- D. A Wealth of Information
- i. Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Xorn
- ii. That is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie
- ii. What Visions Have I Seen
- E. A Howl of Fury
- i. Taking Out the Trash
- ii. Behind the Mask
- "Laduguer Amidst the Nine Hells" (sometimes called "Laduguer Claims His Due")
- Under the Hood: A Sense of Progression
- F. A Dream Within a Dream
D. A Wealth of Information
i. Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Xorn
The party of adventurers rested for a spell in the company of Magrik. They were not particularly sleepy, but they spent eight hours in study and conversation.
During that time, Alexis called them over, out of earshot of their new derro friend. He explained that he had watched the final vestiges of Syldrey’s personality subsumed as the ooze had taken over. For just a moment, he thought he’d felt a direct connection–a personal connection that had perhaps saved his own life, if not hers. Following on the heels of this sense of guilt mixed with opportunity, he’d spent the last month in the study of the arts of the mind.
One spell he’d picked up in that time could prove useful. With his party’s knowledge (and the hesitant approval of the derro), Alexis cast Thought Shield upon the psionic dwarf. Magrik declared it was the quietest it’d ever been (since before the arrival of the kuo-toa, at any rate). The agents admonished him to get some much-needed rest while they took care of the Xorn problem, and they’d see how he was feeling later.
(An interesting detail of note: the duergar of Khern Moldur refused to address the overworlders in their native tongue, instead resorting to the de facto trade language of Undercommon. Magrik, however, had spoken to the agents in dwarvish, implying more of a natural kinship than the duergar had. He also referred to the kuo-toa as “fishmen”–not the species’ own name for itself, perhaps, but neither the slur used by the other duergar. Perhaps his broad psionic connections had also informed the way in which he viewed them.)
The den of the Xorn was nearby, only a little further down the tunnels past Magrik. Gorodash instructed the others to stay behind him; he wore the heaviest armor, and he was best prepared to soak up the attacks from their quarry.
Of course, being heavily encased in armor, he was also the juiciest target for the metal-loving beast. The cave floor abruptly grew teeth and claws, and Gorodash’s legs were seized by the open mouth of the beast, as it swam up through the rocks to attack him.
Gorodash (and Rock beside him) beat the monster until it released its meal. It dove back below the rock floor, as a shark might return beneath the surface of the water. Though the agents couldn’t see it, they knew it was still there…hungrily circling them, preparing for its next attack.
Gorodash stamped his feet and banged on his shield, trying to appear the tastiest bait. His tactic worked, and the elemental again burst from the caves walls to snack on the orc’s rich metal. But the agents were more prepared this time, and they let loose the attacks they had readied.
From there on, the Xorn varied its targets and how and where it sprung from the ground, and the agents had to adjust accordingly. Alexis attempted to bait it with a Prestidigitation (much as he had done in the sewers of Songhal), but to no effect; the Xorn’s special metal-sense could easily tell the difference between actual food and arcane trickery.
Throughout the battle, Charli couldn’t help but notice Rock casting spells he’d not have expected of a druid–namely, Hexing her foe to weaken it against Charli’s grappling arrows or against Gorodash’s Thunderous Smite ability. He raised his eyebrows to himself but said nothing. His friends all held secrets, and he was no exception.
In the end, Gorodash and Alexis were able to down the creature together when it lunged from the adjacent cave wall. Gorodash called on his god for a moment of clarity to land a devastating blow, and Alexis’s Shielding Aurora dealt the final damage. The Xorn collapsed, half in and half out of the wall, melded forever with the stone.
Rock made certain to extract some of the Xorn’s teeth as proof of their victory.
The Xorn’s lair was nearby, at the end of the length of the cave. It had obviously been active for some time, hungrily gobbling up metal from the ore veins near its home. It too seemed to have harrassed those of Khern Moldur, snapping up unattended coins and belongings (and likely whole duergar), whenever afforded the opportunity. Forgemaster would be well pleased to learn of the beast’s demise.
The treasure hoard was not insignificant, and the party spent an hour simply counting the loot:
• 24 platinum pieces, 432 gold pieces, 1924 silver pieces, and 264 copper pieces • Three times that value in platinum, gold, silver, and copper ore • 4 brass mugs with jade inlay • 2 carved ivory statuettes • Dagger • Decadent spoon • Embroidered Silk Handkerchief • Hematite stone • 6 rations • Scroll (unidentified) • Silver necklace with gemstone pendant
Gorodash let out a low whistle. The Xorn had certainly been busy. Perhaps it had been a female of its species–working on a nest to birth more of its kind. “The Order could definitely benefit from the coinage. It’d be nice if we could bring some of that back.” Along with Rock, he pocketed a few of the smaller trinkets; they might sell for a handy sum, which he could hopefully then forward to Julia’s tutor back at Lyrabar.
