SH0: A shake-out session

Welcome to the first session of Surplus Heroes! It’s a shakeout session that takes just under an hour and a half.

I start off with no inner picture of how my character will react or speak, or even what baggage she might be bringing to a situation. I feel the same applies to the other three players too. But the benefit of a shakeout session is that you can try stuff. Here’s how it went down.

We don’t meet in a tavern

But that’s because we already know each other and are sitting around listening to the news, nursing our drinks, trying to figure out why our buyer, who wanted the ATVs we have crated up in our little cow when we set off, ain’t around to move them and hand us a case of creds so we can fuel up. Maybe the news clues us in: riots, anti-offworlder crap, dead president. Ain’t a body allowed to turn a cred?onthenews

Along the bar a ways is a doggie – what they call a Varag – Varagand a couple high-cred types that might of come in on the big ship, Empress something, across the port from our little cow the Unschlug. The girl ain’t looking for action and the guy ain’t giving the eye.brenda_wellings

The thin underslung type working the bar pops the vol up a mite and says how its getting ugly. Sure enough a drone cam shows us crowds on both south and west gates of the star port. Great. We are cut off from the old girl and need a way in.

“This your place?”

Pip ain’t just making with the small talk. She ain’t got hitched near as many times as me. But mostly, an offworld type like him might want to leave and might know how.

The underslung type allows as how ain’t nothing permanent and digs up a cashbox from under the floor, and a cut-down 8-bore. Seems his name’s Tone Loc and sure enough, he knows a way out.Barkeep

Rolls/Checks

I think Pip may have taken an Interaction check; at least one of us has rolled Alertness to see if we are aware that a mob is heading to the bar’s front doors. Meeting the Varag (name of Bob because his real name is unpronounceable) and Glenda and Wells is a gimme.

Low cloud is the same as fog

When you’re up over 1k that is. Glenda and Wells, the pair from the Empress, I’ve set in the middle. Barkeep Tone Loc is our guide but I set him at rear, Bob the dog next. Big Jim the Engineer is point so as to bulldoze through, me next. Giant then Pip slot in in front of Glenda.

The first real trouble we strike, the fog helps us. Fog carries sound real good, and we hear the locals before we slam into them. I get an idea and check around what we have. All good. I get the team together and quiet-like, say I’m going to throw a scare into them and at which point, we run through. Then I hurl Welling’s flask like it’s a pipe-bomb and yell ‘fire in the hold!’

The locals scatter like they ought to, and we run through. Once they get their nuts picked up, some run after us and Giant discourages them with a volley from his autopistol. I help with a shot or two my ownself. They stay discouraged long enough for us to get right round to the next problem.

Rolls/Checks

Alertness galore. You can see how this is going can’t you? If you miss Alertness, you are surprised, or at least don’t get to plan. We make our checks and the GM does not penalise me for having to explain the plan out loud to a group of people. Someone, it may have been me, rolls on Athletics to throw the ‘bomb’ and that goes well too. Rolls on Athletics also decide how fast we run through, and there’s some party order shifting.

We swing in towards the starport’s feeder line, through a built-up zone. Well I’m still along at the rear, making sure no-one’s getting lost, then from up front I hear a challenge and Pip squeaking and the sound of her 9 going off. The next thing I know, Jim is popping his blade and going toe-to-toe with some local that is trying to throw down on him with a gun. It’s a little local reception party barricading a street leading into the spaceport. Besides the shit-kicker fighting Jim, there’s maybe two or three others. The fog is making it hard to tell. We hit the dirt and I call shift left to cover, because that’s where I can see doorways and windows. Turns out the other side of the street is hard by as well, so some of the team roll right.

Combat

Being under fire causes a Fortitude check. If you are exposed, chances are you are just going to hug the dirt and, at best, seek the nearest cover that is no closer to the enemy. I called left because that would meet requirements for most conditions – I guess I was working from Dark Heresy’s suppression rule.

Glenda does not make even that good a check, and I spend a bit of time trying (using Leadership, and failing) to make her move: eventually Bob helps and we drag her over into cover.

In each combat the GM decides who gets ‘Edge’. Normally, it’s really important. In this case he decides both Pip and the local are surprised and neither has the edge. Jim decides to go for close combat and pops his blade out of his cybernetic arm. If this was a d20 game I think that would be a free action, but I could be wrong. The local on the other hand is trying to use his firearm. Jim gets the edge because he successfully closes and hits. As long as Jim stays in contact, the man’s Close Combat skill is what is counting for his use of a firearm. If the local ever gets a hit in and gains the edge, he can switch to combat marksman by backing off.

The locals are bad enough that we blow through their lousy excuse for a barricade, flinging a few discouraging shots behind us as we scuttle. Jim’s still up front so far as I can hear. The fog is plumb thick, right down to around 1 metre vis, but I’m pretty sure we’re in the port. Then there’s a real challenge up ahead! I’m guessing Marines: I used to be one. Jim starts trying some chatline crap on the Marine so I shout him down and offer a proper response. It’s a picket of nervous low-hitch jarheads, just about wetting theyselves. Good thing I spoke up. They are keen to evac, so they head in with us.

Rolls/Checks

The GM asks for a Leadership check in relation to the Marines, and I make a good roll. I don’t know if my background and rank helps. There’s some extra conversation across their RT network with their sarge, to co-ordinate evacuation and cover. These seem to be gimmes.

We need to leave but fast. Glenda and Wells have a fuelled-up ship so that’s what we need. I set up an extended line of search, adding the jarheads to it: we run a simple sweep and find the Unschlug: we have about one minute to grab our shit and get to the Empress. And away!

I hope you enjoyed this shakeout session, or at least got an idea of how the game plays. I moved pretty much from one of the team to boss-lady, but I hope to take a more equal role in most sessions. It ought to be horses for courses, where the helm is leader in one situation or even the gunner in another. Stay tuned!

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SH0: Character creation

Welcome to Surplus Heroes, at least as I experience it. I’m a player not the GM so I don’t see what’s going on behind the screen!

For this piece I’m using draft tables our GM has kindly given me access to.

Character Creation

Character creation occupies only about one and a half hours, which is not bad for four players creating characters for a system that is cousin to another system they don’t really remember! I do make mistakes creating my character, and have to re-do my character after the session: whether that reflects the rules’ brevity or my own lack of attention is open to question.

Random Only

We all begin with clear pictures of what we want, which is too bad, because our GM insists that it’s the random rolls that decide, not our own preferences. We have a gentleman’s agreement to swap if we roll up a character that looks like someone else’s character preference. But in practice each player moves from attributes to choosing a service without pause, by which time it’s too late. So DB ends up with a relatively small ‘Giant’ and DL ends up with someone he hadn’t planned for at all. AL flips to a female character, which is fun but unexpected. I get pretty much what I wanted, though my female is a bit more solid and a bit less communicative than I hoped.

I’d prefer a point-buy system, frankly. There’s a school of thought that says it doesn’t matter what you roll up, you just play it: but the opposite school of thought – that if players have a strong picture of their character beforehand, and can craft the build to meet that picture, then the game is all the better – has proven true over numerous campaigns.

 

To provide a picture of how the system works I’m going to describe my own character’s creation in fair detail. Again this is because I have only my own limited perspective.

GM Instruction: ‘I’d like to see a core ship’s crew.  There should be a Helmsman, an Engineer, someone on Sensors and maybe a Gunner.’

(The GM does not mention that a Merchant will be just as handy as a Gunner until after we all finish.)

I want a female crew-member – my last character was a male Paladin – and preferably with tech skills. I’d also like medic skills because the GM has mentioned, very early on, that medical skills will mean the difference between life and death for PCs. So now to see how my rolls help!

Attributes

Rolling for Frame, Athletics, Fortitude, Alertness and Psi with 18-4d3, I score: 10, 11, 10, 12 and 9. As Psi seems to be near-useless from the first read, and I know Alertness is used many times and many ways, this could have gone better but is pretty good.

I think for future editions Psi ought to be checked for ‘talent’ right away with no penalty. At present there’s a ‘try if you dare’ rule that seems anti-fun. If you do test for Psi talent and fail you don’t get an official career path. Weird.

Career

Caseless is reminiscent of classic Traveller: select a career (mostly military) and you get skill levels and some progression and specialty paths. This is what the choices look like: Main table, then specialty table.

Attribute Imperial Navy Colonial Marine Scout Service Merchants Other Psychic
Space Tech 11 13 11 11 14 14
Engineering 11 12 11 12 14 14
Tech 12 11 12 12 10 12
Vehicle 14 11 13 12 11 12
Interaction 12 12 13 12 10 10
Science 12 12 12 13 13 12
Survival 13 11 11 13 14 14
Attribute Imperial Navy Colonial Marine Scout Service Merchants Other Psychic
Combat ranks in Melee or Firearms Melee or Firearms: one at 2 the other at 3. A 2, 2 and a 3
to spread between
Melee, Firearms and
Support weapons
Melee or Firearms: one at 2 the other at 3. Gunnery 2 Melee or Firearms: one at 2 the other at 3. Melee or
Firearms: one
at 2 the other
at 3.
Melee and Firearms start at 2 each.
Specialization Starship Helmsman, Smallcraft, Engineering, Medical, gunnery Corpsman, Gunnery,
Smallcraft, Combat,
Technical.
Starship Helmsman,  Engineering, gunnery Starship Helmsman, Smallcraft, Engineering, Merchant, gunnery Forgery, Security Systems, Gambling, Persuasive, Computer Telekinesis, Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Mental battle.

You can see that picking a Service decides what skill groups you get and what specialties you get to choose from. For example if I want to be a medic only, and with fair Space Tech, Navy is a good option. I want tech-medic and Colonial Marines offers both Corpsman (medic) and Technical so that’s what I pick. As a result, my specialty is:

Technical: gain two boxes Sensors and Comms, 1 Tech improvement, and two additional skill rolls. My Tech advances from 11 to 10. The specialty Sensors and Comms maxes at 2 ranks (boxes that can be ticked off).

I also assign my high combat score of 3 to Marksman leaving 2 apiece for Close and Support.

With a score of 13 I’m not going to want to roll on Space Tech: in the Marines they get you there, they don’t tell you how they did it! My Interaction and Science are also below par.

Development rolls

Next up is finding out how many hitches I have served. The more hitches the more rolls to get better at things, and the more likely it is that physical attributes in particular deteriorate.

