The Swordlands

The Drow Ship

Swooping forwards out of the darkness, lit by lights on the deck, came a contraption such that Karl had never seen before. It was like a large sailing-ship, but instead of sails it had two huge balloons extended over the top of it. Each had a bright light situation under it, illuminating the deck.

Under the ship were a selection of gears, cogs and levers, moving ceaselessly as it clanked it’s way along. The chain that Karl had walked along disappeared into an opening at the base of the ship, at the front, and it seemed as though the peculiar vessel was somehow moving along this chain. Karl could see that it would fit through the hoop that he was on top of, and in a moment of inspiration he dropped on to one of the balloons as it went past, snuffing his own light source as he did so. The top of the balloon had several ropes criss-crossing it, and he was able to hang on without difficulty.

The rest of the party were now able to see the ship as it slowed and pulled into the platform, coming to an easy halt. A moment later, a ramp was lowered to the ground, revealing a dark-skinned humanoid figure at the top of it.

“Drow!” whispered Aengus. “Be very careful.”

“Why?” remarked Sigurd sardonically. “Is he an uncle of yours or something?”

The figure was slender in build with light hair, and surveyed the people below him imperiously before gesturing at the Derro to come forwards. Producing a pouch of some kind, the Derro pressed it into the Drow’s hand and advanced past him onto the deck of the ship. The Troglodytes followed immediately afterwards, also paying with a small pouch. Finally, the Drow turned his attention to the party and spoke in Elven, asking their business.

A very swift conference decided that Aengus was the only one who could talk back to him, and the Warlock stepped forwards to use his diplomatic skills. After some discussion, the remains of the alchemical poison were offered up, along with a pouch of copper coins from Iben. Seeing that the Drow was about to strike Iben for his poor offer, Aegnus smoothly stepped in and spoke again, sweetening his words and (reluctantly) offering the gems that had been taken from the Hall. With a more graceful demeanour, the Drow inclined his head and invited them on board, before heading down an interior set of stairs, locking the hatch behind him to leave the passengers on deck.

In a single smooth motion, the ramp folded back up on to the ship and the whole vessel rotated one-hundred-and-eighty degrees on the chain, causing Karl to almost lose his grip in surprise. As the ship began to move back along the chain, he dropped a small message onto the deck near Aengus’ feet, letting his liege lord know he was there.

The ship sped swiftly along the chain, travelling through several of the giant hoops. Eventually it reached another wall, and as it got closer the group could see a large hole had been cut in it. Passing neatly through, the voyage continued in a second cavern. The engineering was astonishing, far surpassing anything that the companions had seen so far on their journeys.

“I need to warn you about the Derro,” spoke Aengus quietly. “They are Dwarf-kin, and share many of their skills and habits. But they are also dark and twisted, with a love of magical experimentation and slavery. They combine the two, making twisted monstrosities from their slaves to do their work for them.”

Iben shuddered at the thought, the human picturing in his mind what might happen should he be captured. Aengus continued “Lastly, they have formidable mental powers that they use in battle and to communicate amongst themselves. Do not trust, and never believe what they say. They lie more easily than any other race before back-stabbing and capturing their former ‘friends’.”

Silence descended at this words, and Iben glanced at the Derro – only to meet their gaze, as they stared, unblinking, at the adventurers before turning back to each other.

Hours passed, cold and silent, as the ship sped ever onwards.

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A Most Interesting Form of Transport

For several days now, the party had been descending within an apparently endless series of tunnels, caves and caverns, following their departure from Thruthgelmir and the lair of Prince Kindrbode. Now, the stone began to turn a faint shade of green, the traces of civilization slowly growing less and less. These caves were clearly very, very old.

Finally, after even Karl’s cheery voice had given out and his spirits were flagging, they came finally to a sign of inhabitation. Ahead of them, the ground abruptly ended in a great blackness as the roof soared up overhead out of range of their light. A platform of stone jutted outwards in a semi-circle, and at the point of it a huge chain was anchored, disappearing off into the darkness.

Karl noticeably brightened at the sight. “Finally!” he exclaimed. “Something to do!” Checking his possessions were securely attached, he scampered out onto the chain, his small, deft feet easily finding purchase and helping him move along. Around him he could feel an enormous sense of space, something he hadn’t noticed in more than a week now since going underground. He almost cartwheeled in joy, before catching himself and sternly reminding himself to stay focused. After a few minutes he found a huge loop of metal that hooped up over the chain, leaving a giant space for him to run through. Ladders were attached to the outside of the hoop with another chain leading up into the darkness. Quickly, Karl ascended one ladder and moved up, trying to see where the chain was leading to.

