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The Fall of Civilization

the Jester

Legend
PROLOGUE

The distant night sky is painted pink and orange by the burning of cities. The watchmen on the walls of Chebonnay are grim, knowing that the Six-Fingered Hand is closing upon them.

The army is at full muster; the navy’s ships are deployed. But Arawn, death knight leader of the Six-Fingered Hand has spent centuries, some say millennia, binding together the alliance that he leads. Nobody could have ever predicted that he could do it- that he could, somehow, against all odds and all instincts, force the goblins, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, lizardfolk and ogres to work together. What hold does he have over them, over their kings and chieftains? Nobody knows, but whatever hold it is, it will never relinquish its grip.

Like a mailed fist, the Six-Fingered Hand is smashing through the Imperial defenses.

The humanoid armies are coming from the south, to invest the city as they have so many others. From the north, the Bloody Fleet is moving ever closer, with the Imperial Navy fighting for all its worth to hold them off. The outlying farms are emptying as the peasants flee towards the distant mountains or into the city, depending on their confidence in the Empire’s ability to defend Chebonnay.

Civilization is ending. This is the end, the fall of humanity, the fall of the dwarves, the fall of the halfling, of the elves and their alien cousins, the eladrin- even of that relatively new race, the dragonborn. They have made the mistake of siding with the so-called ‘civilized’ races, and now the forces of barbarism are going to knock them clean to extinction, if they have their way.

Within the city of Chebonnay, this deep in the night, people huddle together in fear. Husbands try to bury their fears in the bosoms of their wives. Wives bite their lips and try to bury their fears in the arms of their husbands. Merchants hide their coins in fear of looting when the inevitable siege comes. Even this deep in the night, the smiths still work, the clanging of their hammers and anvils marking each new blade forged, each new boss fixed to a new shield, each spur for the cavalry and arrowhead for the archers and the guards on the wall. Some of the city’s less savory characters sleep soundly, as if the Six-Fingered Hand will spare them for being petty thieves and rapists. They should know better, from the rumors that have burned through the city like wildfire. The Six-Fingered Hand spares no one. If it lets you live, it is to torture you, to enslave you, to make you walk with their forces until they are ready to eat you.

There are other people sleeping well, of course; those too oblivious to know, too tired to worry, too stupid to care. And there are others awake, working hard for the war effort.

Or drinking hard for the war effort.

Near the docks, in the Steaming Clam, a dirty tavern run by dwarves, army and navy boys drink together, fight, make up, buy each other drinks and piss and vomit in turn.

The cook- who everyone simply calls Cook- is a foreign dwarf, from far-off Muk Nam. He is long since in bed, passed out. It is far too deep in the night, at this point, for a sane businessman to be conscious and, shall we say, viable. So he is not.

But his clientele- a mix of enlisted men and sailors- is certainly happy to keep Cook’s assistants busy, serving cheap, watered beer and grog. They are happy to be drunk- and not to be thinking about the forthcoming fight against the Six-Fingered Hand.

In the military, and in establishments catering to soldiers and sailors, rumors tend to travel fast fast fast. The Steaming Clam is no exception.

The Six-Fingered Hand will be here by tomorrow night, and the city’s rulers have made a deal to capitulate!

The Navy has already been crushed!

The Army surely can’t hold the enemy back, they’re just a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears kids!

The Army has more deserters than dedicated warriors!

Navy ships are leaving in the night, to escape before the Hand arrives!

Somehow, none of the rumors are very encouraging.

***

At a table in the Steaming Clam, four unlikely friends sit.

Vann-La and Torinn are Navy; Heimall and Kratos are Army. In the past weeks, they have given each other black eyes, then bought each other drinks. They have bitched about sergeants and bosuns to each other, and all of them have complained about their officers. In short, they have become fast friends ready to die together when the attack comes.

They are all somewhere between a little and a lot drunk, and they’ve been boasting, arm wrestling, talking smack and trying to one-up one another. Vann-La is an elf, and more than that, she is a Kree: a type of elf with a blue tinge to the skin, a tendency to haughty superiority (okay, that’s an elven trait, not a Kree trait), and a fondness for hyphenated names. She is also a formidable warrior. Torinn is a dragonborn cleric of Lester, the god of adventures, associated with strong luck (good and bad), excitement and- to his detractors- bad decisions. Heimall is a human, tall, with reddish skin that betrays a bit of tiefling in his ancestry, with a vivid scar across his cheek and shoulder. Kratos is a half-elf with a stern look to him and a uniform that, somehow, remains neat no matter what he is doing. Both of the army boys are warlords and officers-in-training.

They all lean back as a minor, uninteresting brawl breaks out. None of them care to get involved; neither principle in the brawl is military, and both are (as a sailor might put it) scurvy bilge rats. But some of the conversation nearby has caught the ear of Torinn and Vann-La.

“Navy ships, leaving before the attack comes,” Vann-La muses. “I hope that there isn’t any truth to that.”

Torinn nods. “Our ship wouldn’t do that.”

“They wouldn’t leave us behind,” Vann-La agrees.

“They would at least try to find us first,” Torinn says.

