Pharast the 29th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 22.18, Shadowscale Tribal Home
Windy, Warmer than normal
Dolgrin was a mage, emphasis on was. On their way to Thornhill that morning, Arkhan chose to reveal his ruse – he had used his hat of disguise to dupe them all and assumed the persona of Dolgrin over the last few days. He didn’t further explain himself to his companions, but would never forget the looks on their dumbfounded faces – he derived a great deal of gratification from dumbfounding them. The rogue had indeed seen his friend Kal off, however. That part was true enough.
They deliberated at length, as they walked, about how he had replicated all those spell effects. It defied logic. They accused him of being relatively useless in the battles as Dolgrin. He could have gotten someone killed, some of them said. While his comrades were busy debating the man’s sanity, and to what lengths he would go to alleviate his own boredom, at least a few were relieved to have him back. Rustie, their trusty Halfling chef needed someone to look after his liquor stores. With Arkhan gone, Paoula had claimed that it was up for grabs again. The other, of course, was Paoula herself, for obvious reasons.
Tilendael and Liafina followed the trail of Kal, to be his traveling companion for a time. Whether their roads would diverge later was a tale yet to be written; one could never tell with these wandering types.
By Boss T’chak’s estimation, they had only ten miles of swamp to traverse before reaching the Reaver village of Thornhill. According to Gordan, steward of Wolverton, Thornhill was the terminus of the Lost Road. They would have to rely on intelligence from the villagers to track the lost expedition of Maegar Varn beyond that.
The half-drowned, reed-flanked trail north of the Shadowscale tribe was alive with alligators… or crocodiles, they couldn’t tell which. Hazy, purple mountains rose on their right, while a scintillating blue plane stretched before them to the north, cat-tails and clumps of marsh-trees marring its perfection. The marsh was hedged in by rolling green hills that quickly faded into the distance behind them as they slogged. The day was fair and good for marching, but for the red paste they had applied to their bodies to repel parasites, it would have been a pleasant day.
The trilling swarms of marsh flies, the calls of unusually large cranes – the size of horses – and a cacophony of croaking frogs were their constant companions as they marched. Their supply wagon and mule cart slowed them somewhat, and they had to stretch out their line to provide forward scouts to find the clearest path.
“Well, foraging and hunting shouldn’t be a problem here,” Rustie chirped enthusiastically to Arik, who was keeping rearguard with the wagon. He eyeballed a giant turtle as it disappeared into a thicket of grass with as they passed.
“This food is for the poors,” Arik lamented. He wasn’t interested in everyman food; his palette was refined. Rustie was the palace chef at Caer Syllan – he knew he could satisfy even palatial appetites, even out here.
At the head of the procession, Rivva, and Ash held up the rest for a moment to point out a body floating face down on a gentle current. The magus sent out her new companion Ry, an ioun wyrd, to investigate. The little collection of stones bobbed through the air toward the body.
It hovered over the deceased, dipping down about it, and calling back to Rivva in a wind-chimey voice. Her comrades were surprised when she answered back in the same language, which she sent its way via an eddy current of her own manufacture.
“It’s the body of a lizardfolk, and it looks sick,” she explained to them.
Arkhan called back to the rearguard, “don’t drink the water here.”
“Why, did you piss in it?” Keira joked.
“Nope. Dead body…” he pointed to it as it floated by them.
“Ew,” Arik frowned as it passed.
Rivva and Ash waded out to inspect it. They determined that the cause of death was some disease, which wasn’t uncommon in this sort of waterlogged place. Ash halted their progress to investigate the other wildlife in the area, looking for similar signs of disease. He was glad to find none.
“It should be safe to hunt here, only this lizardfolk appears to be diseased,” Ash said.
Arik looked over the body. “Been dead about a week, I’d say.” He opened its mouth with a dagger. “Something it ate or drank, apparently. They say that poison is the lover’s weapon…” Pa-oula peeked out of the wagon when she heard him say ‘lover,’ but returned immediately upon seeing that no naughtiness ensued.
“This guy is poorly outfitted compared to the Shadowscale tribe,” Rivva observed.
“Well, looks like we have a mystery on our hands here, gang!” Keira was enthused, as always.
