I might be biased but this has to be one of the most fun role playing campaigns we've ever done. This game, combined with Iron Sky's entertaining narrative has me completely on the edge of my seat... and I already know what happens!
-Note: Thanks for the comments, glad people are enjoying it! Another update tomorrow-
Long strands of lanterns hung between the high, thick walls of Northmand, already lit as the sun set and casting cheery light down on stalls and makeshift dance-floors of the Harvest Festival.
Kezzek barely saw it even as he passed through the celebrations, Grok'nar following not far behind, smartly wearing a white harvest mask over his face to avoid any unwelcome confrontations. Probably for the best he stay close, Kezzek thought as he glanced back at the hobgoblin. He seems honest in his goal, but he is a hobgoblin. The others had already dispersed on their separate tasks.
The Greywarden Enclave's remote location deep within the outer wall of Northmand made finding it difficult - and all the dancers, jugglers, wrestlers, running children, singers, loose dogs, dancers, and drunks roaming everywhere or gathered around bonfires that seemed to be placed at random made the going slow. When he finally found the Enclave he found it empty. And Grok'nar had disappeared somewhere along the way. He let out a sigh and hefted the massive Tome of Judgments onto its pedestal.
I have identified the criminal responsible for the deaths of seven Greywardens, he wrote and dipped the quill in the ink again. He was in the town of Laketide, where he and two companions killed four soldiers and assaulted others, including myself. Local authority was Lt. Laris.
He blotted and started a new entry. There is a new case regarding a hobgoblin bandit leader guilty of terrorism, robbery, and banditry in Northmand area. Known locally as a Neergrog. Will investigate with potentiality of judgment.
A quick glance in his own journal and he jotted one more line down. Closing of case: Ming. Re: murder of Kellin family member. Subject died in unrelated activities after receiving local justice.
After one more glance over what he had written, he rubbed the clammy, still blackened ring on his neck where the assassin's "man" had grabbed him. He had a faint suspicion about the mark and set out to find a priest to see if they might know what it was - and how to cure it.
Harold was ready for a hot herb bath and some clean clothes, but he had an important task to complete. The Captain was not in, so he left his message for the Ambassador in the hands of the Captain's adjutant. He turned to leave, but paused for a moment.
"Adjutant," he said, stopping the man half-way back into the Captain's office. "Make sure that gets into the Ambassador's hands as soon as possible. It explains where I'm going, so if he doesn't get it before I get back, someone will pay."
The Adjutant nodded with a gulp and turned away, but Harold stopped him again. "Oh, one more thing. This may sound like an odd question, but if I were looking for a sage with some information on potentially supernatural beings disguised as humans, where would I look?"
Grok'nar sat atop the outer wall and glanced out across the dark farmland of Northmand, lit here and there by the candle-sized lights of wind-flickering bonfires. The cool breeze smelled of rain and carried the sound of its motion through a thousand rustling leaves. After a quick glance around to make sure no one was close enough to see, he slid the white wooden mask up off his face.
By the Dark Ones, I hope I never have to assault this, he thought, knocking on the solid, still faintly sun-warmed stone of the battlement. Neergrog has never seen this, I'll bet even the High King has no idea, no wonder our armies fell apart against it a hundred years ago. He glanced out over the land again, a surge of something that was a mix of jealousy and disgust washing over him as he took in the richness of the landscape and the strength of the walls. If we had lands half as rich as this, a tenth!
He thought of his brothers, their headless corpses dangling by the guard-post as he entered his home lair for the last time. Better that uncle Neergrog die to my steel than me and mine die to these humans'...
Harold knocked again on the door to the squat, strange building with it's odd dome-shaped roof. The door flew open as he reached to knock a third time, revealing a human so squat and stout, Harold almost took him for a dwarf. The man wore a strange garment that looked like the ragged remains of three or four robes stitched together to make one even-more-ragged looking one and the last long wisps of brown hair on his head were wild to match.
Harold cleared his throat, but the man sighed, rolled his eyes, and motioned Harold into the cramped entryway in the faint pre-dawn light. "I already know why you're here. Come to see the sage's great library. You know, I once had a young woman knock on my door to bring me flowers? Or was it an old halfling woman? They sometimes look alike you know..."
