Spoiler: Chapter 23: Gob-dammit
The party beats feet toward the town of Scarlet to prepare for their totally-not-suicidal jaunt into Old Drougant City. Scarlet is a decent-sized town just south and west of the old city's border, one of the closest jumping-off points with enough civilization to provide the supplies the party will need.
En route, Flynn tells Gavin stories he’s heard about ODC, from undead birds of prey with wingspans wider than Dhar longboats are long, to curses that turn people inside out and force them to feast on one another. (At one point, Tam told Cade: “I know you’re just making this stuff up, but these are actually stories Flynn has heard.” So reassuring!)
The trip from Forscythe to Scarlet actually carries the party very close to the city's border along a road typically used by only the most daring of trade caravans. Maybe it’s because ODC is on everyone’s mind, or maybe it's because some evil enchantment draws the eye, but no one can help staring toward the ruins as they ride past. The city is cloaked in unseasonable fog, and Miaoyu's and Flynn's keen eyes can just barely make out the crumbled and bent remains of two towers along the wreckage of a stone wall.
They make Scarlet with surprisingly little trouble and get a few rooms in a tavern whose sign features a gaudily-colored nine-headed hydra above the words 'Buy one, get eight free!'. Seeker steps into the tavern first and stops dead in his tracks: the bartender is an elf (named, as the party later finds out, Yvanna). For better or worse, Seeker isn’t left to fret for long: Gavin didn’t expect him to stop and barrels right into him. They both tumble into the tavern magnificently. A few of the patrons chortle and Yvanna glances at them curiously before returning to bartending (and liberally sampling her own ale). It’s an adventurer tavern; Yvanna has had plenty of wolfmen patrons.
Once the party gets settled in, Aelron and Seeker go to their rooms to begin producing magic items, Flynn begins collecting information, Gavin orders a real meal, and Miaoyu and Tsarae settle in to get drunk.
Flynn finds out about a group of seven adventurers that went into Old Drougant recently and even more recently returned, though they had been trimmed down to a mere three (and whether that was courtesy of ODC’s denizens or a few judicious knives in the back to increase treasure shares is unclear). Apparently these treasure-hunters were quite successful; they spent the better part of a week in Scarlet, spreading gold around liberally and telling tales of all kinds before they left. Many of the stories contradict each other, or seem to be exaggerations of iterations that came before, but one consistent feature is wolf-spiders attacking them during their second or third day into the ruins.
When Flynn relays the story to the party, Miaoyu shudders (who's surprised?); both she and Aelron have read about these creatures. The story goes that long ago, Drougant was threatened by the Queen of Chaos (“Sounds like it still is,” Gavin mutters). One of the Queen's most loyal servants was a spider-fiend named Miska. Miska and its ilk had the venom and webs of spiders and the pack tactics of wolves, as well as an immunity to fire. Aelron's not too fond of that last part of the story.
Eventually, a band of heroes brought the Queen of Chaos down with an artifact called the Rod of Law, which then broke into many pieces, but this is where Miaoyu’s and Aelron’s stories diverge. In Miaoyu’s version these heroes were compared to Qennish people: law-abiding, morally upright individuals and pillars of their respective communities. Aelron’s version paints the heroes as misfits and societal outcasts who weren’t always moral in the conventional sense. Once she learns of this, Miaoyu is more than a little amused at the Qennish government’s blatant censorship and pesters Aelron for more details from his uncensored version.
After a few days, Aelron finishes his enchantments: his staff now glows passively, emitting light as a candle at all times unless covered, and can be commanded to shed brighter light for a few hours per day or brilliant radiance for a few minutes. One of Gavin’s spears has been temporarily enchanted to return to his hand when thrown. Seeker and Aelron have restocked everyone on healing braids and incendiaries, respectively, but a few people want more permanent magic items. Aelron and Seeker can create disposable (single-use or limited-use) magic items with nothing more than the energy of a spell, but a permanent magic item requires something solid to hold and shape its magical energy. The enchantment on Aelron's staff is shaped by the ruby and sunstone mounted on its head, as well as the runes traced into the staff itself, and the enchantment on Seeker's robe that keeps it from staining is literally woven into the fabric; these magics are permanent unless the item gets irreparably damaged. The enchantment on Gavin's spear, by contrast, had no material component provided when it was placed and will fade over time, but it's also a simple enchantment that Aelron can refresh at any time, so they're not worried about it.