Alexis studied the two statuettes of the hoard more closely. Each depicted a strange, illithid-like creature, except these also sported bat-like wings. The artistry was crude; it definitely hadn’t been shaped by human (or dwarvish) hand. But the subject matter was compelling, if a tad unusual.
The group decided they would stash the bag of duergar coins behind a boulder when they returned to Khern Moldur, then alert Felkar to its presence in some offhand fashion. The Order did not require them to loot treasures in its name, in order to fill its coffers. But neither did it forbid them from doing so.
Agents of the Shining Blade were not obligated to be “lawful” or “good”–merely “truthful.” And as long as Felkar kept the coins enough out of sight to avoid embarrassing questions, no harm meant no foul.
ii. That is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie
Upon returning to where they’d left Magrik, they came upon a peculiar sight. Instead of soundly sleeping, the dwarf was standing in the middle of an underground stream, striking the water with crazed fervor. He gibbered nonsensically:
“I can see it! The city, with its mad angles! In his house beneath the waves, the high priest lies dreaming! The circle must be closed! His eye is upon me!”
He turned and fixed his eyes upon the party members. Raising his pickax with a strangled cry, he rushed at them.
Reaching into his coat, Charli brought out a small paper packet he’d been saving for such a moment. He quickly untied the string and blew the powder inside directly into the derro’s face.
Magrik fell face-first to the stone floor, snoring loudly.
After Charli had used his manacles to handcuff the derro (a token he had kept from his time with the watch in Westgate), the party awoke their captive for some pointed questions.
“My mind was quiet, yes, but the dreams were awful!” Magrik explained. “Stories told by the fishmen to their children. Stories of darkness and fear! When my mind is silent, memories rise unbidden. Your spell was interesting, but I believe it is not for me.”
Gorodash expressed interest in what sort of dream memory could have affected the derro so deeply. With Magrik’s permission, he used Detect Thoughts to peer into his mind and seek the source.
Locating the right memory in Magrik’s head was like navigating a crowded ballroom of shouting patrons and whirling dancers. Following the path slowly and carefully, Gorodash eventually reached a dark corner in the derro’s mind–a corner of bubbling sounds and shifting images.
Sunlit water and wide expansive sea: a thriving kuo-toa village in the Sea of Fallen Stars.
A violent tumbling and a falling: an underwater earthquake that pulled the kuo-toa down, deep beneath the earth.
A dark chasm, a pit: a subterranean lake, from which there was no escape.
Twisted, malevolent visages: a short, stocky race, their eyes alight with greed. They proclaimed themselves to be the kuo-toa’s saviors, but the word felt more like “captors.”
A hilltop, not too far from the water, illuminated by sparking fire and burning incense: the short ones moved with unfamiliar purpose, one eye on their rites, and one eye on the fishmen.
Muttered words and veiled threats: an ancient evil lay buried beneath the lake (so the short ones claimed), and only this ritual might keep it asleep.
An open palm, to take or to strike: the short ones required tribute; it would be “unfortunate” if their rituals lacked the proper ingredients.
The faces of the kuo-toa, same but aged: time passes beneath the Dark.
Fearful whispers to children before bed: legends seize hold, and myth takes shape. Sunken obelisks and slime-covered stones, curling tentacles and monstrous eyes, unfurling wings and glistening claws.
The monster of the deep was never described by the short ones, but did it need to be? For what could be more dangerous than the same ancient race that had enslaved the dwarves and shattered their own kuo-toa minds?
And what could be more terrifying than the most titanic illithid ever conceived?
When it woke, its head would brush the cavern ceiling, and its wings whip the sea into a cataclysmic fury. Its shriek would break the wills of all who heard it.
The duergar rituals must continue, at all risks and at all costs. But, deep down, the kuo-toa know the truth.
One day, “Lutulu” would awake. And then their end would come.
Alexis listened carefully and worriedly as Gorodash recounted the memories. “This explains the fake ritual circle we found on the flattened hilltop, near the city gates. It was never meant to be real. The duergar have been using it to lend credence to their…’boogeyman’ stories, to frighten the kuo-toa, and to keep them in line.