Nodding, Harold stepped inside. Ahead of him, the sage passed through a second door and into a room that seemed to be built beneath a staircase and contained not else but a short rope and a massive candle. "You can use the books, but no funny business! My spell books aren't down there so don't ask. Pay the gold when you leave."
Harold stood in the doorway as the man dangled the rope until one end touched the floor, muttered something, and jerked upwards, pulling up a clump of floorboards to reveal a stairwell descending into darkness. "Gold?" Harold said. "I thought-"
The sage waved his hand. "Restocking fee. And cleanup fee since you types always need to drag everything out and then just leave it lying wherever. By the hour. Just come up and knock when you're ready to leave. No, I won't leave you trapped down there. Dusty books are bad enough, can you imagine what a mess you'd be to clean up? Bleh, no thanks... So are you going in or what?"
Harold clamped his mouth closed and headed down the stairs, the smell of dust and parchment rising to his nostrils as he descended.
Suniel stood on the carriage-bench and stretched as they pulled up beside the Laketide inn again. "Master, master, liar," No Tongue said from behind him, mimicking Suniel's stretch.
Kezzek glanced up at him as he walked by, leading his own mount towards the stable. "You and your goblin having a disagreement?"
"No," Suniel said with a deep sigh and a glance at the little goblin. "He's found a couple new words. That's one of the better ones. Half of his vocabulary now seems to be curses now unfortunately."
The half-orc grunted and walked on. Guntl got down as well and stood beside Suniel as they unhitched the horses. "I caught Stabber trying to steal some apples while you were off buying supplies last night," Guntl said softly.
Suniel sighed again. "Did you make him return them?"
Guntl shook his head and pulled a bridle off, brushing a finger across the horse's nose softly. "He tried to dispose of the evidence by stuffing it into Lunt's shirt when he saw me coming, but I returned what was left and paid for what wasn't."
"Well done," Suniel said and pulled out a few coins. "Take these to take care of things for the next few days and for the apples."
Guntl took the coins and looked up from uncinching a strap. "Heading out again?"
Suniel nodded as his hands worked at a harness buckle. "Apparently Harold and Grok'nar have the makings of a plan. All I overheard is that we'll be avoiding notice as we head into the territory of the Iron Tribes by going through some 'Burrows' that the hobgoblins avoid like the plague."
"I'll bet there's a reason for that," Guntl said as he finished unharnessing the other horse and took the other's lead rope from Suniel.
"Of that, at least, I have no doubt," Suniel said, staring out into the Ragged Hills as Guntl lead the horses away.
Not really too much crunch to this one. The details of the fight were altered a tiny bit for dramatic effect. Harold did put up a bit more fight in the actual game but the end result was about the same.
Now that a few of my players are reading this, I'm getting little reminders from them on what I'm forgetting. So far it's mostly been combat details though - nothing too big.
This session is actually kind of the calm before the storm. The next session was big, in more ways than one. Plot, combat, in- and out-of-game duration.
The scope of the game starts to expand from here, slow at first, until - well, you'll see.
Harold leaned down to rifle through his saddlebags and produced the scroll that had arrived for him just as he left Laketide. The wax seal bore the Crystal Towers sigil. He sliced it open with his long dagger and read.
Honor Guard Harold Trisden,
I have heard of your exploits with the Iron Tribes. One faction of the Council disapproves, but another - growing - faction favors war with the hobgoblins and I have sided with them. As such, any harm you can inflict on the Iron Tribes will further our standing here, with at least the Council members I am currently in negotiations with. You have my leave to follow your own judgment on these matters until I return from our recently re-extended tour of Northmand on the 21st of July.
Under the Light of the Crystal Towers, Ambassador Stevens.
Harold skimmed it again and half-smiled with satisfaction as he rolled up the scroll and placed it back in his saddlebag.
"Good news?" Grok'nar said, from his place at the head of the small column, glancing back as he took a drought from his wineskin.
Harold shrugged. "Good enough."
