Hearts of Stone

Hearts of Stone 26: Zombie Spiders
6th June 216, Marblehall. Soreth, X7-09, Kowalski.

Inside the living dungeon now known to be the Stone Thief, a much reduced party is searching for answers, loot, and missing nobles. Soreth loses her footing at the top of the shaft they have just climbed up, but fortunately the traps are still jammed, and she slides back into the pool of sewage, terrifying the filth hydra even more than before.

Kowalski disappears with a clap of thunder, but moments later blinks back into existence near the ceiling, and falls upside down onto the corridor floor. The party will later work out this is due to him having been summoned to defend the graves of his clan ancestors near the Anvil Road, meanwhile they take it in their stride.

Pascal, X7-09 and Kowalski look at the approaching undead spiders, then at each other.

"We can take them," says X7-09. The others agree, and they form up against the opposite wall, X7-09 to the fore as he is the best fighter. The spiders swarm him, but are unable to cause any serious damage. Pascal tries repeatedly to disable them with his stun power, but to no avail.

Everyone is so focussed on the spiders that they barely notice one of the statues of dwarven gods hop down from its pedestal, walk up behind Kowalski, and smack him into the ground. Hard. It giggles maniacally as it does so.

A seriously wounded Kowalski and a frantically parrying X7-09 hold off the spiders until they notice Pascal, and several peel off to bites his head off. For a moment it looks like they have succeeded, but X7-09 calls on his icon patron and an unexpected near miss flips Pascal onto the statue's shoulder, where it fails to squash him. He scuttles around and hides behind another statue, making good use of his colour-changing ability.

The zombie spiders continue to harass X7-09, and do him some serious injury thanks to a couple of lucky blows. With five spiders and a giant stone golem surrounding them, Team Robot reassesses its opinion that it can take them, breaks free, and runs off down the corridor the way they came from, only to be halted by 50 feet of missing floor which recently fell into the sewage pool. Fortunately, both the zombie spiders and the stone golem retreat to their lairs for unknown reasons.

Soreth, drenched in sewage and fuming to an unhealthy degree, has meanwhile managed to haul herself up the chute and stands on an outcrop of rock across from the corridor.

Pascal, left alone in the statue's chamber, takes careful note of the riddle inscribed on the central pillar, the nature and position of the other statues, and the strange item concealed in their golem assailant's plinth, before sneaking out along the ceiling to rejoin his companions.

Kowalski heals himself fully, and X7-09 partially repairs himself. They agree that discretion is the better part of not being smashed into a paste by living statues or squashed like bugs when the Stone Thief inevitably submerges again, and in the absence of any better ideas, run back to the shaft mouth, descend the shaft at speed before the spiders can get them, swim across the sewage pool, and crawl back up the chute using the trail blazed by Soreth.

They exit the Stone Thief without further incident, and find themselves back in the ruins of Marblehall.

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Episode 25: Cleanse the Undead!
Anvil Road, 8th June 216

Boris, Dave, the Fox, Hug-Hug, Kowalski, Ladra, Silmaria, Valore.

We left Team Angel exploring an abandoned dwarven mine, in which they had just encountered a group of skeletal miners. Valore, who has strong and intolerant views on the subject of undead, immediately charged them, yelling "Cleanse the undead!"

The leader of the skeletons invokes an Icon, asking for intercession by the descendants of his clan, which results in Kowalski blinking into existence above the melee, and falling head-first onto the ground nearby. Valore takes advantage of this distraction to cleave the skeleton leader in twain. The Fox makes a dramatic entrance, enhanced by his Sword of Stunning, and the majority of the skeletons pause, taken aback; the Fox disposes of the one closest to him while they are recovering, while Dave shoots at one with her bow, shaking it.

The remaining skeletons surround Valore and the Fox, and belabour them with miners' picks; one gets lucky and incapacitates Valore, who falls with a through-and-through pickaxe wound to the abdomen. The Fox manages to stave off his attackers by parrying furiously. The skeletons ignore the dwarf dropped into their midst – there are several possible explanations for this, but Kowalski will later point out that these are his clan ancestors and suggest their blood ties explain it.

Meanwhile, Hug-Hug (the lone survivor of the goblin expedition to recover a magical artefact from the mine) sidles off into the darkness. Before charging, the Fox tossed his torch to Ladra, who with the dexterity one might expect, catches it. Silmaria (who is afraid of the dark) steps closer to her. Boris (who by default closes range with any females of marriageable age) steps closer to both of them. Ladra sees no reason to engage in melee, as anything that can get past Valore, Kowalski and the Fox is not going to be inconvenienced by her.

Kowalski yells at the combatants to put down their weapons. The skeletons obey, the Fox also obliges, and Valore is drifting in and out of consciousness and bleeding out. Kowalski next asks the skeletons to line up against the far wall, and they obligingly troop past in column to do so. A bolt of light explodes from Valore's gaping abdominal wound, incinerating several, although most manage to jump out of the way, alerted by some sixth sense.

"Sorry," says Valore, although her tone of voice suggests she isn't, really. "That always happens when I get incapacitated." Since the party hasn't seen her be incapacitated before, they have no basis on which to dispute this assertion.

Boris now explains that he can heal Valore by the laying on of hands, but first it will be necessary to remove her clothing.

"I'd rather die," mutters Valore. Fortunately, Kowalski also has healing powers, and restores her to no more than light injuries, after which mundane first aid suffices to return her to the fray.

