I have thought of you often, Old Man, in these last weeks. My desire to write you with some assurance that I am alive and well had been stayed by shame at the cause of my abrupt disappearance (as well as, I suppose, some vain hope that my absence from Ebb Tide would be a brief one). I still hope to tell you the story of how I fell into my present company over a few (or many) jars of ale at Barnacle Joe's. For now, let me say that I am no longer ashamed, for I believe I have been sent into my circumstances by Jvelto...but I'm running ahead. You noticed right away that I tend to run at the mouth, and I suppose my journey has not improved me in this regard.
At this very moment, I am beneath Firestorm Peak, while the Festival of Fools is occurring in Longbridge, at the foot of this confounded mountain. Which means, O Learned Fisherman, that you quite rightly guess that I am in the unlikely position of being trapped under a flaming mountain. Perhaps you can see now why I initially thought I was being punished by Jvelto for my rash behavior in Istur. Perhaps you will think that I was correct in that belief when I identify my companions for you.
I was abducted from Istur because I had lost a bet (stop laughing, Old Man!), and the penalty for the loss of this wager is that I was compelled to join the quest of the winner's choosing. My abductor must be very powerful, for he moved me half across the continent. When I awoke from my abduction from Istur, I was among the wood elves. They had no more idea why I had appeared there than I had, my last recollection being one of fleeing an enemy in Istur. As it happened, there was a party of humans camping nearby, and I took it into my head that theirs must be the quest chosen for me to join. And then I learned their identities. Four of the five were among the Treacherous Ones, the persons tried for treason some months ago now in the king's own court!
Calm yourself with a draft, Old Man, while I tell you of these new companions. As you and I have suspected, much of the word about them and the treason trial bandied about Barnacle Joe's is wildly inaccurate. The paladin in the group, whose name is Rhavin (not "Craven", as Joe himself purports), is not Othniel's thrall despite being a bit less dreadfully stiff than your average paladin of Estereal. Also, Kariya Frazier, a mage, is for the most part cool-headed and eminently reasonable: I can confidently report that a mere cross look from her will not strike one into flames. Canliss is the other mage, referred to as "The Trickster" around Joe's. There is no doubt that he would prefer not to be referred to at all, for he is...a private man. While Canliss is indeed unpredictable, there is no evil in him. The last of the four who have been tried is Nikita, one of Torodin's own. The misinformed at Joe's describe her as stealing and eating children in the middle of the night. She does no such thing: her only hunting is done in the marketplace, in search of bargains. She is tenderhearted, and I have resisted telling her about what is said of her back in Istur, no matter how much it amuses me, for it would pain her deeply. The last of my companions is Ester, a giantess who was not involved in the trial. She is the largest, hungriest woman I have ever met, and Azkal himself has not created a woman more deadly in battle.
Under this mountain, I have seen many things I could scarcely have imagined--even if I had been long in Istur, until lately the strangest place I had ever been. We six have encountered a strange type of dwarf here in the mountain. They call themselves "Duergar", and they have cunningly fashioned Firestorm into their stronghold. We have slain many of them, I feel some modest regret to say, as we have only recently been able to parley with them. The manner in which we have arrived at a truce with this peculiar race concerns me personally, as I will explain momentarily.
We had fought a great battle in the Duergar marketplace, and the dwarves had us at their advantage. I was hastening to aid one of my companions when a great voice thundered "Enough! Stop!" By and by, we mastered ourselves and the fighting ceased. I then saw the owner of that booming voice making his way toward me. He was a Duergar shaman, richly dressed in robes which indicated that he worshipped Azkal (although they know him by a different name). He called for a truce, the condition of which was to be my service to them. Shocking, I realize, Old Man, and no one was more shocked than me at this proclamation. My companions at first refused to give me up to the Duergar--that they were willing to fight to the death rather than surrender me to an enemy should speak well of my new friends, Old Man, for friends they have become.