Seeker stays behind in Scarlet to research a new spell, but everyone else, including an extremely reluctant Tsarae, heads out into the wilderness and away from ridiculously good offers on booze.
The first few hours are spent with the the non-mages showing random finds to Aelron. After an entire afternoon and evening of 'Is this good?' 'No.' 'How about this?' 'Still no.', Aelron takes them all back to Scarlet and sits them down in one of the Hydra's booths.
“Okay,” he says, dropping his spellbook and a few pieces of parchment on the table. “Before we go do more searching, we need to determine exactly what enchantments people want. That'll determine what materials we go searching for.”
“I was hoping for a talisman that might provide protection from acidic substances,” Flynn says.
“I want something that'll grant me increased stamina,” Gavin supplies. What his player is looking for is an increased reserve hit point pool, which will allow him to perform more combat maneuvers.
Aelron ponders for a moment. “I'm not sure about what sorts of things we might find locally for acid resistance,” he says, scratching down notes on a piece of parchment, “But increased stamina should be fairly simple. Heartwood from a dryad's tree should do quite nicely.” He smirks. “Dryads have pretty good stamina.”
Much eye-rolling ensues.
"Didn’t we pass a heartwood tree that had been chopped down on our way to the Rusted Stele?" Miaoyu asks. "Someone covered it with molten iron."
Turns out it's a really good thing we're doing this journal. None of us would have remembered that otherwise, and we'd have been detouring back to the dryad's grove near Hangtree.
Fortunately, the journal is a thing, and Scarlet is actually pretty close to where the whole debacle with the Redcap happened (if you recall, the dude who stole our horses was leading them to Scarlet to sell). Miaoyu navigates back to the stump, and Gavin and Aelron both take a piece of the heartwood, earning a generous +5 to their reserve hit points (a 33% increase for Aelron, poor bastard).
On the party’s way back to Scarlet, they find a peculiar orange flower growing from the tiniest cleft in an enormous boulder. Once Aelron takes a moment to examine it, he’s pleased to find that Flynn’s wish has been granted: this particular flower, when dried and set into an appropriate enchantment, will serve as a decent base for an acid-resistance amulet.
The party makes their final preparations. Flynn’s magic cloak, Olaf’s Razor, and Lajiao are all sent with Keegan, their horses, and the soldiers back to Hangtree. Flynn procures rations and a mule to carry them (affectionately named Git-Yankee, because all of Cade's mules have apparently been some sort of Git, and Githyanki jokes never go out of style), and Miaoyu, Gavin, Aelron and Seeker all purchase rations to keep on their person, just in case. Seeker also finishes and refines his new spell: he calls it Compassion, and it will link his and his target's hit point pools, allowing him to share damage with whoever he targets.
Finally, as prepared as they feel they are going to get, the party ventures into the western fringes of Old Drougant. They could probably push forward and make it to the island marked “throne” on Miaoyu's map in about a day, but then they'd have to camp out ON the throne, and no one is particularly anxious to do that. For this first day, they'll be sticking to the outskirts, in a district known as Far Drougant, where nobles from outlying baronies and counties kept manors that enabled them to remain close to court without taking up residence in the city itself.
Gavin looks to Tsarae. "Are you going to scout ahead?"
Miaoyu doesn't give her the chance to answer. "I’m going to insist that you stay with us."
Tsarae rolls her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
"You’re going to have to switch it up, Tsarae," Gavin says, grinning. "I saw that response coming a mile away."
Tsarae gives him a withering Look of Disdain +2, but doesn’t deign to respond verbally.