Back on the platform the others were alarmed to see lights in two of the incoming tunnels. Not knowing whether those that approached were friend or foe, they pulled to one side warily. A small group of humanoids approached, Dwarf-like in stature but somehow darker and as if they had been somehow corrupted. Aengus spoke quietly to the other, identifying these creatures as Derro and not to be trusted for a moment. The two Derro had several Orc slaves with them, their hands bound with thick ropes and forbidding iron collars around their necks. The Derro glanced once at the companions, and then seemed to dismiss them as irrelevant.

From another tunnel two lizard-like creatures emerged, heavily armed and armoured. A foul smell emanated from them, identifying them to Aengus as Troglodytes, and as dangerous foes. They seemed wary of the group, keeping a safe distance both from them and from the Derro. They looked at the chain, and then settled down to wait, giving nothing away.

Back up the ladder above the hoop, Karl was surprised to see lights in the distance. He could feel the chain starting gently to vibrate as though something was travelling along it. Something big.

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The Stairway to Hell

Karl had been working hard on the imposing stone door at the back of the Hall of Thruthgelmir. Several times he had almost given up, as it seemed that every time he opened a section of the lock, some bizarre illogical counter-measure would activate and the lock would get more complex, not less. Still, he had persevered, and finally his patience was rewarded as the door swung open to reveal a descending stone spiral staircase.

Gleefully calling to the others, Karl conjured a magical light and peered down. The tight curve of the stairs meant he couldn’t see far, but as his companions approached, buckling on armour and weapons, the Gnome had a sudden, brilliant idea. Grabbing the now-cleaned skull of Prince Kindrbode, he clambered inside and hurled himself down the steps, bouncing, clattering and tumbling all the way. About half-way down it did occour to him that perhaps there was no bottom and he’d simply spin on through all eternity, or that he finish in a dreadful thud against a harsh wall, but instead the stairwell opened into a room and the skull skittered across the floor before coming to rest.

Karl clambered out, staggered, looked around blearily and was violently sick.

A few minutes later the rest of the group, having run down the stairs trying to keep up, arrived, lit by Sigurd’s own magelight. The room they found themselves in was clearly Prince Kindrbode’s bedroom – a filthy, refuse-strewn mess. In one corner a mattress, crawling with bugs, and in another a few scattered clothes. The stench was appalling and there appeared to be nothing of value except for an exit through the north wall. It was swiftly taken advantage of.

Giant-sized footprints lead further into the caves underground, finishing at a junction with a river. The water was tinged red, and Aengus speculated that this was water from the River of Knives, still stained with the rust from the iron deposits. With no other option, the party continue to follow the river, and after half an hour of walking a distant light emerged. The light of day penetrated weakly into the cave, along with a tremendous low rumbling roar.

Blinking in the sudden light, the companions emerged to a great vision of Nothing. They were stood on a small ledge, partway down a huge cliff. Above them, they could see jutting rocks and the high edge of the cliff, and ahead of them clouds, mist and spray disappearing into a grey bleakness lit only with the occasional rumble of thunder and far-distant flash of lightning. Below and to the sides the cliff extended to the edge of vision with nothing but a narrow ledge as a way down. Roping themselves together, they began to move down.

The journey was slow, monotonous and dangerous. Jutting rocks wore at the ropes, the path was slippery with water and occasionally other waterfalls shot from the cliff with great force, arcing off into the mist below. A cold wind blew and as the hours passed they took more and more time sheltering in small caves against the weather. Some caves extended further back into the wall, and it became apparent through the days of their journey that there were evidence of workings in the stone. Each layer showed more ancient work than the last, firstly appearing hundreds of years old, then millennia. There were rooms and hallways, maybe even evidence of long-gone cities.

Sigurd explained her theory as they walked, that each civilization had built on the work of those previously, striving ever upwards to escape the depths they had started from. Moving inside the cliff and following the pathways, climbs and slides down the group continued.

Aengus stopped suddenly at one point, smiled grimly, then continued walking.

“What was that?” asked Thunder. “You looked as though you’d seen a ghost.”

“Not exactly,” replied the Eladrin. “It’s just… I can feel my kin are getting closer. Or me, closer to them.”

“Hang on a minute,” said Iben. “I thought Eladrin came from the Feyworld, not from miles underground in dank caverns.”

“About that,” Aengus said. “I suppose this would be a good time to tell you that only my mother was an Eladrin…”

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Beyond the End of the World

After the adrenalin rush of battle had subsided, the companions that had defeated Prince Kindrbode and his minions looked around the devastated remnants of the Great Hall. Corpses were piled everywhere, none grander or more foul than that of Kindrbode himself.

