Not sure if I'm going to finish this letter before we liberate Fort Drelev, but let me begin.
We returned to Tatzlford to find it bustling with new construction and serious looking citizens hurrying back and forth like hornets at their nest. Mayor Rezbin watched it from the front porch of the Inn with an open-mouthed, gap-toothed smile as Bert Askew emerged from inside where he’d turned a small room off the alley into an office to “organizing the territory.”
“Deep Voikung Maffos,” Bert trumpeted inexplicably as we gathered around a table the next morning to plan our next foray, “makes up the largest body of water in the Stolen Lands, serving as the heart of Hooktongue Slough (the last word said as if choking on a greedily swallowed hard-boiled egg), with countless minor rivers and streams winding through the swamp into the lake.”
“We aren’t even going to be close to the lake!” Trask objected incredulously.
“Yeah, you are.”
“No, we’re going right here!” Trask shook the map at Bert, poking it loudly with his finger.
Bert peered at it nearsightedly. “Oh, that’s right, I’m sorry. It was your map . . . The swamp hesitates here, receives, there is a loud half-orc,” he continued stentoriously before lapsing into giggles, “forming a one hundred foot ring of open water surrounding a heavily wooded island 200 hundred feet in diameter.” (This makes as little sense now as it did then.) “The water is 50 feet deep.”
The next day we left Tatzlford behind, heading east into deep forest, which eventually merged into shallow bog. On the third day we heard something large crashing through the trees nearby. Following the noise we came upon two giant slugs fighting or romancing, we weren’t sure which. Their massive bodies thrashed about the bog spraying acidic juice on the nearby trees, which smoked like breakfast links.
We made short work of them although one did spit a keg-sized wad of acid at Cane while Lev gave his standard “We the happy few!” speech. We squeezed two dozen vials of giant slug acid from the critters to exchange for a like number of elixirs. Even Bert Askew should be pleased.
These are children of Erastil, blameless and pure, so Lev began waving his arms hypnotically, crying sweet entreaties to them, hoping in this way to convince them that we meant no harm. But as we backed away Lev uncharacteristically faltered so I added my voice to his. They continued grumbling but made no more hostile action as Lev scowled at me. “If you had done that in the first place we’d be out of this by now!” he accused. I could only shrug—an Inquisitor’s first instinct is not for diplomacy. We avoided further mayhem by going around their bog.
Later that day we came upon solid ground, clambering like drowned sailors onto a shore where we found ourselves staring into the mouth of a deep cave. Barely had we time to dismount before a pale yellow chuul lurched out roaring defiance. While we gawked like farmers another one erupted from the nearby water. It grabbed Cane, who twisted free as Trask shot it dead.
“You want a bunch of useless spells?” Trask sneered, “They’re yours!”
We camped nearby, the swamp fecund with crawling, biting, insects. We woke the next morning covered with big red welts that itched in the humid morning sun.
The next day was more of the same as we struggled through Hooktongue Slough with its countless meandering streams disappearing deep into morass only to reemerge later. We slogged through it the way Little Billy eats his gruel in the morning. One had to be wary because what was shallow one moment became perilously deep the next. The placid waters all drained into Hooktongue’s quiet basin, concealing a fearsome reputation. According to Bert Askew, “Many think it’s the lair of an ancient water haint named Hooktongue, said to resemble an immense black snake with jaws strong enough to carry a bear and a back decorated with razor-sharp scales!” I remembered him saying with a quavering voice as the Inn’s children shrieked in terror.
But to us it sounded very much like the elasmosaurus we were supposed to bring back to Tatzlford. So we revisited the abandoned Boggard village that we’d destroyed earlier, taking some of the ripe corpses we’d left unburied as bait.
“It really was one of our proudest moments,” Trask grimaced as we unfolded our boat and floated back out onto the water.
We watched until one of the corpses was pulled under and then, taking careful aim, Trask fired into the water. A few moments later our elasmosaurus floated stunned to the surface. We pulled it aboard and I quickly preserved the body. We returned it to Tatzlford long enough to change our small clothes before returning to our main objective—freeing Fort Drelev.
Fort Drelev sits at the mouth of the Siltstrand River as it flows into Lake Hooktongue. Much like Tatzlford, there is a keep with a large central tower built of stone. Two roads lead into town, one north, one west. There is a partially constructed wooden palisade and well-developed waterfront.
