A harbinger of what ...?

A harbinger of what …?

The eroding empire campaign begins in the rain-washed aftermath of the Black Company’s raid on the Doomsday Cult, which was the event that drew our PCs’ disparate lines of fate together. Having fled the Black Company raid, our PCs rested briefly in a clearing some distance from the Doomsday Cult stockade, eying each other suspiciously. The characters were:

  • Thybalt, Tiefling warlock
  • Lithvar, Wood elf druid, the pivot around which all our fates had been drawn together
  • Syrion Dessair, a human paladin who, were he forced to admit to a god that he serves, would probably say “Myself”
  • Ayn (pictured), a human cleric of the Doomsday cult, swathed in black robes and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally
  • Cog 11, a gnome rogue who had decided, on an impulse, to desert his position as scout for the Black Company, and join this strange bunch of wanderers

Though the group mostly shared a common link with Lithvar, Ayn did not, and had only briefly known Syrion (whose motives were, typically for him, very base) and Tyhalt, not the most trustworthy of acquaintances. Thrown in with this strange band, she was even less inclined to trust the scarred and diminutive gnome with the ice-blue, frozen eyes who had led the Black Company to destroy the only good life she had ever known.

No matter! Cog 11 pointed out to everyone that when the Black Company is tasked with destroying a cult, it at least tries to do the job properly, and would be scouring the land for survivors at first light – they needed to get out of this area as quickly as possible and find the relative safety of a town. Lithvar, knowing the area slightly, recommended Tamaran, and after a little pushing and argument they agreed to set out immediately for Tamaran.

Our GM prepared a description of the journey, which I present here:

You set out from the campsite towards Tameron. Everywhere you look you see evidence of last night’s storm, with fallen branches scattered about and dank ground muddy underfoot. Rainwater continues to drip off the leaves above you.

It doesn’t take you long, though, before you can see the sunlight through the trees in front of you. It feels good as you step out of the forest and into the sunlight. You’re greeted with the view of a grassy green valley lying before you, with Tameron lying just a short walk below. A small huddle of buildings lies peacefully in the center of the valley. It is mid-morning and the sun has already begun to dry the muddy roads. You enjoy a cool breeze as you make your way down to Tameron, sticking the edges of the road where the mud has already hardened.

As you approach the town you are reminded of just how good life can be in the Dragon Empire these days. Farmers are hard at work, their ploughshares swinging at the ground semi-rythmically as they prepare their fields for the planting. A boy of about ten herds a flock of geese past you, at first staring at Ayn as he approaches, but then nodding politely as he passes.

Further in town more people are out and about. Some people are picking up roofing shingles that must have come loose in last night’s storm. One man loops a shingle onto the roof of a nearby house, where another man takes it and starts hammering it into place.

A small group of kids skip by, with a chubby boy lagging behind them slightly. They stop and taunt him, and hold out something as if to say “You want this? Ok, come and get it!” and then start running away again. As the red-faced boy sighs resignedly and waddles off after them again, his rotund body turns your thoughts again to how good the people of the Dragon Empire have it these days. Although they are far from wealthy, barely one step above poverty, it’s been many a generation since famine or even plague visited, and war is kept to minor skirmishes on the borders of the Empire, barely effecting the lives of the common folk. Considering the long history of the 13 Ages of the Dragon Empire, a tubby kid in a town like Tameron is a rare – and joyous – thing indeed.

The kind of description that encourages suspicions of impending destruction … Nonetheless, our heroes needed somewhere to hide, so they marched steadfastly into the town, looking for breakfast and if possible somewhere to hide. Soon after they arrived, as they stood in the main square waiting for the nearest tavern to open, they heard a disturbance and saw a boy riding pell-mell into the town, yelling something about destruction and chaos. Cog 11, suspecting the worst, slid into the shadows behind a verandah. Sure enough, the boy had rushed to town to report the destruction of the Doomsday Cult, which the townsfolk had been quite fond of. People gathered and voices were raised in favour of taking a group to the Stockade to look for survivors. Syrion spoke out against this, pointing out that the Black Company and its camp followers would be hungry for loot and unsure of who was a cultist – best to wait. With this counsel dispensed, the party retired to the tavern to enjoy breakfast.

