The 2nd of Low Harvest – It was high noon at the White Prong and Excor and Fauna were sitting around a table enjoying a lunch of honey-drenched vittles, greasy squab with roasted onions, and plenty of cool, foaming ale. Both were solemnly awaiting the imminent wizard duel. They were halfway through their meal when Xanto the Wasp burst in through the door setting the spring-bell into a cacophonous fit of ear-battering ringing.
Xanto the Wasp (gliding over to Excor): “My friend! Oh, my friend! I have heard the dreadful news of your impending duel!”
He emphatically drew up his striped cape as a flourish.
Excor: “Here it comes.”
Xanto: “Oh! My dear friend! I will be your second, trust me! I have had plenty of experience in duels both as second and as duelist! And a fine duelist I am.”
Fauna: “How many duels have you been in!?”
Xanto: “A duel? A few in my time.”
He whipped his cape from his shoulder, “I have yet to lose an honest duel!”
Excor: “So where’s your apprentice Bumble?”
Fauna: “Oh yeah I was lookin’ for her.”
Xanto (waving away the question): “She’s off with her family somewhere, I don’t know family duties or whatnot. Anyway, I will be proud to back you as cabal leader and will stand by your side in the guild house! They cannot prevent me this …”
His words sort of fade into a mumbling mess.
Cris (Excor’s player): “I sense motive. … Nat-Twenty!”
Excor got the sense that Xanto was just using him to gain access to the Star Sapphire Confraternity’s guild house for whatever reason. Additionally, he probably also knows exactly where his apprentice is, he just isn’t saying.
Cris: “Screw it! I accept him as my second, might as well have this guy in my corner.”
Jenn (Fauna’s player): “Yeah you don’t want the Wasp in the other guy’s corner!”
Xanto (throwing his arm in the air to signal a waitress): “Ah, my friend it pays to have Xanto in your corner.”
Excor (his finger in the Wasp’s face): “No cheating.” With that, he drained his jack of the last swallow of ale.
The odd trio sits and drinks on the Wasp’s tab (mostly grog) until evening. They conducted various conversations and fragments of just killing time until the common room of the Prong was noticeably darker, and the golden sky of approaching dusk shone through the windows, the great purple moon and its rings dominating the sky. The Wasp proposed a final cheer before the three got up from their table, quiet and sullen (save the Wasp). They started on their way through the dusky streets to the Star Sapphire Confraternity’s Guild House.
Later, in the Star Sapphire Confraternity Guild House basement – The entirety of the cabal was there in the large dark dirt-floored chamber. They were somewhere underneath the main guild house in one of its many cellars. The air was heavy with must and the candles and lanterns that lit it caused the moist air to become heavy and sweltering. Around the perimeter awkwardly stood Szoosha, Fauna, and Excor who occasionally tried to say something inspirational but failed each time. Across from them in a far corner were Bumble and Rhiam huddled around Belrae next to who stood a middle-aged guild wizard none of the others had yet seen. At the center of the chamber carefully scribing a circle in the dirt were three mages in silken blue robes overseen by the old wizard that had taken the unicorn wand from Excor. Jirek was there sweating bullets alone in another corner.
Cris: “Yup. There it is. Bumble’s in Belrae’s corner. … Hey wait a minute! Where’s the Wasp!?”
After the circle was complete the old wizard stepped into the center of the circle, “I am the honorable Xendo Zhaivo! I am a high-ranking member of the confraternity in high-standing and will serve as the official arbiter to this duel! If there are no objections or protestations from any present we will continue, and the dueling process shall commence! … No one? Good. Attention seconds! It is time to set the terms of this duel! We must confer with the participants’ seconds! To the circle, now!”
Xanto (appearing from nowhere eagerly stomped off from behind the trio towards the circle): “Ha! Time for me to shine!”
Minutes passed as the three mages and the seconds announced and negotiated terms running them back and forth. Finally, terms for the duel were reached, recorded, and signed. Excor had tried to include that the winner would take control of the cabal. However, he learned that the winner of a duel over the leadership was automatically the leader of the Cabal of Eight. It was already written in the charter.
Cris: “Aw man! I should’ve got a copy of that damn charter!”
The GM (me): “Or read it.”
The terms were these: no magic items, no physical binding of your opponent (Belrae’s stipulation which caused some contention), no weapons only spell magic, no total immobilization (Excor added in response to Belrae’s previous stipulation), and the duelists would enter the arena with 3 active spells to be prepared directly before the fight (as was traditional).
After this stage in the duel ritual, Xendo advised all witnesses to stand away from the circle. Then he and Xanto, as well as the three other mages in guild garb, began chanting casting a chain spell (led by Xendo) on the small circle of open ground within the scribed dirt circle. A crackling, mostly transparent dome of pure magical energy faded into existence and enclosed the area within the circle. Those who could see directly into the area of effect found that the ground contained within seemed to be a much larger area than what could possibly be contained within the circle’s circumference. The magic caused a strange lensing effect while looking through the field. Most observers had to turn away as the effect hurt their eyes. The actual diameter of the duel area was about 10 ft, within it was 50 ft.
Meanwhile, Excor cast the Mage Armor, Breath Without Air, and Shield spells on himself. Unbeknownst to team Excor, Belrae cast Death Armor, False Image II, and Invisibility II on himself. As soon as the dueling arena, as it was referred to, was up and functioning, both duelists were asked to enter from opposite but facing sides. With no further ceremony, the duel commenced.
Belrae got the jump on Excor and began casting flamboyantly but the spell fizzled. Excor cast Slow on his opponent however the spell did not take effect for whatever reason. He watched carefully as Belrae tried to cast the same spell but again failed. Excor then took the time to size up his opponent and tried to guess what the spell was that he was trying to cast. A quick Spellcraft check revealed that Belrae was trying to get a Bolt of Stunning off. Belrae then cast Daggerfall instead on Excor destroying his shield. Excor hit Belrae with a cone of fire (Cone of Energy: Fire) visibly scorching his purple robes.
Excor moved away and cast See the Invisible. He rolled a Natural 1 on a general detection check of his surroundings which cost him a move equivalent action. Belrae immediately cast a fireball (Energy Ball: Fire) catching Excor in the blast reducing his mage armor by half. Excor shot a Lightning Bolt at Belrae but it fell short. Belrae appeared to flinch as if hit anyway. Visible scorch marks appeared on his robes. Then Belrae began a spell which quickly got out of his control and went wild. He twitched when a poisonous green bolt of energy blasted from his hands and struck Excor’s mage armor, destroying it. Excor charged forward and let loose a Force Ram spell, Belrae amazingly dodged with a natural 20.
The opponents circled each other like dogs in a fighting pit, each looking for an opening that would end this contest. Belrae seeing his chance, tried to cast a spell, but it fizzled out. Excor let loose a Bolt of Stunning striking Belrae but to no effect.
Excor: “What!? Hmm. Dammit!”
Belrae went to cast another spell and again it went wild in his clumsy hands. The skulls of both opponents flashed with a blast of purplish-white energy causing each of them to shudder with pain. Both had suffered temporary wisdom (WIS) damage from the wild magic. Fortunately, not enough to render either completely insane. Excor shot Belrae again with another Bolt of Stunning. Again, it was to no effect.
Belrae began approaching and carefully sidestepping, motioning as if casting a spell. Excor fell for the ruse and prepared to take a hit, but nothing came. Excor then unleashed a Paralyze II spell trying to cripple one of his foe’s arms thereby preventing his spellcasting. However, nothing happened again.
Isis: “Aw man!”
Jenn: “Oh no!”
Cris: “Sh*t. What the hell? … I’m missing something.”
Suddenly, Excor was smashed from behind by a Force Ram spell strong enough to put him out of action. The dome of energy faded away and all wounds suffered during the match likewise disappeared. Excor got up dusting himself off. Xanto was already congratulating Belrae on his “flawless” victory.
Cris: “Shit! Good one.” (Directed at me) “Damn!”
Then he realized something and groaned loudly before face-palming.
Isis: “What? What’s going on?”
Cris: “The spells he used to get me in the duel. False Image II, Invisibility, and Force Ram?”
Me (the GM): “Hey, you guessed it!”
Cris: “He got those from my and Gornix’s grimoires! When we traded spells way back when! He learned that from us!” (I don’t think the actual moment is recorded dear reader, but they traded spells at the end of almost every cabal meeting while Gil (Gornix’s player) was still playing, so I probably truncated the actual occurrence in the blog).
With the match over and leadership of the cabal settled Excor limped back to his room in Fauna’s new rental and went to sleep. The others, however, had their own plans, and as all were shuffling from the guild house Szoo and Fauna decided to invite Bumble along for a drink at the Red Helm. They had intended to ply her for information over drinks. They were convinced the Wasp was planning something. However, Bumble collapsed after the first tip of the mug. Fauna had dosed her ale with yellow lotus.
Szoo: “Ugh! Why did you do that!”
Fauna: “I dunno, we were trying to get her f*&%ed up right?”
Szoo: “Not that messed up!”
Fauna then left Szoo there to take care of the Wasp’s apprentice. She went to see the grove tender in Central Park, Anishi, and after a brief discussion, while Anishi was busy leading a chant around the central tree with his pupils, she found he was a member of the Southern Order of Druids. After that brief and mostly fruitless adventure, the druidess shuffled back to the new rental and did some yellow lotus.
The following day, the 3rd of Low Harvest, the three adventurers plus Jirek and Bumble found themselves around the old round table in the club room. Belrae lorded over all of them and most of the time it was him making speeches and plans that would eventually require the assistance of the rest. They all pretty much just tuned him out. All save for Excor as Belrae couldn’t help but send a verbal jab his way every now and then. Szoo, as usual, was gazing out of the window most of the time but looked over at Belrae just after he had finished his last vainglorious speech and loudly uttered, “Ugh!” Before the meeting was dismissed it was declared that Xanto the Wasp would be donating his “consultation services’ to the cabal. Belrae prevented Excor from talking when he piped up with his objections.
Over the following eight days, Excor brewed mead and Fauna brewed several potions. She had gone to the bank to make a withdrawal realizing that the banker, Xander (see Cabal of Eight II pt.3: Blue Cloaks & Bankers), was a member of the cult she was leading. The next meeting was dominated by the superstar team of Belrae and the Wasp who ultimately decided, with the input of Fauna, to begin planning an expedition to find the Golden Bee. Apparently, the Wasp had “come upon some valuable information concerning” it.
