Dungeon Fantasy Nordlond #16: “Shall I Make Preparations?”
A tale of picking one’s battles; of clever girls, who just weren’t clever enough; of worthy foes who earned respect; of the unquiet, bizarre, and sometimes literal-minded dead. Demonstrations of loyalty, and of its opposite. How, sometimes, it’s best just to pay the troll.
- Esen, Human Mentalist. Just like that guy from “Scanners”.
- Ilmarë “Ray” Kem, Elf Cleric. Makes a mean roast goat.
- Orvynth the Clanless, Dragon-Blooded Knight. Death from above.
- Slingshot, Human Scout. Don’t bother running, you’ll only die tired.
- The Kid, Nymph Bard. Sworn to serve The Queen… whoever that is…
- Ganthas Half-Man, Halfling Slinger. Kept the high ground.
- Ragna Bjarndottir, Human Brute. Berzerker bodyguard.
With their local guide run off in the night, our heroes were forced to fall back on their own navigational skills. Luckily, Slingshot was up to the task, and got them headed in the right direction. As they walked, the day grew colder, and they paused to don their cold-weather gear.
As they were walking, several members of the party started to hear cries for help coming from off the path. As they readied themselves for a charge to the rescue, The Kid noticed subtle problems with the pitch of the calling voice and called for caution, announcing, “No human throat made that sound.” Esen nodded agreement: “And there’s no human mind behind them.”
Thus warned, our heroes advanced with all possible stealth and caution. Slingshot spotted the source of the cries: a larger-than-man-sized feathered lizard, one of the great beasts of the forest. It stood on two legs and was armed with a vicious disemboweling claw on either ankle. As he watched, it tried again, clearly parroting human speech that it had heard in the past. “Help! Haaaaalp!” He spotted a second one, as it leaned out from concealment in the bushes, eager for the trap to spring.
Slingshot quietly pointed this out to the others. As they watched, the shape of the trap became clear. There were perhaps half-a-dozen of the beasts, scattered around a clearing. They hoped to draw their victims into an ambush with mimicry, then strike from all directions.
Forewarned of the trap, the party huddled up and had a whispered discussion about what to do. Most of the group was ready to slip past and continue on, but Orvynth was concerned that some other traveller might come by and fall into the dinosaur’s ambush. Wouldn’t it be better to ambush the ambushers, and remove this threat to the innocent? The others convinced Orvynth that this wasn’t a big concern. They were several days away from the nearest civilization, deep in a forest filled with great beasts; in this neighborhood, there are no innocents. Taking care to circle wide around the dinosaur pack’s ambush site, the party continued on.
Later that afternoon, they found themselves descending a rocky grade towards a river crossing. The path was weathered, but clearly a thing formed by the hand of sentient beings. There were “guardrail” stones set along the edges to keep travellers from sheer drops, and from place to place, there were steps cut into the stone.
They were just approaching the last short descents before the path opened out into a level area around a good fording place, when Slingshot caught the sound of a husky, muffled whisper (“I told you to keep your head down!”) and the thud of a disciplinary blow. He smiled to himself, remarked “Here comes some fun!” to no one in particular, and sprinted ahead of the rest of the group.
The others, leading their horses and concentrating on descending safely, shrugged to each other and carried on as they had been. When Slingshot fired an arrow into an unsuspecting bush, they thought he might have spotted a deer, and applauded at his skill at providing dinner. When a humanoid figure fell out of the bush with an arrow through its knee and Slingshot followed up with a second arrow to cripple the figure’s arm, though, they realized their peril and rushed to back up the scout.
Slingshot’s target’s friends quickly did the same, though, bursting from places of concealment and rushing our heroes. To the south, the downed enemy’s partner stood, drawing a bow, and a group of hoplites and their whip-wielding sergeant charged from cover. To the east, a similar group charged from another group of bushes, with two archers taking aim and a second group of hoplites charging under the encouragement of their commanding officer’s whip. All of them were wearing bronze torcs on their upper left arms.
Some of the more worldly-wise members of the group recognized the attackers as irzhajotunn, or small giants. They come from a far-off land and make their living as mercenaries. They do not sow, nor do they reap. They fight.
The first part of the battle was fought at a distance, with Slingshot and Ganthas harassing the oncoming irzhajotunn and their archers attempting to do the same, in the other direction. Our heroes were rather more successful, dropping several of the enemy and wounding others. The irzhajotunn archers mostly tried to hit Slingshot, and failed.