Randomising with 2d3-1 I get the ideal: 3 hitches. This also decides my age, with four years per hitch making 12 to add to the base of 18 for a total of 30.

Two skill rolls per hitch. I already have 2 bonus skill rolls from my specialty, and so that gives me eight rolls on the Colonial Marine column of the following table.

Attribute Imperial Navy Colonial Marine Scout Service Merchants Other Psychic
Personal Development 1-2Combat Marksman;
3-4Close combat; 5-6Space tech; 7Beam weapon; 8Gambling; 9Admin; 10Athletics
1-2Gun Combat; 3-4Close Combat; 5-6Gun Combat; 7Fortitude;
8Frame; 9Athletics;
10Gambling
1-2Combat Marksman; 3-4Close combat; 5Gambling; 6Sensors; 7Persuasion; 8Space Tech; 9Alertness; 10Frame 1-2Combat Marksman; 3-4Close combat; 5-6Gambling; 7Crim Con; 8Merchant; 9Interaction; 10Alert 1-2Combat Marksman;
3-4Close combat; 5-6Crim Con; 7-8Gambling; 9 Interaction; 10Tech
1-2Combat Marksman; 3-4Close combat; 5Psionics; 6Alertness; 7Athletics; 8Crim Con; 9Computers; 10Persuasion
Service Skill 1-2Engineer’s Mate;
3-4Co Pilot; 5-6Gunnery; 7-8Sensors; 9EVA;
10Space tech
1-2Gunnery; 3-4Support weapon; 5-6Sniper; 7Expertise; 8Vehicle; 9Beam weapon; 10Monofilament 1-2Engineering; 3-4Space Tech; 5-6Technology; 7Beam; 8Sensor; 9Corpsman; 10EVA 1-2Gunnery; 3-4Merchant; 4Persuasion; 5Interaction; 6Admin; 7Crim Con; 8Corpsman; 9EVA;
10Co-pilot
1-2Intrusion; 3-4Forgery; 5-6Computers; 7Close in;
8Needler;
9Sensors;
10Any
1-2Telepathy; 3-4Telekinesis; 5-6Clairvoyance; 7-8Psychic Block;
9-10Psychic attack
Advance Skills 1-2Co Pilot; 3-4Leadership; 5-6Engineering; 7-8Corpsman; 9Science; 10Space tech 1-2Corpsman; 3-4Leader; 5Personal weapon armourer; 6Smallcraft; 7Aquatic; 8Desert; 9Survival 1-2Co-pilot; 3-4Eng.Mate; 5-6Gunnery; 7Science; 8Small Craft; 9Beam weapon; 10Corpsman 1-2Co-pilot;
3-4Eng. mate; 5-6Interaction; 7Gunnery; 8Crim Con; 9Merchant; 10Needler
1-2Interact; 3-4Tech; 5-6Any;
7Grav belt; 8Airraft; 9Vehicle; 10ATV
1-2Any;
3ATV;
4Grav belt; 5EVA;
6Airraft; 7Corpsman; 8Interaction;
9-10Psionic

The tough choice is deciding how many to roll on the ‘advance skill’ side and how many on the ‘attribute’ side of the table. (Since I don’t see tech or medic on the service skills band, I don’t try that area.) I decide on five rolls for advance skill, three for attribute. Here’s what I end up with:

Skills: Two boxes of aquatic survival, one box of desert survival, one box of personal weapon armourer, one box of leadership. These are helpful in filling out a bit of background. Have I served on a water-world? Perhaps I hail from a water-world and served in a desert, or vice-versa. A high proportion of US Marines hail from landlocked states, so yeah, could be.

Development: One gain each in Athletics, Gun combat, Fortitude. Athletics improves to 10, Fortitude to 9. Combat marksman improves from 3 full ranks (worth 6) to 3+1 box, or +7 on each roll. None of these are absolutely character-defining but certainly good from a surviving-the-action point of view! I’m beginning to feel more like Vasquez from Aliens than Lambert from Alien. Which is not what I was looking for.Vasquez

 

(Mis)Fortune and Promotion

My three hitches result in a number of ‘survival’ rolls: I am lucky and survive all these ageing and mishap checks. (I can hear that my four-hitch buddies are not as lucky: groans all round the table. Four hitches makes ageing effects far more likely.) I am equally lucky on my promotion check: I gain a rank, choosing lieutenant which adds 1 leadership box. This maxes my leadership out. If I gain more, I take an advance in Interaction. I note that at some stage I have to test the waters for ordering around my buddies. Giant, our gunner, decides not to push leadership because I’ve got it. Pity really, it would be fun to have a number of leaders.

Quirks

It’s time to choose a quirk, which gives a bonus and a flaw. There aren’t a whole lot to choose from but as there are only four players that’s not an issue at this end of the game. After reading the list a couple of times I select ‘Reservist’ which adds 2 ranks each to admin (now max) and close combat (two out of three needed to get to total of 3 full ranks) and has the kind-of-flaw of making me very visible to officials in-port. It may prove to be a terrible choice but the other one I thought seriously about was Out of Time which our gunner Giant is already leaning towards. Time_Cop

Giant: specialty Gunner; Has also taken Combat Marksman up to 4 and has +3 bonus so adds 13 to all 3d10 marksman checks, with 4 aim to reduce dice. His quirk is Out of Time, so he is 57 years older than he looks, and no family, but has a number of extra skills. Giant is played by DB.

Big Jim the Engineer is going Black Dog with a cybernetic arm (with a hidden blade, which is one better than Black Dog in fact.)Black_DogBig Jim: specialty Engineer. Other than that he is fairly large, I don’t know much about Jim. Jim is played by DL.

Our Helmswoman Pip is going for Need for Speed, which sounds fun.

Faye_Valentine

Pip: specialty Helmswoman. Pip appears to be the only crewmember with a reasonable Interaction score. She also has ranks in Corpsman, which is handy. Pip can also gamble efficiently – a skill that goes right along with good Interaction. Pip is played by AL.

Mustering Out

Mustering out entitles me to 5K creds, a sidearm, and some random rolls. I get three rolls for Mustering Out, and a bonus roll from my Promotion. My results are:

1: An additional attribute improvement. Easy choice: I improve Alertness which shifts me from 12 to 11. 11 is average for a straight 2d10 check, and as the check must be equal or higher, I’m going to make a ‘normal’ alertness check more times than I fail it.

6: Equipment. This entitles me to personal work tools.

4: Wearable. This entitles me to personal armour.

5: Two additional skill ranks. I have not marked these in yet. I still don’t have my medic on so it’s likely that, if I’m permitted, these can be for maxing up Corpsman.

The last two skills

Finally two further skill ranks are assigned additional to any of the above. The GM recommends looking for fun stuff but I’d like something that reflects my age, background and rather poor Alertness and Interaction. Then it emerges that Merchant ranks are also useful. Once I know what skills are useful and fun (such as how you go about persuading officials or getting jobs off contacts) this might become obvious. I pencil in Small Craft.

My character as she reads

She’s a female ex-lieutenant. She is more technical-savvy than aware of her surroundings. She directs or manages people rather than bringing them with her. Bad experiences may have made her reserved. While she can manage the paperwork and signals sides of getting on in the Imperium she will not be able to seal deals without some serious upgrades in Interaction and Merchant. She is tough and capable, without being superhuman in any way. Her main functional skill is Sensors, and she can manage a number of other technical skills including loadouts for personal weaponry.

I’m giving her the handle Widow, which relates to the mini I have in mind, but also fits the ‘bad experiences’ suggested by her lower than average Interaction score.

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Hyboria! H5E93: Heart of Darkness

The company

“This ought not to take long. As I guessed, they threw everything they could scrape together at us back at the ruins. My other guess is they will only have the chiefs left, lurking around the gate. Maintain your station here; keep a sharp lookout; watch for our fire-arrow. That will be the signal that we are pulling out.”

Thus spake Bardic: and, leaving Russ muttering about grandmothers and eggs, he shouldered his kit of tools and spare weapon, and without further speechifying strode off with the “charge-in team” in the direction of the shadow-shrouded temple lying squat athwart the sands some 200 yards distant. Herez Wolf-kin lifted a hand in salute as the magnificent seven departed: Phaedra Grey merely watched them leave.

Bardic: bar16/ftr4, St20 Dx13 Cn14 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+20, F16 R7 W6+3. HP142, MV40’.

Gimmicks: d12+2 ‘ancestor’ great-sword, greater rage adds 6 to St and Cn, Leadership 23 can help in some situations.

Celo (no player this session): rog15/rgr5, St14 Dx22 Cn13 In 14 Wi13 Ch16. Init+10, BAB+16, F10 R17 W7+3. HP70, MV30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, Impr Feint allows feint as move action in combat, 6 attacks in full-round combat, 8d6 sneak attack damage.

Keth: ftr10/sch3/cle3, St20 Dx13 Cn16 In13 Wi14 Ch16. Init+5, BAB+13, F14 R8 W9+3. HP96, MV25’.

Gimmicks: Wears a belt that carries the spirit of Jamalla (Cle20); d6+2+d8electrical staff, Trips and Sunders combined with Whirlwind attack.

Morath: rog19/rgr1, St16 Dx20 Cn14 In11 Wi14 Ch13. Init+9, BAB+15, F10 R15 W7+3-2. HP78, Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 10d6 sneak attack damage.

Kayan (NPC): ftr16, St16 Dx22 Cn16 In13 Wi12 Ch11. Init+5, BAB+16, F14 R10 W4+3+2=8. HP123. Mv30’.

Gimmicks: d8+2 ‘relic’ short-sword, 6 attacks in full-round combat, advantage in seeing through illusion and disguise.

Forgrim (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx12 Cn18 In12 Wi12 Ch9. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W6+4. HP168, Mv20’.

Gimmicks: heavy armor combined with shield-bash technique.

Vikos (NPC): ftr16, St20 Dx13 Cn18 In10 Wi10 Ch10. Init+1, BAB+16, F14 R6 W5+3. HP128, Mv25’.

Gimmicks: powered overwhelming sunder adding 5 to St.

 

Some strategy required

The temple’s entrance was flanked by twin pylons. The approaching questers found it hard to estimate height and size: the whole seemed shrouded in an intense gloom that reminded them of Cresh’s manor in the Barachas. They skirted it a little first, this way and that, and stopped within easy bowshot.

“I’d guess an inner courtyard,” Bardic mused. “Maybe two. The walls seem long, don’t you think?”

