Stubbs the Gnome's Diary-- Dance of the Dead Part II
Was it the third? No, actually, this was the fourth time. The fourth time in his life he had woken up naked, bound and in a sack.
Of course, he was a hundred and eight years old … about middle-aged for a gnome. So that was one naked sack-binding about every 26 or 27 years ago. He made a mental note to be on his guard around his hundred and thirty-fourth birthday or so.
He’d tried to use illusions to persuade his captors to let him go, but it hadn’t worked out – just another beating. All things considered, this was probably the worst of the four times he had been nakedly sackbound. The first was a bit intimidating: the hazing process for the Phi Gnoma Gnoma fraternal guild at Thesk State. But that time, he knew the frat brother-gnomes were just messing with him. The second and third times had, at least, been predictable: he had ended up at Bravinia Butterbottom’s House of Earthly Carnal Delights and found himself unable to pay his entertainment bill. After the second time that had happened, they engraved a small woodcut of his face behind the bar with the motto “Do Not Serve This Customer” in four languages. He hadn’t been back.
None of those times had been half as bad as this, though. Hearing chanting in a grove in the woods, he had stumbled across a group of intimidating-looking sorcerers and skullknights. It had taken them about five minutes to disarm him and bind him. He overheard a little their conversation: “Now that the Wraith King has asserted dominion over the Throndvale, we shall take the vessel of magic and give it to the mighty Artutraxas. Then he shall join us and realize his full glory under our master.” He could not see who was speaking, but a woman in a purple robe replied “Yes, my master.” All this took place in Draconic. Unfortunately, someone must have noticed the attentive expression on his face because moments later a gloved fist smashed into the back of his head and knocked him unconscious.
And he had slipped in and out of consciousness as he was loaded onto a pony or mule and the party set off. Where they were going, he had no idea. When his illusions failed him, he focused on wriggling out of his bonds, but they had tied him too tightly. He wasn’t the giving up type, but he seemed to be out of options.
He had no idea how much time had passed when he heard battle raging. He assumed that someone or something had attacked his captors. Spells and steel crackled and clanged, but not too close to his position. He gambled on one more illusion: he tried to indicate his position with dancing lights, but no help came. He struggled against the bonds again, but nothing came of it. Cries of pain and curses in Draconic and Common rang out. Then, after what seemed like ages
And suddenly someone grabbed him off his mount and ripped open the bag he was in. Temporarily blinded, he soon saw that his savior was a dwarf, covered in what appeared to be quickly-healing wounds, and who had an odd azure tattoo that pulsed and glowed faintly. None of his captors had been dwarves: he took this as a good sign. As soon as his gag was removed, he thanked his rescuer profusely in Dwarven and introduced himself as Stubbs the Bard.
It didn’t take a hundred and eight years of bardic knowledge to deduce that the little band that had rescued him had paid a heavy price. After checking with the party’s apparent leader, Stubbs helped to cure one of the most seriously injured members. He also examined the corpses of his captors, recognizing their armor and weapons as Tuigan, and informed the party’s leader of this.
The party leader, Josef, was quite a large and intimidating gentleman, but with a reassuringly bushy mustache that reminded Stubbs of the friendly, hard-drinking Theskan miners he had known and admired in his youth. Stubbs and Josef explained their stories to one another: Josef and his band had been ordered to retrace the path of a lost scout, Taurian, and had subsequently discovered that the vale of Thrond was infested with undead creatures and other monsters, and its good townsfolk had all been turned into skeletons! Stubbs related his travels in this area, and also informed Josef of what he had overheard prior to his capture.
Stubbs didn’t really know how it happened, but it seemed that before the sun went down he had elected to join (or been drafted into) the little warband. Besides Josef and the dwarf who had rescued Stubbs, Stolz, there was a wiry little rogue named Audrey and a taciturn arcane magician named Aramelle. Most of the evening, the party examined the weapons and armor and other items they had recovered from their defeated enemies. Some of the spoils they even decided to give to Stubbs, including two rings he could not identify and a staggeringly heavy and hard dagger. That night the party bedded down in a dirty abandoned hovel, but for Stubbs, it was paradise after a day and a half or two tied up in that damned sack.
The next day, before noon, the party arrived at the Wizard’s Keep, which Josef decided they needed to investigate thoroughly. From the outside, the place didn’t seem particularly intimidating, but the moment they opened the door, the tough little dwarf cried “Skeletons!” and battle was joined.
It was a little hard for Stubbs to see past his large, armored comrades. He could hear the rattle and clatter of bones and blades, though. For a moment, he thought of reaching for his crossbow, but soon realized he couldn’t get a shot through the doorway safely. Then he had a better idea. Grabbing his polished mandolin off his back, he struck up an inspiring song to cheer on his new friends. He strummed the chords of the ancient “Lay of Beleriand,” translating from the original Aglarondan to Common on the fly.