A few hours into their trek, the party comes across a grove. It was obviously once a well-manicured garden or park, with a ring of hedges and willow trees grown to form a dome with a large skylight. It has long since grown wild; only one humanoid-sized ground-level entry point remains, and even that has a thin screen of willow drapery nearly covering it. The skylight is still present, but lets in much less light than it probably should, barely illuminating the interior.
Miaoyu and Tsarae both approach, Miaoyu directly before the entrance and Tsarae covering her from an angle. Miaoyu lets her eyes adjust for a moment to the dimness, and peers around. There are stone benches that were probably once arrayed symmetrically but have since been dragged around a bit, and in one case knocked over; and a fountain—long since dried—at the far end of the grove. Oddly enough, all the branches and hedges on the inside of the grove appeared to be covered in some sort of white film. It takes a long moment for Miaoyu to recognize what she's looking at, but it dawns on her when she spots a big round clump of similar white film deposited next to one of the benches: that's a clutch of spider eggs, and that means all the white film is... webs. The entire grove is a giant spiderweb.
Miaoyu turns on her heel, grabs Tsarae, and makes the stealthiest getaway at a dead sprint that Old Drougant will ever not notice.
Gavin looks askance at Miaoyu's hasty retreat. "So what did you find?"
Miaoyu makes a very distressed sound in her throat; she doesn't seem to be capable of speech at the moment. Tsarae rolls her eyes.
Flynn grimaces. “Spiders.”
After a short debate, the party decides to keep on moving, although Gavin and Aelron express some concern about leaving a grove full of known angry beasties directly in their line of retreat.
As afternoon fades into evening, and still nothing has attacked them, Gavin catches Tsarae’s eye. “You know, I’m starting to think the legends about this place are completely overblown.”
The Look of Disdain returns.
Shortly thereafter, the party finds something that might do as a safehouse. It’s a rather charming stone manor, impressively built to still be standing after 200 years, though obviously just as neglected as everything else. The doors have rotted away, giving the party free access to the interior. As they pass the threshold, they notice a faded emblem over the doorframes: a griffin perched atop a mountain. It seems that this palace once belonged to Griffin’s Peak, one of the baronies that is now in rebellion.
The antechamber into which the party slips was obviously once opulent and richly appointed, designed to awe and impress guests. The room is a massive circular chamber, at least thirty feet high, with four doors leading deeper into the manor. Sweeping stone staircases with marble balustrades curve around the chamber's rounded side walls, eventually meeting to form a towering balcony that overlooks the entry. Though some of the carvings have been damaged, the eagle's heads at the end of each balustrade and the gryphons-in-relief etched into the balcony rim are still evident enough. The chamber's rear wall, under and behind the balcony, is curious: while it’s clearly solid and opaque, the party gets a strange impression of shapes hidden behind it; the marble is thin enough to be allowing light through.
First, the party decides to go through the manor and ensure that it’s safe and empty. They leave Git-Yankee and the watch goat in the antechamber and poke through each of the doors. The two more impressive and opulent doors each lead to a wing of the manor; those the party leaves closed for the moment. The more understated, plain doors lead down into a basement, and the party decides to start there. They take the left-hand servant’s door and head down single-file, the passage illuminated by Aelron’s staff. The stairway lets out to a long, dark hallway, and Aelron increases the illumination of his staff further. The hallway runs between two enormous chambers whose walls are lined with the rubble of collapsed ovens and sinks; the wreckage of tables, utensils and crockery is strewn about each room in long columns. The party begins methodically searching through the hall, sticking close together. The hall is quiet, and the party begins to relax. A clash makes everyone jump, but Seeker just gives them a sheepish grin. “Sorry. Big feet.”
Everyone starts teasing Seeker for his clumsiness, and is just about to descend into pun-madness when another clang startles everyone. This one is not from Seeker or his big feet. Everyone falls silent instantly. It takes a moment to track the sound as it bounces off the walls, but they finally pin it down: there are two doors in the hall that lead back up to the antechamber, and two that lead elsewhere. The clang came from one of the doors that leads elsewhere, and of course it came from the door on the far side of the room from the party's current location.