“Yes, remember Luxur? That raised section of stone mid-wall might be a mid-rib arched passage between two courtyards,” Morath agreed.

“I’d rather not just rumble in if we don’t have to,” Bardic continued.

“We brought everything including pulleys, if you want to get Keth and Forgrim up the wall,” Morath reminded him.

“That could take a lot longer than us going over then linking with a rumble-through brigade.”

“Sound all right to me,” Morath agreed.

“Still I don’t like to just let them get hit by whatever the enemy has ready,” the Cimmerian continued, “so Celo, are you up for searching for traps through the gate?”

“It never hurts to help!” Celo agreed enthusiastically.

 

 

Here Be Demons!

Making quick work of the scramble, Bardic and Morath vaulted onto a broad stone parapet. But before they could do more than register that the darkness was still present, something winged and large descended from the nearest pylon with a fearsome screech! Morath slunk back readying for what his fighting-partner would do. The swooping thing speared Bardic a sharp blow with its war-fork and at the same time, an ash-like cloud surrounded both men, stinging and burning into exposed skin! With a blur of shining metal the ancestor-sword was drawn and bisected the creature, which dissolved, affording only a dim glimpse of beak and talons. But already another such being could be glimpsed!

Alerted by the screech, Keth cried:

“Our comrades are under attack! Forward!”

“Hey I hadn’t fin…” Celo began then shrugged as Forgrim and Vikos rushed past him to the far gateway into a courtyard so dark no detail could be seen. “Oh well, that’s another way of checking for traps!”

But even as Forgrim and Vikos reached the cover afforded by the open gate’s columns, two whips snaked out and tangled their weapons!

The wielders were huge, dark, winged demons, each bearing a vast sword and whip, and now each sword burst into dark flames as they pulled the burly men toward them!

Kayan dashed up to the gate, his swords flicking out. He cut Forgrim’s tangling cord. Vikos turned the tables on his attacker: instead of straining back, he launched forward, smashing his great hammer into the creature’s sword, shattering it and driving the great being back into the courtyard wall! It fell and Vikos raised his hammer for another stroke!

Celo moved with Kayan, but rather than trying for a tricky cut to free Forgrim, vaulted around the demon, taking a massive cut from the sword as he did so, but ramming his relic-sword deep in the thing’s leg. Keth smashed its sword, Forgrim rammed it, it fell and Celo finished it off, sending it back to hell.

The other fallen demon struggled back to its feet, wings beating, under a flurry of blows. With one final leap and smash Vikos beat it to death as it flapped up over his head.

Meanwhile atop the wall Morath and Bardic had dealt with three more screeching, spore-raining demons, all of which seemed to be intent on killing Bardic. He and Morath hastily drank an antidote each, and clambered down to assess the damage overall.

“I’ll take another antidote thanks,” Morath announced and Bardic did the same.

“So that went about as well as expected,” Bardic summed up buoyantly. “Don’t let the place get to you. It’s creepy but we’ve seen creepy before.”

“We feel fine! As long as we are near good old Keth!” Celo assured him.

“Holy Jamalla is sending her courage to all near me,” Keth agreed, referring to the shade of a long-dead servant of Mitra who – in theory – had the power to sunder the gate.

“Then I hope it keeps fine for her,” Morath snarled darkly.

“Hush now! I hear children crying!” Bardic warned.

The Mediator’s Last Taunt

Straining their eyes, and with the aid of the potion Keth had given them, Celo Morath and Kayan peered through the next gateway to an inner courtyard.

Four pairs of children stood in a rough circle: each child clutched a knife and pressed it to the other’s throat. They were crying with fright: unable to break the compulsion, but aware of every moment. A now-familiar diamond-shaped face towered over them.

“It’s that woman! She works illusions! We need to just charge and get her!” Morath advocated.

“What do you think?” Bardic asked Kayan.

“I don’t think they can be illusions… but I’m not sure.”

Bardic Keth and Morath discussed options for a few moments, then Bardic murmured a plan.

 

Keth stepped boldly through the gateway and addressed the face at the far end of it so:

“So! We meet again!”

Her violet eyes seemed to glow venomously and she seemed to stand even taller, if that were possible:

“Yes we do! And this will be your final warning: and so that you understand it, I have prepared an entertainment! These brats will kill each other slowly while you watch: and then I shall retire to ready your final doom should you be witless enough not to heed!

“And heed this!”

She threw back her fuligin cloak, and now revealed rose on a great serpentine lower half, raising six mighty swords with her six arms.

“She’s monologuing! Now!”

 

Vikos and Keth burst across the courtyard and charged – not the demonic woman, but the children! Blades smashed around Keth’s armor as he whirled his staff, but so good were his defenses that they did no damage! Vikos swung his hammer aiming for accuracy not power: he smashed first one knife, then the other. Two children safe! But Vikos too was sore hurt.

Morath raced forward then broke left, steering well clear – or so he thought! A flick of her tail sent him crashing into the wall, to fall sick and dizzy.

Kayan charged, flicking his swords like lightning: but her defenses were excellent as well, and he barely scratched her flank. And his lightning reflexes could not prevent him being cut three times.

Celo aimed a poisoned arrow from the gateway, but the arrow veered well wide. He drew his relic sword and loped forward.

Bardic raged, raced forward and leaped over the children, cutting the demon’s shoulder deeply but not enough to make her drop a sword. In reply, the blows rained on him heavily and blood ran freely from his flanks and neck. The six children still with knives began cutting one another’s throat, slowly.

Then Keth struck! His whirling silver staff stunned all six. With a scream of anger, the demoness retreated. Forgrim charged across the courtyard, past Keth, to smash his shield into the demon: but her tail gave her plenty of stability and instead it was the big man that was flung back.

Making no mistake this time about avoiding attacks, Morath tumbled around her to prevent her retiring through the final gate. He stabbed his relic sword deep in her back. Kayan again scored a nick in her hide. Then Celo’s voice came from behind Bardic:

“Anu!! Up and away!”

Bardic instinctively ducked, hunching his shoulders: Celo jumped, launched himself off the Cimmerian’s back, and somersaulted over the woman, burying his relic-sword in her neck as he did so. The blade snapped, but she was badly hurt! Vikos smashed her on one side and Bardic on the other: and she fell, writhing and rolling in her death-throes like a gigantic serpent! Keth and Forgrim dragged the children clear.

“I need some help here!” Keth called.

 

The lower temple

Children made safe and escorted back to the horses, Bardic rejoined his crew, strapping on his breastplate. “How’s it looking?” he asked.

“Tracks a-plenty, leading down the ramp.”

“And that smell, part carrion, part dog.”

“Hyena lair, huh? Thought so. Ready torches and form up: it’s slow and steady from here. All potions drunk? Let’s head out!”

The ramp led down to a large chamber, with plenty of sign that this was used as camel yards as well as for hyena-men and other creatures. Stove-in or heavily-used boxes and barrels around the walls gave evidence of long occupation by men and other things that needed to eat and drink. Heavy sigil-covered doors sealed some inner chamber while a pair of tunnels offered left or right exits.

Keth studied the sigils.

“It is hard to guess the age of this place and I am no scholar of ancient times, but it could mark the temple of the ghoul-god, worshipped from Acheronian times?” he speculated.

The right-hand tunnel led to accommodation for hyena-men. The left hand tunnel led to a convocation room of sorts, then around to a long dark stretch of tunnel. A faint carrion smell persisted near the next door. Bardic had it wedged shut. “Better safe than sorry,” as he said.

 

A last puzzle

“I can’t be sure but I think there’s a secret door just left of the next fork,” Celo announced from his scout vantage. Morath checked the ground where the Tauranian was looking. “Yep, snakey woman was here: she came out from the wall there.”

The secret entrance was bashed in. “More tunnel. Hmm, maybe someone who is you know, Zamorian and has an affinity for tombs and tunnels should take over,” Celo suggested, dropping back to rearguard.

Morath led off, noting that the wall frescoes seemed blasted as though by storms, and fine drifts of sand lay in crevices. “Trouble,” he muttered.

Sure enough the wind picked up to such an extent that only the strength of the warriors advancing allowed them to push forward, and only extreme nimbleness allowed them to keep torches lit. Each torch still only illuminated a small dismal circle around the holder, so every second person wielded one.

As he probed forward, near-blind, Morath felt rather than heard a click and ducked double just in time to avoid a colossal axe-blade scything out across the tunnel.

Once past the wind-and-axe trap, the tunnel seemed deathly quiet. “There’s a black door off to the right,” Morath announced, “but I can’t see any handle.”

Studying the set-up, the few at the fore could see that the solid ebony door could be pushed up manually, using two stanchions that jutted out from it. Vikos and Forgrim stepped forward, setting aside their weapons and Forgrim his shield.

After some straining – made a little harder by Forgrim not actually speaking – they got their count right and surged up as high as they could reach, while Kayan jammed Forgrim’s shield under the door. Bardic rolled through, torch in one hand and the mighty sword he thought of as Kull’s in the other.

 

The guardian of the gate

Bardic rose, lofting the torch, and gaining a momentary impression of two pillars near at hand in a large chamber: then from the dark a tentacle lashed out and slammed around him! He clove it: and as more tentacles lashed at him, those were cleft apart as well! Each stroke contained some foul poison that sent his mind reeling, back to the primitive age before ages, where the demon was born:

From the dark we came

To the dark we drag you

From chaos we came

To chaos we pull you

For harm we come

To harm we consign you

From dust

To dust

Lungs screaming, legs shaking, Bardic noted dimly that his torch had fallen and gone out. Then as though years later, another form leaped past him, and snarled:

“Die already!”

He blinked: the light seemed to grow: then realized that the material darkness that had swathed the temple was fading rapidly away. Morath stood smugly a few feet away from him, watching the last of the demon boiling away.

“Hee hee, kidneys! Always nice to get the kill! I do have a rep to maintain!”

 

The high priestess departs

“I do not know if I have enough power to close the final gate. If not, it may need your relics to be sacrificed.”

Thus warned Jamalla. With the masking darkness and enchantments now vanished, she had easily been able to locate the final gate below the last chamber.

“Mitra guide you, holy one! I look forward to our final meeting in Mitra’s care!” Keth replied. The priestess took near-solid form, raised her hand in final blessing, and walked away from the group towards the strange shifting colors that marked the last gate.

