Monday, December 12, 2016

Oh, THAT Magic Pool!

After their adventures in Renneton, Wolfgang and Gerrilynn rejoined Vulpio, the elves, and the caves below the moathouse.  Among the oddities retrieved from the mold caves, was a peculiar chime which, when struck caused previous locked doors or hidden doors to reveal themselves and open.  It proved to be equally effective on portcullises.
Opening the portcullis gave Wolfgang, Gerrilynn, and Vulpio access to several new strange rooms.  They rescued Johnny, who the prisoner of a fearsome-looking ogre.  They encountered and destroyed a dozen zombies.  And they found a trapdoor leading up to the moathouse garrisoned by Burne’s men.  This encounter could have been a disaster if Gerrilynn had not responded quickly to gently but firmly transfix the soldiers.  The party disappeared back down the trapdoor and prayed that the experience would serve to further discourage dungeon exploration by the Burne and the people of Hommelet.

Reviewing her map, Gerrilynn determined that they should return to the crypt that they had discovered earlier.  It was an expansive place, with rows and rows of vaults, many of them smashed open.  And there were ghouls.  After destroying the ghouls, Wolfbang noticed a trail of gold that led into a small hole in the wall, so small that it could be accessed only be crawling.  Smelling a rat, Wolfbang remembered what his friends had told him about their beautiful home deeper in the dungeon.  And so they crawled into the hole. . .
Gerrilynn could not make a map, but after crawling in circles for what felt like hours, the party came to a nearly vertical tunnel, slanting both up and down.  Based on everything they had heard, down seemed the right way to go.  The tunnel was long and seemed to get even narrower.  Torches were too dangerous, but Wolfgang still carried his magical light stone.  After another hour of crawling, they heard sounds—squeaking sounds.  And suddenly there were rats everywhere—scratching, nipping, squealing, but clearly running from something else.  The party let them pass by and waited for what was coming next—a greasy, stinking badger.  Wolfgang stunned it with a flash of light and then said a few words to soothe and distract it.  The badger told Wolfgang of the fantastic meal that he had just missed, but after persistent but gentle questioning answered that yes the tunnel widened further ahead and yes he would lead the way and yes he would like a treat that was even better than rats once Wolfgang had a chance to get it out of his sack.

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At last the human emerged from the twisting rodent warren into a large natural cavern.  A little exploration suggested that they had discovered an entire network of caverns, but they were most intrigued by the well-finished corridor that led about fifty feet to a twelve-sided room with a dodecahedronal-domed ceiling.  There were letters on the ceiling- elvish, but backwards.  And in the middle of the room there was a stone pedestal, over eight-feet high so that no one could see the top of it.  But they found a way up and found a large basin.  When water filled the basin, the water reflected the letters on the ceiling.  (Wolfgang thought that maybehe’d been there before.)  This was the magic pool that the elves (and Burne) were looking for.
Although logic suggested that there was a human-sized passage between these caverns and the dungeons of the moathouse, the leaders of the party felt they would prefer to go back the way they came and crawl through the dark, twisting rodent-infested tunnels.

That’s what they did.  The elves were grateful and entertained them for weeks or months.  When Wolfbang and Gerrilyn returned to the surface world, they found that the leaves had turned.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Wheel of Evil by Faster Monkey

I know this module is over 6 years old and that the old-schoolrenaissance has been superseded by 5e or pokemon go or running for president but that just means Wheel of Evil is now a classic and that you should buy it and run it today.  Here’s why:
The “everyman quest” element.  I love adventure hooks that might realistically appeal to the kind of people I imagine low- to mid-level adventurers to be, not legendary heroes and not murder hoboes, but generally well-meaning rogues who never figured out how to make it normal society.  As prosaic as it sounds, saving the cheese equals saving the village.  And while there’s no extensive backstory or elaborate plot, the hook was extensive enough to affect the player’s choices throughout the adventure— Is doing this what we were hired to do?

The details.  There are many elements that add color and interest and can also make the players’ success much more likely.  Little pots of kobold urine sound like the most useless thing in the world.
Well-developed monsters.  For some time, I’ve been replacing humanoids with human “bad guys.”  But these kobolds are too other-worldly.  And I normally find molds and slimes and oozes kind of an undistinguishable mush.  But here, it’s more like a parfait.

It’s short.  This is so important to me.  I don’t get to play D&D every day lunch and recess (and that’s good, overall) so anything that can’t be played over a couple sessions will be half-forgotten by the players making it impossible for them to put the pieces together.  In general my campaign is more like an episodic TV show in which the most notable feature is the characters rather than plot, but this had the feeling of a good self-contained movie.
Things to think about before running this adventure:

Per the text, boiled urine has special properties.  This struck me as something so impossible to figure out by characters whose players didn’t already have this knowledge (assuming that this is borrowed from real-world chemistry), that I allowed unboiled urine the same effects.  I’m happy with this decision, but it made things easier for the PCs.
Most of the encounters are much easier than the final encounter with the BBEG.  I worried about this before I ran it, but this is a classic structure for a good reason—all the important characters live until the end and so even for those that die it feels dramatic and thrilling.  (He died so we could have cheese.)  The upshot of this is that the suggestion that this adventure is for 4-5 players levels 3-5 is about right.  The early encounters might feel easy, and the final one may kill multiple party members. 

The play report is here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Wheel of Evil

Play Report: Wheel of Evil by Faster Monkey

It’s not often that I get to run a game for 4 PCs over a couple two-hour sessions so when I do, I like to pull out something special and Wheel of Evil did not disappoint.  Branded as a Dungeon Crawl for 4-6 characters of levels 3-5, I decided that with henchman, it was an appropriate challenge for lower-level characters:

Cinderblock, 1st level thief
                Cinderblock’s NPC henchman Dithaniel, 1st level fighter
Gruber, 2nd level fighter
                Gruber’s NPC henchman Falden, 1st level fighter

Wolfgang, 4th level druid
                Wolfgang’s menagerie (black bear, wolf, fox, hawk, rat)

Gerilynn, 4th level cleric
                Gerilynn’s henchman Ehlark, 1st level fighter/cleric
                Gerilynn’s henchman Caitlynn, 1st level ranger

Wolfgang and Gerrilynn decided they needed a little space from their elvish patrons.  Renneton, a town a few days ride away from Hommelet and famous for its fine cheeses, had advertised for heroes, and was willing to pay them in stock options—shares in the profits of the annual cheese sale.  The assignment, as explained by the local priest, Father Desmond, was straight forward, from a practical if not an ethical point of view.  The town of Renneton used a local cave for aging cheeses and been doing so for centuries.  Now strange little monsters, presumably from deeper in the earth had found their way up and been found to be stealing and destroying cheeses.  These creatures were only about three feet tall and cowardly in battle, but also thoroughly wicked and treacherous, “Kobolds” they were called locally.  And they needed to be dissuaded somehow from stealing the human’s cheeses.  Father Desmond brought the party to the caves and provided them a map, showing the upper caverns where cheese was prepared. He had gone missing in the caves overnight, pursuing the kobolds after a raid.  He also introduced them to Harzar, foreman of the cheese guild.  Before going below, the party to look around the cheese preparation areas and tool to the cheesers.
Cinderblock noticed that the other cheese workers seemed uneasy around Harzar, treating with not only the deference due a superior, but with veiled revulsion.  Although he didn’t like to talk about his experiences, he had become even more thoroughly dedicated to his job.   

The party learned that a few kobold were being held prisoner in a storage room, and asked to meet them.  “Little good it will do you,” the cheesers said, “they can’t talk human or elvish, only their nasty monster talk.”  The kobolds expressions were plain enough—they looked miserable and bitter and glared at their captors and whispered among each other.  The cheesers explained that a week ago, a wandering magician had offered to translate the prisoner’s speech.  No useful information, only the highly dubious claim that the kobolds blamed the humans for ruining their food.  “If they like their food so much, why they stealing ours?”  Gerrilynn asked what the kobold’s ate and the cheesers shuddered and shook their heads.  “Don’t even want to think about it.  That would be a good question for Father Desmond, right Bert?  Why killing these monsters would be any different than killing a prowling wolf, I can’t see.  No offense, your woodiness.”  Gerrilynn shared some of her own food and the kobolds eat it hungrily—except the cheese which they flung back in her face as if it were an insult.
Gruber asked about what weapons of powers the kobolds had.  The men laughed.  “Spears and rocks and these.”  A clay flask.  “Smell it.  Careful, not too close.  We reckon they fill it with their own piss and if they can get a jump on a man they would smash it on his head.  Who knows what it might do?  Bless us, no one here has had to find out.”