We watched for a time outside the west gate as a few people entered, much to the evident mirth of the guards who handled the women like greedy men hold their wallets. We debated whether to sneak in or go in as thugs looking for work. We chose the latter.
“Where do you think you’re going?” one of the guards greeted us as his compadres quickly jumped to surround us.
“What’s that big thing?” one of them asked insouciantly, pointing at Sizzles.
“It’s my wolf, dipshit,” Cane replied truculently as Sizzles growled agreement.
“Huh? Who are you calling a dipshit?”
“Enough!” called out their captain, Vardock, who had been listening to our conversation from the doorway of the guards’ shack.
“I have brought my men here because I heard there was chance for employ,” Lev addressed him civilly.
“More?” we heard one of them cry. “Now we got more to share the pickin’s with? Aghh!”
“You’ll have to talk with the Baron about that,” Vardock said as he opened the gate.
“We heard there was a brothel in town,” Lev asked as we entered. Without changing his distracted expression Vardock pointed up the street, “There ain’t much else,” he sneered.
Drelev did have an abandoned look about it, as cities under siege will. We came upon a little girl—about the age you were during the happy time we lived in New Stetven—only she was covered in mud, selling flowers obviously rescued from trash. We bought them in exchange for food and some coin, walking her safely home at the back of a large wooden building where her mother lived. When we walked out front we saw it was the “Velvet Corner,” the very place we were looking for.
“The whores are on me!” Lev cried, disguising our true intent as we entered. It was crowded with rough looking men drinking, gambling, smoking zong, and consorting with equally rough looking women. Even so, one women stood out in the chaos, like the eye of a cyclone as she surveyed her domain, greeting favored guests and whispering instructions to her lieutenants, taking control over sour drunken men spending ill-gotten coin. Seeing us, she quickly walked over. “I’m Satinder Morne,” she said unnecessarily. “I own this place. You’re new? . . .” Lev handed her Kisandra’s brooch embracing one sad rose. She studied it for a moment, face cool.
“I’d like to speak to you in private,” said Lev.
“I think that’s a good idea.” She leaned over to the bartender, her full lips lightly brushing his ear, then disappeared through a back door. Soon, several ladies joined us as we played along, Trask more enthusiastically than the others. They took us to a dark hallway where a bookcase slid out of the way with a rasp, revealing a hidden door.
Inside Satinder awaited us, reclining in her chair like a cat watches a caged nightingale.
Lev introduced us. “You know Kisandra barely escaped to our kingdom. We helped her destroy the group of thugs following her. She then asked us to help the people here and that you could help us liberate this fort.”
“This place needs liberating,” she replied dryly looking us over closely. She offered Lev her hand.
“At your service, m’lady,” he replied.
“I can’t be gone long,” she warned. “I’ve got to watch these new customers of mine. They’re a rowdy bunch. Rough on the girls.”
“Who do you think we should talk to get the ball rolling?” Lev asked. “And who should we avoid?”
“I don’t think you’re going to get the locals to rise up. You’re going to have to take out the Baron.”
“That’s what we’re good at,” Cane bragged, while scratching Sizzles’s neck. “We were hoping to score points with the locals first.”
“The Baron sold us out to the bandits and the barbarians and now he and his favorites never come out of the Keep. There are 30 or 40 mercenaries. They do what the want during the day and at night he’s got hill giants to patrol the streets. Every week or so shipments of food come in. Most of that goes to the Keep. The people living in town are starving. If you try and leave they don’t ask questions, just shoot you in the back.”
“We can kill them easily,” Cane replied. “What I’m worried about is having enough people left over to rebuild the town.”
“What else do you know?” Lev encouraged after a moment of silence.
“There is a secret escape tunnel the Baron had built beneath the Keep. It emerges on the shore of Lake Hooktongue not far north of town. I can give you precise directions.” She stood up. “I’ve got a number of hidden rooms. You’re welcome to use my home as your hideout.”
“We should probably stay here but we don’t need to hide.” said Trask as she hurried from the room.
“We have a lot of gold,” Cane wondered, “what’s to stop us hiring some of these mercenaries?”
