Friday, February 24, 2012

Carrion Crown: Broken Moon pt. 1

A week passed, and Aldarion decided to remain at Count Caromarc for further studying (yes, his player had to cancel in the last moment) leaving Mutt the barbarian, Edgar the cleric, Vincent the sorcerer and Galfür the inquisitor to fend for themselves, as they rode towards Shudderwood. Before they left, the count had told them that he knew the Whispering Way, a notorious cult of devius necromancers, headed towards the gloomy forest. What they sought in there was uncertain, but the count was quite convinced that they would make their way past the old hunting lodge ”Ascanor”. Ordinarily visited only by the high nobility with a taste for hunt, Ascanor was the sole remaining bastion of civilization in the wilds.
The most reasonable thing, the count said, would be to ride to the south-east and follow the old hunting trail into the forest. From there, it was a three day journey in quick pace till they would reach the lodge.

So the heroes bit him and The Beast goodbye and rode towards the black carpet of trees on the horizon. Along the way, they made stop at the small trading outpost of Edgewood and spent some of their hard earned cash removing Mutt's and Galfür's negative levels. (Edgewood is not 'official' Carrion Crown, but a small element I added myself. Seeing as the players are currently unwanted in Lepidstadt after their actions in Trial of the Beast, this seemed to be the fastest way forward.)

Talking to an old, drunken priest of Shaundakul, he informed them that the merchants around would possibly have some items that could help them on their journey. As everyone knew, Shudderwood housed plenty of perils, including the notorious werewolf tribes. A lot of noble travelers passed through town these days, and one in particular had made sure to buy their entire stock of Wolfbane (this was Duristan, as the players would later find out). Some also claimed to have seen noble woman pass by, likely heading for the lodge.

The heroes stocked up on silver and a new wand of cure light wounds before heading out. With only but a few rumors to go on, they decided to deal with things as they appeared, although the view of Shudderwood wasn't exactly an inviting one. The tall pine trees nearly blocked out the sun, leaving the still blanket of needles on the sandy ground barely visible. The occasional gust of wind would gently dance through the stems but swiftly die out, as if some force was severely preoccupied by stopping every kind of movement. Various small animals were quick to take cover and the birds took to the skies as the party gently rode in on the old hunting trail. There was no doubt that the forest was old, judging from the various brown and green lichens, moss and fungi clinging to the roots among the undergrowth.
Being careful not to make any unnecessary noise, the heroes progressed for about an hour and then suddenly heard a woman screaming for help. It was followed by a rough laughter from a man.
Immediately, Mutt dismounted and headed after the voice. Same did his companions, albeit with a certain degree of reluctance. The screams grew louder, after all, and they couldn't bring themselves to ignore a woman in need.
They suddenly found an old torn dress on the ground and went to investigate it. At that time, sticky webs exploded right at them, and four chittering ettercaps descentet from the trees, hungrily looking at their trapped prey (here's an interesting piece of trivia for you; according to sources, the word 'Ettercap' derives from the Danish words 'Edderkop' which means 'spider'). With Edgar, Galfür and Vincent all being entangled, Mutt went into berserker rage and unleashed hell upon them. Even when they managed to get in a few hits, the mighty fortitude of the barbarian was more than enough to keep the incapacitating venom at bay. The few who attempted to escape were either cut down by reach weapons or burned to death by a flaming sphere before they got that far. The heroes emerged victorious, even though Vincent managed to lose a solid bunch of dexterity due to the Ettercap-poison.

As they recuperated, they all suddenly noticed a strange harp-like melody on the air. It was faint, as if coming from further within the forest. Never being one for curiosity left alone, Mutt immediately decided to sneak after it, and with a hopeless sigh Galfür followed. Deciding for the more cautious way, the sorcerer and cleric decided to stay about 25 feet behind them.
And thus the journey went onwards into the deeper reaches of the wild. The haunting melody grew in intensity, and eventually became really pleasing to their ears. In fact, so pleased that Mutt unconsciously speeded up and soon after reached a clearing in which the ruins of an old watchtower rested. With the rest of his group opting for the more careful approach, the barbarian immediately set into a fascinated sprint and entered the tower. Galfür vainly attempted to constrain him, and realized the only way to get the barbarian out would be to go in after him.