Nosing around a little more, Cinderblock learned that some of the cheesers had a sideline business in moonshine.  And that the Cheesers Guild was preparing an extra-large cheese, a five-foot diameter wheel that would be shipped to the King of Alyan.
At last the party was ready to proceed. They lit torches and, as they proceed beyond the makeshift barrier the cheesers had assembled against the kobolds, Cinderblock assumed the job of continuing Father Desomond’s map.  Soon, the party came to a fork in the tunnel, and peered into what must have been a cheese storage room, now a jumble of broken shelving coated with dust.  The party decided to explore the room further and found a deep fissure.  Wolfgang asked his rat Alexis to climb down and report what he found.  As Alexis disappeared beyond the light of the torches, he squeaked that he had found a mass of blue and pink cheese.  Then there was a rat-scream and silence.  A cloud of blue and pink dust exploded from the fissure; Wolfgang, Gerrilynn, and Gruber fell into a deep slumber.  Caitlynn and Cinderblock found that they could barely rouse them enough to mumble a few words before falling back into sleep.  Caitlynn, despairing of how to explain what had happened to the rat when Gerrilynn and Wolfgang woke up, climbed down into the fissure holding a torch.  She saw the blue and pink gelatinous mold that the rat had described as cheese.  She slipped into it up past her knees and felt herself being sucked under.  Cinderblock climbed down and helped pull her out.  The party decided that the rat would fend for himself for now and that the sleeping humans should be carried to safety.

The heroes found their way back out of the caves and by the time they got back down the hill to town and to the inn, everyone was awake and walking under his or her own power.  Talking over their misadventures and laughing down the many jokes at their expense, the heroes supped in their room (“Yes, we’ll all get plenty of sleep tonight!”) and made a plan.  The plan involved urine, seven wineskins full of it, plus seven more wineskins full of raw material in case they needed more.  No one remembers who first suggested it, but everyone agreed the kobolds didn’t have any use for cheese and seemed to know something more about what they were really up against.
Sure enough, the horrible pink and blue mold that had swallowed Alexis the rat had a tougher time digesting urine.  It took four wineskins, plus the bladder contents of five humans and a wolf to the job, but the urine turned the mold into cool, sweet-smelling steam.

The deep dark hole inspired some debate as to whether they were forgetting their charge to eradicate kobolds, but a lit torch that found the bottom about 50 feet down settled it.  Rope and iron spike time.
Dithaniel was the first down and his scream, abruptly cut short brought Cinderblock down immediately after him.  A three-foot tall figure seemingly composed of mold had speared him with its skeletal claws.  In the ensuing battle, this mold man, and three others like it, proved to be skeletons completely grown over with mold.  The other three wineskins were used on these creatures before desperation intervened to prove that they could also be destroyed by normal weapons.  Horrified at what they had just experienced, there was some talk of climbing back up.  But the rope was lying on the ground.  At the top, Wolfgang’s wolf was howling and barking.  “What happened?”

“The stinky one.”  The wolf explained to Wolfgang.  “He cut the rope.”

“The stinky one?”  Harzer. 

“I bite him and he run away.”

                Although Wolfie was encouraged to go get help, no one wanted to wait for it. Dithaniel was dead, but Gerrilynn tended to the others and, after a brief and solemn ritual, Dithaniel’s belonging were distributed among his companions.  The heroes drank their wine, filled all the empty wineskins, and pressed on.
The tunnels through which they walked was spongy, glowing, pulsing mass of mold.  They prodded ahead to avoid walking on anything the horrible mass that had consumed the rat, and breathed a sigh of relief when they came to a large pool of clear water with no sign of mold.  Eschewing the stepping stones, Gerrilynn tested the water with her toe and then waded in.  The others followed.

On the other side they found themselves a cavern of mold so nauseating in its shapes, textures, smells, and sounds that it made everything else they’d experienced look like white stilton.  There were more of the walking mold men.  There was something invisible that paralyzed Wolfgang.  And there was Harzer.
In the ensuing battle, there were several casualties.  The mold men were easy to kill.  Harzer turned out to be the husk of a man—when hit a larger mold man stepped out and was taken out by Caitlynn and Falden.  But the party was endangered by numbers.  And by the globs of black pudding that seemed to be falling from the ceiling.  Falden and Caitllynn were killed by moldmen.  Ehlark was killed by a black pudding.

Someone noticed that an invisible force was pushing the paralyzed Wolfgang toward a particular part of the cavern.  Cinderblock did some reconnaissance and located a particularly complex patch of mold that seemed to be responding to the battle.  Lots of urine and a little moonshine later and that patch had been turned to gray flakes.  The moldmen collapsed. 
The black pudding continued to quiver and slither toward the party.  Cinderblock charged with his short sword.  The blobby thing shrank from blow but then expanded, enveloping the brave and resourceful rogue.

His companions killed the blobs from a safe distance.  There was treasure.  There were stolen cheeses that the heroes decided should remain with their fallen comrades. 
On the way out of the caves, the party encountered a band of kobolds.  Both parties agreed, happily, and in their own languages, that the mold was retreating.  After a mimed non-aggression pact the kobolds went deeper into the caverns and the humans went up to report their success.

The heroes mourned their fallen comrades (“Cinderblock, we hardly knew ye.”) and after the cheese auctions, redeemed their shares.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Moathouse Grind

When Vulpio’s elven contacts learned that Burne, a human magician, was sending adventurers to explore below the moathouse, they summoned him and his friends Gerrilynn and Wolfgang with their own offer: don’t allow a long-buried evil return to the world.  Without being specific, Arethil, the elven priestess, told the party that she thought she thought there were darker powers involved, plotting and gathering strength deep below the earth.  The elves had a secret entrance to the dungeons beneath the moathouse.  They offered the party a safe base and asked them to explore.  If they could find the source of the power Burne was seeking, the elves would help them address it.  But if the enemy was who they thought it was, the elves didn’t want to alert their ancient foe to their presence; a gang of human explorers were unlikely to raise the same level of alarm. Speaking of humans, the elves warned Wolfgang & co. to avoid contact with Burne’s guards in the moathouse above, or for that matter any other humans.  If they could not be evaded, any humans should be dealt with diplomatically and brought to Arethil.  Gerrilynn thought this sounded ominous, but Arethil assured her, “If I wanted to kill them, I would leave that to you.”

The party came across a number of strange sights. A natural pool inspired curiosity, but bones on the bank warned them away.  The crypt, though quiet, seemed to offer nothing but dread and danger. They explored other tunnels.
Opening a door onto a blind wall seemed to trigger some type of alarm.  They encountered two groups of beast-men who attacked on sight.  These were fierce warriors, but between Gerrilynn’s divine powers, Wolfgang’s animal companions and Vulpio’s war hammer, the monsters were destroyed.  The party took a prisoner-- a hairy, shambling creature with claws and fangs. Gerilynn wanted to turn him over to the elves, while Wolfgang wanted to lead him to the wilderness outside and let him “run free.” Wolfgang won the argument, but Gerilynn won the dispute; on their way to the exit, the elves met them, congratulated them on their success—and took custody of the prisoner, throwing s net over his head and arms.  Wolfgang took this as proof that the elves would do the bugbear harm and that they should have done more to get him out.  But he turned over the prisoner.
The elves were grateful to have a prisoner, but most of all hoped to find the source of Burne’s new power.  So the party continued to explore.  Gerrilynn had made a comprehensive map and found they were confronted with a number of imperfect options.  There was the pool of dark water, in which something was lurking.  There was the crypt, which Wolfgang refused to explore.  And there was a portcullis barring the way down an otherwise safe looking passage.  The party reasoned that they were responsible for the portcullis being down—that the clanging sound they’d heard when opening a door the day before had been the sound of iron crashing down on the stone floor.  But they couldn’t figure out how to open it up again.  Wolfgang made friends with a group of rats who were eager to show him their home and the way down—if he could fit into the six-inch diameter hole in the wall.  They could not.


Friday, September 30, 2016

The Death of Vlad

Vlad was eager to pursue Burne’s quest with or without his associates.  Ed and Kirito, two wanderers who were passing through Hommlet on their way to nonwhere in particular were persuaded to join him.  Chrono the druid, whom he’dknown since Gold Hill agreed to join the party.
Burne escorted the group to the moathouse himself and introduced them to his guards.  These guards, in the interest of full transparency, admitted to the adventurers that while they considered themselves braver and stronger than most men, they absolutely refused to explore the dungeon below them and were only willing to garrison the moathouse itself because Burne paid well.  It wasn’t death that they were afraid of.  Death, they laughed, was not the worst alternative.

Burne explained once more what he was looking for—pools of water.  Not natural cave pools, but artfully constructed.  With writing on the walls.  They would know them when they found them.
The guards dutifully moved aside the assorted debris they had piled on top of the trapdoor that led into the dungeon.  Vlad led the way and the adventurers started down the rough wooden stairs.  About halfway down, a glob of bright green slime fell from ceiling onto Vlad, gliding off his mantle and landing on his leather gauntlet and his sword.  Vlad flung away his sword and.  More slime fell from the ceiling, this time landing on the stairs. Chrono scraped at it with his staff.  To his chagrin, the slime burned away his staff.  The slime was corrosive to both leather and metal and other weapons were lost before Ed scorched it with his torch. The slime smoldered and sparked and then burst into flame, quickly burning to a black smudge.

