Session Date: March 18, 2019 (continued)
Effective Character Level: 1
Long Road Ahead
The party decided to split two second-floor inn rooms that night (on the house, thanks to their brawl participation) for safety’s sake. They needn’t have worried; nothing unusual occurred that night.
That is not, to say, that it was silent. Yesod and Gariff, in one room, were forced to listen to the loud discussion laughter from the rest of their group, next door. The others’ conversation often turned to topics of deities, ethical codes, and moral alignment.
Yesod shook his head to himself before he lay down. “I have only one thing to say to you, Gariff,” he noted. “Never put your trust in a divine being.” Then he turned his face to the wall.
Gariff was left to figure that one out on his own.
Perkins was more than happy to sell a crate of rations to the newly-termed adventurers, and at a discount. Thanks to his instructions, the five soon made their way to the village square, where numerous shops and stalls awaited. Whitechurch, while not the largest point of entry to Rapier’s Edge, was still a commonly-traveled one. Many made their earnings from stocking over-zealous travelers.
The five were welcomed by the “Tears for Gears” mechanic’s shop, the “Potent Petunia” for all one’s alchemy or hedge witchery needs, the entire smithy square (for armor and unenchanted weapons), and even a “Guilty Pleasures” curtained bookstore.
Perhaps most interesting sight in all the square was the crudely-drawn “Notta Gobblin” sign over a hovel of a shop, matched in eccentricity only by its curator. A loud goblin, “disguised” solely by a dirty wig, waved and made eager chit-chat with passerbys.
“Oh, that’s ‘Jim Snot Green Plant,’ ” Perkins had informed them before they’d left. “He pretends he’s a halfling, but everyone knows he’s a goblin. But don’t tell him that you know! It would break his heart.”
The sharp-toothed figure certainly did not fit any of the stereotypes Theren knew from his studies. He would have enjoyed getting to know the figure better, but time was lacking. The party was hoping to leave town before news of their winnings spread too far.
Theren purchased the extra torches, silk rope, grappling hook, and flint and steel easily; but it wasn’t until he entered “Madame Le Weird’s” shop of curios that he found the most difficult item on his checklist.
Dodging the overly-friendly and hard-of-hearing owner, Theren zeroed in on a small brass hand mirror. He wasn’t particularly fond of the cherub motif, and a price of “5 gp” had been crudely carved into the edge, but it would do. He quickly secured both his purchase and his escape.
Theren was pleasantly surprised to see a team of four mules and a small cart awaiting back at the Hunter’s Moxy inn. Rudolfo had used the last of the coin from the previous evening for the small luxury. Elderham was a good five days away, and the cart would certainly ease the journey.
The five managed to leave the city limits by noon. Their last obstacle proved to be an incredibly-chatty gate guard.
“Oh, hello there! Fine group of adventurers, if I do say so myself. Even got your team of donkeys and a cart. Very nice, very nice. Bought that back in the market, did ya? They sell everything there these days. Donkeys, carts, you name it. But you’d probably know that yourself, right? Where are you folks headed today?”
Yesod gave the guard a grim once-over before he responded. “South,” he said finally. They were not going south.
“Ah, yes, south! Lot of people going south these days. Of course, I wouldn’t be going south myself. Too dangerous down south. Lots of goblins. Too dangerous east as well, with the undead. And to the north. And to the west, well, you’ll just drown there.”
As he continued to speak, the guard’s thick accent noticeably shifted from one region to the next. The party wondered if he’d been intentionally assigned here, as far away from other city guards as possible.
“Speaking of goblins, have you folks heard about the bounty on goblin heads, from the bounty office? Twenty gold a head, not a copper less! Why, I’d go adventuring myself for that coin, if they didn’t need me so much around here.”
Gariff’s ears perked up at this news. “Twenty per head? And we just bring the heads back here?”
“No, to the bounty office,” the guard replied. “I don’t right know what they do with all the heads, now that you mention it. Probably nothing illegal. But don’t bring the goblin heads to me, though. I’ve got no use for heads.”
“That much is obvious,” muttered Yesod quietly.
There was really no tactful way to end the conversation with the attention-starved guard. Finally, the group simply waved goodbye and left while he was explaining the seasonal dips in barley prices. They could see his lips still moving well beyond earshot.