As before, a preliminary chamber contained views of the other four gates on its walls. This was where the others were watching from. Something about them was bothering Bardic: but even as he peered, then cursed, Jamalla’s form strode into the final gate, and disappeared. After a tense moment, the gate’s colors shifted violently, then went blank, leaving stone: but only for a moment. First the gate-chamber and then the annex began crumbling, and the onlookers hastened back and out.

 

The end?

With the temple collapsing behind them, and thankful that they had left all doors open behind them, the seven burst out onto the sands and gained distance before throwing themselves down to rest.

“I’ll send up an arrow in a minute… if they haven’t worked out that it’s over,” Celo panted.

“I think they may have guessed,” Kayan replied dryly.

“So, we’re all alive, we have food water and mounts, where to?” Keth wanted to know.

“If we are working backward from Cala’s trail, and we want to dodge the army that’s still out there, I’d say make for the lake area where those ratmen hail from,” speculated Bardic.

Others had other opinions but with a highly skilled ranger with them, any option would be viable so long as they had money to pay her with. Victory brought dreams of retirement: Morath to Cala’s stud farm, Keth to re-rebuilding his monastery. Bardic was silent on the subject. It was a little later that Morath decided to probe indirectly:

“What was that you saw on the wall, Bardic?” Morath asked, his paranoia still working.

“Something we probably should have seen coming.”

“So what? You were kind of looking at the mosaic of the gate under Edric’s, weren’t you?”

“Those mosaic tiles that formed the gate?” Keth verified. Bardic nodded:

“He always was fascinated by ancient secrets…”

“So?”

“Just before the place crumbled… I had a glimpse of him putting the tiles back together.”

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Hyboria! H5E92: Destiny in the Desert, Part Two

Before the last water-hole

It had been three nights and three days of travel across the burning waste that lay between the dried lake and the next real water-hole. Seven of the camels had now perished, and even mighty Forgrim was down to a stumbling walk. The horses, though unladen, were in sad shape.

Bardic finished running through the plan with his comrades Celo and Morath, and the mercenary ranger Phaedra Grey. He was loath to see both rogues go, but as Morath pointed out, if the big tiger turned on them, two would be needed.

Keth joined Bardic, and watched them go without offering to bless them. Phaedra had surprised him by demanding his pledge that should she die, her bow and gold be delivered to the nearest Ashtoreth temple in Hyborian lands, which suggested she had some kind of piety. Which was more than could be said for the other two.

They watched the trio fade away into the shimmering heat-waves. As best the mirages would allow guessing, they faced only a short walk before reaching the ruins around the water-hole. There, they were to hunt down the mage that must be there to control the great cat, kill him, and try to suggest to the cat that it should move on.

 

It worked!

An hour passed and with the horses and camels becoming uncontrollable it was time to let them seek out the water. Even as the eight travelers struggled to keep them off the ruined stone flags, a signal arrow arced over the ruins and landed there by the caravan.

 

“The plan worked perfectly,” Celo reported, sounding very surprised. “I spotted the mage, told Phaedra to shoot where I was shooting, and he tumbled dead.”

“Then we annoyed the tiger – which by the way was as big as two houses, not just one – but only enough to get it to move on,” Morath concluded.

 

At the last water-hole

Later, with horses, camels and travelers watered, the ruins yielded some further information. Some thirty corpses, most likely caravaneers, were stacked up in a ruined tower like logs waiting for splitting. Each had a Zugite coin, marked with a necromantic rune, under its tongue.

“So we killed two birds with one stone. We got rid of the tiger and we didn’t meet risen dead,” Celo concluded.

“I’m uneasy about those strange clouds in the desert. They supposedly mask forces,” Morath responded.

“Yeah, both Russ and Herez seem pretty sure about that,” Bardic growled.

“And more will be gathering. Like you said, the demons are gathering everything they can scrape together,” Morath persisted.

“We need to move on,” Bardic conceded, “and once Kayan agrees with my sight-line, and I’ve got day-landmarks and star-pointers, we’ll move out.”

Two days later, all were recovered from fatigue, and Vikos’ arm had healed from the vicious Hyena-bite he had sustained in the fight at the lake bed. A feeling of tension ran throughout the company. Not nervousness, or not that alone. Exactly how far they were yet to travel was unsure, but perhaps two days would be enough? And more mystical fogs were now moving in. They could guess that they were being surrounded.

 

The ruined fort

“Rouse yourselves and work like dogs!” Bardic bellowed. “Stones can be moved, rope can be lashed, and pits can be dug! We’re not dead yet by Crom!”

As expected, the course chosen had led true to this ruined fort, the last major landmark prior to the lone temple that must cover the last gate. But the enemy had been gathering from four points of the compass even as they arrived at it, and now they were surrounded.

The fort offered limited protection. There were no roofs left, but an old stone barracks was large enough to hold the horses and camels crammed in together, and the entry gate-towers offered elevated archery-posts.

The main (south) gate: the rope ladders were rigged so that Celo and Phaedra could raise them once a few of the enemy had entered, hopefully allowing a few to be dealt with at a time.

The east gate: Stone blocks were levered over and the entrance changed to a false entrance, leading north, to another blocked off alley.

Over a third of the perimeter was virtually gone. The company dug pits and planted caltrops there between remnants of walls. The rear or north gate was trapped with concealed pits with silver-tipped arrows turned into punji sticks.

This was because the enemy had now cleared its fog and was preparing for battle: and to the north, hyena-men and were-hyenas were gathering, presided over by a massive hyena lord.

To the north-west, camel-riding Zugites were preparing.

To the east, perhaps readying for the dawn, dusky-skinned Jhilites were drumming and howling.

To the south, it looked as though a company of ghouls would be first to attack.

 

The hyenas

Keth cast a charm on Rollo’s tulwar, allowing it to harm were-beings, then the five main defenders – he, Rollo, Kayan, Vikos and Bardic – rushed the north gate. Morath shadowed Keth, having been warned to stay out of the main fighting. The berserk hyena-men, each wielding twin tiger-claws, were used as human trap-clearing devices as they rushed over the punji pits and trampled each other. Some were-hyenas bounded over the low walls, others followed their berserkers. The huge hyena-lord shifted his shape into a two-legged hybrid and stalked majestically over his dead.

Vikos’ great hammer smashed men to pulp or threw hyenas down. Keth tripped those around him, allowing Morath to finish them easily. Bardic clove two or three apart at once. Kayan fought defensively at Bardic’s back, his blades whirling and cutting down any that sought to outflank his leader. Rollo surged on deeper and deeper into the midst of the enemy, screaming with unholy glee as he lopped heads off. Careless of his own safety, his armor quickly hung in tatters and his skin was flayed back as deep as the bone.

Finally all but the hyena lord and two last were-hyenas had fallen: Morath rolled past them, and came up behind the huge were-lord. Bardic leaped high and sliced his destiny blade through the great-creature’s skull: it fell.

Keth pressed a healing potion on Rollo and on Vikos, who had taken further hurt during the battle. “Get yourself into cover,” Bardic advised the huge man.

 

Morath’s sortie

“Our only chance against those ghouls is for the sorcerer behind them to be taken out.”

With those words it only remained for a volunteer. Celo and Phaedra were standing watch atop the eastern gate-tower, so Morath set out alone.

“We’ll be sending fire-arrows out at the ghouls, so make the best of that you can,” Celo encouraged Morath.

With the gentle night breeze running to northerly, Morath swung wide, then looped back in. As he stole from dune to dune, he could see the rise and drop of fire arrows, and hear shrieking and gibbering from ghouls: the attack had begun! But all to the good: the sorcerer was so intent on directing his charges he had no idea of the danger until Morath’s sword went through his back!

Making sure the man was dead, Morath hastened north back to the fighting. His skin crawled at the thought of what else might be prowling the night.

 

Rollo dies

The fight was white-hot around the main gate. Ghouls are immensely strong and durable and a mere cut will do very little. It takes a mighty blow to break one’s bones. And once they take a hold, they rend with tooth and claw.

One leaped high, grasping the lip of the ruined gate-tower Celo was shooting from. Phaedra’s bow thrummed and it lost its grasp and fell back into the broil below. The rope ladders had worked reasonably well: Bardic Rollo Keth and Forgrim could push them and crowd them back into one another, allowing Celo to pick off the wedged-in ones. Forgrim’s smashing shield-attack excelled in this, but Rollo’s tactic of leaping in to smite off heads proved fatal. One ghoul seized an arm, another closed its jaws in his leg, and he fell to be buried under the foul mass.

Bardic smote right and left, clearing a path for Kayan to fall back to. The lightly-armored fighter was doing very little damage and things were going badly. Then Morath struck! Ghouls that had previously thought their prey was to the fore were struck dead from behind. Vikos joined in, smashing ghouls down so they could be killed with ease by the rogues, until he too fell.

Panting for breath as the last few ghouls fled off into the waste, they looked about them. Bardic dug under a pile of ghouls.

“Rollo’s been torn apart: nothing we can do.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nastier bastard,” Morath commiserated.

“Vikos will be all right: I’ve fed him a couple more potions,” Keth reported.

 

The arrow storm

“Dawn! The sun rises and the Kushites are moving! Russ cried from his lookout post.

“Ware arrows! They will darken the sky!” Herez cried.

“To your cover!” Bardic cried.

Much earlier, even as pits had been dug, the saddle bags, tools and tents had been converted to arrow-stopping shelters. Now all ten defenders crowded alongside the horses under them. The sky blackened and arrows drummed down, shaft after shaft. And the Jhilites moved forward, shooting as they came!

 

The final defense

Perhaps it was a mistake or perhaps he believed the defenders were still sheltering. Either way, the witch-man strode forward from among his Jhilite followers and gestured impressively from well within 200 feet of the defenses. As yellowish fog rolled out and up from his fingers, several answering longbow arrows smote him, driving right through him and pinning his corpse to the sand. The cursed fog disappeared, the Jhilites cried out in dismay, and halted their advance. Then they fell back to their original position.

Across the ruins on the far side, the camel-mounted archers wheeled back and reported to their own sorcerer. There would be no attack out of the dawn sun: instead, the Zugites would have to attack with the sun in their eyes.

 

Granted a brief respite Bardic made his final dispositions. They would fall back into the alleys between walls, finally retiring on the barracks. Vikos was back in action, though still battered, and Forgrim was ready to hold the line. Bardic strapped on his breastplate: this would be a press, not a loose skirmish.

“Do you think you can snipe the sorcerer from somewhere here?” he asked Celo.

“I’ve got the light and they won’t see me concealed on the busted corner tower,” Celo replied confidently.