“But that is not the true danger here,” he warned. “In my time at Candlekeep, I learned a little of the enigmatic race that call themselves the kuo-toa. When we pray to our own gods, our belief grants them a measure power. However, if the stories are to be believed, the kuo-toa’s acts of faith are ten times as powerful. They can even bring new entities and new gods into existence, simply through combined acts of belief. Their current goddess, the Sea Mother, is said to have been birthed in just this fashion.”
“And that could be very dangerous, both for the duergar and the kuo-toa, and for us,” Charli said, finishing the line of thought. “A monster that did not even exist up until this point might suddenly rise from the lake at any moment.”
“Is what we’re doing wrong, then?” Gorodash, ever the conscientious paladin, questioned. “We are completing a laundry list tasks for a group of people that will help them in their subjugation of another species. We are aiding slavery.”
Survival in the Underdark was an exercise in scarcity. Disposable labor (i.e. slaves) was one effective and common-accepted method to extend a culture’s reach and influence over precious resources. The duergar were certainly no exception; the drow had attempted to capture them on their journey down, and even the kuo-toa themselves had considered inscripting them.
“And we are doing so,” added Alexis, “under the pretense of a danger that doesn’t exist…yet. Or maybe it does. It’s hard to know with kuo-toa.”
Finric offered his thoughts. “In the end, does it matter? We didn’t enter the Underdark with the end goal of ending slavery or setting all wrongs right. We came down here specifically to help the five of you who’d been in Umeren’s temple.”
Charli coughed to himself. “Speaking for myself, the moral ambiguity of the slavers is not a big issue for me.” He didn’t elaborate.
Gorodash shrugged to himself. “I suppose, in the end, it’s true we have a specific task. And to date, each time we’ve contacted the Order about a larger issue we’d uncovered in our research, they’d always told us to complete our mission–and only our mission–and report back. It happened at Songhal, and it happened at Umeren’s temple.”
“As a counterpoint,” Alexis noted, “we are talking about a lie of potentially epic proportions. That sounds like something that would fall directly under the Order’s Tenets to ‘Find the Truth,’ ‘Expose the Lies,’ and ‘Judge the Deceivers.’ The duergar are directly profiting off of deception, something we have all been taught to detest. And what if the kuo-toa indeed give birth to a new malevolent god that threatens the overworld?”
“Then we will deal with that as the time comes,” Gorodash countered. “But we should not live our lives based around ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes.'”
“That being said,” Rock pointed out, “the reason we’re here in the Underdark at all is because ‘maybe’ we are oozes.”
Alexis begged off Gorodash’s challenge to rite by combat (or, in this case, right by wrestling) to settle the discussion once-and-for-all. They did agree, at least, to confer with Felkar before making any lasting decision.
ii. What Visions Have I Seen
There was also the issue of Magrik. Back at Khern Moldur, Darkdelver had specifically mentioned a derro that could help them with their psionic issue. Magrik was very possibly the derro in question. Gorodash pointedly asked him if he could help the agents with the dilemma of their activation phrases.
“Sure,” Magrik answered flatly. He pointed to the burlap sack at his feet. “Get in the bag.”
Gorodash could not get in the bag. It was too small to fit over his head, and when he tried to insert his foot, his toe caught on a nailed glove sitting somewhere further in.
“Ah, there’s too many things inside!” Magrik complained. “It’s all full of junk! There’s no room for you.”
Alexis studied the bag with his eldritch sight. Neither the bag nor the derro shone with arcane magic, save for the moment something entered or exited the bag. His best guess was that the psionic/magical effect only occurred as the bag was being used.
“I don’t think it’s the bag at all,” Finric ventured. “I think it’s all Magrik. I’d bet the bag simply serves as a focus for whatever effect he’s creating.”
One way to deal with the psychic clutter, then, was to pay visits to both the duergar and the kuo-toa and perform tasks for them. Assuaging their fears would settle the “mental landscape,” as Alexis had termed it, helping free up Magrik’s mind for when he used the bag.
Rock, on the other hand, preferred a simpler approach. She wild-shaped into a cranium rat (thanks to her study of her new pet) and scurried into the sack.
It was, after all, a bag. And she was, after all, a cat.
Rock squirmed through the canvas canal, traveling far further than the length of the bag had suggested. When the space finally opened up again, she was wholly unprepared for the vista that met her eyes.
An agglomeration of jumbled shapes and colors crawled over each other, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Amidst vivid colors, winged boats fluttered about houses made of trees, while unicorns soared between clock-towers shaped like swords. Forms stretched and swayed, and nothing held in one’s sight maintained its outline for long.