The Giants body lay in the wreckage of his table, sprawled with his stomach gorily splayed open. The contents of his stomach, however, had survived relatively intact. After some discussion, the gems that the Sinister Vizier had swiped were deemed to be of less unpleasant nature, and Kindrbode’s body was thrown into the firepits.

Karl, however, took a moment to live up to a promise he had made – he made the head into a chamberpot and used it.

Outside, trying to get away from the stink of burning Orc-flesh, and watching the rest of the Orc tribes flee, broken, into the distance, Iben and Snøflgrøf talked for several hours. Snøflgrøf spoke of a prophecy that had long been told in his village, that Auslanders would come and lead to salvation. Shaking Iben’s hand, Snøflgrøf added that he felt the prophecy “wash more than filled now, you shee.” As thank, Thunder gave him the one of the two bastard swords that he had recovered from the body of Requiem – telling him to take it back to his village and use it well.

The Warforged had decided to keep the other sword, and other the next few days he trained hard with it. He felt almost as though he were relearning swordplay, rather than learning it for the first time, and the long, heavy blade felt natural in his hand.

Departing, Snøflgrøf spoke his final words to the group. “There are many talesh of the Worldsh End. Shome shay it endsh in Fire and Frosht when the Primordialsh return to lay washte to all. But in our village they shpeak of the Aushlandersh that lead the worthy to victory againsht them. I hope that thish refersh to you, I truly do.”

Leaving, he passed Aldis and Aldar as they spoke quietly, for many hours. Finally, Aldis returned to the others, saying that she would not speak of her one-time friend. Aldar departed for points unknown.

Back inside the Hall, Rusalka was talked into staying, rather than returning to Sigurd. It took a quantity of gems, and Aengus’ smooth words to convince her. Thunder spoke of the good she could do under the banner of Kord, and although momentarily unsure, Rusalka finally agreed when Karl added that if, in fact, she did attempt to rejoin Sigurd’s ever-increasing army, he would personally remove her knees.

Karl and Aengus began to work on the great door at the back of the Hall, the one that reputedly led to the Underworld. The other villagers – Yuppi and Yetta, the Iglingsborgers and Snufflegruff, all departed on their way, to spread the tale of Kindrbode’s demise. Over the next few days the door was slowly opened, new magic items were created and Aengus and Rusalka found time for a little “night hunting”.

Finally, with a cry of exhausted joy, Karl finally cracked the incredibly complex lock, defeating the countermeasures built into it and enabling the group to progress. Behind the door lay an unassuming stone spiral staircase, leading down into darkness, out of sight.

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Battle of Thruthgelmir, Part 2

At the bottom of the ramp, a furious battle was raging. The Orcs had the advantage of numbers and were trying to surround Thunder, Aldis, Aengus and Sigurd. Thunder and Aldis were struggling back to their feet after being dumped by the ramp, and both had to lever themselves up off the floor whilst dodging axe blows. Once they regained their feet, however, their superior skill began to tell as they fought back-to-back and cleared a space around them.

Aengus threw a curse into the fray and ran through, looking to make his way up the ramp. The going was steep, but with the aid of his ability to teleport his made it up to the top in a few seconds. Barking, the Onyx dog followed as he ran to assist Iben. Crossbow bolts from the Orc archers bounced off the stones around him and whizzed over his head.

Iben was winding up another huge swing of his axe on Kindrbode. Just before he swung, he noticed that Kindrbode was making no effort to defend himself, instead pressing both hands over his mouth. Shocked, Iben took a step backwards as the Prince swallowed hugely. After a second, Kindrbode’s eyes went wide and he groaned in agony – and then, in a shower of Giant-blood his stomach exploded, covering Iben in gore as thirty or forty huge rats leapt out from inside him. The rats scurried away instantly, climbing down the sides of the dais to escape as Kindrbode toppled backwards into his throne, ending up sitting there like some grotesque mockery of a ruler.

Covered in blood, faced by enemies on all sides, Iben let his battle-rage loose, felling the Trollkin in a single blow and howling in rage. The noise drew the attention of all the fighters in the Hall, and they saw Iben drenched in blood as Kindrbode lay dead in front of him. A cheer went up from the party and they returned to the fray with renewed power. The Dragonborn Aldar, seeing that the Prince was slain, drew her won weapon and waded in alongside Aldis.

“This is madness,” she said. “You’ll never win against all of them. Sigmund will come for you.” She blocked an axe strike from a burly Orc, grunting under the impact.

“So be it,” responded the Paladin grimly. “When he does, he’ll get more of the same!”

The Sinister Vizier threw off the magical sleep and was just turning to adjust another lever when he felt something drop over his head. As he reached up to free it the rope went tight, and the Orc was yanked upwards into the darkness. As he ascended, he scrabbled and kicked against the wall trying to get free, but a moment later Karl came into view above him.