Gavin throws himself into a sprint to approach the door before it can open and line up an ambush; Tsarae follows at a distance, circling around to keep her line of sight clear and avoid a half-collapsed table. The rest of the party follows in a gaggle.
Just as the light from Aelron's staff fully reaches the wall, the door swings open and a creature stoops through it dragging a massive club. It’s a hairy monster with pointed ears, shaggy body hair, and a rich, full-bodied scent. Most likely, it’s a demigob, a creature that is created when goblins begin to eat other goblins. Through the door can barely be seen another pair of the creatures, slightly smaller than the first, though still more than large enough to be getting on with.
Gavin rushes forward, attempting to stop the big gob in the doorway and trap his buddies behind him. Aelron lobs a fire spell that detonates near the door frame's top corner and singes the demigob’s ear. Seeker fulfills his traditional role by standing in the center of the group and casting Circle of Protection. Miaoyu attempts to distract the demigob by yelling at it, but her efforts go ignored. She tries to shoot it, but rolls a nat 1—apparently she forgot to string her bow yet again. Fortunately, Tsarae picks up the slack. She goes at a wide angle, yelling at the gob. Her disdainful, mocking shout does what Miaoyu's panicked cursing couldn't: the gob follows her movements, almost against his own will, as he tries to swing at Gavin. The distraction is just enough; Gavin manages to get his shield up and braced with both hands just as the club comes down. There is a horrid splintering crash, but at the end of it Gavin is still standing and unhurt.
Unfortunately, Gavin’s hopes to keep the other gobs trapped behind the door are not to be realized: they both push through. Miaoyu throws a rock at one and hits it in the eye, blinding it temporarily. Is she part hobbit? Her luck with attack rolls suggests not, as her followup bowshot clatters off the ceiling. Gavin decides to join in the fun and games of hurting enemies both emotionally and physically and taunts the first gob: “Hey, stupid! Your mother’s a turnip!”
Some people have no decency.
On the other side of the room, Tsarae takes a moment to begin activating Turtle Style, which allows her to harden her skin and boost her AC. The more time she takes to activate it, the higher the AC boost is; in this case, she’s taking a full round, which means maximum armor boost. Considering that all three opponents look perfectly capable of crushing her with a single swing, it seems like a wise course of action.
Aelron tosses another incendiary, but this one gets swatted away by a back-swinging club and detonates to so much noise and flying wreckage. The gob it was aimed at, however, decides not to take any chances. He rushes forward and swings hard at Aelron's midsection. The Dwarven chain distributes the blow a little, but it's still a terrific body blow, and Aelron staggers backward into Seeker's waiting healing spell while Flynn steps between the mages and the gob. He gives the gob a good stab with his glaive at the same time that Aelron returns fire (heh) with Burning Hands, but the stubborn thing refuses to go down. It IS starting to smell like a really tasty barbeque in here, though.
Miaoyu, feeling a bit uncomfortable standing so close to the smoking gob, darts into the Circle of Protection and takes another shot with her bow. Which she once again fumbles with a nat 2. She begins to reconsider her choices in life, especially the ones about which weapons she uses (and, as a player, which dice she rolls).
With her skin hardened against any incoming attacks, Tsarae rushes forward and attacks the third gob, though to little effect. Gavin changes targets to support her, but rubble stops him from helping her more effectively. “Tsarae! Close up!”
Unfortunately, the orders she’s used to receiving are in Elven, and not quite so formal; assuming he’s just jabbering, she holds her ground rather than drawing closer. Gavin’s desire to stay close to Tsarae comes from the fighter’s co-op trait: when standing next to another fighter, Gavin gets a bonus to his AC. Gavin, however, has far more traditional and defense-oriented military training than Tsarae, and a different co-op trait; Tsarae’s gives her bonuses to to-hit and damage when attacking the same target as a fellow fighter, but she sees no particular need to stay adjacent. Fortunately, Gavin switching targets is what activates her co-op trait: she takes another stab at the gob and this time gets a very satisfying spray of blood for her efforts.