At length I convinced them to permit me to remain with the Duergar temporarily, in service to Jvelto. The Duergar require fresh water, it seems, and Naentoth, the Azkalite Duergar, had recognized me as a servant of Jvelto. To refuse them my aid would cut against all I hold dearest to me in the world, and indeed, to have this task set before me has mollified my shame over my abduction from Istur. I have come to believe that Jvelto has caused me to come among the Duergar specifically to perform this duty, and I am content, even excited, to serve. This belief is bolstered by a recent increase in the powers and spells granted to me.
We had a brief stay with the Duergar as guests--not especially honored guests, but in no danger from the dwarves themselves--during which time I was impressed by their scarcity of fresh water. For example, the small stone cistern near our quarters in the Duergar complex had run nearly dry. I was saddened by the tiny trickle which flowed into it, and further saddened by the single cup allotted to each family. We had seen other sources of water in our exploration of Firestorm, but none were potable. How could I refuse this work?
And yet, I was unwilling to leave my friends when the time came for them to press forward. I did accompany them for one chore set to them by Naentoth, a task they accepted because it stood to further our own goals (more about these later). When this work was finished, we said our goodbyes in earnest. Nikita, the Torodinite, cast a spell on me which allowed me to follow them undetected. Nikita was the only one of the five who knew I meant to come along, and she very occasionally risked a glance over her shoulder for some sign of my presence. The secrecy was necessary for the sake of the Duergar, certainly, but also for Kariya and Rhavin as well. They would have tried to convince me not to risk the wrath of the Duergar for the sake of a few more hours in their company. I did truly intend to return to the Duergar and keep up our bargain--to abandon a plea for fresh water is a grave sin, one I have no wish to commit. I doubted my more disciplined friends would appreciate my stealth, so I followed unknown to them, at about ten feet behind. It is, after all, easier to ask forgiveness than permission, is it not?
It was well that I did, too. My friends soon found themselves fighting for their lives against a small faction of Duergar which had separated from the larger community. They fought the first two battles well enough, albeit in their own inimitable style (to the casual observer, there was absolutely no reason why a full-grown rhinoceros should suddenly appear above their foes). It was the ambush which they walked into afterward that nearly finished them. Duergar, I should mention, have the astonishing ability to shrink and enlarge at will, and these particular Duergar had willed themselves up to thirty feet tall! Ester cleaved the giant dwarves (stop laughing, Old Man!) who stepped up to her, ignoring her deep wounds, in defense of the others.
I drew closer to the battle, hoping to heal her. My first attempt failed: big as she is, she was still a moving target and totally unaware of my presence. I cursed as I felt the loss of the spell, then stepped quickly out of her way. Clearly, I needed to stop the attack on her, if I couldn't heal her, for even she couldn't take much more punishment. I called upon Jvelto to warp the wood of the giant Duergar's great ax, and his next attack failed as the wood creaked and twisted into a nearly useless form. No one seemed to notice, as they were all fighting for their lives. I risked discovery again with the same spell on the Duergar attacking Canliss. His ax, too, gnarled into an unwieldy condition, but I don't believe Canliss realized the significance of that seemingly spontaneous warp. My presence remained a secret.
Just as I was withdrawing into the hall to get out of the fray, I felt a creeping up the back of my neck. With some reluctance, I turned and beheld a crazed dwarf astride an enormous spider. He had a wicked, mad look in his eye, and I could see several small, dark bodies--spiders!--crawling all over his filthy person. It was more than I could take, and I let out a bloodcurdling scream! Things were about to become a good deal worse, too, for although the scream had alerted my friends, its source was about to become abundantly clear. Nikita was suddenly knocked unconscious, causing the spell which cloaked me to wink to an end, and I abruptly appeared!
I recovered my own senses as quickly as I could, rounding the corner into the room to get away from the insane Duergar and his spider. A moment later, a great bolt of lightning shot down the corridor and passed through the spider-Duergar and his beast. The enormous spider he rode crumpled, dead, and he leapt off in a fury that was that next step beyond madness. He paused to shake, throwing off scorched spider corpses, nearly two dozen, then engaged in combat with Ester, who was still terribly hurt. Somehow, she slew him while the others finished the remaining Duergar in the ambush.