The Greywarden rode up beside him. "So, what is this plan of yours to bring Neergrog to justice?"
Grok'nar, riding a shaggy horse about the same color as the hills they were passing through and Suniel, riding one of his carriage horses bareback, rode closer at the mention.
"Grok'nar and I have put together a plan we think will work," Harold said. "Quite simply, we ride through a region of the Ragged Hills called the Burrows. The Iron Tribes avoid the area, so we only risk being spotted when we cross the border into the lands they do patrol. Once there, we keep our hoods up, Grok'nar keeps his down to minimize risk at a distance and we destroy any patrol that gets too close."
"Sounds like a decent plan, but what about when we actually get to wherever Neergrog is?" Suniel said. "And isn't there a good reason why the hobgoblins avoid the Burrows?"
Grok'nar shrugged. "We'll figure out how to get in when we get there. Shouldn't be too hard. They aren't expecting an attack, especially that far from Northmand."
"And the Burrows?"
"Ankhegs. As long as we don't stumble into one of the larger warrens, we should be fine."
"Look, Grok'nar made it to here from there without getting caught, we'll be fine," Harold said.
After a moment Suniel's frown faded. "That's true I suppose. All right. Three days you say?"
Grok'nar and Harold both nodded. "Or so," Grok'nar added.
Suniel and Kezzek drifted back a bit, but Grok'nar leaned close to Harold. "I didn't take the Burrows when I fled, too dangerous."
"Doesn't matter," Harold said. "It'll work out."
Grok'nar snorted and scratched his back, his eyes drifting towards the sky. A moment later he raised a hand to shade them. "What is that?"
Harold reached for his bow and looked up, not knowing whether to expect a rain of metal men or a ball of fire. He saw neither.
After a moment of staring, he said, "I have no idea."
It was about the size of a man's head and almost perfectly round, made of the same rusty metal as the iron constructs had been. On one side it had a red gem that shifted about in a shallow socket, giving the impression that it was looking around. A single, almost wire-thin arm extended from the bottom, ending in a tiny pincer claw.
Suniel and the others reined in and regarded it in silence for several minutes as it did the same to them.
"Sherguz werkal?" it finally 'said,' the strange sounds tinny.
The four companions glanced amongst themselves.
"Alooah beao nala?" it said, spurring another round of bemused glances.
"You speak this?" it finally said in draconic.
"Yes, I do," Suniel said in the same language. "What are you?"
The gem-eyed orb turned towards him, floated closer, and examined him for a moment as the others all shot Suniel questioning looks.
"Return the stone," it said.
"What's it saying?" Harold said.
It immediately spun towards Harold and repeated itself in common. "Return the stone."
"What stone?" Harold said. Suniel noticed the archer's hand drift towards his chest and quickly jerk away, but his attention was mostly focused on the floating construct.
"It is ours, return the stone."
"Who is us?" Suniel said. "And what stone is it you want?" He murmured and gestured and a few small rocks floated to his hand from the dirt. "Do you want one of these?"
It turned back to Suniel as he held the rocks out to the thing. The spindly arm reached out and picked each one up with its pincer and held them each under close scrutiny before it's gem for a long moment before tossing them aside. "The stone, the amulet. Iron Sky demands the amulet."
"What is Iron Sky?" Kezzek said, trotting closer to the thing.
It drifted higher and spun towards him. "Give us the stone," it said, it's tinny voice almost pleading.
"Do you mean this?" Suniel said, reaching into a side pouch and pulling out the charged hematite necklace he had taken from Ming before he buried her. Harold's eyes shot to it, his lips pursed, but the gem-eye's reaction was even stronger.
It hurled itself towards Suniel, gem aglow and pincer arm waiving about towards him frantically. "Give it to us, give it to us. Iron Sky demands you give it to us! Demands!"
"Wait a moment," Suniel said, pulling the amulet away from its reaching pincer. "Why-"
There was a clang and the thing flew sideways in a rain of metal parts, disintegrating into a cloud of metal flakes as it struck the hard dirt. The other three turned to Harold as he placed his bow back in his quiver. "We don't have time for this," he said. "Grok'nar, lead on."
