“Who are you and why have you come here without unfurling your flag?” came the demand from the parapets of the small fortress.
“They think we are reavers.”
“We are not Northmen!”, cried Jonlar Zilv. “We are peaceful merchants who have been attacked, and could barely take over this ship! We have no flag, but need food and supplies.”
“If you came with a peaceful intent, then come – but only ten of you.”
The company – now with Einar Sigurdsson in tow – climbed the small path to the fortified gatehouse. Green and blue pennants fluttered, and bowmen were watching their movements from above. The gate opened, and a mailed warrior with a small group came to inspect the newcomers.
“Come and be welcome, if you are who you claim to be. The Lord Elendir and the Lady Frederica will receive you and hear you out. But first, you must relinquish your weapons.”
With a little hesitation – Gadur Yir was not entirely convinced they would not just be slaughtered – they agreed, and entered a small courtyard surrounded by walls. A great gnarled oak tree stood in the middle, surrounded by stone benches and statuary. A shield bearing two acorns and a star was visible above the entrance to the inner keep. The receiving committee left them to rest, but the bowmen on the walls remained – just in case.
“Never forget Silhanosh” Elandil Hundertwasser read a carved motto below the shield. “There is a legendary lost city on this island by that name. Do you know of it, Jonlar?”
“Not me,” responded the minstrel.
They were ushered into the central hall of the keep, a small but well-maintained reception area. On two thrones sat a moustached man clad in a green cloak, a sheathed sword and a bow by his side, and next to him, a middle-aged woman of bronze hair, clad in a gown decorated with embroidered griffons. Their features were fine, probably even half-elven in their delicateness. They introduced themselves as the rulers of this little place, and seemed sympathetic to Jonlar Zilv’s stories about their capture and eventual escape from the hands of northern slavers (omitting only a few pieces of information).
“It was a bitter and desperate fight, my lady – we have lost all we owned, and the only thing we have in the bargain now is their ship.”
“Yet you have lived through the tragedy, and that should be a cause for happiness. Your life may not be as bleak as you now think”, advised Lady Frederica. “Among the darkest shadows, there is a flicker of light.”
“We have also seen something that may concern you. We recently passed a barren island with a small mansion atop the rocks. We went to investigate, but everyone inside was dead – killed by some unknown attackers, probably flying monsters.”
Lord Elendir looked concerned: “That is the Dwelling, a possession of the Feranolts. And it is indeed too close for comfort!”
“The Feranolts? We are not familiar with that name.”
“A noble family who originated from this area. They were among those who had settled on this coast, and fought against the Wraith Queen Arxenia, but as the fortunes of the city of Baklin rose and those of Gont fell, they moved on. Now all they have… or had here was a small garrison.”
Jonlar was interested. “You speak of multiple families. So this area is ruled by them?”
“It is all quite sad”, mused Lady Frederica. “A few still stand, including our own, but all have dwindled, and some are mere ruins haunted by beasts. Istaforas, Kortnar, the Dwelling, Elendir, Perladon... Most have moved on from here.”
Einar rose: “And what of a larger castle in the eastern forests, some way beyond the coast? We have found a map where it is presented rather prominently.”
Lady Frederica was taken aback. “Castle Sullogh. Avoid that place if you value your life. It is inhabited by a race of beings called Sulloghs – witch-created, green and cruel, with knives in each hand. Castle Sullogh has been taken only once, by one Lady Izanoxin, but she left on a holy quest with her retainers and never returned. Now it is inhabited by the Sulloghs again – and worse.”
“What of Silhanosh? We noticed an inscription referring to it in your garden.”
It was again the lord’s turn to talk: “A fair city, but lost to everyone. It was the pearl of this island, but fell in the war against the wraith queen, and we may nevermore return to it. Seek it not.”
“A family tragedy, then?”
“We might say so. My father left it as a mere child, and told me much about its wonders. But it is useless to speak of it – now we live here in this manor house, and later, who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps we will once set sail and travel far to the west, beyond the seas...”