The barmaid brings another round for their table. They are well-behaved enough to still be served, even at this late hour, while many of the less decorous customers are politely ignored. Of course, they have Army and Navy together in a friendly but adversarial way, so no single group specifically targets them.

Who cares? Will it matter by this time tomorrow?

“We better go check on the ship,” Vann-La says, echoing what Torinn has been thinking.

“Hey, we need to get back to our barracks anyway,” Heimall declares. He nudges Kratos. “We’ll walk as far as the docks with you.”

“Sounds good,” replies Torinn. He stretches and stands up. “We might as well get going.”

The foursome finishes their drinks, pays their tab and departs. The walk to the docks is short; the Steaming Clam, as its name intimates, has a menu specializing in fish, and the freshest fish is, naturally, available near the sea.

Unfortunately-

“She’s gone,” breathes Torinn, as the group walks out to a pier with three fishing vessels and a small sailboat moored to it.

“Your ship?” queries Heimall.

“Yes. She’s gone.” Torinn’s draconic face is grim and drawn.

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” asks Kratos.

Torinn just gives a glare, while Vann-La responds, “Yes, this is the right place. I recognize those two boats from earlier.”

“There were more boats here earlier, when we left our ship,” Torinn says slowly.

“Yeah, including our ship.”

The group stands around listlessly for a while. Then Vann-La cocks her head and says, “What’s that?”

Everybody listens. Sloosh, sloosh.

“It’s a boat coming in,” Vann-La answers herself, “but why doesn’t it have any running lights? No, it does, but they are shuttered. What’s going on?”

“I don’t like this,” Kratos warns.

Then the goblins start shooting.

Next Time: The Fall of Civilization!!
 

Mathew_Freeman

Villager
Subscribe! Subscribe! Subscribe!

Very atmospheric start, Jester - and I can guarantee you at least one excited reader. :)

Can you give us any information about timelines compared to your previous game? And who is playing who?
 

the Jester

Legend
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Very atmospheric start, Jester - and I can guarantee you at least one excited reader. :)

Can you give us any information about timelines compared to your previous game? And who is playing who?
The timeline is several thousand years post-Great Conflicts.

As far as who is playing whom, of the pcs you've seen so far:

Kratos is played by Alcar (played Alcar);
Vann-La is played by Brain (played Inoke, JJ);
Heimall is played by seldomseen (played Drelvin, Chakar); and
Torinn is played by hippiejedi (played Gerontius).
 

Nightbreeze

Villager
Very interesting start, Jester (wonder how many of those good story hours you can manage :p)

But, when listing people sleeping in the city, you should have added "and there were few who slept soundly, as the next day their magic would carry them on the other side of the world, as soon as they grew bored or felt threatened" :D
 

the Jester

Legend
But, when listing people sleeping in the city, you should have added "and there were few who slept soundly, as the next day their magic would carry them on the other side of the world, as soon as they grew bored or felt threatened" :D
That's so 3rd edition. :)
 

Nightbreeze

Villager
You seemed to like it before you knew it was 4th. ;) Besides, a good story is edition-neutral.

Looking forward to this one.
Oh, I do still like it. I think that from the point of style, it will be better than his other story hours (if one can judge from the first post alone). But I also doubt that it will be as rich as it goes on, due to the natural fact that 4th ed. has but a tiny fraction of spell varieties that 3.x had, and they count a for a story hour.

Still, obviously going to follow it :)
 

the Jester

Legend
...I also doubt that it will be as rich as it goes on, due to the natural fact that 4th ed. has but a tiny fraction of spell varieties that 3.x had, and they count a for a story hour.
For the record, this won't be true for long imho. Between various supplements, third party material and homebrewed stuff, I think the breadth of stuff available will increase pretty drastically inside of a year.

And don't underestimate the power of exception based design!
 

the Jester

Legend
“What happened next?” the sergeant asks.

“The goblins opened fire with bows. We were caught almost completely off-guard. But we returned fire and soon turned the tide, managing to board their ship and kill their marines.”

“Damn navy pukes. That ship should never have made it so close to shore. But what could one ship of goblins accomplish?”

Kratos frowns. “Well, sergeant, it wasn’t just goblins.”

“Eh?”

“There were kobolds in the galley, rowers chained to their oars. But it was in the belly of the ship that we found the evidence of what they were up to.”

“Out with it! What did you find?”

“The hold was packed full of barrels of sunpowder,” Kratos replies gravely.

The sergeant whistles. “Damn, no wonder. They just wanted to blow up the docks!”

Kratos nods. “That’s how we read it, too, sir.”

“So what did you do?”

“One of the sailors lit the kegs, we kicked the kobolds in the galley into high gear- telling them to row away- and we cleared off the deck.”

“Then, that explosion in the harbor last night...”

Kratos nods.

“Well, well. So the only reason you were there in the first place was the fact that their ship had already abandoned the port. Damned no-balls navy.” The sergeant pauses for a few seconds, chewing his lower lip. Then he barks, “Dismissed!”

***

The forces of the Six-Fingered Hand are closing in. The bloody morning sky shows them in the distance, a seething mass covering the land, destroying the farms, killing those fools foolish enough to remain outside of the city walls. The stream of refugees pouring into the city thickens, as does the stream of refugees leaving, fleeing for some imagined safety.