An Abortive Ambush
They traveled east that day towards Elderham, stopping only at sundown. As they took turns riding and walking, they noticed a distinct change in the vegetation of the surrounding landscape. On their right, to the south, the forest grew lush with greenery. Vibrant leaves quivered in the breeze, and bushes shook where some small animal hurried through.
On their left, however, the trees became gnarled and dead. Barren soil stretched as far as the eye could see–or, at least, until a strange dense fog obscured the view. There were no sounds of animals, birds, or even wind all the way to the north. The hush of the forest was the hush of death.
For a moment, Theren imagined himself sandwiched between the woods of the Feywild and the brambles of the Shadowfell, worlds he had only read about. This area might warrant further study, when they’d finished with Elderham.
They were not, however, the only travelers in this land. From time to time, the group became aware of something (or somethings) keeping pace with them through the undergrowth to the south. Whatever it was, it never strayed close enough for view. At the same time, it never withdrew for longer than an hour.
Once twilight had set in, the group found a flat, level, and dry area on the south side of the road to set up camp. The sparsely-wooded area afforded space for a campfire and lines-of-sight for a hundred feet or so. The five cooked and ate a ration apiece, set up a rotation of two-hour guard shifts for the duration, and bedded down for the night.
All with weapons in arm’s reach, of course. None had forgotten that they were being followed.
[Editor’s Note: The following happened while Theren was asleep and unable to chronicle it.]
As he could not see as well at night as the dwarf or the half-elf, Yesod volunteered to take first watch, while there was still some light in the sky. Rudolfo was to take the second shift afterwards. However, instead of being gently awoken for his duty, Rudolfo awoke to hear Yesod in a hushed but heated argument. He was obviously trading quips…but there was no one standing in front of him.
“What is it?” Rudolfo asked, rising to his feet and grabbing his hammer. “Who is it? Who are you talking to?”
“No one. It’s nothing.” Yesod frowned and didn’t make eye contact with the dwarf.
“I definitely heard you talking to someone. What is it? Did you see something out there?”
Yesod’s glare was obvious, even from behind his spectacles. “Let’s just say there are too many ghosts around.”
“Ghosts? Are there ghosts in the forest? How many are there? What did they look like?”
“No, ghosts, HERE,” Yesod emphasized, gesturing to the campfire. “With us.” He brooded for a second, then pointed into the darkness. “The ghosts are telling me there’s definitely something out there, but they’re not being any more helpful about it.”
“Oh…” Rudolfo replied slowly. He took a few moments to process this new information. “Well…you’d better get to bed then. It’s been a long day for all of us.”
With any luck, Yesod was simply hallucinating from lack of sleep. If not, Rudolfo might have ask his deity for guidance in either healing Yesod’s mind, or putting spirits to rest.
He had little time to ruminate. It was not long before five dark figures began moving out of the deep darkness around them.
Theren awoke to Rudolfo’s heel in his ribs.
“Quick, get up!” the dwarf hissed. “We’re being attacked!” As the five shadowy forms began running towards the fire, Rudolfo let out a stirring yell, rousing the rest of his party.
Theren was already weaving his spell of protection when Rudolfo roared and made for the closest figure. Rather than simply speaking his divine word, Rudolfo set down his hammer and held his palms out in front of him. He directly called upon the power of his divine being, then crafting a ball of light with careful movements. He finally released the bolt in front of him, where it sped directly into the head of an approaching humanoid creature.
The creature’s head instantly exploded in a shower of shimmering sparks and gristle. Its body fell limply to the ground, still glowing briefly from the magic.
Yesod, still mostly awake from his previous shift, was the next to act. He turned to see one of the figures enter the campsite behind him. The firelight revealed it to be a poor human male, dressed in tattered bandit clothing and holding a simple crossbow in his arms. Yesod waited no further and brought his heavy greataxe down on the shoulder of his opponent, cutting an arm cleanly from the body. The enemy collapsed in surprise and shock.
It was to the bandits’ credit that they knew immediately when they were outclassed. Two immediately threw their weapons down and surrendered, and the last fled as quickly as his feet would take him.
The rekindled campfire saw the adventuring party members guarding two captured bandits and their unconscious cohort (whom Rudolfo had graciously stabilized). It seems the raiders were in reality five brothers who’d only recently been driven to a life of crime.
“We’re from a farm west of ‘ese blighted nort’ern woods,” Markus Whitewater (the eldest) explained. ” ‘ings were always wrong in ‘e Underwood, as it’s called. Ye ever been in ‘ere? It’s quiet, it’s dark, and ‘ere’s a fell feeling in the air. Ye swear ye’re not standing on the same land ye entered on.”
