Session Five: The Bolt Hole
Those who remember the old mill just call it the Bolt Hole now. No one knows how it happened. Maybe the rats were always there, breeding in the walls. Maybe they dug into a basement. Or maybe someone let them in. Either way, it's all rats now. Not even worth the trouble of trying to salvage something that they ain't torn up to make their nests.
The Daughters of Rojukan are returning home after an evening drinking and gambling when they notice they are being followed by a group of footpads. While crossing a narrow footbridge bridge, three men appear on the far side and demand a toll. As both groups posture, the men who were following the heroes move in from behind to box them in. Anabul tries to talk to them in street jargon, and is told that if they want to live, they just have to pay up, but Lucia grows tired of the negotiations and charges into combat.
Lina cuts off one group with a wall of fire and Liquide clouds the minds of the thugs on the far side, forcing them to kill each other. A few moments later, the only survivor is a single thief who is confused and panicked about having just murdered his friends. The heroes let him live. On the bodies they find a bag of coins which are coated in a mysterious slime.
A week later the group leaves the city on an expedition to the Bolt Hole. After a few hours they stop for a meal. Anabul is going to get water, when a gigantic amoeba attempts to engulf him. He runs back to the group and Lina conjures a ball lightning and orders it to drive the amoeba away while the group moves on.
The next morning, they find a small girl, about four years old with strawberry blonde hair. She informs the group that her parents abandoned her for letting the dog out when there was a bandersnatch nearby. She lives in a small town nearby, but is unable to give any specifics. Her dress and hands are stained with berry juice which Liquade identifies as having soporific properties. She says that her name is also Lucia. The group decides to bring her back to Meridia under the care of their servants.
During their second journey to the mill, they are accosted by a pack of ghouls, gaunt humanoids with grey skin, yellow eyes, and shark-like teeth. The travelers are told that they are passing through the domain of the swamp king, and if they want safe passage one of their number must be given over as tribute. When this is refused, the ghouls say that each traveler may instead donate one limb, an offer which is, of course, also refused. The ghouls tell them that they will be watched and depart.
The next morning, they awaken to find a muscular man with the head of a dog sitting with them near the embers of their camp fire. Anabul notices him first and offers him tea, which he politely laps up, while trying to awaken the rest of the group. Once the rest of the party has awakened the visitor announces that he is Kai of the Black-Paw gnolls. He has been sent to count coup, and in order to join the elite warrior society known as the Sons of Sharish he must find and defeat a human champion, and wonders if there is any among them who might be a worthy opponent. Lucia immediately accepts.
Kai draws a circle and announces that the spirits will officiate. If either fighter leaves the circle, or an outsider enters, the match is over. Lucia is outclassed and appears to be losing the battle, but she refuses to yield, and eventually she lands a lucky blow that cleaves through the gnollís bone breastplate and opens his ribcage, killing him almost instantly.
The rest of the group was too focused upon the fight to see that they have become surrounded by ghouls who take the opportunity to attack. Lucia is too exhausted from her duel to be of much use, and the group sustains heavy injuries before driving the ghouls off. They decide to put the expedition on hold for the time being and return once again to Meridia.
Once the group has healed up and resupplied, they again make their way for the old textile mill. This time Liquade guides them through the wilderness without incident.
As they approach the old mill what appears to be a pack of wild dogs emerge from the porch and lopes toward them. As they draw closer, the dogs reveal themselves to actually be huge rats. The Daughters of Rojukan are able to dispatch them without injury, mostly thanks to Liquide and Anabulís archery and a column of fire conjured by Lina.
Liquide analyzes the bodies and discovers that they are the same species as ordinarily rats, merely bred for exceptional size, speed, and ferocity. They are wearing spikes collars with simple names carved into them. Their lair under the porch shows no signs of an owner or food, but lots of offal and numerous bones, a few of which might be human.