They talked some more, but it was getting late and it was also time to rest. Lady Frederica advised the steward would talk to them about trading for supplies the next day. The lord and lady retreated to their rooms in the building’s eastern wing, while the company was escorted to the smaller guest rooms to the west of the hall.
“So this is not a base of the Feranolts after all” suggested Harmand the Reckless. “The triangles mark the dwellings of local noble families… and interestingly, the Feranolts don’t seem so important.”
“At least not here,” interjected Jonlar. “What is the white triangle south of Castle Sullogh? We did not learn, but maybe we should check.”
“We should take a look at this area to the east. The forests seem thinner on the map” suggested Gadur Yir.
“I want to gut Grave-Wight” growled Einar Sigurdsson.
“Interrogate him” warned Jonlar.
“I will perform the blood eagle on him first, then we can interrogate all we want!” snapped Einar.
“Hush!” whispered Harmand, and suddenly, everyone fell quiet. “There is someone behind the door.”
Einar stalked to the door to apprehend the interloper, but failed, and the man bolted down the dark corridor.
Gadur Yir stumbled over his own legs, but Harmand cornered the man in the central hall, and spoke the words of a hold person spell. The old man, clad in a gown and wearing a pair of slippers, did not fall under the spell, and started crying for help. There was a sound of arms and bellowed orders from the eastern wing as he was finally subdued.
“And who the hell are you?” Einar glared at him with fury.
“I am Fragor the Steward. I knew you lot were up to no good. Ha! You can take my life but it is too late! I serve my lord and lady with to my last breath.”
“I think this man needs a drink and we need to talk things over.” Jonlar Zilv quickly strummed the chords of “You Are As Bad As I Am” to make him more agreeable.
“What the devil is this racket?!” The Lord Elendir and the Lady Frederica came rushing into the hall with a group of armed soldiers. “Fragor? … The visitors? Explain yourself!”
“It was just a stupid misunderstanding, my lord” stammered Fragor, the fire in him gone. “Please forgive me for waking you up – it was all my fault.”
“Is that so?” Elendir was everything but convinced, but Fragor was insistent there was no foul play. Eventually, he relented. “If you say so, good Fragor – let us all return to our rest. But you should come with us now... just to explain a few things. Milords...” they turned and left, leaving behind two morose-looking guards to watch the throne room. The company also retreated to their room, silently weighing the consequences.
The next day, they were awakened by a knock on the door, coming from a stern guard.
“Come. The time for your departure is at hand.”
They followed him into the reception hall, now deserted, but for packs of food and supplies. When asking about payment, the guard shook his head. “It is yours, a gift from the lady. She will not accept money for it.”
Carrying the packs, they were escorted into the courtyard, which was now watched by dozens of bowmen from the parapets, all prepared for trouble. At the gatehouse, they were silently handed back their weapons, and the guard nodded. “The best of luck for your distant journey. Farewell.”
The gates closed behind them, and they returned to the ship without much of a word.
After sailing a little way from the coast and spending some time watching from the crow’s nest if they were being followed, or if a messenger had left the small fortress on the way towards Gont, they eventually decided to sail east and investigate the sign of the white triangle. It was less than a day’s sailing with good winds, and by afternoon, they could anchor the longship in a small wooded bay where they spotted ruined walls beyond the shrubs and trees. It was a lazy afternoon, and a warm wind played among the branches, accompanied by birdsong.
“This is an evil place” grumbled Harmand.
Following standard procedure, they ran the ship ashore, and while some of the men started gathering firewood for dinner, the company headed for the forest ruins, followed by a company of ten men carrying their makeshift battering ram. They emerged on a low hilltop and surveyed the ruins of a small keep: its southern walls were already gone, a pile of stones, but to the north, two structures were still standing with some walls and a ruined gatehouse between them. The smaller building to the west seemed to have one story only, while the other had two. The weed-strewn courtyard also had a walnut tree with some vines choking its trunk, and a stone well with a large statue next to it.
“The coast seems clear, but let’s proceed with caution” advised Einar. “Men, you shall stand in the back and be prepared for trouble.”