It is the work of moments to relieve the skeleton leader of the diamond tip on his pickaxe and a parchment clutched in his left hand. Assessing the situation, the party notes a pit full of quicklime and lizard bones to the north, and three doors to the south, one of which is blocked by an iron spike. The Fox and Ladra use pickaxes to lever out the spike, while Kowalski interrogates the surviving skeletons. These tell him that the west door leads to other mineshafts, the middle door leads to a corridor which was never finished, and they don't know what's behind the east door as they were told never to go in there.

The Fox first sticks his head into the alcove behind the middle door, then throws a rock into it. He is rewarded with a small thunderclap and the disappearance of the rock. After some discussion, Kowalski orders a skeleton to go through the suspected teleporter and return. It goes through all right, but doesn't come back. Kowalski sends another one through with the same result. Dave runs up behind the Fox and pretends to push him through. Encouraged by this, he steps through, and finds himself in total blackness, either elsewhere in the same mine or in another one, with two skeletons just standing there – this is because they have no idea where they are, and thus don't know which way to go to get back to Kowalski.

Ladra calls that she is going to find the Fox, and vanishes with a torch and several exceedingly valuable cockatrice eggs; she will later claim these dropped and smashed on the way out, and her new jewelry is a gift from an admirer. An Icon is implored to help her escape alive, and in a few days it will turn out that she did. Everyone else sighs and follows the Fox through the teleporter.

On the far side, they find themselves near an intersection centred on a lift, whose ropes they could use to ascend. Before they can decide what to do next, a pair of creatures the likes of which they have never seen leap at them and have to be stabbed. They go down easily enough, but their bodily fluids begin to dissolve the blades used to stab them, leading to a short argument over whose clothing should be used to clean them. That settled, the group proceeds, taking a side passage to the east which leads them down a spiralling and descending corridor, and at length to a rough plank spanning a shaft roughly 80' deep. A voice calls for help, and Silmaria and Kowalski engage it in conversation, but it seems unable to keep its story straight, and when Boris extends his armpit hairs to sufficient length for it to grab hold and be hauled up, it ignores this offer. Mind you, nobody else would willingly hold Boris' armpit hairs, so this proves nothing. The party decide this is some sort of trap trying to entice them into the shaft, and walk on.

Shortly, they come to a door in the form of a dwarven face, with innocent inscriptions and a hole through it where the mouth should be. Naturally this arouses deep suspicions, and they stand off at a (hopefully) safe distance while Boris uses his luxurious armpit hair to open it. Apart from discovering it is spring-loaded and closes automatically, they are unharmed, and hurry through before it slams shut.

To be continued…

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Episode 24: Angry Medusa Chickens
Anvil Road, 8th June 216

Trusting their colleagues in Team Dragon to take care of the giant living dungeon, Team Angel (Boris, Silmaria, Ssh'ta, The Fox and Valore plus henchmen) take stock of their other options: Follow up on the cloud giant observing them earlier, pursue the bounty offered them by Gutstabber (which will mean a trip to Glitterhaegen), go back to the dwarven tower on Anvil Road and find out what's underneath, or follow up on the flying building they noticed several months ago.

By a majority of three in favour of the dwarven tower to two not-that-bothered, they head north, arriving at the actual tower a couple of days later. They first scout the tower's environs, then the tower itself, finding only unburied orc bodies somewhat the worse for nibbling by the local wildlife since the party killed them just over two weeks ago. Valore rightly deduces that nobody has been to check up on them or bury them, and the group removes the lift shaft lid. Ssh'ta is designated lookout and climbs to the roof with Caliban in case the party are disturbed by rude strangers while exploring.

Valore drops a torch down the shaft; it can be seen burning on the floor of a corridor some 30 feet below. Valore and Dave descend and find themselves in a corridor leading to a four-way intersection. Someone has made a half-hearted attempt to bury four goblin spearmen in the loose rock of the corridor sides between some pit props; they appear to have been bludgeoned to death. Valore draws her sword (which then appears to burst into flames, thus providing a light source) and with the others following at a safe distance, she and Dave head up to the intersection and explore a short way down each arm. To the east they find a small chamber containing cots, chicken coops, and a hole in the wall labelled 'Slide' in dwarven, as well as a curving corridor sloping down. To the south is another curving corridor sloping down. To the west is a third curving, sloping corridor and a chamber, containing three statues of goblin spearmen and four large chickens pecking at something concealed under an overturned mine cart.

The chickens, soon to be dubbed 'angry medusa chickens' by Valore, prove to be cockatrices and assault the recon element. Valore finds herself being petrified, but thinking quickly, sheathes her sword, plunging the place into darkness, and flies up to the ceiling. Silmaria, who has galloping scotophobia, freaks out, but now only Boris and Dave can see, and Dave quickly skewers two of the cockatrices with arrows. Boris steps into the chamber and engages a third while Dave shoots the last of the four, which is running off into the darkness in some confusion. Once stabbed, cockatrice number three turns on Boris and starts pecking and petrifying him; he flees back towards Silmaria and the others while Dave and The Fox attack the surviving cockatrice, sending it to oblivion; but Dave is incapacitated by its dying death gaze.

The party rallies and heals its wounds; fortunately, Dave's apparently fatal petrifaction responds well to Boris' ministrations. Lifting the overturned mine cart, they discover a single goblin spearman who thanks them for saving his life and gives Valore 'treasure' as a reward, namely a single copper piece. Under gentle questioning he reveals that he and his companions were sent by the Goblin Chief to retrieve the Forever Stone, a valuable item buried here after dwarves and evil wizards fought over it. Silmaria, meanwhile, has found a mineshaft in the corner of the Cockatrice Room and explains that in line with dwarven practice, it has been named after an ancient dwarven king.