12th of Low Harvest – Szoo had just put the finishing touches on his brand-new staff and had exited the “bone sculptor’s” hole in the wall into the narrow maze of narrow back alleys that hid him. The naga was strutting his way to the nearest main street with his new staff in hand. It was made of dragonbone with a starmetal inlay that wound up along the length of it to a single large moonstone embedded at its head. It was a staff of elemental blast (fire) and could deal +1D6 fire damage on a strike. Suddenly, Szoosha’s shield spell was triggered by a blast of concentrated water. He spun around and prepared for battle.
Before him stood a slight, fair-skinned human, a Fuglotian mage, wearing soft leather armor with a grey serpent sown on the breast, and a wolf skin mantle on his shoulders. It was the water elementalist who had accompanied the Grey Serpent Pirates (The Cabal of Eight II Pt.15: Something on the Table).
The Grey Serpent Mage (pointing accusingly at Szoo): “You’re too close to the sea fire tosser!”
Szoosha could feel his hatred. It was instinctive between the two of them. They were each harnessing opposing elements by instinct. So, it only followed logically that casters of opposing forces would instinctively hate each other. Apparently, the water elementalist had taken his lack of facing down Szoosha in battle as a personal insult.
It was late morning; some carpenters were measuring the warehouse. Vor Jetl was overseeing a crew with a winch and chain by the large hole in the dock floor. He was going to recover the dragon’s corpse; it was simply too much money to just leave it to rot. He promised each of the trio that they could claim a share at the safehouse sometime tomorrow evening. Jirek had taken his leave and Fauna and Szoo had left together to breakfast at the safehouse. Excor, still mourning the unicorn wand, decided to breakfast at the White Prong. From there, he would head to the Red Helm hoping to smooth over the situation with Draega.
It was nearing afternoon by the time he reached the Red Helm tavern. Draega was out front overseeing some workers. They were constructing a new framework and facade over the gaping hole in the front of the place.
Draega (taking time from setting up a sandwich board with a red helmet next to a frothing mug of ale painted on it): “oh… it’s you.”
Excor (handing Draega a large sapphire and emerald): “This should cover everything.”
Draega: “Ha! I knew you wouldn’t leave our friendship in the dirt to die! I suppose you and your friends might still come around for your meetings and whatnot. But this does not cover the clubroom rent. And no more complementary drinks!”
His aims met, Excor was about to walk away and head to his apartment far to the south. However, as he turned, Belrae and his right-hand man Riahm were in his face—the de facto leaders of the Cabal. Belrae was a fresh-faced young Ezmerian, his purple robes fluttering in the breeze with a prominent green frog on his chest. Riahm was a young Ivoran man with a sun-kissed face his half brown half green cloak testified to the fact that he was a graduate of the Ezermian Bardic College.
Belrae: “There you are! You interfered with a very important deal we had with the dragon queen! You screwed up a prime bit of cabal business!”
Excor: “Whoa! Whoa! That dragon business was going to go bad no matter what! Even Draega warned you.”
Belrae: “Shut up!”
Cris: “Oh? Well, that’s it I’m through with this guy!”
Belrae: “Now I hear you’re telling everyone that you’re the leader of the cabal!”
Cris: “Sh*t! It’s that damned Wasp, he’s been workin’ Belrae while we were dealing with that dragon sh#t.”
He was not wrong although he had no real reason for believing so other than being familiar with Xanto the Wasp’s modus operandi.
Belrae: “Y’know what! Y’know what!?”
Belrae: “I challenge you to a duel for leadership of the cabal, a wizard’s duel! Anytime you want it!”
Excor: “Fine. Let’s duel. You pick the time.”
Belrae (after consulting with Riahm): “In two days’ time at dusk in the Star Sapphire guild house.”
The pair stomped off. Excor just shrugged.
Isis: “Oh! It’s those two connected to the Sapphire guild!” (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.24 – Wrath of the Dragon Queen)
Morning of the 28th of Monsoon – The trio of Excor, Fauna, and Szoo sit around a table in a bustling and already smoke-fogged common room of the White Prong the board brimming with steaming meat, fresh fruit, and foaming tankards of dark ale, morning conversations sizzled through the greasy air.
Fauna (lifting an overfilled tankard to her mouth): “Aaah! Breakfast ale!”
Szoo and Fauna had slept at the safehouse and Excor had taken a room for the night at the Shield & Helm Inn. They discussed the battle with the Ocean of the Desert, mentioned how none of them wanted to deal with the Wasp (Szoo still had his key) for a while and ran through the list of loot. Excor had spent an hour before sunrise identifying all four pieces of the dragon queen’s jewelry.
There was the silver and diamond necklace with five silver acorn charms, a silver bracelet, a gold bracelet, and a diamond-encrusted silver diadem/tiara. All were insanely valuable and somewhat magically powerful. The gold bracelet had the constant ability of Death Armor (1D4 + 5), and the silver bracelet had Heal Self (10D4) three times a day. The silver diadem on the other hand, had the abilities of Track Enemy (98%) once per day, Scry twice a day, Soul Armor at will once per day, and the central sapphire held the ability to cast Negate Magic I at will three times per day. However, the necklace was something else altogether.
The necklace was a legacy item, and each acorn charm was able to control the mind of a slave. Clairvoyance had revealed to Excor earlier that it was an item of legacy and only fire intense enough to shatter the diamonds can destroy it. Unanimously they decided to destroy the necklace as legacy items are not only useless but also can be dangerous to those who are not part of that legacy. For that they would reconvene at Fauna’s rental, or in what was left of it anyway.
A little more than an hour later the group was back in the old rental in the north quarter. The trio voted three to one that the fire elementalist would be charged with the necklace’s destruction. After all, if the fire elementalist couldn’t create flames hot enough to destroy it, who could? Szoo lit the hearth with his fire magic and the other two backed off, trying to find cover as Szoo prepared to throw the necklace into the roaring flames.
Szoo (the necklace dangling off the end of his naginata): “Oh boy! Okay! I’m doing it!”
The other two ducked behind what cover they found and the naga tossed the diamond necklace into the flames. A blinding flash of magical light caused him to jump backward and shield his eyes in the crook of his arm. When he looked again the flames of the roaring fire had been frozen and turned to solid ice. Szoo used his fire touch ability to recover the necklace from the ice and then took it into the alley to try to use his Encase in Element (fire) spell.
Eventually, after building what amounted to a bonfire in the alleyway, Szoo, through superior concentration (N20), encased the necklace the flames shattering the gems and melting the rest. The trio sighed in relief Szoo had successfully destroyed the necklace without much incident. They finally settled down to split the loot; Szoo kept the tiara, Excor took the gold bracelet, and Fauna the silver bracelet. A few moments later, they went their separate ways.
Szoo hoofed it down to the seafront looking for Paej (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.20: Rats, Rowdies, and Imps) as a favor to Excor. He was to inquire about “any important info about the brewers and distillers in the city”. Whatever that meant. The naga eventually found Paej at the bar in a scuzzy pirate-infested dive. She had a crew and a boat and was just looking for a job. As it turned out, there was only a single brewer within the city, the Red Scorpion Barrel. Otherwise, there was no other information.
Szoo: “Oh hey, you know a bone carver that can enchant stuff?”
Paej: “Yeah, yeah I know a guy, but he can be a little paranoid.”
Paej gave Szoo the location of the bone-carver, it was a rickety staircase deep in an alley in the West Quarter just off the Shop District. Szoo shrugged and thanked Paej then went off to check to see if the dragonhide and bone was ready at the safehouse. A few hours later, and to his delight, he found that his share was ready and waiting. After packing up his wealth of dragon bone & hide, he went to find the bone-carver.
Another couple of hours later, Szoo easily found the rickety staircase on the alley side of a low-end apartment building. After he took a few minutes to remember the specific knock that would get the door opened, he was face-to-face with a wild-eyed, skinny, pale, man with a heavy Hyvalian accent and a bush of wild, gray hair dressed in a dirty, tattered robe. After convincing the twitchy nervous guy that he wasn’t any kind of authority, Szoo revealed his purpose to the “bone-sculptor” as the guy insisted that he was though he was likely some sort of bone-specialized necromancer.
Szoo wanted help in creating a magic staff with a star metal inlay and a large moonstone at its top out of the dragonbone with the Elemental Blast (fire) spell on it. After showing the bone-sculptor he had the means to pay, they embarked on creating the magic staff that would take 13 days to complete.
Meanwhile, Fauna was heading out unsure as to what to do as a messenger reached her while departing the old rental with two messages for her, Draega wanted them out of the rental as did Vor Jetl from the safehouse. So, she went apartment-hunting. She was talking to barkeeps and paying criers 1 bit to read board posts for her. Eventually, she found herself somewhere in the South Market District near the Main City Gate chasing down a lead when she ran into a familiar face. A longtime contact, Kosapio Belahgastro (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.24: Plate of Scorpions), the Creschan woman was wearing a white robe and blue apron with a white star on the chest. They talked for a few minutes and Fauna lamented that she did not keep in contact like she should. Then they parted ways again.
Cris: “You had a contact in the White Star guild this whole TIME!?”
Isis: “What!? Really!?”
Cris: “Yeah! She was wearing the White Star, they’re the biggest healers’ guild in the city!”
Jenn: “So what?”
Cris: “So what!?” He went into fits of incomprehensible sputtering.
Cris (his outrage finally subsided after several minutes): “Ya know, having a contact in the world’s largest healers’ guild could’ve been helpful.”
Jenn just shrugged.
Fauna finally found a place she liked and put down a deposit.
At the same time, Excor had walked to Baba’s Apothecary to “smoke and chill” with the naga apothecary. They were calmly discussing various herbs, especially lotus. She mentioned she had a new supplier for lotus. He wears a gold mask with a gold bee and flower blossom on it. She did have a backup supplier, a smaller-time guy in the city. Excor knew who that was (Anishi the Grove Tender, Fauna’s friend and co-cultist). After a few hours of smoking, Excor decided to go to the safehouse to collect his share of the spoils. From there, he went back to his room at the Shield & Helm. The duel with Belrae was ever-present in his mind.
Morning of the 1st of Low Harvest – Excor sent a whisper to Jirek and Fauna inviting them to breakfast at the White Prong. There he asked Jirek to be his second in the duel at morrow’s dusk. He would also need access to Jirek’s warehouse. The scribe also agreed to this. Excor then departed to a tailor. He wanted a purse, cowl, gloves, and potion bandolier made from the blue dragon hide. With a 10gp deposit, it would take 10 days to be ready for pickup.