Through the chaos of battle, several of the party notice something: the watch goat is bleating from upstairs. There’s a brief moment of confusion. Miaoyu starts heading for the stairs as fast as she can, and Aelron goes to support her before remembering that he is the party's only current source of light.
"Just light me up!" Gavin calls when he sees Aelron hesitate. Aelron stops briefly to cast the spell and Miaoyu hurries on ahead.
Unfortunately, Miaoyu's movements catch the attention of the gob that attempted to put an end to Aelron, and he chases after her. He catches her at the bottom of the staircase and bashes her across the back, knocking her prone. She tries to roll over and face him, but he's stepped above her and his legs are pinning her in place, keeping her from rolling far. He's raising his club for a killing two-handed swing, smiling and grunting hungrily...
Miaoyu barely catches a short whizzing noise, and then suddenly the gob's entire body twitches, and the club, held over his head, carries his weight back and over, away from Miaoyu. He crumples to the ground as Aelron calls out, “I’ve got you covered, Miaoyu." She nods her thanks, then scrambles back to her feet and hurries back up the stairs.
Finally, she reaches the first floor landing and she cautiously peers out the door. At first she sees nothing out of the ordinary. Then she notices a goat-sized blood splatter. Then she catches a glimpse of something with far too many legs for her to be comfortable with. She contains her urge to shriek and rushes back downstairs, where the battle has been happily under way.
"Tsarae," Gavin snaps, "get close to me so I can cover for you!"
With him finally making sense, Tsarae steps delicately over the rubble and to his side, just in time for his other side to be clobbered by the biggest gob. Fortunately, the others are on top of it. Flynn and Aelron give it some lovely new holes, and Seeker heals up Gavin.
It’s right about then that Miaoyu makes her way back to the party. She catches Aelron’s eye. “The watch goat won’t be a problem anymore. But whatever’s up there will be.”
There’s no time to discuss it, though. Miaoyu hurriedly rejoins the battle and takes a shot at the gob Tsarae’s been working on, exploiting the rogue co-op ability that grants them both bonuses when working together against a single target. Miaoyu finally makes a solid hit on an enemy! While it’s howling in pain, Tsarae darts under its guard and gets a knife into its midsection a time or three. It stops making much noise after that, aside from the thud as it falls to the floor.
The last demigob, realizing its friends are gone and that it’s not doing so well either, makes a mad dash at Flynn. The gob is raising its club for a swing when a flurry of arcane bolts sizzles past Flynn's flank and riddles the gob with smoking holes. Aelron steps up next to Flynn, twirls his staff once, and smiles. “Thanks for getting in the way.”
Flynn just snorts. “Showoff.”
Miaoyu fills the party in on what she saw while Tsarae takes a moment to slit the gobs’ throats (always double tap) and everyone heads upstairs once again.
The party heads for the stairs they used before, but Tsarae heads for the door at the opposite end of the hall, looking for a flanking angle. Miaoyu makes to go after her, but stops when she realizes her Vision of Color has expired; Tsarae can see fine in pitch darkness, but she can’t. Then someone taps her on the shoulder, and she looks up to see Aelron with his lighted staff, heading after Tsarae as well. Since Gavin is still lit, he can light the way for himself, Seeker and Flynn, while Aelron keeps Miaoyu company.
Both groups reach the main floor at roughly the same time, but they quickly find that the antechamber is empty. Long streaks of blood lead out the door from the positions where the mule and the watch goat had been tied up, still slick and shining in the dimness. The mule's pack harness and all its equipment are gone, though thankfully a few things slid loose during the abduction: there are a few days' worth of iron rations scattered around, and some mule feed. What use feed without a mule no one can quite say, but better to have it than not.
It's not horse theft, but these spiders just ate Git-Yankee. There is only one possible response to such an affront from this party.