Adding Hug-Hug (for such is the goblin's name) to the party, they explore several looping, sloping corridors with the result that they wind up more or less back where they were. Shrugging, they return to the room of chicken coops. Boris assumes the shape of a bat and flies down the slide, finding at the bottom a large pit full of powdered lime and lizard bones, with glimpses of a large chamber above. Boris decides he wants nothing to with this and returns.

Trying another sloping, curvy corridor, the group descends into another chamber with two exits and a perch containing what turn out to be cockatrice eggs. Ladra, who is the group's best climber, retrieves them, but refuses to smash them as the others suggest, pointing out that they are worth money to a certain sort of person. They use one of the exits and descend again, finding themselves in the large chamber Boris found earlier. Now that they have a better view of it, the party can clearly see a dozen or so dwarven skeletons hard at work, apparently mining.

While the rest pause to assess the new situation, Valore (who has firm views on this topic) screams "CLEANSE THE UNDEAD!" and launches herself at them.

To be continued…

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Episode 23: Filth Hydra
Marblehall, 6th June 216

Comes the dawn, and while the bulk of the party are sorting out the mess on the estate, Kowalski, Pascal and Soreth investigate the hill where the giant figure was standing last night, using its astrolabe and taking notes. Examining the footprints leads Kowalski and Pascal to the conclusions that the giant was 30 feet tall, and took a running jump into the air. Squinting along the path he would have taken by doing this, Pascal's detect arcana shows him a magical cloud some miles away. Pascal is keen to get up there and talk to the studious and erudite cloud giants, but in the absence of a way to do that, they decide to return to the dungeon, which has surfaced again and is now sunning itself in the sinkhole where Marblehall used to be, snoring.

It's the work of moments to retrace their steps, and with no monsters this time they have time for sightseeing. Translating runes from the dwarven forge chamber reveals it is part of the city of Shasto, devoured by a sentient dungeon called the Stone Thief some centuries ago. Kowalski explains:

KOWALSKI'S TALE

There are living dungeons, chaotic spasms of hate-filled architecture that swim up from the depths and erupt onto the surface, their corridors and chambers spreading out like a cancer beneath the ground. Most living dungeons rise up and become permanent features of the world, or are killed by adventurers before they can establish themselves. Until the end of the 12th Age, the dwarves dealt with most of them before they could surface, but the days of dwarven glory are long since gone.

But there’s one living dungeon out there that’s different, one that’s unique. It doesn’t claw its way blindly to the surface, to survive or perish as fate dictates. This dungeon is awake, aware, and cunning like some wild beast made of stone and iron. The Empire calls it the Stone Thief.

Stone Thief? Feh! Call her by her true name, Makh Miz Adaor, She Who Undermines. Call her Makh Adaz Akor, The Howling Pit. Call her Khazar Vuk Varag, Oldest of Hatreds. Long, long before the Stone Thief broke through the underworld to the surface, she was a bane of the dwarves in the deep. (The dwarves always refer to the dungeon as ‘she’.)

o0o

Proceeding to the room of the Doorkeeper, the group renews its acquaintance and trades it tales of life on the surface for information about the itself and its brothers. They also learn that there are refuges in the dungeon where one can survive if it submerges; the largest of these is called Dungeon Town; the Doorkeeper doesn't know why people don't just walk out when the dungeon is on the surface. Pascal draws a picture of a wood and pins it on the wall opposite, to give the Doorkeeper something new to look at.

THE DOORKEEPER'S TALE

The Custodians are a gaggle of elemental earth-spirits from the underworld that the Stone Thief half-devoured some time ago. After the Prince of Shadows blinded the dungeon, they were promoted to ad hoc managers of the various sub-levels. The Custodians are all terrified of the Stone Thief, since it can finish its consumption of them and destroy them utterly whenever it wants. The longer the dungeon stays blind and broken, the longer they get to keep their temporary custody of the various levels. They are supposed to kill any adventurers they meet, but adventurers are resourceful and can be helpful in various ways.

The one thing all the Custodians agree on is that their survival depends on keeping the Stone Thief dependent on them. There are seven of them left – there used to be eight, but one died.

The Doorkeeper is the runt of the pack. It’s stuck guarding the Front Door in the Maw, and is mostly harmless. (The party has befriended the Doorkeeper by playing on its curiosity and boredom.)

The Mad Butcher runs the Gauntlet. It carefully cultivates a reputation as a giggling maniac, but it can connive with the best of them when it has to.

The Architect in the Gizzard considers itself the leader of the Custodians, and is the only one who’s really loyal to the Stone Thief.

The Gravekeeper and the Pearlkeeper both stay in their respective domains of the Ossuary and the Sunken Sea — one because it’s imprisoned, the other because it just doesn’t care. The Gravekeeper was once a close ally of the Vizier.

The Curator lives in the Pit of Undigested Ages. It’s the most erudite of the Custodians, and the most powerful.

The Vizier monitors Deep Keep, and is the most ambitious of the group. It quarrels with the Architect.

An eighth Custodian once ran the Grove, but was destroyed.

o0o

The Doorkeeper considers the party friends now, so the riddle to get past it and onto the stairway down becomes quite simple: "What is it that looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck?" After a couple of failed attempts, the party realises that the answer is "A duck", and gains access to the stairs down to the second level, which the Doorkeeper advises is called the Gauntlet.