Grok'nar quirked an eyebrow at Harold, but complied. Kezzek stroked the point of one of his tusks, growling faintly and seemingly absently as he watched the archer ride after the hobgoblin. Then he too followed.
Suniel glanced down at the metal dust that had already begun to drift in the wind, a hundred questions flitting through his mind. In the end, he sighed and he too turned his horse and followed Grok'nar deeper into the Ragged Hills.
There was movement outside its prey-spot and the creature settled down, legs compressed and ready to leap through the dirt-rouse-wall that it had carefully constructed over this prey-spot. The things smelled of meat even through the thin dirt covering and acid began to run from its mandibles in anticipation.
One passed, but the ground-trembles told it that it was big and too far away to reach with a burst-lunge, so it waited. Another passed, closer. Then another, close enough to-
It hurled through the dirt-rouse-wall and shook loose soil from its compound eyes. A four-leg/two-leg meat thing was before it, the four-leg rearing up on two as the creature launched towards it.
The four-leg came down, lashing fore-legs keeping the creature at bay. Then there was a pain from the side and the creature spun towards another four-leg/two-leg, this one spitting wooden splinters that punched through the creature's hard carapace. It snapped at the splinters as it tried to catch the spitter, but the spitter was too quick.
Then something bit the creature from behind and it spun again, snapping onto the first thing it saw - the square wood carapace attached to one of the two-leg's forearms. It bit at it angrily, pain from all sides pushing it nearer and nearer to the point of flight. The two-leg with the carapace-arm stabbed it again and again with a metal stinger, piercing painfully here and there on the creature's abdomen until it could take the pain no more.
It turned to flee only to find the biggest four-leg/two-leg of them all blocking the way back to its hole. The creature charged the four-leg, hoping to knock it out of the way so it could escape, but there was a blast of sudden flame and the creature felt three of its legs detach, watching them fly apart, trailing smoke, through its rear eye-facets.
Desperate and hurt, it reared back its head, a glob of burning acid working up towards its mouth. It flicked its head down, mandibles wide, to hurl the sticky-burning ball at the four-leg/two-leg in its way, but as it brought its head down, it saw the two-leg leaping from the four-leg's back with a roar, its metal arm glinting, a shining metal twin-claw in its hands. The two-leg landed heavily on the creature's back, claw swinging and slicing the creature's head off.
The glob of acid fell from the thing's mouth and dissolved into the baked dirt.
Kezzek pulled the second blade of his quor'rel from the Ankheg's back and leaped clear as the headless, seared, one-legged body thrashed.
He pulled out a rag and wiped the blades of his quor'rel down quickly as Harold rode closer and Suniel stood a safe distance away examining the body.
"Well, now everyone knows what an Ankheg is if you didn't already," Grok'nar said, rubbing his shield arm and examining his acid-marked shield. "Welcome to the Burrows."
-Notes: Went and added a few physical details about Kezzek to 6:1 and 6:2. Not much, just a few crucial details.-
The attack came without warning, five of the giant creatures flying from their hidden burrows, mandibles wide, as the companions rode through the gully. Kezzek snarled and charged the nearest two, slashing back and forth with his quor'rel. The battle was pitched about him, but Kezzek's whole attention was focused on his rearing horse, the swing of his blades, and the mandibles snapping around his head and scraping off his gauntleted arm.
An arrow exploded out of the forehead of one and a moment later Kezzek was wrenching his blade from the other as it thrashed in the dirt. He glanced over to see Gork'nar on foot but handily finishing off another. A fourth lay smoldering and riddled with arrows not far away. Suniel was no where to be seen.
"Where's the wizard?" Kezzek shouted, scanning the nearby area.
"I think one dragged him into its hole. That one?" Grok'nar said and pointed with his sword before burying it in the ankheg at his feet again as it spasmed.
Kezzek rode to the hole Grok'nar pointed at and leapt off his horse. The tunnel was fragile and narrow, but he saw something shuffling inside at the edge of his keen orcish dark sight. "In here!" he shouted and charged.