Then he went to a cooper near the docks purchasing two empty hogsheads. He had them delivered to Jirek’s warehouse where he had hoped to fill them with his magic goblet. (Cabal of Eight Pt.38: The Black Tombs Pt.2 for the chalice, Cabal of Eight II Pt.2: A Letter and a Map for the birth of his scheme). However, he realized too late that it would take forever to fill them that way. Seriously, we ran through the (approximate) math for about half an hour.
Later, as the sky darkened and the sun was nearing dusk, Fauna went to find Vor Jetl. However, she couldn’t find the Dragonfly anywhere. In his stead, she sought out Anishi. But he was busy directing initiates of the Southern Order in maintaining and landscaping Central Park. Both with druidic magic and standard gardening tools. So, as she wanted a magic cloak made from her share of the dragonhide, Anishi suggested a member in the Old Market District. She got there close to dusk and put in an order for a Cloak of Many Pockets. It would take 10 days for the seamster to complete. He guaranteed his work would be of high quality and gave her a great price with a wink (he was a member of the cult she was head priestess of as well).
Cris: “Geesh, must be nice to have a cult! Y’know, we need to think about how to use them in the future.”
Isis: “Yes! We really need to.”
Jenn: “Hey, that’s my cult!”
Cris: “Well! You need to start using ‘em!”
Jenn: “That’s what I just did!”
Both Cris and Isis sighed with disgust.
Fauna eventually found her way back to the safehouse where the servant still let her in. The first thing she did was plop down on the sofa and dose herself with some yellow lotus powder. She passed out immediately and was tormented by a disturbing dream about Vor Jetl. She dreamed that he was nude laying on grey silk pillows with the general feeling of undefined dread.
Elsewhere, Excor spent 5 hours filling the hogsheads in the warehouse then quit and retired to the Shield & Helm. When in his room, he laid back onto the feather pillow and bed after a hot meal and bottle of wine. The duel was now only a matter of hours away.
It had taken an entire day and night to talk Vor Jetl out of “confiscating” the wand. He wanted to cash it in with the blue dragon. Fauna had even pulled rank on him. His soldiers were apparently cult members themselves, they relented to her before he did. So, he spent an entire day and night “conversing” with them about possession of the wand. Eventually, however, the trio finally talked him into letting them keep the wand. They could keep it safe. Then they formulated a plan which they needed Vor Jetl’s resources for. He cheerfully endorsed the idea since now, they would “owe” him “two” now.
Excor: “What?”, turning to Fauna, “What did he say?”
Fauna: “Oh, don’t worry about that right now.”
Excor (pointing at Fauna): “You and me, we really need to have a long talk when this is all over.”
Fauna waved his concerns away, of course, they would tell each other everything afterward. Note dear reader, Jenn (Fauna’s player) winked at me.
Meanwhile, Excor had formulated a plan. Vor Jetl would lend them the use of an empty warehouse on the docks, and he would send a messenger who would deliver the trio’s location to the dragon: the warehouse tomorrow at sunup. The trio would use what remains of the day to hire members of the dragonslayers’ guild to assist them in “ending this”. All adventurers were nervous and taking deep breaths (as were their players).
Vor Jetl: “Um…”
Szoo: “Aw crap, what!?”
Vor Jetl: “The Roaring Skull – dragonslayers’ guild? Um…”
Fauna: “Spit it out!”
Vor Jetl: “During that nasty storm a few nights ago…”
Fauna shrugged her shoulders; she had been the guest of the Wasp the night that summer storm struck. Szoo and Excor had passed out completely exhausted (and drunk) before it had even started to thunder (see The Cabal of Eight II Pt.19 – The Dragon & the Wasp).
Vor Jetl: “…lightning struck the guild house and most of the slayers were killed when it burned down… to the ground.”
Szoo: “In the rain!”
Vor Jetl (he shrugged): “Well…”
Excor: *sigh* “We all know what happened, that damned dragon queen – Ocean of the Desert or whatever her name is.”
So, they decided to find any survivors and hire them, they should be raring for some vengeance. All went about their roles for the rest of the day.
Morning of the 27th of Monsoon – the first bleeding rays of sun were starting to pierce the slit windows of the massive barn-like warehouse. The floor was the moist wood of the pier onto which the place was built. Above on a central heavy support post and along the ceiling supports was a hook and tackle. The mages spread out at the far end and the three survivors of the dragonslayers’ guild massacre, for that’s what it had been, were hiding in the rafters. Jirek was to wait by the huge pair of sliding doors; when the dragon entered, he was to slam the doors shut trapping her inside with them. At least that was the hope.
They had figured at just past dawn that their message had reached the dragon queen – the Ocean of the Desert. It read:
The Cabal of Eight awaits the presence of the oh-so-powerful Puddle of the Pisspot if she does not fear the true power of the mages of the Cabal of Eight. We have your wand here in the red warehouse between the first and second piers on the waterfront. Come alone or we will disintegrate the wand before your very eyes.
The Cabal of Eight.
The sun had just fully peeked over the dark blue horizon of the Silverset Sea, and the mages were stretching tired of waiting. The dragonslayers were silent and waiting like eager cats in their perches.
Jenn: “So. We’re going to destroy the wand if she doesn’t show?”
Cris: “Hell no! I mean, we don’t have the magic to destroy it, it was a bluff but she don’t know that.”
Dark clouds moved over the horizon causing the warehouse to become shrouded in a muggy, grey gloom.
Szoo: “Well maybe she won’t show.”
Excor: “Oh, she’ll…”
The warehouse doors crashed as they were thrown open, standing between them was the silhouetted human form clad all in blue and silver of the Ocean of the Desert, the dragon queen. She seemed angry.
Excor: “Well, here we go! Jirek! Jirek?”
Szoo: “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.”
Fauna: “Alright! Let’s kill this b*#@h!”
The queenly form of the Ocean of the Desert instantly swelled into that of a giant blue dragon as she strode angrily toward the young mages. Her true dragon form still wearing the silver diadem on her head, a silver and diamond necklace with five silver acorn charms dangling on her neck, and the gold and silver bracelets on her left and right wrists. Still very much a dragon queen. The trio of adventurers sucked in air but held their ground, as did the dragonslayers in the rafters, Jirek, however, shrieked in terror and backed into a corner failing to shut the doors.
Fauna immediately moved to the side towards Excor while throwing fire at the dragon. Her flames hit a shield spell, but she maintained them as they jetted from her hand. The dragon queen’s throat swelled and the mages and dragonslayers braced themselves as the entire place vibrated with the dragon’s inhalation. Then with a deafening roar, she let loose a blast of lightning from her mouth catching Excor and a dragonslayer. Fortunately, a shield spell protected both from the thundering energy. Some rafters blasted through the hole made in the roof of the warehouse and flaming splinters rained down on the mages sizzling out on the damp planks as they fell. Excor summoned a giant earth-elemental that erupted into existence from thin air. The planks under its feet creaked.
Szoo activated his ring of Fearsome Form II and flew up into the rafters, a hideous insect-like version of himself with leathery dragonfly wings. The head dragonslayer leaped from the splintered rafters and landed a tremendous leaping blow with his sword but the blade hit another shield spell. The second dragonslayer also dropped from the rafters with a single tremendous axe blow, her axe hitting a third shield spell.
Excor: “It’s okay! It’s okay! Her shields are down! Her shields are down!”
The third dragonslayer shot his bow launching a dragonbone arrow right at the heart of the beast, however, she instantly knocked the fragile projectile to the side with a claw. It hit the wall shattering. Jirek tried to flee but was too afraid to run past the dragon and just dove behind a heavy wood stud. Fauna ran across the warehouse floor to the side opposite Excor as she maintained her flames dealing very little damage. The great blue dragon queen clawed the elemental tearing a significant chunk out of its solid stone chest.
Excor cast Mage Armor on himself as he drew his Wand of Spell Penetration. Szoo flew to the apex of the warehouse ceiling, near the hole should he need to escape, and shot a ray of fire at the dragon dealing no damage. The head dragonslayer slashed the dragon with his sword dealing some damage followed by his fellow who landed a blow with her axe, but it bounced off the steel-hard scales. The slayer in the rafters took aim with his bow and hit with a magic arrow but it shattered harmlessly against the monster’s scales. Fauna continued to blast fire at the dragon dealing very little damage. The dragon snapped her massive jaws at the axe-wielding dragonslayer who dodged instant death by a hair’s breadth. Excor channeled the Slow spell through his wand at the blue dragon and penetrated the dragon queen’s impressive magic resistance.
Szoo & Fauna (both at once): “Yeah!”
Emboldened, Szoo flew down using his naginata to strike at one of the dragon’s eyes, but the blow glanced harmlessly off the beast’s cheek. The lead dragonslayer lashed out with his sword again but the dragon easily parried with a claw. The archer in the rafter drew his bow again and this time hit, nailing the dragon with a magic arrow which did a little damage. The blue dragon’s massive tail whipped at Fauna, fortunately, hitting a shield spell. Excor cast Verminous Might on himself gaining a pair of insect wings, he buzzed up to the apex of the roof. The dragonslayer leader slashed again but his blade bounced harmlessly off the monster’s hide. The axe-wielding dragonslayer swung as well but her axe also bounced harmlessly off the dragon. The archer shot and hit but did very little damage this time.
Szoo, still hovering about the dragon’s face, tried to shoot a ray of fire into the dragon’s eye but missed and dealt no damage. The axe-wielding slayer put all her might behind her next blow in a power attack and dealt some damage. The archer used his last magic arrow, he dealt a little damage. Fauna maintained her throw fire spell dealing some damage as her flames continued to increase in intensity. The dragon touched a claw to the central sapphire set in her diamond-encrusted silver diadem. A flash of magic light and Excor instantly knew that his slow spell had ended. The lead dragonslayer attacked with his sword and not only missed but dropped it. The earth elemental stomped forward and slammed both its fists against the dragon queen’s ribs but did no damage while Excor cast slow again but the dragon successfully resisted this time.
Szoo tried to grab and pull off the dragon’s diadem but failed to even touch it. The axe-wielding slayer swung again in a power-attack hacking at the dragon, dealing minimal damage. The archer shot a highest-quality arrow at the dragon, but the projectile shattered on a deflecting wing. Fauna maintained her flames the intensity of which all in the warehouse could now feel but the dragon took no damage. The dragon belched another bolt of lightning right at Excor, but it hit his mage armor instead, sparing the structure of the warehouse. The lead dragonslayer backed off and retrieved his sword. Excor cast shadow ribbons on the dragon, but the black straps of shadow stuff melted away as soon as they touched the creature. Jirek was juking left and right as he ran about aimlessly panic-stricken trying to escape the massive dragon.