As the heroes caught sight in the dusty darkness, they were shocked to find several thick silky strands of web decorating the walls and floor. In their midst, several cocoon-like objects lay lifeless, containing things best left to imagination. To the far north, an old hole had been primitively dug out in the stone floor.
”Mutt,” Galfür said ”why are you doing this? Why that stupid gaze in your eyes? We should get out of here!” The dwarf didn't like that melody. Not one bit. It seemed to originate from the hole.
Edgar and Vincent remained close to the entrance, and carefully inspected the strands of web. They were unlike anything they had previously encountered. Light and elegant, as if spun by a true artist.
”Mutt, god dammit! Get out!” Galfür sneered. Then he suddenly noticed.

The music had stopped.
Instead he noticed a slight trembling sound as if something huge was approaching.
”GET OUT!” he yelled and tried to pull Mutt out of the tower, but in vain. The barbarian was too keen to investigate further. He was distracted, however, by the thundering approach of a towering abomination emerging from the hole, with the shape of a huge worm, carrying a woman's deformed face and torso, wildly flaying long purple tentacle-like arms from side to side. With a shriek, she hurled a net at the barbarian and began pulling him closer.
Galfür furiously drew arms and attacked the beast, splattering gore and blood all over himself. It howled in pain, which only served to increase its furor. Vincent hurled a scorching ray towards it, but managed to inflict only moderate damage. As the beast finally came within reach of the barbarian, it dug its long, poison secreting nails deeply into his shoulder. With a natural 1 on his fortitude save, Mutt was paralyzed and it hungrily picked him up in its claws. Hammering it for another round with rays, acid and bane weapons, the remaining three party members failed to down the creature, and it impaled Mutt in a howling coup de grace, tossing his mutilated corpse into a corner.

Galfür sliced the beast for a very grave wound and Vincent managed to roll near maximum damage on his rays, blowing off the head of the beast. It fell to the floor with a loud thud and a filthy gurgling sound. As silence settled over the room, the heroes gracefully loaded Mutt on to their horses and searched the room. Finding a collection of assorted coins they also dug up a ring of feather falling and a potion of heroism. In another cocoon a relatively fresh corpse was discovered, carrying a bloody invitation for Ascanor Lodge. It appeared to belong to a minor noble called Echtmoor Dravin, who was to arrive a week ago. They did realize, however, that going on into the wilds without Mutt would likely be suicide, so they decided to head back to Edgewood trade post and recover.

(There’s misprint in the original adventure, giving the worm a +18 to initiative. This is wrong. It’s only +8 according to Paizo forum)

With the reward from Count Caromarc and selling some of their old magical items, they managed to raise enough money for a Raise Dead as well as a Restoration for one of his negative levels. However, as the barbarian had recently recieved an alleviation of a negative levels through these means, the party had to wait in Edgewood for a week, in which they decided to shop and do some crafting. Among others, they got their hands on a Cloak of Resistance +2.During their second stay, they also had the opportunity to do some asking around among the traders and hunters, about the blood-soaked invitation, and this Echtmoor Dravin. After many purchase mugs they finally learned that he was a good friend of Cilas Graydon.  Margrave and retired military commander. But even in retirement, his strategic opinions held great value to the Palatine Council. Last time anyone heard, he was heading for Ascanor Lodge as well.

As prepared as they could possibly be, they now headed back into the breach...

Shudderwood, take two!

Deciding to ignore any woman crying for help from then on, they rode for two days without any significant event happening. Only around noon on the third day, they encountered a strange sight within the depths of the forest. It looked like a man around his best age, being tied up to a tree with tight bonds. He was obviously dead and naked, bruised and pale. His mouth was full of a purple sort of flower, and a silver dagger had pierced his heart.
Cautiously looking at each other, the heroes decided that what was in his mouth was Wolf's bane. The poisonous herb often used to treat the contagion of lycanthropy. Mutt slowly got off his horse and went to inspect the victim more closely. As he did so, he suddenly sprung a pressure plate in the forest floor, triggering a hailstorm of silver bolts from the numerous crossbows hidden among the trees. The crossbows even managed to score a critical hit, nearly sending the Barbarian to his death once again (I'm frankly happy it was the HP-sponge who did this, as two consecutive character deaths so early in the adventure would have been demoralizing for the group, so say the least).

