“I am not sending you out into the world blind,” Kurgi says with a smile. “I have had a strong suspicion for a long time that one of the shards has been in the possession of King Hamish. Last year, I was finally given the opportunity to put a man on the inside of the House of Nobles as an advisor. If what I believe is true, there is a shard being held somewhere on the grounds of Highcastle and King Hamish has been using its power, whether he fully understands it or not. There’s no other way a city of that size and with such wealth could remain so completely under control with as little dissent as there has been. I believe King Hamish is using the shard to influence the people of High Pengard. So, return to High Pengard and meet with my contact. His name is Jabari Amset, a Sand Elf from Tel Kir’ah, the desert capitol of Sudreas. I will send a message to him so he will expect you.”
As he talks, Kurgi walks over to his desk, produces a key from his robes and uses it to open a drawer, and then another key to open the chest that is nestled inside. From the chest he produces a bag that rattles and clinks with the sound of many coins.
“Here,” he says, hefting the sizable bag at Ignacio, “400 gold pieces to help with the expenses of the trip. I’ll leave it to you to spend it as you need…outfitting, transportation, bribery…but use it as best you can, this is all I’ll be able to get to you for a while.” Walking back around the desk to face the group, his face takes on a lighter expression and he holds out his hand to reveal 3 small crystals on the ends of leather cords. “Its too late to leave for High Pengard tonight, they’ll be closing the gates any minute. Why not relax, and enjoy a final care free night at the Festival of the Advent of the Stars?”
At the groups blank stares, Kurgi explains that The Festival of the Advent of the Stars is an annual festival that goes from sundown to sun up, during which time every citizen wears one of the these cheap crystals that glow at night, filling the streets with thousands of “stars”. “There will be music, dancing, games of skill, boxing matches, foot races and almost all of Stonehaven will turn out for it.” Even though it was pretty clear that little debate was needed, the group exchanged a few knowing looks and nods affirming their decision to follow Kurgi’s suggestion and spend the night exploring the festival and leave the following morning.- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Stepping out on the streets is quite a shock, and not just for Mara (who is clearly uncomfortable about the crowds/size of the city and trying hard not to show it)…thousands of people are out and about, all with glowing crystals around their necks. Candles and small torches hang from every ledge, above every door, on every corner. Jugglers, fire eaters, and all manner of entertainers wander the streets and plazas. Above the laughter and shouts of excitement, off in the distance can be heard sudden bursts of cheering, or occasionally the collective groan of something unpleasant happening to someone. As the trio walks past various Inns and squares, music and singing can be heard. Ignacio, itching to get into the ring, finds the nearest official and asks to be pointed towards the nearest boxing match. Following the man’s directions, they find themselves in a large city square with a elevated boxing ring set up, lit by many torches and surrounded by a cheering crowd. In the center of the ring is the master of ceremonies, a young, dark-haired human barking at the crowd.
“Come on then lads! Who’s our next challenger? Prove your prowess! Show your strength! Test your tenacity! Convey your courage!” As the man is yelling, a small group of men are carrying the limp and bloodied form of a man out of the ring. “50 gold pieces to anyone who can bring down our champion…GROM THE DESTROYER.” At that name, the crowd erupts into applause as he gestures wildly to the far corner of the ring. With his back to the corner and his arms draped casually over the ropes, sits Grom. To say Grom was a large Half-orc would be quite the understatement. Even sitting, hes as tall as a standing Dwarf. His bulging arms thick with sinew and veins, his greenish-brownish skin showing alarmingly few signs of injury but sporting many faded tattoos, the small tusks that jut out from his bottom lip glistening in the torch light. His head covered in a small dirty skull cap, and he is grinning at the group of men struggling to evacuate their unconscious friend.
In his usual cool and gruff tone, Ignacio walks up to the ring and waves the young MC over. “I’m next,” he says, handing in his 10gp fee. The MC is silent for a moment as he looks at the gold in his hand. He whispers, “are you sure?” under his breath to Ignacio who only nods once and cracks his knuckles.
“MY LORDS AND LADIES, WE HAVE OUR NEXT CHALLENGER!!”
Ignacio steps into the ring and takes his corner opposite Grom, who is looking at Ignacio the way a wolf looks at an injured rabbit. Raucous scrabbling erupts in the crowd as bets are placed and money exchanges hands. The MC quickly divulges the rules (no weapons, no magic, no outside assistance, last man standing wins), and without much ado, the bell rings! Much to the surprise of Grom and the crowd, no sooner had the hammer of the bell struck Ignacio charged straight at Grom! Before Grom can even exclaim in surprise, Ignacio leaps into the air, a flying kick aimed at the large brute. It connects with a thud (and a chorus of gasps and shouts from the crowd), which is quickly followed up by a furiously fast flurry of fists, all that connect with the muscular opponent. Almost as if awoken by the pain, Grom roars and lunges for Ignacio, grappling with the slender man and throwing a mighty punch at his head…but Ignacio quickness causes the blow to glance off his shoulder rather than taking the full weight of it.
For the next 30 seconds, the 2 combatants spar, Ignacio darting in and out of range and pummeling the powerful (but lumbering) Grom with punches and kicks that appear as simply a blur to the crowd. Grom manages only to land a few smaller punches before a whirling kick from the leaping and twirling Ignacio causes him to stumble, sway ominously for a few seconds then topple like a great tree in a wind storm. He crashes to the mat with a tremendous BANG…and after a few moments of stunned silence, the crowd bursts into cheers and jeers as the long-odds betters collect their winnings and the grumbling losers reluctantly hand it over.
Wiping off his knuckles, Ignacio collects his prize from the equally stunned MC, finds Lanth and (a clearly uncomfortable and anxious) Mara in the crowd and the three head off further into the festival.- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
“Sign up here to catch the greased pig!”
