09 November 2007

Bymill (IV) - Gwen's Night Out

You might recall, from our last little adventure, the relatively prosaic events of the Harvest Festival in Bymill. To boil it down to its essence, Bjorn spent the day with Hardfist and Wyekart, ministering to the populace, while the rest of the Party checked in with Rale Varlgant, purchased the horses they had been sent to obtain by Malryn Olgin, ran into a big pile of refugees from Lucky Lode, discovered that they had fled “dog-headed warriors” after many miners had been wounded by “enormous monsters with horrid, triangular teeth”, and got many of them healed. Around about this time, Gwen noticed Owen of Pargalen (Glaive Ballock’s henchman) in the crowd, and the Party jumped and subdued him. Bjorn and Lyra disagreed over what to do with him, blows were exchanged, and Bjorn stalked off to the temple, while the remainder of the party repaired to the Stag’s Head Inn to figure out who shot who in the what now?

That about cover it?

Okay. Now, here’s where things got funky. I had a major story goal to achieve, and I needed the willing cooperation of a PC who didn’t mind getting smacked around a little, and who also didn’t mind being a bit of a cat’s-paw for the rest of the party. The solution was available in Gwen, whose player was going to be absent for several weeks to (gulp) get married.

Yes, it CAN happen.

Anyway, Gwen’s player graciously allowed me to use Gwen as the foil for this little adventure – quite a leap of faith, as all I had to promise was that I wouldn’t kill her. Fat chance of that – the rest of the players love the Halfling Rogue so much that I would’ve had a massive mutiny on my hands if I had done so outside of the context of an actual game.

In any event, Gwen’s sacrifice helped me to advance the story a little bit. All of the events that I am about to recount were hitherto known only to Gwen – although I don’t felt too bad about blowing them open here, seeing as how, like Lyra’s dreams, the PCs would have discussed them often enough over the intervening weeks to ensure that everybody had a good idea what went on. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking with it.

One further thing: I didn’t deus ex machina my way through the whole thing. Using the rules in the sourcebooks (the Book of Vile Darkness, in this case), I actually gamed my way through the interrogation session, using random numbers that Gwen’s player helped me designated to simulate the “rolls” that Gwen would have needed to pick the lock on her manacles, resist an interrogation intimidate check, and so forth. The results are reflected faithfully in the narrative that follows. Interestingly, the end result was that she toughed her way past some of the worst of it. Overall, a very satisfactory result. Plus, it set up an awesome rescue adventure for the remainder of the party, who had to find her and rescue her.

So the scene takes place after the last synopsis, in downtown Bymill, before midnight, as the revelry associated with the Harvest Festival is in full swing. Gwen and her new cohort, Owen, have gone looking for appropriate shops to kit out his troops for the coming journey to Lucky Lode, when he makes an inappropriate suggestion to Gwen; and she, taking offence, tells him to take a hike – leaving her alone in the market square.

At which point, she picked up a weird scent that she had been smelling all day.

* * * * *

Gwen’s Night Out

Darkness had fallen, and Gwen was enjoying the sights and sounds of a market square packed to bursting with a surging mass of humanity. She liked crowds, but the throng packing the great square for the evening’s revelry had become a little too dense for her liking. Money was still changing hands, but the flow of ale and the ever-increasing number of party-goers placed her in serious jeopardy of being stepped on. It certainly made people less cautious about their purses, though, and more than one small but well-filled money pouch had fallen into Gwen’s waiting hands. People were so careless about their valuables, she mused sadly.

Returning to the Stag’s Head via the back alleys of Bymill, Gwen wrinkled her nose at the overpowering odours of the town: everything from beer, bread and roasting meat at one end of the spectrum, to horse-dung, wood-smoke and fish offal at the other. The cacophony of scents, she mused, would gag an otyugh. Worst was the stench of sweat and excitement that emanated like a cloud from the market square. You’d think nobody in this town ever bathed or...

Gwen’s head came up suddenly, nostrils flaring. That scent: sour, stale sweat with the acrid tincture of rotting flesh...there it was again. She had noticed it earlier in the day, more attenuated perhaps, but still... It wasn’t the smells themselves that intrigued her; those were normal enough. But their combination in the same person; it was as if a man were both alive, and at the same time, dead.

Wishing devoutly that the ranger and his lupine companion were present, Gwen halted, closing her eyes and concentrating deeply.

It was there, and unmistakable. The evening crowds of the Harvest Festival offered an overwhelming symphony of odours to the nose, but the odour of this one individual was unique. Like a sour note in an orchestra, it cut through the babble of other smells. It was like a poorly-pitched pipe call; once isolated, she had no more difficulty recognizing it. Following it, however, was another matter, and she pushed her way through the crowd, trying to track an increasingly tenuous trail.

Elbowing her way through the drunken throng, she spotted her quarry: a pair of figures directly ahead, not more than a fifty paces away – one male, hooded and cowled in a heavy brown robe; supporting the other, a stumbling, staggering female figure who had apparently been overcome by the evening’s revels.

Slipping deftly between the party-goers, minstrels and commoners, Gwen noticed something else that gave her pause: the woman, wrapped heavily in a dark robe or blanket, seemed to be weaving from side to side, and struggling weakly. As Gwen watched, the hooded man shifted his grip on his companion’s arm, and a sharp wail rang out against the roaring voices emanating from the square. No one but Gwen seemed to notice. Grimly, she quickened her pace.

