
On either side of the fallen rock trap, large ape-like beetles burst from the walls where they had been waiting. Each had two pairs of eyes–one from which to see, and one from which to be seen. Rock-in-Water felt a wave of disorientation wash over her as she locked eyes with this second pair; she began swinging wildly in her confusion. Gorodash took the brunt of one of her attacks, and he was happy she was not currently in her bear wild-shape.
Further orders were barked, and the Umber Hulks retreated from view, withdrawing back into their rocky clefts. The drow warriors, satisfied with how disarranged their quarry were, began the third wave of the attack. Three poisoned crossbow bolts found their way through Gorodash’s armor, and he fell into a messy, snoring heap.
The drow were not prepared, however, for a coordinated counter-attack.
Noting that Gorodash had only succumbed to a light sleeping poison, Rock kicked him awake while casting a Spike Growth to fill the room holding the drow.
The three agents then made quick mincemeat of the drow ambushers. Rock cast a Thorn Whip, yanking one of the drow ten feet towards Gorodash. The orc then pummeled him with a Thunderous Smite, knocking him ten feet back again. Charli supported from range with an Explosive Arrow, forcing the other two drow to the ground.
Each time they buffeted the drow, Rock’s thorny ground further cut and wounded the assailants. As soon as the first fell, the other two broke and ran. It did them little good; the three agents chased after them and quickly ended them.
Unfortunately, the battle did not go as well for the agents caught on the other side of the cave-in. Seeing the approaching drow warriors, Alexis strode boldly up to them, opened his book to activate his Shielding Aurora, and said, “Turn and leave now. You will find us capable foes.”
The nearest drow smirked and unsheathed the two scimitars at their hips. Within a few swings, they had reduced Alexis to unconsciousness. They too had seen their share of combat.
“Tough crowd,” he muttered sullenly. He then raced to where Alexis lay to (unsuccessfully) keep him from bleeding out. A poisoned crossbow bolt later, and he too was snoring on the rock floor.
Finric, a halfling ranger agent who’d just been assigned to the team, was having difficulties of his own.
First, his own wolf “Fang” had bit him in the leg after looking directly at one of the Umber Hulks. Then, Fang had difficulty moving across the cavern to engage the drow; Finric had volunteered his beast friend to haul some of their needed supplies, but these now bounced and dragged behind the wolf as it moved. Finally, after seeing both Alexis and Felkar go unconscious, and knowing his pet was no match for all three drow warriors at the same time, he attempted to find cover. But the situation was looking bleak.
Luckily for him (and Alexis and Felkar), the other three agents had just finished repelling their own ambush. Discovering another nearby tunnel that ran parallel, Gorodash, Rock, and Charli raced to assist.
Having been only interested in capturing new slaves and not in fighting to the death, the last three drow also attempted to flee. They were unsuccessful. Keeping one alive to interrogate might have been a good idea, but the agents quickly dispatched all opposition in their fervor.
Put back on his feet by a handy Aura of Vitality from Rock, Alexis woke the snoring gnome figure beside him.
“I was having the most pleasant dream,” Felkar sighed. “I dreamed I was back on the stages in Seghaunt, and everyone was happy to see me. Now I’m back here…miles underground.”
Alexis apologized for the necessity of waking him, and the group quickly searched the bodies of their would-be captors. They discovered a few items that might prove to be useful later…
• Blue spectacles • Greatclub • Pair of Engraved Bone Dice • Potion of Greater Healing • Potion of Poison • Quartz • Rope, Hempen (50 feet) • Small Mirror Set in a Painted Wooden Frame • 170 gold pieces, 170 electrum pieces
Charli and Rock also put their heads together over the significance of the drow’s presence. Charli knew that there were no large drow cities nearby, indicating these few had been out on some form of extended expedition for slaves. If the agents were lucky, these might be the only drow they’d encounter in their time underground.
