The Stacked Deck Chapter 5

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"Paul opened his eyes to look at her and looming over him was a huge spider that was nearly as tall as a man."

Opportunity Knocks: Part 1

Paul the Tarot Mage: Opportunity knocks

Paul was drawn back to consciousness by a not so gentle shaking. He feigned sleep long enough to get a peek at who was doing the shaking before opening his eyes. When he saw Tyron, he sat up right away.

"You need to get up and pack yourself for a bit of a trip." Tyron told him.

Paul looked him in the eye and crossed his arms over his chest. "Before I move a muscle, you need to start sharing some information with me, instead of all this secrecy." Paul arched his eyebrows.

Tyron stood and gave Paul a long look. If things weren't rather serious right now he would have chuckled at Paul's little stand; the eyebrow thing was rather comical. "Alright, you get ready and I will talk," was Tyron's response.

"Starting with what you, Gerdar, and Keltos have going," Paul flatly stated, not budging from the cot.

The eyebrows were still up, and Tyron could not stifle a grin as he turned to seat himself in the chair by Paul's desk. "Fair enough, young Paul. We will start there."

The sun was starting its climb when Paul left the shop for the Raging Threk. He was still rather stunned with some of the things he heard from Tyron. He knew those three were connected in some fashion, but members of the Grey Ring? The Grey Ring was an organization whose members were subtle agents for justice. More than once in history bodies that have shown up on the steps of a city's magistrate had been attributed to the mysterious Grey Ring. The Delvers have had associations with the Grey Ring before. They usually existed in large cities, which Kelfor's Landing was not.

Paul arrived at the inn and went in to get a bite to eat and see if any of his new friends were awake yet. He didn't see any of them in the common room, so he ordered some broth and bread for lunch and sat at a larger table in the middle of the room to eat and wait for Parri and company to arrive.

Tyron told him that they needed to get out of town for a little while. "When the slavers find their missing friends, things won't be safe around here for a while."

When Paul asked him about Parri, he gave the same silly grin and shake of his head that Keltos did. So, for some reason nobody will tell him anything about.....wait. Paul just realized that Tyron said, "The mysteries of the young Druid will make themselves known in time..."

Then, Parri walked in as if on cue.

"Good, you have already eaten. Have you seen Yau and Haf yet?" She only looked at him for a moment before she was already checking around the room for the others.

"Not yet, they are not with you?"

"I left them here to get ready. I had errand to run." She headed across the room towards the private quarters. "Stay right here, I will fetch them." Then, she disappeared down the hall.

Back in only a few minutes, the three walked over to table where Paul was still sitting. Parri spoke quietly.

"Gerdar has set us up with a job of sorts. He has mules and supplies waiting for us outside of the North Gate. There are two additional people that will be joining us. One is a friend of mine named Frynia, and the other is a prospector and our business partner."

"Can you explain, dear lady, what is going on here and why we are leaving when we just got here?" Yau Sh'en asked quietly.

All three looked at Parri expectantly. She scanned the room, which was empty except for them, and then looked back to her companions. "Things are about to get hot," she whispered, "and we need to make ourselves scarce for awhile."

"Our little disagreement yesterday?" Paul asked, although he already knew, and Parri nodded.

A grin crept across Haf Asle's face. "So a bit of work and adventure sounds like a good getaway to me. What is the deal?"

Parri smiled at Haf Asle's exuberance. "We each get a share of the spoils, including the prospector." Everyone started to get a gleam in their eye at this point.

"Minus the 150 gold pieces I spent to buy this map," Parri added. She held up a map and then spread it on the table.

"Where does it lead?" Paul asked.

"It is a map to an abandoned silver mine," she answered.

"So we find it, claim it and then what; become miners?" Haf Asle's eyebrows were wrinkled in disgust at his own suggestion.

"No, you silly half elf," Parri scolded. "We stake our claim, and then sell the rights."

She folded the map back up and put it in a pouch on her waist.

A smile replaced his disgust. "Ahhh. We get all the fun and let someone else do all the work. Gotcha."

Half elf! Paul had only met a few elves in his whole life, and they were envoys from the Delvers on the far away continent of Jaiman, or not so far away now that he was here.

"Well, let's get on our way then," said Yau Sh'en. They all nodded in agreement.

