Wilber Wifflelinks: Halfling/3
James (aka "Captain Bloodbeard"): Warrior/3
Remus (aka "Outlaw Lepus"): Cleric/2
Honey Dew: Dwarven Blacksmith/0
Bop Dogwood: Potato Farmer/0
Maladian the Red ("Red for short"): Wizard/1
Back in the city of Great Bell, Red find a couple of people who'd been curious about leaving their mundane lives in search of adventure and glory and ... oh, who are we kidding? He scruffs a handful of unsuspecting local schmoes who happen to be sitting nearby in the tavern as he drags the details of the latest "map quest" out of Magmar the Lucky, and Red & Co. hurry off after his friends. Descending below the city, following the directions to a tee, they find the open door to the undertemple...on the other side of a chasm and busted sewer function. Hardly stopping to blink, Red jumps across the fifteen-foot gap of doom and through the icy current of the city's offal, leaving the new kids to catch up or die trying. [No fatalities. Yet.] Seeing the bloated mess of what was once an arachnid at the threshold, they continue in, and can faintly hear voices ahead. They press on and descend into a dark, pillared antechamber. The voices are louder now, coming from an area shrouded by a pale green mist, but they sound familiar -- but the frog-like...man...thing rushing toward them with giant, mad eyes and multiple tongues flailing behind it as it gallops wildly away from the mist -- that ain't at all familiar, and all 5 newcomers press themselves into the shadows, against the walls, hoping to avoid detection. It races past without a glance, and Red peers out to announce himself and the newcomers. Introductions and threats about Magmar's future well-being are made.
Catching up on the situation, the group weighs their current options: Door #1, wooden, carving of emaciated child begging for food; and Door #2, hammered bronze, image of arrow-pocked warrior on his knees bleeding from multiple wounds. Door #1 is clearly less foreboding, and James moves to open it. The handle dissolves in his grasp as the door rots away before his eyes, and he is greeted by the sight of a transparent starving urchin, holding his empty bowl mournfully. Without hesitation, James drops a handful of his rations in the bowl, and the visage fades. Beyond is a small chamber, wherein a tiny skeleton lies half buried in soil and debris. A faint yellow light shines from above, betwixt enormous, half-dead roots that hang from the ceiling. Remus moves in to bless the child's remains while Terezi scampers up to the source of the light. She emerges into a small, narrow hallway that is nearly choked off by heavy vegetation. She sees a door within reach to one side and a clearer area in the other, where the roots seem to die off or have been cleared away. Most disturbing is the sound: A slow, methodic bass note, as if from a large drum. After not being attacked during her moment of deliberation, she calls down to the others and checks for any obvious methods of harm on the door. Remus pulls himself up, remarks that he's not comfortable with brothels (based on the noise) and starts to approach the opposite side, but is stopped in his tracks by a deep-seated feeling of dread. Wilber is next up, and sidles out the door. The drumming gets louder and the remainder of the intrepid group scurries up.
The door is opened into a long underground chamber with two other openings (doors, perhaps?) along the same wall, and there is a long stone stairway leading some twenty-five feet above to the next level. The ground is overrun with black moss and lichen and sickly yellow roots hang from cracks in the walls and ceiling. The cloying smell of rot assaults everyone's senses in time with the drumbeats.