While they were eating breakfast, a local rube entered the tavern and began reading a tale of sexual transgression involving a young knight and two ladies-in-waiting. Syrion turned bright red; though he did not tell the other characters, someone has somehow managed to document all of Syrian’s romantic exploits in painful detail, and is now distributing scrolls throughout the land depicting his scarlet adventures. Try as he might, Syrion is unable to find the source of these pornographic missives, and though he once again tried to identify the source with this latest reader, he learnt nothing. Of course the listeners did not know the stories concerned this particular visiting Paladin, and simply laughed uproariously at the ribald humour of the thing. A strange fate indeed, to be renowned across the land for this kind of night-time swordsmanship, but unknown to everyone.

During breakfast, a local farmer recognized Thybalt, who is unmistakable as the tiefling lad who used to live in a village not one day’s ride from Tameron, and told him that his father was near death three months ago. With little else to do, the characters decided to accompany Thybalt back to his village, to see if his father was still alive and if he needed any help. However before they set off they decided to return with Ayn, the Tameron sheriff and a group of villagers to the ruined stockade, judging it now safe from Black Company soldiers. They arrived to find a scene of complete destruction, the stockade and buildings collapsed in smouldering ruins and the open areas of the encampment scattered with dead cultists, all hacked and mutilated by camp followers seeking rings, gold teeth and hidden treasures. Ayn drifted around the stockade in bewilderment and shock, looking at the ruins of what her life could have been and stopping to shed tears over every member of her little cult. The irony of a Doomsday cultist distressed at the end of the world as she knew it was not lost on her new comrades, but they waited patiently for her to attend to her grief.

When her grief was done it turned to anger, and Ayn began invoking a ritual pledge of vengeance, calling upon the names of her apocalyptic gods to bless her in a quest for revenge. The sheriff, seeing this, attempted to force a deal out of her: that she would not turn vigilante if he would prevent the townsfolk from disturbing and robbing the bodies of her dead fellows. She agreed readily, though as the group left the ruined stockade she told them she would obey no promise to any mortal power, and only pledges to her dark gods counted for her loyalty.

A point that was well noted by her new comrades, no doubt.

From the stockade they traveled to Thybalt’s home village, arriving in the late evening to find a tiny hamlet of just a single cluster of large farming houses. They were greeted with suspicion and coldness – Thybalt was never welcome here – but Thybalt was led into his father’s house, to see the slowly crumbling ruins of his once strong and vibrant father. The old man lay on a pile of blankets and mattresses in one corner of the room, no longer able to climb the stairs, and only moved feebly when the PCs entered. A few villagers came with them bearing food, and sat around to eat as Thybalt’s father told him the true story of at least a part of his origins…

Before Thybalt was born the village was in danger from evil, and Thybalt’s father made a deal with the Crusader to protect the village. To fulfill his pact he simply had to give the contents of a small sandalwood box to Thybalt. He gestured to the box, a non-descript thing on top of a cupboard that had probably sat there all through Thybalt’s childhood, undisturbed in its mundanity. Thybalt took down the box, opening it to reveal a scroll. Like a classic knave, he unrolled the scroll and read it. Two words leapt out in swirls of golden light and swam into his eyes; with all the wisdom of corrupt youth, Thybalt immediately blurted out the words.

As soon as he uttered the words, growling them out in some ancient and sinister tongue, three things happened in three different far away places:

  1. Somewhere deep and dark, a figure reads a book at an altar. Behind the figure is a grey wall. As the figure reads the wall folds slowly away, and the grey mass is revealed not to be a wall at all, but the scaly lids of some vast and terrifying eye. The lids open further, and a huge golden lizard eye swims into view. “It has awakened …”
  2. Somewhere else, outside in a grim and windswept plain. Three rocks stand in a line in a rocky, scrubby part of this barren expanse. After a moment the middle rock vibrates, begins to hum, and then explodes. Where the rock stood a vortex opens, its swirling colours a gate into …
  3. Thybalt hears a voice inside his head. “Who has called me?” it asks in a rattling, hollow tone. Thybalt, again showing the good sense that only youth can give, tells the voice his name. “Thybalt the untitled one. Why have you awakened me?” “It is an ancient pact,” replied Thybalt, opting again for truth over wisdom. “I see… There is much I must teach you.”