“Right, that’s you and Phaedra: if you can see him, get him.”

“I’ll take some more poisoned arrows,” Celo told his archery mate.

“One gold per five arrows,” she replied promptly.

The Zugites raced their camels in, flanked by foot skirmishers. As they hit the pits along the perimeter, a whole rank of camels tumbled and Herez, screaming in glee, poured arrows at his hated foes. Then the remaining Zugites were inside and the whole become one boiling melee.

Celo took his chance: he knew he could not wait longer, lest the dying Zugites become zombies. He nodded to Phaedra, who stood:

“Ashteroth’s Fury!”

Phaedra sent a deliberate shot, then another. Immediately after her first, Celo sent a volley of arrows arcing far over the sand. The tiny dot that was the sorcerer described a half-circle, and fell flat.

“Got him! Pitch in lads!” Celo bellowed triumphantly.

The Zugites trapped themselves in their headlong charge, and were cut apart by the dozen as their foes used the ground to their advantage. Very quickly the survivors at the front began pressing back against the rear ranks, making for even easier targets. And within a few minutes the ragged remnants were trying to leap back upon their camels and flee.

And seeing this crushing defeat, the Jhilites withdrew, fading off east and south.

Victory!

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Hyboria! H5E91: Destiny in the Desert

Allies and Hirelings

Kayan Haduk, Ftr15, Bardic’s cohort. A Hillman of medium build who keeps his head shaven, Kayan follows the Asuran cult and wields twin Zingaran longswords. He’s just been given a relic short-sword, which has boosted his attacking abilities. His ‘gimmicks’ are his faith-based ability to spot illusion and disguise, and Haste once/day.

Forgrim, Ftr15, hired ally. His origins are unknown; he is large, bald and his visible skin is covered with ritual tattoos and scars. He fights heavily armored with a heavy shield, battleax and back-up Poll axe. His ‘gimmicks’ are both faith-based: +4 bonus to Will against fear effects (which does not stack), and reroll ability on Fort saves.

Rollo the Hand of Blood, Bar10/Nom5, hired ally. A powerful Ghanata with terrible facial and bodily scars, Rollo wields a huge tulwar. He is a master of the harsh desert. His ‘gimmick’ is an empowered, tricked-up charge move that combines Leaping charge, Decapitating slash and Devastating sweep (all prestige moves). As a ‘local’ he can recharge this power.

Vikos Kullwood: Ftr15, hired ally. A Hyperborean of immense stature and tattooed, battered features, Vikos wields a Great Hammer (or Maul). Compared to Forgrim he is lightly armored. His ‘gimmicks’ are an empowered Awesome Blow which typically knocks foes back or down, and an empowered version of Bull-Rush. Since Vikos worships Bori he cannot recharge these so they will be last resort only.

With the characters Bardic, Celo, Morath (all L20) and Keth (L16 but with the shade of a L20 Priestess in reserve) these men make up the ‘charge in’ team.

They are guided/accompanied by:

Herez Wolf-kin, Nom6, Bardic’s follower. A typical wiry Zuagir who has tied his people’s fate to Bardic’s success, he has some modest abilities with animals and tracking. He is familiar with both Zuagir bow and lance.

Phaedra Grey, Rgr7/Rog3, hireling. A tall woman who is never without her longbow, and who callously follows the mercenary code. Her ‘gimmicks’ are an empowered attack with her bow, and an empowered ability to enhance cover or concealment. These are Ashtoreth-derived so can be recharged in this region.

Russ Cliff-path, Exp3/Rog5 hireling geezer. He’s been there, seen that, and things were always bigger better or badder back in his day.

Together these 11 make a morally-grey expedition. Kayan and Keth count as ‘good guys’ while Bardic and Forgrim follow a code. Celo has a rep as a happy go lucky guy but is really about as cold-blooded as Morath.

 

Logistics

I had no expert source for camel needs, so estimated 18 camels based on the 400lb lading for pack camels. I already had 12 horses (11 riders, one pack horse from previous journey). That gave me a grand total of 30 mounts. In the desert, the horses would be reserve. The players were taking supplies seriously so I also doubled the average cost per camel to cover all standard supplies. That way if someone wants a shovel it’s there, without having to compile an inventory.

I asked Keth to fix his spell list. He can’t recharge, so (like Vikos) spells are for emergencies. The decision about antidotes was made at the same time: 16 non-magical ones.

Guardsman Nafor allowed our heroes to slip out of Shushan with as little notice as a caravan of 30 beasts heading for Kuthchemes might possibly attract.

Bardic, Morath and Celo arranged the order of march so that the van and rear were guided and guarded, with the ‘tanks’ in the middle and Bardic and old Russ a little forward of center. The caravan stretched about 600’ from scout to drag.

Order of march:

Rollo, Celo, a number of camels, Russ, Bardic, Herez, Vikos Keth and Forgrim, a number of camels, Kayan, Morath, Phaedra.

 

The first leg: the trail to Zamboula

Who’s on our back-trail?

Less than a day out, with those less-proficient at camelback travel still struggling, Phaedra reported to Morath:

“We are being followed. Do you want them discouraged, or dead?”

“Dead,” Morath decided.

Phaedra nodded and slipped away on the back-trail. Even Morath’s eagle eyes had difficulty picking her out. A feeling of something that almost passed for affection welled up in him. Even more so when on her return, she said:

“Don’t worry – I have plenty of poison doses left.”

The days and nights passed at camel-walk, without ceasing, from oasis to oasis. If they had not realized it before, all became aware that the horses were only there for tactical use. Light armor was worn under their loose Zuagir robes and head-dress, though for Forgrim that meant the under-padding of his hauberk. Phaedra wore light breeks under her robes, allowing glimpses of green and brown rune-patterns on her legs. The others wore either Zuagir trousers or their own leathers. With this manner of clothing the heat was bearable.

 

The second leg: towards Kuthchemes – challenges of the trail

The tiger

It was time to turn and head to Kuthchemes. After the weeks of monotonous caravan trail it was almost a relief to face the unknown. Russ and Rollo knew something of the route ahead but there was no set trail, only scattered oases that needed to be found. The rout order had worked well, so Bardic decided to stick with it.

A few days on, a broad belt of elephant-grass barred the route. Rollo noted that the edges of each blade were so sharp that those wearing only robes would be cut – and in all likelihood the sap from the grass would prevent clotting. (This was indeed much the same substance that Phaedra used on her arrows.)

Those with leathers thus moved to the van and began beating a trail through: Celo, Keth, Forgrim and Vikos. Keth switched to Yog’s Mace (slightly smugly – it was a base use for an evil relic). Forgrim used his shield, while Vikos used his great hammer like a flail. A mighty tiger, at least fifteen feet long, sprang out upon them! Its pounce failed to penetrate Vikos’ leather and it was promptly stabbed by Celo, struck by Keth, bull-rushed off Vikos by Forgrim, then Vikos crushed its skull withj one mighty blow from his great hammer!

“In my younger day, tigers grew twice that big,” Russ asserted.

 

Below the cliffs in the storm

Like it or no, the caravan would have to shelter under the honeycombed cliffs: Russ and Rollo could both see a storm approaching.

“None know exactly what those rock chambers are for. If once there were folk living there, it was so long ago that even legend has forgotten them,” Russ explained.

Though Bardic had cautioned all to be alert, the chance to rest in shade, combined with the endless roar of the sand blasting over the cliffs, lulled he and several others to sleep.

Morath’s paranoia however kept him awake. He couldn’t escape the feeling that something was above them, watching them.

To climb up in the storm was insane, so once the storm passed, he relayed this to Bardic and the two clambered up. Naturally, there was no trace of anything – the sand-storm had seen to that even if there had been some physical trace – but the view from the cliff gave them fresh information.

“Down over yonder – that great rock – it has human features”

“Aye, and see – tribesmen riding out from under its shelter,” Morath agreed.

“They’ve come out to shovel off the doorstep,” Bardic joked, then commented, “We’re not looking for a fight unless they are hostile – let’s get our smiling Celo rolled out.”

The Zuagir believed the human face – be it natural or otherwise – to be the face of an ancient god. Luckily, the god was not one of the cults opposed to the adventurers. These tribesmen cautiously accepted Celo’s story that they were passers-by, and shared hospitality.

 

The destined blade

The storm had thrown much loose sand across the landscape, and the next three days were particularly difficult. Fine sand plastered everyone’s face and filtered in through even the best-wrapped cloth. Tempers became frayed.

Bardic knew that with men of the ilk of Rollo and Vikos, a minor upset could lead to mass death. He gathered the men and addressed them, reminding them that they needed to stick together and act as comrades for the while.

“Will you show them your blade, captain?” Russ asked.

Bardic drew the great blade that he thought of as Kull’s blade, and told of its taking.

The men, impressed, took the special destiny of the mission to heart and curbed their violent natures to Bardic’s will. Kayan Haduk felt a special pride at following Bardic in this crucial time, and practiced with his longswords diligently.

Kayan gains Ftr16 as Bardic’s Leadership rises by 1 reflecting his ‘special power.’ Kayan takes GreatCrit, making twin longswords deadly, though his attack is still higher wielding relic short-sword and longsword together.

They that burrow

After some clever work by Rollo, who seemed to have no equal when it came to navigating the desert, they found the next oasis. The storm had left a crust of sand over what could best be termed a bog. It would have to be dug out. Clouds of stinging insects made the spade-wielders’ job miserable, and the camels and horses complained loudly: they could scent water but not reach it.

Keth, laboring with his usual humble enthusiasm, spotted burrows in the mud, about two hands broad.

With this to raise the level of watch that night, Bardic was easily able to catch the clicking, rattling sound of huge scarab beetles taking to the air in quest of flesh!

These oily black scarabs were extremely hard of carapace, and only a really solid blow would bring one down. Before all twenty were smashed, some of the horses had been given painful wounds. One horse, Herez’ mount, was dead: Vikos had missed his scarab and smashed the horse instead.

Celo, Keth, Herez and Rollo were willing to work up poultices for the beasts, though at first Bardic was inclined to follow Phaedra’s advice to just put them down.

Two further days rest was enforced while the horses recovered. The camels replenished their water, and everyone rested. Food stocks were diminished a little more than planned.

 

The wadi maze

Some days further, the path Rollo had chosen was broken by a number of deep crevices, yards wide. Rollo’s opinion was that these were wadis cut by flooding in the wet season, but that there was very little chance of flash-floods now.