They were glad to see me then, for I had spells enough to heal them all a bit. I didn't linger, however, for I would soon be missed back at the marketplace, and I didn't want to incur Naentoth's wrath. Fresh out of spells, I staggered back in the dark, mercifully unchallenged. Finally, I arrived in familiar territory, and collapsed into an uneasy sleep at the entrance to Naentoth's temple.
I must have slept there at the door to the shrine for hours. The stone where I lay was dank and smelled of the earth. The smell of damp stone permeated my subconscious, inviting all manner of disgusting creatures into my dreams. Not the least of which were the spiders--mindless, yet vicious; furry without being warm; capable of creeping along silently, so silently that I had nearly missed the faint padding of eight enormous spider feet bearing the spider trainer toward us. If he had managed to surprise me, I would have been finished. The image of the wild-eyed trainer closing on me awakened me with a start. The marketplace was still. I had some time yet before setting off with Naentoth and the Duergar henchmen Nikita referred to as "his boys". Not a spider to be seen anywhere, even on patrol of the dark bazaar. I drew a few breaths, then forced myself to meditate on the ocean. I tried to taste the salty air of Istur, to feel the warm ocean lapping at my feet and sand between my toes. It was too far away. I only grew more homesick. I must have fallen back to sleep, though, because I recall awakening to the prodding of a Duergar's boot. He grunted something to me in Duergar, which I took as a command to get to my feet. This must have been his meaning, for he then gestured toward the temple entrance indicating that I should enter. He followed me in. Once inside, I sensed that I needed to pray. I nodded respectfully at the strange visage of Azkal which dominated the skilled stonework within the shrine, then fell to my knees in prayer to Jvelto:
And so on. You taught me the higher prayers yourself, once I was no longer a novice, so I have no need to remind you of them. Gradually, I felt the familiar wash of Jvelto's essence flow over me. When I had finished with my prayers, there was sufficient time to look around. For as much as Naentoth seemed to want my help in acquiring fresh water for his flock, he certainly didn't seem to be in a great hurry to set out. By the time he finally appeared, I had memorized the ceiling detail of peculiar broken picks and weapons...images that would have disturbed any surface-dwelling Azkalite...for sheer want of something to do.
I directed my gaze away from the ceiling upon hearing him enter, and I could see at once why he had been so long in coming to collect me. His usual two henchmen behind him flanked a huge stack of sacks and crates containing supplies for our trip. Outside, another person, who was obscured from view, tugged at the reins of a large pack-lizard. It was clearly an ill-tempered beast, and its struggling against all effort to control it prompted a string of shouted Duergar. I can only guess at the content of the shouts, but I did observe Naentoth's expression to become progressively more displeased and the henchmen to become more pale. With a furtive glance at Naentoth to assess the degree of his displeasure, the henchmen set about loading the animal with the bundles between them. How deep into this vile flaming tomb of earth were we to go?
I did not ponder this question for long, for my sensibilities were challenged by the offer of an eight-legged mount. The manner in which its handler introduced us nearly evoked another bone-chilling scream from me, sneaking up in total silence until at last I sensed a nearby presence. I did shriek for the proximity of the thing, and when the hideous beast shrieked in response, the blood seemed to gel in my veins!
Once Naentoth stopped laughing, he silenced the guffaws of his boys and motioned one of them over. With preternatural quickness, one of them cut a lock of my hair with a small transparent knife, barely missing the kerchief you had given to me, before I could stop him. I glared at him, but I couldn't settle my grievance as Naentoth was leading me away with a firm grip on my arm.
"What the hell was that for?" I hissed at Naentoth. "He nearly sliced through a very treasured gift!" "He will use it to improve your acceptance of the beast," he said matter-of-factly. In a tone that left no doubt that the conversation was over, he added, "Now, before we go, I must show you the primary sources of water in the Duergar home areas. It would be most convenient for you to cast a spell to create water in the areas where our wives and children customarily draw it."
