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.
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
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.
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.”