At the bottom of the stairs was a large room with two locked closets.  Ed picked the locks and found storerooms filled with weapons and other supplies.  Vlad chose a replacement sword, and the urged his companions to explore further.  Charging down a pillared corridor, Vlad was surprised by a shuffling undead man that beat him over the head with its rotting limbs.  Vlad spun on his heel shouting his war cry and destroyed the zombie with two solid strokes of his sword.  As his companions rushed to his aid, more zombies poured out of the row of dungeon cells that lined the corridor.

The zombies seemed drawn to Vlad and Vlad gleefully strode into their midst, swinging his sword in mighty, reckless arcs, cleaving bones and flesh, dropping enemies in a pile around him and  hardly noticing the rain of blows that fell on his head and shoulders.  Kirito could see that Vlad was nearly overwhelmed and fought through the horde of zombies to assist his companion.  But Vlad, in a blind battle rage, did not distinguish friend from foe; Kirito barely dodged what could have been a lethal blow.  Ed and Chrono flanked the zombies but did not dare engage them in melee.  Only when Vlad fell and dropped his sword did Kirito find an opportunity to plunge into the thick of the battle.  He killed two of the zombies and called on Ed and Chrono to help pull Vlad to safety.  Chrono tried to heal Vlad, but it was too late.  Kirito held the zombies at bay while Ed and Chrono carried Vlad’s body toward the stairs.
Kirito suffered a serious wound and retreated.  The zombies pursued, but slowly and without coordination; they were further hampered by arrows from Ed’s bow.  Chrono reached the stairs and called for help from the guards.  Two of them, forgetting their oaths of cowardice, rushed down to help carry Vlad’s body.  Ed tossed his torch at the zombies and was the last one up.
All the guards helped pile stones and firewood and furniture on top of the trapdoors as the zombies came clomping off the stairs.  For hours the zombies pounded mindlessly on the other side of the trapdoor.

Vlad was buried in Hommlet, in his armor, and without his hard-won mantle.  It was gone.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pasar and the Princes Episode 3 (You are the heroes!)

The journey between Pasar and the Northern Empire of Zhou Dang is never easy. Merchants follow a good highway from East to West and from West to East, there’s a deep water port not far away to the southeast, but nearly impassable mountains shield the peaceful folk of the Kayu Valley from war-mongering Khan. Based on rumors from merchants and hunters as well as her own past experiences, Beatriss recommend to her friends that this time they should hire a guide and follow the over mountain route.

By chance, this was the best time (some said the only time) for traveling in the mountains—the spring melting and flooding had passed and the autumn storms and snow had not yet begun. Experience proved the wisdom of Beatriss’s recommendation. The roads were clear and peaceful. Their guide was knowledgeable and helpful, assisting them in negotiating fair prices for food and accommodation as they made their way from one village to the next, gradually working their way higher into the mountains over a few weeks. Bangqiu had time and energy for studying. Prince Slash and Sir Crowler made new friends. And, thanks to Jasmine, new enemies—but there was no serious conflict.

And then one night something strange happened. They were staying at an inn near the Red Mountain Path Monastery, shuttered against the winds that heralded the coming storm season. There was a loud rapping at the door. The innkeeper, a grumpy old woman, opened the door with a pained smile. A monk in orange robes pushed his way past her and began ranting about the end of the world. The patrons reacted angrily and, in the case of Sir Crowler, violently. For the monk’s protection, Ju May and Beatriss overpowered him and bound him. Then everyone went to sleep.

In the morning, there was a commotion in the streets. And in the inn. No one could understand what anyone else was saying! And the tied monk had someone escaped his bounds in the night. Beatriss and Prince Slash went into the street to figure out what was going on. The village comprised a single street with one lane leading up to the monastery. Down the street, on the edge of the village, things were still peaceful. Beatriss went to talk to those people. They laughed when she spoke, but when they responded, they were horrified at the gibberish coming out of their own mouths.

Based on this experience, Prince Slash deducted that the monastery was the source of the commotion and started walking up the hill. Beatriss and Bangqiu came after him. Sir Crowler looked for someone to play soccer. Those approaching the monastery heard a loud commotion coming from within. Inside an old monk seemed to be leading the others in a bizarre ritual. When Beatriss tried to intervene, the old monk admonished her, commanding her in very clear words to leave them. She refused. For a moment, his face seemed to change to that of a long-fanged demon, but then his whole body changed—expanding to nearly fill the room as a charging elephant. Beatriss dodged it and attacked with her sword. Prince Slash shushed the chanting monks; they seemed relieved by their own temporary silence. Bangqiu blasted the elephant with his magic. But then the elephant turned into an enormous worm and its touch paralyzed Beatriss. Prince Slash ran to get help. Bangqiu attacked the worm and it turned into a flying monster, half-man, half-horse. It flew up through the roof of the monastery and prepared to dive down. Prince Slash saw it, pulled out his bow, and began shooting arrows. The horse-man monster flew toward Prince Slash and he shot more arrows. It turned into fiery mist and flew away. The monks were grateful and offered to shelter their rescuers. With storms approaching, the heroes couldn’t stay longer than a few days, but this was long enough for the monks to tend to Prince Slash’s arm. They eased the pain of the long-term injury he had suffered and taught him the exercises that would allow him to regain full use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pasar and the Princes Episode 2 (You are the decoy)

Beatriss and Bangqiu, Sir Crolwer and Prince Slash (and Jasmine!) continued to while awa their time in Pasar. Sir Crowler and Prince Slash being two mysterious wanderers of noble bearing, reportedly related to the king of a faraway land were hoping to buy weapons, something generally difficult to do in Pasar since none were sold openly within the walls.

One day the four friends (and Jasmine!) were enjoying a long leisurely lunch in one of Pasar’s noodle houses when they were approached by a tradesman named An Dohng. An Dohng appeared at the end of their meal as the friends were debating what to do next. An Dohng wanted their help and was prepared to pay for it. As a result of bad luck and a bad brother, An Dohng had lost a delivery of silk and as a result had earned the enmity of a powerful merchant. This merchant, named Badu, was reported to have ties to the Black Flower gang which, despite being banished from Pasar still menaced travelers on the roads. An Dohng was going to meet with Badu at his shop later that day and he believed things would go better for him if he had some powerful friends. The heroes agreed that they would join An Dohng at the meeting place. As they discussed the particulars, two thugs emerged from the shadows of the room and began to threaten An Dohng. Beatriss intervened and no serious violence occurred. An Dohng thanked them profusely. “You’ve helped me already! And now you have to protect me this afternoon!”

The four friends (Jasmine had something else to do) went to the assigned meeting place, a small tavern attached to a warehouse close to one of the gates of the city. They ordered food and drink and surveyed the scene. The two toughs from earlier from earlier and the other patrons of the bar also looked potentially threatening and two openly carried swords, despite the weapon ban. Beatriss of course had her own invisible sword, Bangqiu was very able in defending himself with magic and the princes were always brave, no matter the number or strength of a potential adversity. So the friends chatted happily, seemingly oblivious to any danger.

Before long, An Dohng arrieved. He hesitated for a moment and then heartily greeted the four heroes as his “old, dear friends.” His welcome was loud enough to summon a man from the shop, a man who by the richness of his clothes and portliness of his shape could only be Badu the merchant. He eyed An Dohng’s friends with unveiled coldness and suspicion and then asked to speak to An Dohng alone. The two men sat at a table at the back of the tavern and engaged in tense whispered conversation. Everyone else in the bar fell nearly silent.

After a few minutes, the two men seemed to come to an agreement. An Dohng returned to speak to his protectors. He had come to an agreement, a strange one, ultimately an opportunity for An Dohng to redeem himself by successfully managing another delivery—this one not of silk, but of weapons. “Risky of course, but perhaps with some unexpected advantage. Some of you were hoping to find weapons, no?”

Without agreeing to anything else, the party agreed to at least help An Dohng inspect the shipment. Badu gestured toward the door that led from the tavern to the warehouse. An Dong led the way, followed by Beatriss, Bangqiu, and the princes, with the two toughs they’d encountered at the noodle shop following close behind.

There was a small wagon, already yoked to two horses. An Dohng lifted corner of the tarp, and everyone nodded at the assembled piles of sharp metal. But then there was a shout from the tavern. It was the city watch. “We are here to search the premises for illegal weapons!”