Rock recalled that duergar and drow had a complicated “relationship.” At times they warred; at others, their merchants traded slaves and weapons. In either case, she and Charlie took the ears of the fallen drow as grisly trophies; they might soon meet duergar with no love lost for the dark elves.
iii. The Shores of the Forbidden Lake
It was on the third day that their underground tunnel finally ended, opening out into a large water-filled cavern. It was a bit over two miles to the other side of the lake they beheld, and perhaps the same distance from side-to side.
To their left, about a half mile north along the coast, tall smokestacks spewed ash and smoke into the darkness. The sounds of distant dwarvish hammers could be heard, and flickering window lights dotted the northern cavern wall like fireflies in a nighttime forest. Nearer the shore of the lake, a thirty-foot stone wall divided the cavern, keeping safe the inhabitants of the forges.
Even from where they stood, the agents could make out the solid, stoic facets of dwarvish architecture…though this far underground, it was likely the work of duergar.
To their right, the lake stretched beneath intermittent cascades of water: underground channels leading from the Sea of Fallen Stars, six miles straight up. A mammoth column of stone connected the lake floor to the ceiling, and bluish bioluminescent bulbs glowed within crevices. Similar lights are also visible under the water, illuminating humanoid silhouettes that sometimes passed in front.
There was some form of village here, straddling the boundary between water and air. Perchance the kuo-toa awaited a visit.
Finally, to the far east, where the cavern was most still, the waters hovered over a dark, empty zone. No lights nor movement disturbed these blackened depths.
The agents updated their maps, quickly conferred with each other, and made for the nearer stone fortifications. They would meet with the duergar first.
The party’s map, as of 29 Kythorn:
- Entrance to the subterranean lake
- Waterfall inlet
- Duergar walls
- Massive stone column connecting floor and ceiling
- Deepest portion of the lake
- Outlet leading further into the Lowerdark
Map is drawn 1/100th scale.
I.e. each square represents 500 ft. x 500 ft., and ten-and-a-half squares equals one mile.
The lake is over two miles at its widest.
B. Khern Moldur
i. A Counterfeit Ritual
The agents took a short rest near the inlet where the underground river emptied into the lake. They had a few day’s worth of rations with them, but these were intended for emergencies. Instead, for sustenance each day, Rock-in-Water would cast Create Water, and Finric would use Goodberry.
The only material component Finric required for this food substitute was sprigs of mistletoe. When he had been asked why he’d packed a bag of twigs for the trip, he’d joking informed them that it was “their dinner.”
As they rested, Gorodash unfolded the handwritten letter he kept in his pocket. Julia, the orphan girl whose monthy tutoring he was paying for, had sent it to him. The scrawling loops had been set down awkwardly, and there were several places where mistakes had been blotted out. Still, the girl had managed to put down on paper a message likely dictated to her by her teacher.
“Thank you for rescuing me and giving me a chance for new opportunities in Lyrabar. Sincerely yours, Julia.”
Gorodash smiled as he looked over the loops and lines, before having Alexis read it to him again. Someday, Gorodash too might seek out a tutor to teach him to read and write Common; he was literate in Orc, but could only speak the language shared by most overworld races.
As the group neared the dwarven city walls, they noticed a small hilltop near their path. On its flat surface, a large ritual circle in the form of a pentagram had been created. Ever curious on topics of the arcane, Alexis immediately approached.
Alexis noticed immediately (thanks to his eldritch sight) that nothing showed magical about the ritual circle. Additionally, there were no runes or sigils that normally accompany such a design to give it arcane power. Alexis only discovered a thin layer of soot along the lines, as if some material had been burned here, though he could not tell what.
The student of the arcane scratched his head in confusion. “As far as I can tell, this means nothing and does nothing. Perhaps it was put here by…a cargo cult?” Here he referenced magic practitioners who had simply imitated the forms of ritual casting, without comprehending any of the technique behind it.
A shifting of nearby pebbles caught Charli’s keen ears. Just for a moment, the others next to him thought they saw the rogue quickly flick out a forked tongue to test the air.
“There’s something nearby,” Charli signed to the others, using the hand signals taught to them by the Order. “Down in that ravine.”
