Milacent shifted her weapon uncomfortably. “Tell me again why we’re going to harass this woman?” she asked.
“Because the Duskwardens arrested her husband,” Scratchy answered in the loudest whisper he could manage.
“So the Duskwardens are responsible for keeping things from the catacombs from coming up into the city, right?”
“And Zelcor said the next shard was below the city, right?”
“It’s below the city,” Zelcor answered, “but I can’t see exactly where. I get a view of the city, then a feeling of falling, and then just inky darkness.”
“Well, below the city is enough information for now. And if the Duskwardens arrested this guy, then it’s probably got something to do with an entrance to the catacombs, which is exactly what we’re looking for.”
Their conversation ended when they arrived at the house where Scratchy had seen the arrest. They knocked on the door, and presently a slim, mousy-looking woman opened it a crack. “Hello?” she asked.
“Hi Lady,” Scratchy began, then caught himself and stepped aside to let Theodora talk.
“Hello Madam,” Theodora began, “May we come in? We understand you’ve had a few troubles, and we think we can help.”
It took a considerable amount of Theodora’s charm, but eventually the woman let the party in, and her story came out over sobbing and tea. Her name was Felisa, and her husband was Arus, who until recently had made a decent living arranging contracts for people shipping goods through the city. Unfortunately, Arus had grown dissatisfied with his lifestyle, and tempted by stories of great wealth in the catacombs beneath the city, had begun digging in his basement, hoping to find a chamber filled with precious artifacts. It turned out Arus was a terrible treasure hunter, not only because of his lack of any relevant skills, but also because he began bragging to his friends about the terrible dangers and enormous riches he was sure to come across. He swore them all to secrecy, but of course someone talked, and two days later he had Duskwardens at his house carting him away in chains.
When Felisa had finished her story, the adventurers looked at each other, then back at her. “We’re very sorry to hear about your husband,” Theodora said, “but we can help you with the financial problems you’re surely going to have, if only you do one thing for us.”
“What is it,” Felisa asked hesitantly.
“Let us see the entrance Arus dug,” Theodora said, and placed a bag of gold on the table. “Here’s a hundred gold now, if you lead us to it. In a couple of weeks we’re going to leave the city and you’ll never hear from us again. We’ll give you another hundred gold then if you haven’t told anyone about our deal, and I don’t just mean the Duskwardens, I mean anyone at all.”
Felisa eyed the money warily, and eventually agreed.
“Remember,” Scratchy added, “your husband is in jail because he talked. So keep things quiet and things will work out great for everybody.”
Felisa led them down the stairs to the basement, where a hastily constructed barrier with the Duskwarden seal upon it covered a crude hole in the floor. Felisa watched with worry as the party disassembled the barrier, then she went upstairs and shut the door.
“Are we sure she won’t tell anyone?” asked Milacent.
“Why would she? We offered her money!” answered Scratchy.
“Well, that plus empathy and understanding,” added Theodora.
The conversation quickly turned away from Felisa as the barrier came apart to reveal a rough tunnel dug into the floor. It bore all the signs of an amateur job, from its jagged outline to its irregular width to its shaky supports, but it was functional now, which was enough. It descended about ten feet into the earth before opening into another, much nicer tunnel. This new one was a proper horizontal hallway, with worked stone walls and empty sconces for torches, and everyone felt a twinge of excitement as they stepped down into it. Whatever it was, it was old, and one could almost understand an amateur explorer who came across it for the first time getting so excited that he had to tell his pals.
“Put away the light,” Scratchy said. The Greater Halflight Charm Abra Lopati had given them allowed Milacent to see in the dark, and magic glasses they had picked up in the treasure room of the Lady’s Light gave the same ability to Theodora and Helanda, so now the party could move underground without a bright light warning everyone of their approach. It was a good thing too, because as they crept forward along the hallway they saw it came to a stop after about a hundred feet, with a circular hole in the floor right at the end; and out of this hole a pale head with two gleaming eyes stared out at them. Before anyone could discuss what to do, a torrent of magic words came out of Theodora. It was a charm person spell, and once it was cast there was an anxious moment when no one knew if it had succeeded or not. Then Theodora waved for it to come closer, and it obligingly clambered out of its hole and came towards them, weapons sheathed. After a bit of back and forth, they found that it spoke Undercommon, and the conversation began.
“From below I come,” it said in response to their questions, “from the Great Dark Way, but I cannot return.”
“Cannot return?” inquired Theodora, “Why not?”
“Was scouting ahead, apart from my band; when I turned to rejoin them, the path had all changed.”
That was weird, and somewhat worrisome. But the party hadn’t searched out an entrance to the Catacombs just to turn around and go back after their first encounter. They told the creature to lead them forward, to the path that had changed.
The creature turned around and climbed back into the hole. Theodora had touched it and determined it to be a dark stalker, a humanoid denizen of the vast Darklands that stretched out beneath the earth. They weren’t necessarily hostile, but not necessarily friendly either. It was stroke of good luck that it had been susceptible to the charm.
