- Drusus the Historian, 4th level human Magic-User
- Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, 6th level human Thief/Fighter
- Lafadriel Hundertwasser, 4th level elven Fighter
- Armand the Scumbag, 4th level human Thief
- Phil the Terror of Turkeys, 5th level hobbit Thief/Archer
“Ahead of us – voices!”
The sounds were human moans mixed with odd, bubbling noises. Creeping forward, they spied a clearing dominated by a massive old tree, black and rotten. Around the trunk, naked, pale humans crawled in the mud like beasts, their eyes vacant and dull. They wore chains binding them to the tree, and were absorbed in fighting or sitting and wailing. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung quietly motioned for the others to keep walking, and put a distance between them and the strange vision, until they were out of the dead zone. It was growing dark by the time they reached the lower slopes of the mountains. Phil found a cave which looked abandoned and didn’t smell of wild animals, and here they rested a night.
The forests receded and were replaced by moraines and giant boulders. The snowy summits loomed high above them, and they were buffeted by freezing winds. There was no sign of life in this wasteland. It was Armand who discovered the road, winding around the mountainside and disappearing in a gap between two peaks. It was irregular and seemingly built of enormous stones too large to be moved by men, but it was a road all right. It lead upwards and to the east, until the two sides of a narrow gorge rose up around it. The company passed through the gloomy silence, and after a few hours, reached a branch. The main road continued eastwards, while a more narrow way, built of the same massive stones, went north, before disappearing between an enormous arch formed of two massive, fallen stones.
They passed under the stones, hurled against each other by the mighty forces of nature, and emerged on a slope overlooking a small valley dominated by the green of lush trees, and a central meadow bisected by a crystal-clear stream. The way lead down into the tiny forest, while right across them, looming high, rose the tallest peak of the mountains, snow-covered and quiet. Up high, a serpentine road seemed to climb up to a cave entrance; above, three massive arched openings, closed off by metal grilles, yawned in the sheer cliff face. On top of the peak, they could make out the snowy ruins of a tower or small keep, barely more than a collection of walls and debris piles.
“Whatever this is, we have found what we were looking for,” said Phil.
The road melted into a forest trail surrounded by gnarled old trees. Soon, the path forked before a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. To the left, the path curved, crossing a stream flowing southwest. Lafadriel heard a distant sound like geese honking, while Armand studied a tree that looked a bit like its knots formed a human face... or was it just a random pattern? Phil climbed up on another tree, and sunk his hand into a bird’s nest, retrieving two eggs made of solid gold.
|The Garden in the Mountains
They crossed the stream, and soon emerged in the meadow at the centre of the valley. The grass was green and wholesome, and clusters of colourful wildflowers were everywhere. Across the meadow, a gaggle of eight white swans were hunting for snails. In the middle of the clear area, a statue stood on a pedestal with some kind of writing on the base. It was a full-scale rendition of a moustached nomad standing triumphantly, raising a scimitar above his head, next to his companion, a rearing griffin. There was a living figure next to the statue: a lady in fine clothes, standing silently and looking the other way.
“Let’s approach her” suggested Drolhaf, and they crossed the meadow, following the stream.
“Something is wrong” Phil hissed.
They were not any closer to the statue, but in the meadow’s north-eastern corner. The eight swans were peacefully grazing to their south, and as they looked back to the centre, they saw the statue, but the lady had disappeared.
“We are in the opposite corner, but the statue is still looking our way!” whispered Phil.
Drusus cast detect magic, confirming the valley – all around them – was magical. Lafadriel, who had stopped to collect some of the wildflowers, saw that they were like no flowers he had ever seen; their blossoms and leaves were conjoined in a blooming tangle.
“Let’s try retracing our steps to the southwest.”
Following Drolhaf’s suggestion, they made their way back to their starting point. The eight swans were peacefully plucking something from the grass to the northwest, and the statue was looking back in their direction.
Drolhaf spoke to no one in particular: “I have come with good intentions – I give the gift of flowers to the flowers.”
He retrieved a vial filled with a rainbow liquid from his knapsack (once found by Franz Who Wasn’t Even There during a previous adventure), and poured it on the ground, burning a path through the grass towards the statue. This time, they emerged at the base of the monument. Looking around, Armand saw three swans hunting to their southwest, but no trace of the mysterious woman.
“Wait, three swans?” asked Lafadriel.
“I try to disbelieve the illusion” said Drolhaf, but nothing changed. “Hm. Let’s try reading the inscription – these are some really tiny letters.”
The letters below the statue read: “THE SWANS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY SEEM”
“The what? ... HEY!”
