Welcome back! You’ve rejoined us at a delicate point. Time is now a critical factor in our heroes’ – Bardic, Celo, Morath and Vorel – mission to rescue prisoners. For one man got away from them, and the more time goes by, the more likely a general alarm becomes.
Our heroes, their ally Cala Atenoel, their sole prize Tae Costas, and their surprise guest Elesa, are working under the informed guess that the remaining prisoners – Alleto, Kilp, the Old Man and the remainder of the Sea Princess’ marines – are in ‘the depths’ which remain undefined, though they are reasonably sure they are headed in the right direction.
So let’s see how that went.
Rats in the tunnels
“Watch yourself Celo, I don’t like the look of that left-hand tunnel.”
Hearing Morath’s muttered warning Celo tensed. He peered ahead at the deepening shaft. The light from Tae’s torch, three places behind him in the file, was near-useless. He fumbled in his belt and produced a candle. Passed it back. It was returned, burning clear and with a pungent smell. Holding it as steady as he could, he leaped across the ten-foot tunnel mouth to the far side. There, with the candle light to help, he verified that the tunnel they were following did deepen and become a genuine descent, not quite a pot-hole but needing real climbing skill. All seemed quiet.
[I asked for Spot and Listen checks as we began. I fed Morath’s player a warning note about the tunnel based on his 30+ spot check.]
The silence of the tunnels was getting to Morath too. When Celo sprang back across the ‘danger zone’ he was relieved. And then Vorel warned:
“Celo! As you nipped back – something smacked into the wall just behind you!”
“Ambush, eh?” snarled Morath, “that rat-man may have found the rest of his pack.”
After what probably seemed to Tae Costas, waiting behind Bardic and Vorel with the torch held high, like an interminable discussion, [though technically all free action!] the plan was agreed: Rogues to leap across the zone again, allowing Vorel to shoot left, and Bardic to charge. Rogues then to follow up.
But as Celo and Morath rejoined Celo’s little candle, the flint shards came in a volley, aimed at both corners. Vorel and Morath were saved by their stouter armor but Celo was cut on one arm. Madness threatened to claw his brain apart as the toxin smeared on the flint hit his bloodstream but he choked it down ruthlessly.
Lying prone, he angled an eye up the blackness of the inclined, formed tunnel. He could see no enemies. But what he could see was that the presumed stone flags right in front of him were painted fabric.
Now the counter-ambush plan became even more of a puzzle. Celo estimated a ten-foot breadth to the pit. The only man who could make that from what would be effectively a standing start was Bardic. Vorel could use his bow. But the rogues would have to climb along, using tiny crevices between the ancient stones as finger and toe holds.
[Experience played a strong part in character judgment of the skill levels needed. Therefore a lot more of the level needed was revealed than normally happens. PHBs were produced and I gave the rogues a range of DC 25 upward, made more difficult the more they tried to carry across. The 3.0 jump rules are very tough. Bardic would know he needed rage to clear this kind of distance without a run-up. Again, the skill DC was revealed.]
Grimly they lightened their loads down to what each considered a bare minimum! As he did so, Morath caught, from the descent behind him, a faint rattle, then a short while later a muffled *thoom* sound.
The new plan worked as well as could be expected. Bardic had to endure a barrage of poisoned missiles as he leaped across, then the difficulty of fighting in near-total darkness while Vorel sent volleys of missiles near him, while Morath and Celo sweated their way across.
As Bardic sensed the last couple of opponents flinching away from his blade, he caught, from above him on the slope, a choking gurgle: someone being back-stabbed. He cut his way forward.
Vorel decided the most urgent need of his comrade was light. He raced across, swept up Celo’s candle, skewered it onto an arrow, and loosed it up the tunnel. It went out instantly.
As another rat-man fell, Bardic heard a heavy rumble from ahead. It sounded like something heavy and ceramic, rolling down the tunnel. Instantly, he dropped his sword and clawed his way up the sheer wall, shouting the alarm.
Celo and Morath, having just dropped down on the far side of the pit with relieved gasps, had perforce to do likewise: dropping short-swords and clambering up as fast as they could!
[Gotta say as an old-time fan of Dungeon of the Bear I really enjoyed this Indiana Jones moment!]