Szoo again tried to pull the tiara-like diadem off the dragon queen but again failed. The archer loosed another highest-quality arrow that splintered on the dragon’s deep blue scales. Fauna maintained her flames dealing a decent amount of damage this time. The dragon surged forward and tried to stomp on the axe-wielding slayer knocking her prone and wounding her badly. The archer shot his last highest-quality arrow, and again it broke on the dragon’s scales. Excor cast shadow ribbons again but again his magic failed to penetrate the dragon’s defenses.
The dragon twisted its body and swept one side of the warehouse with its massive tree-trunk tail. All the axe-wielding slayer could do was scream until her fearless leader leaped in its way and miraculously parried the blow with his sword. One of the heavy wood supports was smashed and as a result, a small part of the roof caved in. However, the archer was able to stay on his perch as the rafters quaked from the blow. The lead slayer again struck the dragon with his sword dealing some damage. Excor moved to the corner farthest from the dragon queen.
The battle raged on for another round where Szoo was able to snatch away the dragon’s diadem and was surprised when it shrank in his hands to a wearable size. The archer tried for the dragon queen’s eyes but repeatedly failed, and Fauna maintained her fire dealing increasing amounts of damage. The dragonslayer leader continued to slash away, Excor began using his force ram spell as his chosen weapon, and the dragon unleashed its breath on the archer nearly killing him and blasting away a portion of the roof. Jirek was barely able to dodge a portion of the falling roof.
They continued to fight on. Excor shot a storm of force ram and shadow ribbon spells at the dragon queen including a quickened slow spell, all ineffectual. He had to renew his mage armor as the first instance was almost gone by the end of the round. Fauna was dealing the most damage with her long-running throw fire spell. Szoo hacked away at the dragon’s face with his naginata while wearing the dragon’s diadem.
Jirek found a space under some debris to hide and cower. The three dragonslayers were barely able to hang on using recovery checks and dodging along with power attacks and attempted eye shots as their main strategies. The dragon snapped repeatedly at Fauna and Szoo fortunately hitting their shields. However, it blasted the two dragonslayers that were on the ground horribly wounding them. Fauna, caught in the blast, lost her last shield but mage armor activated from one of her items.
The fight ground on. All three dragonslayers were dead by the first minute thirty seconds of battle. Jirek finally overcame his horror and began using a magic dagger that flew at the dragon on command, however, it never landed a blow. The dragon eventually smashed Fauna with a tail swipe causing her to lose her carefully maintained flames and she could not overcome the dragon’s spell resistance with subsequent instances of the spell. Szoo resorted to hand-to-hand combat and the elemental remained unable to damage the dragon queen with anything but a lucky blow though it was devastating.
The battle continued for another grueling thirty seconds. Fauna nearly died save for a very lucky recovery check and a healing potion. Szoo nearly died, save for a decent recovery check before performing a suicidal power attack driving his naginata blade into the dragon’s neck. The dragon queen continued to blast the mages and the warehouse with her lightning bolt breath and snapping her steel-trap jaws at them eventually putting a sizeable hole in the floor planks exposing the seawater below. Jirek was unconscious and bleeding on the ground. Excor exhausted his repertoire of force ram spells, dealing severe damage to the warehouse but ultimately scoring the death blow on the dragon with the last spell possible for him to cast (he had 1 KO pt. left).
The dragon queen was finally dead, her massive corpse slid through the gigantic hole in the dock planks into the ocean. The last three standing began to giggle. They had won and survived by the skin of their teeth. Then they heard the grinding of wheels and the clopping of the horses of a coach pulling up to the doors. Excor and Szoo went and looked through the ruined opening. There was a black coach with a large seal painted on its door. The mark of the Ezmer branch of the Star-Sapphire Confraternity. A man of advanced age in black and blue silk robes opened the door and slowly disembarked the coach.
The Old Wizard (at Excor): “Ah-hem. I think you have something that belongs to me.”
Excor: “Oh, of course, of course, sir!”
Excor immediately fetched the wand from his robes.
Fauna: “What!? You’re just handing it over! After all that!?”
Cris: “Hell yes! That guy could probably take us at our best, right now we’re done. I don’t have spells left, do you?”
Jenn: “Damn. Okay, you’re right.”
The Old Wizard: “Yes. I remember you all.” He gingerly took the wand from Excor’s hands. “We’ve been tracking this baby since it arrived in the bay aboard ship.” His eyes washed over it hungrily.
Excor introduced himself with his full noble name (sorry dear reader, I lost the notes though only the old wizard heard it anyway) finishing with a flourish of his still-smoking hat.
The Old Wizard: “Indeed. Well, I am grateful. You and your companions speak well of your little cabal just as your other two friends have proven themselves. This cabal of yours has been noticed. Though this does not mean you four have earned an audience with the guild as the other two have.”
The four young and rather haggard mages were puzzled.
The Old Wizard: “Well, I might entertain a favor from any of you, maybe. I am Xendo Zhaivo, arbiter for the confraternity.” With that, he turned and leaped back into the carriage. It almost immediately trotted off.
Szoo: “What did he mean by that?”
Excor: “I have no idea. … Oh well, we’ll probably find out soon. We have a cabal meeting in two days.”
The remains of the warehouse creaked dangerously. The splintered floor with its gaping hole was now treacherous. Small dusty bits of wood and roof tiles were occasionally falling down from above the survivors’ heads. Excor walked over to Jirek and poured a healing potion down his throat. After that, he looted the dragonslayers’ corpses. He kept the bearded axe, the two-handed longsword, and the bowie knife. Not long after, the trio and Jirek limped to the road where they collectively collapsed to their duffs. Suddenly, a carriage clomped up to them. None other than Vor Jetl leaped out of it roaring with anger at the three victors. His warehouse was “ruined”! Fauna gave him three large sapphires. He went back to smiling immediately and told his footman to arrange for carpenters as soon as possible.
Cris: “Hey! That old bastard didn’t give me hisname!”
The group was rushing through the streets with Fauna in the lead. They wound south taking alleys and turning whenever there was a corner trying to keep from making too straight a line through the city. They soon passed beneath the shadow of the great southwestern guard tower, a castle in and of itself, as they ran deeper into the Southwest District. Fauna came to a halt before a tall three-story apartment building with three small shuttered slit windows per floor. The street was narrow, and the only traffic was street beggars and a leper ringing a bell as they limped past. Fauna walked up to the mildewed wooden double doors and fitted a key, given to her by one of Vor Jetl’s servants before she met up with her fellows at the White Prong. Excor observed the terra cotta tile roof, it appeared in ill repair. She opened the doors, and they went inside.
They found themselves in a small rundown foyer with an open roof and a shallow rain-catching pool of murky green water in the center of the floor. Everything was water damaged and the plaster was falling off in great patches on the walls exposing bricks. Fauna walked to the bronze double door. They could see patches of corrosion all over it. She reached up to the bell pull and rang the bell.
Excor: “Yup, just like I thought it would be.”
A small square hatch in the upper portion of the right-side door opened and they could see a rheumy eye look them over and without a word the doors swung open on unexpectedly oiled hinges. An old man welcomed them in. He was completely bald with a brass hoop earring in one drooping earlobe, a pair of brass bracelets on his wrists, leather sandals on his feet, and wrapped in an off-white toga fastened with a dull bronze brooch at the shoulder bearing the insignia of a dragonfly.
The Servant: “Ah! My mistress I’ve prepared for your return. There is food and drink on the table, I will return shortly with the meats.”
Excor & Szoo (together): “Whoa! What. The. Hell!”
They had wandered into a large room of white marble pillars and floors and smooth, white-washed walls. Censors hung from the ceiling of the square mezzanine that bounded the room opening into both floors above allowing the light from the skylight in the roof to bathe the room in bright warm light. Other censors stood around the perimeter by the walls, all smoking with a sweet mild scent. The center of the room was depressed and lined with embroidered silk pillows and three couches bounded the dropped floor. At the center of the dropped floor and mess of pillows was a glass top table set with trays of fresh fruit, three loaves of bread, a pot of butter, and two clay decanters of strong brown ale. They could see the top of a fully loaded hookah next to the table and the grand staircase beyond. Fauna’s three companions stood agape while she rushed over to the table and plopped down.
Excor: “Hey! Wait a minute! You need to answer some questions!”
Szoo: “Yeah, I think you need to explain some stuff.”
Fauna: “Like what?”
Szoo & Excor (together, both motioning to their surroundings): “Well. All of THIS!”
Fauna remained cheeky, so Excor and Szoo began to grill her about how she had these kinds of resources. Eventually, the druidess came clean as she realized trust was wearing thin within the group. She confessed to them that she was the head priestess of a secretive druidic cult that meets within the subterranean labyrinths under the city. They’re called the Brotherhood of the Rope. The groundskeeper of the Grove, Anishi (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.2: Wagon Ho!), was a high-ranking member and had brought her in, Virtra Wefa, the woman who had hired them in a failed scheme was at the time, the high priestess of the cult (see The Cabal of Eight Pt.24: Plate of Scorpions). This “safehouse” was owned by the merchant, Vor Jetl, “The Dragonfly”, another high-ranking cult member. Excor asked how long this had been going on.
Fauna: “I dunno, I became high priestess a few days ago…”
Both Szoo and Excor nodded in acceptance.
Fauna: “…but I guess I’ve been a member for like, uh, a month I think.”
Excor: “WHAT!? We could’ve used your cult to our advantage this whole TIME!
Cris, went ballistic going on a diatribe at the table that lasted for about 10 minutes. When he finished Fauna replied with a snide, “Well, we’ve got this place for now. Vor Jetl said we got it for as long as we need it. Wow, I’m really stressed.”
Fauna rolled out a line of yellow lotus on the glass table.
Szoo & Excor (together): “NO.”
Fauna: “Aww.” She put it away, pouted for a bit, then poured herself an ale in one of the gold-leafed red-clay wine cups as a salve.
After eating and drinking the group was settled in and Szoo and Fauna took turns pulling on the hookah. Excor kept the wrapped wand next to him, Jirek stayed close by babysitting a cup of dark wine that the old servant had brought out after supper. Excor reached into a pocket and pulled out the letter and sheet of aged sheepskin that had accompanied the wand’s case (see The Cabal of Eight II – Pt.20: Hideaway). He took it upon himself to cast clairvoyance on the letter, twice, to try to glean some answers.