The group of hoplites from the south managed to form a line and moved to engage Orvynth and Ragna, both trailing Slingshot. Their sergeant cursed them and struck about with his whip, instructing them to attack “the human archer, that’s the real threat!” and they wheeled to advance on Slingshot. Orvynth ran past their left flank, hoping for the kind of fight-ending massacre that the dragon-blooded has delivered in the past. In this case, they only wounded the first hoplite (“#5”) before being fended off by the irzhajotunn’s shield wall.
Esen swooped down from the high ground to join the fray, while Ray moved up to support Slingshot. In moments, the first hoplite line collapsed, as two of its members fell… but #5 just took the punishment and kept on going, staggering grimly towards Slingshot. Seeing how badly the irzhajotunn hoplite was wounded, Slingshot turned away, concentrating on the more distant irzhajotunn squad that was rapidly approaching.
The first squad’s sergeant dueled briefly with Orvynth, aiming a spectacularly flashy attack with his whip at the dragon-blooded’s eyes. Orvynth parried, shredding the whip and yanking it from its owner’s hands. The irzhajotunn sergeant only had a moment to look surprised, though, before Orvynth put him down.
Meanwhile, Ragna engaged #5, landing several blows with her axe but finding herself unable to put her opponent down. It didn’t take long before his refusal to fall enraged her enough to drive her berzerk.
Seeing the first squad decimated, and with no sergeant nearby to provide other guidance, the second squad’s archers decided to fall back. They turned and fled into the bushes.
Ray moved to support Slingshot, applying an armor spell before he sprinted on ahead. This turned out to be sound tactics; moments later, as he attempted to pass through the second squad of hoplites on his way to pursue the fleeing archers, he took a spear to the back that would have gravely wounded him otherwise. As it happened, he took no damage and continued on.
Esen finally put down #5 with a critical success on an attack with his psychokinetic lash. The staggering irzhajotunn’s head exploded.
The last two hoplites found themselves desperately fighting back-to-back with knives, after Ray magically commanded one to drop his weapon and the other lost his in a critically-failed attack. They didn’t last long.
When the last hoplites fell, the only foe standing was the last sergeant, who made a retreating attack against Orvynth, only to lose his whip in the same manner as his comrade. “You’ll get no answers from me!” he declared, fast-drawing a knife and moving to cut his own throat. Only Orvynth’s lightning-fast punch to the jaw prevented him from taking his own life to avoid interrogation.
While Slingshot spent fifteen minutes chasing down the fleeing archers – shooting both of them in the face, in the end – the others cleaned up, looting the bodies and applying first aid where needed. Aside from a lot of mundane military gear, they found that each of the hoplites had carried a healing potion – a great score!
They also discovered that the irzhajotunn’s torcs were magical, but were unable to identify what kind of magic. This was curious, though, because most enchanted items are valuable in a mundane sense even before enchantment, but these torcs were bronze and of crude manufacture.
The surviving sergeant resisted interrogation with all his might, but didn’t have what it takes to handle a combination of psychic mind melds and nymph-charisma-driven interrogation. Were they looking for the party specifically? No, just on routine patrol. What kind of patrol? Maintaining a perimeter against the great beasts of the forest and any human forces that might stumble on their position. Who did the sergeant serve? He gave the name of his captain, and his captain’s colonel – “I serve X, who serves Y” – and then declared, “… in the army of Maendrath.”
After taking about ninety minutes to clean up and recover, our heroes continued on. That night, Slingshot located an excellent campsite, and a fine night’s rest was had by all. The next morning, they continued to the east.
Late in the morning, the party started to hear voices approaching from a distance. At first, they couldn’t make out words, only the rhythm, but that rhythm reminded them of town criers and street heralds back in town. Not something one would expect to encounter in the deep forest. As the voices came closer, our heroes were eventually able to make out words: “The queen is returning! Make preparation! All will serve!”
Puzzled but cautious, our heroes found places of concealment. All but The Kid, that is, who stood in the middle of the path and called out a greeting. The voices paused, as if startled, then began their round again: “The queen is returning! Make preparation! All will serve!”
Three human skulls came into view, levitating at about human head height, each enveloped in a ball of fire! “The queen is returning!” the first one said, spotting The Kid. “Make preparation!” the second called. “All will serve!” the third said, as they approached.
“The queen is coming. Will you serve?” they asked The Kid.
What followed was a bit of a “Who’s On First?” routine, as The Kid tried to pump them for information that they didn’t seem to have. “Who is the queen?” drew an awkward silence as the skulls passed around a glance, and then, “The queen is returning!” as they returned to solid conversational ground.
