That night, everyone in Haghill was eating, drinking and making merry. Huberic the Stout, the petty lord of the walled forest village was marrying off one of his men. Slaughter Serkart was a loyal retainer, and the girl was rich, with a dowry of several cows: they were clearly meant for each other. While Huberic and his retinue feasted in the mead hall, the people of Haghill and the travellers who’d come for the occasion were doing the same in private houses and taverns.
One company which did not fully submerge itself in revelry was sitting around a beer-laden table by the hearth in The Dancing Basilisk, waiting for someone. They were:
- Gadur Yir, a half-orc fighter, wearing worn travelling clothes, with a bastard sword on his back;
- Jonlar Zilv, a middle-aged travelling minstrel;
- Harmand the Reckless, another half-orc with a very similar personal style, but with a two-handed sword, and the symbol of Zeltar, god of adventurers around his neck;
- Einar Sigurdson, Northman sailor, a grey-eyed and chestnut-haired man in warm clothes;
- and Sufulgar del’ Akkad, a thoroughly unremarkable fellow in all black, a cleric of Kurlakum of the Seven Misfortunes.
These strangers were brought together in this place by the same reason: although they came from five different corners of the world, each was carrying a letter promising them an inheritance of riches and power – with the clues leading to an old manor house belonging to the letter’s author, “Vitus Bonifaces”. Some arrived on the Isle of Erillion in Baklin, where none had heard of the name: and some in Gont, where some seemed to know, but would fall curiously silent if the name was mentioned. Midway between Baklin and Gont was Haghill, where they had at least converged, near penniless, and found an old man who was willing to talk … if they would meet him at the Dancing Basilisk after nightfall.
“Just call me the Master of the Night”, shrieked Sufulgar, drawing a round of laughter from the company, and making a drunken peasant embrace him from behind.
“Master of the Night, my friend! Come on out, let’s… let’s tour the other taverns before dawn! Let me show the way...”
Sufulgar, obviously displeased, answered: “Just come outside with me.”
They paused outside in the muddy street, below the wall separating village from wilderness, and Sufulgar looked darkly into the man’s eyes, trying to scare him off. “I foretell… I see much misfortune! I wouldn’t go home if I were you.”
The peasant was taken back but straightened himself, drunkenly declaring “Sure… the night is still young”, before stumbling towards the next drinking hole.
“…are you sure we need him? Who is this creep, anyway?” Sufulgar overheard as he returned through the back door.
The festivities were in full swing, and some people were already dancing on the tables, when someone at last flung himself down in the empty chair. It wasn’t the old man, though, but a moustached man wearing mail under his cloak, and an axe on his belt.
“Which of you is Hólangur?” he asked, then seeing the blank stares, continued, “It is risky, but it can be done. If we want a shot at it, we have to do it tonight. What do you think?”
Harmand seized the opportunity: “We are interested. I think he is Hólangur over there. He hasn’t introduced himself yet.”
Sufulgar was taken aback “Me? I thought...”
The intruder was puzzled. “Aren’t you the men I was looking for? Right, then...”
“We are well-meaning scoundrels”, continued Harmand. “We should team up. Tell us more about this deal.”
The stranger looked right and left, and excused himself to take a leak outside, but Gadur Yir and Einar followed him to make sure he wouldn’t disappear. The man sighed, then shrugged and returned to the table.
“Right. It is about a ruined village not far from here… there is danger, and we have to be careful. We may win, or we may never make it out alive.”
“We live for danger!”
“…of course, they are robbers who prey on innocent farmers and travellers, so they will not be missed by anyone. We still don’t know how many there are and the treasure may not actually be there…”
“You’ve got a deal.”
“All right. Actually, Hólangur may not need to be involved after all. We will just have to meet up with my companions – you see, they are outside the walls in the Seven Symbols Pub – but we will have to avoid the gates. The guards may ask questions, and Hólangur may know. It would be best if he was thinking we were still here somewhere.”
They left the Dancing Basilisk, and looked around in the back alley. The wooden parapets were patrolled regularly, but the coast was clear – no guard in sight! Gadur Yir threw a rope on one of the beams, climbed up in a hurry, then beckoned to Jonlar Zilv to follow. After the minstrel, Einar was the third, but just as he landed on top of Haghill’s walls, he saw a door open in the tower next to the gatehouse, and the face of a guard stare at them dumbfounded. Gadur Yir was already on him, throwing him into the tower interior… into a ring of four more guards, looking up in surprise from a conversation. “By Kurakum’s seven hands!” one exclaimed.
The half-orc quickly slammed the door shut, and held it while two men from the inside tried to batter it down, and someone sounded an alarm horn. There were running steps, and more were coming from the gatehouse. While Gadur Yir desperately held the door, Jonlar Zilv struck a chord on his lute, quickly playing two verses of “You Are Innocent In Your Dreams”, and sending the men inside into a deep slumber. The way was safely blocked for the moment.
“We let down the rope and climb, quick!”
“The horses! Bring the horses!” someone inside was shouting, and men were running in the street, as one by one, the company dropped down outside the walls of Haghill.