I find it interesting that Naentoth's Common is good enough to avoid using the phrase "make water". Don't you? I wonder how he learned about that little faux pas. There have been other humans beneath this accursed burning burial mound, but they are few, and hardly native speakers.
We walked in silence to the first of the trickling fonts, in a part of the Duergar complex I did not recall seeing before. I have no idea of the direction, since I was preoccupied with the question of how Naentoth's follower could improve my willingness to have anything to do with a giant spider. In truth, Old Man, I considered my degree of "acceptance" entirely appropriate. As you well know, Old Man, I've never been comfortable with the creeping things, not since my brother Gwir hid a clutch of spider eggs in my pallet back when I was a girl. My skin still raises gooseflesh with the memory of awakening to thousands of tiny spiders racing over me.
At some point in my brooding, we arrived at the font, which was in a small chamber: that seemed like awfully poor planning for such a high-traffic area, but the Duergar are the great engineers, not me. Duergar women and children, plus a few goblin slaves, had already gathered to collect their meager allotment of that sorry trickle. The water drizzled out in fits and starts from a square hole the size of your head into an ornately carved cistern. The cistern itself was entirely dry, at this point, for each precious drop of potable water was snatched up by a waiting cup. As I looked closer, I could see that parts of what had at first appeared to be raw stone had in fact been carefully carved: indeed, parts of the rock were smoother, as if worn by the flow of water from above, yet somehow more purposefully done. I crouched to get a better look.
Gradually, I was able to make out shapes in the smoother part of the rock, the figures I saw in reverse relief shocked me: a three-masted ship was cradled by a giant squid in a stormy sea. It had to be an illusion--none of the Duergar would know a dinghy from a starfish if they saw them, let alone the mighty vessel and the great kraken! I tried to expel the absurd image with a vigorous shake of the head, but when I returned, the deeply cut figures remained. Just as I was praying that Jvelto would relieve me of this hallucination, Naentoth stepped closer to look over my shoulder, his lantern light across the rocks putting the images in a deeper contrast of light and shadow.
I turned to look up at Naentoth. "Do you know what these are?" "They are the rocks in the body of the great mountain, worn smooth by the timeless flow of this font. I could name the minerals, but I think they would mean little to you, Water-Priestess," he responded without hesitation. I chose to ignore the veiled insult. He hadn't a clue as to what I was referring. Clearly, Old Man, I was either finally made insane by my sojourn under this blazing deathtrap, or the artful carving predated Naentoth's awareness.
On an impulse, I held up my holy symbol so that it faced the rock before me. As I moved it closer, I felt it drawn to the rock face, as a magnet to its opposite, until with a whack! it sucked my teak emblem into the reversed relief. A perfect fit! Only a thin rim of teak showed above the surface of the rock face. At that instant, there came a rumble like thunder from deep inside the mountain. The Duergar around me stepped back several feet, and the women began to send their young away from the font. I stood my ground, which was now trembling faintly. To do otherwise would have required me to abandon my holy symbol, for it was stuck fast to the rock face: I have seen a priestess without her holy symbol, and I was determined to die trying to keep mine if necessary. The stone wall cracked a bit around the origin of the font, and as a few bits of stone fell out, the flow of water doubled to a steady drizzle. A few murmurs of approval rose from the crowd of female Duergar behind me.
Then the first cracks spawned new, deeper cracks, which pushed out more stone, and a head-sized chunk of raw stone thunked into the cistern. As I was still crouched, the resulting splash took me in the face. The water now poured out vigorously, as a rivulet after a storm. The women cheered as the cistern quickly filled to overflowing. But Naentoth and I continued to watch the rock face. The wide-eyed look on his face was one of fear. The Duergar women saw it, too, and most turned to flee, pushing past the half-dozen or so goblins. The goblins also eventually made their way out, leaving behind their all-too-familiar odor.
Naentoth shouted something in Duergar, and the few remaining women hurried out of the cistern room. No sooner did these words pass his lips than water began to seep out of the deep cracks. Then one--two--five--perhaps eight or ten thumb-sized holes were forced into the rock by jets of water, which now spilled freely onto the floor of the cistern area.