Hours of marching later, they arrived at the southern shore of a vast azure lake. They smelled Thornhill shortly before spotting it on a small island. Plumes of blue smoke rose from inside the dilapidated, dysfunctional outer palisade. The sqalid Reaver village smelled of smoking fish – but not in a good way. Little fishing rafts dotted the lake, and a hundred-foot long rickety wooden bridge spanned the distance from shore to island.
Kiera began magically enhancing her diplomacy, but her companions thought it was overkill for these guys. The fishermen in their boats had glassy-eyed, dull expressions, and simply watched passively as they pulled their wagon train up to the bridge and prepared to meet the locals.
Rivva knew from her studies that these Reaver-folk would likely respond well to the presentation of trade goods, so she brought some jars of honey with her to get them started. They crossed the bridge, and passed into the muddy, overgrown streets of Thornhill. Their approach revealed dilapidated, ramshackle wooden buildings, all leaning askance and in dire need of repair – much like the bridge they crossed now. It was muddy and missing about half its planks, and teetering precariously in places.
The locals were red-haired with ruddy complexions, and appeared in poor dress but decent health. Kiera introduced them and asked if they could meet with the leadership. Many scrawny children fawned over them as they entered the defunct palisade. The adults were mostly interested in their wagonload of trade goods, which Arik guarded carefully.
“Look at all them shinies,” one child said, touching Arkhan’s breastplate. The rogue frowned and shooed him away. These people looked very inbred, he thought.
“These people look very inbred,” he said to Kal, but then frowned when he remembered that his longtime traveling companion wasn’t there. He noticed that Pa-oula Sweets had taken interest in a large local man. He was more thick than tall, but he was thick with muscle and bare-chested.
The same man locked eyes with Arik, the two were sizing each other up. Pa-oula was thrilled, and sauntered over to the stocky Reaver and smiled down at him suggestively. He broke gaze with Arik to look her over.
“Lemme git Momma from the Chum Hole,” a mostly toothless boy said, and ran toward the closest building. It appeared to be some kind of dining establishment. Not the good kind. ‘Momma’ sauntered out, a big wild-haired woman holding a ladle.
“Y’all came ta trade? We need trade,” she said, her face seemed locked in a permanent scowl.
Kiera stepped up and gave a polite bow, “yes, perhaps we would like to trade with you.” She smiled – it was not returned. The big Reaver woman just shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, come inside my Chum Hole then, and bring yer wares too,” she said, and waddled back inside the big building. Arkhan bit his tongue. Arik shook his head, and decided to stay outside with Rustie, Bor, Tarrien and Pa-oula. The man couldn’t stand the smell. He rubbed some salve under his nose to ward it off.
Inside Momma’s Chum Hole, they confirmed that this did indeed resemble a tavern of sorts. It was decorated with the religious iconography of ‘The Four Winds,’ Arkhan explained, pointing to depictions of four faces; an aspect of the god Gozreh. The rest of the world understood the god of waves and winds as dualistic – representing both the sky and the sea. These Reavers seemed to have latched onto one of those aspects and made their own religion of it.
“Y’all want yer medicine?” Momma asked flatly. As she did, she poured some tarry-looking syrupy green liquid from a dirty waterskin into a turtle shell bowl and offered it to whoever would take it.
“Sure,” Arkhan offered with a shrug. “You only live once,” he said as he slammed the concoction. Rivva was frantically searching for her wand of cure poison before the rogue could do this impulsive deed, but didn’t grab it in time. Arkhan wiped the residual syrup from his lips while his companions watched intently, nervously awaiting his reaction.
“Not bad,” he said to Momma, and slid the empty turtle shell back at her across the bar. She grinned: a picket fence missing half its boards.
“They call me Chummer,” Momma said, ladling another dose into the empty turtle shell.
“And what do you call you,” Rivva asked.
“I don’t call me nothin’,” the woman said, leveling a knowing look at the sylph – she thought she had scored a point.
Rivva saw a branch hanging on a wall above Chummer’s cooking station. It wasn’t just a tree branch, she realized, but a treeant’s severed arm.
“What’s that,” Rivva asked nonchalantly, pointing to it. Chummer shrugged, and explained that they had battled a treant in the past, and defeated it as a town. The arm was a trophy.