Partway down the stairs is a landing, leading to a corridor. Pascal steps off to investigate, and X7-09 (tagging along as a porter and light source) naturally follows. At once, the stairs rotate, transforming the stairway into a slide, and Soreth and Kowalski hurtle downwards. Seconds later, the corridor collapses, and Pascal and X7-09 also fall, pursued by several dozen tons of rubble. Shortly, everyone slides into a cavern, where their fall is broken by a huge pool of sewage, water, gnawed body parts of several species, and so forth.

Pascal quickly walks up the wall and fades into the background, while X7-09 clambers around the cavern wall just below the surface and reaches a ledge on the side of the cavern. Meanwhile, a serpentine head emerges from the water as Kowalski and Soreth flounder, being dragged down by the weight of their armour. This proves to be attached to a regenerating, fire-breathing hydra, and a short duel of breath weapons ensues between Soreth and the hydra, while numerous hydra heads and melee weapons exchange futile blows underwater. At length a fear spell drives the hydra off, and assisted by X7-09, the party hauls itself onto the ledge.

Meanwhile, Pascal has found a shaft some 20 feet wide and over 100 feet tall, leading up from the ledge. At the top is a glowing crystal that sends pearly white light down to the party below. The walls are sheer in most places, but there are some sections of carved stonework (a winding and partially broken bas-relief depicting dwarven miners tunneling in the depths of the underworld) where the group can make out footholds and handholds. Long straight grooves or slots run along the inner walls of the well. These slots never cross each other, but seem to be arranged randomly. One cannot easily climb the well without crossing one or more of these slots.

Pascal discovers that the slots contain huge circular saw blades when one slides out to bisect him, but manages to dodge them and emerges at the top of the shaft, below the crystal. To his left a short, curving corridor stump leads towards the stair/chute, but that now has a large hole in it where the bulk of the corridor fell into the pool of sewage below. To his right, a short corridor leads into a chamber where seven big, faceless statues sit on thrones , each atop a large dais with a door in it. Each carries a tool of some sort. In the center of the room, equidistant from the statues, is an engraved plinth – too distant and too poorly lit to read.

An icon is invoked to jam the saw blades in their slots, and the others clamber carefully up to join Pascal.

It is at this point that they notice a swarm of undead spiders descending on them from around the crystal above… they are currently drawing breath, dripping with sewage, and awaiting the onslaught of the spider swarm.

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Episode 22: The Chasm
Marblehall, 5th June 216

Kowalski comes trotting up behind the party as Silmaria and Boris make good their escape. This leaves The Fox, Ssh'ta and Caliban, X7-09 and Pascal, Kowalski, Valore and Dave inside the dungeon.

X7-09 moves to unlock and open the door, but pauses when he hears squeals of glee from the other side. He readies his axe and barges in, down a short flight of stairs to what Kowalski will later inform you is part of an old dwarven forge – it has a waterwheel and various pipes which once powered a forge and quenched the iron. Inside are four goblins, gleefully looting the bodies of as many party guests, whom they may or may not have killed. They try to flee, two leaving by another door, one diving into the waterwheel channel, and the fourth dying horribly as Valore wing-buffets him into a corner. In hot pursuit, the group follows the two leaving through a door, which leads them into a short, curving corridor and thence to a room in a completely different architectural style, with a bone-white flagstone floor rather than the rough cobblestones of the previous room, and four stone sarcophagi, one of which has a broken lid through which a rotted face and a single beady eye can be seen.

The goblins flee down a stairway at breakneck speed while Kowalski talks to the undead thing, which explains it is part of a group whose job it is to clear away any meat (such as dead adventurers) lying around when the dungeon submerges again. This they do by eating it. Kowalski and the thing are getting on famously until Valore stabs it with her flaming sword through the coffin lid screaming "Cleanse the undead!", killing it outright. This awakens the others, and a confused melee erupts, ending with all the undead properly dead, most of the party in the room, and Caliban trying to spit bits of undead out of his mouth, with little success.

X7-09 has meanwhile descended the stairway in search of the goblins, and invokes the Diabolist to obtain a light source, specifically a hat with a candle on it and the words "Wilt thou kiss me in the dark, baby?" around the rim in Draconic.

Dave is still fascinated by the swirly things in the glass column, and having been left alone with them, considers whether to smash the glass and let the swirls out, but decides against it.

Ahead in the darkness, X7-09 spies a side passage to the left, and further on, a bridge across the chasm he has come to think of as the dungeon's gullet. On the bridge are a number of goblins, orcs and whatnot with spears and assorted other implements (including a fishing pole), who are trying to fish out shiny things from the rubble flowing through beneath them. He is a little startled by the Fox leaping acrobatically over him and facing off against the orcs, as the goblins flee. Ssh'ta takes up a position halfway down the stairs where he can shoot over the heads of his comrades into the orcs, who form up quite professionally, all things considered, and lay into the Fox with spears. A lucky blow turns his helmet around, and he staggers around perilously near the chasm's lip while X7-09 shoves past him and starts shield-bashing the orcs off the bridge into the torrent of rubble below. Valore flies overhead and does a superhero landing behind the orcs, then starts buffeting them off the bridge with her wings. Caliban brings the Fox a second sword, and he uses it to lay into the orcs.