Coughing up a stream of blood, Mutt stood quite still while Egdar healed him with the power of Gond. Meanwhile, Galfür carefully searched the area and decided that a group of people had been here and shuffled around with the traps some time ago. Obviously, whoever had done this wanted to send a signal to...someone. Nonetheless, they decided to grab the herbs, which netted them a total of three wolfbane-doses. And then they moved on, pretty much agreeing not to touch anything in this forest till they reached their destination.
On the final day, there was much rejoice as the heroes reached the deep heart of the forest; the elite hunting retreat known as Ascanor. From their view, it resembled a majestic two-story building in classic architectural style. A couple of smaller buildings surrounded it and indicated stables as well as sheds, minor lodging houses and so on. Around the entire complex, a palisade of wood thickly screened much activity off from the outside world, leaving a large gate as the only entrance. As afternoon was quickly approaching, the heroes approached swiftly.

As they reached the gate they were stopped by a couple of guards. They seemed confused, especially since they hadn’t been noticed about any new arrivals. When showed the letters of recommendations from Count Caromarc, they were initially befuddled and decided to send for Belik, the lodge’s porter. A neatly dressed halfling showed up and slowly read over the documents before looking up at them over his glasses.
“I am still not quite sure of the intention behind your visit,” he began, barely hiding a frown “except for your names. Which clearly indicates that we haven’t been informed of your arrival.”
“Yes, it was quite a recent decision, I assure you,” Vincent said “nonetheless it’s really important that we get in and are allowed to stay for a while. You must understand that we are on an urgent mission for the Count.”
“A mission that is strangely enough mentioned in these papers?”
“…so the Count made a mistake, you say?”
“Oh no, not in any way, good Sir. I am sure the Count has his paperwork and intention most sincere. It’s you people I truly worry about. Judging from your look, you honestly seem like…trouble.”
“So, what do you want us to do? Ride back to Castle Caromarc and inform the Count that he needs to be more specific?”
Belik lighted up in a poisonous smile. “What a MAR-velous idea, young man. Now, if you’ll be off, I have other duties to attend t—“
“This is important!” Edgar interrupted, sourly. “You need to let us in, we are in good graces with the Count and much is at stake here!”
“What exactly is it you want here?” Belik annoyingly asked, eyeing them suspiciously. As they looked around, the heroes noticed a large crowd of people had gathered on the other side of the gate, attracted by the loud voices and now taking in the show.
“We’re looking for someone,” Vincent said and waved a hand dismissively “now, will you please-“
“Yes, Who? Who are you seeking so desperately?”
“We’d be more than happy to tell you more about it once you let us in.”
“No. No, I don’t think so. I am commissioned by most noble Estovion Lozarov to keep this place free of troublemaking scum such as you, and I am not letting anyone in before I am absolutely assured they carry no ill intentions towards us OR our guests. Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here or not?”
The heroes briefly looked at each other.
“We’re looking for the ‘Whispering Way’. We believe they’ve headed through here!” Vincent suddenly said, loudly. Everything felt silent. Belik stared at them. This time, confusion was his.
“The whispering what?” he mumbled.
“Cultists,” Edgar said. “Men, likely clad in black with a sinister appearance. They would likely have been through here some time during the last couple of weeks. Have you seen them?”
“I…” the halfling began, nervously twitching. He didn’t need any further reply this time. It was no match for the heroes to detect his knowledge of this subject. “Yes,” he finally croaked. “Yes they were here… but, what you seek is no longer here. They left. I do not know where to, but you should do the same now and le—“

Suddenly, additional shouting broke the scene.
“For the last time, Duristan” a rough, worn voice shouted “I will take you there, but I ain’t bringing my dogs!”
“All fine and well, Delgros,” a younger and quite more energetic voice replied “with our combined cunning no werewolf in these woods should ever feel safe. Why would we even need dogs?”
Breaking through the crowd was another, yet minor, gathering. Led on by a person best described as ‘seasoned’, wearing brown and green clothes, a black beard and a mighty bow of a huntsman, he shook his head and said “Don’t get cocky, really. One day it will get the better of you.” Judging from his rough voice, he was the one called Delgros.

Besides him, escorted by six less incompetent looking men, was a smiling man whose enthusiasm was doubtlessly higher than his looks. With thin brown hair and a long pale face, he didn’t express the noble traits of the other guests, nor the battle hardened looks from the warriors and hunters. He kept on talking in his high fast voice, pointing out how fine a day it was for another good hunt. According to logic, this would be Duristan.