“When will she return?” More eye-rolls. “All will serve!”
“Shall I make preparations?” Instant agreeement, “Make preparation! The queen is returning! Will you serve?” Menacing glare.
Finally, The Kid said, “Sure, sure, I’ll serve.” With a happy shout, the skulls returned to spreading the good news of the queen’s return, vanishing further up the trail.
Well, our heroes agreed, coming from their places of concealment, that was certainly weird. With a shrug, they travelled on.
Later that day, our heroes again began hearing an unusual sound. This time, it was almost like thunder. Something was beating trees to splinters with a single blow. Up ahead, our heroes saw a flock of birds take wing, disturbed by whatever was making the ruckus. Whatever it was, it was coming their way.
Discretion is the better part of valor, they say. Our heroes against found places of concealment, and waited to see what was coming.
When the creature finally came into view with a roar, it turned out to be an abomination. It stood nine feet tall, in a more-or-less humanoid fashion. Its arms were lashing dinosaur tails. It had two heads, which both seemed to have started as lizardmen. It was obviously an undead horror, an amalgamation of many different kinds of creatures, filled with rage and hate against all living things.
As the thing approached, unaware that it was being observed, our heroes debated what to do. The Kid pointed out that this was a big, ugly, hairy piece of walking damage that offered them nothing but potential trouble, and they should let it pass unchallenged. Orvynth argued that they’re in the business of killing big scary monsters. The others others agreed, and so they set up an ambush for the approaching beast, while The Kid withdrew to a safe distance.
As the creature stomped past their hiding place, roaring, Slingshot struck, firing two arrows into the beast’s feet, trying to cripple it. It turned to face its attacker, only to have Orvynth drop from a tree branch above and rapidly lop off both its heads. It swayed, then fell, bursting into corruption and rotted meat when it hit the ground.
This, Ray pointed out, was not natural. Sure, angry land spirits might raise zombies, but they didn’t kit-bash monsters from parts. Something strange and ominous was going on, to create such a foul abomination.
But, nothing to be done about it now. They cleaned up and continued on, finding an excellent place to camp that night. On the march the next morning, the party found their way blocked by a raging stream of whitewater rapids. Leaving Ganthas and Ragna to keep an eye on the mounts, our heroes cast about for a good place to cross.
The stream lay within a 20-25′ deep ravine, at least 40 or 50 feet across, making it difficult for Esen to just levitate to the other side, since he can only maintain a 10 foot flight ceiling. It appeared to be deep and rocky, and was certainly fast-moving, making it impossible to cross for the horses. No one felt that they were a strong enough swimmer to cross it under their own power.
After some searching, though, they found the most promising spot to cross. Not that it was all that promising. The ravine narrowed to “merely” thirty feet or so, and at that point, they discovered the ruins of a bridge. The surface of the bridge itself was long gone, but the vertical supports remained, with their tops standing mostly level with the top of the ravine. Furthermore, someone had stapled a heavy, rusted chain to the side of the supports; it hung about seven feet over the water across the entire span. On the far side, near the other end of the chain, they could see a crude raft, pulled mostly out of the water.
There was quite a bit of debate, at this point. Different plans were proposed, and each shot down for one reason or another. Getting the horses across was a particularly tricky point. Finally, Slingshot decided to act rather than discuss, and slithered down the edge of the ravine to the nearby mooring of the chain. There, he prepared to cross hand-over-hand across the stream.
As soon as he touched the chain, however, there was a commotion on the far bank. A group of about a dozen trolls appeared, hooting and hollering and claiming that this was their bridge and they would be paid their troll toll!
While Slingshot dangled over the raging water below, The Kid negotiated in shouts with the trolls. They demanded a toll for passage across the river. “One goat, or one silver each,” the trolls declared. “Or perhaps suckling pig? Human pay toll. Troll bring boat.” The Kid tried to butter them up, offering one silver for each of them rather than one for each of us, since there were more trolls than party members.
“OH, no,” they said, “troll no fall for fancy math magic. One goat, one pig, one silver to ride troll boat. No substitution!”
With a shrug, The Kid agreed. “Ok, ok, troll drive hard bargain. One silver.”
Of course, one silver each is petty cash. Orvynth, the most cash-poor of the party, paid the whole party’s fare from his own pouch. Seeing this, the trolls burst into celebration. Two of them performed “the dance of joy” at the leader’s direction, while a third was directed to ferry our heroes over. With a shrug, it jumped off the edge of the ravine, tumbling to a bone-jarring landing next to the raft. Clearly regenerating as it worked, the troll pulled itself together and launched the raft, pulling it across the river by gripping the chain and hauling it by pure strength.