“Greetings, Vizier,” said the Gnome, who had braced himself against a support. “Meet my friend…” The last thing the Vizier saw was a shortsword flashing towards his face.

Surrounded by Orcs, Thunder knew that he had to give Aldis some space. In a second, he drove his Legion Spear through the body of one Orc, and then spun round to stab up into the Ogre chieftain. As he struck, he called down Kord’s wrath on the beast, and the spear tip ignited in lightning. The Ogre staggered back, small bolts of lightning leapt off him and struck other nearby Orcs, burning them. Taking a breath, Thunder spoke a Healing Word, curing some of the small cuts and bruises on Aldis’ body.

In turn, Aldis drove the Ogre back further, battering away at him with her greatsword and stopping him from being able to take a moment’s breath. Suffering from many points of impact, the Ogre was tiring fast.

A terrible creaking noise came from near the entrance Hall. Looking to see what it was, Sigurd realized the a couple more of the guard Orcs had started to raise the portcullis with the aid of a winch. On the far side, she could see many more Orcs waiting to get in and reinforce their leaders. Quickly, she spoke the words of a Stinking Cloud spell, and the noxious vapours began to choke the Orcs as a green cloud formed. The Orcs struggled to open the portcullis, heaving under the weight, and a couple began to slip underneath. As they entered the cloud, however, they coughed and died. Sigurd concentrated hard, keeping the cloud sustained with magic and moving it around as Orcs tried to dodge past it.

Iben and Aengus fought the two Orc Crossbowmen on the top of the dais, who had drawn axes now their enemies were in range. The ferocity of Iben combined with the cool head of Aengus’ swordplay saw one go down quickly, and Iben took the opportunity to run forwards and leap off towards Snufflegruff and the other human villagers who had been battling the Ogre leader. Catching hold of one of the hanging cages he swung on it and dropped next to the grinning Mickelgarther.

“I’ve come a long way to find you,” said Snøflgrøf as he dodged another swing from the Ogre’s club. “Let’sh shee what you’ve got, eh?” Iben grinned back.

Aldis had been biding her time, knowing that sooner or later the frenzied attacks of the Orcs would leave them open. Taking her chance she ran one through with her sword, slipping easily past it’s guard. Up on the dais, Aengus felt the death-blow as the boon of his Curse activated. Gripping the magical Rod he now wielded, he was able to spread the curse across to the other Orcs and the Ogre, seeing them all lurch slightly as it bit home. Ignoring the Orc next to him for a moment, he poured his will into the room and a powerful Fey wind blew through the Hall, accompanied by a ghostly moaning. All of those creatures that were under his curse swayed under the impact, feeling the ancient power of the Fey course through them, ripping their very souls apart.

Aengus followed it with a more mundane attack and threw an alchemical firebomb into the mix, watching it explode and fizz in the throng. Taking advantage of this, Aldar and Thunder together brought the Ogre down, Thunder driving his Spear through it’s brain for the final blow.

Over by the remaining Ogre, Iben was now exchanging blows with it. It had another surprise for him, though, as it reached up and opened the cage above his head. Leaping forth, several skeletal figures leapt out and scuttled to attack, surrounding the group.

“I’ve got these,” announced Snøflgrøf. “You deal with him!” He charged into the skeletons as they clawed and bit at him. Finishing off the other Orc, Aengus moved over to the side and launched an Eldritch bolt into the mix as Karl climbed down the wall and attacked them too. Under the weight of these attacks, the Ogre and skeletons couldn’t last long and they swiftly fell.

With the Ogres dead, and Sigurd’s magical cloud heading their way, the rest of the Orcs fell swiftly. Within a few more seconds, the battle was over and the group stood in the Hall. Rusalka had also survived, and Yetta and Yuppi looked out from the kitchen where they had been keeping themselves safe.

Still covered in blood, Iben swung his axe over his head. “VICTORY!” he hollered.

Breathing heavily and clutching a wound on her side, Aldis echoed him. “Victory!” she said. Looking across at Aldar, she spoke more quietly. “And you and I need to have a talk.”

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Battle of Thruthgelmir, Part 1

Karl had been steadily and quietly climbing the wall at the back of the giant Hall of Thruthgelmir. His plan was to use the magic of his gloves to try and activate the levers hidden behind the Prince’s throne, and swing the inevitable battle in his friends favour. He had scaled the wall, keeping carefully out of sight and staying high up, hidden in the smoke.

From this vantage point he was, therefore, the first to notice that Prince Kindrbode’s body was behaving in a most peculiar fashion. There seemed to be lumps forming under the skin, moving about, and shifting beneath his clothes. The Prince opened his mouth to speak, but instead a small group of rats spilled out from inside his gut. Karl chuckled to himself. This promised to be most entertaining.

