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Adventures in the Eastern Provinces

the Jester

Legend
4/1/2530 S.C.

It’s a nice spring day. The weather is just right- a little overcast, a little windy, warm but not hot. It’s the perfect kind of day, Shifty reflects, for a mark to come into town.

The balls arc in the air, from one hand to the other, then reversing direction. He adds another ball to the mix. Most of the locals have seen it before, but it still gets him a drink or two from time to time- not to mention the occasional coin from visitors. Of course, most of Overland’s traffic comes from Woodcut, which is a small, not-too-wealthy village a little less than 20 miles away. That means that the average visitor doesn’t have much more money than the average local. Things used to be busier, but that was before the river shifted, drying up the creek that the village had used to float logs to Overland. Now the lumberjacks have to haul their timber by wagon, which is slower and more expensive.

Shifty catches all the balls in his small, weathered hands, tucks them into his satchel and bows to the smattering of applause from his regulars. Someone buys him a cheap cup of wine and he sits at the window and sips at it, hoping he will see an opportunity coming his way.

The small gnome strokes his van Dyke beard and nurses his wine for a few moments before he sees a pair of figures crossing the creek on the ferry. The Swift Wagon is at the edge of town, just below the ferry itself. As it is so close to the crossing, the inn attracts a lot of the strangers in town and is therefore a wonderful place to find a mark to steal from. That is why Shifty hangs out here so much. At first, as the figures approach, his interest deflates, for he recognizes them as a pair of locals. But then it is piqued again, for they are battered and bruised! The two figures look like they have been beaten, and both of them look scared and shaken.

Shifty tries to hide his keen interest in them as they sit at the bar. Curly, the man tending said bar, exclaims, “What the hell happened to you two? Here, these are on me!” He pulls the bung from an ale keg and pours each of them a draught.

“We were at the mud baths,” one of them says, “and we were attacked. A group of frog people came and drove most of the people there off!”

“I think they killed the old man that tended the baths, too,” adds the other.

”They beat us- we were lucky to escape alive.”

”Were there other people at the baths?” Curly asked. “What happened to them?”

“I don’t know for sure. They drove us off. But I saw that they captured a couple of other folk.”

“One of them was that woman, what’s her name, Bylla,” the other says.

Curly whistles. “They say that she’s got some property down in Grumbleford. She’s a pretty wealthy landowner, isn’t she?”

Aha, thinks Shifty.

***

The hardest tavern in town is the Silver Fish. Tall-Oh-Gee (but call him Cavemouth) is trying, but he just can’t sucker anyone into arm wrestling him or engaging in a drinking contest. The fact that he is penniless doesn’t help, as he has nothing to wager (and the keeper has already stated that he will not accept a mace as payment).

Maybe the fact that he is an imposing 7’8” tall and nearly 300 pounds of rock-hard, dark grey mottled muscle has something to do with it, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. He could really use a drink. Too bad the townies don’t have any good old fashioned moonshine, but you can’t win them all.

“I’ll drink any of ya under the table,” he challenges again, but again, most of the tavern’s other patrons ignore him. This time, however, one of them responds.

“Ha! I’ll bet you the cost of the drinks that I can outlast ya!” the dwarf sneers.

“Um,” the goliath admits, “I can’t really afford that.”

“Well, then, what do you have to wager?”

“No maces,” the keeper says severely. “I only take coin.”

The goliath scowls. The dwarf laughs. “Here, I’ll buy you a round,” he chuckles.

“My thanks,” Cavemouth replies. He takes the watery beer from the keeper and sips it. Just a sip- he’ll need to make this one last. “I don’t suppose you need anyone to help you brew beer?”

The dwarf laughs again. “Not me,” he answers, “but if you’re looking for work, I know a farmer a few miles outside of town who needs some strong arms to split some wood and do some labor. And if you’re interested in brewing, I know he makes some very good applejack.”

Cavemouth grunts. “Thanks for the beer.” He scowls up at the keeper and stands. I think it’s time to find a new tavern, maybe see if I can find someone who’ll take the bait. He heads out to the street, limbering his arms as he goes. His plate armor clanks around him; his greataxe is strapped to his back. I should try the inn at the edge of town. Maybe I can get some out of towners to wrestle me or something.

He walks north to the edge of town and pushes through the doors into the Swift Wagon. An old gnome, with white hair, a combover and a van Dyke is walking towards the door.* He stops, stares at the huge goliath, and cries, “You’re exactly the kind of person I’m looking for!”

Cavemouth halts, somewhat puzzled.

“There’s a damsel in distress,” says the gnome. “A rich damsel in distress. I need some muscle to rescue her. By the way,” he adds, “I’m Shifty.”

“Call me Cavemouth,” the goliath replies. “All right, you’ve got my interest. Tell me more.”

“Well,” the gnome answers, “it seems that she’s been kidnapped by frog people at the mud baths north of town. I was about to go try to find out more information about them- I know a local sage.”

“All right,” nods Cavemouth. “Sounds good so far. I’m in.”

The two of them proceed across town to the tower of Karlinndan, the local sage and wizard. (Shifty met him once, long ago in the Feywild, before the terrible events that led to the loss of his village, and now Karl sometimes provides him information about interesting items that the gnome has picked up.) Shifty raps at the door, and a few minutes later the party is inside, conversing with a middle-aged eladrin with long hair and spectacles. Books are everywhere in his tower.

“Frog men, eh?” muses the eladrin sage.

“Yeah, and the guys I talked to said that they were repulsive to be around,” Shifty replies. “They used primitive weapons and armor, too.”

“Sounds like you’re dealing with bullywugs. They’re foul little buggers. It is said that they are the creation of primordials rather than gods, and that nature itself is revolted by them. It’s fascinating, really.”

“Well, we need some help to deal with them,” Shifty says, “and there’s a rich damsel in distress involved...”

***

Shifty, Cavemouth and Karl head to the market square, where (so Shifty says) they can probably pick up some more muscle to deal with the bullywugs. They find the person that he is looking for seated on a bench, watching the crowd (or rather, looking for marks, much as Shifty had been doing at the Wagon). Karl cocks an eyebrow at her startling blue color and horns. “Sepia,” he nods to the tiefling. “It has been a while.”

“You two know each other?” asks Shifty.

“We met about a year ago,” the wizard replies. “I was doing some research about tieflings, so naturally, it seemed logical to go to the source.”

“What’s going on?” the tiefling asks, and Shifty explains the situation. “I’m in,” she says, “and if there’s room for one more, I see a friend of mine over there.” She gestures towards a small figure that at the others at first take to be a human child, but then realize is a halfling. She walks over to him. “Good afternoon, Hammhokk,” she says.

“And to you,” the small figure pipes up. “I was just looking to see whether you might have anything going on that you might need help with.”**

“Funny you should ask,” she replies.

***

The newly-assembled party heads out of town, going north along the creek side. It is early afternoon- they figure that they’ll reach the mud baths sometime the next afternoon. They make decent time, trekking along the rough, intermittent trails, moving amongst dry scrubs and brush.

Until, suddenly, parts of the brush come to life and attack.

Small, twig-like creatures that rush in, surrounding the party in waves of almost overwhelming numbers! Cavemouth starts hewing about him with his axe while Sepia and Shifty start fighting back with daggers. But the strange twig monsters leave an itching, burning poison behind in their wounds, and soon Sepia is retreating, trying to keep her distance from her attackers.

Karl fey steps out of a circle of the enemy, and then fires a scorching burst where he had just been, blasting two of the twig blights to pieces. Then, to his horror, he sees two large vines in the brush start to move. One creeps forward and lashes out, impaling Sepia. She screams in pain, almost fainting. The other impales Cavemouth, dealing terrific damage, and then draws back, pulling him with it. “It’s trying to eat me!” he screams, and hacks at it with his axe.

Sepia pulls herself free and tries to back away, but more of the twig blights scratch her and the poison grows worse. She falters, then collapses.

”You can do it!” Hammhokk cries majestically. “You’re my best friend!”

Arcane power courses from the halfling, and some of Sepia’s wounds close up. Her eyes flutter open and she groans in pain.

Shifty dispatches the last of the twig blights tying him up and bounds in to aid his goliath ally, slashing with his dagger. The vine writhes as he cuts it deeply, and then Cavemouth hews it in two with his axe!

Another explosion of fire nearby eliminates two more of the twig blights, allowing Hammhokk to withdraw and pull his bow out. He fires an arrow, but misses the remaining vine. However, the party is now able to focus on it, and in a few moments it dies, cut to pieces.

“What were those things?” wonders Sepia.

“The little ones were twig blights,” Karl states. “The vines, I’m not so sure about.” He picks one up and examines it. “But look, the thorns are hollow.” He looks up at Cavemouth. “These things are bloodsuckers. You’re lucky you broke free of it!”

***

The party rests and sets watches. The night is chilly and clear, and they are undisturbed. While they strike camp, Hammhokk- whose first name is Jexx- comments, “We should reach the mud baths today.”

“Hopefully,” Shifty says, “we can also rescue that damsel in distress.”

About an hour after noon, they do indeed reach the mud baths, immediately encountering a group of the strange creatures known as bullywugs. Ranging in size from about 4’ to about 6’, the strange frog-folk are surrounded by a miasma of foul air that almost makes our heroes gag just to be around them. They prove immediately hostile, hopping to the attack. Behind the mud pits is a large willow tree whose branches reach the ground; another bullywug proves to be lurking back in there. Two of the frog-folk hurl rocks while the others move up to engage our heroes. Two of the three of them fall and hurt themselves while attacking, and the party dispatches them shortly, leaving one alive but unconscious as a captive.

“I don’t see any sign of the damsel,” Sepia says, after the party looks around, “but at least they had a few gold and silver pieces.” The party splits the loot; each of them ends up with 7 gp and 10 sp. It is certainly better than nothing, and for Cavemouth, it is the difference between no money at all and a few coins! He grins happily.

Karl says, “We can ask this fellow where the captive is, once he awakens, and if need be, I have a ritual that will allow me to comprehend his language.”

This proves to be a good thing, because the bullywug proves to be very, very stupid. It doesn’t understand much that the party says, does or pantomimes, but eventually, after a very trying series of agonizingly-slow breakthroughs, the party gets the bullywug to start leading them in the direction that his fellows took their captive.

About 200 yards down their trail, however, there is a complication: next to a large mud pit lays a pair of dead bullywugs, and no sign (at least from a distance) of their captive.

“Do we approach?” wonders Hammhokk.

“We ought to at least check out those bodies, I suppose,” Shifty says.

The group’s captive is clearly distressed. Karl can still understand its croaking, and he tells the others that it doesn’t seem to know what happened. “In fact, it seems to think that we killed its companions, and now we’re going to murder it.”

Hammhokk shrugs. “I’m going to let it go,” he says. “We’ve learned everything that we can from it.” With that, he unties it. “Go on, now. You’re free. Run!”

The bullywug bolts, hopping away, but as the party advances to examine the scene, the brush at the far edge of the mud pit rustles- and a pair of drakes emerges. Immediately, they charge at Cavemouth, working in concert and almost pulling him down before he even has a chance to draw his axe! One of them tears a chunk of his buttock out. Blood gushes and he bellows in pain.

“Uh oh,” says Shifty.

The mud starts to churn, and a pair of muddy figures rises up. They start throwing great big gobs of mud, plastering Sepia and Hammhokk, and the thick muck clings to them, slowing their movements.

The party starts to fight back, but then things get much worse. The ground starts to shake directly underneath Cavemouth, and in a spray of earth, a huge, insect-like creature emerges.

“ANKHEG!!” bellows Hammhokk.

Next Time: Will I TPK the new party so soon??

*Shifty’s player described him as “a fantasy Herb Tarlick.”

**Hammhokk’s player described him as “McCauley Caulkin with a harmonica.”
 

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the Jester

Legend
CAST OF CHARACTERS

Toll-Oh-Gee ("Cavemouth")- goliath fighter 1
Shifty- gnome rogue 1
Jexx Hammhokk- halfling bard 1
Sepia Umber- tiefling rogue 1
Karlinndan- eladrin wizard 1

Sepia is the only female pc at this time.
 

the Jester

Legend
The ankheg gives a shrill screech. Dust and earth are flying through the air around it. Still assailed by the drakes, Cavemouth gives a yell of surprise as the ground beneath him collapses towards the ankheg, and then he screams in pain as its great mandibles close on his leg. He flails his arms in the air as blood sprays everywhere from his wounded thigh.

The mudmen, meanwhile, hurl globs of mud at our heroes. Sepia and Hammhokk struggle to break out of the hardening shells of muck, their movements slowed by its thick weight. Shifty keeps his distance, trying to avoid being a target himself by keeping his friends between himself and the mudmen, and hurls shuriken back at them. They sink into the creatures’ muddy forms, clearly not doing much damage. Of course, he thinks, they’re made of mud. My weapons are only going to sink into them with minimal damage! Time to change targets. He hurls another shuriken, this one at a drake, and catches it in the eye. It howls in pain and springs towards him; its companion follows.

Karl fires a scorching burst at the drakes, distracting them again, and Sepia- finally breaking free of the mud- springs forward and cuts one of the lizard things with her knife. It bares its teeth, growling like a guard dog, and snaps at her, but she spins away, avoiding the blow.

The drakes close on Hammhokk. “Help!” the little halfling cries, trying desperately to free his legs and get some distance- but the mud clinging to him will not relinquish its grip. The halfling shrieks as long, dagger-sharp teeth tear into him from both sides.

Karl grimaces as the beasts dance around the bard. They’re too close to Hammhokk for another scorching burst, he thinks, and aims a magic missile at one of the creatures.

”HELP!” cries Cavemouth hoarsely. He struggles to free himself, but the ankheg’s mandibles grip him ever tighter. The bug-like creature begins backing its way down into its hole- taking Cavemouth with it! “HELP!!” the goliath repeats, even louder.

Sepia rushes in on one side, jabbing the ankheg with her dagger. Shifty hurls shuriken from the other. And although Cavemouth’s struggles cease, the ankheg squeals- and releases him, withdrawing to under the ground!

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” cries Shifty. “Oh, why did I try to save him?? He’s not worth it!”

“No,” Sepia answers. “He’s alive!” She shakes him, trying to bring him around. “Cavemouth! Wake up! We need your help!!”

Hammhokk finally breaks free of the mud and tumbles away from the drakes. “Ha!” he cries, firing an arrow from his shortbow into one of the drakes’ flank. The beast looks momentarily confused, and then refocuses on Sepia. “It was her, not me!” the bard squeals.* Then he spies his unconscious warrior friend- and cries, “Oh no! Wake up, Cavemouth, you can do it! You’re my best friend!”**

The goliath’s grey eyelids flutter- and then open. He groans. Takes a quick look around at the situation- and struggles to his feet, axe in hand. With a roar, he leaps forward, up out of the ankheg hole- and swings, striking a telling blow to one of the drakes. It shakes its head, looking slightly dazed.

The ground erupts again, this time underneath Shifty, but the gnome is too quick, darting away- and in to flank the badly-wounded drake. His dagger slips in to the thing’s neck, and the drake collapses in a great gout of blood.

The ankheg rears up and flows forward, following him. Shifty cries out and flings another shuriken at it, and Sepia stabs it in the side. Bug juice flows out and the thing jerks back, bloodied- and burrows back under the ground.

Hammhokk feels something (a ball of mud, to be exact) slam into the back of his head, and he falls unconscious. Karl starts blasting the mudmen with scorching bursts while Sepia, Shifty and Cavemouth engage the remaining drake. All of our heroes are wounded, as is the drake and one of the mudmen. Karl now turns his attention to the other, noting with satisfaction that his scorching bursts work significantly better than weapon attacks.