“Alright then,” the younger man conceded “if you don’t feel sure about this, we’ll bring more sword arms. You there!” he vigorously pointed at the heroes. “Fall in, we need as much as we can get. We’re hunting werewolves!”
“I DIDN’T say it was werewolves, per se” Delgros said, slowly getting annoyed. “Just that something big with claws had been out there. It could be anything around here!”
“A werewolf, yes. So, are you gentlemen in?”

The heroes blankly stared at eachother in fascinated horror. Not really sure who to take initiative, Vincent looked at their newest patron and gently coughed.
“Well, yes,” he began “but you should know that we, of course, won’t be added to the common staff.” He sent the six followers a short gaze.
Duristan stared at them for some seconds. Then the penny dropped.
“You’re ADVENTURERS!” he almost gasped. A grin wide enough to cut off his ears spread on his face. “Blessed be us! Did you hear, Delgros?”
“These people have come from afar to aid us in our struggles against the werewolves! Truly, this will be glorious! Are you staying overnight, good sirs?”
“Well,” Edgar said and sent Belik a narrowed gaze. Duristan joined in.
“Are you giving these fine people trouble, Mr. Belik?” he asked.
“No, Sir Duristan. But regulations are regulations and we must see to-“
“Listen up! Do whatever your regulations and rules require of you, but whether or not you intend to let these noble heroes in, they WILL be staying as my guests tonight. And you can tell Estovion that I said so. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly, Mr. Duristan”
“Good. Now,” the young man folded his fingers and turned towards the heroes. “Care for a thrilling hunt?”

On hunting we will go

And so the hunting party set out through the dimness of Shudderwood. They travelled for several hours, with the party mainly splitting its social attention between the front row, in which Delgros solemnly led the way through the sparse trails and the back. Here Duristan happily made sure to tell Vincent about his time in Shudderwood and the successful werewolf kills he’d gained so far. He even told them of a new trap put up the other day, which he really hoped had netted him another good kill.
Asking about more information about the werewolves of Shudderwood, he told the heroes that they were currently separated into five different clans, each usually keeping to its own territory of the woods. Although each clan had a leader of sorts, that would usually make sure to keep them in rank, something of late had stirred unease amidst their ranks, and lately there had been a lot of aggression between them. Luckily, Ascanor Lodge had yet remained untouched. And if they’d ever try and make a move on it, he would make sure they wouldn’t get far. He proudly pointed to the old pelt hanging around his shoulder and smiled. Mutt knew, however, that werewolves always turned into their human form upon death, but chose to keep his mouth shut.

Up front, Delgros wasn’t much for small talk, but Edgar made an attempt none the less. He shortly told them that he was Ascanor’s hunts master, officially appointed to lead many of the noble guests on their hunt. The life around the lodge usually didn’t interest him much, instead he preferred to captivate and arrange hunts for truly exotic beasts. When asked, he couldn’t reveal much about the life around the lodge. People pretty much came and went, and Delgros didn’t bother who they were or what they wanted. He arranged the hunt, nothing else.
He was also aware of the recent uprising among the werewolves of the forest and that the clans were fighting internally due to an unknown reason. Not much was in general known about them, he told. Plenty of rumors told about an ancient place, somewhere in the forest, where they would usually meet and hold council. It was supposed to be sacred to them and bear the name “The Stairs of the Moon” but Delgros wasn’t exactly sure where it was. If the heroes were interested, he recommended checking out the old library once they got back to the lodge.

After a couple of hours dusk was about to fall, and the party reached a small clearing in the forest. According to Duristan, Delgros had led a hunt of a golden buck earlier this day, but found it horribly slaughtered inside this clearing. The mere sight was too horrible for the guests who fled back to the lodge, but in the ears of a trained hunter (such as Duristan) this was an obvious case of werewolf attacks. Werewolves that needed to be put down.
Excitement ended, however, once their gazes had franticly searched for the corpse of the buck for some seconds. Only a very large pool of blood remained.
“It’s…gone?” Delgros said. “Someone took it?”
“Don’t worry,” Galfür said and began looking around. “They didn’t exactly take great care to hide their tracks. You can even see the obvious prints in the ground. Paws from dire wolves, if I recognize correctly. And look, these could be from very large boars. Dire boars perhaps?”
Duristan nodded. “Most likely,” he said “let’s find out!”