The main floor of the mill is empty. Motes of dust float in the dreary light that manages to penetrate the dirty windows. The work floor has room for numerous workers and much textile machinery lies about the area in disuse. Rats are everywhere, along with their nests and droppings. It appears that this place has been abandoned for a decade at the very least. Footsteps and scratching can be heard from above.
They find numerous offices and apartments upstairs, all in disrepair. Footsteps can still be heard, but their source cannot be found. Eventually, a very old man is found wandering about, his work clothes tattered, his beard wild, and his eyes unfocused with madness or dementia. He ignores the group and when Lucia attempts to grab him, he begins to shake and appears to be having a seizure, but when Lina moves forward to help him, he vomits forth a tide of young rats upon her. Horrified, Lucia attacks him and Liquade begins to stomp on the rats. A moment later they are joined by three more men, all in similar condition, and a fight breaks out.
After killing the men, they find that much of their bodiesí interiors have been eaten away and now serve as nests for rats. The men appeared to be alive, not undead, and nobody is quite sure how or why they came to be in this condition.
The top floor contains what appears to be the foremanís office, with a massive desk that has only mostly gone over to rot. A portrait of a man can be seen on one wall, a gruesome figure with a sharp suit, cloak, and can, sagging pudgy cheeks, greasy black curls, small beady eyes, and a pronounced unibrow. A safe is found behind the picture, and while Anabul is busy cracking the combination all eyes are upon him, none notice the gruesome rat-king sliding out of a secret door behind them.
The rat-king is nearly the size of a grizzly bear, although far more limber, rat-like save for the great curling horns atop its brow and the vast batís wings that extend from its shoulders. When Anabul turns to show the group the bulging bag of coins that he found in the safe, he meets its gaze and before he can cry out its grabs his head with one massive paw coated in coarse hair, and yanks him back into the darkness.
The rest of the group reacts slowly, and what follows is a brief but vicious scrabble in the dark. It could go either way until Lina sets the rat-king alight with hellfire and it quickly makes its way back into the darkness, seeking the safety tunnels which are hidden in the walls.
Having scoured the top floors, but group is unwilling to enter the secret passages that the rat-king fled down as it will force them into a single file and without room the fight. The group returns to the mill floor and begins exploring the store rooms, which have become like a labyrinth of tunnels between the ratís nests built out of the mountains of unused cloth that was once the millís inventory.
Eventually, when they are deep into the stacks and all but lost, the rats close in upon them, their red eyes and saliva moistened teeth glittering in the dark. As if motivated by an unheard signal they descend as a mass. The swarm engulfs Liam first, but is unable to pierce his armor. Liquade is injured in the initial onslaught when a few particularly large and tenacious rodents crawl into her boots. Lucia and Anabul do their best to avoid the mass and kill the individual rats that encompass it, but they do little to the swarm as a whole. Eventually, Liam falls and the rats begin to crawl into his armor at which point Lina once again saves the day, unleashing a brief inferno that kills many of the smaller creatures and dissipating the swarm.
In one corner of the supply house, the stairs to the basement are found. Anabul goes ahead, down the rickety staircase and finds a group of rat-like humanoids that wear clothes, wield steel weapons, and speak to one another in a broken from of Terran. Rather than parlay or engage, Lina decides to attempt to exterminate them, conjuring a spreading pool of lava that slowly fills the concrete lined basement. Liam moves to block the rat-folkís exit by talking a defensive position at the top of the stairs, but they never come, instead fleeing deeper below.
When the group begins to feel uncomfortably warm, they decide to move further up, only to find the mill above them blazing with fire, presumably one which started spontaneously as a result of all the invocation energy which Lina was channeling into the place. The group feels that all hope is lost, but Lina is able to cast a jaunt spell which allows them to use the fire as a doorway and exit the mill. From a safe distance, they watch the streams of rats flee the building as it burns to its foundations.
The next morning, they sift through the ruins and find a number of previously hidden entrances to the sub-basement. After journeying down into the tunnels, they are attacked by a trio of gruagach, gigantic flabby mole rats devoid of hair or eyes and with extremely long claws. Liquide uses her supernatural charms as well as her command of animals to force them to devour one another as her companions pierce them with their weapons.