Kowalski, meanwhile, trusting his colleagues against a handful of orcs, has wandered off down the side passage and discovers the remnants of a villa, apparently from several Ages ago. There's not much left except the courtyard, within which is a statue of a dragon with completely dark eyes, which seem to drink in the light without any sign of a reflection. Around the base of the statue in archaic common are the words: "The Great Gold Wyrm faces the dawn of a new day."

By now all the orcs have been shot, stabbed, and buffeted off the bridge, and the others retrace their steps and follow Kowalski into the villa. From clues such as paintings they deduce which way east would have been when the villa was on the surface, and noting that the statue appears intended to rotate on its base, they turn it that way. A concealed trapdoor pops open, and below they find a chest containing a satisfactory number of gold coins and a shield wrapped in cloth. Unwrapping this reveals a knight's heater shield with Imperial heraldry; the Fox can't quite remember whose. Gathering this up, the party treks back to the bridge and crosses it, descending another short flight of stairs into a further chamber with a door-shaped area of blank stone flanked by two huge statues of armoured yet unarmed guardsmen.

The party start rummaging around, looking for secret doors and so forth, and shortly the blank wall contorts into a stone face and asks in a polite tone what they are looking for. It turns out to be quite friendly and curious about the world outside, and introduces itself as "the Doorkeeper". They in turn ask it about the about nearby dungeon areas, discovering that the orcs come from much deeper in the dungeon and the swirly things upstairs are lifeforce-sapping wraiths.

At length, the Doorkeeper explains that under the conditions of its employment it has to ask them a riddle before they can pass through it to the next level, and declaims:

I am a beast with many faces.
Often, you’ll meet me with my brother.
Though not a spell, I am cast;
Though not large, I am fate’s master.
And though not a friend, you’ll praise me until I bite you.

After some thought, Ssh'ta cries: "A die!" and the Doorkeeper opens for the group, revealing steep stairs heading down.

Alas, at this point a bellow of "AHOOOOGGGGAAAAH!" is heard. The Doorkeeper explains that this is the cry of a submerging dungeon, and the group should leave, as it will compress itself on the way down and unless they are in one of the Sanctuaries – unfortunately there are none close enough to reach before it goes under – they will surely be crushed to death. The dungeon will re-emerge eventually, days or weeks hence.

The party vows to return and continue their discussions with the Doorkeeper at a later time, and sprint out before the dungeon descends into the sinkhole it has made.

Outside, everyone gathers around to discuss events. They decide to split into two teams again, but with a slight rearrangement: Valore will join the former Team Robot, now to be known as Team Angel, while X7-09 will join Team Dragon. Membership is therefore:

Team Angel: Boris, Silmaria, Ssh'ta, the Fox, Valore.

Team Dragon: Hayes, Kowalski, Soreth and X7-09.

As you conclude this discussion, torches approach from the direction of the nearby town.

"Huzzah!" the cry goes up. "It is the Vengeful Company! We are saved! Three cheers for the Vengeful Company!"

You stand by in disbelief as the party guests you rescued cluster round the Vengeful Company, vowing undying gratitude to them.

Meanwhile, those of you with darkvision (Boris, Dave, Kowalski, Ssh'ta) can also see, on a nearby hill, what looks like a 30' tall giant with a wax tablet and an astrolabe, taking notes.

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Episode 21: Going Underground
Marblehall, 5th June 216

The gang's all here and hoovering up free wine and nibbles at Casila's manor house, at a party in honour of Lord Sunhammer, the Dwarf King's emissary who has stopped over on his way to Glitterhaegen.

X7-09 stands immobile behind Casila's chair, getting a crash course in Empire politics as Casila (who has been a prisoner of the drow for some years and is a little out of touch) is brought up to speed by Sunhammer, who in exchange is trying to understand her current plans and ambitions – he hasn't seen her since she was five.

Ssh'ta and Ladra are purloining the silverware while everyone's eye is on Valore, because anything she picks up – say, bread or a soup spoon – appears to be on fire. Then there are the big metal wings, of course. Balthazar Rook does his best to put things back before they are missed, but even so some servants get into trouble.

Kowalski is nowhere to be seen – perhaps he is avoiding Lord Sunhammer for some reason. Maybe they are political rivals, who can say. Hayes and Soreth put in an appearance but disappear early on, citing fatigue.

Halfway through the fish course, the tremors begin. Soon there is a definite lurching and dropping sensation. While Casila asks everyone to remain calm and seated, explaining that the house is magically protected, Valore goes to investigate, and reports that the manor house is dropping into a large sinkhole; several others have consumed nearby buildings, and ground level is now approaching the first floor windows. After a quick discussion, bearing in mind their earlier adventures and X7-09's recent vision, the group decide they are in the process of being consumed by a giant living dungeon.

Silmaria grabs a drinking horn and places its large end on a wall, singing rock ballads into it to soothe the savage dungeon. It is truculent and refuses to be soothed. X7-09 descends into the wine cellar and tries punching through the flagstones to see what's underneath, but this looks like it will take a long time.

After several minutes' debate, the group decides to evacuate the guests through the first floor windows. General panic ensues, and things become confused, with some of the party leaping out to guide the guests to safety, and others following X7-09 into the maw of the dungeon (for such it is) in search of whatever loot is to be found. Valore and Boris (in the form of a house martin) fly down the avalanche of partly-digested buildings; Valore is carrying Caliban, who therefore appears to be on fire, and Silmaria follows to avoid being left alone in the darkness. The ever-cheerful Dave skips lightly over the rockslide, with the Fox and Ssh'ta following.