Creeping closer, they saw the statue depicted a brute more than a man and a half tall, clad in rags and furs, and wearing a haversack on its shoulders. It seemed to be looking at something in its upheld hand, but whatever that was, it was gone.
“That is an ogre. It did not turn into stone due to the sunlight” said Harmand.
“If I see a reptile or a woman, I will immediately avert my head!” declared Jonlar.
Meanwhile, Gadur Yir examined the tree, discovering it was still laden with walnuts – and the vines encirncling the trunk were carrying heavy black berries, which he wisely avoided. Turning his attention to the well now, he saw that the side bore a wolf’s head and an inscription reading “*PERLADON*” Looking inside, he saw water deep down.
“Hold the other end of this rope while I climb down. ...and if any of you turn into stone while I’m down, just tell me.”
Descending into the well, the half-orc’s keen eyes saw something glinting below the water surface.
“There is always stuff on the bottom of wells” Harmand grinned.
Gadur Yir was more careful than to act rashly. He turned his attention to the well’s mossy walls, looking for hand- and footholds to grab onto. This brought something else to his attention – a protruding brick that looked most suspicious.
“The water first” he declared, and after hammering a dagger between the stones to hang the lantern from, dived underwater. He descended below the surface, and grabbed something round in the silt, retrieving a heavy silver jug. “Now that will fetch a nice price.” Turning his attention to the brick, he pushed, and his attention was rewarded as he saw a short tunnel leading forwards toward a corroded iron door...
...however, at the same moment, there was a commotion up in the courtyard. The door to the western building swung open, and a burly hand threw a large basket among the company before slamming the door again to the chorus of booming laughter from inside the building. Hissing and clucking in an obscene manner, three monstrous abominations with the features of both chicken and lizards tumbled out, biting and pecking at everyone they could reach.
“I bet on the half-orc!” came a booming voice from inside.
The characters fought desperately to keep the bewildered monsters at bay. One jumped on Jonlar Zilv and pecked him with his beak, and Jonlar turned into an inanimate stone statue.
“I think it’ll get the elf before they’re done!” came another cry, followed by more laughter.
“Oh, jump out, you cocksucker!” howled Elandir Hundertwasser, demonstrating a previously unknown part of his vocabulary, and simultaneously casting a command spell. The door creaked open and a huge, obviously angry ogre landed in the courtyard’s dust, followed by multiple others...
...meanwhile, paying no heed to the events unfolding above him, Gadur Yir contemplated the iron door. He tried to shove it open, but miscalculated as he rushed it, and bent one of his pauldrons. Cursing, he turned back towards the well...
...wile outside, a bloody battle developed between the ogres, the party, the remaining cockatrices and the ten sailors who threw javelins at whomever they could get a shot at. There were seven ogres, but although battered and bloody, the numbers and ability of the company and a few hold persons prevailed – except for Jonlar Zilv, now a statue. Gadur Yir climbed the rope and climbed out with the silver jug just as the retainers were chopping the last ogre to death with their axes.
“If Jonlar was alive, he would compose a song about your cowardice” spat Einar.
“But he doesn’t” concluded the half-orc.
After some discussion, while the others were patching themselves up and discussing what was to be done, Einar, ever impatient, entered the building. He ventured into a large kitchen, where a roast goblin was cooking on a spit above an open fireplace. Faint squeaking noises came from beyond a barred door to the southwest. Spying inside, he saw a huddled mass of goblins looking back at him and begging to be freed.
“You can go now” the Northman told them. “Just remember that it was Einar Sigurdsson who had saved you... him and his company.”
Interrogating the grateful creatures, he heard them tell a story of a giant stone throne in the northern woods, and a castle full of murderous green creatures.
“Castle Sullogh” Einar thought to himself.
Searching the ogres’ lair in a northern room, he found their treasure bags: it was mostly hunks of meat, stones and rubbish, but they were mixed with 900 gold pieces, a bale of soft fur that turned out to be cat, and a fine silver plate hammered with the letters reading “MINARVI”. Einar quietly pocketed the gold, deciding to share it with only those who had fought in the battle, and skipping the cowardly Gadur Yir.
