Ten, ten glorious game sessions are now behind us—and people said we wouldn’t last!
Play resumed with the party discoursing on their post-Temple of the Goat expedition options, and it was clear from the beginning that the much hinted at Black Gut would be the next site to explore and loot. Both Fanta and Domdull had briefly visited those ebony catacombs and could guide the party to the site. However, it would take a laden party of explorers just over two days travel on foot to reach the place. With this in mind, the party decided that a large portion of their recently-acquired treasure would be spent on riding horses and associated equestrian accoutrements. Eight hundred gold jitais later, the party was now a mounted band.
Due to various obligations, instruction, and a case of the briefly incapacitating “camel flu,” Bannath, Syl, and Kyrinn would be left back in Rhuun while the rest of the party headed off to the Black Gut. The services of the two mule-skinners, Ahm and Yazil, were again required and the grizzled pack masters readily agreed to watch the party’s mules and horses for the princely sum of five smerduks a day. Despite the off-and-on presence of Bannath, Syl, and Kyrinn in town, Mars Markus grew uneasy about leaving a portion of the party’s recently plundered loot behind in their rented home. The cleric visited the temple of Mog with the intent of speaking with the Spider Mother to see if she could recommend some devout worshippers who were both skilled in the art of warcraft and could be trusted to keep an eye on the party’s abode. Two former infantry men were spoken of highly and the duo are now employed for the next month as caretakers and guardians of the party’s leased abode.
With final details attended to, the party, consisting of Anwar, Baragkus, Domdull, Fanta, Habdazar, Lyrax, Malbane the Green, and Mars Markus, plus two recently hired fighting men, Morg Kelden and the onomatopoetically named Thud, struck out on the Lizard’s Tongue trade route headed east-southeast.
Their trip along the broad, paved road was uneventful and they soon found themselves at head of a well-used trail which headed south into the desert. Nearby, they could make out a large boulder which the desert winds had eroded away, giving it a crude resemblance to a four-fingered hand pointing towards the resting place of the Black Gut. Venturing into the shifting sands of the Desert of Demons proper, the party left the Lizard’s Tongue behind them, their eyes constantly casting about for signs of danger. They detected nothing but rocky waste, blowing sand, and low hillocks.
When they paused to break for a meal, however, Fanta’s sharp pupiless eyes caught sight of sharp angles which stood out amongst the dun-colored sand. Some hundred yards east of where the party ate, a pile of fallen masonry broke the surface of the sand. These wind-scoured stones seems to have once been a wall or foundation to a long-vanished structure and the party moved closer to investigate. Carefully skirting the pile, they found no signs of danger, but a few eroded sigils were inscribed on the side of one of the blocks. Stepping closer, they were able to make our three sigils or letters inscribed in the stone. In faded chalk beneath them were letters or phonetic transcriptions in the Common tongue. The spell-casters grew excited at this discovery, as sorcerers are wont to do when archaic signs are uncovered, and they made plans to transcribe these images for later study…and promptly realized that not one of them had any ink or other method of legibly reproducing the signs. Some very humorous mnemonics were suggested (“O.K., the pony tail is ‘A’, the egg is ‘G’ and the two rivers by the hill is ‘H,’ we got that?” “I was just going to remember it as “aaaagggghhhhh.”) until the idea of carving the symbols into the shaft of one of their many torches was hit upon. Lyrax, the deftest of hand, was chosen to inscribe the sigils into the wood and did so with excellent results. Now the party must remember not to inadvertently light that torch…
Heading south again, the party nervously passed through a gap in the hills which closely resembled the ravine where a certain astromech droid was once ambushed by robe-clad vermin, but emerged without incident. As they left the defile, they did spot a Debouin well amongst the rocks and confirmed that it held clean, potable water beneath its capstone. Knowing the fatal penalty for destroying or contaminating a well in the desert, the party wisely made a note of its location and continued on. The low hills before them were quickly reached and there, in a mile-wide depression ringed by the rocky hillocks, sat a large outcrop of stone that unknown hands had shaped into an odd skull-like form. Descending into the vale, the party hobbled their mounts and prepared to delve into the Black Gut. Yazil and Ahm were a little nervous about being left in the middle of the desert all alone—after all, at the last place they had a stout wall between them and any hungry beasts on the prowl. Fanta stepped forward and delivered a rousing inspiration speech (rolling a “2” on the reaction table) and the two men’s fears were quickly laid to rest. Unfortunately, this conundrum roused doubts in Anwar about leaving two hired men to watch over more than 800 jitais of livestock by themselves. The sorcerer and Thud decided to remain to both guard the muleskinners and keep a close eye on them.