Excor sat on a pillow in a meditative pose aside from the lounging group save for Jirek who remained his constant companion. After a few minutes…
Szoo: “Wha? What’d you, see?”
Excor: “The ‘distinguished blue steward’ from the note.”
Fauna just shrugged. She got up from the pillows and dropped herself onto a couch. Then as she stretched herself out, she realized something. She had spilled the beans about her cult to not only her dear companions Szoo and Excor but also to Jirek.
Jenn: “Guys, Jirek knows about the cult, I think I’m going to have to kill him.”
Isis: “What!? Nooo, why are you obsessed with killing Jirek!?”
For the past several sessions Jenn had been suggesting that they needed to kill Jirek for some reason.
Cris: “Naw, don’t kill a member of the cabal. We’ll figure it out later.”
They went back and forth between the three of them about what to do about the wand. Excor was vague but everyone figured out he wanted to keep it which caused Szoo to give him the side eye. Fauna talked about possibly destroying it, Excor agreed, but only if the Ocean of the Desert was about to get it. Szoo seconded that motion. Otherwise, they could not really figure out what to do with it as everyone after it wanted to cash-it-in to the dragon and they were loath to deal with a higher-up in the Sapphire guild. So, delivering the wand to him was out. Essentially, they did not reach a solid decision other than the Ocean of the Desert could not get her blue claws on it.
As night approached and the old servant went around lighting candles as well as the chandelier which hung from the ceiling two floors up from the center of the skylight as well as those in sconces in each of the bed chambers. They decided they needed to have two watches. Jirek and Fauna would be on the first watch, Szoo and Excor would be on the second. The reason was that they could not trust Jirek and though they didn’t say it out loud, they didn’t really trust each other at this point either.
The first watch commenced as the other two lay down amongst the pillows in the main room rather than the bedrooms prepared for them on the upper floors. An hour or so passed as the vast place became dead quiet then the servant passed the pair of watchers apparently on his way outside. He explained to Fauna that he had to run some errands for his master and would be right back. He asked her if there was anything he could get her, and when she said no, he left.
Jirek: “Um, not, nothing really. Hey, you got some lotus on you?”
Fauna: “Hell yea…wait. So, you wanna do some?”
Jirek: “Well, ladies first…”
Fauna (suspicious but successfully playing it off): “You go ahead we’re on watch, it’s alright, I got this.”
She passed a small leather pouch to him. He denied it with an upturned hand, “That’s okay, it’s no fun alone.”
Jenn: “Yup, I really don’t trust this guy!”
Isis: “Oh, Jirek, man…”
Cris (mockingly): “Pfft! Oh yeah, I don’t trust him – No sh*t! He wants the wand, we all want the wand, it’s bad*ss!”
The first watch passed quietly, “too quietly” for Fauna, and the second began as Jirek and Fauna took their places amongst the silk pillows. After about an hour, Fauna was snoring, but Jirek was laying as if waiting for something pretending to be asleep as noted by Excor. He managed to whisper this info to Szoo without Jirek catching it. Another hour passed and the black night as observed through the skylight above had lightened to a deep star-specked purple.
Both Szoo and Excor were drowsing their heavy-lidded eyes rhythmically shutting and then opening when suddenly the lights dimmed throughout the room. Both mages shot to their feet.
Szoo: “Oh boy, here we go!”
Excor: “EVERYBODY UP! WAKE UP!”
A mass of black shadows coalesced into a large black cloud opposite the two watchers and on the other side of the sleepers. The cloud hardened into a blob that split into three human-like silhouettes with long wormy tentacles in place of arms.
Jirek leaped up and jumped behind Excor. Szoo charged forward and struck with his naginata, a rubbery whip-like tentacle parried the blade. Excor cast a shield spell on himself in time for a tentacle to stretch from the second shadow as it moved forward trying to entangle him. Fauna was still snoring as the third shadow’s tentacles oozed toward her sleeping form. Szoo’s shriek finally caused her to shoot up from a dead sleep. Jirek appeared to ready himself but did nothing. Szoo struck again but again was parried. The first shadow struck at Szoo, he dodged, and the tentacle cracked like a bullwhip. Excor backed away but tried to keep within reach of the wrapped wand. The second shadow advanced on him. Fauna dodged a tentacle and ran up the grand staircase. Jirek again readied himself, however, he did nothing save stepping closer to the wand. Excor cast a stun bolt at the creature on him, but it had no effect. Jirek looked around and seemed to root himself to the spot.
Excor: “Wait a minute. I think my spell hit a higher level of magic. Hm.”
Excor turned and cast paralyze II on Jirek who froze in place next to the wand. Szoo, in turn, struck home with his polearm, but it passed harmlessly through the monster.
Excor: “They’re shadow creatures! Watch out!”
Szoo: “I think these guys are illusions!”
Szoo reached out with confidence and his hand passed right through it as the illusion faded. Excor kicked Jirek and told him to dispel them. They disappeared.
Szoo: “Is Jirek even that powerful?”
Jirek (after the paralysis was lifted): “It was a scroll.”
Fauna: “WHO’RE WORKING FOR!?”
Jirek: “Myself! Myself! I just wanted the wand.”
Fauna: “Oh yeah! WHY!?”
Jirek & Excor (both at once): “Because it’s awesome!”
They decided not to kill Jirek after a two-to-one vote, but he was now on outs with the trio although they made it clear that he was now to consider himself a prisoner, at least until this wand debacle was over. If he gained the wand, he would then easily lose it to the Ocean of the Desert or the pirates and thus the dragon would get it anyway. That was not even taking Xanto the Wasp into account.
Excor (under his breath): “Gawd-dammit.”
Excor: “We need to finish this! We need a plan.”
The three adventurer-mages were just about to huddle when the bronze double door burst open. Several armed guards poured into the room. Behind them followed the corpulent Vor Jetl, the old servant who stood just behind him.
Vor Jetl: “Ah, my dear priestess,” he bowed, “I see you found a great prize for the brotherhood. Our coffers will be overflowing!”
They easily made it through the mirror into the Wasp’s strange extra-dimensional hideout guided back to the mirror in the library closet by Fauna.
Szoo (mesmerized by the vaulted ceilings more than 20 ft. above him): “Whoa.”
The trio had the previous instant just been in a tiny closet and walked through an out-of-place mirror as if it were a thin veil of shimmering mercury and found themselves here. The walls were nearly featureless vast swaths of smooth cold beige. The magic sconces, large dragonflies of colored glass mosaic far up the walls lit by flickering golden magic flames. They lit the hall before them well enough though they were all made nervous by the fact the magic light also seemed to deepen the numerous shadows.
The trio looked down each side of the cross-hall, it seemed to continue both left and right into unlit sections which prevented them from seeing how far the cross-hall went. Jirek, the cabal scribe, was close but apart from the group.
Cris (Excor’s Player): “Crap, that’s right. Jirek’s still with us.”
Before them was a set of winding ivory stairs that rose to a spacious mezzanine, all the floors were a polished marble tile mosaic. In a niche under the stairs were stacked books and piles of scrolls, several of which were strewn about the floor along with several open books next to an oblong case.
Excor (to Fauna): “That it?” He pointed to the case.
Fauna: “I dunno, probably is.”
Excor looked at the green lacquered double door under the mezzanine ledge.
Fauna: “That leads to a library… I think.”
They turned around. Behind them was a large built-in mirror rimmed in gold with a sapphire and emerald dragonfly at the top edge. This main hall area was of considerable size.
Excor, not wanting to appear over-eager to get the case in his hands, starts questioning Fauna about what’s here – bedrooms up there and a bath, a kitchen somewhere (she had no idea), the library there beyond those doors, and that’s all she knew.
Szoo: “Should we start exploring this place?”
Excor: “Yeah, yeah… pick a hallway, there’s three ways to go. We kind of know what’s up there.” He pointed at the mezzanine and the main hall. He turned around to face one of the side hallways.
Szoo: “Um, the right one?”
Then as a group with Excor in the lead, they started to go down the dim hallway, the lights began to light up as they moved down. They continued for several minutes only noticing after they had made a long distance that the lights were progressively dimmer than the previous. They pushed on eventually stopping about a dozen feet or so from a virtual wall of darkness.
The trio each in turn tried to penetrate the impenetrable shadows with their eyes. Neither the druidess nor the naga could see a thing. Excor, however, thought he saw “something moving in there”. It was shapeless.
As a result, They began lighting torches and lamps, casting light spells, and trying to penetrate the supernatural darkness. It was as if they had come face to face with a brick wall but of solidified shadow instead of masonry. Fauna was prodded to “poke” her torch into it. When the flame submerged into its depths, its light was completely obscured. It came back out extinguished.
Excor: “Great. It probably has energy drain on it or some sh*t like that.”
Fauna: “What do you think it is?”
Excor: “A wall of shadows or something…”
The four mages, the trio of adventurers with Jirek following far behind, went in the opposite direction to the same result.
Excor: “Man! There’s gotta be something good back there. Ah! Do we wanna die trying to get it?”
Cris looked over at me with an accusing glare. I could only shrug and signal a “who me!?”, then wave my hands helplessly in the air.
Cris: “Yeah, yeah, I thought so.”
Excor (aiming his question at his companions): “So, do we try to get through this thing?”
Szoo & Fauna (in unison): “Screw that!”
Excor: “Cool, cool. We’re getting sidetracked, let’s get that f@*#’in wand!”
They retreated to the box.
Cris: “Yeah, I don’t want to mess up my royal clothes!”
Excor was still in his royal duds; an embroidered silk robe with a black silk sash at the waist over a buttoned undershirt, black silk shoes on his feet, a black felt pork-pie hat with a peacock feather on his head, and the magic blue cape on his back.
Cris (to me, the GM): “Yeah, I need to get back into my adventuring gear, I need to keep my noble clothes clean.”
Isis (Szoo’s Player): “What!?”
Jenn (Fauna’s Player): “Oh! He’s a fancy lad!”
That’s when they noticed that Jirek, who was with them when they entered the Wasp’s strange extra-dimensional hideout, was already on the case trying to suss out how to open it.
Excor: “Hey! You get back from there!”
Szoo: “Don’t make me burn you, man!”
Jirek backed off with his hands up, “Just curious, this is it though!”
Excor: “No kidding!”
Then Excor sidled up next to the case and began carefully inspecting it. Shortly after a concerted effort, they spotted a white outline of a keyhole under a seal. Excor had the other three stand back while he used his magic platinum key (see Cabal of Eight – Pt.17: Fight for Sleep) to temporarily open the magically sealed case. They were all stunned for a moment standing transfixed as he gazed upon the treasure within.