Meanwhile the Vizier was still screaming for the humans to be killed. In response, both Thunder and Aldis charged up the steps towards him, swiftly followed by some of the Orcs. A short melee ensued, with the two heroes trading blows on the steep steps with the vile Orc-kind that were following them. As more Orcs and the leader of the Wyvern Tusk clan of Ogres closed in on Aengus, Iben and Sigurd. Off to one side, the humans of Iglingsborg found themselves under attack from the other Ogre champion even as they attempted to launch a volley of arrows at the Orc Crossbowmen up on the dais. Battle cries and the clang of weapon against weapon filled the air.

Sigurd jumped back as a howling Orc charged at Iben brandishing a pair of punch-daggers. A curiously cultured weapon for such a savage beast, thought the Wizard. Composing herself, she looked up at the dais. Prince Kindrbode, the Sinister Vizier and an Orc were stood in close proximity – perfect targets for a spell. With a wave of her hand as she focused her will, Sigurd cast a sleep spell. Grinning, she saw the Vizier and Kindrbode both stagger a step and yawn as the spell began to take hold.

Iben had been standing next to a large support pillar as the fight began, and four Orcs closed in on him. The Kindraeder felt his battle-fury settle upon him, and in one swift arcing stroke his slew all four as they came in, before racing to the bottom of the ramp with axe raised high. Dodging the blows of other Orcs he slammed the axe into the side of the Ogre chieftain, feeling a rib snap under the impact. Drawing breath for a second, Iben then turned and charged once more the full length of the ramp, overtaking Thunder and Aldis and covering the ground at great speed. Reaching the top, he leapt over a swing from the Trollkin bodyguard before catching Prince Kindrbode on the side of his head with a clipping strike.

“Your death is come for you, Prince!” howled Iben as he struck. “No more shall you bring terror to this region!” In return, Kindrbode yawned again, and Iben was surprised but pleased to see rats fighting each other to climb out of his stomach.

As the Orcs and Ogre closed in on him, Aengus realized he was badly outnumbered. Reaching into his pocket, he found his small Onyx Dog statue. Summoning the magic within it, he dropped it on the floor and watched as it swiftly grew to normal size and began to move about, guarding him from attack. At the same time, the Eladrin drew his sword, dropping into a guard position as he sought a space to wield his own magic. Looking around him, he could see that Rusalka the Sytaxis had pulled out a bow and seemed to be struggling to decide which side to take.

“Stick with us!” shouted Aengus over the din. “It’s your best chance. Trust me – there is going to be a shift of power tonight, so be on the right side!” Rusalka sized up the odds as Aldis crashed her greatsword into the Orc in front of her. The Orc fell off the stairs in two pieces, disappearing on the far side of the ramp. Turning back to Aengus, Rusalka nodded and drew back on her bow, sending an arrow deep into the back of the Frozen Yak clan Ogre chieftain.

Resisting the magical sleep as best he could, the Sinister Vizier stumbled towards the rear of the Hall. Reaching it, he took one lever in both hands and pulled hard. As he looked back over his shoulder, he could see that what was a set of stairs and turned into a steep ramp. Thunder and Aldis lost their footing under the abrupt change and slid back down to the bottom, joined by several more Orcs. The move left Iben alone on the dais with the two Orcs, the Vizier, one Trollkin and the Prince. Unfazed, Iben brandished his axe again and began to chant his death-song.

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A Poor Choice of Diet

As the Trollkin stepped up smartly and cut a small piece of cake from the main part, Sigurd acted quickly. Disguising her actions as best she could, she attempted to use magic to cause the most poisonous part of the cake – the icing – to fall off the top and spill to the floor. Misjudging her power, however, she yanked it too hard and it spun through the air towards the Vizier. Grinning, the Vizier snatched it out of the air and sniffed it suspiciously. Finding it to his liking, he stretched out and slammed it back on to the piece that the increasingly-nervous Trollkin was clutching.

“Eat! Eat! Eat!” he said.

Staring around him, the Trollkin placed the cake in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. A few seconds went by whilst all eyes (save one of Kindrbode’s, which was staring at one of the Ogres) were focused on him. Obviously feeling that something more was expected of him, he grunted something in Orcish.

“Tastes of almonds,” translated Sigurd, her ritual spell still working.

Apparently satisfied that the cake was poison-free, the Prince lunged forwards and, with both arms, grabbed the rest of it. Almost unhinging his jaw, he opened his mouth wide and with ten seconds, the whole cake had turned into nothing more than a fine shower of crumbs on the floor. He belched, hugely, sending a wave of foul gases across the room and grinned widely. The Vizier, his interest waning, waved the party back down the stairs.