Wilber starts toward the next opening on the far wall, and is surprised by a javelin sticking into his arm. The drumming suddenly stops. James, next out, returns fire up onto the balcony. Beadle tries to sneak out and gets a javelin for his efforts -- but his response is to remove it and throw it back in kind! The drumming resumes, and the party negotiates its way across to the stairs over the next few rounds, dealing a few critical hits to the two visible assailants. Terezi attempts to hide in the shadows as she emerges from the cramped hall, and takes a javelin that nearly knocks her unconscious. Before James ascends the stairway, he sees a worm-like thing on the first step that looks a bit like a slug, roughly five inches in diameter, but it makes no move to stop anyone climbing the stairs. By the time James reaches the upper level, the two guards are felled, but the drummer waits until combat comes to him to cease pounding the instrument. James takes a running start, leaps onto the head of the drum, and comes down on top of the drummer, but only lands a glancing blow. Downstairs, Red fails a spell check and Remus fails to heal Terezi. Bop and Honey Dew, following James up the stairs, rush over and provide additional targets. The party convenes to finish off the third ... person here. They are very uneasy at the creatures that seem to have started out in a basic humanoid shape but are now disfigured or mutated or diseased or...something. The hoods that are tightly sewn shut over their faces really make the new recruits a little green under the gills. Red slams his staff into the critter on the bottom step before coming up, earning disgusted moans from the party for killing the "plague banana slug". Inspecting the drum (human skin, of course - "It's the other white leather") brings more grimaces, especially realizing the mallet had been a human femur wrapped in rat skins. The cache of prepared torches and makeshift javelins are collected for later use. Remus, having tried a couple more times to help his fellow party members and failed miserably [2 deity disapprovals in a row], hides in a corner to pray and recenter himself.
Paying little heed to Remus, the rest of the group deliberates on their next exploration. Should they check the hallway beyond the arch that Wilber saw downstairs? Or the door on the far end, which is chained shut? Or do they attempt to traverse the overgrown jungle that this level has become? It is eerily quiet now, but the fact that there are torches - albeit guttering and smoking - set into the roots and mounds of moss in the area not ten feet away lure them in.
The barrage of incoming javelins strikes almost as soon as they commit. Firing into the mess of hanging roots is far too ineffectual, so James charges in to close with one of the concealed attackers. Unfortunately, few realize the impediments involved, and everyone else stays back to either use their ranged weapons [Wilber, Terezi, Red], cower on the stairs behind [the new guys], or keep praying in the corner [Remus], leaving the opponents free to continue tossing pointy hurty sticks. Red spellburns to try his spell again, and summons a dire wolf to his defense. Bardle finally tires of hiding and attempts to tie a torch to one of the javelins, hurling fire through the dense vegetation, though way off the mark. Terezi quickly realizes the incoming fire is more efficient than hers, and she ducks back. Matilda moves up to nag Bardle (it was more effective than her shot) and becomes the first recipient of a critically-thrown javelin that pins her arm to her chest for nearly five times the amount of damage she could withstand. Bop stood up to help throw stuff and suffered a near-death experience [re: Judge recalculation/retcon]. A few victories are had by the party, but the battle seems interminable.
When the dire wolf drags down their fourth kill, the light gets brighter about twenty feet ahead of James, and a powerful, disembodied voice comes from that direction: "Hold." James holds his swing, and three figures move out from their positions of cover to stand stock-still. "Would you be interested in a parlay? Clearly we are on the same side, if you have come to destroy what remains of the evil cult of the Carnifex." He says the last word with an audible sneer, and seems to be directing his inquiry to James. There's a bit of a kerfuffle among the rest of the party as they pipe up with question after question (this even brings Remus out of his reverie) yet none are addressed. A brief conversation is had between the perceived party leader and the prideful voice who reveals himself to be Azazel, Scion of the Light. Highlight reel: "The Carnifex has been imprisoned, but we require your assistance to destroy the Jewels of the Carnifex and make it permanent; individuals less holy than myself or my Swords are the only ones who can touch them; you're welcome to the remainder of the treasure hoard so long as you destroy the Jewels." In true obtuse NPC fashion, vague answers are given to more detailed questions. In answer to the request for healing: "Do you not think I would have my beautiful Pious restored, could I do so?"