There, sitting within the small but long black case, was the wand that every power player in Ezmer was desperate to get their hands on. The scepter was almost as long as a short spear with a shining pearlescent twisted alicorn consisting most of its length. The horn was set in a polished platinum horse-head guard with a polished jet grip and large polished azurite pommel stone.
Both Jirek and Excor grabbed the wand. They stared each other down for a moment, then Jirek reluctantly let go after Szoo threatened him.
Excor: “Okay. We need something to wrap this in.”
The case snapped back closed. They could all hear the locking mechanism reengage.
Fauna: “Got it!” She darted up the stairs and then after a few brief minutes ran back down the flight of stairs with a delicate silk blanket pilfered from an upper bedroom bunched in her arms. Then as they wrapped the glorious object in silk, they noticed that Jirek followed every movement of the wand with his eyes.
Isis: “Aw man, the wand’s got Jirek!”
Jenn: “Oh no, do we have to kill him?”
Cris: “Naw, we just have to keep an eye on him, don’t let him be alone with it… Damn.”
Cris: “We’re all wizards.”
Cris: “None of us can really outrun him, if we were faster, we could lose Jirek on the way.”
Szoo: “Wait. Where are we going?”
Fauna: “Duh, the safehouse man!”
Isis (to Cris): “Wait. Why did you invite Jirek anyway?”
Cris: “I forgot.”
Without analyzing anything further they fled back through the mirror leaving the empty case behind. They were going to run all the way to the safehouse set up for Fauna by Vor Jetl hoping that they could avoid the Blue Dragon’s servants, the two pirate crews, and the Wasp.
The Grand Mook Manual Vol. I (Cat.No#RGS1014) has been released. This manual has over 90 NPC Mook tables and over 30 bare-bones average mook entries for standard fantasy NPCs. It includes over 70 fully developed NPCs as well. The appendices have Mage spell lists (based on role), a Clergy spell list, and all about NPC animals. This book is all about NPCs. The book discusses fundamental in-game roles, and planning NPC encounters. The book contains advice collected from the Character Codex series of books.
Although the release date has been repeatedly delayed because of circumstances beyond our control, the PDF is out. The print version will follow about two weeks after pending final proofing. Currently is available only on DriveThruRPG. Outlets will include Amazon.com, Lulu.com, and Itch.io (pdf only).
It was a warm evening for January, the horizon viewable through the glass doors at the end of the great room was still golden orange and cloud streaked. Hunched over the table in the open-plan dining room I was sketching a map on the freshly unrolled battle map spread across the dinner table with dry-erase markers. It was a map of the south end of the lakeshore of Lake Ponchateaux. This included the gravel beach, the concrete flood control outlet next to the Old County Highway, along with a small boat launch with a rowboat and a few boathouses visible from the road at the far eastern end of the lake with two-story houses built at the tree line all the way around.
Jenn was cleaning up in the kitchen a few feet from me. We were waiting for Gil to show up with Isis and Cris, he would scoop them up on his way down from Glendale. We were already aware that the Carlos’ would not be attending as they had a family emergency a few days prior. It was not long after that I started drawing the map on the battle mat than the doorbell rang. Gil, Cris, and Isis walked in, Jenn greeting them. It took me a while longer to finish the map and by then everyone had already settled in and were ready to play.
Gil (suddenly looking up and over from his tablet device): “Whhat!?”
Cris: “During the first test play for Zombie Horror, the game ended with the city being nuked. We got caught in the shockwave, crashed our helicopter, and all died.”
Me (the GM): “Oh yeah. Hee, hee. I forgot about that.”
The adventurers’ caravan was at a dead stop. The walking dead were choking the east and west ends of the Old County Highway. They were trapped. At the head of both hordes were the large 10 ft. tall monster zombies complete with tank-like armor over their torsos, faces, and legs. The ominous red lights in their faces clicked in time to the zombie hordes’ march.
Kenny Logan the young soldier and William Fodder the survivalist were standing in the middle of the road as the others broke for the ditches at one side of the road and hopefully into the trees beyond. Though the landscape seemed to drop just after the tree line into a steep hillside. The group had positioned the tow truck and the other two cars to provide at least some barrier to the onslaught when they thought they were going to fight it out. Meanwhile, the remaining pair were going to “hold off and distract” the converging hordes armed with a flamethrower, M-16, and RPG-7.
Neither was going to get very far even if they tried to run with the others. Both were still badly wounded; William’s gut wound had begun to bleed again. He was going to bleed out without proper medical attention soon anyway. Kenny’s slash wounds from the grizzly had not yet healed and Lilith’s improvised brace still supported his bullet-crippled leg. He would not be able to traverse the sharp decline from the road.
As they ran through the trees and stumbled down a steep hillside, the others could hear gunfire, exploding grenades, and two rockets explode. Lilith (played by Isis), Wesley (played by Jenn), El Guapo (played by Gil), and Steve McCullen (played by Cris) ran blindly down the wooded slope trying to find their way to the lake.
Onto the Bloody Shore
The four survivors stumbled through the bush into a tight clearing where they could see a paved road that they assumed, rightly, turned towards the lakeshore from the Old County Highway ahead of them. They followed it taking concealment from the roadside foliage until it turned off sharply north. The group stumbled onto the gravel of the beach strewn with broken glass and old beer cans. They were next to a hummock, coming out of its face was a concrete slope and flood channel opening that drained runoff into the lake. There was a steady stream of foamy water flowing down the center of the concrete slope forming a bank of dirty white suds at the edge of the water.
They would have to either walk across the sudsy concrete or climb over and around the top of the rocky tree-strewn hummock to get to the beach proper. The group thought the flood control slab was too much of a risk and thus they began to climb the steep slope of the hummock.
They moved slowly up the steep hillside, El Guapo had to catch Lilith by the hand to keep her from taking a tumble back down towards the soapy drainage. Ahead of them all was Steve McCullen. He had climbed farther than the others by pulling himself along grasping at tree branches and the stave-like stems of shrubs. He stopped suddenly as he caught sight of an inflatable zodiac dinghy.
It was poorly camouflaged with freshly snapped branches and clumps of leaves thrown haphazardly over it. He climbed up to the dinghy and saw there was a satchel explosive device in it along with a remote detonator which had a red blinking light. The light caused Steve to recall the red blinking lights on the faces of the armored titan zombies. He bent down to examine the contents of the raft throwing aside the crude attempt at camouflage. There were fresh boot prints all around it, he could smell the freshly turned soil. Suddenly, he noticed a red laser dot dancing on his chest.
The bush erupted with automatic gunfire bursting from the crown of the hummock. Shredded leaves, pine needles, and shattered wood exploded all around the group as they hit the ground. Steve peaked above the raft and could see three commandoes crouching behind a low bush and another off to the right on his belly behind a mostly buried boulder.
Lilith pulled her 9mm pistol spasmodically shooting the ground right next to her in her panic. Steve looked back and sure no one was hit pulled the 30-06 rifle from his back and shot at the closest commando, the one behind the rock. A good portion of the boulder shattered spraying shards of decimated rock over the area forcing the soldier’s head down. A soldier at the top of the hill fired and winged Steve with an aimed shot. Another missed Lilith by a mile and a third hit Wesley causing a flesh wound and a bullet fired by the fourth soldier (behind the shattered boulder) whizzed by El Guapo’s head. Wesley shot back with her Desert Eagle blasting a chunk out of a tree near soldier number 3. El Guapo threw a headshot at the fourth soldier, the bullet skimmed off his helmet.
Lilith shot at the first soldier at the top of the hill correctly assuming he was the commanding officer, her shot shaved the bark off a tree just behind him. Steve steeled himself and readied his rifle. All heard the distinct sound of a safety lever popping off a grenade, the commander tossed a grenade at Lilith, it landed in the bushes and exploded blasting the area with choking clouds of dirt and disintegrated leaves.
Lilith had leaped to safety behind a rocky ridge and Steve had dropped to the ground playing dead. El Guapo was on his back wounded badly by the explosion he tried to recover his senses. The second soldier shot at Wesley hitting her in the side. The third peaked his head above cover with a spotter’s scope. He appeared to be counting. Wesley pulled her second Desert Eagle and took shots at both the third and fourth soldiers striking and killing the fourth but missing the third.
Steve fired from the ground missing the third soldier and still on the ground reloaded his rifle hoping the still inflated raft would serve as sufficient cover. The commander tossed another grenade perfectly landing it next to the zodiac forcing Steve from cover before it exploded destroying the raft but leaving its contents intact. Following his lead, the second soldier pulled a grenade and threw it hard nailing the tree directly in front of him. The grenade bounced back and landed in the box of grenades within all the remaining soldiers’ reach. All three screamed in horror under their gas masks a second before it exploded. Seconds later, the air was still foggy with flying leaves, pine needles, splinters, and smoke, the survivors could hear some of the trees creaking as they fell in slow motion. Most of the hummock was now clear of bush and tree.
Isis: “Well, somebody had to hear that!”
They dusted themselves off, assessed their wounds, and rushed to ascend the hilltop. Steve followed as he had taken time to pilfer the blinking device and several plastic explosive devices plus the remote that had been hidden in the dinghy.
Lake House of Bloated Horrors
They stumbled down the shallow incline into a clearing about 20 feet from a large two-story L-shaped lake house. Their ears were still ringing, and they were clearing dirt from their tearing eyes. Only Lilith saw the horde gathering, some very rotten, at the other end of the lake oozing out of the various other large lake houses.
Lilith: “Oh! Here they come!”
They finished clearing their eyes, pulled their guns, and started moving carefully around the L-shaped house. A small group of slow-moving zombies was milling around the open door of the house. They easily wiped those out when they realized the others from the next house over were already beginning to reach and surround them. Just as they were starting to pick those off a large, bloated greasy thing with a tentacle-like tongue dangling like a purple-black snake from its swollen blackened lips squeezed and slid through the open door.
Gunfire ensued. Collectively the group missed only a handful of shots though it still took a short while to put the zombies down. The bloated mutant, however, took several headshots before its head split like a rotten cantaloupe. Wesley and Steve had to dodge to avoid the thing’s tentacle-like tongue which had a razor-sharp tip. In the fight, Steve’s rifle jammed and he resorted to his bow. After the bloated horror dropped, he took the time to unjam the rifle as they beat it towards the rowboat.