On Finric’s direction, his wolf Fang was able to stealthily circle around and scent the exact location of the hidden entity. The party remembered from their research that duergar could innately turn themselves invisible; perhaps this was just such an individual. Alexis cleared his throat and addressed the creature directly, indicating they meant it no harm, and it was free to reveal itself if it so chose.
In response, an aged duergar male winked into view. He introduced himself as Ebtharn Hornblower, a weary outcast from the nearby duergar city of Khern Mordur. His job had once been to blow the city horn during great emergencies; but recently, the “First Citizen” had replaced him with a much younger candidate. Now functionless and no longer contributing to the “Commune” of his city, Hornblower had decided to become an outcast and seek his final fortunes elsewhere. The only other choice would have been to slowly waste away within the walls of his one-time home.
After all, all who lived in the Underdark ultimately answered to one law: the law of scarcity. There were no fertile farming grounds here, no sprawling orchards. And when there were too many mouths to feed and not enough food, someone had to be cast to the side.
“Are there any other creatures down here we should be aware of?” Rock asked.
“Aye, the lot of ye keep yapping as loud as ye have been, and you’ll find them. Or rather, they’ll find you.”
Hornblower went on to mention the kuo-toa (though his slur of choice was “lazy finner”) and how they’d “gut you as much as look at you.” While he remained terse with his conversation, he did let on that the fish people were “only good for something once you took a whip to their hides.” This heavily implied that the duergar and kuo-toa had some form of “working” relationship…although precisely what Hornblower didn’t explain.
Even though he’d revealed his presence to the agents, it was obvious the outcast was distrusting, and he wouldn’t grant more than a general lay of the land. Charli and Alston (another recently-assigned team member) estimated they’d learned all they could from Hornblower. At their suggestion, the party left the outcast to his fate.
Rock-in-Water made sure to wipe clean the ritual circle as they left. She recalled how dangerous such things could be, from her brief time in hell.
ii. At the Gates
The nearest gate of the city seemed well-patrolled by guards and archers. Charli argued that any form of stealth in their approach would only give cause for suspicion, and the party walked calmly up to the front gates.
At first, the guards were loudly talking and laughing among themselves, paying no heed to what was happening outside the walls. When hailed openly by Gorodash, they seemed suddenly startled (and perhaps even self-conscious). In unison, every visible duergar at the gates and on top of the city wall disappeared.
The party hailed again, describing themselves as non-hostile travelers from the overworld, not looking to cause harm but instead seeking out help from persons of notable psionic talent. Apparently, they were persuasive enough that the Captain of the Guard decided to hear him out, returning himself to visibility.
Already versed in Undercommon and having done plenty of his own research into the duergar, Finric the ranger quickly became the “face” for their party. Unfortunately, while the Captain had not ordered a volley of crossbow bolts on the agents, the duergar was still quite unfriendly to these overworlders.
“Save me your ‘white-skin savior mentality,’” he growled. “Let me guess…you’re coming from your little ‘points of light’ cities, surrounded by untamed wilderness, to bring civility to us barbaric savages of the unsettled lands? Well you can turn right around and go back where you came from. I can already see you want something from us, and that’s the only reason your sword is still sheathed. We’ve been doing just fine without you…no matter what you overworlders might have done to us in the past.”
The agents considered the history of the duergar. They’d been shunned and even hunted by every species of the overworld they’d encountered, even the Shield Dwarves they’d once called brothers. Duergar had been on their own for over five thousand years now, gradually spreading through the reaches of the Underdark, but one fact remained constant: their fear of outsiders had kept them alive.
A new voice called out from behind them. “What ho, are these overworlders giving you trouble, Captain?” Quickly approaching was a duergar rider atop a large arachnid-like creature, drawing behind it a cart. Inside the cart was salvage, loot, and items likely collected from monsters in the underdark.
(Rock in water was elated by the sight, as she had studied steeders and the duergar’s use of them as mounts. She was further delighted by the sounds of multiple, invisible creatures moving about them. Trained duergar riders could turn both themselves and their steeders invisible–though perhaps not also a pulled cart–and the agents were currently surrounded by duergar cavalry.)
