The party stepped carefully through the abandoned mine, following paths that had been worn smooth by generation upon generation of feet travelling into the depths. The magelight cast harsh shadows on the walls of the caverns, oddly distorted by the uneven rock. In the distance, a slow dripping echoed through the silence.
The path forked several times, but each time, their agent’s map provided direction, guiding them deeper into the mountain. The floor grew rougher and more uneven as they headed inward, reaching the parts of the mine that had been newest when it was still in use. Rather than rock-hewn tunnels, they began to see natural caverns in every direction, and stalactites and stalagmites began to be regular features.
“This section of the mine looks almost unused,” Lucatro seemed concerned for the first time, “I assumed the mine was abandoned because the gems ran out, but these walls are untouched. Petrick, bring your light down closer to the walls.”
Petrick willed the magelight down to eye level. The walls glittered with specks of color. Lucatro narrowed his eyes in thought, “there are still gems in these rocks. Alright, let’s slow our pace. Keep your eyes open for any movement. Petrick, throw that light as high as you can. We’ll get wider illumination. Just let me know if your eyes don’t adjust to the dimmer light; I never could get a good feel for what humans considered too dim.”
The adventurers continued on in silence, peering into the dimly lit shadows, listening for any sign of life.
Ghejhann spoke in a low rumble that passed for a whisper, “this place is too empty. Surely we would have run afoul of something by now. If not goblins, then at least rats, spiders, or something else that makes its home in the dark places.”
“You’ve got a point,” Lucatro conceded, consulting his map once more, “but we’re almost at the end of the path. There’s a room off to the right, just around this bend. I don’t know what’s wrong with this place, but we won’t have to stay much longer.”
As they rounded the last long curve in the natural corridor, there was no doubt that this was the right place. A huge cavern opened up before them; a two-foot drop led to an unnaturally smooth and level floor. A massive stone table, with stalagmites for legs, dominated the center of the room. The walls were lined with piles of weaponry, armor, and other equipment that looked as if it had been neatly stored at one point, but which lay haphazardly in piles now. Flails, spiked chains, strange helmets, oddly-shaped shields, breastplates with scrollwork and sharp points, and other assorted odds and ends flashed in the magelight. A massive, tattered banner hung on the far wall, it’s colors long faded and its sign now unreadable.
"These are Dhakaani weapons," Ghejhann confirmed, "but damaged beyond repair by the cold dampness here. They're surely brittle now."
“Well, this certainly looks like a court-in-exile. It could have been the Shaking Emperor, or it could have been some other Dhakaani noble. There's no way to tell now.” Lucatro commanded the others, “Fan out; the amulet should be easy to spot. Who knows where that poor goblin tossed it when it burned him, though.”
The party spread out and began searching through the piles of ruined weapons and rusted armor. The metal had aged and worn oddly, with parts still gleaming as if new, and parts tarnished and rusted. Petrick made note to study the Dhakaani when he got back to his library. Perhaps there was originally some preserving enchantment on the stash which had been disturbed or had begun to wear off.
Petrick was poking along the edge of the far wall, beneath the tattered banner. He noticed a deeper patch of shadow behind some shields. It looked almost like a small alcove in the base of the wall; it would have been completely covered had the shields been arranged neatly. His magelight didn’t penetrate very far, as he had let the light drift up to the ceiling to illuminate as much of the cavern as he could. The wizard crawled closer, wary, and gently pushed the wall of shields over to get a better look into the alcove. The shields fell, one after another, and tumbling out from behind them was a black-clad corpse, its eyes staring blankly up into the depths of the cavern ceiling. It hadn’t been there long; the blood still glistened wetly from the ruins of its throat.
With a cry of surprise, Petrick scampered backward. “Guys, you better see this.”
The others rushed over, but stopped short when they saw the body. Ghejhann inhaled deeply, “Human. Fresh. Probably less than two hours old.”
Lucatro furrowed his brow, “whoever ambushed this poor soul isn’t here now; we certainly would have been next.”
“Or he went back for help.” Petrick added weakly.
Amelie stared at the corpse, focusing on something on the dead man’s left hand. A narrow band of gold circled the base of his pinky finger. She made her way carefully over the pile of shields and gingerly turned the fellow’s hand over.
