After an eventful evening of first drinks, first tastes, and first aid, Amopholes decided that, of the various foods presented to him by the bard, smoked cod (of all things!) was his favorite. He found alcohol to be incredibly bitter, and he greatly disliked the “goofiness” it put in him, for it disrupted his very important concentration; Jane and Dan assured him, however, that this would change in time.
The following morning consisted of a quick meeting; Amopholes had been unsuccessful in his attempts to decipher the Prophesies, and it was quite clear that the eighth tablet was vital to their mission of Saving All The Things. Finding Queen Tishra (formerly known as Probably the Queen, aka Maybe an Amazon) was henceforth put at the very top of their To Do List of Very Important Things. With no real clues to work on, the Intrepid Six decided they would see what could be found in the city. Considering that Amopholes was still wounded and weakened, he was in no position to defend himself. Wanting to play the hero, or perhaps rethinking his most recent life choice, Rhys decided he would stay behind to protect the angel and his homestead.
In yet another amazing show of semantic UNdubiousness, the city of Mayim was actually exactly that; a city near the water. It was a costal municipal with a familiar and delightful smell of fresh, open sea, and if one listened, had the comforting sound of moving water and birdcall. It was a bustling hub of trade as befitting a port town, and as such had its fair share of taverns, curio shops, and most importantly, anonymity. The Intrepid Six immediately set about asking the local townsfolk if they had seen anyone matching the description of the Lost Queen Tishra, but as Amazons are unmistakable, it was quite clear quite soon that Lost Queen Tishra had not passed through this town. The only useful bit of information found had to do with the lake by which the undead infection seemed to originate. It had always been popular among the menfolk, was owned by a merchant guild, and was unceremoniously closed to customers three weeks prior to the Six’s arrival. Otherwise, Jane and Malaggar had no luck with the local blacksmiths, Sprinkles had no luck with the local drunkards, Dan had no luck with the local sailors, and Sora had no luck with the local authority.
Kryss, on the other hand, had found quite a bit of luck with the local degenerates. It was luck of the unfortunate variety. Looking to acquire more shifties to enhance her natural shiftiness, the rogue had expressly and purposely sought out the dirtiest, dingiest, grubbiest, scariest, most sinister alley the city had to offer. Which of course, was chock full of the dirtiest, dingiest, grubbiest, scariest, most sinister townsfolk the city had to offer. What started out as a mutually shifty business transaction and information acquisition soon turned into a sticky predicament.
“Sorry, my pretty, but you’ve picked the wrong alley,” the larger of the three brutes said as he grabbed the half-elf around the waist and shoulders.
“Get the fuck off me or I’ll shank you all!” she hissed at them with an unnerving calm. Having had their share of bar fights, alley fights, fist fights, knife fights, and lovers’ quarrels, said unscrupulous characters were unfazed.
In an unexpected bought of strength, the half-elf wrenched herself free of his grasp, managing to put a few feet’s distance between them. Without missing a beat, Kryss pulled a dagger from one of the many and varied hiding places upon her person, and threw it with amazing accuracy squarely into the rounds of his trousers. With a shriek that belied his newfound fate as a castrato, the ruffian fell to his knees, gripping the affected area. Not wanting to share in their comrade’s fate, the other two ruffians fled with a kind of speed that can only be mustered when true fear grips a man’s heart. While one ruffian disappeared into the shadows, the other ran the length of the alley, directly into the arms of a city guard who had come to inspect the disturbance. Finding no escape route for herself and not wishing to be put in a position to explain herself, Kryss dropped to her knees and feigned a terrified sobbing that truly belonged on stage.
“Over there! Those men!! They grabbed me and, and—”
Completely believing she had nothing at all to do with any kind of shady dealings whatsoever, the guards looked in the direction of her pointing and ran, expecting to find some huge and monstrous specimen of criminal intent. Once they had passed her, the rogue calmly stood and strode out of the alley, passing the third ruffian as he was being shackled and read his Rondalon Rights. Deciding now would be a lovely time for a drink, she turned a hard left and stepped into the local tavern, The Blue Lagoon.
Upon entering she noticed that all of the patrons, as well as the bartender, were pressing their faces to the windows on the far wall with extreme intensity.
“A bottle of wine, please.”
“AHEM. A bottle of wine, please.” A grumble about copper and a dismissive wave toward the bar by the bartender, and Kryss placed her copper on the counter, taking a nearby bottle. Curious as to what was so interesting that a bartender would untend his bar, Kryss now approached the window and craned about for a look.
