(OOC: Thanks, as always, to Shimmin. The below constitutes the action of 3 sessions.)
The party learned that the druid lived a short distance away with his family, atop a wooded hill overlooking the town. The barkeeps felt that he was more of a force for order than chaos, and certainly couldn’t think of any incidents where he had actively undermined the town. There was some talk of the druid protecting some sort of sacred space in back of his home, in which outsiders were not welcome.
The druid’s home proved to be a log cabin, with charms and trinkets hanging from the eaves. As they approached, Oswyn ensured that the entirely unremarkable pouch around his neck was a little more prominent than usual.
Almax (for that was the druid’s name) greeted them, taking note of Oswyn. The party introduced themselves and explained that they wished to discuss the shrine and relic of the Balance they discovered. Almax immediately called to his son and wife, and when they answered, assured them he was just making sure he knew where they were. The party explained the shrine they discovered, and showed the druid the scales. He examined the scales carefully, and performed a ritual to sense magical power. It was, indeed, a relic. He hinted that he might reward them for passing it to him. He also expressed the opinion that those most likely to cast down a shrine of the Balance and seal it up with tainted cinnabar would be cultists of the Laughing Wolf, or the Primal Fire within the Moon, both of whom had a lust for smashing the Balance and bringing back Chaos and Old Night and representing the worst side of Chaos, rather than the kinder spin the Jester tried to put on Chaos.
Almax also mentioned that he had heard tales told of an old srhine of the Balance in the Steerbrook area that was supposed to give a sense of the balance of forces in the land of Arcol. He agreed with the party that the scales were currently showing a skew towards evil, and confided that he’d heard tales of dark forces moving around in the wake of the civil war, spreading mischief.
“You’re saying we’ve got traitors in the country?” asked Scabbard.
“It’s definitely a question of the safety of the nation,” replied Almax. Scabbard withdrew the scales into a protective hug. “I imagine if you’ve been travelling you’ve seen a thing or two in your travels,” Almax continued, and tried to get some clarification as the party’s background. The party admitted that Jack was a palace guard, but Vana and Oswyn were rather vague about their activities, unsure about the druid’s intentions.
Asked about any signs of sinister activities in the town, the druid mentioned that some of the townsfolk were unhappy about a certain burned-out guardhouse. In the civil war, Royalist troops were garrisoned in the town; when they were finally run out of town by the returning Baron and his rebel allies, one of the guardhouses the Royalists had used to keep order amongst the fishermen was set fire to and it hadn’t been repaired since (unsurprising, since the civil war had only ended mere months ago). The Baron didn’t have the funds to fix up a guardhouse that he couldn’t garrison, and whilst he could raise a toll on the town for the repairs, he apparently didn’t see he had the right to inflict that hardship on the basis of mere rumours. However, people had been insisting that the guardhouse was haunted; the baron never took the rumours seriously – in fact, when Almax suggested he go to examine it, the Baron forbade further discussion.
Almax hinted that the party themselves had not yet met the baron, and so not been personally forbidden to investigate the guardhouse… Jack asked what “haunted” meant here, and was told there were reports of strange noises and so forth. Almax wondered if it might be monstrous rats, as vermin of all kinds had become a plague across the land since the Civil War, especially in areas which had suffered large numbers of casualties – both limiting the people available to fight the vermin and having harvests rotting in the fields without the folk to collect it in providing plentiful food for vermin.
Scabbard spoke sharply to Almax for a perceived criticism of the state, and Oswyn attempted to smooth things over. There was an awkward discussion about the relic. Scabbard was keen to keep it as a valuable tool of the state, but Almax pointed out that the scales were of little use without a priest of the Balance. He whistles, and the scale shifted – “see, now it shows the balance between flood and drought”.
“Then the state will have to requisition itself a priest of the Balance”, responded Scabbard.
Almax questioned the party about being agents of the state, at which Vana said she was a supporter rather than an agent, and Oswyn demurred as far as possible. The druid seemed confused as to their purpose. They decided to discuss matters elsewhere, and Oswyn said he would see what can be done about the guardhouse. The druid watched them intently until they leave. Scabbard turned back at the last minute to stare. Almax turned casually into a bear. Scabbard left.