Outside, the Thornhill Reavers were breaking through Arik’s defenses, trying to sneak peeks of what they had inside their wagon. One of them saw the head of a large black dragon – and gasped, backing away nervously. He ran off to spread the news. Arik looked at the stocky man whom Pa-oula was sweet on, and pulled back the canvas of the wagon cover to show him. The silent Reaver nodded in approval, and walked away.
Arik smirked. He observed the inbred Reavers as they cleared out a bit. They were both emptying buckets into and drawing water out of the surrounding lake. The buckets being emptied seemed to contain their feces, and the buckets being drawn seemed to collect their drinking water. His face adopted a horrified expression as the implication set in. They were using the same buckets for both purposes.
“Don’t drink the water!” he shouted to his comrades inside.
Inside, Chummer saw Arkhan eyeballing a bucket that sat on her counter. “You need the bucket? That’s my only bucket, bring it back if you use it,” she said with a warning look. “Use the bucket, don’t lose the bucket.” Arkhan raised an eyebrow.
Kiera changed the subject quickly, “what else do you have in trade besides ‘medicine?’”
“We have a smithy,” she said with a lisp. “But she don’t have much metal anymore. We also got us a boat-maker, he made a real big boat to cross the lake with for a bunch of for’ners, ‘bout a couple years ago. Boat-Man Nash made ‘em special boats to carry wagons like you got there,” she pointed out the front door with her medicine ladle.
They rejoined Arik outside, who was enjoying the fact that the locals were giving him more breathing room. “I’m half tempted to swim out of here,” he scowled.
“Why? At least there are other people here. You want to swim in the swamp?” Arkhan asked.
“At least people don’t throw their shit in the swamp,” he answered, pointing to a floater in the water by the bridge. Arkhan grimaced. At least they were getting enough fiber, apparently.
Rustie Glassjaw, Halfling chef extraordinaire was sipping Medicine with Keira. “It’s herbaceous,” she said, hair standing on end a bit as she sipped the syrupy brew. “Did I use that word right? Herbaceous?” Rustie shrugged.
They rolled down the muddy road toward the Boat-Man, Nash, as Chummer called him. The building next-door to the Chum Hole was a temple to the Four Winds. Ash was inside checking it out.
“This temple blows,” he said as Rivva entered. He pointed toward two Reavers who were literally blowing on a totem to the Four Winds inside. The tall wooden totem of four blowing faces was decorated with the feathers of ‘pegasusses.’
“We need to find Zissren,” Rivva said to the two supplicants as she leaned into the temple doorway. They stopped blowing the totem momentarily to point her toward the dock.
“I hope this Zissren is smarter than these people,” she said.
They continued down the road and passed by the smithy. She was making fish hooks, and apparently she didn’t have much metal stock to work with, the way she was stretching what she had. She wasn’t bad looking, Arkhan thought – then banished the thought as quickly as he thought it.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Groteas,” she said, barely looking up from her delicate work.
“That’s unfortunate,” Arkhan consoled. Keira punched him.
“I think that’s a lovely name,” Kiera said.
Arkhan shoved her aside and continued, “I’m shocked to see you at work here. I heard you had trouble with your mine.” He was ‘leaning’ in his most mockingly flirtatious way.
“Where did you hear that?” Groteas asked. “Anyway, you’re right. The mine is playing out, and we’ve had to stop mining there… I’m just doing what I can with what I have.”
Greta Thunderhammer stepped up, this being her sort of conversation. “Where is your mine? Perhaps I might do some surveying for you,” she offered politely.
Groteas sized them all up for a moment, which Keira thought was odd. Then she said, “It’s on the eastern bank of the lake. You lot look pretty strong…”
Keira delightedly interjected, “We are quite strong. If I had time I would sing an entire ballad about just how strong we are. It would be wasted here though; it would be quite complex and I would be doing it a disservice without decent backup musicians.”
Groteas nodded unsurely, and quietly continued her smithing while Arkhan and Kiera began arguing articulately about who would be the lead in this ballad.
A man working wood waved them over from an unwalled shore of the island. He had a small construction site there. He was bright-eyed and wearing the poorest excuse for coveralls they’d ever seen. He had some buckets on dispay.