“By the way, call me Kontar. Kontar the Pacer. Pleased to meet you” the stranger grinned.
Shortly later, in the Seven Symbols Pub, an establishment even more lower-class than the Dancing Basilisk, Kontar introduced his companions. “This is Gasrit the Oracular” – pointing at a robed man with a mace – “…and this is Scitale Big-Ears.” Big-Ears was aptly named, and carried a bow and a dagger.
“To be honest”, Kontar continued, “it is not exactly about the nearby ruined village. I didn’t know whether I could trust you, and wasn’t entirely truthful.”
“And if you couldn’t?”
“Then I’d have lost you on those walls and let you sort it out.”
“It is only fair. We wouldn’t have done differently.”
“Well then. You see – there is this band of robbers, led by Wulfsten the White. Recently, I have been told, they found an overgrown ruin in the Forest of Death, west of Haghill and not far from this road – only Hólangur knows what direction, though. They dug up some kind of treasure, and along with it, the dead – well, undead – and while they lost a lot of men in the battle, they won. They are still there, resting, and if someone were to surprise them… Wulfsten is a tough customer, but the band is weakened for now. IF we got there before Hólangur, the treasure would be all ours.”
They were absorbed in the conversation when Jonlar Zilv noticed they were being watched. A ruddy-faced peasant, seemingly trying to fish a fly out of his beer mug, was casting a glance at the company, but when he saw Jonlar was looking back, he yawned, got up, and slowly headed for the front entrance. Einar, also slowly, left through the kitchen to round the building, while the minstrel followed towards the front. The peasant was conversing with a hooded horseman – “Yes, I think so… …better not make a racket now… …return” before he sprung on horseback, and both rode back towards Haghill’s gate. It was time to leave the Seven Symbols before it was too late. Sufulgor del Akkad reached for his purse, to notice he has been robbed.
“That drunk who had embraced you! And you even let him get away!” Harmand the Reckless was roaring with laughter, while Sufulgor looked at him darkly.
A few hours later, they were walking in single file through the Forest of Death. Sufulgor sauntered to Harmand the Reckless, and whispered hoarsely “I have a confession to make. I… am the keeper of supernatural powers!”
“Glad to know, Master of the Night. In return, I have to confess I am also a magic-user.”
Meanwhile, Jonlar Zilv was singing softly, mostly to himself, as he got close to Kontar the Pacer – then started the well-known ballad “You Are As Bad As I Am” to charm him. Kontar seemed friendly, and in good spirits, and that was good enough for Jonlar.
They rested for a while, with Einar on watch. He feigned sleep, and could barely keep awake, but he saw Scitale Big-Ears produce multiple daggers from underneath his clothes, which he oiled with care, along with a bunch of arrows. He continued to watch, but eventually nodded off, dead tired. At sunrise, Einar distributed his remaining food among those who had none.
“I feed them – they are now my servants” he said to himself.
Investigating the general area where they suspected the ruins, they found a carefully obscured trail leading South, and the traces of three men who’d recently come in the opposite direction. Scouting ahead, Sufulgor and Jonlar Zilv spotted the ruins, an overgrown, half-collapsed structure on a small elevation, surrounded by a dense forest of oak trees. There was no sign of inhabitants, and the two gaps in the wall showed a columned interior.
They quickly agreed on a plan of action: they would split up and surround the structure from both sides, then ambush the resting robbers. A bird call would mean ‘Attack’ and a frog’s croaking ‘Withdraw’, which everyone agreed on and promptly forgot. Einar and Sufulgor crept around the walls to the other side, Harmand the Reckless snuck towards the smaller gap, while the rest headed for a place where a wider segment had fallen, revealing a larger entrance. Just as they got close, ragged men with swords and axes streamed out to meet them head first, and a row of slingers stepped up to pelt them with stones.
|Battle at the Ruin|
The battle was brutal and bloody. Gasrit the Oracular went down under the slingshots and swordstrikes, and he was shortly joined in death by Scitale Big-Ears. Gadur Yir and Jonlar Zilv were badly wounded, and Gadur was saved by Kontar the Pacer rushing to aid him and divide his attackers. A furious melee developed by the entrance; while on the other side, Einar and Sufulgor faced a smaller group of enemies… but also someone far worse. Wulfsten the White, towering in his chain armour and large metal shield, came towards them with a heavy mace in his right and a golden crown on his brow.
“You shall serve me in the Shadow World, slaves!” he snarled, and he was on Einar, while shaking off Sufulgor’s hold person spell.
Einar, recognising the superior opponent, held his place, although he knew he was outmatched. “You are nameless and a mere servant! Einar Sigurdsson will be your slayer!” he cried as Wulfsten laughed.
The tide of battle was turned by Harmand the Reckless, who leaped into the building, and, scattering the slingers with his two-handed sword, broke the robbers’ ranks. Most of the ruffians turned to flee, and finally, the fanatical Wulfsten was surrounded and mercilessly cut down, Einar delivering the final strike. The Northman fell, dropping his heavy mace as his bloody crown slipped off of his head. Einar lifted his opponent’s mace, a fine weapon that seemed to be supernaturally well-balanced, while Harmand, satisfied, put his crown on his own head, and was filled with visions of glory and a sense of being the leader of this ragtag bunch – a born leader!