The unlikely couple cut north-westward across the Great Square, heading for the alleyways south of the Hall of the Allfather, not too far from where their wagon had been parked the previous day, when Ballock’s brigands had purloined it. The crowds were thinner here, but Gwen had no difficulty proceeding unnoticed. At the edge of the square, the hooded man and his companion slipped into one of the narrow alleys separating the high buildings. Gwen held back a moment, lest her pursuit become too obvious; but after a moment, concerned about losing sight of the pair, she continued.

The alley was dark, barely illuminated by the moonlight, but far from silent; the shouts, yells, singing and general cacophony of the evening’s festivities echoed down the stone passage. Slipping from shadow to shadow, Gwen trotted nimbly down the passageways, left, right, and nearly doubling back. Although narrow, the alley was deserted. She paused for a moment, then started forward again, just as an anguished squeal burst from around a corner from just ahead. Gwen burst into a sprint, shortsword drawn. Rounding a final corner, she nearly stumbled over the recumbent figure of the woman, who lay huddled on the flagstones, wrapped in a heavy cloak.

The foul scent she had been following was still strong in the air...along with others: a musky, flowery odour, reminiscent of the heavy perfumes often worn or carried by Gwen’s wealthier marks; and something subtler, a steamy, herb-like odour, as though from some exotic tea.

Gwen glanced around quickly, but saw nothing; they were alone in the alley. Moving swiftly, she knelt at the woman’s side, and flipped back the edge of the cloak.

The first thing she noticed was that, beneath the cloak, the woman was clad in nothing but a light shift, and that her hands were bound. The second thing she noticed was a fall of curly brown hair, only partially covering Ankallys’ face.

Gwen knelt and checked Ankallys for wounds. The woman’s feet were free, if unshod, and her hands were bound before her. She was breathing and apparently uninjured, but the Halfling couldn’t tell whether she was conscious or not. The woman’s eyes were open, but unfocused, and her gaze wandered and shifted, left and right, up and down, with no apparent pattern. The peculiar scent of steamed herbs was stronger here, almost as if Ankallys were exhaling something peculiar and alchemical.

She was untying the rope binding the woman’s hands when she heard a rustle of cloth. Gwen snatched up her sword and whirled, crouching, glancing from side to side, up and down the alleyway, looking for the source of the noise. A motion in the shadows caught her eye, and she spun; halfway up the side of a building, balanced precariously in the corner between a projecting wall and a balcony, was something…

Disaster; with a whoosh and a thud, something soft and heavy, like a sack full of sand, flew at her out of the darkness; Gwen tried to jump out of the way, but the thing struck her full in the chest. The object burst open and disgorged a stinking glut of black, clinging slime. Smelling of acid and bogs, the stuff burned where it touched her bare skin. Gwen tried to brush it away, but the strands of goo clung to her fingers and hands, slicking her arms and sword, running down her legs and onto the ground. Tendrils of dark, sticky stuff clung to the alley walls and the cobblestones, clinging stubbornly to the brick and mortar. The stuff tightened almost instantly, constricting into a horrible, sticky mass, nearly immobilizing her. Gwen strained against the clinging strands, but made no headway; she could barely lift her arms, let along slash with her sword at the gooey mess.

Another rustle, and a soft step behind her. Gwen wrenched her head and shoulders around, the black, tarry slop holding her almost immobile, and saw a slender, hooded figure, hands and face concealed by a heavy brown cloak. The sour sweat-smell, with its accompanying stench of rotting meat, grew suddenly overwhelming, and the peculiar underlying odour of musk and flowers followed suit.

“What’s this?” the figure hissed in a low, soft voice. “A pickpocket, caught off her guard?”

Gwen tightened her shoulders, struggling against the confining grasp of the black, sticky substance. “Step closer,” she growled, “and I’ll show you just how ‘off my guard’ I am.” But something felt wrong. She felt weak; her scalp felt unpleasantly tight, and there was a humming in his ears. Her mouth went dry, and she suddenly lost feeling in her fingers, toes and tongue. Her mind seemed a little cloudy, and she blinked rapidly, half-a-dozen times in succession.

The hooded man stepped closer, nodding as if satisfied. “That’s right,” he murmured. “You’re feeling it now, aren’t you? It’s my own formulation,” he added, waving a hand in front of Gwen’s eyes, which had become somewhat unfocused. “A little something extra in the crucible. It enhances the takkujalka säkki, bringing the numbness of the grave.”

Gwen heard the words, and the part of her mind that understood the Draconic tongue translated the unfamiliar phrase as “pouch of entanglement”; but she felt the truth of the stranger’s assertion far more intimately. Her knees buckled, and she toppled slowly to the ground, cushioned slightly against the impact by the fast-hardening mass of gunk spread out all around her.

The hooded man stepped forward and knelt at her side. Gwen felt her nerveless fingers being pried apart as the man took her sword effortlessly from her. “My friend Ballock,” the man whispered almost conversationally, looking the weapon over, “would have been happy to see this returned. If he still had need of it.” Almost absently, the man tossed the weapon into a heap of bones and rubbish along one wall. Gwen heard a sharp clang as it struck the cobblestones, and then another, as her dagger followed after.

“One more thing, ducks,” the man continued, still whispering. His odour, at close range, was nearly overpowering. Gwen tried to shake her head to clear it, but found that her neck muscles wouldn’t work. She began to feel the first tendrils of panic grasping at her foggy consciousness. “I can’t have you causing a fuss right now. So…”

The man reached into his robe and withdrew a small glass vial. Deftly, he worked the cork stopper out, and shook several drops of a pale, watery liquid onto a scrap of wool cloth. The vial he stoppered and put away; the cloth he folded three times, before holding it lightly over Gwen’s nose and mouth.