With a curse, Amelie dropped the hand and dashed back to the group. “How well do you know our mysterious source?” she asked, each word dropping as lead.
“I don’t know him at all,” Lucatro admitted reluctantly, “but the Reverend Father assured me the source had been feeding us information for many years, well before the end of the Last War.”
“Well, you may want to send someone to check on our source’s health. That man is a member of the King’s Shadows. The symbol on his ring marks him as a member of the Night Blades, an elite cell of the Shadows that is often called on to police our ... their ... own. I have no doubt he was waiting here for me.”
“But... but... the Shadows?” Petrick stammered, “I thought we only had to worry about the King’s Shields. If they’re sending the King’s Shadows after you now…”
“I know. It means that … he … doesn’t need me alive any more. Things have obviously changed back home, but … Oh, by the Five Nations, Leukis… " Amelie whipped around and met Lucatro's eyes, "I have to get back to the Order. I need to know what’s happening in Wroat, in the King’s court.”
“Agreed,” Lucatro did not hesitate, “but your would-be assassin is dead, you can’t change anything that’s happening in Wroat right now, and I will not fail the Reverend Father a second time. We find the amulet first.” His uncharacteristic scowl transformed him; this coldly pragmatic version of the Paladin was not something the party had seen before.
“Don’t you get it?” Amelie was nearly shouting. “This whole mission was a setup! There is no amulet!”
“The whole mission? Nonsense.” Lucatro scoffed, “obviously, an agent with the King’s Shadows caught wind of our mission and sent someone to lay in wait for us here, and …”
“So who killed him? What did they want? Where did they go?”
“The intrigues of the human courts are numerous, and often opaque.” Ghejhann, as usual, remained unruffled by the argument around him, “If we waited until we knew the motivations of everyone here, then we would never move again.”
Petrick furrowed his brow, “It can’t be a setup, Amelie. I trust that the Reverend Father’s gnomish friend has not been compromised; he would know. And the goblin showed off his melted hand, remember? How could he be lying?”
“I never claimed the King’s Shadows were nice people. Iron burns hot enough to melt flesh, too.”
“Ohhh. That’s… wrong.”
“Yes. But it would explain how a scatterbrained goblin was able to feed a very detailed, very accurate map to our agent in Zolanberg. The Shadows had to be sure we’d make it.”
Petrick still wasn’t satisfied. “But how could the Shadows know the Order would send us, specifically? It’s not like we’re the only team of adventurers on the payroll.”
“No, but it was a good gamble; the ‘amulet’ was easy to reach, and we needed a win after our last mission. If a different team shows up, the assassin just stays hidden and they try again later.”
“Stop.” Lucatro tilted his head. “Voices, coming this way. Petrick, extinguish that light. Defensive positions.”
“Diss where human fiend attack you, Bagguck?”
“Yess, we close now. He wass hide in a hole, in room full of treasure. I kill him easy, bite his neck. Lots of treasure! Chief will be happy with us!”
A group of eight goblins followed Bagguck and his bugbear friend Colin. A Hexer had offered to lead the group, just in case the human fiend had friends. This part of the caves was not safe. But Bagguck had seen a treasure, a treasure too big to carry, and no goblin could resist bringing riches like those home to his clan. They would all be rewarded!
“Right ova here!”
The party froze as a group of goblins rounded into view. Seven goblins accompanied by a huge bugbear, and an odd-looking goblin that, by his bearing, could only be a hexer.
Petrick summoned another magelight and set it high, lighting the cavern once more. The sudden light brought the goblins to a halt, cringing. For a long moment, each group just looked at the other in the darkness; the goblins shocked into a rare moment of stillness.
With a prayer, Lucatro began moving his hands in a wide circle. A line of glowing runes followed behind his palm, encircling the party and offering a measure of protection. Amelie had moved quickly to the side, using the piles of weapons and armor for cover as she drew her Duelist’s Shuriken. Ghejhann readied his crossbow, knowing the hexer would not charge to the front of the line.