As there only seems to be one option, the group agrees to the request, and they slowly emerge from the overgrowth into a large area cleared out to make space for nearly two score pallets around a fire pit. At the far end of the room is a towering (fourteen feet tall) idol composed of woven roots and reeds and stuffed with black moss and lichen. When the last of the group trails in, a squadron of ... people ... resembling the ones fought earlier comes seemingly from out of nowhere to follow them in, thereby closing the ranks. Two of the Pious shuffle to an exit in the west wall and gesture to the stone steps below. With no small feeling of foreboding, the group files in, descending into a natural grotto. The uneven rocky chamber and its pools of moisture are carefully bisected by a line of dozens of candles set along the floor, each spitting and sparking unnaturally. The true item of focus, however, is a five-foot-tall statue made of jade ("Not emerald!") in the form of a bizarre, monstrous worm. Unbelievably large rubies are set into its two claws and weird beak. Remus finds it difficult to approach the statue, and skirts around to a natural alcove. No instructions are necessary for the rest: Wilber swings his cast iron frying pan at the base of one of the gems to dislodge it from a claw. Wilber is seriously put off by the fact that Vinnie still hasn't glowed, even when they were surrounded, but Vinnie briefly flashes when Wilber prepares to smash one of the jewels with his frying pan. He finally breaks out a ring found earlier this year, and uses it to cast Speak with Dead to see if this is a good idea. Sadly, he gets no response - at least that anyone else can tell. The dire wolf has no problem wresting the ruby from the other claw. Red takes the jewel back up to the temple -- causing Red and every ... person ... to shy away from him -- and asks how they need to be destroyed. He gets the haughty and noncommittal answer, "You can probably figure that out." Terezi makes a great shot with her shortbow, knocking the jewel out of the creepy mouth, but the stone beak lashes forward and snaps shut, cleanly severing the arrow in half. Knowing that could've been her hand, Terezi goes quiet.
In hopes of guidance of some sort, Red invokes his Patron [netting a +5 to his next spell check but nothing further]. Remus casts Second Sight, invoking Aristemis, demigoddess of strategy, knowledge, and diplomacy. Based on the amount of praying and repenting Remus had put in recently [and the spell check result], he gets a little more than a yes or no answer to his carefully-phrased, "What happens if we break the jewels?" The response is disjointed, but essentially, "Your power will be diminished; your death will come sooner rather than later." Predictably, reporting this to the party only results in more tail-chasing.
Grumbling about the collective misdirection, the rudeness of "Sparky" upstairs, and the observation that they are outnumbered and possibly underpowered vs. twenty-plus minions, they decided to explore further into the grotto. Accidentally knocking over one of the candles as he crosses the line, the dwarf notices that the candle, its wax shot through with flecks of gold, has a faint green glow to it. He immediately relights it from one of the others and carefully puts it back in place. (Nobody wants to disrupt whatever's being warded -- in or out -- until they have a better idea of what's going on here.) The worn steps continue downward and open into another natural grotto, but a massive boulder blocks the way. Inscribed on the boulder are a series of runes, and there is a thick layer of wax around the stone's edge. At its base is a pool of inky water, in which rest three skeletons. The dead here are kept with their ruined armor and holy symbols as were the ones found in the undertemple; these starburst symbols are quickly recognized as the ensign of primal life and light. Red easily translates the runes for everyone, and anyone who could do basic math could tell there were four names listed as sacrifices, but only three bodies rested here. The last name was Azazel's.
The party knows there's something wrong at this point but they're uncertain of which direction they should face or avoid. All are suffering from low health and low inspiration. Finally, Wilber calls out that they were tired and hurt and would destroy the jewels tomorrow, after they get some rest, and they tuck themselves into the alcoves of the grotto. *1*
Day 2: Nobody disturbed the night watches. Too easy. Wilber's ring, which can only be used once per day, is now available again. He skips down to the lower grotto and activates the ring, targeting the spell on the poor bloke in the middle [and burning 7 pts of Luck to add 14 to the success]. "Hi! You're dead! Wake up! We need to talk!" *2* Through the course of what is, to everyone else, a one-sided conversation, it is unclear if Wilber's actually conversing with someone or just bat-shit insane. (Jury's still out.) But after a few exchanges, the remains of Bauherm slowly rise to a sitting position in the pool, and the skull pointedly turns toward the bones to either side of him. It peers at the skull on top of Wilber's helm, tilts confusedly at the halfling's enthusiastic response, and remains still for some time. (Bauherm, once a brother in arms and peer of Azazel's, was awakened from the sleep of the dead to find that he was duped into being sacrificed for the "greater good". He sees little reason to aid the fanatical godling, and prods the intruders into doing that which Azazel fears.)
