A Beastly business (11)
The clearing was wide and green, raised slightly above the level of the surrounding swamp. At itʼs centre stood a great stone obelisk, decorated with fetishes and feathers and the skulls of men and animals. All around its base were scattered bones and half-eaten carcasses, gnawed long-bones and spoiled flesh, all crawling with flies.
Sprawled around the stone were many foul looking creatures, hoofed like a beast, but standing upright like a man, bellowing and braying at the sky. There were horns and teeth a-plenty, claws and fur and a few tentacles and less obvious appendages. Some fought, some slept and some chewed on bones, whilst in the middle of the clearing, directly before the herdstone stood the great beastman, muscled and armoured, towering over the lesser beasts. Lightning flashed and crashed continuously above, like drums or a great battery of cannons, outlining the mighty beast in blue fire.
A sudden blast, louder than any other, brought the creature to itʼs knees. When it arose, itʼs eyes glowed with the same blue light as the lightning, glowing eerily. It raised a hand, pointing towards the swamp. “Intruders!” it brayed. Kill them all!”
Petra Nunce, Reiklander – gambler
Wesley Smitt, Reiklander – scout
Grim Grimmson, Dwarf – trollslayer
Jeremy Dewbender – apprentice grey wizard
Cat – a cat
The next day, Jeremy and Petra go to see Herr Kessler about a possible reward. Wes sets off to recover Grim, to try to add some details to the lightning foci map the wizard had sketched out, and to buy himself a spare bowstring.
Petra and Jeremy are quickly ushered into the Captains office. He congratulates them on apprehending an evil murderer, and offers them the thanks of the whole town (ʻbut what about the money?ʼ whispers Petra_) – unfortunately he cannot give them more than twenty-one shillings; even this has to be entered into the account books as ʻpayment for temporary employment as watchmenʼ! Petra accepts the money with good grace, and asks for a full receipt for her books. When asked what they will be doing next, Jeremy explains (_again) about the abnormal storms; they will be returning to the area of the Holst farm to investigate further. Herr Kessler happily tells them that he is sending a squad of guards out to arrest the entire family this very morning, and suggests the party may wish to accompany them.
Cue the devious Ms Nunce. Firstly she apologizes that they have no horses to keep up with the guards (standard test – the captain will happily provide horses for a short period_). Secondly, she suggests that it might be easier if they remained as supernumeraries of the watch ʻin case of any unpleasantnessʼ (a hard test, but Petra uses one of her social action cards, and Arno Kessler is putty in her hands. He writes out a warrant of office there and then, and stamps it with his seal_). Thirdly, Petra brings up the delicate question of pay (very hard, but – Petra aces it – they will be paid as sergeants in light of their special skills! Ten shillings each a week!). Finally she asks for pay in advance (another very hard test – at last a fail!), but this is laughed off by the Captain.
(The rest of the group are open-mouthed as Petra cons the head of the watch out of horses, money and even a writ of office. I must admit that Craig, who plays Petra, really gets into the whole gambler persona. Comes from being an accountant (hah!))
Meanwhile, Wes is chatting with the owner of the local general store, buying a spare bowstring. He fills in details of the local surroundings from descriptions by the shopkeeper (see map), before leaving to fetch Grim.
Grim is recovered from Eduardo Rodriguezʼs hovel, sporting a rolled up pair of red pantaloons and a terrific hangover. He is accompanied by the drunk, who is wearing a pretty impressive-looking sword, and who vows to follow Grim to the very depths of hell; as this is a place Grim already seems to be inhabiting, he merely smiles bravely and tries not to shake his head too much.
They meet back at the Inn, and eat quickly, before heading out to the local general store to buy supplies (theyʼve actually learnt something from their experiences!). Petra, in charge of the money (which fool decided on that?), also buys herself a wire cheese cutter, and conceals it in a pocket.