Unfortunately, the drake fells Cavemouth again before the two rogues manage to slay it.

“We have to save Hammhokk and Cavemouth!” cries Sepia.

“They’re not worth it!” replies Shifty, but he springs forward to try nonetheless.

Another scorching burst damages both mudmen, but neither one drops. Looking at the shape everyone is in, Karl cries, “Let’s get out of here!”

Shifty reaches Hammhokk and grabs him by the collar. He drags the diminutive bard back a few paces, even as the mudmen keep firing on him. Sepia and Karl, meanwhile, manage to get to their fallen goliath ally.

No way can we lift him, thinks Karl. He and Sepia start shaking and slapping him to bring him around, and after a moment, the goliath’s eyes open yet again. With a groan, he staggers up and looks around.

“I was too late!” cries Shifty, abandoning Hammhokk’s body as another ball of mud strikes him. He staggers away, slowed by the mud already hardening on his body. “Oh no! Why did I try to save him? He wasn’t worth it!!”

Karl shouts, “Go! Everyone, run!!” He fires another scorching burst to cover the party’s retreat and prepares to go help Shifty, but the gnome manages to shake the mud off.

The four remaining would-be heroes run for their lives as mud balls keep pelting them from behind. They don’t slow until they are well out of range.

”Damn it!” curses Karl. “We need reinforcements.”

“Especially a healer,” agrees Shifty. “Maybe some kind of priest.”

Cavemouth snorts. “More muscle will do the trick.” He pauses thoughtfully. “You know, there is a group of mercenaries that encamps not far from here. I have a friend that works with them- maybe he can help us.”

“We need someone, that’s for sure,” replies Sepia.

The party strikes out, heading south along the creek for a mile or two before turning more or less west for a few miles. Before long, a group of tents comes into view- a haphazard collection, disorganized and loose. There are pickets of guards around it, but it is very clear that this group of mercenaries (who are probably really closer to being bandits than a traditional mercenary company) lacks any kind of professional discipline. Then again, thinks Karl, when was the last time there was real work for mercenaries around here?

The party keeps their guard up as they approach the pickets. When the party gets within about twenty yards, the guards raise crossbows and one calls out, “That’s close enough!”

Cavemouth steps forward. “Hail,” he calls, his hands empty and raised.

“What do you want?” the guards’ speaker hollers.

“I am looking for one of my friends,” Cavemouth responds. “Kane. You may have seen me before- I dragged him here one night after, uh, some drinking.”

The guard squints at him for a moment, then says, “Oh, it’s you! Okay, come on in.” He turns and exchanges some words with the other guards, who laugh. Cavemouth lets out a deep breath and the party moves into the messy camp. Garbage litters the paths between the sprawls of tents. Before long, the group reaches a small, grease-stained tent with many patches and tears in it.

“Kane!” calls the goliath. “It’s me, Cavemouth.”

“Ah, big one!” comes a voice from within, and the man inside steps out into the light. He is wearing thick hide armor, replete with sewn cuts. A broadsword is strapped at his side, its pommel well-worn and stained by the salty sweat of a dozen battles. Black hair falls straight to his shoulders. Beneath his heavy brow, dark eyes stare out.

“We have come seeking your aid,” Cavemouth says as the two grip forearms. “Frog men have taken over the mudbaths and kidnapped a wealthy damsel...”

“Bullywugs,” puts in Kane.

“The damsel is rich,” adds Shifty.

“...and we’re trying to rescue her.”

“Is there a reward?” asks the mercenary.

“We hope so,” Sepia quips.

Shifty says, “The woman is rich, and she has a reputation for fair play. We think we can trust that we’ll be rewarded.”

“But there is no guarantee,” adds Sepia.

Kane rubs his chin. Although the party cannot tell, he is attempting the difficult mental feat of calculating how long his money will last. Given the expense of hiring multiple whores in the same night, he is pretty sure that it won’t be too long. Besides, the big one is good in a fight, and he did pull me out of that tavern after I killed a bunch of people before the watch could get me. “Who else goes with you?”

“These folk behind me,” Cavemouth replies.

“You travel with child, a demon and a librarian?” exclaims Kane.*** “No wonder you need a strong arm! Very well, I will help you- for a fair share of the money.”

“Of course,” Shifty says. “We’re also looking for a priest or healer of some kind. Is there, perhaps, someone in your band that might be able to help?”

“We are a free company, not a band,” Kane corrects. Then he shrugs. “There is Shar. She is a priest, but I hold no truck with magic.” Disdainfully, he adds, “We can go to see if she is interested if you wish.”

“Yes,” the other four say in unison.

***

The cult of the Sword Emperor has existed for as long as the Empire has, in its present form. Of course, it predates its present form, but whatever its ancestor was, whatever faiths it held to, are no longer relevant.

The cult is found amongst warriors of all kinds, from brigands to generals. Not all soldiers follow its path, but those who seek true excellence with their skill at arms respect its tenets. To turn the martial into the spiritual- to be one with one’s weapon- to fight. They are values held by those who not only live by the sword, but enjoy living by the sword.

Thus, even such a small mercenary group as the Twin Javelins- who have between fifty and eight swords at any given time- has a small shrine to the Emperor within it. Weapons left as sacrifices in the Sword Emperor’s name hang on lines above a greatsword that has been driven, point first, into the ground. On the ground before it is a circle 30’ in diameter, big enough for a duel between two small groups of fighters, for the challenge is always a distinct possibility in a shrine of the cult.

The party arrives to find the shrine tended by a slight female elf. “Shar,” greets Kane. “This big one is my friend. We are going to kill frog men and rescue rich damsels.”

The elf looks the group over.

”Bullywugs,” explains Shifty, “have captured a wealthy landowner from Gumbleford in the mud baths. If we rescue her, she will reward us.”

“Where there is battle, I follow,” the elf says.

***

Our heroes, their ranks swollen with their two new recruits, head back to the site of their ignominious defeat by the mudmen. Although the bodies of the drakes are still present, along with the corpses of the bullywugs that first drew their attention. Mud is splattered everywhere from the previous fight. But the mudmen do not rise from their pool to attack- at least, not yet.

“Where is this missing woman at?” asks Shar.

”We don’t exactly know,” Sepia replies. “The bullywugs took her, and we think that those bodies there are the ones that had her. Obviously, however, something went wrong when they got to here.”

Shifty suggests, “Let’s analyze the scene. We can try to reconstruct the ambush on the bullywugs as best we can. Maybe we can figure out what happened.”

The party’s battle in the area didn’t spill over to where the bullywug corpses are, so it is relatively easy for the party tell that the bullywugs were attacked by mudmen. They cannot, however, discern the fate of the woman that they allegedly had been carrying.

Then Shifty examines the pool of mud itself. It is recessed into the ground- and as the gnome looks it over, he notices that there is a narrow passage that leads behind the bath into some kind of cave beyond. He alerts his companions, and they spread out and prepare to enter. Cavemouth squirms through first. He reports a slope beyond to another passage big enough for the party to follow.

The others follow Cavemouth into the chamber that he has found, and then the party advances through passage and emerges into a cathedral of mud. Small islands of land dot a lake of hot-looking mud that pops and bubbles. On the far side of the great chamber is a huge stone figure, crudely sculpted into a pregnant Earth Mother type figure with enormous breasts. Before it, between its legs, is a large formation of mud, out of which stick a hand and part of a face.

“There is someone in there!” exclaims Shar, shaken.

“Yeah, but how do we get over there?” wonders Shifty. He eyes the islands, gauging the distance between them, trying to see an easy path. “I could probably make it from island to island, but it would be risky...”

“I wonder how hot the mud is,” says Karl.

”There’s an easy way to find out,” replies Sepia, and she hops in. “As a tiefling,” she explains, “my people are resistant to fire.” She smiles. “It feels nice, actually. I don’t think it would burn you, either. And it feels very restorative.”**** She starts to move forward.

With a shrug, Cavemouth jumps to one of the closer islands. His powerful legs easily clear the distance. The others start to consider their options, and suddenly half a dozen mudmen rise up, out of the pool all around them.

Immediately, it is obvious that something is wrong with most of them. Black goop leaks from them, and they reek of foulness. They are corrupted. Something terrible is going on here, realizes the wizard.

While the two uncorrupted mudmen hang back and throw balls of mud, the corrupted ones swarm in at our heroes.

Next Time: Our heroes fight for their lives in the Mud Cathedral!

*Misdirected mark. I love that power!

**”You’re my best friend” rapidly became Hammhokk’s magnificent word.

***He refers to the gnome (Shifty), tiefling (Sepia) and wizard (Karl).

****Once she was in it for an entire round, I told Sepia that if she was in the mud for an entire round, she could spend a healing surge as a standard action while in it. The healing power of the mud baths!

EDIT: I added the map, since there is no secret stuff on it. The round dots are tree trunks, which give cover to those in a tree square; the letters are various monsters (bullywugs, mudmen, corrupted mudmen, etc).
 

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the Jester

Legend
For the record, the new pcs are:

Shar, elven cleric 1 of the cult of the Sword Emperor
Kane, human fighter 1

Edit: Also, glad to see you guys found this thread! We played for about 14 hours over the last couple of days and had a kick ass time, with several pcs reaching 2nd level by the end of it, so I should have a couple more updates before too long. :)
 
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the Jester

Legend
The corrupted mudmen swarm towards our heroes, and both Sepia and Cavemouth- who have both advanced- find themselves surrounded and beset. The other two mudmen hang back and hurl gobs of mud at the others. Cavemouth roars and draws his axe, laying about with it, while Sepia fends off the incoming muddy bludgeoning, ducking under some attacks while others land solidly on her. Very quickly, she finds herself staggering on the edge of unconsciousness.

Shar lifts her holy symbol- a stylized representation of a greatsword- and utters a healing word, and Sepia strengthens, straightening again as Kane leaps forward, hacking about with his broadsword. Mud splatters everywhere; the mercenary barbarian shoulders his way forward, and Sepia slips back. Behind them, Shifty hurls shuriken and Shar’s bow sings, while the sound of Karl’s voice rising in the words of a spell precede a burst of ice that creates a frozen area in the mud. Two of the mudmen- one corrupted, and the other ‘normal’ (or at least as normal as a six foot man made of mud can be, anyhow) slip and fall in the icy area.

Cavemouth and Kane work well in tandem; the fighter and barbarian sweep through the near mudmen with brutal efficiency, backed up by their allies’ missile fire. The two prone mudmen struggle back to an upright position, oozing up rather than standing*, but while they do, Shifty leaps towards one of islands in the mud, hoping to close the distance and take advantage of their relative disadvantage. Unfortunately, he misses and slips into the mud, chest deep! “Oh no!” the white-haired gnome cries. “Why did I try that? It wasn’t worth it!”

Kane laughs. “Don’t worry, small one- the big one and I shall destroy these mud demons!”

“Not everything is a demon, you know,” Sepia says, firing another sling bullet at the mudmen who were caught in the icy terrain. A scorching burst hits them both again, and the one that is not corrupted explodes into pieces of clay.

From his position in the mud, Shifty throws another shuriken at the last remaining mudman, and it collapses back into the pool. The party stays on guard for a few moments to ensure that no more enemies will rise up; Shifty pulls himself onto one of the islands. Once it seems that the battle is truly over, the party returns its attention to the mud ball underneath the great Earth Mother figure. There is clearly a person in there. Cautiously, they make their way to it and begin digging the figure out.

“She’s alive,” reports Shar, “and it is definitely a female half-elf.”

“It sounds like Bylla,” says Shifty. He rubs his hands together. “Let’s get her out of here and see if we can bring her around!”

***

The woman is indeed Bylla, the wealthy landowner that the party set out to rescue. They bring her around relatively easily; she is hungry and thirsty, but other than minor effects of deprivation, in good health. She thanks them profusely for their rescue of her, and offers them a great reward if they escort her to her home in Grumbleford.

“Now she was worth it!” declares Shifty.

***

Grumbleford is further south than Overland, and east as well. The County Road runs between Overland and Grumbleford; the party decides that, rather than following the creek back to Overland and then taking the road, they will strike out overland, due south (Overland is several miles to the west), catch the road, follow it to the fork at Governor’s Tower and then take the south fork to Grumbleford. Accompanied by Bylla, the party makes good time. Early in the second afternoon, they find a pair of farmers tending to a small apple orchard and stop briefly. The farmers are obviously nervous at first- a well-armed party of hard-looking folk tends to trigger that kind of reaction from an unarmed, outnumbered group of peasants. Once the group shows no intention of robbing or killing them, the farmers relax and become quite friendly, telling the party that they are only about two miles from the road and giving them a jug of strong applejack.

“Have you seen anything unusual going on in these parts?” asks Shar.

“Well, there was another stranger came through yesterday,” one of the farmers replies.

“What kind of stranger?”

“He said his name was Novak. He said he was studying the Burnt Field.”** The farmer makes a warding gesture with one hand.

This definitely counts as unusual; everyone knows that Burnt Field is an unhealthy place. “I wonder why someone would do that,” muses Karl. “If we see him, we’ll have to ask.”

***

A few hours later, the party reaches the road and turns east on it. Not long after that, they come upon a man dressed in leather armor, with a scimitar at his waist, wearing a garland of leaves. He introduces himself as Novak.

“We heard that you’re investigating the Burnt Field,” says Sepia.

“Yes, this is true,” he says. “And I need some help.” He looks them over. “Frankly, I will pay well.”

“The Burnt Field is cursed,” objects Shifty. “We’ll die if we go in there.”

“Nonsense. I’ve been in there myself- though not all the way to the center.”

“Why are you going in there, anyway?” Karl asks.

“There are some objects inside that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands- and the wrong hands are looking for them.”

“That’s kind of vague,” Shifty says.

“What kind of objects?” asks Sepia.

“Crystals. As I said, I will pay well.”

“We’re already in the middle of something,” replies Shifty. “We need to return this person to her home to get paid for rescuing her.”

“How much time do you have before your enemies get these crystals?” asks Karl. “Maybe we can find you on our way back.”

“There isn’t much time,” Novak states, “but I can wait a few days. But once my agents inform me that the enemy has entered the Black Field, I must move quickly.”

“Your ‘agents’?” asks Shar.

“I am a druid. I have animal spies watching.”

“I see,” says Karl, and Shifty cuts the conversation short with a jerk of the thumb towards Bylla: “One thing at a time.”

***

At Grumbleford, Bylla lets the characters stay at her mansion for the night and pays them the handsome sum of 300 gold pieces for rescuing her. Moreover, she tells them, “I am quite fond of those mud baths. If you can show me evidence that you have driven the bullywugs back, I will pay you again- not as much, but nonetheless a considerable amount.”

This woman is a gold mine! thinks Shifty. 300 gold pieces! That’s the most money I’ve ever earned in one job! I wonder how much she is willing to pay us for taking care of the rest of the bullywugs?

“What kind of evidence?” asks Karl.

“Maybe the chief’s head dress or something,” suggests Shar.

“Perhaps. Mostly, though, no more reports of bullywug attacks there.”

***

That night, at a tavern in town (for of all our heroes, only the bookish Karl accepted Bylla’s offer of shelter for the evening, with the others seeking out the kind of place where they can carouse and fight), Shifty tells the others, “I don’t trust that Novak guy. He’s going to betray us in the end, mark my words.”

“Why do you think that?” asks Shar.

“I don’t know. I just don’t trust him. He looks too much like a druid for him to actually be a druid.”

“That makes no sense.”

Shrug.

***

The group resupplies in town, then heads back north to meet up with Novak. They find him several hours before dark.

“How much are you paying?” demands Shifty.

“I will give each of you twenty gold if you come with me to the center so that I can take the crystals away.”