With a great view of the city’s main street and gates, it was clear what was monopolizing everyone’s attention: a group of six militant figures, marching in formation toward the city forum. They were robed in solid black from head to toe, with strange, white masks covering their faces with nodules covering their mouths and noses. Their lack of facial expression was somewhat unnerving as they peeked from underneath the hoods. They stopped just outside the city assembly, where Sora was filing a missing person’s report.
Dragonborns being less frequent in these parts, she apparently stood out to these robed soldiers.
“Are you Sora?” came the muffled voice of what was apparently their leader.
“Yes…” she said hesitantly, the town guard beside her looking also ill at ease.
“We’ve been looking for you!” the muffled voice seemed excited, “We weren’t expecting you in town! Colonel Lionel sent us to find you and talk with Mr. Lees.”
“I don’t know a Lionel or a Mr. Lees.” Sora said, calmly but cautiously.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Looking for our friend.” Sora began to describe a likeness to Lost Queen Tishra (holding back the “queen” detail).
It was about this time that Sprinkles, having moved on from his original idea of hitting up the local drunkards, saw these militant figures in their unnerving, white masks. A crowd of townsfolk had gathered a few paces down the main street, but he pressed his way through with vindication, headed in the complete opposite direction, directly for the city docks. A confused Jane and Malaggar had exited the blacksmith in time to see him passing and give him a questioning look, to which he replied, “Enforcers!”
Enforcers of what, exactly, neither Jane nor Malaggar had any idea, so their questioning looks continued to question.
“Look,” the robed soldier interrupted Sora with a quick wave of hand, “we all need to go see Mr. Lees. Where is the rest of the group?”
It was about this time that Dan, having thoroughly irritated the local boatmen, was making her way back into the city streets. After nearly being bowled over by the mage, she looked down the lane to Jane and Malaggar, with a questioning look of her own. Malaggar the Ever Nervous notched an arrow, and Jane simply shrugged with genuine perplexity and pointed to the crowd that was now blocking the main thoroughfare.
Completely intrigued as to what could possibly have made the mage so uneasy, Dan leapt into the mob head first and began elbowing knees and vying for a front-row seat. After an impressive slalom through feet and legs, Dan was finally able to get a clear view of the spectacle ahead, although her hat had been knocked irritatingly slightly askew. A few paces before her, from under the rim of her disturbed hat, she saw a regiment of six militant humanoids talking with a very apprehensive Sora. Unsure what this situation meant, Dan began to ponder and straighten her hat.
It was about this time that Kryss exited the tavern via the main entrance, which put her squarely into the center of the main street and in clear view.
Heavily tattoed half-elfs being less frequent in these parts, she apparently stood out to these robed soldiers.
“Hey!” came another muffled voice from behind a mask, “I think that’s Kryss!”
“Oh good!” said their leader, “Let’s find the rest of you!” With a precision that showed a much higher level of training than Town Guard, the six robed figures turned a tight ninety degrees and began to march further into the city. The mob of feet and legs surrounding the bard made way and parted, leaving Dan standing alone, slightly ruffled and with her hat knocked even more irritatingly askew.
“What is happening?!” she shouted with something that could have been construed as annoyance as she attempted to straighten her hat once more.
“Who is this Mr. Lees that we are being taken to see?” Sora said conspicuously and loudly, hoping to alert the rest of her companions.
Upon hearing “Mr. Lees,” Dan abruptly stopped correcting her hat, tilting her head to see from under its wide (for a Halfling) brim.
“Hey!” Dan called out to the soldiers, “Is his middle name ‘Mof’?”
The leader of the six stopped mid step, realizing that the hat he nearly stepped upon had feet. And spoke.
“Uh,” he said, putting his foot back down, “we don’t know his middle or first name, we only know him as ‘Mr. Lees.’ We came to talk to him, he’s been helping us figure out what’s going on here.”
“Tall guy? White hair? Goatee?” Dan described as she resumed adjusting her hat.
“Yeah! That’s him!” said another mask-muffled voice.
“Oh yeah!” Dan said cheerily as her hat finally sat properly upon her noggin once more. “I know him!”
“OH!” one of the robed figures exclaimed as it nudged its fellow. “You must be the famous Dandelion!”
Dan beamed with the radiance of a thousand suns upon a thousand gilded palaces. After mumbling something about finally meeting someone on this continent with an appreciation for music, she bowed, then pointed towards the docks and said, “Sprinkles ran that way.”
“You know we travel with a mage, right?” said Dan.