After walking for about half an hour out of town, the trail led down into a shallow valley that hid Kelfor's Landing from view. Near the bottom was a small channel with a babbling stream running though. There were three mules calmly drinking the fresh clear water. The first one turned and glanced at the new arrivals and with the swish of his tail, went back to drinking the cold fresh water.

The assumed prospector was standing near the mules nervously. He kept glancing over at a small copse of trees off to the right of the path.

"Where is Gerdar? I thought he would be here." Paul asked.

A voice from the copse of trees answered back. "He saw you coming and had other things to do to cover your exit, so he took his leave."

There was sultriness in the obviously female voice that gave Paul chills. The roll of the "s's" and "r's" just added to the effect. He turned to see the speaker. "You must be Frynia, Parri's friend...." his voice trailed off.

A form stalked out of the shadow of the trees on two legs, with the grace of something on four. Her arms came up and pulled back the hood of a long traveling cloak to reveal the face of a humanoid cat.

Opportunity knocks: Part 2

It was immediately obvious that it was their new feline friend who made the prospector nervous.

Frynia continued towards the rest of the group. Parri walked up to her and they greeted each other warmly as they spoke in a language that Paul did not understand.

Parri turned around to address the rest of the group.

"This is my good friend Frynia," as she began the formal introductions. "The half elf is Haf Asle."

"Well met, Frynia," greeted Haf. He reached out and they grasped hands.

"Here is Yau Sh'en." Parri pointed to the warrior monk. The monk put his hands together and gave Frynia a formal bow. "This is Paul."

Parri nodded as Paul approached and grasped hands with Frynia. With a slight smirk the druid moved behind Frynia and headed over to get the mules ready to go.

"So what is the name given to your race?" Paul asked as he took back his hand.

"In the common tongue it is called Idivya, and it is not often that my kind associates with humanity. I am an exception."

With the formal introductions over, the group finished preparing the mule's packs. After Paul attached his pack to one of the beasts of burden he realized that the pouch with the tarot cards was not on his waist. He turned back to start digging through his pack and he noticed that Frynia was standing right next to him.

"You really should be careful how you tend to your personal belongings." She handed his tarot pouch to him. "Someone like me could easily relieve you of them."

Frynia looked down at her own hand, drawing Paul's attention there as well. A claw came out from behind the fur on her knuckle and flicked the strings of the bag in his hand and drew right back in again.

With a grin and a wink she turned and headed over to get the reins of her pack mules and readied herself to lead them out into the countryside.

Paul stood there dumbfounded. Frynia was full of surprises and impish as well. He had already decided he liked her.

The sun hid itself behind a sky full of low lying clouds but made itself felt in the stifling heat. The air was heavy with moisture and there was no breeze to speak of. It seemed like the sky could open up and drench them at any moment. They were only a few miles into this journey, and already their clothes were wet with sweat. There was nothing quite like a hot dreary day to start off their adventure.

The prospector stayed on the other side of the mules from Frynia and near the back. He would anxiously glance at her on occasion, and would totally avoid eye contact whenever she looked his way. He did not seem overly thrilled at the idea of being with them on this trip. Paul wondered why he was along.

The party made steady quiet progress away from Kelfor's Landing. On and off Frynia and Parri would converse. They would get a little loud with their laughter occasionally, but with the heavy air the noise level was pretty low. They were far enough from the village that it shouldn't be a concern anyway. Yau walked near the middle of the group not far away from Paul, while Haf Asle was in the rear guard position. The terrain on the north side became rockier as the base of the mountains gave way to the higher cliffs. The path they were taking skirted the mountain for a little while longer, but by the time they would be ready to camp, they would be farther up the escarpment.

Paul meandered over next to Yau. The monk looked over to him and smiled. "So you traveled here by magic?"

"Yes. I used a Navigator to get here from the continent called Emer."

"Does it have something to do with that strange obelisk?" Yau asked.

"Yes, the obelisks belong to the Navigators. The Navigators are guilds of men and women who serve as guides and travel expediters for a price."

Yau looked interested so Paul continued. "By using their magic they are able to locally control the weather and the very Flows of Essænce to create favorable travel conditions. They also have the power to teleport clients directly to a desired destination. There are a few different guilds, but they all provide the same services. They work together, and have obelisks all over Kulthea," explained Paul. Yau nodded but remained silent.

