Seven children of the East have just crossed the Great River with their Dwarf Wagonmaster. They make camp; the Wagonmaster summons a roaring fire with a handful of Firepalm Ore, one of the many wonders that lie West of the river. He boasts that only a dwarf can handle it responsibly, as the "softer" races will suffer grievous burns from handling the ore. The tiefling in the group keeps his own counsel.
They all do, for the most part, all of them unsure of the others, unwilling to reveal themselves. The rather sultry looking Elven maiden, Kylia, even stands off far from the others, unwilling to socialize. Her winsome looks hide a sociopathic streak; she'd cut their throats for a few bags of gold. Quieter still is the only other wood elf, Robyn. A bard by trade, though she's come west with no instruments or even weapons, only her horse. Jarmangle-- the tiefling, the rogue, the flirt-- makes eyes at her, but Robyn is unimpressed.
Tralamin, an Eladrin warlock, starts blathering about the ambiance of the West, indulging in the sort of flighty mumbo-jumbo that's his race's stereotypical stock-and-trade. Irving, a more sensible wizard and a human, decides not to roll his eyes and just nods politely.
The only other two humans are also the only two rangers: Feer is a huntswoman of the forest and lover of animal life who hopes to attract some pets, while Filliam is a most atypical ranger. His knowledge of the outdoors is more based on books than direct experience, and he prefers above all to be indoors, creating some sort of mechanical device or another. He lost his left hand somehow, and furnished his own replacement, complete with a mounted crossbow.
How he lost his hand, he doesn't say; none of them say much to each other at this stage. All of them wonder who the others are, and indeed, who they themselves will turn out to be.
The City of Firepalm
Come the next dawn, the group arrives in Firepalm. All of them strangers in a strange place, surrounded by dwarfs who seem more xenophobic than usual, some of them stay together as they explore the town in a big sticky awkward clump. Kylia and Jarmangle quickly break off from the group.
Jarmangle finds a leatherworker, and demands a whip for an absurdly low price. Through some skilled brow-beating, he manages to get it-- not an easy feat when haggling with a dwarf.
Kylia, meanwhile, with a mercenary streak that is quite becoming, bursts into the nearest inn and, somewhat clumsily, tries to find some disreputable work. She hears whispers that the Firepalm Mine, from whence the dwarfs of Firepalm acquire their wondrous ore, has been the scene of some trouble lately; ore's been mighty slow making its way to town, and some of the miners have met with unfortunate accidents. The nomadic gnollish tribes are thought to be the culprits.
Kylia starts out to meet the mayor of the town so that she might fetch a decent price to investigate the mine. En route, she is intercepted by Jarmangle, who suggests that they include the others. A little disappointed to be sharing her potential bounty, Kylia relents.
The seven head into the Mayor's office, and he hires them to investigate the mine, to determine what's going on, to clear out the gnolls that might be within, and to bring back a bag of the ore to prove they had been there. Kylia and Jarmangle negotiate with the Mayor, relying on comeliness and intimidation, respectively, until he agrees to pay each member of the group one hundred gold coins. He also agrees to furnish them with a dwarven lunch-- plates and plates of hearty and savory dishes, piping hot-- at the tavern across the street.
In that tavern, a wizened dwarven prospector warns them that all is not as it seems. They are not the first adventurers sent to the mine, though if they returned they would be the first to do so. There also didn't use to be quite so many wagonmasters sent back East to bring new non-Dwarfs to Firepalm. They take his warning at face value. Then he scoops up one of Jarmangle's drumsticks right off his plate. Jarmangle, thinking he might impress the others with an acrobatic feat, attempts a back-flip over the prospector, so that he might snatch his drumstick back. Instead, he lands flat on his back.
On the way to the mine, the seven adventurers spot in the distance one of the tribal gnolls that roam the West. Armed with a spear and wearing only a loin-cloth, he is taller and leaner than what they had come to expect. He rides a massive turtle, whom he has apparently tamed with the use of a carved horn. They lose sight of him shortly after they spotted him.
Tralamin stops and makes the others wait while he samples various leaves of grass that he insists have holisitic remedies.
When they come to the mine, they find the turtle, sans rider, waiting outside. Cautiously, Filliam indulges his naturalist streak and determines the turtle's gender-- female. Robyn ties her horse near the entrance of the mine, and together the seven head inside.
Into the Mine
The first thing they notice is that the first room of the mine is filled with heaps and heaps of dung. Irving correctly identifies it as gnoll feces, and with a simple spell clears a path. In the process of doing so, he unveils a dwarven breastplate. To the horror of the group, Filliam puts the dung-smeared armour on.
Filliam notes that gnolls, being generally pretty fastidious about covering their tracks, would only leave their dung out in the open as a kind of warning. (Or so, at least, he has read.) The group decides they should then proceed with some caution.
A small crevice to the right reveals a number of mining instruments-- a pick axe, a broken shovel, a glove for handling the magic ore, and a "thunder-cracker", the latter being a magical implement that sends bolts of thunder crashing into the rocky earth. Feer swings the heavy thunder-cracker over one shoulder, while Irving appropriates the half-broken shovel as a wand. Filliam slides the special Firepalm Glove over his good hand. Kylia is slightly miffed that she hasn't found anything for herself just yet, but resolves to spend the rest of the adventure grabbing as much as she can, as quickly as she can.
Moving deeper into the mine, they come across a bizarre sight: it is a dwarven miner, quite dead, his skin red and crackled, his eyes ashen, his beard burnt off his face. He is arranged ceremonially in the middle of a chalk circle, with gnollish symbols running the perimeter. Irving uses a ritual to comprehend the language, and finds that it, too, is a form of warning. The tongue of these gnolls being quite unlike our own-- they have no sentences, only one-word fragments that derive their meanings from prefixes, suffixes, and special markings within a given character-- it's hard to make out much more than a few key words: danger and ignorance being chief among them.