“No, we haven’t been there,” Gariff said. “We’re new here…just passing through.”
“Oh! Well, ye’re lucky then. My five brothers and I–er, my four brothers now, I should say–always ‘elped me ma and pa on the farm. But ‘ings took a turn for ‘e worst ‘ese past few summers. First, ‘e blighting grew and took ‘e farm. Simply unnatural, it was. ‘e’ve not been able to grow but stones and sticks since ‘en. Last winter, an illness took bot’ our parents. It’s all been very ‘ard now, I’m sure ye see?
“This evening began by you pointing your crossbows at us,” Rudolfo reminded him. “I’m not one for sympathy right now.”
“Well, ye’ve got to understand ‘e bind I’ve been put in! I’m the eldest brot’er now; the ot’ers look up to me! We ‘ave a young sister back ‘ome who does what she can, but she’s naught but ten. What was I do to keep my family alive?
“So I says to myself, ‘ere’s plenty of ’em rich people always coming in on ’em ships. Got more gold ‘an ‘ey know what to do wit. We’ve never killed nobody, honest! Just scare ’em enough to give up ‘eir coins, ‘en we go ‘ome and buy some more food! ‘ou’ve got to believe me!”
While maintaining an eye on their new captives, the adventurers withdrew to discuss the situation.
“I don’t think they’re lying to us,” Theren noted. “They seem genuinely terrified, probably from watching their brother’s head explode.”
“We still need to decide what to DO with them,” Rudolfo grumbled. “Maybe we could take them with us and run them down crypt corridors, to check for traps.”
Theren made a sour face. His alignment stood directly in the center of morality, where all actions had a potentially-justifiable context. But using farmers down on their luck as cannon fodder still seemed…needlessly wasteful.
“If it’s all the same to ye,” a voice piped up behind them, “we’d like to get back to our lil’ sister. ‘f’s all right wit’ ye, of course.”
“You attacked us in the middle of the night, when we’d given you no cause for harm. What do YOU have that you can give us?”
“We, er…we ‘ave 25 gold that we’ve saved up from our…nighttime work.”
“Taking what little money they have isn’t going to turn them from a life of crime,” Theren pointed out, trying to gauge the dwarf’s motives. “If anything, it’s going to drive them further into it when we’re gone.”
“How is that our problem?” Rudolfo returned.
The hill dwarf’s personal code of ethics slowly began to align in Theren’s mind. While Rudolfo ostentatiously followed Hanseath, the dwarven god of chaos, war, and reveling, the hill dwarf seemed to have a specific, personal moral guideline. Wrongs should be righted, and personal slights repaid.
Interestingly, it was the half-orc that finally suggested an acceptable solution.
“Is there a member of your family that would be interested in becoming our…squire?” he asked of Markus. “Accompanying us, helping with what needs helping. Learning the way of the adventurer.”
The youngest brother present timidly raised his hand. “I’ll do it. Name’s Damien. I’ll do it.
“But you’ll need to give me a cut of your earnings,” he added quickly. “I need to send money home to help with the family. S’all right with you, of course.”
This arrangement was agreeable to all. Damien would accompany the troupe on their travels (likely to help first with the mules and baggage), he would receive five percent of any treasure that was won by the party, and the other surviving brothers were free to depart with what they had.
Before he left, Markus admitted that he had not expected the bandit life to be as deadly as it had proved this night. He and his brothers would likely move to Whitechurch proper and see what low-wage jobs they could find. (In reality, however, their hopes likely rested on a young brother they might never see again.)
With the adrenaline from the combat wearing off slowly, and with an obvious note of unease between the party and their newest member, there was very little sleeping done the rest of the night.
Theren began writing in his journal again as soon as the sunrise was bright enough.
A family destroyed through disease and blight. The eldest, saddled with responsibility, turns to a life of crime. This decision costs him the life of a brother and the arm of another. Their youngest is sold into servitude–a long gamble that might destroy yet another family member.
Theren took a moment to smile to himself, fingering the arcane focus that hung about his neck. It resembled closely the coiled serpent that adorned his coin.
The greatest difficulty awaits, not with us, but with the three who returned to their dead fields. It lies in explaining these events to a ten-year-old child…one who only recently lost her parents.
My patron will be pleased. Oh yes, she will be fed well.
For there will be nightmares tonight.