Out in the warehouse, An Dohng jumped into the wagon and grabbed the reins. Beatriss prepared for a fight while Sir Crowler ran into the tavern to alert the watch that the weapons were there. Surprisingly, the tough guys who had threatened An Dohng in the noodle shop assisted him in making a getaway. They opened the door of the warehouse and jumped onto the wagon as An Dohng drove through it. Not knowing what else to do, Beatriss, Bangqiu, and Prince Slash also ran away while Badu and the patrons of the tavern were arrested.

Several hours later, back at the noodle shop, Beatriss, Bangqiu, and Prince Slash came to the reluctant conclusion that something might have happened to Sir Crowler. They went to old village in central Pasar and to the stone house where prisoners were kept. Sure enough, Sir Crowler had been arrested. Prince Slash gave an honest account of everything that had happened, admitting that he and Sir Crowler had been hoping to buy weapons because they wanted to fight members of the Black Flower gang who were roaming the roads outside Pasar. Sir Crowler had made a very similar confession. Appreciating their honesty and their previous service to Pasar, the elders agreed that Sir Crowler should be released with the condition that they should all leave Pasar the next day and not return for one year.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Pasar and the Princes Episode 1 (You are the Ransom)

 While Tetsukichi stayed with his clansfolk, Beatriss, Naron, and Erlo joined Bangqiu, Kafka on their journey to Pasar. Along the way they met their friends Sir Crowler and Prince Slash who knew a shortcut to Pasar- the Gua-Sar caverns. Sir Crowler and Prince Slash were lively companions—with their affinity for animals, noble lineage, and large supply of fruit, there was never a dull moment, even though neither was much good at reading a map. They did find the Gua-Sar caverns, a series of twisting tunnels, flooded with viscous green water. There were strange voices in the air and strange hands in the water. Despite these challenges, the heroes emerged from cavern whole and found their way on to Pasar without incident. Gwinch was indeed happy and proud to meet his student who had disappeared so suddenly. He awarded Kafka the title of Master and asked him to assist a selection of novices in reaching the next milestone in their training—the wisdom that comes from experience.

During an earlier journey to Pasar, Prince Slash had attracted the attention of a beautiful woman named Jasmine and her sullen brother Lum. To his surprise, Prince Slash found that Jasmine and Lum had remained in Pasar and at least every day, he encountered at least one of them. Although Prince Slash protested to others that he hated Jasmine, he seemed to have trouble ignoring her and always smiled when he saw her. For his part, Lum showed consistent dislike for Prince Slash and his friends, barely acknowledging them; any polite words were accompanied by a heavy glare.

One day, however, Lum approached Prince Slash and his friends for help. Jasmine had been kidnapped! Although Prince Slash claimed that he was happy about this, Beatriss convinced him that regardless of his feelings about her, he had some duty to assist with her rescue if possible. And, according to Lum, little assistance was required. The bandits were demanding ransom, Lum had agreed to pay it. He requested the protection of an escort in going to meet the bandits. The friends—Prince Slash, Sir Crolower, Beatriss, and Bangqiu agreed to help. They would meet Lum the next morning.

Bangqiu wanted to help, but he was wary. He suggested that he and Beatriss should accompany the young princes in invisible form. This would give them an advantage if either Lum or the bandits had planned a deception.
Prince Slash did not fully understand the plan. When he and Sir Crowler met Lum the next morning, the first thing he did of note was explain that Beatriss was there too but invisibly. Sir Crowler contradicted him violently. Lum was uncomfortable, maybe less uncomfortable when Beatriss asked, still invisible, how far they had to travel to the bandits’ camp. He wanted to reassurance that Bangqiu was there, too.

That was strange. Strange enough that Beatriss and Bangqiu both became visible and demanded to know more. When pressed, Lum admitted that he couldn’t show them any ransom payment because he wasn’t carrying it. When pressed further, he admitted that they were the ransom payment. He was leading them into an ambush.

After some debate, the heroes decided to believe Lum’s claim that despite his deception, Jasmine really was in danger. Hearing that a man in blue robes was associated with this group, Bangqiu and Beatriss decided that they would ambush the ambusher. After making sure Lum understood that they considered him a traitor and that his life depended on helping them rescue Jasmine, they became invisible again.

When they arrived in the Black Flowers’ camp, the villains challenged Lum, demanding to know why he didn’t bring "the meddlers." The man in blue robes was there, but so was Jasmine, with a blade at her throat. Beatriss and Bangqiu surprised and overpowered the men threatening Jasmine, but before they could turn their attention to the man in blue robes, he disappeared in a flash of fire. The rest of the Black Flowers, having lost both their prisoner and their leader, were quickly routed.

Jasmine put the pieces together quickly and reveled a new one that explained Lum’s jealousy and betrayal. Lum and Jasmine were not brother and sister and neither was the child of a merchant. He was the son of a nobleman and she was a household servant. She understood his jealousy but he had taken it much too far. She wanted nothing more to do with him. Lum agreed this was fitting punishment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Where was Sakatha?

As the rest of the party rested, plotted, and celebrated, Kafka announced to Bangqiu that he wished to return to Pasar.  He was grateful for the opportunity to join in his adventures and humbled to have undergone such trials of his devotion to the Two-Fold Path.  He believed he was ready to make a report to his teacher and—perhaps—to accept students of his own.  Bangqiu was visibly angry, and his sense of betrayal was little ameliorated by Kafka’s parting gift—the same clutch of arrows that Bangqiu had awarded him after their defeat of the Black Flowers.

What level spell is Guilt Trip?  Kafka agreed that before he returned to Pasar, he would join Bangqiu for once last foray against Sakatha.  The two of them together, with the help of a few members of the Sansar clan—most notably Erlo the shaman—would find the unfindable, climb the unclimbable and destroy Sakatha, with or without Beatriss and Tetsukichi.

That would be without.  Beatriss and Tetsukichi were very comfortable and saw no reason to return to the swamp.

Having so recently made the trip, Bangqiu and Kafka had small difficulty finding their way into the swamp, but were nevertheless confronted by many dangers.  During the first day of their journey, they were surprised with a hideous creature whose mere gaze killed one of the Sansar warriors.  Bangqiu led the rest of his party in running away at full speed.  They found themselves on an expansive area of thick sticky, mud.  Not wanting to risk meeting the death-gaze creature, they spent an entire day trudging across it.  When they at last reached the temple, they found a new group of lizard folk, fewer in number, but greater in number had taken up residence.  These foes sustained the first blast of Bangqiu’s powerful steam breath magic, and were only killed after a prolonged melee battle.

In the dark place below, it seemed little had changed.  The halls were dark.  Vermin swarmed over the bodies of their fallen foes, but there was little sign of human presence.  But relying heavily on the fine map Beatriss had drawn, Bangqiu stumbled upon the evil priests who maintained the shrine.  These strange cultists, each keeping his own company into a small cell-like room were poor strategists, but their leader was a powerful magic-user.  Sacraficing the lives of his underlings, he threw fire at the party and transfixed Erlo with a sinister spell.  Relying on clever use of their invisibility cloak and ring, Bangqiu and Kafka lured the leader of the group away from their friend so that Bangqiu could target him with his own magic.  Two volleys of magic missiles were not enough to kill the wicked man, but Kafka’s sword was. 

Ok, Kafka said, now we return to Pasar.  They had thoroughly mapped the labyrinth and destroyed all the enemies they had encountered.  Where was Sakatha?  A question for another day.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Hidden Dangers in the Dragon People's Stronghold

After recovering from the battle, Bangqiu and Tetsukichi discussed what they had experienced and sought the counsel of Beatriss and the others.  Bangqiu and Tetsukichi had defeated a sizable force, but some of their enemies had escaped—there seemed to be a sizable underground complex where their reptilian foes, now alerted to their presence might be lurking.  Beatriss agreed that she and her associates would join them for another sortie into the dungeon.

Moving from room to room, with stealth and care (Beatriss was becoming a careful mapper) the principled raiders, dispatched several small groups of dragon people and their commanders.  Some were the wounded survivors of the pitched battle from the day before.  Others seemed to been too drunk, cowardly, undisciplined, or smart to have joined the catastrophic event that had led to the destruction of their comrades.

But there were some losses for the party of Sansar, including one death.  The party happened upon one eerily empty barracks room, lined with beds and chests belonging to the dragon warriors who had bravely gone to the battle where they would be killed.  Chests!  Beatriss opened the first one, and narrowly dodged a dart that sprung out if it.  She asked Perin to check the next one before he opened it.  Inspecting the next chest, he found the panel on the front of the chest that likely held its own poison dart.  But not the panel hiding another dart on the back of the chest.  Its poison barbs were embedded deep in his neck, and his end was quick.  The other chests remain unopened.

