“Yeah, Natalya’s in th’ boarding house what had a fire a few years back,” repeated Fenster. “She thinks she’s being sneaky, but nothin’ gets past ol’ Fensty’s good peeper!” the old man said, tapping his functional eye.
“You’re lying,” accused Theodore.
“I’m not lying! I swear! I swear upon me gold!”
“Alright then, take us to her!”
“Not for free! Five more gold!”
“When we get there.”
This seemed good enough for Fenster, and he led them through the warren of run-down buildings and piles of garbage that made up the Underbridge section of Magnimar. After about a half-dozen foul-smelling turns, they came upon the promised boarding house. Its sides were marred by scorch marks and mildew, but it didn’t look to be in any danger of collapse. Not immediately, anyway. “Wait here,” Theodore said to Fenster, “You’ll get your money after we confirm she’s there.” Fenster began to complain, but the four party members were already advancing toward the building, with expressions on their faces that said this was not a good time to negotiate.
They were approaching it from the southern end, with a door in the side that Scratchy slipped through quickly and silently. As soon as he did so, two men in rusty chainmail came around the corner. It was clear they hadn’t seen Scratchy, because the first thing they did was move to block the door. “You can’t come in here,” they stated flatly, in the most intimidating voice they could muster.
“Why not? What’s inside?” Theodore inquired, and they began the latest in that day’s set of verbal jousting.
Millicent had had enough. She had sat quietly through the interrogation of the Wreckwash Blades, quietly through the talk with Donal, quietly through the negotiations with Fenster, and now, literally on the doorstep of their prey, they were going to talk again. And did anyone really think this wasn’t going to end up in a big fight anyway? She surveyed the guards’ positions. One was occupied talking to Theodore, the other was standing directly in front of her, blocking the doorway. She looked him in the eye, smiled slightly, and then kicked him in the gut.
The guard crashed through the rickety door and into the room beyond. Unfortunately for him, the room beyond had no floor. Worse yet, about five feet below where the floor would have been was a pool of raw sewage, into which he stumbled and fell. As he stood up again, sputtering and cursing, there was Millicent waiting for him with her longsword. She jabbed it through his head, causing him to fall back into the sewage, and this time he didn’t get back up.
The other guard, shocked, reached for his weapon, only for his head to run afoul of Theodore’s morningstar. Millicent hadn’t communicated her plan to anybody, but it wasn’t really a surprise, either. The only thing they were unsure of was: where was Scratchy?
The goblin in question had come in through the door, seen the sewage, seen that there was a narrow plank going over it, and decided that the best way to navigate the smelly room was to climb on the walls. You see, while most humans (and dwarves, and elves, and halflings, and gnomes) looked at Scratchy and just saw another goblin, Scratchy was actually a cave goblin, and climbing was as natural as walking for him. Good thing, too, because Scratchy had seen one more thing that the others handn’t: sticking out of the wall, just above the level of the sewage, were two drainage pipes. Scratchy had parked himself above them, and now, drawn by the noise, two goblin heads poked out, one of which immediately got introduced to the business end of Scratchy’s flail. These goblins did not seem to be great climbers, but did seem to move effortlessly through the filthy ooze flowing out of the pipes. Scratchy made up a name for them on the spot. “Muck goblins!” he sneered to himself. The proper name was actually sewer goblins, but no one was arguing.
Outside, Theodore and Millicent were finishing up the hapless guard, and Zelcor took the opportunity to peek inside the room. The first thing he noticed was the overpowering stench. The second thing he noticed was the goblins fighting and shouting at each other. One of them was the goblin whose head Scratchy had bashed; he was silently bleeding to death. The second was the other one who had emerged from the pipes, who was now swimming around in the sewage and throwing bags full of waste at Scratchy. The third was another sewer goblin who had just emerged from the pipes, and was trying to jab at Scratchy with a dagger, and the fourth was Scratchy, who was trying his hardest not to be killed. Zelcor decided to help out by casting his sleep spell; one of the sewer goblins collapsed immediately and began drowning in the sewage. The last one decided this fight wasn’t going his way, and ducked back into the pipe.
Scratchy, figuring a goblin prisoner would be useful, fished the drowning one out of the sewage just as Theodore and Millicent entered. “By Nethys! What a stench!” Theodore exclaimed.
“We should move quickly.” Millicent reminded him, “Before any other defenders can mobilize.”
And they did. In the next room were two more sewer goblins that they quickly dispatched, along with a third that was shooting crossbow bolts from the rafters of what had been the second floor. The floor of this room too was a pool of sewage, although this one at least had a ledge they could walk around. In fact all of the floors, on both the first and second stories, had collapsed in the fire that had gutted the boarding house, revealing the sewage collection pits that had always been underneath. It was a terrible place to live, but an excellent place to hide out with your gang of sewer goblins.
And as they entered the final room, the party encountered a person who was doing just that: the illustrious Natalya Vancaskerkin, formally of the Wreckwash Blades, was perched on a platform crudely put together between the second floor rafters. A ladder led up to it from the sewage below, and Theodore and Natalya held their noses and plunged towards, while Scratchy and Zelcor, who had by now climbed up to the second floor, kept Natalya and her two goblin “honor guards” occupied. A pair of stirges, trained not to attack goblins, swept down from the roof to attack Zelcor, but it wasn’t enough. Millicent reached the base of the ladder fairly unmolested, if more than a little filthy, when Natalya decided it was time for some magic. “You don’t want to hurt me,” she cooed at Millicent while drawing arcane symbols in the air, “I’m your friend.”
