A bit of chop (9)Well, after his second successive character death, Phil decides to go for something a little less combat orientated, and picks a Grey wizard apprentice. After he works out his characters backstory, I grant him three extra advances because he looks so glum (and to bribe him into agreeing to the story-line segue I’d worked out). Swim is his first extra skill pick, then ride. Ha!
Petra Nunce, Reiklander – gambler
Wesley Smitt, Reiklander – scout
Grim Grimmson, Dwarf – trollslayer
Jeremy Dewbender – apprentice grey wizard
Jeremy was enjoying his first assignment from the Grey College. True, he was standing on a muddy river bank, with no idea where the nearest town was.True, he was caught in the mother of all storms, and the rain was – literally – bucketing down. True, the local inhabitants had the intellectual prowess of a blunt spade stuck in a rancid cowpat, and seemed a little unsure where (or what) civilization was. But Gods! the pleasure of being away from the lies and deceptions of the big city, the ridiculous deceits and stories of little men. He was free here, the ruler of his own destiny, and would never again be deluded my his fellows. No longer would he be known as Dewbender the dupe, Dewbender the dumb, he would be Dewbender the Devious! Dewbender the decisive! Dewbender the discerning!
Jeremy’s day-dreams are interrupted when he falls over a young woman lying soaked on the river bank. She rolls onto her side and waves a soggy piece of paper with an impressive looking seal on it at the young wizard. “Imperial agent,” she croaks. “We were ambushed. Help us!”
Jeremy looked at the young woman. She was wet and exhausted, but otherwise hale. He took the paper from her hand and examined it carefully. The ink on the document she was waving had run, making the writing illegible, but, good grief! the seal looked Imperial. He made a snap judgement about her honesty and saluted. “I am always ready to assist servants of the Emperor, madam. What can I do?”
(One of the reasons Phil’s new character had extra advances was that he agreed to him suffering from the condition ‘gullible’. When people try to convince Jeremy of something that is pretty obviously nonsense, they roll an extra fortune dice. Add Petra’s winning smile, guile skill and a whole heap of fortune points, and he was putty in their hands).
Once Jeremy had helped the three heroes to his camp-site, got them out of their wet clothes, warmed them by the fire and fed them, the young woman told her tale. They had been hunting a band of chaos cultist for weeks in the nearby town of Lachenbad, and had been on the point of arresting them, when they’d been ambushed by their men. They’d been attacked, and had been forced to flee the town in a leaky rowboat. The ambushers had chased them, but had been lost some distance upstream, not before killing one of their number (the strange looking dwarf had growled something at this, but had been calmed by his companions). However, the leaders of the cult were powerful men, and had convinced the local authorities that they were common criminals, and had even issued arrest warrants for them! It was vital that they conceal their identities from everyone, and lay low until they were ready to tackle the cultists again. She looked deep into his eyes and let her blanket fall a little, exposing bare flesh. Could he help them? (Of course he could!).
The heroes spend a day recovering at Jeremy’s camp site, and the wizard tells them about his mission. It seems that the town of Stromdorf, known as the wettest place in the Empire, has become even wetter. Apparently there has been a storm raging here continuously for over three weeks, and he has been despatched by his masters in the Grey College to investigate. He shows a letter from his college asking for every assistance to be given to Magister Dewbender and his associates in investigating this mystery.
There is a pause, before Petra inquires, “Your associates?”
Jeremy looks a little concerned. “Yes. I had hired two guides in Altdorf to assist me, but they set out for the town to buy supplies three days ago. I hope they are alright.”
“Erm, these guides, how much money did you give them to buy supplies?” inquired Petra.
“Two crowns. They took my horse in to get it shod as well, so I’m a bit stuck at the moment.They were very good with horses – spotted the loose shoe before I had a clue.”
The three imperial agents exchange glances. “I fear for the worst,” says Petra.
“Not … dead?”
“Possibly,” speculates the gambler. “Or at least geographically distant. But not to worry, we will assist you. We will replace your unfortunate associates!”
Jeremy thanks them profusely, and the three criminals decide to change their appearance. Petra the gambler ties her hair up in a tight bun, splashes some of the wizards ink on his hands and becomes Frau Friedman, a scribe working for Jeremy. Wesley the Scout shaves off his beard, steals a perky hat from the wizard and becomes – Wesley the scout, another employee of the wizard, (our Wes in not the sharpest tool in the shed). Grim stoutly refuses to change his appearance, (‘It’s not honourable!’) but eventually agrees to be known by a very different name – Grom. Ah well, it’s a start. With luck he may well die soon.
The next morning our intrepid band sets out to find their way to civilization. Jeremy confidently leads them over a small stream, now in full spate following a rough path which he soon loses. They stand around in a glum huddle, the three ‘agents’ carrying various cases and packs, whilst Jeremy carries nothing; ‘acting the part’ he remarks.