They survive the churning and chomping inside the maw, and spy what looks like a safe corridor, at least by comparison. While they clamber into it, the manor house, magically shrunken to a size which will fit through the jaws without too much damage, slides past and is gone, who knows where. Boris shifts back into human form, completely naked, but Silmaria was expecting that and produces some clothes from her pack.

Beyond the corridor is a room containing four glass pillars full of swirling, dark grey smoke which snubs Dave's friendly overtures, and a winged statue holding a silver key in one hand. The key is grabbed, and predictably the statue comes to life, attacking X7-09 since he has the key. A brief scuffle ensues, ending when Valore chops the statue in half with a longsword – no mean feat, that. Key in hand, X7-09 advances on the room's other exit, which is blocked by a locked door…

Meanwhile, outside, Kowalski, Hayes, Soreth, and Ladra observe the head and forebody of the giant living dungeon settle down comfortably in the sinkhole, perhaps digesting its recent dinner.

Casila and Lord Sunhammer are nowhere to be found.

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Episode 20: The Red Tower
Team Robot: Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox, X7-09. Glitterhaegen, 02 June 216.

Relaxing in Glitterhaegen's dockside area, Team Robot debates whether they should stay or go. They're trying to avoid the attentions of the Duke of Glitterhaegen, who may well bear a grudge for the theft of his prize griffin, Lord Fluffington III; Balthazar Rook gives serious thought to stealing it again, but the others talk him out of it. The group gets to know Balthazar's new sidekick, Ladra, and he sends her off on an unspecified mission. Meanwhile, they have heard of a mysterious red tower, which in local rumours is linked to disappearances on the night of the full moon and red-robed cultists who eat pebbles.

Thus it is that on the night of the next full moon, Silmaria finds herself near the red tower at night, with only Boris in the shape of a mouse for company, and Balthazar, Ssh'ta and X7-09 concealed in overwatch. Inevitably, a group of four cultists attempt to sneak up on her, only to be shot down by Ssh'ta before being hacked to bits by X7-09, who is curious about their flame-bladed daggers but undamaged by them. Balthazar has the presence of mind to beat the one before him unconscious with the pommel of his rapier, so this time they have a prisoner, and their knowledge of the local area allows them to find a secluded warehouse where they can interrogate their captive after weighting the bodies of the other cultists and throwing them in the harbour.

"Just checking, we are the good guys, right?" asks Balthazar. X7-09 explains that they are adventurers, so they get to define what being the good guys means. That settled, the remaining cultist is put to the question, but knows nothing they haven't already figured out. Tiring of his dire warnings about the Devourer rising to consume them all, they knock him out again and dress in the cultists' robes before returning to the tower.

Using a key purloined from one of the dead cultists, they find the concealed door and enter. Within, they are attacked by invisible demons (well, invisible to X7-09 anyway, the rest of the group can see the red eyes, slavering fangs piercing their flesh and so forth well enough); X7-09 calls on the Diabolist to show him his enemy, and receives a vision of a gigantic living dungeon. While he is musing on that, the others snap out of it, discovering that it was an illusion.

They continue to explore the tower, finding little of note except a prisoner, who X7-09 reveals as a demon by cunning questioning. The demon announces himself as By-Tor, Prince of Darkness, Centurion of Evil; Caliban the albino dire wolf growls at him throughout the conversation, and he occasionally insults the canine. Reasoning that eventually he will persuade someone to release him, they agree to let him out on condition that [a] he will not harm the party members, with the exception of Caliban, and [b] he owes X7-09 one favour, to be called in when X7-09 desires at some unspecified point in the future.

That done, the party and the demon go their separate ways, leaving the cultists to their kidnapping, murder and Devourer-worship. After all, there's a party to attend…

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Episode 19: A Keg for a Dragon
Team Dragon (Hayes, Kowalski, Soreth, Valore). Greenwell, 30 May 216.

Valore, gifted with wings, returns to Dwardel and explains what has happened to Team Robot. Dave the Dark Elf has reappeared, and cheerfully replaces the unfortunate Vor and Zadok as Valore's follower.

Countess Casila has other things on her mind, however, and asks Team Dragon to go to Greenwell, a village of squatters south along the Glitterhaegen road, and negotiate a charter with it. The usual sort of deal is it pays taxes and it comes under her protection, neither of which is true just now. She leaves the details to you, providing a list of things she expects from the deal, and things she is prepared to offer in exchange, the details of which need not concern us at this time. Soreth unkindly compares this to a protection racket, which to be fair is arguably the case.

Travelling to Greenwell, the party finds it in turmoil. The boy Chapel is missing, the dragon Clipwing is nowhere to be found, and there are goblins in the woods making a nuisance of themselves.

What's this about a dragon? the team enquires. Mayor Hiram explains that Clipwing was crippled in a battle some time ago ("Yeah, I heard about that at school," says Soreth) and struck a deal with the village: They would provide a steady supply of fine whiskey for medicinal purposes, and in exchange the dragon would prevent rude strangers from bothering them – this no doubt is why they have not felt the need to offer fealty to the Countess.

By knocking on doors and questioning witnesses, the party works out what has happened: Chapel, whose job it is to deliver the whiskey, planned to sell it to cover his debts, only to find it stolen before he could do so. Panicking, he replaced it with inferior spirits taken from his employer, but the dragon is somewhat of a connoisseur and easily detected this, withdrawing his labour and holding the boy hostage until the village keeps its side of the bargain.