After the goblins were released, they sent further time searching the premises. In the round tower that had served as a prison, they found a capstone carved with the sign of a rooster. Harmand the Reckless recommended to search it, and after hoisting him up, he found it to be a simple stone decoration. However, when the same procedure was repeated in the ogre lair with the sign of a ship, the stone turned and a slab of stone slid open in the corner!
The passage was dark and exhaled damp rot. It had obviously lain abandoned for a long time, and wss littered with sacks of mouldering grain. However, under the sacks was the real prize – a hatch with a lock on it.
“This must connect with what is behind that door in the well” Gadur Yir suggested.
Striking the lock from its hinges, the hatch revealed a downward shaft with rungs climbing down into the darkness. After a brief discussion, and instructing the retainers to guard the outside and sound a horn if there was any trouble, the company excitedly descended into a foetid passage...
Stairs descended even deeper from the landing, worn with time and use. A locked iron door, similar to the one the half-orc couldn’t open, blocked further passage. The only lockpicks in the party had belonged to Jonlar’s statue, and Barzig the Back could not open the lock with improvised tools, but with Einar’s strength, the door proved a pinch to open. They saw a passage going forward, and one turning to the right, then turning slightly to the left in the S-SE direction. Choosing the latter way, they continued. Vaulted rooms opened to the sides, laden with old barrels and their bounty, sour and fouled. The second room to the east revealed something else: a rectangular stone slab decotated with the carvings of vines, grapes and grape leaves.
“Let me check this one” Gadur Yir grinned, and rummaged behind the stone structure, looking for irregularities. His efforts were rewarded as a stone leaf clicked, and a secret door opened in the wall of the exterior room. “What do we have here...”
They entered a gallery running along the walls of a domed, hexagonal room, overlooking a lower level filled with gloom, and separated from it by thick iron bars reaching up to the ceiling. The floor looked richly appointed, with fine ceramic tiles of ochre and teal colours. Deep underneath them were what looked like stone chests or sarcophagi.
|Under Perladon Manor|
Around the gallery they went, touched by the coldness of the deep, and through a door to the south. Here was another chamber reaching east and west. The part they were in was domed, the walls lined with wooden coffins, doors opening to the north and south. To the east, iron bars and a barred gate blocked off an interior chamber, where there was a single stone sarcophagus. Letters carved into the floor spelled a message: “THE FOLLOWERS OF PERLADON: THOSE WHO HAD VANQUISHED THE FORCES OF THE VALLEY, SHALL NOT REST IN ITS EARTH.”
“Another crypt. The Perladon family, eh?” mused Harmand.
“As a cleric, I can detect evil if you wish me to. But I don’t think there is a need for that” said Gadur Yir.
Barzig tried his makeshift tools on the barred door, but to no avail.
“Well then, let’s get to work” the half-orc spat in his hands and lifted the lid off of one of the wooden sarcophagi. A skeletal figure was resting inside the coffin, wearing chain mail, with a large shield and a flail on his breast. “Just make sure it isn’t...”
But it most definitely was. The dreadful undead rose from its grave, and the other sarcophagi shifted as well, and nine skeletons emerged.
“Begone!” bellowed Elandil Hundertwasser, and seven of the skeletons turned to run.
“We can take them!” hollered someone, and the first skeleton soon bit the dust as Harmand crushed it with a solid blow.
At this point, something dark and ominous and inky billowed out of the stone sarcophagus in the interior room. A dark form with glowing eyes of molten gold and claws of shadow coalesced.
“I am Godfred Perladon... and I am your death!” it hissed in a cold tone of lifeless contempt. Its shadowy fingers started to trace the patterns of elongated, flat figures of eight in the thin air, and it muttered syllables of magical power.
“Ooooh CRAP!” Harmand gasped as a fiery spark flew out of the shadow’s hands, hurtled through the gap between the iron bars, and detonated in a deafening inferno covering everything, crushing the bones and wooden sarcophagi with its force and flames for seven dice worth 33 points of damage.