The rest of the band stepped into the gloom of the skull and found a sharply angled flight of stairs descending into the earth. Lighting torches and lanterns, they ventured down. After 70 or more feet and several corkscrew turns of the stairs, they detected a lavender glow coming from below. Continuing, they soon stepped into a small angular chamber that held a shallow reflecting pool and an artistic statue comprised of interlocking spheres, triangles, and rectangles. In the center of the pool burned a brazier, but the flames that flickered in its bowl were of purple hue. A puzzling fire indeed. Hurried examinations turned up nothing, but corridors to both the north and east were present, with another dim lavender light coming from the northern passage. It was in the direction that the party ventured.
A short flight of steps was discovered, and the party rose to a small landing followed by another short rise of stairs. As Baragkus and Morg cleared the second set of steps, a crossbow twanged from ahead of them and loud guttural shouts were raised. Silhouetted by the purple light, the fighters saw two humanoid figures taking cover at the entrance to a large chamber. Raising their weapons and voices in battle cries, Baragkus and Morg charged ahead…
And discovered that the two guards they had engaged were just a small portion of the ten Low Men who had made the chamber their camp.
Things looked bad for the brash adventurers, but they quickly brought down the two they faced. Lyrax, drawing back his longbow, stepped forward and aimed through the gap that Baragkus and Morg had carved. He then unleashed a flurry of arrows at the primitive Low Men, cutting down three before his fourth arrow failed to find his target! The gods of war smiled upon the archer that day and an eruption of cheers ran through the party.
Their number cut in half during the first few seconds of battle was not enough to stem the Low Men’s desire to fight and the two sides closed swiftly. Luckily for the party, most of the creatures had been eating when they were so rudely interrupted by uninvited guests and at least two of the beasts were forced to fight with gnarly claws and a haunch of meat in lieu of bronze and flint weapons. Nevertheless, those claws were almost enough to slay Morg as one of the Low Men wrapped his hands around the fighter’s throat. Mars Markus was encountering other difficulties on the other side of the chamber. As he rushed forward to spear an opponent, his feet stumbled over a pile of greasy sleeping furs and the spider cleric tumbled face first into the purple campfire upon which the Low Men had been cooking their meal! This was our second fumble of the campaign and, due to their infrequency, proves that the fumble system I’m using is much more preferable to myself than the standard “natural 1” method used by so many other games.
Despite these setbacks, the remaining Low Men were quickly dispatched, leaving the adventurers free to strip their corpses and the chamber of any wealth. Unfortunately for the party, there was nothing to be found on the bodies but shiny rocks, odd scraps of metal (“cave man cash”) and spoiled oats, wheat, and water in casks and crates. The one thing that drew their interest was the purple campfire and what colored it, but as far as they could tell, it was nothing but a crude blaze kindled to cook meat and illuminate the diners. They extinguished the blaze before they left, however, and thereby avoided the encounter with Smoky the Bear that I had planned. And no, I won’t reveal if I’m joking or not.
Returning to the entrance chamber, they ventured to the east where a crossroads offered many choices. Down the eastern corridor, two doors awaited them: an iron-bound door of wood to the south and a stout solid iron portal at the far end of the passage. As the southern door was closest, it was that one which they entered.
The room beyond was of the same ubiquitous ebony stone, but some unknown hand had painted red tiger stripes across the chamber’s walls and covered the floor in a thin layer of black gravel. A corridor exited the room directly across from the doorway and two thin brass strips were affixed to either side of the passage. Suspecting a trap, the party carefully shifted the gravel as they crossed the chamber but nothing untoward occurred.
Reaching the far passage, they were able to make out the words inscribed on the brass plates: “Pride goes before the fall, but the penitent man is well received.” Judging this to be a clue as to how to proceed safely down the corridor, the adventurers dropped down on their hands and knees and began to painfully crawl across the gravel-strewn floor. Making their way down the passage, they discovered that it abruptly ended in a semi-circular terminus, one occupied by a grim idol set atop a stone platform. The idol depicted a hulking gorilla-like body with a rotting head, gaping mouth, and single baleful eye. As they were prone upon the floor, Baragkus detected a small stone button located beneath the idol’s raised foot. However, the fighter was loathe to press it. Morg was less hesitant and volunteered to prod the device to see what would occur. This resulted in the rest of the party fleeing the chamber and taking cover in the hallway outside, leaving the fighting man alone in the passage.