Suddenly Wes the scout notes a column of smoke to the east. “That’ll be the farm we passed,” says Jeremy. “The Eagles. Terribly smokey chimney.” There is a brief discussion during which the party start to wonder at the amount of smoke, as well as the wizards naivete, before deciding to investigate with caution. They distribute their few weapons – Wes has his bow, Petra has Wes’s dagger and another that Jeremy produces, whilst the Slayer, having lost the scout’s sword in his swimming lesson last episode (‘you’ll have to pay for that’ pipes up Wes), drags a massive branch off a sodden tree. Jeremy seems content with his staff.
The adventurers advance on the smoke, Wes and Petra slipping away to scout ahead, whilst Grim and Jeremy advance up a faint track. “Look at ‘em sneaking around like thieves”, he begins, but then checks himself when he can’t see the wizard. “Or bloody mages!” he finishes. (Both Wes and Petra make successful sneak tests, whilst Jeremy casts Cloak of Shadows upon himself. The three move quietly up to the Eigel’s farmhouse). Grim stomps on muttering bad temperedly, before rounding a corner into what remains of the farm. “Shite, he whispers, tightening his grip on his club. All that’s left are the burnt out shells of a house and a couple of out-buildings. On one section of wall still standing a chaos star is daubed in what might be blood. “Double shite.” A whistle and Wes appears from behind a wall.
“There’s no-one left,” the scout says in a normal voice. He points to tracks on the ground, large and cloven-hooved. “Beastmen. Couple of big ones. The rest smaller. About ten all told, I reckon. He gives the ruins a cursory glance, breaking of a fragment of burnt wood.”Still warm. Happened last night.” (My God, ten out of ten for Wes. He’s getting good!) The heroes gather around, and give the buildings a cursory search for valuables. “Looking for survivors,” Petra assures the wizard when asked.
Another farm overlooks the ruin, and the group decide to head that way, slogging through mud and low shrub up a low hill. “Funny how they didn’t attack this one,” muses Petra.
Grim laughs. “P’raps they didn’t have enough time, they knew we were coming.”
When they reach the farm, there is a huge argument going on. Two in-bred looking country types are screaming insults, whilst a gaggle of similarly ‘unusual’ types look on. There are squints, twitches and crossed-eyes galore, as well as a little drool. One particularly big and stupid looking country cousin looks on with his mouth open, loosely gripping a massive woodcutters axe in his hands.
(“Jeez, where’s the cajan music?” wonders Phil/Jeremy, and on cue I put on ‘dueling banjos’ – the players get it immediately).
They notice a skinny youth sitting on the porch playing the mandolin very, very well, seemingly oblivious to the fuss around him. Jeremy approaches him for information but is ignored. The other three move nearer to the argument, picking up scraps of argument – ‘your fault’, ‘shouldn’t have stopped’, ‘dead because of you’, ‘sacrifice’. The argument hots up, and Grim rubs his hands together. “Looks like a scrap. Go for it, I bet a shilling on the one with his eyes too close together!”
Wes looks askance at the dwarf. “Both of them have eyes too close together.”
“So I win, what’s the problem? Whiney humans, always complaining.”
Suddenly one of the protagonists pulls a knife. Before anyone else can react, Grim clubs him over the head. “No cheating,” he bellows as the figure crumples. He relieves him of his dagger, which he pockets smartly, then flips him onto his side with a foot. He grins brightly. “Anyone care to tell me what’s this’s all about?”
There are a few mutters about Holtz family business and a general shuffling of feet. The dwarf shrugs. “Ah well, fair enough, these things happen in the best of families.” He points at the huge imbecilic figure opposite him. “Changing the subject a little, care to sell the axe?”
Whilst the unconscious figure is dragged away and tied up by a couple of the farmhands, Grim settles to dickering with the idiotic near-giant. He really doesn’t want to sell his axe, and Grim has no money, but he perseveres. “How about a bet?” The giant looks vaguely interested. Grim points at Petra. “How about her? I’ll bet her against your axe. You win and you get a fine bit of girly-flesh to play with. I win, I get your axe. How about it?”
The massive man is practically wetting himself with excitement as Grim calls his companions over. Rather than beating him over the head with his liver as everyone expects, Petra says sadly. “It’s not right to use people as bets. Not right at all. Not unless, well, it’s at cards. That’s ok.”
The oaf lumbers off into the farmhouse, and returns with a creased pack of deck. He holds them out to Grim. “No, no,” says the dwarf, “you might think I’m cheating you. Let the young girl deal.”
(Suffice it to say that the party swiftly gained a two handed axe, half a wheel of cheese and several large, suggestively shaped root vegetables before the Holtz’s realize that the ‘young girl’ is freakishly lucky. Petra also pockets the cards).
Whilst Petra and Grim are off fleecing the yokels, Wes and Jeremy talk to the leaders of the Holtz clan, Otto and Maria. They ask some hard questions about the burnt out farm below and the Holtz’s apparent safety, and eventually the two admit to leaving ‘gifts’ for the beastmen to prevent them attacking them – the Eigels had stopped their offerings a few weeks ago, hence the reason for the attack. When pressed on the nature of these ‘gifts’, Otto and Maria are a little vague, mentioning beer, livestock and animal skins. Concerned, Wes slips away to question the prisoner about the bribes, but finds him tied up in a barn in a drunken stupor.