“Hell,” Vann-La mutters. She is in a foul mood. The soup is thin, the grog is watery and her head aches. He wounds from the battle of the night before have faded to mere aches and pains. What the hell do I do now? she wonders. She glances at her friend Torinn, across the table. He, too, looks at a loss.

The Steaming Clam’s cook, a stubby, scarred dwarf from the Far East, bustles over to their table. The cook likes to befriend his more well-behaved military patrons, and- as they are sailors who have been drinking together with soldiers- Vann-La and Torinn have qualified. The cook smiles broadly at them as he approaches. “Oi, how you doin, my friends?”

“Hey Cook,” the dragonborn says listlessly.

“What da news?” Cook asks.

“Our ship seems to have left without us,” Torinn grumbles.

“Oi, very bad, very bad,” Cook sighs. “Bad luck all over. And da Hand come soon. You have nother drink on da house.”

As the dwarf hustles away to bring their beverages over, Vann-La sighs. What the hell do we do now? she wonders again.

“Well, at least it’s an adventure,” Torinn says.

***

That night, Torinn and Vann-La are joined by Nixie, another of their crewmates who has been left behind. She is an elf- to Vann-La’s eyes, an inferior cousin- and a warlock. Sailors were always chasing after her, but she was quite capable of keeping them at a distance with her unnerving abilities and the whispered rumors of her dealing with demons and worse to gain her powers.

Right now, she’s just worried. No ship, no way out of this city- the Hand is closing in from all directions- and the Hand fleet is moving in as well, to cut off escape from the harbor. The Imperial Navy floats, miles out to sea, ready to intercept and engage them. The battle is in fact probably already happening. Surely the Hand cannot punch through the navy’s lines. Surely the humanoids cannot defeat the Empire, even with orcish sunpowder cannon.

Yet cities are aflame in the distance, and a carpet of swarming figures covers the ground in the distance. They are closing in.

Kratos joins them again, with another eladrin from his platoon with him. This is Sta’Ligir, who is a conscript whose natural talents lean more towards wizardry that to weaponry. In these desperate and chaotic times, however, he has been pressed into service as a soldier. He is clearly less than eager to fight the hordes of the Six-Fingered Hand in a few days, and when the sailors tell him that their boat has already abandoned the city, Sta’Ligir nods. “Yeah, our musters keep getting smaller and smaller, too.”

The next morning it is worse.

Heimall, Sta’Ligir, Kratos, and two other young conscripts are all that muster when the bugle sounds in the morning. Looking around at the empty ranks, Kratos’ thoughts are bleak. Cowards, he thinks.

When the sergeant arrives, he blanches. There are no officers in evidence. Kratos’ fists clenched. So, they have abandoned us enlisted men to our fate, he thinks bitterly.

The sergeant seems to come to a decision. “You men stay here while I find an officer,” he barks. And he turns and begins to hurry away.

He’s not coming back. Aloud, Kratos snaps, “You are a coward.”

The sergeant stiffens and stops. He turns back to face the ranks. “What did you say?” he growls.

“You heard me! You are abandoning us. You know it and we know it.” He turns to face the others and spreads his arms. “You men are all going to die if you keep following this coward. Warriors, stand by me, and we will survive and then triumph!”

The sergeant is flabbergasted. Kratos turns back to face him and sends him a withering glare. “Go on, coward! Flee! We will survive this, and fight to regain the glory you cowards are losing us!”

“I’m no coward!” the sergeant cries, backing away a few steps. He bites his lip. “I- I am getting an officer, and you’re going to be arrested!” He whirls and flees out of the courtyard where the group is assembled.

“Screw this!” one of the conscripts cries. He throws down his helmet and spear and runs after the sergeant.

The other one hesitates, as do Heimall and Sta’Ligir.

“What do you suggest, then?” Sta’Ligir demands.

“You know they can hang you for that, right?” Heimall says to Kratos, shaking his head.

“Nobody’s hanging anyone now. Look at this place. There’s nobody left. The officers headed out of here as soon as things got hot. We need to get the hell out of here. Follow me, and we’ll live to fight another day.”

“What do you want to do?” Sta’Ligir asks again.

“We’ll get a boat and get the hell out of here.”

“We don’t know how to sail,” Sta’Ligir points out.

“We have some sailor friends who are in a very similar position to us. They can help us sail out of here before the Six-Fingered Hand’s ships get here.”

“What makes you think the navy won’t hold?” asks Heimall.

“Are you kidding? Their ships are abandoning us, too. Their morale is probably as low as that of the army. The lines won’t hold.” Kratos shakes his head.

Heimall nods reluctantly. “Either way, we’ll be besieged by this evening. And there are a lot of forces coming our way. Mostly goblins, but there are supposed to be plenty of orcs and gnolls.” He shudders.

“What about you?” Kratos asks the remaining conscript. “Will you follow me?”

The conscript is a boy of sixteen years named Nedyoiv. Doe-eyed, he nods. I want to live! is writ large on his face.