It was not unlike being swept along the current of a very vivid dream–but a dream real enough to be dangerous.
As if responding to this thought, tiny growling and chuckling noises caught Rock’s attention. Small, malformed shapes appeared from behind glistening bubbles and shimmering coins. They seemed attracted to Rock’s presence, and they began scurrying towards her tiny rat body, mouths twitching in anticipation.
Taking the hint, Rock returned back along the length of the bag, emerging where her friends awaited. She was not followed. Maintaining her cranium rat form, she used the telepathy skills of her newly-acquired form to broadcast precisely what she’d seen into the minds of everyone present.
It was just as well. She was not sure she could have adequately explained it in words.
“This reminds me of a plane I’d learned about during my time in Candlekeep,” Alexis murmured in thought. “The Region of Dreams. Though, to my understanding, it no longer exists as it once did, after the events of the the Second Sundering.”
The place Rock had seen, however, seemed to follow many of the same rules as the old Region of Dreams: its physical form was brought into being through the thoughts and dreams of sentient beings. (Additionally, time seemed to move more quickly there; Rock had entered and returned in what seemed like an instant, though she had experienced perhaps a minute on the other side.)
The agents spent some time together in planning their next move. They decided:
- If Magrik was indeed the derro that could help them, they would prefer to deal with him directly, instead of via the xenophobic duergar.
- Rock would use the spell Enlarge/Reduce to expand the bag’s opening enough for all of them to enter.
- Since Rock could not prepare this spell until their next long rest, and since they would not be taking another long rest for some time, they would find something to keep themselves busy in the meanwhile.
- That “something” would be returning to Khern Moldur and going out with Darkdelver on a patrol. Taking on the Howlers he mentioned sounded fun, though none of the agents were familiar with their capabilities.
Magrik agreed to accompany the party in their travels, as long as he did not have to closely approach the city. The voices in his head reverberated too strongly there.
E. A Howl of Fury
i. Taking Out the Trash
Before returning to the duergar to inform them of their successes, the agents decided to tackle one more location of interest: the den of the Howlers that Darkdelver had spoken of. Though they knew nothing of the creature itself, Darkdelver had warned that it used a debilitating scream to weaken its foes. Only those duergar that had remained out of range of its voice had survived; and as duergar were not known for retreating in the face of combat, Darkdelver had wisely chosen not to engage the beasts at all.
After a short rest, the party made preparations. Taking the forefront, Rock chugged a Potion of Heroism and stuffed her ears with cloth to block out any sound. Enough of her teammates had access to telepathy if they desperately needed to contact her.
Noting that the caves containing the Howlers were lined with bioluminescent mushrooms, Alexis forewent his customary lit torch. This would give their quarry less advance notice of their approach.
Unfortunately, the matter of the torch mattered little. Upon entering the entrance to the den, two Howlers burst from side passages on either side of the team, using their terrifying roars to goad their quarry into a panic. Luckily, only Alexis, Finric, and Finric’s mount Fang were affected, and only for a short spell. Transforming into a bear, Rock held the line against both beasts simultaneously. Not once did her concentration on her Aura of Vitality falter, and she kept the two monsters occupied until her teammates were able to bring them down with ranged attacks. (Alston’s Magnify Gravity and Magic Missiles were a particular boon, as they never missed.)
Within the den proper, piles of salvage, refuse, and bones indicated where hapless animals (and perhaps the occasional adventurer) had met an untimely demise.
However, upon venturing too closely to such a pile, Rock learned the true danger of the Howler caves: Otyughs that hid within the heaps of refuse! It seemed the Howlers would wait in ambush for passing creatures, then use their frightening screams to drive them further into the caves, where the Otyughs would finish them off.
The party refused to break ranks, though, and the Otyughs were merely another obstacle. Finric’s beast-of-the-earth mount kept one off-balance with well-timed charges, and Gorodash split one open with perhaps the mightiest blow he’d ever landed.
When all was said and done, the agents gingerly picked through the trash heaps, to see if anything remained that could be salvaged:
• 120 gold pieces and 460 silver pieces • 20 caltrops • 2 citrine stones • 1 cloth-of-gold vestments • 1 hide armor • 1 set of "orca beans" • 1 potion of climbing • 1 potion of cold resistance • 1 scimitar • 1 scroll of Alarm
ii. Behind the Mask
The duergar guard captain was impressed with the agents’ tales of success, and upon inspection of their trophies (Xorn teeth, Howler quills, Otyugh tentacles, and the like), he summoned the duergar representatives. Though it was still early in the morning, Forgemaster was particularly elated by the news (as both of his missions had been completed); and after some whispered debate, the party was allowed passage into the reclusive city of Khern Moldur.