That was enough for the group…even Mara’s face showed the faintest whisper of a smile when the trio heard this call. This was their last night in town, after all.
Their fees paid, Lanth and Mara line up along with 6 other citizens, all determined to win the 50gp prize of catching the greased pig as it races through the city streets towards its pen. Even though the rules of the boxing match were sparse, this game seemed to have even fewer.
A portly man with a red face stepped up in front of the cage, turned to face the contestants and explained the rules in a thick accent that revealed him to be from an EXTREMELY rural part of Vramora.
“All right lads and lasses, ’ere’s the rules. No ‘arming lil’ Ceril ’ere,” he said motioning to the cage at his feet which contained a small, watermelon-sized pig who glistened with grease. “No magic of any kind is permitted,” he continued, “and the pig gets himself a 12 second head start. All you need worry ‘bout is bein’ the one to capture the pig ‘fore it reaches its pen and you win 50gp. As a special bonus prize, you also getta keep the pig! ’at’s all there is too it….ready….on your marks….GOOO!”
The door is flung open, and with a squeal, Ceril the pig bursts out from his cage like a bolt from a crossbow and down the spectator-lined street. The crowd counts to 12 all together, and the contestants are off! Mara, focused only on the animal and unconcerned with the other bipeds around her sprints forward and, seeing a bend in the track decides to run up some boxes and, with a grace that garners a delighted “Oooooo” from the crowd, leaps over a bunch of obstacles in a diving roll and closes the distance to the pig. Lanth, somewhat surprised by this sudden burst of athleticism decides to play a supporting roll to assist Mara’s victory. Jumping a few steps ahead and turning to the crowd, he attempts to tangle them all up with each other. Bumbling around the roiling mass of competitors, Lanth manages to give Mara a hefty lead!
Mara, using her knowledge of wild pigs from back on Esovaria, bellows loudly, imitating the call of a large wild boar, which actually causes the fleeing pig to slow its pace and look back in curiosity. As the pig pen approaches, Mara makes one desperate flying leap, and using her shoulder bag, dives forward and scoops the pig up in the bag, winning the competition!
After consulting with Lanth and Ignacio, they decide to have the pig…prepared for the journey. A short time later, their travel rations stocked with a generous amount of salted cured pork, the group heads back to the Pilgrim’s House. Lanth takes it upon himself to keep up his end of the bargain and perform for the guests in the common room. The whole room listened with rivited attention as he spun the tale of Ignacio defeating Grom The Destroyer, and the tips came raining down into Lanth’s hat.- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
The next morning, the group purchased an extra horse to pull their cart and hit the road. After several days of uneventful travel, the wagon rounded a bend in the foothills of Stowadale Mount. With no warning, the wagon suddenly finds itself beset by a Goblin ambush! Ignacio and Lanth leap into action, but a panicked Mara only gets involved by necessity, defending herself and her companions from immediate threats. Until finally, she snaps and grasps the head of the closest goblin and sends bolts of lightning directly into the poor beast’s cranium, causing it to explode! The last remaining Goblin, seeing the gore of what remained of its fellow’s brains, fled back into the craggy hills. The travelers continued their journey back to High Pengard.- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Arriving in disguises provided by Lanth, the trio attempted to bring their wagon up the King’s Spiral to High Town, but were denied entry. After boarding their cart and horses, they made their way to The Dancer’s Mug Tavern where they met with Kurgi’s contact, a Sand Elf called Jabari Amset.
Speaking with a smokey baritone and an exotic Sudrean accent, Jabari relayed the information he had found while investigating for the shard.
“One of King Hamish’s prized possessions is the golden chalice that he claimed from the Necromancer Thormar upon defeating him. That chalice, whose centerpiece is a large, inlaid Gem (which I believe to be the Fragment of Duli that you seek), used to be on display in the Great Hall. It was kept among the great trophies of the realm, a point of great pride for King Hamish. But a couple weeks ago, just after the Festival of The New Moon when the assassination attempt was made, the chalice was quietly moved from its place of honor and moved to the Vaults deep in the bowels of Highcastle. Getting to it will not be easy, for the vaults are heavily secured. Kurgi’s message said you were a resourceful lot….so let’s see if we can’t solve this puzzle. How will you attempt to get in to the Vaults?”
for the next hour or so, the group kicked around many ideas that included repelling from the roof, setting High Town on fire to draw the bulk of the Palace Guard out into the city and plenty of other bizzare and highly risky plans. But it was Mara who finally produced a plan worth pursuing.
“We don’t want to put the guards on high alert by creating mischief, that will only cause them to lock down the palace with tighter security. No, we need to incapacitate as many guards as possible but without causing suspicion of foul play…we need them to not be on their guard. What if we somehow were able to poison the garrison’s food or water supply to cause as many of them as possible to be stricken with a severe, but non life-threatening illness? If we got the right toxin that was slow to release, we just might be able to effect the entire garrison…if it is too fast acting, the guards will stop eating/drinking before the bulk of them have ingested it. We need the right solution so that they suspect nothing until its too late and the whole garrison has been effected. At that point, we should have the least amount of guards and obstacles. Do any of you know where we might find such a toxin?”
Ignacio spoke up, “Yes, m’lady Mara…there is a strange alchemist in Low Town named Christoph Hoyle who runs a shop called Mystical Cookery, whose assistance I have sought before. He is quite the master of all things alchemical, but also quite mad. I believe he can concoct the poison we need.”
“Yeth, and perhapth the Agenth of Athension can help uth get the poithon into the food, and get uth into the vaulth. I can go thpeak with Doli Cotton and thee how much coin their therviceth will cotht.”
Jabari leaned back into his chair, looking quite pleased. “I’d say master Gemheart was correct. You ARE a resourceful lot.”