“What’s his name?” asked Sora, finishing the bard’s sentence for her.
“You don’t know his name?” asked the leader.
“We’re testing you.” Sora said with a stroke of brilliant improvisation.
“We know enough about mages not to give out their names without their permission.”
Dan’s shoulders slumped. She could almost swear that Sora’s did too.
“That’s why we call him Sprinkles,” she said with an exacerbated sigh. “He’s a right ray of sunshine. You’ll love him.”
“Hopefully he will meet us there, we’ve got to hurry. Things are getting out of control,” the soldier saw Jane and Malaggar now that the crowd had dispersed. “Drow, we’re here on official business from Colonel Lionel; just come with us and we can explain.”
Relaxing his bow and following in suit with the rest of the Intrepid Six (Minus One), they all marched in a somewhat orderly fashion past the city walls and towards the home of Amopholes.
Rhys was the first to exit the estate, brandishing his sword in a disorganized way. “It’s okay,” the soothing voice of Amopholes called out behind him, “that’s the Plague Guard, they’re here to help.”
Rhys relaxed and stepped aside, allowing Amopholes to step out of his door as the Haphazard Eleven crossed the field toward his home. He stifled a laugh and shook his head as he watched six of the figures, severe and austere in their black robes and mysterious masks, being followed by the world’s most skittish Drow, ducking and halting with a bow in his hand. Beside him was the knight, her stride evidencing her cool confidence as she watched the Drow out the corner of her eye with perplexed amusement. Next walked the rogue, keeping a safe distance between herself and anything that could possibly be law enforcement. She was followed by the Dragonborn, calm and cool in the face of uncertainty, likewise keeping a safe distance from the robed soldiers. Skipping in and out among them all was the Halfling, her enthusiasm palatable. And, of course, nowhere among them was the Eldarin, having decided to forge his own path yet again.
A hushed and quick conversation ensued between the six Plague Guards and Amopholes. Apparently, a ‘disease’ had taken hold in the areas surrounding Lake Muckidimuck, causing chaos. A direct order by a one Colonel Lionel constituted finding six certain intrepid individuals and bringing them immediately back to their holdings at the lake. After some further introductions as to who was who and where they were going, it seemed that following these Plague Guards back to the plague they guarded was the closest thing they had to a lead.
As the Haphazard Eleven made their way westward toward Lake Muckidimuck, it became clear that along with the lack of overhead soil, the existence of the large golden skyward orb commonly known as “the sun” was having quite an unsavory effect on the Drow. He seemed preoccupied with shielding himself from as much light exposure as possible, ducking and halting from tree shade to tree shade, occasionally leaping behind a bush. And he did so with such surliness that it rivaled the mage. Dan was unsure if it seemed particularly hot to him; the vast majority of caves and underground areas she’d experienced were quite cold and damp. Perhaps then, it was that lack of dampness—he feared becoming like a shriveled frog? She considered dumping her water skin over him, but was interrupted by the backside of one of the Plague Guard, the rebound of which made it known to her that they had ceased their march and had arrived at their prearranged location.
Concluding her newest conference with the ground, Dan stood and looked about. A huge, thick stone wall ran the perimeter of a large area, easily big enough to be a small town in its own. Directly before them was a large metal portcullis, through which a limited view of the interior landscape could be seen. There was indeed a large lake, which was rather purplish, putrid, oozy, and just generally grody. A few trees dotted the seeable landscape, but there was evidence of moderate deforestation. A few buildings stood, but for all appearance seemed abandoned and in disarray. And there, at the foot of the portcullis, just short of freedom from the walls, was a massive pile of mangled bodies.
Various other Plague Guards were milling about, every one of them looking on edge and uneasy. A few were stationed on the walls, pacing in a slow and nervous manner. From a small, metal-reinforced door to the left of the portcullis stepped a serious man in the garb of a Plague Guard, but wore no mask. He strode forth and stepped before the six guards accompanying the Intrepid Six (Minus One) and suddenly brightened.
“Oh, wow. I wasn’t expecting my men to return so soon with all of you,” he said with a slight tone of surprise. “My name is Colonel Lionel, and I head the Plague Guard here in Rondalon. I’m very glad you were able to report here so quickly.”
Some nods but mostly blank stares on the part of the Intrepid Six (Minus One) prompted the colonel to continue his explanation.
“You are probably wondering why we need you here in the first place. I received specific information that the six of you—” he trailed off as he met the eyes of each of the adventurers. “Where’s the mage?”