On balance, the party were not inclined to investigate without the Baron’s permission, since conflict between authorities suggested potential problems. Jack, ever cynical, suggested that maybe the Baron would warn them that the guardhouse was a deadly trap, and the druid was not to be trusted.
They headed towards the Baron’s residence and asked to see him. The guard asked for a reason. Vana explained that they wished to discuss the disaster that had recently overtaken Steerbrook, and that may be of concern to the Baron. The guard immediately assured them that they’d be welcome to share the news, and that the Baron was holding an audience at present. He let them into the gatehouse, and indicated a barrel where they were to leave their weapons. Scabbard, of course, snuck a dagger through.
They saw a relatively small and humble throne room, where the Baron and Baroness were holding court. They were paying close attention to (it seemed) a steward. Once he had finished discussing the fields, the party were brought forward and introduced as travellers with news of the tragedy in Steerbrook. They noticed that the Baroness was wearing a holy symbol of the Messenger. The Baron seemed like he could hold his own in a fight. Both were in their forties, and asked the travellers to share their news. Vana explained what the party knew of the situation in Steerbrook.
A minor disagreement erupted over the scales. Scabbard was keen for them to be conveyed back to the capital, but the Baron seemed to insist on doing it himself, in consultation with the druid, who he had some trust in. The rest of the party tended to agree with the Baron or are apathetic. The Baroness pointed out that it isn’t a matter of an evil artifact – the followers of the Balance may hold themselves aloof, but they perform a vital function, and the best person to possess the artifact is a Balance priest.
The Baron offered a reward of 100 gold pieces for the artifact. Scabbard’s fingers tightened on the scales. The Baroness noted his feeling and asked what they could do to prove their trustworthiness. “Oh, that’s easy,” said Scabbard. “Send a letter to the council informing then of the artifact’s existence and asking how it can be used.”
“Normally, adventurers who come here seeking reward and boasting of their exploits don’t try to tell me how to do my job!” said the Baron.
“We’re not exactly adventurers,” ventured Jack. “More… contractors.”
After a little more discussion, the Baron mentioned a bandit problem, and Vana asked to hear more, since the party’s purpose was to spread order as they travelled. Apparently, a band of bandits led by a sadistic half-orc had been preying on the area from a hilly region nearby. Vana asked about the haunting, and the Baron seemed resigned – “Oh, this again,” he said. He explained a bit of the history and asked whether the druid put them up to asking about it. Given the straight truth, the Baron acknowledged that he shouldn’t have snapped at the Druid, but was in a short temper that day. “Perhaps it should be torn down – but you never know when you might need a guard post,” he said.
“Right now it isn’t a guard post,” added Jack. “You could pull it down in preparation for building a new one.” The Baron explained that it’s not destroyed, just fire damaged, and the shell could be preserved and reused.
Scabbard insisted on having a letter to the Council written and given to him to deliver. The Baron was offended and suggested he will have to ask questions about Scabbard. since Scabbard seemed to have no official position on the Council. “My apologies,” said Jack, “master Scabbard is terribly loyal to the council.”
“I have not seen him at any meetings,” responded the Baron. “Perhaps I need to ask questions about his role in the council.”
“It’s… not exactly official,” said Jack.
“All the more reason to ask,” the Baron pointed out.
At Oswyn’s whispered prompting, Vana asked whether any hobbits had been seen in the area. The Baron said he hasn’t heard of any. The party agree to look into the town’s issues, and departed, having finally agreed to hand the scales over given sufficient assurances (and a copy of the letter the Baron was going to have couriered to the capital).
The party stood before the guardhouse, considering it carefully. From what they’d heard, the Royalist guards were deeply unpopular locally, with the result that the fire-damaged building had been covered in anti-monarchy graffiti. The building seemed in no danger of collapse, but refurbishment would be costly. A small shrine stands nearby, dedicated to those who were killed or vanished during the Royalist occupation. The guardhouse stood in a fishing district; fishermen and their families strolled by now and then, eyeing the party curiously.