But Millicent’s will was stronger than that, and besides, she had already been attacked by Natalya’s goblin allies. “Oh yes,” she answered, “I very much do want to hurt you.” and seconds later she was at the top of the ladder. The two goblin guards moved to protect their mistress, but they were no match for Millicent and Theodore up close. It was then that Natalya did something very strange. She pulled a shard made from a dull, coppery substance out of the sash she wore around her waist. Holding it forward, she shouted, “Burn!” and a sheet of flame shot up between her and Millicent.
Millicent stepped back from the heat, but she thought it was strange. A wall of fire was no small feat of magic: Theodore had taught her that. But if she was capable of such sorcery, why hadn’t she used it sooner? Why had her charm spell been so weak, and why hadn’t she peppered her enemies with magic missiles as they crossed the muck below? There was one answer: a wall of fire was powerful magic; an illusion of a wall of fire, not so much.
Millicent tested her theory by swinging her sword through the wall at Natalya. The fire hissed around it, but when Millicent withdrew the sword, it was cool to the touch. Now Millicent knew that Natalya’s wall was harmless, but also that she held a shard of metal with qualities yet unknown; it was better that she didn’t. With a single fell swoop Millicent cut at Natalya’s hand, forcing her to drop the shard.
The coppery piece flipped end over end, falling with a plop into the sewage below. Natalya screamed and jumped after it, but before she could a strange, snake-like creature with a goblin’s head slithered out of a nearby pile of rubbish (there were many in the building) and grabbed it up in its mouth. Natalya cursed at it and tried to take the shard away, but it was quick and covered in muck, and snakes are hard to grab under the best of circumstances. It slipped out of Natalya’s reach and into a nearby pipe, of the sort only snakes and goblins have an easy time getting through. Natalya tried to go in after it, but she was too big. Presently she just sat down and started to cry.
Millicent, Theodore, Scratchy, and Zelcor gathered around. One of the goblins was still alive, so Scratchy began to interrogate it. In between constant assertions about the superiority of sewer goblins as compared to the cave variety, it told the story of how the snake creature, a goblin snake to be precise, had once led their little band of goblins, only to be supplanted by the strange woman with the magic, who said she was going to build an empire, starting in the remains of the stinking boarding house. And the coppery shard? No one knew what it was, but it was clearly valuable; narrow pipes or not, the party decided to go after it.
But first, they had some prisoners to deal with: two injured goblins and the sobbing Natalya, who didn’t resist when they tied her hands. They decided to put the three prisoners in the shack that the two human guards had been sitting in before they had come out to challenge the party. It was attached to the outside of the boarding house, and was the only room that wasn’t sitting over a pool of sewage. It had no internal doors to reach the rest of the house, so the party brought their captives outside to bring them to their temporary prison. The goblins were hog-tied and being carried; Natalya, with her hands bound, was being marched between Millicent and Theodore.
And then the party learned that the battle was far from over. As soon as they got outside, three crossbow bolts screamed out of the air, one catching Natalya in the side. Millicent looked over and saw three thugs in battered armor crouched behind some nearby garbage. They let out another volley of bolts, clearly targeting Natalya and not her captors. Fortunately they all missed as Natalya, snapped out of her funk by the pain in her side, ducked out of the way. Seeing her captors turn their attention to the crossbowmen, Natalya decided this would be an excellent time to try and run away. She twisted out of Millicent’s grasp, but failed to escape from Theodore. He tripped her as she pulled away, then sat on her. She was the prize, and she was not going to get away.
In the meantime, Zelcor cast his last sleep spell of the day on two of the crossbowmen, but only one fell down. Millicent charged the other, and Scratchy the third, both hoping to end the fight before the crossbowmen could get off any more shots at Natalya. Little did they know that the day was not done with its surprises. Theodore heard a scream and felt Natalya lurch violently beneath him. Turning around, he saw a woman in a chain shirt holding a sword covered in blood: Natalya’s blood. Theodore stood up and swung his morningstar to hit her, but she was too fast; he swung mightily at the air, and now the party had a fight on two fronts to contend with.
For Millicent, it was going well, her sword had bit into her opponent’s flesh and he was staggering backward. For Scratchy, the opposite was true; he was wobbling from a large gash in his chest, and his opponent was advancing upon him with an angry grimace. Zelcor was out of sleep spells, but he could still daze people temporarily. He cast the spell on the crossbowman advancing on Scratchy, delaying his attack. This kept Scratchy alive long enough that Theodore could call upon the power of Nethys to heal both Scratchy and Natalya, but their enemies were still dangerous. The woman attacking Natalya stabbed at her again, but only nicked her as the former Tower Girl rolled away. Zelcor dazed the woman, causing her to stop attacking Natalya just long enough for the latter to get to her feet and move so that both Theodore and Zelcor were between her and the woman trying to kill her. Once she was in the clear, she broke out into a full-scale run away from everybody.
By now, Millicent had finished off her opponent, and had helped Scratchy with his as well. Now she moved to strike at the female would-be assassin, while Scratchy swung enthusiastically at the one crossbowman who had been put to sleep. Zelcor decided it was best to chase after Natalya, and set off after her. The woman attacking them did so as well, trusting to her speed to get past her enemies unharmed. She made it past Theodore, but not Millicent, whose sword caught her in the side as she ran past. A spray of blood shot out, but the woman kept on running after Natalya, with everyone else in furious pursuit. With her hands still tied, Natalya was having trouble running. Eventually everyone would catch up with her, but not if she could lose them first in the twisting warrens of the Underbridge. And then the fight ended, just as abruptly as it had begun. Natalya turned a corner and slammed face-first into a patrol of city guards, knocking herself onto the ground. The other woman saw the situation, grimaced, and ran off in the other direction, clutching at her injured side. Zelcor, right behind Natalya already, halted directly in front of the guards. And then Theodore and Millicent turned the corner to see the whole crazy sight of Natalya, the guards, and Zelcor.
“Awkward …” observed Millicent.