Though not cognizant of the distant eye and its import, or the vortex on the plains, the others did hear Thybalt say those words, and watched him sink into a trance. When he awoke he was … changed.. in fact, awoken into his Warlock powers.

Satisfied that nothing too unusual had happened – beyond one of their group binding himself to an ancient evil in exchange for a few weak curse powers – the group settled to sleep the night away, falling into slumber near Thybalt’s father’s slowly dying fire, and Thybalt’s slowly dying father. They did not sleep long though, before they were all woken by a high-pitched and terrified scream.

They tumbled outside to find a woman standing near the house, pointing into the open area that all the houses were built around. The night had brought with it a low mist that hung thick and still over the ground, and here in the middle of this small square lay a dead horse, gutted and still steaming, half protruding from the mist. A monstrous red semi-humanoid lizard-thing squatted in front of it, noisily indulging itself on the poor horse’s innards. When the characters moved towards it it fled into the mist and shadows on the edge of the village, but not to escape – oh no, now it was joined by some fellows, that prowled on the edge of the square.

Instinctively the party came together, forming a tight, outward-facing circle. Only Cog 11 chose not to join his comrades in the defensive circle: he preferred to trust concealment in the darkness and the mist than to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his new comrades. Besides, he figured, he would be a more effective combatant if the enemy did not know where he was. He just hoped that these un-Godly beasts used their eyes to see, and not some other sense.
 
Fear gripped the party as they peered out into the darkness, catching fleeting glimpses of shadow-like movement. Something, or somethings were out there, waiting for the opportunity to strike out of the darkness. They knew little of infernal or otherworldly creatures, and their fear of the unknown was almost paralysing. A trembling hand held the only lantern aloft above the center of the circle, sending trembling shadows rippling in all directions, only to rest on the thick, roiling knee-height mist. 
 
Two of the party members, however, were able keep their composure a little more easily than the others. Thybalt had seen these creatures before. They were the same creatures from the hauntings: the ethereal visitors who came to Thybalt in his night to loom menacingly over his bed. Only this time, these monsters seemed somehow… different … their simple physical presence, lifted from dreams and made flesh, emboldened Thybalt – what he could not confront in dreams he realized he could easily kill in the flesh. And there was no trembling in Syrion’s hands as he boldly held his sword forward, ready to pounce. For better or for worse, this boy knows no fear, and was looking forward to the opportunity to demonstrate to the Empire what a fearsome defender of the weak he is.

Moments later two great flame-limned dogs leapt into the square and attacked our heroes. They were followed by a strange, sluggish semi-humanoid creature seemingly made of tar, that sludged its way in from the shadows towards the party. From another direction that red-skinned humanoid lizard came loping out of the shadows on all fours, carrying a spear. Battle was joined!

The fight was short but brutal. After a few passes, Thybalt tried out his new powers, wrapping one of the flame-dogs in shadow-magic that extinguished the dog’s hellfire and tore the dog apart. Cog 11 drifted out of the shadows past the second flame-dog, which sank moments later into the mist, its flames banked and its innards sliding out of several deep cuts to steam in the mist. Ayn called upon her Gods of the End to bless her, and hurled a brilliant shaft of light through the the red lizardman, striking him dead as if he had been hit by a white-hot comet. Finally, Cog 11 hurled a chakram into the head of the tar-man, slicing the top of its head off. Bereft of strength, it slowly oozed out into a puddle in the thinning mist.

Catching their breath as they stood back to back, peering out into the darkness for the next attack, it slowly began to dawn on them that they were still alive. Some of them may have been in life-threatening situations before, and perhaps some of them had even experienced a violent attacker had trying to rip their lives from them before, but for all of them, this was the first time they had stood up to such a threat and defeated it. A combination of adrenaline and fear saw their bodies trembling in the light of the lantern, sending ripples out on the surface of the mist below them. They were alive, which was both a relief and somewhat exhilarating. Drawing breath, they looked around at each other, and for a moment they all drew strength from each others’ position in that circle of belonging. They had done it, and they had done it together.
 
Congratulating themselves on their first successful battle, the group began to clean up. But then, as if the whole group suddenly realised something simultaneously, they exchanged nervous glances with each other before they wordlessly turning their heads in unison toward the wooden shack where Thybalt’s father lay. They had left it unguarded… 

 

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