Keeping a very careful eye on both the Trollkin and the Prince, Iben, Thunder, Aldis, Aengus and Sigurd back oh-so-slowly down the stairs, not daring to turn their backs. Step. Step. Step. Step.

As they reached the bottom, the Trollkin suddenly burped. The Vizier’s head snapped round to stare at him. The Trollkin staggered, clutching its stomach. Something seemed to be moving under its clothes, pushing against the skin. The Trollkin swallowed hard, burped again, and then paused for a second in disbelief.

There was a moment of stillness on the dais. Then a large rat-head poked out of the Trollkin’s mouth, sniffing the air. It was quickly joined by a second, and in a shower of gore six more clawed their way out of the creature’s stomach, chittering and scurrying onto the floor. The Vizier yelled and shoved the Trollkin off the dais as it dropped to the floor, watching it fall and split into a further group of rats when it hit the grill below. “Treachery!” screamed the Vizier. “Kill them! Kill all the humans!”

“Honestly,” said Aengus quietly to Thunder at the bottom of the stairs. “You’d think they’d be able to tell the difference between a human and an Eladrin.”

“Tell me about it,” replied the Warforged.

All over the Hall, Orcs, Ogres, Humans, Warforged, Eladrin, Gnomes and the Sytaxis drew weapons and prepared to go into battle. Prince Kindrbode got to his feet, ponderously, to observe the mayhem. Lifting his hand, he opened his mouth to give the final order to attack.

From his position on the wall above him, just getting ready to either drop off weapons-first or try and manipulate the many levers at the back of the hall, Karl saw a small rat head poke out between Kindrbode’s teeth.

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Too Much Cake Is Bad For You

As Sigurd waved her hands and continued to drone on in Common, imitating the Sinister Vizier (who was turning slowly purple in rage up on the raised dais), she was unaware of the stunned looks she was receiving from around the hall. For a second, everything save the burning and hissing coals beneath her had gone utterly still, before a single Orc grunted in mirth.

His neighbour quickly shushed him, fearing reprisals from the Prince, but as Sigurd continued (“Blah blah blah, see my big pointy hat, blah blah blah, dance for me maggots…”) he couldn’t hold it in any longer and almost exploded in laughter. A second later a nearby Ogre joined in, a deep throaty chuckle and in moments the whole room was laughing out loud. Aengus’ merry laughter span through the smoke, with a giggling Karl providing a neat counter-point. Aldis and Thunder’s voices were both lower, as befits creatures of their size, with Iben occupying a mid-note that created a pleasant harmony.

Suddenly a discord sounded in the room, a harsh, manic laugh booming through the room. Spinning, Sigurd suddenly became aware that the Prince was laughing hard, hit to burst. He poked the Vizier with one long, grubby finger and exclaimed “Blah blah blah!” before continuing to laugh. Masking his annoyance, the Vizier waved the Jesters away, seemingly safe from the Prince’s wrath.

Seeking to regain some of his lost authority, the Vizier clapped his hands together and shouted for the cake to be brought out. “As quickly as possible!” he demanded. “The Prince is still hungry!”

The group rushed to the kitchen, to find Yetta and Yuppi applying the final touches. Despite the cake only having four tiers, they had brought a great many candles with them and were able to stick ten in the top of the cake. Lighting them, they checked it over one final time before getting ready to take it out.

From the doorway, a gruff voice registered his interest in the proceedings. “I shay,” it said. “I can’t help but think that I shmell a rat here. What’sh going on?” Snøflgrøf stood there, watching with interest. “No, sheerioushly,” he continued. “I can shmell a rat.”

Aengus’ eyes suddenly went wide as an idea hit him. “No…” he breathed. “Not a rat. Not in so many words. But a rat! An alchemical rat!”

Sigurd cottoned on. “The Tomb, that strange smell. It’s the same smell that the alchemical rats give off – that must be how Kindrbode killed his mother! And if Sigmund was involved it makes even more sense. Hang on a moment…” She took the magical bag from Iben and rummaged around it in, eventually producing the flask taken from Glorium. “We can put this in the cake! He’ll eat it – after all he’s eaten everything else – and then…”

“Killed by rats from the inside,” said Aengus. “Is there any more fitting way for him to go?”

Quickly, knowing that the Prince’s patience was not his strong point, the cake was dosed with poison. Thunder and Aldis took up the load at the front with Iben (magically assisted by Sigurd) taking the back part of the cake on his broad shoulders. Making a slow procession, and being very careful not to drop anything, they stepped back out into the main Hall and began to ascend the long flight of steps up to the throne and Prince Kindrbode. Karl, knowing that violence was imminent, snuck around the side of the Hall and began to climb the wall, hand-over-hand, in the darkness and smoke, swiftly becoming lost to view.