“With a hi and a hoy and a holly dolly day,
It’s the very merry month of May.” (even though it was actually Eleint or the beginning of autumn and the word May did not exist in Faerun)
He could see Josef and Stolz swinging their large maces more violently – and more accurately. The song was working. He continued to play and sing as the party ventured into the keep – and as Audrey stepped into the base of a tower, and four monstrous spiders set upon him, Stubbs played louder. He could almost see a purplish aura around the party’s weapons as they swung them in the gloom.
“With a role and a dole and a dingle-dee-day,
We’ve come to kill some spiders today.”
The spiders didn’t last very long. But no sooner had Stubbs stopped singing than some kind of hideous werewolf burst out from behind a barrel and bit the angry little dwarf. The party soon set upon the werewolf and beat it to a furry pulp, but as soon as the battle ended, Stubbs could see his new compatriots eyeing the dwarf with suspicion. Perhaps he, too, had been infected with the dread contagion. They bound the werewolf’s unconscious body with heavy chains before proceeding.
Putting aside their visions of hideous furry transformations, the party headed up to the second floor. It took them almost no time at all to dispatch another batch of skeletons as well as an odd creature that shapeshifted from a human form to a doppleganger of Stoltz and then into a mysterious inhuman corpse when dispatched. The party also discovered an ashlar on this floor, and after some extended discussion, decided that they didn’t know what it was, but they knew what it wasn’t: a surcoat.
There didn’t seem to be any way to proceed up the tower, but the party’s leader then impressed Stubbs with his ingenuity. Laying a hand on the stone wall, he muttered an arcane phrase and the stone reformed itself into a handsome doorway decorated with little gargoyles, images of Oghma and a motto in Common: “Architecture by Josef.”
This feat of brainpower and magic was soon followed by a similar performance by the usually-silent Aramelle. Their way was blocked by what seemed to be an enchanted cobweb. In a few moments, Aramelle had used a rusty old pair of tongs to pick up a green stone glowing with magical fire and burned the cobwebs away in no time. The party headed for the third floor without incident.
The third floor had been trashed by some raiders in the past. A large portait of a bearded man had been slashed diagonally. Before the party could search the room completely, an amorphous shadow moved to attack them. Without thinking clearly, Stubbs fired his crossbow at it
- and the bolt passed harmlessly through it and bounced off the far way. The being was ethereal. Audrey tried to hit it with a green stone-filled lantern, but the being wasn’t dispelled until Josef turned it to smoke with a clerical invocation.
More clues are discovered on this floor. A message written in an arcane language proclaims, “Look to the lady for succor – Tolerath.” Another, possibly corrupted, reads, “The castle – the undead – Gudrun.” There are also books about the curing of lycantrophy, among other arcane topics, and a series of cryptic mathematical calculations. After examining these at length, Aramelle announces that the wizard who occupied this keep before was apparently trying to discover an astrological method to dispel the infestation of undead in the vale of Thrond.
Unable to proceed further up the tower, the party returns to the first floor and then ventures into the basement. Unfortunately, as soon as the first two party members step on the basement floor, they receive a powerful electrical shock. Luckily Audrey is able to disable the inscription that triggers the trap before it can zap them again. Shortly thereafter, the party finds a scroll, which reads,
"To find the arm, he had us hide: you must go to the hall of the lady blessed. there under that which never lied, he found a place of rest.
by the place where the fair nymph pointed, a place of honor was decreed.
there behind the stone anointed, you will find the work you need.
only then one worthy shall cast away the spirits foul.
the storm will wash away the lie, may you have better luck than I."
After the party reads the inscription, the writing vanishes. Josef informs Stubbs that the inscription probably alludes to a chapel they had investigated before. But before they can discuss it further, they hear another cry from Stolz: peering into a well, he was surprised by an incorporeal gray ooze that melts his weapon in a moment.
The party makes a tactical decision to retire at high speed from the basement and returns to the first floor. They retrieve their bound werewolf captive after dragging him outside into the dying daylight. He struggles and threatens them, but Stubbs interrogates him in his own language. Upon speaking the name Taurian, the werewolf assumes his original human form and the little gnome is surprised to discover that this is the thrall of Josef’s lord whose disappearance the party was sent to investigate. The pathetic werewolf begs for death: Audrey moves to fulfill his request, but the dwarf stops him. After all, he may have the same disease, and they have a large volume on lycanthropy which may be able to cure both Stolz and Taurian.
Stubbs watches this all with interest and a fair amount of trepidation. After months of wandering and performing on his mandolin, he’s had more adventure in the last 48 hours than he has in weeks. Surely accompanying this unusual band will fill his lyric book with dozens of heroic and tragic tales and songs!