This Bhardek Darkdelver seemed willing to at least listen to the agent’s words, and after escorting his invisible troupe inside the walls, he returned for a parley. When it was suggested that the two sides could come to some form of mutually-beneficial arrangement, though, he scoffed openly.
“We dwarves are for the dwarves!” he announced, repeating some kind of Khern Moldur-specific mantra they’d also heard from Hornblower. He went on to specifically reference the history of the duergar, including their one-time slavery to the mindflayers, whom they’d warred with for their own freedom. He elucidated how the duergar had persevered against all odds, in the unforgiving environment of the underdark, against innumerable enemies; and that they certainly didn’t need any help from upstart overworlders.
This exchange was being conducted entirely in Undercommon, and a number of the agents present had to be left out. Gorodash, one such agent, used Detect Thoughts to gauge the surface thoughts and emotions of their newest acquaintance. He could tell Darkdelver was not being entirely truthful; there likely were ways the agents could help those at Khern Moldur, but it was important to the duergar to “save face” and not admit weakness. It would take more than an open palm of friendship to sway this dwarf.
Finric displayed some of this Goodberries and offered to show the duergar the secret to making them, as it would help reduce the dependence on overburdened farming plots.
Darkdelver put his hands on his hips. “All right then, overworlder. Here’s my proposition to you. Put the berries down and walk away.”
Finric blinked in confusion. “You just want us to just give you the berries? With nothing in return?”
Darkdelver laughed harshly. “Oh, I see how it is. You overworlders kill and steal and take as much as you’re able, but as soon as you encounter someone who can defend themselves, then it’s suddenly all about ‘fairness.'”
“Do you think we’d lie to you? Or try to poison you? How would that benefit us?”
Darkdelver crossed his arms in front of him. “The duergar wouldn’t still be here today if we simply trusted every sweet-talking stranger. You have my proposal, and my proposal is simple. Put the berries down and…walk away.”
Finric narrowed his eyes and studied the dwarf’s unmoving form. He sensed this was some form of test being put to him…but it was a test with hidden rules and expectations.
The agents quickly conferred together in whispered tones. They decided that, for now, they would do as Darkdelver suggested. Pressing the issue would probably not be in their best interests, and they could see how the duergar felt on the morrow.
As they left, Darkdelver waited until they were nearly out of sight, then collected the goodberries.
iii. Enemy in the Water
The agents settled on an area of flat ground near the shore for their nighttime shelter. The waterfall had been too noisy to let them hear approachers, and the ritual hill had been too unnerving. Working together, Felkar and Finric stacked spells of Leomund’s Tiny Hut and Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum, ensuring it would be very difficult to be assaulted in the night.
Finric and Fang were on the fourth and final shift of the night, watching the water from behind their impenetrable fields of force. Finric’s sharp eyes noticed gathering ripples in the water–incoming V-shaped waves that suggested creatures approaching from beneath the surface.
Sure enough, four kuo-toa (herding ahead two large lobster-like monsters sporting tentacles) emerged from the water and tested the barrier. Thanks to Leomund’s Tiny Hut, the agents were hidden and unassailable, though Finric could watch the creatures easily.
“What is this?” the creatures muttered among themselves. (They spoke Aquan, another language Finric claimed knowledge of.) “This thing is new. Does it hold food? Potential slaves?”
Eventually the kuo-toa came to some form of consensus and slipped back beneath the waves. Finric noted there were no ripples returning out to the open water.
Finric took the opportunity to step just outside the bubble. He spoke towards the water, also in Aquan: “We are not easy prey. You will find easier food elsewhere.”
One of the lobster-like monstrosity suddenly burst from the water at him, having hidden just nearby. Finric had been anticipated this, and he pivoted back inside the force field. Try as it might, the lobster-thing could not penetrate the Tiny Hut.
Two large and angry kuo-toa eyes broke the surface of the water and glared at the enclosure. After half a minute of seething rage, the attackers turned away. A procession of ripples towards the center of the lake announced their withdrawal.
Charli and Alston, light sleepers who awoke at the explosion of water, asked Finric what was happening. Finric assured them everything was well handled, and to simply go back to sleep.