Some quick arithmetic leads those with their numbers to realize that this is over a hundred gold in total. Obviously, Burnt Field presents certain dangers- death or being cursed- but how often will such a large payment stare them in the face? Sometimes one must seize the opportunity that is presented to him or her- and this, it seems, is one of those times.

Novak passes out black armbands. “Wear these,” he commands. “This will inform my allies that you are on our side.”

“What if we don’t?” asks Kane.

“Then they might attack you. Bears, wolves, that kind of thing.”

Kane pulls his armband on. So do the rest of our heroes, with the exception of Shifty, who palms his and stuffs it in his backpack. Surreptitiously, he mutters to Sepia, “I told you this guy is bad news. Black armbands!”

Meanwhile, Karl asks Novak, “Who exactly are the people you’re trying to stop?”

“They are a renegade group of druids,” claims the druid.*** “We can expect interference from their agents in Burnt Field.”

“Let’s go,” Kane says, and the group begins to make its way into the burned area. It is an area of around 20 miles by 15 miles. The carbonized stubs of trees stab the sky like a field of ragged pikes. The rolling hills are covered in ash and the burnt waste of scrubs. Here and there, a mighty attempt at new growth has managed to produce a sickly mutant tuft of grass or two, but even that is sparse and weak. A few animals live in the zone around the perimeter, but once the party has advanced a few miles, they are eerily alone.

Until they are ambushed by quick successions of stones, slung from two small figures lurking above them in the burnt branches of an especially large dead tree.

Kane, in the lead, is suddenly attacked by a cat-sized drake with a stinger on its tail, which scratches the back of his hand and injects venom into him. And then a pair of wolves dart out from behind the trees.

“Kill them!” bellows Novak, and the party attacks.

I just know this guy is going to betray us, thinks Shifty.

*...but still requiring a move action to right themselves. Hurray for cinematic description!

** Burnt Field, according to local lore, was once an area of rolling meadows, but about 35 years ago, something (supposedly) fell from the sky and burnt it. The fire went out, but nothing grew there. Several groups of people went to check it out, but none returned, and so it has come to be shunned. It is said that those who enter the Burnt Field either never return or are cursed, dying shortly after they come back.

***Pcs checked their Intuition many times during their interactions with Novak, but his superior Bluff of +10 won the day every time- the only time I rolled low for him, I rolled lower for the pcs!
 

the Jester

Legend
The wolves bound forward, engaging the Kane and Sepia. The halflings in the burnt branches keep firing stones, though at a slower rate.* Shar and Shifty dive behind burnt trunks of their own and start to return fire, the elf with her bow and the gnome with his shuriken; likewise, Karl hangs back and fires spells at the treed slingers. Meanwhile, the drake flits from one hiding place to another, stabbing Kane again with its tail stinger and then vanishing behind a screen of burnt trees. Sepia duels one of the wolves, using the two pairs of brass knuckles that she picked up in Grumbleford.**

Novak steps forward and gestures, and a burst of fungal rot catches both of the halflings. They cough and gag as spores sprout on their skin.

Oh yeah, thinks Shifty, this guy is definitely crooked. Evil rot powers? I’m keeping my eye on you, buddy! He flings another shuriken and it sinks into the eye of one of the wolves, which yelps and tries to withdraw.

“You aren’t going anywhere,” growls Kane, and decapitates it with a sweep of his broadsword. Blood spurts out, leaving a spreading pool in the ash underfoot. Then the barbarian glances at the huge dead tree whose branches support the halfling slingers and smiles.

With a laugh, he rushes to the tree and starts climbing.

Novak moves up on the other wolf, snapping an arm towards it. His arm lengthens and turns woody and thorny, and he rakes his vine strike across the wolf’s forelegs. It yelps, staggering, and Karl finishes it off with a magic missile.

Kane, meanwhile, reaches the first halfling’s branch. He charges with a howling strike and cleaves the halfling’s chest open. It falls to the ground, 20’ below, dead. Immediately he whirls around and charges into the other halfling, bringing his broadsword down into the slinger’s head. Red, grey and white splatter down on the ground below. Kane clambers back down the burnt tree with a grin. “Now where is that drake?”

But it has gone into hiding. Karl says, “It could be anywhere by now.”

“We’ve driven it off,” replies Novak. “That’s good enough for now. And clearly, the enemy already knows that we are here.”

Who is your enemy really? wonders Shifty.

***

The party loots the bodies- finding about 18 gold pieces in mixed coins- and keeps moving deeper into the Burnt Field. Shifty takes the others aside, one by one, and shares his suspicions with them again. “I’m telling you,” he insists, “this guy is going to betray us in the end.”

The ash grows thicker as the party moves along. The group ascends a mound of burnt soil and thick ash and spy an old wagon with some bones near it at the bottom of the slope, partially buried in ash.

“Let’s check it out,” says Shar.

The party descends towards the wagon, slipping and sliding down the ashen slope. When they are about halfway down, a trio of large beetles, glowing red from glands on their back, emerges from the ash.

“Fire beetles!” cries Karl.

The party begins to duel with the beetles, but even as they do, the bones below start to clatter, and three skeletons rise up as well!

“Hah! The dead rise against us!” Kane laughs, thrusting his blade deep into a beetle’s flank. “We will have to kill them all over again!”

Karl blasts two of the skeletons down immediately with a scorching burst, while the others focus on the beetles. Soon the great bugs have been slain, and only one of the skeletons has any staying power- but it is hard to kill. When it finally falls, the party spends a few minutes catching their breath and then searches the area.

Within the ruin of the wagon is a locked chest. Shifty picks the lock, and our heroes are overjoyed to find nearly 200 gold pieces within it! Novak declares, “I am not interested in the treasure. Split it amongst yourselves.”

Never trust a man who claims he doesn’t care about the money, thinks Shifty.

“Over here, in the bones,” calls Shar. “There’s an axe here- look at this!”

The cleric lifts up a formidable-looking greataxe. The party clusters around and admires it for a few moments; Karl says, “It’s a magic axe. We should take it.”

“I will wield it,” offers Kane, and the others assent.*** The burly human takes up the axe and gives it a few practice swings. With a grunt of pleasure, he straps it to his back.

***

Deeper into the eerie burned area. As night falls, the party debates whether to leave the Burnt Field to camp, but in the end Novak vetoes the idea. “It will take over a day to reach the center anyhow,” he points out, “so there is no point in leaving. We’ll have to spend a night here sometime.”

To the party’s surprise, they are undisturbed while they sleep. There are no insect noises, leaving the party in an eerie silence broken only by their own breathing. When Novak’s watch comes, Shifty stays awake too, not trusting the party’s employer not to be up to something while everyone sleeps. But he does nothing other than watch.

The next day consists of trekking through more ash. Finally, late in the afternoon, the party comes to a large crater that stretches almost a mile across. According to Karl’s calculations, they have reached the center.

“Wow,” says Shifty.

Scattered in several areas through the crater are large amounts of strange, silvery material. It is hard to tell what it is at this distance, but bits of it are burnt. It has the look of wreckage. There is also a pair of weird, fleshy, tumorous-looking areas. Each is large- several hundred yards across- and full of strange projections, growths and secretions. Even from here, the party can see bits of these earth tumors moving and writhing, as if alive. Three similar areas are different in that they are a grey color, like dead meat, and show no signs of movement.

“Now that is creepy,” opines Shar.

“What are those things?” Karl demands, pointing at the fleshy areas.

Novak answers, “We call those earth tumors. Now you see some of the danger of the crystals falling into the wrong hands.”

“And the crystals should be in the central wreckage?” asks Shifty.

“They should be,” replies Novak, “but we may have to search the other areas of major wreckage, as well.”

“Oh, I see,” the gnome says. “So the deal is changing. Are you going to pay us more, to compensate?”

”Of course. I will increase your wages. If you stick with me until I have recovered all of the crystals, I will pay you fifty gold each.”

It is pretty hard to argue with that kind of money, so our heroes shoulders their packs and head into the crater.

“I just hope,” Novak adds, “we don’t have to enter the earth tumors.”

***

The party picks its way through the rubble and ash in the crater. No trees still stand here; everything has been flattened, either by the impact or the subsequent fires.

“What happened here?” Karl asks Novak.

The druid regards him for a moment. Then he shrugs and says, “An airship crashed. The crystals powered its engines.”

“An airship...”

Novak nods. “A ship,” he elaborates, “that flew through the air.” He shrugs again. “I really don’t know much more than that about it, personally.”

Shortly, the party approaches the central wreckage. There are piles of the strange silvery stuff, which they can now see is some kind of fabric-like material. But whatever was made of it must have been huge. Now, large swaths of the material lie draped over the landscape, shining with a dull silver sheen under the sun.

“This was a weird-looking ship,” comments Shar.

Roughly central to, and attached to the wreckage by thick silvery lines, is some sort of wooden cabin. Just beyond it, folds of the material have formed a large hump that overlooks the area. “Look!” exclaims Shar. Atop the hump of material are a pair of creatures, clearly lookouts- and equally clearly, they have seen the party. “Is it just me, or does that look like a metal cat the size of a wolf? And does that look like some kind of cat-person, or is it just me?”

“No,” says Shifty, “it’s not just you.”

Next Time: Who is at the center of the wreckage? Will our heroes have to enter the earth tumors? And will Novak betray them??


*Stone rain, of course, is a recharge power, and sadly, I never got it to recharge in this fight.

**I am letting her use them as a rogue weapon, +2 proficiency, 1d4 damage (brutal 1). They are mechanically speaking not quite as good as a dagger- with her rogue abilities, Sepia has an additional +2 to hit with the dagger- but it’s flavorful and the brutal 1 might help. (I don’t think she’s hit with them and rolled a 1 on damage yet, though!)

***Although Cavemouth uses the greataxe, his player missed much of this session. He was there neither for the fight, nor for the treasure, alas.
 

the Jester

Legend
Thirty-five years ago:

“The others!” cried the technician. “Captain, we’re losing the cage!”

The airship shuddered and lurched as it lost weight. The captain cried out as the loss of her crew hit her.

Another explosion, and the technician said, “That’s two engines aflame, sir!”

The orange furred captain cried, “By Hobbes!” Large gold hoops were through both of her large cat ears. Her tail twitched madly, assisting her in keeping her balance in the shifting gondola as well as serving as a barometer of her agitation. “I would have thought something that has lasted this long might be able to stay in the sky a little longer!”

Wisely, the technician said nothing. He had advised her against taking the vessel out of its ancient dock, but once the captain had figured out how to open the outer doors of the mountaintop redoubt, there was no stopping her.

After all, what better way to spot a hidden mountaintop fortress than from above?

The acrid smell of the burning radiocrystal reached inside the gondola. “Sir,” the technician said hesitantly, “perhaps we should leave. I don’t think we can save-”

She cut him off. “You’re right, of course, Lerrmurr. You were right all along.” Her voice was ravaged by grief. “The crew are dead. Only we remain. We must flee.” The two of them moved close together so that she could sprinkle the fall powder on both of them. “We never should have tried to use this thing. Fifty thousand years is too old.” The deck of the gondola, suspended beneath the vast balloon of the airship, began to tilt alarmingly. The stench of the smoke kept growing stronger, making the technician’s eyes tear up and his head swim. His sensitive nose was burning in the toxic fumes.

The two of them moved to the edge of the gondola and leapt out the window.

They were still several hundred feet up, but it didn’t matter. Their feline reflexes enhanced to the utmost by the fall powder- a product of the same ancient tabaxi empire as the airship- and seconds later they hit the ground, rolled and came to their feet. The technician cried out and stumbled, then lifted one foot off of the ground and balanced on the other with a hiss.

“Are you all right?” the captain asked him.

“Broken,” he replied through gritted teeth.

In the sky behind him, the captain could see the airship getting lower and lower. It was going to crash, probably less than two miles away. They were nowhere near safe. “You have to move,” she said. “The airship is coming down. Hobbes knows what will happen then- we need to get back to our people and get a team to get the radiocrystals back before something terrible happens. We don’t have time to fashion a splint, so you will have to cling to my back.”

With some effort, they hoisted the technician onto his captain’s back, and the captain began to jog away- directly opposite from the airship’s path. Lerrmurr kept his eyes to the back, watching with horror as the ancient Miloxi airship slowly descended until, finally, there was a bloom of violet fire and a flash of burning light, followed by a terrific explosive noise.

Immediately, the meadows behind and around them began to burn. Trees closer to the blast ignited like tinder, and a huge bellow of smoke rose up across the entire horizon behind them. Worse yet, the fire began to spread towards them with appalling speed.

“I’m slowing you down too much!” cried the technician. “You have to drop me!”

His captain ignored him.

Lerrmurr did the only thing he could: he wrenched himself off of the captain, flinging himself to the ground. “Run!” he screamed.

The captain turned and saw the oncoming conflagration. She tried to pick up the technician again, but he resisted her. “Run!” he cried again. “Or we will both die!”

She ran.

Lerrmurr collapsed back and watched the violet-tinged flames approach. Already, the heat was burning his fur. I die, he thought, that this land may live.

The flames closed around him, and he closed his eyes.

To awaken in excruciating pain. He felt as though he was on fire everywhere. His fur was gone, burned out; he could feel the cracked naked flesh of his body weeping pus. But he was alive. He opened his eyes, and found himself on a mat of straw in a hut of human construction.

A male human sat beside him. “You are awake,” the human observed.

Lerrmurr mewed, but could do little more.

The tabaxi technician was not too familiar with human facial expressions, but somehow the smile on the man’s face did not strike him as pleasant.

“Good,” the human said. “There are things we want to know.”

***

The present:

Our heroes move up the draped silvery fabric towards the strange cat-folk at the center of the wreckage. The wolf-sized metal cat lopes towards them, while the feline humanoid instead hurries to the broken cabin, or whatever it is, and opens the door. Another of its kind emerges to join it.

“Stop them!” commands Novak. He gestures and a burst of fungal rot hits the pair of humanoids, while the others move forward to engage. The iron cat bounds forward and leaps to the attack, with the two cat-folk hot on their heels. A fierce melee ensues, with Karl staying back and hurling magical attacks and Novak using the reach that his vine lash gives him while the others fight up close.

After a moment, another of the cat-humanoids emerges from the crashed airship’s cabin. He looks a little bit different from the others- he wears a harness festooned with odd tools, and while the other two look sleek and trim, this one is chunky and less fit. He creates some kind of concealing haze and hangs back, seemingly getting a fix on Shifty and setting up for a single devastating attack.*

He never has a chance.

The party moves too quickly, cutting through cat-folk and cat-construct alike. Kane shatters the iron cheetah, and the two humanoids in the front rank fall moments later. The final one is slain before he has a chance to strike.

“Well done!” exclaims Novak. “With luck, our mission is accomplished!” He sets to searching the fallen cat humanoids. While he does, Cavemouth tries to cut the fabric with his axe, but only succeeds in dulling the blade. Meanwhile, Novak finds that the one with the tool-bedecked harness has a hard case strapped to its side; he opens this and then grins. “The crystals!” he cries. Then his face falls as he examines the contents. “But not all of them.”

“So now what?” asks Shifty.

”We will check out the other areas of wreckage,” replies Novak. “With luck, the missing crystals are in there.”

“And if they’re not?”

“Then we will plunge into the earth tumors.”

***

The eerie, burnt landscape that the party traverses seems almost like an alien world. The blackened stumps seem like weird fingers pointing futilely at the sky. They reach the second area of debris after nearly an hour, their progress often impeded by ankle-deep drifts of ash. Debris is scattered about- mostly the strange silver fabric, but also a few bits of charred metal.

There has obviously been a fight of some kind here- several dead animals are about, as well as the corpse of a huge mutated bear, with a second vestigial head and a pair of wickedly barbed tentacles. I bet that was on Novak’s team, thinks Shifty.