“Where indeed,” said Jane, who had been keeping a look out for the missing Sprinkles since departure.
“You guys scared him off,” said the bard, unvarnished.
“Ah, that’s right.” Colonel Lionel said with a nod of understanding. “You are not of this continent; you probably have never seen a Plague Guard before. Yes, we can look a little intimidating.”
“Yeah,” Dan gestured to her face, implicating their masks, “yeah this can be a little scary. A lesser being might be frightened of it.”
“I apologize for any inconvenience or false impressions my men may have given you. We were asked specifically to summon you as apparently your group can help us solve whatever has caused the troubles here at the lake.”
“So you were told about us by who?” asked Jane.
“You don’t know who summoned you?”
“They said YOU did,” corrected Dan.
“So what made you think we could help?” asked Jane.
“I’m sorry,” Lionel said, “but if you don’t know who called in the order, it’s not something I can share.”
“Really?” Jane asked, arms crossed, “Come on, you can let me in on it.”
“If there is any reason that you would need to know, I would let you know. But I cannot go against the security of the nation.”
“We are helping you to secure the security of the nation.” Jane said as she leaned in a little closer, in an obviously threatening way.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
Dan didn’t like this guy. If he was the head of the Plague Guard, as he said, then who was above him and how was he getting his info? After all, very few people knew of the Intrepid Six (Minus One) in this harrowing adventure of less than a week. And in and those brief five days, some of those people proved to be rather unsavory.
“So mage, do you trust me yet?” Lionel asked a nearby bush.
Sprinkles stepped out, having impressively successfully trailed the group all the way to Muckidimuck.
“Not entirely,” he walked to the rest of the Intrepid Six. “Suit, please.”
Sora too asked for respirators for the group, but Colonel Lionel insisted that they were just for show; that whatever was infecting the others was not airborne, and they had tested the theory themselves. He would, however, give a cloak to those who requested it “due to the sacrifice of his own men.”
In a world first, Dan agreed with the mage. This colonel was not to be trusted; he required civilians to do his work, would not debrief these civilians, nor afford them the same protections he offered his own people. It was not sufficient for Willies, but Dan definitely had a strong sense of distrust, and she didn’t get that very often.
The adventurers began to question Colonel Lionel further, requesting all manner of interesting, pertinent, and useful information, but he knew very little that the Intrepid Six did not already know for themselves. The menace within the stone walls consisted of traditional Shamblers, those that fell apart at the seams, those that disintegrated to dust upon re-death, those described as “men gone feral,” and the curious habit of severed body parts to reanimate independently of the rest of the corpse. The guard had likewise taken to the habit of burning any and all remains. They then asked him what specifically he knew of the specific locale and the Plague Guard’s role in recent events.
“We were summoned when the city guard closed down the lake,” he explained. “The merchants and residents of the area started going mad for no reason. Whatever happened killed most of the guard; when we got here the gate was locked, and it was closed on uninfected people who had tried to escape. Within the walls was utter mayhem. The people were murdering each other, biting each other, eating each other. It was horrific.”
They saw now that the majority of the mangled bodies at the gate were covered in red blood, not ichor, and showed no signs of reanimation. A fleeting streak of horror ran through the bard’s heart as she imagined their terror. The Drow pointed out the distinct lack of birds—both songbirds in the woods nearby and the carrion-eaters one would expect in a place so dense with death. Further probing of the Colonel’s knowledge proved that he believed the incident to be isolated, and that searches of local graveyards showed that the previously dead did not arise, only the freshly dead. With nothing more to extract from the Colonel and with no other leads to point them in the direction of their Lost Queen, their previous quest of was shelved. The Intrepid Six decided there was nothing more to do except to boldly go where this Colonel Lionel and his Plague Guards were too chicken to go before.
The Intrepid Six were then informed that there was only one way to cross the wall, and that upon return, they would only be allowed in one at a time, and only if deemed “uncontaminated” by the Plague Guard.
And Dan didn’t like it at all. But apocalyptical plagues and reanimated dead offered a myriad of experiences that would be otherwise rather hard to come by, so she marched with the others through the side gate and into the quarantined city.
Once inside and able to see the entirety of the area, it was clear that there was very little to do; most of the buildings had been ransacked and sat open, and several seemed to have suffered structural damage. A relaxing swim was out of the question, which left them with only one real option: exploring the cave leading under the lake, where Lionel said the lake’s love potions were brewed.
