Looking down at the mountain-surrounded valley with its idyllic meadows and forests, Greg the Rat-catcher repeated his ominous warning: “This all looks too good to be true. We should be careful.”
“Shall I guide you? I know a thing or two about the wilderness”, countered Gadur Yir.
They made their way down the rocky mountainside, until they spotted movement next to a large boulder. Creeping forward, Greg observed a tall, fair-haired and bearded elf, walking as if dazed – dried blood and dirt on his face. Deciding he was no enemy, they quickly surrounded the traveller and demanded he introduce himself.
“I am Dawn of the Southern Climes. [A poor translation of the much more flavourful Délszaki Hajna – G.L.] I… don’t know where I am – only a heavy blow on my head, and then nothing. Are you my companions?”
“Now just a moment!” protested Gadur Yir. “We barely know each other!”
“Forgive me – even my armour seems to be lost... May I come with you for a while?”
“The more the merrier!” grinned Greg “My name is Jan Quietstep. Right this way...”
|The Valley Beyond the Mountains
They approached the dense forest, full of birdsong, moss and tangled undergrowth. A narrow path disappeared among the ancient trees. The half-orc and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung took the lead, followed by Franz and Dawn, while Greg stayed in the back, looking more for mushrooms than an ambush from behind. They did not have to go far before the path broadened and opened into a clearing. A standing stone, perhaps the height of a man and then some, stood among the bushes.
“Carvings!” Drolhaf examined the three crude figures on the mossy surface. “And runes?”
The letters were crudely etched, but Drolhaf and Dawn figured them out: “MYSTERY”.
“Are these druidic signs?”
“Who knows? It is a hidden land... everything is possible.”
|The Standing Stone
At Franz’s urging, they pressed forward. The forest here was choked with ferns, exhaling fog and wet smells. Suddenly, the floor of the path gave way, and while Gadur Yir could grab a branch in the last minute, Drolhaf disappeared into a dark opening with a muffled exclamation. Examining the treacherous fall, they saw darkness – but to their relief, there was movement down below, and the Northman called for a rope. They dragged him out of the mossy sinkhole, and he brandished his find – an old electrum torc he had found among the stones, along with broken bones and ancient spear tips.
“We should cover the pit so we have a trap if we are pursued” suggested Gadur Yir, and Jan quickly set out to tie together a few ferns to make it happen. He also grinned as he stuffed two fat mushrooms into his pack: “Angels’ lament! A good poison always comes handy.”
The path soon turned northwards, entering a clearing. Mysterious birdcalls sounded in the distance, off in the trees. A lone statue wearing a mossy cowl stood here, looking towards the west.
“Are these the stations of a ritual pilgrimage? Perhaps the pit was a place to offer sacrifices” Greg mused aloud, then pointed at the base of the stone figure. “Look!”
A black substance like pitch had been recently smeared on the stone, and there were bundles of animal hair and leather strings at its base. “Let’s get going.”
There were two paths, on to the north and one to the west. Following the statue’s gaze, they chose to investigate the western trail, which lead closer to the steep mountainsides. Dead branches crunched underfoot, and birdcalls came from all directions. An unclean, repulsive reek permeated the air. The birdcalls grew louder, there was a rushing sound in the old growth from all directions, and horrible monstrosities, giant-sized birds with dead eyes and brown feathers on their rotting flesh shambled forward. The hooting corpse birds attacked from all directions, and Drolhaf was soon staggering from multiple wounds, made worse when Dawn of the Southern Climes accidentally shot him in the chaotic mêlée. But soon, the company stood victorious in a circle of their assailants.
“Wait... It is not over!” whispered Greg, and soon, the others could also hear the approaching sounds of a heavy bulk pressing through the undergrowth. Attracted by the noise or the smell, a great stag beetle the size of a table arrived, waving its enormous pincers.
“Just watch me. I can tame this beast and we will have a loyal steed” Gadur Yir grinned, and approached the heavy monstrosity with a food ration in his hand. Unfortunately, the bug was less interested in the bait than the massive half-orc, and rushed him, delivering a vicious bite.
“Drop your horned helmet!” called Greg “Maybe it has mistaken you for its female, and wants to mate with you!”
As Gadur Yir struggled with the stag beetle, Drolhaf came to his aid, but stumbled in a root and went below the feet of the behemoth. Finally, after blow after blow were rained on the bug’s carapace, the Northman freed himself and flattened the beast with a heavy blow. “This is how it is done.”
