The characters in this session were:
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
- Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
- Zhulaz, a trollblood barbarian, exile of the Twocrown tribe, freed from thralldom.
XP Awarded: 700 XP
Meanwhile, in Hex, the worst of the winter winds had, at least for a moment, abated. Cephalus T. Murkwater, stirring from the torpor that had gripped the dagonian population since the winter began, decided it is time to partake of a particular human custom he had always found both strange and charming: the birthday party. Invitations were ordered, written, and sent; the dagonian and his associate, Hurogg, awaited the arrival of guests.
Most of Cephalus’ adventuring companions were out in the frigid depths of Troll Country, but Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III arrived fashionably late, attended by retainers. The pallid sorcerer chatted amiably with the other guests – mostly clients and colleagues – while eyeing the canapes with repressed disdain.
“You seem to be somewhat recovered,” Armand drily noted, looking Cephalus up and down.
“The winter seems to be abating,” Cephalus agreed. “The dagonians are starting to wake up. But the river is still frozen.”
“Some of us have been working on a solution,” Armand noted. “Over in Troll Country, to the north. The others should be returning soon. Now that some of your strength has returned, perhaps you’d be fit to aid us.”
“If it’ll help unfreeze the river, then certainly,” Cephalus agreed.
Back in Troll Country, the party lingered over the carnage they had wrought at the Hearg of Wind, taking care to confiscate the sacred runestone the shamans had been using to conjure the spirits of the dead and channel their ancient fury into the storm.
“One more to go,” Sister rumbled, her mind still in the body of a gigantic troll.
Catching their breath, the group spoke to the handful of trollblood thralls who’d helped them overthrow the Skintakers, consulting Vanessa Greyleaf for translation as necessary. One of them, a muscular trollblood barbarian named Zhulaz, indicated that he wished to join them.
“I’ve got nowhere to go, and a grudge to settle with the Skintakers,” the trollblood growled in accented Hextongue. It seemed he was an exile from Ettin Island, shunned by the Twocrown tribe for his “impure” partly-human blood and single head – at least two heads being the minimum for proper social standing among the brutal islanders.
“I’m sure we could use the help,” Caulis said. “Let’s get back to Hex for a bit and regroup.”
“Back to Hex?” Zhulaz said. “You mean… walk there?”
“Exactly,” Sister said, drawing a chalk portal. The gate opened, and the party entered the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen back in the city. Zhulaz marveled at this strange new magic, and even conversed briefly with the waspkin artist-priestesses, the hieorphants excitedly making statues of the newcomer.
The party spent the night in Hex, taking the chance to regroup, several returning to various ventures requiring their attention, others rejoining the expedition. After having healed and refreshed themselves, Sister, Caulis, Garvin, Armand, Cephalus, and Zhulaz returned through the portal into Troll Country. Yam had returned with the bewitched troll in Sister’s body to their dwelling in Mooncross.
Back in Troll Country, already things were changing. Without the Hearg of Wind, the screaming gale-force blizzards had dwindled and died, and the mountainous country was still and silent, the snow falling thickly but no longer in berserk flurries. From the south, they could see the green line of the newly-grown forest Caulis had created.
After some debate, the party decided to set out for the Blackhorn village and the Sickened Land, hoping that they could use Caulis’ powers to heal that traumatized region as they had with the Caustic Wastes. Zhulaz seemed slightly reluctant to visit the village, but being new to the party, went along with the will of the group.
As the group made their way northeast, they discovered a series of glyphs, carved into the trunks of trees. Further in, similar glyphs appeared on skulls mounted on wooden posts. Zhulaz and Vanessa could both read the runes: “Plague.”
Something was wrong with the land here. The trees were blighted, leaves disintegrating and grey, bark peeling – deadened by more than the depredations of winter. What little other vegetation peaked through the snow was similarly malformed and unhealthy-looking. But there was more to it than just some withered vegetation. The ground itself, the very stones, were sick. Boulders and crags uncovered by snow were speckled with what looked like weeping sores. The snow was discoloured yellow and red with the seepage of similar wounds – gangrenous pits the scar the poisoned earth, leaking pus. Even the clouds were jaundiced, the snow they wept mixed with putridity. This was a land somehow befouled.
Zhulaz told of the atrocity that created the Sickened Land. During the war against the Blackhorns and the Skintakers, Hex’s necromancers and alchemists – the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre – devised a horrific potion, a contagion with which the weather-witches of the Citadel tainted the sky. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage.
“Horrible,” Garvin said, darkly.
“Fascinating,” Armand said, eyeing some of the twisted shrubs.
Those who possessed them quickly donned gas-masks to ward against the pestilential miasmas that rolled across the Sickened Land in leprous fog-banks.
A brief way into the Sickened Land, a pool of sickly-looking, bubbling blood – or blood-befouled water – frothed and sputtered. Drinking from the sanguineous depths was a bear, horribly sickened, its fur mangy, its teeth rotten, its eyes rheum-caked and half-blind. It sniffed the air. Cephalus tensed, ready to fight, as the bear lumbered towards them, pawing at the dagonian martial artist.