It was everything one would expect a cave to be. It was enclosed, made of stone, long and winding, dark, and damp. It also smelled of strangeness and death. It was the strongest scent since Snifflehelm, but it was a completely different flavor of rotten that could not be attributed to corpses alone. Several of the group prepared light sources, both of the mundane and magical variety. Shadows flickered across the floor and earthen walls.
And a shuffling of feet was heard. Soon after a mindless groan resonated from somewhere nearby. Out of the shadows a pair of Shamblers entered into the circles of light, followed by two obviously diseased and dead, reanimated hounds.
Jane rushed to the front, to meet the creatures before they reached the group. The Shamblers and hounds alike lunged, but were thwarted by her sword in an impressive display. Stepping forward to help her, the mage lifted his staff above him and then forcefully brought it back to the ground. A wave of thunder erupted from the site of impact, blasting the foes back and reverberating off the stone walls.
Dan had to admit. This guy had style.
Utilizing the few seconds Jane and Sprinkles had bought them, the rest of the Intrepid Six had readied their attacks. Lances, arrows, daggers, and melodies flew. Just as it seemed the foes had been dispatched, the remaining hound lifted its head and let out a long, hideous howl—a note and timber strangely familiar, yet alien all at once. From the depths of the cave two more of the undead beasts sprang out, their fangs deflected once more by the knight’s deftly wielded blade.
The creatures fell quickly and the battle was soon over, but they had taught the Intrepid Six a very important lesson; there were new and unpredictable things in the depths of this grotto.
A slow trudge further into the cave and around its first bend revealed a large and very old stone door. There was nothing of note about it, other than it was no longer capable of closing; the slow growing mineral deposits of dripping water had melded it back into the earth from which it was carved. The room beyond was small, partially a natural formation and partially carved by humanoid hands. Two more earthen corridors led to the room, one straight before them and another to their right. The room contained a few wooden tables and a smattering of chairs, along with various broken glass containers. In the center of the room, carved out of a single large piece of stone that seemed to rise uninterrupted from the ground, was a large cauldron. Above and around it were metal pipes and tubing of various dimensions, snaking around the floor and ceiling, disappearing into the walls. There was a space below the cauldron, where it seemed the fire necessary for boiling was stoked. There were no carvings, no etchings, no words or symbols anywhere around to indicate the nature of the cauldron, its users, or its creators. Dan inspected the stonework, and noted that it seemed more like a crucible in construction rather than a simple alchemical cauldron. In an amazing display of predictable unpredictability, Kryss climbed up and into the cauldron.
Before any of the baffled fellows could ask her reasoning, a low, loud rumble was heard. In fact, ‘heard’ would not be the most apt description, as the rumble was more felt. When the rumble ceased, footsteps were heard echoing through the caverns.
Jane quickly turned the wooden furniture into a makeshift barricade, blocking the right side passageway ground to ceiling. Another rumble was felt, and the footsteps seemed closer. A tense moment of silence passed between them all. The Eladrin whispered to himself, and a sphere of flame erupted in the passageway ahead of them, blocking it to potential foes and lighting the area behind it.
Standing in a neat, orderly formation in a cavernous space ahead were four undead humans, two of which were armed with bow and arrow. On each side was yet another plague hound, and before them were two ghostly beings. Whereas the reanimated dead so far were grisly, in various states of decay and rot with their internal bits often in plain sight, these two beings were less than corporeal. They still had the appearance of being diseased, even decaying, but their physicalness seemed less than certain.
To add to the strangeness of seeing that which was thought to be mindless appear to exhibit military maneuvers, one of the ghostly beings actually spoke.
“Protect Barakhana!” it shouted, and then it and its fellow lunged forward, passing completely unharmed through the mage’s magical fire.
Putting the matter out of their minds, the Intrepid Six burst into battle. Jane dashed forward to once again meet the enemy head on, her bravery and valor clear by the confidence of her movements. With an ease that showed he was far more comfortable with a bow than with words, the Drow sent a steady stream of arrows through the narrow stone corridor, peppering the foes as they hit the corridor’s natural choke point. The mage, with an intense concentration apparent on his brow, scorched and singed the undead with his dancing flames. Strumming more impossible sounds from her lute and taunting with voice and action, Dan disrupted their advance, giving Kryss and Jane ample opportunity to sink metal into flesh.
The battle was short lived, but was followed by yet another rumble. This one felt closer and was loud enough to for audibility. The Intrepid Six traded glances amongst each other, each wondering with trepidation what could be causing such tremors. Then, as the rumble quieted, the echo of hushed voiced floated into the room, speaking unintelligible words in an unintelligible language.