Sta’Ligir sighs, exasperated. “There doesn’t seem to be much choice, does there? We need to find a way out of here.”

“Let’s go,” Heimall says.

***

Meanwhile, at the Steaming Clam, Vann-La, Nixie and Torinn have roused themselves and come to a similar determination. “We have to get out of here,” Nixie says.

“We can’t do that without our boat,” Torinn points out.

“We can’t do it without a boat,” Vann-La corrects him.

Hurriedly, they gather their gear and prepare to depart. The cook stops them.

“Where you all goin?”

“We’re leaving,” Vann-La says. “Hey, we could use a cook. You should come with us.”

“Leaving how? Army all around, too late to go.”

“We’re taking a boat.”

“Let me grab some important thing.”

The cook gathers a few pots and pans, some cutlery, a few bags of meager foodstuffs, and a few coins. Then the group hurries out- and runs into their army buddies coming down the street.

“Oh, good,” calls Heimall. “We were looking for you.”

The two groups quickly discuss their plans, which prove to be quite well-aligned with each other. The conclusion is obvious: join forces. Together, they make their way to the docks. Most of the boats are gone, though there are some fishing boats and similar things tied up to the pier.

“Let’s take a few minutes to look for something fast,” Nixie suggests. “It might be worth it at this point.”

“We can’t spend too much time,” Torinn replies. “Look!”

Black specks are starting to become visible in the distant ocean. Ships, ships of the Six-Fingered Hand that have thrust through the now-shattered lines of the Imperial Navy. Behind them, the sharks are feasting.

“It won’t take long at all,” says Nixie. “Over there- that pleasure craft!” The others follow her gaze to a sleek, quick-looking boat. They hurry towards it, and as they come closer, they can see that there are several guards in front of it. It is emblazoned with the coat of arms of the daVoi family- a notoriously decadent line known for corruption and political power.

“That’s close enough,” one of the guards says with surly authority.

“We’re confiscating that vessel,” Kratos says, walking towards them. “Get out of the way.” And he draws his sword as he advances. As the guards attempt to draw and attack him, he strikes, and the battle is on! Heimall uses a commander’s strike to allow Kratos to take another attack, while the cook hurls a small kitchen skewer into the guard that Kratos has been attacking. Sta’Ligir throws a sleep spell, and Torinn hits the same fellow with a righteous brand, and then the guard strikes back, slicing Kratos across the leg. The warlord grunts and ripostes- and the first guard falls!

The other guard tries to fall back. “Boss!” he shouts. “Trouble!” And then he falls asleep thanks to the wizardry of Sta’Ligir. Quickly, Vann-La moves up and kills the unconscious fellow.

On the boat’s deck, the cabin door opens a crack and a fat head pokes partway out. “What’s going on out there? Ahh!” he shouts in surprise.

“Surrender!” calls Kratos. “We mean you no harm, but we will have your vessel! Come down or we will be forced to take you by force!”

Seeing no alternative, the fat head emerges the rest of the way, followed by a fat daVoi body, draped in silk clothing.

“I’m surprised you haven’t left yet,” Vann-La comments. “I’d have figured you for the kind of rat that would have left hours or days ago.”

”I was waiting for a... lady friend,” the noble sighs.

The party leaves him behind on the dock as they board his vessel and cast off. ”But what about me?” he cries.

”Good luck with your lady friend,” Nixie yells back as the party begins to sail their new ship out into the harbor. She turns her attention to the sails. If only we can catch a favorable wind and get out of here before the noose tightens, she thinks.

The ships on the water are clear now, and closing fast.

Next Time: Can the party get out of the harbor in time? Escape from Chebonnay!
 

GoodKingJayIII

Villager
Well... certainly not the outcome I expected! Your heroes did some very non-heroic things this time around: deserting the military, attacking soldiers, leaving the noble behind. It's very Darwinian.

Not the impression I got of them in the first post, but it sounds like self-preservation is the name of the game right now!
 

the Jester

Legend
Get out fast.

The sun is sinking towards the west; it is late afternoon. Soon the western seas will swallow it as it continues its great journey through the waters, under and back out, thousands of miles to the east. As it crosses them, it throws the shapes of the Six-Fingered Hand’s ships in stark relief.

Chebonnay is on the south side of the harbor. A few miles further north, two great spurs of land offer some shelter to the city’s docks, but they also serve as a choke point. Any naval attack must come through this point- as must any waterborne escape from the city.

The daVoi pleasure craft that our heroes have stolen is sleek, with racing sails and lines for speed. The navy folk on board (Vann-La, Nixie and Torinn) are all experienced sailors, and they begin to plot their course for the harbor’s exit. The ships of the Six-Fingered Hand are riding the tide for that same spot.

“Oo, are we gonna make it?” the dwarven cook asks. Nobody answers. The navy personnel rush from one sail to another, doing mysterious naval things. The army soldiers (Kratos, Nedyoiv, Heimall and Sta’Ligir) do their best to help, but they don’t even know the terminology, much less the skills that they need.