“You sell buckets?” Ash asked, looking at his wares.
“We’re a little short on buckets right now. Name’s Phuggit,” the man answered cheerily. “I noticed you got some honey there, you willin’ ta trade?”
Rivva looked over his work, then said flatly: “no.”
Keira stepped in front of her and said apologetically, “what she meant to say is that this is especially high-quality honey and we don’t see anything here that would make for an equal trade. However, if you could direct us to someone who could make boats for us…”
“You could just live here,” Phuggit said, then winked suggestively at Pa-oula, Rivva and Kiera – each individually, and in that order. They kept walking.
Finally, at the other end of the small island village, they came upon a man patching together a fishing boat at a small dock. Groteas was there, talking to the man quietly.
“Hey – Grotessa!” Arkhan waved. The woman shot a scowl at him. He just smiled and kept waving. Then he turned to the man, who had a bucket beside him and said, “That’s not Chummer’s bucket, is it? Don’t lose it!”
The man laughed, and waved them over. “Naw, that’s my bucket. My only bucket.”
Arkhan was hard up for conversational topics with these backwaters. “Does everyone have a bucket?”
“Only if they earn it,” he said knowingly to Arkhan. “Name’s Nash,” he extended a dirty hand. Arkhan ignored it.
“How do I get a bucket?” Arkhan teased.
“You got to contribute,” Nash answered, folding his arms across his chest.
Just then a massive alligator – or crocodile – leapt from the water near the dock, grabbed the bucket from beside Nash, and plunged back into the water. It was full of fish.
“Aw, Crawgator!” Nash yelled at it. “That’s Crawgator, my gator,” he said to the party.
Ash shook his head. “We need a boat,” he explained.
“I can build you a big boat,” Nash said. “I done it before for some for’ners a couple a years ago to git their wagons across the lake.” They hoped he was talking about Maegar Varn’s expedition.
“We need to see Zissren,” Rivva said. “Can we borrow one of your small boats to get to his island while we wait for our big boat?”
Nash loaned them a little boat and pointed to a small island a few hundred feet away. They ferried over, and found a small hut, around which grew a well-tended garden. A trail of blue smoke drifted lazily from the open door.
They found the lizardfolk shaman Zissren inside, sitting comfortably on a chair reading a book and smoking a pipe. He wore a comfortable robe, and had the appearance of a man of leisure. He looked up as they appeared in his doorway.
“And you are?” He asked.
“Arkhan and Company,” Arkhan offered. “What are we smoking there?”
“Pipeweed,” the lounging lizardfolk answered. “Have you come seeking enlightenment about the Four Winds?”
“Yes, our wizard is interested,” he motioned to Rivva, who scowled at him.
The lizardfolk began to drivel on about the fake religion. Rivva was skeptical. She mostly ignored him while sneaking peeks at his books. He was reading about herbology.
“Why did you come here to live among these people, anyway?” the sylph asked.
“To lead these people in worship,” he replied humbly.
“I’ll ask again – this time, no lies. Why did you come here?” Her eyes flashed dangerously.
Zissren’s eyes darted from Rivva to her companions, realizing that he was hopelessly overmatched. He smiled disarmingly. “Look, these people are easy marks… I enjoy their tribute.”
He went on to explain how he had convinced the villagers of Thornhill that his Four Winds religion (which he manufactured) could keep the dragon Shadowscale at bay, after the first dragon attack on the village. In fact, Shadowscale couldn’t tolerate the smell of Thornhill and stayed away voluntarily. Zissren convinced them that it was his religion that was responsible, and they’d venerated him ever since as their sole shaman.
Arkhan nodded, approvingly. “One problem with your con: Shadowscale’s head is in our wagon. How are you going to keep these people duped now?” He grinned as Zissren’s expression became worried.
“Look, could you do me a favor and maybe tell them that you killed Shadowscale’s smaller cousin? I really need this gig…” the lizardfolk man pleaded.
Kiera stepped in, “we’ll maintain your ruse, but you have to help us get passage across the lake.”
“Sure, all you have to do is trade with them, they can make a boat that can help you to make the trip,” Zissren offered eagerly. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“I want a map,” Rivva demanded. Zissren complied, and helped her to fill in some of the blank spaces on hers.