Together, they set out on the trails of blood and soon after heard a grunting in the bushes. Jumping the dire boars, the party quickly annihilated them, especially thanks to two fireballs soon after spreading the sweet smell of bacon across the forest. As they then noticed, the boars were feasting on the remains of the buck, but closer inspection revealed that it originally dies from severe lacerations, likely from claws. This was enough to convince Duristan to remain here during the night and set up a trap if the werewolves were to return. Delgros, however pointed out the folly in this and thought enough was enough. He took what he could from the boars and then headed back home to the lodge. Duristan on the other hand, ambitiously instructed his followers to set up camp and lay the perimeter with silver-inlaid traps for their special guests.
From his own bag, he dug out a good flask of brandy with some glasses, and invited the heroes to sit down and tell more of their great deeds.

And so then evening went by, the heroes told Duristan about their adventure in Ravengro and the cleansing of Harrowstone. He listened wide-eyed and full of attention, and the bottle of brandy quickly emptied. There was no doubt that the young hunter nurture a deep fascination with the heroic tales and accomplishments told by heroes from across the world, and he more than often remarked how much he wished he could have been part of it.

They also had the chance to ask him about the Whispering Way. Duristan didn’t recognize the name, but he did seem to recollect Quiene, the stable master, talking about some sinister looking men with black robes, arriving some weeks ago. One of them apparently had a wicked looking creature on his shoulder. He didn’t recollect much she said, except that she saw the hunter Ostovach follow them one of the nights inside the grounds. They might consider talking to either of them. As far as he knew, Ostovach accompanied Markiza Welgory on an erotic adventure to the lodge. As he remarked, this was quite interesting, taken into consideration that the markiza was married.
He also showed them his ‘wolf ward’. An exotic looking scar on his shoulder that a local witch had blessed upon him. It was said to protect anyone wearing it from the curse of lycanthropy. If the heroes were interested, he’d be more than happy to introduce them.

As the heroes were about to begin on their tale from Lepidstadt, they suddenly heard a loud scream from the darkness. Not long after, another one emerged from the opposite direction. They had company.
Buffing up with spells, they all set out to the east and soon after found and flayed carcass of two of Duristan’s followers. A towering lycanthrope looked up with deep, glowing yellow eyes and sneered. They set upon it with a vengeance.

Not long after, another werewolf joined the fray, managing to inflict a deep bite in Galfür’s shoulder. The party, however, had their preparations in order and met the werewolves with a heavy armament of silver, and with their magical buffs the beasts soon met their demise. Upon its death throes, the female uttered “Your efforts are meaningless! Go tell whoever sent you to stay out of wolf affairs! Let him know that his dealings with Mathus Mordrinacht and the Silverhide pack do not sit well with the other tribes of this wood..there shall be much blood spilled between our kin before a Silverhide packlords sits upon the Highthrone. Mathus the betrayer shall never claim the title, and should you and yours continue to support him, the wrath of the wolf packs shall fall upon him! Now leave our territory and return to your cozy wooden den…or share the same fate…as these…poor…little…sheep….”
As she succumbed to her wounds, the heroes heard a wailing carpet of wolf-howls spreading among the trees. It sounded as if it got closer. At this time, Duristan slowly backed away and mumbled “I think it’s about time we got out of here…”
Mutt nodded and said “I think you’re right. Let’s go!”

Thus they ran as fast as they could back towards the lodge and arrived a couple of hours later. It was dark, but they clearly saw the shape of Belik the halfling waiting outside with a small tray with drinks. A lot of pride had apparently been swallowed by the porter, as he smiled slyly and greeted them. He apologized deeply for the embarrassing misunderstanding before, and that he would like them, on personal invitation from lodge-warden Estovion, to stay as long as they wished. In fact, the warden would be pleased to see them and bit them welcome right away. So if they would be so kind as to follow him?

Duristan smiled and told them to head on. He would catch up with them later in their rooms.
And so the heroes gathered their belongings and headed off through the gates of Ascanor Lodge, unaware of the adventures waiting on the inside.

To be continued this Wednesday.

(As you might’ve noticed, there have been surprisingly few GM comments this time around. This is mostly because there isn’t really that much to say and I ran this segment very close to the book. The few things I could comment on, would likely be spoilers and since some of my players read this blog, I am saving them for the end.)

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