The spurs of land that will allow or cut off escape grow closer. The bottom of the sun’s disc is now touching the far off water. The sky is glowing with pink and orange. Behind them, in the city, the fleeing party can hear the sounds of the Six-Fingered Hand’s army. The investment of Chebonnay has begun. “There’s no going back now,” Sta’Ligir says. “Not that I wanted to,” he adds in a mutter. “Damn army. I’m not even supposed to be here- I should be studying.”

“Shut up and tie that line, Stalinger!” Torinn gestures.

“It’s Sta’Ligir.”

“Staliger?”

With a sigh, Sta’Ligir answer, “Just call me Iggy.”

The boat races across the water. The spurs of land are now probably only half a mile away.

“We aren’t going to make it,” Vann-La announces. “There are some small advance craft that will beat us to it- they’ll intercept us inside the harbor.”

“How small?” asks Torinn.

“About the same size as this boat, but probably not quite as fast. But also probably with a lot more soldiers than we have.”

Nixie suggests, “Let’s try to get past it. We’re in a pretty fast, maneuverable boat.”

“We don’t have much choice, I guess,” Vann-La nods.

The enemy does indeed reach the straits first, and there are multiple small boats coming ahead, with a huge fleet behind them. Some of them show signs of damage from the battle fought with the Imperial Navy, but it is clear that this fleet is in the throes of victory.

The party tries to dodge the first enemy vessel to approach. As they come closer, the goblins on the enemy ship start firing bows, while our heroes toss and fire a few ranged weapons of their own. Vann-La desperately swings the wheel of the daVoi craft, but she cannot evade the enemy completely, and the two boats scrape against each other, each badly damaging the other before deflecting apart.

“We’re taking on water!” Nixie screams.

“They are too, at least,” Heimall notes with satisfaction. Indeed, it seems as though the Six-Fingered Hand’s vessel is sinking at a precipitous rate.

“We may be able to at least reach the mud flats before this thing sinks,” Vann-La says desperately. The other sailors rush to help her and they limp the vessel, slowly sinking, towards the western edge of the land, which ends in broad mud flats. Behind them, a few goblins manage to cling to debris, but most seem to drown.

The boat grows more and more sluggish as it gains more and more water. Nixie looks frantically for a bilge pump, but to no avail. Finally, just when it seems that they might have to abandon ship, the vessel runs aground in a thick bar of mud.

“We made it!” cries Sta’Ligir.

“This far, anyway,” Kratos retorts. “Let us move on out of these mud flats.”

“But where are we going?” asks Nixie. “I mean, really- where are we going?” She gestures. “It’s too late to escape to sea. We can probably still flee our way to the west before the Hand completely cuts off our escape, but where are we going? Where is safe?”

“A good question,” nods Heimall. “And for that matter, is ‘safe’ what we are after, or are we looking for somewhere that we can make a difference?”

“For now, we need to focus on getting to safety,” Iggy opines. “We can figure out the rest later.”

The party agrees that this makes sense, so they slog from the daVoi wreck towards dryer land. Slowly, the hip-deep water that seems average changes to knee-deep, then to areas of muddy land interspersed with ankle- to knee-deep pools and trenches. The sun finishes sinking beneath the waves and Night lays her cloak over the party as they slog through. Behind them, they can hear the roar of the siege that has begun. Their only light is a feeble magic glow conjured by Sta’Ligir.

“If we don’t hurry,” Heimall declares, “the Hand will close off our escape route.”

But they can only move so fast while moving through the mud. Even in the areas of more solid ground, they sink ankle deep when they step forward. Their progress is agonizingly slow, but detectable, as they advance into an area of scattered cat tail reeds and tall marsh grasses.

Things seem to be going too well, and just as Vann-La is starting to think that they might escape without any trouble, she hears a wet squelching sound before the party. What’s that? she wonders. Then her keen elven eyes widen as they catch a strange sight.

The mud itself seems to be rising...

“LOOK OUT!!” Vann-La shouts.

Strange, humanoid shapes have risen from the mud. Before anyone can react, they begin hurling globs of mud at the party! One strikes Heimall. “Agh!” he cries, slowed by the mud.

“Stop those things, whatever they are!” Sta’Ligir cries. He fires a magic missile at one of them. The spell blasts some of the mud away, but the strange thing keeps on coming.

The rest of the party begins to slog towards the mud-men. Then, suddenly, from a nearby thicket of swamp grass, a group of kobolds and lizard men rise up and begin firing missiles as well.

Instantly, Kratos recognizes that the mixture of the two species can only mean one thing: the Hand has found them!

The kobolds begin slinging pots of flaming tar at the party. Vann-La takes a shot to the chest and gives a cry of pain. Then, gritting her teeth, she charges at the nearest lizard man and engages him. Behind her, Heimall struggles with the mud that encrusts him; it hardens, immobilizing him completely! He manages to shake his arms free- he can still fight- but his body is held fast. Torinn, too, begins to struggle with the mud coating him; the mudmen are still flinging more globs of wet muck at the party.

Lester’s arm, Torinn curses to himself. I won’t be killed by mud! With all his might, he shakes his body, and the mud flies from him! He staggers for a moment, then catches his balance and speaks a healing word to help Vann-La, who is on fire and in trouble.