Bangqiu also experienced a scare.  The party found another demon sculpture very much like the one hiding the entrance to the dragon’s lair.  Like the room upstairs, the little black gem seemed to function as a key, revealing a well-appointed bedroom, study, and alchemical library.  The party grabbed the obvious valuables and elected to take a rest, reasoning that the room’s occupant would never return.  But wizards have strange guests, who sometimes drop by uninvited.  An eight-foot tall, foul-smelling horned fiend (looking almost exactly like the sculpture) appeared in a puff of smoke and charged at Bangqiu, slashing him with its claws even as the young magician pulled his invisibility cloak more and more tightly around him.  Beatriss and Tetsukichi bodily wrestled the demon away from Bangqiu, stabbing it with their stabbing swords and sustaining many injuries themselves.  Bangqiu blasted the demon with two volleys of magic missiles, seemingly destroying his near-killer—it disintegrated into black goo and then evaporated in a flash of pale green fire.

After these frightening encounters, the party moved back upstairs to their more comfortable bolt-hole next to the room of the bubbling pools.  As the snake creatures reformed, they commented with sadness that no more would they have to warn the sometimes careless Perin not to wander too close to weird water.

While the rest of the party slept, Ju May meditated, seeking a vision of whether they would meet Sakatha, the Lizard King, ancient enemy of the Sansar clan. 
Jumay had news for Beatriss, Tetsukichi, and Bangqiu in the morning—Sakatha’s lair lay far far below the earth, “Past the doors you cannot find, down the steps you cannot climb, and across the River of Nothingness.”

“That sounds far.”

The party made one last foray into the complex beneath the temple.  They found a small shrine dedicated to something evil, robes decorated with evil-looking symbols, and a collection of books about evilness.  No doors other than the ones they could find, no steps others than the ones they could quite easily climb back up to the temple, and no river except for the swamp that they struggled for a few days to find their way out of.  It was difficult with Perin to guide them.  The nights were strange.  They heard voices in the distances, saw large fires. 

After four days, they emerged from the swamp and rejoined the Sansar clan.  They shared the sad news about Perin and returned his belonging to his family, along with a share of the treasure they’d looted from the dragon.

Over the next few days, the Sansar elders listened to the party’s stories with interest.  They were heartened to hear of their heroic victory over the hordes of dragon people.  And dismayed at the hints of a deeper, older, stranger evil.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Raiding the Dragon People's Stronghold

After passing through a deserted guard post, Al-Fitar, leading the way, opened the door into a

large dark room. Suddenly, a light was cast onto Al-Fitar’s face. Instinctively, he raised his

sword, deflecting several arrows. And then the dragon people charged to attack.

Bangqiu raised the hood on his invisibility cloak and moved around the edge of the room.

Tetsukichi, Al-Fitar, and Kafka held a defensive line so that Mustapha could cast spells and Perin

could shoot arrows. Their enemies comprised about twenty dragon people—typically reckless

in their fearsome and little danger to seasoned veterans. But they were commanded by four

humans, including a spellcaster, plus a Lizard Lord like the one who had attacked Beatriss’s

fortress. After evading the minions, Bangqiu blasted their commanders with a cloud of scalding

steam. The spellcaster and one of the warriors fell, but the others raced to attack Bangqiu.

Kafka charged to intercept them.

The dragon people, sustaining heavy casualties and dismayed by the surprise attack on their

leaders, faltered in their attack. Tetsukichi and Al-Fitar pressed their advantage. Perin made a

springing leap over the dragon people to attack their commanders.

His surprise attack came in the nick of time. The two human warriors and the Lizard Lord

fighting Bangqiu and Kafka wielded magic weapons. In particular the Lizard Lord’s sword cut

through Kafka’s armor and seemed to freeze Kafka’s blood when it pierced his skin. Bangqiu

fought to protect his friend, but his sword having little opportunity to cast spells. But Perin’s

ambush gave him that time—magical glowing arrows burst from his hand. One of the

commanders was sent reeling and when he recovered, ran from the room. A blast of colored

light from Mustapha blinded the dragon people, giving Tetsukichi and Al-Fitar an opportunity to

join the fight against their commanders. The Dragon Lord was slain and the last of the human

commanders was put to flight. Bangqiu wanted to give chase, but his companions

objected—too many had suffered wounds too grievous. Kafka claimed the Lizard Lord’s sword

and the party returned to the upper level and the relative safety of the dragon’s lair.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A black dragon and its secret lair

In the ensuing weeks, Beatriss and her friends heard news that the attack on Happy Valley was likely part of a larger campaign of terror emanating from an emerging swampland in the region west of Menkan, and that was becoming a catastrophe for the Sansar clan whose grazing grounds bordered the swamp. When the Lizardmen attacked, they didn’t steal horses or goats—they carried off the people. Sansar Anca sent an emissary, Perin, to request the help of his adopted son and daughter.

Tetsukichi, Beatriss, and Bangqiu, together with their henchman, ventured to the southwest corner of the empire to aid the Sansar clan. Perin, who had been spying on their enemies for several months, had located the base for the dragon people, the lizard men, and their allies—a temple built eons ago by Sakatha, the lizardman king.

They passed through a swamp that became increasingly thick and mucky as they neared their goal. One night, the party camped on a narrow hammock, Beatriss was keeping watch. Weary from scanning her immediate surroundings, thick with small life forms—frogs, snakes, overgrown insects— that overwhelmed her heat vision, that Beatriss rocked back and looked up into the clear sky. She rubbed her eyes—sometimes heat vision plays tricks—and confirmed that that there really was something in the sky, circling—maybe an owl?

Beatriss woke up the others. The flying creature began descending rapidly, narrowing its path to center on the party. It was much too large to be an owl, it could only be a dragon. Mustapha summoned a cloud of fog to obscure their position. The thick mists also obscured their view of the dragon, but they heard it land a few hundred yards away. They separated into two groups, both making a dash away from their campsite. Beatriss, with her infravision saw a stream of swamp creatures fleeing. Bangqiu, under the cover of his invisibility cloak, stood in the path and prepared his most powerful spell. His friends moved to either side.

Besides the noise of fleeing animals, the sounds of tree trunks cracking told them the dragon was rapidly drawing near. Bangqiu saw its shadow and then moments later its enormous head and darkly glowing eyes. He blasted the beast in the face with a cloud of stream—and the dragon immediately answered with a thick spray of acid. Bangqiu, reeling with the burning pain threw himself into the mud as his companions closed around the dragon. Beatriss slashed it grievously with her sword. It flapped its wings and began to rise from the ground. Al-Fitar and Tetsukichi had their bows ready—arrows tore through one of the dragon’s wings before it could raise above the treetops. Plummeting back to the ground, it turned its claws out and landed on Naron, pinning him to the ground. With his one free arm, Naron found his dagger and plunged it into the dragon’s neck. Steaming black gore poured from the wound and the dragon collapsed. Ju-Mei tended the wounds of Bangqiu and Naron and settled them into a deep, restful sleep. The rest of the party kept a nervous, exhausted watch, too shaken by what they had experienced to sleep.

The next morning, Bangqiu awakened early, feeling much refreshed. Despite the shock of being blasted with acidic dragon spittle, and the gruesome look of the burns all over his body, he felt strong and hale, eager to press on. Naron on the other hand, had twisted his ankle. A day of rest for him seemed more advantageous than a day of extremely slow and painful travel, especially if they should find the temple so well-fortified as to force a retreat. Beatriss and Ju-Mei stayed with him while the others—Perin, their guide, plus Tetsukichi, Al-Fitar, and Mustapha, Bangqiu and Kafka would scout ahead. Before setting out, Kafka, remembering his master speak of such things, collected some of the dragon’s blood. Bangqiu, assisting him, discovered that the dragon carried a smooth disk of obsidian in its mouth. All considered this a fortuitous omen.

Indeed, after an hour of travel with Perin, the group spotted the temple, rising above the surrounding morass on a high mound of packed earth. They heard noises inside—loud and reptilian—and decided to press forward. The party charged up the steps with Banqiu, camouflaged by his magic cloak, leading the way. About a dozen half-human, half-dragon monsters were camped in a large, columned hall. When they brandished their weapons, Bangqiu released a cloud of steam. Then the young magician fell back while Tetsukichi and Al-Fitar charged forward to fight the few survivors.

Once the battle was over, the party explored. The back wall proved to be a curtain of shells. The party pushed through it and found themselves in another large room, dominated by three round pools of scummy water. Two of the walls were decorated with frescoes of humans and lizard folk engaged in battle. The back wall had been sculpted in bas-relief to depict a leering demon. As they took in these fearsome sights, the pools began bubbling.

Wanting the support of Beatriss and her associates, the expedition party retreated to the swamp. When the full party was re-united, they discussed their next plan of action. They decided that rather than camp another night in the swamp they should move to the temple. Once there, Mustapha and Ju-may became strangely animated; rather than simply casting spells when directed, they participated actively in the discussion as Beatriss, Tetsukichi, and Bangqiu discussed what to do next. Bangqiu suggested that the black gem from the dragon’s mouth might be a type of key and that they should insert it in the carved mouth of the demon’s mouth. Sure enough, a previously secret (and very large) door swung open, revealing what must have been the dragon’s lair—and its hoard. Besides the piles of coins (mainly silver), and jewelry, the party noted several weapons of fine workmanship and likely magical powers. Ju-May, looking behind him, noted that the bubbling water was forming into snake like creatures.