With the last strands of her will, Gwen held her breath; but the man didn’t move, and at length, as her vision began to go gray, she was forced to breathe. The light, steamy odour of fragrant herbs filled her lungs, once, twice and third time, after which the stranger withdrew the cloth and tossed it into the rubbish pile. Gwen’s vision immediately began to sparkle with points of light, and colours swirled madly before her eyes. Her fears and worries vanished, and she felt immeasurably better, although she couldn’t for the life of her understand what she was doing lying in a pile of crusty sludge in an alleyway with this foul-smelling git bending over her.

She gradually felt a modicum of strength return to her limbs, but hardly noticed, as all manner of shapes and colours undulated across her field of view. The visions began to shift, flowing between the benign and the horrible with alarming ease. Terrors flew wailing at her out of clouds of flame: the jaws of enormous, slavering black wolves; the glittering fangs of vampires; the icy, stinking claws of the grave-wights; the festering, infected madness of the great bear they had slain; and the heart-hammering, blank-eyed visage of the Meindraugr that had possessed it. Fiery, ice-cold claws clutched at her soul from pits of bone and corruption; and faerie visions of lush beauty and lust grasped at the tail-end of her senses. She knew the visions were unreal, but screamed until she thought her throat would burst at the terrors they held.

The hooded man watched Gwen’s eyes closely for a few minutes, listening to the faint whispers emanating from her; then reached down, and with gloved hands, snapped apart the hard, dry remnants of the tarry substance that had imprisoned her. Climbing to his feet, he slung the wide-eyed, twitching halfling lightly over one shoulder, then tugged Ankallys to her feet. With a shove, Ankallys was propelled into motion, the man steering her by one elbow. “Come, my dears,” he whispered – to no one in particular, as neither the wizard nor the halfling appeared to hear him. “There’s a hard bed, and a rough night awaiting you.”

Gwen came to, sputtering and choking, shaking her head to clear the water from her eyes and nose. The sudden movement awoke a raging, clanging agony in her temples, and she was conscious of being desperately thirsty. The intense cramping in her wrists and shoulders was depressingly familiar; she had, after all, worn manacles before, if only briefly, as a result of some of her exploits during her younger days. Instinctively, without opening her eyes, she twisted her forearms let her nimble fingers roam over the metal cuffs encircling her wrists, and the heavy iron bar connecting them. The device seemed well-oiled and depressingly solid.

“No shamming, dear.” Gwen recognized the soft, sneering voice of her attacker, sighed, and opened her eyes. She was laying face down in a heap of foul, rotting straw, on the stone floor of a tiny prison cell. There were no obvious windows; the only light came from a pair of guttering torches in the larger room behind the open door. Framed in the doorway was the robed and hooded figure that had ensnared her in the alley. She glanced around, noting that Ankallys was nowhere to be seen, and gritted her teeth, gagging as a wave of nausea washed over her.

The fellow squatted on his haunches beside her and carefully picked a few bits of mouldy straw out of her hair. “I’d save my strength, if I were you,” he said conversationally. “Mordayn vapour’s not to be trifled with. I’d wager you’ve a nasty headache.” With a brisk gesture, he pushed back his hood.

Gwen tried not to gasp in surprise, and nearly succeeded. The man – if ‘man’ was the right word – was a study in oddity. His head was bald, smooth as an egg and utterly hairless; he lacked even eyebrows. Around his neck he wore a glittering silver and diamond necklace that sparkled even in the dim torchlight; clearly a woman’s bauble, but rich enough to attract her interest. His forehead, too, looked odd; the marks were faded and dim, but Gwen would have sworn that he wore a tattoo of some sort just above his eyes – a circle of some kind, enclosing a cloud and a fist. It seemed oddly familiar, but she couldn’t place it; her mind was still whirling with the after-effects of her assailant’s drugs and poisons.

Strangest, though, was his skin, which was a sickly green; and she gagged again at the stench of him, a foetid concoction of sour sweat, rotting flesh, and a dense, musky, flowery odour, as though he had bathed himself in expensive perfume. Her previous exposure had been mild; this time, with his proximity, and with her head reeling from the soporifics she had endured, her gorge rebelled, and she vomited suddenly, splashing the floor and her captor with bile.

The man smirked. “I apologize for my…unique fragrance. A legacy of my charming father. But don’t worry,” he added harshly, “you’ll not have to endure it for long. I’ve a few questions to ask you; answer them honestly, and I’ll set you free.”

Gwen spat weakly, raising her head out of the disgusting puddle beneath her to look the fellow in the eye. From the larger room behind the man, she could hear scuffling and shuffling, an ominous creaking, panting breaths, and the occasional gasped moan of agony. Shifting her shoulders, she rolled away from the befouled spot, and twisted herself into a sitting position. “Ask away,” she said, with a semblance of cheer.

“Not so quickly,” the green-faced man said, smiling widely. Gwen was unsurprised to notice that his incisors had been filed to points. Or maybe, she thought dismally, they grew that way. “I won’t be thought an inept host. I’ve a more comfortable bed for you.” He snapped his fingers at someone standing unseen in the room beyond. An enormous, broad-shouldered silhouette shuffled into view, bending to enter the doorway, and blocking out much of the light in doing so.

The robed man pointed at Gwen, and said, “Rack her.”