The trail continued, and emerged into a larger clearing at the foot of the looming mountains. On top of a small mound was another standing stone with carved runes, and the mound itself was dotted with perhaps a dozen burrows and tight entrances. Dawn of the Southern Climes and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung climbed up to decipher the signs as Franz, Greg and Gadur Yir stood watch.
Caution was a good idea. Greg soon spotted a small, thin figure emerge from a burrow and try to stalk the pair by the standing stone. He took a dagger from his belt, and threw it with deadly accuracy. The thin figure went down with a guttural shriek. Examining his prey, he saw a dirty and thin child, with long limbs and sharp teeth, an unnatural glint in its eyes. There was excited chatter under the mound, and Franz, who had just had enough, lit and lobbed a flask of oil down another burrow. There was an explosion, yelps of pain and cursing. Smoke streamed from multiple openings, and some half a dozen more children streamed out, fleeing into the undergrowth. Greg caught two more with his daggers, and Gadur Yir grabbed one to interrogate it, but he only received a few kicks and guttural shrieks for his trouble, so he let it go. The last feral child disappeared among the fleshy leaves of the undergrowth.
At last, Dawn and Drolhaf deciphered the runes: “HE WHO THE WANDERING FOREST SHALL MEET, SHALL FOLLOW THE NORTHERN MOON’S PATH, THE OLD HID A GREAT SECRET THEREIN, WHICH EVEN IN THE NON-WORLD SURVIVES.” None the wiser, Greg – who was roughly the childrens’ size – climbed into one of the burrows. The passage ended in a common room full of small, hideously burned bodies. The walls were reinforced with roughly carved stones, and there was a looted sarcophagus along with a large, ancient brass bowl filled with thousands of copper pieces. The rest of the treasure consisted of the feral childrens’ things – dead birds with broken wings, berries, strangled small critters. He left the dead and their belongings where they lay.
|Writing on the Stone
It was late afternoon by the time they returned to the clearing with the hooded figure, choosing the northern path. Greg’s nose picked up a peculiar smell, and he disappeared into the ferns, returning with a handful of pungent-smelling mushrooms.
“What are these for?” protested Drolhaf. “That smells like dogshit!”
“This is an Old Duke!” Greg grinned. “Want a bite? It is edible!”
“Leave those things alone... we have better things to do.”
The sounds of a stream could be heard nearby, and the company found a place where multiple paths converged. A stone bridge rose over the waters, and large leafy plants nodded on the shores. Crossing cautiously, anticipating an ambush that did not come, they found the sign of an arrow carved into a tree, pointing to the north.
“Could this be a way to lure us into a giant ambush?” asked Gadur Yir, then looked again as he was joined by Drolhaf. “No. Of course not. A giant wouldn’t cut it so low. Let’s get going.”
The trail turned northeast, and soon lead to another clearing covered with leafy plants, moss, and fallen trees. In the afternoon sunshine, Gadur Yir could make out another arrow, pointing northwest, and a second path to the northeast, leading in the direction where they had anticipated the lakes they had spotted from the mountains.
Gadur Yir and Drolhaf shrugged, and advanced forward. A splash and a great sucking sound, and they both disappeared below the surface of the clearing – muddy water covered with a layer of moss and algae! They struggled to free themselves, but just as they surfaced, there was the sound of a *whoosh* and a bush at the edge of the clearing fired two thorny stalks at the unfortunates. Greg and Franz, both weak, cowered behind a tree to avoid the missiles, while Dawn of the Southern Climes produced a flask of oil and lit the wick… but the bottle exploded in his hands, burning him just as two missiles struck him on the chest! He ducked behind a tree, cursing. The Northman and the half-orc were in serious trouble. Finally, while the two held onto a log in the mud, and slowly tried to crawl ashore, Greg came to the rescue. Sneaking from tree to tree and avoiding stray missiles, he took another oil flask and burned the bush to the ground.
Most everyone was wounded now, and evening was approaching. Deciding to investigate closer to the lake, they chose the unmarked path to the northeast. It lead, through the dark woods, to a small clearing. Delicate flowers swayed and bobbed everywhere, and the cool air carried a pleasant scent – of mint, camphor and stranger perfumes. In the middle of the place, atop a slab of stone, there was a statue depicting a curious being: it had the upper body of a beautiful, naked woman with waters trickling from its smiling mouth, and the lower body of a lion with a lizard’s tail. An opened peacock’s tail rose above the strange stone figure. The earth was wet where it absorbed the trickle of water, and dragonflies flew above the clear puddles. Dawn made out letters – regular ones – in the stone:
“IN MY LAP GROWS THE YOUNG FLOWER OF THE WOODS,
MY HEART OFFERS THE RAINBOW’S SEVEN HUES,
‘TIS JUST MY SECRETS, STRANGER, YOU SHOULD NEVER SEEK,
THE KEY OF MY MYSTERY I WILL RETAIN WITH ME AND KEEP”
|The Mysterious Statue
“The rainbow’s seven hues?” Franz placed seven flowers of different colours before the mysterious statue, and held out a flask as a green, scintillating liquid poured forth.