A huge pithoi rolled its way over the fallen rat-men, crushing them, and on into the pit. The fake tiles over light timber frame gave way instantly, the urn smashed against the far side, and exploded in flame! Vorel dodged back safely, while Morath and Celo flipped back off the wall and away, but Tae took the blast full on. The blood-soaked grey cloak he wore prevented the flames from taking hold: Elesa helped stifle them with its length. She herself had been unharmed, as Tae’s massive frame had completely shielded her slimness.
Tae blinked scorched eyelids under scorched, hairless, blackened brows.
“Say, wouldja lookit that? The torch is still burning.”
“Lucky you put my cloak on,” Elesa commented. “Ashtoreth smiles upon you.”
Ignoring this tender little scene, Bardic retrieved his sword and felt his way up the slope. In the flash of the explosion, he had seen a body slumped up ahead. Behind him by a good thirty feet, Celo lit another pungent candle from a burning vestige of trap frame. He shuddered slightly and back away from the pit: it did not seem to have a bottom.
Sure enough, just past the top of the slope a dead man lay. As far as Bardic’s questing touch could tell, it was a rat-man. He had been stabbed in the back. Who could have done it? And where were his fellows? Eerie echoes could be heard faintly ahead of him. He groped forward. A Y-junction: he was coming from the right-hand branch, and away on his right ran the left-hand branch, while the tunnel continued after a shallow left turn. He groped back down to where the tiny candle flame marked Celo. Morath was there too. The three stared back across the pit at the other four looking back blankly at them.
“So now the party is split. Which way do we go? And how do we link up again?”
Tentacles! Bugs! Gaah!
After another palaver, the two groups split, agreeing to report back in about 500 heart-beats. Bardic, Celo and Morath paced soft-footed up to the dead rat-man at top of slope. They spared no more than a glance at the man. The tunnel was not dusty enough for any distinct tracks. Guessing which direction was the more likely to conform to the descent beyond the trap junction, they turned hard right. The well-shaped tunnel seemed less traveled: it led to an arch and a large room beyond it. Bardic screwed his eyes up: the shadowed room seemed out of line somehow.
Muttering a few uneasy jokes about mad gods, the three eased left along the chamber’s wall. It seemed dusty and unused. Reaching a reassuringly square corner, they zigged back right, into the open chamber.
It was the thick creepers of a huge vine-like growth that was making the room’s geometry seem ‘off.’ As they gazed up and then along, to trace where the stem must be, the vines moved…
Morath was quick enough to tumble clear himself, but not quick enough to give them enough warning. Both Bardic and Celo were locked firmly in thorny tendrils, each thick as a child’s wrist, each pressing its leaves and thorns against any exposed flesh!
With a thrill of horror Morath recognized the greenish tint, just perceptible in the contemptible light of Celo’s candle. Emerald Lotus: the processed leaves produced strong hallucinations. A few grains sprinkled into Yellow Lotus before smoking gave the wildest visions. Smokers would be unable to tell reality from their dream-world. Emerald Lotus was rumored to have mobility of limb normally associated with the animal kingdom. And this was now confirmed!
And as Morath dodged more vines and cut them away from his friends, there came the scuttling of millions of insect feet…
Bardic wrenched himself away from the clinging thorns while Celo used his skills as an escape artist to do the same. Both had lost some blood, but at least they had not taken the vine’s poison into their veins. Celo swung his candle around: the floor on the vine’s corner was alive with a carpet of giant centipedes! And they all looked mighty hungry!
The three plunged out of the room, back along the tunnel, zagged hard left and along that branch, and down the slope towards the pit. They could see Tae and his torch beyond.
“Feet don’t fail me now!”
“Mind the step!”
In torchlit darkness the leap was fraught, though in daylight any of them would have laughed at the test. Catching their breath, they glared back. The busy carpet of hungry centipedes swept down to the pit and up the walls on either side… then abated. It seemed the creatures had a territory, or disliked the light.
“Look, they seem cross, you can see that one waving little fists….” Quipped Celo.
“So, let’s hear it, what did you find?”