The newcomer didn’t move; he merely cleared his throat uncomfortably, and shuffled another couple of steps into the room. His face came into the light, and Gwen ground her teeth silently: fangs, low, sloping forehead, jutting lower jaw; he was some kind of Orc. But bigger, much bigger than any Orc she had ever seen; this fellow might have given even Bjorn some trouble.

Green-face looked up at the Orc. “Is there a problem?” he asked stiffly.

The Orc leaned forward at the waist and whispered something into his master’s ear. Gwen strained, but couldn’t catch the words.

Green-face stiffened and stared back at his subordinate in disbelief. “What do you mean, ‘not long enough’?” he asked incredulously.

“It was designed for humans, my lord,” the Orc answered in a harsh, virtually unintelligible accent.

Green-face’s green face tightened, and he snarled, “Se duce sé aducé frânghie!” The Orc turned and hurried out of the room.

Green-face turned back to Gwen, sighed, and rubbed his face with one hand, then smiled wearily. “It seems, my dear,” he said, “that I must renege on my offer of a bed. The chains on my rack are evidently too short to accommodate a guest of your noble stature. So I’ve had to make other arrangements.” He settled back on his heels and waited. Gwen said nothing, merely staring at the man blankly; but behind her back, her fingers worked frantically at the manacles, trying to find a loose hinge-pin, a weak sear spring...anything. It was useless.

“You ought to know,” the man continued, “that my mistress will be joining us sometime this evening. I warn you, Halfling – she is not one to be trifled with.” He paused, and Gwen looked up at the change in his tone, from mocking to serious; his face had taken on a grim cast, rendering his peculiar features almost demonic. She could not tell whether he was still mocking her, or was truly frightened himself. “Those who do not answer her questions promptly and honestly, even among her own acolytes, rarely enjoy a quick or painless death.” The man fell silent, almost brooding.

Gwen ignored this sally, keeping her face immobile, and continuing to work away surreptitiously at the manacles. Gods, but they were tight! Must be Dwarf-make, she thought dismally. What she wouldn’t give for a lock-pick! A thin fragment of wire, a sliver of iron…

A moment later, the giant Orc returned with a coil of hemp rope, one end of which he threaded through an eye-bolt set in the keystone of the cell’s arched ceiling. He bent and tied the other end to Gwen’s manacles. She set her jaw grimly, determined not to cry out, as the Orc yanked on the rope, hoisting her easily into the air. When her toes were a foot off the stone floor, he bent again, and tied the rope off to one of several rusted iron rings set into the flagstones. The Orc looked down at Green-face and grunted inquiringly; the latter merely nodded toward the door, and the Orc shuffled back into the other room.

Gwen’s shoulders were wrenched nearly out of their sockets, and the breath hissed in and out between her gritted teeth. Green-face seized her arm and spun her around until they were eye-to-eye. He smiled pleasantly. “I think we’ll wait awhile before we have our little chat,” he said, giving her a push that set her spinning, and made her shoulder joints scream with pain. “I’m sure an hour or so will ensure absolute clarity in your answers, no?” Gwen clenched her jaw against the tearing blaze of agony, determined out of sheer bloody-mindedness not to tell this foul-smelling bastard a thing.

“Very well,” Green-face said, laughing at her clenched silence. “No hurry. Plenty of time. I’d like you to ponder the answers to three questions I’ll be asking you later. First, where’s that old fool of a wizard, Rathorn? Second, did you find the clue he was seeking? What was it? And who has it? And third...who is the Tyrellian, and what is he doing here?” He gave her another push.

“That should give you enough to go on,” green-face continued, “while I amuse myself asking your pretty friend the same questions. When you’re ready to talk we’ll see if you sing the same tune.” He laughed hardily, turning on his heel. “At least she fits the equipment!” Still chuckling, her captor sauntered out of the cell, while Gwen swung slowly from side to side, wishing devoutly that the son-of-a-whore had taken his gut-wrenching stench with him.

The door slammed, and a key rattled in the lock. Noting that the door had a window, but that it was sealed by a wooden shutter, Gwen smiled tightly herself, and immediately went to work. Trying to ignore the searing agony that burned through her arms and neck, she shifted her wrists in the manacles, working her dexterous fingers towards the knot that the Orc had tied around the steel bar. That, she thought, ought to be an easier nut to crack.

It wasn’t easy, but she had time, and plenty of incentive, and before long the knot had yielded to her talented fingers. She tumbled to the floor, rolling with the impact, then quickly shuffled into a sitting position, shrugging her shoulders stiffly to ease them, hissing through clenched teeth at the pain, and plotting her next move. Glancing around the cell, she quickly spotted what she needed: the head of a rusty, bent nail protruding from the door-frame near the floor. She shuffled quickly to the door on her knees, and bending forward, took the nail-head carefully between her teeth. Left and right, up and down; the taste of rust and corruption was unpleasant, and the metal ground against her teeth, but after a few moments’ effort, she had the nail in her mouth. She quickly spat it onto the floor, then spun into a sitting position, and retrieved it between her fingers. She inserted it into the manacle lock and…

A moment later, Gwen was crouching behind the cell door, noting the placement of the hinges and the laughably simple lock. Before popping the latch and bursting out of her cell, she thought it might be wise to wait a moment and listen to the goings-on on the other side. She put an ear to the joint between door and frame, and found that she could hear quite nicely. Finding a comfortable position, she settled to the floor, and waited.