He isn’t the only one. Vann-La is pressing the lizard man nearest her, smacking him with her sword and cleaving onto a nearby kobold. Neither one falls, but both of them redouble their attempts to bring the elven warrior down. She tries to shake out the fire, but she’s still on fire! The other lizard man thrusts his spear at Nixie, stabbing her in the calf. She grits her teeth and curses him, then gestures at him and fires an eldritch blast, but the lizard man dodges it.

The enemy presses the party very hard. Another quick exchange, and Nixie falls; Sta’Ligir drops to the same lizard man a moment later, but by then Vann-La has taken out one of the kobolds. Heimall cries out, “On your feet, soldier! We need you!!” His inspiring words bring Nixie around, while Torinn uses holy power to restore some vitality to Iggy.

Finally, the party’s attacks begin to find their way home. One by one, the enemies start to fall. Cook dances his way into flanking on one of the mudmen and manages to slay it with his kitchen cleaver; then he whips out an iron pan which he begins to swing like a hammer.

As Sta’Ligir gets to his feet, the lizard man hulking over him stabs him in the chest, dropping him again immediately! Heimall curses, still immobilized, but before he can use his inspiring word again, the remaining mudman smacks him in the head and renders him unconscious.

Torinn and Vann-La together tear through several of the kobolds. Thunder booms as Torinn unleashes his god’s powers. Meanwhile, Nixie lays one of the lizard men low with an eldritch blast. Finally, the tide turns. The morale of the remaining kobold and lizard man breaks as Cook slays the second mud man, and they try to run. Nixie isn’t having that; she hits the lizard man with witchfire, killing it. Vann-La, meanwhile, kills the last kobold.

Quickly, Torinn squelches over to where Heimall lies bleeding in the mud and begins binding his wounds. Shortly, using the divine powers of Lester that are his to command, he manages to bring the soldier around. They rest for a few moments, then loot. They find a few coins and a potion. Then they march on through the night.

“Where are we going, anyway?” asks Sta’Ligir, who has also been healed and revived.

Kratos shakes his head. “Anywhere but here, to start,” he says.

“The wizard is right.” Nixie looks at the others. “We do need more of a plan than we have. We could just run into a Hand army the way we’re going about this. We certainly don’t have the manpower to fight a large enemy contingent. Where can we go that is safe?”

“You boys are the landlubbers,” Torinn tells the soldiers. “You probably have a better idea of the geography than we do.”

Kratos takes up a stick and begins drawing in the mud. “This is where Chebonnay was,” he says. “Down here is The Mindil Wood. There are some cities in the forest interior we could go to, but they’ll be small. On the other hand- no pun intended- there is a range of mountains here, to the west. There’s a tunnel that leads through a xvart city and out the other side, where there’s a city that probably hasn’t been hit by the Hand yet.”

“Fandelose,” Heimall nods. “Decent-sized, a reasonably strong military presence, good walls... I learned about it during leadership training.”

“Sound good to me,” agrees the cook.

“Then let’s move on.”

The party does so, marching all through the night and late into the next day. They finally take cover and rest in the late afternoon, exhausted. But they still set watches, with Torinn taking the first one.

About fifteen minutes after everyone else is asleep, he suddenly wonders, What the hell is a xvart?

Next Time: Our heroes travel towards the xvart tunnels!
 

the Jester

Legend
The sun rises through bloody clouds. Smoke ascends to the sky in all directions. Behind the party, Chebonnay is besieged. The sounds of battle at the walls easily reach the party, even miles away. The air stinks of distant smoke and death.

In the bleak light of dawn, the party examines their options again, and attempting to reach Fandelose via the xvart kingdom remains, by consensus, their best choice. And so they strike off, hoping to evade all contact with the Six-Fingered Hand and escape to a- hopefully- as yet uninvested city.

Across the fields, keeping to cover whenever possible, by burnt farms and empty farm houses, the unlikely group of friends moves as quickly as they can while remaining wary for adversaries and careful to stay fairly well hidden. Their progress is slow- they estimate a week’s travel to get to the mountains, and then however long it takes to get through the tunnel and beyond to the other side. And then... how long of a journey awaits them on the other side, before they actually reach Fandelose?

At best, they are weeks away.

But behind them is fire and death.

They sleep in trees and ditches, keeping to cover. There are enough fires in the night, everywhere, that they might be able to get away with having one without being noticed, but the party does not risk it. If a platoon of dozens of orcs came upon them in the night, the situation would be... untenable.

They meet a few refugees hiding in the woods, but have no aid to offer them. Still, Torinn tends to the wounded, while Heimall and Kratos give pep talks to encourage them to keep their chins up.

Keep your chins up while the world burns. Right.

The party moves on for several days, traveling hard and fast, eating light and moving through the most secret paths they can find. Then they stumble upon a burned-out village. It was obviously destroyed in the last day or two, and some of the huts are still smoking. The sign of the Six-Fingered Hand is hewn into surfaces everywhere. About twenty peasant corpses are strewn about the village, and there are no survivors in sight. There are a few intact buildings, and from the size of the village, our heroes estimate that probably 70-80 people lived here before the sack.

“That means fifty or sixty of them got away,” Nixie says.