"So where have you come from, that you know about the general area, but so little about Kelfor's Landing?" Paul inquired.

"I was a member of a group of monks who worshiped a pacifist deity. We spent our waking hours in meditation, and did little else so as not to disturb any one or any thing. We lived on an island on the other side of the bay."

Yau paused and then cleared his throat. "The other day, during my meditation, my goddess came to me and told me the time had come, and that my dedication to her had served its purpose but was now at an end. When I came back to my physical senses, I heard strange sounds on the shore. I went to investigate and found Haf Asle washed up on the shore along with lots of debris from a shipwreck. Since then circumstances have led us here."

Though distracted by their conversation, they suddenly felt the sprinkling drops of rain, which quickly built into a slow steady drizzle. It put a damper on any more conversation as everyone found themselves drenched in a matter of minutes and there was still plenty of daylight left before it was time to camp.

Eventually the trail started to turn up the mountain and progress slowed. The mules were starting to act up and the footing was getting more precarious by the moment. Finally Parri called the team to a halt.

"We need to find some shelter and make camp until this weather breaks." She had to raise her voice over the din of the wind and rain. "We cannot continue up the trails with all this mud and water."

"Maybe we can find a cave or something," suggested Yau.

"Fine, let's split into pairs. Frynia and I will head further East. Yau and Haf will check for a copse of trees or something that could work in a pinch. Paul, you stay here with the mules and the prospector." As she spoke, Parri looked to each to verify they accepted their assignments.

"Be careful, this is not only wolf territory, it is also the hunting grounds for trolls."

The teams were only out of site for a few minutes before the mules started getting antsy.

Immediately the prospector began to complain. "These damn things need to get out of this weather. They are going to drive me nuts."

He was pulling on the reins trying to keep them together. Paul walked over and took the reins from the man. "They are reacting to you and sense your nervousness. Why are you out here if all this bothers you so much?"

"Tyron and Gerdar set this all up. I was happy to get me money and be done, but they told me the only way the deal'd work was if I went too. They promised that I'd be safe as they were sendin' able help for the trip. I told 'em I didn't want to go, but Gerdar made it more 'n clear that stayin' at the Landin' was not an option," the prospector huffed. "Nobody told me that the fur-faced robber was a parta' all this."

Paul wrinkled his brow at the prospector. "What is your problem with Frynia? She seems very likeable."

"I thought so too, but she din't take too kindly to me." He nervously reached for his neck and rubbed it with the side of his hand. "She put those claws to me neck just fer askin' a question."

"What did you ask?"

The prospector looked at the ground sheepishly. "I asked her what a man needs to do to make kitty purr."

Paul couldn't help but laugh......

Opportunity knocks: Part 3

The rain started to come down harder and the mules continued to be antsy. Darkness arrivedearly because of the heavy cloud cover and it was soon hard to see enough to move safely. Paul tried to keep the mules calm by talking to them and patting their heads, but they kept shaking to get the water off and it took less and less time between shakes.

Parri and Frynia showed up shortly after that, and Parri shook her head as they approached Paul and the mules.

"There is nothing ahead of us on this level which will serve our needs", she said.

Frynia went over to her mules and calmed them. It was obvious she had a knack.

"They respond to you so well." Paul remarked as he handed the reins over to the cat woman.

"Most domestic animals get very nervous around Idivya, so I raised these since they were born. They are used to me." Frynia reached into a pouch and pulled out some carrots and fed them to her mules.

Yau Sh'en and Haf Asle came up out of the darkness, Haf pointing the way they came. "There is a copse of trees further down off the trail that should not be too hard to get to for the animals, but we need to get there fast and set watch. There is evidence that trolls have recently been in the area."

The trees gave enough cover from the rain to allow a small campfire to be made. The mules were at the far end of the flickering light being cast by the fire. Frynia had blankets that she spread over the mule's backs to help keep them warm.

The rain had lightened up by the time the darkness had fully set in. Paul got first watch and he was perched on a tree branch right above the mules. The rest of the group sat around the fire drying off before they tried to catch some sleep. The bedrolls were all spread out near the campfire to keep them warm and dry, and one by one they started dozing off.