The voice in the dark
“I worked my way down, Tae came with me,” Vorel reported. “Then I found the tunnel was walking-level again. It curved a bit and dropped down a bit. Then we came to a Y-junction. One way seemed to fold back off left, but more sharply down, the other right and down a bit. So I followed that one. Another junction. No tracks. I chose to go right. The tunnel dropped down a bit then came to a shelf above a chamber. Below to the left I could pick out some sort of huge vine plant, like a giant holly or something, running right up into the roof. Over to the left I could see what looked like bodies and chains. The creepy thing was, the vine looked like it had grown right into the bodies. Tae wanted to push on but I stopped him: no way to tell if we could get back up. So we headed back here.”
Given the impossibility of getting part of the party across the pit – though Vorel suspected they could find planks back up amongst the arsenal stores or barrack – the tunnels seemed the best of bad choices. With the aid of a rope that Vorel produced, Cala and Elesa managed the clamber down with relative ease. Morath now took the lead. The others followed, Tae roughly in the middle with the torch.
The group wisdom agreed with Vorel’s decision not to follow the steep, back-angling tunnel. Straining to hear at the second fork, Morath decided he could detect some noise from the left. Following that branch as it curved gently left, the going uneven but smooth underfoot, the tunnel broadening, Morath came to a junction. The noise came from the left. Deep voices, in Shemitish. Fainter in the background came a drumming sound, making individual words hard to pick up.
“…so it has fallen out. Word came…. Trusted… Power.”
Morath alerted the others to wait behind while he and Celo crept closer. The drumming rose in volume. They could not see whence the voice came. It spoke as a disembodied entity, full of power, to grunts and murmurs of agreement. Morath concentrated hard, and heard:
“Swear now to me, Mogo, your allegiance. You shall share in my power to come.”
A number of voices were raised in oath. Perhaps three, the listeners guessed.
“Now, you, Dlagbo, my trusted minion, hurry to Onkoi my lieutenant and tell him and the others to stop that bloody drumming! And you, Ugu, hurry to my men and tell them to bring all the prisoners away into the galleys!”
“But great lord, if I might point out one issue…”
There was a meaty *thuck* and a thump. The deep voice continued.
“And you, Mkambo, my other trusted minion, hurry to my men and tell them to bring all the prisoners away into the galleys!”
“Will do, O great lord Mogo!”
“On my way, O great lord Mogo!”
Eager feet raced through the dark: one pair away from the rogues and one pair toward them. Morath whispered:
“We’ll take this one down – silently!”
A torch approached. Celo poised flat against the inner curve and sprang on the man’s back as he ran by, wrapping his arm round the man’s mouth. Morath slammed the point of his dagger up under the rib-cage and found the heart.
Buoyed by success, Morath nudged Celo.
“Let’s take this fat f***er Mogo down!”
The two hurried to retrace Mkambo’s steps….
Encounters in the cavern
…And ran slap into a returning Kushite and four massive corsairs, one plumed spectacularly. Some forty feet back in the cavern, rising with a roar from a makeshift throne, Mogo seized up a huge tulwar.
It was about this time that Bardic and Vorel realized that Celo and Morath had moved beyond immediate scout range.
Choosing to stay and fight rather than run, Morath drew his second sword and stabbed the nearest corsair. As the man fell, Morath found himself about to be decapitated by the enraged Mogo, who had raced across from a standing start in an instant! He ducked, and the blade struck sparks off the cavern wall. Celo, finding himself facing another huge corsair, did much the same as Morath: then felt aggrieved when the man didn’t drop. And it didn’t help that Morath was cursing him for not flanking Mogo. He stabbed with his dagger, fatally wounding the man, and stepped behind Mogo.
Onkoi and the remaining corsair joined in: but the pounding boots of Bardic and Celo could be heard as well. The two rogues ducked and weaved, Celo taking a nick under his right ear that gushed blood but was not serious.
[The corsairs were giving me a bad set of rolls. You’d think Morath would have at least been wounded, what with leading Celo away from the party and bumping into five pirates. Luckily Vorel was at hand…]
An arrow bounced painfully off Morath’s reinforced hide armor. He cursed.
“Sorry was that you Morath?” Vorel’s voice came from the darkness behind him.
“YES IT BLOODY WELL IS ME!!!”