The next morning, after Finric had explained the events of the night, a few of the agents decided to take a quick swim. Alexis, Charli, and Finric (who all had some means of underwater breathing and quick escape) scouted the immediate area.
There was no kuo-toa architecture here; instead, caves and crannies indicated where sizable monsters had punched their own homes out of the solid rock. The three decided not to go house-calling, and they returned to the group.
iv. Errand Boys
The agents returned to the gates of Khern Moldur the next morning, to see if any progress had been made in the duergars’ temperaments. As they approached the gate, they noticed a kuo-toa delegation delivering goods.
Rock-in-Water noted barrels of silt and sand-covered materials, notably gems, ore, and metal. While the duergar accepted the offering, they made no pretense of camaraderie. Instead, they openly complained about the quality and quantity of the materials, and they periodically boxed the kuo-toa about the ears during the process.
The kuo-toa were silent during the whole affair; they scurried back towards the water as soon as the duergar withdrew their attention, their fish heads hunkered low.
Once the materials had been delivered inside the gates, the three duergar inspectors approached the party. The agents recognized Darkdelver from the day before. With him were two new representatives. All three argued loudly, talking over each other about who should make demands first.
Eventually, it was Darkdelver who hailed them. He explained that Finric’s goodberries had been reviewed by the city council, and the First Citizen had declared the agents might be of use after all. There were a few dangerous tasks whose completion could benefit the duergar, and these required a level of skill not expected of the kuo-toa. (Additionally, the duergar were more willing to risk outsiders than their own.)
Each of the duergar representatives approached the party to introduce themselves and make their demands known.
“Name’s Gwynselle Goldbender. I’m the enchanter here; I make the magical standardized amulets, armor, and weapons we pass out to our people. And I can’t do that without precious gems and metals, like gold, rubies, and diamonds. The same precious gems and metals that those stupid finners are digging out of the lake for us. And you can guess how much you can trust one of them.
“My ma always told me, ‘A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure; filled it with vice, and called the thing a finner.’ Fact is, finners are lazy, selfish, lie-abouts who wouldn’t be good for anything if somebody wasn’t constantly watching them. And you can bet they’ll stab you in the back as soon as you turn it.
“The finners are hiding something, obviously, and I want to find out what it is. They lie as much as they breathe, and I’m tired of them always thinking they’ve pulled one over on us. I suggest going to where the water empties out at the far end of the lake, where the finners dig through the silt that piles up. See what they’re keeping from us. Or, just go straight to their little stinking mudholes on that column of rock and beat the fear of Laduguer back into them. Either way works for me.”
Nearby, another duergar pursed his lips as he waited for the woman to finish. He addressed the party with a quieter, more refined voice. “Name’s Grenmund Forgemaster, and I oversee the forges here at Khern Moldur. I keep the fires running and the hammers pounding.
“As you may have noticed, we’re rather far underground and removed from any trees to use for fuel. The coal veins we’ve dug into have started to run out, and we need fresh options. Plus, we’re always looking for new rare metals for our strongest weapons and armor. There are two ways in which you could assist me.
“First, there is a river of magma somewhat to the east. I’ve always wanted to tap into it to fuel our fires longer and hotter, but it’s guarded by a nest of salamanders. Leftovers of an intrusion from the Elemental Plane of Fire, perhaps. I need them cleaned out.
“Or, second, there is an earth elemental that has been hampering our mining efforts for rare metals. It sniffs them out first and gobbles them up before we can claim them. I’m aware it hides somewhere northeast of our city. I need it felled.
“Accomplishing either one of these tasks would be of great service to me.”
“And you’ve met me, Bhardek Darkdelver! I keep the area around the city safe, taking down rogue vermin and wandering creatures, keeping our miners and farmers safe. On top of that, I bring back any loot or salvage I find in my patrols. The lot of you seem like you have big strong arms, and perchance a willingness to bash in a few monster skulls. Maybe together we could finally take out that colony of Cloakers I’ve always wanted a swing at, or maybe a Howler or two. They’d not be easy prey; what do you say?”