There is no sign of the crystals that the party is seeking, so they move on towards the next area of wreckage. More sheets of the silvery fabric, folded and draped into a hill, and the remains of some kind of cage that must have fallen and shattered. Burned bones were scattered amongst the wreckage.

“Careful,” says Shar, nodding towards the bones. The party keeps a good eye on them, and after a few moments, they animate into a collection of decrepit skeletons. Our heroes de-animate them right back.** Again, however, there is no sign of the hoped-for crystals.

“Damn,” swears Sepia. “I don’t want to go in those things.”

“I will pay you well,” says Novak, “I assure you.”

***

The earth tumor swells like a zit on the land. It is the size of several square city blocks. The air near the tumor is warm and clammy, and smells of odd organic processes, including a rich helping of rotten meat. Weird fleshy growths thrust from the ground like buildings, some of them moving. Other areas have foul yellow crystal formations forming barriers and jagged outcroppings. Some areas of the tumor move.

Sepia shudders. “This is disgusting.”

The party enters the tumor, trying to stay on the ground but rapidly finding no path that will take them further inward without requiring that they mount the tumor itself. Soon the area seems to respond to their presence, with growths and fluids moving to bar their path, until finally they are ejected, battered and fouled by noxious chemicals.***

“Damn, that place is foul,” says Shar.

“We must reach the center and see if the crystals are there,” declares Novak.

Shifty grows more and more uneasy. I just know that this guy is going to turn on us, he thinks. The only question is, when?

The party plunges into the tumor again, fighting through membranous closures and slogging along channels filling with organic soup. This time, the tumor responds quickly, trying to channel them out, but they persist until they finally break into the central area.

In the center is a piece of wreckage: not the silvery fabric that they have seen so much of, but some kind of mangled metal device. A hatch is half-sprung, and a violet radiance emanates from behind it. Yet the entire device is tightly wrapped in fleshy appendages forming a protuberance sprouting mushroom-like from the ground.

The tumor goes crazy as the party tries to cut, pry or trick the device (which Novak calls an “engine”) free of it tumorous housing. The ground starts to ripple, attempting to throw them back; fingers of tough, horny material rise up and try to herd them away. Fissures and furrows, ridges and rises form.

Finally, though, they manage to cut the engine free. Almost immediately, the area around the ‘housing’ dies, turning gray and putrescent.

Novak rushes to the engine and pries the compartment open, retrieves a crystal and places it in the hard case that he took from the cat-person. Closing it securely, he replaces in on his belt.

Then our heroes flee for their lives, trying to outrun the collapse of the earth tumor.

***

After the party makes good their escape, Karl asks, “So you have what you need now, right?”

“Not yet,” Novak replies. “We still don’t have all of it.”

“How much more is there?” demands Shifty.

”There is only one more crystal,” says Novak. “And I am paying you all very well.”

“Fifty gold each, right?”

“Probably more.”

***

There is only one more earth tumor; it seems likely that the party will find another engine within the center. The experience is very similar to their breaching of the first one, with the tumor resisting their intrusion, but their experience in the first one help them know what to expect in this second one. Soon they reach the center and cut the engine free of the organic growths suckling upon it, and the last earth tumor starts to die. They flee ahead of the wave of decay.

Again making it out just ahead of the collapse of the tumor, the party scrambles to a safe distance across the burnt landscape, then pauses to catch their breath.

“Did we get it?” asks Shifty.

“Yes,” Novak answers.

The hair on Shifty’s neck stands up. Now. He’s doing it now.

“And now you must all die.”

Next Time: Novak turns on the party!

*The tabaxi technician’s fixes are a lot like an assassin’s shrouds.

**This was a very easy encounter- only worth 200 xp, and there were 6 pcs present.

***This was a skill challenge- one that the party failed (several times, before all was said and done). Failed checks resulted in lost healing surges.
 

the Jester

Legend
Our heroes have seen the fungal rot that Novak can create employed on their enemies. The spores take root in flesh, rotting flesh and weakening muscle. Now it happens to them.

An explosive series of movements- our heroes scatter, with several of them rushing towards their erstwhile ally and now betrayer. Coughing and gagging on the thick bloom in the air, Shifty tumbles away from the rest of the party, trying to get some distance to keep himself out of any other area effects that Novak might be able to conjure.

Cavemouth charges the traitor. His axe whistles through the air, and Novak jerks back just in time to avoid a lethal blow. Still, Cavemouth manages to wound him, and an instant later a rock- propelled by Sepia’s slingshot- smacks into the side of the villain’s head. He cries out, staggered, and Shar sinks an arrow into his thigh.

Novak backs away a little, trying to keep enough distance to take advantage of the enhanced reach that his vine lash gives him. Unfortunately for him, Cavemouth presses forward, cutting Novak over and over with blows that the druid barely avoids.

Shifty springs in to flank him. “I knew you were a bad guy!” he cries. “I’m ready for you!” He feints at Novak’s belly; when the druid tries to block it, Shifty sinks a torturous strike hilt-deep in his eye!*

Novak topples over with a scream. He cries out, “The Shadow Circle will destroy you all!” Then he spasms once and moves no more.

“I knew it,” Shifty repeats. “I knew it!”

“Now what?” asks Cavemouth.

“We go home,” says Sepia.

“No, what about the crystals?”

All eyes fix on the hard case holding the strange crystals that is strapped to Novak’s belt.

“I guess we take them,” answers Shifty.

***

When they open the case and examine the crystals, something makes the hair on the back of their necks stand up. Their skin crawls. The very presence of the strange stones seems to provoke an uncomfortable mild nausea.

“We shouldn’t hold onto these for too long,” Sepia opines. “I can talk to my fence and see if we can sell them.”

“They aren’t supposed to fall into the wrong hands. We should be careful getting rid of them.” Shifty frowns. “On the other hand, we probably don’t really want to keep them for very long, either.”

“I’ve got a solution to that,” says Karl. “This is the bag that the sneakier cat guy had. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the inside.” He demonstrates. “I believe that it’s a bag of holding. And that means that we can probably safely store the stones in here.”

This excellent idea is quickly executed; even so, the party agrees, they need to figure out what to do with the gems.

***

The party stops long enough to decide that Karl should hold the bag, and to give the armor that the head cat guy had been wearing to Shifty. It, too, is magical. Then they resume traveling outward, away from the center of Burnt Field, back towards home. A day and a half of slogging through ashen drifts and moving through the ghostly burnt stakes of the dead forest leads them at last to the road; one more day sees them home to Overland.

The question of the strange jewels remains, however. After some discussion over a couple of tankards of ale at the Silver Fish, the party decides that they must be very discrete when trying to get rid of them, but get rid of them they should.

To that end, Sepia contacts her fence, Wilcox. She dances around the subject perhaps too well, asking him if he has seen or heard of anything unusual lately.

”What kind of unusual?” he asks.

”You know, unusual items, gems, things like that.”

“What do you mean by ‘unusual?’ I see a lot of gems...”

“Something with, uh, unique properties... maybe some kind of powers.”

Wilcox squints at her. “I will keep my ear to the ground for you, but I haven’t heard of anything like that recently.”

“This would be recent. Well, thanks anyway,” the tiefling says, and leaves. When she reports the details of the conversation to her friends, Shifty groans.

“You didn’t learn anything, get a value on the gems, or... or anything!”

“Well, at least he doesn’t know that we have the gems,” she counters.

***

Cavemouth, meanwhile, goes to the local smith and drops his axe off for repairs. (It was damaged when he attempted to cut the strange silvery material in the central crater in Burnt Field.)

“I should have this ready for you by the day after tomorrow,” the smith tells the huge warrior.

“Good,” Cavemouth responds. “Do you have a loaner or something that I can use in the meantime?”

The smith cocks an eyebrow at the goliath. “Well,” he drawls, “I could always sell you a second axe, but I don’t loan my work out. It loses a great deal of its value once it has been used.”

Grumbling, Cavemouth walks away without an axe. The expense of buying a second one just seems too high for a day’s worth of benefit. So the party instead waits until his axe is ready, drinking and whoring with their newfound wealth. An extra two days is nothing, when you’re flush with gold and have no pressing concerns.

***

Wilcox’ door swings open. The fence glances up- he is working on a dwarven pebble puzzle- and raises his eyebrows. “Haven’t seen you in town before,” he says.

Dour-faced like most of his kind, the strange dwarf replies, “I am not from here.”

“Right... well, if you have some merchandise that you need to sell, you’ve come to the right place. Of course, I don’t deal in stolen goods, but I am sure that a member of your honorable race would never bring something like that to me anyway, but good business requires that I tell you that up front.”

“Of course. But you misunderstand me. I am not here to sell; I am looking for something to buy.”

“Ahh, well, look around my shop and feel free to make any inquiries you come up with.”

“I do not think,” the dwarf answers, “you have what I want on the shelf. I doubt whether you have it at all. And yet, if it is in your town- if it comes through your town- I suspect that you may become aware of it.”

“Now you have me intrigued, sir.”

“I am looking for some unusual stones,” the dwarf says.

***

Cavemouth exclaims, “Good as new!” He takes a few practice swings with the greataxe, cleaving through empty air, then turns a broad smile on the smith. “Well done!”

“I always strive to do quality work,” the smith replies.

The two clasp forearms and then the goliath returns to the street, where the rest of the party awaits him. “Good as new!” he repeats enthusiastically.

“Maybe next time you can avoid trying to cut strange cloth in the first place,” Kane says, needling his friend.

“The question is, what do we do now?” asks Karl.

“Well, the answer is obvious!” Shifty proclaims. “We only have one paying job on offer right now. We need to go finish off the bullywugs and drive their tribe away from the mud baths, and then Bylla will pay us again.”

“Good call,” agrees Karl.

“Gold is a powerful argument,” nods Kane.

The party sets out for the mud baths, walking north out of town. As when they made the journey before, they expect it to be a day and a half worth of walking to reach the place. Linden trees, as well as oak and various types of scrub, dot the land and virtually line the edge of the creek that the trail runs alongside. When the sun’s descent in the west starts to touch the ocean, the party stops to make camp. They set up a nice sheltered area to sleep in, build a small fire and have dinner.

Then a voice emerges from the darkness: “May I join you?”

The party looks up to see a dwarf in leather armor with brown robes hanging loosely over it. He bears a garlanded staff.

“Certainly, rock brother!” Cavemouth says.

The dwarf moves up to the edge of the fire and begins to warm his hands. He glances around at all of them, his eyes flinty. “I understand,” the dwarf rumbles, “that you were working with someone named Novak recently.”

“Why, is he a friend of yours?” asks Shifty.

“And how do you know that?” adds Kane.

“You were seen by associates of mine, traveling with him and wearing his black armbands.”

I never wore his armband,” retorts Shifty. “So what’s your relationship with him? Is he one of your friends?” Surreptitiously, the gnome’s hand falls on the hilt of one of his daggers.

“Hardly,” the dwarf responds. “And I doubt whether he was a friend of yours, either.”

Shifty and Shar exchange a glance. “You’re right about that much,” the elf admits, as Shifty’s hand drops away from the dagger.

“What happened to him?” the dwarf asks.

“He betrayed us, and now he’s dead,” Shifty states. “I put a dagger in his eye.”

The dwarf nods. “Good. And I suspect that you have something that I am interested in taking off of your hands.”

“Really? What would that be?”

“The crystals.”

“Who are you, anyway?” demands Sepia.

“I am called Nom,” the dwarf answers. “And I am a druid, opposed to Novak’s faction.”

“And what do you know about the crystals?” inquires Shar.

“I know that they are very dangerous in the wrong hands. I know that you worked with Novak to retrieve them, and now I believe that you have them. But they are cursed. If you bear them for too long, you will fall under their curse, and eventually it will kill you. Your hair will fall out; your limbs will grow weak; over time, you will grow sores and chancres.”

“Yuck,” opines Sepia.

“We don’t really want that,” admits Shar.

“Give them to me,” Nom says, “and I will ensure that they are properly disposed of.”

“How so?” demands Shifty.

“To be honest, I don’t know the details myself. But believe me, the alternative is a terrible, slow death.” The dwarf sighs. “I am trying to help you.”

“Well, we just had these appraised,” lies Cavemouth, “and we have a very nice offer for them...”

“Believe me, you do not want them to fall into the wrong hands,” Nom sighs. “How much are you being offered?”

“Five gold for the lot of them.”

“I will pay you ten.”

“Give us a minute,” Shifty requests. “We have to talk this over.”

Nom nods, withdrawing from the fire. Keeping one eye on him- We’ve had enough weird druid issues already!- Shifty and the others discuss the situation. They certainly don’t want to die a terrible cursed death; and Nom doesn’t cause Shifty the same kind of discomfort as Novak had. Over Karl’s vociferous objections, the party agrees to Nom’s deal. Coins from the dwarf go into the party’s pockets, and in return, Karl reluctantly empties the jewels from the bag of holding. Nom takes them gingerly, and the party throws in Novak’s hard case.

Gems in the case, case in hand, Nom leaves our heroes to the night.

***

When they reach the mud baths, our heroes find a group of bullywugs lounging about as if they own the place- which, at the moment, they effectively do. But with Kane and Cavemouth leading the charge, Shifty and Sepia (with her new brass knuckles, purchased in Grumbleford) right behind them, and Shar and Karl in the back firing arrows and spells, the frog-men are quickly brought low.

“We need to find the leader,” states Shar. “Kill him, and the rest will crumple.”

“They are cowardly,” acknowledges Kane. “Why, the mere presence of a demon in our ranks might stir them to flight!”**

The party backtracks the bullywugs, this time going well past the site of the mudman ambush where they eventually found Bylla held prisoner. The trail leads them deeper into the mud flats, then into an area where the ground slowly drops into a marsh. The trees gradually change into a mix of cypress, willow and other types that like moister ground. Moss hangs in great wet green sheets from scraggly vines. Strange vapors rise from the ground, and puddles become more and more common. Dryer areas of ground are still soggy; our heroes leave visible footprints in many of the areas they traverse. The bullywugs’ tracks are fortunately equally easy to follow.

Soon a fog rises up, thickening the deeper the group goes into the swamp. The daylight seems to wane; whether it is oncoming night or simply an artifact of the fog is impossible to tell.

Then, slowly resolving from the mist, the party sees a few crude huts. Outside of them- bullywugs!

“We have found what we seek,” announces Kane, and he charges.

Next Time: Dude, where’s my cow?


*Critical hit with combat advantage... this did something like 27 points of damage in one fell swoop.

**Kane, of course, constantly refers to the tiefling Sepia as a ‘demon’, despite her protestations.
 
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the Jester

Legend
The mist limits visibility to between twenty and thirty feet- uncomfortably close range, to Karl’s mind. He scowls, hanging back as far as he can and hurling magic missiles and scorching bursts. But he only has one or two targets available at a time. Meanwhile, Kane and Cavemouth have rushed forward, completely out of his range of visibility; and while he can hear them fighting up ahead, the scholar really can’t tell how they are doing.

Shifty and Sepia move forward more slowly than the warriors. They keep close enough for Karl to see them, slashing with daggers and punching with the brass knuckles. The wizard backs them up with his magic, thinking, I hope Kane and Cavemouth are doing okay.

Suddenly a bright flash of light and a burst of warmth announce some kind of explosion up ahead. Whoops, thinks Karl.

***

At the front lines, Cavemouth staggers back. The bullywug that just belched out a fiery croak at him wears a fancy feathered head dress and dangles with bone fetishes, some of which look to be from humans. “I think I found the chieftain!” the goliath fighter cries, and springs forward with a crushing surge.

More bullywugs bound in from the side to intervene.