While Wesley is away, the Holtz matriarch settles down to question Jeremy about the group. Remembering the deception they are running, he explains that the group are his hired men, fiercely loyal and obedient to his orders (hah!). After much consideration, Maria suggests that there is someone he ought to meet that evening.
After resting in one of the barns until dusk, Otto and Maria Holtz fetch the party for their mysterious meeting. Both carry lanterns, and lead the adventurers away from the farm and into a nearby wood; no birds or animals can be heard, and much of the vegetation appears strangely stunted. As night falls, the guides light their lanterns and steer the party along a faint track between twisted trees. A light rain falls, and the landscape is lit every few minutes by flashes of lightning, throwing the trees into stark highlights. Gradually the party become aware of their destination, a huge tree ahead, festooned with charms, fetishes and animal corpses, brooding and evil. The Holtz’s stop before it, and Maria gestures for a tall cloaked figure to come out.
“A mage,” says Jeremy, sensing magical potential.
“My son,” says Maria fondly.
“Big,” says Petra, noticing the figures size and breadth. She slips a dagger from her sleeve as a precaution.
“A beastman!” shouts Wes, seeing the creatures cloven feet.
And, “Aarrghh!” from Grim, swinging his axe in a mighty arc into the creatures head, splashing brains and gore everywhere, killing it instantly.
(And thats it. Troll Feller Strike, Great weapon and a fortune dice for a sudden attack and it’s all over for Foaldeath. Scenario is comprehensively derailed).
With a scream, Maria throws herself at the murderous dwarf, lunging at him with her dagger. Petra darts forward, backstabbing the distraught woman, driving her away from Grim to collapse bleeding on the ground (seven wounds and two crits! She’s history). Wes, seeing Otto going for his sword, steps back and fires an arrow point-blank into the farmer’s chest. With no armour and no chance of dodging, the Holtz patriarch is severely wounded, but manages to get his sword out, just in time for Jeremy to pierce him with a flurry of shadowy darts that spring from his fingertips. He slumps dead, next to his dying wife.
The wizard looks around at the corpses in confusion. “What was all that about?”
(I think the players were quite shocked at just how lethal they have become. Before now they’ve always fought soldiers or monsters or been ambushed themselves – a couple of ill-prepared civillians were grist to the mill. Foaldeath should have been more of a challenge, but Grim’s murderous attack put him down in one. Ouch!)
The four heroes stare at the carnage surrounding them. Maria choses that moment to expire noisily from blood loss, and they look at each other guiltily.
“Now what?” asks Jeremy plaintively. “We’ve just slaughtered an innocent family?”
“Innocent?” says Grim, “innocent? What do you think their ‘gifts’ were? Beer, yes, livestock, perhaps, but I’m guessing at least some of their offerings walked on two legs, at least until they were eaten!”
“Really?” asks Jeremy, “they seemed so wholesome and, well, rural.” (That gullibilty trait has a lot to answer for!).
“If by rural you mean cretinously inbred, then yes, they were the most rural folks I’ve ever met. They were so inbred one of their sons was a beastman.”
Eventually they drag the bodies under the great tree (after Grim and Wes check their pockets, of course), then settle down to decide their next move. No-one wants to go back to the Holtz house (what, a conscience?) but unfortunately they are completely lost. They argue for quite some time, drawing sketch maps, and desperately trying to work out how to get to Stromdorf without passing the farm, but as they have no idea where i) they are, ii) they’ve been and iii) they are going, they are a bit stumped. Eventually Petra takes control.
“Follow me,” she says, heading towards the Holtz’s farm.
“What are we going to do?” asks Jeremy plaintively.
“What we always do in these situations,” replies Petra. “Lie a lot and be prepared to run.”
Half an hour later two desperadoes stagger into the Holtz’s farmyard, clothing ripped, shouting for help.
“Beastmen, they attacked us!” shouts Petra, panting heavily. “You’re father and mother tried to hold them off, but there were too many!”
“They killed hundreds trying to save us, the brave fools, but the beasts overpowered them,” adds Wes, hiding his face in his hands. “Why oh why Gods? Why take them? Why take the best of us?”. Petra staggers over to him, and stumbles, placing an arm around his neck for support, coincidently squeezing tight enough to prevent him talking (and breathing).
“Don’t listen to him, he’s delirious with shock, look at his colour.” (Wes is turning blue)
“We’ll go and fetch help at once. Quickly, which way is the town?”
A sleep befuddled farmhands points out the direction, and the two survivors stagger out of the farmyard, the scout choking with grief.
Meanwhile Grim and Jeremy sneak into the barn and free the prisoner. He can barely walk, he’s so inebriated, and the two have great difficulty getting him away quietly. They meet the rest of their party a little way down the track to town, and press on through the night, questioning the freed captive as they walk; Tristan Eigel is so drunk they easily get the whole sorry story of the Hotzes and Eigels buying their safety through sacrifices.
(Well, another classic cock-up by the rock-steady crew. They really do try to be, well, if not good, at least not completely murderous, but things just don’t seem to work out that way, and the body count is rising. I wonder if they’ve about thought what’s going to happen to the Holtz’s when the beastmen find their shaman dead, with Maria and Otto next to him?)