The fight was brutal in the close confines and Kezzek was afraid the tunnels would collapse at several points. When the ankheg was finally dead, he dragged Suniel's limp form back into the light and the waiting Grok'nar and Harold.
"You look like hell," Grok'nar said. "He dead?"
Kezzek wearily knelt next to the elf and examined him. The wizard's wounds were deep and raw, his breathing shallow. "I don't..." he began.
As he watched the wounds began to close, the ragged edges slowly pulling together. Most of them didn't seal completely, but Suniel's breathing became smoother and his eyelids fluttered.
"The wizard must have some impressive rejuvenation spell on him," Kezzek said, watching the healing with interest.
"It's not him, I've seen this before," Harold said from where he still sat on his warhorse. "It has to be Grok'nar."
Kezzek quirked an eyebrow at the hobgoblin and Harold was looking at him levelly as well. Grok'nar shrugged and pulled out a bundle of bandages from his pack. "Still probably need some of these for you and the elf."
For the first time Kezzek really noticed his own wounds, the pain seeping in as the adrenaline faded, his orc blood singing with the after-energy of battle. He had two bite wounds and innumerable other small cuts, scrapes, bruises, and acid burns all over his body. "I've had worse," he said.
Suniel coughed and opened his eyes, squinting in the daylight as he looked up at his companions. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Well, if this is heaven, it's far uglier than I imagined."
"Cute," Kezzek said, helping the wizard to his feet.
Suniel stretched his leg, wincing as the bandages shifted. The camp fire popped as a log split and across the fire pit the Greywarden snorted and shifted in his blankets. Suniel smiled as the half-orc growled in his sleep.
I'd be dead today if it weren't for him, he thought. I guess whatever has kept me alive this long has a different fate in mind for me than being ankheg food.
Harold stirred and shifted as well and Suniel glanced in his direction. I wonder what fate brought all of us together. Greywarden, Crystal Towers soldier... His gaze turned to the snoring hobgoblin. And a hobgoblin with strange healing powers. A defective hobgoblin, he mentally amended, half-chuckling. I wonder what he really wants, is it really-
He was never sure what it was that forewarned him, but one moment he was sitting by the fire, the next he had thrown himself to the side as a huge chitinous figure exploded out of the ground where he had been sitting, mandibles clacking together in a spray of acid.
"Attack!" he shouted, retreating and hurling a ball of fire at the ankheg as his companions leapt from their bedrolls and reached for weapons, Kezzek running towards the thrashing horses with a roar while Harold and Grok'nar faced another. One of the horses squealed in pain and the others strained at their ropes.
Suniel murmured and gestured as the ankheg he had just wounded rushed towards him, blasting it backwards again. It fell heavily, but a moment later was scrabbling back to its legs, rearing back its head in the movement Suniel had come to associate with them spitting acid. With another chant and a flick, he blew its head off, raining him with smoldering pieces of chitin and tiny flecks of acid that burned against his skin like hot needle-points.
Nearby, Grok'nar and Harold were finishing off the one that had rushed them. A second ankheg was struggling to drag a fallen horse away from the hill where they had made camp. Kezzek was missing.
"Get the one going for the horses!" Suniel shouted and ran off the direction he had last seen the Greywarden.
He found the quor'rel lying in the dirt not far from the horses and halted, straining his senses as he searched the dark for some further sign.
A moment later he heard the scrape of metal on rock and he ran headlong in that direction, mindless of the dark that was nearly complete even in his keen elven vision.
He found the burrow by literally falling into it, landing heavily on his side in the loose dirt. The burrow was pitch-black so Suniel pulled out one of the pebbles he always kept in one of his robe pouches. A moment later it flared to light, refracting off the facets of two bulbous eyes and glinting off a metal gauntlet.
"Here, here!" Suniel shouted as the ankheg clamped down on the Greywarden's body and dragged it further down the tunnel. Suniel charged towards it, brandishing the light and blasting it with razor-sharp slivers of energy. It chittered at him and lunged, sending him backpedaling as its mandibles snapped together inches from his chest.
He stumbled and it pressed towards him, dragging him under it with its forelegs. Suniel's magic tore into it again, throwing it back for a moment, but it was on him again, mandibles wide as it lunged towards his head.