The swans were right there next to them! They struck furiously with their bills, and Drusus almost fell to a grievous wound, while Armand and Lafadriel got smaller bites. Once he could react, Drusus recovered enough of his wits to cast burning hands, scorching the swans, while the others fought in vain to hit them. Suddenly, the angered waterfowl were gone. They were alone next to the statue, and a group of six swans were grazing peacefully in the meadow’s NW corner.
“The wounds are real” said Drusus, disappointed.
“Maybe it really is an illusion” said Drolhaf.
“Or some sort of spatial distortion” added Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Could be the pollen” he continued as he masked his face with a piece of cloth, followed by Armand the Scumbag.
“The place we are looking for is to the north. Looking that way, you can see two paths starting from the NE corner. Let’s start with the northern one.”
Following the suggestion, they approached the semi-circular narrow garden path. Halfway, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack.
Drusus had an idea. “Let’s try something different.” He cast a spell, and began to levitate upwards, rising above the valley. He saw the trees below them, and a mountain path to his northeast, starting from the east of the valley. He levitated back down, and told the others of his discovery.
“Let’s just see the western part first before we go east” said Drolhaf.
Back at the meadow’s NW corner, they spotted the western path starting from the SW corner. Some way into the lush woods, they found themselves next to a marble pavilion. A circle of columns stood on a half-sunken foundation overgrown with grass, and a broken white marble dome rose over the columns. Approaching the structure, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung noticed something shimmering between the columns, surrounding the interior – a slight distortion or refraction, barely visible. Inside, something seemed to stir, but it was just a hint of movement – or perhaps another trick of the light. Testing the shimmering with a rock, then a stick, it proved to be some kind of force repelling all intrusion. Meanwhile, Lafadriel, who was watching the forest, made another unpleasant discovery.
“There are no snails and insects here. This place is completely barren. And those trees – look! They are identical.”
Looking more closely, the ruse was obvious. The trees were completely like each other, and their green leaves were perfect imitations of a single uniform shape.
“It is like someone created this place,” murmured Phil “but he was too careless or lazy to pay attention to the details.”
“That’d explain the wildflowers I saw” nodded Lafadriel.
Proceeding further west, then back northeast, they saw a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. Drolhaf was now sure: “Yes, we have seen it before.”
Back at the NW corner of the clearing, they saw a flock of five geese playing in the stream to the southeast. An elegant lady stood next to the statue in the middle with her back to them. The exit of the northern path they had emerged from a little time ago was nowhere to be seen.
There was a way to the east from the NE corner, and they took this path through the perfect, alien forest. Halfway along the path, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack. But there was also something else: a stone path passed below an arch of two massive rocks, going steeply upwards and turning north in a bend.
Lafadriel was sceptical: “This could just be the way we came in.”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“Yes, go back to the road and leave this place.”
“No way. We have to get to that tower.”
“How much time has passed since we got here?” asked Armand, and looked up at the sun, which was still right above them. “It is noon. Just like when we got here. It could always be noon here.”
The trail was steep and unpleasant to climb, the stairs too high for their legs and seemingly endless. After a while, they emerged somewhere above the green valley, on a ledge buffeted by cold winds. Four great stone faces in the cliff wall stared at them with empty eyes and mouths.
“Are these representations of Keora? No... the goddess is female, and these are male heads” mused Drolhaf.
“They resemble the giants of the old eras” spoke Drusus the Historian.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE REALM OF THE MOUNTAINS’ MYSTERY?” A booming sound came from one of the heads.
“We have come looking for… uh… this place, oh faces!”
“HE HAD STRUCK WOUNDS INTO THE STONE” the voice replied.
Another head joined in: “HE HAD BUILT A HEAP FROM THE BONES OF THE CLIFFS.”
The third spoke: “HE HAD BRIDGED DEPTH AND DECAPITATED HEIGHT.”
And the fourth rumbled: “HE HAD ENSLAVED THE MOUNTAINS...”
“We are on our way!” Drolhaf responded, and was quick on his feet to get as far away from the ledge as possible.
They climbed further up, and after what seemed like a very long time, were at the base of the final summit, snow-covered and quiet. The path ended in a vaulted entrance leading into the mountain; to either side stood two statues of the nomad warrior from the meadow down below, one headless and one with his upraised blade broken off and lost. Stepping inside, there was an abandoned watch station to the left, and a set of stairs leading upwards.
|The Mountain Tower
The steps lead into a vast hall lit by three enormous archways cut into the side of the mountain, but closed off by enormous brass grilles. Giant winches to be operated by multiple men stood next to them. The hall itself consisted of three “piers” with 10’ deep “bays” between them, filled with heaps of blackened, leathery bodies and bones, the remnants of some ancient massacre. Peering down, they saw broken weapons, and something else – the bodies were entangled in rotten harnesses. There was a large archway leading deeper into the mountain, and wide stairs climbing up, flanked by the bas-reliefs of rearing griffins.
