The road through the fogbound heath was deserted, and the company travelled alone. The stolen horses bearing Huberic’s brand were a problem, but a little mud and strategically placed blankets concealed them as well as it was possible.
By the afternoon, the grey stone walls of Gont rose in the distance. There was a small ruined building a bowshot from the gates, and while abandoned, it also seemed to be interesting to investigate. While the others remained on the road to watch, Jonlar Zilv, Sufulgor and Einar Sigurdsson investigated the interior, finding a half-collapsed set of stairs descending into a dank cellar. By the light of a lantern, they saw the crumbling bas-relief of what looked like a thin, scorpion-tailed dragon, the rotted remains of pews that had once been arranged in two rows, and... Jonlar Zilv discovered a patch of earth that had recently been disturbed. Faded letters around the dragon spelled a single word: “FERANOLT”.
“The watch is coming to see what you are doing in there! Come up!” came the warning for above, so Jonlar Zilv dug quickly, grabbing a bag of short, heavy objects from the uncovered hiding place just in time to climb back out and face the group of soldiers eyeing them suspiciously.
“In the name of Lord Gramantik, state your business! What were you doing in that building?”
“I can explain it, Sir”, Jonlar Zilv stepped forward, and fished out the small symbol of Irlan the Merciful from the folds of his clothing (which he had found on the body of a bandit a day before). “I was investigating this place to see if any poor beggars or travellers were resting here, so that I might distribute a few coins among them, that’s all.”
The man in the grey cloak did not like the answer much, but relaxed his grip on his harpoon. “Gont is an orderly town, and we do not like beggars, especially on our outskirts. And we keep an eye out for troublemakers.”
“Excellent! We understand perfectly. We were looking for a place to rest, and to sell off some merchandise – where may we find these in town?”
“The Torn-Off Hand and The Sink are the two places where strangers are allowed to sleep. One is near the harbour, and the other overlooks the Chaining Stone, where criminals set to be executed are tied at low tide. There is also The Lump near the New Graveyard, but I recommend you to stay away from it, since it is frequented by a rough crowd.”
They paid a few silvers at the gate, and went off to find the Torn-Off Hand. They found the smoky establishment to the south, more a tavern for sailors and fishermen than an actual inn. They were greeted by Hagguk the Meaty, a burly half-orc behind the counter, his eyes flashing with interest as he examined the golden crown worn by Harmand the Reckless. He was eager to rent them a room on the middle floor, and when they inquired about a place to sell a few horses, he lit up.
“Sounds like you are looking for Mersin the Lame. He will always give you a good deal. You’ll find him by the southern walls.”
While the company settled in the rooms, Jonlar Zilv finally examined the bag he had found in the ruined building. The bag contained eight brass wands, each tipped with globes on both ends and decorated with spiral motifs. They tried to discern their function, but couldn’t find out what they were looking at.
Meanwhile, Harmand sauntered down to the tavern to order a beer and speak a little more with Hagguk, who was still impressed by his crown. After some talk, Harmand turned to the important matters.
“We are looking to sell a few horses; right. But we are also looking for something more. We may have a much more exclusive item, if there was a buyer...”
Hagguk scratched his fat chin, then carefully answered. “It depends. If it is serious…”
“The real deal, a very expensive treasure. It was recently found in a ruin, and looks to be an ancient druidic vessel.”
“In that case, you may want to deal with Grave-Wight. I can try to contact him...”
Harmand slipped some coins on the counter, and Hagguk continued: “Well, well, well. I will try to set up a meeting. Be here after midnight, and if he is interested, he will make contact on his own terms.”
They sold the stolen horses for a few coins at a small stable and smithy operated by Mersin the Lame, and returned to the Torn-Off Hand to wait until the evening. Both Sufulgor and Einar had the feeling they were being watched; and they had spotted a few fishermen who looked like they were shadowing them. Some rested, while some traded gossip with a group of locals complaining of the declining catch, the sharkmen plaguing the islands, and the increasing pirate activity between Gont and Baklin. It looked like the seas were getting increasingly dangerous these days, and most fishermen wouldn’t embark on a longer voyage. Sufulgor was approached by a suspicious man introducing himself as Serpek the Unblessed, who wanted to have a curse placed on a business rival: but suspecting an invitation into an ambush, they considered the deal too risky and didn’t give a positive response.