After a while the fire started to die down and Paul came down from the tree to put a few more pieces of wood on to the embers. After a few minutes the flames started to pick back up, but the sizzle of wet bark added itself to the slowly growing sounds of the night as the rain quit coming down and the denizens of the foothills resumed their nightly habits.

After his watch was over, Paul went and woke Haf Asle for his stint. After Haf was ready, Paul unrolled his bedding and was sound asleep as soon as he lay down.

The tickle on the back of his neck brought his senses back to the fore, although he was not fully awake. Then the whisper in his ear, "Paul, I have come for you." The fuzzy tickle went up from his neck and then teased his ear, the whiskers moved as she spoke to him some more.

"Paul, I have come for you. Give yourssself to me." He started to roll over on his back waiting for her to lay next to him. "Paul, I have come for you. Give yourssself to me. I will make you mine....Forever!"

The forcefulness in the voice surprised him and Paul opened his eyes to look at her and looming over him was a huge spider that was nearly as tall as a man. The legs arched over him on each side and the huge bulbous body barely hovered over his prone form. The spider's pedipalps were caressing his face; the eyes and mandibles so close to his head. "Paul, I have come for you."

With a heave Paul shoved her to get the creature off from him and he sat up with a growl.

Suddenly it seemed lighter out, and it took Paul a moment to realize that he was still situated next to the dying campfire and that dawn had just broken. There was no giant spider to be seen, but he did notice that the rest of the party started to stir as well. No one seemed to notice his sudden wakening, so Paul rose and packed away his bedroll. When he reached its top and began to tie it up he noticed a spider walk out from under the top of the roll and disappear into the leaves that covered the ground. A chill went down his spine as he remembered her face so close, so vivid as if it really happened.

They broke camp and made their way back up the trail that would take them further up into the mountains. On this day the sun came out but there were no breezes yet again to speak of, and the moisture in the air made everything feel wet and uncomfortable. The prospector started grumbling right after the sun crossed its zenith. After a while his complaints were really getting to everyone, and finally Frynia glared at him. He swallowed hard once and never said another word.

Paul contemplated his dream quietly as they climbed their way up into the highlands. He was concerned that the dream was more than it seemed, especially considering the spider he saw leaving from under his sleeping roll. The mystery of the big spider and why he was so intrigued and amicable with the idea that Frynia would approach him in such a manner kept his mind occupied for most of the morning. The voice he heard was just like Frynia's but yet also fitted the nasty visage of that spider. He shivered again and tried to forget about it for a while.

The day dragged on as they made progress up into the lower areas of the mountains. They stopped every so often to consult the map and to survey the area to make sure they were still on track. Twice Haf Asle pointed out evidence that trolls had been around recently. The land spread out more as they progressed, it was once again less of a mountain trail as some scrub and trees were scattered around along with patches of grass here an there. The map showed that they could be in the right area but they could find no sign of any caves or mines during the afternoon.

"I know it is around here close," said the prospector when they started pushing him for the location. "I will know when I see it."

"How will you know if you have never been here?" Haf asked him.

"I was told when I purchased the map, that the way to the entrance lay on the evening's wings."

They all looked at him and the prospector just shrugged. The day waned and there wasn't enough sunlight left to mount any searches at this point so they all decided to make camp underneath some trees, off from the side of the mountain, and firewood was gathered to prepare for a meal. Frynia tended the mules.

After all was arranged, they sat down to some small talk and a meal. The prospector didn't have much to say, and just sat off to the side quietly eating his meal and avoiding looking in anyone's eyes, especially Frynia's. The rest were involved in a discussion about Tyron, Gerdar, and Keltos.

"I have lived here my whole life, and I remember when they showed up at Kelfor's Landing." Parri set her plate down so she could get more comfortable while she talked. "They were members of a party of adventures that included what was rumored to be a Loremaster. There were seven in all, and they went out to search for the legendary Quellbourne ruins. A few weeks later they returned, but only three of them were left; Tyron, Gerdar, and Keltos. They have not spoken of their trip, but it was supposed that they never found the ruins."

The clunk of falling dinnerware interrupted the evening sounds, but they were so involved in Parri's tale that no one took notice. "The story was that a band of trolls jumped them in the mountains and before it was all over only four of them were left standing. The Loremaster also survived but he did not return to Kelfor's Landing. Those three have since made a life for themselves."