Bangiqu, calling on his elemental power over water, flung the water creature out of its pool. It splashed onto the floor as plain water. Bangqiu and Ju-May measured the depth of the pool with long sticks and finding it shallow enough to allow wading, entered. Continuing to prod the bottom, they found a number of heavy, but movable objects. These proved to be bars of silver stamped with the imperial seal. Lacking the magical energy to deal with the other water snakes, Bangqiu urged his companions to join him in seeking refuge in the dragon’s cave. After confirming that the door could be opened from the inside, the entire party pushed inside. They searched it carefully, found there were no other exits and decided to rest for the night and then decide how to proceed.

While his companions slept, Ju May meditated. After several hours, his meditation was disturbed by the sound of voice in the chamber outside the dragon’s lair. Ju May roused the others and they all listened breathlessly to the boisterous conversation of a dozen or more creatures, with loud reptilian voices. The party prepared to fight and Bangqiu, translated what the creatures were saying. They returning from a successful raid on the human lands, they had enjoyed several nights in the swamp, but now they were looking forward to relaxing by the river below. The party heard the sound of a stone door being opened, and of the gregarious creatures passing out of the room one-by- one. The party surmised that there was a hidden entrance, probably a trapdoor in the floor right outside their hiding place. The party heard the sounds of the bubbling pools and heard the reptilian creatures joking with each other and taunting the weird snakes that formed from the water of the pools. One of the last of the creatures idly stuck its green scaled finger into the dragon lair “keyhole” while idly wondering how to get at the treasure inside. Beatriss discouraged Bangqiu from cutting off the finger. The finger was retracted, the voice grew faint, there was the sound of stone grinding against stone, and then the only sound was the thrashing of the weird pools.

After waiting a few minutes, Bangqiu opened the door and blasted the two pools he hadn’t blasted the night before. Again, the water weirds were flung from each pool on a sizeable wave only to splash apart on the floor. More silver bars were retrieved. Meanwhile, Tetsukichi located the trap door.

Beatriss, who seemed to have contracted some type of fever during her trip through the swamp, wanted to rest in the dragon’s cave. Naron and Jumay insisted that they would stay with her.

But the others went down the ladder . . .

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Beatriss settles into her new fortress

Beatriss left her son with the Emperor and with her other children, moved into her newly-completed fortress in the Happy Valley.  Friends new and old gathered around her, pledging to help protect her idyllic dominion.  These included Naron and Ju-Mei, Bangqiu and Kafka.  Bahen—their unexpected ally in defeating Red Nar’s band—arrived with a company of 20 riders and began organizing the people of Happy Valley, selecting and arming a garrison of 100 foot soldiers.  The Emperor sent a bodyguard of 20 monks.  Tetsukichi settled in with his family and henchman.  Prince Slash and Sir Crowler were welcomed as guests and soon proved themselves valuable companions.

One day Prince Slash was leading a company of foot soldiers in a patrol on far side of the western ridge.  Spotting smoke above the treetops, they went closer and found a large company of dragon people, led by a huge reptilian-headed monster.  Prince Slash raced back to the fortress to raise the alarm and the dragon people followed in close pursuit.

The people of Happy Valley took refuge inside the fortress but the dragon people followed close behind and the gates could not be closed.  Beatriss, Tetsukichi, Naron, and Bahen drove them back and pursued them into the field in front of the fortress.  The Lizard Lord and his toughest soldiers met them in battle, knocking Beatriss from her horse and scattering her bodyguard.  Naron’s soldiers threw down their spears and ran for the forest.  Tetsukichi and Bahen were also defeated.  The giant lizardman charged into the fortress, his minions coming after him. 

Inside the fortress, the defenders had organized.  Bangqiu used his magic to break the dragon people’s charge.  Al-Fitar led a countercharge.  Many people of the dragon people retreated and suddenly the Lizard Lord and his company were greatly outnumbered.  Kafka and Bayan surrounded them and slowly exhausted them.  The Happy Valley soldiers rallied and finally killed the Lizard Lord; the dragon people were routed.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

After Garan Fest: Garan’s Tomb

Amidst the revelry at the conclusion of Garan Fest-- in between questions to Vlad from well-wishers and hangers-on about how it felt to be the new champion and what it was going to do next—Vlad gathered his companions around him to discuss: what are we going to do next?

Among various competing priorities (Circe and Mark had heard about a wizard who was looking for students, Sir Henry feared that something was amiss in the land of Whitkey, the druids had called Chrono to seek his help in finding that special-prophecy boy Valu) the scent of low-hanging gold pieces beckoned.  Garan’s tomb looked like it could be broken into and according to the tanner’s book, Garan had been buried with his treasure.

So as the party continued, the adventurers pushed aside their ale mugs to cleared their minds (or perhaps drowned any rational fears with a last drought of liquid courage) and set off into the night. 

They hiked back to the tomb under torchlight, singing and arguing to distract each other from the weird shadows in the canyon.  Mark the Magicuser read the magic runes above the tomb: “Mother Night Welcomes Garan Lord of Battle and Conquest.”  Again, not exactly “Good words, honorable deeds.”

Vlad expressed some misgivings about the mantle draped round his shoulders, and his new association with this ancient warrior of ambiguous character.  It felt good to feel like a conqueror, but it also felt a little strange.  Chrono, sensitive to Vlad’s ambivalence tried to assist Vlad in removing the mantle—and for his trouble received an unequivocal punch in the face.  Ok, that settled it.

Sir Henry, meanwhile discovered that the door to the tomb—to no one’s great surprise, open with only a slight push.  There was a spiral staircase carved in the rock, spiraling down (and deosil—“clockwise, for those familiar with newfangled timekeeping devices”.)

At the bottom of the stairs they passed through rooms painted with murals celebrating Garan’s many bloody conquests.  He wore the same mantle now worn by Vlad except for one detail.  While the mantle worn by Vlad bore the embroidered insignia of the “Golden Helm of Garan,” the mantle worn by Garan in the murals showed a black skull on a white shield.

The party passed into a circular room dominated by a stone statue of Garan in the center of the room and with six stone knights standing in alcoves spaced around the wall.  As the party entered the room, the eyes of Garan’s statue glowed red and statues came to life.  Vlad felt emboldened and in another way uncomfortable, it was something about his mantle or the insignia on his mantle, he picked at the gold thread.

And then the sis stone knights came to life and attacked.  Three of the statues charged at Vlad.  Vlad readied his shield and Sir Henry sprung into action, striking one of the statues with his sword, shattering its arm.  Chrono readied his quarter staff and engaged one of the other statues.  Another statue bore down on Thoric.  Circe retreated, hiding under a shroud of magical darkness.  Mark stayed behind the well-armored warriors and when the moment was right, cast a magic missile at one of the statues attacking Vlad, reducing it to a pile of rubble.

Thanks to his plate mail and the assistance of his companions, Vlad sustained a rain of blows from stone swords, with little injury.  Sir Henry noticed that the insignia of Vlad’s mantle was emitting smoke, seemingly more and more as the statues were destroyed.  When Thoric received a grievous blow from a stone sword, McDowell and Sir Henry crowded in front of the statue and covered his retreat.  Then there was a burst of flame in which Vlad’s face glowed red. The Golden Helm was gone—the black skull of Garan was revealed underneath. Vlad yelled a battle cry and the remaining statue kneeled before him.

Chrono tended to Thoric’s wounds while the rest of the party searched the room.  McDowell found a secret door and another spiral staircase leading down.  As the party regathered, so did the statues—the chunks of stone, quivered and rolled together, reassembling into six stone knights, all kneeling before their master, Vlad.

The party descended the staircase.  The statues did not follow Vlad, but once he was out of sight they rose their feet, drew their swords approached the other members of the party—not in a good way.  The rest of the party crowded down the stairs.   The statues did not pursue.

At the bottom of the stairs, they found Garan’s burial chamber.  There was a sarcophagus—open—and soon a horrific undead thing rose out of it—seemingly Garan himself by the black skull painted on his plate mail.  The wight’s scabbard was empty and it charged at Vlad—“Give it to me!”  Vlad pulled out his sword and landed a blow that would have decapitated a mortal creature—and remembered all of his grandfather’s lessons about how to fight the living dead.