“Or were enslaved,” Kratos responds.

“Damned Six-Fingered Hand,” growls Vann-La. She spits.

“We should be the One-Fingered Hand,” Torinn quips.

“Oo, look, a store. Let’s see if there are any supply we could use,” the cook suggests.

The party goes to the remains of the town’s general store. Cook sets about scavenging what he can- he spies a couple of large sacks of rice almost immediately- while Nixie walks across the street, where another intact store remains.

Suddenly, two drakes rush out at her. “Ah!” she cries in surprise.

An orc steps out after them, and hurls a murderous flurry of two hand axes at Nixie. She ducks, and both go over her head. Vann-La steps up and cuts at the orc with her sword, and opens a red line across his cheek.

The orc chuckles. “I’ll add you to my collection of dead!” he taunts, speaking in Common.

“Murderer!” cries Nedyoiv. “We will avenge these people!” He charges in to flanking with his spear- and hits! The orc grimaces, but then grins again. He seems to relish the pain.

The melee swirls. The two drakes stick close together, functioning very well as a pair. The orcish murderer wields his axes with aplomb; his skill is deadly. Vann-La first slays one of the drakes, then whirls and begins dueling with the orc, sword to axe. and the others pour their attacks on him as well. Vann-La tries to trap him against a building, pushing him with a tide of iron. “Don’t let him get away!” she cries. “He has to pay for what he’s done here!”

The orc sneers. “I have no intention of ‘getting away,’” he mocks them. “I told you- I’m adding you all to my collection!”

“Even without your little doggies?” Nixie replies sweetly, dropping the other drake with an eldritch blast. “Now it’s just you and us!”

Still, the orc manages to hold his own for a few moments. “I am enough,” he sneers. “More than enough, for the likes of you!”

“We’ll see,” Vann-La retorts, punctuating her remark with her sword. She stabs him in the chest, and the orc groans, but he keeps fighting!

At least, for a moment. He is unaware of the dwarven cook sneaking up behind him, and then- bong!- Cook bashes him over the head with a frying pan, rendering him unconscious.

Vann-La trips and falls forward, but manages to catch herself on her sword, burying the tip of it in the orc’s chest to do so. “Oops,” she says dryly.

“Ooo, why you do that?” Cook asks. “We could have had good intelligence from him!”

“What do we really need to know?” Vann-La returns.

***

They continue their journey for several days, passing through a battlefield strewn with bodies. Kratos pushes the party onward. After another day, the mountains come within view. Two days after that, the party reaches them at last! And yet- the expected tunnel is nowhere to be found.

“The tunnel should be fairly prominent,” muses Heimall, “yet there’s no sign of it. We must be too far north or south.”

“We’ll have to guess which way to go and hope for the best,” nods Torinn.

“Well, for now let’s find a place to hole up,” Sta’Ligir suggests. “I’m exhausted, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

The others agree that this is a sound plan and begin searching for an adequate place to rest. Before long, they find a narrow canyon that looks promising- but as they move into it, they find that it already has inhabitants.

More drakes!

A swarm of small, cat-sized drakes, with teeth like finger-length knives, boils forward at the party. Above, on a ledge, another drake hisses out and spits a blob of acidic spittle at Nixie. She gives a surprised, pained cry.

Our heroes respond quickly, with most of the party engaging the swarm of drakes. Vann-La begins climbing the cliff wall towards the ledge that the spitting drake is lurking on. As she gets up to the top, she glances down. The party is making short work of the swarm, and it seems as though they have slain most of the small drakes making it up already.

Unfortunately, from her new perspective, the Kree elf can see more trouble coming. Entering the back end of the canyon are a group of humanoids- plainly, Six-Fingered Hand! “Watch out!” she cries down to his friends, “There’s more trouble coming!”

Heimall, who has moved over to the wall in order to join the attack on the spitting drake, instead points back at the dragonborn, who is smashing into the swarm, and shouts, “Torinn- smash our enemies! GIT!!

Motivated by the warlord’s command, Torinn whirls his mace into the swarm, knocking several away. The remaining needletooth drakes flee, dispersing- just in time, as the Hand arrives! About half a dozen goblins, led by an orc, dressed in the livery of the Six-Fingered Hand, pour into the canyon. Some of the goblins hold back and fire arrows while the others rush forward and throw themselves into the fray. The spitting drake keeps splattering various members of the party with acid until Vann-La manages to bull rush it off the edge of the cliff, and it falls with a loud squawk. There is a loud snap as its neck breaks, and though it gurgles for a few more seconds, it is clearly out of the fight.

Then it is heroes versus Hand, Empire versus savages. The battle is quick and brutal and merciless, and although Torinn is laid low by a goblin’s blade, Heimall is able to quickly get him up with an inspiring word. The last goblin falls to a magic missile, and the party stops to catch their breath for a few minutes.

“We running low on food,” Cook points out. “I check them for rations.” He begins rummaging through the dead, muttering to himself. He shakes his head. “No good,” he reports. “They have food- but bad food. Made of people! We not eat.” Then he grins. “But I find this!” Clutched in his grubby thick hand, he holds a map.

