This double-length session features the DCC module Shadows in Freeport, adapted somewhat for this campaign’s themes. Barring quite a number of anachronisms, and poor interior design, including a lack of logic around a connection between Cresh’s secret level and his old living quarters, I found the module entertaining and handy to use. The main challenge was adapting its end-arc challenges, which involve codes, to the non-literate world of the Hyboria! campaign. In turn, DCC took the Freeport setting from Green Ronin so they should be acknowledged as well.
Where we are: Bardic, Celo, Morath and Vorel are on the trail of child sacrificing evil, and that has led to them to the old Cresh manor in Tortage. We begin with the four heroes having just assembled inside the east wall of the manor grounds. The interior is thickly overgrown and it’s night in Tortuga.
These are no children
A ripple of ghostly laughter, like the memory of children taunting a helpless one, sounded from the thick bushes and trees that were once an ornamental garden. The neck-hairs rose on the four and Celo lofted his torch uneasily. Then, half-seen, childlike shapes could be glimpsed, just at the edge of the meagre light cast by the torch.
Celo leapt forward, rolling past Bardic and up onto his feet again. As he glimpsed reptilian eyes and a suggestion of scalyness to the skin of the nearest “child” his short blade licked out and plunged deep into the creature’s chest!
He held his sword up so the others could see the ichor dripping off the silver-chased blade.
“These are no children!”
“Didn’t figure on cutting my way through demons just to get to a house!” grunted Morath, springing into the thick undergrowth briefly, stabbing and leaping back.
Even as Vorel dropped his rope bundles and Bardic readied his mighty blade, the creatures faded back into the thickets.
Each lit a torch. Even pooled together, they contributed little in the way of light, as though reluctant to reveal detail. Experimentation with a torch on the other side of the wall proved that the effect was limited to the interior.
The ropes redistributed – Vorel profanely advising the rogues that he had changed his mind about carrying them – the four tried to work out how best to get through the tangle of brush and trees without undue noise and exertion.
Bardic, crouching, found few tracks but did find low-lying, small game trails crisscrossed the brush. Vermin of one kind or another used these, and pushing his way along them would be easier than hacking through. He led with poniard and torch, then Morath, Vorel and Celo, the latter with ears cocked for sounds of ambush and posterior tingling with the fear of rear attack.
Keeping his pace down to Vorel’s – the big Bossonian was having terrible trouble getting his cased bow and arrows through – Bardic crawled yard by yard towards the house, his sense of direction allowing him to follow each twist and turn where a lesser woodsman would have become hopelessly lost.
At length, Bardic paused to rest from the sinew-cracking crawling. As the others began to argue about whether this had been the smart thing to do in the first place, a deeper shadow smote Bardic from above!
My brothers cry ‘Vengeance!’
The spiked glaive whistled down, but already Bardic was cat-shifting on his feet and his superb Kothic chain shirt warded the blade off! In the same motion Bardic rammed his poniard square onto the creature’s mighty breast – and the blade snapped!
“You felled my brothers in the desert! From the abyss they cry out for vengeance!” The eldritch voice sounded only in Bardic’s head.
Morath was about to try to roll past the thing, but a half-memory of being battered by a tail belonging to something about the same shape and size made him take the frontal path and his silver-chased short sword met no such difficulty as had broken Bardic’s blade!
“This is not over! Vengeance shall be mine!” and with that – which again only Bardic could hear – the thing vanished.
“Right let’s concentrate – enough with the what-ifs, let’s get to the house and find a way in!” Bardic growled, nettled that he had not sensed the ambush.
No good options
After much crawling the four reached the burnt-out east wall of the Cresh mansion house. Here, the sour smell of the brush was replaced by the throat-clogging stink of burnt timbers and furnishings. Their theory that it would allow easy ingress proved false. Timbers had fallen somewhat, leaving the upper story sagging, but any mass entry would need to be noisy. Celo, stripped down to a minimum of equipment, did manage to squeeze through a couple of strakes and painstakingly explore as far as he could. Torches had been renewed by the time he returned to report in the negative.
At length, the four worked their way north along the east wall, the rank stench of the burnt-out chambers heavy in their nostrils, and chose a slightly easier place to kick their way in. Timbers rattled, and old lathes and plaster crunched loudly as they waded into a smallish chamber to the west side of it where Celo found a door buried under the fallen ceiling lathes. The wet of seven years had warped and swollen it to the point where Bardic’s battleax was needed to chop through the hinges. The others readied themselves.