A trudge through the rain to the Reikland gate, where they meet up with the squad detailed to arrest the Holstʼs. Petra, on absolutely top form, manages to squeeze out a horse for Eduardo (as long as he rides at the back of the column). She also manages to get waterproof capes for them all after paying a ʻdepositʼ of 5 shillings to the squad sergeant, Detlev Kranst.
Itʼs a short ride of an hour or so for the group to reach the Holstʼs farm. Long before that, they realize something is amiss. There is the smell of burning, and a low bank of smoke can be seen ahead. Everyone spreads out and loosens their weapons. They top the final rise, and ahead lies devastation. All the buildings are burnt out, and dead animals lie in the fields, hacked apart in an orgy of wanton destruction. Closer in, they find one of the family, hanging upside down from a tree over a guttering fire. One of the brothers, they think, from the size of the crisped corpse.
Further on they come across a body pinned to the remains of the barn by arrows and left to scorch and to bleed out. A little further and they come across the final horror. A scatter of butchered and chewed limbs surround a cook fire, their gutted torsos piled carelessly nearby. A pyramid of heads overlooks the grisly scene.
(The group was actually a little uncomfortable with this whole scene – the descriptions were very explicit. I was hoping to give them an idea of the consequences of their previous actions).
Wesley promptly lose his lunch, together with a couple of the soldiers. Even Grim looks a little green around the gills, and spits. “Beastmen,” he growls. No-one needs to look for tracks for proof, but Wes wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and examines the ground anyway.
He nods in agreement. “Beastmen. They came from the swamp.” He points south. “Yesterday, I reckon. Probably in the morning, and spent all day doing … this. They didnʼt leave more than a couple of hours ago.”
Grim considers this. “They are beasts,” he growls. “I say we chase after them and kill them as they sleep with their bellies full of man-flesh.”
The rest of the adventurers agree, if not altogether heartily in Petraʼs case. The soldiers, however, are a different matter. They refuse to enter the swamp (ʻNot in our ordersʼ they chorus), but the sergeant, noting that they will be unable to ride their horses in the bog, offers to look after the mounts and wait for them at the farm. “But only until dusk,” he warns.
So, off they set. The party splits into two parts, with Wes, Petra and Jeremy slipping ahead quietly. Wes leads, carefully following the beastmenʼs tracks, and the thief and the wizard follow quietly, Jeremy blending unnaturally into the shadows, whilst Petra simply sneaks along. The dwarf and the drunk let the others get well ahead; neither is particularly stealthy, and hope the vanguard will warn them of any enemies.
For once, the plan goes perfectly, and Wes leads the party through the swamp without mishap, following a rough track and avoiding undue noise and disturbance; the continual roll of thunder from above help to conceal any sounds. Only the drunk, Eduardo Rodriguez, manages to fall in the mud, and is dragged out by Grim. He fishes a small flask out of his pocket and drinks the contents in a huge swallow. “Now the day is-a better. Time for-a the killing, yes?”
At one point they come across an old cart discarded just off the path. Itʼs coated with coal dust – “Herr Weschlerʼs, the coal merchantʼs” mutters Wes. Petra quickly examines it for valuables, but finds nothing and they press on.
Finally the party find themselves at the edge of a clearing. In the centre is a tall stone, with another rock lashed on top of it. Lightning strikes it every few minutes, leaving white after images in everyones eyes. A huge beastman stands before it whilst others lie all around the clearing, many of them appearing asleep.
Jeremy closes his eyes and channels the winds. A bright, bright blue nimbus surrounds the topmost rock. He also gets the faintest impression of a furry body curled up tight, asleep out of the rain some distance behind. He shrugs; it is after all only a cat. He nudges Grim. “Thatʼs it. The rock on top is what we want.”
Petra severely doubts the ʻweʼ part of the statement, but figures what the heck. “Letʼs see if we can even the odds a little,” she whispers. She points at one of the beastmen crouched near them at the edge of the clearing. ”That one.” Carefully she slips away from the rest and approaches it from behind, with Wes behind her.