And, in turn, Kane charges in with a howling strike to intervene in their intervention, cutting another bullywug down.

The chieftain vomits up electric reflux, dazing Cavemouth. The goliath hacks at one of the other bullywugs nearby, cutting its belly open and spilling entrails out in an ankle-tangling mess. The bullywug falls.

Kane howls again and rushes in at the bullywug chieftain, who defends himself with a crude staff. Kane sheers it in half with a blow of his magical greataxe. The bullywug cries out and staggers back a step.

Kane’s axe sings as it decapitates the chieftain. The barbarian throws back his head and gives a loud howl of victory.

Unfortunately, many of the other bullywugs don’t know that their chief has fallen. They keep fighting, using spears, hopping to the attack throwing crude javelins or rocks. Our heroes keep fighting, and the fog keeps the bullywugs from concentrating their forces too strongly. Within minutes, the frog-folk attack has ceased; whatever survivors there might be have fled.

Panting, muscles aching of violence, our heroes regroup to catch their collective breath. The chieftain’s head goes into the bag of holding, Kane grinning the whole time. Then they turn around and head out of the swamp, universally agreeing that spending the night in it would be a terrible idea.

“We should go straight to Grumbleford,” suggests Shifty. “That’s where Bylla is, and she’s the one who is going to pay us.”

“Getting paid is good,” agrees Sepia.

“Grumbleford it is,” nods Kane.

***

Along the way to Grumbleford, our heroes stumble upon the group of peasants that told them of Novak’s presence the first time. At first our heroes are suspicious that the farmers might have had some deeper involvement, but their worries are quickly assuaged as they spend an hour or two with them. They give Cavemouth (who is seeking the recipe of a goliath wheat ale that he once had) two jugs of applejack, and then the party keeps moving. That night they camp at the crossroads where the road to Grumbleford runs south from the County Road that runs west to Overland and east to the distant coast. There are several merchants that are camping there as well, and our heroes share a fire with them and purchase a few minor trinkets (such as a necklace that Sepia buys).

The next morning the party heads south along the road. A few hours into the morning, they see a familiar face: a farmer from the Overland environs, traveling with his two sons. Oddly, they are armed.

Our heroes hail them and inquire about their weapons. “Has the road been so unsafe lately?” asks Sepia.

“Oh, it’s not that,” Saul (the farmer) replies. “But I’ve had some issues lately. My cows keep vanishing!” Saul elaborates, with his sons Paul and Gaul occasionally throwing in a few words. It seems that four of his cows have gone missing over, roughly, the last month. Always, a single cow vanishes; there is never blood or remains. “I went to Grumbleford because I was looking to hire someone to help me figure out what’s going on.”

“We’re on our way to Grumbleford to get paid,” Shifty says, “but after that we will be looking for more work. We’ll look you up.”

***

Bylla gladly pays the party another 120 gold pieces for driving away the bullywugs, with the understanding that if more reappear, they will complete the job. This seems fair enough to our heroes, who agree, take the money and head back out of Grumbleford almost immediately, with a stop at the local alchemist’s shop (Althong’s Alembic) so that Sepia can buy some alchemical fire. They reach the crossroads about an hour and a half before dark and elect to camp there again, even though it’s early; the place always has a few travelers at it, and if the population hereabouts were higher, it would probably sprout a town. So they have another pleasant evening at the crossroads, making different friends and sharing a different fire, and then return to Overland the next day.

“We should go see Saul,” says Shifty.

“Let’s stop off and have a beer first,” suggests Cavemouth.

“Aye!” Kane nods vigorously.

So it’s to the Silver Fish they go, where they have a round or two and mellow out for a little. They have spent the last almost two weeks either traveling or fighting almost every day; a little time to unwind seems warranted.

As they sit at the bar, the tender leans squints up at Cavemouth and says, “By the way, you know your friend Shaft?”

“Yeah?” Cavemouth does indeed know Shaft- a human druid of his acquaintance by virtue of being a talented brewer. They met as part of Cavemouth’s quest to find the goliath wheat ale recipe.

“He was asking around about you.”

“When?”

“Earlier today. I got the impression that he’d be around again. He wanted me to let you know he was looking for you.”

“Well, thanks.”

“No problem.”

Our heroes finish their drinks and are just about to leave when the door opens and a dark-skinned, bald, middle aged man looks in. “Cavemouth!” he exclaims, and strides quickly over to the table the party is seated at.

“Hey, Shaft!”

The newcomer glances at the others, then says, “Let me talk to you outside for a minute.”

“All right.” Cavemouth shrugs and follows his friend outside. Shaft walks him into the shade of the alley between the Silver Fish and the barn next door.

“You’ve made yourself a target,” he says. “Where are the crystals?”

“We gave them to a druid,” answers Cavemouth. “He approached us a few nights ago...”

“You gave them...? What was his name?”

“Uh...” Cavemouth wracks his brain. “I can’t remember. He was a dwarf, if that helps.”

Shaft stares at him for a moment. “They haven’t turned up, so everyone thinks you have them.”

“Everyone?”

“The druids,” amends Shaft.

”You mean the evil ones, like Novak?”

“More than just them. There are different factions.”

“What’s the Shadow Circle?”

Shaft stares at the goliath as if dumbstruck. After a moment, he replies, “A legend. They are among the other druids in secret- a cabal that believes that civilization is an affront to nature, and must be torn down. But they are a legend. They don’t really exist.”

“When we killed him,” Cavemouth says, “Novak told us that the Shadow Circle would destroy us all.”

“By the primal spirits,” whispers Shaft. “I must go. Good luck to you. You really don’t have them any more?”

“The dwarf was very persuasive.”

“Good luck.”

Head awhirl, Cavemouth re-enters the Silver Fish and recounts what his friend told him.

“I told you guys we shouldn’t have given him the crystals,” Karl sighs.

***

As there is nothing that they can do at the moment about having made themselves targets, the party resumes their current activities, which is to say: they have another round, then go to Saul’s farm.

“Is there a particular part of the pasture that the cows always vanish from or anything?” asks Karl.

“Nope,” says Saul, “they seem to go from various remote parts of the pasture. It was only three days ago the last one went, though. I can show you where that one was.”

The back corner in question is mostly unremarkable, but it is apparent where the cow vanished because the fence has been cut. The party scours the area for tracks, and they find some: small, reptilian, bipedal. Kobolds.

“We can probably backtrack them,” Karl says, “but I’m prepared more for talking and investigation than for combat today.”*

“I don’t want to lose any more cows,” Saul replies. “The sooner you look into this, the better.”

“Very well.”

***

Backtracking the kobold trail leads the party west out of town. They go across rolling plains dotted with trees and scrub, until they come to a narrow depression where they see the missing cow.

It is staked out, almost as if it were bait.

Next Time: Delicacies!


*He’s referring, of course, to his spell choices. Between a spellbook, his tome implement mastery and his Expanded Spellbook feat, Karl has a lot of options for a 4e pc!
 
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the Jester

Legend
“Look,” Sepia says, gesturing at the brush around the staked-out cow. “There are kobolds in there.”

“Not for long!” quips Cavemouth.

But before the words are even out of his mouth, Kane is charging ahead with a wordless battle cry. Into the brush, then swinging his magical greataxe- and suddenly gore and brains are splattering in the brush. Squeals of fear and anger come from the hiding kobolds as they turn to see the barbarian spin and charge another of them, his axe a blur as it sweeps into the little dog-lizard humanoid’s neck from the side, decapitating him.

Kane roars.

The others break cover, charging in, and suddenly everything is chaos.

The poor cow. It strains against the ropes holding it, but to no avail. It trembles in fear; being in the middle of violent combat is not its natural state. The screams of the dying kobolds terrify it.

But not as much as what it senses is coming from below.

The ground, much like the cow, is trembling.

The cow lets out a terrified moo as sling bullets whiz past it. One- not really a bullet, but more like a small jar- hits Cavemouth and bursts, covering him in a sticky mess of glue. The goliath curses, struggling to free himself, but he is stuck fast. “Damn it!” he swears.

Meanwhile, Karl hangs back and directs his spells at the kobold slingers, zinging them with magic missiles and scorching bursts. Fortunately, the brush is wet enough to avoid starting any large fires. Shifty stays near him at first, throwing shuriken, but wades in quickly when it becomes apparent that the battle is going to be very one-sided.

Unfortunately for him, his assessment proves less than accurate.

The cow screams as the ground beneath it erupts and a huge, insect-like beast lurches up from below.

“It’s another ankheg!” cries Karl.

But Cavemouth, who is closer, corrects him. “No it isn’t- it’s the same ankheg! I can see the scars it took in our last fight!”

The ankheg squeals and latches onto the cow. Squirming up from the dirt around it are a pair of smaller, immature-looking ankhegs as well. “Broodlings!” warns Karl. “Watch out!!”

***

Wizzy- one of the hapless kobolds- sees his chance.

Not that he wouldn’t flee if he could; but the new boss would kill him if he returned empty handed. The new boss is very hungry, and he wants his delicacies.

Wizzy sprints forward and snatches up one of the broodlings, then turns and runs.

“No you don’t!” cries Sepia, and she punches him in the face with her brass knuckles, leaving him staggered. He drops the ankheg broodling and shakes his head to clear it.

WHACK! Another brass knuckle blow to the face breaks several of the bones in the kobold’s snout, and he drops like a sack of potatoes. Then the tiefling returns her attention to the big ankheg, who is pulling the cow down into the ground. I don’t think I want to save the cow that badly, she thinks.

Meanwhile, Cavemouth finally wrenches free of the sticky goo that the kobold slinger had stuck him with. And then, boldly, he grabs the cow and starts to pull it back up, trying to wrest it from the ankheg’s grasp. The two of them wrestle roughly over the poor cow, who is lowing in pain and fear.

With a roar, the goliath pulls the cow free- at least for the moment- and then whips his axe out and severs the ropes keeping it from fleeing. Bloody and in terrible pain, the cow lurches away, trying to reach some kind of safety. With it out of the way, Karl blasts the other broodling with a scorching burst, slaying it.

Kane, Shifty and Cavemouth pounce on the ankheg, hacking at it. It squeals again, spitting acid at them, but all three manage to dodge out of the way before returning to their assault on it.

The bug grabs onto Cavemouth and starts to drag him under as well. “No you don’t!” the goliath shouts, pushing off of its carapace with his boots and freeing himself. The ankheg, clearly hungry and angry both, emerges from its burrow and scuttles forward to attack Sepia, who jams a dagger in its eye before socking it with her brass knuckles. The beast’s forelegs wave in the air, and everyone focuses their attacks on it, hacking, stabbing, shooting and pummeling it. The ankheg fights fiercely, but it is plainly weakening.

“We have it now!” Shifty declares. He slips into flanking with Sepia and stabs it in the back. It whirls to face him, and Sepia throws herself against it, driving her dagger deep into the wound he just opened. The ankheg screams as brownish juice sprays all over. It raises itself up, then slams itself down, its antennae moving weakly. Kane and Cavemouth both drive their axes into it, and the bug gives another, faltering cry.

Sepia smashes its face in with her brass knuckles, and the ankheg stops moving (except for a few twitches).

A quick look around confirms that all the kobolds have fallen; the fight is over. Our heroes catch their breath and then discuss the situation.

“First of all,” Karl says, “isn’t it weird that we fought this same ankheg before, a few dozen miles away? Do they have that big of a territory?”

“Ankhegs are common in this area,” Cavemouth replies. “And they do have a pretty big area that they hunt. But still... you’re right, that is pretty strange.”

Kane snorts. “Maybe it wanted its revenge on us for defeating it once.”

“I don’t think that they are that smart,” muses Kane.

“What were these kobolds doing, anyway?” wonders Shifty.

“That one is still alive,” Sepia says, pointing at Wizzy. “I just knocked him out. It seemed like they were trying to capture the ankheg broodlings for some reason.”

“Well,” says Shar, “since we have a prisoner, it should be easy enough to find out...”

***

When the party brings their captive around for questioning, he proves to be more than happy to talk. Clearly a coward, the kobold informs the party that his tribe has recently had its leadership usurped by a new boss- a goblin, in fact. The goblin has taken to eating young ankhegs- apparently, they are quite a delicacy (If there was a dwarf amongst us, we’d already know that, thinks Shar)- and has demanded that his kobold minions bring him broodlings snacks periodically. “If we don’t,” Wizzy whines, “he hurts us!”

“So you have been stealing the cows to attract the ankhegs?” asks Shifty. “That makes a weird sort of sense.”

The party binds the kobold and then withdraws a few dozen feet to talk over their next move. “We continue backtracking them until we reach their lair,” says Cavemouth.

“And kill them all,” Kane adds with satisfaction.

“Well, hold on a minute,” objects Karl. “We might be able to handle this another way. If we slay this goblin, we might not have to kill them all.” Kane looks disappointed. “There might be a lot of them,” the wizard continues. “Kobolds breed like rats.”

“Very true,” agrees Cavemouth.

“If we can avoid fighting a hundred or so of them, we probably should,” Shar nods. “We also might be able to find the old chief- the one who has been usurped- and get him to turn on the goblin, once we show that we can defeat him.”

“Hey kobold! Is your old chief still alive?” demands Cavemouth.

Wizzy nods.

“All right,” says Shar, “I think we have a plan.”

***

Their prisoner leads our heroes to a ruined outpost on a hillside, indicating that it is the location of the kobold lair. The party lets him go, warning him that if he crosses them again, they will show no mercy.

Then they plunge into the kobold lair.

Their assault goes pretty much exactly as planned. They carve through the initial kobold guards, work their way inside the outpost and through a series of kobold warrens. Once they have penetrated deeply enough, the goblin that has taken control of the kobolds comes to the battle; and, once the party has pounded him with attacks to the point that their prowess is undeniable, the former kobold leader- Wyrmkin- turns on him, exhorting those kobolds still loyal to him (as well as those wise enough to see which way the wind is blowing) to join in finishing him off.

“No more stealing cows,” Shifty warns Wyrmkin sternly, after the fight is over. “You have seen what we can do. If you molest the people of Overland again, we’ll be back.”

”Don’t worry about us!” Wyrmkin exclaims. “Until that damned usurper Thox came along, we never troubled your folk. Now that I am in charge again, we shan’t do so again.”

The party negotiates an appropriate payment from the kobolds- consisting of the pink potion that Thox had carried- and departs, returning to Overland.

***

Rested, recovered and rewarded, the party spends some of their hard-earned money back in town. Soon enough, though, Shifty points out that, to maintain the extravagant lifestyle that they are rapidly becoming accustomed to, they need to find another paying job. Shortly, word reaches them of goblin bandits marauding the road east of the crossroads.

“Even if we aren’t hired to take them out,” Shifty says, “they undoubtedly have some loot.”

So the party once again sets forth to find adventure, heading to the crossroads for another night’s rest in the company of the various merchants that are encamped there. They reach it in the middle of the afternoon. Once there, the party questions the merchants, and though none of them have been assaulted by the goblins themselves, there is a general consensus that they are a nuisance that is only growing worse.

However, as night falls, another group of merchants limps into the crossroads. These ones look more like peasants than merchants, and our heroes make inquiries of them. Indeed, it turns out that the goblins had assaulted and robbed them.

“They seem to have come out of a chasm that opened up in one of the recent earthquakes,” one of the merchants says. “I don’t know if they just moved into it, or if they were there already and just gained egress after the quake, but either way, they are causing nothing but trouble!”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to hire us to deal with them?” Cavemouth asks.

The merchant snorts. “If I had any money left, maybe,” he replies, “but my money and merchandise have all been stolen!”

Yep, thinks Shifty. They’ll have some loot for us, all right!