Then, as a group, they all noticed that the prospector was standing and staring towards the western sky with a look of shock and fear on his face. They all turned and looked up in that direction to see a huge stream of bats as they poured out of the face of mountain just a little ways up from where they were camped. Bats flew out in a huge mass that worked its way across the evening sky like a snake across the forest floor. Some of them were bigger than the rest; much bigger.

"We just found the mine," the prospector announced. His voice trembled and he stood there and watched the swarm, spellbound by their sky dance.

Slowly the swarm made its way into the night, and the group watched, part entranced at the sight and part spooked at the thought of so many bats. Parri and Haf were the first to start to action when they realized that the campfire was acting like a beacon and that the swarm was headed their way.

"Quick, pick some wood out of the fire to use like a brand." Parry yelled, "They are attracted to the moths and bugs flying around our camp."

The swarm descended on their camp. Most of the party ducked and swung flaming wood all around to swat the bats away. The prospector stood there unmoving as the swarm came in, his head and face suffering impacts from the horde. Yau Sh'en crouched and swept the legs out from under the unmoving man to put him on the ground away from the swarming bats. Paul was just getting reoriented after the shock of the initial incursion when a huge bat dipped out from the swarm and headed straight for him. It knocked the wood from Paul's hand and embedded his sharp nasty claws deep into his left shoulder.

Paul dropped to the ground and rolled around trying to get the beast off from him. He returned the favor as he dug his fingers into the neck and chest area of the huge creature of the night and when the bat let go, Paul used his left arm to keep it pinned to the ground while he pulled out his sword. The bat twisted and turned, flapping its wings in a vain attempt to escape, but it stopped moving after Paul's sword stuck it to the ground.

He stood back up and pulled his sword free, ready for the next one, but when he looked around he noticed that the bats had left the camp and continued to meander their way deeper into the night.

"What were those things?" Paul asked. "I have NEVER seen bats so big."

"They are called cavewings, and are fairly cunning and aggressive." Haf told them.

Parri came over to Paul and inspected the wounds that the cavewing inflicted on him.

"It isn't too bad." Using fresh water, she cleaned the wound before laying her palm over it, chanting soft words with great concentration. When she pulled her hand away all that was left were some small red marks.

"Thank you for healing me," Paul said.

She just smiled and nodded and headed over to tend to the small scratches and nicks that the prospector had on his head and face.

After things settled down, Frynia piped up. "I think it is time we all got some sleep."

"How can you expect us to sleep knowing all those bats may come back?" The prospector asked; the fear and disgust could be seen in his eyes.

"I don't expect to be able to sleep yet, that is why I am taking first watch." With a snide grin she got up from her seat around the fire and headed over to where the mules were tied up.

"They won't be back tonight," Haf stated. "They have a fairly accurate path that they take and it won't return across our camp tonight."

They quietly unpacked their bedrolls and got ready for what Paul knew was going to be a night of anything but rest.

Opportunity knocks: Part 4

Although the rest of the night went without incident, Paul got little rest. He had way too much on his mind, and even though the wound he got from the claws of the cavewing were healed, there was still an uncomfortable ache that added to his restlessness.

The party awoke at dawn and ate a quick breakfast before breaking camp. Having decided to leave the animals and gear behind, well hidden in a copse of trees, the group prepared to trek to the mine. With the cave entrance close, they agreed it made a good place for their base of operations.

Everyone was excited; everyone except for the prospector, of course, who was looking particularly nervous at this point.

"If this is going to be too much for you, you are welcome to stay at the base camp and watch the mules," said Haf Asle.

"I think that is a good idea," seconded Frynia. "I would certainly feel more comfortable if you did."

You could see the relief on his face as he looked at the rest of the party for verification, who nodded in agreement.

"Very good, I'll do that," he said.

"Of course you won't get a cut of any booty we may find inside," added Parri.

"What kind of booty do you expect to find in a bat infested mine?" replied the prospector. "Have at it, and good luck!"

The party turned and started to head up toward the ridge that should lead to the mine entrance. Parri twisted around one last time. "If we are not back before nightfall make sure you keep the mules and yourself covered from any more bat attacks." She turned back and kept walking with a nasty little grin on her face.

