Ok, it's definitely getting way too late for this. I'm beat. I don't think my brain can hold any more, guys.

Damned if I know whether I'll pass that exam, but you did the best you could with what you had to work with. Let's call it a day.

I owe ya' one. What's your pleasure? You want something simple tonight, or something extravagant after I've passed the exam and had a chance to sleep it all off? Look, Htarlyd's snoring in his frame, maybe we oughta wait until after. You know I'm good for it.

A what? A story? You're kidding, right? Stories aren't payment, they're practically free. I gotta million of 'em. Most of the time I gotta buy somebody a couple of rounds before anyone wants to sit through one of my yarns. Sure. How about the one about Claris and the Tree full of Ravens? No? The Auction in Sigil? No?


That one.

Look, truth, I've never had any contract with the Bard's Hall. I get caught selling stories, I could be in a lot of trouble. Whaddya say we just wake Htarlyd up and go check in on the ladies dressing rooms at the Legerdemain and call it square, hey?


All right all right, deal's a deal.

"Buried up to the Neck in Sand." Sheesh. How does word of this stuff get around? Fine. But if I don't pass this test, everybody's gonna know who prepped me for it.

Right. We were walking. We walked a lot in those days, don't ask me why. We got ambushed a lot, too, in those days. Part of the fun of walking. And there was this girl--I don't remember her name. Clit, or something like that. Honest, we hardly paid any attention to her. A bunch of thugs attacked us, we fought 'em off, Master Deltarion got nailed with some kind of rod that sucked some of the life outta him, and we dealt with the lot of 'em.

I dunno who killed her--Nolin, maybe? I remember she went down headfirst in the stream . . .right, right--Nolin nailed her with one of his insatiable thirsts, only, when she hit the water she was too wounded to swim, and we let her drown and figured good riddance.

And we squashed the rest of the crew, too, but I don't remember how they died. Apart from the soul sucking rod, it was pretty routine.

Skiltor--that's right--a mage named Skiltor Rhun we'd pissed off sent them after us. A buncha flunkies. She was one of them. The frog headed mook was more interesting really, and Nolin got this great wand offa him that had the coolest activation word ever, but nobody thought twice about her. She just picked the wrong day to be an assasin for hire, that's all.

Arcade really had his nose out of joint about that combat for the longest time. Said the damned rod took ten years off his life. Said there wasn't anything anybody could do about it, even Velendo. Yadda yadda whine whine.

Anyway, a while later, we chased a Super-Dopple-Mimic to Oursk--you sure you don't want to hear the story of the Great Showdown with Ambassador SuperDopp instead? Greatest death of any of Tao's dogs ever, really, really gory . . . right, another time then.

Right right, I'm getting to the buried in sand part. All this background stuff is important, really.

There was this list of stolen books and instructions we got out of the saddlebags of Ambassador SuperDopp, after we pulped him and he drizzled away into the ground.

And that list was really important.

We didn't know what the Brotherhood of Night were up to, in those days. We knew they wanted to eradicate the sun, but we figured they were a bunch of psychos and we weren't taking them real seriously.

We had this list, "Top Ten Ways to Get Rid of the Sun: 1. Put a bag over your head. The sun will go away. 2. Stare at the sun without blinking for ten minutes. The Sun will go away. 3. Place a sharp object into the center of each of your eyes. The Sun will go away. 4. Hold your breath until everything goes dark. . . ." and so on. So sue me. It seemed funny at the time.

Anyway, the stolen books were all kinds of prophecies and astrological crap. "My duck, his beak is as wide as a riverway!" and a whole lot of other nonsensical ravings.

But the list also had an itinerary, and some notes about a rendezvous point, passwords, contacts, and stuff like that. And a really disturbing little list of some of our friends and relations.

So we decided to look into it. Keep the Ambassador's appointment's for him, as it were.

And then there was all that business with losing Htarlyd in the Wild Magic Zone--yeah, and the room, too and everything in it--which included all our backup supplies and stuff . . .


Busted holy bricks, it's late. Tell you what. How 'bout I finish this tomorrow? It got kind of complicated from here and I'll want to check my notes when I can see straight again . . . you know I'm good for it, right? Cut me a few hours slack so I can get some sleep in before the exam, and I'll throw in some audio visuals, free.