Before entering, Vana suggested having a word with the local folks to try and discern what rumours existed about the guardhouse. Approaching some locals, she explaind that she was a priest of the Smith asked by the Baron to investigate. Most of the locals simply pointed at the large number of rats in the building. A few said that larger shapes had been seen coming and going, while one fisherman insisted that his boat was sabotaged in the night, and that he has no local enemies, nor would anyone he knows resort to that sort of underhanded behaviour if he had a quarrel. Some seemed rather reticent to speak out in front of their peers; Vana noticed this, but approved strongly of social convention as a force for discouraging idle gossip, and surely none of them would hold back anything that might pose a threat. A comment to this effect evoked one further remark from a local – apparently one of the larger shapes reported allegedly disappeared towards the cemetery on the far side of town. Vana thanked and publicly blessed them in the name of the Smith to ensure the townsfolk appreciated her viewpoint.
Vana suggested that before visiting the barracks, it might be worth visiting the cemetery and looking for some kind of passageway. It seemed that the cemetery was a rather taboo area, outside the town wall and adjacent to the least salubrious area of town. A wall blocked the cemetery from sight of the nicer parts of town. Oswyn had seen similar things in towns with strong druidic influence; it was considered inappropriate and paradoxical to build monuments to the dead when believers in druidry held that the dead were already alive again somewhere else through reincarnation, and that whilst death might be part of the cycle of life it was considered unhealthy to keep it too close to the living. The site was not quite a composting ground, but close to it, and any dead buried there would rot swiftly.
There were clear signs of disturbance. Some of the graves seemed to have been interfered with; the earth had been turned over and some of the wooden markers had been broken. The manner of the break was not wildlife chewing, but a forcible snap, though a careless one. Perhaps someone searching the graves lashed out in frustration. There were no particular signs of large rats, though some animals clearly passed through the area. None of the graves were named, so there was little chance of identifying any individuals without bringing the townsfolk in, and they were unlikely to come willingly.
The party returned to the barracks. Scabbard agrees to scout, but was keen to avoid the rookie mistake of using the front door; instead, he found a break in the roof where a chimney once stood and scrambled silently up towards it. Looking inside, he saw the burned-out remains of a common room. He dropped quietly down, raising a cloud of dust and ash. He noticed ratty pawprints going back and forth between a gap in the wall and the various windows. Seeing no immediate threat, he opened the door for the others. There was only the rathole and a single door to examine. Scabbard heard nothing on the other side of the door, and reported that it was probably safe. The door was in poor condition, with rusty hinges; there was no particular sign that it had been opened recently. After much whispered debate, the party opened it.
Opening the door, it seemed that the fire had started here – something was perhaps thrown through a window. The worst-burnt corner adjoined an armoury full of rusted weapons. A corridor stretched off to one side. It led to some kind of cell, which seemed to have been broken open. Most likely the locals came in to free a prisoner.
Worried about the state of the floorboards, Oswyn and Jack began tapping with their weapon hafts. Scabbard knelt down to try and listen for echoes from hollows below, but couldn’t discern anything useful. Another chamber looked to be a captain’s room, now looted except for some damaged furnishings. Mildewed rugs covered much of the floor. The building here was barely smoke-damaged, and only a handful of ratprints are visible where they’d trailed in ash from outside.
Curious about the rugs, Scabbard headed over to search for secret compartments. He turned over a few bits of furniture before discovering a trapdoor. It looked to have been nailed shut a few months ago, but the nails had been forced out by pressure from below.
“I think someone didn’t want something getting out of this trapdoor. And, ah, I think it did,” observed Scabbard. He carefully wiped the nailheads and found a trace of soot, so it looked as though it was nailed shut before the fire.
“Wonder whether someone nailed something in there and then set the fire to kill it?” he suggested. It was hard to say. Vana suggested they go for a look. Scabbard swung it open: a rickety wooden ladder led into the darkness. Lighting one of their hooded lanterns, he clambered gingerly down into a natural cave that had clearly been used. The remains of furniture littered the area, including an iron-bound chest. More importantly, however, there were several beings here. A vile naked humanoid clutching a bone gazed hungrily at him and grinned. “Ah. Fresh meat,” said the ghoul.