With a muttered prayer, the button was pushed and a soft click was heard. Looking up, Morg noticed that the semi-circular wall behind the statue had shifted slightly to reveal an open area behind it. Testing the idol’s platform carefully, he discovered that the entire end of the corridor turned on a pivot to grant access to a hidden chamber. Peering in cautiously, he could make out a ruined poster bed, decrepit wardrobe, upholstered chairs spilling stuffing onto the floor, and rickety tables. The far wall also bore a greasy ash silhouette of a humanoid form. Another exit left the room through the eastern wall.
After the rest of the party emerged from safety at Morg’s summoning, they carefully inspected the room. Most of its contents were in poor condition, but Mars Markus discovered an offering jug made of iron and fashioned in the shape of the gorilla idol’s head beneath the collapsing bedstead. Inside were few hundred smerduks and copper groats.
The room now thoroughly search—or so they believed—the party propped the secret door open with a somewhat sturdy ottoman before venturing down the eastern passage. The corridor ended in another bound door, this one sealed with a stout lock. Their attempts at lockpicking unsuccessful, the adventurers returned to the decaying bedchambers in search of a key. There they stripped the room down to brass tacks before discovering an iron key with a ragged black ribbon tied to it lost amongst the sleeping furs of the bed. This key did indeed open the locked door and the party passed beyond it.
A long narrow chamber confronted them and the smell of smoke was heavy in the still air. Dual rows of five pillars made of a blue-white metal ran the length of the room, which ended in another half circle wall. A low platform, some 10’ in diameter and decorated by an indistinct design, stood at the far end of the room. However, as the party approached this platform for a better look, a ball of thick grey smoke appeared near the ceiling in the center of the chamber. It swirled angrily and began to grow. It would appear that the adventurers had stumbled upon the Smoke Monster’s vacation home and now had to pay the price!
Not taking any chances, Habdazar unleashed a magical bolt at the beast which caused the smoky presence to howl in pain or frustration. The column of smoke screamed down upon the party, slamming into Morg and Baragkus, inflicting moderate injuries upon the fighting duo. Their blades seemed to have no effect on the eerie thing and, as the smoke slalomed through the chamber’s columns to line up another attack, the party fled the room, locking the door behind them.
Returning to the bedchambers, a quick debate ensued about what to do next. They heard no more noise from the pillared chamber after the door was shut and noted that the smoke beast did not appear until after they began moving towards the platform in the southern end of the room. The desire to make another attempt to reach that platform was strong, and the point that Habdazar’s magic attack had seemed to damage the creature was brought up. Fanta announced that he too had such a bolt memorized and was prepared to launch it against the creature—from behind the protection of Domdull’s shield, of course. Malbane, on the other hand, had other ideas and began scouring the ashen silhouette from the chamber’s wall with the intent to burn it. He surmised that the creature and the mark were somehow interconnected.
It was decided that one last attempt should be made against the smoky guardian and a portion of the band prepared to reenter the room. Mars Markus carefully stepped into the room and demonstrated that the creature had not only vanished but that, so long as the party remained at the northern end of the room, it would not reappear. The party reorganized themselves for maximum defense and then edged their way towards the platform. No sooner had they begun, the roiling smoky ball reappeared near the ceiling and began to swell.
Fanta pointed at the sphere and blasted it with his magical dart, but although it too seemed to injure the creature, the guardian continued to materialize and the adventurers fled immediately after, once again sealing the portal in their wake. Malbane had meanwhile succeeded in burning the ashen residue of the silhouette, but this seemed to have no effect on the smoke monster.
These events were sufficient to induce the party to move along to other unexplored areas and, after they “remove[d]the ottoman and reset the monkey,” they gathered at the iron door they had noticed earlier with the intent to breach it. The metal portal exhibited a keyhole beneath the handle and much effort was made peering through the hole, trying the recently-discovered key, and inserting slim blades into the lock before the adventurers realized that no one had determined if the door was actually secured. With red faces, the door handle was turned and it opened easily.
A high-ceilinged room awaited behind the door, its sole decoration being a three stepped platform of glossy black stone which rose 20’ above the floor. Three stone plinths stood atop the platform and a pair of iron braziers flanked these protrusions. The surface of the platform was inscribed with blocky pictograms that depicted humanoid forms with elongated heads, writing tails, and claws. Malbane immediately recognized the forms as being stylized representations of the Tomb Herd although they lacked wings. Another door exited the room at the northern end of the same wall through which the entered. Uneasily, the party stepped into the room…