“What were the bays for? Enormous swans?”
“This could be related to the island’s giants in some way.”
“Remember the legend of the griffin rider of this isle?” said Drusus. “This could be the same man. He was reputed to save people from peril.”
“Wasn’t that man a pegasus rider?”
“He had bridged depth…” said Drolhaf.
“Maybe this was not the man of the legends” countered Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Maybe you’d call for his help and he’d just appear and kill you.”
There was some kind of movement from the stairs above. A group of glowing, spectral warriors appeared, coming down their way, nomads with pointed helmets and glinting phantasmal spears. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung raised his hand in a gesture of peace: “Respect for the brave! We have come with the permission of the giants!”
The figures attacked wordlessly, striking wound after wound, but fortunately, they eventually fell to the company’s weapons.
Climbing further up the wide stairs, they emerged in an octagonal, vaulted chamber. There were spiral stairs further up, four doors in the diagonal corners, and passages to the east and west. Drusus was the first to investigate, opening the door to the northeast. The room was filled with a heap of discarded, mouldering clothes and rags, of all makes and sizes. Drusus rifled through them to see if they had any valuables, but suddenly, he felt something dragging him inside the pile. The rags fell on him to cover his face and suffocate him, and he was almost gone under the heaving mass, but at last the others could drag him away. Bitterly, he spoke the words of a flaming sphere, burning through the old remains and producing an oily smoke. The other rooms were also filled with similar cast-offs; there was nothing of apparent value.
The passage to the east was flanked from the sides by several barred doors opening into small cells. Chains clinked and dragged themselves inside them, and Drusus was careful to watch them out of the corner of his eye, while also looking at a set of stairs descending downwards. At the end of the passage, a reinforced wooden door opened into a domed room filled with an unruly heap of pointy spears, resembling a large hedgehog. Tattered remains of uniforms hang on the spear shafts, punctured by numerous stab wounds. Across the room, there seemed to be spiral stairs going down, but looking at the spears, they decided to withdraw back to the octagonal room.
Drusus was the first to speak: “I am starting to believe this wasn’t the place Tomurgen was speaking of.”
“Nevertheless... if we are already here, we should see what the place has in store for us” argued Drolhaf.
Armand looked testy: “Maybe it just wants to kill us.”
Finally, going with Drolhaf’s suggestion, they checked the western passage, which had doors to the side and at the end. The first door opened into a rectangular storeroom. Around the walls, there were disembodied, spectral things that looked like piles of something; colourful mists swirled on rotting wooden shelves. Drolhaf entered carefully, probing the clouds with the butt of his spear, experiencing something solid. Touching with his hand, he felt something smooth and rectangular, yet slowly pulsating. A handle. He pulled, and was in possession of a wooden drawer filled with old silverware.
“Now that’s interesting.”
“It is like things are sliding between reality and unreality?” guessed Phil.
He opened another door, where a row of six misty globes stood in a row at chest height, dripping with red condensation. Then, checking the door at the end of the hallway, he entered a hexagonal room, where three larger, brighter clouds – blue, yellow and red – were pulsing at different rates, glowing with an inner light. Drolhaf reached for them, finding the yellow hot to the touch with a rapid pulse, the red warm and languid, and the blue cool and almost inert. He took the yellow globe and held it firmly…
“I leave the room” declared Armand the Scumbag.
“I leave the room” declared Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
“I am already outside the room” declared Phil the Terror of Turkeys.
“I have never even been inside the room” declared Drusus the Historian.
Drolhaf reached, seizing the globe…
…and felt incredible pain exploding through his body as he was enveloped in super-bright flames and a volcanic heat. The pain was incredible, and Drolhaf suddenly realised the flasks of oil on his body weren’t helping…
...too late, as he burned, crying “Fire, walk with me!” in a desperate bid to bring it under control. “The flames are mine!” he bellowed, and collapsed naked, weak as an infant, yet somehow also stronger after surviving the incredible ordeal (+2 Strength).
“I could use a little healing here” he croaked, before he lost consciousness.
“The red one was really something” Drolhaf heard the voice of Phil the Terror of Turkeys. He was resting in one of the side rooms, meticulously cleared of the old clothes that had filled it. “He is awake, and looks better. Well, time to get going!”