That chamber was empty. Bas-reliefs, designed to show off Cresh’s wealth, decorated the walls. A thick carven door was set in both the left and right wall. Bardic rolled his shoulders and hoped the next door would not be quite so stubborn.
Celo turned in disgust from the detail of the bas-reliefs and he and Morath poised, torch in one hand sword in the other, as Bardic wrenched on the right-hand or north door. It groaned open, gusting a stench of burnt flesh into their room, and each rogue whipped through to flank the doorway on the other side! As they did, each tossed his torch forward to provide some light for the other two. The floor seemed choked with rubbish, but each slipped into his chosen corner smoothly.
Something huge whipped down at Celo and he rolled clear, his jerkin in shreds. A hulking shape bared its huge teeth over him, glaive and whip poised for another strike!
Morath was swift to react. He danced forward, stabbed, and leaped back to where Bardic and Vorel could cover him. He was disturbed to notice that some sort of red, ichorous slime was bubbling on his sword blade. The thing whipped its whip at him, but he evaded it. Celo cut his way clear of the whip’s radius, over to where the remains of a roasted body lay on a hastily-smothered bonfire. Darkness shrouded him. Then another demonic shape loomed over him!
Bardic sprang into the smoky chamber and, rolling under the whip, dealt a terrible blow to the first demon’s flank. It faded out.
Back in the carven chamber, Vorel was in trouble. Even before he could decide whether to go forward to help Celo, a demon materialized behind him and smashed him an awful blow with its glaive. Battered near senseless, and armor deeply gashed, he reacted on instinct, cutting with his broadsword and rolling clear. Acid slime splashed across the walls. It faded out… only to once again appear behind Vorel!
Morath and Celo, dodging the whip and glaive as best they could, landed several shrewd stabs. Bardic, poised to leap in to help, wheeled about and raced into the carven chamber, hacking the demon’s arm off before it could finish Vorel. Spinning, Vorel stabbed his sword deep into its guts and it bubbled into the floor with a last scream of rage. Then Bardic dashed back to the bonfire, chopping the third demon down. A sharp sensation of frustrated vengeance was the last thing it communicated to Bardic.
The four knew they needed to wipe the acidic goo off their blades, and pragmatically used the roasted body. Vorel saw to his own wounds – splashing fortified wine on them and bandaging them with his ruined shirt – while the others searched. It was a large chamber, the floor choked with all manner of rubbish and bones. At the north end, facing west, an exterior door stood, though so warped that Bardic could not shift it at all. Along the west wall, Celo found a peep-hole. Fishing around in the detritus at his feet, he located a rib-bone and stabbed through the hole: no reaction.
At length, giving up on the idea of securing an outside exit, they returned to the carven chamber and arranged themselves around the southern door.
This time, Celo went left and Morath went right: but Celo’s luck proved the same as chains, seemingly animated by some intelligence, shredded large parts of his exposed skin. Only his superb reflexes allowed him to escape! Morath glimpsed a hulking, manlike form wrapped in chains, then dodged in, stabbed, and leaped away to the other chamber: shaken by what appeared to be his mother’s face! Celo tried the same tactic, missed and ran back into the carven chamber. Bardic roared, feeding his thews with fury, and raced inside! His senses still honed, he realized the demon had lifted itself up on its chains, toward the ceiling. Ignoring the slashing superficial cuts the chains dealt him, he ran, leaped high, and sliced his great-sword savagely into the thing. Chains whipped madly around the room, and Vorel, who had just entered, was bowled off his feet and cut many times! He rolled painfully back out, bleeding profusely. Then Morath ran lightly into the room again, and launched himself off Bardic’s broad back, and with one tremendous leap and stab, sent the demon back to its hell! The chains suspended from the ceiling fell silent. All were barbed, and had various trinkets and body-parts fastened to them.
“Thanks for not taking my head off, by the way,” Morath commented wryly as they checked wounds and wet their throats.
Vorel was groaning from wounds. “Time to break out the healing potion,” he grumbled. “This cost me three gold pieces, by Mitra!” He professed to feel much the better after drinking the draft, though the others noted that his wounds did not close.
