The party decided that it would be best to minimise their problems by not going for the gnolls at the moment. If they were to be taking on a necromancer, though, holy water would probably be a good investment. The druid’s fountain, the Baroness or the local temple of the Messenger were all suitable sources; Oswyn went to consult Almax and obtained some holy water, as well as some tips on travelling that direction – good places to camp, handy landmarks, and suggestions for scavenging food.
After some planning, the party struck out along the main road, reaching Low Point without incident after two days. From the flanks of this small hill, they could keep an eye on their surroundings and would be able to reach Bone Hill early the next day, avoiding the risk of entering undead territory at night.
Observing Bone Hill, the party could see that the upper part was lifeless and strewn with boulders. Scabbard felt he could probably approach stealthily, between the lower vegetation and the boulders. When first light stole over the horizon, he made his move, with the others remaining behind and observing.
Some distance up the hill, he spotted a skeleton propped against a boulder. After a while, he almost concluded that it was inert, but then he realised its fingers were gently tapping at the stone – it was on guard. It hadn’t seen him, and he was able to slip away and reach the top of the hill unseen.
Crouching behind a rock, he noticed a couple of bugbears loitering in the ruins. There was no sign of further undead. However, just as he was about to move off, he saw a bugbear patrol approaching the castle, led, when they entered, by a bugbear carrying a staff and a range of charms and amulets – a shaman? The bugbears entered the ruined castle, and as luck would have it, through a break in the wall Scabbard could see a human figure in wizardly robes move to speak with them. He moved closer…
As he approached Scabbard could see large, burned patches within the ruins. Perhaps the site of ancient fire magics? There were breaches in several places, including one right into the main keep itself. Peering through a window, Scabbard found an unoccupied storeroom, and then climbing up further he was able to examine the topmost floor of the keep, in which he found what seemed to be a makeshift astronomical observatory. There was a trapdoor into the observatory from its roof, but since it was locked and barred Scabbard decided against trying to force it open lest the noise alert the guards.
Peering from the roof of the keep into the main courtyard, Scabbard spotted a mass grave, where a mixture of human and bugbear skeletons lay. They seemed inanimate, but Scabbard noticed that the grave seemed somewhat larger than it really needed to be to hold the bodies – almost as though it used to hold far more bodies that it now contained.
Returning to ground and peering through the breach into the keep, he unexpectedly found what seemed to be a bugbear nursery, of all things. A child spotted him and pointed, saying something loudly in bugbear. Immediately, adults moved towards Scabbard, grabbing weapons. He turned to flee, and managed to evade the bugbears. They followed some distance down the hill, then hurried back to the castle when they saw the party, opting to avoid a fight in which they would be outnumbered (and perhaps wisely deciding that informing their superiors of the presence of snoopers was the smart call, especially if the party were a mere distraction for a larger force). Panting slightly, Scabbard reported what he had seen to the others. Vana suggested that they should advance immediately before the bugbears could come up with a firm plan.
The party circled around and tried to approach unseen from the south east, where Scabbard had identified a handy breach. The shattered remains of a catapult lay on the way as they approached – and as they passed it, a giant skeleton lifted itself up slowly from the crater and peered around at them. It seized the throwing arm of the ruined catapault as a makeshift club and advanced on the party, who rushed forward to meet it, hacking at its bony legs. As the warriors knocked it off balance, Scabbard leaped forward and used its ribcage like a ladder, hurling a phial of holy water directly into its eye socket. Smoke billowed out and there was a bright flash from inside its dark harvest, and Scabbard hopped back as the abomination collapses – not, however, before snatching a necklace of precious gems with an attached money pouch from around the giant’s neck.
Before the party could recover from the fight, they realised that a posse of bugbears led by the human wizard had used the distraction of the fight to approach. The wizard cackled malignly and hurls an orb of fire. The party had only a moment’s warning, though fortunately they had plenty of cover in the area (the wizard failing to get the drop on them) and they hurled themselves to the ground, some of them seared by the fireball’s inferno. The bugbears advanced as the wizard tries to flee.
Vana raises a scorched hand and called a curse down. The wizard and a bugbear froze in place, immobilised by the power of the Smith. A muttered plan and the realisation that he could probably outpace the bugbears sent Scabbard looping round to try and kill the wizard whilst the others lured the bugbears away; however, Scabbard would not get a clear run at the wizard, for a group of the bugbears went after him whilst the rest came after the party. A passing blow cut a gash in the wizard and sent his immobilised body toppling comically to the floor, but did no serious damage. Reluctantly, Scabbard stopped to try and finish the job.
Meanwhile, two bugbears advanced on the rest of the party. With the party now outnumbering their immediate foes, they stopped their withdrawal and prepared to fight, exchanging some blows with them.
“Stay away from our boss!” barked a bugbear to Scabbard. Scabbard held the creature’s gaze, and slowly slid a dagger into the wizard. The wizard’s eyes, the only mobile part, stared down at the blade in horror.
One bugbear chuckled nervously. “Huh. Kind of tough for a little guy, aren’t you? What do you say we take our buddy and pull out of this place? Nobody paying us now to hang on and keep them downstairs from getting out.”
Scabbard stepped aside, casually flicking the dagger so the wizard’s guts spilled slowly out to the floor. The bugbears moved to grab their comrade (still immobilised by the sacred power of the Smith) and get going.
Meanwhile, the others were still brawling, killing one bugbear. The bugbears who had remained back at the keep shouted at the remaining survivor to withdraw: “Telvar’s dead! Without him we can’t keep up the pact!”
The bugbear took up a defensive stance. “Listen, looks like your mate’s killed our boss. We can’t do much of anything around here without him. I’m happy to step off if you’ll let me and mine take our young and get out of here.”
Ideally, Vana would have liked to kill them all, being as they were spawn of the Laughing Wolf with no legitimate place on the surface (save, perhaps, for the sort of tenuous pacts some humanoid tribes strike with the Burning Judge). However, Vana realised that under the circumstances she had to be pragmatic, and she doubted whether in its current state the party could even slay all the bugbears. “What were you and your kind doing here?” she asked. “Satisfy me on that and you may leave.”
“Telvar hired us to look after the place, at least in the day,” explained the bugbear. “By night there were all kinds of awful things coming out of the depths, but we shut ourselves away then. Rotting things, and skelingtons, and things as wasn’t all there. Even stuff that doesn’t even come up during the nighttime, they say.”
Vana dismissed the bugbear with disgust. “Go on then, away with you.”
Meanwhile, Scabbard had seized the chance to loot the wizard, stripping off fine ornaments and robes; a fine cloak, wand and dagger were all set aside as being potentially magical.
Gathering their children, the bugbears hustled off to the north-west. They seemed laden with belongings, but they couldn’t have had time to strip the place bare, so the party decided to quickly examine the above-ground portions of the ruins before withdrawing well before nightfall.