...Gadur Yir cursed in pain as he opened his eyes. He beheld a scene of devastation. The charred bones of the remaining skeletons, and the incinerated corpses of his companions lay on the blackened floor. The doors next to him had been torn off their hinges. His ears were ringing, but he saw a figure bolt through the remains of the northern door.
The shadow! It was still towering behind the bars, looking at him with malevolent eyes. Gulping, the half-orc reached for his holy symbol and held it high to call on his patron god.
“I cry out to you in my moment of need! Help me, oh...” There was an awkward pause as the shadow surveyed him with its burning gold eyes. He had forgotten the name of his own god! He had forgotten the goddamn name! The possibility of divine favour, whatever it was, departed. Gadur Yir silently turned his tail and fled back through the way he came.
...panting and running through the upper floor of the gallery, and into the cellar, he felt the darkness below pull at him, and heard the hollow laughter of the shadow. Or were his ears ringing? He stumbled, half-dead, into the corridor, where the remaining skeletons cowered and fled as he beheld them. The exit! He sped north and turned…
Glinting metal flashed in the darkness, and he heard Barzig the Back’s sarcastic voice: “No hard feelings... but it had to be done.” He parried desperately, and the bow-legged nomad cursed as his dagger broke on the half-orc’s armour. Gadur Yir growled, spat, and with a mighty blow, brained the hapless assassin.
Looking back on the ruined manor house of the Perladon faily, Gadur Yir bid farewell to Brusuf the Servant and the ship’s crew. They were free to seek their own fortune on the high seas, but he was done with sailing for a while, and after gathering some supplies and binding his worst wounds, decided to head for the deeper woodlands in pursuit of new adventures. Turning his back on Jonlar Zilv’s silent statue, he struck off through the thickets on the edge of the Forest of Woe, and presently was gone.
(Session date 5 February 2017).
Jonlar Zilv, stoned: “I call it ‘temporary invulnerability’.”
Harmand the Reckless: “I call you our ship’s new figurehead.”
Einar Sigurdsson: “Let’s stop wandering the realm of the imagination and let’s loot the manor house.”
Einar Sigurdsson: “...but you feel the essence of The Word of Chaos! [A classic Hungarian fantasy novel, and a formative experience for older RPG fans, of which I’ll write more later] …we were torn apart by a fireball, and only the half-orc survived, just like in the novel. So cool!”
Elandil Hundertwasser (quite dead): “But now who will heal the world’s wounds?”
Someone else: “Sure won’t be you.”
Elandil Hundertwasser: “The key is inside you!”
Player: “Did you design this adventure on your own?”
Marvin, Elandil’s player (sarcastically): “Do you think anyone else could come up with something like a shadow shooting fireballs?”
GM: “The ecological footprint of Gygaxian naturalism strikes again!”
Referee’s notes: There is often a turning point in the novels where you can determine who were the protagonists all along, and who were the supporting cast. If our campaign was a novel, it would now be clear that it was about the exploits of Gadur Yir, “the two-legged plague”, “the cursed half-orc”, or call him what you will. They tried their luck like the other times, they pushed it a bit too far (exploring a dangerous dungeon with depleted, although not fully depleted resources), and this time, it blew up in their face – literally, for a whopping 33 points of damage (I rolled fives and sixes on most dice of that 7d6).
With all but one member of the party dead – and it was an iconic form of death, make no mistake – many of the current plotlines got severed just as the campaign was almost turning in a predictable direction again. Certainly, Gadur Yir has decided that Grave-Wight and the Feranolts, whatever their crimes, could wait for now. So, we take a new direction again and some new planning is in order – with new adventures and new companions. These paths will lead towards the interior of the island, and in a sense closer to its deeper mysteries. We still have to see where things will end up, although the elements and events of this now concluded first arc will rear their head again and again, even if from new angles and perspectives.
With the campaign’s unpredictable but characteristically Caldwellian turn (a term whose meaning I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post), at least we now know whom to root for. Our protagonist has been chosen!