There were no inns nor hotels, and the agents would have to make do bedding down on an unused alleyway. Still, it was more protection (and certainly more hospitality) than the duergar had ever shown them before.
Forgemaster spoke excitedly at length about upgrades he could build to his array of furnaces, now that the magma river was cleared of hostiles. He envisioned redirecting the magma directly to the heart of the city, where a complicated system of bellows and pulleys could tap directly into the heat source. His dreams certainly seemed ambitious enough, and it sounded like the construction would keep him busy for the next few decades, at least.
The agents noted that the duergar had already made use of the surrounding natural resources for industry. A branch of the underground river feeding the lake had been redirected through the village, where the people could easy reach it. The force of the water’s flow also turned wheels that powered mills and factories.
Many duergar establishments had been detailed by explorers as outposts or garrisons, guarded by battalions of fierce bloodthirsty warriors. That description did not match what they saw of Khern Moldur. Here, hundreds of families lived in close proximity, extracting what living they could from the rough environment around them.
Gorodash had no particular aim in mind as he wandered the streets of Khern Moldur, and he took in the sights as they came. It was the First of Summertide in the overworld; here too, it seemed, there was some form of celebration. Clusters of bioluminescent mushrooms and rock lichen had been thoughtfully arranged across the tops of door frames. Women wore pendants of amber, and girls necklaces of amethyst. When he asked about the occasion, he was informed it was the first of “Foundation,” a period to celebrate the establishment of their underground city so many centuries ago.
Laughter and giggles hid around corners and inside windows, but whenever Gorodash approached, the duergar’s expressions immediately hardened and the children were led away.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” declared a familiar voice. From behind, Darkdelver approached the orc. “We duergar are a people of two faces: the stoicism we show outsiders, and the vulnerability we share only among ourselves. Don’t feel offended that these children ‘wear the mask’ as soon as they see you; they have been taught this since birth. Feel fortunate in that you learned there was ever a mask at all.”
The festival decorations were sparse and spartan. Dozens of identical golden shields (engraved with stylized broken arrows across their faces) had been gifted to each household, though Gorodash noted it was up to each household how their tokens were displayed. Some were woven into streamers over the windows, while others had been added to household shrines to their chosen deity.
In some ways, Gorodash noted similarities between the duergar here and his own hometown (seeming so long ago) back in Damara. The dwarves here valued strength and ability in combat, and courage even above that. They chose family names after their chosen professions. They enjoyed a good brawl; and they ensured citizens of all genders and ages, from all walks of life, were proficient in defending themselves to the last. So too had it been in Gorodash’s hometown.
And yet, there remained inconsolable differences. Gorodash could not forget this society he admired was empowered through the use of blatant lies and slavery. He could not imagine his own family willingly taking part in such an arrangement.
(There was, also, a conspicuous lack of alcohol.)
Rock-in-Water aimed straight for the opening duergar market, which had set up extra stalls for the holiday. Originally hailing from a family of merchants, she put her pre-Order skills to use. While the agents possessed coins, they were either of drow variety (unwelcome here) or duergar coinage (which would raise too many questions). Instead, she was able to trade the precious stones they’d collected so far (quartz, hematite, and citrine), the collected drow ears, and a special gift she’d been carrying in her backpack for just this situation.
“It’s a baby subterranean lizard!” she crowed, as the shopkeepers eyed her gift suspiciously. This was the creature that had hatched from the same egg she’d rescued from Umeren’s temple, back in Aglarond. While subterranean lizards could grow to fifteen feet in length, this was only a month and a half old, and thus only the length of her arm.
The shopkeepers directed her to the local steeder breeder, who hummed and hawed at the new beast. It was not a creature they were familiar with, there weren’t enough to make a breeding pair, and it was a potential threat to their own steeders once it got bigger. All the same, it was an interesting curiosity, and Rock was able to return from the market with a fair bit of value–on the range of 100 duergar gold pieces.
Instead of actual money, however, Rock returned with a collection of special items that Alston had listed for her. The party had recently come upon scrolls of both Grease and Alarm, and he was eager to add them to his repertoire. However, transcribing such mystic knowledge from others’ work was both an expensive and painstaking task, and only the finest of inks and pens would suffice.