It was already late at night and the tavern was becoming empty when a sailor sat down next to them and indicated Grave-Wight was willing to talk to them. He beckoned, and they followed him along the dark harbour, and into the barely lit streets. The man deftly avoided the patrols and passers-by, escorting the company until they arrived at a set of stairs leading to an old cellar door. He produced a heavy iron key, and lighting a lantern, they descended into a series of damp cellars, rats squeaking in the corners and recesses, and brackish water rippling between the wet planks used for walking. They made multiple turns, until they came to another door, and were escorted first into a small hall with multiple doors and decaying seating arrangements, then into a locked side chamber. Rotting tapestries covered the walls, and simple decorations livened up the atmosphere. Behind a set of bars in the opposite wall, they could make out the outline of a man behind a curtain.
“I am Grave-Wight. I heard you have something to sell me. I will consider your offer.”
They produced the druidic bowl, and after a short negotiation, Grave-Wight made an offer for 700 gp. The bowl was exchanged for heavy bags of coins handed through the curtain.
“And the brass wands?” asked Gadur Yir greedily. Grave-Wight’s interest was piqued, and they showed him the small items found in the ruined building, mentioning their possible connection to the inscription spelling “Feranolt”.
“Feranolt is a familiar name,” mused Grave-Wight. “It is the name of an old and prestigious noble family. Like many others, they originated in Kassadia, and came to the Isle of Erillion during the war against the Wraith Queen Arxenia 350 years ago. They no longer live near Gont, but they still maintain a villa on a nearby island called ‘The Dwelling’. I don’t know the purpose of the wands, and they don’t seem interesting to me.”
Gadur Yir was also eager to know more: “While we are at it – are you familiar with the name ‘Vitus Bonifaces’?”
“Should I be? It seems familiar, but I can’t recall...”
Gadur Yir produced one of the mysterious letters, handing it to the man behind the curtain. “We all received an invitation like this. Identical in every detail.”
Grave-Wight paused and thought a little, then spoke again: “Maybe you would have to speak with Garrodik the Seer. I am unable to help you with this issue.”
They said their goodbyes, and left the room, bags of gold in their hands. They found a new guide, a young lad they recognised as one of the fishermen from the tavern. The boy led them through a different door than they entered, and they descended even deeper below Gont, traversing a set of cold passages with recesses filled with mouldering bones. At last they climbed a long set of stairs again, and the lad, Gadik escorted them to an octagonal chamber with multiple iron doors, and light shining through portholes in the peaked ceiling.
“We are here. I will have to return whence I came. You must knock four times on the third door to be let out.”
They obeyed, and Gadik locked the door behind him, descending back down the stairs. They knocked on the iron door as instructed.
“Are you all there?” came a hushed voice from the other side.
“Good...” came the answer, and they heard a weird hissing sound as an inky purplish cloud flooded the room through hidden holes. Harmand cursed and threw his weight against the door, which broke down under his assault, revealing two cloaked figures. But it was too late, and one by one, they fell and lost consciousness.
“...Kurlakum... the bastard’s soul can be yours...” growled Sufulgor, but to no avail. Everything was dark.
“How could we be this idiotic?”
“We showed him both the brass wands and the letter.”
“We truly got fucked over, didn’t we.”
“It is a matter of motivation! Work is easy when you put your hearts and souls into it. You there! You look like you aren’t pulling your weight. Care to tell me if you have any problems? Don’t be shy. I’m listening!”
The crack of the whip roused them, and they saw a hairy giant of a man towering above them from a long plank. Fourteen pairs of oars and a set of sails propelled the dragonship in an unknown direction under a grey sky, the cold wind and salty foam biting into their faces. They were securely chained to the benches with long chains, and saw rows of backs before them. The brutal supervisor was on them, distributing lashes liberally with his long whip. Both he and his companions were tall, red-haired Northmen clad in furs and boots. There was no sight of land except smaller rock outcroppings, and Einar sensed they were going north – far north!
Things shortly settled into a routine of backbreaking work, and they could get a better look at their small world. There were around a dozen heavily armed men, and twice as many chained slaves. Most seemed to be ordinary, if hardened commoners, but three looked more interesting: a man with braided black hair and slanted eyes, an older half-orc with a paunch and baggy green pants, and a sickly dwarf. The dwarf was at the end of his wits, and shortly collapsed among the chains: he was beaten savagely and left to recover on his own.