"Go!" I yelled over my shoulder to Naentoth, who was busily ushering out the last of the females. He glanced back at me with concern. "I'll be fine."
He seemed perfectly content to accept my assessment without benefit of explanation, closing the door behind him with a slam. Now was hardly the time to point out that clerics of Jvelto can breathe under water once per day. I could share that later, if I wasn't killed by falling rock. Except for the threat of falling stones, it was thrilling to be so wet again. However, I couldn't let the water flood out a part of the Duergar stronghold where families had their quarters, so I had to figure out a way to stop the gush. For my concern about the Duergar and their families, I was rewarded with the thudding of sandbags being piled on the other side of the door. I wasn't sure whether I was more insulted by their ready assumption that I wasn't going to survive long enough to leave the room or by their lack of confidence in my ability to handle the problem. However, as I considered my predicament, I had to grudgingly admit that the sandbags were probably prudent. After all, I hadn't any idea how to reduce the flow.
I tugged at the wooden holy symbol, which was still stuck fast to the relief. I could work not so much as a fingernail between the teak and stone, and the combined flow of the drizzle-turned-rivulet, seepage through the cracks too numerous to count, and the jets from the now one dozen holes was enough to bring the water level quickly to ankle-deep. My toes were starting to feel wet--so much for "finest water-tight boots". I was dimly aware that Naentoth was yelling in Duergar on the other side of the door.
I began looking around for something I could use as a wedge. My cutlass was the first thing I thought of, but it is not a thin blade, and the careful, gentle attempt to slide it between the symbol and the wall failed. I doubted very much that I would find a more acceptable tool for my unlikely chore. Besides, I did not wish to further risk damaging my holy symbol, even though it now appeared that the rock face had claimed ownership of it. Disheartened, I leaned against the seeping wall, diverting a trickle to my forehead and down to the tip of my nose. The act dislodged a few pebbles from the wall. The commotion outside was growing, and Naentoth was yelling louder now. I had really put my foot in it this time--when was I going to learn not to be so impulsive?
While I chastised myself for this lamentable lapse in judgement, the water level had risen to nearly knee-deep. Was it my imagination, or was the water seeping out more rapidly? Yes, it was true: pebbles and bits of dirt from the widening cracks flowed down the rock face. How much longer before it all gave way, as Naentoth predicted? Lamely, I covered a couple of the larger holes with my hands. Of course, that was entirely ineffectual, but it made me feel just incrementally better to be doing something, even if it was futile. I took a deep breath to calm myself. Good grief, that goblin stink really lingered.
A drowned rat came floating past my hips (for I was still crouched) from the left, and I looked in that direction. There were dozens of terrified rats scurrying up the jagged wall of raw stone, squeaking in panic as they tried to stay above the rising water level. Serves them all right, I thought, for my friend Nikita had recently fled some of their kin in terror (a long story, Old Man). Where had they all come from? I hadn't even noticed the rat holes that must have been there. A pity that the rats hadn't constructed homes sufficiently large to drain this chamber, I thought.
Drain. There had to be a drain in here somewhere, right? Finest dwarven craftsmanship, right? For the first time, I left the streaming rock face to look around. No obvious drains in the floor, but I sloshed around the chamber anyway. The water was thigh-high for a standing person now, and rising fast. Abandoned cups and pots floated by me as I waded through a survey of the room. What about drains in the walls? How low would they be to the floor, if they were there? And would they be blocked? I certainly hoped that there weren't functioning drains below the surface because that would mean that the water level was rising in spite of efficient drainage. I wished aloud that Nikita had already taught me the craft of observation--before I met her, I had no idea that one could learn to be more observant--for any subtle Duergar engineering solution to an emergency like this one was entirely lost on me. Frustrated, I drifted back to the place where my holy symbol was lodged, and fingered it absently. To do so, I had to lean down a bit, making the water level above my waist. I realized suddenly that it was Well-Watered Day. No doubt about it, I thought as I looked down at my drenched clothes and skin, I was definitely well-watered. Jvelto has an often under-recognized sense of irony.