Two steps out from the edge of the clearing, and she whips her cheese cutter over the creatures head, and drags it into cover. Wes leaps in, stabbing the creature repeatedly in the stomach, spraying blood everywhere. The creature writhes and kicks, choking soundlessly, bodily fluids splashing on the ground. Petra manages to hold onto her wire, cutting the life out of the creature and stopping it from crying out, while Wes finishes the beast off.
(This is actually a good plan! We discussed the use of a garrote after Grimʼs reappearance – the weapon would inflict a small amount of damage every turn, but would prevent the creature from crying out. Petra silences a beast whilst someone else takes it out. The creature suffers 1 misfortune dice, but can make a basic attack against anyone in the engagement; alternatively he may try an opposed strength test to break free).
As the two heroes lower the body to the ground, one of the nearby beasts starts to sniff the air. Realization washes over Wes. “Shit! The blood! It can smell it!” He feels a breeze on his neck. “The winds behind us.” The creature growls something at his companion, and starts to move towards Wes and Petra, questing with his snout.
(As the two killers crouch over the corpse, I ask the question, ʻwhich way is the wind blowing?ʼ No-one thought about being scented, and these are beastmen. I decide the wind has a reasonable chance of being against them and spin a pencil. Guess what – it comes up almost behind them. The creatures can smell something).
The approaching beastman is much bigger than the one theyʻd already slain, and it snarls and slavers as it approaches. Suddenly Wes pops up and quickly fires his bow twice at the surprised creature (rapid fire action; 2 clear hits), piercing itʼs neck and chest. Petra flings one of her daggers, and is pleasantly surprised when it strikes home deep in the creatures eye. It staggers back a pace screaming with pain, until Jeremy, surrounded by a shadowy aura of power, flicks a clot of darkness into its face. It falls heavily and does not move.
Grim and Eduardo surge out of cover, charging the only nearby beastman. Heʼs caught flat-footed, and scarcely has a chance to raise his sword before the dwarf barrels into him, cleaving him with a mighty blow from his axe. The Tilean follows up, piercing the creature with a lightning fast thrust of his rapier into itʼs throat. It falls dead at his feet.
(So far its all been good, with the players taking three of their enemies by surprise, and slaying them without injury. However, there are another eight Ungors, plus another Gor and Izka Madtooth himself yet to face [I hate the henchmen rules and refuse to use them], so I think itʼs going to get rocky soon!)
Almost instantly there is a bellowing roar from the leader of the beastmen, Izka Madtooth, and he charges Grim. Three of the smaller Ungors are also within charge range and follow. The rest of the beasts bellow and mill about, preparing to join the fray.
Grim is thrown back by the impact, one of the fearsome creatures horns slicing deep into his side, spilling blood onto the grass. Eduardo is then struck by one of the lesser beasts, but manages to deflect itʼs attack with his sword.
Wes takes a careful shot at one of the charging lesser beasts and pierces his heart, killing him instantly. (ʻSniper Shotʼ – 4 successes, 1 boon and a delay – 9 wounds, two of them criticals – heʼs dogfood!). Jeremy, still concealed in in the bushes, breathes deeply of the winds of magic and casts it at another of the attackers. This time the clot of darkness seems to twist and curl as it strikes, digging deep into the creatures side. It roars terribly, but continues to charge, striking Eduardo with its horns. The Tilean cannot dodge this attack, and takes a terrible wound to his arm.
Even as Eduardo takes his bitter wound, Grim delivers a mortal blow with his great axe to Izka Madtooth, shattering his ribs and spraying blood everywhere. The beast-king staggers back, stunned by the lethal blow. But the creature will not die! It lowers its head and, with a death roar, charges, striking the stunned Eduardo Rodriguez, driving his horns right through the Tilean swordsman. Man and beast fall to the floor, fatally entwined.