Taking the spiral stairs up, they found themselves in a round columned hall. Grey daylight streamed in through small windows set around the hall’s perimeter. In the centre, suspended from the domed ceiling by a thick chain, was a large iron cage holding a desiccated corpse. The features of the man were nomadic with a cruel sneer; he had been stabbed through by several spears still lodged in the mummified body. A stone scimitar lay below the cage.
“That looks like something for the broken statue at the entrance!” guessed Drolhaf, and carefully crawled under the cage to retrieve the item.
Drusus was not convinced about their safety: “He seems to be looking at us. Is the cage solid enough?”
Looking for exits, Armand the Scumbag found a great, securely barred gate made of wood, and two hallways leading off from the domed chamber. Choosing the way to the east, they entered a long hall with its ceiling lost in darkness. A row of empty pedestals stretched all the way to the end, where they could see the triumphant statue of the griffin rider, letters inscribed on the base. Spiral stairs lead upwards, and a grand staircase started behind the statue.
“Does something attack if we read the inscription? Any swans around?”
“The pedestals are empty.”
“Are they?” Phil pointed at faint, barely visible shapes on the twenty-six plinths. “Looks like glass or crystal... could be like the phantoms we fought, and there are 26 of them.”
“What if I sent a flaming sphere along the row?” asked Drusus the Historian. Then he shrugged and walked up to the rider, reading aloud the sign:
“I GAVE THE MOUNTAINS WHAT IS OF THE MOUNTAINS
I GAVE THE WOODLANDS WHAT IS OF THE WOODLANDS
I GAVE THE SEAS WHAT IS OF THE SEAS
THE AIRS ABOVE WHAT IS OF THE AIRS
RULING THEM TRIUMPHANT, THE POWER IN MY HANDS...”
“Nothing here. I will scout ahead and see if there is anything dangerous.” Drusus walked up the winding grand stairs, eventually winding up on a circular gallery over a dark abyss. Cold winds wailed through empty windows, but the cold seemed to radiate from something else: a large golden heart that would fill a knapsack, suspended by a rope. He tried to grab it, and managed to dislocate the heavy metal piece, but could barely hold onto it as it seemed to freeze the marrow in his bones. He put it down on the gallery floor. Back in the hall of the statues, he told the tale and Drolhaf offered to make a try with the heart.
“The power of fire will still protect me.”
“But what of the crystal statues? This feels like a classic trap. If we bring it here, the statues will probably animate.”
Returning to the heart, they all studied the heavy object which seemed immensely valuable.
“This must be the heart of the mountains from Tomurgen’s poem. ‘Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.’”
Armand didn’t believe it. “It was suspiciously easy to just find it laying here.”
“But something has cursed the nomads living here. Are we sure it isn’t this heart?”
“It is magical... actually, the rope is also magical.”
Peering down the abyss below them, Drolhaf noted a pile of leathery corpses covered by snow carried in by the wind. “It all looks risky. Something will happen if we take it.”
Deciding to leave the heart be for a while and investigate further, they pressed forward, into another tall, round gallery, this one dark save for narrow beams of light coming through small windows high above them. Six golden cages hang from the walls, filled with chirping, bouncing wisps of coloured light. At the far end of the gallery, Phil also spotted something more ominous – a heavy, lumbering shape seen from the corner of the eye, disappearing with a growl through an archway.
“I am more and more sure this place is half real and half unreal” suggested Drusus.
“That beast we just saw doesn’t look too scary if it is fleeing from us” said Phil.
“Just don’t corner it; you may find it’ll take your head off.”
Eventually, they decided to open the cages and take them for the gold value. The colourful balls scattered, twittering above their heads.
“What have we unleashed on the world?!”
“Tiny little pixies?”
|The Coastal Map
Instead of pursuing the beastly apparition, they took the spiral stairs from the statue hall, arriving in a hexagonal room with two arched exits, one barred by a heavy door. In the middle of the room, an antique table held a hexagonal map with notations.
“That tower in the middle of the mountains is where we are now. And look – you can see the coastal areas.”
“Could this be the distant past?” ventured Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “We don’t know of this place marked ‘Bonifaces’, or ‘Catscliff’, and what is now the town of Sleepy Haven is called ‘Thanes’.”
“Perhaps the Northman thanes had founded the original settlement. We should remove this parchment from the table surface; seems like there are some interesting places around.”
The passage without the door lead to the bottom of the gallery where the heart had been suspended, and they took great care to avoid the browned corpses under the pile of accumulated snow. The octagonal room behind the barred door – which was locked but easy to open – seemed empty on a first look, permeated by clear white light. After a fruitless search for secret doors, they were ready to leave, when Drusus saw something out of the corner of his eyes.
“Just a moment! There is something there!”
“There. Do you see it?”