Alston spent four hours in his studies, and Rock checked on him from time to time. Her early life spent as a traveling merchant was gradually returning to her, along with a few interesting new ideas. While the Order ultimately owned all equipment they wore and claimed all treasure they found during their missions, were there not instead other ways to increase their worth as individuals? Alston’s growing spellbook certainly seemed to argue this view. Perhaps she could barter her talents as a sort of consultant on the side. Or perhaps even she could use her knowledge of herbology to craft her own potions, for sale or use.
Rock-in-Water decided to discuss these notions with the rest of the party, when she got the chance.
Today was, coincidentally, also a special day for Alexis: it was “Founder’s Day” back in his childhood home of Waterdeep, when as a boy he would help celebrate the establishment of the city. Wizards would recount the history of Waterdeep using illusions, and there were often costume contests. Eager to remember his hometown in his own way, Alexis located an elderly member of the city named Farkyl Yorekeeper, in order to swap tales.
Farkyl seemed less-than-interested in trading stories of the overworld for that of the Underdark. (Alexis sensed an underlying influence of either dwarven exceptionalism or simple racial bigotry.) Just the same, Farkyl was more than willing to impart his own tales of duergar glory. He began with what he claimed was the most significant contributor to duergar culture: “Laduguer Amidst the Nine Hells”:
“Laduguer Amidst the Nine Hells” (sometimes called “Laduguer Claims His Due”)
“Our three rules come from the actions of Laduguer himself, as he quested through the Nine Hells on his mission to bring glory to the duergar.
“First, the devils sought to turn his greed against him. They offered as much treasure as he could carry, thinking that he would take too much and collapse in exhaustion. Instead, Laduguer used his cunning magic to twist his pockets into bottomless pits, so that there was no limit to the treasure he could carry.
“Then, in their frustration at his stratagem, the devils fell upon him with claw and blade. They didn’t understand that with each treasure he claimed, Laduguer’s will to win grew stronger and stronger. With so much to fight for, he lashed out and broke the backs of Hell’s legions.
“Finally, Asmodeus confronted Laduguer. The Lord of the Nine laughed, joked, and cajoled with all his guile, but Laduguer remained grim and stoic, refusing to be affected even when the mightiest celestials might have admitted some grudging amusement at the devil’s antics. Laduguer was resolute because he wanted one final treasure: the allegiance of Hell in the coming war against the mind flayers. Asmodeus offered a world’s worth of other temptations, but Laduguer’s countenance never changed. Even when Asmodeus relented at last, Laduguer accepted the arrangement as nothing less than his due and refused to display any reaction.
“Thus did Laduguer deliver the three rules that govern our people. These principles liberated our people from the illithids, and to this day they keep us strong:
- Our pockets are never full.
- Our fight is never done.
- Our resolve is never shaken.“
Source: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Charli and Finric separately pursued similar lines of research. Drawing from his experience as law enforcement at Westgate (a corrupt town run by an equally corrupt authority), Charli delved into the political makeup of Khern Moldur, including governance, politicans, and this “First Citizen” that he had heard mentioned.
It seemed Khern Moldur was set up as a “commune”: a strictly-regimented society where a “council” of overseers decided directly how food, water, and resources were to be equally divided among the population. Leading this council was “First Citizen” Ragmyr Shieldbreaker, essentially the ruler of all Khern Moldur. Charli understood how scarcity and the ever-present threat of starvation forced the duergar into such a living arrangement, and how one duergar possessing more than another might seem both an affront and an existential threat. At the same time, the enforced equality among all citizens lent itself towards a bland banality…or, perhaps, it only seemed that way to outsiders.
Finric drew some stares as he rode his furred companion, but he was welcomed into the city as equally (or as scantly) as his friends. He learned much the same things as Charli, with the added detail that the duergar “temple” in the middle of the city actually housed the chambers for the First Citizen and his council. In fact, Khern Moldur had no temple; instead, the duergar venerated their chosen deity Laduguer through their daily actions (and via shrines in every household).
Finric also tentatively broached the subject of the kuo-toa and their present relationship to the duergar. The villagers were not forthcoming with information. Some rolled their eyes; others simply noted with satisfaction that the First Citizen had “put them in their place.”
Only one let slip a detail Finric felt worth remembering. This duergar had been assigned duty at the “finner ritual,” and she mentioned it was scheduled for the following evening.
Felkar called the group together when they’d finished their errands. The agents had informed him of their progress, and he in turn had radioed it to his officers via his Sending Stones. A reply had arrived:
the order maintains no politics here stop
inasmuch as health and mission
are assured behave appropriately as
emissaries of the order and its tenets
“Sounds like they just took the kid gloves off of you guys,” Felkar congratulated. “You’re full agents now, in all meanings of the word.”