The hole the dark stalker climbed into was perfectly round and smooth along the side, necessitating ropes for everyone who wasn’t a dark stalker or a cave goblin to make it down the twenty or so feet to its floor. When they reached that floor, it turned out to be one end of yet another hallway, this one more rounded than the last and with smooth walls that showed now sign of masonry. It stretched out in front of the party as far as they could see, with strange ornate doors set in its side at various intervals.
The party set themselves up in a defensive formation and moved forward. They were almost at the first door when Zelcor saw his dog lagging behind a bit and stepped back to pull it closer. Suddenly he was back at the start of the hallway. He shouted at the rest of the party, and when they all figured out what had happened Scratchy shook his head. “Great, weird magic,” he intoned to himself.
Weird magic indeed. As long as someone went forward down the hall they seemed to move normally, and it looked normal to anyone standing at the start and watching them. It was only when that person moved backward that they found themselves at the start again.
Weirdness or not, the party was determined to check out the doors. Scratchy went forward, by himself this time, to the first door and listened at it. He heard nothing from the other side, nor any traps or other signs of obvious danger. He took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
Immediately, a cloud of greenish gas poured out. It enveloped Scratchy, naturally, but also appeared instantaneously at the start of the hallway where the rest of the party was waiting. Everyone began to cough and choke, and Scratchy slammed the door shut. Unfortunately, it was too late for the Dark Stalker, which dropped to the ground dead. An instant later its body exploded into white-hot flame. Everyone else survived, but they were badly hurt. “Alright everyone,” Theodora instructed, “gather around for some healing.”
The second door they opened unleashed not a gas, but a strange aberrant monstrosity that appeared to be a blob of formless flesh with countless eyes and mouths scattered randomly around its body. It lashed out at Scratchy, who jumped back to evade and instantly found himself back at the start of the hallway. The creature soon joined him and began snapping at the party members, all while its various mouths let out an awful constant gibbering. Everyone stabbed at it vigorously, and soon it was a slightly less horrible dead blob of formless flesh on the ground.
“Okay,” said Scratchy, “third door.”
At this door, Scratchy listened and heard talking from the other side, in guttural but recognizable Common. He called Theodora up to join him and together they eavesdropped upon a very passionate conversation.
“How long do we intend to carry out this strike?” a voice proclaimed, “How much money do we lose each day? The strike hurts us more than it hurts any of the Ardocs!”
“And what do you suggest? A war with the golem-crafters?” shouted a second, “That will certainly be our undoing. No, this is the only way to get Augustille back.”
“What about those mercenaries?” a third voice added, “They’ve always been useful. The elders of the clan know Berkanin’s overstepped his bounds; they won’t publicly support us against him for fear of looking weak, but if an ‘unrelated’ group of thieves were to break into his home, it would be his own fault for not having proper security.”
“I’ve already checked,” the second voice snapped, “they were hired by the librarians several weeks ago, and no one has heard from them since.”
The conversation continued, but Scratchy and Theodora had heard the most important part, and it had given them an idea. They cracked open the door, and saw the source of the voices: a group of trolls dressed in blood-stained togas, sitting around a lushly-appointed room. Oddly enough, none of them reacted to the door opening, even though several were staring directly at it. The rest of the party was called up, and Zelcor cast an invisibility spell on Scratchy, who stepped through the door and immediately found himself in the room, standing in front of a mirror where the door had been. He reached out to touch it, and his hand stopped hard against the glass; he would not be going back that way.
Theodora couldn’t see Scratchy, but when she figured he had entered the room she started her part of the plan. “Greetings, trolls,” she said in her most impressive voice, “I have a solution to your problems!”
The trolls jumped up and looked around wildly, but none of them seemed to see Theodora. Eventually, though, they realized where the sound was coming from. “Voice in the mirror,” the apparent leader called out, “Who are you, and how are you able to spy on us so?”
“I am a friend, and I can help you regain what you have lost. As to how I can see you, that secret is my own.”
There was much grumbling on the other side, but eventually the leader silenced the others and said, “If you have heard us, you know what our trouble is. If you wish to offer your services, come meet us at the Augur temple tomorrow at noon. We will not bargain with those who refuse to show themselves.”
“Very well,” said Theodora. She closed the door and hoped that the Scratchy would get out of there before the invisibility spell wore off.
The Augur temple was a fairly famous structure in Kaer Maga. It was there that a colony of trolls was said to read the future by reading their own entrails, and finding the building was easy enough. When the party arrived at noon the next day, they passed a group of trolls in front carrying out a broken wall mirror. When they got inside they were taken to a large parlor with no mirrors that Scratchy had passed upon his exit from the temple the day before. Said goblin, of course, was now with the party and visible, and when he was introduced to their leader he realized that she was the same troll he had seen talking at the door of the library during his stake-out.
“Nice to see you! For the first time! Ever! In this place I’ve never been in before!” he exclaimed, maybe just a little too enthusiastically.