The strong smell of roasted owlbear permeated the hidden tunnels where the enormous beast had, until recently, made its lair. Enormous char-kissed chunks of its flesh lay strewn about on makeshift platters fashioned from the the remnants of Tanule’s shredded armor. Not for lack of flavor, mind you — it’s just that the creature was so damn big that even captain Ironsoul’s dwarven appetite couldn’t keep pace.
Half grunting, half roaring with triumphant effort, Tanule pried another mangled plate off of his layered armor. Now at least he would be able to wear it without the jagged, twisted edges cutting into his side. The dragonborn lifted a hunk of owlbear thigh to his mouth and tore the seared meat vigorously away from the bone.
Mouth full, he looked down at his handiwork and proudly proclaimed, “There! Now that’s what I call seasoned!”
Captain Ironsoul stared down the dragonborn. No one was quite sure whether she was offended or pleased at the comment. In any case, it turned out Tanule wasn’t talking about her cooking.
“Bit by a dragon, clawed open by an owlbear!” he continued, tracing his claws down the impressive damage. “Before, this armor was impressive… but now— NOW everyone who looks upon me will bask in the glory of the battles I have survived!”
The dwarf grunted appreciatively and the others murmured their vague assent. Tanule tore another bite of the owlbear away and banged the bone of it against his shield, “Now then, are we ready to visit more of that glory upon these dwarves?”
Adris stood and hefted his longspear quietly, testing the weight with a few quick jabs. After a few adjustments to his stance, he gave a satisfied nod. His sister stood and stretched, drawing Avaris’ eye before Adris’ disapproving glance shied his gaze away. Drawing her bow, she too nodded her readiness.
Olimorn raised a single finger into the air. Without looking up, the eladrin turned a page of his spellbook and continued reading. “Another moment and I will be ready as well,” he said.
With a gentle shake of her hands, Sabellia cast her runes across the cave floor and studied them intensely. The others glanced down reverently at the meaningless arrangement of arcane symbols until the warlock finally broke the silence. “This will be a good day for us,” she remarked before collecting the runes.
Avaris nodded then climbed the ladder at the back of the cave to steal another look past the trap door above. A moment later he returned, arms folded and thoughtfully stroking his chin. “Looks like a brewery or a mess hall or something. At least nine of them up there right now. If we’re quiet, we might be able to sneak up the ladder without them spotting us. There are plenty of barrels we can hide behind.”
“How many barrels?” Olimorn asked, closing his spellbook with a dull thump.
“I don’t know,” Avaris answered, scratching the back of his neck, “A dozen or so? There’s a big vat or keg or something, too. Definitely big enough to hide behind. Why?”
The mage smiled. “I have a different solution,” he began, “These barrels are probably full of ale, yes? Dwarven ale is notoriously flammable, you see…” His smile grew wider.
- – -
“This is a bad idea…” groaned Avaris from atop the ladder. He gave the room another quick glance out of the thin slit of the trap door before looking nervously back to the mage.
“This is the best idea!” retorted Olimorn, “Quite possibly, ever.” He tossed the fireball to his other hand, testing its immeasurable weight.
“Well you’re not the one standing on this ladder, are you?” asked the rogue. “Why can’t we just prop the door open?”
“Because we must close it after I throw the fireball through. Dwarven ale is extremely flammable, and there are quite a few-”
“-‘quite a few’ doesn’t adequately describe it.”
“-kegs of ale in that room,” the mage explained. “If we didn’t close it, the resulting explosion could very well blast its way back down into these tunnels and one of us could get hurt.” He drew his arm back, winding up for the throw.
“I’m going to get hurt!” Avaris pleaded.
“Which is why the elves are standing by farther down the tunnel,” replied Olimorn, “Now keep your voice down, or they’re going to hear us.”
In hindsight, that was a particularly silly thing to say. In the next second, the mage tossed the fireball at Avaris, who, in a fit of panic melted away into his cape and teleported far back into the tunnel with a puff of smoke. The fireball barely squeezed past the falling trapdoor and into the room beyond. When it detonated, the resulting explosion was as thunderous as it was murderous. The force of it blasted the mage, who was shielded by the trap door and an entire floor of cave, back to the far wall. The noise was enough that surely Vellraem’s army was aware that something had happened within the mountain.
Avaris called for the elves, who could not hear him above the still-rumbling sound, but nonetheless were upon the scene in seconds. Laying crumpled, blistered and bloodied beneath a layer of burns and soot, Olimorn grinned ear to ear. He pointed, grinning, at what was left of the trap door. “Check it, check it!” he cackled.
Tanule laid his hand upon Adris’ shoulder as the elf moved to prod at the door with his longspear. “Perhaps we should wait a moment.” He glanced back at the mage as his wounds were tended by Adrie, “Safety first?”