Some of them visuals, they're worth seeing. Plane Sailing

I beg your pardon, but was that REALLY the name of the lady mercenary? "'Clith,' Dylrath. The lady's name was 'Clith.' Really, young man, you might at least try to be respectful of her memory."

"Clith, schmith, whatever. One more dead mercenary 'swhat I say."

"Ow. Ow ow ow. Stop that. Alright alright, 'the Lady Clith.' Leggo my ear. Calphas's toe grout, d'ya gotta be such a grump?"

"Fine. But, I'm not telling one word more of how we got out of the sand until somebody pitches in and gives me a hand with the spell translations, see?" thatdarncat "aw come on 'rath, besides I think the professor's getting wise. I think last week's translations were a little too good. I'll see what I can do while you tell us the rest of the story?"

Are you kidding? It was totally too good. Didn't I tell you I scribed up the draft with you as lead author, popped over and presented it at one of Master Deltarion's symposiums way over in Gont, and then cited it in the write up I handed in?

Prof thinks you're brilliant, and I got credit for being up to date on the literature. So no sweat, 'k?

Actually, truth, I wouldn't hold even a story hostage. I was just kinda hoping to stall for time so's maybe one of the other Defenders who was actually present at the battle where everyone fell could tell you about it.

Apparently, Tao was amazing, and even managed to damage some of the foe after she had been giftwrapped head to toe in iron bands. She levitated using some gizmo or other, flipped herself upright by wrapping her toes around the edge of a table, and then belched fire breath all over a bunch of them.

Full of surprises, that lady, eh?

Master Deltarion said he might be willing to step in and reminisce about the debacle, but he's been a little preoccupied. I'll see what I can do about getting him occupied with this stuff.

Anyway, I'm working on the write up of the rest of what happened on the beach, it just may take a bit. I've got some other goodies to throw your way while we're waiting. Stay tuned.

thatdarncat Wow, really? Hmmm ok, I'll get to work on the rest of the translations right away.

Grifter86 Wow. That was quite a tale. I could never imagine how you guys managed to escape that...

Uh... How did you escape?

Well, now, that was an interesting story, too. Maybe even a more interesting one, since although we had a full seven minutes until the tide came up over our heads, it turns out Peggus had poisoned us for good measure and we were getting weaker by the minute as well.

But, see, there's all these spells that need translating, and I just don't know when I'll have the time to spend jawing with you guys again . . .

[Further notes: by our estimates we had about 7 minutes to get the party out before the tide drowned them. We did not know Peggus's class or level, or whether he was really alone or had more back up handy. We knew the size of the force the Brotherhood had sent to take us down, so they presumably knew who they were dealing with and weren't leaving us in the care of 2 weaklings we could take easily. But it wasn't at all clear what we were going to have to face apart from being naked, unarmed, marooned, drowned and . . .] [ Also note: I told Piratecat what I had planned (although not how I was going to execute it) and he said he honestly doubted it would work. He gave me fair warning I might want to try something else, and I ignored it.]

OK, so, I'm lame again, I know. I owed you guys the rest of that story days ago, and you were thinking I'd pulled a bunk and wasn't gonna out with the rest of it.

And I don't blame ya for thinking it.

This story isn't one of my proudest moments, as the whole world is probably already aware. But I swear, the whole Buried Up to the Neck thing wasn't really ALL my fault, and it's a damn shame the thing got pinned on me at all. Like I was the one wielding the shovels. Geez. All a kid does is try to give directions to one pretty lady and 'bam!' I'm the villain of the piece. Go fig.

But a promise is a promise, and I owe you for that cram session, so here I am. I'da been here days ago, but things got hectic after the exam. Different story, another day. We'll be here all night as it is, and I've still got to hand in those spell translations day after tomorrow.

Somebody tap me a mug so I can get my storytelling voice shined up. Ah, that's better. Right. Where were we?

There was Rhun's assassins, and then the Business With Doppelgangers, and the Ebon Mage Rot and the Great Land Deal, and Bearsfroth, and then we got knighted--or, anyway, my masters all did--and then there was the destruction of the Temples when the Lady of Phorn arrived, after the meeting with Bathmat. . . . it was a busy couple of months. How far did I get the other night?