Next Time: Our heroes make their first foray into the Dim Depths of the Earthquake Rift!
 

the Jester

Legend
Curse you, Sagiro, for your most excellent story hour!!

I had to go back and edit a couple of references in here- I put "Black
Circle" where I meant "Shadow Circle." Sagiro's Black Circle organization is NOT in my campaign. The Shadow Circle, dating back to the 2ed Complete Druid's Handbook, is.

Sigh. I think I made the same mis-statement in game, too, so now I need to inform the players that I'm a dork.
 

the Jester

Legend
Cavemouth peers down into the chasm. “Well,” he says, “I can see some ledges down a ways on either side. The highest one- closest to us- is on this side, but the next one down is on the other side.” He squints. “Looks like it narrows on the way down, too.”

“Let’s take a look from the other side and see if we can tell anything else,” suggests Shifty.

The chasm itself is only 20’ wide and 50’ long, so it takes a minimum of effort to circumnavigate it. Once on the other edge of it, they peer down again, but cannot tell anything new. Karl drops a stone in, and it bounces off the sides and out of view, but the party hears a distant splash from below.

“Well,” Cavemouth says, “since it narrows, if I fall, I will stop before I hit bottom, so...” He starts to clamber down. Shar, meanwhile, uncoils a rope and searches around for something to tie it to; she finds a tree not far from the edge of the rift.

The goliath finds the descent fairly easy. There are plentiful handholds and cracks that allow his feet purchase. Shortly, he reaches the ledge. From above, Shifty cocks an eyebrow as he sees the warrior draw out his greataxe and rush into some kind of opening with a bellow.

“Uh-oh,” the gnome sighs. “We’d better hurry down after him.”

The sounds of battle rise up from below, and the party scrambles after their point man, some of them using the rope, some just clambering down the face of the rock wall. Quickly, they reach the small ledge at the bottom and hurry into the cave opening that greets them.

Cavemouth, a few dozen feet ahead of them, has already slain several goblins, and more are coming. The passage opens into a chamber; another side passage cuts into it just beforehand. Goblins are starting to rush out to meet the party’s unexpected assault.

Charge!

Our heroes meet the oncoming enemy without mercy, hewing and blasting their way through. In only a few confused moments, the first wave of goblins has been slain or thrown back. The party quickly strips the dead of valuables, although this proves to be only a handful of silver and gold coins.

“Which way?” asks Shar, but the sound of more running feet answers for them as another wave of goblins, these ones looking meaner and tougher, storm forward. One of them has the look of a chief, with fancy tattoos on his arms and face. They rush forward.

The ringing of weapons heralds sprays of blood from both sides. The goblins and our heroes stab and cut at each other; Shar and Shifty hang back, shooting arrows and throwing shuriken. Karl, in the rear of the party, casts magic missile after magic missile into the leader. Sepia makes good use of the alchemist’s fire that she had purchased in Grumbleford.

After a few exchanges- during which both the party and the goblins suffer about equally- the two sides break apart and halt a few dozen feet away from each other.

“What do you want with us?” snarls the goblin chief.

Surprised to find a possible parlay, our heroes hesitate long enough for the priestess of the Sword Cult to speak up. “You need to stop your raiding of the road nearby,” she declares. She gestures to the dead goblins scattered about. “If you don’t, you’ll meet the same fate as your tribesfolk.”

The goblin chief stares at the party for a moment. “We don’t want any trouble with your kind,” he finally says.

”Well, leave the merchants alone and you won’t have any, but if you don’t, we’ll wipe you out,” Shifty threatens.

“All right,” the chief shrugs. “No problem. We will leave your merchants alone.” He gives them a nasty smile. “But if you come back, we will kill you.”

“Someone will kill someone, that’s for sure,” Sepia retorts, posturing with her brass knuckles. The goblin chief’s bodyguards chuckle ominously.

“Go,” the chief snaps, “before I reconsider.”

“Wait,” says Sepia. “I want a slave.”

The goblin chief spits. “Not one of my folk,” he states flatly. “But we will sell you one of our slaves.”

“Really? You have slaves?”

“Of course- kobolds.”

“All right,” Sepia agrees with a shrug.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” says Karl from the back, but Sepia ignores his objection and gets down to haggling. In the end, for ten pieces of gold, she obtains a kobold named Yiddy.

***

Dirty, sweaty and bloody, our heroes return to the top of the chasm. Shifty says, “You know we’re just going to have to come back here and kill them all eventually. They have no intention of leaving off with their banditry.”

Shar shrugs. “So be it. When the time comes, we’ll handle them.”

And get the rest of their loot, the gnome thinks to himself.

The party starts towards home, but the hour is late enough that it is already nearly dark when they reach the crossroads, so they decide to camp there again. It is rapidly becoming a home away from home!

Since they have a kobold with them now- around whose neck Sepia has tied a rope- they set watches. In the night, Yiddy makes an escape attempt, but is caught; Shifty uses his innate gnomish mastery of illusion to scare the hell out of the little slave, and the poor little fellow spends the rest of the night curled into a quivering ball. Sepia both socks him in the snout and then tries to give him comfort; despite the beating and scare, our heroes suspect that they are treating the kobold far better than the goblins did. At least they feed him their scraps.

***

About sixty miles away, as the crow flies, in the camp of the free company known as the Double Javelins, a rider garbed all in black arrives, dismounts and strides quickly through the pickets, recognized by the other mercenaries. When he reaches the tent of the band’s fiercest warrior (and therefore commander), he stops. The flickering of an oil brazier gives away that the commander is awake, so he claps.

From within, a grizzled, rumbling voice calls out, “What do you want?”

“Captain, it is Dolorous Pete,” the rider says.

“Enter,” the commander replies at once.

Dolorous Pete pushes the tent’s flap aside and walks in. Thannox, head of the Double Javelins, glares at him. The huge half-orc has one broken tusk on the side of his face that is split by the wide scar of an old axe blow. Even at night, he wears his thick hide armor; it is said that he never sleeps without it, even when he has whores in his bed. Nor, it is said, does he ever sleep without a weapon at hand. Next to his sleeping pallet a brace of javelins lies; next to that, a pouch of deadly poison. Dolorous Pete suppresses a shudder; he has seen what that terrible venom, extracted from the deadly spider called a tarantella, can do to a man.

“Well?” Thannox demands.

“Dasserc isn’t worth the effort. Not only aren’t there very many people, they don’t even live in houses. The place is a ruin. The folk huddle under lean-tos to stay out of the rain. There isn’t a standing building in the whole place. But Woodcut is a different story. They have good, strong wooden buildings there. A couple of them are even two or three storeys high.”

“Wood,” the half-orc says in distaste.

“I know, captain. But even so, the town fronts on the Wildwood, so there would be no help for them from the north or west. South is the Troll River, and there is no ford or bridge closer than the ruins of Thrushton. The only trail out leads to Overland, and we can block that easily. Also, there are less than 200 people there. It should be an easy first step.”

“Wood burns.”

“I know, boss, but we have to start somewhere. And we can make an example of anyone that causes trouble by locking them into a building and lighting it on fire.”

“An example,” Thannox rumbles, “that they might take to heart... and try to burn us out.”

“Well, sir, it is close enough to the river that a channel could be dug to provide sufficient water to douse any fire.”

The half-orc laughs unpleasantly. “Given enough labor,” he says with a smile.

“You wanted my opinion as an old military man, sir, and there you have it. Overland is too big; same thing goes for Grumbleford. We take Woodcut first, then press the men into service by threatening their families. Then we recruit everyone in Overland and Grumbleford who has a stomach for fighting and a wish for glory. Once we have them on our side, there is nobody to resist you. After all, nobody has seen the governor or his men in decades. Or any of the Imperial Legions, since they were withdrawn to Chebonnay. And believe me, sir- I was there- those legions are gone. When the Six-Fingered Hand swept down on the city, they destroyed all resistance.”

“People have a very short memory,” Thannox says. “They will forget that they were ever part of an Empire. They nearly already have!” He pours two cups of wine and quaffs one, handing the other to Dolorous Pete.

“Yes, captain,” Pete answers, drinking his own wine down. “But they will never forget your rule.”

***

The morning sun creeps up out of the distant eastern sea. Our heroes rise, break their fast and camp, and prepare to set out.

“You know,” says Shifty, “that chasm isn’t that far from the Governor’s Tower. Maybe we should let them know about it.”

“Nobody’s supposed to go there without good reason,” Karl replies. “They say that the governor dislikes being disturbed.”

Sepia snorts and gives Yiddy’s leash a yank. “Bandits seem like the kind of thing that the governor would want to know about.”

“It is only about 20 miles from here anyway,” Shar says. “And Shifty’s right- that chasm is pretty close, all things considered.”

Cavemouth grins. “What the hell, maybe they’ll have a good recipe for some beer.”

The party turns north off of the road. The trail leading towards the Governor’s Tower. It is fairly overgrown and obviously doesn’t see much use. It is not too overgrown for them to follow it easily, however, and they tromp up the trail. By late afternoon the tower itself comes into view, surrounded by a low stone wall that also includes a stable, chicken coop and a well.

But there is no sign of inhabitants. The coop and stable are empty, and the tower has the look of a place long-abandoned. The gardens are overgrown and untended.

”I don’t think anyone has been here in a long time,” says Shar.

The party starts poking around. Cavemouth peers into the well and says, “I’m not sure, but I think there’s something down there.” He squints, trying to resolve it, but to no avail.

”Let’s send down the kobold,” suggests Shifty.

The well has a line with a bucket attached to it; they force poor Yiddy into the bucket and start to lower him down. Almost immediately, he screams in fear. “HELP!” Quickly, the party hoists the trembling, cowardly dog-lizard fellow back up.

“What is it, Yiddy?” asks Sepia.

“There’s something bony down there!”

Everyone takes another look down the dark shaft, but again, nobody can see anything. Cavemouth shrugs. “I’ll climb down,” he offers.

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“Of course not,” the goliath grins, “but if the kobold can get in and out, so can I!”

The problem with his reasoning becomes apparent immediately: he is huge compared to Yiddy-in-a-bucket. “I don’t see anything,” he grunts up from below, and struggles back to the top. “But then again, I couldn’t really see past my own body,” he adds sheepishly.

“I’ll try,” Shifty sighs. His slight gnomish stature is much more suited to penetrating a narrow well; moreover, he will fit in the bucket, like Yiddy did. The party slowly lowers him down the well. “I don’t see anything, either,” he calls to the others.

”Here, take another look,” Shar says to Yiddy. She grabs the kobold and drags him to the edge of the well.

“Wait!” squeaks the kobold. “I’m scared! Don’t make me!”

“Oh, shut up.” Shar hoists the little fellow over the lip of the well and drops him in. A wail, followed by a crash and a splash, mark his progress.

“HEY!!” shouts Shifty from below. “You hit me with him!”

“Is he all right?” Sepia yells down. “Yiddy!”

Shifty’s voice floats back up from below: “...I don’t really think so.”

Sepia turns to Shar and glares at him. “You owe me a new slave!”

Shar shrugs. “Fair enough.”

“There’s nothing down here,” Shifty calls again. “Haul me back up.”

A few moments later, with their gnome back on the ground with the rest of them, the party heads into the tower proper. It has three storeys, although the uppermost is twice the height of the lower two; all is abandoned, but there are old foodstuffs- long spoiled- and uniforms in the place. “It doesn’t look like they intended to abandon this place forever,” Karl muses. “They left stuff behind, and there are no signs that they left in a hurry, either. Something must have happened to the governor and his men after they left.”

“Look at what I found!” exclaims Sepia. “A sprig of mistletoe!”

“That’s a druidic holy symbol,” Karl states. He examines it closely. “It looks to me like it got left here a year or two ago at most, but everything we’ve seen indicates that the governor and his men must have vanished thirty years ago or thereabouts. A druid must have come and looked the place over much more recently.”

“I wonder if it’s connected to Novak,” Cavemouth says.

“Well, let’s consider this,” Shifty suggests. “Nobody is here. Nobody has been here for decades. There are uniforms, though- and if we wear them, we can claim that we’re the governor’s new men.” He grins. “And who will contradict us? This is perfect! We can be the authorities if we want!”

Outside, the shadows have grown long. The sun is setting. Our heroes elect to stay the night in the tower and see if anything interesting happens (it doesn’t), and in the morning they debate their next move.

”Next, you need to get me a new slave,” Sepia tells Shar.

She shrugs. “Let’s go back to the chasm, then.”

“The goblins probably won’t like seeing us.”

“Then we kill them,” says Shifty.

But upon returning to the chasm, Sepia stops them. “Wait a minute. I forgot- I already used up all my alchemist’s fire. We should go back to Grumbleford first so that I can restock.” So they turn right around.

Next Time: Our heroes return to Grumbleford, the crossroads and the chasm!
 

the Jester

Legend
In Grumbleford, Sepia buys more alchemist’s fire, but the price is daunting. I’m really going to need a steady stream of income if I am going to use this stuff regularly, she thinks glumly, but at least I’ve got a few flasks for now.

Meanwhile, Shifty makes some discrete inquiries until he manages to find a tailor that is willing to fit the uniforms that they found at the governor’s tower to the party’s members’ measurements. He is clearly nervous about this; it is technically illegal, though tracing it back to him would be difficult if Shifty didn’t talk.

“Don’t worry,” Shifty reassures him, “we are the legitimate authority around here. The governor has employed us and we need to look good in his service.”

“Whatever you say, as long as the coin is good,” replies the tailor.

When the party reunites at their inn, Sepia has another piece of news for them: “I heard that the merchant’s guild is offering a bounty for goblin scalps- two gold pieces each.”

“We did tell the goblins in the rift that we’d leave them alone as long as they stopped raiding,” Shar points out.

Shifty shrugs. “We’ll just have to see if they’re keeping their side of the deal,” he says cheerfully. “There are still goblin raids going on, after all.”

Late the next day, once the fitting and sewing has been finished, the party departs Grumbleford and heads as far as the crossroads before dark. They set up camp there, where they meet a group of traveling halflings called the Slysneak Family Circus. While they entertain and amuse the crowd, Shifty spies at least one of them filching wallets as well. Discretely confronting the halflings with a wink and nod, he walks away with a few extra coins in his pocket as the price for his silence.

While the halflings tell tales around the fire, Shar whores herself out to several of the merchants present (as well as to Cavemouth), declaring her body the temple of the Sacred Whore, the Sword Emperor’s wife.

The night drags on. Not long before the various folk put their heads down for the night, one of them relates one last tale- apparently, a city on the coast has declared itself independent and established its own demesnes.

Very interesting, thinks the party’s gnome.

***

In the morning, as the party walks off the road north towards the rift opened by the recent earthquake, they discuss this latest piece of news.

“I wonder how long it has been,” says Cavemouth, “since they saw their governor?”

“This is perfect, though,” Shifty opines. “It seems to me that real authority around here is gone. We are the local authorities, and nobody is there to contradict us.”

“What about the Empire?” asks Karl.

“When is the last time we saw an official, Imperial representative?” counters the gnome. “I have never seen one. Have you?”

His question fills the air like the smell of an over-ripe melon, sweet and ready to burst with possibility. Especially because none of them have ever seen Imperial men either. Until now, they have always put it down to their location- Overland, Grumbleford, all of the small towns in the area, are certainly in a backwater borderland. But now... it seems quite possible that the reason they have never seen Imperial men might be quite different, after all.

***

The group reaches the rift a little bit before noon, and this time they elect to descend to the topmost ledge, rather than the second one down. This leads them to another goblin warren.

The party attacks without warning, striking down goblins with furious abandon. A pair of the humanoids fall back, pelting the heroes with arrows, but soon enough Karl blasts the intervening goblins and the group is able to spring on archers. Sepia’s brass knuckles knock both consciousness and teeth from one of them.