I had no sooner finished that thought when I realized why the goblin stench remained so strong. One terrified goblin had quietly scaled the wall to the right of the cistern, where it had escaped my notice, and even my intuition, while I was so focused on the rush of water. It had made its way high enough that I had missed it during my initial inspection of the floor and lower parts of the wall. It remained so still that I had nearly missed it this time. Pathetic little bastard was scared stiff. It just stared down at me from its perch, a shank carved from bone in its teeth, and hung on the wall a foot or so below the ceiling with both its grimy little hands.
I clutched the chain of my holy symbol a bit more intently and stared back, and that was evidently more than the little blighter could take. A crazed flash passed across its beady little eyes, and before it could get a good grip on its crude bone knife and make the jump, I was already reciting the prayer for large hailstones. Four big hailstones met it in mid-leap. When they shattered on its chest, I caught a few icy shards myself, but it was nothing compared to the damage to the goblin. It splashed into the now hip-deep water with a cry dying in its throat. Disgusting. How the hell had I failed to notice a stinking, guileless goblin? I looked myself over, reassured that my injuries were limited to a couple of cuts from the shattered hailstones. I couldn't believe I just wasted a high-level spell on a lousy goblin. Gingerly, I kicked its corpse away, and the body drifted contentedly back toward the far wall.
I swam over to the gushing font, returning to the original problem. Maybe the holy symbol was loosened from the surface of the rock now that it was under water. Upon reaching it, I dug my fingernails in and tugged to no avail. Then I tried to twist it off. Surprisingly, it turned about a quarter turn to the right...but it didn't come off. Instead, I felt the rush of a warm current against my right knee. I looked down to discover that another hole, a square the size of your head, had opened at knee-level, and was spilling warm water quickly. Better and better. I suppose I could have used a few spells to lower the water level, but that would have been only a temporary solution...besides, I didn't think of it.
For lack of a more sensible idea, I twisted my holy symbol again. This time, it turned another quarter turn, so that the relief would have been upside down. With a grating sound from inside the rock, the flow of water ceased from every outlet other than the one at my knee, which remained strong. Taking heart from the progress I had just made, I thought to try turning the symbol again. One more quarter turn and another grating sound, and a half dozen square drains each the size of one's head opened in the floor, and I felt the rush of water being drawn into them. After that, my precious holy symbol pulled off with a pop, undamaged.
Eventually, after much yelling back and forth, I convinced the Duergar to removed the sandbags and let me out. By that time, the water had drained down to just an inch or two, the one remaining flow of water was pouring out steadily without signs of increase or decrease, and I was nearly dry, which shows you how long it took to persuade them. When I finally emerged, Naentoth met me with a flask of some dark, earthy-smelling liquid. It burned going down, but not enough to stop me from helping myself to several swallows.
"You will, of course, compensate us for the water damage and the reconstruction of the wall, not to mention the loss of one of our domestic slaves," Naentoth said with a satisfied look on his face.
I was too tired to glare at him. He was as bad as Jvothgar. I wonder what Silverscale would say if he knew that he had a Duergar counterpart in Firestorm. I laughed at the thought, and I guess Naentoth assumed I was laughing at his silly demand for compensation.
"I suppose we can overlook the water damage," he said after a moment, which made me laugh harder. By the time I finally stopped laughing, he was willing to forget the whole thing as long as I promised never to mess with their water supply again. Then he said he had a gift for me.
In response to a gesture from Naentoth, one of his boys--the bastard who cut my hair--appeared with a spider, one wearing with a lock of red hair tied to its front leg.
"We have bonded this mount to you, which was done in expectation that we would be journeying to the underground sea," said the Duergar priest, "As we no longer need to make this trip, but the creature is bonded with you, it is our gift to you. We..."
I didn't stick around to hear the end of that sentence. I made a break for the direction my friends had gone the night before, running as fast as I could. Corridors of stone streaked past me, with sounds of "my" spider squealing from behind. I shall, of course, tell you what became of the spider when I see you, but this letter already grows long.
Be well and drink deep,