Trying to ignore Wilber's continuous prattle, Terezi examines the boulder and the wax seal, and discovers there is a complex trap that could seriously screw up her day unless the huge sections of wax - which appears to be of the same type as that forming the candles on the floor in the upper grotto - are carefully heated and removed in the order in which they were originally set. Red and Remus assist Terezi in figuring out the order, and as soon as Wilber communicates that it's a good idea, begins the process. Wilber contentedly sits on the edge of the pool and slings an arm around the long-dead shoulders of his new buddy and introduces him to Remus, sharing the details he's gotten. Once the wax is fully stripped, Bauherm is carefully laid back to rest and the four PCs put their all into moving the boulder out of the rut it's been in for at least a century. James is called from his lookout post in the upper grotto to join them below...
...and James catches sight of a barrel being pushed down the stairs from the chapel. He leaps to the safety of an alcove and the wood shatters when it hits the jade statue. Seeing that it's suddenly a lot...wetter in the grotto than just a moment ago, he calls out a warning to the new guys to regroup below, and flees the area himself as a cask with a piece of burning cloth sticking out of it is hurled into the grotto. Oil ignites, aided by the giant molotov and the mystical, gold-flecked candles, and the area explodes as the four heroes dive down the rough, rocky stairwell to join their compatriots -- just out of range.
The behemoth stone finally gives, revealing a sooty grotto beyond, and Terezi catches just a glimpse of a swishing serpentine tail in the gloom -- but a moment later, a woman emerges in a hooded cloak. Her pale, flawless face approaches each of the four present, thanking them individually for rescuing her. Her voice is low, soft but with a hint of power, her words kind and sure. The effect is one of beguile...especially to Wilber. (His former wife - Fiance? - I thought she was just his girlfriend? - No, now Ivrian's considered his wife - But she died, you know, so now he's a widower - Pay no attention to the fact that he was the one who threw her head into the ravine...) The Carnifex's movements are sharp, jabbing and jerky, at odds with her words. She graces each of them with an icy cold kiss. Remus is hit with a strong aversion and recoils, murmuring a prayer for strength. Wilber holds up a plain ring to his future ex-wife.
James, Bop, Honey Dew, and Bardle hear rustling overhead as they book it down the steps, and they are buzzed by a large black raven...which flies into the lower grotto and settles onto the shoulder of its queen. The Carnifex approaches her other four saviors in kind, saying little other than expressing gratitude and quickly kissing each of them. From the sounds above, it is clear that they are going to have to fight their way out, and the group looks to the woman, expecting her to lead the way and blast the mutated fighters into oblivion. Instead, she asks gently if they would grant her one last boon. Wilber cries, "Yes!" and Terezi has to physically restrain him from launching himself at the Carnifex. The woman bends to meet the halfling's gaze and growls, "Cut a bloody swath through my foes." Wilber nods emphatically, and Bop has a 'light bulb' moment...resulting in Terezi handing over the silver chain with the three-headed raven. *3*
*1* Azazel sees no harm in giving them a false sense of security. Let 'em feel refreshed when they die.
*2* Yes, that's how Wilber greets him. I kid you not. If this dude had a lower lip, it would've trembled. That's a horrible way to wake up someone who's dead!
*3* When we next convene, the charge up to the chapel will be led by the first cleric of the Carnifex known to exist for centuries -- and it's one of the new players! I am stupidly excited about this.
Jewels of the Carnifex - Harley Stroh / Goodman Games