Paul looked back and chuckled as he saw the deathly white and slack jawed prospector watching them move away. "He will be all right, won't he?"

"Probably better off then us, if we find that those trolls live in our mine," Haf Asle commented They all quit smiling at that point.

The ridge that led up to the mine entrance was wide and sturdy. There were some slight tracks worn into the stone. Haf declared it as evidence that mine carts or wagons used to go up and down this path.

They made their way to the entrance before morning was over and stood staring into the dark tunnel leading into the mountain. With the sun already high in the north, they could only see a little ways into the cave's darkness. It looked sturdy enough, although there were some rocks and debris on the smooth tunnel floor.

"There is an opening leading off to the left a little ways in," said Haf Asle.

Paul broke out a flint and steel, and they prepared some torches for their initial foray. Haf and Yau took the lead, with each carrying a torch. Paul and Frynia followed, and Parri was in the back, carrying a torch as well.

The sputtering torches drove the darkness to a more acceptable distance from the party and they began to move forward into the passageway. As they neared the opening on the left, they noticed another entrance up and to the right near the very edge of their light.

The opening to the left was more a rough-hewn cave than a tunnel. Paul audibly gasped, but the sound was quite muffled and didn't carry. The cave was filled with webs. Not little ones either, some were as thick as a rope.

Yau Sh'en looked back at the group, and raised his eyebrows. "Time to start cleaning house." On that signal they all brandished their weapons, expecting the denizens of this cavern to come to call any minute.

Yau looked at Haf, and they nodded their readiness to each other. Both of them took their torches to the nearest webbing on their side of the entrance. The flames took off immediately as the webs lit up and gave way. Then Parri stepped up and threw her torch right into the middle of the cave, lighting every strand it touched on the way.

The room brightened quickly and a huge spider could be seen scrambling on the web across the cave towards the interlopers who dared torch her home. Paul was awed. She had to be at least four feet across on her abdomen. Frynia stepped forward and threw a dagger that nicked one of the spider's huge legs and brought a squeak from the oversized arachnid.

You could see death in Frynia's eyes as she pulled out another dagger and started to step into the cave. Yau Sh'en reached out and quickly pulled her back into the main tunnel just as a second spider dropped from the ceiling above the entrance, narrowly missing its intended target. The tricky spider was rewarded with the blade of one of Haf's short swords close to the head. A nasty crack could be heard and the blade broke through the protective exoskeleton there and a nasty brown ichor came forth from the wound.

Haf hit it twice more, once with the sword and once with the torch, bringing yet another squeal from the spider. Then, from behind him, Haf saw the shaft of Yau's naginata come past and bury itself deep in the spiders head. The spider's body dropped to the floor and didn't move again.

They scanned the cave for the spider they first spotted but it was nowhere to be seen. Haf and Paul were completely startled when the giant arachnid reached out its front legs and knocked Yau down. As he fell, the monk turned his momentum into a diving roll and came up inside the cave, with a pair of nunchucks spinning. He noticed the webbing that the spider had shot into the area that he was supposed to be occupying if he had fallen the way the spider had planned.

The spider dropped onto that same web a split second later before it realized there was nothing there to capture or kill. It tried to take off and head up the side wall to get away from these painful humans, but it didn't get very far before it felt the agony of more blades and shafts as they pierced its oversized abdomen, and then all went dark for the poor spider.

Paul just stood there and looked at the carcasses of those nasty spiders, while the rest of them burned webbing and searched the cave for possible valuables. These didn't resemble the one Paul had in his dream, that one was much more vile and sinister, these were just oversized spiders. A shiver went down his spine when he made that realization.

"Hey look!!" Frynia was pointing to the dried husk of what used to be a gnoll. She started going through the pack and pouches. There were a few coins, a rusty sword, and some leather armor was rotten, but she didn't find anything good. Paul went over and checked inside the leather armor. He always had pockets inside his, maybe this one too. He found the pocket and inside was a folded piece of parchment. He opened it up to find a well-drawn map of the entire area. There were a number of markings and notations on it that no one understood.

"Hey, looks like we have lots of things to check out now," said Haf Asle.

"What if one of those is the legendary Quellbourne ruins?" asked Parri. They all became silent and distant, as they contemplated the possibilities.