Scabbard erupted from the trapdoor like a bat out of hell. Immediately behind him came a pair of clattering skeletons, with the ghoul trying its best to follow. The fighters lashed out at the first skeleton, but were so startled they only shattered its jaw. Vana snatched up her holy symbol and shouted an abjuration, and the creatures scuttled back. The ghoul hissed “It burns!” as it vanished. The party pursued immediately. The fleeing ghoul was trapped in a corner and lashed out frantically at Vana, glancing off her armour. A hail of blows hacked it to pieces before it could attack the party again. The skeletons offered no defence and were smashed easily.
As Scabbard examined the chest, there was a snapping sound and it transformed into a cloud of brownish-greyish gas. The gas hung in the air in a sinister fashion, with no apparent inclination to disperse. To Scabbard’s surprise and relief, he didn’t immediately feel poisoned. He pulled out his crossbow and fired a bolt into the gas cloud, without effect. After a while, Oswyn approached cautiously and pointed the lantern beam at it, with no apparent effect. It wasn’t obviously threatening, but nor was it acting like actual gas. Unhappy about this, Vana called for evil forces to reveal themselves in the name of the Smith. She perceived evil emanations from the corpse of the ghoul, but not the gas.
Oswyn suggested chucking a bit of scrap metal at it to see what happens. The party didn’t demur. As he began to pry a nail out of a broken bench, the gas coalesced back into a chest, which fell to the floor with a crash.
While the party were discussing options – including Oswyn’s complicated plan involving waxed sailcloth to drag the cloud outside for a wizard to examine in case the chest turned gaseous again – Scabbard whispered that he heard shuffling feet approaching. The party quickly formed a defensive circle around the only doorway, hoping to hold the chokepoint. The door was flung open and two ghouls leaped through it, scratching Oswyn. He managed to fend off the creeping chill. Thankfully, Vana once again droves off the undead with the power of the Smith and they were quickly cut down.
A side door revealed a table covered with money and cards, where a ghoul and a skeleton sat, the ghoul apparently amusing itself by playing cards against the mindless skeleton. The ghoul looked up, surprised. Oswyn rushed in and tried to flip the table onto them, but the ghoul skipped aside at the last moment. However, the creatures were no match for the two warriors. Collecting the spilled coin, the party discovered traces of rats – including a dead rat – in a narrow passageway. Several pairs of eyes peered at them from the darkness.
They decided to leave the rats for now and check the other door so that no ghouls could creep up on them. It led to what seemed to be an old bedroom, with several bits of ageing furniture. Scabbard discovered a stash of money within a footlocker.
Another doorway revealed a knife-throwing practice chamber, though the targets and knives were now much-damaged by the damp and time. Scabbard casually plucked one out and hurled it unerringly into the centre of the target. A further doorway lead into a tunnel, and eventually out onto the riverbank, half-choked by vegetation. Oswyn discovered footprints reminiscent of bare human feet, but some lacking flesh or missing pieces. The tracks led in, but not out, so evidently this was how the undead had arrived in the underground caves in the first place. The party were able to ascertain that the undead had come from somewhere to the west.
The party returned to the caves, and Oswyn carefully squeezed through the chokepoint, keeping low to allow Scabbard to fire overhead if necessary to buy him time to escape. The chamber beyond contained what seemed to be woodworking tools. Seeing no immediate danger. Scabbard motioned for Vana to follow, as she had the best vision in the darkness. Deeper into the caves, her sharp eyes spotted a number of giant rat nests; oddly, they were perched on shelves. Someone had clearly brought the rats here deliberately.
The party discussed their options, including poison and smoking out the rats with greenwood fires. The rats shifted uneasily in the meagre light of a distant lantern, but didn’t actually attack. Scabbard offered to try and sneak through for a better sight of them, and saw another set of rat-shelves. There were glinting objects scattered here and there amongst the nests. Unfortunately, as he paused to squint at them, he attracted the attention of the creatures, and a mob of giant rats skittered towards him. He dashed back towards the tunnel, where the party fell back to try and hold the choke-point. Jack’s halberd was hampered by the cramped conditions, but Oswyn’s spear wreaked a certain amount of havoc, until the remaining rats fled deeper into the tunnels. Oswyn paused to examine the rats, which were fairly impressive, and carefully shifted the corpses aside, possibly muttering under his breath.