The Prince’s eyes lit up at the sight of the cake, and for a few brief seconds he even managed to focus both eyes upon it, before the left again went wandering off around the Hall. The Vizier sneered and gestured them forwards, letting the Orc Crossbowmen cover them all the way, ever alert. The two Trollkin bodyguards were also paying careful attention. Suddenly, and in a rasping and ghastly voice, the Vizier began to sing.

“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday Prince Kindrbode… Happy birthday to you!”

As the party neared the top of the steps, the Vizier halted them. Kindrobode’s mouth was drooling, splittle slowly collecting on his already filthy clothes. “One moment!” said the Vizier. “We shall test the cake before the Prince is permitted to eat it. Trollkin! Come forwards!”

The same thought ran through everyone’s heads. We’ve got to stop him!

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The Prince's Judgement
Turns Out Ten Is The Magic Number, Not Three

After the Orcs had finished screaming in the fire (still in four-part harmony), the iron grill slowly, and with many creaks and clanking noises, winched back into place with a resounding boom.

The Sinister Vizier took a deep breath, enjoying the smell of his freshly-roasted brethren, and spoke again.

“Next,” he said, “We shall see Rusalka, on behalf of Sigmund the Conqueror.”

The horned woman strode forwards, a large barrel under her arm. Showing not the slightest trace of fear, she moved confidently up the steps to the Prince’s throne. When she reached the top, she set the barrel down amidst the feast at his table.

“You’ve got to admit she moves well,” noticed Aengus admiringly. “I’ll have to have a chat with her, if I can get her alone…”

“I bring a cask of fine brandy,” she announced. “Ten pints of it.” The Vizier leered at her, and Kindrbode seized the barrel and drained it in a single draught, taking huge gulps as he did so.

“The Ogres of the Shaven Yak Clan!” cried out the Vizier as she departed down the steps.

One of the two Ogres that had been brawling in the middle of the Hall made his way up to the Prince, covered all the way by the Orc Crossbowmen in case of treachery. It had been the leaders of the Shaven Yak Clan, together with those of the Mammoth Clan Ogres, that had once attempted to otherthrow Prince Kindrbode, and the remains of those leaders were now held in effigy above his throne, plastered across the wall like some obscene hunting prize.

The Ogre carefully and slowly laid a sack of prodigious size on the table in front of the Prince, and opened it. As the Vizier looked inside, the Ogre proudly held up ten fingers.

“Bath salts!” announced the Vizier to those who couldn’t see. Kindrbode took a long, slow, sniff and then opened his mouth and stuffed the whole ten kilos-worth down his neck in a single bite, chewing happily. “And now,” continued the Sinister Orc, “The Mammoth Clan Ogres shall present their present!”

As the two Ogres crossed on the stairs, Sigurd whispered to Iben. “They’ve all brought things in multiples of ten, not four. How did they know?”

Iben replied “The Cake of the Wayweary people is only four tiers high. They could be killed. Let me go warn them.”

Karl, who had overheard, interrupted and replied “I’ll do it. They’re less likely to notice I’m gone.” He moved quietly and casually towards the kitchen, catching Snøflgrøf’s eye as he did so and giving him a small nod.

The Mammoth Clan Ogre leader, meanwhile, was showing the Prince his fine collection of tusks that he had offered as a gift. Once again, the Prince simply ate the lot, belching contentedly at the end. Taking this as a sign of favour, the Ogre hurried back down the steps on to safer ground. One of the Orc Crossbowmen made a great show of raising his crossbow as if to fire, to the general merriment of the other watching Orcs.

With a voice dripping in sarcasm, the Sinister Vizier called out again. “The ‘Free People’ of Myckelgarth – who is their representative this year? Come, step forwards and lay your tribute for the Prince’s birthday.”

Dropping the chicken bone he had been gnawing on, Snøflgrøf heaved a large bag on his shoulder, grunting slightly with the weight, and made his way up the stairs. At the top he paused for a second before clearing a space and placing his offering on the table.

“And what fine treasures have the Mickelgarthers brought their Lord?” enquired the Sinister Vizier.

“Shox!” said Snøflgrøf.

“Shox?” replied the Vizier, baffled.

“Shox?” said the Prince, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “Vas ist Shox?” Slowly, his hand reached towards the levers behind him.

“Shox!” said Snøflgrøf again. “Do none of ye wear shox around here? Shurely ye jesht with me? How do you keep your feet warm?” Shoving his hand into the bag, he pulled out a pair of very large, and very thick, wollen socks, in garish, mismatched colours. The Princes arm froze, then reached back round in front of him, gathering up the bag.