As the troll worked, our heroes realized that all of these trolls were wearing bronze torcs on their upper left arms.
When the raft reached the party’s side of the river, the troll paused with the raft under Slingshot, still dangling from the chain. “You pay?” it asked. Orvynth tossed a coin into the boat, the troll nodded, and Slingshot dropped to the raft. The boat could only carry a few passengers at a time, and so the troll made a couple of trips.
On the first trip, the troll made conversation with our heroes. “So,” it said, “why you cross troll bridge? Business or pleasure?” It gave a grotesque leer. “You come join army?”
“‘Join army’?” The Kid answered. “Oh, yeah, we’re here to join the army. Where would we go for that?” Happy to hear this news, the troll gave directions – basically, just follow the path and you can’t miss it. Happy to hear that the party was here to join up, the troll announced that it would put in a good word for them with leadership.
When the entire party was gathered together on the far side of the stream, they paid the troll’s fee. Then, as a sign of friendship and goodwill, Ray used divine magic to create food – specifically, the finest roast goat that any of the trolls had ever seen! This time, four trolls performed the dance of joy, two swooned, and one fell to its knees worshipping Ray as a goddess in her own right.
“Maybe you put in good word for troll?” one shyly suggested.
Having made new friends, our heroes continued on, following the troll’s directions. As they crossed over the ridgeline, they came in to sight of a broad valley with a castle and an army in it, perhaps a mile distant.
As soon as they were out of sight of the trolls, the party ducked into places of concealment. Shortly, they found a place to hide out and observe the castle and army encampment, and settled in to case the joint.
The part of the camp nearest to the party was a disorganized mass of individual camps, each consisting of a handful of tents enclosed in a ditch and earthen wall. To the left side, the party observed a small keep, stoutly built, with a profusion of chimneys giving forth foul-smelling and oddly-colored smoke. To the right, there was a more disciplined, organized camp, built in the form of a square, with what seemed to be a bustling marketplace in the center. Between these camps and the castle stood a ring of strange-looking tents, where lizard-men and dragon-blooded gathered; as they watched, our heroes saw that there were dinosaurs housed in this area as well. Finally, on the far side of the area, there was a broad, flat parade ground, where small groups were engaging in intensive military training.
As the hours went on, our heroes learned more about the area and its inhabitants. They were able to determine patterns in the patrols, and areas that were more frequently patrolled. They realized that every single inhabitant of the camp – including dinosaurs used as mounts – wore one of the mysterious bronze torcs. They determined that the well-organized camp was run by the irzhajotunn, while the area of small fortifications was mostly human.
From time to time, a group of irzhajotunn would come to the human camp to gather a cohort for training. They would be escorted to the parade ground, where they would be trained under realistic conditions.
The training on the parade ground was harsh; at one point, the party observed a human trainee either killed or incapacitated in training. The body was dragged unceremoniously to the side and abandoned. As our heroes watched, a dragonkin from the far camp happened by… noticed the body… looked around to see if anyone was watching… then grabbed the body by the ankle and dragged it back to the reptile camp. Clearly, dinner was served, with no objections from the non-reptiles in the area.
On another occasion, our heroes were able to observe the army’s recruitment efforts. About a quarter mile to the left of their location, a motley group of human bandits stumbled out of the forest. Their arrival was rapidly noticed, and a diverse group was dispatched from the castle to intercept them, made up of a few lizard-men riding dinosaurs and several irzhajotunn on foot. The keen-eared members of the party were able to eavesdrop.
The irzhajotunn sergeant in charge of the sortie challenged the incoming group, asking them if they had come to join Maendrath’s army. As the others dithered, one of the bandits broke and ran. Without a second thought, one of the irzhajotunn archers turned and put an arrow into the runner’s back, killing him instantly.
“We’ll join,” the others announced, seeing this. “All joiners here.” They were immediately issued bronze torcs and herded into the fortified, human encampment.
… and we leave our heroes pondering strategy. They’ve decided that they do not want to be wearing any of those torcs. Beyond that, who knows?
The standard award for each member of the group was 6 points. They evaded a couple of fights, won a few more, and kept me laughing the whole time.
Not much loot, mainly the healing potions taken off the irzhajotunn.
Cool Point: Ray, for making the best roast goat any of the trolls had ever dreamed of.