Their faith in Rollo was rewarded by a series of days weaving through the relative cool and shade of the interconnected wadis. Vigilance and good tracking enabled them to cope with giant scorpions that enjoyed the wadi system without harm.

 

The mesas

On the horizon as they negotiated their way out of the wadi system were a series of regular-looking heights. Celo and Morath were inclined to believe them natural. Russ’ knowledge of them suggested the same, though he had a legend to add: that a hidden trail up one led to a hidden tomb and treasure!

“We might look for that on the way back,” Bardic averred skeptically, “but for now let’s just get by them and not get ambushed.”

This was accomplished, and by dint of careful scouting, they found themselves out on a narrow trail leading towards what they hoped was water.

 

The ambush at the dried lake bed

To their disappointment, however, the trail led to a dried lake bed, crusted with alkali, and part-flanked by the last crumbling buttes.

Rollo led the way along, looking for the best point to dig for water. Then from both flanks, the ambush was sprung!

Five powerfully-built hyena-men, each with a couple of Zuagir tribesmen running before them, burst up from the dried alkaline crust and loped down toward the caravan!

Those with bows – Celo, Herez, Morath and Phaedra – sent arrows upslope at the incoming tribesmen or hyenas. Celo and Morath had silver-tipped arrows. Herez had none, but nicked a tribesman and made back to his remount (the pack-horse), where his lance was lashed. The huntress readied arrows, calling on Ashtoreth, and knocked down two tribesman.

Near the back of the rout, from where he had begun running, Morath’s eagle gaze picked up an extra shimmer on the nearest butte: the presence of an invisible mage!

“Mage on the rocks! Ahead and above!” Morath yelled back to Phaedra, continuing his run forward. Celo switched to short-swords and engaged the oncoming tribesmen, Forgrim drew his poll-ax and halted to guard the camels, Vikos charged forward, swinging his great hammer savagely. Bardic chose a trio on the opposite flank, making a leaping charge to fell both tribesmen and knock down the hyena-thing. Keth whirled his staff until the sparks from its ends showered around him as he advanced on another trio. Kayan cried a command word and glided across the lake-bed with ease to attack a final trio. Finally, Rollo gave a terrible cry, veins bulging and pulsing on his scarred visage, and leaped amidst the trio that Vikos was assailing, smiting the heads off both tribesmen: their heads continued screaming as they rolled upon the ground!

Phaedra, guided by Morath’s cue, sent three arrows arcing far up, right over the caravan and into the invisible mage! With a choking scream he tumbled back off the butte.

Once all tribesmen and hyena-men were slain the adventurers took stock of their attackers. Celo searched them; but Morath and Phaedra traced where the mage had fallen.

They found him, buried back under some sand nearby. Morath held up his hand as Phaedra drew her hunting knife.

“Let’s not just kill him out of hand: he’ll have some things to tell us.”

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Hyboria! H5E91: Shushan Dancing

Year of the Dog: News and rumors around Shushan

Argos’ non-war with Zingara is rumored as a real war out here. A number of eastern-based mercenaries headed there, in much the same way that a number of Shem-based mercenaries headed to Koth.

Koth is undergoing a slow rebuilding process: the east is still not happy with Strabonus’ rule. Ophir, having survived war with Aquilonia surprisingly well, is back to its usual internal tension between east and west. The emissary from Ophir to Stygia did manage to secure the trade agreement, in spite of a diplomatic incident involving some rogue guards and a temple.

Brythunia and Zamora are beginning to suffer from raids out of Turan. Prince Yezdigerd, a possible successor to Yildiz, is a fire-brand and ambitious generals in the style of Shah Amurath (now deceased) are following his example. Turanian slavers use Zamboula as a base where Zuagir and Kushites can bring their slaves.

Child sacrifice seems to be at an end, at least in the west and south. The Flame Knife cult has fragmented into splinter cells, Becharadur is out of business, the Temple of Derketo in Stygia is no longer organizing anything, and the corsairs are reduced to individual commands.

However, two hitherto-minor cults, the Hyena god and the Ghoul god, have steadily grown in power since the fall of Natohk here in the east. Some say that other things than Natohk were unleashed from Kuthchemes. Others whisper that there is a sinister conspiracy that links all the worshippers of desecration, including the Kite god Jhil and Yog, god of empty abodes, who is widely worshipped among the Zuagir.

Shushan is a huge sprawling city of open-air bazaars, teeming with a mixture of races. Large numbers of children could easily be bought here with none to wonder exactly what use they are being put to…

 Re-acquainted

“Well met, my friends! How has the desert treated you?”

Keth’s booming voice welcomed Celo and Morath as the four old comrades in arms met up once more. Both rogues dodged Keth’s bear-hug of greeting.

More practically, Bardic signaled for drinks and updated the others on what he and Kayan had been doing. A fair amount of the year had been spent getting to the border between Zamora and Koth, to Cala’s horse stud. Kayan had made some legal arrangements there and a little more money had been realized out of yearling sales.

Keth had spent weeks over the intervening seasons crafting various potions. He had brought with him 60 pounds of potion bottles. He had not come bearing antidotes, since those could be bought in any large city from people that Morath and Celo would be far more likely to find than he would.

Morath and Celo were close-mouthed about what task or tasks the thieves of Nippr had set them to. Their weapons were sharp and their armor undamaged.

“Speaking of weapons, have you pair still not decided on who gets the third relic sword?” Bardic asked.

Celo shook his head ruefully.

“No, we haven’t had an all-out fight where we needed both so it’s been left up in the air. I’m thinking whoever can con the other into believing they deserve it, gets it.”

“Here’s another option: I’ll give it to Kayan. I got his swords silvered, but a real relic that burns through undead will be a huge asset in his hands.”

Morath and Celo were relieved at this option and both agreed to it readily.

 

We need some top talent

“The harpists still sing of our deeds, and I hear many in Shushan are already eager to join us, or help us,” Keth remarked later. “Not that anyone is saying what we are doing here – most stories say that we seek treasure around Kuthchemes.”

“Yeah, it’s weird, walking through a market with guards admiring me,” Celo chuckled. “When I was a kid, guards would be trying to catch me.”

“How did you cope in Nippr? Was your fame not a problem?” Bardic asked curiously.

“I went disguised, mostly.”

“Oh right, makes sense. Well, looking at what we need to do, I’m for hiring the best people we can get. Remember Roaring Pass? We didn’t go there until we had the best team.”

“Good mercenaries are expensive these days,” Morath muttered.

“And whose fault is that? I seem to remember it was you that demanded a thousand up front and a thousand on completion, from our buddy Edric!”

“Meh. Supply and demand. But here, it seems like most of the good ones went off to chase some war in Argos, or are over towards Turan somewhere.”

“Well, we need to keep our ears open. And think about specialists. We could need someone really good at getting into places and finding traps. Like Yemmi.”

“My skills aren’t shabby you know,” Celo pointed out, amiably enough.

“Or Cass, I’d love to get Cass…”

“We know you would…”

“…but her whole non-killing thing is a bit of a drawback. Speaking of non-killing, I’d really like that slab of no-talky metal we had back then to turn up. Except without the whole ‘puny men, you are beneath me, I sweep you away with my non-lethal shield’ thing.”

“Yeah, what was his name?”

The day passed in happy reminiscence. And then it was time for the panel of judges to assemble for:

 

The Ax-Factor: Shushan!

Ever seen the part of Whose Line Is It Anyway where the participants play “world’s worst…”? This was much the same with the GM doing an ‘instant sketch’ to suggest what kind of NPC was appearing.

It was funny, but I can’t write it all up here without taking thousands of words. Highlights: Keth thinking the weird mage would be ‘pretty handy’ to bring along; and, the players recognizing Forgrim as I mimicked silently taking a helmet off and signaling my price.

Category one: information or equipment

The ‘judges’ had some second thoughts during auditions and some contestants were sent to boot camp only to be axed. I’m still not sure if the judges fully understood that this category was about help in Shushan, not adventuring.

The finalists include Guardsman Nafor, a wiry middle-aged local guard; Desa Abani, an attractive middle-aged wise woman, Osusk Nar, an eccentric Alchemist, and ‘Mickey’ Fel, a paranoid fence.

 

Category two: less-skilled or cheap

This category reflected the fame of some of the judges, including hopeless amateurs, flashy fame-grabbers, and kids. The judging was easier since most of the decision making was around fighting ability.

The only finalist was Herez Wolf-kin, a Zuagir whose tribe had chosen the wrong side back during Natohk’s rise. He’s ruggedly masculine, dark and wiry like most Zuagir. Morath can guess that he probably has his own agenda but for now he will do as a guide.

Another surprise audition occurs for Celo only: see One-Night Stand, below.

 

Category three: experienced and pricey

This proved hard for the judges, in that very few could simply be ruled out at audition. After some agonizing there are still half a dozen left: in order of likelihood of hire they are:

Forgrim the Silent, bald and silent, covered in tattoos and ritual scars. He is a known quantity having fought alongside all of the others, and seems to agree with killing demons.

Rollo the Hand of Blood, a desert-crafty Ghanata and ruthless warrior who wields a mighty tulwar in combat. He is also a known quantity, having been a hireling of Bardic and Morath’s before. He also knows the trail from Shushan to Zamboula and knows where to turn off for Kuthchemes.

Russ Cliff-path, grizzled treasure hunter. Russ claims to have actually explored parts of Kuthchemes.

Vikos Kullwood, reformed thug. Enormously tall, tattooed and with a flattened nose, Vikos is the epitome of ‘meat shield.’

Phaedra Grey, hardened archer. A tall woman with stern features who keeps her dark hair back in a long ponytail. Celo is keen for range power and Phaedra is never without her longbow. The soulless pragmatism of this prostitute-turned-mercenary appeals to Morath.

Jedyah Pathfinder, vengeful huntsman. Raven-dark hair hangs over this Shemite’s tanned skin. His eyes are green, suggesting mixed parentage.

Category three’s capabilities are open to purchasing power. With a cap-level of L15 (as they can’t be higher-level than Bardic’s cohort) the players can buy their hires up by level, at a cost of 200 per level. But with only 11,000 worth of silver that’s going to limit them drastically.

 

Which brings us to…

 

One-night stand

“Hi Hirst, long time no see. I’m bored! Want to rob the local treasury?”