A quick, subsequent look around finds a large group of goblin females cowering in a cave in the rear of the area, as well as many goblin young. Another cave in the back holds a number of quivering, frightened kobold slaves. For the moment, the party keeps all of them in sight and covered with weapons, but doesn’t slay them.

A few minutes later, the sharpshooter revives groggily, coughing and spitting blood out of his smashed face. He groans as his vision clears, then cringes in fear as the tiefling raises her brass knuckles threateningly again.

“We had a deal!” the goblin cries. “You were supposed to leave us alone!”

“You’re still raiding the merchant caravans east of here,” Shifty snaps. “We warned you.”

“It wasn’t us!”

“Then why are they offering two gold for a goblin scalp?” demands Karl.

“There are lots of other goblins in the area,” whines the party’s captive. “Many live in the Black Brambles, and raid from there!”

The party draws back to discuss this intelligence, debating whether or not the goblin is lying, as well as what the best course of action might be. Finally, Shifty shakes a finger in the goblin sharpshooter’s face and tells him, “We’re going to investigate further. If what you say is true, we’ll leave you alone. If you’re still raiding, we will return and kill every last one of you.”

The sharpshooter gasps in terror.

”For now,” the gnome continues, “to ensure your good behavior, we’re going to take your females with us and put them to work. We won’t mistreat them, don’t worry- but if you want them back, you had better not mess with us!”

***

Back to the Governor’s Tower. The female goblins are frightened, behaving more like cattle than like goblins.

“There really isn’t much damage they can do,” Karl points out. “There’s no reason why we can’t leave them here, doing some of the cleanup work that needs to be done.”

“Without supervision?”

“What are they going to do, pee in the corner? This place is already a wreck.”

“Good point,” agrees the rest of the party.

“But then, what are we going to do?” wonders Cavemouth.

“There is at least one more level in the rift that we haven’t checked out,” replies Shar. “We might as well finish exploring it. But this time, let’s not kill goblins unless they attack us first.”

Everyone seems to agree with this is principle, but it will soon become apparent that this agreement is the flimsiest of things.

***

On the road headed west, a huge, dangerous-looking bird bigger than a horse, backed with a rich-looking purple howdah and driven by a well-dressed halfling, is given a wide berth by all the other travelers on the road. No trouble with goblin bandits for this one!

“Your pardon, sir,” calls the halfling to a nearby merchant.

Warily, the merchant looks over the huge terror bird that the tiny figure is mounted on. “Yes?” he calls back.

“Can you tell me the name of the biggest city in these parts? Would it still be Thrushton?”

“Thrushton’s a ruin, these days,” the merchant replies. “Grumbleford is probably the biggest town around these days.”

“Is it the seat of the government?”

“No, that’d be the Governor’s Tower. It’s off the road somewhat, from what I understand.”

“The Imperial Governor, then... Is he active much? Does he hold court?”

Nervously, the merchant answers, “Haven’t heard anything about him doing that sort of thing, no.”

“Ah. And which way to Grumbleford? Are there signs?”

“There’s an old sign at the crossroads, but it’s south from there, if you don’t have your letters.” He glances at the halfling’s garb. “Though I’m sure you do,” he amends. “No disrespect intended.”

“And none taken. Thank you, you have been most helpful.” The halfling tosses a silver piece to the merchant, who- surprised- snatches it from the air.

Huh, he thinks, looks new. He squints at it: the standard head he doesn’t know on one face, and a hand holding a rose on the other. It is new- it hasn’t even been shaved yet. He glances across at the halfling. Well, none of my business, and I probably don’t need to know anything more about this anyhow.

The merchant will find out how wrong he is in time.

***

On ropes and harnesses, the party descends past the first ledge and down to the third (the second, of course, is on the opposite side of the rift). Cavemouth leads the way in. Squeaking ahead of them announces the presence of many rats. The entryway rapidly opens into a large chamber with many different exits- and rats everywhere.

“Filthy vermin,” growls Cavemouth.

“You’re one to talk,” quips Sepia.

The goliath shoots her an amused glance, then stomps into the room. The others are not far behind him. Rats- some of the size of a large cat- start to move to investigate them.

“I don’t know about this,” says Shar. Her voice betrays her unease. “There are a lot of them...”

“A few scorching bursts would probably clear them away,” offers Karl.

“Ow!” exclaims Cavemouth, as one of the rats nibbles experimentally at him. “All right, let’s get rid of these damned pests!” He cuts one in half with his axe, and Karl follows his attack up with one of the bursts he mentioned, cooking a couple more of the rodents.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really help. Instead of intimidating the other rats, it enrages them.

Naked-tailed vermin of all sizes start pouring at the party from everywhere, coming from the side passages, smaller holes in the walls, ceiling ledges- everywhere. Soon our heroes are facing a horde of giant rats, as well as a pair seething swarms of rats. A few of the rats are even larger than cats, reaching up to about 3’ in length (not counting their long tails, of course).

The party fights with aplomb, and soon they drive off or slay the onrushing furry mass of rodents. Karl proves adept at dealing with the swarms with his scorching bursts, while Cavemouth and the others keep the individual larger specimens from coming too close- at least, in one piece. Slowly, grimly, our heroes cut and blast their way through the rats, until they are surrounded by a bloody, smoldering carpet.

Then they start to explore, mindful of the squeaks of the remaining rats (There must be thousands of them, thinks Cavemouth). The first direction they check out is riddled with areas of unsafe ceiling, just waiting to drop down on them. They manage to “map out” the unsafe areas, and carefully skirt around them. Strange scuttling noises come from all directions.

“I hope there is something other than just rats down here,” comments Shifty. “Something with treasure.”

“Me too!” agrees Sepia, and agreement murmurs up from the others.

The party looks around. Cavemouth notices the glow of lanterns coming from one direction; this is more interesting than a bunch of rats, so the party heads in that direction. The lanterns are set along a ledge above a 20’ drop-off; a canyon ranging from 15’ to 25’ wide separates the ledge that they are on from the other side. A pair of ropes have been stretched across the gap in such a way as to allow a person to walk upon one while holding the second, higher, rope with his hands.

“Look!” Sepia says, gesturing.

Trying to be sneaky on the other side are a pair of creatures that strongly resemble skunks, excepting their size: they are about 4’ long, with huge tails and white stripes down their otherwise-black backs.

“I hate skunks,” Cavemouth declares.

Sepia nods. “Me, too. I don’t want to stink.”

The party fans out and draws ranged weapons. “I bet we can kill them from here,” says Shifty.

Then, even as Cavemouth hurls a javelin into one of the skunk-things, a dagger flips out of the shadows, hitting Sepia in the temple. She squawks, stumbles- and pitches towards the cliff.

She catches herself on the edge, managing to barely hang on.

From where the dagger came from in the shadows in the canyon below, a goblin in a climbing harness glares at them. A pick hangs at his side.

Shar fires an arrow but misses, and then Shifty sinks a shuriken into the wounded skunk’s eye. It squeals and collapses.* The goblin gives a cry of rage... and slips away back into the shadows.

Next Time: The goblin spelunker!

*This is the first time in 4e that I can recall a non-minion being slain before it had a chance to act. Hurray!
 

the Jester

Legend
Shar points down at the bottom of the lower section. “There he is!”

Cavemouth and Sepia leap down after the goblin spelunker, who snarls and draws his pick. He swings it at the goliath, but Cavemouth parries the blow, and Sepia rushes around behind the goblin. The three of them engage in a furious series of blows and parries, and when the goblin hits Cavemouth with his pick, he cries, “FLAME ON!”

WHOOMPH! The pick bursts into flame. Cavemouth cries out as he starts to burn.

“Nya!” the goblin chortles, and knees the hulking fighter in the groin. With a groan, Cavemouth staggers, holding his aching crotch.

Up top, Shifty and Shar send arrows and shuriken at the other skunk-beast, wounding it badly. It chitters and clambers down the wall, moving to aid its goblin master. Cavemouth, seeing it coming, gives a nasty snarl and whips his axe into it, slicing through both of its forelimbs. Blood gushes out in a massive flood, and the creature sprawls on the ground dead.

“MY PETS!” the goblin howls, and slams his pick into Cavemouth’s thigh.

“Aargh!” cries the goliath, and the goblin yanks him from his feet. He crashes to the ground and the little spelunker stomps his groin again. “Oooohhh,” he groans.

Shifty leaps to the bottom of the room, tumbling to absorb the fall. But the spelunker darts around the corner- there is a smaller alcove in the back of the room, behind the elevated area in the back of the room- and vanishes back out of view. Shar, atop the eastern elevated area, curses. “Where did he go?” she cries.

“We’ll find him,” Shifty promises, fading into the shadows.

Cavemouth clambers to his feet, his balls aching like never before, and staggers around the corner. “Where are you, you little bastard?” he cries.

Sepia edges around the corner as well, scanning the shadows for him. “Come out, we can negotiate,” she calls. “We have gold!” She pulls a few gold pieces out of her belt pouch and tosses them into the dark back corner of the room.

The spelunker emerges from cover, his pick held before him warily.

“GOTCHA, YOU LITTLE BASTARD!” screams Shifty, leaping out of hiding and hurling a shuriken. It sinks deep into the goblin’s cheek. The spelunker cries out in pain and staggers. Shifty leaps forward, and the two of them exchange another series of blows and parries even as Cavemouth roars and staggers bow-legged to the fight.

Only to have another kick to the groin land solidly right between his legs.

“Your testes belong on my neck,” he groans, and cuts at the goblin with his axe.

The goblin, for his part, swings his flaming pick at Cavemouth and catches him in the ribs. Bone cracks and Cavemouth crumples into unconsciousness. Shar, still unable to see what is happening, curses and starts to climb down.

Meanwhile, Sepia says, “Wait, let’s talk about this!”

The goblin’s response is to groin stomp the unconscious goliath and then dart back around the corner. Shifty thrusts with his shortsword, pricking the goblin in the armpit, and then pursues. The goblin reaches the eastern wall and starts to climb up towards the ledge that holds his escape- the passage back out to the level’s egress. Unfortunately for him, in his frantic haste, he attempts to climb up a crumbling part of the wall, and it simply slides out from underneath him, leaving him right where he started. He whirls around as Shifty springs forward and pokes him again.

“We have gold!” Sepia tries again, even as Shar reaches the bottom and hurries to where she can see her fallen friend.

“Why would I trust you? You already offered a parlay once, and then attacked me again when I tried to accept!” The goblin whirls his pick and swings towards Shifty’s pate, but the gnome ducks the worst of the blow. The small wound he takes is enough, however; he farts and vanishes.*

Sepia steps in, her brass knuckles on her hands, and throws another couple of coins at the goblin. “Shifty, knock it off! That was him, not me!” She moves to stand right in front of the bleeding goblin. “Come on, we can be reasonable,” she says. “Here, have some coins.”

The goblin hesitates, but is clearly ready to strike. “Put your weapons down and I’m willing to talk,” he growls.

Shifty reappears. “Put your weapon down, or we’ll kill you.”

The goblin snarls and sneers at him... but neither one attacks. After a long moment (and a hard look from Sepia), the gnome steps back. “Fine,” he says. “We’ll talk.”

From around the corner, Cavemouth comes staggering, clearly still aching between his legs. He is shaking with anger. “You owe me balls!” he roars.

“What’s your name?” asks Sepia, trying to be reasonable.

“I am called Mulcoyle,” the goblin replies. “My folk had a deal with you. You were to leave us alone. Why have you attacked me?”

“Uh, we didn’t realize that you were part of that same group of goblins,” Shifty says. (While not technically a lie, the truth is more like the party didn’t stop to think about it, nor did they care.)

“And there are still goblin bandits on the road near here,” Cavemouth adds. He shakes a finger at Mulcoyle.

“If those don’t stop, we’re coming back and wiping you all out!” Shifty declares.

“My people have not raided since you came,” the goblin retorts. “They must be other tribes. You should take it up with the goblins in the Black Brambles, not us- we have honored our agreement! Unlike you!”

Shar shrugs eloquently. Weapon arms tense again.

“Well, how do we know that it isn’t you? Does your tribe have an identifying mark or anything?” Sepia asks, trying to keep things reasonable.

“Of course! We are the Broken Nose tribe! Our sigil is obvious.”

“All right, listen,” says Shifty. “We’re the authority in this area now. If we see a single one of your tribesmen on a bandit raid, we’re going to come back and wipe you all out. So you had better tell your people to keep their noses clean if they want to live.”

“I already told you, we are honoring our half of the agreement. It is you that has transgressed.”

“We’re sorry,” Sepia replies. “We didn’t realize you were part of the same tribe.”

“I am an explorer,” he huffs.

“You mean you don’t know what is on this level?” demands Shifty. It is clear from his tone that he doesn’t believe the spelunker.

“Of course I do- now that I have explored it. But we only came to this rift when it opened in the recent earthquake. Before that, we had no knowledge of it at all.”

“Well, what else is here?” asks Shar. “Tell us what you know and we’ll show mercy to you.”

“We are already showing mercy,” Sepia points out. “But here are another couple of coins.”

With her kinder words and a few gold pieces, Sepia gradually manages to win Mulcoyle over. The party agrees not to try to take his magic pick, but only after it becomes clear that doing so will lead to renewed combat. A glance at Cavemouth, still holding his groin, is enough to convince the party that picking the fight up where they left off will no doubt cause them severe pain, even if it doesn’t kill or seriously injure any of them.

But it’s not a one-sided deal. Mulcoyle shows the party a wall in the very back of the room where fancy crystals are growing from the wet native rock. Although it would take hours to mine them out, the party and the goblin come to an accommodation that satisfies both sides: Mulcoyle will get his fellow goblins to mine the crystals, and the party will get half of them. Moreover, Mulcoyle will effectively act as the party’s representative with the Broken Nose goblins, keeping them out of trouble. As for what the goblin gets out of the deal, it soon becomes obvious to our heroes that he plans to capitalize on both the earnings from the crystal mining and the implied threat of their return and reprisals to make a power play in his tribe.

As for information, the goblin tells the party, “This level is mostly rats, with one area inhabited by- I don’t know your word for them. We call them kruthiks. They are like... like insects, but also like reptiles. They are very dangerous scavenging beasts.”

“It’s probably not worth messing with them,” opines Shar.

The goblin goes on to tell them, “The fourth level, at the bottom of the shaft, is mostly a pool of water. I looked at it from a rope, and there are ledges and boats down there.”

”Boats?” repeats Shar.

“Yes. I didn’t get close enough to see much more.”

“Very interesting,” says Sepia.

A little more posturing and discussion, and the goblin prepares to depart. But before he does, Cavemouth looms over him. “You owe me balls!” the warrior snarls at the goblin. “Don’t forget, or I will take yours!”

“With any luck,” the goblin replies, “I will bring you my chieftain’s balls.” And he grins.

Next Time: Our heroes head down further- and meet their first dragon!


*Shifty’s player always says that he farts invisibility when he uses his gnomish racial reactive invisibility power.
 

the Jester

Legend
Back at the crossroads, our heroes take the night off, enjoying the company of merchants and travelers again, sharing their fire and food with friendly strangers. “Some day,” predicts Shar, “a town will spring up here.”

The next morning, they trudge back to the earthquake rift, intending to descend to the watery level and investigate the boats that Mulcoyle the goblin told them about. They tie together several coils of rope and begin the long descent, dropping 60’ to the ledge that leads into the third level. From there, they rig a harness from another series of ropes and tie Cavemouth in, then lower him slowly and quietly down to take a look.

The shaft of the rift opens at the bottom, revealing a wide, roughly oval pool of water a couple of hundred feet across. A pair of narrow ledges of dry land are visible clinging to the edge of the pool; a few small boats are tied off to one of these. Cavemouth clambers back up and reports his findings to the party. “Unfortunately, there’s a long climb along slick rock to get to either of the ledges.”