I reminded Vorel’s player that Destiny (fate points) can produce extra items if framed correctly. It’s about creative thinking not wishful thinking. I billed him 3gp for a bogus potion.
“Huh, there are some valuables among this lot,” Celo announced, picking through the filthy floor and hefting a chain. The demon seemed to have decorated it with grisly trophies, but a few valuable items as well.
A search turned up a good-size white gem on one of the chains, which Morath tucked away. Celo dislodged a curiously-carved wand from the detritus. Its length was covered in runes, though what they signified he could not tell. Lacking anywhere practical to keep it he cast his eye about. Vorel’s bow-case seemed the logical place. “Can you keep this with your arrows?” Celo asked. Obligingly the rangy Bossonian did so, whereupon the wand… changed shape into an arrow.
They exclaimed at this marvel. “Better make sure you can tell the difference!” Celo warned nervously.
An unexpected meeting
The chain-devil’s room contained an interior door, facing west. So it was time for Bardic to heave it open. “What say we team up a little,” he suggested, not relishing another jammed door. Morath unslung his hemp rope and fastened it to the door’s handle. Standing behind Bardic he could thus assist.
But the door proved stubborn. “It’s almost as though someone is holding it closed!” Bardic muttered under his breath, then as the thought was voiced, leaned close and motioned for the others to hush. Sure enough he could catch a mutter in the local Argossean dialect, and a deeper accent that spoke with a Cimmerian burr.
In his native tongue, Bardic announced himself and his clan, only to find that since his particular valley was a couple days journey east of the other’s, he was naturally considered an enemy. He reasonably pointed out that in the wider context of Cimmerians against everyone else this was not tenable, and strange to say the other reluctantly agreed.
Bardic achieved a 15 on Diplomacy. Against fellow Cimmerians his normal -2 does not apply.
“Don’t go north from here, there’s only a stairwell up, and you don’t ever want to go upstairs – it’s full of ghosts. And if you go west, the great chamber off the lobby has a gibbering evil thing that looks like a collection of heads and arms and legs and will kill you. But, if you want to find that weird priesty fellow that came laughing by, you’ll probably have to.”
Arden, a small-time Barachan thief who had led his band of misfits in to hide out, bargained to make his departure look as dignified as possible. Celo gained a spare jerkin, no longer needed by one of Arden’s men who had disappeared, and Vorel bought healing from the Mitran hedge-priest who acted as Arden’s advisor. No other spare jerkin was available. Lugh the Cimmerian parted on fair terms with Bardic. The other three, all Vanirmen, had little to say except “good bye and thanks for cutting us a path back out.”
Celo led the diplomacy and since he relied on a roll I skipped over the back-story that led Arden’s gang to hide out in the first place. They could have pressed the point and shaken-down the gang for some useful yellow lotus dust. Apart from that, the team played this encounter exactly right.
The deadly cloud
The four advanced across the stone-flagged foyer, and readied themselves at the twin great arches leading to the great chamber – presumably a ballroom or some such in days gone by. Each rogue had a torch ready, Bardic hefted his great-sword, and Vorel readied a handful of silver-tipped arrows for his Hyrkanian bow. He’d had the good sense to pay a Tortugan smith 2 silvers to the silver to tip twenty arrows. All save Vorel had plugged their ears with tallow from Celo’s candle-stubs. Vorel had his ready but felt the need to hear any cry.
I had to jaw-bone Vorel’s player a little to get him to Destiny the silver-tip arrows, and billed him 2 fate points as a result.
At first, only the pressing darkness enclosed them. Veering left a little Celo, on the west or left flank, located a door and a fireplace. Then as they steered half-right, Vorel stuffed the tallow into his ears: gibbering, from some unseen source, threatened to squeeze his brain to mush! Morath could then make out a shape, or suggestion of a shape, and the battle was on!
Very high Will saves all round: a number of fate points burned.
It was a strange battle. Only the silver of their blades and arrows could harm it: though Morath did scorch it with flame as well. For its part, its tentacles wounded them not, but seemed to leech their very essence out! And with each, it grew fatter and somehow more real!