The cleric shrugged and poked the door once more. The flaming remnants of the trap door crumbled down into the tunnels. The ladder, at least, seemed fine. He tested the heat of its rungs before climbing to survey the damage. What he saw was like the maw of hell itself.
Only a few barrels survived the blast. The tables certainly didn’t; nor did the dwarves. The enormous vat-sized keg had smashed a table and the dwarves sitting at it into one of the corners. All that remained of the other dwarves were their boots; their armor had melted into slag and was seared against the walls. Much of the room was still aflame; those parts that weren’t, smoldered. Other than the crackle of flames, the fortress was profoundly quiet in the wake of the blast.
After letting the flames die down, the seven of them climbed into the room. Wary and on their guard, the first thing they checked were the intact barrels. Avaris neared one, but the smell overtook his senses: fresh, undiluted dwarven ale! How could he resist? He tore the top from the barrel and began drinking… and drinking… and drinking! Too late, he realized he could not stop himself. The ale was so delicious… too delicious…!
The party chuckled at the rogue’s comical portrayal of a man who had gone too long without ale. When the drinking began to go on a little too long, Tanule ran to Avaris, realizing something was wrong. He tugged the rogue back from the barrel, but he would not let go. Finally, he tore the rogue away and Avaris gasped the breath of a nearly-drowned man. A splash drew the eyes of everyone else in the room. Captain Ironsoul!
The dwarf was doubled over the side of another barrel in the corner. With alarm, Tanule and Avaris ran to help her, but she swatted them away. She lifted the barrel into the air, finished it off, and let out a mighty belch. With a haughty look, she sized up the rogue and muttered, “Lightweight.” Relieved, all eyes in the room turned to the immense keg in the corner.
Studying it closely, Sabellia remarked, “No openings. No tap.”
Captain Ironsoul shrugged and hefted her craghammer. “Guess that means we can make our own!” She wound up and took a mighty swing, bringing the full force of its point down on the keg. With enormous force, a stream of pressurized ale blasted her halfway across the room onto her back. Fortunately, it sealed itself seconds after.
Exchanging glances, the party resolved not to disturb the kegs and barrels further. They looked down the corridor leading from the only non-trap-door exit from the brewery. The corridor was dark, only dimly lit by the still-smoldering room.
- – -
With a wave of his hand, Tanule motioned for Adrie to float her conjured lantern to the junction ahead. Stairs leading up ahead of them, double doors down the corridor to the right, and some sort of armory down the corridor to the left. Before he could murmur his recommendation for the armory, a shout echoed down the narrow passages.
“Attack!” bellowed a dwarf, and crossbow bolts cushioned against Tanule’s swiftly raised shield. Two more dwarves stared down at them from the stairwell and let their throwing hammers fly. The dragonborn whirled to bring his shield to bear, but managed to deflect only one of them. The other struck him square in the leg; He reeled from the blow and lost his footing, slamming chest-first onto the ground.
Avaris flattened himself against the wall as a deflected hammer soared past. He heard it slam into Adris with a loud clang, followed by the sound of the elf crumpling to the floor. With a swift dash, the rogue flung himself around the corner into the intersection and let a shuriken fly at one of the dwarven bolters, but the dwarf was quick and ducked back behind the corner to reload.
Lashing a whip of sinister lightning at one of the bolters, Sabellia cruelly smiled before tugging on it like a rope. It coiled around the dwarf’s leg and sent him sprawling down the stairs next to Tanule. Olimorn followed up with arcing lightning of his own, searing two of the dwarves with his magic.
Groaning, Adris moved to stand, but delayed a moment as his sister nocked an arrow just above him. She let it fly down the hallway, rebounding off of walls and foes, but not finding purchase. “Watch it with that!” he admonished, rising to his feet. “Someone could get hurt!” Flashing her a smile, he charged down the hallway and drove his spear through recently fallen bolter’s gut. The dwarf’s scream drowned quickly into a quiet gurgle.
The axe-and-hammer wielding dwarf atop the stairs barreled down to try and bring his weapons to bear against Tanule, but the prone dragonborn brought his shield up to defend against the blows. Avaris was not so lucky when the dwarf down his hallway tried a similar maneuver, and found himself bludgeoned aside the head, staring at the ceiling.
Tanule rose to his feet, forcing the dwarf back down the hallway past Avaris — better to have the dwarves all in one place, after all! With a deep breath, the dragonborn shoved the dwarf back into the armory, then let the breath out in a torrent of crackling lightning.
Seizing the opportunity, Avaris tumbled to flank the dwarves in the room. Ducking and dodging their axes, he let a flurry of shurikens fly at eye level. The nice thing about fighting dwarves was that their eyes were all just about arm-level! One slumped back against the wall, a blade protruding from his lifeless eye and the others whirled to reply to the rogue’s attack.