Deeply tanned and with short curly dark hair now, the wild society girl Celo knew as Bailey Zaid speaks Shemitish with a strong Corinthian twang. She goes by the name of Justina Sweetblade since she left Palena. Her small athletic frame has lost its puppy fat, and is now garbed in dark colors, and her gear is blackened. Her dun cloak helps her blend in with the arid lands.

She still loves danger, and sex in public places, and although she still bears something of a grudge – she believed that handsome Hirst had died horribly in the last days of the revolution, then discovered that Hirst was in fact the renowned adventurer Celo and is alive and well – it takes only the prospect of a fun night’s robbery and romping for her to get over that.

Checking back with the lads Celo gets endorsement for a quiet robbery to boost funds, so he and Bailey/Justina plunder a local source and Celo’s share is 2,800.

 

“All of that is all well, but that still only brings us to around 14,000 or something less. And camels aren’t free.”

“Not to mention those ‘certain things’ we might need to get from the alchemist,” Morath agreed.

“Any other prospects for treasure, then?”

 

Rob Yog’s Zombies

Morath had been shadowed; and at the point of a dagger the priest of Yog confessed where his plan had been to lure them; Desa Abani and Herez were both able to confirm that some sort of ancient tomb sacred to Yog was supposed to contain treasure. Guardsman Nafor conspired to allow them to slip quietly out of Shashur without an entourage.

 

This would have been an interesting exercise for some ‘boot camp’ work: whichever NPC survived would have shared the loot and been hired, but the characters are trying to turn a quick buck, not share it out and endure a high body count, so Herez guides the four plus Kayan to the locale not far out of Shashur.

They fate-point equipping with hefty bows, Celo having a +4Str longbow so he can use Bull’s Strength with it, and Morath taking a +2Str hunting bow as that is what his proficiencies extend to.

First impressions can be deadly – I mis-play another NPC making him “hiss” instead of “growl” when he stands up from amid his wolf pack to view the party. Morath makes a shot from the saddle at -8 for range and horseback, and wounds the lad. So no prospect of hiring him. But Bardic has already set a ‘no kids’ rule so it makes no difference.

 

“This valley contains the ancient tombs,” Herez pointed out. “Most are broken.”

“Smells damp,” Bardic commented.

“There is enough moisture in the ground for thorn trees and sharp grasses to grow,” agreed Herez. “Goats and Camels can graze, though your horses may struggle.”

Leaving Herez with the horses under some acacia, they unlimbered gear and made their way down the rough, stone-broken valley afoot. Herez had been up-front that he himself worshipped Yog, and since his attitude seemed to be ‘the point is an empty land, not a tomb where priests stash loot’ Bardic was willing to trust him with the horses, even Yildiz, Morath’s valuable gelding.

Whatever once closed the tomb entrance, it was now open. Celo and Morath searched the dusty steps – and walls – down to an entrance chamber where six dustily impressive columns supported the ceiling far above.

Morath checked the dust on the columns suspiciously. It was no evil explosive powder, but it did seem to conceal a translucency to the column. He jerked back with shock as he realized that inside the column a figure was frozen, in a posture of pain and torment.

“Bet it zombifies too,” he warned, drawing his relic sword. Sure enough it was glowing.

As they explored on through to a large and sturdy hardwood door, two shadow-like beings attacked, only to be withered in Mitra’s holy power.

The undead theme was continued throughout the tomb-raid. Keth’s circle of protection from evil and Turn Undead were used as they pushed past an extremely complex trapped iron door into the main tomb chamber. It was huge, discouraging detailed exploration. Loose tiles concealed zombies that rose to attack. The main risk was in taxing Keth’s Turning power too quickly so he was instructed to hold fire while the rogues and Kayan dealt with these minor nuisances with the relic swords.

Each zombie had a focal gemstone, more valuable than the normal jet bead sorcerers generally used.

The many columns of the main chamber flanked a nave dominated by two daises. The first held a sarcophagus, the second a statue of – presumably – Yog himself, pointing in menacing fashion.

Keth made what he could of the obscure relief and glyphs of the dais. Each side had a small circular depression where something like a largish ring could be placed.

It was time to explore a little wider out. Cutting down the occasional zombie that their feet triggered they moved right. The first and third chambers were disappointing while the second cost Keth another Turn Undead to deal with two flanking Wights: they chose to leave the “accursed by/of Yog” warrior in his side-chamber sarcophagus.

Intending to pass to the opposite side, Bardic noticed the corner seemed unusually bare for a dusty tomb. As they approached, a large skeletal creature, a few hideous veins seeming to pulse with sinister life, burst up and confronted them. Morath, who had been elected to probe the corner, scuttled back to Keth’s protection with a screech of fear. His relic sword was still firm in his grasp!

The great undead thing gave off a screech and three others of its kind emerged from the distant corners. The adventurers waited quietly. So long as they were within a few feet of Keth it seemed they could not be affected.

The four attacked simultaneously, but all five adventurers were ready with their best shots. Kayan did worst, as they were unnaturally hard to strike; but the blades of the others bit deep: then Keth toppled all of the creatures with cunning strokes of his staff. Being prone – and large – made them easy prey and they were finished without getting in a single attack.

Each bore a ring. Fitting each ring to its place on the dais unlocked the sarcophagus lid. But it also provoked a wraith-like shape to emerge from Yog’s statue! At the same time that they all readied for this opponent, Bardic’s keen ears caught the sound of the sarcophagus lid beginning to grind shut again. With a mighty hop-up he drew his Akbitanan dagger and wedged the lid open!

Meanwhile Keth battered the shape with another Turn Undead and Morath and Celo’s silver-tipped arrows persuaded it to go defend Yog someplace else.

The remains of whatever priest or ruler lay in the sarcophagus included some rich items. But Celo also matched the sinister bone mace it bore to a concealed niche in the underside of the lid. Operating it like a key caused the whole sarcophagus to slide across, revealing a cavity below it. And in that cavity were ancient gems, and relic bracers and a relic mace!

“Time to go!”

Even with the injurious rate of exchange Mickey Fel (the fence) will give them on the jewelry the characters now have over 20,000sp. Bardic is less happy when Desa Abani’s explanation of the bracers reveals that the name of Yog must be called on to operate them (mantle of protection equivalent). As he resolutely ignores gods, he is again forced to miss out on a relic. Keth is also dubious about using the mace to rebuke Yog’s followers and undead.

 

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Hyboria! H5E90: Restoration

Welcome back! Our heroes Bardic, Celo, Keth and Morath, and Bardic’s new cohort Kayan, have safely guided eleven children to an underground cavern of ultimate evil. They are surrounded by seven huge demons, and are facing the Mediator, a strange female who wears a fuliginous cloak over whatever lies beneath it.

 

She speaks: they listen – then bicker

Bardic checked his instinctive forward momentum, and seeing that, Celo, standing off to his right, also paused. The children clustered tight around Keth’s flanks while Morath made some space for himself off left of Keth and Kayan turned to face the demons to the group’s rear.

“You are wise!” The Mediator continued, “and I hope you will show further wisdom. I am not here to fight you, but to offer you a chance to avoid the worst fate that might befall you and any loved ones.”

Morath snorted.

“You must not know me! I am Morath, spiller of demon blood, and I have no ‘loved ones’!”

“Be patient, Morath dearest,” the impossibly tall woman urged sweetly, “My master has great hopes for you! You only need take a little time, heed a few wise words, and your feet will be firmly on the path your heart most desires!”

Meanwhile Keth tried to set Georg’s insistent, loud voice to one side:

“What are you waiting for, laddie-boy?!? The gate lies beyond and there’s a demon right there! Get on with it!”

“There are also children, and several other demons!”

“Huh! This is war! Shemite children or not, you have your objective! Attack, lad, always attack!”

“I fear Georg is right Keth,” Jamalla agreed, “closing the gate is your priority!”

“I’m extending you all the help I can,” continued the Mediator persuasively. “We are too big to fight. You’ve earned your fame. You deserve a break. And my master rewards those that deserve it. If you press on, what comes next will be much worse than anything you have met so far.”

Celo then responded to the Mediator. His words sounded thin, but still sane.

“All of that may be true, and you may be able to offer stuff and threaten other stuff. But we’ve already shut most of your malarkey down so really, shouldn’t you be asking us for terms?”

“Be done, demon!” Bardic growled. He ran through a number of options in his mind, trying to come up with an attack that would defeat seven other demons in short order and leave the children safe. He could think of none. But then his keen ears caught Kayan’s murmur:

“Those demons… all moving in lock-step – like a mirror image.”

A fierce satisfaction leaped through his veins and he measured out the steps between himself and the dais on which the demon woman stood.

Then charged!

 

The true guardian

Celo, who had been taking his cue from Bardic all along, ran with him, some dozen feet away. As Bardic leaped up at the woman, sword raised, the man from the Tauran rolled both his short swords in his hands and prepared to dive round her flank.

With a kind of smirk on her strange, diamond-shaped face, she disappeared.

As Bardic landed clumsily he was struck by a blast of cold fear rolling toward him from out of a throat-like tunnel now visible behind the dais. A huge roiling mass squeezed out of it and raised itself up into humanoid shape, towering above him! Burning red eyes locked on the Cimmerian’s!

Celo, slightly to one flank, noticed a couple of things that his barbaric comrade was too focused to:

  • First, the mass that made up the thing seemed composed of debris from the dungeon: bits of scarab body, fragments of bone and sarcophagus, and here and there the glint of gold funerary furniture.
  • Second, strange tentacular beings, almost transparent, were crepisculating out of the tunnel and extending foam-dripping pseudopods around the monster’s flanks.

Behind the lead pair Georg materialized and with a burst of raw power sent a searing lightning stroke blazing from his great-sword and into the monster!

Finally galvanized into action, Keth swatted the lead pair of children out of his path and lumbered forward. Morath darted left, while around Kayan, the children scattered shrieking, some this way, some that. The illusory demons were already fading, so Kayan turned to face front once more and moved forward with an easy grace.

Bardic chose not to waste his position on the dais: he jumped high, and slashed his great-sword across one flank. With his follow-through he cleaved the diaphanous forms of the tentacle spawn, dropping two of them.

Wham! A vast paw slammed down, engulfing the brawny Cimmerian and near-stunning him. With a mighty heave Bardic got his arms free but was still held struggling. He felt energy being leeched out of him. Part of the chunk cut out of the monster’s flank repaired itself as he struggled. Then with a further heave, he wrenched free and scooped up his sword from where it lay, and sliced back up into the monster’s leg.