In a horror scenario, if you really want to scare your players, start draining stats. d4 Wisdom drain had Bardic in severe danger immediately. The high-Wis pair Morath and Vorel were therefore more willing to tackle the creature. Morath did not get hit at all, Celo and Vorel lost 2 each, and Bardic lost 3.
Celo’s speed of blade proved the difference. Hands a blur, he sliced it faster than it could regenerate, until at last Bardic gave a great leap, clove through it, and Vorel placed a final shot home: it evaporated. Beyond, a door and beyond that, a chanting as of someone summoning a demon!
Although Vorel promptly signaled to warn the others, lights still had to be assembled and stations taken. As Bardic pushed the door open, a bald-headed figure clad in scholar’s robes uttered a last syllable and a dark, winged, clawed shape appeared in the room with a terrifying shriek. As fast as it appeared, the silver blade of the Zamorian was faster: he ran forward, faked a move left and slammed his blade up under its armpit. As Celo and Vorel finished it off, Bardic pinioned the summoner.
“Finish him, Bardic! No good can come of letting him live!” Celo urged.
“I vote: kidneys,” Morath agreed.
The man had large flame knife tattoos in a V-shape on his head, and snake sigils beside. He giggled, a loose-witted giggle that unnerved Bardic more than any curse could have. “Talk!” the Cimmerian gritted, “what have you found here? Where are the children?”
This disturbed man’s name was Ferrimax, or so he said, and he had clearly made some arrangement that allowed him to live among the denizens. He hinted that Cresh and the children were below, waiting to open a gate. On being asked how many children it took to open a gate, Ferrimax claimed that thirty were needed: Cresh was waiting for one more child. Meanwhile Ferrimax had been searching this ruined library for some information about gates that would aid his master, Venari.
In exchange for his life, Ferrimax agreed to guide the four. But they took precautions: they bound his thumbs and little fingers together behind his back. Morath stripped the silk rope he kept coiled around his midriff, and arranged a noose-leash on the captive.
Ferrimax is the tattooed man that has turned up in any number of adventures ever since Sicas, usually acting as a trusted Flame Knife courier. He also revealed a bit more about the powers behind all this gate and sacrifice business, though not specifically what role Venari is playing.
Ferrimax had had few possessions, apart from a large number of daggers. One was a Mitran brooch, which they left on him, and the other was a pair of keys. One key looked old and rusty and fit to open hefty, archaic doors; the other, smaller one, was unusually crafted and showed no sign of age.
Cut your way through!
“Cresh concealed his secrets behind the cool-store, below. There are demonlings in the room that leads down to the store. I could negotiate my way through but you may have to cut your way through.”
“Cutting demons apart if they don’t let me through? Works for me,” Bardic growled, gagging the captive.
The four, with their prisoner, assembled outside what might once have been a pantry, judging from its relation between old, ruined kitchen and a dining hall. Negotiations opened but the reaction of the surprised demonlings was to attack!
They moved so fast, the fight took place in the cramped corridor outside the pantry. Several landed small cuts that burned with poison. Significantly, none attacked Ferrimax. But between the four, laying about them with silvern weapons, the demonlings were swiftly dispatched.
Celo the protector
Ferrimax before him down the stairs, and across a decayed pantry, Morath headed towards the far corner. Bardic brought up the rear, Vorel ahead of him. Celo, walking second, noticed something under the staircase.
“Just checking something.”
Morath turned, realized Celo was not following, and halted Ferrimax.
“What have you found?”
“A child, a boy. I should bring him back out.”
“Good!” Bardic agreed, “best get him away.”
But Morath had spotted what was really going on. A golden boy was sitting atop Celo’s shoulders, wrapped around him whispering in his ear, and a gorgeous woman – with bat wings – had draped herself next to him!
The Zamorian wasted no time explaining himself. Hurling his dagger he followed up with a blur of sword-work. The succubus departed the mortal realm with a scream! As Celo flung the demon-boy off him, its face contorted hideously and its scream was terrible. Bardic and Vorel could make no move towards it, but Morath stabbed it. Still it lingered: until Celo flung his short-sword to finish it off.
Morath earned a fate point for resisting the glamor, resisting the fear, and finishing a succubus off in one fell swoop.
The hidden ruins
Angry now, Bardic grabbed Ferrimax by his halter. “So where’s this secret panel?” Banging Ferrimax’s head on the indicated area, he opened the panel.