They could see it, too, from the odd angle: heaps of brocades embroidered with lions, rich tapestries and pearl chains on mounds of gold. The centrepiece was a marble pedestal with a winged helmet resting on a velvet cushion, decorated with the emblem of the griffin rider.
“Wait!” Phil exclaimed. “Is this the same helmet we found in the hall in Haghill Gadur Yir had opened?”
“I’ll be damned! It is the exact same thing... no, wait. That one had a pegasus rider.”
“Are you sure it was a pegasus rider?”
“But it was in ‘The Chamber of the Griffin’.”
“Now that’s something.”
The next place they chose to visit was the tower’s west wing, reached through the other passage from the central chamber. Fighting a group of five phantom nomads, they emerged in a side room with a looming dark ceiling above dark-curtained windows, and roaring flames in a decorative fireplace. Drusus took a long look at the fire, and his gaze was drawn to what looked like human faces in the glowing embers, forming and disappearing in slow succession. There was a low murmur, and as he saw face after face, he finally saw one that caught his attention. It was the face of an unremarkable, indolent young man, but somehow he knew this man carried a great secret truth, and that he was a lost prisoner somewhere in a faraway underground place. Drusus studied the face and memorised its features before the apparition was gone.
Spiral stairs lead up, now to an empty room with further exits upwards and to the east. Choosing the latter way, the company was assaulted by a barrage of senses: the touch of fabrics and silks, the prickly sensation of horsehair blankets, the neighing of horses and the caress of soft arms. The eastern room was a narrow closet holding a collection of clothes. What they at first thought to be an illusion proved to be some princely gear: Drusus the Historian tried on the coolest pair of green dragonskin boots in existence, and topped it off with a golden diadem that seemed to fit him perfectly. Armand the Scumbag was satisfied with an outfit of fur coat that made him look like a wealthy lord.
Back in the previous room, they had to defeat a group of phantom nomads, but they seemed to fall easily. The stairs up lead to a semi-circular gallery lit by several tall windows. It was cold and empty save for a pedestal to the side, holding a red cap with a golden tassel on top of a stone head. Forward, stairs lead further up towards the top of the tower.
“The head looks like it belongs to that statue next to the entrance” said Drolhaf. He started for the pedestal, but was stopped in his tracks as his transparent mirror image appeared out of the thin air. Drolhaf held up his hand in a gesture of peace, but the apparition was going for his weapon, and as others joined Drolhaf, they were also confronted by their phantom reflections. They chose it wiser to make a strategic retreat and discuss their options. Eventually, shielded with a protection from evil spell, Drolhaf chose to enter the room again, and snatch the cap and the head while dodging the blows raining down on him.
“How shall we proceed further?”
“I think we have overstayed our welcome. We can come back another time, but we are exhausted and wounded. That large beast is still lurking out there, and if these passages connect, I’d rather not face it.”
The remaining task was to retrieve the golden heart. Warmed within a fur coat, it was suspended from a spear haft and carefully carried down the grand stairs, but despite all expectations, no statues animated, and no forces of the weird tower would muster to thwart their progress, although a growling sound from the western wing seemed to warn of something large and ominous. They descended below the tower level, and down many stairs until they reached the exit with the two statues. Putting the scimitar in its place, a metal sword fell from the hand of one statue, clattering on the stones, and snatched up by the eager Phil the Terror of Turkeys:
“This will make a nice weapon for me. Looks sharp!”
Placing the head on the other statue’s neck, it emitted a bellowing battle cry that echoed through the silent mountains, filling the company with sureness and purpose (+3 to max Hp).
“We may have to come back for the rest” pondered Drolhaf, but looking back on the mountain door, he saw only a bare stone surface, as if no entrance had ever been there. Looking up on the summit, where they had explored a great tower, were only the degraded remains of snow-covered walls. “Or maybe it will all stay there forever.”
They walked down the serpentine path, towards the valley garden and the eastern road in the direction of Sleepy Haven.
(Session date 7 October 2017).
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “This is a seriously low-budget valley.”
Drolhaf to Lafadriel (after Drusus tried on the expensive boots and the golden diadem): “Is your god also Robespierre?”
Referee’s notes: This expedition into a strange place resulted in more magical gear than actual clues: only one or two secrets of the tower were found, and from the GM’s side of the screen, it felt a bit like scratching the surface. However, the party was also severely wounded and running on luck and perseverance after the initial encounters, so they were also playing careful. There was a beautiful bit of lateral thinking involved with burning a path to the statue in the centre of the meadow – nothing had been written on this possibility, but it all made complete sense when it happened. But yes, the tower had kept some of its most important secrets.