“His kind should be thrown into the sea!” hissed Sufulgor.
“You should be thrown into the sea!” growled a chained slave next to him, giving him the evil eye.
Jonlar Zilv had an idea. When the supervisor walked by again, he called to him:
“I am a good musician, Sir, and I would be happy to sing a heroic song for you if you just unchained me for a little.”
The brute turned and grinned. “We shall see about that.” He gave Jonlar multiple lashes, laughing as he could not help but cry out, “You already sing beautifully. Why should I stop you?”
Einar cried: “Know that I, Einar Sigurdsson, am your kin, and your ancestors are my ancestors! I will gladly fight with you and join your adventures.”
The response was more cynical laughter from the fighters, and one answered: “You should tell that to Geranith. Maybe she will listen to your pleas.”
The forward cabin opened, and out strode a young woman with the bearings of a queen, wearing a chain shirt and the furs of her fellow barbarians.
A roar came from a dozen mouths: “All hail Princess Geranith, Daughter of Queen Brith and bride to Sogmund the Red!”
The supervisor bellowed: “Bow down, you dogs, bow before your future queen, and pray that you shall not be the ones who will be sacrificed on her wedding!”
Geranith cast an icy look on the deck, surveying the slaves. Then, paying no heed to anyone, turned and returned to the cabin as the supervisor whipped those who did not bend low enough.
Night was falling and the slaves received their bowls of food and watered beer while the warriors drank heartily. While they were allowed to rest, Harmand managed to break his chains, but sat still until he could make a good move. The opportunity came soon enough as Einar called out, again.
“Let me out of my chains, Geranith! You need a real man, a true Northerner! My family comes from the icy lands where men are men, not like your dogs! Come out!”
The Northmens’ interest was piqued by the audacity, and they all watched with interest as the furious Princess Geranith emerged from her cabin, her eyes filled with plain hatred.
“Untie him”, she barked, and threw her sword into the air. “May your ancestors be merciful to your shade, for I shall now kill you!”
Einar and Geranith squared off on the central plank off the ship, watched eagerly by both slaves and Northmen. The exchange was unequal, showing her to be a far superior fighter. Einar could not even close with her while she rapidly inflicted three light wounds.
“This was just the warmup”, she spat. “Prepare for death!”
Sufulgor stood up on his bench, casting a hold person spell on the princess. She froze where she stood with a snarl on her face, and before the shocked men could react, Einar was at her throat with a dagger.
“Drop your weapons or she dies!” he cried.
Harmand the Reckless leaped upon the deck, blocking the Northmen’s way.
“You shall not get through me! Surrender!”
The hardened killers growled and cursed, but did not dare to act. They threw their weapons on the deck while Einar tied Geranith to the mast.
“I like it much better this way, darling” he laughed. Gernaith’s eyes gave the only answer, and Einar was glad she couldn’t move.
They retrieved the ring of keys carried by the supervisor, and freed the slaves one by one, including Barzig the Nomad (the man with the braided black hair), Ragout (the old half-orc), and the barely alive Killorn Stonefist (the sickly dwarf). The weapons of the Northmen were distributed among the slaves, while the erstwhile captors became captives. Geranith watched in icy silence. Einar finally hung the keys around his own neck.
“Long live Einar the Liberator! Down with the northern dogs!”, exclaimed Brusuf the Servant, and he was joined by a chorus of the grateful oarsmen. Snatching up the whip, Gadur Yir tested it on a few of the northerners.
Now that they have finished their takeover, it became apparent three men were missing. One was the barrel-chested supervisor, and two more of his followers. A search around the dragonship didn’t reveal their hiding place, or whether they were on the ship at all anymore. The cabin was a small place stacked with supplies and a few personal effects. Geranith didn’t have her dowry with her, only a small locked chest. Jonlar Zilv walked to the tied-up princess and started to speak:
“Let me attempt to explain this, Princess...”
“Now you can see how a northern man deals with issues!” gloated Einar.
“...and this is how the civilised man does the same...”, smirked the minstrel, singing “I hope I will not fall in love with you” (charm person) to the captive.
Einar exclaimed his intentions to the crew, a band of 40 men: “It is I, your new captain speaking! We have captured this ship, and regained our freedom. If you obey me, you shall have that and more – much more. As for the princess, she is my prisoner, and I swear by all my ancestors that she is under my protection, and no harm should come to her.”