The passage beyond was very different from what they had seen thus far. It was perfectly fashioned although ages upon ages hung upon it. Moreover, it was immensely tall, and it peaked rather than arched. A disturbing sense of disproportion fell upon the explorers.
Nevertheless Bardic pushed Ferrimax on. Then, on second thought, turned to Morath and handed him the leash-rope, explaining, “You can read him better than I. Watch that he does not play us false.”
A smear of old blood showed up on the dark pave they trod. Ferrimax skirted it, and edged past a corrupting corpse lying in the center of a four-way intersection. He ignored both side-passages and the four followed. They became conscious that the passage was gently sloping down.
Ahead of Morath, Ferrimax seemed to find something amusing. He walked past cells on either side, standing open. Here, the passage become filthy, and stank of corruption and fear. Glancing down and to either side Morath could see that the cells had never been cleaned out: small footprints in the mess suggested that children had been kept here recently. Behind Morath, Bardic snorted northern oaths under his breath. Vorel, next in line, fingered his arrows and gripped his bow tightly. The cell locks would match the rusty key of the pair he had charge of. Celo, the rearguard, cast nervous looks back over his shoulder.
The thing in the shrine
Four, six then eight cells were passed before Ferrimax paused at an open archway to a chamber. By the meagre light of his torch Morath could see a pentacle had been carved into the very stone, and inside the pentacle, sinister sigils. Ferrimax seemed reluctant to press on.
“Something bothering you is it? Then lead on!” quoth Morath, booting Ferrimax forward and releasing the leash. The pinioned renegade stumbled forward with a muffled squawk… and something HUGE dropped on him from the unseen ceiling and shredded him into gobbets and sprays of blood!
It had claws, and mandibles, and eyes, and pincers. Morath glared at it, thinking that it reminded him somewhat of the construct he had fought in the desert. But not wasting too much time on theorizing he sprang in and to one side of it, relying on his superb reflexes to carry him past the several limbs. Celo did the same, to the opposite flank. They stabbed hard and deep. Vorel loosed silver-tipped shafts at it. Bardic raged, raced forward and, ducking under a pincer, made a tremendous leap, his great blade lofting on high then crashing down through three legs then back-cutting to lop off its pincer limb. It fell and was swiftly dispatched back to its abyss.
Laughing over Ferrimax’s fate – “I told you it would all work out” as Bardic put it – though slightly regretting the loss of a good rope, Morath Celo and Vorel searched the shrine, while Bardic destroyed the pentacle, though at the end of the process he cast aside his ruined broadax.
Footprints of the lost
It was Vorel, by virtue of having keys on his mind, who spotted a concealed keyhole behind a tapestry opposite the entrance. The intricate key fitted it, and once Celo pronounced the door “Probably safe” he opened it. The hidden panel swung smoothly open, revealing another stretch of smooth, immensely tall passage, gently sloping down away from them.
Within a few paces, the four realized that whatever evil charm was upon Cresh’s manor, it did not extend past the shrine. Their torches were now doing a normal job of illuminating the dark stone. Since they still planned to get out without groping their way in darkness, they promptly rationed lights down to one.
The passage led to a four-way junction. Now, Bardic’s uncanny ability to read a trail came into play. “Ferrimax and children went forward… but then came back and turned right, here,” he made out. “Consecrating them then leading them to sacrifice,” Vorel guessed, judging by what seemed to be a chapel of evil ahead of them. “Right it is then,” Morath decided.
But the right-hand passage led to another four-way intersection, but this one peculiar in that each of the three ways they might take led merely to a grinning demonic face carved into what appeared to be solid stone.
Examining the passage minutely, Bardic could only guess that Ferrimax and children had walked straight ahead, not to either side. There were too few traces left of their footprints to make out more.
The gates are revealed
As Celo and Morath sweated over probing and pressing different parts of the stonework, Vorel touched the magical arrow in his case. “I wish you could help,” he mutted. The thing flexed under his fingers. Drawing it out, he felt it tug and dip gently in his fingertips.
Using it in the manner of a dowsing wand, Vorel guided the others to certain points in and around the demonic carving. And suddenly all four felt a shift in the air and the torch-flame flickered: and they were elsewhere.