“Still not the flowers we are seeking – but remember the bard Tomurgen’s warning that we would only find it at night by its light? It is almost sundown – let’s wait a little.”
They settled in the clearing, and ate some food as the Sun disappeared behind the western mountain range and the sky grew dark. Stars appeared above, and as the night surrounded them, they saw different points of light start to glow between the statue’s paws. Delicate leaves and flowers sprouted, pulsing with interior radiance. Remembering Tomurgen’s cautionary warning – “He who reaps it shall take its blood / But he who pulls shall with his anoint”
Greg carefully cut a handful with his blade. “This should be enough. I think it would be very dangerous to take more than we…” Gadur Yir, grinning, was already there, cutting a bunch for himself and hiding it in his pack. “...have already taken.”
Dawn of the Southern Climes warned: “I don’t think we should stay here. Let’s get going.”
“We should avoid going back to that mud-pit. Let’s cross the forest and go southwards until we reach the stream, then get back to the bridge” suggested Gadur Yir, already walking towards the trees.
They passed through the undergrowth in the dark night. The ground grew soggy and treacherous, and they were getting closer to a body of water – at least judging by the reeds and other marsh plants.
“Are we sure we are going in the right direction?”
Gadur Yir nodded “Of course! I always know where I am going.” [Except when he rolls a natural 1 on Wilderness Lore.]
“Funny, I don’t like the way that willow over there looks like.”
“Yeah, let’s not linger. This way!” [Ends up going North instead of South.]
After a long struggle and cursing, they emerged on an unfamiliar trail. From the right, they heard the guttural sounds of some kind of revel in the distance and saw the light of jumping flames shining through the forest. At least the way to the left was dark and quiet, even if it was in the wrong direction. Indeed, after a short time, they saw lights again, and, dousing theirs, approached a fork in the trail lit by flickering candles. Another mossy standing stone stood here, its base heaped with upturned human and animal skulls filled with tallow and lit with wicks.
“What’s that sound?” Greg whispered. “I hear approaching sounds.”
They quickly hid in the undergrowth, right as five large black shapes shambled into the clearing. By their reek and rotted feathers, they knew them to be the same corpse birds they had fought before; but hiding was no use – the undead horrors simply struck for them, and the fight was on. Gadur Yir fought desperately, but he fell in a single hit. Franz cast colour spray at the monsters, but to no effect, and was himself cornered. Greg shrieked and fled into the forest, followed by two of the dead avians which seemed to be right on his trail. Thinking quickly, he darted ahead, making a large circle in the woods to shake off the pair of pursuers and return to the others, who had just finished the rest of the attackers.
Deciding to make camp in a secluded depression, Greg ordered everyone to avoid making a fire, just in case the revellers or anyone else would come to investigate.
“We can slip by them after dawn, when they are asleep” he suggested.
The caution was well rewarded when, shortly after they lay down, the lookout heard an approaching group on the path. They saw maybe a dozen hunched, dark shapes before the standing stone, and heard high-pitched voices.
“Slain and killed! Intruders are afoot!”
Another countered: “I shall suck the marrow out of their finger-bones!”
“I smell them not! This corpse-reek upsets my nose! Pfeh!”
“Let’s go now. I will not stick mine into the affairs of the elder brothers. Let them deal with it, they shall.”
And with that, the group was gone. But not for long: barely had the company rested a few more hours, they heard riotous singing and more footsteps. This group also seemed taken aback by the slaughtered bird corpses, but one of them seems to have smelled something else.
“What’s that? What’s THAT?! I smells it, I do!”
“Smells you what?”
“I shall find it. Come, brotherkin, into the bushes!”
Greg was quick to react. Reaching into his knapsack, he produced the two smelly mushrooms and threw them a little distance from the camp.
“Eh? What’s that there?” came an excited question.
“Damnit and curses! Just another of those shrooms! I thought I had…”
“Feh! You and your findings! Let’s be gones now.”