Ah, yes. We were following Ambassador SuperDopp's trail to Oursk.

Well, duh, no he wasn't really the ambassador. The real Ambassador, Anton Cardask, was already dead, but we didn't know that before we caught up with him. We only knew that the current Ambassador to Oursk was probably a spy, in cahoots with the Brotherhood of Night. The Brotherhood of Night had really managed to piss us off by that point, and we vowed to stamp them out to the ends of the world. Not realizing, of course, what a long walk that was going to be geographically, or how short a span of time we it might be, temporally speaking.

The Ambassador turned out to be an old pal of ours, actually. Turned out to be the same Doppelganger that aced Master Arcade, Master Loial, and my pal Kelsey's family back at Krellar's Inn.

Well, not entirely the same Dopp.

He'd had some . . .adjustments made. Infusions of Mimic ichor and I don't know what else, same as the rest of the SuperDopp crew that the Brotherhood had tried to use to wreck Gaunt. I tell you, he took his whole hand, shaped it into a spear, stabbed it into Dame Tao's dog's chest and then flicked fifteen inches of knife blade sharp fingers out from it in every direction you can think of. LOTS of fingers. LOTS of dog in every direction you can think of.

We beat him to a puddle, and were sorry we weren't able to bottle the puddle and burn it for good measure. So long Superdopple-AntonCardask-stretchyookyvicious.

And looky here, what did we find in his Diplomatic pouch but a page full of itineraries and passwords and meeting places, and that sort of thing -- I told you this already?

So I did.

So we were off to Oursk then, and I'll skip the bit about the Ruby Rod and the goblins and the lizard thing that wouldn't die, and all that sort of crap. It was a trip. Adventures were had. Htarlyd got lost in a wild magic zone, and we really did have to walk after that. We were short on supplies and short on tempers. There were corcandrills in the swamps.

Anyhow we arrived in Oursk in a fine mood.

Let me tell you about that first day in Oursk. You just have to imagine what yokels we were. Rampart, the crown city of Gaunt and the biggest city we'd seen to date, would fit in Oursk's shoe. Oursk's a City with a capital C, and no denying it. Let's drink to 'er.

So, we decided to go undercover and use pseudonyms to get past the gates and have on our id papers and then were completely incapable of remembering to use the pseudonyms. And they were the worst, mark you, the WORST fake names you have ever seen anyone try to fob off. "Cade the Changebringer," "Tephys House," "Criteas," "Kara," "Eritayn Deepleaf," "Grundo Griffin,"" Aylin Flamehair," "Fewmet Coughball!" I could just weep thinking about it. I don't know why we bothered. Anybody who gave a damn who we were wouldn't have had much trouble parsing that lot.

And it wasn't real long before we got hauled off the street and dragged in to present ourselves before one of the Guildspeakers of the Triskadane. Fortunately, they were as concerned about Cardask's recent behavior as we were. So while things were a bit touchy diplomatically about Kindric sending undercover knights to infiltrate Oursk while his ambassador was up to no good, we managed to talk our way out of deep dunghills by spewing some of what we knew. Hold the metaphor. We wound up in the Deep Dung Heaps later. Different story. Pass me the chips.

The Guildspeaker told us to watch our step and let us go about our business. Oh yeah, and he pointed us to some . .. um . . other important folks in the city that had had some accounting errors and missing personnel and asked us to look into it and no I'm not going to talk about who and what because I like being enrolled here, thank you very much. And no, I didn't use any of that info during my admissions interview. What do you take me for? You are buying the next round young man, or my voice may dry up entirely before I get through this.

So, Master Deltarion got us rooms at the Golden Owl--you know-the posh "Mages Only" hotel up the Garden District? The Defenders had never seen anything so swanky in all their hillbilly days. We had to agree to pretend we were Arcade's entourage, I think, to get rooms for the rest of us.

Not hard for me, I WAS his entourage. But it rankled with some of the others.

Anyway, The Owl asked us to check our weapons and stuff, and we did--at least some of the weapons and stuff, and they put it into a locked safe in the lobby behind the manager's desk. Anyone? Anyone? Right, yeah we were anxious about it and gave 'em crap, and they convinced us it was safe and necessary and we did it. Look, I didn't say this was our finest hour story, right? I don't want to hear it.