When the screams began, she started swinging the now re-locked manacle bar experimentally in one hand. That tattoo on Sieur Stinky’s forehead, she thought, should make a dandy aiming point.

The first thing Gwen heard when she put her ear to the door was a piercing shriek of agony. This was repeated once, then twice, then trailed off into hitching sobs. Then she heard the green-faced fellow speak, in that same pleasant, conversational tone that she was really, really beginning to hate.

“Where’s Rathorn?”

(Sobs). “He’s dead.”

Another shriek. Green-face again. “I don’t believe you.”

“He’s dead! He’s dead!”

“Try harder.” Another shriek, longer and higher than before.

Dead! Dead and buried! Dead! Dead! Dead! De…

“Enough. Where’s the clue?”

“I don’t know. Please, don’t…”

Another shriek. “Try harder.”

I don’t know! They took it! They took it! It’s gone! Please, don’t…

“Who took it?”

“They did! The ones who found me on the road. The ones who entered the temple with me!”

“Calm down, now. Have some water. Tell me about it.”

As Gwen listened, Ankallys, in a hitching, hesitant voice, told the tale of the landslide. Evidently Rathorn had been absorbed in his wizardry, casting some mighty spell or other, when the mountainside had abruptly collapsed, burying the mage and his followers alive.

Ankallys then told how the party had come upon her scrabbling desperately in the mud and scree, how they entered the broken temple together, and of the first appearance of the flapping, sheet-like shadows. Gwen smiled as the woman recounted the Halfling’s dispute with the hulking priest over the gem-studded silver vambraces she had found in one of the tombs, and shook her head in wonder; had it really be less than a week ago?

“And while the rest were engaged in exploring this temple, you left them?”

“Yesssss….I was looking for the crypt of Moldukar, the High Priest told of in the Sortis Scipionum. According to the scroll, he was the bearer of the hand and the ring of the Daughter of Exile; and he alone, of all the sons of Esu down through the ages, knew where his forebears had hidden the first of the Shards.”

“And you found the clue?”

“I found Moldukar’s prize, his phylactery, which is where the clue was said to be hidden. But then they…they started coming out of the walls.”


Silence for a moment, followed by a brief gasp.

“Who came out of the walls?”

Them! The shadows! They followed me up the stairs, out of the crypt, and then…”


“That’s all. I don’t remember anything else. I fell into endless dreams, and knew nothing more, until I awoke yesterday in that cell.”

“In the Hall of the Allfather?”

“Wherever it was that you found me.”

The voices fell silent, and Gwen strained to hear. Shuffling; low voices; the clattering of clawed feet. Then, strangely, light steps on wood, and the creak of an opening door.

The green-faced man spoke suddenly. “Welcome, my lady”

Gwen was surprised to hear a woman answer in a light, lilting voice that reminded her, strangely enough, of Lyra. She listened intently.

The newcomer said, “Has she told you where her master may be found?”

Green-face replied, “She insists he is dead.”


“According to her, in a landslide, whilst excavating the temple they had been seeking.”

There was a brief pause before the woman replied. “Like enough she speaks true. I’ve been to their camp south of Ganesford; it’s gone. Wiped away. The cliff has collapsed and buried most of the workings. It’s entirely possible that the old fool is gone as well. What says she of the clue they sought?”

“She says she found it, in the tomb of Moldukar, as promised in the scroll, but that she remembers nothing else; she says she fell before fiends of darkness.”

“Hmmm. Likely also true. I’ve seen the remains of the temple; it has become a dark and deadly place, infested with the mark and memory of powerful shades.”

To Gwen’s ears, the green-faced man’s reply expressed shock. “You entered, Mistress?”

“A temple of Karg? Don’t be foolish. I wouldn’t sully myself.”

“But surely…”

“What?” There was a dangerous note in the newcomer’s voice.

The green-faced man continued (it seemed to Gwen, somewhat reluctantly), “Surely there would be much to be learned by…”

“And expose myself to the wrath of the bear-whore?” Gwen heard a sharp smack. It sounded like the newcomer had struck her host. Her next words confirmed Gwen’s assumption. Idiot! I am mighty, but not even Tyrek herself would dare to brave the bitch-goddess in her own den.”

“Forgive me, Mistress. I did not mean to offend.”

There was a momentary pause.

The woman asked, “What of Ballock? Am I going to have to placate that wretched man-goat again?”

“No, Mistress. He is dead.”

Gwen heard delighted laughter. “Dead? How delightful! Did one of his child-strumpets finally knife him?”

“No, mistress. As near as I’ve been able to find out, our friend Targus tried to dupe the wrong group of traveling knights-errant. He faked out their guard and purloined their wagon, but they back-tracked him, broke open the warehouse, and slew most of Blaine’s men.”

The woman laughed again. “Marvelous! And Targus himself?”

The green-faced man replied, “He has a talent for being elsewhere when there’s fighting going on, Mistress. If he was not upstairs when you entered, he’ll likely be back soon.”

“Good. I’d have missed him. So, these travelers killed old Ballock, eh?”

“No, Mistress,” green-face replied, “but they slew two-score of his bully-boys, and they also managed to give quietus to your colleague, Radobaul.”

The woman’s reply was shocked. “No!”

“I’m afraid so.”

“That’s more serious.”

There was another pause, longer this time. The silence was broken by a loud creak, followed by another scream of pain from Ankallys.

“Not as disfigured as the usual run of round-eyes, this one. You haven’t damaged her too badly yet, I see. We might as well profit from her presence.” Another pause, then the woman spoke again. “So, if these would-be heroes didn’t axe Ballock, then who did?”