The agents reviewed what they’d learned of the penultimate “Tenets” that all members of the Order learned in their training. More than words of wisdom, they were guidelines for how the Shining Blade expected its members to represent themselves in the world outside. Of particular note, they recalled the following:
#2 Expose the Lies. Where there are lies, there is truth waiting to be found. Bring these lies to the light so they can wither and the truth can blossom.
#4 Judge the Deceivers. Enlighten the ignorant; admonish the oblivious; judge the malicious. Those that take pleasure or gain power through their falsehood cannot go unpunished.
“It would appear we have some lasting duty as agents of Torm’s Order of the Shining Blade,” Alexis reasoned. “What specifically we do in these circumstances is up for debate, perhaps, but none of us can argue that we leave the situation between the duergar and the kuo-toa as it stands. There is a web of deception in play, and individuals are directly profiting from lies.”
“Not to exactly disagree with you,” Charli countered, “but, at the same time, what we directly know of the duergar and the kuo-toa was presented to us by a mentally-unstable, subterranean old man. I, for one, would like to do some more independent research before taking any course of action. And a study of the kuo-toa village would give us both insight into their position and potentially confirm what we’ve been told about them.”
The ends of Felkar’s mustache twitched in anticipation as he listened to this conversation. He’d been guarding their unopened barrel for several days now, and he was eager to finally see his little toy in action.
Under the Hood: A Sense of Progression
F. A Dream Within a Dream
As the agents were now on a skewed sleeping schedule, they rested during the day in an unused alley and prepared themselves for departure in the later afternoon. Their first priority was braving the depths of Magrik’s bag and putting to rest their activation phrases, before they could turn their attention to the kuo-toa or elsewhere.
Magrik was waiting some distance outside the city, where he and Felkar had engaged in interesting (though ultimately pointless) conversation. Rock-in-Water first cast Enlarge on the willing derro, enlarging both him and his bag enough for her party to make safe passage inside. (She would do something similar for their return journey, wild-shaping into a creature small enough to fit through the opening before recasting Enlarge on Magrik.)
The vista that greeted them was much as she’d telepathically shared, from her previous excursion. Exiting from the mouth of a much larger bag, they stood upon giant gold coins that floated high in a dreamy sky-like expanse. Inscrutable forms shimmers and shifted in the distance.
“Is this real?” Finric wondered aloud.
Charli pinched himself. “Real enough to hurt,” he noted. “We’d best be careful here. I suspect death is a very real possibility.”
The same small Wretched creatures that Rock had seen again shewed themselves, gibbering and slobbering. They advanced upon the party, eager to sink their teeth into fresh meat.
Finric and his mount Fang struck first. Leaping from coin platform to coin platform, the two pounced on the nearest monster. Fang snatched up one of the creatures in his jaws and shook it to death, as if it were no more than a rag doll.
The small monsters replied in kind. Two leaped at Fang, sinking their teeth into the mount’s flank. Alexis faced a similar fate as one of the Wretched attached itself to his leg, like an overgrown lamprey.
Still, the creatures fell quickly. While attached, the creatures had difficulty avoiding Finric’s crossbow bolts or Fang’s teeth, and they quickly plucked the fiends from their bodies as one might remove pond leeches. Alexis didn’t even bother with attacks, instead allowing his Shielding Aurora to automatically fry his attackers into tiny crisps.
(When they fell, the creatures didn’t seem to “die” so much as “unravel,” spooling apart into the individual thoughts that had made up their form. These strands drifted off across the psychic landscape, twisting and recombining as errant thoughts directed them.)
During the fight, Finric noticed that each monster had a single random tattooed across their skin, such as “occupy” or “lethargy.” He had no time to contemplate this further, as further shapes emerged from the dreamlike fog about them. They seemed inexplicably drawn to the party, as if they were two necessary parts of a completed whole.
The next creature thrust forth spike-like appendages, attempting to pull Finric off his mount. However, the halfling was too nimble, and he and his “wolf” disengaged from the target, only to charge back into the fray with fleet-footed sprints. Asura joined him by summoning his Spiritual Weapon and bringing his own warhammer to bear.
Closest to the creature, Finric again noticed words tattooed across its skin, only visible if one was very close. Here, they spelled out the nonsensical phrase “pebbly vacuum neuron slain purplish.”
“Don’t read the words on their bodies!” he yelled out, with sudden comprehension. “They’re the activation phrases!” He hated to think what might happen if one of his friends suddenly fell under Umeren’s influence during the battle…or worse, turned into one of the temple oozes.