The agents conferred among themselves. They gathered that it would not be necessary to aid the duergar in all their missions…but the more that was done for the colony, the more receptive to their requests the duergar would be.
“And if we do this thing for you, you’ll help us with what we need?” Finric asked.
“No, each of us will put in a good word for you,” Gweynselle Goldbender corrected. “And if you do enough for us, we just might introduce you to the guy you’re looking for.”
“I’ll have to warn you, though,” Bhardek Darkdelver added, “that he’s a bit of an…oddball. He’s a derro. Quite mad in the head, of course, but if you’re looking for a psion of talent, it’d be he.”
The agents grimaced as they exchanged glances. A derro was not high on their list of creatures they wanted scrounging around inside their heads, as derros were just as likely to do it with a pickax as any thing else. (There were several theories on the origins of derros; one of these postulated derros were a form of duergar whose minds had been especially broken by the illithid.) But beggars could not be choosers.
Besides, there was the off-chance they’d encounter another being of talent while down in the Underdark.
The party’s map, as of 30 Kythorn:
- Entrance to the subterranean lake
- Waterfall inlet
- Khern Moldur main gate
- Kuo-Toa city
- Deepest portion of the lake
- Lake outlet / “silt mines”
- Mysterious ritual circle
- Towards the duergar farming caverns
- Towards the duergar ore mines
- Towards the magma river
Map is drawn 1/100th scale.
I.e. each square represents 500 ft. x 500 ft., and ten-and-a-half squares equals one mile.
The lake is over two miles at its widest.
C. Plumbing the Dark
i. A Searing Sauna
The party decided first to clean out the nest of salamanders infesting the nearby magma river. The location was only a little east outside the city walls; a few duergar were dispatched to open the entrance to the river, which had been sealed with large boulders for safety. (Felkar remained behind near the city gates with the rest of their supplies, which would be unnecessary for this venture.)
The salamanders proved to be a fairly straightforward task. The agents sighted them relaxing within the flowing magma itself, as if they were lounging in a steamy sauna after a long day. So preoccupied were the salamanders with their diversions that they did not even notice Gorodash lumbering in his full plate armor.
The agents hatched a quick battle plan and assaulted their foes. Alston quickly gained control of the field with a well-placed Magnify Gravity, while Alexis bedazzled two of the monsters via a Hypnotic Pattern. The other agents piled on the damage at range; and while salamanders were naturally tough, they were heavily outnumbered.
Only Gorodash faced any real danger, meeting his foes head-on. He was singed by sparks of lava with each swing he took, and (at one point) he became grappled by one of the salamander’s tails. His friends downed the creature before it could pull him under the magma.
With the location secure, the agents searched the area for usable items. Some nearby crates, left over from an abandoned duergar mining venture, held a few items of note. Thanks to an Identify ritual cast by Alston, the party was able to properly catalog what they found:
• Embroidered Silk Handkerchief • Fresh Flowers • Onyx • Potion of Climbing • Potion of Greater Healing • 5 Sling Bullets • Trident • 60 Gold Pieces, 120 Electrum Pieces
ii. An Atypical Associate
Before returning to boast of their successes, the crew decided to also eliminate the earth elemental that had been plaguing the dwarvish miners. From Forgemaster’s description of the beast (and how it could pass easily through stone), the agents agreed it sounded like some form of Xorn. Its lair was nearby (to the northeast of Khern Moldur), and the agents took a short rest before continuing.
As they traversed the caves, they came upon a scrawny dwarvish figure with white hair and even whiter eyes. “Arr!” the figure squawked as they came into view, “do ya hafta bumble about, shouting so loudly? I can ‘ardly hear myself think!”
The agents exchanged confused glances. No one had said a word in the past few minutes.
The misshapen dwarf continued. “I came all the way out ‘ere, away from all the noisy people in their noisy city, and ‘ere the lot of you come! Should have known I’d get no peace and quiet.”
“But…we haven’t said anything yet,” Charli ventured.
“Sure as the nose on my face ye ‘ave been!” the figured returned. “You’re just not saying it with your lips is all!”