They sighed a collective breath of relief as the drunken company’s sounds grew distant. Greg crept out and examined their footprints – long and clawed, they were obviously not left by goblins.
“We really should be going” he said.
The way back towards the cave mouth was along the beaten path, and only disturbed by a pack of giant, colourful butterflies, which they avoided by giving them a wide berth. On the mountain slope above the forest, they rested some more while Greg put out rabbit traps. At last, the day after, they returned to the abandoned room complex. They passed through the ominous rooms, leaving behind the tempting golden chalices resting on top of the ancient sarcophagi. At last, they were at the foot of the stairway going up to the upper level... but the way forward was blocked! A transparent figure stood there with crazed eyes and an unkempt beard. Recognising an opponent they had no chance of hurting, the members of the company ran where they could. Gadur Yir cowered behind the stone throne, while Franz ran back downstairs into the hall of the dead, followed by Dawn of the Southern Climes. The apparition gave pursuit, and Franz snapped his fingers, turning invisible. Dawn emerged to dodge it and rejoin his new companions, but he felt a ghostly arm reach for him, and all went dark...
On the upper level, the reassembled company waited for a while, but the elf didn’t come. “And Dawn?” asked someone. Greg just shrugged and started for the southern passages. The others followed, re-entering the mines, and descending back to the entrance level. There were more sounds in the distance coming their direction, but they chose to hide and avoid a confrontation – Gadur Yir concealed himself under the bridge, Franz used his other invisibility spell, while the others took shelter behind rocks and stone piles. Wet footsteps came from the southeast, followed by sibilant noises. A company of seven shambling, amphibious figures appeared with milky white, wet skin and oily eyes. They looked like upright newts and carried heavy stone-tipped spears. Everyone tried to freeze and avoid making a noise as they passed, and they did, to everyone’s collective relief. The company, wounded and tired, made for the exit of the mine tunnels, and the way towards Haghill and civilisation.
(Session date 18 March 2017).
Orastes, on Gadur Yir: “My character is a TPK survivor, I’ve got nothing to fear.”
Gadur Yir, after fighting the giant stag beetle: “I think the taming attempt didn’t work out… I take the food ration back and clean it of the bug juices. It is my last one.”
Franz: “You wanted to play David Attenborough.”
Franz: “This is a gender-conscious sphinx.”
GM, to Gadur Yir, cowering behind a throne: “At last, you are the half-orc behind the throne!”
Referee’s notes: The conclusion to the previous adventure (with a few things omitted at the end). The party navigated a hostile and rather dangerous territory with a lot of caution that was rewarded with their objectives achieved and nobody dying until they ran into that apparition. This was a session where they were well over their heads, but quick thinking and a little luck prevailed. Of course, much has remained unexplored in the valley and beyond (the company found a pass leading out of the valley as well, but decided to give it a wide berth), and they missed something crucial that one particular player would have been anxious to discover.
I reran this scenario – the quest for the enchanted flower through the mines and the hidden valley – at “Adventurers’ Society”, a Hungarian mini-convention, where the two sessions’ worth of play managed to fit into the 4.5 hour time slot. The characters of this session were:
· Bedoar the Bulbous, Master of Enchantments, 3rd level Magic-User (choked on poison gas but got better);
· Anchor, 3rd level female half-orc Fighter;
· Raris of Baklin, 3rd level Cleric of Zeltar, the God of Fortune;
· Losulin, 3rd level female elven Archer;
· Min, 3rd level Thief-Archer (killed by a prismatic missile); and
· Zigmund, 3rd level Northman Fighter.
Curiously, the players chose an almost identical way through the two halves of the adventure (with less exploration and some minor variations), although they were much more bold in experimenting with the obviously dangerous stuff in the abandoned rooms, something that proved a two-edged sword. Notwithstanding an almost-TPK caused by vampire bats, they came away a good deal richer than my regular group, finding many of the hidden things which eluded my players. Of course, some of these things were useful, and some of them were rather dangerous – they came close to flirting with death more than one time.
They got a lucky break in the valley itself, managing to run into a group of its guardians (bad news), but convincing them through clever bluffing to escort the company to their destination (good news since they were fairly close to the convention’s time limit). Two PCs died. One succumbed to a poison gas trap in the dungeon segment, but was temporarily revived with slow poison, and eventually found not only guidance to an antidote, but by a stroke of sheer luck, the antidote as well (I rolled for that chance fair and square). Another character made a mistake disobeying a fairly clear warning, and ended up eating a prismatic missile which came up on “40 damage”. Ouch.