In one side room the group finds a number of vivisected humans, only recently dead. The manacles used to imprison them are far larger and sturdier than necessary.
In another side room, they find a shrine with a somewhat valuable brass idol. It is guarded by a pair of humanoid rats, significantly larger and more feral than the others, who attack without hesitation, seemingly in a rabid frenzy. They are nearly impervious to harm, but are brought down after many blows, their bodies appearing to shrink upon death. Anabulís mother warns him to get his wounds properly washed out when he returns to Meridia.
The group then decides to go deeper down, into what appear to be natural caverns that have been connected to the sub-basement. Eventually, the ground becomes crunchy with large black coffin beetles, and Lina decides to stay behind. The rest of the party goes on without her, Anya, clinging to Luciaís back, as they come to the edge of a subterranean lake, likely fed by the river above. A rickety old boat can be seen on the far shore, and all around it beetles shift like a living carpet, ranging in size from those that could fit on a pin-head to that of a medium size dog.
Something is seen moving in the darkness, and a long serpentine head darts out from a previously unseen island in the middle of the lake and quickly devours one of the large beetles. There is a brief flash of huge size and a thick bony carapace, and the group decides to backtrack.
Meanwhile, Lina has been in hiding from the rat-king, which has emerged from the mole rat nest and is following the groupís trail, making clicking batlike noises to see in the dark. When the rest of the group returns, there is another brief skirmish and the rat king again attempts to flee, but Liquide is able to slow its movement long enough for Liam to bring his maul upon the creatureís horned head, stunning it while Lucia and Anabul finish it off for good.
The group them decides to enter the nest of the gruagach. At the end, they find the hideous rat-queen, a massively bloated creature larger than a prize bull, totally blind and legless, its gravid body covered in bloated teats and writhing blind young, biting and clawing at each other in the dark.
Liquade fires an arrow at the creature and it shrieks in pain, drawing more mole rats from the numerous side tunnels. Lina envelops the massive creature in a storm of fire, but it is slow in dying, being far beyond the point where it can feel pain. Massive mole rats swarm the party and though they do their best to fight them off the group goes down one by one.
Eventually the mother creature succumbs to the flames and with her death the remaining young scatter. Liam and Anya are the only oneís left standing, and Liam is badly wounded. They are able to drag their companions to a secure location and staunch the bleeding before Liam passes out from blood loss.
The next morning the injured companions are able to sift no few valuable trinkets from the ashes of the mill and the gore piles of the gruagach nest before limping their way back to Meridia.
There was once a town by a river. Long gone now. But the sewers and catacombs beneath, well they were quite a marvel of engineering, staying dry on such sodden ground, and all manner of things have taken up residence in them. A tribe of cannibalistic trolls being the least terrible among them.
They say he was once the sheriff of a small berg not far from here. He did horrible things, said he was protecting the good common folk from the wrong kind of people, if you know what I mean, but that was no excuse for what he done. They tarred and feathered him when they found out, his horse to, but they didnít stop there. They burned him alive, and then buried him in the ground. But the ground wouldnít take him and spit him right back out. Petrichor I think they called him, blood of the earth, and if he is still out there, I wouldnít want to cross his path in the dark of the night.
Most people think humans rule the world. That's not quite how it is. We actually share this land with many other species, all who claim to be its masters. Why don't we see them? Well, humans like to stick to places that favor humans, and they do the same for their species, so even though our empires lie on top of each other, more often than not we pass like ships in the night.
Pretty straightforward session. The main dungeon obviously took more than a little inspiration from Stephen King's Night Shift.
My only concern was that the party was starting to abuse rest mechanics, repeatedly returning to town over the course of the session. This would continue to get more extreme until I would eventually abandon the sandbox format entirely, but at this point it was still just a mild concern.
The poop really hits the fan next session though!