They concluded their business, and returned to Nash the Boat Man. He told them it would be several days wait while he constructed their boat. Arkhan groaned – he couldn’t take it here that long. Greta convinced him to take her to their mine. After all, that was why she had accompanied them on this expedition. Arkhan gladly agreed, and convinced the others to go along.
They borrowed a boat from Nash. Groteas approached them as they loaded it. “Where y’all going?”
“To the mine,” Arkhan replied. “We’re looking for adventure. Are you worried about us?”
“Wait here,” she said, and ran off. She returned a few minutes later with some large clumps of plant mass. It was pungent-smelling. “Take this with you. It will ward off evil spirits.”
Arkhan accepted it reluctantly – it smelled like bait.
They launched the boat, leaving their animals and wagon behind, with their companions to watch them in their absence. The lake was expansive, and currents flowed ever so slowly southward. They rowed for hours, keeping the mountains of the eastern shore in view. The day passed uneventfully, and they kept pots of red paste to smear their skin, warding away the marsh flies.
At evening, they spotted a Huge hippopotamus wallowing on the shore – near the mine entrance. It was sleeping fitfully. It started sniffing wildly, waking as their boat approached. Arik and Rivva reasoned that the mass of plant matter that Groteas gave them was, in fact, hippo bait. The hippo had laired near the mine entrance – it was no wonder the Reavers didn’t have access to ore any longer.
They discussed attacking the hippo (technically a behemoth, Rivva corrected), and decided it would be easier on land. If it swam out to their boat, it could easily capsize them and place them at its mercy. They decided to row out a bit, and attempt to use the bait Groteas sent with them to lure it away from the mine entrance.
The behemoth didn’t take it – it was guarding its wallow. Arkhan snoozed in the boat while they played cat and mouse with it in the rowboat. They beached their boat south along the shore, and approached the behemoth stealthily, weapons drawn.
Arkhan ran for the mineshaft opening, sprinting past and entering before the behemoth was fully aroused. By the time he made it inside the narrow cave, the beast was fully alert and bellowing at the intruders.
Ash launched a fireball at it, scorching it severely and further enraging it. It charged at Keira full bore, snapping her up in its great jaws. She felt like a child’s doll within the great maw – it seemed to be trying to swallow her. Arik surged forward with his polearm, and wedging it in the beast’s massive jaws, he pried with all his might until Keira rolled out and onto the ground in front of him.
“I thought hippos were slow!” Keira shouted as she backed away frantically. “What just happened?!”
Rivva launched a snowball at it, impacting with force and minor irritation. Arkhan drew and loosed an arrow from inside the safety of the cave, landed it and reached for another as he backed in further. Ash maneuvered toward the cave, and attempted to blind it. He managed to dazzle the raging behemoth.
Arik stood before it, dancing carefully. The behemoth lunged at him, jaws wide, snapping the man up. It was unable to hold onto the nimble fighter, and Arik broke free of the vise-like maw. He juked as the thing lunged again, making for the cave with Arkhan. Rivva was right behind him, firing a ray of frost as she entered. Greta was there, and Ash followed, the hippo hot on his heels.
“So this is where we live now,” Arik said, winded. They fought from inside the narrow tunnel as the behemoth wedged its great bulk into the opening, still snapping at them. Arrows pelted its head, and Ash was severely wounded by its savaging. He and Rivva fought it off, while Arik’s polearm lashed overhead from the second rank.
Rivva’s lightning imbued blade stabbed at it, slicing across its face in a wicked gouge that crackled with white-blue energy. Arkhan stepped up, nimbly avoiding its bites and stabbing at its face. It bellowed, blowing them back a step – but they knew it was desperate and they were winning. As long as they lived, anyway…
Ash launched flame into its open mouth, and Rivva dived to avoid a bite. Keira shouted encouragement from the rear, and Rivva plunged her blade upward into its head, nailing it in the brain stem, discharging a blast of lightning. She recovered her blade swiftly, as the massive jaws slammed shut for the last time. The hulking beast dropped and breathed its last.
They backed away from the dead beast, and Ash began curing their severe wounds with his healing prayers. They were trapped in the cave, with the bulk of the dead behemoth blocking the opening.