Sir Henry knew, The Sword of Whitkey leapt into his hand and he charged forward to go toe-toe with dead Garan.  Chrono joining him, swinging his shillelagh.  This gave Vlad the opportunity to back away, cast his sword aside and ready a silver bolt in his crossbow.  Mark and Circe threw magic missiles at the evil spirit as it charged after Vlad.  A silvered bolt from Vlad’s crossbow hit it in the face. Howling in anger or pain it pressed forward.  The Sword of Whitkey, glowing in Sir Henry’s capable hands bit through the Garan’s armor.  Vlad stumbled backwards, still holding his crossbow.  As the monster pounced on him, Vlad put another crossbow bolt through Garan’s plate mail, granting he creature a second death.

Thoric and McDowell pried the silver, gold, and jewels out of Garan’s sarcophagus.  Sir Henry devised a way to distribute the treasure and after satisfying themselves that there was no other way out of the burial chamber, the party returned to the surface.  The stone knights kneeled before Vlad and allowed them to pass freely.  Back in Garanton, the party got a few strange looks from straggling revelrs, but no one quite found words to question them.

At dawn, the party left for Hommlet.  As they had heard, there was a wizard there, one Burne, who had learned of certain magical pools in the caverns under a ruined Moathouse outside the village.  He wanted to share the power of the pools with apprentices, but the guards he had stationed at the moathouse said that things were getting weird—purple-back spiders, eerie noise, green slime on the walls and ceiling that dissolved metal-- and they refused to patrol the lower levels.  Burne hoped some ambitious young magicians and their associated might see the advantage of helping him secure access to the pools.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bangqiu and Bayan return to the Happy Valley

When Zhu-Shi finished his work for the Emperor near Pasar, it was time to escort him back to Happy Valley so he could continue his work on Beatriss’s palace. The army that had accompanied the group on their travel from Happy Valley would stay in the area near Pasar, holding the line against the southern emperor. Only a half-dozen soldiers would join Bayan and Bangqiu for the return trip. With rumors of bandits and enemy soldiers on the roads. Bayan and Bangqiu elected to seek an alternate route, the “lost highway” that Beatriss had discovered and that connected Pasar to Zhou Dang.

After a few weeks of travel through hidden valleys connected by miles-long tunnels through the mountains, Bayan and Bangqiu came to an impasse—a cave-in that blocked the way of the underground highway. Smaller, natural tunnels branched off from the main highway. Bayan and Beatriss explored these, hoping to find a way back to the main route. They found many strange things—including a giant frog that breathed paralyzing gas—but they did not find the sought for connection. And they discovered that someone was tracking them. Frightened by this discovery and having lost one of the soldiers in a fall, the party decided to instead seek out a way—any way—into the open air.

In the muddy valley in which they emerged, they saw—and avoided more strange creatures, and met a group of gregarious men who peasants’ clothing and gaudy jewelry and were laden with sacks of food. These men invited the party to rest and feast with them. Bangqiu was glad to accept the invitation; Bayan was more wary, and when she learned the feast would take place in the caves, she flatly refused to return. And so the men went on their way and party continued on theirs, soon reaching a small settlement of about two dozen people. These people were much distraught—having just been roobed by the “cave bandits.” One of the victims, a powerful-looking, wild-eyed man wanted to track down the thieves and punish them, but the rest of his clan were afraid. Bayan showed some interest, but hoped she and her friends could first get some rest? The villagers reluctantly agreed.

The next morning, an alarm was raised. The thieves were coming back—and they weren’t alone this time. Bayan and Bangqiu realized that they had been followed from Pasar by a group of Black Flowers and seemingly under the leadership of the blue-robed Priest of the Shining Path who had escaped them during the climactic battle under monastery in Pasar. The Black Flowers gave some money to the cave bandits, who disappeared from the scene. They rode forward slowly, spreading out in a line. The priest and his two assistants rode in another line behind them.

This time, Bayan and Bangqiu didn’t have the help of Gwinch and his Sohei. But they devised a plan. Bangqiu put on his invisibility cloak and dashed out to flank the enemy. Bayan, leading the soldiers and a few volunteers from the village, advanced slowly to meet the men on horseback. The sides exchanged missile fire—arrows, javelins, and from of the priests assistant’s green glowing bolts of magical energy. Two of the soldiers fell. The priest began to chant—but then was cut off by the sudden scalding blast of steam. Bangqiu had appeared next to the priest and his assistants. The steam killed the priest’s horse and his assistants. The Black Flowers reeled to defend their leader. Bayan and the others charged with their swords. In the ensuing melee, all the Black Flowers were killed—but once again the Shining Path priest disappeared.

The party claimed the Black flowers’ horses and salvaged some equipment. After a few days rest, the party was ready to set out again. The locals refused to accompany the party in their journey unless they would first assist them in their feud with the cave bandits. Bayan was unwilling to do this. Instead, they used money and a horse to pay for a few guides to lead them across the swamp to dry land.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Liberation of Pasar

Bayan said that she had a contact in Pasar, a monk named Sid who had befriended her teacher Beatriss during her time in Pasar a few years ago. Bangqiu, of course, had visited Pasar many times during his youth, and was eager to see how things had changed. Their first stop would be the “Village of Pasar,” the oldest part of the town, where the Eldest lived, including one of Bangqiu’s distant relatives.

Sir Crowler and Prince Slash were left to explore Pasar on their own. They found it had an intriguing history, but was now plagued with injustice and meanness. They had surrendered their weapons upon entering the town, and learned this was based on traditions going back to when Pasar was a small fishing village. The village’s peaceful reputation had made it an attractive stopping place for merchants passing through the area. The merchants brought money—and their mercenary guards. After an outbreak of violence involving rival merchant guilds, the Elders of Pasar had allowed one group of guards to carry weapons for the purpose of preserving the peace. These were the Black Flowers—former soldiers, they were identified by their mismatched imperial armor and the large round badges of a black flower they wore on their shoulders. Sir Crowler and Prince Slash saw a group of Black Flowers take bananas from a fruit seller and then knock over his cart when he begged for payment. Crowler and Slash wanted to intervene, but didn’t have their swords. They decided to go to Elders of Pasar and report the problem.

The experiences of Bangqiu and Bayan were similar to those of Crowler and Slash. Bangqiu himself remembered there had always been tension between the “village of Pasar”—the core of the original fishing village—and the market town that had grown up around it. The Elders knew that Pasar’s prosperity depended on treating wealthy travelers with respect, but they mixed their outward deference with concealed resentment—especially when foreign religions and foreign soldiers began to make a home in Pasar.  

When the Elders of Pasar took a firm stand—exiling the leaders of a particularly obnoxious monastery—things got better, but only briefly. The remaining monks—those of the Two-Fold Path, desperate to maintain their foothold in the town, had allowed idle mercenaries to take refuge within the walls of the monastery. Within the monastery, the customs of Pasar were ignored. Strong bullied the weak, and the strongest of the strong, after eliminating their rivals, organized into a unified band, and called themselves the Black Flowers. They made an “arrangement” with the Elders of Pasar to maintain security. The traditional guards, with their bamboo staves, would keep peace within the Village; the Black Flowers, with their swords, chainmail, and crossbows, would run the rest of the town. Bayan remembered that Beatriss, during her stay in Pasar, had known Neetla, the leader of the Black Flowers. He was obsessed, Beatriss, had told her, with finding the jungle hide-out for the exiled leaders of the Two-Fold Path, especially Gwinch, a mysterious foreigner who had nearly mastered the Path and led a squad of zealous warrior-monks whom he’d met over the course of his travels.

When Crowler and Slash tried to enter the Village of Pasar, they were politely asked their business and told to go away—that Elders were in a Meeting. Crowler and Slash found a way to sneak in and saw their friends Bangqiu and Bayan. They tried again to gain audience with the Elders, explaining who their contacts were. In describing the evils of the Black Flowers, Crowler and Slash painted a bigger picture—the Emperor of Zhou Dang had sent his best architect to the area to build a fortress near Pasar. “We think he’s going to get the Black Flowers to help him take over the whole town.” This information about a foreign invader—and coming from his own agents—got some attention. One of the elders, Aahaungg, excused himself from the other meeting to talk to Crowler and Slash.

Bangqiu and Bayan were meeting with not only the Elders of Pasar, but also with Gwinch, and five of his sohei. The Elders wanted to end Gwinch’s exile. And they wanted to expel the Black Flowers. They hoped that Bayan and Bangqiu—with their own indirect connections to both Gwinch and Pasar—would like to add their prowess and expertise. One of the many monks who still lived with monastery—now more like slaves to the Black Flowers—had escaped to share some valuable intelligence, about a gathering of the leading Black Flowers and their allies. Besides Neetla, their visible leader, the Black Flowers had several secret leaders within Pasar. The Silk Merchants Guild, the Spice Merchants Guild, The One Law Mosque, and the Temple of the Shining Path—all the powerful foreign factions were rumored to be secretly allied with the Black Flowers. According to the escaped monk, the meeting would take place in two days and in underground hideout. The Elders knew—or thought they knew—about this underground hideout. In the days before they wore their swords and badges openly, the Black Flowers had favored a certain seedy hotel, frightening away other customers. As their numbers grew, the Black Flowers expanded first to the hotel’s cellar and then a complex of tunnels—these could well have reached the cellars of the monastery. It seemed that the Black Flowers had abandoned the old hotel now that they controlled the monastery, but hopefully the secret tunnels would still be there. Sid knew the hotel and about the secret entrance to the tunnels; he would show the others how to find it. Beast—a powerful young man of Pasar volunteered to lead the charge in any battles. And Akinfenwa, a hunter from the jungle and old friend of Bangqiu was eager to join this dangerous adventure. Gwinch agreed. But he suggested there should be a diversion.