The party clusters around. It shows every indication of having been a map of the areas this unit of the Hand had recently explored- and, clearly marked on it a few miles away, is the tunnel our heroes are seeking.

“Let’s move!” exclaims Nixie.

Next Time: Into the Tunnels!
 

the Jester

Legend
The sky is streaked with plumes of smoke rising from the burning villages in the distance. Vann-La almost fancies that she can hear the screams in the distance with her fine elven hearing. She knows it must be her imagination, but still... the evidence is in the sky. It is unthinkable, but true. The Six-Fingered Hand is winning- crushing the empire.

We have to make a stand somewhere, she thinks. Maybe on the other side of the mountains.

But she can’t help but wonder- will the stand always be on ‘the other side of the mountains,’ so to speak? Will they ever be able to fight back? The strength of the Hand is merciless, ruthless, crushing. The evidence is in the sky, indeed- and in the glowing fires visible in the distance at night, in all directions not blocked by the mountains.

“Why are they called the Six-Fingered Hand?” Nixie suddenly asks.

“Because there are six different races joined together,” Heimall replies. “Orcs, goblins, kobolds, lizardfolk, gnolls and ogres.”

“How do they all work together? What’s the glue that hold them together?” wonders Vann-La.

“Arawn,” Kratos says. “He’s their head. He is said to be a death knight of immense power and fantastic evil. He keeps them working together through sheer presence and force- any who cross him are horribly destroyed.”

“Wow,” Nixie sighs. “He sounds like a pretty bad guy.”

The smoke in the sky agrees with her.

***

They reach the cave entrance at last! It is a wide, dark passage. The party enters, and the passage gradually slopes downward but remains mostly level. Fortunately, Sta’Ligir can create a magical light, and the party has a number of lanterns, torchers and sunrods among them. After almost a mile of this shallow descent, the slope increases abruptly to about forty degrees. Our heroes move down a crumbling zone of scree that leads to another passage that is almost level.

It has taken them almost four hours to get this far.

They catch their breath for a moment and eat a light snack, then resume their journey. They have no desire to linger, and every bit of this trek is much more difficult- and therefore slower- than their previous travels across open ground had been.

Then, from above, the dangers of the Underdark make their first appearance. Strange creatures, until now masquerading as stalactites, drop down at the party. One of them creates a cloud of inky darkness, and confusion runs rampant. Someone shouts, “Darkmantles! They’re darkmantles! Like piercers, only better!” Nobody knows what a piercer is, either, so it doesn’t help much.

Several of the party stagger out of the darkness, and fortunately, Sta’’Ligir is one of them, so- thanks to his light- they can see. The darkness dissipates, and a general melee breaks out, becoming more confused when a pair of giant lizards climb up to the tunnel from the bottom of a cliff at the rear end of the cave, attracted by the noise and ready for a meal.

The darkmantles fly all over, trying to grab the intruders and crush them. It’s a pretty painful strategy when it works, but fortunately, our heroes are able to avoid it most of the time, either by avoiding being hit or by escaping the darkmantle’s grasp before it can get a good crush in. The lizards have a pretty brutal bite, but with a cleric and two warlords in the party to keep our heroes going, it’s only a matter of time before they annihilate all their foes.

Afterwards, the party examines the cliff that the lizards climbed up. It is about 20’ down, and the passage widens to about 30’ across.

“Well,” Sta’Ligir says after a moment, “let’s go.”

With a little effort, the party makes it down to the bottom of the cliff. Down there they find the lizards’ nest; nearby are the remains of a wagon and the bones of several small, humanoid creatures. The consensus amongst those in the party knowledgeable in such things is that the various remains are at least five years old. Within the cart is an old, rusty chest that (once smashed open) proves to hold 187 gp and 200 sp.

Beyond the lair of the lizards, the 30’ wide passage continues, narrowing and beginning to drop in stages. The party makes it through this area fairly easily, albeit slowly. Several of the passages are very narrow and require them to crouch or even crawl through them.

“Okay, this is officially not cool,” Sta’Ligir mentions, more than once.

After about an hour of this, the passage widens again, into a 20’ wide, 10’ tall zone that splits into two 15’ wide passages that fork apart.

And, coming down one of the passages- kobolds!

Next Time: And hot on the heels of the kobolds- xvarts!
 

Nightbreeze

Villager
and after the xvarts, wyverns, trolls and giant bees. Gee, this is starting to sound like Rappan Athuk (only if it was, there would have been already 3-4 deaths :))

Six fingered hand, eh? hmmm.....
 

the Jester

Legend
and after the xvarts, wyverns, trolls and giant bees. Gee, this is starting to sound like Rappan Athuk (only if it was, there would have been already 3-4 deaths :))

I have never read or played it, but I've heard it's fantastic. Does it actually have xvarts in it??
 

Nightbreeze

Villager
Not that I remember of, but if there were, they would have probably been paragon fighter/wizard/eldritch knight xvarts of doom :). Nah, kidding, but the standard goblin in Rappan Athuk is at least 5th level rogue.

If you like Rappan Athuk goodines, check the story hour in my sign: if you have the time to read it, it's wonderful.
 

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