And then we went over to the Pig's Eye to meet Ambassador SuperDopp's contact. You know, that sleezy place by the docks? Indifel, was the proprietor, then. Right. Charming fellow. Had a little doggie named Rex. Also charming.

One thing and another we decided we needed to go down to the basement to check things out, and bumped into Rex down there.

Master Badgerclaw popped up on the psychic plane just to have a little looksee if there was anything interesting about, and immediately came screaming back "Brain on legs! Brain on legs!" pointing at Rex. And after that, well, it wasn't hard for all of us to see that Rex wasn't your usual hound.

It didn't take us long to figure out that Rex was also really hard to damage, and really generous with the punishment he was dishing, so we beat a strategic retreat.

Letssee, we met Roud around here somewhere. You know my pal Roud, the sailor? Can't recall that meeting--you'd think I would. All I know is the old geezer made a fool outta some of my pals who stupidly got into sparring with him. No harm done, and we took him out for beer and paella and he filled us in on the local scene, and I decided that anybody who could make my Masters look foolish that easily was somebody worth knowing. There aren't a lot of those out there we can still drink beer with after the combat. Anyway, he turned out to be a friend worth making.

Hmmm--you wouldn't believe how hard it is to put this all together. I didn't keep real good notes in those days, and half the time I wasn't paying attention anyway. Where we were going and why wasn't my department. Clean alembics, refilled mugs, shiny armor, oiled tack, that sort of thing was my department.

We followed some piece of the conspiracy to an undertakers in Oursk. And we ran into Silverpin Bloodmantle, Deathgranter of Toraz, there. There was an ugly combat. Oh wait--before that--we'd found a Torazite unholy symbol and Claris took it to her local Vindusite temple to report the Torazite activity, and the Rewarders there thanked her for the info and then beat her for bringing an unholy symbol into the temple.

Not as bad as the time we defiled the Temple of Alianna in Rampart and they almost had to burn it down to purify it, but same kinda deal. Or later when we dumped that undying lizard's ruby rod on the Temple of Morphat and the damned dracolich ate the whole temple to get it back, but still, the Rewarders aren't known for their sense of perspective. Moral: Don't bring unknown religious items into temples for identification, ok? Just don't do it.

It was at about this point that we started to understand that Toraz had something to do with the Brotherhood of Night, I think. Anyway, we bumped into these Torazites while we were tracking down the conspiracy, and maybe they was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't recall whether they were actually part of the conspiracy or not, but they were Evil with a capital E and we got into the fisticuffs. Only Bloodmantle had this unbelievable shield that nothing could get through, including spells. And Claris was incredible--Vindusites hate Torazites--and ok, his shield was tough, but he was in full plate and slow. and Claris, she's pretty fast with those hands, and she travels light..

And then--oh, . .oh dear, he did, didn't he? The only liquid in the room was a vat full of embalming leeches and. . .and . . .I don't know how to put this . . . Nolin cast Insatiable Thirst on one of Bloodmantle's pals.

It was a naaaasty death.

And I think I used some illusion gizmo or other I had at the time to stick a cantaloupe on Bloodmantle's nose at a bad moment, and he lost a lot of visibility. And while he was distracted with that, Claris just ordered him to surrender, in a voice like the wrath of Vindus himself, and by golly, Bloodmantle did. And we tied him up, and that was pretty much that, apart from the gloating.

Ok, gloating might be a bit strong for it, but I think Claris really did enjoy bringing Bloodmantle's body back to the Rewarders, stripped of any unholy symbols, of course. Imagine "Hi, it's me, the Pilgrim you just beat up, here to drop off an Anti-paladin my friends and I just defeated." She never said it of course, but you could see that little shining, satisfied look in her eyes.

And Velendo had heard something about needing to find himself a shield, and well, there was a nice one lying there, apart from the taint of Evil all over it, which was pretty short work for him once he got it cleaned up. Calphasians don't have problems with working over unholy things in their workshops. Turned it to some Good use since then, he has. You wouldn't believe some of the things Calphas has room for in his temples. Good solid construction those.

Anyway, Bloodmantle's death didn't win us any friends amongst the followers of Toraz, but it wasn't really part of how we wound up in the sand.

Apart from generally making us feel cocky and distracted.