“It was I, Mistress. Earlier this evening. For some reason I cannot fathom, the swordsmen who defeated Ballock took him to Hardfist for judgment, and the old priest locked him up in an empty wine cellar. It wasn’t easy to get in, but I needed to break the trail leading back to us, so I paid him a visit before making off with this young lady. His death will look natural, of course.”

“Of course. Well, that part was well done at least, although I suppose we will have to do away with Targus and the other captains as well. Have you heard from them?

“Nothing from Blaine, mistress, although I suspect the coward is still running hard. Owen’s a different matter; he always smelt like a turncoat, and earlier this afternoon, I saw him conversing with the very group that defeated Ballock.”

“A traitor?” she asked.

“So it would seem. An excess of conscience, that one.”

“Hmm. It will be long and lingering for dear Owen, then, when my mistress’ vengeance finally catches him up. Ergot, my friend, you are a wealth of information this evening. Have you discovered anything else?”

“Perhaps, Mistress. One of the adventurers made the mistake of tracking me as I returned from the temple with our guest, here. She’s a stealthy one, but inexperienced, and I was able to capture her as well. A Halfing; a thief, I suppose, like all her wretched, rat-faced breed. She’s not much, but she could provide us with information, if she knows anything.”

“And with sport if she doesn’t, eh?”

“Indeed, mistress.”

“Well, let’s see her then, before we get back to business. I’m looking forward to finishing this one.”

There was another creak, and another scream from Ankallys; then footsteps, moving towards her door. Gwen hunched down as far as she could, staying close to the hinges, praying between clenched teeth that her captors would be sufficiently secure in their sense of superiority that they wouldn’t think to open the view-port before opening the door.

They didn’t. A key rattled in the lock, and the door swung wide. Gwen leapt from behind the door and, relishing the instant look of shock on her green-faced captor’s visage, swung the manacle bar double-fisted, and cracked the man squarely between the eyes.

Green-face grunted in agony, and went down like a pole-axed cow. Behind him, Gwen caught sight of a fair-faced, dark-haired Elven woman, clad in a dark cape over a white dress; unarmoured, but armed, a dark-hilted rapier slung at her side. The woman jumped back a pace, then raised her blood-stained hands, fingers contorted in a curious gesture, and hissed out a serious of harsh syllables. A shimmering wave of argent light rippled through the air towards the Halfling. As it washed over Gwen, she felt as if every square inch of skin was being flayed from her body. Her eyes went blank and dark; her vision vanished, and her flesh boiled and blistered. Her arms and legs spasmed uncontrollably; her fingers clenched, knuckles cracking, and her back arced, backwards, forwards, and back again. She crumpled to the floor, desperately trying to scream, but managing only a weak, harsh gasping as she twitched helplessly, wracked by blinding pain.

A heavy weight landed on her; on the other side of a sea of agony, she felt her hands being drawn together and locked into the hated manacles again. As her teeth ground uncontrollably, she found herself grateful that at least, this time, her hands were being shackled in front of her. She fought for breath as wave after wave of intolerable agony shimmered across her being, blinding and blasting her senses.

The pain lasted a minute, and an eternity; Gwen had no sense of time. When the wracking, gut-clenching spasms finally subsided, she was so grateful that she nearly wept. Glancing at her hands, she saw that they were covered with erupting pustules and boils that were already beginning to fade. She looked up. The newcomer was smiling pleasantly at her.

Stepping forward, the Elfwoman examined the Halfling closely. “You’re a feisty one, aren’t you?” she said. “Well, you’ll soon learn some respect.”

The green-faced man – Ergot, Gwen reminded herself – was in a far less pleasant mood. Dabbing blood from the enormous, gashed swelling on his forehead with one corner of his robe, he rasped, “I’ll cut your eyes out for that, Halfling.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” the Elfwoman said sharply. “I like the strong ones. I need that strength, and I don’t intend to let you waste any of it indulging your appetites. String her up.”

Gwen sighed to herself as the enormous Orc lumbered into the cell, retrieved the rope (that Gwen, after freeing herself, had carefully coiled on the floor), and, grabbing the manacles by the connecting bar, threw the Halfling over one shoulder and shuffled back out of the cell.

Gwen’s first look at the outer chamber did little to calm her. Ankallys was bound, shaking and sobbing, to a fairly standard rack that stood in the middle of the room. The remainder of the chamber was crammed with various instruments designed to inflict pain, some of which Gwen recognized, many of which, to her extreme consternation, she did not. There were four cell doors identical to her own on one side of the room, and two larger doors on the opposite side.

Not that she would be able to do much about those in the near future, she thought, as the big Orc shambled over to one of the walls, and hung Gwen’s manacles over an iron hook protruding from the masonry some six feet off the floor. Gwen shifted her shoulders experimentally. It was uncomfortable, to be sure, but a damned sight better than hanging upside-down and backwards.

The Elf-woman sauntered over and stood before her, hands on hips. “I don’t know how much you overheard, my dear, and I don’t really care. But you should understand that I’m not here on a social call. I have business to conduct. Two things, really. One is information for my mistress and my order. The other is power…for me. You are going to supply me with both.”

Gwen’s eyes narrowed as the woman produced a small, buckled leather strap, with a curious, silver-throated crystal phial attached to its midpoint. She nodded at the Orc. This latter, with an economical gesture, reached up, grasped the neck of Gwen’s tunic, and tore it slightly, exposing her neck to the collar-bones. Reaching up, the Elf-woman buckled the leather strap around the Halfling’s neck, positioning the phial carefully at the base of her throat. Gwen aimed a kick at the woman, but the Orc was ready, and caught her leg.