Next to the body, and arranged as part of the ceremony, is a bag of the ore. Kylia grabs the bag and suggests that they head back to Firepalm. They can tell the mayor they cleared out the mine, that everything's fine after all, collect their money, and skip town before anyone is the wiser. The other six are appalled and press on.
While Irving is casting his ritual, Filliam-- much to the olfactory relief of his fellow travelers-- cleans his Dwarven Breastplate of Stench.
There were once two path, but one has been dammed up with rocks. Despite their best efforts, they cannot get it to budge. They go down the other path, and come to a couple of forks in the road. As they turn down one of them, they find themselves surrounded by a group of gnolls.
The battle that follows is fierce and hard-fought. Filliam and Irving manage to escape the pincer maneuver, and they fire off crossbow shots and magic missiles, respectively. Feer and Kylia do the bulk of the fighting, and take the bulk of the damage. Feer is at the mercy of a gnoll with a sort of ice charm necklace, but providence intervenes when the gnoll improbably hits itself, freezing its heart. Feer grabs the necklace and its remaining two gems. Kylia finds herself near death, and would surely have succumbed if not for the timely intervention and soothing song of the elven bard Robyn.
The tide eventually turns against the gnolls, with only one remaining; he tries to escape. Now the seven Easterners pull of a pincer attack of their own, and the ruthless Jarmangle finishes him off. The adventurers take a moment to recover from their wounds and search the bodies for anything of import. Though a bard would be more likely to derive use from the turtle-horn, Kylia grabs it for herself, along with a heavy flail.
Working their way deeper into the mine, they come to an elevator shaft. Standing on top of the rickety wooden box, they see a gnoll impeccably dressed in the style of an Easterner wearing a strange pair of mechanical goggles that emit beams of blinding light from its eye-holes. It checks its pocket watch before slicing the rope with a knife. The elevator and the gnoll both descend rapidly. By the time the adventurers are able to peer down the shaft, they are unable to see the gnoll.
Kylia, perhaps sensing another chance to loot a body undisturbed, ties a length of rope to the bit of rope that dangles from the pulley attached to the rocky ceiling. She unwinds the rest of the pulley-rope with its crank and then rappels down the shaft. She almost loses her grip, but manages to hang on.
When she reaches the bottom, she notices that the strange gnoll has disappeared. He has, however, left his goggles, his pocket-watch, and a ritual stone. Kylia knows that others in her party would desire these items, but that doesn't mean she should be a sap and just give them up; each of them instead will have to make a bargain with her, will have to trade something of value.
Kylia nimbly scoots out of the shaft into the mining area below, and the others crank the elevator back up. Going only two at a time, they carefully lower themselves down. Irving, being the last, uses one of his spells to operate the crank.
Once they've all safely made it to the bottom, Kylia begins striking bargains; she acquires the Firepalm Glove from Filliam in exchange for the watch and goggles. Tralamin receives the ritual stone, but no one else in the group is quite sure what he gives Kylia in exchange.
Irving doesn't bother petitioning for the stone, because he is too busy studying their surroundings; all around them are walls that have been gutted of their ore. The dwarfs must have bled the mine dry.
The Trapped Fire Dwarfs
A underground lake stretches out before them, and with it, a rather untrustworthy looking boat. They decide to risk it and press onward.
Soon, they come across three strange figures, dwarfs whose beards are made of flame. They are not the Azers, they soon realize, but rather dwarven miners who have been driven insane (and fiery) through over-exposure to the ore. Trapped on tiny parcels of land, they pathetically lash and stumble in the general direction of the boat; a few well-aimed arrows and spells quickly put them out of their misery.
On the other side of the lake, they find the well-dressed gnoll. Speaking eloquently in the language of the East, he cryptically dodges their questions before directing their attention to a giant, ancient door in the wall of the rock. The ritual stone now in Tralamin's possession shines, and he knows once he has acquired the experience and knowledge necessary to master its secrets, he will be able to use it to open the door. For what reason and to what purpose, the gnoll will not say.
He disappears in a puff of smoke, and the adventurers make their way to another elevator. A careful climb and a magic spell later, and all seven of them have ascended to the surface, coming again face-to-face with the ceremonially displayed dwarven corpse. The path that was once cluttered and immovable is unobstructed. And they know that one day, perhaps, they will return.
Fun with Turtles
The turtle and Robyn's horse both wait outside the mine. Robyn climbs onto her horse, while Kylia tries to lure the turtle with the horn she stole from its rider. At first, the turtle is unresponsive, resolving to wait despondently for the master she knows will never return. But Kylia is obstinate, and soon she and others are able to mount the turtle. It tolerates them for a brief moment, and then throws them off, returning to the mine entrance so that she may await the dead gnoll's return.
The seven adventurers return to Firepalm; the sun has set, and the town seems almost eerily devoid of life. They go to the Mayor, and he is quite surprised to see them alive. Irving's concerns about the insane fire dwarfs are met with a hand-wave. When the Mayor tries to weasel out of their payment, Kylia becomes angry and hoists above her head the great fiery hammer she took off the body of one of the fire dwarfs. She brings it down on the Mayor's head.
To their surprise, the Mayor bursts into flame, his beard made of fire, his eyes glowing red. The Mayor is a fire dwarf!
So, it turns out, are the rest of the residents. They know about the dangers; they just don't care, and now they hunger for the flesh of other humanoids.
Our heroes quickly leave the town, and-- at Jarmangle's request-- start heading in the direction of Hodam, a city renown for its drinking, gambling, and whores.