Ghejann fired at the goblin hexer, but the hexer grabbed one of the poor goblin minions next to him and thrust him in the path of Ghejhann's bolt. The goblin screamed his last and was cast aside. The rest of the horde, partly out of anger and partly out of fear of their leader, charged the adventurers, who had taken refuge behind the huge stone table.
Petrick knew he had to deal with his opposite number among the goblins. The wizard's hands began to glow as he held them out in front of his body. He began to form symbols with his fingers, tracing complex patterns in the air. He blocked the charging goblin horde from his consciousness with a will; a final flourish of his hands marked the hexer as his target, and a cloud of magical daggers begin to swirl around the goblin, stabbing in and out relentlessly from all directions.
The hexer, through his pain, cast a cloud that covered the party, obscuring their vision and concealing the hexer. Amelie, though, was safely outside the range of the cloud; she took aim and tossed her shuriken expertly. The hexer screamed as the weapon hit home, but he shook off the pain, and the cloud remained.
The large bugbear reached the party first, rushing into the vexing cloud while swinging his massive Morningstar. He delivered a skullthumping hit to Petrick, knocking him to the floor, unconscious. Lucatro whispered another prayer, and a translucent golden shield materialized between Petrick and the attacking horde as he swung mightily with his sword. The bugbear had jumped on top of the stone table in an attempt to land among the party and wreak havoc. Lucatro's powerful chop connected with the bugbear’s legs, sending the brute to his knees. One of the little goblins scampered over the table to the bugbear in concern. “Odd,” Ghejhann thought to himself as he traded his crossbow for his battleaxe. That cloud may make it hard to see, but it wouldn’t stop his axe.
Though Petrick was unconscious, Amelie didn’t worry too much. Ghejhann’s axe was cutting a bloody swathe through the goblin horde, and Lucatro was shielding Petrick as much as he was attacking the enemy. She tumbled across the cavern, changing directions and drawing closer to the hexer. The goblin was free of the painful dagger cloud with Petrick unconscious. Amelie could tell he was readying for another strike on her friends. She drew her short sword as she flanked the hexer, concealing herself behind the massive piles of ancient relics at the edges of the cavern.
With a calculated strike, she exploded at the hexer, slicing him viciously and throwing him slightly off balance. He attempted to bring his rod around to crush her skull, but Amelie anticipated the attack, and with an adroit riposte, sliced her sword across the path of the goblin's attack, neatly severing his hand; both it and the rod falling to the floor.
Screaming, the hexer ran, spurting a gleaming trail of blood for the surviving goblins to follow. As the vexing cloud dissipated, Amelie saw Petrick getting to his feet. Five dead goblins littered the cavern floor; the bugbear ran from the cavern, limping, with one small goblin trailing along behind him.
“Now we know what happened to the assassin.” Amelie cleaned and sheathed her sword as she moved to check on Petrick. “You going to be OK?”
“Yeah, he just hit my head. No real damage.”
The rogue smiled and put a steadying arm around her husband. “Let’s get going.”
“What about the amulet?” Lucatro was incredulous.
With a heavy sigh, Amelie helped Petrick sit down at the massive stone table. “Fine. We’ll find it first.”
The party tore every inch of the cavern apart. No shield, no flail, no breastplate, no spear was left untouched. When all was said and done, the most interesting thing to be found in the cavern was a small circlet, the kind a crown prince might wear.
“Looks like you were right Amelie,” Lucatro admitted, “the whole mission was a setup. But I’ve never seen designs like this before.” He ran his fingers along the outside of the circlet. “The Reverend Father may at least find it interesting.”
"Well, at least we're coming back in one piece this time." Amelie conceded. As she looked around at the rest of the group, she felt a leaden knot of guilt form in her stomach. She had come so close to betraying them all; she had considered becoming a traitor to the Order in order to clear her name as a traitor to the Crown. It was the Shadow way: the Crown above all. The rogue made a promise to herself. She would never again consider betrayal, that as long as someone was loyal to her, she would be loyal to him.
As the party shuffled out of the cavern and back into the mine to begin the long journey home, a pair of glowing eyes looked down on them from the shadows high in the cavern’s ceiling. The Revered Father wasn’t the only one who would be getting a report today.