Finishing Mogo with a blinding flurry of cuts, Morath looked for options. Onkoi was the next most dangerous, but Celo had tied him up with feints and maneuvers. Further back in the cavern a flambeaux burnt brightly, and in its light he could see a dead Kushite and a live one, the latter stooping over a crude rock seat or bench. The only other threat was the last corsair underling, so Morath darted behind the man and felled him even before Bardic could get into action. Finally, he timed Celo’s parries of the retreating Onkoi, stepped behind the corsair and killed him.
Meanwhile, Bardic advanced on the Kushite.
“Welcome, O great lord! Have some gold! I was just fetching it for you!”
This Kushite reminded Bardic of Rollo, his companion of a few years ago, though with a more roguish glint in his eye.
“Thanks, just holding it for me were you? Let’s have some information and we’ll see if that buys your life!”
Requiem for old comrades
Dlagbo guided the group forward. Based on his assurance that the ‘easy’ way to the prisoners involved returning all the way up to the top level then down the main stair, they had decided to ease past the Emerald Lotus vine. Now the man filled the picture in further.
“About a year ago, the great fleet of corsairs began assembling. They were to make war on Argos. A nobleman from Zingara promised much. [Here, he described the Instigator fairly accurately.] Mogo, the corsair chief, and Garband the Kushite chief of police, formed an alliance. With Garband’s help, Mogo began gathering secrets of the old priesthood of Baal-Angall.
“The fleet sailed out to war, but things went wrong. The Zingarans did not arrive. The Corsair fleet besieges a port. Mogo returned, angry: he decided to seize some secret from the depths below that would give him power here, and whether that worked or failed, to take slaves south for some sacrifice. Prisoners were added to that last command: with so many benches empty he needed sturdy oarsmen.
“Look there,” the Kushite continued as they arrived at the pit. “Just ease right: there is a ledge around the cavern. The exit to the store-room is below it.”
Suiting deed to word, he edged off to the right and around, then jumped down lightly. Bardic followed. The flambeaux Tae was now carrying for them lit the pit well. The Lotus tendrils stirred. Bardic’s skin crawled as he eyed the breadth of the stem: it could not be spanned by a man’s arms. And a few tendrils did indeed reach right across the pit floor, to the nearest bodies.
“They look… dead,” Bardic pronounced.
“Let’s see if that’s so,” Celo suggested cheerfully. “Bring that light close Tae, and watch out for creeping vines.”
Tae uttered more than one groan as man after man was pronounced dead. Some bodies were unfamiliar: some were female; some nearest the lotus had shriveled to nothing. A few were recognizably ex-marines. Finally Celo straightened and turned to Bardic, his normally cheerful expression grim.
“We’ve found Alleto and Kilp. This is as far as they went.”
“How many were moved out?”
“Judging by the number of opened manacles I’d guess a dozen?”
“Then let’s get after them.”
[It’s not always easy to spot where a Destiny could be spent, but I had reminded the players prior to the session start about Destiny points and specifically told Bardic’s player that he would have the chance to gain a cohort, but for that to happen, he needed to spend a Destiny point. I gave the general result of Celo’s healing check a count of five and I gave the aftermath a count of five. Too bad.]
The trail divides
Dlagbo bent close to the stone slab that sealed the prison on this side and muttered to himself, perhaps some sort of ritual or mnemonic. He pressed, and the slab swung open, a good-sized doorway. [Bardic had taken the wise precaution of making Dlagbo open the slab] Morath and Celo darted through: but the store-room beyond was empty. It was not even lit. From beyond, loud and clear, came the noise of strife.
The group fanned out as it crossed the well-stocked room and moved right, over to the broad arch leading out. Morath and Celo peeked around. Then pulled back.
“There’s a whole barge-load of Kushites. Something’s up, but there’s no way we can get past them without being spotted. Left, there’s an arched tunnel leading away.”
“Stables,” suggested Dlagbo. “Have more gold,” he urged, as Bardic turned a measured gaze on him.
A group huddle formed. The men, save Tae, were tired and bruised, but generally fit. Tae was burned but professed himself willing. There were two schools of thought: either take on the Kushites and so through to Kragen-Baal, and vengeance; or break through and away, and look for later opportunities. Uncertainty remained as to the slaves out in the outer citadel. Dlagbo maintained they would be shipping aboard, even now. Cala seemed to come to a decision.