With its party members distracted by the diseased bear, Caulis slunk to the banks of the pool and, carefully, buried another of the Royal Acorns from Titania’s forest.
Once again the ground quaked and rumbled, and Caulis was thrown from its feet into the sickly pool. It could feel the magical virus infiltrating its bark, but then the pool cleared, the water becoming crystalline and pure, even as trees burst from the ground, the blighted foliage healing, long-diseased trees springing back to life and writhing upwards, spreading green, healthy leaves. As the bear snarled, the earth beneath its paws turned from ghastly brown to lush green, spreading up from the soil through the bear’s limbs and into its body, its fur becoming lustrous, its teeth whitening, its eyes suddenly clear.
Caulis crawled out from the pool, healed as quickly as it had succumbed to illness. Casting prestidigitation, it created the strong smell of a fresh kill nearby. The bear loped off in search of a meal.
A second huge forest now spread around them in all directions. It seemed the Sickened Land was diseased no longer.
“That was… quite impressive,” Armand said to Caulis. “How did you do that?”
“A gift from my Patron,” Caulis said, still refusing to go into any details.
Armand, intrigued by this botanical magic, tried to locate the initial tree that burst from the ground, and carefully harvested samples from its massive bulk.
The party pressed on, making now for the Blackhorn village. When they arrived they found a shell of a place, huts standing empty, its walls – carved, now, with runic markings to keep out disease, and festooned with skulls and charms – dilapidated, but newly fuzzed with green moss.
As they approached, a handful of emaciated-looking warriors crept forth. All bore the huge, glossy horns of their tribe.
“Who comes?” they demanded in Giant.
“We are the ones who healed the forest,” Vanessa declared, noticing that Zhulaz was silent, pulling his hood low. Some of the chieftain’s guards were looking at him strangely. “We seek no payment and mean you no harm.”
“You must speak with out chief, Mogthrasir,” one of the trollbloods said, eyeing the party with a mixture of awe and suspicion. “Come.”
The group entered the remnants of the Blackhorn village and were led to the husk of a great hall, obviously once resplendent. Seated atop a throne of bones was a thin, towering shape – a man of great stature who looked half-starved. Massive ram’s horns curled from his temples.
“I am Mogthrasir,” he said. “Chieftain of the Blackhorns.”
“Greetings,” Garvin said, a bit nervously. “We’re here to heal Troll Country, and to oppose the Skintakers who would destroy it.”
“We are no enemies of the Skintakers,” Mogthrasir said, warily.
“But we know you’re not their allies, either,” Sister said. She had concealed those signs that marked her host body as a Skintaker. “And the Skintakers plan on extending this winter for many months – perhaps longer. What will that do to game? How will you feed your people?”
“There is so little game as there is,” Mogthrasir said slowly.
“Not anymore,” Caulis said. “The forest we created – it is full of animals. We can prove it. Gather your best hunters. We shall return with a feast.”
Mogthrasir shifted on his throne. “An interesting offer. Very well.”
An hour later, the party set out with a group of Blackhorn hunters, into the depths of the fairy wood. Sister used pass without trace to cloak the hunters’ approach. Together the band brought down a gigantic elk, one of the mysterious beasts to appear alongside the trees, loping from the deep green shadows from out of some other realm. The hunters thanked the Troll Gods for the kill. They returned with the dead elk, and Mogthrasir ordered it roast over a spit, for the entire village to eat.
“Truly this forest is extraordinary,” he said. “You have healed the land. And for this, we are indeed in your debt. If you are enemies of the Skintakers, we shall aid you in opposing them. They are no longer welcome in our lands.”
“Mogthrasir!” one of the Blackhorns suddenly said, barging into the hall. “There is a thief among us!”
“What?” the chieftain. “Who do you speak of Gullveig?”
“This one!” the trollblood declared, pointing at Zhulaz. “Some months ago, this outlaw wandered into our midst. We took him in, but he left in the night, stealing one of our pigs! We demand the blood price for his theft!”
Vanessa nervously translated for the rest of the party.
“Excuse me,” Cephalus said, stepping forward. “Armand, would you help me speak?”
“Certainly,” Armand said, casting comprehend languages.
“Thank you,” Cephalus continued. “Sir, my client stands accused of a grave wrongdoing. Does he not have a chance to defend himself?”
There were murmurs throughout the hall. “Lawspeaker,” the Blackhorns said.
“Hmm. Very well,” Mogthrasir said. “Tonight, when the feast is done, I will hear what you have to say, and judge accordingly.” He looked to the wronged trollblood. “Is this acceptable, Gullveig?”
The trollblood crossed his thin, sinewy arms, but nodded.
Cephalus pleads Zhulaz’s case before Mogthrasir. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.
The party discussed strategy, and then the court convened in the hall of the Blackhorn village after the feast was cleared away. Mogthrasir sat upon his bone chair to listen both to the charges in full, and the defense Cephalus would offer.
Gullveig repeated his accusations. “This Twocrown nithing stole one of my pigs. We could have starved because of him! I demand the blood price be paid!”
“Do you deny this charge?” Mogthrasir asked.