We went back to The Golden Owl to plan, and to muddle through our Pile of Obscure Prophecies. And there was this festival happening outside. Can you believe we were actually in town for the Festival of Psorga, and we spent the whole damn thing cooped up in a conference room, bickering? Yes, that is true. I'm not making any of this up--my memory may be faulty in places, but that part I remember clearly. The whole town having a party and dumping vast amounts of gold into the sea, and we were sitting around a table in an attic fooling around with a big pile of books and papers. Alix and Tomtom rolling dice, trying not to think about the amount of gold being tossed into the waves, or what would happen if they messed with a single coin of it.

And so Master Loial, who is in a mood, sent the innkeep out for a pie, and then sent me out after him to "practice lurking.". Yes, mark that part down--they sent me out. So I went. Following orders is what apprentices do. Remember how I said I wasn't always paying real close attention at that time?

You will forgive my blurry recollection of what occurred next because I spent most of it unconscious. This blond lady came up to me and asked for directions, and I remember her breath was very sweet, and oddly cloudy, like she'd been smoking a pipe, only she didn't smell like pipeweed. And that was all she wrote for the Boy Hostage. Apologies, I missed the bit with the ransom note and the spurious negotiations and the combat and the destruction of the inn. It must have been special, because our foes had instructions to take us all down and not kill any of us, and they succeeded. That must have taken some doing.

Next thing I knew there was sea air in my nostrils, sand in my mouth, and little waves patting my cheeks.

We woke up naked, and buried up to our necks in the sand of beach on a small offshore island. We were about ten or twenty feet from each other, all facing the sea in a long straight row. Except for Nyquil, who was planted about ten feet in front of Arcade.

And there was this weedy looking poncy guy there, and a big hulking menace with a scimitar. Mr. Muscles, Tomtom informs us, is immune to psionic attacks because he's already had his brain meddled with to the point that there isn't much in there. He's been conditioned to obey real simple orders like like "anybody who tries to get out of the sand, chop his melon off."

Mr. Weedy turns out to be a lordling named Peggus, the contact mentioned on Ambassador SuperDopp's notes. How delightful--we've made our rendezvous. He also turns out to be the twin brother of Clit, the lady mercenary Nolin drowned way back when. Truth to tell, while he cackled madly about avenging her death at last, we were scratching our heads trying to remember who she was. Well, metaphorically scratching our heads, because, of course, our hands were buried along with the rest of us.

That seemed to irk him, too.

So, this got tedious pretty quickly, because we weren't much interested in feeling sorry for her--it was an ambush, right? Pretty clear case of self defense, which is mostly what we were considering while we sat there watching the waves creep up the beach . . . .

Yawn. Well, that's pretty much it, apart from the stuff about the Mind Flayer who was manipulating Peggus's grief and masterminding the whole plot, at least this subsection of the plot to Blot Out the Sun, but we didn't met him till later.

So. There you are. That is how we got Buried Up to The Neck in Sand, more or less. Look at that hourglass. And me with scads of Spellcraft Translations yet to do . . . Right, where was I mates? Right, on the beach. Naked, apart from the sand and the seaweed. Admiring the view. Wondering whether it would be the last view I ever saw and why there weren't any naked women in it. Well, Tao was naked, but she was also buried way off to my right, and I couldn't see her at all. And Claris don't count, 'cause even if I could get a peek it wouldn't be worth the price I'd pay for it.

Well, anyway, I wish I could tell you how the Lady who did show up made her entrance, but all I could see was the water pulling back down the beach before smacking that gritty saltwater up my nose and into my eyes again. And me without so much as a fingertip free to wipe my nose, or flip off the bastards who did this to us.

I'd've shut my eyes, but I was trying to keep a watch on the big bald guy with the scimitar, who looked like he was loosening up his arm for a little golfing practice, just in case any of us got too wiggly. And hey, if I gotta die a nasty painful death, I'm not gonna miss the show when I've already gone and paid a heap for front row seats. So I did a lot of squinting instead.

Anyway, I remember hearing Tomtom say, "I'm in. That ought to soften him up," which meant he'd begun a psionic attack on one of our captors, but I don't know what he had planned.