“I must try to rescue the last of my lads from the Sea Princess. That means heading after the corsairs. By any means possible, capture Setta and bring her out, with her whip.”
“With her whip?”
“I need a key she has. My guess is that she has it hidden inside the whip she is never parted from.”
“So we’ll tackle the Kushites, and you’ll be on your own?”
“I have to do this. But I would feel better with a Zamorian to back me up.”
Morath blushed under his tan at this huge compliment from the woman who habitually relied on no man. But as he said,
“My groin says yes but my brain says the lads will need me.” [Winning a fp for a party-affirming play.]
“Yes, we can’t capture Setta alive without two rogues,” Bardic agreed.
“Alive, right!” Morath exclaimed. “I vaguely remember being taught how to sap someone and not kill them.”
With a last flash of teeth glimpsed behind her veil Cala was gone. The hubbub of the Kushites rose and the others readied themselves.
“Wished I had me old arm bracers, might get sticky in there,” Tae remarked, working his huge shoulders and making practice jabs and parries with his fists. “Stay behind me, miss… hey! Where are ya?”
Elesa was also gone.
Bardic gave a few last crisp instructions, allotting fighting roles. Then with a menacing bellow he raced out of the storeroom and charged!
The Kushites were distracted by something: that was clear. A few had headed out after Cala; they were cut down almost casually as they tried to surround the five men. The remainder were quickly forced back into the barracks where their options were constrained by some other force behind them: and the deadly cleaving blade of Bardic scythed through them!
Morath, turning from cutting down one of the flankers, heard hooves approaching. He raised his blades: then through the arch before him came a creature from his worst nightmares!
[DC30: Fear of the Utterly Known. Steaks was Morath’s name for the big black stallion he rode up Border Kingdom way. How that horse loved to stomp him into the ground!]
As the heavily-armored rider atop the great black stallion swept his sword down, Morath reacted: threw himself to one side and out of the horse’s path. He forced his emotions back in check: regardless of whether this was – as it appeared to be – the most evil and lethal horse ever born, with a special mission to wipe Morath out, this was still a fight he had to win. Timing his next roll to perfection he feinted left and rolled right, then sliced up at the girths. One hoof of the huge black caught him and his left arm went numb, but the saddle slid off.
To Morath’s chagrin the rider dismounted as expertly as Vorel might have and plunged to the attack even as the Zamorian flipped back upright and away from the horse. But the man was putting too much power into his swings, trying to finish the fight quickly. It made him inaccurate. Morath stepped inside a huge stroke and rammed one sword down between gorget and shoulder-flap; then as the man fell with a cry, finished him off with a stab up between gorget and visor. Ducking the horse’s attacks, he rolled back and ran to the aid of his comrades.
In the nick of time! For as Bardic hewed through the last Kushite captain he came face to face with well-armored Hyborian guards. A voice rang out, full of authority:
“Those men are behind this treachery! Arrest them!”
“Belly-Crag I presume,” Morath sneered. “Or was it Craggy Belly?”
The heavy-set, plate-armored man frowned. “I am Branger, Captain of Watch and loyal to his grace! Surrender, dogs!”
“In your dreams!” Bardic snarled, and the killing began.
The battle went badly at first. Easily able to withstand lighter blows, and using tactics that supported one another, the Hyborians pushed the comrades back. Tae was bleeding profusely and the others were little better off, though from small cuts and not serious wounds. Then Morath arrived and things turned, slowly at first then faster and faster. At last, the Hyborians were beaten back through their own barrack-room and hunted down and slaughtered by paired rogue-fighter tactics. All that remained was Branger himself. As Tae drooped against a bunk like a fighter against the ropes, and the others reached down inside for their second wind, the Captain retreated back out into a broad, well-lit section of tunnel outside the barracks. And raised his great mace ready for more!
[We leave it there with Tae on around one-quarter hp, Morath down below half, and the others no more than one-third down, but a fresh high-level fighter in front of them and more Captains presumably out there somewhere. Celo set the new record for fate point splurge, running through nine of them. The others will have four or five each when we kick off next session. Stay tuned!]