However, admiring a large motorboat in the distance, El Guapo contemplated out loud about trying to get to a boathouse to try to get a motorboat, but the rowboat was the closest, a corpse and some spilled gas cans were on the beach near where the rowboat was tied to a short pier.
El Guapo: “Come on we can make it!”
Steve: “Are you sure? Man, look where they’re at and those big things! We’ll never make it!”
El Guapo: “They’re slow, especially the really rotten ones!”
Steve pointed out the large single horde that had formed and amongst them, several bloated horrors at the far end of the lake. It would be a race just to the rowboat. El Guapo convinced they took turns moving and shooting their way there. However, as soon as El Guapo reached the boat he saw that it had only a single oar. Steve took the time to turn the nearby corpse over when he reached it, its head mostly gone already. There he found the missing oar as Wesley and Lilith started to catch up to him. Wesley shot two zombies that were too close for comfort. Steve leaped into the boat and started to cut the rope with his knife.
Two bloated types were already getting close to the little pier as the last of the group, Lilith, jumped into the boat. Steve and El Guapo rowed furiously as a tentacle-like tongue shot over the water at them. Wesley plugged its owner right in the head with a double shot from her paired desert eagles. The horde began to gather and crowd the beach.
Steve: “Damn! Those yellow things are fast!”
El Guapo glanced over the side of the boat and spotted a blackened, slimy corpse just under the clear lake water. Steve spotted another on his side of the boat. Before they could say anything the creature on El Guapo’s side leaped up out of the water and gripped the side of the boat. Lilith missed it with her gun. Steve smashed it with an oar, but it kept its grip on the boat and began to pull back with its body weight almost capsizing the small rowboat. The other thing leaped onto the other side with a splash of water. Steve desperately tried to use his knowledge of boating to counterweight the first zombie to try to keep the boat from turning over.
Meanwhile, the second zombie lifted itself into the boat and snatched up Lilith’s arm after her gun misfired and sank its rotten teeth into the flesh of her arm. El Guapo smashed its brain out with his oar and Wesley splattered the other’s head with a bullet. They briefly contemplated just putting Lilith “out of her misery” right there and then but she convinced them otherwise. Steve worried that this decision would “bite” them “in the @ss later” (pun intended).
Smoke on the Water
The water was calm, and their wooded surroundings were strangely quiet, the sloshing of the oars and the water against the sides of the boat had a slight calming effect on all of them. After bandaging her arm with a generously donated rag torn from Steve’s shirt, she picked up and started to rig the satchel charge Steve had taken from the zodiac. Shortly, she handed Wesley her cell phone. She had wired it to be the remote for the bomb as she had disabled the blinking detonator “just in case”.
The exhausted group took turns rowing while letting Lilith alone to finish her work. They noticed what at first, they thought was a fog forming over the surface of the water until they saw the fires in the distance. The forest was burning. Far off in the sky, they heard several sonic booms before Steve spotted multiple jet streams far above them.
Steve: “Aw great! We’re gonna get nuked!”
Suddenly, a roaring jet screamed into view over the woods in the distance and a trail of fire exploded behind it as it lifted away. The military was firebombing the forest around the lake. Eventually, as the group neared the platform at the center of the lake, they briefly contemplated what the commandoes’ mission could possibly have been.
They bobbed towards the floating launches all around the base of the elevated platform. They could see a large freight-type elevator on some a stable concrete platform and two large apparently empty water taxis floating aimlessly next to the launches. When they got closer, they could see the visible interior of those boats were smeared with blood. They tied their boat off and approached the elevator. Steve inspected the doors. He could not put his finger on it, but something was bugging him about the elevator.
Lilith assessed it and found that it was functional. So, she got ready to press the button to open the doors while Wesley and El Guapo readied themselves on either side of the elevator doors. Steve stood a short distance away by the boat. After nodding and getting identical responses from El Guapo and Wesley, Lilith pushed the button. The doors squealed noisily and slowly open. Immediately the reek of rotten meat and the coppery stench of coagulated blood assaulted their nostrils. As the doors screeched to a stop, they revealed a solid wall of quivering gelatinous gore and shredded flesh from which some scraps of clothing hung like rags.
The wall of gore fell forward just missing Lilith as she jumped to the side. It began to slither its way towards Steve like an inchworm. Wesley, after realizing that it was too late to close the elevator doors, backed away from the awful biomass. El Guapo tossed a frag grenade into the creature, and everyone crumpled tightly to whatever structure was nearest. The thing blew apart in a black spray of foulness coating everything and everyone in a thick chunky layer of pungent grue.
After they made sure there were no more immediate threats, they entered the reeking blackened elevator and rode it up to the platform.
Belly of the Beast
As they entered the front door of what appeared to be the main building atop the platform El Guapo adjusted his new tactical vest taken from the sole zombie they encountered upon exiting the elevator. The dark blue vest had SECURITY emblazoned across the shoulders in bold white letters. They walked into the small waiting room; a receptionist/security desk was next to a long hallway. The fluorescent lights were still mostly working, about half were off and a few were blinking on and off and buzzing loudly. The entire place was as quiet as the grave. About halfway down that hallway, they could see swinging double doors which they guessed probably opened into a cafeteria.
Wesley was in the lead with El Guapo following. Lilith and Steve were taking up the rear as they moved carefully down the hall. The other end turned a blind corner, but they figured the elevators or stairs were there granting access to the other levels of the place. Wesley approached the cafeteria doors her back against the opposite wall. She could see bloody handprints all over the doors. In addition, she could hear faint scratching noises from behind the door.
She signaled behind her for the others to be quiet. She slid along the wall and El Guapo followed. Steve crept slowly and was a few feet away from the door when Lilith let out a loud groan as she doubled over in pain. The very second that they all let out a sigh the doors burst open as a group of zombies charged through the door. The group was split with zombies in between the two leading and the other two following.
Both parts of the group opened fire and kept shooting every zombie that began filtering through the doors. As the bodies began to pile high crowding the narrow corridor El Guapo tossed a grenade into the cafeteria. They finished off the surviving zombies one at a time. After all the zombies were taken care of, Steve and Lilith crawled over the pile of zombie bodies clogging the hallway. They finally made it around the corner and to their relief found an elevator and the door to the stairwell.
However, the elevator had no power. They noticed the elevator had a sublevel button in addition to the buttons for this floor, the one underneath, and the one above. As a result of the inoperable elevator, the group decided to take the stairs up and found the door that opened into an office choked with cubicles. However, the door was jammed with zombies trying to open the door by forcing it outward. Fortunately for the group, it opened inward. They tried the door anyway and found it was impossible to open while the zombies were piled and pushing up against it. They tried going downstairs. There they found a very solid security door that could only be opened via a keycard.
Steve: “Well, I think what we’re lookin’ for is downstairs.”
They spent the better part of an hour ransacking offices and closets and periodically checking the upstairs office door and the lower security door. Lilith even tried to open the electronic lock downstairs but triggered its failsafe effectively permanently locking it. Eventually, Steve walked all the way to the back of the hallway around the corner from the elevator finding a second security desk and small office. He found a power switch to the elevator behind the desktop and switched it on.
After a comparatively long elevator ride the doors opened up revealing a half-lit area of utility tunnels; bare concrete walls and pipes, conduits, and cables completely obscuring the ceiling from which the occasional light hung. It was El Guapo that first heard something following them via the ceiling hidden by the tangle of pipes and wires as they began to move down the tunnels.
After a few shots that ricocheted off the pipes, the thing dropped to the floor from the ceiling before charging Steve. It had long fangs, razor-sharp claws, and no skin; The creature was all raw slimy muscle and exposed bone. It wounded him savagely with a claw and was able to dodge a few bullets before Wesley got the brain shot.
Wesley: “I’m almost out of ammo.”
Steve: “Same here.”
El Guapo: “Yup.”
They continued on and Lilith got the idea to follow the power conduits to a large generator room. Inside was a large highly advanced generator that was covered in radiation warnings and nuclear material stickers. Next to that was a control booth with large observation windows. Through these, they could see a zombie security guard wandering aimlessly in circles that is until it saw them. The control booth door burst open, and the zombie shot at them with the 9mm pistol hanging loosely in its bone-white hand. Lilith took it out with a single well-placed shot.
Lilith (wiping the cold sweat from her forehead): “This is it! I’m gonna rig up the bomb to this thing and set this to overload. It’ll be a big boom!”
The group agreed to leave her here and proceed down another hallway that terminated in a single steel door. What Lilith did not tell them was that the wound on her arm had turned black and was weeping puss.
Wesley, Steve, and El Guapo had found their target was another keycard activated security door and it was locked. It took several minutes of ransacking the few offices down here to find the keycard they needed. They opened the door and found an empty room behind with another electronically locked door with a number pad and a small screen that had a warning in red letters running across it: REMEMBER 10 SECONDS TO INPUT SEC CODE AFTER CARD READ!!!!
They ignored it and used the card to open the door which had a 10-second countdown before the lock opened. As soon as the lock snapped open, a laser turret in the corner of the room shot and horribly wounded Steve. They ran from the room to take cover on either side of the outer door. El Guapo tossed a grenade in the room and hoped for the best. Surprisingly, he took out the turret without damaging the security door control pad. They continued on into what consisted of two crossing hallways and a series of small labs and some airtight chambers. The trio desperately combed the area for anything that would tell them what to do and, in their desperation, they split up.
El Guapo was walking past several large glass liquid-filled tubes each containing a muscular skinless corpse save one. He stopped when he realized he was walking in a large puddle of foul-smelling liquid and the last tube appeared broken and empty. His call to his companions was cut short as it was crushed out of him. A large skinless creature had snatched him up in its powerful arms from behind. He could not break its grip and it sank its teeth into his shoulder but could not bite through his tactical vest. A single shot rang out, one of the creature’s eyes exploded, and a gush of liquefied brains splattered right into El Guapo’s face. Wesley had saved him from the far end of the hallway with a carefully placed shot.
Steve hurried over shouting that he had found something. They followed him to a vault door that was already partially open. Peaking inside they realized it was an airlock with another such door on the opposite stainless-steel wall. They entered and pushed the button to open the door and seal the other behind them. When they entered the room, it was lined with shelves holding an unimaginable number of labeled vials and bottles.
Wesley: “Ha! Ha! This is it!”
El Guapo: “Okay. So, what are we looking for in here?”
His rifle was pointed at the far end of the irregularly shaped room. At the opposite end was a large square pillar obscuring the far part of the chamber which was basically an alcove. They heard slow methodical metallic and heavy footsteps coming from behind the pillar. The thing that stepped from the alcove was covered in some kind of gleaming black composite armor and wearing a full helmet complete with face mask. Built into one of its arms was a mini-gatling gun.