(A hint to all GMʼs out there; kill off any npcʼs with a funny accent as quickly as possible. What starts up as fun ends up as a bit of a strain. Hence Eduardo taking one for the team; also I couldnʼt let Grim die again so soon)
Meanwhile Petra, not willing to throw her last dagger, darts forward, keeping low to the ground. She slides behind the wounded Ungor, and stabs her blade deep into its back, slicing itʼs spinal cord. The creature falls dead at her feet.
Any thought that the beasts would be demoralized by the death of their leader are dispelled when another of the monstrous Gors charges in,
accompanied two of its lesser brethren. He strikes Grim with his sword, adding another wound to the dwarfʼs scarred torso, whilst one of the Ungors strikes Petra, slashing at her back with his blade. Lacking the innate toughness of the dwarf, the Gambler takes a deep cut to her flank, but ignores the wound, throwing herself headlong into a forward roll, to pluck the sword from Eduardoʼs twitching hands, reverse her direction and strike back at her attacker. Effortlessly she pierces the creatures arm, who flinches, then is struck dead by a grey fletched arrow shot by Wes.
This is too much for the rest of the beastmen, and they turn and flee, braying loudly for help. Ominously, replies can be heard from nearby.
“Quick, Grim, fetch the stone,” shouts Petra. She crouches down next to the dying Eduardo Rodriguez and raises his head. “My-a sword,” he whispers, “return it to my-a father.” He clasps Petraʼs hand tightly, whispers “Gratzia,” then falls back unconscious.
Grim dashes to the great herdstone and clambers up, starting to undo the magically imbued rock strapped to it, whilst Wesley advances into the clearing, arrow knocked, covering him.
“Get the cart!” shouts Petra, and Jeremy dashes off to get it. The gambler crouches over Eduardo, desperately trying to staunch the bleeding with a rag torn from her shirt, but it is to no avail. The Tilean gasps, then expires in her arms.
Meanwhile, movement can be heard in the swamp as more beastmen approach. Grim is blasted off the herdstone by a bolt of lightning, but the strike also severs the last of the ropes holding it in place. It falls to the floor next to the gently smoking dwarf, who gathers it into his arms and staggers dazedly back to the rest of the party, arriving just in time to drop the stone into Herr Weschlers cart next to Eduardoʼs body.
There is a shout, and Wesley fires his bow at a beastman appearing at the far side of the clearing, while the rest of the group drag the laden cart back towards the farm. More shouts, and further beasts appear, some roaring and milling around the great herdstone, the rest starting after the adventurers.
An exhausting chase ensues, with Wesley and Jeremy trying to discourage pursuit, whilst the others pant and gasp, pulling the cart as fast as they can. The pursuers never seem to get close enough to strike at the party, perhaps discouraged by the arrows and shadowy darts launched at them. The
creatures stop pursuing when the heroes leave the swamp, and the party staggers back to the safety of the farm and sergeant Kranst and his men.
That evening, the four companions sit around a table at the Thunderwater Inn, toasting their lost companion. Eduardoʼs sword, Vilaro, lies in the middle of the table, a last reminder of the dead man. Grim lays a hand on it for a moment, communing with the steel, then looks up at Petra. “Tell me, gambling woman, what did my friend ask of you.”
Petra leans forward and lifts the blade, before strapping it around her waist, then sweeping her cloak forward to conceal it. “Why, to look after it for him, of course.” She nods at her companions, then gets up and heads towards a card game in the corner.
(Well, that was quite interesting, the players are getting frighteningly competent. Grim is racking up the wounds again, but really is deadly in combat; I never realized quite how lethal ʻtroll-feller strikeʼ was. Wesʼs bow skills are equally deadly, and Jeremy is coming along nicely as an all rounder. As for Petra, what can I say. Clever, sneaky and able to cut your throat and steal your purse before you notice the draught. Scary).