The rogue was beaten back into the corner by a flurry of hammers and axes, and just as it seemed grim, Captain Ironsoul drove her craghammer into the fray to parry the dwarf’s weapon. “What’re you lookin’ at me fer?” she mocked, just as Tanule brought his longsword to skewer the dwarf’s neck.
The remaining bolter stepped back into the corner of the armory, nervously nocking another bolt into his crossbow. The odds were not in his favor, but still he mocked, “You will never leave this place alive. You have come here to die!”
“So that’s a ‘no’ on the taking-him-prisoner, then?” inquired Olimorn. With a snap of his fingers, a magic missile struck the bolter and caved in his skull. The mage dusted his hands against each other and shrugged. “Thought so…”
The rest of the room turned their eyes upon the glittering promise of treasure chests and weapon stands within the armory. Most of it, of course, held no magic. But fabled dwarven treasure hold or not, it would have to suffice, and it did not disappoint.
Within a sturdy sword box lay a rapier crafted from the razor-sharp edges of some sort of black glass. Shadow dripped from the blade in smoky wisps. Avaris immediately claimed it.
“And something to put it in,” gloated Tanule as he ripped two scabbards from the wall. Inset with rubies, they held a faint aura of magic. He handed one to Avaris and took the other for himself.
Finally, Adris took a helm from atop an armor stand and decided to make it his own. Though crafted for dwarves, it had a certain heroic appearance that was not lost for sitting upon his elven head. Even his ears fit just so from beneath it.
All eyes turned to the double doors leading, undoubtedly, to where the master of these dwarves was keeping the stolen scepter. With a final check of their weapons and armor, they set foot down the corridor.
- – -
The heavy door exploded inward from the force of Tanule’s kick. Surprising. Not because of the dragonborn’s strength, but because the door wasn’t locked or barred. In fact, the dozen or so dwarves in the room on the other side looked as though they were expecting company. Rather than with drawn weapons, they greeted the party with food and goblets.
Perhaps not altogether surprising, in hindsight. After all, there was no way the dwarves couldn’t have known they were coming after the hell they had wrought in the brewery and in the aftermath of destruction like that, parley was probably the safer bet.
The piercing eyes of the High Cleric peered across the great hall at the heroes. He took a long drink from his flagon and asked for their surrender. So, he planned to open the bidding high, then? The familiar wizard at his side chuckled darkly. The heroes own dwarf countered with a decidedly low offer: if the cleric and his followers surrendered now, they would allow them to live long enough to work together to find a way out of this place.
The ‘offers’ continued back and forth; the High Cleric treated the situation like a game – perhaps, in the many years of serving in his office, he had grown to love these haggling debates. Something groaned in the fortress, shaking debris loose from the great stone ceiling, punctuating the very lack of time either side had until Vellraem’s army penetrated the walls of this place. The High Cleric seemed unconcerned. Chuckling as though he hadn’t heard a thing, he took another long, relaxed drink from his flagon.
Avaris glanced into the ruined, smoldering hall behind them as another creaking thump shook the dust from the walls. He had another take on the situation… the dwarf wasn’t haggling, he was stalling.
With another thud, louder and closer, the other heroes turned to peer into the darkness behind them. Slowly, something impossibly large loomed around the corner from the brewery. Still veiled in the shadows, they could barely make out the shape of the enormous vat that had been thrown across the brewery. It had sprouted legs and arms wrought from barrels, and with another creaking thud, the keg golem lumbered toward them.
From the great hall, the High Cleric’s laugh joined that of his wizard. The other dwarves readied their weapons in case any of their foes pushed through — or rather, were pushed through!
“Run!” yelled Adrie, slipping flat against the wall as the golem rolled onto its side and barreled past. Instantly, Tanule dropped to a knee and raised his shield. The enormous rolling vat bounded over him, but Olimorn was not as fortunate. Perhaps it was karma for what he had wrought upon its wooden kin. After the enormous construct grinded past, the wizard lay in a crumpled heap in the hallway.
Adris sprung into action, pointing with his longspear, “Everyone through the door!” Grabbing Tanule by the elbow, he pointed to the enormous golem and whispered, “Hold that off until everyone is through, do you understand?” Without waiting for a reply, the elf charged through the doorway.
He was met with a cackle from the High Cleric’s wizard. The air grew chill around Adris and a wall of ice was conjured into the hall, pinning him back into the corner and blocking the doorway.
Sabellia wasted no time – running from the golem, she let a fiery bolt fly into the wall, melting a piercing hole into its icy depths, but it was not quite enough to shatter the thing’s magic. Panicked, she whirled around and glanced for Olimorn.