And I remember catching a glimpse of Nyquil--he was a bit out in front of us, closer to the water--but he's an owl, see, so he could turn his head back to look at his master while he blew bubbles, and I could tell he saw something behind us, but I couldn't tell what he saw coming over the dunes.

And then I heard her speak.

"Hey there," she said, and I thought I knew the voice, but I couldn't quite remember who it was at first. But everybody else knew who it was, and their expressions--well--I'd like to say they were all hopeful and relieved looking, but honestly, well, of all the folks TMoSaT might have gone to ask for help, I'm not sure the rest of us would have picked her if he'd asked us first.

TMoSaT--the Master of Space and Time--Arcade's psionic staff --could teleport, see? And though the bad guys had stripped us naked and confiscated all our stuff, they hadn't restrained any of it. So, naturally, TMoSaT went off to find someone to pry his "walking appendages" out of the sand. Why he picked Cadrienne, I'll never know.

I'm sure he regretted it. Rumor has it she made him ask nicely.

Anyway, Cadrienne -- I mean, the lady had thrown in the towel on adventuring years ago, and, worse, taken a vow of nonviolence, and another of poverty, and sold all her weapons and donated the proceeds to charity. Not exactly a cavalry charge come to mow down our enemies. What was she going to do, talk him to death?

And also, well, she was Cadrienne. When she said "Hey there," she wasn't talking to us. She was saying hi to Peggus.

"Cadrienne!" Nolin called.

"Who are you?" Peggus said, wheeling around. I couldn't see his fighting stance to tell whether he was a swordsman or a spellcaster or what, but I tell from the way he said it that he was dropping into one. "Do you know these people?"

The big bald slave with the scimitar remained resolutely fixed on us, taking a couple of practice backswings to gauge the stroke on Alix's head..

"I'm a friend, Cadrienne. And yes, I know them," she said. "They've gone and caused a lot of trouble again, haven't they?"

"These murderers killed my sister. I'm going to see them executed," he added defensively. "I deserve my chance to avenge her death."

"I'm sure you do," she said. "I know they've certainly caused all sorts of trouble before."

And at about this point, I recalled hearing that when Nolin's ex-girlfriend showed up once with a meat tenderizer to kill Nolin, Cadrienne had actually agreed that Cinda deserved a chance to kill him and loaned her a magical flail to make a better job of it. Later, she rationalized that she had been carrying raise dead and just didn't want to Nolin to have to suffer a lot of little painful blows when it could be handled with a clean kill, but that's beside the point. The point is, Cadrienne actually thought about stuff like whether somebody deserved a chance to kill you for something you'd done. Why, out of all the folks we knew back home, hadn't TMoSat picked someone else--anyone else?

"Their days of murdering are over," Peggus said smugly, "Their doom is assured and they will pay for what they have done."

Another wave leaned in and suggested heavily that my account was in arrears.

"You must have loved your sister very much," Cadrienne said. "If their doom is assured, why don't we go walk a bit so you can tell me about her? We needn't stay here to watch the unpleasantness of these people receiving justice. I'm sure it's well in hand."

And she began to walk down the beach, and Peggus followed her like a lost puppy who has found a tenderhearted housewife carrying home a leaky basket of ground round.

I got a glimpse of them as they crossed my field of view, and then I heard them until they passed over the dunes. I tell you now that she was cheating.. Nobody who has been seasick in the cargo hold of a ship for three days looks that good. Cadrienne was always a bit of a looker -- in a strictly too pure to be much fun defiling kind of way-- but that day, she was . . .well, she was cheating or I'm no Birdhouse.

I mean, apart from the smell, which Peggus didn't seem to notice. Probably he was walking upwind. She was wearing ratty blue canvas trousers with manure stains on 'em, and a white tunic with blue embroidery on it--really bad embroidery, I remember that. And her hair was mostly escaping from that blue kerchief she was wearing--if the outfit weren't Morphatian blue, you'd swear she was an ordinary farmwife, except that she was looking too charming to be merely mortal. She took his arm, gave him a sympathetic ear, and Peggus fell for the distraction, easy as that.

We didn't especially care whether that was her intent or not. It was a distraction, and since the salt cure was starting to be a nuisance, we figured it was as good a time as any for us to get to work.