“The fact that I want to spend that gold on other things?” Trask grumbled.
“There is that, but it might make things a lot less bloody.”
They squabbled some more before Lev intervened. “We can hang out for a day and observe the town and get a good feel for it. I’m going for a walk.”
“The only thing I’m going to be feeling is the ladies,” Trask replied, wetly smacking his lips before disapearing in the back.
Lev walked the streets, knocking on doors and encouraging the frightened citizens to talk with him. He discovered that Baron Drelev recently gave shelter to Lady Quintessa, a young foreign noblewoman far lovelier than his wife, the Baroness, who was throwing a birthday gala for herself at the Keep. “She has the gall to celebrate her birthday when there is so much misery going on in town,” an angry one-eyed fishmonger told Lev.
In another shop, shuttered and quiet, its owner told him, “Baroness Paveta’s brother is a magic user who showed up and then disappeared.” Little by little Lev improved their opinion of us. While they had no intention of helping us they weren't going to stop us either.
Meanwhile Cane circulated amongst the mercs, buying them drinks and getting them talking, but all he learned was that they were marking time.
“Do you think the barbarians are going to turn on us?” he asked.
“Why would barbarians need Drelev’s help?” they sneered.
“He thinks he’s going to take over this entire region by himself,” another groused. “He’s biding his time while preparing to take over somehow, but all he’s doing is sitting in his Keep and brooding.”
No one knew where the Barbarian warlord Armag has gone to ground after accepting Drelev’s offer for an alliance by sparing the town. He took several young women as hostages and marched into the hills. He says he’ll return the hostages after the Baron has proved his loyalty to Pitax but most people assume the hostages are dead.
While Trask was mixing it up with the ladies I searched the town for a chapel of Erastil, finding one off a quiet alley near the partially completed wall. I quieted my mind in prayer, damping the doubt that had been growing in me since we first encountered these wetlands. Men like Baron Drelev violate every standard I believe in. They rape the land, rape their own people, and rape honor, all for power. It’s all I can do to stop myself from delivering Justice to them immediately.
That night Lev and Trask led the rest of us out of town and to the hidden door at the base of a 30 foot bluff that Satinder said led into the Keep. Inside a long dark tunnel led to a large cavern where the walls were discolored by flooding. Stagnant runoff collected in a natural limestone basin where an iron gate rimmed with rust blocked a tunnel to the west. After coating the gate with goose grease, Cane pushed it open. Something rose in the dark—two black puddings, frightful black sludge with acidic embrace.
“How do you handle them?” I asked.
“Large spoons,” Cane grinned.
We all plinked at the puddings before Trask finished them off, escaping their acidic stench by going up a side way where we found another large cavern and a bag of holding containing several days trail rations, skunk musk, and various potions.
A staircase was cut in the limestone, reaching the stony ledge where we found a secret door and a dusty chamber containing a table. On its velvet lined surface were precious stones, pieces of jewelry, and a couple of large ornately carved cedar trunks containing more treasure and a full set of armor. There were also artifacts belonging to the Tiger Lord barbarians.
I kept a ring of evasion made of green wood carved with a snake and lizard locked in a tangle that matched the ring of swimming I’d found long ago of an eel and frog locked in a similar tangle. The two rings interlock like one.
We emerged in a dungeon where we found an someone sitting in a cell—a gaunt, care-worn old man who looked up at us dully as we opened his cell.
“Who are you?” we asked.
“Terrion Numesti” he rasped after taking a long drink of water.
“Your daughter, Kisandra, sent us. We’re from the P.U.R.K.”
“Well met,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What of my other daughter, Tumary?”
“That we don’t know. The Tiger Lords seemed to have disappeared.”
He sighed, “Where are my manners?” he rose slowly, only to bend again stiffly on one knee.
The armor and weapons we’d found were his, so we watched with astonishment as he slowly donned it, insisting on leaving immediately to join his daughter. We gave him food and water, watching him totter off through the tunnel.
We then found food and a winecellar of good Taldan Fire Brandy, Andorran liquor, and delicate berry wines from Quonin, the elven homeland. Behind another door we also found what was left of the Baron’s treasury.
Then we readied to go up the staircase into the Keep.
Have a happy birthday, we’ll celebrate when I return,
Your loving uncle,