The Elf-woman laughed merrily. “Now we can kill two bugbears with one shaft,” she said. Stepping back, she made a series of arcane gestures and passes in the air, similar to those Gwen had seen Lyra use; but the gestures were more menacing, and the words accompanying them hissing, dark and dreadful. Gwen winced; there was a biting, piercing, burning sensation at her neck. The room felt suddenly colder, and she began to shiver.

The Elf-woman stepped back, a grim look of satisfaction. “That’s well begun.” She glance up at Gwen, who was squinting and gritting her teeth at the burning discomfort emanating from the device at her throat. Pain is power, Halfling, and your pain is mine to harvest. Unfortunately for you,” she continued, stepping forwards again, and flexing her fingers, “the spell and the flask are not enough. As with wheat, so with pain: to harvest, first you must sow.”

Gwen clenched her fists and snarled in rage as the woman wove the same gestures, and intoned the same dark, hissing phrases she had used in the cell. The Halfling twisted impotently, swinging her legs left and right, as the power built; and then she was screaming, screaming in agony as the wave of pain slammed through and over her, muscles cramping, vision dimming and going black, and sour liquid bursting from pustules and sores all over her body. She hardly noticed as the iron shank of the manacles cut into her wrists; but she could clearly hear the woman and her two cohorts laughing.

With a violent act of will, Gwen clenched her teeth against the shrieks, and held them grimly shut. Eventually the pain subsided. When she had stopped gasping and could speak, she rasped, “What do you want to know?”

The Elf-woman smiled. “My dear,” she said mockingly, “what makes you think I want to know anything?”

Gwen stared back. “What was the point of all that, then?”

“Look down”.

Gwen looked. The crystal phial stood out sharply from the leather collar strapped to her neck. It was half-filled by a thick, resinous, incarnadine fluid that sparkled darkly in the gloom of the dungeon.

She glanced back up in shock. The Elf-woman smiled more broadly, white teeth bright against her lips. Pain is power,” she repeated softly. “Your pain becomes my power. There is a lot more to be had from you, I think.” She began weaving her arcane gestures again; and as the wave built once more, Gwen clenched her teeth and knotted her fists, determined to not let…

She came to, shaking her head slightly. She had no idea how long she’d been unconscious…but she was still hanging from the wall, and the Elf-woman was still standing in front of her, gloating. “That should be enough for now, little one,” the woman said, flexing her fingers slightly, as if to dissipate tension. She beckoned to the Orc, who stood nearby, a broad smile on its hideous face and a slick of drool decorating its chin. He grasped Gwen’s legs, holding them tightly as the Elf-woman reached up and carefully detached the crystal phial from the collar. Gwen was conscious of a sudden sense of relief. The woman stoppered the phial, then shook it lightly before Gwen’s eyes.

“You’re an absolute fountain,” she said in a cheerful tone. “I’m going to have Ergot keep you around for a while, I think. With sufficient incentive, he may be able to quell his…baser urges, and leave you breathing for a long, long time.” She slipped the phial into a hidden pocket in her cloak.

Ergot drew her aside, whispering. Gwen tilted her head slightly, and listened carefully.

“Secure her,” the woman was saying. “You know as well as I that she’s no more use today.”

“Aren’t you even going to question her?” Ergot asked in an astonished tone.

“Why the rush?”

“You haven’t seen her comrades,” the man hissed angrily. “I have. These aren’t run-of-the-mill mercenaries; they could be a serious threat to the Secrecy, and to your mistress.”

“Don’t be an old woman. Shier Tyrek can take care of herself.”

“Perhaps. But do you think she would be happier defending herself from legions of would-be crusaders, or living her life entirely unmolested and unknown?”

The Elf-woman hesitated, then sighed resignedly. “You’re right,” she acknowledged. “Let’s find out what she knows.”

The pair turned back to Gwen, who feigned semi-consciousness. The Elf-woman crossed her arms, dropping all pretense at cheerfulness, and said softly, “My colleague would like to know a little more about your friends. Start talking. When you stop, or when I lose interest in what you’re saying, I’ll give you another taste of my power.”

Gwen shrugged as well as she could in her bonds. This was going to be interesting. “What would you like to know?” she asked neutrally.

“What happened at the temple of the bear-goddess? Did you find the relic?”

Gwen struggled internally, balancing the dangers of answering truthfully against the memory of the Elf-woman’s soul-searing magic. Gritting her teeth, she replied, “You heard Ankallys. What she told you was true. She left us, then returned trailing an army of black, floating shadows. Our priest destroyed them, but it was too late for her; she had been overwhelmed, and lay senseless. We brought her to Hardfist for healing.”

“What of the relic?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Ergot stepped forward, and slashed Gwen sharply across the face with some sort of flexible leather rod. The pain was searing, but at least it was brief. Gwen glared at him.

“The relic?” the woman repeated.

“Ankallys came out of the crypt with something in her hand. After we saved her, the priest and the sorceress argued about it for awhile. That’s all I know about it.”

The woman laughed harshly. “Such a startling lack of curiosity from one of your race! I don’t believe you.”

“I can’t help that,” Gwen replied with outward calm, her heart racing.

“Where are your friends now?”