The chest in the cabin was a small cache with 300 silver coins, 700 electrum, five gemstones and a valuable pitcher decorated with Northman motifs. There was also a message in the form of a rune-stick. The brief message, addressed to Sogmund the Red, was simple: by request of “Lord Feranolt”, the prisoners named Gadur Yir, Jonlar Zilv, Harmand the Reckless, and Einar Sigurdsson should be among the sacrifices on Princess Geranith’s wedding. (“Nobody even thought of me?!” complained Sufulgor) The message also noted that someone named Filodont would make a visit to the North, and should be accommodated.
“Feranolt!” snapped Jonlar Zilv. “We should have known! Grave-Wight must be no other than this Lord Feranolt!”
“Seems we have unfinished business with Grave-Wight.”
“And that kid.”
“And half the town.”
“I will disembowel all the fuckers in Gont”, swore Einar.
They contemplated plans of looting the Dwelling mentioned by Grave-Wight, to find some leverage on Lord Feranolt. As for the princess, opinions were divided. Some advocated selling her into slavery, while Einar said she should simply be put ashore with some of her men at the right spot – a good deed is oft rewarded. Jonlar Zilv was in agreement, noting that their company was small fish among the Northmen thanes, and should not arouse their ire. Harmand and Gadur Yir were strongly opposed – if freed, the furious Geranith would do all in her power to hunt them down for her humiliation, and they should kill her while they had the chance. Sufulgor darkly noted that his dark master, Kurlakum of the Seven Misfortunes would have to have his due for their triumph, and Geranith’s blood should serve as a worthy sacrifice. In the end, Einar offered to relinquish his share of the treasure in exchange for Geranith’s freedom, but not his men – they would have to bargain with the rest of the group.
There was a shrill shriek from outside, and they rushed to the deck to find Ragout the half-orc next to the mast, trying to have his way with the captive princess. Einar grabbed him, and with a cry and a heave, threw the hapless half-orc into the dark waves. Gadur Yir tried to throw the wretch a rope, but when he pulled it back, it was empty: the seas had swallowed the miscreant. Now that Einar had dealt with the challenge to his authority, the freed men were completely under his command. The company swore an oath on the division of spoils before the eyes of Geranith, and they retired to rest before their new ventures.
(Session date 31 October 2016).
Sufulgor: “I will use my healing powers to cure Gadur Yir. I lay my hands on him and channel those energies.”
GM: “...all right. Roll the dice.”
Sufulgor: “2 Hp!”
GM: “You cause 2 points of damage.”
Gadur Yir: “Ow!”
Jonlar Zilv’s player: “I hope you do remember you are the cleric of a Chaotic Evil deity, and you cause wounds instead of healing them?”
Sufulgor: “...oh. … Well, know it, puny mortal, that the powers of darkness are unpredictable.”
Sufulgor (slightly later): “Could I heal people with my Poison Brewing skill?”
Jonlar Zilv: “If I sold you lot out to Lord Gramantik, I bet my alignment would shift towards good.”
Referee’s notes: Multiple reversals of fortune, an escape from dire circumstances brought about by carelessness, and a conclusion leading to new adventures – all in a good afternoon’s work. In the first episode, the players struck out on their own to find something outside their expected frame of action; in the second, they entered mapped territory but got much more than they’d bargained for almost immediately once they’d settled into basic routines – and were off the maps once again. Sometimes, you are careless and get lucky. At other times, you hit an iceberg (and the game becomes really interesting once you do that).
This session also highlights an interesting feature of sandbox games: the way existing sandbox elements can indirectly influence plot development outside their regular scope. Preparation before the session was focused on Gont and its environment (peppered with a few leads, some linked to the campaign’s central mysteries, some not), and almost none of that was featured in our game. And yet, things were still there in a sense, suggesting what might happen in the undetailed spaces the company entered, and where the action might go. Like a black hole, they were invisible but still affecting things with their field of gravity. Setting logic, combined with player decisions and a few off-the-cuff ideas gave a basic picture that was more than ‘here there be lions’. And as for Terra Incognita: a few established ideas (the Confederacy’s independent, warring Northman kingdoms; their ancestor worship and barbarian ways of life; seas and longships) provided a foundation to build on.