Above the battlefield and near the entrance/exit, Charli and Alston took up overwatch positions. They had specialized themselves in hard-hitting ranged attacks, and they poured on the damage via arrows and spells while their friends held the line. The Lost fell quickly under the barrage.
The next abomination to emerge from the mists was a good mark tougher than its predecessors. Pointing an arm towards Finric, it shot a harpoon-like arm through the flank of the halfling’s mount, pinning it to the floor. The presence of two adjacent enemies seemed to lend this Lonely monster potent power; and psychic waves rolled over Fang, nearly overwhelming him.
Rock leaped into action with a double play. First, she imparted healing magic towards Finric’s wolf with the Aura of Vitality she held with her mind. Second, she cast Erupting Earth on the choke-point in front of the halfling. The roiling ground would slow, not only the monster harassing Finric, but any others that might erupt from deeper in the dreamscape.
It would prove to be a pivotal spell in the fight ahead. Two further monstrosities had revealed themselves and quickly approached the party. The agents needed all the spare time that could be managed to deal with each in turn.
Perceiving the importance of Rock’s spell, the other agents quickly capitalized on it. Alexis used a Thunderwave to push an approaching Hungry aberration backwards into the difficult terrain, and Alston dropped a Slow spell on top of it to cement their advantage.
This did not mean the agents were out of the fire. Indeed, as Alston attempted to put distance between himself and the re-approaching Hungry, it snatched him up with greedy claws. It had witnessed Rock healing Finric’s wolf steed with magic, and it quivered with added rage and might. Luckily, a Dimension Door safely extracted Alexis from its terrifying grasp.
With Finric, Fang, Alexis, and Rock temporarily withdrawing from the field, Asura was left alone and victim to the Hungry’s will. Alexi and Rock worked together to rescue him. First, Rock used a Thorn Whip to yank the monster back again into the area churned up by her Erupting Earth. Alexis then used his one backup scroll of Dimension Door to extract Asura from danger.
However, two creatures yet remained, and their health had barely been touched.
Now on her own against both the remaining enemies, Rock cast Thunderwave after Thunderwave with little effect. Fortunately for her, Charli’s arrows (which had been dealing significant injury until this point) came into their own. The drow poison he’d been dutifully applying finally took hold, and the Hungry collapsed, soundly asleep on his floating platform.
At this point, there was only one (though massive) enemy still awake: an Angry monstrosity, who became stronger whenever it took damage. Still, it faced six well-trained agents (and a beast of the earth) who pelted it with poisoned arrows, Entangles, Chill Touches, Fire Bolts, Ensnaring Strikes, Eldritch Blasts, Magic Missiles, and swinging Spiritual Weapons. As mighty as the creature was, it had been swamped by a powerful sequence of weakening effects. (For example, Charli’s poison made it too weak to break from Rock’s entanglement, which in turn made it susceptible to attacks from the others.) It was destroyed before it could approach even one of the agents.
From there, it was a simple matter to destroy the slumbering Hungry where it lay. Or it would have been, if the awakened beast had not gotten a lucky strike on Finric’s mount, plummeting it into unconsciousness. Finric fell from his wolf but struck his landing, tucking into a roll and arriving back on his feet.
In response, Rock locked the monster up in what was quickly becoming one of her signature moves: Thorn Whip. With a determined pull, she yanked it towards her, away from Finric, and off the the ledge on which it stood. Having nowhere else to go, it plummeted into the void, striking columns and edges on its ways down.
The agents watched it eventually unravel in the distance below, their final enemy defeated. Finric pressed a Goodberry into his mount’s mouth, restoring it to consciousness.
The thought strands that had made up the terrors had not completely dissipated from the fight, and as the party watched, they shifted and molded in response to their own thoughts. Eventually they settled on new, permanent forms, influenced perhaps by each agents’ secret desires or passing whims:
The compatriots congratulated each other on the well-fought battle and their justly-earned spoils. Asura nodded in appreciation as he fitted himself with a new, better shield, and Rock considered wild-shaping into a horse more often to make use of the shoes. Alston took the Potion of Healing to replace a lesser potion he’d lent Asura…but none could miss the presence of the golden key, whose cryptic shape seemed to dog their heels wherever they roamed.
But, more important than treasure, the agents had gained a new sense of peace and security. With their activation phrases eradicated, those who had been in Umeren’s temple felt as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Their bodies might still hide a terrible secret, and their souls might be lost to another plane entirely, but at least their minds were now firmly their own.