“Wait, pleash,” said Snøflgrøf “They’re shupposhed to go on your – “ The Prince, ignoring him, licked his lips as the last sock disappeared down his throat. “Ah well,” sighed the Mickelgarther. “At leasht you appreshiated them.” He turned and headed back down the stairs, moving back to the food table and picking up another piece of meat to chew on.

“The Prince summonsh, forgive me, summons Aldar the Dragonborn to deliver his present,” called out the Vizier. He adjusted his robe fussily and looked about. “Aldar? Obey! You are summoned!”

From the entranceway, a six foot tall figure carrying a large box moved forwards and began to cross the room. As he passed Aldis, he averted his eyes from her gaze, dropping his head slightly.

Thunder nudged Aldis in the side. “Who is that?” he asked. “I take it you two have some sort of history.”

Aldis scowled at the back of the figure now climbing the stairs. “I thought I was the only survivor of the ambush that my old friends walked into. I presumed Aldar was dead like all the rest. But if he survived too… I wonder, was he the traitor that betrayed us? He is certainly toadying up to Kindrbode and the Vizier like a good servant.”

Aldar had reached the top of the stairs and opened the box. Glittering light came from within, and Kindrbode reached over immediately and poured the contents into his mouth. Brilliant jewels spilled out as he chewed and swallowed, gorging himself. Aldar, a tension showing in his neck, retreated and made his way back through the cloud. Again, he couldn’t face looking Aldis in the face. She bared her teeth, growling quietly under her breath as he went past.

The Vizier, who had quietly placed a gem or two in his own robes, spoke forth again. “The Jesters of Iblingsborg shall entertain us all,” he pronounced. “The Prince requires great entertainment.”

The four humans in Jesters outfits nervously began to perform, knowing that with only four of them their time was likely to be limited.

“Quick!” hissed Aengus. “There are six of us! If we join them we can spare them! Pull out your best party tricks, everyone!”

“My best party trick involves me, a knife, a willing volunteer and normally, a trip to a Temple for healing,” muttered Karl. “But I appreciate what you’re saying, my liege.” He began to caper and dance, leaping into the air and bouncing off the surrounding Orcs and Ogres as he did so.

Stony-faced, Sigurd stared at him and Aengus, who was conjuring glittering waves of faerie light, at Aldis as she performed a Dragonborn war dance and at Iben. “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she said. “It’s so undignified.”

Iben gestured the large figure of Snøflgrøf over to him, said something quietly in his ear, and then bent down and lifted him above his head in a single movement. With muscles straining, he began to turn the human around and around over his head, spinning him. Thunder swiftly stepped in and took the weight, stand straight-legged and proud as he hoisted the Mickelgarther even higher.

“Fine!” said Sigurd. “If we’re to make fools of ourselves, let’s make fools of them, too.”

With a gesture and a wave of her hand, she transformed herself into a likeness of the Sinister Vizier, her skin green and warty, a suspicious look on her face and a sneer on her lips. Lacking the ability to speak Orcish, she instead started to point at various people in the room.

“Blah, blah, blah, do what I say,” she uttered in a passable imitation of the Vizier’s voice. “Blah, blah, blah, now we shall have the Angels of Heaven giving us things, blah blah blah, the ground should be grateful I walk on it…blah blah blah…”

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Ten!

After the haunting, multi-layered harmonies of the Orc choir ebbed away into the smoke, the room was quiet for a moment. The song had spoken of the worship of Grummsh, of Orc superiority, of blood, death and killing. Everyone in the room had been moved according to their feelings.

The Sinister Vizier moved slightly forward and called out to the assembled throng.

“The Prince will now count the choir!” he said. There were some nervous looks around the room, as the Prince had never been known to count higher than four.

“Ein!” shouted the Prince. “Zwei! Drei!” There was another long pause. The choir, trembling in their boots, looked up fearfully. The assembled Ogres, Dragonborn, Warforged, Humans and others waited with baited breath.

With an enormously pleased grin on his face, the Prince uttered the word “Zehn!” Swiftly, the Sinister Vizier whispered in his ear.

“Zehn! Zehn!” demanded the Prince, gesturing at the choir. The Sinister Vizier shrugged and turned back to the crowd below.

“The Prince has decreed that there should be ten singers. There are only four. My… apologies.”

Reaching behind him with one long, misshapen arm, the Prince pulled one of the twelve levers behind him. In an instant, the iron grill that the choir stood upon at the base of the steps to his throne swung down and open, the Orcs standing on it dumped unceremoniously and screaming into the burning coals. Iben jumped backwards as the pit opened up, wary of his footing.

The Prince chortled and laughed out loud like a child who has just discovered how much fun his new toy is.

Note: Kindrbode was counting in the Real World language of German – one, two, three, ten.

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