El Guapo: “Aw, s#*t!”
The zombie super-trooper sprayed the room wounding them all badly. They nearly emptied their guns at it thanking fortune that the creature was very slow and robotic in its movements. In a last-ditch effort, El Guapo tossed a second grenade, his last, at it. It retaliated by blasting him into a bloody mist leaving a galaxy of craters on the blood-spattered wall behind him. Steve tossed his only grenade and managed to blast enough armor from it for Wesley to put a bullet in its pickled brain. They both let out an exhausted sigh of relief.
Wesley: “Phew! Good! I have like four shots left. Two in each gun.”
Steve: “Yeah, I got about five left for the rifle.”
Suddenly, fear paralyzed both as they heard familiar heavy footsteps coming once again from behind the square pillar. Wesley made for the airlock while Steve covered the alcove. She made it into the room as he was torn to pieces by a deafening spray of bullets. She hit the button and the airlock door closed just in time to block another spray aimed at her.
Wesley ran back to where she had left Lilith. Wesley found her on the ground sitting in a puddle of her own black vomit. Lilith told her to get on the rowboat and use the cell phone she gave her to blow the place sky-high. Unfortunately, she probably would not survive the blast either, so she wished her “good luck” as she resigned herself to her fate and collapsed against the mini reactor.
It was not long before Wesley was standing in the rowboat having paddled herself almost to shore. The smoke from the forest burning was almost intolerable, her eyes, nose, throat, and lungs were on fire. Still, she could see the shore crowded with legions of the walking dead, and several giant cyber-zombies towering above them their evil lights clicking away. Ash and glowing cinders rained like snow. She shrugged her shoulders and triggered the bomb. It seemed like ages until she noticed something in the water. She gazed down into the murky depths and realized the reactor had blown and watched as a giant glowing bubble, the explosion, raced up to her. The waters began to rise with the tiny boat atop. A violent blast of steam and nuclear fire smashed her into the sky. Then nothing.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the next mountain valley an old man, a small dog cradled in his arms caked with mud emerged from an open storm drain grating. He finished the bottle of booze in his other hand with one final swig and tossed it aside. It was Lilith’s father and the dog, they had gotten separated in the race to the lake, fortunately for them. They had taken refuge in a flood control tunnel and simply followed it to its end traveling along the line until they reached the next town over. The brown and white smoke from the forest fire was still thick as it swirled all around them but for the most part, they were safe…for the moment.
With that, the game and thus short campaign ended. I didn’t feel I had done a great job this session, the reason why it took a year to blog about it. I mentioned this sentiment at the time out loud as everyone was getting up from the table after packing their books. Gil said, “What!? Are you kidding that was awesome!”
Cris: “Yeah, it was good man.”
I took the compliments in stride and turned to my wife, Jenn.
“See I didn’t kill the dog.”
Jenn: “What dog?”
Jenn (suddenly giggling): “Oh yeah, Thanks honey!” She pecked me on the cheek.
A little while later, Cris, Isis, and Gil had just left, and Jenn had headed off to bed. I picked up the empty beer bottles (there were many), dropped them in the recycle bin, and started to wipe down the battle mat. Halfway through cleaning the marker off I realized that I never bothered to draw any maps for this campaign. I had them in my head and translated them directly to the mat. They had been based on the maps found in the Zombie Horror (RGS1010) book though except of course for the lakeshore. Meh. I had figured somebody had taken some pictures of the maps as we played, seemed like the last few sessions were well photographed. My bad.
We are doing well. Our third quarter accounting is looking good and we’re finally in the black. As our last quarter of this year begins it looks like the projects slated for release this year may not be out before the end of the year. One project is in full gear, fortunately.
State of Current Projects
Dark Home: Realm of the Dwarves is well into the writing process. We are working on the first four chapters and nearing the editing stage. We have been working with a linguist, Frederico Schroeder, to help us create a fully functional dwarven conlang and runic language. The book will be as detailed as Arvan: Land of Dragons but it will be more focused as is the nature of the subject matter.
Other projects slated for this year have hit snags as well as funding problems. Primarily this applies to Storywise which has been pushed back for next year but also the Vehicle Handbook (working title) and Deep Black. Other projects that have been on the backburner and have plenty of material ready for them are The Monster Magnus Vol.II, The Character Codex Vol. V, The Codices of Clever Doom (working title), and The Great Grimoire Vol. II. One of these latter projects will probably begin in earnest in the next month or so. We have been looking into Kickstarter and may start a KS project late next year.
The Actual Play Blog
The blog will begin with the final installment of Corpse World that will drop in a week or two. From there the last installments (there’s still several left) of the Cabal of Eight will start bi-weekly or weekly depending on the schedule, the RPG book projects will take precedence. Note the test games for Dark Home will appear a few days to a week after play whenever those begin shortly after the editor’s proof gets printed. Note that all articles are on hold until further notice.
Well, that is all that is new for Ranger Games Publishing at this point. Keep rolling and looking out for our products and promos!
Currently, the Ranger Games Publishing blog is on hold. Don’t worry there is still plenty of material for it. The blog will start again in October with the final entry in the Dead World Zombie Horror Campaign. There are more entries for the Cabal of Mages campaign all the way up to the finish as well. The hold is due to the publishing work on two, possibly, three new books for Dice & Glory.
I’m hoping once the first book rolls out others will begin coming one after the other over the following months. Dark Home: Land of the Dwarves is back on the roster as well. I am working with GM Cris on that one. In the meantime, there may be intermittent miscellaneous blog entries and downloadable PDFs. My schedule currently precludes articles, however. Although do not completely write off an article or two in the next few months. For now, though, there is nothing ready to go for a while.
Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.
Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.
Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.
More than a MacGuffin
To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.
Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.
A Sword, Any Sword
Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.
However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.
There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.
A Hook by Any Other Name
There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.
This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?
The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade.This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.
Details, Details, Details!
Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.
The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.
The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.
The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.
Backstory is Essential
When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.
Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.
The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.
When conceiving these special items, the GM must ask themselves a few questions to get the creative juices flowing. How recognizable is the item itself? Does it have a reputation? Did the maker/owner of the item have a reputation? Or is there a folktale or story circulating around them and thus the item? Does the item have a name itself? Players and their characters may be asking these questions themselves. Therefore, the GM should have answers ready typically through the mouth of NPCs.
The blade could have been forged somewhere to the south. Where the high-grade silver used for the blade is refined from lead. This is also where the skills necessary to craft such a blade are not rare. There is a village in a remote area of that region rumored to raise the dragon-worms that produce the extremely rare fire-silk, but no one has seen newly spun fire-silk in an age.
A Brief History of Bling
The next step is making the “bling” jive with the history you have written. Turn the details into clues. First, make sure the attached background NPCs, important details, base materials, and general craftwork go together. Make sure that they collectively put the story of the item forward. This does not mean, however, that all the details need to match or correspond in some way. You can also use bling to put forward a telling contradiction between details. Alternately, you can use details as a device putting to the players a puzzle, a paradox to be deciphered. Using the details in this manner can serve to perk up the players’ curiosity. Or help to coax them along the path the item reveals to them.
The characters on the blade say, “Death to the Usurper of the South!” The sea-serpent skin is from an extinct variety of sea serpent. It was known as the Sapphire of the North Seas fished by enterprising fishermen. Additionally, there are characters engraved around the edge of the pommel that are hard to read and badly worn. They mention a name — Master Snake Commander of the… — but the last few characters have worn away.
Backstories & Side-Quests
The backstory the GM creates can lead to a side quest (i.e., away from the main thrust of the campaign). It can run a parallel course, intertwine with the main story usually joining at a certain point. Or can be any combination of the three. Intertwining the backstory of the item with the current campaign direction can keep a wayward player engaged. Doing this by merging their character’s story with it and thus the campaign dragging them along by their curiosity. It can also help to engage players in a concurrent story if the current main plot is not keeping them hooked. At a certain point it can serve to lead them back to the main story at a certain point.
Intersecting points in the main thread with the story of the item can be multiple. Giving a little tidbit of information to the players each time they reach such a story point. Such as while traveling south from a northern frontier the PCs get the related odd tale or a small bit of conversation. Each of these shedding light on specific aspects of the item(s). As the PCs chase down their main goal they will run into the points of the game where the special item figures in.
On your stop-over in the village, the town-drunk regales you with an old story. Its widely known in this region. It is about the young son of a wealthy merchant. The merchant’s riches were said to be held in uncounted smooth-cut gems. Some of which glowed with an inner fire of their very own. A barbaric warlord descended from the mountains with his horsemen and conquered the whole of this region. The merchant’s family slaughtered; their riches pilfered. The son ran to the provinces of the north vowing vengeance upon his return…
A World unto Itself (Sort of)
The backstory of the item can expand upon or add to the campaign world. Just as would a well-constructed NPC but unlike an NPC its details are passive. It requires the players and their characters to investigate them actively. Or have an NPC recognize and communicate what they know about it to the player characters (PCs). Its added flavor if nothing else but it requires the participants to actively engage it. To taste it as it were. This is of course barring any supernatural abilities that may grant the item agency.
These types of specially designed items will add to the game-text for the group. Especially so for the specific player whose character owns it. However, the latter choice may alienate others in the group. Unless you are trying to pit them against each it is probably not the best idea. In this case, tailoring the item to a single character is best. Add in storied items for the rest of the group gradually not all at once.
In fact, it might be useful for the first item to lead to the next and that to another. This lets the GM bait the entire group with each item. Each providing a single piece to a puzzle that begs players to solve it. Or a story that they cannot help but want the conclusion to. Not to mention the items should be useful for the characters in-game. This is outside of the clues and backstory. It is particularly important to never forget this. If it is useless in-game, why would they keep it? Always play to the players’ practical side. However, at the same time use their greed to hook them and their curiosity to propel them.
Players and thus their characters tend to become attached to specially detailed items. Much the same as favorite NPC’s if the backstory and details are just right. The players may even face a hard decision later on in keeping a beloved but mundane item over an upgrade. A rare case of emotional value triumphing over practicality. A well-crafted item can contribute to the overall quality of the game that is if your players are willing to bite.
Designing a non-MacGuffin item as you would a full-blown NPC has its rewards during gameplay. The item can become a worldbuilding aid as well as evolving into a story point in and of itself. It deepens the game world and can help to engage curious even greedy PCs rewarding them not just materially but with emotional payoff as well.