Tracking down the thief (Seb, the owner of the village's only inn), the party intimidate him into confessing and take him before the mayor. They recover the stolen whiskey and trade it to the dragon for the boy.

The mayor strips Seb of his inn and offers it to the party, before banishing both Seb and Chapel. Team Dragon persuades Hiram that it will be cheaper to pay taxes to the Countess than to keep the dragon in whiskey. The dragon is given notice and Kowlaksi suggests he might seek employment with the dwarves at Forge, where his favourite whiskey is made. Chapel's creditor, Gristle the dwarf, is given information on the boy's likely route out of town.

The mission is thus successfully completed, with no casualties apart from a few goblins encountered by chance in the woods.

NEWS

Lord Sunhammer, an envoy of the Dwarf King, is expected to arrive at Marblehall sometime in early June on his way to Axis for a summit meeting with the Emperor. He will pay his respects to the new Countess and there will be a feast in his honour, which Team Dragon and Team Robot are both invited to attend – further details to follow when the final date is known.

The Countess is concerned about Marblehall's security in the light of orcish intrusion on her northern territory, and has ordered reviews of all the militia in her domain, starting with her household troops, to ensure that they are all properly equipped and trained. She has further ordered protective runes engraved on the walls of the manor house itself, as there are rumours of monstrous beings seen in the woods nearby.

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Episode 18: Jailbreak
Team Robot, Glitterhaegen, 26 May 216

Team Robot (Boris, Silmaria, Ssh'ta, The Fox, X7-09), minus Ssh'ta and plus Valore, awakens to find itself naked in filthy dungeon cells in an unknown location. There is one other prisoner: Yalanchi, who looks as if he was not in good shape to begin with, and then someone beat him within an inch of his life. He informs them that he is a member of the League of Nine, one of the two great criminal gangs of Glitterhaegen, and that he believes they are the captives of the other one, known as the Shadowmen, which is rumoured to work with the Prince of Shadows; however, the people beating him have been more interested in asking questions than answering them.

Escaping the cells is clearly the first priority. Valore's wing bash, Zadok's heat bolt, and Vor's ill-equipped attempt at lockpicking fail, and the Fox's wild charge straight into the iron bars of the cell door gains him nothing but bruises; but Boris assumes the form of a mouse and strolls out into the corridor between the cells. At length, a massive half-orc enters the corridor and stops before Silmaria's cell, appraising her. (Team Robot will never learn that his name is Zorba.)

"Yes," he opines, "You are as lovely as they said. I can see why Himself wants you back."

"No!" cries Silmaria, instinctively. Thinking more clearly, she goes on: "It's so very dark in this cell, I'm scared. Will you… Will you hold my hand?" Silmaria is as good-looking as it is possible to be, and Zorba (who bears her no particular ill will) grumpily acquiesces.

"What about me?" calls Valore, who is in all honesty not as good-looking but still better than average. "I'm in here with two naked men, can you move me to another cell?" For whatever reason, Zorba agrees, but first summons another three equally large and muscular guards in case of tricks. Boris, meanwhile, has scampered across to X7-09's cell, finding that worthy dormant and powered down. Hearing the guards return, he runs back into his cell – in plain sight of the guards, but a mouse in a dungeon cell block is nothing out of the ordinary, and they ignore him.

The guards form up around Valore's cell in case of trouble, and order Zadok and Vor to the back of the cell before opening it so that Valore can emerge. However, her first action on doing so is to buffet Zorba in the face with one of her wings (which following something weird happening under Dwardel earlier are now made of steel). Boris supports her attack by casting Confusion, whereupon a horde of chittering, fluffy, long-clawed mice fall on the guards, shaking two of them. Zadok fires another heat Bolt at Zorba, to no effect.

Boris runs back to X7-09's cell and picks the lock with long, mousey claws. One of the shaken guards wanders into range of the Fox, who stealthily relieves him of his keys. Boris moves on to Yalanchi's cell, but breaks a fingernail and collapses, howling in anguish.

The guards mob Valore, whose fighting skill is (or shortly will be) legendary, and they can't land a blow on her. Villen, the Fox's squire, opens the door of their cell, and the two make a break for it, running for the exit through the scene of chaos – Silmaria is taunting Zorba, Boris is trying to pick locks, and Valore is punching Zorba repeatedly, making him flash like a torch every time she hits him.

Villen thinks better of abandoning his friends for a complete stranger (remember, everyone forgets the Fox at midnight) and runs back, unlocking Silmaria's cell door and Yalanchi's; but while he is freeing Yalanchi, Zorba stabs him from behind, killing him outright. Boris calls on the Lich King to raise his friend, and the Lich King does so to an extent, raising him as a zombie.

"Braaaiiins," says Villen by way of thanks. Zorba yells at his men to cut the fugitives off at the exit (and also the knees, if possible), and runs Zadok through on the basis that he's having no luck getting past Valore's wing parries, and Zadok is after all a spellcaster. Villen considers attacking someone, but there are these lovely fresh brains leaking onto the floor right next to him, so he digs in.

The jailers form up at the top of the stairs leading out of the cell block, and the Fox runs at them, calling on the Archmage for assistance and invoking his own memory-erasing powers. The jailers promptly forget who they are and what they are doing, allowing the party to herd their unresisting former captors into a cell and lock them up.