The mage stirred weakly to his feet, but was suddenly lifted and shoved against the corridor wall. Tanule was yelling something impatiently at him, and gesturing down the hallway at a wall of magical ice. Dazed, the magelet a fireball fly, and the wall neatly exploded into thousands of rapidly melting shards.
Tanule wasted no more time on the mage. He barely brought his shield to bear in time to beat back one of the golem’s mighty blows, but could not fend off a second. The enormous keg crushed him against the floor, knocking his feet out from under him. The golem staggered forward and emotionlessly raised one of its keg-tipped arms.
“Get down!” bellowed Sabellia, just as the front of the keg exploded open with a blast of pressurized ale. The force of it threw the heroes back in the hall, and perhaps because of her mouth being open to warn them, the warlock bore the full brunt of it and staggered backward drunkedly.
Fighting their way through the remnants of the ice wall, the heroes pushed their way into the dining hall, fending dwarves off from all sides, buffeted by spells from both the High Cleric and his wizard lieutenant. At last, as Olimorn blinked into the room with Fey magic, Adris slammed the heavy-set doors shut and brought an enormous wooden plank down to bar them.
They turned their sights on the remaining dwarves, when suddenly a splintering crack thundered through the chamber. “Oh no-” muttered Olimorn, just as the golem burst through the door.
“OH YEAH!” cried one of the dwarves, seizing the opportunity to sink his battleaxe deep into the mage’s side. Tanule retorted with a feint of his longsword before bringing his razor-edged shield down on the offending minion.
“Get the Cleric!” cried Olimorn, “He’s got to be the one in control of it!”
Avaris bounded atop the long dining table and grabbed a goblet. In a whirl of movement, he tossed the contents of the goblet into the High Cleric’s eyes and plunged his rapier into the dwarf’s gut. Sabellia’s eyes darkened and the room grew dim around her. A long clawed shadow reached out where her hand’s shadow should have been and grabbed hold of the shadow of the High Cleric’s beard. Forcefully, she yanked and the dwarf tumbled forward across the room, spilling over himself in the midst of the heroes.
They wasted no time dispatching him. Under their combined blows, he sank to a knee, then fell flat on his chest; his flagon clattered noisily to the ground beside him as the only fanfare to his death.
But still, the golem lumbered on. It raised its enormous barreled arm and battered Tanule across the room, where he landed unceremoniously. The dragonborn barely brought his shield to bear to thwart the golem’s follow-up blast of pressurized ale. How could they stop this thing? Why wasn’t it stopping?!
“The wizard!” The heroes’ eyes turned to the remaining dwarf, who hastily murmured a spell and vanished from view as Olimorn’s spells exploded onto the spot where he was just standing.
The golem battered Sabellia to the ground, knocking her legs from under her, then backhanded Captain Ironsoul against a wall.
“Coward!” screamed Avaris, lunging with his rapier and slashing it into empty air. “Come out and fight!”
Eyes turned to the golem, where Adrie began sanking arrows ineffectually into its wooden mass. It charged across the room and mangled Tanule’s foot beneath it as it closed the distance. Climbing atop it from behind, Avaris began stabbing furiously — perhaps its ale was like lifeblood, and it couldn’t survive when drained. It would just… take… a sizable… hole!
The golem exploded as the pressure was released, flinging the rogue on his back as the creature ruptured open. The others staggered to their feet and watched in disbelief. An enormous slick of ale puddled beneath the creature, and its creaking movement ground to a halt. Adris breathed a sigh of relief and glanced to his sister… but the golem lurched upward with a hollow thud. This thing was not yet dead!
“Golem… golem… it must have a control rod!” cried Olimorn, glancing around the room. Suddenly, the wizard reappeared, blasting at the mage with his staff. A defiant look was in his eye, but what was he guarding? The mage would have to figure that out on his own; he blasted the wizard out of the world of the living with a final spell.
Sabellia’s eyes fell on the flagon the High Cleric had dropped. Of course! The perfect instrument to control a golem crafted from kegs. She dashed forward for it, and the golem’s gaze followed her. For the first time, it had shown something like fear. It knocked her on her side with a tremendous blow and stood atop her and aimed to crush her head with its enormous barreled legs.
Tanule lunged in front of the golem, snarling and growling with draconic taunts. He blasted it with his breath and fought it back into the corner with battering attacks of his shield. Blood and ale streamed down his body, but he yelled for Sabellia to destroy the flagon.
The warlock wasted no time – she darted past the room to a far door and found a hellish, lava-lit room with a forge, and plunged the flagon into it. In the other room, the golem burst into flames and writhed about, staggering and stumbling until, at last, it fell into a immobile pile of wood. The heroes were not quite satisfied of its demise until every last bit was thrown into the forge.