Crowler and Slash, having convinced Aahaungg that they were trustworthy, was allowed to hear about the meeting with Gwinch. They, too, saw the value of a powerful diversion and volunteered to provide it. They had some ideas: Animals? Cows? An Elephant! But first Crowler and Slash would find a way into the monastery first and then call for the animals.  

Gwinch, satisfied that a diversion would be provided, suggested that they spend the rest of the day in meditation and then let Sid lead them to the hotel. During those several hours, Saisho-- Gwinch’s assistant, who had been absent from the meeting-- worked a series of incantations to make all 12 members of the expedition invisible. In this condition, the walk to the hotel was awkward, and created some consternation among Pasar’s residents, but did not attract the attention of the Black Flower on patrol. Sid led them into the now-empty hotel, first upstairs and then, through a hole in the wall down a long ladder into the dark. They walked through an archway and soon found themselves in an octagonal room where a strange man or eerily lifelike statue, composed of both flesh and metal announced that he was going to blast them with poison gas. As the golem lumbered toward them, the party spilt into two groups, both walking around the perimeter of the room, and searching for a way out. While the golem punch at the air in the empty archway, Banqgiu found a place where a thin layer of plaster covered a wooden door. Beast put his shoulder to the door and burst through. The rest of the party did not hesitate long in following as the golem turned awkwardly to follow them.  

Crowler and Slash were not invisible, and so Jasmine followed them. They avoided any conflict until they reached the small market in front of the entrance to the Monastery. As a group of young women were passing through carrying water, a pair of Black Flowers emerged and tried to pull them into the monastery. Crowler and Slash intervened. The Black Flowers were amused at first and mocked the would-be, but Crowler and Slash did not only challenge the bullies on the basis of their current behavior, but asked them—and all the people watching—why they were allowed to stay in the town of Pasar. Many in the crowd slunk away, but many stayed, and stared angrily at the Black Flowers. A few stooped to pick up stones or sticks. The Black Flowers cursed out Slash and Crowler as they fell back into the monastery.

In the tunnels below Pasar, Gwinch and company continued to seek out the secret aerie of the Black Flowers. Traipsing along a long corridor, Gwinch fell into a pit. From behind the party, they heard a hissing noise and Bayan saw a nozzle emerge from the wall. She and Sid struggled to cover it with their cloaks while the rest of the party stepped back. A fiery explosion threw Bayan and Sid several feet down the hall. Happily, although their clothes and hair were badly singed, their bodies received only minor burns. Gwinch, meanwhile surprised the others by saying them that sand had cushioned his fall. It was only a few inches deep and did not seem to hide any additional traps. The rest of the party descended into the pit, crossed it, and climbed out the other side, resolved to watch their feet more closely. Gwinch ordered his monks to collect some sand.

Outside the monastery gates, Prince Slash continued to harangue the Black Flowers for their corrupt ways. The gate opened again and several Black Flowers came out to pull Slash inside. He fought them off, but entered of his own free will. As the Black Flowers struggled to overpower Slash, they ordered a pair of monks to close the gates. The monks wearily complied, but not before Sir Crowler and Jasmine could slip inside as well. With a wink at the monks, Sir Crowler and Jasmine hid themselves and watched what the Black Flowers would do to Prince Slash.  

The heroes in the dungeon pressed onward, facing several dangerous obstacles along the way. The sand proved useful in crossing a giant glue trap. The adventurers were surprised by a pair of fire-breathing dogs. Bangqiu was cornered by one of the dogs and several of his companions were forced to give up their invisibility to assist him in destroying the demonic canines. There was a maze of doors, winding corridors and giant crossbow bolts—at their center a horrible, bull-headed man. Beast killed the monster and claimed its huge, powerful axe. As more and more party members became visible, they found they were less likely to bump into each other and when they next encountered a pit—this one holding not sand but gelatinous semi-intelligent acid, they were well-prepared. They destroyed the gelatinous cube and recovered a sword whose immunity to acid signified some arcane powers. When the party came to a huge lake inhabited by blind cave fish and leeches, they cut off the caps of giant mushrooms and crossed the water in style.

Prince Slash and the Black Flower gatekeepers crossed the muddy courtyard surrounded by ramshackle wooden buildings, and approached the single well-maintained structure, an imposing three-story stone affair. There were more Black Flowers inside, seemingly of higher rank than those who’d maintained the gate—they were reluctant to open the door without a good reason. When Prince Slash began to hurl his insults their way, they mocked the gatekeepers—“You say you have a prisoner, but he doesn’t act like one! Keep your dog outside until he learns how to behave!” Enraged, the gatekeepers drew their swords. Most of the monks and other servants in the vicinity, screamed and fled the scene. The two who remained stood with their ropes covering their faces; they pointed at the Black Flowers and giggled.

Gwinch, Banqgiu, and Bayan, together with their associates and followers, walked down a long corridor lined with torches, and arrived at last in a large, grand room with nine thrones. Five of the thrones were occupied by dangerous-looking men— a green-robed orcerer, a priest of the Shining Path, a monk of the Two-Fold Path (who unlike his brethren above had not missed many meals), a cloaked figure with a dripping dagger, and, first off his throne, Neetla, official captain of the Black Flowers. The party had a plan, but it failed on several points. Sid’s spell failed to affect the spellcasters. As Gwinch, Beast, and several sohei charged, the sorcerer caught them in a spell and their motions were slowed. Saisho, still invisible, threw magic powder on the ground to protect Gwinch and Beast from Neetla’s charge. Spellcasters from either side of the barrier through spells across. Sid and Akinfenwa who had been lingering at the back of the room were killed by a fireball thrown by the green-robed sorcerer. Both the priest of Shining Path and the cloaked figure disappeared. The green-robed sorcerer began throwing magic missiles at Gwinch’s sohei while the Two-Fold Path monk threw daggers. Saisho surprised the villains, appearing behind them and transfixing the green-robed sorcerer. The cloaked figure suddenly reappeared behind Bayan, stabbing her with his dagger. She shook him off and chased him with her sword, catching him just as he became invisible again. Gwinch, Beast, and two sohei circled around the magical barrier to meet Neetla in hand-to-hand combat. Bangqiu moved behind Neetla and hid him with multiple burning shuriken. With their reduced numbers, the slavelords, despite their individual power, were overwhelmed by the party. Saisho’s spells transfixed Neetla. The monk and the cloaked assassin (from the One Law Mosque) were killed. Besides the way they had come in, the only visible exit was a spiral staircase leading up. The party guarded both exits, spread sand on the floor, and waited for the reappearance of the Shining Path priest who had disappeared. He never showed. The strongest members carried the prisoners upstairs. At the top, they found a group of Black Flowers, some of the engrossed in a dice game while others were cheering on some kind of fight that was happening outside.

Prince Slash was one of those involved in the fight outside. As the Black Flowers closed in on him with their swords, Sir Crowler and Jasmine threw up the monks’ robes under which they’d been hiding. Prince Slash drew his own sword, but it was obvious he would be no match for three powerful warriors, even with Crowler’s help. But then the Black Flowers inside the house raised the alarm—“Intruders! Neetla is captured! We’re under attack!”

Inside the stone building, the Black Flowers seemed more intent on killing Neetla than freeing him from Gwinch and Beast. Saisho blasted them with steam breath.

 Outside, Prince Slash and Sir Crowler called on the burdened monks to throw off the chains of oppression and open the gates. Someone answered the call and the elephant and other animals stampeded inside. The remaining Black Flowers jumped out of windows to escape the monastery. The people of Pasar poured in from all sides. There was rejoicing. After a brief trial, the captured criminals were thrown into the wild animal pits. There was more rejoicing. Gwinch and Saisho found correspondence and maps pertaining to the other Slavelords’ strongholds—a stockade in the mountains near Quitokai and another, the dilapidated Monastery of the Two-Fold Path—this one in Khanbaliq. (In fact, Gwinch had visited both these locations and had several past dealings with the monks in Khanbaliq.) In the days that followed, Gwinch put things back in order and the rest of the exiled monks of the Two-Fold Path in Pasar were welcomed back into their home.