They emerge into a well-lit corridor, with sunlight streaming in from the north end. Silmaria and Boris run to the daylight, and bask in it while waiting for the others. Valore and the Fox find a door leading off the corridor into another small complex; they manage to kill a couple more guards before those worthies can react, and arm themselves with longswords whose owners have no further use for them. Vor joins them, and they stealthily move deeper into the group of rooms, finding their own gear piled up on one room and the last remaining group of jailers, who have alas been alerted by the commotion outside and are ready for them, not that it helps; all but one are cut down within seconds, and the survivor mortally wounds Vor as he hacks his way free and makes a run for the exit. However, Boris has been using Healing powers to regrow his broken nail and expand his body hair to cover his nakedness, and now casts Entangle to wrap the fleeing foe in bonds formed by luxurious armpit hair. This slows him enough for Valore to catch him and stab him to death, before moving back into the cell block and butchering the surviving, if now mentally deficient, opponents – as well as the zombie formerly known as Villen.

Rummaging through their lair, Valore discovers trinkets and coin to the value of 80 silver. Yalanchi thanks them for releasing him and melts into the crowd; Team Robot gears up and moves out, the Fox vowing to track down Yalanchi, who he wanted to question further.

Some hours later, X7-09 reboots and finds himself alone in an abandoned set of dungeon cells, surrounded by the corpses of former travelling companions and presumed members of the Shadowmen. Phlegmatic as ever, he picks up Pascal the chamaeleon and lumbers out into Glitterhaegen.

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Episode 17: Arachnophobia
Under Dwardel, 25 May 216

Previously, on Hearts of Stone…

Half the party descended into the "Archmage's secret facility" under Dwardel town hall via a one-way teleporter, and found a small dungeon complex carved into a stalactite sticking down into an apparently bottomless chasm. Venturing outside it into a cavern, they found intelligent arachnids (who want to capture X7-09 and abduct him for unspeakable experiments) negotiating with drow (who want to kill Boris). Boris has broken the handle on one of the drawbridges, leaving the way open for intruders to enter. Valore is about to be overrun by invisible arachnids. X7-09 has caused the chasm to begin flooding with molten lava. Now, the rest of the party arrives to help. What could possibly go wrong?


Hayes, Kowalski and Ssh'ta brave the one-way teleporter and arrive to help just as the massed bands of drow, giant spiders, and invisible sentient giant spiders charge the party's redoubt. The party forms a defensive line at one end of the closest drawbridge as invisible spiders move across it at speed, barging past Balthazar Rook who manages somehow not to get knocked off. Another invisible spider knocks Valore into the chasm, but as she can fly, this is merely a temporary setback.

Boris runs to the fray, and bumps into what appears to be an invisible giant spider in plate mail. Unwilling to engage in melee, he casts Pummel and a blast of strange-smelling gas emerges from him at speed (the less said about that, the better) and rattles those on the bridge. Meanwhile there is an exchange going on between X7-09 and the sentient spiders in Spidertalk. Ssh'ta emerges from a side door onto a turret with a commanding view of the battlefield, stations Caliban to protect him from spider assault, and begins methodically cutting down drow and spiders with arrows – this occupies him for the rest of the fight. Valore emerges from the chasm and starts rolling up the drow flank – she is one of the party's three combat monsters, the others being Soreth and X7-09.

A spider barges past Balthazar again, and he kills it with his rapier. Feeling outnumbered, he drops his buckler and draws a second blade – the buckler falls into the rising lava. Caliban growls intimidatingly at the spiders, who ignore him. Silmaria sings a love song in Spidertalk, which she thinks should get the spiders frisky, but as the sentient ones are invisible she can't tell if it worked.

The invisible plate-armoured sentient giant spider (trust me, it's even worse than they know) casts Fear, and NPCs scatter in all directions while Balthazar is Shaken, and permanently marked by his terror; his hair turns white. At this point he reveals that he has a teleport amulet on loan from the Archmage, and his plan is to throw it at the boss spider so that she is teleported away. The rest of the party point out forcefully that this leaves them stranded underground with no way back out, and suggest an alternative plan of using the amulet to escape their predicament.

X7-09 pushes his two cultist allies into the lava as sacrifices as they advance around the outside of the stalactite, and calls on the Diabolist for aid, specifically the ability to breathe poisonous fumes on the approaching spiders (and Balthazar too, incidentally). However, either he is distracted by the subject of his phobia coming to drag him off to a life of pain and suffering, or the Diabolist thinks it's funnier to leave him to it, and no help is forthcoming.

Hayes lofts a turnip at the drow patrol leader, who the party recognise as their earlier opponent, but misses. Balthazar invokes the aid of the Archmage to erase the spider leader's memory, causing some sort of protective amulet on its thorax to shatter but having no other effect. Kowalski backs away from the spiders at the door and casts Deflect, Boris casts Fear (illusory ghost zombie snakes), X7-09 shouts that he will never be taken alive and Valore negotiates swiftly with the drow – they attacked, she retaliated, how about they call it even?

X7-09 ducks back around the corner of the stalactite and runs back inside, pursued by spiders, and slams the door behind him. The drow leader yells at her surviving troops to meet up at the rally point, and teleports out as they run for their riding spiders. The sentient spiders start banging on the doors. The party regroup around Balthazar, who sucessfully calls on the Archmage for more help – and all are teleported away.

But there is a catch. Something goes wrong with the evocation; the spiders, who are in the area of effect, are nowhere to be seen. Kowalski, Ssh'ta, Caliban and Hayes shimmer into existence in the basement of Dwardel town hall. The others are… somewhere else…

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