Arcade disappeared under the sand in a blink so fast the slave didn't even have time to draw back the scimitar before there was nothing left to hit. Tomtom slipped into what little shadow he had, and was also silently gone. Enraged, the big slave turned back to the nearest target at hand. If I hadn't been craning my neck trying to see where Cadrienne and Peggus had wandered off to, I might have noticed and warned my dear old master, but I'm not sure what good that would have done him. Something--Alix always thought of something. But it was too late, and the blow to his head was sickening, and I'm glad I missed seeing it. The sound was bad enough.

"I don't believe this is happening," I heard Velendo say, and though he was too far down the beach for me to see, I knew that probably meant he was out.

For what it's worth, I did try wriggling my way out, but the folks who planted us knew their business, and I wasn't making much headway. Legway. Armway, whatever.

And then, just as the slave decided to try chopping at some more of the heads he could still see, the earth moved. And up from under Nyquil the sand rose, and rose, sprayed in all directions, and an enormous carapace broke through with a startled Nyquil still sitting atop. A real living Umber Hulk, just like the shell of the one we had seen back at the Academy of Flame', only this one was alive. With a single utterance Arcade had transformed himself, and was burrowing through the sand at tremendous speed.

There was some business with taking care of the slave, but he was nearly witless and didn't last long, and the rest of us were soon free, if somewhat battered, weak and completely sand-in-everywhere naked.

But I couldn't seem to catch my breath. Even after I got out of the sand, I was still choking like a fish.

So was everyone else.

There was something more we hadn't reckoned on--Peggus had poisoned the lot of us, just in case.

We went off to have a word with him about it. A good, sharp, pointed one.

It didn't take us long to find him. Peggus and Cadrienne were sitting under a tree, very close to each other. He was sitting quietly with his eyes closed, and she was sitting beside him, staring intently, almost anxiously, at him, but not quite touching him. She turned and looked at us coming and put a finger to her lips and held up her other hand in a gesture that meant "wait."

Wait. Oh bother. She wasn't going to let us take him in fair combat. She was going to make us parley with the poncy git. Oooo-oooh, and we were gonna have to spare his life, 'specially since Alix was out of commission and we couldn't expect anybody else to make the necessary "mistakes." I missed my old master, and his body wasn't even cold in the ground yet.

And then Peggus opened his eyes and there were tears in them. Not so they'd drip, but full anyway. He looked and looked at her, with strange things in his expression I'll never understand. And then he saw us, and it clouded over, his face settling back into the mask of hatred.

"Except that they're going to kill me now," he said. "Not that that will do them any good. They will die anyway." He shook his head. "It's just as well. We will make an end of it today, and the hurting will end."

"No," she said urgently, "it's not just as well. It doesn't have to be that way. You know it. You can change how it ends. You can."

"Why should I?"

"Because it won't end your pain. If you die this way, today, you will spend eternity in the place where your sister's deceivers will spend theirs. If you live today, if you set yourself free from them, then you will have a chance to choose your eternity. I do not hate those who are Evil, but you have not chosen Evil for yourself. You were led into it, and will never be comfortable there. While you live, you can still choose. Choose a path that is better for you."

Or something like that, anyway. That sort of thing, approximately.

And he gave us the antidote.

Honestly, he did, just like that. Oh, there was some bargaining and bickering, general distrust all around, but we never really had to lean on him. He took us aboard his ship and gave us back our clothes and stuff, and took us back to Oursk and let us go. We returned the courtesy and let him go, too. Mostly because Cadrienne asked us to, and it was the only thing she asked for to clear the debt for rescuing us. Pathetic.

Cadrienne for some reason refused to set foot on the ship. She tried to walk up the gangplank and then shuddered and pulled away and said she couldn't go. He offered to stay to protect her, but she sent him on with us--we were in a hurry to catch up with that bastard illithid Sla-mori who had set the whole thing up, and said she could transport herself home safely in the morning.

We'd had enough of our beach holiday at that point, and had work to do, so we left her there, alone on the beach.



Note from Sialia to Piratecat Hmm, as I recall one of the notes on the Ambassadopple's papers was "11/2 Clith and Peggus: Good Gift"

Lessee . . .today is just about 11/2 by my reckoning. . . .Now let me see, is there anything around here that looks giftwrapped?

Response from Piratecat: Yes. You.

out from it in