Rumbling ‘that man deserves Mitra’s strength!’ Georg laid Bull’s Strength into Bardic and renewed his attack at close quarters.

Morath hung back at around the same range as Keth, and flung his silver dagger. It bit home.

Celo danced around it on the other side, trying to avoid the tentacles. But even as he stabbed his shining short-sword in, one vast paw slammed down on him and plucked him up! Showing his agility, he wriggled free, only losing one sword. Seeing it fall, Kayan darted in.

The monster slammed its next attack at Keth, but the burly cleric shook it off: then at Celo again; and again the wily rogue slipped free and darted clear. Frustrated by this, the monster seemed to pause in its relentless forward progress, enabling Bardic to strike it mightily. Sweeping up Celo’s artefact-sword, Kayan stabbed it. Jamalla now materialized as well, bending her Shemite bow and unleashing a divine bolt of power at the monster. That proved the decisive strike: it began crumbling, slowly at first then in an avalanche of choking detritus. Bardic and Kayan sprang clear, while Georg dematerialized.

 

The Paladin departs

“I am weakened, but I need to finish this. The gate lies beyond, laddie-boy! Get to it!” Georg urged.

The remaining few tentacle spawn were cut away and having assured the children they were safe, they pressed on, coming quickly upon a strangely-shaped room, like a truncated pyramid on its side. Each of the four sides – floor, ceiling and the two walls – had a faded, painted design upon it, though one seemed less faded than others. Beyond, at what would be the tip of a pyramid were it intact, lay a strange space. The pull of the deep dark lay upon it and it did not require Georg’s words to tell them they were at another gate mouth.

“It is my time to say goodbye,” Georg said to Keth. “Just remember: Mitra’s enemies are not defeated by knocking them out or tripping them! So less of this non-lethal nonsense!

“And pass on my final words to your comrades:

“Shape up!”

Keth hurled the Lion Ring into the gate and they caught a brief glimpse of the strong, fully-armored figure of the ancient paladin, sword ready to smite: then the gate went blank and they were looking at an old faded painting of a tomb.

“His last words were, keep up the good work,” Keth lied.

“I’m a bit… smashed up,” Celo groaned.

“You are a mess,” Keth agreed, “but luckily Jamalla still has some healing power.”

“I do,” Jamalla agreed, “and will pass it to him as you lay hands on him. But this will leave me weakened as well. Do not call upon me for anything less than a life-or-death situation now.”

Once done, Morath urged haste. “These gates have the habit of crumbling remember,” he reminded them.

“I was just looking at these pictures,” Bardic called back. “We’ve seen pretty much the same thing each time. This clearer one is a temple, alone in a desert. That’s our last stop, boys!”

Celo advances to L20. He is rog15/rgr5, taking Improved Evasion from the rogue talents. He spreads his skills around search listen sense motive and escape artist. His BAB hits 16, allowing 6 attacks at full per round.

Keth advances to L15. He is sch3/cle3/ftr9, taking Improved Sunder. 

A maze denizen

They re-built the order of march, with Celo to the fore and Morath as rearguard. After hoisting the smallest and weariest children up into the arms of Bardic and Keth, they made steady progress back up the winding passage and endless stairs, and into the hall wherein they had fought the golems.

Celo felt his Anu-loaned strength fade away. It had been a good long while. He crept forward softly, listening intently. From here, he could go left or right. He knew Morath had taken the Mediator’s warning literally:

If we keep going the way we have been we are going to strike trouble, the Zamorian had pointed out. This was the first place they could pick a different path.

Reluctantly, he decided to head the same way they came. He signalled the others forward and stole to the corner.

Beyond, some twenty feet distant, a vast-shouldered, bull-horned figure bearing a mighty great-axe blocked the tunnel solidly. Celo nimbly pulled back, leaving it up to Bardic to take the thing on!

With a snorting bellow, Keth plunged away from the children, past Bardic and within sunder-range of the beast-man. His staff smashed against the huge axe-shaft, but to his horror, it refused to break! In reply the axe was raised and chopped down time after time, leaving Keth stretched bleeding his life out on the ancient stone.

Back by Morath and Celo, Kayan was caught: if he moved forward, the children would flee to who knows where! He spread his longswords out in a menacing swathe of protection, and the children screamed and ran. With a sigh he wheeled back and stood guard as the nearby door creaked open…

Bardic, having seen the awful fate of Keth, was in no hurry to throw his own life away. He grinned hardily at the Minotaur, and beckoned him on. A solid stone wall was at his back, and he planned to let the thing crash by him and into it.

The Minotaur took him up on the offer: but Bardic’s body-swerve was not quick enough, and the huge axe near took his head off! But he stayed on his feet, though the gore flowed freely from under his steel cap and down his neck. Then it was his turn! He delivered massive strokes of his blade: and at the same time, Celo and Morath tumbled past, the former cutting at the Minotaur’s hamstring as he vaulted. The beast bellowed and fell, and Morath finished him.

Checking Keth’s body, Celo exclaimed:

“He’s alive!”

“I’ve got some wine: pour it down his throat, and let’s be going,” Bardic urged. “Kayan, round up the children will you?”

“Just… tidying away… a few old bones!” Kayan called, his swords cutting and chopping through a small horde of undead that had emerged.

“Hmm, right, I’ll help with the children, Morath you scout the room there and let’s decided which way we are going… and make it snappy.”

 

Sad sacks and saps

Hours had once more passed, and Morath, now scouting, recognized the broken panel allowing entry to the underground temple of the relics. They had successfully navigated the winding, muddy, tight-squeeze tunnel. The children were exhausted, for they could not be carried along it. When Morath signalled the halt, they sank down where they were, some of them instantly falling asleep.

He listened, then turned back to warn the others:

“Just a few sad f***ers cleaning up. I’ll just kill ‘em and we can sneak out quite like.”

“May I suggest not killing? These will no doubt be slaves, and it seems a hard reward to be killed just for being in the wrong place with a mop,” Keth objected.

“You can sap them, right?” Bardic reminded Morath.

“Ohhh, sap, right, as in knock unconscious! I’ll just organize a small pouch of coins… there: that should do. Coming Celo?”

“Yeah, someone better be there to remind you not to follow up with a dagger to the kidneys,” Celo agreed.

A few minutes’ easy work and the rogues tidied the knocked-out slaves behind a tapestry and signalled the others through.

“You know, if we had gathered them all together I could have gone, bong-bong-bong-bong, that would be funnier,” Morath muttered. “Still if I keep a sharp eye out who’s to say I can’t do the same, but with a real weapon?”

As they emerged from the upper temple into the courtyard ready to choose a way towards the gates, Bardic paused in surprise.

“It’s night!”

“How long have we been under there?” wondered Morath, trying to match the star-strewn sky with his internal sense of time.

“It could be an effect of the gate…” Keth ventured.

“It’s night because we walked from after sunrise to after dark,” Kayan opined testily. “My gut feels it is nailed to my spine, and the children are completely exhausted. The sooner we get somewhere we can eat and rest, the better.”

“And clean up,” Bardic agreed, scratching some of the crusted dust, grit and blood off his neck.

 

That happy striking cobra feeling

The temple grounds were already well cleared of bodies. A new set of guards, wearing linen cuirasses and bearing ceremonial bronze axes, supervised servants and took evidence. They recoiled from Bardic’s fierce mien and it was not until they reach the gates that any real obstacles were presented.

There, a more senior body of judicial and enforcement officialdom were gathered under flaring lights. Evidence was being docketed and jurisdictions were being argued.

Then two Stygian-dark strangers stepped forward politely and created a moment’s distraction…

“That was worth the wait, by Zath!” Morath gloated, “I haven’t used that move since Palena!”

“Let’s push on,” Bardic grumbled, a child in each arm, “I can see the barge at last – time to have a chat about who gets to keep it.”

A short time later the barge pushed off, the judicial scribes who had been listing its contents and livestock a startled group on the jetty behind it.

“Now down the river, and… hmmm…” Bardic mused, poling as fast as practical.

“What’s hmmm?” Keth asked.

“Just tossing up between rotten choices. I’m voting for rowing straight across the Styx and off on horseback as soon as we hit the bank. I’d back us to get clear of Stygian pursuit before they can organize it.

“Now, see to the horses, and fetch some water out the river – I’m going to get me some clean!”

And so it was.

 

Aftermath: gods of Nippr

“Welcome, welcome and thrice welcome to the Obsidian Stables, my lords! No doubt such esteemed lords wish only the best for their magnificent steeds! And see – such a stallion! Or gelding! Nothing shall be too good for him! My two fairest daughters shall not only brush his coat daily, they shall wash him with scented oils!”

And as he agreed to this princely treatment, Celo assigned he and his fellows a new role: renowned adventurers.

They had traveled for many days, town to town, across meadow Shem, retracing the emissary’s path indeed. Nippr, a town of zikkurats and temples, terraces and gardens, river and canals and traffic with the north, seemed the best place so far to try to do right by the children.

Bardic had taken pains to teach the children that life was not sheer awfulness, though it had been hard. The question of what to do with them had been argued across the campfire or inn table several times.

Eventually they formed a half plan, which as Bardic was fond of saying, was twice as much plan as usual. Keth had somewhat reluctantly opined that Bel was the least offensive god to be found in Shem. Morath had swung in behind that with an idea to have thieves adopt the children into a gang. It had its drawbacks, for he had little to no standing in Shem.

But Bardic, Celo, and even Keth and Kayan found almost the reverse true. The faddish nobility and gentry of Nippr opened arms to the newcomers. Their reputations exploded and tales of derring-do in Koth, Corinthia and Zamora were dusted off and given a new setting by fashionable Shemitish harpists. They were the heroes of Becharadur and Zamboula, never mind the details, and their latest tweak of the Stygian lion’s snout – safely far to the south – put a gloss on all of it.

Bardic’s Leadership advances enough to move Kayan to L14. He has a number of feat options but has penciled in Web of Death.

No fewer than eight of the children were adopted into well-to-do families. That left the three least-cute children.

The thieves of Nippr were unmoved by reputation, and demanded a year’s service from Morath. Celo volunteered to stay and help him.

They were to meet Bardic in a year’s time in Shushan. It was known to them by name only, as a major trade crossroads between desert and meadow Shem. They knew that folk from many further lands mingled there.

“More to the point, it will be our setting-out-point to the last temple. We’ll need a good guide and some decent fighting-men, by Crom!”

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