“Do we have enough rope to rig a pathway over?” wonders Sepia.

“I have about 200’ myself,” Shar replies. “Is that enough?”

“Almost,” says Cavemouth, “and I’m pretty sure that between the bunch of us, we have enough.”

The party pulls out their rope collection and hands it to the goliath.

***

In the crude shelter, the miserable crippled figure lay huddled on a mass of filthy, soiled straw. Fleas and ticks crawled all over his body. Even if he were not horribly scarred and maimed, even had shackles not been closed around his ankles for decades, he was now too old to even attempt to escape. His bones ached, and all he truly wished for was death- as he had wished for over thirty years, now.

The air outside the rude lean-to stank of smoke, sweat and rot. The remains of the buildings, given over to the cruel embrace of mold and mildew, were untended and collapsing. Even one of those fouled structures would have offered him more cover from the wind, more surcease from the cold. But no- using those buildings would be a violation of the weird code that his prisoners held to.

Eyes crusted with yellow snot eased closed. His teeth were long-gone, rotted from his mouth. He was half-starved. Yet the damned humans and their strange allies would not let him die.

Lerrmurr had long ago told them all the information that he had; but it was not enough, not specific enough, not dangerous enough for them. They believed that he knew more. They believed that, somehow, despite the horrible torments that they had subjected him to, he somehow still held something back.

The fools. Trapping him was bad enough; leaving him unable to move freely, feeding him the fetid swill that he had been forced to live on rather than fresh prey, the beatings and torture- all of that simply added to his misery without drawing more information out of him. He had always been weak-willed; his greatest moment of strength had been when he forced his captain to leave him behind as their ship had crashed.

Surely, though, if she had escaped, she would have returned to save him by now. Except, of course, that she thought him dead- and, no doubt, burned to ashes by the radioactive fires caused by overloaded and exposed radiocrystal.

Old- he was old, now. He had lost count of how many miserable winters he had lived through; more than half of them, he was convinced, had occurred in this shackled hell hole. Even if he were to be freed, he doubted whether he could walk, let alone run. Escape were impossible now, and the increasing neglect of his captors was bound to kill him at last before long.

Even with his eyes closed, his keen ears detected someone entering the crude lean-to that was his only shelter from the elements. Then a voice, faintly mocking, speaking in the crude human language that he had learned over the years: “You are in luck, my friend. We are moving you. You will see a change of scenery.”

It was a struggle to open his rheumy eyes. The silhouette of one of his tormenters loomed above him, and he could hear a key being placed in the shackle binding his ankle to the thick root nearby. Then his emaciated body was being half-lifted, half-dragged clear of the structure. He couldn’t feel his formerly-shackled leg, and the smell arising from the suppurating sores where the metal band had fastened to him told him that he was in for another long, agonizing ritual to keep him alive. Just let me die, he thought hazily. I have nothing for you. I...

A scent caught his attention and made his blood run cold. It was far off; he had not been able to detect it at all in the smoky haze of his tiny shelter. But now it reached him, a hint of something from his old life- and not something favorable to him.

Canus, he thought. Trembling from weakness, he realized that there might be worse things than this human captivity after all. They were far off, but why would they be here at all?

Unless they are looking for me. Or other tabaxi. Or, worst of all, unless they are seeking the radiocrystals. As the laboring human dragged his mangy frame to the fire to warm him, Lerrmurr closed his eyes again. Let them not find it. And please, let them not have anything that can use it.

Oh please.


***

Time and effort always pay off. Cavemouth braids the ropes together, spiking them to the wall of the cavernous area above the water in place after place. Slowly he works his way over to the ledge with the boats on it, then drops down and shouts back at the entrance, “Ready! Come on in!”

***

Cavemouth’s voice echoes deeper into the caves. Rats squeal at the sound.

“Did you hear that?” asks Dranko, his high voice like nails on a chalkboard.

Corellian hisses, “Quietly, brother! Let us ambush them while they are still making their descent. Surely, anyone entering our cave will have valuables worth stealing.”

Hissing laughter, the two wererats draw their blades. But when they move, it is not first towards the entry to their chambers, but rather to the rear, where their “ally” lurks, her eyes on the figure trapped in the icy pool.

“I heard,” it says laconically. And, spreading purple wings, the wyrmling- its body the size of a large dog- takes to the air, banks around and begins flying towards the entryway. The wererats and their menagerie of rat pets of all sizes follow quickly in the dragon’s wake, claws scuttling on the cave floor.

***

Cavemouth reaches a hand up to help Sepia down off the long series of ropes and onto the ledge. She alights graciously, her tail swishing back and forth.

And the dragon emerges from the cave behind them, belching forth a radiant purple froth that catches both of them.

“DRAGON!!” screams Cavemouth, even as his head fills with pain. He howls in agony, staggering, and then draws his axe out and tries to stand firm, ready to attack. Sepia pulls out her dagger.

“There are more rats coming, too!” she warns.

Shifty hurls a shuriken at the dragon, but it just bounces off of its thick scales. Hanging from the ropes, the gnome grimaces. Are they worth it? he wonders. Can we take this thing?

Rats pour out from the cave en masse, including a couple of rather large ones- and followed by a pair of things that look like half-man, half-rat. “Wererats!” he cries. “Filthy wererats!”

The party is at a substantial disadvantage as the enemy pours in at them. Shar is still above, in the ropes; but she pulls out her bow and starts firing arrows at the rts. Sepia and Cavemouth start trying to fight, cutting down more of the rats, but the vermin swarm over them while their (presumed) leaders, the wererats, move in to flank.

The dragon flies by and tears at Shifty with its claws, tearing scarlet furrows in his chest. The gnome cries out- and vanishes, invisible.

Then he starts to scramble away, up the ropes, hoping to achieve safety.

Unfortunately, the dragon is smart enough to perceive the possibility of flight- and with powerful wings beating the air, it rises up- and with a snap of its jaws, it tears through the ropes about halfway back to the party’s egress!

Uh-oh, thinks Shifty.

Cavemouth and Sepia, meanwhile, are being sorely pressed. Sepia leaps into one of the boats and yells, “Cavemouth, to the boat! Let’s get out of here!” With a sweep of her dagger, she cuts through one of the ropes that ties the boat to shore.

The goliath turns and leaps, clearing a giant rat and landing with a hard thump in Sepia’s chosen boat. “Cast off, quick!” he cries, and the tiefling rogue swiftly saws through the other rope.

But then the first wererat- Corellian- leaps into the boat after them and thrusts its shortsword into Sepia’s midsection. Blood gushes out, flowing over his arm. With a gasp, Sepia collapses.

Meanwhile, the wererat named Dranko climbs into the other boat. “No you don’t,” he chortles. “You cannot escape us!” Rats pour into his boat after him, and he starts untying the mooring ropes on his own vessel.

Cavemouth yells and gives a great push at the wererat in his boat. With a surprised cry and a great pinwheeling of arms, Corellian goes over the side. The goliath pushes off, hoping to gain some distance- and the dragon swoops in, its claws ripping trails of blood into his back. Cavemouth screams in pain and swings his axe with all his strength, scoring a blow on the purple wyrmling.

Shifty, hanging invisibly from the ropes, groans to himself. I have to try to save them, he thinks. A glum thought, given the consequences of failure- and yet, the dragon has already made plain that escape will be difficult at best.

He is near a piton that has been hammered into the wall; with the pommel of his shortsword, he knocks it free and swings on the rope, held still to the wall by another piton further above him. His trajectory arcs out and past the boats, then back around- and he stabs the dragon in the side to great effect.*

It roars and slices him with its claws, wounding him badly. Shifty screams in pain, then stabs again- but this time he is visible. Unable to take the dragon by surprise, he cannot manage to slip the tip of his blade through its thick scales.

“Why did I do it?” he wails. “You weren’t worth it!”

Then, the second boat glides up behind him and Dranko the wererat, flanking him with the dragon, stabs him from behind. Shifty gasps in pain, and the dragon bites down on his shoulder with devastating force.

Shifty collapses, suspended over the water by the ropes, his blood dribbling into the pool below him.

Desperately, Cavemouth slices at the wererat in the other boat in front of him. He deals a fair cut to its arm, but Dranko just laughs.

The wound starts to close with appalling speed.

“Fool!” Dranko taunts, leaping nimbly into his boat. “You cannot defeat us! With our dragon at our side, we are invincible!”

The two exchange a few feints and parries- and, to Cavemouth’s horror, the wererat reaches out and snatches his bag of gold from him! “HEY!!” he cries.

The dragon rips a hunk of his arm away, and the goliath collapses.

Shar, who has been firing arrows the whole time, suddenly finds herself the only one standing. “Wait!” she says, and cuts herself out of the rope harness that she is suspended in. She lands lithely on the boat. “Please, you’ve won!” She drops her bow and raises her hands. “Just let me save my friends!”

“You must pay for your intrusion,” sneers Dranko, even as Corellion pulls himself into the boat behind her. The smell of wet rat fills her nose.

“What do you want?” she asks desperately, and kneels down to bind Sepia’s wounds. The wererats don’t cut her down, and she manages to stop the worst of the tiefling’s bleeding.

The two wererats exchange a glance. “Are you worth a ransom?” demands Corellion.

“You wear uniforms,” Dranko says. “Who do you serve?”

“We- we’re the governor’s men,” she replies. “Yes, we’re worth ransoming.”

“Fortunate for you,” Dranko sneers. “Sixty gold pieces for your lives.”

“All right! Whatever you say, just let me save my friends!”

***

The wererats prove to be surprisingly merciful, allowing Shar to keep her allies alive. The priestess, soaked in the sweat of fear, turns over the requisite gold to the pair of lycanthropes while the dragon perches on a nearby rock, glaring at her. Clearly, treachery is not a good option here- a fact that the wererats keep reminding her of.

Once her friends are stable, the wererats even allow her to bring them around. Chastened by their defeat, nobody makes a hostile move. The dragon watching over the scene is a grim reminder of the odds that they would face if they tried anything.

Instead of just leaving, however, the party talks to the lycanthropes, hoping to draw out some information about what else might lurk down here. The wererats, surprisingly forthcoming, claim that the entire fourth level is theirs.

“But there is something interesting here,” Corellion says. “We will show it to you for ten gold, so long as you agree that, each time you wish to see it again, you will pay us another ten gold without causing any trouble.”

“Fair enough,” Shar replies. “After all, if we don’t want to see it again, we can just stay away.”

With a nasty laugh, the wererat gestures deeper into their tunnels. “Right this way.”

The party follows the lycanthropes despite their misgivings, and soon find themselves in a dead-end chamber with an icy pool in there. “I predict that you will be very interested in what she has to say,” one of the wererats says. The dragon flaps over to a large boulder and sets down, watching the proceedings languidly.

“The money first,” the other wererat says.

“What?”

“Ten more gold.”

The party pays up. Cavemouth points at the money bag that Dranko snatched during the fight. “That’s mine.”

Dranko just laughs. “Not anymore. Don’t push your luck, big man. You’re lucky to be alive.”

Paid off, the two wererats withdraw, smirking, to the edge of the chamber. Cavemouth mutters angrily about his lost gold; he still has a few silver pieces, but now he is pretty well completely broke.

The party approaches the iced-over pool and gazes within it.

Someone is there- someone beautiful. Green-skinned, garbed only in pearls and shells, with long hair floating in the water, she swims easily beneath the layer of ice. When she sees our heroes, she floats up to the underside of the ice layer and presses her hands against it.

“Whoa,” says Shar. “What is that?”

“Hello,” the green-skinned woman calls. “I am Katimah, and I need your help.”

Cavemouth hefts his axe. “Are you trapped?”

“Yes, but your axe will not free me. There is an enchantment laid upon the waters here, keeping me in.”

“Did the wererats do this to you?” asks Shifty.

“No. I was imprisoned... long ago, by the duergar that dwelt beneath this level of the dungeon.”

“There is more to this place, then?”

She nods. “Yes, the duergar, in their heyday, used my powers to help control the flow of water in their demesnes.”

“Your power? What are you? What did they make you do?”

“I am a marid. As I said, I helped channel the flow of water in their underground city. They used me to help control their irrigation needs, to prevent flooding and the like. I have great power over water, which is why they bound me to their service. I am sure you can imagine that changing water levels can be a great danger to an underground settlement.”

“How can we free you?” asks Shar.

“And what’s in it for us?” Shifty adds.

“I will give you my magic items,” Katimah replies. “And you can free me by obtaining the Bell of Salash and sounding it here.”

“Where is this bell?” asks Cavemouth.

“Below, somewhere in the duergar levels. There is a canal, now submerged, that leads to the fifth level of this place, and it is through that that you must go.”

“Underwater?” exclaims Sepia.

“We aren’t really equipped for underwater exploration,” Shifty says.

“I can bestow the ability to breathe water upon you,” the marid says. “It will last for 24 hours. All you must do is touch the surface of the ice.”

Our heroes draw back to discuss this. “I think we should rest up first,” states Shar. “And we can always come back for a mere ten gold pieces.”

At this, Cavemouth growls deep in his throat.

“Let’s go back to the tower first and think this over,” suggests Shifty.

“Yeah, I need to get more alchemist’s fire anyhow,” says Sepia.

The party turns back to Katimah. “With respect,” Shifty says, “we have a few other things to take care of first, but we will be back to take you up on your offer at a later date. If that’s all right with you.”

“I am not going anywhere. I have waited a long time for my freedom- a few days, weeks or even years more is nothing to me.”

With a nod, Shar says, “Until later, then.”

Next Time: For the first time, our heroes meet the authorities!


*I gave him an extra W damage for using such a cool stunt, and with his sneak attack and all, he ended up doing 35 points of damage to said dragon! “Still not bloodied,” I said.
 

Mathew_Freeman

Villager
New Jester story hour! How did I miss this before?

Great stuff as usual - I love your players. Just goes to show that not all D&D is about valorous Knights & Paladins; there's plenty of room for the ale'n'whores school of adventuring too.

I caught that one of your wererats is called Dranko, BTW - have you told Piratecat? :)
 

the Jester

Legend
New Jester story hour! How did I miss this before?

Great stuff as usual - I love your players. Just goes to show that not all D&D is about valorous Knights & Paladins; there's plenty of room for the ale'n'whores school of adventuring too.

I caught that one of your wererats is called Dranko, BTW - have you told Piratecat? :)
Glad to have you on board!

This is a different group of players than the previous ones- with a few exceptions:

Shar's player (and Hammhokk's) is Seance, who played Hkatha in my 4e campaign in Davis, Lillamere in my 3.5 epic game, Naomi in the halfling campaign, Jerakai in the 2e days, etc...

Shifty's player was the guy who played Rajah in Cydra: the Early Years. He played a lot of other pcs through the years, but Rajah is about the only one to appear in one of my story hours so far.

Sepia's player played Maybell Nontrophia, a tabaxi jester in an era of my game that has barely been touched on by story hours at all- prolly in a flashback or two, or perhaps in the thread about Delilah's adventures- I think they crossed paths once.

Kane's player (who has missed several sessions, unfortunately) played Lochenvare in the Early Years and many pcs in my old campaign world (which has no story hours at all, but a few flashbacks referring to it).

Cavemouth's player played Grumpy Fluffbottom, as well as the most chaos-addicted pcs in my campaign, including Veil.

Edit: As for Dranko, I stole his name from PC without asking or pointing, but maybe I should mention it...

Edit 2: As for what this Dranko conversation is all about, Dranko is Piratecat's excellent half-orc cleric/rogue/lasher in Sagiro's excellent story hour thread.
 
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