Gwen thought for a moment, then smiled broadly, and spat in her tormentor's face. It was an excellent shot; she hit the woman in the eye. A shriek of rage, and…


...and a splash of water brought Gwen back to her senses. She shook her head to dash the droplets from her eyes. Ergot and the woman stood where they had been; the Orc was shuffling away, a bucket dangling from one misshapen fist.

Gwen coughed twice, trying to clear her throat. Her shoulders ached abominably. “I’m sorry, I must have dozed off. Where were we?” she said cheerfully.

“Where are your friends?”

“On their way here, I’d imagine,” the Halfling replied with an evil grin.

“Where are they staying?”

Gwen smiled again, and made a series of loud, horking noises. Both the woman and Ergot stepped backwards quickly, and Gwen laughed out loud. “If you’re willing to consort with Sieur Stinky-breeks here,” she said with a chuckle, “then a little spittle shouldn’t bother you.”

His emerald face contorted with rage, Ergot stepped forwards, and slashed Gwen across the face with his leather rod again, and again, and again. Gwen was laughing so hard that she barely felt the pain.

“I asked you a question,” the Elf-woman said ominously.

“So twiddle your fingers again,” Gwen replied with a sneer, “and see what answer you get.”

The Elf-woman said nothing; she merely crossed her arms and tapped her foot. After a moment, Ergot leaned towards the woman, and whispered, “Mistress?”

The woman grasped her subordinate by the robe, put her lips to his ear, and whispered back, “I have exhausted my powers for the nonce! If we want answers, we’ll have to use other means.” Gwen pretended ignorance, but heard their urgent whispers easily.

Perhaps if we let her stew awhile?” Ergot suggested, glancing at where the Halfling hung, chuckling, in her bonds. I doubt we’ll get more out of her right now.”

Very well.” The woman appeared to struggle with her thoughts for a moment, then whispered, “Mistress Tyrek must be told. We must have the relic, and apparently we need more strength than you or I alone possess in order to wrest it from these imbeciles. I’ll go myself; this is too important a matter to entrust to a messenger.”

Ergot whispered back: “Mistress, it will be dangerous for you to ride openly.”

“I am a Traveller of the Secrecy of the Rod,” the woman replied tightly. “No road is too dangerous for me. Besides, I have the essence extracted from our guests; the extra power will stand me in good stead. I dare not delay further.”

“What of these two?”

The woman smiled. “Bait,” she laughed. “Perhaps their friends will attempt to rescue them; if so, see that you give a good accounting of yourself. If you defeat them and live, you will be exalted among our brethren; if not…well, see that your death is useful. The Dark Lady will enfold you to her breast.”

Ergot smiled grimly. “I have no doubt of my skill, but I don’t like the odds. And in any case, I dislike your proposed tactics. The Halfling is too dangerous to be kept alive. You saw how easily she escaped before.”

“Put her in the pit, then. But keep her whole until her friends are no longer a threat to our designs.” The Elf-woman paused, then made some odd, surreptitious gesture that Gwen couldn’t see. “Farewell.”

“Farewell, mistress,” Ergot replied. Without further ceremony, the Elf-woman turned, and departed through one of the larger doors. Gwen heard her light tread on the stairs.

Ergot turned back to the dangling Halfling, gesturing at the Orc. “Barog, take her down, and dump her.” To Gwen, he said, “We’ll talk more later.”

“Take your time,” Gwen answered, as the giant Orc lifted her easily down from the hook, dropping her to the floor, and dragging her by the manacles towards one of the larger doors. “I’ll be saving up more spit.”

Ergot kicked her as she passed. And Gwen laughed.

Cold, dark and wet. And hard. The Orc had taken her down two steep flights of wooden steps into a small, barrel-vaulted room with a heavy wooden trap-door in the floor. Without ceremony, he had opened the trap, dumped her through, and bolted it shut again. She had managed to slow her fall, but still tumbled gracelessly into the shallow water, and the breath was knocked out of her. She relaxed for a moment, coping with the aftershocks of the magical pain the Elf-witch had inflicted upon her, and hissing at the searing sting of the whip-cuts across her cheek. Apart from these injuries, however, she felt fine.

After a few minutes, she began feeling her way around in the darkness. It was utterly black; the floor was rough, unfinished stone, higher near the walls; in the center of the floor, there was a puddle of foul, stinking water a few inches deep. She could feel dozens of bones of all sizes cluttering the floor.

And then she came upon…what was it, exactly? Some sort of metal plate, lying near one of the walls. It was two-thirds her height, and half that in width, oddly-shaped, like the Tau-rune in the common speech. Its surface was heavily engraved, with deep swirls and whorls, and what she thought might be runic inscriptions. She got her fingers under it and strained to lift it, but it was heavy; twice her own weight, at least. Odd place for such an object, she thought to herself. Whatever it is, it was no use to her. What she wouldn’t give for her…

“Yes!” she said excitedly. Scrabbling through the muck and slime on her knees, she felt through the jumbled bones. Where there were prisoners, she thought, there would be food. And where there was food, there were always…got it!

A few minutes later, she against one of the rough stone walls, rubbing her tender, chafed wrists. She had placed the manacles beside the odd metal plate for safe-keeping. And she was smiling. Insofar as she knew, she was the first of her profession ever to escape from masterwork manacles using a rat-bone as a lock-pick.

She enjoyed her triumph for a few moments more, then tried to reach the invisible ceiling, first by stretching, and then by jumping. She was still trying to figure out how to shinny up the walls an hour later when the trap-door opened, and Bjorn’s voice floated down.

* * * * *