The agents quickly exchanged looks of comprehension. The duergar had mentioned a derro of unique psychic abilities; this was likely he, and he was doomed to hear the thoughts of any and all about him.
“And that book isn’t exactly helping!” the derro said, pointing a long, thin finger at Alexis’s tome. “Bright as daylight, and just as noisy!”
“What’s your name?” Charli asked.
“Magrik,” the other said, combining it with a loud hacking cough that might or might not been part of the proper pronunciation.
Charli continued. “We were told that–maybe–you might be able to help look inside our minds. We think something might have been placed there that we need removed.”
“So, ye want me to pick yer brains? Sure, I can do that.” Here Magrik hefted a pickax menacingly.
“That looks like it might be painful,” Charli noted.
“Nah, don’t worry, I won’t feel a thing.”
Alston studied Magrik carefully. The derro didn’t seem to be overtly hostile towards the agents…thought it was difficult to ascertain the motive of such a confused and muddled mind.
“Fine, I could always use me ‘andy sack to ‘elp ye,” Magrik muttered, sensing the growing apprehension. “I ‘afta warn ye, though, I never know what’s going to come out.”
The agents eyed Magrik’s “sack” with suspicion. Not only was it obviously empty, but there was a large tear near the bottom. Alexis’s eldritch sight also showed nothing special about either the bag nor the being that held it.
However, upon placing his skeletal arm into its depths, the derro withdrew a small nightcap.
“Ah, someone’s thinking about sleeping,” he declared. “I can tell by this nightcap. I ‘ear their thoughts, even out ‘ere.”
“Is…that actually the person’s real nightcap, all the way from the city? Or is it just a psychic representation of one?”
“Ah!” chortled the derro, “that’s a fine question! I don’t know! Never been able to check.” He placed the nightcap back into the sack, where it mysteriously disappeared.
Next from the bag was a small and squirming shape.
“There ye are!” he announced, apparently recognizing the large-brained rat he’d caught with his hand. “Was wondering where ye went, ye little scoundrel. Where ye been ‘iding?”
He seemed to note an internal shriek of glee from the nearby tabaxi druid, who’d oft expressed a desire to own such a cranium rat. He tossed the creature over. “‘ere, ye can have him! I call ‘im ‘Shrieks,’ on account of constantly yelling my ear off. There, see, ‘e’s doing it now.”
The rat was as quiet as a mouse. Rock-in-Water, now the proud owner of a psionic rodent, guessed its thoughts had only added to the cacophony in Magrik’s mind.
Magrik reached again into the bag. The third time, his fist held a broken vampire tooth.
“A vampire?” he wondered incredulously, studying the canine. “Are any of ye children of the night?” Upon seeing their shaking heads, he threw it back into the bag. “Eh, must be a yarn being told to the children back at Khern Moldur.”
The final item was a clouded hand mirror. “Ah, very interesting,” Magrik mused, turning the object over in his hand. “Are ye looking for yerselves, and not ‘aving much luck?”
“Funny you should mention that,” Charli admitted. “We’ve been having some difficulty discerning just who–and what–we are. We are afraid we might have been replaced by oozes wearing our own shapes.”
“Well, that’d be interesting,” Magrik noted. “Yer thoughts sound normal enough from ‘ere.” He shook his head, pulling on his white strands of hair. “I might be able to help ye, maybe, but there are just too many voices in my ‘ead these days. Yammering, complaining, yelling, shouting. There’s much hate and greed on the land, and much pain and fear in the water. Even out ‘ere, it sounds like an angry mob in the next room. Makes it ‘ard to concentrate.”
Alexis gathered his friends for a moment. “Perhaps we can help the…mental landscape if we complete a few of these tasks the duergar gave us. If their needs are met, maybe their thoughts won’t be so loud, and Magrik could help us better.”
Alexis and Alston, both students of the arcane, discussed what they knew of telepathy, and what actions might be taken to deafen it. They considered the impact of spells like Private Sanctum and Thought Shield, along with physical distance from centers of population.
As they talked, Alexis sat away from Magrik, keeping his “noisy” tome well out of sight, in consideration for the derro.