Suniel raised his arms futilely as it dropped onto him, but something slammed into it right before it struck, throwing it back. "Come, beast," Grok'nar said in goblin, standing over Suniel as he faced the creature.
The ankheg lunged forward but Grok'nar ducked under, his shield slamming into its head with a cracking sound, sending a mandible flying, and driving its head hard into the packed soil of the tunnel. In a rain of dirt, still pinning its head to the ceiling with his shield, Grok'nar pivoted and drove his blade into its neck, grunting as he drove his shoulder into the motion. His sword buried in to the hilt and the ankheg convulsed.
Grok'nar leapt back as it flailed in its death throes and stomped its head into the dirt with a hobnailed boot. It twitched as he ground his heels into its eyes and spat on it. Then the hobgoblin turned, covered with ichor and dirt, sheathed his sword, and helped Suniel to his feet.
"Let's get this orc out of here before the tunnel collapses. He might be useful later if more attack."
Suniel nodded and together they hauled the unconscious Greywarden out of the crumbling burrow.
"You sure this is the stream?" Harold said as they stopped to water the horses.
Grok'nar nodded and checked the bandage on his shaggy mount as it drank. "The ankhegs don't stay to their side of it completely of course, but it's a general demarker of the Burrows."
Harold scanned the area. "How intense are the patrols around here?"
"He already said they didn't think anything would come through here, archer. No patrols," the Greywarden rumbled, checking his own bandages with a wince.
Grok'nar echoed Kezzek.
"Then I say we camp there," Harold said, pointing upstream. "That formation looks like its mostly the 'crown' rust-rock. We camp at the far end of the U it makes. Defensible and sheltered, fresh water."
"And there's shade," Suniel said, wiping his brow. "That alone is enough for me."
"Good," Harold said, already leading his horse towards it. "Because now that we're here, we need a plan."
"I've had a plan since I headed to Northmand," Grok'nar said, his eyes narrowing as looked at the battered party - Suniel kneeling nearby, checking his horse's hoof, Kezzek disassembling his quor'rel as he walked, Harold stopped not far ahead, squinting at the rock formation as he dug in the saddle bag where he kept his waterskins. Grok'nar's hand rested on his hilt. "I think it's finally time to act on it."
A hobgoblin approached the outpost on foot, alone except for a chained figure it prodded on with its sword. The two hobgoblins on watch straightened and peered into the darkness beyond their torchlight, trying to make out details. When the figures finally entered the firelight, Cherek's eyes widened.
"Grok'nar? I thought you were dead."
Grok'nar gave his lopsided grin and took Cherek's hand. "Take more than Neergrog's goon stabbing me in my sleep to put me down. I see you two have managed to survive somehow too."
Cherek nodded as his brother Pick approached and slapped Grok'nar on the back. "Neergrog and his Iron Ring thugs don't know we're related and we weren't about to let him know. Don't go telling on us now," Cherek said.
He jerked his chin towards the dirty, worn, bandaged, yet proud-looking human in some form of uniform that stood in chains behind Grok'nar. "Who 'dat?"
Grok'nar's grin widened. "I caught me the human responsible for destroying the raft camp."
Cherek and Pick glanced at each other and cast scrutinizing gazes at Grok'nar. "How you know about that? We just found out ourselves."
"Used my brains," Grok'nar said, tapping his forehead. "Heard him talking about it and then figured a way to catch him unawares, you might say. Figured he might be the sort of thing that might get me back into Neergrog's graces."
Pick stepped closer and looked the human up and down appraisingly. "Well, if there's anything, he'd be it. Neergrog flew into one of his spittle-rages and found a few more 'traitors' to execute when he heard the news. This human says he destroyed the whole camp on his own?"
Grok'nar shrugged. "Near enough. Doesn't really matter as long as Neergrog thinks so, eh?"
"Well, good luck in there Grok'nar," Cherek said as he and Pick stepped aside to let them through. "With the mood Neergrog has been in lately, you'll need it."
With a nod to his cousins, Gork'nar entered the outpost, heading straight to Neergrog's audience chamber with his prisoner.