They stood in a pentangular chamber with no exits. The flame from the torch in Celo’s hand burned steady, allowing them a clear look at their cell. Each wall was covered in a mosaic. One was defaced, so that it was hard to tell what had been its design. A second was familiar to them: a lone temple-like building, isolated in a broad desert. The third seemed a dark tower, standing in steep hills. The fourth seemed a veritable palace or citadel. And the fifth…
A gaping chasm or hole, which even as they gazed, seemed to shift a little. “Hand me your hatchet, Vorel and by the way, don’t expect it back,” Bardic growled. “If you smash the mosaic, we are stuck here,” cautioned Vorel, handing it over. Bardic paused then extended the hatchet to gingerly probe the black mosaic tiles. It went through, as though through fog. “Ferrimax? came a voice from beyond, Have you brought the last for me?” “In we go then: and all be ready for saving children and killing Cresh,” Bardic commended his fellows, and so saying, leaped through!
The others followed, finding themselves landing on relatively smooth though natural stone, perhaps shaped by some underground river or volcanic action in eons past. It was irregular and a short bow-shot long, and their attention was immediately drawn to a group of around thirty frightened children, standing fixed inside a circle, some twenty feet away. Some thirty feet further on, near the far end of the cyst, stood a weird group of three beings.
At the center of the trio, his features rendered indistinguishable by the eldritch light from a gaping portal behind him, stood a broad, armored man, gesturing towards them. Flanking the man stood two tall, vulture-like demons, armed with war-forks. Their angry screams made the children cry in fright, though none could move.
Bardic decided to go straight for Cresh. Morath opted to charge the right-hand demon, and Celo decided to back him up. Enough light came from the gate that it mattered not if his torch went out. Vorel drew his magic arrow.
“Free the children!” the Bossonian commanded, and shot the arrow full at the circle of imprisoned youngsters. Blue fire could be sensed on the fringe of eyesight, rather than seen directly, as the children were abruptly loosed. “Run for cover!” Vorel cried, and they scattered.
Bardic ran raging and leaped right over the children and plunged, jinking, through to Cresh. His sheer pace and tricky run fooled one of the demons, but the other drove his war-fork deep into the Cimmerian’s flank. Bardic knew he could not stand long, and smashed down at Cresh: but the man’s armor was Kothic plate and withstood even the mighty swing of the Cimmerian. Meanwhile Morath and Celo reached their target with fewer acrobatics. Celo feinted the creature out of position and landed a shrewd stab, but Morath found his attack parried off by the war-fork. Cresh snatched up a heavy mace, reminiscent to Bardic of the mace the evil Templar Martin had near killed him with.
The gate is closed
Things were looking grim, for the second demon had not even begun to assist Cresh, when Vorel raced forward, still clutching his bow. His target was not the combat, but the circle where the magic arrow still quivered. “End Cresh!” he yelled, plucking the arrow up and in one blur of motion loosing it full at Cresh as he loomed over Bardic, mace on high.
The arrow swerved and plunged straight over Cresh’s shoulder, through the gate. Which abruptly collapsed, sucking Cresh back into it. For an instant, Bardic saw him dwindling away: then nothing. Then both demons fell – or sprang – into the gate as well, just as it closed completely.
The Council of Captains
Having congratulated Vorel on an inspired thought and amazing shot, they gathered the children, calmed them as best they could, and investigated ways out. At the original landing point they found a simple stepping-back point, which dropped them all back to the demon-face they had originally been ensorcelled away from. Wherever the origin of the magic, it was still functioning.
Departing the manor was routine: the house no longer reeked of evil: it merely stunk. They gathered coins, goblets, plates and other typical trove of the piratic city from the demonling lair, and guided the children out to the front gate.
After some days of recovery, the council of captains summoned the four, to describe what they had found and how the threat was at last laid to rest. Celo, who had by that time the rudiments of Argossean as spoke in the Barachas, made a fine job of describing how it all came about. They were congratulated and the local dealers gave them a good price on the trove. Moreover, the council suggested the next possibility for child-smuggling: a Shemite city near the border with Argos, a city of ill repute, named Becharadur.
It was great to have the double-session and get through the whole module. At the end of play, two fate points were awarded each, leaving the points standing thus: Celo 5, Vorel and Bardic 4, and Morath 3. They all have three doses of antidotes left save for Morath who has two. Furthermore, they are all Level 18.