Pressing on, they found another chamber – once again Scabbard slipped on, once again he reappeared at much greater speed pursued by angry rats. Rats hacked apart, and bites partly tended to, they examined the shiny objects. Most were coins, but Vana discovered a ring with feathery design. It it was fine artisanship, though it didn’t seem like dwarven work, and seemed oddly light for a coin which to all other appearances seemed to be solid gold. She gave thanks to the Smith that the party had been able to recover such a fine example of craftsmanship from this den of refuse, and return it to civilised hands.
They examined the area. One of the workers had apparently had a minor accident whilst constructing the (sloppily-built) wooden shelves, and left a thumb nailed to the wood. Jack pointed this out to Mistress Vana and backed away hastily. It looked as though zombies had built the nests, probably under the direction of the ghouls, although this wasn’t exactly typical ghoul behaviour – ghouls not usually being known for their magical prowess. Vana’s instinct was that a more potent necromancer was at work.
Yet more rats emerged from a larger chamber further on, squeaking excitedly. The party hurled javelins at the oncoming horde, but the rats rushed on. They swarmed Oswyn and bit him savagely, and only the Smith’s holy power saved him from an ignominious death. The party drove the rats off, leaving Oswyn nearly dead. Though a handful of rats were cowering in side-chambers, the colony seemed to be in a very bad way. The party decided to withdraw. On the way, Scabbard stopped to examine the chest again. This time nothing odd happened; he founds a belt with a scabbard (with dagger in the scabbard) and a finely-crafted buckle, a small box, and a vial of viscous liquid. There seemed to have been a similar vial built into the lock, now broken, which presumably caused the strange gas effect.
Outside, Vana soon discovered what seemed like the last of the rat-holes, so the party could block it later on.
Oswyn favoured visiting the druid, both to consult about rats and in the hope of healing. Scabbard distrusted the man – they did leave on bad terms – and favoured visiting the baron. Although they did also leave on bad terms with the Baron, on reflection…
The party headed towards the druid’s house, and find him speaking to a woman and young man, presumably his family. They wear hoods and scarves, and seemed very covered-up; they hustled inside when they saw the visitors approaching. Despite his injury, Oswyn noticed something about their build – he suspected they were elvish. He’d seen a few half-elves in his homeland, as half-elves are exiled from the elven kingdom and tend to drift towards frontier places, but it was very unusual indeed to see a full-blooded elf anywhere outside their enclaves.
Oswyn explained what had happened, and Almax was kind enough to call upon nature spirits to heal some of Oswyn’s wounds. The party showed one of the dead rats, and Vana explained what she saw down there, since she got the best look at things. Almax was concerned; ghouls are cowardly things and would certainly prefer to undermine the town through disease and vermin than to face the inhabitants, but it seemed very unlikely that ghouls could have controlled the zombies.
Vana asked about possible necromancers in the area. Apparently there had been evil stories told of a place called Bone Hill some distance away to the West, and these rumours had been growing stronger recently – there’d always been a trickle of tales about strange comings and goings at the ruins of Bone Hill, but now every traveller coming into town who had passed that way seemed to have seen something dubious. Perhaps a necromancer was at work? Vana suggested that they may need to pay a visit to the place.
Almax offered to look into the rat problem and try to prevent a recurrence, now that the party had revealed the nest. Worried about what the undead had been doing, the party asked whether he knew of a good tracker in the area; unfortunately he didn’t know of one currently around.
For now, the best thing was to rest up and try to stop Oswyn and Jack’s wounds getting infected. Vana suggested a bath to cleanse out the poisons.
“Don’t worry. Nobody ever died from a rat bite,” said Jack staunchly. Oswyn promptly regaled him with a list of people he knew who died from rat bites.
“I stand corrected,” said Jack.
The party departed as the druid mumbled something under his breath.