“I do not,” Zhulaz said. “I was starving, a desperate man, shunned, wandering from village to village.”
“Your desperation matters not,” Mogthrasir growled. “You have wronged the Blackhorns!”
“My client has admitted to stealing the pig,” Cephalus interceded. “But the weregild need not be paid with blood. What if we could provide an alternative recompense?”
“What recompense?” Mogthrasir asked.
“I believe that’s where I can come in,” Armand said. “Gullveig, was it?”
“You are, I take it, a farmer?” Armand’s normal class disdain seemed somewhat muted for a fellow horticulturalist.
“If I were to cast a spell to speed the growth of your crops – indeed, to double them – would that be sufficient restitution for this pig you lost?”
“Hmm.” The trollblood bared his teeth.
“If anything, such a bounty favours the accuser,” Cephalus said. “To double his crops’ yield – surely this is worth more than a single pig?”
“Gullveig,” Mogthrasir said. “The lawspeaker is right. If restitution can be provided in the form of goods, then the blood-price would be paid.”
Gullveig grunted. “Very well,” he said, throwing his arms in the air. “If you can truly do as you say, I will acknowledge the price paid.”
The party lingered in the Blackhorn village the next day, Armand using plant growth to nurture Gullveig’s crops. Garvin, meanwhile, sought out the tribe’s shaman, Urdunn – an ancient woman whose grey-haired head bore still-magnificent horns. Her hut was filled with charms and amulets, fashioned from the skulls and bones of various animals. Garvin came to peruse her cures and potions, but upon seeing the charms, a thought struck him.
“I think this might be yours,” he said, taking out the bird skull amulet he’d taken from the keep of the Order of the Goat.
Urdunn examined it carefully. “Ah yes… this is indeed of Blackhorn make.”
“It must have been stolen from here. Please, keep it.”
“Thank you, human,” she said with a crooked grin.
Garvin spoke for some time with the shaman. He learned that the Hearg to the southwest was the Hearg of Fire, dedicated to Sinmara, the Troll Goddess of flame, queen of the fire giants.
After resting and recovering, the group resolved to assault this last Hearg, to at last end the fell winter that gripped Hex in its icy claws.
The journey south was less arduous than the trek north, though made slow by the fairy forest that now stretched across much of Troll Country. These woods now merged with those alpine forests around the Behemoth’s Skull, the massive, fossilized remnants of one of the primordial ancestors of all Giants. The group was accompanied by a band of Blackhorns and rescued thralls, led by the powerful Zhulaz.
The party approached by stealth, aided by spells. An illusory duplicate conjured by Sister drew the initial fire of the troll warriors guarding the cluster of shamans who worked their spell at the Hearg, channeling the spirits to form a column of fire. As Sister charged forward – still in a Troll’s body – to behead one of the enemy warriors with her claymore, Garvin darted from the shadows, poisoned bolts whizzing from his crossbow. The shamans snarled in rage and set a wave of flame towards the attackers, burning their skin. Zhulaz roared in righteous fury and charged alongside Sister, cuttinb down trollblood warriors left and right.
A fog cloud summoned by Armand gave the cadaverous sorcerer cover to slink into the Hearg and, cunningly, to steal the runic fire-stone allowing the shamans to channel the spirits of the Hearg. The column of fire dissipated in a puff of smoke. The party closed in, and now the shamans gave flight, Garvin shooting several down, Cephalus breaking bones along the east flank, snapping spines and sending teeth flying. Vanessa, still furious from the sight of the fallen Stormguardians, cast magic missiles from the sidelines – only to be charged by a fleeing trollblood and, in a flicker of iron, cut down, her blood staining the snow.
“No!” Sister shouted, barreling forw2ards. Cephalus dispatched the warrior who had felled Vanessa, even while Sister rushed to her side. Calling on the power of the Mother of Spiders she desperately tried to bind Vanessa’s wounds. For a moment it looked as if even this divine intervention would be insufficient – but then Vanessa breathed, blood trickling from her mouth, a faint flush of colour returning to cheeks which but moments before had been pale as death.
With another Hearg-rite ended, the Harrowgast was deprived of the warm front it needed to generate snow, and the winds it required to send the blizzard south.
It was done. The long winter, at last, was over.
“We have one more thing to do,” Caulis said, pointing north. While Vanessa was taken back to Hex via Portal Chalk, the homunculus led the rest of the party north. Untouched by the ravages of Hexian magic, the barrow-lands stretched in the shadow of a vast plateau to the north. Natural hills carved with burial tunnels and heaped mounds mingle amidst the sparse vegetation and occasion ruins, remnants of some ancient civilization of giants which once dwelt here, ancestors of the trolls who now dwell in this land. With fewer trees to break the wind, the cold was especially biting in this barren, eerie corner of Troll Country. But Caulis would soon remedy this lack of vegetation. Carefully, it placed the final acorn in the tough earth, and once again the ground shook, shoots bursting into the air, becoming saplings, then trees, then a vast forest. A virtually contiguous woodland now stretched across the western half of Troll Country. Titania had reclaimed another corner of her demesne.