Gadur Yir and Jonlar Zilv bound the survivors’ wounds as well as they could, then set out to explore the place. The interior of the ruin contained a recently disturbed burial pit with hacked-up remains of long-dead cadavers, as well as the robbers’ remaining treasure, 300 ancient electrum coins, and a 70 gp brass bracelet with moss opals. However, another item seemed to be missing… a leather sack was cut open, and the contents were gone. Harmand suspected a robber he had seen fleeing the battle was carrying it, but his thoughts were soon interrupted by a new development.
“Kontar! Kontaaaaar! Come on out!” came the mocking cry through the forest, along with the sound of galloping horses. Hólangur has come to claim his prize.
They quickly gathered their belongings and slipped into the woods, trying to disappear, but the horsemen were better trackers than that. They rode them down, a company of six ragtag never-do-wells and Hólangur, his eyes mad with cheer that he has found the thieves. Hólangur almost trod Sufulgor del Akkad underfoot, and the cleric could only roll aside by swearing to Kurlakum that he would offer one of his fingers to the dark god. The mounted men were good fighters, but fortunately poor horsemen, and they went down with their master, who had expected weaker resistance. One man surrendered, and Einar Sigurdsson spared him, accepting him as his servant – so did Brusuf the Retainer join the company.
Kontar the Pacer was also pleased at the turn of events, claiming one of the horses, and exclaiming “And from now, my name shall be known as Kontar the Rider!”
They parted on good terms, Kontar receiving one share of the loot and the horse, an departing the Forest of Death for the east – towards the town of Gont and the eastern wilderness.
|The Isle of Erillion|
There was some discussion about the horses. They bore Huberic of Haghill’s brand, and Brusuf confirmed Hólangur had simply stolen them. Bringing them back to Haghill could clear things up – then again, Huberic was known to be a cruel and capricious landlord, and they decided it was not worth the trouble. However, Gadur Yir and Harmand the Reckless decided to saddle two of the mounts – who barely tolerated the half-orc smell – and decided to track down the robber fleeing with the remaining treasure, while the others, too tired and wounded to follow, stayed behind. They gave the dead a Viking funeral, and, not trusting the place, set up a small camp some way from the ruins. A good thing it was, too: at night, Einar saw a company of Northmen march towards the structure, and after finding it plundered, set up camp, and engage in drinking, brawling and general revelry.
Meanwhile, Gadur Yir and Harmand the Reckless had reached the road, and to their displeasure, saw not only the man’s tracks back towards Haghill, but a band of forty goblins in pursuit. They suspected the two of them would not be safe with the small miscreants, and decided to ride through the forest instead, hoping to cut off the robber’s escape. A few hours later, they tied their horses in the forest, and set up an ambush next to a small meadow, where the road was passing through.
Time passed, and at last, their man was coming in a hurry, a large bulging sack on his back, and no sight of the goblins. However, he was shortly joined by newcomers… a group of five large, dog-sized butterflies who seemed to find him interesting, and followed at a close distance. The robber didn’t make any sudden movements, hoping to avoid provoking the butterflies, and the half-orcs had the unpleasant idea they would fare very badly if they attacked. Finally, Gadur Yir cut through the Gordian knot: he threw a handful of stones among the butterflies, who, thinking it came from the unlucky robber, rushed and killed him. The companions waited as the colourful beasts fed, leaving behind a drained husk. Then, they claimed the sack – and the contents were well worth it. The treasure the man had carried away was a large bowl with a golden rim, geometric patterns, the symbols of upturned men, and resting on four lions’ paws… a ritual vessel belonging to the ancient faith of the druids.
The next day, the company met at the campsite, carefully avoiding the sleeping Northmen in the ruin. They were still weak and wounded, and the gloomy Sufulgor was missing one of his fingers. They headed back to the road, and contemplating their options between Haghill and the unknown, turned their mounts towards Gont.
“And one of the manor houses is inhabited by Karweros the vampire lord.”
“…and we will begin to visit these places randomly…”
(Session date 8 October 2016).
Referee’s notes: “Here is your starting situation and an interesting mystery.” “Fuck you! We will immediately abandon it and go investigate this random tangent that crossed our path.” You know a sandbox campaign is destined for great things when the first few minutes of the first session demolish any pretense of following the bait, and it devolves into high-energy shenanigans with untrustworthy and potentially treacherous never-do-wells, bloody butchery and sudden turns of events. It helps that everyone was right on the same page: not only did the players receive a small setting guide in advance (with “new” character options – our games haven’t featured “nature-oriented” classes since our d20 days), they knew the frame of reference was all Caldwellian low fantasy. More on this in a later post.
This session wasn’t built out of thin air. Employing the ideas summed up in an earlier post, I had a hex key of the area, I had Hubericof Haghill (whose contents I mercilessly looted during the session to keep the adventure moving – some of the NPC names may be familiar to old JG hands), and even a dungeon-like area or two that didn’t end up coming into play. It was not too much, but it didn’t have to be – things fall into their place during the session.